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Some Computers, A Few Knives, And Friends

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My girlfriend is pretty smart, don’t get me wrong. So I have no doubt that if she applied to some fancy internship, she totally would at least have a shot. The problem is, when Spark came up to me and told me she got one at Stark Industries, I pulled a blank. Spark talks non-stop about anything she applies to, it’s her way of de-stressing. If she applied to SI, I would know, and I, in fact, do not.

I decide to congratulate first and question later.

I think about all of this as I stir my coffee, staring at Spark’s excited face as she talks very, very fast.
I take a bite of my glazed donut while she talks, nodding along. “Ray, this is going to be so incredible, an internship! And they even let me set my hours, Mondays and Wednesdays for half the day, and then most of Saturdays, pretty cool, huh? I’ll have so many more resources-did you know I’ve been dumpster diving for supplies? It’s incredible what people throw away, honestly-anyway, I was thinking about making this kind of bandage, you know, one we could use while we’re in-suit, part of the fabric, you know? And it could kind of act like that membrane on the inside of an egg-keep everything together without stitches until it heals over enough, maybe heat and cool for burns? Or if it’s really serious, your body’s temperature would be fluctuating, and it would need to change with it to make the person comfortable, and maybe it could be made of some soothing material? You know, plants and stuff? But that would decompose, and it might get suspicious that we would be ordering a ton of it like clockwork, even if we disperse it among all nine of us,” she says. She stops to take a breath, and in that handy second, I interrupt.
“Yeah, babe, that all sounds great, you might want to talk to Ember or Bryn on it,” I say, referencing the two other engineering geniuses in our little gang. Spark insists she’s better at coding, and I can’t deny her skills, but I also don’t think she’s half bad at design. “But I wanted to talk to you about something.”

I glance around the café, trying to decide how to say this while I have Spark’s attention. The fairy lights are a colorful addition, I like them. They go well with the rest of the décor-it’s random in a nice, homey way. Tables made of all different kinds of wood, chairs with different colors on the cushions, glasses that are a different color for each, soft rugs, bean bags, and so on. The walk-up bar displaying pastries of both Latin America and the more American type is below the hanging blackboard menu, which is translated into both Spanish and English, and next to the counter is the stack of pamphlets translating into yet more languages (I think there’s even one in Braille).

I don’t want to hurt Spark. Maybe she applied yesterday, forgot about it over the science test, and got a very quick response today. Maybe she didn’t think she really had a shot, so she didn’t mention it.

I doubt it. Spark gets excited whenever she gets an opportunity-she’s poor enough that they’re rare.
“I just don’t remember you applying,” I say quickly, taking a sip of my coffee. I spit it out almost immediately. I forgot to add sugar so I just drank black coffee. My face twists at the taste, and Spark laughs.
“Here,” she says, handing me some napkins and a few sugar packets. “And yeah, I didn’t-uh-apply. Not exactly.”
I rip open a packet of sugar while taking another bite of my donut to rid myself of the taste. She pauses, apparently thinking. By the time I’m three packets in and stirring my coffee, she says, “I-uh, you know Izzy?”
Of course I know Izzy. Iz is the AI Spark made with Ember a few months back. She became self-aware two months ago and has been helping out with the superhero stuff ever since. (Normally, I wouldn’t talk about this stuff in public, but the café is so full of students that just got out of school that I’m not concerned.)

“Yeah?” I say, just before taking a sip of now-fine coffee.
“Well,” Spark says hesitantly, “I wanted ideas for her, you know? And there are rumors that Stark built himself an AI, so I thought, hey, nice, right? So, I, uh, I hacked them.”

You know how in those cheesy TV shows, when someone is drinking something and someone else says something surprising, they spit it out really dramatically? Yeah, that didn’t happen. I had already swallowed halfway, so when I tried to say something back while I was in shock, I just ended up choking and coughing my guts up. Spark hands me yet more napkins as my eyes start to water with the force of it.

Once that ends, I jerk my head back up to her, take a raspy breath, and demand, “What?!”
She nods, taking a sip of her soda (she’s trying to see if cutting back on coffee will help her insomnia, but so far, it’s only made her grumpy). “Yup. Did that.”
“Oh my God, Spark, I love you, I really do, but that was really, really stupid,” I say, wide-eyed.
“Uh-huh,” Spark says, taking a bite of some braided pastry I don’t remember the name of.
“I mean, you could have been sued, Stark’s got the lawyers-“
“Sure.”
“And then he could jail you-“
“That would be sad,” Spark comments as she smiles at me.
I ignore this. “And that dude has ins everywhere, what if he blacklisted you? You would never be able to go to college-“
Spark laughs. “That’s already remote, babe.” I smack her lightly both for interrupting me and for the negative talk.
“And you probably wouldn’t be able to get a job, what if he did that? You wouldn’t be able to afford meds, or school supplies, maybe even rent or something-“
“Oh, like there isn’t some shoddy, desperate businesses out there.”
I pause and put my head down on the table, overcome with the need to shake some sense into Spark. “How about I just summarize the telling-off speech, since you’ve heard it before?” I ask the tabletop.
“That would be nice,” Spark says.
I sit up. “Okay, so that was really stupid, you always jump before you think, what if that went badly, you really need to choose new projects, how did you even do it-“
“There’s the same backdoor that the government has unpatched,” Spark says casually.
I stop, and the world sways slightly as I take this in. “You hacked the government?!” I hiss, knowing to keep my voice down.
“Yeah,” Spark says, “I needed to check the identities of the people we’ve fought in order to make sure they’re not too dangerous and or allergic to the stuff I’m injecting them with the take them down. How did you think I was getting that info?”
I did not think about it. It was just something Spark knew, like Star just knows how to improvise when she’s super nervous and maybe about to die, and how Jack has a never-ending amount of jokes and puns. It just is.

“Yeah, but they haven’t caught me, and if they did, the only thing they would find is the name ‘sh0cking’ under about ninety layers of code that I made blend in. It’s fine.”
I put my head down on the table again.

 

---

Yesterday, 1:16 AM

Stark Man
Hey kid nice job hacking me

Me
Uhhhhhhh

Me
Please don’t sue me I like life

Me
I’m so sorry I didn’t break anything I swear all of your code is fine

Stark man
Oh yeah, I know I checked

Stark Man
You did a nice job, all I could find for the last four hours was the name ‘sh0cking’, it was pretty well hidden

Stark Man
How did you give yourself level 20 access that’s Avengers level?

Me
Uhhhhh

Stark Man
Oh! I’m not suing, I’m mostly just impressed

Stark Man
Took me a full hour to figure out something was wrong

Stark Man
The thing with Pepper was the hint

Me
Which one
Stark Man
Having “God Is a Woman” play when she burned someone being disrespectful

Stark Man
Wait what else did you do

Me
If anything sets on fire “Burn” from Hamilton will play

Stark Man
I’m keeping that

Me
Okay,,,

 

---

 

Yesterday, 5:27 AM

Stark Man
Job application link

Me
I’m literally so confused right now I have gotten 0% explanation
Stark Man
Explanation: you’re smart, I employ smart people, so congrats

Me
:((((

Stark Man
B)))))

Me
But I literally hacked you

Stark Man
Indeed

Me
????!!!!!!??????

Stark Man
:)))))

Me
I HACKED YOU

Stark Man
YES AND YOU’RE VERY SMART I LIKE EMPLOYING SMART PEOPLE

Me
I’ll fill out the form

---
Today, 2:12 AM

Stark Man
How do you feel about starting today

Me
It’ll be bad any day lol why not now

Stark Man
Cool, get in the third elevator to the right when you get to the tower

Me
What will I be doing

Stark Man
What do you want to do?

Me
So you’re paying me to use your stuff to do whatever

Stark Man
Pretty much for the first week, we give you kiddos free reign, see what you can do

Me
Okay so if I had this idea for a super bandage, but I wasn’t sure what to make it out of, could I phone a friend or is this an in-the-building type thing

Stark Man
Do whatever can’t wait to see the outcome

You renamed the chat to ‘Adoption Conversation Central’

Stark Man
I feel attacked

Me
I know for a fact that you have legally adopted a son, you have a biological daughter, and you have at least like five others that are your children in everything but law

Stark Man
I came here to have a good time,

Me
You did not, you came here because we’re both sleep deprived and won’t judge each other for it, old man

Stark Man
Verbal assault,

Me
On an elder,

Stark Man
Physical assault,

Me
Are you willing to up the number by three, counting me

Stark Man
What other children are we talking here

Me
A non-binary Mexican American genius who specializes in both physics and engineering in general

Me
An engineering genius who straight up could destroy me through her brain power tbh

Me
And me!!

Stark Man
And you…

Me
I code stuff, mostly

Me
You know, they build it, I finish it

Me
I also help with the idea process, but I like making the thing physically less

Stark Man
Interesting

Stark Man
So this may sound hypocritical

Stark Man
But you need to sleep

Me
“”May””

Me
You’ve literally never texted me before midnight

Stark Man
>:((((

Me
:)

---

Walking into the Stark Tower is definitely the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s not like I particularly stick out, with my semi-casual skirt and old blouse-I think I see one man in sweatpants and a pun tee-shirt up ahead. And I’m not over dressed-next to me is a woman in a low-cut, fancy dress, wearing stilettos high enough to mortally wound me with.

I’m just nervous, okay?

I came here directly after school, so I had to stuff my work things in my bag. That’s why the majority of what I need is in my purse-a med kit, complete with everything from the necessities for emergency surgery to a neatly folded shock blanket, my make-up bag, my phone, my laptop (upgraded by Ember and myself, in both hardware and software, along with Izzy’s presence), chargers for both, some various tools Bryn made for me, and my super suit, carefully concealed and only accessible if you either tear my bag apart or if Izzy opens the cloth itself to let the fabric fall out.

I move with the crowd through the doors and then get separated as we pass through security. I’m frisked, my bag is checked (“Why do you have a med bag? Are you a doctor?” “Trying to be, ma’am”), and then I am set free.

The elevator Stark told me to use is only occupied by a cute Asian girl. She has long black hair that moves with her head as she takes in everything around her, a messenger bag that she guards under one arm, and fancy clothes-pencil skirt, slight heels, and tucked shirt. I run to catch the elevator before it closes, but I didn’t need to worry-the doors close only after I am safely onboard.

The girl takes me in with a blank, polite face. “Hello,” she says. Her voice is an attempt at politeness, as well.

“Hi,” I say, shrugging my purse up onto my shoulder.
“First day?” she asks, smiling slightly.
“Um,” I say, not sure what to do or say, “Yeah.”
“This is my fifth,” the girl says. “I’m a translator-German, Chinese, and English.”
“Wow. That’s really cool,” I say, impressed. She looks my age; how did she learn so many? “I only speak English. I’m in Software Development, developing medical tech.”
The girl nods. “That also sounds impressive.”
“Yeah, uh,” I say, shifting on my feet. “I’m Sophia Dillon, but I don’t like my name, so I’m Spark.”
The girl nods regally. (That is the only way I can possibly describe her nod, and maybe the girl herself.) “I’m Shay Li. It’s nice to meet you, but this is my floor.”
I didn’t even realize the doors had opened. “Oh!” I say, jumping aside. “Yeah, uh, bye.”
“Goodbye, Spark,” Shay says, gliding out of the elevator like a queen.

I sigh and collapse against the side of the elevator as it starts to move again. Looking out the window, all I can see are buildings-we’re not above the skyline, and this is New York, what was I expecting? It is nice, though-it’s a street, not a straight-up wall like I have at home. I watch the crowds moving along for about thirty seconds before-
“Hello, Miss Dillon,” says a voice that I do not know. I know who spoke it, though.
I jump. “Jarvis!” I say, looking at the ceiling. “Wow, hi, dude!”
“Good morning,” Jarvis says.
“Yeah, uh, sorry for hacking you, buddy,” I say, “I-uh-didn’t hurt anything, I just copy and pasted for ideas, you know?”
“I would say I don’t, but I was built by Master Stark,” Jarvis says, “So I have seen many illegal dealings in the name of innovation and invention.”
I laugh. Wow, yup, I can imagine that. “Still,” I say, looking around for speakers or cameras. There’s one in each corner, so it seems like Jarvis is talking from everywhere, maybe vaguely up. “Sorry, man.”
“It’s quite alright, though I would like to see what you did with your inspiration,” J says. “However, this is your floor. A warning, Miss Dillon: this is about to get loud.”
“Oh,” I say, “Um. Okay.”
The elevator stops moving, and the doors slide open. It’s not loud, actually; there’s a little lobby with a receptionist typing away on a computer behind a desk. She doesn’t look up, just pointing me to a wooden door with silver handles. I decide to trust her, moving towards the double doors and opening them.

Okay, that’s loud. Why is there so much screaming?

I watch one man near me gesture emphatically from the middle of a circle of holograms, talking at top speed and volume. A few feet away from him, a woman in sweatpants is feverishly printing something out, muttering to herself. My vision shifts to a man, maybe twenty, who is typing at a desk and acting rather calm for his surroundings. I decide that he is a god and that I should not mess with him. Either that, or he’s on an edge of a mental break down and is just barely holding on.

I decide to focus on the fact that there are holograms. Like, glowing blue, hanging in the air, holograms. That people are using casually. Oh my God. This is so cool.

“Hey, kid,” someone says, “You new?”
I spin to my left to see a tired man in a Star Wars tee shirt and baggy jeans, holding a packet.
“Here’s your info,” he says, offering it to me.
I grab the packet, glancing at the front page. I can see my name and my new job title. “Thanks.”
“Sure,” he says, already turning around and walking away. So much for helping the new kid.

I turn the page. I can see a bunch of stuff, like my phone number and my new email-I glance at the password and username-and on the page next to it is a very vague message next to the ‘project’ place: “Have fun with your bandage, kid”.

I smile and look back on the first page, looking for instructions on what to actually do. Eventually, I see a desk number (twenty-seven, so helpful when nothing’s labeled).

Eventually, I find a row of desks that have not been pushed around, and I count from there to number twenty-seven. It’s an empty desk, which consoles me.

My stomach rumbles ominously as I put my bag down. I’m not sure if I’m hungry or about to throw up-I didn’t eat breakfast or dinner last night, and then eating the school lunch might not have been the best. I ignore my body, sitting down in the rolling office chair and glancing over my desk.

There’s a fake plant and a few cases of office supplies, nothing much. Mostly just wood. I have no idea what to expect, I’ve never had an office job, but I’m feeling like this is outside the norm.

I pull out my laptop and log into my new Stark Industries email. I have no mail (unsurprising), so I move onto pulling up some complicated program that supposedly allows me to run 3D simulations and stuff.

I’m partway through the loading screen (I started typing on my laptop while I was waiting, writing down some more ideas of what the bandage could do) when I hear yelling.

“Please don’t tell me you’ve adopted another young genius!” says some female voice. She’s following behind Mr. Stark, a redhead with a sharp dress and a StarkPad in-hand. Stark is also looking fancy-all business suit and dark sunglasses.

“Oh, come on, Pep,” Stark says, ignoring all the people looking at him as he pauses only slightly to look around. He stops, looking in my direction, and sweeps forward. I inwardly groan, not wanting to be killed by the lady currently yelling at him.
Stark approaches my desk and smiles, seeing the way I’m staring at him. I glance behind him to the redhead (Pep?) to see how high my chance of being murdered is.
“Hi, Mr. Stark,” I say nervously. “I-uh…”
“Hey, kiddo,” Stark says, sitting on my desk. “What you working on?”
“Tony, you have a board meeting right now-“ Pep attempts. I shrink away from her a little.
“I, um, who’s she, and I don’t-if you’re busy-“ I attempt bravely. My brain tumbles over itself as it attempts a sentence, unhelpfully giving me panicked signals.
“Nah, sweetheart,” Stark says, taking his sunglasses off. “Wanted to see you on your first day! And that’s Pepper, she’s my personal assistant.”
“Riiiiiight,” I say, “So, uh, I respect you, and stuff, but I already respect her more, mostly because she wants to murder me, but, uh, so-“
“I don’t want to murder you,” Pepper says, slightly softer than before. “And I’m sure you’re very smart, but Tony is busy.”
I feel my stomach shift. My face pales, and Pepper squints at me. “Are you okay?” she asks.
I nod quickly, hoping my stomach shuts up. It does not, choosing to growl unhelpfully. Apparently, I’m hungry, which is great.
“When did you last eat?” Pepper asks as Stark looks me over.
“Uh, lunch,” I say, shifting under both of their scanning looks. “Some chicken, fried, I think, I don’t really know how they did that, like, an apple, some milk, and a bunch of really sad corn.”
Pepper nods encouragingly as Stark puts his sunglasses back on. He continues looking at me, so I assume he just wanted to look me over closely without making me uncomfortable. “And what about before that?”
“Uh…” I say, wondering if Pepper would count the slightly stale bread Brooke got me or the cereal I ate at least, like, twelve hours ago. “Cereal…? Yesterday…morning…?”
Pepper freezes for about half a second, and then quickly moves. She dispenses her StarkPad on my desk, hauls me out of my chair, makes a sharp motion with her head toward a worried-yet-grinning Stark, and starts to move toward the elevator.

As I’m pulled along-people continue to stare, but neither Stark nor Pepper pays them any mind-there’s a seizing pain in my abdomen. My fist clenches and I force an absent smile onto my face. Stark cannot see, thankfully, as he’s following along behind, and Pepper is busy dragging me behind her.

It’s once we’re inside the elevator that the weird feeling in my hip starts. Apparently, just for fun, my body decided to pretend there’s a hot nail buried inside my right hip. This makes me limp the last few steps, which Stark definitely notices.

He casually slings an arm around my waist and immediately starts taking the majority of my weight. Somehow, like he’s done this before, he manages to do it so that neither of us looks particularly stiff, with his arm looped almost loosely around me. Pepper, seeing this, looks about thirty percent more stressed and worried. She straightens her posture even more, her eyes flicking between me and the number over the door displaying our current floor.

By the time we get to the cafeteria, Stark is still taking most of my weight, Pepper is still glancing between me and the path she is forging between us, all despite the fact that the cramps have lessened slightly.

It’s a nice cafeteria; it must take up a whole floor. There are stalls and small restaurants for every culture and food I can think of. The walls are mostly made of glass, showing off an impressive view of the rest of the city.

I would be able to admire it more if Pepper would quit dragging me along.

She talks to Jarvis as we go, who is apparently in a microphone in her ear that I can barely make out over the racket of the cafeteria.
“Jarvis, what’s the most healthy and nutritious thing in this place?” she asks, setting me down at a table. This one is in a small cubby off of the main place, and it’s full of fake plants and screens showing all kinds of bland information-the weather, traffic situation, and a few news feeds.

“I would recommend a soup made of chicken or beef broth and light vegetables and potatoes. I would also suggest a glass of milk and some sort of fruit,” Jarvis says helpfully. “You should also order Miss Dillon a sandwich of some sort, as she can choose to eat it here or carry it elsewhere, perhaps with a salad or another fruit.”
“Thank you, Jarvis,” Pepper says testily. She sweeps away, and I see her disappear into a soup and sandwich shop that is suddenly very, very quiet.

Stark settles into the chair, watching me anxiously pull at my clothes and their imaginary wrinkles. His sunglasses are now hanging off his shirt collar, and he’s leaning back in his chair casually.
“You know, sweetheart, if your father can’t afford food-“ he starts, his eyes still searching me.
“We can afford food,” I say, “I just would prefer meds or college or more tech supplies or one of the million other things. Books. Trips out with my friends where they wouldn’t have to pay for me. A subscription to one of the papers that publish studies.”

Then my jaw shuts tight, and I stare at a screen in the wall showing the fascinating humidity percentage.

I have the sudden feeling that I’ve said too much.

Honestly, my situation is pretty simple, in a logical point of view. I’m poor, so my dad works as much as he can to support us. With the extra expenses such as my meds and future ones like med school, I pick up two part-time jobs, along with high school. The solution is simple: attain money. Which I would love to do! But…

The hard part is my brain.

The feeling I have right now, where it feels awkward and bad whenever I tell anyone anything personal, not just my money situation. (“Hey, who’s your mom?” “What, you’re asexual? With that boyfriend of yours? He’s a model!” “Hey, why are you always so tired?”)

And then there’s the Endless Checklist. Go to school to learn so you can have a good job later. Go to work to earn money so we can afford literally anything besides basic necessities. Stay up late Skyping Ray and working on Izzy to feel alive. Go out as Super Shock so I can save people and get rid of the constant itch to move, create, be helpful, not useless, they expect you to be useless, you cannot be useless-

And then there’s dad himself. He faded, after mom left. He works more, has that stupid fake smile on most of the time, pretends I can’t see the tiredness in his bones or the slowly growing pile of bills.

And what I want to do, of course, is one of the most expensive things my stupid self could have chosen. A doctor, really, me? We can’t afford that unless I get a scholarship, and that’s pushing it for us to pay for all of the hundreds-of-dollars books. I need to go to school and get perfect grades, which means stressing over every test and essay.

The insomnia that makes me resent sleeping, avoiding my bed and the uselessness that comes with lying there in the dark, stubbornly awake.

So, yeah, I have bigger concerns then the ache in my stomach.

My fingers twitch, and I can’t tell if it’s the sudden rise of self-doubt or the anxiousness that comes with having Tony Fudging Stark staring at you incomprehensibly.

I look away. “I’m fine,” I tell him. “I’m not anorexic-I don’t do this because I want to be thin, or anything… I just want things that I can’t get otherwise.”

Stark, out of the corner of my eyes, looks like someone just took out his liver with a rusty spoon.

Work, keep going, ignore it-

Man, I really need a therapist, huh? Could Izzy be my therapist? I think, purposefully trying to draw my mind away from that. I could have her download whatever’s in the public domain, I wonder what studies there are on self-doubt…

“Sweetheart…” Stark starts hesitantly. I look up at him, my fingers twisting in my lap.

My bandage, what else could I do with my bandage? The edges would have to be sticky, but is there a way to make them come up without taking any hair or skin with it? What chemical mix could I use for that? I should ask Ember, she’s slightly better than me with chem… And then I need to figure out how burns react to different ointments, maybe there’s something that works well with burns and cuts, that would be good. Maybe getting rid of scar tissue-

“Sweetheart, I can pay for that,” he says, “All of that. Whatever you want. I’m-I’m a multi-billionaire, sweetheart, I can pay for all of that-”
He’s interrupted by Pepper’s return. She has a large bag hanging off each arm, and she’s already fishing around in one. She takes out a plastic container that has soup in it and a banana and quickly puts them in front of me.

Stark looks relieved when I eat without argument. I try to go slow, both so I don’t throw up and so I don’t make this situation worse. I’ve probably made a bad impression already, honestly, but at least I can do this.

I eat the banana first, and that’s gone in about forty-five seconds, maybe a minute. Bananas are quick to eat, I never really thought about it. Then I move onto the soup, eating while I regularly look up at both Pepper and Stark, who are watching me.

Stark fills Pepper in with what he knows at a whisper, and Pepper’s red eyebrows scrunch. Her face then flattens as if she ironed it out.

Stark has the distinct look that he’s killing off his demons internally. Pepper, a goddess who did that long ago, is free to interrogate me.
“Do you only eat school meals?” she asks. I look up from my soup, chewing as I consider.
“No,” I say, “I eat whenever dad’s around, don’t want him to worry, you know, and two of my friends run a bakery with their mom, they bring me food a lot, Em’s kind of rich, she’s been trying to pay for literally anything I do for months now. And I take what they give me, but, uh-“
I don’t want to be a burden. Don’t be useless.

I scrub my face with one hand. “Jesus, I’m messed up,” I grumble. “Useless, really, brain? If that’s true, how did I get this flipping internship?”

My brain, predictably, does not respond. Instead, I have a concerned Pepper and one man who just found a new demon to battle, judging by his face.
“Okay,” she says, mercifully ignoring my commentary. “Do you have other jobs? Clubs?”
‘ I nod. “No clubs, although I probably should, for the sake of college admissions-“ I pause at the devastated look on Pepper’s face and quickly move on, “But I do… uh, I have two part-time jobs. McDonald's and a tiny little clothes store that needs a cashier slash janitor.”
Stark buts in. “How much do they pay? I’ll double it, you can drop those.”

The relief at those words almost overwhelms my blushing face. “Right,” I squeak. “Uh, around fifteen dollars per hour? It’s minimum wage in the city, so they kind of have to…”
“J?” Stark asks.
“On it, sir. Miss Dillon’s pay has expanded by sixty dollars per hour,” says the ceiling.
I sip my soup, considering. “Where’s the money coming from?” I ask.
“Me,” Stark says even before J confirms. “No one’s suffering because you are, promise, I’m covering it.”

Well. Okay.

“So, um, I should get back to work,” I say, eating a chunk of potato and ignoring the way Pepper is glaring at the bags under my eyes.
“Actually,” Stark says, apparently having recovered his Smooth Billionaire Shield Against Emotions and Other Troubling Things, “I was thinking you could stay on one of my guest floors. They’re great, really, they have everything J and I could think of.”
Pepper latches onto the idea. “Yes, that’s-yes. Okay, um, if you’re really full-“
“I came here to work, ma’am, sir,” I say quietly.

DON’T BE USELESS, WORK, MOVE, GO, CREATE, HELP, DON’T, NO, BAD, NO-

“You can work after you sleep,” Pepper bargains. “You can do anything else, but at least you have to sleep.”
Stark nods as his sunglasses make their way back to his face with a smooth motion. He has a cocky smile on his face when he says, “We like to have our employees at maximum productivity. Can’t do that if they’re sleep deprived.”

Which, you know, makes an infuriating amount of sense. I try to tell this to myself-I need to sleep, wasn’t eating nice? (It was very nice, actually, I can already feel my stomach settling.) All I succeed in is talking to myself like I’m a toddler, which does not really do much, if you’d believe it.

Move, create, design, code, work, go, help, don’t be useless-

If I’m useless at any point, it’s when I can’t think straight from exhaustion.

And with that revelation, I get up and nod jerkily. Both Stark and Pepper roll with it, looking very relieved.

Pepper guides me back to the elevator (“Didn’t Pepper say earlier you have a meeting?” “Shhhh, she’ll remember.”). We go up to the eighty-third floor, where the silver opens smoothly to a small hallway.

There’s a flowering plant that looks real and a painting hanging on the wall showing a sunset in blurry watercolor. One door is painted a bright red and blue, with some black lines covering it like a large spider web. I raise an eyebrow but ignore it.

The other door is white, but on top of the blandness, there’s a hologram reading Sophia “Spark” Dillon, Stark Industries, Software Development Department, Medical Technology Development, which seems overly fancy for what I’ve done so far.

I open the door, and Stark and Pepper wave me goodbye. Pepper actually hugs me, which I was not prepared for.

And then the door is closing behind me, and I am alone. I’m standing in a little entry hall with a basic table and vase flowers set up. There are hooks on the wall, presumably for coats, and a shoe rack. I decide to slip my shoes off, just so whoever cleans this place has less of a horrible time.

I move forward into a large room that is both a kitchen and a living room. There are bookcases lining one wall, with a TV mounted in the middle and a bunch of couches and armchairs in front. The other wall is glass, and it has an easel and several expensive instruments in front that I am scared to touch. There’s also shelves with empty frames on them, they look kind of lonely.

The other two walls are a massive kitchen that Ray would kill to cook in, containing everything from stainless steel double ovens to a bar. It’s so fancy that I barely recognize the coffee maker, so I decide to not touch anything there, either, until I’m a little more awake. I do, however, check the fridge, and yep, it’s fully stocked.

I move on to a giant bathroom decked out in white tile and gold, a mini cinema room that has its own popcorn machine, and what looks like a library out of The Beauty and the Beast. Eventually, I find a bedroom.

The color scheme is mostly grey and blue, which I don’t mind very much, since it’s calming. There’s a desk in the corner with a high tech computer and a bookcase stocked with classics next to another massive window. Then there’s the walk-in closet, the bathroom that is more of the white tiling and gold everything else, and a comfy-looking couch in the remaining corner that’s next to a lamp and a plant that may or may not be real.

I look at the bed mournfully. How am I supposed to sleep? It’s not like my insomnia is in direct correlation with how nice my surroundings are.

Yeah, this is going to be great.

I shed my socks and bra, which I refuse to sleep in, and face plant onto the bed. I’m soon surrounded by a blanket burrito, complete with pillows that I snuggle up against.

My mind delves back into ideas for updating Izzy’s code. Therapy tactics that need to be downloaded-should it be a separate mode, or should she just slip it into a conversation whenever? Probably a little of both. And of course, I could update the code in the suits…

Chapter Text

It took maybe twenty minutes for me to fall asleep. That’s practically thirty seconds, in my book. And after that, I managed to stay asleep until around four hours later.

I groggily wake up to a clock blinking the time at me, as my pillow has fallen onto the floor. Nine fifty-eight.

I slowly wrestle my way out of the soft prison I have made myself. By the time I’m free, it’s five minutes later and I’m laughing to myself as I put my clothes back on. I stand up, and suddenly remember that I should call Dad.

I grab my phone from my pocket and quickly call. God, he’s going to be so stressed-

“Hey, dad,” I say quickly, “So don’t be mad, but, uh-”
“You’re staying at Stark Tower, I know,” Dad says. I freeze, confused.
“What? How?” I ask, moving into the main room to grab some food. The fridge has some Chinese food in it, which I decide to eat. As look around for a plate and silverware, Dad answers.
“Someone named Mrs. Potts called me,” Dad says as I find a drawer full of forks, knives, and spoons. “Said you came in so hungry and tired that you couldn’t function.”

Oh boy.

“Oh,” I say stupidly. “Um.”

“Yes,” Dad says pointedly, “I thought we had a conversation about you not sacrificing short-term health for long-term goals?”
“I need to go to college, Dad!” I say, opening a cabinet to look for plates. Nope, a bunch of bowls. “Even if I do get a scholarship for college, me actually going is only, like, two and a half years away. We need to figure out how to pay for all those books, never mind if the scholarship isn’t a full ride!”
There’s a sigh from the other side of the phone as I finally find a cabinet full of plates. As I grab one, Dad says, “Sweetheart, I can worry about that stuff. And even if you have to, I don’t like the idea of you passing out from hunger.”
“Okay, first of all, I did not pass out,” I say, scooping rice onto the plate with a fork. “Second, and maybe better, Mr. Stark was the one who forced me to eat, along with Mrs. Pepper, who I think has the last name Potts, so that’s probably who called you. Anyway, he offered to raise my pay by at least sixty bucks per hour.”
There’s almost no pause before the excited, “OH! Spark, that’s amazing!”
“Yeah,” I say, adding lo mein to my plate.
“You could quit those extra jobs!” Dad says excitedly.
I add fried rice, because it’s delicious and I haven’t had it in a while. “Yup, that’s why he did it.”
“You could join clubs!” Dad says, “And I know you’ve wanted to!”
“Yeah,” I say, sliding the plate into the microwave. I pause and quickly add an egg roll before starting the microwave. “My schedule sure gets a lot less hectic, huh?”
“Oh wow,” Dad says. He sounds very relieved, which is good.
I lean on the counter and say, “Yeah, well, you remember that robotics club? They program a lot, and I need to work on, you know, actually building stuff, so-”
“That would be amazing!” Dad says, “And the Red Cross, you could get some medical experience, and you’d be open for volunteering, that looks good on college submissions-”
“Yeah, there’s a clinic that I’ve been looking at,” I say, grabbing my food from the beeping microwave.
“Wait!” Dad says, “You distracted me! I’m still mad at you!”
It almost worked, I think sadly.
“Okay,” I say, grabbing my fork and sitting on a bar stool to eat at this weird raised part of the counter.
“You can’t just do that, what if you actually passed out, and it was somewhere dangerous? And don’t think I haven’t heard you sneaking out at night, I know you can’t sleep a lot, but I’m starting to get concerned. And what if you got hurt? How could we have paid for that? And then there’s the fact that we have money for food-”
“Yeah, but we could be spending it on other things,” I say. I chew on an egg roll as Dad responds.
“Spark!” he says angrily, “You have to take care of yourself!”
“I know,” I say, finishing my egg roll. “Of course I do. Why do you think I haven’t passed out yet? I’ve been keeping track of this stuff.”
That’s partially true. Technically, Izzy has been keeping track of this stuff, logging it in the journal thing. But I do try to follow along, and I make sure my blood sugar doesn’t dip below functioning levels.
There’s a sigh. “Okay, just...You’ve gotten really lucky lately, and with our current savings, we don’t have to worry about it, if we keep going like this…”
“Oh, yeah,” I say, “Easy peasy, just don’t break anything, or come down sick, get into a car crash, get killed in a school shooting. Dad, we need to be prepared! What if something bad happens?” I anxiously take a bite of my fried rice. “We won’t be able to afford anything.”
“We’ll make it,” Dad says, his voice hard with determination. “And you, young lady, are going to at minimum eat.”
I sigh. “Fine. Bye, dad.”
“Bye, Spark, love you,” Dad says. “You can stay at the tower, I don’t want you wandering around. It’s gotten dark out.”
“‘Kay, Dad, love you,” I say, pressing the end call button. I sigh and take a moody bite of rice, thinking everything over.
“Miss Dillon, if I may,” J says, “Master Stark has a question for you.”
I look up. “What is it, J?”
“I will play the recording,” Jarvis says. A hologram pulls up in front of me, showing a video feed of Stark in his workshop.
“Yeah,” Stark says, working on welding something to something else. “Anyway, I was thinking. So obviously she’s barely scraping by with the pay of those two jobs, plus her dad working.
“I obviously can’t raise her pay more, it’s already suspicious,” he continues, picking up the piece of metal and handing it to a nearby bot, moving instantly to another thing-he starts wiring a prosthetic arm. “So why not make her my direct employee? Like with Peter? Obviously, she can’t be my intern like Pete, but something else?”
J responds then. “Well, sir, you could have her as some sort of help around here. Perhaps you could start a private design of some sort of medical technology, and then call her in to help with the new project?”
“Yeah, that’s good,” Stark says, distractedly patting a robot passing nearby, “But people will get suspicious…”
“Sir, if I may remind you,” J says sarcastically, “You are Tony Stark. Who questions you?”
Stark laughs while he messes with a blue wire. “The press.”
“And, sir, if you are really concerned about this-”
“I’m not concerned for me!” Stark says, “She doesn’t need the attention. What if she’s kidnapped because of me?”
I stare at the concerned face of Stark. He’s now waving emphatically with the tool he was using to move the wires.
“Of course, sir,” J says. “I was going to suggest you create some sort of distraction. A diversion that the press would focus on.”
Stark nods, going back to his work. “Like what?”
“Well, sir,” J says cheekily, “Pride Month starts in two days.”
Stark freezes. “You want me to do something for Pride Month?” he asks. “Like what?”
“Well, sir, Peter is a transgender male,” Jarvis responds, “Most of the Avengers are some sort of queer. And you do happen to be bisexual, if you are willing to share that.”
“I am not,” Stark says immediately. “But I could do something...It would have to be big. Oh, uh, tell Spark she’s getting a job up here.”
“Of course, sir,” J responds.
The video stops. I stare at the frozen face of Stark, lit up slightly by a nearby lamp.
“J, I’m pretty sure he didn’t want me to see that,” I say. “I feel like I just saw top-secret info.”
“Well,” J says innocently, “I thought that way would be best to get the feeling and message across.”
I laugh in a shocked way. “Yeah, okay, buddy,” I say. “Why don’t you tell Stark I’m awake? I don’t exactly know what to do around here.”
I finish with my food and put the plate and fork in the sink and then move on to putting the containers of Chinese food back in the fridge.
“Master Stark has been notified,” J says. “He wishes for me to instruct you to get into the elevator, Miss. Dillon. It appears he wishes to work with you in his workshop in the penthouse.”
“Oh,” I say turning to the elevator. As I get in, I stop and look at the ceiling. “Hey, uh, J, are any of the other Avengers there?”
“Not currently, Miss Dillon,” J says.
“Okay,” I say, relieved. “Beam me up, Scotty.”
“Of course, Miss Dillon.” The elevator moves smoothly upwards.

---

“Hey, kid!” Stark says. He looks up from his work. He, frankly, looks like a mess; he’s covered in grease and smudges of oil, and he’s not wearing gloves as he welds. But his dark brown eyes are bright and excited when they catch mine, so I think it’s okay.

“Hi,” I say. “So, pretending to give me a job while also simultaneously giving me a real job sounds fun.”
“Yeah!” Stark says, already turning back around to his project. “And you can work on whatever in here, so it’s all good!”
“Right,” I say, cautiously walking in. I pat a small robot that rolls up to me on the head, and the small thing chirps at me happily before rolling away again. I take out my laptop.
“Hey, Izzy, time to look alive,” I say, placing my phone on the table too. Stark looks up as Izzy starts pulling up diagrams and pages of math.
“Mr. Stark, Mr. Jaris, it is nice to formally meet you,” she says, “I am Elizabeth, Spark’s AI. She prefers to call me Izzy or Iz.”
“Nice to meet you as well,” says Jarvis, “I am JARVIS, Master Stark’s personal AI.”
There’s a small whirring sound from Izzy in confirmation. “Spark, I have created a private file listing all of the ideas you have mentioned for your bandage idea. It is listed under ‘bandage project one’, and I am pulling it up.”
I sit down in one of the spare seats Stark has rolling around. “Cool!” I say as the file pulls up.

 

Bandage Project One

Spec Ideas
Clings to skin-holds the laceration/burn in place during the healing process
Stick to the skin in some way by extension
Changes temperature in response to fluctuations in the patient’s temperature
Possibly made of some sort of healing/soothing material
Decomposition is both a negative and a positive, as always
The material would have to be inconspicuous to buy and cheap

Izzy notes: The bandage needs to be as comfortable as possible while also solving as many medical problems as possible. A slim design would be best for easy movement, and flexibility should also be a priority.

Spark notes:

“Hey, nice, Iz,” I say. “Let’s say that the bandage covers the entire body like a suit, how much ointment would that have, and would it be able to retain all of our previous needs from it?”
Of course, I’m asking if it could still fit all the protection our super suits currently have without limiting flexibility. The compression for Petal’s and Onyx’s binders would also need to happen.
There’s a slight pause as I start clicking through ointments we could add. Stark is still staring at me. He speaks slowly, “Hey, Spark, I have a salve that would work. I keep it in my Iron Man suit, it can be sprayed onto pretty much anything without making anything worse. It keeps bacteria out of cuts and helps heal burns.”
I look up at him and smile. For some reason, he looks startled. “Hey, that would be great! Hey, Jarvis, can you give me all you know on it? So Izzy can have it? I need everything from its density to how it helps burns.”
“Of course, Miss Dillon,” Jarvis says, opening a complex hologram to my side, where Izzy can see it from my computer and phone. “Is this suitable, Elizabeth?”
“Yes, thank you,” Izzy says, copying it all onto another file marked under ‘bandage project reference’. Once she finishes, the hologram switches to another flurry of information, and that happens three more times before it’s done. J gave Izzy everything he had, it looks like.
“We could fit around two liters,” Izzy announces, “If we keep room for more additions and for flexibility.”
“Oh cool,” I say, “Let’s down that to one-point-five liters. That should be enough for whatever dents.”
Stark stares at me. “Uh, what ‘previous additions’ are there?”
“Izzy, pull it up,” I say, hoping she knows not to do the in-detail one. “Basic construction diagram.”
The thing pulls up, a skin-tight suit with highlights where certain things are. There’s a support situation for harsh landings from up high, grips that can appear and disappear for easier climbing, and so on. Izzy is still adding the outline of the new bandages, she’s dispersing them like veins between everything else so they can go anywhere. Stark stares.
“What-why do you need this?” Stark asks, standing up and getting closer.
I scramble for an answer. I do not want Iron Man babysitting me in-suit as well. “Well, uh, it’s helpful in theory, right? Like...I’m working with Petal-she’s a clothes designer-to make clothes that you can wear underneath instead of underwear that would be, like, really helpful. Uh, it would, if anyone got hurt accidentally-like, if you were in a car crash or something-give medical help. Like there’s, uh, compression around the chest and abdomen for wounds-they bleed the most there-and, um, I’m working on it being bulletproof-it’s already pretty much blast proof. It, uh, changes temperature, which mostly is helpful when someone overheats or gets too cold, but for...an explosion, it-uh-turns the top layer cold so the person in it doesn’t fry, and then...the blast impact, that thing that blows you backward? Yeah, um, if you go flying, like, no part of the suit is supported by ground or anything, or if Izzy thinks it’s necessary, she’s in here, obviously, um, she would distribute the force as best she can. So, um, someone going seventy miles per hour into a concrete wall might just break a few bones…instead of, you know, dying.”
Stark nods slowly. “You’re-okay, wow, this could save lives, couldn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I say slowly, hoping he doesn’t notice the grips for climbing, “I...um, yeah.”
Stark enlarges the system that handles the impact. “Oh!” I say, “That works by basically compressing the entire thing as you collide. It spreads out the weight. Also, there are small little things that inflate to decrease your speed, even by just a little. There’s other stuff, too, but I haven’t tested them yet.”
Stark looks up at me. “You have a functioning prototype?” he asks.
I freeze. Oh no. “I...yeah, nine of them, they each do different things...like, one is made to take high temperatures for a long time,” I say, latching onto Ember’s suit and how it handles her miraculous ability to create flames, “So...if you were caught in a fire, it would help...and everyone also has a filter around the mouth and nose-it works for everything from smoke to poison gas.”
Stark studies me. “And how did you figure that out?” he asks.
I freeze. My mind flashes to the time I went into a building some terrorist group had let poisoned gas into to drag people out. I, at that time, had no idea if the filter could take more than smoke. “Uh…”
Stark stares at me for a few minutes where I stubbornly remain silent, unable to come up with an excuse.
“We’re going to stand here until you answer me,” Stark tells me.
I swallow uncomfortably. “Like you never throw yourself into danger.”
Stark’s face hardens slightly. “I don’t throw myself into poison gas clouds until I’m sure I won’t breathe it in! You just said it as if you needed to test it, and you decided to go ahead-!”
I turn back to my laptop. “The first function test for your suit was launching yourself into a warzone. Much better.”
Stark makes a frustrated sound behind me.

---

I get up to leave after fifty minutes of silence. (I had Izzy time it.) Stark looks up immediately and says, “Please don’t go,” in a way that’s so desperate it makes me pause.

It had been so tense. I just typed away on my computer and he switched between around eight projects. All in silence.

I turn back to him. Study him. “Are you going to ask me?”
He puts his tools down. “Not if you don’t want me to. I can get having...dangerous secrets.”
I laugh to myself, a low chuckle. “Yeah, I guess you can,” I say, slowly moving back to my little spot. “Um, what music do you like? I can play something.”
Stark picks his tools up again. “Try AC/DC.”
I blink. “Okay, old dude,” I say, “Iz?”
Unfamiliar music comes from my laptop. I blink at it, and then decide I can just ignore it. Behind me, I hear an over-the-top offended sound, and then, “I am not old.”
I wave him off without looking, smiling, “Sure, old dude, whatever.”

From then on, the silence is comfortable. Stark starts welding something, I don’t ask, I start creating a diagram for how the bandage might look in the suit, Stark doesn’t ask, and it all goes great.

Then Pepper comes in, at around midnight. I look up, midway through pulling my hair back into a ponytail with one of my reserve hair ties. Stark doesn't bother.
“Hey, Pep,” he says cheerily.
“Hello,” she says tiredly. I see her put one hand on the wall, and then she’s taking off her heels. As soon as she’s done with that, they’re being tossed so far into the workshop I think they hit the mini kitchenette about fifty feet from me. I turn to watch their impact, and yep, that’s the fridge and oven. I wonder if they’re dented now. Then I turn around to Pepper.
“Um, hi,” I say, “Yeah, those sky-highs must have hurt.”
“Yes,” Pepper says, hopping up onto the table about five feet from Stark. “They do.”
Stark looks up, switching off his welder. “You know, you don’t have to wear those things,” he says, “It’s not like people would question your authority.”
Pepper raises an eyebrow at him. “Oh, really?” she asks. “No one person? Once the illusion drops, no one?”
“Okay,” Stark admits, “Johnson might try for a sexual assault case. But I can always fire him!”
“He’s head of legal!” Pepper argues, “Do you know how big news that would be?”
Something in Stark’s eyes flashes. “Yup.”
“Oh no,” I say, “I can feel a bad idea from here.”
“I don’t care, at this point,” Pepper says, leaning back. Her hands move to her hair, and she takes out the pins that keep her perfect bun in place. Her hair falls down in a mess, trying to stay in the shape it had been in for so long. “Fire away.”
“Literally,” I add.

Then Izzy flashes a red light at me, and I turn around so fast, I’m sure I must have blurred.
“Star appears to be having an attack,” Izzy tells me. “Irregular, fast heartbeat, hormone imbalances, and pain appear to be the symptoms.”
I pull up Star’s stats, and she’s correct. It looks like Star’s in-suit, but she’s within her house still, so she probably just freaked and got in so Izzy could give her more information through blood testing and tracking her heartbeat. She’s curled up loosely, and according to Iz, on her bed.
“Whose closest? Is anyone awake, or am I going over there?” I ask.

Star is living with her dad. But she has a complicated relationship with him (read: he was absentee until her mom died a year ago), so she doesn’t usually go to him or even till him that these things happen.

“It appears Jack is currently on route,” Izzy says, pulling up a map of the subway system, with a glowing blue dot showing where Jack is. He just barely is on a train.

“How conscious is she?” I ask, ignoring the way both Spark and Pepper are staring at me. I bring up a page showing her heartbeat and watch as it shows the uneven pace. Izzy pulls up another showing her hormone levels.
“As always, hormone levels are significantly lower than they should be, if we take into account the time and how long it has been since Star slept,” Izzy says, highlighting the low number in comparison to what it should be. “There also seems to be slightly decreased blood flow to the brain, and a decrease in the efficiency of her brain using that blood and the energy it has.”

“Is she nauseous? That’s usually a thing,” I say, clicking through several more screens showing negative things.
“It appears so, but she has yet to actually vomit,” Izzy informs me.
“Is she willing to?” I ask, “She usually feels better if she does, right? Gets rid of the bad stuff in her system.”
“Indeed, but as Star is currently saying, ‘barf tastes bad,’” Izzy says.
I groan. “Yeah, she’s not entirely conscious.”
“She appears to be starting to dissociate.”

I mutter a string of curse words under my breath. “What even triggered this? What’s the lighting like? She reacts better to gold lighting,” I say.
“Tainting eyepieces gold,” Izzy says, “Complete.”
“Thanks,” I mutter. “Play music. One of her playlists, I don’t care which.”

Izzy pulls up a page that shows she has started playing Panic! At The Disco radio on Pandora (Star prefers Pandora over Spotify because she can play specific songs for free, not just the ones on a pre-made playlist) (She also doesn't like paying for the good Spotify).

“Would it be safe to give her sleep meds right now? She feels better after she sleeps it off,” I say, trying to come up with ways to make this better.
“I am unsure,” Izzy says, “If Star has the coordination right now to get into her bathroom and take the meds without waking up her father. She has specifically told me not to do that.”
“Great,” I mutter.
“Jack has gotten to her front door,” Izzy says. Indeed, his blinking blue dot is there. He must have sprinted from the station. “He appears to be unlocking it with his spare key.”
“Tell him to be quiet,” I say, “Like, deathly quiet. I’m talking if-you-make-noise-the-apocalypse-will-start silent.”
“Jack has responded with this,” Izzy says. She plays an audio recording, where Jack says “I know, love, thanks, Pikachu” really quietly.

“Helpful,” I say. “What’s he doing?”
“He is currently in the bathroom getting the sleeping medication and some water,” Izzy says. “Now he is moving into Star’s bedroom.”
I lean back. “Are they good from here? How’s it going?”
“Star appears to have gone into a full dissociation mode, as she asked me to call it. She is almost lethargic, but her hormone levels suggest she will not be able to sleep for at least a few hours. Jack is now talking to her, telling her about his day.”
“Awesome,” I say, “Crisis solved. Let me know if anything goes wrong.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Izzy says, the screen goes dark again.

I turn around in my wheelie chair to see both Stark and Pepper staring at me.
“Is she okay?” Pepper asks hesitantly. I shrug and get up, pacing out the nervousness.
“This happens every once in a while,” I say, deciding to grab a drink. As I head to the mini fridge in the corner, I continue, “She feels awful. Hormone imbalances, mostly, which causes nausea, pain, dissociation, and other fun things. It usually wears off after a few hours, but she can hurry it along by sleeping it off or, you know, throwing up. Or crying, but she’s usually emotionally void enough that she can’t cry when she gets like this.”
Stark leans back slightly, his pose screaming confidence. I see this when I turn back around with my coke. I open the bottle and take a swig before pacing. “She’ll be okay, she always is,” I say, anxiously taking another sip.
“Are you saying that to us, or yourself, sweetheart?” Stark asks, watching me go in-between the table my computer is resting on and the fridge.
“Both, you old man,” I say, taking another anxious drink.

Chapter Text

The translating department wasn’t as bad as the others I’ve been. There was a definite effort to make it a nice place to be-plants, real and fake, that are everywhere, free office supplies and snacks, and little sitting areas scattered around, composed of everything from a collection of multicolored bean bags to a mini library with Victorian-era-inspired armchairs. It was certainly a far cry from the rows of desks I had been expecting.

Yeah, it was different. It was nice. I...liked it.

Right now, I’m sitting and watching my coffee cup. But I’m also watching everything else-the other workers around me, the way the TV is turned on to some news anchor talking about a mysterious shooting (JamesJamesJamesJamesJames), and how one woman is making coffee in the kitchen that is for some reason to our disposal.

I take a sip. The coffee is black, and got cold around ten minutes ago. I ignore that fact.

My computer is open in front of me, showing the work complete page. I finished translating the new website’s help directory into German thirty minutes ago. Since then, no one’s told me anything to do, so I’m doing exactly what a teenager new to the workplace would do when they have no instructions-nothing.

Blending in and being consistent is very important.

There are footsteps behind me. Heavy, slow, consistent. Calm, not in a rush. The weight suggests male, along with the sound the footfall has-usually men’s shoes sound different than women’s.
“Hey, kid,” he says. His tone is impolite. His name is Alexander Bell, goes by Alex with friends, but he insists I call him Mr. Bell, despite him not being my superior. Overall, he is an annoying, unpleasant man.
“Hello, Mr. Bell,” I say, turning around to face him. I fiddle with my coffee cup to feign nervousness-men like Bell prefer when they’re dealing with a weak person who doesn’t know what they’re doing, and it’s consistent with what I’ve been doing. “What do you need?”
I’ve pretty much exclusively been talking with phrases any teen would know-what do you need, hello, goodbye, how are you, and so on. All polite, bland, forgettable.

“Did you finish?” he asks roughly, despite his ability to see my screen fine. “Completely?”
“Yes, Mr. Bell,” I say. My mind wanders off as he questions me about a coffee run that I made earlier. I answer him with polite, empty words.
What do I have left? What’s inside my skull, what stuck to the bone and brain matter?

I go through, sifting. The black coffee made me feel good-when I looked at the creamers and sugars I got such strong revulsion that I know there must be a memory attached-if only I could think of it-

Winter. Snow. Sweater, grey. Lipstick, pink. A mirror, where I can see my own face-i’m touching up my bubblegum pink lipstick-a girl with caramel skin and black hair so coarse and curly I’m sure I couldn’t pull a comb through it without yanking the hair out of her skull-she’s wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved shirt with an advertisement for a gymnastics place. A coffee-black-and a silver spoon. Red and gold fairy lights. “Welcome to King’s Bakery!” the girl says from behind a counter as a boy wipes down counters, his dyed-blue hair as curly as hers and flopping in his eyes. “What would you like today?”

Huh. That probably got through because it’s not that important or personal. Like a mission where my target went into a coffee shop. They double-check all those memories that are too big of a giveaway. Speaking of, do I have a family?

I can’t-hurts-wow, okay-

Black hair, laughter, sobbing, rice in a brown bowl, a sausage in my small chubby hands, screaming, crying, pain needles hurt doctors grey fences hunger thin bare ribs tired muscles bones snapping blood pain yelling sad scared angry blank.

What the-

My head throbs like it’s about to explode. I put a smile on my face and nod along with Mr. Bell and hope that it will stop soon if I ignore it.

Pain is just feedback.

Pain is just feedback.

Polite, smile, move on.

“Anyway, we need the entire website up by the end of the week,” Mr. Bell says, “So I was thinking you could do the main body paragraphs, it would certainly speed things up.”

I smile politely at this heathen as I take in what that would mean in a split second. I would work past my hours, which a regular teen may object to. But this man is a Scary Adult™, so that might override. And why not? It’s not like it would be hard.

How do I know German, though? Chinese? When-

Ow-

“Of course, sir,” I say, chastising myself for thinking of it again. Thinking can wait until I’m not in pain anymore. “I’ll get right to it.” I don’t hope he goes away. I sit down and wish he would combust spontaneously.

I spend the next two hours doing what Mr. Bell told me to do, despite the fact my work day ended after the ten-minute mark. I translate the main page’s paragraphs, which mostly talk about how amazing SI is. By the time I finish, it’s seven-fifty. I get up and empty my very cold coffee into the sink and put the empty mug in the large dishwasher that’s inside one of the counters. It takes me a minute to figure out and remember where to start the thing, and it takes a few more minutes of looking through the many cupboards for the little pods of soap to be able to actually start it. By the time I’m cleaned up, it’s two minutes after nine.

I don’t want to leave. I don’t know if they sent someone to “check on” me, and I don’t want to find out.

I sit at my desk again and open my laptop again. (I know what that will do, but I don’t-I can’t care right now.) I decide to go above and beyond; I start to translate the other pages.

By the time I have nothing left to translate in the part of the site our section was assigned, (some of the stuff was already done) it’s eleven twenty-three. I close my laptop really slowly and wave to the cleaning crew that comes in as I go out.

I walk down the hallway at a speed that’s casual, but slower than I would usually do. I don’t see anyone-the workday in this section ended five hours ago, so that makes sense.

When I take a turn that should take me to the elevators, I hear footsteps. Relatively light, but fast and agitated. A girl or woman, not wearing heels, who is in a bad mood. Followed by another woman who is in heels. Great. She’s probably tired, too.

When I turn the corner, I make sure to cross to the opposite side of the one she is passing on. I don’t want to run into her and make her mood worse.

I turn the corner, and standing next to the double elevators is a girl. The girl I saw earlier, actually, pacing back and forth, her blond hair cut sharply at her shoulder rippling with her movements. She’s wearing the same clothes as earlier, so I assume she hasn’t left.
There’s a woman behind her-a redhead-wearing a very nice suit-that’s Virginia Potts.

I take this in stride, literally. I keep moving as planned, tapping the button for the elevator as they start arguing, stopping the girl’s pacing (was her name Sophia? She gave me a nickname…).
“You can’t stay up all night!” Virginia argues, her hand motions as sharp as her expression.
“She might not be okay!” the girl argues. Spark, was it...yes, it was something about electricity, and it started with the same letter as her actual name…
I stand awkwardly by the elevator, occasionally glancing at them like any polite but curious teen would do. The girl looks exhausted, if I’m being honest. She’s wearing an earpiece, and judging by their conversation, I don’t think it’s telling her good news.
“You can’t help her!” Mrs. Potts says, stopping Spark from escaping down the stairs with one hand pushing her shoulder up against the wall firmly. “Your friend already has that Jack boy, and it’s not safe for you to go out at this time of night!”
“Well, what about her? Shay’s going!” Spark points at me angrily, clearly wanting to use me as an excuse. I look at her, surprised, as Mrs. Potts turns to me angrily.
I stiffen slightly as Mrs. Potts’ gaze lands on me, as harsh and angry as a forest fire. (Please don’t hurt me, I don’t want it, no-please, no-don’t tell them, don’t tell-JAMES!) I get the sudden impulse to stand at attention, to go blank, to not react. To cower in my own special way.

I ignore it the best I can just standing up straighter and putting my hands behind my back, which makes the panic die down only a little.
“Ma’am?” I ask nervously. She gets three feet away from me, her high heels clicking on the tile, before she responds.
“And don’t think I approve of you, either. It’s eleven at night! Don’t you have school? You need to sleep!” she says. My arms tighten behind me as I fight to remain unsuspicious. I cannot fail this. “What were you even doing?”
“Mr. Bell asked me to continue translating after hours,” I say, straightening even more. My eyes lock forward, not down (don’t disrespect her, she’ll hurt, don’t-) and not up (don’t ignore her, don’t make yourself higher, she’ll-).

Mrs. Potts stops. “Are you okay?” she asks, “I can make Alexander go away, he’s been on the chopping block for months. Why don’t you stay here? It’s dark out, it’s not safe.”
It’s not safe for me because of a reason completely different than she thinks.
“Ma’am-” I start, both relieved and terrified of what they’ll do if I don’t report, “I really can’t-”
“Of course you can,” Mrs. Potts says, taking one of my arms and leading me gently with her. I stiffen so much she can barely manage it, but I let her pull me along. She takes Spark’s arm more firmly and drags us both up to the elevator, which is now opening.
“Jarvis, penthouse, please, I have to talk to Tony,” she says to nobody, dragging us both into the small silver box. I stiffen even more, terror filling every pore of my body, despite the fact that nothing’s happening, but oh, God, they’re going to be so mad.

I close my eyes, trying to get my bearings, before opening them again when that makes me feel totally and completely out of control. As if my ability to see is what’s keeping me alive.

My eyes go to the windows. They’re open, like I noticed earlier, to the skyline. There’s plenty of places in the surrounding rooftops where a sniper could sit and calmly gun us down.

Mrs. Potts only has to glance at me to know something’s not right, says a voice in the back of my head, You need to fix something. You’re not convincing.

The fault is the way I’m not acting. Some of the way I’m doing things-that’s me coming through.

Time to stop that.

I smooth my stance out, my posture loosening slightly, my polite smile returning. Spark watches this happen with slight shock, which I do not understand, but it’s not important. (Her chance of attacking me is very low, she has no easily accessible weapons, and she has seemed human so far.)

Mrs. Potts turns to me when the doors open again, presumably to speak, because her mouth is open and she took a breath, but she stops when she sees me.
I decide this is a moment that I can butt in. “Really, ma’am, I can go home fine, I should be getting home to my mama-”
My voice cuts itself off with another memory. Black hair, shaky hands, badly applied lipstick. Dumplings, still-warm buns, singing. A faint piano melody, dark brown eyes that crinkle around the edges when she sees me. Screaming, crying, limbs that move on their own, flying out to grab me. “No, please, my babies, don’t take my babies away, sir, please.” Sobbing, hands, grabbing, safe, acting, hating, danger, chain link fences and pain and hunger and needles-

“Shay?” Spark asks, searching my face. “Are you okay…?”
My breathing has sharpened, along with the pain in my head. It was gone a few minutes ago.
“I’m fine,” I say tensely, “Really.”
“Nope,” Mrs. Potts says authoritatively, “You’re not.”
She drags us both out of the elevator. In front of us is a very nice, modern living room. L shaped couch, some sort of fountain tumbling down next to and with a set of stairs, a kitchen made mostly of black marbles and deep brown wood. Mrs. Potts drags us forward without even glancing at any of it.

Spark is still staring at me as we are lead down a short flight of stairs.
“Tony!” Mrs. Potts calls. There’s a frosted glass wall with a keypad next to a door. She quickly types in the password (97631564) and pulls us forward. “I’m back!”
“I noticed!” comes a voice from behind a lot of piles of machinery. The entire place is arranged in a kind of circle, all circling around one point showing what looks like holograms. In one corner, there’s a kitchenette and a couch, and in the other is a lot of small robots that roll forward to investigate me.

Mr. Stark’s head pops up from behind what looks vaguely like a car engine.
“And you tease me for adopting kids!” he says, wiping his hands on an also-dirty cloth as he comes to look at me. “Who is this?”
“This is Shay Li,” Spark says for me. I look down, apprehensive at the bots a hare's breath from my legs, who are beeping quickly. “She translates stuff.”
“I do,” I say, unsure what to do now that I’m caged in by Mrs. Potts and robots, “English into German and Chinese, or anyway, really.”
Mr. Stark nods, tossing his cloth aside. “Don’t mind my bots, they mean well,” he says, making a shooing motion. The small robots quickly roll away.
Mrs. Potts quickly releases both of us, walking over to Mr. Stark and whispering to him.

I have slightly enhanced hearing, which she doesn’t know, but it means I can hear them talking.
“Something’s wrong with her, Tony,” Mrs. Potts says. I try not to react, but for some reason, that feels familiar. “I started telling her off for being here so late, and she stiffened right up. And then she smoothed it all out and put on that fake smile.”
Mr. Stark considers me. “Yeah, I can see that.”
Mrs. Potts turns back to me. “Okay, Shay, you can call your mom if you need to,” she says, handing me her phone from out of her purse, “Here you go.”

I take the phone and look at it. I can’t exactly call a random number. With a growing feeling of dread, I pull up the call option and dial his number.

“Hi, mom,” I say immediately, cutting him off. “So sorry I had to stay late. Mrs. Potts found me and insisted I stay the night. You know, because it’s dangerous to go out after dark.”
His voice is not excited. “Raven, I don’t care. If it helps you complete the mission, you can stay out until two for all I care. Just report back within twenty-four hours.”
“Of course, mom, I’ll be home by tomorrow night at the latest, I have work here again,” I say, “Will do. Bye.”
I end the call and hand the phone back to Mrs. Potts. He may or may not have given it a virus, I have no idea.
“Thanks,” I say, for multiple reasons.
“Sir,” says the ceiling, “Sorry to interrupt, but there’s a slight problem.”
“Who’s died?” Mr. Stark asks lightly, turning to a StarkPad on a metal table, which had just lit up.
“No one has died, air, just a slight concern.”
“That’s a lot of data, J, you just expect me to read all of this?” Mr. Stark asks while reading the information, his face slowly tightening.
“Okay, thanks, J,” he says. “I’ll consider it. Handle it how you want.”
“Of course, sir.”
Mrs. Potts throws him a look, and he only smiles at her. Spark looks between both of them, and then says, “Um, okay, I’m heading back to my apartment now. Shay can come with me.”

The mission, says the weird part of my brain.
How about no? I tell it. I have to at least keep to character.

“Yeah, sure, okay,” I say, still glancing away from Spark to look at Mrs. Potts and Mr. Stark occasionally.
Something’s wrong with her.

Spark leads me to the elevators again. This time, we head down, and when the doors open, I see a strange hallway. One door is plain and white, just with a holographic sign announcing it as Spark’s. The other is blue and red, with black webs all over it.

Either whoever has that room is a giant Spider-Man fan, or they are just straight up Spider-Man.

Well, I am standing in Avengers Tower. Why not?

I don’t question it, but I do let Spark take the lead. She walks ahead and casually opens the door, no keypad or lock. Just a doorknob.

She leads me into a very impressive apartment type thing. It starts with a small entry hall and then continues into a large room that is both a living room and a kitchen. I glance at the wall of windows nervously, but quickly glance back at Spark in the hope that that will make me calm down. It does not.

Spark looks at the ceiling. “Hey, J, are there other bedrooms in this place? If not, does at least one of these couches pull out? Shay needs somewhere to crash.” (So she doesn’t know the floorplan, that means this is a relatively new thing to her. Also, didn’t she say today was her first? Who is she to Mr. Stark and Mrs. Potts to immediately get something like this?)
I blink. I could just sleep on the floor. I’ve done it before. (For some reason, I don’t remember how I know this. I just know that I know it.)

“There are five bedrooms within your apartment, Miss Dillon,” J says (Jarvis?). “I’m lighting up a path to the closest one.”

The floor lights up. I stare at it, and then watch a line of similar lights light up to create a path. “C’mon,” Spark says, walking forward.

The hallway we walk into is painted a light shade of teal, a bit to the green side. The color compliments the brown hardwood floor. It’s lined with white trim and white doors with silver handles.

One door is lit up as well, and Spark takes the handle without hesitation. I automatically fall into step behind her, which for some reason gives me the thought that if there’s a shooter in that room, she would take the bullets.

And then I get the urge to move in front of her. Which I do not understand, and therefore ignore.

The room is nice. Soft purples and blues on the bed, accented by white sheets. A white desk and bookcase, a purple couch next to a lamp and the windows. A closet on the opposite wall on an entire wall full of windows.

I stare at them, and then move forward to close the curtains. When I start to tug on them, they close automatically. I assume that is the male voice in the ceiling doing the work. The soft blue curtains close quickly, and the purple edges come together smoothly to completely block any light.

I stare at them. “Thanks,” I tell the curtains, or maybe the male voice in the ceiling.
“You’re welcome, Miss Li,” J says, “I am Jarvis, Master Stark’s personal AI. I run everything in the tower from the automatic curtains to the private servers.”

“Cool,” I say blankly. I turn back around to Spark, running my hands down the curtains as I go.
“Are these bulletproof?” I ask, feeling the coarseness of the cloth. Before I had just the goal of out of sight, out of mind, but now I think they might actually be able to take a bullet.
“Indeed, Miss Li,” Jarvis answers. His voice sounds slightly concerned, as if this is an odd question that he’s answering. I can’t think of a reason that it wouldn’t be an okay question until I remember most people aren’t afraid of being shot every time they step in front of a window, and that I need to act right now.

"Shay, my pearl, it is dangerous out," she told me, a smile on her face. For some reason, memory-me finds this strange, but young-me loves it a lot. I am now old enough to realize this smile contains a lot of emotion, and that not all of them are happy ones. "No one will trust you with the looks I have given you. Not here, not in Germany."

"You must act, sweetheart, pearl. Play dirty. Use every trick you can think of. Because, maus, those who cheat survive, they win. You can forget every ancient proverb I have ever told you, but please, you have to survive."

I come back to myself with the sharp pain in my head back and something warm trickling down my face. The man in the ceiling is continuously saying my name (“Miss Li, Miss Li, Miss Li,”) and Spark is worriedly scanning my face.

“I was in Germany,” I whisper, confused and startlingly open. (Close, don’t give them anything, no-)

This doesn’t do great things for Spark’s level of confusion and worry, which goes from ‘high’ to ‘what-the-she-needs-help-oh-my-God’.
“Can I touch you?” she asks. My mind finally catches up as the warmth drips onto my clothes, and I reach down and realize the warmth is red blood. I follow the trail up to my nose.

I shake my head quickly. (No touching-no-pain-bad-) I follow my instincts, and in an almost flawless motion that I have no memory of learning, I tilt my head up and pinch the bridge of my nose. As I do, a pang of almost annoyance flares up, like the kind I got when my coffee was just a bit too hot this morning. As if this wasn’t ideal, but was common and not really a big deal.

“Does it hurt?” she asks. I nod just slightly, not enough to mess with whatever it is that I’m doing with my face. More of a slight bobbing motion using the entirety of my body that anything.

“Is it inside your skull?” she asks, almost hesitant. I can practically hear her praying for a nose bleed, a perfectly normal thing.

Oh. I’m acting.

I shake my head, which is a lie that the man in the ceiling does not buy. “Miss Li,” he says, almost cautiously, “I have taken a preemptive medical scan. It appears your brain is…”
There’s a pause in which a diagram pulls up, presumably of my brain. The picture is fuzzy and indistinct, but Spark narrows her eyes at it like it’s bad. J helpfully highlights much of my brain in shades of fun-looking red, oranges, and yellows.
“Well, it appears your brain is doing something that is right now not considered medically possible,” J says, still tentatively. “Well the intense damage you appear to have is worrying, it also appears to be-well, it appears to be healing.”
Spark stares at the diagram, making it spin slowly with a slow motion of her hand. “That’s impossible,” she says slowly, as if the majority of her brain power is not on her words, “There’s no such thing as neurons healing themselves. Well, there’s a theory that they do, but this damage-by the way, how are you walking and talking? This damage would take away the cells ability to heal themselves, even at the really slow rate they do it at. And the stem cells-they can’t transition this fast. Stuff like this-you just don’t fully recover from it. That’s why brain damage and polio are so awful, this stuff doesn’t just heal like this.”
“I have notified Mrs. Potts and Master Stark of the problem. Mrs. Potts asked me to tell you to not move and that she would be here soon. Master Stark said something to the same effect, just more colorfully.”

My annoyance and the slight desperation to put on an act crumbles in the face of a weird amount of panic. My mind flashes to images of brain doctors coming at me with knives and threats, and my throat closes up. My hand flies away from my face, I snap my gaze down and around, and Spark puts her hands up placatingly. If they get here, there will be doctors. Mind doctors. (Hurt, pain, bad, straps, can't move, blades, lights, too bright, pain, zzzzzap-)

“Hey, um, Shay-” she says. I consider the window (why did I not run through plans earlier, stupid-), then decide that even for me, the fall is a little much. Sixty stories isn’t anything to scoff at.

The door is unlocked and likely unlethal, but the elevator may be stopped or slowed by Mr. Stark and the stairs would definitely be slow, unless I just wanted to fall sixty stories inside the building instead.

The vent closest to me is in the ceiling. It merges well with the ceiling panels-of course Tony Stark would think to upgrade the vents, I can barely see it-and whirls slightly. It has an almost liquid look to it, as if the vent was incroperal and just covering up for a hole in the ceiling air is softly flowing through.

The ceiling is low enough for me to be able to jump it. Assuming I don’t break my hand/wrist/arm opening the thing, I could feasibly swing up into the vent with only a pull up and some acrobatics.

I launch myself upwards, something the still-rambling Spark was not expecting. She’s too slow to grab me to stop me as I fly upwards, smacking the ceiling panel with one hand. My other waits until the split second between vent and no vent has passed before grabbing hold. The edge of the vent is sharp, for some reason, and I feel the sting of a cut, but I ignore it.

I pull myself up with one arm, swing up and over, and begin to crawl as quickly as the tiny space allows me.

I’m surprised this thing took my weight. Most vents wouldn’t, but this is Tony Stark’s vent, and it is therefore not allowed to be silly things like breakable or weak.

For some reason, my body knows how to crawl through a vent without making a sound. My limbs spread out to the edges of the small space, and I hold myself around two inches off of the base of the vent. I slowly move forward like this, one limb at a time so I can pick it up instead of making noise sliding it across anything. My breathing evens out, and suddenly everything about me is silent.

Huh. Apparently, I have experience here. How concerning.

Spark is yelling behind me, but I’m already somewhere around the edge of the room, so it’s not that bad. For some reason, a lot of emotions respond, though.

Panic is a large percentage (hurt me no no bad no pain no). So is both guilt and betrayal, or maybe something in-between (she was my friend, now she hates me, just becuase I panicked and jumped in a vent, idiot-) (where am I even going? Should I report now?) (NO!).

Where should I go? (I’m not reporting, I can’t-won’t-can’t-)

Black coffee. Silver spoon. Nice girl with caramel skin and chocolate hair.

---

Chapter Text

Main group- (the ones who are friends because they’re idiotic superheroes and love each other to death)

Sophia “Spark” Dillon (superhero name: Super Shock)
Age: sixteen
Sexuality/romantic preference: asexual, heteroromantic
Pronouns: she/her (cis)
Appearance: her skin is genetically tanned ish but she hardly ever sees the sun so that but like low battery. She has blond hair in this kind of dramatic cut to her shoulders. Grey-brown eyes. Average height. Slightly muscular from being a superhero but slightly less than the others because she sometimes helps Iz, the AI she made with Ember, as Iz keeps them all alive like Jarvis does for Tony and also has less time than the others for superheroing.
Powers: can conduct and create electricity using her skin. (This makes her more sensitive to shocks in return.)
Description: lives with her dad. Her father is working multiple minimum wage jobs to keep them above the poverty level. Spark does her best to help out. She wants to become a doctor but is also very good at coding and hacking. She’s an insomniac and has the mental health issues partially addressed in the first chapter that forces her to run herself ragged and feeds her insomnia. Dating Ray and closest otherwise to Bryn and Ember.

Raymond “Ray” Anderson (superhero name: Relit)
Age: seventeen
Sexuality/romantic preference: pansexual and panromantic
Pronouns: he/him (cis)
Appearance: tanned skin because he occasionally sees the sun. Works out beyond being a superhero because he’s a model, which is also why he’s super thin. Blond hair that’s shaved on both sides and long on top. Light brown eyes.
Powers: can move and solidify light, works best with sunlight. Can only do this within fifteen feet or so.
Description: Grew up in one of those Christian cult type things (you know the ones that like have weird, strict rules and follow pretty much the entirety of the Bible) and was essentially thrown out for kissing a boy in all of his pan glory. Legally emancipated so he can own the apartment he shares with Jack’s two boyfriends. Due to his lack of schooling until he was almost sixteen, he can’t do a lot of career paths, so he chose to model to try to make some money while he tries to become a chef. Dating Spark, closest otherwise with Brooke.

Jack Lindsey (superhero name: Jagged Frostbite)
Age: sixteen
Sexuality/romantic preference: homosexual, homoromantic, polyamorous
Pronouns: he/him (cis)
Appearance: white hair that is generally left to be a mess. Skin as white as it can get. I’m talking ‘he could shade match with a price of paper’ white. Dark grey eyes. Tall dude, little lanky but makes up for it with the muscles he’s gained as a superhero.
Powers: can create ice in around a ten-foot bubble around him. Think Frozone but like less ice at once, pasty af, and saying weird jokes more.
Description: likes fencing and architecture. Wants to be an architect, which is about all the plans he has. Says a ton of jokes and puns, mostly at the wrong time. Lives with his mom after his dad was murdered when he was a kid. Best friends with Star and dating Archer and Julian (non-superheroes, mentioned later down).

Petal Hill (Superhero name: Perfect Bloom)
Age: sixteen
Sexuality/romantic preference: just goes on whether or not she has a crush. Doesn’t bother caring otherwise.
Pronouns: Petal is gender fluid. Mostly goes between female and non-binary but occasionally male too. So she/her/he/him/they/them, depending. Wears bracelets to let everyone else know how to refer to them. (If they’re not within sight, they/them pronouns unless in front of a transphobic jerk.)
Appearance: brown skins from Indian descent. Brown eyes and hair to her shoulders that’s dyed light pink. Slightly taller than average.
Powers: can make existing plants grow really fast and unrealistically large. Thus always has packets of seeds on her.
Description: if she’s your friend, she is kind of overprotective of you. She will punch anyone that hurts you. Don’t worry about it. She wants to be a fashion designer and a hairdresser. She was given up for adoption at birth, so she’s currently trying to get a business off the ground when she tailors clothes for trans people and does their hair before she ages out of the system. Dating Onyx and is very cuddly and romantic and soft with him. Likes FOB and Panic! @ the Disco a lot, can’t be found without earbuds.

Onyx Moore (superhero name: Nyx) (Past legal name: Crystal)
Age: barely sixteen
Sexuality/romantic preference: dating a gender fluid person, so pan???
Pronouns: he/him (trans) (AFAB)
Appearance: skinny African American trans boi trying his best to cover his body with overly large sweaters and binders. Shaved black hair and dark brown eyes. Shorter than the average.
Powers: can move earth around him in a ten-foot bubble. Includes metal and rocks, not just dirt and clay and stuff. The more natural, the more control he has.
Description: the artist of the group-writes songs and plays the drums, sometimes paints like his mom. Comes from the Deep South and moved to NYC with his mom after he came out so he could transition more easily and for the job opportunities. Loves music and writing it but refuses to sing his songs until he gets T and his voice deepens. Loves his black converse far too much, tbh, but so do I so shush. Dating Petal and gets all blushy whenever they get mushy but loves it. Soft™.

Star Spiral (Superhero name: Starlight)
Age: seventeen
Pronouns: she/her/they/them (bigender) (AFAB)
Sexuality/romantic preference: mostly likes girls but occasionally also guys. I would say homoflux but she’s not entirely female, so.
Appearance: light blue eyes, skin somewhere between olive and pale. Tall, with long straight black hair that is usually in a ponytail. Kind of pointy nose.
Powers: can move air in a fifteen-foot bubble around her and thus can fly and stuff.
Description: wants to become a politician like her mom was before she died a little more than a year before this started. Good at public speaking and confident even when everything is literally falling apart. Likes reading and history the most out of her classes, despises gym. Tries dating Ember a bit back but they split (as close friends) because their personalities didn’t work together. Currently single. The mom friend. A Hufflepuff, maybe Gryffindor. Ready for cuddles at all times, gives excellent hugs. Mostly hugs Brooke because she is also a cuddle bug. In her SGA. Best friends with Jack.

Ember Collins (superhero name: Ever Flame)
Age: seventeen
Pronouns: She/her (cis)
Sexuality/romantic preference: a raging lesbian. But she did like Star so like??? Maybe not, who knows anymore???
Appearance: red kind of wavy hair. Rosy cheeks that went ahead and claimed her nose for the redness as well. Pale skin, has more moles than average. Large feet, average height. Broad shoulders, biceps for days. Amber eyes.
Powers: can create flames from her skin and superheat the area immediately around her. Her skin goes see-through when she does this and you can see fire underneath the skin, but its not burning her, just chilling. Kind of creepy to look at, tho.
Description: has a twin brother named Coal who is mentioned later and is not idiotic enough to be a superhero. Her mom is a movie star that’s uper rich and uper busy. Doesn’t really know her mom that well because of it, but has plenty of money to throw at her friends and slip in their pockets. Engineering genius, likes building stuff and designing things. Plays the violin to calm down and in her school orchestra. A little bit of a temper but usually fine as long as no one is insulted in front of her (in that case: RIP). Concerns people sometimes when she doesn’t wear gloves that protect her from the heat when she’s welding or working with hot metal. Bipolar and handles it with meds. Closest friends with Star, Spark, and Bryn.

Brooke King (superhero name: Blue Wave)
Age: sixteen
Pronouns: she/her (cis)
Sexuality/romantic preference: bi. Chooses to be bi instead of pan simply because she likes the bi flag more.
Appearance: dark brown skin (Mexican-American), freckles all over her body. Dark brown eyes. Hair that is that type of curly that there is almost no hope for and should never be touched with a comb. Smol, a nugget who is way shorter than average. Does gymnastics on top of superhero shenanigans, so that type of body. You know it just add a little more fat because her family runs a bakery and why would she waste the food they can’t sell???
Description: a fluff bean. Helps her mom out with the store the most, and plans to take over the bakery after her Mama. Twin names Bryn who is non-binary and who she loves more than life. Likes to sing and is humming most of the time. One of those kids that aren’t book smart but puts a ton of effort into school anyway. Does gymnastics and competes when she has time. Most of her practice comes from flipping around NY at midnight chasing criminals. Loves swimming but doesn’t do it as a sport. If her family had the money, she might become a marine biologist, but they don’t, and she loves the bakery, so she settles so Bryn can go to college and become a chemical engineer or maybe a glorified mechanic.

Bryn King (Superhero name: blue tide) (Legal name, not yet changed: Dylan)
Age: sixteen
Pronouns: they/them (AMAB)
Sexuality/romantic preference: mostly boys, the occasional someone else
Appearance: dark brown skin (Mexican-American), black hair that's cut short except on top where it is a curly dyed green mess that they don't do more than wash. Freckles all over, but strongest on their face and hands. Dark brown eyes. Short.
Description: Wants to become either a chemical engineer or a mechanical engineer. Helps out at the bakery but is horrible at baking so is mostly at the cash register, repairing stuff, or cleaning. Is best at chemistry and other science-y things, but also likes math. Scraping through history and ELA. That person who loves museums. Twins with Brooke and would probably die for her, very protective. Wears one blue-grey hoodie for most of their life. Has a crush on a boy named Ryker who’s one of the goth kids at his school.

Shay Li
Age: ????
Pronouns: she/her (cis)
Sexuality/romantic preference: *screaming*
Appearance: olive skin, rounded nose, long straight black hair. Mother is from China, and she takes after her. Strong and has a lot of faint scar tissue all over her body, sometimes mistaken for birthmarks. Eyes that are almost black.
Description: a heavily traumatized genius. The rest is plot, so sorry.

The other ones-

Archer Matthews
Age: sixteen
Pronouns: he/him (cis)
Sexuality/romantic preference: gayyyyyyy, polyamorous
Appearance: light brown skin. Messy brown hair that he keeps relatively short but otherwise leaves alone. Light green eyes. Lorge legs because he fit, my dude. Trying his best at a beard.
Description: Trying his Best™, but not very book smart. Likes the outdoors, hiking, kayaking, climbing trees/rocks that are far too tall, etc. Wants to be a park ranger when he’s older. Wears jeans most of the time, but also wears cargo shorts (he mostly stopped after Petal nearly cried every time they looked at him). Confident, that one dude who wears muddy boots and sneakers almost everywhere because none of his shoes are ever clean. Plays the guitar and sings (not that good at it but it makes Jack melt). Dating Julian and Jack.

Juilian Griffiths
Age: sixteen
Pronouns: He/him (cis)
Sexuality/romantic preference: gayyyyyyyyyyyyy, polyamorous
Appearance: the darkest skin can get, basically. Has a light-shade birthmark going from his neck/shoulder to his belly button that he is very self-conscious about. Black long curly hair that he usually puts in a man bun or uses to strategically cover his birthmark. Gentle giant, he is a tall boi.
Description: Likes reading a lot and recommends books to basically anyone who talks to him. Likes reading about ancient myths and stuff a lot. Doesn’t know what he wants to do after high school. He’s thinking about becoming a historian or editor for some publishing company. Kind of shy. The type to silently give you a hug and then leave with no explanation whatsoever. Cuddles only mostly when sad or really sleepy.

Coal Collins
Age: seventeen
Pronouns: he/him (cis)
Sexuality/romantic preference: he is the one straight boy here
Appearance: amber eyes. Red wavy hair that he just parts to one side, combs, and leaves alone. Also has the rosy cheeks that don’t know boundaries that Ember has. Average height.
Description: he mostly likes painting and music. Has pretty much turned his room into a giant mural and is slowly making the entire mansion he lives in with his mom and his twin, Ember, into a collection of various paintings. So far, he’s taken over the entry hall, his room, parts of the kitchen, the stairs, and four separate hallways. Would rather lose a limb than stop painting most days, detests school. Sings but don’t tell anyone shhhhhh.

Alexandria Collins
Age: forty-six
Pronouns: she/her (cis)
Sexuality/romantic preference: straight and has yet to get married, bedding any hot guy that’s willing
Appearance: amber eyes, wavy red hair, pale skin, but no rosy cheeks. A model, so that body type Hollywood likes so much in women. Rarely (if ever) seen without makeup and her hair done.
Description: serial romantic and bipolar. Actress and model, had kids on accident and had to change her career around it. Loves her kids and is protective of them but is also so busy that she can’t really parent them and she also doesn’t know how to show love. Stressed 24/7 but pretends it’s not happening until she has a mental breakdown.

Chapter Text

I don’t know how long it’s been since I saw the little bakery I’m currently standing across the street from. I know it was winter last time, and it is clearly spring or summer, from what I’ve seen. I don’t know if it’s been months or years, but I hope the girl is still here.

The bakery is definitely the one I remember. I can see the table I sat at through the window, if I look past a pile of students and backpacks. The entire place has an aura of familiarity, but I don’t remember any of it.

The front door has ‘King’s Bakery’ written across it in cursive, with the text ‘baked goods from around the world; requests welcome (bring a recipe)!’ below it. In the very corner, there’s a small rainbow sticker with the words ‘this is a safe space for the LGBT’ written on it. There’s small paintings of various baked goods at the bottom of the window, almost obscuring worn wooden boards.

I start walking across the street with the rest of the crowd of people. When I get to the bakery’s door, I surprise myself by not hesitating before pushing the door open. The warmth and smells roll over me as a bell announces my appearance. From behind the counter, a boy with curly hair dyed blue-green and skin the same color as the girl’s looks up.
“Oh! Hey!” he says. “I didn’t think I would see you again!”
“Hello,” I say. He suddenly has a double-take, hesitating.
“You’re bleeding,” he says, moving around the counter towards me. I pause myself. I had forgotten about the blood. It must have dried by now. The boy takes my face, which causes a large amount of panic (no hurt no don’t touch no), but his touch is so gentle that I only stand as stiff as a board instead of yanking away.

It may or may not also have been because I was terrified what his reaction would be. (Don’t offend, no, do you want pain?)

He notices quickly and his hands fly from my face. “Sorry, I won’t touch you again,” he says, looking incredibly apologetic (why is he sorry, no one is ever sorry, everyone touches). I’m so confused that I don’t respond while he goes to get a towel. He comes back with a damp rag, which he hands to me.
I take is hesitantly, completely unsure what to do with it.
“You can use it to wipe your face,” he says calmly. “It’s clean.”
I stare at the thing. It’s red and dripping water into my hand, but it does appear clean. “But I’d stain it.”
(Don’t make him mad, don’t stain anything-)

“I’m sure if I didn’t know how to wash out stains I would have been thrown out by now,” the boy says. I can’t remember his name, which I don’t like. I am also unsure if he said that as a joke or not. I tentatively raise the rag to my face and swipe gently.

The boy smiles at me. “Just in case you don’t remember me, I’m Bryn,” he says. “I’m non-binary, so they/them pronouns, please.”
I take in their gentle smile, the way they stopped touching me almost immediately, the rag that still is in my hand, and nod slowly. “I’m Shay,” I offer. The thought hits me that that may not actually be my name, or Li, for that matter, but at the thought of a different name, my mind rebels, so I think it’s right. At least I have that.

“Nice to meet you again!” they say, still smiling. “Hold on, I’ll grab Brooke, she’ll want to see you again.”
And with that, they’re gone. I watch them hurry off, unsure whether I’m allowed to sit or not. I move out of the doorway so no customers would be blocked, but I’m unsure still.

The students are staring at me from my pile of bean bags.
“What happened to you?” one girl with a tiny frame and black skin asks. She’s wearing a too-big sweater and slightly baggy jeans. Her chest is flat, so I make the note that she may be trans and wearing a binder.
“A lot,” I say simply, taking in the bruising just left uncovered by her sweater and the way her shaved head leaves a cut going across her scalp exposed. The girl tilts her head.
“If someone’s hurting you,” she says slowly, as if choosing her words slowly, “You don’t have to tell any of us, but you can if you want. We can probably help, one way...or another.”

The girl is sitting next to a white boy with blond hair that is shaved on the sides, but not on top. His gelled hair moves slightly as he nods, but mostly stays in place. There’s also a girl with fiery red hair, a rounded face, and rosy cheeks (the color also hides in her nose, sprawling across her face in a way that is reminiscent of a sunburn, but the red is not harsh enough for that). Her eyes are fiery in a calmer way than her hair, but it has the quiet rage I know could burn things as easily as warm them.
“Okay,” I say. I have no rules in my head to follow for this conversation.
“I’m Onyx,” she says, “He/him pronouns.”
“Shay, she/her,” I say in kind, sitting at a table that is relatively close to them.
“Cool,” Onyx says. “The girl is Ember, the dude next to me is Ray. They’re both cis.”
“Okay,” I say again.

Fast footsteps. Echoing, as if in a small hallway. Two sets, one stepping significantly lighter than the other, but neither heavy in any way. They are both walking fast. (Come to hurt you, hide, don’t let them-) (They’ll hurt you worse if you do that, no, just take it-)

“Hey!” comes an excited female voice. I turn around to see the girl with curly hair from my blurry memory, smiling just as brightly as she was before. Her hair is a little longer, as if she just forgot to cut it, so it’s probably the same year as the time I saw her last. That’s also supported by the fact that these two remember me.

“Hi,” I say, smiling at her.
“Bryn said you came in with a bloody nose, are you good?” she asks, sitting down at my table. Bryn leaves to help another customer coming in the door (blond business woman, not a likely threat, and would be hindered by her high heels if she tried to chase me).
“I’m fine,” I say, hoping it’s true. My mind reminds me of a brain scan highlighted in reds and oranges and yellows, and I forcefully ignore it. “Just a nosebleed.”
“That’s good,” Brooke says. “Do you still like black coffee? I can get you one. And you said you liked chocolate, right? We have a lot of chocolatey things.”
“Dark chocolate,” my mouth says automatically. My brain scrambles to attach a memory to this fact, but it comes up blank. At least my mouth seems sure of itself. “Unsweetened is best, or as close you can get to it.”
Brooke nods, getting up. “Cool. I’ll get you some brigadeiros, they’re just cocoa powder, some sweetened condensed milk, and butter rolled in sprinkles, they should be fine.”
“Thanks,” I tell her retreating back. She just waves without looking behind her, her hair swishing behind her with the movement.

Onyx looks up at me again. He was talking to Ray in quiet tones that I wasn’t focusing on, but the tone remained consistently positive, so it should be okay.
“I like chocolate a lot, too,” he says, fiddling with the hem of his large sweater. “I like mine sweetened, though.”
“You Americans usually do,” I say, surprising myself, “I’m German, and growing up, I did not have sugar in everything. We had desserts, of course, but they were separate. You Americans seem to just eat sugar at any time. I find I usually like the less sugary things. Black coffee. Dark chocolate.”

Where are these words coming from? My soul? Is my tongue just making them up spontaneously? No, they have a ring of truth to them. Maybe I should just start babbling to myself to reclaim old information, if not the memories attached to them.

“Hey, that’s pretty cool,” Onyx says. “Do you guys really eat a ton of sausages over there? And drink beer a lot?”
My memory is still full of spiderwebs and error messages, so I just...let my mouth do the talking. Which means I needed to stop thinking over every action, so I stopped feeling as secure without it, my security blanket of paranoia.
“I don’t know, I think it’s just that most people choose beer over wine? Or something? I left when I was fifteen, so I wasn’t exactly drinking yet.”
Onyx nods. “Still pretty cool. Who’d you move here with?”

“GET AWAY FROM ME!” Darkness, hunger, needles, hatred, pain, fire inside my veins and burning my skin, water slowly dripping onto my head, staring straight ahead, remember Mama, remember Blake, big brother, God, Blake, he’s probably dead by now, when will I be?

A face that looks almost like Blake’s, but wrong. Too old. Has a beard. Hair just a bit too shaggy. The forehead a little too large, the ears tucked against the skull just more than he had.
“Ready to comply, sir.”

“A...distant relative,” I tell him. “He...wanted me in America with him.”
Onyx nods. “Did you leave family behind?”

Blake’s hand, calling for mine. “Kleine schwester!” The red dripping from his nose, the desperation dripping from his body, the guards holding him back. “Get in line!”

“LET HIM GO!” I screamed. I kicked a large man in the back of the knees.

“Bring her with, she’s strong enough to work!”

“Yeah,” I say, sitting more stiffly in my chair. “Mama and my big brother.”
“That must suck,” Onyx says. “How old is your brother? You sound like you love him a lot.”

 

Blake, celebrating his seventeenth birthday in the small space under the floorboards of the basement. He’s been here for weeks, only being let out for food and water. The rest of the time, he hides in silence and fear. I am only able to see him in the dead of night, my boarding school uniform on under the covers so that if I am caught, I wouldn’t die in the mandated nightdress.

Mama is gone. I curl up around Blake instead and whisper a congratulations, hugging him tight to me. I leave far too late to get a good night’s sleep in the dorm.

The next day, the floorboards curl up to hostile faces. And we are both dragged away.

I’m in my nightgown, fighting tooth and claw.

 

“Seventeen,” I say. Onyx must not notice the way I keep freezing up, or maybe he just thinks I’m revisiting fun memories of hugs and laughter.

Gentle piano music, Mama’s voice singing along with it. Laughter as I try to follow her movements, clunking along on the keys. “No, baby, like this, see, maus? Just place your hands on mine, and you can do it!”

Blake handing me an herb paste to go over my nine-year-old face’s black eye, smiling sadly. “It’s okay, maus, it will get better soon. Ignore the bullies, they can’t do much more than yell and flail.”

Reminders of Mama’s home in soup made of the meat the butcher can’t sell to anyone else. Chicken feet, which Mama loves. Other cuttings, if he can spare them, and veggies soaked in the herb broth Mama always makes.

Mama smiles, her eyes crinkling at the edges.

I smile gently.

Brooke hustles back with a cup of black coffee and a bag full of small, round chocolates covered in sprinkles. I smile at her and take a sip of the drink. I ignore the way the shallow cut on my hand stings, because it is not that deep and it stopped bleeding halfway here.

“Thanks.” Brooke smiles at me and starts chattering in a way that is somehow soothing. I decide I like her as I drink my coffee. I end up staying for far longer than I probably should have, but who cares much?

Chapter Text

Tony Stark was the meaning of panic when he watched the video of Shay hopping into that vent. He was sprinting to the apartment, brain damage flashing through his mind, when Jarvis pulled it up. His face paled and he ran faster, skidding into the room too late anyway.

Spark turned to me, panicked. “She ran away!” she says, her hands shaking slightly as they run through her hair. Pepper got there fifty-two seconds later, her heels in hand and her feet bare. She flies into the room like a hurricane, and spotting the blood on the edge of the vent, her winds get faster.

“Will she die without help?” she demands, spinning to pin Spark down under her gaze.
“The-her brain was healing,” Spark manages.
Pepper nods and goes to investigate the vent further.
“Ma’am, I don’t think she’s fully human,” Spark admits, which makes both of us spin to her.
“What?” I demand, walking closer to her instead of worrying from by the door. “Why?”

Spark hesitates, and JARVIS helpfully pulls up the scan of Shay’s brain, still overlayed with highlights of red and orange and yellow. Spark glances at it nervously, her hand coming up to trace the tissues that showed the most signs of regrowth.
“No one heals like this, not without cutting-edge scientific help,” Spark mutters, her hands running along the yellows, her eyes taking in the holes in the brain with me.

I tap down my panic, trying to squash it into anything helpful. Slightly crazed and or forced genius. Anger, if not the kind that would hurt anyone (I will not become Howard). Anything.

“The human brain is made up of nerves and neurons,” Spark says, almost a whisper. “If a nerve is hit in the right place, it might be able to heal. Very slowly, much slower than this looks to be, but it would heal. That’s possible. But if you hit a neuron-the little part that is like the nucleus of the nerves-that would not heal. There’s a recent plan that would use stem cells to replace the lost ones, but that needs top-of-the-line help and science. This is just straight-up healing itself. That’s...that’s not human.”

“JARVIS,” I say slowly, trying to grasp fully an idea that just came to my mind. “Ask Rogers if he’s ever taken damage to the head.”

A pause that seems to go on for forever.

“Mr. Rogers reports that he has taken a few hits to the head. He also commented that it was strange how he didn’t show any negative symptoms, but he also added that it was probably an effect of the serum he was injected with.”
“The serum,” Pepper says blankly. Her face has lost all emotion, which usually means she’s processing something she didn’t see coming.
“Jarvis…” I say, “Did the government have any other super soldier plans? Test subjects? Mysterious disappearances?”
“The doctor who created the serum was killed almost immediately and left no trace of his work on paper or otherwise. It is therefore unlikely that this is the work of the American government.”
“But,” I say, “It’s not impossible that someone saw Steve come out of the ice and said ‘that’s cool, let me go find a minor to test it out on.’”
“I would also like to comment that there has and likely always will be several organizations that would be willing to do such a thing to a child.”
Pepper’s face is slowly gaining color, as if she’s about to overload. “Like...AIM. Or HYDRA.”
“Or a regular group of jerks, but sure,” Spark says. Her hands are still lightly tracing the scan, making Jarvis rotate it with her movements.

Pepper wipes the blood off the edge of the vent, and the microbots slide back into place immediately. “Jarvis, if I have you test this, what could you possibly get from it?”
“I am unsure of every effect until I have done it,” J responds, “Please put the blood in my panel by the door.”

Pepper follows his instructions, wiping her hand off on a futuristic looking thing on the wall.

There’s a slight pause. Then another glowing hologram pops up, and there’s a bunch of stuff I don’t understand in a neat little table.
“Her blood work appears relatively concerning,” Jarvis says. “Signs point to slight malnutrition, high levels of white blood cells and platelets suggest some sort of disease or injury. Otherwise, some hormone levels are normal, while some are far above or below the average.”
“That’s encouraging,” Spark says, “Her body’s figured out something’s wrong.”
“Yeah, I didn't interrupt it that way,” I say. I walk forward, taking in the chart and memorizing every bit of it, despite the fact that I don’t understand it.

I will.

---

The criminal underworld has not changed much, I learn. I am still on the no-harm list of several major gangs, a status gained through many actions I blurredly remember as I step into the room.

Guns have changed, they are not the ones I remember. My mind offers me pictures in low detail of very stressful times that similar guns have been pointed at me, but I ignore that.

“You know, Miss Li,” says the man lounging in the chair, staring at me almost lazily, “I was not expecting to see you here again.”
“I have not come here to strike up another deal,” I say, “Not the sort of the last time I came here, at least.”
“So you have not come here to gain information for an assasination,” the man drawls. My mind and instincts tell me he is dangerous, but I am used to this. “Big deal. What are you here for is the question. Obviously, within reason, I would have to agree; I do owe you a rather large favor.”

My mind’s ability to remember shatters and breaks, so I float onwards in this conversational stream, not even glancing at the rifles that could end me, maybe not quickly, but eventually.

“I need to disappear,” I say, tilting my head back and putting on my ‘confident’ mask for my excellent performance. The material chafes against my mind, but I ignore the pain.

The man sits up. “You have left them?”
“I’m in the process of attempting it.”
“HYDRA?” he says, “You are trying to throw off HYDRA? That’s impossible-they’re everywhere! The government, online, everyday civilians, everywhere! How do you expect me to make you disappear?”
“Well,” I say, smiling slightly at him, making my eyes glint in that way no one likes, “The other option is I kill my way out of here.”

The man’s face pales; he knows enough of me to know that is a distinct possibility: even if I didn’t get out of this alive, I would kill as many people that had wronged me on the way out, and who better than one of the most violent gangs in the city?

“I can get you papers. You have a proper name? I can’t exactly put ‘Raven’ in the system.”

I consider him. “Shay Li.”
He looks tired. “And in exchange?”
“Your debt is repaid. Just get me citizenship, papers, and the ability to live.”

He licks his lips. “I can do that. Just...not-um, I can’t do that instantaneously.”
I smile emptily, regally, politely and condescendingly at once. “I can think of a few corrupt men high-up that might be willing to help. How about you try them?”
HYDRA-they’ve even managed to get into congress.

The man chokes on air.

---

Spider-Man intercepts me as I walk. Probably because I am a woman-barely, he looks at me like I’m a girl, which I appreciate, but do not believe-that is well dressed in a very bad part of town. It may also have something to do with the five men trailing me. It used to be eight, but three of them met suspicious and altogether very web-y distractions.

Otherwise said, I’ve known Spider-Man was following me for four blocks.

I salute the skyline when the third man disappears with a shout. I am grateful that I do not have to draw attention to myself or cause casualties.

I get a laugh from a rooftop in response, and suddenly two guys are hanging on webs from a rooftop, and then two more, and then the last poor sucker is webbed to a light pole.

I tap his shoe, testing to see if he is still conscious. He is, if his jerk is anything to judge by.

“Tell your boss the deal’s off,” I inform the shoe before turning away. Spider-Man has landed, crouched, at the base of the buildings.

He is much more professional then when he started out in a hoodie and sweatpants. I appreciate the new look almost as much as I appreciate the help.

And then I catch the ways his eye pieces are not just lenses, but glint like cameras. I become much more masked, sliding on my confident act again.
“A shame that you work for someone, Spider-Man, you look to me a good man,” I say passively, waiting for it to be okay for me to cross the street. So that’s how he got the suit upgrade. “Whose pocket are you in? I doubt it’s the government, they would have stopped trying to prosecute you.”

“Um,” Spider-Man says, the voice of a boy just hitting puberty. No wonder he’s so small, he’s probably almost a child. Self-sacrificing, but a child. “I’m-I’m not in anyone’s pocket.”
I glance over him again. There’s a slight unnatural way to how the suit, now skin tight, stretches over his ears. It bumps out slightly, as if there’s a com in both of his ears.
“Of course not,” I say in the voice created to placate men, forged in the general rage just before the sting of apathy hits.
“I-why would you think that?” he asks, clearly confused.
“How’d you get that new suit?” I ask passively, staring at the other side of the street. “Honestly, it was probably a good decision of yours. Better than the hoodie you were running around in. Just make sure SHIELD stays out of it.”
“What? Why?”
I look at him. “The government is not as secure as everyone believes. Corruption, greed, and so on. I am no conspiracy theorist, but I would keep to myself, when it comes to them.”
“Okay,” he says, clearly not following me.
“You’re a good person,” I tell him, starting to cross the street. “Don’t let anyone ruin that, Spidey.”

I cross the street, leaving a confused Spider-Man behind. Mentally, I take him off my list of possible help giver-outers. Who could make such a suit but Tony Stark?

---

I go to one of the many illegal, underground, shady bars in New York. The Crimson Sunset is one of the classiest of the bunch, but that is comparable to being the tallest dwarf. At least they don’t peddle in killings, just turning a blind eye to criminals looking for a drink.

When I step inside the building, a bubble of silence forms. It quickly consumes the entire bar.

“We don’t want trouble here,” the bartender tells me. He is young, maybe twenty five, with black hair and a beard that’s just barely grown in enough not to be just stubble.
“And I’m not looking to give it out,” I say. I walk to the bar, but do not sit down. “Do you still ban HYDRA, here?”
“Any Nazis can get out,” the man tells me, his grip tightening on a glass. “Including you.”
I study him. “Do you think super soldiers could get drunk?” I ask, letting my hair fall into my face. A moment of vulnerability.

When did I want this? And why was I so stupid to go to the gang leader? HYDRA doesn’t know that I’m missing yet, I still have an alibi, and now it might be blown.

I want to forget. Forget my stupidity, my emotions, the people in that bakery, Tony Stark, Pepper Potts, hiding, the way my brain is a broken radio that’s tuned to static.

The bartender sets the glass down. “Not really,” he says blankly.
“Shame, I could use the buzz. May I sit?”
He stares at me, and then rubs his face. “Of course she is,” he mutters. Then he looks back at me.
“Don’t hurt anyone,” he says. “No killing, maiming, bruising, cutting, or manipulation of any sort.”
“Or course not,” I say, sitting on the stool. “Let’s test our theory, hmm? I have money to pay for every drop in this bar, don’t worry about that.”
The man takes a bottle of whisky without looking at it and pours me a glass. The silence turns to a quiet hush, disrupted by whispering. He hands me the glass, and I knock it back in one.
“How old are you?” he asks, “Are you even legal?”
“Oh, I’m not legal to drink,” I say, putting the empty cup down. “And I can barely consent.”
“Seventeen,” he says in a horrified whisper.
“Yup,” I say. “Can you just give me the bottle?”

He gives me the bottle. I drink straight from it.

The bartender stares at me silently, not doing much more than breathing. His face is still horrified.
“Fascinating that you just know the age of consent, by the way,” I say, taking a sip. “I’m sure you have questions for me. Maybe it will make everyone else pay so much attention, they’ll explode.”

The room is suddenly much louder, but it’s the fake kind where everyone is purposefully making noise.

“You know a spot where I could get papers?” I ask him, tilting the bottle until the liquid inside it is a tornado of movement. “Passport, citizenship, whatever?”
The bartender stares at me. Then, slowly, he says, “Man in the corner. His rates are high, but his documents are the most convincing.”
“Fascinating,” I say. I take another deep drink. I don’t feel the slightest bit buzzed. “How much does this cost?”

I leave with three bottles in my gut, papers in my pocket, and a promise to get the rest of them soon. I leave without a hundred and fifty dollars dollars (ninety of them for the booze and the rest a mixture of a tip and buying silence) and the drunkness I should have, which is disappointing.

I face New York with eight hundred fifty dollars in my pocket, a need to disappear, and a smile on my face. After all, the fall from grace is always exhilarating, and the freedom that comes after is so close, I can taste it.

---

I rent an apartment for low rates under a correct name but the wrong age. The woman doesn’t question it, just tells me the room number and floor and takes most of my money for the next three months. This place is way cheaper than the average studio apartment, so I’m not surprised that the paper I sign has a warning or recent murders in the building, along with a suicide in the apartment I’m buying. Also, the floor space is comparable to that of a shoe box, which might help.

The apartment matches the expectations the papers gave me.

It has one main room, a bathroom, a view of brick walls, and the general space is so small, I could suffocate.

I love it.

I quickly clean everything using borrowed supplies from next door neighbors and thirty bucks. I wipe down any and all flat surfaces that can be wiped down, sweep and mop, scrape out mold, dust everything, and make sure to get out any and all stains.
I crush my phone into the dumpster. I can get a burner for cheap later. Before I destroy it, I copy down anything important onto a piece of paper and slip that into my bra.

I go back to my empty apartment, return the cleaning supplies, and sit on the ground in the main room, just because. I’m living and breathing and thinking and processing, and I’m free.

The papers to this apartment are kept in a filing cabinet down stairs. I gave the random middle name on my new driver’s license, because I didn’t remember my real one. It’s unlikely anyone will find them unless they break in and physically go through the filing cabinet’s boring paperwork, which seems unlikely to me. The woman who sold me this place was grumpy, but she didn’t attack me and I didn’t recognise her, so she’s probably just busy, not a spy. The other copies of the papers are in my bra, and if someone is getting in there, I’ll skip the niceties and kill the scum.

There’s so few problems, I’m almost giddy. A disgruntled man who runs a gang but is also so terrified of me I doubt he’ll breathe my name, let alone send anyone with the chance of hurting me. Tony Stark, who has no trails to hack into and follow. That bar, with the bartender who agreed to say nothing with pity in his eyes and a room who silently agreed.

I decided to go out and buy myself a new phone. It would usually have been around fifty, but I got an okay one for thirty dollars.

I also buy myself the necessities while I have an alibi against HYDRA. A backpack, which I quickly fill with an extensive medical kit, emergency food and water, clothes, various hygiene products, a towel, a ton of makeup, hair dye, and a blow up cot/mattress that’s small enough for me to carry. The only things I use immediately are a hoodie, a hair tie, and some of the make up. The hoodie’s hood goes up, the makeup goes on thick, and the hair tie goes into a tight ponytail, which tucks into my hood.

I’m a new person. Who knew I could get little things for my eyes that change them from ‘aisan’ to ‘boring white girl’? Even if I am caught on camera, I won’t be recognised immediately, I hope.

I go back to my apartment, walking to save money, and order a pizza. I experiment with sausage and pepperoni, and I find I like it. It’s not pizza, not really, but it is delicious.

I sit in the middle of my empty apartment, eating a not-pizza, sitting next to a bursting backpack, a mattress slowly blowing up five feet away, feeling completely and blissfully normal.

It’s nice.

I make myself a resume and make a note to print it at some library tomorrow. I apply electronically to several jobs that seem awful enough that they wouldn’t come with cameras. I play a stupid phone game that is loud and bright and happy and normal.

Then I go into the notes app and start making notes. Notes of the things I remember.

Family-

Mother-“mama”. Liked to play piano and sing. Made dumplings and rolls and soup. Screaming and crying (?) are associated with memories of her.

Brother-“Blake”. Older than me, but only by a few years or so. Similar to handler in looks. Gentle, knows how to make an herb paste that keeps swelling and bruising down. (Bullying as a child?)

“Muas” “perle”

Germany- probably where I grew up.

That’s pretty much it. I don’t want to write down the bad stuff. For some reason. I guess that would make it official-none of the stuff I’m writing about exists anymore.

I know how long it’s been. I know, because I have watched the years and decades and almost a century go by.

I also know none of this exists anymore not because of time but because of cruelty. I don’t understand how, I don’t have a memory that goes with it. Nothing pops up. I just know the people and places I keep thinking about are gone.

I put my phone in my pocket and eat my not-pizza. The pepperoni is horrible, if I’m being honest, and the sausage is not actually sausage, but it tastes okay. I eat it because I’m hungry.

It’s definitely not pain that I’m feeling in my stomach, and the only three things I’ve ever heard as input from the stomach is hunger, satisfied, and pain. It’s definitely not pain, and satisfied would be easier to ignore and make less sense, so I’m going with hunger.

It doesn’t feel normal anymore. I guess that’s on me.

I just focus on eating my pizza and thinking. I wonder why I ran, earlier today. They might have helped, I guess. Ran some scans.

At just the idea of it, my entire body revolts. Every atom of me never wants to get near anything vaguely medical ever again, and I don’t know why.

I have some theories, though. I don’t like them much.

I move on to Spider-Man. If his suit was really given to him by Mr. Stark, and that sheen in the eye pieces actually was cameras, then that means I left a trail. Only a slight one. I know the boy did not follow me, I made sure. But Stark now knows that I was there and what was going on and how I looked. And Spider-Boy may be looking for me in the future.

I decide to focus on other things. Things that can be handled right now. Like the hair dye I bought earlier.

I grab the dye-a deep purple-and head into the bathroom.

It’s a process, not getting the dye on anything, and I find that’s it’s almost good enough to distract me fully. But I think it’s as good as I’m getting, so I decide to just keep going.

The dye is in within the hour. I don’t hate it, and certainly will help with hiding.

I put the not-pizza in the fridge that came with the apartment. It doesn’t feel that cold, so in left the plug and end up plugging it in. The humming noise it makes is familiar and wrong at the same time.

My phone buzzes. I look at it, slightly concerned on who could have texted me. I kept the number the old phone had, so it could be anyone from the people from the cafe to a very quick Tony Stark, or maybe my handler-

No, my handler wouldn’t give me the warning.

I pick up my phone and look at it.

Hey, Shay, this is Brooke! I wanted to see if you were free tomorrow? I’m going to an aquarium tomorrow and Ray bailed so we have an extra ticket

I consider that. An aquarium would have cameras. Do I trust this new look enough to keep Tony Stark and HYDRA out? And even if I do, do I want to do this? What if some memory pulls itself up and I freeze up and pull enough attention to myself that one of the Threats™ finds me?

I decide the threats can suck my junk and text back.

Hi, Brooke, I’m free. When, where, and with whom?

As my brain processes that I just made that decision-a personal decision for fun, gasp-Brooke answers.

Cool! It’s going to be me, Bryn, Star, Jack, Ember, Onyx, and now you! We’re going to the New York Aquarium down in Brooklyn, and we meet up tomorrow at eleven thirty so we can get lunch together, but you can beat us there if you don’t want to come for lunch

As if I have a plan for lunch tomorrow.

I’m up for lunch. Is there a plan on where?

Yeah! There’s this cool korean BBQ place we found a few years ago, it’s good for experimenting and having fun. They let you cook your own food, so it’s usually really cool. I think it will be good to introduce you to everyone through there, because you have the team task of not burning anything :)

I will not light anything on fire.

:))))) Of course not :))))))

I strangely feel as if that is both mocking and friendly. I decide to just ignore it, in case I am reading signals wrong.

Ok, just text me where it is and when and I’ll show up.

 

Brooke quickly texts me a link to a website with the full menu and many pictures that are heavily edited. She only adds to meet up there at eleven thirty and then to the aquarium anywhere from a little after noon to one, depending on how many mistakes the group collectively makes, and how invested everyone gets in the conversation.

My mind supplies the thought that it is odd that anyone would take more than ten minutes to eat-my pizza was done in around twelve, and that was with think-time and distractions-but my logical self quickly overruled. If this was the group verdict and so unchallenged, then that means my perception is just off.

The air mattress is full. I make sure of this fact, test for any holes, and eventually decide that it’s fine. I don’t have any blanket, and the air is far too cold (why spend so much money on heating when I can clearly live without?), but as soon as I set my phone charging and lie down, my body tells me this is the height of luxury, apparently.

The mattress is simultaneously too squishy and perfect. The mattress has a lot of give, and it feels like I’m sleeping on a cloud and about to fly away. It’s also relaxing and dark and there is so little stress it’s almost jarring.

Until, of course, I create some of my own.

Possible ways to find me, what am I going to eat, how am I going to afford this place down the line, how do I plan to get a job in current-day America with basic “schooling” and no references or experience? Was my name too traceable? The middle name was random, but that won’t be enough, most likely. If someone does find me, then how should I run? The bag pretty much has to stay packed. I can live with running without a blow up mattress and some food, but everything else should remain as inside the bag as possible. Just in case.

Eventually, I go to sleep dreaming up plan number 57 for what would happen if HYDRA found me.

Chapter Text

I wake up suddenly around two hours later. The neighbors-the ones who made me pay unreasonable amounts for cleaning supplies-are telling, and their raised voices sends my heart rate flying and my eyes threatening tears. My throat closes up, and-I can’t breathe.

There’s no air anywhere, I can’t inhale.

I’m only vaguely aware of the way my entire body is thrashing, how I fall to the floor in a mess of blankets with an awful sound, and even the temperature my body is-a horrible contrast between fever hot with panic and chilled with icy sweat-because I’m too focused on the way that I can’t breathe.

“Stupid girl,” the man said in German, and then a long line of words I had heard only a few times by my fine age of twelve and one half-a string of curses so foul, my mama probably would have slapped me for thinking them. The man grabs me by the throat and drags me upwards, until I’m dangling and gasping-

The man shouts in Russian. I do not understand the language, fourteen and one quarter and alone, and I don’t particularly care to find out what the words mean. All I know is that he spits them out like jagged glass, burning fire that would burn me if I knew the meaning. This man shoves a needle in my arm and presses down on the plunger of the syringe-the pain overtakes my starved body, so intense that I choke, unable to breathe through it or even remember how to-and then I gasp and scream a wordless, shrieking sound-sharp and loud-

The woman crushes me with one hand, and I know the terror is right to tell me not to struggle. I remain pliant as she pins me to one wall and makes me watch as they haul James away, into that room, and the panic isn’t even slightly connected to the ache for air, it’s all attached to what they’re about to do-

There’s tears trailing down my cheeks, a stinging behind my eyes. My hip protests weakly from where I hit it falling off my little bed, and my head swirls and tilts with every thought and movement it manages to comprehend.

I just lie there for a stupid amount of time. As my brain slowly reboots, it takes in the way my hip is bruising quickly and then fading to my regular olive skin just by the familiar feeling to it. It drifts from the quickly fading ache behind my eyes into safe, warm things.

My mama’s laughter, my brother’s deep voice, the smell of dumplings and soup, the steam trailing off a fresh cup of coffee, the snap of a good bar of dark chocolate that I only hazily recall at all, a haunting piano tune that I would be willing to listen to exclusively for the rest of my life, mostly because I know it’s mama making the magical melody drift through the air.

I start crying again, somewhere along the line.

By the time I float back to reality, my eyes are aching again, I have a layer of dried tears and a layer of wet ones on my face, and my hip is fully healed.

I blearily check the time on my phone. My eyes adjust fast, more so than any average.

That took forty five full minutes. I estimate ten or so for the actual panicking not breathing part, and a full half an hour to come back to sanity after it.

I have a headache, even if it is quickly dispersing. This is not the usual stabbing pain, but the burn that comes with exhaustion and dehydration, maybe even with the leftover burnt out panic and other tired emotions.

I go to sleep after another forty five minutes or so, having hauled myself onto the blow up mattress with no grade at all, boneless in a pile of sweaty blankets.

It only happens twice after that. Once when someone trips down the stairs near my floor-after my freak out, I wish them well-and again when a door slams just loud enough to wake me.

I grumpily wake up fully somewhere around too early. Six ten, my phone informs me.

I head into the bathroom again. I grab the cheap bar of soap I bought and start scrubbing myself down with it, keeping the water at lukewarm so it’s not too expensive for me to pay for. I would just take a cold shower, but the cold water washing over me in all of it’s weak-water-pressure glory sends me sweating and my heart beating way too fast, so I don’t do that.

The shower is quick. I step out and grab my single towel, drying my hair before the rest of me. By the time I’m dressed and grabbing the last of the pizza-I ate all but two slices last night, I’ll have to find more food-it’s closer to six thirty.

I sit and do my research while eating.

My memory is still blurry enough that anything is useful. I start with Mr Stark, which leads me to the Avengers. I check out each individually and get varying amounts of information for every attempt. Then I loop back and check out Stark Industries and news feeds concerning the company.

By that point, I’ve finished my pizza.

I get up toss the box before putting on my shoes and leaving. The neighbor down two doors stares warily, a cigarette between two stick thin fingers, as I pass. I mentally evaluate him-from his bare feet to his thin frame to his greasy hair-and come up with a very low danger level. He’s just paranoid, from what I can see.

The stairs creak, but not in an I'm-about-to-collapse-get-off-me-idiot way. The door squeaks as well, and I ignore it equally well.

The streets are as busy as I expected. I get swept up with the pace, my eyes scanning the streets until-

There.

A restaurant that I don’t know and is not owned by Stark Industries. A miracle.

I walk in and get a black coffee, two chocolate eclairs, two muffins (blueberry and poppy seed, the girl at the counter recommended them), and three random donuts (apple filling with powdered sugar, glazed, and one with rainbow sprinkles). The girl barely glances at my admittedly large order before ringing me up.

As I walk to the door, planning to eat in a secluded area of the closest park, a man sitting and watching people order as he eats speaks up.
“Hey, girl!” he says to my back. I turn around, eyebrow raised. Might as well be polite. “The men would like you better if you ate less, sweet cheeks.”
“Thank you for the feedback,” I say, knowing full well that this probably won’t even hold me till lunch. “I’ll file it under ‘assholes who don’t know what they’re talking about’, I think it’s somewhere in the ‘I don’t care’ department.”

And then I turn around and walk out the door, but his shocked face is still in my memory. It’s surprised, not angry, thankfully. I’m sure that would have triggered another ten minutes of being unable to breathe.

As I eat, I focus on what’s around me. The flowers are very pretty, the grass is soft, and the gentle sounds of the city in the background are almost soothing.

It’s nice.

—-

After Shay disappeared, things got interesting.

I went to school the next morning, obviously. My dad might have actually killed me if I did anything but school or sleep for ten hours.

I had to put my phone on do not disturb because Mrs. Potts and Mr. Stark keep texting me asking for updates on what the scans mean and if I’ve seen her. They never say they’ve found her. Mr. Stark sent me what might as well be an essay talking about what he’s doing to find her. He asked me for ideas. I can’t add anything but my own eyes, because he’s covered everything short of contacting SHEILD. (“Like I’m telling those lunatics about her, they’ll just send her on missions the minute they find her.”)

Star noticed first, around the end of the second block. She is the most observant of our little group.

Star’s also the most willing to be blunt to try to help. She comes right up to me and asks what’s wrong, citing her worry over how I keep checking my phone in math, where any phones are always confiscated if spotted. I just tell her that I’m worried over a friend and that she’ll get an update over lunch before hurrying to science.

By lunch time, the entirety of my friend group has learned of my problem. They gang up on me as soon as I sit down with my awful school provided lunch.

I spend ten minutes inhaling questionable corn, a carton of frozen milk, one awful apple, and some strangely lumpy and colorless “breaded” “pork”.

Then Ember gives me a cookie to eat as I tumble through my explanation, because she’s rich and I love her.
“Okay,” I say, taking an anxious bite of cookie and staring at my phone, waiting for a notification. “So I was at SI doing my internship, and you know how I got it through hacking Mr. Stark? Well, I show up and then he shows up-“
My face gets warm thinking about it. “And uh he insisted I needed to eat and sleep, which was, you know, fair, if hypocritical, and then Pepper Potts showed up and dragged me to eat-“
Petal laughs and then quickly stops so I can continue.
“Okay so then I insist on working after my forced sleep so I’m there working until, like, midnight.”
“Your poor sleep schedule,” Star comments, head perched on both hands as she watches me inhale more cookie.
“You got them as your new parents!” Petal says, “Congrats!”

“First, I detest that,” I say, not really disliking it much. “Second, so i'm there, and I’m going to go help Star, because she’s having a bad night, and Mrs. Potts is trying to stop me and either have me go home or sleep there, and I run into a girl by the elevators.”
“Please tell me you didn’t literally run into her,” Ray says, shaking his head and sipping from his water bottle.
“I did not, which was quite a feat on my amount of sleep,” I say proudly. “Anyway, so I ran into her in the elevators that morning. Her name was Shay, and she seemed pretty cool. Uh, so I don’t know why she was there that late? She said something about someone asking her to be, which seems kind of scammy. Anyway, Mrs. Potts makes both of us stay overnight, because walking at midnight half the length of the city isn’t really advisable with teen girls. So she’s grudgingly brought and like stuff and then she gets like a nose bleed. And she had been acting a little weird, so I was like, oh my God, she’s about to have a seizure. And she doesn’t, which was good, but Mr. Stark’s AI-“
“He has an AI?” Onyx asks, munching on carrot sticks.
“Yes, his name is Jarvis, but like each letter stand for something. Don’t know what. I call him J. Anyway, so J does a scan, to like, make sure Shay is okay. And, like, Shay’s scans came out awful. Like, I don’t know how she was functioning, acting weird is nothing, she was walking and talking and clearly had some sort of thought processes, which was incredible, because her fudging brain scans-“
I pause to breathe and remember the fire colored thing.
“So everyone starts freaking out, right? Like, Mrs. Potts and Mr. Stark left so she could sleep with me in this apartment Mr. Stark apparently just gave me, and it must have freaked Shay out, because while I’m trying to talk to her, you know, figure out how well she’s feeling, she gets this trapped and kind of scared look? And I thought, like, this is normal, she’s probably freaking out too, but like, next thing I know, she jumping into a vent?”

Everyone stares at me. Onyx, with his skinny female frame, shaved head, bound chest, and shocked eyes. Ember, her hair pulled into a messy bun, rosy cheeks spilling across her nose from each side of her face, staring at me with her mouth open. Star, with her black ponytail, pale skin, and calm demeanor. Jack, with his ridiculous white spiky hair, equally pale skin and eyes, and who looks like he’s about to burst out in shocked laughter. Petal, non-binary today, has their pink shoulder length hair braided, accented by their black hoop earrings and leather jacket that has a rock band tee underneath. They have a face that’s so confused and concerned it’s slightly concerning. Ray is running his hands through his short-ish blond hair, his tanned skin showing up well against it, with his golden brown eyes showing a very anxious inside. Brooke has left her black, kinky curly hair looked today, and with her brown skin and cute dress and leggings combo, she’s really cute today. She also is currently very shocked.

“She just,” I say, shaking my head, “Did that. And by the time we could figure out where she was, the answer was no where in the building. Mr. Stark thinks she just climbed to the roof and scaled the building, it’s the only spot without cameras where J could have seen her. Either that or she was the speed of light and scooted through the tunnels all the way to the ground floor from the penthouse.”

Everyone still stares at me. My phone buzzes. It’s from Mr. Stark.

Tony Stark
Figured out the charts. Still no sign. I have Jarvis watching all the cameras in every building I own, and all the Avengers are ready to go. Anything you can figure out from her brain scan?

I stared at that thing for the rest of the night. Her frontal lobe seems the hardest hit, along with several things including her amygdala. The only pattern I could see for the hardest hit spots was that they all either handled memory or emotions and hormones. The relatively hurt things was stuff like anything handling sensations from her body. Which makes sense; she clearly would have been in pain, but if the part of her brain that handled stuff like that was hurt, she wouldn’t feel it as much. In the relatively okay group is also anything handling association, which, okay. After that, it’s either almost not hurt at all in comparison or showing signs that is already healed over (which: what, how).

Me
Memories were probably blurry, she had a lot of damage in areas of the brain that handle that. Also, emotions and hormones would probably be dicey, along with sensations. Otherwise she’s comparatively healthy.

Tony Stark
I hate the word comparatively here

Me
Dude she literally is only left with motor functions, the five senses, and that’s pretty much it, along with language. They pretty much have the equivalent of a gash, while the rest of her brain is just a bleeding, bruised mess.

Tony Stark
Okay. We haven’t found her yet. I’ll let you know.

Me
I’m keeping my phone on and with me, so make sure you do

The rest of lunch is spent smiling at my friends, who keep trying to distract me, and glancing at my phone when the teachers aren’t looking.

In fact, I spend the rest of the day like this. There’s just the added strain of needing to at least pretend to do work and remembering that, so I can avoid suspicion, I need to keep the bathroom breaks to once per class. I spend the bathroom breaks either texting Mr. Stark or Mrs. Potts.

Immediately after school, Stark sends a car for a kid named Peter-a boy who I’m pretty sure is lying about his internship because he’s sweating and mumbling all over the place, but I guess he’s in the car, so maybe he’s just awkward-and me. Apparently, Peter is Mr. Stark’s intern. He is also very surprised to see me, while somehow being enthusiastic enough to get me to smile.

I check my phone, but there’s nothing. People seem hesitant to interrupt my school day, which sucks, because if they’re interrupting with news, they are free to.

I compulsively check my new bag as if Shay will appear out of nowhere so I can treat her. After last night, I cleaned Mr. Stark’s medical ward (two whole floors of constantly on-site doctors and specialists for everything from therapy to heart surgery) of anything that I could use to treat Shay that could also possibly fit in my bag.

Peter gives me a questioning look. There is a lot of stuff on there. The stuff I got for Shay sightings is on top of the stuff I carry around for regular medical emergencies, whether or not they’re related to any superhero business.

Peter keeps giving me weird looks as he talks about his friends Ned and MJ and how they’re all going to a party next weekend, and he has a chem test he’s really anxious about (Happy, the driver, mutters that he has no reason to be), and how he really, really loves his aunt, who is apparently his guardian. He talks about her around half of the time, and the rest of the time, she’s some part of the story. He talks at the speed of light, but I have a lot of experience with Onyx and Bryn and Ember when they start combusting with the pure amount of ideas they have. I probably do as well, to be honest.

I offer him a few weak comments on my own school life before he finally gets curious enough to ask about my bag.

He gets a look like a hopeful puppy as he asks, “So what’s with your bag? There’s a ton of stuff in there.”
“I want to be a doctor,” I say awkwardly and automatically, “So I know a lot of medicine and stuff. So I carry this with me so I can treat people who might need it.”

It’s the go-to excuse. I actually use it way more for the cuts and bruises and broken bones that comes with fighting crime, but I’m not against helping someone having a heart attack.

He brightens and I can sense another rambling coming. He really is like a puppy. With his baby face and brown curls, he even looks the part. “Hey, that’s really cool! I can’t decide if I want to be a mechanical engineer like Mr. Stark or an electrical one or maybe a chemist? I’m good at all three, but I could just follow in Mr. Stark’s footsteps and become all three, even though he isn’t as good a chemist as Dr. Banner or anything. You know, Dr. Banner actually looks a lot like the picture hanging in Mrs. Wagner’s room…”
He takes a moment to appreciate the fact that Mrs. Wagner, our science teacher, hung up a picture of Dr. Banner on the wall dedicated to inspirational people in the science world.
“Anyway, I think Dr. Banner is really cool. Everyone keeps talking about how he’s the Hulk as well, but I don’t think it really matters much. I mean, he’s so cool on his own! Have you read his papers on radioactivity? Genius. And his theories on mutants and enhanced people that he’s been releasing more recently, those are awesome, he didn’t even use any negative language, which is, you know, really awesome of him. I mean-“

I feel the need to say something before he runs out of oxygen and suffocates while he tries to keep talking. “I’ve seen his theories on mutants and enhanced people,” I say, smiling gently. “It’s as good as the stuff he did on queer people.”

“Right?” Peter asks, practically vibrating in his seat. I can see Happy rolling his eyes in the front seat as he takes a turn. It looks like we’re two or so blocks from the tower. “I think he’s awesome. I’ve never heard him say anything bad about anybody, he’s so nice, and I don’t think he even knows it-“

“Sounds familiar,” Happy mutters from the front. Peter flushes But continues. I smile at him for the short rest of the ride, extended by New York traffic.

We get out the car among more excited, fast words. I offer the occasional reply so he can breathe, because that seems to be the only time he does it. Mrs. Potts meets us in the lobby with a tight smile for Peter and a worried look and a raised brow for me.
“I have nothing,” I say, “But I did spend all day looking at the diagrams. For all intents and purposes, the brain was so badly crippled that the only fully functioning parts would be language, motor skills, and the five senses. She should have just been...like a zombie, to be honest.”
Peter is definitely looking worried. “What’s going on?” he asks.
Mrs. Potts takes both of us by the arm, nods at a departing Happy, and takes us into the elevator. Peter fidgets, his face scrunched.
“Peter, you know of HYDRA and AIM by now, right?” Mrs. Potts asks once the door closes. I have J pull the diagrams up in the 3D again so I can look at them in detail my phone can’t manage.
Peter doesn’t look consoled. “Yeah? What about them?” His eyes widen. “Was Mrs. Widow captured?”
“No, no,” Mrs. Potts says, waving the idea away. “We just...yesterday, we had a significantly brain damaged girl in the tower that we think was an agent for one of those, or maybe something or someone else.”
Peter’s eyes widen. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“With the amount of brain damage she had,” I say slowly, “I’m not putting my money on she was there willingly. This looks like it may have been done by electrocution, repeated shocks to the head. And she was acting confused, dazed, and sometimes she would just fully shut off. We think she’s just a victim we can help.”
“A very dangerous victim,” Mrs. Potts says, nodding. “If the way she escaped into the vents is any tell.”
“She moved like it,” I say, looking at a giant hole in Shay’s frontal lobe. I had only seen the way Shay moved a few times, in my days as Super Shock. Even on Lizzy’s feeds, when I hadn’t been there. I saw it once in person, in a shooter who got his target and a mask over the entirety of his jaw that looked more like a muzzle than anything. When I did get eye contact, his eyes were a mixture of desperation, anger, and confusion that hurt my soul. He barely even left a bruise when he pushed me aside, right before he twisted a steel beam in order to jump out of a skyscraper.

The only other time, she woman commited suicide off the tallest building I’ve ever been on top of, just after she killed a dozen and some men that all were HYDRA goons. She looked at me, and with the most cryptic last words ever (“Let’s hope this works,” why would she even say that?) she did the most graceful jump I’ve ever seen, s backflip right off the edge.

Oh no.

My mind flies to what Shay’s face looked like. Did she have a muzzle-mask and the lines it would have left behind?

My hands must be shaking. How can I tell Mr. Stark or Mrs. Potts this without blurting out the fact I’m Super Shock?

“Uh, are you okay?” Peter asks me.

I nod distantly.”Thinking,” I mutter.

The lines left by the muzzle would have healed over, if the way her brain is actually healing is any indication. I would have no way of knowing, but-

“J, can you access the audio feed of the call Shay made?” I ask. “Or even just her while she made the call?”

This is also an important part of the puzzle. If Shay was kidnapped by HYDRA, she was not calling her mother. Which means that she was calling a HYDRA goon.

“Unfortunately, to access a private call is illegal, even concerning one of our employees,” J answers. “However, the feed of Miss Li making the call is free to view.”
He pulls it up along one wall of the elevator. I study Shay’s face just in case. There is nothing there but makeup. She makes the call in that cut off, emotionless way she got in the elevator really suddenly. J doesn’t have an audio feed sensitive enough to make out what the other person says, which sucks.

The video ends with Shay handing Mrs. Potts her phone back. I got nothing useful from that.

Mrs. Potts is staring at me as the door opens at the penthouse. “Spark?” she asks.

“I will figure this out,” I promise. I wander out and sit on one of the couches. “J, is it possible to trace the call Shay made? If they were HYDRA, we could catch them and find Shay.”

J doesn’t answer for long enough to be slight concerning. “While tracing calls is only legal for Stark Industries to do under extreme concern on the employee’s behalf.”
I rub my face. “J, my guy, she ran away with enough brain damage that if she was in a hospital, they would track her down because the staff would be concerned she would walk into oncoming traffic. Trace the call.”
“Tracing Miss Li’s call.”

The map he pulls up gradually zooms in as Mrs. Potts and Peter watch me slump on the couch and try to brainstorm. Eventually, we get a warehouse owned by random tech company for prosthetics that, according to the stuff that J pulled up under the company name, wasn’t that good at their jobs.

Mrs. Potts immediately has her Business Face™ on.

“Buy them,” she instructs.
“Ma’am, the company is not for sale,” J says.
“Set up a meeting. Anything. We’re smoking them out.”
If J could sigh, I’m sure he would. Instead, he pulls up a record of communications between SI and the prosthetics company. The only thing there is the offer for a meeting to discuss vaguely defined things.

Within five minutes-which I spend reading the stuff J has pulled up on the company, apparently they specialize in arms attached at the shoulder, but really bad ones that practically attach to all of your organs to stay in place and probably hurt a ton-they reply.

They also have a vaguely worded note, and it doesn’t give a clear answer on whether the companies will have a meeting.

Pepper has them agreeing within fifteen minutes, which I spend thinking about how inhumane attaching those arms to a human would be (it attaches to the brain, which they spin as letting you feel stuff with the prosthetic, but I think of as agony) and worrying about Shay.

Has she eaten? Did she sleep on the street? Surely a HYDRA agent would know how to rough it relatively safe, right? But she has awful brain damage, what if she can’t remember or doesn’t have enough sense left to figure it out?

I wonder if her needs are different. Does she need more food? Probably, with the way her body is healing itself. Can she get sick? What if she drinks something bad? Does she have any money on her?

Is she okay? Can I help?

Eventually, I have to go home. I work a bit-distracted enough that eventually Mrs. Potts just send me home.

Dad isn’t there when I get back. I just immediately sit down in front of my computer and do what I’ve been itching to do all day.

I talk to Izzy.

“Hey, Iz,” I say, “Set all cameras to scanning for Shay’s face, voice, whatever you have on her. Send an alert to me, no matter what, if you get a hit. Got it, Iz?”
“Yes, updating the code now,” Izzy says as the file for the code controlling her cameras pulls up and starts to be auto-edited.
I open up some music to help me focus as I start writing an entirely new program. Izzy wouldn’t know how to make it, so I’ll have to do it by hand.

It’s only focus is taking the information from Shay’s brain scan (long since downloaded by Izzy, the angel) and telling me what it can about it.

How can her brain just heal like that?

“Izzy, how’s the current Hacking Tony Stark attempt going?”
“Would you like a summary or a specific piece of information?”
“So we have anything on the serum Captain America was given back in the fifties?” I ask, “I think it might help. I mean, Shay can be compared to him, right?”

“I can try my best,” Izzy says, “And it appears there is nothing in the Stark Industries files I’ve gotten into about the original serum. There is, however, a record of Mr. Roger’s abilities, limits, strengths, weaknesses, and so on.”

Izzy (how did I live without her?) pulls up the file without my prompting.

“Cams in the suits are all updated,” Izzy says, “I am currently accessing the cameras you placed around the outside of the apartment.”
“Great job, Izzy,” I say absently, typing out a line of code that explains the color system-what red, orange, and green means.

“Spark, may I ask what you are writing?”
“A program that can evaluate a brain in detail.”
“Alright, let me know if you need help.”
“Of course,” I say, thinking in the back of my mind for the millionth time the hundreds of way Shay could have died by now.

She could have died by now. I hope she lives.

Chapter Text

As I sort through my admirably blurry memories, the thought comes to me that I can’t remember feeling so alive.

And I know I can’t even compare to Brooke next to me. I feel it hollowly, but I am completely sure of it.

Brooke has pulled her hair back into a bun with a scrap of blue cloth. She is wearing overalls with a blue crop top underneath (she mentioned earlier, just after she met with me in this restaurant that she had never done anything showing this much skin in public, I don’t know if I responded well, I hope I responded well) (did I fail-no-friend-no-friends bad, can’t have friends-) and black ballet flats that make her footsteps sound much different that anyone else’s. This is good, because it is easier to know where she is when I cannot see her, because I must keep her safe, if HYDRA gets her, it would be my fault-

(Anything else, think of anything else-)

Brooke’s blood spilled over hard, cracking concrete. A brown hand that is hanging limp and slightly grey, the gun glinting in the corner of my vision-

Brooke hurts her feet a lot in them. The soles are concerningly thin-very different from my own black boots, heavy in every footfall-and I am worried that she will slice open her foot on the street.

Her freckles are very apparent on her face. I didn’t notice them last time, because she had on makeup last time I saw her, but now she only has eyeliner and lipstick, from what I can tell. She smiles at me more than I can remember anyone doing, which is also concerning.

I am dangerous, after all. I cannot forget that.

Every motion I make is measured. Ever ounce of strength weighed in my mind before I use it. My surroundings are always accounted for, so I do not make a mistake.

Mistakes, after all, can be fatal.

Okay, maybe not so alive. Robotic, just a bit. But that’s fine. That will change. I just have to act.

I can act.

It’s only me and Brooke here right now. Bryn is technically also here, but they are not where I can currently see them, because they are in the bathroom. Star sent Brooke a text that she was going to be slightly late because her dad “pegged her with extra chores”. I do not know what this means, but I decide not to ask when Brooke skips along in her topics in the way she does. Jack says he’s coming with Star, and Ember and Onyx are on the same train and will get here in around five minutes.

When she said “train” I first pictured a steam train, belching smoke from burning coal and complete with gold accents and the clinking of coins in the rich folks’ pockets. I decide this is wrong as well, because I saw no trains like that outside, and I can’t imagine they are anywhere in the crowds of this city.

“Look,” Brooke says, smiling a lot suddenly. She stands upright from the column she was leaning against. “A dog!”

I turn slightly so whatever she is talking about is in my line of vision along with her. There is a dog, a small one wearing a service dog vest.

I vaguely remember that is is illegal to pet one of these working dogs.

“Do not pet,” I say, stopping her. “Service dog.”
“Aw,” Brooke says, going back to her column that stand right past the security. “I only saw an ear. Wanted to pet a cutie.”
“No pets are allowed inside the building expect service animals,” I say, remembering a sign outside.
Brooke looks around. “Is there a sign?” At my nod and point towards the doors, she smiles at me. “You have a good memory.”
I put on a fake smile that I have done many times before. “Yes.”
“I wonder how good you’d be at a memory games…”

I glance around the room. I take in the crowd, the details of the people, the cameras scattered around that room in that strip where the ceiling meets the wall, the security stationed along the walls. The ceiling is high, so I check there too. There is nothing suspicious, no familiar faces, not a hint of a weapon or even one of the more common ways to hide one (at least not frequently enough that it couldn’t be coincidence).

I have two small handguns on me along with twelve knives, plus ammo. This is a very dangerous, risky move I’m making, so I need to be prepared.

I stand pointing away from the security cameras and consider palming a knife while I respond to the wonderings Brooke says out loud about my ability to play memory games. I can’t volunteer much to the conversation because I can’t even remember an example of a memory game. I manage to steer her towards the topic of the bakery she works at.

“Yeah, I run it with my twin, Bryn, and Mama,” Brooke says. “King’s bakery because that’s what we changed our last name to after my father….”

There’s a long pause. There are several words that could fill that blank. Her father may have died, and they changed their name to escape the grief. But I doubt it, because she used “father” instead of something more personal. Maybe her parents got divorced and her mother took custody. Maybe her father was abusive and they split because of that. Maybe he was abusive and then died.

I palm a knife in my non dominant right hand and take note of every man in sight that looks kind of looks kind of like Brooke and is old enough to be her father.

I decide to say something so Brooke can lose the anguished look on her face. “My mama is dead,” I say, right before realizing that is probably incredibly inappropriate. But it grabs her attention and it’s the only parental information I have. I can’t even think of anything else that I can remember that would go in that blank. That would be that shocking and disruptive.

“I’m so sorry,” Brooke says, turning to look at me fully. “How old were you?”

“Mama!” I screamed. Blake put a hand over my mouth as he dragged me towards the woods I used to play in. I was only ten, but I understood that the man coming to power did not like us. But these men that came to our door, hearing of an older Chinese woman who sometimes didn’t act totally sane-they were not from this man.

They were dressed like any other, not soldiers. They were men from our town. It terrified me. Did they pretend to like us? Did I know them?

Blake knocks over a lit candle. He doesn’t even look as it lights the paper next to it.

Mama is screaming. I don’t know if she’s coherent enough to understand what’s going on fully, but she clearly understands that something is wrong.

After that there is only flashes of memories and sensations.

Sleeping in the cold, the edge of a building a harsh contrast against Blake’s side snuggled up to me, looking for warmth. The yelling of a man, screaming at us to stop and give him his bread back. The adrenaline that always comes from a man yelling at me. The feeling of paper in my hands, numbed by the cold. Reading of a boarding school paid for by a father I had never seen. A promise that we would live.

A promise.

He promised. (He failed.)

“I was ten.” (I think.)

Brooke hugs me. She has already done this five times since I met her, so I think it’s safe to say she’s a hugger. “I’m sorry,” she says again.

(They weren’t.)

“Hate crime,” I say, not even knowing the meaning of the words.

Brooke does, though. Her eyes widen and she clutched me tighter. “Did she hurt much?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “She wasn’t mentally stable all the time. I hope she had an episode during it so she didn’t feel it.”
“So you weren’t there?” she whispers in my ear.
“My brother didn’t want me getting hurt,” I defend, like I could have helped. Why am I having this conversation? I’m saying true things, that’s dangerous. What if they torture her because of it? “He dragged me away.”
Brooke nods into my shoulder before slowly letting me go. For some reason, she’s blushing.
“Sorry to bring that up,” she says quietly. It’s strange; she’s usually so loud and happy.

“I’m the one that did it,” I say, eyes glancing around the room one more time.

Besides, it was good to remember.) (Mama deserves that.)

Bryn comes back from the bathroom. I note what their footsteps sound like as they walk. They immediately start talking about science homework, but becomes distracted when a girl with fiery red hair walks through the door with Onyx. I remember the other girl’s name is Ember, and that she was angry last time I saw her.

I stand slightly in front of Brooke.

Brooke doesn’t notice. She stands up properly again (good, she’ll be better at defense) and goes to meet up with them as soon as they get through security. I follow her like a hyper paranoid bodyguard, unquestioning the normalcy she deems this to be and ready to beat up anyone who touches her.

Jack and Star show up around ten minutes later, after Brooke tries her hardest for me to be active in a conversation. I try my best. I could have done the easy thing and lied, plans for that kept coming up in my head, but I decided it was a good way for me to remember stuff anyway. But I couldn’t say much because I have to edit heavily everything coming out of my mouth.

Star smiles at me before hugging Brooke back when she tackles her. Jack starts chatting with Onyx about calculus homework, which was apparently very difficult.
We wander off into the glories and wonders of the aquarium. I do my best to flinch at the sloshing water I can sometimes hear, and all the screaming and yelling. I don’t even know why I’m doing it. Star sees me flinch when I almost collide with a toddler that I could not hear in the noise, and she pivots slightly to walk next to me so she can divert anyone, leaving a wall to my other side.

After that, I just assign myself the job of being pleasant. I respond to questions to the best of my blurry mind’s ability, smile almost continuously, and make the expected ‘awwww’ or ‘wooooaaaaah’ sounds at the various marine life.

Ember comments on my hair, asking how I straighten it so well. I just tell her it’s naturally like this, which is true. She pouts and calls it unfair. I don’t know how hard her hair is to take care of, but mine is pretty low maintenance. Bryn also complains about their hair, string at the partially dyed curly black.

Onyx whispers to Star part way through.
“I have to go take off my binder. Did you see a bathroom?” He asks.
Star shakes her head and looks around. “How long have you been wearing it?”
Onyx pauses. Star, after the pause, looks at him suspiciously. “Did you wear it to sleep or something? How long have you had it on?”
“Uh,” Onyx mumbles, “Yesterday?”
Star smacks Onyx lightly on the arm. It makes my guy clench, but neither of them react. “Onyx! You know you’re not supposed to wear it for more than eight hours! You could have broken a rib!”
Star stops, her eyes narrowing slightly. I pretend to watch an otter. “Didn’t I see you last night?”
Onyx mutters a curse. “I’m fine! No broken ribs!”

I get a flash of someone cutting their own hair, as close to the scalp as possible, tears streaming down their face. Then the same person wrapping their chest tightly with bandages.

Dread fills me. I don’t think that ended well. Is Onyx going to get hurt? I should watch out for broken ribs. Or bones in general, really.

“You know you’re not supposed to wear that while exercising! And you better not have worn it to sleep!” A slight pause. “Did you sleep? You better have.”
Onyx sighs. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
Star sighs and lets him go, muttering, “I’m going to keep a closer eye on you, be careful.”

Onyx wanders off. When he makes eye contact for a split second, still not having located a bathroom, I casually point him towards the closest one. He gives me a weird look, probably wondering how I knew what he was looking for and where it is, before heading in that direction.

Ember flashes me a smile. I nod back.

Brooke grabs my hand to get my attention in front of the dolphins and points at one doing a particularly cool trick. I look at the dolphin as it splashes back into the water.

The trainer throws it a fish. If I just reimagine the fish as electricity and ice, I am the dolphin. Except maybe a dolphin who swam out of the pool and flip-flopped to the ocean. With seventeen knives, a full backpack, and a few handguns.

Brooke smiles and blushes again. I smile back at her, but I can’t blush because the subconscious reaction was trained out of me. Along with things like crying or screaming.

Ow. My head again. Yay.

My brother sneaking out the back door in the middle of the night. Following him to watch as he dances among kids his own age to nonexistent music, and then to see him kiss the butcher’s son behind a brick building. Watching the butcher’s son get beat up and arrested. Seeing tears falling down my brother’s face as he tries to hide them. Watching the butcher cry out as his son is arrested.

I feel a flash of fear. I glance around. No one is looking at us, but this is a very public place. Much more public than a deserted brick alleyway.

I stop smiling slowly, so she will not be offended, and turn back to the glass wall. Behind it is the sea creatures and so much water that I’m surprised we haven’t died in a flood yet. I prepare a plan to climb to safety as I watch a dolphin float about.

“So, Shay,” Ember says, still watching the dolphin do tricks. “You said you grew up in Germany. How’s that different then America?”

My head stabs itself. Eating with my fingers. The taste of something sweet. Laughing as I chase my brother. Blake running straight into a tree. Reading with Mama as I struggle to say all the large words.

“Different,” I say. “Really different.”

Star swats Ember when she opens her mouth to say something when I don’t say anything more.
“I was born in America,” Brooke says. Bryn nods. “I mean, you wouldn’t believe it from what people have said to me. But I was. Mama wasn’t, though. She became a citizen around...three years ago.”
I nod along like I know the things she’s talking about. What’s the immigration process to America? I have about as much idea about that as what I ate on my seventh birthday.

That is, none.

Ember nods along while Star talks. “My dad came her from England last year. Became a citizen no problem because of me and because he’s white.”

“Scum,” the man spits at me. My eight year old brother clutches my tiny hand tighter and huddles into Mama’s side as she tries to buy carrots.

“Unworthy to live.”
“Mercy to kill.”
“Subhuman.”

I swallow. I say nothing because there’s dust and ashes blocking my throat.

Onyx comes back. He has on a hoodie so big and baggy, I can’t see how large any part of his body that it is covering is. And it goes halfway down his thighs.

(He’s hiding a weapon under the hoodie.)

I nod at him and we start walking to the next exhibit as Onyx starts talking. Apparently, he writes songs and he’s having trouble with a certain rhythm. He also miMes out playing the drums, so I think he does that too. Ember offers her advice, because she plays the violin and knows more about music than anyone else. Brooke offers her unbiased opinion, and I just smile.

We head to get Korean BBQ within the next half hour. I try my best to keep up with conversation and not burn myself over the open flame which we use to cook our own food. I learn that Star wants to be a politician and that’s she is “far left”. I don’t comment because I don’t know what it means. Brooke groans about her gymnastics lessons and the new teacher that she doesn’t like. Onyx paints us a picture of trying to convince his mother to start the process to letting him have testosterone. I offer comments on my mother’s cooking, which I think she liked to do because a lot of childhood type memories have food involved. Or maybe I really liked food? Bryn talks about how he’s working on some hormone therapy that would work for people with enhanced metabolisms. I don’t know most of his references or the science words coming out of his mouth.

We leave after forty-five minutes. (Why did it take so long? We didn’t need all that time to eat.)

I’m heading in a different direction than everyone else, so I’m alone walking to the apartment.

I scan the skylines as I walk at an average pace. (They usually take the rooftop route for strike missions.) I also periodically look around and evaluate everything I can to make sure it’s safe.

The cocking of a gun is the first sign.

My eyes snap to the building ahead of me-where the source was-and quickly do a scan of every building around.

Nothing. So they didn’t send a team.

Just one person. But which one? There are six options.

(If they chose James, I am going to die here.)

(If they chose the Black Ghost, you will be tortured in plain view for the terrorization.)

(If they chose anyone else, you will be taken down as quickly and painfully as possible and dragged back to be wiped or killed.)

(Mission requirements: get out alive. Priorities: take as minimal damage as possible. Leave unfollowed. Report- no… minimize civilian and proprietary damages.)

I step in the middle of a bubble absent of people and stay there.

A gunshot.

The crowds scatter and screams. The bullet misses me only because I know how to dodge faster than any human can move.

They sent James. The Black Ghost would have layered the place in bullets. James is confident enough in himself to only shoot once.

I drag a cloth out of my pocket-the red rag that Bryn gave me-and tie it just below my eyes so I can’t be identified as easily. I also pull up the hood of my jacket and draw the strings tight. I dodge people and decide that I’m standing too close to all of them to guarantee their safety. I climb a lamppost as fast as possible while sliding a handgun into my left hand.

I must look very unprepared. Black hoodie pulled up, deep blue jeans that are almost black as well, and red cloth over my face. I crouch on top of the lamppost and stare up at the building.

The next thing to fly towards me is a grenade.

I flip off of the lamppost and onto a car that was behind it. I slip smoothly off of the thing and sprint in the middle of the street. This is safe because people got out and started running after the gunshot.

The crowds are actually very organized. They all move towards subway stations and into buildings, crowding into the back.

I guess that’s New York for you. So used to violence that they know just what to do when tragedy strikes.

The grenade explodes. I don’t flinch, only weave between cars. Then I turn and sprint up to the side of the building, throwing myself onto the wall and starting to climb. I make sure to go as fast as possible, following the plan I made running for the wall, and I’m up within thirty seconds.

I point the gun at the black figure.

It is James. Or, rather, by his stance and hard eyes, Winter, one of the three people sharing that body. I see his muzzle in detail first. I want to rip it off. He’s wearing his full combat uniform, right down to the repainted star on his metal arm (don’t think of how it must hurt, it distracts) and the copious black around his eyes.

I dodge another shot and take my own.

I hit him in the leg. He doesn’t even shift his weight, which means he just came out of cryo. Winter is the most emotionally brainwashed of the three, and the deadliest.

He’s the one I think was created to handle the torture. Later, he learned how to kill.

This is the true Winter Soldier.

“Hi, Winter,” I say.

Winter was brainwashed by HYDRA the most. The only even vaguely human thing about him is the way he likes me a lot.

Taking Winter by the arm and gently dragging him away from the mission, choosing to instead hug him and ask him his name. He had first made it apparent a week ago that he was separate from the others, and I had learned last time to be as gentle and respectful as possible.

Winter doesn’t answer. Instead, he throws another grenade.

I run out of the blast zone, jumping to another building that’s only two floors down. I roll out of the jump and pop to my feet, turning immediately. Winter throws another grenade.

That’s the third. He only has ten on him at a time.

We keep doing that. I do a full circle around Winter’s rooftop and he drops a grenade on each one, blowing it up behind me.

It’s nice, because Winter isn’t trying to kill me.

If he really was following orders-killing me as quickly and maybe painfully as possible-he would be shooting. That’s Winter’s thing, shooting. Especially shooting to kill. But the grenades are smart-I have a slight warning, time to run, and it still looks like he’s trying to kill me.

Once I run out of buildings, I climb back up Winter’s building.

“Winter, you don’t have to do this,” I remind him.
Winter throws a tranq at me. I dodge it easily.

A building blows up nearby. I don’t even have to look at it to know that it’s the small store on the corner.

“Nice distraction,” I tell him.

I take stock of where I am. There’s a small open square to my left. The burning store behind me to my right. Buildings and streets as usual everywhere else, of generally the same height. I hop down to the rubble left of the building that was next to the square. The grenade is strong, built by the same team that made Winter’s arm. The only things left of the top floor is a few walls, some concrete, and scattered pieces of broken furniture.

The square doesn’t have people in it anymore and there’s not much to break. It’s the best spot to fight.

I turn around and smoothly shoot Winter in the hand. He just switches the hand that holds the gun, not even dropping it.

I forgot about his pain tolerance.

Then a dart hits me in the back.

(Should have scanned the buildings around the square.)

The hoodie blocks it a bit, but it still totally landed. I yank it out only to see that it’s already empty. And that stuff is made to put us down.

I plant my feet so I won’t stumble and look around. Black figures in the shadows of the buildings, not hiding that well. If only I had looked around!

My heart beats faster, and I can feel the pulse through my whole body. My fingers and toes tingle, followed by nausea climbing up my throat.

I sway slightly, but stay on my feet.

This is bad. I might be able to handle Winter. But Winter and a strike team while drugged? Not happening.

I put the dart in my pocket and consider my options. The buildings are all occupied, but there’s only two to three men per building. I might be able to fight just them off and run before the rest get there.

I could climb Winter’s building again and try to convince him and/or run.

The streets are out, due to the easy shooting target I would be. There’s no cars I could get too before being shot.

I climb Winter’s building again.

“Hi,” I tell him.

He doesn’t reply. Big surprise.

“Sorry for shooting you,” I tell him, “But I really don’t want to die today, so it was kind of necessary.”

Nothing. I think Winter is having either a nonverbal day or he’s anxious not to be caught with I, the horrible traitor. Probably both.

I sprint past him, and on my way, throw my hand backwards to take off his muzzle. I throw myself at him at the same time, straddling him upright because I didn’t manage to actually knock him over. I don’t hurt him, just do my best to pin his arms and take off that horrible mask at the same time.

The metal clanks to the ground. I drop off him, and while Winter is turning around, I flip off the back of the building.

Rolling to a stop on the edge of the sidewalk, I take a look around. There’s no obvious people hiding in the buildings or on top of them. I sprint along the edge of the buildings, or rather, I start to.

“You know, blowing up buildings isn’t a very good plan!” I hear behind me. I take cover behind a partially crumbled wall and look back.

It’s Iron Man. The Avengers are officially here.

“What even is the plan here, dude? Don’t you usually kill people?” Iron Man asks.

I crouch and scan the buildings again. Hawkeye must be somewhere nearby, he’s an archer. I spot him on a rooftop two doors down from where I am.

The wall doesn’t cover me from that angle.

Weren’t there two others? Where are Captain America and Black Widow?

Captain America announces himself soon enough. He does it by launching his shield at my face. I do not appreciate having a shield thrown at my face, but I guess I know where he is now.

I hit the floor and quickly jump back to my feet. “Why are you dressed like the American flag?” I ask. He stops, probably shocked I don’t know him, and I take the opportunity to sprint up to him and knock him in the jaw as hard as I can. I would pull my punch, because of the enhanced strength I have along with the enhanced everything else, but his Wikipedia page said he had heightened healing and resilience, so he’ll probably be fine.

He goes flying to the ground. He still looks conscious, which is surprising. My mind offers me a flash of a memory that shows me killing someone with a hit like that, which I don’t enjoy much, but can’t dwell on, because the guy is actually getting to his feet.

Wow. Enhanced resilience indeed.

I grab his shield and throw it as hard as you possibly can in a random direction. It ends up flying over a building away from Winter and out of sight.

“Sorry, couldn’t let you keep that,” I say, “But if you makes you feel better, I don’t really want it.”

Theft seems like something Mama would or should have yelled at me for . Also, that thing probably has a dozen trackers on it, and I don’t know how to fight with such a stupid weapon.

I take out my handgun. Captain America’s eyes widen when he sees it, but I just flip it and knock him over the head with the hard piece of metal. Then I smoothly-not even really thinking about it- put him in a chokehold and flip onto his back, letting him go just to strangle him with my thighs.

I take out a knife and wait for him to pass out as he claws at me with his gloved hands and stumbles around. He’s also talking, which I wouldn’t be concerned about except for the fact that he’s not talking to himself. A mic? Is he calling in help?

An arrow hits the pavement where I was a second ago, before Captain America stumbled again from lack of oxygen.

I hear a muffled, “Sorry, dude, but I can’t shoot her without hitting you.”

“Do it,” Captain America grinds out. “She’s going to kill me like this.”
“No I’m not,” I tell him clearly. “I’m just waiting for you to pass out so you’ll stop beating me up. No killing here.”
Captain America doesn’t believe me, if I’m going by his increasingly desperate calls into the coms he has.

What if him being enhanced means he’ll just straight up die instead of pass out? This is taking forever.

I flip off his head backwards, landing on the street with a roll while still relatively close. Captain America staggers, then does his best to face me.

“Who are you?” He asks, like I know anymore.
“Depends on who you ask,” I say, taking out a knife and stabbing him in the fleshy part of his shoulder while sweeping him off his feet, making sure to stay close so the archer won’t shoot me.

Captain America cries out. I leave in the knife so he’ll bleed slower and also because I have plenty of knives. I take out the next one and use it to cut off his mask. I take out the mic and com and look at it. I raise my voice so I can’t be identified and speak.

“Do what you want to the goons. Kill them as painfully as you want. But the Winter Soldier-“

I pause. HYDRA would tell me to use threats. But I am so tired of those.

“Please don’t. And Hawkeye, if you could not shoot me, that would be great.”

I get off Captain America, placing his helmet, mic, and com next to his body. He’s moving like he’s trying to get up, so I place a gentle hand on the shoulder that isn’t stabbed.

“Sorry for stabbing you,” I say. “But you were kind of attacking me and I didn’t know what to do except make you stop. See you.”

I stand up. “Oh, and I didn’t stab you anywhere bad. You’ll be fine.”

Then I sprint down the street. I’m almost immediately interrupted by a HYDRA agent dropping in front of me.

I punch him in the face, drop to sweep him off his knees, and then stand again. By the time I’m running, one of Hawkeye’s arrows have lodged itself into the guy’s ribs. Right to the heart. The guy struggles, and I don’t stop to watch him die. I’ve lost feeling in my toes, but I can still move my fingers. My scalp prickles.

I salute the building I saw Hawkeye in last and sprint down the street.

“Get it!” an agent calls behind me. “It’s getting away again!”
I curse him out as I run, because it feels good and I don’t care. Once I’m done with getting my anger out, I take my handgun and shoot backwards. I hit one guy in the leg and another right at the hip. I’m trying to aim, but it’s hard to do while both parties on either side of the gun are running and the one shooting is running backwards. My gut protests at all this movement, threatening making me throw up. The last tranq took half an hour to work fully; they must have upped the dosage.

“It?” Hawkeye yells, outraged. He fires an arrow and toppled another man. Then I hear more footsteps.

I turn to see Black Widow. Then I lower my gun, my mind filling with two distinct plans; run and hide as far away as possible, and hug this woman.

“Natalia?” I scream. She’s dead. They killed them all. They ended the Red Room and killed every child in it. How is she alive?

“Raven,” she answers. She shoots three more men quickly and physically takes one down. “Run.”

I nod and run away. My vision has started to spot and I think I’m swaying slightly again.

A little girl, blood dripping down her face and a gun in her hand. It’s shaking as she comes into the room that only has James and I in it.
“I am the Raven,” I had told her. “I am the Asset,” James tells her. He doesn’t look the part Winter plays, not completely, but he hasn’t been questioned yet. The girl with red curls and green eyes looked at us both separately, then speaks. “You are to teach me?”

“Yes,” I had answered. “We will teach you the ways of death and spywork. If you survive, you will have your graduation.” I had thought, at the time, that I should say sterilization instead.

They tried that on me, past me had thought. I woke up and killed them all. Maybe she will have the strength to do the same.

In real time, I wonder if they succeeded. Maybe that’s when she escaped?

I’ve made it to three blocks away before I hear a Hulk roar with my super hearing. I wince and step into a subway.

I did it. Im safe.

Chapter Text

The train home takes entirely too long. I spend the entire time making my hands stop shaking horribly and scanning the entire train. I almost throw up five times and my legs shake. I distract myself by taking off the red cloth and putting it in my pocket.

I had thought that I was going to enter my battle mode for one second. That time when emotions can’t touch me and I’m entirely made of logical thought, muscle memory, and instinct. That’s the heartless monster people are afraid of.

It’s a miracle that they didn’t say the keywords to trigger the switch to the Raven. I think none of them got close enough to be sure I would hear.

I stumble coming out of the train, barely holding myself up on a nearby bench. Instead of the world swaying around me, it kind of feels like I’m lurching against the rest of the world in the most vomit-inducing way possible.

“Ma’am? Are you okay?” asks a voice behind me. It’s familiar, but I’m so hazy that it takes a second to place it-that’s Spider-Man’s voice.
“M’ fine,” I say as quickly as possible before snapping my jaw shut to avoid barfing on the bench I'm leaning on. “Jus’ drugged a bi’.”

There’s a startled sound, and suddenly two hands are touching me and helping me stay upright. I flinch, and he loosens his grip but doesn’t let go. I swing my head, and I see a regular boy.

Ah, he’s out of suit.

His brown curly hair flops just like my stomach and his eyes are concerned, like the slight crowd surrounding me. I glance around, breathe out through my nose, and mutter.
“No hospit’l, can’t-go there-” I say, leaning on the boy. If I go there, not only will I be trackable and on public record, they would figure out how I’m enhanced and I’d probably be given over to the government. And with SHIELD practically just being HYDRA at this point, I can’t see that go well.

My vision develops spots at the corners, dancing in and out. The world sways again, and I can’t feel my fingers.

“Okay, okay, sure,” the boy-Spider-Man-says. “Just-um, where do you want to go?”
“‘Partment,” I manage. “That way.”
I nod, or, rather, sway me head toward the correct set of stairs toward the apartment. The boy gently leads me there, taking more weight then I think most humans can manage that easily. I get up the stairs at a pace that annoys everyone else on them, but I am a little too busy not faceplanting to care.
“My name’s Peter,” the boy tells me. Peter carefully holods me upright, and I think he’s putting effort into not pressing too hard on my skin. “Who drugged you?”
I mutter something uncatchable on purpose. What was I supposed to say? Men sent from the organization currently either trying to recapture or kill me?

My solution is just a whole bunch of syllables not even pretending to be a word.

“Uh,” Peter says, “Okay.”
“Mmmmgh,” I say, not opening my mouth. “‘At way.”
I swing my head up another set of stairs. We come up onto a busy street, all the noise making my head spin and my gut revolt.

I turn and throw up onto the sidewalk. Thankfully, I didn’t hit anyone. Peter manages to hold on to me enough that I don’t fall over while also not getting barf on himself.

I don’t feel much better after I throw up. Clearly, the poison is already in my bloodstream, not my digestive system.

Peter takes me all the way back to my apartment building. I tried to ditch him before then, not wanting Spider-Man to know where I live, but he either caught up with me or just gripped me tighter.

He agrees to leave me at the front door as long as I call him once I get upstairs safely. I mumble something along the lines of a really tired yes, and he gives me his number and stands back. I stumble through the front door and up the stairs, which still creak more than I strictly like.

I unlock my door in my fifth attempt. It took that long because my vision doubled once I slumped against the door to attempt to even get out my key, so it took a bit. I stumble in and ditch my bag near the door, just slumping to the ground. I call Peter, mutter something about being in the apartment, and hang up.

Then I throw up and pass out.

—-

When the Avengers assembled for a bombing, I didn’t think it was going to be this dramatic. I mean, apparently Steve’s been stabbed. JARVIS informs me that there are several ways to treat him if I’m willing to carry him back to the tower as I’m busy trying it to die.

“Sir, it appears you are fighting the Winter Soldier,” JARVIS tells me. “Facial scans show the Winter Soldier as a match for Seargent James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, Mr. Rogers’ childhood best friend. Should I notify Mr. Rogers?”

“Can we focus on me not dying?!” I ask, shooting a repulsor blast at the Winter Soldier as he tries to gun me down with his machine gun.

“Of course, sir. I’m analyzing his fighting style now. However, I would hesitate to do substantial damage to Mr. Rogers’ close friend.”

I lunge out of the way of a rocket launcher from behind me. One of the stupid agents in the surrounding buildings must have fired it. “Where’s the rest of the team?! Isn’t Nat supposed to be taking these guys out?!”

“Miss Romanov is currently attacking the man in the building to your right. Do you want me to give her a message?”

“Tell her to go as fast as possible!” I yell, trying to hit the Winter Soldier with another repulsor blast. The suit’s integrity goes down to 88% in the corner of my eye as more bullets hit me and ricochet off. “I need backup if I’m going to do more than stay alive over here!”

“Message sent, boss,” J tells me. “Step to the left.”

I do and the Winter Soldier throws a grenade there. I step a lot more to the left before it blows up.

The Soldier doesn’t even blink. He just turns to face me again, his face blank.

I’ve seen this guy before. He’s popped up on two missions, always gone in an instant and never like this. Now, his mask is off, letting us see his face properly. He has a handsome face, with a sharp jawline and hair to his shoulders in a matted tangle. His face is bruised in one side-maybe rubble from one of the explosions hit him.

There’s blood dripping slowly out of his left nostril. It reminds me of Shay.

I fire another repulsor blast. “Look, Sergeant Blizzard, you don’t have to do this!” I dance to the side more, but the Winter Soldier doesn’t move to face me this time. He stares into the distance as his nose bleeds harder.

“Sergeant Barnes has not taken any hits to the nose. A bloody nose not chased by outside damage like a broken nose can be a sign of brain damage,” JARVIS says.

“JARVIS!” I yell.

“Yo, Stark!” Barton shouts over the Avengers coms. “I’ve got eyes on someone!”
“Shoot them!” I say, “Why do you think you’re here?! To watch?!”
“Stark, they’re not dressed like an agent!” Hawkeye yells. “It’s just a kid in a hoodie!”
“Then they’re civilian!” I yell, frustrated by Clint and the fact that the Soldier isn’t moving and it’s creeping me out. “Let them get out of here!”
“Cap already attacked them!” Clint yells.
“What?!” I ask. The Winter Soldier turns to look at me again and I fire up my repulsors.
“And the hoodie person fought back! They just-“ there’s a pause, and then the sound of Clint firing an arrow. “They just knocked Cap down! I’m trying to hit them!”
“They’re not HYDRA,” Nats voice tells me as I watch the Winter Soldier tilt this head slightly, making the blood drip down his face at an angle. “Their operatives always dress the same.”
“Fine, then it’s any jerk who wants to take down Cap! Shoot them!” I say.
“I’m checking it out,” Nat says.
“Nat!” I say. “You want me to die?”
“I’ve taken out most of them, and Winter isn’t attacking you anymore. You’ll live.”
Clint mutters something. Then he yells far too loudly for the mic being in my ear. “Holy-“
J notifies me that the coms are now active between all avengers. Immediately, I hear Cap.
“She’s-strangling-me-“ there’s a gasping sound. The Winter Soldier continues studying me, apparently not caring that I’m ready to shoot him.
“Sorry, man, I can’t hit her without shooting you,” Clint says in his concentration voice.

“Do it,” Cap chokes out. “She’s going to kill me like this.”
There’s a muffled female voice. It doesn’t sound like Nat, so it’s the person choking Cap. Unfortunately, I can’t help because someone has to watch this creepy dude.

“I’m almost there,” Nat says.

Cap keeps gasping out words that increasingly don’t make sense.

Suddenly, there’s a gasping sound from his side of the coms. I hope he’s not unconscious as Captain Blizzard moves again.

He puts his gun across his back.

What?

Nat speaks in my ear. “No,” she breathes. “That’s not possible.”
“I agree,” I say. “I’m not being shot right now, it’s incredible.”
Nat doesn’t respond.
“Who are you?” Steve asks. Presumably, he’s talking to the girl. There’s something muffled said.

“Cap’s been stabbed!” Clint yells. “I’m firing!”
“No!” Nat yells.
“What?” Clint asks, clearly confused. “Why?”
I see Winter slowly take out some weird box thing, and I have no want to figure out what it does. I back up quickly. “Oh no.”

“What?” Clint says. “Tony, are you okay?”
The Winter Soldier raises the black box.
“She’s picking up Cap’s coms!” Clint warms.
The voice that comes through is high pitched in a way that is clearly fake.

“Do what you want to the goons. Kill them as painfully as you want. But the Winter Soldier-“
There’s a pause that sounds almost emotional.
“Please don’t,” she says. “And Hawkeye, if you could not shoot me, that would be great.”
There’s some muffled sounds that is kind of like she’s putting his stuff down. I watch the Soldier press something, and electricity arched out of the little black box. I lurch back, just barely missing the beam. There’s a crackling sound that’s too loud in my ears.
“Woah!” I yell. “Captain Blizzard just became Captain Lightning!”
“Tony?” Clint asks. “Wait-the HYDRA agents are attacking her-“
Nat curses something in Russian. She says nothing else.
“I’m backing her,” Clint says. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Steve makes a groaning sound. I watch the Winter Soldier put away his black box.
There’s a pause. Then Clint shrieks, “It?!” In my ear and I wince. “That jerk just called her an it!” He says quieter.
“Okay,” I say, a little stunned.
“Nat, what are you doing?” Clint asks. “Nat?”
“Raven,” Nat yells. “Run.”
“Nat, what’s going on?” I ask. “Clint?”
“I have no idea!” Clint yells. Steve makes another groaning sound.
“Is Banner in the scene yet?” I ask. He was feeling antsy earlier about letting the Hulk out in a bombing situation-who is there to smash?- but as soon as HYDRA agents were seen, he was called in.
“Dr. Banner’s ETA is six minutes,” J informs me.
“Nat!” Clint yells.

“She’s gone,” Nat says simply.
“Yeah, she is,” Clint says. “Nat, do you know her?”
“She’s dead,” Nat says.
“Clearly not,” I say, watching the Winter Soldier run off. I don’t move to stop him; as long as he’s not attacking me, I don’t particularly care. Fury can suck it, I’m not angering that dude, whether or not Fury wants it or if he’s Steve’s long lost BFF.

“Blizzard’s gone,” I say. Nat mutters something else that I don’t catch.
“Okay, someone grab Cap, we’re going back to the Tower,” Clint says. “And having a conversation in private.”

The trip back to the tower was only filled with the sound of Steve insisting that he’s fine. I don’t put him down, because his face is all bruised and he has a stab wound. Also, because I’m not a complete idiot. Only partially idiot. The rest is pure idiotic genius, if I do say so myself.

When we get back, Nat grabs a bottle of straight whiskey from my bar and chugs it. I stare at her along with everyone else because I’ve never seen Nat drink. She probably thinks it would be dangerous to dull her senses that much.

Nat puts the bottle down on the bar and sits on the couch as silently as ever. She doesn’t look affected at all, at least not yet.

“That was the Raven,” she whispers. I set Steve down on the couch carefully and start bandaging him with JARVIS’ instructions.
“Okay,” Clint says, sitting on the couch next to Nat. “You know her? Knew her?”
“She taught me,” Nat whispers.
“That’s impossible,” I say. My brows scrunch together on my forehead and I tie the final knot on Steve’s bandages. Steve is silent, nodding Nat along encouragingly from his position propped up on some pillows. “She’s definitely younger than you.”

Nat stares into space. “She’s…”

There’s a long pause. Nat isn’t usually very good with secrets (actually, she’s excellent with them; she’s bad at sharing secrets). She once told me that the conditioning she had when she was young makes it difficult for her to tell even little bits of information. Nat seems to not be able to say anything, so I do it.

“While we’re sharing secrets,” I say, standing up and getting my own shot of whiskey. “J said while we were fighting that the Winter Soldier matched facially to pictures of good old Bucky.”

Steve tries to sit up. I push him back down while finishing his bandaging. “What?” He demands. “Bucky’s alive?”

“One thing,” Nat says, looking like she’s physically forcing herself to say something. Everyone turns to her. “The Winter Soldier had multiple personality disorder, now known as dissociative identity disorder. From all the trauma, he gained two new personalities to deal with it.”

I take my shot of whiskey.

Nat glances around the room. “I didn’t know what it was at the time,” she says, “I was just a kid. But the Raven knew something- she switched between calling him James and Winter. She only used Bucky once, and he was screaming and crying and having panic attacks pretty much the entire time.”

Steve is pale.

“J, pull up all you can on dissociative whatever disorder,” I say, sitting down on the couch.

“Dissociative identity disorder, sir,” J says, pulling up several holograms full of information. The one in front of Steve looks like the summary of it all. “A memory and personality disorder where memories are stored incorrectly, usually because of trauma, and different personalities arise from the different experiences and different memories each personality experiences.”

J continues into the silence. “People with DID usually have more than one additional personality, and they are all usually separate in personality, gender, age, and so on. They are usually reflective of the type of person the original personality believed would be able to handle the trauma they experienced or are experiencing. For example, a child could conjure an adult personality because they believe the adult personality would be more able to handle whatever they are going through. It is only developed in children, so I do not know how Sargent Barnes gained a case. However, for the personalities he developed, they are probably very different from Sergeant Barnes was prior to trauma. ”

I stare at the ceiling. “So Barnes would probably create some hard, tough guy who’s going to be really hard to convince to stand down.”
“Yes, sir, especially because this personality would have no emotional connection to Mr. Rogers.”

I mutter a curse. Steve just looks confused. “You’re going to help me?” He asks. “Don’t you hate me?”

Clint sucks in a breath. Nat’s face goes carefully blank.

“No one here hates you?” I say, more questioning than anything. “Like, yeah, you get on my nerves more often than not, but, like, you’re my friend? Why do you think you’re, like, here?”

Steve looks uncomfortable. “Because Fury asked you to,” he mutters.

I stare at him. “No,” I say, “because I wanted you to.”

Clint speaks in the awkward silence after our awkward conversation. “So how do we help him?”
Nat shrugs, forcibly calm. “He knows me, so I should probably talk to him. If that doesn’t work, just do it like he’s any trauma victim.”

Steve is still staring at me, and his face keeps changing in minute ways. Like he’s loading and the page is pulling up pixel by agonizing pixel.

“Tony,” he says in a really soft voice.

“That is my name,” I respond confidently, really uncomfortable. What is going on in his mind?

“Tony,” he says again. “I. Um, while we’re doing confessions…”

He trails off, getting lost in his own head. “Nat and I went to this army base earlier, and, uh, this scientist had copied his consciousness onto this room of computers. And, um, when he was talking about threats to HYDRA and how they were killed...he showed a picture of your dad. In a newspaper. The copy announcing he died in a car wreck.”

I stop. I become completely still for the first time in what’s probably been years. No flirty smiles, no smooth motions, no taking off or putting on my sunglasses with J in them. I think I stop breathing, too.

Despite Howard “fighting” with the US in World War Two and not supporting any Nazism at all (Aunt Peggy once told me the story where he punched some man because he said the Jews deserved it), was not a good man.

He was certainly a great man, but he was not a good man.

He drank too much, hit when he was angry, and never thought anyone-most it all, me-could live up to Captain America.

(Maybe that’s why Steve and I started off on the wrong foot, my childhood love/hate relationship with him...)

I remember him tearing apart some of my earliest inventions, demanding another glass of whiskey, snapping at Jarvis and Ana. I remember Mama crying with bruises on her wrists and Ana singing to her softly while hugging her.

Mama wasn’t as bad. I loved that woman, despite her tendency to take too many pills at once and the way she sometimes stared into space and sang songs from her home country, Italy, in a language I only barely understood at age five. She made me authentic Italian pasta from scratch and taught me the piano when Howard kicked me out of the workshop. And maybe she was a little frigid after a gala or social, maybe she wore a blank smile and makeup too much when it was just us two, maybe it was true that she was gone for too long to truly be my parent.

And even when Jarvis was the one to read me bedtime stories, and Ana was the one who patched up my scraped knees when I fell, and Jarvis was the one to watch me when I created some of my first designs in secret, and it was Ana who made the chocolate chip cookies I can still smell, I loved Mama.

But she has been gone for a long, long time. I grieved her decades ago (not Howard, not after all the scars he left me with), and I accepted that she was dead. Maybe Howard pulled the wheel, maybe someone was driving drunk. Did it matter? Not really. Not anymore, not to me.

The more important thing (Mama will never be meaningless to me, never, even if she will also never be Ana or Jarvis) is the fact that both Steve and Nat lied and kept this from me.

We were told by Fury that there was an odd room uncovered on an army base (the same one that Steve became Captain America in) that kept asking for Cap. So he was sent with Nat (the best backup you can really get) to check it out.

But that was months ago.

Before I asked Steve what he was drawing and got an actual reply, sure. Before he started telling me stories of him growing up a small, sickly child. Before we really made friends, before we became stronger as a team.

All of that, it was before. So maybe I can get why Steve didn’t tell me then-then, I had a love/hate relationship with Captain America still, not Steve Rogers. But why not now? After all of that? And why didn’t Nat say anything?

I had kind of gotten over Nat having secrets. There’s just some parts of her I’m never going to know. But when she’s keeping a part of me secret, that’s different.

“What?” I ask, slightly dazed still. Then, more angrily, “What!?”

Steve winces. “I don’t know who did the job, but if HYDRA works the way Nat claims-“

“Winter or Raven probably did it,” Nat says. Clint looks completely lost.

I resist the urge to curl my hands into fists and start punching. I resist the urge to stand up and yell as loud as I could. I resist the urge to do so many things.

I take a long, deep breath. Communication is key, right?

“Rogers, Natasha,” I say, slowly looking up. “I don’t like the fact that you lied to me. I don’t like the fact that you didn’t tell me any of this despite my right to know. And I still want to help your friend, Steve, Natasha. But I’m going to need some time to myself.”

Then I get up and try my best not to run to the elevator. All of us know by now that “time to myself” means that I get to be in the workshop, not eating or sleeping, but creating, while I process whatever I’m stepping back from. It’s not the healthiest, maybe, but it’s a productive excuse that got the Board off my back in the past, and now it’s a soothing thing.

Doing stuff with my hands and with my brain, that is. It always was, just now to a larger degree. (Building was always soothing, getting my chaotic thoughts outside my head was always calming.)

The elevator goes to the floor my workshop takes up silently. J doesn’t comment.

The doors open and I almost immediately throw myself into projects I haven’t touched in forever. The new StarkPhone model. A better, longer lasting battery. Making it waterproof. An upgrade for the solar panel plans going out in a week. Signing forms electronically for Pepper. (Who gives me a worried phone call after I send in so much work at once, blowing me a kiss after saying goodbye but before cutting off the call that made me feel a bit better.) (She promises to come down with me after she’s finished downstairs.) I update the Spidey suit, making sure it’s stronger and more flexible than before. I stuff some binders in the chest portion for Peter that he can use it while on patrol safely.

Nat leaves a plate of food outside my door. Bruce comes back, unHulkified, and talks to me calmingly through the door. Steve gives what could be considered an apology through the same one an hour later that makes me throw stuff at a few walls (Steve, for all his strengths, gives terrible apologies). Clint somehow attaches a bottle of sleeping pills and a friendly note to an arrow before shooting it straight into the workshop, giving me a heart attack (that was in hour fifteen of not sleeping, so maybe it was warranted).

I submerge myself in welding irons and scrap metal and try to process.

Chapter Text

I wake up from my coma after forty nine hours. Two full days, plus one hour and twenty two minutes.

I spend my first minutes of wakefulness puking in my toilet and drinking water from the bathroom sink through cupped hands that is desperately needed.

Then I attempt standing (I crawled to the bathroom) and find I can do it with only some minor nausea and head spinning. I’m even mostly on balance.

Walking is an interesting adventure, but I need food and there’s none in the apartment.

I ditch the hoodie in a dumpster and pick up a new one while I’m out, probably looking hangover or maybe just drunk. I also add to the drunk theory by eating five not-sausage pizzas within half an hour along with chugging seven glasses of water.

Actually, maybe they thought I was crazy. I only saw myself briefly in a mirror I was passing-in the window of some clothes store-but my pulled up hoodie and the unhealthy tint to my skin probably didn’t help.

I wonder if I should eat something different. But this is cheap, and I can pay for it without having to cook, which would take time and energy I don’t have right now. To compromise with myself, I put all the veggies and meats they offer on every pizza.

I pay a little over a hundred twenty dollars for the meal. The man that took my cash looked terrified and muttered something about ancient gods like Thor and something called Twitter warning him.

I don’t ask. I leave and purchase some awful tacos next door instead.

I eat those in ten minutes, if we include the rice and beans that came with it. The four plates disappear before the shocked servers’ eyes. The woman who takes my money this time looks so tired that she’s barely conscious, though, not scared, so I’m extra polite to her.

“If you’re starving, why do you have so much money?” She asks while taking the cash. “I thought you were going to not be able to pay.”

I think she’s tired enough to have lost her brain to mouth filter.

I smile at her, planning to say something I normally wouldn’t. (Two reasons: one, no ones telling me not too, two, I will almost definitely never see her again.) She looks shocked at this small kindness. “The man who had it before me didn’t deserve it, he raped children.”

She stares at me while I flash back to him towering over me. I put my elbows on my hips to assure myself that his hands are not, in fact, pinning me in place.

“Can I leave now?” I ask.
“Can I call the cops on him?” She asks.

I wave her off. “They’d be dead and he’s be gone by the end of that skirmish. Not worth the effort. I’m leaving, is that alright?”

“Uh, yeah,” she says. “You paid.”

“Cool,” I say, standing and immediately leaving. The girl stares after me, holding her money tightly. Her face is pale.

Eating cost me a little under three hundred dollars. I walk to a park so I can sit in a place devoid of cameras and think.

I caught the attention of the Avengers. They have a voice recording of me and may be able to identify and track me using it. I was careless enough to be caught by HYDRA in a scuffle that was very public. Winter was unresponsive, which, while not uncommon, could mean that they tortured him until he believed I’m a horrible traitor.

Torture.

(Cold, water, ice, trapped, cold water, burning, fire, knives, sharp, red, bloodstains, black hair, pale skin, screaming, running, falling, hot knives, shoved into the cryo chamber, a tranq to the back, the arm, the head, a needle pushing its way into my eye, fire spreading in my veins, more needles stuck in my arm-)

“...ey, hey, hey, hey, hey,” says some male voice lost in a sea of terror, holding me in place. I’m distantly aware of the warm park and green surrounding me, but I don’t feel like I’m there, not really. Like I’m dreaming it. “Um, ma’am, I’m going to have to touch you so you stop hurting yourself,” the voice says apologetically.

Everyone is sorry. I don’t remember anyone being sorry. Mostly just angry.

Then hands are touching me, not only in the real but also dream world but also in my head.

(Hands sliding down my body, being tied down, the weight of hands holding me down, faces of dozens of people, sometimes men, sometimes women, sometimes wearing HYDRA uniforms, sometimes suits, sometimes nothing at all, and they are all touching me, no, no, no, not again, get AWAY-)

“Woah, oh my God, ow,” the male voice says. “You clawed me too, okay, I won’t touch you. Uh, focus on my voice? I’m Coal Collins, you probably know my mom, she’s Alexandra Collins, a real scandal…”

I try to focus on his voice, and eventually the real-dream-world becomes more real and less dream and the voices and hands in my head go away.

“...and my twin sister was up all last night designing stupid stuff,” the guy says. I blink at him and notice pain in my arms. At first I flinch, thinking it’s the pinch of a needle stabbed in my arm, but when I look down, it’s my own fingernails jabbing into my skin. I pull them away, and some of them drip red just slightly.

I wipe that off on my pants, my hands shaking slightly. That’s odd; they haven’t done that since a decade ago. “Oh, hi,” the guy says. “Are you better?”

The guy has amber eyes and red, wavy hair. I see a flush to his cheeks, which may be natural and may be from the heat. He’s wearing paint splattered black jeans and a red tee shirt advertising a high school somewhere in NYC. He’s kneeling in front of me, his pale hands hovering close enough that he could catch me if I fell over or something, but far enough away that he’s not touching me by any means.

I can feel myself shaking, despite the warm temperature. The blood blends in with the dark color of my pants, but I feel like I can see it clearly. My hair is a mess, I’m sweaty enough that it’s pouring down my face and making my hair and clothes cling to my skin. My heart is running a race that I can’t see the end of, and there’s a pain in my thigh that I discover comes from the way I jabbed my leg into a stick in my panic.

“Not much,” I say shakily, meaning slightly away from him because of the memory of hands and voices that started out nice and didn’t end that way. “Sorry.”

If I apologize, people think I’m weaker. And bad people love weak people. Sometimes they’re nicer because you’re weak. Instead of a flash of pain, I might get a sly grin that makes my skin crawl and my face light up automatically with a very fake but very convincing fake smile.

Bad people like grinding weak people under their heel, and sometimes you have to let them.

“No, don’t apologize,” the guy says, leaning back until he’s sitting cross legged on the ground in front of me. My hands shake when I try to fix my hair. “Not your fault. My sister gets those sometimes. I don’t know what about, she won’t tell me.”

I look at him. “What are they?” I ask.

(No you have to be weak, he’s going to-)

His face contorts, and fear washes over me. He opens his mouth and says, “You don’t know?” In a kind of shocked way.

I shrink in on myself and shake my head in the submissive way people usually like. “Sorry.”

“No, don’t be, the way I said that was rude,” Coal says. “Having anxiety or PTSD can cause something like that. An attack. If you have anxiety, it’s an anxiety attack, and if you have PTSD, it’s called a flashback.”

I stare at him. I think my entire body is shaking, it feels like my skin is vibrating all over.

“What’s...PTSD…?” I ask, hesitant. Coal hasn’t acted like the hands and voices yet, but sometimes they act nice before.

I know what anxiety is-anxiousness is an emotion I’m aware of. But I’m sure I must have the wrong context-it must be one of those words with two meanings.

“PTSD is a mental disorder that comes from trauma your brain can’t process properly,” Coal says gently. “One of my sister’s friends once described it as your brain being unable to store it properly in its memory so it just sticks around and forces the person to relive it while the brain tries to process the information. That’s why people usually dream about the stuff they’re traumatized by, ‘cause that’s when the brain processes stuff but it can be triggered by something you do when awake, too.”

I glance up at him, then down at my legs. I say nothing. “Anxiety is a mental disorder where you’re really anxious for a really long time,” Coal says. “And panic attacks-or anxiety attacks-are caused when that all kind of comes crashing down on you.”

I nod hesitantly, not really understanding. “Okay.”

“What’s your name?” Coal asks.

I don’t want to give it to him, but he might hurt me if I don’t. “Shay,” I whisper, hoping he doesn’t hear.

“I didn’t hear that,” Coal says, not angry at all. “But mine’s Coal. Coal Collins. It’s nice to meet you.”

He holds out his hand. I put mine in his so slowly, I think he’ll drop it before I get there, but he waits patiently, and we eventually shake hands. His grip is so loose that it must be intentional.

I take my hand away equally slowly, just in case he’s offended. He doesn’t question it.

“Can I give you my phone number?” Coal asks. “Don’t give it to any one else, but, like, if you have another one of these, you could call me…”

He trails off, looking uncertain.

“Sure,” I say hesitantly. He might get angry if I don't. “Here.” I give him my phone. He calls his own and hands mine back to me.
“Now you can just check your past calls list and you’ll have my number,” he tells me. “Anyway, I have to go. I have a painting class in, like, ten minutes. See you.” He gets up, brushes himself off, and waves at me as he disappears.

“Bye,” I say softly, after he’s out of hearing range.

I sit in the park for a while after that. Reassuring myself with the softly swaying grass and trees, with all the green, the bright flowers and the pavement winding through it all. The soft chatter of people strolling along, the laughter of children as they play (I tense every time one shrieks but ultimately it’s okay), the sound of a dog playing fetch (or trying to, apparently Taco doesn’t want to drop the ball), the snores of a homeless man that I want to pile clothes and money on top of (I decide a hundred dollar bill in his pocket will do).

I leave around noon, two and a half hours after I got there.

I go home a completely different way then how I got to the park. I try to keep my routes random to avoid ambushes that are planned and therefore more lethal.

Home is boring. I go through the apartment for cameras and mics, clean the disgusting shower (oh my God, What is that weird color doing here), and do some more research on the world.

Apparently America is awful now. Who knew? Also, China is trying to take over the world and North Korea is somewhere between Hell and causing Armeggedon.

Oh look, we’ve been to the moon. (Are they literally just wearing cloth space suits? How are they alive?) And apparently there was a big wall in Berlin at one point. And now there’s superheroes. Fun.

(Running on rooftops, kicking a man in the gut, a gun flying out of a hand, a person thanking me in whispers and fleeing, the night sky cut only by the factories’ smokestacks in the distance, screaming as a family is taken away in the dead of night, blood-)

I hit my head against the wall to draw myself back to reality through the pain. It works okay.

I keep researching. Apparently we’ve created self aware robots and then shut them down because they got smart and started lying. And America continued being morally corrupt by dropping a few nuclear bombs on a country that was going to surrender anyway. Also, vaccines. Cool.

I leave to get more food. This time, I go to a proper grocery store. I buy basics-a microwave, a bunch of microwaveable meals, potatoes, a bag of apples, a few glasses, a box of plastic silverware. I grab some veggies and a few boxes full of cups of mac n cheese that I can apparently make in the microwave.

I keep my hood up the entire time. No one pays me much attention. I keep a knife handy anyways.

I do get a few weird looks on the way home, but I think that’s because I’m holding a boxed up microwave in one hand easily and the rest of my groceries in the other. Probably. Hopefully.

Anyway, no one tries to blow me up and/or drug me, so it’s checked off as a rousing success.

I get back to my apartment just in time to hear the yelling. It comes from the apartment over me, and I can hear it easily through the ceiling above me.

“Shelby, are you trying to make me mad?!” A man roars. I open the door to my apartment swiftly and deposit my stuff on the counter before turning around and going back out again. After locking the door behind me, I speed walk towards the stairs.

“No!” A woman, Shelby, responds. “Look, Michael-“
“Oh, just Michael?” There’s a loud smacking sound. I automatically recognize it as the sound of a slap. “You ungrateful little-why are you crying, are you really that weak?”

I get to their door very quickly. I slide on knife into my hand just in case and knock harshly with the other.

“Shelby, get your useless self up and answer the door,” Michael snarls.

“Okay,” Shelby whispers. Usually, I wouldn’t be able to hear something that quiet, but the walls are paper thin, not soundproofed, and I’m standing around two feet from her.

The door opens. Shelby has messy brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her cheek is reddening slightly in the shape of a large hand. I can see the bruising on her wrists, as well, but the coloring suggests they aren’t recent.

“Hi,” I say. “I’m your neighbor. I just wanted to ask why Micheal is hitting you in such a way.”

Shelby’s eyes widen. I push her out of the way gently.

Behind her is a man white white skin and blond hair that probably has clones playing on every professional football team in America, if the American football teams I saw in a news feed earlier only employed men with a slight beer gut and the ugliest haircut to see the light of day.

“Hello,” I tell Michael coldly. “Is this your apartment?”

“Yes it is,” Michael says harshly, “And I don’t don’t like that you’re in it. Get out.”

“I am not in your apartment,” I remind him. “Miss Shelby, do you have any belongings here?”

Shelby nods timidly. “My, uh, clothes-and, and I have-I left my-“

“That’s alright,” I say. “Can you please grab your things and step out into the hall with me?”

Shelby glances back at Michael. She quickly grabs some clothes off the floor and grabs something I don’t see while I stare him down.

“Michael,” I say icily, “Stay where you are.”

I don’t know where all this cold anger came from. Usually, I’m just scared. Paranoid, but someone is actually out to get me. Hyperactive.

Now, I’m business like. I’m the way Raven always was, but also not. This is the opposite. Raven hid emotions and got a bad job done that she didn’t like. Right now, I’m acting on my emotions on a way Raven would never dream to (once I started dreaming I was always wiped), getting s good job done that I feel good about.

Shelby scurries our into the hallway. Or, rather, she gets very close.

As she hesitates in the doorway, Shelby, looking back at a frozen Michael, says, “He’s not a bad guy, and he hasn’t been doing this much. What if-“

“Shelby,” I say while I watch Michael’s face go a remarkable shade of crimson. He’s moving now, placing one foot in front of the other towards Shelby. Even at his pace, due to the size of the apartment, he’ll be on her in about thirty seconds. “He hurt you.”

Then I take her arm and pull her into the hallway. She winces slightly-bruising must be underneath her long sleeves-and I loosen my grip while closing the door in Michael’s face.

I turn to Shelby as I feel my hands start to shake under the weight of old memories. (Angry faces lunging forward, angry fists pummeling-)

Shelby is staring at me. I nod at her and walk away, my hands twitching with the need to defend myself against invisible foes.

“Um, excuse me!” Shelby yells from behind me. I stop and focus on my breathing. No one is attacking me. If Michael comes out, I can take him. Everything is okay.

“Thank you!”

I nod, not turning to look at her, and keep going, a bit faster this time.

I get to the apartment and close and lock the door behind me with hands shaking so badly I can hardly do it.

My legs collapse under me. I wrap my arms around my core (always protect your organs when you’re down and can’t defend yourself) and try my best to breathe.

I take in a shuttery breath too fast and release it, my head spinning.

(Being strapped down to cold metal chairs, harsh leather digging into my skin as I strain, a muzzle on my face, something in my mouth, tasting my blood, smelling someone else’s blood, pulling the trigger of a rifle stolen from a corpse-)

I come back to myself fully around fifteen minutes later. The panic fled from my chest five minutes before then, but I stayed on the floor until my body finished its shaking and the room had enough of spinning.

I stand up and plug in my microwave. The door slams behind my microwave meal. I follow the instructions and collapse against the counter while I wolf it down.

When I finish, I go downstairs to pop it into the dumpster, seeing as how I don’t have a trash can but do have a lot of time. While I’m there, I notice that my hoodie is gone from the thing. A homeless person must have grabbed it. I hope it serves them well.

Actually, it’ll probably get them chased down by an organization made up of terrorists and spies. Well, I hope they are proportioned differently than me.

I stop at the mouth of the alley when I hear footsteps on the rooftop.

I turn slightly, pretending to tie my hair into a ponytail. I look up as I do this and see-

Someone. Who I evaluate footsteps and height and come to the conclusion that this is a tall male with a healthy weight and a lot of strength.

I stare him into the eyes of his mask. They are two snowflakes, the rest of his suit lost to a large blizzard made up of shifting greys and whites. The suit is skin tight, but I can see the outline of things other than a body underneath the suit-that’s not just cloth, it has metal and wires under there.

The blizzard boy-he can’t be more than twenty, and that’s if I’m generous-jumps down into the alley.

“Hi,” he says.

I don’t respond. (A tall man looks over me. I am stronger than him, but the mission assigns me the cover of a weak little girl. I can’t-)

“I’m Jagged Frostbite,” He says. I decide that this name is even more stupid than Spider-Man’s.

I put my hands down and slip a knife into my hand from where he can’t see.

“Hello,” I say politely. “I don’t need help right now.”

Jagged Frostbite laughs. “Oh, yeah, I know. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t jumped in a back alley trying to take out the trash. You can scamper along.”

I give him a nod, not turning around to walk away, not knowing what “being jumped” is. Probably something violent. In that case, I’ll be fine. The knife stays in my hand as I back slowly out of the alley, keeping my eyes on Jagged Frostbite.

I’m quickly back in my apartment. I decide to just pass out, so I throw myself onto my blow-up mattress and ready myself for more nightmares.

I wake up four times. Once to a loud honking sound, another time to a passing set of footsteps by my door (they didn’t stop at all, low threat), to some loud laughter hear through the walls, and the last time when the person above me started blasting music at eight am.

The next day, which I’m forced to wake up to because I have no curtains, I’m exhausted. For some reason, all the “attacks” are exhausting.

Maybe that’s why things went wrong.

Not immediately-I ate my breakfast (lots of the food I bought earlier, microwaved) in peace. But it was after that when my world started to implode.

I went out to get more food because I should probably eventually eat something other than microwaved, prepackaged foods. (I don’t trust the future’s cuisine. What’s wrong with cooking?) I managed to get all the way to the grocery store and buy food (stuff like vegetables and fruits) before it goes wrong.

I’m measuring the pace of the crowd in order to better blend in while it happens, which explains why I wasn’t scanning for danger.

A tranq hits me in my shoulder.

The brief shot of pain and panic fades quickly to the calm calculation that usually happens in a fight.

Raven’s back.

(Scan for danger.) (Mission priorities: get out relatively unharmed, minimize civilian and proprietary damages, leave unfollowed.) (Scan results: crowd scattering due to loud sound of tranq being fired; chaos able to hide hostiles. Continuously scan for danger in response. Buildings are mostly secure; forward to the right best spot to take cover from.)

A knife slides into my hand. My hood flies up (disguise should be abandoned after ambush), my hair is pulled back into the shadows, the hood cinches closed. My legs find themselves in a fighting stance.

 

(The shot hit my subclavian artery perfectly. The only one with that good a shot is Winter, maybe James. A strike team may also be following me.) (Tactical response: take cover until able to locate and talk down or forcibly subdue Winter/James. Evaluate status of potential strike team; scanning needed.)

(Potential locations of possible strike team: rooftops; scanning needed. Balconies-balcony status negative in nearby area of visibility, unlikely. Hiding within crowd to ambush; crowd scanning continuously needed due to higher danger possibility.) (Scan status: negative. Danger: high. Cover needed. Scan for most secure place.) (Alley?)

I dodge into an alley. It’s certainly not secure, but it decreases my chances of being sniped, and I don’t need more of this drug in my system.

(Ambush possibility: high. Locations most likely to be prone to: rooftops, alley opening.)

I back into the alley, effectively cornering myself. An acceptable risk. I slide a handgun into each hand and a knife into a more accessible place. Then I make sure the guns are loaded and flip off the safety off both.

With my head tilted slightly up while facing the street, I can see the entirety of the openings. I strain for any sound while I lean myself up against the wall in preparation for my eventual collapse.

(One tranq of dosage knocked me unconscious in about half an hour. I have a little less than that until I’m unconscious and vulnerable. Priority added (temporarily, expires after mission): remove self to safe location in less than thirty minutes.)

A scraping sound that wouldn’t be audible over the last of the fleeing crowd to a human. I recognise it as the metal of Winter’s mask rubbing against the plastic.

Of course. I wouldn’t be able to hear his footsteps; both of us have long been trained out of making sound when we walk. But sometimes, one last scrap of humanity they haven’t been able to erase, James tries to speak despite the muzzle he wears all the time.

I’m dealing with James.

“Hello, James,” I say. “Planning on shooting me?”

Another scraping sound.

I look at him. His eyes are a little more expressive than Winter’s. Still emptier than most-trauma does that-but he’s got a little more personality because he’s been around a few years longer. He’s also more expressive in general than Winter.

His gun remains strapped to his back. I don’t aim my guns at him, instead aiming both of them at the alley entrance. (Don’t provoke the target.)

“Is there a strike team with you?” I ask. Might as well try for information.

James stiffens. It’s almost unnoticeable-practically invisible. But I’ve known him long enough to notice the arch of his neck tighten just so and how his shoulders lower less than a centimeter, maybe a millimeter.

(Probability of strike team: high.)

“James,” I say. “I am going to take off your muzzle now. Please do not attack me.”

I reach forward slowly enough that he can telegraph my movements but quick enough that I appear confident.

The muzzle hits the concrete at the same time I do. At first, I think James did it, or maybe my balance decreased that much from the drug. But then I glance up and see him, and he only moved his head. I follow his gaze and see the uniform of a strike team member; black as you can get and armed to the teeth. The woman is standing on top of a building to our right, a floor above us. She’s holding some sort of gun-type thing that’s glowing a concerning color of blue.

Shoot, that’s alien tech.

My stomach lurches with panic and drugs. I scramble to my feet, thankful that it just knocked me down.

A memory, slightly shattered; a man screaming as a beam of blue light hits him, a body hitting the ground, vicious smiles.

I start sprinting away, darting out of the alleyway. If I get hit by a tranq now, I might be able to make it. But if I remain in-range of alien tech, I’m unlikely to be able to make it anywhere but the afterlife.

Another tranq hits me in my core. I rip it out instantly and estimate where the shooter would be through the angle, returning fire. I put my gun down when I hear a pained shout.

The gun falls to the ground because I’ve lost a lot of mobility in my fingers. I ignore it, scanning desperately with my slowly blurring vision.

(The drug is being digested rapidly. Repeated dosage will lead to organ failure. Priorities decreased: only priority is to get to safety.)

I can feel my muscles weakening and my body straining under the drug. Sweat pours off my skin, forcing me to wipe my eyes. When my hand comes away, I realise the wetness may also be tears.

I haven’t cried in years, I think. Maybe that’s why it surprises me so much. Victory washes through me-no weapon of HYDRA cries, I’m breaking free of them-but also disgust. Tears mean failure, they told me until I believed it. Tears mean weakness.

I force my hands to my side, pumping in a familiar way.

My vision blurs even more and darkens for a second, so much that I have to run blind. But I could run my surrounding blind at any time, it’s part of my extensive training. It just makes me less prepared against attacks. When my vision sways back into place, my sense of balance topples right out of line. The world spins (or, rather, the vomit-inducing feeling of my own brain swaying in my skull), and I can’t think much anymore.

I fall.

Not because I tripped, but because my legs can no longer hold my weight, acting as if I weigh equal to the entirety of America.

My arms barely respond-reduced to liquid-but I drag myself to my elbows and start dragging myself away, one arm flailing for a knife for a second before discovering that my fingers don’t have that much dexterity at all and just focusing on moving away (get away, no, they will hurt you, run, move, drag, move, please, no, not again).

I pass out as I feel myself roughly grabbed from behind.

Chapter Text

I pause when Pepper comes into the workshop on the third day of barely dozing, consuming only coffee, and not showering in favor of creating random projects.

She looks perfect, as usual-crisp bun, no hair out of place, sky-high heels, her clothes-a blue dress- unwrinkled. It’s only marred when the mask comes down, her face worried.

“Tony?” she asks, spotting me. “What’s going on? This usually ends after a day.”
I glance down at what I’m doing (when did I pick up the welding iron and when did it start burning my arm?). The smell of burnt flesh hits my nose and I move my arm before it can get to Pep, switching the iron off.

I also don’t answer. I can’t force the words ‘they betrayed me, Pep’ past my lips.

Pepper’s face collapses into something soft, and she quickly sweeps across the room and pulls me into a hug. I press my face into her shoulder, squeezing her tight.

I’m suddenly aware of the grease and oil stains all over me, the slight singed appearance of my four thousand dollar three piece suit, how greasy my hair must be by now.

“Tony,” Pepper whispers, “Please give me something.”

“That would break me,” I whisper back, barely making a sound.

Pepper hugs me tighter. “So would this. You can’t just skip eating and sleeping, Tony. And while I’m sure the Board loves your productivity, I’m far less enthusiastic and a lot more important, so how about we take a little break?”

I draw back, shaking my head. I know that she’s right, that I have to take care of myself (what idiot doesn’t know that?), but I can’t manage the energy for it. I can only think about my one processing strategy-taking me emotions out on all the ideas that are constantly scattered around my brain.

It’s a restart. Get everything out, eat some food, get some sleep (probably on the couch in the corner, getting to my floor, never mind my bed, is often too much energy), and handle what I couldn’t before. Why does no one understand that? I need to complete step one before getting to the next one.

Pepper sighs and lets me go. “I’m going to go out for a second, okay? I have to grab something,” she says, offering me one last smile before speed walking out of the room.

I go back to my project (creating a prosthetic arm able to feel like a bionic one), surprised she let me continue. I barely notice when she returns fifteen minutes later with something in her hand. I just start ranting with one hand free to express my feelings, and she slips something into it. I take a bite of the burger subconsciously and continue ranting about simulating neurons.

It’s only after three burgers and two drinks are gone that I realise what happened. Pepper gives me a huge grin and a quick hug (disrupting my attempts at putting tools away) before putting the trash into one of the shoots in the walls.

I scowl and continue while making a big show of how peeved I am, despite the fact that I do feel better.

Pepper perches on one of my less-used work tables and makes some calls, answers some emails, and generally works remotely.

Then Rhodey walks in.

I glance up at smile before going back to work. “Honey bear! What are you doing here? I already have a babysitter, you didn’t need to leave work.”
Rhodey approaches seriously. “Tones, you need to sleep,” he says, hands on his hips like a scolding mother.
I scoff, finishing up some wiring. “Noted, honey bear, but I’m a little busy right now.”
Rhodey isn’t impressed. “Tones, either you sleep for five hours, or I get Peter down here and let him see why you’ve been ignoring him for the last three days.”

I freeze, then whip my head up to look at Rhoey. “He thinks I’ve been ignoring him?!” I demand.
Rhodey rolls his eyes. “What did you expect? You usually drive him over here and work with him, or at least text him at some point. He’s been asking Happy why you hate him, I think.”

I immediately take out my phone and check my texts from Peter.

Spider Boy
Hey Mr. S, wanna hang out and upgrade the suit this afternoon? (two days ago, 7:22 AM)

Mr. S it’s okay if you’re busy but I need to know before the end of the day (two days ago, 12:05)

Hi Mr. Stark! Going out for patrol, wondering if you are willing to take some ideas for suit upgrades? (two days ago, 7:22)

Hey Mr. Stark, I hope you have a good morning. I wanted to ask what I did wrong for you to ignore me like this, since you usually respond quickly (yesterday, 7:31 AM)

Hi Mr. Stark, just wanted to apologize for whatever it was. I’ll stop annoying you now (today, three hours ago)

I don’t need a mirror to know all the blood has left my face. I press call immediately.

As it rings, I nervously rant. “Why wasn’t I told Peter texted? J, why didn’t you tell me?”

“If you recall, sir, I informed you each time Mr. Parker texted, but you each time you denied in favor of continuing your projects.”

Of course. I just denied to reply on instinct, refocusing immediately. God, I’m an awful person.

Peter picks up. “Mr. Stark?” he asks, so much quieter than usual. In a normal call, Peter is all pep and excitement, and I can hardly get in a word.
“I’m so sorry, Pete, I just-” I pause, not being able to find a word for what I’ve been doing. Peter has never seen me like this. Pepper picks up my phone for me, gently taking it from my hand.
“Hey, Pete, ” she tells Peter. “Tony has been having a few bad days, but he doesn’t hate you and he wasn’t ignoring you.”
“Oh,” Peter says softly. Then, a second later, “Mr. Stark! That’s okay! I just wish I had known, I would have come over and helped you feel better!”

I smile. Peter’s back to himself.

“What were those suit upgrades you were going to ask me about, kid?” I ask, glad we’re back to normal.
Peter spends the next fifteen minutes gabbering excitedly and I spend it grinning like an idiot. Then Pepper insists Peter must have homework, he admits he has a math test to study for, and the call ends.

Rhodey crosses his arms, but it’s underplayed by the way he’s smiling with his eyes. “You need to sleep to be able to do those upgrades.”

I laugh a bit, rubbing at the burn on my arm from the iron. My eyes, I realize, are itchy with exhaustion. “Yeah, I guess I do.”

Rhodey takes me by the arm and leads me to bed, Pepper following on behind (I can tell by the click of her heels). Dummy, U, and Butterfingers all give me their usual goodbye pats and beeps as I’m escorted away. Pepper pats each of them goodbye for me.

I sleep for twelve hours, passing out instantly. Once I wake up, I’m still a little groggy, but much more functional.

And I much, much more functional after J gives me a wake up call while I’m eating my breakfast. “Sir, I have found a match for Ms. Li from a cell phone video. She appears to be under attack from HYDRA agents and the Winter Soldier. Should I assemble the Avengers?”

I practically throw my bowl of almost-finished cereal onto the counter. “Yes! J, where is she? Pull up the information!”

A hologram pulls up and moves with my while I sprint to our assembling point and the alarm to assemble goes off.

Miss Shay Li
Current status: in need of assistance (under assault)
Distance: eighteen blocks, five minute fly in armor at top speed
Health status: appears drugged; slightly delayed reactions (compared to personal average) and extra-normal movement patterns
[link to collected data on Miss Shay Li]
Added notes: Miss Li is currently potentially hostile and drugged. Approach with caution, do not harm. Under assault; attackers: HYDRA strike team/ Winter Soldier.

I barely even glance at the expressions on the team’s faces, especially those on Natasha’s and Steve’s in favor of getting the armor on faster. As soon as I’m online, I’m flying off. I assume the other head out behind me, not looking back.

Five minute ETA. She could die in that time. Actually, she’s likely to die in that time, even if she’s as good as Natasha, due to close quarters and how outgunned and outnumbered she is.

I grumble frustratedly. “J, show me a video of what’s going on,” I order.

Footage taken from a shaky cell phone video shows a figure in a pulled-up hoodie being shot at with what looks like darts as the crowd scatters. The figure looks like the height and build of Shay, so I assume it’s her. I hear screaming, but she looks perfectly calm as she scans the area.

I’m impressed; she clearly has training. What normal teenage would be so calm while being shot at?

The figure starts running. I hope Shay found safety, she’s going to need it.

The video cuts off as the person taking it is swept away in the crowd. “J?”
“Sorry, sir,” JARVIS says, “No other video shows more information.”

“Just show me anything!” I yell.

“A video taken one minute ago,” J announces.

It’s another shaky cell phone video showing pretty much the same thing, just from a different angle. I take in as many details as possible. Shay pulled up her hood and tightened the strings so no one can see her face. She has a fighting stance, leaving her less likely to be knocked down if this gets really serious.

It’s only after about three minutes of anxious video watching that a new video appears, live streaming from two minutes away.

It shows Shay sprinting away from an alley, hoodie still obscuring her face. While her motions are all clearly confident, she has a certain urgency to her now. She also has this weird way of moving now; a little more sluggish, a tad more clumsy.

Things are getting really serious.

And then she collapses, when I am a minute and twelve seconds away. Seventy two seconds before I can begin to start to defend her.

At seventy seconds, she drags herself onto her elbows. The person taking the video has a shaky hand, and when the video sways away from Shay for a second, I almost growl. Then I can see her again, I’m sixty-eight seconds away, and Shay is moving away from doing something and is starting to army crawl/drag herself forward.

I swallow down the need to throw up when I see a figure approaching in the background, clearly HYDRA. And then I have to hold back shouts when Shay collapses, and the figure approaches. A hand hidden behind a black glove grabs Shay by the back of the hoodie, and as the figure lifts her into the air, I can see that she’s unconscious.

Fifty-four seconds. The figure hauls Shay over their shoulder clumsily and starts to move out of view. Forty-three seconds. The camera angle changes so I can see a group of black figures climbing out of buildings nearby. Forty seconds. Shay is handed off to the Winter Soldier, who carries her much more thoughtfully and confidently. Thirty-seven seconds. The group waits, the Winter Soldier staring into Shay’s face blankly. I can’t tell what he’s thinking about. Thirty seconds. Twenty-five. Twenty. The camera angle switches suddenly, and I can hear an awful audio recording of the sound of a helicopter. And then I can see it, a fully black one, heavily armed in a way I’ve never seen before. The Soldier follows when three of the agents board. Ten seconds. The rest of the agents scatter, starting to head to safety. I can faintly hear police sirens.

Five seconds. I order J to watch the video and to inform me if anything noteworthy happens, and I fly into the scene.

I blast the helicopter first, but it lifts off the ground unexpectedly, so I miss. The agents scream warnings and scatter, except the ones in the helicopter. Those aim guns at me. The Soldier just looks at me mildly, almost as if bored by my existence.

I hit one of the rotating blades of the helicopter. It leans dangerously and rocks ominously but doesn’t crash. I hit the building where the helicopter used to be. I growl and hit the inside of the helicopter on a completely random frustrated shot. Thankfully, the Soldier gracefully steps aside and Shay is safe. All I do is manage to knock all but one of the goons out of the ‘copter.

Shay remains unconscious, despite all the explosions and screaming. I’m starting to worry that she’s actually dead, except J has a heat scanner in the corner of my vision, and she’s still at her “normal”, which is around a fever of 105 degrees. (J also is running her stats and averages, and all of them are just as wack as when he made me look at them when Shay first came into my workshop.) Bullets ricochet off the sides of the armor, but I barely notice. I hear the familiar roar of the Hulk in the distance and know that the rest will be too late.

I dive forward and try to catch up with the helicopter as it flies away. But the fire raining down on me narrows down to one shoulder-my left, they must have some sort of aiming system-and it’s right at a joint in the armor, so it chips away more easily, and soon there’s a bullet in my shoulder.

My mind flashes back to Afghanistan and I have to grit my teeth to hold back a scream and the tears.

(The sound of gunfire ricocheting off cave walls, blinding pain in my chest, blood trailing down red, irritated skin, the rolling desert sand, dried blood coatingthe inside of my mouth and nose, explosions-)
(The cold vacuum of space, the knowledge that I will die alone, everything was worthless, no one will ever find my body, imagining suffocation, cold fear, the fear of self-sacrifice, the swallowing blackness-)
(Alien blood splattering, high pitched screaming, alien weapons aimed towards me, a black hole in the sky-)
(Suffocation-)
(Blood-)
(Explosions-)
(Pain-)
(Howard throwing a beer bottle at my head-)
(Confusion-)
(Why-)
(No-)
(Please, no-)
(Faces of the dead-)
“Tony?”
(Stars, blinding me-)
(Screaming, crying-)
(I’m alone, so alone-)
“Tony!”
Someone’s shaking me-
(Rattling around in a suit made of scraps, fire roasting my skin, explosions ringing in my ears, adrenaline in my veins-)
“How do we open the suit?”
(Fear, suffocation, fire-)
(Drowning-)
(Dying?)
“I don’t know!”
(Blood, so much blood-)
(Gunfire-)
(Mama pale on the floor, bottle of pills in hand-)
(Ringing in my ears-)
(Freezing water-)
(So cold it burns-)
(Burns-)
“Tony,” a voice I think I know says. What woman I know sounds like that? “You need to come back to us.”
Is Pepper here? No, that’s not her voice-
(Blackness, the empty that is space-)
(The people I have killed-)
(I’m going to die alone-)
“Tony, please,” the not-Pepper-woman says.
“He’s not breathing right,” another voice says. A man. Who?
“Shut it, Cap.” Another man. Why don’t I know anyone?
“HULK SORRY?” Yelling. I flinch, but maybe just on the inside.
“No, not you, you didn’t do this,” Man #2 says.
(Yelling in a language I don’t know, a bag over my head-)
(Shrapnel-)
(Confusion-)
(Fear-)
(Pain-)
(Dying alone-)
(Suffocating-)
“Anthony Edward Stark,” Not-Pepper says, “I can understand why you wouldn’t want to hear my right now, but you need to do this anyway. I need you to breathe a little slower.”
But I can’t.
(Dying-)
(Crying-)
(Bleeding-)
“Tony, please,” says Man #1, with a ring of familiarity this time. Cap... Cap? “Please, I...I’m sorry, I’m sorry I kept things from you, I’m sorry I couldn’t get here fast enough to save Raven, I’m...I’m so sorry, Tony.”
(Tired-)
(Pain-)
(Terror-)
(Sadness-)
(Blackness-)
(Looming-)
(No-)
“Tony, I’m going to talk about stupid stuff until you calm down. So, last week, I ate a donut. And it was a pretty good donut. You know, sprinkles, frosting, the works-”
(Dying alone-)
(Blast-)
(Rattling in my bones-)
(Hunger clawing up my throat-)
(Tears in my eyes-)
“But the blasphemous thing is-the free coffee I got with it was about as appetizing as dishwater. Tasted like watery trash and sadness-”
(Blood and tears mix-)
(Screaming rings-)
(Metal screeching-)
(Gunfire-)
(The echoes of a cave wall-)
(Drowning, splashing, no-)
“Way off from the best donut I’ve ever eaten-my wife, you know Laura, was experimenting with all these kinds of foods-”
(Bullets-)
(Fear-)
(Pain-)
“-and she made this apple pit type filling and then made that the filling of the donut, and then she put powdered sugar on top, so much that it fluffed into the air and on your face when you bit into it, and it was absolute heaven.”
(A baby shrieking-)
(Smell of desert heat-)
“And, like, this other time while she was experimenting, she made this fish type thing, and I don’t know what she did to it, but it tasted awful. And I know you probably haven’t had to eat the worst thing you’ve ever put in your mouth with a smile because your kids don’t want to eat this fish that tastes like barf and is piss yellow-”
(Blistering-)
(Dying-)
“-but it’s awful, my dude. And, by the way, have I mentioned how much I love my wife? Because I really love my wife. She’s incredible, dude. And, of course, so is Nat, my beautiful girlfriend, our third-”
“Clint,” says the not-Pepper-Nat-woman.
“Right, anyway-”
(Stinging-)
“Stop giving me that look, Cap, it’s not as weird as your blush makes it look-”
“But cheating is-”
“I’m not cheating!”
(Alone-)
“But-”
“Nat and Laura are also together! All three of us are together! Stop giving me that doubting look-”
(Screaming-)
“I just-”
“I love both of my lovers, and both of my lovers love each other and me! That’s how polyamorous relationships work!”

I gasp in air and then groan, my eyes finally seeing. The pain in my shoulder flares. The rubble from the building I hit is smoking slightly, barely visible with the entire team huddled around me. Nat nods approvingly, smiling gently at me. Clint gives me a fist bump to the shoulder. Hulk roars victory, which makes my shaking body flinch, and Steve scolds him before turning back to me, something soft in his eyes.

“Welcome back, Tony,” Cap tells me.
“Please shut up,” I groan, shutting my eyes. Panic attacks always exhaust me. So It makes sense that right now, all I want to do is sleep.

Steve still smiles at me. “Are you okay to walk? I can carry you to the helicopter.”

My limbs still shake, but I refuse to be carried anywhere like a fever dream ten-year-old-me might have. Absolutely not, I am not reigniting my crush with Mr. Always Better Than Me In Howard’s Eyes, no matter how many bullet wounds I have.

I stumble to my feet and lean on Nat, who doesn’t even have to lean to take almost all of my weight. She doesn’t even look effected at all.

Bruce is standing in the middle of the street, in just the stretchy pants I made for him when he gets a tad too angry. Clint gives him a shirt in his size (reading: you wouldn’t like me when I’m mad) apparently hidden in the spot I made in the bottom of his upgraded quiver. (The compartment was supposed to have survival gear and short-range weapons in it in case of emergency, but I guess he can do whatever with his stuff.)

“Hey, Brucie-Bear,” I tell him.
“Tony,” he says, giving my an empathetic smile.

I glance at Nat. “Um, Nat-”
“I apologize, Tony,” Nat says, staring straight ahead. “I wronged you. I should not have kept secrets from you. I am sorry.”
“You’re always going to keep secrets from me, Nat,” I say without heat. “It’s part of who you are, and I’m cool with that. If you have a secret you want to tell me, I’m willing to listen, but you’re allowed to keep them, as long as they aren’t a part of who I am. I like to know those things.”
Natasha nods swiftly. “Yes, of course. You will.”

I look over at Steve. “You have one of your terrible apologies prepared? Or do you only do those when I’m in the middle of a panic attack.”
“I say them when I think they are warranted,” Steve replies. “And one is here. I am sorry, Tony. You...deserve better, and I will try to be.”

(I don’t deserve better than Captain America.)

“Thanks, Steve,” I say. “But I’m going to need some time. I mean, I’m mostly okay, but…”
“I understand,” Steve says. “It’s alright.”
Nat nods silently. Clint and Bruce mostly just look awkward.

We get back to the Tower in the next ten minutes via a company helicopter. When we land, Spark is sitting on the roof around fifteen feet from the front of the helipad and two inches from the armor which I sent ahead, looking straight at me from where she was typing on her laptop, probably taking notes on the armor. .

She walks up as soon as the helicopter lands, crossing her arms in front of her chest and popping one hip. “Why is Shay not with you?”

“I got there ten seconds too late,” I admit, stepping onto the concrete of the rooftop with a lot of help from Nat. I’m distinctly uncomfortable under the weight of Spark’s gaze and of my guilt. The bullet wound doesn’t help much in the way of my posture. “She collapsed when I got there. They got too her faster.”

Spark looks disbelieving. Her attitude and stance reminds me of Pepper, and I get a flash of tenderness toward Spark. “You were in a flying piece of metal armor that can go fast enough to exit Earth’s orbit, but some guy doing cardio beat you.”

“Well, I was shot, so,” I say, still clutching onto Nat. I try to have as much dignity as possible while I do it.

Spark instantly stands up straight. “What?!” she pulls her purse off from her shoulder. “Let me see.”

She opens her bag while stepping very close. Her eyes lock on the blood that has just now started soaking into my shirt, hidden slightly by my suit jacket and the fact that Nat applied cotton pads and pressure in the helicopter. She takes some wicked looking scissors out of her bag (what is she, Mary Poppins?) and starts to cut downward from my collar. She pushes the cloth aside with one hand while fishing out medical supplies with the other.

“I want to be an EMT,” she says to the questioning looks she’s getting. “Or some sort of doctor, any I can get, really, as long as it’s the actual treatment of patients.”
She turns a critical eye to the bullet wound. “No exit wound, good for bleeding. I assume as a multi-billionaire, you’re up to date with your vaccines, so I’m not worried about tetanus, one less infection to be worried about. Unless this was a shrapnel bullet, which would have split in the body and been made worse by pressure, which was clearly applied, as blood flow is very minimal, this should be an easy removal process. In terms of the actual size of the bullet, you got pretty lucky, and the endtry site is small. Although, it probably has gunpowder and the like, hold on, I’ll wipe it down-”

She reaches into her bag and carefully wipes around the bullet wound. “If we transition to inside, I can perform the surgery, if you want to, to get the bullet out.”

I look up at her. A few years ago, I would have demanded a trained doctor. But since Peter, an engineering genius without a degree, I’ve started to have a little more faith in those without a degree. Or a driver's license.

“What would you do?” I ask. Always ask questions when in doubt is rule number one.

“Cut an x-pattern centering around the bullet wound and use a pair of tweezers to take it out, at the barest bones. If you want, I can hook up several machines and make it really fast. And if you have a strong stomach, I can give you pain meds and you can watch me take it out.” She says this while she puts the wipes back in her bag.

“I’d prefer not to have that experience, thanks,” I say. “How do you know so much about removing bullets?”
Spark glances at me. Then her eyes flock to the Avengers. Then back to me.

She has put on an easygoing smile. “I watched a lot of medical shows when I was younger. And then I got really serious. You know those medical encyclopedias that are sitting in the corner of libraries and getting dusty? Yeah, I read, like, five of those.” As she talks she gets some cotton pads from her bag. She gives them to Nat and Nat (painfully) presses them to my agitated shoulder.

I know she’s lying (because what can living as a celebrity show you but how to tell and how to be a scumbag?). But I also know that the notification J just popped up in the corner of my tinted glasses notified me that everything Spark said was medically correct. She knows a fair bit, it seems.

“So, basically, you’re the medical equivalent of Peter?” Clint asks. He probably noticed her lies too, as a spy, same with Nat, and is trying to shift the focus subtly while keeping up his clown-type persona.

Spark smiles. “I would love to chat, but your bleeding is getting worse, Mr. Stark, and we should really do something about the bullet in your body.”

“I agree,” Nat says, hauling me forward by essentially picking me up and walking. I absolutely do not make an embarrassing squeaking sound when she does it. Then I gasp because right after the surprise is the pressure on the bullet wound, which, may I say, is not fun.

Nat instantly places me back down. Her face has gone blank, probably go make up for a lot of shame and guilt she’s experiencing. Nat is good at that.

I think about this to attempt to distract myself from the second heartbeat forming in my shoulder. I know my face has gone pale and that my face is contorted in pain, but oh well.

Spark studies me, then glances back to the good Captain.

“Mr. Rogers, would you please, very, very carefully and slowly, pick up Mr. Stark bridal style and carry him inside?”

I am already blushing, I know it.

I give Steve the stink eye as he slowly, achingly slowly, puts his giant arms underneath my legs and my shoulders-this is not going to end well-and slowly, slowly, lifts me up. I barely realize that I’m gasping because my vision is swimming with the pain and that seems much more concerning.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,” Steve repeats as he moves.
Spark is running down a list of mediations with J to make sure I’m good to take them, from Advil to a mix of chemicals so intense I don’t understand it through the fire in my stupid, stupid shoulder.

When Steve is standing upright, I’m pressed against his stupidly muscular chest. I’m scared to raise my arms and agitate my shoulder to wrap my arms around his neck. But I’m also aware of the possibility of falling, so I loop my unhurt arm around for the false sense of security.

My face is very, very red. I am also intimately aware of how I’m pressed against Steve right now.

Spark leads, with J leading her to the med bay. After we get there, she kicks out Steve (who pouts), Clint (who says a stupid joke and leaves), and Bruce (who waves before leaving, looking exhausted). She almost kicks out Nat, but stops at the death glare.

“Fine, you’ve been helpful anyway. Can you finish cutting his shirt off? I have to sterilize the scalpel and set up the IV and pain meds.”

Nat takes the scissors gracefully and finishes ruining my very expensive shirt. I guess it will go with the slightly blood stained overcoat now.

In my peripheral vision, Spark sets up an IV and checks what fluids are in the bag. She adds the pain meds J recommends through the computer and adding a tube that slowly lets a clear liquid dribble into the IV bag.

As she sees me looking, she smiles at me. “You’re dehydrated anyway, according to JARVIS. I don’t think the extra fluids will be a bad thing.”

I almost shrug and then have to stop myself. Instead, I nod. Nat eases me back onto the pillows gently, and I pout.
“Why, Nat, if you wanted to see me in bed, you could have just asked,” I tell her with my teasing grin on.
“Noted, Tony,” Nat says smoothly. “But I think I’ll stick to Laura and Clint for now.”
“Ah, the good old farming lovebirds,” I sigh. “No trouble in paradise, I trust?” I can see Spark running a scalpel under running water with gloves on her hands.
Nat has a gentle smile on. “Laura and the kids are doing well. Nathanial shared a preference for the name Natasha-”
I gasp. When Nathaniel was still in Laura's belly, Nat had hoped strongly for a girl to be named after her. When Nat the Second came out a Nathaniel, she was disappointed. “You got your wish!”
Nat smiles. “I did. We go to ballet lessons together, we’re a real power duo. Natasha looks amazing in a tutu.”
“I bet she does,” I say, noting how the meds are starting to kick in. Or maybe the adrenaline has worn off and the numb feeling is actually how tired I am? Hard to tell.

“We had a party to celebrate her first recital, you should have seen how happy she was,” Nat says, a soft look on her face. “She refused to take off her tutu and got frosting and chocolate sauce all over it.”
I laugh. It hurts my shoulder, but the meds must be really kicking in because it’s more annoying than anything else.

“He’s getting slightly out of it,” Spark notes. “He’ll be out in a few. Keep talking to him, I’ll prepare a needle.”
“Sure,” Nat replies easily. “We repainted Natasha’s room, made a whole day of it. She looks to much happier with lilac walls and ballet posters, it’s amazing.”
“You felt an emotion, a wonder,” I say, giggling slightly. It doesn’t even strike me how weird it is for me to giggle. “The great Black Widow, feeling a bit of good old serotonin.”
“Shut it, Stark,” Nat says, laughing slightly. “You’ll ruin my reputation.”
I gasp over-dramatically. “You have a reputation?”
Nat smiles at me, that safe little smile she usually reserves for Clint when he’s yawning or telling her jokes or making her pancakes. “Yes, Tony, I happen to.”

I pass out while giggling. Nat’s smile is the last thing I see.

Chapter Text

“That was adorable,” I say, setting the sterile needle next to the scalpel and tweezers I just cleaned. I turn back to make sure the heart rate monitor is working properly before hooking Mr. Stark up and turning the machine on. As I fetch some thread, I talk about what is about to happen.

“So I’m basically just going to do this as simply as possible,” I say, putting the black thread down on the tray. I close the cabinet with my foot. “X-pattern incision around the entrance wound, feel around with some tweezers, pull the bullet out, stitch it back up. He should be awake in about-”

I stop, getting a first good look at Tony’s chest. It’s littered with scars. Some look like the scars I can find on Brooke and Bryn, where their father put out lit cigarettes on their skin, just larger, as if done with something like a cigar. Some are just little things, as if he was hit with shrapnel or the broken glass of a thrown bottle. They huddle around the arc reactor, some of them clean and clearly surgical, some of them haphazard, probably coming from the explosion that gave him the arc reactor. Some of them are the now-too-familiar mark of a past bullet wound, and a notable one makes it look like he was stabbed. A few are old burn marks, faded slightly. The arc reactor sits in the middle of the mess, glowing, a beacon.

I force myself to act casual, like I did when Onyx used his binder for too many hours because he slept in it accidentally and broke two ribs and punctured his lung, when Ember called me in the middle of a shift to notify me that she had been stabbed, when Brooke first told me about her frankly horrendous father. I walk forward, wheeling the cart holding the supplies behind me, before stopping beside the bed.

Natasha is looking at me closely, searching for a negative reaction. I simply nod at her and keep talking, barely able to remember my train of thought. “-yeah, he should wake up by tomorrow at the latest, but he’ll be fine to wake up tonight. He looks exhausted, so really, it’s a tossup. Maybe his body will try to forcefully catch up on sleep.”

Natasha nods silently.

“I’ll keep the pain meds up when he first wakes up and then slowly lower them, I don’t want him to wake up feeling awful. Oh, can you grab cleanup supplies while I do this? I mean, if you want to babysit me, that’s fine, but I do need a way to clean this up.”

I take a needle in one hand and keep talking. “This is going to be quick, and his heartbeat has slowed by now, so I don’t think this will be that bloody. But I’m going to need something to wipe him off, so a clean towel or cloth, some sanitizing wipes. Scissors to cut the thread in the stitching. Oh, and put on gloves before doing anything.”

Natasha moves to put on gloves and fetch the stuff I need. I wait for her to deliver scissors and a soft, ultra-absorbent towel before starting. As she goes to get some disinfecting wipes, I make the first cut.

Two straight lines, as small as possible with a bullet hole in the center. As usual, the incisions are surprisingly easy to make. I work quickly so the blood doesn’t have time to well up much.

I quickly have the tweezers in-hand. I feel around for the bullet with tiny movements before hitting the correct shape. Getting a grip on the wet, rounded object is difficult, but I have practice, and the metal clatters on the tray within forty-five seconds. I am arming myself with a pre-threaded needle, carefully and quickly stitching Mr. Stark back up.

“Done, starting cleanup,” I announce as the needle clatters to the tray. I wipe down the area, making sure there’s no blood or chance of infection because I missed a spot. I bandage up with gauze and cotton pads the Widow thankfully remembered, tie the dressings just tight enough to put pressure but not too much, because that would cut off blood flow to the arm. By the time I turn around, the Black Widow is cleaning equipment and has thrown away the used thread. I make myself useful by wiping down the tray I used and stripping my gloves. And then, because gloves always make my hands sweaty, I wash my hands.

After all that, I check the IV bag-fine-make sure the needle is still in-it is-and check Mr. Stark’s breathing and heart rate-which are normal.

“Thanks for the help,” I tell the Black Widow, who I just performed a surgery with, oh my God.

I keep myself together the best I can. I’ve met all the Avengers, oh God. What if they recognise me out of suit? What will I do? Will they report back to the government who I am? They work with the government, right?

“I am glad to,” Mrs. Widow (is there a better way to say that? I’m not being disrespectful to an Avenger, especially not her, a queen) replies, the words cutting through my internal meltdown.

“Right,” I say, suddenly unsure what to do. “Um, I’ll just-uh, I was going to ask Mr. Stark something, but then obviously there were more important things, so-um, I’ll just let you guys do your thing, I guess-”

I move toward the door, but am stopped by an arm.

“Who are you to Tony that you get private talks with him on a rooftop directly after a mission?” the Black Widow asks me. I start sweating; she has an interrogation face on, I know it without looking. “And why does Tony trust you enough to let you perform surgery on him if I’ve never met you?”

I stare at the door, because I really don't want to look at her face right now. (The Black Widow is scary.) “Um, ma’am, I’m not sure I’m allowed to tell-”
“I have top clearance and almost definitely know Tony better than you do. Answer the questions before I do something Steve would disapprove of.”

I stare at the door very, very, very hard.

“I’m Sophia Dillon,” I start. “Everyone calls me Spark, though. And I don’t know why Tony trusts me so much, but I can do it confidently, so I did.”

“And why do you know so much about bullet wounds? And why do you get a private chat with Tony after a mission? What’s so important?”

Technically, no one but JARVIS knew I was there. I climbed the building on one of the sides without windows and notified J that I wanted a personal update from Tony about Shay after taking my suit off. So, I’m not “allowed” a private audience, I just took one. (Jarvis didn’t argue, just told Pepper, who instructed me to eat and sleep in an intense Facetime session. She did not question how I got on the roof without going inside the building.)

Also, I know so much about bullet wounds because I have removed several bullets from my superhero friends who wouldn’t know the word “caution” if it slapped them. (And from a lot of watching medical documentaries and reading nerdy books, but I would never operate on just book knowledge.)

Two questions I can’t answer, great. Improvising, then.

“Uh, ma’am, I work here. In the computer engineering department. I code medical programs.”

(And I have! I did that yesterday, albeit distractedly. I worked on the code and layout to my bandage. I have a design, and it automatically, in theory, seals the edges now! No germs!)

“Very few workers have the authority to see Tony, and none directly after a mission.”

Well, fudge.

“Um…” I glance over at her. The Black Widow’s face is stony.

“JARVIS,” Natasha says slowly. “Run Protocol 17, Sophia “Spark” Dillon.”

A hologram pops up between us. I jump back. The text on the screen (thank God young me spent far too long learning to read backwards) is talking about how I work here, my relation to Mr. Stark, my usual health stats, and so on.

“Uh,” I say, getting to the bottom with no mention of Shay. All there is are the words “the rest of this information is only available to Tony Stark, Sophia “Spark” Dillon, and Pepper Potts until further notice.”

The eyebrows of the Black Widow twitch as if under the ghost of the impression that they should be rising in shock.

I stand awkwardly, hoping I’m not offending her somehow. Is my breathing too loud? It seems really loud.

Her eyes look up to my sharply. I shrink back slightly. “Classified,” she says. “Interesting.” I nod, unsure if I should run or stay here and make sure Mr. Stark is okay until he wakes up.

“Um?” I say, “I guess?”

Natasha looks up at me seriously. She makes a motion with her hand, and the hologram disappears.

“Protocol 17 ended,” J announces.

“Is Protocol 17 like, a background check, or something?” I ask nervously.

J is the one to respond. “Provided that the initiator has the clearance, I give all the information I have collected on the individual protocol 17 is focusing on.”

“Right,” I say, hoping my forehead isn’t visibly sweaty. I feel like I’m about to be tortured for answers.

The Black Widow turns around and looks at Mr. Stark. Her eyes transition shockingly quickly from hard to soft. I watch her trace the lines of Mr. Stark’s body, pausing where the stitching is.

I sit down on the spinny stool and organise my purse, which is pretty much a messenger bag at this point. When I grabbed stuff hurriedly earlier, everything got knocked out of place. Once I’m done with that, I pull out my math folder and start on my homework, glancing up every minute or so at Mr. Stark and making sure I’m never so absorbed that I wouldn’t notice if the heartbeat monitor picked up.

The Black Widow just stands. She doesn’t sit, don't lean against the wall, I don’t think she even shifts her weight. She just stands there. After about five minutes of me doing homework, she takes out her phone and does something with it, maybe sending a text. She quickly puts it back in her pocket and goes back to staring at Mr. Stark.

I finish my statistics homework after around half an hour and move on to the worksheet I got from bio. I catch the eyes of the scariest redhead ever to exist as she tries to read my homework.

I lick my lips and glance at Mr. Stark. No change. I go back to my work, my skin prickling with the weight of the gaze the Black Widow is giving me.

“You are a highschool student,” she says, void of all emotion.
I look up. “Um, yeah.”
She just looks at me. This is even worse than when she was staring at Mr. Stark and not moving, no matter how creepy that was. I go back to my work, adding ‘glance discreetly at the creepy woman to make sure she hasn’t pulled a knife’ to my rotation.

“And why does a highschool student have a job here? There has only been one employee below college age in the history of the company, and he is a proven genius.”

My tongue is very dry. I lie all the time, why am I so nervous? Actually, I don’t lie to spies/assassins/superheroes all the time, so maybe it’s warranted. “I…”

Um, I hacked your friend’s AI? Please don’t kill me? I didn’t do anything bad to J and I’m friends with Mr. Stark now? I don’t like being murdered?

“I…” I stop. “JARVIS, is Mrs. Widow likely to kill me for saying this?”
“It is doubtful that Ms. Romanov will kill anyone, currently.”
“That was a hyperbole,” I mutter.
“Well,” I say quickly, thinking I can’t lie, because she’s a spy who will know, and I can’t exactly run away because what if something goes wrong with Mr. Stark? “I needed information for this AI I was coding-oh, yeah, say hi, Izzy-”
“Hello, Miss Romanov,” Iz greets from my laptop.
“So, uh, I may or may not have hacked J. And I swear, I only looked, I didn’t change anything or hurt him-”
“I can confirm,” J comments passively.
“And I would never do that, because you know, life is life and I should respect every living thing-”
“Technically, Miss Dillon, I am not alive, as I have no cells to produce ATP, which are the markers of life.”
“J, you are alive in my book. Anyway, so I hacked Mr. Stark, and a few hours later, Mr. Stark texted me, which I honestly should have expected, Mr. Stark isn’t as stupid as the government, he would be able to tell. Anyway, so I hacked him, he texted me, said I was smart, and then he gave me a job and then he seemed to like me, mostly because Mrs. Potts went total Mom Mode on me-”

Mrs. Black Widow looks...shocked? What did I do?

“Uh…Yeah….” I say.

She nods sharply. “Okay,” she says, like it’s a decision. And then she sits, leaning against the wall, and crosses her legs, which are spread out in front of her. She takes a handgun out of a mysterious place (I think she has a portal) and starts to take it apart and clean it.

“You can tell the others they can come in,” I say. “I’m going to text my dad.”

He Black Widow nods. “How old are you?” She says it conversationally, but I know she’s getting information out of me on purpose.

“I turned sixteen, like, four weeks ago,” I say, writing my name on top of my sheet because I realised I didn’t before.

She does not respond. I glance up, and she is typing on her phone. She has a face similar to the one when Petal has had a particularly bad day and is trying to cut off her emotions, which are so strong they shine through.

I discreetly touch the wall, looking to cure my curiosity. Assuming she’s using the internet, which I know for a fact runs through J, I can access whatever she’s doing.

An echo of a spark, then more, and suddenly, my entire mind is scrolling through code and servers and videos and images and so, so much stuff. Kind of overwhelmed, I close my eyes-one less thing to take in-and focus. I narrow it down to what is on cell phones, then try to narrow it down to my area, then just look through.

I immiediatly move on when I see a naked woman-nope, no, don’t want to see that, my poor asexual eyeballs wish to be pure-and move fluidly through websites that I think are coming from people just working. A site that talks about sayings in French, probably someone Googling something they don’t know in a bathroom or something. Someone is emailing a photographer looking for an image to use on the SI website.

And then. A text conversation.

Captain Grandpa
Nat, is Tony okay?
Me
The surgery went fine, he’ll be up in a few hours
Captain Grandpa
Good.

Me
Steve, she’s a highschool student
Captain Grandpa
What?
Me
The girl that was waiting on the helipad for Tony
She’s in highschool
Captain Grandpa
So?
Me
She’s doing homework
Wait, ‘so?’ You don’t think it’s suspicious that she was allowed to meet with Tony right after a mission?

Captain Grandpa
I think it’s fine, Tony seems to trust her.

 

Huh. So that’s why they aren’t here yet, she hasn’t told them they can come in. I was expecting them to storm in immediately.

When I take my hand away from the wall-just the difference of side-leaning on the wall and sitting normally-and open my eyes, I get a rush of guilt. I shouldn’t have spied. What anyone does on their phone is their business.

“Ma’am, a notification,” Izzy says. The Black Widow-Mrs. Widow?-looks up sharply at me, but I ignore her and turn to my laptop and yank it open, hoping for an update on Shay.

Instead, I get a passive-aggressive message that is apparently from JARVIS telling me not to mess with the circuitry.

“Sorry, J,” I say. “Won’t happen again.”
“Apology accepted, Miss Dillon.”

When I glance at Mr. Stark, he remains the same, which is unsurprising. But Mrs. Widow is staring at me again.

I look back at my laptop, my face warm.

We spend the next four hours that way, mostly. Occasionally, Captain America (oh my God I’ve met Captain America) will come in with one of the other members of the Avengers and they’ll be sentimental for a bit. I put my earbuds in when they do, not wanting to eavesdrop and figuring they’ll alert me if something happens with Mr. Stark. I text Pepper to see if anything is happening with that prosthetics company that is apparently HYDRA, and she informs me that they have been pushing the meeting back more and more. It’s scheduled for tomorrow, but they’ll probably change that. Then I sit and draft up ideas for super tech we might need.

Then Mr. Stark wakes up when it’s just me and the Black Widow. She’s immediately on her feet, rushing to Mr. Stark’s side as he blearily looks around. I quickly check his stats on the computer, then move to his bedside when I see that they’re fine.

I run Mr. Stark through the tests for a concussion-a negative-and make sure all the needles are still in place-they are. I give a smile to Mr. Stark and then back up so he and Mrs. Widow can have a semblance of privacy.

I sit on my spinny stool and try not to look like I’m eavesdropping while also checking on Mr. Stark. Pulse is slightly slow, but that can be explained by drowsiness and drugs, and it’s within normal. The IV seems to have enough pain meds, as he hasn’t screamed or cried yet.

I watch as Mr. Stark paws at his chest, and as Mrs. Widow peels the covers back to show Mr. Stark the bandaging. During this, I see that he hasn’t bled through it, and it’s still secure. Probably should change them in a few hours anyway.

I look away then. There’s nothing useful I can get from staring at Mr. Stark’s scarred chest. I’ve seen scars before-lord knows I have a few of my own to ogle at-and I’ve seen tech the glows blue before, although not that specific arc reactor. Or any arc reactor, really.

This gets me thinking about my own scars. The one on my left side where I was skimmed with a bullet. The one below my left breast where I was stabbed, hitting a rib and breaking it, but with no worse damage. That time I was slammed against a wall that had a sharp bit sticking out and I was stabbed through the back, right above my right hip. That one strip down my thigh from when I got hit with some weird blast from villain of the week. That one time a talking dragon bit me left teeth marks up and down my right thigh. Then I skim through the many broken bones, bruises, and scrapes, even healed a little faster by my accelerate healing.

And then I think about how many scars and injuries Shay may have gone through.

That snaps me out of it. By the time I look back towards the bed, Mr. Stark is attempting to sit up, with Mrs. Black Widow calmly holding him in place. I stand up and rush over.
“Mr. Stark! Do not, you’re going to ruin the bandaging, lie down! And you probably don’t even have enough coordination right now to sit up or stand! You are high on pain meds, dude! Chill!”
I press Mr. Stark down into the bed as he huffs. “Sweetheart-”
“Tony, no flirting with minors,” Mrs. Widow says.
“I’m fine! I mean, I’ve taken bullets before! This is nothing! It didn’t even hit an organ!”
“I will call Peter if you don’t shut it,” Mrs. Widow threats.
Mr. Stark scoffs as I physically press him downwards and hope I’m not going to have to shock his neurological system into being tired by replicating the pattern ‘tired’ is for his body with my electrical signals.

Mrs. Widow takes out her phone. As Mr. Stark’s eyes widen, she presses a button like she’s proving a point (and she is, she totally could have asked J to call Peter), and the first ring starts.

I giggle into my hand, which I’m using to stifle my laughter. Mr. Stark glares at me. “Traitor,” he mutters as Peter picks up.
“Mama spider!” Peter says excitedly.
“Hello, baby spider,” Mrs. Widow says in a really soft voice. Then she gets more serious. “Tony has been shot and refuses to relax after he just woke up from surgery.”
“Mr. Stark!” Peter says. Mr. Stark looks like he would rather be dead. “You said you were going to be careful!”
“Sorry, Underoos,” Mr. Stark says. I make a mental note to never tell anyone about what is going on in this room. “I-It was important.”
“Nothing is more important than you, Mr. Stark!” Peter says. Mr. Stark has doubtful eyes, and I make a mental note to have J download some therapy tactics. “You can’t just throw yourself into danger!”
“Really, kiddo, like you don’t?” Mr. Stark says with a chuckle.

I do not want to know what that means.

“Mr. Stark!” Peter says. “If you don’t get in bed and be relatively still, I am going to skip school tomorrow to give you puppy eyes the entire day to make you stay!”
Mr. Stark groans and relaxes against the pillows. Then his eyes widen when he looks at my face.

He bolts upright, and I lunge forward to force him down. Mr. Stark fights me, much more determined than he was earlier. “Shay!” he says.
“What?” Peter says over the phone.
Mrs. Widow asks the same question with her eyes.
“Did you see her?” I ask. And, with a sick twist of my gut, I hesitantly say, “Did she shoot you?”
“They got Shay!” Mr. Stark cries.

My eyes widen. I completely forget when he worried me that way. (I usually don’t respond well when people I like get shot, call it a flaw of mine, I tend to try and help them over anything else.) I fly over to my laptop, yanking it open and demanding to know where and when as I hack into the system of street cameras in NY. Mr. Stark says a street name, Izzy automatically pulls up every camera around that street, and I watch in horror as Shay is attacked, drugged, how she runs, and the way she is roughly grabbed from behind and dragged, unmoving, unconscious, to a helicopter. I watch as Mr. Stark shoots at the helicopter, I watch as he is shot, I watch as he has a panic attack-Mr. Stark looks away from me when I do, grimacing-and then I shut the feed.

My hands fly across the keyboard, trying to find a video feed of where the helicopter went. I only have a vague direction by the end of my ideas.

My eyes narrow. I lean against the wall subtly and send an apology to J as I start.

Then I hack Pepper Potts’ email.

As I giggle kind of hysterically (Pepper! Potts’! Email!), I finish my apology and send it to J. Then I do some random typing on my computer to distract Mr. Stark and Mrs. Widow as I get into J, then into the internet, then the emails sent, then I work through seventeen layers of security before getting to my prize.

I send an email for Ms. Potts (I’m an awful person, oh my God) to the company making prosthetics. I ask them for a phone number I can call, or a website, just some way to get in touch that is both inconspicuous and a way to trace them.

“Miss Dillon, your apology is accepted, this seems to be an emergency situation warranting your actions,” J says. Mr. Stark and Mrs. Widow both narrow their eyes at me.

They respond within seconds, which is good, because I can only do this for so long before the way my skin is slightly charred from electricity becomes apparent, even with my accelerated healing.

My hand is only aching slightly, but my back is starting to protest. (Over the years, I have discovered that I can tolerate more shocks than normal, but my body is far from invincible.)

The email talks about a whole lot about nothing and then a little about how I can contact them at such and such phone number. I lunge for my phone, Izzy brings up the number, and I’m setting up the tracing program as my phone calls theirs.

“Call tracing program prepared,” Izzy announces.
“Great,” I say, “I’ll handle the talking to the kidnappers.”
“That would be nice,” Izzy answers, “But we don’t know if they specifically kidnapped Shay. It might have been-”
“Someone else from their group. Now be quiet, they might pick up.”

They pick up a second later.

“Hello?”
“Hello,” I say, trying to come up with something to say that won’t have them hang up or get me a widow bite. “I’m a representative of Stark Industries, and I want to talk to you about a few things.”
Izzy gives me a notification that they have a vague location that the caller is far from the actual company HQ.
“Yes?” the voice says, a man, slightly annoyed. There’s some muffled bumping and shouting in the background.
“I first wanted to confirm specifics about tomorrow's meeting,” I say, trying to come up with ideas to keep him talking.
“Actually, we’re pretty understaffed tomorrow, so we’re not going to be able to send a representative for the meeting.”
“Of course,” I say in my placating voice perfected over several years working minimum wage jobs. “Then I want to confirm a meeting time for when you’re not overloaded or understaffed. We can send a representative for the next week. Do any of those times work for you?”
The map Iz has pulled up of their location gets smaller. I fish for ideas in my frantic brain.
“Can’t say right now,” the man says gruffly. “You done?” I hear muffled screaming, which I ignore, but Mrs. Widow’s eyes narrow even more.
“Not quite, sir,” I say. “Um, I wanted to confirm the topic of the meeting. Stark Industries is looking at expanding its prosthetics output, and we wanted to speak with experts on the subject.”
Like these guys are experts. I glanced at their awful website for two seconds and saw that is was both pretty shady and terrible quality.
“Right,” the man says. Iz zooms in more on the map, showing somewhere way out of the city, almost out of the state. I can see the state line in the corner of the screen.
“Yes,” I say. “Uh, if you could bring a summary of the functions of prosthetics-or, at least, your specialty in the arm-and maybe a model, that would be fantastic. Can that be arranged?”
“Maybe,” the guy says.
“Alright, um, sir, I need to know what position in the company you occupy.”
I absolutely do not, but it might be fun to see him flounder for something.
“Uhhhh,” the guy says, “I’m-I’m a secretary.”
There’s muffled laughter, a thump, some scraping sounds.
“Okay, thank you,” I say, and then quickly, “Er, do you have any blueprints of your product you can send me?”
“No.”
“That’s okay, do you have any recommendations from customers, maybe some positive reviews?” I ask, reaching to the bottom of my stall-for-time barrel.
A pause. “No.”
“Right,” I say. I almost say something else, who knows what, but then a notification pops up on the screen of my laptop and Izzy zooms into one spot, labeled to be the warehouse for a Russian company dealing in what, at a glance to their website and help from my copious experience as a superhero, looks like crime, not just the chairs they claim to sell. “Um, that’s all the information I need at this time. Please contact Stark Industries if you have any questions.”
I end the call, practically throwing my phone into my bag and focusing on the location. “They look to still be in the state,” I say. “Apparently, HYDRA sells chairs.”
Mr. Stark is looking at a hologram, spinning the diagram of Shay’s brain scan around and around. “Where?” he says in the scariest voice I have ever heard, including that one time a talking dragon came to life and decided NYC looked tasty.

I have Izzy text him the address, I absently tell J to keep the address under wraps (we don’t want the police barging in and handling it badly or freaking Shay out), already hacking into whatever I can find. I get twenty-three phones, one laptop, and seven computers. The laptop belongs to Christian Jones, a recent highschool graduate, who I report to JARVIS. The phones I let Izzy handle, as after looking through the first one, I find the only useful thing are a few numbers and text conversations.

The computers are the scary parts.

I have to hack through several terrible layers of security, but once I’m past that, I can see some barf-worthy stuff, including a currently-running program called ‘making a project rebirth subject submit’. The next one has ‘Frances’ work in creating mutants from adult humans’. I consider throwing every HYDRA agent directly into the sun by the time I’m done with all of the seven computers.

I close my laptop, thinking hard. Obviously, I can’t just leave this to the Avengers. Then how do I get in-suit (where I’m less likely to be shot than in casual clothes, Petal was smart enough to add Kevlar and Ember upgraded on it) without giving my identity away?

I could run off, but then Mr. Stark will get suspicious-I’m heavily invested in Shay, why would I run off as soon as we have a hint? (Even with the low chance that this is where they’re hiding Shay, normal-version-of-me would want to be here.)

There’s the option of just revealing myself, but the Avengers seem to be a government thing, and I do not want some old white dude calling the shots when it comes to my patrols or fights. And I would give away the rest of my friends, and that isn’t something I’m doing without full approval.

I could ask Bryn downstairs to do his best to imitate me, they are pretty good at coding. Not as good as me, but an option. But would they want to fight too?

No, best not to get them involved. They don’t know Shay and we’re going up against some dangerous people. And Bryn might see some child abuse and have a flashback to their father, who, scientifically speaking, is the worst.

I grab my phone, texting Bryn to pretty please call me with some emergency in forty five seconds.

I put my phone down, and turn to Mr. Stark and say, “Well, they’re close enough that we can get there pretty soon, but it’s already been several hours since they got Shay, so she could already have a lot of damage-“

My phone rings. I put on a show of huffing and picking it up, very well rehearsed in my time of needing to escape and be a superhero. I put it on speaker.

Bryn makes a groaning sound that I can tell they’re replicating from the times they’ve gotten hurt. “Uh, Spark, you know how my neighborhood is a kind of awful area that doesn’t receive non binary Mexican American teens well?”
I fake my Mom Friend Mode, sitting up straight and already reaching for my purse/emergency medical bag/messenger bag. “How bad are you hurt and where are you?” I demand, throwing a look at Mr. Stark that says I need to go. He nods and Mrs. Widow waves me away.

I open the door and practically sprint out, making up questions to ask Bryn until I’m a block away from the tower. Bryn answers remarkably well, apparently they can make up a good story in less than a minute.

“Thanks, Bryn,” I say, slowing to a jog as I look for someplace to change into my super suit.

“Hey, no prob, but I have to get back to work,” Bryn answers. “What did you need to get out of?”
“I need to get my super suit on, something’s going on,” I say. “I think I can handle it, but if you let the others know, that would be great. See if they’re free and ready to collect some serious bruises, I’ll text them the spot. Also ask if they have a way to get to the edge of the state.”

“What’s so important on the edge of the state?” Bryn asks.

“Kidnapping of a friend. I’ll be back soon, ask Ray to set up for some serious injuries.”
“I’ll text, good luck,” Bryn says, hanging up.

I sprint again, having seen an abandoned shop front. I rip some stuff away from the entrance, toss a twenty to the homeless guy watching me do this, and scramble inside.

The inside makes it look like the usual shop, of dark, dusty, and dirty. I ignore it all, quickly donning my suit. Then I find my way onto the roof, not wanting to make it obvious the homeless guy who I am, and take off.

“Izzy, voice modifier on, please,” I say, running through an alleyway. When I speak again, my voice is lower, and with a different rumble to it. A little more “I’m walking here” than I usually am. It sounds completely natural, and it’s almost familiar with my time using the fake voice. If anyone traced it, it’s not coming back to me unless I get some serious throat problems and speech lessons from someone with a seriously thick Brooklyn accent.

I take a turn, heading away from Avengers Tower and hoping they haven’t left to try to rescue Shay yet.

Petal asked Ember and Bryn for a bike a while back that she could use in civilian mode and then somehow change to a more appropriate vehicle for a superhero. The end result was a motorcycle that could transition from black, green, pink, with studs of gold to a bike that has flowers painted all over it, blooming majestically. Ember is proud to have made it and I’m proud to have coded the thing. (Star has a bike that’s just for hero work and it’s simply purple accents and a night sky, much less fancy. The benefit is the fact it can fly, assuming you only have one passenger.)

Maybe if I grovel enough, Petal will let me use it. Star is too far away and Petal is better for being covert. It also has a heck of a lot more speed to it, because there’s no fancy make-it-fly mumbo jumbo hiding in it.

I burst into Petal’s apartment with no small amount of desperation. Petal looks up from her workroom (it was supposed to be a living room but Petal doesn’t have a ton of space and likes working more than any couch) and raises an eyebrow dramatically.

I see the bracelet through the sewing machine currently being forced to make a suit for some trans dude. It’s a female day.

Petal stands when she sees my face. “Somethings wrong, spill the tea,” she says, already grabbing her shit from a pile of various clothes in the corner.

“I need to get to the edge of the state as fast as possible so my kidnapped friend doesn’t die because she was tortured by some Nazis.”

Petal stops for a second and just looks it me while she’s halfway through wiggling into the suit that is made up of various pinks, greens, and a few highlights of gold making up flowers and a vague face.

She clearly was not expecting that.

“I need to use your bike because it’s the fastest way I can get there.”

Petal gets into motion, finishing throwing on her shit and grabbing a bag shaped like-surprise-a bunch of flowers. This time, it’s violets and lilacs with tiny pink buds lining it. It’s still slightly singed from that time Ember accidentally set it on fire.

It has a handgun for extreme emergencies only, bullets, collection kits for when we need science samples for some investigation-Bryn has gotten very good at those-and Petal’s emergency makeup kit for when she’s changing back to civilian mode and needs to look normal. Among other things, those are just the things I have gotten the privilege of seeing.

Petal looks up at me, grabbing her keys with a determined smile. The last time I saw that smile, which is honestly more of a let’s-go-almost-die smirk, Petal was going off for their first patrol. “I drive.”

Chapter Text

I wake up. I don’t open my eyes due to years of conditioning, but I don’t need sight to know where I am.

Cold metal under me, slightly warmed. I’ve been here for less than half an hour, as my body heat hasn’t warmed it up. Straps that are too-tight digging into my skin at my neck, my chest, my stomach, my elbows, my shoulders, my thighs, my knees, and my ankles. A muzzle over my entire lower face, heavy and suffocating.

And that’s just what my touch is telling me.

There’s the smell of blood and arrogance. The fear and unease deep inside me. The humming of fear you can’t sense with anything but deep intuition that this place is full of danger. The sound of faint gunfire, screaming, of laughter from the mouths of killers. The pain that has settled in almost every crevice of my body, without the help of the additional bruises I have undoubtedly gotten. I’m surprised at the lack of ache between my thighs, (a time waking up exactly like this but covered in bruises and with two men leering at me as they zip themselves up and the pain settles in me, burrowing inside until I am nothing but fear and pain and rage that never ends but is always erased) but I’m not surprised at the way my ribs are already bruised.

And they haven’t even started yet.

I open my eyes, giving the world my best blank glare.

A concrete ceiling. The edges of cinder block walls painted white that have an abstract painting in blood. The top edge of a computer, currently dark.

I know from the pattern to the bloodstains that I have not gone far. Good, I’ll be back by tomorrow, barring incidents.

I press against my restraints. I know I wouldn’t usually be able to break them, but usually, I’m running on far less sleep, food, and rage.

The answer to ‘is rage enough to break restraints made to take the full strength of a super Soldier’ is no. Pity, I’ll have to kill a few more people on my way back.

I don’t move my head when the door opens. I don’t need to see the person.

Heavy footsteps, military grade boots. Male, judging by the weight and pattern to the steps. All arrogance and toxicity.

I imagine ripping his throat out in order to keep my hands still.

(Be weak, they like weak.)

“Your longest getaway,” the man comments absently. I vaguely wonder when else I’ve escaped and feel pride for past-me. “Congratulations.”

I do not answer. I wouldn’t have even if there wasn’t a muzzle on my face.

The man slaps me. But with the muzzle, he only hits half of my face and he hisses when he draws away. Idiot. I hope he broke every bone in his hand.

The man curses as he wheels the metal table out of the room. I concentrate on knowing where I and the exits are.

(Left, twenty feet, right, forty five feet, right, fifteen feet, doorway, fifteen feet, left, seventy feet, doorway to torture room.)

Sigh.

Five men are shuffling around in the room, as well as one woman. They are surrounded by various weapons, and in the back of the room, I know, is a cryo chamber.

Welcome to punishment, me. The same old dance.

I see the estimated next two hours watching the events through a series of fractured snapshots my mind managed to get it together enough to take.

The muzzle removed, my head thrust in a bucket of ice water, my lungs burning and my mind doing a slow descent to madness.

A hot knife, stabbing and castrating in the same instant, as my mind shuts itself down save for the tiny box I lock my sanity in, along with all the memories, the little gifts I’ve scavenged from my broken radio of a head.

Slowly burning the skin left, a hot rod running up and down, up and down. A flash of boiling water spilling onto me, of blisters boiling up.

The last part is always the worst.

Ice, forced on me until it burns, until I am deemed weak and tortured enough to be sent into cryo, and, once I wake up, the chair, to wipe all humanity that I may have achieved away.

The ice was the tipping point. I suddenly come back to myself, instead of just watching through fractured images.

My limbs fill with rage, almost ignoring the pain, the anger supplied by memories rushing through me. (Forced in the cryo chamber, blue lips, frosty breath, freezing lungs that seize, sneering faces through frosted glass-)
(Sneering faces from behind chain link fences, standing in line staring at the German man shooting the child slightly out of line, smoke pouring out of what the whispers call the gas chambers, the smell of burning bodies that embeds itself everywhere, the pale face of my brother as he dies right next to me, haggard coughing, counting my ribs, sneering at guards behind their backs, stealing a gun-)
(Being shot, grabbed from behind, thrown onto a medical bed that they use for the dying, a needle pressed into my bony and fighting arm, nausea, pain, the number on my arm-)
The number on my arm, the think that was my name for years. 13786.

One of the men is yelling as I break my bindings, almost blinded by tears.

“Rifle! Longing! Shattered! Nest! Rebirth! One! Nine! Twenty-three! Frozen! Return! Needle!”

As the man finishes the code words, the trigger to so many unhappy endings, I stare at him. Unable to move.

And then I can. “Bastard,” I snarl, lunging at him.

Everyone in the room is dead in two minutes.

I walk out covered in my own blood and a little of theirs, taking the muzzle off as I go. I was going more for speed than revenge, so it was pretty quick, but I did get a few extra broken bones and groin kicks in then absolutely necessary.

I explore the base for the first time as a free woman. Rage filled, ready to kill, but free. I do it cautiously, slowly, listening for movement or voices.

This is not the base where I might find other torn apart souls that I would have to guard like a dragon her hoard. This is an emergency base, a bolt hole you go to in case of serious injury or immediate need of reprogramming. Therefore, there are barely guards and little to find.

What I do discover is boring; an armory I take some weapons and more practical clothes from, the conditioning room with the chair and two doctors I quickly render unconscious, some new recruits that go down comically easily, a room with medical supplies inside, a closet consisting entirely of cages and chains that are all empty, and some extra blood stains.

I am suspicious.

No bolt hole is ever this quiet. What’s so fascinating going on somewhere else that leaves this place deserted?

The last room I get to is larger than the others. There are more bloodstains here, some dents in the walls and floor and even the ceiling from hard impacts, weapons lining the room.

A training room.

(James charging at me, apologies in his eyes as he breaks my arm-)
(Cackling laughter as a knife plunged into me-)
(Surrounded, no way to win, blows landing hard-)
(A man in military uniform standing over me, taller than my twelve year old body by several feet, sneering, a gun in-hand-)
(Pinned down by a man, hand over my mouth until I can’t breathe, taking off the stupid jumpsuit they forced me to wear-)
(A man giving me the tattoo of numbers on my arm, not caring for my gritted teeth or tears-)
(Blake standing in front of me, shielding me from whatever hell we just were forced into-)
(The sound of Blake yelling as we’re dragged out of the boarding school in the dead of night, the feeling of my foot in Gestapo gut-)
(“Stupid little-“)
(“Subhuman-“)
I come back to myself vaguely after a while. But I just stare at the room, unable to move, almost processing the fact that I’m now on the floor.

The dark feelings eventually drown me again.

(Blood flying from my nose, the pain lancing through me-)
(Confusion, where am-)
(I stand, fists loose at sides, as I face a man pointing a gun to my forehead-)
(A gun shakily Aimee at my gut ad I calmly break the man’s hand, the gun hitting the floor with a-)
(A man’s hand snaps against the wall, a Gestapo officer leering at the man with the star on his coat-)
(The night doesn’t hide the sound of the banned books burning, it doesn’t hide the jeers as the woman’s shop is ransacked, it doesn’t hide-)

Rinse and repeat.

(The smell of disinfectant and blood-)
(Blood staining the floor, children’s cries filling the room-)

Rinse.

(Nat’s little hair, red as blood, flying back with the force of a slap I wish I could stop-)
(Bucky screaming on the floor, tears-)

And.

(Pain, burning pain, lurching away-)
(Nausea, the taste of barf-)
(A woman yelling at me in Russian, gun waving, safety off and loaded-)

Repeat.

(“Rifle, longing-“)
(The feeling of being completely out of control, only able to watch as my small fourteen year old hands committed murder-)

“What-oh…”

(Throwing everything I have against the wall the chair always rebuilds-)
(The sharp pain of failure, the agony of guilt-)
(Picking a bullet out of my own thigh-)

“Shay? Shay, I need you to listen…”

(“I’m not scared of you,” I spit. “You should be-“)
(The screaming of the child they sent me to kill-)
(Watching the girl slump over with the chanide in her gut-)

“Uh, I only have a few minutes until Mr. Stark gets here…”

(One of the mind doctors leaning close to me, making notes as blood-)
(James screaming that I don’t deserve this life, why would-)

“...talking, try to focus on it? I know that’s probably going to seem really hard…”

(The fear in Blake’s eyes-)
(Counting ribs and razor wire curls-)

“She’s spiraling.”
“Petal, not helping.”

(A needle filled with liquids that glow, why do they-)
(Chains attached to the metal bedpost creaking as-)

“Anyway, I’m Spark, remember me? Sorry I freaked you out that one time…”

(Mama’s stuck in bed again-)
(A gun pointed at Blake, fear-)

“...this is Petal, she-“
“We’ve met, she knows me.”
“What?”

(A woman pinning me down, lust practically dripping off her-)
(Bruises littering-)

“Tell you later, keep claiming her down.”
“Okay, um, yeah, she’s a girl today-“
CLANK!

(Clang, clang, James screaming as the arm is attached-)

“Holy-“
“Mr. Stark’s here, he startled Shay-“
“I gathered, masks on-“

(Masks covering the face of my handler, but the likeness to Blake’s face-)
(Muzzle, strapped too tight-)

Thump-whir-thump-whir-thump-

(Thump, a body hits the ground-)

“Mr. Stark, while I respect you for your actions as of late, you know, turning your life around and all, if you don’t stop making so much noise, I’m going to make you.”

(“Be quiet, girl, or I’ll make you shut it-“)

Clank. Whir. “What?”

“You’re freaking out someone in the middle of a panic attack,” the person hisses. “Stop.”

(“Stop,” Nat says, cold as concrete, aiming a gun at my attacker’s-)

“Who-What-Shay!”

(“Blake, what's going on?” I ask, looking at the Gestapo man who is-)

Clink clink clink thunk.

(The click click click click of machine gun firing, deafening-)

“Dude!”
“Mr. Stark, please-“
“Hey, Shay, sorry if I made it worse.”

(-in hell? Worse, so much-)

“And I think I might have made it worse when I first met you, so I’m sorry for that too.”

(Shot, he said he was sorry? Not like it matters, I-)

A sigh I barely register but grasp onto anyway, anything to get away from my own mind. “I don’t know what made you freak, honestly, but I’ll try to avoid it when I figure it out.”

(“Ignore her, she’s just a little freak-“)

I slowly become aware of the warmth of tears streaming down my face. The raggedness of my lungs, already automatically going back to a regular speed even though I still feel so, so out of control.

I’m crying silently. For some reason, I’m not surprised by this. (Don’t draw attention, stupid and sad girls don’t get-)

I look up sharply. I see two unfamiliar people dressed nonsensically in skin tight suits and one in what I assume is a casual three piece suit.

I roll away and fluidly move to my feet, knives already in both hands. It wasn’t even a conscious thing, I just see them and automatically move away.

My eyes take in the first two unknowns first, scanning for danger.

My eyes catch on their bodies, registering their similarity to those of people I’ve seen before. Both are carrying hidden weapons, or something other than spandex, at least, and both aren’t pulling out knives in kind to mine.

Then my eyes snap to the man, the other two passing enough that I want to take him in.

And I freeze completely. No breath, no subtly changing my position, nothing.

Tony Stark.

“I’m not going to a mind doctor,” I say, and the words in the air are cutting but the ones in my head are terrified.

(I don’t want-no-)

“Oh,” one of the suits say. The one dressed in ridiculous amounts of pink and green and looks kind of like a bunch of flowers. “Did-um, the mind doctors here, did they-um, did they hurt you?”

And that makes something click in Mr. Stark, and his eyes widen, and I startle with the memories.

(James, tense, watches me, waiting for the scars on my forehead to show what they are, really-)
(-anesthesia isn’t strong enough, not for me, so they just strap me to a table-)
(A scalpel cutting into my forehead, skin peeled back-)
(Blood, so much-)

The second one of the suits, the one dressed in gold and silver, the gold like lightning brought the whole shebang, makes a soft sound that sounds so, so sad.

(A soft sound, a hurt sound, coming from Blake-)

“Shay, I’m sorry,” Spark says. “But-well-oh my God, if you’re like the captain, and Captain Rogers is from the twenties or whatever-oh, Shay, are you thinking of asylums?”

I look between the three of them. What does that sentence mean?

“Shay, asylums don’t exist anymore.”

(My mother, back from the madhouse, shaking and withdrawn, sometimes screaming, sometimes silent, sometimes-)

I back up slowly. There’s a door behind me, if I do this inconspicuously enough, I can just sprint to it, they’ll never be able to catch me.

“Um, what else was harmful about physiatrists in the past? Uh, no one’s going to exile you or anything? We honestly, honestly, just want to help. I swear.”

I stare at the girl. I’m trying to place her, and I think I have something, just based off her body, but the voice is different. I would need to see her walk to make sure.

Also, what is she talking about?

I back up in the slow way, not even lifting my feet, just slowly scooting backwards.

“I think every part of history was pretty bad for the mentally ill,” the second person comments, their hands slowly raising. I flinch back, expecting a hit, but getting nothing. “Sorry,” the person dressed as a flower says. They are also familiar, but their voice is also different.

I continue moving back so, so slowly. It’s making me want to rip my own skin off with frustration. And the need to bolt.

“Shay, do you remember when you were born?”

(Watching my mother struggle through forms, my name at the top of all of them, trying to figure out how to enroll me into a boarding school in the best way, I glance over them, see my name, but a fake one-Shay Alexandria Laurens-and my DOB-the thirteenth of January, 1923-and my-)

Pain in my skull-apparently that’s a thing again-and nausea in my throat.

I stare. The man-Mr. Stark. “C’mon, kid,” he says gently. “It’s okay.”

(“C’mon, kid,” Mr. Stark says, “My office.” His sneer-)
(The door shuts harshly behind me, I know what’s coming-)
(“Mr. Stark,” I say, “Please, stop, don’t-no-”)
(The twist of a mouth, the feeling of a mustache against my cheek as he whispers to me-)
(“No one can hear you, girl, so scream.”)
(“Please, no-” I choke, twisting back-)
(Screaming thoughts; remember your training, don’t kill him, you’re a scared maid, don’t kill him, the mission, you need information, do not kill him, keep your muscles weak, don’t-)
(The rip of clothing, the cold floor of the office, the weight of him on top of me-)
(Tears, not faked-)
(Screams, not faked-)

I stumble back, eyes wide, barely aware again. “Mr. Stark,” I slur, “No, please-”
“What?” he asks. “Shay?”

(He pushes me to the floor-)
“No, please-don’t-want-”
(He puts one hand over my mouth, and it didn’t suffocate me, I had to remember to breathe heavily-)
My chest is being crushed inwards, I can’t breathe. “Mr. Stark, no, Howard, please, sir-” A choked gasp inwards.
Mr. Stark’s face in reality is scrunched, then goes pale. “Oh, God, no, please, Dad, I swear,” he whispers. I barely understand that he’s speaking, let alone understand the words. “Not her,” he whispers, “A child?”

(Hands on my skin-)
(The smell of whiskey, sharpened in panic and my enhanced nose-)

“Shay,” Mr. Stark in real life says softly, “Howard isn’t here. He’s dead. You’re okay.”
“What’s going on?” the silver-and-yellow suit asks. They raise a hand, but I flinch back.

“No,” I say, “Nonononono-”

(His breath sickeningly hot in my face, overwhelmingly full of alcohol-)
(The trickle between my legs, the stream of pink and red and white joining the tears on my face-)

I hit the floor again, crouching, legs together, hands over my face, arms covering my ears and the rest of my head, as compact as possible.

“Please tell me your father wasn’t a pedophile,” one of the suits says, the voice of the pink one. “Because I know what having a flashback to rape looks like and this is it.”

“I hate my father,” says the man in a growl.

I flinch when there’s running footsteps in the hall behind me, sure Howard is about to come through the door. I curl up tighter.

(The slam of a door-)
(The fear in my gut-)
(The pain-)

A door slams open, and I flinch so hard I fall over.

(Howard slamming the door behind us-)
(Drawing me close-)
(Cigars on the desk, next to the expensive whiskey-)

“Woah!”
“Wave! Shhh!”

I stand suddenly, knives slipping back into my hands like old friends, scanning quickly.

(Danger, don’t be weak, fight, stand, move-)

A wave of fear and desperation.

And then I see the newbie, and for some reason, seeing them-her-walk towards me, I’m a little bit more calm.

I sob.

“Woah, Shay, you’re okay,” Brooke says, her voice unchanged.

I don’t understand. Why is everyone here just to watch me break, why their voices are different, what year it is, what’s changed, why do they care, why does she make me feel a little less like a hurricane that is slowly destroying itself, why everyone is dressed like a maniac in this room (myself included, probably).

Understanding is the Raven’s most powerful sense. It’s super-human, the knowledge I constantly have-of my surroundings, of every person I meet, of everything I can possibly know. Maybe that’s why not knowing myself is so awful, maybe that’s why not knowing what’s going on around me is worse than every crime committed against me by them.

And my reaction is always violence. It’s never been crying, it’s never been allowed. So why does she make me feel okay enough to cry? (Violence has never been the Raven’s greatest weapon, just my greatest offense, my knee jerk reminder. Acting is my greatest skill, and it’s the one first-placer I can’t blame on an ugly octopus.)

(Mama-)

And then I’m on the floor, a lot more coherent and showing a lot more of my broken parts. I’m so tired.

A hand touches me, and I don’t flinch because I tracked Brooke’s footsteps (why did the person I think is Spark call her Wave, why do I not understand anything) and now I know that she is gently touching me, and that she won’t hurt me.

She starts singing. I think she’s just making it up as she goes; I’ve never heard this one before, and I’ve been trained well.

Brooke sings, almost at a whisper. She gently pets my hair, and I expect it to hurt, but it doesn’t, her hands never snag, and I melt bonelessly. The song ends, but she just whispers assurances into my hair while I cry.

“So,” Brooke says after a few minutes. “What happened?”

I, curled up now, almost in her lap, start to blush. A lot happened, and I am not going to tell her any of it; she doesn’t deserve it.

“We found her here,” the person I think is Petal says after a pause. “She was having a panic attack.”

Brooke makes a soft sound. She pets my head a little softer.

“I’m sorry, what’s going on?” Mr. Stark asks.
The person in yellow (Shock? Maybe Spark?) says, “She’s calming down and Wave is helping. Shush.”

Inside, I laugh. On the outside, I slowly uncurl. Then I smoothly roll (literally-it’s a somersault) to my feet. My knives are firmly away.

I can see Brooke now. Her weird costume is ocean themed, with different shades of blue and green and sometimes white that looks like foam.

“I don’t want to go to a mind doctor,” I say firmly. I’m done doing things I don’t want. I’m already planning in my mind; how they’ll react, how to move, what to do if something strange happens.

And I run.