- - -
Peter was somewhere... gray.
He remembered things. Bits and pieces. Consuming Hank. Or at least the beginning of the process. Then he felt like he'd been run over. Metaphorically speaking.
He'd lost control of what he was doing. His mind still remained as clear as ever, but suddenly he was a prisoner in his own body. He could see out his own eyes, but he couldn't make himself do as he wished. There were strange echoes and he could hear Hanks thoughts... bits and pieces.
He remembered a possessive spark from Brian that helped to shake him loose of whatever had him trapped.
Peter had expected the rush and the memories, but those hadn't happened. He drifted in and out as he fought to get control back. Here and there a few words. A few feelings.
He remembered trying to shift his body.
There was a flash of argument with Hank and an ugly, raw hate that Peter hadn't believed himself capable of. He wished he'd seized hold of it when he'd had the chance, but it had guttered out faster than he could manage and he was once more adrift.
The whole made him weary. He fought and kept fighting to bring himself back. That made the sudden transition all the more jarring when he suddenly found himself back as himself.
He was sitting on an old-fashioned blue and white striped folding beach chair in front of the Parker home. Well, it was gray and white. It was Uncle Ben's. One he'd found at a garage sale and had bought intending to resell it after some repairs, but he'd fallen in love with the stupid old thing and kept it for himself.
Peter hadn't seen it in months. He vaguely remembered that it was supposed to be shut up in the hall closet.
Around him, there were no signs of the infected. In fact, the house didn't appear to be on their street at all. It was as though some huge hand had reached down and plucked the house up and planted it in the middle of somewhere... gray.
Peter got to his feet, looking around in confusion. The house was now at the edge of some sort of small city or town. The buildings were low and anonymous, there was signage, but it was all blank.
Here and there were a few old-fashioned homes and there were cars parked on the street and on the driveways, but they were all vintage models. Uncle Ben's fascination with antiques hadn't been passed to him, but he had been happy to share what he knew with Peter. Every single car was from the early sixties or earlier. The street itself seemed odd as well. It wasn't cement or tar or anything similar. It looked like old-fashioned brick.
Who maintained a brick road?
Everything was in shades of gray. Peter held his hand out and found that it too was just as washed out and gray as the street before him. There didn't seem to be any color to anything.
"Now that? Right there? That's weird." A voice drawled.
Peter spun to his side and found himself confronted by the only spot of color in the world. It was a tall, lean form. Its skin was rust brown and black that seemed to be cracking and flaking, especially around the joints, like rust on old metal.
Or dried blood falling away. He heard himself think.
Its hair was red. Bright red and tightly curled and cropped close to its skull. The spattered brown gave way around its face, as though someone had chosen to leave that clear. Peter recognized him immediately.
Cletus smiled brightly and with obvious good cheer.
Peter swallowed nervously as he also realized that Cletus was leaning on what appeared to be an oversized axe. Most of it was the same rust spattered color as him, save for the edge of the blade which was bright silver and looked very, very keen.
"Howdy," Cletus said, his smile turning into a leer. "Gotta say that this is an unexpected development." He hefted the axe up in both hands, turning his glance to it briefly.
"Uh... yeah." Peter replied carefully, his eyes flicking to the axe then back to Cletus.
Behind him came a dismissive snort then a familiar smoky alto said, "Stop trying to scare him."
He glanced over his shoulder and found a woman. Like Cletus she was also in full color, but unlike him, she didn't look like she'd just stepped out of a blood bath. There was something off about her. The longer Peter stared the more he realized that none of her features matched up. Her eyes didn't match in color or shape. A patch of skin at her cheek stretching up to her hairline was pale and Caucasian, but most of the rest of her face was dusky. Her lips were half hers and half the thicker lips of a woman with much darker skin. One side of her face had her sharp cheekbones, but the other side had another woman's rounded, chubbier cheeks. Some of her hair was straight and auburn like it should have been, but a patch was blonde and wildly curly. Another patch was limp and black. Her clothes were similarly a confused mish-mash of layers and styles.
Cletus laughed and settled his axe back on the lawn with a loud thump.
She tilted her head to the side to look Peter over then finally said, "He is right. This is weird."
"Donna." Peter managed after a moment.
The side of her mouth with the thinner lips quirked into a smile and she nodded. "Nice to finally meet you."
"What's happening? You're just supposed to be... voices in my head..." He looked from one to the other, but neither seemed inclined to disappear.
Another figure lurched out of the corner of the house. It was a Hunter... or rather it was the Hunter they knew. Incongruously, a ribbon had been tied near its throat, tangled up in its mane, which gave it a strange and jaunty appearance like a ludicrous little blue bow tie. Unlike a normal Hunter this one had brown eyes that were clearly human.
"That's where we are." It rumbled as it moved towards them with the sleek assurance of a predator. "We haven't moved. This is all in your head."
Cletus raised an eyebrow. "Now how do y'all figure?"
Donna shook her head, "It's the simplest explanation for-" she gestured at them and at herself, clearly at a loss, "This."
"Y'know, big fella over there's gonna need a name." Cletus replied, continuing to eye the large Hunter, "If we're gonna be out like this and lookin' at each other, I ain't callin' him 'Hey, you'."
The Hunter made a disgruntled noise and shrugged its immense shoulders. "I think my first name used to start with the letter 'K'."
Cletus made a dismissive noise. "Nah, Kay's a girl's name. Tell you what, big fella, you're Cain."
"Cain doesn't start with a 'K'." Peter blurted out.
"Sure it can. You just spell it with a 'K'," Cletus replied dismissively. "Besides, Cain in the Bible was a hunter. First one ever. Big guy over there's the first Hunter y'all ate."
The newly dubbed Cain simply shrugged once more.
"On the one hand, I have trouble believing you'd even be familiar with the Bible," Donna said eying Cletus speculatively, then glanced at the Hunter. "On the other, didn't Cain also turn on his brother and kill him?"
"Guess we oughta be glad we ain't his relations then." Cletus replied sagely.
Cain sniffed disdainfully at that.
Donna shook her head, "None of this is helping us figure out how we ended up here or how to get out."
Peter looked at the three with him and said slowly. "It's Hank. Trying to eat him sent us... here. I guess?"
"Well, that was helpful," Cletus drawled sarcastically.
"No. No, that makes sense." Peter said hurriedly as he chased down the line of thought. "Normally when we consume something infected... something with a mind... I absorb it. I take that mind and its memories and end up with... well, you guys."
Cain shuffled uncomfortably. Donna glanced away. Only Cletus preened.
"Most of the time when we consume someone there's not much of a mind left. So my personality is staying in charge." Peter continued, "Or like when Whelan tried to consume me. I was the intact personality. So I had control even though he tried to consume me." He glanced at Cletus, "Your mind was sort of in one piece, but you weren't right in the head, so you had a relatively clear mind, but I was still in control."
"If'n you say so." Cletus said with a shrug.
Peter turned to Donna and Cain. "You two... you didn't start out very chatty, but once I consumed more fragmentary minds... you might have pulled yourselves together into something like Cletus-"
Donna made a disgusted noise and Cletus laughed.
Peter continued as though he hadn't been interrupted, "- but by that time, I was still in control." He gestured at them. "I think that's why you look like that. Cletus has... crazy keeping his mind in one piece. You two look like..."
"Crap." Cletus said with another laugh.
Donna frowned. "Patchwork." She glanced over to the Cain. "Even you. You're mostly just a hunter, but you've gotten a few extra parts from somewhere else."
"Someone else," Cletus pointed out cheerily.
Peter nodded. Those parts made sense. "Except now..." He looked around and lowered his voice. "Now I might've bitten off more than I can chew."
"My pappy always told me to never try to swallow anythin' bigger than my head," Cletus offered sagely.
"A fully conscious Hive mind with so much strength of will and personality, it's your turn to be overwhelmed." Donna concluded, ignoring Cletus.
"Yeah," Peter sighed morosely. His eyes narrowed suspiciously as he looked around once more, "You don't think-"
"That he planned for all of this?" A soft, flat voice interrupted them. Kurt Connors emerged from the other side of the house. He looked about the same as he did when they'd first met him earlier that day, but his right arm was entirely gone and there was a strange brittle quality to him. What clothes he had on were tatters that seemed to be falling apart on him as he moved. Every move seemed to knock loose little flakes that drifted in the air behind him briefly before they vanished. When he turned, Peter had to fight down a gasp of surprise when he realized that the back half of the man's head was simply gone. Where it should have been was an empty hollow that showed the inside of the man's face.
Despite missing the interior of his head, he still moved and spoke easily. "It wouldn't surprise me in the least. No matter what he might have told you."
"What's happening to yo-?" Peter began to ask.
"I believe you were still digesting me when Pym happened." Connors replied blandly. "Fascinating process from the inside. I can feel my thoughts being taken apart. I can hear you echoing my own thoughts back to me. I'd write a paper if I still had hands in the real world. Can you imagine how this could advance Neurology?"
"Focus, please." Donna said and took a step towards Connors; forestalling whatever else Peter might have said and put a hand on his shoulder. "What were you saying about Pym?"
"He had nothing but time to think." Connors replied with a shrug. "He would plan out for tremendous sets of branching paths, anticipating every possible move or combination of moves. He manipulates people and events to maximize his advantage no matter what happens."
Cain made a thoughtful grunt at that.
"He sent me down to meet Jessica Drew. Peter's blood might have protected me or it would not. If it protected me, that would confirm that he could be safe. It might have allowed me to escape, but that wouldn't have mattered to him. If she captured me, he'd already given me false information that led to his trap." He gestured broadly. "Granted it did not work out as he'd hoped, but for him it was advantage either way. Even the failed trap forced the Thunderbolts to realize how dangerous she was and will force them to fight harder. Every result was a potential win for him."
Peter's imaginary guts twisted as he realized how easily he'd been led. He growled. "Either I'd kill him to keep Jessica from getting him... or he gets my body."
Connors nodded. "He has lived as he is for a very long time. Either outcome was acceptable to him."
Cletus laughed, "He's been stuck in the same spot with no nethers and eatin' sewer leavin's for years. Y'can't exactly blame him for wantin' out."
Peter replied sharply, "Well, he can't have my nethers!"
"Y'ain't even had a chance to use 'em properly yet." Cletus said with a nod.
Peter blushed furiously.
"You're a disgusting pig." Donna glowered at the rust covered man.
Cletus' only response was another leer.
"But why can we see each other like this now?" Peter asked suddenly. "Did something happen to Hank?"
"He fell asleep." Cletus said with a chuckle.
"Say what?" Peter stared.
"Same kind of thing happened every time you conked out. You start dreamin', I start bein' able to see things like this." Cletus replied, toying idly with his axe. "Except I'm usually more myself than... whatever this is."
"You can see my dreams?" Peter asked in a flat, hostile tone.
"Nah. Just we can kinda see our own and know when you're dreamin'. Any thoughts y'all might've had about the Watsons are all your own, but I'm sure I can come up with some speculations." Cletus waggled his eyebrows as Peter blushed.
Cain growled, "I don't remember any of that."
Donna pointed out, "I don't think either of us was... whole yet then. I only remember being me again in the morning after Peter ate those other infected."
Cletus waggled his eyebrows at her, "You'll be in my dreams soon enough."
This too was soundly ignored.
"Dreams are supposed to be the mind's way of organizing what it experienced during the day," Peter said slowly. "So maybe that's how my own mind works. Organizing and assimilating what I've... um..."
"Eaten." Cletus supplied helpfully.
"Now that the rest of the body is sleeping, Hank isn't exercising the control to keep putting us down and we're... here. In his dream." Connors continued Peter's thought. "If you are right, then this is the process by which he will be able to integrate you into his mind, destroy your identity and leave your will subservient to him."
"Like hell." Peter snarled.
Cletus shrugged, "Ain't gonna make much of a difference to me. I'm a voice in the kid's head or a voice in Pym's."
Peter glowered at Cletus. He wanted to say that he was surprised but he really wasn't.
Donna glared as well and seemed about to say something when Connors interrupted her. "I'm surprised you feel that way."
"How do you figure that?" Cletus asked, thrusting his chin forward with mulish stubbornness.
Connors pointed at the rusted man and continued to speak softly. "Henry's had decades to come to terms with the ruthless decisions he's had to make. He would not need you."
"What are you talking about?" Peter asked.
The hollow in Connors' head grew larger as a chunk fell into it, throwing up a large scattering of flakes that hung in the air for a moment. "Your ability to consume and assimilate minds is practically unique. If anything that alone makes you more dangerous than your ability to assimilate Hydra abilities."
Cletus was tapping the axe in one hand and eyeing Connors. "Still not hearin' why it's a bad idea for me to not care about Pym keepin' the body."
Connors held up a hand. "We know of only one other instance of the assimilation ability manifesting. A student in Louisiana back in the Eighties. When she was infected, she accidentally consumed her boyfriend and assimilated his mind and identity. Henry tried to have her captured for study, but she ended up consuming even more people. The resulting amalgamation of personalities growing progressively more dangerous and insane before she was finally taken down by the Thunderbolts."
Cletus appeared to be about to interrupt once more, but Donna threw him a sharp look and patted Connors shoulder once more, gesturing for him to continue.
"Henry Pym has no need for buffers to separate his core identity from the monstrous thing he has become." Connors looked directly at Cletus. "He doesn't need the voice of a psychopath whispering in his ear that he might need to kill." He glanced at Cain, "Or a soldier's voice to handle the tactical decisions and combat situations he was never trained for."
"Or a voice to nag him to focus?" Donna asked pointedly.
"Well spotted." Connors said with a shrug. "Pym doesn't need any of you the way Peter does. Even if he did, his particular mental architecture isn't geared to be compartmentalized in the way yours is. His thoughts run on multiple parallel tracks that allowed him to multi-task... I suspect your brain is being physically restructured to accommodate his mind, but the process will no doubt involve the removal of... well... all of us."
"Wait, hold on." Peter shook his head, "If he gets the body and has the ability to consume other minds... are you telling me his version won't have him retaining the minds of those he eats?"
Connors nodded. "He's much more familiar with the memetic transfer protocols of Hydra from his time as a Hive. I suspect he would refine it to allow him to consume pure information, untainted by any lingering identity."
"I don't know if that's worse or better." Peter said quietly.
Donna held a hand up. "But you're saying he didn't already have the ability to assimilate other minds? None of the Hives do?"
"No. If Hank wanted to know something, he wouldn't consume them. He'd influence them pheromonally and make them tell him. He has no..." Connors hesitated and another chunk of skull fell into the hollow in his head. "To use a computer metaphor, he and Jessica have write level access to the Infected. They have a limited ability to read... but it's... surface information at best. They can understand what's sent to them. They can use only a single communication protocol. Peter's body has full read level access to anything he consumes. Not only that, he has the appropriate interpreters to make sense out of what he's reading. Allowing him to make full use of the information he absorbs... genetic and memetic."
"And Hank Pym just hijacked that body." Peter sighed.
"Hank Pym who has no use for the rest of us," Donna said, giving Cletus a fixed stare.
"Fine," Cletus said with an explosive sigh and another thump of his axe as he settled it back down. He gestured at Peter, "Y'all got me convinced that the kid oughta be running the show. How do we do it?"
Cain sniffed, then growled and jabbed a finger at Peter. "This is all in your head."
"Consensual hallucination. Mental construct. Yes. Everything we're seeing is just some... metaphor for whatever's happening to my body." Peter said slowly as his thoughts began to race. "It's... just a level of abstraction for us. A way to get a handle on what's happening without actually understanding any of the step by step actions taken to get to it."
Connors nodded and Peter realized that older man had been silently lip-syncing what Peter had just said. Peter was chilled and uncertain if Connors had simply been parroting him, or if the other man had given those thoughts to him. Peter paced around the lawn, thinking furiously. Cletus plopped himself into the now unoccupied lawn chair and stretched out, laying his axe across his lap.
Peter spoke quickly, continuing to pace faster. "We're in the user interface for... I guess my body. Hank's running the show. We don't know the controls, but we can learn it. If we know the scenario... if we understand the dream logic he's operating under, then we can use it."
Cletus grinned, "And we can find him and kill him slow."
"Exactly." Peter said distractedly.
Cletus looked pleasantly surprised, "... wait, you're actually agreeing with me?"
Peter fixed Cletus with a look and nodded grimly, "I'd take it as a personal favor if you took your sweet time."
Cletus smiled brightly.
"Didn't anyone else notice it yet?" Donna asked suddenly, looking at each of the men in turn.
"Notice what?" Peter asked, confused.
Donna rolled her mismatched eyes and jerked a thumb at Cletus. "Axe. No heart. Looks like he's rusting." She gestured to Connors, "Raggedy. No brain. Leaving... well, it's not quite straw, but all those things he's shedding could be mistaken for it."
Peter's jaw dropped. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
Cain turned his muzzle up, gathering as much of his affronted dignity as he could, "I suppose that makes me the Cowardly Lion?"
Donna smiled kindly, "You do have the mane."
Peter's lip quirked, "Does that make you Dorothy?" He frowned, "Then I guess that just leaves me as-"
He was interrupted by Cletus suddenly shooting to his feet cursing luridly.
They all turned to look at him as he looked down at his feet, which everyone noted were suddenly soaking wet... and smelled rather distinctly.
Donna raised an eyebrow.
"That thing peed on me!" Cletus snarled, raising his axe to threaten... what appeared to be a tiny black haired Terrier. It still had one leg up and was marking the lawn chair with considerable focus and enthusiasm.
They all stared as the dog continued to unselfconsciously complete its business.
It then turned to the crowd and for a brief moment Brian Watson's massive face superimposed itself over the dog as it thundered. "MINE."
With that, it ran around the chair a few times, then ran up to Peter, bumping its head repeatedly against his ankles and wagging its tail happily.
"I guess that's actually Toto." Donna said with a small lopsided smirk. "This makes you Dorothy, rather than me. I think I might be the Patchwork Girl."
Peter picked the dog up gingerly, holding it up by the collar. It felt heavier than it should have been and he got a brief impression of a mish-mash of mingled body parts and faces all squeezed down into... a rather adorable looking Terrier.
The dog panted happily at him before it suddenly spoke again, in a different voice this time. "Sto d'zan che'ir." It might have been the words 'Stronger than tears' spoken through an excessively thick accent, but every word just seemed to be too deliberately spoken.
Peter blinked. "Uh... I guess he's all the leftover bits of minds that weren't coherent enough on their own?
Cletus growled, hefting the axe threateningly at the dog. "I ought to kill the little bastard."
Cain shook his head and settled an immense hand on Cletus's arm, forcing it and the axe back down. "It's part of our collective mind. It's a potential resource."
Cletus frowned down at the dog. "I suppose it could pee on Pym."
The dog seemed to regard the attention with amusement and replied in yet another voice, "Lok Chitauri doosh Kl'rt madza kill Criti Noll."
"Er... yeah, whatever." Cletus said, straightening up and snorting. "So what does this tell us then? Other than the fact that Pym's got a thing for the Wizard of Oz?"
Peter smiled nastily. "It means that by the rules we can find him pretty easily."
"You figure?" Cletus asked.
"Yes." Peter said and cradled the pseudo-Terrier in one arm. "Because we aren't in Kansas anymore."
The words suddenly seemed to hang in the air briefly before color rippled out from them in a sudden rush. The flat gray buildings and the parked vintage cars all exploded into a veritable rainbow of barely restrained color. Signs filled in with brilliant painted print inviting people to their businesses.
The sky turned blue in a wave radiating out from them.
In the distance the skyline turned green.
The road leading to that direction turned to a bright, Thunderbolt uniform yellow.
A yellow brick road.
Peter began to walk.
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