It was a scene straight from a postcard. A blue sky, with clouds here and there, and a huge field full of tulips, their colours creating a striped pattern on the ground. In the distance, behind a line of trees, a mill could be seen. Another thing the Netherlands was famous for.
At the edge of the field, someone stepped on the path that divided it in two. He was dressed in an orange t-shirt with a small lion on its chest. This gave the impression that he was a supporter of the Dutch soccer team. There had, after all, been a game that day against Spain as trials for the World Cup next year.
And yet he looked rather strange. Though his orange t-shirt was whole, his black pants had slices in them in several places, as if something sharp had cut it. This could be choice of fashion, of course, but that did not explain the fact that his face was dirty, full of grime and his hair a mess. And even less the blood that could be seen caking his face.
Peter Parker started to cross the field, a small limp in his step and a hand on his ribs. Looking around, he knew he was at the right place. It made sense to meet here. This brightly coloured field was both noticeable from the ground as well as from the sky and the only one around. Yet, he wished Happy had chosen a different location. One where he could sit down while he waited, for one.
He knew that Tony Starks previous head of security would be here as soon as possible, if Happy’s voice was any indication. The past year, their trust had built immensely. Now, Happy took Peter seriously when he said it was an emergency. But the fact remained that to fly all the way from New York City to however-the-place-Peter-was-at-was-called, even in a jet from Stark Industries, was going to take a couple of hours. Hours Peter had to wait in this field because it had almost literally been around the corner from the market he was at before.
He slowly walked on, careful not to put too much weight on his right leg. He didn’t trust standing on it yet. Peter weighted his options. Logically, he could go back to the village and find a place to sit down for a moment. His breathing quickened slightly from the thought alone as fear creeped up his chest.
When he had woken up in a cell with a couple of fanatic, yet very friendly Dutch supporters, he had been in too much of a shock to really think about his situation. He left the cell in a dazed state, only able to think how good their English was, and how nice they were. Once he had been able to contact Happy Hogan, way faster than he could have imagined had he been in the same situation in New York, reality came crashing in. Or more, the fear that this might be anything but a reality.
Someone had addressed him but Peter hadn’t heard. Could this still be one of Beck’s illusions? To lure him into a false sense of security only to attack again? If so, he wouldn’t let that happen. He had to stay focussed, question everything his senses told him. If this was real, then he should make sure that Beck couldn’t find him. Couldn’t find out he was still alive. And that meant getting away from this place, where people would see him and camera’s might be present. He already attracted attention by being a foreigner.
A hand on his shoulder had shaken him from his thoughts. A woman had stood in front of him and asked if he was alright. He had quickly assured he was fine and sidestepped her, hasting towards the nearest street, hiding his limping as much as he could. Getting away from people and towards what he had hoped was a secluded but safe place to await Happy’s arrival.
And secluded this place was. On the other side there was a house, the only one in a mile radius, as far as he could tell. It was quiet except from the wind that rustled the flowers around him. He saw no one.
Peter took a few steadying breaths in the middle of the field. Turning back was not an option. He guessed the best thing to do was to sit here and wait. He was never able to do so.
‘’Hoe vaak moet ik het nog zeggen?! Dit is privé terrein.’’
Peter jumped slightly and turned around to the direction of the voice. From one corner of the field, a woman walked towards him with long strides, making grand gestures while she spoke loudly.
‘’Voor het station moet je gewoon omlopen. Het boeit me niet dat dit korter is.’’ She continued. She seemed angry.
He froze on the spot. For a moment he considered making a break for it. But when she was a dozen or so feet away, the woman stopped in her tracks. She had stopped shouting too and instead of looking angry, she looked more like confused.
‘’Gaat het wel?’’ She said on a normal volume. It sounded like a question as she frowned.
‘’Eh. I-I don’t-’’ Peter tried but he cut off.
Those words had an immediate effect. At once, her confused expression turned to one of surprise.
‘’I said: Are you alright?’’
She switched to English as easy as the other Dutch people had done so far.
‘’Yeah. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. Is this field-‘’ Peter rambled. But before he could continue, she startled him again by crossing those last few feet. He tried to stumble back, desperate to keep somewhat distance between them, but forgot his injured foot. A flash of pain swept through his leg. He let out a yelp and fell to the ground.
He didn’t try to get up immediately. He felt ached all over and felt miserable. Already he got startled twice and then he hadn’t been able to turn his fall into a simple roll. His exhaustion must have been impairing his reflexes. The hope he had gained briefly after speaking to Happy was nowhere to be found. He rolled with a groan onto his back, staring up at the sky.
And then into face covered with freckles.
‘’Are you okay? I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I just thought I saw blood.’’ Her eyes widened. ‘’There really is blood on you face! What happened to you?’’
She reached out a hand to him but pulled back as Peter winched.
‘’Where are you hurt?’’ she asked. Her posture had turned into what Peter could only describe as business-like. She had taken a step back to give him some space and put her hands in her hips.
As it sounded more like an order than a question Peter felt almost obliged to answer. ‘’I think there’s a cut on my right shoulder, the ribs on my left ache and my right ankle throbs if I put weight on it.’’ He listed.
He was aware that it was obvious that he was hurt, therefore that he had to name at least something. The truth was, there were a lot more injuries. But these were the major ones and Peter would avoid awkward explanations about super healing if he could help it.
‘’You think you can move?’’ She asked.
‘’Where did you think I came from? I live there.’’ She pointed at the nearest house. ‘’And you’re lucky. I know First Aid. So come on then, get off your but and let’s look at those injuries. Preferably in a more comfortable setting.’’
She put out her hand again, albeit more slowly. Peter looked at it for a moment, then back at her and came to a decision. He took it to hoist himself up. Hyper aware for any possible danger or trickery, Peter leaned with his hand slightly on her shoulder as they made their way to the house.
The house was rather big. At least it seemed big on the inside. Almost every wall consisted of windows which gave a beautiful view of the tulip field and the surrounding green. The natural light that filtered through created a golden glow in the room. The room that was both living room, dining room and kitchen, the latter only separated by a counter.
This, Peter thought, is the perfect descriptor for the word ‘cosy’, as they entered into the kitchen through a side door. The warm colours, the comfortable looking couches but most of all the many, many trinkets that scattered the room. Photographs on dressers, a painting on the wall, books lining the shelves, childish handcrafts on the mantelpiece.
Peter felt a little homesick as he sat down at the dining table.
‘’So, yeah. Welcome, I guess? Oh I’m Vanessa by the way.’’ She gestured awkwardly around the room while she sat down opposite him.
‘’I’m uh, I’m Ned.’’ Peter answered quickly. Although it became more and more unlikely that this was an illusion made by Quentin Beck, he didn’t want to take any chances.
‘’Okay, Ned. Can you tell me how you got those injuries?’’
A memory flashed before his eyes. A train only visible in his periphery, the fear within as he realized too late that he was standing on a train track, a gun pointed at his face and behind it Beck’s eyes shining with a maniac glint.
‘’Hey, hey, Ned. Can you hear me?’’ Peter pulled himself from the flashback. Vanessa stood crouched before him a hand on his knee.
‘’Are you alright? You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, okay? I just wanted to assess the situation. To find hidden injuries you might not have noticed, that’s all’’ She spoke softly.
Peter realized he was shaking, his breathing fast again. Trying to recover himself, he combed his hands through his hair and took a few deep breaths.
‘’I’m fine now, really.’’ He tried.
Vanessa raised her eyebrows sceptically. ‘’You’re not, but that is okay. Let’s just take a look then, yeah?’’ Peter nodded.
It was strange. Peter had noticed as they’d made their way to the house that Vanessa actually looked quite young. Younger than aunt May, for sure. Maybe, even just a couple of years older than himself. 25 years tops. Yet, the way she acted now made her seem older somehow. Maybe it was her height, she was rather tall, or the way she carried herself with a confidence Peter only found within himself when he was Spider-Man.
‘’Let’s look at your shoulder first. Can you take of your shirt for me please?’’ The question, Peter thought, could have been rather funny. However it seemed that Vanessa had flipped on a switch. She was in a professional modus.
Peter did as he was told, wincing as his ribs and shoulder protested at the movements. He removed both the orange shirt and the upper half of what had remained of his Night Monkey suit and prayed that Vanessa wouldn’t notice the odd garment he had acquired in Austria. He assessed his own skin quickly. He had been right not to mention the minor injuries. Almost all had healed, leaving only little blood stains behind on his chest and arms.
Vanessa, meanwhile, had rumbled in one of the dressers and pulled out a first aid kit with a triumphant sound. She inspected the deep cut on his shoulder arm and then his ribs. There was a large purple and blue bruise visible and when she pushed at them, Peter immediately pulled back with a loud ‘’Ow.’’ He was glad that if she noticed his excessive amount of abs, courtesy of the spider bite, she didn’t comment on them.
‘’Well,’’ Vanessa sat down when she was finished. ‘’I can’t say anything about the ribs. Like, whether they are broken or not. You should really see a doctor for that. The cut on you shoulder is rather deep, I think that acquires stitches but I don’t have the equipment for that. Sorry. Again, see a doctor. The best we can to about it for now is clean and bandage it until the hospital. That I can do. I think a shower is the best course of action.’’ Peter agreed that a shower was in order but didn’t feel comfortable leaving Vanessa out of his sight. He couldn’t be sure that she was reality.
‘’You can put you shirt on again for now, I’ll look at your ankle first. See if it needs ice and rice.’’
‘’If it needs what?’’ asked Peter.
‘’Ice and RICE. It stands for Ice and Rest, Immobilisation, Compression and Elevation. Ice and RICE.’’ Vanessa said simply.
His ankle turned out to be swollen, and it still hurt when he put weight on it. Luckily not as much as before. He could walk at least five steps on his own and after taking his shoes off Vanessa checked for possible fracture and concluded that it was unlikely to be broken.
‘’Since it’s not too bad, I think it would be best if you took a shower now. Afterward I’ll wrap your foot and shoulder, alright? Then you should go to the hospital.’’ Vanessa concluded while washing her hands in the kitchen sink.
‘’Yeah, about that.’’ Peter started. He wrung his hands together and thought carefully about what to say. ‘’I’m sorry. It’s really nice of you, miss, to let me use the shower but you really don’t have to do that.’’
They bickered for a minute about using the shower, with Peter deflecting Vanessa’s every attempt to convince him. Eventually she seemed to give up. Without saying another word, she pulled out a tile from underneath the sink and filled it with warm water. She put it in front of him with a decisive thud, then produced a towel and a washcloth out of nowhere and stared at him. Then at the tile. And back at him again. A silent argument crossed between them.
‘’Fine.‘’ Peter gave in. ‘’Give me that.’’ And he took the washcloth.
‘’Foot up.’’ Vanessa ordered. She placed another chair under his leg. ‘’I’ll put this on it for now. I’ll wrap it later. Or won’t you let me do that, either?’’ There was a slightly threatening tone in her voice as she put some ice wrapped in a towel on it. Finding satisfaction at the flinch Peter gave from the sudden cold on his foot.
They worked in silence for a while. Peter washing first his face, then his shoulder and his arm. Meanwhile Vanessa made tea and bandaged his shoulder after cleaning it extra with alcohol. As she started wrapping his foot with a stronger dressing, she broke the silence with forced nonchalance.
‘’So, may I ask what you were doing in my field?’’
Peter tensed slightly. ‘’I, eh, I’m meeting someone.’’
‘’In a tulip field?’’ Vanessa looked at him sceptically.
‘’Yeah, well, I mean. Someone is going to pick me up here.’’ He corrected.
‘’Oh.’’ She relaxed a bit. ‘’That’s good to hear. For a moment I was afraid you might have run away or something. You here on a holiday then?’’
‘’Something like that. School trip, actually.’’
‘’Cool. You’re American right? And in high school? Then your school trip is quite far from home.’’
Peter nodded absentmindedly. He was far from home. The past few days he had felt incredibly far from home. Right now, in this cosy house, was the first time in a while that home didn’t feel as far away anymore. Happy was on his way, they would fix this mess and soon he would see May again. He tried to push all the other and anxious thoughts that circled him out of his mind.
‘’You like your trip so far?’’ Vanessa inquired.
Glad to have a distraction, he turns his attention back to her. ‘’To be honest, not really. A lot of things went wrong. And I got separated so…’’ He trailed off.
‘’Well then, do you have any idea when your teacher is going to arrive here?’’
Right, he told her he would be picked up. During a school trip. After he got separated. Peter considered talking around the arrival of Happy Hogan. But in an hour or so, a plane would land here. He felt he’d better prepare her for what was to come. Or at least for the most part.
‘’Vanessa, there is something I have to tell you. The person who’s going to pick me up is not my teacher but a friend of the family. He’ll be here in about two hours, I think. And he’s going to land a plane in the field.’’
‘’Two hours, that’s fine. Wait, what?’’
Vanessa snapped her neck away from his foot to his face. She stared at him with narrowed eyes, searching his face, probably for a sign that he was joking.
‘’Not your teacher.’’ She said slowly. ‘’He’s going to land a plane.’’
Peter couldn’t help but smile. ‘’Yep.’’
‘’You’re kidding right?’’
‘’You can’t land a plane here!’’ She exclaimed flinging her hands up.
‘’Did I say plane? I meant private jet. And it can land here. Stark Industries jets have a hover function that allows them to land in any place as long as the surface is large enough in diameter, which your field is. He checked.’’
A silence fell.
‘’Let me finish this first.’’ She focussed back on his foot and finished wrapping it. She sat back in her chair. ‘’Let me get this straight. This person –‘’
‘’Happy’’ Peter interrupted.
‘’His name is Happy’’ He clarified.
‘’Okay, according to you, Happy who for some reason has access to a jet, is going to land that in my tulip field? To pick you up, a teenager who’s on a school trip?’’ Vanessa summarized sceptically.
‘’Yeah, basically.’’ At her incredulous look, he added desperately. ‘’I know it sounds stupid but please don’t ask me why and believe me. Happy used to be head of security at SI and is a friend of mine. He told me to meet me at your field because it’s noticeable from the sky.’’
She thought about it for a moment and suddenly she jumped up from her seat. ‘’He’s going to land a plane in the tulip field.’’ She stared at Peter with wide eyes.
‘’Yeah. I just told you that multiple times.’’ Her sudden fear made him feel unsure.
‘’That man is going to place a vehicle on top of hundreds of flowers. Flowers that, for your information, are not only a national icon but also the main income of our family business.’’ There was thunder in her eyes and her voice rose as she spoke.
Peters mouth fell open. ‘’It is?!’’
‘’Yeah it is!’’ Vanessa shouted and paced around the room. ‘’You are going to land a plane on the flowers?! While it is literally surrounded by grassy fields? What were you thinking?!’’
‘’Because it is noticeable from the sky?’’ Peter tried again in a small voice. Understanding rose within him and with it the feeling of guilt because she was absolutely right. All around them, he could see green meadows. Some occupied by cows but most empty. Oops. Peter winced internally.
‘’Stark Industries will pay you the expenses, I swear. When I speak with Happy, he’ll understand. He’ll fix it.’’ He stated, the first desperate solution he could think of, and sure that it was true. Happy would do that for her, for him, if he asked. Yet, he couldn’t help but feel like it sounded too easy.
Vanessa snorted in response. ‘’Sure that’s great.’’ She said sarcastically. She took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘’I’m sorry Ned, that’s very nice of you if you could pull that off. However it isn’t that simple. If we’re not able to sell this year, our regular buyers will lose trust and switch to rivalling companies, which will result in losses for I don’t know how many years. Not to mention ruining our family name.’’
‘’Oh.’’ Was all Peter could say. Then there was a Starkphone thrust in his face.
‘’Here.’’ Vanessa held it out to him. ‘’You call this ‘Happy’ and tell him to land somewhere else.’’
‘’You have a Starkphone!?’’ said Peter surprised. He took it.
‘’Yes. I don’t live in a cave. Also tell him about your injuries and that you need to see a doctor. I’ll make us some more tea.’’ She ordered. She stood up and went to the kitchen, taking the tile back with her.
‘’So much for the stereotype of the incredibly kind Dutchman.’’ Peter muttered.
‘’I heard that!’’
Peter quickly dialled Happy again.
The crisis averted and wounds tended to, Peter tested out his foot by walking around the house. Although much bigger, it reminded him a lot of his apartment back in Queens. There was just so much stuff that undoubtedly all had its own story. Looking out into the courtyard, he spotted a few bicycles against the wall of what probably was a barn.
He heard Vanessa’s voice from the kitchen and although the volume was normal, he couldn’t make out what she said. He turned to her. ‘’Hmm, sorry. What did you say?’’
Vanessa laughed lightly in reply. ‘’Nothing. I was singing something in Dutch for a moment, my bad.’’
It was the first time Peter saw her laughing and it made her immediately look younger. More like what her physical age suggested at least.
‘’Is one of those your bike?’’ He pointed out the window.
‘’Yes, mine is the one with the crate on the front. With flowers around the handle.’’ She explained and made her way over with two steaming cups of tea. They settled on the couch. ‘’You can put your foot on the coffee table.’’
‘’Are you sure?’’ Feet off the table was one of the few rules May never seemed to make an exception for.
She hummed in agreement and they both fell silent. Though Vanessa seemed comfortable, Peter couldn’t help but feel awkward with the lack of sound and the tea in his hand. He glanced out the window to give himself something to do. This one looked out at a meadow, and the meadow behind it, and the one behind that one until a line of trees and what might be a road.
‘’It’s so flat.’’ He blurted out. He blushed and quickly pretended to drink some tea even though it was still too hot. Vanessa laughed again.
‘’Yep, welcome to the Netherlands. You sound surprised. Haven’t you noticed yet?’’
‘’Well, I fell asleep on the train. That’s how I got stranded here in the first place.’’ He said sort of truthfully.
‘’You have really shitty teachers if they forgot to wake you up.’’ She remarked. Peter knew they hadn’t forgotten him of course but he did agree with her statement. They were immensely oblivious.
‘’It’s basically the reason why we use bicycles so much. The flatness, I mean. Not too many hills. Although the wind can make it just as exhausting.’’ She continued to say.
‘’847 thousand bicycles in Amsterdam.’’ He mumbled, suddenly remembering that particular fact.
‘’Huh, really? How do you know that?’’
‘’I’m part of the school’s Decathlon team.’’ Peter said simply.
Vanessa’s look was blank. ‘’The what?’’
Peter explained about the Decathlon team at his high school and then about their team winning the regional championship in DC. That is, until he heard a rumbling sound that came from outside coming nearer.
They went outside together, Peter pretending to need support, long before Vanessa was able to hear the noise as well. He looked smug as he observed Vanessa watching the plane. Her mouth open in spite of his warning. His smug look turned shortly into a huge grin. Happy had arrived. Finally someone he could trust, who had answers, who would help him. A surge of hope and happiness swept through him.
The plane landed gracefully onto the grass, the tulips untouched at the other side of a ditch. The wind swept their hair around. Vanessa held her hand on her forehead to keep her it out of the way and muttered something that sounded like growling.
‘’What was that?’’ Peter said loudly.
‘’I said: ‘Godverdomme. Die klootzak sprak de waarheid.’’’ She answered above the noise.
‘’What does that mean?’’
‘’Well, ‘Godverdomme’ means something like OMG. And then I said that you spoke the truth. You being the ‘klootzak’.’’ The engine turned lower, the noise faded a little.
‘’And do I want to know what a ’klootzak’ is?’’ Peter asked carefully.
Vanessa turned to him and simply smiled mysteriously. ‘’You call someone a ‘klootzak’ when you really like them.’’
Before Peter had time to process what this may or may not imply a familiar voice called out.
He could hear Happy’s voice from the plane even before the walkway was entirely down. And there he was. Happy Hogan scrambled down and made his way over to the duo. Peter was finally safe, finally certain that he was not alone. No, not sure yet. This could be an imposter. A lie.
‘’Stop!’’ Peter yelled before Happy could come nearer. He couldn’t fall for Becks tricks again. He wouldn’t! Happy had stopped. Peter tried to supress the fear within himself and tried to think logically. ‘’Tell me something only you would know.’’ He asked Happy who frowned at his request. Vanessa probably did too but Peter had only eyes for the man in front of him. This was the moment of truth.
‘’Only I would know. Uh.. Oh! Remember when we went to Germany? You pay-per-viewed a movie in your room? They didn’t list the title but I could tell by the price it was an adult film at the front desk. And you didn’t know how I knew –‘’
Peter interrupted him, feeling extremely embarrassed. So far for an epic moment of revelation. ‘’Okay! Okay, fine! It’s you! It’s you, it’s you. Stop!’’ He heard Vanessa snickering on his left.
They turned to each other. ‘’Well, stay safe Ned.’’ Vanessa started, the emphasis on ‘Ned’. ‘’And maybe see a doctor, Peter.’’ She looked sly. ‘’Klootzak, inderdaad.’’ She mumbled.
Peter ducked his head a little. ‘’Yeah, sorry about that. I was just… Scared I guess.’’
She waved it away. ‘’It’s okay. Will you do me a favour? Next time you need a fake name, how about you think of me? Maybe use something like ‘Holland’. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?’’
He beamed at her and stepped in for a hug, certain now, that it was safe. ‘’I’ll keep it in mind. Bye Vanessa, find me if you’re ever in Queens, will you?’’
He made his way towards Happy, hugged him too and together they got into the plane. And though Peter knew it was unlikely that it would happen, he really hoped they would meet again someday.
Peter walked into Stark Tower humming under his breath to the song that was popping into his ears. He was feeling great. It was Friday, he got out of school early and was now heading for his internship at the R&D department. Later today, he would patrol for a while and after he had a date planned with MJ. He was totally going to take her for a swing. She was going to love it.
‘’Hi, FRIDAY!’’ He said cheerfully to the ceiling of the elevator he’d entered. He took his earbuds out.
‘’Good afternoon, Peter.’’ A women’s voice replied out of nowhere. ‘’A package has arrived for you. It can be found on the table in your private quarters. Would you like to head there?’’
‘’What do you mean? I didn’t order anything.’’ Peter said, confused. ‘’You haven’t led Ned order anything have you?’’ He squeaked. Happy wouldn’t like that.
‘’No, I have not. It appears to be a present. I suggest you find it, before you continue with your internship.’’ FRIDAY said.
‘’Alright. let’s check it out. Any idea what it is?’’ The doors closed and the lift went up.
‘’If I would tell you, then it wouldn’t really be a present anymore.’’ The A.I. answered dryly. ‘’However, a card was included. Would you like to hear what it says?’’
Peter nodded. ‘’Yeah, thanks Fri.’’
‘’Hey Ned, -’’ She started and Peter frowned. ‘’Thank you, for not letting them die. Hopefully you, Peter, are whole and well too. May these bring colour in your life and the lives of those around you. If you need me, you know where to find me. You’re a true klootzak and I hope to see you again someday. Groetjes uit Holland, V.’’ FRIDAY stopped for a moment. ‘’Peter, are you aware of the meaning of the word ‘klootzak’?’’
Peter laughed at that. ‘’Yeah, I’m aware, Fri. It’s a joke, I think. Was that it?’’
‘’No, there is also a post scriptum that says: ‘’Happy knows how I got the address.’’ Do you know who sent you this?’’ The A.I. sounded curious.
‘’Yeah, I met her in the Netherlands.’’ Peter stepped out of the elevator with a grin. He had a feeling he knew what was waiting for him.