There was something very wrong with Michelle.
Cindy knew. She’d known the second she’d set foot in the building and found Michelle leaning against her locker, staring off into space. Her eyes were bloodshot and small and sunken, and her face was pale, and Cindy instantly felt a shiver run down her spine.
She wanted to run, but instead, she headed over.
“Hi,” she said quietly, with no reaction at all. In all honesty, she would have been surprised if she had gotten a reply out of the other girl.
Cindy waited the few required awkward seconds, then stammered, “Okay, bye!” and turned as quickly as tact allowed. She rushed to their Spanish classroom, sat down and turned in her seat, hunkering down to watch the doorway for as long as it took. Students walked into the classroom – Sally and George and Harry and Abe and a whole bunch of them, and then, last but not least, Michelle.
She floated inside like a ghost out of a really bad horror movie. A few conversations stopped, a few faces turned to her, but Cindy was surprised that the whole room didn’t straight-out quiet and stare.
Michelle walked over to her desk and got her cumbersome form to sit awkwardly, on the edge of her chair, her back ramrod straight and her eyes trained on the window. When Mrs. Larry walked in and started their Spanish lesson, Cindy vowed to find either Leeds or Parker later and learn what in the world was going on.
Neither Leeds nor Parker were anywhere to be found and Cindy was starting to put together a bigger picture.
She’d learned early on in life that there were few problems cookies couldn’t fix. They were sweet and delicious and melted on your tongue, sure, but they simultaneously provided the perfect excuse to be invited into someone’s home and put in a position where you could ask questions and get answers without looking too suspicious. So, right after school, Cindy convinced her Mom to part with her latest batch of cookies, and off she was.
Since she had no clue whatsoever where Michelle lived, and since she and Peter had kind of grown a little closer lately, she decided to seek out the Parker residence and hope that someone there would be willing to talk to her. She took an Uber, and then she walked for five minutes, and she would have managed it sooner if she hadn't gotten lost twice on the way.
She was about to knock on the flaking apartment door, but she hesitated.
There were steps and agitated voices inside. Cindy unconsciously leaned closer to the wood, trying to listen in on what was clearly a thriving argument. At least one man and one woman, maybe more. They were on the verge of screaming, but their words were incomprehensible through the door. Cindy had the nagging feeling that she was interrupting something important, but she had come too far to turn around. Plus, she’d always been more on the curious side. Giving up now would have been literal torture.
So, Cindy knocked, loud and long, and she didn’t stop until the unintelligible voices inside quieted abruptly. Listening to the silence now, she straightened and gripped her cookie basket with both hands. A picture of Little Red Riding Hood flashed before her mind's eye and she felt herself blush.
She waited for a long while.
Then there were hurried steps, misplaced after the previous silence, and the door flew open with a bang. Out stormed –
Out stormed Tony Stark in the flesh, but he never looked in her direction. Never acknowledged her. Had she been standing an inch to the left, he would have trampled right over her and she didn’t think he would have stopped to consider what he’d done. He whooshed past her, a wave of exhaustion and irritation and booze. She could barely catch a glimpse of his drawn face. He didn’t wait for the elevator. Instead, he dashed down the stairs and then there was nothing left of him at all except for a sad, sad buzz in the air and a really bad feeling in Cindy’s stomach.
She turned slowly back to the gaping door, biding her time. As if there was any amount of time that could fix the obvious wrongness of the situation. Her eyes landed on Mrs. Parker standing next to the crappy couch in the middle of the living room. Their gazes met and Mrs. Parker went for a smile that could never in a thousand years reach her cheeks, never mind her eyes.
“Hello, Mrs. Parker,” Cindy managed quietly. Because that was what you were supposed to say. Not because it felt right or anything.
“Hello,” the woman answered. Her voice was small and quiet and it shook. She ran a tired hand down her face before remembering that she was still standing in the middle of her living room, and that there was a guest at the door. She dragged her unwilling legs over and tried for a smile again. “You a friend of Peter’s?”
Close enough. “Yes,” Cindy confirmed and nodded much too heatedly. “I, uh … I brought cookies!” She extended her hands, offering the basket like a damn five-year-old.
But Mrs. Parker was a good woman with good manners. She would never make anyone feel unwelcome. She nodded solemnly and accepted the basket carefully, cradling it against her chest. “Thank you.”
The woman clearly wasn’t up for company and Cindy herself didn’t think she necessarily wanted to be invited into the apartment anymore. But before Mrs. Parker could close the door in her face, Cindy licked her lips, scratched her head and said without ever looking into the woman’s eyes, “I saw Michelle at school today and she looked a little … sad. I was hoping I could talk to Peter about it?”
She risked a glance up and regretted it a moment later. Mrs. Parker’s face had frozen, along with the rest of her body. She was pressing the basket to her chest with a white-knuckled hand. The other was resting on the door knob, inconspicuous, but by the way the woman wavered, Cindy thought that the grip was planned and vital and that a breeze could have undermined it and knocked the poor woman over.
It took Mrs. Parker a really long while to stammer, “Peter isn’t home right now. Maybe come by another time.”
And then the door closed in her face.
Cindy continued to monitor the situation. On Tuesday, Michelle didn’t come to school either, which didn’t surprise Cindy. The girl had looked devastated the day before. She could probably use a bit of rest.
Wednesday was interesting, though. Ned showed up. And he looked normal, kind of, except that he seemed as if he hadn’t slept in days. And he kept checking his phone. All throughout Spanish, and then in math and in gym. He was distracted. Well, more so than normal. After school, Cindy decided to corner him, and it was good, too, because someone else had apparently had a similar idea.
She found the plumper boy in the schoolyard, back pressed to a wall, Flash towering over him. Cindy’s brain had been on edge for the past few days and now it happily took the opportunity to snap. She stormed up to the little group and pressed herself in between Ned and Flash, staring the dark-haired boy down.
Flash shut up instantly.
“Go or MJ hears about this,” she said, smooth as hell. She was actually quite proud of that one. Flash had the nerve to roll his eyes, but he did turn and walk away. Cindy was happy to count it as a win.
She heard Ned exhale behind her and she slowly turned to him, shaking out her arms to get rid of the tension. Ned smiled. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” She let her eyes glide over him. Backpack slung over one shoulder. Blue tee and gray cardigan. Jeans. And his phone in his right hand. She decided to get right to the point. “So, what’s been going on?”
“What?!” Ned’s voice climbed an octave, like it always did when he panicked. “What do you mean?”
She sighed. “Come on, Peter and MJ weren’t at school today and you weren’t yesterday … I can tell something’s wrong.”
He pursed his lips to the point where they were a single white line. He was clearly struggling with himself. Cindy waited, and he seemed about to reach a decision when his phone pinged.
Cindy was absolutely not above using that to her advantage. She glanced over Ned’s shoulder. His screen was locked, but the beginning of the message still showed.
MJ: 103. But it’s okay. He’s …
“Hey!” Ned cried indignantly, but Cindy was having none of it. She would have ripped the phone out of Ned’s grip and checked the message herself if she thought she could possibly stand a chance of cracking the computer nerd’s password.
“What’s 103?” She asked instead. She looked up at Ned, trying to make herself seem trustworthy. For once, she couldn’t rely solely on her intellect, and it grated on her nerves.
“Nothing,” was his default answer, spoken in a weird falsetto, but even before the word was completely out of his mouth, he’d rolled his eyes and apparently resigned himself to his fate. “If I tell you, you can’t tell anyone.”
She lifted three fingers. “Scout’s honor.”
He frowned up at her, his hand landing on her elbow. He pulled her along, away from the school building. While they walked, he said, “Never had you pegged for a scout.”
She humored his weak attempt at a joke. “You don’t have to be a scout for the promise to be binding.”
His chuckle was too bright, but neither of them commented. Once they were out of earshot of any kids still hanging around school, Ned took a deep breath and let go of her arm. “It’s Peter.”
Cindy had been expecting as much, but having it confirmed was something else. Her heart thumped hard against her chest as she asked, “What about him? Is he okay?”
Ned shrugged and looked down. “Not exactly. Not yet. He … well, he was kidnapped. And then so was MJ. They’re a little shaken up.”
Cindy blinked. Needed a beat or two to force her tongue under her control again. “Understandable,” she said, even though she didn’t really understand. Not really.
“And Peter’s a little worse for wear. Out of the woods,” he was quick to reassure, eyes wide. “But a little … yeah. Worse for wear. MJ’s been keeping me updated.”
“Can I see him?” Cindy demanded. She didn’t know where that request had come from. She only knew that it was genuine.
“I … I can’t just bring you by Stark Tower,” he said, shaking his head. Stark Tower. Of course that’s where Parker would be. As always. “But knowing Peter, you’ll see him soon enough anyway. He’s already talking about going back to school, and he hasn’t even been home a whole day.”
“Sounds like him,” she agreed, nodding.
Ned’s eyes wandered off over her shoulder and before she could ask anything else, he spluttered, “Hey, I have to go. See you tomorrow, okay?”
He was already halfway to an annoyingly familiar town car before Cindy had the chance to turn around. “Tell him to get better,” she shouted after Ned, but the last three words were uttered under her breath because the boy had already pulled the car door closed and there was no way he’d heard any of it.
Michelle came back to school on Friday, wearing a turtleneck and her usual attire of nonchalance and quiet confidence. She’d recovered fast. Nobody noticed anything suspicious, and had Cindy not known better, she would have thought that she’d only imagined the past few days. Michelle walked next to Ned, owning the halls like she always did, and keeping her silence.
The both of them looked better than they had for all of past week.
Peter came back on Monday.
It was a big deal, but only to Cindy. No one else was any the wiser. Peter walked in through the door with his smile in place, his dimples showing, and he was good at it, too. Good at the pretending and the acting normal.
Cindy suddenly had the sobering impression that he’d been in similar situations before – situations where no one was any the wiser – and that this was simply the first time she was in the loop. She decided to keep a better eye on him in the future.
She greeted him giddily, barely refraining from hugging him, and Peter gave her one of his grins. One of those true ones, the ones that lit up his eyes like fireworks. A boulder dropped away from her heart. She hadn’t even realized how tense she’d been the past week. Not until now, when Peter was finally standing in front of her again, alive and well.
“Hey, Cindy,” he said.
That was all Cindy got to see of him for the rest of the day. No classes with him on Mondays. But she was surprised how happily her heart fluttered when she came to the cafeteria for lunch and Peter waved her over to sit next to MJ, Ned and him.
She was really surprised.
Lunch was a happy occasion. Peter and Ned joked, MJ chuckled under her breath, and it wasn’t hard to incorporate oneself into their dynamic, which Cindy happily did. She rolled eyes with MJ, then turned and nerded out with the boys the next second. It was easy.
That is, up until Flash decided to join in on the fun. He stalked up to their table and stopped short, hands on his hips, grin on his face.
“Nice to see you back, Penis,” he teased and Cindy rolled her eyes. How annoying could a single human being be?
“Thanks, Flash,” Peter muttered dryly. “Can you just leave us alone now?”
“No worries, bro,” Flash said, smiling. He picked up Peter’s knife from the table and Cindy noticed the shift immediately. Peter stiffened in his chair, and his face tightened. Flash twirled the knife between his fingers, watching the blade as it caught the light.
It all happened so fast.
Peter pushed his chair back with too much force, hoisted his backpack over his shoulder and left the cafeteria in a flash.
“Damn you, Eugene,” MJ muttered, picking up her backpack and storming after the boy. Ned was hot on her heels and Cindy didn’t waste any time either, throwing Flash a dirty glare before leaving the cafeteria.
She followed Ned down the hall and outside. When they got there, Peter was huddled on the ground next to a wall, hugging himself tight. It was cold outside, and he shivered, but Cindy didn’t think the two things were necessarily connected.
When they drew closer, he threw out an arm and said quietly, “Just stay back a little, please.”
Was there ever a time where Peter wasn’t the quintessential good guy?
He was down on the ground, back pressed to the wall, knees pressed to his chest, chin on his knees. Ned kneeled down on the ground in front of him, his hands hovering in the air and never touching skin. “You’re okay, Peter,” he said, slow and quiet.
Cindy couldn’t take her eyes off him. “Is he –”
MJ nodded, never looking at Cindy. “He’s having a panic attack. It’s okay. He knows how to handle them.” She kneeled down next to Ned in a show of support, then seemed to remember something. She dug though her pockets until she found her phone and held it out to Cindy. “Call Tony Stark,” she said, casual as hell.
Cindy frowned. “No,” she refused indignantly. “You do it.”
MJ’s expression didn’t change. She simply gestured to the boy on the ground. “A little busy.”
She wasn’t really busy. Ned was the one talking, and Peter was the one drawing deep breaths and trying to calm himself down. He’d buried his face in his folded arms, his nose resting against the crook of his elbow, and Cindy couldn’t help but feel bad for him. He seemed to be holding his own, though.
And MJ was still holding out her phone. She was a really weird person.
“What exactly are you busy with?” Cindy challenged.
“Helping,” was the curt and immediate answer. “As should you be.”
Cindy huffed, but she finally took the stupid phone and turned to make the call. Behind her back, MJ joined in on the quiet, muttered assurances, “I’m here, Pete, I’m okay. And Ned’s okay. And that knife? Just Flash being a jerk as always.”
Cindy tuned them out and sighed. Here goes nothing. The contact was already open and she only had to press the little green icon. She did. She hardly had time to bring the phone up to her ear before the line picked up.
“Talk to me.” And that, that was the unmistakable voice of Tony Stark. She gulped.
“Hi, I’m Cindy Moon, I’m –”
“I don’t care. Why are you calling?”
“Uh.” She pulled herself together. “Peter is having a panic attack.”
Stark didn’t miss a beat. “How bad is it?”
“I don’t –”
“Is he standing up or sitting down?”
“In the schoolyard.”
“Who’s with him?”
“Ned, MJ and I.”
“Good. Stay with him. How long’s he been at it?”
“About three minutes now.”
“What triggered it?”
“I’m not sure. A … a knife, I think.”
A pause. Tony Stark sighed. “Goddamnit. Fine. I’m on my way. Stay with him. All three of you.”
And the line went dead. Just like that. No thank you, no goodbye. Cindy sighed and walked back to the other three, returning the phone to MJ.
“He coming?” the girl asked, her eyes staying on Peter. Cindy nodded and MJ relaxed. “Good.”
Cindy crouched down next to Michelle and concentrated on Peter as well. His shaking had subsided a little. He was now over-focused on his breathing, and his face was still buried, but when he heard Cindy join them, he muttered, “I’m fine, you know. You didn’t have to call Mister Stark.”
Everyone ignored him. Ned continued his mantra of “You’re okay,” and “We’re at school,” and “We’re all okay.” MJ, on the other hand, dared a step beyond words. She lifted a hand and placed it slowly, gently, on Peter’s arm. He stiffened, but he didn’t shake it off and MJ let the touch linger.
“You better?” she asked and Peter nodded into his elbow, but he didn’t look up yet. His body was rigid and he wasn’t relaxing and MJ seemed to notice, too, because she took her hand away instantly. Peter exhaled, his muscles loosening up.
“’M sorry,” he muttered into his elbow.
“It’s fine, Pete,” MJ assured. “Whatever you need right now.” She looked a little hurt that her touch not only wasn’t helping but was, instead, making things worse. She would have to get used to it, though, Cindy thought.
Over the next ten minutes, Peter seemed to calm down a little. At some point, he even lifted his head and smiled shyly at them over his arms. MJ arched her brows. “Better?”
“Yeah, I think I’m okay now.” His voice was raspy, as if he’d been screaming. He took a deep breath and stretched out his legs on the ground in front of him. “It wasn’t a bad one.”
Not a bad one? Jeez, Cindy didn’t even want to imagine what that would have looked like.
“Sorry about that,” he said offhandedly, chuckling shyly. MJ rolled her eyes and Ned went to say something, but Cindy knew she had to take this one. She was the factor that had made the whole thing so embarrassing for Peter. He, Ned and MJ were really close, but he and Cindy didn’t know each other all that well yet and freaking out in front of someone you didn’t know was never fun.
“It’s all good, Peter,” she said, forcing her voice into submission. It didn’t quake or stall or break once, and she was pretty proud of that. “I have a cousin who has panic attacks and I’m used to it.”
She wasn’t, really. She’d never witnessed a panic attack before – just heard from her mother that poor Jeremy had almost drowned once in Uncle Sam’s swimming pool and had been having panic attacks ever since. But a little white lie had never hurt anyone.
“Thanks,” Peter said, nodding.
By the time the black town car rolled around, Peter had already slowly picked himself off the ground. He was still leaning against the wall, still pale and drained, but his mood was improving by the second.
The backdoor of the car opened when the vehicle was still in motion, and out spilled Tony Stark, billionaire, playboy, klutz. Seriously, he looked ridiculous in his pricey suit as he stumbled out of the car, flailing like a baby deer. But he only looked ridiculous for a second. He wouldn’t be Tony Stark if the scandal had lasted any longer than that. He righted himself, dusted off his impeccable jacket, then stalked forward determinedly, his pace verging on running.
Peter pushed himself off the wall and walked off as well.
“Hey, Pete, how you doing?” the man asked as soon as he was close enough. Cindy could see the worry, and the care, and there was more of it than she had ever known. Stark examined the boy’s face closely. Placed a hesitant hand on his shoulder. When Peter didn’t flinch away, he pulled him closer and into a hug. “You doing better already?”
Peter nodded into the man’s chest, closing his eyes. “Yeah, I’m okay now, Mister Stark. A little tired, but okay.”
The older man nodded. “Good. How about a movie and a cosy bed?”
Peter grinned. “That would be great.”
“Glad we’re on the same page.” The billionaire gently untangled himself from the teenager and focused on the rest of them. He nodded to Ned and MJ and thanked Cindy as she handed him Peter’s backpack. His eyes narrowed. “You’re the one that called, right?”
Cindy nodded shyly.
He bobbed his head. Placed a hand on Peter’s back and turned them around while slipping his left arm into the straps of the backpack. “Let me know if you ever need anything,” he called over his shoulder and Cindy had the feeling that he was still talking to her.
Peter turned around in Stark’s hold, grinning one of those earnest grins that lit up his eyes like fireworks. “Thanks, guys!” he said, still quiet and raspy, but with enough conviction to make up for all of that.
“Anytime,” Ned and MJ said at the same time. They turned towards each other and Ned laughed, crying “Jinx!” while MJ just rolled her eyes. Cindy didn’t pay them much attention. She watched the boy who was now ushered into the car by Tony Stark.
And then she watched Tony Stark himself.
He climbed into the vehicle after his intern, the backpack still slung over his left shoulder. It looked so out of place there, against the backdrop of the overpriced suit. It was funny, how the man with his (less than) stellar reputation didn’t care about embarrassing himself as long as Peter was involved. And what’s more, Cindy believed that he would have behaved the same even if paparazzi were around. He would have made an idiot out of himself even if the whole world was watching. For Peter.
What was even funnier, though, was that it didn’t seem forced. In fact, it seemed as if it was meant to be this way.
Cindy was happy for it. Peter really deserved it. He deserved it all.