September passes in a string of memories so vague that all Peter and Harley can remember of it is the vicious scramble of visiting colleges, drafting supplemental essays, taking the SATs, ACTs, and subject tests, and submitting as many early applications as they possibly can.
Seeing as Tony is funding their efforts, both boys find it prudent to apply to as many top-rate universities as possible. (Anyone who questions their decision to remain firmly along the east coast can choke on one, honestly.) Tony takes them to Columbia, NYU, and Baruch. May and Pepper take them to Lehigh and Lafayette. Rhodey tags along for a weekend in Cambridge to hit MIT, Boston College, and Boston University. Nat comes upstate to Syracuse and Cornell with them, and proceeds to tell Tony he should move to Ithaca when he retires. (Tony looks sort of thoughtful at that. Peter and Harley share a glance. Ithaca is nice- lots of orchards, incredible gorges, wide open spaces and blissful quiet- which makes it hard to imagine Tony there. He’d probably start wearing flannels and eating tempeh or something, adopt a cow maybe.) They go to Rutgers, laugh really hard, and leave before the tour is over.
It’s nice to do it with Tony: for all three of them to be taking notes in their own little wire-bound journals, ink smudging the sides of their hands and getting pressed onto their cheeks as they inevitably zone out in the back of a hot classroom with seventy other prospective students and their families. It’s terribly domestic. And Tony is pragmatic: he’s good at keeping them grounded, at reminding them what’s important. (What he says: quality of education is important, your happiness is important, comfort is important. What they are reminded of: staying as near to each other as possible is important.)
October sneaks up in a strand of noisy pep rallies and exhaustive AP Lit practice essays that knock Peter flat on his ass and then kick him in the ribs for good measure. He sleeps like a comatose rock for several consecutive nights for the first time in his memory. It’s quiet. Things are looking up, even as the temperature dips.
Everything is orange in that mid-autumn way and Harley, for one, couldn’t be happier about it. Fall is the best time of year. It is. Undoubtedly. It’s goddamn excellent. The city air gets a little crisper, the humidity finally dissipating. It feels easier to breathe. Whatever trees spot the length of the sidewalks turn crimson and umber and Harley finds himself collecting leaves rather than kicking them. He presses them between books and glues them into notebook pages; he dries them out and hangs them from the ceiling of his bedroom on strands of twine like mobiles. He switches to tea from coffee and teaches Pepper how to cook spaghetti squash with lots of garlic powder.
And, when the time comes, he rounds up the troops for a family meeting and insists they go to a haunted house on the evening of Halloween. He found an advertisement flyer in his backpack halfway through the school day and was immediately smitten with the idea.
“I’ll be out of town, sweetheart,” May says, looking frustrated, perched on the arm of a couch with a bottle of dark beer in her hand. “I wish I could have come, but the timing is shit.”
“So, the universe hates us,” Harley frowns.
“Pretty avidly,” May agrees. “You all go anyway. It’ll be fun, just you boys and the Stark half of the family.”
“I’ll take lots of pictures of them screaming for you,” he tells her.
“I expect no less from you,” she says.
“Wait a hot second,” Bucky says, holding up one hand. “Lemme get this straight. You’re forcing us to come with you to a haunted house on Halloween. What if we don’t wanna?”
“Death,” says Harley, ignoring the handsome purse of Bucky’s lips. He has gotten quite good at ignoring it, truly. “Then death.”
“Ah,” says Bucky, and he nods. “Carry on.”
“You all have to wear costumes or I’ll never forgive you,” Harley says, pointing at all of them in a sweeping motion and ending with Tony, “and if you and Pepper don’t go as Sandy and Danny from Grease then I’ll physically fight you both.”
Pepper brushes a finger over Tony’s chin and hums, “tell me about it, stud.”
Tony claps a hand to his chest and scoots down on the couch as if melting. “You complete me, Miss Potts.”
She cackles and musses his hair, shooting a wink at Harley. She mouths, good plan.
He grins back easily and throws his hands as if saying I know. “Steve and Bucky are gonna be Ernie and Bert, respectively.”
Steve nods solemnly. “I understood that reference.”
“Harley and I are going as Arthur and Buster from that really old cartoon Arthur,” says Peter. “I’m Arthur and he’s Buster, of course.”
“Of course,” Harley repeats emphatically.
“We didn’t choose for you, Uncle Rhodey,” Peter says, “because we figured you, out of everyone, would shank us for that.”
Rhodey rubs his palms together. “Good, cuz I already have a costume in mind.”
“Ooo. What are you being for Halloween, Mister Colonel, sir?” Harley says, and Rhodey grins evilly.
“I’m going to be a sexy cat,” he says, “and I am going to enjoy the hell out of it.”
“You feral bastard,” Tony appraises. “I’ll need to exercise self-restraint all night long to keep from… ripping off your- skimpy little. Okay, this joke would’ve been funnier three years ago but I’ve got kids now so I’m gonna stop there.”
“Thanks,” Peter says dryly.
“Okay,” Harley says. “Okay, Halloween crew. Break!” He turns and marches away, leaving a very confused group in the living room.
“Did he just say break as if we’re a basketball team? Last I checked, we are not a basketball team and this is not half time,” says Tony.
“Did anyone bring the orange slices?” Peter says in a thick, throaty New York Jewish accent. “Susan,” he says, looking at May, “Susan, hon, didja bring the arnge slices?”
“Have mercy,” Bucky mutters, “he’s my Ma.”
Steve lets out a hoot of laughter, throwing his head back and slapping a hand onto his chest.
“Go find Harley, Yente,” May snorts, waving her hands. “I don’t trust him alone.”
“L’chaim, to life,” Peter says, and dances his way to the elevator in Fiddler on the Roof fashion. He feels it’s acceptable. It’s, like, embracing his roots or something.
“Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match,” he mumbles, twirling through the halls. He drags his fingertips over the shiny walls and imagines the match he would hope for. (If his perfect match looks an awful lot like MJ, well, who could blame him?)
He finds Harley in the lab, exactly where he expected to find him. What he did not expect was to see him with his tongue between his teeth, glasses slipping down his nose, and a utilitarian looking needle perched in the crease of his elbow.
“Uh,” Peter prompts.
Harley jumps sharply before the needle can prick his skin. “Jesus Christ, Pete, you’re gonna give me an aneurism one of these days.”
“Oops,” he says. “What the fresh heck are you doing?”
Harley squints at him, considering.
It’s not like Peter thinks he’s doing drugs or anything. He’s probably doing something stupid, though.
“C’mere,” Harley says, waving him over. “I can’t not tell you. It’s too frickin cool.”
Harley opens a hologram of a file. It spins before them in brilliant blue.
“Oh,” says Peter. His heart trips over a beat. “Oh.”
“Since Steve and I and the-”
“And it works?”
Peter stares at him. “Alright, hand it over.”
Harley frowns. “What?”
“Gimme the needle,” Peter says, flopping a hand at it. “If you’re gonna do it, at least let me help.”
The trepidation clears of Harley’s face like leaves turning over in the breeze. A smile bursts free, violent and unabashed, all dimples and crinkly eyes and scrunched nose and Peter wants to punch him right in his stupid face for even thinking he had to do this alone. As if Peter would say no! As if Peter, of all the dumb shmucks in the tower, would have the right to say no. Harley is smart, and trained by Natasha the same way he is. He’s strong and capable. He knows what he’s doing. Harley is great.
Peter takes the needle and holds it at the ready where Harley points for him.
Harley lets out a matter-of-fact little ow with every puncture. It takes fifteen minutes for every injection to be completed, and another ten of Peter watching him to make sure there’s no adverse bodily reaction to them.
Harley demonstrates. Peter claps his hands to his cheeks and just grins.
Halloween comes quick. It’s on a Tuesday that year, which should be a national crime, but whatever.
They suit up in their respective costumes. Bucky and Steve look positively hilarious in their clashing striped sweaters. Bucky wears a pair of two-toned shoes and slicks back his hair and Harley really needs to fan his face or something because holy shit. He would not have been able to handle knowing that man in the thirties and forties.
Pepper and Tony look predictably great in their costumes, Pepper all done up in black leather and red lipstick and wild curls and Tony in a jacket emblazoned with the word T-Bird and his own beat up black converse.
Peter and Harley are quite proud of their costumes. Nat and Clint had helped them cut out construction paper animal ears and attach them to headbands to wear. Peter wears a pair of thrift store glasses with the lenses punched out. Harley squirms in a turquoise sweater and pink polo combination that he professes washes him out.
Star of the show is definitely Rhodey, however, in a black turtleneck and black jeans with black cat ears on his head. They’re bedazzled along the outer rim of the ear. They look like they cost seven bucks at Claire’s. He keeps spinning to show off the cat tail he stapled to the back of his jeans over his ass.
Tony hasn’t stopped laughing since they all met up in the foyer of the tower. It’s a lovely sight.
They all step out into the early evening air together, trying to keep the swarms of bedecked children from sweeping them away. It’s strangely balmy out- Climate Change Is Real and It Is Here- and the dying rays of sun are warm on their skin.
“Do you know,” says Harley, his weight on one hip, wafting his hands towards his nose, “the very, very particular scent of the air right now?”
Peter knows it intimately. He grew up on this scent. “Yup,” he says. “It’s present. Oh, it’s here.”
Harley hums his agreement. “It’s like the sun has taken the street piss, garbage water, spilled beer, dog dookie, and gasoline puddles, and mixed them all up in one great, black cauldron stew. The sun is a witch, y’see. She’s here, in her swooshing cape, with her hunched back, and she’s smirking, and she’s stirring this compote- this eau de Midtown- and she’s the evilest being to have ever touched the face of the earth, I bet.”
“Drama queen,” says Pepper, and prods Harley forward, snapping a wad of gum in her mouth.
The walk to the haunted house only takes thirty minutes, and it’s a lovely type of walk despite the congestion in the streets. The great thing about Halloween is that costumes make it very difficult to tell when Captain Steve Rogers America is walking around in the company of his KGB zombie boyfriend, Tony Iron Balls Stark, and Pepper Potts. They don’t get bothered at all.
When they arrive, it is an abandoned brownstone that awaits them. On it’s chipped face hangs a sign: Fright Fest! in blood-red letters painted on a drooping white banner.
“That looks off-brand,” Tony says.
“I’m thrilled,” says Steve. “Let’s do it.”
“It looks like they’ve prob’ly got real murderers locked up in there,” Bucky says.
Something shifts in one of the windows. Peter squints at it. It’s a person in horrifying SFX makeup, blood dripping down their face from a cut that circumvents their forehead like a crown.
“Jesus,” Peter whistles. “You sure about this, Harley? There doesn’t even look like there’s anyone else here.”
Harley frowns and pats his pockets. He pulls out a very creased piece of paper with a suspicious green blotch on it.“I have the- flier. Here, see? The date and time are right here, near this green juice stain, this is the right address- Siri said so- so this is it. I bet we’re just here at old man hours; more kids will come later.”
Peter hums. “Maybe. Alright. Let’s get this over with. The sooner, the better, so I can forget about it and not have nightmares about chainsaw murderers and tall dudes with no faces.”
Harley grins and pushes the front door open.
The lobby is decorated to the nines. Cobwebs dangle from the ceiling with ripped bits of wallpaper, revealing water-logged planks of wood. The inner bricks are chipped and stained, the floor is coated in a thin layer of dust, and animatronic skeletons and ghouls sit on couches and armchairs and peer around doorways. The room is only lit by candles, and the light is dim and warm. A handful of workers in costume mill about. All of their attention snaps onto the group when they enter.
A man in a bloodstained bellhop uniform and grey face paint approaches them with a limp. “Welcome to Fright Fest,” he says through a grimace-like smile. “Are you ready for your challenge?”
“Challenge?” says Tony. “I thought this was, like, a fun little walk-through.”
“Hmm,” says the man, cocking his head to the side. “No, not quite. It’s more like, what are they called? Ah,” he bares his teeth. “An escape room.”
“Excuse me,” says Pepper Potts.
Peter does not feel well. His stomach is flopping, and the back of his neck is alight with a shock of tingles. “Guys,” he says. “I don’t- I don’t- maybe we should go.”
Peter senses it before he hears it.
The door slams shut behind them.
A strange dizziness overtakes him and he grabs Harley’s arm to keep himself upright. Everyone’s heartbeats are thrumming in his ears like a durge.
“You can’t just go,” says the demon version of Esteban Julio Montoya de la Rosa Ramirez. “It’s called an escape room for a reason!” He backs away from them slowly. “Good luck,” he sings below his breath, and cackles.
He raises his hands and drags them through the air, creating a ring of spinning black sparks. He steps into it and disappears. It closes as soon as he’s cleared through it.
“Oh, shit,” says Harley.
“Yeah,” Peter agrees, grappling to grab a handful of Harley’s sleeve. The cackling and hissing of the decorations is bordering on too much, combined with the sickly scent of artificial smoke and the flickering candlelight. Already there is an ache behind Peter’s eyes, and the strange helpless anger, frustration that comes from a sensory overload burgeoning in his chest like an anvil in cement.
The swooping sensation in his stomach multiplies exponentially. “Oh, God,” he gasps, sucking in a sharp breath as a great cloud of smoke appears above them.
From the mist emerges a figure shrouded in a black cloak. She has dark, curly hair and eyes that glow purple. Her teeth are bared in a simmering scowl.
“You upgraded your wardrobe,” Peter finds himself saying, then wants to kick himself. She might not have known before that he is Spider-Man, seeing as this whole sorcerer squadron has been stupid since their first encounter months earlier, but if she’s evolved into a frickin’ Charizard or something, then she’s a little worrying. Maybe she has common sense now.
“Tony Stark and co,” she says. Her voice is smooth and melodious and Peter wants to scratch his ears out as he listens to it. His throat is closing up. It’s- a lot. All of it. “Welcome to your doom.”
“And you called me a drama queen?” Harley says, turning to Pepper.
“Shut up and listen to me,” says the sorceress.
“Holy shit, it’s a bad Halloween special on a sitcom,” says Rhodey. “Did David Crane write this?”
The sorceress throws a blast of purple energy above their heads, striking the brick wall and making the foundation of the building tremble.
“Yikes,” says Tony.
“Shut the fuck up,” the sorceress says. “Let me do my speech.”
Tony waves his hands in a distinct go on motion.
“Thank you,” she says and clears her throat. “Tony Stark and co. Welcome to your doom. Within these walls are dozens of my coven sisters and brothers, and we all thirst for your end. You may have turned Stark Industries around, but you’ll never truly atone for your sins. Give up now and we’ll leave the rest of your friends to go free. Fight back, and we will have no choice but to murder you all one at a time.”
A moment of pause.
“Are you done?” Tony asks.
“Yeah,” says the sorceress.
“Can I give feedback? As someone who has been through this a good handful of times, I can think of some constructive criticism for you.”
“Fuck you,” she says, and disappears in a cloud of glittery purple smoke.
Her disembodied voice says, "escape, then, you dickwads. I hope you die slowly, spurting blood onto these grounds, watering the flesh of the earth mother with your demise.”
“Hm,” says Tony. “Now that one had some spice.”
“Pretty jazzy, comparatively,” Steve agrees.
“Are we gonna kick ass now?” Bucky asks.
“Yes, I think we are,” says Steve, sparing a look at Pepper, who nods once, firmly.
Pepper looks at Tony. “If you do the idiot thing that I know you’re thinking about right now but not bringing up yet, I will rip out your esophagus and knit myself a sweater with it.”
Tony blinks. “Um. Okay. I won’t.”
“I didn’t believe that for even a second,” Peter says, massaging his temples with his fingers. His head is pounding. Harley keeps a grip on his closer elbow as if to steady him. “Tony, don’t give yourself up. I wish that could go without saying, but with you, nothing goes without saying.”
“I resent that on principle,” Tony says, squinting at Peter. “Besides, if I give myself up…” he taps his chest. The Bleeding Edge armor enrobes him slowly, like a layer of carmine ice hardening him in a skin-tight cage. “I can fight her off.”
“Nope,” says Harley sharply, his eyes gleaming. “No, and also nope. That’s not even an option.”
“Then what’s the plan?” Rhodey asks, adjusting his cat ears.
“Well. First of all, remember,” Harley says, “these guys are stupid. They’re big dumb idiots. When they kidnapped Steve and I, they did a shit job. And when they got Pete and I over the summer, they just turned us into babies! Temporarily! They haven’t tried to actually kill us yet, and they always leave a trail. At least, Strange said they did.”
“I knocked Mistress Darkness out pretty quick last time, but she looks stronger now,” Peter offers regretfully. He fiddles with his webshooters- tucked between the sleeves of his shirt like always- and the Iron Spider envelops him.
“Hi, Peter!” Karen sings in his ear, tearing a grin from deep inside him.
“We don’t have gear,” Bucky says. “I only have, like, four knives in my pants, so. Steve is on his own.”
“You need all four?” Steve asks him.
“What? No,” Bucky says, staring at him like he’s an actual idiot. “I don’t trust you with a knife, y’mook. You’ll take an eye out. Jesus Christ.”
“Then let’s all go look for Spirit Halloween together,” Tony says. “I don’t particularly want to split up if we’re not all protected.”
Pepper blinks and says, “that is probably the best idea you’ve ever had. I’m, like, proud of you. I think.”
“Aw,” Tony says, and grins gooily at her. “Yay.”
“Let’s go sweep this floor first,” says Steve. “Peter goes in front, since he’s got a built-in danger detector. Tony, you bring up the rear since you’ve got the suit and the most experience. Bucky, you go somewhere in the middle because you could wreck anyone with or without weapons.”
“Damn right,” Bucky says.
This plan does not last long. Peter, despite his Spidey Sense, has an embarrassing tendency to give an ungodly squeal when affronted by a jump scare. Since the rooms are positively papered with animatronic beasts and also crawling with actual sorcerers, Peter falls victim to many a fright.
“Okay,” he gasps after webbing his fourth unconscious sorcerer to the wall. “This plan is wack. No more Steve plans, ever.”
Peter turns and gives Harley a Look.
“No,” Harley says.
Peter keeps looking at him.
“No. No, absolutely not, no, Peter. You can’t convince me to do it. Not this time. N- oh, for fuck’s sake,” he says, “Fine. Fine, Peter, you win.”
Peter grins as well as he can under the circumstances of the moment. He always wins with Harley. It’s his most certain talent.
“This is not how I wanted to make my grand entrance,” Harley grumbles, rolling up his sleeves.
“You don’t have a choice, Harls,” Peter reminds him.
Harley sighs and shakes his wrists out. He cracks his neck, then his back. He does some lunges for good measure.
He raises his hands, taps the insides of his wrists together twice, and waits.
“The hell is that sound?” Bucky grumbles, looking up for it. And then, shocked, “sonuva’ bitch.”
Peter smiles enormously. “Are you gonna say that every time Harley does something cool?”
Some great streak of silver smashes through the windows like a tank, like a stone hurled by God Himself, like a magnum bullet. The figure straightens out and it is suddenly humanoid, arms spread wide and one leg bent at the knee, moonlight gleaming off of it in dagger-like streams, epic, shrouded in a mechanized type of glow. Its chest, its knees, its head are banded with hot rod red. Its face is human, startlingly so, with features that seem to be grinning, a familiar, Cheshire grin that makes Peter’s heart thump wildly with excitement.
Peter can’t help it. He throws his head back and whoops.
The thing descends like it’s floating, slow and graceful, and hits the ground with an all-too-familiar clang.
“What,” says Tony.
Harley thumps his chest with the inside of one wrist. “Come to mama.” He turns to them, then. “I didn’t want to wear my holding device because I had high hopes. I shoulda known that the equation of us plus literally anything always leads to shit.”
The thing melts into a puddle in that distinctly nano-tech way, creeping along the floor. It condenses around Harley’s Converse and spreads up his calves as if he’s been dipped into a red-candy pool, sheathing him head to toe in a slim, sleek armor. He rubs his metal hands together and the palms light up with a fluorescent orange glare, mirroring the one at the center of his chest, right where Tony had once housed an arc reactor.
He turns to the team.
“Let’s git ‘er done!” Harley says.
“We are… going to talk about this,” Pepper says, squinting at Harley. “We are definitely going to talk about this. So much talking. Years worth of it.”
“Uh oh,” says Harley, but his grin doesn’t fade.
“So, Tony. You stay with Steve and Bucky, since they’re mostly unprotected. Rhodey, you and Pepper stick together. You two can handle yourselves alone better than any of the rest of them,” Peter delegates.
He gets nods. This makes perfect sense.
“Harley and I will go sweep the next floor for the missing Sanderson sister,” he says.
“Sounds good, Pete,” Tony says with a sharp nod. There’s this look in his eyes- this trusting look, this I know you can do this look- and Peter isn’t sure if it makes him want to cry or straighten up like a soldier and command them into battle.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” says Peter before he can question himself. He turns on his heel and starts to run.
“Where’re you going?” Harley yelps, sputtering forward to follow on Peter’s heels. “I will follow you wherever you may go,” he adds, singing.
“Don't I know it,” Peter says, sounding very put-upon. “Don’t I frickin’ know it.”
Their footsteps clang against the stone, metal against rock. When they take the corners too fast, they spark. Harley thinks it’s an awful lot like riding a razor scooter, but with more leg action.
They keep going for a few minutes, slowing down when they pass doorways. They’re mostly empty, contrary to the first floor jump scare situation. Peter pulls up his HUD and connects to Harley’s suit. It’s so strange to see that little projection of Harley’s careless grin on the corner of his screen. He doesn’t think he’ll ever quite get used to it.
Peter hears something approaching them from afar. “Oh, shit,” he says. “Hurry, let’s go, next room. Something’s coming.”
They go. At first, they walk, but as the decorations start to jump out at them again with skeleton hands and contrived gusts of wind blow at their faces and all the while the thumping noise comes closer, they end up running before much time at all has passed.
And it’s still approaching. And then, when Peter is sure his heart is going to thud right out of his chest, it speaks.
“Why are you running so fast?” Tony’s voice comes wheezing from over their comms. “Are you trying to destroy your bodies? Who do you hate? Is it yourselves?”
“Who told you to follow us?” Peter howls, shooting a glance over his shoulder, his relief melting into frustration. “You needed to babysit Steve!”
“Rhodey, Pep, and— the Winter Boy will babysit Steve,” Tony says between gasps. “My weak heart can’t- for the love of God can we— slower. Slow down, Forrest. Hooo, boy. Ho-o-oly shit.” They three stop, Peter planting two fists on his hips in a way that made both Harley and Tony stiffen. It was all May. Unfuckingcanny.
“We can’t slow down,” Peter says. He makes his mask melt off. His eyes are wide and bright, even in the dim light of the dusty hallways. “There’s frickin’ sorcerers on the loose, Tony! The very sorcerers that snatched Harley! We need to stop them, whoop some magic booty, and snap their wands! Justice must be served!”
“Now, that’s a red-blooded American,” comes a voice from behind them, and then Rhodey is right there in his turtleneck and his glittery little cat ears and Peter positively stomps his feet. Full-blown toddler-in-the-Barbie-aisle tantrum.
“I told you to watch Steve!” he hisses, throwing his arms up. “Bucky and Pepper can’t watch Steve alone! Bucky will let him do stupid things! I don’t think even Pepper can stop that!”
A distant bang rattles the structure around them, concrete from the ceiling dusting down onto their shoulders like snow and cobwebs swinging from the corners. The glass panes of the windows crack, and the wallpaper is ready to rip itself right off the moth-chewed planks below.
“I bet that was him,” Peter says. “I bet Steve caused that. I blame you, Uncle Rhodey.”
“How will I go on,” Rhodey deadpans.
“Should I call him?” Tony says, retracting his suit from his ass and patting his pockets for his phone. “Can I even get service in hell? Wait. For real. Should I look into putting a cell tower there? It would expand the market for StarkPhones quite nicely. God, I’m so pragmatic. No wonder Pepper fell in love with me.”
“This is a shit show,” Harley announces, retracting his helmet.
Three gazes lock on him.
“Who wanted to go to the haunted house, huh? Fright fest my ass, Harley, this is a living nightmare, this is an escape room but the magic and the demons are real. Only you could pick a haunted house to visit and have it be run by the evil sorcerers who have been trying to kill us for weeks.” Peter takes a deep breath and releases it in a silent scream.
Harley blinks. “I probably deserved that.”
“Probably?!” Peter twists his fingers together. “I’m gonna have a stroke.”
“Hi, Steve,” Tony says into his phone, now helmless as well. “By any chance, did you cause that itty bitty explosion that just happened? Oh, you did? Yeah, we figured. Lord Dumbass of the stupid brigade. Is Pepper okay? Thank God. I’d have to maim you if she wasn’t.” Tony shakes his head. “We’re on the second floor still. No, we don’t need you to come help us, we’re fine.”
At that moment, Bellatrix Lestrange smashes through the nearest wall in a blaze of fiery heat.
Rhodey yells in surprise. Harley’s mask comes down as he lobs a repulsor blast at her.
She throws out her hands and catches it. She yells, “hey, MTV, welcome to my crib!” before firing it right back at them. They dive in all directions to avoid it, like bowling pins upended. Peter dives for Rhodey, throwing himself on top of the man to shield him from the blast. It catches the wall right behind where they had been and blows it wide open, the edges smoking gently and putting off a terrible, festering scent. Bits of rock and concrete come tumbling down onto their backs, bouncing off the metal.
“On second thought,” Tony says, presumedly into the phone, “maybe we could use some help.”
“You good?” Peter asks Rhodey.
“Damn,” Rhodey says, coughing as dust from the blast fills his mouth. “Tonight already sucks way more than I thought it would.”
“Don’t worry, Uncle Rhodey. You’re in good hands,” Peter says as he rises, standing in front of Rhodey’s body to offer protection from the Blazing Bandit over in the other corner.
“Ha,” Rhodey says.
“Hey,” Peter calls. “Magic lady. Miss Human Trafficking. You’d think you would be more sensitive to kidnapping kids, but, like, okay. We’re here to stop you now. Can you at least tell us what we’re fighting about?”
Peter can hear Bucky and Steve running through the halls of the house. They’re two or three floors above where he is now. He needs to keep Bellatrix distracted until they get here. He wonders where Pepper is— hopefully she got herself out of here, or called Happy or something. Three enhanced plus two super suits combined might stand a fair chance against actual fuckoff magic, but if Peter, Tony, and Harley try to take her first, they might get too knocked up to maintain a solid attack.
Strategy. Nat has been teaching Peter well.
Something smashes out in the hallway. Peter’s head whips around automatically, searching for where it could have come from, and that is his mistake. His big dumb idiot mistake. Like, Nat would’ve kicked his ass twice and then tied his nuts in a knot level dumb mistake.
Bellatrix shoots something at the ceiling above him. All at once, it crumbles.
A chunk of concrete smashes into the back of his head. If he was anyone else, it would’ve knocked him the fuck out- probably brained him, too- but he’s pretty goddamn “lucky” to be really, really messed up in the body area. His vision turns white, something strikes his shoulder, he goes down. Dust is clouding up, concrete continues to fall, and his stomach is rolling. Everything smells like chalk, like peeling paint and insulation in bubblegum pink. Bile rises in his throat. His head is bleeding- he can smell it- and all he can think is God, not again.
He hears Rhodey yell for him. This is easy, though, he realizes quickly enough. This is not heavy. It isn’t. It’s just a handful of chunks. He shoves them off his back with minimal strain. They are not a warehouse. Not that thick. Not that sturdy. He can move. His back isn’t unstitching itself; shards of his ribs aren’t poking into his lungs; his knees aren’t dented into the concrete of the ground. He rolls over onto his back and can’t help the groan that slips from his lips as the lump on his head presses against the floor. Everything is- spinning. He realizes his eyes aren’t open. He opens them. Still, his body pitches and rolls like he’s stranded in a carved canoe on the wide open sea. His fingers scramble for purchase against the ground. His breaths are still rapid. He can’t help it. He’s not trapped- he knows- but his body hasn’t quite caught the news yet.
Cool your shit, he tells his heart.
It pounds especially hard. Spiteful little brat.
He sees Steve and Bucky run in more than he hears them coming. His ears are ringing, a buzz that lowers everything else around him to a quiet hum. His every heartbeat reverberates between the walls of his skull, in the space between his ears, and his eyes ache.
“C’mon, Pete,” comes a gruff voice through his comms, and it’s Harley. “You’re gonna be okay. You see me? Y’know where we are?”
“Mmph,” Peter grunts. “Your dumb idea.”
Harley grins in the suit. It’s disconcerting. Like one of those street performers that paints themselves green to look like the Statue of Liberty. Every dimple and crease of his skin is gilded.
It’s quite different to see it in action than it was to help stick Harley’s arms with the needles he needed in order to link the suit to him.
“Did you get Pepper out?” Peter yells at Steve, watching as Bucky and Tony converge on the sorceress, chucking careful knives and repulsor blasts.
“Yeah,” Steve calls, grabbing Rhodey around the shoulders and pulling him from the room. “She’s calling Strange!” Steve adds as they retreat to somewhere safer.
“God bless her,” Peter mumbles, pressing a hand to his forehead and sitting up with Harley’s help, as the sorceress freezes and exclaims, “Strange?” like it is the most revolting name she has ever heard.
“The feeling is mutual, lady,” Tony says, catching her off-guard and hitting her in the stomach with a blast that makes her robes smoke.
She screams in fury and lets loose a surge of energy that shakes the building, rattling Peter’s sore skull and nearly knocking his feet out from under him. Even though the room is half-collapsed, it doesn’t fall.
“The structural integrity of this bitch is wild!” Harley yells, jumping into the fray, Peter not far behind. He hovers just above Peter’s head, shooting careful repulsor blasts in the moments she is distracted by Tony and Bucky’s offensive. “How hasn’t the whole building come down yet?”
“Don’t even say it,” Peter whines, shooting web after web at her to no avail. She had gotten better. Or, faster, at least. “You’ll will it into being.”
That is the moment when Stephen Strange shows up like Jesus on the third day.
“Hallelujah,” Peter yells.
“But you were so Jewish before,” Bucky says, backing up and wiping a knife on his sleeve.
“L’chaim!” Peter corrects.
“Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way,” says Stephen Strange.
Peter and Harley freeze.
“Meet your doom.”
“Oh my god,” Harley mumbles, and it comes out like a squeal right in Peter’s ears through their comms. “She’s real. She’s real and she’s here and she’s the worst sorceress to ever exist.”
“Would you expect anything else from her?” Peter mumbles back, starstruck.
“I’m mad her hair doesn’t have purple streaks and red tips,” says Harley.
“Is this a fever dream? No, really, is this a dream? Someone tell me.”
“Does that concussion feel like a dream?”
“Oh, that?” Peter says, and probes the back of his head. “That’s nothing. I’ve had worse.”
A shot of purple glittery magic stuff comes flying at Peter from around Strange’s magical boundary thing he’s got going on. Peter is about eight steps behind everyone else. Really, this is a lot for his concussion brain to handle, and he’s nauseous and all he tastes his that strange biley flavor that starts rising in your throat before you puke and he wants to go home and eat candy on the couch with Tony and Harley and pretend this never happened. He wants May to hold ice to his head and run her fingers through his hair and call him pazzo and beg him to stop being an idiot.
What he gets is a battle of enhanced versus magic and it really looks like it could be anyone’s game.
“You’ve been training with dark magic,” Strange says, and his voice is just as strangely calm and dry as always, even as magic comes shooting out of his hands and wind blows his hair and his cloak dances around him to catch spells that his shield would have missed.
“No shit,” says Ebony as she knocks Bucky over like an uprooted tree. He hits the ground so hard it shudders, his fingers twitching and his eyes rolled back.
“Shit oh shit,” mutters Harley, flying a clumsy loop to avoid some purple glitter and making his way across the room to pull Bucky from the fray. “She didn’t even kill him,” he observes, and Peter lets loose a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. Harley grabs Bucky under his shoulders and yanks, letting out a huff of breath at the strain. “Jesus, Barnes, you’re curvy as shit.” He pulls harder and Bucky shifts. “And don’t even get me started on Ebony over there. She’s not even a real punk. No red eyeshadow. She didn’t kill him. What is this.” He gets Bucky out the door and comes back in hovering, still ungainly but getting more proficient as the fight wears on.
Jesus. Harley’s first time out in the suit and he’s gotta use it for a fight.
“How you holding up, dude?” Peter asks as he tosses a web grenade at the sorceress. She disappears out of its way before it can catch her.
“I’m grand,” Harley says, and, really, he sounds surprisingly okay to Peter. “This is kinda fun.”
“Fun,” Tony repeats in a grunt while swinging a piece of broken foundation around. “Yeah, not the term I would’ve used, but to each their own.”
“Harley,” Peter says urgently, seeing an opening.
He switches rapidly to those toxic webs he and Harley made at the beginning of the summer and lobs a fat load of them at the sorceress. Harley catches on and follows the webs with a sharp shot from his repulsor, hitting the ceiling right above her and sending down a rain of concrete chunks. Her body seizes in the air as the toxins do their job, a slab from the ceiling nailing her on the shoulder, and Strange hits her with a puff of magic that makes her entire body go slack and tumble from the sky.
He lets her fall.
The collapse of her body makes the room tremble, the animatronics in the hallways finally going silent and the candles flickering out as if one sharp breath puffed through the room.
There is no whoop of relief— not even from over-excited Harley.
Peter’s ears ring. Too loud to too quiet. His fingertips feel like they’re buzzing, his legs bloodless. He sits heavily on the ground and holds his forehead in his hands, willing the spinning to stop. That same frustration sits heavy in his throat and it won’t go away even though everything is done and maybe he’s malfunctioning or something, Jesus, make it stop.
“Recalibrating?” comes a soft voice. He looks up and it’s Tony, the mask of his suit retracted, but even the soft golden light coming through the windows hurts his eyes. A whimper rises from his chest before he can stop it. His senses are going haywire. He hears a mother call her child from three blocks over. Smells candy- peanut butter?- from a trick-or-treater on the streets. The suit feels like he’s stuck inside a balloon and it’s squeezing him too tight he can’t move this isn’t protection it’s torture and suddenly.
Everything is silent again. Like a muffler over his ears. And darker, like the lenses of his mask are tinted.
And Tony breathes, “better?” and somehow, he nods, swallowing convulsively, trying to wear away at the lump in his throat. It takes a few minutes. Strange cleans up the mess and leaves with a silent salute, Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way bound in some magical rope things and still unconscious from Peter’s toxic webs. Harley comes over and sits down silently a few feet away from him, fiddling with some wires in the arm of his suit. Breath comes eventually (it always does). The pain in his head is already receding. He leaves the mufflers on, though. Those are real good.
“Woah,” Peter says. “That was a bummer.”
Harley snorts a laugh and scoots just slightly closer. “Good now?”
“Better,” he says quietly. “Sorry about that.”
Tony glares at him. “No apologizing for things that are, for one, not wrong, and, for two, not your fault. Didn’t we talk about this?”
“Meh,” says Peter. He feels bone tired. “Can we go home and watch a movie now?”
Tony softens slightly. “Yeah, Pete. Let’s go, kiddos.”
They yank themselves up off the floor, engage their masks, and make their way through the halls, stepping over limp animatronics and giant chunks of brick and concrete. Everything smells musty and ancient, and Peter can’t help but hope the building gets torn down.
Pepper, Steve, and Rhodey wait across the street, Bucky sitting on the sidewalk beside them with his nose pressed into the side of Steve’s enormous thigh. Steve has one hand in Bucky’s hair, scritching his nails through the mussed brown waves. Bucky looks pale, his eyes closed.
“Hey,” Peter says, still quiet. If Bucky feels anything like how he feels right then, he knows Bucky would rather go through a meat grinder than be loud with relief.
“Mmph,” Bucky grunts, keeping his eyes closed.
“Police are on their way,” says Rhodey, arms crossed, cat ears askew. “We’re good to go.”
Pepper scurries towards them, grabbing them one at a time by their metal elbows and giving them a long look before moving on to the next. “You’re okay?” she demands, keeping her voice at a hush for Bucky’s sake. “You’re not hurt?”
“Oof,” says Peter when she shakes him a little. His brain feels like overcooked oatmeal. “Concussed, Pep, concussed spider.”
“Oh, Pete,” she sighs, rubbing his shoulder. “What are we gonna do with you, seriously?”
“Mm, dunno,” he says. “Swaddle me in a blanket and watch Frankenweenie?”
Harley’s hand snakes around his back and pulls him into his side.
Peter looks at him- silvery, mischievous smile- and feels everything settle into place.
Pepper looks at them fondly. “We can do that,” she says. “That, we can do.”