Peter Parker had been arrested. He had been arrested by two police officers who had dragged his arms behind his back and frog marched him to a K-9 SUV parked in an alleyway.
He’d been arrested.
Not actually arrested. It wasn’t until he felt the prick in his neck and his legs slipped out from under him did he realize that neither of the cops had told him what charge he was being arrested for nor did they read him his Miranda rights but still. The anxiety of thinking he had been arrested still coursed through his veins and squeezed hard in his chest.
Which in hindsight should say something about Peter’s priorities when he eventually woke up curled inside a small cage.
Right, being arrested by fake cops was the least of your problems, Peter! Get a grip.
Ok. Ok. He could do this. Mr. Stark had been trying to teach him about learning his surroundings and assessing what he should do. The problem was, it was so dark he could barely see his hand in front of him. Ok, so moving on. There was an orange plastic bracelet lashed around his left wrist. Upon further inspection, Peter was only able to tell that the hospital grade tag was wrapped tight around his wrist and didn’t seem to have any other mechanical purpose which was good because he really didn’t need something draining his powers from him. Ok, next!
The cage. It was no bigger than a slightly larger dog cage with metal grating mapped across it and welted to the base that he was lying on. Peter winced and circled his knees under him. He didn’t really have a lot of room to move around and his neck was already starting to cramp as he bent over to avoid smacking into the ceiling of the cage. No big deal. He could snap the grating in a heart beat. In fact he should’ve done that from the start.
His fingers latched onto the grate and then a frigid splash of water crashed into him.
Peter choked at the onslaught of cold that stole the wind from his lungs but he had little time to do anything else before the electric blue of a taser illuminated the previous dark and coursed through his body. Peter had been electrocuted before but this was something entirely different. His whole body seized into one tight twist of muscles as hot fire coursed through his veins. He was only barely able to register the fact that whoever was holding up the taser was pressing it into the skeleton of Peter’s cage before he dropped onto his back with release.
He gasped for air and then his muscles locked again as the taser was brought down against the cage and his body seized once more.
Someone was screaming and Peter’s stomach plummeted when he realized it wasn’t his own.
The taser went away and Peter’s body smacked limp onto the metal base under him.
“You can try all you like but the cages are nearly Vibranium standard in strength,” a voice said as a grim light bulb flicked on. Peter gasped as the thundering in his heart pulsed up his ears and tried to blink his eyes to adjust faster to the new lighting.
The man barely spared a glance Peter’s way before he was kicking another cage to the side and slamming his hand into another.
“Up!” He ordered, punching at a cage.
Cages were stacked on top of each other in a long row and the man with the taser made it his mission to wake up every occupant personally. Whimpers and yelps echoed throughout the dark windowless room.
“You know the rules. Everyone up!” The man dragged the taser along the cages clink clink clink until he rounded back to Peter and slammed his foot into the cage supposedly under him.
“Welcome to the Zoo newbie. Listen carefully because I’m only going to say these once,” he said with near military precision. Deep cold blue eyes stared into Peter’s own and he shivered beneath the scrutiny before he could stop it. “You stay awake when the patrons come in. You do not attack the patrons when they eventually stick their fingers in through the bars. They’ve been told countless times not to do it but people are fucking idiots without even trying. You bite them and you will be punished. You try to escape, good luck, you will be punished. You do as you are told. You fight me and I will make sure whatever is being done will hurt. Do I make myself clear?”
He was staring so hard at Peter that Peter couldn't help the tremble that found it's way into his hands. Normally, a guy like him wouldn’t have intimidated Peter. He didn’t even compare to the size and severity of Frank Castle who Peter had witnessed pissed off first hand. But there was something so uncompromising and so dark that Peter’s normal snark remark stuck on his tongue.
“I said,” The man said. “Do you understand?”
Before Peter could speak the taser tapped the metal grating and Peter yelped as the shock raced into his body.
“Yes,” he gritted out, nodding his head. With one last withering glare, the man left and Peter was surrounded by the faint whimpers and sniffles of his fellow prisoners. Peter waited for the hammering of his heart to slow before he curled his fingers around the bars of the cage.
“C’mon,” Peter muttered to himself and locked his fingers tight around the bars. He pulled.
“Don’t fight him.” A voice squeaked and Peter jumped a mile until his back slammed into the side of his cage. A girl with long straight black hair and tall limbs that were curled around into a tight ball was staring at him. The same orange wristband was clipped around her own skinny wrist.
“Don’t fight him when he comes down.” It was meant to sound as advice but Peter’s already frayed nerves heard it as a death sentence.
“Who?” He asked, his voice cracking.
“The Zookeeper,” she whispered. “You’re new. He’ll want to study you. Don’t fight him.”
Peter glanced around the room, his eyes widening as more and more kids crept closer to the front of their cages. Most of the occupants were people about his age or younger, their clothes torn and tattered. They needed help! Peter… needed help and the realization was enough to send his heart up through his throat and his desire to curl up even higher.
“I’m Peter,” he said after a while because he didn’t know what else to say. His neighbor looked like she’d been in her cage for weeks and the bruises around her throat and face were stark against her pale skin.
“Keiko,” she whispered back and he was only able to realize afterwards that the whisper wasn’t out of fear but by the fact that someone had squeezed her throat so tight she had lost her voice.
A door opened and everyone scrambled back in a hurry. The man from before stepped in, taser in hand and angry expression tamed into a neutral one. Behind him a shorter man followed, his glasses falling down the bridge of his nose and his shirt sleeves pushed up to his elbows.
“Good morning. Good morning,” the man said boomingly and with what any normal person would have thought was a jovial smile. Peter shot a quick look to Keiko but she had buried her face somewhere in her knees.
“Miles,” the man said to the angry guy. “Let’s check up on our newest addition.”
It took Peter too long to figure out that the guy was talking about him and he was in fact the 'newest addition' and he scrambled to sit up as much as he could. The others were terrified of these men and Peter would be stupid not to realize that. But he was Spider-Man. He faced danger every day after school. And--- Oh shit. Did they know? Peter had only been able to be thankful before he passed out that Ned hadn’t been around when he had been 'not arrested' or he could've been caught too. But if they knew he was Spider-Man? Then they would know everything about him anyway. They’d know about Ned and Aunt May but that was ok because Mr. Stark had designed a panic button for May if that ever happened and---
The Zookeeper and Miles stepped in front of Peter’s cage and he did his best to throw the toughest glare he could at them. But the Zookeeper smiled and pulled at a card that had been attached to Peter cage and read.
“Male adolescent. Estimated age between thirteen to fifteen. Near invulnerability with an emphasis in rapid healing. Hmmm.” The Zookeeper hummed to himself before pulling out a pen. “Miles tells me you tried to open your cage so I’m going assume you have an increased strength as well. Makes sense. A strong body makes a strong constitution. When did you receive these abilities?”
Peter gaped at the man. The whole thing was just so surreal that he couldn’t help but freeze on the spot. He was locked in a cage on his hands and knees, surrounded by others who--- if he was assuming correctly--- had abilities like him, and being asked when his abilities somehow manifested. Not only that but the Zookeeper somehow knew about his rapid healing abilities and rapid was used in a very light term. Rapid meant faster than most people but it certainly didn’t mean instantaneous. Had they been following him somehow? It took hours for cuts to close and at least a day for bruises to heal. It had taken at least a week to heal from that one time he'd been stabbed.
Miles banged on the cage and Peter hated himself even more when he jumped.
“I… I was…” He stammered out. “I was b…b..born with them.”
The lie came out easily but in a mess of a stutter and the Zookeeper frowned thoughtfully.
“Interesting.” He slid the card back onto the front of Peter’s cell and fiddled with his sleeve. “Well, first we’ll start with some blood samples.”
“What?” Peter’s voice pitched up an octave but before he could do anything something hard and solid slammed around his throat and dragged him to the front of the cage. The Zookeeper unlatched a small opening and snagged Peter’s arm. Peter tensed and tried to pull back but the collar around his neck tightened and his face pressed further against the grate until it was painfully bruising the skin on his cheek.
“That old SHIELD technology works wonders doesn’t it, Miles?”
“Wait… Wait…” Peter tried to pull his arm away but the Zookeeper’s grip was firm. Miles snatched his wrist and twisted so that Peter’s elbow was exposed while the Zookeeper set to work about prepping him for taking his blood.
Calm down. Calm down. It’s ok. You’re going to be ok.
Sharp panic swelled around his chest and twisted his lungs. He was ok. He was going to be ok. May would notice he was gone. Mr. Stark would find him. No one had said anything about Spider-Man.
A prick of a needle found its way into his vein and he clenched his eyes shut to keep the burn behind them away from the others. He was not going to cry. He was not going to cry.
The Zookeeper took four vials before he released Peter’s arm from the elastic band tied around it but Miles kept ahold of Peter’s wrist all the same. The Zookeeper peered down at his watch and produced a marker from his pocket before writing the time on Peter’s skin. Then with a flick of his fingers, he pinched the skin under the mark and twisted. It was hardly the worst pain Peter had ever felt but it was deliberate and welting into a dark hot angry red bruise. The Zookeeper pulled out a scalpel and sliced the skin under the rising bruise and Peter couldn’t stop the cry from escaping his lips as the blade dragged his arm open.
Only when the blade was lifted did Miles release his arm and Peter snatched it back against his chest. Whatever metal collar that had been holding him against his cell fell and Miles pocketed the pieces.
Peter didn’t wait. He skidded as far back into his cage as he could before the Zookeeper could even close the latch.
“Let’s schedule a follow up every half hour. I want to document his healing progress.”
And just like that, the Zookeeper and Miles left Peter alone and moved onto their next victim down the line.
“You really didn’t have to come.” Jessica sighed as she stalked through the abandoned alleyways surrounded by huge crumbling warehouses. Back in the 20s and 30s this section of the city would have been booming with workmen and whirling of machinery but now all it was, was a skeleton of its former glory.
“I wanted to come.” Matt quipped, his stupid horns casting shadows down his face.
Jessica snorted with a roll of her eyes and called him on his bullshit. “No, you didn’t.”
“No, but the lone wolf thing worries the others sometimes.”
Jessica rounded on the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen with a point of her finger against his sternum. She doubted he felt it under all his armor but the strength behind it rocked him back onto his heels. “We are not making quotas.”
Matt’s lips twitched. “It could’ve been Danny.”
“God help me.” She spun on her heel before Matt could make another stupid Catholic joke and didn’t bother to see if he followed.
They were only just going along with this whole ‘not a team but we often work together’ thing they had going ever since Matt’s resurrection from the dead. And goddamnit Murdock had her making Catholic jokes in her head now too.
Vanessa had been the typical worried sick mother that had stumbled into Jessica’s office with nowhere else to turn. Her daughter, Tina, had been missing for over a month. The cops had told Vanessa that Tina was most likely considered a runaway and despite the fact that Tina fit the whole stereotype of ‘not a pretty rich white teenage girl’ with her soft brown curls and hazelnut skin from the lower west side that Jessica often fought to rebel against, Jessica was starting to think the same thing. Never mind that Vanessa had sworn that Tina was a good kid who loved her life and wanted to become a paramedic. Sometimes, kids just have feelings they can’t explain and the only way out seems to be to isolate themselves.
Trish used to do that a lot when they’d been growing up. Except she had the bruises to explain everything.
But Jessica wouldn’t be doing her job if she didn’t follow up on a lead and her lead had sent her here, the barren wasteland of the industrial age.
Matt’s hand landed on Jessica’s shoulder.
“Stop,” he whispered, his earlier smirk lost on his face. “You smell that?”
“No one can ever smell what you do,” she drawled before shrugging herself out of his grip.
Matt flicked his head up higher and smelled the air again.
“Blood,” he finally said. “Fresh and a lot of it.”
They both startled at the sharp bang of a gunshot and then took off running. Matt was faster than her but not by much and soon they were slamming their way through the opening of a warehouse.
Bodies littered the floor with pools of blood puddling under their cooling corpses.
“Holy shit,” Jessica hissed from between her teeth. She had seen some of the most gruesome horrors people could inflict on each other but the finality of death never ceased to freak her out. There had to be at least nine or ten people dead on the floor. A lab was abandoned on one side of the warehouse and two parked NYPD K-9 vehicles were stationed by the entrance. She didn’t see any cops but that didn’t mean they hadn’t stumbled on a shitstorm of a trouble.
Matt was braced beside her, his head cocked to the side as he listened for more heartbeats. A growled shout bounced its way along the warehouse walls and they took off again, jumping down a flight of stairs and speeding into a sealed off room.
With a crack of another gunshot the world fell silent and Matt and Jessica were left frozen.
Rows upon rows of cages lined the walls of the windowless room. Leashes and collars and cattle prods littered a table.
It smelled like piss and blood and death and Jessica nearly gagged at the assault to her senses. A quick glance at Matt told her he wasn’t fairing as well either though he was better at hiding it.
A whimper. Some movement. And then Matt was stepping in front of her and her eyes were careening into a rolling summersault in her eye sockets.
“Frank,” Matt said from behind a clenched jaw. Frank in question was a tall former soldier from his posture with a hard jaw and dark eyes. A discarded assault rifle laid at his feet with shell casing rolling on the cement floor by another dead body.
“Red.” Frank replied in greeting, slipping his handgun into a holster at his thigh.
“You kill all those people upstairs?”
“Every last one of those scum,” Frank said, his tone defensive yet proud almost like he didn’t know which to be anymore. Jessica scowled and pushed past Matt.
“Why don’t you take a look around for yourself and figure it out.”
Jessica arched a brow, unimpressed with his harsh anger and unabashedly slightly turned on. But she pressed her lips together and stepped past him to look in the cages.
Her gaze met the unresponsive murdered one of a little boy that couldn’t be any older than twelve.
Ice filled her veins and clenched around her heart. Next to him in another cage was a girl who was silently crying in the back corner. Blood was pooling from her ears. And another. And another. Rows and rows of trauma that didn’t even reach the age of eighteen were staring back at her.
“Murdock,” she croaked past the dried sandpaper that had wrapped her throat.
“I can hear their heart beats,” Matt responded, his voice sounding just as weak. He stumbled beside her. “We have to get them out of here.”
Jessica didn’t even let him finish before she was ripping away the padlocks like they were nothing. She slammed open one of the cage doors and held out her hand to a tiny girl with ratted pigtails. But the little girl squealed and threw herself back and Jessica just wanted to scream because this was not something she was fit to do but Matt was beside her an instant and pulled his helmet off.
“Hey it’s ok,” he whispered and smiled that charming stupid smile of his. “We’re going to take you home. You don’t have to be afraid.”
The little girl with some coaching finally crawled forward and launched herself at Matt, burying her face into his neck.
“Frank,” Matt called, his voice still soft and low but underlined with something stern. Jessica turned to see the man leaning his head into a cage and pulling out the long mottled bruised body of a teenage boy. He ignored Matt instead, choosing to whisper something to the unresponsive teen in his arms.
“I’ve got you, kid. It’s me. I’ve got you.”
The kid trembled in his arms.
The girl in the cage beside his was also dead and Jessica wanted to throw up.
“Frank,” Matt tried again moving down the line to open the rest of the cages. “We have to call the police.”
“It’s already done, Red.” Frank replied, securing his arms around his cargo. “But I can’t leave this one here for when they find out.”
“Why not?” Jessica asked with a frown.
“I know him. We’ve got history. He’s complicated.” As if he knew he was being spoken about, the teen flinched and let out a cry of pain and Frank for all his harsh growlings, quietly shushed the teen with ease.
“I can’t stick around here for much longer. He ain’t staying here so if you want the story you’re going to have to meet me later.”
“Take him back to my place,” Jessica offered before she could realize what she was saying and before Matt could argue. “We’ll meet you there.”
Frank nodded when she rambled off her address and turned with one last glare to Matt. “These kids all have abilities. They’re going to need one hell of a lawyer to keep this from happening to them again.”
And without another word he turned and left, kidnapped teen clutched tightly in his arms.
Jessica was only half surprised to see that Frank was still at her apartment when they got there. Matt was beside her in a wrinkled suit and blind man persona in place but she could feel the tension rippling from his hand on her elbow. As soon as the door closed, Matt dropped the act.
Frank glanced up from his post beside her couch. “The others?”
“My sister is facilitating announcements on her radio show to find their families and the kids are all under police protection.”
“You trust them?” Frank asked and Matt nodded.
“We were careful. Two of our friends are keeping guard as well.”
“You have friends now?”
Jessica spied the open bottle of whiskey on her desk and scowled at Frank’s empty glass. Stomping over to her desk, she poured a liberal amount in her old mug and gave Frank a refill. Something told her that she was going to need the familiar sting of the alcohol to get her through all of this.
“I got word that someone was rounding up people with abilities,” Frank said in lieu of a thanks for his drink. An orange plastic bracelet was thrown on her desk and she picked it up even though she had seen it before. All of the kids had them.
Type: Rapid Healing
She swallowed a mouthful of whiskey to wash down the bile in her throat.
“It was just by chance that I saw those scumbags pretending to be cops pick one of those kids up. They called it the Zoo. I got all of them but one. Bastard high tailed it and ran. Dumb fuck called himself the Zookeeper. His goon was ordered to kill the kids. I had to choose.”
Frank stood and paced in front of Matt before taking a swig of his drink. Jessica dropped down beside the kid on her couch and took him in. His hand was bent the wrong way and his fingers were twisted in a way Jessica had only seen someone with arthritis have. Bruises so deep and dark littered his skin like he had rocks thrown at him and they made impact with his body over and over again. The darkest bruise was on the inside of one of his arms were an injection site was visible in the crook of his elbow. Jesus Christ. There were marker notes under the bruise on his arm.
Influenza Test 3.5
She lifted a hand to his forehead. His face was pale besides the angry welts and the pink of a fever in his cheeks.
“He’s burning up.” Jessica called. The kid’s face scrunched up under her cold palm and she quickly snatched her hand away, hoping he’d fall back asleep. But the kid shuddered and let out a whimper. Frank was at his side in an instant.
“Kid,” he said, his voice gruff from a dusty gentleness. “Kid, it’s Frank. You’re ok.”
“What’s his name?” Matt asked.
“I don’t know!”
“You don’t know!”
Frank whirled around towards Matt with a snarl. “I told you it was complicated!”
“Not now you two.” Jessica’s voice broke off any bickering and Frank dropped back down to give the kid his attention.
“Come on, kid. You’re ok.”
Some of the biggest brown eyes Jessica had ever seen blinked open and shrank away from her almost instantly. Frank placed a large hand on the kid’s chest and pressed him into the cushion and that only seem to send the kid further into a panic but Frank pressed on.
“You’re ok, kid. It’s Frank. It’s Frank.” The kid’s head swiveled to the side and stared at Frank with a fevered glaze.
“Frank?” The kid croaked, his voice cracking into a high pitchy stammer. “F…Fr…Frank?”
“It’s me, kid.” Frank murmured, not even flinching when the kid’s hand latched around his large wrist and his messed up hand grabbing onto his black t-shirt, clawing for familiarity. “What did I tell you about getting into trouble, huh?"
The kid blinked, his face looking impossibly young against the size of Frank’s body and the deep swollen impact marks on his skin. He stuttered a breath and then his face crumpled.
“I’m—m-- s…s…s…sorry,” the kid sobbed.
“Hey. Hey.” Frank hushed, rubbing his hand up and down on the kid’s chest. “C’mon. You’re ok.”
But the kid didn’t let up and Jessica had to step away before she punched something. Matt had stayed some distance away and let Frank handle the situation.
Jesus. What had they stumbled into?
“C’mon kid.” Frank’s low voice soothed. “What do you want me to do? I can’t take you home yet but we could probably get your aunt here.”
The kid hiccupped into a sniffle and shook his head. “Not yet.”
His breath hitched and Frank’s murmurs eased him out of what Jessica could only assume was the beginning of a panic attack. Jessica took another swig of whiskey straight from the bottle this time.
Goddamnit, she was not equipped to handle something like this.
“Ok, what do you want?”
The kid was fading fast but neither Matt nor Frank seemed like they were worried so Jessica tried not to either. The kid whispered something to Frank and Frank nodded murmuring something in response. When the kid seemed to pass out again Frank eased himself out of the kid’s limp grip and pulled Jessica’s worn quilt further up. He waited a few minutes more to make sure the kid stayed asleep and then stood to look at the other two.
“Do either of you know how to get the number for Tony Stark?”