Chapter 26 - Along Came a Spider

"You're still here, then," Tony observed, raising an eyebrow. He got up from his rickety chair, carefully balancing upright. He looked rather like a mummy with three limbs encased in plaster and his waist wrapped with bandages. "I feel like I should be quoting that Brendan Fraser movie, but I haven't seen it. It's a Brendan Fraser movie."

"You sound like you're getting better," Bruce muttered as he rubbed his shoulder. "Though, I hate to point out that you really shouldn't be walking on that, or waving those arms around for that matter."

Tony shrugged with difficulty. "The leg and arms are fine. This isn't the first time I broke bones, you know. I had Jarvis keep a physiological report on my recuperation the last time something like this happened, so I know perfectly well how fast I heal. Besides, cracked bones don't count as broken in my book."

"I keep forgetting you cracked your skull, too," Bruce muttered. "That explains it."

"It might have knocked a few IQ points off the top, but I'm still more than a match for pretty much anyone," Tony remarked lightly. "I forget what they ranked me as, last year. Fourth of the world, I believe. I remember being outraged when this Feynman guy was put in there ahead of me. He's ancient; he should have Alzheimer's by now or something. And then there's this wunderkind, Richards. I swear, if I ever meet his smarmy little..."

"You're ranting."

"I'm not ranting," Tony responded immediately. "I'm venting. Anyway, my brain is fine, thank you very much. I'm working on a way to integrate it with my more recent technology; then it'll be even better than fine!" He winced as he moved, and his arms jostled back and forth. "Still, the wheels are useful for long distances."

"You get really talkative when you're bored."

"So Pepper tells me," Tony agreed. "Has Rhodey arrived yet, by the way? He always listens to what I have to say, even if he ignores most of it."

Bruce shook his head. "I'll be gone before he arrives. Mr. Rhodes isn't due for another twelve hours, at least. You'd know that, if you actually checked it with your knock-off HAL."

Tony blinked. "Did you just make a pop culture reference?" He smiled widely. "At last, a convert!"

"You also get annoying when you're bored, I guess." Bruce paused, frowning. "Actually, that's true regardless of how bored you are."

"You get green and hulky instead. We all have problems." Tony scowled at his bandaged arms again. "I'm beginning to regret that I didn't try Harry's weird concoctions. I might have ended up growing bunny ears, but at least I wouldn't be this ineffectual puppet."

"You're too late now," Bruce said.

"I know, I know, he's living the good life in New York." He blinked as something occurred to him. "Right, before I forget, I have a floor or two in mind for you in my new tower. I figure with unbreakable walls and the largest collection of very stretchy pants you've ever seen, you'll probably feel right at home. Want it?"

Bruce sighed, and then nodded. "Alright."

Tony stared for a moment. "Well, that was remarkably easy."

"I've thought it over already, talked to a few people. Anyway, since it's just a big pit right now, there's no hurry. I'm leaving for a while; I've already made arrangements with the Director. He wants to ensure my loyalty, now that it can be of use to him, and I intend to take advantage of that."

"Might as well," Tony agreed. "S.H.I.E.L.D.'s probably not the worst ally to have when you're dealing with the army, anyway. If you get stuck anywhere, or they're after you, just use the dirty old sock you have to bail out, and get Fury on the case."

Bruce smirked. "I don't know how long I'll be gone, but I'll be at the tower when it's opened. I'm going to find a few people I haven't spoken to in a long time."

"I'm counting on seeing you at the opening then. It'll be weird not having you and Harry around for a while, I'd almost gotten used to it. Reminded me of frat boy days, you know." He frowned. "At least you have the luxury of going underground after all of this. Nobody asked about me yet, but I'll have to figure out how I'm going to explain my wounds when I'm due for a public appearance that I can't avoid." He finally sat down. "I'm thinking skiing accident or wild orgy. Which do you think would fit better?" He smiled cheerily at Bruce's affronted expression. "Come on, let's hear it?"

"As long as you don't tell me what you went for, do what you like," Bruce responded. He paused for a moment, looking serious. "I was thinking, A.I.M.'s gutted pretty well, and this Tarleton guy is out of the way, but that's not the last of it, is it? What are we going to do if anyone else comes knocking?"

Tony shrugged. "We'll have to deal with that when we come to it. Tarleton wasn't the leader of A.I.M. or of whatever strange scheme this whole thing was a part of. He admitted as much when he spoke to us, you know. He was a pawn like all the others. I haven't read anything new about the guy, he's still unconscious, but he's our best bet for new information. I'll be sure to relay anything I learn."

Bruce nodded. "And then we're going to do all this again?" He shook his head. "You're already thinking about next time, aren't you?" He groaned. "Brilliant."

"It's not over. I think you can bet on it. If it's not these bastards with their bombs, it's someone else. Now that we know that people like the Asgardians are out there, how can we afford to stay clueless? How about other alien races that Sif mentioned so casually? Most of them sound like they'd be bad news, and we're effectively defenceless here. The only protection that we have against that stuff is mostly on this ship right now, you know. Fury knows it. S.H.I.E.L.D. will call on all of us again."

Bruce raised an eyebrow. "All of us, you think? Even Dr. Jekyll?"

"Yes, and even Mr. Hyde." He looked at Bruce for a long moment. "You know that Fury spoke to me in private, right? Now, I will probably get my ass fired for this, but tell me, have you ever heard of something called the Avengers Initiative?"

Harry looked out over the bustling streets of New York with a slight smile, crouching on the edge of a roof on the outskirts. There were huge buildings even here, some of them easily thirty floors tall, and he'd ended up on one of the tallest in the area. The ambient light that filtered up from the streetlights far below gave an odd glow to things; the illumination was bright enough to safely fly even in the late evening, and he could still see people in the streets as well. He'd only been around for three days, three days that mostly consisted of him trying to get some idea of the city's layout while wondering whether Loki would pop up again, but he'd already started to take a liking to the massive metropolis.

Loki had been on his mind a lot since their meeting. Though he knew that trusting someone who was well-known for deceiving people was a terrible idea, there were certain things he said that seemed plausible enough. The Cube was something that S.H.I.E.L.D. and Fury knew about, and would probably take advantage of. The Director was very quick in taking in the force field device that A.I.M. had been using, and had already attempted and failed to figure out a way to counter magic, so this seemed a plausible extension of that. Loki probably had ulterior goals, but Harry wasn't sure if helping out a chronic liar to get the Earth some much-needed firepower was such a bad trade.

There was only one way he was going to find out whether or not he should side with Loki here, though. He'd need to talk to Sif, and get her insight into what the Cube was for, or perhaps even go directly to Odin; he had a standing invitation, after all. If retrieving the cube was the best option, he could retrieve and deliver it to Asgard himself without ever involving Loki at all, and he'd probably have an even better shot at getting Asgardian protection for Earth. Deceiving the deceiver. It seemed appropriate.

Loki would return for his answer soon enough, and Harry hoped he could figure out a way to contact Asgard before then. Preferable one that didn't involve yelling loudly into the sky, and crossing your fingers that Heimdall was paying attention. He felt quite silly trying that, plus it hadn't worked for Sif, either. Aside from that, he'd need to figure out a better way to protect his new home than to spam the first spells that came to mind; without Asgard, he'd have to pick up some of the slack.

Protecting his new home, Harry repeated to himself, and he smiled at the thought. Perhaps it was the fact that he'd once again done something incredibly dangerous and ridiculous to protect people, but he no longer felt quite as much like an outsider, like someone on an extended vacation. Dealing with life and death here was no different from back home, and the people were just people. There were a lot fewer wizards than he was used to, that was true, but it seemed this world had found its own alternative. There were people here who took up an Auror's job, even if they didn't take that name.

Well – there was one Auror, he corrected himself. As the world's only wizard, Asgardians notwithstanding, he'd have to fill that role to the best of his ability. He'd stopped a gamma bomb, yes, but he'd been very inefficient about it; he had to admit that much. He had come up with dozens of much more effective ways to stop the device, after he'd already done his foolish transfiguration trick and almost singed his hair off. Years out of the line of spell fire had dulled that instinctual level of magic-use that was a hallmark of an accomplished Auror, even if he only spent a year or two on that level; that point where you actually had a pretty good idea of what would work best in a given situation, even under pressure. Right now, he was mostly just relying on the fact that everyone around him was a Muggle, and wouldn't know a Stunner from a Crucio; he really couldn't afford to let that continue.

He flopped onto his back on the roof. He was a wizard among a million Muggles, and he had only recently realized what that meant. When twilight had made way for night and people really should have gone to bed, the volume barely lowered down in the streets. This was really a city that never slept, as Tony had described it. Perhaps this could be a good place to figure out what he should be doing, or to actually train himself to get better.

With Tony's new place in construction, and most of his temporary allies gone to do their personal errands, it seemed like a bit of a calm was expected before the storm kicked up again. In that time he could figure out a little more about this world; more specifically, its history. If this was a sort of alternate world compared to his own, then there had to have been some point in history where the two were the same and then diverged. One to form his own world, with Hogwarts and Voldemort and no ridiculously advanced Muggles. The other would be this one. He knew of one major difference already: Wizards. The Seidhr, ancient magic-users, had gone extinct; they had been entirely wiped out. Sif had seemed quite certain that he was the last, which meant something else that was considerably weirder.

There were no Muggleborns.

Were magical people only born from other magical people, in this world? It seemed that wizards had to be significantly different if that were the case, though neither Asgardian that he'd met had been even slightly uncertain about his status as a Seidhr. Loki had been prepared for his wand, too, which meant that something like it, a focus, was not at all a surprise. Of course, Harry conceded, he could have plucked that particular fact from his mind.

The Seidhr had lived in the far north of Europe, Harry knew. That much he'd understood from Sif's descriptions. The Norse gods had been inspired by the Asgardians, and the Seidhr had lived alongside them, as allies. Wizards on his own world, however, lived all across the world and had done so for thousands of years. If the Seidhr wizards went extinct, shouldn't all the rest still be there? It would imply that all wizards were killed, not just the ones that Asgardians interacted with in the past.

The extinction of magical people brought up something else: magical creatures. Without wizards and witches to cover up their existence, how did they keep hidden? Goblins and Centaurs were probably smart enough to hide, but not the huge and animalistic things, like dragons. The only plausible explanation was that they too had gone. When the Seidhr and the Asgardians had left, it was as if magic in its entirety had vanished at the same time. Harry had no idea what could do that, and he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

Rising up on his broom, Harry slowly floated away from his roof, and closer to the heart of the city. He'd found a map the previous day, and had a fairly decent idea of where he was going, and the fact that he had a top down view helped tremendously. The sun would come up in about four or five hours; Harry rather doubted he'd get some sleep, but he had some Invigoration Draught on him. Soon he'd have to face what he'd been dreading for a while. In all the commotion surrounding A.I.M. and Loki, the thought of the old man that Death had so mercilessly taken hadn't left Harry's mind for a minute, and he wanted to do something about it.

Harry had read the file that Tony had given him a dozen times now; it was short and to the point, and much of the information referenced in it was so classified it wasn't even on the computer database at all, which left some large gaps for him. This man, this Benjamin, had been a relative of a former C.I.A. agent who worked with S.H.I.E.L.D. on a number of occasions, which is why he was in their system at all. Benjamin lived with his wife and nephew in an out-of-the-way part of Queens, New York, where was enjoying his retirement. That is, until it was brutally cut short by an armed thug who had just robbed a local convenience store.

Harry couldn't quite grasp that; he hadn't simply dropped dead, whatever part of him that was keeping him alive suddenly stopped. No, Death had gotten creative. Perhaps without her interference, the robber would've missed his shot entirely, or Benjamin might have survived the shooting, waking up some days later in the hospital. Whatever the case, it'd been more cruel than he'd expected; the man's nephew had been nearby when the shooting happened, had actually watched his uncle die. Careless use of the Resurrection Stone had led to this, Harry knew, and he'd have to live up to that, somehow. He didn't think money would help the survivors any, nor would explaining what exactly he did. As if they'd even believe him. That's why he'd been reading the files again and again, particularly on the details of the robbery.

There was one thing that stuck out in them. S.H.I.E.L.D. had kept an eye on Benjamin and his family for a long time, years, and particularly the last two were heavily documented, though there was no stated reason. The night of the robbery there had been one person assigned to watch over the family: A S.H.I.E.L.D. agent that hadn't reported in. Was that a coincidence? Had the agent simply been absent by chance? Or had Death manipulated that as well, preventing the agent from stopping the shooting?

"No, no, that's not proper. I'm not going to do that," Harry said to himself as he got an idea. A nasty and deceitful idea. The real agent that should have been there that night probably never learned what really happened. It was clear from his reading that Benjamin and his wife had known about their connection to a C.I.A. and S.H.I.E.L.D. employee, which meant they probably knew about people keeping an eye out.

Harry closed his eyes, rubbing his brow. Yes, he'd be lying, but it was the closest thing to a confession he could reasonably go for. "What a tangled web we weave..."

Harry only knocked once before the door swung open. A stern-faced woman with unkempt dark hair looked at him with a little surprise, cutting off whatever she was about to say. "Ah – sorry, I thought you would be someone else. I apologize."

"You are Mrs. Parker?" Harry asked slowly, and she nodded. Harry sighed; this was the third house he'd tried, since the numbering here was terribly confusing. The first two, thankfully, had just slammed the door in his face rather than anything more drastic. He cleared his throat. "I'm Harry Callahan, consultant for the government-sanctioned organization known as the Strategic-"

She tensed at that, glancing around. "Come in," she said. "Quickly, now. The neighbours will get nosy if you don't."

Harry blinked as he followed Mrs. Parker into the house through a rather poorly patched-up door and a cluttered hallway with sports clothes lying around. Half a skateboard stood propped up against a wall. Harry's gaze wandered around in interest as he straightened his tie. He'd transfigured his clothes to look a little more official than his usual wear, and he'd see plenty of people at the Helicarrier to have some idea of what would fit.

Mrs. Parker quickly went for her tea, pouring a cup. "I figured that someone would be coming for years. I've wondered before why nobody ever did." She shook her head as she set down a cup of tea. "You sound British – would you care for some tea?"

"Yes, thank you, Mrs. Parker," Harry replied as he picked up a second cup, and put it on the table in front of him. He felt terrible about doing it but he quickly checked it for any poisons when she was turned away. There were none. After Loki, it seemed practically an obligation to check, not to mention S.H.I.E.L.D. 's little trick with tiny machines in his blood. He took a sip, and was presently surprised by the rich taste that reminded him of home.

"You can just call me May," Mrs. Parker said as she nodded in satisfaction. "Anything else just makes me sound even older than I already am, you know." She glanced at the stairs. "I could have sworn he was out, but I just heard..." She shrugged it off. "Well, never mind that. There must be a reason you came by, today." She narrowed her eyes. "Did you find out anything new about Richard and Mary?"

Harry had worried about this conclusion, since it was a natural one to come to, and shook his head. "No, I'm afraid not. It is – that is, my visit, it's not about them. Honestly, I don't know much about the case at all. This is of a more ... personal nature. I suppose I'm not here as a S.H.I.E.L.D. consultant, but just as myself."

May seemed disappointed, but nodded. "I figured that you'd finally found out what happened... but I suppose it's unlikely, after all these years." She shook her head. "Well, if it is not them, then I am at a loss. Out with it, then? What's brought you here?"

Harry swallowed thickly, wondering how he should bring this up without sounding like a prick. "You were the wife of Mr. Benjamin Parker, I understand," he started, and May stilled at the mention of her husband's name.

"...Yes. I'm afraid that he has passed on a little while ago," May said after a moment, putting her cup down carefully. "It's been over a year now. Time does pass quickly." Harry blinked at that. A year. He hadn't used the ring until a week or two before now, hadn't met Death until shortly before the mission in Chile. How was that possible? Did Death kill people back through time?

This wasn't getting any easier, Harry realized, by putting it off. If he was going to stick with this story, he's have to follow through. A lie though it was, this was definitely closest to the truth without opening a whole new can of worms. Maybe it would be easier, with the details different, as if he was talking about someone else. Honestly he just felt worse about it.

"You know that S.H.I.E.L.D. has kept an eye on your family," Harry said after a while, looking away in discomfort. "They wouldn't intrude on things, of course, but just keep an eye out in case of reprisals. You are caring for a family member of a high-profile operative, which is why the practice continues." Harry knew that the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent that was present today would probably report his presence at the house. Well, he wasn't doing anything that would really set Fury off, he figured.

"Ben said not to worry about all that," May responded after a while, then her eyes widened. "Nobody's coming for Peter, right? Please tell me that he's safe!"

"No, no, it's not that," Harry said, and he pushed on. "A little over a year ago, I was supposed to be in New York to watch over your family. I was to keep an eye on your family, to make sure that nobody would go after you. I was sick at the time, and that week nobody checked in on you at all – it wasn't considered a big deal, since it was basically considered an easy job, since nothing ever happened. Then... well, that was the week that something did happen."

May had paled. "Ben. You-"

"I should have been there," Harry confirmed, closing his eyes. He shook his head tiredly. "I didn't know what my negligence would cause, but it was my own stupid decision that led to what happened. Because I wasn't there, that robber even had the chance to pull the trigger. I might as well have pulled it myself."

The silence that followed was long and tense, and Harry wasn't sure what he expected. Screaming, maybe? Violence? Being told to get out and never return again? It definitely wasn't another cup of delicious tea being put in front of him. He opened his eyes, blinking in confusion.

May looked at him with an expression that Harry couldn't place. Not angry, a little sad, but something more. "You're all choked up over this, aren't you?" she said after a moment, and there were tears in her eyes. She actually smiled for a moment. "I can see it in your eyes, you know. You're feeling guilty over this, aren't you? Ben would probably tell you not to blame yourself."

Harry cringed. "How could I not?"

May picked up a photograph from a side-table, and ran a finger over it. "I don't know if you ever met him, but Benjamin was the forgiving type," she said. "He didn't really hold grudges, since he'd seen it all before. Even when Richard and Mary came here, and all that went wrong there, he persevered with head raised. We took in Peter, so taking risks was nothing new to us." She smiled as she set down the family photo again. "Peter blames himself for what happened to his uncle, I think. He believes if he'd just been there a moment earlier, he might have stopped things from going bad. Not so different from your own situation, I think."

"He's just a teen," Harry said after a moment. "What could he have done?" A shiver ran down his back as he thought back to that icy landscape, to that image of the dead man that he'd seen. "My stupid mistake contributed to this tragedy, caused it – and I can't fix it."

"Can you see the future, mister Callahan?"

Harry faltered at her sudden question. "No..."

"Then you should not claim all the blame," May chided after a moment. "Peter blames himself because maybe he could've stopped things, and I've been trying to get him to reconsider. I sometimes blame myself as well, because I didn't go with him to find Peter." She shook her head. "I had a lot of time to think about this, and I keep realizing that it's pointless to say who's really responsible. Everyone acted in good faith, except that robber."

Harry looked away. "Whatever share of the blame is mine, I can't repay that. I wouldn't know how." he said after a moment.

"Then don't try that," May responded shortly. "Trying to do something you can't is just asking for trouble, and what's done is done. You should really try not to go into the future while walking backwards, since it's a great way to trip." She smiled sadly. "Ben used to say that, you know."

Harry nodded, though he didn't know how to take that sentiment. "So... what should I do?"

"Looking for advice from an old woman? I would do as Ben would have done. Make the world a better place wherever you can. I try to do that as well, bit by bit. Even coming here must have been hard for you, and you made the world a little bit better by it, I think. What happened to Ben has touched you as it did everyone else, and I hope it's for the better, when you look back on it in the future."

Harry nodded after a long time. "If there is anything I can do for you or your family, you must tell me. I can't just..."

May nodded, and she glanced at the stairs. "Well, there is one thing that you might be able to help me with, to set my mind at ease..."

Harry walked with his hands in his pockets, trying to make sense of what he should think. May Parker had been understanding, instead of angry. Far more understanding than he'd expected. He'd gone in expecting yelling, at least, if not outright blame. He didn't know what to do with only understanding looks and words. He wasn't sure if it had mattered if he'd told the truth about his accidental role in the death instead, since she would doubtlessly just say that he'd been acting in good faith; in truth, he had been. Perhaps his assumption that the Hallows were as they used to be was a mistake, but he had chosen to help Bruce come to terms with some things with the best of intentions.

It made one things clear enough to him, though. He couldn't afford to repeat his mistake, to add guilt upon guilt. Beyond not using the Stone, he'd have to think before he acted far more than he did now. If he ever came near that Cube, he would have to take care, not jump into things blindly and hope that it all worked out. More Dumbledore, less... him.

He would try to do as Mrs. Parker had suggested, and focus on making the world better, however he could. Really, that had been what he was here for in the first place, to try and make the Parkers' lives a little easier, and his role at S.H.I.E.L.D. was no different either. He'd been doing that sort of thing, willingly or not, since his first years at Hogwarts. He'd been an Auror; was still an Auror, officially, even if such titles meant nothing in another world. Helping people was at the core of what he did, by taking dark magic off the streets.

So, he's promised Mrs. Parker to help out, whatever she wanted done, and that led to here. He found himself tailing a nervous teenager that he'd put a tracking spell on when he left his home, just in case. Peter Parker was Benjamin's nephew, and as May described him, someone prone to getting into a heap of trouble. Harry tried to ignore the throngs of people that passed him by in favour of the teen, wondering what he hoped to achieve here. He'd been asked to check in on Peter, to see if he wasn't doing anything dangerous or illegal that led to him coming home in less-than-stellar condition on a regular basis. Harry couldn't help but wonder if he weren't intruding into the boy's privacy, though.

The streets of New York were busy, even out here dozens or hundreds populated the sidewalks; businessmen, sloppily dressed youths, a fair number of shady-looking people with more tattoos than seemed possible, and many others. Harry, dressed as he was in his neat suit, didn't really stand out. Still, he believed that even wearing a wizard's robe, pointy hat, and fake beard he probably wouldn't have looked too out of place. Thankfully, Harry had his spells; without them, his target would have long slipped off somewhere, since he was doubtlessly far more adept at traversing these roads than Harry was.

Peter slipped into an alleyway after a while, and Harry paused before the entrance, glancing into the cramped and dirty offshoot from the comparatively clean street with a frown. Something was off about this. His tracking spell was telling him that Peter was nearby, very much so even, but he couldn't see him; there were a few people further down the alleyway, but nobody close enough to be who he was looking for. Hesitantly he stepped into the alley, flipping his wand into his hand.

New York had a weird duality to it, as he had noticed. Lots of high rise buildings, tall majestic buildings, luxurious streets. In between them were these places, like the underbelly of the beast, poorly maintained back streets and houses that barely counted as such, with graffiti everywhere

Harry twitched when one of the men further down the alleyway cracked his knuckles, staring in his direction with an unnerving smile. Harry tried to look as imposing as he could. He wasn't terribly tall, so that probably wasn't working. He quickly thought of a few simple spells to get him out in case things got ugly, glancing down the alley. Somehow he'd passed Peter again. It took him a moment to figure out what he was missing, and he raised his eyebrows in surprise. Oh, this boy was good.

He looked straight up and only saw a flash of movement on the roof, at least ten stories up. That was a lot to climb in a short time, and Peter hadn't had much of it; he must have had experience in this sort of thing. Harry couldn't help but be impressed; he had been spotted, and his quarry was making a run for it, through the most unorthodox route.

He smiled. Oh, it had been a long time since one of these.

Before he could rethink his plan, Harry went for the nearby stairs, probably the ones that Peter had used as well. They were for emergencies, ostensible, though the rusty lock on it had long been broken.

"What do you want?" The rotund man further down the alley asked as he approached, cracking his knuckles again. "Well, speak up?"

"Just up," Harry said easily.

"Just up," the man mocked. "You just wander'd off the streets to take a gander from the roofs, did ya?" He stepped closer. "Pay up, then. Toll's due."

"Could you please just step aside?" Harry tried. The two other men had joined the first now, looking at him with foul expressions. Probably it was his suit, Harry realized; they thought he was some rich businessman that just wandered into their hands. "I really don't think you want my kind of trouble."

The broad man snorted, and suddenly there was a knife in his hand; easily four inches long and wickedly curved, Harry's hand drifted to his shoulder.

Harry didn't even need to say the spell; with barely a thought, the knife forced its way out of the man's hand and landed solidly in his own, and he immediately held it towards the thug's neck. The man's eyes were wide as he stared as his own weapon turned against him, glancing at his own empty fist in confusion, and then a tinge of fear.

"You're probably thinking that was witchcraft," Harry said after a moment. "You'd pretty much be right." He flicked his wand sideways, and all three men dropped to the ground like bricks, their feet tied solidly together with their own shoelaces that wriggled as if alive. It wouldn't hold them for very long, but that wasn't really important.

This was a charming first encounter with the New York low-life, all things considered. He supposed it was better than his first dark wizard on the job as Auror. That guy had been conning Muggles with actual Galleons, oblivious to the fact that goblins used quite a bit of magic on those coins that was easily traced; the man hadn't even been able to cast a spell to save his hide, though he tried. Harry quickly silenced each of the three thugs, and then tapped them one by one on the forehead. "Obliviate."

Letting them keep the memories of getting tackled by someone they couldn't handle probably wasn't a bad thing, but they'd seen his face already, and he really didn't want to get in the newspapers again. Not many would listen to these folks, but you never knew. Perhaps they'd infer something interesting from finding themselves spontaneously tied up.

He turned to the stairs, to make his way up to the roof; his quarry hadn't moved far in the time he'd waited. He glanced up, and he saw a glimpse of a face peering over the edge before it was gone – he'd been keeping close the entire time. Harry felt a chill run down his back, then; had the boy seen anything? Had Peter just seen him use magic in broad daylight?

The roof was empty, but the next one wasn't. He saw Peter slip behind a low wall on the other end, and out of sight. There was at least six feet of space between the two buildings, and Harry nervously glanced over the edge into the depths. He couldn't pull out his broom here, that would attract more attention than any minor memory charm.

"In for a knut..." he muttered at last, as he took a flying leap, making himself lighter as he'd done to Sif. His jump took him over the gap onto the other building, and then some. He landed in a crumpled heap in the middle of the roof, groaning from the sudden impact. He quickly picked himself up, but Peter was gone again. In the brief moment he took his eyes off the boy, he'd moved on. The boy was goading him. Waiting just long enough to lure him along before he was gone again, out of sight. Harry shook his head as he looked up the next building, which was at least five stories taller. He couldn't have gotten all the way up there, could he?

Well, that was just another jump. Light as he was already due to his spell, he could just overdo it and make another huge jump. He paused, then, realizing what he was thinking. Here he was, chasing down a boy who knew nothing about him, and he was already using spells to keep up. He wasn't going to win this without pulling out even more, and using magic without even concealing his identity would just get him in the news again with his face on every cover. If the boy had seen his magic already, hopefully he'd keep it quiet, and Harry could just approach him later. If he hadn't. Well, he would get another shot at finding him, certainly.

"What is he doing at the Parkers?" Fury glowered at the screen. "Tell me, Triers, who last accessed the Richard and Mary Parker files? Anywhere within the last few days."

"Nobody in the last several years, actually," Triers said. "They're not on our servers – we only have hard-copies in an undisclosed location. Too sensitive."

Fury nodded. "How about their son?"

"That file was accessed two days ago. Opened with Agent Barton's access codes, sir." Triers raised an eyebrow. "Also accessed were a wide variety of associated topics, such as Richard Parker's older brother, deceased. Barton is still on the ship, though, and hasn't logged any computer hours..."

"Stark," Fury spat after a moment.

"You rang?" Fury blinked as the screen flipped on, showing a video feed of Tony in his wheelchair. He waved cheerily with his bandaged arms. "Voice activation; installed it yesterday. Wanted to hear what terrible things you might be saying about me."

"Should have guessed," Fury muttered. "The Parkers. You have stolen the identification of one of our agents – again – and used it to access confidential files. I want an explanation."

Tony shrugged. "I helped out a friend. It's not like any of that was terribly secret, now was it?"

"That is not the point, Mr. Stark." Fury narrowed his eyes. "The Parkers and their nephew are under S.H.I.E.L.D. protection for a number of classified reasons, and I will not have you or any of your 'friends' waltzing into such operations. Period."

"Harry seemed to think he had something to say to them," Tony said after a moment. "I can't say anything more; I don't know much else. Only thing I do know is that Harry's not the type to do that kind of thing without a reason. He's probably on to something important."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Fury said. "How do I explain this to my superiors? One of our consultants went rogue and decided to visit protected individuals without a good reason?"

"You could just argue he had a vision or something," Tony said. "They already know he's a freaky sorcerer type guy, so why not? Tell him that there's something important there for national security and they might just buy it."

Furry rubbed his forehead. "Is it possible that is actually the case? I'm beginning to wonder if I should assume the strangest things and whittle down what he can't somehow manage."

"Good question," Tony said after a moment. "He did mention a prophecy in passing, once..."

"You're serious."

"Yup. Anyway, I'd suggest leaving him to do his thing... when he calls us, we'll know a little more." Tony gestured to his side. "I am working on a few ideas for your Helicarrier, since Bruce seems to think it's more productive than hovering wheelchairs. He left a few hours ago, if you hadn't noticed. We agreed that your base could use an upgrade."

"Don't blow up my ship, Stark."

"I wouldn't dare," Tony said, and then paused. "Just small parts of it, I swear."

It took almost three hours before Harry was anywhere near Peter's location again. He cruised over the streets on his broom, wondering if he should attempt to follow the boy once more since he'd been so easily spotted the last time. The boy had to know the city like the back of his hand to slip away like he did. Perhaps going into the alleyway had been Peter's attempt to smoke him out, but then how had the boy known he was there in the first place? Had he just avoided the people already in the alley, or asked them to keep him away, perhaps?

He recognized the part of town he was flying over by the gargoyle on one of the buildings, staring down on the streets below. The city looked very different in daylight, and Harry mused over that as he dropped onto a nearby building; one with a little courtyard on top, and which was partially attached directly to another, taller building next to it. It was nice and secluded, and Harry was about to pull off his hood and store it away when someone spoke.

"Nice duds."

Harry flinched, though he caught himself rather quickly. He had his wand out already, glancing around himself. Nobody. He looked up at last, and there he was.

It took Harry a moment to figure out what he was looking at. It was a man entirely covered in bright red and blue fabric, with thin black lines crisscrossing all across it, with two bright white eyes sewn onto the front of a tight mask. The costumed man was hanging from the wall by his fingertips, and made it look effortless, like defying gravity was easy stuff. He also looked ridiculous. Harry's eyes widened, but the costume wasn't the reason; it was his tracking spell. He'd headed here for a reason, and the reason had found him.

Peter Parker was the masked man.

Peter cocked his head to the side curiously. "You know, you're not the first fancy-dressed fellow to come by this city, but I think you have the whole Goth look down best. I'm sure it works with the ladies. Shadowy cowl, really?"

"...Who are you supposed to be?"

"I'm offended, Mr. British," Peter responded as he crossed his arms, somehow balancing on the wall with just his feet. "Clearly you haven't been reading New York's finest news paper, the esteemed Daily Bugle, if you don't recognize this handsome gob. That rag will tell you all about my status as public menace, crazy costumed clown – I like the alliteration – and of course, masked vigilante extraordinaire." He paused for effect, and Harry just stared sceptically. "Fine, be that way. I'm Spider-Man. There's a hyphen in there, by the way."

"Well, I suppose I should have guessed that I'm not the first weirdo around here," Harry said after a moment. "I've been running into you guys a lot..." He wondered if Tony knew about this, about whatever Peter Parker was doing with his feet; it was clearly not normal. Indeed, he was walking on walls like … well, a spider, he supposed. More people with superhuman abilities, it seemed, and practically on the first day he arrived. Probably this was what S.H.I.E.L.D. meant when they were talking about getting more and more work. Peter was one of these new arrivals.

"I'm the Magician, when the papers bother to name me at all," Harry said at last.

Peter dropped off the wall and landed lightly on his toes. "Really? The guy who hangs out with Tony Stark and the Iron Man? That's awesome. I've considered paying L.A. a visit, but on my income I'm going to get nowhere fast..." He paused. "So... what are you doing on my turf? This city isn't big enough for the both of us," he said then, mimicking guns with his fingers. After a few moments he hung his head. "No? I could have used a good fight, the Serpents have been too calm lately."

"Actually, I'm not really visiting as such," Harry admitted. "Tony is moving here, to the city. I sort of tag along, I suppose."

"Tony Stark? In New York?" Peter asked, perplexed. "You don't suppose I could get him to check out some of my little knick-knacks, do you? I like to think I'm a bit of a tech whiz." He tapped his wrists."I'm sure he'd have a hundred improvements in mind for these babies... Well, I suppose he doesn't, not yet."

"I can ask him," Harry said after a moment. "He's a bit indisposed at the moment, but you'll see his ads appearing everywhere, I'm sure. I think he wants to make this his new centre of business. Big skyscraper and everything."

"Nice. I can always use more spots to swing from."

"Swing from?" Harry asked.

Peter raised his hands, and some kind of thread fired out of the wrist area of his suit, attaching solidly to the wall. He pulled the thin cord a few times, and it seemed incredibly powerful for its thickness, easily sustaining the full weight of the boy without the slightest problem.".

"Cool," Harry said, glancing at Peter's wrist. "How are you making this stuff? Do you actually make it organically?"

"No, no, that would be silly. Spiders don't shoot it out of their wrists, they do it out of their... Well, definitely not. How about your fire stuff?"

Harry hesitated for a moment, then nodded. He pulled out his wand, aiming it at he wall. With half a thought a spell blasted out, and the very stone caught ablaze for a moment, partially melting, before the heat stopped and Harry lowered his hand again. He shrugged. "Incantation's Incendio, used to set things on fire. It's magic. Sorry, can't be much more specific."

"Well, that was helpful," Peter muttered, though he looked very intrigued by the damage done and the Elder Wand in particular. "Do you do anything besides blowing up stuff with that thing?"

"Lots." He twirled it around, slipping it back in his pocket. "Honestly, I think I've forgotten half the spells I ever learned; you only use a pretty limited selection in daily life. I've been thinking about adding some new ones to my repertoire. Maybe we can swap ideas sometime."

"So... you can use magical powers, and you use them to hang out on old roofs and possibly sneak around without anyone noticing you. Have to give it to you, it's pretty much the same thing I do." He flipped up the wall again, balancing easily. "I fight crime, beat up crooks, get usual stuff."

"Fight crime, huh? What kind do you get around here?"

"Nothing really special," Peter said immediately. "Robbers, bank heists, the occasional weirdo in spandex, mutant giant lizards..." He shrugged. "It's interesting, I'll tell you that. How about out on the west coast?"

"Robots, mostly," Harry deadpanned. "Oh, we have terrorists, too... The kind with robots."

"Boring," Peter chanted. "I went toe-to-toe with a guy with three times as many arms as he's supposed to have. That's kind of cool, I think. I got to make lots of puns."

"I rode a nuke into the stratosphere," Harry countered, and he was gratified he didn't receive an immediate response to that. "I stopped it, obviously. I flew after it on this broomstick." He tapped his Cloudskimmer, suddenly feeling incredibly foolish. "Yeah, I'm done bragging."

"Well, can you web-sling?" Peter asked. "I thought not." He nodded in satisfaction, as if he'd won some argument. Harry didn't bother to get into it.

"You're quite young," he commented after a few moments. "Granted, I'm hardly old, but you're really young to be doing this kind of stuff. What makes you go out and dress up so you can beat up criminals that could kill you? Seems a little risky, doesn't it, even for someone with spider tricks?"

Peter fell silent, and Harry thought he knew why. Peter had been there when his uncle had died, had been present when the bullet flew. If he had half the ability then that he had now, he might indeed have been able to save the man in time. He was trying to make the world a better place, as Mrs. Parker had said.

"I have the power to do this," the boy said at last. "Young or not, you know? I can go around and protect people, get bad guys behind bars, that sort of thing. I figured I should be responsible and actually do it, now that I have the ability."

"So, you're a good Samaritan?" Harry asked. "Not a bad motivation, actually."

"What about you?"

Harry smiled. "I think I can find myself in that as well. It's a good way to live."

Peter nodded, and Harry picked up his broom again, which he'd set against the wall. "Say, Spider-Man. In a few months, Tony's opening his place, and most of us will be here to see it open. I'd appreciate it if you came by, too. As you are now, or in your civilian identity."


"Yes, I know it," Harry said honestly, peering through his darkened hood. "I won't betray your identity, Peter, just as I trust you will not betray mine. It's not good business." He pulled back his hood, exposing his face.

Peter's eyes widened. "You! You were at my house! You were following me!"

"Me," Harry agreed. "My name is Harry, by the way."

"So, what were you doing at my place? What about in the street?" Peter wondered, narrowing his eyes. "That's off-limits from now on, alright? What if someone found out that I lived there, or that I knew someone like you?"

"If anyone does, they've been keeping it quiet," Harry said easily. "I was at your house to visit your aunt for personal reasons, ones that we may discuss in the future. I followed you because she asked me to check up on you. She's worried."

"I thought you didn't know about Spider-Man? Then how...?"

"I'm a wizard," Harry said evasively. "It's hardly the point how I know, just that I do. Now you know what I look like. I promise, I didn't glamour my face or anything, so we're even." Harry thought back to his meeting with Death, to her description of a single death saving a thousand lives. Benjamin's death had seemingly led Peter to his life as protector of the people of New York. Did that mean that his own run-in with the teen had already been foreseen? Did Peter have some role as Spider-Man that would save so many people?

Peter seemed mollified by Harry's explanation for a moment. "Definitely keep my name out of things, alright? Tell nobody about me, alright? If anyone comes after Aunt May or Gwen because of me..."

"Tell you what," Harry said after a moment. "I'll fly by your house, and put up a few protective spells. Won't stop a very persistent crook, unless I make them seriously powerful, but they should at least buy some time and warn me of the attempt. I don't know who this Gwen is, but I suppose I might as well do it there, too. Might ease your mind a little."

"You want to set up... magical protections," Peter summarized. "You're serious."

"I am a wizard," Harry said again.

"Harry the wizard, I got it," Peter mused. "Shouldn't you be in Chicago, then?"

Harry blinked in confusion. "Why?"

"Well, you even call your spells faux-Latin names, what conclusion am I supposed to draw? Shouldn't you go bother some cops?" Peter cocked his head to the side. "You have no idea what I'm talking about, do you?"

"Not the foggiest clue."

"You ought to read more."

"What are we dealing with?"

"Tarleton, first name unknown. Suspected terrorist that was the victim of an experimental weapon." The doctor shoved Tarleton's arms down his chest to show bruises around his neck. "This whole shackles thing is very medieval, by the way. I know he's a prisoner, but this?"

"Says here that he displayed unusual physical attributes," the second said as she glanced over the medical files. "That's probably why he's tied up. Superior reflexes, possibly speed and strength enhancements. He's sedated on top of his catatonia right now, so we wouldn't be getting any reaction even if he were healthy."

The first doctor hummed under her breath, shining a little penlight into the patient's eyes, but there was barely any response. "Definitely comatose from whatever he was hit with, no detectable brain damage though. Has the same general symptoms as a strong concussion, though we don't have details."

"The report notes a small puncture wound on his back that seems to be several weeks old, but reports state it was caused only day ago, and it was easily shrugged off by him at the time. What's that about, Pulanski?"

"This guy took an arrow in the spinal cord and walked away," Doctor Pulanski muttered darkly. "I have the arrow in the archive; there's definitely some of this guy's blood on it, so it checks out that far. Of course, how the hell he survived that and walked away is beyond me. He tests as perfectly normal on everything I've tried, even MRI and blood tests."

"So... what? He had incredible luck?"

"No." Pulanski slowly pulled Tarleton on his side, exposing the wound. "I've checked three times, and the wound just stops at his spinal cord. As if the arrow nicked it and somehow went in on both sides, and was then pushed back out. The actual arrowhead, however, is whole."

"It healed," the other agreed. "A spinal cord doesn't heal overnight."

"I've got several dozen samples in analysis," Pulanski said. "If this is a form of superior regeneration, then he's the first stable subject that I've ever heard. It might just be repair of the nervous system, since his superficial wounds seem unaffected. That's still a giant leap from what we have right now."

Their conversation was interrupted by a rattling breath, and they immediately tensed when Tarleton moved on his own, twitching slightly as he wiggled his arms sideways, the chains rattling softly against each other.

"He's awake," Pulanski said immediately, stepping over to face him. "He shouldn't be. Call Fury, now."

The second doctor nodded quickly, sending a nervous glance at the twitching Tarleton before she went for the phone. Pulanski frowned as Tarleton's eyes rolled in his sockets, slowly focusing on her face.

"Are you alright?" She asked. "You shouldn't move, you're restrained. You might hurt yourself."

Tarleton swallowed, his pupils dilated. He shook his head, slurring a word or two before he spoke more clearly. "Where?"

"I'm afraid I can't tell you that," Pulanski said apologetically. "We are retrieving someone who can speak more directly to you. Please remain calm."

Tarleton scowled, raising a hand to his neck carefully, dragging the chains along. He touched the impressions that Harry's fingers had left, and smiled. "He let me live." He laughed silently, as if sharing some joke with himself that nobody else would get. "He let me live. Wrong choice."

Tarleton was off the table in an instant, chains breaking and snapping under his sudden movement. Pulanski had just enough time to jump back to avoid getting smacked by the heavy metal shackles that fell to the ground in a pile. High-tech as they'd been, now they were only scraps. Tarleton rubbed his wrists. "He had one chance, had me at his mercy, and he let it slip. Fool." He turned to the door, noting that it was closed with a bright display next to it. "You, woman. Open the door."


"That had better not be a 'No'," Tarleton said sharply. "Move to the door, or I'll kill you." He snatched a medical instrument off the table, snapping off everything but the razor-sharp middle, almost like an icepick. "I will not ask again."

"Do not follow his instructions," Fury's voice suddenly cut over the radio. "I repeat, do not follow his instructions. The terrorist cannot be allowed to leave the base."

Pulanski squeezed her eyes shut, shivering.

"So, that is how you work, is it?" Tarleton said, glancing at the ceiling. "Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer? How far am I from you, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director?" He smiled. "Oh, yes. I know where I am, now. Very good. Very risky to have me here, you know."

"The room you are in has been hermetically sealed," Fury responded immediately. "The instant our security cameras detected that you were active, emergency lockout went into effect. It is a procedure to avoid exactly this situation. You are not getting out of that room unless I give the explicit order."

"Ah, but I am not here alone, am I?" He glanced down at the cowering doctor. "I have one of yours, and she does not wish to die, I believe." He leaned down, smiling. "Is that not true, medic?"

"We do not negotiate with the likes of you.

"Ah, of course," Tarleton smiled, brandishing his knife. "You will sacrifice your own to kill me, isn't that right? How will you attempt it? Arrows, again? Bullets? Will you bring your pet magician to sear my mind once more?"

"A low-level dose of nerve-gas has been circulating in your room for the last three minutes," Fury said immediately. "All S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are inoculated against the most dangerous effects. You, however, have thirty seconds of rational thought remaining."

Tarleton stilled. "Do you think that will work on me, Director? A bluff?"

"Is it?" Fury's voice got very quiet. "Listen to me, you son of a bitch! I know exactly who you are. I've been tracing your every movement over the last few years, and I know that there is an inconsistency. Three years you were missing, without a trace. Last known coordinates? New Mexico. A little town that we already knew about through another observation. I can reach some conclusions from that alone."

Tarleton snorted as Pulanski's eyes slipped closed. She'd succumbed to the gas. "So it is real, this nerve agent. It seems that you have underestimated its effectiveness, however." He set a step towards the door, raising an eyebrow. "Will you let me out, now? Or must I break this door?"

"Tarleton, if that is indeed your name..."

Tarleton smirked, putting his hand against the metal before him, right besides the panel that would allow access with the right key combination and a card. "You know what's so helpful about these bases of you government agencies? They're all made of metal. You know what that does? It conducts. Electricity, sure, but also signals."

The door opened smoothly, and Tarleton stepped out without any trouble. Three other doors also slid apart before he even got to them, leaving an open path for him. Three S.H.I.E.L.D. agents collapsed as he passed them, holding their ears; a fourth faltered before he even reached him, flailing away in a panic.

"You think you can keep me here, Director? I am more than you. Last time, you caught me by surprise. This time, you are not so lucky." He smiled as he passed through the hallway without any resistance, several agents lying down in the hallway. "You really should be more careful in insulating your suits, you know. It seems that my little shock has made some here rather sleepy..."

"Damn it." Fury turned to the door. "Where the hell have you been, Stark?"

"In the infirmary. You know, on account of my injuries. What the hell crawled up your-"

"Tarleton is loose," Fury snapped. "I have at least six confirmed deaths and he's still on the ship. Whatever the hell he's doing, it's destroying every damn computer along the way."

Tony immediately wrenched himself upright, ignoring his painful leg as he made his way over. "When."

"Five minutes," Fury said. "We had an alert. Next thing we know, Tarleton's taken a hostage. He ripped right out of titanium bonds. He's no ordinary human." Fury tapped his screen, pulling up general information. "This is what we know about him. He's been missing for over three years, vanishing right where an anomalous energy signature has been reported, both recently and in the past."

"Is that significant?"

"Tell me, genius. This guy's checking out as human on everything we've thrown at him, but he's doing this with nothing but underwear on him." Fury gestured at the screen, where Tarleton slowly walked through the hallway, smiling enigmatically. "Whatever he's doing, it's knocking people out before they even get close to him. If he was able to do this back in Chile, then he certainly didn't show it."

"Or he knew it would do him no good," Tony said. "My suit is well-isolated, his electrical tricks wouldn't phase me in the least. He knows I'd have blasted him to pieces if he'd so much as tried it. I guess he wasn't capable of it when Harry got busy with his freaky mind thing."

"Which had absolutely no effect, it seems," Fury muttered. "Either he was faking it all along, or the catatonia was of a very short-lived nature. Either way, he's probably been waiting for an opportunity to escape without anyone getting close."

"Which implies that he's vulnerable up close. Always, or just right now." Tony frowned as he checked the Helicarrier's maps. "Why did you lock him up here? You should have put him somewhere on land."

"And have the army take him? I think not." Fury tapped his map, enlarging the area. "Those walls are hardened titanium alongside more radiation shielding than you can imagine. We could throw a tiny nuke in there to sterilize things; believe me, that comes in handy. Seems that Tarleton used it to his advantage, though. Sent some kind of signal through the metal."

"Clever, definitely clever,." Tony frowned. "Why is Barton there? He's like twenty-five feet away from the mad-man..."

"He's doing his job," Fury muttered. "Assassination. If we can't contain this guy, then we take him out. The first solution failed, the second was countered. He's the third."

"A guy with bow and arrow is your back-up plan?" Tony wondered. "You know, you don't really display the intelligence in intelligence agency." He glanced back at his wheelchair, and quickly hobbled back over, dropping into it with a sigh. "He's about ten minutes from the outside at this slug's pace. Enough time for a proper fourth plan, right?"

Fury stared. "What are you going to do?"

Tony smiled, tapping his chair. "I made a few... upgrades. You won't believe how much you can get done with voice-controlled equipment. Your labs are a true marvel, you know that?"


"Lock and load, Director. Lock and load."

Barton edged around the corner ever so slowly, keeping his breathing steady. The arrow he was using was a special one: It was meant for high profile killing, no matter the damage. Slicing beams of white-hot death for a split second on impact, powerful enough to sear through several inches of pure titanium before petering out. Positively ghastly on a human being.

He'd been enjoying a little time in his bunk, watching old movies and stringing his bows, when the emergency call had arrived. He always carried a pager of sorts for those kinds of things. As one of several trained assassins, it wasn't the first time he'd been called somewhere in a hurry. He'd never been called to a location on the Helicarrier, though.

Tarleton was up; walking and talking, seeming exactly as much a bastard as he'd been when Clint had first shot him in the back. That time he'd used a pretty normal arrow, which would've severely injured anyone who was properly human. This time, he wasn't so conservative.

"Director, what pitiful defenses you have," Tarleton said mockingly as he opened another door without even getting near it. "So easily overwritten, these primitive programs of yours."

"You're not human, are you?"

"I have a human mind, in a sense," Tarleton said. "Do not worry about it, though. You will not have time to find out all there is to know. Do you believe the world will still be here in a year or two? How about five?"

"Yes. I mean to see that happen."

"You will die long before you see the glory of the empire that will rule all, then." He smiled. "I am only an example of what humanity could become."

"Oh, shut the hell up," Barton barked as he loosed his arrow. It flew straight at Tarleton, its aim true. In the split second it took to reach him, Tarleton's arm snapped forward; with a shuddering flash of light, the charge detonated. Then there was no arm.

Tarleton stood, staring, most of his arm entirely gone. What remained of it, up to the elbow, was singed; from below the broken skin emerged metal elements, some kind of prosthetic.

"That wasn't on any of your scans," Clint said as he grabbed another arrow and launched it. This time the arrow was easily avoided, and he edged back from the man who was still staring at his new wound.

"I will have it replaced," Tarleton said at last. He turned without a second glance towards the outside, walking stiffly. The wound had to hurt a lot, but his gait was easy, and there was no blood.

"Another damn robot?" Fury said over the radio just as Clint went after Tarleton. At his second step, he froze. Not voluntarily; his muscles refused to move, his heart suddenly thudded in his chest.

"You harmed me," Tarleton said from a long way away, though it sounded like he was much closer, as if his voice echoed through the hallway. "For that, you will die."

The pain intensified, and Clint fell to one knee, grasping at his chest. Even through the rubber of his boots and the insulation in his gloves, the signals that Tarleton was using were making their way into his system, messing with his heart rhythm. "Damn... it..."

"Hasta la vista, baby."

The repulsor blasted past Clint and impacted Tarleton in the center of the chest, blowing him backwards, slipping through the hallway on his back until he came to rest against a door to the outside. It slid open at his approach, and Tarletonn remained still. A chill of cold air washed in just as Clint found himself steady again, breathing heavily. The signal was gone, his heart slowly steadying.

"You alright there, trooper?"

Clint looked up with incredulity at Tony Stark, seated within his wheelchair with a large repulsor cannon strapped to the right side, stabilized by four little legs on the bottom. The repulsor was already charging again as Tony wheeled forward through a small tap with is foot; an engine was strapped to the back of his ride, connected to the arc reactor in his chest.

"You crazy -"

"Let's see if he's dead first," Tony said shortly. "Then you can call me names. Awesome ones, of course." He continued towards Tarleton's limp form as Clint quickly followed, his racing heart returning to a more normal rhythm.

Tarleton was stretched out on his back, a clean hole through his torso. Whatever passed for guts was strewn across the floor, though it didn't look like actual organs; it seemed like some kind of piping system, flexible and gooey due to some kind of lubricant.

"He's a freaking cyborg," Tony said after a moment. "I don't know who the hell could do this, but almost everything here is artificial, and it's covered with living tissue all over. This is some serious Terminator technology."

"Has he croaked?"

"Probably best to go with the way to kill a zombie, since he probably counts. Double-tap in the head." Tony raised a eyebrow. "He's all yours, Robin Hood."

Before Clint could even get his arrows out, Tarleton flipped to his feet and was off through the door at full speed; Clint drew as quick as he could and fired anyway, and the first arrow smacked into the running man's shoulder; it didn't detonate.

"Damn it, I think he's already figured those out," Tony blurted as he set his wheelchair at full speed, though that was still pitifully slow. Clint passed him in moments, landing two more arrows with a single shot, though both hit the upper back rather than the head; they sparked, then died. Tarleton was heading to the edge of the Carrier- it was a few miles down from there, and there was no way they were going to retrieve a body that couldn't be distinguished from the real thig on scans. Assuming he couldn't survive a fall like that in the first place.

"Take him out!" Tony yelled urgently. "Cripple him!"

A barbed arrow buried itself into Tarleton's knee, a second following quickly; Tarleton limped on nevertheless, barely slowing down.

"Jarvis, configure the cannon for maximum width, minimal height." Tony glanced around him, nodding. "Right, nobody to hurt. Hawkeye, hit the deck! Literally!"

The moment Clint dropped, Tony fired. A very thin but brilliant beam of light seared from the repulsor cannon, lighting up the entire deck in an eerie blue glow. Tarleton stopped only a feet or two from the edge, crumpling very slowly as his head detached from the rest of his body. It had been severed clean off, and landed with a thud on the deck. It bounced once, twice, then careened over the edge, leaving its body behind.

"Damn, that was close."

Clint sighed, frowning at his bow. "I really need to expand my inventory. EMP arrows, maybe? Anything to slow these suckers down."

"I'll design them for you," Tony agreed as he rolled up to the body. "Wow, I'm coming up with way too many puns here. Way to lose your head? You really lost your mind, man?"

"I think I know where this is headed."

Tony smirked. "Jarvis, tell Fury that we headed him off before he could escape. He's all torn up about it, too."

Author's Note: Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can...

Next chapter: What the hell was up with Tarleton? Count on a timeskip of a few weeks, at least.