The first thing Vance did after the battle was give Robbie an enormous hug.
Robbie hadn't thought about people hugging him when he'd designed the armor. He hadn't thought about being touched affectionately at all. After what he'd done, his own mother had given up on him, so why would anyone ever touch him with kindness and affection?
The Thunderbolts weren't exactly huggers, and neither were Osborn's Avengers. Besides, they all knew about the armor.
But right here, right now, Vance was hugging him. "I've missed you, Toothpick."
Robbie, spikes digging into his flesh, blood running down his skin, hugged Vance back. "I missed you too."
There was some awkward milling around afterward, double-checking to make sure the casualties were properly treated. Robbie wasn't really sure where to go next. Not back to Camp H.A.M.M.E.R., obviously, and it's not like he could go home to his parents.
(His dad...sometimes Robbie wondered if his dad had ever loved him, or had just been looking for an excuse to give up on him as soon as he realized Robbie wasn’t going to grow up to be a good little suburban lawyer. But his mom, she had loved him, up until he'd destroyed that along with everything else he'd destroyed in the Stamford explosion.)
"So, where are you going now?" Ultragirl asked.
"You need somewhere to stay?" Vance asked. "You can stay with me until we figure something out."
Vance just offered like it was nothing, like Robbie wasn't an unforgivably terrible person, like Robbie was still someone he could consider a friend.
“Niels too?” Robbie asked.
“You still have him?” Vance smiled. “Sure, bring him along.”
"He should see a doctor first," said Tigra. "I smell blood."
"It's fine," said Robbie. "It's not that bad."
"You sure?" Vance asked.
"Yeah." Robbie grinned, trying his best to sound casual. "I mean you've still got the well-stocked first aid kit, right? I'll clean up at your place."
"I swear, it's not a big deal. I just need a shower, some fresh clothes, and a good night's sleep."
And then he could figure out what to do.
It couldn't be that hard. He had no job, no money, a family who wanted nothing to do with him, a high school education, infamy as the most hated man in America, and about sixty-percent confidence that he shouldn't strap himself back into the Penance suit and just keep hurting himself until something finally killed him.
But, on the other hand, he had awesome bouncing cat.
Vance put an arm on Robbie's shoulder. Elvin gave him a friendly pat on the back.
Robbie should really get changed out of his Penance armor soon. Wearing it around people who were trying to be nice to him felt weird.
Robbie stepped out of the shower and checked the cuts. The big ones on his chest, where the longer spikes were, they were still oozing a little from when Vance had hugged him. The smaller ones were healing up well, and he wasn't going to drip blood on everything.
He looked at the Penance armor on the bathroom floor. It covered up a lot. And if he put it back on, Vance wouldn't see how many scabs Robbie actually had.
Robbie hadn't thought about people who cared about him seeing the cuts.
Robbie hadn't thought about the idea that there would still be people who cared about him.
He picked up the clothes Vance had provided him, a t-shirt and a pair of drawstring shorts. They fit better than he expected. He wasn't as much of the skinny kid as he used to be.
They showed all of the scars on his arms and legs.
He really hadn't thought about how this was going to look.
Robbie started bandaging the bigger cuts. Then he got dressed and stepped out of the bathroom.
It was even worse than Robbie had thought it would be.
Vance, Elvin, and Tigra were all still there. Vance and Elvin were making up the couch, and Tigra was playing with Niels.
"Hey, Toothpick," said Vance, glancing up at Robbie. Then he looked at Robbie again. "My God!"
Elvin dropped the bundle of bedding he'd been holding. "Who did this to you?"
"No one," said Robbie.
Vance stepped over and took Robbie's hand, then looked at his arm. "Were you tortured?” His voice was soft and concerned in a way that made Robbie want to run from the room.
Robbie jerked his hand back. "No! I...I don't want to talk about it." He sighed. "Look, I'm tired. I'll explain tomorrow."
Vance's jaw clenched the way it did when he was angry. "Okay," he said. "Are you hungry? Do you want something to eat?"
"I could go for a snack," said Robbie. "Don't worry, I'll fix it myself." He headed over to the kitchen.
Elvin followed him.
"You want a soda?" Robbie asked, checking the fridge. Vance didn't have any soda. "Or, um ice tea?"
"I want the name of the person did this to you," said Elvin. His voice was frighteningly calm.
Robbie gave the fridge another look. "Nope, not in here."
Elvin stepped closer. "Seriously. Whoever it is, just give me their name. Someone needs to make sure they don’t do this to someone else. And that they never touch you again.”
Robbie considered blurting out, “Robbie Baldwin”, just to see how Elvin would react. Instead, he shook his head. "It's not what you think. Look, I'll explain the whole thing to Vance in the morning. I just...not tonight."
Elvin looked at Robbie. "Okay. But I am going to find out who did this, and I am going to make them pay."
Robbie fought back the urge to laugh.
Morning was...confusing. It took Robbie a moment to orient himself. Then Niels walked across his face.
Vance was already in the kitchen making breakfast. "Do you drink coffee?" he asked, when Robbie got up.
Robbie shook his head.
Vance was making pancakes. "Well, I've got milk and juice. There's butter on the counter, and syrup in the cupboard. Help yourself."
Robbie grabbed the pancakes and started eating.
He'd eaten about half the plate before a name and a face popped into his head.
Alyssa Cheng, nine years old. Killed in the Stamford Incident.
According to the eulogy that her mom gave, pancakes had been her favorite food. She’d make them together with her dad, wearing a little apron, and share them with the whole family.
She would, thanks to Robbie, never eat pancakes again.
He set his fork down.
"Everything okay?" Vance asked.
"Yeah," said Robbie. "Guess my eyes were bigger than my stomach."
Vance gave him a long look.
Robbie swallowed hard. He toyed with the pancakes a little more, but he couldn't manage another bite.
Just tell him, Robbie told himself. Just tell him where the scars came from. You can't let him blame someone else, that's not fair. You've gone this far, you told him who you were, you let him see, just tell him you did it to yourself. Just say Vance -
"Robbie, can we talk?
Robbie looked up. "Yes?"
Vance sat down. He coughed, looked down, and ran his hands through his hair. "I...I saw your Penance costume. The inside."
Shit. "Yeah?" Robbie asked.
Vance looked up at Robbie. "Osborn made you wear that?"
Robbie got a sick feeling in his stomach. Suck it up. At this point it's too late to lie. Just tell the whole truth. "Osborn didn't make me wear it. He...I...my powers, they went weird, after the Incident. I couldn't use my regular powers. Not...for a while, anyway. But there was this other energy that happened when I was...in pain. It meant I could still fight to help people." Okay, maybe that wasn't the whole truth, but it was about as much as Robbie could manage at once.
"You agreed to wear this so you could have powers?"
"I...I did it so I could do something, be of some use. So I could help make up for what I did." And because it was that or suicide. "And it wasn't Osborn's idea. It was mine."
Vance looked sick. "This was your idea? You did this to yourself?"
Robbie nodded. “I designed the suit. I paid a guy to make it. It was all my idea.”
Vance shook his head. "I thought...I thought that, when you signed, you’d be used as a figurehead, a symbol or something. And then, when you disappeared, I didn't know…everything was so chaotic…I should have looked for you. If I had any idea of what you were going through..."
"Don't," said Robbie, his voice breaking. He swallowed down the sudden urge to cry. "Don't...blame yourself. It makes sense that no one would look for me. After what I did..."
"What you did? Robbie, you tried to save people from a terrorist! You failed, but that doesn't make you a monster!"
"You don't understand," said Robbie. Richie had been the same way. Why couldn't they understand?
Vance stared for a moment. "We're taking you to a doctor."
"I don't need - "
"I saw the spikes. You need a doctor.”
They ended up going to the Night Nurse.
She left Vance in the waiting room.
"Torture?" she asked, when Robbie took his shirt off. She asked casually, the same way the doctor had gone, “Skateboarding accident?”, when Robbie was thirteen and broke his arm.
"Um." Robbie looked down. "Self-inflicted."
She gave an impassive nod. "I don't do mental health." She removed the bandages Robbie had applied. "It doesn't look infected, but I'm recommending a blood test and precautionary antibiotics." She paused. "What caused the cuts?"
"So, that's a tetanus shot."
There was something reassuring about how matter-of-fact she was. Vance being freaked out was more than enough for Robbie to deal with.
She gave him a tetanus shot, then applied fresh bandages, and handed him a bottle of pills and some disinfectant cream.
She looked at him when she gave him the pills. "Like I said, I don't do mental health. But you should really find someone who does."
That wasn't actually a bad idea. Except for the bit where Robbie had no job, no money, and no no insurance. And his last therapist was missing after allegedly trying to kill the President.
All he had to do was find a therapist who would treat the most hated man in America, for free.