someday (i'll make it out of here) - the_color_pomegranate (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: something bad’s about to happen to me Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 2: i’m just a kid Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 3: welcome to my cage Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 4: another lesson yet to learn Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 5: i get tired (and i get sick) Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 6: hand grips hand Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 7: light a fire in my stomach Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 8: the dead little bird Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 9: my boy, my boy, my boy Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 10: the world is full of fishes Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 11: it's like i'm breathing smoke Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 12: i need you (now, i know) Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 13: afraid (they're gonna find you) Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 14: bad dreams Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 15: all the things i've seen Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 16: i'm unwell Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 17: black out days Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 18: if i keep going, i won't make it Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 19: (you’re gonna die) i’m gonna kill you Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 20: you were only seventeen Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 21: carry me out Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 22: god stood me up Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 23: haven't i given enough? Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 24: safer ground Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 25: don't be a stranger Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 26: three clicks and i'm home Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 27: you barely are blinking Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 28: pyramid song Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 29: between the bars Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 30: sparks Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 31: gone to waste Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 32: my baby, my baby Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 33: o children Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 34: a minute from home Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 35: i feel like i know you Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 36: my black shroud Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 37: you were scared (and so am i) Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 38: all the quiet nights Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 39: crutch Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 40: like the sun holds the moon Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 41: rise and shine Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 42: gone away Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 43: wake up Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 44: dead man walking Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 45: my little versailles Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 46: might not be alone Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 47: sitting ducks Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 48: wolf at the door Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 49: don't you know you're out of time? Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 50: four-minute warning Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 51: doomsday, pt 1 Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 52: ribs Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 53: doomsday, pt 2 Summary: Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 54: doomsday, pt 3 Chapter Text Chapter 55: doomsday, pt 4 Summary: Chapter Text References

Chapter 1: something bad’s about to happen to me

Summary:

It’s unnerving how limp he is, like a rag doll. He’s a wiry kid, a little muscle on bones, and he’s got a wide face peppered with bruises. Probably fourteen or fifteen, this kid… His youth is obvious in everything about him: his neon green shoes, his sweatshirt, his oddly colored jeans, his hair… He’s even got a math formula scribbled across the back of his hand. And the fact that he’s unconscious, bloodied, and locked to the Chair by his wrists, ankles, and torso makes everything worse. “He’s…” Scott Lang gasps, and the man's smile only widens. “He’s just a kid. You made me track down a… a… teenager?”

Notes:

title is from the song 'dark red' by steve lacy

CW: blood/violence, violence against a child, kidnapping, implied SA, nonconsensual drug use.

yes scott lang is chinese because i said so, it’s a chinese name so it works
also i’ve added/updated scenes in this chapter, so reread plz if you’ve been here before! also drink in the fluff, cuz u won't get anymore for a while

(and if you want to skip to peter's rescue, i'd go to around chapter 19, i know sometimes i just like to skip to the comfort too)

and plz be aware i started this fic in high school so my writing is not as good in the beginning few chapters bc lol time and practice makes u better, so feel free to skim the first few for vibes only and then get to the good stuff later :)

Chapter Text

Tony Stark is a survivor of horrors.

Countless horrors. He’s survived so many things—kidnapping and torture, open heart surgery, chemical poisoning, his father, a skirmish with an alien wormhole—and still he remains standing. He’s suffered much more than the average person.

And before now, Tony thought he had intimate knowledge of the dark intricacies of horror. That he knew just how bad it could get.

But on April 7th, 2018, nearly two years after the Avengers broke up, Tony found out just how wrong he was.

He never imagined the unimaginable pain of watching Peter Parker bleed. Every. Single. Day.

FRIDAY, APRIL 6 — 12:28 PM

Peter's been acting weird all day.

Even now, Ned watches as his best friend takes a deep inhale and blinks at the windows of the cafeteria. His posture is rigid—Peter hunches over his plastic lunch-tray but still hasn’t eaten any of its contents: a large carton of chocolate milk, a couple turkey sandwiches, two raspberry yogurts, and three oranges. Instead, he’s shredding the orange peel piece by piece, digging his nails into the meat of the orange before tearing off its leathery skin.

Now, usually, Ned wouldn’t usually say anything. Sometimes, Peter is weird. But it’s Friday, and they’ve got a pretty important decathlon competition tomorrow. He needs Peter to be on his A-game—so spacing out during class and hiding in the bathroom isn’t going to cut it today. “Peter,” he says, trying to get his friend’s attention. As Peter Parker's best friend and 'Guy in the Chair,' it is always his duty to inform the sixteen-year-old when he's acting suspiciously superhero-y, and now is one of those moments.

Peter blinks his brown eyes a couple times, and looks at Ned like he just realized he was there. “My bad,” he says, with a weird chuckle. “Spaced out.”

He ignores it for now. In Peter’s backpack, Ned knows, he’s got a hoard of protein bars for extra calories, but he hasn’t touched them all day; he fishes through Peter’s backpack for a protein bar, and he pushes it across the table to his best friend. Maybe Peter’s just hungry. “Okay,” he starts, as Peter tears into the bar one massive bite at a time, “now about the decathlon tomorrow…”

Their next class—AP chemistry—goes about as well as lunch.

Even though the class is his favorite, Peter spends the day in a sort of trance. He’s so out of it that eevn their teacher checks on him, asking if he got enough sleep. About halfway through class, Peter asks to go to the bathroom; he still has a strange, detached expression on his face. “Sure,” says their chemistry teacher with a worried look. “Go right ahead.”

The class works somewhat silently on their chemistry work, students occasionally going to the front to ask for help. Then Peter’s been gone for five minutes—then ten minutes—then fifteen. The teacher calls him up to the front. “Ned,” he says, “why don’t you go check on Peter?”

“Yes, sir,” he replies. He was a split second away from asking to go to the bathroom himself to check on his friend. There’s something seriously wrong with him today.

He gives Ned a hall pass and a note. “If he needs to go to the nurse, go ahead and take him.”

Ned nods and hurries off to the nearest bathroom. Inside, he finds Peter sitting by the window, head trapped in his hands. He’s covering his ears, and his eyes are closed, and he’s hunched over muttering to himself.

“Peter?” he calls out, and the kid jumps, startled, before sitting back down.

“Jesus, Ned—you scared me.”

“What’s wrong with you today?” says Ned. “You’ve been acting, like, super weird.”

His smile kind of fades. “I don’t know, I… My spider tingle? Or whatever? It’s been going off, like, since I woke up, dude. I think something’s gonna happen. Something big.”

Ned sits down next to him on the radiator; its heat blasts against his calves. “Like supervillain big? Or like losing the decathlon big?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know. I’m trying to tune out…” Peter claps his hands over his ears, mouth pressed into a thin line.

So it’s a Spider-Thing. Sometimes, Peter gets like this: his spider-sense starts going off like an alarm bell and he finds it easier to tune everything out so he can figure out what the danger is—a bomb, a bad guy, a pervy substitute teacher…

“Hey,” says Ned, trying to read the situation. “You’ve got your web shooters, right?”

“Yeah,” his best friend responds.

“Then what could go wrong?” He elbows Peter’s arm. “You’re Spider-Man, dude. Nothing can take you down, right?”

Peter nods; he nods and nods like he’s convincing himself. “Right. Yeah. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Ned elbows him again. “That’s the spirit! Come on, let’s get back to class. Tune out your spidey-sense—we’ve got the decathlon tomorrow. You’re probably just worried about that.”

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, okay. You’re right.”

Ned grins. “I know I am.”

FRIDAY, APRIL 6 — 2:11 PM

Maggie Paxton is tired.

She’s had a long day at work; all she wants to do is collapse on the couch and take a nap, but Cassie keeps climbing to the top of the couch, crying out, “Geronimo!” and leaping on top of her, all elbows and knees.

“Cassie,” she says, annoyed. “That’s enough.” Her seven-year-old daughter gives a mischievous little grin and hops onto her again; Maggie pushes her off. “Mommy’s tired, honey,” she says. “Go play.”

Jim comes home not soon after; her new husband is a significant part of Cassie’s life now, and she squeals when he comes through the door. “Jim!!” little Cassie shouts, and she barrels at him head-first, running straight into his leg and squeezing it tight. He’s a tall man, and she’s always been so small—they’re a perfect fit. “Can we get ice cream? Can we get ice cream?”

Cassie’s used to getting ice cream every time Scott comes to visit—but not today. It’s so easy for her to get mixed up with multiple parental figures in her life, but Jim gently kneels and says, “Not now, Cassie. You’ll spoil your dinner for later.”

“Plus, we’re eating early tonight,” chimes in Maggie from the couch. “We’re going somewhere special tonight, remember?” Cassie will see her biological father next weekend; she can eat ice cream nonstop then.

Jim Paxton taps his stepdaughter’s nose. “C’mon, Cassie, we’re having ramen tonight! You know how much you love ramen!”

Cassie giggles and tries to catch his hand before it leaves her face. “I love ramen!” she squeals, throwing her hands into the air. She’s completely forgotten about the ice cream question now. “Ramen, ramen, ramen…” She lapses into a sing-song rendition of the word “ramen,” over and over again, spinning around on her stool. “Ramen, ramen, ramen!”

Jim and Maggie share an amused glance. “I know, honey,” laughs Maggie, “we had it last week, too.”

“You wanna guess where we’re going?” suggests Jim.

Maggie loves this man so much; he took off the back half of his Friday to go to the zoo with Cassie. Jim knows he’ll never be Scott Lang—who Cassie loves with her entire heart—but Cassie has started to see him as this glowing person in her life. To Jim, Cassie is every bit his daughter. “Where?”

Jim mimes a lion, then a tiger, and then some animal even Maggie has trouble with. “The zoo!” he shouts, miming an elephant now.

That gets Cassie’s attention. Their little girl spins around again to look at Jim, her eyes wide with anticipation. “Really?”

“Really, really,” replies Maggie. Cassie’s excitement is practically infectious; Maggie can’t help but smile. “You wanna go?”

Cassie beams. Both Maggie and Jim know that Cassie loves the zoo more than anything. Seeing the animals always sends her screaming around the place. Tonight, they’re having some special event with the aquatic animals—Cassie’s favorite. “Yes, yes, yes!

At the sound of the doorbell ringing, Jim gets up from his kneeling position to answer the door, and Cassie clambers into Maggie’s lap, throwing her arms around her mother’s neck. “Thank you, thank you!” Maggie can hear Jim speaking to someone at the door; vaguely, she wonders who it is. The mailman, probably. “You think we can see the belugas this time? I wanna see the belugas!”

Maggie kisses her daughter’s forehead. “Of course we can, honey. What kind of mother would I be if I didn’t let you see the belugas?” She wasn’t sure what belugas were, to be honest; some kind of dolphin? As a thirty-seven year old woman, she should probably know this by now. “Those are like dolphins, right?”

Cassie looks scandalized. “Mommy, they’re whales !” she exclaims. “They’re white, with big heads, and they can dive up to two thousand feet below the water, that’s what Miss Smith told me!” She continues with all the facts she has about belugas, her new favorite animal. Every kid has their obsession—for Cassie, animals are her addiction.

At the door, Jim’s voice is loud now, echoing down the hall to the kitchen. “—telling you, we didn’t order a package. You’ve got the wrong—” His voice comes to a strange halt, followed by a massive thump , so startling that even Cassie looks up from her rant about beluga whales.

“Jim?” Maggie calls out, concerned now; Cassie hops down from her lap. “You okay, honey? Jim?”

As she turns the corner, she sees them: Jim sprawled facedown on the floor like a corpse in a bad horror movie, red coming down the side of his face, and two men and a woman crowded around him, each wearing a brown UPS uniform and wielding a gun—a couple handguns and an automatic.

Like a rough slap across the face, Maggie’s terror strikes her hard and fast. She shoves Cassie behind her and they bolt into the kitchen together, then towards the stairs—

“—there’s the kid! Grab her, quick—”

—and screams for her to run: “Cassie, run!” Her mind screeches, Get Cassie out, get her out of here! and she grabs the first thing she sees: Cassie’s tennis racket, and a punch of pain rips through her arm, and the handle slips from her fingers. Shot. She’s been shot . With her other hand, she grabs the next item—an expensive ceramic bowl—from the shelf beside her; as a hand wraps around her wrist, she spins and smashes it against her attacker’s head with an animalistic scream. She scrambles to her feet again, something hot spilling down her forearm, and leaps into the kitchen, heart pounding, searching for her next weapon, anything , leaping for the rack of kitchen knives—

“Hey!” A heavy blow to her side, and she is on the ground again, coughing and wheezing and praying that Cassie escaped. An arm around her neck, locking her in a stronghold, and then there’s metal against her temple. “Get the f*ck up, get up! ” Maggie struggles against the person behind her, grabbing a handful of red hair and yanking hard, scraping at skin with her fingernails. “ Ow! You f*cking bitch! ” Hard metal slams against her temple, and Maggie’s brain slips away.

Blood roars in her ears. Cassie, Cassie, not my little girl! Muffled screaming: “Get the f*ck out here, Cassie, or I’ll kill your precious mommy! You want that? You want your mom dead on the floor? I’ll kill this bitch! I’ll kill her, I will! Cassie! Cassie!

Maggie clings to the one bit of lucidity she has and cries out, “No, Cassie, don’t—”

And pain crashes over the side of her head, a torment of black waves, and then nothing.

FRIDAY, APRIL 6 — 4:33 PM

Another fist slams into Scott’s mouth, and pain blossoms across his jaw. He spits on the ground, a splatter of red, and glares at the man in front of him. “f*ck you,” he says, and he’s surprised by his own profanity. He gave up swearing once he found one-year-old Cassie shouting “sh*t!” every time she wanted one of her stuffed toys. But now, after four hours of this angry motherf*cker and his brass knuckles, he’s about to snap. He’s trying to stay positive, but the fact that no one even knows he’s gone is really grating on his mind right now. He doesn’t even have a plan to escape; currently, his only plan is to annoy this guy until he breaks.

The man snarls and launches another fist at him, furious. “You think this is helping anyone, Lang?” he growls. “You wanna be ripped to pieces?”

Scott can’t remember what this guy’s name is. Max? Mark? “Well, it wasn’t on my schedule, Martin, but I mean, if you’ve got nothing else to do—”

Another fist, this time to his knee, and Scott gasps with the sudden pain of it. That was more than a punch. He heard something snap. “You and your f*cking jokes,” says Probably-Martin. “I’m sick of them. How about I take out your f*cking tongue this time, huh? How’d you like that?”

Scott shrugs, as nonchalantly as one could while tied to a chair and aching from hours of torture. “It’s the twenty-first century, buddy; I’d just get myself one of those Stephen Hawking things, maybe learn some sign langua—ah!

Pain surges through his foot, so horrible that he can barely breathe, and Scott screams, his co*cky smile dropping from his face. When he finally gathers himself, taking shaky gasps of air, the man smirks, victorious. “Next time I hear another one of your jokes,” snaps Probably-Martin, “I’ll smash your hand instead.”

Scott bites the inside of his cheek, just to keep himself from crying out again. He doesn’t want to look down at the damage that has been just done to his right foot, but he has to. He takes one glance...and immediately regrets it. The pain of his new injury seems to grow the longer he stares; Probably-Martin stepped on his foot so hard that it looks broken and smashed and wrong; Scott’s hands tighten around the arms of the chair. Stay strong, he reminds himself. Someone will come save you. Hank or Hope or the police or even the Avengers. And then you’ll be okay.

There’s another man in the room now, one with a brown beard and wild eyes. Bearded-Psycho, Scott dubs him, proud of himself. He smiles weakly, lifting his head to watch Bearded-Psycho and Probably-Martin argue. “I told you not to touch his hands, Mason!” Ah, thinks Scott. Mason. That was the man’s name. “It’s not like we can do this for him! We need those f*cking hands!”

“I didn’t touch his hands!” Mason protests.

As they argue, Scott lets out a shaky breath. He liked to think of himself as one of those happy-go-lucky, jokester superheroes, like Iron Man or even that Spider-Guy from Queens, but right now all he doesn’t feel like a superhero. He doesn’t want to admit it, but he is terrified. He shoves the fear to the back of his head with every ounce of composure he has—if he loses his sense of humor, he’ll lose his mind. Somehow, cracking jokes at his abuser makes it seem less grave in his mind, like he can break free of his bonds at any moment. Humor keeps his hope alive and burning in his chest.

“And his head!” Bearded-Psycho snarls, and Scott flinches in his bonds. “We need his head!” sh*t, he thinks, embarrassed at his involuntary display of fear. The only way to fight back against these guys is to laugh in the face of fear, but here he is, jumping like a little kid watching a horror movie. “Why the f*ck would you think it’s a good idea to smash his head around? He’s practically bleeding out of his ears!”

“Charlie,” Mason attempts, “I didn’t—”

Bearded-Psycho (or Charlie or whatever his name is) is huge compared to Mason, so when he suddenly grabs the other man and slams his head against the wall—“sh*t! Charlie, wait!”—until there’s blood running down his face, he makes it look easy, like beating up a kid.

Scott doesn’t feel the victory of watching his torturer bleed against the wall; all he feels is the electrifying anticipation of pain spiking through his body. This man, this Bearded-Psycho… He could crush Scott if he wanted to. Scott tries to make himself as small as possible. Any movement he makes will surely turn Charlie’s violent rage onto him. But even as Scott wills his body to stone, Charlie still turns around, wipes his hands on his jeans, and trains his eyes on Scott.

f*ck. Ready for another blow, probably ten times more painful than Mason’s, Scott winces, tensing his whole body and squeezing his eyes shut. Where will he hit him: his stomach, his legs, his feet?

A low chuckle greets him instead. “Look, Lang,” says Charlie calmly, as Scott opens his eyes with caution, “we’ve given you chance after chance to agree to our terms.”

Scott coughs. Yeah, he remembers the terms. It was the first thing that Mason said to him. “Sorry,” says Scott, laughing nervously. “Felonies aren’t on my to-do list, Chuck. No thanks.”

Charlie’s smile is nerve-wrecking, like Scott’s submission is inevitable, and Scott squirms, uncomfortable. Pain swirls in his foot, and he grits his teeth. Sweat trickles down his back. “If you say so, Lang.” His voice is calm. Too calm. Standing up abruptly, he shouts at Mason, who’s currently on the floor, moaning about his head. “Keep going, Mason. Don’t stop until I come back. And for f*ck’s sake, leave his hands and his head.”

Mason pushes himself into a sitting position and groans a reluctant “fine.” He’s angrier now, fueled by pain as well as frustration, and Scott swallows hard. When Charlie finally leaves the room, Mason growls, “f*ck you, Lang. You see what you did to me?”

Dread drenching his thoughts, Scott grits his teeth. “I’m pretty sure American Psycho’s the one who busted your head open, ‘cause he’s not the one tied to a chai—”

Another debilitating punch smashes into his body, this time cracking a rib and splattering across his chest. As Mason rubs his knuckles, Scott struggles for air and prays that someone will save him soon. He doesn’t know how long he can stand this.

FRIDAY, APRIL 6 — 5:01 PM

As the ringing stops and goes to voicemail, Officer Julia Keene sighs and puts her phone down on the table. It’s the third time that night she’s tried to call her brother Charlie, and still nothing. Although she’s a police officer and he went off the rails years ago, she still loves him more than anything. He always spared time for her—at least for a text or a phone call—every couple of days.

But Julia hasn’t spoken to Charlie in a while. It’s been too long since she’d talked to him, and she’s worried . Sure, Julia is a thirty-three, twice-married, working mother of two living in Queens, and Charlie is a twenty-eight year old drug addict living on the streets with a couple of prison notches on his belt, but Julia needs to know he is safe. He is her brother. Her baby brother. It was always Julia and Charlie against the world, and even though they split off years ago… She rubs her temples and tries not to think about it too much.

“You called him again?” says someone behind her. It’s her husband of ten years. His dark hair falls over his eyes as he slides into the chair beside her, sliding his hand over her back and rubbing gently.

Julia falls into his touch, taking his other hand in hers. Her husband keeps rubbing her back in slow circles. “It’s been weeks,” she sighs. “ Weeks . And I… I know something bad happened to him. He’s never gone this long without talking to me.”

Her husband shifts in his chair. “Look at me, mi vida ,” he says, voice gentle. “I don’t know too much about your brother, but I do know that he’s a mess. He lives his life from one fix to another.” He squeezes her hand. “I know he loves you, but he’s a slave to his life of drugs …and crime. It’s not your job to check in on him all the time. He’s an adult, Julia, and he can make his own decisions. And he’s always fine. He’ll be fine .”

Julia nods into her husband’s shoulder. “I know, I know, he’ll be fine.”

Her husband smiles and gives her a quick peck on the lips. “You okay?”

She nods again, this time meeting his eyes. She’s still unsure, but at least she feels better about the whole situation. She loves Charlie, but her husband’s right. Charlie Keene can make his own decisions. He’s a good kid—well, he’s not exactly a kid anymore. He’s twenty-eight.

Still… She’s his big sister. She’s going to worry. If this goes on much longer, she might report him missing.

FRIDAY, APRIL 6 — 6:37 PM

Peter Parker has spent most of the past month in Tony’s lab , working on what they like to call “Project Kevlar,” after the substance that made bulletproof vests. Peter himself came up with the project, recognizing that many of the lower-income families of New York who experienced danger on a daily basis felt helpless to the violence they experienced and couldn’t call the police for help. Police officers often left the most vulnerable of the city’s community—poor, gang-ridden, and homeless citizens—exposed to harm.

“It’s like what they use on college campuses,” Peter had explained, pride lighting up across his face. “The blue light system, you know?”

Tony had chuckled lightly. “What do you know about college, kid? You’re only—”

“I’m sixteen now, Mr. Stark,” Peter had reminded him, “and I’ve been on, like, three college visits! I know what it’s like!”

The mayor of New York gave Stark Industries explicit permission to implement the system in the city; it was simple but brilliant, really. They would place tiny alert buttons all over the city in public areas, each fitted to survive any weather conditions, and people could press the alert buttons to call for help.

Currently, they’re working together on a vital part of the system: the GSS, or the gunfire sensory system that could would automatically alarm them if a gun was used within the immediate vicinity of the alarm button. Tony is sprawled out on the couch, typing furiously on his laptop, as Peter bends over the worktable, a soldering iron in one hand and a circuit board in the other. To the left of Peter, a record player screeches ‘Killer Queen’ as the dark-haired boy nods his head to the beat.

Glancing away from his screen, Tony frowns, temporarily halting his humming. “Peter!”

The dark-haired boy’s hands jerks at the sudden noise. “Geez, Mr. Stark, a little warning next time!” A huff of frustration escapes him. “Now, I gotta solder that all over again.”

Tony throws a pair of goggles at him in response.

“Hey!” Peter protests, catching them only inches from his face.

“You know what I said, kiddo,” Tony announces. “Rule Number One: No Soldering Without Goggles.”

“I thought Rule Number One was No One Touches My Records,” Peter shoots back, chucking a pen at the older man. “And, by the way, if I hear another Queen song come on, I’m literally gonna throw that thing out the window.”

Tony sits up straight, mouth open in mock surprise. “How dare you! Queen is the best! Queen is… It’s the greatest band to ever walk the planet!”

Peter rolls his eyes. “You know, Mr. Stark, sometimes I forget how old you are! Listen to some AJR or something, come on!” But nonetheless, Peter slides the goggles on his face.

Before he can grab the soldering iron again, however, Pepper pokes her head into the lab, knocking gently on the glass. “Tony? We’ve gotta get going soon, we—” Her eyes land on the teenager perched at her fiancé’s worktable. “Oh, Peter! I didn’t know you were here.”

“Yeah, sorry,” Peter stammers. “Didn’t mean to interrupt your night, Ms. Potts.”

Pepper laughs, sitting down on the couch next to Tony. “That’s totally fine, Peter. You know you’re welcome here anytime.” Closing Tony’s laptop with one manicured hand (he protests with an irritated “hey!”), she turns back to the teenager. “You do know it’s a Friday night, don’t you? Shouldn’t you be out with your friends?”

Peter scratches the back of his neck, grinning sheepishly. “Yeah… It’s just I had this new idea for Project Kevlar, and I asked Mr. Stark, and he said it was okay, and…” He glances nervously at Tony. “Sorry. I’ll be gone in a few minutes, Ms. Potts.”

Pepper smiles gently at him. “You know you can call me Pepper; I’m not that old.”

Peter shrugs awkwardly. “The only adult I call by their first name is May! She’d kill me if I ever called Mr. Stark” —he cringed— “Tony.”

Tony chuckles, throwing his arm across the back of the couch. “Well, we’ll work on that one, kiddo.”

Pepper clicks her tongue. “As much as I’d love to watch you waste your childhood in Tony’s lab,” she tells Peter, giving him a playful look, “Tony and I have somewhere we need to be.”

“Where?” chorus Peter and Tony.

Pepper gives Tony the stern I-told-you-this-months-ago look that she always uses. “The charity gala? It’s for the Yemeni Women’s Union.”

“Ah, right… the charity thing.” He pouts. “Do we have to go?”

“Yes!”

Pepper tosses his tie in his lap as Peter scrambles to stuff his supplies back into his backpack. “Sorry again, Ms. Potts! Have fun at the gala, Mr. Stark!”

“It’s Tony, kid!” he declares, just as the Spider-Kid jumps to the door.

Peter gives him a mischievous smile, slinging his backpack over one shoulder. “Bye, Mr. Stark.

Pepper’s still laughing to herself when the door closes behind the kid.

FRIDAY, APRIL 6 — 7:09 PM

Sometimes, Charlie’s guilt aches like an old gunshot wound, sending painful spikes of regret spilling down his throat. Sometimes, his plan feels like shame, not pride, so he has to force himself to continue, one foot in front of the other. It’s in those moments when he needs his fix the most: angel dust, most days, sometimes with a spike of something else.

He pops a couple pills in his mouth and swallows hard. His sister once told him that taking drugs like this means he loses control over his body, that he relinquishes his throne to the drug instead of his brain, but what the hell does she know? Charlie is more in control than he’d ever been.

Charlie feels a warm buzz crackle through his bones, a familiar sensation, as the pill he’d just taken finally starts to work. Charlie lets out a relieved sigh, laughing a little. Everything seems to come back into focus: the plan, the future, the people… He knows. He knows.

Renee, his wife, will be back in a few minutes with the one thing they need to force that asshole Scott Lang to do what they wanted. And once they have Scott under their control, everything will fall into place, like dominoes.

From the other side of their base, he hears the door creak open, followed by the sound of a child crying and a woman yelling. “Charlie? Charlie!”

When he stands up, he staggers a little, but he quickly recovers, moving to meet Renee and the rest of them at the entrance to the base.

Renee has the girl by her waist as she squirms, crying through her gag and wiggling her bound wrists. “Sorry I’m late,” she says. “Traffic was terrible.”

Charlie grins. Finally. “You got her!”

“Yep,” she says. “Those motherf*cking parents were a pain in my ass, but I still got her. Any luck with Lang?”

He shakes his head as the little girl lets out a pained wail. “He just cracks jokes and refuses to help us.”

Renee smirks and shoves the girl to her feet. “Walk, kid. Walk.”

Now that Charlie has a good look at the kid, she looks a lot like Lang. Scott Lang’s Asian features are prevalent in the kid’s hair and face, and that defiant look in her eyes had to come from him. Her dark hair hangs scraggly around her head, and her face is red and swollen with tears. It hits Charlie, all at once, how young she is: probably six or seven years old. Her face is so full, her eyes so big, her body so tiny… He shakes his head. It doesn’t matter how young she is. They need to get Scott Lang on board, and Cassie Paxton, or Lang or whatever the hell her name is, is their ticket.

He leads Renee to what they’re starting to call the Room, the place where the whole show’s gonna happen. It’s a small space: ten feet wide and ten feet long, with a metal chair bolted into the center. On one side is a sink and a toilet, and the other has a folding table of various weapons and other materials.

Currently, Scott Lang is strapped to the chair in the center, his head hung low, murmuring to himself. Mason is taking another swing for Scott’s knee when Renee yells, “Hey, we’ve got her!”

The back of the chair is facing them, so when Scott lifts his head to the sound of voices, he can’t see Charlie, Renee, or Cassie. But Mason can. His shoulders slump in relief as Renee shoves the kid into the Room. “Finally!”

Lang’s looking terrible: his bruised face has swollen and darkened, his legs are damaged beyond repair, and it looks like at one point he pissed himself. Yet still he manages to conjure a shaky, Tony Stark-worthy grin and croak, “What’s next, fellas? The Iron Maiden?” in Charlie’s general direction.

“No,” snaps Renee, and yanks the kid before Lang’s eyes. “She’s next.”

It’s mesmerizing how quickly Lang’s grin melts; he goes pale, glancing from Cassie’s terrified face to Charlie’s victorious one. “No,” he manages, “no, no, no, no…”

“Take her,” Charlie says, nodding to Renee and Mason. Lang’s still gasping “no,” over and over again, like a broken record, as though the fact that his seven-year-old daughter is actually in front of him has just struck him. Just as Cassie leaps for her dad, Mason grabs her by the back of her hoodie, pulling her back before she can touch him. “I’ll stay with Lang.”

Scott Lang’s shaking his head now, frantic, his arms fighting maniacally against his bonds. “No, no! Please, no, she’s just a kid, leave her alone, please—please, you can’t, please, you wouldn’t—”

Charlie hits him across the face so hard that his hand stings after the blow; a buzzing feeling goes through him, something like electric triumph, upon seeing Lang like this. Scott Lang is broken now, begging for mercy, after hours of torture, and all it took was one scared scream from the kid.

“—p-please, I’m begging you, I’ll do anything, just don’t hurt her—”

“Shut up!” Charlie picks up Mason’s hammer as a warning. “One more word out of you, and this is going straight through your skull, understand?” Now, he understands why Mason is so frustrated. Lang talks too much.

Lang trembles and tries not to make another sound. An odd, sickly silence follows, in which Lang shifts in his chair. Soaked in blood and urine, his pants squelch against the wood as he cranes his neck to try to see Cassie. His breathing transforms from pained groans to fearful, shallow panting, his fingers white-knuckled against the arms of the chair.

Then it comes: a little girl’s blood-curdling scream, wet and painful and horrible, so Lang goes berserk, thrashing in his chair like a madman, words spilling from his mouth: “No, no—I’ll do whatever you want me to, please, oh, God, please, leave her be—Cassie! Cassie! Oh, f*cking God, f*ck, please, no, leave her, take me instead, I’ll do it, I'll do anything, anything, just leave her alone—Cassie, Cassie, Cassie!

Charlie watches it continue for ten seconds, thirty seconds, a minute, until finally, the screaming dies down and Lang, reduced to a sobbing mess, cries, “I’ll do it. I p-promise you, I’ll d-do it!”

Charlie’s shoulders relax a little. “Good,” he says calmly. “Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

FRIDAY, APRIL 6 — 7:42 PM

“On the way back,” May Parker announces, “you’re driving, you little liar!” She’s driving with one hand on the wheel, the other dabbing on lipstick. At a sudden bump in the road, the tube misses her mouth, smearing pink on her chin, and she swears loudly.

“I didn’t lie!” Peter whines back, stretching his legs out. “I am tired!”

May wipes at her chin with the back of her hand, trying to make the pink go away. “You haven’t gone on patrol today, Peter!” Realizing she missed their turn, she makes a screeching U-turn before facing her nephew again. “How are you tired?”

Okay, so maybe he’s squeezing the truth a little. Sure, he only hung out at Tony’s after school instead of patrolling like he said, but he hates driving. It sets his teeth on edge. When he drives a car, everything is a possible danger, and whenever he’s nervous like that, his Spidey Sense (or, as May likes to call it, his Peter tingle) goes insane. “School,” he claims, picking at his cuticles. “I had a calc test today; it sucked the life right out of my body!”

May rolls her eyes as she pulls up to a stoplight. “Sure it did, kiddo. But you’re still driving on the way back. I’m gonna have some wine tonight, and no scaredy-cat teenage boy’s gonna tell me that I have to drive him home. You’re the designated driver tonight, Petey.”

He slaps her arm. “May! Don’t call me that.”

“What? You let Tony call you that—hey! Don’t change the music! That was a good song!”

“It was Bruce Springsteen!”

“Exactly!”

Peter groans in protest. “No, please, don’t make me go back! I can’t survive another Springsteen song!”

May gives him a devilish grin and changes the radio station back to its original song.

“No! You skipped Say Something!”

“My car, my rules, Peter—what’d I say? Don’t touch the radio—”

“But it’s Justin Timberlake’s best song!”

“I don’t care! Driver picks the music—”

Fire races up Peter’s neck, flooding his system: danger. He jerks his head to the left, blinding white headlights— “May, look out!

He throws his arm out to protect her, because there’s no f*cking way she can react fast enough to move the car out of the way, and then everything is—

—chaos and spinning and jolting, pain splitting up his left arm, jerking around, his skull smashing against cold glass, screeching and whining, until finally—

—tentative stillness, the car’s unbalanced rocking, and warmth trickling down (up?) his arm; his head whirs, dotted with pain, and it takes him a moment to realize that the unnatural heaviness of his head and the pull on his joints means he is upside down. The car is flipped upside down.

Peter opens his eyes and fumbles for his seatbelt, his heart pattering in his chest. He turns—Aunt May. She hangs in her seatbelt like a broken arm in a sling: there is red everywhere. He chokes on his shock (one, two, three, get up, get out, you have to do something) and then calls her name: “May? May! May!

A click on his right side; the door swings open, and he nearly sobs in relief. “Help her,” he gasps. “Get her, she’s bleeding, help, ple—”

Someone yanks him roughly from the car, and as he hits the ground he realizes: something is wrong. His Spidey-senses are a whirlwind of panic, and he glances up at the figure above him to realize that this is not a rescue attempt. Just as the man’s arm swings down, something thin clenched in his fist, he recognizes—this is an attack, and rolls hard to the right, away from the car. But he’s not fast enough—his head still rings from the impact and his left arm hangs limply at his side, so Peter’s not at his prime right now. So the object plunges into his arm instead of his chest, which he automatically thinks is a win...until he knocks it away and realizes it wasn’t a knife. It was a syringe. What the f*ck? His body feels a little heavy, like he’s covered in wet cloth, but he still manages to shake off the strange feeling and keep going.

Get up, Spider-Man! he thinks, and then he’s on his feet again, dodging and punching and twisting and hitting until finally there’s four masked figures on the ground, unconscious or wishing they were. He doesn’t have time to quip or crack a smile; he barely has time to check himself for injuries as he rushes to Aunt May’s side of the car, flinging the door open. She’s still unconscious, upside down, her hair lolling back and forth with the rocking of the car. As he reaches for her, checking her pulse, his mind spins as the strangeness in his limbs worsens; his fingers press against May’s neck, and the faint flutter of a heartbeat he feels there sends hope scattering through his chest. Who are these people? They’re dressed like f*cking villains: matching black, armored suits and facemasks. Matching weapons, even—massive guns and black-handled knives that they tried to use on Peter. Not including the syringe, and God knows why—

Something pricks in his back, and Peter whirls back around to see another masked man holding an empty syringe. Numbness creeps up his feet, oddly cold, and Peter trips over himself as he swings his fists at the man; his body feels wrong, heavy, yet still he keeps fighting. This isn’t just a mugging in an alley—this is Aunt May’s life in his hands. Minute pain tickles his arm, and then ice creeps over his arms, spreading over his skin. Where the hell did that come from? There must be another one—he counted only five of them. f*ck. He knows the feeling by now—sickly sweet, numbing sensations ripple through his muscles. Peter turns around—his head is cotton candy, yanked apart piece by piece, and he tries to punch his new attacker, but he keeps missing. How? Spider-Man doesn’t miss, he thinks vaguely, as the icy cold reaches into his brain and squeezes. Spider-Man doesn’t

He’s on the ground now, his face pressed against grass, and his limbs flop uselessly at his sides. “Why the f*ck did it take so many doses?” snaps an angry voice, just as the paralysis climbs up Peter’s jaw.

“I… I don’t know,” admits the second. “Let’s just get this over with, okay?”

“We gotta take care of her first, Haroun.” Peter’s breath halts, slanting in his throat. Her could only mean one person: May. “We can’t afford to get caught.”

A beat. “Take care...of her? I’m no killer, man. I may be helping you, but I’m not killing her. She didn’t do anything.”

An irritated groan. “She wasn’t supposed to be here. It was just supposed to be the Spider guy—”

“Just leave her, Jon. She’s gonna die before anyone finds her, anyway. Just look at her.”

A horrible silence, as Peter awaits their decision. To them, it’s a matter of getting caught, but to Peter, they’re threatening his entire world. May is all he has left—frantic desperation rips up his spine, and he uses all the will he has left to try to move again, but nothing happens. Come on, Spider-Man! Come on! Peter couldn’t save Uncle Ben, but he has to save May, he has to— “f*ck, f*ck, f*cking fine, let’s go. Grab him.”

There’s a moment of strained relief followed by shuffling as Peter tries to move his arms, jerking his heavy arms in the voices’ direction. “f*ck! He’s still awake!”

A sharp pain in his neck, a bloody fist, and then blissful darkness.

FRIDAY, APRIL 6 — 8:02 PM

Maggie’s eyes are sticky, like she’s been asleep for a dozen years. Cold, stiff sheets. Aching pain. A voice calling her name.

She squints up at a green-clothed man in front of her; he’s the one saying her name. “Blink if you can hear me, Mrs. Paxton.”

She blinks, confused. “What… What happened?”

He frowns. “You sustained several severe blows to the head. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“I…” She takes a moment. She remembers going out to breakfast with Jim in the morning, picking up Cassie from kindergarten—

Cassie. She scrabbles at the blankets; her right arm is useless, bound in thick bandages, so she pushes herself up with her other hand. “Cassie!” It all rushes back to her: Jim unconscious on the floor, the attack, the gunshot, the wild realization that they wanted Cassie— “Oh, God—where is she?”

The nurse gulps and clasps his hands together tightly. “I’m not authorized to—”

She’s never felt terror like this before—it’s horrible and electrifying, whipping up a frenzy of needles inside of her chest. She swings her good arm forward and grabs him by the collar; he winces. “Tell where my daughter is, asshole!” Pain ripples over her torso.

He looks like an ant beneath a microscope, squirming beneath the intense heat of her eyes. “They took her, ma’am,” he confesses, and her grip on his scrubs loosens. “The police went after them, but it’d been too long. They were already gone by the time the neighbors called 911.”

They took her. They took her. They took her. Maggie’s brain won’t function. “But how—” She chokes on her words. “No, no, no…” She grabs at her hair, and pained dread pangs in her neck, leaking down into her heart. “No, God, no…” Nightmarish thoughts peel at her head and spear behind her eyes, and anguished nausea swirls in her stomach. She wraps her arms around her belly, clawing at the bandages there.

“Mrs. Paxton, the police are doing everything they can. They’ve already sent out an Amber Alert, and they’ve alerted all the nearby hospitals to any children matching your daughter’s description.” He looks uncomfortable, even guilty, and he backs away from her hospital bed. “I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. Paxton. So, so sorry.”

Maggie can barely hear him leave; her daughter, her baby, her Cassie… Horror wracks her mind, darkness pries at her mind—her seven-year-old, her baby girl, scared and hurt and crying for her—and she presses a shaking hand to her distressed mouth, trying to keep all her horrified thoughts pinned inside of her.

There’s nothing worse than this, the absence of Cassie at her side, knowing that gruesome, unspeakable things could be happening to her at any moment; Maggie cries into her hands, sobbing. Cassie…

The doctor comes about an hour later to trade places with the nurse; she’s antsy, constantly shifting from foot to foot as she speaks, like the elephant in the room of Cassie’s kidnapping can just be ignored. After several choked-out apologies, she explains most of the medical implications of the attack in an apologetic stammer, telling her has several broken ribs, a gunshot wound to the forearm—“Just a graze, ma’am, you got lucky,” she says—and a minor concussion. “We stitched up that cut in your forehead,” the doctor says carefully. “But you have take it easy for now.” Maggie wraps her arms around herself. “We’ll keep you overnight for observation, but after that we’ll give you medicine to take home…”

Everything after that is blurry, shadowed by the knowledge that Cassie has been kidnapped. She visits Jim’s hospital room; he wakes up a couple hours after her, but he doesn’t remember anything before the night prior. “What’s wrong?” Jim asks. He’s still got that hopeful look in his eyes. “Why do you look so…”

Maggie knows the word he is trying not to say. Devastated. Like her entire world has been ripped away from her fingertips. “She’s gone,” she croaks. “They took Cassie.”

FRIDAY, APRIL 6 — 8:29 PM

The doorbell rings for a second time, and finally Julia, sprawled across the couch next to Cristian, lets out annoyed groan.

“Not it,” her husband chirps.

“Honey, you can’t do ‘not it’ with two people! It doesn’t work!”

He shrugs and snuggles deeper into the couch. “Nose goes,” he says, tapping his nose.

“Same rules, Cristian!”

He only laughs, so finally Julia relents. “Lazy ass,” she complains, swatting his thigh as she gets up. “You’re getting up next time.”

She heads to the door; the occasional ringing has now evolved into frantic banging. “I’m coming, I’m coming!” she calls out, mildly irritated. It’s probably one of their neighbors asking about a lost pet. That kid next door can never keep track of his toy poodle. She peers through the peephole first.

Instead of a mailman or a neighbor, she finds a tall, black teen, probably eighteen or nineteen. She knows him well—as a police officer, she has frequent run-ins with this one: Ty. He isn’t dangerous, just a drug addict like her brother. He looks odd—not sober, just odd—like he’s about to vomit all over her front porch. She cracks the door open. “If you’re gonna puke,” she warns him, “do it in the grass.”

He shakes his head. “No—I gotta—I’m not sick—I gotta tell you somethin’, miss, somethin’ important—real important, miss—” He rubs his already messy dreads into a chaotic pile. “Can I—can I come in?”

Briefly, Julia thinks of her children. Ty isn’t dangerous, she reminds herself, and she’ll be with him the whole time. After they instruct the kids to stay in the basem*nt while they talk, they sit Ty down at the kitchen table—Cristian and Julia on one side, Ty on the other. He’s nervous, but assures then repeatedly that he’s unarmed. “I don’t wanna hurt nobody,” he says, “promise, miss.”

She wants to say something to him, something like “I know” or “It’s okay” to calm his anxious nerves, but she can’t do it. He is too young, too unstable, too terrified, and it puts her on edge, like someone’s father will come sprawling in at any moment drenched in drunken rage.

“They’re gone,” he says finally, after a century of painful silence. “Charlie, RJ, everybody.”

Julia and Cristian share a concerned glance. “What?”

He explains what happened in shaky sentences; Charlie, Julia’s brother, had been Ty’s dealer for the past few months. “None of the hard sh*t,” he promises her. Charlie and Ty met once or twice a week, and Ty often hung around Charlie’s crew—a group of drug addicts who were so far gone that Ty’d never once met them lucid, let alone sober. They were always on something, whether it was co*ke, dope, speed, or dust. “An’ I know they didn’ always do good, but they was good, promise. They kept talkin’ about how they was gonna change the world, make it a better place…” He trails off. He tells Julia that a couple of weeks ago, Charlie had missed their weekly meetup without any warning. Originally, he dismissed it as Charlie being too high to deal that day, but when he tried to get into contact with some of Charlie’s guys to see if they would deal to him, they were gone, too. He checked with everyone in Charlie’s tight circle of drug addicts; they’d all vanished. “Last time I saw them, their place was some abandoned, creepy-ass dungeon or some sh*t, f*ckin’ snakes on the walls…” But when he tried to find them, he explains, the place was empty. They were gone.

Finally, Ty sighs. “I didn’ know where to go, miss. I can’t trust none of those cops but you. Anybody else woulda put me in jail, and I can’t go back there. I’m just scared ‘cause these are my people, you know? And they ain’t done nothing wrong, but I think somethin’ happened to ‘em.” He stares emptily at Julia. “Somethin’ bad.”

FRIDAY, APRIL 6 — 9:05 PM

Cassie is cold. So, so cold. She’s never been hurt like this before. Not when she tripped in soccer and sprained her ankle, not when Jim accidentally hit her in the face with a softball, and not even when her grandma died a year ago. At least then, she had Daddy or Mommy or Jim with her.

Now, it’s just Cassie. Cassie, the toilet, and the weird scratches in the walls. It’s a tiny room with gray walls, gray floor, and a gray ceiling. There’s a toilet and a sink in the corner, but nothing else. No bed, no chair, no table. The door is gray, too, reinforced with metal bolts, and only a slit, almost a rectangular hole, in the center of the door signifies that there’s any outside at all. She’s all alone, in this tiny room, and there’s blood all over her arm and she’s scared. She doesn’t want to remember that the Red-Hair Lady grabbed Mommy and smashed her head against the wall. She doesn’t want to remember that Red-Hair Lady took her knife and cut her arms open. She doesn’t want to remember any of this.

But when it’s just Cassie, all alone, all she has is her thoughts, and she can’t help but remember how much it hurt.

She whimpers and draws her knees to her chest, pulling at the sticky, bloodstained sleeves of her hoodie. She doesn’t like this. She wants Mommy and Daddy and Jim… She wants Jim to hug her and cook her some ramen. She wants Mommy to rock her and read her a bedtime story. She wants Daddy to sing her favorite song…

Daddy. She remembers seeing his face before Red-Hair Lady took her away, before the hurt— She squeezes her eyes shut. She remembers that he was tied to a chair, that he was scared and he looked like he was hurting a lot. And when he saw Cassie, it was like his whole world had fallen apart. She’s never seen him like that before, and now she’s more scared than ever before. She starts to cry, sobbing into her knees; she wants Daddy, she wants Daddy, she wants Daddy!

Red-Hair Lady and Big-Man locked her in here. When she cried and begged for them to let her go, Red-Hair Lady grabbed her by the throat and threatened to cut her tongue out unless she shut up. Cassie reaches into her mouth and touches her tongue, just to reassure herself that it’s still there. She can still remember Red-Hair Lady and the terrifying fury of her words.

She knows Daddy will come for her. He has to. He always promised that he’d keep her safe, no matter what happened. She believes in him. Maybe he can turn into Ant-Man and slip free! Then he can come save her. She nods to herself. Yes, Daddy will come save her. He is brave and strong, and whenever she’s in trouble, he is there—

A loud beep and then the locked door before her clicks open. Cassie perks up, her sob caught in her throat. “Daddy?”

A snort of laughter is her reply. “Don’t you wish, cutie.”

Cassie shakes in her fear. It’s the Red-Hair Lady and Big-Man, and they look mad. “No, n-n-no! I d-do-don’t wanna go, p-please!” She is crying again, so hard that she can’t control it. “I wanna go home!”

Red-Hair Lady leans down to meet her face-to-face. “You’re not going home for a long time, cutie. So get used to it.”

Cassie cries harder—“I wanna go ho-home!”—and Red-Hair Lady slaps her.

She’s never been slapped before, and it’s startling, a violation of everything she’s ever known. She can still feel Red-Hair Lady’s hand on her cheek, a ghost of the blow. “Shut up,” snaps the woman. “Don’t be a f*cking baby.” As Big-Man grabs her by the waist and slings her under his arm, kicking and wailing, Red-Hair Lady storms out of the room. “Charlie!” she shouts. “Lang’s taking too f*cking long!”

Cassie can hear broken protests from the far end of the hallway. Once, she thinks she can hear her name among the desperate words.

The tall, bearded man is now talking feverishly to Red-Hair Lady. “He says he’s going as fast as he can, Renee. Mason, put the kid down.”

Big-Man shifts nervously, glancing at Red-Hair Lady. “As fast as he can?” Red-Hair Lady scowls. “Bullsh*t! At this rate, it’ll be days before he’s done. We need this, and we need it now. Lang just needs a little motivation, that’s all. Something to get those f*cking fingers moving.”

The other man hesitates. “Fine,” he says. “As long as Lang does his job.”

Renee smirks. “I’ll make sure he does.”

Cassie’s not stupid; she knows that they’re talking about Daddy. “I want Daddy!” she wails. She knows he’s here, somewhere, and the combination of the cuts on her arms, the swelling in her face, and the Red-Hair Lady’s presence has made her frantic and desperate. “Please, please, I’ll be—”

When Red-Hair Lady whirls around this time, Cassie stops abruptly, squeezing her eyes shut and trying to squirm away from the oncoming blow. But she’s still not prepared enough. Red-Hair Lady’s palm hits her in the face, and pain sparks behind her eyes. “What’d I tell you?” She yanks Cassie from Big-Man’s arms, sending her sprawling on the ground. “Hey! Look at me!”

Cassie doesn’t want to look at her, she doesn’t want to look, she doesn’t want to—

Another slap, this time on the other side of her face. “Look at me!”

Cassie pries her terrified eyes open, every bone in her body vibrating in alarm.

“You don’t talk unless I say so, got it?” Her red hair swishes as she talks. “Got it?” Her voice is dangerous now, like quicksand, and Cassie nods furiously. “Good.”

She drags Cassie to the bad room, the bad room—not the bad room, no, no—and straps her to the table—the bad table, the bad table, not the bad table, she doesn’t want to hurt again—

There’s fingers at her arm, yanking up her sleeve, wiping the crease of her inner arm with something cold. Cassie is cold, so cold, and she shuts her eyes, crying silently and hiccuping. “Don’t move,” instructs Red-Hair Lady, and then there’s a prick in her arm.

“Ow!” Suddenly, there’s what feels like fire spreading over her skin, lighting her up and tearing her apart.

Cassie can hear something, something high-pitched and horrible and bad—she wants the bad to stop, it hurts so much, but it’s all she can feel and it’s swallowing her up—

Her throat is raw—she’s screaming, screaming, screaming for anyone, anything to help her.

But no one comes.

FRIDAY, APRIL 6 — 10:11 PM

“Holy sh*t, Chlo, pull over!”

Chloe Tanner jerks his head to the right, where her boyfriend, John, is pointing. “What?” Then she sees it: a car upside down, a mess of crumpled metal and red-spattered earth. “Oh, sh*t!” She yanks her car to the right, parking abruptly a few hundred feet away from the crash. There’s no police cars near it, or any people standing beside the car. What the hell happened here? Someone has to do something. What if there’s someone in there? John and Chloe rush out of the car. Shattered glass crunches beneath Chloe’s sneakers as she and John approach the vehicle. “Hello?” John announces, and Chloe runs to the front door.

There’s a dark-haired woman inside, blood spreading across the front of her lavender blouse, hung upside down by her seatbelt. Her face is startlingly flushed, probably from all the blood settling in her head, and her head dangles limply as Chloe opens the car door. “sh*t, sh*t! John, call 911!”

John slams his fingers into his phone, almost frantic. “Um—he-hello? There’s a car crash here—a lady’s i-in the front…” He steps over the scattered glass to stare at the woman.

As he talks to the 911 operator, Chloe presses her fingers to the woman’s neck. A faint, fluttering pulse meets her fingers, but that’s all she needs. “She’s still alive!” she shouts. “What do we do?”

John puts the phone on speaker and describes the physical state of the woman, stuttering out that she is upside down and he doesn’t know if they should move her.
“Don’t move her,” instructs the operator. “Find the source of the bleeding, if you can, and put pressure on it until we can get to you. It should only be a few minutes. Keep checking her breathing and her heart rate, okay? If it stops, I’ll need you to perform CPR on her. Do you know how?”

Already pressing her scarf to the woman’s slashed thigh, Chloe stammers, “Ye-yeah, I know how.”

Those few minutes seem like hours as Chloe keeps pressure on the gashes and John checks her heartbeat. Finally, the ambulance arrives and four paramedics in matching uniform pour out, walking firmly towards them with a stretcher and medical supplies. “We’ll take it from here,” says one, just as they reach the woman.

Chloe reaches for John’s hand and grips it tightly, backing away from her. They ride with her to the hospital, where the police interrogate them about what happened, but neither of them know enough to further the investigation. “We didn’t see anything,” Chloe assures the first officer, a woman with a blonde ponytail named Officer Bone. “Just found her, that’s all. I think it’d already been here a while by the time we got here.”

Officer Bone nods, scribbling something down. “Well, we’re really grateful you found her. If you hadn’t, she could just as easily be dead.”

Chloe gulps. If she hadn’t pulled over the car… If they hadn’t done anything… If John had been asleep… This horrible realization washes over her: this woman could have died. “Is she… Is she gonna be okay?”

Bone glances wearily behind her. “Her head looked pretty banged up, so I can’t tell you for sure…” She removes her hat. “But I have your contact information. I’ll keep you updated on her condition.” She sighs. “Are you sure you couldn’t find anything about her identity?”

Both John and Chloe answer with a simple “no.” The paramedics gave all the woman’s belongings to the police, and they didn’t find a wallet or a phone on her; there were no frantic police calls on missing middle-aged women, either.

Bone clears her throat. “Well, until we find something, she’s a Jane Doe until she wakes up or someone comes for her.”

As Officer Bone leaves to talk to the other policemen, Chloe slumps into one of the waiting room chairs. She hopes that this woman, whoever she is, will be okay.

FRIDAY, APRIL 6 — 11:21 PM

They spent the past few hours chatting with semi-drunk socialites and businessmen; Tony dazzled them with half-hearted tales of Iron Man’s adventures while Pepper approached the hosts with financial propositions.

Pepper looks sleek tonight, her strawberry-blonde hair pulled back into an elegant bun, and her co*cktail dress is a rich, deep purple that matches the color of Tony’s suit. Tony, to say the least, matches his elegant partner, a silk tie loose around his neck. Pepper has always been the more formal one, rarely able to tell a story about herself to someone she didn’t know well. From where he currently stands, Tony can hear her laugh as she chats about Tony and his bad habit of showing up late to everything. “I’ve started marking everything in his calendar an hour before they actually start, just so he’ll be on time!”

Tony grazes his hand along her waist, alerting her to his presence just as he appears beside her. He can hear the exhaustion in her voice. “Sorry, ladies,” he says, nodding to the other three women, “but I’ll just be borrowing Ms. Potts for a moment.”

As soon as they are out of hearing range of the other guests, Pepper sighs. “Thank God,” she says. “I don’t think I could’ve done that for much longer.” She kisses his cheek.

“What, are they boring you?”

She wrinkles her nose. “No, I’m just tired of socializing, at least for today.” That, at the very least, Tony can understand. Pepper had spent almost the entire day in meetings and making calls to various companies. Her eyes light up with something mischievous. “Come on, let’s get out of here!”

Tony stares at her in mock shock, taking on the richest accent he can muster. “Leave the gala? Oh, the scandal, my dear!”

Pepper stifles a giggle. “God, Tony, your British accent is the worst.”

He pouts as she hooks her arm around his and leads them towards the exit. “I thought it was awesome!”

“Awesomely terrible,” she reminds him. “Any British person within a ten-mile radius would be offended, I’m sure. And stop saying 'awesome.' You've been spending way too much time with Peter.”

Tony grins. “Pepper, my love, you wound me.”

She rolls her eyes, opening the door for him. “Come on, Shakespeare, let’s go find some pizza.”

This time, it’s Tony’s turn to break into a smile. “Pizza!”

FRIDAY, APRIL 6 — 11:43 PM

When Ty finally leaves, Julia goes upstairs with Cristian. The kids are already fast asleep, but they kiss each of them good night before heading back to their room. After Julia changes into some pajamas and gets into bed, Cristian climbs in beside her. “Piensas que nos dijo la verdad?” he asked softly. Do you think he told us the truth?

Julia nods. She’s lying on her side, facing him. “Ty may be an addict,” she replies, “but he’s not a bad kid. He wouldn’t lie about something like this, and, I mean, just look at him. He could barely talk, he was so…” She doesn’t know how to explain it, but she knows that look in his eyes well. Terrified. Distressed. Helpless. “...scared. You can’t fake that.”

Cristian pulls her closer to him, and he presses his face into her hair. “What are you gonna do, Julia?”

“It’s gonna be hard,” she confesses, “but I’ve gotta report it. I’ll leave him out of it—I don’t want him going back to prison—but there’s no way I can’t report this.” The people Ty cares for so much are drug addicts and ex-cons; the New York Police Department cares little for them. She’ll have to use her strong reputation as a high-ranking officer to advocate for Ty and his missing friends. And her missing brother. Charlie, she thinks immediately, and now she feels desperation clench around her heart. “I have to—I have to find my brother.” She tries not to think of all the horrible things that could have happened to him, but her mind barrels forward. “He’s my baby brother, I can’t—” Her voice cracks.

Cristian slides his arm around her waist and shushes her. “I know, I know. You’ll find him, I know you will.”

Julia prays to God that she will, too.

FRIDAY, APRIL 6 — 11:58 PM

Happy drives them to Pepper’s favorite pizza place, one that sells Chicago-style deep dish. It’s hard to forget that Pepper was a Chicagoan (honestly, she still is), for Chicago always seems to seep into her daily life, whether it be her odd taste in pizza, her obsession with the Chicago Cubs, or her uncanny ability to survive any cold weather without blinking.

And because Pepper craves deep dish pizza on a weekly basis, they’ve become intimately familiar with one pizza place in particular, one called Lou Malnati’s, but they are not familiar with the teenage girl at the register, who gapes unashamedly at them as they enter the building.

“Hey, order for pickup?” announces Pepper, smiling expectantly, “For Potts?”

The girl doesn’t move, simply staring, starstruck, at them. “Uh…”

Tony sighs. He doesn’t need another fangirl right now, not at eleven at night when all he wants is a dumb pizza. “Look, kid, can we just get the pizza?”

The employee next to her, one who has seen them countless times before and has grown used to their presence, announces, “Of course, Mr. Stark, right away, sir!” The employee slips into the back as the other girl stands with her mouth open.

But as he watches the girl’s face break into a blushing smile, he realizes she isn’t even looking at him. She's looking at Pepper. “M-Ms. Potts,” she stammers, her voice so high it’s almost a squeal, “I-I’m a huge fan of yours; I’ve loved you since I was little when I read that article about how you…” The girl is full-on rambling, spilling every fact she knows about Pepper, and Tony watches his fiancée’s smile grow wider with every word. Iron Man fans are like pebbles, commonplace, but Pepper Potts fans are something else entirely. “...and as the only female CEO in—and, I mean, of the most powerful company in New York? You’re amazing! An inspiration! I can’t believe you’re standing here, wow—” The girl adjusts her hijab anxiously, tugging at the edges. Her nametag reads AYOMI. “It's such a pleasure to—um—to see you—um, um—could I—do you think I could—um, maybe—”

Pepper, being the wonderfully empathetic woman that she is, reaches across the counter and places a calming hand on Ayomi’s starstruck shoulder. “A picture? Of course!”

Tony thinks the girl is going to faint, right then and there. Instead, however, Ayomi’s eyes brighten and she nearly trips over herself getting to the other side of the counter, just as the other employee returns with their pizza. “Thank you, thank you!” she gasps.

Tony almost bursts out laughing at the expression on Pepper’s face. Pepper Potts can stare down a roomful of angry reporters, counter death threats, and command all of Stark Industries, but in the end, she is just as nervous as the fan herself. The negative attention she receives as CEO of Stark Industries is miles away from this glowing praise she is receiving from the young woman standing in front of her.

Ayomi clears her throat. “Um, Mr. Stark, do you think you could…” She holds her phone out to him, already in the camera app.

Tony is, in a word, bewildered. He hasn’t been asked to take someone else’s picture since...well, ever. But nonetheless, he takes the phone and snaps a dozen photos of Pepper and Ayomi. He knows Pepper is beyond ecstatic to have this kind of attention, and that over-the-moon feeling is washing over him, now, too.

God, he loves this woman.

After finally getting the pizza and giving about four goodbye hugs to Ayomi, they head back to Stark Tower. By that time, they are starving, so they devour the pizza in the car.

“Watch the seats, watch the seats!” complains Happy. “I just got those cleaned.”

Pepper and Tony share a knowing look with each other, glancing down guiltily at the pizza sauce smeared on the seat between them. “Oh, yeah, definitely!” Pepper declares, as Tony tries to clean up the mess they’d made. “Seats are fine, Happy; you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Happy gives a Scroogelike grunt, muttering under his breath. “Yeah, yeah.”

By the time they are back inside, kicking their shoes off, it’s midnight, and they slump in the bed together, Pepper literally groaning with delight. “I wanna go to sleep,” she mumbles into the pillow, “and never wake up again.”

Tony laughs. “Come here, baby, I’ll take your hair down. You don’t want to go to sleep like that.”

He gets a muffled moan in response.

Tony scoots up the bed on his knees. “Come on, Sleepy, turn over.” She flops onto her back, groaning in protest. He lifts her head into his lap so he can remove the bobby pins, one by one. “Wanna watch a movie?”

“Yeah,” she mumbles. “Something without people.”

“What, a nature documentary?” He plucks another pin out and tosses it on the nightstand.

Her eyes are still closed. “No… A cartoon. Something with little animals…”

Tony smirks. “A Disney movie? I’ve got just the thing.”

Before long, Finding Nemo is playing on the screen, and they’ve stripped out of their restricting gala outfits and into T-shirts, curled beneath the covers.

The best thing about their relationship is that it’s entirely beyond the physical, nothing like Tony’s previous relationships. Before Pepper, his dating pool had been entirely based on physical beauty and social status, even attainability, but not mutual compatibility. Obviously he’s attracted to Pepper, but it goes so far beyond that. With Pepper, he’s more himself then he’s ever been. He can watch dumb Disney movies with her, he can eat pizza at midnight with her, he can cry in front of her… He doesn’t need to impress her, and she doesn’t need to impress him. They know each other too well.

“He’s kinda like you,” Pepper mutters, yawning.

Tony snaps back to the present. “What? Who?”

Pepper looks so beautiful now, the ends of her mouth twitching into an amused smile. “The dad fish… What’s his name again? Merlin? Marlin?” She yawns again. “He loves his damn kid so much…”

Tony combs his fingers through her hair. “Pep, we don’t have a kid. That doesn’t—”

“Peter,” she interrupts, “is Nemo. Does something dumb, the world implodes on him, and eventually you’re there to save him.”

“Well, I don’t think—”

“Last December,” she continues, her eyes still closed, “you took him to see Hamilton with us.”

Tony snorts. “He’d been listening to the soundtrack nonstop! What was I supposed to do?”

“In March,” she says, ignoring him, “when he got shot in that robbery, you made him stay in the Medbay for the whole day, and you didn’t let him patrol for a week, even though it’d fully healed by the second day.”

“His body was still recovering!” Tony protests. “And—”

“Once a month, you take him to your favorite sandwich place.” She is sitting up now, blinking groggily at him.

“What’s so bad about that?”

Pepper rubs her eyes. “You only ever take me there, dumbass. Or Rhodey. You’ve never even mentioned it to Happy or anyone else.”

Tony’s face flushes pink. “Well, I mean, it’s personal, knowing that, and, uh—”

And still Pepper rattles on. “You let him pick the music in the car, you brought his lunch to school when he forgot it, you left an important meeting so you could go to his decathlon meet, you went out for ice cream with him when he had a fight with his friend, you always ask how he is, you’re always checking with his AI to make sure he’s okay, you—”

“Okay, okay!” Tony huffs. “You’re right, fine. It’s just like… If I had a kid, I’d want him to be like Pete, you know?” He sinks his face with the nearest pillow, groaning.

Pepper laughs beside him; what a privilege, he thinks suddenly, it is to hear Pepper Potts laugh. “Baby, Peter’s already your kid. You’re just too thick headed to see it. He’s here at least twice a week, Tony.”

Tony mumbles a fragmented response into the pillow. Pepper snakes an arm around his side, “C’mere,” she says, pulling him closer. “I’m cold.”

Tony welcomes her presence at his side; she snuggles into him, pressing her cold toes against his bare calf— “God, f*ck, Pepper, your feet are like ice! Keep those things to yourself, Elsa!

Drowsy, she giggles a little, clasping onto him tighter. He follows her freckled arm around his torso to hold her hand, and he turns onto his side so that her chest is pressed against his back. This is how they usually cuddle: Tony, the little spoon, and Pepper, the big spoon.

Pepper falls asleep first, snoring lightly against his chest. Their legs are intertwined, and Tony’s sure he’ll wake up with his feet asleep if he stays like this, so he gently shifts, untangling their limbs. In the background, Finding Nemo plays, and he mutes it with a quiet order to FRIDAY. As he watches, Marlin tries to convince the leader of a school of moonfish to tell him how to get to his son.

If I lost Peter, Tony thinks, I’d be a lot better at finding him than this dumb fish. Satisfied, he turns the television off and burrows beneath the covers, watching Pepper’s chest rise and fall in a deep sleep. What did he do to deserve a woman as amazing as her? He smiles to himself, closing his eyes. What did he do to deserve a kid as great as Peter?

Before long, he is snoring, too, slipping into the peaceful realm of sleep with his fiancée at his side.

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 2:04 AM

Scott’s wrists spike with pain, and he pauses to rub them, the action made awkward by the handcuffs locked around them. He’s not in the Chair anymore—he’s in a hard chair before a metal table, set with a laptop and other computer supplies. He’s got more freedom now, at least; his arms and legs are cuffed, but they aren’t attached to the chair so that he has enough freedom to work. It’s odd to him that the crushing pain of his mutilated legs has faded with the mission before him, fueled by his mind, the computer, and his throbbing hands. Well, they gave him a little painkiller a few hours ago, too, solely because he was too delirious with pain to work, so that helps. And they added some adrenaline to the mix, so Scott is wide awake. Charlie or American Psycho or whoever was right: the only thing Scott needs is his head and his hands.

Three times since he first arrived here, he has heard his little girl scream. It’s not anything like the false screeches in horror movies or Cassie’s usual happy squeals. It’s the sound of pain, horrific agony coursing through the air, and it’s so violent and terrible and sickening that when Scott hears it he can barely breathe.

The worst part about it is that he can’t see her, but he knows that’s her voice. He knows better than almost anyone on the planet what Cassie sounds like, even if it’s just a whimper or a sob. That’s his daughter. He can’t touch her, can’t hold her, can’t tell her a joke, can’t sing her a lullaby… It’s agonizing. Forget his legs—it’s like an entire chunk of his heart has been torn from his chest.

Scott knows there’s only one way to get Cassie out of here: doing what he’s told. Even if it means breaking dozens of laws and putting others in danger, he’ll do anything if it means that they’ll stop hurting Cassie. He never used to understand the blind, ultra-sacrificial love that parents held for their children when he was younger, but after he learned that Maggie was pregnant, he knew. He knew that he would do anything to protect his child.

Just knowing that Cassie is in pain now is putting his heart through a meat grinder; he types faster, clicking and hacking and typing until his fingers are a blur at the keyboard.

At the sound of the door at the end of the hallway, Scott jumps; he can’t help it. Last time that door opened, that sick f*ck, Renee, came through with his little girl. This time, he listens hard, typing faster than ever. If he shows any sign of slacking, they’ll make Cassie scream again. And he’ll do anything in the world to not hear that sound ever again.

It’s not Renee, Charlie, or Mason—his three main captors are busy getting high on the other side of the place—warehouse? Base? Building? Lair? He realizes quite suddenly that he has no idea where he is. He could be in a cave, for all he knows. There’s no windows, not that he can see, and the cold air seeping through the vents does nothing but tell him that they’ve got air conditioning.

There’s an almost eerie silence following the opening of the door, and then a thump, the all-too-familiar sound of a body hitting the ground, and fear prickles down Scott’s back. What if they caught another one of his loved ones: Maggie, Hope, Hank, or even Jim? The fear that overcomes him in that moment drains him of his energy. He’s barely clinging on to his composure as it is, but this… Then, vaguely, he remembers the first thing he was asked to do: hack into Tony Stark’s computer system and locate what Stark designated as “SKM7.” Scott discovered several hours ago that SKM7 was a moving target, which he found to be strange, but he figured it was a vehicle or Stark-created piece of technology. There’d been nothing in the files he’d hacked about SKM7 stating that it could be a person.

As the door to the room swings open and two of Charlie’s black-clothed guys drag a limp form between them, Scott understands with violent precision: SKM7 is a person. By the look of him, a young person. “No, no, no,” Scott croaks, panic splitting him. “No, no…”

Then there’s Charlie, leaning on the doorframe like he’s just won the Olympics, and high as a f*cking kite. He grins at Scott, and poorly masked aggression pours over his body. “Put him in the chair,” Charlie announced, his words a little slurred. “Now.”

As they lock him into the Chair, the one he was in only hours earlier, Scott’s horror augments. SKM7 is a pale teen with brown hair; his head is completely slack, as the men strap him in, and his eyes are closed. One of the men pushes his head back and checks his eyes for any sign of consciousness. Nothing. It’s unnerving how limp he is, like a rag doll. He’s a wiry kid, a little muscle on bones, and he’s got a wide face peppered with bruises. He’s wearing a Star Wars hoodie, a bright blue one with “Trust me, I’m a Jedi” printed across the front, but the sleeves, as well as his hands, are spattered with blood. Probably fourteen or fifteen, this kid… His youth is obvious in everything about him: his neon green shoes, his sweatshirt, his oddly colored jeans, his hair… He’s even got a math formula scribbled across the back of his hand. And the fact that he’s unconscious, bloodied, and locked to the Chair by his wrists, ankles, and torso makes everything worse. “He’s…” Scott gasps, and Charlie’s smile only widens. “He’s just a kid. You made me track down a… a… teenager? So you could kidnap him, too?”

Charlie shrugs. As he stalks towards Scott, every step threatening, Scott feels every hair on his body stand on end; his body screams, Danger! Danger! Get out! “Thanks, Lang,” Charlie says, ignoring the fact that there’s an unconscious fifteen-year-old behind them. “You did great.” He raises his hand—no, no, f*ck, no, he can’t take any more, he’ll break—and claps Scott heartily on the shoulder. “I should give you a raise.” He chuckles to himself.

Scott’s blood boils, and he tries to swallow the fury rising in his throat, but he can’t— “So kidnapping a seven-year-old wasn’t good enough for you? You had to get a fifteen-year-old, too? What the hell?”

“He’s sixteen,” Charlie snaps; his expression before was tight, like he trapped all his anger inside of his mouth, but now it’s exploded all over his face. “And this was all necessary, you dumb f*ck. I don’t go around kidnapping kids for fun.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” Scott growls, and Charlie hits him so hard that he sees stars.

“Don’t forget” —Charlie’s face glistens with sweat, and his eyes narrow— “that’s your pretty little seven-year-old I’ve got here. Next time you talk to me like that, I’ll take off one of her fingers, how’d you like that?”

Scott’s eyes widen, and his mouth bubbles up with blood and frantic pleas; Charlie backs away from him, muttering in disgust. “P-please, d-d-don’t—”

“You’ve got a new job, Lang,” interrupts Charlie, moving to stand beside Renee. He curls an arm around her shoulders, and she smirks. “If you do it right, your brat will be just fine.” Charlie smiles with his teeth this time, and Scott can see the drugged high leak into his too-wide grin. “With your help, we’re gonna change the world.”

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 2:46 AM

The door opens with a bang that seems to shake the room, and Tony jumps to his feet. Instinctually, he grabs his watch, slamming his fingers to the activation button that transforms it from a wristwatch to an Iron Man Gauntlet, raising his arm to—

“Peter?” says Pepper. She’s standing, too, but her hands are held out in comfort instead of aggression, her eyes trained on the figure who has now entered the room.

It’s Peter, there’s no denying. He’s drenched from head to toe; his brown hair is plastered against his forehead and his red hoodie is now a wet shade of scarlet. His jeans cling to his skinny legs. There’s a blend of blood and water on his forehead, and he’s shaking, trembling like a wet leaf, his chest heaving.

Immediately, Tony transforms his gauntlet back into a watch and approaches the kid carefully. He’s never seen Peter like this before—terrified, panicking, anxious—and it chills him to the bone. He’s shivering now, breathing hard, but the air whistles through his throat in a dry whine. “Kid?” he calls out, taking a careful step forward. Peter’s hands are on his head now, fisting tightly in his dark hair as though he’s about to tear it from the roots. His eyes are blown with panic, darting around, and he won’t focus on Tony. “Kid, look at me.” Tony locks eyes with Pepper; her expression betrays the concern and fear that he feels. “Peter.” Nothing. He tries again. “Pete, kiddo, it’s me. What happened?”

Pepper moves forward, reaching out towards the kid, and alarm bells crash through Tony’s head. “Don’t,” Tony snaps, startling even himself with his bluntness, and Pepper immediately stops. Tony knows better than anyone what being mentally absent means for someone with superpowers; he doesn’t need another Bucky Barnes on his hands.

After Peter’s arms finally drop, and his gaze lifts to Tony’s, the whole world seems to stop. “M-Mr. Stark?”

Tony’s shoulders slump in relief, and he takes another step towards Peter, still cautious. “Yeah, it’s me. You okay, kiddo?”

Peter presses his palm against his forehead, looking a little shocked when it comes back bloody. “Yeah, I just…”

Tony has never felt this worried before; anxiety cuts through him, hot and sharp. What happened to his kid? “Are you okay?” A million questions collide in his mind. Who did this to you? What could scare you like this?

But he chokes them all down as Peter stammers, staring at the newfound blood stemming from his head. “I’m bleeding…”

f*ck, this can’t be good. Something is wrong, gut-wrenchingly so, and Tony knows it. Peter can barely recognize the pain he is in, let alone the fact that he is bleeding, soaking wet, and standing in the middle of Tony’s kitchen. “Let’s sit down, okay, kiddo?” By the time Peter blinks in confused recognition, Tony has moved all the way to the kid, scanning him for further injury and guiding him to the kitchen table by placing a hand on his back—

Peter jerks away from him so violently that even Pepper startles, and the kid transforms from mentally absent to a terrified mess, his body vibrating in fear. But instead of attacking with his webshooters or hyper-reflexes like Tony expected, he curls in on himself, squeezing his eyes shut. What the hell? This is not the result of combat trauma or too much time in the field. This… This is something deeper, darker, sourced in something more sinister than Tony originally thought. “Okay, okay,” says Tony, thinking f*ck, f*ck, what the hell is happening— “You’re okay, Pete, you’re just fine; no touching, okay? I got it, I won’t touch you, you’re safe...”

He continues talking, coaxing Peter into at least a sliver of safety, until finally Peter opens his eyes again, gasping, “So-sorry, Mr. Stark, I’m sorry…” He looks pale, too pale, and it’s now that Tony realizes his lips are blue. f*cking blue.

Tony’s heart twists violently. “You’re okay, kid, there’s nothing for you to be sorry for.” Tony’s left arm is throbbing now, that dull ache that always resounds when his anxiety spikes, and he tries to control the flutter of panic in his chest. “J-just come over here, okay? We’ll sit by the fire, you can warm up a little—you’re looking a little cold, Pete.”

Peter wraps his arm around himself as if suddenly noticing the fact that his teeth are chattering; glancing nervously at Tony, he nods slowly, following the man to the fireplace at the other end of the room. “FRIDAY,” says Tony, trying to stay calm for the sake of the kid, “turn up the heat, please.”

Thankfully, FRIDAY remains silent in her obedience, avoiding possibly startling the kid. Tony turns around to share a worried look with Pepper, then faces the kid again. Peter’s relaxing a little in the warmth of the fire, and before he knows it, Pepper’s beside him, holding out a blanket and a fresh change of clothes: Tony’s sweatshirt and a pair of sweatpants Peter had left with them weeks ago. “Peter, honey?” she says, her voice gentle. “I brought you some dry clothes, do you want to—”

“No,” Peter croaks, suddenly tense again. “No.”

Peter’s clothes are dripping wet, and Tony knows how hypothermia works. He has to get him out of those wet clothes. “Kid?” he says, worry lacing his features. “You wanna take off your hoodie, at least, change into somethi—”

“No!” This time, Peter’s response is frantic, almost wild, and Tony immediately regrets his suggestion. “No, p-please—”

Horror flashes through Tony’s head; everything comes to a screeching halt. Please. It’s just one word, but it’s enough for Tony to know that something bad happened to his kid, something that brought Peter to such a point of suffering that he begged for it to stop. Tony wants to help him, to hug him, to hold him and tell him everything’s gonna be okay, but he can’t. Peter won’t let him touch him, and Tony’s not planning on violating his kid’s personal space when he’s scared. Tony’s not Howard; he won’t do that to Peter. Only one question flashes through his mind, burning hot: who hurt Peter? This whole situation is f*cking terrifying Tony, and dark thoughts needle at the back of his mind, poking sharply—don’t be stupid, Tony, you know the symptoms, you know what happened to him, why else would he be so scared of taking off his clothes—and Tony’s hands clench into horrified, tense fists. No. Not Peter. No. He refuses to believe that. It’s too horrible to think about.

The kid shivers, his teeth clacking like typewriter keys.

Tony doesn’t want to force the kid to do anything, not in this fragile state, but he’s becoming seriously anxious about Peter’s physical health. He has to focus on something he can fix, and right now, Tony can help Peter stay healthy. “FRIDAY,” he orders, as Peter takes the blanket and wraps it around himself with trembling hands, “Peter’s vitals, please.”

“Peter is currently experiencing a body temperature of 96 degrees, sir,” she responds carefully, “and rising. His heart rate is elevated. Otherwise, vitals are normal. He is in no immediate danger, but his brain waves signal significant distress.”

Peter doesn’t even look up at the sound of the familiar AI. He just stands by the fire, shivering. Tony feels like there are two spools of thread tightening around his lungs, one tugging him towards Peter to comfort him, the other yanking him away, reminding him of the expression of absolute fear on Peter’s face when Tony touched him earlier. Tony gulps and presses the palm of his hand against his quickening heart. He has to help him. Although FRIDAY told him that Peter’s life isn’t in danger, he can’t keep himself from panicking. Significant distress, he echoes. Significant f*cking distress. He’s never been in a situation like this before; Tony knows how to handle aliens, terrorists, and Stark Industries, but not the distraught, trembling, terrified mess of a kid in front of him. His kid, no less.

At the sound of a muffled whimper, Tony’s head snaps up to find Peter Parker sobbing, snot and tears and all, into his hands, his shoulders quaking. Peter Parker, this f*cking invincible kid that he loves so much, crumples like a tin can without warning, collapsing to his knees.

And Tony can’t do anything about it. He can’t even touch Peter. Instead, he kneels beside the kid, whispering comforting phrases to him, things he would want to hear if he was having a breakdown. “Hey, kiddo, you’re okay, you’ll be okay… You’re safe with me, just breathe, Pete, you’re gonna be fine...”

If this was a Lifetime movie, Peter would be hugging Tony now, embracing him like a son would do to a father, and he would tell him everything. Then he and Peter would ride off into the sunset, vowing to chase down the bad guy and lock him up for life.

But this isn’t a movie. This is reality. So instead, Tony watches in anxious helplessness as his kid sobs, curling himself into a tight, lonely ball of shame before him. There is no sarcastic bravado or odd humor left in the boy: only Peter, his soul laid vulnerable before Tony’s eyes—

—and Tony is gasping, straining for breath, and there’s a hand on his back, rubbing soothingly. “Bad dream, baby?”

Tony is still grappling with the fact that his heart is racing at a million miles an hour, and it takes him a moment to realize that Pepper is sitting up with him, trying to comfort him.

And the thing is, it wasn’t a nightmare. That moment had been all too real. Peter had arrived without any warning on a cold, rainy day in March, dangerously quiet and unable to be touched without a violent reaction. Tony’s anxiety had never taken such a drastic turn. In the end, Pepper and Tony discovered, through broken sentences and lost whispers, that a man who Peter had known as a child, was back on the streets of Queens. His name is Skip, Peter had said, his voice deadly quiet, and I never… I didn’t think I’d ever have to see him again. They weren’t able to get anything else out of him, and after that he’d come back the next week like nothing had happened, laughing like he hadn’t been sobbing on the floor of Tony’s kitchen only seven days prior.

That was, by far, the worst moment of Tony’s parenthood, if he could call it that. Watching his kid suffer like that… Being completely unable to help him was like being set on fire.

Tony is calmer now, and Pepper’s hand is over his chest, making sure that his heartbeat slows down to normal. “You okay?” she asks, watching his expression carefully.

Tony’s left arm aches, and he grabs it subconsciously, rubbing his throbbing wrist. He doesn’t bother lying to Pepper; she knows him too well. “I dreamed about Peter,” he explains. If he wasn’t still reeling from the vivid dream, he would have cracked a joke about Finding Nemo and Pepper’s persistent fatherhood quips, but he’s too drained at the moment to do any of that.

“About what happened in March?” she suggests, giving him a knowing look.

Tony nods, dabbing at the sweat on his forehead.

“Do you want to… Do you want to talk about it?”

“No…” He swung his legs over the side of the bed. “I’m just gonna go to the lab, get my mind off of things.” He picks up the clock: 2:57 AM. “Oh, sh*t, Pepper, I’m sorry for waking you up, I know you have to go at like five, I didn’t mean—”

“Hey,” she says with a smile, tapping a finger against his chin, “you know what I always say. You can’t be sorry for things you can’t control, Tony. And you can’t control having a bad dream, right?”

That tightness in his chest loosens at her words, and he takes her hand, bringing it to his lips. He mumbles a “right” against her knuckles.

After Pepper crawls back into bed, Tony pulls on a sweatshirt, some plaid pants, and a pair of flip-flops before heading downstairs. Since his mansion was destroyed in 2012, he moved into Stark Tower; it became the height of his technological prowess and intellectual ability, but after it was compromised several times (and after returning them only reminded him of the broken pieces of the former Avengers team), he sold the Tower and moved into the new Avengers facility. They’ve constructed it and reconstructed it dozens of times, but finally Tony can call it his home, not just his company property. It’s located in upstate New York, in a stretch of lush land surrounded by trees and water, and there are separate spaces for every use, all connected by winding brick walkways. There’s a massive warehouse for storing equipment (connected to a lab for him to work in), a main building where he and Pepper can do official business, an apartment complex for the Avengers (if, for some reason, they ever got back together), a separate house for him and Pepper, and several other facilities. They’d decided long ago that it was healthier for them to divide Tony’s home life and his work life. He used to spend days in his lab, surviving off of coffee and protein bars to finish projects, but now he almost always sleeps in bed with Pepper unless one of them is gone on a work trip. It’s new, specifically for Tony, to have a home that doesn’t belong to Stark Industries, and it’s life-changing. He spends time with his family now, just watching movies with Rhodey and cooking with Pepper and playing dumb video games that Peter shows him, just because he can.

Now, he walks from his house to his lab; the grass is damp, tickling the sides of his feet. The moist air is refreshing, and his head is almost cleared in the five-minute walk to the workshop.

Inside is his refuge: tables upon tables of machine parts, chemical compounds, and computers. He can stay in here for hours at a time, simply tinkering. Tony settles down at one of the worktables, immediately picking up one of his in-progress works: the gunfire sensory system that he and Peter had been creating the night before. He fiddles around with it for a while; giving himself something technological to do usually helps him out of a funk. But even editing the code on Project Kevlar can’t distract him. Not when he’s thinking about Peter.

He contemplates calling Peter, just to make sure he’s okay, but it’s still three in the morning. Besides, Peter barely sleeps as it is without early morning phone calls from his mentor.

So instead, he pops an earpiece into his left ear and orders FRIDAY to call Rhodey.

It takes five calls to reach him. “Tony, it’s three fifteen.” His voice is a low, tired growl.

Tony relaxes in his chair. “I do have a clock,” he quips, but his voice is shaky. “Just couldn’t sleep, Rhodey.”

A series of shuffles. “Are you okay?”

His head throbs. “Just peachy, Mom. Tell me a joke.” Pepper would’ve made him talk about it, to his therapist or to her, but Rhodey always tries to cheer him up instead. It’s the best thing about him; Rhodey knows that Tony’s a f*cked up guy, but when they’re together, Tony feels normal.

Rhodey, detecting that familiar, anxious quiver in his voice, doesn’t question Tony’s request. He starts telling a funny story about a cadet and a dog, and Tony loses himself in it, wanting to think of anything else. Rhodey talks until Tony’s mind is numb, disconnected from his nightmare. “...don’t you think, Tony?”

Tony laughs weakly. “You know, your jokes really don’t get better with age.”

“Think so? Bet you couldn’t tell one better.”

“Rhodey, at least when I tell a story, people don’t start snoring after the first—”

A wild screech shakes his eardrums, so violent and f*cking loud that his whole body goes taut like a bowstring, going painfully rigid in a failed attempt to escape the sound—

—pain hammers his head, but it’s only a vague afterthought compared to the horrible f*cking sound quaking his brain like a speaker on steroids, like an MMA fighter shaking a rag doll—

—colors flashing above him, pale blue and strawberry blonde; his brain is melting, exploding in sound, he can’t breathe, he can’t think, he can’t—

—it dies to a dull roar, and Tony’s whole body uncoils as he comes back to his senses. His cheek against cold floor, thin fingers prying his hands away from his ears, two overlapping voices calling his name—

He can still feel the sound there, like his head’s been filled with a thousand rubber hammers, and somehow he manages to uncoil himself and focus on the woman in front of him. Pepper. “Tony! Tony, look at me!” He blinks; a high-pitched whine oscillates in his eardrums, and he sways with the noise as he tries to right himself.

There’s a sound in his left ear, another voice. “Tony? What’s going on? Can you hear me? Tony!”

He swallows, for the first time since the noise began, and the action itself feels painful. He blinks (once, twice, three times), and finally he can see Pepper in front of him, trying to meet his wandering gaze. “f*ck” is the first thing he says, through gritted teeth. “My head…” He shifts, trying to sit up.

“Don’t get up, Tony,” she warns, pushing him back down. “Just take a second.”

He reaches up and touches his left ear, where the earpiece is still lodged. “Tony?” Rhodey prompts.

“Yeah…” Tony winces. He can barely hear his own voice. “I’m fine, I’ll call you back.” He clicks the end button on the earpiece and pulls it out, still stunned.

As he comes back to his senses, Pepper starts to explain, saying that FRIDAY had been compromised and set off a blaring alarm once her systems recognized an intruder. “That thing in your ear,” she says, picking it up, “played the sound a little too loud.”

Tony nearly laughs out loud. Here he thought that he was going crazy, that he was suffering for all those weapons he’d fired, but it had just been FRIDAY’s odd alarm system. He groans, the ringing in his head now a dull whine. “FRIDAY, what happened? Compromised?”

His lovely AI responds only with unnerving silence. Pepper helps Tony into a sitting position, examining his ear. “Yeah, Tony,” she states, “FRIDAY hasn’t been responding. Not since the alarm went off.”

“Then how’d you turn it off?” he asks, confused.

Pepper shrugs. “You’re the artificial intelligence guru; she just turned off, and she hasn’t said anything since.”

Usually, Tony would be annoyed that FRIDAY had simply shut down like this, but it’s a well-received distraction from the Peter-heavy thoughts buzzing in his head. “Well, I guess I’ve got a job to do, then.”

Once Pepper ensures that Tony is okay, save a little hearing loss, she heads out for her next meeting, one with a Chinese computer company in Boston. “I should be back by this evening, okay?” She kisses his forehead. “Take care of yourself,” she reminds him. “I know FRIDAY’s a little messed up, but that doesn’t mean you can just forget to eat, okay? I’ll send Happy to check on you around lunch. And get Cho to check out that ear. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Tony, back in his spinning lab chair, turns to look at her. “Stupid? Me? Baby, I would never.”

Pepper smirks at him, but it’s playful, and Tony finds himself still picturing her face even once she’s left the workshop. Despite the fact that it’s almost four in the morning, and there’s a little trickle of blood coming from his ear, he still feels a little safer, just because Pepper is here with him.

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 4:12 AM

Peter’s mouth is a bitter handful of acidic soap, leaking down his throat and churning in his stomach. There’s a horrible pain in his lower abdomen, spreading wide inside of him, and every inch of his skin buzzes with paralysis. His limbs are heavy; his bones must be made of steel now—he can’t move them, he can’t move at all.

He forces his eyes open, but his eyelids are heavy, too heavy, and he only recognizes flashes of bland color before they shut again. There’s a voice bouncing around him, one he recognizes, male and tired and scared.

Pain dances through his skull—iron dancers with sharpened heels—and a sound escapes him, something low and guttural. He’s so far from reality that he’s floating, but now he’s sinking back down to Earth. He can feel something cold and bad inside him, and he fights it, shifting and stirring and shaking. He tries to talk, to plead for help, to cry out, but his words tumble out of his mouth like loose marbles, and then the background ramblings of the familiar voice stop, overlapped by newer, sharper voices.

“He’s…”

Peter’s hair tugged to pull his head back. Hands on his face.

“Watch…”

Exhaustion washing over him. Cold fingers prying at his eyes, open, open, open.

“…but already…would…dangerous…”

Someone fumbling at his sleeve, ripping. A foreign voice in his ear.

“Doesn’t matter…give…more…”

A pinch inside of his elbow. The world tilting before his half-closed eyes. A rush of cold, and then everything is blurry.

“…going…”

Peter’s eyes roll into the back of his head, and jagged darkness swallows him.

Chapter 2: i’m just a kid

Summary:

In the center is a chair with its back to him, where a dark-haired person sits, their entire body obscured by the chair. Tony hates the way his skin crawls; it’s like all his nerve endings are on fire. Who the hell is in that chair? The camera moves with a jerk, transferred by someone’s shaky grip around the whole chair until it settles in front of it—and all the blood drains out of Tony’s face.

Notes:

chap title from 'kids' by current joys

CW: blood, violence, violence against a child, torture, panic, child abduction.

Chapter Text

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 4:55 AM

FRIDAY is f*cked.

Tony, for all of his engineering expertise, can’t understand what could have made her shut down like this. FRIDAY is his, after all; how could something so easily break her? He installed that alarm system to let him know whenever someone tried to hack her, but no one had ever been successful. It would take state-of-the-art computer gear, intelligence that rivaled his, incredible perseverance, years of hacking experience, and overwhelming knowledge of computers, coding, electrical engineering, and artificial intelligences. Who could have done this? FRIDAY is pliant now, easily moldable to whoever (probably a teenage hacker or some rival company) wants to use her.

He takes another gulp of coffee and rubs his forehead. He’s been working for about an hour now, and he’s got nothing. He spins to face a glowing blue screen that’s supposed to display FRIDAY’s error messages; it’s empty. FRIDAY’s silence is unnerving, but not dangerous... yet. Honestly, he’s impressed by whoever managed to hack her; it takes a lot. He might have to hire them when he’s done tracking them down and giving them an Iron Man bitchslap.

He smirks to himself as he types more, checking FRIDAY’s basic output before the incident. Everything looks normal.

4-7-18 2:56 - TURN ON MAIN LIGHT - BEDROOM - DIM

4-7-18 3:01 - UNLOCK FRONT DOOR - HOUSE

4-7-18 3:02 - TURN ON PATH LIGHTS - HOUSE TO LAB - DIM

4-7-18 3:10 - UNLOCK FRONT DOOR - LAB

4-7-18 3:26 - CALL “rhodeybear”

4-7-18 3:43 - ALERT 13C - DIGITAL INTRUDER

4-7-18 3:46 - MAIN SYSTEMS COMPROMISED - INITIATE PROTO—

From that point forward, FRIDAY’s output is eerily absent. As Tony Stark’s AI, she was built to respond to any situation; if she had more time, she might’ve switched all security to manual controls and re-encrypted all of her systems so that Tony could at least provide safety for the compound, but she didn’t have the time before something halted her actions completely.

He still has access to all of his Stark Industries and personal files, as well as all of her engineering capabilities; through various tests, he recognizes that FRIDAY has lost all of her autonomy, but her basic foundations of code, secure information, and technological ability still stand.

Tony sets basic parameters to keep all of the physical security systems intact, and then he gets to work. He has to find out who attacked FRIDAY.

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 7:03 AM

The kids are asleep when Julia leaves for work that morning, but Cristian’s awake making them breakfast. “Up already, Julia?” he asks.

“Yeah.” She pours herself a cup of coffee, takes a sip. “I’m opening up Charlie’s investigation today. Keep an eye on the kids, okay?”

He’s behind her now, and he puts his hand on her arm. They share a quick, sweet kiss. “Of course I will. Be safe.”

There’s a lingering tone of worry behind his words—he’s worried about what will happen when she finds Charlie. “Don’t worry.” Julia kisses him again. “He’s my brother, Cristian. He would never hurt me.”

Julia walks into the police station an hour earlier than usual—she needs time to formulate her case for the missing drug addicts. By the time she’s had her morning coffee and settled down at one of the main computers to draft her proposal, her boss, Lieutenant Huang, tracks her down. “You’re here early, Sergeant,” he says, shoving his hands into his pockets. “What’s wrong?”

The worry in her mind grows, folding over itself. “Nothing, Lieutenant,” she lies. “Just thought I’d finish up some work from yesterday.”

Huang gives her a hard stare. “Don’t lie to me, Paz. You’re about as good at that as you are at getting here early.”

Julia checks herself, quickly; she straightens her back, adjusts her uniform, and clasps her hands behind her back. “Sir,” she announces, “I’d like permission to start a case concerning the recent strain of missing drug addicts here in Queens.”

Huang visibly stiffens at her request, but she can’t tell what’s running through his mind—disbelief, anger, frustration? Something flashes across his face (annoyance, perhaps), and he frowns at her. “And how did you come across this idea, Sergeant?”

Julia clears her throat once (it’s always been a nervous tic of hers) and then explains, saying that she got an anonymous tip about the subject from a rehabilitated drug addict; Julia conveniently forgets to mention that Ty, her tip, fell back into drugs only a few weeks after rehab. “He was terrified when I spoke to him, Lieutenant.” Her voice is stern, as though she’s talking to one of her children instead of her boss. She tries to drain the harshness out of her voice, but it’s so difficult when she’s talking about her family, her brother. “Many of his colleagues have gone missing in the past weeks, the most recent being two days ago, sir.”

“And none of these were reported,” he adds, the assumption clear on his face, “because those who would report them missing fear legal repercussions.”

“Exactly, sir.”

As Lieutenant Huang drops into silence, she watches his expression carefully. She knows the thoughts that must be flitting through his mind: that drug addicts go missing all the time, that they probably suffered from a group overdose, that drugs were unpredictable, that she had nothing to worry about… But when he looks at her again, she only finds mild exhaustion in his eyes. “I’ll let you pursue this addict case,” he says finally, “as long as you keep up with your other work—”

Relieved gratitude floods her body. “Oh, thank you, sir, I—”

“—and take on a new child abduction case.”

Her brain stutters to a hesitant halt; she clears her throat again, anxiety sliding down the back of her neck. “Child abduction…”

“I know you’re not a fan, but I’m really understaffed right now, Paz, what with that break-in recently—”

“Not a fan ?” Julia repeated. She’d never once taken a child abduction case, and everyone at the station knew it. As a mother of two young children, she could hardly look at a child abduction case without thinking about Leila or Jaime in the same position. She adamantly refused child abduction and exploitation cases, mostly because they became so persona, even if she never did field work for the case. “No. No. Absolutely not. Huang, you know I don’t take those kinds of cases; put me on something else.”

Huang holds out a glowing tablet to her, his grip light. “Take this case, or lose your addict one. It’s your choice.”

Julia’s mouth goes dry; she presses her lips together, releasing her hands from their irontight grip behind her back. She only has one thought: I have to save my brother. Fear, courage, skill… It doesn’t matter. She has to find Charlie. “Fine,” she grunts, snatching the tablet from him to read the first line: Case 854-13V - Child Abduction: Cassandra Marie Paxton-Lang, Age Seven.

This is going to be a long couple of weeks, Julia knows. But at least now she has a true way to find her missing brother. Now, at least, she can breathe easy.

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 7:49 AM

Hope arrives at the hospital the following morning, nearly frantic with worry. Maggie relayed the past twenty-four hours to her in voicemails, but she didn’t get any of her calls until that morning. “I was asleep,” she explains. “I leave my phone off, I’m so sorry…” How odd. Hope feels gentler now, less fire-and-brimstone, softened by the blow of Cassie’s kidnapping in strange contrast to her usual hard self. The shield Hope constructs around herself constantly is gone. “And Cassie…”

“Where’s Scott?” Maggie snaps, startling Hope out of her dazed, depressive state. “Is he coming?”

Already vulnerable, Hope’s guilt spills across her face like red paint on a white wall, flooding her skin. “I… I didn’t know… I…”

“What?” Hope (she curses herself for her weakness) is frustratingly inept right now, wringing her hands. “What happened? Where is he?”

Hope glances at Jim, helpless. “I’m sorry.”

Jim shifts uncomfortably in his chair. “Hope, please,” he says calmly. “Tell us what you know.”

Hope’s frantic hand movements slow, and finally she confesses. “I haven’t seen Scott in three days,” she begins, her voice weakened by guilt. “We had this big fight, and, um—sh*t, sorry-” She rubs at her watery eyes, trying her best not to break down in front of the couple. “He… He left to go stay with Luis, just for a few days, and he stop—stopped answering my phone calls, but I thought he—that he was just ignoring me, but when y- you called, I-I, sorry, I—” Hope is fully crying now, tears taking turns treading down both cheeks, her face thrumming with anguish, but strangely, she’s pretending that she isn’t, turning and brushing away each tear with a messy swipe of her hand. “I went to go—to go check on him, ‘cause he wouldn’t answer even when I mentioned Ca-Cassie, and I called Luis whe-when he wouldn’t open the door, and” —Hope clenches her hands into tight fists— “he told me he-he hadn’t been at his apartment in a while, that he was out staying with some family, and so I broke in, and it was—” She gulps. “I-it was a wreck, there was blood on the kitchen table, and Scott was-he was gone. Someone took him.”

Maggie slumps back in her hospital bed; Hope winces, letting the blow of her words echo in the sterilized air.

“I already—I told the police,” Hope continues, quieter. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 10:20 AM

It’s too quiet in his cell; Scott’s never done well with silence. He’s the kind of person who will cram his brain with loud music whenever he’s alone, stammer about the newest Game of Thrones episode whenever there’s an awkward gap in conversation. It’s part of why being under house arrest was so difficult for him. His mind starts to make up noises to fill the silence: faint screams, violent hisses, and frantic whispers. At first, he thinks he’s going crazy, but soon he realizes that most of the sounds are coming from the mostly unconscious teenager in the chair only a few feet away from him.

Guilt pangs in Scott’s chest, bouncing off of his ribs. The kid’s moving his head now, mumbling incoherently; a string of saliva slides down his chin, and all of a sudden, his eyes go comically wide before he blinks lethargically, lids closing over bloodshot eyes. His face goes through several expressions—confusion, irritation, panic, pain, determination, anger, frustration, back to panic—before falling slack again, succumbing to whatever drug sloshes through his veins.

Scott gulps down his guilt; it’s his fault this kid is in this mess in the first place, but he had no choice. They would have tortured Cassie again, and he can’t… Memories claw at the surface of his brain, of screams that set his blood on fire and pain that rocks his entire body.

He can’t do that again.

Mason sits in the corner, nodding off, a McDonald’s burger in one hand and his hammer in the other. Whenever his head dips too low, heavy with sleep, he jerks awake again, glares cautiously at Scott, and takes another bite of his burger.

It’s confusing how human Mason is. Scott would have expected a blockbuster villain with a hockey mask and a pair of red eyes to be his torturer, not this six-foot-one man with a hooked nose who eats McDonald’s, chews his nails ragged, and flinches wildly whenever Charlie enters the room. He’s a brute, for sure, but he’s not sad*stic or psychopathic. He’s just scared. Strangely enough, Scott sees familiar terror reflected in his enemy’s eyes; Mason’s just as chillingly afraid of Charlie as Scott is.

So when Charlie shoves the door open and gargles an order at Mason, Scott doesn’t miss the way the smaller man scrambles to his feet with trembling knees. “Charlie—he’s been working hard this whole time, I swear, I made sure he was going fast as he—”

“Fine,” he snaps back, shoving the man aside. His voice is tighter now, agitated, thrumming with dark determination. “Lang?”

As Charlie’s eyes settle on him, near-hysterical alarm nails between his ribs. “I—well, um, after shutting his AI down, I got a—um, connection, to all the electronic devices in—um, in Stark’s lab, but I can’t get—um, override the computer screens without disabling all, um, all the computer’s functions—but I can override the TV, but it won’t have audio…”

Charlie gives him a sour look.

“...b-but with the equipment, um, that we have, we could just use the audio from the phone,” Scott finishes. “We could hook up the microphone? Th-then we could, uh, he could hear everything in the room?”

“How long?”

Scott scrapes his mind for a number, anything he can give to Charlie to tame the beast for a few seconds. He’s really high now, his pupils gaping with whatever drug he’s on, so every movement he makes is on the offense. “An hour, maybe less.”

“Fine. An hour, or your kid—”

“No, no, no—an hour, that’s all I need, I swear.”

Charlie scowls, turns on his heel, and leaves the room.

Scott’s chest tightens.

He gets to work.

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 11:11 AM

Tony is an hour into a deep hack of FRIDAY’s software when everything goes black. “What the hell ?” He backtracks for something he could have done to interfere with the electrical wiring of the lab, but he wasn’t anywhere near that part of FRIDAY’s systems. What the f*ck just happened?

His computers are dizzyingly quiet. No lights, no tech… Even the quiet hum of air conditioning is gone. DUM-E and U are both eerily still, not even a beep or a whir to reassure Tony that they’re still awake. Tony’s never experienced silence quite this loud; the absence of his machines, the beating heart of his lab, is surreal. He spams the on-off button on every piece of tech in the room: his computers, his television, the coffee machine… He taps the screen of his StarkPhone, confused at its obstinate inactivity. Nothing but darkness, silence, and Tony slamming his fingers against unresponsive keys until—

—the grating purr of static from the television in the corner of the room, buzzing incessantly; as the only noise in the entire lab, it’s impossible to miss, so as soon as it turns on, Tony scrambles over to it, searching for an explanation to the sudden shutdown in the most technologically advanced hub in New York, probably in the United States.

Before Tony’s eyes, the tangled black and white dots blink (once, twice) before the screen whites out completely and the audio cuts out. “The hell…” Tony mutters, trying to adjust the channel setting on the TV. The lights begin to flicker on, blinking erratically for a minute before returning to normal, followed by the air conditioning, the computer systems, and the rest of the electricity. A surge of euphoria rushes through him. “Thank God!” FRIDAY isn’t back yet, still dead to Tony’s commands, but at least he has his tech back.

The phone’s loud beeping interrupts his thoughts, but Tony ignores it and goes back to work. He doesn’t really care who’s calling him—he’s tending to FRIDAY right now, and no one actually calls his lab except for Happy, occasionally, and other workers in Stark Industries. They can wait. Everyone in his family (Pepper, Peter, Rhodey, Happy, etc) know to call him on his cell phone for any real emergencies.

As Tony forages through his computer’s history to discover what caused the blackout glitch, the phone beside him chimes again, bleating maddeningly. “FRIDAY, mute—” He stops. f*ck, right, FRIDAY’s gone radio-silent. He groans and rubs his fingers against his aching temples. How the hell did this happen?

Fed up, he picks up the phone at last. It’s probably just Happy, calling to check on him. “Tony’s Pizza,” he grumbles. “May I take your f*cking order?”

A male voice on the other end. “Stark.”

“Yeah, I know” —Tony types furiously into his computer— “the blackout wasn’t ideal, and FRIDAY’s having a little trouble, but we’re doing our best, she just needs some time to—”

“Stark.” Again, this time louder.

Tony’s barely listening. “—rest; I found something that could lead us to whatever knocked her out—”

“Stark.”

“What?” Tony snaps. It suddenly dawns on him that the man on the other line calls him Stark. Not Tony, not Tones, not Mr. Stark, not sir. Not even boss, like FRIDAY would. “Who the hell is this?”

A snort, halfway between a laugh and a sneeze. “I’m Charlie,” he announces. “And before you ask, no, I don’t work for you.”

Dread coils in Tony’s gut. Everything is off : the man’s voice is too slippery, his words too careful. “Then get off the line, moron. I don’t know how you got access to this number, but it’s not—”

“I called you a week ago, motherf*cker.” A turgid chuckle. “Don’t you remember me?”

It all dawns on Tony at once. He does recognize this guy’s voice, from a strange call he got late one night while working in his lab.

Tony doesn’t usually listen to the extravagant rants of his late-night fans, especially ones that sound stoned up to their necks, but only two seconds after introducing himself over the phone, he says something that made Tony freeze. “Do you know anything about the organization called HYDRA?”

Tony pauses, his thumb inches away from the END CALL button. His thoughts skid to a blurry halt. HYDRA. “What?”

“HYDRA,” repeats the man on the other end. Tony can’t remember what his name is; he’s too busy reeling in shock. How does this stoned Tony Stark fan know anything about the über-secret paramilitary terrorist group that has been wreaking havoc on the Avengers’ lives for years? “I mean, sh*t, you’re Iron Man. I think you know what I’m sayin’, don’t you?”

“Sure,” Tony responds. He’s pacing now, wearing holes into the floor of his lab. “Let’s say I know about HYDRA. What’s it to you?”

Tony can almost hear the smile in the man’s voice. “HYDRA was a cult,” he explains, “but they were f*cking brilliant, too. They used some kind of energy source—like yours, your arc tech, right? Called it the Tesseract. Back in their prime years, they had these weapons…” A contented sigh. “f*ck, they were incredible, Stark. Could f*cking disintegrate a person from inside out; hit them anywhere, and they’d be gone. Poof. Not even ashes to bury.”

Tony’s concerned confusion warps into something deeper. He’s careful with his next words. “Yeah, okay. Pretty dangerous stuff. I think I can speak for the rest of humanity when I say that I’m glad they were destroyed when the star-spangled man in tights took them down in—”

“That kind of power is… is… unheard of. Forget bullets. Forget firearms. Those weapons would trump any gun today, Stark. The person who had that kind of weapon would rule the f*cking world.”

“Yeah, if you’re Hitler,” Tony snaps. “Look, man, here in America, we don’t put people in power just because they have the most firepower; you can’t—”

“Will you help me?”

Tony stops pacing. DUM-E whirs in confusion at his sudden halt in movement. “What?”

The man continues, undeterred by the tones of astonishment in Tony’s voice. “Stark tech, I mean, it’s the best.” His words are starting to slur, stringing together. “Arc reactor tech is so close to the energy source that HYDRA used. I know all about it. About you. If you made that weapon, the one they had back then, you could control the world. You’d only have to fire it once, really, for the whole world to know how f*cking powerful you are. Just imagine, Stark. The world at your fingertips.”

“That’s called terrorism, bud,” Tony intruded. “You know, you should probably see someone about that. Fear tactics? Not good. Hope you’re not into politics. The general population doesn’t take well to violence as a campaign strategy—”

“Don’t play dumb!” snaps the other man, fury rattling the phone. “I know you understand me! We could bring peace to the whole f*cking planet!”

Tony doesn’t usually have people scream at him over the phone—that’s a job reserved solely for Pepper, if anyone at all, so listening to this man screech about HYDRA to him on a Thursday night is such a foreign concept. “Okay, don’t get your panties in a bunch—”

“You remember what your father used to say, don’t you?”

At the words ‘your father,’ something in Tony’s brain flips on, an old, rusty light; he goes quiet, rendered speechless.

“‘Peace,” echoes the man, “means having a bigger stick than the other guy.’”

Those are Howard Stark’s words, alright. Those are the words that Tony used to justify every weapons deal he ever made. Years of violence and not caring who bled in his wake, all backed by those f*cking words. “No,” Tony says quietly, “it doesn’t.”

“Aw, don’t tell me you’re one of those f*cking hippies, sticking flowers in guns or whatever the f*ck they do—you’re Iron Man! You build weapons for a living!”

Built,” corrects Tony, with an icy tone to his voice. “Now, I build shields.”

“So you won’t help me?” Now, his voice is desperate, hung on Tony’s next words.

“No!” Tony frowns. “Like I said, your violence slash world domination tactic? Not really my style. That means get lost, creep.”

He hangs up before the guy on the other line can say anything else.

“...you’re that psycho?” Tony says, waiting for the grating voice on the other end to confirm his assumption.

“I’m not crazy!” he snarls back, outraged. “My idea is brilliant. Just because you can’t see it…” An irritated sigh. “It doesn’t matter. Because now you’re going to help me.”

Help you?” Tony laughs. “Buddy, I’m about half a second away from calling the authorities on your ass.”

A chuckle reverberates from the other end of the phone; that’s not the response Tony was expecting. “I wouldn’t if I were you, Stark. Turn around.”

It’s then that Tony realizes he can no longer see the eerie glow of a white screen on the wall in front of him. Every hair on his body stands on end; he spins around quickly, launching the Iron Man gauntlet attached to his wristwatch, but instead of an attacker, he finds—

—the television screen behind him: a silent, high-definition image of a small gray room, mostly empty. In the center is a chair with its back to him, where a dark-haired person sits, their entire body obscured by the chair.

Tony hates the way his skin crawls; it’s like all his nerve endings are on fire. Who the hell is in that chair? The camera moves with a jerk, transferred by someone’s shaky grip around the whole chair until it settles in front of it—

All the blood drains out of Tony’s face.

Peter.

Seeing him is like blade punched deep in his gut—it’s not possible, it’s not f*cking possible— but there he is, Tony’s invincible Spider-Kid, chained to a f*cking chair in some kind of f*cking torture room. Other than the bruise swelling on the side of his face and the blood staining his knuckles, Peter seems fine, but he’s in danger. Tony’s grip clenches like iron around the phone. Peter’s still wearing the clothes he wore when he left Tony’s lab last night. How… How is this even possible? Peter went home, he thinks. Aunt May was supposed to take him to get Thai food at this nice new restaurant. Peter wouldn’t shut up about it the whole afternoon. There’s no way… He can’t even think—

That slimy asshole on the other end of the phone is still talking. “...refused to help,” he’s saying, pride twisting into his words, “so I had to take some extreme measures.”

Rage flares in Tony’s chest, pulsing with each quickening heartbeat. “He’s not—”

“And before you go claiming you don’t know him,” continues Charlie, “I’ll just give a quick recap of what we found in your files on him.” Ever-darkening horror sinks into him, puncturing his skin. He only holds Peter’s files on his most secure server—FRIDAY’s server. This psychotic stoner couldn’t have— “Peter Benjamin Parker, sixteen-year-old kid at Midtown High, from Queens, does decathlon and… what’s that? Loves mint chocolate chip ice cream? You really are thorough with this sh*t.” He chuckles. “How am I doing so far, Tony ?”

“f*ck you—”

“His parents—deceased. Moved in with his lovely aunt, May Parker and his uncle, but he died, too. Jesus, this kid’s got worse luck than me! And here we have an entire list of documented injuries—we’ll save that for later—ooh, finally, the belle of the ball” —fear rattles Tony’s rib cage— “you tell everyone he’s your intern, but he’s Spider-Man, isn’t that right?”

Every alert in Tony’s brain screeches wildly. He knows. He starts to protest, but Charlie cuts him off.

“Deny it,” he growls, “and your precious Peter Parker will pay, you understand me? I know your kind; you rich f*cks think you can just sh*t all over us, but not this time. I’ve got him, and I know what he means to you. He comes over to your place all the time, doesn’t he? I’m surprised you haven’t gotten out any adoption papers.”

Fury he never thought he had unfurls inside of his chest, bursting through his mouth. “f*ck you,” Tony snarls, “that’s my—”

That’s when Charlie whips around and slaps Peter across the face so hard that his head whips to the side; Tony recognizes with a painful jolt how f*cking unresponsive he is. A hit like that… It’s not something you can sleep through. His eyes are half-open, drugged slits that barely widen at the blow; his head rolls on his neck, slack, and sweat pours over his skin. The camera is horrifically high-tech, Peter’s suffering defined so well that it almost feels like he’s watching a new episode of How To Get Away With Murder instead of a livestream of the kid’s torture. The only sign of true consciousness comes from Peter’s fingers, which twitch as if in protest, strangled by pain. It’s such a blatant contradiction of the hyperactive, fast-talking, high-spirited kid he knows so well, and it chills him to the bone.

“The great Tony Stark,” snickers another voice through the phone, and as Tony’s senses return to him, he realizes he can hear faint groans on the other end of the line. “Speechless.”

That’s Peter, moaning in pain, barely clinging to consciousness. That’s Peter, the wonderful sixteen-year-old who helps little old ladies carry their groceries, even when he’s not Spider-Man. That’s Peter, who can barely make it through a sentence without making a Star Wars reference. “What the hell did you do to him?” Tony snaps.

“He’s some freak, that kid,” declares Charlie. “It took like six f*cking doses of sedatives just to get him on the ground, and we still had to knock him out after, and that stuff’s supposed to knock the f*cking Winter Soldier on his ass—”

And that’s why Peter looks like he’s overdosed on sleeping pills. “He’s just a kid!” growls Tony, protective rage flurrying through his brain. My kid, he forgets to say. He’s my kid.

“A kid?” interrupts another, a twitchy, scruffy man with his arm in a black sling. “That kid nearly took my f*cking arm off!”

“He’s sixteen —”

On screen, the man named Charlie responds, poking a metal object into Peter’s bruised cheek. “I don’t f*cking care how old he is! I don’t care if he’s in f*cking kindergarten! That—that freak took down five of my best guys with a broken arm and a truckload of the Winter Soldier’s sedatives in him.”

Blood trickles down Peter’s cheek, and Tony watches Peter stir, his limbs twisting weakly against the cuffs. “Jesus—just don’t hurt him, please… Listen, I don’t know what you want, but you can have it, okay? Just leave him alone.” Under different circ*mstances, Tony and Peter would be able to fight their way out of this one, one clad in red-and-gold, the other in red-and-blue, but not right now. His first priority is to get Peter the hell out of there. “I’m the one you want, right? To make your world-peace gun? Let him go, and take me.” His breath is caught in his lungs, sticking like peanut butter inside of him as he awaits Charlie’s answer. “Take me,” he repeats.

Charlie laughs a little bit—a wet, violent sound—and Tony’s hope fizzles out. “Don’t I wish, Stark. But unfortunately, you’ve got as much security as the f*cking president, and people tend to notice when the most famous billionaire in the US goes missing. Even your little miss Potts is untouchable. Your place is a f*cking fortress.” He shrugs. “So we took the next best thing. Your Spider-Kid. That’s what you call him, right?”

Reality screeches in Tony’s ears—no, no, no! He only calls him that when they’re in private, how… Sickening understanding—FRIDAY’s unusual shutdown, the exposure of his files… That was no coincidence. That was him. This… This is all Charlie.

“Your precious little freak,” Charlie continues, ignorant to Tony’s realization. He shoves the point of the object (a knife, Tony sees with an electrifying wave of fear) through the flesh of Peter’s cheek—a garbled moan of pain clashes with Tony’s stammered “n-no!”

Charlie smiles at the camera, one fist in Peter’s hair, pulling Peter’s head back against the headrest, the other pushing the knife deeper. “This is your life now, Stark,” he declares, his forehead shining with sweat and pride. “You’re gonna make my f*cking weapon, and I’m gonna take this freak apart piece by piece. Every day until you finish.”

Then he slides out the knife, eliciting another groan of protest from semi-conscious Peter, and flips it down, stabbing it directly into the kid’s broken left forearm with a horrific crunch as metal meets bone.

Peter’s scream makes every bone on Tony’s body light on fire—he can’t breathe, he can’t think, his knees wobble—Charlie’s twisting the knife—anger bursts into panic, bubbling over in his aching chest— “Stop, stop it! I’ll do it— I’ll do it, I’ll make your f*cking weapon!”

A victorious grin. Charlie’s hand stops, pulling the knife out, and a woman beside him presses a bandage to the bleeding wound as Peter whimpers. “I thought you might.”

Tony wants to rip his face apart with his bare hands; helpless, he watches his hijacked television screen as Peter chokes on the pain of his new wound.

Instead, he thinks of how he can get Peter home safely—his mind flits through all of his technological expertise, hacks, anything. He has to get Peter out of that hellhole— now.

Charlie’s talking more, rambling about some “rules” he made up for Tony. “...and remember, we’re watching you, Stark. We got access to all your pretty little computers, all your cameras, all your robots, all your fancy tech. We can see all of it. Break one of my rules, and your kid pays the price.” He lets go of Peter’s hair, letting his chin drop to his chest, pulling out a crumpled piece of paper from the pocket of his jeans and squinting at it. “One, don’t leave your lab. We’ll supply you with any science sh*t you need, and food and sh*t. Two, don’t talk to anybody—text, email, call, whatever. No f*cking cops. If someone gets suspicious, you tell us, but don’t talk to them. I don’t need you spillin’ your guts about the whole operation, got it? Don’t try to get out of this, I f*cking swear. A word of this gets out and your precious kid loses his hands, got it? Three, treat me with some f*cking respect.” He crouches by Peter’s bloody hand and yanks the knife out. “Four, work as fast as you can. Five, don’t try to find us. If you do, you’ll pay, you’ll f*cking pay, I swear. Six, don’t be f*cking suspicious. Someone comes to ask what you’re doing, tell ‘em to go f*ck themselves. Say you’re working on the next best thing. Say anything you want—just don’t be f*cking suspicious.” His teeth glint on the screen. “And seven—any time you break my rules” —he waves the bloody knife at the camera— “I break Parker. Understand, Stark?”

Tony gulps, swallowing the lump of terror in his throat. It takes everything in him not to scream at this psycho, but he’s got Peter. He’d only be making it worse. “Understood,” he grunts through gritted teeth.

Then the line clicks off, and Tony’s left in unnatural silence. I am Iron Man, he thinks, and then he says it out loud. “I am Iron Man,” he repeats. Better yet, he is Tony Stark. Genius. Inventor. Hacker. Scientist. Charlie and his gang of misfit toys have no idea what they’re getting themselves into.

No one messes with Tony Stark.

No one messes with Tony Stark’s kid.

Without a moment to waste, Tony Stark gets to work.

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 11:48 AM

As soon as Charlie finally hung up on Tony Stark, the other people in the room—Charlie’s wife, Renee, and Mason, follow their leader out of the room, and then it hits barely twenty seconds later—virulent tracking software coming from Tony Stark’s computer, hidden beneath layers of weapons research files, software actively seeking their current location.

On the computer screen before him, Tony’s infectious software spreads, attacking the careful code Scott had written only hours prior; panic surges in his chest, thumping frantically. If he leaves Tony to his own devices, allowing him to hack into the HYDRA laptop and access their location, then he has a chance at saving himself and his daughter. And that kid in the StarWars hoodie. Peter. He could save him, too.

But if they find out… Scott shoves his fear down and cracks a smile instead. As the screen flickers to black, Scott pictures Cassie’s smiling face. He presses the spacebar repeatedly, trying to turn the screen back on, but instead words type across the screen: ACCESS GRANTED. TRANSFERRING LOCATION. Below it, a loading screen takes over the rest of the screen, creeping at a snail’s pace from 1% to 2% and on.

This is it, Scott thinks. Tony Stark is going to save him. They’ll take him out on a stretcher, probably, something softer than this hard-ass chair, and as the Avengers beat up the rest of Charlie’s guys (hopefully with Captain America leading the charge), he’ll get to see Cassie again. To hold her again. To—

The computer lets out an alarming mreeeeep that slices through the silence of the Room like a hot knife, and Scott’s handcuffed hands scutter, terrified, to the computer keys; make it stop, make it stop! Jesus, when they hear it, Scott will be in for it, they’d break every bone in his f*cking body unless he finds a way to stop the noise

Off, off, off! Scott spams the mute button—then the power button—and every trick in the f*cking book, all while watching the loading climb to 33%, 34%, 35%—

Pounding footsteps down the hall, all coming towards him. A guttural roar. “Lang!

No, no, no—Scott has to let it load completely, or Tony will never be able to find them. With his bound hands, he yanks the computer away from the wall—what is he thinking ? He can’t hide the screeching computer from them.

But he can try to delay them as late as possible. 40%. 41%. 42%. He slaps the laptop closed and starts to count again in his head. 43%. 44%.

He stuffs the computer under his chair, then struggles to stand on his wounded legs—

—pain spears through his legs, crackling like lightning in his smashed kneecaps, splitting through every nerve, every fiber—

—but Scott slumps back into the chair, panting. Nope. He can’t. He can’t get on one leg, let alone stand and fight back. 49%. 50%. 51%.

He’s never been much for combat, anyway. He’s more of a talk now, fight later kind of guy—that’s what hackers are, anyway. Just computer geeks with a backbone and a big mouth.

But now, he summons the dregs of courage settled at the bottom of his heart, sets his cuffed wrists on top of the computer, and puts on his ‘I’m-innocent’ face. 56%. 57%. 58%.

When Charlie slams the door open, his face straight out of the psychopathy chapter of a psychology textbook, Scott grins. “Hey, fellas! Wondering how long it would take you—this computer keeps acting up! You should’ve given me better tech, I’m telling you, in this world, it’s Microsoft or die! You know, I met Bill Gates once, he’s nice, a little weird, but once you get to know him—”

“I leave you alone for five f*cking seconds —” A fist, then a blinding pain cracking through his chest. The force of the blow sends Scott tumbling out of the chair and sprawled across the cold floor. 72%. 73%. 74%.

“Hm, linoleum,” croaks Scott, running his hands across the floor. A little blood dribbles out of his mouth, and he glances—f*ck, they found it—as Charlie’s gang of followers open up the laptop. “Nice touch, you got a background in interior design? My bathroom’s got linoleum, but it’s blue, not gray—”

A boot slams into his already-broken knee, and Scott screams, a wave of agony crushing him and ripping his breath away. He’s left gasping face-down on the linoleum—f*cking linoleum —choking on his pain, but instead of begging for mercy he just keeps talking — “I was gonna...paint it orange, but Hope...said it was f*cking ugly...no floor of hers...gonna be orange, but— f*ck!

Another boot hammers into his ribs, and more follow, and Scott’s still talking, rambling until his voice is a dry croak; there’s blood spilling from his legs again— “Don’t touch his hands— leave his f*cking hands, Mason!” —but the whole time he’s still counting. 86%. 87%. 88%.

It’s only when a shattered mass of glass and plastic and metal drops in front of his face when Scott realizes his stupid plan to get out of here was never going to work. “A f*cking tracker, Lang? Did you honestly think…”

Another boot. Another fist. So many blows that Scott loses count. And eventually, after pain that threatens to tear him apart at the seams, the bliss of unconsciousness…

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 12:02 PM

Tony nearly jumps out of his own skin when the phone rings again. The tracker he set on whatever infected his computer systems faltered at 79% before blinking out completely.

Now, he’s staring at the computer screen, typing faster than his heart can race—he’s already setting up another location tracking virus, trying to—

Another briiiiing from the phone beside him. What. The. Actual. f*ck. He ignores the call; he doesn’t care who it is. Nothing else matters right now except getting Peter the f*ck out of there. He tries not to think about it ( a garbled moan of pain—a horrific crunch as metal meets bone ), and hacks as quickly as he can. He knows it’s Charlie, calling with another demand, he won’t pick up. He just has to finish transferring...this one...virus… He glances up at the TV, instinctively, just to make sure Peter’s still—

—and f*ck, Charlie’s beating Peter bloody, his fist pulls back to reveal the kid’s swollen face—bright red stains his front, splitting across his face, flooding from his nose—but he’s awake now, and that’s what makes it so f*cking horrible—his kid is screaming please, no, stop, and Tony doesn’t have to hear the words to know what he’s saying—

—Tony doesn’t realize he’s moved across the room to the TV until he feels his fists against the heat of the screen, banging uselessly against the glass— “Peter —no, f*cking—no, stop, please —” He’s spamming the redial button on his phone—he knows the number, they won’t pick up— “Pick up the phone, you f*ckING COWARDS!” He’s gone from disbelief to helplessness to fury, and now all he can feel is explosive, red-hot fear bursting through his veins. “No, no, Peter—Peter—you motherf*cking sad*st, leave him alone—hey! No, f*ck, you have me, stop, stop, STOP!!

Charlie doesn’t pick up the phone until five minutes later, when Peter is whimpering and coughing and bleeding everywhere. He’s f*cking shaking.

Those are the longest f*cking five minutes of Tony’s entire life. He’s on his knees now, palm pressed against the TV screen, wishing he was there to hold his kid, to protect him, to comfort him...

Finally, Charlie speaks. “Rule number five, Stark. What was it?”

“I’m sorry,” gasps Tony, and his grip on the phone is airtight. “I—I won’t do it again, please—”

“Did you think I was just f*cking around, Stark?” His voice slides down, a broken whistle. “You’re not hacking your way out of this one—not without watching me blow Peter Parker’s brains out.” The man on the other side of Peter pulls out his weapon, a large pistol, and slams the muzzle against Peter’s bloody head; through the phone, Tony hears him cry out through his swollen mouth in shock. A “no” dies in Tony’s throat.

His left arm’s tingling, going strangely numb, and everything starts to spin. This isn’t like combat or a roomful of reporters—this is like seeing Rhodey drop from the sky like a stone—this is like watching Pepper fall into the flames. This is fear, defenseless, its matted wings clipped by the image of Peter strapped to a chair on the screen before him.

Tony can’t breathe.

On the other end of the line, Charlie growls, “I told you not to try any of this hero business, Stark.”

The man beside Peter slams his fist against Peter’s swollen wrist. Peter gurgles in pain.

Panic spears through him; Tony gasps out, “Please.”

Charlie ignores him. “Get started on my weapon, Stark. Or it’s Parker’s head on a platter.”

Through the phone, Peter makes this sound, so weak and pained that Tony’s legs buckle beneath him.

Charlie’s voice. “You’re my bitch now, Stark.” A chuckle. “Don’t forget it.”

Click.

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 1:03 PM

“Head of Security at Stark Industries,” Happy grumbles, “and you still want me to go bring him his meals?”

Pepper’s voice warns, “Happy.”

“I’m not a delivery boy, Pepper. I’ve got better things to do. FRIDAY’s shutdown’s leaving us pretty vulnerable, you know. We’ve gotta do everything manually now, gotta keep this place running—”

Pepper pushes the box into his hands. “Get someone else to take over.”

“Pepper—”

“You’re the only one he’ll listen to,” she tells him, firm. “If it was me, he’d pretend to be okay to give me peace of mind.”

Happy grunts, “Fine. But next time, I’m making one of the interns do it.”

It smells delicious.

It’s a fifteen-minute walk to Tony’s lab, and by the time he’s halfway there, Happy can’t help himself. He cracks open the box.

Good God.

It’s a brunch fit for a king (or Tony Stark, that is) of pancakes, bacon, sausage, eggs, and fruit. Pepper knows Tony always gets freaked when his AIs cut out.

Happy is a quick learner. The first thing he learned in this job was don’t stop Tony Stark from working. Even Pepper doesn’t generally stop him. She complains a little, here and there, and does her best to keep him healthy while he spirals through his work.

Happy plucks a piece of bacon from the box and scarfs it down. Tony won’t know the difference.

He closes the box.

Maybe one more… He opens it again.

By the time he’s knocking on the door to Tony’s lab, the box is free of its bacon, as well as two pieces of cantaloupe. “Tony!” He bangs his large fist against the door again. “Tony, open up!”

Silence.

Happy rolls his eyes. He’s probably blasting AC/DC right now, so loud that he can’t hear his knocking. “Tony! I brought your lunch!”

It takes a few minutes, but finally Tony responds, talking through the audio system installed in the door. “I’m fine,” snaps the voice on the other end. He sounds strained, like a balloon one breath away from bursting.

It’s what Happy expected, honestly. We’ll be fine, assured Happy once, when JARVIS died on a Saturday afternoon. I’m sure he’ll be up and running in no ti—

Fine? gasped Tony, in a voice that sounded far too emotionally attached to a bundle of computer code. Do I look f*cking fine to you? I’m not safe! I’m not—I can’t—we’re not safe!

When JARVIS’ voice finally responded in the main building two days later, Happy and Pepper went to check on him and found him working like a maniac, wearing his clothing from two days prior, sleeves stained with coffee, eyes bloodshot.

Tony Stark is not easily shaken. But attacking his sense of security is like attacking his family.

“I don’t believe you!” Happy shouts back at him. “Remember last time?”

A growl of irritation through the speaker.

“Just take the food, Tony.”

He can hear shuffling on the other side of the door. A few beats pass, and then— “Get out of here, Happy. Now.”

FRIDAY’s shutdown must be causing him true panic, because Happy can hear it in his voice. Tony’s scared. “You’ve gotta eat sometime—”

“Get out! Now! Get out, get out! I’m working! Get the f*ck out of here!”

Happy frowns.

If Tony Stark won’t eat, he can’t force the food down the man’s throat. Tony can make his own decisions. He’s got a fridge in there, anyway. He could survive a whole month in there if he wanted to, although it’d be on meals of protein bars and frozen pizza.

Happy sighs and walks away, opening up the box.

Those pancakes look goddamn delicious.

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 2:25 PM

Julia enters the interrogation room with darkened hope clouding her thoughts. Their little girl was abducted yesterday, her lieutenant told her. If you help them find their girl, then you can continue with your drug addict case. There are three family members inside; she has their names written on the little girl’s case folder. The child, Cassandra Marie Paxton-Lang, was taken yesterday from her mother and stepfather, Margaret and James Paxton, after their home was attacked by several armed figures. The biological father, Scott Lang, a prominent figure in her life, has been missing for three days according to his girlfriend, a woman named Hope van Dyne. The local police are already following the trail, but they hadn’t found anything other than half a license plate number, and therefore handed all jurisdiction to Julia and her team of officers.

Julia clears her throat and pushes the door open with her hip. The mother, Margaret Paxton, rises immediately, sending her chair screeching backwards, and glares viciously at Julia; her arm is wrapped in a thick cast, and there are stitches lining a shaved section of her hairline. The stepfather tugs at her uninjured arm with a calming whisper, but she doesn’t move.

Julia is a little unnerved by the woman’s still ferocity, but it’s nothing she hasn’t seen before. Parents who have lost their children… They’re mad with desperation, so blinded by loss that they can barely think, let alone communicate logically to the police officer interrogating them. “You must be the Paxtons,” she announces, pulling up a chair. “I’m Officer Julia Paz, I—”

“They told us we were getting Officer Keene,” snapped the mother, her face hard.

Julia smiles at the couple, trying not to let her anxiety show through her teeth. “I got remarried, Mrs. Paxton. On some of the old forms, they—”

“Fine,” she snarls; like a lioness, fury glints off her teeth. “I don’t care what your name is. Just tell me how you’re gonna find my daughter.”

They’re knee-deep in dead ends and loose strings and still they’ve got nothing. “I need you to think, Ms. Van Dyne. Does your boyfriend have any enemies? Anyone he was fighting with? A stalker, maybe?”

Van Dyne bites her lip. “Not really. I mean, he was in prison for a little while, but there was no one—no, no, he doesn’t really make enemies.”

“He was in prison?”

“Yeah, but…” Scratching her head, she continues. “Look, the people we’ve had, um, arguments, with… They’re resolved. But Scott did use to, um, steal things. If there’s anyone he’d have a problem with, I guess that’d be a start.”

Julia stops typing. “Anyone else you all can think of? Anyone who could know something about this?”

Maggie and Jim rattle off a few family members and a couple of Scott’s friends, and Julia writes them all down.

After gaining as much information as she can, she dismisses the family. As she leaves, the mother grabs her by the arm. “Mrs. Paxton—” Julia starts.

“Do you have kids, Officer?” asks the woman, abrupt. Her haunted eyes watch her face.

“Two,” she admits.

Maggie tilts her chin up and Julia sees herself mirrored in this mother’s eyes. “All I have is Cassie—she’s my whole world, you understand?” Her eyes glaze over as her voice shakes, and her husband tugs at her arm. “Understand?

“I understand, Mrs. Pa—”

“She’s all I have!” Now Maggie sobs into her hands, and her husband steers her towards the door.

When he looks back at Julia, she realizes his face matches his wife’s. He looks...broken, somehow, a cracked window. “Find her,” he begs. “Please.”

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 3:09 PM — DAY 1

There’s a small voice in the back of his head, prying at his blender of a brain. Mister… Mister… Are you…

His skin feels like ice, numb to the touch, and his muscles are jelly, and worst of all, there’s pain drumming through his body—a tender knot at the back of his skull, combat bruises peppering his torso, discomfort zigzagging between his ribs, a swollen, throbbing wrist, a sensitive bruise on his face, and a horrible spike of pain rendering his left hand useless. He tries to move, but his battered body won’t allow it, especially not while under the influence of this foreign drug.

The tinny voice beside him grows more frantic, breaking into confused sobs. A kid’s sobs.

Peter forces his eyes open, blinking to clear the haze of pain from his brain. There’s a little girl in front of him with a smear of blood on her cheek; she looks Asian, maybe half-Japanese or half-Korean, with long, dark hair. She’s wearing pink pants speckled with shooting stars, a purple shirt with “Sparkle Like A Unicorn” printed across the front of it in glitter. Over it, she wears a sparkly blue hoodie with a pair of belugas swimming across the back, although there’s blood spotting all the way down her sleeves. She’s got one hand clenched on the hem of her T-shirt while the other pokes his uninjured cheek, and she’s saying something. “...hey, Mister, wake up, wake—whoa!”

Peter pushes himself up with a groan, and she stumbles backward in surprise. She’s scared ; not the kind of scared that Ned’s baby sister Daisy shows when her mom scolds her, but the kind of scared that douses your mind in gasoline, the kind where any spark will send flames of panic burning through your veins. The little girl is pale, trembling like a leaf, and watching him with wide, cautious eyes. “H-hey,” he says, trying to move his numb tongue, “I’m Peter. What’s your name?”

“Cassie,” she says carefully. She watches as Peter shifts, propping himself against the wall, his good arm curled around his torso. Finally, he takes in his surroundings; the room’s miniscule, probably not meant for two people. It’s about fifteen feet one way and ten feet the other way. There’s a toilet and a sink crammed in the left corner, furthest from the door, and a ratty bed (with a mattress to match) in the other corner, just a few feet away from the door. Peter’s currently sitting right next to the bed, and he grabs onto the metal railing with his right hand, trying to steady himself. He’d hoped for some metal screws or exposed wires he could use to break them out of here, but so far all he sees are smooth, blank walls, save a lone, fluorescent light in a cage on the ceiling streaming uneven light across the entire room. The door’s similar—dull, even metal, not even a handle on the inside. There’s no window, only a tiny slot for food.

“Cassie,” Peter repeats, giving her a pained smile. “That’s a” —he winces— “a pretty name.”

Cassie’s gaze flickers down to his hand. “You’re bleeding,” she comments, trying to sound brave, “a lot.”

Peter glances down at his hand. It’s not spraying blood, which is good, and he’s happy to feel the familiar tingle of his super-healing at work, but there’s a terrifying amount of red oozing into a puddle on the ground beside him—no wonder the kid is scared. “Oh,” he says simply. “Don’t worry.” He wills his hands to stick (almost an unconscious thought at this point), and feels a familiar, adhesive substance coat his palm and fingers; he spreads the sticky liquid over the open wound, letting it seep in from both sides, and the flow of blood slows from dangerous to annoying. Then he grabs a section of his T-shirt and (he wishes May could be here to see him tear his favorite shirt, she’d be horrified) tears a section from the bottom, which is, surprisingly, harder than it looks. He winds the makeshift bandage around his palm, knotting it with his teeth. “See?”

Cassie nods, wary.

Reexamining the bloody spots on Cassie’s jacket, Peter points a shaky finger in her direction. “Did they hurt you, too?”

The dark-haired girl flinches, pain flashing across her face; regret drips down Peter’s throat. She nods again. “Daddy’s gonna come get me,” she whispers. “He’s gonna save me.”

Peter’s spent enough time with Ned’s sister, Daisy, to know not to correct kids when they think their parents are coming. Besides, he’s not asking for a meltdown—he just wants to make sure this little girl isn’t going to bleed out any time soon. She’s about as thin as a paper clip, so Peter’s guessing any loss of blood will leave her dizzy and upset. “Okay, okay,” he agrees. “How about you come over here? I’ll fix up your cuts like I did mine. You can tell me about your dad.”

She shuffles over slowly. “Are you a doctor?”

Peter smiles. “No, kiddo. Just a guy with magic hands. I’m like, uh, Harry Houdini!” He waves his right hand for dramatic effect.

“Are you gonna hurt me?” she says, even quieter.

Awful, sinking revulsion crawls into his stomach and squirms. He knew it before, but now it’s real. Someone hurt this little kid—she’s probably six or seven years old, barely bigger than Daisy, and someone cut open her arms and left her to bleed. “No,” he says firmly, meeting her eyes. “I’m just gonna stop the bleeding.” He tries to hold back his tears, but he’s always been an easy crier. Ned knows—Peter sobbed through The Fault In Our Stars and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and any other movie where someone died; whenever May cries, he always finds himself crying, too. It isn’t a great move for a high school student still trying to make his way through a thousand and one social bubbles, but nonetheless, his vision still blurs when Cassie approaches him, arm held out with the rest of her body curled up like a tight rubber band, her eyes squeezed shut. “It’s okay…” he says. “Cassie. Look at me.” She’s still tense, like he’s about to slap her or punch her or cut her arm open again. “I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m one of the good guys, okay?”

Cassie presses her back against the wall beside him. She is so, so confused–it’s written all over her face. “They hurt you,” she whispers.

Peter smiles emptily. “Yeah.”

She frowns. “Did you do something bad?”

Peter is still, and he takes a moment to just feel, feel the level of pain he is in. “No,” he tells her. “I didn’t.” Pain flares in his arm.

“Then why did they hurt you?” She backs away a little, sliding a few inches away from him. “Are you bad?”

“No.” Peter wants to go to sleep and never wake up, but instead he forces his eyes to the little girl’s. Spider-Man would comfort her, tell that they’ll defeat the bad guys and get out of here, but instead he lets out a strained sigh. “I don’t know why, they just…” He can barely remember the torture: hints of familiar voices, aching pain, cold metal, I’ll do it–I’ll do it, I’ll make your f*cking weapon— He shivers. “Some people just like hurting other people.”

Cassie is quiet for a moment. The drip, drip, drip of the faucet echoes rhythmically from the other side of the room. “Do you?”

“Nah,” says Peter, trying to sound nonchalant as pain suddenly erupts in his arm. “I told you, I’m one of the good guys, kid.”

“Promise?”

A tiny, bloodspattered hand appears before him, clear in the pain clouding Peter’s brain, one pinky up.

Peter hooks his pinky finger in hers. “Pinky promise,” he swears.

For the first time since he met her, little Cassie smiles.

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 5:14 PM

Only one of the little girls’ neighbors actually saw anything. She goes with her partner, Officer Jimmy Woo; he’s a bit too friendly for a police officer, but he’s growing on her. He somehow starts a whole conversation with the witness about dog breeds, and she swears she wants to knock him onto the floor. “Did you see any distinguishing features of the culprits?” she asks, cutting Woo off as he goes into a rant about labradoodles. “Any tattoos, any facial hair, anything?”

The woman shakes her head. “Only the woman—the one with red hair. That’s all I remember.”

“Any names? Can you remember anything that they said?”

Her face scrunches in thought. “No… I’m sorry, it all happened so fast … Just yelling, that’s it.”

Julia shakes her down for as much information as she can, but once they’re done, she knows they’ve hit a wall. It’s been almost 36 hours since Cassie Paxton-Lang was abducted, and all they have is three letters of a license plate, a hair color, and a vehicle type. It’s not nearly enough. But her sergeant didn’t just give her the case because they were understaffed; he did it, she knows, because Julia is damn good at her job.

“Check the ex-husband’s burglary victims,” she orders Woo, remembering what Cassie’s family said. Right now, they had nothing to help them find this little girl, and with every minute that passed, the chances of finding her alive grew slimmer. “Let’s find ourselves a lead.”

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 6:51 PM

It’s time.

They’ve set seven o’clock as the official time to call Stark, every day, so now it’s time to take that Spidey-kid out of his cell.

He sends his two biggest guys to take him, and he stands outside and watches as they do it.

The girl starts screaming as soon as they open the door. And the boy, still heavily drugged with the sh*t they gave him, jumps to his feet, swaying dangerously, and falls back down.

His men, Matt and Nick, enter the room; the girl’s screams collapse into pitiful sobs. “Hey—hold on, fellas,” starts Parker, scooting back against the bed, holding his broken wrist to his chest. “Ask me on a date first—”

Nick grabs his ankle and pulls him, hard, across the cement floor, and when the kid’s head meets concrete he hisses in pain, but he twists his leg from Nick’s grip and thrashes wildly.

This is taking too long. “Get the f*cking kid!” he growls.

Matt gets a few good hits in; the kid’s too drugged to truly fight back, But clearly the drugs didn’t touch his brain, because he slaps both hands down on the floor and tenses up.

Nick yanks hard at the kid’s legs. He doesn’t budge.

“The hell?” Matt growls.

Nick pulls again, harder. Nothing.

The Spider-Kid stuck his f*cking hands to the floor.

Charlie can feel rage seep into his brain, and all at once his vision goes red. “Get off the f*cking floor, Parker!”

Parker doesn’t move. If anything, he clings harder to the concrete.

Charlie steps into that f*cking tiny room and sticks his gun into the back of Parker’s neck. “Get off,” he hisses, “the floor. Or Stark’s gonna know just what spider brains look like.”

“You won’t,” the teen answers slowly, “because you need me.”

Charlie wants to smash this kid into the f*cking ground and rips his face off with his teeth. Instead, he grabs his head and slams his face into the ground. “Get up!”

Lang’s girl screams from the corner, and Peter startles.

Charlie grins. He’s a f*cking genius.

He grabs Peter by the hair. “Get up,” he repeats, “or I’ll make that little girl bleed again.”

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 7:06 PM — DAY 1

Peter’s furious with himself, tugging at his bound arms in a frenzy. He forgot about little Cassie for two f*cking seconds, and then they got the upper hand. If he’d remembered that it wasn’t only him, then they could’ve been both free by now.

The drug’s still coursing through him, dizzyingly cold, but its effect has waned. Why can’t he break out of these restraints? Rope and steel can’t hold him, so what is—

Oh.

Vibranium.

It smells like vibranium. He couldn’t break out of this chair even if he was at his full strength.

Peter’s heart rate picks up. Who are these people? This chair is made of vibranium, and the cell he was in reeks of it, too. The people he faces are usually desperate, like muggers and addicts and thieves, or structured, like villains and psychopaths. These people are a strange mix of the two.

He winces. The pain comes and goes in waves, aching from head to toe. “...please, please don’t make me do this—he’s just a kid—he’s not—”

A slap. “You’ve done it before, Lang. Come on. Call him.”

Peter’s not stupid. Once the guy in charge—Charlie—started talking, he figured it out pretty quickly. They’d kidnapped him to blackmail Mr. Stark into making a weapon for them.

He laughs, as much as one can with a swollen, bloody face. Didn’t they know who Mr. Stark was? Mr. Stark had been blackmailed more times than Peter could count, and they’d never worked—

“Something funny, freak?” the man, Charlie, asked.

Peter shrugged; pain spiked down his arm, and he immediately regretted it. “Eh, nothing. Just… Your socks are untied.”

Charlie grabs his poorly bandaged arm and squeezes, hard, digging his thumb into the wound. Peter chokes on the sudden pain. “I get enough talk out of Lang—I don’t need any from you.”

Peter’s about to make a sharp comeback when he spots the man in the corner, huddled behind a computer, blood staining his chin and the front of his shirt. He’s typing rapidly, looking up every once in a while to glance at Charlie.

f*ck.

He looks like he’s been ripped apart at the seams. His face is blackened with bruises, his eyes bloodshot, his mouth thick and swollen. And his legs… Nausea writhes in Peter’s gut.

Peter shuts up.

“Good boy,” sneers Charlie, and then he kicks at the other man’s chair. The man jerks back, his handcuffs jingling. “Lang?”

“Yeah—um, yes. It’s ringing.”

Peter recognizes that voice. It’s… sh*t, why couldn’t he remember?

Charlie shifts his feet beside him. “Lights, camera, action,” he says, in a loud whisper. “Mason, you have my tools?”

“Yeah.” Someone pushes a metal cart forward, and its wheels screech over the ground.

Peter hears that oh-so-familiar sound of a phone picking up, and his stomach drops. “I’m not done yet,” says the voice on the other line. “I need more time…”

It’s Mr. Stark’s voice.

He sounds freaked.

“Mr. Stark?” calls out Peter. “Can you hear me?”

Charlie slaps his hand over his mouth, a warning.

Peter stops moving.

Mr. Stark’s voice goes from weary to intensely concerned. He’s never heard him like this, not even when Peter woke up in the medbay after taking a bullet to the chest. “Pete? You okay, kid? I’m gonna fix this, I f*cking swear, don’t—”

“Now’s not the time for chit-chat,” snaps Charlie. “You got my weapon, Stark?”

Mr. Stark’s grainy voice on the other end. “No, I haven’t got the—I’ve barely got blueprints! I don’t just sh*t technology, you f*cker, that’s not how it— don’t f*cking touch him!


Beside him, Charlie’s shaking in frustration, holding something cold and metallic against his neck; Peter can practically hear his teeth grinding together. “What’s rule number three, Stark?” growls the man.

As Charlie removes his hand from Peter’s mouth, Mr. Stark continues, “I don’t know, I don’t know—”

A click, and something hisses beside his ear. Something hot. Peter suddenly grows wildly tense. “Don’t worry, Mr. Stark,” he babbles, cutting off Charlie as he talks again. His body trembles. “I’ll be fine—everything’s gonna be okay—I’ll get out of here, you know I can do it, I’ll get everyone out of here, I can do it, don’t worry, you don’t have to—”

The man on the other side grabs his head and pins it to one side of the chair; Peter lets out a cry of surprise and then keeps on talking, because if he doesn’t stop talking then he’s gonna think about how loud Mr. Stark is screaming into the phone and how much sweat is coming down the side of his face and how much it’s gonna f*cking hurt— “I’ve got it, don’t worry about me, I’m okay, don’t worry—”

The heat singes his ear and the side of his head lights up in splitting agony.

Somewhere beneath the mountains and valleys of Peter’s own screams, he can hear Mr. Stark’s sobs.

When the pain finally wanes and his sticky hands unclench from the vibranium armrests, he realizes something.

He’s never heard Mr. Stark cry before.

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 10:29 PM

Charlie’s coming down from a high when the phone finally rings.

He picks up after the second ring. “Yeah?”

A low voice. “Did you get them?”

“Yep.”

“All three?”

“Yeah, yeah, I told you we got ‘em. Antman, the girl, and Spider-Man. We already called Stark—he’s pissing himself silly trying to make my weapon.”

Our weapon, Keene. Don’t forget who’s funding your little project here.”

“Yeah, sorry, boss.”

“I need you to keep this under control. If” —the man’s voice drops to a threatening whisper— “Stark breathes one word to Potts or anyone else, then the whole operation falls apart. We can’t let that happen. If he talks to anyone…”

“I’ll rip that kid apart.”

A pleased hum. “Right. I’ll check in again in a couple of days. And Keene?”

“Yeah, Secretary Ross?”

“Don’t f*ck this up.”

Chapter 3: welcome to my cage

Summary:

To Tony, it’s only been minutes. Time’s blurry now, jumping between seeing Peter’s bloodstained face and his plans for the HYDRA weapon. He can’t tell how much time has passed; he feels like he’s back in that f*cking cave, where every second was a year and another pained heartbeat through a car battery. And Pepper’s mad this time. She yells at him through the door, telling him he’s being childish and immature and he wishes he could scream back. But he can’t. Not with Peter’s life on the line.

Notes:

title from the song 'bottom of the deep blue sea' by missio

CW: violence, blood, torture, injury, drug use, intimate partner violence.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 7:58 PM

Tony’s on the floor when Peter’s blood-curdling screams finally stop.

“Stark,” states the voice on the other line.

Tony fumbles for the phone and grips it with white-knuckled hands. “Listen to me,” he says through gritted teeth. On screen, sweat pours down Peter’s face; he’s barely conscious now, eyelids fluttering, his left ear a raw mess of burned flesh. Sickening dread fills Tony to the brim. “I’m working as fast as I can. Just… Don’t hurt him. I’ll do it without you tortu—”

The bearded man onscreen raises a hand to stop him from talking. “I know the way this sh*t works, Stark. I’m not stupid. Parker’s your motivation. The faster you get my weapon done, the less sh*t that freak has to go through.”

“Please, you don’t have to—”

Charlie shoves the blowtorch closer to Peter’s head and his kid writhes in his metal restraints, his breathing quickening as he tries to get away from the threatening heat. “You’re so used to getting what you want, aren’t you?”

Tony doesn’t say a word; his whole body’s frozen, hoping that if he does nothing then Charlie won’t hurt Peter.

Through the TV, Charlie points the blowtorch at Tony, waving at the camera. “Well, this time, I’m in charge. None of your gadgets or your fancy suits or your money will save you now.” He scoffs. “You can’t even be trusted to stop fighting back when Spider-Baby’s life is on the line.”

Tony gulps.

“Starting now, my guys will watch your every f*cking move, through all those cameras and microphones and computers that you thought kept you so safe. And we’re shutting down the Internet, too. If you call anyone, we’ll know. If you text anyone, we’ll know. If you touch one of your precious suits, we’ll know. And any move you make” —the flame grazes Peter’s cheek— “means this kid hurts.”

It hits Tony like a freight train.

Whoever hacked FRIDAY knew what they were doing—they can easily view any video footage, any audio, any technological move that Tony could possibly make. That’s how they saw his virus coming. The hacker’s at Tony’s level.

Which means Tony is completely, utterly f*cked.

“If I hear an Avenger knocking at my door,” threatens Charlie, “then I’ll slit his throat, understand? If you slip through the cracks with your Stark tech sh*t and try to save him, he’ll be dead before you can say ‘Iron Man.’”

Tony can’t fix this. For the first time in a long time, he’s completely helpless.

He feels like he’s back in Afghanistan, pain zinging through his chest, thirst raking his tongue, fear flooding his blood. He has no other option than to help them.

“Here’s how it’s gonna work, Stark,” continues the man, as the others undo Peter’s restraints. “You’re gonna give us a list” —Peter slumps forward onto two men, fighting weakly as they drag him away— “of all the sh*t you need to build my gun. One of my crew will come by once a week to give you supplies. You’re gonna make it, and you’re gonna send it back with my guy. If it works like the HYDRA sh*t used to, I’ll let Parker go. If it doesn’t…” He shrugs. “You remember what I said. Every day, your spider bleeds, understand?”

This stoner’s got Tony Stark backed into a corner.

“Understand me, Stark?”

He nods. The TV displays only an empty room now, humming lightly.

“This is my time,” rambles Charlie, and he slings an arm around the red-haired woman’s waist, “to do something that matters. To change the world for the better. This is what my life is for—to make the world a better place, and you’re not gonna f*ck it up, Stark. You should be thanking me.”

Tony bites his tongue, and the line cuts out.

Scared is an understatement. Tony is horrified .

He can’t tell anyone what’s going on, can’t leave the lab, can’t do anything but work his ass off.

His computer screen says it’s 8:12 PM. Twenty-eight minutes until Pepper comes back home.

She’s gonna know.

As soon as she sees his face, she’ll know something is wrong; now, they know each other better than anyone else on the planet. He has to do something; if Pepper comes and finds him like this, they’ll murder Peter.

Tony presses his hands against his head and pushes hard, like ideas will come springing from his brain.

If anything more happens to Peter...

He has to do something.

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 8:40 PM

Pepper is exhausted. As Stark Industries’ CEO, she’s got a lot of weight on her shoulders, and after a long couple days in San Francisco, she’s ready to come home.

As she drives into the facility, she passes Tony’s lab. Something’s off about it; from far away, it looks strange, like a different color. As she nears the lab, she realizes with a sharp intake of breath what it is. Tony’s lab is on lockdown .

It’s only for emergencies , Tony told her when he created it. I promise.

What kind of emergency , she inquired, would warrant you locking yourself inside of your lab like a prison?

Tony blew air through his teeth. I’m making one for every building here, babe. It’s just… Just in case. If something happens to me, I can’t let it happen to you, too.

Tony…

Just trust me, he said. We’ll probably never have to use it. It’s just in case.

Pepper pulls to a stop a few feet away from the lab and slams the car door as she gets out. “Tony!” Lockdown is for emergencies only , not for whatever this is. “Tony, come out of there!” She bangs on the door with her fist. There are vibranium-lined sheets locked over every window, vibranium bolts securing every door. No one can get in or out, not even her. “Tony!” She hits the doorbell, too, over and over again. “Tony, come on!”

No response.

She yanks on the door handle. Locked, as expected. She did not want to come home to this; she wanted to crawl onto the couch with her fiancé and watch Netflix. “Tony!” She slaps her palm onto the metal sheeting. Still, no response. She keeps yelling his name and waiting for a response, but he doesn’t say a word.

She takes a breath. He clearly doesn’t want to answer her, so she tries another method. “Honey, I get that you’re scared after what happened to FRIDAY, but we’ll fix her, I’m sure. We’re not defenseless, Tony.”

Still, he says nothing.

She takes another breath, holds out, and lets it out. Tony’s not an incredibly complicated person, so it’s not difficult to figure this one out. He must be scared . If she gives him some time, perhaps this will all blow over. “We’ll talk later, okay? Just…” She touches the door handle. “Don’t sleep there, Tony. And eat something, would you? Happy told me you wouldn’t eat what you gave him, so… You can’t survive off of protein bars and coffee.” He used to do that when he worked through the night, and he hadn’t done it in months. But here they were, back where they started. “It’s not healthy.”

Nothing.

Pepper sighs. She’ll talk to him again later, after she kicks off her tight heels.

Everything will be better soon.

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 9:13 PM

Charlie feels like he’s flying above the clouds.

One of his crew, a young junkie named Ava, comes up to him while he’s so far gone he can barely feel his feet. “I was reviewing the footage from earlier today, and he… He talked to someone.

The words sound like they’re coming through water. “He what?”

“He talked to some guy through the door—for less than a minute, really, while I was up to piss and Scott was watching—and the guy walked away.”

Charlie’s eye twitches. “What did they talk about?”

“Nothing important.” She wrings her hands. “He was too scared to say anything to him, just told him to leave.”

Charlie clenches his jaw.

“Look, I’m just letting you know in case he tries anything but—Jesus, Charlie, give them a break.”

“A break ?” he scoffs. “They’re stabbing me in the f*cking back, Ava! I’m gonna save the world and they think they can sabotage me? They can’t get away with this without ANY f*ckING PUNISHMENT!” Even after Charlie warned Stark not to f*ck with his rules, after he told him over and over again not to do it… And Lang, too. He tried to hide it from them. He should be grateful, honestly, that they hadn’t killed him yet. Was smashing his legs not good enough? Slicing open that kid? How much pain did Lang want for his kid? And Stark for his?

Why couldn’t they all see he was going to SAVE THE f*ckING PLANET?

He storms out of the room, and Ava follows, stammering, “Charlie—Charlie, they’ve been through enough, please—”

He spins around and slaps her; the girl falls. His hand stings. “Renee!” he calls out, and his wife pokes her head out of one of the doorways. “Get the kids. We’ve got another phone call to make.”

He punishes Lang first. The man screams himself raw as Mason breaks the girl’s fingers one by one. “Cassie!” he screeches, like it’s his last word. “ Cassie, CASSIE!”

Afterward, Renee slings the wailing girl over her shoulder and returns her to the cell. Two more drag in that Spider-Kid; the injured boy lands an elbow to one captor’s gut before they lock him into the vibranium restraining chair. Mason picks up the syringe of sedative, filling it with a full dose, but Charlie pushes him back. “No sedative,” he snaps. “Stark gets to know just how much pain he puts this kid in.”

He calls Tony Stark, but he doesn’t even give him a second to explain himself. He’s in control now. The power pumps through his veins like cocaine, rippling over him. “Rule #1, Stark,” he snarls, toying with Mason’s favored hammer. “Don’t talk to anyone.”

Then he swings the hammer back and smashes it into Parker’s right knee.

The boy’s scream lights the room on fire.

Charlie smiles.

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 10:01 PM

The house feels empty.

Cassie’s room feels like a death trap.

Yet still, Maggie manages to step inside. Jim follows her. What are they supposed to do now? How is she supposed to live without… without… without her little girl?

Jim puts his hand on her back, and she pushes his hand away. “Jim—” she sobs, unable to describe the pain she feels from the absence of her baby. “How—”

Jim falls against the wall, running one hand over his face. He’s crying, too. “I have to check—I’m gonna find her—I have to—” He rubbed at his eyes. “I’ve gotta find her, Maggie—I will.

Maggie doesn’t answer him, just braces herself against the wall outside of Cassie’s bedroom and waits for him to go. Her world is cold, numbness seeping into all of her cracks, and not even Jim can help her. She can still see her little girl, can still feel the rush of overwhelming anguish as those men pointed at her baby, shouting, there’s the kid, grab her

She falls to her knees.

Maggie doesn’t sleep, and neither does Jim.

Jim stays at the kitchen table, checking every police scanner and every traffic camera, hoping to find something.

Maggie is in Cassie’s room, sitting on her daughter’s bed, when Jim comes back upstairs. The question ( find anything? ) lingers between them.

Jim shakes his head and doesn’t say anything.

They sit for a while. There’s nothing to say, really. When Maggie finally breaks the silence, her voice is hoarse from crying. “Scott wouldn’t do this, would he?”

Jim stares at her. She’s a little out of it, watching the window like Cassie will come home any minute. “Take Cassie?”

She nods.

He lingers in the doorway. Maggie’s got both hands on Cassie’s favorite stuffed animal, stroking it absently. “No, he… He’s done some bad, but he’s never hurt anybody, and he loves Cassie more than life. He’d never do anything to hurt her.”

Hesitant, Maggie nods.

“I don’t know what happened—or why—but if they’re together, I know that he’s keeping our Cassie safe.” He blinks back tears. “The police are gonna find them, I know they will.” He swallows. “Cassie’s gonna be okay. I… I’ll keep looking.”

She nods again, mute.

“I’ll find her. I promise.”

SATURDAY, APRIL 7 — 10:40 PM — DAY 1

There’s no clock in here.

That’s the first thing he notices—there’s no clock. He doesn’t know what time it is. There aren’t any windows, either, so he can’t tell if it’s nighttime or daytime or how long he’s been out.

Cassie’s sitting in front of the door, wide awake, running the little fingers of her left hand along the edge of it like it’ll open.

His healing factor hasn’t kicked in as much as he would like. It’s probably because he hasn’t eaten since he arrived—his sky-high metabolism means he should eat four times a day at the bare minimum, and he’s starving. His knee… A wave of nausea rushes over him as he remembers the pain. It’s not like he’s never experienced painful things before—he’s had probably a dozen broken bones from being Spider-Man alone—but he was always taken by surprise. It never hurts as much when your body is pumping with terror and your ears are ringing with Tony Stark’s sobs.

But this… This is different. He’s never been tortured before. He doesn’t have his mask, which usually gives him a sense of security; without it, he feels completely vulnerable. Without it, he’s just Peter Parker. When he’s dragged into that room , he has to sit there, locked into that cold chair, listening to Tony scream for them not to hurt him, squirming away from their weapon of choice.

It f*cking hurts.

His knee is on fire, flames tearing up and down his right leg, so much that the pain climbs up into his chest. And the rest of his body still aches, every movement made difficult by half-healed injuries. His broken arm is healed now, thank God, and the puncture in his palm has closed up. His broken nose has healed up, as have some of his bruises, but they’re covered by fresh ones made by his captor’s fists. His clothes are hardened with dried blood, but he doesn’t have enough strength to make it to the sink to wash it out. Besides, it’s freezing in this small cell, and running water over the only clothing he has will only make him colder.

Cassie’s cold, too. She’s shaking like a rag doll, now holding her broken fingers to her chest and crying quietly.

This is bad, Peter thinks. Really bad. He’s kept up his hope so far, but it diminishes with every minute that passes. How is he supposed to escape this place? He’s injured beyond belief, Mr. Stark is stuck between a rock and a hard place, no one knows he’s here, and his only allies are a seven-year-old girl and her battered father. His captor— Charlie , he thinks blearily—is in complete control.

Cassie whimpers again, and Peter turns his attention to her. He can remember hearing them torture her, twisting his head to try to see her, her wild screaming, her cries for her dad, and her wounded father’s subsequent pleads. He sits up, and his head whines in protest, pain splintering over the burns on the left side of his head. Everything is lopsided; he tries to ignore it. “Hey, Cassie…” he says, and little girl jumps, surprised.

She bursts into tears, scampers over to him, and throws her arms around his neck. With his good arm, he hugs her and rubs her back, repeating, “I know, I know…” Because he does know. He knows exactly what it’s like to be in pain when there’s no one there to comfort him. No Karen to tell him he’s not fatally injured, no Ned to make a dumb Harry Potter reference, no May to kiss his forehead, no Mr. Stark to smile at him in the medbay and assure him that everything’s gonna be okay. Peter’s throat goes dry. Mr. Stark…

“Never,” says Mr. Stark, rushing in and hugging him so suddenly that Peter it takes him a second to realize what’s happening, “do that to me ever again. Got it, kid?” Peter mumbles a “yes” into his shoulder. “You gave me a heart attack!”

Peter laughs, then immediately regrets it as the bandaged wound in his gut sends waves of discomfort through him. “Sorry, sir.”

“Don’t tell me you’re sorry!” he responds, backing away now and giving him the stern I’m-Tony-Stark-so-don’t-f*ck-with-me look. “Tell my blood pressure sorry! You call me to tell me you’ve been shot and you go unconscious halfway through? Peter!”

He winces. “Uhhh…”

“I’m old! My heart can’t take it!” He clutches at his chest with one hand, mimicking a heart attack. “Good God, Pete! Give a man some warning next time!”

“I’m sorry!” Peter protests lightly. “I thought the only guns he had were the ones he was holding, and I didn’t have time to pat him down, and when I was getting the victims out, I thought my Spidey Sense was telling me someone was injured ‘cause this girl got shot pretty bad—”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Mr. Stark grumbles. “Spider-Man had to save the day, didn’t he?”

Peter shrugs, grinning now.

The older man groans into his hands. “I really want to be mad at you right now, Pete, but you did stop what could’ve been a mass shooting.”

“Is everyone okay?”

Tony gives him this odd look, half-smiling. “You can’t be serious.”

“What?”

“You got shot three times, Pete! One went right through your left lung! And you’re worried about the other people?”

He shrugs again. “Are they?”

“Yes, Pete, they’re all fine. The two who got shot are in recovery, and they’re gonna be okay.”

“And the shooter?”

Mr. Stark makes that face again, and this time Peter recognizes what it is. Pride. A surge of warmth goes through him. “You can’t be serious.” Peter raises his eyebrows, and Tony caves, rolling his eyes. “He’s fine. Since you webbed him up after you got shot, the police didn’t see him as a threat once they got there and didn’t shoot.”

Peter slumps in relief, almost like the pain in his chest lessened. Everyone’s okay. “Awesome. Awesome.”

Mr. Stark smiles at him. “You are unbelievable, kid.”

He shrugs. “I try, Mr. Stark.”

Everything’s gonna be okay,” he assures her. “Let’s see if we can fix up your fingers, okay?”

She nods into his neck.

“You wanna give me your hand?”

She scoots back a little and extends her hand to him, a little shaky. It doesn’t look good; blood spots over her hand where the hammer cut her skin open, and each finger has been fractured so much that there’s no bone to even set.

Peter swallows. She’s still looking at him like he’s a doctor or Mr. Stark or her father, but he doesn’t want her to. There’s nothing he can do to help her. Pain flares through his knee, and spots dance over his vision as he holds back a groan of pain. He can’t let her know how much pain he’s in. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if she gives up, so he has to come up with something . He takes her hand by the wrist, wills some stickiness into his fingertips and dabs carefully over the bloody spots. Think, Peter, f*cking think. What can you do for her? He can’t make a splint—he doesn’t have anything sturdy enough for that. How can he protect her fingers? Ned was always telling him about dumb stuff like that because he watched Survivor like he needed it to stay alive. After a lengthy scream or two, Ned would probably tell him to make the best of the situation. Figure out how to keep her hand stable until a medical professional gets there.

Peter racks his brains for medical sh*t, but it’s not like there was an AP Emergency First Aid class. God, now he wished there was. “Keep it stable,” he mutters to himself, and Cassie sniffles.

“What?” she asks.

Peter tries to give her a reassuring smile, but it must look more like a pained grimace because Cassie closes her eyes. “Just gotta keep it stable, that’s all,” he assures her. “You’ll be okay.”

“Are you gonna chop it?” she says.

Peter startles. “Wh-what?”

She scrunches up her face at her fingers, ready to cry again. “I saw a man with no leg and Mommy said sometimes doctors chop people’s legs off when they get hurt really bad so it doesn’t hurt anymore, and this hurts a lot .” Tears well up in her eyes. “Are you?”

Peter smiles, this time for real, and he puts his other hand over her broken hand so she can’t see it. She looks up. “‘Course not. I’d never do that. Pinky swear.” He mock-taps his pinky to her broken one, careful not to touch it. “Can you move them?” He wiggles his own.

She shakes her head and sniffles again. “No. Hurts.”

“Can you move your wrist?”

He rotates his and she copies him. Thank God. Right now he’s not sure if he can save her fingers from permanent damage, and if it was her wrist, too… “That’s good, kiddo.” God, he’s starting to sound like Mr. Stark. He turns her hand over and looks at it again. He doesn’t want her using the muscles there, even by accident, because it would cause her so much pain. The only thing he can think of, honestly…. “Do you think you could make a fist?”

She shakes her head again, clearly more agitated. “No, no…”

“Okay, that’s fine, don’t worry…”

“Please don’t” —a loud sniff— “chop it, I want it, I want it…”

Peter gnaws on his lip. It’s lined with dried blood, so it tastes a little salty, but he can’t remember ever being hit. The drug still swirls around in his head and his gut, making everything nauseatingly blurry, but he focuses on Cassie. She’s the one who matters, and there’s only one thing that he can think to do right now. “I think… We’re gonna do something a little different, Cassie.”

She blinks away tears. “What?”

She won’t look at him.

Peter told her that it would hurt a little bit, but he knows she wasn’t at all prepared for the pain, not after all the torture she’d suffered in the past couple days. As quickly as possible, he straightened out her fingers. It was worse, in that moment, because the reason she screamed was him. He’d done it to protect her, to make sure she escaped here with her hand intact and to stop them from messing with her fingers again, but she didn’t see it that way.

She thought he hurt her on purpose.

He’s wrapping her fingers now with one long strip of cloth he tore off his T-shirt. “By the end of the week,” he jokes, mostly to himself, “we’ll have to go shopping for a new one.”

Cassie yelps as Peter finishes wrapping. He then pushes her arm to her chest, looping the cloth around her neck once and zipping up her hoodie around it. ”We’re not,” she says, “gonna be out in a week, right?”

She’s a smart kid, so Peter thinks about his answer before responding. “I’ve got a plan,” he says finally, “to get us out of here, but I don’t know how long it will take.”

She makes a small hmph and cradles her broken hand. “Is it gonna work?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“Daddy would come up with a plan,” she says simply, staring down at the floor. “Something better than yours.”

Mr. Stark would’ve come up with a plan by now, Peter bets. Something epic, with FRIDAY and Rhodey and Captain America, maybe, and soon they’d all be free.

Right?

“Do you think they have his suit?” Cassie whispers, finally looking up at him.

“His—what?” Peter asks.

“If he has his suit then he can get out, maybe if we—if we—” She scrunches up her face. “We can steal it back! Back from the bad guys! And then he can get small and come get us out! He can! He can!”

Peter blinks. His head is still bursting with pain, but he tries to wrap his mind around what she’s saying. “Get small?” he echoes. “Cassie, that’s—” He blinks again, trying to clear his drug-muddled head. He examines her face, harder this time, and the puzzle pieces drift together. “Is your dad… a superhero, too?”

She nods, but she’s sad now, tears glistening in her eyes. “He’s Ant-Man but he doesn’t have his suit so he can’t save me but maybe they have it and if we went to get it—”

She keeps talking, but Peter’s head is in another place.

Charlie kidnapped two superheroes, not just Peter, and is locking the other away inside of his own lab. Three superheroes in total.

That freak... said Charlie, but when he remembers it the words are all slurred into pieces, took...broken arm...truckload...Winter Soldier...sedatives… There’s a red star on their door, too, just like the one on Mr. Barnes’ arm.

Spider-Man. Iron Man. Ant-Man. Winter Soldier.

When he became Spider-Man, he thought he’d be facing robbers and rapists and muggers and the occasional drunk asshole, not...this. This isn’t something he can escape easily—the smashed leg, the restraints of the Winter Soldier, the drugs that bleed his mind dry of substantial thought, the torture that strips him to pieces every night…

He might not be able to Spider-Man his way out of this one.

He needs to talk to Mr. Stark.

SUNDAY, APRIL 8 — 2:36 AM

Pepper’s back.

Right now she’s complaining that he shouldn’t sleep there, but he can barely hear her. Something’s happening to him, something that seizes his arc reactor and jerks it around inside his chest. He can’t f*cking breathe, not when Peter’s out there, being f*cking tortured

“Tony, just talk to me! I know you’re there!”

He doesn’t say anything.

“Fine.” Through the audio, he hears some shuffling. “I’m going to bed.”

A pregnant pause, like she wants to say something else. But no words come through the speaker, and he watches her walk away on the video screen next to him.

It hurts so f*cking much. Pepper means everything to him.

“I understand,” she says finally, “that you’re scared about what happened to FRIDAY. Just don’t… don’t sleep there, okay? It’s not healthy, honey.” She sighs. “I love you.”

Tony covers his mouth with his hand, crying quietly into his palm. I love you, too.

Tony doesn’t sleep.

He couldn’t possibly sleep.

He works harder than he’s ever worked in his life. The framework of the gun isn’t difficult; he spent years of his life building weapons, after all. But it’s the technology that is stopping him from finishing so soon. The power source for HYDRA’s weaponry, Tony knows, was the Tessaract, a magical power source that will be difficult to replicate with technology. Although Charlie was incredibly high when he said it, he wasn’t wrong. Tony’s arc reactor technology had similar chemical signatures.

He doesn’t have most of the parts he needs to create the weapon; what is he supposed to do without it? The framework is plausible, most likely, but without the other parts and the reactor energy combined, he doesn’t know how it will work.

He works frantically, chugging coffee like it’s water, working until his back aches and his hands shake and his computer screen blurs in front of him. He has to save Peter. He has to.

He blinks. There’s an indicator light at the corner of the screen: DOORBELL ACTIVATED. Who would be knocking at this time of night?

Another indicator: DOORBELL ACTIVATED.

It’s Pepper, he knows, because she’s the only one who visits him this late. But how can she be here so soon? He glances at the time.

It’s 8:04 AM. f*ck.

It feels like no time has passed at all since Pepper last visited him. But she’s here now, again. When he approaches the door, a headache pricking through the back of his head, he can hear her knocking on the door.

She’s hurt, he can tell. “Tony, really? I—” A frustrated sigh. “This is immature and—and—I thought we’d gotten past this, you can’t—you can’t just run every time it gets scary, Tony! It’ll be okay, we’ll figure this out, but you have to come out of there.”

“I can’t,” he whispers, without even touching the audio button. She can’t hear what he says unless he presses it, anyway. “I’m sorry, Pep. It’s gonna be a while, I think.”

“I just want you to be safe and healthy, Tony…” she continues. “But I’m going to a meeting now, and when I get back, I hope you’ve come out of there.”

Watching her walk away on the screen in front of him, Tony puts his hand against his chest and presses like he’s doing CPR on himself. This all feels like some kind of sick dream—he wants to wake up, right f*cking now , but when he pinches at the skin of his arm, nothing happens.

He’s f*cking stuck.

He stands up on wobbly legs and heads back to the computer. He has work to do.

SUNDAY, APRIL 8 — 9:57 AM

The shiiink of the opening food slot startles both Cassie and Peter awake.

Sitting up from her spot on the bed, Cassie lights up like a Christmas tree. “Daddy!”

Beside her, Peter jerks awake, throwing his arm out towards the sound. A bad thing , thinks Cassie sharply, watching him scan the room and then hone in on the open slot. He thinks it’s a bad thing.

Instead of Daddy or a bearded man’s fist, two half-crushed Happy Meals squeeze through the opening. Peter slides towards the opening, shoving the boxes out of the way before croaking “Hey!” and sticking his hand out—

Another shiink, and the slot is shut again.

Peter’s hand hits metal instead of open space, and he huffs in frustration. “No funny business,” warns the voice on the other side. “I’m just giving you breakfast.”

“I like to take my vitamins before my breakfast,” says Peter, and Cassie inches towards those red-and-yellow boxes. “Got any medicine?”

A shout from down the hall. The voice says nothing.

“She’s only seven,” Peter says. His voice is higher now. “Her fingers are broken. Please, just some pain meds, or something.”

“No,” says the voice. It’s a girl voice, Cassie determines. “This is all you get.”

“I’ll trade,” assures Peter. “My food for medicine—she’s only seven.

A thick silence. “She’ll live,” declares the voice finally, and a set of footsteps scurry away.

“No!” cries Peter, and he slams his hand against the door before crumpling in pain.

Cassie is now struggling to unwrap a burger with one hand, and she grumbles in frustration. Her broken hand is still zipped into her hoodie, but her other hand still hovers by it, like the closer it is the less it will hurt.

Two hands pry the burger from her hands, unwrap it, and hand it back to her. Peter looks at her with a weird frown-smile. “How much does it hurt? One to ten.”

“Six,” she answers quickly, looking down at her hand through the cloth. Last time with the red-haired lady hurt a lot more. That was a ten for sure.

He winces. “I’m sorry, kiddo.”

She’s still mad about last night, and she frowns. “You promised.”

“Cassie, I didn’t mean—look, I’m sorry.”

She wrinkles her nose. “It doesn’t hurt like last time,” she says. “It’s...better.”

Peter smiles. “That’s good, Cassie.”

She’s glad she has Peter here to tell her everything’s gonna be okay. At least she’s not alone. Being alone… It’s something that’s hard to understand. It would be like timeout, but forever. She takes a bite of her burger and grimaces. It’s gross . “I hate mustard,” she announces, glaring at the deformed sandwich. “Mommy always lets me take it off.” She holds out the burger to him. “Can you ask for another one?”

Peter stares at her, and the expression on her face bothers her so much that she repeats her question. “Sorry, kiddo,” he says, and his voice sounds like the broken mug Jim once dropped on their kitchen floor. “That’s all we’re gonna get, I think.”

She scowls. “But it’s gross, and—and—and I’m hungry!”

“I know,” he says, and he opens the second Happy Meal Box. He’s hurt, Cassie knows, because every time he moves his face tightens up. “But you’ve gotta eat it. That’s all they’re giving us.”

“I don’t want it!” Frustrated tears bubble up in her eyes, and her lower lip trembles. “I hate mustard! I hate it!”

Peter’s eyes whip over to the door. “Cassie,” he says, like he’s her Mommy and she’s in trouble. “Just keep it down, okay? Gimme the burger, I’ll try to get it off—”

“I don’t want it!” Her voice whirlwinds into a screech. “I want another one, I want a—”

“Calm down, Cassie, just calm—”

“I don’t want it, I hate mustard, I won’t eat it—”

Down the hall, a door slams.

Peter’s eyes go wild a second later, and he shuffles towards her in this frantic half-crawl, half-limp. “Get under the bed.”

“But—”

“Under the bed! Now!”

She scrambles under the bed as fast as she can. There’s just enough space for Peter to squeeze under, too, and he grips the railing at the top and presses his feet to the other at the bottom, letting out a pained sound as he does. His arms shake and his eyes squeeze shut, and Cassie crowds herself as far away from him as possible.

Boots storm into the room, slapping against the concrete, and she slaps her hands over her ears. “Is it too much to ask,” snaps a male voice, “for a little peace and quiet ?” The door slams against the wall, and the loud noise makes her yelp in surprise. Peter’s eyes open, and he makes some shushing sounds before the boots reach them.

“We’re safe,” he whispers, and the boots hit.

Cassie knows her daddy gets beat up sometimes. It happens to superheroes when they’re out fighting the bad guys. But she’s never seen it up close. Now, hands scrabble at Peter’s back, trying to pull him out from under the bed, but he holds fast with his magic hands, gasping in pain. His eyes are closed again. “Get—out—Parker!!” The voice whips into an angry snarl, and Cassie starts crying.

“We’re okay,” Peter manages, just as the boots turn into angry hands, and his eyes are closed again. More of the voices are screaming and shouting and kicking at Peter, but he’s right. She’s safe. Under the bed, surrounded by Peter, a thick wall, and the bed’s railings, with the bed bolted to the floor, she was safe. Her back presses against the wall, but she has one hand still curled in the hem of Peter’s hoodie. Peter’s that fourth wall, the one thing standing between her and the angry, screeching boots.

She closes her eyes and pretends it’s over already.

SUNDAY, APRIL 8 - 11:11 AM

Julia puts down the picture of Cassie and pulls up at a picture of her brother instead. She still hasn’t heard from him, and it’s starting to really freak her out. She’s been trying to gather more information about the missing drug addicts, but no one will talk for fear of being arrested themselves. There are five total drug addicts that disappeared around the time her brother did.

By putting a reward out for information, she’s already gotten a couple tips about what might’ve happened to Charlie. “He’s into angel dust now,” claimed one addict. “That sh*t’ll kill you.”

Angel dust . After a search through the police database, she quickly discovered that angel dust was a street term for phencyclidine, a drug she knew nothing about. “You know anything about PCP?” Julia asks Woo, as soon as he enters the station that morning.

“The drug?” he asks, leaning against the nearest table to stare at the wall full of photos and information.

“No, the musical,” she quips. “Yes, the drug.”

Woo scratches his head. “Yeah, I mean—I started out in narcotics, so… I know a lot about it. Why?”

“You know that other case I’m working on?” Julia raps the board in front of her with her pen. He nods. “According to my sources...That’s some of the missing drug addicts were getting into.”

He nods. “It’s pretty addictive—it’s a dissociative drug, makes you numb and out of it at low doses. Can be mixed with weed or tobacco… It’s not too common, honestly, ‘cause people’ve heard too many freaky stories to want to take it. It’s pretty unpredictable, and side effects all depend on how much you take, uh…”

“What about if” —she frowns— “you take it at higher doses?”

He shrugs, helpless. “Not good. Remember that rapper, Big Lurch?”

It sounds familiar, and she nods.

“He’s the one who killed his roommate and” —he scratches at his head again— “ate her?”

She remembers the news story. The Cannibal Rapper: Man Gets Life for Woman’s Murder. The perpetrator been reportedly found naked and covered in blood in the middle of the street; the victim had teeth marks all over her and her lungs torn from her chest. “No,” she says, blinking away her disbelief. “That’s PCP?”

He gives another helpless shrug. “I mean, that was an isolated incident—besides, the only people who act crazy violent on PCP are people on high doses with histories of violence.”

“And without a history of violence?”

“On high doses...there’s a lot of delusions, paranoia, suicidal thinking… If you put them in a calmer setting, they’ll get all spaced out, but any stressors will really make them freak out. I mean, and this still all varies from person to person, how much, how long—do you know, have your suspects been using for a long time?”

“I don’t know,” she answers. “I need more info. But this...this is a start.”

“Glad I could help,” says Woo. “Now, let’s go. We’ve got some more potential witnesses for the Paxton-Lang case.”

She nods. “Got it.” She shrugs on her jacket. “I’ll drive.”

SUNDAY, APRIL 8 — 12:25 PM

Pepper’s back again.

Again, again, again.

To Tony, it’s only been minutes. Time’s blurry now, jumping between seeing Peter’s bloodstained face and his plans for the HYDRA weapon. He can’t tell how much time has passed; he feels like he’s back in that f*cking cave, where every second was a year and another pained heartbeat through a car battery.

She’s mad this time. She yells at him through the door, telling him he’s being childish and immature and he wishes he could scream back.

But he can’t. Not with Peter’s life on the line.

He’ll do whatever it takes to get Peter back home safe, even if it means ignoring the love of his life. As she continues to talk, he sits with his back against the door, and before long he’s crying again, legs slack on the floor, tears streaming down his face. He cries so hard that he can feel it in every part of him, so hard that he thinks he might throw up, so hard that he can feel his body wither with each sob. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t slept all night or because he hasn’t like this in months, but it happens, and all he can see is Peter in that f*cking chair as Pepper yells through the door, and all at once he can’t breathe.

They have his kid.

His throat tightens to a metal straw, and every breath becomes a mountain, avalanches of panic crashing into his lungs and into his arc reactor. His hands shake like crazy, trembling as he tries to calm himself, but nothing is working. He can hear Pepper walk away with another shout. If he looked at the videoscreen beside him, he’d probably find her stabbing her finger in his direction like a knife, but he won’t look. He’s still struggling to breathe, tightness wrapping around his chest. His left arm hurts, and as soon as he can breathe again he struggles to his feet, clutching his arm to his chest. He stumbles over to the TV and touches it, leaving his hand there like he can pat Peter’s shoulder through the screen. It’s warm but dark, void of any life. He can’t help but remember the way Peter thrashed—


They have his f*cking kid .

SUNDAY, APRIL 8 — 2:18 PM

“Luke?”

“No.”

“Han Solo?”

“No.”

“Anakin?”

“No. Ned, it’s like you’re not even trying.”

Ned snorts. “Well, sorry! Tell me which one you are then.”

MJ looks up from her drawing to give him a half-annoyed look. “Darth Maul.”

“Darth—are you serious?”

She keeps sketching. “Yup.”

“But you’re not—MJ, that’s like—in what universe are you Darth Maul?”

“This one.”

Ned flips down on the floor and groans. “If Peter was here he would agree with me!” He shakes his fist at the ceiling. “PETER!!!” A pencil smacks him on the side of the head. “Hey!”

MJ smirks. “Quit being such a loud dumbass, or my parents will make us go to the library or something.”

“I can’t help being a dumbass,” he mumbles, still looking up at the ceiling. “It’s in my bloo—hey!” Another pencil soars over his head.

“Where is Peter, anyway? He was supposed to be here” —she taps at her phone— “like an hour ago, what the hell. You did text him, right?”

Ned props himself up on his elbows. “Uh...yeah. A bunch. Maybe it didn’t send, lemme check.” When he taps open his and Peter’s conversation, all of his messages have sent. No loading bar, nothing. And they’re unread, too. “Maybe he overslept.”

“It’s past two,” MJ mentions. “Doubt it.”

Ned shrugs. “Maybe he had a long night.”

She scoffs. “Doing what?”

“Legos?” Ned offers.

MJ launches another pencil at his head.

SUNDAY, APRIL 8 — 4:13 PM

She was too harsh with him before, she knows it. The last time their AI shut down he was practically manic, unable to sleep or think until it was back online. “I know you’re going through a lot, Tony, but just talk to me, okay?” She sighs. “We’re going to get married, honey. You’re the most important person in my life. The most important relationship, and what matters most is communication. Right?”

Nothing.

“So just talk to me. Talk to me.”

It’s like talking to a wall. Actually, she is talking to a wall: one made of vibranium-reinforced steel.

“I’m sorry, Tony, I really am. I didn’t mean to get so...upset with you. I’m just worried, that’s all. You can’t—” She sighs. “Don’t shut me out like this. When you’re feeling...like this, we can work it out, but we have to do it together. You and me, remember? That’s how we do things now. Not like…” She gestures vaguely even though he’s probably not watching the camera feed. “...this.”

She begs and pleads and gets mad again and apologizes once more. It doesn’t matter; he’s not responding at all. There isn’t even a flutter of movement that she can see through the locked-down lab that would let her know that he heard her.

As soon as she gets back to the house, she calls Rhodey. There’s nothing else she can do.

He picks up after the second ring. “Hey, Pep. How are you?”

“Fine—you talked to Tony ,lately?”

Scuffling on the other end. “No. Not since FRIDAY went off the rails. How is he?”

Pepper tenses. “He… He shut himself in his lab.”

“Sounds like him. FRIDAY’s still down?”

“Yeah.”

“Then you shouldn’t be too surprised. He always gets like this when he feels...attacked. Just wait it out.”

Pepper sits down on the couch and shifts the phone to her other ear. “Yeah, I know. I’m just worried.”

“This is Tony we’re talking about,” Rhodey reminds her. “He used to spend weeks in that place, just working, trying to make some genius idea become reality. He’ll be fine.”

“He’s not eating,” Pepper adds.

“There’s food in there,” he replies. “He’s not gonna starve, Pepper.”

She sighs. “I know.”

Rhodey pauses. “I wouldn’t worry too much about him. He knows how to keep himself alive, even if it is on coffee and protein bars. He’s just gotta get this out of his system, you’ll see.”

“Yeah.” She bites her lip. “Okay. Thanks.”

“Anytime.”

She calls Peter next. If there’s anyone who can get Tony out of a funk, it’s him. She calls his cell and his home phone, but both eventually go to voicemail. So she votes to text him again later—he’s probably busy with homework—and she texts Happy instead.

You know about Tony? she texts.

It takes him a few seconds, but he does respond. Yes. Still in the lab?

Yeah. Hey - you heard from Peter lately? I think he might be able to get Tony out of there.

Three dots flicker on the screen. Got an email from May. Said Peter got a scholarship to do some research thing - they won’t be back for a few weeks.

He’s taking time off school?

Yes.

Pepper blinks at her phone. Wow. Good for him.

Email said there might not be service - I don’t know if you can still contact him.

Ok, she replies. Thanks.

At least she doesn’t have to worry about Peter; having to worry about whether or not Tony is taking care of himself is like torture.

SUNDAY, APRIL 8 — 5:22 PM

Mi amor ?”

Julia blinks. She’s been staring at this little girl’s file for far too long, and now she sits back in her chair and rubs at her eyes. “Yeah… Sorry.”

Cristian sits down across from her and taps his finger on the file. “They shouldn’t have given you a case como esto , Julia. I know how…”

She winces.

“It’s not going to be easy for you.”

She flips the case file over. She’s not supposed to let him see confidential files like this one. “It doesn’t matter… It’ll be a quick one, I think.”

“Why?” he prompts.

“‘Cause the kid lives with her mom and stepdad, but the biological dad is missing, too.”

“You think he took her?”

She shrugs. “It’s either that, or someone took them both. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when kids go missing, it’s a relative. And if the dad’s gone…”

“...then he took her.”

She nods, fiddling with the edge of the file. “So we’ve just gotta find where he took the girl, probably to a grandparent or something, and case closed.”

Cristian takes her hand from the papers and holds lightly. “If you’re so sure that the father did it,” he asks, “then why is this bothering you so much?”

Julia looks back down at the file, where Cassie’s name sticks out in front of her. “I don’t know,” she says quietly. “I don’t know.”

SUNDAY, APRIL 8 — 7:00 PM

The phone rings. He scrambles to pick it up, and the voice on the other end growls in his ear. He knows the routine by now. “Eyes on the screen, Stark.”

He watches in barely contained horror as, once again, Peter is dragged into the chair as his captors lock in his arm restraints. This time, he’s more awake, blinking and confused and shouting something at someone offscreen. No, Peter , he thinks. He knows what the kid looks like when he’s about to fight, and he’s got that face on right now, but it’s smattered with bruises—

He swings his foot out at his captor’s face, but his movements are floppy and sluggish, slowed by drugs. His face is swollen and purpled, his knee is a mess of blood, and burns line the left side of his head. He shouts out, but the sound is so crowded by the other yelling in the room that Tony doesn’t understand him. It isn’t until they hit him in response, sending a crack through the middle of his face; blood snakes down his bare chest.

Again, Tony is helpless. “Peter!” he screeches, and he fists the phone in one hand, pressing it against the side of his head as though it’ll get him closer to his kid. He’s helpless . “Peter, it’s gonna be okay, it’s gonna—stop it! Don’t f*cking—”

“Quiet, Stark!” barks Charlie.

He bites into his hand to make himself stop. His heart pummels away in his chest—he can’t breathe, so he slumps to the floor and tries to inhale through his nose, but his chest burns.

Finally, once Peter is locked into the chair, with one guy pinning his head to the back of the chair to stop him from moving. He’s trying to stay calm, Tony notices, but his eyes are wide and he’s shaking like a leaf. “I need you to do something for me, Stark.”

“I’m doing,” Tony growls, “everything you—”

“Don’t take that tone with me,” snaps Charlie. “I’m in f*cking charge here, Tony Stark. Me. Not you. Me. Apologize.”

His voice catches. “Sorry,” he mumbles.

“Louder.”

“Sorry,” he says again.

Peter’s head turn at the sound of his voice, and he starts with a croak, “Mr. Sta—”

They hit him again—”Shut up! ” cries one—and this time the guy holding his head pulls out a knife and puts it to Peter’s throat.

Every cell in Tony’s body screams, and bites down again into his hand, harder.

“What you’re gonna do for me,” continues Charlie, as if blood isn’t currently gushing from Peter’s nose, “is make sure that bitch stops coming up to your door. We don’t need that kind of attention. It’s dangerous.”

“Please,” says Tony, but his eyes are trained on Peter. How long can the kid last like this? Sure, he’s got superpowers, but he’s only sixteen and he’s been tortured for so long—what if Tony doesn’t make the weapon in time? “Let me—let me talk to her. She’ll keep coming unless you let me—”

“Is that a threat, Stark?” There’s a red line down the side of Peter’s neck now, and he’s whimpering, eyes fixed on the knife.

Onscreen, the room is still, the only movement now the flighty twitches of Peter’s body. “No,” Tony says quickly, and he swallows hard. He has to be careful. “It’s just a suggestion. Please. Let me talk to her. She’s my fiancé, she’s worried—”

“Break up with her.”

Tony stares at the man on his television screen. What? “No,” he says automatically. “I can’t—”

“This isn’t a game,” Charlie says. Picking up his hammer, he moves towards Peter, and the boy flinches back, twisting his body in the chair. “I already planned it out. I’ll tell you just what to say. I’ll have Parker on lockdown the whole time.”

“No—please—I just need to talk—don’t make me—”

“You’ll do exactly as I say,” warns Charlie, swinging his hammer from side to side, “or I’ll take out Parker's other knee.”

Tony doesn’t miss the way Peter’s entire body shakes in response.

“Please,” Tony begs, “if I could just explain—”

Charlie laughs, and sweat drips down his forehead. “Explain what? That her precious Tony Stark is my bitch?”

Everything is crumbling between his fingers. “No—no—please, please, just don’t make me—don’t hurt him, I’ll—please, this is” — too much, he wants to say, for me to take— “ not gonna work—”

“Shut up!

Tony hates that they can see him right now, that they can see how much he’s shaking, that they know how much this is destroying him. He’s too old for this.

“You’re gonna do it,” Charlie continues, “and you’re not gonna f*cking whine about it, Stark! You’re gonna do exactly as I say!”

SUNDAY, APRIL 8 — 10:21 PM

Of course she went back. Tony’s her fiance, after all, and she’s not going to let him lock himself away in his lab like this. So she heads back, this time with a venti iced coffee, but this one’s decaf. She knows how he gets when he’s like this, so she’s not about to give him his usual six shots of espresso.

“Tony,” she begins, mostly because she doesn’t know how else to start, “I brought you…” There’s a strange noise from the inside of the door, some clicking and releasing. “...coffee.”

The door opens slowly, as though a hesitant child expectant of a scolding is on the other side; instead, Tony’s standing there now, and Pepper almost chokes on her surprise. “Tony!”

He looks like a wreck.

Pepper has seen Tony on his worst days (and his best ones, too), but she’s never seen him like this . It’s something entirely beyond hurt or traumatized or upset. There’s simply no word for it. It’s like he’s been destroyed from the inside out . Lack of sleep is written all over his face; Tony is ghostlike—exhaustion bleeds from his features. “Tony,” she echoes, and his face is completely empty. She knows Tony better than anyone, but she’s never seen...

“You have to stop,” he says first. His voice is scratchy, so dry that it cracks on the second word. To her surprise, he doesn’t even glance at the coffee. “Please.” He winces.

She’s never, ever seen him like this. “Honey—” She blinks at him. “Come on, let’s go home—”

“I’m staying here,” he continues, and his voice is so strange that she takes another step towards him. He’s shaking . “You have to go. I’m not leaving.”

“Like hell I’m leaving,” Pepper snaps, and when she moves forward again, her hair tickles the side of her face. She only pulled it into a messy bun before leaving the house. “This isn’t healthy, this isn’t safe, and I’m worried , Tony—this isn’t like you!”

He’s eerily silent, and his eyes fix on hers. His gaze is so perfectly still, like it was the day he proposed. I know, he said that day, more than anything else in the world, that I would do anything for you. You mean the world to me. He was so still then, so sure, so positively still that the world seemed to stop around them. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I would die for you.

She laughed, then, and rolled her eyes. Don’t be so dramatic.

I’m serious , he said, and he kissed her palm. I would.

“I don’t” —his voice falls into nothing— “want to see you anymore.”

Pepper ignores him. “Did you sleep last night?”

“Why does it matter?” he snaps back, and then he flinches. There’s something wrong here, but Pepper can’t put her finger on it. His sentences are all stilted, all wrong, like he’s reading off of a broken teleprompter. “I don’t—want you—coming back here. This is my lab, and you don’t belong here.”

“I’m no engineer,” she says, “but I belong here as much as you do! You can’t just kick me out of your life because you’re scared —I’m not going away anytime soon!”

Again, Tony steps back. She examines his face all over again, but still she doesn’t understand. He blinks, finally, and his mouth twitches. “I hate you,” he says.

The air tastes bitter. “Don’t do that,” she snaps. She knows she came back with the intent of being gentle with him, but she’s pushing past that. “You can’t just push me away because you’re scared! Just talk to me, Tony. I’m here and I’m not going away, you’re gonna hurt yourself like this—”

“Shut up! ” he shouts, and this time his feet stay rooted in the ground. He’s holding his left wrist, rubbing it, which Pepper knows is a sign of severe anxiety for him. “Just listen. We can’t—be together anymore.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

His eyes glance left. “We’re not good—together. It’s not—it’s not working. I don’t want you here.”

“Tony—”

“I don’t love you.”

Her heart twists; her body stiffens. It’s the most hurtful thing he could say to her, and he knows it. I love you, Pep, he said just the other night. They were watching Big Hero 6 for the fortieth time in their living room, Tony’s sprawled over their wide couch with his head in her lap. She simply made a mmhm sound in response and tilted her head back against the couch cushion, stroking her fingers through his hair.

For such an incredibly intelligent man, Tony didn’t watch a lot of documentaries or historical films. He watched cartoons. It was something they had in common—something about having to grow up too fast made both of them crave the easy rhythm of cartoon movies all the time. As they watched, he kept saying it, all while watching the TV. God, I love you.

What is it? she asked finally. You want me to join a superhero-robot team with you? Is that what you’re picturing? Pepper Potts, the next Avenger?

He laughed. No, I mean… I’ve just never felt like this before with someone.

That’s why we’re engaged, she reminded him with a tap to his cheek.

I know. He closed his eyes and smiles, that easy, dopey smile that she cherished so much. It’s just… I want that.

What?

That. And he pointed vaguely at the screen, where the young protagonist was talking animatedly to his robot friend. Kids.

Now, Pepper stares at him, still blinking in shock. “Don’t,” she repeats. “I know you’re upset—don’t say something you’ll regret.”

He takes a step towards her this time. He’s in pain—she always knows when he’s in pain like this, but he looks different this time. “Pepper,” he says. “I don’t want to see you here again.”

“Don’t do that, Tony, just come home—”

She sees it coming a split second before it happens, and the drop in her stomach isn’t soon enough to allow her to duck—he hits her, whips his right hand across her face hard enough that she’s left stunned. It’s so out of place that she stands there dumbfounded for a couple seconds before fury rushes in. “You asshole,” she seethes, dropping her hand from her cheek. Tony flinches, and she wants to slap the look right off of his face. “You goddamn asshole! ” He doesn’t say anything. There was a rule they made, when they first started dating. They each had their flaws, piles of trust issues and poor decisions and boundaries… But you can’t ever, ever hit me, she said. If you do, I’ll be gone. I know what it’s like, and if it happens again, then this is over. I can’t do that again.

He gave her this sad, tilted look. Me, too.

And that was it. Over the years, they’d had their fair share of disputes, fights, and screaming matches, but they never got physical, never neared a physical threat or even abusive language. They’d never laid a hand on one another.

Until today.

Pepper twists at the ring on her finger, feeling the burn of shame wash over her face. She can’t believe, after all this time—

“Get out,” Tony says, and she can’t even see him anymore, just streaks of color blurred by rising tears.

“You’re just like your father,” she hears herself say, and Tony’s body seems to tense with her words. “A selfish, abusive asshole.” Then she finally twists the ring off of her finger and drops it at his feet before storming away.

Tony doesn’t say a word as she goes.

She hopes she never has to see his face again. After all this time… Tony was just like the rest of them. As the heat fades from her cheek, she realizes she’s still holding his coffee.

She throws it as far as she can.

MONDAY, APRIL 9 — 11:14 AM

“I don’t want to do this,” says Riri Williams for the umpteenth time that night. “He’s gonna kill me.”

Nick grips the steering wheel harder. “Not likely, kid. You’re fifteen. He won’t touch you.”

People tend to change, Riri thinks darkly, when you torture their sixteen-year-old intern. But she says nothing, instead fiddling with the box of supplies in her lap.

She’s the youngest in Charlie’s crew by a few years, and she’s the only one who hasn’t gotten into any heavy drug sh*t. Her older brother Eric, who practically raised her, used to run around with Charlie and the others, selling and using, but he dove in way too deep, got himself killed over a money squabble.

After he died, she went into foster care for a while. Got a nice family, a real good one who fueled her passion for engineering and helped her learn more about computers. Even though she loved them to death, she loved her brother more. So when Charlie came to her a few weeks ago with a proposition to avenge her brother and change the world, she couldn’t say no. She left her perfect world behind and joined Charlie’s team.

Now… She’s starting to regret it.

From behind the steering wheel, Nick looks over at her. “Riri, don’t worry. He’s not gonna do anything to you, not while we have Spider-Guy.”

“But what if he—”

“He won’t,” he assures her. “We’ve got cameras all over him. You don’t got nothin’ to worry about.”

That doesn’t stop her stomach from crawling up into her throat. She feels sick.

From the base to Stark’s lab, it’s a six-hour drive, so they pull over halfway through, stopping at a McDonald’s to get something to eat.

The drive-thru’s five miles long, so Nick parks it just outside the place and hops out of the car. “Whaddaya want?” he asks. She gives him her order, and he taps it into his phone so he won’t forget. “Don’t go anywhere,” he jokes as soon as he’s done, and he slams the door shut.

Riri relaxes as soon as he exits the car. She’s never felt safe around them, not really, only closer to her brother. Eric used to get himself into a lot of trouble hanging with Charlie and his crew, and now Riri sees why. She never thought Charlie would go so far as to… Nausea twists in her stomach as she recalls seeing the little girl with the brutalized arm and the teenage boy reeking of burning flesh. She didn’t sign up for this.

She didn’t sign up to be an accomplice to torture.

She’s alone in the car now, and when she drops her gaze to the driver’s side, she spots the keys sitting in the cupholder farthest from her, glinting dangerously. Her hand twitches. How easy would it be? She could take the keys and drive, leave Nick in the middle of nowhere with nothing but his hunger and his tempestuous temper. It would be so easy . She could stick the keys into the ignition and drive like she’s Ferris Bueller in a bright red Ferrari, blazing over the streets of wherever-the-hell-they-are, free.

She digs the keys out of the cupholder and raises them up. Free . It’s a concept she hasn’t known in a long time. It’s not easy to be free when the people caring for her are aggressive, delusional addicts.

She’s just a kid herself, really, so seeing a kid just a year older than her restrained to a chair and drugged up to his eyeballs made confused fear ripple over her. If they’re willing to do that to a sixteen-year-old and a seven-year-old, what would they do to her if she tried to leave?

She drops the keys back into their original position. Who is she kidding? She’ll never be free of them. She’s too damn scared . She’s seen them at their worst and at their best. She’s been beaten at their hands and protected by their weapons. These people are the only link she has to her family, the only true connection she has to the world. Besides, she’s one of the only people in the crew who knows how to calm Charlie down. If she can do that, then maybe she can talk him out of hurting these kids.

If she can’t run away, then at least she can help those two escape. She hasn’t done something good like this in a long time; maybe this can be her redemption.

It’s around two when they finally arrive. Nick parks way outside the property and sends her the directions from his phone. Shoving the box of supplies into her arms, he reminds her, “It’s gonna be a long walk, but you’ll be okay. Stay out of sight. Remember, Lang unlocked the back gate and took out all the cameras. Stay out of sight , you hear me? If they find you, you’re f*cking screwed.”

“Great,” she mutters.

Nick scowls. “This isn’t a f*cking joke, Riri. This is the only way we’re ever gonna come out on top. This is the way we’re gonna save the world.”

She hates it when they talk like this, like torturing and blackmailing is gonna stop world hunger or bring her brother back. “Fine,” she says.

“Now, tell me what you’re gonna do.” She repeats it back to him a couple times, and once he seems satisfied, he settles back into the driver’s seat and nods his head in the direction of Stark’s lab. “Then get moving. We don’t have a whole lot of time.” He pats her shoulder. “You got it, Riri. I’m gonna call Charlie—he’ll make Stark open that back door to let you in. We’re all counting on you.”

She gives him a half-grimace, half-smile and shifts the box in her hands.

It’s not a difficult trek, but the box makes her much less stealthy than she’d usually consider herself to be. Nobody sees her, though, and when she finally passes through the back gate and makes it to the back door of Stark’s lab, she sets the box down and bangs firmly on the door. It’s a strange-looking place; the outside is mostly lined with shining white plates or exposed metal. It looks geometrical, every line connecting to another at a ninety-degree angle. Where windows should be are massive sheets of reinforced metal, and it covers the door, too, as well as any other opening that would be useful. There’s no sign of life from within, but Stark must be in there; Nick said he would call.

There’s a sudden whirr before a series of clicks, and then the metal over the door slides into the ground. A few seconds later, Tony Stark stands in front of her, silent. She doesn’t know what she expected, but this middle-aged man with graying hairs and tired eyes holding his arm like it’s broken... He is not the Tony Stark she has seen on TV.

She clears her throat. Her heart’s spinning in her chest—she’s usually behind the scenes, so meeting the man who she’s heard sob into his phone because of what Charlie did...this is different. “...hi.”

Tony Stark clutches his arm a little harder, and his eyes linger on her before scanning the area behind her. He doesn’t say a word.

Riri holds out the box. “There’s, um…” His stare is relentless. “...food. And the parts you asked for.”

He looks around again, like he’s waiting for someone else to show up, but this time his eyes twitch and he glares at her with a vicious heat. She thinks, briefly, if Nick could get to her in time before Tony Stark strangled her to death. She shoves the box into his hands and bolts back to Nick’s car.

As she runs, she can still see the look of absolute devastation on his face.

MONDAY, APRIL 9 — 7:08 PM

Ned’s been texting Peter since yesterday, but he still hasn’t gotten a response.

Early Monday morning, he shows up at the Parkers’ apartment. They’ve still gotta work on that project for history class; he’s come to Peter’s early before, and he texted May, so he hopes it’s okay. Ned doesn’t live far from Peter, so it’s not much of a trip anyway.

But neither of them are responding. His strings of texts to both May and Peter are unanswered. He knocks repeatedly, but no one answers. There’s light trickling out from under the door, but after knocking for a solid ten minutes and getting no response, he assumes they’re asleep.

Maybe they’re both sick, he thinks. Or they went on a trip and forgot to tell him.

It’s a little strange, this whole situation, but stranger things have happened. At least if they’re together, Ned knows they’re okay.

By lunch, he’s worked himself up to a full freak-out. “You good, Nedward?” MJ asks, after launching a crumpled sketch of the cafeteria lady at him. “You look like your dog just died.”

He shakes his head. “Peter’s not responding.”

“He’s not your Siamese twin, dude,” she reminds him. “Let the guy breathe. He probably took the day off.”

Ned snorts. “Peter doesn’t take days off! He’s in four APs!” Maybe he’s at Tony’s. That could happen, right? He’s had to stay home from school after recovering from Spider-Man injuries before. It could happen. “I’ll...be right back.” He snatches up his phone and runs out into the hallway, dialing Mr. Stark’s private number. It’s meant for emergencies only, but Ned can’t help it. He has to know what’s happening to Peter.

Mr. Stark doesn’t pick up, so Ned texts him instead. hey mr. stark do you know where peter is? he’s not answering his phone or anything

is he with you? i know you’re busy but i’m really worried

sorry mr. stark can you please just get back to me? may isn’t answering either

He texts Peter, so much that he knows Peter’s gonna kill him when he finally responds.

hey peter plz don’t be dead haha

where r u man

u sick?

ill ask around for notes if u want

He wouldn’t be worrying so much if this wasn’t Peter Benjamin Parker who’d gone radio-silent. Peter texts all the time. Nonstop. He texts ike there’s a demon in his hands. He texts while Spider-Man, texts while driving, texts while in class. Any time Ned texted him, Peter responded. He’d woken Peter up from his naps by waking him up with the buzz-buzz of his texts.

And now he’s gone completely silent. It’s creepy, and Ned lets him know.

dude, he texts, this is creepy lemme k ur alive. u got ur phone takin away?

u with mr. stark? please lmk

where’s may?

dude respoooond

Peter doesn’t answer.

By the end of the day, Ned’s full-on freaked.

For the second time that day, Ned finds himself at the Parkers’ apartment, banging on the door.

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Peter won’t answer the phone. May won’t answer the phone. Tony won’t answer the phone. And the worst part is, he can see light still under the door. He redials and redials and double-checks the numbers and redials again until finally, f*cking finally, Tony Stark picks up.

Euphoria shoots through Ned, the kind of relief that makes him slump back against the wall. “Oh, thank God! Peter hasn’t responded to my texts in like two days and I thought maybe he was with you on some kind of important mission—like an Avengers thing or something—so you gotta let me know that he’s okay, I’ve been calling for—”

“Ned.”

Ned stops talking. He’s never heard Mr. Stark say his name like that. “Yes—um, yes, Mr. Stark, sir?”

“I need you to listen very carefully,” states the man on the other line. It’s Tony Stark’s voice for sure, but something’s off. “Peter isn’t coming back for a while.”

Ned feels sick, dread churning in his chest. “What—whaddaya mean—not coming back? Is he hurt? Is he” —not dead, Ned thinks, sh*t, please, not dead not dead— “on an Avengers thing?”

There’s a strained silence. “I can’t tell you where he is. It would put you in a lot of danger.” Ned blurts out more questions, but Tony stops him. “Ned. Stop. Listen . Stop looking into this. If you do, you could put Peter in a lot of danger, understand?”

“Is he okay?” he squeaks out.

“He’s fine. For now. Right now, your mission is to keep quiet about it.” He’s speaking slowly, carefully, like every word is painful. “Make sure no one get suspicious—if anyone finds out anything about Peter he could die, got it?

Ned swallows. “Got it.”

“Good. If anyone asks, he’s doing a research program somewhere. Alaska—no service.

“Okay, um… And M-May? What do i say?”

There’s a long silence on the other end, followed by a series of muffled noises. After a minute or so, the noise clears and Tony responds. “May Parker is in the hospital right now.”

Ned feels like he’s being strangled; his voice comes out smaller, weaker. “Wha-what? From the—the—the stuff that Peter’s involved in?”

A pause. “Yes. She’ll be okay...eventually. I need you to stay calm about this. If you tell anyone, I will find out. The Avengers are working with SHIELD on this one, Ned. If they find out you told anyone, you’ll be arrested. You. Can’t. Tell. Anyone.”

“Okay, okay, but… Can I talk to him?”

“No.” Ned’s heart clenches. “I’m trusting you, Ned. Peter’s life is in your hands.”


TUESDAY, APRIL 10 — 6:02 PM

The little girl in the corner doesn’t know him very well—and he hasn’t spoken to her much since the whole thing started. He’s been planning and planning and thinking and planning more and listening to every single conversation he can. He’s learning their names: Riri. Charlie. Haroun. Nick. Ava. Lyle. It’s hard to think with all of the sedatives in his system, but he keeps going to the sink and drinking straight from the tap. He’s not sure if drinking water will dilute the sedation, but he’s trying .

Cassie’s not really talking a lot. She cries, and she hugs the McDonald’s toys a lot, and she sits and watches him.

“I’m hungry,” she says.

Peter doesn’t have even a morsel of food for this little Cassie; and he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself and the little girl, so he says, “Drink more water from the sink then.” He’s in so much pain that it’s impossible to think even a sentence without getting through a gasp of pain.

Cassie listens to him, walking over to the sink and reaching inside. She’s not quite tall enough to reach with her mouth, so the little girl cups her unbroken hand and lets it fill with water before slurping from her palm.

“Better?” he says, once she’s gotten her fill.

“No,” she says, so she keeps drinking more.

Their cell is so small. Toilet, bed, sink. Sink, bed, toilet. A pile of flattened Happy Meal boxes in the corner. A collection of McDonald’s toys in a bucket.

They’ve created a kind of routine. When Cassie or Peter has to use the toilet, the other one has to close their eyes and face the other way for privacy—it’s as much privacy as they can get. Because they’re so hungry all of the time, they drink a sh*t-ton of water, enough to fill the rest of their empty bellies; using the bathroom becomes a constant activity.

The little girl’s crying. Cassie , he remembers. “I wanna go home!” she wails. “I want Mommy!”

Peter can hear every sound in this stupid cell; she’s being way too loud. Down the hall, his captors mumble and argue about ‘that loud little bitch.’ “I know,” he says, ignoring the pain in his leg. “But we gotta be quiet, okay?”

She’s crying still: “I WANNA GO HOME!!”

Peter listens hard; again, complaints about the girl. “Cassie,” he says, and the girl sniffles through her sobs. “Cassie. Hey. I’m gonna get you home, okay?”

She sniffles again. “What?”

“I’m gonna figure out a way to get us home,” says Peter. “You just…gotta be quiet, okay?”

Cassie nods through her tears, and she leaps forward, hugging him around his bruised middle. She buries her cries in the front of his shirt. Peter hesitates, but he finds himself wrapping his arms around her.

Their plan is simple: Operation Falcon.

Peter will stick to the ceiling, Cassie will cling to him, and they will crawl all the way to the exit on the ceiling. What could go wrong? They’ve forgotten to dose him, so he’s slowly getting his senses back, and they’ve only been here for a few days—maybe they won’t expect it.

They get ready early in the morning, Peter sticking to the ceiling with his hands and bare feet. Without his socks, he sticks much better. The ceiling is covered in grime and random black spots, but he ignores the grime. His forearm’s still recovering from a stab wound, and his whole body shakes with the weary effort of holding himself to the ceiling, but he sticks, Cassie clinging tightly to his middle.

Noise at the door. A key. Peter tenses up, and the cell tints with hallway light as the heavy vibranium door opens up. “The hell?” says a drug-addled voice. “Yo! RJ! The kids aren’t here!” Taking the opportunity, Peter scampers over the top of the door-jamb, and Cassie screams in surprise. Their captor looks up—“Oh, sh*t!”—and jumps to grab at them as they crawl across the ceiling.

It takes every ounce of strength in Peter not to drop the little girl.

Spider-crawling as fast as he can, he races to the doors at the end of the hall. He’s pictured this moment already a hundred times: freedom, freedom, freedom! I’m coming home, Aunt May! Mr. Stark, everything’s gonna be okay! Just a hundred feet to the doors, then ninety, then eighty—

He hits his knee on a ceiling light, and there’s a burst of pain so nauseating that he loses control of his legs. Cassie screams, and her hold on him tightens astronomically. He’s dangling from the ceiling by his sticky hands; the pain in his knee is so intense that he starts to gag. “Peter!” screams Cassie.

Even from the ceiling, he can recognize their bearded, addict captor. Still dizzy with pain and hunger, Peter manages to lift his leg back to the ceiling, but his mangled leg dangles in the air like a ripe piece of meat.

Charlie’s got the sledgehammer; the fear in Peter rises so fast that he tries to move again, but he only manages to dislodge his other leg. He’s not strong enough. Straining, Peter shouts, “No !” and kicks out at the man. Charlie dodges his leg with ease and grabs it with one hand.

Pain like barbed wire strangles his knee where the man grabs it, and his arms loosen—Cassie slips from his battered arms with a scream: “ Peter! ” She’s flat on her back, crying, as Peter still sticks to the ceiling, helpless.

The red-haired woman grabs Cassie; Peter hears the whistle of steel hammer through air, and he tries to jerk away from the blow—a shock of pain explodes over the side of his leg—

Peter passes out before he hits the ground.

They beat Peter after the escape—and slapped Cassie around a bit—so they’re laying on their ratty mattress side-by-side and being still. It hurts to move.

“Can we play a game?” asks Cassie quietly. She sounds tired, far more tired than a seven-year-old should be.

“Sure,” he says, wincing. There’s a new flood of sedatives in his system, stuff that makes his mouth taste like rust and his limbs feel like pillars of ocean-wet sand. The ceiling swims above him.

“I spy?”

Peter can’t ‘spy’ anything but the drug-induced whorls in the concrete ceiling, but if it’ll keep her from crying... “Sure,” he says again.

“You start.”

His head lolls to one side. “I spy with my little eye…” Peter starts. “...something gray.”

The game takes pleasantly long, Cassie picking out nearly everything gray in the room: the ceiling, the walls, the toilet, the sink… Every tally mark scratched into their walls. Every railing in their bed. Every stain in their mattress. Every pockmark in their floor.

And by the time they’re finally done, Cassie says she’s tired and curls into his side. “My head hurts,” she says.

“I know,” says Peter.

“I don’t wanna try to leave again.”

Peter closes his eyes. “We’ve got to.”

SATURDAY, APRIL 14 — 2:30 PM

Peter and Cassie have been planning nonstop since Operation Falcon went south.

Peter keeps her up and running in the cell by playing ‘Red Light, Green Light.’ They don’t play too much, afraid of losing the precious few calories they’re given, but it keeps the girl’s hopes up, which is worth more now than a couple hundred calories. “Green light,” he whispers, and Cassie dashes to the toilet, patting the wall when she reaches it. “Red light!” She pauses like a deer in headlights, smiling.

It’s so good to see her smile.

Peter has never thought too much about kids, given that his childhood was so scattered, but having Cassie around makes him think about it way more. He always thought he’d be a scientist or an engineer when he grew up, but… He wouldn’t mind being a teacher now. Elementary school or middle school or something. He likes being around her—her infectious laughter and naive humor and infinite curiosity.

Lunch comes late, around three o’clock. Two happy meals alongside a gift from one of their kinder captors, a woman named Ava. Cassie squeals when she sees it—a brown paper bag stapled shut—and looks up at Peter for permission. It smells like food. “Can I open it?” she asks, face eager with hunger.

Peter’s own stomach gnaws on itself; he’s so hungry he’s been biting his fingernails to the quick for the extra couple calories. He saw it on Survivor once: a fingernail is two calories. “Sure thing,” he says, and the girl squeals.

Seven-year-olds shouldn’t be so excited about getting a meal that’s barely enough to keep them alive.

She tears open the bag: apples. They are apples. There are six of them inside, and Peter’s never loved anything more.

Saliva pools in his mouth; one-handed, Cassie’s already sinking her teeth into a reddish gala with a crunch, making little joyful sounds as she does.

They separate the apples between them: two for Cassie, four for Peter, and they eat them whole—all the way to the core, seeds and stems and all. “Daddy says apple seeds are poisonous,” she says, sucking on one like a mint. “But you have to eat, like, a hundred apples.”

“Your dad’s a smart guy,” says Peter.

“I want a hundred apples,” she says. “Two hundred. A thousand.”

Cassie always says stuff like this now, her sentences tainted by hunger.

“I want apple pie,” she says. “Jim makes apple pie. He always lets me eat some apples before we put it in the oven.”

Jim, her stepdad. Right. She’s always talking about her parents: Scott, the one stuck down the hall who’s slowly losing his mind; her mom, who works part-time at the retirement home; and Jim, her stepfather who’s also a police officer.

“And applesauce!” she says, with her mouth full. “With cinnamon.”

Peter can play this game: “Ooh, yes, apple jelly on toast.”

“Apple pancakes!”

“Caramel apples.”

“Apple cake.”

“Apple strudel.”

“What’s strudel?”

Peter blinks. “Uh,” he says, and he reaches automatically for his phone in his pocket. f*ck. He keeps forgetting that they took it. His hand still drifts to his pocket every time he wants to know the time or text his friends or know some random fact about apples. “I don’t remember. Some kind of pastry-bread thing, I think.”

“Like toast?”

“Toast isn’t a pastry, Cass.”

“But toast is bread and you said bread is paste-ry.”

Pastry.”

She tries, “Paste-ry.”

“Pastry, Cass.”

“That’s what I said!”

They eat the rest of the apples quickly.

Today’s the day, then. They have to escape today. With the apples, they’ll have enough calories to sustain the run, any fighting they have to do, and the way out. Sure, Peter’s leg is completely f*cked, but if they don’t go now, then they never will. His body is adapting to the sedative, He has to get out of here before Charlie comes after his knee again. It’s healed halfway, but shattered—he can feel the shards of bone beneath the skin, trapped in limbo between muscles and fat.

Which, by the way, he’s losing by the second. He’s already lost probably five pounds, and he’s been here barely two weeks, his mind on a constant overdrive for food. He’s still thinking about that imaginary apple pie. “Cassie,” whispers Peter as they eat. “you remember the plan?”

Crunching on a french fry from her Happy Meal, she nods furiously.

“Good. Let’s go over it again.”

There’s a code on the door. Peter knows because he hears the beeping every time they move in and out of the cell. It’s a series of numbers, eight of them, probably a zero to nine code. Numbers. Peter’s smart—he’s in multivariable calculus. So how difficult could it be to figure out a door code? He’s listened so many times that he knows the pitches by heart, like a song. There’s always eight differently pitched numbers followed by a long affirmative beeeep. An eight letter combination with eight numbers. If the same pitch equals the same number and higher pitch equals higher number….

He listens to those eight beeps over and over and over again. They don’t have any pen or paper, so he dips his fingers in sink-water and writes on the concrete wall like he used to do at the public pool—drawing pictures in the sun-dried concrete with water and pretending he was a painter until the sun evaporated his works.

Cassie will draw as he does it. They’ll play Guess-The-Thing, a game Cassie came up with, to pass the time: someone draws a picture of an object and someone else guesses. Peter knows there’s a real title for the game, but he honestly can’t remember it.

There’s only a few possible number codes that Peter comes up with: one, if the highest pitch equals the highest number; two, if the highest pitch equals the lower number; and three, if the highest pitch equals proximity to the keypad’s motherboard.

Three possible options.

He memorizes each code, and then he memorizes it again. Cassie tests him on it, too, just to make sure he won’t forget.

This escape plan should give him enough time to insert all three codes. One of them has to be right.

Peter hates seven o’clock. Even without a clock in his cell, he can tell that the time is coming like it’s a blade at his throat. He can feel it in his gut—it’s only been eight days of this sh*t, and he can feel it coming as though he’s already cuffed to that cold vibranium chair. “Cassie?” he whispers, once they’re only minutes away.

She looks at him, her little brows forming a determined glare—God, she’s such a good kid. “I’m ready,” she whispers back.

“Get the cord,” he says. She crawls over to the Treasure Chest, that bucket in the corner, and pulls it out—a cotton cord made from braided strips of their bedsheets. Cassie gives it to him, and he ties the cord around his waist so it won’t fall.

Then Cassie loops his arms around his neck and her legs around his ribcage, clinging to him like a monkey; painstakingly, he crawls up the wall and to the ceiling above the door. He sticks his hands firmly to the ceiling and his legs as well, although his left one hurts so badly that his vision goes blurry for a moment.

He can do this.

He can do this.

He’s Spider-Man. He’s Spider-Man. He can do this.

She lays on his chest, clinging tightly to him; Cassie’s not a fan of heights. Just a few minutes more. They stick to the ceiling, quiet and hidden, the only evidence of their hiding spot a slight shadow on the floor. When one of the addicts finally staggers in, shouting, “Come on, Parker! Time for our favorite show!”

Operation Black Widow is a go.

The man enters, scanning the room for the two kids. “What the hell?” he mutters to himself. He checks in the corners and then stares pointedly to the bed. “Ah. Playing this game, are we, Parker?” It’s Mason, the one with the hammer.

Mason kneels by the bed and thrusts his arm beneath it, waving it around to try to get ahold of a kid who wasn’t there.

While the guy’s distracted, Peter silently lowers Cassie to the ground and then crawls above him on the ceiling, unraveling the cord from his waist and extending from the ceiling by his good leg, throwing the cord down and—yes!—looping it around the man’s neck with one flick of his sore wrist.

Before his captor even realizes what’s happening, Peter has twined the cord around his neck and he pulls, wrenching it up with enough force that he pulls Mason off the ground, toes grazing the floor, gargling and scrabbling at his throat, scraping his nails over Peter’s knuckles in an attempt to pry him off—but the plan is working.

Just like they practiced, Cassie grabs the gun from the man’s belt before he can reach for it, running to the wall, far enough from the wall that she’s safe from any of Mason’s flailing.

The man chokes quietly, the only noise in the room Peter’s heavy breathing and the man’s strangled coughs.

It only takes a minute or two before he passes out, arms and legs going lax; Peter lowers him with a pained groan, loosing the cord gradually to the floor so as to make no noise. Mason’s out cold.

Just like they practiced. Just like they practiced.

The door’s open—they’ve gotta go now. Cassie hands him the gun and grabs the man’s phone from his pocket, dialing 911 as Peter scoops her up, limping quickly through the cell door.

They’re out. They’re out.

It’s working! God, Peter’s gonna give Mr. Stark so much grief about this when he gets out. He’ll make Mr. Stark stock the pantry with pizza rolls and mini powdered donuts and all that sh*t he loves. Netted bags of oranges—god, he misses oranges—and bowls of miso soup. Scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese.

The door is at the end of the hallway—only a couple hundred feet away—and Peter runs. But his leg, his f*cked up knee, shattered joint… On the fourth step, the pain in his leg is so much that he gags, tripping over himself and falling—no, God, no!—so they both sprawl over the concrete floor, Cassie groaning in pain.

On Mason’s phone, the emergency operator is saying: Hello? Hello?

The noise alerts some of the addicts down the hallway, and a female voice says: “They’re getting away!

No, no, no, they’re so close. He has to get out—he has to find May, he has to tell Mr. Stark that everything’s okay. He has to—

“Cassie,” Peter groans, pushing himself off the ground with weak, shaking forearms, “the phone!”

She picks it back up as Peter climbs back to his feet, dragging his leg forward with his hands, each pull wrenching a scream from deep in him. By the time he reaches the door, Cassie’s crying into the phone, her words barely intelligible. “And we need… We need help…”

All the while, a crowd of their captors rush towards them; “I’ll shoot!” screams Peter, near-hysterical as he tries to remember the number combination through a haze of sedation and pain. “I’ll shoot, I will!”

He punches in the numbers with one hand (What was it? One-four-eight-nine something?) and with the other hand points the gun above Cassie’s head and towards the crowd of drug addicts. “Don’t come any closer!”

Cassie’s crying, the addicts are shouting, and the pain in his knee is making his whole body tremble. “Get behind me, Cass.”

Bvvvp. A negative beep from the keypad. His combination was wrong. f*ck, f*ck— He tries another one, glancing back between the oncoming addicts and the numbers, frantically pointing the gun from one person to another, and he hits the wrong key—

“Put the gun down, Parker!”

He doesn’t have the combination. The pitch of each number is all wrong; it’s the same with every combination.

“Somebody get him!”

The changes in pitch are the same with every combination. That means all of his calculating, all of his guessing and his listening and his writing on the wall—it was all for nothing.

He’s so f*cking stupid.

“I’m not getting shot by a kid—”

He’s got nothing. No combination ideas, no numbers, no calculations. The number to set them free could be one out of a hundred million possible permutations. He’s only guessed, too.

“She’s got a phone!”

They’re f*cked. Peter shoves Cassie behind him, flattening them both against the door, and starts pressing random buttons in a desperate hope for a correct code. She’s still talking on the phone; the operator’s saying, “Honey, slow down. Just tell me where you are…” to which Cassie sobs that she doesn’t know.

Peter doesn’t even know what state they’re in. What country they’re in. Nothing. He hopes it’s the US still, because that’s easier to find help, but he’s not completely sure. The star on the door is the Winter Soldier’s, so they could be in Russia—but all their captors seem American. An American base in Russia, maybe? He has no clue.

Peter waves his gun at the hallway. “Parker,” says one, dark-haired guy. “There’s only eight bullets in there. Even if you had the aim of a sniper—you’re not getting out of this one, man.”

“Get back!” he shouts, and he waves the gun again. “All of you, get back! I’m not going back in there!”

Beside him, he can hear the 911 operator: “We’re having trouble tracking your location, so just stay where you are—”

They’re not going anywhere. They’re not going anywhere.

They’re trapped.

They’re never getting out of here.

There’s a sob in Peter’s chest, and he raises the gun. If they’re not getting out now, then he’s at least gonna take some of these guys down with him. He aims at the red-haired woman and pulls the trigger

The gun just clicks.

He stares at it, horrified. He pulls the trigger again and again, that disappointing clicking sound his only outcome, and the rest of the addicts take that as their cue to rush him, all of them coming forth in a wave of dirty hands and bloody weapons.

A freezing wave of panic—Peter thrusts the gun forward and pulls the trigger at the oncoming crowd—click, click, click.

Peter’s never shot a gun before.

Peter’s never shot a gun before.

“I’m not going back in there!” he yells, his voice so high and frightened that he can’t recognize as it leaves his mouth. He shoved Cassie behind him, blocking her with his bad leg. “You’re not putting me back in there!”

But then they’re grabbing them and pulling them apart, and the gun’s ripped from his hands, and Cassie is screaming like she’s hurting—

Peter hates this f*cking room.

It reeks like blood.Hisblood.

Two addicts have him pinned to a wall, his hands cuffed and held above his head. He bucks against them, thrashing, and one hits him in the stomach so hard he swears he feels his organs shift. “I’m sorry,” he chokes out. “Please, please, just don't hurt Cassie… I made her do it... She didn't... ”

Charlie paces in front of him, yanking anxiously on his beard. “Don't hurt her?” he says, eyes bugged. “Don't hurt her? You two betrayed me! Trying to run from our plan to save the world? You’re gonna pay, Parker. You’re gonna pay. You and Stark have to learn that there are consequences to your actions. You don't. Run away. From me.”

The addicts are adjusting the Chair, flattening out each arm and pushing the backrest into a horizontal position. It’s like a table now, flat metal with cuffs attached.

He didn’t know the Chair could do that.

“You know what my dad used to do when I f*cked up?” says Charlie, fiddling with his pants buckle. “And you’ve f*cked up, Parker. Royally.

Rattled with fear, Peter shakes, deep in his chest. For a man to turn out like Charlie, he must have endured unimaginable things. May always used to say: people aren’t born bad; someone or something makes them that way. “I don't know,” he manages.

The bearded man pulls his belt through the loops of his jeans—a quick thwip, thwip, thwip—as the tail hits each loop, and then folds it in half. “Alright, Jon—strap him in.”

It falls into place: the flattened chair, the folded belt, his dad— “Charlie,” he blurts out, trying to get the man’s attention as the two addicts holding him shove him facedown on the table. His shirt’s gone—he and Cassie tore it to pieces for bandages already. “Charlie, please—” He saw on TV once that if you appeal to your perpetrator’s humanity that they’ll be less likely to hurt you. “I'm sorry that happened to you, I really am. You didn’t deserve that.” They get one wrist cuffed in, then the other, then both of his ankles. “Parents aren’t supposed to do that.”

This only seems to make the man angrier because he bristles, “Shut your mouth, Parker!” shouts Charlie and he says. “Say one more thing about my family, Parker, and I’ll cut your goddamn tongue out!” He slaps the folded belt against the side of the chair-table.

Peter flinches but he doesn’t stop talking. “Parents are supposed to protect their kids,” he says quickly, cheek against vibranium, “not hurt them.” He sees the black girl in the corner make a face. “But that doesn’t mean you have to do it to me, right? I… I had someone hurt me, someone who’s was supposed to take care of me, so I know what it’s like—”

The whistle of leather through air—

The first hit burns like a lick of gasoline down his back. “Charlie,” he begs, as soon as he hears his arm go back again, “Charlie, please, you don’t have to—”

Another hit, and pain streams down his naked back. His knees tremble; he really has to pee. It’s just a belt, he thinks. How bad could it be? It can’t kill him. It can’t kill him.

Hit after hit after hit, and his whole back is on fire.

Peter remembers it later, when the cloud of panic has washed away from his brain, filled instead with the feverish lucidity that comes with pain: guns have safeties.

He forgot to turn off the safety.

They lay on the bed in utter silence when they finally drag him back to their cell.

Both Peter and Cassie in so much pain that they don't even speak for an hour. Her face is swelling—they hit her. “Did they hurt you?” he whispers, finally. He has to know. He has to know exactly what they did.

Whatever they did to her—it was his fault.

Cassie nods tearily. “The needle,” she croaks.

f*ck.

“Did they touch you?” he asks.

“Yes,” she says.

Oh, God. “Where?”

She’s too tired to speak, so she gestures, imitating their hands on herself. Hand around her bad wrist—that must’ve hurt—then her swollen cheek, then stomach, then her other arm, and the crook of it, where Peter can see a reddening needle mark.

Good. She's safe. She's okay.

Well, as okay as they can be.

“What happened to the sheets?” he asks, wincing as his chest moves.

“They took them away,” she explains, squeezing her eyes into wrinkled lines.

Probably because they’d used them to strangle their captor.

Cassie starts crying then, and Peter doesn’t know what to do. This kid has cried so much in the past couple weeks that he’s surprised she has anything left in her system. If Peter were Mr. Stark, and Cassie were Peter, he would just hold Peter until he stopped crying. Offer him food. A movie night. Another hug.

So he does what Mr. Stark would do.

Peter holds Cassie until her crying stops, until it’s just the occasional hiccup. He holds her and rubs her back, letting her sob and sniffle into his shoulder. Goddamn it, Mr. Stark, he thinks. Please. Find us. Help us. They’re hurting a kid.

She’s so f*cking quiet. Even when she cries, she’s quiet. Compared to the talkative little girl that he first met, she’s a mouse. Cassie says after an entire lifetime of silence, “I wish they used the needle on you.”

She’s missing a couple words: instead of me. Peter knows what she means, but it still hurts. “We just gotta keep trying,” he says, tired.

She presses her tear-wet cheek into his shoulder. “I don't want to,” she whimpers.

Peter’s done the math. Even if they escaped once a day, every day, able to attempt five codes with every escape for the foreseeable future—it would take them over fifty thousand years to get through every possible permutation.

They’re never getting out.

Notes:

looks like quarantine's got me writing more :) thanks so much to addie for editing, ur the best &<3, everybody should def look forward to more of this, stay clean everyone, be safe! it'll pass :)

Chapter 4: another lesson yet to learn

Summary:

Now she’s crying, but they’ve gotten so used to crying around each other that Peter knows what to do. “C’mere—careful,” he says, and he moves his arm so that she can lie down and curl up in his skinny arms. Once she’s comfortable, he wraps his arm around her and holds her close. “It’ll be...okay,” he tells Cassie, and the little girl cries more, burying her face in his bloodied shirt.

Notes:

chap title from 'no time to die' by billie eilish

CW: fainting, homicidal ideation, injury, blood, violence, stitches, referenced intimate partner violence, mentions of suicide.

Chapter Text

ONE

MONTH

LATER

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 1:04 PM

“Give me the update.”

“Yeah, uh… That sh*t’s broken.”

“Broken? He just sent you the new one.”

“Yeah… The prototype he sent us last week—didn’t work, man. We tried it on like...deer and sh*t, but it’s just like a blast with some blue light. Nothing like what you told me. Just injures ‘em kinda bad.”

“But he’s got everything he needs , right? You’ve been giving him the supplies?”

“Well, yeah—”

“Then what’s the problem?” A frustrated sigh. “You’ve had him under lock and key for a f*cking month , Keene. And you’re telling me he couldn’t make one little weapon in all this time when he does it for a living?”

“I mean—I’m doin’ my best—he’s motivated, that’s for f*cking sure. Sends a new gun every week. This one was better than the last one—”

“—and no better than any weapon the army possesses. You’re not getting supplied for nothing, Keene. I don’t have time for you to sit around getting high while people start poking around in Stark’s life. Pick up the pace or I’ll cut you off!”

“No—no—we’re making real progress, good progress, you got nothing to worry about, sir—yeah? Keep giving us our sh*t, and we’ll keep doing what you want. We—uh—we just sent someone over to him to pick up the next prototype today. We’re gonna test that one as soon as it gets here.”

“Fine—that’s fine. I’ll call again later. Don’t let me down.”

“Yes, sir.”

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 2:07 PM

Everything is blurry, the world slurred before his eyes. His mouth tastes like syrupy sleep and he can’t find the strength to sit up. He’s in the lab, he knows, because the floor is cold and smooth and gray. How long has he been here? A migraine builds behind his eyes, and he presses a palm to his left temple, trying to ease it. It comes back in pieces—Peter’s tired, bloody face, a high-pitched screeching, a little girl’s crying. A hammer. A knife. A wire.

The guilt floods in. “Peter,” he chokes out, and the room comes into focus. Weapons parts litter the floor, glimmering in the hazy, fluorescent light. A half-made gun— f*ck, he remembers now, through the aching, pulsing in his head. He was building it for him. For Charlie. So that he could get Peter back home safe and sound. The guilt inside of him grows more, swelling into a rancid pit. There are blueprints covered in crossed-out ideas and hastily written formulas scattered over his desk, and DUM-E whirs nervously in the corner, organizing and reorganizing a set of tools.

He’s on his side, sprawled about between a few attempted power sources and a stack of scratch paper. Propping himself up with weakened arms, he sits up.

He’s alone.

Tony’s never felt so alone. He must’ve passed out at some point, but he can’t remember when. Is that normal? He doesn’t sleep, not now, not with Peter on the line, not unless his body collapses and his mind gives out. He’s never worked this hard before. Even when he was trapped in that cave in Afghanistan when he resigned himself to build or die. This is different–this is his kid , and that brings out a whole other universe of pain, a thousand times worse than being waterboarded. Seeing Peter in pain is a kind of all-consuming, world-ending suffering that keeps him up all day and night, just working.

Tony’s made three prototypes in the month he’s been given. He struggles to his feet, grabbing the lab table beside him for support; before he can stand, his weakened legs buckle beneath him. With a cry, he falls down again, but a robotic arm catches him. It’s U, his other hydraulic arm, and it whirs worriedly at him. “Thanks, buddy,” he croaks. His head is spinning. “Take me...over there.” He gestures vaguely to the couch nearest to him. U takes his arm gently, as though it knows just how fragile he is, and rolls slowly where directed. Tony leans on the robot and tries to catch his breath. He’s not hungry, just nauseous, but he knows he needs to eat something. God knows how long he was passed out like that. Hours? Days? What if he missed a chance to see Peter again?

U settles Tony in the middle of the couch, where he collapses with a gasp. Sometimes, he forgets how old he is—right now, he feels every bit of forty-eight years old, or maybe twenty years older. “Thanks. You always...got my back. Think you could hand me the prototype? And...some water?” U picks up a half-empty glass of water and rolls over to him, whirring excitedly at his findings, and then moves on to find the weapon. Where did he put it? Spotting it on the floor, a few screws loose, he knows he must’ve dropped it when he passed out. It turns around, looking for the weapon. “Look down, buddy. Be careful.” Amused, Tony watches as U stares confusedly at the fallen object. “I know… It’s been a while since I’ve made stuff like that, hm? Well… Not my idea.” His robots—one of which is clearly confused by the situation and keeps reorganizing the entire workshop—are his only form of social interaction in this hell outside of Charlie’s phone calls, and he’s so, so grateful for it. “I don’t know what I’d do without you idiots,” he says, gulping down the water U gave him. “You keep me…” He finds himself thinking of Pepper again. “...sane.” The way her hair smells, the way she’d wrinkle her nose every time he opened a bag of Doritos. That’s disgusting, she’d comment. Take it somewhere else or I swear I’m kicking you out of the house.

They’re Doritos! he’d protest.

She’d move across the room, laughing, mock-coughing, and covering her nose. They’re awful—oh my god, I can smell them from here! When did you even have time to get those?

Well, he’d start, crunching on another chip, there are these wonderful contraptions called vending machines in the main building—

Ugh! Take them out of here, Tony—or I’ll empty every vending machine I see, I swear to God!

Fine, fine! He’d wrap up the bag. I’ll save it for later. For now… He’d come at her for a kiss, and she’d squeal, running away.

No! Ohmygod—those damn Doritos—hey! No! Not until you brush your teeth— She’d fake gag. I’m gonna sue the CEO of Doritos if you don’t— They’d chase each other around the kitchen, laughing and screaming and running until Happy came in asking what was wrong.

He shakes his throbbing head, ridding himself of the intrusive memory. She could never forgive for how he hurt her; she’s not coming to save him. “No…” he croaks, remembering what he did to her. He can’t stop thinking about it—the look of raw betrayal on her face, the tingling in his right palm, tears welling up that she blinked away. It replays in his head, over and over. “How could I hurt you, honey, how could I…” His face is wet again, tears slipping down his face, as poisonous guilt seeps into him. “I had to—” he chokes out, and then he’s sobbing. He’s still exhausted, so the tears come easy, spilling as a tidal wave of shame hits him, and he crumples, pressing his hands over his face in the hopes that it’ll all go away. He wishes he could f*cking erase it all—start over from when he first met Peter, from when he first told Pepper he loved her, from when he first realized he’d made a family for himself. “God—I’m so f*cking sorry!” His throat is thick with sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry , and his breath hitches each time he tries to calm down. He f*cking hates himself for what he’s done. Because of him, Peter’s in pain, and Pepper thinks he hates her. He claws at his hair and his neck, and that horrific feeling of shame congeals over his skin, making him want to scream.

This whole month has been like a nightmare he can’t shake. Every time he passes out, he wakes up thinking it’s over and is forced back into the realization that he’s in hell. Day after day after day of watching his kid tortured, of so little sleep that he sees double sometimes, that he hears voices pinging off the walls…

The doorbell is ringing, beeping incessantly, and icy fear kicks him in the gut. How long has that been going on? How did he miss it? He pulls himself up, but it’s difficult; his body is stiffened from his stint of unconsciousness, so he calls U over, and the one-armed robot helps him to the door. It’s Sunday, he remembers, and that means they’ve sent that black girl to the lab to give him his supplies and collect his latest prototype. His latest model, one using a different firing mechanism, is nowhere near ready. (Honestly, he doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to make a weapon that satisfies Charlie’s needs, but he can’t think about that.)

It takes him a couple tries to open the door. His shaky fingers won’t let him push in the passcode. Finally, he manages, and the metal sheet blocking her entry slides out of her way, and the girl waves from the other end. She’s wearing a blue T-shirt and jean shorts, and when she picks up the cardboard box at her feet, she struggles. It must be heavy. Her kinky hair is tied low into twin buns, and she nudges the door open with her foot.

Peter has those shoes, too.

Converse—pink ones. Really? Tony said when he saw the kid wearing them for the first time. Pink?

It’s 2018, Mr. Stark, Peter laughed. He was sitting on one of Tony’s lab tables next to a soldering kit, kicking his legs out and adjusting his goggles with one gloved hand and reaching into a bag of Tostitos with the other. Everyone’s gotta have something pink. Otherwise, you’re, like, supporting the patriarchy. He stretched his legs out so they were closer to Tony, and the kid grinned. I love them.

Tony rolled his eyes. I wasn’t complaining about the color choice, buddy. You don’t have to hound me about deconstructing masculinity, Peter—I own fourteen silk shirts in varying shades of pink and a suit in fuchsia. Sometimes, you just gotta shake things up.

That’s what I think! cried Peter through a mouthful of chips.

No talking with your mouth full—jeez, whoever taught you about toxic masculinity forgot to teach you about table manners, good lord, you’re gonna choke—

Peter just grabbed another handful.

He stares at her shoes, and she ducks his gaze, watching the floor intently. “Um…” she starts, just to fill the silence. “Can I…” Just seeing her sickens him, and he flinches when she comes closer, carrying a cardboard box. “I, uh… I brought you more food. Sorry nothing’s fresh, Charlie doesn’t want us going to grocery stores, you know, too conspicuous or whatever, only McDonald’s drive-thrus, so we just, uh… Nevermind. I’ve got fruit this time, though.” She strains to carry the box, shifting it around in her arms. “I’ve gotta, uh…” She gestures with the hand that’s trapped under the box.

It’s clear now that she’s trying to get past him, and Tony shuffles back against the wall, watching the whole way, to let her carry it through the hallway and drop it with a clunk onto the nearest table. Every movement she makes is like a stab to the heart; he hates her with a blaze that he can’t quite explain. The girl visits him once a week, every Sunday, mostly in the night or early morning. “Peaches, pineapple, mixed veggies… Oh, yeah, plus more beans.” She sifts through the box, cans clanking as she does. “Enough for the week, I think, but I’m no nutrition expert, you know? I tried to get enough protein, Renee says you need sixty grams of protein a day, and I got real confused, but at least they put it on the label, or I’d be screwed. I did my best, but Charlie said it didn’t matter too much, as long as I got you enough calories to last…” Her voice trails off as she looks up at him again, and as their eyes meet, something in her face changes. He hopes his eyes cut into her; he hopes she knows how much damage she’s done through his glare alone. “Um.” She averts his gaze once, and then her eyes flit right back, staring openly at his face. It must be obvious that he’s been crying, and that he’s a f*cking mess, but Tony doesn’t give a f*ck. “Are you okay?”

His nostrils flare. Like a pot of boiling oil dumped over his head, that ripping, tearing anger that’s been inside of him all this time breaks through, and all of a sudden he can’t even breathe. “O-okay?” he garbles, and the word is so twisted in his mouth that he can feel it drip acid onto his tongue. “Y-you’re asking—you—m-me i-if–” He hasn’t talked to anyone face-to-face in weeks (his only social interaction being the girl, who he avoids talking to at all costs), and it shows, because somehow all the words are coming out wrong.

“Um,” says the girl again. “Sorry. I’ll just keep, um, doing, the…” But she doesn’t move, unable to break their locked eye contact, and Tony’s rage builds. How can she stand her, looking so normal and innocent, when she and her friends do all that sh*t to his kid?

He wants to tear this girl to f*cking shreds—she’s the one who did this, the one who tortured Peter and made his kid scream for him, put him in so much pain that he sobbed even when no one was touching him at all. Without thinking, Tony lunges at her with both hands outstretched, staggering forward with his aching body, blood-tinged fury edging his vision. “Y-y-you did this!” he shouts, and although his voice sounds more like a raspy screech, he means every bit of it.

Startled, the girl ducks his grasp, slipping over stray papers and running to the other side of the lab. “I didn’t do anything!” she yells back.

He barely has any control over his body; he throws himself, all quivering muscles and soured rage, in the direction of that sad*stic girl. “Y- you —”

“I’m not like them!” When he comes closer, she bolts again. She’s too fast for him, especially in this state, and he keeps tripping over his own feet and falling into walls. “Stop—stop! I didn’t do it, I promise, I didn’t—”

“Y-you—how could—you—you—”

“It’s not me, I didn’t hurt him, I’ve never—ah!” She trips over Tony’s prototype and ends up sprawled on the ground, and before Tony can stop himself, he falls, too, his legs stumbling over empty air, and falls only a few feet from her. She can get up again, Tony’s on his way to her, moving frantically, half-crawling and about to grab her, when the f*cking phone rings.

Tony stops in his tracks, hand only a foot from the girl’s arm; a chill spirals down his back. She freezes, too, and then scrambles away from him. It keeps ringing, the nauseating sound pulsating through the room, and Tony can feel the blood drain out of his face and gather in his chest, weighing him down. No . The girl doesn’t look victorious or smug, even; in fact, she looks just as scared as he feels. She looks young then, in her wide, scared eyes and her shaking limbs.

She looks like Peter.

The girl glances in the direction of the phone, swallows, and then looks at him. He doesn’t want to look at the TV or the phone; he shakes his head a little, blinking, and when he gets up, the dizzying world tilts on its axis, and he crashes straight into the nearest table, stomach tightening with dread. The only thing that kept him running was his anger, and now that that’s died in anticipation of another phone call, all he feels is weak. His limbs quiver helplessly, and now he’s floored on his side like he was when he woke up today, crushed by the unspeakable weight of his thoughts. Tony f*cked up...badly. What would Charlie do to Peter now that he’d tried to attack the girl? What was he thinking? What, was he going to attack a girl probably the same age as Peter?

His legs shake; battered shame flushes through him, forming aching stones in his throat and stomach. Now he has to answer for what he’s done, and Peter will pay the price.

He struggles to get back up, and when he does, he has to grip the lab table for support. Tony forces himself to look to the phone, finding not only that the ringing has stopped, but that the girl has picked up the phone and is holding it to her ear. She stares at Tony, and planets cease to orbit in her irises. “Hey,” she says into the receiver, all the while watching Tony with this helpless, conflicted gaze, “it’s me.”

Garbled, angry shouts grate on the other end.

“No, he wasn’t. He—no—I’m fine, I promise. He wasn’t trying to hurt—”

More shouting.

“No—no, don’t do that! You can see him, too, can’t you? He’s on the ground, he’s not, like, a danger to anybody. He’s just sick.” What is she doing? Sweat trickles down his neck and from his armpits as his dread of the situation builds. “No, no, he didn’t. He was just confused. Like, uh, feverish.” She frowns, eyeing the prototype on the floor a few feet from her worn pink Converse. “No! No. Seriously. I think I should stay with him.” Stay with… “He can wait in the car—seriously, I can help him finish the prototype and everything. He’s in no shape to do it by himself.”

Frustrated talking.

“Yeah. No. You can watch the whole time. I’m just trying to help the process, just—” Her eyes meet Tony’s. “I know. Yeah. I will. Yeah.” The corners of her mouth settle into a firm line. “Ok. Got it. Thanks.” Her shoulders fall. “Love you, too. Yeah, I got it. Bye.”

Then she puts the phone back into its cradle like she’s placing a baby in its carrier.

Instinctually, Tony glances at the TV screen; it’s black, thank God. “Wh-what was that?” Tony manages.

The girl’s gnawing on her lip. “I got you till five.”

“To what?”

“Finish the job.”

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 3:28 AM — DAY 33

Behind his eyes, the world bleeds, white to red to black and back again. Pain bubbles over his skin and drenches him, seeping into his bones like a cold bath. One piece at a time, his senses return to him. He’s laying on his side with his hands folded over his stomach; when he twitches his fingers, blood slides between them. His head swims with pain; maybe Charlie used his hammer again. He strains, but he can’t move without searing pain spiking through his stomach. His memories of the past couple of days are so...blurry. A hammer. A knife. A wire.

Someone is whimpering in the corner, and he remembers—Cassie. His lips feel numb, but he mumbles, “Cassie?”

Across their shared cell, a little girl curled in a ball stops her crying and sniffles. “Peter?” She can’t crawl, not with her bad hand, but she half-scoots over to him on one hand and two knees until she’s only a foot away from him. Tears glisten in her eyes, shining in the fluorescent light flickering above them. “You wouldn’t wake up,” she whimpers. “I thought—I thought—”

“I’m okay,” he groans. His back hurts, too. Stripes of pain all the way down. “Don’t...worry.”

“You were bleeding so much, Peter!”

“I know, kiddo. You’ve seen me bleed...before, though, right? I was...fine then, I’ll be...fine...now.” Every word gets more difficult to say, every breath shallower than the last. There’s so much pain piled in his gut that it’s even hard for him to concentrate. “What…” Through the weeks they’ve been here, Cassie and Peter have had to make something of a life for themselves, and part of that means picking up their broken pieces after Charlie and their other captors have had them. Sometimes, that means Cassie relaying the past day to Peter after a particularly hard session with Charlie; sometimes, it means he sings her songs and tells her stories so that she’ll forget that she might not ever see her family again.

He looks down at his stomach, where something went in, probably a knife, down near his right hip. He’s lucky they didn’t hurt Cass that time, but honestly, he can’t remember. It’s all so… slippery in his mind. “They didn’t,” he starts, and when he moves, his muscles scream, so he slumps back to the floor. “...touch you, did they?”

She shakes her head. Her knees stay curled up to her chest, and she sniffs again, upset. “No. Just you.”

He relaxes a little. If there’s nothing he can do here to help Mr. Stark or anyone else, at least he can protect Cassie. She’s only seven, and she doesn’t deserve this. No one does. The top of his jumpsuit is unbuttoned, open wide, and at his stomach is a mass of something; as she moves it to get a better view of his injury, he finds a ratty strips of cloth bundled up against the source of the bleeding. “Can you tell...me what happened?”

Cass looks like she’s gonna start crying again, but she’s become somewhat hardened over the past weeks. “Yeah… Charlie...got you. When you came back, you were bleeding. A lot. I had t’put my stuff on it. And your head was bad, too. Did Charlie use the—the—” She doesn’t have to say it.

“Yeah, Cass. It doesn’t feel” —he winces, nauseous— “too good.”

She scoots closer to where he lies and touches his head gently. They’ve done this many times before; Peter turned it into a game so it’d be easier to remember. It’s called Poke , he said, and when she asked how to play, he explained, If you can see red on my head, then that means there’s something wrong.

But there’s red all ove—

I know, I know… That’s why we’re gonna play, okay?

O-o-okay.

You’re gonna, he continued, take your finger, and gently, gently, you’re gonna poke at my head. Her eyes went wide. And I’m gonna say numbers, from one to ten, and once we get to the highest number I’ll tell you to stop.

Why? she asked, still shaky from seeing the blood on Peter’s head.

Peter grimaced. Because we’ve gotta figure out where it hurts the most so we can fix it.

Now, Cassie pokes and prods, and Peter tells her how much it hurts. “Two. Three. Four—ah! Seven, seven, okay, that’s it…”

She knows what to do; she gets water from the sink and rinses out the most painful spot on his head before pressing a bandage to it. “Sorry I didn’t do it before, Peter… You were sleeping.”

“It’s okay... “ he tells her. “You did good… Promise. Really good. Just keep...pressing on it.”

“There’s more blood this time. And more on your tummy, too.” It’s so strange, the way she says it:this timeandtummyand Charliegot you. It makes their horror show of a life sound more like a game than a nightmare.

Peter winces. “I know…” He can’t remember what he did to earn this kind of punishment. His head and limbs are tingly from loss of blood, and when he looks at the wound, removing Cassie’s balled-up bandages, it’s a severe gash. He’s no doctor, but he’s seen enough Supernatural to know what counts as deadly, and this one’s awfully close. Charlie tends to save his more extreme methods for days when either Peter or Mr. Stark has done something to warrant it. So what happened? “Can you go over...to the Treasure Chest...Cass?”

She nods, crawling back over to their Treasure Chest. Cassie insisted they call it that, even though, as a dented metal bucket bolted into the floor, it looked nothing like a treasure chest. However, it does contain every good thing they currently possess, mostly the little things slipped in with their food by those who took pity on them. Gauze. Candy. Advil. Bandages. Needle and thread. Stickers. Children’s Tylenol. Disinfectant. Mostly, it comes from the one who gives them their food every day: Ava.

She’s the only person in this place who doesn’t treat them like absolute sh*t. She’s an addict like the rest, that’s for sure, but she always slips little gifts in with their food. Toothpaste. Soap. Medicine. Snacks. He doesn’t know where she gets all of it, but it’s clear that she’s a little like them. There’s this pain that patters behind her eyes, but it’s the pain of a victim, not an aggressor. Her steps are hesitant, not angry like Charlie’s. They always know when she’s coming. Ava gives them the blessing of cavity-free teeth, lessened pain, and full stomachs on those wonderful, random days.

They keep all of their special treats in what Cassie named their ‘treasure chest.’ In it, they put the toys from their Happy Meals, the medicine, the reused bandages, and all of the other gifts they’ve been given. They only open it when they absolutely need to, because their supplies are worryingly limited. “What should I get?” the little girl asks.

“The blue bottle” —he automatically moves to point, but sorely regrets it as pain rocks his entire torso, hissing sharply— “and the needle...stuff. See it?”

There’s not much to rifle through in the Treasure Chest, so, as Peter expects, she says, “Um, yeah.”

“...good.”

The past month in this place has been like hell. They tend to stay away from Cassie, which is good, but the people who are holding them captive don’t care very much how they’re keeping two kids alive. They eat McDonald’s three times a day unless Ava gives them something else, and it’s not enough for Peter’s fast metabolism (something he’s yelled through the food slot when the hunger pangs sift through his head and squeeze into his belly in mad desperation), but he has to deal with it. Three Happy Meals a day. That’s it. That’s all they get. Each one comes with a toy, which is one of their few blessings in this place, so inside their Treasure Chest is quite a collection of different toys from their first month here—toys with National Geographic Kids imprinted on the bottom, mostly, tigers and frogs and stingrays. He was never one of those animal-obsessed kids—he’d always say his favorite animal was a dog, but Cassie knows them all by heart. That’s a bottlenose dolphin, she told him, holding out the plush toy to him with a smile.

Yeah? he asked, because Cassie doesn’t smile a lot these days, what do they do?

Cassie’s smile grew even bigger. They’re like porpoises! But they’re… She can talk about animals for hours on end (sometimes, she does), and Peter never grows tired of it. It’s hard to keep his hopes up these days, especially with the extensive damage to his body and their failed escape attempts.

However, as they moved into May, their Happy meals stopped coming with animals and instead came with miniature games wrapped in plastic. Hungry, Hungry Hippos and Connect 4 and other things. Cassie was hesitant at first, but she quickly realized it meant they could play games that she didn’t have to picture entirely inside of her mind. She loved Hungry, Hungry Hippos, even though only one of her hands was able to play it. Yesterday, they even got a game of Trouble with their burgers. Or was that last week?

It’s so hard to remember things now.

He worries, sometimes, that he’s forgetting what they look like—Mr. Stark, Aunt May, Ned, MJ… Even Flash. He can’t bring Flash’s face into his mind, and that scares him to his core. This is their thirty-third day inside of this room, and it’s hard to believe that they’ll get out anytime soon. They found a loose nail under the bed—with it, they keep track of the days, to the best of their ability, by making shallow scratches in the leftmost wall, by the sink. Their scratches are horizontal, in groupings of ten. Why don’t we make it up and down? Cassie asked him once he started making the tic marks in the wall. When I do them, they always go up and down.

Peter didn’t know how to explain it to her. The entirety of the back wall, the one behind their bed, is covered in tic marks. Some of them are grouped together, yet some aren’t, almost like there have been different people inside of this room before. He didn’t know how to say if they stayed here for a long time (if they were never rescued), then he didn’t want their tic marks to get mixed up with the ones of prisoners from the past.

How is he supposed to explain that to a seven-year-old girl?

Cassie’s coming over to his side now, holding the bottle of disinfectant and the needle and thread. His hands are shaking; he holds them out to her, thanking her weakly as he takes the items from her. “It’s bad?” she says, quieter.

She knows it’s bad because Peter tries never to use their stash of supplies.

He blinks in defeat. “...yeah. It’s bad.”

Although he’s done it a few times since they arrived, suturing his wounds closed (like some kind of teen-movie Frankenstein) doesn’t get any less scary. Especially now, with his swimming vision and shaking hands, but the practice does make the act itself easier. He’s no seamstress, nothing like May with all her revamped, thrifted clothes; why is it suddenly funny to him that the only thing he’s ever sewed is his own skin?

He has her talk to him as he does it—otherwise, he gets lost in the pain and the blood and can’t pull himself out. “Why did he…get me so...bad this time?”

Cass looks wounded as she answers, tucking her greasy, dark hair behind her ears. “You don’t remember it?”

“No, Cass…”

“We… You…” Miserable, she stabs at the floor with her fingers. “We tried to get out again.”

He blinks. “Wha—I…” He closes his eyes for a second, pausing in his process, as he tries to remember.

“Escape Plan,” Cassie reminds him, with a capital P. “Remember?”

“No… You wanna tell me...what we did?”

She blinks at him, frowning, and lets out this small, tired sigh. “It doesn’t matter. We didn’t do it.”

“How...far?”

“We got all the way to the hallway...” She pokes at the floor again. “And then I could hear Daddy so I went to him, but... he was the other way and you told me not to—”

f*ck. He remembers, all right. “Oh,” he says now, like someone just punched him in the stomach. It’s half there in his mind—blurry and drenched in a drug-tainted haze, but it’s there. He remembers screaming Cassie—no! as she slipped from his grasp and ran for her dad, and how he stared at the doorway and thought— I could leave without her —and was body-slammed by one of the other guards before his idea could fester into reality. “Oh…” How could he think that—to leave this little girl to fend for herself just so he could escape? It’d be the same as killing her. If he was gone, their leverage over Mr. Stark would be gone, and they wouldn’t need the rest of their hostages. They’d kill them all, most likely. How could he think something so horrible ?

After he ties off the thread and slumps on the floor with a pained sigh, he beckons Cassie closer. “I’m sorry we...didn’t make it,” he says. “And I’m sorry...we can’t...see your dad.”

Now she’s crying, but they’ve gotten so used to crying around each other that Peter knows what to do. “C’mere—careful,” he says, and he moves his arm so that she can lie down and curl up in his skinny arms. Once she’s comfortable, he wraps his arm around her and holds her close. “It’ll be...okay,” he tells Cassie, and the little girl cries more, burying her face in his bloodied shirt.

Peter wishes now that there was someone here to tell him everything would be okay, but it’s just him and Cassie. There’s no Mr. Stark to fix everything this time.

He holds Cassie and tells it to her instead.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 4:12 AM

A clattering noise behind him startles him so much that he jumps to his feet, one hand jumping to his hip. It’s only Maggie, dressed in sweatpants and a towel robe, rubbing her eyes at a pan on the ground. “Sorry,” she says, and Jim drops his hand. “Couldn’t sleep.”

They don’t talk much anymore. Maggie works part-time at a nursing home, but she stopped working once Cassie was kidnapped. She spends most of her time in bed or near-comatose on the couch as the TV flashes in front of her. Only recently has she gotten up and been more productive, visiting the nursing home to put in her hours, going to the police station with him to inquire about their daughter. Yet still, she’s nothing like the woman she was before.

To be fair, Jim isn’t anything like the man he was, either. With Cassie gone, there’s a void in their lives that can’t be filled with booze or sleep or punching bags. Cassie is now a gaping hole in his chest that he can’t make go away, no matter how many times he calls for updates on her case.

“It’s okay,” Jim says with a shrug. He doesn’t look much better, dressed in the same T-shirt he’s been wearing for the past couple days and boxers he’s been wearing for me. The police force put him on temporary stress leave after he recovered from his head injury, so he hasn’t had anything to do but ‘harass the station to no end,’ as his coworker Julia put it. “What time…”

“Four,” Maggie answers. She looks exhausted, and her hair is pulled back in a scraggly half-bun. “I’m gonna make...breakfast. You want anything?”

She’s swaying on her feet.

Jim shakes his head. “Sit down, honey. I’ll make you whatever you need.” She doesn’t fight him on it; she just slumps into a seat at their kitchen counter and buries her head in her arms. He starts cooking, cracking eggs into a pan and adding shredded cheese, ham, and red peppers to it. This is how Maggie likes her eggs; Jim knows it by heart. He forms it into a messy omelet and slides it onto a plate. “Here. Need anything else?”

Maggie shakes her head tiredly, and Jim goes. Maggie would much rather be alone these days, anyway. He takes his mug of coffee upstairs with him. He’s supposed to be back on the force next week, but he doesn’t know what he’ll do once he is. Once he became Cassie’s father, his whole world changed. Now, he doesn’t know what he is. As a police officer, he knows the statistics. Cassie’s most likely dead, or… Every time he thinks about it he wants to drink until his face goes numb. Julia and the others swear they’re giving him every update they can, but there’s not much evidence to go off of, so there are scarcely any updates at all.

Maggie’s like a ghost, and Cassie is truly gone.

Without them, Jim is lost.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 5:59 AM

“Hand me the, uh…”

Riri passes him the screwdriver she’s holding.

Tony takes it from her and then makes a grunt of frustration when it doesn’t work. “No, the, um…” She takes the screwdriver back, replaces the screw head with the smaller one, and hands it back. “Oh...thanks.”

Tony tries to work it, but his hands are shaking so badly that Riri slides the weapon to her side of the lab table and does it herself, twisting each screw into place. “What’s wrong with your hands?” she asks. There's been light conversation between the two of them for the past few hours, usually pass me that or don’t touch that, but conversation nonetheless.

“Nothing,” the middle-aged man snaps, and he slides over to the computer. “FRIDAY—” He stops, falters, grumbles again, and staggers to the other side of the room. He doesn’t look good. Riri’s seen her fair share of broken men, and Tony Stark is one of them. He looks tired to the bone, hunched over his computer now, typing clumsily.

She clears her throat. “Do you think this one’ll work?” she asks, just to ease the tension.

“No.” He finishes tapping at the keyboard and returns to the table.

“No?” Riri doesn’t know a lot, but she does know about Tony Stark. He was her icon—that’s what makes this so strange. After Riri’s brother Eric was killed doing drug deals, she lived with a foster family that saw her love for robotics and computers and catered to it. They got her her first Iron Man poster and took her to coding classes, where she learned as much as she could before Charlie came back into her life. “What—are you, like—what do you mean?”

Tony Stark ignores her.

Riri frowns. “Mr. Stark…” He gives her such a rigid glare that her voice dies in her throat.

He keeps tinkering with it, sliding parts into place until finally he raises it. It seems mostly finished, but he says, “None of them will work the way your friend wants them to.”

“He’s not my friend,” she responds quickly. He's my...What is Charlie to her, anyway? He and her brother Eric were like brothers at some point. What does that make him, her uncle? Her mentor? Her guardian?

Tony lifts the weapon with both hands, points it at the wall, and fires with a blazing explosion of light. “So you’re not… helping them...torture my…” he rambles, his voice dry.

“No,” she interrupts. “I’m not like them.”

Tony scoffs darkly. “Sure.”

“It’s true! I’m—” The truth is, she doesn’t really know who she is. Sure, she ran away from her family to join Charlie and his friends, but it wasn’t because she wanted to hurt anyone. She just missed her brother and thought that, well, Charlie would make some of that aching pain go away. He didn’t. All he ever managed to do was dig her grave even deeper. And now he’s got her mixed up in this… “I just…”

“You just what? Help?” he snaps. “Watch as they... As they do that to him?”

“No! You’ve seen what they do—I hate it! I wanna be in school, I’d rather be anywhere else! What they’re doing to Parker—”

Peter.”

“Yeah, Peter, sorry, and Lang and that little girl—it’s horrible. I never thought they’d—they’d ever do something like that! I just wanted a family, that’s all. We weren't... This wasn't the original plan. It was never supposed to...” She shrugs a little. "It was never supposed to go on this long."

He frowns. “How old are you?” he asks.

“Fifteen,” she answers.

His eyes are like shattered glass. “Then why…” He shakily adjusts a wire with some pliers. “...are you...with them? You could...”

“They’re my family,” she says simply. It was true. Charlie and Renee and their friends had taken care of her ever since she left her foster family, providing her with food, shelter, people who cared about her well-being… Sure, most of them were drug addicts, but they were the last connection she had to her late brother. “I can’t just leave them.”

“They’re torturing my kid,” Tony Stark chokes out, and his hands are shaking more now. Riri didn’t know Peter was his son—Jesus Christ. “How can you just…”

She ducks her head; shame flickers through her. It’s something she thinks about a lot. How can she stay with them, knowing all the sh*t they do? Knowing they tortured people? Tortured kids? She’s not a bad person, but does staying with them make her one? Charlie and everyone else…are they bad people, too? “I… I don’t know. I guess… They’re the only people I have left.”

Stark stares at her for a couple more seconds, but he doesn’t say anything. They sit in silence, Riri with her palms sweating as Stark adjusts the gun. He finishes fixing the weapon on his own, screwing a metal plate in place, and finally sets it down. “I think it’s done,” he says.

“I thought you said it wouldn’t work—”

“It won’t.” He sighs. “What Charlie wants… I don’t know if I can make it for him.”

“He just wants your, you know…” She gestures over at a dead Iron Man suit that’s stationed, limp, in the corner of the room. “...arc stuff. Just like HYDRA had.”

“HYDRA had a Tesseract.”

“A what?”

“It’s had…” He scratches his graying hair. “...a lot of names. It’s advanced, alien technology—something I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to replicate.”

“But your arc—”

“—gets close to it. I keep trying to strengthen it, but I don’t know...if I can ever…” He coughs. “...get close to what Charlie wants. Disintegrating people. Making it so they...never existed.”

“He doesn’t want to disintegrate anyone,” Riri assures him. Charlie’s no killer. “He just wants...the power, you know? The bigger stick.”

Tony gives her another fiery glare and doesn’t respond to her comment. “Take it,” he says, pointing to the weapon sitting between them. “It’s done. Bring it back to him.”

For some reason, she doesn’t want to take it. “Are you gonna be okay?”

Tony Stark—the merchant of Death, Iron Man, billionaire, Avenger, the world’s greatest hero—looks at her with teary eyes and a broken face, and shakes his head.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 7:34 AM

Scott hums as he works, scrubbing over the metal chair. He doesn’t get a lot of supplies from his captors, but they give him plenty of water and soap, enough to clean up the room after each nightly session. “Can’t be messy,” he reminds himself. “Can’t be...messy…” He laughs a little, to himself.

He can almost hear Cassie’s little voice behind him, squealing, “Daddy! I made a mess, I made a mess!”

He turns his wheelchair around and spots her, there, a phantom of a girl, wearing her shark pajamas, her dark hair tied back into two braids. “What’d you do, Cassie-pie?”

She raises her hands, giving him a big smile. “Me and Jim were painting, see?” They’re covered in bright blue, and as Scott glances around the room, he sees it all; she has made quite a mess.

“I see,” he says, smiling. “We’ll have to get that cleaned up right away, before Mommy sees, right? Where’d Jim go?”

“He went to wash his hands—look, I’m all blue!”

“Yeah, you’re really blue,” Scott answers. “Lemme help you clean up, honey—c’mere.”

She giggles and climbs into the big chair. “Sorry, Daddy!”

“Don’t worry about it—we’ll wash it all out, I promise. Think you can stay still for me?” She nods, still as he washes the blue from her hands and the streaks of paint off of her face with gentle strokes. Is the soap okay for kids? He and Maggie always buy the kind that doesn’t sting if it gets in her eyes. Cassie hums carelessly. “What’re you humming, Cassie-pie?”

“Lucy,” she replies pleasantly. Yes. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, Cassie’s favorite song of all time. Somehow, she could remember every word of the song, even the strangest of lyrics.

“Ah,” Scott says, and he joins in, humming loudly to the lyric about cellophane flowers of yellow and green…

“Shut the hell up!”

Scott jolts at the sudden voice, glancing at the chair where Cassie was and starts humming faster and faster, hoping his little girl will come back.

A door slams open. “Who the f*ck are you talking to, anyway? The computer?”

Scott scrubs harder at the blood-splattered metal, wishing he could walk away, but he can't. Not in this wheelchair. He swallows. “She… She…”

“Answer me, dammit! Can’t we get one second of peace without you going completely f*cking crazy?”

Scott shakes his head, shakes it hard. “She’s… Hm…” He can see glimpses of her in the corner of his eyes, but he refuses to look. “Don’t touch her, y-you… can’t…” He shakes again.

The man approaching him—Jon, he recognizes, one of the younger ones—waves from beside him. “What is it, Lang, huh? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“D-don’t—”

Jon kicks at Scott’s wheelchair, sending him wheeling back into the wall, and Scott squeezes his eyes shut. “I didn’t—please, I didn’t—”

“Shut up!” he shouts. “Any more of this, and I’ll go get your kid and—”

“N-n- no!

“That’s what I thought—so keep quiet, Lang!”

He nods furiously, eyes open. Jon slams the door to the room, and Scott’s alone again.

It’s better alone, he knows, because whenever they’re here, the room is filled with screams, and the chair is stained with blood. Cassie’s blood. Peter’s blood. His blood.

He keeps scrubbing.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 8:04 AM

A book slams on the table in front of him beside his plate of untouched cafeteria food, and he jumps. “Uh—”

It’s a Stephen King novel—Misery, he reads on the worn cover—and it belongs to two brown hands in two gray sleeves of a sweater dress belonging to one Michelle Jones. “That’s it. I’m done with this. Come on—we’re getting out of here.”

“Dude,” Ned replies tiredly, “I’m still eating my lunch, the—”

“Let’s not kid ourselves, Nedward ,” she snaps, throwing his half-done homework into his backpack and lugging it over her free shoulder. “You’re not gonna touch that stuff—Jesus Christ, what do you have in here, bricks?”

“Books,” he mumbles. And although she hates how she says it, she’s right. He’s less hungry these days—he either eats until he’s stuffed himself silly or forgets to eat altogether. These days… He lives from one day to the next, shuffling to each class with his head down, unable to focus on his next task. There’s still a box full of Legos for a Quinjet that he and Peter never finished. Dude—it’s the Quinjet ! he exclaimed when they spotted it online. Haven’t you, like, ridden in it?

Peter’s eyes were as big as saucers, and he tapped on the screen of Ned’s laptop. I wish, Ned—that’s so cool! Wow, it’s got the turbine fans and everything! Man, I wish Mr. Stark would let me ride in it sometime.

Dude, dude, dude! If he lets you ride the Quinjet you gotta ask to take me, too, okay?

Peter elbowed him. Of course! I’ll never ride without you, I swear.

Ned aches at the thought of his best friend, but MJ keeps tugging at his arm. “Fine, whatever, let’s go.”

He sighs. “Lunch isn’t finished—”

“I’ve got food, don’t worry about it. Now get your butt up.”

Clearly, MJ is not planning on letting this one go, so Ned sighs, wraps up what he can of his lunch, and shoves it into his backpack. “Where are we going?” he grumbles, starting to stand up.

MJ doesn’t answer, stomping through the hallway like she’s about to flood it with stormtroopers. Ned follows, turning corner after corner until they make it to the art room, which is empty of any other students. The room is strewn with paintings and sculptures and sketches, some of which Ned immediately recognizes as MJ’s unique drawing style. There’s even a pencil drawing of Peter and Ned hanging in the corner. Ned swallows.

MJ sits him down at one of the wide art desks and then turns the chair next to them so that she’s facing him. “Okay,” she starts, “I know about Peter.”

Ned’s too exhausted to feign surprise; instead, he just hardens in irritation. “Yeah, he’s gone for a research program—”

“—in Alaska, yeah, I remember what you said, but I’m sick of you lying to me, dude.” She looks stern, nothing like the usually apathetic MJ that he knows. “That’s bullcrap, and I don’t think I have to explain to you all the reasons why it makes no sense.”

Ned shrugs his shoulders. “I told you the truth already, MJ. You’re making a big deal outta nothing.”

MJ glares at him. “Ned—we’re friends . I don’t,” she huffs, “have many of those. And the ones I do, they’re my friends because I trust them. That means I know when you’re lying—I’m not stupid. I figured out Peter’s Spider-Man.”

Ned snorts, but his face warms. “Peter’s not Spider-Man. Spider-Man’s gotta be, like, a college student or something. Have you seen the videos? He can, like, throw cars and stop trains and stuff. Peter can barely manage three pushups in gym class.”

“Ned…” She frowns, flipping the rest of her natural hair over her shoulder. “I remember the weekend before he left for his ‘research program’ or whatever. You hadn’t heard from him. And that Monday, remember that?”

“Yeah, well, he forgot to tell me when he was leaving for the program, so what—”

“So you didn’t know, ” she emphasizes, scooting her chair forward. She examines his face. “I know what you look like when you’re freaking out—you do it before every decathlon competition. And you were freaking out .”

Ned shrugs. “That doesn’t mean anything.”

She huffs again. “Do I really have to spell this out for you, Leeds? You don’t have to keep covering for him—”

“I’m not—”

“—because I know! The day Peter left for his ‘program,’ Spider-Man stopped showing up to save the day. The crime went up, Ned. I’ve done my research. Robberies, muggings, kidnappings, everything. Spider-Man’s not around anymore.”

“I know that,” Ned mumbles, and he fiddles with his sweatshirt, trying not to look at her. How does she know so much? He guesses he shouldn’t be surprised; MJ’s the smartest one on the decathlon team (that’s why she’s club president), but he never thought this would happen. “That doesn’t mean…”

“Plus, I’ve heard you guys talking about Spider-Man before. You never shut up about him.” She chuckles nervously. “Before this, I thought you guys were just, like, obsessed with him—like Flash is—but turns out it’s ‘cause Peter is him. It’s awesome!”

Ned lets out a frustrated breath. “Can you just let this go?” he says, disgruntled. “So, great—you think you’ve figured out the big secret, that some high school kid in Queens in Spider-Man. Congratulations. Can I go now?”

MJ, who’s looking a little pleased with herself now, blinks in surprise. “Dude,” she says firmly. “I didn’t bring you here just to talk about Spider-Man.”

“Then what do you want to talk about?” he snaps. “‘Cause lunch is literally gonna end soon, so if you don’t have anything important to say, I’m gonna go finish my lunch somewhere else.”

Instead of that half-triumphant expression she had on just a moment ago, MJ’s face now fades to dejection. “Dude,” she says again, “I wanted to talk about you.”

Ned shakes his head. “Me?”

“Yeah, I—”

“Well, I’m fine." She's still watching him. "Are you done?”

MJ holds fast. “No! No, dude, I’m not done! You’re not fine!”

Ned rolls his eyes, but inside him, his heart starts to race. “Oh my god—”

“You barely talk to anyone anymore,” she starts, flustered. “To me or any of the others. You rarely come to decathlon practice, and I’ve seen you sulking in the band room when you were supposed to be in calc!”

Sulking? Ned glances at the clock above the paint-spotted door. How much more of this will he have to take?

“Ever since Peter left for his thing, you’ve been...seriously depressed.”

“I’m not depressed,” he barks. “I miss my best friend—is that a crime?”

Taken aback, MJ shakes her head. “No, Ned. Of course not. I just… I know what you’re going through, okay? That’s what I wanted you to hear. I miss him, too. But he’s Spider-Man, he’s probably off doing Avengers stuff with all the rest of them, you know? He’ll be okay, I believe he’ll be okay, I know how you’re feeling—”

“Just stop, MJ. You don’t know anything about what I’m feeling!” He stands up, and his teeth press together so hard that he can feel them grind. “There’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing going on, so just leave it alone! You’re always trying to find the conspiracy, aren’t you? Always trying to get to the bottom of things, but there’s nothing here, so drop it!” As if on cue, the bell rings, alerting the whole school to the start of the passing period, so Ned heaves his backpack onto his back, holding the straps, and heads for the door. “Stay out of my life, MJ. It’s none of your business.”

She stands before him, mouth slightly open. But before she can say anything else, he walks out into the crowd of students, desperately hoping she’ll forget all about Peter and Spider-Man.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 10:15 AM

Pepper never wants to eat eggs again. As they climb up her throat and she vomits into the toilet, the rancid taste of them seems infinite. As someone raps softly on the bathroom door, she clutches each porcelain side and vomits again. “You okay in there?”

It’s Rhodey’s voice. He’s at the house too often now, checking up on her and asking for updates about Tony. He’s gone over to the lab a couple times to try to coax Tony out without any luck.

He knocks again, but he doesn’t open it. “Need anything?”

She’s already at the sink, nausea twisting in her belly as she rinses her mouth with tap water. “No,” she says.

“You sure?”

She dries her face with a towel and finally opens the door. I need my old life back. “Yeah,” she says instead.

Later, when they’ve settled in the living room, Pepper under two blankets on her laptop as Rhodey flips through news channels. “I thought you said it was food poisoning,” he comments, stealing a glance at her from the other side of the couch.

He’s been staying with her for a couple of weeks, ever since she told him about what Tony did. Even if he’s not sleeping at the compound, he still heads upstate just so he can check on her. “A stomach bug, then,” she says without looking at him. “It’ll go soon, hopefully.”

“Okay…” he responds. He’s giving her that look, the I-know-you’re-lying-but-I-won’t-call-you-out look. “You know, my sister used to get really anxious in high school, and” —he gives up on the news channels, clicking Netflix open on the television— “her stomach got upset whenever she was really stressed out—she’d throw up before tests, that kind of thing.”

She scoffs. “You think this is stress?”

“No—I didn’t say that. Just…”

“What do I have to be stressed about, Rhodey? The company’s doing great, Tony’s out of the picture, I have a lot more free time—”

“Pepper,” he sighs, his mechanically braced legs shifting over the couch.

“What?”

“Let’s not pretend, okay? I know you’re still thinking about Tony—hell, I am, too. I’m worried sick about you and worried sick about him—”

“I’m not thinking about him,” she snaps. “Until he stops hiding out in his lab like a scared toddler, I don’t need to think about him, and it doesn’t look like he’s coming out any time soon.”

There is, of course, the elephant in the room. Tony hit her. It’s the reason she won’t go back to the lab to check on him and the reason why she refuses to talk to Rhodey about him, but it’s there. Rhodey already knew about it—he was the first one she called when she got back to the house, crying, holding an ice pack to a cheek that would probably not even bruise.

“Of course you’re thinking about him,” Rhodey sighs. “I know how much he means to you—and I know you’re still thinking about it.”

“That was weeks ago—”

“Pepper,” her friend says firmly, “what he did changed everything—it’s not going to be that easy to forget.”

Her throat tightens. She keeps replaying the slap in her mind, just like she used to, trying to figure out what she did wrong. It’s so hard to remember that she didn’t do anything to deserve it that sometimes, she chooses to block it all out instead. “Well, what” —her traitorous throat clenches again— “do you suppose I do? Go and beg for forgiveness? I’m not that kind of person anymore.”

“You haven’t been that person in a long time,” he agrees, “and I wasn’t suggesting anything like that. I just… I think maybe… Maybe something’s wrong.”

“Obviously, something’s wrong—Tony broke his goddamn promise.”

“No,” Rhodey says. “I mean, something’s wrong with him. ” He sighs again, running a hand over his recently shaved head. Now, he’s standing up, pacing, and Pepper’s computer is beside her. “The Tony I know would never do anything like that to you—”

“Well, he did.”

Rhodey grimaces. “I know, but he…” He scratches at his chin. “I don’t know. All of this... Being locked in his lab, acting out towards you—”

“He hit me, Rhodes,” she barks, and this wave of grief hits her as she says it, bringing a fresh wave of tears to her eyes. “This wasn’t a normal fight. He told me he didn’t love me, he told me he didn’t want me, and then he hit me.” Rhodey’s face twists in quieted woe. “I’m not going to sit here and unpack this with you like we’re tween girls at a sleepover, because despite what you think, there doesn’t need to be a reason or an explanation; he did it.” She has to take a deep breath to keep her voice from fading out completely. “He just showed his true colors, that’s all.”

The silence sways between them. She doesn’t look back at him again. She can’t.

“Fine,” he says after a while. “Then he has to be held responsible.”

“He won’t leave his lab,” Pepper says. “You know that. What are we supposed to do, drag him out of there?”

“If that’s what it takes.” Rhodey faces her. “Tony’s my friend, but he can’t...just hide after what he did. He’s had enough time to feel sorry for himself. He has to take responsibility—for hiding from you and flaking on your company, and for hitting you.”

There’s an anger inside of her, the kind that lights a fire somewhere deep within her but refuses to explode when she needs it to. She stills for a moment, taking in what Rhodey said, and then throws the blankets off of herself. She’s not going to keep moping around the house; she’s gonna face him. He has to know the consequences of what he did. “Then let’s go,” she says harshly, standing up and striding for the front door.

Rhodey’s startled by her sudden movement, and he blinks. “What—”

“We’re gonna get him out of that lab,” she declares, “even if I have to drag that goddamn coward out myself.”

“Pepper, slow down—”

“No,” she snaps. “You’re right—he has to be held responsible for what he did. He can’t keep hiding from us.” She shoves open the door and Rhodey follows close behind her, making small starts of protest. “Now, where do you keep your suit?”

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 2:39 PM

Cassie is jumping up and down on the bed. “Do you think” —one jump— “Ava will” —another jump— “bring us” —third jump— “a treat” —another— “today?”

Peter’s propped up against the wall, half-asleep. He honestly doesn't know where she gets all this energy—Ava gave them extra food today, an apology for the mess of an escape attempt, for the beatings, so their bellies are full for once. Meaning Cassie feels better than she has in weeks. “She gave us one yesterday, Cass.”

“Yeah, but” —an overdramatic flop onto their bed— “I want another one. Like ice cream.”

“You know we can’t get ice cream…” he starts.

“But ice cream always makes me feel better, and it’ll make you feel better, I promise.”

Promise.She's so sweet.

"I'll ask her," the little girl says, "she's my friend. I think she'll bring us some."

Peter lets out a weak laugh. Any more than that and he would send reverberations of pain through his entire torso. “Maybe…" he gives, playing along. "But, uh... I don't know if Ava can bring us something like that. It’s too big, remember? Treats aren’t big.” Cassie doesn’t truly understand how everything in captivity works, but that’s the only way that Peter could explain it to her. Ava can’t bring them anything bigger than a band-aid box because, well, Charlie would throw a fit.

Cassie huffs from where she lies. “Just a little scoop,” she says, and there's that little kid whine to her voice. "I really, really want it."

Peter’s body still aches. Usually Mr. Stark is there to pick up the pieces after he gets himself hurt, but now all he has is Cassie. “Cassie…” he says.

He’s using his Cassie-you-know-we-can’t voice, and he’s had to use it enough times in this hellhole that she understands what he means. “Fine.”

Peter’s been living with this seven-year-old for over a month now, and although her tantrums are minimized, he knows when she’s upset. “Wait!” he says, with all the drama he can muster (all his theatre experience being a fourth-grade rendition of Peter Pan ). “I think I found something right—oh, right here, in my pocket!”

From her spot on the bed, Cassie perks up. “What?”

“It’s a—a—ice cream scooper!” His voice isn’t as strong as he’d like it to be, but when he’s playing with Cassie, it always grows a little stronger. “Just gotta find...the ice cream…”

Cassie knows this game well; pretending they have things they know they won’t is their best way of passing the time. “Here it is!” she stage-whispers pointing to the door beside him. “Look, it’s vanilla and chocolate and strawberry…”

Peter holds out his hand to her. “Here, young lady, would you like to scoop out your own ice cream?” He’s not strong enough to get up and make it to the door to play with her, so he’ll have to improvise. “You can have any flavor you’d like.”

Cassie’s brown eyes light up, and she scooches off the bed and closer to him. “Do you have cookie dough?”

He starts to say of course but something in his torso flares wildly, making him utter a choked whimper instead.

Cassie doesn’t mind. She takes the imaginary scooper from him and makes pleased noises as she makes sweeping motions with her hands, getting scoop after scoop of ice cream.

As soon as Peter comes to his senses, he adds, in a quiet croak, “Jeez, Cass, how many scoops is that?”

“Twenty-one,” she says promptly, like she's been thinking about it all along. “I took all the flavors.”

“All the flavors? Well, you gotta be careful—keep it balanced... Careful, careful...”

Cassie takes on an expression of amused concentration and holds her stack of ice cream scoops like it’s Excalibur and she's King Arthur. “I got it!” Now that Cassie’s engrossed in her ice cream, Peter finally tunes in to what’s happening outside the door: specifically, the voices.

He didn’t notice them before. It’s not uncommon to hear the conversations of their captors, but having been their captives for weeks now, he knows when they’re getting f*cked up. Slurred words, strange laughter, irregular steps… “...in the world!” one shouts, and there’s a strange chorus of agreement. Peter can hear one of them staggering towards their cell door and vomiting, can hear the splatter hit the cement. “We’re gonna be…gonna be….”

“...it’s all gone…” whimpers a second, farther away. “...it's all gone, everything's gone…”

“...gonna be heroes!” finishes the first. "Set for the rest of our lives, do whatever the f*ck we want..."

“Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!” cries a third voice clearer than the rest, and Peter’s heart clenches. There’s no mistaking Charlie’s distinct voice. “I’m the hero! Me! I’m gonna….gonna save the f*ckin’ WORLD! Ross can’t take it from me, no—no one can! I’ll do whatever the f*ck I want, as long as I get what the world owes me! I’ll f*ck up Lang and—and—that freak as much as I have to, I’ll—”

They’re high, Peter thinks, in the split second before it happens. And when they're high, they’re dangerous.

Peter's a teenager—he's seen his fair share of weed passed around high school bathrooms, but whatever it is Charlie and the rest of them like to take... It's not weed. It's nothing he's ever seen. He's spotted it in traces, left in white traces on the noses after they've snorted it, or a clear liquid lingering in an empty syringe. He's seen Charlie take it as a pill—one, then two, then three—and it'll take a few minutes before he's swaying, his head twisting, his eyes going wide, sweat pouring down his face—and then at last that wide, crazy smile.

His Spidey Sense (his Peter tingle, May would call it) is going off like a bank alarm, and Cassie’s still standing by him with her hands outstretched, talking about ice cream flavors, so Peter figures out far too late— “Mint chocolate chip!" she squeals, and she's way, way too loud.

From down the hall, Peter can hear Charlie’s breathing quicken.

It happens too fast. Charlie storms down the hallway with a burst of newfound energy, and a few of his crew follow. He’s screaming something about ungrateful kids and something about Cassie, but their words are so foggy that Peter barely knows what he’s saying.

This time, he realizes with a distinct touch of horror, he’s not strong enough to protect her. “Iron Man!” he shouts, and Cassie looks up, startled. That’s their code word—he’s telling her, get under the bed, hide, I can’t protect you—

But this time, when the door flings open, there’s someone standing in front of it with her arms outstretched, blocking their way. She’s dark-skinned, or maybe it’s just the light, and depressingly thin, with long, tangled hair and twitching hands. “ No! ” she snarls, and her twitching worsens. “I won’t let you hurt them, not again, Charlie! It’s—it’s over!”

“Move out of the f*cking way, Ava!”

Another figure moves in front of the door, and Cassie starts crying. “Charlie, stop!” This new voice is young but firm, and the body it belongs to barely reaches Ava’s shoulder. “This isn’t you—they’re just kids!”

“They’re f*cking disobeying me! They never listen!”

“They’re just playing! Leave them a—” Charlie knocks the smaller girl out of the way with his fist, and she hits the ground, lying there without getting back up.

Peter’s heart races. He knows saying anything will make it worse, so he shuts his mouth. He tries to move towards Cassie but— holy sh*t that hurts— he can’t. His body is a cage, a cage that Charlie molded with his bare hands. He can’t protect Cassie. He can’t stop Charlie from threatening the one good thing in his life. He’s not Spider-Man anymore; he’s too weak. He’s barely Peter Parker anymore. He’s just...a lump of bleeding flesh.

When he looks back up, Ava’s not in the doorway anymore. She’s on the ground, groaning in pain, managing, “Please, Charlie, I—” before Charlie’s fist hits her again. A couple of the others follow suit, pounding the woman into the ground until Peter can hear the squelch of bloody knuckles against her crushed bones.

Cassie cries harder. Thank God she’s not facing the doorway, so she doesn’t have to see all the blood.

But Peter does.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 3:30 PM

As soon as the last bell rings, Ned’s chem class scatters like roaches. His seat is by the door, so when he looks outside and sees MJ glaring at him from the hallway now filling with students, he seethes with a sudden sense of intrusion. What right does she have to invade into his life like this? What he does with his time is his business, not hers.

She weasels her way into the classroom as the other students (and the teacher, who clearly has somewhere to be) flee the room. “What are you doing?” he complains.

“Just gonna walk you to practice,” she comments.

“I don’t need a babysitter.”

“No, but you do need an escort,” she shoots back. “It’s two days a week, Ned—and you barely come to one now.”

“I’m coming,” he tells her. “I’ll meet you there.”

“Ned—”

“I will!”

She lets out a snort of disbelief. “Even if I’m not your friend anymore” —Ned swallows— “I’m still your captain. Come to practice, dude.”

“I’ll be right there,” Ned says, adjusting the straps of his backpack. He checks his watch. 3:12—he has to go.

MJ glares at him. “That’s what you said last time, Leeds,” she protests. “And the time before that.”

“I’ll be there!’ he assures her. “Go lead the team—I just have to finish up something for chem. Decathlon can go on without me for a few minutes.”

She gives him a long, hard stare. “Fine,” she says finally. “But if you’re not there in fifteen, I’m putting you on the reserves.”

Ned gives her a thumbs up, and she rolls her eyes, turning on her heel and heading for the auditorium where the decathlon team practices.

Needless to say, Ned doesn’t return to decathlon practice. He rarely shows up to practice now; MJ’s threatened to kick him off the team at least a dozen times.

Instead, he takes the subway.

He sits at the back of the car with his backpack hugged to his chest. By now, he knows the route; where to get on, where to get off, and where to walk after he gets off the subway.

He travels all the way to a hospital at the edge of Queens, where the receptionist greets him with a kind smile. “Ned! You didn’t come yesterday!”

He shoves his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, sorry… Wasn’t feeling great.”

The nurse smiles at him and gives him a visitor’s pass. “That’s okay, honey. We all have our days.” She waves him away. “Go right ahead—I’ll sign you in.”

“Thanks,” Ned answers, and he pushes through the waiting room of expectant families and anguished friends down the hall, to the elevator, up a couple floors, all the way to Room 317. Once there, he clears his throat and knocks lightly. Someone cracks open the door for him. It’s Trevor, the nurse with long blonde hair who never fails to bring him candy or coffee whenever he accidentally stays too late. “Hey, bud,” says Trevor. “I just did her exercises—how was school?”

Ned shrugs. Trevor’s always so kind, but Ned feels more like a statue than a human being. “Fine.”

“Learn anything cool?”

“Not really.”

“Beat up anyone annoying?”

That gets a low chuckle out of Ned. “I wish.”

Trevor removes his medical gloves in one practiced movement and pats Ned’s shoulder. “Have a good time,” he says.

Ned shrugs again.

As Trevor goes, Ned settles into his usual waiting room chair, the one by the window, and drops his backpack onto the linoleum floor. Unzipping it, he pulls out a handful of books—a series of Star Trek books that are sort of canon—and sets them on the table beside him. “Hey, May,” he says, staring at the woman in the hospital bed in front of him. “Whaddaya wanna read today? More Star Trek?”

May’s ventilator rises and falls.

“Good choice.” It’s nothing more than the usual jokes he makes, but now, in his dull voice, they fall flat. He cracks open the novel they left off at, and he starts to read. He doesn’t know if she’s even into Star Trek (knowing May, she would be), but it’s the only set of books he owns that could last a long period of time. She may never wake up, Trevor told him. Her brain experienced a lot of stress during her accident—that kind of trauma can put people in comas for months. He’d stopped to stare at Ned then. But you don’t know her, right?

No! Ned asserted, nervous. I—um—I just wanna help. Just think everyone should, uh, have some company, at least. Even if she is just a Jane Doe. To the hospital, May Parker is no one. They found her in a car accident without an ID or any other form of identification (which was strange to Ned in and of itself, because May always brought her purse with her everywhere) with significant head trauma, no driver, and possible signs of struggle in the vehicle, a car registered to a Mary Fitzpatrick. To Ned, obviously, he knew that the old car belonged to Peter’s mom before she died, and that they’d never re-registered it to avoid any extra fees or auto insurance. To the hospital and the police, it created a gap of information with a dead registered owner, no driver, and a freshly comatose Jane Doe. Ned wasn’t able to find out where they had taken her until over a week after Peter’s disappearance, where he promptly remembered what Tony had told him and swore to himself never to tell anyone who May was.

Although May’s situation is dire now, he can’t imagine what it would be like if the bad guys behind what happened found out she was here.

So Ned keeps quiet. He comes to the hospital every day after school, if he can, and talks to her. He’ll read or ramble, but it’s better than staring at her lifeless form and all the tubes, needles, and machines. It’s better to imagine she’s just sleeping. She’s the only person he has right now, and he’s not going to leave her to the wolves. He maintains his little facade: to his mom, he’s at daily decathlon practice; to the hospital, he’s a kind young volunteer; and to MJ… Well, MJ’s starting to see right through his cracks.

Honestly, Ned doesn’t know if he can keep this up much longer.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 4:52 PM

The metal mechanisms in the suit enclose over her bit by bit, starting at her torso and spreading over her body until she’s completely encased in the suit. Watching her reflection in the glass, she moves the limbs of the suit, flexing the mechanisms and practicing her movement. She’s lucky he kept a spare suit in their house in case anything happened there.

Now, she’ll be the invincible one.

It’s so hard to think about Tony this way—her enemy, she supposes—when her heart is screaming for him to save him. But how is she supposed to love the person who broke her heart? “We made a promise,” she says, the faceplate lifted so she can glare into the reflective glass. “And you broke it.” That promise meant everything—it’s what makes her who she is today, a woman who can stand with her chin high and say that she’s stronger than her past.

Tony brought it all rushing back.

It’s been weeks, but she can’t forgive him. They buried their trust in each other, through late-night conversations and post-nightmare confessions, like they’d never been able to in past relationships; that was what made them special...or so she thought. She can’t stop replaying what happened in her mind, the way Tony looked at her, the words he said, the way he wound up his hand to hit her, and it’s something that she doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to forget.

She turns the arms of the suit and shifts her feet. “Rhodey,” she calls out, and her friend enters the room, fully encased in his War Machine armor. His feet make massive thumps as he goes, clanging towards her. “Ready to go?” he asks.

“Yeah.” She slams the faceplate down. In the glass, Iron Man stares back at her.

She raises one gauntlet and blasts the glass with a blinding burst of white light.

“I’m ready.”

The lab is still on lockdown when they arrive at the front door, their boots torching the brick as they land their suits. Pepper, who’s only been in a suit a few times, has a more rocky landing than her practiced counterpart, stumbling a little once her boots hit the bricks. “It’s still locked up,” announces Rhodey, banging loudly at the metal sheet over the door with his fist. “Maybe I can—” He anchors his fingers at the edge of the doorway, attempting to peel away at its edges. “Nope—this isn’t coming off, Pepper. Got any—”

She blasts the door a few feet from where Rhodey stands.

“Pepper!”

“What?” she snaps.

He shakes his head as though he’s going to say something, but he remains silent. “Nothing.” He moves away from the entrance. “Let’s just…try knocking first, okay?”

“We’ve tried that enough times,” she declares. “It’s time we get the upper hand.” She raises her hand and, setting her feet, shoots another series of detonations that leave dented, ashy marks in the door. “Come on!”

Rhodey moves back to set her feet beside her, and together, they blast the door to kingdom come. Flames raze the grass at the building’s walls, and the air fills with the thick scent of smoke as they form dents into the metal casing of the door. It goes on for minutes more, but still there’s no response. “Tony, come outside!” shouts Rhodey. “We just want to talk!”

Nothing.

“Tony!” Pepper warms up the gauntlet, and with a particularly strong blast of energy, pounds a big dent into the center of the door. None of it is coming off as she expected it would—their blasts only form marks in the metal. “It isn’t working,” she says.

“If we keep at it,” Rhodey says, his voice muffled behind his faceplate, “then it will. Keep going. We’ll get to him eventually.”

They hammer the door with shots from their gauntlets—annoyed, Pepper says, “Use the one on your back.”

“That could destroy the place,” Rhodey explains. “I’m not going to use it.”

“It’ll be better than this!”

He shakes his head. “It’s too dangerous, Pep—if Tony’s standing behind the door, it could really hurt him.”

“Then don’t you have a higher setting than that? That suit is a weapon of war, Rhodey. Turn it up.”

“I can’t ,” he says. “I don’t want to hurt him.”

Pepper scoffs. “We’re barely making any progress here—he’s probably sitting in there, laughing at us!”

“Pepper,” he warns, “you know that’s not true.”

“Don’t act like you know him,” she snaps, raising her gauntlet again. “He’s a liar and an asshole. That’s all he’s ever been.”

“We don’t know what happened,” Rhodey presses on. “He’s not usually like this; there must be something—”

The indented metal slides away from the door, whining as it scrapes at the front door. Both Pepper and Rhodey stop where they are gauntlets trained on the door, where it reveals Tony.

He looks different.

His hair is longer and grayer, speckled with light strands, and his beard is scruffy, not like the well-manicured one he usually has. He’s wearing boxers and a gray T-shirt, but his clothes are spattered with coffee stains and grime. When was the last time he showered? He’s thinner, too, noticeably so, and holy f*ck, his eyes…

It’s like his irises have shattered completely. Pepper knows he’s had moments like this, times when she walks into his lab and he’s rocking slowly, curled up under a lab table, whispering to himself, unable to hide his breakdown even once she arrives to pull him out of it. His hand twitches at his side. The other hand holds a… What is that, a gun? It’s some kind of machine with a handle, exposed wires, and a glowing blue center. There’s an earpiece lodged in his ear and a reddened bruise at the edge of his hairline. “Pepper,” he says, in this croaky half-gasp, and he flinches.

Holy sh*t. What happened to him?

The fury that filled her only seconds ago starts to die inside of her chest, but she points the gauntlet straight at him, and Rhodey does, too. “Enough is enough, Tony,” announces Rhodey, lifting his faceplate. “It’s time to come home.”

Tony shakes his head furiously, raising the thing by his side. He’s acting strange, all twitching fingers and slow blinks, and Pepper’s concern is overwhelming her rage. “Y-you shouldn’t—be here!”

“You’ve been in there long enough,” Rhodey continues, “It’s time, Tony. Come out of the—”

“N- no! ” Tony raises the machine at his side, and she realizes it’s most definitely a gun. Is that what he’s doing in that lab? “I’m not going any—anywhere—you can’t—make me!” he screeches.

“You’re acting like a lunatic, Tony!” Pepper shouts, and her gauntlet glows with heat. “You can’t keep hiding in there!”

Tony points the gun at Rhodey, then Pepper, then Rhodey again. “I—I’m not—you don’t un—you can’t—I’m not leaving! ” Rhodey takes a step toward him and Tony lets out a strangled screech. “Back—get back! Back up!”

“Tony—”

“Get the f*ck away from me!”

“That’s it!” Pepper snaps. “We’re taking you out of here whether you like it or not—you can’t keep hiding from what you did —”

Tony’s shaking his head again. “—you—you can’t be here—I have to be alone, I’m a f*cking scientist—I have to—I have to work alone, you can’t— don’t come any closer!” He pulls the trigger and a blast of blue light explodes from the tip of the gun, whizzing past Rhodey’s face.

“Whoa!” Rhodey exclaims, dropping his faceplate. “Tony, whoa, whoa, watch it!”

“You can’t do this to me, you can’t—any closer and I’ll shoot, I’ll f*cking kill you all, I’ll do it” —several blasts fire from the weapon, charring the earth— “GET BACK, I’LL DO IT!”

“You’re not gonna kill anyone, Tony,” Rhodey says, inching closer and closer to the man in the doorway. “You just need some sleep—we’re gonna get you checked out, we’re gonna bring you home—”

“NO!”

As Rhodey steps close enough to touch him, Tony takes the gun he’s pointing at his friend and points it up into the soft spot underneath his own chin, holding it tightly in both of his trembling hands.

Pepper’s heart stops in her chest, and both she and Rhodey stop talking.

“Any—any closer—and I—I’ll pull the trigger!

Rhodey puts his hand up. “Tony,” he says, breathless. “Put the gun down.”

Tony jams the weapon further into his chin. “Don’t f*cking move!”

“We’re not moving, Tony, just—just put it down. Let’s talk.”

“I said d- =don’t move! I’ll—I-I—”

Pepper’s frozen in place. She’s not angry anymore; she’s terrified. The Tony that’s standing before her right now needs her, but all she’s been doing for the past month is seething at every memory of him. She chokes on his name.

“Put it down, Tony.”

Tears are trickling down his face. “Go— get out of here! I’ll do it, I’ll f*cking do it, I don’t even—even care anymore, I’ll d-d—” His sobs creep into his words until he can’t even get another sentence across. “Get—out—or I-I’ll pull the f*ckING TRIGGER!”

His hands jerk with the force of his words, and Pepper lets out an involuntary scream. She grabs for Rhodey’s metal-encased arm. “Okay, we’re going, Tony, don’t” —she gulps— “do anything, we’re going, okay?” She urges Rhodey back. “Let’s go, Rhodey—now, we’ve gotta go—”

Rhodey’s faceplate is up again. There’s a burned streak across the side of his face from when Tony fired the weapon at him. He’s still gaping openmouthed at his best friend. “Tony…”

Pepper pulls at his arm, and finally, Rhodey backs up, one robotic step at a time.

As they go, Tony stands there with the gun stabbing into his chin, legs shaking, watching them. The entire way back, Pepper can still hear Tony crying.

Something is really wrong here.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 6:34 PM

“Julia?”

Maggie watches as Jim’s face takes on a strange expression. “Yeah,” he says. “Okay. Okay. Yeah.” He looks at Maggie, wide-eyed, and says, “Uh-huh. Yeah. Okay. We’ll—we’ll be—be right there. Yeah. Of course. Yeah. Okay. Bye.”

Maggie stares at him and pulls her cardigan tighter around herself.

“That was Officer Paz,” Jim gulps. “She says… They’ve got a lead on Cassie.”

“A...lead? Are they—where? What is it?”

Jim’s already shoving his feet into his shoes. “They haven’t found her, but they found a body—not Cassie—dropped in Lake Champlain, on the Vermont side. It’s a five-hour drive.”

“Why—who is—who is it? What does it have to do with—with Cassie?”

“It’s not Cassie, they told me that,” he explains, “and they’re still running tests, but so far all they’ve got is that she’s a black young adult female, and they found some hair and other trace DNA on her—one of which belonged to Cassie.” He tosses Maggie her jacket and picks up the keys. “We gotta go to the site to see if we recognize anything—anything that could help us find Cassie.”

“O-okay. Let’s go.”

Chapter 5: i get tired (and i get sick)

Summary:

A small voice. “Peter,” says Cassie. She is kneeled beside him on the floor, eyes wide in the dim light. “You’re doing it again.”

“Doing what?” he asks, and he remembers that his mouth still tastes of vomit.

The little girl in front of him looks so weary. Her hair is dark and unwashed, oily and sticky and reeking slightly of dirt and dried blood. “You’re being weird,” she says. “I don’t like it.”

Notes:

chap title from 'i can't handle change' by roar

CW: injury, blood, violence, violence against an animal, drug abuse, implied child abuse, referenced CSA in formal setting, captivity, referenced death/mortician stuff, needles.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 6:27PM

Riri Williams doesn’t like to stick around past six o’clock; when it gets around the time to bring Peter before the cameras, she usually asks Zhiyuan to use her as tattoo practice or for Haroun to give her a ride in Nick’s truck. She doesn’t want to watch; neither does Haroun.

Zhiyuan’s passed out in the barracks, and Haroun’s already a little high. He’s not into angel dust like Charlie—he always says it makes him too crazy—but he’s been on benzos and opioids for as long as she’s known him. Even now, laying on the floor beside Charlie, his head tilts to the sky. Haroun’s eyes are half-closed. The bearded Charlie has his hands propped beneath his head, and he giggles to himself, whispering something to Haroun, who has one hand tracing swirls in the air. Haroun is only a few years older than her, but when he’s like this, he looks so much older. To be fair, he’s lived in Charlie’s world much longer than she has—a life of the day-to-day, of a constant wondering where to get their next high. It wears on the body.

“Haroun,” she says, and he hmphs in response, opening his eyes just a fraction wider. His shirt has risen up on his chest to reveal a sheen of sweat and two thin scars spreading across his chest, double faint lines that line the bottom of his pectorals.

It takes a second for his eyes to land on her, and when he finally does, his hand drops from the air to thump against his chest. “Riri,” he answers.

She nods at her wrist, where her plastic Iron Man watch blinks dimly.

Haroun sighs once, gently through his nose, and his eyes drift to Charlie. “Hey, man,” he says, “me and Riri gonna go for a drive.”

Charlie snorts and wipes at his eyes. He’s smiling—how much f*cking angel dust is he on? “Yeah, sure, just…” He waves at the wall, where a stack of Stark’s prototypes line up like soccer trophies against the wall, each glowing varying shades of blue. “Try out the new one. The, um…” Propping himself up on his hands, he nods to the leftmost one. “Glowy one.”

Haroun stands up, sways, and falls against the wall, heavy-bodied. He’s in no shape to pick up a weapon, let alone wield it, so Riri steps between him and the sprawled-out Charlie to grab the gun. It’s hot in her hands, so warm that she has to shift it off of her fingers and onto her sleeves so as not to burn herself.

Haroun’s in no shape to drive, but Riri doesn’t have anything in her system, so she offers. He staggers out with his hand braced against the wall, but she doesn’t have anything in her system, so she can walk normally.

On their way out, they pass the row of star-painted cells, and at the end: Parker and Cassie’s cell. Peter, she thinks to herself, and the first name has so much weight that she can almost hear Stark screaming it over the phone. Inside the cell, she can hear Cassie crying and wailing. She can hear Parker talking, but his voice sounds raspy and slow. He’s hushing her, saying something like, “They’re coming, they’re coming.”

Just for a moment, Riri pauses outside of the kids' cell. The pair have gone quiet now, but she can still hear Cassie breathing, gulping in big, stilted gasps of air. If she opened the food slot right now, she could probably see the two of them huddled together like a pair of Victorian orphans, hugging each other like it's their last moment on Earth.

The sun has started to set, and a dim orange-yellow dips through the trees as they leave the bunker. The entrance to their bunker is deep in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and so far from any trail or road that they have never seen another person near the entrance. Their vehicles, even, are parked an hour-long walk away from the bunker.

She keeps walking.

“Your turn,” says Haroun, dropping the gun into the dirt and shaking his lightly-burned hand. “Damn—that f*cking hurts.”

The sun has not yet begun to set, but the birch trees surrounding them batter the light into stripes and streaks, making the sky seem darker than it actually is. Riri reaches for the Stark weapon; before picking it up, she wraps her hands with medical tape and tosses the roll of tape to Haroun. “Here.”

As he wraps his own hands, she picks up the weapon and they begin their trek, searching for other animals in the underbrush. “Look,” Haroun says finally, hushed.

There’s a pair of deer a hundred feet away, lower on the mountain. It looks like a mother and a baby, one small and gangly, the other tall and sure.

“Haroun,” whines Riri. “Come on. Let’s wait for another.”

“Another?” he scoffs. He squats lower to the ground, and she can see his toe protrude through the tip of his sneaker. “What, they’re too cute for you to kill?”

A hot annoyance rises in her. “No,” she refutes.

“You were fine with the squirrel last time.”

“Yeah, but—”

“And the fox.”

“That’s not the same thing.”

They watch as the mother and little deer traipse closer, hopping between trees and nudging bushes with their snouts. “They’re just a little bigger, that’s all.” Riri picks up the weapon. There’s no viewfinder on Stark’s gun, but she closes one eye anyway, pretending to be Hawkeye.

Haroun clicks his tongue and nudges the weapon with his finger so that it points farther right. “Not that one. The little one.”

She scoffs. “Seriously? I’m not gonna kill the baby.”

Haroun stares at her. “Riri,” he starts, as she drops her arm, letting the gun hang heavily at her side, straining her shoulder. This time, he speaks very deliberately, so much so that she thinks he must be sobering up: “I don’t think Charlie cares how old the test subjects are.”

Riri wants to laugh, but she’s sure that would be in poor taste. Charlie is the one who took them from drugs to kidnapping to torture to murder. “I don’t care what Charlie thinks,” she shoots back.

Haroun stares again. And for a moment he just watches her with his lips pressed together. It’s not sober clarity she’s seeing, but the clarity one reaches when they are finally free of pain. “Yes, you do.” He waves in the direction of the deer. “Besides, if you kill the mom, then the little guy will just die anyway. Then you’ll just be killing them both. You don’t want that, do you?”

Riri ends up firing anyway, and she catches the baby deer in the rear.

It squeals as it dies.

Maybe she’s not Hawkeye. Maybe she's... Maybe she's the bad guy.

They head to a McDonald’s just before seven, so they’re gone by the time the screaming starts. It’s not like they can hear it from outside of the bunker, but the proximity alone is enough for Haroun to complain of nausea. They order a couple Happy Meals for Parker and the girl, and some burgers and fries for most everyone else. A Big Mac for Mason. Nuggets for Zhiyuan. Cheese for Renee, no cheese for Jon.

On their way back to the bunker, holding the crinkled, warm bag of food, Riri mentions, “You wanna know what Stark told me?”

Haroun huffs. He takes a swig of something from a Gatorade bottle—not Gatorade. “Do I?”

She can’t help it. “He said… He might not be able to make the weapon. The real one, I mean. The one that can, like, disintegrate people. The way Charlie wants it.” She doesn’t look at him; Riri keeps her eyes on the road and her hands at nine-and-three. “He said that the thing HYDRA had was different because they had some other thing, this like magic thing—”

“You have to stop talking to him,” snaps Haroun suddenly. The bottle is back in its cupholder and Haroun is staring at her. “What the hell are you guys doing chatting it up, anyway? You’re supposed to get in there, give him what he needs, and get out, remember?”

Her chest burns, as does her face, but her dark skin hides the heat in her cheeks. “Um.”

“Of course he’s gonna tell you he can't do it! He wants you to think that so we’ll let Parker go. He wants us to give up, but we can’t. We can’t.” He stabs a finger at the front windshield as though Stark is standing on the hood of the car. “Those kids aren’t going f*cking anywhere. Stark’s gonna make us what he promised.”

“I know,” she says, “but what if—”

“Riri,” he says, and she shuts up. This time, his hand is on her wrist, and it’s clammy. “Charlie knows what he’s doing. He—I know he gets carried away sometimes, but he—he knows what’s best for us. He does.” Haroun squeezes her arm, and she keeps her hands stiffly on the wheel. “Once we get that weapon—you can have anything you want, man. Anything in the world.”

“I know,” she echoes.

“So don’t doubt him, okay? He knows—he knows what he’s doing. The whole journey to peace isn’t gonna be rainbows and butterflies, you know?” He tilts his head back against his headrest and stares at the ceiling. “Gotta have some bumps along the way. I don’t like it either, but sometimes pain is necessary, man.” His face is slack, save the wrinkle between his brows. “No pain, no gain, huh?”

By the time they get back, it’s nearly dark, with only a faded blue sky, a waning crescent, and Riri’s phone flashlight to light their way home.

After parking Nick’s truck and walking the way to the bunker in silence, Haroun stops her. They are now outside of the entrance, with the hatch just a few feet away. “Wait,” he says, and he looks suddenly sad. He’s on something—he smoked something on the way up. “Listen.” He looks guiltily at the hatch. “You’re not addicted yet,” he says, “so for you, you could do it. You could get out of here. You’re still, like, a kid.” He sniffs. “You don’t have to stay cooped up here like the rest of us. I know you miss your brother…” She can’t help but wince at the mention of him, and she stares pointedly at the dirt, scuffing her pink Converse on some tree roots. “We miss him, too, but I’m sure the others would understand. You’re not like us, and I don’t—I don’t want you to be. You’ve still got a chance. You could do it. You don’t have to sit in a dungeon all day reading comic books or whatever.”

Sometimes, Riri thinks about leaving. About packing a bag and walking out into Nowhere, New Hampshire and getting away from this place. But she wouldn’t know what to do. She’s spent her life with these people—she hates them, she loves them—and they’re her family. Sure, they screw up, but they’re doing their best. Right?

“I could,” Riri answers, squinting at him, “but I can’t leave my best friend behind, can I?”

He smiles, and then he sighs, and his relief is as clear as the starlit sky.

Haroun nudges open the slot with his foot, and Riri pushes the first Happy Meal through. She’s not the one who usually does this; but Ava’s gone now. Someone’s gotta take the job. She pushes the second Happy Meal through the slot and a small, pale hand hooks onto her fingers. “Ava?” asks the Lang girl. She sounds like she’s been crying.

Riri yanks her hand back, but Cassie’s hand still waves through, fingers waggling, half of her teary face visible through the slot. “Ava? Ava?” Parker must be asleep; usually when Cassie gets too close to the others, he jumps to her rescue like a mama bear. But right now she doesn’t even hear him complaining.

“Not Ava,” she answers, and the girl’s name feels like acid. “Riri.”

Haroun pushes Cassie’s hand back inside and closes the slot.

“She shouldn’t know your name,” says Haroun. “Seriously, Riri, that’s not good.”

“Why?” asks Riri, and her face goes sour. “It’s not like they’re going anywhere.” She looks up at Haroun. “Right?”

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 9:16 PM

“It’s not too bad,” Dr. Cho comments, tilting Rhodey’s face to examine the burn further. “Second degree. Just a graze.” With her rubber-gloved hands, she prods at the edges of the blistered skin. “I’m going to give you some antimicrobial ointment for it, but the pain will be minimal. And it shouldn’t scar.”

After dressing the wound, Cho turns to Pepper, who’s sitting on the other side of the Medbay room with her hands tucked beneath her legs. “He was right about this one, Pepper. It’s really not bad at all. How did it happen?”

For obvious reasons, Pepper doesn’t want to talk about it. She just shrugs as Rhodey says, “Just practice with one of Tony’s suits.”

“Why were you practicing with your faceplate up?”

“Caught me off guard.” Rhodey pats the new bandage on his face as though to make sure it’ll stay in place.

“Didn’t realize anything could catch the Iron Patriot off guard,” she jokes, pulling her gloves off and tossing them into the nearest trash can.

Rhodey laughs half-heartedly. “Actually, Helen,” Rhodey starts, “as long as we’re in here, do you think you could check on Pepper? She’s been…” He glances at her, wrongfully hoping she’ll finish his sentence for him. “...having some nausea...and…”

“It’s nothing,” Pepper interrupts, clipping her hair back. “Probably a mild stomach bug—nothing too serious.”

Helen gives her a look. “You don’t pay me to sit around and watch you suffer, Pepper. I’m here for a reason.” One of her nurses guides Rhodey off the exam table and into one of the chairs by the wall before exchanging the sheet on top for a fresh one.

“I’m telling you, I’m fine.”

“I can give you a more specific explanation than ‘I’m fine,’” Cho reminds her.

“Aren’t you a geneticist?” Pepper mutters, as Cho ushers her onto the exam table. She’s too tired to protest, anyway.

“I’m also your friend,” she says. “Which means if you’re suffering, I’m gonna tell you why. Besides, I like putting my M.D. to good use. Rhodey, do you mind…”

Rhodey tips an imaginary cowboy hat and leaves the room.

“Now,” Cho continues, this time with a clean pair of gloves, “care to tell me what’s going on?”

Pepper sighs and tips her head back against the headrest. She’s lying horizontally now, her hair-clasp digging into the back of her head. “It’s complicated.”

“Rhodey shows up with a second-degree burn from an Iron Man gauntlet and all I get is ‘it’s complicated?’” Helen unbuttons Pepper’s shirt and presses gently against her stomach. “You’ll have to do better than that.”

Pepper does her best to explain, but it’s difficult. So, like the incredibly open person she is, she talks about how Tony refuses to leave his lab, about his recent hostility, even about Peter and how he hasn’t contacted her in weeks. “I know he’s at that research program,” she says dismissively, “but I worry, you know? The kid spends so much time with us, he practically lives here. Tony has a room for him and everything, but he’s too shy to ever take us up on sleeping over here… I just…”

Helen guides her to a sitting position and presses the cold chestpiece against her back. “A couple deep breaths for me, please.”

Pepper does as she says.

Every breath she takes feels like it’s full of needles. She can’t stop thinking about how Tony shoved that gun into that spot beneath his chin. The violent determination in his shaking hands. The way his eyes screamed for help. The pasty glaze over his skin. It was terrifying.

“Again.”

He was ready to pull that trigger. Tony’s expressed to her some suicidal ideation before; this is not news to her. Beneath his haughty veneer lay a man who was constantly afraid, and would do anything to not feel that fear again, whether it meant sleeping in his lab or putting poison in his chest.

But whenever Tony expresses things like this, she’s comforted by what he always reminds her: he’s never acted on it.

Yet she saw his finger on that trigger, his hand twitching, body wrought with tension. He would’ve pulled it. If they had gotten any closer, he would’ve…

“Again, please.”

She does, and it still hurts.

She loves Tony more than she could ever explain. He’s seen her at her best and her worst, and she’s seen him the same. He’s the only person she can ever truly be honest with. They complete each other. She knows he would never betray her, and yet...he did. Her conversation with Helen fades away, and all she can see is her fiancé (ex-fiancé, she thinks, and the word tastes like the salty tang of blood) and his twisted expression, the barrel of his gun dug deep into the soft of his under-chin.

She once found him looking like that.

Tony’s sitting on the floor in the living room, and the television’s on. It must be a home video, Pepper determines, because the camerawork is shaky and the video’s upside down and it’s more pixelated than anything that’s been on that screen in months. A VCR sits beside him, whirring softly, cords streaming to the wall. The sound is faint, but her boyfriend’s so extraordinarily close to the screen that every time the camera moves, light shifts over his face. His legs are drawn up a little, and both hands are set on his knees like a kid watching the Flintstones instead of a grown man watching his own company’s hundred-thousand dollar television. What is he watching?

It’s a short video—only a few minutes, as the image of the empty kitchen Pepper saw when she first entered the room reappears. How long has he been sitting there, watching these same few minutes?

The video onscreen is barely displaying anything; it’s set viewing half of the Stark family kitchen as Edward Jarvis, the man Tony speaks of so fondly, stands with both hands gripping the kitchen counter, hunched over a little. The camera is turned over, making the video upside down so that Jarvis is standing on the ceiling instead of the floor. He’s clearly forgotten about the camera he just set down, which might’ve been taken out for the purpose of a couple family photos. To anyone else, he looks like a stiff older man just doing his job, perhaps taking a break due to back trouble. The most important part of the video, however, is the background noise: from the other room, a shout and a shuffle and a “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” as Jarvis bows his head, with a taut expression of distress, before the camera. The older man takes a breath and holds it, his hands tightening around the counter-edge. Another shout, and a sharp smack, and Jarvis winces, turning his face away from the camera.

“...one more time!” Another slap, this time followed by a yelp and a wet sob. The audio is troubled, struggling to choose between the background noise—crack after crack after crack—and the barely perceptible rustles of Jarvis’ clothing. A string of pops in the man’s back as he shifts, alternating his weight between his feet. A rush of hushed arguing, a series of footsteps, and then—

Sudden silence. It takes a moment for Pepper to realize that Edwin Jarvis is holding his breath.

Only a few seconds pass before a boy of maybe eight years old runs into the room and directly into Jarvis’ leg, knocking him back into the counter behind him. The video is still upside-down, so it takes Pepper a second to recognize her fiancé, just forty-some years younger.

Tony’s hair is cut and clean and oily black, swept into a gelled cowlick, and he is dressed in Christmas colors from head to toe: a wrinkled cream dress shirt, an unbuttoned emerald sweater vest, a pair of sangria-colored worsted-wool pants with a matching jacket, a jacket that is now inside out and bunched up. The rush of tears is immediate, and Tony presses his face into Jarvis’ thigh, and all is quiet, even his tears—the sound has cut out.

Jarvis looks younger now that he’s looking at Tony; he looks like a father. “Young sir,” he says gently, as the audio crackles to life, “we only need a few more minutes for the advert… Afterwards, we can go for sandwiches, yes?” Inconsolable, the boy continues to sob. When Jarvis places his hand on his back, he gasps sharply and gathers his fists into Jarvis’ pant leg. Pepper watches with slightly-disturbed intensity as Jarvis’ entire face suddenly tightens, brow to jaw to neck. Both hands now on the boy’s small shoulders, barely ghosting the fabric, he tilts his neck back as though ready to pray and blinks up at the ceiling. They stay like that for a moment, Jarvis facing the sky and Tony hiding his own face. “Master Stark,” he says finally, like the little boy crying into his pant leg is already a CEO, “where?”

Tony only seems to sob harder.

Instead of prying the kid away from him as Pepper expects, Edwin Jarvis kneels, sliding to the floor so slowly and achingly that Tony lets go, hanging his arms at his sides until the older man and the boy come face to face. The man’s knees must ache, but still he kneels, and the audio cuts out once more. He touches the kid’s head, then both sides of his face, and starts to speak.

Whatever the butler says seems to comfort Tony, because the boy eventually nods, sniffling, tears still threatening to bubble over. He removes the kid’s vest, half-thrown on, and then rebuttons the wrinkled shirt beneath it. The whole time, Jarvis keeps speaking, and Tony keeps nodding. He adjusts the vest, and then, with surprising difficulty, turns the jacket from inside-out to its rightful state by pulling the sleeves through their holes. He doesn’t make him turn around; instead, he maneuvers the boy’s hands through the sleeves and pulls on the suit jacket with care, slowly. Adjusting the boy's collar and smoothing all visible wrinkles, he finally dabs at the kid’s face with the edge of his tie, which he then tucks back into his buttoned vest. They’re still speaking, but Jarvis has turned, so only Tony is visible. The boy shakes his head, and shakes again, and Jarvis thumbs away a fresh round of tears before Tony embraces the older man.

A shout from Howard, caught halfway through by a choir of static and an eruption of noise: “Jarvis! Camera!”

“Yes, sir!” answers the man, and he grips the edge of the counter to lift himself back up. Jarvis pats Tony’s small shoulder, and he scoops up the camera from the counter—and the video starts over.

Pepper kneels next to him. She picks up the remote from where it is settled beside him and presses pause—onscreen, Jarvis stands alone, his hands braced once more against the gleaming counter, pained, his head bowed and his face twisted in a perpetual wince.

Tony, the one hugging his knees in front of the television, continues to stare. “It’s a Beta,” he says, and he doesn’t turn away from the television to look at her. “First camcorder, you know. Sony didn’t release them for another few years, but my dad—he got a prototype early.”

“Tony,” starts Pepper, and she’s not sure if she should touch him. He’s not crying, but he’s so wrapped up in his arms that it might take a crowbar to pry him free.

“Jarvis didn’t know how to work it, I don’t think. He was maybe seventy here… He grew up with radio, you know, not video cameras, so he laid it upside down—on top of the record button. He didn’t mean to record this. He wouldn’t have, I mean. He didn’t like cameras—Howard f*cking loved them.”

“Tony…”

His eyes are still on the screen. “We were taking home videos on it—supposed to be used for commercial ads, you know? I kept screwing around, f*cking up the video, and he…” He sniffs. “He used the charging cord. All the marks were under my shirt—couldn’t hit my face, you know? Would’ve ruined the ad. We ended up sending copies of the videos—the good takes, I mean—with our Christmas cards that year, whenever it was… Seventy-eight? Seventy-seven? Everyone loved them. Kept saying how adorable I looked in my f*cking suit and tie.”

She doesn’t say anything this time, and he takes a shuddering breath. She comes closer to Tony, scooting forward on her knees. Pepper puts one hand on his knee, the other on his shoulder, and he keeps talking.

He stares and stares at stares. “He didn’t get rid of the video—you know? You’d think he would but—I think—it didn’t matter if he was ashamed about what he did. It was the first commercial use of that camcorder, so of course Howard couldn’t bear to get rid of it. So I found it in the box with all the other test runs, like there was nothing…” He sniffs again. “Like there’s nothing wrong with it—like that’s a normal f*cking video for people to keep.”

At last, he looks at her, and he’s so shattered it scares her. His eyes are pinkened, but he does not cry. “Do you think,” he says, like he’s been working up the courage, “he ever loved me?”

Pepper feels small and stupid, like a child trying to learn her multiplication tables. He’s looking at her like she’s the world, yet she’s only a speck in it. “I think,” she answers, “he wasn’t as much of a father as he was a guardian. He remembered he loved you when it was convenient to him. But I do see a father in that clip, Tony. It just isn’t Howard.”

His face looks even sadder when he smiles. “Yeah,” he said. “I know.”

“Pepper.”

She looks up. Helen’s got that look again; she’s holding her tablet, stylus poised, waiting for a response. “What?”

“I said, are there any other symptoms you can tell me about?”

She shakes her head. “It’s really not much, Helen. Just some nausea and headaches. Nothing unusual.” It’s only the fact that it won’t go away that perturbs her.

“Any chest pain, stomach pain? Tenderness? Dizziness?”

“Nothing,” promises Pepper. “I’ll let you know if I do.”

“Well,” says Helen, “Could I take some blood? We could run some tests and see if anything’s up. Otherwise, it might just be stress, Pepper. And I can give you something for that, but…”

Pepper waves her hand in understanding. “It’s alright, Helen. Really, bloodwork’s fine, but Rhodey’s making a mountain out of a molehill.”

Helen asks her to meet her at the clinic tomorrow, and not to eat or drink anything, save a few exceptions, so that the blood is as untampered as possible. “You take on too much, Pepper,” she says before she goes. “Don’t put Tony on your scale, too.”

WEDNESDAY, MAY 9 — 11:54PM

Jim pulls into a hurricane of police lights and first responders, of gloved hands and wet grass, as Officer Paz waves him into a faux parking spot between some cedar trees. They’re far from their home in the city—in a small town called South Hero settled on Lake Champlain, which borders Vermont and New York. He can’t think of the last time he’s been to Vermont, and when he opens his car door, the air reeks of forest, so thick with maple and freshwater that he can barely smell the car exhaust.

“Jim,” says Officer Paz, her face shrouded in night. She looks grim as he and Maggie exit the car. “I need you to stay calm for this, understand? We haven’t found Cassie and we don’t know what this means yet. We’re just trying to stretch this lead as far as we can.”

Jim’s never felt this unhinged at a crime scene, so he understands exactly why she says it. He’s giving off all the wrong signals for a police officer—anxious, twitchy, and breathing hard—so he takes a tight breath. “Got it,” he says stiffly, and Maggie squeezes his arm a little harder.

They were both briefed on the situation on the car ride over. Some civilians out fishing in the lake caught her in their net and called the police. They’re still here—a man and his teenage son—sitting on a log a few feet from the pier. They’re speaking to each other, leaned in so close that their shadows overlap, and the man’s got his hand on his son’s back, rubbing as the boy ducks his head into the crook of his father’s neck. Jim’s chest hurts at the sight; he draws his hand over his own shoulder, as though he can feel the tickle of Cassie’s breath there.

According to the other officers, the woman didn’t have any identification on her, and she wasn’t local to South Hero: a small, white, farming town with a population the size of Cassie’s middle school.
Any biological evidence from the surface of her skin was washed away in the lakewater, but they did identify a hair on her as belonging to Cassie. “It’s a start,” Paz continues, as she leads them under a strip of yellow tape. She clears her throat. “But if you could identify her…that would be even better. The rapid-DNA test gives us general accuracy, but we can’t be sure until we wait for a more accurate test.”

They creep through the late-night mud, the red-and-blue lighting up the lakefront, until they reach the small fishing boat; beside it lies a woman’s corpse, sprawled out with eyes open. Her face is smashed in, so swollen that she’s impossible to recognize. Ratty brown hair frames her face, and her brown skin is wrinkled and sallow with water. She’s wearing only a gray T-shirt and a set of faded blue cut-offs, and she’s barefoot. “Anything?” Officer Paz prompts. On the lake, police boats creep through the water—searchlights ignite the surface in a blinding white.

Maggie shakes her head. Jim doesn’t recognize her either. But a new voice beside them inhales sharply. Hope Van Dyne stands beside them, flanked by a shorter officer; she’s staring open-mouthed at the corpse before them.

“That’s the…?” she starts, shaking her head. They haven’t seen Hope in a while, but she looks thoroughly cold; her hair barely touches her shoulders now, shorn in a clean line, and her makeup is thick and jarring. “I know her.”

Surprised, Paz takes out her notepad and pen. “How?”

“We…” Hope shakes her head again. “Me and Scott… We know her. We helped her with… It’s hard to explain.” Hope’s face is completely unreadable. “Her name’s Ava.”

MONDAY, MAY 14 — 8:59AM

I’m gonna die here.

It’s the briefest thought, but as soon as it floats through his mind, the truth of it starts to sink in.

So many have died in this bunker already, and not just Ava. From their cell, they’ve heard more than one person die. Barely a week into their abduction, one of the addicts—RJ was his name. Peter remembers that he had long hair—overdosed. They didn’t know what to do with his body, so they left him in the hallway until he started to smell. They ended up burying him outside. Renee, the red-haired woman, came back after their ceremony and cried in the cell beside them until it was time to take Peter out, and when he got back, someone had slid an expired package of candy corn through their food slot.

A banging on the door. Cassie startles awake. Over a month in this place has trained her well, as she knows that the knocking in the morning means she has to go under the bed and hide. The upper slot in the door, the one meant for a pair of eyes, slides open and Mateo peers through. “Against the wall, Parker.”

After four escape attempts, they know better than to come in without their guns drawn and Peter against the wall. His head still aches with every movement, and he’s dizzy enough that it takes him three tries to get up from his reclined position. He plants one hand on the ground, pulls himself onto both arms, and groans from the weight of his skull on his neck. His head. Charlie’s hammer really got him yesterday. Yesterday? No, it was right after their escape attempt… Which was what, a week ago? Cassie knows better than he does. He raises a hand to touch his head and collapses again, and when his head hits the concrete he lets out an audible whimper.

Now that he’s on the ground, he can see Cassie from under the bed—he can almost spot the whites of her eyes from here.

A warning bark from Mateo: “Parker!”

If he weren’t in so much pain, he’d respond with something stupid like, Sir, yes, sir, but right now he can hardly lift his own legs. “Coming,” he says, and the vibration of his voice hurts his head. He heals quickly, just not as quickly as usual, so it’s only the injuries from the past couple of weeks that bother him. The recent knife wound in his stomach wasn’t as bad as he thought—just a few slashes, shallow enough that he didn’t bother wasting their thread to sew it up. He’s lost a couple fingernails, too, which hurt like hell and require a lot of attention. The waterboarding was pretty bad, too—but at least it left no lasting marks. There’s some bruising on his bad leg, which he doesn’t mind so much because he still has one good leg left.

His head, though. His head. The pain of it is so bad that if he moves too fast he has to sit immediately or he’ll throw up.

He tries again: plant one hand, then the other, then reach for the railing of the bed—damn it! His hand misses the railing and hits the floor, so he’s back where he started.

The door opens, and the light from the hallway is far too bright. He winces, but he doesn’t have the strength to turn his head away, so he closes his eyes. Mateo and someone else walk in, and he hears the click of the safety. Someone put their gun away; if he was stronger, maybe he could use the moment to—

“Haroun, take it back out,” says Mateo.

“Look at him. He’s practically asleep.”

Peter opens his eyes again, wincing at the light, so Haroun kicks the door closed with his foot. “Not asleep,” says Peter.

They set up like usual, forcing Peter to lay flat on the bed. He’s on a constant rotation of sedation. Every morning, when Charlie and the addicts wake, he’s given a hefty dose of sedation fed through a vein in his inner arm by the tall, black guy—Matt or Mateo, they usually call him. It puts him straight into a state of nothing—a tingling wave of numb followed by another of nausea—he wants it so badly right now that the muscles in his legs tremble. Mateo sets his bag down beside Peter, and Haroun holds his arms still. They’ve moved on from syringe injections to an IV bag setup, simply because he is receiving so much sedation now that it’s a waste of needles and could kill him if they give it to him all at once, like it almost did the first time.

He still doesn’t like needles.

He doesn’t bother asking if they’re clean anymore—he doubts they have an unlimited supply. They look clean, but he can’t really tell. Not like he had a lot of experience with intravenous drugs before he was kidnapped. He always healed so fast—so medication wasn’t usually required, save antibiotics that he could take by mouth. The couple times sedation was required, they had to use leftover drugs from Steve Rogers’ medicine cabinet. Then, it was a matter of underdosing instead of overdosing.

When they first took him from that upside-down wreck of the car, they had to use multiple doses of the sleepy stuff to take him down. They kept him on high sedation for a couple days, even afterwards, until they understood his limits and felt they could control him properly. Then, he was on maybe three or four doses of Winter Soldier sedation to take him out, two after that, and then one once they knew how strong he was. He's been growing used to the drug, and once he’s clear enough he will try to escape, but each time he has failed. Once Mateo notices he’s a little more lucid, he ups the dosage. He’s now up to three doses to keep him ‘weak’—all delivered via IV bag so that Mateo doesn’t force an overdose by giving it all at once.

Mateo snaps on a pair of gloves and lifts Peter’s bruised arm. “Can I get some light, Haroun?” Haroun raises a smartphone and shines a white light; as Mateo ties a tourniquet around his upper arm, awaiting the appearance of a vein, Peter closes his eyes again. His body craves it; he has been growing used to it, more and more every day. As he gets his dose every morning, it’s in the late hours of the night and the early hours of the morning that he starts to feel his withdrawal. Sweats. Dry heaves. Hot flashes. It is during this time that his mind is clearest, and therefore it is when he formulates his great escape plans. “I’m going to count to three,” says Mateo.

“It might be a little uncomfortable,” adds Haroun, pinning his arm down still. “On three. One, two…”

Peter almost laughs at that.

They’ve tried to escape four times. The latest one he still struggles to remember. The first one, which is the clearest, they called Operation Falcon, because Peter could only convince Cassie to stick to the ceiling if she pretended she was flying. They’d forgotten to dose him, and he broke out after a full day without his sedatives, slamming through the door as soon as it was opened, dragging Cassie with him, and crawling on the ceiling with her in tow. What he didn’t take into account was how badly his battered body would fight him. With his busted knee, he dropped her, and she hit the ground hard. Once they had her, he stopped fighting. He couldn’t escape without her.

The second attempt: Operation Black Widow. Once his leg had healed enough, they stuck to the ceiling. Peter clung to the ceiling, and Cassie clung to him. Once a confused guard named Mason walked in, finding the room empty, he leaned over to look under the bed. Peter carefully lowered Cassie to the ground and took a strip of the bedsheet they’d torn off—pulling it around the man’s neck tight until he passed out. Cassie got his gun, and they made it all the way to the bunker door—but the door had a passcode which they didn’t have.

So they needed the passcode. The third attempt, sometime in the second week, they named Operation Captain America. Cassie hated this one, but Peter and she were running out of options. They identified a weak link—and, when they caught him, used him as a human shield, tried to get them to give up the code. Renee wouldn’t have it—when the guy leaned over, trying to get away, she shot him through the neck. Their leverage was gone, and the man, a forty-year-old with a hooked nose and a picture of his kid in his pocket, died there on the floor.

The sedative is coming through him now, and then pain in his head lessens to the point where he can finally open his eyes. Haroun looks up from the IV line. They’ve finished, IV bag hung on a metal pole. “What, no witty comebacks?”

Peter Parker has no room in his body for witty comebacks.“Thank you,” Peter breathes, and he feels the euphoria of no pain, no pain, no pain. The co*cktail of sedatives they give the Winter Soldiers includes a mild analgesic that washes over him like a cold glass of water, soothing his aching skull.

It’s not always bad. Sometimes Haroun will give them some painkillers or Riri will sneak them extra food. Once, one of the guards even brought them a tub of antibiotic ointment hidden in a set of new clothes (HYDRA captive garb, sure, but new clothes are new clothes). They’re mostly left alone—the door only opens if they’re causing trouble, if he needs more sedation, or if it’s time to take Peter away at seven. They have the freedom to try for some ongoing missions, like Operation Ant-Man: in each set of garbage they throw out, they hide tiny messages written on the garbage, and try to place some kind of DNA inside. Blood, hair, dead skin, fingernails… Operation Ant-Man has yet to be successful, but it’s one thing they can do every day to try to get free.

Haroun stares at him; he looks funny—amused, maybe—but Peter doesn’t have the energy to read his face. “You okay, Parker?”

Peter smiles at the ceiling. “Yeah,” he says. Numb, his head swirls, and for a moment he can’t remember where Ava has gone. She’s usually the one to help Mateo with the sedation process. He opens his mouth to ask, but he’s much too tired.

Under the bed, he hears Cassie whisper to herself: “Iron Man, Iron Man, Iron Man.”

Aunt May wasn’t pissed that they hadn’t told her, but amazed that they had kept the secret for so long. “You thought you’d never get caught?” she had said. “By me? Ha! That’s some bullsh*t—I’m smarter than you think, Peter.”

So she didn’t ground him; instead, she borrowed an entire stack of books from the nearby library (she always claims Wikipedia is a scam, and that books are the only real way to learn) and is now reading thoroughly through each to learn more about the extent of his powers. “So,” she says, “spiders have incredibly sensitive nervous systems. They have these things called trichobothria—little hairs—all over their body.”

“Don’t humans have those, too?” asks Ned.

May crumples a piece of paper and throws it at Ned’s head. “Go back to your Wikipedia page, Ned. As I was saying, with the little hairs they can detect lots of micro-movements, and because of their hypersensitive nervous system—are not like humans. They can tell motion made by a fly in mid-air, or dust moving below them. They don’t have to be touching it to know—that might be your—well—tingle."

“The Peter-tingle,” adds Ned, proud.

Aunt May stares at him for a second before absolutely losing her sh*t. She laughs so hard that the book falls off of her lap, cackling until she is wheezing and red in the face. “The Peter-tingle!” she cries, just about dying from laughter. “The smartest kids of your generation right here—and the best you could come up with was Peter-tingle!”

They read through the rest of the books while listening to Imagine Dragons, which, according to Ned, was originally inspired by Spider-Man. “They were big fans,” he claims. “They wanted to make a musical about you and everything.”

May asks Peter to tell him more about his powers, particularly about his climbing and sticking abilities. They manage to narrow down which ones of his powers seem to be from actual spiders, as well as which seem to be from the experimentation on the spider itself. From the spiders came exceptional night vision, strange visual acuity, incredible strength and speed, and the ability to climb, even upside down. Otherwise, he got agility and a high metabolism adjusted to his new abilities.

“Here it is!” says Ned. “Scopulae. Or, setae?” He explains that spiders have microscopic hairs all over their body that allows them to grip moisture on the surfaces they walk on. “That’s probably what helps you stick.”

At first, he’d thought that he could only stick with his feet and palms—but May insisted on finding out more. “What am I supposed to do?” protested Peter. “I can’t stick if I’m wearing shoes or, like, gloves. That’s all we need to know.”

“But some spiders have those little hairs all over their bodies—maybe you do, too. Do you think if you were naked—”

He blushed. “May!”

“What? This is important!” They discover that he can stick to surfaces with any part of his body, as long as the skin is bare or the fabric is skintight. But still, the hairs only stiffen to grip surfaces when he wants it to. May comments that it looks like he’s taking on characteristics of spiders more than he is becoming one. They discover the spider that bit him, even—the noble false widow—and realize that its coloring affected him, too. He had some discoloration in his skin that matched the noble false widow—so faint it was difficult to tell unless you were really close, a rusty red color like his calves had been dipped in tomato juice. “I hadn’t even noticed,” said Peter.

May lowered the book she was reading onto her lap. “Peter—you should really pay more attention to your body. You’re going through, like, a second puberty, honey. You gotta be more aware.”

They read and read and read until the night comes, and May makes herself coffee and hot chocolate for the two of them. When Peter complains that it doesn't even matter if he has caffeine because his metabolism won't let it affect him, she gives him a look and tells him, like usual, that he's still too young.

“Are you venomous?” asks Ned suddenly, excited. He half-closes his laptop to look at his best friend.

Peter had never thought about it, but most spiders were venomous, weren’t they? He touches his teeth and smiles sheepishly. “I don’t think so.”

“Try! Bite me.” His best friend offers his arm. “Here! Bite me!”

“I’m not going to bite you, Ned.”

He looks visibly disappointed. “Well, maybe if you think about biting someone the fangs will come… like a vampire! Think about biting?”

While feeling utterly stupid, Peter does his best to think about becoming New York City’s newest Edward Cullen. He bares his teeth. “Eh?” he says, mouth still open.

So, no venom. But they did discover, like some spiders, that he could hold up to a hundred and fifty times his weight, and that the substance on his hands had a purpose. A sticky substance that appeared to his hands at will. Peter thought, originally, that it was a failed spider-power, that maybe it was supposed to be a spinneret or a spigot, but with May’s research, they discovered that some spiders had a series of widened pores instead of spigots. Some had a cribellum, which contained dozens of thousands of spigots, all of which produced a thin fiber. So maybe that’s what he had.

The pores at his wrist and hands did seem to become visible when he willed the stickiness to come to him. “It’s not a real web, though,” said Peter.

“Maybe it just takes time,” says May, with a kiss to his head as she passed him with a cup of coffee, “and then you could create your own webs.” They spread from the base of his wrist over his palm to his fingertips. They were by no means a web shooter, but they were something. To Peter, that meant that it was proof—proof that this spider, whatever it was, was imperfect, and that the transfer of its power to him was imperfect as well.

May disagreed. “Come here, guys,” she said, settled on the couch. “Ned, stop looking at Wikipedia.”

“It’s up to date!” he protested. “And faster!”

“It’s convenient,” she said. “And you’re gonna fry your brain. Get your butt over here.” Once they sat on either side of her, she pointed at the page of her book. “This one says that the zebra tarantula, here, doesn’t have spinnerets. It just has silk producers on its feet.”

“Like me,” says Peter.

“Yes, like you.”

“But I didn’t get bit by this one.”

She smiles, and for the first time that night Peter feels hopeful about his powers. “See, that’s the funny thing.” May closes the first book and opens a second, one about the origins of arachnids. “These guys say that the zebra tarantula didn’t evolve as far as modern spiders. Original spiders didn’t make webs, but used their sticky feet to help them climb. Later, their silk-producers evolved into spinnerets, which they used to make webs and catch prey.”

Ned is staring open-mouthed at the book; Peter is staring at his hands. He wills something sticky into his hands, and feels the swell of the substance at his disposal. “So, I’m just…”

“…the original spider,” finishes Ned. “Dude, that’s so freaking cool.”

May continues, “So the silk comes from your hands—that’s what it’s supposed to do. These spiders even leave footprints of their silk on surfaces—all to avoid falling and enable them to climb anything. It’ll help you stick to things, or do anything else, I guess."

Peter finds himself teary at her memory.

When May said anything else, Peter didn’t suppose she meant what he was doing now: putting layers of the silky substance over his wounds and Cassie’s to help keep their injuries clean and safe. It wasn’t thick enough to stop significant blood-flow, but it could close wounds, stick bandages to skin, and assist stitches. It surely doesn’t help with his more drastic injuries, like his knee. It’s still so messed up from that first day; it never healed correctly, so shards of smashed kneecap healed among f*cked ligaments and tendons. He doesn’t remember what exact ligament the front one is; MJ was always better at anatomy than he was. He can barely straighten his knee—when he walks, he staggers, doing his best to put no weight on it. Charlie’s hammer (or Mason’s hammer? Who had it originally?) took out his knee and his ability to walk properly. It’s smashed to uselessness, much like Cassie’s finger. Charlie’s punishment, he thinks, was less focused on pain and more focused on permanent damage.

Charlie…

As soon as he’s well enough, he’s going to strangle Charlie with his bare hands.

He thinks about killing the man so much that the thought alone has become soothing. He thinks about killing Charlie more than he thinks about escaping.

Peter thinks of taking those pills he loves so much and shoving them down his throat until he chokes, of slapping a hand over his mouth and pinching his nose shut and forcing him to swallow until foam bubbles at the corner of his mouth and his twitching body goes limp. He thinks of slipping him a needle full of sedatives, of grabbing him by the hair and stabbing—with one of those black-handled knives, maybe—once through his cheek, and another through each arm, and finally through each wide eye.

Peter thinks of grabbing him by the throat and pressing his thumbs into his windpipe until he shuts the f*ck up, of pressing and pressing until his words die out into a faint wheeze, of watching as he struggles beneath him, rasping for air. He thinks of watching those wide eyes go blank and roll up into the back of his head, of watching his bearded chin tilt back, limp.

Peter thinks of the hammer—that f*cking hammer—and grasping it with both hands like Thor. Lifting. Wielding. Standing. And, with a wide grin, swinging the hammer from side to side. Circling the man, brushing his fingers and feet and the side of his sweating face with the heavy hammer. Saying something like didn’t you remember the rules? or stay still, little freak or you’ll do exactly as I say, or I’ll take out Parker’s other leg—

He feels suddenly sick.

“Toilet,” he gasps, bile bubbling in his throat, and Cassie scrambles to her feet, grabbing his good arm and pulling, yet he feels heavy. He manages to get both palms on the floor and crawls forward. he doesn’t make it. He collapses on one side and coughs; out of him spouts of flow of sick—mostly water. He's had trouble keeping down anything at all for the past couple days.

He thinks back to May. He tries not to think too much about her; doing so only results in him fretting over the last memory he has of her—a memory that he can hardly remember save for the blood. It happened over a month ago, and still all he can remember now is the fact that she was bleeding, unconscious, and upside down. There was blood, so much blood—but he can’t remember for the life of him where it was coming from. Her head, neck, stomach, chest?They must’ve been driving—right? But what happened after… Did she get herself free? Did Peter get her free? Did she wake up at all?

Did Peter even bother to check if she was still alive? Did he call the police?

Did she die that night?

He misses his phone—oh, God, does he miss his phone. May would laugh now if she heard him say it. She’s always complaining about how much time he spends on his phone. He and Cassie created a little game where they take these rectangular pieces of cardboard, pasted together, and pretend to talk to each other on the phone. They used to sit on other sides of the room and play; now, Peter barely moves from the toilet to the bed, so Cassie moves wherever she feels as far enough to pretend that they are in different places. She’ll shout, “I’m texting you a poop emoji!” and giggle maniacally to herself. Cassie didn’t have a lot of access to phones before she was taken, so most of their phone games involve her pretending to call people.

If May had lived…wouldn’t she be looking for him? Did his friends know he was missing? They had to by now, didn’t they? Maybe they’d forgotten him. But how hard could it be to look for them? His backpack had his suit, and his suit had his tracker, and if only he could find his backpack, then Tony could come find them…

A small voice. “Peter,” says Cassie. She is kneeled beside him on the floor, eyes wide in the dim light. “You’re doing it again.”

“Doing what?” he asks, and he remembers that his mouth still tastes of vomit.

The little girl in front of him looks so weary. Her hair is dark and unwashed, oily and sticky and reeking slightly of dirt and dried blood. “You’re being weird,” she says. “I don’t like it.”

He tries to smile at her, but his vision is getting spotty and he has trouble focusing. Her figure wavers in front of him—he can’t tell if he’s moving or she is. If he could hold her now, he would; instead, he tips his head up, to find her and feels a shock of such pain in his head that vomits again, coughing up water, water, water—

MONDAY, MAY 14 — 12:56PM

Tony has spent years working with arc technology. He created a new element, even, that came close to replicating the Tesseract’s power.

But science and magic, no matter what Thor likes to claim, are not the same. There is no way for Tony to create that kind of power. The kind of power that can disintegrate people at close-range without repercussions for those around them. Surely someone who wants a weapon with such strength understands that a power that can do much more?

Close-range disintegration without radiation required something like the strength of a missile, all condensed into a single shot, confined by the boundaries of its target.

It’s impossible.

And yet it’s hard to believe that these people even want a weapon. It seems to Tony that they want a power source, something rivaling the Tesseract—something safe enough that it can be mass-produced into handheld weaponry, yet strong enough that the one who wields it has immense power. Through him, they are fast-tracking Project PEGASUS: to use the Tesseract (or something similar, like Tony’s arc technology, which was much more accessible) to create a near-unlimited energy source. Tony generally considers Project PEGASUS completed the moment he completed his arc reactor, but these people… They want something more than sustainable energy. They want power. War. Devastation. All able to be held in the palm of someone’s hand.

He needs time to think.

How can he create this kind of power for Charlie and his band of merry men? He doesn’t have access to magical resources, at least not from inside the lab, so what kind of scientific adjustments could he add that would allow for this alternative power source? There’s nothing wrong with the gun—it’s the power that needs changing. He’s tried many forms of the gun, all to supplement the power of his arc technology with explosives and complementary power sources. None of them have worked thus far. They aren’t powerful enough, or they aren’t limited enough, or they just don’t f*cking work.

He’s tried everything. He has to alter the arc reactor somehow. Strengthen it. Then he can save Peter and go back to Pepper and tell her she’s sorry and take Peter to the medbay and get him fixed up and finally, finally, be free.

Beside him, Dum-E taps at his arm, holding a glass of water. He knows how often Tony should eat and drink, even if Tony doesn’t know what time it is or the last time he ate something. He gets enough nutrition, usually, when he remembers to eat and listens to Dum-E’s instructions, but he knows he’s not sleeping enough. He can’t sleep—how can he rest when Peter is in such pain?

It is as though Tony is already buried, and Charlie is dancing upon his grave; there is not a moment where Tony may calm, knowing that every day Peter suffers because of his shortcomings.

He has to figure this out. He has to find a way to warp the element he has (what he likes to call Badassium, or the New Element) and turn it into something weaponizable. How did HYDRA do it? Does he need a new element altogether?

He’s not sleeping enough—or too much, maybe. How much did he sleep last night? Did he sleep at all? He needs more time—lots more time. Peter will never be free at this rate. The next time Riri comes, he will ask for more supplies. Not for the gun, but to solve his other problem: the problem of time.

He’d overseen a study of the chemical Orexin-A back in 2007, before Iron Man was even a thought in his head, of a group of rhesus monkeys who were kept awake for periods of thirty to thirty-six hours, and, given one microgram per kilogram—roughly seven and a half micrograms per monkey. When deprived of sleep and given dosages of Orexin-A through injections and nasal spray, they performed better on cognitive tests. The drug seemed to reverse some of the effects of sleep deprivation and improve cognition to that of someone with a full night’s rest. They passed their sleep-focused PET scans and acted, well, normal.

That’s what he needs. He needs to stop wasting time sleeping and start working on weaponizing the New Element. He theorized a chemical process ages ago that could allow for someone to use Orexin-A to keep themselves awake, but it had never seemed important enough. He pulls up his old plans and considers its ingredients. He needs Modafinil, maybe Orexin-A, some stimulants… All could create something fit for humans, something that could create the outcome that the rhesus monkeys experienced. Something that could keep him awake consistently enough to make Charlie's weapon. Peter's weapon.

He asks Dum-E for a piece of paper and the robot just wiggles the glass of water in his hand. “Fine…you…f*cking…” He grabs for the glass of water his hands shake with its weight, so much so that he has to use both hands to drink. Dum-E watches him drink, and when he’s finished, hands him an unopened can of beans. “You gotta do it for me, buddy,” he says, handing it back. “Got the can opener?”

Dum-E does not have the can opener. He swivels around, looking for it, and skirts across the room like a man on a mission. Tony remembers, vaguely, helping his father build Dum-E in his lab. When his father was gone, he’d program the robot with more human qualities: looking around when scanning the room, tilting in confusion, nodding…

“And heat it up, okay?”

From across the room, Dum-E whirs in response.

Tony maps out the structure for his prospective sleep-replacement chemical. Eventually, Dum-E sets the steaming can of beans on his table with a spoon, and he takes occasional bites as he works. In the corner, his robot U moves back and forth between a possible power source and a weapon, testing as Tony told it to. Beside him, Dum-E awaits further instruction. “Think it’s a bad idea…huh, Dum-E?”

Dum-E tilts its arm and clicks lightly.

Peter would tell him it’s a terrible idea. “You need to sleep, Mr. Stark,” he would say. “May says eight hours at least.”

Tony would laugh and say, “You’re one to talk, sneaking out every hour of the night to respond to police scanners.”

“I won’t ignore people when they need me,” Peter would say, or something equally as earnest.

With his new drug, he could get—instead of a fitful four-sih hours of sleep each night—even less than that, all while feeling well-rested and being able to properly focus on Peter.

Peter…

He wonders what the kid’s doing now. He doesn’t ever see what happens once they drag him away, but sometimes he looks cleaner, so they must be washing him. A couple times his clothes have changed, usually when the old ones get too tattered to stay on his body. He’s gotten thinner and thinner from what Tony can see, and he’s stopped talking during the seven o’clock sessions. He just sits there, letting out the occasional plead, but mostly he screams and cries and waits for it to be over.

The other night, when Peter was dragged onto the screen, he didn’t start to fight right away. He sat quietly, and he let them lock him into the chair by each wrist and each ankle, and again around his upper torso, all without a fight. It’s not until the ringing starts—the ringing of the phone—that Peter finally starts to move, twisting his arms and legs in their restraints, pulling his chest against the vibranium. And when Tony finally picked up, he flinched. “Wait,” he said, turning his neck to Charlie and away again. “Wait, please—”

When Tony’s voice came through, it was like he was being tortured already. “No!” he screamed. “Wait, no, nonono, just one more minute, one more, one—I’m not ready—”

“Shut— shut up!” Charlie snapped. “So f*cking annoying… Talk again, Parker, and I’ll get out my hammer! You want that, huh? Is that what you want?”

Peter didn’t answer; he tugged at his bindings, his breathing molting to whimpers, his teeth bared, neck taut, trying his best to get away from Charlie.

“I’ll take out that other leg of yours—how will you be Spidey then, Parker? I’ll make you like Scott here—f*cking useless—take you out completely!”

Peter is so quiet these days. He never protests but to ask for more time. He has stopped trying to communicate with Tony, stopped making jabs at Charlie and his crew, and stopped fighting almost entirely.

He’s stopped thinking that Tony will save him.

Tony is going to do everything in his power to let the kid know otherwise.

MONDAY, MAY 14 — 2:30 PM

Hope’s on her third cup of coffee; Maggie is sipping at a cup of green tea, now long cold.

It’s been a few days since they located Ava Starr’s body, and a few more for processing forensic evidence. Today, they were called back in by Officer Paz.

They’ve graduated past interrogation rooms, supposes Maggie, because they are settled in what looks like a break room. Instead of a metallic table and chairs with links for handcuffs, their room is adorned with throw pillows and a coffee table. Jim’s gone to the bathroom, but he hasn’t been back for a half-hour at least. “You know,” says Hope, “the last time I saw Scott, back in April?” She sniffs. She’s incredibly composed, but her hands give her away. As she tries to apply another coat of scarlet lipstick, her hands jitter, enough that she has to set the tube back down before adding any real color. “I told him I never wanted to see him again. I didn’t text, I didn’t call… Not until what happened to Cassie. I wanted him to really feel how pissed I was.” She takes a deep, slow breath, and then exhales through her nose. “If I’d just called, if I’d just texted him once, then maybe…”

Almost automatically, Maggie shakes her head. “It would’ve happened no matter how many times you called, Hope. They took my Cassie in broad daylight. It would’ve just meant putting you in danger, too.”

Hope runs her tongue over the edge of her teeth, and she picks up her cup as though the coffee will warm her. “Well,” she says, “either way. I wish I’d said something different.”

“One fight won’t make him forget,’ says Maggie.

“Sure,” says Hope, sounding entirely the opposite.

They sit in silence, save the occasional sip or cough. Maggie doesn’t want to think it, but she can’t remember the last thing she said to Cassie. She hopes it was something good.

When Officer Paz finally enters, she is holding two cups of coffee, one of which she tips back with a swallow and tosses in the nearest trash-can. The officer looks as though she’s just woken up. “Mrs. Paxton,” she says first, with a tired nod. “Mr. Paxton. Ms. Van Dyne.” Behind her, Jim emerges, his face creased into a deep grimace.

Both Hope and Maggie make various greetings, and Maggie’s husband settles on the couch beside her as Paz sits across from them in an upholstered armchair. “The autopsy came back this morning—the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head.” She passes a folder across the table and opens it wide to a photo of a waterlogged woman’s corpse. Ava Starr. Beneath it is a form, stamped and signed, with REPORT OF POST MORTEM EXAMINATION at the top, which Paz separates from the photo and taps with her fingernail.

JURISDICTION: Grand Isle County

NAME OF DECEASED: Starr, Ava Catherine

AGE: 24 yrs RACE: Black SEX: F

RESIDENCE OF DECEASED: N/A

DATE OF INCIDENT: May 9, 2018 TIME OF INCIDENT: 5:00p

PRONOUNCED DEATH: 5:30p

EXAMINATION: Champlain Islands Health Center

Maggie scans the rest of the form. Most information about her is unknown—marital status, children, medical history… “She was killed,” says Officer Paz. “The medical examiner determined it was murder.”

There it is:

CAUSE OF DEATH: Blunt Force Injury to Head

MANNER OF DEATH: Homicide

A paragraph full of descriptions—body hair, odors, hygiene, dental exam—is paperclipped to the autopsy report. “She had high levels of opiates in her system,” continues the officer, “but nowhere near enough to kill her. Analysis of her hair showed she was a long-time abuser of opiates, benzos, you name it. Her body,” she says with a pointed look at Maggie, “did not show any signs of sexual trauma. Only physical. There’s bruising showing what looks like male fists, maybe shoes, and blunt injury from something heavy that left flakes of rusted copper. Probably a pipe.”

“So,” says Jim, “she was dead before the lake?”

Paz nods. “She died on her back—livor mortis had already started by the time she went in the lake, although it does look like her body was moved a lot in the first couple hours after she died.”

“Livor mortis?” echoes Hope.

“The blood,” she clarifies, “settling in the body.”

“But no…” Both hands clasped together, Maggie swallows before asking her question. “No…sexual…”

For once, Paz looks relieved. “No, Mrs. Paxton. No sexual trauma. No traces of sperm or external pubic hair on the body. It looked normal.”

Relieved, if just slightly, Maggie sits back. Jim rubs her back, and she tips her head into his shoulder. He feels strange beside her, stiff. She thinks it must be strange for him: to sit on the other side of the table. He’s still focused on the autopsy report. “And the hair? Cassie’s…hair?”

Before she speaks, Paz takes a generous sip of coffee—hazelnut, maybe. “We received confirmation early this morning. It’s her hair. It’s definitely hers.”

Jim’s hand pauses on her back. “You’re sure?” When Cassie had first been taken, they provided the police with everything they could—partial fingerprints from her bedroom, her recently used toothbrush, her hairbrush—so forensics had enough hair to compare to the one they found on Ava’s body.

Paz nods. “An exact match.” She passes forth another paper to their side of the coffee table; this one bears their daughter’s name. On it, bar graphs of different colors, all bearing a series of letters and numbers that Maggie doesn’t quite understand.“The hair was found in Ava’s pocket, inside of a fast-food wrapper—McDonald’s.”

“And you checked—” starts Jim.

“Yes,” clarifies Paz, and she takes another drink of coffee. “There are twenty-nine McDonald’s in the state of Vermont—and we have officers talking to each one of them as we speak.” She raises her phone. “So far, nothing.”

Cassie hates McDonald’s, thinks Maggie, as her husband frowns. They didn’t usually go, just for that reason. Whenever Maggie brought some back home, when neither she nor Jim could cook, Cassie would wrinkle her nose and pretend to gag. Gross, Mommy! she’d cry, poking at the nuggets. For a moment, Maggie can’t pull Cassie’s disgusted expression to her mind, and she panics, fumbling for her phone to click on her home screen. At the sight of her daughter’s face under the time and date, she calms.

“The problem with Ava Starr is that she is not just an addict. That would make this case a hell of a lot easier.” She brings forth another sheet of paper. “She worked with SHIELD until she disappeared in 2014, when she turned eighteen. Since then, she reappeared in 2017 and killed an FBI agent—alongside robbery, trespassing, battery, whatever else you can think of, before she disappeared again.”

Hope looks as though she will be sick.

“With information we’ve gotten from Hope and her father, we contacted SHIELD to” —she opens her phone and taps lightly before turning it off— “provide us with more background information about Ava Starr.” Now, perhaps answering Paz’s text, Woo enters the break room holding a thick navy folder, and he smiles, close-lipped, at the three on the couch.

He has them sign forms before he starts talking. They’re not non-disclosure agreements, but they might as well be. He then explains that he has worked formerly with SHIELD and re-obtained the proper clearance in order to provide information about Starr’s case. Agent Woo clears his throat. “Using the information Hope gave us, we were able to recover her identity and gather more information about her. Her name is Ava Catherine Starr, as you know—she was born in Argentina, where her father worked for SHIELD with Hank Pym. In one of her father’s failed experiments, both her parents died and in a blast of quantum energy…” Agent Julian opens the folder and points at a new photo, this one of the woman disguised in a gray suit and matching mask. He talks about Ava Starr for far too long—he’s in the middle of talking about her molecular intangibility and her ability to move through materials when Maggie finally interrupts him. “...phase in and out of solid materials, a power that caused her extreme pain.”

Maggie sniffs, clears her throat, and draws her cardigan around her shoulders. “What does this have to do with Cassie?”

Woo’s nostrils flare. “Mrs. Paxton—”

“No, I’m serious,” she snaps. “We’re sitting around here talking about this girl who is long dead while you could be out trying to find my daughter!

The man shifts uncomfortably. “We are doing everything we can to locate your daughter, Mrs. Paxton. There are officers in the field right now trying to track down where they found this woman’s body. But right now, our best lead will be anything you can possibly recognize in Ms. Starr’s history.”

Maggie’s clearly still hating the fact that she can’t be doing more, but she settles for a tight nod.

“Whatever we can do,” Jim adds. He rubs his hand over Maggie’s back. He’s felt so useless in these past few weeks, so at least going through Ava Starr’s profile will help him feel like he’s helping Cassie. If Cassie’s still… still…

Jim swallows.

“Good,” says Agent Woo. “Let’s continue, then.”

Because of her fractured relationship with Hank Pym, she somehow also knew Hope and Scott, and had some bad blood with Scott before Janet Van Dyne, Hope’s mother, temporarily healed Ava’s disease with some quantum machine.

She went on the run with Bill Foster, her pseudo-father, and immediately afterward kept in touch with Janet. The fix provided a physical solution for her body, and kept her molecularly stable but didn’t fix her chronic pain. She came back to New York after a week and raided the Van Dyne house for painkillers, quickly going down a route of drug abuse until she was nearly unrecognizable, according to Hope. About a month after her fight with SHIELD (and her murder of the FBI agent), in about August of 2017, Ava Starr dropped off the map. SHIELD, knowing she succumbed to drug abuse and, without her powers, was no longer of use as a field agent, considered her no longer a threat.

SHIELD apparently had some trouble locating Bill Foster, who is still a fugitive for abetting Starr’s crimes, but did get enough information from Hank Pym and Hope to understand exactly what had happened. “Toxicology reports on Starr’s hair,” says Woo, “confirms long-term drug abuse, of mostly opioids, up until the day she died.”

Maggie’s going to scream. These people have barely even mentioned Cassie for the past twenty minutes.

Woo, sensing her discomfort, echoes her unasked question. “So—what does this mean for Cassie? Well, the strange thing is that Ava Starr had an entirely different array of drug use in her system. Starr had opioids and benzos, morphine and any pain medication you can think of. It makes sense, with her history. But when we analyzed Cassie’s hair…” He points at Cassie's toxicology report. “We had Forensics go over the hair that we found of Cassie’s,” she says. “And we have some good and some bad news.”

Jim and Maggie exchange looks.

In front of the officer, there’s a photo of what must be Cassie’s hair, but blown larger; Woo points. “The good news is it looks like she’s still alive. Hair from a dead person has a marker we call post-mortem banding. You can see it here” —he places the hair toxicology report from Ava Starr’s file beside it— “on this strand of hair, taken from Starr’s head the day after she was found. That dark spot, there.” On Ava’s hair, there is a blackened stretch near the root; on Cassie’s hair, there is no spot. “Her hair also hasn’t been bleached or colored. She’s also staying hydrated but she is malnourished—you can see the differences here.” He puts out another toxicology report, this one, says Officer Paz, of Cassie’s hair from before her abduction. “The hair is much more brittle, it’s slightly thinner, and a little lighter. “That probably explains why it was in Ava’s pocket in the first place. Because of her malnutrition, her hair is much more prone to breakage and falling out from the root.

“The reports also can tell us what kind of drugs were in her system, like Ava Starr. The Vermont forensic team” —another paper from the folder— “and our forensic team” —and another paper— “ found some high levels of propofol, hyoscine, and methylphenidate. Strangely high levels of thiopental, but only from about three separate instances. That may have been what they dosed her with to move her. This…isn’t good. It looks like she’s been…dosed with these drugs a significant amount over the time she’s been gone, significant enough that if you get her back, she may struggle with some withdrawal. Propofol could be used as an anesthetic to keep her still, but with a combination of a stimulant and hyoscine… It could be painful, but we’re not sure the exact purpose.” He scratches his head. “The drug use is increasing. Each time, it’s a higher dose. We can also tell the amount she’s been sweating, which is a lot—and definitely more than a child should be, unless she is highly active or really nervous. The report won’t tell us why. Hair toxicology reports are useful for frequency like this, but we can’t tell you any exact dates, just general timelines.”

Withdrawal. Highly active. Nervous. Maggie’s struggling to take all of the information in; beside her, Jim is stiff, his arms folded at his chest. “And the…drugs…” she starts.

Woo nods. “There was no overlap between the drugs found in Ava’s system and the one’s found in Cassie’s. This…co*cktail of drugs in her system is confusing. It doesn’t look like drug trafficking. We could be looking at drug dosage related to sex trafficking, but even the kinds of drugs we're seeing here would be unusual.”

“I don’t understand,” says Maggie. Her heart clenches painfully. “What’s the good news?”

Agent Woo looks her in the eyes; his gaze is warm. “The good news is that she’s probably still alive, after all this time.”

“Probably,” echoes Maggie, a choked word.

Paz looks away. “We can’t be sure, Mrs. Paxton,” she says. “but there are a lot of good signs here. If she’s alive, her hair color is still the same, at least from what we can see from the one strand, so we can still expect her to look the same, and the hair is longer than when we last saw her, which means she’s been alive a while. What's important to remember is that she was alive at the time the hair was removed from her head, which, if it was right before Starr died, means she was last alive sometime last night.”

Probably. Probably. Probably.

Jim’s arms are tightly wound against his chest. “So what do you think happened?” he asks.

Woo blinks. “What?”

“What,” repeats her husband, “do you think? Happened to Cassie?”

Agent Woo swipes his hand over the back of his neck. Is he…sweating? “Julia?”

With her dull, tired eyes, Officer Paz sighs and sets a final photo out onto the table in front of them: Scott Lang’s mugshot. “Listen to me. Maggie. Jim. Of the kids that go missing in the US, ninety percent of them are abducted by one of their parents. Less than one percent of kids actually get abducted by strangers, and your ex-husband has a record. Even worse than that, according to Hope, he had an…unpleasant relationship with Ava Starr. Lang’s the only one that has both motive to kill Ava and to abduct Cassie.”

Neither Jim nor Maggie says something to Scott’s defense; with barely a swish of her black hair, Hope gets up, grabs her jacket, and walks out of the room. Paz nods at her, and Woo follows her, shuffling after her clicking heels, calling out, “Ms. Van Dyne! Ms. Van Dyne!” until the door closes behind him.

Paz continues, “My guess is he hired the people who took her, staged an argument with Hope and an accident for himself at his friend’s place, and found somewhere to hide. This wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. There’s been no ransom, no photos of Cassie on the Internet, no signs of drug trafficking in her hair sample, and she’s still alive.”

“But the drugs,” says Maggie. “He… Someone drugged her. Someone’s still drugging her. Scott wouldn’t do that.”

Paz sighs. “I’m just telling you the odds. And Scott’s done time, so it would stand to reason that he knows dealers. He might be drugging her to keep her from running away, or when he moves her from one place to another… I don’t know. But this could be good, because Scott cares about her. This means she’s probably still out there.”

All Maggie can think is: Probably.

MONDAY, MAY 14 — 9:04PM

The Parker kid won’t wake up.

Riri and Haroun are playing cards in the bunker break room when Cassie starts screaming. “Peter!” she cries. “Peter! Peter! Peter!

Upon hearing her, Haroun takes another pill from the orange canister and crushes it on the table. “Your turn, Riri,” he says. He crushes and crushes and lines it up.

Riri hums and tries to ignore the little girl; in one move, Haroun snorts up the pill. “Got any eights?” she asks.

Haroun wipes his nose and shakes his head. “Go fish.”

Another scream, followed by a series of wails. “Peter, wake up! Wake up!” Riri glances up from her cards, looks to the door, and then meets Haroun’s eyes. “No, no, no! No, no, Peter, Peter…” He shuffles through his cards, sorting.

“Haroun,” says Riri.

He snaps, “Go fish.”

Far away, a little girl shrieks: “Peter, Peter, please! Peter!” Fists on the door. “Help! Help! Ava, Ava, Ava, help! Peter! Peter! Wake up!”

Haroun doesn’t move at the sound of his friend’s name; Riri has yet to pick up a card. “Haroun!”

Haroun looks pissed; his pills haven’t kicked in yet. “Fine—fine!” He scoots up from the table, sending his chair skittering back, and storms out of the break room. Down the hall, Cassie is crying Peter’s name. “Get away from the door!” he shouts, and they can hear the girl scamper away. Haroun has the key—it must be his turn—so he unlocks the door, throwing it open with his gun ready.

She can’t see inside, but Haroun rushes in, saying, “Ah, sh*t!”

Riri pulls out the handgun she has tucked in her pants. She knows better than to enter their cell unarmed.

She’s ready.

Notes:

i'm really glad i could update again for you guys. sorry for the wait. i've got my mojo back and am gonna keep up best i can.

yes, there's some hand-wavey science sh*t in here, so my apologies, i'm no chemical engineer. also, i know the timeline for mcu stuff can be weird, but just assume that this is after every movie up until ant-man and the wasp. plz don't look too deeply into the timeline. cassie is two years younger than she is supposed to be and peter is a year younger, so just don't worry about it. don't i wish mcu timelines made sense. although hope and scott meet ava in 2018, it makes more sense for them to have met her in 2017 so she can disappear for a while. don't worry about it.

see, the funny part is i got all that spider stuff from wikipedia—so ned knows what the hell he's talking about hahaha

plz let me know your thoughts! what you want to see coming up in this story! about any typos u see or also, if there's any other triggers you want me to tag—plz let me know, and i will. thanks for sticking thru with me <3

Chapter 6: hand grips hand

Summary:

“Peter? Peter? Can you hear me?” The doctor passes a light over his eyes, and the kid winces, shutting his eyes. “Keep your eyes open for me, okay?” Peter can’t move his head because he’s strapped down, so he can’t prevent the doctor from pulling his eyelids open to keep him from blinking.

The flash of light causes obvious pain, but the doctor does it again to the other eye. “Hm,” he says again. “Peter, can you look at the light?” He shines the light above his head, and then slightly to the left, then to the right.

Parker is still confused, and he’s starting to pull against his restraints, his hands turning to fists and his one not-numbed leg kicking out. There are so many straps holding him down that he barely moves, but he keeps twisting and twisting and twisting, a sound exiting his body in a low whine. “Wait,” he gasps, “please, wait, please…”

Notes:

chap title from 'breezeblocks' by alt-j

CW: violence, injury, head wounds, surgery, non-consensual drug use, self-harm if you squint, blood, kidnapping.

this is a special little chapter—only one POV this time, have fun.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

MONDAY, MAY 14 — 9:06 PM

Riri forgets how small the cell is until she walks inside.

It can’t be more than ten feet wide, and maybe six feet deep—in the far right corner is a concrete bed structure which exists more as a table because it’s missing a mattress. She remembers now, briefly, that Renee shredded their mattress in front of them after one of their escape attempts. On the bed, there is a dirty pillow, no sheets (stripped from the kids after another escape attempt), and a tarp-like blanket. In the far left corner, a toilet, and in the near left, a sink. Both are grimy and stink of piss. And in the near right, a bucket, filled with things: McDonald’s toys, mostly.

Beside the little girl, Parker is curled on his side in the three-foot space between the bed and the toilet, vomit spread over the side of his face and over the floor around him. He’s so pale that Riri’d think he’d overdosed if she didn’t know that he never had access to anything, and his eyes are half-closed, only a sliver of white visible.

As Haroun drops his weapon and runs inside the cell, Cassie screams and scrambles away from Parker’s body, diving under the bed. Haroun drops to his knees by Parker, pressing his hands to the boy’s neck, and Riri rushes to his side with her gun still drawn. “Is he…”

“Not yet,” he says, and he pulls open Parker’s eyes. “Might’ve been too much sedative—ah, sh*t, sh*t, sh*t.”

“What?”

“One of his pupils is huge.”

Riri’s still got her gun on him; she doesn’t know why. “What does that mean?”

She knows Haroun did a couple semesters of med school before joining up with Charlie, so he must know something. “It means he’s not doing good. His head… f*ck.” He clearly knows something she doesn’t. “Where’s Charlie?”

“I don’t know,” she says. Her eyes don’t leave the kid on the floor. He hasn’t moved, not a twitch. “He’s—passed out, probably.” She looks from her friend to the kid on the ground. Haroun’s got Parker rolled onto his side and has one hand in his mouth, clearing out his throat, and is peering inside. “Haroun… What’s wrong with him? He’s… He doesn’t look…”

“Go find Charlie.”

“Haroun—”

“Riri, the kid needs a doctor, like right now , so go get him!”

Riri doesn’t have to be told twice. She takes off, out of the cell and down the hallway, and into the breakroom. What the hell happened to Parker? She wasn’t here for his last session with Charlie a couple hours ago, but something must’ve happened. She sprints down the hallway around the corner to the barracks, all so fast that she can hardly feel her legs. Inside, she finds Renee and Charlie sprawled on the floor and smoking something so strong that the whole room reeks of it.

Renee stops laughing when Riri comes in. Charlie’s almost completely passed out, his laugh slurred by whatever he was smoking. He’s not going to be any kind of help.

Out of breath, Riri says, “Parker needs a doctor.”

The woman before her laughs, standing, swaying a bit as she does. Her red hair is tied back in a ponytail. “Sure he does.”

Riri tightens her jaw. “Haroun says it might be the sedatives, or his head, but he’s in the cell with Parker right now, and he says it doesn’t look good—”

Renee fake-pouts. “Haroun says, Haroun says,” she mocks in a whine. “Parker gets a doctor when I say…he gets a doctor. Not on my watch, not on…” She takes a drag, and smoke bubbles at her lips before she blows it out. “...my watch. Your boyfriend needs to learn to let things go, little girl.”

“He’s not my—”

Renee echoes her words in a pitiful fake-whine. “He’s not my boyfriend, he’s not my boyfriend…” She laughs as though she’s just said the funniest thing in the world, and she pats Riri’s shoulder with one hand; her manicure is chipped and long in need of a retouch. “Tell sweet Haroun that Spider-man will be… will be fine. He’ll live.”

“I’m serious—” Renee laughs, and Riri feels the rush from a few seconds before come alive in her. Parker needs a doctor now, not when Renee says he does. Haroun doesn’t have much medical experience, but he has enough, and she could tell from his voice that he was worried about Parker. “Renee, I’m not kidding! You haven’t seen him! We need to get him a doctor! Or get him to a hospital! I saw him on the ground in there, and he did not look good—”

“Riri.” Renee draws out the girl’s name. Riiiiiriiiii. She tilts her head. “So. What would you have us do? Huh? Drag the Parker kid outside so the whole world can see him? The kid’s staying right here, little girl.” She takes another drag of whatever she’s smoking and closes her eyes. “He can heal like the rest of us—nice and slow. He’ll be fine.” She draws out the last word like she did her name: fiiiiiine . “Spider-man, spider-man, friendly neighborhood spider-man…” She laughs again, and she squeezes Riri’s shoulder. “Can you imagine? Itsy-bitsy Peter Parker needs our help. You’re funny, little girl.”

Down the hall, Riri hears Cassie start to wail again, and something in her sparks like a broken lighter. Without a thought, she slaps the joint out of Renee’s hand. “Peter Parker’s gonna be dead if you don’t do something!”

Still smoking, the joint sits on the concrete floor between them.

Renee looks down at the fallen joint, and then back at the teenage girl in front of her. The hand on Riri’s shoulder tightens tenfold. Renee’s not laughing anymore. She swipes her tongue across her teeth and straightens her head, lifting her chin. “Pick it up,” she says, and she sounds suddenly sober.

A beat. “I’m sorry,” she says, and she scoops up the joint and pushes it into the other woman’s hand. She wonders briefly what it’s laced with—what could be causing Renee to act like this—but she knows Renee would be acting like this no matter what she was taking. “I’m sorry,” she says again, even though she knows Renee won’t listen. “I’m sorry.”

MONDAY, MAY 14 — 9:17 PM

Riri goes back to Parker’s cell with a swollen eye, a bloody lip, and a plan.

She’s pissed. If Renee won’t get Parker— Peter— a doctor, then she’s going to have to do it herself.

She can hear Haroun from down the hall. “How much f*cking sedation did you give him?” he snaps.

“No more than yesterday, dude, calm down.”

Haroun sounds pissed at the very idea of calming down. “Calm down?”

“Dude, you want someone to blame? Get Jon. He’s the one who got out the hammer…”

She enters the cell furious and empty-handed, and she finds Haroun sitting by the Parker kid’s head. Someone has placed a sweatshirt under his head so that his head and shoulders are elevated slightly, and there’s a bag of clear liquid strung up on a pole, connected to the tube that usually hangs from Parker’s arm. Mateo’s standing over the kid with his arms folded, and there’s a couple more people in the cell, too: Lyle leaned on the doorframe, and Daria’s sitting on the bed.

Lyle turns as she enters. He’s one of the slower ones; he’s a bit of a meth-head, with sores around his mouth, stringy hair, and skin that seems to wrinkle over bone despite his young age. He looks pleasantly surprised to see her, and then— “Uh, Riri, your face…” he starts.

Riri ignores the meth-head and addresses Haroun, who is currently muttering to himself and scrolling on his phone. “Haroun, I need the keys.”

Her friend looks up. Upon seeing Riri’s bloody face, he turns away with a wince and looks down at Parker’s unconscious body once more. He doesn’t look at her again. “Here,” he says, digging into his pocket and tossing Nick's keys. Parker is limp still, but at least she can spot the slow rise and fall of his chest. “Make sure you take someone with you.”

Riri pockets the keys.

She needs someone strong. Mason’s passed out in the barracks with Charlie, so her next-best option is Jon. She can hear their voices further down the hall, in one of the last cells before the door, so she grabs her converse and slips them on before stomping down the hall like she’s Charlie herself.

She doesn’t knock; they don’t have that kind of time. She shoves open the door; inside, Jon and Zhiyuan are smoking and talking quiet, side by side on the bed there. Jon’s arm is around Zhiyuan’s shoulder and Zhiyuan’s leg is over Jon’s. They jump as she enters. “Jon,” she says loudly, and Zhiyuan shifts his leg back to his side of the bed. “I need you. Let’s go.”

Jon chuckles. “Riri, we’re kinda in the middle of something—”

“I don’t care what you’re in the middle of! We gotta go, now .”

Jon huffs, arching a brow, and whispers something to Zhiyuan so low and calm that Riri wants to slap him. “Alright, kid, we’re coming.”

Zhiyuan follows them outside. Zhiyuan coming along wasn’t part of the original plan, but Riri doesn’t have time to explain why she doesn’t need him. She sets the pace, rushing down the mountain so quickly that she trips constantly. Zhiyuan repeatedly asks, “What’s the hurry?” and it only makes her more furious, and she keeps going faster and faster until she’s practically running down the mountainside.

When they finally get to the truck, Zhiyuan gets into the passenger seat and Nick into the back; Riri drives. She always drives, but this time she puts the car into reverse and hits the gas so hard that they almost reverse directly into a tree.

It takes them an hour, total, to get out of the mountains and in the direction of the nearest hospital. In the car ride over, she explains as best she can through gritted teeth. “Parker won’t wake up,” she says. “He won’t wake up, and he needs a doctor, and we’re going to get him one.”

In her rearview mirror, she sees Jon duck his head. “Yeah, sorry,” the older guy says. “That’s kinda my bad.”

That evening, Jon explains, he swung for the head.

Riri heard the crack from across the hall. Wanting to avoid the seven o’clock mess, she’d been in the break room with Zhiyuan, under the buzz of his tattoo needle. He drew a series of robot-themed hearts on her ribcage; it was painful, but the discomfort served to lessen the guilt surging in her at the noises coming from the other room.

She hasn’t heard the rest of the story until this moment. From what Jon tells her, Charlie got out the blowtorch again. He was waving it around as they put him into the chair and Parker had freaked , thrashing and screaming so hysterically that he got one arm free before they could properly lock it into its restraints. With his free hand, he slammed his fist into Jon’s nose; in a moment of pure outrage, Jon picked up Charlie’s hammer and swung— crack!

It knocked the kid out cold.

Parker went completely limp, his body dipping forward in the chair like a puppet with his strings cut, his one free arm dangling by the ground, and Tony had screamed so loud over the phone that Charlie made Scott turn the volume down.

“I shouldn’t’ve done it,” says Jon from the backseat. “It’s just—he hit me in the face, and I got so mad…”

Riri doesn’t care about his excuses.

They find the nearest hospital, one located between a sugarhouse and a cemetery. As they pass the building, Riri pulls off the road with a jerk, the truck bouncing hard enough over the graveled curb, and she slams on the brakes, hard , so abruptly that Jon yells, “Whoa!” from the back and Zhiyuan throws his arm out across Riri’s chest.

For some reason, as the car shrieks to a halt barely an inch from a row of trees, she thinks of Ava.

The car dips diagonally, one wheel on the shoulder and the other three deep in the grass. She unbuckles her seatbelt and shrugs off her jacket; in one motion, she tears her sleeve in half. “Uh, Riri?” starts Zhiyuan. She opens the car door and gets out, and she ignores Zhiyuan’s continued questions. She grabs a handful of dirt from beneath the tires and rubs over her arms, over the side of her swollen face, and in the rips of her jeans. She looses her hair from its bun and shakes her fingers through it, setting fibrils of frizzed hair loose. “Zhiyuan,” she says, as she gets back in the car, “give me your knife.”

He says, “My what?”

She rolls her eyes. “I know you have it.”

Jon fumbles into position above the center console, sneaking his head between her and Zhiyuan’s passenger seat. He’s about as muscled as Captain America, and it does not give him the advantage when it comes to agility. “Wait, what’s the plan?”

She ignores Jon. “Just give me the knife, man.”

Zhiyuan grumbles, but he unstraps the knife at his belt and hands it to her. Riri makes one small cut on her arm, even as the man protests, on the outer part of her upper arm, and the blood takes a moment to swell to the surface. It bubbles over and spills down in slow trickles, which she then takes to rub on her head and on the front of her shirt. There’s not a lot of it, but there’s enough.

From the back: “Riri, what the hell are you doing?”

“Just stay here,” she declares, and she smears more blood on her head. “Be ready. I’m gonna bring someone here, and when they get here…” She leans over to Zhiyuan’s side and opens the glove compartment to a series of unused sedative-filled syringes, all left from Parker’s first abduction. “...sedate them. Just enough to knock them out for like an hour. That’s it. We’re gonna need them.”

Zhiyuan and Jon are looking at each other, exchanging looks that are doubtful enough that she wants to scream at them to shut up. “Riri—“

“I'll be back in a second,” she snaps, and she opens the car door.

MONDAY, MAY 14 — 10:08 PM

I don’t know , Riri said once to Tony Stark as they worked. It seems like you haven’t tried that hard to get free.

Stark looked resigned. I can't try, he said. I can't risk Peter like that. I don’t have the luxury of trying to set him free.

Riri walks right into the medical clinic. “I need a doctor,” she gasps. The limp is fake, but her wince is real. Her face still stings from Renee’s beating. The woman at the front perks up, and Riri barely pays her any mind; she’s not Riri’s target. “Help! I need a doctor!” On one side is a young woman in a lab coat, speaking to a Chinese family in the corner, but Riri ignores her, too. That woman could be a medical student, by the looks of her. On the other side of the waiting room, among a couple rows of chairs, there is a tall man in a lab coat speaking quietly and calmly to a kid with a towel pressed to a bloody arm. Perfect. She rushes forward. “Doctor! Doctor! Help!”

The man looks up and, leaving the kid behind, rushes to her. “I need help in here!” he shouts, and the woman at the desk disappears through a set of double doors. He scans her from head to toe and zeroes in on her swollen face, then on her bloody forehead.

“We were in the car,” she starts, filling her world with as much shock and distress as she can muster, “and we went straight into the tree… My head, I think I hit my head…”

From up close, the doctor looks much more like a real person. His face is close enough to hers that his pores are visible, and around his neck dangles a Star of David. “We? Was there anyone else in the car?”

“My friend, he’s still in the car, I need help…”

It’s then she starts to execute her plan. “Hurry, come on, we have to help him, he was bleeding… I don’t know how long he has!” She pivots and runs back through the clinic doors, fake-limping the whole way.

“Wait!” cries the doctor, rushing after her. “Kid—wait! Hold on! Come back in—”

She takes off, picking up speed; just as she expected, he comes running after her. “The car’s right there, hurry! We don’t have much time, please!”

The doctor makes one glance back at the clinic and, with a look of distinct determination, follows her across the street to the truck.

MONDAY, MAY 14 — 10:15 PM

Riri Williams doesn’t like to think of herself as a bad person. She’s not like Charlie, a psychopathic drug-addled sad*st, or Jon, a hyper-aggressive steroid junkie, or even Mason, an anxious junkie with a near-fanatical need to please. All three of them would slice Parker to bits as soon as they were told to.

The rest of them—Riri, Haroun, Nick, Lyle, everyone—aren’t really bad at all, no matter what Peter Parker likes to mutter under his breath. They’re just obeying Charlie, and they use Charlie’s plan as a means to an end: more drugs, food, a place to sleep. It isn’t even truly Charlie’s plan, although he likes to claim otherwise. That guy on the phone—Rod? Ross?—is the one who tells Charlie what to do and provides him with everything he needs, the one who calls every day and demands updates. So, is Charlie really that bad? All he wants is what the Ross guy promises: drugs, and the world peace that will follow. To be seen as someone incredible. Someone powerful. Someone who changed the world. So far, sure, Charlie implemented his plan poorly. But was all the torture at Ross’ instruction or Charlie’s own wishes?

It doesn’t matter. Riri was different. Is different. Until this moment, she never did anything remotely like what Charlie had: torture, kidnapping, murder… Charlie surrounded himself with people who would obey him and hurt them. Riri isn’t like that. Right? She thinks momentarily of Tony Stark. Of his gray hair, his twitching hands, his croaking voice, his pained expression.

No, she’s different. She’s different.

She’s never kidnapped anyone (but she has made sure those people stayed kidnapped). She’s never killed anyone (but she has helped get rid of the body). She’s never tortured anyone (but she has helped hold them down as they screamed).

Maybe she is like him. Maybe she’s getting more and more like Charlie every day she spends in that bunker. Is that why she’s doing this? She’s not like him… Charlie would never help Parker; he would scoff at the idea of bringing a doctor to the kid. But isn’t Charlie doing this for good, too? To have control of the world, to make the weapon for that Ross guy, one that will allow them to have control and to make the world a better place? Charlie wants good for the world, but he’s… He’s not like her. She’s different. She is.

But if helping Parker means hurting someone else… No. She’s doing this for good. To save Peter Parker.

But the question still pulls at her chest: is this something Charlie would do?

Riri drives. She’s usually the driver—everyone else’s usually too high to get behind the wheel, so it’s naturally her job. In the passenger seat, Zhiyuan sits with the empty syringe of sedatives; in the back, Jon cuffs the doctor’s hands behind his back and tapes his mouth shut. “Couldn’t’ve picked someone smaller, Riri?” he complains. “He’s gonna be a bitch carrying back to the bunker.”

“It’s not like there were a whole lot of options,” she shoots back. “We’re in New Hampshire. He was probably the only doctor in the whole place.”

The drive is quiet; the man barely makes a sound in his sleep. “This is a good idea,” says Riri, “right?”

Zhiyuan doesn’t say anything.

Jon carries the man halfway up—about thirty minutes—the mountain before the doctor begins to stir. Then Zhiyuan stabs a needle into the man’s arm, injects, and he goes limp again. Another half-hour passes before they make it to the bunker entrance: an entrance deep in a cave, disguised by a wall of wet moss and vine.

Before they get inside, Riri asks Zhiyuan to wake up the doctor. “I need to talk to him.” Clipped to his coat is a nametag reading Dr. Leonard Skivorski, M.D. Beside it is a photo of him. The doctor looks maybe fifty or so, and in his ID picture he looks younger than forty. At the bottom corner of the ID: Pediatric Surgery.

He’ll do.

Jon pins the doctor still against the cave wall while Zhiyuan rummages through his backpack and finds a syringe, although she’s not sure how clean it is. He presses the piston a little to clear the needle of air bubbles, yanks the doctor’s scrub pants down an inch or two, and plunges the needle directly below his hip. Zhiyuan fixes the man’s pants and takes a step back, and in just a minute or two, the doctor wakes.

He has grayish-blonde hair, a wrinkled face, and a bit of a beer belly. When he opens his eyes, they’re green, and he jerks in Jon’s grip, thrashing. Zhiyuan pulls a gun on him then, pressing it against his nametag. “Be still,” he says, “and listen to the girl.”

She tells the doctor exactly what they need. “So as long as you fix him, and you do what we tell you, we’ll let you go. Got it?”

Frozen by Jon’s arms and the threat of Zhiyuan’s gun, he nods furiously in understanding, eyes still bugged wide, breathing hard through his nose in shallow puffs. He glances at Zhiyuan, and then back to Riri, and his eyes seem only to get wider.

MONDAY, MAY 14 — 11:32 PM

Peter is still not awake.

The doctor stands in the doorway, cuffs gone, a pair of guns directed at his back. Peter’s still flat on the ground, pale and unconscious, but one of his wrists is cuffed to the leg of the bed. At the other end of the bed, another cuff rattles around the far leg, attached to a small white hand leading under the bed. “There’s your patient, Doctor,” says Jon. He pokes the barrel into the man’s labcoat. “Go on.”

Jon’s tone is anything but playful. The room dies with his comment, the mass of people in the room now falling quiet. There are quite a few more spectators than when she left: Mason by the bucket, Daria on the bed between Glenn and Nick, Lyle leaned on Megan in the doorway, and even that tall white girl—Blake? Betty?—is sitting on the floor next to the Lang girl’s cuffed hand.

The room is stuffed full of people—figures. It’s no wonder they’re all so interested; this is the most exciting thing that’s happened in the last month.

Dr. Skivorski hesitates, but he does peer over at the Parker kid. He has a pair of glasses strung around his neck, and the string is wound in multicolored yarn and beaded with small ceramic smiley faces. She forgot; he’s a pediatric surgeon. “What happened to him?” he asks, putting on his glasses.

Riri looks to Haroun, Haroun to Zhiyuan, and Zhiyuan to Jon. His face flushed red, Jon raises his hands in sudden surrender. “How was I supposed to know? I’m not his f*cking keeper, man! He’s supposed to heal fast!”

They explain as best they can what happened to him without giving details about him. When they’re done, the doctor’s face sours, and Haroun mentions, “Kid had a seizure while you were gone.”

“How long?” asks the doctor.

“About a minute, like an hour ago. Then another, like ten minutes ago.”

Now that Riri’s thinking about it, that’s probably what freaked out Cassie so much in the first place. Not the fact that he was asleep—but the fact that he seized .

That little girl might’ve saved his life.

He still seems a little rattled, but the epinephrine must have done its job, because he drops to his knees next to the Parker kid with a huff and asks, “Do I get supplies?”

Some of the watching addicts scramble together some supplies for him. He’s already at work, doing some of what Haroun had done when he’d first seen the kid unconscious. Dr. Skivorski takes alcohol swabs from his pockets—Riri already made sure to clear his lab-coat of anything useful: phone, needle driver, pager—and wipes his hands clean. He opens Parker’s mouth, clutches his wrist for a pulse, and tries to get his attention.He goes straight for the head, where bloody scraps of cloth are tied around it.

Dr. Skivorski takes a look at the wound, and finds a reopened gash and an array of messy, split stitches, which he mumbles as he checks. “Who stitched him up? What, is there a doctor around here? ‘Cause he did a crap job.”

They look around. No one stitched him up. No one’s fessing up.

From under the bed, the Lang girl says, “Peter did.” Her voice is a croak; Riri wonders if it’s from screaming Parker’s name.

The doctor blinks, jumping slightly at the sound of a child’s voice. He turns and peers under the bed, then back up at everyone else. “Who the hell is Peter?”

In an almost comic fashion, Zhiyuan and some of the others simultaneously point to the boy laying on the ground.

Dr. Skivorski tilts his head back, and his gray-lined hair falls back. “What the…” he mutters, and then he says it louder, his words pointed at Nick, who seems to be the oldest in the room. “What the hell. You let this kid sew up his own head?”

Nick shrugs, but even he looks a little embarrassed. “It’s not my job, man.”

“And why is he handcuffed to the—what, you geniuses think he’s gonna fight you like this? That he’s gonna pop up and knock you one? Look at him!”

Glenn, massive and muscled, his arm wound in a cast, complains that Parker broke his arm clean in half. “You don’t understand what this kid can do—he’s a f*cking menace!”

“Not right now he’s not,” snaps the doctor. The room still reeks of blood and piss. “And the… Is that a little kid under there?”

“Don’t worry about the kid,” snaps Jon, and Riri remembers his gun is still out. “What do you need for Parker?”

“I need medical equipment. Gloves, masks, sutures, scalpels… Anything you have. Is there someplace sterile?”

Daria from the couch: “There’s an operating room in the lower levels.”

Riri looks to her; they mostly stay out of the lower levels. Charlie’s crew is only about a dozen people, two dozen tops, and usually half of them are so high they can barely stand. There are several lower levels, but they’re either full of liquified corpses in black uniforms and more corpses in the same prisoner’s garb they force Parker and the girl into. It’s not a pleasant place.

“What?” she says. “I was curious.”

“Is it sterile?” asks Dr. Skivorski.

“As sterile as you’re gonna get,” responds Daria.

The doctor has now pushed up Parker’s shirt and is visibly cringing at the injuries there. “Fine. Then get me a stretcher.”

Lyle, from the doorway: “I don’t think we have—a—”

“Then find me something that works like one!” he snaps.

Lyle rushes out of the room, and Megan follows.

MONDAY, MAY 14 — 11:44 PM

They take Parker to the operating room on another cell’s mattress.

As the strongest, Nick and Jon do most of the lifting; as they pick it up, Nick says, in subdued surprise, “He’s so light.”

The operating room is on the fourth level from the top, so it’s almost completely silent when they exit the elevator. Once they enter, the relief in the doctor is so obvious that he lets out an audible sigh. “This is perfect,” he starts, before Jon shoves the gun into his back and Dr. Skivorski shuts up.

He doesn't need to do that, Riti knows, because everyone in the room is armed but the doctor. Even Riri’s got a gun lodged in her belt. She can’t live here and not be armed.

“I need a team,” says the doctor, as the men settle Parker onto the open table. “I usually have—at least a couple—”

“How many?” asks Nick. As the oldest of the crew—at around thirty-five—he has somewhat taken charge of the situation, despite the fact that his eyelids are drooping and his words are slightly slurred.

“At least two,” Dr. Skivorski says. “But, uh…” He turns to the group in the room. There are even more now, around a dozen people in the room, all having followed Riri and the rest down to see what the fuss was about.

They are all in the scrub room. Even Parker is there, sprawled unconscious on the mattress. Dr. Skivorski makes Nick and Jon clean up before they carry in the Parker kid, and Riri’s currently helping to strip Parker of his grimy clothes and clean him up. She’s not sure why they need to be this thorough; he’s survived this long with the grime. How sterile does he really need to be?

But the good doctor insists, so they obey. They can’t afford to lose Peter. Again, Dr. Skivorski addresses the room: “Can I get a couple volunteers, please?”

Instead of volunteers, he gets a roomful of confused, shuffling addicts.

“Does anyone have medical experience? Patient experience? Anything?”

They look around at each other like they’ve only just met. Lyle even says, “Uh,” and nothing else. None of them take the lead on volunteering. Jon suggests one of the girls, one who went to a semester or two of college, but she shakes her head and says she was a business major.

Dr. Skivorski nods, finally drying his washed hands, and squints at the messy group of young people. “Okay, if you think you can handle seeing someone be cut open, stay. The rest of you, go.” About half of them file out.

Riri adds, albeit discreetly, “Most of them are probably on something right now, so I don’t know how much help they’ll be.

Dr. Skivorski stands up straight and addresses the dozen-ish addicts. “Okay, how many of you are high right now?”

Every hand goes up.

He makes a tsk sound of disappointment, frowning. “Okay, hands down.”

Fine motor skills aren’t generally a requirement of being part of Charlie’s crew. As Riri and Haroun finish cleaning Parker, he has the remaining few try to write their names and asks them a couple questions. He dismisses a couple more,and is eventually left with Riri, Mateo, and Zhiyuan.

Masked and clean, Nick and Jon carry in a newly scrubbed Parker and place him on the operating table in the center of the room. There are leather-lined cuffs on the table, and they strap him in, three straps across each arm, four over each leg, three over the torso, one over the shoulders. He’s entirely limp still, and his head rocks to the side before they strap it in, too.

The doctor tells Riri, the only one who’s not high, to help him scrub in. All the supplies are still inside the scrub room, left in unlocked cabinets. Dr. Skivorski seems to know exactly what he needs. She helps him tie shut the gown, strap on a mask, and put on a turquoise pair of gloves. “When’s the last time someone was in here?” he asks. “Five years?”

Riri doesn’t know, and she tells him so. “How can you tell?”

He gestures vaguely at the array of protective equipment he’s wearing; “The popular brands of scrubs and PPE, they change over time. I haven’t worn this kind since…2013?”

Riri washes and scrubs in, as do Mateo and Zhiyuan, although not as thoroughly as the doctor did. Jon and Nick stay, guarding the entrance. Mateo and the doctor talk about anesthesia, and they post him by the anesthesia cart; they use the IV in his arm as well as a central line in the groin to deliver extra fluids into his body through his femoral vein. They intubate him—imaging the tube going down Riri’s own throat makes her want to gag, but she buries the feeling—and flood him with fluids, nutrients, and antibiotics.

The combination of medications and fluids seem to help; from its slowed state, the kid’s heart rate goes up on the monitor, and once he’s stable enough they drape his head in sterile cloth, cut open a spot for his head, and the doctor shaves away a lot of his dark hair from the wounded area.

Riri tries not to watch.

They dive straight into the surgery. His heart rate skyrockets on the first incision, and Dr. Skivorski calls for more anesthesia. Riri passes him blades and handles, clamps and syringes, forceps and retractors. “He was hit twice,” says the doctor, as he examines the kid’s head. “The first time was hard enough to fracture the skull, and the second was hard enough to crack it further and bruise the brain. Once the skull is fractured, it has a hard time absorbing a blow, so your boy Jon” —he scoffs— “caused some swelling in this kid's brain. That’s why he won’t wake up.”

Dr. Skivorski works while talking to himself, sometimes humming random Beatles songs as he goes, so Riri says, when he’s halfway through Can’t Buy Me Love , “You seem awfully calm for someone who’s been kidnapped,” she says.

He glances over at her for a second. “I just can’t believe you managed to trick me,” he says. “Fifty-five years on this Earth, and I didn’t stop to think why you hadn’t called 911, or why you just needed me, or why the blood on your head didn’t have a wound.” He shakes his head, and he shakes his head again. “I’ve lived my life. If saving this kid is the way I go out, then… That’s not so bad, is it?” She turns her face away as he digs further into the bloody cavity; to look, she thinks, would make her sick. “I’m sorry,” he says then, as Riri grasps both retractors to give him access to Parker’s wounded skull, “you’re really, really too young for this.” He frowns. “How old are you?”

“Fifteen,” she says. That seems like the answer the doctor was expecting. She can’t see the lower half of his face under the surgical mask, but his eyes seem to grimace. “And how old is the kid on the table?”

“Sixteen,” she answers.

“And—the little girl, from under the bed?”

“Seven.” The doctor’s eyes focus on Parker’s head, and she finds him suddenly incredibly difficult to read. “My son’s a little older than him,” he says. “He’s going to college next year.”

“Oh, yeah?” says Riri, as though she’s not holding apart the skin of Parker’s head and he’s not digging inside of his brain and clearing clumpy blood clots from a teenager’s injured brain. “Congrats. Where’s he going?”

“NYU. He wants to go premed. He already lives in New York, you know. His mom moved down there to be with him.”

“And you didn’t?”

He shook his head. “I didn’t want to seem overbearing. His mom had custody, anyway. He comes back here for the holidays, and my job’s out here, so…” He smiles with a wince. “Now, I wish I’d gone with them. I’d like to see his face.”

“You will,” Riri assures him. “I swear.”

The doctor shakes his head. “I should’ve gone with them. I should’ve gone with them.” He falls quiet then, mumbling to himself about linear fractures and hematomas and occipital lobes. Riri’s seen thirteen seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and still she has no idea what he’s talking about.

She once overheard a conversation between Peter and Cassie while leaving the bunker. And then there’s a cassowary , said Cassie, with that excited-kid voice. They look kinda like roosters—but they’re not roosters. They’re blue and black and red and really tall, like an ostrich! They eat a lot of fruit, and they live in Australia like the kangaroos!

That’s pretty cool, Cass, said Peter, sounding incredibly tired. They must not have heard her footsteps, because at that point Riri stood beside their door with one ear pressed to the wall.

And their eggs! Their eggs are big and green and so cool! I think maybe if you cooked them like in Dr. Seuss they would be green, right, Peter? Green eggs and ham? But I asked Jim and he looked it up and he said that it was white and yellow on the inside, like a chicken!

That’s really— Riri heard Parker suddenly gasp— bad leg, Cass, bad leg, off the bad—ah!—leg…

Sorry, said the little girl, sounding genuinely so. I forgot.

It’s…okay, said the teenager. Just give me….a second.

She could hear their breathing as though she was in the room with them. Cassie’s excited breaths turning slow as she must’ve watched Parker try to calm himself—and Parker’s own quick, stilted ones. Okay , he said finally, once his breathing slowed again . Tell me more about these birds.

An excited giggle from Cassie. Yay!—so they can swim and run fast, but it can’t fly…

Riri had Googled ‘cassowary’ later, once Cassie and Peter were fast asleep and she had hidden in one of the other cells with her phone and earbuds and was in between a couple episodes of How Stuff Works . The first video: Why Cassowaries Are the Most Dangerous Bird on the Planet . Cassie had been talking about a killer bird, one that had been known to kill humans with their claws.

But of course, Cassie didn’t know that. Whatever she had seen on TV or read in a chapter book about cassowaries had all been the good stuff.

She was too young to know about killers.

She was too young for all of this.

Riri feels a lime-colored egg sink in the pit of her stomach.

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 6:50 AM

They work through the night, having to stop every time Parker’s blood pressure got too high. He had a certain knack for burning through every bit of anesthesia Mateo threw at him; each time he started to stir, they had to stop until he was fully under once more. At one point, Mateo falls asleep at the anesthesia cart, and Parker’s eyes start to move beneath their lids—a fluttering—until finally they open to reveal a bleary pair of brown irises. “Mateo!” snaps the doctor. “He’s up!”He looks around, to the ceiling, and side to side, then closes them again. His mouth moves then, as he looks up. He reaches for her; strapped down, his hands don’t do much more than wiggle, but he tries. His mouth moves again, and he mouths something like Mom around the tube in his throat.

Then his eyes close again, like a sleepy toddler’s, and Peter Parker smiles, but he doesn’t manage to say anything else before he’s out again, a new round of anesthesia flooding him.

At last, the doctor sews him up—redraping him, moving on to several slashes that are on the boy’s torso. These are simpler, and don’t require as much anesthesia, so Dr. Skivorksi vauches to bring him back. He mentions that you want to keep someone under for as little as possible; the longer someone’s under anesthesia, the worse you risk complications. “And he’s already been through enough,” he says, “don’t you think?”

They pull up stools—which is of great relief to Riri’s cramping legs—and get to work on his other injuries.

At this point, both Zhiyuan and Mateo have gotten quite twitchy, and have since run off for a fresh hit, and the doctor says they don’t need to come back. It’s just a matter of monitoring him now—and fixing up his lesser injuries—so it’s only Riri and the doctor now. He still needs her extra set of hands.

“What are you doing here?” he says, now that the other two are gone. He pulls a stitch closed. “You’re a kid. You should be in school.”

She shrugs. “That's not the way it works for everyone, you know. I’m not like the Parker kid.”

He glances up at her briefly, and then back down to the sutures in Parker’s belly, where he loops and pulls the thread with his needle driver. “Why do you call him that?” he asks.

“What?”

“Kid,” he echoes. “He’s older than you.”

Riri knows he’s technically a year older than her. She’s never really thought about it. “That’s what Charlie and everybody calls him, I guess.”

“Hm,” he says. “And Charlie, he’s the one in charge?”

On instinct, Riri glances at the door. No Charlie. Just Jon and Nick, guarding the door and smoking. Zhiyuan’s out there, too, talking to Jon. “Yeah,” she says. “You haven’t met him.”

The doctor finishes his sutures and drops his tools, searching over Peter’s body for more wounds. He gets to the leg finally, and he and Riri redrape again, this time revealing his brutalized right leg. “Holy—” he starts, as soon as he sees it.

“That’s his bad leg,” says Riri.

“And who did that?”

She feels almost irritated at his question. “Charlie,” she snaps. “Look, you better stop asking so many questions, or we won’t let you go.”

The doctor stops looking at her. He’s looking at Parker, she notices, but not at his leg—at his face. “They’re not going to let me go, hon.”

She blinks. “What are you—of course they will—we will. I’ll do it myself—we’re gonna let you go. I’ll make sure of it. I told you I would, so I will.”

He’s still looking at Parker. “I’m sure you will,” he says.

As Dr. Skivorski examined Peter’s leg, Riri thought about what he said. More and more as Riri remained a part of this, the more she thought they might never free Parker or Lang or the Lang girl. If they were going to save the world, how could they have people around who knew they had tortured and killed to get there? They weren’t just tools—they were witnesses. And Charlie never liked to have witnesses.

“I’m glad it was me,” says the doctor, as his cap-bound head ducks to Parker’s leg. “The other doctor on duty—she’s getting married in the summer. I’ve lived my life, you know? I got married, I had a kid…” He sighs. “Crap. His knee’s infected. He really did a number on this one. Can you grab the…”

She hands him the vial of antibiotics from the cart.

“Thanks.”

At this moment, he reminds her a little of Stark.

She helped him set up a drape of cloth between Peter and his leg, one that shields his view from the leg, in case he wakes up. “I’ve gotta open it up,” Charlie says. “If this infection sticks around any longer, he’ll get septic.” They do more work on his leg; after some injections of localized anesthesia, the doctor opens it up, and Riri winces at the sight of raw muscle and bone. Dr. Skivorski removes shards of bone one by one, and each clink into the surgical tray beside him.

Sometime as the doctor is sewing up Parker’s leg, the kid starts to stir again. She helps the doctor exchange his gloves for a pair of fresh ones, and they remove his endotracheal tube from his throat by pulling slowly.

At this point Riri’s watch beeps, and she realizes that it’s morning. If she went outside right now, she would see the sun peek through the trees and pass over the mountain peaks. Maybe the deer has started to wake—returning to the spot where her young once lay, sniffing and sniffing and finding only pieces of burnt fur and bloody leaves. The doctor hears it, too, and asks her what time it is—it’s then she remembers the implications of what she’s done. Dr. Skivorski asks her again and this time she does respond. “Almost eight,” she says.

“Hm,” he says. That seems to be his catchphrase. “Okay, let’s see if we can get him up.” They’ve already reversed the anesthesia; they’re only waiting for him to wake. As he does, the doctor’s frown seems only to deepen.

Like before, Parker’s eyes shift beneath their lids, and when they open they’re unfocused and confused. His pupils look better now—of equal size—although tears rise immediately to his eyes. He squeezes them shut, and, after a few more confused glances, tries to talk: a cough is all that comes from him. It becomes a pattern—open eyes, look around, attempt to talk, close eyes again. His eyes don’t focus on a single thing. It’s like he can’t even see them standing beside him.

“Peter? Peter? Can you hear me?” The doctor passes a light over his eyes, and the kid winces, shutting his eyes. “Keep your eyes open for me, okay?” Peter can’t move his head because he’s strapped down, so he can’t prevent the doctor from pulling his eyelids open to keep him from blinking.

The flash of light causes obvious pain, but the doctor does it again to the other eye. “Hm,” he says again. “Peter, can you look at the light?” He shines the light above his head, and then slightly to the left, then to the right.

Parker is still confused, and he’s starting to pull against his restraints, his hands turning to fists and his one not-numbed leg kicking out. There are so many straps holding him down that he barely moves, but he keeps twisting and twisting and twisting , a sound exiting his body in a low whine. “Wait,” he gasps, “please, wait, please …”

The doctor looks wildly uncomfortable. He rolls his stool to Parker’s head and places one hand on the boy’s shoulder; he flinches against his restraints. “Hey, hey,” he says, with a quick removal of his hand. “Peter? You’re safe, you’re safe. My name’s Dr. Skivorski, and I’m not going to hurt you. I’m here to help.”

“No, please…” he continues, and his heart rate shoots up as he continues to thrash. “ Please! Please, no more, I can’t…” He starts to cough again. “My head… I can’t…”

“Your head’s gonna hurt for a while,” says Dr. Skivorski. “We fixed you up, but you need to take it easy.”

Peter’s eyes glance in every direction, but still they don’t settle on the doctor. “I can’t… What did you do to me? I can't see!”

The doctor looks at Riri. “He wasn’t like this before?” he asks, as Peter mumbles, “Can’t see, can’t see… Oh, God… Charlie, please , please… I can’t…”

She shakes her head. “What did we do?”

The boy continues to flail against the reinforced restraints, a dry scream erupting from him.

“Something’s not right,” says Dr. Skivorski. “His heart rate’s too high, his blood pressure—too high, too. But he’s not… Is he septic? Shock, maybe? No…” He mutters to himself, checking everything—Parker’s urine drainage bag, his response times, just like he did before.

Please! ” screams Peter, and he’s sobbing. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please, Mr. Stark… Help me, please…”

Riri stands entirely useless beside the doctor as he does his work. When he starts repeating, “Come on, Peter…” She hurries over to him, positioning herself at the beside the kid’s stitched torso. The bruises are f*cking endless… At the site of Parker’s recently-stitched head, his skin has healed entirely around the stitches. “This is what you meant when you said he heals fast, huh? I thought you were exaggerating, but he… His head… It’s almost entirely healed.” He inspects it further. “That’s incredible. It’s like his body knows exactly where the danger is and focused on healing.” His shoulders drop, just slightly. “So he’s…enhanced?”

Riri is suddenly very, very ashamed. “Yeah.”

”Then what’s happening…? Come on, Peter, work with me…”

She glances up to the monitor, where his temperature reads a cool ninety-six degrees and falling. “Uh, Dr. Skivorski?”

He looks up at her, deep in his inspection of Peter’s head stitches. The kid’s still flailing against his restraints like he’s possessed. She points to the monitor, and he says, “No, no, no—come on, Peter, stay with me.”

There is a sudden cry from Parker: “It burns! It burns, please, I can’t take it, Mr. Stark, help me!

“Hold on, Peter, hold on…” He rifles through vial after vial in search of something, and when he finally finds it, he taps a new syringe, inserts and draws liquid, and inserts it into Parker’s femoral catheter.

It takes a minute or two, but at last Parker calms, falling into some kind of fitful, unconscious state. After he passes out, she and the doctor flood him with warm fluids to get his temperature back up, and the doctor sits back in his stool with a sigh.

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 10:41 AM

It takes another couple hours for Parker to come back to consciousness. Even then, he talks in his sleep, mumbling for people: his parents, his aunt and uncle, someone named Skip, and even for Tony Stark. At some point, he comes to with some lucidity and thrashes so hard that his arms come free; in his half-sedated, half-feverish state, he scrabbles at his restraints with his fingernails, and in one scream of pain, throws his chest through the straps with such power than each one breaks. Before he can break the ones at his legs, the doctor goes to him and grabs his clammy hand with both of his, patting gently over his knuckles. “Peter, listen to me: you’re okay, hon, you’re okay.”

That gets the boy’s attention; his thrashing slows to a standstill. His lower half is still strapped down to the bed, and he tries to sit up but only falls back down. “Uncle Ben?” he whispers. He seems to have more visual acuity than he had a couple hours ago, because he’s focusing entirely on Dr. Skivorski’s face, scanning it as one would a loved one. His voice cracks, and Peter Parker starts to cry. “Uncle Ben… I’m sorry…”

Riri watches their interaction from the other side of the bed. She remembers, then, that Mateo was the one dosing the Parker kid with his daily sedation, and he’s gone now. That must be how he broke through the restraints.

“Is it really you?” says Parker, and he’s squinting. Relief floods her—he must be able to see again.The kid’s eyes are so bloodshot they’re almost almost red. He reaches out for the doctor, his face going slack, repeatedly trying to lift his head; his arms stretch out again, his hands bumping against the doctor’s forearms and taking hold of his scrubs.

The doctor looks back once at Riri before pulling his stool closer to the kid, and he lets the kid hold onto him. “Yeah,” he says, and there’s something in Dr. Skivorski’s voice that Riri can’t detect. “It’s me, Peter. It’s me. I’m here.”

Tears spill from Parker’s bloodshot eyes, but the liquid is pink, as though tainted with blood. His breathing hitches. “Ben—Uncle Ben, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”

The doctor gathers the boy into his arms. His scrubs are covered in splatters of various fluids—all of them Parker’s—but Parker doesn’t seem to notice and the doctor doesn’t seem to care. “It’s okay,” whispers the doctor, and he cups the back of the boy’s neck with one hand. “You’re okay. It’s okay, hon.” He holds the boy’s battered boy half-up against himself, trying to still Parker’s heaving chest. “I’m here. I’m here.”

Riri is immovable, frozen solid on her stool by Parker’s legs.

“I couldn’t save you, I couldn’t—” The boy sobs harder. “I didn’t save you… Uncle Ben, I… I… I’m sorry… I should’ve… I…” He’s crying so hard he can’t breathe, so Dr. Skivorski folds his arms around him. The movement is so gentle that it isn’t a hug but more of an embrace, like he’s holding a newborn infant. “I lost you, I lost you… I miss you so, so much… and I… It’s all my… my fault…”

The doctor holds him, and Parker holds him back. He is surprisingly strong for someone so brutally and gravely wounded. “You’re okay,” says the doctor, as Parker’s bruised hands grip into the doctor’s scrubs hard enough to injure. His voice slows, calms, and quiets to a lulled whisper. “It’s not your fault, Peter, it’s not your fault… You were just a kid…”

He says these words with so much surety that Riri thinks for a second that he knows Parker. Then she remembers—Parker is a kid. He’s sixteen. So anything that may have happened before this, any situation where he could have caused someone harm… How could it have been his fault? He’s a kid now, and he was a kid then. What does that mean for her? What is she responsible for? What is her fault?

The kid clings to the doctor like he’s gravity, like the doctor is his last tether to Earth. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry… Do you…” His breathing turns to gasps, like he can’t quite get enough air into himself. “Ben—Ben, please… Do you—do you forgive me?”

Dr. Skivorski doesn’t hesitate. “I forgive you, of course I forgive you, Peter.” The kid cries more, in weary relief, and he loops his arms around the doctor’s chest, hugging him desperately close. “You’ve always been forgiven, hon, always. It’s okay, I’m here, it’s okay, I’m here…”

Peter sobs and sobs and holds him, but he’s exhausted. He only makes it another minute before his sobs calm, melting into gasps and into sighs, and at last he’s passed out again.

Once he’s asleep, for the first time since she met him a month or so ago, Peter Parker seems at peace.

Notes:

y'all i'm not a doctor, plz let me live, i'm doing my best to make this as realistic as possible. & don't question the blindness weirdness, i'll get to explaining that in the next chapter.

and remember, the last time someone was in HYDRA bunkers was probably around 2014—when HYDRA got taken down by good ol Cap in the winter soldier

dr skivorski is actually such a fun character, he’s a real marvel character, look him up! they call him doc samson cuz he’s strong—and now he’s being strong for our peter <3

we'll see more of doc skivorski in the next chapter, but thank u for reading and see u next chapter! plz leave let me know if there's anything u wanna see or what you think!

Chapter 7: light a fire in my stomach

Summary:

“We’ve done all we can do for now,” the doctor says.

For some reason, his comment really pisses Riri off. “You’re not done,” she insists. “He still looks like…”

“Like he’s been to hell?” he prompts. “Well, he’s still there, hon.”

“But—”

“He’s not just going to magically get better as soon as I lay my hands on him. That’s not how medicine works. Sometimes the best you can do is sit and wait.”

Notes:

chap title from 'inside out' by duster

here's a new chap, happy finals to everyone. i'm literally dying out here. i hate this sh*t so much, but writing these chapters gives me so much joy. thanks so much for reading, you guys. enjoy.

CW: ross being a perv, medical stuff, injury, fixing injuries, mentions of torture, mentions of violence

Chapter Text

ROSS — TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 11:35 AM

Secretary Ross is not happy.

The death of Ava Starr is all over the news. She was found with a hair— one f*cking hair —in her pocket that led to the reopening of that missing kid’s case: Cassandra Paxton-Lang, Ant-Man’s kid.

Starr’s not the first death. There’s been a couple overdoses, a couple more violent deaths—which she supposes it what happens when you put a bunch of poor, stupid, drug-addled menaces in a bunker and give them an unlimited supply to their drug of choice.

It’s an occupational hazard. It’s not like he made them overdose or fight each other, so obviously it’s not his fault, but it is his responsibility to take care of the bodies to make sure they don’t get caught.

Ross tried to shut down a thorough investigation of the body, to have it settled as the death of a homeless bitch who no one cared for, but they found her f*cking identity barely five hours after the body was pulled from the lake. Once they found out it was Ava Starr, former enemy of SHIELD and Ant-Man, then SHIELD took complete control. Once SHIELD got involved, he had no power over the case; everything superhuman always goes straight to SHIELD.

He can’t touch this goddamn case. He should’ve known those idiots would find a way to f*ck this up. If another body drops, he’s gonna have to start piling them up in the Raft just to keep them out of the news.

He can help them with the corpses—acid to melt it, tips on how to remove the teeth and fingerprints—but these days, a professionally desecrated corpse draws more attention than a random bitch dropped in a lake or shoved in the back of someone’s car.

People these days watch too much true crime.

They want everything to be a f*cking conspiracy; so what if they’re right? It makes Ross’ project so much harder. How’s he ever gonna get anything done when people keep interfering ?

He advised Charlie’s crew on where to drop the bodies; the first two overdosed on Ross’ donated drugs, but they were easy. They weren’t murdered. An autopsy of a couple overdosed, homeless addicts wouldn’t draw any suspicion. Drop them deep in the Bronx, and no one would bat an eye.

But the Starr bitch? She is the most inconvenient thing to happen to him all week. He watches the news on the TV in his office. When her face comes up, brown-skinned and green-eyed and mopey in her SHIELD-official photo, Ross wants to throw the whole television out the window and watch it shatter on the sidewalk below. They’re going to call her a victim?

The news anchor is a man. He says: “ Twenty-three-year-old Ava Starr was murdered last night, and her body was found in Lake Champlain, Vermont. The Argentina native has been a high-profile missing persons case in the United States and Argentine since she was witness to her parents’ death and illegally taken in by former SHIELD agent Bill Foster. Her abduction caused major rifts between the Argentine and American governments. Pre-its 2014 purge, SHIELD lost track of both Starr and Foster, who suddenly disappeared from public eye. Just recently, Foster and Starr came to the forefront of Califronian news when they committed a mass of felonies in San Francisco, including the kidnapping of a minor and the murder of a federal agent, and fled the country.

“Now her brutal death has been related to the disappearance of Scott Lang and his biological daughter Cassandra Paxton-Lang back in April. Forensic teams discovered a hair on Starr that belonged to Paxton-Lang, and further analysis suggests that she has been heavily drugged but is still alive.

“Some believe that the father is the cause of Starr’s death. Others believe both Paxton-Lang and her biological father Lang are victims of a drug ring that Starr was involved in. In any case, the connection between Starr and the Paxton-Lang blended family remains unclear—

He pauses the TV as it is, displaying all three of their faces: mugshots of Scott Lang and Ava Starr, and an elementary school photo of Cassie Paxton-Lang. Those vultures—if they keep digging, they’re going to find out. They’re going to uncover the connection between him and Ava Starr, and then Ross’ll be screwed.

His office door opens, and Ross moves to turn off the television, but it’s a wall-mounted flatscreen; his secretary can see it from where she stands in the doorway. “Kate!” he snaps. “What did I say about knocking?”

Kate Bishop is a college student who is much too stupid to be a secretary, but her mother pays him too well for him to get rid of her. The girl apologizes deeply and places a file of papers on his desk . “From the Secretary of Defense, sir.” Plus, she’s not too hard on the eyes, and she’s fond of those tight, cropped shirts that show exactly how young she is.

Her eyes glance up at the television, where Paxton-Lang’s, Lang’s, and Starr’s faces still glow. “Oh, I heard about that,” she says, with a curious nod. “They’d closed the case already, I heard. And like, they thought the dad did it, but then they found a hair—”

“I don’t pay you to talk,” snaps Ross. Well, he doesn’t really pay her at all. It’s an unpaid position that will set her up for her future career. “Is there anything else?”

Kate shuts up, as she should. “No, sir.”

The Bishop girl isn’t going to be here for very long; she’s taking a semester off from NYU to be his assistant, so he has her until the end of the summer, when she’ll be going back to school. For now, he’ll drink her in. The long ponytails, the eyeliner, the sheer tights, the crop tops… The girl’s got taste, much more than his wife ever had.

“Um, actually,” adds Kate, “you did get a delivery.”

He stares at her. Is she stupid? “Then where is it?”

Kate nods, laughs nervously, and says, “Oh—sorry! I’ll get it!” with a hasty exit.

She returns with a worn, well-padded box labeled FRAGILE and places it on his desk. “No return address, sir, but it was labeled Project Manticore. Did you want me to open it for you?”

Finally! One good thing in this utter sh*tshow of a day. “No, just leave it here and get back to your desk.”

Another “Yes, sir!” from Bishop, and she vanishes into the hall; Ross locks the door this time. He opens up the box: inside is Charlie Keene’s newest prototype, plus about thirty sheets of paper bound in a ratty manila folder. Blueprints.

Originally, eh was going to call it Project Pegasus, like the original SHIELD project attempting to harness the power of the Tesseract, but it felt it was too on-the-nose. This project is more than that; using his resources, Thaddeus Ross is going to replicate the power of the Tesseract. And fine, does it require a little arm-twisting to get his results? Sure. But soon he will have power, true power: a power source that can disintegrate a person at mere touch or control the minds of soldiers or create explosions massive enough to destroy a city yet contained enough to avoid any radioactive side-effects.

Imagine—an bomb with the strength of the atom bomb that leaves the land untouched.

Thaddeus Ross will be put in the history books after he’s done with this.

This—the power of the Tesseract—will make him not just a good leader, but a great one. This could grant the United States complete global military control.

The Secretary of Defense—a man named Johnson who is entirely too young for the job—is more than happy to fund his project. Naming it Project Pegasus also would’ve drawn too many eyes, so instead, Ross calls it Project Manticore, after the fire-breathing creature of fantasy: the epitome of strength. With Ross’ promise of a new, clean, contained power source, Johnson provides him with three billion dollars of funding for the year, given in smaller portions every month.

Johnson doesn’t have to know how much of it goes towards funding the drug habits of a couple dozen addicts from the dregs of New York City.

He will never know. No one ever will.

Ross takes Charlie Keene’s prototypes and makes them shine . Every time he gets a new prototype, he replaces rusty metal parts with gleaming steel, replaces the ratty cardboard box with a shiny suitcase, and exchanges its torn newspaper packing with custom-cut foam casing. Then he presents it to Secretary Johnson as proof of his Project’s advancements in technology.

Really, Ross was doing all the work: he turned Project Manticore from a pile of Stark sh*t into something beautiful . Without his work, without his dedication, no one would even glance at the Project. He tells this Johnson, this stupidly naïve Secretary of Defense, that he has a team of American engineers who creates each weekly design. Ross also tells him that they outsource the parts to different countries, and assembly of the parts occurs, obviously, back in America, at a factory in Michigan. Ross knows it’s the details that matter. All Johnson cares about is that the Project is manufactured by Americans, cheaply outsourced, and impressive.

Right now, though, they’re barely far enough to create a Project Manticore handgun, let alone a power source, and it’s flimsy. Stark isn’t working f*cking hard enough or fast enough. This new prototype better be impressive, or Ross is going to call Charlie and put his ass on the rack.

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 12:00 PM

Helen Cho’s first round of tests yields nothing, but Pepper’s increasing nausea and sudden fever a few days later brings her back to Dr. Cho for a second round of testing.

With some medication, her fever is down to a manageable level, and Pepper Potts is lying on her back on the examination table, nude save her medical gown. She has folded her clothes nearly on the chair in the corner. Her underwear and bra are tucked inside of her folded pants, and her shirt is on top. She bought that shirt with Tony; he said it looked like something her Uncle Morgan would wear, with all of the florals, and it made her laugh so hard that she ended up buying it anyway.

She can’t remember why she wore it today; it seems stupid now.

Helen is readying a syringe for her blood draw when Pepper finally starts, “Can I ask you something?”

Helen says, “Anything.”

Pepper looks away as the needle gets close—the rubber tourniquet is tight around her arm, and her vein feels as exposed as the rest of her when Helen finally pricks her inner arm. “Why would someone threaten to kill themselves? Do they have to be…suicidal?”

At first, Dr. Helen Cho doesn’t answer. She finishes the blood draw with careful, practiced hands, removing one vial and placing the next. “Pepper,” she says calmly, “are you experiencing—”

“No,” she clarifies. “No. I’m not. It’s just a question, I swear.”

“It’s normal for people in high-stress positions to experience depressive thoughts, suicidal ideation—”

“Helen, I’m serious.”

Helen gives her a look of poorly disguised disbelief and returns to the vial. “Alright. Well… Is this about a real person?”

“No one you know,” Pepper answers.

Helen sighs. She waits, filling the next vial with Pepper’s blood, and removes it before she answers. “Does this person have a history of suicidal thoughts? Or attempts?”

At her question, Pepper tries to draw a picture of Tony’s mind in her own. After his kidnapping, Tony wasn’t exactly suicidal, but at the very least he was lacking in a desire to live. He seemed both intensely focused on his survival while, at the same time, being horrified by it completely. Although Tony refused to talk to a therapist after Afghanistan (he wouldn’t see one until years later, after the wormhole), Pepper did ask someone about Tony’s troubles. The therapist acknowledged his furious survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder, both of which led to a hyper-vigilance concerning his body and his loved ones, but not his life.

After Afghanistan, Tony would have left that arc reactor inside of his chest until it killed him; but as long as he could protect his body from anyone trying to interfere, he would have refused medical help. Even if it meant saving his life.

All of this meant… Tony’s relationship with his survival was complicated.

“Kind of,” she answers finally, and her mind flashes so quickly to that moment: the gun pressed into Tony’s chin, his twitching trigger finger, his misery-filled eyes— “Thoughts, maybe.”

Helen finished filling the final vial, and she now removes the needle from her arm, pressing a cotton ball to the spot before it can well with blood. “I’m not exactly qualified in the psychiatric realm,” she starts, removing her gloves with a snap, “but if you want, I can get someone to come talk to you, someone who can get you a real diagnosis. Psychiatry isn’t really something I can help you with, unless all you need is some conversation. I do know some people, though. I could get someone to you within the week.”

“It’s not about me,” reiterates Pepper, although she’s speaking to the ceiling. “It’s not.”

Helen tells her that the blood testing will take less than a half-hour, so Pepper leaves the exam room. She collapses into a waiting-room chair next to a coffee table covered in magazines. These last few weeks have taken such a toll on her; she comes home every night to an empty bed, and she wakes every morning to an empty pillow. At night, she dreams of the way his hair smells and the way his hands move. It’s like Tony is dead instead of just locked away in his lab.

Footsteps from down the hall.

Pepper looks up to see a large man at the end of the hallway: Happy. He shuffles forth with his phone in hand. “Is this a bad time?” Happy asks. “Your secretary told me you were down at the clinic, but I didn’t think…” He stares down at her medical gown and her bare, unshaved legs. “Uh… Are you okay?”

Happy looks different; how did she not notice he’d grown a beard? He shuffles from one foot to the next. He’s always looked like an awkward teen in a grown man’s body, like he never got used to having bulk or muscles. “Just a checkup,” she says, nodding even though her fever is still making her sweat through her shivers. ‘What do you need?”

“Well, uh…” He glances down at his phone, which she now realizes is gripped tightly in his hand. “I wouldn’t bother when you’re, uh, busy, but… I can’t get ahold of Peter. And it’s worrying me, ‘cause usually I let the kid do his own thing, and I know he’s probably having a grand old time at his internship, but he’s been gone a long time. They said he might stay through summer break, but I can’t go all that time without checking at all, right? So I called the number that they left in the informational email and—straight to voicemail. I’ve called it so many times that it says the mailbox is full , Pepper. I don’t know why I didn’t call it before—I just assumed…”

Pepper stares at him.

“Parker,” he clarifies, after a beat. “Peter Parker. You know…” He looks around and his voice drops to a whisper. “Spider-Man?”

“I know who Peter is,” she states, with a tone of annoyance. She tries to look as CEO-esque as possible while sitting against a wall in a damp medical gown. “But… What? So they gave you the wrong number?”

Happy pauses where he is, and then he takes a step towards her, twisting his phone in his hands. “That’s the thing—it’s not a wrong number, Pepper. The voicemail: they claim to be the internship. And I left voicemails—a ton of them, but no response. It’s been like a week, and still nothing. And I can’t get ahold of May, either…” His face pinkens. “I know she went with him, but still. It was so sudden, and I haven’t heard from either of them…”

“Well, he’s doing research, Happy. Biochemistry in rural Alaska. It’s important work, and they said he was excited, but service might not be the best.”

Happy doesn’t look convinced. “Pepper, I’ve tried every angle. We should’ve gotten the place checked out—their website doesn’t lead anywhere, not even to a different phone number. And sure, there are names for the scientists, but they’re so general that it could be anyone , so it’s hard to find—”

“Happy,” she says, summoning the sliver of calm within her and trying to transfer it to him. “It’s just an internship. And maybe it wasn’t the fanciest, but he’s getting school credit and he’ll be back. I know you miss him, but I’m sure he’ll let you know as soon as he’s back. Right?”

“Pepper, come on. I mean, you’ve seen him with his phone. He can’t stay away from that thing! Do you honestly think he’d be gone for this long without contacting us?’

Pepper’s too tired to have this conversation. “Happy, he’s a kid. He got an internship he wanted, so he went.”

“But—”

“Look, if you’re this worried, then go ask his friends.” She fumbles for her phone and remembers she’s wearing her medical gown, and her phone is still sitting in her purse in the exam room. “I have their numbers, so I’ll text them to you, okay? I’m sure they’ve been keeping contact with him. Kids always find a way.”

Happy hesitates, and then he nods, and nods again. “Thanks,” he says, looking relieved. “No, you’re right. You’re right. He’s probably fine. Sorry to bother you.” He turns to leave, and then he turns back to her again. “Uh…forgot to ask. “How’re you feeling?”

Pepper sighs, and she puts on a smile for him. “I’m fine, Happy. Don’t worry about me.”

He nods, and he turns to leave again.

Pepper puts her head in her hands. Then, she hears him pivot, and she perks up, trying to seem normal again. Happy starts, “I, uh. I had a girlfriend once who… She had something like what happened to you, uh, happen to her, and she started kickboxing at this place upstate, not too far from here. I think it helped. I could give you the address, if you want.”

Pepper smiles, but she can’t force it to reach her eyes; it’s her official Pepper Potts smile, and there’s nothing behind it. “Thanks, Happy.”

Happy doesn’t say you’re welcome . He just makes a close-mouthed smile, kind of nods, stands there for a second as if to say something more, and walks away stiffly.’

Dr. Cho returns with the results barely ten minutes after Happy leaves. “Finally, something,” she says as she taps open her tablet. “Nothing too strange, but… Your hormone levels are unusually high: hCG, progesterone… I tested for some others, too, but those came back normal.”

Pepper is on the exam table again, hands crossed rigidly over her ribcage.

“But there is something,” the doctor continues. “It’s a start. From here, we can test for other hormones linked to the ones your test alerted.” Cho continues to click on her tablet; Pepper watches as form after form flashes on her screen. “You know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think—” She pauses suddenly, stylus poised over the tablet. “You have an IUD?” she asks, blinking suddenly.

“Yeah,” answers Pepper from her lying position. Lying down seems to cure some of her nausea, although she does still feel hot.

“What kind?”

“Uh, Nexplanon? It’s one of the hormone ones.”

“I know,” says Helen, not to be pretentious but in medical agreement. “How long have you had it?”

Her doctor is now entirely engrossed in the tablet, and she has begun tapping away furiously. “Uh,” starts Pepper, intelligently.

She wishes she were clothed; having a conversation where she doesn’t know the exact answers doesn’t help her embarrassment when part of her gown-exposed ass is pressed to exam-table paper. She’s had IUDs since the early 2000s, but she only really gets them replaced when she remembers to. Ever since she became CEO of Stark Industries in 2008, she hasn’t been keeping up with medical appointments as well. She’s, well, busy . She barely makes time for checkups and mammograms. How is she supposed to remember the last time she went in to get her IUD replaced? So much has happened in the past decade: Loki’s takeover, Aldrich Killian’s kidnapping, the HYDRA-SHIELD fiasco, Ultron, the Avengers’ breakup, Peter… She can barely tag those to a date, let alone her IUD.

“Three years?” she settles on, finally. “Maybe?”

“Forget it, I got it,” says Helen, baring the tablet to her. “Does February of 2012 sound right to you?”

“Sure?” 2012… So, six years ago? How long did her IUD even last for?

“Okay, and your last period?”

Her neck is strained form looking up at Helen for so long, so she sinks it back into the papered headrest. “Don’t think I’ve had one for the past few months, Pepper says. “Maybe… Three months ago? I mean, I’ve been having them, but they’ve been…spotty. They’ve been getting lighter and lighter—but that’s normal, right? IUDs do that, my gynecologist said…” Helen is staring at her. “What? What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry,” says Dr. Cho. “I didn’t think…” Finally, she puts her tablet down: facedown on the counter behind her. “I should’ve thought of it—I just thought, since Tony was gone…nevermind. I made an assumption as a friend, not as a doctor, and for that I apologize.” She wheels her stool forward, and Pepper realizes her gloves are back on. Her voice drops a little: less urgent, more gentle. “Can you tell me the last time you had sex?”

Pepper has never talked to Helen Cho about her sex life, and she never planned to. But Pepper is fearing the path the doctor is heading down, so she answers, “April. The…sixth.” She doesn’t want to clarify why she remembers exactly, but this moment is something she thinks about a lot. It was the night of the charity gala for the Yemeni Women’s Union, and Pepper had just put on that silky co*cktail dress, and she was leaned over her vanity comparing earrings. Tony stood openmouthed in the doorway, stopped halfway in whatever he had just been saying. His tie still draped around his neck and his shirt half-open, he approached her with that stupid grin. Pepper Potts , he said, with his voice all low, and she laughed and shook her head.

We’re gonna be late , she said, pointing an earring at him. Don’t do it. I just need you to zip me.

He grinned and grinned and grinned like a Cheshire Cat.

Oh my God, Tony, she said, a playful warning. Don’t…

Fine, fine, he murmured. At last he got to her, and he ran his hands over her arms, her waist, her back, until finally he zipped the back of the dress: slowly, gingerly, careful to move her unfinished hair out of the way. She felt the warmth of his breath on the back of her neck then, with her hair swept away. That familiar buzz rose within her, and her breath quickened. Tony .

Mm? He was so close to her then, his lips barely a hair from her neck. I’m not doing anything .

She turned around then to find his eyes half-closed; she slid her fingers under his collar and pushed him slightly backward, so that his legs hit the foot of the bed, his knees buckling from bumping the mattress, and gravity pulled him into a seated position. We’re going to be late , she says again, but instead of scolding him she moves forward so her knees are between his, and she nudged her leg forward to widen the gap.

Tony smirked and leaned back, chin up, still sitting at the foot of the bed with his arms propped up on his palms.

Pepper stood between his open legs and wound both ends of his loose tie around her hands, bringing his neck forward so that his face was closer. His open mouth… You ruin me, Tony , she said.

He said, Gladly, Ms. Potts.

What did she do wrong? What could she possibly have done between that moment and FRIDAY’s shutdown that could’ve caused him to hate her like this? To hate her enough to…

She rubs her head, as it has started to hurt. “Yeah,” she says. “April sixth.”

Pepper doesn’t want to think the words.

Dr. Cho keeps saying it, but Pepper’s mind skips over it. It’s too much. Instead, in an entirely unhelpful way, she imagines Tony beside her, making quips about gynecologists and holding her hand. He’d say something like, Damn, Helen, ask her on a date first . He always was the worst at telling jokes, but it was always the worst jokes that made her laugh.

They do a proper examination, in the stirrups and everything. Dr. Cho finds the IUD poised perfectly at her cervix, and, with a bit of localized anesthesia, removes it with barely a prick of pain. Helen then calls a colleague of hers—an ultrasound technician—who rubs translucent goo on her belly before drawing the plastic wand over her stomach.

“There it is,” says the technician, and he points at the sonogram on the screen beside Pepper. It’s a grainy image, but she supposes all sonograms are. It’s black and white. in the cave of her uterus on the screen, there’s a… He’s right. There it is. “We could do a transvagin*l ultrasound for a better picture, but you can see pretty well here.” He points again, drawing a circle with his gloved finger at the screen. “We can get you an accurate conception date, but I do a lot of these, and I’d guess we’re about…three months along at this point.”

The figure on the sonogram has a head and visible arms— “Helen,” Pepper breathes, and she’s feeling faint. “Helen—I… I don’t understand. I had the IUD, I didn’t… How can I…”

Helen comes to stand beside her. She is ungloved again, and she takes Pepper’s hand in hers. “Some IUDs can last that long, Pepper, but not the kind you had. Nexplanon usually expires after about four years. And every day after it expires, your chances of pregnancy go up. You had an expired one for over two years . Something had to give.”

“But I…” she starts again. She swallows, and she tries to remember she’s Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries. “This isn’t how it was supposed to…” Why can’t she finish a single sentence? “I don’t have…”

Tony is what she wants to say more than anything. I don’t have Tony .

The technician continues talking, but Pepper isn’t listening. “The IUD was hormonal, but luckily it had almost entirely stopped releasing by the time we got to it, so it looks like it hasn’t affected the fetus at all, so there’s no need for worry on that front. Plus, I think the fever was just your body’s reaction to some leftover hormones released by the combined IUD and pregnancy…”

“Fetus,” echoes Pepper. A wave of nausea as powerful as usual bubbles up in her chest and into her throat, but now she knows it’s not simply illness. This isn’t just something she can fix . “Oh, God.”

It’s not just nausea. It’s morning sickness.

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 12:41 PM

The doctor becomes less amicable as the day goes on.

His pleasant demeanor turns into something dark and sullen; the gravity of his situation weighs on the man. He keeps staring off into space. At some point, he removes his rubber gloves and grasps the Star of David around his neck. He kisses it: once, twice, three times, and Riri turns away before he can do it again. It feels far too personal to watch. He then puts on another set of gloves and works on Peter. He gets every single wound, even the ones not worthy of stitches, taping closed little slices on his arms and dabbing numbing ointment on his bruises. It’s completely unnecessary, but he does it nonetheless.

Eventually, he finishes that, too. “We’ve done all we can do for now,” he says.

For some reason, his comment really pisses Riri off. “You’re not done,” she insists. “He still looks like…”

“Like he’s been to hell?” he prompts. “Well, he’s still there, hon.”

“But—”

“He’s not just going to magically get better as soon as I lay my hands on him. That’s not how medicine works. Sometimes the best you can do is sit and wait.”

They don’t tie him back down. The doctor stops her the first time she tries, so she doesn’t try again. She doesn’t really want to do it again: the leather straps around skin-and-bone, tightened to the point of chafing. She doesn’t want to see Peter’s—Parker’s—face as he wakes: the strangling panic of realizing he’s tied down, followed by the terror of being unable to move, and then the all-consuming grief as he realizes he won’t be able to escape. She can’t do it again.

Parker half-wakes at some point as the guard outside is changing. Now, it’s that tall girl and Haroun. “I'm tired,” mumbles Peter, and his words feel as though they are drenched in sweat. He opens his eyes, but they’re pink and so watery that when he blinks, liquid spills down his temple. “I'm so tired, Mr. Stark… Please… I just wanna go home… Please, please…” He falls back to sleep almost as quickly as he wakes.

Besides his random, feverish mumbles, Peter has been asleep for a long time. Dr. Skivorski says it’s normal, but Riri’s not so sure.

“His body’s gone through a lot,” he says. “You can’t do this to him constantly and expect him not to wither like this. The human body is only meant to take so much.”

“He’s not human,” Riri says, like it helps.

The doctor only gives her a dark look.

After that, the doctor sits. He sits and sits and stares at Peter’s unconscious body. The kid looks like a corpse. “Why is he here?” he snaps.

“What?” answers Riri, because she’s not sure she heard him right.

“Why. Is. He. Here.” The doctor shakes his head. “What kind of reason could you possibly have for doing… For making him…” He wipes at his forehead with the back of his wrist. “Just tell me.”

“Um,” she says. She tries to explain as well as she can, mostly because the doctor has started to look at her the way he looks at Jon or Nick—with barely-contained revulsion. She tries to explain Stark’s usefulness, Charlie’s plan, and Peter’s sessions, but as she does, the doctor’s eyes only grow wider and he draws his surgical mask down to his chin. His mouth looks horrified, too. She had thought it would reassure the man, knowing that they were doing this for a good cause, but Dr. Skivorski looks like she just stabbed his kid in the throat. “You’re using him,” he repeats, “to blackmail his dad ? Who is Tony Stark?”

She slaps her hand over her mouth. “Oh, f*ck.” She’s said too much. She never mentioned Tony Stark by name, had she? Maybe one of the others had dropped the name… sh*t! The doctor isn’t one of her friends, or Haroun, or Zhiyuan, or anyone she could talk to about this stuff. Telling him this was throwing him under the bus and signing him up for his own execution. “You weren’t supposed to know that…”

“You’re blackmailing his dad ?” he repeats, ignoring her comment. It’s strange that he’s focusing more on the dad part than on the Tony Stark part. “That’s why he looks like he’s been torn apart by a pack of wolves?”

“We’re gonna let him go as soon as he gives us what we—”

“It doesn’t matter!” His stool is spun now so that he faces her, and his surgical mask hangs around his neck. His face looks different; it must be because he hasn’t shaved. There’s a bit of five o-clock shadow on him now, stubble freckling his lower face. “You understand what you’re doing, don’t you? You’re—this—this is a crime! This is—this is torture!”

Riri swallows. The good doctor is standing now, and he’s much, much taller than her, and he’s scowling. Riri swallows. ‘You’re making it sound bad. We’re not, like, permanently disfiguring him. We feed him and clothe him and the Lang kid keeps him company… There’s people out there who don’t even have that.”

The doctor is aghast. “ What ?”

“Um,” says Riri again.

“Hon,” he starts, and he sounds like an angry dad. “Look at this kid on the table and tell me that’s not permanent disfigurement ! I have never, in all my days, holy —I’ve never even close to seen someone injured like this—and I'm a surgeon! Have you seen his scarring? He looks like Edward Scissorhands! And we’re lucky he’s enhanced because otherwise—that hit could very well have killed him! Look at him! You see what he looks like now? People don’t just come back from this, Riri! He looks like he’s been… Like he’s… God, it’s sick! You people are sick! How long have you been—this is the definition of torture! How could you do something like this!”

He looks at her, then, really looks at her, and his eyes drop to her hands.

Her gun’s out.

Riri doesn’t remember taking it out—she just knows she’s really scared now and her finger’s on the trigger.

The doctor puts his hands up, fingers spread, but he doesn’t look scared. “Riri,” he says, and he’s calmer, his voice down to a normal volume. “You could get out of here. You’re a kid, just like him. You really want to be a part of this? You want this” —he gestures at Peter— “to be your life? You could walk through those doors and be free—confess, tell them what happened. They hurt you, didn’t they?” He points with a crooked finger at her face, where her bruised eye is already darkening. “They hurt you. You can say they made you do it.”

“I can’t,” she says, still holding the gun. “I can’t.”

“You can .”

“I can’t!”

For the first time since she kidnapped the doctor, Riri feels completely out of control. Her gun-arm is shaking, and she looks at the boy—Parker. Peter Parker. He looks much younger now that he is unconscious. He looks like a doll. A mutilated person-sized doll. She lowers her gun and sits down at her stool. “I’m not like him,” she says, gesturing vaguely with her gun. It’s not hers, exactly. She thinks Charlie bought it for her at some point at a gun show. Something small and easy to use. Something that would keep her safe, he said. “This is my life . It was always gonna be. I can’t just leave it.”

The doctor doesn’t say anything.

“What’s your kid like?” asks Riri, as the doctor rechecks Parker’s head.

“Well,” says Dr. Skivorski, “he likes to fix things. He’s just like his mom—she’s a mechanic. We used to live in Tennessee, you know, and we had a huge yard where we kept old cars and other things… He liked to fiddle.”

“Tennessee?” she echoes. “How’d you end up here?”

“I…” He sniffs. “I used to drink a lot, back then. Harley was…ten. I left him and his mom for a while, after that, and by the time I got sober he was in high school. They’d moved up here, so I found a job close by. We got to be a normal family again, or, as normal as we could be, I suppose, but… I don’t think Harley ever forgave me after that.”

“Is that his name?”

The good doctor smiles. “Yeah. Harley. His mom wanted to name him after the motorcycle, can you believe it? Mechanics.” He’s got one hand on Peter’s now, and Peter has subconsciously curled his fingers around the doctors. “Your name is pretty interesting—how’d they name you?”

“My dad’s name was Demetrius, but everyone called him Riri,” she explains. “So I’m a junior, kind of. Riri, Jr.”

“Where is he now?” he asks carefully.

“Dead,” she says.

“And your mom?”

“Dead, too.”

Dr. Skivorski swallows. “Do you have anyone else? Any other family?”

“A brother,” she says, and she wants to eat his name as soon as she thinks it. “Got killed running around with Charlie.”

The doctor’s still holding Parker’s hand. “Is that why you stick around?”

Riri scowls. f*ck him. “You ask too many questions.” There’s different guards at the door now: skinny, silent Lyle and giant Glenn with his broken arm. Riri can see them from their position in the operating room. “Look—this place, I have a family here. I can’t just up and leave.”

The doctor doesn’t rise to her jab. “Hon, I’ve had time to come to terms with the things I’ve done. Abandoning my family—my son—was the worst regret of my entire life. But I’ve had time to try to remedy my mistakes. To mend my relationship with my son. You… You’re young. You’ve made mistakes. So… What are you going to do to remedy them?”

“I don’t need to remedy anything,” snaps Riri. “This wasn’t a mistake. We’re doing this—we have a plan, okay? And we’re gonna save the world. We don’t just take random people. We’re gonna help people. We’re not—” She’s about to say criminals , but she supposes helping to kidnap a man directly out of his workplace to force him to tend to a kidnapped minor at threat to his life might count as criminal activity. “We’re not bad people.”

“You think good people do this?” he says, gesturing to Parker. “Hon— look at him.”

She looks at Peter. He really does look like he’s been torn apart by a pack of wolves. He looks more Frankenstein-y now than ever—his pale body lined with stitched gashes, half his head shaved and bandaged, unnaturally thin, covered in tubes and medical tape.

“Charlie says,” she starts, “that sometimes you have to do bad things to get good things to happen in the future.”

The doctor just shakes his head. “Is he the one who does all this?”

He doesn’t have to say what; she knows what he’s talking about. “Yeah, mostly.” The doctor clicks his tongue, and Riri gets angry again. “He’s not all bad. He’s just an addict, okay? And Ross gives him what he wants. It’s not like he wants to hurt anybody. He’s a good guy. He’s just not in control.”

With one bloody glove, the doctor waves a hand over Peter. “It sure looks like he wants to hurt somebody.”

“No—he’s just high. He always gets high before he does it. He’s not… He’s not…”

“Riri, listen to me.” The doctor keeps holding Peter’s hand. “I was an alcoholic. I know what it’s like to be an addict. There are some people who… Listen. Yes, I drank way too much. But I never laid a hand on my wife or my son, no matter how drunk I was. I mostly just moped and embarrassed myself. But the point is, I never hit him or anyone because I never wanted to hurt him. When it comes to substances and violence… If everyone got violent every time they got drunk, then we’d be living in anarchy. It’s not about the substance. It just amplifies what’s already there.

“If your friend likes hurting kids when he’s high, then he likes it when he’s sober. It’s just there’s something stopping him when he’s sober. Does he usually look like he’s being forced to do it?”

“Um,” says Riri.

The doctor adds, “How does he look at Peter?”

Riri doesn’t have to say it out loud. Charlie always looks at Peter like he wants to hurt him, whether he’s sober or not.

She knows Charlie had a sh*tty childhood. Abusive dad, addict mom, the works. He had a sister once, too, but she didn’t get addicted like him. That’s all they really know. He’ll mumble about some of this stuff, about how he misses his sister or how his dad used to beat him with a belt.

It makes him difficult sometimes.

“These are kids,” continues the doctor. “Their lives shouldn’t be like this, no matter what their parents have done. No matter what you need them to do. They’re not toys. They’re people . They’re children .”

They sit in silence for a long time. The doctor keeps fiddling with Peter’s wounds, injecting localized anesthesia into the worst of his injuries and holding his hand whenever he gets too fitful. Dr. Skivorski sits and stares. His expression isn’t exactly sad or angry but something more intense than either—like a serial killer who’s planning where to bury a body. Serial killers don’t scowl , Riri thinks. Charlie doesn’t scowl. Charlie smiles.

Riri hates the silence. With so many people around her all the time, there’s usually someone talking; sitting with the doctor, there’s nothing but brooding silence. She can’t help but talk. Riri talks about Haroun and Charlie and Renee and the other two until finally the doctor looks up.

“The other two?” he repeats. He frowns suddenly. “Wait, wait, wait—who’re the other ones?”

“The other what?”

“The other ones—the other people you took. There’s Peter Parker, and then…” He’s looking for a name, she suddenly realizes, and she’s hesitant to give him one.

She thinks, suddenly, of the way Stark talked about Parker. They’re torturing my son, he said, and he looked at her like he was being falyed alive. Like he was being stripped of his skin in layers, until nothing but pink, bloody muscle remained. He looked like she was killing him, like inside he was screaming as she rubbed salt into his open wounds.

“Lang,” she says finally. “The girl.” For a second, she forgets the kid’s first name. No one calls her that, anyway. No one but Peter and Scott. Scott says her name a lot, in whispers and crazed shouts to no one in particular. “The kid under the bed,” she clarifies, because Dr. Skivorski still looks confused.

“Oh,” says the good doctor. “I forgot about her.” He laughs, but there’s something wrong with the sound. “I forgot about her. Can’t believe I forgot about an entire kid that you took because I’ve been so busy bringing this one back to life.” He shakes his head. “Is she injured?”

“No, she’s… I mean, what do you mean by injured?”

He frowns. “Is she hurt or not?”

She shrugs, sheepish. “Well, not like recently , but sometimes Charlie gets pissed, and he gets ahold of her before anyone can stop him, and he…”

“Go get her.” He sounds like a dad again.

“We can’t. You’re only here for Peter, remember?”

He shakes his head. “It’s my job to help people in need, hon. Go get her.”

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 1:53 PM

No one talks to Scott anymore.

He knows something is going on, but no one talks to him. Last night, he heard his little girl’s voice—Cassie, Cassie, sweet, stubborn Cassie—screaming for help. Peter! Peter! Peter! Peter! Not once did she scream for him. Peter, wake up! Wake up! Scott could hear her—his little girl—shrieking and shrieking and crying and shrieking more. No, no, no! No, no, Peter, Peter…

She’s screaming about that boy, the one who’s always in the Chair, the one who Scott watches bleed all the time. He saw it happen, too. Mason’s hammer. Jon’s hands. Peter’s head. The collision like a meteor to a moon. Peter, Peter, please! Peter!

He remembers the fear in her voice so clearly, as though it was yesterday: Help! Help! Ava, Ava, Ava, help! Peter! Peter! Wake up!

Scott can’t usually hear them. Peter Parker and Cassie are usually too far down the hall for him to hear anything at all. But when they scream… He hears everything.

He never sees Cassie. Usually, she stays quiet, so quiet that sometimes he’s not sure she’s still alive, or even there. He sees her sometimes—flashes of her around the empty room, glimpses of her voice ringing in his ears.

Peter used to give him updates—as little as he could before Charlie came at him with a fist or a knife—about her well-being. As Scott hid behind the computer, Peter would crane his neck to meet his eyes. She’s okay! he’d shout. She misses you!

Now, Peter knows better. The only signal he ever gives Scott is a slight nod in his direction, sometimes accompanied by a glance.

He wants to know what’s happening. All he knows is Cassie is no longer screaming Peter’s name. That’s not enough for him. He has to know that Cassie’s okay. That Peter’s okay.

But no one talks to Scott anymore.

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 2:12 PM

Cassie remembers once what Peter told her during the first week. It was only the third day, or maybe the fourth or fifth, or was it the first?

Yes, the first day. Before they had tried to take him away and he had stuck his magic hands to the floor.

Before. When they take me , he said, I want you to take the pillow. And you’re gonna take it and go under the blankets and put the pillow around your head, okay? And press down, hard, with your hands. You might hear something, but it’s nothing, okay? it’s nothing you should listen to.

And she kept asking, no matter how many times he said it or how disturbed he looked, asking Why? And she repeated it, asking, Why, why, why, why, until finally he looked at her.

Peter’s eyes looked very brown and his face looked very still. He said, Cassie, just do this. Please. For me. And when I get back we can play another game but only once I get back, okay? Until then, you have to close your ears.

Later, Cassie’s hand was messed up, so Peter showed her how to do it with only one hand, pinning the pillow between the bed and her head, and then putting her good hand over her other ear.

But Cassie is not always a good listener. The first few times, she did as she was told, muffling all the sounds around her with the pillow and hiding under their sheets. But she always heard something . Loud sounds, ones that couldn’t be quieted by a pillow. And she was curious—she has always been a curious kid—so one day, maybe after the first week, she disobeyed Peter. Instead of putting the pillow around her head, she crept over to the food slot, and she pressed her ear against it, and she listened.

She felt so sick when she heard it, like that time she and Daddy got the flu.

It started with begging. She hadn’t heard him beg like that. Peter was strong, right? He didn’t beg. He was never scared—and then she’d heard it. “No…” it began. “No, please, please, no, get away from me, get the f*ck away!

Eerie silence. Other noises, like a man talking over a phone. Charlie’s voice. These other sounds were quieter, and much harder to pick out from down their room all the way down the hall.

Please, no. no, wait, wait, wait—I’ll do anything—Charlie, no—CHARLIE CHARLIE PLEASE PLEASE—GET AWAY FROM ME DON’T DON’T DON’T—

And then the screaming.

And “Shut up! Shut up!” from Charlie, the Big-Man.

Then it would stop. and she would hear sighing, crying, broken moans, all of this breathing that was so loud it was almost like Peter was right there beside her. Then more begging. “Please, Mr. Stark, please.”

A cut-off whimper and: “Tell him, Parker.”

Crying. Peter’s crying. “It hurts, please… 'M so tired… I can’t… Mr. Stark, please, just do it…”

And more screaming.

Then it would stop again. Charlie would yell stuff, crazy stuff, stuff she’d heard him say to her, like “I’m gonna rip you to pieces!” or “I f*cking own you!” or “Shut up! Shut the f*ck up!” She’d heard it all before, but it didn’t make it any less scary.

And then the worst part. Peter again. “NO—no, no—I HATE YOU, I f*ckING HATE YOU—YOU JUST HAVE TO DO THIS ONE THING—PLEASE, JUST THIS ONE THING, I HATE YOU TONY I HATE YOU, YOU NEVER WANTED TO SAVE ME, I—” Screaming that devolves into rapid sobbing. Ragged breathing, each exhale a moan of pain. “Oh, god, oh, god….” Pained breathing. The breathing was the worst part, because she could picture Charlie in those moments, just watching Peter suffer. A sudden yelp. “No more,” he’d moan. “Please. Please. Please, I can’t TAKE IT ANYMORE —”

And it would keep going, just like that, until his time was up. Cassie usually counts with her ears closed, and it’s usually about an hour. Peter always tells her to count sixty sixties. She counts in Mississippi’s, just like Daddy and Jim taught her to, but when she’s bored she counts with other things. Spider-Mans. Ice creams. Bowls of ramen.

Then she’d hear the muffled door slam through her shut ears, and a body would flop onto the concrete floor. She knew to keep them shut still; Peter liked to compose himself before she saw him. Sometimes she could hear him sob beside her, but she pretended not to hear.

Eventually, she’d feel a hand. On her head or her foot or her shoulder. She’d let go of the pillow and remove the blanket from over her head. And there would be Peter, sweating and bleeding, sometimes bent and broken, sometimes so bruised he could barely breathe right. “Hey, Stinger,” he’d say. “Have a good nap?”

He calls her Stinger sometimes because her nails got so long, that when they’d play Poke, having her poke at his head to see where he was injured, it would sometimes hurt anyway, little sharp pokes from her fingernails. They figured out later they had to bite their fingernails whenever they got too long for the extra calories, but the name still stuck.

And Cassie would say, “Yes,” and Peter would nod and she’d get the pillow and put it under his head before helping him tend to whatever Charlie had done that day.

She knows how to sew up gashes kinda well, but only the small ones, and only if Peter was too tired to do it himself. She knows not to touch his head without permission unless it’s bleeding, not to touch any bones that look broken, to put a teeny tiny bit of antibiotic cream on anything that bleeds, to wrap and hold anything that bleeds a lot, and to call for help if things get, as Peter says, “really bad.”

She’s smart, Peter always says, when she learns something new to fix him because he can’t do it himself.

But Peter is gone now and Cassie doesn’t know what to do. Should she pull the blanket over her head and press the pillow over her ears? Should she try to listen for him? It’s not his time to be with Charlie, and he’s been gone way, way too long. So what should she do?

The visitors in her room are gone now, but the handcuff remains. No one remembered to take it off, she thinks, but they did take off Peter’s before they took him.

He’s warned her about what they might do if he’s ever gone. If that happens , he told her, you have to get under the bed and stay there. It’s not like she has much choice now, handcuffed to the leg of the bed. She knows she’s safest here, so she’ll stay.

Cassie feels like crying.

Charlie hates it when they cry. If he can hear it, he’ll come to their Room and throw open the door and grab her by the hair and hit her really hard if Peter isn’t fast enough.

Peter says it makes him feel guilty. The crying. That’s why he doesn’t want to hear it: because it reminds him that he’s doing something bad.

Cassie thinks Charlie is just bad, bad, bad. He is, right? she asked him once. Bad?

Peter was lying on his back with the IV sticking out of his arm. He looked at her with his sleepy eyes. Asking the hard questions today, huh, Cass?

She shrugged. Mommy says people who hurt other people are bad. Evil, like Darth Vader.

Peter slow-blinked. You watched Star Wars?

Just the first one. Mommy said Jim shouldn’t’a showed me ‘cause people die in the movie and the white people killed Luke’s parents and then Darth Vader kills Oni Wan and then they all win.”

He blinked again. The what now?

Remember? When he hits Oni Wan with the lightsaber and— Cassie demonstrated with her good hand: swing, swing!— then he’s gone! That’s ‘cause he killed him. That’s what happens when you hit somebody! You go away and your clothes are on the floor and you’re dead and you come back but you’re see-through and blue like a ghost.

Peter laughed and then he winced. I meant the white people, Cass. Who’re the…” He stops . “The stormtroopers? You mean the stormtroopers?

Yeah, them! They killed Luke’s parents and left them all burny in the sand.

Those weren’t his parents. Those were his aunt and uncle—and please for the love of God, do not call them white people again. He was laughing. It was a good sound to hear from Peter—he didn’t laugh a lot anymore. He has a funny laugh: high and free and so, so happy.

She was still confused about the movie. I don't get it, she said. They took care of him, so why aren’t they his parents?

I mean, I guess they are. Kind of.

Clearly, Peter didn’t know what parents were. She told him, matter-of-factly, Jim says parents are the people who take care of you. And it doesn’t matter if they’re related to you, okay, because we’re family, and family means you take care of each other, and family makes sure—makes sures—make sures—family makes sures you are safe and have enough to eat, and family loves you no matter what… She trailed off. Wait, how old are you?

How old do you think I am?

She thought about it. Thirty?

His sleepy eyes bug out. Thirty? he repeats, and he starts laughing again. Wow, Cass, you’re really dragging me down today. God. I literally don’t have one gray hair.

Forty? she tries again.

I'm sixteen, Cass.

Cassie's jaw drops. But you’re a superhero! You save people!

What, sixteen-year-olds can’t be superheroes?

She shrugs. I don't know. Daddy’s a superhero and he’s super old. He showed me—he has lots of gray on his head now. Mommy calls it salt and pepper. She wrinkles her nose. But you don’t have the gray hairs, right, so are you old enough?

Old enough to what?

Be a…a Mommy. A Daddy. A parent.

Peter's laughter died. His head turned, and he looked at her then so strangely. What are you talking about?

Well, that’s what you are, right? You do everything Jim does, everything Mommy and Daddy do… and you’re not related to me but Jim isn’t related to me, so that’s okay. And you’re a little grown-up, but some grown-ups are more littler so you’re my parent, too, right? That’s how it works.

Only silence from Peter. She can feel him breathing against her side.

You wake me up in the morning and you tell me stories at night and you make sure I have food and you keep me safe from the bad guys. That's a Mommy or a Daddy or a Jim thing.

More quiet. Just Peter’s slow breathing. I guess so , he said, and Cassie was too tired to talk anymore, so she hugged Peter's bruised-black arm—he breathed in sharply, and then settled—before hiding her face in the sleeve of his hoodie.

Now, it’s hard to have conversations with Peter. He’s always so tired. He sleeps a lot, and he watches her play from his spot on the floor, but he can barely move. When it’s time for them to go to bed, they don’t bother trying to get him up on the bed anymore. He’s too tired and in too much pain to move up there, so they sleep on the floor, under their blanket, with their pillow beneath Peter’s head and her head on Peter’s stomach. They only have one pillow, so it works this way.

She wants to cry again, but she doesn’t. She waits and waits and waits. They’ve taken Peter at strange times before, but never for so long and never like this.

Without him, she is frantic, almost wild with worry, but she knows she can’t cry. Crying means Charlie will come and take her and beat her bloody or hand her off to the Red-Haired Lady to put the needle in. The thought of that needle, the needle with its fiery pain that bites like shark teeth, of the white-hot pain that comes and keeps coming… It sends a wave of fear through her so powerful that she feels like the needle’s already in her.

She listens as hard as she can. What if Renee’s already coming? What’s that sound? Is it the Red-Haired Lady, readying her needle?

She can’t help the tears that come then, and she stifles as much noise as she can, hiccuping and gasping, snot running into her mouth, her breathing growing uneven and stilted with terror. Peter’s gone; he won’t be able to protect her this time. She tries to think about what Peter would do, but she’s so blinded by the fear vibrating in her chest that all she can think is Iron Man, Iron Man, Iron Man.

When the door opens this time, just like she knew it would, she screams and immediately closes her mouth to try to muffle the sound. She knew they would come, because she’s crying when she’s not supposed to. Who will it be? Big-Man and his hammer? Red-Haired Lady and her needle? She stretches back as far as she can under the bed, but her cuffed hand only lets her go so far. Her hand is stuck there, out in the open where it can be grabbed or hit or twisted, and she knows how bad that is.

The door is open but whoever is on the other side is lingering in the doorway. She is so exposed like this, her good hand cuffed to the bed’s leg and her bad one still wrapped up in her hoodie. She’s useless , unable to protect herself at all.

The intruder is not one of the men but one of the girls. The black one. She is much cleaner than the last time Cassie saw her, and she is dressed in strange clothing—turquoise pants and shirt, and a matching cap stretched over her tight curls. “Hey,” says the black girl. “Cassie, right?”

Cassie bursts into tears.

Chapter 8: the dead little bird

Summary:

This one, this one has to be it. After this weapon, they’ll let him see Peter.

He has to finish this. He has to. It’s been too long—Peter is dying over there. He has to work faster.

“f*ck!” he screams, although there is no one there to listen.

Maybe, somewhere, Peter is listening…

Notes:

chap title from 'moon song' by phoebe bridgers

for alll of u wondering why it took me so long to update, well part of that is i was gonna kill off the doctor but it seems like he’s a big hit haha, so i has to change the plot for the next few chapters — hopefully y’all enjoy having him around

i'm sick rn so i think i'll have time to complete another chapter, enjoy!!

CW: mentions of violence/injury, blood, references to sexual experiences and possible sexual abuse, violence against a child

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 2:48 PM

In the hours since he last saw Peter on the screen—now, nearly twenty hours since.

He’s thought about last night so many times now that the memory has become almost fried from overuse. Charlie with the blowtorch, waving it near Peter’s ear. The hissing, the heat of it… All at once Peter had gone wild in fear, thrashing so hard he’d broken free. His fear was so physical in that moment; he thrashed like a madman, screaming and crying until his voice gave out in a croaked crack—yet no one had touched him yet. He looked so young, then. Like a boy.

And with his still free hand, Peter lashed out, throwing his fist into the nearest object: a guard’s face. With a violent roar, the guard had grabbed that hammer and cracked it against his kid’s skull, so hard that Peter had gone instantly limp.

The way he fell…

It was like the guard had killed him. He went sideways with the impact, and the cuffs of the chair were the only thing that held him up, his cuffed wrist twisted by his awkward position. Gravity dribbled blood down the kid’s neck. He looked like a f*cking rag doll—pale and unconscious and bleeding and draped over that chair.

The guards had swarmed around the kid, so it was impossible to see what was happening, and they’d dragged him from the room far earlier than usual, after only a few minutes past seven. Left on the silent television was the spill of blood from Peter’s chair, one that led all the way out of the room like a trail of breadcrumbs. Like the trail of liquid from a water gun, or a splatter of sauce from a leaky pot.

It didn’t look real, but it was; every drop came from Peter’s body. From his head.

Tony can’t forget it. The blood. The trail of blood. Is Peter still alive? The video is a live feed; therefore, he can’t go back and rewatch what happened so he can check whether or not the kid is breathing. He wishes he could. He’d watch it a thousand times if it would tell him whether or not Peter was alive.

He thinks of it—that moment—over and over and over again: blowtorch, punch, hammer, blood. Blowtorch, punch, hammer, blood.

All he has is his memory, and it’s fraying by the second. His lack of sleep isn’t helping, either. Did Peter even manage to get his arm free, or was that a figment of his imagination? It wouldn’t be the first time he’s imagined things: sleep deprivation is too easily a cause of hallucinations.

Blowtorch, punch, hammer, blood.

His world has become so small. The people are limited to those involved with Peter. Charlie, Riri. Charlie, Riri. He doesn’t even have FRIDAY anymore. FRIDAY is dead, long dead. He finds himself talking to JARVIS (or Jarvis, sometimes) to pass the time. Jarvis was always there for him as a kid, and he finds JARVIS is here for him now, the voice in the back of his head that helps him figure things out.

He no longer finds himself worrying about things he used to worry about all the time. Being late to lunch with Rhodey. Making it to therapy on time. Remembering Pepper’s dislike for pickles. Meeting Peter in Central Park just to watch him throw chunks of bread at the birds until his “not girlfriend” tells him it’s bad for their digestive systems.

Oh, Peter and that girl… They were so sweet together. Nervous as only young people could be. Peter had been rambling about Hamilton and how much MJ and he loved it, so Tony bought them tickets to the show last December. There wasn’t any other option, really, because Peter wouldn’t stop texting him gifs of bootlegged clips and funny fanart. Hamilton was the one time Peter had let him get involved in his love life.

Tony Stark’s never been one for Broadway. Too much drama. But Peter Parker has other ideas, so somehow Tony ends up with four Broadway tickets to Hamilton so he and Pepper can sit two rows back from Peter and his ‘not girlfriend’ as they unashamedly mouth every word to the musical.

At intermission, Peter discreetly passes him a couple dollars like he’s on Breaking Bad and asks Tony to buy them Skittles. He and Pepper stand in line for twenty minutes and barely make it back in time to pass the kids their candy. As the stage lights dim, he and Pepper watch as they sort the colors between them. Red and purple for Peter, green and orange for MJ, and yellow for both.

Yeah. And the kid said she ‘wasn’t’ his girlfriend.

Somewhere in the second act, MJ tips her head onto Peter’s shoulder. Onstage, Alexander Hamilton and Eliza walk around dressed in all black, and a solemn piano plays. They watch as Peter tenses, then relaxes, and then settles his head over hers. It doesn’t last long—immediately after, a song about the election of 1800 picks up and the girl lifts her head as though nothing happened, and they go back to their obsessive lyric-reciting.

Peter may not know this, but he’s gonna sneak those dollars back into Pete’s backpack later tonight. He swears on everything he loves that the kid’s never gonna owe him a dollar.

After the show, they pile into the car; with Tony beside her, Pepper drives, and the kids pile into the backseat. All the way back to Queens, those goofballs giggle in the back, reciting parts of the Cabinet Battles and pretending to die in each other’s arms, Philip Hamilton-style. It’s sweet.

They drop off MJ first.

Her mom is on the fire escape with another woman when they drive up, and they both wave as the car comes to a stop before the building. Although MJ says not to worry, Peter still straightens his tie, takes a breath, hops out of the car, and chases after her so he can walk her up. Pepper grabs his arm as he does and squeals. “Tony,” she sighs, “oh, look at him.”

He’s gone for only a couple moments inside MJ’s apartment building, but when he comes back he looks different. More pensive, maybe. A little flustered. He gets back in his seat, buckles his seatbelt, and sits.

The drive back is quiet. Pepper spends far less time with the kid than Tony does, so she doesn’t exactly notice the kid’s sullen demeanor. “Did she have a good time?” she asks, glancing in the rearview mirror to look at Peter.

“Yeah,” he says.

“Did you?”

“Yeah,” he says again. “Thanks for the tickets, Ms. Potts.”

“Pepper,” she corrects, with a laugh. “Oh, I’m glad. Tony liked it, didn’t you, honey?”

Tony nods. “Oh, yeah.” He didn’t know much about Alexander Hamilton before the play, and he’s not sure he knows much more now, except that the guy liked to rap. “It was pretty good. Especially if you’re into…presidents.”

Pepper laughs. The kid doesn’t.

The conversation goes on like this, mostly between Tony and Pepper, until finally his fiancée mentions the girl again. “Just remember,” she says, “if you two want to do anything…physical, just make sure you’re safe, alright?”

Peter mumbles a “yeah,” and Tony hears him shuffling from behind him.

“We can get you condoms” —Pepper takes one hand off the wheel to tap Tony’s shoulder— “We can get him condoms, right, Tony?”

“Oh, yeah,” says Tony, agreeing now. He’s still a little shaken by Peter’s sudden quiet manner, but he falls into Pepper’s conversation. “Anything you need. Protection is important. Condoms…”

“Dental dams…”

“…Diaphragms, whatever you need.”

“There’s other kinds, too—spermicides, stuff like that—but most of those are, eh, pretty ineffective. Just stick to the basics. Physical barriers work best.”

Pepper nods in agreement. “Whatever you need, we can get it for you. You can figure out what feels best for you and your partner—”

“—or partners,” adds Tony.

“And whatever it is, we’ll get it for you. And this applies to whoever you’re with, honey.”

“Okay, okay,” mutters Peter. There’s a touch of contempt in his voice. “I got it.”

Tony never got the talk from his dad, but he did get it from his mom; he knows how humiliating this must feel. “There’s no need to feel shy about it,” he adds. “These kinds of feelings are normal for every teenager. But it’s important to know how to keep yourself safe, okay? Especially if it’s your first time with this kind of thing. Is it her first relationship?”

Peter’s voice sounds sharp. “I don’t know.”

Pepper chimes in, “Well, you should probably find out. It’s really important to know someone’s boundaries before you start…advancing physically in a relationship. You should make sure you talk about everything.”

“Pep and I still do, don’t we?” Tony adds. Pepper makes a sound of agreement. “Communication is key.”

“Yeah, safe sex isn’t all about getting pregnant, you know.”

Tony continues, “It’s about making sure both you and your partner are being safe with each other. Is this your first relationship, too?” That’s probably contributing to his nerves. It must be.

Quiet from the back. “Yeah,” Peter says, after a moment’s hesitation, and then he’s speaking too fast. “Well, kinda. I don’t know. I—I’ve never done this before. The whole—the girlfriend thing.”

Tony looks to the rearview mirror, where he can see Peter with his mouth pressed together in a thin line. He squints at the kid. “Kinda?” he repeats.

Peter clearly was not expecting a follow-up, because he blinks at Tony. “Um,” he says, and his eyes are unfocused. “Nevermind.” He goes quiet then, leaning his head against the car window.

Peter Parker doesn’t go quiet. When Peter’s asked a question, all he does is talk. Now, he’s near-comatose in his still silence.

Pepper seems to sense the tension as well, because she keeps glancing over at Tony with a wrinkle in her brow before looking back to the road. They don’t usually talk about his dating life. This rapped play about the American government is really the only time Peter has allowed Tony to be involved, albeit from four rows back.

Tony clears his throat. He never meant to make the kid clam up like this. “It’s okay to talk about this stuff,” Tony says, attempting some damage control. “I know this can be uncomfortable, but it’s important to have these conversations.”

Peter makes a bewildering expression that Tony sees in the rearview mirror. “Yeah,” he says. “I know.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s MJ or someone else, okay?” says Pepper. “You still have to be careful.”

Tony nods. They’re doing pretty well, he thinks, playing a little good cop, good cop. “Yeah, we don’t care if it’s with girls, guys…” Peter scoffs, a noise from the back of his throat, and Tony startles. What the hell was that? He’s never actually seen the kid do anything visibly hom*ophobic, but maybe… Maybe he’s overreacting. Peter could have—that could have been just a laugh, or a cough, or nothing at all. Wary, Tony continues, “...as long as you’re respectful of their boundaries and they’re respectful of yours.”

“Sure,” he says. His face is so still.

The car is quiet again, but Peter has closed his eyes with his head against the window. He might be feigning sleep, but Tony can’t find a way to say: hey, kid, can we talk about your borderline hom*ophobic response to a sex talk with your not-parents?

Tony remembers back in 2016 when he first met the kid. He knew that Peter had a thing for that girl Liz—a crush on a senior that flourished until the girl moved away. After that, he befriended MJ and started hanging out with her—a lot . Kid’s sixteen now, gonna be seventeen—instead of fourteen, going on fifteen. He’s different, but still the same, still head over heels for his crush.

Peter’s barely made a noise back there since the end of their conversation.

So they drop it, and soon enough Peter’s snoring lightly against the window. It’s late now, nearly one, and Tony makes the decision to drop off Pepper at their home upstate before bringing Peter home. He’s still got some stuff to tell him.

They make it upstate without a problem. It’s out of the way—like a thirty-minute drive out of the way—but it gives him the opportunity to talk to Peter alone. He doesn’t want Peter to feel like they’re ganging up on him, and this is a conversation better fit for him and the kid than the kid and Pepper anyway.


He kisses Pepper goodnight, and as she gets out, Tony does, too, moving into the driver’s seat so he can drive Peter back home. As his car door shuts, Peter wakes up with a jerk. “Alright, sleepyhead,” says Tony. “Naptime’s over. Wanna get in the front seat?”

Peter doesn’t respond. He’s sitting up straight now, looking around, confusion clear. The confusion melts into apprehension, and then at last he says, “Where, um—” He finally hones in on Pepper’s empty seat. He looks out the window to see Pepper still fiddling with her keys at the front door.

Peter goes very still.

Then he speaks carefully, like he has the words pre-written in front of him, with every word enunciated clearly. “Mr. Stark,” he says, “why did we drop off Pepper?”

The obvious apprehension in Peter’s voice doesn’t get past Tony. “Don’t worry, Pete,” he says, with a pat to the back of the passenger headrest. “Just wanted to keep talking about earlier. That okay with you?” He’s starting to regret this decision to continue their sex-talk conversation, because Peter has gone from quiet to stiff to tense and back again ever since he woke up.

“Yeah,” says Peter, but when he gets in the front seat it takes him three tries to buckle his seatbelt.

Tony turns on the car, and, acknowledging his discomfort, says, “What, did May never tell you about the birds and the bees? ‘Cause then we got a lot more to talk about, kiddo.” The kid's as stiff as a board; he doesn’t answer. “Here,” he says, “you wanna pick the music?”

“Sure,” says Peter, but he sounds strange. He adjusts it to some station playing indie pop and then puts his hands in his lap.

Tony clears his throat. “I just wanna clear up some things, okay? I don’t want any details about your relationship with MJ or anyone else, okay? That’s your business. I just want to make sure that you are being safe. That’s all I care about.”

“Mr. Stark,” starts the kid, and he’s glad to see that Peter’s now more embarrassed than he is quiet. “MJ and me aren’t—”

Tony interrupts him. “I’m not done,” he says. “By safe, I don’t just mean not getting someone pregnant, okay? Being safe means a lot more than that. I don’t know what they taught you in school, but this is important. If you’re going to be sexually active, you should get tested for STDs regularly—not because you don’t trust your partner, but so both of you can stay safe.”

Quiet from Peter.

“And it doesn’t matter who you are…being intimate with, alright? Girl, boy…” Peter doesn’t make a noise this time, and Tony relaxes. He must’ve imagined the first time, right? He blinks in relief. “And whoever it is, you have to make sure it is consensual, alright? Verbal consent is the easiest—just a ‘yes’ works fine—but there’s lots of kinds. Like nonverbal: you should read your partner’s body like they should read yours, and you should be able to tell if they want it or not.

“So, you should at least get some kind of physical consent. And if you can’t tell, you should just ask. You shouldn’t be going just off of nonverbal consent unless you know the other person really well, though. But it’s still important.

“Enthusiasm, okay? If you sense, like, anything else, you stop . You check in. Your partner should do the same, and this matters for the both of you, okay? If you get uncomfortable with something someone is doing, sexually, you have every right to say—”

“I get it!” snaps Peter suddenly. Tony blinks, paused in his speech, taken aback. The hell? “I know what consent is. I’m not a kid! You don’t have to explain every little thing to me like I don’t know anything! It’s not that f*cking hard—don’t rape someone, fine. I'm sure I’ll manage. You don’t have to explain every single f*cking thing to me like I’m five! I’m an adult! I swing from rooftops, and I—I stop robberies, and I fight people twice my size! I think I can figure out how to put a condom on or how to make sure the person I’m f*cking isn’t screaming no! I’m not stupid!

Tony is stopped at a red light, and now that it turns green, it shines waves of emerald into the car. Peter’s staring so hard at the windshield that it’s like he’s giving it Superman-laser-eyes, but the glass is immovable. He’s breathing a little too hard. Tony recognizes the faint odor of sweat on him.

“Peter,” he says gently, looking at the boy who won’t look at him, “I never said you were stupid.”

The tension is much too thick to puncture; they sit in clipped silence.

Peter puts his head back against the window.

His sleep supplement pill doesn’t take long to make: he does have a degree in chemistry, after all. He already has some old plans, so he uses what he already has in his chemistry lab to cook up a sloppy draft of a sleep supplement that’ll work until he can get better supplies. He doesn’t have the resources to test it out on any other living creatures, so he packs the powder into ten-microgram tablets (a pretty small dose, in case anything goes wrong) and swallows one with water—already, he feels more awake.

The symptoms of his sleepless nights have been far too prevalent. Hallucinations, twitches, mood swings, fatigue, poor memory… Sometimes he even wonders if this is real at all. Did he ever hit Pepper? Did he ever see Peter on the television? Did he ever hear Happy on the intercom?

Blowtorch, punch, hammer, blood.

Oh, god… All that blood… Leaking from his head like the splintered shell of an egg.

This is all starting to feel like a dream—and his previous life, a dream, too. Tony is stuck in a horrible, horrible dream. His worst nightmare.

Tony works and works and works. He builds scraps of weapons, all directed-energy weapons using arc technology as its source. This new weapon is bigger than the last; Tony tries to bolster its arc core with hints of nuclear power, zipping himself in a hazmat suit first before handling the substances.

He may be more sleep-deprived than he’s ever been, his mind a viscous sludge, but still… Still, he thinks of Peter.

He never really wanted kids. With his dickhe*d of a father, he always feared he’d fall into those sticky Stark shoes and start beating his kids with power cords as soon as he was old enough to talk.

Pepper always reminds ( reminded ) him in moments like that, that Tony loved his mother.

And, yes. He did. He loved Maria Stark more than anyone else in this hellish world.

But she never did anything to stop Howard. She might send a pained look in his direction, or stroke his hair a little softer at night, or give him extra syrup on his pancakes in the morning, but she would never stop him or say anything about it.

She was who she was. She loved, above all, her status as Howard Stark’s wife. The money, the glamour… She was born into wealth and moved into greater wealth once she married. She had no qualms about with a few beatings as long as it didn’t screw with her reputation. So yes, Tony loved his mom and she loved him, but she was never capable of protecting him. She would rather bury her head in the sand than ever admit her perfect husband had flaws: violent urges, alcoholism, perfectionism.

Is that all Tony was destined to be? An abuser or a bystander to one?

Cold metal against his hands. Tony finds his fingers on the trigger.

Peter. He remembers Peter. Peter, Peter, sweet Peter, smart Peter, snarky Peter with his Vine references and pink Converse and coffee-brown eyes.

Is he his mother now? A bystander to Peter’s abuse? Oh, god … Blowtorch, punch, hammer, blood. Blowtorch, punch, hammer, blood.

In a sudden anxious rage, he pulls the trigger and fires at the wall; a blast of blueish heat explodes from the nozzle and coats the wall in a lava-like slime, burning the wall down to studs, exposing wires and pipes beyond the plaster.

Another failure.

He fixes and fiddles and replaces parts and tries again. He lines up targets for his practice shots—mostly dead mice—before firing. One melts into a putrid pile of goo. It’s not good enough.

Tony’s familiar with kidnappings. As the son of Howard Stark, he was kidnapped four times by the time he finished high school—although none of them were successful, because Howard Stark didn’t negotiate. They had protocols for situations like that—Tony knew to wait it out until Howard had managed to track him down, and then they’d never speak of it again.

When he gets his kid back—when he gets Peter back—he’s gonna make sure the kid has someone to talk to. A therapist, a shrink, a dog, whatever. That kid isn’t gonna sit with this like Tony had to when he was a kid.

Thinking about Peter makes his chest hitch; again, he remembers. Blowtorch, punch, hammer, blood.

This one, this one has to be it. After this weapon, they’ll let him see Peter.

He has to finish this. He has to. It’s been too long—Peter is dying over there. He has to work faster.

“f*ck!” he screams, although there is no one there to listen.

Maybe, somewhere, Peter is listening…

“I’ve failed you,” he gasps. Tears stream, hot and angry, down his face and into his beard. “I’ve—I’ve failed you, Peter, again… I’m sorry… I’m sorry…”

He finds himself on his knees; his bones ache and his muscles twitch and his eyes are tired again.

Tony takes another supplement pill and picks up the gun.

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 3:30 PM

The little girl doesn’t scream.

She trembles and cries, but she doesn’t make a sound. She has pushed herself all the way under the bed, but her little hand sticks out, attached to the leg of the bed by a set of cuffs.

“Cassie?” Riri calls again.

More crying in response—all muffled, as though into a sleeve.

Riri’s never been this close to the girl. She’s only ever viewed her from afar—Renee generally takes control of punishing the girl, or Charlie will take her if she cries—but she doesn’t usually leave this room. No wonder she’s so scared; the Lang girl never leaves unless it’s to be beaten or worse. Riri tries, “It’s okay, I’m just taking you to Peter, okay?”

“Pe—Pe—Pete—” hiccups the little girl, disappeared into the dark of the under-bed space.

She answers, “Yeah, to Peter. He’s just downstairs—I can take you to him.” She outstretches her arm to the little girl, but still she refuses to move, her crying muffled and shaky. “We’re just gonna go see Peter, that’s all. That’s what you want, right? To see Peter?”

Quiet sobbing.

“Come on, Lang, work with me…” She touches the girl’s cuffed hand, and there’s a sudden scream. Cassie cuts herself off, lapsing into another round of cries. “Just let me take you to him… Come on, you want to see Peter, right? He’s okay, he’s safe, just let me take you to him.”

She seems to perk up at the mention of her Spider-roommate, so Riri keeps talking. “He’s downstairs with a doctor, let me show you, come on, let me…” But she won’t move. She won’t leave.

Riri really doesn’t have time for this kid to finish crying. She unlocks the cuff and grabs the girl’s wrist before she can snatch it away. “Come on—” That’s when Cassie Lang lunges at her without a sound—all thirty pounds of her—and sinks her teeth into the meat of Riri’s forearm. Riri screams on instinct—damn, her teeth are sharp!—and tries to shake the kid off of her, but she’s clamped down hard; they’ve already broken skin— goddamn it, get off!

For some reason, she wasn’t expecting this girl to go completely feral.

She must have yelled because Haroun bursts into the room with his weapon drawn and says, “What the hell are you doing?”

As Riri pries frantically at the girl’s fixed jaw, Haroun grabs the girl by the head and presses his gun to her temple. The threat goes unspoken; the girl releases Riri’s arm and lunges for her safe space under the bed, but Haroun catches her by the leg before she can, pinning her down on her stomach.

The girl goes still and quiet in Haroun’s hold. Still shaking with her sobs, but this time with her mouth closed and her eyes squeezed into little wrinkles.

“What d’you need her for?” he asks Riri. Haroun looks tired.

“I was gonna,” she answers, “take her downstairs. To the doctor.”

Haroun makes a hmph sound, and then he releases the Lang girl before scooping her up under one arm. “Yeah,” he says, quiet. “That’s probably a good idea. Charlie and Renee are out anyway.”

“Where?”

He shrugs. “Food run, maybe.”

Riri swallows. “Do they know?”

“Do they know what?”

“About…the doctor.”

Haroun winces, and the Lang girl squirms in his grip as they exit the cell. “Not yet.”

Of course no one has told him. None of the crew was willing to tell him. No one wanted to bear the brunt of Charlie’s rage.

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 3:58PM

To Agent Jimmy Woo, the body of Ava Starr looks nothing like the twenty-year-old girl in her files.

“Ever seen anything like this before?” says Jimmy, staring at the girl’s waterlogged corpse.

The medical examiner is a small woman, one with a ring and blonde bangs. She wrinkles her nose before answering. “A homicide?”

“No, a body like this. This…watery.”

“Watery,” the woman echoes with a note of amusem*nt. “No. We’ve had drownings, yes, but nothing like this.”

On the medical examiner’s table, the girl is more monster than human. She’s been brutalized into a swollen, pale mess of tissue. Thank God for Hope Van Dyne—without her they never would have been able to identify the woman.

“What can you tell me?” Woo asks.

The medical examiner looks to the corpse. “Nothing you don’t already know. Her injuries are severe. Her attacker bludgeoned her skull in first, while she was still alive, head bleeding, and then bashed in the rest of her. They waited to move her, dumped her…”

“Forget how she died. I mean—can you tell me anything about her ?” There’s none of Scott Lang’s DNA on this girl, and none of Cassie’s either. The only bit they found was the hair in that McDonald’s wrapper.

The medical examiner pulls back the drape over the girl’s chest. Down her middle is a surgical cut, one that has been since seen back together. It must’ve been from the autopsy. The girl seems too young for such a gruesome mark. “Can’t tell you much. Seems like she was sexual active, but nothing violent or too rough.”

“So you don’t think…” Woo clears his throat. “Back in New York we see a lot of sex trafficking cases, but this one’s hard. Do you think it could be?”

Another wrinkle of her nose. “Don’t get a lot of those out here. We’re a quiet town, Agent Woo. Addicts, sure.” Her gaze drops to Ava Starr’s arms, which are littered with track marks. “But we really don’t see a lot of…New York-style deaths.”

They go over more of Starr’s history, much of which Woo already knows. According to the files, there are only a few people that Ava Starr made actual, detectable human contact with. Of course there was Cassie, her hair trapped in a McDonald’s wrapper in Starr’s pocket. Then there’s her attacker, someone whose bludgeoning marks are all over her.

Finally, there are traces of one last person on Starr. There was a second hair in there. Unidentified. The detectives have begun to call him Q. Q is a young male, somewhere between the age of twelve and twenty. From a thorough examination of the hair’s components, Q is receiving some of the same drugs as little Cassie, but he is under much more stress. He’s experiencing the same types of malnutrition, too.

Any good officer knows that these kids—Cassie and the unknown boy—are in the same situation. And maybe if they can’t find Cassie, they might be able to find this boy.

Even more interesting is this boy’s DNA has been found in traces all over New York crime scenes. Not on any scenes of sex trafficking or drug trafficking, but on smaller ones: petty theft, muggings, attempted assault… Traces of his hair, blood, and sweat have been found everywhere, in dozens upon dozens of crime scenes.

Having DNA evidence from someone who is in the system already is a huge help. With luck, they’ll find the girl.

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 4:38 PM

Pepper Potts doesn’t have many friends.

She has Happy, but his big mouth and connection to the company would only have her pregnancy spilled to the public. There’s also Rhodey, but he’s so connected to Tony that he can’t possibly be neutral about it.

She’s a professional woman—who does she have besides those two?

She considers person after person, but she doesn’t even have family that she trusts with her most intimate secret. Finally, she dials a number. The phone rings twice.

“Hey,” she says, as soon as he picks up. She has to physically stop herself from saying something stupid.

On the other end, a man’s voice, slightly surprised. “Pepper Potts.”

She swallows and says, “Do you think we could meet?”

Notes:

plz comment and let me know what u think and what u wanna see happen, next chap will focus a lot on peter and cassie and the doctor, of course, we all love them <3

Chapter 9: my boy, my boy, my boy

Summary:


“You said he needed—” The stupid girl glances at Charlie, and she takes a sudden step back. “—that he needed a doctor! Tell him! Tell him what you said!”

“I just said he might need one! I didn’t say go grab one off the f*cking street!”

Open-mouthed, the girl looks from her friend, to Charlie, and then to the three behind her: the kids and the doctor. At once, the girl is rambling too fast to even understand, repeating his name. She’s explaining what happened, something about Parker’s head and tricking a doctor into their car. “—but Charlie, Charlie, listen, listen—please, listen—Jon nearly killed the kid! I was helping you! I had to get him to someone! A doctor! Anybody! But we couldn’t let him leave, so I had to—”

“Shut up!” snaps Charlie. “Is this true? You let them out of their—their cage! You stupid bitch! ” The first hit is hard—her face is soft but he hits bone on the first blow. He wants to hit her until her face is nothing but blood and pulp. She deserves this for disobeying him; who could disobey him, Charlie Keene, the cornerstone, the forerunner, the holy deliverer? He’s the only one who knows what they need to sacrifice to save the world!

Notes:

chap title from 'my boy' by billie eilish

i wrote most of this on my phone on vacation so yes there’s probably typos and like lots of screwups, but like it’s 10k and i wanted to post so here u go. no chapter summary or anything yet cuz i’m literally on my phone. i’ll make this all look pretty when i get back. until then, have fun.

CW: obv violence and kidnapping, drugs and drug abuse, references to child sexual abuse (nothing explicit, all implied), medical procedures, malnourishment/malnutrition, mentions of domestic violence, violence against a minor

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 4:23 PM — DAY 39

Peter wakes to find himself there. Again.

Wrists taut against restraints. Leg bursting with pain.

But this time, something is wrong. He can sense it in every inch of him: the temperature of the room, the smell of a clean chemical against his skin, a bright light against his closed eyelids… For a second, his mind races. He has woken up a couple times in the chair—that metal chair with its cold vibranium cuffs.

The sensation of cold metal flutters against his wrists and ankles before he realizes; there’s no metal. No vibranium. He’s imagining the phantom sensation: these straps are leather .

And besides that, there are people talking. Peter can’t pick out the voices, hearing only blurred syllables. He feels sick yet full—almost like he’s drunk buckets and buckets of Gatorade and is ready to throw it back up.

His senses come back slowly. There is a tingling that comes with rising from this sort of sleep, and he feels it now—almost like his every cell has become twice their weight—as his limbs return to him. His head feels enormously heavy.

And this time he’s lying supine, whole body flat against some kind of platform.

Peter doesn’t move. He knows better than to move. He can feel his body, every segment of it, and he can’t exactly tell the voices, but he can make the general assumption. The restraints feel different this time, and he waits before testing them out. Maybe they’re—he’s confused. Why is he lying down? This is unusual, really unusual—what the hell does Charlie have planned?

He imagines a million and one things—and his sudden panic only worsens when he realizes he’s not in his uniform—the prisoners’ uniform he’s always in—anymore.

Peter is naked . Or, at least partially. He can feel cold air on his chest, over his arms, and something—cloth?—from his hips down to his thighs.

The voices come into focus. One female, close to him, and one male, farther away. “…what you’ve been eating?”

“…don’t like McDonald’s…” answers a familiar voice—someone young and small.

Cassie .

Where the f*ck is he? How is Cassie here, too? If Cassie’s with him, they’re both in danger. Did he mess up? Did Tony break another rule? Did Cassie try to escape? His breath hitches at the thought, and the female one stills beside him. “…Parker?”

That’s the only word he needs to know for sure he’s in danger. Only Charlie and his crew call him Parker.

He taps into his spidey sense (his Peter-tingle, as Ned would call it) and takes in the room around him: three bodies, one small and two big. He knows how to fight like he knows how to breathe; he’s gonna get to Cassie.

Peter hears the woman say something—shout it, really—and he takes his opportunity when he feels a hand at the IV on his inner arm. He flicks his arm upwards, breaking the strap, and then grabs the person’s arm with one hand, yanking it forward so that her shadow of a head comes into his vision, and then he flails, punching her in the chest to knock her back—with the impact , he opens his eyes, and sh*t, his eyes f*cking hurt, bad. He has to force himself to open them, but they burn at the light so bad that he closes them almost immediately after. He can sense the people around him, and his spidey sense in that moment is so intense that he can feel every angle of their bodies without seeing or touching them.

Peter keeps his eyes closed; he keeps moving.

He fights without feeling—on pure instinct. The man’s head—he grabs by the hair and pulls, slams it against something: a hard surface. The other person he reaches for, but he can’t make it—his leg, his leg won’t move! He grabs his bad knee with a groan, but he has only a second—Peter reaches down and pulls up with his fingertips, and he finds the weight of his leg falling away, so he rolls with it.

“Careful!”

He hears the word—as clear as a glass of water— and as Peter lands, prepared to fall into a squat and bounce back up to the ceiling, his leg—his leg again —it buckles beneath him, entirely numb. He doesn’t have time to think about why. With his good leg, he accounts for his weight and springs up to touch the ceiling, bouncing and sticking, using his battered arms to handwalk across the ceiling until he reaches the other two figures, dropping to the floor with his hands planted to balance himself. Oh, God, his head.

The room is spinning now, and his spidey-sense is a blur of shifting figures and colorful ruptures. Where are they? Where’s Cassie? Where’s Cassie?

He doesn’t have his suit, doesn’t have his shooters, doesn’t have Karen the AI to tell him what to do next. All he has is instinct.

“Get away from her!” Peter gargles, standing, and he sweeps his hand at the figure—the man’s so close. With another wild throw of his arm, he takes out the larger of the two in the gut, and Peter flips up onto the table with a pained gasp—

He ignores the pain and wobbles, grabbing onto the smallest figure—Cassie—looping his arm around her waist and launching them both away. His leg is so numb it might as well not be there, and he drags it behind him like twenty pounds of meat.

By the time he stops fighting and his body has stopped swiveling, he’s screaming, “Iron Man! Iron Man!” and Cassie clings to him like a joey to its mother’s pouch. They’re tucked in the corner of the room now, Peter crouched to the floor and Cassie hidden behind him.

He hasn’t opened his eyes yet. He can feel the other two, like a dog can sniff out another dog, like a fly can sense a swatter coming. There’s a woman and a man. Is it Renee and Charlie? His head is weighty with confusion; his whole skull aches and swims with the room.

The woman is too small to be Renee.

Air comes out of him in raspy, heaving pants; Peter feels like he’s running a marathon and balking at the finish line. He’s dipped into a crouch, his dead leg sprawled out while his good leg bends deep at the knee. He braces one hand on the ground for balance and the other keeps Cassie behind him, blocking her from their view. He gasps again, taking in more air and trying to absorb the scene around him with his senses. The figures keep shuffling and moving their heads around, and their voices are so intertwined that words are hard to make out.

He has no escape.

His spider-senses keep telling him: he has no escape, no escape, no escape .

“Charlie!” he shouts, cutting through their noise. “You stay away from her! YOU GET THE f*ck AWAY FROM HER!!” Peter has no weapon but his words and his hands, one of which he holds out in a fist to the figures—Charlie? Mason? Haroun? Who will he have to fight?

“…your eyes, Peter,” says the man. “Charlie’s not here.”

The man’s making no sense and he backs up, trapping Cassie against the wall. Behind him, she is grabbing onto his shirt—shirt? Dress? What the hell is he wearing? It doesn’t feel like his. No pants, no underwear, no shirt—just this dotted gown, knotted haphazardly around his waist to hang slightly over his thighs. Everything is corroded, and he feels as though if he opens his eyes he’ll see something demonic: zombies or ghosts or aliens. He’s never liked horror movies. Now, he feels like he’s stepped into one. What’s happening?

He’s so f*cking confused that it hurts. Nothing makes sense. Cuffs while lying on his back? Cassie in the room with him? His leg numb? “What did you… What…”

He feels strange, too. Peter’s been drugged more times than he can count—needles to the thigh, gasses filling the room, pills in the cup—so he knows just what it feels like. He knows he’s been drugged, and not just by his usual sedatives. His head is heavy and his face is hot with blood. He reeks of sweat and his clothes—where the hell are his clothes?

He feels naked. Peter feels naked. He doesn’t feel like himself anymore.

He opens his eyes into a half-squint. A panic rises in him, one that backs him further into the corner. “Skip?” he blurts out, and his confusion rises. In his knees is a tremble Peter hasn’t felt since he was young.

In front of him are two people, one white and one black, yet his vision is so strained and blurry that it’s difficult to tell who’s who. There was a woman and a man—right? Charlie? Ava? Renee? They’re talking—maybe to him—but he’s not listening. Sensation is starting to return to his numb leg, sparks tingling at his thigh and creeping downward. It hurts, but not much—like he’s hitting a hammer against his funny bone. It’s not a bone, Aunt May would say. It’s actually a nerve. That funny feeling is just your humerus tapping your ulnar nerve.

Oh, May… May… Had they killed her? Was she even alive?

Feeling flickers down towards his calf. He whips his head up and he can feel the danger flooding him—the girl has drawn her weapon. It’s a pistol, and the click of the safety fills him with alarm— “YOU STAY AWAY!! STAY AWAY FROM ME!!”

He has no weapon but himself.

And Cassie has no shield but him.

The man jumps between them both, blocking his view of the girl, but Peter knows her gun is still trained on him. “Riri, put the gun down—” the man says, with one hand at the girl and one hand at him. “Peter—it’s Peter, right?”

He doesn’t say anything, still gasping like each breath is the last gulp of air he’ll ever take.

“Peter Parker?”

Peter squints at the man with his throbbing eyes and then back at the gun. It feels like he’s staring right into the sun, and the pain is sharp enough that he has to close his eyes again. “I don’t know you,” he says. When he opens them, his eyes are back on that skinny black teen and her gun. She’s one of them . “What did you do to me?”

There’s a throbbing pain at his inner thigh, and all of a sudden he feels liquid trickling down his thigh and past his knee. His breathing quickens into something he can’t control; he thinks of Skip first. And then he thinks of Tony and Pepper and little Cassie cowering behind him. Peter reaches down and touches the trail by his knee and raises his hand to his face to find a smear of blood on his fingers.

He feels suddenly sick.

The doctor seems to notice his change in expression because he says, “That’s the IV, hon. Just the IV. The veins in your arms, they were wrecked. Whatever they did to you, whatever drug they were giving you, they gave you too much too many times. I had to use a good, healthy vein, and that was the next best thing.”

Behind the man, the girl is lowering her weapon. Riri? Is that her name? He remembers her from some of his sessions in the Room. She liked to stand with her arms folded, quiet, never saying a word as Charlie beat him. And the man? Is he working with Charlie? He’s never seen this guy before…

“Peter—it’s called the femoral vein. It’s real. It’s in your thigh, right” —the man reaches down slowly and taps his inner thigh with the flat of his fingers— “here. I’d Google it for you if they hadn’t taken my phone.” Peter backs himself and Cassie into the corner. “Look.”

Slowly, the man points, and Peter’s eyes flit to the table. Scalpels and gauze and drapes cover the table, as well as a thick tube still dribbling blood.

“That’s your IV,” says the man; he’s dressed in scrubs.

IV—scrubs—femoral vein… He looks up at the man and he catches a glimpse of turquoise. At last he says, in a cautious croak, “They took your phone?”

The man relaxes a little. “Yeah, hon, they took it. Along with anything else I could've used to break you out of this place. For now, I'm just trying to make sure you don’t die.” Again, he tells the girl to put her gun down, and then he points, this time to Peter and Cassie. “I wasn’t hurting her. Look—look at yourself, look at Cassie.” From behind him, Cassie taps him with her arm. It’s casted now, wrapped in a splint and some kind of thick plaster up to the elbow.

Peter looks from the girl to the man. A doctor, he guesses. His eyes are starting to adjust to the room around him, which he can now see is some kind of operating room. The table he was on: a stainless steel operating table. Cassie was sitting on one just like it, although she wasn’t strapped down—the metal-reinforced straps on his table dangle broken. He must’ve broken them when he jumped.

He can feel his leg entirely now, and when he looks down to reassure himself that it’s still there, he finds it’s casted as well, just like Cassie’s arm.

It’s then that Riri, gun put away, speaks. “You’re still here,” she says, gesturing towards the double doors at the end of the room. “See? Guards at the door. Fighting me and the doc won’t do any good. Just calm down and let us help.”

“I’m stuck here just like you,” adds the doctor. “I promise, I’m not here to hurt you.”

He can feel his heart beat in his face, blood rushing through each vein. “Cassie,” says Peter slowly, so he can make sure the little girl understands him. “Did they hurt you?”

“No,” she answers.

Peter’s not looking at Cassie; he’s asked her these questions countless times. Any time we’re separated, he told her, I just have to make sure. “Did they touch you?” He watches those two: the doctor in his scrubs and the girl in hers. They match, like a set of painted Matryoshka dolls.

“Yes,” says Cassie, and he can feel her head turn from behind him. Her oily hair tickles his leg.

“Where?”

“My tummy and my legs. And my head.”

These are their questions. There are only three of them, and it is all they need to know that the other person is okay. It’s normal, when one of them is without the other, to explain everything that happened. It helps them keep track of each other’s injuries and make sure they’re gonna be okay. Peter always tells her where he’s hurt and where, just in case something bad happens. He always makes sure he knows everything that happens to Cassie when he’s not there. Did they hurt you? Did they touch you? Where? Sometimes, when Cassie is worried about Peter after a session with Charlie, she’ll ask him. Did they hurt you? she’ll ask, after a long silence. Yes, he’ll answer.

“Where’s Charlie?” Peter asks suddenly.

“He’s not here—“ Riri starts.

“What time is it?”

“Peter, listen to me—”

“What time is it?” he snaps.

“It’s not time,” blurts Riri. “It’s not time. You’re good.”

At once, Peter finds that he can no longer hold himself in this crouching position, and his knees buckle. He hits the ground hard, with a groaning feeling that seems to shudder through his whole body: relief .

“Time?” echoes the doctor, frowning. “Time for what?”

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 5:20 PM

The doctor is not someone Cassie has seen before.

He’s dressed like a doctor, which she remembers from before, and he has a beard. He is not very tall, maybe a little taller than Peter, and when he looks at her she knows he isn’t high. (Peter always tells her to stay away from them when they’re high.) His eyes are clear and his frown is sharp with concern. He looks a little like Jim—oldish, with a slow gait and gray hairs.

When he first moved towards her, she jumped back on instinct. “Peter,” she whimpered automatically, and she tried to run again before Riri and Haroun forced her down so the doctor could look at her.

Now, Peter holds her hand while the doctor does the rest of his exam. His hands are cold, like Peter’s, and the rubber gloves feel weird on her skin. He presses the stethoscope to her chest. “Breathe in,” he says.

She remembers this part from check-ups before. She takes a deep breath, and it hurts as it gets to the very top—“And out,” he finishes.—and she lets it out.

The doctor doesn’t show any sign of discontent on his face. He just smiles and says, “Good job, good job. Can you do it again?”

Cassie does everything the doctor asks. He wipes her mostly clean with a damp cloth, checking her all over to find small bruises and old cuts. All the while, Peter holds her: Cassie’s hand in his, Cassie’s face hiding in his arm… Peter doesn’t smile, either. He watches the doctor like he watches Charlie, the Bearded-Man. Peter looks scary. His eyebrows are flat and frowny, and his eyes bounce around from Riri to the doctor as he holds Cassie.

Cassie wants to go back to their Room. They’ll be safe there, she knows. There, they can play with their McDonald’s toys and wait for dinner. She’s really hungry. Really, really hungry.

The doctor is talking to Peter now, and Peter’s holding her, hugging her as she hides her head in the crook of his neck. “You’re both severely malnourished,” he says. She told me about what you eat—just the Happy Meals, right?”

“Yeah,” says Peter. “Three times a day.”

“And how much of it does she eat?”

Peter’s face suddenly twists. “You don’t understand,” he says. “I don’t—I’m… used to, like, way more food—they don’t give us anything here, just the Happy Meals, and—”

“I don’t blame you,” says the doctor, softly. “I just need to know how much she’s eating.”

Peter is quiet. He rubs Cassie’s back, his hand stiff. Before the doctor had fixed Peter, Cassie remembers, a couple of his fingers had been broken. Now, Peter flexed his fingers without a wince. “Some of the burger, maybe… And all her fries. I usually eat the rest.”

Dr. Skivorski makes a hm sound before asking Cassie to lie back. She looks at Peter for permission, and he nods.

The table is cold, but it feels just like their bed back in the Room. “Besides your arm,” starts the doctor, “is there anything else that hurts right now, hon?”

“No,” she answers. It’s not exactly true, but her hand was the worst part, anyway.

Dr. Skivorski with his gray beard leans over her and, using rubber-gloved fingers, taps against her belly, one area after the other, and it hurts every single time. She’s used to her tummy hurting, so she doesn’t say anything until he taps a little too hard, and she sucks in a breath.

“Did that hurt?” asks the doctor.

“Yes,” she answers, and when she turns her head she sees Peter above her.

He looks kind of like an angel. Peter’s different today. He looks like the first day she met him, when his hair was short and his face was clean. He’s been scrubbed and dried, bath-clean, and all of the cuts on him are stitched up neatly. These stitches are way neater than Cassie’s or Peter’s. Half his hair is gone, shaved away to show a C-curve of stitches. His bare head is so white—he’s like an angel. “But that’s… It’s a… Peter says it doesn’t count. That Always-Hurts. We can’t do anything about it if it Always-Hurts. My tummy always hurts.”

The doctor is quiet for a moment. “Can you tell me what else always hurts, Cassie?”

“My teeth,” she starts. “My chest—”

“Doc,” snaps Peter, and suddenly his arms are tight around Cassie, snug like a too-small Christmas sweater. “Cut it out.”

“Peter—”

“Seriously,” he says, “I can tell you anything that’s wrong with her.” Cassie hides her face in his neck again. He usually smells like sweat and salt and sour milk and pennies; now, he smells so clean , like a hospital bed. “She doesn’t need… She doesn’t need to think about that. Let’s…” Peter’s done a lot of talking by now, and his face tightens. He must be hurting. He only looks like that when he’s hurting. “The more she thinks…about it…” Peter’s taking deeper breaths between his words now. “...the more it’ll…bother…her.”

Dr. Skivorski frowns; Cassie thinks he has really bushy eyebrows. He really does look a lot like Jim. He has smaller hands and longer hair, but he makes her think of Jim.

“Cassie,” says Peter. He looks weird with his head all wrapped in white; he looks like he’s trying to keep from falling asleep; his eyes are wide and red and blinking weird. “Hawkeye.”

Cassie knows their code words well. Iron Man means go protect yourself, sometimes by hiding under the bed or by hiding behind Peter. Hawkeye means close your ears and don’t listen. Captain America means Peter needs medical help, usually that she has to sew up one of his bad cuts. Ant-Man means run. Black Widow means be quiet and listen to what Peter says, do what he does.

So she shuts her ears.

The doctor looks to Peter then. They have a conversation that is low enough that she can only pick out a few words through her ears—she has her good hand pressed over her ear and her shoulder pressed against the other. She can’t really hear what they’re saying, but she gets some idea from what Peter says while he is still holding her. The doctor is too far, though.

They talk and they talk. Cassie keeps her ears shut and Peter’s arms stay around her. She hears parts of words she knows, like lungs and drugs and not enough .

Peter starts to get weird: his arms tighter around her, his breathing picking up. As his voice gets louder, his words become near-clear in her shut ears. “No, they didn’t.”

The doctor’s words sound like they’re under a rush of water. He talks and talks and—

“Yeah, I’m sure. I’m sure .”

The doctor answers a little louder. “...check…make sure…”

“You’re not putting her through that. No. I said no.”

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 6:29 PM

Pepper Potts has never liked Steve Rogers very much.

She usually finds him overbearing and self-righteous; she regrets calling him as soon as she ends the call. But she needs someone honest. Someone she can trust. So by the time they meet—at a small diner in Brooklyn—she has resigned herself to his conversation. He’s in New York already, so they meet in the evening, settling on seven o’clock.

Pepper arrives first—a half-hour before he is supposed to, but she only orders coffee. She wears a sweatshirt, jeans, sneakers, and a brunette wig; she doesn’t need a swarm of paparazzi coming after her.

Steve Rogers arrives fifteen minutes later, still quite early, and dressed in an outfit that is so unlike him that she does a double take: a patterned sweater, slacks, and white shoes. He spots her almost immediately.

“Pepper Potts,” he says. His blonde hair, which she remembers being a swept 40s style, is now thicker and long enough to touch his jawline. He has a blonde beard to match.

She grimaces. “Steve,” she says, in nearly the same tone. “How are you?”

He smiles; the dark bags she’s used to seeing under his blue eyes have lightened. “A lot better,” he says. “I think I’m finally getting used to this whole twenty-first century thing.”

“And your friend… Bucky Barnes, right?” Steve nods in agreement. “How’s he?”

A flicker of surprise. “Bucky’s good. We cut a deal with Fury to lose his fugitive status—we helped Captain Marvel and Dr. Strange with a purple alien problem, and after we won, Bucky got pardoned. We’re living in Brooklyn now, actually.”

“Purple alien problem?” echoes Pepper.

“Not important. He wanted to kill half the planet using some magic stones… But Dr. Strange took care of him. Magicked one of those circle things around him and cut the guy’s head right off.” He chuckles. “Never used to be scared of that Dr. Houdini until I saw that.”

At this point, their waitress, a young girl with dark eyeliner and pigtails, returns with a cup of coffee and a mini-pitcher of creamer. “Can I get you anything, sir?”

Steve scans over the laminated menu and orders a burger and fries. After the waitress takes their menus and leaves, the blond supersoldier clears his throat. “As much as I’d love to chat about Bucky, I know you didn’t come here to talk about him. What's going on?” She’s got sunglasses on, but it’s like he can see right through her. “Pepper,” he says again, this time with his shoulders dropped. “Are you okay?”

She sits back, slowly, and removes her sunglasses. “Have you been watching the news?”

“Here and there,” he says. “Paparazzi were all over that picture of you.”

She knows the photo. Back in mid-April, they caught her on the balcony of the house, dressed in only her robe after a shower, crying. Tony had swung with a half-closed fist, not a palm, so it had left a mark: a mark the paparazzi were too keen on catching. Her face—the bruise had blackened at that point—was still bad; she should’ve known better than to go on the balcony. The pop-culture vultures had been all over her since.

“Yeah,” is all Pepper says, and she fiddles with her sunglasses.

His shoulders seem to drop another couple inches. “Oh,” he says. “Tony?”

She nods.

The waitress comes by and asks them about coffee—she fills it up at Pepper’s request, and Pepper adds a packet of sugar. Steve’s coffee, as she can see, is milky, a light, buttery color; hers is a black-brown and barely sweet.

“Look, this is really more Sam's department,” Steve continues. “I'm no psychiatrist, Pepper. I’m not a marriage counselor or a doctor or a therapist.”

“I’m not asking you to be,” she says. “But you know Tony. From a different angle than the rest of us. You know better than anyone else how complicated he can be. How difficult this is.” Pepper takes another sip of her coffee; Steve seems to be holding his breath. “Just… What would you do?”

“Our relationship isn’t like yours,” says Steve. “He wouldn’t worry about fixing things with me. I’m just some guy who betrayed him. If I went and knocked on that lab door, he’d probably put on his suit and blast me outright.”

“But he hurt you, didn’t he?” she asks. “In a way that can’t be…resolved?”

Steve glances away. “I don’t know. I think… Back in Siberia, we were both fighting for what we thought was right. Tony for his mom, me for Bucky… I don’t think either of us were wrong. There’s a difference between us fighting each other and him hitting you. He saw Bucky and saw his mom’s killer, someone who was a threat to him and his family… I don’t think that’s what’s happening with you.” Steve is spinning his mug in his hands. “You know, my ma used to have that look,” he says.

“What look?”

“The I’m-gonna-go-back look.”

Pepper scoffs. “I’m not gonna go back to him. I told him I wouldn’t. And I haven’t. And I won’t.”

Steve shrugs. “Never stopped my ma.”

“Well,” says Pepper, “this isn’t the thirties. Women have…options now. We don’t—I don’t have to stay. I’m CEO of Stark Industries. I’m the wealthiest female CEO in the world. So I don’t need him. Never needed him.”

Steve’s watching her. He’s frowning. “Okay,” he says at last, giving in. “But what about his kid?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “I’m forty-six. Having a kid at my age is dangerous enough. But Tony and I… We didn’t even try , Steve. We just kind of accepted that it was impossible. We talked a couple times about adopting, or fostering, or something like that, but the closest we got was funding orphanages and group homes. We… Tony… Neither of us had particularly good childhoods, and neither of us had much success in relationships until we met each other. We’ve never had a dog, let alone a baby. And now…” She shakes her head. “I don’t know what to do.”

Steve grimaces. “I know this is hard. I mean, I never thought of Tony as someone who could do something like this.”

“I didn’t, either. I think maybe…” Her coffee mug is empty now, although she tips it into her mouth nonetheless, tasting the last drops of coffee from the bottom of the cup. “Something’s wrong with him. The way he looked at me… If there’s a chance that there’s something else going on, I want to know. I thought maybe—mind control? Brain tumor? Magic?”

The blond man is shaking his head. “Pepper…”

“I’m serious. Tony’s never acted like this before. And all of a sudden, he’s locking himself in his lab—for weeks —and he’s having people deliver him boxes at weird hours of the night, he’s—something’s wrong with him. He’s never, ever hit me before. And I think maybe, if there’s a chance I can fix it, I should, right?”

Again, he says, “Pepper…” in that melancholy tone.

“You said you’d been working with Dr. Strange, right? Do you think he could help me? He’d know if something was really wrong.”

He nudges his plate from him; it’s clean, and he stacks his silverware on top. “I’ve asked Strange for a lot of help over the past few years, with a lot of different things. I usually get a no from him. Unless he considers your problem to be a threat to the” —he mimes quotes with his fingers— “‘safety of the universe,’ Strange won’t help. And I don’t think Tony being Tony would be considered a threat of his caliber, don’t you think?”

Pepper sniffs. This wig is beginning to itch, and she wants to take it off. She scratches at the nape of her neck. “It’s not just Tony being Tony. This is something else. It has to be.”

The waitress comes to collect their plates. She scoops up their dishes with one hand and pours more coffee for them both with her other hand.

“Pepper, listen,” says Steve. “My ma always thought my dad would change. No matter how many times he beat her, she’d always say, ‘He’s still a good man.’ On the bad days, she’d talk about leaving him, but when the morning came, she’d still make him his breakfast.” He looks at her now, a hard stare, and he doesn’t blink. “I don’t want that to happen to you, Pepper. I don’t want that to happen to anyone.”

“This is different,” Pepper insists. “This is Tony .”

The man sips his coffee. “You know, my ma used to say that, too.”

That shuts her up. Pepper takes a swig of her coffee, savoring the black bitterness on her tongue.

“He wasn’t always abusive,” Steve continues, “but he got a lot worse after I was born. He…wasn’t a bad man. I loved my father. But he had his vices, and untreated PTSD, and violence like that was the norm back then. He was a man shaped by his environment. So I don’t exactly have to forgive him, but I do understand him.

“This isn’t to say that Tony is or isn’t a good man, or whether or not he would be a good father. I really couldn’t tell you. But I will say that Tony should know better, and I think…” Ge stirs at the dregs of his milky coffee. “…that makes it worse than my father, somehow. I can’t tell you whether or not you should forgive him. But I don’t know what kind of situation would cause him to hit you. But he did it on purpose. He knew what it meant to you, and he knew what it meant for the both of you, and he did it anyway. I don’t want you to forget that. This wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t a slip-up. He hurt you because he wanted to.”

She scoffs—a half-laugh that is more nervous than anything. “I’m not saying I’m going back. I’m just saying that if there’s a chance that it wasn’t really him, then I’ve got to take it—right? Right?”

Steve doesn’t say anything.

“Because if I’m right—if there’s something wrong—then we can fix it. And if I can fix it…” She puts a hand on her stomach, imagining the little life inside. “…then we can do it together. The right way.”

“Pepper,” says Steve, with a frown that’s impossible to miss, “there is no right way.”

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 6:56 PM

When Charlie wakes up from his nap, the barracks are practically empty.

Charlie has had an uneventful day. He slept most of it away. Watching the kid go out like that sent a feeling thrumming through him. He forgets sometimes how good it feels—the sight of blood on skin, the power of the hammer in his hands. The power to shatter kneecaps or to force Tony Stark to do his bidding. He has all the power in the world. After what happened with Parker, he took so much angel dust that he could feel it in the veins of his eyes and the nail-beds of his toes.

His wife Renee is asleep beside him, snoring. Her eyes are half-open and bloodshot as hell.

If she was awake right now, he’d f*ck her slow and sweet, but when he kicks at her leg she just rolls over and snores some more.

Charlie remembers the blood coming from Parker’s head, and his insides bubble with delight—he bubbles, he simmers, he broils. It felt so good. God, he needs more of his sh*t. There’s a baggie tucked in the waistband of Renee’s pants, and he pulls it out with trembling fingers. Yes, yes, yes! He lines it up on the table and snorts one line, then two.

As the PCP floods him, burning and freezing and tingling, he staggers around the room. There’s only a few people in here: Daria asleep on the floor, Glenn counting dollar bills, Lyle picking at the scabs on his face… And up in the corner of the ceiling, the muted television flits to inverse color before flickering back to normal.

On the television is the local news channel: black and white closed captioning blinks at the bottom of the screen. “…girl was found late on the night of May 9th, brutally murdered, her body droppedin Lake Champlain. She was found by a nearby fisherman and his son—our correspondent has them on scene to give you exclusive coverage.”

Charlie braces himself against the metal table, eyes still trained on the TV; there, a suited man holds a microphone in front of a murky lake. “Thank you, Rob. I’m here at Lake Champlain, where the victim was found. The girl has since been identified as Ava Catherine Starr, former SHIELD member and fugitive from American law. She was briefly on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list for the murder of an American agent and ties to terrorism. Our correspondents have reached out to SHIELD, but as of now they have no comment on the situation.”

No. No. No! Charlie slams his hand down on the table; his crew members there jump and scatter. “They found her f*cking body?

With the angel dust surging through him, he has a hard time remembering who he sent to take care of the body. He remembers Mason dragging the girl’s body out of the bunker, and someone grabbing the other end.

Charlie whips around. “Where the f*ck are they? Where are they?”

His vision is holy and blind with rage, and all of a sudden he’s got someone pinned against the wall by the throat who chokes out, “Down—stairs—with—the kids—”

Charlie squeezes so hard, his thumbs and his fingers pressing into pliant flesh, that they stop talking—shut up! Shut up! “They think they can betray me? They think they can expose us all and get away with it? We’re going to FIX THE WORLD, AND THEY’RE STABBING US IN THE BACK!!!”

Their stupid mouth gives a cough and a sputter and then silence. Charlie turns around again, so fast that he bumps into a table. “Renee, get the f*ck up!”

He storms out and down the hall, and his ears ring with power. It’s not enough, so Charlie takes the bag of good sh*t from his pocket and, fingering the dusty remnants of the plastic baggie, sticks the rest between his gums. It tastes like heaven. It tastes like a kingdom that’s entirely his.

The kids’ cell is f*cking empty. He lets out a guttural scream, something from deep within him, and he slams his fist into the wall. “Where the f*ck are they?” Their floor is brown with old blood; there is a handcuff dangling from one leg of their bed.

He finds he’s holding a weapon—not any weapon, but one of Tony’s prototypes. A sleek, metal piece with a double-action trigger and a wide barrel. Charlie pulls the trigger in once, twice, then three times, and each gives a delightful blue blast.

He fires again, this time to the doorway, as a man ducks through. “Whoa, Charlie! You could’ve—”

He can feel the heat in him rising, can feel a crown of sweat beading over his forehead. “YOU f*ckING TRAITOR!!” He inhales the great stink of betrayal and sweeps his arm at the man—it’s Mason, and his sledgehammer is absent from his hand.

The man reeks of fear. Charlie demands the kids’ location from him and he leads him downstairs, a few floors down into the bunker. He pokes his weapon into Mason’s sweaty back, and he leads him to a doorway. Jon and Zhiyuan sit out front, sucking on sunflower seeds and spitting them out in front.

They stand when Charlie comes.

They should all stand when Charlie comes.

Charlie waves the gun around with a grin. “Who did it? Who took the kids from me?! Huh? ” The angel dust is rising into his face—into his shoulders and elbows and fingers, like a starburst, like a supernova. “I know you broke the f*cking rules—I KNOW YOURE ALL f*ckING PLOTTING AGAINST ME!”

“Charlie,” says one of them, slow, “the kids are still here. They’re inside, Parker needed a doctor—”

Gah! ” Charlie grabs the closest man and tosses him to the side before bursting in through the double doors. His weight slants to one side as his body falls, and he stumbles into the doorframe, grasping it to steady himself.

In this huge room, there are five people: Parker, the Lang girl, little Riri, and a gray-haired man he doesn’t recognize. At once, all four of them seem to jump; the little girl jumps off the operating table and cowers beneath, the boy hops down in front of her with a cry of pain. Riri rushes to him, hands up.

“Charlie,” she starts, “you have to understand—”

Charlie is the king of kings, the f*cking almighty, and she’s trying to tell him what’s true? He grabs a fistful of her shirt’s collar and yanks her forward. “Why the hell are they out? What did you do?”

She’s yelling and rambling and trying to explain, but he can’t understand her too-fast words. His eyes find the gray-haired man in scrubs and he feels the threat of him as though the man is holding a knife to Charlie’s own throat. He raises his gun and it’s gone—when the hell did he put it down? “Who’s that? WHO DID YOU LET IN HERE!”

Shrinking, she glances to the right, as though for help. Over in the corner is Haroun—that boy who Riri’s always following around.

Her friend raises his hands, palms out, like he didn’t do a thing. “I don’t even know where she got the doc,” he says, backing away from Charlie before sidestepping towards the door. “This was Riri’s idea.”

“You said he needed—” The stupid girl glances at Charlie, and she takes a sudden step back. “—that he needed a doctor! Tell him! Tell him what you said!”

“I just said he might need one! I didn’t say go grab one off the f*cking street!”

Open-mouthed, the girl looks from her friend, to Charlie, back to her friend, and then to the three behind her: the kids and the doctor. At once, the girl is rambling too fast to even understand, repeating his name so many times it becomes a permanent echo. She’s explaining what happened, something about Parker’s head and tricking a doctor into their car. “— but Charlie, Charlie, listen, listen—please, listen—Jon nearly killed the kid! I was helping you! I had to get him to someone! A doctor! Anybody! But we couldn’t let him leave, so I had to—”

“Shut up!” snaps Charlie. “Is this true? You let them out of their—their cage! You stupid bitch! ” The first hit is hard—her face is soft but he hits bone on the first blow. He wants to hit her until her face is nothing but blood and pulp. She deserves this for disobeying him; who could disobey him, Charlie Keene, the cornerstone, the forerunner, the holy deliverer? He’s the only one who knows what they need to sacrifice to save the world!

He hits and he hits, one fist after another, until she puts her hands between him and her, palms up, and gasps, “Wait, wait, wait —listen, listen! He needed a doctor—I had to get him help! If I hadn’t he’d—he’d be dead—you were doing too much!” Spittle pinkened by blood slides down the side of her chin; blood from her nose runs into her mouth. “Please, Charlie! I couldn’t like—take him to the hospital! He would'a been found! I did this for you! I did this for you! We can’t save the world without him!”

I do what I want, you stupid f*cking bitch!” He keeps going; the girl is helpless to his fist, fist, fist… Charlie can hardly stop himself. “This is what happens,” he spits, with a snarl thick with rage, “when you disobey me!”

He beats her until she stops fighting back, until she shuts up, until she cries…

…until something in her voice makes him stop. He finds his hands are aching and wet and the girl beneath him is sobbing. “You betrayed me,” he says, but the words don’t feel like they belong to him. It’s an echo of him, And he realizes at once that she’s shrinking away from him. Charlie grabs her arm with his sore hand, and the girl cries out. “Charlie,” she says, through a blubbered mouthful of blood. “Look… Please… I kept them…alive…for you… For you…”

When he looks up, he finds who she’s talking about. Parker and little Lang, ducked under the operating table, faces pale. They’re almost unrecognizable like this: clean, bandaged, healed.

The buzz is starting to drain from him. He blinks, and he blinks again, and his eyes are suddenly sore in their sockets. Charlie can’t remember what he saw that made him so angry. All he sees now are those kids—Parker and the Lang girl. They look almost normal . No old blood spatter on those hospital gowns. No grime coating their limbs. No half-open gashes in their skulls.

With the way Peter is guarding the little girl, they almost look like brother and sister.

Charlie has a sister. In his life before, he had Julia. Sweet Julia. They used to look like that: Julia, older and pushing him behind her; Charlie, younger and cowering behind her. She used to lock him in the closet when their dad came home, used to walk him to school every day to make sure he got there. Julia was always there, bloody like Parker is now, yet ready to tend to his every bump and bruise.

Parker and Lang, Julia and Charlie.

Julia used to rub his back like that, used to stand in front of him like that, used to whisper to him like that. There’s a feeling in him now, heavy like a full stomach. He hates doing this—thinking about the old days, thinking about his sister—but it comes on so fast that he lets go of the black girl’s shirt. She falls and scrambles backwards, where a gray-haired man grabs her and pushes her behind him.

sh*t. sh*t. Who’s this guy again?

“He doesn’t know anything,” says the black girl. Her face is so swollen that Charlie has trouble remembering who she is. “We knocked him out before we took him.”

“We did,” adds a man from the side of the room. It’s Jon. “I swear. We wouldn’t do anything to, like, jeopardize our mission, Charlie. Riri knows that. We all made sure everything went nice and smooth.”

They’re all talking at once—Jon about the mission, Riri about the doctor, Haroun about Riri—and Charlie hits his head to block out the noise. Fist to his temple, he hits until his brain is ringing with orange-stained pain. “Just—everyone shut up! ” He points an aching finger at the girl and then at her gray-haired doctor.. “By the time I get back, he better be dead or locked in a cage. You understand me?”

She nods, still in sniveling tears, and he spits on the floor.

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 7:11 PM

Riri knows one thing for sure: Charlie has left a mess in his wake.

During his high, he tried to f*cking kill one of the girls, Megan, strangling her with his bare hands, and now she’s got a swollen throat and a truckload of pain meds in her system, courtesy of Dr. Skivorski. The doctor fixes her up as best he can, but she’s mostly bruised, not broken, so there’s not a lot he can do. “They’re not coming back soon?” asks Riri, just to make sure. Riri sniffs, and she can taste the blood as it goes down the back of her throat—runny like an over-easy egg.

There’s an entire horde of people in the operating room now, shuffling and inspecting things, half of them high. “Nah,” says Jon. He’s got a swollen eye, and his head is kind of tilting to one side. “They took the truck and everything.”

She relaxes. “Then we’re fine.” She’s not sure that Haroun or any of the others understand her response; her face bulges with swollen flesh, making it difficult to talk without sounding like her mouth’s full of cotton.

“Well, it’s past seven,” adds Mason, with his hammer returned to his side. “We gotta get Parker on the screen.” His leg bounces erratically from where he’s sitting. “If Charlie comes back and we haven’t put him up there, we’ll all be looking like Riri.” He gestures with a trembly hand at Riri’s face, but it drops quickly after she glares back in his direction. If it weren’t for Mason’s obsession with his sledgehammer, they wouldn’t be in this mess at all.

“Forget that,” snaps Glenn, with a wave of his casted arm. “If we don’t put him in, Charlie will kick us out of the crew. That means no more of the good sh*t, no more of anything. No food, no bed, no roof. No speed, no dope, no crack, no nothing. We’ll all be back where we started.”

“We’re not going anywhere,” insists Haroun. “Jon literally just shattered Parker’s skull with a hammer and now we’re just throwing him back into the ring? Give him a second—”

“Look,” adds Lyle, who usually never says more than a couple words at a time. “If one kid’s gotta get beat so I can get some ice, it’s no question.” Ice. Meth. Riris heard most of these terms so many times that she doesn’t have to think about translating in her head.

Another one, this time Daria. She says, “Charlie gave me a home, y’all. I’m not risking it for that mutant kid.”

“Yeah, same,” adds another girl, from farther away. “f*ck that kid.”

“Look at him,” Haroun snaps. “Put him through another hour in the Room and you’ll kill him.”

“It's one kid! One kid!” starts another. “So Parker gets beat again, fine! I’ll do it myself if you all wanna be such f*cking cowards!”

“Listen to what you’re saying,” interjects Nick, in that too-quiet tone. “He’s a kid. He’s a kid, just a little older than Riri. Have you all forgotten that?”

“Have you forgot,” starts Glenn, “that that kid snapped my arm in half?”

“For f*ck’s sake, Glenn!” shouts Haroun. “Stop milking it! It’s one arm! He didn’t take your damn kidney!”

“Nah, nah, he’s got a point—he broke my ribs with like one kick—“ says Jon. “He’s stronger than all of us. He can take a couple more hits.”

They argue and argue, each person in the crew going back and forth about Parker’s future until finally Riri stands up. “Guys, stop.” Most of them turn to look at her. Jon stares at the table. Haroun winces, glancing down at his phone. Riri looks like a f*cking wreck, bloodied from Charlie’s fist, her mouth so swollen that half of her words end up jumbled, but that’s exactly why they listen to her. She can see it on their faces. The crew feel bad about what happened to her, so they’ll listen if it means she feels better. “We’re gonna put him on the screen.”

Haroun chokes out a nervous laugh. “Riri—”he tries.

She glares at him. “But we’re not gonna hurt him.”

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 7:25 PM — DAY 39

Their biggest guy, Jon, carries Peter bridal-style to the Room. Peter’s too tired to fight back. They assure him over and over again that Charlie’s not here; to Peter, all that means is he’s gonna be at the end of someone else’s fist: Mason, Jon, Nick?

Cassie screams and flails the entire way to the Room, but as soon as she sees her dad, she starts crying and reaching for him. Lang, still wheelchair-bound from Mason’s hammer, reaches for his daughter, and the hug is so tight that Peter worries momentarily that he’s gonna hurt her.

Setting him down in the chair, one cuffs his right arm to it. Peter’s left remains free. He stretches his fingers. Some of them that were broken just yesterday have healed up; he can flex them properly without too much pain. His head, however, still feels like a boulder on his neck—thick with bandages and soupy with discomfort.

Riri crouches in front of him—a skinny man behind her warns her to back up, but she doesn’t. “We’re gonna do something a little different today,” she says.

Peter only caught bits in pieces of their conversation; his head rang too loud with the pain of surgery for him to focus on the addicts’ verdict. He sucks in a breath and holds it; like Cassie’s, his chest aches with every inhale. “f*ck you,” he manages.

Riri shakes her head. Behind her, a couple of Charlie’s men fiddle with the computer, as Scott’s still busy crying with his daughter. It’s not often that they get to see each other. “You’re real,” Scott Lang keeps saying, grasping his girl tightly. “You’re real.”

What were they going to do to him today? Beat him? Electrocute him? Burn him? Bleed him? Peter’s honestly not sure how much more his body can take. He cranes his sore neck to find Cassie, but she’s busy talking in hushed, hurried tones to her dad.

Peter doesn’t feel like himself. His body, usually beaten like tenderized beef, seems to quiver with its newfound lack of pain. His skull has healed; if he touches the back of his head with his hand, Peter finds sealed bone below his skin. When it comes down to it, Peter’s body will heal; it just needs the sustenance to do it.

The rest of his body is not quite as restored as his wrecked skull. His mutation usually heals the most important things first—his broken nose and yellowed bruises and fractured bones are left to a normal healing pace. Those may take days or weeks to heal, yet the stitches on his head are already swallowed by healthy skin. His body knows how to prioritize.

The girl shifts suddenly, and there’s something in her hand—Peter flinches bodily, so hard that he jerks his bandaged head against the headrest of the vibranium chair.

When he opens his eyes again, they stare at each other; Peter breathes hard and fast through his nose, and the girl breathes low and steady. He notices now, for the first time, that the girl looks beaten. Her voice is different, her n’ s and m ’s and b ’s all blocked by her swollen nose. Like him, Riri’s nose looks crooked. Broken, probably. A lot of people don’t really break their nose , said May once, after he came back from patrol with a bent nose. It’s the cartilage that’s actually broken.

Riri’s holding something now with a stiff arm, as though she’d forgotten her hand still grasped it.

It’s not a hammer, not a knife, not a cattle prod, not a syringe, not a clamp.

It’s a phone.

It's a corded landline phone, a gray-brown one that he’s seen Charlie use dozens of times before. He’s just never been close enough to see it. The rectangular buttons are thick and marked in a faded sans-serif font. The curly cord is knotted in several places.

Peter hasn’t held a phone since the day he was taken.

He glances from the girl, to the phone, to the other people in the room, and he curls his cuffed hand into a fist, pulling it tight against the armrest and backing up. “Where’s Charlie?” he asks, low and quiet.

“Not here,” says Haroun, just as Riri says, “Gone.”

This feels like a trick. It must be a trick.

The phone is cold and plastic. It feels surreal to be touching something so important. like touching a railroad track just before the train comes, or holding a piece of the Berlin Wall.

He drops the phone on the ground, and it clicks against the linoleum. He curls back into the chair, aching in every inch of him. “What is this?” Peter asks.

Riri has a pinched look on her face. “Look, Charlie’s not here, but we gotta prove to him that we put you on the TV still—we’re not gonna hurt you today, we’re just gonna let you talk to him.”

Peter is quiet; his body pulsates with blood. “Talk to who?” His voice is unrecognizable to his own ears. He sounds so subdued, so dry and worn.

Riri nudges the phone towards him, but she doesn’t pick it up. “Tony Stark.” She dials the buttons then: it’s a number Peter has long memorized.

Peter lunges for the phone quick, grabbing before either of them can change their minds.

Peter cradles it to his ear with both hands, pressing the top to his ear and the bottom to his chin. The phone rings barely once before it is immediately picked up. “I'm sorry,” says the man on the other line. “I’ll work faster, I promise I was waiting by the phone, I was waiting but you didn’t come so I didn’t know what to do so I-I-I just kept working—trying a lot of new things to make this work, I swear to God I’m gonna make this sh*t work—”

Peter opens his mouth, then closes it, then opens it again and swallows.

Mr. Stark is still rambling on the other line, his voice fuzzied by the old phone. “—adjusted the chemical compound of the Tesseract replicate, but when I measured its heat signature by its contrast radiant intensity, it wasn’t the same! I’ll keep trying, I’m trying to increase the intensity by packing more fuel into each—“

Peter Parker finally manages to find his voice from the spot in his chest where it’s been hiding, curled up like a spider in its web. He doesn’t feel like a superhero now, or a mutant or a creature or or the only guardian of a little girl or even a kidnapped kid in an abandoned Winter Soldier bunker. He feels like Peter.

Peter gathers the phone onto his lap, cord and all, hugging it like Cassie is hugging Scott. Mr. Stark is still going, talking like he’s got a gun to his temple. Peter imagines his face, his salt and pepper hair, his immaculate beard, his half-smirk, his proud smile, his kind eyes.

“Mr. Stark?” he calls out.

The man on the other line stops dead—he goes quiet like he’s been shot. Then there’s a pause that sounds like a vacuum, like outer space, like a million and one stars. “H-hey, buddy.”

Notes:

i’m gonna try to start posting more regularly? but that might require shorter chapters for more frequent posting. thoughts? how long do u guys want each chap? i think i could manage 5k every week maybe? if i set a more concrete deadline haha maybe i’d update more. lemme k what u guys think.

also plz point out typos! would be a big help cuz i usually go no beta cuz i’m stupid

thanks for keeping up, u guys, love y’all

Chapter 10: the world is full of fishes

Summary:


Tony tries to act like he’s not lying through his f*cking teeth. His left arm is aching, and now numbness prickles up to the elbow. “Of course I do. I promise. I—I—I promise. You’re gonna be out of there soon, I promise.” He’s so f*cking exhausted; he’s been taking sleep supplement pill after sleep supplement pill, so many that he barely sleeps an hour a night before his body startles himself awake.

Peter, quietly, between hiccups: “Okay.”

He’s so quiet. He’s so damn quiet. The Peter he knows usually never shuts up, but this one has head surgery and a busted leg and is looking around on the screen like someone’s about to hit him.

Notes:

chap title from 'advice' by alex g

i know this is weird guys but this chapter is gonna b mostly centered around this one flashback. i got it in my head and then couldn’t let it go. it’s half important to the plot but definitely includes some triggers which i will be putting here

CW: alcohol abuse, drug abuse, nonconsensual drug use, attempted sexual assault against a minor, medical circ*mstances concerning sexual assault against a minor, violence, clinical and non-explicit references to child sexual abuse and child exploitation

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Sometime after the Vulture incident at Peter's Homecoming dance, Tony sits Peter down for a talk in the upstate building. He lets the kid into the kitchen, makes sure he gets more than enough to eat, and sits with him at the kitchen counter. “So, Spider-Boy,” he says, “we…”

“Spider-Man,” mutters Peter.

“…need a code word.”

“What?”

“A code word,” Tony repeats, and already he feels like the idea is stupid. “Like something to let me know that you’re in trouble.”

Peter’s chewing through a mouthful of leftover lasagna when he answers, “Okay…”

Tony scratches his head. “Or… if you feel unsafe. or if you think someone’s following you, or if you’re feeling terrible and you need me to come. Anything. If you get kidnapped and the guy makes me call you for random money? You can say it and i’ll know you’re in trouble.”

Peter forks through the tupperware for another good bite. “Um,” he says, mouth full, “If someone has me, and he calls you about something as dumb as ransom money, I can probably take him. I’ll literally be home for dinner, no problem.”

“Well—what if he has a gun?”

“I can take a guy with a gun, Mr. Stark. I’m literally Spider-Man.”

“Forget it—forget it! No more hypotheticals. Look, at some point you might need my help, and if you do, I need us to have a code word. Something. I just want to make sure that you always feel comfortable telling me that you’re in trouble, like with that Eagle—”

Peter chimes in, “Vulture!”

“—guy or whoever else comes after you. No matter what kind of trouble you’re in. We just need a word you would never say. Like…bazooka or sugarplum or Kansas.”

Peter frowned. His eyes suddenly lighten, and he stops chewing, swallows, and pushes the tupperware away with one hand. “Mr. Stark, are you… Are you saying we should have a safe word?”

Scandalized, Tony stares at the kid, who’s still grinning at him like a maniac. “Peter Benjamin Parker, please never say that to me again.” He puts his hands over his eyes. “Oh my god you are a child, you should not know these things—“

“I’m literally sixteen, that’s the age of consent in like, most states—”

“Not in this one, so shut up shut up shut up—“

Ultimately, they decide on The Godfather. Tony had been harassing him about seeing the movie for ages, so Peter says, “In any universe where I’m watching the Godfather, I must be literally dying so—that can be our safe word.”

“CODE WORD, PETER. I SAID CODE. WORD. THIS IS NOT A SAFE WORD—“

Peter starts laughing again.

This code word was an easy way to alert Tony that he was in danger and needed immediate help. At first, Tony thought it might become a joke between them, but the Spider-Kid took it seriously. They started using the code word during fights first; whether they were fighting an alien or a robot or a witch, if Peter got hit too hard, Tony would hear, “Godfather, godfather!” over his radio system. That meant he needed immediate help, medical or otherwise. Then, Tony would drop everything to get to him and solve the danger he was in.

And it worked the other way around, too. If Tony’s suit failed during a fight, or if he get overwhelmed, he’d say the code word and Peter would rush to his aid.

It became easier and easier for that little dark-haired teen to admit when he was in trouble. They’ve only joked about it a couple times, Peter threatening to say it over every minor inconvenience, but they don’t do that anymore.

It only took one day in late May with Peter for Tony to stop joking altogether.

TUESDAY, MAY 15 — 7:34 PM

Peter’s voice is young and pained and f*cking shaking when he says Tony’s name.

Not even his name. His last name. Mr. Stark. As though he, the man who put him through all of this torture, is somehow still worthy of being called by such a formal title.

“H-hey, buddy,” he says back, because he doesn’t know what else to say. On the television he can see that empty room: all concrete and linoleum and vibranium, with the chair in the center. them all: the girl who delivers his supplies, the boy who drives her, and a few other crew members.

Onscreen, Peter Parker looks nothing like the dirty, battered boy he’s so used to seeing. His head is wound in bandages and he’s half-dressed in a blue hospital gown. His leg is trapped in a cast. With one hand cuffed, he’s got Charlie’s phone in the other hand; before he answers, he cries silently, no noise over the phone. Grainy, live-streamed tears come down his cheeks, his nose running into the cracks in his lips. He’s sniffling and he’s sniffling and all at once he’s crying. “Mr. Stark,” he says again, and it’s so wet and full of tears that it’s hard to make out. “Hi, hi, hi.”

They've cleaned him up nicely, wiped him down so that his pale skin shines. Tony puts a hand on the flatscreen. “What's going on? What's happening? Are you—are they—”

“They’re here,” he says. “They said I could talk to you. That they’d leave me alone today.”

“Oh. Oh. Oh—okay.”

“Yeah.” A sniff. “They got me a doctor.”

“They did?” His voice is surging like a rocket taking off. “Tha-that’s good. That's good. And your head? I saw the—the—“ —blowtorch, punch, hammer, blood— “the hit.”

“Doctor fixed it. Did some surgery.” He’s holding the phone so close to his ear that it’s buried in his mess of dark hair. His other ear, Tony knows, is still burned into a melted clump of flesh.

The kid’s crying again. “It's real good to hear your voice, Pete,” Tony says. He’s gripping the phone so tight it hurts. “Real good.”

A choked laugh. “You, too, sir.”

“I think we’re a little past sir, bud.”

There’s a stretch of silence so long it could’ve wrapped around Tony’s throat and strangled him where he stood.

Another sob. “Is it gonna work?”

What else can he say? “It’s gonna work.” Now he’s f*cking crying. “It’s—it’s gonna work, I’m close, I am. I—I am. I’m gonna get you home.”

Sobbing, sobbing, his kid is sobbing and all he can do is hold the damn phone. “Do you promise?” manages Peter.

Tony tries to act like he’s not lying through his f*cking teeth. His left arm is aching, and now numbness prickles up to the elbow. “Of course I do. I promise. I—I—I promise. You’re gonna be out of there soon, I promise.” He’s so f*cking exhausted; he’s been taking sleep supplement pill after sleep supplement pill, so many that he barely sleeps an hour a night before his body startles himself awake.

Peter, quietly, between hiccups: “Okay.”

He’s so quiet. He’s so damn quiet. The Peter he knows usually never shuts up, but this one has head surgery and a busted leg and is looking around on the screen like someone’s about to hit him.

“You know,” says Peter. “I have a lot of time to—to think in here, and I… I’ve been thinking about…” A wet sniff. “…what we're gonna do when I’m out of here…” The kid can barely get a word out now—he’s crying hard, gasping.

On the screen, Charlie’s guys watch solemnly, some whispering to each other, but they’re not close enough to the phone for Tony to catch their words.

“Yeah?” prompts Tony; his fingers ache now from holding to his phone so tightly.

They’re stuck. They’re both stuck. Neither of them can say anything too strong without repercussion: Tony because of Charlie’s rules and Peter because he wants to keep talking. “We could watch the Godfather.”

Tony’s stomach twists into a tangled knot. “Peter,” he chokes out.

Peter’s never managed to get their code word out like this before—never been able to have a conversation with Tony since he was taken. And here he was, tied to the chair in that horrible room, begging for Tony to come help him with one simple word.

He’s crying harder now. “I’m never gonna see that f*cking movie, am I? I'm never gonna… Everyone’s seen it, but me, I’m gonna die here, I’m gonna—” A scream and “Don’t touch me!” and all of a sudden Peter is thrashing on the screen, whipping the phone at the nearest person’s head. A man behind him pins him down by one arm and stabs a needle into it, pushing down the plunger before his thrashing slows, and then he’s sobbing more, just slower, crying out, “Godfather, godfather…” until at last he slows fully, thrashing in slow, sloppy flails.

The girl beside him takes the phone from his sedated grip, and her voice is clear and nasally, like she has a cold. “We gave you a gift, Stark,” she says. “So give us what we want. Give us a good prototype, and maybe we’ll let you talk to the kid again.”

It’s late when Peter calls.

Way too late. It’s near-midnight; Tony and Pepper are asleep. They’re both awoken by the sudden ring of Tony’s cell. His phone’s set to silent—except for Pepper, Rhodey, Peter, and a couple others—so it does in fact ring out loud. That stupid Cantina theme song from Star Wars is the kid’s ringtone; Peter set it himself.

Tony doesn’t need to rub his eyes awake; the kid’s late-night call sobers him up aplenty. He fumbles for the phone and picks up just as Pepper says, tiredly, “Is that Peter?” She recognizes the ringtone, too.

Tony nods. On the other line is a chaos of tinny noise: talking, music, laughing… Peter’s voice sounds funny. He shouts something incomprehensible, and immediately Tony knows something is up.

“Peter?” he calls out. His voice is still grainy with sleep. “You okay?” He slips on a pair of pants and a T-shirt from the floor.

There’s way too much sound going on behind Peter’s voice. Tony hears something, but most of it is swallowed by the background noise—dozens of people talking, some laughing, pop music blasting.

Finally, Peter’s voice, fast and rambling, ankle-deep in a conversation about fraternities and engineering majors. He’s shouting, laughing, and then there’s a crashing sound— “Oh, sh*t! My phone!” Another series of clatters, like the phone’s been dropped on hardwood, and at last Peter’s voice becomes clear through the chaos. “Oh— oh, sh*t —everyone shut up, I think my—” A giggly laugh. “Ohmygod shut uuup! Someone’s calling me! Everyone shut up!”

No one shuts up; if anything, the people around him only gets louder. “Peter,” says Tony. So he’s at a party—usually when Peter calls past eight o’clock, it’s with an emergency.

Before he can continue, the kid’s addressing him. “Hey, Mr. Stark! Heyyyy! Hey… Yeah, what’s up?” He’s laughing again, but there’s something wrong. His laughter is too hard, his voice too slippery, his words too sloppy. “I think—heyyy, man—what d’you need? I’m kinda… Kiiiinda…” He trails off, and then he’s talking to someone else.

It takes too long for it to click in his head. Peter’s drunk. “Peter—buddy—are you okay?”

“Duuude—Mr. Stark—sorry!” Peter laughs again, like he can’t help it. “You don’t need to check up! I swear, it’s all good! It’s allll gooood…”

At once, Tony moves through his lab to reach his computer. He mutes the phone, tells FRIDAY to access the Spider-Kid’s location, and then unmutes again. “Kid, no joke, where are you?” Peter is fifteen and much too young to be this drunk. Yeah, Tony did much worse at his age—but Peter is Peter, and this is unusual for him. So something has to be wrong. “Did something happen?”

The kid’s rambling right now, but his voice is clearer now, as though he’s gone outside or into a separate room—the background noise dissipated into a low buzz. “…but I’m literally, like, not on a mission right now! I finished finals! And I just wanna… Just wanna… Like, let me live! So I’m at like ONE party; sorry, sorry I’m having a good time!! ‘Cause I—like not everything can be school, school, schoooool, you know?”

“I know, buddy, but sounds like you’ve had enough good time for one night.” Peppers behind him now, tying a robe around herself and mouthing, He okay?

Party, Tony mouths back, with a little drinking motion—thumb and pinky extended from a fist, a little shake in front of the mouth—and she nods back, hair messy, and rubs her eyes again. I’ll call May.

Almost as soon as Pepper leaves—maybe to find her phone—FRIDAY’s system announces: “Sir, no location could be found from Peter. Both his suit and his emergency tracker are offline.”

He’s gone from confused to concerned in less than a minute. Peter has yet to tell him where he is.

Tony’s chest goes cold, like a window frosting over. “Peter.” His voice sounds so serious he sounds like his father for a second. “Why did you turn your tracker off?” he’s trying so hard not to freak out on the kid, to get him to stay on the line. instead of getting annoyed and hanging up

“Mr. Stark, chill out! I’ve got everything under controool, alright? I’m good!! So thanks for calling, but seriously, there’s nothing to worry about!!”

“Peter,” he starts, and the kid stops talking. “You called me.”

That’s when Tony remembers. Peter can’t get drunk. Not really. For someone with his metabolism, he would need such an obscene amount of alcohol that it would take an entire fraternity to match him, and he’d burn through in the same amount of time it took for him to drink it. For Peter—drugs, substances, medications—they only ever lasted a fraction of what they should.

So there was no possible way that Peter was drunk.

“Oh, shoot—um, sorry—soorrrrry! I must’ve—must’ve accidentally—um…”

“How much have you had to drink, buddy?” he asks; at the same time, he types a few more commands to FRIDAY, trying to reroute whatever hacking the kid had done. He’s gonna kill that Ed—Ned—whoever. Or give him a job. Whatever keeps him from putting Peter in danger.

“What? None! I didn’t—” A pause. “Are you mad? You sound mad.”

“I’m not mad,” he says, but the tones of freakish concern bordering on how-could-you-be-so-stupid really do sound mad. “I’m not mad. Just tell me where you are. I’m gonna come pick you up.”

Peter makes a sound that’s halfway between annoyance and amusem*nt. “Mr. Stark! Literally, it’s gonna burn through me anyway, just let me do this!”

“No, Peter, I’m picking you up. Tell me where you are right now, I’m serious.”

“You’re not my dad—I don’t need you to come get me!” All of a sudden he’s laughing, laughing harder than before, and then he’s gasping, sucking in air between each laugh. “I’m gonna… I’m gonna…”

“Peter? Peter!” He’s laughing again, and Tony panics. “Talk to me, buddy! Hey! What’s going on?”

Another laugh. “Sorry, I think—I'm getting kind of slow, this is so weeeeeiiird! I feel… I feel…”

“Buddy, I’m gonna pick you up. This is a college party? Do you know what college?”

“Ugh, Mr. Stark, literally,” whines Peter. “It’ll burn out of my stem in, liiike, five seconds, I’m gooood…”

“Peter,” he says slowly, like he’s chewing on a tough piece of meat. “Tell me where you are. Right now. I’m not kidding.”

“I’m… Um… Sorority?” The kid seems to ponder the questions. “Some girl’s room… She likes Harry Styyyles, she’s got a poster on the ceeeeiling.”

His voice is slurring again, one vowel slipping into the next. Tony asks, “Did anyone come with you? Ned? MJ?” Those kids’ names come to him crystal clear.

Peter hums and then he goes kind of quiet. “I don’t know, I’m kinda tiiiiired…”

“Peter!” God, he’s gonna kill this kid once he gets home safe. “Hey! Stay awake and talk to me—is there anyone with you? Did you take something?”

“Mr. Stark…” More laughing. “I only had like, one drink! MJ felt, like, sick, so sheeee… She went home, and I had the rest of hers…”

“Okay, okay, just—do you know where you are?”

“Somewhere… The Bronx… I dunno… You know, I never got” —a noise that kind of sounds like a gag or a cough— “my driver’s… uh, my… driver’s license… We took the traaaaain...and MJ had a friend…who has a friend…who has a, um, brother? Who, who goes heeeere, to the party… To the…”

Tony can’t track a train. Tony can’t track a train. “Damnit, damnit, damnit! Okay, Peter, listen to me, I think someone put something in your—”

“You know… This is, like, so funny, Mr. Stark…” A hiccup. “‘Cause you told me… You told me… You…” Another hiccup, and then a gagging noise. “Told me I… I couldn’t get… Drunk, but… I proved you wrong, huh? Right? Funny, right? Just one…” He gags again. “Mr…. Stark?”

“I’m right here, Peter, I’m coming, okay? Do you know what street you’re on?” He manages to get into Peter’s suit at last—FRIDAY alerts him with its location: the Parker home in Queens. “Damnit, Peter! You didn’t take your suit?”

Peter’s laughing, but it’s slow and sickly. “I feel so…” He inhales a little too fast and then back out again. “I’m… I’m…”

“Peter? Peter!” When Peter goes quiet again, Tony knows for sure—something’s seriously wrong. A clatter—he must’ve dropped the phone. “Stay awake, buddy! I want you to throw up if you feel like it, you hear me? I need you to get this out of your—“

There’s a sudden bang —a door hitting the wall behind it. A couple girls laughing.

“Ohmygod—Katie, there’s a guy in your bed!” Giggles and giggles. “Heyyyyy…”

Peter doesn’t respond; Tony keeps shouting his name.

Pepper’s back by now, beside him, and she looks just as concerned as him, her strawberry-blonde brows twisted. She’s tapping into her phone about as fast as Tony’s typing into his computer, and then she’s speaking into it, something about police and locations and boroughs and alerts. How does he get access to the kid’s phone? He has to find a way…

“Peter!” barks Tony, and he’s typing again, typing and typing and typing to get the kid’s location. Bronx—sorority—he could be anywhere! “Peter! Talk to me!”

Nothing on the other line; he can now hear the music blast behind the kid, some shuffling, some more whispering from the girls, and then—

Peter’s voice: “Wait, wait—“ in what could only be described as panic.

Tony freezes.

THURSDAY, MAY 25 — 8:00 AM

Maggie and Jim Paxton arrive thirty minutes early to their meeting.

It’s a warm day, so Jim dresses in cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt; Maggie arrives in her work clothes—a purple blouse and black skirt—with her nametag still pinned to her cotton top.

The meeting’s not with the police, although Officer Paz does attend—clad in police uniform, vest and all. The meeting is at the regional office for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Officer Paz and a sweater-vested man meet them there; they are almost immediately ushered into another room with a conference table and rows of plastic chairs. Inside the room are two other NCMEC employees: a younger woman and an elderly one, but they stay at the other end of the table without speaking. “I know you’re not used to this organization,” says Julia Paz. Her hair is pulled back in a bun, but her hairstyle doesn’t hide that it looks like the policewoman hasn’t washed her hair in a week. “But I swear the NCMEC does good work here. We work with them on most of our missing children cases.”

The man gives them both slight smiles and shakes their hands. He’s black, overweight, and middle-aged; he’s dressed like he walked out of a 70s sitcom instead of a child abduction office. “Welcome to our regional office. I know this is difficult, so I’m going to get straight to the point. Of the missing children reports that come through us, most involve runaways and family abductions.” The man has a manila file with Cassie’s full name on it. “Of almost three thousand of our missing children cases last year, eighty-seven percent were runaways, ten percent family abductions, and less than one percent were non-family abductions—that’s you.” He points to a photo of Scott and Cassie stashed in the file. “Although her file states the biological father as our top suspect for your child’s abductor, you did witness non-family members abducting her, right?”

Maggie answers, “That’s right.”

“So, because of that, we do refer to your case as a non-family abduction, so they went to my department for assistance.”

“Now, statistically speaking, children abducted by non-family members are likely to die within the first 3 hours with their abductor—but because we have proof of Cassandra—”

“Cassie,” corrects Jim.

“—living as soon as May 14th of this year, over a month after her abduction, there’s a very good chance she will stay alive. Unfortunately, that does mean that, if they are keeping her, the likelihood she is physically alright, especially in the absence of her father, the presence of sedatives in her forensic reports, the state of the woman she was associated with… All this does mean that our department and the police station have one general conclusion about what has happened to Cassie. It is, in all likelihood, child sex trafficking.”

Maggie grips the back of Jim’s uniform so hard that it tightens around his shoulders.

“NYPD arrested a man just last week with illegal possession of photos of children. Thousands of photos. Big cases like these can be really helpful for non-family abductions. Any children who resembles missing ones, like your Cassie, their families have been alerted and brought to offices just like this one.”

He brings out a laptop this time, where he opens a folder, and in it another folder, and on and on until he reaches one labeled a series of numbers followed by an underscore and LANG. “I’m going to show you a few of these photos, and if you could attempt to tell us if this is indeed Cassie in the photos. I know it will be difficult, but this is necessary. If you feel the need to leave at any time, my coworkers” —he gestures to the pair of women on the other side of the conference room— “can help you outside. Get you water, food, a quiet place, whatever you need.”

They both nod.

The man shows them photos—dozens of them—so many and so horrific that Maggie holds her breath seeing each one. The worst of them are blurred out, but the faces are left intact. “No,” she chokes out, as the man clicks to the next photo. “No, that’s not her.”

He clears his throat. “I want to remind you that your daughter may not look like she did on the day she was taken. Her abductors may have adjusted her hair color, hair length, even some of her facial features. She may have a different weight, some scarring, even open wounds. None of these are unusual.”

“Do you think,” starts Jim, “we could get some time alone with these?” He’s looking green, and he keeps chafing the corner of his mouth with his sleeve.

“We don’t generally leave family members alone with photos like these. It’s a matter of privacy.”

“For who?” spits Maggie. “The bastard that did this?”

“No,” says the employee. For the first time since she met him, he looks sad, his mouth tight and grim. “For the children.”

Maggie grimaces. All of a sudden the feeling of her blonde hair against her neck is nauseating; she pulls it away from her neck with a black hairtie.

“Mr. Paxton, sir?” Jim’s looking greener by the second; he keeps swallowing and swallowing and pressing his hand against his stomach. “These photos may be disturbing, but I assure you we’re doing anything in our power to locate the children in them—do you need a break?”

Jim shakes his head, brown hair barely shifting, but then he nods, his head going up and down like a bobblehead. When he gets up from his chair, he stumbles a little, tripping over the leg, and then walks out with his hand braced against the doorjamb. One of the NCMEC employees follows him out, her ebony heels clicking.

As soon as Jim’s gone, Maggie sits up: spine straight, hands clasped, knees taut. It’s almost like the tighter she winds herself, the more self-assured she will be. “Sir,” she says, “I’m not sure that—that she would even be in any pictures…like this. Scott would never let anything like that happen to her. He loves Cassie; he’d never let anything happen to her.” She shakes her head, gesturing to the laptop, but still she wonders when Jim’s going to come back.

“We don’t know that he’s still with your daughter,” says the man brusquely. “More often than not, family members are the ones who open children up to exploitation. For money, for drugs, for—”

Maggie interrupts, “Scott wouldn’t do this. He wouldn’t do this.” There’s a spot in her chest that aches over how many times she’s said this. Not Scott. Not my Scott. They may not be together anymore, but they are raising a daughter together. She knows him through and through. “He

Gently, Officer Paz prompts, “Remember what Officer Woo said? What I said? It’s possible that Scott didn’t do it on purpose. If he got mixed up with the wrong people…”

“Never,” snaps Maggie. “He’s not like that. He doesn’t get…mixed up. I don’t know what happened to him, but I’m telling you, he would never do anything to hurt Cassie! That’s his daughter! Our daughter! His crimes… Everything he’s done, he did for our family and for Cassie. He would never put Cassie in harm's way. Never.” She scowls. “You know, not every person who’s been imprisoned is running around trying to destroy people’s lives. Scott—he had a life before he went to prison. He’s a person, too, you know. He doesn’t do drugs. He barely drinks or curses. Do you even know what he did?”

The man taps the file. “Burglary. Breaking and entering. Unauthorized use of a computer system with the intent to commit a felony.” He opens the file containing Scott’s information. “The fact is, your husband—ex-husband, excuse me—is a felon. He went missing at nearly the same time as your daughter. Neither of them have been seen since. Statistically speaking, he probably did something to your daughter, whether with his own two hands or by someone else’s.”

They go through more photos—little girls with hair dark like Cassie’s, others with her eyes or her face or her hands. None of them are Cassie. None of them are her baby girl.

She’s not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad one. If they find her, that means she’s alive, but trapped. Surviving the worst things imaginable. If they don’t, then they have no idea if she’s alive or dead.

There’s no happy ending for her Cassie.

They sit afterwards.

After taking away the photos and files, the workers let them stay in the conference room. It’s not a very populated building. In their morning here, they haven’t seen more than a couple families pass through, and no more than a dozen employees. It’s disturbing. It’s more than disturbing. Why isn’t everyone doing everything in their power to find all of these missing children? Runaways, kidnappees, throwaways, accidents? Babies, toddlers, kids, adolescents, teens, young adults? So many lost, and so few found.

Just a week ago, they were given a new glimmer of hope—a strand of Cassie’s hair in that McDonald’s wrapper, found on that dead girl at Lake Champlain, Vermont. Together, Maggie and Jim hunted every trace of their daughter that they could. Although the police had already searched, they went to each McDonald’s in Vermont, showing the workers photos: of Cassie, of Scott, of that dead girl Ava Starr… No one had seen them. In their free time, they go door-to-door, asking Vermonters about anything they’ve seen.

All of that work—all of their attempts to find Cassie—and still nothing. Nothing.

In the conference room, the television is on, set to some national news channel. On it, they’re showing video footage of some New Hampshire doctor who walked out of the clinic where he worked mid-shift and hasn’t been seen in days. “ Dr. Leonard Skivorski, known lovingly by Coos County as Doc Samson, works as a pediatrician at Weeks Medical Center in Lancaster, New Hampshire. Both his son and ex-wife have reported him missing as of a couple days ago. If anyone has information concerning…”

Maggie wishes they would just turn it off, not because she feels bad or because she doesn’t want to see it, but because she doesn’t care. It's harrowing how much she doesn’t care about this random doctor. Has she really lost so much empathy?

Jim starts to say something but stops. “Breakfast?” he says instead.

Maggie nods. She rubs her eyes, then her temples, and then the back of her neck.

“Where?”

For just a split second, she thinks of McDonald’s.

Rustling cloth. Giggles. A girl says, “Hey, he’s kinda cute…”

“Wait.” More gasping, and then so quietly that he’s not sure the girls themselves even hear it, “Godfather, godfather…”

Tony doesn’t waste one second; he gets up, tells Pepper to keep him on the phone, and leaves the building in nothing but his pajamas. There’s an emergency Iron Man suit by the front door—a Mark 42 suit—which, when he motions, attaches itself to Tony one piece at a time as he runs, until he’s out the door and into the sky, helmet closing over his face.

FRIDAY blinks to life in his helmet. He entered the suit so quickly that his flannel pants are caught in the cracks of the suit. “FRIDAY, access all cell towers within The Bronx area and ping for Peter’s phone by IMEI.”

“Boss, the legal ramifications of privately operating cell towers—

“Do it, FRI!”

“Pinging cell towers.”

With a digital map displaying before his eyes in neon green, FRIDAY announces, “An IMEI matching Peter’s was found within a twenty-mile radius containing three colleges and—

“I need better, FRI!”

A pause that is far too long; at last, a ping of successes “Peter’s phone found between Southern and Webster, a one-mile radius between—”

“Smaller!”

He’s flying four hundred miles per hour, then five hundred, then six hundred, and now he’s passing Jetblue and Delta and Southwest with ease, whipping past cabins of curious passengers.

His chest hurts. Peter said the code word. The code word. He asked Tony for help, whether or not he had known he was doing it. Something in him remembered that Tony was able to help. “Access reserve power—go as fast as humanly possible, you hear me?”

“Accessing reserve power.”

He feels it get faster, and faster, and faster; his speedometer keeps flying up—seven hundred, seven-fifty—and now Tony’s flying so fast that he can feel the gravity of his acceleration pulling on his face. There’s a pull, and a pop! and he’s broken the sound barrier. Eight hundred, nine hundred, a thousand miles per hour…

A bing! of failure from FRIDAY. “Unable to retrieve a smaller radius, boss.”

“Okay—search nearby university databases for girls named with any variety of Katie—Kaitlyn, Catherine, Kathy, whatever.” FRIDAY creates a list so long that Tony snaps, “Forget it.” What else… “Go through Peter’s whole conversation, sort out the background noise by person—pick out any proper nouns and show me.” A list of kids’ names, random people, and other names. Okay, sort for Greek letters—order by nearest to the center of the circumference. Delete any that aren't sororities or co-ed frats.”

FRIDAY grants him a list of Greek-letter names: five of them.

“Eliminate any outside of Peter’s IMEI radius.”

“Three possibilities left, boss.”

“Okay, delete any that don’t have a live-in resident named Katie—Katherine—Kaitlyn—any of those.”

“Still three, boss.”

“DAMNIT, FRI!” He needs something else, something to narrow it down. What else did Peter say? God, he knows this! Peter never s hut up about Harry Styles’ new album when it came out earlier this month. “Check Instagram for any Katie’s who posted within the last month about Harry Styles.”

“Only one—Katherine Wright of Alpha Xi Delta. Junior.”

“Where does she live?”

“Top floor, boss.”

“Map me the fastest route.”

“With or without—“

“Destruction of property included. Avoid any heat signatures.”

A ping! from FRIDAY. “Route mapped.”

“Take me there, FRI.”

FRI goes silent, and Tony keeps flying, rerouting towards Webster and Southern. It takes less than five seconds to reach the building; in those five seconds, Tony thinks only one sentence: Peter needs me.

Angling high above the building, he bashes through the ceiling, through layers of roof and insulation, to smash into Katie Wright’s room; he slows down enough to hit the floor with minor damage.

In the same second, Tony turns and sees. He will only ever get a half-second glance at the scene: Peter sprawled starfish on the bed, the girl on top of him, her hand halfway down his pants—her friend in the corner with her phone up.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that he’s completely unconscious.

The girls don’t even have time to react; Tony blasts them both in the chest—a non-lethal reactor shot that knocks the first girl off of Peter and the second girl into the poster-plastered wall. He fires at them again, this time a series of magnetic metal circles that clasp around their white wrists and snap them together. Now sure that the girls are out of commission, Tony scoops up Peter from the bed, and he flies straight up through the hole in the roof.

As soon as he’s in the air, he asks FRIDAY, “Nearest enhanced-friendly hospital?”

“St. Barnabas—ten blocks.”

The route alights in his helmet, radar glowing the streets a bright red, and he follows the path as fast as possible without causing Peter any further harm. Peter is pale and limp in his arms, but FRIDAY alerts him to the kid’s vitals—still breathing, still beating, just way too slow.

As soon as they arrive at the hospital, Tony stumbles out of the suit in his pajamas, still carrying the unconscious kid, and he screams for help like he never has.

Emergency room personnel sweep him away on a gurney, and he says at least three times, “He’s enhanced, he’s enhanced,” until finally a nurse pulls him away and directs him to a steady stack of paperwork.

“Pepper and May Parker have been informed of your new location,” FRIDAY announces, rooted remotely inside his chestpiece. “They should be here shortly.”

“Call the police,” he says, “and send them to where we were. Send a drone to that location, and make sure those girls are behind bars. And that phone, too. Send the footage to the police as soon as they arrive and wipe it from the girl’s phone. I’m staying here.”

“On it, boss.”

SATURDAY, MAY 27 — 11:31 PM

Riri arrives at Stark’s lab late on Saturday with her hood drawn low over her head. The man lets her in quickly, locking the door and putting down its heavy steel plating.

His hair is graying (more salt than pepper) and he’s got on a stained MIT sweatshirt and a pair of flannel pants. His hands are trembling—like he’s got the shakes, like from withdrawal—and his eyes are twitching more than they’re blinking. What the hell is wrong with him? “Got more food,” says Riri. “Supplies. Those chemicals you asked for, too, but they were kinda hard to find.”

“Your—your—” starts Stark, and when she turns to look at him, he’s staring at her blatantly, without any shame.

Her bruising from Charlie’s beating last week is still there; her brown face is colored by yellows and greens and blacks. The swelling has gone down, but she still looks like someone who’s been beaten. Her hands are still darkened by bruises: her palms from defending herself from his fists, her wrists from Charlie grabbing them.

She scowls at Stark and drops his box on the counter. He ducks his head then, mumbling to himself and plunging his hands into the box. Riri finds herself thinking of Scott Lang—in the way he talks to himself, the way he avoids eye contact—and remembers that, like Lang, Tony Stark barely gets any human contact.

“Brought you more protein this time,” she says. “Tuna. Corned beef. Pork.” She takes the cans out. “A couple expired, but not by long, so you should be fine. You have a list for me?”

When she looks to Stark for an answer, the guy is staring again, examining her face as a scientist would a cavity slide. He’s frowning so hard that his nostrils flare. “What?” she snaps, whipping around, and he jumps at her outburst, skittering off into another room.

As he comes back, he trips in a doorway, catches himself, and finally brings her a pile of Post-It notes—maybe ten or twenty. “I’m trying something—something—new,” Stark says, dragging his knuckles over his forehead. Charlie always does that when he has a headache. “But I’ve got a new, uh—new prototype. Dum-E? Queens Project Mark 14, now.”

The little robot brings over a weapon—much bigger than the others and with more weight around its barrel—and drops it in her arms. “Is it any good? It’s kinda…”

“Better than the others,” he assures her.

Stark is still staring at her like she’s lost her head. She tilts her head so that the hood drapes over the visible side of her face, but he won’t stop looking. “Worse than it looks,” she says, and she digs through the box of canned food. “How do you feel about beets?”

“Who hit you?” he asks; he has a lilted cadence to his voice now, like he’s too tired to remember exactly how to talk.

She ignores him. “I brought some more veggies, too. Peas. Spinach. Even some lima beans, if you like those.”

He ducks again, instructing his little robot to empty the box of its scientific supplies and sort the items throughout the laboratory. As the robot obeys, Stark picks up a couple of cans—one of beef ravioli and another of sliced beets. Seemingly, the man takes the hint: Riri doesn’t want talk about her f*cked up face.

But instead of taking the food, he starts putting it back in the box with his shaky hands. “Give it to Peter,” he says, frowning. “He needs it.”

“Parker gets enough—”

“He needs more,” interrupts the man. “He’s not like other kids. He’s… He’s…”

“Spider-Man, yeah, I know.”

Cans in hand, the man stops mid-transfer and blinks at her. Did he forget that she knew? “Yeah.” His eye is really twitching, spasming with a vengeance. “He needs… Here.” He pushes the box to her. “Give him mine.”

There’s a lot that Riri wants to tell Tony Stark. She wants to say, We’re keeping the doctor, so Peter will be safe. She wants to say, Don’t worry, we won’t kill him. We need him just like we need you. But she can’t. If Tony knows that Peter is safe, then he won’t make the weapon. And if he doesn’t make the weapon, they can’t save the world.

“Keep your food,” she snaps. “Parker gets what he gets.”

All three of them are awake when Peter wakes up: Tony, Pepper, and May.

Peter’s fine. He had a mixture of alcohol, ketamine, and a sh*t-ton of Rohypnol in his system, all of which was enough to take out someone for a night, or to kill someone as small as his friend MJ. For Peter Parker, it only knocked him out for a couple hours. Whoever spiked MJ’s drink probably didn’t expect someone to chug it like they would water—because for Peter, alcohol was generally the same due to his high metabolism. So the drink hit Peter hard—and fast—and knocked him out before he could finish a phone call that he didn’t even remember starting.

The doctor warns them that the kid might not remember much of the night, or the day before, or the day after. He might be fuzzy for a while until all of it’s out of his system. And he’s groggier than he ever was on the phone when he wakes up.

May is stationed on his right side, Tony and Pepper on his left.

May was on a night shift when she got the alert, so she’s still in her scrubs. Hers are a violet-purple, and there’s a coffee stain on her front. Her hair is tied back in a french braid, and she wears glasses and a lilac long-sleeve beneath her scrubs. Like she’s done since she arrived, she’s holding Peter’s hand, rubbing it as though to keep it warm. When his eyes blink open, it’s slow, and she whispers to him, brushing his hair out of his eyes with her fingers.

He’s still groggy, though, slow-blinking, his head heavy on his pillow.

She talks to him, explaining and explaining, but the kid doesn’t seem to remember much. Once he’s a little more lucid, squinting with clarity at his face and May’s, then May motions for Tony to come over. “He was there the whole time,” says the kid’s aunt, although that’s not entirely true. “He’s gonna tell you what happened, okay?”

Peter nods sleepily; his brown hair sticks to his forehead in dark clumps. He’s got some more color in his cheeks, at least, and his blood pressure—from what Tony can tell—looks normal. “How’re you feeling, Pete?” he asks, scooting a chair up by his head.

Peter sniffs. His face looks raw, like the white peek of dermis under a cut. He’s not laughing anymore. “Feel weird,” he answers. “What happened?”

Tony does his best to explain, but Peter is going in and out of consciousness the entire time, so he’s not sure what sticks. “I didn't see everything,” he continues, as Peter’s dozy eyes fall on him. “Just a little. And from what I could see she didn’t get very far. But I wasn’t there the whole time, I wasn’t there the whole night, and the doctor said your memory might be a little patchy. So they can do a” —Tony has to choke the words out— “rape kit.”

Tony doesn’t know if it’s the drugs, or the trauma, or the sleepiness, or what—but after he asks, Peter yawns, blinks a couple times, and turns onto his side. “Hate those,” he mumbles, and he goes right back to sleep.

He probably won’t remember that he said it at all.

It’s difficult to wake him after that; the doctor did tell them that Peter may need to sleep a lot, so they let him rest. May stays with him, holding his hand, and Tony sits beside her. “Thank you,” she says, without looking at him. She’s crying, but silently; she keeps wiping away her tears with her sleeve, so there’s a dark spot on her forearm. “Thank you.”

When May leaves for a cup of coffee, Tony takes her place—holding Peter’s hand, brushing his hair back, pulling the blankets up to his shoulders, responding to his confused, sleepy mumbles…

And he feels at home.

Notes:

i was driving today and saw a bunch of graffiti on the side of the highway—one of which said PCP in massive letters. kinda reminded me that this sh*t is actually a real drug, that actual people take, actual people die using. anyway don’t do drug kids, and be safe if u do. this isn’t exactly an anti-drug fic ig it’s more about how drugs change people into someone else.so stay safe.

also ya i know scott and his family didn’t live in new york in the movies. just forget that, mind ya business, this makes my life easier

yes the university im using here is fordham uni, no i don’t know anything about that place, sorry if u go there, and lol yes i know they don’t even have greek life there ok? just vibe with the story

also i have no idea how the ncmec works, just roll with it ig

also i’m always in need of good OC names, so if u have good names ideas or want one in there, lemme k

plz comment and kudos and everything, i love feedback, also plz lemme k if u so any typos or anything, thx and see you guys next week

Chapter 11: it's like i'm breathing smoke

Summary:

Ned feels the stone in his throat grow, feels the edge of it stretch at his throat, threatening to break free. There’s so much more he could say. We were best friends, he could tell her. We’ve been inseparable since we were twelve, he could. He could tell them about all the Lego sets they’ve built together—but that seems so stupid now. Ned would happily melt all of his Legos, tear up all of his comic books, burn all of his tee shirts, trash all of his Star Wars merch—if he could just see Peter again.

Notes:

chap title from 'mushroom cloud' by hundred waters

i finished a little early this week so you're getting it a few hours early, hope u like it!

CW: dead body stuff, references to death and violence, medical circ*mstances

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

THURSDAY, MAY 25 — 7:53 PM

May Parker has been Ned’s emergency contact on every form since he met Peter when they were twelve. His parents were always much stricter than May, so when he and Peter got into trouble, it was always May Parker who pulled them out. Not that they got into a lot of trouble in the first place. But when the occasion did strike, they knew who to call.

When they snuck out to Comic-Con, May was there. When they got stuck in a blizzard with nothing but their driver’s permits and their winter coats, May was there. Whenever he wanted to stay overnight, May let him. She was the kind of person who was always ready to give someone a place on the couch and a meal. He’s spent so much time at Peter’s apartment, so much time with May on trips to Central Park and random Thai places. Even his parents are friends with May. She’s like a second mom to him. As close to an aunt as one can get.

Now, he supposes, he’s the same thing for her.

After school most days—and sometimes all day—he stays at the hospital and does his homework in May’s hospital room. Visiting hours at the hospital go from ten in the morning to eight in the evening, and Ned usually stays until they close. He tells his parents that he joined a club—a tutoring group at school—to get them off of his back.

Today, Ned doesn’t do homework. He doesn’t even read any Star Trek to May. He just calls and calls and calls Peter’s phone, knowing what he’ll find on the other end: Hey, this is Peter. I’m probably busy, so just text me or leave a message or whatever. Catch you later! He doesn’t even try calling Tony Stark, not since the billionaire warned him not to. Mr. Stark hasn’t called him back since that first time. Ned hasn’t called back, and he hasn’t told a soul. Peter’s disappearance is something that might have to die with him.

He’s mid-dial when the nurse comes into May’s hospital room. She has a new nurse now: Nurse Rae, a tall woman with both eyebrows pierced and a mess of shaggy green hair. “You’re still here,” the nurse says, surprised.

“Yep,” says Ned, without much feeling. He stays where he is, seated beside May at the windowed wall.

“You know, visiting hours end in like” —the green-haired nurse checks her digital watch— “seven minutes. And you’ve been here all day.”

“Yep,” he repeats.

After the nurse finishes her work—exchanging the liquid bag in May’s IV, checking her vitals, and checking her brain activity—she sits beside Ned in the second visitor’s chair, hands on her knees. “Ned,” she says. “Listen. “I know I’m probably not supposed to tell you this because you’re not technically family of the Jane Doe, but she doesn’t really have any family. You might be the closest thing she has to family right now.” She rubs her hands together, and he notices that she’s got an engagement ring on her finger. “Jane Doe’s been showing early signs of waking from her coma. Brain activity, reflexes, stuff like that. It’s not much, but it’s something—her doctor’s concluded she’s got about a fifty percent chance of waking up.”

Ned pinches at his fingertips. Fifty percent? So, odds are that she’s gonna be like this forever. “I don’t even know her,” he lies.

“Sure,” agrees the nurse, “but you do care, don’t you? Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.”

Ned gives a half-hearted shrug. His backpack’s on the floor; Ned’s got homework to do, lots of it, but he could care less about calculus and literary devices. “I have a friend like her,” he tries to explain, but he doesn’t even know what he means. “He…”

Rae nods; she doesn’t interrupt.

“My friend…” He shrugs again. “He’s dead,” he lies, but it sounds so true. “Car accident.”

“Like the Jane Doe,” observes the nurse. “Is that why you stay?”

He shrugs. “I guess.” He doesn’t care because… because… “Today’s his birthday.”

“Your friend?”

“Yeah.”

“What was his name?”

Ned feels the stone in his throat grow, feels the edge of it stretch at his throat, threatening to break free. “Peter.” There’s so much more he could say. We were best friends, he could tell her. We’ve been inseparable since we were twelve, he could. He could tell them about all the Lego sets they’ve built together—but that seems so stupid now. Ned would happily melt all of his Legos, tear up all of his comic books, burn all of his tee shirts, trash all of his Star Wars merch—if he could just see Peter again. He could say, We ate lunch together every day. He could tell her about how much he ate as Spider-Man, or about how much he loved Thai food.

He could tell her all of this. But he doesn’t.

The nurse just nods, staring out into the distance. “I’m sorry about Peter.”

Hot tears slip out, making their way down his face despite his efforts to stop them. Furiously, he rubs them away with his sleeves. “Me, too.”

Happy Birthday to Peter. If he’s even alive to see it.

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 6 — 4:43 PM

They’ve had another overdose.

It’s a guy Riri doesn’t even know that well: Lyle, a skinny little meth-head who’d only just starting take PCP like Charlie. He was dead before they even thought to get the doctor.

Charlie calls that Ross guy almost immediately. “What do I do?” Charlie snaps. He’s already low, and because Lyle took the rest of his stash, he’s not happy. “Man’s gonna stink up the place.”

Ross gives them specific instructions: mess up the face, take the body out to the city, drop it in Mott Haven or Hunts Point or somewhere else where the crime rate’s so high that the police won’t think twice about it.

So they do.

Riri’s not part of the drop-off crew; Charlie sends Mason, Jon, and Glenn to do it. They wrap the body up in plastic and dump it in the back of Nick’s truck.

Riri liked Lyle. He was always sweet, giving the kids vitamins and toothpaste when they needed it. He was going on and off again with Megan, the girl who Charlie tried to strangle a couple weeks ago. She’s been self-medicating so many opiates and benzos since that incident that she barely responded when she found out.

But Lyle’s not even the worst part. The main problem is, after kind Lyle kicked it, his girlfriend Megan and Lyle’s closest friend, Mateo, got so wasted—with decades-old booze they found in the lower levels of the bunker, and on little blue benzodiazepine pills taken three at a time—that they took off with the other car—an old Honda that originally belonged to Charlie. The pair have yet to come back, but in the state that they left… Odds are, they’ll end up crashed into a tree or another car on their way off the mountains. With those two gone, they’ll only have a few people left. They’ve had too many deaths. RJ, the first overdose. The second, a girl she barely knew. Third, some guy Charlie found messing with his wife—Charlie took a couple doses and beat the guy to death with his bare hands.

There’ve been a couple others, but Riri can’t keep track of everyone—overdoses, other people Charlie beat to death while on dust... They started with a group of twenty, including Charlie and herself, and now they’re down to ten. Charlie’s crew was barely functional to start with… And now they’re down to a group so small that they'd be risking their lives daily trying to keep the kid under lock and key.

So Charlie gets Ross on the phone again, as the rest of them wait for their friends’ return. “We need more people,” he says. “I don’t care how you find them, or whatever, but we need more.”

By the end of the day, the news comes in on the local news channel: A young man and a young woman drove their vehicle through a White Mountain campground tonight, killing a young family of five from Concord who were camping there for the week. Both were killed in the incident, bringing the total death count up to seven tonight. Toxicology reports already suggest that both the passenger and the driver were both under the influence. One has already been identified as Megan Kinney, a nineteen-year-old college student who was reported missing back in April by her family. Concord mourns the loss of the Wright family: parents Heather Wright and Jack Wright, and including six-year-old Leo and eight-year-old…

They’re down to ten now. If they want to keep this project under control—this project, this plan to save the world—then they need more people.

FRIDAY, JUNE 8 — 9:15 AM

The morgue reeks of sh*t. Literally.

When she wrinkles her nose, the medical examiner gives her and Agent Woo a close-lipped smile. “That’d be the cadaverine,” he says. “Also, putrescine. Skatole. All chemicals the body releases after death. Formaldehyde doesn’t cover up all the smells, you know.”

On her other side, Agent Jimmy Woo is trying his best to breathe through his nose.

The medical examiner, a dark-haired man named Dr. Alistor, opens the door and leads them into another room, one with walls of cold lockers and a row of six or seven embalming tables. On the last table is what they’re here for: the body of a male PCP addict who was found last night in Mott Haven in the Bronx. “Alright, here we go—we’ve got a white male, twenty-six years old, positively identified as Lyle Getz. He was born in Durham, North Carolina, wanted for connections to several drug-related crimes, and had been in six different rehab facilities by the age of twenty.”

“Looks way older than twenty,” she says.

“Yep, meth’ll do that to you. Turns a regular guy into, well…” He gestures vaguely at the corpse. “That.”

The guy couldn’t weigh more than a hundred pounds. He’s unhealthily skinny, and his skin is covered in marks, like the ones kids get from scratching bug bites. Officer Paz hooks her thumbs on her belt and leans in close to the body. It smells about as pleasant as it looks. She knows ‘Lyle Getz’ as one of Charlie’s old addict buddies, someone he’d mentioned on the phone a couple times, but Lyle had ultimately disappeared along with the others back in April. “Can I see your report?”

Dr. Alistor hands her the report—a stack of three or four pages, all titled with Lyle’s full name.. She reads it quickly, skimming for the important parts: cause and manner of death.

CAUSE OF DEATH: Lethal overdose due to combined high levels of phencyclidine, methamphetamine, and alcohol

MANNER OF DEATH: Accidental

“No violent wounds,” adds the medical examiner, with a glint of his green eyes, “although we did find splashes of someone else’s blood on his clothes—DNA analysis of that blood is already going through the forensics.”

Could be Charlie’s. God, she’s been diving so deep into Cassie Paxton-Lang’s case that she’s been slacking on her most important case: finding her brother Charlie.

Dr. Alistor continues, “Severe dental loss. Sores on face and body…” As he speaks, Julia spots a stretch of black-blue ink curling around Lyle’s calf. A tattoo. “Have you seen this?”

Alistor glances down at the leg. “Seen what?”

She prods the cadaver’s pasty skin. Even his leg hair is sparse, much like the stringy hair on his head. This kind of deterioration only comes from years upon years of drug abuse. Lifting the calf and peeking beneath, she spots a shape—something dark and symmetrical. “What is it?”

“Pretty sure it’s a tattoo, Officer,” deadpans the medical examiner.

Julia wants to glare at the man, but she needs his assistance so she smiles gently. “Okay, but the symbol —have you seen something like this before?” She can’t quite get a good look. Are those…snakes? Arms?

“Unfortunately,” he says dryly, “it’s not my job to uncover the meaning of random artistic symbols.”

“Then, can we turn him over?”

The medical examiner is not amused. However, with the help of a mortician’s assistant and Agent Woo, they get the body flipped over.

The tattoo is in dark blue ink—it looks recent. It pictures a centered skull with octopus arms coming out of it, but it’s nothing too complex. “If you had to guess, how recently do you think this tattoo was given?”

The man purses his lips. His green eyes are mildly annoyed, it seems, by the question. “Eh, a month? Maybe less. Seems fresh.”

Officer Paz continues, “Were there any other marks that you could find? Scars? Wounds?”

“If I did,” says the man, as cold as ever. “It’d be in the report.”

Julia Paz ignores the man and ties her hair back in a ponytail for a closer look. There are only six tentacles in the design; each is lined with trapezoidal suckers and ends in a near-circular curl. “Jimmy,” she says, addressing her partner, “have you ever seen anything like this? This…octopus symbol? It seems familiar…” He doesn’t answer at first. hearing him move behind her, she turns to look at him. He's craning to look at the symbol, his mouth slightly open. “Woo?”

“Yeah,” he blurts suddenly. “Yes, Julia—I think I have.” yet the man doesn’t elaborate; he simply stares open-mouthed at the corpse’s tattoo. “You know I used to work with SHIELD…”

“Yeah?”

“Well that symbol… That’s not an octopus. It’s supposed to represent a hydra—from Greek mythology?” Agent Woo points in turn at the tentacles. “It’s a water monster killed by Hercules; it was nearly impossible to kill because if you cut off one head” —he gestures to the skull-like head on the tattoo— “two more grow back.”

“Officers?” announces the medical examiner, from the other side of the body. “As much as I’d like to solve the mystery of the tattoo, my name isn’t Nancy Drew—I have other clients, other corpses—so if you’re done with the body, you can talk to the front desk about getting a more detailed report.”

Before they go, she gives the medical examiner a digitized list of the people she’s looking for; it’s mostly a list that Ty gave her back in April. It’s vague, and there’s not much there, but hopefully it’s enough to keep this case open. She has to find Charlie.

They get a call from the police department in New Hampshire: two of the addicts on Julia Paz’s list were found dead, having killed three people when their car drove through a campsite on the White Mountains. They take the next day to drive up and observe the bodies, they find something similar: tattoos of the hydra-octopus creature again—one on the female addict’s ankle and one on the male addict’s shoulder. The tattoos are freely drawn—by no means professional—but they’re definitely identical.“It’s not just about the creature,” explains Jimmy Woo as they observe Megan Kinney’s corpse and the matching tattoo on her ankle. “This symbol is from an organization: one that threatened SHIELD in 2014, but has been a global threat ever since. I wasn’t a part of SHIELD when it happened, but every SHIELD officer knows about them.”

Officer Paz frowns. “Knows about who?”

“HYDRA,” says Jimmy with a grimace. “A group deadset on world domination and a new world order.”

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 6 — 7:50 PM

Dr. Leonard Skivorski lives in the operating room now.

In one corner, he keeps a pile of food they’ve provided him—vacuum-sealed packs of powdered potatoes, cans of corn, packages of raw oats, freeze-dried sausage—that mostly come from storage closets around the facility.

He spends most of his time cataloging the medical supplies, devising plans to escape, and scribbling letters on medical notepads—to his son, to his ex-wife, to his coworkers, to his friends. Even to his father, who he hasn’t spoken to in years.

There’s a bathroom down the hall; when he has to go, he alerts the guard by his door and is personally escorted.

No shower, though. Instead, he washes himself in the pre-operative sinks with the same soap he used to use before surgery: chlorhexidine gluconate, a liquid antiseptic. He’s starting to understand why Peter and that little girl were in such horrific shape when he first met them. He’s never been in the cell, but Peter has described it to him: barely bigger than a closet, just enough to fit a bed, toilet, and sink.

Every day, the doctor waits for them to drag Peter to his operating room; every day, he fixes Peter up as best he can before sending him back to confinement.

Today, Peter arrives shortly after eight o’clock, carried between two large men, bloodied and shaking like a leaf. They drop him inside the operating room doors and relock them with him inside.

Peter doesn’t get up right away; he stays where he is: palms on the concrete, belly down, cheek touching ground. His prisoner’s uniform is darkened by sweat, his hair plastered to his forehead. The doctor tries, “Peter?” and the kid flinches—a full-bodied jerk—curling his arms over his head. “Okay,” Dr. Skivorski says now, his voice dropped to a whisper. “It’s okay. Just me, hon.”

The boy doesn’t say anything. He’s still on the ground, shaking, taking in heaping gulps of air. In the past few weeks, it’s always like this. He just needs some time, some time to figure out that he’s not in that room anymore. Dr. Skivorski knows better than to approach the kid when he’s like this. Instead, he stays by the operating table, placing a fresh set of linens onto it in preparation for the kid.

Quietly, the doctor asks, “They get your head today?”

The kid takes a second, breathing hard. “No,” he says finally. He’s breathing, but each breath catches about halfway up before he exhales, like a rusty door hinge.

“Can I come to you?”

Peter just gasps on the floor, fast and shaky, and he’s breathing so hard and so erratically that he starts gagging, rolling onto his side to cough out clear liquid. “W-wait…” he coughs, with a sense of fear that curdles the doctor’s stomach. “Wait…”

It takes a few minutes for the kid to calm down; by the time the doctor finally gets Peter onto the table, he’s still shaking and won’t look him in the eye, choosing instead to stare wide-eyed at the door. “They’re not coming back,” he assures the boy.

“They always come back,” Peter says with an odd shake of his head.

The kid refuses to lie down and breathes in sharply every time the doctor moves to touch him, so he has to go slowly, much slower than he’s used to treating his pediatric patients, even the little ones. Peter’s still quiet, coughing a couple times a minute; the doctor wants to check his chest, but the kid won’t let him get close enough with the stethoscope. “Can you—can you tell me what they did to you, hon?”

Peter’s still staring at the door, inhaling deeply through his nose. “I didn’t, um.” He blinks and shakes his head again. “Didn’t… didn’t know… what it even was. I know—I know… Mr. Stark used to—used to say—” The doctor shifts, and the kid flinches and wraps his arms around himself. His breathing is coming out in little hums, his croaky voice scraping in his throat. “I didn’t…know…” He’s shaking his head again. “He said they… in Afghanistan…”

There’s no marks on the kid—at least, no new marks since yesterday. What the hell did they do to him to make him so damn scared?

“He’s afraid of, um” —the kid looks like he’s gonna be sick— “water… P-pools, rain, anything… But I didn’t know… Di-didn’t know… Never looked… Never looked it up. I thought… I thought… I thought it had something with drowning, but I…” The kid’s trembling. That’s when something clicks for the doctor—it’s not sweat plastering his hair to his forehead and soaking the torso of his prisoner’s jumpsuit. It’s water. “I didn’t know, man… I didn’t know that they…” He mimes something vague, waving around his face, before hugging himself again.

This time, Charlie waterboarded the kid.

Peter’s shaking his head, shaking his head, shaking his head. “The chair…” This must be why his voice is so hoarse, why he keeps coughing and gagging. “It… It goes back… They laid it back, and tied me down, and the… The…” He starts gagging again, hand over his mouth, and the doctor sees it. His wrists are torn up, bleeding slightly, the skin there so worn from his restraints that the doctor can see raw muscle. He fought so hard against his cuffs that he’s bleeding.

“Okay,” says the doctor, as quiet and calming as he can. “Okay, hon, you’re okay… I’ve got you now…” Shining in the harsh operating light, Peter’s face is wet, but whether it’s from tears or water, the doctor doesn’t know. “Lemme get a good look at you, okay?”

The kid nods like a kid to a teacher, but he doesn’t move from where he is, white-knuckling the operating table, sitting stiffly in front of the doctor. When the doctor draws the stethoscope close with one hand, the kid flinches, his shoulders popping up by his ears.

He might have to wait a little longer to be able to treat the kid today.

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 20 — 10:32 AM

Pepper wants nothing more than a bowl of lemon jello.

Lemon anything, really. Lemon tarts. Lemonade, lemon slushiest. Lemon bars, lemon meringue. It doesn’t even have to be sweet—if she had one right now, she’d squeeze a lemon into an empty glass and drink it straight.

She knew that pregnant cravings were real, but not that they’d be so damn distracting. By the time her meeting’s over, Pepper dashes to the staff lounge and unearths—perfect!—a packaged lemon scone she stashed there the day before.

Each bite is like heaven. She finds herself eating two, three—and then the entire scone—and brushing off the crumbs when finally someone knocks on the lounge door. It’s one of the board members, an elderly man who has long has a stake in the company, and he clears his throat. “Ms. Potts,” he says. “Are we sure about this decision?”

She knows the decision he means. In the absence of Tony (for over two months now), she is taking the legal step of removing him from company decision-making. Temporarily, of course. By invoking a medical clause in company contracts, she can make sure that every one of his responsibilities is transferred to other high-ranking members of the company. It’s a matter of keeping everything in line. “Yes. Absolutely.”

The man winces. “Okay, Ms. Potts, but—”

“But what—”

The man falters under her stare. “Nevermind.”

She sighs; she straightens, and she becomes CEO of Stark Industries Pepper Potts. “If Mr. Stark,” she replies curtly, “wishes to be part of Stark Industries again, he will have every opportunity to do so. But until then… We must move on. Decisions must be made. Actions must be taken. We don’t need to wait for an okay from Stark when he refuses to even leave the laboratory or contact any members of his company. It’s a matter of” —keeping that asshole out of her life— “efficiency. If we don’t keep going, the company will deteriorate.”

The man nods so much he looks like a bobblehead. “Yes, of course,” he replies, and the man excuses himself before disappearing into the hallway.

No one else comes to bother her. She doesn’t have any more meetings until noon, so she heads back to the main building. in the fridge, thank god, are individual cups of lemon jello. She takes a couple cups and sits at the kitchen counter with some paperwork.

It’s not long before Happy is there to join her. “Happy,” she says, as though annoyed, although Pepper’s sure her voice betrays some relief. “I thought I mentioned that the main house wasn’t for work.”

“This isn’t a work call, Pepper,” he says. “This is about Peter.”

“Hm,” says Pepper.

“Parker,” he clarifies.

Pepper wants to slap him. “Yes, I know.” Hopefully, her face doesn’t betray her subsequent rush of embarrassment. How could she have forgotten about Peter? She’s been spending so much time worrying about prenatal medications and ultrasounds and Babies-R-Us that she completely forgot that the kid was currently unresponsive. That kid spent so many hours at their place upstate that Tony bought an air mattress in case he wanted to sleep there—not that he ever told Peter that. “How is he? Having fun in Alaska?”

“Not…exactly. I still haven’t been able to locate him.”

“Still?” She thought internships, especially ones as far as Alaska, tried not to pull anyone out of school for too long. “Have you been able to track his phone? Tony did that once, by pinging the IMEI, you could—”

Happy shakes his head. “Believe me, I’ve tried everything. His phone’s completely off the grid. So either he’s somewhere without any cell towers—”

“Well, that’s Alaska, isn’t it?”

“—or something happened to his phone.”

“Okay,” starts Pepper, “so what do you need from me? We should probably locate the kid soon—isn’t school ending?”

Happy nods. “Tomorrow, actually. It’s their last day.” Oh. “Remember, you mentioned you could contact his friends for me? Or give me their contact information, at least? I figure, with tomorrow being their last day, it’s now or never to see if they have some way to contact the kid.”

That conversation feels like forever ago. Like a dream. “Oh. Oh—sure. Sure. Absolutely. One second.” She looks around herself for her phone, but she can’t find it. With a grimace, Happy taps the counter on her right side. Her phone’s on the counter beside her. “Right. Thanks.” She taps it open, clicks on ‘Contacts,’ and finds Peter’s friends: MJ and Ned. The kids are still labeled Tony’s way: MJ is ‘That Girl From Hamilton’ and Ned is ‘Fred Weeds.’ Pepper knows good and well that Tony knows those kids’ names. The thought of him pretending to forget again makes a smile ghost her face.

“Pepper?”

She blinks.

Happy clears his throat. “So, can you send them to me?”

“Oh—sorry, sure.” She texts Happy the contact information before the man can ask again.

Before he leaves, however, he raps at the counter with his knuckles. “One more thing, Pepper.” It’s the way he says it that makes it near-obvious what he knows. “Are you going to tell Tony?”

“Tell Tony what?”

“About…” Happy scratches the back of his neck. “You know…” His eyes slide to the windowsill, and Pepper follows his gaze. On the counter behind the sink is a bottle of prenatal vitamins—a store-brand bottle of thick yellow pills. “Have you told him already?”

Something inside of Pepper hardens like quick-drying concrete. Sure, it must be obvious now. At four months, she is showing a little, but she thought she was doing a good job hiding it with loose blouses and well-placed jackets. “As long as he’s staying in that lab,” says Pepper coldly, “he doesn’t get to know a thing.”

Happy grimaces again. He doesn’t say anything in response; he simply asks her if she needs anything else before leaving. She picks up her paperwork again: it’s nothing too complicated, just papers to re-purchase Stark Tower. It’s currently owned by Amazon, but they only sold it a couple years ago. In this paperwork is a clause to re-purchase the property; after she finds it, she plans to move everything back to the Tower.She’s sure Peter won’t mind the move. Happy and the other board members won’t mind, either.

Pepper’s just…tired of being here. She’s tired of waiting for Tony to come out of the laboratory. She’s tired of waiting for FRIDAY to come back to life and talk to her over the PA system. She’s tired of being reminded of what happened every time she wakes up and every time she walks out of the house. She’s tired of him having this hold over her.

If Tony wants to stay in the lab, he can stay.

But she’s going to move.

THURSDAY, JUNE 21 — 12:12 PM

Before he even thinks about disturbing Peter’s friends, Happy goes to Tony.

He gets to the laboratory doors, still encased in sheets of steel, and he knocks lightly. “Hey, Tony,” he says, before anything else. He’s come here before, begged him to come out or yelled at him to complete some work and cursed at him for what he did to Pepper—all to nothing but faceless steel. “I know you’re going through…a thing, but I thought you oughta know… Pepper needs you, man. She really needs you. I don’t know if she even gets how much she needs you.” He rubs at his face—he hasn’t shaven in a while, so his beard is getting a little long. “She’s like you, Tony. She won’t ask for help. She won’t give in. She’ll just bury and bury until it kills her.”

Silence from the lab.

“She’s not invincible, Tony. She doesn’t want to do this without you, but she will. She…” He looks around. In front of this door—he remembers the meals that Pepper put in front of the door, the decaf coffees. He can still spot splashes or coffee staining the steel, now sticky and blackened from time. She must’ve thrown it at the place. “She’s pregnant.”

He wonders if Tony already knows. He could be—that lab is the home base for FRIDAY, so if he rebooted the AI correctly, he could have access to every part of the Stark Industries campus from inside that place. He’s seen Tony do crazier. “She decided to keep it—we don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl yet. they’ve done all the tests they can do so far—the baby’s healthy. It’s all we could ask for, right?”

Happy straightens his tie, and he faces the lab doors head-on. “Tony, look. I get it. We all have our moments. You want to…escape. But now's not the time. She needs you. We all need you.”

If telling him about Pepper didn’t make him come out of that place, then what would?

It’s surprisingly easy for Happy Hogan to gain entrance to Peter’s school.

The Midtown School of Science and Technology, while having award-winning laboratories and nationally ranked decathlon teams, does not have excellent security. Perhaps it’s because Happy is the head of security at Stark Industries, or because he’d been there before, or because it was the last day of school, but Happy managed to get inside just by claiming he wanted to talk to students about prospective internships.

He’s contacted both Edward Leeds and Michelle Jones-Watson, but gotten no responses from either, so he asks the principal to page them both. The vice principal is on maternity leave, so he remains in her office and waits for the kids to show up.

When the girl first shows, she’s dressed in black and white—a white tee displaying a sketch graphic of Joan of Arc, near-black corduroys, and a matching blazer with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows. She doesn’t close the door behind her, and she doesn’t sit down. Michelle’s hair is messy and curly, side bangs drifting down her left cheek. Hands in her pockets, glare prominent, she says, “I know I didn’t apply for any internships at Stark Industries, so who the hell are you?”

Happy clears his throat. “Um, Ms. Jones-Watson, it’s nice to meet you—”

“Did something happen? Is my family okay?”

He can barely get a word out. “No, nothing—look, everything’s fine. Your family’s fine, everyone’s good.”

“So you just break in to high schools for fun?”

He blinks. This girl’s got audacity. He’s seen her a couple times from afar when he picked up Peter from school, but never had a conversation with the girl. “No, I’m not—no one’s breaking in. I just need to talk to you. I’m Peter’s, uh” —What is he supposed to say? Caretaker? Occasional chauffeur? Babysitter? Bodyguard?— “supervisor at Stark Industries.”

Michelle folds her arms. After a pause, she demands, “Lemme see your ID.” Happy doesn’t hesitate; he needs the girl to trust him. He hands over his ID card, where it reads plainly: HAPPY HOGAN, HEAD OF SECURITY. “Hm,” says the girl, as she hands it back. “I thought Peter worked directly under Tony Stark.”

“He does, he does—just, I also help…with other stuff—look, it’s not important. This is about Peter.” MJ kicks back at the door, and it slowly squeaks closed. “We’ve been trying to get in contact with him about” —Where the hell has he been? If he’s okay?— “future opportunities for his internship, but his current phone number goes unresponsive.”

“I know,” she says stiltedly. Her arms are still folded, and a small wrinkle forms between her eyebrows.

“Well, you are one of his emergency contacts, so—”

“So you think something happened to him?”

“No, no, no,” Happy says, a little too quickly. “Just following protocol. If we can’t get ahold of one of our interns, we get in touch with their emergency contacts.”

Her hands drop a little. “I’m his emergency contact?” she says, and she shakes off her softening face to glare at him further. “Who else?”

“Well, his guardian, May Parker, but she went with him, so I’ve been trying to get ahold of your friend, too. Edward Leeds?”

“Ned,” she corrects. “He skipped school today. Been doing that a lot.”

Happy never thought of Peter’s friends as the ‘skipping school’ type. Particularly Ned. “Well, do you think you could get him for me? I’d like to talk to him, too.”

She sniffs. “Sure. But I can tell you one thing for sure: he probably won’t say a word to you.”

Oh. Without a hint about a way to contact the Spider-Kid, he’s left with nothing but dead ends. “You sure?”

“Yeah, but I can tell you where to find him.”

Notes:

literally thank everyone so much for your comments! i spend way too much time checking my email for ao3 alerts during my bathroom breaks at work and it literally fills me with so much joy to see them!

hope everyone's having a good summer... peter's not lol. what do u want to see happen? lemme k in the comments. the plot has literally changed so much since i started, that if someone came up with a good idea i'd definitely scoop it up. <3

also thinking about changing my username cuz i've had the same one since i was like 14 so...any ideas? trying not to blindside yall with a random username change lol

Chapter 12: i need you (now, i know)

Summary:

He has a hate, suddenly, for the doctor’s naivety, for his hopefulness, for his aspirations to escape, and he feels the hate grip him like a clawed creature in his chest. Still trembling, he snaps, “Forget it. Even if they were all dead, I’d still be stuck here. I don't know the password and I can’t break through the vibranium and I can’t take out anyone because I’m—I’m—I’m—” Weak, he wants to say, but he can’t choke out the word. Look at me! he wants to scream. I’m nothing! I’m nothing anymore! “We’re f*cked, okay? We’re never getting out of here!”

Notes:

chap title from 'solitude (felsmann & tiley reinterpretation)' by m83

CW: obviously kidnapping and violence, mentions of torture/violence, mentions of non-consensual drug use, mentions of illness, discussion of violence, violence against a minor

depending on what mcu movie/tv shows r true, we’ve got different directors of shield, so sorry if u watch agents of shield or inhuman cuz i’m retconning all that - phil’s now director of shield

also thanks to everyone for keeping up, it's tuesday again so welcome back to peter's sh*tshow lol

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

THURSDAY, JUNE 29 —10:57 AM

Through Agent Woo’s connections with SHIELD, they’re able to get a meeting with the director of SHIELD—Director Phil Coulson—by the end of the following week. So after a quick breakfast of coffee and conference room donuts, Officer Julia Paz and Agent Jimmy Woo drive four hours out to Washington, DC, where the Triskelion, otherwise known as SHIELD Headquarters, is located.

It’s stationed on Theodore Roosevelt Island on the Potomac River, so they have to drive up a skinny bridge with three separate security checkpoints to enter the place. Luckily, Agent Woo’s security clearance makes the drive easy and entrance to the Triskelion even easier. Still, they have to sign multiple non-disclosure agreements just to step on the property.

Director Coulson’s office has a row of massive glass window-panes instead of walls, and he has a sprawling agarwood desk that’s mostly empty and a wallful of black filing cabinets behind him. Above the filing cabinets are paintings of the original six Avengers in action: first Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Captain America; then a SHIELD insignia; and finally Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk.

As soon as they arrive, flanked by security guards, Phil Coulson gives her a warm handshake and Agent Woo a firm hug. “Good to see you, Jimmy,” he says. “What can I do for you?”

Julia Paz has prepared for this moment. She’s printed all of the photos, collected all of the post-mortem reports, and searched all the available files. “We were wondering what you could tell us about HYDRA,” says Julia.

Before Director Coulson can ask, Woo assures the man, “She signed all the NDAs already.”

Phil turns to her with a thin-lipped smile. “You have to understand, we typically reserve information about HYDRA for members of SHIELD—and otherwise, on a need-to-know basis. So, if you don’t mind… Why do you need to know?”

Julia has seen videos and photos of Phil Coulson on TV, usually addressing the American public in some way or another. He's a tallish, baldish, niceish looking man who doesn’t stand out in any particular way. “Director Coulson…” She refrains from telling the man that this “Charlie Keene” is her brother. She doesn’t want the man to think she’s not a legitimate cop on a legitimate case. She explains the basics: a group of addicts who went missing in April have been found with tattoos of the HYDRA symbol on their bodies. Freshly—the tattoos were all done after they disappeared in April. “There’s seventeen of them, and we’ve already found three of them dead. All with a HYDRA tattoo.

“Homicides?” asks Coulson.

“Overdoses,” she says, although that’s not technically true for the two most recent dead.

“Where were the bodies found?”

“One in the Bronx, two in New Hampshire.” Julia pulls their post-mortem examinations out of her file: Lyle Getz, Mateo Garza, and Megan Kinney. Coulson takes the pages as Julia continues, “All of the addicts are clients of drug dealer Charlie Keene.” She hands him a list—the same list she gave to the medical examiner last week. “This should be all of them.”

Phil Coulson frowns at the paper, flipping it over and back again, scanning the whole page. “There’s only a few last names on here. Some of these don’t even have last names.”

“Why would a dealer know his customer’s last name?” shoots Julia. “This is all of the information we could collect on the missing addicts. Listen—their names aren’t important. What’s most important is this.” From her tablet, she opens a voice memo app and clicks open a voice memo from back in April—one from a conversation she had when Ty first came to her about the fact that Charlie, his dealer, had disappeared with most of his customers. She replays the conversation for Coulson… Ty’s recorded voice talks and talks, and finally he says, “They was gonna change the world, make it a better place… Last time I saw them, their place was some abandoned, creepy-ass dungeon or some sh*t, f*ckin’ snakes on the walls…” Julia pauses the recording with a swift tap. ““Snakes. Did you catch that? Snakes.” She points again to the photos of the tattoo. “When I first saw it, I thought they were snakes coming out of a skull. If the symbol Ty described is the same, that means that the group who disappeared was living in a place that had HYDRA symbols on it. HYDRA, director.

Phil Coulson shakes his head. “So this guy, he’s saying that his missing friends—your missing addicts holed up in a…what? HYDRA base?”

She nods. “So we were wondering if you could grant us access to those bases. Jimmy said we’d taken over all HYDRA outposts and bunkers—do you think you could give us a map? Or at least a list of possible locations?”

Phil Coulson slides the papers back over to her. “Officer Paz,” he says, addressing her. “Agent Woo. As much as I’d love to help, we don’t grant people access to HYDRA bases over a couple of missing people. Yes, it’s not uncommon for homeless to hole up in places like that—but actual HYDRA bunkers? Those are on strict lockdown since we took them over back in 2014. And unless you have some verifiable signs that HYDRA—the organization—is up and running again, I’m afraid I can’t give you access. Do you understand the kind of danger the American government would be in if we granted every police officer access to that kind of technology?” Director Coulson shakes his head.

“But HYDRA could’ve—” Julia swallows. She’s trying to keep the emotion from creeping into her voice. She swallows, swallows again, and tries to speak with a calmer tone. “It’s possible that our missing persons were taken by a reboot of HYDRA, some kind of neo-Nazi regrouping, right?”

The man hesitates. “It’s…possible. But we’d have other signs—Avengers alerting us to HYDRA activity, missing weaponry, loss of classified information… And we’ve had none of those—no verifiable signs that HYDRA is alive and going again, so…” Phil clears his throat. “Officer, the likelihood that your missing people are there… I’d say you’re looking in the wrong places.”

“But—”

“Besides, none of this matters because I don’t have jurisdiction over abandoned HYDRA bunkers. I’m not the one to talk to. I can’t give you the access you want. Every bunker has been confiscated by the U.S. government—the main branch, not SHIELD.”

Paz scoffs. “So who do I talk to about getting access to these bunkers?”

Coulson gives a polite shrug. “Not me, Officer. The last of the American HYDRA branches were wiped out in 2014. Pretty sure anything that belonged to them is now under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense. Last I heard, they were making plans to turn those bunkers into safe houses for government higher-ups, but that was a few years ago.”

She feels as though Coulson’s playing games. Is it that hard to answer such a concrete question? “So who should we talk to?”

Coulson shrugs again. “My guess? The Secretary of Defense. Secretary Thaddeus Ross.”

TUESDAY, JULY 3 — 2:30 PM

Secretary Thaddeus Ross is not having a good day.

First Ava Starr, then that little methhead, and now that car crash on the mountain? That sh*t killed a whole family, and now is getting enough news coverage that the mountains with that bunker is crowded with people.

Ross gave them three rules for how the master plan was going to go: one, don’t tell anyone ; two, keep everything under the radar ; and three, don’t f*ck this up .

Clearly, they’ve royally screwed rules one and two because they’ve had two newsworthy incidents in the past month and seven dead bodies total. Charlie’s now running out of people to keep the spider and those other idiots in line.

He’s getting a migraine because of these morons.

Ross hates the way that man begs, but he’s right. He needs more men. He’s so close to a breakthrough—something that will turn Project Manticore into a weapon that’s feared by all. It’ll put the United States of America back on top as the most powerful, regardless of superheroes and other enhanced creatures. With this weapon, he could vanish anyone with the press of a button, could disintegrate an entire town and leave its ecosystem still intact.

Secretary Ross makes a list of a few people from his contacts—doctors, scientists, engineers—anyone who owes him enough that they’ll participate in Project Manticore. “Kate? Kate!” he snaps.

His secretary Kate Bishop comes rushing in, dressed in a sleeveless collar and bootcut khakis. “Yes, sir!”

He taps the list. “I need you to get in contact with a few people. As soon as they respond, put them through, got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

It doesn’t take long; by the end of the hour, Kate’s announcing over the phone: “I’ve got one on the other line, sir.”

“Which one?”

“Quentin Beck. I couldn’t get ahold of the others.”

“Alright, put him through.”

Over the line, Quentin Beck has a pleasantly low tenor and there’s music playing behind him—Huey Lewis and the News. “Ross!” he says first. “Good to hear from you. What can I do for you?”

Ross’ mustache itches, so he scratches at it. “I need a favor.”

“What kind?”

Quentin Beck owes him. Almost a decade ago, Ross got the man a stable job as an engineer in the Defense Department after he was fired from Stark Industries from ‘inappropriate conduct’ or something equally idiotic.

“Well, I’m working on something a little different. Off the books.”

“Off the books?” The man on the other line sounds intrigued.

“That’s right. Something good. Something that’ll truly put the U.S. on top. Think you could take some time off? I’ll promise, it’ll pay better than whatever you’ve got going now.”

“How much better?”

“Depends. How soon can you get to New Hampshire?”

THURSDAY, JULY 5 — 5:15 PM

Happy and MJ take the train to the hospital—it’s located in Brooklyn by Marine Park, so they take the train to Brownsville and a bus that drops them off at the emergency room entrance.

“I’ve followed him here like a million times,” says the girl. She’s dressed like she’s going to war—with a thick denim jacket lined in white sherpa, a set of baggy black cargo pants, a camo tee shirt, and a baseball cap that reads SAVE FERRIS in bold letters, and worn combat boots. “He skips school, skips practice, skips everything… And he just comes here.”

“Who’s here?” asks Happy. “He got a grandma in here? Parent? Anyone?”

“I don’t know,” says the girl with a bland shrug. “He just comes and visits this lady. Sits with her. I’ve seen her—forty-ish, Italian-looking, long dark hair. She’s in a coma.”

“You don’t know her?”

“Nope.” They’re at the front desk now. “I don’t think he knows her, either. I asked a doctor—the lady’s a Jane Doe.”

Jane Doe, he knows, is just a patient they haven’t identified. Why would Ned be visiting some middle-aged woman he didn’t know? “You’ve got some weird friends, Michelle,” says Happy.

Michelle scoffs—a half-laughing sound. “No,” she refutes, “Peter’s got weird friends. Me and Ned are just friendly by association. Transitive property, right?”

Happy blinks at the girl. “What?”

Michelle sighs, exasperated, like he’s the one who’s bringing up random high school math in the middle of a normal conversation. “If x is related to y by something, and y is related to z by that same thing, then x is related to z by the same thing. So If I’m cool with Peter, and Peter’s cool with Ned, then me and Ned are cool. Capiche?”

This is why Happy hates teenagers. “Sure. Whatever.”

The two of them have reached the front desk by now, where an elderly couple is arguing about insurance. Michelle Jones-Watson, however, seems to know where she’s going. They take the elevator to the third floor and down a wide stretch of white-tiled hallway and to a corner room. From the doorway, they can’t see the mystery patient—only a round, brown-skinned boy with a band-style striped tee talking to a nurse with green hair. “…looking much better,” the nurse is saying, one hand on the boy’s back. “Yesterday, she opened her eyes a few times.”

“But she didn’t say anything?” says the boy, head in his hands.

“She shouldn’t,” says the nurse. “I’d be more worried if she started talking straight out of a coma. This is the way people wake up, Ned. First their reflexes, then small movements, like the eyes or the fingers. Recovery takes time .”

That’s when, with a pat to Ned Leeds’ back, the nurse turns and spots the pair standing; the woman startles with a sharp squeak. “Oh!” she says, and Ned turns around, too.

“MJ,” says the kid with a gasp. The boy’s eyes are pink-red, like he’s been crying. “Uh—um—“

MJ looks about as stiff as her denim jacket. “I’m not here to spoil your moment,” the girl snaps.

There’s a cord of tension between them so tight Happy could’ve walked across it without a problem. The girl, Michelle, looks positively fierce, glaring at the boy in a way that seems far deeper than he’s Peter’s friend .

In an attempt to sever the tension, Happy clears his throat. “You’re Ned Leeds?”

Ned seems frozen in his spot; he nods wearily, eyes still on Michelle.

He hands the kid his business card—one that reads HAPPY HOGAN, HEAD OF SECURITY, STARK INDUSTRIES. “I’ve got a couple questions for you, if that’s okay.”

The nurse, who has yet to see the card, interjects: “Are you here for the Jane Doe?”

“Who?” The patient? Happy shakes his head; MJ is frowning so hard she’s got a wrinkle between her brow; she’s way too young for wrinkles. “I don’t care about that. I’m just here for —”

Then Happy sees her, and his own voice cracks like a tween boy’s. Ned , he was going to say, but he can’t seem to muster up any words.

Because he knows the patient in that hospital bed.

It’s May. Peter’s Aunt May. May Parker.

She looks nothing like herself. Her hair is an inch or two longer and braided close to her scalp—probably for the ease of the medical personnel. She’s extraordinarily pale, and there’s a wide tube down her throat—connected to a machine that breathes for her.

Confusion renders him mute; if MJ knew that was May Parker in the bed, then why didn’t she say anything?

But the parts start to slide into place.

MJ doesn’t know what May looks like. She’s heard her name, of course, and heard the stories, but MJ hasn’t been friends with Peter long enough to have met May. They haven’t gone on any real dates, and although MJ said they did kiss once, they’ve never been official. It's not like Peter got a whole lot of opportunity before he went MIA. So MJ could have followed Ned all the way into the hospital room, have stared at May’s unresponsive body for hours, and never have known that it was Peter’s aunt.

All this time that MJ’s been worried about Peter—she’s been holding onto the key to finding him: May Parker.

Ned’s looking around like he’s been caught hauling a dead body to a dumpster; which, Happy supposed, he kind of has. Because Ned knows exactly what May Parker looks like and hasn’t said a word to anyone.

“Ned,” says Happy, and the word is more than the boy’s name. It’s a plea, a demand, a question, and a threat. “Where’s Peter?”

THURSDAY, JULY 5 — 7:56 PM

“Peter? Can you tell me what day it is?”

The doctor’s talking, and he’s waving a penlight over Peter’s face. “Peter?”

Peter blinks. “Yeah… I’m here, doc.”

“Lost you there for a second, Pete.”

Peter gives the man a dulled smile. “Still here.” He drops the smile almost as fast as he picked it up.

“Can you tell me what day it is?”

Peter just stares at the doctor. “You think I know what day it is? Look around you, man. I haven’t seen the sun in a month…” At least, he thinks it’s been a month. He knows that the toys that come with his Happy meals change each month, so the month has changed at least once—but now they’ve started taking the toys out to punish them for trying to escape. If he got here in April, it’s at least May. It could’ve been May for what, two weeks? “I dunno.” Thinking is becoming increasingly difficult. He’s had a hard time keeping track of time since they upped his sedation. “Is it May?”

He’s remembering and remembering. The sharp pain of knife. The dull pain of a fist. The echo of electricity after the caddle prod leaves his skin. The freezing sensation of a blowtorch—when its heat is so high that it feels cold, like his flesh is breaking off in frozen pieces one atom at a time.

He remembers pain. Pain that swallows him like a tight-mouthed whale. Pain that engulfs him like a icy wave. Pain that whispers and whispers and whispers until it screams.

“It’s July,” corrects the doctor, with an expression bearing so much pity it burns in the back of Peter’s throat. “The fifth. A Thursday.”

“A Thursday,” echoes Peter, and suddenly he feels a hundred and sixteen years old. He can feel every pore of his bruised skin, every welt in his battered back, every scar on his mutilated face. “Oh.” His birthday’s in May. His birthday ’s in May.

“That’s okay,” he says. “How about… Just, look up for me please?”

Peter knows how to obey; he looks up, down, and side-to-side. He remembers the light used to hurt at the doctors office. It doesn’t hurt so much anymore. He supposes a little light is nothing compared to a blowtorch to the ear or hammer to the knee or a knife through the cheek.

“Your eyes…” He shines the light again. “They’re almost reflective—it’s hard to get a read on your pupils… Is this because of your enhancement?”

Peter blinks at the man for a second. “Wh-what?”

“You heal fast, Peter. I assumed you’d been enhanced somehow.”

“Oh.”

“So how’d it happen?”

Peter remembers that day so well. The field trip to Oscorp. Coming home. The purple-black spots in his vision, the blood-speckled vomit on his bathroom floor, the feverish heat coming over him in crashing waves, the vicelike cramp in every muscle he had. He remembers contorting on the bathroom floor, puking up every liquid in him, leaking red from every orifice: his eyes, his ears, his nose, his mouth. “Spider bite,” he says, like the process was that simple. “I was fourteen.”

“I heard the other guys call you that,” says the doctor. “Spider-Man, right? The one from New York?”

Peter nods; his head hurts. They didn’t hit his head today—he’s only got a couple cuts and a couple bruises, but he still needed some stitches.

The doctor seems to sense his despondence. “You do a lot of good things, hon. You’re one of the good ones.”

Not doing so much good anymore, he thinks. He wants to say it out loud, but he keeps quiet. Instead of patrolling and saving people, he’s stuck in this f*cking bunker as he rots away.

Dr. Skivorski passes his penlight over Peter’s eyes again. “You know, before I operated on you, I checked your eyes—they didn’t look like this before. ”

“Happens,” says Peter with a weak shrug.

“What do you mean?”

“Sometimes,” says Peter, “when my body goes through something really stressful, something where it thinks I’m gonna die or whatever… It develops something new.”

“Like how?”

He thinks back to Homecoming. “Like, I didn’t used to be able to summon stickiness to my hands. I could still stick to things, but stuff like glass, dirty surfaces… They were harder to do. But then a building fell on me and… I had to get out. So ever since then, I can get my hands to stick to anything. I can get, like” —he demonstrates, opening his hands to will the stickiness to come— “them to stick just by thinking about it.

“Wow,” says the doctor, prodding the gluish paste on his palms. “Like you adapted.”

Peter shrugs.

“Sounds to me like you’re still mutating.”

They’re quiet then, him dabbing gently at a cut on his throat. They didn’t get him too badly this time—a couple beatings and a knife held to his throat, but nothing like the bad days. “I think… I think my vision got better after that guy hit my head.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Everything looks crisper. Brighter. I can see, like, remnants of other things. Traces of blood where it used to be, the sweat on people’s skin, light where there isn’t any… I don’t know, it’s weird. I thought maybe I was just hallucinating at first, but… I guess I’m not.” He doesn’t tell the doctor the most important one: when he caught a glimpse of that dead addict’s cold body, the man didn’t look alive—he looked dull, waxen, pallid, like the color had been siphoned from him. “I think I can see, like, other things.”

He frowns. “What?”

Peter shrugs. “I don't really get it, either.” Peter hasn’t had much control of his body since the spider bite.

The doctor says, “Well, they did hit your occipital lobe—that’s the part I repaired.” His head’s much better now, his skull healed over into solid bone. There’s still a bone callus there where the crack once was, a bump that he can still run his fingers over. “It’s mostly responsible for your vision—color, form, motion, stuff like that. Follow the light for me.” His eyes follow. “Yeah, I’m no ophthalmologist, but I’d say your eyes are a little larger than normal, and reflecting a lot more light than the average human eye.” The doctor passes his otoscope in front of Peter’s face again. “You know at night, if you see a pair of eyes on the side of the road, it’s usually a fox or some other creature—humans don’t have that kind of reflection in their eyes. Just animals, lizards, bugs…” He puts down the scope. “Let me try something.” He leans over to the wall and turns off the light with a soft click . “How many fingers?”

Even with the lights off, Peter can see the doctor perfectly, every bit of him—the wrinkles in his face, the sweat on his palms, the heat in his cheeks, and, of course, the three white fingers he has raised. “Three,” he says, and the doctor turns the light back on.

He’s looking at Peter. “Your eyes started to bleed, you know, when you woke up. It must’ve been from your eyes mutating. Your body thought your vision was in danger, from the hit—”

“—so I adapted,” says Peter. “To see in the dark.”

The doctor’s scribbling on a pad of paper; Peter wants to ask for it—the paper, the marker—because they don’t have it in their cell, but he bites his tongue. If Charlie found them stealing from the doctor, they’d have a worse punishment than just not being able to write. “You can use that, you know,” he says. “Your eyes. We can use that, to try to get out of here.”

Peter glowers at the man. “I’ve tried getting out,” says Peter, and he knows he sounds like a whiny kid but that’s all he has in him right now.

The doctor is taken aback by his sudden hostility; he puts down his notepad. “I know,” says the doctor gently. “I know you have.”

There’s so much he wants to say, but he doesn’t have the energy. He wants to say—no, scream— I’m f*cking tired! Everything hurts, all the time! I can’t get out of here, I’m never going to get out of here! He wants to grab the doctor by his stupid f*cking lab coat and shake him and scream, Do you know what it’s like to be in pain all the time? Every hour of every day? To be afraid all the time? To be scared to go to sleep and scared to wake up, so scared all the time that you’re even being tortured in your dreams? But he doubts the doctor has known even a fraction of what he goes through outside of the operating room. He doesn’t know what it’s like to come back to a cell to a little girl who just wants to hug her dad—and instead, she gets you. To sit with her every day and try to keep her happy. He doubts that Dr. Skivorski has ever felt hunger the way he and Cassie do. Every morning, they await their meals like a dog with a bowl of tasteless kibble. Just the sight of the door’s food slot is enough to make his mouth water. He doesn’t know that every time they escape they get something else taken away—their mattress, their blankets, their pillows, their toys, their vitamins, their bandages… Anything that could be taken away from them has been.

But the doctor doesn’t know; he couldn’t possibly understand. So Peter doesn’t say any of this. Instead he says, in such a dull voice that it doesn’t even sound like his own, “We do. It’s just…hard. I’m never” —able to walk without his leg crumpling underneath him— “in good shape. Neither is she. They keep me” —so doped up that he can barely focus his eyes properly, on so much sh*t that his mind feels like it’s swimming in pea soup— “so sedated that I can’t do much.”

The doctor shakes his head, and his star necklace sways over the front of his scrubs. “It's okay. That’s okay. We can still figure out a way to get you out of here. Don’t give up—let’s go through it again, okay?”

“Okay,” says Peter quietly. There’s a miserable ache in his stomach. “To get out, I gotta get out of the cell—it’s reinforced by vibranium, stuff I couldn’t break through even at, like, max strength. Then I gotta get me and Cassie down the hall and to another door—that’s reinforced too, and guarded by at least two people, with a keypad. Then I gotta get up a ladder and to the bunker door, which is on the ceiling and it’s got another keypad. I’ve never even gotten that far.” His throat is raw from all of the talking—he’s not used to speaking this much. Even he and Cassie mostly just sit these days, quiet and still like broken dolls in the bottom of a toy bin.

He’s still sitting on this operating table, and at last he’s calm enough that the doctor has come close. The man asks permission to insert a syringe of local anesthetic to the worst of his cuts. Peter hadn’t realized that this whole time he’d been gripping his left arm in lieu of a tourniquet, squeezing the wound so tightly it’d cut off most of his circulation. “Can I?” Dr. Skivorski asks, and Peter stops, staring down at his arm where his hand is clamped over the wound. When he pulls his hand away, he finds a bloody mess. He doesn’t remember Charlie doing that; he doesn’t remember grabbing his ram like that. “I promise, it’ll hurt less—”

“I know,” Peter says. That’s not the problem. The problem is, he doesn’t remember Charlie doing that. What had Charlie done to him today? When he tries to remember, the moment’s hazy, awash with thick vibranium cuffs and Mr. Stark’s raw voice. “Yeah, fine.”

The doctor does it quickly, and soon Peter’s arm is numb and heavy. The stitches are slow and careful, nothing like his and Cassie’s in the beginning, and when he’s done there’s nothing but a criss-cross of wire instead of a gaping wound. He and Cassie used to use dental floss and sewing thread and anything else they were gifted that would do the job. Not this—clean, even, and safe.

“Deeper than usual,” mutters the doctor. “What did this?”

“Knife,” he says, and he mimes the rest of it: Charlie grabbing it with the blade pointed down, thrusting the tip into his restrained forearm, and pushing deeper and deeper every time Peter stopped screaming. He’s lost in the memory then, and Peter keeps thinking it on repeat—deeper, deeper, deeper. Every time Peter thought the blade had gone far enough, Charlie would smile and call out, “Tony, you watching?” and would yank it out and stab it back in nearly the same spot.

The doctor’s saying his name again, and finally he finds himself back in the real world—sitting on the papered operating table, arm deadened by anesthetic, the doctor standing far too close. He finds himself shaking again, and the doctor says, softly, “We might have a chance this time, Peter. They lost a few people recently, so we could…” He’s still talking about an escape plan, and Peter finds himself with a searing sensation in his chest, like someone’s put his lungs on a griddle and is waiting for them to cook all the way through. “...know who has the keys, then if you take him out…”

He has a hate, suddenly, for the doctor’s naivety, for his hopefulness, for his aspirations to escape, and he feels the hate grip him like a clawed creature in his chest. Still trembling, he snaps, “Forget it. Even if they were all dead, I’d still be stuck here. I don't know the password and I can’t break through the vibranium and I can’t take out anyone because I’m—I’m—I’m—” Weak , he wants to say, but he can’t choke out the word. Look at me! he wants to scream. I’m nothing! I’m nothing anymore! “We’re f*cked, okay? We’re never getting out of here!”

He used to be stron g. He could pull apart walls like paper, he could snap bones like toothpicks. He could close his eyes and tell exactly who was a threat and who wasn’t. And now… he’s nothing. He can barely walk. He’s so used to being hungry that he doesn’t even feel it anymore, just a constant ache in his gut. He can barely hit someone, let alone heal up properly. He’s just wasting away.

The doctor tries, “Peter…” but Peter’s not listening. All he can think is: I’m seventeen, I’m seventeen, I’m seventeen.

Seventeen, and still stuck in this hellhole.

THURSDAY, JULY 5 — 8:42 PM

Happy Hogan’s gonna burst a blood vessel. Or have a stroke. Or whatever it is people have when they’re stressed.

Because if what Ned just told him is true—and, well, why would the kid lie?—then Peter Benjamin Parker has been missing for weeks. Months.

Peter’s been missing for eighty-eight days.

And the only one person who knows where he is—the man of the hour: genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist Tony Stark.

Happy hits the gas. Right now, he doesn’t care if he gets a ticket, he doesn’t care if he bumps one car or a dozen on his way upstate, but he’s got to get to Pepper.

The kids are in the back of his car, whispering to each other in only the way best friends do. Whatever bullsh*t Michelle—MJ, he corrects himself—had told him about how she and Ned weren’t friends, she’s clearly been lying. When Happy adjusts the rearview mirror, he can see them both. Seatbelts strained across both of their chests, they’re whispering to each in rushed, frantic tones; MJ’s got a hand on Ned’s shoulder, talking, and Ned’s got his head bowed again, nodding. They’re definitely friends. That cord of tension he saw before has snapped.

They drive and they drive and Ned won’t stop asking, “Are there any cameras in the car? At the house? I—I know you guys have, like, a ton of cameras at Stark Industries, but you have to remember what I said—“

“I remember,” says Happy. He remembers because Ned started freaking out the first time he relayed the conversation between him and Tony. If I do anything, Peter dies, Ned gasped in huge, hiccupy sobs. If I tell people about him, he dies. If I tell people about May, he dies. If I try to go looking, he dies. Please, please don’t tell anyone. “Don’t worry about it. We got tinted windows, attached garage, the whole thing. We’re going straight to the big house where Pepper” — and Tony , he thinks bitterly— “live, so no one will know you’re here but us.”

When they get to the house, he parks in the attached garage and hurries the kids inside. Pepper’s waiting there, still dressed in her work clothes: a loose magenta pantsuit and black blouse. “What’s going on?” Pepper asks. The cut of her blouse and the waist of her pantsuit hides her bump well; neither Ned nor MJ say a word about it, not even a surprised stare. “You wouldn’t tell me over the phone, so—spit it out.”

“You might want to sit down for this,” says Happy, and he pushes a stool away from the counter for her.

She sits.

Happy nudges the kid forward; the kid shuffles a couple steps to Pepper, still clasping his backpack in front of him. “Go on, tell her. Tell her what you told me.”

Ned gulps. “I'm just like—you know how Mr. Stark's been gone? Well not like, gone gone, but just like not coming out of his room gone? I mean, of course you know”—he slaps his own forehead— “what am I saying, of course you know—”

“Ned,” says Pepper stiffly, “please.”

“Sorry. Right. Um…” The kid glances at Happy and then helplessly at MJ, who nods in some completely teenage way. “Peter went missing at around the same time that Mr. Stark went into his lab. I got worried—Peter hadn’t answered any of my texts to, like, anyone , so I called him. Mr. Stark, I mean. I called him, like a million times until he picked up in like a second, and I… I talked to him.”

Happy can see the puzzle pieces shifting behind Pepper’s eyes. “You talked to him?” she echoes, now glancing between the two of them. “Okay, so what did he say?”

“I, uh, asked him about Peter. Told him what was going on. And he seemed… I don’t know. He said, um, Peter isn’t coming back for a while .” Ned looks suddenly embarrassed; he takes a step back now that all of Pepper’s attention is on him. “He told me not to tell anyone, that I needed to stop looking into it, because if people got suspicious…” The kid swallows. “...Peter could die. I thought maybe it was an Avengers thing at first, but after a while…”

“Do you remember anything else?”

“Yeah.” Ned swallows. “He said Peter’s life was in my hands.”

THURSDAY, JULY 5 — 9:02 PM

Pepper’s pacing is wearing a hole into the floor.

“So where’s Peter?” she asks Ned.

“I don’t know,” says the kid miserably.

“Happy? Where is he?”

Happy looks at the floor.

“So you’re telling me,” she says, as she makes another pivot and turn, “that this whole time—not only has Peter not been at an internship, but he’s been missing for two months?”

“Yes,” says Happy, weakly.

“And Tony knows? And that’s why he’s…” She waves her hands; Happy knows what she means.

“Yes,” he says again.

“…and his aunt’s been in the hospital—this entire time?”

There’s no need for Happy to say yes again, but he does nonetheless.

“…and this whole time you’ve been…what? Who the hell have you been talking to?”

“Not talking,” says Happy miserably. “Emailing.”

Pepper can feel the weight of Peter’s absence as suddenly as if he were standing on her shoulders. “Okay—okay.” She doesn’t give herself time to think about it. “Happy, alert the nearest police station to Peter’s apartment—then the NYPD Missing Persons Unit, and try to—”

“No, no, no!” Ned panics, and the kid’s way closer to Pepper than she’d like. “Don’t do that! Mrs. Potts—Ms. Potts, um—you don’t—we can’t do that!” His hand-waving is becoming frantic. “We can’t tell anyone—Mr. Stark said. Something will happen to Peter if we do.”

“They’re police,” counters Pepper. “They know how to do things discreetly.”

Ned’s shaking his head, near-tearful. “Mrs. Potts,” he says. “Mr. Stark hasn’t told the police this whole time . If he hasn’t, that means he knows there’s no way he can without…something happening. And if he couldn’t figure it out…”

The kid doesn’t finish; he doesn’t have to: If Tony Stark couldn’t figure it out, then who could?

She paces and paces. If Ned and Happy and MJ are right, then Tony didn’t lock himself away to piss her off or to brood alone or to hide from the world. He locked himself away to save Peter; she doesn’t know how or why, but it’s something . But that would mean… That would mean Peter’s in major trouble.

She can figure this out. She’s CEO of Stark Industries in more than just title. She is the thing that holds the entire company together; she can find a missing teenager.

“Pep—”

“Shut up and let me think.”

She thinks and she thinks.

“Okay. okay. Here's what I need to happen. Happy, I need you to get Tony’s old AIs—anything pre-FRIDAY, anything that has no connection to Peter or the lab—so anything from when we still had the Tower or earlier, okay? Then I need—okay, Ned?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you know where the car crash was?”

Ned rattles off an address.

“Okay, Happy, I need you to track down the satellite footage of that spot from the date of the crash—maybe a weeklong span, got it? Don’t use Stark Industries equipment.” She feels so stupid. The AI. The same day Tony went into the lab, FRIDAY was hacked. “I need you to do this the old-fashioned way. I need physical copies, understand me? Tapes, DVDs, flash drives, whatever you can get me. No email, no Internet. If you can, follow the vehicles and anyone involved in the crash as far as you can. See if you can find where he went.”

She turns to the kids. “Ned, MJ, keep up the impression. Peter is at an internship. Happy, keep communicating with that email. Nothing has changed, got it? Nothing. Don’t come back here. I’ll find a way to contact you if I need you.”

The kids nod like a couple of bobbleheads. MJ looks like she’s going to be sick; Ned keeps squeezing his fists into tight balls at his side.

FRIDAY, JULY 6 — 1:10 AM

Cassie wakes to the bunker door opening.

Not the cell door, no. The bunker door. The one to the outside. It doesn’t open very often—only when the group needs to go on food runs or get supplies for the gun that they’re making. Cassie knows all of this.

But Charlie’s people don’t tend to leave the bunker in groups of more than three—so Cassie Paxton-Lang startles awake when she hears the bunker door open followed by a series of voices—three, four, five at least?—entering the bunker, and also the voices—five, six, seven?—that greet them.

There’s way too many voices all at once, and they’re yelling.

Peter’s still asleep; when she wakes, her head is still resting on his stomach. They always sleep like this—the way Mommy always used to sleep beside her when she had a nightmare—with Peter closer to the door, a shield from the bad guys, and Cassie against the wall with her head against Peter’s chest as a pillow. They lost their pillow a while ago—she doesn’t remember why.

She and Peter don’t have pajamas, either. They always sleep in their daytime clothes—and, because they tore up their regular clothes to make bandages in the first couple weeks, now they just wear the black-dyed jumpsuits that they have in the bunkers. Peter calls them prisoner’s uniforms , and that’s kind of what they look like, just dyed black. They’re way too big for her, so Peter helped her sew and fold over the sleeves and the pants to make it extra thick to keep her warm.

She gets up slowly, so she doesn’t wake him, and she scoots over the warmed concrete to the head of the bed and slides off onto the floor. Usually, she would crawl to their Treasure Chest, the little bucket nailed to the other side of the room, but there’s something far more pressing: the yelling. All of the yelling.

She crawls over to the door—Cassie’s much too tired to stand—and lays her head by the food slot. It closes and locks from the outside, so she can’t poke her head through, but the slot is thinner than the rest of the cell door, so the sound comes through.

They’re not angry, exactly, but they are definitely high and there’s way more of them than usual. “…said you needed more people.”

“My people,” snaps Charlie. She knows the bearded Charlie’s voice better than anyone’s—she could pick his out of a whole crowd of people. “I wanted more of my people.”

A laugh. “What, more homeless junkies?” His is a new voice. Someone soft-spoken, with a smile hidden inside each word. “No, no, no. Clearly, you’re not getting the job done, because Ross sent me in. You should be grateful, really.”

“Grateful?” The sound of spit hitting ground. “This is my mission! I’m gonna save the world!”

“In order to do that, Keene, you still need a couple more hands. That’s what we’re here for. Me—I’m an engineer. I can help construct the weapon, and these guys behind me, they can help, too—”

“Who are they?” A female voice. Renee, the redhead.

“Soldiers—good ones. Loyal to Ross and loyal to you. They can help pin the kid down.” The man pauses amongst a few grumbles of assent. “There is a kid, isn’t there?”

“Yeah. Parker. We’ve got him in here.”

Footsteps coming. Coming for them. Cassie jumps back from the door, and she scrambles to the bed where Peter is, whispering, “Iron Man! Iron Man!”

Peter stirs with a groggy flail but doesn’t get up the first time, so Cassie grasps his bandaged wrist and squeezes; it’s still cut up from the last time they tied him down.

Peter wakes with a pained gah! and Cassie says it again, almost teary because the people are so close— “Iron Man! Iron Man! ” and at last he seems to understand because his eyes go wide.

He wraps his arms around her and rolls off the bed, landing hard on the ground with a thunk just as the key slips into the lock of their cell door—a thlick sound that frightens her so badly now that she loses control of her bladder for a split second.

Peter moves quick —rolling them both backwards and under the bed, all the way, until Cassie’s back is at the wall. Cassie knows the routine—don’t make a sound, no matter what, but she has to warn him. “New people,” she whimpers, and there are tears coming down her face but she’s trying to be quiet.

“Black Widow,” he whispers back. That’s one of their code words— stay quiet and do as I say. Just as the words leave his mouth, the heavy cell door squeals open. Cassie squeezes her eyes shut, so hard that she sees sparkles of purples and whites on the back of her eyelids. She can be quiet. She has to be quiet.

Peter plants his hands on the wall behind her head, and she curls into his chest. This way, if they try to grab him, they have to pull his sticky hands from the wall, which is pretty hard to do.

The first voice they hear is Charlie’s: “Ah, sh*t—yeah, they do that sometimes. Glenn, Jon, you know what to do.”

Because Peter’s on the outside, it’s easier for one of them to grab him, one reaches under and grabs Peter by his leg—his good one, and he kicks back, nailing him in the face. That’s Jon’s already-broken nose—and he cries out, falling back. His nose is already bleeding, and red falls all over Peter's leg in great big drops. “Ah—f*ck! Are you kidding me?” She sees the guy try to kick at Peter, who’s already tucked his legs back under the bed to shield Cassie again. She can feel his pants tickle against her bare feet.

“Fine, Parker, you wanna play this game today?” There’s some shuffling and some more shuffling and then Charlie’s voice is coming closer. He mutters, “Little spider-bitch.” Peter’s not as his best. He’s tired, so when Charlie yanks at his leg, he breaks it free on the first try. “Let go, Parker! Let” —he pulls again— “go!”

Cassie knows in the way that Peter moves—he’s way too slow. Maybe they hit him too hard or or maybe he’s hungry or maybe he didn’t get enough sleep or maybe—maybe he’s just sad and remembering the bad things. Whatever it is, he’s too slow to fight back, and too slow to hang on, and when Charlie pulls again, Peter’s yanked out from under the bed so fast that he yelps.

“Got him!”

Keeping her eyes closed and her mouth shut, Cassie trembles beneath the bed; she can hear the voices all at once now, a rush of people complaining and shouting and congratulating each other—there’s too many people . “Her, too,” says a girl voice—Renee. “Haroun?”

A male voice sighs. “Sure.”

Then there’s a hand under the bed then, reaching for her like out of those scary movies Daddy likes to watch. She screams and puts her hands on the wall like Peter does, but she doesn’t have sticky hands like him—so when the guy gets his hand around her ankle, he pulls her so fast that her clothes scrape on the concrete floor.

Cassie’s body floods with panic—“No, no!” as she scrabbles at the concrete; her nail catches and snaps on a crack in the floor—“ Peter! ” —and they’re gonna hurt her, they’re gonna beat her, they’re gonna stick a needle in her! She’s crying now, because she knows what’s going to happen and she knows it’s going to hurt a lot ; Cassie just wants Peter to hold her and tell her everything’s gonna be okay.

She thrashes and she screams and she hits a warm chest, screeching and smacking and biting into the first hand that claps over her mouth, sinking her teeth until— “ Ah! Little c*nt!” She knows Renee’s smell—the red-haired woman’s clasping both her wrists now in one hand. She hits Cassie so hard in the gut that Cassie coughs and gasps and keels forward.

The whole time, Peter’s screeching against the wall: “Don’t touch her! Don’t touch her! Don’t touch her! ” Charlie’s people have Peter pinned against the concrete wall; a big blond guy has Peter's right arm and a bald guy has his left arm and an elbow braced against Peter’s back.

Renee finally gets her arms around Cassie’s neck, getting her into a chokehold, and she twists Cassie’s still-casted hand behind her back so far that she cries out—pain in her shoulder!

She can see the whole room from where she’s standing; Cassie has never seen a lot of these people before. She’s not usually the one who leaves the cell—that’s Peter—so maybe they’ve been here before, but she doesn’t remember. There’s six people she doesn’t know—a brown-haired man with a scruffy beard, and five people dressed like army soldiers but in all black. The brown-haired man steps forward with a laugh towards still-thrashing Peter, “Alright, I got him, I got him. Let him go.”

He grasps Peter gently by the back of the neck, almost tenderly, and the man says in a voice as plain as a blank sheet of paper, “Peter, if you don’t calm down, we’re gonna have to hurt that little girl over there, won’t we?”

Cassie’s wheezing, her voice a dry whine through Renee’s chokehold; Peter slows, and the other two men let go of his arms, backing away so that the brown-haired man can come forward. He moves forward and forward until his body blocks her view of Peter—his chest, his hips, his legs consuming Peter’s form—and he says placidly, “Say okay.”

Peter’s voice is quavery. His legs are stiff now, like two crowbars extending from his waist. Quietly, meagrely: “Okay.”

“Good. So you’re the boy, hm?” the man says, with a tilt of his head. He’s still got a hand on Peter’s neck, but his other hand is hanging by his side. “You’re Tony’s boy? Peter?”

Peter’s not fighting back anymore. Peter’s eyes look dark, and he twists his neck so that he’s not looking at the man. He doesn’t say anything.

“Say yes,” says the man.

“Yes,” says Peter.

He laughs. “God,” says the man, and he sounds hungry. “Ross is a f*cking genius.”

He claps Peter on the back twice; Cassie knows the hit isn’t hard enough to hurt Peter, but the way Peter jolts into the wall when the man’s hand meets his back—it makes it seem like the hit really did hurt him. “Stay,” says the man, like Peter is a dog and he’s the master.

And with that, they’re gone as quickly as they arrived; the red-haired lady releases Cassie and dumps her on the ground as the new people file out, even the soldier-looking ones. The brown-haired man says as he leaves, following Charlie’s swaying form, “Let’s get this party started, huh? Show me what you’ve got so far.” Followed by: “You and you—come with me. What do you usually test them on?”

Their voices fade out into nothing—into pieces of shouts and mumbles and laughs, so Cassie stops listening. Her tummy’s still sore from where Renee hit her, and she hugs it tightly.

Peter’s still against the wall, standing where the brown-haired man left him. She knows his bad leg must be bothering him because he’s got all his weight on one leg. What’s wrong with him? When he finally turns around, sitting awkwardly on the floor with his messed-up leg, Peter says, “Cassie,” and he sounds weird, like he’s just come back from a session in the Chair. “Do you remember what that man looks like? Beck?”

Yes. She doesn’t know the man’s name, but now she does. Beck. Brown hair, scruffy face, wandery brown eyes. Cassie remembers; she nods.

“If… If he comes near you? If he looks at you, if he talks about you, if he—if he touches you, you have to tell me, okay?”

“Okay,” she says, and she’s confused. Cassie is very, very confused. Because that man—Beck—barely looked at Cassie. He paid as much attention to Cassie as he did to the toilet in their cell.

Quentin Beck never really looked at Cassie; he only looked at Peter.

“No, Cass, I’m serious. Promise me.”

Why does Peter suddenly sound so much like Mommy and Daddy and Jim? “I promise,” she says.

He rubs his forehead with his palm over and over and over until the bruise there has pinkened with irritation. “Good.”

Notes:

again, lemme k if u wanna see anything happen, the plot's always up for edits lol bc i can never decide on anything for sure haha

thanks so much for keeping up with this fic lol, seriously, all ur comments make me so f*cking happy! lmk what u think! and tell me if i make typos bc i have no beta but our lord and savior lol

Chapter 13: afraid (they're gonna find you)

Summary:

i’m tired so no summary for now, i’ll fix it in the morning. u remember where we’re at. have fun.

CW: violence, torture, kidnapping obv, mortician stuff, non-con drug use, blink and you miss it sexual content

also if it’s unclear PETER DOES NOT ALREADY KNOW BECK- peters just good at sensing vibes, esp of pervs like beck, and could hear everyone say their names

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

FRIDAY, JULY 6 — 8:39 AM

Pepper doesn’t sleep.

She spends the whole night trying to figure out where the hell Peter is. As soon as the morning hits, she calls place after place trying to contact someone who might know where Peter is. There’s one thing that Pepper doesn’t understand: Why didn’t anyone say anything?

She calls the Parkers’ landlady, pretending to be a prospective renter for their apartment building. “We do have a fourth floor apartment available,” says the woman—she’s older, maybe in her seventies. “Two bedroom, two bath, open living room/kitchen plan—really a nice place, and I’ve been trying to rent it out for a couple months now.”

“Why did the last renters leave?” she asks, trying to keep the worry out of her voice. “Sick of New York?”

The landlady laughs. “No—they were actually really happy with the place. They’d been there for years—twelve, fourteen years, something like that?” Her animosity is clear even over the phone. “I don’t know—one day they up and left—left all their stuff behind, too. Left me with the job of cleaning out all their belongings.” She scoffs. “Unbelievable.”

“And you didn’t call anyone?” asks Pepper.

“Like who?” And, when Pepper doesn’t say anything, she adds, “The police? Honey, this is New York. You know how many people just up and leave?”

She calls next to May’s old job; of course she knows where Peter’s aunt worked. She was a nurse at a hospital in Queens. She calls, and she’s on hold for a while before a nurse picks up. “May?” echoes the woman, as soon as Pepper asks. “May Parker? No, she quit ages ago—like, back in April.”

“She quit?”

“Well, not exactly. She just stopped showing up one day. Shame, too. She was one of the good ones.” The nurse sighs. “Probably got sick of the job—we’re pretty understaffed out here.”

Pepper even calls the principal of Peter’s school—Principal Morita. She says she’s calling about a prospective scholarship for Peter Parker, and Morita answers with: “Ma’am, it’s the summer. School’s out. So unless you have an urgent issue about one of our summer school students—”

“No,” she snaps. “I’m calling for Peter. Peter Parker.”

Exasperated, the man adds, “I know. But he’s not one of our summer school students—and besides, he’s been out of school since April. He may not be back in the fall.”

“Really?” asks Pepper. “Is he alright?”

“Alright?” A laugh from the principal. “It’s probably good for the kid.”

“Do you know why he left?”

“No offense, ma’am,” says Principal Morita, “but who cares? Kids leave all the time—for acting gigs, internships, divorces, whatever—and yes, even in the middle of the semester. I’m sure wherever Parker is, he’s fine. That kid could use a break—have you met him?”

Nothing. Nothing. All dead ends.

No one seems to know where Peter is, or care. He’s just another kid who’s dropped off the face of New York City. Every corner she turns, she finds someone else saying, “It’s none of my business,” or “Let the kid live.” Wasn’t she just saying these things a couple days ago? Get off his back, Happy, he’s just a kid. Let him take time off school. Why do you need to constantly know where he is? Who cares?

Happy’s still looking for the camera footage from that night, and they’ve rerouted the task of finding Tony’s old AIs to Rhodey.

She keeps thinking—is there a chance that Peter’s okay? That this is all just a big misunderstanding? That he’s at an internship? Or a summer camp? Or he and May moved away without telling anyone?

She clings onto this stupid thought: Peter’s okay. He’s fine. This is all just a joke. He’s studying biology in Alaska or building houses in Haiti or whatever else kids do with their summers or teaching kids how to code. He broke his phone. He moved away. He’s getting homeschooled. He’s at summer camp.

This thought—this lie—keeps her from falling apart completely.

Pepper knows how to disguise herself.

A well-styled wig, a sweatshirt, and a pair of sunglasses, and she’s invisible to the paparazzi. Once the day is over and the night is in full swing, Pepper drives out to the city, all the way to Park Slope in Brooklyn, and she rings Steve Rogers’ doorbell three separate times.


After a series of footsteps, there’s a commotion behind the door—a man and another man arguing—until after ten minutes, the sound of the door unlocking. When it opens, James Buchanan Barnes—Bucky, she remembers—is there, grasping a 9mm handgun with both hands.

“Oh!” she says suddenly, because she wasn’t expecting to see a gun at eleven o’clock at night.

Bucky Barnes is unrecognizable as the man who supposedly killed King T’Chaka at the United Nations conference in 2016; instead of a dark-haired assassin, she finds a well-built man with light eyes, barefoot and dressed in a long-sleeve tee and boxers. His hair’s been lightened a bit—so the espresso brown of his hair is only visible at the roots, and each strand gets progressively lighter, nearly a platinum blonde at the tips.

The former assassin isn’t pointing the gun at her, but behind her—his legs are slightly bent, like he’s ready to run, and he aims the gun at several points behind her, fully scanning the area on the sidewalk, street, and nearby buildings before ushering her inside. Inside, there’s a well-decorated foyer to greet her—heavy drapes over the windows and a stuffed coat rack beside her. Before her is Steve Rogers, who’s shirtless with just a pair of flannel pants.

Bucky’s still clutching the gun so hard that Steve has to rush to him and push it away from Pepper, saying under his breath, “Bucky—Buck, we’re good. We’re okay, we’re good.”

Still keyed up, Barnes makes a huff of annoyance and jerks away from Steve, clicking the safety off of his handgun before rushing to the door and locks it. There are so many locks on their door that it seems almost obscene: a lock chain at the top that he slides into place, a deadbolt below it, a keyed padlock, and another deadbolt below the doorknob. When Bucky’s done, he vanishes into the other room.

“What’s he doing?” asks Pepper, whose mind is still settled on the handgun she saw. She takes off her sunglasses.

Steve shakes his head. “He’s just—don’t worry about it—are you okay?” He’s giving her that up-and-down look—a quick scan of her body for any sign of injury. Tony gives Peter that scan every time he sees the kid. “Did something happen?”

“What?” Oh. “No, no—nothing’s happened. I’m fine. I just needed… There’s something I wanted to ask you. For…your help.”

The man swallows. He looks strange—like he’s just woken up—and his hair is a complete mess. “You wanna sit down?”

Steve Rogers leads her into their dining area, where there’s a small wooden table with four mismatched chairs; a bottle of cabernet sits between two glasses of wine, one mostly empty and the other half-gone. He clears away the glasses with one hand and grabs the bottle with his other one. “There. You want something to drink? Coffee? Tea?”

She shakes her head. “Really, I don’t want to bother you for long—I wasn’t trying to impose—“

Steve gives a hand wave that must mean don’t-worry-about-it and leaves the room to go rustle in what she assumes is their kitchen. She hears glasses clinking and a faucet running—and then, a hushed pair of voices.

“…doing here? Steve… can’t be telling everyone where we… I don’t…”

“…don’t know, Buck. She’s just…tough time… a friend, I promise… sure it’s...”

“…people after her? Why didn’t you tell me?”

A shushing sound. “Buck…told you everything…”

“…wrong, something’s…”

“Bucky. Hey. Nothing…and even if…”

“…don’t like…just showing up…”

“…be okay, I…”

Their voices get lower and lower, dipping into insistent whispering, until finally she hears some shuffling and fabric rustling.

Through the door, both men come through, and they sit at the table with her. They’ve thrown clothes on now, Bucky having gained a cable-knit sweater and black sweatpants, Steve having gained a yellow sweatshirt. Steve sits across from her and pushes a mug to her. Coffee—even though she hadn’t asked for any. “Decaf,” he says. Bucky sits with his chair a couple feet from the table, and his arms are folded. He’s still got the gun gripped in one hand.

“I’m sorry,” says Pepper, although she doesn’t know why. Maybe it’s because Bucky Barnes is glaring at her like she just spit in his coffee. “I really didn’t mean to cause such a—such a problem for you guys, I just…just couldn’t do this over the phone. Don’t know who’s listening.”

Steve smiles and pats his own mug lightly with his fingers. “It’s okay.” His cup smells like coffee, too.

She looks down at the cup. ““Do you remember—the airport fight, in Germany?”

He laughs lightly. “Kinda hard to forget, Pepper.”

“Do you remember there was a kid there—red and blue suit? Shot spiderwebs from his wrists?”

“Oh, yeah. Queens, right? ‘Course I remember him.”

Pepper grimaces. “He… He’s one of Tony’s interns. We spend a lot of time with him—”

“He did seem a little young,” grumbles Bucky.

“—and Tony sees him kind of like a son, I guess.” She fiddles with the mug. “And, he’s missing.”

“Missing?” echoes Steve, as Pepper takes a sip of her coffee. “Like kidnapped?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t know. We thought he was at an internship, but apparently he’s been missing for a couple months now.” She explains the rest, as much as she can without tearing up—the car crash, May’s hospital stay, Tony’s lockdown, Ned’s phone call. “I spent all day trying to find this kid,” Pepper continues, “and I couldn’t even find a clue.” She sighs. “I need your help to find him. I know you’re retired and everything, but I really do. Something’s… Something’s really wrong here.”

“Have you reported him missing?” asks Steve.

She shakes her head. “We can’t! It’s all connected, you see? Tony—Peter—FRIDAY—so if we can find Peter, then Tony will be free, too. I just need your help. Please.”

Bucky and Steve are exchanging looks.

“I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important. This kid… He’s not the kind to just disappear, and no one seems to know where he is.”

“What do you mean,” starts Steve, with his blond brows downturned into a concerned frown, “when you say Tony will be free?”

“He’s trapped,” she says, with a wave of her hand so robust that she almost knocks over her coffee cup. “Because of Peter. He… Peter went missing around the same time, so it all makes sense now. Tony didn’t do any of it on purpose. He did it for Peter.” What is so hard to understand about this?

Another look between the two supersoldiers; Bucky’s still got a firm handle on his handgun.

“Pepper,” says the blonde slowly, “of course we’ll help. But whether or not Tony had a reason for hitting you doesn’t change the fact that he did hit you. It doesn’t make it right.”

Pepper can suddenly taste the bitterness of the coffee on her tongue, and she swallows, but her mouth still tastes the same. “Can I have some sugar?” she asks, ignoring his comment.

Bucky gives her a hard look; his metal arm, of which she can only see his hand, clenches around nothing. “Sure,” says Steve, and he stands to get it.

SUNDAY, JULY 8 - 11:16 PM

Riri is not a fan of the new guy.

He’s apparently some engineering expert who used to work for Tony Stark and has some weird vendetta against the guy, but besides that Quentin Beck acts like he runs the place. He and his five soldiers—granted courtesy of that Ross guy—eat all their food, drink all their liquor, and even snorted up enough of Charlie’s stash that he had to call Ross for more.

And besides that, Beck is always lingering by Parker’s cell: in the middle of the day before he goes in the Chair, in the evening as they’re eating, and even in the middle of the night when they’re all asleep. Tonight, as Charlie and the rest of the crew—including the five new soldiers—are getting high in the barracks, Beck sneaks off into the hallway; Riri follows him.

He’s a little drunk. They were doing shots all evening, and he stinks of cheap beer. He unlocks Parker’s door—there’s a choir of hissed words from Parker and the Lang girl inside—and he slips inside. How the hell did he get the keys?

She inches forth against the wall, listening carefully. Inside the kids’ cell, Quentin Beck is speaking in a low, sultry whisper, but Riri can’t make out any of the words. When she gets to the door, it’s still hanging open, and she can see inside—the Lang girl under the bed, Parker sitting against the wall, Beck looming over him with his mouth by the boy’s ear. Parker’s squirming like a fish out of water, head twisting away from the man’s scruffy chin, and Beck pushes a hand against the kid’s throat to still him.

Loudly, Riri clears her throat and announces, “We’re not supposed to leave their door open.”

Beck gets up from his spot with Parker and smiles, all teeth. “Of course,” he says. “I was just checking on our boy here.”

As soon as Beck’s hand is off his throat, a trembling Parker ducks and glances toward Riri—for a brief moment, his eyes meet hers, and then he hastily dives under the bed.

Beck doesn’t help Charlie with Parker’s live sessions in the Chair—he says he doesn’t like to be on camera—but he does watch from the doorway.

Today, they’ve got Parker locked in the Chair—but they’ve flattened it out into some kind of table-like piece, and Parker’s face-down on his stomach, strapped to it with his arms above his head, ankles and hips and shoulders tied down, his head the only thing free. It’s clearly difficult for the kid to see what’s going on with the way he’s positioned: if he faces front, he gets a faceful of vibranium table; if he turns to either side, his bound arms block his vision; and he’s much too tired to lift his head for more than a few seconds.

His black-chambray jumpsuit has been yanked down to his waist; the empty sleeves dangle from either side of the table. His naked back is a pale sheet of mutilated skin—scars upon scars upon scars. Short, skinny lines from a knife. Pairs of dark spots from a cattle prod. Raw, mottled splotches from a blowtorch.

Like a thing possessed, Parker’s already whimpering—no’s and please’s and oh, god’s—all swamped by this high, croaky whine that comes deep from the kid’s gut. It’s a sound that she’s never heard before Charlie brought them all into the bunker—the whine of a starving foal or a dying pup or a stray cat with its face clawed off.

This place brings out something animal in Parker.

He jerks against the table every time someone even shifts in his direction; his wrists are already bleeding from chafing against his cuffs, and Charlie hasn’t even started yet. If Riri thinks about it, she hasn’t seen Parker without bleeding wrists the entire time she’s known him. He reeks of sweat and blood and grime and a little piss. His hair’s still patchy on one side from the surgery.

Riri tunes out as soon as Charlie puts Stark on speaker. She doesn’t usually come to Parker’s daily sessions, but they have so few people now that Charlie demanded they all come to “make a show of force.” On any average day, Charlie would just knock Parker around a bit, knife him a little, or maybe bring out the sledgehammer if he was feeling particularly violent. But oddly, ever since Quentin Beck showed up, Charlie hasn’t been beating him like usual. He brings out the fancier tools—the electroconvulsive headgear that hangs above the chair, the cattleprod, the blowtorch, and even waterboarding. He says it “makes for a better show.”

Beck’s here, watching with her in the doorway, edged out of the frame of the video. “How old is he?” he asks, not taking his eyes off Parker.

Why the hell does he care? Riri folds her arms. “Like, sixteen?” The man’s gotta be thirty-five, maybe forty. An attractive forty—attractive in a Velvet Buzzsaw, Nocturnal Animals sort of way, but forty nonetheless. So why is he asking about teenagers?

Beck hums, low in his throat. “Think he’s cute?”

Riri feels a twist in her gut. “I guess I've never really thought about it,” she answers carefully.

“I mean you’ve seen him, right?” He tilts his head, and a bit of his brown hair shifts on his forehead. “You’re about his age…”

“I guess,” she says. To her, Parker’s never been much more than a thing, a tool that they’re using to complete Charlie’s plan. She’s not here to think about him in any way other than that.

He’s got a joint in one hand, probably one of Charlie’s: bit of weed, bit of something else… “He sure is something. It’s something in those teary f*cking eyes—god. What I wouldn’t do for a little piece of him… ”

“We only keep him to keep Tony in line,” snaps Riri. “We’re not here to—to—to—”

“—to what?” finishes Beck, and with another puff of his joint, he grins.

By this point, Mason’s started on Parker with a blowtorch, burning neat lines into his back like he’s cooking f*cking pork tenderloin instead of a sixteen-year-old’s skin, and the kid’s screaming so loud that Charlie gets fed up with the noise and stuffs a sock in his mouth for the rest of the session.

They watch the whole thing together. She hates this part—when something in Parker breaks and he devolves into hitched sobs and unintelligible, delirious begging. Usually, Riri’ll hide in the back with Zhiyuan, letting him practice different tattoo designs on her until they finish with the kid, but today—today she’s stuck. She keeps turning and closing her eyes and trying not to listen to his muffled screams. But Beck—Beck keeps his eyes on Peter.

Riri used to read a lot as a kid. Harry Potter, sure, like all the other kids, but honestly any book she could get her hands on. She bounced around so much in foster care that she picked up anything she could find. She remembers the way they used to describe screams in them: bloodcurdling. She never really understood that, not really, until she heard Parker scream like this. It makes her blood curdle into something unrecognizable, congeal into a paste so thick that she can’t move and she can feel every hot, soured pulse in her face and in her neck and in her chest. It’s horrible. Hearing him scream makes everything in her body shrivel a little bit, makes her arms and legs and chest ache with some kind of phantom pain—like she’s under the heat of that blowtorch instead of Peter.

She blinks. There’s that twist in her stomach again, like her intestines have contorted into a snarled knot. Parker, she corrects herself. Not Peter. Parker.

Beside her, Quentin Beck’s face is shining; the overhead fluorescents light up every bead of sweat on his forehead. At first, she thinks it’s from the heat of the blowtorch, but then she sees in her peripheral vision—he’s shifting and shifting and shifting in the doorway.

She moves to say something—maybe, I know this is hard to watch or it won’t go on much longer—but when she turns to look at Beck, his low-lidded eyes are trained on Peter, his mouth is half-open, his tongue is resting on his bottom lip, and his hand is deep in his pants.

Riri’s heart drops into her stomach, and she quickly looks away.

TUESDAY, JULY 10 — 4:04 AM

Tony’s taken apart sixteen different prototypes in the last hour, and honestly—unless something in modern science changes, he can’t make the weapon that Charlie craves so badly.

He keeps going back to the original plans drawn up by HYDRA for this breed of weapon. The first was inspired by a Luger P08 pistol that Schmidt once used in the second World War. According to Cap, he’d narrowly avoided getting vaporized himself by the thing. But the weapon used the power of the Tesseract stored in a unique battery to gather that kind of energy.

Can he even get that kind of power on his own? Is it humanly possible? It’s magic, you ignorant f*ckheads! he wants to scream. I can’t make magic! He’s not Thor, he’s not Loki, he’s not Dr. Steven Strange or any of those magical beings. He’s just…Tony. He’s just Tony Stark. Human being. Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist—he used to say. Whatever that means. All of that’s useless now because even with all of the money, resources, and genius he has, he still can’t save his kid.

Taking sleep supplement pills every hour is keeping him awake, but it’s taking its toll on his body. He can feel himself deteriorating; it feels like his mind’s turning to sand one cell at a time. After hours and hours of work, he’ll find himself on the floor or on the lab table because he’s collapsed. He barely recognizes himself in the mirror anymore—he’s a bearded lunatic—with his graying hair threading through his shaggy, unbrushed hair and his clothes so unwashed that even that Riri girl wrinkles her nose when she opens the door.

He doesn’t even bother checking the doors anymore, doesn’t bother to turn on the PA system outside or check for visitors unless it’s Riri with his supplies. What does it matter if board members come knocking at his door? What does it matter if Rhodey begs him to come outside, if Pepper throws coffee at the front doors, if Happy asks him to come back to work? It won’t change anything—it won’t change the fact that Peter is dying every day that he doesn’t figure out how to create this bullsh*t weapon.

He has to do this. He has to. He doesn’t have the option to throw his hands in the air and give up. If he doesn’t figure this out, Peter will—Peter will—

He’s slapping his forehead so hard it hurts to get rid of the thought. No. Nothing’s going to happen to Peter. He’ll figure this out. He will.

THURSDAY, JULY 12 — 12:24 PM

Just after lunch, Officer Julia Paz and Agent Jimmy Woo head to a morgue just outside the Bronx.

They’ve got a meeting set up with Ross. It’s extremely difficult to get ahold of the man, which is no surprise considering he’s one of the highest-ranking members of the American government. However, Director Coulson gave their case a political boost and helped them get a meeting as soon as possible—set for July 18th, a Wednesday. Until then, however, they’re attempting to gather more evidence—more PCP overdoses, more tattooed corpses… Anything that could help their case.

The medical examiner meets them there with multiple potential victims and a smile. “We’ve had a couple unclaimeds sticking around this place,” says the examiner, as she pulls out a couple corpses from the wall in cold drawers. “Saw the APB you put it out, so I figured I had some bodies that might be useful. Bodies that are unclaimed remain here for six weeks before being buried in unmarked graves. We do still keep track of all their records, though.” She fishes through some papers that are set on top of a long metal table and hands them over. “You know, it’s pretty strange to put one out for this kind of thing—PCP overdose victims? What do we got, some kind of serial killer aiming for addicts?”

“Could be,” says Julia, just as Woo responds, “Unlikely.” She shoots a glare in his direction, but he doesn’t seem to catch it.

The medical examiner continues, “Here we’ve got a Jane Doe—female, probably between the ages of sixteen and twenty, been here about four weeks, died of a PCP overdose. She was found in a dumpster after a few days, so the body had deteriorated quite a bit by the time law enforcement got ahold of it.” She taps the dead girl’s wrist. “Track marks, loads of other drugs in her system when she died… Seemed like a pretty consistent abuser of intravenous drugs, and forensic analysis of her hair shows she was definitely addicted to PCP—for a year at least.”

There’s a few girls on the list that Ty gave her, so this could be one of the female addicts. “Any tattoos?” prompts Julia, taking out her tablet to take notes. “Unusual marks?”

The woman shrugs. “A few half-finished tattoos on her back, but other than that…” The girl’s already face-down on the table, so the examiner simply moves the drapes covering her to expose her back. There, on her dilapidated skin are dark tattoos—a few large floral ones, a couple unfinished faces, and some kind of snakelike tattoo centered at the base of her spine.

No, not snakes. A hydra. It’s missing the skull and the suckers on its tentacles, but it’s definitely the basics of a HYDRA symbol. “See that, Woo?” she says distinctly. “Another HYDRA.”

The medical examiner walks over to another locker in the corner and, after checking the label on the front, yanks open another cold drawer containing a corpse. “This one’s a little stranger. Another Jane Doe—female, between the ages of twenty-five and thirty, found three weeks ago with her head bashed in. She died of the blunt force trauma, but she had so much PCP in her system that without the trauma, she may have died of the overdose otherwise. Want to take a look?”

They undrape the corpse—she’s been clearly embalmed, the body well-preserved, but her bruising and other wounds have been frozen in time by the chemicals. She’s covered in bruises like the ones they saw on Ava Starr’s corpse.

Beside her, Agent Woo snaps photos of the body. This could be another lead. “Any tattoos?” asks Julia Paz again.

The medical examiner nods and turns the girl’s leg a bit so that the officer can see. “There’s one on her thigh here, one behind the ear, and another on the upper shoulder.”

There it is again—a HYDRA symbol on the shoulder. This one’s a little more haphazard, but it’s still clearly a hydra. “Thank you,” says Woo. “We’ll be in touch. If you find any other addicts” —he scrawls the police station number on a card and hands it to her— “or anyone else with tattoos like these, please let us know.”

The woman in the lab coat adds, “There don’t tend to be many PCP overdoses these days. People tend to stay away from that stuff if they can help it—too many horror stories.”

As they head back to the car, Woo starts, “You know, it’s been a couple months. If we find your brother and he’s—

“Don’t say it,” snaps Julia, throwing the passenger’s door open, but she’s already imagining the end of his sentence: ended up like Lyle. Ended up like the two Jane Does at the morgue. Dead. Overdosed. Beaten. Her little brother’s body tossed in a lake or abandoned under an overpass or left in a repossessed house. Abandoned to decompose slowly, like a, never to be found.

Not Charlie. Never Charlie. Not if she can help it. She’s not giving up on him.

FRIDAY, JULY 13 — 10:19 AM

Charlie Keene doesn’t remember exactly what he’s on, but he feels good. First thing in the morning, he shoots up in the barracks and it takes away every ache and pain he’s ever had. He feels so f*cking good that the sweat comes out of him in sweet runnels own his skin. He finds himself humming songs he doesn’t know and walking around the bunker—each floor is like a secret tunnel, each room a hidden treasure.

He’s made for this: action, adventure, intrigue! He feels like James Bond or Jason Bourne or John Wick—no one can stop him. In one room he finds cryogenic chambers; in another he finds a rack of torture equipment—drills, needles, blades, hatchets, and pliers.

He’s practicing with them, swinging the hatchets and brandishing the drills, when that little girl Riri comes in. “Charlie?“ she says, knocking lightly on the door-jamb. “I think we need to get the kids some different food. The McDonald’s are swarming with police now, anyways—all looking for Cassie, so we should probably try something new.” She’s coming closer—don’t come any closer! “And they found McDonald’s wrappers in the car after that crash at the campground, so…”

Charlie picks up some pliers and chuckles. “You need… You need to stop worrying about those kids. They’ll live.”

Riri inches into the doorway, still half a room away from him. “No,” she says, and her tone pisses him off. “No, they won’t. They can’t just eat Happy Meals all day every day. It’s not enough calories for either of them—and the little girl—have you seen her hair?”

“What do you care about the Lang girl’s hair? You don’t see me picking on Lang for his dreads, do you?” He’s referring to Scott Lang’s ratty, unbrushed hair; if they gave him the opportunity to brush his hair, he would, but Lang spends most of his time in that wheelchair by the computer or getting dragged to the toilet by one of the stronger guys. He’s worryingly odd now, like something out of Cuckoo’s Nest, mostly talking to himself or shouting about his daughter—she supposes that’s what happens when you leave someone in the same room every day by themselves except for when you’re torturing a teenager in front of him.

“It’s falling out, Charlie. Her hair is falling out. That's what happens to kids who aren’t getting enough, like, nutrients. They need other foods. Have you heard her sleep at night?”

He scoffs. “I don’t listen to kids sleep—I’m not a f*cking perv.”

Riri looks mad. “No, no, that’s not what I mean. She’s got a rattle in her chest when she breathes—like a—like she’s sick. She’s sick.”

“Well, we’ve got a doctor now,” snaps Charlie. “You made sure of that—so what’s the issue? Send her to him!”

“He can’t fix the nutrients in her f*cking food!” the girl shouts.

Charlie can’t stand another word to come from this stupid girl’s mouth; he stands up tall, taking a step toward her, and she flinches back. Good. She should be afraid. He’s the one in charge, not her.

He comes at her slowly. Her mouth is open as she quite literally backtracks, stumbling backwards into the wall. “I'm sorry,” she says, breathy and quick. “I’m sorry, Charlie, I didn't mean to yell. I—I’m sorry.”

He can smell the fear wafting off the girl like steam out of a boiling pot—and he laughs. He laughs so hard that he brings the hatchet to his chest; when did he pick it up? The hatchet is light as a feather and rusty as a sewage pipe and the girl in front of him looks bewildered as he keeps laughing. “You know,” he says, returning to the rack of metal instruments and placing the hatchet with the rest, “my sister’s like you. Always worrying, always… caring.”

The girl nods; she looks strange—big-eyed and wobble-kneed. “Thanks,” she says quietly. Riri. Riri. Didn’t this girl have a brother once? Yeah, she did—just like Charlie had a sister once.

He still has a sister; right?

“Gonna get you killed if you’re not careful,” he adds, because he knows it’s true.

They’re quiet for a little while. She stands against the wall, unmoving; he stares at her. She looks so much like his sister—not in the way she appears, but in the squint in her eyes and the worry in her fisted hands. “You’re.. You’re a good kid, Riri. A good kid. You’re gonna do great…things.” He looks at her again, staring so deeply that she glances away. She’s got box braids now—when’d she get those?

“Charlie,” she says, with her back still up against the wall, “even if you don’t, like, care about the kids—we still can’t go back to those McDonald’s. Police went through Mateo’s car—there were wrappers in there. They’ve been searching those places like crazy. If we keep going back, we’re gonna get caught.”

Charlie starts laughing again—isn’t this hilarious? She’s so funny, this kid—always makes him laugh. What a good kid. “Fine, fine, whatever, give ‘em some of Stark’s stash. We’ll make another trip to the food pantry when we can.”

Still lingering by the door, Riri adds, “It could be good for us, you know? Having a little more variety in our diet, too. Could be healthy.”

Charlie chuckles.“Riri,” he says, “We’re not gonna live long enough for any diet to save us.”

Notes:

chap title from 'char' by crystal castles

f*ck my life with a chainsaw bc my hairdresser turned my hair legit orange. like ron weasley orange. trying to get it fixed but rn i’m hopping around work looking like a goddamn idiot. pray for me lol

did u guys catch my jake gyllenhaal joke

also i need some character names, one for a male character two chapters from now, thanks guys, thanks for reading

Chapter 14: bad dreams

Summary:

“You’re real fond of that girl, aren’t you, Petey?” Beck shakes the bag again—crinkle, crinkle, crinkle. “Come out here and I’ll give some to you and her.”

Cassie knows how hungry Peter is; after all, she does fall asleep to the sound of his growling stomach every night. Peter licks his chapped lips, glances at her, and says, “Stay here.”

Notes:

chap title from 'acid rain' by lorn

CW: violence, injury, child injury, implied sexual harassment, beck being a dick, references to skip and CSA

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

SATURDAY, JULY 14 — 12:12 PM

It’s noon, and the food slot is open.

There’s a face in the hole—two blinking, brown eyes—and the slow scrape of metal against concrete. Two little tubes roll her way. She jumps backwards— what is that? But when it rolls to a slow stop just a foot from the door, she finds it’s not a knife or a severed limb or a syringe. It’s a can. It’s two cans.

She pokes at the first one gingerly. There are letters on the metal cylinder—and numbers, too. How long has it been since she’s seen numbers and letters? In the old days when they first got here, Peter used to dip his fingers in the running sink-water and write on the concrete walls. He’d teach her multiplication tables and new words and the lore of Star Wars.

But Peter is tired now, and they don’t do that anymore.

She hasn’t seen words like this in so long that it’s hard to focus enough to read them. C-H-E-F. Chef? And then another word, this one much longer, and she almost forgets that she knows letters like y and r . Boyardee . Chef Boyardee! Her eyes drag downwards, and there’s an image of delicious pasta that she can’t remember the name of—a meat-filled pocket that she and Mommy and Daddy used to eat together, in red sauce with yellowy garlic bread.

It’s getting harder and harder to remember the taste of garlic butter, the crunch of toasted bread, the stain of marinara sauce.

She’s so confused. What is this? A trick? The can felt heavy enough to be full. Were they aiming for her head through the food slot? Trying to kill her? Trying to kill Peter? She can’t smell through it—there could be anything could be inside. But if it truly is as the picture says…

….oh, Cassie’s going to get this can open. She wants to sink her teeth into a ravioli. That’s the word, there on the can. Ravioli . B-E-E-F R-A-V-I-O-L-I. She drinks in the words one at a time: new words, words she hasn’t seen since she was home with Mommy and Daddy and Jim.

Peter’s asleep—well, not asleep, but they just hooked up another round of sedatives to his IV, so he’s acting weird again, half-sleeping and half-waking, muttering about different people and places through his chapped lips. His head lolls to one side, then to the other, and there’s drool coming down the side of his face, drying in a white line.

If Peter can’t help her open it, then she’ll have to do it herself. Cassie picks up the other can and shakes it; it’s a green can with a red brand name and words that read: CANNED CORN.

She wants ravioli. Cassie wants ravioli.

This time out loud, she reads it again in a whisper so she doesn’t have to wake Peter: Chef Boyardee: Beef Ravioli in Tomato And Meat Sauce. She pries at the lid of the can with her fingernails—she pries until her nails split and crack and bend and she starts banging it on the ground instead. It clinks and clinks on the concrete floor but she only manages to dent the metal and scratch the label.

Next, she gets the edge of the can in her mouth, wedging her tooth under the aluminum lip in an attempt to pry it up. Nothing—just a strain on her small mouth. She tries again, biting down harder this time, and she pulls with her hands and with her teeth— pop! A flash of pain, and like the blinding white flash of a camera, the pain’s gone as soon as it came, replaced by a rush of heat in her mouth. She cries out, clapping her hand to her lips, and there’s a little stone rolling around on her tongue.

Cassie spits it into her palm: a tooth .

She feels around in the gap—it’s just that, a gap in her mouth, and she’s suddenly so startled that she forgets to breathe. Maybe it’s the sudden smell of blood or the sound of her crying, but Peter wakes up, lifting his heavy head from their mattress-less bed to look around in a groggy panic. He’s scanning the entire room, each corner—sink, bed, toilet, door—and she doesn’t wait for him to get up. She launches herself onto the bed, climbing up to him and hugging him so tightly that he makes a gurgly, pained sound.

He finds the source quickly, mostly because she’s got her good hand clasped tightly over her mouth; “They get you?” he says, and his words are still a little slurred from the drugs. He’s checking her for more wounds, touching lightly at her arms for marks, tilting her neck to look for bruises, and searching her legs for scrapes. Even half-asleep from sedatives, he knows what to do.

He thinks this was Charlie. She shakes her head furiously, still crying, and he pries her hand away to examine the damage. A hole where her front tooth used to be—was she ever going to have a tooth there again? She cries harder, hugging Peter around the belly, and he’s talking now, sitting up against the wall. He’s rocking her and speaking in soft, gentle tones, “It’s just a tooth, it’s just a tooth…” Her sobs calm into hiccups and her hiccups into gasps—yet the whole time, Peter holds her and lets her bury her face in his bloodstained jumpsuit. “You never lost a tooth before?”

She keeps crying.

Peter’s holding her and rocking and patting her back and she feels like she’s back in her Mommy’s arms, which only makes her sadder. His arms are skinny like a skeleton’s, skinny like hers. “It’s okay… It’s normal, it happens to everybody, happens to everybody…”

It takes a while for Cassie to calm down. Losing a tooth is scary. She points him to the cans—one with yellow corn, the other with meat ravioli, and she watches his face warp into something like excitement. It’s rare she sees his face like this.

They sit on the floor: Peter sitting against the wall like always, Cassie sitting close to the bed. He turns over the cans in his hands, and he pulls each can up to his face and inhales deeply, just like she did, and smiles—he’s happy . “Ravioli,” he says, like he’s in church and he’s praising it.

He tries to open it, but he only manages to bend the metal cans. “I used to be stronger,” he says, as his smile fades.

Cassie remembers. He did use to be stronger. He could make cracks in the concrete walls and break people’s arms with one hit and stick to the ceiling to surprise their captors. But now, he didn’t have the energy to hit the wall or break bones or stick to anything.

Peter slides over to the door and slaps against it with his open palm. “Hey! We need a can opener!”

There’s some scuffling on the other side, some arguing, and some more scuffling—but after a couple of minutes, a shiny metal object slides through the food slot, followed by another can. More cans! More food! She reads it, too: Baked Beans.

Cassie watches in awe as Peter clasps the can opener in his hand—his wrists are bandaged from those metal cuffs they put him in. They’re always bandaged—he keeps opening up those wounds every time he goes for one of Charlie’s sessions. Peter twists and twists the handle until at last he pulls the opener away from the can and then pries the lid up with his fingernails.

They stare at it together—it’s a treasure trove, the most glorious thing she’s ever seen, and they’re careful not to spill it. Peter says, “Careful, the edges are sharp,” and she nods, just taking in the delicious smell.

They eat it by the handful, scooping out each piece of ravioli in turns, tracing their fingers on the inside to get the last traces of red sauce. Then Peter opens up the can of corn—they eat each yellow kernel, chewing and chewing, and take turns drinking the leftover corn-flavored juice at the bottom of the can. Then the baked beans, scooping it out with their bare hands and sucking the leftovers from beneath their fingernails.

When they’re done eating and their tummies are mostly full, they lay on the ground and play a game Peter made up called ‘When I Get Home.’

“When I get home,” says Cassie, after a moment of thought, “I’m gonna put my tooth under my pillow. So the Tooth Fairy can find it and give me a present.”

Peter hums. “Good one, Cass. Um…. When I get home, I’m gonna… I’m gonna text all my friends.”

“When I get home, I’m gonna get a dog!” says Cassie excitedly.

“Me, too,” says Peter.

“And I’m gonna let him eat whatever he wants.”

He laughs. “Me, too.”

She can almost see the dog in her head—a big one, with a slobbery pink tongue and a wet nose and a pair of soft ears. “He’s gonna be huge and chubby and bigger than me and he’s gonna protect me from all the bad guys and he won’t poop on the carpet.”

Peter laughs again; he’s got a hand on his tummy. “When I get home, I’m gonna go to the Cheesecake Factory.”

“I love the Cheesecake Factory!”

“And I’m gonna eat and eat until my stomach is so full it hurts—“

“—and then cheesecake!”

“Yes,” says Peter tiredly, with a pleasant lilt to his voice, “and then cheesecake.”

“Chocolate cheesecake!”

“Chocolate and raspberry and key lime and whatever you want, sure.”

Cassie lights up. “You mean I can come with?”

Peter finds the little girl’s hand beside him. “Of course you can come with. I wouldn’t go without you, Cass.”

“Can I have some of your cheesecake?”

“Cassie Lang,” says Peter with a smile, “you can order whatever the hell you want.”

Cassie’s grinning so hard that her face is beginning to hurt. “Chocolate?”

“Yeah. Of course.”

“Can I have pasta? Two bowls?”

“Sure, Cass. You can have two bowls.”

“Three?”

“As many bowls as you want.”

WEDNESDAY, JULY 18 — 8:59 AM

Officer Paz and Agent Woo have been waiting at the Pentagon for over an hour when Secretary Ross finally arrives.

“Sorry for the wait,” he says. His hair is nearly all white—his groomed mustache, his side-parted grays—yet his face is relatively taut for someone in his late sixties. He smiles, and the Secretary shakes both their hands in a firm grip. “Phil sent you?”

With a slight annoyance, Woo answers, “Director Coulson did, yes.”

“Good, good. Follow me, please.”

The Pentagon is full of long, tiled hallways and decorated soldiers in uniform. Julia Paz finds herself nodding politely to everyone who walks by, although most of them barely make eye contact with her.

On their way to his office, they pass a teenage girl in a violet collared dress—perhaps a secretary?—who waves them in with a nervous smile. Her nametag reads Kate.

First, Ross addresses the reason they came. “Phil mentioned something about a missing persons case?”

“That’s right.” Julia gives Ross the same spiel that she gave Coulson before: a large group of addicts went missing, many of whom are now turning up dead, with a tattoo matching the HYDRA symbol on their bodies. And, most importantly, that one of the remaining addicts had told her they were staying in a ‘dungeon’ of some kind with snake-like symbols. “…so we assumed he meant HYDRA bases.”

“Former bases,” Agent Woo chimes in.

This office is much more sterile than Phil Coulson’s—every wall is white, and his massive desk is all made of gleaming marble. “Yes,” agrees Officer Paz. “Coulson told us that only the Department of Defense had jurisdiction over former HYDRA bases.”

Ross gives a mustached smile. “Yes, ma’am, that’s true.”

There’s something slimy about the way he talks, like he’s prepared the whole conversation ahead of time. “It’s Officer,” she corrects.

“Right,” says the Secretary, although he doesn’t correct himself or apologize.

“Well,” she continues, “given the evidence we’ve collected on our case, we were wondering if we could get access to the HYDRA bases. Just to check up for our missing people.”

“Missing junkies,” adds Ross with a chuckle.

At once Julia wants to punch the mustached man; Jimmy Woo nudges his shoe against hers as though to say calm down. “Addicts are people, too, Mr. Secretary,” she says stiffly. “When they go missing, they deserve a search party as much as anyone else. If you could just take a look at these names, these faces… Maybe you recognize some of them. It would be a great help if you did.”

Officer Julia Paz pushes forth a stack of papers: mugshots of some addicts, family photos of others, and rehab ID photos for even more. Names for each of them.

Ross denies knowing each.

“What about this one?” she prompts. “Charlie Keene?” She doesn’t mention that Charlie’s her brother; with their different last names, how would Ross ever know?

“I told you, I don’t know any of these people—I don’t associate with junkies and criminals—do you know who I am?”

“Secretary Ross, sir,” she starts; her aggression’s seeping into her words, and Woo nudges her again so she’ll stop. “I’m simply asking if you’ll take a look—”

Secretary Ross clearly does not like being challenged, because he sits up straight and gives Julia and her partner a hard stare. “Unfortunately, no matter which homeless screwup you’re looking for, I can’t allow every rent-a-cop this side of the Mississippi to go through highly classified HYDRA locations.”

“Former HYDRA locations,” adds Woo for a second time.

Aggravated, Ross blinks with gritted teeth at Agent Woo. “Yes, former HYDRA locations. They’re classified, they’re dangerous—I can’t just let anyone who asks inside!”

“How can they be dangerous?” the officer presses. “They’re abandoned! If we could just get a military escort to visit each location—”

“It’s out of the question!”

“I’m not asking to open them up to the public, Mr. Secretary, I’m just asking to look inside for these missing people—”

“Missing junkies!” shouts Ross, and his rush of anger is so noticeable that Julia Paz wrinkles her nose. “What do you care about a few addicts?”

“Sir—” she tries.

The man lets out a hiss of aggravation through his nose. “Wherever they are, I’m sure they’re not up to anything good! So, Officer, I’d drop it if I were you. Because neither you nor anyone else is getting inside those bunkers.” He stands up, giving them both a hard grimace of a smile. “Thank you for coming, but I’m afraid your trip was for nothing. Good luck on your missing persons case.”

They’re escorted out by Ross’ secretary, that dark-haired girl named Kate. She leads them through each winding hallway until finally they reach the front doors. “It was a pleasure to meet you,” says Kate, and oddly, she gives them both a hug before she goes.

It’s strange, but she’s young—Julia’s seen teenagers do stranger, so she dismisses it.

They say goodbye to the secretary and head for the parking lot, where their unmarked NYPD car awaits—a blue mid-sized sedan. After shutting the car doors and buckling, Woo starts to rant about how much of an asshole Ross is, complaining about unprofessionalism and anger management issues, when Julia spots something odd.

Inside Woo’s chest pocket is a small piece of paper. It’s visibly poking out of the blue pocket, and she plucks it out, much to Jimmy Woo’s surprise. “Whoa—what the hell?”

Officer Paz waves the paper at him. She unfolds it quickly—it looks like the ripped corner of an empty form. On the blank side of the torn paper is a series of words written in a purple-ink pen. Woo leans over to read it, too.

It reads: Meet me at Wendy’s. Saturday—7pm.

There’s no signature and no name. Plus, there’s only one person who got close enough to them to slip something into Woo’s pocket: Kate , that dark-haired secretary.

But why would Ross’ secretary want to talk to them?

FRIDAY, JULY 20 — 3:14 PM

Life’s getting better for Peter and Cassie. She knows because they get to eat more now—three or four cans for every meal. Usually, Peter eats three and she eats one (or, if there’s only three, then she eats one and Peter eats two), but they taste really good.

Because he’s eating more, Peter’s healing much better, and he stops sleeping so much. He plays games with her more, and he is able to stand again as his bad leg heals, to hobble to the sink and back without Cassie’s help. They’re playing another game—Tea Party, filling the empty cans with water so they can sip royal tea out of them—when Peter hears footsteps down the hall.

Cassie’s good at listening, but not as good as Peter. The older boy freezes so abruptly that he drops his cup of “royal tea” and Cassie has to catch it so it doesn’t spill everywhere. “Iron Man,” he alerts.

Cassie wants to keep playing, but she knows what that means. Hide. Now. She takes her can with her and slides beneath the bed as far as she will go, and Peter goes, too, blocking Cassie underneath with his body.

A few seconds later—there’s the sound of the key in the lock, the metallic jingle of a key ring, and the screech of the heavy cell door against its frame.

Beck.

He’s in the doorway, closing the door behind him; in the cell light, his brown hair looks almost like copper. It’s brushed and washed and swept to the back of his head. Cassie doesn’t have a brush anymore. Or shampoo. Or conditioner. Why does he get it and she doesn’t? It’s not fair. Mommy used to do her hair in the morning before school—in braids, in pigtails, in buns—now, Cassie combs daily with her fingers and feels it fall out in bunches.

Cassie watches through the barred legs of the bed. Beck’s got a plastic bag dangling from two fingers and he holds it out to Peter like a prize pig. “Got a little present for you, Peter,” he says, in a light, sing-like tone. “You want to come out from under there?”

He sounds gentle and nice; Cassie pokes Peter in the chest. “Peter, look—” she starts.

“Cass,” says Peter, a warning.

“But he has presents—”

Peter shakes his head sharply, just once, and Cassie shuts up.

Squatting by their hiding spot, Beck shakes the bag by Peter’s head. “Come on, Petey… Don’t be a poor sport. I brought you something.” He fishes through the bag, and there’s the sound of a crinkling wrapper. “Pop-tarts. You want one?”

She swears that when the wrapper rips open that Peter’s eyes dilate to full black circles. She can feel it in her belly, too—the hunger . They’re both so hungry that a couple of pop-tarts make their mouths fill with pools of hungry saliva.

“Strawberry,” Beck says, and Cassie can smell them, too. Strawberry. “My favorite. Does little Cassie want one?”

“No,” says Peter rigidly, before Cassie can say anything. “She doesn’t.”

But Cassie does want some pop-tarts. She would do anything for some pop-tarts. “But I want—”

“Cassie,” says Peter, and his voice is like the serrated side of a steak knife. “I said no.”

Beck is smiling still. “You’re real fond of that girl, aren’t you, Petey?” He shakes the bag again— crinkle, crinkle, crinkle. “Come out here and I’ll give some to you and her.”

Cassie knows how hungry Peter is; after all, she does fall asleep to the sound of his growling stomach every night. Peter licks his chapped lips, glances at her, and says, “Stay here.”

Then he slides out from under the bed, dragging his bad leg behind him, and struggles into a standing position—Beck stands with him. With the bed in her way, she can only see the bottom half of their bodies now.

They’re talking—whispering, really—hushed enough that Cassie can’t make any of it out. She watches as Beck’s shoes come closer and closer to Peter’s bare feet, Peter standing heavily to one side so as not to lean on his broken leg.

Beck’s hand and the bag move closer; when Peter’s grimy hand reaches for it, the brown-haired man snatches it back before he can touch it. “What do you say, Petey?”

Peter stands completely still for a second. His legs don’t move, not even the messed-up one. He doesn’t say a word.

She can’t see their faces, but she can see Beck take another step towards Peter, so now their feet are nearly touching; Beck’s shoe scuffs against Peter’s toe, and he jerks his foot back so fast that he trips and falls backward onto the bed with a yelp.

Now Peter’s above her on the bed, shifting over the concrete bed frame.

Above her, Cassie can hear Peter’s breathing—too fast, way too fast—as Beck moves even closer, legs between Peter’s, bending over him. She can’t say Beck’s hands, but it sounds like a struggle—like the scuffle of arms against arms and legs against legs—until finally they both stop moving.

There’s a whimper, and it’s followed by a stretch of silence so loud that Cassie holds her breath.

“I said, ‘What do you say? ” repeats Beck, deathly quiet.

Peter’s voice is high-pitched and coarse. “Thank you,” he says. Peter always sounds so weird whenever Beck comes—maybe because he’s not used to people being nice to him, or maybe because he doesn’t like Beck very much. Peter didn’t like Ava very much, either—he doesn’t like any of them, not even the nice girl Riri.

“You’re welcome,” Beck says, sounding pleased, and then he lets go of the plastic bag.

In only seconds, he’s gone, and Peter slides onto the floor and he starts shaking. She’s seen him do this many times—curl into a ball on the floor making shudders, suffocated noises until he’s calm—but this time feels different.

Peter doesn’t cry. He doesn’t hug himself, either. His arms hover above his calves and his legs are slightly parted—both his knees and his feet separated—like he doesn’t want his body parts to touch. He looks weird, and his eyes look even stranger—his gaze is entirely blank, like if Cassie waved her hand in front of his eyes he wouldn’t see her. His hair sticks to his forehead; she calls out, “Peter?”

It’s in moments like this that Cassie remembers people aren’t supposed to look the way Peter does all the time: skinny as a Halloween skeleton, mottled by a rainbow of bruises, bandaged around his wrists, exhausted by each coming day, paled by the lack of sun, stitched in every limb, and scarred in white lines and dark spots and knife-marks beneath his chin.

There isn’t a part of him unscathed.

Peter doesn't respond to her calling his name; his eyes are locked on a spot on the wall. When she twists her head to look at it, she can’t find anything. What’s he looking at? “Peter?” she says again. He hasn’t told her it’s okay to come out yet. Is it safe? Maybe it’s not safe. Maybe that’s why Peter’s so quiet. She whispers his name this time: “Peter?” The door is closed, and there are no footsteps—so they’re safe, aren’t they?

Peter has fallen onto his side now, and his knees are drawn towards him.

The plastic bag is closest to Cassie—it’s half-spilled where Beck dropped it. There’s the open pop-tart! It’s a bright blue wrapper and inside—oh, that smell. It’s strawberry and frosting and pastry and sprinkles, and the first bite is like a mouthful of liquid paradise. The pop-tart is so sweet that it hurts her teeth, but she keeps eating, biting into the blissfully red insides. She catches any fallen crumbs in her hands so she can eat them from her palms.

When she’s done, Cassie licks the wrapper clean and bites at her fingernails for any semblance of sweetness that remains.

There’s more in the bag, too: four more packages of pop-tarts—each with two strawberry tarts inside—and a bottle with a hand-pump dispenser, like for shampoo or lotion or hand sanitizer. She pulls it out of the bag; inside sloshes a purple fluid. Sweet Lavender Body Wash , the bottle reads.

Why's Peter acting so weird over a bottle of soap?

It takes hours for Peter to pull himself out of his weird trance; by the time he lifts his head, Cassie’s still under the bed. She’s eaten all the pop-tarts but has left the soap alone. She doesn’t like the smell.

Her tummy is full—pleasantly, painfully full—from all the pop-tarts. She could probably eat a hundred more if Beck gave them to her. She hopes he comes in tomorrow with more.

SATURDAY, JULY 21 — 7:08 PM

They go to several Wendy’s closest to the Pentagon; inside the third restaurant, they find the young secretary engrossed in her phone, dressed in an NYU sweatshirt and high-waisted jeans. Kate , Woo remembers. He’s spent enough time with teenagers to know that she’s not doing anything in particular on her phone—the girl’s just trying to look busy.

Woo orders a couple of meals at the front; Paz slides into the booth across from the girl, who’s currently gnawing her bottom lip into a mess of blood and skin. “Hey,” she says, like they’re meeting for a chat and not to discuss one of the most powerful men in America. “You got my message.”

Julia nods, setting her bag down beside her. “I’m Officer Julia Paz. Up there” —she gestures generally to Jimmy Woo, who’s still waiting for their food— “is my partner Agent Woo.”

The girl gives a nervous nod. “I’m Kate. Kate Bishop. I’m sorry about the location, I—I wanted somewhere public, but… ” There’s a sudden flush to her cheeks. “I wrote it, like, so last-minute… I literally didn’t have time to think of anything good.”

“That’s okay,” says Julia. “I’m glad you came to us at all.” She addresses some of the more important business—identifying Kate, setting up a tape recorder, and signing immunity from testimony forms—before they question her. When they’re done and Woo has returned with the food, Officer Paz asks, “Is there something you wanted to tell us?” She and Jimmy Woo had discussed how they were going to address this—Kate hadn’t given any cue on what she was going to tell them, so they planned to ask only open-ended questions.

The girl digs her hands into the pocket of her sweatshirt. She’s got food in front of her: some half-eaten bacon fries and a frosty. “I think I’ve got some information that might help you with your…missing persons thing.”

“Okay,” says Julia, settling deeper into the booth.

The young secretary shakes her head slightly, like she’s telling herself to stop. “But I’m only supposed to do this job for, like, a semester and a half, and I don’t wanna get caught up in anything shady. I figured—you guys are police, right? Maybe you could do something about it.”

Agent Woo: “Do something about what?”

“The thing is,” Kate continues, “I think… I think my boss has been up to, like, some really shady sh*t the past few months.”

Officer Paz prompts, “Why’s that?”

The girl grimaces, and she looks around, like she expects Ross to pop in through one of the Wendy’s windows. “I don’t know—like, everything. He has me calling people I’ve never heard of, but he doesn’t let me talk to them… He’s getting, like, a ton of anonymous packages all marked” —she puts the next couple words in air quotes— “‘Project Manticore.’ And, like…” She swallows. “And this is why I’m telling you guys, it's like… I heard him getting pissed at the news. The news. And like, I mean, that’s totally normal for old guys in politics, but he’s not getting mad at, like, CNN or FOX or whatever else. He’s getting mad at, like, local news. People dying. People overdosing. Like, the most random things. For the first time at like that girl who died—Amy Starr? The fugitive?”

“Ava,” corrects Julia gently.

“Yeah, her. And then at like those guys who crashed at the campground in New Hampshire—he just starts screaming and cursing, like it affected him personally.” She shakes her head. “I know that’s not a lot to go on, I’m just… He’s mentioned some people, too.”

Agent Woo scribbles in his notepad before asking, “What people?”

“I’m not sure…” the girl starts, stirring her frosty with a plastic straw. “I don’t think I’m supposed to be telling you this, but he’s said that guy’s name a lot. The guy he said he didn’t know. The guy you’re looking for.” She looks straight at Julia when she says it. “Charlie. Charlie Keene.”

Julia and Jimmy exchange looks. “How much?”

“I don’t know—um… Once a week, at least.”

She’s only a college student doing a summer job, yet somehow Kate Bishop has been their most valuable asset thus far. “What are some of these other names?”

Kate shrugs; her hair is tied back in a single braid, which shifts over her shoulder as she moves. “It's never anything useful. Parker. Lang. Nick. All, like, super common names. I could make you a list, if you want.”

Lang , thinks Julia. How funny. That’s the last name of little Cassie’s dad. It’s the back half of Cassie’s last name: Cassandra Marie Paxton-Lang. Julia tries not to mix up the different cases she’s working on, so she dashed the thought. “Did you hear any full names?” asks Agent Woo.

Kate shakes her head. She’s got a backpack too, and from it she pulls out a stack of crumpled papers. “But I’ve been keeping track of a few other things—because, I don't know, I guess my generation doesn’t trust anyone in power” —the girl laughs to herself— “but, like, I thought maybe I could use it against him. If anything ever came out about him doing something.”

“Thank you, Kate,” says Agent Woo. “That’s very helpful.”

Julia’s still hung up on the girl’s previous statement. “What do you mean—about him doing something?” she presses.

“I don’t know,” the young secretary responds. “I figured you could tell me.”

The law enforcement pair keep inquiring about what she knows—names, places, conversations—but she’s hesitant to tell-all in such a public place. When they finally get to the topic of the HYDRA bunkers, Kate shakes her head. “I’ve never been,” she says. “I’ve never even seen a map of those places. I don’t get access to that kind of information.”

“Do you know someone who might?”

“Maybe,” she says. “I mean, if you can’t get it from Secretary Ross, then… You could always try people who were there before him. There’s a lot of those guys on government watch.”

Before? “What do you mean, before?”

The girl shrugs again. Her frosty’s finished now, and Kate pushes the empty cup away. “HYDRA guys who got pardoned for turning in their bosses. People who were held captive and, like, tortured in their bunkers. There’s still a ton of them out there.”

“Do you think you could get some of that information for us?”

For the first time this evening, Kate Bishop gives a mischievous smile. “I think I could.”

MONDAY, JULY 23 — 3:49 AM

Peter’s dreams are sticky and colloidal, a pool of quicksand that clings to his ankles and drags him down.

He dreams of Skip. He dreams he’s a kid again and Skip’s sitting next to him in the library with gelled hair and a hand brushing against his knee. “ Hey, ” he says, in that sickly sweet voice. “ Haven’t I seen you around here before?”

He’s holding a book and he’s trapped between the aisles and he’s only eight years old. He’s too small to understand and he’s too shy to do anything other than shrug.

My name’s Steven,” says the older boy, “ but you can call me Skip .”

The boy is faceless with white-blonde hair and Peter is eight years old. He’s eight years old and he’s in his bedroom. His palms are small and his fingers are smaller and Skip’s got his large hand pressed against his bare stomach and there’s a movie playing in front of him but his vision’s gone blurry and sideways and he can’t tell what it is. “ Bet you’ve never seen pictures like those in a textbook.”

He’s eight years old and he’s naked and he’s laying on his stomach but he can’t remember why. There are spots of blood on his Star Wars sheets and his teddy bear is on the floor.

He looks around and his clothes—he’s in a black prisoner’s uniform, and his legs are long and grimy and scarred. He looks up and it’s Beck standing in his bedroom—with his brown hair and his white teeth, but his face… His face is blurry. He’s faceless. He opens his mouth, and he says with a smile, “ Come on, Einstein, let’s conduct a little experiment of our own!”

And he’s backing up against the wall but he can’t move—he’s trapped—he’s in the Chair and Charlie’s grinning above him with a hammer in one hand, and he can’t move

—he wakes up with a choked gasp, and he’s in bed next to Cassie. She’s still asleep. Her breath comes in raspy wheezes; she always sounds like that now.

He’s still breathing so hard he’s practically hyperventilating—still feeling a phantom hand around his wrist and a coil of dread in his chest—so he gets up, moving carefully around the little girl.

He limps to the sink; his knee is still f*cked. It hasn’t been the same since Charlie hit it with that hammer. The doctor keeps fixing it up when he can, but according to him, ‘there’s only so much he can do for shattered bone.’

He rinses his hands and rubs his face until the dream starts to fade. Beside the sink is a bottle, a hand-pump bottle of lavender soap.

He can still smell Beck’s smoker breath and what he said while Cassie hid. Clean yourself up , he said, quiet enough that Cassie couldn’t hear, tapping the crinkly bag with his hand, and I’ll bring you more.

More food? he asked, and he hated that he sounded like he was begging.

Beck smiled. More food, more anything.

Peter lathers up a handful of the soap and washes his hands first, then his arms, then his neck and upper chest.

Peter’s not stupid; he knows what this means. He sees the way that Beck stares, with dark, hungry eyes. He knows what Beck wants. He just hopes that the soap will be enough until they can find a way out of here.

He does his feet next, his ankles and calves, and when he’s rolling up his pants to do his knees, he hears, “Peter?”

Cassie’s awake.

They always sleep like that—in the same place—so Cassie’s not used to being alone. Maybe that’s why she woke up. He looks over at the girl, and she’s rubbing her eyes and blinking at him. “Hey, Stinger.”

She’s still lying down, just twisting her neck to see him at the sink. “Peter, what are you doing?”

“Go back to bed, Cass.”

“Okay,” she says. But, of course, she doesn’t move or close her eyes or go back to bed. She’s seven and confused, so she keeps staring at him. “That’s the stuff Mr. Beck gave you.”

For some reason, it infuriates him that she calls him that. “Yeah,” he says.

“It smells weird.”

“Yeah, well, some people think it’s nice.”

He hears her sniff, and then cough, and then sniff again. “I don't think it’s nice.”

Peter really has no qualms about lavender. Not until today, he supposes. He keeps lathering up and washing, ignoring the girl in hopes she’ll forget about it and fall asleep.

Just when he thinks Cassie might’ve gone back to sleep, he hears a raspy little voice: “Can I try?“

They don’t get a lot of opportunities to try new things— or , thinks Peter, old things that they’ve long since forgotten. That must be why Cassie's so intrigued by the soap. “No,” he says.

“Why?”

Peter sighs. “Because it’s not for you.”

“But why?”

“Because Beck said so.”

“But why?”

“Cassie…” Peter sighs. Peter’s tired. Peter’s so f*cking tired. He doesn’t want to explain this to Cassie; he doesn’t want to go to sleep smelling like sweet lavender . Finally, he says tiredly, “Cass, I don't want to talk about this anymore. Go back to sleep.”

“Okay,” she says, and she lasts barely a minute or two before he hears: “Peter?”

“Yes?”

“I can't sleep.”

“All right,” he says, as he washes the excess soap off. “I’m coming back.”

Notes:

yes i'm changing my username, don't be surprised if it changes again next week lol, i'm trying to find something good.

also i'm writing another rando character, who wants to be an old lady in the woods (👀👀👀), i'll need a first name, personality maybe, some physical traits too?

Chapter 15: all the things i've seen

Summary:

When she turns around, she sees Peter: he’s on his hands and knees over the half-remains of that brown book, crying. “Oh, God—” he manages, and he falls into a weird sitting position, kind of leaned up against the bed-railing. “Oh, God, oh, God.”

Notes:

what's up guys, sorry about no chap last week, i was moving in to school. now i've set up shop and i've got a chapter a little early for you guys. as a sorry for last week. i finished writing it and was like hell yeah i'll just post it now.

title is from the song 'leaving' by sidewalks and skeletons

some major CWs this chap, so fair warning. srsly skip the whole thing if ur not up for it.

CW: implied mentions of CSA, beck being a perv, f*cky consent stuff, non-penetrative sexual assault, non-explicit sexual assault, violence against a minor, references to torture/violence

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

FRIDAY, JULY 27 — 7:20PM

Tony can’t help the tears streaming down his face. “Wait,” he gasps into the phone. “ Wait .”

On the television, Peter is shaking. Charlie’s got the muzzle of a gun pressed to his chin and he’s crying. “Tell him, Parker,” he snaps.

His kid is sobbing, and blood slides from Peter’s nose into his mouth. “You have to,” he sobs, “You have to finish the—have to finish—”

Charlie slams the gun against his head and the kid goes limp; the addict turns and faces the camera. “You getting used to this, Stark? You like watching your kid bleed?”

“No,” Tony chokes out. “No, of course not—“

“THEN WHY ARENT YOU f*ckING FINISHED YET??”

“I’m trying,” he cries, “I'm trying, I’m doing my best, what you want isn’t easy, I’m so close—“

“—THEN FINISH ALREADY!”

“I'm trying, I'm working as fast as I can!”

“I'm sending Riri for your next prototype in two days. TWO DAYS, YOU HEAR ME?? AND IT BETTER WORK!”

Tony’s nodding like a bobblehead, the whole time his eyes trained on the unconscious Peter, who’s starting to stir awake. “Yes, yes, of course, this one’ll—it’ll be much better—”

At Charlie’s command, a man beside Peter socks him in the chest; Peter doubles over in the chair.

FRIDAY, JULY 27 — 9:44 PM

His injuries aren’t bad today: a gash in his forehead, scattered bruises over his torso, a quickly-darkening black eye, and another break in his crooked nose. The head’s the worst part—it still rings, and he has trouble understanding Cassie when she talks to him, asking if he’s okay. “I’m good,” he says, before swaying and falling into the wall. His lip’s bleeding, too—when did that happen?

The little girl helps him onto their concrete slab of a bed, letting him lean on her for support as he staggers a couple feet and collapses onto the bed. He’s scrubbed clean, the laceration in his forehead stitched up nicely by the doctor, the bruises smeared with ointment, but it doesn’t change the fact that he still hurts. “Anyone come in here while I was gone?” he asks.

“Nobody,” she says.

Peter nods—and immediately regrets the motion, because it forces a wave of nausea through his stomach that drags up into his throat. “Good.”

That only remains true for another few minutes before they hear footsteps coming to their door. The footsteps are light and confident—Beck’s—and immediately followed by a man’s light humming. “Iron Man,” says Peter sharply, and he struggles to push himself off the bed.

Instead of going under the bed like he just told her to, Cassie looks at him, a smile creeping onto her face. “Is that Mr. Beck?” she asks, perking up.

There’s a sudden twist in Peter’s gut, like the twist of a serrated knife. “Get under the bed,” he snaps, sounding more like a soldier than a companion, and she scampers beneath the bed to her usual spot.

Peter can’t gather the energy to push himself off the bed; he imagines the impact of falling, the pain that will surely reverberate through his body once he hits the ground, and can’t make himself move. He grabs the bed-railing and barely starts to push himself to the ground when there’s the sound of a key in their cell door.

When the door opens, it’s Quentin Beck. He’s dressed in a Cornell sweatshirt and a pair of loose jeans, and his hands are dirty—maybe from working on the weapon. He smiles. “Peter Parker,” he says, and Peter feels his whole body freeze up. He feels suddenly gray and wan, like an age-faded painting or an overwound rubber band or a book left out in the rain.

Beck closes the space between them in seconds; Peter scrambles back, but Beck gets a hand on his leg and squeezes his knee with a vice-grip, five fingers strong enough around his broken kneecap that Peter cries out in pain. There’s hands on him, and he gasps, a primitive noise—

Peter finds himself flat on his back, and a familiar panic floods him like a bucket of ice water. There’s a weight on top of him—a man’s knees pinning his thighs to the bed, a man’s hand pinning both his wrists above his head, a man’s sturdy torso leaned above him. At once, he forgets where he is, and he feels like something vivisected: a fly or a frog or a fetal pig pinned to an aluminum tray. “Wait, wait, wait—”

Beck’s kneeling on him.

The panic tangles around him like a bloodstained bedsheet; Peter thrashes, trying to twist away from Beck, but his knees and calves drive a massive pressure on Peter’s thighs, too heavy to throw off; the man only thrusts his hand into Peter’s chin until he’s got his whole chin grasped tightly in his thick fingers.

Peter can’t move . He’s helpless, left to heave each breath through fear-speckled lungs; Beck’s knees are on his thighs. Beck’s knees are on his thighs . He tries to say something, but the man’s fingers pinch the skin of his chin and he loses all ability to speak.

Beck’s fingers are on his face now, pressing and caressing, prodding at each bone and each freckle, spreading each fingertip over the bruised skin of his face like he’s searching for the perfect peach in the fruit aisle. The man laughs—something dark and lusty—and Peter’s legs go prickly and numb. “ God , you’re so f*cking—“ There’s a noise from the back of his throat. He leans forward, pressing Peter’s chin up to bare his throat, and inhales deeply at Peter’s neck, the heat of his breath thick with cigarette smoke as he exhales. “How old are you? Fifteen? Sixteen?”

Peter's mind becomes something blank and poreless. He keeps thinking: eight, eight, eight. I'm eight years old.

Fingers slip down to his throat; thumbs press into his windpipe; sweat-soaked horror alights in his chest. “I said,” repeats Beck, “how old are you?”

“Seventeen,” says Peter, and his voice sounds half a world away.

“Hm,” says the man, and he smells like sweat. “Thought you were jailbait with that face…” Dipping his face into the crook of Peter’s neck, he takes another deep inhale. “And you smell f*cking delicious . Did you wash like I told you to?”

Above him, Beck suddenly looks ten sizes too big, and Peter feels ten sizes too small; he’s Alice in Wonderland, and Beck’s face is all he can see. Espresso-brown eyes. Bearded chin. Tawny hair. White teeth.

“Say yes, Peter.”

“Yes,” he says.

“Everywhere?”

Peter’s face goes slack.

Beck laughs again. “No harm in being clean, hm, Petey?” He keeps touching and touching: his face, his hair, his neck. Peter feels ghastly; he feels see-through. Like the hand on him isn’t Beck’s. Like this room is floating through space instead of rooted underground. “I should tell Keene to leave your face,” he says with that dark-brown gaze. “Don’t get me wrong, I like my meat a little rare, a little tender, but—you’ve got that sweet face . Hate to see it all marked up like this.” He traces the scars on Peter's face with his thumb: a knife that stabbed through the flesh of his cheek, a ring that split his lip with a punch, a steel-toed boot that caught the side of his head, a blowtorch that melted his mess of an ear.

It takes Peter too f*cking long to realize that the man’s thumb has undone the top button of his jumpsuit, exposing a peek of his collarbone. “You’re a good boy, Petey,” he says lowly. “So I brought you something.” He nods back towards the door; there, another bag sits. It’s a white plastic grocery bag—maybe from a gas station or a minimart. It reads in bright red lettering: THANK YOU.

His stomach growls.

“Ah, ah, ah,” Beck says, waggling his forefinger like a kindergarten teacher. “I’m not Santa Claus, am I?” He glances down towards Cassie, to her hiding spot under the bed, and he gives a little smile. Peter wants to peel the skin off his eyes for even looking at her. “I gave you something yesterday, didn’t I? Now, you gotta give me something. That’s the way the world works: you give and you get, right?”

Peter’s grinding his teeth. He says, through his teeth, “I don't have anything to give you.”

Beck smiles. “Of course you do.” His teeth are very, very white.

Peter hears the words before the man says them: Give me a kiss .

No, he thinks, but he doesn’t say it. No, no, no, no

“Come on, sweetheart,” he says. “I don’t bite.”

“I don’t—” he starts, but his chest feels like it’s filling with liquid nitrogen, unbearably cold. “I don’t…”

A dark laugh. “Is that a no?” Beck laughs again, and his knees press, heavy, into Peter’s thighs. “Who are you to say no to me, Petey Parker? Hm?”

His heartbeat pulses in his ears—Beck’s fingernail digs into his jaw, enough for a slight pinch.

“What are your options here, hm? Who you gonna f*ck? Sweet little Riri? Charlie? I’m your best option and you f*cking know it. Kiss me.”

Peter shakes his head, but Beck squeezes hard, his thick hand forcing his skull down into the concrete bed until he stops moving.

“Say okay, Peter,” he says, with a hot breath in his ear, “Say it.”

FRIDAY, JULY 27 — 9:56 PM

Riri laces up her pink Converse.

She’s got to go on another supplies run. She’ll drive alone—most of the others are too high to chaperone. She’ll go to the local food pantry first to stock up on canned goods, then to the post office to pick up any of Secretary Ross’ packages—mostly chemicals and weapons parts that Stark needs—and then at last to Stark’s lab to drop off the items.

Peter Parker’s been doing better with the new food supplies. He’s definitely started healing faster, but for some reason he doesn’t act like he’s improving. He’ll go completely silent during torture—he’ll flinch at nothing. According to the good doctor, Parker occasionally refuses treatment, screaming at the doc not to touch him.

On the other hand, Cassie hasn’t improved much. She still coughs in her sleep and sleeps all the time. Riri supposes that malnutrition can’t be cured overnight.

Picking up her backpack, Riri strides down the hallway, where she finds—for the umpteenth time—that the door to the kids’ cell is unlocked. f*cking Beck. She can hear him talking in that low voice. He sounds “...want the food or don’t you? Say it. Say okay.”

“That—I don’t—that wasn’t—” His voice edges up suddenly into a crazed whine. “ W-wait, wait, please —”

Pulling out her pistol, she nudges at the door with her shoe, and when it opens, she finds the brown-haired man on top of Peter on the bed—as well as Cassie beneath the bed, eyes squeezed shut and hands over her ears. His teeth are bared and his eyes are dark and the muscles in his arms are flexed—everything about him screams predator . He’s got one hand pinning down Peter’s arms, and the other—Beck’s got half his arm down the unbuttoned front of Peter’s jumpsuit. Far enough to be touching him.

That expression written all over Peter’s face—that freaked-out, paralysed, deer-in-headlights, bear-in-a-trap look—is so familiar. He usually only looks like that when he’s in the Chair. “Beck!” she barks, and the brown-haired man jumps up like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “We’re not supposed to be in here.”

Sheepish, the man hops down from the bed and wipes his hands on his jeans. “My bad,” he says, and he fixes the sleeves of his sweatshirt like his hand wasn’t just in Peter’s pants. He strides past her through the doorway, and Riri just stands there, still. Now that the man’s gone, Peter clutching the open buttons of his jumpsuit closed with his bone-thin fingers, shaking lightly as though he’s cold, gulping great, heaving breaths into his bruise-spattered chest.

Riri doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t want to think it. “Is he…”

“Is he what ?” snaps Peter, bitterly.

The moment spoils between them, unpleasantly sour. “Nevermind,” she says, squeaking her converse against their concrete floor. She puts her pistol back into the waistband of her jeans.“I’m, um. I’m going to the food pantry, and then to Stark’s. Is there anything you, uh, want?”

The sound of Cassie coughing beneath the bed. Peter is still rooted in his spot like a marble statue, legs together, arms wrapped around himself. He looks up, finally, to meet her eyes, and he scans her face. Riri finds it almost funny—they both have the same crook to their nose, both from Charlie’s fist. “What?” he says. His voice is echoey and weird, like a ghost.

“Like,” she echoes, “to eat?”

The battered boy only stares at her.

“Only canned stuff—but I’ll look for it, if you want.” Feeling the heat of his continued stare, she ducks, staring at the ground. “Nevermind,” she says again.

As she turns to leave, she hears suddenly: “Pumpkin.”

She turns back around, her dirty Converse squeaking against the floor. “Like, chopped up?”

Peter shakes his head slightly, winding the top half of his jumpsuit tighter around himself. “Like for pie,” he says quietly.

“Oh,” she says. She remembers those orange cans from when she was little with her brother: mixing sugar and cinnamon and ginger in a bowl, beating the eggs, dumping in the deliciously orange pumpkin, stirring in cans of evaporated milk, spilling it all over the pie shell… “Okay. Yeah, sure.”

As she leaves, she hears them: some shuffling and then the kids are whispering. A shaky voice: “No, Cass, stay there.”

“But he brought—”

“Stay. There.”

FRIDAY, JULY 27 — 11:38 PM

Happy enters her house late Friday night waving a literal video cassette in his hand. “I did it,” he says. “No Internet, no paper trail, no tech trail. Bribed the camera-people with Superbowl tickets—and voila!”

He puts in the cassette to the TV—Tony always left it hooked up to their television, even though the rest of their house was usually so high-tech—and the video plays. It’s a simple one: a grainy black-and-white image of an empty suburban road. It’s windy, and the onscreen trees rustle with each breeze. There’s no sound.

“They said the collision happened around 7:42PM,” says Happy. He points at the screen: a digital clock reading 7:36PM.

Empty road. A couple cars pass, and then a few more, and then the road is empty again. 7:37. 7:38. 7:39. A few cars pass. 7:40. 7:41.

Finally: 7:42 PM.

Beside her, Happy winces as a truck barrels from across empty grass to collide with the Parkers’ faded-blue sedan so hard that the car flips over, rolling over asphalt until it comes to a shattered halt on the grassy roadside. A fleeting thought: he’s dead . With that kind of crash, it’s no wonder May Parker was left in such a horrific state.

There’s a swarm of dark-clothed men from the truck, all completely unharmed from the crash, and they pull the passenger from his upside-down seat. He starts fighting immediately, punching and kicking and whirling. Pepper feels a sudden swell of pride for the kid. It’s definitely him. He doesn’t have his web shooters, but he’s still fighting like Spiderman, flipping and twisting between his attackers like a true superhero.

The fight is quick; in only a few moments, Peter is down, dragged limp back to the truck before they drive off.

By the time the truck vanishes from the screen, the clock only reads 7:53 PM. Peter Parker’s entire kidnapping only took eleven minutes. Eleven minutes. Eleven minutes and the rest of his junior year went down the drain. How could she not have noticed? All of this—the day before Tony locked himself into his lab. How could she have been so blind.

Happy clears his throat. He’s paused the video. “They found May in the car a little after ten. I was wondering how they didn’t know it was her, but see” —he taps the screen with the empty street— “the car wasn’t registered to May or Peter.”

Pepper blinks. “That’s their car, though.” That beat-up ‘98 Volkswagen Jetta has been Peter’s ride for as long as she’s known him.

Happy shakes his head. “That license plate isn’t registered to the Parkers. It’s registered to the kid’s mom.”

Pepper doesn’t even remember the woman’s name. She knows that the Peter’s parents died in a plane crash when he was just six years old, but she’s never heard the kid talk about it.

“And not after she got married—she got it before, so it’s registered to the name Mary Fitzpatrick.”

With a name detached from both Peter Parker and May Parker, it makes sense that no one would know that the car that crashed belonged to the Parkers. “They knew,” says Pepper suddenly. “They must’ve known that the car wouldn’t be traced back to Peter and May.”

“Because if the world found out they’d kidnapped Peter Parker…” starts Happy.

“...then the world would know why Tony locked himself in his lab,” finishes Pepper. Everyone knew that Peter Parker was Tony Stark’s intern. It was how they kept the whole Spider-man thing under wraps. Tony’s life was so much in the public eye that there was no other way to disguise why the kid was at Stark Industries all the time. “Makes sense. Did you look up the truck, too?”

Happy shook his head. “No plates, front or back, that the video could catch. I tried to follow them on nearby red light cameras but…” He shrugs helplessly. “It’s a Ford Ranger—way too common—and they must’ve added plates somewhere nearby. I’ve got no clue where they went.”

Damn it. How are they supposed to find this kid if they can’t even find where he went? He could be outside the city—outside the state—outside the country for all they know.

“But… I did find what you asked me for.” He rifles through his pants pocket and pulls out a flash drive. “It’s JARVIS—Tony’s code from 2015, right before we sold the Tower. It’s never even seen this place before.”

They plug in Jarvis to Happy’s laptop first. Almost right say, a black-and-blue interface emerges onto the screen, asking for a series of security questions. Happy squints at the screen. “Mother’s maiden name? First pet? Best sandwich?”

Pepper slides the laptop to her side of the table. “I’ve got it.” It’s a series of questions so long that it feels more like a standardized test than a set of passwords, but they’re all questions about Tony. Questions, obviously, that she knows the answers to. “Done,” she says, as JARVIS crackles to life.

His familiar British tone emerges over the computer’s tinny speakers. “User recognized: Welcome, Anthony Edward Stark.” Onscreen, there are no buttons or key-shortcuts, only a blank black screen with a neon blue line transmitting the audio frequency of JARVIS’ voice. The little camera indicator at the top of Happy’s laptop blinks green. “Scanning users. Welcome, Virginia Elizabeth Potts. Welcome, Harold Joseph Hogan.”

“Elizabeth?” echoes Happy. “I thought it was—“

“Pepper’s just a nickname,” she explains quickly. “Tony gave it to me, actually. The day we met.”

“Oh,” he says. “I feel like I should've known that.”

Pepper shrugs half-heartedly, JARVIS speaks again. “Location: unidentified address near Verona Beach, New York. Systems limited to one 2015 MacBook Pro. How can I help?”

“We need you to hack into Tony’s lab,” she says. “Undetected. Could you do that?”

“Of course, Ms. Potts.”

SATURDAY, JULY 28 — 4:51 AM

Peter wakes to a low voice in their cell.

“...looked up at the sky, and a huge motorcycle fell out of the air and landed on the road in front of them. If the motorcycle was huge, it was nothing to the man sitting astride it. He was almost twice as tall as a normal man and at least five times as wide…”

Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong . He takes a breath, and dread like a rattlesnake coils around his chest. It smells like cigarette smoke .

Peter’s eyes fly open; he flies up into a sitting position, turns his head and finds, settled by the wall: Quentin Beck.

The mere sight of him makes Peter’s whole body go cold.

Peter’s wide awake now.

Beck’s holding a book open in one hand and has his other on Cassie’s shoulder. Cassie’s leaning against him as he reads, cheek pressed against his arm, perfectly content. “…Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall bent forward over the bundle of blankets. Inside, just visible, was a baby boy, fast asleep. Under a tuft of jet-black hair over his forehead they could see a curiously shaped cut, like a bolt of lightning…”

Peter feels like he’s going to pass out—every bit of air has been vacuumed clean from him, like he’s been shrink-wrapped like a college duvet or air-dried like a preserved flower. He can’t find the words, every drop of blood is sucked clean of him in that moment, because he goes so still that his vision goes spotty and white. He tries saying her name, but it just comes out as a mumble. A barely-there puff of air.

As if on cue, Beck looks up at him mid-sentence and smiles. “Oh, Peter,” he says with a sickly sweet tone, “you’re finally up!” Folding over the page with a smooth, diagonal crease, he dog-ears the page he’s holding but doesn’t shut the book. His hands are white and clean, and there’s hair on his knuckles. “What a pleasant surprise! I was just reading with little Miss Cassie here.”

Peter can’t move. He can’t talk. He can’t breathe . Frozen, he just sits on the bed, mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. All the while, Cassie leans against Beck’s arm like he’s her dad, completely oblivious to the high-pitched whine in Peter’s ears, the coppery blood pumping in Peter’s face, the trembly weakness in his thighs.

Beck looks at Peter and gives him a nearly imperceptible smirk. “She does make such great company,” the brown-haired man says, “don’t you think?”

Peter feels faint. Like he’s strung up by his ankles and all the blood is rushing to his head. He tries, again, to warn her but he can’t make the words come out. He just keeps seeing the ceiling of his childhood bedroom—the stipple ceiling and the glow-in-the-dark planets—swim before his eyes.

Cassie turns her face into Beck’s arm, her oily hair tickling his forearm, and says, “Can we keep reading, Mr. Beck?”

He’s too close to her. His hands— where the f*ck are his hands— squeeze the book shut and tap the cover with his fingernails. “Of course, sweetheart. But first, you want your present, don’t you? For being such a good girl?”

Peter’s gonna throw up. Good boy , he hears, in a nauseating vocal meld of Skip’s and Beck’s. Phantom sensation on his thigh—like fingers, like thumbs—and he flinches, looking down to find nothing but cloth on his leg.

“Yes!” says Cassie with a beaming face. “More pop-tarts!”

“That’s right,” says Beck, fishing through his plastic grocery bag. “Here you go, sweetheart.”

Cassie looks so happy . She tears into the pop-tart like a wild animal, smashing the whole thing into her mouth in one gok, then the next one, cupping her hands over her mouth to catch any crumbs. When she’s done, she licks her hands clean and then the wrapper, too.

“Cassie,” he manages, in a throaty whisper, and Beck gives him such a cold stare that he loses his voice completely.

“Peter, look!” she says. “He brought you one, too!”

Peter can’t feel his face.

Beck stands, then, handing Cassie the book. She happily opens it, flipping to the page they left off on, and starts to read again. The brown-haired man moves towards him and all of a sudden Peter can feel his hands on him, those thick fingers snaking into his pants, gripping him so tight it hurt, those fingers, those fingers on him

Beck’s face-to-face with him, standing above him. He tilts his head, and his gaze is like an electrolaser. “Peter,” he says, “you still owe me something, don’t you?”

No. No, no, no, no.

“Stand up,” the man says.

Peter finds himself on his feet; there’s a sweaty hand on the back of his neck.

“Now, I don’t want her,” he says. “I want you. But refuse me again, and I’ll make do with her, you understand me?”

Peter’s blood has turned to some kind of noxious sludge.

“Say yes, Peter.”

His voice comes out in a petrified gasp: “Yes.”

“So the next time,” the man continues, in a voice like a smoking gun, “that I ask you for something, you’re gonna give it to me, understand?”

The hand on his neck gets tighter. Four fingers curling around his windpipe and a thumb pressing into the base of his skull. “Say yes,” says Beck, low and firm.

“Yes,” he chokes out.

“Good,” he says. “Now, let’s try this again, Petey. Give me a kiss.”

Peter does it.

Beck licks his lips. “Eh. Try again. I wanna really feel it.”

He does it again.

Beck smiles and smiles. “Good boy,” he says, and he tosses the pop-tart onto the bed. He smiles at Cassie as he goes, giving her a pat on the head, and she beams.

Peter can’t move.

“See you around, Petey.”

SATURDAY, JULY 28 — 5:06 AM

When Mr. Beck leaves, Peter sits in front of the door with his ear pressed to the vibranium fixings. He sits and he sits and he sits. Whenever Cassie tries to say something, he shushes her and keeps sitting by the door. He’s not being quiet to be mean; he’s listening to the doors open and close.

Cassie’s not smart enough or old enough yet to know how to do that—but Peter can do it. He picks out people’s footsteps and their voices from hints of sound all the way down the hallway.

He waits. They both wait.

They wait and they wait until Cassie so gets horrendously bored just sitting there with him that she starts daydreaming about being home. She daydreams and Peter listens and she daydreams some more. Cassie wishes she had the book that Mr. Beck gave her, but Peter’s got it clenched in his hand and won’t let her have it.

They wait. They keep waiting. They wait and listen and wait unless until finally there’s Mr. Beck’s laughing voice and a door slam. He’s left the bunker.

As soon as they hear the second door—the lid to the bunker opening and shutting—Peter whips around, and with his voice as sharp as a needle, snaps, “What did I tell you?”

He’s loud. He’s mad . “Wh-what?”

He’s standing now, pacing back and forth, limping so heavily that his foot barely touches the ground. “What did I tell you about him, Cassie ?”

There’s a bad feeling in Cassie’s stomach. “You said—you said not to—not to talk to him—but he said he’d give me a pop-tart—”

He’s got his hands on his head, pulling at his hair. “Oh, God,” he says. “Oh, God—oh, my God, I can’t—” He’s shutting and opening his eyes, and then he’s slapping at his forehead. “I told you not to f*cking talk to him!”

She can’t help it—she starts blubbering, and her words don’t come out right. “But he’s nice—he’s like—like Ava—the pop-tarts—he gave me a book—”

“Did he touch you? Did he touch you?

Cassie wants her book back. “No, no, he just read to me—I liked when he read to me—he’s nice to me—” She’s so confused. She likes Mr. Beck. She likes that he brings them pop-tarts and that he’s nice to Peter and that he gave her a book to read. He’s nicer than all the rest of them and he doesn’t hurt them, either. He’s better than Charlie and Renee and all the others. He’s good. He’s nice . Life’s better when Mr. Beck’s around. “He said he’s my friend,” she insists. “He’s my—”

“Stop it!” snarls Peter, and Cassie flinches so hard she bumps her head on the cell door. “I told you how many f*cking times, Cass!”

“A lot,” she says, Beck’s nice; why is Peter so mad about this? He’s so nice to Peter—and sure, he smells like smoke and he says weird things sometimes—but he doesn’t hurt them. He makes sure they’re fed; for the first time since she arrived here, she fell asleep with her belly mostly full. Whenever Mr. Beck comes to visit, her stomach doesn’t growl like a bengal tiger. Why doesn’t Peter like him like she does? “But he said—”

“I don’t f*cking care what he said, Cass! I told you—God, I told you not to!

Now she feels bad again, really bad, and tears are bubbling to her eyes. “B-but, b-but—”

Peter’s eyes look like dark, angry pools of oil. “I told you! You don’t go near him! You don’t talk to him, you don’t touch him, you don’t do anything and what did you do? ” He slams his hand into the wall—the wall cracks, and Peter's hand cracks with it; he groans with the pain of the first impact, winds up, and then smashes his hand into it again. “God damn it!”

She’s scared; Peter's hand looks like a crumpled piece of paper. “He—he—he’s my friend—” she hiccups, trying to get her words out between each sob.

He turns on her. “He’s not your friend! He’s not your friend!”

Peter’s never mad at her. Peter’s never mad at her.

Cassie doesn’t understand. She doesn’t understand why Peter doesn’t like him so much—why he ducks his head every time Beck enters the cell, why he shrinks away from every caress, why he hesitates in taking every gift. Mr. Beck’s nice.

“I don’t just make up these rules for no f*cking reason! I make them to keep you safe— to keep us safe! This isn’t a f*cking playground, Cassie! You can’t—” He scrubs his hand down his face and then slaps at his cheeks. “We’re not in kindergarten class! You can’t just disobey the rules just because you feel like it! ” He’s shaking—he’s gone pale and trembly. “ God f*cking—damn it!” And then he screams —straight at the wall, he screams—and he slams his hand into the wall for a third time.

And now Cassie's bawling. She’s sad—she’s scared—she’s mad—she’s every bad feeling rolled into one. She’s crying and crying and Peter’s still yelling, loud and angry. She’s crying so hard that she can taste salty mucus run into her mouth, and she’s swallowing and hiccuping and wailing. All she can feel is this thing she doesn’t have a name for. She feels like she’s five years old or four or three because now she’s been bawling for so long that she’s forgotten the reason why, just that it’ll make her feel better. Cassie’s crying so hard that it comes out of her in heaves, in great retches of the trenches of her lungs, huge breaths of gaping wideness that fill her completely before they’re sucked away by her upset.

Peter picks up the book from the ground, shaking it and the pages at her.“This? This? This f*cking thing! I told you not to take anything from him!”

She’s crying so hard that she can’t see him through the waves of quivering water in her eyes. “P-Pe-Pe—” she tries, but she’s sobbing too miserably to get a single word out.

“God!” He storms, book in hand, to the corner of the cell where their toilet is. She follows him, still crying, and tugs at his pants leg; he shakes her off, and he half-falls on the ground, pinning down the book with his knee and ripping out pages with his not-broken hand. “You don’t want this! You don’t f*cking want this!”

“No!” she shrieks, sobbing, and she throws herself at Peter’s feet. “No—no— my book!

Pages—and pages—and pages. He keeps ripping them out and throwing them into the toilet. “This is what happens when you don’t listen to me! Okay? Bad things happen when you don’t listen!”

For a second, Cassie wishes that one of the bad people, one of Charlie’s people, would come in and take Peter away. That they’d come and take him to that other room where he screams so that she could hide under the bed because she doesn’t want Peter here anymore. She doesn’t want him to yell at her anymore. She wants to be alone—she wants her book—she wants Beck to come read to her—she wants her mommy and her daddy and Jim—she wants Peter to hug her and tell her everything’s okay—she wants to go home— she wants it all to stop . “Stop, stop, stop!” she screams, and she throws herself over the open mouth of the toilet so that Peter can’t throw anything else in there. Hugging the dirty toilet-seat, she keeps crying, hiccuping and hugging it tight and she hopes that Peter doesn’t hit her.

The hit never comes; instead, the ripping sounds stop. The silence is filled with the sounds of sobbing—wet, gaspy sobbing like she’s doing. When she turns around, she sees Peter: he’s on his hands and knees over the half-remains of that brown book, crying. “Oh, God—” he manages, and he falls into a weird sitting position, kind of leaned up against the bed-railing. “Oh, God, oh, God.”

Tears spill down her face. “I’m—I’m sorry,” she cries, and there’s so much water coming down her face that there are tears running down her neck. ““I’ll—listen—I’ll be good—I’m sorry!”

He’s crying, too. “I’m sorry,” he says, echoing her. He opens his arms wide, and he kicks away the book with his good leg. “I’m sorry, come here, Cassie, come here. I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…”

She throws herself into Peter’s open arms, and he hugs her as she cries, cradling her as she sobs incoherently into his shoulder. “I don’t—” she hiccups. “I don’t—like—when—you yell—”

“I know,” says Peter, and he hugs her tight. She can feel him crying into her hair. “I’m sorry, Cassie… I know, I’m sorry.”

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 1 — 12:26 PM

Agent Jimmy Woo gets a call from that secretary—Kate Bishop—while he’s on his lunch break. “I don’t have much for you,” says the girl, “but at least it’s something.”

“Anything will help,” says Jimmy.

“Well, there’s only one person who’s not in jail or witness protection who could maybe give you access to the HYDRA bunkers, and you’re not gonna like it. He’s, like, famous.”

Jimmy frowns. “Who?”

“James Buchanan Barnes. The Winter Soldier.”

Notes:

yes i know there are many explanations for pepper’s nickname but i’m sticking to this one, it’s the mcu explanation for her name and i like it, it’s cute

plz lemme know what u think, i die for comments

thanks for keeping up with this guys, y'all keep me living

Chapter 16: i'm unwell

Summary:

Peter’s condition is deteriorating fast. Like, Titanic-meets-iceberg fast. Physically, the kid’s doing a little healthier, having more nutrients in his system is allowing him to heal a bit better—but it doesn’t change the fact that the kid is the textbook-picture of starvation: rail-thin, sunken eyes, glazed pupils, sallow skin, visible bones. Mentally, he’s sinking. He barely lets the doctor touch him—the kid spaces out and freaks if anyone puts their hands on him.

Notes:

chap title from demons by hayley kiyoko

new chap, literally 2 min before midnight on tuesday haha, man i'm good, have fun with this, some major CWs

CW: sexual assault, description of sexually transmitted diseases, discussion of CSA, mentions of violence, torture, and electroconvulsive therapy

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

THURSDAY, AUGUST 2 — 8:35 AM

Officer Paz finds the Winter Soldier’s address in a NYPD database of felons on parole. Although James Barnes was technically pardoned for his crimes, he still had to register in the database with everyone else.

So, he’s not difficult to find.

Thursday morning, Julia Paz and Agent Woo drive to Brooklyn—a little limestone townhouse on a little street in Park Slope—and head up the sidewalk to the house of the Winter Soldier. It’s almost like walking to Iron Man’s front porch, or strolling through the Black Widow’s backyard. Who knew that her quest to find her brother Charlie would take her down the path of superheroes?

As they approach, they can hear people arguing. A woman and a man. “…have to talk to Nick Fury. He can help.”

A gravelly, male voice: “I’m not going to ask SHIELD for help. Can’t trust any of them, not even Fury.”

The woman: “Fury’s one of the good ones.”

“Don’t be naive—none of them are good ones.”

A third voice, a man: “Bucky, please.”

“No—we’re not gonna sit around and pretend like those SHIELD bastards are gonna help! They’re all heil goddamn Hitler —they’re not gonna help us find a kid. They’d rather take him themselves and use him to commit war crimes.”

The third voice again: “That’s not true—“

“You remember what they did to me!”

“That wasn’t SHIELD, that was HY—“

“They’re all—the f*cking—same! Honest to God, that’s probably who took him! That’s the first place we should’ve looked! f*cking SHIELD—”

Julia and Woo exchange looks and, before any more shouting can commence, she presses the rusty doorbell.

The talking stops almost immediately, followed by some hectic shuffling, footsteps towards the door, and a strained voice: “Bucky, Buck, hey, stop, stop—”

Pressure against the door; there must be someone against the door and an eye against the peephole, because the door moves slightly in its frame. Frantic whispering.

Before long, the wooden door is opening and three people stand beyond the frame—three instead of the one whose name is on the deed to the property: a dark-eyed guy with his hands in his pockets, a strawberry-blonde woman with a pregnant belly, and a blond guy with blue eyes. She starts abruptly, “Is this the residence of James Buchanan Barnes?”

As soon as she says the name, the sullen man gets only more so, his stance stiffening, his gaze darkening, his jaw settling. The blond man nods. “It is,” he says. He looks familiar, like a television star or a—

“Steve Rogers?” Jimmy Woo blurts out, before Julia can even complete her thought. “Wow. Wow. It’s—it’s such a pleasure, sir.”

It is . The muscled blond, dressed in just a T-shirt and sweatpants, is the superhero whose name is plastered on every high school textbook, whose emblem is printed on every kid’s pajamas, whose uniform is every child’s dream Halloween costume. Yet he stands in front of her like he’s an average neighbor. The man grimaces, almost sheepish. “Nice to meet you, too,” he says. “Can I ask what this is about?”

The other two—the pregnant woman and the sullen man—remain silent.

“Well,” starts Officer Paz, “we were wondering if you could help us with a case.”

Steve Rogers and James Barnes sit so closely that they look almost like a couple—all gentle nudges and shared looks and knee bumps.

“We’re kind of,” continues Steve, when she asks them again to help with Charlie, “busy at the moment. Personal matter, you know.” The two supersoldiers sit next to each other on the left side of the couch

Julai nods her chin at the pregnant woman, who has yet to introduce herself. “With her?”

“Her son ran away,” he says stiffly, as the pregnant woman shuffles in her seat. “We’re helping her find him.”

Julia Paz immediately wishes she could take the words back out of the air where they hang, thickly, like a dark cloud. “My condolences,” she says. And then, to the woman: “When are you due?”

She looks uncomfortable. “November 3rd,” she replies.

It’s August now, which would mean she’s in her last three months. “Oh, wow. Third trimester. Nausea getting better?”

The woman shrugs.

“I’ve got two of my own, you know,” she says. “A boy and a girl.”

The woman shrugs again.

Forget it. She’s not getting anywhere with this woman—and besides, she’s not here to talk to Steve Rogers or his pregnant friend. Maybe that’s why she’s not talking. Maybe it’s Steve’s love-child. That’d be a story for the news. “Well, every missing person is someone’s child, you know. If you, Mr. Barnes, could just help us find our missing person, then that would be wonderful. A map to these bunkers, or coordinates to their locations, or—”

The sullen Barnes’ curt response: “No.”

He’s been saying no for the past hour.

“Sir,” tries Agent Woo from beside her. “I understand that you’re hesitant to reveal these kinds of…sensitive locations, but this information will remain classified, I can assure you.”

“No,” he says again.

This ‘James Buchanan Barnes’ is really starting to piss her off. They’re so close to finding Charlie—and he’s going to stop all of this progress? “Mr. Barnes, please . Just give me a good reason you can’t help us.”

The man narrows his eyes. When he finally speaks, his voice is low and scratchy. “I’m not going back there,” he says firmly.

Julia tries, “Then if you could just give us a map—”

A sharp shake of his head. His long hair trembles. “I’m not giving that kind of information to a civilian.”

Julia sighs, rubbing her forehead. “Then what if… Captain America took us? No harm there, right?”

His face twists. “No. He’s not going there.”

“Bucky,” says Steve Rogers from beside him, and he touches the Winter Soldier’s arm like he’s not the most well-known assassin on this side of the planet. “I can handle it. It’s okay—I’ll go.”

James Barnes—or, Bucky, as Steve just called him—scowls darkly. “f*ck that.”

“Then you two can both come!” Julia suggests, in a moment of desperation. “I don’t care how you do it, just take me to the bunkers—I have to find him. Mr. Barnes, you’re my only chance of finding my—of locating my missing persons. If you can’t help us, then these people could be in serious danger.”

“Not my problem,” says the Winter Soldier.

Captain America nudges his knee with his own. “Buck,” he says.

The man’s scowl grows impossibly deeper. She realizes, in that moment, that the Winter Soldier is wearing gloves. “No one’s getting into those bunkers. No one.”

She sighs. “Look, we have reason to believe that they already are . I’m not sure exactly why they’re in these bunkers, but with the tattoos—”

“Tattoos?” echoes the man.

“That’s how we found out that HYDRA bunkers were a clue,” explains Agent Woo. “We’ve recovered several bodies of the missing addicts—all of them had tattoos of the HYDRA symbol on various parts of their bodies.”

“So, what?” asks Steve, with a frown. “You think they’re recruiting?”

“Could be,” says Officer Paz. “Or experimenting. We have no idea. That’s why we need to get access.”

The whole room seems to turn to James Buchanan Barnes.

The Winter Solider is statue-still, unfazed by the eyes on him. “Were there any numbers on the bodies?” asks James Barnes, without a splinter of emotion.

“Numbers?”

“Tattoos,” he clarified.

“No, no—other things. Flowers and like, regular tattoos. But no numbers.”

“Then it’s not HYDRA,” he says, and then he shuts his mouth.

They’re back to their stalemate. “Well, if it’s not HYDRA,” says the officer, “then what’s the danger in looking for my people?”

A painfully long silence. Steve settles his hand against Barnes’ shoulder, and the Winter Soldier seems to relax, just a little bit. “Fine,” he says. “I’ll take you. But I’m not going inside.”

TUESDAY, AUGUST 7 — 3:15 AM

Peter’s been acting weird. Really weird.

He doesn’t talk to her much anymore. He doesn’t play games with her or come up with new escape plans. He doesn’t pick up the food when it comes to their door. He doesn’t open the cans for her or tell her to make sure she doesn’t cut herself on the cans’ metal rims. He mostly lies on the ground like he’s sleeping, but with his eyes open.

Instead, it’s Cassie’s job now. She snaps the can opener closed on the lid, then twists and twists and twists, and pries up the lid with her fingernails. She only cuts her hand a few times, and they have enough bandages in their Treasure Chest that she can tape up her fingers all by herself.

She thinks it’s because Mr. Beck keeps coming in. Ever since that day with the book. Every day, even twice a day, maybe fifteen times ever since she got the book, Mr. Beck has come to visit. He usually comes in late at night when everyone else is asleep, tending to wait until Riri’s asleep or gone on a run—because, as he tells Peter, “She’s sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong.” He’ll come in with a present in a plastic grocery bag. Toothpaste. Apples. Hand sanitizer. Protein bars. More pop-tarts, mostly. He’ll tell Peter to get on the bed, although it’s not much of a bed without a mattress or blankets. Peter will do as he says, and then Mr. Beck will get on, too.

They’ll make noises and move around as Mr. Beck talks a lot in that low, low voice. Wrestle on the bed above her and make more weird noises. Mr. Beck will talk and grunt and shout and talk some more. Mostly, Peter doesn’t say anything at all. He doesn’t usually stay for long—half an hour or less—and then he’ll hop down, fiddle with his pants, and leave without a goodbye. He doesn’t look at Cassie anymore.

Cassie will stay under the bed; Peter will… He’ll keep acting weird. Sometimes, he’ll stagger to the toilet and throw up until there’s nothing left. Other times, he’ll crawl over to the corner and collapse over there, and he’ll just lay there like he’s sleeping.

Cassie doesn’t see it; she just hides and pretends she’s not there. She doesn’t understand what’s going on. Beck’s not hurting Peter; he doesn’t bring any knives or hammers or syringes. He doesn’t drag Peter outside or beat him with his fists. But still Peter acts like he’s been hurt.

Today, Peter’s sitting beside the sink and lathering himself up with that lavender soap. He does it in a kind of daze, his eyes glazed over. “Peter,” she says, “can I try?” She’s careful to be quiet; she knows better than to be loud.

“No,” he says.

“But it smells—“

“I said no, Cass.”

His words are slow and clunky, like he’s having trouble remembering that he’s awake.

When Mr. Beck comes today, Peter’s asleep on the floor beside the bed; he’s really tired these days. As soon as she hears those footsteps down the hall, Cassie yells and scrambles for the her safe spot under the bed but Peter’s sleeping body is blocking the way. Panicking, she dives to the toilet and cowers behind it instead of under the bed.

Mr. Beck spots Peter sleeping immediately. “Good,” he says, and he stands over Peter. Stepping over his sleeping form, he placed one foot on each side of Peter’s hips, standing over him like he’s just won a fight.

Then he kind of sits down on top of him, trapping Peter’s hips under him.

Cassie feels frozen.

He slaps at Peter’s face and Cassie starts crying. Peter wakes up, bleary, and then he starts freaking out , kicking his legs and flailing his arms until Mr. Beck catches them and pins them down. He’s choking out words: “Wait, Cassie’s not—wait—Beck, please—she’s gonna see—please, she’s gonna—”

“Shut the f*ck up,” says the man, and his free hand is on Peter’s jumpsuit. “She doesn’t mind, does she? She’ll learn eventually.”

Peter starts screaming—like, scary movie screaming. “NO, SOMEBODY—SOMEBODY! BECK, STOP—STOP—”

Then Beck shoves his hand over Peter’s mouth, “Shut up, shut up! You want everyone else to come here and watch? I’m sure they’d love to… Little f*cking entertainment for the crew, huh? Free of charge? You wanna be our little movie star, Parker? Do you?

A muffled response, more like a sob into Beck’s palm, and Peter’s furiously shaking his head, tears streaming down his face.

“Then shut the f*ck up!” By this point, Beck’s gotten all the buttons open on Peter’s front, and he grabs him by waist and, by shifting his knees, flips Peter over so that he’s on his stomach.

Peter starts sobbing harder, his hands scrabbling at the concrete. “Beck, please… Please…”

Beck pushes his head down into the concrete and starts yanking at his jumpsuit, pulling the collar down over his shoulder, then over the other to reveal each pale, skinny joint. Another yank, and it’s down to his waist. “f*cking relax,” hisses the man. “Or this is gonna hurt.”

When it’s over, Peter sits still. She can see him from where he sits, but only some of him. He is against the wall, legs bent into a pair of slanted triangles. He’s shirtless, his prisoner’s jumpsuit pulled down to his stomach—or pulled up now, she supposed, over his lower half. She doesn’t usually see him like this, not unless she’s helping to fix some of his wounds, and she can see every single one of his ribs from the front. His hands rest on his knees. His back is on the wall, but she can see up to his chest. He’s breathing like he's never taken air into his body before: slowly, in uneven fills, like he keeps forgetting how.

“Peter?” she says. He doesn’t say anything back. She knows that Beck is gone, but he’s been sitting for too long by himself. She wants to go to him. She wants him to hug her and rub her back and tell her everything’s okay because she’s not sure what just happened. She just knows that Peter is doing the same thing he does when he comes back from his sessions with Charlie. He’s still breathing funny. She wonders if it’s possible for someone to die like that. Forgetting how to breathe. It has to be, right? Maybe she should make sure he isn’t going to forget. “Peter—”

“Stay there, Cass,’ he says quickly, cutting her off. His voice sounds like a stoplight or a yield sign or a speed bump. He barely moves when he says it, just lifts a few fingers from his knee.

“But he’s gone—”

“I said stay there, Cassie!”

His whole hand is up now, and it’s trembling, pointed at her like a gauntlet, and she can’t see his face but she’s sure he’s looking at her. She shrinks back against the wall. He’s mad again.

When Renee gets mad, she knows what will happen. The same with Charlie, too. But she doesn’t usually see Peter mad , and certainly not at her. Well, not until lately.

“Did he hurt you?”

Peter starts crying.

She’s more urgent. “You’re not bleeding, and I didn’t hear him hurt you—you didn’t make noise like normal—”

“No,” he says, but he won’t look at her, “he didn’t hurt me, not like that.”

“Then why are you crying?” Tears are coming down his face fast. “Peter, I don’t understand. Peter. Peter. Peter.” He won’t answer her. “I don’t understand,” she says for the millionth time. Maybe Peter hasn’t heard her yet. “Mr. Beck’s nice! He’s really nice! He gives us presents, I don’t understand—”

“I know you don’t understand! I know you don’t understand! I know! I know you don’t….” He’s crying. Sobbing. “Just—give me a second, okay? I know you… you don’t…”

He makes this low sound in the back of his throat, a deep groan, like he’s just been stabbed in the gut and is feeling the blood leave him fast, in a flood. He raises his hands to his face and drags down, slowly, fingers dragging his dirtied face into a grimace, stretching the skin with his clawed fingers like he’s trying to rip his face off completely. Down his fingers go, down his chin and his neck until they’re scraping down his bare chest and Cassie realizes he’s leaving a series of pink lines down his skin. They stop somewhere at his stomach, where he takes his hands from his skin and looks at them, his fingers attached to his hands, staring in horror at them like they’re Charlie’s hands.

Still Peter groans, like a zombie.

His hands shake; they’re still arched like claws, and he stretches them out in some kind of mixture of horror and disgust, and then he closes them into fists so tight his knuckles go white.

And then, in a moment of profound intensity, Peter grips the back of his thigh with one hand and slams his fist down onto his bad knee, and he screams .

She’s heard him scream before. She’s heard him scream in pain so many times that she can tell what they’ve done to him just by hearing it. A long, bloodcurdling one—the blowtorch or electric shocks. Short, raspy screams: they were using a knife. grunting and screaming through his teeth, all in one breath—they were beating him. This isn’t a scream of pain. It’s… It’s anger. He’s angry . He throws his fist down on his leg and cries out—then throws it down again, and again and again, into the spot just above his knee. Again, and again, and again. Faster and faster and faster. Harder and harder and harder, until he starts to cry out with every blow. He throws every bit of energy into each punch, punching his leg and punching harder and harder and harder until Peter’s face is pink and Cassie starts to feel flu-sick in her tummy, and she screams, “Stop, Peter, stop, I don’t like it, I don’t like it!”

He’s too loud—they’re both way too loud, and Cassie’s scared.

He keeps going, and his fist is like a needle. Stab, stab, stab. She can’t help it—she imagines a giant syringe and Peter stabbing into his own leg, and the pain that would flood him. She knows how much his leg hurts him on a daily basis; she can’t imagine how much it hurts him now.

Eventually, he tires out, and he stops hitting his leg to sob into his exhausted hands. “This isn’t—supposed—to happen—anymore!” He’s saying words—words that are all jumbled up. “You weren’t supposed to… I can’t…”

He stops answering her after a while, just lost in his crying, bawling like a little kid. “It’s supposed to be over,” she hears him whisper. “It’s supposed to…be better…”

THURSDAY, AUGUST 9 — 4:29 AM

Bucky Barnes gets up early in the morning.

He gets up so early that the sun has yet to rise and Steve is still in bed. He wasn’t supposed to get up for another couple hours, but the anxiety alone has him tossing and turning all night. Four o’clock will have to work. Today, he’s supposed to take that police officer to the HYDRA bunkers.

Why the hell is he doing this? The last thing he wants is to go back to one of those places. Last time he was actually in a HYDRA facility—a couple years ago—he was in HYDRA.

He gets out of bed without waking Steve, and he shuffles through the house with his gun in hand. He checks in every corner, behind every door, past every curtain. He doesn’t shower—although he probably should. He dresses in military pants and an athletic shirt of Steve’s—he likes to keep him close. Black socks, lace-up boots. A blue hoodie that’s also Steve’s, but has switched hands so many times that it’s almost Bucky’s, too. It’s got a Coca-Cola logo, the old one from the 30s, printed across the front. He pulls it over his shirt—it still smells like Steve.

He comes back into the bedroom when he’s done dressing, and he stands over Steve as he sleeps.

He doesn’t wake him for a goodbye.

He meets Officer Paz at six o’clock outside of the NYPD headquarters in Manhattan. She’s dressed to the nines: dark navy collar and tie, matching pants, utility belt, gun in holster, badge pinned to her left breast pocket. “You look pretty normal for a hundred-year-old assassin,” says the officer.

“I get that a lot,” he says dryly.

She points to her squad car about fifty yards away. “You want to drive?”

Bucky shakes his head. He should probably pull his hair back—it could get in the way if they end up fighting someone. “I’ve got my bike,” he says, nodding his head to his motorcycle. “Just follow me.”

He leads the way on his bike, dipping and weaving through traffic

The closest location is actually in New York City, tucked away in the lower levels of an abandoned building deep in the Bronx. “Where’s your partner?” he asks, as they’re loading their guns outside. “The one who came to our house?”

“He’s off working another case,” she says. “Little girl who went missing.”

He hums noncommittally.

“It’s a pretty open-and-shut case, though.” He kicks in the door to an empty first floor—open pipes, pools of dirty water, and the general stench of rotting meat. She continues, “The dad went missing around the same time—staged a little accident, took the kid.”

“Lotta people going missing these days,” says Bucky, thinking of Peter Parker. He and Steve have been working with Pepper for weeks now trying to find the Spider-kid. He’s seen dozens and dozens of pictures of the kid. Half of them are pinned up to a corkboard in his and Steve’s dining room. That bulletin board practically takes up an entire wall. It’s covered in possible addresses, ties to different villains and supervillains, his last text messages, his future plans… That kid’s been missing, what, over four months now?

“Not as many as there used to,” says Officer Paz rigidly.

A beat between them.

He forgets sometimes what people see when they look at him: the Winter Soldier. Killer of dozens. The reason that children never saw their parents again. “I guess,” he mutters.

They pass through another set of doors, down a set of stairs, and into a grimy underground hallway. She starts talking again—a nervous talker, maybe—rambling about her other case. A little girl named Cassie. “But the thing is, the dad never showed any signs of violence or mental instability before taking the girl—and it didn’t seem like he was protecting Cassie from the new stepfather or the mother. They were all normal.Like, picture-perfect family. So I had a thought it might be ties to his old prison gang, maybe he made someone mad, but I went back to his prison-mates. The guy’s well-liked. By everyone.According to his old cellmates, this guy was the life of the party. Made everyone happy. So it just doesn’t make sense.

Bucky gives her a hard glance. “Are you allowed to tell me about that stuff?”

She shrugs. “Are you allowed to have that gun?” she shoots back.

Bucky clicks the safety off. “I’m sorry,” he says, sarcastic, “did you not want backup?”

“You’re lucky I need you, Barnes.”

He huffs again.

They’ve finally reached the bunker doors. Bucky puts in the code for the first door: 04161900. Arnim Zola’s birthday.

There’s a short hallway—barely ten feet—and then another set of doors. He puts in the second code with gloved fingers: 12031972. Arnim Zola’s death date.

He supposes even neo-Nazi’s have stupidly easy passwords.

The bunker was empty. Nothing but a couple old HYDRA corpses and a bunch of dead computers. “Tough luck,” he says, but he doesn’t really mean it. He doesn’t want to find anything in these sh*tholes.

The officer stands beside her squad car, scribbling into a notepad. “Let’s go again tomorrow,” she says without looking up.

“No,” he says. “I’m tired. We’ll go again on Monday.”

She snaps, “No, not Monday. Tomorrow.”

“I’m tired,” he says, “so Monday. Or not at all.”

“Fine.”

Bucky drives his motorcycle home in a daze—and when he gets home, he goes straight upstairs and steps in the shower—clothes, shoes, gun, and all.

SATURDAY, AUGUST 11 — 8:01 PM

Peter’s condition is deteriorating fast. Like, Titanic-meets-iceberg fast.

Physically, the kid’s doing a little healthier, having more nutrients in his system is allowing him to heal a bit better—but it doesn’t change the fact that the kid is the textbook-picture of starvation: rail-thin, sunken eyes, glazed pupils, sallow skin, visible bones.

Mentally, he’s sinking. He barely lets the doctor touch him—the kid spaces out and freaks if anyone puts their hands on him.

Today, they bring him in, dragged between two of Charlie’s guys.

At first glance, the kid’s uninjured but when they drop him on the ground, but then Peter doesn’t get back up. He’s flopped on the ground on his back, eyes half-open. This has happened a couple times—Peter coming back unconscious—but it doesn’t feel any less strange. “What’d you do to him this time?” he shouts before they can leave.

It’s the big blond guy and a smaller dark-haired guy who brings him in today—both are so high that they stumble a little into the doorframe as they walk out. The dark-haired guy motions with both pointer fingers at his temples and then makes a buzzing sound before laughing and staggering off with the blond one.

Oh. Electric shocks.

Dr. Skivorski swallows the bile rising in his throat.

As soon as the doors are closed and locked, he kneels beside young Peter and, after trying to wake him several times, sneaks his arms beneath the boy. It’s not hard to pick him up. He’s light, lighter than any seventeen-year-old he’s ever encountered in his time as a pediatrician, so he scoops him up—one arm under the crook of his knees, and one beneath his shoulder blades. “Alright,” he says quietly, even though Peter can’t hear him. “You’re alright. You’re okay.”

He places the unconscious boy supine on the operating table and starts his work by unbuttoning his jumpsuit. He doesn’t look too bad—some healing burns from yesterday. His IV catheter’s getting a little infected, probably from the constant insertion of all of those supersoldier sedatives, so he gets him some antibiotics for the infection, bandages up the spot in his arm where the catheter was previously, and he inserts another one. he finds one at hish hand that seems mildly usable, so he secures it with a stretch of medical tape—one inch tape and chevron tape to stabilize the vein—after inserting the cannula. He then floods the kid with fluids and extra nutrients, as much as he can, and at last the kid starts to wake, stirring in a dazed panic.

The doctor can’t do anything but observe in moments like this.

He’s still too muddled from the electroconvulsive therapy to think straight, so when he wakes up, he freezes, staring at the doctor like he crawled out of a horror film. “No,” he moans, and then his voice skyrockets into something high and panicky. “No, please… Please…”

“It’s just me, Peter,” he says, backing away a little bit. “Remember me? I’m just the doctor…”

It takes a while for him to figure out where he is, and even when he does, he stumbles off the table and back into the corner, where he wraps his arms around himself and rocks slowly.

“What’s changed?” the doctor asks. “Peter, hon, I need to know.” There’s no sign of major physical injuries—not that Peter lets him touch him for more than a few minutes. “I'm only here to help, you have to know that. I’m just trying to keep you safe.”

Peter rocks and he rocks and he stares off into space behind the doctor’s head. “You can’t keep me safe,” he hoarsely. “No one can.”

“Peter…”

Shaking his head and hugging himself, Peter looks empty. Behind his eyes—there’s suddenly nothing. “I can't do this,” he croaks, and the rest of his body is so still, as rigid as a corpse, that the doctor worries he’s gone unconscious for a second. The only sign of life is his open eyes.

“Peter,” he says, “don’t say that.”

Peter's shaking his head and shaking his head and staring off into empty space. “Can’t,” he says, and then he’s gone again.

Dr. Skivorski takes the opportunity to examine the kid. He kneels by him. There’s some bruising around his neck, too, pinker than the rest, and pinkish-purple blotches on his chest.

Not bruises. Hickeys.

Oh.

There’ve been signs before—Peter’s skittishness, his aversion to touch, his inexplicable fear of these ‘new people,’—but it’s never been so obvious.

“Take another second, Peter,” he says, as Peter tries to get off the operating table. “Rest.”

He seems almost distraught at the notion. “I can't,” he says, as he attempts to sit up. “Gotta get back to Cass. They could be—they could be—

“Peter, you know they’re not going to come back for a while. You might as well let me fix you up.”

“But they—” His voice is high with panic. “I have to. She’s—she—”

“They don’t usually go anywhere near her, Peter. You know that. They don’t like to hurt her.”

“They could do worse than hurt her,” Peter says.

The doctor sighs. “But they won’t. These people may be junkies and kidnappers and thugs and thieves but they’re not pedophiles.”

The boy suddenly goes from panicked to furious. “How do you know what a pedophile is like?” snaps Peter. “They don’t have f*cking warning signs painted on their foreheads.”

“No,” says the doctor carefully, “but I was a pediatrician. I’ve seen my fair share of sexual abuse, Peter.”

Peter goes still. “Oh,” he says, and his throat seems to have closed completely, his trachea swollen shut to block any semblance of vocal sound. “Right.”

“None of these people look at Cassie the way you fear they do, Peter. None of them.”

Peter’s shaking his head again. “There’s new people, Doc. You haven’t… You haven’t met them yet. They’re…” The kid’s eyes go blank again.

The doctor realizes, suddenly, that there’s a question he hasn’t asked Peter. “Peter, have any of them touched you?”

Peter suddenly looks like an entirely different person. Someone older. Someone with a whole life packed in polaroids under a dirty mattress. Someone with a closet of half-liquified skeletons. “What?” he says darkly, like the doctor just asked an entirely different question. “What did you just say to me?”

“Peter—”

“Do I look like someone who that could happen to? For f*ck’s sake, I have superpowers.”

“These things can happen to anyone, Peter.”

“f*ck you,” Peter spits. “Where do you get off, saying that to me—”

“Peter—”

“I’m not a little kid!”

“I know,” he says gently. And he does know. Peter’s reaction—that’s all he needed to know. “I know, okay.”

He keeps looking over the kid. He restitches the cuts on his wrists and ankles—those never seem to heal—and then he scans a light over the kid’s eyes and ears. “Peter, can you open your mouth for me?” He’s blinking like a newborn baby, swaying slightly as he rocks. “Hey. Hon. Open your mouth for me, okay?”

This is the only way he can figure out if what he’s thinking is true.

Peter’s in some kind of fugue state, so he opens his mouth a little, and he scans with his penlight. There, in the back of the mouth—a series of red spots by his uvula, and further redness going all the way down his throat.

The doctor sits back on his haunches, defeated. His heart sinks. “Oh, Peter…” he says, and the boy barely even registers his face. “Peter—can I—can I ask you a couple questions?”

The boy shrugs. He’s coming back to himself a little, looking around, anywhere but the doctor’s face.

The doctor feels a surge of loathing for this place, for what these people have done to him. But he puts on his doctor face—a soft, professional expression—and he asks, “Have you had oral sex recently?” His throat is a dead giveaway: this kid’s got an oral disease, most likely sexually transmitted. From the looks of it, it’s probably gonorrhea.

The kid seems hazy; he nods and nods and then he tips his head against his knees, hiding his face from the doctor. “Does it hurt when you pee?”

Peter picks his head back up, and he stares at the doctor. It’s such a haunting gaze—like that of a shell-shocked soldier or a slack-jawed sleepwalker.

The doctor swallows the lump in his throat. “For how long?”

He stares—that empty, thousand-yard stare—and finally, after a few minutes of heavy silence, he says, “A while.”

Notes:

thanks for ur patience, hope u have a good read, lemme k what u think

i might post another couple scenes in a couple days, maybe, if i feel like it haha.

Chapter 17: black out days

Summary:

She glances over at the boy. Peter is rolled over in the corner by the toilet, laid on his side and curled into some kind of fetal position, quiet. His jumpsuit is barely on, drawn over his hips but leaving his chest bare enough that she can see every notch in his spine, like the mottled curve of an albino snake. Stupidly, she asks, “Is that the first time he…?” Peter doesn’t answer.

Notes:

thanks for waiting, here's the new chap. life's been sh*tty and sometimes this is the only thing that keeps me going i swear to god.

plz plz be careful with the CWs this chapter

CW: rape, medical discussion of rape, blink-and-you-miss-it implicit suicidal thoughts, obv references to violence and torture

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

MONDAY, AUGUST 13 — 6:33 AM

Since visiting that bunker in the Bronx last Monday, Bucky’s been acting strange. He can’t help it.

He’ll find himself passing out when he stands up because he hasn’t eaten in a couple days. He doesn’t shower much. Stops washing his hair. He forgets to brush it and lets it get shaggy. “As much as I like your new look,” says Steve, trying to be a little funny, “I do think you should at least shower, Buck. It’s good for you.”

Bucky doesn’t tell him the words that are bouncing around his skull: The asset is prohibited from self-maintenance. All upkeep shall be performed by the asset’s handler.

He finds himself places without knowing how he got there. Sometimes with his motorcycle, sometimes barefoot. Always with a weapon.

Steve’ s getting worried; Bucky can feel his concern every time he looks at him across the kitchen table or while they’re alone in bed. “Are you sure about this, Buck?” he says. “I could do it, you know. I could take over, help her with HYDRA—”

“No,” Bucky snaps.

Steve lets out this gentle sigh. “Bucky…”

“Just drop it, Steve.”

So he drops it.

Early Monday morning, he meets the officer at NYPD headquarters, and they drive out to Pennsylvania: Bucky on his bike and Officer Paz in her squad car.

It hits as soon as the bunker door closes behind him. He’s back. He’s suddenly dizzy—dizzy enough to be sick, like a hangover—and when he looks at his arm, his flesh looks like undercooked meat. This body is not his. This skin, these legs, this arm, this chest. The world around him warps and bubbles: an underworld.

He stops so dead in his tracks that Officer Paz asks him if he’s okay.

The only thing he can manage to do is nod vaguely. Bucky’s been to this bunker more than any of the others. Its location was perfect: far enough from New York City to be secluded, but close enough to find any target who passed through the city.

It's a haunting mix of déjà vu and jamais vu; it’s like a nightmare becoming real, a place so foreign and familiar that it’s like the remnants of a bad childhood memory. The stench of copper in the air, the green-tinted walls, the blank cells.

Bucky manages to get his legs working again. He enters each hallway with his gun poised and the officer tailing him.

They enter another room—one with a vibranium-lined chair and an electric contraption hanging above it. The entire space, each stain of decades-old blood on the floor, each scratch in the chair-arms—at once he can’t move. His boots are glued to the floor like a rat in a trap.

Someone’s calling his name. Again and again. Is that his name? Barnes. Bucky. Bucky Barnes. He feels himself fade: an oil painting in the sun, all his colors lightening and blurring into a mass of peeling white canvas.

He’s here.

The asset is here.

The asset remains functional. It requires a recall of its last mission.

There’s a hand on its shoulder; threat recognized. The asset turns and pins the threat to the wall, metal arm against throat.

Complete mission. Complete mission. Complete mission.

The threat coughs. She says his name again. His name? Again, she says it, frantic. Choking, her hands fighting against metal fingers. His name, his name, his name again.

Bucky.

He blinks, and he blinks again, and his metal fingers unclench.

She drops like a stone, coughing on her hands and knees. Her eyes look wild. “Maybe…you should…wait…outside…” she chokes out, hand at her now-swelling throat.

She’s probably right.

Bucky mentions to the officer that there’s another bunker near the first—a small one further west—so they make the drive.

The second bunker is just like the first. Empty. Cold. Reeking of stale corpses.

“That’s the last one in the state,” says Bucky as they exit the bunker. “You think he went cross-country?”

“He can’t be far,” she assures him. “Charlie wouldn’t—”

“Charlie?” he repeats. “How well do you know this guy?”

Giving in, she finally says, “It’s my brother.”

The officer and the assassin stare at each other.

“Thursday,” he says at last. “We’ll go again on Thursday. Drive out to Pennsylvania. There’s a couple out there.’

“Thank you,” she says. “You okay? I know this can’t be easy…”

“Yeah,” says Bucky, but he’s shaking his head. “I’m good.” He swallows. “Sorry about your—”

The officer interrupts, “It’s fine. I’ll see you Thursday.”

Bucky doesn’t remember driving home.

He doesn’t remember loading his gun. He doesn’t remember standing at the door for the rest of the day with the barrel of his gun pressed against the window-glass.

But when he comes to, it’s dark outside and Steve’s shaking his shoulder and calling his name: “Buck? Bucky? Hey. Hey.” He drops his keys on the floor, and the clink of car keys against the oak floor shakes him back to reality, blinking.

“What time is it?” Bucky mutters, bleary.

Steve doesn’t even check his watch. “Late, baby. Like, ten.”

“Ten?” He got back from the bunkers around midday. “Oh,” he says.

“How long have you been here like this?”

Bucky must’ve been standing like this for hours,stiff as a board, ready to shoot at any moment. “Since noon?” he echoes. Nine hours? Ten? “I thought…” He’s not sure. Maybe he wasn’t thinking at all.

He unlocks his knees from their stiffened position with a pop and finds himself falling, dizzy, purple-tinted spots peppering his vision. His whole body feels numb.

“Hey, whoa…” Steve braces his hands against his shoulders to keep him upright. “You okay?”

He can still complete the job. “Functional,” he says, and Steve winces.

“Bucky,” he says, “you eaten anything today?”

He doesn’t remember, honestly. He tries to think back—visiting the bunkers is a haze, too. Where’d they go today? Pennsylvania? He had a mission in Pennsylvania once. A mother. The kid saw, he remembers, and Bucky killed him, too.

He’s not himself. He doesn’t feel like himself. When he looks down, he’s wearing the wrong pants and the wrong shirt and his face isn’t covered and the asset may not receive nutrition until the mission is completed

“Hey, Bucky, you’re okay, you’re home, you’re safe…” Steve’s in front of him, hands on his shoulders. “Baby, look at me. You know where you are?”

Bucky blinks. He blinks again. His chest is twisted tight. With you,he thinks, and his mind goes pleasantly blank.

Bucky’s gun is on the windowsill now—did Steve take it from him? How…

“Here.” Steve’s got a glass of water—when did he have time to get that? “Drink.” Bucky takes the cup—the condensation on the glass makes his hands damp. “Drink,” he repeats. “Come on.”

Steve helps him to the kitchen and makes him something to eat—some peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches—and they sit at the kitchen table together in silence.

Steve’s washing the dishes now, clearly concerned. He’s got that scrunched-brow look, so Bucky croaks out,“Found the kid yet?”

Steve shakes his head. “Not yet. We’ve been talking to Dr. Helen Cho, though, remember her? She’s been sneaking medical records from May Parker's hospital. Cho thinks she could get her to wake up. Maybe she knows something we don’t.”

“Good idea,” says Bucky, but honestly, he doesn’t really care about this kid. Peter Parker’s probably just at summer camp or something else equally teenager-y.

“Yeah,” he says. “Pepper’s coming by later—we’re trying to figure out how to get her out of that hospital without alerting the authorities. Is that okay? I can tell her not to—”

“No,” says Bucky stiffly. “It’s fine. I’m good.”

TUESDAY, AUGUST 14 — 9:45 AM

JARVIS needs more than a Macbook Pro to hack into Tony Stark’s lab.

They don’t want to let these kidnappers know that they’ve seen anything, so they don’t let JARVIS into the computer systems at the Avengers residence upstate.

So, Pepper buys back Avengers Tower.

The paperwork isn’t difficult—they had partial ownership of the Tower even when it wasn’t emblazoned with ‘AVENGERS’ on the front. It was owned by Amazon in their absence, but Jeff Bezos has about a million other towers he could buy. This one—they need this one.

Publicly, she has to make a statement. A company can’t move their entire headquarters overnight without making some kind of statement. She only makes one statement, and by the following day, every news station is repeating it, recirculating that same old photo of her bruised face.

In front of dozens of cameras, she announces, “ Stark Industries does not need Tony Stark anymore than I do.”The rest is implied: she’s moving to get away from Tony Stark, for a fresh start. That was her original reasoning, sure, but now it’s just for show.

As soon as they take ownership of the Tower, they implement JARVIS into the Stark Industries systems. “Using these systems,” she says, “do you think you could access Tony’s lab upstate? Without anyone knowing?”

JARVIS, in his pleasant British tone: “Of course, Ms. Potts. All of Sir’s AIs are designed to be untraceable.”

“How long would that take?”

“Approximately,” says the AI, “two hundred hours.”

“Two hundred?”

“Give or take, Ms. Potts, that’s just over eight days.”

Eight days. Eight days that Peter’s missing and eight more days that Tony’s trapped in the lab. “Okay. Thank you, JARVIS.”

“Of course. Ms. Potts. I will begin the operation right away.”

MONDAY, AUGUST 20 — 6:14 AM

Bucky takes the officer to a bunker in Connecticut next.

It’s a small bunker, one he was only in a couple of times. Two levels, no operating room, only one cybernetic chamber.

“I need to see something,” says Bucky, once they’ve made sure Charlie Keene isn’t hiding inside.

The officer objects, saying, “We’re done here, Barnes,” but he could care less what she thinks. He wasn’t asking for permission.

He walks down the hallway and he feels like a five-year-old kid walking down the hallway to his room at bedtime. It’s not hard to find the cell: the massive star on the door is a dead giveaway.

The scratches in the walls. The grimy mattress. The lidless toilet. The bucket bolted to the floor. The food slot in the door. It’s all still there.

“You lived here?” whispers the police officer.

“Sometimes,” he says, and he feels almost faint.

Bucky drives home in a daze.

His ears ring. His head aches. His vision blurs.

Bucky drifts from one memory to the next, from one place to the next. He feels wrong. He is wrong. His hair is too light, his clothing too civilian, his face too clean.

Bucky Barnes fades; the asset is here.

MONDAY, AUGUST 20 — 6:45 PM

Steve has been helping Pepper all day. They’re nowhere close to finding Peter, but at least they’ve managed to move May to the Tower Medbay without much of a hitch. Pepper claimed her treatment was covered as a part of a Stark Industries charity for unidentified patients, and the hospital let her go.

Dr. Cho has gotten the woman awake and blinking, but she has yet to speak. Maybe once she does, she’ll have something to say.

The drive home is mindless; he puts on old forties’ songs and hums to them as he goes. When he gets back, Bucky’s motorcycle is parked haphazardly in the driveway and the front door is wide open.

Steve stops the car.

He doesn’t bother locking it. He bolts inside, calling out, “Bucky! BUCKY!” and running around the house in a dead panic. There’s Bucky’s jacket on the table, Bucky’s shoes at the door, Bucky’s sweatshirt on the stairs. Then, as he’s a couple steps up, he hears it: bang! bang! bang!

Three gunshots.

Steve runs.

He takes the stairs four at a time, trips on the landing, gets back up, and shouts, “BUCKY!”

No answer.

Panic floods him like cold water. The sound came from the bathroom; in one try, he kicks the door in. The entire door splinters under the weight of his leg.

Bucky’s standing in front of the sink, facing the mirror. He’s almost naked, dressed in only a pair of black briefs—the rest of his clothes have been tossed into the bathtub. His hair is greasy and black; is that hair dye? The dye is everywhere: smeared over his eyes like a mask, coating his hands, slimed over the sink, hand-painted over his chest, and there’s more over the doorknob and the bathtub and the gun in his hands—

Bucky, near-naked, is still pointing his gun at the mirror, and that’s where Steve sees the bullets. Three of them. Shot directly into the mirror in perfect succession—one, two, three—like target practice. He pointed it at the mirror ; he pointed it at himself . “Buck,” he says again, finally realizing what’s going on. “Bucky, you with me?”

Bucky doesn’t move. He stands there, watching himself, completely unaware of Steve’s presence. He’s muttering something under his breath, Russian slipping into English and into German and back to English again. “The asset… The asset must…” He’s still holding the gun, and his eyes have taken on this dulled glaze. “...соответствовать всем командам.”

Tentative, Steve moves towards him; he has to get the pistol from him. “Bucky, give me the gun, baby. Let go of the gun.” He puts his hands on Bucky’s and tries to pry the handgun from a tense grip.

Bucky Barnes doesn’t even blink.

He mutters and mutters and mutters. He’s got a grip so tight around the weapon that his fingers are white and pink from the pressure. In a dry whisper: “…with all commands. The asset must be compliant with all commands. The asset must…” Back to Russian. “Актив должен соответствовать всем командам. Актив… Актив…”

“Let go of the gun, baby. Bucky. Bucky. Come on, give me the gun. Give me the gun.” Bucky’s fingers are unyielding. Steve pleads, trying to get Bucky to wake up, “Let go of the gun. Let go of the gun, baby. Let go of the gun.

Then Bucky turns the gun, slowly, fighting against Steve’s hands and taps it against his forehead, still murmuring dazedly in Russian. Steve takes the moment to shove his hand in front of the barrel, pushing his palm into Bucky’s wrist to break his grip on the gun.

Finally, he manages to wrangle the gun from Bucky’s taut hands. Sweet relief washes over him; immediately, Steve unloads the gun, spilling out the last few bullets onto the bathroom floor and then throwing the pistol out into the hallway. They’re safe.

There was dye on the gun, too, so now Steve’s hands are faint with it—imprints of black dye in the shape of the pistol.

Bucky must have realized the gun is gone, because now he’s staring at his palms like he’s seeing a black-painted creature stemming from each wrist instead of a hand. He mumbles a little, incoherent, and then he half-falls to his knees, bracing himself against the white tile. “Steve?” he whispers, so quiet. He’s coming back to himself, his face twisting in confusion as he takes in his appearance. “What…”

“Oh, Buck,” he says, unable to keep the sadness out of his voice. “Baby…”

Bucky’s grinding his palms into his eyes.

Steve kneels beside him, careful not to touch him. “This isn’t good for you. I can't let you keep going back there. It’s not healthy.”

Bucky looks pained, like a kid with a stomach-ache. “I have to,” he says.

Steve shakes his head. “No. No. It's okay. Let’s switch, alright?”

“Switch?” he echoes hoarsely.

“Yeah. You help Pepper with Peter Parker, and I’ll help the officer with her thing.”

“I can't,” he says. “I have to—it has to be me.”

Steve shakes his head, and then he shifts a little closer, sitting on the backs of his legs. “Can I touch you?” he asks, and Bucky nods, exhaling. Steve slides closer, knee resting against his, and presses warm fingers on Bucky’s flesh-and-blood wrist. “Bucky, baby,” he says. “Listen to me. You’ve done enough. Let me help.”

“But what if something…” Bucky’s staring at his hands again. “...happens?”

“Bucky. Baby. What's the worst that could happen?” Steve gives a light chuckle. Bucky doesn’t. “We’re goddamn supersoldiers. We’ll be okay.”

Bucky nods, the motion faint.

“Now, let’s get that sh*t off your face, okay?”

Bucky nods again, and he rests his head on Steve's shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he says.

Steve kisses his forehead, hair dye and all.

TUESDAY, AUGUST 21 — 10:47 AM

Riri knows something is going on with Quentin Beck and Peter.

She has to say something. She finds Charlie in the barracks, shirtless with a belt tied right around his upper arm. There’s an array of used needles beside him.

“Charlie,” she says, “I think… something’s happening to Peter.”

He doesn’t even look up at her, instead flicking the syringe with his finger. “Who—you mean Parker?”

Riri blinks. “Yeah,” she says. “I think Beck’s been… hurting him.”

Charlie chuckles. “Okay?” he says.

Okay? Okay? “Charlie,’ she repeats. “He’s, like, touching him. Like, bad-touching. Haven’t you heard the sounds coming from in there?” She’s heard them way too many times: husky moans, bitten-off cries, strained gagging, hushed grunting…

The bearded man raises his hands as though to clean them of what she just said. “I’m no one to judge,” says Charlie, “I mean, hey, I don’t swing that way, but if that’s his thing, then…”

Riri’s mouth must be open. “That’s not what I mean—he’s—he’s—Peter’s a kid—”

Charlie laughs. “He’s sixteen, Riri. You know what I was doing at sixteen?”

Riri’s rubbing her chin. She thinks he might be seventeen; she’s heard him whispering the number under his breath. “Charlie—we’re in control of him, we… It’s our responsibility to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t…”

Charlie puts down the needle. “Whoa, whoa,” he says, with a hint of a laugh in his voice. “Calm down, little girl. You’re sounding like a f*cking cop. We’re not into that—all of those rules, all that… Let the man breathe,get out of his ass. He’s not hurting anybody—”

“Not hurting anybody,” echoes Riri. He’s hurting Peter. He’s hurting Peter.“Charlie—”

He pats her on the shoulder, light, and she jerks away from his touch, crossing her arms over her chest. Charlie scoffs, “Are you jealous? Is that the problem?”

“What? No!”

“Because if you want a piece of him too, no one’s stopping you. Go for it. Might as well give him a good time while he’s here.” Charlie waves her away then, picking up the needle, sticking it into his arm and pressing down the plunger. With a pleasant sigh, he falls onto his back and smacks his lips.

That’s her sign to go; Riri feels like she’s going to throw up.

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 22 — 5:44 AM

Riri knows she shouldn’t open that door.

But she can hear it.

Beck’s rambling in that low, lusty voice, talking and talking and Peter’s too quiet. “Bet Tony Stark f*cked you like this, huh? He get a piece of you? Little slu*t,bet you spread your legs for every guy who walked into Stark f*cking Industries, huh? Didn’t you? Didn’t you, Petey?”

Struggling and teary whimpering and more struggling.

“You want it all, don’t you? Bet you sucked off every intern who looked your way, huh? You let them all f*ck you like this, didn’t you, Petey?” A bitten-off moan that revolves into a dark exhale, almost more of a chuckle. “Little…” Another moan. “...slu*t… God… That dick feel better than Stark’s, don’t it? Don’t it, Petey? You—f*ck—like it, don’t you? I f*ck better than that tech-stealing motherf*cker, don’t I?”

And she can hear Peter’ every breath through the door—shoved out of him with every rhythmic slap of skin. A crack! like a hand—a pained groan. “Say it, Parker. Say it. Say I f*ck better than him. Say it.”

Peter’s voice is so bedraggled that she can’t even make out his answer, but it must be satisfactory because Beck chuckles again, and he starts up: rhythmic thrusts combined with the man’s rough grunts. “f*ck, yes… You’re so f*cking tight…”

She has to do something. f*ck whatever Charlie said. She can’t just sit here and listen to this. She can’t.

She's sick of this. She's so sick of this.

She nears the door, one quiet step at a time. The cell door’s still open a crack, and she balks twice at the entrance. What’s she gonna do, barge in there like a police officer? Kick the door in? Yell, What the hell’s going on in here? That’s stupid. That’s stupid . What else could she do? Walk in carefully, ask politely what Beck’s doing? Say, Excuse me? Mr. Quentin Beck, sir, that’s highly inappropriate…

She doesn’t feel like herself, but she has to do it. She can’t let Beck keep doing this to him. She can still hear the man’s voice, crude and thick: “Say it again, f*ck yes, say I’m better than him, Petey—”

Riri swallows a stone of guilt and pushes the door open.

She doesn’t know what she was expecting to see. But not this. Not this.

Peter’s naked on the ground, limp and facedown, his black jumpsuit twisted around his ankles. There’s something dark on his wrists—is that a belt?—binding his arms behind his nude back. Brown-haired Beck is kneeled over him, his hairy legs between Peter’s own. His pants are undone and slung low, revealing his bare ass, his loosed belt hanging over Peter’s pale thighs—and with one hand on the kid’s hip and the other on the concrete floor, Beck braces himself up for each thrust, his hips flush with Peter—

And then Beck notices her in the doorway, and he slips, falling on top of Peter in surprise. “Oh, sh*t.” She catches a startling glimpse of Beck’s brownish pubes and a light sheen of blood as he struggles off the boy— out of him—as yanks up his boxers, and zips up his jeans.

The brown-haired man gets up, gives Riri a little nod, and leaves the cell by squeezing past her in the doorway. His belt’s still unbuckled; he smells like sweat and sex as he passes her.

And Peter Parker lays on the ground like something dead, arms still tied behind his back.

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 22 — 7:07 AM

Riri hides in the bathroom for at least an hour.

She feels safe there. She can’t stop thinking about what she saw. Peter. Beck. Peter and Beck. How could she be so naive? Beck’s been… He’s been… He’s… She feels sick. This guy’s been walking around the bunker like he’s been crowned king—and all the while, he’s been assaulting Peter?

Somehow, assault is too kind a word for what she saw.

When she finally leaves the bathroom, heading into the barracks to find something to eat, she finds only one person inside: Quentin Beck.

He sits at the end of the room at a table, his feet propped up on the surface. He’s smoking a cigarette, which is probably laced with something else because his eyes are bloodshot and half-lidded. She approaches the table. She has to say something: stop that or what the hell is wrong with you or in front of the little girl? But none of her words make it out of her mouth. “Some people don’t like the smell,” he starts, taking a drag and breathing it out, “but I don’t know, I kind of like it.” He chuckles; Riri feels ill. “Bad habit. Everyone’s got their vice, hm?”

Riri nods emptily.

There’s mud on the bottom of his shoes. She saw those shoes just an hour ago—set somewhere between Peter’s naked knees. “Look, you know, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say anything about Peter and me. That’s, you know…private.”

Private? Private?

“Not trying to cause a scene here.” Another chuckle, and a wave of disgust urges its way up Riri’s throat. “Just trying to have some fun while I can.” There’s something on the man’s arms, little pink lines, and all of a sudden nausea hits Riri like a slug to the gut: they’re scratches. Probably from Peter’s fingernails. Maybe that’s why he tied Peter’s hands.

“We’re not here…for that,” Riri says.

He takes another drag from his cigarette, and when he opens his mouth to speak, a spur of white smoke spills out of his mouth. “What does it matter? We’re gonna kill him once it’s over, anyway. What is it they say… Dead men tell no tales, hm?”

Quentin Beck is smiling. He’s smiling. Riri’s legs are going numb. He pulls the cigarette from between his lips and offers it to her. Riri waves her hand as though to say, No, thanks. But really, she can’t gather the energy to say no out loud.

The brown-haired man shrugs and moves on.

“But he—he…” she manages. “Can’t you—can’t you find someone else?”

Beck shrugs. “Why would I? Parker’s there, he’s warm, he’s f*cking fresh… And what’s he gonna do? Say no?”

“He’s just a kid.”

Beck’s scruffy face—a lusty smile. “Ah, ah, ah,” he says gently, with a waggle of his finger. “He’s a teenager. Already the age of consent.”

BUT HE CAN’T CONSENT! she wants to scream. She must be displaying some of her horror on her face, because Quentin Beck chuckles and says, “Oh, come on, it’s not like I’m f*cking the little girl. There’s no need to look like I just sh*t in your Happy Meal.”

She can’t manage to do anything other than dry-swallow.

“Look, I know kids like him. They’re all sweet and innocent and f*cking demure until you get some dick in them. Little Petey Parker’s just a tease—a tease who’s gonna be dead in a couple months. Might as well give him what he wants, huh?”

He sits up finally, kicking his feet down, and Riri flinches. Beside him, there’s the latest prototype from Tony Stark. It’s bulky, with dozens of exposed wires. “You wanna see the new weapon Stark brought? I’ve been f*cking around with it a bit, and this one—it’s pretty good. Look.” He takes aim at an empty handle of vodka that’s sitting on the table across from him. The man pulls the trigger, and a blast of hot-blue light fires from the barrel. The entire bottle reduces to a tiny pile of grayed ash. “Not exactly what we wanted, but hey, if Petey Parker drops dead today—and Stark stops working—we’ve still got some pretty good weaponry right here. Gonna make us billions.”

Riri’s not even listening. She has no idea what he’s saying—his voice fades to a low whine. All she can see is what she glimpsed an hour ago—Peter and Beck. Beck and Peter. The loosed belt. The bloody streaks. The bare skin.

Forget Charlie’s plan—can she just sit here and let this happen to Peter?

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 22 — 8:42 AM

Riri’s seen violence.

That's how she lost her parents—that’s how she lost her brother—her whole family. She’s seen pools of blood from gunshot wounds. She’s seen teenagers with their skulls bashed in over a gram or two of their drug of choice. It's why she can stand to see Peter the way he was. But this… This is entirely different.

She takes the car out of the mountains—driving past restaurants and warehouses and cabins until she reaches a small clinic in Lancaster, New Hampshire. The same clinic where she found Dr. Skivorski when they needed someone to take care of Peter.

She waits in the emergency room, makes up information for the sh*tty healthcare paperwork, and sits in a waiting-room chair on her phone. An hour passes, and then another, and then at last a nurse comes for her, calling out the fake name she’d put on the paperwork.

She follows the nurse into the next room, lets her take her heart rate and blood pressure, and then she’s alone again. After another few minutes, a man comes in—a young black man with a white lab-coat and royal-blue scrubs. “Oh,” she says, startled.

The young guy stops in his tracks. “What?” he says, as the door swings shut behind him.

“I thought…” She shakes her head. “I thought I’d get a female doctor.”

He gives her a soft smile before striding to the sink to wash his hands. “We’re a little short-staffed right now,” he says gently. “Did you want a female one?”

She blinks. “Um,” she says intelligently. Does she? “I don’t know. Maybe.”

The man dries his hands and checks his watch. “Well, it’ll be at least a couple hours before there’s a female doctor available—are you okay with that wait?”

She shakes her head. She’s already been gone long enough; she can’t imagine what Charlie would do if she was gone for another couple hours.

“Okay… I do want to let you know that I am an intern—so I may not have as much experience as the other doctors, but I am qualified to treat you. Is that okay?”

She nods emptily.

“Great.” He picks up a clipboard—one that was already on the counter and reads it, flipping through the papers there. Riri saw the nurse scribble on it earlier. “My name's Dr. Drew."

"Riri," she says quietly, and then immediately wishes she hadn't. Why the hell is she giving this guy her real name?

"Nice to meet you," the intern says. "The nurse said she didn’t see any current physical injury, but that there were some old injuries around the head, broken nose… Is that what you’re here for?”

“No,” she says quickly.

Drew nods. “Okay… Is it something you feel comfortable talking to me about?”

Sitting frozen-still, she pauses, and then she shrugs quickly, the way a student does when they don’t know the answer to a calculus question.

“Hm,” he says. “Okay. Can I ask what it’s about?”

She finds herself like a fish out of water—mouth opening and closing without anything coming out. “If someone… If someone’s been, um.” Why is it so hard to say this word? “Attacked,” she says instead. “Is there something I could give them? Like, medically? That you could… I don't know.”

“Attacked,” the intern echoes. “Do you mean, like, beaten up?”

No, no, of course not. “Um,” she says, “not really.”

The young doctor suddenly looks very tired. “You mean sexually assaulted?” he says quietly.

She finds it in herself to nod.

The intern tucks his clipboard under his arm and backs up, sitting on a stool. “Did this happen to you?”

She shakes her head.

Drew’s frowning again and again. Deeper and deeper, until worry lines consume his young face. “It happened to someone you know?”

She nods, and she nods again, and then she’s crying. The tears come slow at first; she thinks she can wipe them away, but then she’s sobbing, saying, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do!”

The intern tries, “Okay, okay. I know this is hard—”

“I saw—” she tries. “I—I saw…”

“You saw it happen?”

A watery, shaky nod.

“Okay. Okay. Just try to tell me as much as you can about what happened. Anything you can remember.”

She tries to, she does, but every time she tries to explain the specifics the tears come faster.

Getting up from his stool, the intern says, “Okay. Here's what’s gonna happen. I’m gonna explain our…situation to the nurse—”

“No!” sh*t, she’s way too loud. “Please,” she adds, quieter. “I'm not…”

“Okay,” he says, sitting back down, trying not to spook her. “Okay. How about—how about I just ask you a few questions about what happened? Maybe then we can tell if your friend needs to come here to get treatment.”

“He’s not coming here,” she answers, far too quickly.

“That’s alright,” Drew says, breaking out his clipboard and pen once more. “I just want to make sure he doesn’t need emergency medical. Can I ask the questions now?”

“Yeah,” she says, but Riri’s uncertain that she’ll be able to open her mouth once he starts asking them.

“Did this happen recently?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Last night.” This morning, really, but she doesn’t want to say that.

“Was it—was it violent? Any possibility of grave injury?”

“I…” she tries, feeling sick. Violently sick—like it was Beck’s lanky fingers on her neck, Beck’s nicotine breath on her skin, Beck’s hairy legs between hers. “I don't know.”

“Can you tell me what kind of sex it was?”

“What?”

“Oral, anal, vagin*l?”

She's swallowing and swallowing and swallowing and can’t seem to get rid of the lump in her throat. “The second one,” she says.

“Okay,” Dr. Drew says. “Did you see any blood? Any other fluids? ejacul*te? Lube?”

She’s never heard someone use that word before. Not outside of high school health class. “Some blood,” she confesses, and the image flashes in front of her eyes again. “I—I—I don’t know about the other stuff. Maybe. I don’t know.”

He scribbles onto the clipboard. “Could you tell me: on a scale of one to ten, how violent it was?”

Riri shakes her head. The image keeps appearing before her eyes: Beck's bare ass, his loosed belt hanging over Peter’s thighs, his hips flush with Peter’s skin, the swollen pink marks on Peter’s hips— “Maybe a seven?” she chokes out.

“Did you see any other injuries?” Drew prompts. “Bruises, scratches, broken bones?”

The wright of that question sinks in, like a knife deep in Riri’s gut. She starts sobbing again, rubbing her hands into her face to clear away the tears. “I… I… I…”

“Alright,” he says, trying to calm her. “That’s okay, that’s okay.”

“It’s my fault!” she cries, because it’s true.

The intern shakes his head. “You didn’t rape him, did you?”

“N-no, but I—”

“Then it’s not your fault. You’re only what, fifteen?”

Fifteen—it’s like a punch in the chest. He's exactly right. She hesitates just a second too long. “Nineteen,” she says, because eighteen sounds like a lie.

The intern purses his lips. “Do you or your friend have insurance?”

She pulls out a wad of cash from her pocket. “Is this enough?” Ross’ donations usually come prepaid—he doesn’t just give them money to spend however they want. This is hers, stocked up from random odd jobs she did before this whole Stark-Parker-weapon thing started.

The intern stares at the money like he’s never seen cash before. Drew looks at her, then back at the money, then back at her.