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Birds Eating Other Birds

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The Green Goblin dives into Peter’s path during the hazy dusk of a weekday. Peter’s been patrolling for hours now; he suited up straight after school, webbing his backpack full of civvies and calculus homework to the underside of an apartment building’s AC unit before taking to the sky. He’s chasing a couple of thugs who’d held up a local 7/11 when Goblin makes a grab for him.

Peter flips safely out of way. Goblin cackles, and chases after him, mouth full of wet, pointed teeth.

“Get a hobby, you maniac!” Peter calls over his shoulder. Goblin forces him to duck and roll to the left. Those thugs and their bundles of cash must be long gone by now.

You’re my hobby,” Goblin says.

“Yeah?” Peter yells back. “You want me to come with you to the craft store? Help you pick out some wool, some watercolours; maybe we could pick up a model airplane to build together—”

Goblin snags his arm. He’s intimidatingly larger than Peter. His hand wraps entirely around Peter’s bone thin wrist, almost obscuring his entire hand beneath that meaty fist.

“Uh oh,” Peter says, right before Goblin throws him through the air and into the side of a building. Cement cracks under the force. “Ow.”

Goblin chases it with a punch. Peter backflips out of the way, crouching low on the pavement. The street is bustling with people rushing home from work, all of them skittering backward with fright.

“Come on, Gobby, can’t we talk this out like the rational people we aren’t?” Peter offers.

Goblin rises back up on his feet and—yup, oh yeah, he is definitely stupidly taller than Peter. He’d be getting a complex if he wasn’t too busy dodging deadly, swiping hits and ignoring the screeching whine of his spider-sense.

Goblin bares his teeth. It’s not a smile. “I don’t want to talk, Spider-Man. I want to see what your insides look like.”

“Thanks but my insides prefer to be on the inside—”

Goblin grabs Peter again, nails digging into the soft skin of his throat, and bodily throws him. Peter doesn’t just crack the side of a building; this time, with a hitch in his breath and a scream of his spider-sense, Peter goes careening through the storefront window, glass shattering and customers inside shrieking, and then straight through the solid far wall. Peter’s been thrown through walls before. It never stops being so painful, so disorienting, like a boulder has been smashed over his head.

“Ugh,” Peter says. He lies in the nest of fractured cement and shards of glass and wonders if numb, tingling limbs is a blessing or a very, very bad sign. Probably the latter. “Ughhhhh.”

“My boss is going to kill me!” The middle-aged manager in a polo shirt stands behind the broken wall. The glare he wears is anything but sympathetic. Geez, a guy can’t even get thrown through a window and a wall without upsetting someone in this city.

“My super-villains are going to kill me,” Peter snipes back.

“Look what you’ve done,” hisses an older customer, tiny, glinting glass shards in her hair. She’s not hurt, though, thank god. “I just bought this shirt! Are you going to pay for it?”

Peter hauls himself out of the Spider-Man shaped hole, stumbling over shaking feet. “When the Green Goblin comes back, I’ll probably be paying for something. With my blood.” The manager and the customers go back to cursing him out. The sharp, accusatory bite to their words sounds vaguely Jameson-like. “Are none of you concerned about the guy that was just chucked through a solid wall? And has a giant, murderous super-villain on his tail? No?”

“I should sue you for—” says the manager. He’s several inches taller than Peter and uses his height to bare down on him, arms crossed.

“Why is it that everyone who hates me is tall?” Peter wonders. “You, Flash, Jameson, the Goblin’s ugly butt. And people wonder why short people all have tempers and complexes—”

“I like your height,” Goblin says, clambering into the broken electronics store. Looks like Peter’s lunch break is over, then.

The manager and the other customers shriek and rush for the exits. The Goblin ignores them, all his attention focussed keenly on Peter—hooray for him!—as he shifts, grins, continues, “You’re conveniently small. So easy to throw. To manipulate.”

“Well, hey,” Peter says, “at least one of us appreciates my height.”

Goblin snatches Peter’s hand; he’s too off kilter from being ditched through a store to dodge or shake him off. But Goblin doesn’t throw him again. His fist tightens, and Peter’s spider-sense drags a warning up his spine, and then he snaps Peter’s fingers backward.

Peter howls and throws himself backward. Goblin is too strong—Peter dangles from his grip, four fingers of his left hand broken crookedly, panting against his mask.

“See?” Goblin remarks as Peter gasps through the pain. “So fragile and small.”

“Go jump into the Hudson,” Peter says.

Goblin leans in, sharklike teeth brushing against the vulnerable, hidden curve of Peter’s ear. “I’m going to kill you next week,” Goblin promises. It’s low, not a whisper, but a quiet exchange passed only between them. “You’re going to come to me, and I’m going to pull you apart until you’re gasping, and bleeding, and dead.”

“I would never go to you,” Peter spits. Goblin readjusts his hold on Peter’s hand, and yanks again. His glove twists, and his skin burns—his wrist isn’t sprained, but it’s a near thing, accompanied by a stinging, heated pain.

“You will,” Goblin says like the condescending asshole that he is. He drops Peter, and the teenager skitters away from his hold.

“And if I don’t?”

“Well, then I guess I’ll just have to come to you. Do you think the Daily Bugle would be horrified by a man being ripped open on a public street, or do you think, in lieu of an obituary, they’ll publish an article blaming you for dirtying public property?” That smile—it’s going to crawl its way through Peter’s nightmares like the haunting, damning thing he knows it for. “I doubt anyone would even mourn.”

Peter’s breath is hitched, his wrecked hand cradled to his heaving chest. Goblin laughs once more, a victorious sound, before taking off into the darkening city, leaving Peter to the approaching sound of police sirens, the judging eyes of surrounding New Yorkers, and a growing, cancerous dread.

 


 

 

The injury in his hands had vanished quickly, but the Goblin’s promise stayed with Peter. He tried to ignore it, but there was something unsettling about Goblin, more so than any bullies, or criminals, or even super-villains that Peter faced before. Goblin is a different breed of villain. He rattles Peter; it doesn’t matter how hard Peter tries to ignore it, the man always manages to crawl under his skin.

But, over a week later, when Peter swings past Oscorp Tower and his spider-sense blares to life, Peter doesn’t think about the Goblin. His senses direct him downward, into a hatched window on the lower floors. His hearing picks up begging, someone crying, and then a choked off scream—and Peter’s running before he thinks about where he is

Peter just wants to help. It’s all he’s ever wanted to do.

It’s uncomfortable to search out crime like this. His spider-sense naturally urges Peter’s body away from danger. To rush against it like this, sprinting further into the winding hallways, having it build louder and louder in his head, makes him uneasy. It’s like the world’s worst game of hotter/colder.

It’s late, and Peter thinks nothing of the hallways being almost entirely abandoned, only a few interns shrieking at the sight of Spider-Man crawling along their ceiling like something out of a horror movie.

His spider-sense takes him to a closed set of doors. Peter bursts in. Two men look up. One is knelt as though in prayer, drenched in blood and shaking visibly. The other—impeccably dressed, all sharp angles and too seeing eyes—smiles at Peter. His grin only grows, his head cocks, and when he takes one testing step forward, Peter’s spider-sense flinches up his neck like a panicked animal.

“Always a surprise,” Norman Osborn remarks. “Always exceeding my expectations of man’s ability for blind, foolhardy heroism.”

“Spider-Man!” The man on the ground tries to reach for Peter. “Help—”

“Oh, shut up.” Norman bends down and slams the man’s bleeding head into the floor. Peter’s spider-sense is a haunting, distracting thing, urging him to run.

“Get away from him,” Peter says.

Norman looks down at the slumped, unmoving man. “Whatever you say, Spider-Man,” he says, talking a pointed step away, towards Peter. “He’s just a scientist that out grew his usefulness, anyway.”

“I’m more heroic each time; you’re more vague and creepy each time. We’re a match made in heaven.” Peter doesn’t leave. He knows that Norman would only take it out on the helpless man on the floor. From the glint of teeth, Peter guesses Norman is well aware of the responsibility Peter has to the unconscious man, too.

“I didn’t even have to enact the second part of my plan. You came straight to me, sought me out through the twisting burrows of my Tower. A dog returning to his master.”

“That’s not very nice,” Peter says through the building fear. “And after all the effort I made to come visit you…”

The Goblin wearing Norman’s skin smiles. The click of the reinforced door behind him and the spray of gas shouldn’t come as a surprised, but it does. The villain straps a gas mask over his smile.

Peter rushes Norman. He doesn’t make it to the man before choking on his breath and collapsing into a pile of weak, useless limbs. Peter passes out there, goes lax in the bowels of Oscorp Tower, spread out at Norman Osborn’s feet.

 


 

 Peter comes to with a weight against his throat and heavy limbs. His legs feel like they’ve been dipped in tar, a sticky, moving wetness on his legs and arms. His spider-sense is still with him, screaming incoherently at the base of Peter’s skull. It gives a rough indicator for just how screwed exactly Peter is.

He tugs against the wet slime. It shifts, pins him down. He tries again, but the thing doesn’t move. It’s like being held down by chains made of molasses.

“Ssssstay,” the Venom-like thing gurgles. His spider-sense shudders down his spine at the sound. Of course, this is why his senses had freaked out; not only was someone in trouble, but a symboite is involved. They always set Peter’s spider-sense off, too loud, almost painfully so.

And whatever Norman’s planning must have been a factor, too. Maybe his spider-sense wasn’t highlighting the pain the scientist was suffering. Maybe it had sniffed out Norman’s plan and lit up like a Christmas tree in fright.

“You walked into this one, Parker,” Peter croaks around the dryness in his throat (how long was he out?). “You idiot.”

“With an IQ so high, you’d think you’d see a trap before you walked blindly into it.” Peter’s head tips against the tiles to see Norman, stood above the lain out teenager, looming like a skyscraper over pedestrians. “Hello, Peter.”

Peter—freezes. Splutters, “I’m—I’m not—”

Norman holds up his red mask. Peter realises, stomach dropping, that his face is bare.

“I’ve known for a while, Peter,” Norman says. “A long while.”

“But you encouraged me to hang out with Harry, you said I was—was good for him—”

“You weren’t good for him. You’re good for me.”

“Yeah, well,” Peter says around his panic, “you’re not very good for me. I want to take this relationship back to the shop and get a full refund. The receipt is still in my other tights—”

“Your incessant babbling isn’t as sharp when you’re this panicked. And here I thought you’d be slinging clever puns until the sun burnt out.” Norman crouches down next to Peter’s pinned form, grin as slippery as the symboite holding Peter in place. He thumbs at a square piece of metal held in one hand. “Maybe I can make you shut up for once. Let’s see, shall we?”

Peter opens his mouth, but before he can say anything, the weight around his throat tightens, cuts off his air and his words, before it pulses electric shocks down his nerves. This is different from the familiar sting of his electric webs short-circuiting against his wrist—this burns. It scorches. Peter doesn’t have enough air to scream.

Peter feels floaty. Distant. When he comes back to himself, his chest is heaving. Fingers card through his sweat damp hair.

“You shouldn’t wear that mask,” Norman admonishes. “It’s too nice, seeing your face. Do you have any idea what you look like when I do this?” He presses at the remote and Peter is lost beneath another wave of encompassing, red hot pain.

“Bet—bet I still don’t look as ugly as you,” Peter pants when the sensation ebbs. Norman’s right—his jokes aren’t as good.

Norman ignores that. “I’ll tell you; you’re pale. Your eyes roll back in your head, leaving only bloodshot white, and your mouth slips open.” The fingers drift from his hair to trace Peter’s cracked lips, pressing in. Peter tastes his fingers on his tongue. He tries to bite him, but Norman retracts his hand too quickly. “Your whole body convulses…”

“If that hand drifts any lower, Normy, I really will bite it off.

Norman laughs and plucks his hand from Peter’s clavicle. “You’re lovely, like this.”

“Gross,” Peter says. “You’re so, so—”

Norman presses down on the remote. Peter throws his head back with all his strength. His cranium bangs loudly against the hard floor, but he barely notices the tingling pain or the blood pooling there. He won’t notice the concussion until later.

It continues like that. Norman leans in, brushes his fingertips over Peter’s panting, sweating face, looming over the wreck of a teenager and grinning like he wants to devour him whole. The remote is twisted, the collar tightens in warning and then—

Peter tries fighting, but he feels like he’s underwater. The symboite holds him down. So, too, does the shocking, sporadic pain and the piercing weight of Norman’s eyes.

“I made you this way,” Norman whispers as Peter gasps for air, shaking violently under the billionaire’s hand. “I made you what you are. I own the spider serum, I own you; my collar belongs around your throat.” The symboite gurgles. It moves, crawls like a sea worm, like its fidgeting. Norman laughs at the sight, “Your brother is jealous of my affection, Peter, you should be grateful.”

It’s not Norman’s sugary words that make the half-formed symboite anxious. It’s the collar. Each flick of Norman’s thumb on the trigger makes the symboite skitter along Peter. He didn’t pick it up in the beginning, too blinded by the waves of pain that swept over him, but after a while, after even Norman has grown impatient with this method of torture, Peter is numb enough to recognise the symboite’s fear. It stays away from where his nerves are the thickest—his feet, his fingertips, the inner curve of his thighs (places that, unfortunately, Norman is not afraid of touching).

Peter remembers; Venom had been frightened of pulsing waves of sound, like Church bells. Electricity—this one doesn’t like electricity.

Peter’s upper body surges like he’s going to attack Norman, and the villain reacts instinctively, thumb slamming down on the collar’s remote trigger. It tightens in warning, leaving him breathless, and Peter twists on his side. Rather than going lax, surrendering to the inevitable rush of pain, he curls and presses his lips to the writhing, black mass pinning down his arms. When the bundles of nerves beneath his skin flood with electricity, the symboite screams with Peter.

It’s just enough. The symboite flinches off of him and Peter rolls, shuddering with the aftershocks, and punches the shock off of Norman’s face. As the two monsters recover, Peter skitters across the lab floor. His free hand reaches up and crushes the collar. The bulky metal cracks and energy crackles along his skin. It hurts, burns like spitting oil, but it’s nothing like before.

Norman roars behind his teeth, one hand pressed against his broken nose, spurting blood against his fingers. Peter smiles victoriously, feeling a little feral.

Take that, Gobby. Peter, 1. Norman… probably more than 1, come to think of it—

The symboite is still squirming, but makes no move towards Peter, skittering away from its master’s wingtips.

I kissed the symbiote, Peter thinks, staring at it. I kissed Venom’s less developed cousin.

And Norman, Norman—his eyes are dark and wild. He runs at Peter, and he sees a flash of metal, a loud warning from his spider-sense, before the much taller man barrels into him.

They tumble to the ground, Peter beneath Norman. He’s burnt out and exhausted, his collar still spitting toned-down shocks of electricity through his fried nerves at random intervals. Norman’s teeth are red. His blood drips from his nose and wets Peter’s maskless face.

He hasn’t morphed into the Goblin yet, but he’s still the very picture of Peter’s nightmares.

Norman’s sharp elbow digs into Peter’s chest. It hurts. It pins him. Peter makes a grabs for it, but his spider-sense screams, and Norman shoves a knife between Peter’s ribs.

“There it is,” Norman pants, his blood splashing onto Peter’s wet cheeks. Some of it gets into the teenager’s open, screaming mouth. It doesn’t taste coppery; all Peter can taste is pain. “That open, lovely expression. I don’t even need this.” He fiddles with the collar, but snatches his hand back when it splutters and shocks both him and Peter.

Peter grapples with Norman, knife still embedded in his side. Norman blocks easily enough. Peter’s strong, but clumsy with pain. The Goblin is still in his human suit, but coherent and running on the high of victory.

Norman grabs his hand, Peter’s tiny fingers squished in his grip, and twists. Peter feels something crack, and Norman drinks in Peter’s scrunched expression and breathy cry of pain.

“This wasn’t the type of father-son bonding I was picturing,” Peter says through this teeth, because he has to, because the other opinion is to scream or cry, giving Norman what he wants. “I thought—I thought we were going to go fishing, maybe watch some baseball, play catch out the front—”

Norman punches him across the face, fist closed. Peter knows how to take a punch.

“You need to watch more American family films, dude, because this? This is not how adults interact with teenagers. There’s a severe lack of baseball mitts and nicknames like ‘sport’ and ‘sonny’—” Norman hits him again, harder. His lip splits open, and Peter swallows a mouthful of blood and spit. He slants a glare up at his villain. “You’re kind of an asshole, I ever tell you that, Mr. Osborn? Ha—oh my god, Norman Assborn, that’s my new name for—!”

Broad hands wrap around Peter’s neck, ignoring the metal collar and squeezing. Peter squirms against the chokehold, tries to flinch out of it as his air cuts off again and sharp-nailed fingers dig into the soft column of his throat. He splutters up at Norman’s face—purpled in rage, eyes wild, grin as manic as ever—and tries to form words.

“I prefer you quiet,” Norman tells him. His grip tightens. Peter’s fingers scramble at the tiles, at Norman’s hands, desperate for air. “Ah, I think I like this face even more than the last one. You’re so beautiful, desperate, dying under my hands….”

Assborn, Peter thinks through the airless haze. Assborn.

Norman relaxes his grip enough for Peter to take in rattling, shallow gasps. His lungs burn. Norman’s hands go soft, his spread fingers rubbing circles along Peter’s shaking throat. This deceptive gentleness is sickening.

Their faces are inches apart. Less than. They’re breathing in each other’s air, and Norman can feel the violent trembling of Peter’s body, can feel how warm the blood beginning to seep from his stab wound is. That, after everything that has happened today, is what pushes Peter over the edge.

His legs snap out and he kicks Norman off of him with all the strength of a bucking, enraged horse. The billionaire’s ribs crack with the force. Peter yanks the knife out. He resists the urge to curl around the injury or spend any more precious seconds tearing at the collar that keeps spitting electricity. With adrenaline thrumming through his blood, he clambers up and makes for the door. Norman is still curled on the floor on the other side of the room. The symboite lays still, as harmless as spilled out, spoiled milk.

Peter limps out of the door and down the long, dark corridors as fast as he can with a bleeding side and a malfunctioning collar.

 


 

Norman isn’t down for long; Peter can hear the man’s choked off shouts of rage through the walls. He limps faster, puffing little, breathy gasps with each jarring step.

He’d be scurrying up the walls and racing along the ceiling normally, but Norman took his web-shooters, and his hands are clasped to his side. His torso feels soaked through with the blood. Wall crawling may be faster and give him the rare higher ground on his too-tall enemy, but it’d paint a path to Peter. Norman would just have to follow the dripping, bloodied handprints along the wall to find him.

No. Walk-limping would have to do.

“PETER!” He hears the shout muffled through the wall. Assborn sounds pained. Good.

Peter’s been hurt as Spider-Man before. Concussions, jarred fingers and sprained ankles, bullet wounds to the thigh, even a stab wound or two. But there’s something different about this—something that’s visceral and real. Too raw, too much. This, limping through evacuated, empty halls, nerves burnt out and a head wound beginning to make itself known, a concussion pressing nauseous into his throat and blurring the edges of his vision, blood dripping through his badly shaking fingers, the echo of Norman’s manic voice ringing through the walls—

It’s too much. Peter clenches his mouth shut, teeth trapping any noise he might make, and breathes raggedly through his nose. He won’t succumb to the jagged whimpers he can feel in his throat, won’t cry, won’t let the panic attack pressing against his ribs take him down.

He has to get out of here.

Norman is a distinct point; Peter can just smell his too expensive cologne, and hear his rough pants and the slick-slide sound of his button down and slacks against the spandex undersuit he wears as Goblin. Peter just has to… stay out of his grasp. And find help.

An adult, his Aunt May would say often, driven by worry that her tiny, adopted son would think he had to deal with anything awful by himself. She knew he was too selfless. Too stupid to draw attention to his problems. You tell an adult if something bad happens, okay? Promise me, Peter.

Peter, tiny and trusting and sick of these too familiar lectures, had nodded his promise. Had sworn it.

Peter hates the idea that he’s not enough as he is. He hates being told he’s too weak or not capable or should be protected because he’s 15 years old and still impatiently waiting for a growth spurt. He’s a superhero. His fists are small, but they pack a mighty punch.

But even stupid, stubborn Peter has to admit that he’s in a bad position here. Fingers clenched tight to his dripping stab wound, Peter relents; his Aunt was right.

Peter needs an adult.

 


 

He finds the phone in an empty lab a few levels down. Norman had taken him to the basement levels, floors hidden beneath the concrete ground of New York, buried in the soil. The man assumed that, after escaping, Peter would’ve limped up. Tried to find his way out into the sunlight.

But Peter’s seen enough animal documentaries. He knows about the feral, sharp toothed predators that wounded their prey and then stalked it down, waiting for it to slow, to eventually succumb to their injuries, before capturing and devouring it. He’s not going to crawl and get inches from safety, only to have Norman snatch him back up.

So Peter winds his way down to even lower levels. It buys him time.

The scientists usually manning these labs must have been told to abandon them in a hurry. Bags are still left at workstations. There’s no one here to stop him from rifling through their belongings until he finds a phone without a passcode to crack.

With shaking, wet fingers, Peter dials the closest hero. The one that had—after snapping at him for going out, young and untrained—reluctantly handed over a phone number. Not a name, not an address; a phone number. For emergencies.

It’s one of the few numbers Peter has memorised, outside of his Aunt, and Gwen, and the Chinese takeout place he favours, and—

“This is Matt Murdock’s phone!”

“Um,” Peter says. The voice doesn’t sound like Daredevil; its too chirpy. “I’m looking for Daredevil…?”

The man on the other end of the line sighs. “Of course you are.”

“Is this the wrong number? Are you, like, his secretary?”

“Sometimes I feel like it.” Peter has no idea what that means. “How did you get this number?

“Daredevil gave it to me. We’re… we’re colleagues.”

“Winkwink, nudgenudge colleagues?”

Peter stares blankly at the lab wall. He’s starting to feel floaty again. Out of body. Like nothing, not even the phone in his hands, not even the warm voice in his ear, is quite real. “I’m a superhero, I’m not sleeping with him or anything. That’s gross.”

“No, no, I got that—” Something shifts in the background. The man murmurs gently, urging someone back to sleep. When he returns, he asks, hushed, “What do you want? Daredevil isn’t available tonight.”

“He needs to be available,” Peter says through his haze, heart thumping like a frightened animal. His collar shocks him every ten minutes or so, sending out a weak, painful pulse of electricity that makes him jump and lose his train of thought. “I—I need his help. I’m in tr—”

“Foggy?” someone in the background says, words badly slurred. “‘Who’s on the phone?”

“No one, buddy!” says this Foggy, this man who acts as Daredevil’s secretary, this man who’s keeping help from Peter. “Go back to sleep, you’re still too injured. It’s just a prank call.”

“Is that him?” Peter begs. “I need to—I need—”

“I’m sorry, kid, but running around in spandex can wait. You’re going to have to be patient for a few nights.”

“Wait—” Peter begins, but Foggy has already hung up. Peter tries to call again, but the phone rings out. Foggy must’ve turned it off. Figures.

“Okay, Parker,” Peter tells himself around the chattering of his teeth (either blood loss or fear, the jury is still out). His lungs feel tight, like they’re stuffed full of cotton wool and there’s no room for his sharp, shallow inhales. “Don’t panic. So Daredevil hired an asshole secretary who won’t take your calls, you’ve faced stuff like this before. Who else do you know? Who else?”

The Avengers don’t acknowledge him, really. He’s a convenient ally when the crap hits the fan and they need spare hands to clean up the mess, but he’s never gotten close. Never gotten a phone number, that’s for sure. There are other vigilantes in New York, he thinks. None that he knows.

There’s one person, though. One person, in their gleaming building with their famous teammates, who Peter’s been snapchatting and texting, who’s number his scrambled, fried brain remembers.

He lowers himself to the ground, one hand around his bleeding middle, the other dialling quickly. Johnny Storm answers with a flippant, “Y’ello?”

“Johnny? It’s—it’s Spider-Man,” Peter whispers. His mouth is wet and dripping; there’s too much salvia in his mouth, like he’s about to throw up.

Johnny laughs on the other end of the line. “Spidey? Is this another crank call? Because, I tell you, I’m not going to fall for it a second time around—”

“Johnny,” Peter says, “listen, I need the Four’s help with something. Now.”

“Come on, webs. You don’t call, you don’t write—what’s a girl supposed to think? I feel neglected—”

“Johnny!” Peter’s voice pitches too high, gone crackling with panic. On the other end, Johnny audibly winces. “Sorry. Sorry. I just… I really need your help, man. Please.”

“I’m sorry, dude, but me and the Four are off-world. We’re actually on our way out to deal with another spacial anomaly thingy. You just caught us; we’re going to fly out of the range of Earth’s satellites soon.”

“Talk about a long distance call,” Peter says idly, almost distantly, as though his heart isn’t trying to fight its way past his ribcage. The too wet feeling in this mouth worsens. Maybe he really will throw up, this time. Would that attract Norman? A loud, retching sign of weakness—blood in the water, calling out to the hungry, hungry sharks.

“Good thing you didn’t call on your cell,” Johnny agrees. He laughs again. Peter doesn’t laugh with him. “It’d be phone bill out of this world.”

“Do you know a phone number that will get me into contact with the Avengers?” Johnny hums, doubtful, and Peter begs, “Does Reed know? Does he have Iron Man’s number? Someone else, even—any X-Men currently living in New York?”

“No and no to the last two, I think.” Johnny leaves the call briefly. Peter can hear him talking to the others briefly. There’s a click over the line and the telltale crackle as Peter is put on speaker phone.

“Hello, Spider-Man,” Reed greets. “What’s the problem? Is it something we can advise you on? If it’s a scientific problem I could walk you through—”

“No, no.” Peter chokes on the words, around the congested, panicked feeling building in his chest; “I need actual physical help. I need the calvary, Mr. R.”

“We’re pretty far from being able to help, squirt.” Ben’s voice is light, on the edge of a joke. It makes Peter feel like crying.

“Do you know how I can contact the Avengers? Or a—a superhero helpline, maybe?”

“I’m sorry, Spider-Man, but my superhero contacts are all saved in the Baxter Building servers on Earth. There’s nothing I can give you—” Reed says.

“Nothing?” Peter asks. Beneath his mask, tears drip down his nose. He didn’t cry when Norman loomed over him and made him shake and whispered awful, awful promises, but this? Knowing how well and truly alone he is? It’s choking. A hysterical, knife-edged sob crawls its way out of Peter’s throat without his consent.

“Spidey?!” Johnny’s voice is back. Peter bites at his bottom lip, and curls up tighter around his knees, and presses the phone closer, like he can climb into the screen if he tries hard enough. “Are you—are you crying?”

“Spider-Man, what’s wrong? What’s happened?” That’s Sue. Her voice is hard with worry.

“Oh, shit,” Ben says, panicked. Peter is growing numb and distant and cloudy, the way he does when a panic attack is really brewing, thick and heavy, in his chest. “Is the kid—”

“I’m on my own, then,” Peter cuts Ben off. His words are shaky and strained; concussions are awful things, especially when coupled with blood loss. Peter swallows thickly. “It’s—alright. It’s alright.”

“Spidey!” Johnny says. “Spidey, wait a second—”

Peter hangs up.

The phone rings almost immediately. He silences it by denying the call, but it rings again moments later. It doesn’t even occur to Peter to turn the thing off. He picks it up and crushes it between shaking fingers. It doesn’t ring after that, scattered as it is in warped, useless parts.

“It’s going to be alright,” Peter says, just once more, and gets to his feet.

 


 

 Peter realises, belatedly, that he should have used that phone to call Aunt May. He really may not make it out of this, not if Norman catches him. A phone call to apologise and say goodbye would have been nice. Then again, the sound of her voice may have actually made him break down for real, and Peter can’t afford that right now.

The pain is distracting, but the accompanying immovability is what makes Peter grit his teeth. His whole body feels stiff. He can’t limp away from this. He can’t jump from a window and swing his way to freedom.

The collar goes off again. Peter scrunches his teeth and ignores it. He doesn’t have the time or coherency to pull the thing apart.

The blood running thick and slippery over his shaking fingers is alarming. Like a red flag, it shouts Peter’s own stupidity back at him. He shouldn’t have gotten caught. He should have fought harder. Been faster. Shouldn’t have even gotten out of bed that morning—

Norman is back.

A door opens and shuts a few hallways over. Norman’s wearing an expensive grey suit, but beneath it, hidden from prying eyes, is the synthetic spandex of the Goblin outfit. The same way Peter’s spider suit is usually tucked away beneath t-shirts and thrift store plaid.

Daredevil’s secretary may have denied him, but Peter’s still grateful for the hours the older man had spent helping Peter hone his advanced senses. He can hear the slick-slide of the Goblin suit against slacks as loud as a warning bell.

Daredevil may not know it, but he just saved Peter’s life. Even if it may not matter, in the end.

Peter wedges himself into a maintenance closest, and holds his breath, and silently begs Norman doesn’t find him

He doesn’t—the slick-slide of fabric passes Peter’s hiding place and disappears further down the corridor. Peter hasn’t stopped to hide yet, so Norman has no reason to check all the rooms. He knows that will change the longer he evades the older man. Soon, Norman’s going to stumble over him, and Peter’s going to be in no condition to run or fight him off.

But, for now, Peter shuffles further against the wall, curls into an impossibly small ball, and, with hands smothering his loud breaths, lets his looming panic attack finally crash over him.

 


 

 

The slick-slide sound returns. Peter is exhausted in the aftermath of a panic attack, the vinyl beneath him a sticky red, showing off his blood loss. There’s no air vents in the closest, no hidden nooks for him to disappear into. When Norman inevitably finds him, he’ll—

“I don’t care how many laws it breaks, scan the corridor. Find whatever experiment Norman is doing down here.” The voice isn’t Norman. It’s warmer, a part of him thinks. It doesn’t send shivers down Peter’s spine. “Who cares about lead lined walls? What are you, Superman? Oh, come on, Friday, I built you better than that—”

Tony, Peter thinks. Iron Man. An Avenger, in a nearby corridor, starting to wander away from Peter and his hiding place.

Peter clambers to his feet and stumbles into the hallway before he can stop himself. His spider-sense has been active since he first burst into the building, and it’s still simmering on low. A reminder that something is coming, that danger looms on Peter’s horizon.

“Mr. Stark!” Peter blurts. The slick-slide sound fades out. For the first time today, Peter desperately wants it to come closer.

Peter hobbles after the Avenger. The stiffness in his legs is worse after sitting still for so long. His torso flares with old, inhibiting pain with every hurried step. His head lolls, too heavy. Peter’s fighting through mud, not air, limping after the one person who might actually be able to help him.

“Mr. Stark,” Peter tries to shout. It comes out a hoarse whisper. “T—Ton—”

The ache in his legs finally, finally gets him; Peter stumbles and falls. Shaking tremors work up his body, so violent Peter has to lean against the wall to keep himself upright. He can’t stand. He should at least be able to sit. The cream wall behind him is smeared with red handprints, where his messy hands struggled to keep him upright.

“Wait. That’s—that’s not right.” The voice, that voice—Peter chokes on the hot lump in his throat. “There shouldn’t be any heat signatures. All the workers were evacuated from this part of the building, and it’s too small and bright to be a fully grown—”

The slick-slide of fabric. Fast, brisk steps. The faint whirr of a machine working overtime. Tony Stark rounds the hallway corner and freezes, eyes blown wide. He flinches violently back at the sight of bloodied spandex and folded limbs.

“Mr. Stark,” Peter slurs. He thought the shaking would abate if he found another hero, but it doesn’t. It worsens. He’s too overstimulated. The shock is like a dam, blocking any relief and putting hot, prickling tears in his eyes.

Tony sprints the few metres between him and Peter. The slick-slide sound is so loud—why does Tony sound like Norman? His super suit is bulky and metal. Maybe—maybe it’s another kind of undersuit? Something he wears under the Iron Man armour? Or maybe—

“Kid,” Tony says, and he sounds panicked. “Kid, can you hear me?” Peter hums, yes. He tries to nod his head, but it flops, rolls to the side, and doesn’t co-operate. “What happened?”

“Goblin. Turns out, he was right.” An arm snakes around Peter’s neck, and Tony tugs him closer. Peter’s wet, ruined face presses against his suit jacket. “No—no—I’m too dirty—”

“I don’t care,” Tony says. The older man is vehement, oddly so. He presses gentle fingers over the bulky collar, with its warped pieces sitting snug against the base of Peter’s throat, finger-shaped bruises blooming on skin beneath it. “Oh, my god…”

Peter’s ruined fingers latch onto Tony’s shirt. He doesn’t feel safe yet, but the billionaire is warm. He’s not hurting him. He’s an anchor to Peter, who’s been floating and lost all day.

“Did you come for me?” Peter chokes. He didn’t think anyone was coming. He didn’t think he was allowed this kind of help.

Tony hesitates for a long moment. “No,” Tony admits, and Peter swallows, “I’ve been suspicious of Norman for a long time. I knew he was up to something, and I’d been in his servers, so when I saw he had his basement levels evacuated without reason, I snuck in.”

“Sorry. No big conspiracy. ’s just me.” Peter’s fingers slip from Tony’s button up. He feels less like he’s going to hyperventilate again, less stressed, just this heavy, empty kind of tiredness. “I’m a pretty sucky Christmas present, I know. You wasted your time for nothing.”

Tony doesn’t let Peter go, though. He holds on, even as Peter’s thoughts haze over, body going loose. “Stay with me, kid,” Tony whispers against his bloody forehead. “I’m going to get you out of here if it’s the last thing I do.”

 


 

 

Concussions really do suck. Or maybe it’s the extended exposure to electric shocks; that can’t be good for the human body. Or maybe it’s the knife wound, or blood loss, or good old fashioned shock that’s sending Peter in and out of awareness, everything blurry and distant. He tries to grab hold of his surroundings and pull himself into coherency, but his body won’t co-operate. For the first time in a while, his spider-sense is quiet. His body takes that as a sign to shut off.

Peter barely registers that he’s being carried. He barely hears the sound of a car door opening before he’s slid onto leather seats.

Someone sucks in a sharp gasp. “God, what happened to him? Is that a collar?!”

Peter’s head lolls. He squints up at a middle aged man, peering over the front seat at him. “Assborn,” he informs him, seriously.

Tony’s surprised bark of laughter is nice. The other man smiles, but the edges are wrong; he’s too sad for it to be real. “Heroes are really all the same, huh?” he says.

“Yup,” Tony says with delight. “Assborn. Oh, that is too good. Remind me to change his name to that in absolutely everything.”

“I’m surprised Mr. Osborn let you leave—”

“He didn’t, Happy. I had Friday map us a path back up to you so that we avoided the snake. I’m not sure he would have let me leave with the kid, and I couldn’t risk fighting him. Spider-Brat needs help too badly.”

“How long did he have him?” Happy asks. He doesn’t sound very happy, Peter notes.

“I don’t know,” Tony says with a choked tone Peter’s soupy, useless mind can’t quite understand. “I didn’t even know he was missing. He didn’t even call for help—”

“I did,” Peter says. He’s half-guessing that they’re talking about him, but he needs them to know that he’s not this useless. He can tie his own shoes, fight his own baddies, and knows when to call for reinforcements when necessary. Even if he doesn’t have any reinforcements available to him just yet. The concept of real, dependable allies—outside the sudden, accidental appearance of Tony Stark, who’s assistance is born from moral responsibility rather than anything more tangible, like friendship—is still foreign. An unlockable feature Peter hasn’t gotten to yet.

“Daredevil’s secretary is bad at his job,” Peter slurs up at Tony.

“Yeah, you’re definitely concussed there, tiny. Take it easy.”

Peter squirms in his seat. “Thought I was—was going to die,” he admits, and then frowns. “Don’t let Assborn get my comic books, ‘kay?”

“Your comic books are safe,” Tony reassures. To Happy, he says, “Drive us home.”

“Yes, sir,” says the man, accompanied by the soft thrum of a powerful engine as they rocket away from Oscorp Tower and the monster stalking its halls.

Tony lets Peter go limp against him. His stab wound drips onto expensive leather, and he’s wetting the Avenger’s fancy suit, and he’s probably a bony, uncomfortable weight on the older man, their relationship not close enough for this easy contact, but the billionaire doesn’t push him off, just gathers him closer. And when fingers card through Peter’s damp hair, he leans into the touch, relaxes, and doesn’t think about the monster hidden beneath Norman’s skin.