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Rise of the Black Dahlia

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Quentin Beck woke as September came to New York City. Woke for real, that is. Over the past few weeks he had briefly regained consciousness a handful of times, confused and incoherent, magic spilling into reality around him as he escaped for a few precious seconds from whatever dreams he had been trapped in. 

His stay in Wakanda had ended after a week, when his body was healed and the random outbursts of panic and power stopped, replaced by an odd stillness only betrayed by various monitors to not be death.

A combination of favors owed to Strange and Stark Industries money got the man a private room at Metro-General where he lay unresponsive as August faded and September came into view.

School started up again for Peter, Ned, and MJ. The first few days were odd, filled with people awkwardly asking Peter for selfies or for autographs, but that died down within a week leaving him back in the spot of vaguely awkward guy on the outskirts of most social groups. 

The team took turns visiting Beck during his stay in the hospital. MJ took Mondays, often reading aloud from whatever book had caught her attention at the time. Ned visited more infrequently, sometimes with MJ or with Peter or with Kate or with Matt, rarely on his own.

Matt was doing better as well. After a week in Wakanda he could barely tell where the rubble had broken his bones, and the pain was nearly gone. He and Kate would patrol together often now, stopping by the hospital before they went out to stop bad guys.

Peter’s visiting schedule was the most erratic, but also the most frequent. He would often go directly over to the hospital after school, bringing his homework to do while he sat by Beck’s bedside, keeping up a one sided dialogue about school or his friends or his work as Spider-Man, all while trying to ignore the elephant in the room that Beck hadn’t moved a muscle since the last time he had briefly awoken in Wakanda.

That had been... a mildly terrifying experience. It had been a quiet morning in the medical bay in Shuri’s lab. The doctors had managed to get Beck’s fever down to a manageable level, and although it stubbornly refused to dip below one hundred, it was still preferable to the one-oh-four he had been running when Strange had dug him out of the wreckage.

A rise in his core temperature always signaled that one of his episodes was incoming, though. Peter watched as the readout rose from a steady one hundred to one-oh-one, one-oh-two... he frantically pressed the call button, hoping someone was nearby who would be able to help.

It was scary to see Beck like this, shuddering like he was being electrocuted as magic leaked from every pore and he screamed in fear about a portal, something coming through. At the beginning, Strange had tried to figure out what was wrong with him, using every spell he had available to him.

In the end, the answer had been, “he’s having bad dreams?” with a vague shrug and a suggestion to Shuri to increase the dampening on his wristbands to further stifle the flow of magic into his system.

The Mk IV armor seemed to do the trick. Since Shuri had updated the wristbands to track the spikes in core temperature that heralded another attack, Beck hadn’t had another episode.

 This was three weeks ago. Beck was cleared to be moved back to the States soon after, where he had lain perfectly motionless in a hospital bed for weeks. 

Which brings us to now. Peter had dragged a chair over to the side of the bed and spread his AP Physics work out over the area not taken up by Beck, chattering on as he worked.

“So MJ and I finally went on a real date. I know, wild, right? And no crazy people came out of the woodworks, I didn’t have to be Spider-Man, it was just Peter Parker and Michelle Jones, enjoying a coffee and each other’s company. All your coworkers say hi, by the way, apparently business has suffered since Mysterio stopped manning the register. I think Allie was planning on stopping by with a card sometime soon.” 

Peter glanced over at Beck’s still face, sighing slightly. Time was really starting to make itself be felt on the man. His hair and beard had grown from his normal neatly trimmed fashion to something fast approaching a mess. Not wanting to think about it, he punched numbers into his calculator a little harder than necessary.

“Everyone misses you, man. Even the criminals are starting to ask where Mysterio went when I web them up. I think there’s a certain amount of prestige associated with getting taken down by a wizard from another dimension.” Peter knew that if Beck were awake, that would have gotten a rise out of him. The guy hated being called a wizard.

But this time there was no response. “Alright. That’s what I’ve been up to. How about I talk about physics now? It’s all calculus. I was expecting it to be a lot more difficult than it actually is but it’s all just moving numbers around and adding some new symbols...” Peter continued talking, working out problems aloud and occasionally looking over to see if there was any change in Beck’s condition.

And then there was. As Peter finished talking over a particularly difficult air resistance problem that ended with “-and that answer makes no sense so I’ll ask MJ tomorrow, what do you think,” he realized that one of Beck’s eyes had slid open and a small smile had made its way onto his face.

Peter spring into action. “Mister Beck? Beck? Quentin? Can you hear me? Are you back?” He carefully stood, moving closer to the head of the bed, gratified to see that Beck’s eyes followed him as he moved.

“Hey, kid.” Beck’s voice was hoarse and strained, barely audible over the beeping of the machines monitoring his condition. “How long was I out?”

Peter blinked hard, giving Beck his best sad look. “It’s been ten years... the earth has been taken over by zombies. They only passed you by because you didn’t have much of a brain.”

Even clearly exhausted and weak, Beck managed to roll his eyes at that, carefully reaching a hand up to run through his hair and beard. “Unless someone has been playing hairdresser I’d put it closer to a month.”

“Three weeks.”

Beck nodded, allowing his eyes to close as he leaned back in the bed. “Did you get the assholes?”

 “No.” Peter shook his head, gathering his things from the end of the bed so that Beck wouldn’t have to worry about accidentally knocking them off. “We’ve all been looking, but after the warehouse they dropped off the map. Pepper got in contact with some old SHIELD contacts of hers and she’s fairly sure that the Crew is working with Hydra. And EDITH finally got a hit on facial recognition on the “Benefactor” guy. Apparently he used to be an analyst for SHIELD, that’s how he found out about the Tesseract batteries. Name is Michael Klein. Hey, whoah, don’t get up.” Peter quickly shoved his pile of things into his backpack, helping Beck into a sitting position at the head of the bed. “You were in pretty bad shape when Strange got you out.”

Beck nodded, almost absentmindedly, gently running his fingers over the new watch that housed his armor. “Shuri did good work.”

Peter nodded. “The old armor was damaged almost beyond repair. The channeling system got burnt out by the magic you were using in the warehouse, and the next version wasn’t able to contain your episodes-”

“Episodes?” Beck looked up from gently prodding the IV line in his forearm, concerned. “What do you mean, episodes?”

“I don’t know if you have a better word for it or something, but every once in a while, your temperature would spike and you’d wake up a bit, incoherent, casting wild magic…” Peter trailed off as Beck shook his head in alarm. “Ok, I guess that’s not a thing that just happens, then. While you were unconscious, every once in a while you’d start unconsciously drawing on your magic more than usual and wake up, screaming about portals and people coming through. Strange tried to figure out what was going on but couldn’t, so the best solution we all came up with was a new set of wristbands that could interface with the hospital systems and preemptively increase their dampening to keep you from being able to cast. Seemed to work, you didn’t wake up again until now after that version went through.”

Beck realized with a start that he hadn’t noticed until now just how much magic was running through his system even unconsciously. He could feel that his floodgates were damaged, that even trying to consciously stem the tide wouldn’t shut off the flow all the way. It would take time to rebuild them, to get his control back to where it should be, but he was confident that it could be done, in time.

Instead of trying to turn off the flow, he decided to test the wristbands capabilities. Peter watched as he carefully reached out one slightly shaky hand, drawing power from the world until golden light sparkled at his fingertips. It still felt off in a way that Beck couldn’t quite quantify, but the magic came all the same.

Satisfied with what he saw, Beck redoubled his efforts to get out of the bed, even as Peter frantically tried to hold him back. “Beck, really, you’ve been laying in bed for three weeks, let me get a doctor or something and have them help, aw geez, man.” Peter looked down in vague disapproval and amusement as Beck tried to get out of the bed and immediately collapsed to the ground, leaning up against the bed in irritation. “You done? Can I go get someone now?”

Beck sighed heavily, but stuck his hands out for Peter to pull him to his feet. “Do what you gotta do.”

-

Two days of tests, both medical performed by the hospital staff and magical performed by Strange himself, Beck walked through the door of the Sanctum to his welcome home party. It was surprisingly well attended, with even the part-time Protectors Clint, Scott, and Hope having been portalled in by Strange for the occasion.

Peter was worried, though. Beck seemed quieter, more contemplative than he had ever been in the time that they had known each other. He had done what seemed like the bare minimum to greet the attendees of the party, thanking them for coming and carrying on small talk about what he had missed, but had then found a chair on the periphery of the event and sat, simply watching the interactions between the other attendees.

And Peter would bet that no one other than maybe Strange would notice how frequently Beck would call on magic to steady himself, gold flickering in his blue eyes more often than Peter had ever noticed it. He finished his conversation with Scott, catching up and telling him to say hello to Cassie for him before walking over to Beck, pulling a chair with him.

Beck didn’t look at him, watching the rest of the party instead. “What are you doing over here? Don’t you have a party to attend?”

“Don’t you have a party to be the guest of honor at?”

That did manage to get a small smile out of Beck, who finally turned to look at Peter. “It’s a lovely party, Peter, but it’s a little much. I know it’s only been three weeks, but it feels like I’ve woken up in yet another alternate world. People are expecting-”

“No one is expecting anything out of you but you getting better, Beck.” Peter held Beck’s gaze with such sincerity that Beck almost found himself believing him. “And if people ask for more, you wait until you’re feeling better and then see what you want to do.”

“You got hurt because I wasn’t on patrol with you.” Beck looked away, wringing his hands. “I can’t trust my own magic not to hurt me, or more importantly, someone else. And if I’m not a hero, not a Sorcerer, I’m not sure what I am.”

“That’s not… That’s not what I meant.” Peter placed one hand on Beck’s clasped ones, willing him to look at him. “You are so much more than a Sorcerer. You’re our friend. You’re the most popular cashier at Cup-tain Americano. You’re an excellent knitter. You’re Quentin Beck, and only you can decide what that means. If someone tells you otherwise, they’re wrong.”

Beck raised an eyebrow at Peter, saying nothing for a long moment. “Excellent knitter might be overstating things, kid.”

That managed to startle a chuckle out of Peter. “All I mean is take it slow. We stopped going to the Met while you were out, but maybe now that you’re back we could start up again? I know you were looking forward to seeing the classical Greek and Roman section. Ooh! And we could go to that ice cream place we all like-” Beck allowed Peter to rapidly discuss all the options for hanging out without being superheroes, only paying the bare minimum of attention as he pulled a small spark of magic out of the air, playing it between his fingers like a coin.

“That all sounds great.” Somehow, he didn’t sound particularly enthusiastic at the prospect of a day in the museum. “I just want to get back out there, you know? Do my job.”

Peter patted Beck on the back. “I’m sure Kate will be happy to hear that. She took over your shift at the coffee shop but she doesn’t have much patience for customers.” With that, he wandered back over to where the party was in full swing, leaving Beck alone on the periphery.

Beck closed his fist, squashing the pinprick of light he had summoned. His barriers to magic were almost rebuilt, but still felt fragile. Honestly, he as a whole felt fragile, like the lightest touch could cause him to fracture into a thousand pieces in a manner that wouldn’t allow him to put himself back together again. Things may seem ok now, but he had spent too much time as a soldier to not be waiting for the other shoe to drop. The people who had dropped the warehouse on them, who were building high powered weapons, who had been behind the other Beck’s plan and who had nearly killed Peter years ago, they were all still out there.

And Beck didn’t think that they would wait too much longer to show themselves.

-

The other shoe dropped at three in the morning. The party had long since wound down, most guests leaving before Peter, Ned, and MJ had decided to settle in for a sleepover to celebrate Beck’s first night out of the hospital.

What this meant was that they were all together when the call came in from Shuri.

Shuri was frantic, speaking rapidly enough that even Peter, sleep-addled as he was at three in the morning, could barely keep up. It took three repetitions of the story before all four of them managed to understand the gist of what she was saying.

“They got everything. Everything! My notes, my designs for all your suits, the specs on Beck’s wristbands… And more importantly, they got Project Dahlia.” Shuri ran her hands over her face, the bluish light of her computer screen illuminating just how exhausted she looked. “And then they wiped the server behind them, so I don’t even have my notes to begin making patches to your suits to make sure no one else can hack into them.”

Peter voiced what everyone was wondering. “What’s Project Dahlia?” He and MJ shared a quick glance before looking back at the screen. It seemed an unusual name for a project if it wasn’t a reference to MJ’s favorite flower.

“Pepper sent me a lot of Stark’s old in-progress notes of projects he abandoned or put on hiatus, she thought I might be able to use something out of them, maybe finish a project that he never did. What caught my eye was his original notes for the nanite armor he ended up making.” Shuri plugged something in to her computer, the screen switching from an image of her to a series of project designations. “One idea he abandoned pretty early on was having the nanites actually be housed in the body, and use natural bioelectricity to run. He abandoned it in favor of an external housing due to energy draw concerns, but I thought it was an interesting project.”

She sighed again, paging through more of Stark’s notes. “I decided to approach it from a different angle. Instead of battle armor, I wanted to see if something could be made to enhance the body’s natural abilities, using the nanites to create another Captain America, rather than another Iron Man. And it worked in simulations. Without the need for the quantity of nanites and power draw to make a full suit of armor, and the addition of an external inductive charger housed in a necklace, it worked perfectly. So I started trying to manufacture it as a gift for MJ, meant as a short-term enhancement in case you got attacked or something. It wouldn’t be powerful enough for you to be a full-blown hero, but you could certainly hold your own.”

“But the prototype got destroyed when you came here for your birthday,” Shuri continued, switching the screen back to an image of her, “And then I was so busy designing Beck’s new suit that I forgot about it.”

“Until now?” MJ crossed her arms over her chest, trying not to show how worried she was. Obviously the fact that this project was missing was a problem, but she didn’t forget that someone had access to the specs for Beck’s and Peter’s suits.

“Until now,” Shuri confirmed. “On the bright side, I don’t think it will do them much good. All of the data they stole is hard coded for your DNA. Even if they managed to manufacture it the only one who could use the nanites would be you.”

“And you don’t think they could reverse engineer it?” Peter was already thinking in his head how someone could go about trying to reverse engineer a project keyed to a certain person, and realized it couldn’t be that hard if the person was smart and had time.

Shuri shook her head, though. “Not easily. The DNA is hard coded in, and there are sections of code that have it hidden in it to anyone who doesn’t know exactly what they’re looking for. Maybe in twenty years they might be able to do something about it, but without Stark’s original notes, which I always kept on a separate drive and weren’t stolen, and without MJ, the project won’t work for them.”

That was reasonably reassuring. Or at least, it was reassuring enough for three in the morning. Beck yawned, exhaustion still filling the core of his being. “Is there anything that we can do about this right now, Shuri, or was this simply a friendly warning?”

That gave Shuri a moment of pause. “Nothing right now. I’m still trying to track the invasion, but whoever got into my drives really wiped their tracks. I’ll send you a list of projects that got stolen, let me know if you see anything like that, I guess?”

And with that, the conversation was over, and the team went back to sleep.

-

Peter had only slept in the Sanctum once since he had met Beck, and that instance had been more of an accident than on purpose. May had been out of town in Washington, DC, helping lobby for better funding to help the displaced unSnapped. Ordinarily, he would have simply stayed home alone, but he had gotten hit by a stronger-than-average tranquilizer dart from a lucky criminal, and Beck had panicked and brought him back to the Sanctum rather than letting him sleep it off back at the Parker apartment.

MJ and Ned, therefore, had never slept there before.

What all of this is leading up to is the utter oddity of shuffling into the small kitchen hidden between rooms dedicated to the mystic arts and seeing Stephen Strange in pajamas and bedhead absentmindedly eating cornflakes while reading the morning paper. The Sorcerer Supreme gave a slight nod to the three teenagers before going back to reading.

Ned was practically vibrating with excitement and wished he hadn’t left his phone back with the sleeping bags in the other rooms. MJ fared the most normally of the three, giving Strange a nod as she pulled the box of Lucky Charms (clearly labeled “Property of Quentin Beck. Do not eat.”) and pouring herself a bowl, not waiting to see if the others followed her lead.

Peter looked around, noticing that Beck’s favorite mug was still on its hook on the mug tree near the sink. That was out of character. The man was an early riser if there ever was, and for him to not be awake at ten in the morning, even on a Saturday, was very odd. “Where’s Beck?”

Strange shrugged, turning the page of his paper. “He hasn’t left his room yet this morning.” A quick, one handed spell later, “He is awake, if you would like to remind him to join the land of the living.”

The three teenagers exchanged a look. Peter knew that the extent of Strange and Beck’s relationship was a mix of grudging respect and an understanding of their wildly different Sorcerous philosophies, but Strange seemed oddly nonchalant about Beck’s out of character behavior.

“Was he up, or did you wake him up?” Peter asked, pouring some coffee into Beck’s mug to bring up with him.

Strange didn’t answer, barely glancing up before returning to reading his paper. Fair enough. Peter was tired of his cryptic answers anyway.

-

Peter knocked on the door to Beck’s room out of politeness. The room was originally a storage room on the second floor of the Sanctum, barely big enough for a twin bed, a wardrobe, and a desk. When Beck didn’t answer, Peter carefully opened the door, peaking his head in. “Beck, you ok?”

Still no answer. Peter carefully entered the rest of the way into the room, taking note of the garlands of paper cranes that had been hung around the window, the yarn spilling out of a bag left next to the wardrobe, and Beck himself, sitting crosslegged on the bed, still in a plain t-shirt and sleeping pants, staring straight ahead at the wall in front of him.

In the light of day, Peter could tell how unwell he looked. Beck still hadn’t gotten a haircut or shaved since he had woken up from the coma, and while intellectually Peter knew that hair didn’t grow that fast, the slight increase in length coupled with Beck’s apparent lack of grooming made him look disheveled and several years older than he actually was. That, plus the pallor of his skin contrasting sharply with the dark circles under his eyes and the blank expression on his face meant that Peter was genuinely worried about him.

Peter carefully placed one hand on Beck’s shoulder. “Hey, Beck, you ok? You’re scaring me.”

Beck looked up at him, the thousand-yard stare still in full effect before he blinked owlishly and shook his head slightly as if to dislodge whatever thoughts he had been having. “Oh. Hey Peter. Is everything alright?”

Peter narrowed his eyes, noting the generally unsquished condition of Beck’s pillows and the careful way the covers had been peeled back. “Did you sleep at all last night?”

“On my world, Sorcerers are trained to go days without-”

“Did you sleep last night?” Peter’s tone hardened as he looked around the room again, noting with growing unease that Beck’s wristbands had been taken off and placed carefully on the windowsill next to his sling ring. Even before the Wakanda incident and his growing lack of control over magic in this world, Peter had never seen Beck take off the wristbands, and while last night’s news from Shuri had been worrying, now didn’t seem the time to trust one’s already shaky control over their powers.

Beck carefully stood up, slipping his feet into a pair of slippers at the end of the bed before shaking his head. “No. I didn’t. I spent the night meditating, trying to get a better hold on your world’s magic without the wristbands to aid me.”

Your world. Also worrying. Beck usually referred to Peter’s dimension as ‘this’ world, never ‘your.’ Saying ‘your’ somehow implied a level of distaste that was odd to hear from Beck.

“Did it help?” Peter watched as Beck slowly made his way to the wardrobe, pulling out comfortable, casual clothing for the day.

Beck shrugged, picking up the wristbands from the windowsill and putting them back on with an air of resignation. “Not particularly. Were you still planning on going to the Met today?”

“We were planning on it, yeah, but if you’re not feeling up to it-”

“I’m fine.” Beck cut Peter off with a quick hand motion before digging through a wardrobe drawer to find a clean pair of socks. “Give me an hour to get ready, yeah? And then we can head over.”

Without waiting for a response, he pushed his way past Peter towards the bathroom across the hall. Peter stood alone in Beck’s room for a moment, waiting until he heard the shower turn on, then shook his head slightly. He placed the mug of coffee on the windowsill before heading back downstairs. Something was definitely up with Beck, but he wasn’t going to push the man. He’d talk when he was ready.

-

As the time was beginning to approach the hour time limit that Beck had set, he finally made his way downstairs to the open foyer where Peter, MJ, and Ned were waiting for him.

Peter noted the differences. He had trimmed his beard, and although his hair was still damp from the shower, it did seem like Beck had put some effort into neatly combing it back. His skin was still paler than it should be, dark circles under the eyes making his blue eyes stand out more than usual. But he held himself like he always had, no longer crumpling in on himself like he had the night before, and life had returned to his eyes that had held a thousand-yard stare that morning.

And if Peter noticed that it took Beck a little longer than usual to open the portal to their normal semi-secluded spot in Central Park behind the museum, he certainly wasn’t going to say anything. After Beck’s words the night before, he was just glad that the man was willing to use magic at all.

The four walked in silence for the first few minutes on their way to the line out the front of the museum before Ned finally spoke up. “Did Peter tell you that this is gonna be the last Saturday we’ll be able to do this for a bit?”

Beck looked over at Peter, raising an eyebrow. “He certainly didn’t. Anything you want to tell me, kid?”

“It’s no big deal,” Peter shot a look over at Ned before continuing. He didn’t want to bring this up to Beck until later, “Academic Decathlon starts up this week and we have our first competition next weekend. And with practices after school we just might have to cut down these trips to once every few weeks.”

“Huh.” Beck didn’t speak until they found their place at the end of the line before chuckling slightly. “I get it. I didn’t know your world had Academic Decathlon too.”

“Too?” MJ was the one who picked up on the subtext there. “Don’t tell me, you were a decathlete?”

“Guilty as charged.” Beck placed a hand over his heart, grinning and eyes creasing in amusement. “And I was good, too. My team made it all the way to New York City for a competition. Got snowed in for a week afterwards, Fire activity in Maine really messed up the weather patterns for a bit there.” He shrugged, merriment slowly fading from his eyes for a moment. “If I hadn’t become a Sorcerer I wanted to be an engineer, make the suits and help the Sorcerers. But!” He forced a bright smile back on his face, “Things happen for a reason. And you all have the chance to do good and reach your potential.”

Ok, that was kind of a weird conversation, but Peter wasn’t going to comment on it. He still knew so little about Beck that any tidbit of information was fascinating, but he wished that he didn’t have to learn things about his friend when he was struck by melancholy.

The line continued to progress steadily forward, the three teenagers discussing their upcoming classes for the week while Beck absentmindedly fiddled with his wristbands. While the night’s meditation hadn’t gotten him to the point that he was comfortable trying to wield magic without them, he had managed to repair his mental defenses to the point of being comfortable wielding magic at all, which really was a good step in the right direction if you think about it.

Beck didn’t want to think about it. He wanted to fill his mind with lighthearted fun with Peter and his friends. He wanted to continue marveling at the incredible art held within the collection at the Met. He wanted life to go back to normal, patrolling at night and working a part time job during the day.

But really, when had the universe ever really cared about what superheroes wanted?

Chapter Text

The hall of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a beautiful space. It was bright and airy, a skylight on the second story casting the bright mid-day sun across statues, mosaics, and the like with thousands of years of history behind them. The three teenagers strode into the gallery ahead of Beck, who had opened the audio guide app on his phone and was pulling up the introductory file to the exhibit.

Peter was taking a photo of MJ pulling a face next to a marble bust of a man done in what the placard described as the “realistic” style, every wrinkle and line on his face visible and even exaggerated. In hindsight, as he was distracted with getting the perfect angle of his girlfriend and Beck was engrossed in in the audio description of the life-sized statue of the Graces, they could be forgiven for missing the early signs that something was going horribly wrong.

It wasn’t until the massive skylight overhead shattered, sending glass in every direction and people scattering similarly for cover that everything came to a head. Two dozen drones swooped in from the hole in the ceiling, immediately beginning to fire.

Beck and Peter leapt into action. Beck caught Peter giving him an eyeroll as the pair activated their respective armor, his voice coming over the comms with an irritated, “Who attacks a museum? I mean, really, what kind of cultureless-”

Peter’s insult was cut short as he sent out a webline to the nearest drone, using it to catapult himself up and knock the drone towards an empty stretch of the wall, trying to catch all of the pieces as it shattered. Beck for one was glad that he had had the combat spells drilled into him so many times during his training that he didn’t need to think, just act, as he slowly began to rise above the ground, charging up the mandalas that ringed his arms and hands to begin blasting the drones out of the air.

This was too easy, Peter thought to himself. There was chaos, sure, but he had taken out a dozen drones on his own on the bridge in London and barely broke a sweat. Here with Beck, who Peter appreciatively noticed had taken out three drones on his own, movements smooth and practiced, taking out a dozen drones with no civilian casualties should be easy as pie.

Obviously that was what he needed to think to jinx the whole thing. He pushed off the wall he had been clinging to, tapping the contact in the middle of his palm to send out a webline to the nearest drone.

No webbing came. In his surprise, Peter didn’t twist away from the incoming hail of bullets in time, getting caught in the chest like a handful of superpowered punches that knocked him, wheezing, back into the wall. Luckily the integrity of the suit held, but the force of the blows really threw him for a loop.

What the fuck? Peter tapped his webshooter again, growing frustrated as no webbing came out.

Then it got worse. His suit collapsed in on itself, peeling itself off his body and back into its holders. No amount of percussive maintenance would get the suit to come back out, and as Peter looked up at Beck, who was hovering around the level of the second floor, realizing the same thing was going to happen to him the second before it did.

Peter sprang forwards, landing on the drone he had originally aimed for and began physically pulling it apart as he realized in horror what was happening to Beck. The armor collapsed on itself, leaving the man floating in midair in his civilian clothing. Beck met Peter’s eyes in growing horror as the gold drained from his irises and was replaced by his normal bright blue before he plummeted.

Instinctually, Peter went to throw out a webline, realizing too late that they still weren’t working as Beck hit the ground with a thud. Even without his magic, he was a little more durable than an ordinary human Peter realized with some relief as Beck shifted his position slightly, slowly getting to his feet as he wiped blood off his face with his shirtsleeve.

As if everything wasn’t already bad enough, Peter heard a scream from behind him. It was terrified and familiar and he had heard it before, desperately trying to escape the illusion sequence concocted by Quentin Beck Prime in Berlin. This time, though, he realized as he whirled around to see Ned, unconscious on the floor with a dart of some sort sticking out of his neck and MJ entangled in some sort of netting as she was being lifted off the floor by two larger drones that Peter didn’t see until now (maybe they were cloaked?), this was terrifyingly, horrifyingly real.

Peter desperately tried to leap at one of the drones that was kidnapping MJ, but was intercepted midair by another cloaked drone, which flew directly into him and knocked him into the large fountain in the center of the room. He desperately tried his webshooters again, then closed his eyes, trying to use his extra senses to get a better idea of what was going on in the room.

No dice. There was too much chaos, too many civilians moving around in the room. It wasn’t like the bridge, where it had been just him and the enemy, he couldn’t go around indiscriminately punching school tours and tourists taking in the splendor of classical art.

He sprung into action, trying to climb up the wall to get close enough to the drone to jump at it again, but the pair holding a struggling, terrified MJ were faster than he was, even laden down as they were.

She was gone, Peter realized in horror.

The drones were all gone, now. There were scattered pieces all over the room, but any drone still flying joined the mass exodus out the skylight. The whole attack had taken place in no more than three, maybe four minutes from the moment the glass broke to the moment the drones left.

Peter landed on the ground next to Ned, checking his best friend’s neck for a pulse, then sighing in relief as he found one, still going strong. He carefully tapped the activation button for his suit, sighing again as it slowly unfurled itself around him. He deactivated it as soon as he tested the webshooters (all good, it seemed), calling over his shoulder to where he had last seen Beck.

“Hey, Beck, you good? What the hell happened there?”

No response. Peter finally fully turned as the museum guards finally made their appearance, guns out as they fanned out through the exhibit, checking for any more threats.

Beck was gone. There was a smear of blood on the ground from where he had impacted, and a handful more droplets scattered in the general area of where he had staggered to his feet, some partially smeared by uneven boot prints that appeared to make it a handful of steps towards a bench before vanishing.

What the fuck? Peter thought again, this time even more vehemently. “Beck? Beck? Quentin?” No response. Where the hell was he? Peter all but ran to the blood stains, desperately trying to tell if there were any illusions up that would hide the man, but the blood was definitely real. And so was the sling ring, dropped and knocked underneath the bench. He carefully picked it up, rolling it between his fingers.

Ok, so Beck hadn’t portaled out. He wasn’t here. Which meant… Peter’s thoughts trailed off as he slowly looked skywards towards the broken skylight, realizing that while he had been so focused on trying to save MJ, whoever had decided to take her must have also taken Beck. Without his magic, he would have been as easy a target as any other unenhanced human. The drones wouldn’t have had too much difficultly subduing him.

Peter sank down onto the bench, his head in his hands. He’d lost them both. What the hell was he going to do next?

-

Over the next few hours, more details on the attack came out through interviews conducted by the police and museum staff and leaked to the press. Miraculously, no civilians had been killed during the attack, and only a handful had been injured, mostly by debris rather than direct fire from the drones.

In fact, Peter found out, it seemed almost like the drones had been programmed to fire live ammunition at him and Beck only as he watched the security footage, with sleeper darts or blanks having been fired into the crowd at large.

What the footage didn’t show, however, was where the hell Beck had gone. One minute he was staggering to his feet, giving Peter a nod, and then a drone had flown in front of the only camera that he was visible from, and he was gone and left nothing more than a few droplets and smears of blood on the ground.

Peter ran a hand through his hair, trying to figure out what to do next. The logical thing would be to call in backup, to get in contact with Matt and Kate and Clint and Scott and Hope, but what was he supposed to say? Hey, I lost MJ and Beck, please help me find them?

Maybe he should put up posters, like the ones for lost dogs on street corners, that might help.

By the time that he and Ned were cleared and picked up by Happy to head back to the apartment, it was starting to grow late. Ned seemed groggy from the tranquilizer, but had been cleared by the EMT’s to not have to spend the night in the hospital for observation.

May was waiting anxiously by the door as they came in, and wordlessly threw her arms around Peter, holding him tight to her. Kate and Matt were already sitting in the living room, quietly discussing strategies, but stopped as Peter and Ned entered, waiting for them to really begin the meeting.

Peter anxiously wrung his hands, looking at the assembled group. “Alright. What the hell are we going to do?”

-

The last thing MJ remembered was being lifted out of the roof of the Met, seeing the city from above as the drones lifted higher before there was a sharp pain in her neck and the world swam around her and blackness was all she knew for a time.

She didn’t open her eyes, not at first. She knew what to do in the case of being kidnapped, that had been drilled into her a long time ago. There were four other senses that she could use to try to figure out what the hell was going on before letting her captors know that she was awake.

Taste wasn’t going to do much. Her mouth was dry, tasted like it usually would upon waking up. Other than making her want to brush her teeth, it really wasn’t going to be helpful in this scenario. There was an odd metallic taste at the back of her mouth, not like blood but like licking a doorknob. She paused, pooling saliva in her mouth and swallowed carefully, but the metallic taste didn’t go away. Odd.

Ok, touch. She carefully shifted her fingers slightly, feeling the area around her. She didn’t get far. She realized that she was both handcuffed to what seemed like bedrails on a hospital bed, and strapped down with the more conventional padded Velcro restraints holding her down both hand and foot to the bed. The bedsheets were stiff and scratchy beneath her fingers, and she had been dressed in what felt like thin hospital scrubs rather than her original outfit of jeans and a tshirt.

Her arm was sore, and as she shifted her arm slightly she could feel a tug from something attached to her. An IV? Maybe, with her eyes closed she couldn’t tell. And then there was the slight pressure around her neck, like a choker or a collar of some sort, with an odd warmth around the hollow of her throat.

And her hair, she realized with a little bit of fear as she shifted her head slightly, her hair had been cut short to an inch or two in length, rather than the long, curly mane it had been earlier that day.

Was it earlier that day? MJ realized that she really had no idea how long she had been unconscious for. She hoped it couldn’t have been for more than a few hours, because more than that meant that her captors were smart enough to hide from Peter, Beck, and the other heroes stationed in New York City for a significant period of time.

Don’t worry about that, go back to figuring out where you are. Smell, that was another sense. MJ focused as she took in a long deep breath, trying to pick up as much as she could. Antiseptic cleaner was the strongest scent, bleach and rubbing alcohol mingling like in a doctor’s office or hospital. That would be consistent with the hospital bed, the IV, but not with the haircut or the restraints.

MJ took in another deep breath. There was something else there, beneath the scent of cleaner. Dust, mildew, maybe? It was the scent of stale air in a building left undisturbed until recently. And overlaying that, fresh paint. Ok, probably not a real hospital, then. She was definitely a prisoner, as she had guessed.

Finally, hearing. The room she was being held in was quiet other than a faint beeping that MJ guessed was a heartrate monitor of some sort. She could just barely make out the sounds of traffic from outside the building – she was being held in a room that was along an outside wall, that was useful information – and the even quieter murmur of conversation in the hall outside the room.

So. Probably abandoned building, restrained as much as it was possible for someone to be restrained, IV, haircut, weird necklace. If MJ had to guess, and she was not happy about this guess at all but it did make the most sense with the evidence provided, she was being held somewhere that her captors were planning on experimenting on her in some way.

Bad.

She finally cracked one eye open a slit then the other, taking in the room around her without yet moving her head. The ceiling was a pale while, evidence of mildew damage there in the past that had been hastily painted over in a shade that didn’t quite match the existing paint. The walls were a similar color, and MJ could see a small window along the top of the wall – it was already too slim for her to be able to get through even if it could open, but any thought of it being used as an escape route was further cut off by the series of bars that ran down the length of the window. There was a faint bit of light coming from the window, but MJ was fairly sure it was from street lights, not from natural daylight. So, she had been out for a few hours at the very minimum.

She shifted her head slightly, taking in the IV bag that was feeding the line into her arm. The initial bag was full of clear liquid, but as it passed through a secondary black box the size of two decks of cards stacked on top of each other, the liquid began glowing a bright electric blue. This was what was feeding into her arm. The bag was half empty, but MJ had no good way of guessing whether this was the first bag that she had been hooked up to, or even really how fast it was draining as a way to guess how long she had been out. 

To her other side was a monitor, turned so she couldn’t see the readouts, and from there, the far wall of the room. A sliding door with a panel of frosted glass was set into the center of the wall, and MJ could see a camera mounted over it that would be able to see most of the room. She could also just barely see the shape of two figures conversing on the other side of the glass, but couldn’t see any more detail that that.

Alright. Recon over. Time to let her captors know she was awake.

“Hey!” MJ coughed roughly, wincing at how thin and weak her voice sounded. “Hey!” That was a little better. “Where the hell am I? Let me out?”

The two figures beyond the glass looked in at her, one walking beyond her range of vision as the door opened. What MJ could only assume was a doctor of some sort walked in. MJ immediately catalogued his features: young, white, black hair cut short and slicked back, wearing a white lab coat over sea-green scrubs and thick, black-framed glasses. He carried a tablet of some sort, tapping out notes on it as he took in whatever the monitor was showing him and the condition of the IV line.

He dragged a comfortable looking chair closer to the bed, sitting down and crossing one leg over the other before meeting MJ’s eyes. “Miss Jones. How are you feeling?”

MJ didn’t answer for a moment, making a show of tugging on her restraints, looking pointedly at the IV line, and then back to the doctor. “How do you think I’m feeling?”

“Miss Jones, if you aren’t willing to open a dialogue with me I can’t assess whether you are receiving an adequate standard of care. My employers may have plans for you, but that doesn’t mean you need to suffer until they have use of you.” He blinked owlishly behind his glasses, reaching out as if he were going to shake her hand before stopping halfway and adjusting his glasses instead. “My name is Julian. Doctor Julian Goodwin. Would you prefer me to continue calling you Miss Jones, or would a different form of address be more your style?”

“You’re a doctor?”

“I am.”

“Where’d you get your degree?” MJ sneered at him, looking away. “Did you learn your craft under Doctor Mengele?”

Julian’s voice hardened. “Miss Jones, I don’t think you understand your current position. I genuinely want to help you, but I can’t do that unless you let me. Now, how are you feeling?”

“Go to hell.” If MJ’s mouth wasn’t so dry, she would have spit at him, but she suspected that she wouldn’t have managed to get the wet projectile far enough to actually hit the doctor.

“Very well.” Julian stood, shaking his head and adjusting his glasses again as he approached the door. “Maybe a discussion with the boss will change your mind.”

The door opened, and he walked through. There was a brief period of nothing, as MJ watched the door in something between anticipation and fear. At the very least, if she knew who was in charge here she would know who she could focus her anger on.

Then the door opened again.

No. No no no that wasn’t possible. MJ took in a sharp breath as she watched the man walk through the door. Casual clothing – comfortable black pants, expensive looking shoes, blue button up shirt. Impeccably groomed beard and hair and the brightest blue eyes she had ever seen. He walked with a confidence that MJ had never seen him display before, a kind of ease of movement that was unfamiliar in comparison to his normal ramrod-straight military walk. And the shoes; soft and made of leather, polished, unscuffed. They were the type of shoes you wear to an office job rather than the heavy black boots she had never seen him without. It was jarring, like having the rare episode of a television show where the characters wear formal clothing or uniforms or something suddenly wearing casual clothes on their day off.

Quentin Beck walked through the door, his hands in his pockets and a cool, calm expression on his face as he regarded her. MJ noted with some surprise a small patch of gauze on his hairline – she remembered he had hit his head on the ground when he fell from the sky in the Met, but this didn’t make any sense, why would he be the boss here?

“Hello, MJ. How are you feeling?” His voice was soft, almost genuinely caring as he gestured towards the chair the doctor had vacated. “Mind if I sit?”

“Beck? What’s going on?”

In an instant his eyes hardened and he scowled. “Don’t call me that. No one called me ‘Beck’ before I met your insipid little troop of street-level heroes. My name is Quentin. Do you know how hard it is to take someone seriously when they won’t stop calling you Mister Beck, like I’m a schoolteacher or something?” Quentin made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat before sitting, steepling his fingers as he expression calmed again and he looked at MJ, all warmth and humor gone from icy blue eyes.

MJ was actually scared. She gave another tug at the restraints in vain, knowing they wouldn’t let her up any time soon. “Is this real?” she called out to no one in particular, addressing the ceiling. Beck wouldn’t betray her like this, would he? Granted, she didn’t know him personally all that well, but Peter trusted him.

Peter had trusted him in Europe too, before she had found the projector and they realized the truth together.

“This? Right now?” Quentin gestured to the room and then to himself. “My dear MJ, this is the realest thing you have had the privilege of experiencing in months. Now, I’m sure you have questions. Go ahead, ask them. I don’t need to have any secrets around you anymore. It really is a pity that Shuri chose you for her enhancement program, but ah, what can you do?” He stood, giving MJ a vague shrug before walking around to the other side of her bed, investigating her IV bag.

“You convinced everyone that you were a Sorcerer. You fooled Doctor Strange. How?” That was the most pertinent question. MJ was still holding out hope that this was an illusion, that whoever had captured her was using the visage of Beck to doubt everything.

“People see what they want to see.” Quentin shrugged again, now standing at the foot of her bed. “Where Strange was concerned, my team had contingencies in case he got involved in Europe to convince him of the reality of my powers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still amazed it worked, but it did, and that’s what matters.”

“Peter would be able to sense if you always had drones with you. But you can still fly, and shoot lasers, and open portals? If you’re not a Sorcerer, how could you do those things?” MJ was desperately searching for any crack in his story.

Quentin simply tapped the two wristbands he was still wearing. “Another backup. We knew that we needed the full drone setup to create threats, but outside threats wouldn’t require the same response. So, nanite suit, MK I. I wasn’t lying when I said Tony Stark designed it, we certainly used a lot of his research. Hidden repulsors for flight and lasers, miniaturized projectors to make them look how I wanted, and portals are easy when you have the power of the Space Stone on your side. Besides, a week is more than enough time to put contingencies into full deployment.”

“The Tesseract batteries.” It was all falling into place now. MJ was still skeptical, she didn’t want to believe his story, but she had heard about what the Infinity Stones could do. It wasn’t impossible that a group of genius engineers could figure out how to replicate the power of Sorcerers with that kind of technology.

“Bingo. Give the lady a prize,” Quentin said bitterly, a smirk on his face. “Obviously there were a few hiccups, the human body isn’t meant to channel that kind of power long term.”

“Wakanda. The warehouse.”

“Exactly. Three weeks in a coma was unexpected but it all turned out alright in the end. Your little friend group trusts me more than ever, and when I come staggering out of here in a week or two spinning another story about how I was captured and tortured and don’t know anything about where MJ is they won’t have any reason to not believe me.” Quentin gave MJ another ugly smile, and she could see just how broken the look in his eyes was. There was something genuinely unhinged there, and she wondered how he had managed to hide it for so long.

“So, if you escaped London, why give EDITH back to Peter?” That was the real question. That had been his goal originally, why give it up, pretend to be a hero only to betray them later? MJ didn’t get it.

“Oh, MJ.” Quentin sat back down on the arm of the chair, reaching out like he was going to ruffle her hair before pulling back just before he made contact. “EDITH was only the tip of the iceberg. My Crew downloaded everything they could get off of her, but I knew that in order to get into more interesting databases, to get my hands on Tony Stark’s ‘abandoned’ projects – not abandoned, by the way, stolen from engineers like me who Tony saw as too dangerous to be allowed to maintain control over their lives’ work – to get my hands on that information I needed a point of entry.”

“So what was the last two months, then? Playing hero? Putting yourself in danger? Why would you do that, if you weren’t serious about being a hero?”

“MJ, MJ, MJ. You have to understand, I have always been dead set on being a hero. The thing is, though, that the world doesn’t know what kind of hero it needs. It wants someone who can maintain the status quo, who keeps the world turning the way it always has. But, what the world needs is to be rebuilt out of rubble. Unfortunately, it can’t rebuild out of rubble without there being rubble in the first place.” Quentin paused, waiting for MJ to see where he was going with this.

“So you waited until you knew what had happened to the scrapped plans, then used your access to Wakanda and Shuri’s labs to steal everything. But then what?” MJ was missing something, she knew she was. “You tried to reduce the world to rubble before with the Elementals, but that didn’t work. What now?”

Quentin looked meaningfully up at the IV line. “I’ve found allies with a similar philosophy to my own. We’ll use you as a first test case, then reverse engineer ‘Project Dahlia,’” he rolled his eyes at the name, “to make the next breed of super soldiers. No one will be able to stand in their way, and alongside new weapons and technology that Stark never wanted released to the world, we’ll make a new world with Mysterio as the greatest hero that ever lived. And you, dear MJ, will have the privilege of standing by my side. Once you’ve been properly convinced, of course.”

He stood, making his way over to the door, only turning as MJ yelled, “Wait! Those weapons, though, the alien ones? How could you make a shield strong enough to withstand those?”

Without looking back, Quentin opened the door, poking his head around the corner and briefly conversing with someone on the other side before coming back in with one of the space-age style pistols. He made a show of unlocking the safety before putting it to the side of his head and pulling the trigger.

There was the same noise that MJ knew the pistol should make, the same flash of light, but Quentin still stood, unharmed, shaking his head slightly as he pulled the pistol away from his head. “Do you really think I’d let weapons out on the street that could hurt me? I’m cleverer than that. But in case you’re not convinced,” he shifted his aim to the wall above MJ, letting off another blast and then gesturing to the scorch mark it produced, “It is still perfectly deadly to everyone else.”

He flicked the trigger back on, putting the pistol in an empty holster strapped to his leg. “Please, do let my staff know if you need anything. Within reason of course. I’m afraid you won’t be escaping any time soon, but while the treatment takes place I see no reason for you to be uncomfortable. Like I said,” he looked over his shoulder again as he paused at the open door, “I like you, MJ. I don’t want to have to kill you.”

He stepped through, and the door hissed closed, leaving MJ alone with her racing, terrified thoughts. What the hell was going on?

Chapter Text

“Good morning, New York City. The time is six AM, and I’m Cressida Booker-”

“-and I’m Charles Greyson-”

“Coming to you live with this morning’s news.”

Peter glanced at the wall of televisions set up in Mission Control in the Parker apartment. He knew the likelihood of the morning news having any more information than what he already knew was slim, but he turned the volume up a few ticks anyway, watching the two anchors make their way through a car crash, two shootings, and a robbery that he had let happen the night before while he was desperately trying to get in touch with the other heroes of the world.

No one blamed him for not being there to stop those crimes, but Peter still took it to heart that if he had been a little quicker, if he had saved MJ and Beck then they could have gone out on patrol together and maybe no one would have gotten hurt that night. Instead…

“And now the story you’ve all been waiting for, new information on the attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday afternoon has become known to us in the press. While we were originally told that there were no fatalities, we now learn that two museum-goers were apparently kidnapped during the attack. Michelle Jones, a seventeen-year-old high school senior at the Midtown School of Science and Technology,”

The image on the screen shifted from the two anchors to a yearbook photo of MJ, rolling her eyes and smirking sarcastically, alongside the photo that Peter had taken and posted to her Instagram alongside the Roman bust moments before the drones attacked. “Michelle Jones is a known associate of Peter Parker, also known as Spider-Man, who was seen attempting to protect civilians during the attack, alongside the hero known as Mysterio, Quentin Beck.”

The image once again shifted to shaky cell phone camera footage of the attack, and Peter took a long sip of his coffee to settle his nerves as he watched Beck plummet from the sky again. “Mysterio hadn’t been seen in almost three weeks since the warehouse explosion in Tribeca in mid-August, although we had confirmation from sources close to him and Spider-Man that while he was injured in that incident, he would recover. Now, as you can see in this footage, Mysterio simply vanishes, leaving us wondering whether he was taken alongside Miss Jones.”

The news returned to the two anchors, who continued, “As always, as more information becomes available, we will keep you updated. For now, however, let’s look at our next story, a heartwarming tale of two dogs who-”

An arm reached over Peter’s shoulder and muted the television. He flinched, looking up quickly ready for a fight, only to see Aunt May standing behind him, her hand up like she was about to place it on his shoulder. “You shouldn’t watch the news, Peter, it’ll just stress you out.” She ruffled his hair, turning to head back out. “Kate finally got through to Clint, he’s on the phone if you want to talk to him.”

Peter finished his coffee, swiping his hand over his face. Ok. Time to look like he knew what he was doing. He slowly stood, following May out of the small control room and back into the main living room of the apartment. Matt had left in the early hours of the morning once it was clear that EDITH had no idea where Beck and MJ had been taken, citing his need to go to his day job. May, thankfully, had called Peter in as sick to allow him at least one day of respite from school to get his life in order, although he wasn’t sure just how much order he could get with two of his closest friends having been kidnapped by what was most likely a remnant of Hydra.

Kate, though, had stuck around. Technically she should be covering Beck’s shift still at the coffee shop, but Allie had called her when she heard the news about Beck’s disappearance, telling her to focus on finding one of the best draws the shop had rather than trying to replace him. As Peter walked into the living room, he found her sprawled over one of the armchairs, talking animatedly over the phone to someone that he could only assume was Clint.

“Look all I’m saying is that this is an all-hands-on-deck sort of situation.” There was a pause as she waved slightly to Peter and then rolled her eyes. “No, Hawkguy, I don’t know what they expect you to do in the search but we still need you here. No, stop complaining, here’s Peter.”

She all but shoved the phone into his hands as she stood and walked into the kitchen, pulling various food items out of the fridge to presumably make herself breakfast. “Convince him to get his ass to New York City, he’s not listening to me.”

Peter put the phone to his ear. “Hey, Agent Barton.”

“Aw, geez, kid. I’ve told you like a dozen times to call me Clint.” Peter could hear the wry smile in Clint’s voice as he continued, “Look, you need something shot I’ll shoot it, but I don’t know what you expect me to do without a target.”

“Clint, you were a SHIELD agent for what, a decade? More? We need you for your tactics as much as for your skills with a bow. You know how the bad guys think, where they’d keep hostages. Plus, you have experience with Hydra-”

Peter cut off as Clint swore vehemently under his breath. “Kate didn’t say that Hydra was involved here.”

“Uh, yeah, Hydra’s involved.” Peter shot Kate a look as she shrugged, “We think they’ve been behind quite a lot, including the thefts of tech during the Blip and the warehouse explosion from a few weeks ago. We’re also pretty sure that they’ve teamed up with the remnants of both Toomes’ and Beck’s crews, which means there are some seriously clever people out there with a serious grudge against me who have two of my closest friends and-”

“Alright, kid. Alright.” Peter could picture Clint pinching the bridge of his nose as he finally gave in. “What time should I expect a portal?”

“Yeah, about that…”

-

Clint Barton hated flying on normal planes. If he was piloting? If it was a quinjet or a helicopter or a spaceship that one time or literally anything else, it was great. It was the closest any normal human being would come to having wings. A commercial airliner, though, even in a first-class seat very generously reserved for him by Pepper Potts, was a nightmare.

Every bit of turbulence, every unexpected bank and turn made him clutch at the armrests of the chair like it was somehow going to be able to white-knuckle his way through a crash landing.

No crash landing came, of course, but Clint didn’t take in a full breath until the plane touched down safely on the tarmac in Newark. He made his way out of the gate, towards the baggage claim, when-

“Clint! Hey, Clint!”

Ok, that was not who he was expecting to see here. From the baggage carousel across the way from him Clint could see none other than Scott Lang, accompanied by a facepalming Hope Van Dyne, waving wildly at him.

Clint liked Scott. The guy had a certain charm about him that had managed to push him out of the spiral he had been in after Nat had died. It made sense that of all the established superheroes that hadn’t retired or dropped off the face of the earth after the battle at the Compound, Scott would be the first to respond to Peter’s desperate plea for help.

He grabbed the small bag he had packed off the luggage carousel and went to stand with Hope and Scott. “Hey Scott, Hope. Peter call you in as well?”

-

MJ sluggishly pushed her way back to consciousness. She vaguely remembered the events of the last night. After Beck had left, she had started struggling against the restraints, screaming her throat raw in some vain attempt to get out, to make someone outside hear her.

After fifteen minutes of that, the doctor (Julian? She thought that was his name) had come in, shaking his head in disappointment, injected something into her IV line, and everything went fuzzy after that.

Things were still fuzzy, although less so. She glanced up at the IV line, worriedly noting that it was more full than the last time she had seen it, meaning it had been replaced sometime in the night. Not only had it been replaced, but the box it passed through had been altered in some way, the liquid now glowing a bright emerald green rather than the blue of the previous night.

And it was definitely not night anymore – the small amount of light coming in from the tiny window was watery and grey, but definitely natural light from a cloudy day, rather than light from a streetlamp. Blinking hard to try to get rid of the fuzziness, MJ turned her head from the ceiling to look back towards the door.

Someone was sitting in the chair across the room, reading the morning newspaper in the way that only people in movies who want to hide their face do. MJ squinted, looking at the headline: Two Missing, Thirty-Four Injured After Met Museum Attack.

Right. That had happened.

The person in the chair closed the newspaper slightly to turn the page before closing it completely as he noticed that MJ was awake.

Ah, fuck her. Quentin was back.

He addressed her as he carefully folded the newspaper closed. “Good morning, MJ. How are you feeling today?”

“Fuck you,” MJ spat, although weirdly other than the residual fuzziness in her head and bruises on her ankles and wrists, she felt good, strong, like if she managed to get out of this bed she could run a mile and fight her way out of here.

“Tsk.” Quentin stood, cracking his neck as he stretched and tucked the newspaper under his arm. “I’m not that kind of kidnapper, don’t worry. Like I said, I don’t want to hurt you.” He walked over to the monitor, taking in the readings as he absentmindedly tapped his chin with his index finger. “The treatments seem to be going well, though. Your metabolism is up by fifteen percent, which is an excellent sign.”

“Sign of what?”

“Sign that your body is accepting the treatments.” Quentin flicked a finger towards the IV line attached to her. “A human body can only be expected to accept so much foreign material, but yours is holding up quite nicely.”

“Go to hell,” MJ muttered under her breath, refusing to look at Quentin as he paced across the room. Again, he didn’t respond other than to shake his head slightly, tsking under his breath.

Then something occurred to her. “You’ve told Peter and the rest of us way too much about your home dimension for that to have all been false. And you’ve never touched anything in this room or me. How do I know that this isn’t some sort of illusion meant to keep me off balance, make me not trust Beck if he manages to escape?”

The anger returned in Quentin’s eyes immediately as he whirled on her, pressing his index finger into her forehead. It was cooler than MJ was expecting, his fingernail digging in slightly until her removed it after a long second. “This isn’t an illusion. The sooner you realize that, the better off you will be. As for everything I’ve told you, I have quite an excellent writing team at my back. And if that doesn’t convince you,” he leaned in closely, whispering in her ear, “I know that even though you might like to pretend that your favorite Brooklyn 99 character is Rosa, you have a soft spot for Amy.”

With that, he pulled away, spinning with a flourish as he headed back to the door. It wasn’t hard for MJ to conjure the image of him in his armor, moving exactly the same way, and she realized deep inside she was genuinely scared.

This really did seem to be the same Quentin Beck who had played hero alongside Peter and the others for almost two months.

-

The Parker apartment was a hotbed of activity. Peter had dragged most of the setup from Mission Control out into the living room so the assembled heroes could look in on the process without being squished into a space not much larger than a broom closet, but at the moment the screens were somewhat lacking in activity. The EDITH program was running a search algorithm over the city, trying to sift through a mountain of data to try to find any hint on where Beck and MJ had been taken.

In the meantime, however, the mood was somber and quiet. Clint sat on the back of the main couch, feet up on the side as Kate sat next to him, quietly conversing and going over any details the two of them had come across on the group they now knew was Hydra-adjacent during the Blip.

Scott had excused himself to call Cassie, but Hope remained in the living room, working with Ned on adjusting the search parameters to see if they had missed anything. Matt, meanwhile, was sat at the dining room table, headphones on as he combed through the police reports and witness statements from the attack.

It was Ned who finally came up with the first good idea to track them down beyond ‘wait and see what EDITH comes up with.’

“Wait, what about Beck’s comms?”

Peter’s head snapped over to look at Ned, realizing what he was implying. The other adult heroes looked at eachother in confusion.

Clint sighed. “If you’re thinking you’re going to be able to get a message to Beck, you’re wasting your time. The first thing kidnappers do is take your weapons and your communications devices. Besides, were you even wearing comms when you went to the museum?”

“Beck’s comms are different.” Ned started pulling up what little documentation Team Parker had on the technology of his world. “They’re biotech, implanted in his jaw, and run off of his bioelectricity. They’re not something that whoever kidnapped him would necessarily know that he had, much less be able to block or remove.”

Hope latched onto this new consideration, reaching over Ned to begin pulling up a tracking program embedded in EDITH. “If he’s unable to respond or open the channel, this might be just another dead end, but if we don’t try it and then it turns out this would have been the easiest way to find him, we’ll be kicking ourselves later. Call him.” She pulled back slightly, gesturing to the tracking program now up on the screen, a map of the northeastern US waiting to be narrowed in on.

There was absolute silence in the room as Peter reached over to the desk microphone, picking it up and waiting a moment before pressing the call button on it.

“Beck?”

No response. Peter took a deep breath and swallowed anxiously, before speaking again. “Beck? Can you hear me?”

Still no response, the tracking program still waiting for a signal. “Maybe he’s just unconscious,” Ned offered, looking up at Peter with a vague shrug. “Or, you know, like, constantly being watched and can’t risk saying anything?”

The adults in the room looked on with pity as Peter gripped the microphone a little tighter.

“Ok! Hey, it’s late, why don’t we all go to sleep and see where we are in the morning, ok?” Clint jumped off the couch, patting Peter on the back as people slowly started filtering out of the room. “It was a good idea, maybe it’ll end up working out later?”

Peter continued standing there long after everyone else had left the room and then the apartment, rubbing his finger on the talk button on the mic. “I don’t know if you can hear this,” he murmured, staring at the still open tracking program, wishing that he would get something, anything as a response, “Or if you can’t respond or something, but we’re coming for you. I promise, we will get you and MJ out of there.”

-

Peter couldn’t sleep. This wasn’t unusual. He’d always been prone to nightmares – first about whatever scenarios his brain could make up about his parents’ death, then sleep had become hard to come by when his enhanced senses made it hard for him to calm his mind at night.

Then Uncle Ben died, then Homecoming, then dying on an alien planet and coming back just in time to watch someone who might have someday become a new father figure die to save the world. Then another potential father figure betrays you, then his doppelganger appears, gets knocked into a coma for three weeks, and disappears again.

Yeah, if Peter didn’t have enough nightmare fuel, who in the world really did?

For once, however, it wasn’t nightmares that were keeping him up. Rather, it was his mind refusing to shut up and relax, spinning around and around on a hamster wheel of what-ifs and could-have-beens, going over the fight at the museum again and again in his mind.

He knew the drones had cloaking technology, and he knew how to beat it, but without those extra sensors having been online at the museum, there was no way to directly track the movements of the drones after they cloaked.

There had to be something he was missing. EDITH was already running background checks on everyone who had been in the museum that day, and searching listings on every abandoned building within a fifty mile radius to see if Hydra’s current base of operations could be located.

Peter ran his hands over his face in exhaustion, trying to force the sticky gears of his brain to work properly. Go over the facts, maybe you’ll think of something. Go back to before all of this started and try to work something out.

Fact Number One: Kate had been tracking this group since during the Blip. Whether they were Hydra then or only recently became Hydra was unknown, but given their propensity for hitting SHIELD bases, it couldn’t be ruled out.

Fact Number Two: All the interactions Peter had with them between when they showed up in New York City and the warehouse incident seemed to have been done specifically to get them to the warehouse. Sending in a low-level criminal with a gun to hold up a convenience store, attacking (but not actually hurting any of) Peter’s friends and family, making obvious mistakes that would bring Kate down on their heads.

Fact Number Three: The warehouse incident resulted in the Protectors as a whole being out of commission for a week, minimum, as Matt recovered, and Peter and Kate hovered around Beck’s bedside.

Fact Number Three therefore begged the question: if this Hydra group orchestrated the warehouse attack to take the regular group of NYC heroes out of commission, even for a short time, why hadn’t they done anything? Why had they waited until Beck was out and about again to make their move?

And equally importantly, why had they taken Beck then? He wasn’t under lock and key or 24 hour guard at the hospital. Why not make your move on an unconscious superhero who can’t fight back rather than one fully capable of fighting back?

It just didn’t make any sense. Taking MJ made sense, twisted as it was. Even to an ordinary criminal, she was a valuable hostage against Peter as Spider-Man. To someone who had all of Shuri’s research, she was an even more valuable guinea pig to test Project Dahlia on.

Beck, though, he was a dangerous hostage to take. Even if they somehow managed to use his wristbands to keep his powers dampened, he was smart, and more importantly, had military training. Peter doubted that they would be able to get any information out of him – although he had no idea what information Hydra would want from Beck in the first place – and the second he managed to overcome the dampening from the wristbands or get them off entirely, he would be a formidable enemy.

So why take him? And why take him like that? So publicly, so obviously, it didn’t exactly make the great Mysterio look too good. Was that what this was about? Humiliating Beck by canceling out his powers in a public place?

That didn’t seem right.

And there was something else, something that Peter knew he wasn’t putting together until fifteen minutes of pacing and nearly pulling his hair out in frustration that it clicked.

Heroic sacrifice.

Peter compared his memory of the “evil” Beck, smoking and singed after pretending to sacrifice himself in Prague to the “good” Beck, put in similar situations time and time again. Wakanda (but that had been a loss of control, right?), the warehouse (ok, that was a genuine heroic sacrifice), the museum before he started getting to his feet.

His sacrifice at the warehouse didn’t make sense. It didn’t fit with the same Beck who had claimed that he had portaled out of his London and ended up here, who by his own admission had called himself a coward. A coward would have found a way to portal both of them out from under the rubble, or portaled himself and left Kate to face the music on her own.

Not that Peter knew much about magic, maybe there was something about the portal that meant that Beck could only portal Kate out. But still, it didn’t feel right to Peter.

But he had been in a coma, right? Beck had been checked over by doctors of both the medical and Strange variety, and faking that wasn’t something that Peter thought he was capable of.

And then there was also the magic. Shields and lasers and flight had all been shown to be easy enough to fake. Portals, though, portals Peter didn’t think were so easy to fake.

And Beck had been living with Strange for over a month. If he were faking his magic, wouldn’t Strange have noticed?

Peter stopped pacing and dropped back down on the couch. Nothing was making sense about this whole thing. He couldn’t tell what was a coincidence and what was genuinely odd at this point.

He made a note in his phone to call Doctor Strange again in the morning, check to make sure that these crazy theories were really just that: crazy theories, before he curled up on the couch, flipping through channels idly, trying to find something mindless enough that it would lull him to sleep.

It was at three in the morning, Brooklyn 99 playing softly in the background, that Peter finally fell asleep.

-

May was worried about her nephew. Now, this was nothing new. Since she had found out that he was Spider-Man, she really existed in a constant state of “worried about her nephew.”

This was different, though. This wasn’t, oh god, he’s going to get stabbed on patrol, or oh god, there’s an alien spaceship and Peter’s not picking up his phone, or even there’s a giant water monster in Venice and Peter’s in Venice. No, this was the closest thing I have to a son is worried about his friend and girlfriend, and I don’t know how to convince him everything is going to be ok.

To be fair, she didn’t even know if everything was going to be ok. If anyone could find Beck and MJ, she trusted Peter and the other heroes to do so, but she had heard about Hydra. She had read the news like everyone else when SHIELD fell, she knew the name from history textbooks, and it wasn’t fair that Peter, her kid had to deal with that kind of responsibility.

Even with Clint and Scott and Hope and Matt at his back, where the hell were the rest of the Avengers? Did they think that the world would stay saved after Thanos was defeated, that they could vanish into thin air and leave the fate of the world in the hands of a blind adrenaline junkie, an ex-spy and good shot with an archaic weapon, an ex-criminal with a super suit and – ok, May couldn’t think of a disparaging moniker for Hope, she actually seemed to have her head screwed on straight, but the point still stood.

She couldn’t sleep, so she wandered out of her bedroom, sighing as she saw Peter, curled up tightly in a ball on the couch as the television played softly in the background. “Oh, Peter,” she murmured as she pulled the blanket off the couch, settling it over her nephew before running her hand through his hair and grabbing the remote with her other hand, turning the television off.

In sleep he looked even younger than he was, making the absurdity of the responsibilities on his shoulders plain to see. “I know I’m just your aunt,” she whispered, adjusting the blanket, “but when Ben and I took you in we promised to look after you, to protect you. Even though you’re a superhero now, even though you can shrug off getting hit by a train and can lift a car, remember that I am here for you, that I love you, and I will shoulder as many of your burdens as I can.”

She pressed a kiss gently onto his forehead, standing back up and walking back over to her bedroom, only glancing once back over her shoulder at Peter on the couch. She had never been more sure than she had in that moment that she would kill, would die, would tear the world apart to protect him, and she prayed that she would never have to.

Chapter Text

Beck swam slowly towards consciousness. He vaguely remembered waking, waking to pain and confusing questions that he couldn’t answer before he returned to more pain and the blessed darkness of unconsciousness.

Now, however, he felt… ok? He wasn’t in any immediate, scream-inducing agony, although his head hurt and he had to force his sticky eyes closed again as soon as he got them cracked open as the light seared into his retinas and momentarily overwhelmed him.

More slowly this time he cracked one eye open, then the other. The ceiling above him was white, freshly painted, a large window at the other end of the room letting in watery moonlight through the crack between two pale blue curtains that swayed slightly in the breeze caused by a fan on the ceiling turning.

He tilted his head slightly, taking in the rest of the room. There was a door on the wall next to him, and another door across from that, light creeping in though the crack at the bottom, a heavy-duty looking keypad next to the door with indicator lights blinking red. Next to the other door was a dresser, a small mirror set up on the wall above it, and a chair next to the dresser with what appeared to be a change of clothes set out for him.

Beck slowly pushed himself to a sitting position, realizing that other than the headache (which had begun to diminish even now), he felt better than ok. He felt good, strong, his fragile grip on his control of magic restored to its normal strength. Experimentally, he pulled a spark of magic to his fingertips, intending to experiment with it to see just how far this good feeling would go.

Instead he dismissed the spark of magic immediately, hands shaking. His magic wasn’t the familiar gold that he had wielded for over two decades.

His magic was a bright emerald green that he had only seen once before.

“No, no no no, this can’t be real. This can’t be real.” Beck shook his head, running his hands over his face and through his hair before trying again and dismissing the magic just as fast.

Still green.

What the fuck?

He took in a deep breath through his nose and out through his mouth. This was not a problem he was expecting, nor was it a problem he was equipped to deal with.

Other problems first. Where the hell was he? What was through the other door? Why was he wearing – he looked down at himself in confusion – why was he wearing pajamas that fit him perfectly but were just a tad too expensive and fancy to be his style.

He carefully got to his feet, noting the pair of comfortable house slippers awaiting him at the foot of the bed, well worn already and perfectly conformed to his feet. The clothing on the chair was similar – they looked like they would fit him perfectly, like they were tailored to him, comfortable slacks and soft black socks and a grey v-neck sweater.

And a note, which Beck picked up and read. The handwriting seemed familiar in a way he couldn’t quite remember at the moment.

Get changed, and maybe you’ll feel more like yourself.

He wasn’t sure what that meant. The clothes weren’t exactly something he’d normally wear, but he also didn’t want to be exploring a possibly hostile environment in pajamas. The door that wasn’t locked turned out to be a bathroom, with a small shower, a well stocked vanity cupboard, and more interestingly, a mirror.

Beck regarded his reflection calmly. The dark circles under his eyes had deepened into proper bruises, and as he carefully ran a comb through his hair after a brief shower he noticed a series of small red marks, like half-healed burns or bruises along the hairline. As he carefully ran his hands through his hair, he could feel others ringing his head, hidden by his hair.

Then it was time for the test. Without breaking his own gaze, he pulled on his magic again, green sparks dancing between his fingers.

The eyes in the mirror remained the same blue that they had been moments before. No gold, which had always been something Beck had been vaguely uncomfortable with as a recent development, and no green either, which was also a relief. He blinked and let the magic go, finally breaking his own gaze.

Something truly goddamn strange was going on.

He pulled the clothing left on the chair on, noting that not only did they fit him perfectly, but somehow he remembered wearing them before. A scuff mark on one of the shoes laid out for him was familiar, he knew the small tear in the cuff of the left sleeve of the sweater had a story but he couldn’t remember any of it.

It was maddening.

He carefully approached the window, noting with some surprise that there were no bars or other visible means of determent to him simply breaking the window and flying home, but the forcefield that reacted with a popping sound and a sharp scent of ozone to an exploratory spark of magic would work well enough.

Beck carefully searched the rest of the room. The bed seemed to be a normal twin bed, well used from the feel of the indentations in the mattress (again, placed exactly where he was prone to sleeping anyway), the forest green of the bedspread matching the lighter green of the sheets and pillowcases and the pale mint of the walls a color scheme he would choose if he had ever put any thought into his sleeping quarters beyond “is there a bed, and am I in immediate danger if I pass out right now,” sometimes with that first point being irrelevant.

He looked out the window again. From the skyline and level of light pollution, he assumed he was still somewhere in the city, although his didn’t know it well enough to pinpoint an exact location.

Just as he was about to call Peter, to try to call for backup, the locked door opened. An unassuming young man stepped through, tablet in hand. There was something vaguely familiar about him to Beck, although he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He had the same nebulous, indeterminant familiarity about him that this whole room did.

“Hello, Quentin,” the man said, a calming smile on his face, “How are you feeling?”

Beck backed up a few paces, hands up defensively. “Who are you?”

“Tsk, I suppose the treatments haven’t worked perfectly, then. No matter, being in a familiar space should help with the recall. Let’s start with something simple. Do you mind if I sit?” He gestured to the chair near the dresser, and Beck shrugged, moving to stand opposite of the man, blocking his way out through the door he came from.

“You gave us all quite a scare, you know,” the man continued as he sat, regarding Beck calmly. “I wasn’t there when you were reunited with your Crew the first time, but everyone was really quite worried when you turned on us. The memory treatments were only supposed to last until William gave you the recall phrase through the glasses, but you didn’t remember. And then you used the Tesseract tech in a completely new and unexpected manner, and got them all arrested, and we were all really very worried about you and confused to say the least.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” None of this made any sense. Did they still somehow think, after all this time, that he was this world’s Quentin Beck? That was impossible, they had found his body, there was an autopsy report, and he had magic. Real, genuine magic.

Even if it was the wrong color at the moment. Beck pulled another spark out of the air, running it through his fingers until the man spoke again and he dismissed it.

“Quentin, look at me, please?” Beck obliged, not moving from his position leaning against the wall. “I’m about to show you a series of images. Please focus on them as best as you can. Are you ready to begin?”

Beck shrugged. “Sure, why not? If I play your game, will you tell me where I am?”

Giving him a sad smile, the man replied, “If you play along, Quentin, you will remember where you are, and I will have to tell you very little. Now, please focus.”

He held up the tablet, letting Beck take in the series of images. A woman in a formal dress and cloak. An owl. A hand of playing cards. A train. The screen went black.

“Was that it?” Beck looked at the man skeptically, who was still looking at him intently.

“Not quite. Quentin, can you tell me the what the woman in the first image was wearing?”

Almost without thinking, Beck replied, “An evening dress and opera cloak.” Wow, that was specific. Why was that the answer he gave?

“Arrange the playing cards from the third image in order of descending value.”

“A Queen, two nines, a four and a three.”

“What kind of owl was in the second image?”

“Western screech.”

“What is my name?”

It came without even really having to think, the words coming easily from Beck’s lips. “Julian. Your name is Doctor Julian Goodwin. Wait, how did I know that?”

Julian sighed, tapping a note into his tablet, muttering under his breath. “Doctor Beck seems to be responding well to the recall codes, procedural memory seems to be intact, although declarative memory is taking longer to return.”

“Hold on, hold on, I’m sorry, ‘Doctor’ Beck?” Beck shook his head. “I’m no doctor. I never even finished high school, I-”

Julian cut him off before he could continue. “Tell me, Quentin. How would you make a 300 milliamp sinking current from a 150 milliamp source current with an NMOS pair?”

Again, his mouth moved faster than his brain as Beck answered, “Well, the width to length ratio of the first NMOS would have to be half the ratio of the second, and you’d need a PMOS pair to output it as a sinking current.”

“Very good, Quentin.” Julian gave him a nod, making another note as Beck shook his head again in confusion.

“How the hell did I know that?” Beck looked at Julian in growing horror and confusion. “What the hell is going on?”

“Well, I assume you learned it much the same way I learned the medical trade.” Julian sighed and rolled his eyes as Beck just shook his head slightly, “With a significant amount of study and practice. Good lord, you really did do a number on that mind of yours.”

“What?”

“Alright, let’s try another easy one. Tell me, Quentin, how did you spend your twenty first birthday?”

That was an easy one. What Beck wanted to say was that he had just gotten the news of Christina’s death, that he had spent that night alone and drunk off his ass hiding in the basement of the training barracks, and that his squad’s First had had to drag him up three flights of stairs before throwing him in an ice cold shower and making him sober up before spending the wee hours of the morning talking him through how to handle that kind of grief.

What came out of his mouth, however, was a different story. “I had just finished my winter finals my junior year at MIT. I was waiting to hear back on whether I had gotten the Stark Internship for that summer, and when I found out I had, I spent the whole night celebrating with my friends.”

The words tasted like bitter ash. They were impossible, and yet Beck clearly remembers sitting in a messy dorm room, toasting Tony Stark with cheap beer, the faces of friends both familiar and completely unknown conflicting in his head.

His head hurt again, and he crouched into a ball as he pressed his hands against his head, trying to stem the tide of conflicting memories.

The internship turned into a position in the tiny holographic tech department at Stark Industries. His team growing, meeting William and Janice and Victoria and Guterman and Doug and dozens of other people, scorned by Tony Stark after the man took something that was the work of dozens, and claiming it as his own.

Living through the Blip. Coming up with the plan for Mysterio. Trying and trying and trying again to kill Peter fucking Parker, faking his death on the bridge, deciding that the only way to win in the long term was for Doctor Quentin Beck, Professional Engineer and genius, to die and for Second Quentin Beck, Sorcerer and Soldier to live instead.

The machine had been untested, no one knew how much of him would remain afterwards. Julian had been at his side as he developed it, knew it would work along with the wristbands as part two. The incredible pain as everything he was was hidden, suppressed, overwritten with what Peter Parker needed to see to get access to the Stark Black Drive.

A vague memory surfaced of the concept of hiding who you are in a pocket watch so your enemies can’t find you.

Beck clutched his head tighter. This couldn’t be real, this had to be a trick, an illusion, something. He still remembered who he was, learning magic, fighting the Elementals, versions overlaying themselves as the memories kept coming, the battle in London fluctuating between fighting a monster himself, and watching a projection of himself fighting a holographic monster as he stood on the walkway – as he hid on the walkway and portaled out – as he let an illusion of himself get shot by the drones so he could try to shoot Peter Parker – as he landed in New York City – as he collapsed to the ground on the walkway and gave what he genuinely considered to be the best performance of his life –

“What…” he managed to force out from his position in a ball on the floor as Julian looked on in concern, “What’s happening to me?”

Julian sighed, adjusting his glasses. “It would seem the false memories were implanted more deeply than we expected. The recall pattern should have caused your true self to resurface, pushing your false memories to the world of fiction. You’d still be able to remember your cover story, but it wouldn’t seem real to you anymore.”

Beck curled up tighter on the ground as more memories flooded into his mind. “False… memories?” he managed to choke out.

“You’ll remember soon enough,” Julian removed his glasses, clearly uncomfortable as he polished them on the edge of his lab coat. “You pioneered a new use of the BARF technology during the Blip, which in combination with classified SHIELD files on the machinery used to control the Winter Soldier and Skrull memory access technology, you could not only view old memories, but edit them, implanting new ones. You came up with the idea of taking the story your team had come up with for Quentin Beck, writing him onto your brain during the week between your ‘death’ and the release of your reveal video to tell the world who Spider-Man was. The technology to simulate being a Sorcerer was already there, but you knew that if you got the attention of Strange it needed to be a deeper cover than your normal acting gig.”

When Beck didn’t show any signs of getting up, Julian put his glasses back on and stood up. “The human brain is a remarkable thing. You created new memories to fill in the gaps between the ones we gave you, and now it won’t let them go, even in the face of the truth. Truly remarkable.”

He made his way over to the door, punching in a series of numbers. “Someone will come by with some food in an hour or so. I do hope that you’ll recognize them when they come, Quentin.”

The door shut behind him, leaving Beck alone with his thoughts.

That was the problem, really. Too many thoughts. Every time he tried to pull on a memory, something that would center him as Beck, Sorcerer, another one from the same time in his life would appear from Quentin, Engineer’s life to contradict it.

His parents died from an Elemental attack – his parents died in a car crash.

His ring was his father’s – his ring was a bit of metal with no sentimental value other than it worked pretty well to tug at Parker’s heartstrings.

He never finished high school – he had a PhD in electrical engineering. His dissertation was on practical applications of holographic technology in everyday life.

He barely knew Tony Stark, but respected the hell out of the man – he had worked under Tony Stark in one way or another for thirteen years, from the time he was 21 to 34, and hated the man with every fiber of his being.

He was genuinely fond of Peter Parker and wanted to be a hero alongside of him – he thought Peter was an ok kid but he was in his way and needed to be taken out.

In like, a violent “take him out with a gun” way, not in a “hey bud we both had a rough night let’s get some ice cream,” way.

But also kind of in the second way? It was confusing and painful and the conflicting lives and priorities and wants and needs made his head hurt in a way he had never felt before.

Ok, deep breaths Quentin.

Consider the facts:

Fact One: You are remembering things that you don’t know whether they actually happened or not.

Option One: They really did happen and are your real memories, and this machine Julian talked about was used to hide them originally.

Option Two: If they did have such a machine, could they have not simply manufactured memories from the original Quentin Beck, and implanted them instead, and then lied to you?

Option Three: You didn’t manage to get rid of the ghost of Prime in your head, and this is what going mad feels like.

Beck didn’t much like option three, if he was being honest. Option one didn’t bear thinking about, not now.

He was a good person.

Was he? The doubts continued to spiral as he struggled to get up from the fetal position he had been in on the ground, staggering across the room to land on the bed.

What was absolutely true? What was the same across both lives?

He wanted to be a hero. That was true. Maybe in different ways – Quentin the Engineer wanted the fame that came with heroism, but at the core of his plans there was a genuine seed of good intentions: EDITH was too powerful to be put in the hands of an untested, untrained, teenager. Really, EDITH was too powerful to be in anyone’s hands, not even Quentin’s, but at least he respected its power and didn’t use it to call drone strikes by accident or erase compromising photos or –

Beck ran his hands through his hair again, groaning. How did he know all that? Peter never told him what he did when he first got EDITH.

Ok, think about Beck, Sorcerer. Beck wanted the fame and glory too, but he also genuinely wanted to help people. And perhaps more important, he didn’t want to hurt people, he wouldn’t hurt people.

That was the real difference between the two. Quentin didn’t care about other people. He knew that his plans would hurt people and that was fine by him. Beck, though, Beck cared. The fame and glory were nice perks but the real meat of the hero business was the knowledge that people were alive, were ok, because of you.

Beck carefully pushed himself up to a sitting position. His head was still aching as new – or old? – memories made themselves known, but he thought he had a handle on himself, now. He wasn’t going to risk contacting Peter, not yet. For now, he had a very real opportunity to play along and figure out what the hell was going on.

After all, memories make the man. And for now, with memories of both lives rattling around in his brain, he could choose which life he wanted to live.

And he chose to be the good guy.

Chapter Text

Twenty-Four Hours Earlier

Everything was proceeding according to plan, however horrible that plan might be. The Crew sat in the control booth overlooking the darkened basement of their main lair in New York City, watching nervously as the man who betrayed them screamed in agony below them.

William knew that everyone in the Crew had differing opinions on what Quentin was going through. There was the brainwashing, of course, and there was the batteries being filled with his magic. The Hydra technicians that Klein had brought with him had begun experimenting with introducing Tesseract energy to Quentin’s wristbands, and for the past hour or so the batteries they filled with the magic the man was trying to channel had changed from a bright, pure gold, to a surprisingly familiar emerald green.

Another scream of agony later and William had to look away, pretending to be interested in the data on the current memory sequence that they were implanting in Quentin’s mind. They had spent a lot of time on that one, making sure that every detail of Quentin’s anger and hatred of Tony Stark would be emblazoned on this man’s mind in stunning detail.

If this worked, and by god did William hope this worked because he really wasn’t a fan of violence for violence’s sake, he would have his old boss, his friend back. The Crew could part ways with Hydra (they’d get the girl, the Crew would get Quentin), and they could put the original plan back into action, put Mysterio back on the big stage, take out that incredibly annoying Peter Parker and move on from this whole debacle.

He flinched as another scream made its way through the plexiglass, the lights brightening for a moment from the surge of power that escaped from Beck before the wristbands sucked it all away. Victoria, sitting beside him, hadn’t moved in over an hour, looking through the window with disgust.

That would be one of the harder things to overcome, William knew, the anger of the Crew for what Beck had done to them. Overseeing his torture might help some, might make at least a few of the members think that he got what he deserved for getting them thrown into prison. But that resentment would never go away entirely.

William felt a little bit sorry for the man, but not that much. He had lied to the Crew and betrayed them, and even if he wasn’t exactly the same Quentin Beck that they had all decided to follow in the first place, that kind of betrayal still stung. Maybe it was the best form of revenge to turn him back into the same charismatic genius who had brought them all together in the first place.

It would probably be Beck’s worst nightmare to be that man, and the process would hurt. Good.

William looked up as the door to the control booth opened, the last flickering vestiges of the illusion surrounding Guterman vanishing as he walked through the door, sitting down carefully next to William.

“How’d it go?”

Guterman shrugged, a smirk playing across his lips. “I think we’re really starting to get through to her. After her next set of treatments, I think it might be time to run through the first escape scenario. See how strong she’s becoming in a controlled environment. Janice and I have already written the sequence, we just need you to finish weaponizing the drones for the run.”

He looked like he was going to continue speaking, but was cut off as one of the lightbulbs blew in a shower of sparks from the latest power surge. “Remind me again why we’re giving Beck more power, instead of just siphoning him?”

“Pure Tesseract power is too strong for a normal human body to handle. Doctor Goodwin theorizes that Tesseract power mixed with the kind of dimensional energy that Sorcerers use could be used instead,” Victoria said offhandedly, her eyes still glued to Beck, now slumped over in the chair as the doctor in question ran through another series of questions. “So we use Beck as a mixer. Besides, look at that,” she flicked her finger towards the bank of batteries glowing brightly green, “Same color we chose for Mysterio. Can’t be a coincidence.”

Guterman gave her a nod, walking back over to the door. “William, let me know when you’re ready for the dress rehearsal for the drones.”

Not looking away from the window, William gave him a slight nod. He needed to be careful. There were so many ways for this to go off the rails, and only a handful of ways that the Crew would come out on top.

-

Now

The Crew sat around a large table in a room that had become their unofficial Mission Control, a handful of half-finished boxes of Chinese take-out strewn across the length of the table, the Crew picking over the remains. The meal had passed mostly in silence, the uneasy alliance between Toomes’ Crew and what was left of Beck’s seemingly even more tenuous now that Beck was back in their hands.

It wasn’t so much a matter of personalities, it was a matter of priorities. Toomes and his crew never wanted the kind of widescale destruction that Mysterio had been created to provide, and preferred to fly under the radar rather than blasting their image across it.

But now, with everyone aware that their alliance would almost certainly be coming to a close soon, the relationship seemed more strained than ever, and the outsiders who had been recruited since the plan began to be put into action could feel it.

One of these outsiders was a Doctor Julian Goodwin, who sat at the far end of the oval-shaped table, carefully watching the almost silent power struggle playing out between the two Crews. He didn’t care about the petty office politics playing out, he was just here for the science. He had been on the verge of being blacklisted, his medical license stripped after SHIELD found out about his research on recreating the Super Soldier serum, and Klein and his money and resources had been a godsend.

That didn’t mean he was particularly happy about his main test subject being a child who hadn’t consented to the research being performed on her, but he supposed that beggars couldn’t be choosers. The Project Dahlia system was fascinating, and once the initial subject had been studied, he hoped that he would be able to expand his research on those who were a little more willing.

And then there was Beck. The memory-altering technology that Klein and his Hydra technicians had created was absolutely fascinating. The possibilities that came with being able to edit memories were endless – give a spy a perfect cover, give a soldier skills and knowledge without them having to spend the time to learn them… Even in everyday life, the ability to view and edit memories could help so many people in so many different situations.

It was almost sad that the setup would likely never see the light of day beyond what Hydra saw fit to do with it.

What little conversation was happening in the room stopped as the door opened and Klein himself walked through, flanked by a pair of armed guards and behind them, a pair of drones, which floated over to the far side of the room behind Goodwin, easily covering the whole room.

It was a power move, pure and simple. No one in the room (apart from Toomes, and maybe Gagan) had any kind of combat skills, and no one would be stupid enough to attack their Benefactor. No, this was a reminder of the power he wielded, a reminder to play nice, otherwise you might find yourself unable to play at all.

Klein sat, folding his hands in front of him as he took in the assembled Crews. “Status report.”

No one wanted to be the first to speak, anxiously looking at each other until it was Julian who finally broke the silence.

“The treatments are going as expected on Miss Jones. Her metabolism has increased by almost fifty percent since the introduction of the nanites to her system, and we’ve seen a fifteen percent increase in muscle mass density and suspect that her reflexes and healing speed has increased as well.” Julian swiped the relevant charts and data onto the large screen at the end of the room behind him, “I suspect that if we continue with the treatments, we may begin to see manifestations of abilities beyond the original scope of the nanites’ programming.”

He gestured towards a scan of the energy density in MJ’s body. “The mixture of Tesseract and dimensional energy is saturating her cells at a rate that we were not expecting, quickly approaching that seen in scans taken of Beck and Strange. I suspect that we may see her use magical capabilities when we begin her training.”

Julian ended his presentation, waiting for Klein to comment.

“And Beck?”

Ah. Beck. “He seems confused at this point. I suspect that another round of treatments may be necessary to cement our reality in his mind, as he seems unwilling to accept our story as the truth.” Julian returned the screen to the silent camera image of Beck, who was sitting curled up in the corner of his bed, slowly spiraling sparks between his fingers. “Unless we can provide him some other proof of our story, I suspect he will continue refusing to believe that he is who we say he is.”

He tapped his pen nervously on the table as he waited for Klein’s response, which was only a nod. “Prepare for a second round of treatments, then. Mister Guterman, please ensure that the memory cycle has been loaded and ready to go with any updated or added sequences.”

Guterman nodded, making a note, and Klein’s attention finally shifted off of Julian, who breathed a quiet sigh of relief, reorganizing his notes while the others gave their reports – the status of the initial testing hologram simulation for MJ, the plans for Beck, and then –

“So everything will be ready for our move, correct?”

Shit. Julian had forgotten about that, the plan to vacate the warehouse as soon as the initial procedures had been carried out. "I'd like to perform a second set of memory adjustments on Beck before we pack the machine up. I don't want to risk something happening in transit resulting in a broken piece of equipment, and an unbroken Sorcerer on our hands. Especially since Site Two doesn't have the dampeners installed yet."

He held his breath, hoping that Klein wouldn't see Beck's current status as a failure on his part, but to his relief the man simply nodded. "We are due to move out in two days. You have until then to complete any adjustments on Beck. The rest of you," the other people in the room hurriedly looked towards Klein, trying to make it obvious that they were paying complete and total attention to him, "finish making any arrangements you have for moving day. Dismissed."

It was, as per usual, Klein who left the room first, his guards and drones flanking him as he left. The room remained quiet, tense, no one willing to make the first move to follow him out until Gagan, always bold and not particularly bright, finished his carton of fried rice and gave a sarcastic, two fingered salute towards the rest of the room. "You heard the boss-man. Let's get moving."

-

Peter lay on his back in his room, staring up at the ceiling. They hadn’t made any progress in finding Beck and MJ, and as the third day of them being missing came to a close, he found himself at a loss of what to do next.

He knew that Clint, Scott, and Hope wouldn’t stick around for too much longer. That was fair – Scott and Hope deserved to be able to spend time with Cassie, Clint deserved time to spend with his daughter. But it was frustrating. Without them being able to help in the search, why were they here? He couldn’t ask them to stay for much longer with nothing to show for their time.

So that meant he needed to figure something out, and soon.

He scrunched his eyes closed, running his hands over his face and through his hair. They couldn’t track Beck or MJ directly, that much was clear. No one had found Beck’s phone yet, and MJ’s had been left behind in the Met when she was abducted. Beck wasn’t answering his comms, so that was another option that wasn’t left open to them.

In the best possible scenario, Peter would have asked Strange for help in tracking them down, but Strange and Wong had gone off on their own with a handful of their acolytes on some sort of training retreat, hadn’t left any way to get in touch with them, and wouldn’t be back for another week.

Peter got to his feet, pacing back and forth across his room. He couldn’t track the drones without having a signal to latch on to. Whoever had kidnapped Beck and MJ was keeping a low enough profile that Peter didn’t have anyone to try to run facial recognition on to track through the city’s security cameras, and there was really no guarantee that they were still in the city anyway.

What else could he track?

It came to him in a flash, a way to justify Clint’s time spent here in New York City and maybe a way to find some of the people who had kidnapped Beck and MJ, even if he didn’t directly succeed in finding them.

Track the Tesseract batteries. Clint had been there the first time they had tracked the Tesseract during the Battle of New York, and both Scott and Clint had experience with the Infinity Stones, maybe enough to track the residual energy of one.

It was certainly worth a try.

Peter sent his theory to the group chat, hoping that maybe, just maybe, this time it would pan out.

Chapter Text

Quentin Beck hadn’t moved from his position sitting on his bed, cross-legged, for the past half hour. He thought he had made his decision, to be the good guy, to be a real hero rather than one who relied on technology and cheap tricks to be one, but he hadn’t had the guts to check to see whether he could channel magic without the wristbands on.

Logically he knew he should be able to, he remembered his time in Shuri’s lab, his meditation earlier that morning (was it earlier that morning? He wasn’t sure, didn’t know how long he’d been out, it could have been that morning or a month ago. He hoped it wasn’t a month ago, that would mean that Peter and the others had abandoned him but – stop it, Beck, you’re spiraling), both times that he had channeled magic on his own without the aid of technology.

But still, what if? What if there was some link those times, what if he was hallucinating, could he really trust his memories?

Somehow, he didn’t want that question answered, didn’t want to know whether Quentin, Engineer, was the real him. He didn’t want to think about what it would mean that he was the person who had caused the deaths of almost five hundred people between the five Elemental attacks across three continents.

Not thinking about it wasn’t going to make it less true if it was the truth, though. He experimentally ran a finger between his wrist and the watch part of the set, gently tugging at it as he summoned a shield of emerald green magic with his other hand.

-

“Get ready to increase the dampening in the room on my mark.”

-

He pulled the watch off. His shield flickered, and he could feel his hold on magic slipping, vanishing. Scrambling, he allowed the shield to float in midair before him, tugging off the bracelet on the other hand.

-

“Mark.”

-

And it was gone. He couldn’t feel magic anymore, couldn’t feel anything beyond his own body. Beck choked back something almost like a sob, staring at the set of wristbands laying accusingly on the bedspread before him. He desperately reached out, trying to touch any thread of magic, to shove himself into the astral plane, to do anything that might let him know this is a trick, that the magic comes from him not from technology. It didn’t make sense, he had done this before –

Nothing.

“No, nononono…” he muttered to himself again, trying and trying and trying to touch magic again, to pull even the tiniest pinprick of light out of the air.

Nothing.

Was this what it felt like to be normal? Was this what it felt like to be cut off from the ebb and flow of the universe? Only it was worse for him, he knew what he was missing, what should be there, and it was like he was suddenly seeing in black and white.

Hands shaking, he nearly dropped the wristbands in his scramble to put them back on, to stop that horrifying feeling of solitude and being cut off from the universe, and relaxed in relief as he could suddenly feel it again.

Even if the magic felt a little different, looked a little different from whatever had been done while he was unconscious, it was still magic. It was still something that helped ground him, remind him of who he could be, whether that was Doctor Quentin or Mister Beck.

His panic mostly gone, he sat up straighter on his bed, carefully arranging himself in a meditative pose. Whether his magic was innate or not, it was still magic, and that meant he knew one thing that he could do with it.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Push.

-

This time, there were three of them on the bridge. Quentin, of course, leaned comfortably against the wall on one side of the bridge, still wearing the mo-cap suit but missing the injuries on his face from the last time. Instead, he wore a steadily growing smirk on his face as he took in the other two figures on the bridge.

Standing opposite of him was Beck, in full armor, golden eyes flicking nervously between Quentin and the third party. Despite the obvious nervousness on his face, he stood ramrod straight, golden sparks of magic playing at his fingertips.

And then there was our hero, standing between them, wearing the same slightly-uncharacteristically-nice clothing, the type of expression on his face one has when they’re about a minute away from totally losing it, but trying to keep it together for appearances’ sake.

“And here we are again. Isn’t it nice to see the family all together.” Quentin rolled his eyes, sneering. “If I’m the villainous Doctor Quentin, and he,” he flicked a finger towards Beck, who had crossed his arms over his chest and was giving Quentin a dark look, “is the oh-so-heroic Mister Beck, then what the hell are you calling yourself?”

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?” came the response, our hero looking between the two manifestations of his conflicting lives. “I needed to see it out in front of me, to know what I was dealing with beyond conflicting sets of memories. I was hoping that one of you would be less real, less solid, somehow, but you’re both here, both… well, I’m not sure if astral manifestations of different aspects of my mind can be considered real but neither of you look fictional.”

“So what, you want us to make our case for our existence as the real version of you?” Quentin rolled his eyes, gesturing as he looked over at Beck in a ‘can you believe this guy?’ type move. “I don’t think I need to make a case, come on. Which is more likely? That you’re so talented a con-man that you managed to convince yourself of your own lie, or that you actually are a soldier from another reality with magic?”

“But you can do magic,” Beck finally spoke, still not taking his eyes off of Quentin. “You can do magic. You have all the potential to be a hero right there. What does it matter who you used to be? It matters who you are now, who you want to be. That’s what makes a person who they are, their choices as much as their memories.”

Quentin rolled his eyes, shaking a finger. “Intentions are all very well and good, but memories make the man. And you know,” he moved so he was standing behind our hero, placing his hands on his shoulders and smirking over at Beck, “those memories will cause you to doubt yourself until you figure this out one way or another. Besides, I think you know what you want to do. It’s so much easier to lean into it, to play the villain, than it is to be the hero. Think about it!”

He spun away from our hero, placing a hand on Beck’s shoulder instead. “Since you ‘came to this dimension,’” he scoffed, the air quotes palpable, “you’ve, what? Gotten beat up by Peter, twice, had a building dropped on you… You’ve had all manner of criminals try to kill you multiple times. But me? I won. I survived. And I’m going to win this too.”

Beck carefully removed Quentin’s hand from his shoulder, holding it between two fingers like one might remove something they find disgusting. “You haven’t won anything. Peter beat you, managed to come out on top of all of your schemes. And we,” he directed his next comment towards our hero, pleading with him, “we made that happen. We are a hero. No tricks, no manufactured crises. We help people, every night. Not even taking into account what would have happened if Quentin’s cronies kept EDITH, how many ordinary New Yorkers do you think owe us? Maybe not their lives, but their wallets, their pets, their bikes…”

He trailed off as he held up a finger for each item on his list. “And it doesn’t matter who you used to be, it doesn’t matter who other people want you to be. What matters is who you want to be.”

“What matters is who you are,” Quentin interrupted with a roll of his eyes. “But I suppose you might not be able to figure that out right now.”

“What? Why-” Our hero didn’t get to finish his question before the walls of the bridge closed in on him, and all was dark and quiet.

-

Julian was expecting it to be harder to get Quentin to go under. The man didn’t even seem to notice as he entered the room, didn’t react as he crossed to him and ever so gently emptied the syringe of tranquilizer into his neck.

Plan B had been to drug his food, but Julian was glad he didn’t have to resort to that. Who knew whether the dose in the food would be enough to knock him out. With the syringe, the dose was precise and ensured that no shenanigans would occur. Once he was sure that Quentin was out, he gestured to the door, moving aside as a pair of Hydra technicians lifted the unconscious man onto a gurney, and strapped him in.

But they didn’t leave right away, which left Julian standing, confused, a few paces down the hallway that he had begun to walk down before he realized they weren’t following him. He quickly retraced his steps, poking his head through the open door just in time to watch the two technicians begin to draw blood samples from Quentin.

“I thought we got all the samples taken before the first time they put him through the machine? What are you doing?” Julian walked into the room, arms crossed. “Are you authorized for this?”

The technician who was supervising, holding the sample tray, rolled her eyes. “Chill out, Doctor Goodwin. Bossman says he wants more samples, we give him more samples.”

Julian raised an eyebrow as he counted the number of vials they were taking. That was more than a few samples. “What are you testing for?”

“I dunno,” the blood-taking technician replied, shrugging vaguely as he switched out vials, “But Bossman says he wants them, Bossman gets them.”

“I’ll take them to him, then.” Julian pulled the sample tray away from the woman, narrowing his eyes at her as she tried to resist for a moment before letting them go. “I want to make sure that everything here is done according to protocol. Where were you supposed to take these?”

“Packed up with all the stuff for Lab 3.” Lab 3? Julian thought that there were only two labs in the building. “You sure you want to deal with that? I got it.” The male technician withdrew the sampling syringe from Quentin’s arm, quickly replacing it with a cotton pad and some medical tape. “You should oversee getting him to the Machine anyway.”

For a moment, Julian considered it. He knew that Klein was working angles that he wasn’t aware of, but deep down he was still a doctor. If someone was taking samples from his patient, he wanted to know why. “No, I’ve got it. You two get him down to the Machine room and get him situated, I’ll bring this down to Lab 3.”

The two technicians shrugged, wheeling Quentin out of the room and towards the elevator. Julian watched them go, absentmindedly tapping the side of the sample tray. There was only one place that Lab 3 could be that he could think of – there was a second basement level below where the Machine was kept, but Julian had been told that there was nothing down there, that there was water leaking into it and it was therefore unsanitary.

He had a feeling that was probably a lie.

-

MJ was incredibly bored. It had only been two days, but it felt much longer when there wasn’t anything to do but stare at the ceiling and watch the shadows cast by the window bars move ever so slightly, and watch the IV bag drain into her arm.

The color of the liquid hadn’t changed since she woke up for the second time, still a bright emerald green that reminded her of Quentin Beck’s betrayal even when the asshole wasn’t in the room, taunting her. He hadn’t visited since the second time, and she wasn’t sure whether that was a blessing or a curse.

On the one hand, she didn’t want to see him. She was incredibly angry at him, for lying to her and to Peter not once, but twice.

On the other hand, though, she was bored. The nurses who changed the IV bag every few hours never responded to anything she said, doing their work in complete silence, not even meeting her eyes. Beck, on the other hand, however much she hated him, at least acknowledged her.

Just as she was thinking about that, the door opened.

Think of the devil, and the devil shall arrive, apparently.

“MJ! The doctors tell me you’re doing well!” he greeted her with a broad smile. It would have been friendly if it reached his eyes, or showed a few less teeth. As it was, it was a threat, not a greeting.

“Fuck you,” MJ spat, turning her head to point away from him.

“Again, you’re not my type, sorry honey.” Quentin tutted under his breath as he walked over to the IV bag, taking in its progress. “I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that this is the last of your treatments. We’ve learned so much from you – you’ll be the prototype for the new human race. An obsolete prototype, of course, we’ve made so many improvements, but maybe they’ll want to keep you as an exhibit, a relic of the first steps towards a perfect world.”

He leaned over MJ, taking her in with a cold, calculating stare.

Wait, what the hell? MJ was careful not to let the surprise show on her face, but she could have sworn that just for a moment there, Quentin had brown eyes. And then they were back to that bright, almost unnatural blue, but she was sure she had seen it.

He was saying something, but she wasn’t listening. That flicker, those other inconsistencies – the way he talked, the way he moved, how cold his hands had been when he briefly touched her that one time –

Maybe it was just part of the story, maybe none of this was real or all of it was but ever since the warehouse, MJ knew that Beck’s temperature hadn’t dropped below 100 Fahrenheit. For his hands to have been that cold…

And she knew (well, she really, really hoped enough to make it possibly be true), right then and there, that this wasn’t Beck. Maybe they had Beck, maybe not. Maybe he was helping Peter search for her. But all of this? This wasn’t real.

He seemed to be waiting for an answer from her, for whatever he had been saying, and MJ smirked at him. “Go fuck yourself.”

He rolled his eyes (still blue, maybe she hadn’t seen anything? No, it was real, it had to be real), straightening back up. “A pity. We’ll talk again soon, MJ.”

He injected something into the IV line, and it wasn’t long before the darkness reclaimed MJ as well.

-

Quentin Beck woke. Everything hurt – his head, his body, even his teeth somehow ached along with every other square inch of his being. He cracked an eye open, then another, relieved that it seemed to be night wherever he was.

He definitely wasn’t in the same room, that was for sure. He was disoriented and confused but the bed was oriented differently, the room was a little larger, and the windows on the far side was replaced with a pair of sliding glass doors that lead out onto a balcony.

He carefully pulled himself up to a sitting position on the bed, nearly collapsing back down as the room threatened to close in around him and his head spun.

How long had he been out? Absent a watch, he couldn’t tell. Someone had changed his clothes back to another set of pajamas, and there didn’t seem to be a set of normal clothing laid out for him. Judging from what he could see out the window, though, with the moon high in the sky over what appeared to be an expanse of forest, it seemed to be fairly late at night, and he definitely wasn’t where he had been last time he had been awake.

Absentmindedly twisting his watch around his wrist, he tapped the balcony door with one finger, surprised when it didn’t seem to be protected by a force field like the last window, or even locked. The door slid open easily, and as he looked out onto the grounds the answer to the question of “where the hell am I?” was easily answered by “an abandoned rehab facility I bought in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, during the Blip.”

In fact, the answer was recalled so easily and quickly that it took a few moments for him to process the fact that that should be weird, that he had never been here before, that he shouldn’t know where he was.

He carefully reached out a hand over the balcony. No forcefield. He could fly out of here right now if he wanted to.

But he didn’t, for some reason. This place felt like home.

Well, he had spent almost four years living here.

Had he?

He shook his head, as if that would clear the intrusive thoughts fighting for dominance in his mind, turning and walking back inside.

The rooms were familiar. His bedroom, small and basic, attached to a similarly small and basic bathroom. The next room, adjoining it, would have his desk and computer.

His computer! He rushed inside, taking a seat at the familiar desk and waiting for the desktop to boot up. He typed in his password on instinct (only pausing to note after pressing enter that it should be weird, it should be weird that he knew his password was Gr3@t&p0w3rful0z), easily navigating through his database until –

The file’s name was “Watch Me,” and was dated to early June, before Beck had arrived on this Earth.

He clicked it.

The window opened, and he was staring at himself, bruised and battered, half-healed gashes on his face.

“If you’re watching this,” he said, “Then I’m dead. Metaphorically speaking. If I’m me, then I know what this file is, and would have deleted it without bothering to watch it. I know me, I’m not sentimental. I don’t need to watch myself talk.”

All of these words were true, and somehow he remembered saying them.

“I know if I stay me, it’ll only be a matter of time until someone realizes that I’m still alive. Parker is resourceful, and Fury is just enough of a bastard to not let this go unless he’s positive I’m dead, and while the body double is pretty convincing, it won’t be enough.” The Beck on the screen pinched the bridge of his nose in irritation, sighing slightly. “So I’m coming out of the shadows first. Give myself a fake history in a way that even if Strange gets involved, he won’t be able to tell the difference. But there’s a risk.”

He looked up, digital eyes meeting flesh and blood ones. “This technology is new, untested. I believe in it, but there’s a chance that I’ll… forget, that I won’t come back all the way. So I need you to remember, Quentin. Don’t get caught up in sentimentality and heroism. You have a job to do, a purpose that you believe in. Do your job.”

The video ended, and Beck stood, shakily, nauseous. The words slotted neatly into holes in his memory that he didn’t even know were there.

Mirror, he needed to find a mirror. He didn’t want this to be true, didn’t want to think that he was the man in the video, but it was seeming more and more likely, more and more impossible that he was a Sorcerer from another dimension. Occam’s razor, think of the most likely outcome. Scientist or Sorcerer. Engineer or soldier?

He wasn’t sure as he stared at himself in the bathroom mirror, splashing water on his face like that would change something, wash away a disguise to reveal the truth.

Somehow he expected himself to look different, to be obviously evil. He wasn’t expecting horns or anything, but maybe he was expecting that broken, unhinged look he remembered when he saw Prime in his dreams.

But there wasn’t anything different. It was just him, water droplets in his eyelashes and beard, nicer-than-normal clothes, terror in his blue eyes.

“My name is Quentin Beck,” he whispered to his reflection, and while true, it felt like it was missing something.

“My name is Doctor Quentin Beck,” he said again, and the words run true in his head.

No, no, please no.

“People call me Quentin.”

And it was true, it was all true. He left the bathroom, shaking his head as he paced back and forth for a moment before flinging himself onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling as the enormity of the revelation made him almost sick to his stomach.

And yet, not? There was a part of him, slowly growing, that was proud of what he had accomplished, that looked on the casualty total as a badge of honor, of the destruction wrought across the world by his illusions and drones, of making naïve Peter Parker believe (not once, but twice!) that he was the good guy.

Look at all he had accomplished! Holograms beyond Stark’s personal therapy tool. Revolutionary memory altering technology. Technology capable of harnessing the power of the Tesseract still left in the world after the stone was wiped from existence to create real, tangible, almost magic.

He stood again, absentmindedly twisting his watch and wristband, pulling another spark of magic out of the air and looking at it in vague amusement. The technology required to do this was amazing, he barely remembered how he had managed it in the first place, but it felt good, to really wield the power of the heroes. Watching a hologram of himself fight another hologram was fun, but it was all smoke and mirrors. Now he understood what it was like for the other heroes of the world, the adrenaline rush that came from wielding powers most mortals could only imagine.

He walked back over to the mirror, staring at himself steadily until a small smirk spread across his face.

Quentin cracked his neck, the smirk widening into a smile that showed a few too many teeth. He was back, goddamn it. He’d hit a few speed bumps along the way, but everything was right with the world now.

Because he was Quentin Fucking Beck. He was Mysterio. And he would give this world a hero to believe in with all the style and panache that they had been missing since Tony Stark decided to tone it down a notch, to settle down and be a boring asshole who didn’t know a genius invention when it came from a source other than his own brain.

Peter Parker wasn’t going to know what hit him. And Quentin couldn’t wait to throw the first punch.

Chapter Text

The heroes of New York City slowly filtered into the Parker apartment over the course of the next day after Peter called them in on the group chat. The atmosphere was confused, but excited – Peter had been intentionally vague in his message, only saying that he thought he might have a way to track where the people who had taken MJ and Beck had gone.

May was hovering, never straying far from Peter’s side. At any other time, he might have found it annoying, but now he leaned comfortably into her side on the couch as Matt, the last of the group summoned, arrived.

It was Hope who spoke first, perched on the arm of one of the plush armchairs near the window with Scott’s arm slung over her shoulder. “Peter, it’s been almost a week since they went missing. I know you’re desperate to find your friends, but we’re all starting to run out of time and options. How sure are you that whatever your current idea is will work?”

Ok, well, when you put it like that, not very. Peter frowned, looking down and not meeting anyone’s eyes as he ran his index finger back and forth over his thumbnail. “I know this might be a long shot, but last night I was thinking about what this Hydra group has at their disposal, and I was worrying about what they might be doing with the Tesseract, and then it hit me. The Avengers had to have some way to track the Tesseract when Loki was after it, right? And we have a member of the original Avengers here!”

He gestured towards Clint, whose expression had gone cold and stony over the course of Peter’s suggestion. “So I was hoping maybe you knew how they did it the first time?” Peter trailed off as Clint sighed, still frowning slightly.

No one else seemed to know why Clint was so uncomfortable, either. The archer continued not meeting anyone’s eyes as the tension grew, finally sighing. “I wasn’t… I wasn’t there when Bruce and Tony figured out how to track the Tesseract.”

The other heroes in the room met eyes for a moment, Scott continuing the line of questioning. “So, if you weren’t there, but you were at the battle of New York, where were you?”

“Germany.”

The answer was quiet, and Peter noted how Clint’s hand flexed for a moment like he wished he had his bow in his hand. “What were you doing there?”

Clint finally looked up. “When Loki first came though the portal, he was looking for minions. The scepter had the mind stone in it, and he used it to control the minds of several people in the facility where the Tesseract was being held. Myself included.”

He looked around the room, waiting to gauge their reactions. Scott looked horrified, quickly meeting eyes with Peter, who wore a similar expression. Hope’s face was blank, but Peter could see a faint glint of sadness in her eyes. Matt, as usual, was inscrutable as he leaned against the doorframe leading into the living room. Kate, hanging near Clint as always, gently reached up and patted his arm, encouraging him to continue.

When no one spoke, Clint continued. “Nat…” he paused for a second – it still hurt to even say her name – “Nat managed to snap me out of it afterwards, after they had already gotten the location of the Tesseract in New York City and needed all hands on deck to fight the invasion. But how they got the location…” He shook his head in disappointment and something almost like shame, “I don’t know. Maybe Pepper would have files from that whole,” he made a vague hand gesture, “experience, she’d probably be the only one who’s still around who would know. I’m sorry, Peter, I really am. If I knew how they did it the first time it might work again.”

He turned, as if to leave, but Peter jumped out of his chair to stop him. “Alright, so you don’t know how they did it the first time. But Clint, Scott,” he addressed his second comment across the room, “You two helped track the stones the second time around. Anything you remember about the Tesseract, the Space Stone, any of it, it might help us track it this time.”

Scott shrugged, shifting his position slightly. “We tracked them through time to places we knew that they’d be. I helped Tony and Steve find the Tesseract in New York in 2012, but that was all planned based on recollections from people who were there at the time. We just needed to get the case away from Tony in 2012 and we were supposed to be home free. Obviously, things went a little sideways but…” he trailed off, shrugging again. “That’s not really all that helpful now.”

“Yeah, that whole planning session was more of a history lecture than a technical briefing,” Clint muttered with a slight eye roll, starting walking back towards the door again. “And a safety lecture.”

“Wait, safety lecture?” Ned looked up from his computer where he and Peter had been composing an email to Pepper to request the files from the Battle of New York City, “What kind of safety lecture?”

“According to Cap, when the Red Skull tried to touch the Tesseract on the Valkyrie, it burned him out of existence. Infinity Stones give off a lot of radiation, even when they’re not in use, so they’re pretty dangerous to handle…” Scott trailed off, looking up at Hope as the two of them realized where that line of thinking could go. “Gamma radiation.”

“What?”

“Gamma radiation!” Scott jumped to his feet, gesturing animatedly. “It’s not something that occurs on earth in any appreciable amount that wouldn’t be shielded from here to kingdom come. If there’s gamma radiation somewhere nearby, I’d bet that that’s where they’re keeping Beck and MJ. Assuming, of course,” he qualified, “that the people with the Tesseract batteries are the same people who took them. But either way you’d be able to take out the people with the Tesseract batteries, at least.”

Without having to be asked, Ned rolled his eyes and passed the laptop over to Peter, who immediately began plugging the new search parameters into EDITH’s system. Looks like they’d have their answer in –

“Three days?” Peter sighed, tapping the keyboard. “EDITH, do you have any way to do that faster?”

“I’m sorry, Peter,” the AI replied, “But the Stark Industries satellites will need to be reconfigured to scan for gamma radiation. Once the reconfiguring is complete, the scan itself will take very little time.”

“Well then,” Matt said, standing up straight and heading for the door, “I guess we’ll see each other in three days, then.”

-

It took a little over two and a half days until EDITH returned an answer, a bright splotch of blueish gamma radiation against a backdrop of grey background noise over the Hudson into New Jersey. Several drone flybys revealed the location as an abandoned industrial building, dilapidated and falling apart, but any drones that tried to get close enough to take better scans would go dark, apparently entering some sort of interference that would disconnect them from the EDITH network.

That was enough proof for Peter that something was up with that building. The plan was simple – Scott and Hope would sneak in, shrunk, and get the lay of the land, while the rest of the team waited a short distance away. Once they located MJ and Beck, they would leave the warehouse and report back, and the team would attack as a unit.

This was why Scott was currently scaling the brick foundation of the warehouse to sneak in through a crack in the wall while Hope sat at his target, watching him struggle.

“You sure you don’t want any help?”

Scott gave her an eye roll behind his mask, redoubling his climbing efforts. “It’s a lot further up than I thought. Just because your dad gave you wings doesn’t mean-” his comment was cut short as Hope decided she had enough and flew down behind him, grabbing him around his chest and lifting him the remaining way through the crack.

They hadn’t gone more than a foot or two before the static in their ears meant that they had passed inside the interference bubble. Every one of Hope’s instincts were screaming at her that this wasn’t right, that something was wrong as they made their way along the ceiling tiles, peering down through light fixtures at the hallways and rooms below.

The place definitely wasn’t abandoned. Hope recognized several people from Peter’s briefing over a week ago on the remnants of Beck and Toomes’ crews, although there were a significant number of unknowns alongside them.

And then, they found MJ. She was asleep, restrained to the bed, a nearly empty IV bag still attached to her arm. Hope grabbed Scott as he went to jump down into the room.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Scott gestured down towards MJ, swinging from Hope’s grasp. “We found her. Shouldn’t we let her know that help is on the way?”

With a heave, Hope pulled Scott back up into the ceiling, shaking her head vigorously. “If we tell her we’re here, we risk alerting the rest of the base, and I don’t like our odds of getting out of here on our own. We find Beck, and we report back to the rest of the team. Then we go in and save her. Fifteen minutes won’t make a difference.”

They continued making their way through the warehouse, finally coming across another room that seemed like it was being used as a prison. Absent the fancy restraints, it did feature Beck, curled up asleep on a much nicer bed than MJ was given. If it weren’t for the fancy lock on the door, Hope would have wondered whether he was a prisoner at all.

But that was all they were there for. Hope was already making plans – MJ’s cell was in the basement, and the narrow window wouldn’t make it be a particularly attractive entrance. Beck’s room, however, on the second floor with a large window, could be the perfect spot. She marked it on her map, then grabbed a tighter hold on Scott as the two of them headed back to the rendezvous point.

-

Peter couldn’t keep himself still. He was a bundle of nerves perched on a low tree branch, his every move making it bounce and sway until he nearly lost his balance, catching himself by his fingertips at the last minute. Kate snorted, adjusting her bracers for the tenth time as she also shifted from foot to foot, waiting for the signal to go.

Clint and Matt were scarily still, staring down the hill from where they stood towards the warehouse, its lights starting to come on as the sun began to go down. Peter refused to take the bloody sunset as a bad omen, however ominous it may look on the river behind the warehouse, focusing instead on MJ – her sarcastic laugh, her rare but beautifully genuinely happy smiles, the way she’d say such off-beat but incredibly insightful things –

He really did fall out of the tree as Scott and Hope materialized full-sized in front of the group, brushing himself off quickly as he stood back up. “Well?”

“Beck and MJ are both in there. We think MJ may be drugged, while Beck was just asleep when we saw him. Other than the two of them, I’d estimate at least two dozen assorted engineers, scientists, technicians and guards – maybe seven or eight obviously armed, but who knows what else they might have up their sleeve.” Scott patted Peter on the shoulder. “We’re going to get them out of there. We got this.”

“Best entry point?” Matt asked, not turning his head from the warehouse, “I’m assuming the front door isn’t the best idea.”

“Beck’s being held in a room on the second floor. Big windows. Hope and I were thinking that’s probably our best point of entry.” The team looked down the hill as Scott gestured towards the windows in question. They seemed perfectly placed for a grappling line from the top of the hill to get them in.

“Alright!” Kate lined up her shot, taking a deep breath. “Let’s do this!”

-

Peter was the first to go down the line, Scott and Hope in miniaturized form tucked inside a pouch on the belt of the remade stealth suit. The glass shattered around him, and he was relieved to see Beck immediately shoot to his feet, all but catapulting off the bed as the team made their way in.

“Peter?” He tilted his head almost in confusion, looking between him and the rest of the group. “What are you doing here?”

There was something odd about the way he spoke, the emphasis on his words, it didn’t feel right. If Peter had been a little less excited about seeing his friend again he might have noticed it. Instead, he dug around in his pocket, pulling out the sling ring and offering it to Beck. “You lost this at the museum. Figured you might light it back.”

He went to drop it into Beck’s outstretched hand, freezing in confusion as it fell though, hitting the floor with a muffled thud. “What?”

“Oh, sorry.” A smirk was creeping across Beck’s face, and Peter took an instinctual half step back. He knew that look, that grin, that amusement in those eyes. “It really is a pity you’re here, because I’m certainly not.”

Peter grabbed the sling ring off the ground, getting ready for a fight. “You’re not real! What’ve you done with Beck? Where’s MJ?”

“Tsk tsk tsk,” Quentin shook his head, clicking his tongue. “I may be speaking to you through a hologram but I am very much the real Quentin Beck. These last couple months, they’ve been fun, but I think it’s time for the truth, don’t you think? Too bad you won’t live long enough to appreciate it. These old warehouses,” the hologram gently brushed a knuckle against the wall, clipping through slightly, “so unstable. What a pity Spider-Man wasn’t careful enough when he decided to test out a new type of drone. Really a pity you brought the whole crew with you, I didn’t want to have to kill all of them.”

“Where’s MJ?” everyone had their weapons out now, ready for a fight, and Quentin just rolled his eyes.

“Poor, dumb, Peter Parker. You’re so smart but so easily lead. Your princess is in another castle, I’m afraid.” He gave Peter a small, sad smile. “For what it’s worth, I’ll try to make your deaths quick and painless.”

-

Everything moved so fast after that. The hologram blinked out, the drones uncloaked, and the building started collapsing around them. Peter swore vehemently under his breath – he had had enough of collapsing buildings to last him a life time – but it seemed like they had gotten lucky to a certain extent.

Quentin’s taunting had bought the team enough time to get to the window, which meant that they escaped the collapse with little more than a rolled ankle for Matt and a few bumps and bruises spread amongst the team.

Their luck ran out as the drones poured out of the building. Peter lost count after the first dozen, focusing more on evading their fire than counting. He flipped into the air, using them as stepping stones to reach higher ones that he could use to smash apart others, but these weren’t the same drones he was used to, which would break apart like china. These barely dipped in the air as he leaped on top of one, and as he tried to pull one apart it took far more effort than he was expecting.

“EDITH! Activate Christmas Lights Protocol!” Peter yelled as he managed to knock a drone into the path of an arrow fired by Clint, glad to see that the archer’s explosive arrows were working as well as they normally did. His suit shifted slightly around him, and he could feel the slightly thicker weight of the spider symbol on his chest as the suit reconfigured itself to allow for the overpowered taser webs that had managed to take out drones before.

As he flipped from drone to drone, he was barely aware of what was happening around him. Scott had grown to twice his normal size, batting drones out of the air like flies as Matt protected Clint and Kate on the ground as they fired shot after shot at the drones that just kept pouring out of the building. The ground was littered with debris and yet they still showed no signs of stopping coming until Peter counted at least fifty drones in the air firing down at them.

Peter saw it too late, an oversized drone hovering in the center of the formation with a green laser pointed directly at Kate. He moved too slowly, tapping the symbol on his chest to down the drones he had tagged, leaping at it too late to stop the heavy sniper bullet from being fired.

Clint moved faster, pushing Kate out of the way and for a moment Peter was positive that both of them had been hit from the amount of blood that was spattered onto the shellshocked woman. Peter froze, not even noticing as the last of the drones crashed to the ground thanks to Scott and Hope, rushing over to where Clint lay, unmoving on the ground.

“Shit,” Hope swore under her breath, taking in the hole punched through Clint’s shoulder, an opening the size of a quarter at least laying bare muscle and bone as the man lay perfectly still, blood leaking from the corner of his mouth.

“EDITH?”

“Agent Barton is alive, although he is almost certainly going into shock, and with the current rate of blood loss will almost certainly perish within the next ten minutes if left untreated.”

Without even thinking, Peter kneeled down, hoping that the newest protocol programmed into the suit would work. “EDITH, First Aid protocol.” The suit shifted around his hands, nanites crawling into the hole in Clint’s arm and around the wound, cleaning and sterilizing it before working to stop the bleeding. Peter didn’t pull his hands away until the nanites stopped moving and the outer layer hardened into a layer of shiny black material, sealing the wound. He flinched as a vague moan escaped from Clint’s mouth before the man finally fell unconscious, the sedatives released by the nanites finally taking effect.

“EDITH?”

“Yes, Peter?”

Peter collapsed on the ground next to Clint, staring up at the blood-red sky. “Can you call an ambulance, please?”

“Absolutely, Peter.”