After Tony had put his "blessed initials" on the message to Rhodes, his kidnappers took him back to his cell and left him there in complete blackness with only the roar of the Atlantic Ocean for company.
Exhaustion claimed him shortly after, and when he eventually woke up to Henson, Gregory, Johnson, Mole, WD, KT and FS barging in, Tony couldn't tell how long it had been since he had fallen asleep. Groggy, Tony didn't put up much of a fight, allowing instead the men to cuff his hands behind his back while he laid on the cold ground on his bare front, shivering, going along with it all in an uncharacteristically placid manner, if one didn't count the way he kept kicking Gregory in the groin, more or less accidentally.
(Well, less. Quite a lot less.)
(Okay, yes, he did it completely on purpose.)
HL was photographing Tony again and the flashlight of the camera reminded Tony of lightnings and made him miss Thor. He wished he had had his sunglasses on him because he so didn't feel like getting photographed just then and the sunglasses always helped him to put some mental distance between him and the paparazzis trying to blind him with their flashlights in the most inconvenient of situations.
Plus, the sunglasses made him look cool. Or rather, even cooler, and there was no situation where he didn't want to look cool. So, yeah, sunglasses would've been great.
"The Priestess is coming," Henson told him once the men had lifted Tony up to his feet and Tony was standing in the middle of his cell with the cool, sharp blade of Mole's knife pressed between his bare shoulder blades, not quite but almost breaking the skin.
"Everything needs to be perfect for her arrival and we need to be waiting for her in the altar hall."
Henson's voice was a curious mix of excitement and trepidation.
"How about you'll go and I'll wait here?" Tony suggested even as WD and FS, with his tattooed arms bulging, were already dragging him into the hallway. "But leave the door open this time, will you. I'd like to air my room out, so to speak. And who is this 'Priestess' anyway?"
"She, ahh," Henson breathed out, as they began to walk towards the altar hall, their steps echoing in the hallway. "She is a marvel of a human being. She is everything you are not, Mr. Stark, everything we are not. In one word, she is perfection. I am proud to say that I am related by blood to the Priestess."
"It will be an honor for you to meet my sister-in-law, Stark," Gregory said in his deep voice, "and if you forget that and refuse to show her the respect she is due, I will break your fingers one after another."
The Salivating Scorpions were starting to sound like a family cult, what with Gregory and Henson being married and the Priestess – whoever she might had been – apparently being Henson's sister. Tony wondered if the kidnappers were all somehow related, but refrained from asking, thinking it unlikely that he would get a reply other than, possibly, a slap.
Tony didn't want to get slapped. Regardless of the bravado he was putting on, he feared pain and was more than ready for this whole kidnapping ordeal to be over already.
"Uh, excuse you, but I always show people the respect they are due," he nevertheless had to say to Gregory over his shoulder, and had his hands not been handcuffed behind his back, he would had showed a certain finger to make a point. "It's hardly my fault if some aren't due any."
"Just so you know, Stark," Gregory spat his name like a curse, making a point of kicking Tony in the lower back in such a manner that Tony stumbled forward and would have fallen if it hadn't been for WD's steadying hands, "the moment we have found your hiding friend, you are a dead man, and your death will be long and painful, I'll make sure of that."
"You sure know how to make someone feel special," Tony muttered through gritted teeth. "And it's flattering that you consider me such a threat that the whole gang had to come and get me from my cell – I'm touched, guys, really."
The Salivating Scorpions took Tony into the altar hall where the altar still stood in the middle of it all, silent and imposing as always. Tony couldn't help tensing up at the sight of it.
"Scared, Stark?" Mole chuckled, having apparently noticed Tony's involuntary reaction. "I'm glad we've managed to make an impression."
"I wouldn't call it 'making an impression' as much as I'd call it 'making a mistake'," said Tony. "I've said it before, but this really will not end well for you, so you could do the smart thing and let me go now before anything irreversible happens."
"My Dearest was in such a good mood today when he woke up," remarked Henson from where he was standing in the middle of the hall, cleaning his glasses on a white handkerchief. "You see, Mr. Stark, he told me that he had had a lovely dream – one in which he was given the permission to cut your tongue right off. He was smiling in his sleep, I've rarely seen him looking as peaceful. So you just keep on talking and I just might let him fulfill his fantasy."
Tony made a face, but this time kept his mouth shut.
While the rest of the men began to prepare the altar hall so that it would "meet the needs of the Priestess", Mole remained by Tony's side with his Sig Sauer at the ready and a knife pointed in Tony's direction at all times. Tony had a feeling that the man was just waiting for an excuse to slash him with the blade – it had started to look to Tony like Mole enjoyed hurting him, or perhaps the man just enjoyed the feeling of power he could have over Tony by having him at his mercy. Tony was at his kidnappers' mercy and they all knew it, but still, while most of the kidnappers hurt Tony to get information out of him or to punish him, Mole was the one who seemed to find it particularly pleasant to hurt Tony and went out his way to use any excuse to make him cry out loud.
"Put more sand there," Henson directed Johnson and KT, gesturing towards the foot of the altar, and Johnson emptied a bucket full of sand on the pointed spot while KT spread it all evenly out with a rake. The smell of sand and dust soon reached Tony's nostrils and he wrinkled up his nose – the smell had become equally as unpleasant to him as it had become familiar during his kidnapping.
The sand was there to absorb any blood that might pour down the altar onto the ground, Tony knew, since he had laid on the altar on his blood often enough to see the men spreading out the sand around the altar. Apparently, a bloodied stone ground could get terribly slippery without the sand there to absorb the blood, and Henson, as he himself put it, "took work safety seriously".
"Did Her Sainthood tell you why she is coming, sweetheart?" Tony heard Gregory asking and looked to his left where Gregory and Henson were standing side by side watching FS and WD lighting up lanterns here and there in the hall so the entire space was lit up like for a fest. "She's welcome, of course, more than anyone else, but I find it surprising that she would decide to come here now, of all times, when the plan has barely been set to motion – Spider is yet to be caught!"
"I agree," Henson murmured. The lenses flashed in the lantern light as he adjusted the glasses on his nose. "It's peculiar indeed. Something must have happened, something unexpected, but she wouldn't answer my questions. She told us to just wait for her arrival."
"Perhaps she wants to see Stark. You know how she is when it comes to Stark nowada-"
Gregory cut himself off when he met Tony's eyes, seeming to realize that Tony was listening in on their conversation. Which was, admittedly, a bit rude, yes, but under the circumstances also quite understandable and Tony, for one, didn't blame himself any. Gregory, unfortunately, didn't seem to share the sentiment and let out a low growl instead, his dark glare locked on Tony.
"What are you staring at, Stark?" he grumbled and continued, not waiting for an answer, "Get on your knees! A worthless creature like you doesn't deserve to stand in this sacred hall."
Instead of giving Tony the chance to obey Gregory's order, Mole – having finally been given the excuse to hurt Tony he had seemingly been waiting for – kicked Tony's legs from beneath him and Tony hit the ground hard, managing only just so to turn slightly so he fell on his side rather than on his face. He yelped when his unprotected side hit the ground, and the men around him chuckled, Mole loudest of all.
"Teaches him to not listen to private conversations," said Gregory, sounding pleased for once, but Tony didn't get the chance to even look at the man, let alone to make his own remarks, as a swift kick hit him in the back and the force behind it had him falling onto his stomach with a grunt.
"Look at you," Mole's voice came from above him, mocking, and another kick accompanied the words, "all muddy and filthy like the pig you are! Why don't you give us a little squeal, Stark? Come on, squeal, piggy! I want the little pig to entertain me."
"If you want to be entertained by a pig, go make faces at a mirror," snapped Tony, mindful of his bruised side as he wriggled up to his knees – not an easy feat by any means, considering his hands were still cuffed tightly behind his back.
He tried to get up to his feet, but Gregory, Johnson, Mole and FS were all pointing at him with knives, telling him to stay on his knees, which left Tony little other option but to remain in his position, some three yards away from the altar, facing it with his back to the main entrance.
Soon after, Henson began to pace and grow visibly restless and undecided which, in turn, made Tony feel ever growing trepidation – he did not want to meet this Priestess who could make even his kidnappers nervous. Whatever the Priestess' name actually was, her function was clearly to be some kind of a leader, the cult leader of the Salivating Scorpions, and her status seemed to be higher in the cult than even Henson's who, so far, had seemed to be acting as the group leader.
"I should go greet her by the well, above ground, I mean," Henson kept saying. "I think. I mean, she would like that, yeah? Surely. It wouldn't hurt, would it."
"Yes, perhaps you should go," Gregory voiced his agreement in his grumbling manner. "Take someone with you. I don't like you going to the tunnels alone with the Scorpion lurking in the shadows."
"That's dangerously close to blasphemy, my dear," Henson said and Tony saw him fixing Gregory with a look, although the man didn't stop his pacing.
Gregory bent his head.
"I meant no offence to Her Venomness, but it would still sooth my mind if you took someone with you."
"The Scorpion wouldn't harm me! My sister is Her Priestess, after all, and I have been loyal to the Scorpion since before the death of our parents. But very well, Dearest, I will take a few men with me."
So saying, Henson motioned for Mole and FS to follow him which the pair also did, complying instantly, and soon the trio disappeared into the blackness of the hallway. For the remaining kidnappers – as well as for Tony – there was then little to do but to wait for the men to return – along with the Priestess.
Tony wasn't looking forward to meeting the Priestess in the slightest. He hadn't forgotten what Gregory had said earlier, "Perhaps she just wants to see Stark. You know how she is when it comes to Stark," and Tony tried not to think of what the Priestess' appearance would mean to him, what the Priestess' presence might cause the men to do to him. He didn't want to come up with reasons for why the Priestess was coming, he didn't want to… didn't want to.
What he did want was to see the Sun, to feel it on his skin, to fly in his suit because that was when he felt most at free. He wanted to be above the ground, not beneath an ocean. He wanted to banter with Rhodes, have Vision taste cranberries for the first time, play video games with Peter…
In short, he wanted to be at home.
But if he could get everything he wanted, Tony thought bitterly, the man he had seen as a childhood hero and, later, his great friend would never had punched his leather-clad fist into Tony's chest to pull out his heart only to drop it onto the unforgiving Siberian ground, where it shattered and froze and now laid in pieces, cold and forgotten. If Tony could get everything he wanted, Steve would not had walked away with Barnes, Bruce would not had left, Ultron would not had turned into a threat.
Tony's parents would not had died.
Would not had been murdered.
The point was, Tony didn't always get what he wanted, against the popular belief, and so there he now was, hands cuffed behind his back, yearning for sunlight and for freedom, surrounded by people who only saw him as the means to feed their scorpion. So no, he didn't want to think what the Priestess might do to him, but that's what he did think anyway, there was no way around it:
It was rather fair to assume that the Priestess would not have warm feelings towards him, considering everything the cult she was the leader of had made him endure so far. Since the altar had been prepared, Tony knew it was likely that he would be made bleed again. Perhaps the Priestess would want to be the one to cut him. Perhaps she would want to taste his blood herself; one couldn't know with these people. Whatever the case would be, the Priestess' presence would undoubtedly mean more pain to Tony in whatever form it would present itself.
Fidgeting, Tony sighed to himself and glared at the altar and the sand around it as if they were to blame for the circumstances.
They waited in the altar hall for the Priestess for what must have been at least an hour, for long enough for HL to stop photographing Tony and to sit down on the ground to browse through the pictures he already had on his camera, for long enough for WD to take pity on Tony and to come loosen the handcuffs, even if he didn't take them off entirely.
"You'll behave yourself for now, son, won't you?" WD asked once the handcuffs had been loosened. Tony nodded his head and WD sighed, giving Tony's shoulder a pat. "I hope you mean that, dear heart, because I truly don't like seeing you getting hurt. It's barbaric and I am a civilized man – my father was a priest, you know, and I took his ethic lessons to my heart at a young age."
WD was older than the rest of the Salivating Scorpions, and both his skin and hair – and even his eyes – looked even grayer in the lantern light than they usually looked in torch light. Older WD might have been, but in no way was he frail: his biceps were the size of Tony's thighs and his muscular thighs the size of Tony's waste, and while he had taken a habit of calling Tony "son" and "dear heart", that didn't stop him from holding Tony's head underwater until Tony was a sobbing mess.
It was likely calculated, Tony knew, the way WD would offer him comfort like none of the other kidnappers did, the way WD would always say how sorry he was for hurting Tony, the way WD would make sure that Tony was given something to eat and drink, that his cell was emptied of excrements regularly.
They were likely trying to make Tony get attached to the grandfatherly WD so that Tony would become more co-operative, and the sad part was, it was working: whenever Tony saw that it would be WD torturing him, this time – instead of Gregory, who took his frustration out on Tony, or KT, who never looked Tony in the eye and seemed to have forgotten that Tony was a human being, or Mole, who had gotten an erection from torturing Tony, a few times – Tony felt something akin to relief, and once or twice he had come close to thanking the man for being the one to burn him with cigarettes. That was some Stockholm syndrome shit right there, and before retiring, Doctor Holmberg would end up being able to buy himself a few yachts with all the money Tony would be throwing in his way for all their sessions.
Subtly, while they kept on waiting and he kept on clenching and unclenching his fists for the sake of blood circulation in his hands, Tony took in the gear of the five men in the hall with him. He counted five Sig Sauers, eight knives and two hand grenades – he was, he had to admit, a bit overpowered for the time being, especially with his hands cuffed behind his back, but at least none of his limbs were broken and he was able to walk on his own, more or less.
Besides, Tony figured, he doubted any of the men would risk using a hand grenade or firing their weapons underground where the bullets could easily ricochet from the stone walls and hit an unintended target, possibly the shooter himself, and where a hand grenade could potentially end up breaking the ceiling and causing the ocean to pour in. Of all the weapons, therefore, only the knives were a real threat to Tony for as long as he remained in the stone halls underground. On the ground level, the situation would naturally be quite different, as there nothing would prevent the men from shooting Tony.
All that in mind, Tony mused, if he wanted to escape, he would somehow have to keep out of the knife range and also manage to outrun his kidnappers, and then he would need to climb up the well in his weakened state and find a way to block its mouth from above, so the Salivating Scorpions wouldn't be able to follow him to the potato fields where he would be an easy target to aim at.
It was starting to look unlikely that Tony would make it out alive, even he had to admit that. He was helpless, as much he hated to admit that, but even if he could do little to help himself, perhaps he could at least prevent Peter from falling to the same fate:
Sure, the men had beaten Tony's body black and blue, but they had not beaten him. He had not given up and now that he knew that it was Peter the kidnappers were after, he was even more determined than before to not give in, to not give them any information, to not aid them in any way in finding Peter. If Tony was positive about one thing, it had to be the fact that he would not betray Peter, he would not reveal the boy's identity or location to anyone ever. He would take Spider-Man's identity to his grave with him, if he had to. He would let these men torture him senseless, but he would not be putting Peter at their mercy. Not only because he cared about Peter, but also because he owed the boy as much for having pulled him along on the ride in the Carousel of Shit and Disappointments, otherwise known as Tony's life.
Hearing that it was Peter the Salivating Scorpion were after – Peter of whom Tony had grown fond, Peter who was as good as Tony and Steve were not, Peter whose future Tony yearned to make fucking brilliant – had made Tony desperate, and desperation had a way of making men do desperate things. The kidnappers had forced Tony in a corner, had made him desperate, and that, if anything, was a great way to guarantee that Tony was now
Tony was dangerous to a degree of being lethal, he was ready to do desperate things, and while they waited for The Priestess in the hall, Tony counted the weapons and made calculations on how to save Peter, on how to best guarantee Peter's safety – how to best dissolve this entire situation with the Salivating Scorpions, how to best eliminate their cult.
Tony's gaze landed on the hand grenade Johnson had attached on the vest he wore on top of his wetsuit. Tony didn't believe the man was intending to use the grenade underground and its function was probably to make Tony feel intimidated, but if, Tony mused, he himself managed to get his hands on some grenades or other explosives, he could try and take the whole place down for once and for all. All he would have to do was to find the right spot – the weakest spot in the underground compound – to set the explosives off and have the explosion weaken the structures enough to bring down a ceiling. The ocean would come pouring in and everyone underground would drown – Tony included, yes, but if he managed to take down the cult by eliminating its figure of worship, the Scorpion, and by drowning its key members, including Henson and this Priestess, Peter would be safe from the cult and wouldn't have to go through the torture Tony had had to endure.
There was a voice in Tony's head, sounding a lot like Rhodes, reminding him that he didn't want to die, that he wanted to live, but he ignored the voice, just like he always did when it came down to choosing a friend's life over his own. It wasn't his first rodeo, after all, and sacrificing himself in order to save Peter would be worth it.
And nope, Tony had never claimed that he was a good man. In fact, he was always rather clear that he was anything but a good man. So, yes, killing people in order to keep Peter safe would also be worth it and Tony wouldn't regret doing it.
Besides, Tony decided, perhaps the world would be all the better for his death. The death of the Merchant of Death would be a relief to many, after all, no matter that he hadn't been involved in the weapon business in years, and Steve would be relieved by his death, too, knowing that Tony would never again be coming after one James Barnes. Then there would be all the people and charitable organizations that would benefit from Tony's death, and while Rhodes and Vision and Peter and Pepper would mourn him, he had remembered them all in his will and the generous shares they would get would cheer them up again in no time.
All this in mind, Tony now knew what he needed to do. The next step was to get the means to put his plan to action.
Only the sudden stiffening of the men around Tony signaled the entrance of the Priestess. Tony hadn't heard the approaching steps, and because the entrance Henson, Mole and the Priestess had used was behind his back, he hadn't seen them entering either. When Gregory, WD, KT and Johnson however all of a sudden stiffened and when their gazes simultaneously shot towards the main entrance behind Tony, and when HL quickly climbed up to his feet with the camera at the ready, Tony knew without looking that the Priestess had finally arrived.
He craned his neck to take a look at her with a mix of trepidation and curiosity, and as soon as he saw her, recognition hit him instantly. Now, Tony didn't recognize the sturdy woman with the short brown hair per se, no, but what he did recognize was the uniform she was wearing – the green uniform of the Stark Industries' postal staff. To have one of his own workers to be among the people behind his kidnapping wasn't the worst betrayal Tony had experienced, but it still felt like a punch in the gut, like something heavy had just landed on his shoulders, and when their eyes met, he made sure to give the Priestess a haughty look before rather pointedly turning his head away from her and looking straight ahead.
While Tony might not had recognized "Eleanore Jenkins", as her nametag read, she had clearly recognized him, judging from the sharpening of her gaze and the narrowing of her eyes. She now walked around Tony – Gregory and WD stood aside so she could come stand in front of him – and when they finally were face to face – or rather, Tony on his knees at her feet – a grin spread on her round face and she clapped her hands together in an excited manner, letting out a loud-pitched giggle. Behind her, Tony saw HL who was fingering his camera in a hesitant manner, looking from it to Jenkins, like he wasn't quite sure if he was allowed to take photographs or if he should wait for her permission first.
"Isn't this the dream of every employee everywhere?" Jenkins cried, gesturing wildly at Tony with the red Mora knife she was holding loosely in her hand. "To have their boss kneeling at their feet, bloody and broken? To have their boss at their mercy?"
The men around them murmured their agreements.
"Y-Yes, sister," said Henson from where he was standing behind Tony, and Tony was taken aback to hear the tremble in his soft voice – it sounded like Henson was scared of this woman, his sister, the Priestess. Eleanore Jenkins. Gregory seemed bothered by his husband's meek tone, too, for he kept shooting glances behind Tony, likely at Henson, while shifting his weight from one foot to another in an uneasy manner.
"I'm glad you find the situation satisfactory."
"Satisfactory?" Jenkins repeated like Henson had just told a great joke. "Ha! Not only 'satisfactory', as everything turned out better than I could have ever hoped for, brother dear. I'd call this perfect rather than 'satisfactory'."
Still grinning widely, she turned her attention to Tony, regarding him in a rather close manner.
"Mr. Stark, we meet again," she then said, just as Tony asked, "Who, exactly, are you?"
They stared at each other for a few heartbeats, while the men around them stood still, looking on. The grin disappeared from Jenkins' face and she blinked furiously, her skin turning red from neck up – she clearly hadn't expected Tony to not remember her and the fact that he didn't remember her was making her upset, despite of the fact that it wasn't at all uncommon for Tony to not remember people.
"Oo-kay," Tony said slowly. "This is a bit awkward."
"I-" she said, frowning a little, clearing her throat. "I was the one to deliver you the letter from the Salivating Scorpions. I was the woman who was waiting for you near your elevator the evening when you were taken from your tower. Do you remember me now?"
Tony might had been a genius, but he was terrible when it came to remembering people, and while he did believe that she was speaking the truth – that he had met her, that she had been the one to give him the letter with threat against "SR" in it – he honestly couldn't recall her or place her face anywhere, although her looks did remind him of Happy Hogan a bit.
"Uh, sorry," Tony said with a grimace. "And again, awkward."
"But don't take this personally, okay?" he hurried to add. "I'm terrible with people – everyone knows that – I'm, like, the worst people person ever. For example, I once got engaged to a country singer, but for the life of me I can't recall her name anymore (it was a spur of a moment kind of a thing, and I've forbidden everyone from telling me about that night, as I'm trying to let it come to me on its own – I enjoy a bit of a puzzle, you see – and I'm fairly confident that her name was something like Belmura or Briganda or Belladonna or Brendarth, or possibly Katie). Then again, it was the early 2000's and, to be fair, those years are kind of a blur to me. Though people keep saying that I used to throw a mean party back then. Too bad I don't remember any of it myself, like, nada. Half a decade has been wiped out of my mind – can you believe that! In hindsight, I probably shouldn't had drunk as much as I d-"
Tony would have talked about the subject for longer, if it hadn't been for the knife Jenkins suddenly pressed against his Adam's apple. Prompted into silence by the knife, Tony held his tongue while Jenkins regarded him in silence for a few good minutes.
"No matter," she eventually said stiffly like she was trying to pretend that it didn't bother her that Tony couldn't remember her. "By the time I'm finished with you, Stark, you won't be able to get me out of your head. I will be your constant nightmare."
Having apparently said all she wanted to say, she withdrew the knife and turned her back to Tony, thus dismissing him, and marched to the altar. She studied the empty altar and the sand around it, and Tony could feel an icy hand wrapping its hand around his throat – whatever would come next, he just knew he wouldn't like it.
He tried to not fidget, not entirely successfully.
"Bring him here, Marshall," Jenkins gave the order and Tony winced, expecting to get hauled up by rough hands. That didn't happen, however, as Mole stepped pass him, ignoring him completely.
Tony hadn't seen Mole entering and when he had looked at Jenkins over his shoulder, his gaze hadn't landed on Mole, or Marshall, as the man apparently was called – therefore, he hadn't either noticed that Mole was carrying a body. Now that Mole did step into his line of sight, however, Tony could see a tall body in the man's arms. The brief moment of relief he had experienced due to Mole ignoring him and not taking him to the altar was immediately replaced by confusion – and trepidation on behalf of the unconscious person in Mole's hold.
The face of the body was blocked from Tony's sight by Mole's form and he only saw a pair of worn sneakers and gray, loosely fitting gym pants on the legs that swung limply in the rhythm of Mole's steps.
His gaze fixed on the shoes, Tony's world seemed to come to a halt and he was overcome with a cold feeling, like someone had filled his insides with ice. It was like he was seeing everything in slow motion, Mole's movements, the flickering of the various lanterns, even while his pulse increased.
Because Tony would had recognized those sneakers, those legs anywhere – he had taken measurements of them often enough because he had built a suit for that body. Still, he hadn't yet seen the face of the person Mole was carrying, and so he hung to the hope that he had been mistaken, that there was… just some purely coincidental resemblance.
His hopes were crushed the moment Mole stepped away from the altar, having lowered the body onto it, revealing the face he had previously blocked from Tony's sight: the person lying on the altar was, as Tony had known it would be, Peter.
It was Peter.
The altar was covered in Tony's dried blood and the unconscious, limp body they lowered onto the filthy surface was PETER!
Suffice to say, the sight was enough to replace the ice in Tony's veins with fire, with hot rage and burning hatred, and he wanted little more than to lash out, to break Mole's nose, to kick the air out of Jenkins, to fight his way to Peter's side to shake the boy awake so Peter would be given a fair chance of defending himself – had Peter been awake, Spider-Man should have had little trouble in eliminating the threat the Salivating Scorpions posed to him. Peter might had even managed to escape!
Tony didn't do any of that, however, the calculating realist in him managing to rule his emotions. However Jenkins had made Peter unconscious, it had to had been in such a strong way that no amount of shaking would wake him up any time soon since the manner of rendering him unconscious would had needed to be effective enough in the first place to take down Peter with his super powers. By attacking their captors now when Peter was out, Tony would not only reveal that he cared about Peter deeply and that Peter could therefore effectively be used against him, but he might also get himself injured in a manner that could later prove to be a hindrance in getting Peter back to safety.
Peter's unexpected appearance had obviously changed everything and Tony's plan of simply drowning the whole compound was no longer a possibility – for the time being – with Peter underground as well. Tony was ready to drown every single member of the cult, but not if it would cost Peter his life. Tony's number one priority was now getting Peter back to safety in any way necessary.
Tony could feel Jenkins' eyes on him. It felt like the woman was studying him, trying to gauge his reaction, and Tony refused to give him one, he was careful to keep his expression neutral, to not give away how deeply shocked and scared he was over Peter's appearance. Peter's chest was rising and falling steadily, much to Tony's relief, and he had been allowed to leave his hoodie on which would keep him warm – or at least warmer than Tony was without any kind of a top – Tony observed, even as his mind was already working on the various reasons for Peter's appearance:
It was public knowledge that Tony had taken one Peter Parker under his wing and that the two had begun to spend a lot of time together – not that the majority of the public was in any way interested in the fact – and it was possible that Jenkins had kidnapped Peter to force Tony into being more co-operative. Perhaps Jenkins was planning on threatening Peter, Tony's protégé, in order to force Tony into giving her information on Spider-Man. Perhaps she would force Tony to choose between Peter's safety and Spider-Man's identity – which would propose quite a dilemma to Tony as revealing Spider-Man's identity would just put Peter's safety into further jeopardy, seeing as how Peter was Spider-Man.
There was also the unlikely possibility that Jenkins had somehow managed to find out that Peter was Spider-Man and had made a move to take Spider-Man in without informing her cult of it, but unless Peter had revealed Spider-Man's identity to the woman himself, Tony couldn't see how she possibly could have found out the truth about Spider-Man. After all, Tony had taken every precaution possible to guarantee that Peter's secret would remain just that, a secret.
Tony took in Peter's still form carefully. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps whatever manner Jenkins had used in rendering Peter unconscious hadn't been effective enough – Peter was no ordinary teen, after all, and the amount of drugs that would had been needed in order to take down Peter would had killed a regular human being. That in mind, if Jenkins hadn't known that Peter was Spider-Man and if she therefore hadn't used strong enough method to render Peter unconscious, it was possible that Peter was now just pretending to be unconscious, having allowed Jenkins to lead him to Tony for rescue purposes. It was therefore possible that Peter was now waiting for an opportune moment, a distraction, to make his move.
A flicker of hope thus lit up, Tony smirked mentally – if Peter needed a distraction, Tony could provide him with one, because it just happened that he was great at distractions. If there was one thing Tony Stark knew how to do, it had to be drawing attention – all the attention – to himself.
The plan of action made, Tony now needed to put it in action.
"Bravo," he therefore said in his most sarcastic voice, turning his gaze from Peter's still body to Jenkins and Mole, who was still standing next to Jenkins. "You have managed to kidnap a minor. How did you manage such a feat, I wonder. Did you tell him you had lost a puppy and needed his help in finding it, or did you convince him that you had candy for him in your nice white van and that he would get his favorite treats if he would come home with you?"
"Something like that," said Jenkins, "but the van was black, instead of white, and it had the SI logo on it. And instead of offering candy, I told Mr. Parker that he was urgently needed by Virginia Potts in the Stark Tower. He didn't even question it, he just jumped into the van and let me take him."
Tony, feeling more rattled by what she was saying than he let on, opened his mouth to give his retort, to keep on drawing attention to himself, but before he managed to utter a sound, Jenkins was again talking, addressing the Salivating Scorpions, having dismissed Tony once again as if he wasn't even present.
"My friends," Jenkins said, "this is a day of joy to the Scorpion and to Her followers! Hail to the Scorpion!"
"Hail to the Scorpion!" echoed in the tunnels as Henson, Gregory, Johnson, Mole, WD, KT, HL and FS all raised their voices in worship.
"May Her venom never be diluted!"
"May Her venom never be diluted!"
"This day," Jenkins continued, walking around the altar so that she alone stood behind it, leaning over Peter, facing Tony and the Salivating Scorpions, "this day shall be remembered as the day when the Scorpion was given blood worthy of Her! Lo and behold, my friends, for I have successfully captured Spider!"
With a few fast movements, she used her Mora knife to cut the front of Peter's hoodie open. She pulled the hoodie's shreds apart, revealing in process the red-blue Spider-Man suit Peter was wearing underneath. An excited murmur went through the hall and the men stepped closer to the altar, craning their necks to see Peter better. Only Gregory, holding his knife close to Tony's face, stayed behind to guard Tony, who felt dawning horror as he realized that Jenkins had indeed somehow found out that Peter was, in all actuality, Spider-Man.
If Jenkins had found out that Peter was Spider-Man, as the case seemed to be, she likely had also used a method effective enough to take him down which, in turn, meant that Peter was not, in fact, faking his unconsciousness but was out of it for real. Which meant that he and Tony were now both at complete mercy of the sick scorpion cult.
"Sister," Henson breathed out, pushing pass Tony and Gregory, coming to a stop but an inch from the altar, leaning over Peter. "Is this really Spider?"
"Do you doubt your Priestess?"
"No, no," Henson hurried to say, "it's just, this is such good news it's hard to even believe. How did you manage to find him?"
"Spider revealed himself to me himself," Jenkins' voice was as smug as the look she casted in Tony's direction, and the Salivating Scorpions seemed to hang on to her words like they were their only source of oxygen. "You see, my friends – and Stark – Spider must have known, subconsciously, that this is where his true purpose lies, that he is needed by the Scorpion, that his purpose in life is to offer his blood to the Scorpion."
"You're all sick fucks," Tony managed from the lump in his throat. "You're all sick…"
There was a sudden pain in his shoulder when Gregory slashed the skin of his shoulder open. The blood felt wet and warm, as it fell down his chilly skin.
"Don't speak to her like that," Gregory hissed in his ear. "Show some respect."
The Salivating Scorpions hummed while Jenkins cut the sleeves of the Spider-Man suit open from wrists to shoulders. By the time she was finished, both of Peter's arms were bleeding freely – and the Scorpion was lurking in the back of the altar hall, beckoned by the humming, its black eyes fixed on Peter's still form on the altar.
As soon as Jenkins backed away and raised her hands up, crying out loud, "Hail to the Scorpion!" the Scorpion scuttled across the hall straight to the altar and climbed up on it. The Scorpion began to feast on Peter's blood and Tony was helpless to stop it, he was helpless to do anything but to struggle in vain against their captors, to swear, to spit threats at them, to try to bargain with them. He begged for them to use him in Peter's stead, he offered them his money, said he would join their cult if they would let Peter be, but none of it worked. The Salivating Scorpions just kept on humming as if Tony hadn't made a sound – and the Scorpion kept on feasting on Peter's blood.
Afterwards, when the Scorpion had gone back to the shadows and Peter lied on the altar, pale and still unconscious (it was a small comfort to Tony that Peter hadn't been conscious for the horror of the Scorpion drinking up his blood), Jenkins was careful to stem the bleeding of Peter's arms herself. She used butterfly bandages and wrapped Peter's arms in clean bandages, handling his body like she was playing with a doll, while simultaneously telling Tony of all the "hardship" she had been through to "find Spider". Tony got the impression that Jenkins, along with the Salivating Scorpions, was in a spectacular mood now that the Scorpion had been fed with blood "worthy of Her", and Jenkins' voice was joyful, her manner content, as she spoke to Tony.
"I have been planning this ever since June when I fought Spider for the first – and only – time," she said. "I was on my way to steal some dogs for the Scorpion from a pet shop in Queens – Beckett's Beagles, the shop was called, I believe – when suddenly this young boy with a spider mask jumped on me. Later I saw an article about him, Spider in New York Super Gossip and I instantly knew that Spider's blood was what the Scorpion needed."
"You see, I've got my own share of super powers, Mr. Stark," Jenkins continued, "and what a good thing that is, too, seeing as there are some quite nasty supervillains out there nowadays: what would this world come to, if supervillains had a free reign to our beloved country now that the good Captain Rogers has been forced into hiding! The world needs superheroes like me, that's a fact. And to think that today I have not only managed to feed the Scorpion with Spider's blood, but I also still have got the evilest supervillain of them all in my custody – the infamous, corrupt Ironman himself, the man responsible for the – temporary – fall of Captain America! Rest assured, Mr. Stark, I will make you pay for what you have done, and I will record it all and send the footage to Captain America, the greatest superhero of all time. He will appreciate what I'm doing on his behalf – punishing you for your sins."
"I began to follow Spider online," she kept on going, barely stopping for long enough to draw breath, so excited she seemed to be, "and I soon noticed that he was working closely with you - with a supervillain. I initially assumed that he was a villain, too, but then I realized that he was actually just keeping an eye on you, sacrificing his purity for keeping you in his control. I knew then that I had to save Spider from your corrupt ways, Mr. Stark, just as I knew that the Scorpion yearned for his blood."
"I made a plan: I managed to get a job in the Stark Tower which granted me closer access to you and, in turn, to Spider. I knew that Spider wouldn't be far from where you were, considering he had made it his business to keep you from doing any further harm to our beloved world. I had my loyal men to kidnap you to lure Spider out of hiding – after all, he would have to find you to make sure that you wouldn't cause any more harm, that you hadn't been taken by any third parties that might aid you in your quest to destroy good people."
"Among my superpowers, I am able to form telepathic links with certain glass objects," Jenkins announced with audible pride. "I can control them, I can make them move as I like, I can make them do my bidding. What they see, I see. What they hear, I hear. In the guise of sending James Rhodes some proof of your suffering, I managed to have one of my glass scorpions to be put straight in the middle of all the action – exactly where I wanted my eyes and ears to be. Through the eyes of my scorpion, I saw the Avengers gathering in the Stark Tower, but more importantly, I saw Spider."
"You see, Mr. Stark, I knew that Spider would make an appearance sooner rather than later once the word of your kidnapping would reach him – and I was right: by the time my scorpion reached the Tower, Spider was already there. He was, in fact, the one to capture my scorpion. After that, it only took a few days for Spider to take off his mask right in front of my scorpion, right where I could see his face. Seeing his face, I recognized him as the teen, the Parker kid who had been tagging along with you for months. From there, it was easy enough to lure Parker into a van and have my scorpions stung him unconscious."
Tony decided that he hated her, that he hated the Salivating Scorpions.
He gave Jenkins his coldest smile and made a silent promise to Peter – and to himself – to destroy the Scorpion and her cult.
They left Peter and Tony alone in the cell, safe for a glass scorpion – similar to the one that had stung Tony – that Jenkins placed next to the lantern outside the cell to face a seething Tony and an unconscious Peter.
"I don't need to be here myself to see and hear everything you do and say," Jenkins told Tony as she put the figurine down onto the ground. "One wrong move and we'll be on you before you know it."
It took a long while for Peter to wake up. It took him long enough that Tony began to worry that he never would wake up, and so Tony didn't leave Peter's side once, kneeling instead right there next to him, rubbing Peter's back, ignoring his own pain, ignoring all his own discomfort in favor of making sure that Peter kept on breathing.
The first thing Peter did when he regained consciousness was to tell Tony to not worry because he was there to rescue Tony. Peter, weak as a day-old puppy, unaware of the horror he had had to endure and their dire circumstances, croaked out that he would rescue Tony.
As soon as he "could stand up".
The Salivating Scorpions weren't worth a drop of Peter's blood.
"I'm sorry, kid," Tony said with a weary sigh, leaning his head back against the wall.
"What for?" Peter's voice was uncharacteristically glum from where he was clumsily pacing their small cell. He was visibly frustrated with the way he had not yet regained his strength, for the way he was still wobbly on his feet like Bambi taking his first steps. "For getting kidnapped because of me? For getting hurt because of me? What, exactly, are you sorry for? Out of the two of us, it's me who should be sorry for getting you involved in this whole mess!"
Tony sent an exasperated glare in the boy's direction, to which Peter answered by coming to a halt and crossing his arms on his chest in a petulant manner. He leant against the wall opposite of Tony and gave Tony a look so angry that it was probably meant to mask all the fear behind it – it didn't work, however, and Peter's ever so expressive eyes were now full of anguish, pain, fear and guilt. He scrunched up his face like he was in turmoil over some painful emotion, and the sight of it made something clench in Tony's chest. Tony hated - hated how helpless he was, how little he could do for Peter in their current circumstances.
"I meant that I'm sorry for these unpleasant situations in which you sometimes find yourself in for being a hero, for doing what you think should be done – for catching the eye of a wrong person, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. None of this is your fault, Peter, and I'm sorry that you have to suffer through this. I'm sorry I wasn't able to protect you better. I feel like I have failed you," Tony meant to say in a calm manner – terribly unsuccessfully, should be added, for it came out as,
"Oh, I'm oh so sorry for that stupid face you pull every time you're feeling guilty for some shit you didn't do, Parker! God, I hate that stupid expression. Why the fuck do you have to take the world on your shoulders, Peter? Get it to your head that this is not your fault and stop feeling sorry for yourself! This cell is too small for your self-pity party, so either stop behaving like a mooning teenager or get yourself a bigger cell somewhere that is not here – and do me a favor and do not invite me to that pity party of yours!"
Tony said all that very fast, gesturing sharply with his hand to the rhythm of his words, and Peter – with his face scrunched up now even more so than before - uncrossed his arms and clenched his fists, glaring at Tony like he had never before. By the time Tony stopped with his short tirade to draw breath, Peter was pointing at him with a trembling finger.
"I wouldn't invite you to my pity party even if you begged for an invite! Even if it was a fun pity party! Especially if it was a fun pity party! And it would be a party, not a pity party, anyway, so stop talking about pity parties!"
They were both frustrated with themselves, with the situation, with their helplessness. They were not used to being helpless and at the mercy of others, some experience though both had of it due to their past as superheroes, and it was made all the worse by the other's presence; their fear, Tony knew, was not all for themselves but for each other which made them loath their helplessness – they did, after all, care a great deal for each other. That in mind, it was ironic that they were now taking their frustration out on each other: when they hadn't been planning their escape – in hushed voices to make sure the glass scorpion outside wouldn't hear and have Jenkins listen in on the conversation through it – they had been sniping at each other over the pettiest things, on and off, for what felt like hours, ever since Tony had filled Peter in on how the kidnappers had found out about Spider-Man's real identity.
Tony didn't even know why he was saying such mean things to Peter, of all people, but every time his gaze landed on the boy, the brick in his stomach gained more weight and his breath hitched, and he had to do, say, anything to distract himself from it, from his fears, from the terror he had felt when the kidnappers had first brought Peter in earlier that day.
Or that night. Tony couldn't tell which it was. He had long since lost what little sense of time he had ever had.
In any case, arguing felt, well, not exactly good but at least better than any of the alternatives. After the initial moments of shared comfort, both Peter and Tony had put physical distance between the two of them and no sooner had the sniping begun. (Tony didn't know which one of them had started it, but he suspected himself. He was fairly sure that it had been him. It usually was him, or so he had been told by various people.)
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he now snorted, rolling his eyes in an exaggerated manner just because he knew it would annoy Peter. "But the truth is, if I showed up uninvited to your pity party, you'd let me in because you would be too polite to just turn me away."
"Whatever," Peter snapped, "and for the record, I've got plenty of retorts I could use right now, but as you put it, I'm just too polite to use any of them."
"Politeness can take you far, kid, but only with the right kind of people. And 'for the record', I'm not one of 'the right kind of people'. In fact, I'm the wrong kind of people in most aspects, so if you've got nothing to say to me, just flip me the good old bird and walk away to your corner. Works with assholes. I should know, being one."
"Can you please just stop demeaning yourself!" Peter yelled. "Why must you speak of yourself like that? It's really not cool and I hate it when you do it."
Tony didn't miss the way Peter, with a wince, glanced up at the ceiling, above which the roar of Atlantic Ocean was coming from. For Peter, with his spider senses, the distant roar and even the most silent of noises had to now be as loud as anything, in their confined silent space, filled with echoes.
"I might," Tony said quietly, "but out of the two of us, I'm not the idealist. I'm a realist and I call things as I see them without all the pink flowers and fluffy teddy bears and all the other idealistic nonsense your head is so full of."
"Whatever," was all Peter said before turning on his heels and walking to the corner furthest away from Tony where he proceeded to hug his knees to his chest while glaring everywhere but at Tony.
Peter tried to fight them, but they injected him with something that made him even weaker than he had been before. Tony tried to fight them to get them off of Peter, but they threatened to cut Peter with their knives and, to prevent them from harming Peter any further, Tony put his hands up and stopped resisting.
They took Tony away and left Peter in the cell to yell, to call out Tony's name after them.
I'm back! I hope someone is still around to read my story, but I understand if you've moved on to other stories since it's taken me a looooong while to update. Sorry about that! Better late than never, yeah?
This chapter was difficult to write. It just wouldn't come and I got kinda frustrated with it. Eventually I decided that I needed to let go and just move on to the next chapter, or I might never manage to do so. So, yeah...
Not only did it take me a long while to write this chapter, I haven't even answered your reviews. I appreciate it so much when people take the time to share their thoughts with me and I hope you all know it even though I've not been answering!
In any case, I hope you enjoyed the chapter - please take it as an answer to your review and let it be my way of thanking you!