Chapter 31: Interlude Part II


Saturday - June 4, 2016

Rose Hill, Tennessee

01:41 PM

"Gregory Heffner! You put that down right now! I swear to God."

"It's alright! It's alright. See? I got it." The man righted his footing on the unstable chair below him and secured his fingers around the previously-slipping bowl, decorated with intricate little flowers around the gold-laced rim. "No muss. No fuss." He stepped back down onto the floor, adding a little flourish for good measure as he presented the bowl.

Sarah Heffner scowled with an unimpressed look as she quickly snatched the bowl away. "My mother would be rolling over in her grave if she could see how you're manhandling her fine china." She turned back to the dining table absolutely littered with different cardboard boxes, the floors covered in packing peanuts, bubble-wrap, and discarded pieces of duct tape. She started to wrap the bowl with a fresh strip of bubble wrap. "She loved these bowls more than us kids, you know. I can only imagine how much she'd complain if she saw a scratch on it, so..."

She paused, eyed the china bowl in her hands for a moment with an indignant pout.

"...maybe scratch it a little."

Greg, a fairly lanky man with dark brown hair and wide-rimmed glasses over the top of his too-thin nose, gave a little chuckle and placed a kiss on the woman's cheek as she finished packing up the bowl into another one of the boxes.

"Is this all for the fragile stuff?" he asked, hoisting the box up into his arms.

"For the dining room, at least. Just put it in the hall for now. We'll have to find someplace careful on the truck for it."

"Right!" he called from the hall, no doubt trying to find some place to slide the box into the ever-growing Tetris game stacked against the walls.

Sarah dusted off her hands, using the toe of her foot to kick up one of the nearby strips of bubble wrap, catching it out of the air as it floated by. "When is Allen supposed to drop it off again?"

Greg's voice drifted from somewhere down the hall. "Tomorrow around three. And let me tell you, it took a lot of beers to finally bribe him to drive down with us."

She scoffed, giving a shake of her head as he brushed back a strand of messy blond hair. Her bun was starting to fall apart again. "Still can't believe that. It's a fourteen-hour drive to New York."

"What can I say? Guy claimed he didn't trust me to be all alone with his baby."

"Not surprised. He spends more time on that rig than with his actual wife."

Greg came back from around the corner, a smirk on his face. "Not that she minds."

Sarah rolled her eyes at him before turning back to the room before her. She scanned the walls, checked to see if there was anything else they'd missed. But the walls were bare. The china cabinet was empty. Even the ancient clock that always hung on the back wall was gone, leaving them in a growing silence that wasn't too common in her household.

She took a breath, a thick swallow chasing it down as she rested her hands against the edge of the nearest chair. They'd be moving the big stuff tomorrow once Greg's friends from the station came down to help.

And then her house would be empty.

Sarah let her eyes drift to the windows, stared out at the sleepy streets beyond. She heard something shift behind her.

"What's wrong?"

Her fingers played against the faux-wooden chair under her hands.

"Nothing."

She could still remember when she'd first stepped into this house, walking in with a newlywed husband that she wasn't quite in love with. But the baby brewing inside of her had dimmed her doubts into lingering unease and had left her swallowing her intuition for the sake of that life-form, to at least try and give it a normal life complete with a mother and father that at least still looked at each other. It was more than her own parents had ever given her.

But safe to say, a marriage based solely on the backs of an unplanned baby isn't really the strongest. And six years later would see this come to light as her husband, who'd never gotten past the phase of 'unemployed alcoholic' walked out and left her with two kids and a mortgage she couldn't pay.

Still, that wasn't what this house was. Not anymore. Not after watching her babies take their first steps on these floors. Not after washing the walls of Crayola marks and sharpie drawings. Not after each birthday and Christmas and Easter and anything else they could use as an excuse to gorge on cake and sugar that always pushed their weekly food allowance (but no way was she letting her kids grow up without cake on their birthdays and candy for Halloween).

This was her home. Had been her home for years. And it had served her well.

She swallowed again, felt how it caught in her throat before sliding free.

There were footsteps behind her and suddenly she felt warm arms coming to wrap around her shoulders. She didn't turn, merely shut her eyes and leaned back into the sturdy weight behind her. Greg pressed his chin against her collarbone, hummed into her skin.

"Sarah," he sighed, breath warm against her ear. "You know you don't have to come."

She shook her head. "We're not having this discussion again."

"I'm serious. There's still time for you to-"

"Stop. Hey." She turned to face him, staring up into his bright green eyes, the first thing she'd ever noticed about him. "You have to take this job offer. It's amazing." She lifted a hand and ran it through the locks framing his face. "And I know you're tired of being a small-town cop."

His face pinched a bit, both in agreement and sadness. "Not that hauling Gary into the slammer to sleep off his hangovers every Saturday isn't fun...I just-"

"Want to do more. I know." They'd had this conversation many a time late at night laying side by side in the darkness of their room. "And what kind of wife would I be if I left you to go off all alone?"

Greg lifted a gentle hand to wrap around her wrist, planting a kiss on the top of her palm. "A wife with two kids who grew up here and had a life before me?"

She pursed her lips. "I mean it. This'll be good for us. All of us." She shrugged and moved away, picking up one of the empty boxes stacked in the corner and placing it on the table. "Besides, It's New York City. I'm sure I could find a decent waitressing job. There's a diner on every street corner for Christ's sake." She turned, throwing a flirtatious smirk his way. 'You're not getting rid of me that easily, mister."

He didn't seem so convinced through, for his frown remained. He leaned his back against the wall, hands stuffing into his pockets as he cast a morose glance out towards the living room. "And the kids?"

"Hmm?"

"Lily still won't talk to me. And why wouldn't she? Big bad stepdad comes in to drag her away from all her friends. I'm like a Disney-channel villain."

Sarah rolled her eyes and turned back around, folding new pieces of bubble wrap to place in the bottom of the box. "She's just upset she won't be able to participate in the Annual Pig Wrestling Festival next month."

"I mean it." Greg approached again, eyes crinkling with worry. "What it...I don't know...she doesn't forgive me?"

Sarah turned, watching as Greg fiddled with the ring on his finger, a nervous habit of his. "I'm really trying to bond with them and I feel like we were getting along fine. Just..." He sighed and rubbed at the back of his neck. "I don't know. I really don't wanna be an evil step-parent, but I feel like I'm one cat away from a twirly mustache and yellow eyes."

Sarah couldn't help but chuckle, batting at his shoulder with the bubble wrap still in her hands. "God, you're so dramatic." She moved closer, placing her hands on either sides of his arms, forcing him to meet her gaze. "Listen, Lily adores you. And in two days, she'll be fawning all over the latest Juicy-Cute backpack-lunch box set or whatever and won't even remember she was supposed to be mad at you."

Greg's lips quirked into a smile at that, albeit a small one. However, his face did twitch a bit as a new thought drifted through.

"And her brother? How's he holding up? Plotting my death yet?"

Sarah paused a bit, a new frown peppering her face. "He's...well, you know how he is."

Greg scoffed. "Ch'yeah."

"But he's been surprisingly quiet about all this, which is...concerning, to say the least," she grimaced before giving a little shrug of her shoulders. "But he's adaptive. And I'm sure he'll be happy we're moving closer to his billionaire-buddy pen-pal."

"Yeah, speaking of: have you told Stark about this?"

"Nope."

Greg frowned. "How come? He'd probably send a private plane for all our stuff."

Sarah rolled her eyes and busied herself with the bubble wrap in her fingers. She popped a few. "Which is exactly why I'm keeping him out of this." At Greg's silence, she sighed and turned to face him once more. "I appreciate everything he's done for our family, what with all the cars and the college funds and whatnot, but it's still my family. Our family, now," she said a bit softer, a new smile edging into her voice. "We don't need his help to get through."

Greg returned her look with a smile of his own, moving closer as he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close. She melted into his chest, fitting together like two puzzle pieces, snug and perfect. "I knew I married the most amazing woman in all of Tennessee." He leaned closer, pressing his forehead against hers. "And pretty soon, I'll have the most amazing woman in all of New York."

The feel of his breath against her neck made shivers travel down her spine as she craned her neck and moved in for a kiss-

"Eww- my gosh! You guys are so gross!"

They both sighed. There was no better mood killer than a nine-year-old girl.

"Alright, little miss." Sarah turned to eye her daughter, a little girl with long blonde hair tied up with ribbon into a ponytail. "Aren't you supposed to be packing up your room?"

Lily gave a little pout, glaring down at the ground by her foot. "No point in packing if we don't leave."

"Lilian, we're not having this discussion again. Go and finish packing. And where's your brother?"

"I don't know."

"Well, find him, please. And tell him to finish packing too. We leave in two days."

Lily made a big to-do of spinning on her heel and stomping back down the hall. Greg watched her go with a noticeable wince in his eyes, like each step she took poked another needle into his skin. Sarah patted his cheek with a gentle smile and a reassuring chuckle.

This house had served her well. But her family was growing. It was only fair that she grow with them.

. . . . .

"Mom says you need to finish packing. But I don't see them packing. They're too busy kissing! Ugg! This is so stupid!"

Lily disappeared from his doorway with a grunt of annoyance and a signature flip of her hair.

The boy paid it little mind, eyes too busy glued to his phone.

His dirty blond hair fanned out around his pillow as he lay on his back, the glow from his phone screen making his eyes burn as he scrolled. He blinked it away.

Around his room were stacks upon stacks of ugly brown boxes crammed together, all filled with the past fifteen years of his life. He still found it kind of funny, how easily his entire existence fit into a couple of two-cent boxes, his reach of influence extending about as far as his years-old comic book collection that was steadily growing a layer of dust thick enough to constitute its own box (nevertheless, when his mother had brought up the possibility that they might have to toss them to save space, he'd vehemently sorted through his boxes and stacked and restacked until each and every copy of mint-condition or limited-edition page-turners fit safely and securely.)

But that was beside the point. He had bigger things to focus on right now.

"The latest update on the Parker-Stark situation brings us this feed from Richard Parker three days ago,"

The phone screen switched from the brunette reporter to a recorded video of billionaire Richard Parker caught outside his company building, looking a little too pleased to have cameras in his face.

"I'm MORE than confident in Mr. Stark's abilities to watch out for my son. Or else I wouldn't have agreed to let him stay there over the summer. Besides, I'm sure Peter would much rather stay at Stark Tower than follow me around board meetings all summer. And Mr. Stark agreed. Like I've said before, nothing matters more to me than my son and his safety. It's just that now, I'm not the only one looking out for him. And I must extend my heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Stark for his part to play in all of this."

"This comes after the man's recent tweets revealing he would be leaving his son in the care of Stark Enterprises' Tony Stark for the upcoming summer months. Following the release of this video, Mr. Stark's official Twitter account had this to say,"

The screen switched again, this time to a capture of an opened Twitter page.

"Peter's extended stay here at Stark Tower comes with the addition of helping me and my team with the foundations of the new internship program we're running, seeing as he IS the only participant at the time. Besides, he's WAY cooler to hang with than Daddy Warbucks. And yes, you can quote me on that."

"After the rare conference coordinated by their competing companies, both Richard Parker and Tony Stark seem to have reached a middle ground in the form of one Peter Parker. Only time will tell if it lasts. This is Susan Wells reporting to you live from New York City."

The video stopped, bringing him back to the Twitter page he'd found it on. He didn't bother scrolling through the comments underneath, instead lingering on the thumbnail image they'd selected for the video itself: a still from the conference a few weeks ago, showing both Tony Stark and Peter Parker standing shoulder to shoulder against the crowds.

The teen stared back at the image, letting his eyes burn as the light from his phone irritated them further.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, burning deep in his chest, he felt something. Something bubbling in his gut. And for a moment of very brief self-contemplation, he wondered if it was jealousy.

Jealousy at the images before him, jealousy at the way Tony Stark was standing next to this mystery kid with a notable air of protectiveness, leaning closer with the intent to shield the teen from the cameras snapping at them like angry dogs. Jealousy that it wasn't him up there with the billionaire.

But that moment quickly passed - as his rare thoughts on self-reflection usually did - with a roll of the eyes and a laid-back air of I-can't-be-bothered-to-be-upset. And the feeling revealed itself to be something quite different.

Amusement. Pure and simple.

He couldn't help but crack a smile, mischievous grin working its way onto his lips as he chuckled out a disbelieving laugh.

"Tony, what the hell are you doing, man?"

Jealous? Of this kid? If anything, he was ready to send some condolences.

There was something vastly different about him and the wide array of commenters below the post cracking jokes and swapping conspiracy theories that Tony Stark and Richard Parker were secret lovers and this kid was their adoptive son or something.

He knew better.

He knew Tony.

And if he knew anything about Tony, it was that he was no doubt in way over his head. This Parker kid truly had no idea the shitshow he was in for, and personally, he was very excited to see everything play out, if only for his own amusement. (And perhaps to satiate his own curiosities as to why Tony 'Emotional Maturity of a Grapefruit' Stark was suddenly taking in a mystery kid with seemingly no hang-ups or protests.)

There was definitely a story here. And damn if he wasn't a nosy little bastard.

Someone's gotta warn this kid that that idiot has no idea what he's doing, he thought to himself, slowly shaking his head with a smirk.

He sat up in bed, refreshing the page once just to make sure he hadn't missed anything. He flipped his head, strands of long blond hair draping down over his eyes.

"Alright, Peter Parker. You have my attention..." He scanned the page and let his eyes drop down to the Heart icon below the post. The feelings in his chest started to morph into something new, an excitement that left his fingers tingling and his face unable to stop smiling. "Let's see what you do with it."

Harley Keener liked this post.


Saturday - June 4, 2016

Springfield, Massachusetts

06:22 PM

The roads were fairly quiet for a Saturday afternoon.

The car sped along with relative ease, unencumbered by the few passing cars drifting by them. The engine hummed softly underneath Richard's feet as they sat in silence watching the borders of lush trees and forestry lining the highways be replaced with the more concrete surroundings of the approaching city.

His fingers tapped against the steering wheel, face drawn and quiet as he gazed out at the roads. Max sat beside him, a pile of various manila folders resting on his lap. He was currently fingering through an open file, face terse and eyes narrowed as he scanned through the pages.

Richard didn't spare him a glance, though he could hear the soft rustling of the papers between the man's muscular hands. He knew Max sometimes struggled with his reading skills, especially when pressured, so he'd left the man to his own devices, allowing relative silence between them. Max always got it eventually, if given enough time.

And they had plenty of time, what with the two-hour mark of their drive quickly approaching.

It wasn't the longest drive he'd ever had to endure what with the added bonus of being directly behind the wheel rather than having himself chauffeured around the city like some modern-day royal. It was good for the cameras, but Richard never made it a secret to those who really knew him just how much he hated being driven around. The lack of control was...unnerving, to say the least.

Which was why, when Max had offered to switch places for the last half of their journey, Richard had turned him down. Other than the fact that he knew his friend needed as much time with the files as possible, the thought of relinquishing control would only make the journey feel that much longer.

Still, it wouldn't be long now.

Richard lifted a hand, absentmindedly scratching at his cheek. Other than the sounds of the road racing by outside the window, all was silent. No radio. No chatter. Nothing but the dull humming of the car and the occasional sound of flipping pages.

At least until Max let out a huff and shut the file in his lap with a resounding snap.

Richard cocked a brow and threw a glance over. Max was resting his head against the back of the seat, face pulled into a tight frown.

"What's wrong?"

Max turned. "Hmm?"

"You huffed."

"No, I didn't."

"Max, you're a man of many talents. But subtlety is not one of them."

Said man merely rolled his eyes but didn't respond right away. Instead, he let his eyes drift back down to the files in his lap, running a finger over the corners. The frown remained on his face.

The sun was finally starting to set behind the trees, elongating the shadows around them against the darkening sky. The clouds soaked in the light, blood-red in color, casting the trees and surrounding forests in darkness backlit by the dimming sun.

Finally,

"I don't think this is a good idea, Rich."

Richard sniffed, rolling his stiffening shoulders. He'd expected the question sometime in their drive.

"Why?"

"I...seriously? You need an explanation?" Max called with nothing short of incredulity in his voice, leaving no doubts as to the fact that he assumed his reasonings were blatant and known already.

"I'd appreciate one. Preferably keep it under ten minutes cause we're coming up on our exit soon."

Max huffed, facing forward in his seat once more. His face was terse, annoyance clear in his expression. "Okay, for starters, I still ain't on board with taking on extra recruitments in the first place. We got plenty of guys, plenty of hands, and plenty of bodies. Voluntary or otherwise."

"For now," Richard sighed. They'd had this conversation before. "You're still not looking at the big picture here, Max. I need my top men with me in Hong Kong. And that means leaving operations in New York without any oversight."

"I can handle New York."

"No. I need you with me. And more importantly, we need someone to keep our little Spider-pest busy so he doesn't have time to snoop into our business. And that means outsourcing."

Max stared at him, seemed to take note of the new underlying annoyance seeping into Richard's tone, for he shifted a bit in his seat and glanced away.

Richard Parker was not a man to get lost in his daydreams. But even he had his moments of weakness. Moments where he'd imagine the feel of a gun in his hands, blood on his face, and a smile stretching across his lips as he blew Spider-Man's tongue out the back of his skull.

Just the thought made his face twitch in perverse glee.

And it wasn't that he didn't have the means. Or the skill. Or the desire. On all fronts, Richard Parker could very well hunt down that pest and strangle him with his own intestines for daring to interfere with his business. More than once had he toyed with the thought. But every time, said thoughts were doused by the waters of reason.

Spider-Man wasn't a nobody. Richard couldn't just make him disappear without people noticing. People who could do something about it. People like Stark.

And while the idea of taking Iron Man out alongside his red-and-blue puppet filled Richard with an even brighter flame of manic euphoria, he was not a fool.

He wasn't ready for that.

They weren't strong enough.

Yet.

Richard heard Max give a sigh, saw from the corner of his eye as the man ran a hand down his face. "Alright…," he said after a moment. "I can maybe accept that. But this?" He picked up the folders again, the edges crumpling in his grip as he shook them. "You gotta be fucking with me, man."

The billionaire said nothing, merely kept his eyes on the road as Max started to flip through the pages again.

"A disgraced university professor. An amputee veteran five years past his prime. Some Russian thug that got busted for capping his brother in the middle of a bank heist. A crewman from the ports that got fired for huffing the chemicals. I mean, Jesus, Rich!" He slapped the folder closed and tossed it onto the dashboard. "Are you kidding me with this?"

There was a car on the side of the road, its hazard lights flickering in Richard's eyes. There was a woman on the hood, phone in hand, a frazzled-looking man pacing back and forth, and a pair of children in the backseat.

For a brief moment, Richard imagined running the man down, splattering him over the windshield to the sounds of his wife and children screaming. Just a turn of the wheel, simple. Barely even a flick of the wrist.

The man spotted them approaching and waved his arms to flag them down.

Richard blinked. The image disappeared. He kept driving.

Max was speaking again.

"You know, Rich…there are plenty of millionaires, politicians, governors. Hell, that Senator in DC is still waiting for a call back from you. " Max glanced down, reaching a hand into his pocket before pulling out a pack of cigarettes. "We have our pick of the best of the best. People are begging us to get on board. So why're you scrapping the bottom of the barrel for this little assignment?"

He popped a cigarette into the corner of his mouth and rummaged in his pockets again, pulling out a rusted lighter. "These people, they… they're nothing, man." His finger flicked against the ignitor. Sparks. His words were muffled as he clenched the cigarette between his teeth. "Losers. Freaks. They're not worth our fucking time. They're the worst of the worst. They're at-"

"Rock bottom?"

Max glanced up from his struggles to light his cigarette, blinking down at the light Richard was now offering him. He stared at the flame for a moment before he leaned forward, brushing the tip of his cigarette against the fire

He leaned back as it caught, Richard closing his lighter with a clink and slipping it back into his pocket.

"Of course they are, Max," he said quietly, finally tearing his eyes away from the road to look at the man. "That's the point."

Max narrowed his eyes, but said nothing, pulling the cigarette from his lips as he slowly blew a line of smoke from his nostrils. Richard turned away to stare back out at the roads. And for a moment, the car was silent, the only noise being the steady hum of the engine underneath them and the quiet crinkling of the burning cigarette paper.

"You know…I still remember that night you called me."

Max went rigid, his hand freezing as it lifted the cigarette to his mouth. Richard could sense the shift in atmosphere, felt the warmth of uncomfortable air filling the car. Max's eyes stayed fixed on the dashboard, jaw tensing as he finally brought the cigarette up to his lips. He didn't look over as Richard continued.

"It was….I think maybe two or three in the morning. Mary was having pregnancy cravings and the only place selling hot dogs that early was the 24-hour convenience store a block from our house. Turns out by the time I get home, soaking wet by the way cause it was pouring outside, she's already asleep."

He lifted a hand, rubbing it against the stubble around his cheek. Smoke billows out of Max's nose. "So, I'm standing there trying to figure out what to do with these two stale, crusty hot dogs cause you know I'm not going to eat them. We were strapped for cash back then but I still had my standards."

The smile that had begun to work onto his face faded. "Then the phone rings."

Max pulls the cigarette from his lips, tapping it against his knee. His posture is stiff.

"Late-night phone calls are never a good thing. And I stand there wondering which family member died before I remember that there are no more left to die. So, who the hell is calling me at three in the morning?"

Richard spares a small glance. Max still isn't looking at him, but his leg is starting to bounce now. It's clear just how uncomfortable he is. The billionaire turns away, returns his gaze back to the road. He can smell smoke brushing up against his nose. He inhales deeply, grateful for the intoxicating cloud of fog and tobacco.

"How long had it been since we'd spoken to each other?"

Max was silent for a moment, dragging another breath of smoke before roughly exhaling a plume. "Ten years? Give or take. Sometime in your junior year at Columbia." His voice is curt. Short.

"Columbia….right."

"Yeah, that preppy little white school. No time for your drug peddling hometown friend, right?"

"Still bitter?"

"Why would I be?"

The blatant anger in his tone is answer enough. And honestly, Richard can't blame him.

There were very few people Richard trusted in this world. His lessons and words to Peter weren't nonsense. He believed them wholeheartedly. Dependence bred nothing but weakness and vulnerability, two traits he'd worked his whole life to rid himself of. And while Richard had plenty of underlings, plenty of workers, plenty of people who would follow his every word, every command, every order without question, he knew better than to truly rely on them.

Except for Max.

Max was different. He wasn't a worker or an underling. He wasn't a mindless drone that Richard could replace within a day.

Max was his last link to a life previous. A life of walking to school with holes in his shoes and backpacks that were nothing more than strings and cloth. Sharing lunches of moldy peanut butter sandwiches and rotten apple slices.

Despite the life of luxury he now lived, Richard Parker still remembered collecting cans along the roads for extra change. More specifically, he remembered competing with his one and only friend to see who could come up with the most money.

Max always won. He was the best at hunting down those damn cans.

Well, there were no cans to hunt for at Columbia. And while this wasn't the only issue, it certainly reflected the stark divide that grew between them once Richard accepted his spot at the university.

A divide spanning a length of ten years, apparently.

For a while, neither of them said anything. They simply let the silence grow and the smoke build, Max occasionally rolling the window down a crack to air out the car. In fact, it wasn't until Richard was pulling into the left lane for their approaching exit that Max finally spoke.

"I needed cash," he said quietly, voice rumbling in his throat. "I owed….geez, I don't even remember how much, but it was a lot. Enough for Vinny Geriski to take my kidney and an eye if I didn't come up with the funds."

Richard pursed his lips. "Geriski…yeah, I remember him. He ran, what? South Manhattan?

"The Bronx."

"Right."

Max cracked his neck, rolling his shoulders a bit as he groaned. "Anyway, I needed a get rich quick job. Figured I'd nab a car, sell it off and maybe come close to the halfway point for the funds I needed. That would probably save my eye. My kidney?" He pinched the cigarette between his fingers. "Eh, who needs two of those anyway?"

They chuckled lowly, Max letting out a deep sigh as he turned to spare a glance out the window, scanning the passing sign as the car pulled off the highway exit.

"I just….didn't expect the car I snagged from the local strip mall to belong to the Commissioner's wife." He clicked his tongue, rolling down the window one last time before flicking the burnt cigarette out. "Yeah, fuck me, right?"

Richard said nothing, merely kept his eyes on the road as the light before them turned red. The car slowly rolled to a stop and finally, he turned to gaze over at Max. He was picking at his fingernails.

"I'm screwed either way. If I get off, Geriski's gonna gut me. If not, I'll spend the next few decades behind bars. So when they gave me the phone and told me to call someone, I…." He lifted his head, dark eyes scouring the roads. "…shit, I had no clue."

Richard stared at him, scanned his face, his scars, his piercings and tattoos. So different from the face he used to collect cans with.

"Why did you call?"

Max glanced over at him. Richard furrowed his brows.

"Like you said, we hadn't spoken in years. And the last time we had, it was basically to tell you that I didn't have time for you anymore."

Max stared at him for a second, their gazes holding steady before the man finally let out a low breath and turned away. "I didn't have anyone else. Even after ten years, you were my only friend. The only number I'd ever bothered to remember." He hesitated for a moment. "Better question…why'd you pick up?" He turned to look at Richard again, eyes gleaming in the light of the dimming sun outside the windshield. "Why'd you come get me?"

Richard took a breath, could still sense the remnants of smoke as they burned down his lungs. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the light flicker to green, saw the change in color reflected against Max's face.

"Like you said…you were my friend."

Max watched him turn back to the road as the car took off again. The steady rumbling of the engine purred underneath them as they drove. Outside, the houses were dilapidated and run-down, the streets bumpy and craggily, filled with potholes.

When Richard spoke again, his voice was different. Harder.

"Our paths had diverged, Max. But that didn't matter. Cause we both ended up in the same place that night."

The man sniffed, fingers drumming against the door. "Rock bottom."

Richard nodded. "Oscorp had just fired me. You were trying not to repeat another jail stunt. College education and bright shiny degrees didn't matter. At the end of the day, we were the same."

Max let out a little huff. "What does this have to do with anything, Rich? Why you bringing this shit up?"

Another red light. The car slowed to a halt and Richard leaned over, grabbing at the file on the dashboard. "We grew up with nothing, Max. No say. No voice. No power." He flipped through the pages as he spoke. "We know what it's like to have none of it. More importantly, we know what it's like to fight for it."

He snapped the folder shut and gave the man a hard stare. "We didn't get here by sitting on our asses and letting nature take its course. We forced this. We did what had to be done. Whatever that meant. Pulling tapes. Bribing witnesses. Scamming judges. It worked for you. That thirty-year sentence was thrown out the window within the week. After that, getting rid of Geriski was child's play. Because we were willing to do what had to be done."

Max watched him quietly, watched as Richard finally took a breath and faced forward once more. The man carefully wrapped his hands around the steering wheel, flexing his fingers against the rim. His voice was quiet. Cold.

"Power doesn't come from being born in the right place or time. Not true power, at least."

His eyes seemed to gleam, burning with a hellish glow.

"Power comes to those who are willing to do anything to achieve it."

He grabbed for the file again, grasping it tightly. "These people….these people at the bottom, the lowest of the low, the dregs of society. They know what it is to have no power. And once they get a taste of it, they will do whatever they must to keep it. They'll steal. They'll kill. They'll serve without question. Because refusal means going back to the lives they had before."

"And they had no lives before," Max sighed in the seat next to him.

The light turned green. The car moved on.

"There are plenty of politicians and businessmen and Senators I can recruit, you're right. But when things get tough, I know they'll turn tail and flee. Because without us, they'll still have their cushy lives and their fortunes and their futures of luxury and wealth. They have a life to protect."

He tossed the folder back onto the dashboard, the profile pages of each of the prospective candidates sliding out.

"These people have no futures. No fortunes. No wealth. They are empty. They are desperate. They have-

"Nothing to lose," Max murmured.

"Exactly."

Richard stared out at the roads, at the darkening sky, and the broken-down neighborhoods around him. And the fire burning under his skin only seemed to grow.

"And there is no greater threat than people with nothing to lose."

. . . . .

The scent of urine and mold permeated the air, wafting through the streets with the viciousness and strength of a punch to the nose. Richard felt the muscles in his face twitch at the scent, but he simply cleared his throat and swallowed down the disgust he could feel curdling his lips into a sneer.

This street reminded him of home. Or at least, what used to be his home.

The roads under their feet were cracked and riddled with potholes, shards of broken glass, and crumbled scraps of paper littering the stained ground. A handful of overturned shopping carts sat abandoned on the side of the road, some filled with discarded boxes, scraps of clothes, and empty paper bags. And the few cars that were parked along the street were either missing doors, windows, or wheels. Sometimes all three. In fact, the only car that seemed even remotely drivable was the Bentley they'd just finished parking.

Perhaps Max's insistence on staying with the car wasn't quite so ridiculous.

Nevertheless, Richard smoothened out his suit and set his sights on the house they'd parked in front of. It was a ratty little thing, wooden boards splintered and rotting, the porch a mess of stained black flooring and dirt, and a shattered window in front with a plastic tarp duct-taped over it.

The man took a breath, cast one last glance down the street to make sure they were alone, and approached. His feet crunched under the dead, dry grass of what used to be a lawn before he carefully made his way up the steps, cautiously placing his feet on what seemed to be the strongest boards and made his way to the door, rapping his knuckle against the rough surface.

It took a while. Long enough for the average person to assume nobody was home. But Richard knew better. They'd been keeping track of his routine for months now. He was home.

And apparently, he needed a few more knocks to get the message.

After his fourth attempt, Richard finally heard the sound of harsh footsteps thudding against the floor, the door swinging open with a harsh whoosh of air.

Immediately, Richard came face to face with a stout little man in a stained white shirt and faded cardigan that drooped down to his slipper-covered feet. He had a wisp of dark hair and a pinched little face that was covered by a massive pair of thick black glasses.

"Good evening, sir. I-"

"I'm not looking to save my soul today. So thump your bibles elsewhere and get the hell off my property."

The door started to creak shut, only for a hand to jut out, stopping it from closing all the way. Richard leaned closer, palm pressing tightly against the stained wood. "I'm not here for that, sir."

The man in the doorway simply glowered. He smelled strongly of cat litter and tobacco. "Well whatever you're selling, I don't give a shit, so-"

"I merely wanted to have a conversation with you about some employment opportunities I think you'd be interested in."

At that, the man's face pulled into a tighter frown and a harsh laugh fell from his lips. It was nasally and sharp, just like his voice. "I think you got the wrong house, bud."

"I can assure you, I'm exactly where I want to be."

"What do you want, a trophy? I don't care about what you're offering, so-"

"Have you recently fallen on hard times, sir?"

The man stiffened, hesitating for a moment as if to register what had just been said. And once he did, Richard watched his face contort into an even deeper grimace, wrinkles in his cheeks pulling into a snarl. "Listen, asshole. That's none of your fucking business. I don't know what kinda new tactics you door to door salesmen are employing-"

"I'm not-"

"Mormon freak, census taker, girl scout, whatever! I don't want to talk to you so get your ass off my porch before I call the fucking cops and have you dragged off in-"

"They wronged you."

The man paused, jaw freezing mid-tirade. He hesitated for a moment, as if deciding whether or not to keep yelling or hear him out. He tilted his head a bit, leaning further out of his doorway. "I...what?"

"What they did to you. It was wrong."

"I...w-what are you talking about."

"MIT."

The man's body went tense.

"You were head of the nuclear physics department and one of their top researchers when a severe explosion during a radiation experiment sent shrapnel into your eyes and severed your optic nerve. Instead of addressing the blatant safety violations and lack of specialty equipment available, the university pinned the blame on human error and fired you, shunning you from your peers and erasing the generous bonus package you were meant to be granted. You lost your job, your credibility, your home, and your sight, leaving you in a state of squalor and misery where you have nothing but those feelings of fury and betrayal to keep you going, dreaming of the day you can get revenge on the people who wronged you while simultaneously showing the world the genius they spurned."

He glanced down, saw a spider skittering along the floor and promptly squished it with the toe of his shoe.

"Did I leave anything out?"

Silence. A dog was barking somewhere down the street.

The man said nothing, not even as he opened his door fully, standing in the doorway with his robe gently blowing in the uncomfortably warm air. Slowly, he reached up and grabbed at his glasses, pulling them off to reveal pale, glassy eyes. He stared off at nothing, but his face was one of confusion and - Richard smiled - mild intrigue.

"No, that's...t-that's everything..." he mumbled with a hesitant shake in his voice. "So...who the hell are you?"

Richard's smile grew as he straightened out his suit. And had the man been able to see him, he would have offered a hand.

"Your new business partner, Dr. Octavius. And I think you're going to want to hear what I have to offer."


So...if the 'What if' series is about the multiverse and explains that there are an infinite amount of timelines, storylines, universes and plots that are going on simultaneously alongside the MCU, then does that mean that all Avengers fanfictions are canon now? Cause I mean, there's an infinite amount of timelines. That means your favorite fanfiction universe exists somewhere, right?

In that case, I'm officially dubbing the "A Beautiful Lie" universe as Earth-360! (no I'm not a narcissist if you could name an entire planet you'd name it after yourself too and you know it - RayRox360 Planet whoo!)

Anyway...

I am SO fucking ready for Harley to come into this story!

Now, if any of you are worried about our little blond boy interrupting the goodness that is our Tony-Peter relationship, then worry not. I personally am not a huge fan of when Tony's affections are split between these two boys no matter how much I like Harley (He is no match for the preciousness that is Peter Parker). And I won't spoil things here cause I'm really excited for the upcoming chapters, but rest assured there will be no tense interpersonal drama between these three idiots. And I promise, PROMISE no awkward jealousy arc for Harley. My boy is too evolved for shit like that.

1) So what did you all think of my introduction of Harley? I wanted to include a little snippet into the life he leads since we never see any sign of him in the MCU aside from in Iron Man 3. In this story, he's 15, so a year older than Peter. And, not gonna lie, I cannot WAIT for him to meet Peter. Their relationship has been one that I've been so excited to include!

2) How about the scene of Max and Richard? I know you all hate Richard with a burning passion, which I just love lol. But I wanted this chapter to be a bit of an insider look into how he works, the way he thinks, how perverse and demented his mind is, etc. I also wanted to add in his relationship with Max, arguably the only relationship he truly values aside from his father-son dominance relationship with Peter. Don't get me wrong. I love villains that are evil just for the sake of being evil with no discernable character past evil laughter and mustache twirling. But I also like when I learn more about my big bad monster guys, learning to hate them on a deeper level, you know? In no way am I trying to redeem Richard cause at this point, there is nothing he could do to save himself. But I did want to flesh him out as a character.

3) Dr. Octopus? What is this? What did you think of the additional feature I added of the vision impairment. I have to admit, I was inspired by Into the Spiderverse, which showed new variations of classic villains. For Dr. Octopus, I wanted to add a new, more unique characteristic. In the comics and in all his designs, he always has these dark black glasses what always reminded me of the glasses blind people use. I've also imagined that his mechanical arms would make for super cool walking sticks. Like, instead of the white stick that blind people use to walk, his arms sense the vibrations in the ground and walk for him. What do you think? Cool? Stupid? Give me some feedback lol!

4) I'm working on a comic!

Okay, so full disclosure, it's not like a FULL comic. Right now, I'm working on a scene from chapter 1 but I'm putting it in comic form instead of written form. And it's not going to be the entire chapter (cause that would literally kill me there is not enough time in the fucking day cause I'm an idiot who writes 40,000 word chapters kill me with fire). Instead, they're little snippets. But I'm really excited for it! I'll post them on Instagram and tumblr and I might start a little side series in comic form about the daily adventures of our two favorite boys.

Important note: this will not take precedent over this story. It's merely something to do in my free time/when I need a break from writing.

So keep an eye out for that!

Anyway, thanks to everyone for favoriting and/or following: hopemikaelson1999, Roar834, Didi123, Saltydarkbone, xxDharmagrlxx, typhoon-voidhog95, ForeverfandomsUnited, 333, bunnylov, Just call me is that a cookie, Vale Yagami Cullen, chip13562, lujain11, sandytonini08, Skypeoplephoenix732, DawnthePretender, Frag923, Samigail, Cecilia Greengrass-Lovegood, Isabella1673, serenity129, TheSettingDawn, Aerosso, aurora3evans, Laurencc1992, Amandapppandaa, Athena Telcontar Granger, Etherius509; Loki-of-earth-12, Silver Ice Bullet, NanaInWonderland, Jordanden, unknownlifeform, sodarncurious, Wabby22, 0ShadowWolf0, Nora83, Big Hair06

Reviews:

aoifem7: I can seriously relate to that. My nighttime routine literally involves an hour or two of just reading fanfiction until my eyes are blurry lol. And I also get your feelings for the ending cause it's exactly how I felt writing it. Don't get me wrong, I love whump and angst, but I also love the payoff. And Chapter 30 was the first true payoff chapter. The big turning point. Thanks so much for the good wishes!

OneTumblrMinute: I love YOU so freakin much. How bout that?

helel101: Thanks for reminding me about that opening scene. I have to change the rating for this story cause it's only gonna get worse lol. In terms of very young child abuse, I'll steer clear of that for the most part cause it made me extremely uncomfortable writing about a child that young getting beaten, but the violence in this story is going to be intense.

BlendedInBlack: That abuse scene was really hard to write so I'm glad you enjoyed it! And writing the rules, both sets, was actually a lot of fun, especially putting myself in the mindsets needed to write both cause they're just so different.

Coldblackworm: thank you so much for the kind words. They really do make me feel so happy, especially when I sometimes struggle to write.

EleanorGardner: Yeah...I was thinking the same cause it's only going to get worse lol

Cressi13: You're gonna make me cry. Thank you, love!

astateofmind: It sure felt like a hurdle as i was writing that chapter, so I must thank you for your words for encouraging me with my writings. And yeah, i was really worried how that would play out essentially having the same conversation twice so I'm happy to hear that you liked it!

Mr. Jovonovich: Gotta love those wholesome moments haha. And yeah that Thanos thing lol. IDK in this universe, he's not even like a thing. If it makes you feel better, you can imagine he was just never born or something haha. Or that he's living a happy life as a farmer without the genocide and mass murder?

Porky Johnson: That's been my biggest insecurity with this story. The amount of angst. I know that a lot of angst can become tiresome, but the topics of this story are incredibly serious and emotional so I wanted to do it justice by really giving it the realistic attention and time it needs. Things like this won't be solved in a few days, weeks, months, etc. Trauma like this takes years to overcome, especially when the source of the trauma (Richard) are still in the picture. But this does lead to moments where the angst just seems to be too much. So I'm happy to hear that you like it nonetheless. I completely understand those who don't. And hopefully this chapter broke down some of that cartoonish evil of Richard and made him seem a bit more human. Albeit humanly evil, but human nonetheless.

potatokarate: I can't wait either! I'm so excited to write these upcoming chapters, especially now that Harley is going to be coming in!

starksfly: I love the idea of you just having a full emotional breakdown in the middle of the night cause of my stupid-ass fanfiction. No joke, totally honored that you take the time to read my shit. It makes me so happy and I'm so grateful to people like you who are so supportive and nice! And my god. You're going to make me cry with your extremely kind words. God! You all are such angels! I love you all!

Asilrettor: YOU'RE awesome, you know that?

TJ8413: It is a turning point for these two idiots. And I can't wait to write the upcoming chapters because of this.

Sw-0608: Yes! that's exactly what I was going for when I wrote both sets of rules. I wanted them to be as different from each other as possible while still having some parallels in how they were structured and the rules themselves being almost opposites. And no way is this story ending here! We're not even HALFWAY DONE! (jesus christ, we're not even halfway done someone fucking kill meeeeee)

anaticulapraecantrix: literally that's exactly what it felt like haha

darkdestiny2000: Realism is truly a big factor for this story. I've read stories where Peter was kept prisoner for YEARS and after two weeks with the avengers he was totally trusting of them. And, in all fairness, I gobbled that story up with the severity of a turkey dinner and wholeheartedly loved it, I wanted something a bit more realistic so that the payout is much more gratifying.

EruditeRavenclawRiverClan: thank you! You make sure to stay healthy too!

Ada: Lol totally not sitting here writing at three in the morning forgetting to sleep...

Skypeoplephoenix732: Scoop the baby. That's the new tagline for this story: scoop the baby. Scoop him! In all seriousness, thank you for the support and advice. Some days are harder than others, but I take it one step at a time and I seem to be getting through. Again, thanks for your words and kind thoughts!

naeo: Thank you so much! Reviews like yours and so many others are the reason I've been able to stick with this story for nearly four years now (when my previous record was 1)

pabloclnrc: In terms of powers, the only additional skills Peter has that he doesn't have in the MCU is his fighting abilities. In this story, he's almost on par with someone like Natasha or Bucky because he's been trained since he was around eight years old. Granted, he's still a kid, so he's not as good as them, but with his powers, I think he could very well win a fight with them. When it comes to common street thugs, he tends to play out the fights a little longer cause he doesn't want to hurt anybody. But if it came down to it, he could take them out in seconds. And as for the food, it's not so much to keep his strength manageable so much so as it is about control. Richard wants to control every aspect of Peter's life, wants him to know that he's always watching, always there, always controlling everything. Everything in Peter's life is Richard's. Everything he touches, eats, etc. belongs to his father. It's all about control. Peter doesn't eat without permission. He doesn't leave the house without permission. He doesn't speak without permission. He is under Richard's complete and total control.

Courtney Elizabeth1: This story will probably have over 100 chapters, so it'll be a while until it's completed.