Chapter 1: Prologue
“No-no-no-no-no – Karen! You can’t, okay. Don’t tell Mr. Stark.” Peter wished, not for the first time, that Karen was actually in front of him. If only so there were slightly fewer shaky cellphone videos of Spider-man, standing on rooftops and waving his arms like he was trying to shoo pigeons.
There was probably a YouTube compilation already. There were probably two.
“The protocols are very clear,” Karen said.
He crossed his arms and aimed for a level, reasonable tone; sometimes it worked on May. Okay, it never worked on May. “You’re supposed to help and keep me safe, right? If you tell Mr. Stark, that’s not helping.”
“However, it is keeping you safe, which, by extension, is helping.”
Peter wondered if was even slightly possible that Karen and MJ had started hanging out. Because it seemed like they’d have a lot in common. Really a lot.
“Okay,” he nodded. “But I kind of think I need to point out, if I have to turn you off to stop you talking to Mr. Stark, then you’re not helping or keeping me safe. Mr. Stark should probably - there should probably be a protocol for that.”
“Peter? Peter, what have you-”
Silence. No tell-tale buzz of comms in his ear. Peter raised his cell. “Ned?”
“Chair Guy,” Ned said. “No, I need a cooler name. Turbo? Anyway, Karen's offline.”
“Great, but Turbo’s a snail.” Peter wandered towards the edge of the roof, refusing to feel guilty.
“Not Turbo. I’ll think about it. Maybe you could think again too. Remember what happened the last time we tried to handle everything on our own?”
“We stopped a whole plane full of hijacked StarkTech, and I got asked to join the Avengers. I got this!" Peter rushed on, before Ned could mention anything involving ferries, the Washington needle, or that time in fifth grade with the rocket. “We got this! You still my guy in the chair? I can’t do this without you. Please.”
“The Spectacular Chair-man,” Ned said grudgingly. “That’s not a snail, right?”
“Going to go with ‘no,’” Peter decided, after deliberation.
“If you can’t ask Mr. Stark, what about those other guys?”
“You mean, like Ms. Romanov? Because I don’t think-”
“I mean that guy in Hell’s Kitchen? Daredevil. That’s a cool name. Or there’s a PI. She’s really strong,” Ned enthused, warming to his idea. “And there’s Luke Cage in Harlem. He’s really strong too. And I think indestructible? And there was something about a guy with a glowing hand, but that’s probably fake. They were at Midland Circle. It’s on Twitter - read the news sometime.”
Oh. Right. “Why would they help me? The entire city thinks I’m a - a crazed kidnapper! Anyway, Mr. Stark said I should stay away from them.”
“No one's saying you’re crazed,” Ned said, failing to make him feel any better at all. “They might not help Spider-man, but maybe they’ll help Peter Parker. You can ask. I really think you should ask.”
Jessica stared blankly at the piles, stacks, of paper on her desk. The Hogarth, Chao and Benowitz letterhead featured heavily, and wow. She’d never been particularly interested in arson, but Trish was always saying it was important to try new things. She patted her pockets, then wrenched open the desk drawers, finding all of them suspiciously free of lighters. Not even matches.
She flung herself into her chair and glared at the other occupant of the office. “What the hell?”
“Not hell,” Malcolm, the filthy Zippo thief, denied. “Purgatory, maybe. They’re from Jeri Hogarth, mostly about insurance and retainers.”
“I don’t need insurance.”
“Right, because you’re known for your careful restraint and sense of civic responsibility and not - for example - for 'accosting the plaintiff without provocation, tearing her stole in half, damages being sought for fifty thousand dollars?'”
If Malcolm rolled his eyes any harder, he'd probably sprain something. Jessica had to admire the technique, though, which meant she sounded more sulky than angry when she replied. “It was one tiny rip. You couldn't even see it.”
“You used it to tie two car thieves to a street light. To the top of the street light. I don’t think that’s going to fly, boss.”
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped. Because there was a long, long way between edging her way back into the world and being responsible for another human being. She'd tried it. She didn't like it. Trish was enough. Trish was way more than enough.
“I’m calling you that," Malcolm said patiently, and just a little smugly, "because I’m on the payroll.”
“I can’t pay you. I barely pay me.”
“Look in ... yeah, this stack." Some shuffling later and Malcolm handed her a slightly different set of documents, ones with Rand letterheads.
Apparently Rand Enterprises had recently hired one Malcolm Ducasse as a part-time 'consultant.' Included below the obscenely high salary offer, there was a congratulatory letter and an invitation - plus one - to the next social. “Iron Ass, I’m going to fu-”
“Uh." Malcolm coughed and nodded to the door. "I think you have a client?”
She could understand the trailing note of a question; sometimes she couldn't believe it either.
In the door pane was the silhouette of a short-ish figure, moving as if they were shifting their weight from side to side. Undecided. Stay or leave.
“Yeah, I think I have really indecisive Girl Scouts calling,” she said, without moving to open the door. “And I don’t want any cookies. Unless they have the mint ones,” she added, more quietly.
She was mildly surprised when the silhouette finally came down on the side of stay, and the door opened a crack after a quiet knock. A tousled head peered around the edge, followed by the rest of a completely generic high schooler as he sidled into her office. Fifteen or sixteen, she guessed. Probably not carrying thin mints.
He raised a hand and gave a little wave. “Uh. Hi.”
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” She made a shooing motion. “Go to school. Wait. Crap. Are you missing? Do you need an adult? Because you are so not in the right place, kid.”
“No, I have a lot of adults. And school’s out. But I need to find someone. Someones, I guess. Something? My friend said you found people.”
“I’m Malcolm,” Malcolm said, stepping forward with an encouraging smile. “What’s your name?”
“Peter. Peter Par- Uh. Partner. My friend calls me Pard?” He winced and shook his head in horror.
Jessica huffed a laugh despite herself; it felt like rusty pipes shaking. Christ. “And does your friend have a bad fake name too?”
Peter grinned a little wider than her comment warranted; inside joke, she guessed. “He’s having whole other name issues. Look, just say if you can’t help. I’ll figure something out.”
“You haven’t told us what you need help with yet,” Malcolm pointed out. "Who are you looking for?"
“Stop encouraging him, he’s twelve - he can’t hire us. Me,” she added, but not quickly enough, given Malcolm’s smirk. “Fu-dge.”
“I’m eighteen and I have money,” Peter said. “And also cable,” he added, helpfully.
“Eighteen.” Jessica smirked. “You want to try again?”
“Sure,” he agreed, smile fading a touch. ”It doesn’t matter how old I am, I have money.”
Something had surfaced briefly as the smile fell away. Something that didn’t quite fit with the awkward kid she’d seen so far. And now - after meeting Matt (God dammit, Matt,) and to a lesser extent Danny - she recognized it for what it was: someone living a life that wasn’t really theirs, hiding behind a bad suit and half-slipped tie. Or rumpled sweatshirt and scuffed sneakers. Whatever.
Luke, not so much; no double life for him. Or her. They were what they were, take them or leave them.
Leave them, for preference, in her case.
It was perversely tempting to push a little, see how much of whoever he really was she could dig out. But, whatever else he was, he was still a kid and that, right there, was her line.
“How much money?” She asked instead.
“Probably not enough, but I can - I can get more. Do you take installments?”
“You haven’t even given me your real name, Pard. Why should I trust you to pay up?” She shook her head as the color rose in his cheeks.
“Start at the beginning,” Malcolm suggested. “There’s no charge for a consultancy.” He eyed the stacks of paper. “Yet.”
Peter nodded jerkily, nerves returning. “So I have a friend. A different friend. And they can … kind of. Do stuff.”
“Are you seriously trying the “asking for a friend” approach right now?” Jessica gestured around them. “Standing in a detective’s office? Talking to an actual PI?”
“What? No! This isn’t me.” Peter huffed and scrubbed at the back of his neck. “Okay. So, my friend, all she does is, like, mimicking. She can sound like birds and - and telephones and, like, everyone on the TV. It’s really neat.
“But then a few hours ago, these suits showed up and said they’re taking her away, because of the Accords, which, she’s ten. She got scared, she didn’t want to go, so this other guy stopped them taking her, and now it’s a thing, but you don’t have to worry about that. He, uh. He can worry about that. Later.
“Anyway, then these other guys showed up, and one of them’s making the ground shake like it was a few weeks ago. And one of them’s so fast, it’s amazing." He grinned, eyes shining with a little more excitement than Jessica could honestly say she was comfortable with. Freaking kids, man. "It’s totally crazy, but it’s amazing, you know? And they say they’ll protect her from the suits, because she’s-”
“Ten,” Jessica repeated, feeling her fists clench.
“I know, right? Freaking ten.” Peter shook his head, echoing her disbelief. “But then the suits start fighting the new guys, so the first guy grabs Ellie - Elle Iwamura, that’s my friend - and gets, like…” Peter mimed a quarterback throw. “Gets them both out of there. So now he’s watching her, and I’m trying to find the people who said they’d help her, because … I don’t know what else to do.”
Jessica slowly unclenched her fists, and cast a look at Malcolm. He stopped scribbling notes, expression almost nauseated.
“The girl,” she said. “Where are her parents?”
“Yeah, she, uh. She was in the shelter up on a hundred and first? She’s been there a couple weeks. They’re trying to find her a foster family, but...”
But. Yeah. Jessica knew the wealth of bureaucracy covered by that word. It was bad enough before the Incidents, but after them - when people needed help more than ever - it was so much worse.
“And your parents?”
“I live with my aunt,” Peter said, like it was a rote habit, and then winced again as he realized he’d given her more information than he probably ever wanted to.
“So we have Peter Par-something, fifteen or sixteen, lives with his aunt, probably in Queens.” She tilted her head with a hard smile. “You want to tell me your real name now, or go ahead and inconvenience me while I Google for five whole seconds?”
He looked more spooked than concerned. “How’d you know it’s Queens?”
“With that accent, you’re seriously asking how I know you’re from Queens?”
“I don’t have an accent,” he muttered. ”Fine, it’s Peter Parker. You going to help?”
“At least fifty percent of what you told me is bullshit, so normally I’d show your ass the door. But I do believe a kid’s in trouble, and that the cops probably can’t take this one, so I’ll look into it. But if you lied about anything that gets me or mine hurt, you’ll wish the quakes had buried you. We clear? Got anything else to add?”
He shook his head, practically vibrating with honest good intentions. “No, ma’am.”
Jessica winced as Malcolm choked on a laugh. “Ma’am? Christ, kid. Jessica’s fine.”
Peter nodded, beginning to back towards the door. “So what can I do?”
“Give Malcolm a contact number and Ellie’s details, and go back to your aunt. When I find something, I’ll call. Then we can talk fees.”
“What do you think?” Malcolm asked, once the door had closed behind their reluctantly benched client.
“I think I want a drink.” Jessica stared at the half-empty bottle on her desk, but didn’t reach for it. She glanced up instead. “What do you think?”
“I think I’m going to be filling out a whole lot of paperwork, because you’re going to ditch it so you can get out there and get some answers.”
She pushed back her chair and stood. “I knew there was a reason I hired you.”
“Ms Jessica Jones, to what to I owe the honor?” Three in the afternoon and half-empty bottle of beer in front of him, Nelson smiled up from his bar stool. Ripped pieces of the label were scattered over the small sheaf of papers he’d been reading through when Jessica had arrived.
His eyes narrowed. “Wait, business or social?”
“Social.” Jessica dropped onto the stool next to him, then nodded to the bottle and held up two fingers when the bartender looked her way questioningly.
Nelson looked wary. “Your lips say ‘social’ but your eyes say ‘plausible deniability.’ Tell me I’m not being set up as an alibi.”
“You know your suit is probably worth more than this bar, right?”
“You’re being defamed, Josie.” Nelson said, as he relieved the woman of the fresh beers. “If you need representation, I know a great lawyer. No win no fee.”
Josie shook her head in silent, but indulgent, judgement, and headed back down the bar.
Jessica shrugged and swigged back her beer. “I’m just saying, weird place to find you. Shouldn’t you be crushing people from Jeri’s ivory tower?”
“Are you kidding? This is the best office I ever had. I practically lived here, me and Matt-” He swallowed and went on, light tone forced. “Me and Matt, we used to come here to study and hustle pool. That should probably have been my first clue, in retrospect, but hey, we’re not here to talk about me. Which is a shame, because you’re missing out on-”
“Tell me about the Sokovia Accords,” she interrupted, before Nelson could start telling her about his missed opportunities in the cured meats industry.
“Not really my area,” he said, derailed. “I checked they didn’t apply to our mutual friend and left it there. I’m pretty sure you don’t have anything to worry about either, unless you’re planning to get involved in international conflicts or peacekeeping efforts.” His eyes widened in only half-joking horror. “You’re not planning to get involved in international conflicts or peacekeeping efforts? Please say no.”
“The Accords don’t apply to kids, though. Right?”
The snap as Nelson shifted from class clown to thousand-dollar lawyer was almost audible. She wondered how many prosecutors that flip had blind-sided. Not that many, she decided. Word would get around. Fast.
“This involves minors?" He reached for the cell phone at his elbow. "I’m going to need a lot more information. How officially are you asking? We should go to the office, I can get-”
“Relax, Nelson. I’m not expecting you and your intrepid team of interns to leap into action.” She drained the rest of her beer, absently wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. “Some suits tried to take a kid, they claimed they were acting under the authority of the Accords. I don’t know the fine print and I don’t know anyone who does. You have any plans tonight, Nelson?”
His shoulders relaxed; he shrugged. “Apparently I do now.”
She shifted, intending to leave, then wavered. “So. Uh. You okay, or whatever?”
Nelson blinked, then slowly grinned.
“Look, it’s a question. Don’t make it a thing.” She scowled. “Okay, I’m going.”
He held up a hand. “We’re okay. Me and Karen. We’re looking after each other. She thinks - she thinks maybe he made it out. If anyone could have, I guess.”
“He didn’t want to,” Jessica said flatly, before thinking how that would sound.
Nelson’s expression didn’t change. “Yeah, we got that. “ He cleared his throat; the grin died, but it had never been very vibrant to start with. “And I know how it must have looked. That we weren’t there for him. Didn’t care.”
She shook her head, but he went on before she could attempt her fairly weak denial - or to express how much she did not want to hear this.
“Matt wasn’t like you and Cage, or that other guy. Rand? He wasn’t in control of it. Not completely.” Nelson’s expression twisted, landing somewhere between resignation and guilt. “Sometimes I’m pretty sure he didn’t even want to be out there. And sometimes he wanted it way too much. He was...”
Jessica raised an eyebrow. “An addict?” She finished, doubtfully. Didn’t quite match the man she’d met.
“No. Yes. Maybe. Or conditioned.” Guilt turned to discomfort. “Somehow. I don’t know. Is that even a thing? Anyway, it turns out there’s a hell of a fine line between supporting and enabling, and damned if we - I - could find it. But we cared. You have no idea how much we cared.”
“Maybe you should give him more credit. Seemed like he was making all his own choices to me.”
Nelson wasn’t listening, wasn’t even looking at her anymore, just down at his nearly empty bottle; confessing into his beer. “Karen told me, after he’d told her who he was, that he’d said a long time ago that he needed her. Us. He said he couldn’t take one more step alone.
“So we thought, we hoped, if he was alone, if he didn’t have us, maybe … maybe he’d stop. And he did. And then as soon as we were back in his life, the moment we relaxed, we lost him.” He looked up, dry-eyed and expression closing in on sardonic. “The devout Catholic committed suicide by ninja. So tell me again he made all his own choices.”
If he’d been all weepy, she might have walked away right there with some muttered, horrifically awkward attempt at consolation, but he was angry now, and angry was a language she spoke. “He wanted out," she said, after a beat. "At the start. He said he had people to protect, and I talked him into fighting with us. I’m not going to apologize,” she added, scowling defiantly. “I didn’t make him stay behind.”
The anger banked abruptly, Nelson's expression cleared into something like concern. He shook his head, faint smile returning before she could take offense at his - what? Pity?
“You know what? Matt, magnificent asshole that he was, loved Karen and he loved me - probably more than he loved anyone. Who wasn’t an old college girlfriend, literally risen from the pits of hell. And that still wasn’t enough to cut through whatever bullshit ideology that old man put in him when he was a kid, or his own-” Nelson paused, searching for a word, before finally settling on, “-convictions. So, I hate to break it to you, but you didn’t talk him into a damn thing he wasn’t already intending to do, and no one could have dragged him out of there if he didn’t want to go. There’s nothing to apologize for.”
Or feel guilty about. Or second guess. He was letting her off the hook and she had no idea how to feel about that, except maybe he was letting himself off the hook just a little as well, and maybe that was okay. She mustered a smile. “Rested your case yet, counselor? I got places to be.”
He waved a hand to dismiss her. “Get out of here, Jones. The Accords and I need some alone time.”
Jessica's comment about Peter's accent is a total homage to the comics, where a tailor to costumed customers makes a very similar observation. Kind of couldn't resist, but not claiming it as my own!
“Jessica Jones. Really?” Ellie’s eyes were wide, her gap-toothed grin was wider still. From the askew bow in her dark, bobbed hair to the trailing laces on her glittery pink sneakers, she was very nearly vibrating with excitement. “She’s amazing. And she can fly!”
Behind his mask, Peter grinned and nodded enthusiastically, then drew back in heavily faked offense. “Wait, I thought I was the amazing one!” He strode to the wall, then up it, then to the middle of the ceiling, where he stood upside down with his hands on his hips. “Kids today, with their super heroes and their fancy alien invasions.”
Ellie giggled. “You’re amazing too, I guess.”
“She guesses,” Peter grumbled and dropped, flipping to a crouch next to the mattress they’d found in the mostly gutted apartment building they were hiding in. He’d carried it and a couple of broken-backed chairs into the apartment at the very top, while Ned had done something clever and probably really illegal to get them power.
They were safe - at least he was pretty sure they were safe - and the other squatters kept to the lower floors. Not ideal, but better than hiding out in the sewer.
When Peter first met Ellie, she’d been clustered at the windows with the other kids, watching Spider-man tumble through the air, or spin weird shapes in his webs. (He’d tried for dinosaurs, once, but would deny that under torture.) Everyone else ran off when the kitchen opened, but she’d stayed, completely entranced.
The next time, she had a few sheets of crumpled paper with designs for him to follow. Some were abstract, intricate and kind of beautiful. Mostly they were ponies.
He’d tried his best, but he was pretty sure most of the entertainment value that visit had come from seeing how incredibly, unbelievably bad he was at art in the medium of web fluid.
Today, he’d swung by, before breakfast as usual, and the suits had been drawing up in a small convoy of black sedans as he'd arrived. For a brief, heart-stopping moment, he’d wondered if they were there for him. When he’d found out who they were trying to take -- there hadn’t been a choice. He was pretty sure of that.
He’d grabbed Ellie, shrieking in delight, and swung away.
And he was almost, like, ninety percent sure he’d done the right thing.
Karen had helped him stay below radar - maybe literally - and even found him the empty block of apartments to hide in, and then, yeah. He still refused to feel guilty about that and, anyway, he wasn’t sure how you’d even give an AI a bunch of apology flowers.
May knew he was Spider-man, but this he wasn’t going to involve her with. And Mr Stark he definitely wasn’t going to involve. Which left him, the Spectacular Chair-man, and Jessica Jones. She hadn’t actively laughed in his face (that much) or told him he’d done the wrong thing, so that was something. Probably.
Things were looking up, Peter told himself. He only had to worry about keeping Ellie safe while Ms Jones tracked down people who’d, hopefully, want to help. Oh, and also about the persistent buzzing in his ear that he’d been ignoring for the last five minutes.
Ned had managed to take Karen offline without interfering with the other functionality of the suit - it still sent out location and vitals - just, you know. The wrong location. And probably the wrong vitals.
Peter guessed Mr Stark had some questions, now he'd put it back on again. The buzz increased slightly in pitch, not enough to hurt, but more than uncomfortable.
Ned returned from the kitchen, carrying the takeout he'd managed to rustle onto plates - he'd even found some forks. Peter waved a hand for dinner to start without him, as Ellie rushed the crackers, and then crawled out the open window up to the roof. He crouched on the side and tapped the side of the ear mic.
“New number, who -”
“Funny.” Mr Stark, did not, Peter thought, sound amused. “So, hey, why am I seeing news reports of Spider-man kidnapping a minor?”
“I didn’t - I can see from the outside it looks a little kidnap-ey. But Mr Stark, I swear-”
“Stop talking. Where are you? Where is she?”
“I’m minding her while a friend looks for her guardians.” Yeah, that sounded … more or less about right. “It’s a huge, just gigantic, misunderstanding. There were these guys-” Peter stopped quickly, way too much information. Danger, Will Robinson.
Fortunately, Stark didn’t seem to have noticed.
“We need to get in front of this before it gets any worse. And if I sound like Pepper, that’s because she’s standing in front of me with flash cards, reminding me I should be supportive and understanding, and not strap you into the next rocket going to Mars. Bring the kid to the Tower. The next words out of your mouth are, ‘Yes, Mr Stark.’ Go.”
“Mr Stark, you’re not even at the Tower,” Peter pointed out. “You left, remember?”
There was a taken-aback silence, then. “Is this - are you acting out? I’m in upstate New York for chrissake, not darkest Canada.”
“I’m pretty sure acting out is breaking curfew or something, not kidnapping. Which I’m also not doing,” Peter added, in case the reminder would help.
“Then what are-” There was some hurried whispering - his hearing was good enough to catch it, but not make out the words. Pepper, he guessed. “She’s just a kid,” Mr Stark said more calmly after a pause and, Peter suspected, through gritted teeth. “You’re just a kid. At least tell me this ‘other friend’ is a responsible adult.”
“She is absolutely an adult, Mr Stark.”
“You know I can shut down the suit, right? Ned’s not that good. But tell him I said ‘hi.’”
“I know. I know that. But. I’m hoping you’ll trust me instead.” He thickened his voice, just a little. “This time.”
There was a long silence. “I’m not sure whether to be impressed or offended you’re going with emotional blackmail.”
“I tried being reasonable, but it didn’t work great - I quit the debate team when I started risking my life to save innocent people.”
“Okay, stop - enough.” Stark took a deep, and Peter hoped, calming, breath. “I thought you were ready to join the Avengers, and obviously there’s a reason you don’t want me involved, or you’d have asked. So, fine. Handle it. But if I see this going South, you will not believe how involved I get or how fast I do it. Say ‘Yes, Mr Stark.’”
“Yes, Mr Stark. And, thanks. I swear I don’t care you abandoned New York.”
“Don’t push it, and don’t thank me, kid. You’re just lucky I have a history of poor life choices and a fiancee I’d much rather spend time with than you. Do. Not. Escalate. And wake up Karen, because clearly adult supervision is required.”
The line had barely disconnected when the earpiece buzzed again; Peter gave up any hope of warm pad thai.
“Peter? Peter. Thank God!”
“Oh. Hey, May.” He was pretty please he managed to sound both calm and, he thought, upbeat. Everything was totally under control.
“Don’t you ‘Hey, May’ me - why the hell is the news telling me Spider-man kidnapped a child?! ”
She sounded significantly less calm and upbeat than he did, Peter had to admit, and it was pretty unlikely Ms Potts would have his back this time. “It’s Ellie. I told you about her? I’m just looking after her for a few hours until her guardians get here.”
“Ellie.” May subsided, a little. “She’s the one who sounds like birds?”
“She doesn’t sound like birds, she makes bird sounds. And other stuff. But that’s - bad people were coming to take her.”
“So you took her instead. Of course you did.” Now there was definitely more resignation than anger; Peter decided to call it a win. Or at least a solid draw. “Where are you both?”
“At that old apartment building a couple blocks down from that bakery that has those claws you like. It’s safe. Ned’s with her right now,” he added, on the off-chance that helped his case any.
May’s tone sharpened, so probably not. “Ned, told me five minutes ago you were sleeping at his place, Ned?”
“Yeah, but I think he’s just going by Spectacular Chair-man now.”
“Right.” Peter could practically see her pinching her nose. “Where is Stark?”
“Mr Stark’s… you know, we’re cool. He trusts me to handle it.”
“Peter Benjamin Parker.”
“Really! I mean. For now.” He nudged a chipped off piece of brick with his toe, before kicking it into the shadows of the roof ledge. “And I have a plan. I promise. This will be over really soon.”
The adrenaline of the day was beginning to wear off; he was kind of hungry, kind of cold, and mostly tired.
May’s tone softened, like she heard it. He hoped she hadn’t. “Just be careful, okay. It’s not just … just creepy flying guys, now. If people think you kidnapped a kid, no one will help you. The cops will be after you. They don’t know you’re a kid. Be careful. I love you.”
“I’ll be careful, I promise. I’ll call. Love you, May.”
It seemed very quiet, when the line went dead.
Peter crawled back down the outside of the building and in through the window, to find Ned asthmatically telling a stuffed bunny that he was its father, to Ellie’s rapt audience of one.
“Dude,” Peter hissed. “ Spoilers.”
“I know our resources are a little thinner than they used to be, but, really?” Phil looked at his team, gathered around the mission table. “We couldn’t track someone swinging from building to building in red and blue spandex? Because that seems like something we should be able to track and, honestly, I’ll sleep a little less soundly tonight if we can’t.”
May huffed dismissively. “Like any of us sleep.”
“The suit’s got a little more going for it than you’d think,” Fitz said, quietly, not looking up from his data pad. “I’d say StarkTech. Closer to what’s in the armor than anything on the market.”
As it was the most he’d said all day, close to as much as he’d said all week, Phil didn’t press for further details. “Makes sense,” he said instead. “Spider-man was in Berlin. Stark souped him up a little.”
Daisy stared thoughtfully at the still image: Spider-man against a bright blue, almost cloudless sky. Web line in one hand and screaming young girl in the other. It was practically the same image that had found its way into the evening editions and local TV stations. “But if he’s playing on Stark’s team, why get in the way of government agents?”
“Given the circumstances, maybe he thought they were bogus,” Mack suggested. “That or he decided the Accords didn’t extend to children - either one would be pretty understandable.”
“So Elle’s in the wind and the poster boy for the Accords is still upstate. I guess he’s doing the smart thing and- “Phil paused. “Even as I say that.” He turned. “We’re sure Stark’s still upstate?”
“If he isn’t, we won’t be the only ones he fooled.” Jemma half-smiled. “Wherever he is, he mostly seems to be amusing himself calling into any local radio stations running anti-Spider-man stories and questioning their intelligence. Amongst other things.”
Phil grinned. “And there’s the Stark we know and never talk to, or interact with, in any way.”
"You realize there’s no possible way he can still think you’re dead, sir,” Jemma pointed out. “Especially after the last year.”
“Yeah, but it’s kind of our thing: completely ignoring each other’s existence is how we show we care. And it’s cheaper on holiday cards too. Besides, as tenuous as S.H.I.E.L.D’s position tends to be, the bigger the distance between us the better.”
“But he wouldn’t be staying out of it if he didn’t think Spider-man was right,” May pointed out. “Which means he doesn’t realize the agents were sanctioned. Once informed, and given orders, he’s required to act. We have no more than two, perhaps three hours before Ross gets a green light - we’re running out of time.”
"I think,” Daisy said, thoughtfully. “I think, Spider-man would have talked to us if he could have. He didn’t throw any punches, he just got Elle out of there as soon as the fighting started.” Daisy shrugged. “If we can’t find him, maybe we can let him find us. We might be able to open a dialogue.”
Phil nodded. “It’s the closest thing to a plan we have - get it done.”
“If you're just joining us, this is Trish Talk and we’re discussing the recent alleged kidnapping involving Spider-man and a young girl, now named by authorities as Elle Iwamura. I know we have a lot of people talking about this, a lot of concerned voices. Before we go on, again, please dial five-five-five eight-two-four nine-oh-seven if you have any pertinent information to share with the police.
“Now, here’s our first caller. You’re live, welcome to Trish Talk.”
“Hi, yes, first time caller, not remotely long time listener. Although I hear you have a huge demographic, so kudos there.”
“Thanks.” Trish bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing; as if Tony Stark’s voice wasn’t one of the most recognizable in the city.
“This is a non-event; there’s nothing to talk about. Obviously, the kid was in danger and Spider-man pulled her out of the fire. She’s fine. She’s probably eating ice-cream right now, listening to bad - just, really terrible - Darth Vader impressions. I would guess. If I had to guess. There are far more important topics of conversation.”
“Uh huh. Would one of those topics be the recently announced engagement between Virginia Potts, CEO of Stark Industries, and Tony Stark, ex-CEO and… huh.” Trish tapped a pen against her lip, pretending to think and making that clear in her syrupy tone as she went on. “What exactly does Tony Stark do? He seems to have a lot of time on his hands right now, for instance.”
“I’m going to go with genius, billionaire, philanthropist and - it turns out - unwilling florist. Did you know there are forty-thousand different breeds of orchid?”
“I did not know that.” Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the switchboard controller, Megan, frantically gesturing for her to wind it up. She smiled sweetly. “But I would love to hear about each and every one of them, and I’m sure everyone listening would too.”
She had a brief second of warning, seeing Megan wince, before static filled her own ear-pierce. It died quickly.
“Hi,” said a new voice, this one female, and not one Trish recognized. “Also a first time caller. Big fan of orchids, had to jump in here.”
“How did you-” Trish started.
“Hey, look at that, it's the other team on the field. You’re not British,” Stark interjected. “And you haven’t threatened anyone, so I’m going to say … Skye? We’ve never formally met, but have you ever considered getting into landscaping?”
“I prefer Daisy, and rock gardens aren’t really my thing. Let me know if you ever need any rubble cleared, though,” she added, tone acidic. “There always seems to be a lot of it around you.”
“Okay, small talk's over.” Stark sounded, not angry, exactly, Trish thought. Defensive wasn’t right either. Frustrated, maybe? “Let’s skip to the part where I remind S.H.I.E.L.D. it’s in the penalty box. Stay there, boys and girls, or this gets bigger than anyone wants.”
“Hey,” the woman who’d called herself Daisy said mildly, very nearly sounding amused. Or perhaps mocking. “I’m just delivering a message of support to Spider-man, like before. If you look at it the right way.”
“You know, I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Fury - no pun intended, kind of wish it had been - but at least when he was running things, the cryptic comments had a little originality. Layers.”
Trish coughed delicately as the static on the line faded, and the switchboard finally managed to cut Stark off. “So, we’ve had a lot about politics and a little about orchids - next caller, what are your thoughts?”
“I think the first caller was completely wrong,” a woman said, with a note of righteous zeal. “There’s no way there’s forty-thousand breeds of orchid. Thirty-thousand, max.”
God, Trish loved New York.
“It’s Ross again.” Pepper held the phone, hand over the receiver, and tilted her head. “Which one this time?”
Tony smiled thinly. “Lady’s choice.”
“Third from the right,” Pepper called as she drew her arm back and pitched the phone out the open window.
Tony watched it arc majestically into an oak. “Wow. You ever considered going professional? Because I’m telling you, kid - you could have a real future.”
“Does it involve a honeymoon that isn’t on the Raft?” Her expression was flatly unimpressed; Tony wasn’t fooled.
“We'll ask if they have a baseball team," he said, and kissed the smile hiding at the corner of her mouth.
Minor delay while I cleaned a little more (self-beta, eurgh) - next bit out tomorrow!
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
So, while thinking about the various ways I cursed myself by saying a chapter would be out 'tomorrow,' I realized I was kinda having a lot of fun with this one.. so I've abandoned the fic as it is and I'm going the long way 'round. So if you hate WiPs, back away while you still can!
Still not betaed. Please feel free to point out anything terrible!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Parker hadn’t mentioned that the other person on the scene had been the spider guy. Hell of an omission. Jessica had tried to be pissed, but barely managed annoyed. Compared to everything else in the last couple weeks, it just didn’t seem that big a deal. Hey, maybe she was growing as a person. Great.
Something didn’t sit right, though: didn’t fit. She’d looked into Peter Parker, boy genius (it turned out.) He’d seemed like a good - or at least, sincere - kid, but checking that he’d even been there that morning was one-oh-one. Trust, but verify the shit out of everything. Turned out his school had a community outreach program, so he had a reason to be at the shelter, but…
It wasn’t coming, but it would. There’d be a click, she could wait. The train of thought slipped away as she stopped at the edge of the scene of the ‘kidnapping,’ where reporters clutched mics and camera men hunted in packs. Every presenter seemed to be trying to outdo the next in grim solemnity, light on facts and heavy on speculation.
Resisting the urge to trip and accidentally take out the closest press van, she studied the aftermath instead. It was still light enough to see the fresh bullet holes in the brickwork, and torn-up road ran half a block in all directions. Nothing like the damage after the Circle quakes, though, and nowhere near the buildings themselves.
Someone had shown restraint as they fucked up her city. How sweet.
At an irrational, and completely unfamiliar, surge of possessive outrage, she stopped in her tracks. “Oh, hell no. No. I don’t care. You hear that? I can say it again.”
“Excuse me?” A tall man in a rumpled gray suit, with a detective badge clipped to his belt, was staring at her warily.
“Nothing. I was just talking to - no one. Probably. Depends who you ask.” She shook her head and tried for something less Robyn. “Why are you guys still here? Does this even count as a crime scene.”
“Well, it’s the scene of the crime, so we tend to think so.” The detective focused more intently, as if he was trying to place her face. “And you are?”
“A concerned citizen.” Jessica tried a winning smile.
“You didn’t sound so concerned a couple of seconds ago,” he said, head canted, and not looking particularly impressed with the effort. “‘I don’t care,’ right?”
“I knew a guy who cared a lot about this city. He’d be all over something like this. But he’s incredibly dead now, so you see my problem.” She dug in her pocket, retrieving her wallet and flipping it open to show her license. “I do care about money, though. I’m here on behalf of a client who wants to know what went down. The whole shit show.”
“Jessica Jones,” the detective read. His expression cleared with recognition and a nod. “Right. Heard a whole lot about you down at the precinct. Detective Brett Mahoney.”
Jessica shifted with a frown - ready to defend herself, her actions, or possibly her camera work - but Mahoney went on in the same easy tone. “Relax. After that, I heard a whole lot more about you from Foggy.”
“Foggy. Franklin Nelson,” she said, slowly, because, seriously?
“Uh huh. Can’t say I like him, mostly because my mom keeps telling me he’s her favorite. But he’s a good judge of character, I’ll give him that. He said you were good people.”
Jessica shook her head. “Yeah, no, he really didn’t.”
Mahoney snorted. “Okay, he said I should be grateful you weren’t usually my problem.” His eyes narrowed “This got anything to do with what went down at Midland Circle?”
“Jesus, I hope not. What happened here?”
He eyed her, but shrugged. “Most of it’s on the news anyway,” he allowed, and shot a look at the cameras, expression roughly as disgusted as she’d felt. He gestured at the shelter. “It’s not a bad place, according to the locals. But they’re not equipped for kids, and there’s a lot of them in there. Waiting to be moved into group homes, or fostered. Or for family to be found, if they’re lucky. No budget, no time, you know how it is.”
Jessica nodded mostly by reflex, but, yeah. She did.
“So it turns out Spider-man swings by here every couple weeks. Entertains the kids for a while, helps out with anything the staff need lifting. Guess they just got lucky he was here when the feds came out the woodwork.”
“Lucky? You don’t think it’s a kidnapping.” Jessica considered Mahoney again, wondering if she should revise her original impression: a probably decent cop, putting in his twenty for a pension, and not asking that many questions on the way.
There was a hint of discontent in his expression - frustration, almost - and deeper frown lines than laughter lines. Only a true believer got that look. Law, order, justice, and the American Way, and all that crap. A good cop, but not, she thought, one who would stay up on his moral high horse when the fight was on the ground. Not if lives were on the line.
Mahoney smiled thinly and nodded, as if acknowledging her conclusion. “I don’t like vigilantes, but there’s wrong and there’s right. Sometimes you get surprised by who ends up which side of the line.
“Witnesses say Spider-man showed up and wise-assed to the agents trying to take Elle Iwamura, but he didn’t start anything. Another group turns up five minutes later, they throw the first punch. Bullets start flying, Spider-man grabs the kid and books it out of there. Stupid thing is, people would understand that, never mind crap they’re spewing on TV. The city knows him - hell, half of them have probably asked him for directions. What’s hurting him now is he hasn’t brought her back. He could drop her off at any precinct in the city, so why hasn’t he?”
“Maybe he thinks she won’t be safe,” Jessica pointed out.
For once, she hadn’t been trying to be an asshole, but Mahoney scowled anyway. “She’d be safe,” he said flatly.
“So if Homeland came through your door, you’d kick them out of it?” She smirked, maybe trying a little this time. “Yeah, I can see that happening.”
“You got everything you need, Ms Jones?” Mahoney’s tone had taken an unfriendly chill. Probably because she was right. But, if nothing else, Jessica knew when she’d outstayed her welcome. Didn’t actually care, most of the time, but she knew.
“Does anyone?” She gave a grin finely tuned to grate, and turned away as her cell began to ring. A glance at the caller ID and she brought it to her ear. She headed towards the entrance to the shelter. “Trish? I’m-”
“-too busy to listen to my show, I’m going to guess.”
“You know how I feel about people. And talking.” Jessica scowled as she looked at the media presence again. “And people talking.”
“Yeah, you’ve talked about it a lot, with a lot of people. Foggy called, he said you’re looking into the kidnapping for a client.”
“Hey, here’s an idea for your next exposé: find the one person in New York who doesn’t know Franklin Nelson. And Foggy is a really stupid name for a lawyer.”
“Jess, this is the part where you listen.” Trish paused; Jessica struggled not to stick her tongue out at her cell phone. “Okay, great. So, Tony Stark was on my show. He’s been calling a lot of stations - mostly to push back on the crap they’re saying about Spider-man.”
“So?” Tony Stark talking trash wasn’t news; Jessica would bother listening when it didn’t sound like he was doing it through stacks of thousand dollar bills and a ton of hair product.
“So, S.H.I.E.L.D. hacked the call, apparently they were the other team at the scene. The woman called herself Daisy, she said she was delivering a message of support, like before, if you looked at it the right way.”
Jessica stopped out of sheer disbelief, and glared at the man who bumped into her as he hurried on. “For chrissake, they have to be able to do better than that.”
“Look, I have no idea what’s happening, but it sounds like trouble and I’m guessing you’ll find it sooner or later, so I want to help. Who’s the client, anyway? Why would someone come to you? Wait, that didn’t come out-”
Jessica’s hand went lax and Trish’s voice became a distant murmur, because there was the click: that one little thing that just didn’t fit sliding into place.
No evidence, no reason, no clever deduction. She just knew. Christ, she was slow.
“Jess?” Trish sounded like she was yelling into the phone. “Hey! You there?!”
She brought the phone back up to her ear. “Yeah. And I’m pretty sure Spider-man’s my client. So thanks, that was a lot of help.”
“Love you, or whatever!”
Sometime around eight, a combination of a long day and a failing sugar rush had finally pushed Ellie into sleep. Despite his best efforts, and several nodding attempts to stay awake, Ned had followed not long after. Peter couldn’t say he blamed him, and in theory he could have done the same. The weirdness whenever he was in danger wasn’t something he’d really been able to quantify yet, but he was pretty sure it would be enough to wake him if anything bad was going to happen.
But there was a long way between pretty sure, and a hundred percent confident, and wow was he not going to risk anyone’s safety because he was a little sleepy.
Not on purpose, anyway.
Crawling back up to the roof, he’d crouched in the shadow of a vent, certain no one would make him out in the darkness. He’d hoped the chill night air might keep him awake, but the suit adjusted itself to temperature.
“Karen?” He asked tentatively, when he caught himself closing his eyes for the second time. The AI had come online hours ago, but she hadn’t said anything and he hadn’t really known what to say. Which was completely ridiculous. Totally ridiculous. “You there?”
“Yes, Peter. I have been monitoring city-wide communications.”
Did she sound a little upset? He thought maybe she sounded a little upset. And, yes, he was officially losing it. He shook his head at himself and smiled a little. “Cool, which ones? Is it bad?”
“All of them. There have been no mentions of this locale; I do not believe your presence here has been discovered.”
“Yeah, that’s not what I meant. Good to know, though. Great. Thank you. You’re doing a great job,” he added, before he could stop himself.
“I know,” Karen said placidly, apparently choosing to filter out the babbling. “However, past evidence suggests you prefer to remain positive.”
Wow. Okay. “That bad.”
“I’m afraid so, Peter.”
“I missed you,” he volunteered after a few seconds silence.
“Then I suggest you don't disable me, in the future.”
If Karen wasn’t talking to MJ, she was definitely talking to May.
“You were going to tell Mr Stark,” he pointed out. “If those guys who tried to take Ellie really were government, he’s on their side.”
“All data gathered suggests that the agents who attempted to extract Ellie operated under the direction of Homeland Security.”
Peter swallowed. And then swallowed again, this time against bile. Because he was pretty sure he was now a kidnapper and an enemy of the state. That would probably not look great on college applications, he thought weakly, and desperately tried to stuff the surge of panic down before it became a full-blown anxiety attack.
He took a deep breath, held it, and released it slowly. And then again. Counted the number of car horns blaring below until he reached twenty, and felt his chest ease.
“Though the agents themselves were legitimate, their actions were not. Several nations, including Wakanda, France and Germany, insisted that minors were excluded from the auspices of the Accords. If you were to inform Mr Stark, he would be able to help both you and Ellie.”
“Maybe,” Peter said, with another hot, uncomfortable feeling in his chest. This one was made of doubt and guilt, all mixed up. “But maybe he wouldn’t. Wouldn’t be able to, I mean,” he added hurriedly, because of course Mr Stark would help Ellie. Of course he would. “Or maybe he’d try, and there’d be fighting, and Colonel Rhodes, I mean, he got hurt pretty bad last time. And no one knows where Captain Rogers even is. I already caused Mr Stark enough problems, Karen.”
“I don't believe he would agree.”
“He’s literally said I have. One time, I came in and he said, ‘here’s trouble.’”
Karen fell silent, and Peter was thinking maybe he’d see if she wanted to play I Spy, or tell him the best ways to flee the country and take up bat farming, when there was a flair of warning so close to terror it made no difference. He flung himself to the side, moving before his brain even registered the impulse, already leaping again when he heard the first crack of the rifle.
This thing - this sense - wasn’t anything he controlled, anything that even hit the thinking parts of his brain. It was wired directly into his nerves and he was almost a passenger as his body twisted and moved, dodging things he wasn’t even consciously aware of - things that had barely even started, but as soon as could became had, set him moving.
He took cover behind the other side of the vent, hands over his head and in as small a ball as he could manage. “Karen! You said no one knew I was here!”
“I said there was no mention of this location!”
He had to move, he realized. The sniper may or may not know Ellie was there, but anyone who was drawn to the gunfire would definitely have suspicions if they saw Spider-man. Taking a breath, he flung himself away from cover and off the side of the building, at the last possible moment turning a dead drop into deep swing. Around the building and to the next, trying to keep hang time to a minimum, and always, always, working his way towards the shooter’s position across the road.
“Second office block to the left; the third floor down,” Karen directed.
Peter twisted hard, angled himself like a projectile and aimed for the open window.
First person to guess the sniper gets... to be the first person to guess the sniper? :P
Chapter 5: Chapter 4
So, yeah, we've gone a teensy bit AU for AoS. I'm thinking post-Framework, pre-diner. Or post-post-post diner? Whatever works for you. Fun train!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
One shot, one kill.
Sometimes a kill wasn’t all you wanted. Sometimes, you had to set bait.
The stun grenade blew as the target barrelled through the window. He’d twisted like he’d known it was there - hell of a thing - but he had nowhere to go, thrown into the wall like so much meat.
He was fast, and strong, and he could take hits like he wasn’t even human, so Frank had seconds - and not a lot of them. He bent to seal the gas mask over the spider’s mouth and nose. The mask under his fingers wasn’t some spandex shit, but no way it wasn’t porous.
And if it was, he had a plan for that too.
The spider jerked his head to the side, chest hitching to avoid taking a breath. Frank dropped a knee in his sternum, heard the wheeze, the gasp. Knockout gas met lungs and, with some minor struggling, the fight was over before it ever started.
A slow thirty-count later, Frank stood cautiously. Nudged the ribs with the toe of his boot. Nothing.
“No.” Ross stood, arms crossed, in the hangar of the New Avengers Facility. “The council has not given permission to engage.”
“This is an internal matter,” Tony snarled. “Get out of my way.”
“Internal how, exactly?” Ross looked smug. “Spider-man, whoever he is, isn’t part of the Avengers Initiative. If this - what are they calling him? Punisher? - can resolve the situation, we will allow him to do so. It’s quiet and it’s neat. I like quiet. I like neat.”
“Even if there were any evidence to support that whatsoever, I would respectfully disagree. Get out of my way before you wish you had.”
The many hands of Ross’ entourage moved towards their many guns. Tony looked beyond them, smirked and relaxed.
Ross frowned, suspicious. “Something funny?”
“Little bit.” Tony shrugged, jamming his hands in his pockets. “I mean, do I look like a distraction to you? I’m trying it out, but honestly, it feels a little weird.” He smiled beatifically. “You know who else never signed the Accords, Ross? Three guesses, and the first two don’t count.”
Ross spun, just in time to catch the flash of a suit of armor, disappearing at speed into the dark horizon.
“People keep telling me I don’t deserve her. It would be a little insulting, but obviously they’re right. Hey, what do you know about flower arranging?”
Jessica tried Parker’s cell. Nothing, except a stuttered suggestion to leave a message; she didn’t. It gave her a moment of unease. If he really was Spider-man - and after an informative few minutes on YouTube, she was almost a hundred percent certain he was - she couldn’t imagine he wouldn’t be waiting for her call.
Which meant something was wrong.
On the other hand, the guy was at least as strong as she and Luke, faster than that Elektra chick had been, and he could take a hell of a beating. And nothing had appeared in her news alerts to suggest he was in trouble - no sightings.
So maybe he was - yeah, there she drew a blank. Homework?
She’d already been cooling her heels in the shelter’s huge community room for an hour, waiting for the night manager to have a moment free. She decided to give it another ten minutes, then throw it in and go looking for her damn client instead.
The place was as Mahoney described: nice enough, for what it was. But what it was was an emergency shelter turned permanent address for twice as many people as it was ever equipped to handle. She could see how it would be easy to get involved - for Parker to want to do something. New York was his city, but this was his neighborhood - his people - and she had begun to understand how important that was. If you were an idiot. Like Luke. Like Matt. (Goddammit, Matt.)
Not her, she decided, roughly half a second before one of the huge produce shelves lining the walls gave an alarming creak and buckled under the added weight of a couple kids who’d decided to take up climbing.
A jumping dive took her the full length of the room and then she was there, one hand raised to firmly brace the shelf and the other steadying the kids. And, bonus, the angle of the shelf was shallow enough to avoid everything sliding onto her head. Her luck had had to change some time.
In the shocked silence, she look back over her shoulder, about to suggest someone might want to do something useful. A gray-haired, matronly looking woman with rolled up sleeves and air of brisk efficiency was already coming forward.
“You two get on to bed now!” The woman waved the younger boys off, and then beckoned a few older ones forward. “Let’s get this stuff down, we’ll set it over there.”
A minute later and Jessica was standing to the side again, out from underfoot, and completely ignored. Compared to Spider-man, Jessica guessed she wasn’t anything to blog home about. Or whatever kids did now.
After the shelves were fixed, and rapidly restocked, the woman bustled towards her with a smile. She smelled like flowers and fresh tobacco.
“I’m Marlene Adams - the night manager. Thank you for your help, Ms Jones - Jamal and Louie are good boys, but I swear they don’t have a single shred of common sense between them.”
“Yeah, I’m a real big hero.” Jessica shrugged. “I need to talk to someone about Elle Iwamura.”
The woman’s expression chilled. “You and half the city, it seems.”
“Look, my client wants to help. You don’t have to talk to me, but maybe if you do we can get Ellie back safe.”
“So she can be taken away by someone else?” Marlene shook her head. “At least I know she’s in good hands with Spider-man. He wouldn’t harm a hair on a child’s head, and anyone who says different is a fool or a liar.”
Great, another true believer. Jessica huffed and raised her hands in surrender. “Okay. I’m going to lay this on the table, and I’d appreciate it if you don’t call the cops. Spider-man’s my client, and he’s in way over his head with this. Help me help him,” she added, in her very best impression of Trish.
Marlene’s expression flickered guiltily. She knew, Jessica realized. Not who Spider-man was, maybe, but she’d figured out he wasn’t much more than a kid himself. “What do you need to know?” She capitulated, after a beat.
“The feds wanted Ellie, no one’s said why. I bet you’ve had more than one person come through here who might be of interest - they ever get pulled out?”
“No, absolutely not” Marlene shook her head firmly. ”And no one said anything to those people about Ellie either. And even if they had, I have no idea why anyone from the government would be interested. The girl’s just good at - at impressions.” Marlene, apparently honestly to a fault, pursed her lips. “Very, very good at impressions.”
Parker had mentioned that as well; Jessica filed it away. “Where was she before she came here?”
“We don’t have her records. She came in on her own a month ago, she said her brother left her. Gave us her name, but she wouldn’t give us his, or tell us anything else about herself. We’ve been running the usual searches, of course, but everything is so backed up and the quakes didn’t make that any quicker.”
They’d run Ellie’s name, they’d run her photo, and the feds had come calling. Elle Iwamura was in someone’s database, and Jessica was willing to lay odds it wasn’t the registration act’s.
Her ‘brother’ had probably been trying to hide her, and it wasn’t a bad plan - it was easy to get lost in the system, fall through the cracks. He’d probably been planning to come back, but hadn’t counted on dropping the kid at a shelter that actually gave a damn.
“Now, that’s interesting.” Fitz leaned forward, intently studying the feed from the camera trained on the main entrance of the shelter. A woman was leaving the building; he tapped the screen twice on her face, surrounding her in a yellow box and initiating a live trace.
Jemma touched a hand to his shoulder and leaned closer. “Interesting-interesting, interesting-worrying or interesting-we’re-being-surrounded?”
“Interesting. And a little worrying, admittedly.” Fitz looked back and up. “That is one Ms Jessica Jones.”
“Really?” Jemma squinted at the now-grainy footage, monitor having switched to an ATM feed as the trace followed the woman towards the subway. “No. Really ? You’re sure? I thought she’d be taller.”
Coulson wandered over from the mission table, May at his side. He studied the footage, now from the subway. “Huh.”
“We can bring her in,” May suggested.
“We could,” Coulson nodded. “But we just got the place looking nice again.”
“The jet can cope.”
“Yeah, I meant New York. Let’s not muss it up anymore than we have to.” He watched as Jones entered the subway train, and the video momentarily cut out as the trace found a new feed. “But I admit I am a little curious why she’s involved - this isn’t her side of the river.”
“We could ask nicely,” Daisy suggested. “Maybe even without throwing a bag over her head.”
“You need to let that go,” May murmured.
“I really don’t.”
“It’s a radical plan,” Coulson said, after a moment. “But it has to work some time.”
Jemma coughed delicately and half raised her hand. “Yes, but if I could suggest-”
Daisy stared in wide-eyed, if not entirely serious, betrayal. “You don’t think I can ask nicely? It was my idea!”
“In fairness, you picked a fight with Tony Stark on live radio.” Coulson grinned with a sudden enthusiasm. “Besides, I have something much more interesting for you and Mack to look into.”
“I’ll go,” Fitz said into the sudden, deeply suspicious, silence. “Let me talk to her.”
Coulson glanced around. Daisy was expressionless, while Jemma was torn between surprise and concern; May shrugged almost imperceptibly.
He nodded. “Okay. Fitz, May, go talk to the Kitchen’s least private investigator.”
Her cell rang as she exited the subway; looking down she saw three missed calls. All Luke.
She considered declining the call, but answered with a huff of annoyance. “What?”
“Hey.” Luke sounded hesitant, like he was picking his words, and that was even more annoying. “Hear you’re looking into the missing kid.”
She rolled her eyes and started walking for home. “Let me guess, your lawyer called you.”
“Called Claire,” Luke corrected. “You got this?”
“Yeah,” she nodded, like he could even see her. “I got this.”
“Because you know I’m here,” he pressed. “Anytime.”
They still couldn’t quite find a rhythm, too careful or not careful enough; words right, tone wrong. At least they more or less understood all those things they didn’t say.
“I know,” she said at last, as awkwardly as she felt. “It’s a kid, Luke. I’m not going risk a kid just because things between us are a little fucked.”
“They’re a little fucked? I didn’t notice.”
They both laughed. It didn’t really help. But. It was better, she thought. Maybe.
“Call me,” he said “Whenever. You know I’ll be there.”
“I’ll call Danny,” she said, opening the front door to the lobby of her building and stepping aside for a woman she didn’t recognize to leave. “He’s got that glowing fist going for him.”
She’d meant to tease, but Luke’s tone didn’t change. “I don’t care who you call, Jess. Just call someone.”
“I will, okay? Jesus. Definitely calling Iron Head now.”
She closed her phone and tucked it back into her jeans without waiting for a reply, then exited the elevator. She stopped abruptly when she saw a man waiting outside her office.
Whoever it was stood away from the wall as she approached, hands loose and held harmlessly away from his sides. “Leo Fitz,” he said, when she drew closer. “Can we talk?”
He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. And they were familiar eyes, in a weird kind of way. Not naturally empty - he had too many laughter lines for that - so hollowed out by something, or someone, else. Like the people in the Kilgrave survivors group.
“Depends which ID you show me,” she snapped, more than ready to throw him head first into the elevator and take her chances with whatever spooks crawled out of the walls.
“I’d prefer to do that in your office, if you don’t mind?” The faint smile had more life in it now. “There’s a strong chance you’ll throw me out a window, and I’d at least like it to be one of your own.”
“I’m pretty sure my insurance would cover it.” But he was right, there was less risk of collateral inside. She opened the door and ungraciously gestured for him to enter. Malcolm was long gone, but he’d left a small light on for her - thoughtful - and the stacks of paper on her desk were in neat, notated piles. She ran an eye over them, a general theme seemed to be requests for her signature.
After a disinterested glance around, and a slightly more lingering look at the spackled bullet holes, Fitz wandered over to the window.
“I’m going to say S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Jessica hazarded, dropping into her chair and not remotely inclined to offer him one. She leaned back and propped her boots on the desk, displacing several piles of paper with no small satisfaction. “But you don’t look like an agent. They let you out by yourself?”
“No. That is, yes . I’m S.H.I.E.L.D., but I’m science division." He showed her his ID perfunctorily. "So I’d appreciate it if we can have a civil conversation and not resort to fisticuffs. Frankly, any else would be embarrassing for us both.
“Fisticuffs,” she repeated, mouthing the word slowly.
“Convinced that I’m harmless, yet? I can make the accent a little thicker, if you like.”
“Yeah, please don’t - I can barely understand you already. What does S.H.I.E.L.D. want with little old me? I’m not an Inhuman. I’m definitely not Hydra.”
Fitz flinched, but kept smiling that hazy, meaningless smile. “Good to know - big relief. Really huge concern for us all,” he added, not even aiming for sincerity. “Officially, I’m here to ask why you were at the shelter, but it’s obvious to anyone with two braincells to rub together you were looking into Ellie. Not for us, I’m certain not for the federal government, which means either you got bored, or you’re working with - or for - Spider-man.”
Ellie, she noted. He called her Ellie.
“If you’re that sure, why are you here?”
“I wanted to meet you,” he said, like it was the most normal thing in the world.
Jessica shook her head, and really wished Malcolm hadn’t hidden her whiskey. “Maybe you’re confusing me with my sister? She’s the people person.”
“I wanted to say I admire you. That’s all.” He shrugged offhandedly. “But if you can help us talk to Spider-man too, we’d appreciate it.”
“Who is Elle Iwamura? Why is she so important?”
“That’s classified. Which I’m sure you’d already begun to suspect.”
Jessica straightened and let her boots drop back to the ground. “Spider-man wants to talk to you,” she admitted, standing. “He hired me to find you, but I figured if I made enough noise, you’d find me. Especially after you crashed my sister's radio show. Spider-man, he's one of the good guys, you know? Real hero type. He hopes S.H.I.E.L.D. wants to protect Ellie. I'm not that naive, and I'm sure as hell not a hero. What do S.H.I.E.L.D. really want?”
Fitz didn’t back away as she stalked towards him, she had to give him props for that. He raised his chin defiantly. “I can’t say you’re wrong, but ‘classified’ still means what it did twenty seconds ago. We do want to help her, but I can't prove that. So really, it comes down to trust them, or trust us. I hope you’ll trust us.”
“I’m sure you do.” She pointed towards the door. “Time for the science division to leave.”
“Of course.” Fitz headed for the door; paused at its threshold. “I meant what I said.”
“Yeah, you’re a fan boy. Great.”
“And I’m genuinely sorry there isn’t a third option.”
She narrowed her eyes; apparently the guy with more than two braincells to rub together hadn’t figured it out yet. “There is,” she said, as clearly as she could, so there could be no misunderstanding. “There’s me.”
Fitz blinked. “I’ll let them know,” he said, and carefully closed the door behind him.
Jessica stabbed a finger angrily at her phone as it clicked shut, trying to rein herself in when she heard the plastic creak in protest.
“I need you,” she said. “And Danny. And Colleen.”
Luke was silent for a long moment, then. ”Okay."
All those who guessed a Frank Castle appearance win a Frank Castle appearance! There'll be a whole lot more of him in the next one. And maybe a few more guest appearances. Any nominations? I'm here for the long haul.
“I can’t establish a connection with the user interface,” FRIDAY reported, as Pepper stood - still fully armored - in the wreckage of the office. Night security clustered in the doorway behind her.
Peter’s vitals had spiked and crashed, and she’d been there in minutes. She’d been there before the police. She’d been there before building security. And she still hadn’t been there quickly enough. She’d been optimistic at first, between the tracking devices on Peter’s suit and the various cameras in the area, there was no possible way that whomever had attacked him could have hidden.
But the tracking devices were offline, and the feeds were empty.
“Karen,” she said absently, as she read another, useless, analysis of the debris. “He calls the interface Karen.”
She dropped her face-plate and directed her attention to the head of security. “Is the building manager here yet?”
The man, frantically muttering into his cell, covered the lower half as he replied. “No ma’am, he’s en-route.”
She nodded and turned away, raising the plate again. “FRIDAY, call May Parker.”
“-ter. Peter. Peter. Peter. Peter. Pe-”
The softly repeating voice cut out as he swam closer to consciousness.
In its place, his regular pre-flight check kicked in:
No one was screaming for help.
No one was screaming in general.
Nothing was crushing him.
Nothing was on fire.
No one was yelling, “Peter Parker’s Spider-man!”
No one was throwing paper darts at his head to wake him up in homeroom. Again.
All green, and usually the start of a great morning, except this wasn’t morning, and he wasn’t in bed, and he could feel the lining of the mask on his face.
So, he was Spider-man, and - as he’d been unconscious - Spider-man was probably in trouble, but Spider-man still had his mask on.
Win for Spidey!
There had been- he’d gone to the shelter, and. Ellie! Someone had shot at him. And then- then-
Ropes? And - and was something digging into his arm? He flexed his fingers. No glove, suit rolled up what felt like his elbow.
Peter jerked his head up.
“Figured you’d be back quicker’n that.”
The low, gravelly voice came from somewhere in front of him, but Peter’s vision was blurry and his immediate world was a collection of dark blobs and blurred contrasts. He blinked rapidly as Karen murmured probably hugely important information at him, none of which he was following, because his head was attempting to split open and he was so, so thirsty.
He didn’t think he’d ever been so thirty.
“I disappoint me too sometimes,” he managed, wincing as his voice cracked. “Want to go again? I think I was by the window, and you were ... a psycho?”
Triple vision slid into double, then focused into single. And, given he could now see the huge guy working on something at a bench ten feet away, Peter kinda wished it hadn’t. Long coat and buzz cut and, was that a skull?
Ned was wrong: Peter read the news sometimes.
And, again, kinda wished he didn’t.
Frank Castle, the freaking Punisher, was right there, probably cleaning one of his hundreds and hundreds of guns. Peter looked around frantically, on the off-chance anyone else at all was around. This wasn’t the room he’d crashed into, not unless offices had traded desks and potted plants for generators and rats.
The basement? Maybe. But definitely not anywhere he could expect someone to stumble over them and call in the National Guard. Or the Hulk.
“Yeah,” the man said, very nearly sympathetically as Peter worked out exactly how screwed he was. “It’s not looking good for our hero. That what they say? You think you’re a hero, Bug?” Castle didn’t wait for an answer, which is just as well, because Peter honestly wasn’t sure he could have given him one. “No one’s coming for you. You understand?”
Except Iron Man, who would be knocking down the door any moment now. Which would be incredibly embarrassing, but, you know, Peter would take it. Lesson learned: never go through an invitingly open window ever again. Ever. Again.
Castle thought he’d be awake sooner. Had planned for that. And no one had found them yet.
Castle nodded as Peter reached third horrifying conclusion since waking, probably taking his cue from the mask’s eyes widening.
“Yeah, you understand. Fancy suit you got. But I got this.” He pointed to a small black box on the bench beside him, featureless except for small, pulsing green light. “Finds a signal, jams a signal. No one. Is coming. For you.”
And maybe, Peter thought, that just might have been what Karen had been trying to tell him.
“I’m sorry, Peter,” she said. “I will continue attempting to communicate your location to Mr Stark.”
And she’d probably already been trying for a while.
He was going to die.
“Have you considered a career in coaching?” He asked, smart-ass response generator wired directly to the terror center of his brain. “You’re a motivational guy.”
“Where’s the kid?”
“In bed, asleep, under so many plushies you have no idea. I didn’t kidnap her, I rescued her.” Experimentally, Peter tried to yank at the ropes around his wrists, but he could barely twitch. His metabolism was off the charts, he knew that, but whatever drugs Castle had him hooked to were too strong. He tried not to whimper, but wow, he sucked.
He was going to die.
“Settle down.” Castle crouched in front of the chair. His gaze traced the lining of the mask speculatively, then he reached forward to tweak something on the IV. “Where’s the kid?”
“This is why you shouldn’t play with grenades,” Peter slurred, as a new wave of sedative hit. “Hearing loss.”
There was a tap on the side of his head, not a hard one, just enough to refocus his attention. “Where’s the kid?”
“Safe,” Peter insisted, with the last of his energy.
Castle nodded as he wound down, as if that was all he’d been waiting for. “I want Elle back where she belongs, and that ain’t with you.”
Peter let his head loll, chin to chest, with shallow breaths. Because, maybe, maybe, maybe, if he could convince Castle that the sedative was too strong, he’d reduce it and Peter would have any chance at all of freeing himself.
Unfortunately, it was too strong.
He slipped back under.
“We want to help,” Danny said calmly, and earnestly, from his perch on the desk. Jessica wanted to tell him to get off the damn furniture, but even she had to admit that was mostly just to pick a fight. “I want to help. I just don’t know how - this isn’t what the Iron Fist was created for.”
And there were so many better things to pick fights over anyway.
“The vast amount of shit in this world is not something the Iron Finger was created for,” she snapped. “It’s there anyway, so deal with it. And get off the damn furniture.”
He nodded and slid to his feet with no trace of annoyance. She wasn’t fooled. Even the old guy, Stick, had had more Zen in his one good little finger than Danny.
“I told you I want to help,” he repeated. “I just don’t know how I can.” That wasn’t Jessica’s problem, and she opened her mouth to tell him so as Colleen rubbed his arm comfortingly. And there was your dangerously co-dependent relationship, right there.
From the single good chair in her apartment, Luke held up a hand to forestall the next round of bickering. “So we don’t know who the kid is or where she came from, just that the government and S.H.I.E.L.D. want her, and Spider-man has her.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” Jessica subsided; that was a more pressing concern. “He’s still not picking up.”
“Nothing on the news reports. If they took him down, they’re keeping it quiet. And maybe they didn’t find the kid with him.” Luke shrugged. “So we find her, deal with the rest later.”
“Everyone’s looking for her,” Colleen pointed out. “How can we find her if they can’t?” Her expression softened with something close to regret. “We need-”
“Yeah,” Jessica interjected, before she could say it. “But he’s still incredibly dead, so let’s move on.”
Oh, good A pregnant silence.
She waved Luke’s admonishment - or was concern? - away. She didn’t want or need either. “What else do we have?”
Luke turned his attention to Danny. “Anything Rand can throw in?”
“Nothing more than anyone else, probably less.” Danny was staring down at his hands, thoughtfully. “But I’ve been told before, the fist opens.”
Colleen narrowed her eyes. “Remember what happened last time?”
He looked up at her, almost shyly. “I healed you, nothing else mattered.”
Christ, young love.
Jessica stared at him. “You can heal people?”
“Yes. Once. Colleen had been poisoned. The Iron Fist is-”
“Seriously, you need to stop with the third-person bullshit.”
“It’s not a person, it’s a weapon.” And there he was, the angry, hurt kid below the thin veneer of fake chill. The one Jessica could actually talk to like a person. “A weapon I can’t put down, and one I was never taught to fully wield. One I may not - may never be able to fully wield. But it allows me to do more than hurt people.
“I’ve been in Hell’s Kitchen,” he confessed, as if they didn’t know.
“We know,” Luke said, helpfully.
Danny drew back, promptly - thankfully - derailed. “What?”
“People talk. It’s not Matt, it’s not me or Jess.” Luke’s mouth twitched with a half-smile. “Could be someone new, but at least one person mentioned as how the Devil has a glowing fist now.”
“Oh.” Danny’s cheeks colored, but he straightened in an effort towards dignity. “Well, apart from that time - which wasn’t my fault - I’ve been trying to do things the way Matt would have. So they don’t know he’s gone, so no one starts asking questions about a missing lawyer and a missing vigilante. For Foggy and Karen’s sake.
“I’ve been listening. And if I focus my chi, sometimes I hear more than I ever thought was possible. I’m not saying I can hear her, not like Matt might have been able to - it would take years of meditation to be able to work the way. Do you know how incredible he was?”
“Back on track,” Jessica suggested, before the enthused fanboy could take over.
“If I can use my chi for that, and to heal, maybe I can use it for something else. Chi connects us all, in a way. Perhaps I can follow that connection.”
Jessica shook her head. “God, you sound like Dorothy’s guru.”
“Then he’s a wise man, and I would like very much to meet him.”
“Definitely a rich one,” she sighed, when Luke raised an eyebrow in her general direction. “Fine, look for the girl, then Spider-man.”
“We may only have one shot at this,” Colleen warned, a thin line of worry furrowing her forehead. “Last time knocked him out for-”
“It’ll be fine.” Danny waved a hand. “I won’t rush this time.”
Luke was looking at her. Colleen and Danny were doing the same.
Jessica shook her head, this was not a decision she was in any way equipped to make and since when did she make the decisions anyway? Which part of not being responsible for anyone were people unclear about?
But. Okay. Spider-man would probably know where Ellie was, Ellie wouldn’t know where he was, and if they only had one shot at this…
“Spider-man,” she said. “Find him. What do you need?”
“A sense of who he is.”
She shook her head. “I can’t tell you that.”
“I don’t mean his name,” Danny said, patiently. “I mean who he is.”
Seriously, Zen Master Ken was getting really old.
She ground her teeth. “Young. Smart. Idealistic, so also kind of stupid. And right now, probably pretty scared.” She had a thought. “Do we - are we different? Because we’re stronger or whatever? Does that show in this chi stuff?”
“I don’t… maybe. Yes.” Danny nodded with a boyishly enthusiastic grin that in no way matched the vibe he was going for. “Yes, that will help.” He folded his legs into the position she’d come to think of as crossed legs for over-achievers, settled his hands loosely in his lap and closed his eyes.
Luke was watching her with a strange expression. She scowled. “What?”
“Nothing.” He hauled himself out the chair. “I’ll go to the shelter. Maybe someone on the streets saw which way he went. They might talk to me.”
“Queens isn’t exactly Harlem,” Jessica pointed out, in lieu of any of that stay safe, be careful, crap.
He shook his head and made for the door. “Don’t I know it.”
- o o-
It had been an hour. An hour.
Danny breathed in. Danny breathed out. Danny breathed in again.
Jessica tried - really, really tried - to stay quiet. Calm.
Nothing. Was. Happening.
A muscle in her cheek twitched, and Colleen glanced over with a warning look. She mouthed some words, most of which Jessica didn’t catch, but the general “shut up and be quiet” theme was pretty clear.
She'd started to stand, not sure where to go except out, when Danny’s fist begin to glow.
His eyes snapped open. “I found him! I think I - I think I found him.” He scrabbled to his feet as Colleen hovered, ready to field a suddenly falling body. “Over the river. Through a park. Basement of bank. It’s closed. Shut down. Next to an office block that - it smells like smoke, up high. There’s. I can only see it - I can’t see the street. But I can take you there.”
He noticed Colleen, attentively watching him. “I’m fine,” he added.
Colleen couldn’t stop him falling, but she managed to catch his head.
Jessica was there a second later, helping to arrange him into something she vaguely remembered as a recovery position. “You got this?”
“His pulse is steady,” Colleen said, taking her fingers from Danny’s wrist. “His color’s good. He’s fine - this is nothing like last time. I’m coming with you.” She pulled the cell from his pocket and left it next to his hand.
“I can do this on my-” Jessica started, as Colleen quickly typed him a message from her own.
“I won’t be left behind again,” she said as she hit send. “I know what you think of me. I’m no one’s sidekick, and I can help.”
“Don’t take this personally, but I don’t really think of you at all.” Jessica considered her, as Colleen frowned back. “That’s on me,” she allowed. “We’re going to Queens.”
“You know it’s Queens just from that?”
“Call it a hunch. No accent, my ass.”
Luke considered the front of the shelter for a long moment before he flipped his hood up and turned away. The people he wanted to talk to wouldn’t be in there: the ones who wouldn’t be welcome, the ones who just didn’t think they were.
He headed down the side street, listening to the sounds of a city hitting midnight. Laughter, catcalls, shrieks and screams. A baby crying, a dog howling. Close his eyes and it could be Harlem. Except it didn’t smell the same. Nowhere smelled like home.
He could hear scuffling in the alleys left and right; rats, dogs and people. Maybe a few muggers, thinking twice. Tended to happen.
Feeling eyes on him, he turned into the last on his right and found himself chest-to-face with a short man holding a thin knife in suddenly trembling fingers.
“Don’t want no trouble, man,” the mugger wheezed. “No trouble. It’s self-defense!”
His accent was Queens all through, with more than a little hint of the Irish in it.
Luke plucked the knife from unresistant fingers; from the ragged state of the guy, he believed him: junkie, not thief. At least, not from someone stronger than he was, which was probably anyone over the age of ten.
“Then no trouble’s what we got,” Luke assured him. “You see what happened here this morning? ”
“I didn’t see nothing.”
“Spider-man,” Luke prompted. “He took a little girl.”
“Oh. Oh sure. I saw that. The man scrubbed his hands on his stained jeans, eyes suddenly bright at the opportunity for negotiation. “I can tell you stuff. I got stuff to tell.”
Luke looked away dismissively. “You had anything, you’d already have sold it on.”
“No. No-no-no. Spider-man, he’s okay. I wouldn’t tell them nothing. He’s okay. There were worms, worms all over the ground, trying to eat me. He made me a bed on the wall. Spun a web.” He pointed up. “No worms. He’s okay.”
“So why would you tell me where he is?”
“Because you’re him. You’re Cage, right? I heard of you. I heard. You’re okay. You maybe got a little .. a little something for an old soldier.”
Luke had serious doubts the man had ever served in his life, but. He flipped a ten up and watched the bright, blood-shot eyes fix on it, hypnotized. “Where did he go?”
“That way.” The man pointed. “I watched. Long as I could: go, Spidey. Go! All the way up there, over the expressway.”
Luke handed the ten over, added another twenty to it. “Get something to eat,” he said, without much hope.
After a moment’s deliberation, he handed the knife back.
Then jammed his hands in his pockets and started walking.
Frank reduced the flow of sedative and considered his unconscious captive again.
“This is on you, Red,” he told thin air. “Tried doing things your way and I got nothing.”
Yeah, talking to yourself was the first sign of madness. Wasn’t like anyone had ever been shy about calling him crazy.
Crazy wasn’t stupid, though, and he had to admit, something wasn’t right. The bug had his fans, had his enemies - mostly in the Bugle - but no one had ever figured him for a kidnapper before. Maybe he really thought he was doing the right thing. Didn’t mean he was.
The bug’s head nodded as he started to come around.
“Cool, still alive. Living was on my to do list today,” he said, voice cracking. Frank would have to take him off the mix soon, or next time he probably wouldn’t wake up. But if he did that, they had a problem, because there was no way Frank could contain him, however short and scrawny he looked.
“Where’s the girl,” he said, moving closer.
“Can we play a new game? How’d you feel about I Spy? I Spy, with my little…” The mask’s creepy eyes flexed. “What even is that? Is that a grenade launcher ?”
Frank nodded, without looking at the weapon in question. “Heckler & Koch XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement,” he said, measured, clear and not trying to hide his approval. “Rangers won’t carry them, say they’re too heavy. Marines say, ‘thank you, sir - may I have another?’”
The XM25 had another name; it didn’t make odds one way or another on why he chose it, but he had to admit, the universe had a hell of a sense of humor.
“You brought a grenade launcher to fight me? I don’t know whether to be complimented or terrified.” There was barely a pause; the mouth kept running. “I’m going to go with terrified. Because it’s a grenade launcher .”
“Didn’t need it,” Frank pointed out.
“Yeah, that was - that was not my finest moment.” The bug’s voice cracked again, and this time Frank wasn’t sure it was just dry mouth from the sedatives.
Not short, he thought. Not grown. “How old are you?”
“People keep asking me that. It’s crazy. I guess I just have one of those young-looking masks. You think I should get ID?”
Young didn’t let the bug off the hook - murderers were made at all ages - but it did make Frank a little relieved he hadn’t hit him with everything he had.
And then realized that the bug’s voice might have been rough, might have cracked, but the words were clear. He was far more aware than he should have been.
Frank raised his Magnum, barrel aimed center mass, just as the rope snapped. He shook his head in slow warning. “You that fast, Bug?”
He’d almost dodged the stun grenade.
Maybe he was.
The bug moved; Frank fired.
I'm going to really try and get more chapters out over the week, but there's a chance it will end up being next Fri, Sat and Sun again.
Thank you so much to everyone who takes the time to comment (and kudos. And read, frankly :D) - it's hugely appreciated, you are the wind beneath my wings, you don't even know.
Also, yep, the Heckler & Koch XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement is also called "The Punisher"
Chapter 7: Chapter 6
This is probably the part where I say I'm not from New York. Or, you know. The US? I googled, but probably still got all the locations out of whack, so ... fun train! Thanks for still reading :D
“Hello, Mrs Parker? I’m sorry to wake you. We haven’t actually met before, I’m Virginia Potts. CEO of -”
“I know who you are.” May’s tone was clipped, not drowsy; she hadn’t been sleeping. “How bad is it?”
Pepper looked around the blackened walls, the splintered remains of a desk and office chair. The sadly listing potted plant, shedding its leaves. No blood, that was something. “We’ve lost his location,” she admitted, simply. “We’re doing everything we can to find him.”
Which had been significantly less than she’d hoped. When the manager had finally appeared, he’d blustered between excuses and apologies, before landing on horror when he’d discovered that the entire week’s security feeds had been wiped.
FRIDAY hadn’t found any digital fingerprints, which was troubling in and of itself, but that line of enquiry could wait.
“Maybe he’s at the apartment,” May said briskly, ignoring the admittedly weak assurance. “He’s not answering his cell, neither is Ned.”
Pepper was intimately familiar with the sound of someone who had done all the hand-wringing they were ever going to do, and skipped the rest of the comforting spiel she’d been rehearsing in her head for the last hour. “Ned - Edward Leeds?” She scanned the data FRIDAY helpfully pulled into the HUD. “His friend from school? You think Ned would know where he is?”
May snorted, as if she’d said something funny. “Ms Potts, I don’t have time for this - I’m going to find my kid. You want to do something useful, go ask your fiance’s government friends how it is they’re picking on children.
“They’re not my-” Wait. “Ms Parker, please don’t hang up! Peter has an apartment?”
“What are you - he’s fifteen years old! Of course he doesn’t have an apartment! Do you even listen to yourselves? He’s a child.”
“Ms Parker, I understand how worried you must be, and that you consider Stark Enterprises is to blame. However, right now, I am all the help you have and, I promise you, that’s all I want to do.”
Pepper could hear the woman’s struggle in the sharply drawn breath and the angry silence that followed it. The desire to tell Pepper to go to hell against situational pragmatism. “It’s not you,” May conceded, at last, which was far more than Pepper had expected. “It’s Stark. And it’s Peter. And when we get this mess cleared up, I’m wringing both their necks.”
“I have stunners in my armor,” Pepper volunteered. “Quicker. Easier on the hands.”
“Peter’s got Ned minding Ellie over in some foreclosed apartments near the shelter,” May said. “I didn’t love the idea, but it was better than her being here. Mr Henderson, next door? Man has a glass to the wall, day and night. There’s a few places they could be. I’m telling you, nothing lasts longer than six months in that neighborhood. Track Ned’s cell.”
“I’ll call you when I’ve found him,” Pepper promised quickly, and cut the line. “FRIDAY?”
“I’ve located the cell phone,” the AI confirmed. “It’s across the street.”
She blinked. “Show me.”
The HUD flickered to life again, showing a pulsing locator beacon on the top level of an abandoned-looking building half a block up from the offices. No line into the windows from this angle, but the roof was open ground for a good shot with time, and patience.
This hadn’t been an opportunistic attack, someone had known where Spider-man was and set a trap accordingly.
Which meant they probably already had the girl.
Unless. Unless they hadn’t realized Peter was on that rooftop because he was guarding Elle and his friend. Hiding less than a mile from the shelter was - well, it was insane, but it had worked: no one was looking there. And there was no suggestion there had been a fight there, or any kind of disturbance. FRIDAY confirmed it with a fast play through of the traffic camera footage through the day: nothing more than a near miss between two delivery trucks.
With growing hope, she kicked in the thrusters and flew through destroyed window, towards the beacon.
“Cheap bourbon?” Tony studied the bottle that had been planted unceremoniously at his elbow with disdain. “Really? I thought we agreed that any impromptu drinking sessions started between the hours of one and three a.m called for cheap scotch.”
Rhodey shrugged and sat on the other stool at the workstation. “Like you can even taste the difference.” He blinked blearily at the motherboard-looking thing Tony was working on. It didn’t seem to be attached to any suspicious wires, or flashing, so he decided to worry about it later.
“Ross pinkie swore I wasn’t under house arrest, so I assume you’re here to talk wedding plans. Cushions: silk, or velvet?”
“Your single point of impulse control flew off in her own set of armor, which no one knew she had.” Rhodey said, flatly. “You really think they wouldn’t want to lock things down a little? And silk, obviously. It’s elegant. What are you, Liberace?”
“The armor’s part of a humanitarian relief side project: strictly non-lethal and entirely unrelated to the Iron Man series,” Tony reeled off like a press packet, and lifted the soldering iron. He was aiming to sound disaffected, but his expression was challenging when he finally looked up. “Although I suppose I should be glad you’re here, rather than out there enforcing something. I am wondering how they thought you’d stop me, though. If I actually tried to leave. Historically, that hasn’t really worked out for you.”
Tony Stark wasn’t a hard man to make friends with, but he was almost impossible to stay friends with. At least, for any longer than the length of a party. One hand always trying to pull you close, and the other one already pushing you away.
Maybe, Rhodey thought, he’d only lasted as long as he had because those had been his orders: manage Tony Stark so the brass didn’t have to deal with any scandal-shaped hurdles that might get in the way of winning the arms race.
Pepper too, kind of. And Happy.
So, the trick, Rhodey had learned, to staying Tony’s friend, was to ignore the hand pushing you away right up until it turned into a fist. Push back and, if you could, trick that livewire Stark brain into jumping a rail and going somewhere a little sunnier.
“ Historically you hadn’t spent a ton of dough on my medical bills, or kickstarted a whole new neuroengineering department,” he said, calmly ignoring the attempt to pick a fight. “I’m going to bet you don’t want to be the reason I land in hospital again.”
Tony’s expression flickered with a peevish kind of annoyance; clearly Rhodey had inadvertently hit a recently exposed nerve. “Is it too much to ask for people to try appealing to my better nature before resorting to emotional blackmail, threats or violence?”
“I did,” Rhodey pointed out, unmoved. “Ninety-eight. Sweden.”
“Right. The triplets. Okay, point to you, but, in my defense, I don’t actually have a better nature.”
“Keep telling yourself that. While you sit right there, quietly building whatever the hell it is you’re building.” Rhodey leaned forward with a frown, as the thing beeped. “Unless it’s going to explode.”
Tony didn’t look down. “Here’s the thing.”
“Use your words,” Rhodey suggested, after a few more seconds had passed.
“I’m thinking. Okay.” Tony nodded, course plotted. “You said signing the Accords was the right thing to do.”
“It was,” Rhodey agreed, firmly. “And it still is.”
“It was. Then. But now ? I don’t know.” Now anxiety was transparent under the anger; maybe it always had been. “So where does that put us? Because I’ve already had one soul destroying fight with someone I considered a friend this year, highly overrated. I don’t want one with someone I actually like. Some of the time. Occasionally.”
“Two cheers for democracy,” Rhodes muttered, and reached for the bourbon, before realizing he hadn’t thought to bring glasses.
“I never took you for a Forster fan: ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country?’ Little on the nose. More Cap’s style, don’t you think?”
“What sounds noble in theory doesn’t always work in practice. We need order. We need loyalty to something more, something better, than ourselves.” Because what was the alternative? Everyone out for number one, no greater good? James Rhodes had devoted his life to - broken his body in - the service of his nation, not just part of it. “What could you even do right now that Pepper isn’t out there doing?” He tried, striking towards a compromise.
“Ask some searching questions.” Tony turned away again, resuming soldering. “Like, if everyone’s so set on finding this kid, why haven’t there been any pictures of her? Not even from intake? Come on. Like, why does Ross look like he was force-fed a lemon tree? And while we’re here, why are S.H.I.E.L.D. still involved? It’s an open secret they’re the Inhuman railroad, but they haven’t been this public since Mace.” He glanced up as an ember flared. “Hey, here’s the best one yet: why can’t FRIDAY find any trace of Elle Iwamura before last month?”
In retrospect, Rhodey wondered if he shouldn’t have encouraged a little more wedding planning. It was probably too late to make an argument for satin.
“Well, you can ask pretty much all of that from right here.” He frowned and hauled himself to his feet again, looking around the workshop’s junk piles for glasses, and determinedly ignoring the sensation of artificial aid. “ I’ll help.”
Luke tilted his head back and considered the young woman standing in front him. Her top was hidden under a massive fake fur coat that had seen better nights, but the thigh-high boots just brushing the hem of her glittery silver skirt was a pretty clear indication of her business, given they were standing under a bridge and not outside a nightclub. “How old are you?”
“How old you want me to be?” Her hips swayed as she stalked towards him, blue eyes staring up through her lashes, lips pouting just so.
Luke took a rapid step back, shaking his head. “No sale.”
She rolled her eyes and straightened, dropping the pitch and aging a decade in a second, to his relief. Some trick. “If you’re planning to talk God at me, you can skip it. Last time I checked, God wasn’t paying my bills.”
“Spider-man come round this way?"
Her expression changed again, this time filling with a genuine warmth that, disconcertingly, knocked a few years right back off again. “Spider-man ? If he’s over sixteen, I’ll eat these boots. He’s helped me out a couple times when dates got a little too pushy. You’d never think a mask could blush, right?”
“Either way, you seen him lately?”
A small, suspicious frown appeared between her eyebrows. “No.”
“I’m not a cop,” he tried, raising his hands a little. “I’m a friend - I’m just trying to help him out.”
“Then shouldn’t you already know where to find him?” She crossed her arms and nodded down the street. “Get out of here - I got people to do.”
“People are a lot friendlier in Harlem.”
“Uh huh,” she nodded, unsympathetically. “Welcome to Queens, buddy.”
The sound of the Iron Man series of armor passing overhead wasn’t loud in the way jets were loud - it was almost silent, in comparison. The noise came in it’s wake: the rattle of windows, the tree branches snapping; the car alarms and dogs barking. He watched the suit land on the roof of an empty-looking building up the block, windows boarded and no light, save a faint glow at the very top.
“Hey!” The woman stepped forward, one finger pointing. “Don’t you hurt him!”
“That is not the plan. I promise. Look.” He pulled his last fifty from his pocket. “I got no idea what’s about to go down here, so take the rest of the night off, okay?”
She tucked the note into her boot, still looking wary. “Thanks. I hope you really are his friend.”
Luke nodded as he turned to follow the suit’s path. “Everything I’m hearing, I’d like to be.”
Colleen’s cell rang as they stepped out the cab; Jessica paid while she answered, for once too distracted to complain about the ridiculous fare. Whatever the person on the other end - Danny, probably - had said, caused Colleen to spin where she stood, looking for something. “Danny says he can smell chemicals. Paint - maybe. Hear clanging? It’s loud, but muffled.”
“Great. Good for him.”
Colleen ignored her. “You see any building sites? Maybe auto shops?”
“Are you kidding me?” Jessica waved a demonstrative hand, confident that wherever she pointed, she’d be hitting at least one of those things. ”Tell Zoltar we need something else.”
“He’s doing his best, okay? If someone’s taken Spider-man, they’d have to keep him somewhere out the way, right? Easy access, but not public.”
Jessica scowled and turned away, because, okay. Fine. Yes. And she should have been the one thinking about that, rather than relying on mystic bullshit. She cricked her neck and re-evaluated. Okay, congratulations, you manage to grab Spider-man - now what, genius?
You take him back to your evil lair? No. New York might consider him their favorite cat rescuer-slash-bag carrier, but if you’re kidnapping the guy, you know he’s strong, and fast. Dangerous. You need somewhere close, somewhere you won’t be disturbed. Somewhere you can control the environment.
Up the street, the train rattled its way over the traffic.
The city had closed a lot of the old depots along the overland. Little buildings, sitting empty. Long gutted, no one interested in what could be inside anymore.
“Danny he thinks it might be-”
“Somewhere on Jamaica. Go Team.”
“He can hear people singing. Like a choir, not a band,” Colleen clarified, ignoring the sarcasm. “But they’re really bad. Drunk. And there’s a lot of them. Something about … double features?”
Jessica scowled as she looked around, then back down at her cell as she narrowed her area search again. “Oh, for- come on.” She took off at a fast walk in the direction of the local multiplex, conveniently just up the block from a subway station.
“HR assures me you have an apartment.” Ellison craned his head around the office door. “Have you considered using it?”
“It’s only- oh.” Karen rubbed at her eyes and, yes, the clock on her computer said a late night had become an early morning. “I’m just-” She frowned. “You’re still here.”
“That’s why they pay me the big bucks.”
They both laughed, without much amusement. As far as Karen had been able to glean, if the Bulletin started accepting payment in pie like Murdock & Nelson, it would probably double their income.
“It’s the Spider-man thing.” She waved a hand at her computer screen. “Every newspaper in the city is calling for his blood, so are the local news stations. Yesterday it was ‘Spidey-watch’ and trying to figure out if that was a new suit. No one’s asking any questions.”
“Because press packs with overwhelming evidence of his sudden turn to super-villainy have been pushed along every conceivable channel, all stamped Homeland.” Ellison stepped further into the room, framed by the open doorway and a corona of low-illumination economy lights.
“So we’re not meant to question it?”
“Of course we are, it’s what we do. But right now, it’s news and we’re running it - we can’t afford not to. Literally. But, look. That’s what second prints are for. Bring me something that won’t get us sued into oblivion, or rushed by an angry mob, and I’ll run that too.” He hesitated, pulling off his glasses to survey the smudges. “But why?”
“Why?” Karen blinked again. “There’s a story here.”
“There’s a story in city hall, too. There’s another one in the courts. Corruption, graft and greed, all those money makers. And you want to do another piece on a costume? You know him too?”
“I don’t know the others.” She held her hands up in the face of his disbelief. “I don’t know the others well,” she amended. “And I don’t know him at all. I want to know why we’ve been told to vilify him. I want to know what the truth is. Don’t you? What would Ben do?”
Ellison backed away again, drawing the door closed after him. “I think Ben would ask what you intend to do. And tell you to get some sleep.”
Too close! Way, way too close!
The chair hit the single, naked bulb on the ceiling with a satisfying combination of crunch and shatter, plunging most of the basement into darkness. That left just the row of wall lights along the workbench, and then Peter should have the advantage for at least a few seconds.
He leapt into a high, shadowed corner of the room. Even with his enhanced sight, the place was dim, for Castle it would be- be-
There was a faint, green glow from Castle’s position as he fitted something over his head.
“Seriously?” Peter called down, aggrieved. “Night vision? That’s cheating!”
Okay, well, maybe if he could figure out a way to make a really bright light that would-
Castle swung the barrel of the Magnum his way, Peter flung himself into the furthest corner, behind a bank of shelving.
“No way out, Bug.”
“Spider. Man. Try it. Spiiiiider-maaaan. Points for not calling me an insect, though. Congratulations, you’re smarter than The Bugle.” He crawled slowly across the dusty floor, barely breathing as Karen tracked Castle’s position with a soft red glow. When the man turned away, Peter kicked the shelf and then jumped the next dark corner, wedging himself into it as much as he could.
If he had his web shooters, it would have been over by now, but Castle had stripped them, probably while he’d been knocked out. He looked more closely at the various piles on the bench, electrics, ammo, the jammer of course and the - there!
He gathered himself to leap. And then stopped.
There, on the bench. Right out in the open. With the box Castle had been so helpful in telling him was the jammer and definitely not, for instance, a huge trap.
He shook his head as Castle passed below . “Fool me once, Pun-Pun. Punster? No. It’s okay, I’ll get it.”
“Yeah, you will.” Castle spun, the barrel rose again; Peter dropped.
Castle staggered as he was hit up for the world’s least-fun shoulder ride; Peter tightened his legs and threw himself into a backwards flip. Castle impacted the wall closest to the door, landing with a grunt. He shook his head slowly as he tried to stand. Stunned, not down, but the goggles had cracked. Castle pulled them off with a frown.
The gun was, somehow, still in his hand, Peter realized, just as the barrel started to come up again. It was unsteady, though - maybe he had a chance. He sprang to the left wall, the ceiling and then the floor in a forward rush he hoped was too random to aim for.
He landed in front of the gun, swept it aside and pulled his fist back.
Castle let the Magnum go without a fight, using the now-free hand to brace himself as the other came up with something that glinted as it left his fingers.
A knife! Peter twisted away, but felt a sharp sting as the blade sliced across his bicep. The suit’s protection against impact damage was super good, the rest was a little hit and miss. Hit. In this case.
He jumped back to his corner - the nice, safe, not actually safe, corner- and pulled his knees to his chest to present a smaller target as Castle climbed to his feet. Maybe if he could lure the man away from the door-
Except, he could see a faint glow around the frame.
“Is there anything down here you haven’t rigged to explode, Punny?”
“We done playing hide and seek yet?” Castle stood and picked up the gun without any apparent sense of urgency, retrieved his knife in the same unhurried fashion, apparently confident Peter wouldn’t be trying anything up close again.
“We’re on the same side,” Peter tried. “Kind of. We’re side adjacent. Except my side's a lot less murder-ey.”
“Where’s the kid?”
“I told you, she’s somewhere safe, while we find her family.”
Castle’s head snapped up. “We?”
That would have been a perfect moment, Peter reflected, for someone to kick down the door with a snappy comment before making a dramatic rescue. Sadly, all he got was a near miss as Castle fired into the corner half a second after he’d vacated.
He tried to flip back, reasoning there probably wouldn’t be a second shot, but as soon as he moved, something bad-bad-bad flared ahead. No web shooters to pull him away, momentum took him directly into whatever it was.
It felt like the aftermath of the stun grenade, but there was no explosion this time. Instead of flinging him away, it dropped him like a brick with a wave of vertigo and sudden nausea.
He would not throw up in the mask. He would not throw up in the mask.
There was a shotgun in his face.
He might throw up in the mask.
“You’re strong,” Castle allowed, as he crouched. The barrel didn’t move once. “You’re fast. Can’t fight for shit, and your tactics are a mess. You even had any training, Bug?”
“Thanks? Wait. What-?”
The flare again, this time from the direction of the door. The rigged door. Something thudded against it, shaking the frame hard. Someone was trying to get in.
Castle tilted his head, more thoughtful than concerned. “You got backup, Bug? Door’s no friendlier coming in than it is going out.”
The door shuddered under another hit; something in the metal creaked alarmingly.
Peter tried to sit up, and abruptly aborted the motion as the barrel dug into his chest. “You have to disarm it!”
“I don’t have to do a damn thing except wait.”
The shrill whine from the door kicked up a notch; Frank bore down on the barrel of the shotgun to discourage anything heroic and glanced over. The strip around the frame had turned from a faint green to a faint amber.
The pitch rose; the amber deepened towards red.
The bug squirmed. “You gotta let me- please. I don’t want to-”
“Stay down,” Frank ordered.
It was a shaped charge; they were far enough away the blast wouldn’t reach them, and there was a ground-welded shelf in the way too. Just the same, he turned his back and rounded his shoulders, protecting his head: fancy new tech he hadn’t used before, and didn’t entirely trust.
The door bowed under another blow, this one directly over the handle.
Jessica staggered back, staring at the door in frustrated disbelief. “What the hell is this sealed with?”
“Can you hear that?” Colleen dropped a hand to the hilt of her katana and looked back down the long, dark maintenance tunnel that, from the dust, hadn’t seen traffic since the eighties. That they’d found the entrance, even with Danny back-seat chi-whispering, had been a minor miracle. “Something - it sounds like an alarm?”
Jessica considered the door. It had begun to cast an orange light around the frame.
Colleen took a measured step back. “Run?”
Amber became red; the alarm peaked.
The mask’s eyes narrowed.
Frank tensed to move, but a red and blue blur later and the shotgun was flying from his hands. His fingers fractured under the force, he could feel the joints separating with barely any resistance. The shotgun’s stock cracked against the old brick wall beside them, falling away from the receiver in halves. There was barely time to process the hit before a rabbit punch sent him flying; he was in the air before he registered the sharp pain in his ribs, cracked despite the body armor.
He felt it when he hit the wall; he felt nothing when he hit the floor.
Jessica grabbed Colleen and, ignoring the shocked yelp in her ear, crouched to jump. She could make it to the end of the tunnel, she figured. Maybe even without sending them both head-first into the concrete wall.
Even odds. Maybe three to one.
The sound of tearing metal derailed the plan. She watched as the door - frame and all - buckled inwards, disappearing into the room with the speed of an implosion. A second later there was a crashing impact, but from a distance, as though the door had been thrown a long way. The muted explosion that followed was almost an afterthought.
With a sudden rush of motion from the darkness within, she became part of a tumbling ball, consisting of at least three other people. Which was about three more people than she was comfortable with. They landed with a series of thuds twenty, thirty feet down the tunnel.
She understood when the rumble of a concussion wave hit, crumbling what was left of the door frame and bringing a shower of concrete down from the ceiling. But nothing more, she assured herself after a few tense seconds.
This wasn’t Midland Circle, no one was about to be buried.
Under her left elbow, someone - Spider-man - was whispering, “stay up, stay up, stay up,” in a mantra she could fully get behind.
See, Danny? Just had to know the right words.
Smoke billowed into the maintenance tunnel; everything else settled.
She began to disentangle herself from Spider-man, Colleen, and an unconscious man covered in dust, with a white skull on his tac vest. Frank Castle. The Punisher.
Christ. “You okay, kid?”
“Yeah.” Spider-man patted himself down, as if not quite able to believe it either. “Yeah, I’m good. And not a kid.”
He swayed a little as he climbed to his feet, clipping something around each wrist, but he stayed up too. Colleen was already standing, hand once more on the sword, guarding their backs. Torn between mentioning that Colleen had nothing to prove, and honestly not really caring, Jessica reached for Castle.
Spider-man moved forward, almost protectively. “Just. Okay, but be careful. He’s probably got some- a lot of cracked ribs. And his hand’s not good either.”
“He get caught in his own bomb?” Jessica grinned, because karma was another thing she could get behind. Maybe she and Danny would bond after all.
“No.” Spider-man’s reply was short, and guilty sounding, and God save her from hero complexes.
Colleen stepped forward, eyeing Spider-man cautiously. “We need to get out of here. There’s no way no one dialed nine-one-one.”
And their response time was pretty good these days, for some reason. Jessica nodded. “Go get the truck running, we’ll catch up.”
Colleen sprinted ahead; Jessica bent to pick Castle up. He was a little taller and anything other than a fireman’s lift would be really awkward, but unfortunately there were those ribs to consider - apparently - so she settled for bridal style. Easiest on any broken parts, plus there was always the chance someone would take a picture. She started walking.
Spider-man padded along at her side, head tilted as if he was listening. Or in shock, maybe. Whatever had been going on in that workshop, it couldn’t have been fun.
No way she was starting that conversation, though. Besides, any moment now the kid would start wondering how - or why - she’d even found him; she decided to skip ahead.
“So the first agents were probably Homeland,” she opened. “The ones who showed up after them were definitely S.H.I.E.L.D. And,” she added, “everyone still thinks Spider-man kidnapped the Ellie, so you probably shouldn’t show your cute little mask for a while, Pard.”
“Yeah, that’s probably- no. I’m not.” His head snapped around, eyes flexed wide. “Uh. Whoever you think I am? Because Pard’s a really stupid name.”
“Smooth. I went through this with another costume maybe a week ago, it’s boring. How about we get to the part where I make it really clear I could give a crap? I’ve got a lawyer I trust going through the fine print on the Accords. Ellie’s as good as got representation with the best law firm in New York. They’ll fight it out in the public eye, she’ll be safe while people are watching.
“And S.H.I.E.L.D. want to be her friend. They’re monitoring the shelter, in case you show up there to talk. Trouble is, everyone in New York over the age of five knows that, because their cryptic messages are for shit. So don’t. I’ll talk to them for you, figure out if it’s safe for Ellie to go with them. For what it’s worth, the guy I spoke to seemed pretty sincere.”
The masked head bobbed. “Okay.”
“Okay? No questions?” She frowned. “You should have questions, kid. Like, what happens to you?”
“I told you, I’ll figure it out.” He shrugged. “Do what it takes to help Ellie. I’ll pick up the bill, I swear. And. Uh. Please-don’t-tell-anyone-who-I-am.”
“Which part of my not caring even a little bit wasn’t clear?” She looked down at the still-unconscious load in her arms. “What do you want to do with Most Wanted?”
“Maybe he knows something.”
“He won’t be feeling too chatty when he wakes up.” Her cell vibrated in her jeans pocket; they were close to the surface. She tried juggling the uncooperative dead weight in her arms, but it wasn’t working out. Castle was summarily lifted away; he looked even more ridiculous in Spider-man’s arms than he had in hers.
She checked the screen.
She snapped a photo before she answered, and ignored the mask’s outraged expression - freaky shit, there, Stark - as she brought the cell to her ear. “Busy. What?”
“I found the kid, I’m not the only one.” Luke sounded concerned, which was never a great sign. “We’ve got a situation. Tell me you found Spider-man.”
“I found Spider-man.”
“Tell him to call-” A brief pause. “Tell him to call Pepper.”
“I have five-hundred and eighteen missed messages,” Spider-man said, as they finally made it out of the tunnel, and headed towards the slightly stolen, mostly borrowed, delivery truck. His voice tightened with repressed horror. “Four hundred and ninety-six are from my aunt.”
Peter hunched down in the passenger seat of the truck’s cab, trying to make himself as small as possible. There had been a debate over how smart it was to have him so visible, but the alternative was riding in the back with the Punisher and when Ms Jones had called it, he hadn’t argued too hard. Even if he probably should have.
Karen chimed: connection successful.
“Hey, Ms Potts.”
“Please, call me Pepper.”
She sounded a little distracted, he thought, but not mad. Better than he’d been hoping for. “Sure thing, Ms Potts. Uhm. Are Ellie and Ned okay?”
No, not distracted. A little out of breath? “And are you okay? You sound-”
“Are you okay?” She interrupted quickly. “Your aunt is very worried. We’ve all been very worried .”
He hesitated. “If you’re busy, I can call back.”
“No! No. It’s fine. Are you hurt? Where are you?”
“I don’t know.” Peter looked over at Colleen. “Where are we?”
“Parsons-Archer. More or less.”
“Still in Queens,” he relayed. “In a delivery truck, I think. We’ll be there really soon.”
“Good. Okay. Great. See you soon. Call your aunt. Right now.”
Pepper let the visor on her helmet lift, but kept her stunner aimed steadily at the man in the doorway.
He stood with his hands in his pockets and zero apparent concern. “He good?”
She nodded. “He says he is. And your friends?”
“They’re good too. So I guess we hang here until they show.”
Pepper lowered her arm with a nod, tentatively hopeful.
Ned, frozen in the kitchen doorway, Ellie peeking out from behind him, wordlessly offered up a packet of cookies.
Peter could do this.
He’d fought the Vulture, and saved the academic decathlon team, and he’d even almost put a ferry back together. Plus, endless muggers. Bank robbers!
He had this. Totally.
Karen chimed; connection successful.
“Hey, Aunt May.”
A sharp intake of breath, then. “You in one piece?”
“Yeah.” He looked guiltily at the tear in his suit, and the blood crusting the edges. “I’m fine.”
“You safe right now?”
“Totally safe,” he said, ignoring the presence of the crazed murderer in the back.
“That woman - Pepper, is she there?”
“No. Almost.” He picked at the edge of his web shooter, peeling away a little spilled formula. “I’m with a couple really nice people. They helped me out.”
Out the corner of his eye, he saw Colleen smile.
May’s unbelievably calm, even tone sharpened shrilly. “What did you need helping out of?”
Her voice cracked. “Peter-”
No-no-no-no . “May, I’m fine. I’m okay. Don’t cry!”
“I’m not crying!” She choked, not entirely convincingly.
“Are you sure? Because it sounds like-” He looked helplessly at Colleen. She shook her head.
Another, slower, intake of breath. “When will you be home?”
“I don’t know. Soon. Really soon.”
“Okay. Okay. I love you. Stay safe.”
“I will. Just wondering, though.” He finally freed the bit of dried web and flicked it away. “How grounded…?”
“Forever,” she said crisply, any trace of tears gone. “Mister, you are grounded forever. I’m creating a trust so I can hire people to ground you after I die. Then they will ground your children, and your children’s children, until the end of time.”
“Yeah, I thought so,” he confirmed, glumly. “Love you, May.”
Frank never moved when he woke - never knew where he’d be. Better to keep still. Stay quiet. He reviewed his memory. Assessed his state. Ribs cracked, he was sure of that. Couple fingers busted, maybe. He hoped he hadn’t been out long or they’d be a pain in the ass to reset.
Fit for purpose.
Moving. Truck. The one he’d boosted earlier, from the smell of paint. He opened his eyes a sliver.
“I know you’re awake.” Woman’s voice, she sounded almost bored. “And you’ve probably figured out you’re a little banged up. If you want to keep the rest of your bones in one piece, I suggest you play nice.”
He craned his head up, then slowly raised his hands; he hadn’t been restrained. He pulled himself into a sitting position, and didn’t bother to reply. He pulled the damaged hand up and critically regarded the two crooked fingers. Dislocated, not broken. He snapped them back in.
The woman watched, the lines of her expression hard. “So, hey, congrats, asshole . You abducted and tortured a minor. That’s got to feel pretty great.”
“Bug’s fine,” he muttered. And, it turned out, probably could have taken Frank out any time he’d wanted during that little game of hide and go seek. Frank wondered why he hadn’t, but not for long. Didn’t matter now. “Jessica Jones. Yeah, that’s you. Hell’s Kitchen. Red here too?” He jerked his chin towards the cab. “Choir practice in session?”
“Red?” She frowned.
“Sure. Horns. Talks like a priest.” He smirked. “Argues like lawyer.”
“Right. Yeah, he’s incredibly dead,” she said flatly. “Midland Circle.”
He had no idea what to do with that information. No point denying it, more than a little disingenuous to mourn, and didn’t seem right to be shocked. No one would be shocked. Besides, Jones didn’t look too cut up about it. Except. Yeah, she cared. Didn’t want to, maybe. But she did.
And didn’t that put them both in the same sinking boat.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he managed, polite words rusty from disuse. She shook her head; she didn’t believe him. Like that mattered, he’d said his piece. “Where’s the girl?”
“Spider-man said you’d ask that. Probably a lot. She’s safe.”
And that about confirmed what he already suspected. “Jesus, he really doesn’t know.”
“Know what?" She waited a beat, then scowled. "Hey, tough guy. You any use to anyone?”
He turned his head away.
Her boot kicked out against his, just shy of painful. "Yeah, that's what I thought."
There might be another bit up later tonight, more likely tomorrow. We're hitting the point where I can probably tie this up neatly in another couple of chapters or so, or keep on keeping on pretty much indefinitely with the bigger plot that's playing in the background. Or, close this fic off and make a series. Decisions!
Chapter 9: Chapter 8
Aaaaugh, sorry for the delay!
Yoo-hoo. Hi! Yes, I’m talking to you. You! The one reading this right now.
Oh-em-gee, is that a Kardashian behind you?
Made you look.
Seriously? Not even a little?
Okay, you know what, fine . This was just a heads up anyway: I’m planning on killing a whole mess of bad guys. So, so many bad guys.
You might want to watch out for that.
They took my girl.
“Uhm. I think Spider-man will be back soon. So.” Ned lowered the cookies and looked between the two adults who had burst into the apartment. “We’re good here. You can - you can both go. We’ll be fine.”
As the man- Ned blinked.
That was Luke Cage . Oh man-oh man-oh man, Pete was going to be so mad he missed this.
As Luke Cage strode closer, the face plate on the helmet dropped; Ned slumped. “Oh, you’re really here. Spider-man said sometimes the suits are empty. Hi, Ms Potts.”
Ellie, hand tightly grasping his own, stared up in saucer-eyed silence. She looked caught somewhere between fear and hero worship. He could relate.
There was a quiet cough from the door.
Ned shuffled a half step back into the kitchen, keeping Ellie carefully behind him. He was developing kind of a sense about these things now.
“Hi.” Another man and woman, these in black BDUs, stood just inside the apartment doorway. Both held their hands carefully away from their bodies. The woman had a tentative smile, the man was looking at Ellie with an expression that Ned couldn’t quite parse.
“I’m Daisy,” the woman said, as Ms Potts raised her blaster again. “Maybe you heard me on the radio with your fiancé. This is my partner, Mack. Our vote’s for white orchids, by the way.”
Mack nodded. “Hey.”
“We’ve been following Mr Cage,” Daisy said, with a mildly apologetic glance in his direction. “We just wanted to talk to- to Ellie.”
Mr Cage took two more steps forward, planting himself directly in front of Ellie and Ned with arms crossed. “Yeah. I’ll discuss that with my clients.”
It was very possible, Ned thought, that nothing in his life would ever be as cool as this moment. He’d peaked.
Worth it .
Ms Potts looked between the two factions, each shifting as they began to square off. Her visor dropped again and and she stepped between them with a palm raised in each direction. She turned her head to look at Daisy and Mack. “Spider-man, Ms Jones and another associate will be arriving in a few minutes. I suggest we table this, as well as any conversations involving wedding planning, until they arrive. Agreed?”
Daisy gave a short nod, but Mack was already moving. He took a knee to bring him down to Elie’s level, finding her gaze through the press of bodies between them.. “Hey,” he said, expression pensive, but tone soft. “Do you remember us?”
Ned looked down at Ellie, saw her waver.
Daisy edged a little closer. “We’re your friends,” she pressed.
Ellie began to scream.
The scream rose.
The truck screeched to a halt. Jessica flung out a hand to stop herself tumbling. Castle cursed as he tried, and failed, to do the same.
Jessica got her feet under her and scuttled ungracefully to the compartment window. She slid it to the one side; the shotgun seat was conspicuously empty. “What the hell?”
“We’re here.” Colleen pulled the keys, then gestured at the abandoned-looking apartment block they were parked beside. “Spider-man bolted.”
Jessica looked back over her shoulder and shook her head in the face of Castle’s suddenly speculative expression. “Try anything, I’ll put you down and I won’t feel bad about it. Say you hear me.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He settled back, looking more amused than annoyed. “I hear you.”
So much for laying low; at least it was still the middle of the night. “Why’d he bail?”
Ned did the only thing he could think of: he pulled Ellie into his arms and shouted to be heard over the deafening shriek. “It’s okay! That’s Luke Cage and Pepper Potts - they’re heroes! They won’t let anyone hurt you!”
The crescendo peaked and fell, until it was submerged completely by hiccoughing sniffles. Ned swallowed hard, then surreptitiously checked to see if his ears were bleeding. They weren’t. So. Cool. “Wow.”
“Anyone call for a friendly, neighborhood Spider-man?”
There was a flicker in his peripheral vision and then Peter - Spider-man - was landing neatly crouched next to Mr Cage. To Ned’s increasingly more experienced eye, he looked more than a little singed and there was a tear in the suit. He smelled like smoke; his voice was hoarse.
He’d been worse.
Ned pulled Ellie closer still and sidled behind him; Ellie seemed more than happy to go.
Ms Potts started forward, raising a hand. “P-”
“You mean Spider-man ?” Ned interjected quickly. “Yeah, sometimes I drop the ‘p’ as well. Pider-man. Better. If you’re scared of spiders. Which I’m not. But I like pie.”
There was a long silence, not least of which came from Peter, looking over his shoulder. Somehow his mask perfectly expressed his feelings on the matter. “You guys okay?” he asked, somehow barely sounding horrified at all.
“We’re good. I think. Ellie?”
“We’re okay.” She sidled closer still, glaring towards Daisy and Mack. “I don’t like them.”
“We’re not here to hurt anyone,” Mack said, as he rose. He sounded tired, Ned thought. And Daisy's expression was pinched with disappointment. “There’s a lot you don’t know.”
“Tony, I have this covered. Go talk to Ross.” Ms Potts was standing, head bowed. Ned had thought she was undecided, but her gaze sharpened as she looked up and she nodded, tapping a finger to the side of the helmet. Not hesitating. Listening. “We know more than you think,” she said crisply, and moved to stand at Peter’s other side.
Ned, personally, had never felt safer. From Ellie’s drying tears, she was feeling better about the whole thing too.
“S.H.I.E.L.D. is working with Ross,” Ms Potts said flatly.
Daisy shook her head firmly. “S.H.I.E.L.D. really, really isn’t,” she said, tone disgusted. “We became aware of his activities through an … associate. A friend. She went missing.” Her mouth tightened and she glanced at Mack.
He shrugged. “We thought Ellie might … know where she is.”
“I had a friend,” Jessica said from the doorway. “He could tell when people were lying. Pretty sure his services would not be required.”
She pushed Castle, stumbling, into the room ahead of her and followed at an easy pace. “Want to try again?”
“What do you want, Stark?” Ross, hands behind his back, stood ramrod straight before the bank of security monitors. It was almost four in the morning and the guy hadn’t shown any sign of fatigue at all. Despite himself, Tony was impressed.
“World peace,” Tony said as he wandered into the control room, Rhodey on his six. “An end to hunger. Two-point-four puppies for every child. I’m not unreasonable, though. Right now, I’ll settle for answers.”
Ross turned with a scowl. “I have no idea-”
“Yeah. No.” Tony held up a hand. “We’re skipping denial and going straight to anger. Here’s the thing: you should have just let me go help Spider-man. Not only because it was the right thing to do, but because if you had, I wouldn’t have had time to do a little digging.
“Hey, here’s some good news: Elle Iwamura isn’t missing. Mostly because Elle Iwamura doesn’t exist. Michiko Teller, on the other hand, is alive, and well, and currently studying classics in San Francisco. Took a while to find her from that grainy photo doing the rounds: she looks a little different.”
Tony tapped a button on his phone and brought up a holo-display that flickered through photo after photo, chronicling the life of a young girl as she became a young woman. “I called her parents - Paul and Emily? Lovely couple. Didn’t even mind being woken and asked a few searching questions at three in the morning.”
A muscle in Ross’ cheek twitched.
“Uh huh. Emily teaches third grade, Paul’s a janitor. You’d think he’s an open book, right? But the details of his employer are a little thin on the ground. Any comments? Questions? We’re getting to the good part.”
“You’re wildly outside your clearance level and you can be damn sure I’ll be reporting this.”
“I was hoping for a ‘how in the world?!’” Tony turned, disappointed, to Rhodey. “I never get a ‘how in the world?!’”
“That’s because you’re not in a cartoon,” Rhodey pointed out. “And because You’re Tony Stark. No one wants to know how you do what you do. It’s like using a blacklight at a motel.”
“Thanks for that. Where were we? Right. Secret government installations.” Tony began to scroll through a very different series of images. “Sydney, K. Smerdyakov, D. Khan, K. Darkhölme, R. Names ring a bell? No? Wow. Okay. How about Carly-”
“Get Stryker on the line,” Ross snapped at his aide. “Now.”
“FRIDAY, get Stryker off the line,” Tony asked, pleasantly. “Now? Keep his number handy, though. Maybe we can chat later.”
“On it, boss.”
Rhodey stepped forward. “You made another raft, that it? Somewhere out there in the middle of nowhere. And you just started throwing people in it?
“This isn’t what the Accords are for. Some of them are dangerous - should be in prison - I’ll give you that, but with due process!”
“Some of them,” Tony interjected. “Sure. Kamala Khan, on the other hand, is a high school student. When she isn’t running around saving lives, she’s a highly respected writer. In certain circles. I’m told.” He scrolled through the data pad and shook his head, muttering. “SlothBaby? She’ll regret that when she’s forty. And, more importantly, why doesn’t she write about me ?”
Ross ignored him, focussing on making his case to Rhodey. “Of course it’s what the Accords are for. My God, do you know how dangerous those people are? The ones Stark listed alone - they can appear as, mimic, whomever they choose! The implications for security, for the nation itself , are terrifying.
“There was a breakout,” he admitted. “Involving several of the names on that list. We don’t know why one of them chose to take the appearance of a small child, but surely that only illustrates how dangerous they are! We needed a full Registration Act. And you know I’m right, Colonel Rhodes.”
Rhodey shook his head. “They’re people, Ross. And if you think we won’t take this-”
“Take it where?” Ross raised his chin, expression hardening. “This comes from the highest levels - this is DSD.”
Tony paused. “So, to be clear? This is nothing to do with the Accords. This is the Registration Act, or whatever you called it?”
Ross blinked. “The Accords aren’t-”
“Thank you, Secretary Ross.” Tony pointed towards the door. “Get the hell out of my facility and take your jackboots with you. If you aren’t acting under the auspices of the Accords, you have zero authority in this facility or over any actions I may choose to undertake as a private citizen. We’re done. Don’t let the turrets hit you on the way out. Or do. That’s fine too.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Ross said, crossing his arms firmly.
That gave Tony a moment’s pause. Ross didn’t look like a man trying to prove a point, or assert his authority. He looked… huh.
“Really.” Tony turned his attention to the monitors Ross had been studying. “What’s so bad out there you’d rather be here? Think they’re coming for you, Ross? Think maybe they’re right to?”
Ross’ expression fissured, the first real crack in his composure Tony had ever witnessed. It was strangely disquieting. “You have no idea what it takes to protect this country,” he said, subdued.
“Maybe.” Tony could acknowledge that. He turned his head again. “Colonel Rhodes? Think you could pass a one-oh-one on protecting this great nation?”
“I consider myself more of an educator.” Rhodey stepped forward after a glance at the still-empty monitors. “You came here because it’s a fortress.”
“You’ll never see them coming,” Ross said. “They’re ghosts. Hell, for all I know, either one of you could be a damn shifter.”
Tony caught movement in the feed at the front gate. A red blur in extreme closeup as someone - something - peeked quickly into the camera.
A moment later, a red-costumed man dropped into frame. He looked like he was trying to wave cheerfully at any viewers, but was slightly hampered by the pistol in each hand. And by the way he had an arm hooked around the neck of one Ross’ security detail.
“O -- kay?” Tony looked askance at Rhodey, who shook his head.
“Wade Wilson,” Ross supplied, looking torn between irritation and genuine concern. “Deadpool. I’m not your problem now, Stark. He is.”
Tony dropped from above, letting the thrusters cut out at fifty feet to give his impact a little more weight. “Hi,” he said, as he stood, ignoring the delighted squeal and crescent-shaped eyes of Wilson’s mask. “You can let him go now.”
“Who?” Wilson followed Tony’s gaze to the weakly struggling man in his grip. “This guy? Naw, we’re buds.”
“He’s blue,” Tony pointed out. “I don’t think he wants to be friends.”
“I kicked his ass, he’s bound to be a little down - oh, you mean literally.” Wilson held the agent out at arm’s length, fingers firmly wrapped around his throat. He surveyed him critically. “Wow, that is not a good color on you, man. You’re more of an autumn.”
“Let him go,” Tony said, and raised a hand, palm out. “Now.”
The agent fell aside as Wilson grabbed Tony’s extended gauntlet with both hands and tried to shake it enthusiastically; the armor didn’t move. “I’m a huge fan. Hugest fan. Especially of your early work. ‘Bigger tits,’ amiright?! Just throw Ross my way, and I’ll be out of your luxuriously soft, touchable-looking hair.”
“I can’t believe I’m being forced to say this, and don’t think it won’t haunt me at night, but Secretary Ross is under my protection.” Tony pulled his hand back. “What do you want with him?”
“Like I said, he took my girl.”
“You didn’t say that.”
The mask blinked. “You sure? Like, back in chapter eight? Maybe nine?”
“Start at chapter one,” Tony suggested after a beat. “Who’s ‘your girl?’”
“I am so glad you asked.” Wilson pulled a leather wallet from the grubby depths of his pocket, ignoring the detritus that flew out with it. Including an unwrapped, half eaten Twinkie and several vintage subway tokens. He flipped it open, and held it up proudly. “Here’s my little Princess.”
“She’s not your little anything,” Tony said, staring at a decade-old photo of Michiko Teller. “And that’s not your wallet.” He snatched it away and flipped to show a driver’s license in the other compartment. “It’s Paul Teller’s.”
“Huh. Weird. Oh, here we go.” Wilson held up a significantly more disturbing collection of leather, rubber bands, gum and condom wrappers, which might have been a wallet in another life. From it, he shook out a handful of smeared and crusty photos of a familiar-looking woman in various states of undress, staring at the camera with expressions ranging from barely faked annoyance to very real love.
“This is Vanessa on Valentine’s Day,” Wade gushed. “Oh, and here’s last International Woman- actually, you don’t need to see that.”
“Vanessa Carlysle,” Tony said, as FRIDAY displayed her record from files he’d pulled from the hidden installation’s servers.
“I know what you’re wondering, and no, she doesn’t do children’s parties.” Wilson shook his head. “I do. On request. Sometimes not on request. It’s the look on their little faces I love the most.”
Tony really wished the armor allowed him to massage his temples. He made a mental note to build that into the next iteration. “She can change her appearance at a cellular level.”
“Which was a shock to both of us, I tell you what. Golly. I can’t begin to think what good, wholesome fun we’ll have with that one.”
“So, what? She got snatched, you tracked her down. How?”
Wilson’s head tilted fractionally to the side. “How do you think?”
Something in Wilson’s body language made it clear the man wasn’t smiling anymore and that was a lot more unnerving that Tony had anticipated; he gained a grudging appreciation of why Ross had chosen the better part of valor.
“Okay,” he said, deciding not to follow that line of enquiry. “You found the installation, you got in with Teller’s ID card, you busted your girlfriend out. Did you break the others out too?”
“Who can say?” Wilson shrugged easily; the clown was back. “Screaming, gunfire, explosions - I was distracted.”
“I’ve known you for the three most regrettable minutes of my life - including all the ones spent in a cave - and I can already tell screaming, gunfire and explosions don’t distract you. Squirrels, maybe. How did she end up looking like Teller’s kid?”
“ They ,” Wilson stage whispered, then held up his hands apologetically. “Sorry, sorry. I didn’t want to interrupt - you were doing great. They. Go.”
“All of them,” Tony said. “They all changed to look like a ten year old ?”
“Some guy called Smerdy. Smernov? He pointed out as how most people hesitate before pulling the trigger on a kid, even shadowy government lackeys. That was the only picture I had for them to copy. And it was going great, until some asshole threw a stun grenade at us, because apparently projectiles don’t count.
“So everyone’s on everyone. Everyone is everyone: there’s kids, some blue chick, suspiciously flesh-colored filing cabinets. Vanessa got really tall. Then tiny . Then she turned into Blue and attacked her - that was a good time. We laughed. We cried. Some of us may have soiled ourselves, just a little bit.
“Then this Sydney guy manages to get a hand on her, and she turns into a puddle of goo. Literally. I mean, they say that? But, seriously. And my mother always said goo wasn’t for marrying, so you can totally imagine my distress.”
“Vanessa doesn’t just change her appearance,” Tony said, grimly. “She can mimic other enhanced people’s powers. Kicks in on touch. She was a shape changer absorbing the abilities of other shape changers. Probably couldn’t control it.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s what I just said? Anyhoo, whole mess of screaming. It was mostly me. I’m man enough to admit it. Then I’m carrying my best goo out in a bucket, everyone’s scattered. Total clusterfuck.
“Something explodes, I’m flying without wings. And legs. Just me and my goo - romantic as balls, right? My goooo, talkin’ ‘bout my gooo-oooo. My goo !”
“This is hell, isn’t it? I actually died, and I went to hell, and somehow this is Rhodey’s fault.”
“Anyway, I woke up and Vanessa is the kid again - not great, but better than goo - except she has no idea who I am, or who she is. We hightailed into the city, but that Ross guy, he’s a persistent fuck. I left Vanessa at a shelter with a fake name and played diversion.”
“That was weeks ago, so I’m guessing it didn’t work out great for you.”
“Did you know they’re not even bothering to rendition outside the States anymore? Budget cuts everywhere, man. On the plus side, when I finally carved my way out of there, I only had to thumb a ride from Iowa. You meet just lovely people out there, on the open road.”
In the rising sea of confusion, a thought bobbed to the surface. “How did you know it was her?” Off the mask’s quizzical expression, Tony shrugged. “The kid who was there when you woke up, was she definitely the same one you took out of the installation? Another shifter could have taken her place, used you to protect them.”
Wilson froze for a beat. “Well. Shit.” He crossed his arms and continued almost peevishly. “That’s going to keep me up at night. That’s okay though, the infomercial programming has really stepped up its game. Hector’s evil twin has married not one, not two, but three-”
“Enough.” Tony blasted the ground in front of Wilson’s feet.
“Was that necessary?”
“Yes. Here’s the thing: killing Ross won’t help you, he’s playing the part of government stooge in this particular shit show. The guy you want is called Stryker. You could take him out, but I have serious doubts he’ll be inclined to do anything about Vanessa’s condition. Your best bet is-”
“The Avengers?! Gasp!” Wilson’s hands framed his face while his mouth formed a perfect ‘o.’ “I’m not even wearing my good utility belt!”
“No, because any one of them would crush you within seconds just to get you to shut up. You get me and my rapidly diminishing good will.”
“Team up! I’m so psyched right now. I’ll just go kill Ross and-”
“No one dies.” Tony gently boosted his thrusters, hovering in Wilson’s way. “I’ll do what I can to help Vanessa if no one dies. That’s the deal.”
Wilson turned away, muttering; it took Tony a moment to realize he was arguing with himself. In different voices. One of them had a lisp.
“Okay.” Wilson spun back around. “Deal. We go to the shelter.”
Tony touched down again. “Haven’t been watching the news lately, huh?”
Castle stared intently at the kid; Jessica stared intently at Castle. He didn’t look like he was about to make a play, but she was willing to bet that was because he’d decided he didn’t need to, and not because it would have been suicidally insane.
Everyone and their damn aunt - literally - knew more than she did. The last time she hadn’t pushed hard for answers, hadn’t forced everything out into the light, people had died. Wasn’t happening again.
Luke, Peter and a suit of armor - Pepper Potts, she guessed - were standing in front of a small girl and a larger boy about Peter’s age: Ellie and Ned. Another man and woman - S.H.I.E.L.D. for sure - were in the center of the room, standing shoulder to shoulder with identically cautious expressions.
Behind her, Colleen quietly shut the apartment door.
“Cards on the table,” Jessica said into the silence. ”Right now. And I don’t give a fu- uudge about ‘classified.’” She rounded on Castle. “We’re starting with you, gun nut.”
“Guy I owed lost a prisoner. That ain’t him.” Castle shrugged, looking bored. “I’m done here.”
“Sit your ass down.” She held up a forewarning finger as Castle’s mouth began to open. “And if you ‘yes ma’am’ me again, I’ll put a boot up so far up it you’ll-”
There was a pointed cough from the armor, and deeper but no less disapproving hum from Luke.
“Come on! What?” Jessica scowled. “I said ass!”
A quiet giggle came from behind Spider-man.
It was less important than the complete lack of reaction to Castle’s statement; apparently they were entering the twilight zone, which made her next targets clear. “Okay, moving along to the Seriously Hilariously Incompetent Espionage Loving D-uckheads.”
“Yeah, we actually changed that back in the nineties,” Daisy said, then glanced at Mack. He shook his head. “Look, we don’t have the authority to tell you anything,” she temporized. “Let me phone home and maybe I can get someone on the line who does.”
“No one’s stopping you,” Jessica pointed out.
“Someone’s jamming communications.” Daisy shifted warily as she looked towards Potts. “It’s not you?”
“It’s not me,” Pepper confirmed, after a moment. “Some kind of signal suppression, FRIDAY can’t identify it.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Jessica saw Spider-man tense with a full body shiver. Castle pulled himself from a disinterested slouch into full alertness in a heartbeat. “He does that, we got incoming.”
“Yeah, thanks - I figured that one out already.” Jessica crossed to the window as Colleen swung to face the door, sword already half drawn from its sheath. “Where they coming from, kid?”
The sky was lightening into a false dawn, but she couldn’t see jack.
Spider-man’s head twitched to the side and his fingers extended, like he was feeling for vibrations on an invisible web. “Kind of. Everywhere,” he said, moving closer to the center of the room. “But it’s not … we’ve got a few minutes. Uhm. Can anyone else hear helicopters? Plural. More than one helicopter?”
Pepper stepped forward. “I guarantee I’m faster than anything they have. I’ll fly Ellie and Ned to Stark Tower. Meet us there.”
The female S.H.I.E.L.D. agent - the one from the radio, Jessica guessed - shook her head. “Stark Tower’s been stripped of its defences, remember? And our quinjet’s closer. It’s-”
“On the roof of the shelter,” the room chorused, in varying degrees of mockery.
Luke crouched next to Ellie, muttering something in her ear that made her giggle again.
“Rand Enterprises,” Colleen suggested, into the lull.
Jessica considered it. They had security, a lot of them were ex-forces. It had been heavy before and now it probably qualified as a small private army.
And Danny with typical, unthinking, Rand generosity, had made it clear that the building was open to Jessica and Luke any time, day or night. When he’d said it, Jessica had made some flat, sarcastic comment - she assumed, she’d been drunk, so fucked if she remembered - but now it might be the answer to a hell of a problem.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “It’s secure, it’s public, and it’s got nothing to do with the Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. or any other crap. Neutral ground.”
“Except for Rand being the Immortal Iron Fist,” the other agent snapped. “We’re not a hundred percent clear what that is, but it doesn’t sound that neutral to me.”
Fighting the increasing urge to move-move-move , Peter watched them argue. The agents and Ms Potts. Ms Jones, and Ms Wing, and Luke freaking Cage . He was pretty sure there weren’t enough paper routes in the world to pay for their help at this point.
He was being stared at. Castle.
“I see you thinking, Bug,” Castle murmured. “Choosing a window. It’s dark enough, you might make it. Not carrying them, though.” He nodded at Ned and Ellie, still watching the adults with open mouths.
Peter nodded; he’d already figured that one out.
“They’re right: go to ground, no one’s winning a fight in here. Cage draws fire, the suit goes the other way with the kids. Then you go. Go fast, don’t engage, you’re gone before they even know you’re there.”
“I’m not going to run away, I started this.”
“How you figure that?” Castle shook his head. ”The girl? You don’t even know who she is.”
Peter watched as Ellie laughed again at whatever Ned and Mr Cage were saying. “She likes ponies and Star Wars,” he said. “She’s really good at drawing, and when she wants to, she can sound like birds. She’s my friend.”
“You’re her friend, she might not be yours,” Castle ground out. “You can’t trust anyone, Bug. And no one has a God-given right to a second chance.”
“Yeah. They do. Or was I meant to leave you back in the subway for your amazing exploding door trick?”
Castle frowned; he looked more resigned than angry at Peter's response. “Maybe you should have,” he muttered.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Ned said, appearing at his elbow as Castle turned away. “It’s a really bad idea.”
Which Peter would have been annoyed by, except he was totally right.
“It’s a great idea,” he said anyway. “I’ve never had a better plan.”
“That’s actually true.” Now Ned looked actively queasy. “How are we not dead?”
Peter could hear movement below. Ms Potts had stiffened; FRIDAY was probably telling her the same thing.
He stared at Ellie as she ran to pick up a plushie kitten from the pile on her makeshift bed. Maybe this was some con; maybe it wasn’t. And it didn’t matter, he reasoned. Because he wouldn’t let anyone get taken against their will, whoever they were.
Which made this the simplest decision in the world.
“They know it’s me and Ellie,” he said, loudly enough for the others to hear. “Maybe they don’t know about the rest of you. If I go, they’ll follow me, especially if they think Ellie's with me. Then, Ms Potts, if you fly the other way, no one will even be shooting - way safer. And there’ll be way less people for everyone else to get through. They may not even come up here. Tactics, right?”
Despite himself, he glanced at Castle, who looked back with a faint frown.
“No!” Ellie cried, tears beginning to fall again. “You won’t come back!”
“Yeah, so, it turns out a small child has more sense than you.” Jessica shook her head. “Don’t even move. Luke, watch him?”
Luke’s hand dropped on Peter’s shoulder and Peter was never, ever washing that shoulder again.
Peter looked up as apologetically as he could. “Sorry, Mr Cage.”
“Nothing to be sorry for, kid.”
“I’m really glad you feel that way.” He brushed Luke’s hand away and leapt for the open window, pulling a bundle of blankets into his arms as he went. A chorus of yells followed him; he was already gone.
We're closing in on nearly done! Maybe another part out this week, but more likely all the remaining parts next weekend.
Thank you so, so much again everyone who's reading and kudosing and taking the time to comment, you're all the awesome and pretty much made my month.
“Hey, hon. Bee- try-g to -each you. How’s it -oing?”
The comms crackled with interference, but the voice was intelligible. Pepper stepped away from the crowd gathered at the window. “Tony? Oh, thank God. Homeland is storming the building! Does this happen to you? Am I doing something wrong? Should I try and talk to them?”
“It’s the Department of Domestic Security and Defense. Way more funding, way less oversight and, Pep, I promise they are not interested in a calm exchange of opinions. I’m inbound. Three minutes.”
“No, listen - Peter’s gone: he tried to draw some of them away. Two of the helicopters followed him. And I think he must have taken out a communication jammer, because I couldn’t reach you before, but-”
“-but he’s on his own. Can you get out of there?” Tony asked, after a beat.
“Everyone else sounds confident they can.” Pepper glanced at Jessica, who nodded. “If you can give me cover, I’ll fly Ellie and Ned out to the Rand offices.”
“Did I mention I’m bringing company? Sorry, honey. I know I should have told you sooner. There’ll be enough pot roast for everyone, right?”
Pepper ignored the side commentary, sticking to the salient - and encouraging - point. “Rhodey’s with you?”
“Rhodey’s supervising Ross’ leaving party. This guy is the exact opposite of Rhodey. The anti-Rhodey, if you will. But he knows Ellie, and hopefully Ellie will know him. Between us, I’m pretty sure we can give you a window. Love you.”
The comms hissed with static as the jammer came back online. ”I wasn’t talking to you,” she heard, before they cut out with a sharp whine.
“Okay, Spider-man’s plan worked.” Daisy said as Pepper turned back. “Now what?”
“Can we not call that a plan?” Luke glared at the open window as if it had personally offended him. “That was sure as hell not a plan.”
“Tony’s coming,” Pepper interjected. “With an ‘associate.’ Apparently. They’re going to help me get the children out, then Tony will find Spider-man and his associate will help you get out of the building.” She knelt to pull Ellie into her arms, then held a hand out to Ned.
Jessica caught her shoulder as she stood, Pepper could feel the strength of her grip even against the hydraulics of the armor. “You take those kids anywhere but Rand and we’ll have a problem.”
Pepper nodded shortly and didn’t reply; the situation was tense enough. She’d have the opportunity later. She hoped.
“What about S.H.I.E.L.D.?” Colleen asked. “They must be able to do something.”
“We have no direct channels with the DSD, and there’s no extraction plan for non S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel in this kind of scenario.” Mack grimaced, no happier than anyone else.
“But technically our shift ended, what?” Daisy looked at Mack. “Nine hours ago?”
“At least,” Mack agreed.
“At least nine hours ago.” She shrugged. “So maybe we’ll hang around.”
“Two guns. One sword. Me and Jess.” Luke rolled his shoulders . “Stark takes out that last helicopter, I like our odds.”
“Three guns,” Castle said, from the doorway.
“Okay,” Jessica said, as Mack gave a sharp, “ no. ”
He stared at her, and jabbed his finger towards Castle. “You want to arm that maniac?”
“He’ll take a gun from the first guy he sees out there anyway,” she pointed out, answering Mack, but looking thoughtfully at Castle. “Besides, he wants to shoot them, not us.”
Castle nodded, fractionally. “I got no problem with you.”
Looking torn, and ignoring Mack’s disapproval, Daisy handed over her pistol. “Disable, don’t kill,” she instructed. “Unless you want to spend the rest of your life in S.H.I.E.L.D. containment. I don’t recommend it.”
Castle took the gun automatically, but frowned. It wasn’t the threat he was concerned about, Pepper realized after a moment. Just that the agent had no weapon.“You got a backup piece?”
“I’m good.” Daisy flexed her fingers and the pressure of something rippled across the room. It rustled peeling wallpaper, and blew spider webs from dusty corners.
“You’re one of them,” Castle said, and checked the clip.
“That a problem?”
“No.” He shook his head with a faint twitch of his lips that might have been smile. “It is not.”
Over the sound of the circling helicopter, Pepper heard the first faint strains of an electric guitar and more bass than anyone wanted to deal with at five in the morning.
AC/DC’s biggest fan had arrived.
Here’s the question we have to ask ourselves: how brave are we willing to be?
Elbow resting on her desk, chin resting on her palm, Karen considered the line. She deleted it.
Here’s the question we have to ask ourselves: how afraid are we willing to let them make us?
Wade watched the city pass under his feet in gleeful fascination, but looked up when they came within range of the JetRanger. “ You can drop me here, ” he shouted up, flexing his fingers experimentally, trying to free himself from Stark’s grip on his wrists.
“‘Here’ is a helicopter, ” Stark yelled down, fingers tightening.
“Right, what was I thinking - go a little higher? ”
“Or - thought- I take the helicopter? ”
Wade considered that for the moment. Of course, it was a team up: he could share. “Flip you for it? ”
“I’m taking the helicopter.” Stark shouted as he swooped them towards the street.
“Fine, but I get two next time!”
“No killing,” Stark yelled, extra loud, and then Wade was falling.
He rolled as he hit the road, came up running from momentum alone, and dove with the grace of a heavily armed ballerina behind the cover of sedan.
He pulled both pistols from their holsters and headed towards a souped up Rhino that needed a little more work.
Gaping hole here.
Throw body there.
You know, it could be home-y.
Against his better judgement, Tony left Wilson to deal with the ground support and turned sharply back towards the helicopter circling the top floor of the apartment building. Any number of scenarios to bring it down came to mind, but all of them ended with the buildings either side with significantly more rotors in them than before. Not to mention the completely insane locals who were watching from windows or - worse - alleys and rooftops, like this was some kind of spectator sport.
“FRIDAY, can we disable it?”
A selection of images and instructional videos appeared in his HUD.
Tony studied the first. “Let me rephrase. Can we safely disable it?”
The images disappeared. “No, boss.”
“Then we’ll have to give them something else to worry about.” He adjusted the thrusters vertically and flew directly into the helicopter’s path. The pilot jerked hard on the stick, pulling the helicopter back and away from the apartment block at an angle that would take several seconds to recover from.
Glass shattered behind him. He turned to see shards of broken window falling into the street below, then the Rescue prototype - Pepper - flew out, two figures wrapped in blankets securely in its arms. It headed straight for Manhattan.
“That’s my girl,” he murmured proudly, then twisted back as something dinged off his armor.
The helicopter had righted itself and, unable to maneuver around him, was trying to go through him. With a little help from mounted machine guns. Well, those he could absolutely disable. Two precisely placed blasts and they were falling away.
He flung himself to the side as it finally tried ramming him, finally letting the helicopter follow in Pepper’s wake. She was long gone. He flew in the window Pepper had exited. No one was in the apartment.
They had it handled, he reasoned. Hell, any two of them had it handled.
Time to find the kid.
“I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can,” Peter muttered as he swung back towards the shelter, the slightly unwieldy blanket-draped pillow under one arm and the other hand gripping hard to webbing. It was almost impossible to figure out where he should be dodging to between one moment and the next, danger flaring on every side of his senses, all around, above and below.
The helicopters abruptly wheeled away; they’d figured out Ellie wasn’t with him.
He dropped the bedding.
The shelter was a few blocks away - closer than Rand - a repurposed office building, eight stories high, with a roof that was home to some weirdly friendly pigeons and, he hoped, a few helpful Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. They were definitely the good guys now, right?
Pretty sure they were the good guys.
Daisy and Mack hadn’t been laughing maniacally. That he’d noticed.
As he spun around the side of a building - and narrowly avoided a can of dog food, thrown by an opportunistic Bugle reader - it occurred to him that he should probably have webbed his leg a little tighter. Whatever he’d been hit by on the way out of the apartment had gone through the suit, but the material had taken most of the damage.
It hadn’t seemed that bad, but maybe playing tag with helicopters right after hadn’t been a great plan. The bullet was still in there, he could feel it every time the muscle flexed. But that was good, right? Pretty sure that was good. Or. No. Bad. Except no one should take the bullet out, that he did know. Ned told him one time.
Man, he better have made it.
If Ned got hurt, if Ellie got hurt, Peter would-
He didn’t know.
Maybe he’d do nothing, because wow, actually, now he saw it, that was a lot of blood.
Because he’d been freaking shot.
Fleetingly he wondered if he was in shock, but then decided it didn’t matter, because May was going to kill him. Wanted, kidnapped, drugged and shot all on the same day was a new and terrible, terrible record. Forget grounded times infinity, this was a whole new ballgame.
Also, thinking about it, this was probably not what Mr Stark had meant when he’d told Peter not to escalate.
“Peter, you should seek medical attention at the earliest opportunity.”
“Hey, Karen. Yeah,” Peter acknowledged, as he finally-finally-finally dropped onto the roof of the shelter. He managed to stay standing for a moment, but then the world tilted and when it stopped, he wasn’t standing any more. “Yeah,” he said again. “I’ll get on that.”
There was a buzzing in his ears, he realised. Didn’t know how long it had been going on. He tried to raise a hand to tap the mic, but his hand didn’t seem to want to cooperate.
Right. Freaking shot.
“Ned’s okay? Ellie’s okay?”
“They are located three blocks south of Rand Enterprises and moving rapidly. However, in your vicinity, police have cordoned off several blocks in all directions, with an NYPD helicopter within two-hundred and fifty meters. Additionally-”
“Additionally?” He asked, wondering with horror how it got worse than that. Maybe May had arrived.
“I can’t hear whoever you’re talking to, but I can hazard a guess how this conversation’s going,” said a man, who as far as Peter was concerned, had materialized from thin air to crouch at his side. “So, additionally, a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents has appeared out of nowhere, and have some searching questions.”
Peter blinked up. “You’re the good guys, right?”
“We like to think so.”
“Mack and Daisy are okay. Ellie’s not who you’re looking for. And. Don’t take off the mask, okay?”
“Hey. Hey, you with me? Ah, man. His suit’s got a heck of a hole in it.”
Vaguely aware of a sudden rush of activity, Peter went ahead and took a nap.
Somewhere below, boots thudded up stairs. Orders were barked into radios.
Luke cracked his neck, gestured for the others to stay back, and strode down the dark hallway towards a bank of long-dead elevators and gloomy, graffitied stairwell. Daisy drew even after a moment, walking briskly to keep pace. “How indestructible are you?”
As she seemed to be asking out of more than curiosity, Luke kept his answer to the point. “Just the skin.”
“Then stay behind me.” Her smile was thin-lipped and confident. “I got this one.”
He looked at her doubtfully, but stepped back as the first pair of DSD agents appeared from the stairwell. Daisy held up her hands as she edged forward. Several more agents, all fully geared up, appeared. “Don’t shoot, okay?” Her voice trembled. “This is a huge misunderstanding.”
Luke could feel Jessica and Colleen behind him, shifting from foot to foot. Hating this about as much as he did. At his side, Mack was watchful, but calm. That was about the only reason Luke hadn’t rushed forward already.
A seven-man wedge advanced up the hall. “On the ground,” the first demanded, punctuating with a jab of his barrel. “Now!”
Daisy stopped. “Yeah,” she agreed.
She pulled her fists tight into her chest and then flung them into the air before her with a shout of effort. The floor rippled under the force, the walls blew in, old plaster torn away as pure force blasted in a rolling wave down the hallway.
The floor bucked under the wedge as the quake hit, the men fell with shocked - terrified - yells.
Luke strode forward in its wake, as the dust fell around them, punching down with clinical precision.
At his side, Jessica did the same. “Lady, you must be hell on ten pin,” she said, as she knocked the last man out.
“They’re wearing body cams,” Mack reported. “We won’t get away with that again.”
“Pity. I was looking forward to losing the rest of my hearing.” Colleen ground her jaw as she tried to pressurize her ears.
“You’re welcome,” Daisy said, with a flat look.
“Potts said there were four fire teams, right?” Jessica stepped into the elevator foyer. “Come on, I got places to-”
A window shattered; she dropped.
One more part to go and it's largely written, I'm just neatening (for reals this time, I am not about to go on another 30k word fic equivalent of a road trip. Probably.)
Thank you so much again everyone who's encouraged this fic along!
She’d been punched, was Jessica’s first thought. By someone almost as strong as Luke. And then she heard gunfire crack above her head. She tried to stand, but the world moved sideways and she was on her back; she couldn’t breathe. Not the bullet, she realized. Weight. “Get off me!”
“No ma’am.” Castle’s hand urged her head closer to the floor and, as the shooting continued, she allowed it.
They’d been protected in the hallway, with apartments lining both sides. The little lobby in front of the elevators was lined with windows to the outside world: wide open to snipers. So much for Stark’s “associate.”
Castle rolled away, but before she could do the same, two hands lifted her and she found herself carried like a child in front of Luke, out of the line of fire.
Karma was a bitch; if she was lucky, no one was taking a picture.
Luke gently deposited her with the others, crouched in the thin line of cover below the windows. There was no clear route to the stairs and, even if Luke walked them there one by one, they had no idea what was waiting for them on the floor below. They were pinned, waiting for the first bright spark below to toss up a grenade.
Colleen’s hands pawed at her, Jessica tried to bat them away. “I’m okay. I’m fine. I’m- ow!”
“It grazed her ribs,” Colleen reported, after a few seconds of painful probing. “I don’t think any are broken.”
“You real sure?” Castle frowned. “That was high cal.”
“She’s tough,” Luke said. “Not like me. Kevlar tough, maybe.”
“The next person who talks about me like I’m not here goes out the window.” Jessica looked over the frame, but couldn’t see a damn thing. She dropped back quickly as another bullet thudded into the wall across the foyer. “Where’s the shooter?”
“Rooftop, ‘cross the street, on our eleven.” Castle stared expressionlessly back into the faces that turned his way. “It’s where I’d be,” he explained, in answer to the unasked question.
Colleen craned her head around Luke’s bulk to find Daisy. “If Luke gives you cover, can you reach them?”
Daisy shook her head. “I’d tear up everything in the way. Everything.” She looked speculative. “I could jump it.”
“And get shot to pieces half way across,” Mack growled. “Not happening.”
“Don’t even think about it, Jess,” Luke warned, quickly. “They’d take you out too.”
“I wasn’t,” Jess denied on reflex, but risked another quick peek to gauge the distance. She ducked back again as a bullet hit the frame. “I could throw you.”
“Huh,” Castle said, quietly, a moment before an incredibly loud, high-pitched squeal came from across the street. “Costume. Red and black. Stark’s back-up?”
Shoulders shrugged as they cautiously climbed to their feet and watched the world’s weirdest fight play out.
The sniper gave his all to take out the new guy: guns, knives and finally hand-to-hand. It didn’t seem like he should have had a problem. The new guy barely landed any hits at all, but he dodged at every turn, and in increasingly outlandish ways: parries and blocks became leap frogs and bullfighter spins, before finally hitting pirouettes.
Flawlessly executed, Jessica had to give him that.
When he did hit, it seemed to be accidental - or, at least, he jumped back guiltily every time, hands waving.
Eventually, the sniper snapped and rushed the screwball, who stepped neatly out the way road-runner style, allowing the man to run full speed into a vent. The sniper staggered back, the costume kicked him unceremoniously in the head.
Then turned, and noticed his audience with an overblown gesture of surprise. Like he hadn’t known they were watching the entire time. He waved and held two thumbs up. As an afterthought, he reached down to the unconscious sniper and held his thumb up too.
“Don’t know, don’t give a crap,” Jessica decided and, fingers pressed against her side, headed for the stairs.
Here’s the question we have to ask ourselves: how afraid are we willing to let them make us?
In the last twenty-four hours, a full cast of heroes and villains have appeared on the stage we gave them, under a director none of us have ever heard of. We’ve booed and we’ve cheered, exactly when prompted, and never once tried to look behind the curtain.
“Welcome.” The man smiled warmly down at Ned, then extended his hand towards Pepper, before dropping it as the logistics of shaking hands with a suit of armor became apparent.
“I’m Danny,” he said, turning back to Ned and nodding to another man, red-eyed and rumpled. “This is Franklin Nelson, from Hogarth, Chao and Benowitz. He’ll sue pretty much everyone who isn’t us. And that,” he jerked his thumb behind him, to a large number of stern faced men and women in BDUs, “is Rand Security. They’ll shoot pretty much everyone who isn’t us. You’re both safe here.”
“I’m Ned,” Ned managed, actually beginning to believe they might be. “And that’s Ms Potts. This is Ellie.”
Ellie nodded nervously, twisting her plushie spider in agitated hands.
“We’re friends of Spider-man,” Ned went on. “He’s going to meet us here. I’m sure he’s okay,” he said loudly, shaking his head back and forth behind Ellie’s back. “He probably stopped off for - for pancakes.”
“I know you’re lying,” Ellie said, voice reed-thin and anxious as she looked back up at him. “Don’t lie to me.”
“Okay. Sorry. Sorry. But he’s okay. I’d know if he wasn’t,” he tried, comfortingly, but couldn’t quite stop himself from going on. “Karen would tell me. Unless she couldn’t. But I’m sure she can.”
“You were both very brave,” Danny said encouragingly, in the wake of Ned’s floundering, then looked vaguely panicked. “I’m sure you do very well in school,” he finished helplessly.
Ms Potts smiled pleasantly, like the CEO of Stark Industries that Ned had seen on the news. “They’ve been awake all night,” she said. “And they’re probably hungry,” she added with a note of suggestion.
Ned shook his head, but Ellie nodded with enthusiasm.
“Great.” Danny grinned, relaxing and holding out his hand to her. “I have so many different kinds of cereal, you wouldn’t believe it. Want to come try them all?”
Ned wavered as Danny led Ellie towards the elevator. He should stay with her, but he wanted to stay with Ms Potts - find Peter.
“Tony’s looking for Peter,” Pepper said, translating his concern. “Stay with Ellie, keep her calm. I’ll stay too. Until Peter and Tony get here.”
“Is she really safe now?” Ned asked, wanting to make sure before he allowed himself to edge closer to the private freakout he’d been holding off since Peter had called the previous morning.
Mr Nelson gave a short laugh as he wandered over, hands in pockets. “There’s no one in New York she’s safer with than Danny Rand.” He nodded, off Ned’s dubious expression. “Yeah, I had a little trouble with that myself, but, seriously.”
No one was screaming for help.
No one was screaming in general.
Nothing was crushing him.
Nothing was on fire.
No one was yelling, “Peter Parker’s Spider-man!”
No one was throwing paper darts at his head to wake him up in homeroom. Again.
Peter blinked his eyes open; the mask’s visual receptors flexed and focused. Which meant it was still on, he registered a moment later. Okay. Good. The same couldn’t be said for the rest of his suit, he realised, as he raised his head to look down the length of his body.
He was wearing something between scrubs and pyjamas, and in some kind of white room with a tinted window and rounded everything. It wasn’t a cell, but it wasn’t exactly a hospital ward either.
There was an IV running into his arm, he craned his head back to look at the bag. Saline, maybe. Or sedative again - he felt kind of off. Probably the whole getting freaking shot thing, he reminded himself, then pushed the thought away and wedged it tight into the back of his mind, so he could have a meltdown at the appropriate time.
Because this? He told himself, firmly. This was not the appropriate time.
At a low beep, he turned his head the other way and saw a small monitor. It seemed to be tracking his heartbeat and dosage. As he watched, the heart rate was increasing. Chances were good it would bring someone in sooner rather than later.
He debated waiting for it to happen - they’d patched him up and kept his mask on: two ticks in the good guy column. But then the floor shuddered and he heard the muffled sound of - gunfire? Laser fire?
Definitely some kind of fire.
And - remembering that insistent buzz in his ear just before he’d, uh, napped - he had a sudden, very clear, picture of exactly what was going down.
Sitting was easy; standing was harder. His hurt leg kept folding, dumping him right back on the bed.
“Peter, you should not attempt to stand,” Karen warned. “You still require several hours of healing. Additionally, the IV you’re attempting to remove contains a mixture of antibiotics and saline, I highly recommend you leave it in.”
Peter pulled the IV line out on his second attempt.
Took a deep, steadying, breath.
At least, he reflected as he clung to the wall, Karen hadn’t been programmed to say “I told you so.”
“That’s Mr Stark outside, right?” He inched his way carefully towards the door, keeping his fingertips stuck to the wall. “I’m guessing if you could have called him, you would have. So the only way he’s going to stop is if I ask him. And the only way I can do that is to get out there.”
Karen was silent for a moment, then. “The door to this containment unit has a magnetic lock, I cannot generate a sufficient level of heat to de-magnetize it. However, the seal around the window is significantly less toughened - you may be able to break through.”
Peter crawled half way up the wall opposite the window, then turned to face it. He gathered his legs under him, took a breath, and launched himself hard at the weakest section, which Karen had helpfully highlighted in the HUD.
The window buckled, the steel and plastic around it cracking and falling away in shards. He gathered himself again, and shoved. It fell the rest of the way without much protest, but with a ringing clatter that seemed to echo forever.
“Huh.” He crawled out into what seemed to be some kind of huge science lab-stroke-storage area. “That was easier than I thought it would be.”
“Yeah, that’s actually way less comforting to hear from my perspective.” A man’s voice, somewhere behind the stacked crates to his right. But the weird, whatever, spidey-sense, hadn’t warned him. He hesitated, wondering if he should - or could - make a leap for a ceiling he couldn’t even see.
“Easy, easy.” The man edged out from behind a crate with hands half-raised. “I told you: we’re the good guys, kid. Pinkie swear. We met on the roof? I’m Phil.”
“I’m not a kid,” Peter said, mostly out of habit.
“You really are. We didn’t need to take off the mask to know that. I’ve never seen Jemma this angry and, I can tell you, there’s been some pretty stiff competition.”
That didn’t sound good. “She’s angry at me?”
“At the people who shot you,” Phil clarified, lowering his hands. “How’s the leg? It was touch and go for a while there - you’re a lucky guy. Who apparently has an advanced healing factor, and metabolizes drugs like they aren’t even there. You’re not Inhuman?”
Peter shook his head. “Radioactive spider bite.”
“No way?” Phil grinned widely, and sounded more enthralled than appalled, which was new. “One of Stark’s experiments?”
“No,” Peter said, trying to work out why Phil looked quite so invested in the answer. “He, uh. Found me. Helped me out.”
“Great.” Phil looked relieved. “Feel up to making a quick call?”
Colleen turned the path of the katana at the last possible moment, striking hard with the hilt, rather than the blade. Her target’s head snapped back; he dropped. She turned, ready for her next opponent, but stepped back on seeing Mack neatly dropping the last member of the last fireteam.
Luke stood in the main entrance, ready to provide cover from anyone foolish enough to attack from outside while Castle covered the hallway behind them, in case anyone attempted to attack from above. Jessica sulked next to him, watching his back and removed from the bulk of the fighting.
Their unknown helper kept pace outside, picking his way apologetically through the snipers.
She, Mack and Daisy had quickly formed an efficient team - Daisy would knock their opponents from their feet, she and Mack would ensured they stayed down.
And now they found themselves in the main lobby.
Luke considered the odd silence outside the building. “Think they left?”
“They know Ellie’s not here,” Colleen pointed out. “Perhaps we were too expensive.”
“Coo-ee,” a high-pitched, saccharine-filled voice called from the street outside. “Avon calling!”
Luke stepped back to let the costume enter. “You Stark’s friend?”
“Oh, we’re not friends.” The man clasped his hands together, mask eyes widening. “We’re more like brothers. Twins ,” he said, breathily. “Me and Tony. Tone-tone.” He paused and dropped the act. “Eugh, no, roll that one back. Everyone in one piece? Specifically, a piece that can tell me where Vanessa is?
“Or Ellie. If you prefer. Vanessa liked the name - we always said Elle, if our spawn was a girl-spawn. Then we remembered we’re completely unsuitable for younger readers, so we adopted Al instead. I digress. Where is she?”
Jessica shook her head, answering as the torrent ran dry. “Freakshow, you’re making me less inclined to tell you every time you open your mouth.”
“Deadpool,” he snapped. “Captain Deadpool, to you. But even as I say that, Freakshow. I like it. I’ll have my people call your people. Anyhoo - I helped out. I didn’t kill anyone. I played nice. Now tell me where my girl is before I’m forced to-”
Luke took a measured step forward; Deadpool looked up, and up, into his unimpressed expression.
“Ask again,” he finished. “Except more politely.”
“Danny says they made it,” Colleen volunteered, closing her cell phone. “Ellie - Vanessa - is fine. Everyone’s okay.”
“Spider-man’s at the shelter. So’s Stark, apparently.” Daisy said, dropping her hand from her ear. She took a step back. “We’re done here. Tell him where she is, don’t. It’s up to you.”
“It’s been…” Mack trailed away. Shrugged. “A real experience. Good luck.”
They walked towards the flashing lights of the cops pulling up on the perimeter. Any moment now, Jessica knew, someone would notice Castle was gone, and armed, and honestly she didn’t quite have it in her to care. “We’ll take you to her,” she said.
When they made it to the loading bay, Peter turned to ask Phil if he could have his suit back, but there was a conspicuous lack of the other man. Instead, a young woman in a lab coat stood behind him, holding the battered suit. “Hello,” she said, with a bright smile. “I’m Jemma.”
“Hi. Uhm. Thanks.” He took the suit awkwardly.
“No problem at all. But Tony Stark thinks we kidnapped you,” she went on briskly as she turned her back, affording him some privacy to change. “So if you could talk him out of declaring war on S.H.I.E.L.D., that would be wonderful - our repair budget’s surprisingly limited.”
“He doesn’t really listen to me, but I’ll try.” Peter struggled into the suit as quickly as he could. “Did you hear from Daisy and Mack yet? Or Ms Potts? Is everyone okay?”
“We’ve been in communication - they and everyone else made it out of the flat largely unharmed. And Ms Potts, Ellie and Ned are at Rand Enterprises. The DSD haven’t made another try for them. With the sheer number of lawyers and news vans prowling the area, I’m not surprised.”
She turned when he tentatively touched her arm, and nodded towards the loading ramp of the jet. “Shall we?”
By the time Peter had limped his way to where Stark stood, fully armored, in the middle of the bay, the area was completely empty of anyone else. And, he realized, Jemma had disappeared.
“So,” Stark said, when Peter stopped in front of him. “What have we learned?”
Peter opened his mouth.
“You get one free smart-ass comment. One. Use it wisely.”
Peter shut his mouth. Re-considered. “It’s not always easy to do the right thing,” he said, finally. “Or figure out what the right thing is. Or sometimes there are too many right things? Is that … right?”
Stark blinked. “Well, I was hoping for ‘never turn off the user interface,’ or even ‘always listen to Tony, Tony is always right’ but if you want to get deep.”
“I got shot.” Peter pointed at this thigh. “And then there were a lot of drugs. And before that too. I’ve been drugged so much today. And I didn’t even know I could be. So that was a learning experience. Can we go? I’d really like to go.”
“Sorry kid, not yet.” Stark stepped forward and looked around the empty hangar. “Who’s in charge here?”
“I don’t know. There was someone called Jemma. And someone called-”
“Mr Stark,” said a smooth voice that Peter didn’t recognize. He turned and placed its owner, standing with her hands clasped behind her back, high up on the second level. “Melinda May,” the woman said. “I’m in charge of this operation. And I believe it’s time for you to leave.”
“You’re not in charge,” Tony said flatly.
May raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“I know who you are, Agent May.” Tony shrugged with a crooked smile. “You’re one of the best field agents in S.H.I.E.L.D. - Clint Barton wants to be you when he grows up. There’s no way they put you behind a desk.”
She stood, silent.
“Fine, don’t tell me. Answer me this instead: why weren’t you there when the rest of your team went to extract ‘Elle Iwamura?’ I saw the footage. Agents Johnson, McKenzie and Rodriguez, and a six-man fireteam, but not you.
“Under what circumstance - what specific circumstance - wouldn’t you send Melinda May to pull someone who looks like a kid out of a bad situation? S.H.I.E.L.D. knew it was a shifter. What was S.H.I.E.L.D. going to do if it turned out to be one they didn’t like?”
Still May said nothing.
“Yeah.” Stark nodded. “That’s what I thought.” He turned to Peter. “You wanted to leave? We’re leaving.”
“But you only just got here,” Phil said, from the shadows next to the ramp. He stepped forward, smiling slightly. “Sorry. Seriously - it really is impossible to resist an entrance like that.”
“You should probably try harder.” Stark crossed his arms, expression shifting too rapidly for Peter to parse. It settled somewhere between cautiously pleased and personally offended. “Agent.”
“Mr Stark.” Phil nodded, smile still in place. “It’s been a while.”
“You look - not dead,” Stark offered.
“You look older. But time does that. So does responsibility.” Phil glanced towards Peter, who, honestly, would have prefered to stay quietly in the background, well away from the undercurrents he was in no way following. “I understand you have some now.”
“At least half the gray hairs belong to that,” Stark said, waving in Peter’s general direction. “I’d disown him, except my lawyers tell me I’m not allowed to without adopting first.
“Okay, pleasantries done. I’ll assume you have an inspirational and moving story about recovering from death , so let’s skip to the part where you convince me you’re the good guys and I shouldn’t blast you all out of the sky on sight.”
“At no point were we intending to harm the person currently known as Elle Iwamura,” Phil said, the smile finally fading as his expression fell into hard lines. “Agent May wasn’t involved because she’s our pilot.”
Stark blinked, actually taken aback. “I’m actually not sure what’s more unbelievable: the thing about the kid, or that you have Melinda May flying this pile of junk.”
“It wasn’t a pile of junk until you opened fire on us,” Phil pointed out. “You owe me a new jet, by the way. We thought Elle might be someone we’ve been watching for a while. She’s a good kid, gets in over her head sometimes.”
Stark nodded grimly. “Yeah, I know the type.”
“She disappeared. We looked into it, everything I found came back heavily redacted, and you can see my clearance level from space. We tracked down the DSD facility she was being held at, but it was a crater. We figured we wouldn’t be the only ones looking for her, so we followed. When they started showing interest in a girl who looked like an out of date photo, we drew some conclusions.”
“It’s not her,” Stark said, bluntly. “Probably.”
“We know. Of the other people who escaped, three have been accounted for. Only Kamala, Vanessa Carlysle and Kevin Sydney are still in the wind. In all likelihood, ‘Ellie’ is Vanessa Carlysle. She isn’t an Inhuman, she’s enhanced.”
“A mutant,” Stark said, intrigued.
Phil shrugged. “Yeah, we try not to use that word.”
Peter coughed. “Uh, Mr Stark? I don’t mean to interrupt, but can I-”
“Right. Right. Come on kid. Let’s go pick up Ned, and then I think your aunt wanted to see you. Something about not letting you out of your room until the heat death of the universe? A little harsh, but I think fair.”
“Or I could stay here,” Peter suggested.
“Sorry, kid,” Phil said, sympathetically patting his shoulder. “There are some things even S.H.I.E.L.D. won’t fight.”
Here’s the question we have to ask ourselves: how afraid are we willing to let them make us?
In the last twenty-four hours, a full cast of heroes and villains have appeared on the stage we gave them, under a director none of us have ever heard of. We’ve booed and we’ve cheered, exactly when prompted, and never once tried to look behind the curtain.
Or asked why we’re being played to at all.
Here’s the question they’ve already asked themselves: how afraid are they willing to let us make them?
Karen drew back with a sigh, rubbed her eyes. It was meant to be a piece about Spider-man, and all the good he’d done in the city - and how quickly they’d turned on him. And all she kept circling around was how little she knew about the people who’d pulled the strings that made that happen.
She needed to know more; she opened her e-mail.
Standing surrounded by Angry Barbie and the Angry Barbie-ettes, Wade hummed along to the muzak in the elevator and rocked gently back and forth on his heels. The security guard accompanying them stared straight ahead, her expression completely neutral.
“How about them Maple Leaves?” He tried.
“Not into hockey.” He nodded understandingly. “I get it. I mean, you’re all wrong. Clearly. But what can you do without re-education facilities lining every block? Then there’s this whole zoning issue and - honestly, some people don’t want to be helped.”
The doors slid open on the penthouse foyer and there she was. There were other people there, he was peripherally aware as he walked forward. They weren’t important.
“Hey,” he said, softly. “Remember me?”
Ellie sniffed and ran the back of her hand across her nose. “Wade?”
“Right. Good memory, chicklet. Kind of.”
He crouched slowly. Carefully.
So pretty much, in every single way, mustn’t be Wade Wilson.
“You went away,” she said, in a tiny voice. And he wanted so badly to hear something of Vanessa in there - some little part - but there was no righteous anger, only a tearful accusation.
“I know. I had to talk to some guys. Shoot the -- breeze. Hey, look, I brought you something to make up for it.” He held out a plastic ring. “Voltron. Defender of the Universe. It’s limited edition.”
Ellie took the toy with a dubious expression and no hint of recognition.
“Five mini-lion bots come together to form one super-lion bot,” Wade said, dully, and looked away. “Don’t worry, kiddo. We’ve got time, right?”
“For five mini-lion bots?” Vanessa’s hand rested on his cheek, and gently turned him back to face her. “About three minutes.”
“That’s where you’re-”
“You’re leaving it there?”
Trish and Karen stared over the café table with identical outrage.
Jessica sipped her coffee, unmoved. “You asked what happened, that’s what happened: the freakshow got the girl, no one died. S.H.I.E.L.D. skittered back behind the refrigerator. I’m pretty sure Stark’s gone into wedding planning.” She raised her venti in an ironic toast. “Love that happy ending.”
“Spider-man’s reputation is still in the gutter,” Karen pointed out.
“Do I have to do everything?” Jessica looked between them. “You’re in the media. Go mediate, or whatever.”
“The Punisher’s loose,” Trish tried, grasping at straws. “You can’t think that’s a happy ending.”
“As if either of you actually care.”
Karen looked slightly sheepish, but she rallied. “Stryker and the DSD are rounding up innocent people up every day, and they’re getting away with it!”
“S.H.I.E.L.D. is on it. Probably.” Jessica looked away, and knew instantly she’d overplayed the nonchalance.
When she risked a glance back, Trish eyes had narrowed. She leaned forward, like a shark at an all you can bleed buffet. “Just S.H.I.E.L.D?”
“The Avengers, maybe.” Jessica drank the last of her coffee and pitched the empty into the closest trash can. “Seems like something they’d be interested in.”
“And no one else,” Karen pressed. “Danny, or Luke. Or you. For instance.”
“I did what I was hired to do. I did way more than I was hired to do. I have adulterers in compromising positions to take trashy photos of.”
And Luke and Danny to keep out of trouble - that was more than enough for anyone to deal with, like hell she was letting Trish and her new bff get involved.
Trish leaned back. “So you won’t mind if we look into it?”
“Are you shitting me?” Jessica threw up her hands. “Why would you even want to?”
“‘We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy,” Trish started, as Karen smiled sweetly. “We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust.’ Thurgood Marshall.”
Holy crap, we're done! Wow. Okay, so, thank you again again everyone who read, and kudos-ed and commented - you really are 100% the reason this thing got finished. If anyone has any requests for additions to this weird little AU I'd love to have them - let me know! If (..when) I do any more, this fic will end up with a new title and be part of the "They Got This" series, just in case it goes missing and you wonder where it went.
And last but not least, I'm really, really aware this needs a beta. I'm going to go back through it to try and catch the worst stuff, but I'm also looking for red pen wielding volunteers if anyone is feeling amazing!