There weren’t many things that Penny Parker could really rely on. Her paychecks fluctuated unfathomably every two weeks, the electricity bill was never consistent, and for some reason even when she drove her car dry it never took the same amount of gas to fill the tank. Peter’s class schedule seemed to change every time she asked about it, his after-school club activities were never on the same day, and why did she have to sign this report card but not last quarter’s, Pete? Consistency was something she’d learned not to hope for. Mostly she kept her fingers crossed that things would somehow work out to her advantage, day by day.
For the most part, it did. She’d dropped out of high school when uncle Ben died to start working, to help support aunt May and Peter. It had taken three years to get her GED between the three jobs she worked, but she managed. GED accomplished, she checked off that box on her mental list and signed up for night classes at the local community college. It was hard, but she could make it work. Then aunt May had died.
Custody of 14 year old Peter Parker had been hotly contested, as Penny had only been 21 at the time of aunt May’s death. Technically, she was an adult. She had two jobs, a steady income, an apartment, a decent credit score. Somehow, like most things in her life, it had just kind of worked out and she was granted sole custody of her younger brother. She’d dropped her night classes, picked up a third job overnight, and kept her fingers crossed that social services never asked why her “two bedroom apartment” only had one bedroom.
Semi-decent luck was the only thing that really kept her life running, and by extension Peter’s. She knew it would wear off someday, she’d been granted the lion’s share of good fortune in Queens when it came to looking after her brother and it wasn’t super fair. She just didn’t think it would end so spectacularly. The end of the luck was supposed to be a low, painful fizzle.
Instead, it was a flashbang that started with Peter acting like a cokehead. Peter had never been a particularly twitchy kid; Penny had leeched all the chaotic energy from their mother’s womb and left the intelligence behind for her kid brother. Over the course of several months though, he’d begun jumping at the drop of a hat. Penny would turn the corner into the kitchen and startle him so badly he’d have an asthma attack. If she even glanced at his phone when a notification lit up the screen he’d lose his mind, accusing her of not respecting his privacy and dart away into his room. Asking if he needed anything from the store was suddenly the Spanish Inquisition and god forbid she offer him a ride to school.
Because she’d graciously left all the IQ points for Peter, Penny had a tendency to do stupid things. Like assume Peter’s behavior was because he had gotten a girlfriend or was just going through usual teenage boy hormones that made him act like a jackass. Luckily the dumbass wasn’t actually a cokehead, considering he still blanched whenever she had weed in the house, but fuck if he wasn’t acting like a freak. It came to a head when she happened to be coming home from her second job at the same time he was getting home from one of his after-school club meetings.
She hadn’t been sure what she was seeing at first. It was definitely Peter, he’d hit a growth spurt finally and started to put on some height and muscle mass but was still a lanky little shit, and he was arguing with a man in a suit who was walking next to him. Both were being followed by a slow-moving car with blacked out windows and no front license plate. Peter’s body language was uncomfortable, arms crossed over his chest, shoulders angled away from the man and tucked in, eyes down.
When Penny called out to Peter, the man had gotten into the backseat of the black car which promptly drove away. Her brother had gone red in the face and ran up the steps to their apartment complex without waiting for her to catch up, locking himself in the bedroom and refusing to come out when she followed him in. She’d given up on being the casual guardian, the cool big sister who let him live his life. Penny had begged him to come out, to tell her what was going on. She just wanted to help, how could she help him if he wouldn’t talk to her?
It had started with simple answers, after Penny had started to cry, through the door.
Who was that man? Tony Stark.
What did he want with Peter? To offer him a job.
Why were they arguing? Because Peter rejected the offer.
He was lying. Penny knew what it sounded like, the way his voice changed. She’d been glued to his side since their parents died when she was 13 and it had only gotten worse with uncle Ben’s passing. Peter was lying through his teeth and Penny had no idea why, no idea what to do. Helplessness had settled over her shoulders like a lead blanket, her chest tightening. If Peter was willing to lie to her, then whatever was happening with Tony Stark was really, really bad. And she had no fucking idea what to do.
“JARVIS, bring up Peter’s file.”
The voice cut through the silence of the car like a shot, Happy glancing at the man in the backseat through the rearview mirror questioningly. Usually his boss was in a pretty good mood after having harassed the high school kid he’d become obsessed with over the last several months, but the tone of his voice said otherwise.
“Of course, sir,” the AI responded dutifully from the Stark phone, a document appearing on the screen, “anything in particular, sir?”
“Peter told me he was emancipated after his aunt’s death and that he lived alone. I think my boy’s lying to me, J,” Tony’s voice was lower than usual, irritation apparent in his stony expression.
“Straight home, boss?” Happy asked quietly, humming in response when the man in the backseat nodded.
“Records show that Peter Parker is under the guardianship of one Penelope Parker, 24 years of age, relation: sister.”
“So he did lie to me,” Tony ran a hand over his goatee, sighing through the motion in disappointment before anger overcame him again, “You mean he lives in that shithole with someone? She’s supposed to be taking care of him, that place is a fucking drug den!”
“The police have indeed responded to 23 calls involving illicit drug use in that apartment complex in the last 10 days, sir. Another 10 calls were answered in response to domestic violence, 5 calls in regards to loitering, 7 calls in—”
“Thank you, JARVIS,” he waved his hand impatiently before the AI could recite every reason his boy shouldn’t be living in such a fucking pigsty, “tell me more about Penelope.”
The name was said with enough venom that Happy’s eyebrows went up, glancing once again at his boss in the rearview mirror as he navigated through the congested New York City streets.
“Penelope Parker, 24 years of age, born in New York City, New York. Dropped out of high school at 16, accomplished a GED at 19. Currently employed at Little Hands Daycare, Starbucks Coffee, and Kroger’s. Owner of a 2001 Toyota Camry, license plate 605-CEG, rents a one-bedroom apartment in Queens for $1,200 a month, credit score of 713, 1 speeding ticket, no medical insurance—”
“Stop,” Tony grit his teeth, tilting his head from side to side to crack his neck, “a one-bedroom apartment. No medical insurance. Didn’t even graduate from fucking high school. How the hell did she get custody of my boy?”
“Custody of Peter Parker went to his closest living relative, with the stipulation that social services kept up regular visits on account of the young age of the guardian. Records show that visits kept up for roughly 3 months before ending.”
“3 fucking months, those useless fucks,” it came out as a snarl, “look up the case workers, I want their names. And their heads. On a platter. Get a lock on their wifi signal, I want to know what they’re doing at all times. I already have a tracker on Peter, hack into the GPS on Penelope’s phone and keep track of her too.”
“The phone number listed on Ms. Parker’s work forms is a prepaid burner with no GPS capabilities. I can use triangulation to pick up on her general location when she connects to cell phone towers.”
“Seriously, a burner phone? Is she a drug dealer?” Tony’s eyes shot up to meet Happy’s in the mirror, “Oh my god is my baby’s guardian a drug dealer?”
“There is no evidence of any misconduct on the part of Ms. Parker, sir,” JARVIS stated calmly, despite the edge of infuriated panic from Tony, “she has no arrest record or suspicious activity.”
“That doesn’t mean anything and you know it JARVIS,” Tony pressed his head back into the cushion behind him, squeezing his eyes shut, “I’ve got to get him out of there, sooner rather than later. Happy, once we get home, start coordinating with Rhodey for extraction plans. JARVIS, keep an eye on any activity on their WiFi network.”
“Shall I connect to the webcam on the laptop computer, sir?”
“And the camera on my baby boy’s phone,” on his own phone, Tony opened his picture gallery to swipe through the images he already had of Peter, a small smile taking over his mouth in the process, “Keep any recorded video for at least 24 hours, let me know if anything interesting happens.”
“Of course, sir.”
“Happy, let’s get everyone ready for my boy’s homecoming,” Tony stated, shifting in his seat as they pulled into the private garage beneath Stark Tower, “its coming up sooner than we anticipated.”
Penny had started googling Tony Stark the moment she realized Peter wasn’t going to part with anymore information. The longer she sat in front of the laptop, the more panic began to grow in her chest.
Tony Stark was a bad man. A very, very bad man who made very, very dangerous weapons and had lots of very, very important and powerful people in his back pocket. There was no real evidence, of course. None of his misdeeds could be proven in court, none of the weapons he invented could be traced to his company, none of the people he practically owned would even admit to knowing the man. He was incredibly powerful and so fucking dangerous that Penny’s teeth ached at the thought of him even being near her baby brother.
“Fuck,” she muttered dragging both hands through her dark brown hair, “fuck, fuck, fuck.”
There was no reason for a man like Tony Stark to be offering Peter a job. Sure, Peter was smarter than anyone she’d ever met. The kid’s IQ had to be off the charts, he’d gotten into that insanely expensive private science school in Midtown. But there was no reason for Tony Stark to recruit a high school senior, even if he was a budding genius.
“What are you doing Pen?” Peter’s voice was raspy from crying and the sound made Penny jump, turning in her seat to look at the teenager behind her.
“I’m…,” she glanced guiltily at the laptop before sighing, “I didn’t know who Tony Stark was off the top of my head. I had to look him up.”
Peter quickly reached out and closed the internet browser before shutting the lid of the laptop, running his hand through his hair in a way rather reminiscent of his sister, “You shouldn’t google him, he’s got enough of an ego that he probably gets an alert every time his name comes up.”
Penny bit her lip, rubbing her hands together in her lap before gathering as much courage as she could and pushing out the chair at the table next to her, “we need to talk, Pete. I need you to tell me the truth about why he was talking to you, no bullshit. I can’t help you if I don’t know the situation.”
The teenager hesitated for all of 30 seconds before dropping into the chair, his expression one of dismay, “I can’t tell you anything, Penny. Its too dangerous, he could hurt you—”
“I’m not worried about me, Peter,” she cut him off, hand rising when he started to open his mouth again, “Stop. Listen. Its my job to take care of you, to keep you safe. Start from the top, how did you meet Tony Stark?”
Another hesitation, eyes darting away from her face before he answered, “on accident. He saw me on the street, I was looking for a job at one of the coffee shops near school.”
Penny held her tongue, refusing to lecture him on getting a job and derailing the current conversation, “and he approached you?”
“Yeah,” Peter rubbed a hand over the back of his head, “Asked me my name, about my uniform. Asked me if I liked science since I went to a special school. I thought it was cool, he runs a research and development laboratory. Then he started… showing up in different places.”
“You think he was in those places deliberately?” The question was a quiet prompt when Peter seemed to clam up and he nodded in response.
“It was weird, but I… I liked the attention,” it was whispered, tears gathering in his eyes as shame built in his chest, “He told me how, how smart I was and how impressed he was by me. Talked to me about science and then just… about me. He wanted to know what kinds of things I liked to do for fun, what kind of movies I liked. I kind of thought we were friends but then…”
“Its okay, Peter,” Penny reached out and grabbed both of his hands in hers carefully, tears in her eyes as well, “what happened then?”
“He started getting handsy,” he murmured, a shiver going down his spine, “at first it was just, just like him putting his hand on my back when we walked through a door. Or he’d put his arm over the back of my chair and touch my shoulder. It was weird because he was an adult but… he’s handsome, Pen. He’s really, really handsome and I was excited because he was interested in me for some reason but now I realize that it wasn’t good and it’s not good and I shouldn’t have let him and I’m so sorr—”
“Don’t say sorry, Pete,” a quiet sob escaped Penny’s mouth and she covered it with her hand, the other still clutching at his, “Don’t apologize, you have done nothing wrong. Oh God, Peter, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I noticed that you’d started acting differently but I passed it off. Oh my God, I should’ve talked to you so much sooner. I should’ve asked what was going on. How long has this been going on, Peter?”
He was quiet for so long that another sob was ripped from Penny’s lips and she shot forward, dragging her little brother into a nearly suffocating hug. Fuck, fuck how long had that piece of shit been conditioning her little brother. That fucking pedophile how long had he been stalking her little brother. Fuck the age of consent in New York, fuck the law, Peter was a baby—he was a fucking child.
“You don’t have to answer, Peter, its okay,” it was a soft whisper, her hand carding through his hair while he cried against her, “I’m going to figure something out, okay? I don’t know what yet, but I’m going to make sure that he leaves you alone. I’m going to take care of this, I’m going to take care of you.”
“You can’t, Penny,” his cries were breathy and quiet, “you can’t take care of me this time, he’ll hurt you—”
Penny couldn’t say it out loud, because Peter would lose his mind, but Penny would let Tony Stark murder her in front of an audience if it meant he’d leave Peter alone. Every promise she’d ever made, to her mother on her deathbed, to aunt May on hers, was to keep Peter safe. To make sure he had every opportunity. Peter was so smart, he had so much potential, if she could just give him the chance, if she could just get him to the point where he could make something of himself—then she would consider her life perfect. She’d die knowing she had done her job, she’d opened the gates for her brother’s success.
“I’ll figure it out Peter, one way or another.”