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Jack of Swords

Chapter Text

Days after the homecoming dance, Peter still couldn’t shake the smell of salt water and burning jet fuel that revisited him at night.

People had found glass at the beach the following Monday, after the Department of Damage Control was done cleaning up the site of the accident. Smooth hunks of black glass buried in the sand, a dark translucent purple when they were held to the light. Mr. Schrader cited the jet fuel as the cause; it burned hot enough to melt sand, he said, but Peter knew better.

Mr. Schrader put up a bounty: anyone who brought a chunk in to add to the geology class collection would be getting pizza that week and an extra point or two on the midterm. Ned was pretty stoked at the prospect of a scavenger hunt, and Peter didn’t have the heart to refuse. They spent a windy afternoon combing the beach and kicking around in the cold surf. It was fun even if they came up empty handed. The tourists were gone. The shore looked bleak in the gray sunlight. Different, unscarred, not like he’d imagined.

Standing with his toes tucked in the sand, looking out across the the steely water, Peter was reminded of the place Mr. Stark had told him about, the place upriver where the bad guys got sent when they got caught. Liz’s dad was there, buried somewhere under the East River, and Peter couldn’t help but wish there’d been some way for him to fix it, some way they could all have won. He told himself he’d done his best.

Two weeks in, the day Liz quit cheer and Michelle cut her knuckle open on a girl's teeth, Peter had a dream where he saved the plane. Standing on the wings, he and Liz's dad worked together to tug the flaps and spoilers into position as the burning plane fell towards the lights of Luna Park. Mr. Toomes knew what to do, and Peter wasn’t afraid. They trimmed and adjusted the wings on the way down, shouting back and forth over the roar of wind, coordinating their efforts. They worked well together as a team, the way he sometimes wished he and Mr. Stark could, but never had.

They managed to guide the jet down to a safe stop along the beach, paint barely scuffed, the crates inside unharmed, and Mr. Toomes walked away. Millions of dollars' worth in the cargo hold, millions of dollars he’d been willing to kill for, and he just walked away from all of it, leaving Peter to wait for Happy and Mr. Stark.

Mr. Stark gave him a lift back to school. Everyone else had left, but he found Liz sitting out front on the steps under the homecoming banner. She was waiting for her dad, looking so beautiful and lonely, a fairytale character out of time. He was afraid to face her, but his heart tugged him up those steps to sit by her side.

When he told her he was sorry, and he came clean and bared all his secrets to her—Spider-Man and Peter Parker and everything else—all of it spilling out in a rushed tumble of words, so many fragile truths spoken so quickly it left him shaking when he finally ran out of pieces of himself to give, she gave him a quiet look of understanding, and hushed him with a kiss. He woke up feeling sick with regret.

Some nights, he relived the terror of the crash. The loss of control. The stomach drop of the fall, the wing that sheared through the Parachute Jump like paper. Glitching panels torn out by the Vulture's claws as he and Peter clung to the side of the jet, everything gushing smoke, everything gone wrong, his cries caught by the rush of air across his face that left him breathless, and seeing the ground come up below them too fast, too close, only to wake up a second before they rammed the flat black water. Some nights, he drowned in the icy water of the bay.

There were better dreams. The quiet minutes after the fight that his mind played back in blurry afterimages. That first sweet sip of cold air after the choking smoke, the solitude of the long walk home through the streets of a sleeping city, with a warm bed waiting at the end of it all.

Hell was a burning pit in Coney Island. The beach lit up as bright as day, black glass strewn like stars across the sand, each reflecting flame. Broken metal sheeting twisting up out of the ground. The overpowering push of heat off the skeletal plane. The smoke wasn’t a smell, it was a gritty liquid in his throat, and it cut all the way down his windpipe with every breath.

A troubling wind carried Peter forward through the field of leaning headstones, one foot after the other, taking him down through the hot sand to the heart of the pit. The strange black glass grew in tall spears around the hole. The sand seemed to glow from within, lit by flame and heat and voices from deep below. He stepped around a six foot shard and into the shade of a creaking wing to catch his breath. Dread welled up inside him. He knew what he had to do, but he didn’t want to see. He was afraid of what he’d find. A crisp, shrunken torso lying silent in the wreckage, or a charred dying thing reaching for him with brittle, blackened arms, crying for water.

He found the Vulture hunched at the bottom. He mistook it for glass at first, its wings slotted together and locked tight, the rugged metal surface a dull black in the light of the flames. It was towering and featureless, a hooded church grim. Alien. Silent. It looked like it had always been there. Peter called out to it, and in a howl of scraping metal, the Vulture stood and spread his wings. A man with a metal face and metal wings, all flesh and blood underneath. He wasn’t sure why he’d been expecting a monster.

Peter squared up, bit down so hard his jaw ached. It was all happening too quickly. He wanted to run and get help, but there was nowhere to go. The Vulture turned, saw Peter standing there, ready to fight him. He motioned for Peter to come closer, and when he did, the Vulture looked him up and down and laughed at him. With a jolt of panic, Peter realized his costume was in shreds, filthy, the little spider he’d painstakingly drawn on the hoodie in marker disfigured and covered in soot. His mask had come off. He looked like a joke.

The distorted bark of laughter died down to a chuckle and a shake of the Vulture's helmeted head. That. That explains so much. But that’s just sad, kiddo. What are you doing? Why pretend to be something you’re not? You think that ridiculous costume makes you a man?

Peter went numb all over, a hot weight clenching around his heart, the breath knocked out of him. The Vulture had seen. He knew Peter’s secret, and now everyone would know. They were all going to be talking about him at school. Penis Parker, the spider weirdo. If he died here tonight, this was how he’d be remembered. A wannabe Avenger. A failure. A freak.

The urge to run seized him, just run blind like a terrified bolting animal until he couldn’t run anymore, and he didn’t feel humiliated or terrified or anything at all, until he was so lost no one would ever find him. He didn't want to fight the Vulture. He didn’t want to be here. Shaking, he flung his arm out to shoot web, but the fluid sizzled and burned to steam. The Vulture stood there, staring. Feeling sorry for him.

Peter lost his nerve. He broke into a stumbling run, tripped in the steep sand and landed hard on his arm. Pain shot up to his shoulder, but he pushed up, kept going. He had to get out of the choking heat, had to get away. He couldn’t breathe. He didn’t hear the Vulture move. A black wing snapped out and smacked him to the ground.

Before he could get up, the wing sliced down at his chest and the feathers sank deep into the sand, stopping just short of cutting him apart. They pinned him to the ground. The Vulture lurched over him, his bright eyes burning green. You should've stayed down, kid. Fire had swallowed half of the Vulture's body. It ate away at the leather jacket, but the Vulture didn't flinch.

You're on fire, Mr. Toomes, Peter said. He sounded stupid and scared, and the Vulture planted one heavy boot across his chest and pushed his weight down into him until his ribs felt like they were going to tear apart.

Go on, the Vulture told him. Cry for help like a little girl. Cry for Tony Stark to save you.

Peter tried. His voice came out shaky. Weak. The burning air hurt his lungs. He couldn't muster the breath to scream. He wanted to scream—God, he wanted to. He wanted this to be over. He wanted to go home. To forget everything he'd seen and hide in the top bunk in his room and disappear forever, and he knew if he could just yell loud enough, if he could just hold on long enough, Mr. Stark would come, and he'd take him home and make everything right again, but Peter couldn't move, couldn't pull in enough air, couldn't breathe, couldn’t make a sound—

I can't breathe, he said. He started to cry, struggling blindly, panicked. He heard a bone snap in his chest. You're pushing down on me. It's too much— Let me go— please let me go I can't breathe I’m going to die help me please I'm going to die— Standing over him, the Vulture calmly watched him asphyxiate.

The smoke filled sky was empty, the stars looming too bright over New York City. Mr. Stark wasn't coming. No one was coming to save him. The Vulture stared into his eyes in silence as the flames cooked both of them alive.

Peter woke in the dark of the top bunk. Tangled up in the sheets, soaked in sweat, his frantic heart thudding under his shirt. He couldn’t bring himself to move. He could still feel the Vulture’s weight on his chest, the heat of the flames on his skin. The cold dread of certainty.

He knows. Everyone knows.

He squeezed his eyes shut, slowly counted to ten. He could hear Aunt May moving around in the apartment, getting dressed, and the Goldsteins talking next door over breakfast. Ms. Queenie’s laughter, bright even through the walls. Then, the warm smell of coffee and bacon coming from the kitchen. It was Friday, the day of the hearing—

No. Let’s try that again. It was Friday, the day of the field trip to Virginia, with the weekend to look forward to after that—a sleepover at Ned’s and marathoning movies together till midnight—and Halloween in two weeks, followed by the much anticipated science conference. Homecoming had been nearly a month ago. It was over. Mr. Stark promised he’d never have to testify. He would never have to see the Vulture again.

In one deft move, Peter slid out of bed and swung into the bottom bunk, shuffling himself into the corner. He grabbed his phone, scrolled through his messages. Nothing from Tony, nothing from Happy. Three from Ned, none from Liz, one from Mr. Schrader reminding everyone not to be late. A handful of YouTube comments. 100k face reveal? I want the Spi-D. Where’s the Vulture fight video? Where are you? We miss you! RIP LOL.

Aunt May at the door. “Hey, sleepyhead. Breakfast’s ready.”

“Coming,” Peter called back.

When he was done getting dressed, he reached for his phone and fumbled it under the bed. It had skittered across the carpet and stopped against the takeout bag with Mr. Stark’s present, which sat next to a battered box marked “RPG STUFF”. Inside was his original costume, folded and hidden under his rulebooks. Peter pulled it out. The costume was charred, sand encrusted. The goggles were cracked. The fabric felt gritty in his hands, patches of it stiff and dark with blood. It stank of smoke and diesel.

Peter’s chest felt tight all of a sudden. He stuffed the costume back in the box and shoved it under the bed, and went out to join Aunt May in the kitchen.

Chapter Text

There was a beautiful solitude to early mornings in Queens. Sharp cool autumn air against the nape of his neck, music in his ears, his shadow stretched long behind him on the pavement. The streets felt pristine, all the ugly and frightening things cleared away by a pale sunrise, and the short ride on the LIRR from Woodside down to Forest Hills was a deep, clear breath before the chaos of school. Some would call it twenty minutes of sullen straphanging, but Peter found comfort in the quiet. A reminder that some things in the world would never change.

He took the train with Liz once. After an embarrassingly long delay, they got on a train packed with rush hour commuters, all of them tired and irritable. Liz and he had been forced to squeeze together and share a strap, their bags at their feet. Liz stood a good inch taller than him, her hair down, effortlessly comfortable with her surroundings. She smelled like spring.

God, he must've seemed like a dork. Scared to even breathe around her. Not sure where to look (but definitely not down her shirt), sweating uncontrollably in the mild late September weather. He stammered out an apology when they brushed shoulders by accident, guiltily enjoying that brief electric touch.

"What are you sorry for this time, Peter?" she'd asked, and her playful half smile made his face go warm.

After escaping the sardine crush on the LIRR, they walked down 47th together in the late afternoon sunshine. Chatting about school, movies, that new book she was reading about a murder at a medieval monastery. If anyone could make manuscripts fascinating, it was Liz Allan. She could make anything worthwhile. When they got back to his place, he ordered pizza and hid his finished homework so she wouldn't know he didn't need math tutoring after all.

He remembered wishing that day would never end. The pleasant hopping lurches in his stomach whenever she looked at him to make sure he was following along. And the unfamiliar mix of relief and disappointment when her ride came and they said goodbye on the steps outside. He'd been too awkward to say hello to her dad; he just stood and waved when she got in the car. Too scared to blurt out something stupid and ruin everything. He'd avoided even looking in the open window when Liz waved back, not too eager to make eye contact with Mr. Allan (correction: Mr. Toomes). Funny how his priorities had shifted since then.

A few people were waiting out front on the grass when he arrived. Ned hadn't seen him yet; he was chatting up a noncommittal Mr. Schrader by the bus, gesturing enthusiastically as he talked. Michelle sat on the curb well away from the others, huddled up with a comic open on her lap, her "don't bother me" face firmly screwed on. The seniors from Liz's biology class were loitering up on the steps, a couple of them varsity jackets from the football team. They were listening to Flash Thompson's new track. Liz hadn't arrived yet.

Peter went to join Ned and Mr. Schrader. As he passed the seniors, Flash turned and called out, "Hey. Parker."

It was never that easy, was it? Peter stopped and looked at him.

"You're best friends with Spider-Man, right?" Flash said.

Two of the seniors laughed softly. They hadn't forgotten the party last month. Peter's promise, and his subsequent inglorious escape from the party when Spider-Man was a no-show. For weeks afterwards, random people would stop just to yell "Penis Parker" at him in the hall.

Flash could barely hold back his smirk. "Maybe not so good friends. He's been missing for a while. No videos, no public appearances. Nothing since the plane crash. Know anything about that?"

"Only what I heard on the news," Peter said.

"Then you know the trial's starting today. Not gonna go show your boyfriend a little moral support?"

Peter said nothing.

"Cut him a break, man," one of the varsity jackets said, though he was smiling. Ted Olsen, quarterback, king of the homecoming court. Not that he'd let you forget it. "I don’t wanna see this kid cry."

“What’s the matter, Parker?” Flash said. “Did you guys break up or something?”

“You know what, Flash—” Peter began before he could stop himself. Maybe if you do Ted’s homework for a month, he’ll let you caddy for him at the country club. He wanted to say it. His heart broke into hard galloping thuds at the thought, but he couldn’t get the words out. They were all looking at him now, more embarrassed for him than mocking, and Ned, standing by the bus—Ned was watching him too. He felt the bird’s green eyes on his back.

“You don’t have to be a jerk,” Peter said, and he hunched his shoulders and walked away.

Ned stood waiting for him, looking apologetic. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

"Flash can be such a jerk,” Ned said. “You ready for Shenandoah?"

Peter rustled his backpack, trying to muster a little enthusiasm. "Yeah, you bet."

He put his bag away, and sat down with Ned on the curb. The sky was starting to clear. The sun warmed the pavement, chasing the chill from Peter's hair. It was shaping up to be a nice day. Ned fidgeted for a moment, trying not to say what they were both already thinking, then burst out in a whisper, "What do you think's gonna happen at the trial? Liz isn't here yet. Do you think she--"

"I don't know," Peter cut in.

"Do you have to go to court? I mean, you’re supposed to, right?"

Peter made a small shrug with his mouth.

“How do you think Liz is gonna react when she finds out that you’re— you know?” Ned leaned to catch his eye when he looked away. "You were there when the plane went down. You're the one who took him down. Doesn't that make you, like, the star witness in the trial?" Beat. "Are they gonna let you keep the mask on? Is that a thing?"

"Mr. Stark said I don't have to testify," Peter said uncomfortably.

Which was only half truth. They'd had a long conversation over video chat about the possibility of Peter testifying. His presence in court could make or break the case, Mr. Stark argued, but Peter couldn't shake the memory of the Vulture's words, the soft smell of leather and flowers from his lapel and Liz’s corsage after she left the car. The gun in her dad’s hand. Quiet words that cut cold into his heart.

I'll kill you. I'll kill you and everyone you love.

It had all seemed so simple on homecoming night. He'd been ready to testify that night. He'd been ready to do anything in order to do the right thing, and risk everything when no one else would. But weeks had passed, and where the fire had faded, fear set in. The more normal life got, the more he had to lose. He was afraid he might go home someday and find something terrible waiting for him.

Halfway through the call, Captain America had commandeered the phone. He was startlingly handsome without the mask, even in the wobbly, upside down low angle of his chiseled jaw. He then righted the phone and said in his firm PSA Cap voice, "You don't have to do anything you don't want to, son. This is a free country. Tony can’t make you testify."

He passed the phone back to Mr. Stark, and Peter’s exact words to him were, “Mr. Stark, I can’t do it.” He hadn’t managed to keep the shake out of his voice that time, either.

The look of disappointment on Mr. Stark’s face was crushing. But Cap said, “You heard the kid,” and after a bit of waffling, Mr. Stark had ended up telling him he wouldn’t have to go, and they’d take care of everything on their end.

Ned wasn’t so easy to convince. “What if the judge subpoenas you?”

“They’re not gonna subpoena me,” Peter said. “They’ve already got Mr. Stark and all the Avengers, and Mr. Stark’s got all these lawyers— What do they need me for?” He didn’t sound convincing, not even to himself. A flustered pause, and he said, “Can we talk about something else?”

Liz showed up a few minutes before departure. She came up to the school at a hurried clip, a little out of breath from the walk up, but the moment she spotted her friends, a bright smile lit up her face, and she gave them all a cheerful wave. She looked energetic, her long hair pulled up under a worn field cap. She looked happy.

Still standing among the seniors, Flash said something Peter didn’t catch. Whatever it was, it made Liz laugh. Peter’s gut briefly twisted in jealousy, but then she’d turned and was headed their way in long strides. He jumped up when she made eye contact with him, realizing a second too late that Ned was still talking to him about Baby Driver. But she wasn’t really looking at him; she went right past to the cargo hold. Feeling ridiculous, Peter stammered out, “Liz. Hi.”

Liz turned around from offloading her bag. For a flicker of a moment, there was a weary, deeply sad look on her face, then the light came back into her eyes, she smiled, and it was gone. “Hey, guys. Ready for the trip?”

“Yeah, you bet,” Peter said. He immediately kicked himself for sounding so stupid.

“Are things okay?” Ned asked her cautiously. “Are you okay?”

Liz gave him a confused look. “Yeah, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” Light and friendly, but there was a bit of an edge to her voice. Polite impatience. Peter didn’t know what to say, and when Ned didn’t say anything either, she gave the both of them a quick smile and boarded the bus.

While the others got on, Peter stepped aside to text Aunt May that they were leaving. Then, he started typing up a message for Mr. Stark. He started out with “Good luck in court today!” but that left him with a sinking guilty feeling. “Leaving now. Back in two days.” felt too curt. Finally, he settled for “Heading to VA for school trip. We’ll be back on Saturday night. :)” He deleted the smiley face, and pressed send.

Mr. Schrader leaned out of the bus, whistled to catch Peter’s attention. “Hey. Come on, four and a half hour trip ahead of us, and it’s not getting any shorter. Move your derriere.”

Peter hurriedly got on the bus, pressing his way down the aisle, tripping over people’s feet. Ned waved from where he’d saved Peter a seat. Just two rows down, Liz sat by herself against the window, scrolling through her phone, her cap pulled down low over her face. Peter felt an uneasy tug on his heart. She looked so lonely. He wanted to go sit with her, but he couldn’t just up and ditch Ned.

The teachers were taking a head count. Mr. Schrader looked around, called out, “Where’s Michelle? Michelle Jones?”

“Yeah,” Michelle said, hopping up the steps. “Let’s go.” She shouldered roughly past Peter, sliding in next to Liz. Michelle immediately opened up another issue and started reading.

Feeling relieved and vaguely disappointed, Peter sat down with Ned. He tried to resist looking back at Liz, tried pushing down a growing sense of disappointment in himself for not having said anything, not having done enough. And the ugly truth of having possibly ruined her life forever. Finally, as they turned down Alderton, he couldn’t stand it any longer and turned around to peer over the seat.

Liz wasn’t looking his way, but Michelle was looking right at him. They stared at each other for an excruciating moment—Peter feeling like a caught deer, Michelle glaring right into his soul—and then Michelle raised one hand and slowly motioned for him to face forward. And he did.

Boy, it was gonna be a long ride.

Chapter Text

There was Rikers, and there was solitary. And then there was the Raft.

The Raft eclipsed the horizon. It was a smooth cold monolith out of a Beksinski painting, a dead thing with a slow beating heart at the center of all that metal and stone. Plumes of ballast gushed into the black water below. It looked like it could house a thousand men. Toomes numbly pictured it sitting at the bottom of Long Island Sound, crushed by 250 feet of salt water, filled by the screams of the buried. Bent and twisted freaks of nature.

On the ride out, the escort was made up of two uniformed feds bearing the black and gray SHIELD eagle and glossy P90s, and a civilian. The civilian didn’t belong—late thirties, bearded, unarmed. Dressed too fancy for prisoner transport. He looked like he’d gotten dragged away from a date in the city. He kept restlessly checking his phone as they crossed the sky over Brooklyn, and all the way up Long Island’s north shore, only putting it away minutes before landing.

It was daunting. The roar of water loud enough to be heard even over the rotors. Tiny pinpricks of light on the Raft’s sleek black deck rising up on the final approach. A massive hatch opened up and swallowed the sky as they touched down. On the way, Toomes had wondered about the helicopter, whether this was one of those rides where they were gonna toss him off the side and into the sea to drown, save themselves a helluva lotta paperwork. It had been a fuzzy passing thought, the adrenaline still too strong for him to be afraid.

Inside, the Raft was sterile. There was a strange smell in the air. Metal and disinfectant, the low dread of a doctor’s office. They kept the place a constant two, three degrees too cold, just cold enough to seep in under his skin and make his joints ache. There was nothing but a skeleton crew on duty. The place seemed empty, clean and new. No screams, no wild eyed inmates. It gave off a subterranean feel, like a research facility.

They led him down to a small gray room and locked him in behind a steel door two inches thick. The cell was bare. Bed, sink, toilet—the usual amenities of solitary confinement. The previous occupant had left behind a stack of books. American classics. He took one look around the place and knew he was gonna be fine. The lights stayed on that night, but he slept nine hours and blasted through Blood Meridian the next day.

He wasn’t allowed a watch. There was no window, no lights out to keep the day-night cycle by. He learned to count time by the day’s meals: breakfast at 0700, lunch at 1200, dinner at 1700. After some deliberation, he dog-eared Huckleberry Finn to keep track of the date.

The quiet was hard to get used to. With the door closed and bolted, the silence was so absolute all he could hear was the buzz of the fluorescents. He flipped through the books sometimes just to hear the paper rustle. Some nights, when he lay in bed and couldn’t sleep, he could swear there was a low rumbling hum echoing up through the floor. It felt like they were moving. He couldn't be sure.

Impossible to tell if there were other inmates housed in the cell block. He spent some time knocking on the walls and waiting patiently for an answer. He tried one side, then the other. Pressing his ear to the cool wall yielded only the same low hum. At mealtimes, he strained to listen for other voices, but heard nothing. When the guards took him out for a shower and a shave, they hustled him down the row of closed, featureless doors, and he never saw anyone else.

Within three days, the whine of the ceiling lights had become unbearable. The lights stayed on 24/7. He could cover his eyes to sleep, but there was no escape from the constant high pitched drone. It dug in deep under his skin like a thousand little spider legs, segmented and clicking, left him seething with restless, frustrated energy. It was the one itch he couldn’t scratch.

A week had passed, and no one in the facility wanted to tell him anything. No lawyer. No phone call. No transfer out of this hole to a normal facility. The thought of Doris and Liz broke his reasoning down into a frantic, angry fuzz of static. They sent a doctor in twice to examine him under armed escort. He asked for a phone call and was told no both times. He wasn’t allowed access to the news. No contact with the outside world. With every denial, he became more convinced he’d been brought to a black site, a place of slow euthanasia. There wasn’t going to be a trial. He’d been brought here to die.

He dreamt vividly at night. Coming down out of the clouds over Kuwait to a sky bright with AAA fire. MiGs flying low under the radar, dressed in desert camo. He plunged down and ground Spider-Man into a long red smear on the pavement, calling out “splash one MiG,” and Eli laughed and whooped on the comm from behind Toomes’ right wing. He woke feeling nauseous, and deeply relieved that out of all of them, at least Finn managed to get away. God willing, he’d be halfway around the globe by now, gone to ground somewhere the long arm of extradition couldn’t reach, and Toomes could keep his promise to Eli—the one promise he hadn’t broken yet.

In the long waking hours, he turned to the small things he could control. He paced the room in circles—ten feet by twelve—until he got dizzy. He did push ups to stay sharp. Two weeks down the road, he stopped trying to count the reps. Instead, he simply kept going until he got tired. Maybe it was the cold, but there was a haze over his head that made it hard to think in a straight line. His thoughts wandered alarmingly. He read the opening paragraph of Kavalier and Clay three times in a row before giving up.

The guards came in unexpectedly one day, pushed him to the corner, and started tossing the room. They’d done it before. He was a tinkerer, they’d said when he asked about it the first time. They had express orders from upstairs to make sure he didn’t start making gadgets to help him escape.

No hard feelings, he’d said. Do what you gotta do.

But this time, he watched them paw through his things, lurching around and filling his space, stepping on his bed, manhandling the books, every word and thud a sharp thundercrack that made him flinch, all of it too loud— Something snapped, and he started yelling for them to get the hell out. He wasn’t sure who swung first, but he’d managed to deck one of the guards before they wrestled him to the floor.

They didn't find anything, of course. There was nothing malicious about the search. They were just doing their jobs. Deep down, he knew he was making a mistake, but a bigger, louder part of him bristled like a frothing rabid animal and howled in triumph when the guard's nose broke and bled.

Doris came to see him later that week. He should’ve been excited—scared, maybe—but all he could muster was a vague sense of relief. Everything felt floaty, like words shouted through water, the dull pang of the bruising around his eye.

They spoke through shatterproof glass in a room where the lights were too bright, armed guards posted just outside the door. The bearded civvie from the ride in, an Agent Gutierrez, came in with her, but she made him wait outside with the others. Doris looked beautiful. Perfect and professional. Exhausted too, like she hadn’t smiled in a long while, but God was she beautiful. He hadn’t realized how much he missed waking up next to her, but now he wanted nothing more than to see her again in that pale morning sunlight.

He’d lost track of time on Huckleberry Finn. She told him it had been more than three weeks since SHIELD detained him. It was disorienting. He’d thought he was still on week two.

“How’s Liz?”

“Coping. Listen, we need to discuss the details of what happened. We might be going to court very soon. I’ve filed a habeas corpus petition. They can’t hold you here forever. I’m going to force them to press charges, and then we’re going to meet them head on.”


She cut him off with a steely eyed stare. “Let’s get one thing clear. I’m here as your attorney, not your wife. We don’t have much time to talk, so please, let’s focus on the case.”

It was over too soon. He had a hard time concentrating on her words and struggled to answer her questions when his thoughts kept being jostled by questions of his own, an unbearable wad of frustration building up in his chest when she deflected all but the legal talk, and when he was escorted back to the ten foot by twelve square that made up his meager little kingdom, he sat on the bed and cried for the first time since the fire eleven years ago.

Chapter Text

It was surreal. Giving himself a close shave this morning knowing that the haggard man in the mirror would be facing a judge later in the day. Walking topside to the chopper where Gutierrez stood waiting, the sky a perfect round hole like the mouth of a well. The blue was deeper than he remembered. He couldn’t help but look up and feel a thrill of anticipation.

“Easy there, Big Bird,” Gutierrez said. “Not ready to let you fly again just yet.” He had a small smile going. Toomes couldn’t bring himself to get irritated over it.

They flew out in silence. Toomes sat back against the humming seat and pictured the Raft receding into the distance. A small black fist on the glossy water, behind him for good. He was giddy, he realized. Eager to feel the helicopter’s every bank and maneuver, see the slow swing of the horizon. Even shackled, he’d never felt more free.

It was four of them again—five with the pilot. The guy sitting next to him was carrying a SW M&P. Toomes could see it sitting in its holster, easily within reach. An urge rose inside him. To grab the gun and bash the fed in the throat with it, take ‘em all out. Seize his one good chance to escape. Then Gutierrez looked right at him, wary and dark eyed, and the urge evaporated.

They came down low over the gray rooftops of Rikers Island. It was a jarring sight. No street grid to navigate by, buildings scattered at random across the island. He’d seen the prison complex before, coming down at LaGuardia, but never this close. There was no running now. The pilot landed the chopper on an open swoop of asphalt behind a building, and quickly took off the moment they disembarked.

“So what’s your story?” Gutierrez asked when the noise of the rotors faded, and they were alone, waiting for pickup. He turned his collar up against the wind, looked over at Toomes expectantly. “You must’ve done all that for something. Money, fame? Power? Mid-life crisis?”

Toomes grunted. He already felt ridiculous enough in the candy striped prison jumpsuit without being made to monologue like a Saturday morning villain. “I don’t wanna talk.”

“That’s fine,” Gutierrez said.

They stood in silence for a moment. A bus went past them and down the road to the visitor center. They must’ve looked like a motley crew. Two feds, a hipster militiaman, and an aspiring convict walk into a bar—

“Ever consider joining the Thunderbolts?” Gutierrez asked.


“The Thunderbolt Initiative. Luke Cage’s outfit.”

“That some kinda WWE thing?”

“It’s a team of reformed supervillains.”

Toomes gave him an incredulous look. “Do I look like a supervillain to you?”

“Superheroes don’t usually crash planes into amusement parks.” Beat. “It’s a good deal. Suspended sentence, all the usual benefits that come with a government gig—”

“And you’re saying that from experience.”

“Face it. It’s a major step up from rotting in a prison cell.”

Toomes snorted softly. “Sure. The only catch being I’d be answering to the likes of Tony Stark. I’ll take my chances in court.”

An off white prisoner transport bus came wandering up the road towards them. The feds stepped out to flag it down. Gutierrez watched it squeak to a stop by the curb, then said, “Never hurts to keep your options open. Take it from someone who’s been there.”

“Like I said. I’ll pass.”

Gutierrez didn’t follow Toomes onto the bus. As one of the guards got him situated, he scanned the tired faces of the inmates onboard, hoping to see Schultz or Vale. There was one guy he recognized. Strong nose and sleepy eyes, fresh burn scars across the side of his face—the buyer from the failed ferry op, Mac Gargan. Last he’d seen of Gargan had been a splash off the stern end of the ferry as the feds closed in. The Spider-Man had gotten Vale that time, too. Webbed him to the railing.

A sharp look had come into Gargan’s eyes. Recognition. They exchanged a small nod. When Toomes was securely locked in, and the guard returned to the front of the bus, Gargan leaned in to whisper. “And here I thought this was gonna be a bad day. Fancy meeting you here, Birdman.”


The bus pulled away from the curb. It rocked over speedbumps on the way past the gate. Toomes looked through the dense metal grille, but couldn’t see much. Just the scattering of cars in the parking lot outside.

“You fell off the grid for so long,” Gargan said, “I was starting to think you’d turned state’s evidence. Gone into witsec.”

Toomes bristled. “I was stuck in the Raft for a month. Plenty of time to contemplate how all those feds just happened to be on that exact ferry the day our deal went down.”

That shut Gargan up for a solid five seconds. “You must be some kinda freak for them to put you in the Raft.” There was a pause, then he said, “But I’m not after you, I’m after the other freak. I want Spider-Man’s name.”

“I don’t have his name.”

“The feds grilled me for weeks about you. I told them jack. Wasn’t that considerate? Give me his name, and I’ll call it square.”

Peter Parker. Barely a mouthful. It would’ve been easy to say. No doubt a guy like Mac Gargan had friends on the outside who could settle accounts with Spider-Man. Cut the stubborn little upstart down to size. Get Gargan off his back, get Spider-Man out of his life. But Toomes held tight to that scrap of intel. It was worth something. He wasn’t about to hand it over to this bozo.

“If I knew who he was, he’d be dead by now.”

“That’s funny,” Gargan said. “Your buddy Schultz told me a different story.”

“How’s that?”

“Your man, Schultz. He can get pretty damn chatty under the right circumstances. He told me a funny story about a homecoming dance and a boy in a DIY Spider-Man costume.” Gargan leaned closer, lowered his voice. Toomes felt his breath on his neck. “And the most, ah, fascinating part—the part I just can’t seem to get out of my head? He said that was the same homecoming dance that you drove your daughter to.”

“Probably just some kid playing a prank.”

“That so? Then why’d you send Schultz?”

Toomes turned and fixed him with a stare. “For all I know, that ferry sting was you.” He put a little snarl into his voice, the better to disguise his anger. “I’ve got nothing to say to a narc.”

Gargan sat back with a small smile. Smooth and relaxed. His expression read “fair enough”, but he’d won, and they both knew it. It left Toomes crackling with nervous energy. Smug bastard. If he had his hands free, he would’ve swung already and kept swinging till his face was hamburger. To hell with the consequences.

Halfway across the bridge to Queens, there was a loud pop up front, like a gun going off. Toomes flinched. He only recognized the blown tire when the bus bucked in a screech of brakes and went into a hard spin. Toomes got thrown halfway across the aisle. People were yelling. He caught an elbow across the back of the head. They flew out out of the tailspin, rammed the barrier with a hard jolt. The world tipped. The ground came up at the windows in a crash of shattered glass.

The bus went still. Toomes slowly picked himself up from where he’d been thrown into the side of the bus. A searing line of fire ran down his body when he tried to stand, and his leg buckled under him. Shit.

One of the COs called out, “Everybody stay calm, and stay where you are. Help is on the way.” He sounded rattled. Toomes could hear the other guard on the comm, requesting a bridge shutdown and emergency vehicles to be sent to collect them. No sirens yet.

But there was something else: a hollow whistle overhead, closing fast. Toomes knew what it meant. He’d heard it before; he’d made that sound before. It was the sound of a dive. Air shearing across a pair of massive mechanical wings. His heart started racing. Ignoring the shooting pain in his leg, he got up and tried to see through the windows.

The whistling cut off seconds before impact. They were all paying attention now, but no one was ready for it. With three deep thumps, the bird dropped down on top of the bus. The frame creaked and bent. A window popped, raining glass pebbles down on Toomes.

The bird’s wingspan put them all in the shade. Then, a foggy window opened up across the side of the bus, bypassing the metal grilles. The window wavered, and stabilized.

The owl looked in. There was no other word for it—two bright round eyes like moons, a bluish gray for camouflage. It peered keenly around the bus, then spotted Toomes and held its hand out to him. Toomes’ heart gave a painful lurch. Finn. Goddamn it. He was supposed to stay low to the ground and keep running. Toomes wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. He instinctively reached for the owl’s hand, and was yanked back by the shackles.

The guards opened fire. The shots went off like thunder in the tight space. The owl jerked back. Pushed a gun through the window. Aimed roughly at the COs, jury rigged muzzle gathering blue light as it powered up.

“Get down—” Toomes began.

He felt the low thump of the blast in his chest. The blowback caught him in the face. It stank of ionized air. He didn’t need to look to know the front of the bus was gone, the COs reduced to a fine paste. Maybe the driver, too. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Gargan was laughing, his eyes bright. Mesmerized by the carnage.

The owl called out to Toomes, tossed down a tool. It hit and rolled. Fuzzy headed, he made a grab for it. It was an ice axe, thickly roped with wiring. He swung it at the fetters without hesitation. A pulse ran through the chain, and it snapped.

Gargan grabbed the axe out of his hands. He didn’t try to wrestle it back. He staggered up and started limping for the light at the front of the bus. Leaning heavily on the seats, choking on the smoke pouring from the crushed engine. His leg was eating itself up with every step. He was sure something was broken. He ignored the yells of the other inmates, swung two handed when one of them grabbed him.

Then, he was through, and out in the chilly air on the sunlit span of the bridge. The two COs lay ten feet down by the twisted front end of the bus. Dead, it seemed, but then one of them weakly tried sitting up, cradling his arm.

The owl landed with a crunch of debris, wings flared. A part of Toomes flinched. It was huge and brutal. A machine built to kill. He could barely make out the little mouse piloting the rig, the timid man who’d once admitted he was afraid of flying. He’d saved him that time, too. Swallowed his fear. Toomes made for him at a hurried limp.

Finn slowly lowered the gun and said helplessly, “I killed them.”

“You didn’t,” Toomes said. He looked past Finn at the black SUV coming up the bridge towards them. It stopped at a safe distance, and Gutierrez jumped out.

Toomes made up his mind in an instant. He wasn’t going back to the Raft. He wasn’t gonna let the bastards take Finn. He turned to Finn. “Hand me the gun.”

He aimed from the hip. The gun bucked in his hands, and a hot blue arc shot out and blew the SUV off its wheels and right into Gutierrez. Inexplicably, the three ton Lexus sheared into two halves and skittered away in a spray of sparks, leaving Gutierrez standing there unharmed. He straightened up from his flinch and came jogging towards them, looking grim.