Peter had heard of sleep paralysis, but he was… pretty sure that this wasn’t it.
First of all, his spidey sense had been going off ever since they’d arrived at their hotel. And to be fair, the place was creepy. Plus, Tony pretty obviously agreed with him. He’d given the Victorian-esque decor surrounding the front desk one of his patented oh-god-kill-me-now glares, but had cut Peter off before he could verbalize a complaint.
It wasn’t like he didn’t know why. They were both holding their tongues for Pepper’s sake. She’d chosen the place because of it’s character, apparently, and she thought that staying somewhere with history would beat driving into the nearest city to find a Four Seasons.
Morgan, of course, had just enjoyed the gargoyles out front. Apparently, they were her new “friends.”
Peter was going to call an exorcist.
Or, actually, maybe Tony would have to call one for him, because he’d seen a decent selection of horror movies in his time, and it was never a good thing when one of the characters woke up paralyzed and staring down at a little girl sitting on the edge of their bed.
A little girl that most definitely was not Morgan.
Like he’d said, this place was creepy.
“Hello,” she said, and Peter just choked in response. He tried to ask who she was, what she wanted. More than anything, he tried to shout for Tony, but… but nothing came out. It was like there was a vice grip around his throat.
The little girl cocked her head to the side, a small, disconcerting smile on her face. “Will you play with me?”
Uh, no thank you, he thought, managing to struggle weakly on the bed, letting out tiny whimpers that would’ve been more than a little embarrassing if he wasn’t so sure that his heart was going to explode out of his ribcage, I’d actually really like for you to leave me alone to have my normal nightmares, thank you very much.
At first, he really had been 90% sure that he was dreaming. There was just… no way that this could be real. Now, though… he wasn’t so sure. He could feel sweat soaking into his t-shirt, could feel the sheets tangling uncomfortably around his ankles as he fought against the invisible force holding him silent and still. It… everything felt real.
It felt real, and that was fucking horrifying.
The little girl didn’t seem to need a response, and Peter had a feeling that the question wasn’t actually a question, anyway. Her smile didn’t fade, and she bobbed her head up and down, little pigtails bouncing as she did.
“I saw you playing with your sister, earlier. I want you to play with me, too.” Something sad fell across her face. “Nobody ever plays with me anymore. I’m all-”
His door clicked open, and the little girl stopped speaking, eyes darting over to the sliver of light falling over the bed. Suddenly, she didn’t look like a little girl anymore. Not really, at least. She seemed to be about Morgan’s age, and yet Peter had never seen that kind of pure, malevolent rageon her face before.
He hoped he never did, too.
“Shh,” she snapped, and Peter’s eyes slipped closed against his will, “you’re sleeping.”
Warmth melted through him, and his admittedly pitiful struggling stopped all at once. His breaths evened, gentled, and his head lolled off his pillow. His body felt asleep, but he was awake. He was awake.
“Pete?” Tony’s voice was safety and comfort and protection. “You have to promise not to laugh at me, but I… well, what do you and Morgan call it? My Dad Sense? Anyway, my Dad Sense was tingling. You alright in here?”
Thank god for the Dad Sense, he thought, and it tasted strangely like a prayer, if you save me, I will never knock you for it ever again. I promise. In fact, I’ve never been more serious about a promise in my life.
There were shuffling footsteps, and the mattress dipped as Tony settled down near his hip. Peter wondered if the little girl was still sitting there, too, or if she’d moved when Tony had.
Please leave. Please leave. Please, please leave.
A calloused hand smoothed over his face, brushing his sweat-soaked hair back.
“Oh, buddy,” Tony murmured, voice lowered in the soft-sweet way it always was when he thought that Peter was asleep. “Did you have a nightmare?”
The nightmare is happening, Mister Stark. As in, currently a thing. Please. Please. I’m here and I’m awake and I can’t move and I don’t know what’s happening to me.
“It’s alright.” But it’s not, Mister Stark, please, you have to help me. “I’m here now, yeah? Nothing bad’s gonna happen to you.”
It’s already happening. It’s already happened. Please, please-
“You’re really out of it, huh, kiddo?” Tony’s touch slipped away from his face, and his mentor started carefully working on untangling him from his sheets. “Did Morgan wear you out that much already?”
He found himself being tucked in, and the gentleness of Tony’s hands was a nearly comical juxtaposition with the terror filling up every inch of his body. Tony’s thumb brushed lovingly along his cheek as he moved his head back onto his pillow, his laughter quiet as he pried Peter’s hand away from the corner of the mattress, where he’d been trying to claw himself to safety.
“Sleep tight, m’kay?” Tony’s lips brushed against his forehead, and he wished he could cry. He wished he could do something. “And no more bad dreams, y’hear me? Iron Man’s orders.”
He stood up. The mattress sprung back, the floorboards creaked, footsteps moved away, paused.
An icy hand, a little icy hand, reached out and grabbed his wrist. The cold spread through him, slid up his arm, through his shoulder, up his neck, into his head. The world spun away, slow and lazy, like Mister Banner had just given him a huge dose of whatever pain meds he and Tony had synthesized for him and Mister Barnes.
Through the haze, he just barely caught Tony’s parting words.
“Love you tons, kid. See you in the morning.”
The door clicked shut, and Tony left him to his nightmare.
He… couldn’t remember when he’d started walking.
He couldn’t remember why, either, but he was holding someone’s hand. Or were they holding his hand? It felt like an important distinction, but thoughts were so heavy. So heavy and unwieldy and so obnoxiously hard to hold.
“We’re gonna go play!” A voice exclaimed. A high voice. A familiar voice, but not that familiar. It sounded like it was in his head, too. More direct and less sound wave. He didn’t know why that made sense but it did.
He didn’t know a lot of things.
They stopped in front of a building. It had flimsy glass doors, but there was a chain and padlock holding them shut. He felt a little bit like those doors. Flimsy and paper-thin and breakable. He’d never actually felt this weak before. Distantly, he could just make out a childish side of him, the side that found his current lack of control absolutely terrifying, whining and clawing and sobbing out for Tony.
He didn’t really know why, though. He didn’t feel unsafe. He just felt heavy.
The voice sounded again, somewhere to his right, and he knew that it was rude to ignore someone when they were talking to you but he felt so strange, so dazed, that the thought of turning his neck was just… too much. More than he could do, probably.
“They lock the pool during the nighttime so you’ve gotta let us in. Can you open the doors so we can play?”
He did. He barely remembered doing it, but he did. The chain snapped underneath his hands, and the voice giggled, bright and happy, and a cold grip re-found his fingers and pulled him over the threshold.
“I’ve always wanted a big brother,” the voice babbled, and he was distantly aware of the sound of the doors slammed shut behind them, even though he hadn’t touched them again. “You’ve been a good big brother to your old sister, but now it’s my turn.”
Sister? He… He had a sister. Yeah, that sounded right. She was important. He was supposed to protect her, he thought. Keep her safe. Her name was… something. Something nice. He liked her name.
They were standing in front of a metal safety railing, and the hand holding onto his tugged insistently.
“C’mon,” the voice urged, “you gotta climb over now.”
He did as he was told. The bars were cold, but so was he. He was… He was so cold. He hadn’t even realized until he’d thought about it.
God, he was freezing. It was an inside-outside freezing, too. He didn’t know that it was possible to feel ice crystals forming in your intestines but now he was pretty sure that it was happening to him in real time.
“Okay,” the voice said, cheerful, as if Peter wasn’t ice-burning, “now you’ve just gotta jump.”
He blinked his eyes open (had they been closed? Wait, how did he get here?) and took in his surroundings with numbed-out apathy. He was standing on the outside edge of a balcony. His arms were twisted awkwardly behind him, cold-stiff fingers wrapped around a metal railing, and there was a pool about a floor-drop underneath them. A covered pool. With clear plastic, maybe? He didn’t know. His vision was blurry, and his brain was mushy, and he didn’t remember how he got here.
“I can’t swim,” he said dumbly, eyelids drooping again. That seemed relevant, somehow. Like that was a thing that the voice should know.
He didn’t remember how he got here.
“I know!” The voice chirped back, and he guessed it wasn’t as relevant as he’d thought, because it sounded like the person who belonged to it was smiling. “But that’s okay. It won’t hurt, and then we can play together.”
He… He didn’t think that this was right, even though the voice seemed to think that it was. He didn’t want to jump. He didn’t want to be cold anymore, either. He wanted to go home.
He didn’t remember how he got here.
Had he climbed over the railing? He… He didn’t know. Why would he do that? He didn’t like heights.
He was scared.
“I want Mister Stark.”
The voice sounded angry, now, and Peter didn’t like that. He didn’t like making anyone angry, but he also had a weird feeling that jumping would make Mister Stark angry, and he didn’t wanna do that, either.
“I don’t want your dad. I want you,” the voice snapped, but then it softened. It had a tiny whine to it, and it reminded Peter a different voice of a different person but he didn’t know who they were. “Please? I don’t wanna be alone.”
Something slammed into the doors behind them, and even through the cold-blur, Peter kinda knew who it was before they were shouting.
“Peter?!” Tony screamed, words muffled through the glass. “Peter, look at me!”
He turned, ignoring how much effort it took, and blinked back at the man’s fear-struck face in a daze.
“Mister Stark?” He asked, and even though it felt like he was talking around ice, the moment felt like a gasp of clarity.
Oh, god. Oh god. Why was he up here? Why was he so cold? Why was he actually considering jumping into a-
Something grabbed his wrist and pushed.
He was in freefall. Air rushed past him, and the clarity slipped away like stability in, well, in a freefall.
He was so cold, so confused and unsure and so, so tired.
He hit the plastic hard, and then he was underwater. It was cold and loud and he thrashed and thrashed and thrashed, scared and numb and wrapped in ice and vice and parachute and pool cover and the distant buzz of Tony screaming for him.
At some point, he managed to break free from the plastic and clawed desperately up to the surface for a precious gasp of air, but then he was being shoved down, down, down all over again, and Tony was still screaming and Peter hated that he was making him sound so animalistic, so horror-fueled and afraid, but he didn’t know how to make it stop because nothing made sense anymore and he didn’t know where to swim, where to hit or kick or punch, and his vision was blotting out and his lungs were screaming, aching, desperately trying to force him to-
He gasped, and water rushed down his throat.
The world went quiet. Soft, almost. He stopped thrashing, limbs giving in, adrenaline throwing in the towel. It was nice. He guessed he understood what the voice meant, now. There was a peacefulness to this, a relief in losing touch. Tony’s shouts didn’t sound so sad anymore. He stopped processing the intent, only focused on how nice it was to hear his voice.
He only half heard the sound of shattering glass, only half heard the chaos of closer shouts, only half heard the huge splash of another body hitting the water a few feet away. He only half felt a new wave of water bob over his head, only half felt strong arms wrap desperately around his chest, only half felt his body be pulled up, to the side, over the lip of the pool and be settled down on cold tile.
He guessed he could probably breathe at this point, but he was so cold. So heavy. Waterlogged and undone. Maybe he’d just… maybe he’d just sleep instead.
“Peter,” Tony’s voice gasped above him, also sounding heavy and waterlogged and undone. “Peter, kiddo, don’t do this.”
“Tony, sweetheart, roll him over.” Oh, that was someone that Peter knew, too. He’d probably be able to recall her name if he didn’t feel about half a second away from slipping into oblivion. “We need to drain the water out of his lungs.”
Someone rolled him over, cushioned the side of his face so it didn’t bang against the floor. Hands rubbed at his chest, thumped at his spine. His lungs spasmed, stomach roiling like he was about to vomit, and it didn’t feel nice at all but then Tony seemed beyond happy about it, sobs of relief spilling out and his hands rubbed up and down his back, soothing and coaxing and Peter didn’t like how sick and tired he felt but he did like that. He liked that a lot.
“There you go, buddy.” Tony was crying. He was crying and choking and Peter felt really, really bad about that. “That’s it. Just like that. Cough it up. You… You gotta cough it up, Pete, you’ve gotta breathe.”
And he did. He gagged, coughed, gagged again as water and bile rushed back up his throat, burned through his nose. His first breath hurt like nothing else had ever hurt in his life, but he took a second because Tony was begging him to.
He didn’t remember how he got here.
Had he fallen into water?
“Shh, shh. That’s it. You’re doing so well, Peter. You’re doing so well.”
“Tony, we need to call an ambulance.”
“No, fuck. No. They’ll want to run blood tests and then they’ll figure out that something’s up with his DNA. And they’ll wanna know how he ended up in the pool, and if we tell them the truth then they’ll put him on suicide watch-”
Peter pried his eyes open, and the rest of Tony’s breathless speech seemed to die on his tongue.
“Hey, hey,” the man murmured. His palm settled against Peter’s cheek, and the warmth was nice. It was so nice. He was so cold. “You’re okay, bud. I’ve gotcha.”
Something moved over Tony’s shoulder, by the pool edge, and Peter’s eyes lazily tracked the silhouette. It was a little girl, gray dress swaying around her knees, and he blinked. Stopped. Remembered.
He remembered. He remembered how he got there.
“T’ny,” he slurred, cold creeping up his neck, into his chest. He tried to grab a fistful of the man’s shirt, but he couldn’t move. All he managed was a weak twitching of his fingers. “T’ny, you gotta… ‘s a…”
“What, Pete?” Tony asked, eyes wide and wild. “What is it that you need?”
“No!” The little girl snapped, stomping her foot against the ground, flickering and blipping, aura bright and screaming. “No! You’re supposed to play with me.”
An ice-cold shock raced through him, like the opposite of lightning, and his eyes rolled back.
His eyes rolled back but he was still awake, just like earlier, because he remembered that now, he remembered all of it, but it also wasn’t just like earlier because his muscles were tensing and he felt his arms jerk inwards, felt his ankles drag against the floor, heard the little choking noises coming out of his own mouth.
He was going to die. She’d tried to drown him and that didn’t work so now she was doing this, and he was going to die.
At least Tony was holding him this time.
Tony, who was crying again. Tony, who’s shaking fingers were dragging desperately over his face. Tony, who’s voice cracked on every syllable but who refused to stop his comforting ramble no matter how often he tripped over himself.
“Oh, god. No, no, no. It’s-It’s okay, Peter. Everything’s gonna be okay. Mister Stark’s here and he’s gonna fix it, alright? It’s okay. I-Pep, call Banner. No, fuck, call Strange. Tell him to get his magical ass here yesterday. Pete? You still with me? I know it hurts but you’re safe. You’re safe, baby. You’re safe and I’m-I’m right here.”
He was so cold. Everything hurt. Something warm and coppery was filling his mouth, and he knew that that was wrong but then again he also knew that there were about a hundred other wrong things happening all at once, and everything was terrifying. He was supposed to be a superhero and superheroes weren’t supposed to be scared of stuff but maybe he wasn’t a very good superhero at all because everything was terrifying.
Something hissed to life by his head, and an orange light glowed through his eyelids. Tony was shouting at someone, using the I’m-not-actually-angry-I’m-just-scared voice that he did sometimes, when Peter or Morgan got into a mess that they shouldn’t have, and someone else was shouting back, and the clatter of voices was making his head hurt even more than it already did.
But then it all faded into quiet and Tony was talking to him again. He wasn’t yelling, either, which Peter liked because he really didn’t like it when Tony yelled at him. In fact, his tone was so soft that Peter could barely hear it through the blood rushing in his ears.
“You’re not allowed to die on me again,” Tony whispered, and Peter wished he could breathe. He wished he could promise Tony that he wouldn’t. “You’ve faced worse than this and come out the other side, Parker, so don’t you… don’t you dare die.”
Time didn’t seem to make sense for a while after that. For all Peter knew, he’d been seizing for ten years, or ten hours, or ten minutes, or ten seconds. The only constant, the only consistent thing, were Tony’s hands brushing something wet off his face and Tony’s voice running and running and running, until it turned into a while noise machine.
But then there was a shout, and a whoosh, and it felt like something was tearing out of him, like tags off of new throw pillows, like Velcro off of the Iron Man shoes he’d had when he was a little kid, and his consciousness tore away with it.
He wasn’t even awake long enough to appreciate the relief of his muscles finally going limp.
Peter woke up cold and confused.
He’d been in bed, hadn’t he? And this… this definitely wasn’t his bed. This was cold and lacking in blankets and… and…
And very not lacking in Tony Stark.
“-back to me now, Pete. I need you… I need you to show me that you’re still alive in there.”
He forced his eyes open, wincing at how badly they were stinging. His throat and chest hurt, too, and his whole body ached like he’d taken one hell of a beating. What had happened? Why couldn’t he remember?
“Huh?” He asked, blinking up at the blurry shape that he assumed must be Tony.
The man laughed, a little hysterical. “Very eloquent, buddy. Just… Just relax a second. We’ve been through a lot.”
Had they? When?
Huh. He hasn’t actually expected that to come out so slurred.
His vision was clearing, slowly but surely, and he could see just well enough now to make out the frown on Tony’s face.
“Don’t you remember?”
A new figure was kneeling down beside him, and Peter wasn’t sure why that made him jolt, but it did.
“Peter,” Strange said, because yeah, that was definitely Strange. What was he doing here? Weren’t they on vacation? “This is very important. Is anybody else here besides me, Tony, and Mrs. Stark?”
He hasn’t actually noticed Pepper before, but he saw her now, kneeling just behind Tony and rubbing his back. Giving comfort to the comforter, he supposed, but Tony seemed too focused on him to notice.
“Why would there be-”
“Just look, Pete,” Tony ordered, voice frantic. “Please, just trust me and look.”
“Uh,” he glanced around the room, head aching as he strained his eyes, searching every corner for something that didn’t belong, “no? It’s just us.”
“You don’t see a little girl anywhere?”
Huh? What he hell was Strange talking about?
“No?” He shook his head, then regretted it when his whole body groaned in protest. “I mean, Morgan’s not here.” Adrenaline shot through him, and he tried to sit up, although Tony held him down pretty effectively. “Wait, is Morgan okay?”
“Morgan’s fine,” Tony said, face strained, “she’s fine. She’s asleep in her room. Please just lay back now, Peter. There’s only so many heart attacks a man can survive in a single night.”
“Sorry,” he murmured, although he wasn’t entirely sure what he was apologizing for.
“It’s not your fault,” Tony reassured.
Strange was quick to agree. “He’s right, Peter. Do you truly have no memory of how you got here?”
No matter how much he wracked his brain, nothing came up. He just remembered saying goodnight to Tony, changing into some sweatpants, and crawling into bed. There were no more memories after that, although there was a sneaking suspicion that he’d… that he’d missed something. Something important.
“No. I, uh, I just remember going to bed.” Peter caught Tony’s gaze, and held it. “What happened?”
“Shh,” the man said, and Peter hated it when he shushed him like that. It always made him feel small, and he only ever did it when Peter was asking a question that he didn’t want to answer. “It doesn’t matter right now.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Tony plowed forward before Peter could get another question in. “How do you feel?”
“Kinda like roadkill.”
Strange leaned closer. “But do you feel cognizant? No confusion, no sensation of someone else influencing your actions?”
That might be the most ridiculous question Peter had even been asked, and he’d been best friends with Ned Leeds for a solid ten years.
“Alright, alright,” Tony snapped before Peter could even begin to formulate an answer to that mind-bender, looking away just long enough to glare dangerously at Strange. “That’s enough. Let’s give him some space. No more questions, no more anything. Let’s just… we’re just gonna let the drowned kid breathe, alright? Jesus.”
Yeah, that would be nice. He’d just… He’d just lay there a second, wait until some of the pounding in his head receded, and then he’d-
Wait. Hold on.
Mister Stark had said… He’d just said…
“I’m sorry,” he tried to jolt upright again, but Tony’s grip stopped him, “I what?”
“Okay. So… So just let me get this straight,” Peter said, burrowing closer into both the comforter wrapped around his shoulders and Tony, who had yet to relinquish his grip on his shoulders since they’d gotten back to their hotel room. “You’re telling me that I got possessed by a ghost?!”
“Less possession, more influenced,” Strange responded, settling down on the coffee table in front of him.
Yeah, Peter thought, holding back a bitter laugh, like that makes it any easier to swallow.
“I was influenced by a ghost?”
“But… But why?”
Strange always seemed concerningly stoic to Peter, but the question brought a hint of sadness to his eyes.
“I had Wong delve into the history of the hotel while I dealt with the spirit. According to his research, this hotel has been operating since the late 1800s, but was purchased by the Campbell family in 1933. They had two children: Margaret Campbell, age four, and Philip Campbell, age sixteen. Margaret drowned in the swimming pool in March of 1934, three days after her fifth birthday. Since then, the hotel has reported at least eleven other drownings, all of boys between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Each story is similar. The victims go to sleep in their beds, sneak past their parents sometime in the night, and their bodies are found in the swimming pool the next morning. The deaths are usually ruled as either suicides or accidents.”
Tony’s arm tightened around him, and Peter was grateful for the anchor as he tried to process the barrage of information.
“I don’t understand,” he finally whispered, even though he thought that he might.
Strange watched him silently for a few seconds. In the end, it was Tony who spoke.
“She wanted him because of Morgan.”
“That would be our best guess.”
He swallowed. His throat still felt wrecked from, well, from drowning, apparently, even though he didn’t remember it.
“She’s been drowning kids who remind her of her brother.”
“Precisely.” Peter’s concern must’ve shown on his face, because Strange held up a calming hand. “But she won’t be hurting anyone else. I’ve laid her spirit to rest.”
Huh. Alright. If Peter didn’t already feel like he was in an episode of some random CW ghost hunting show, he certainly did now. “How’d you do that?”
Strange smiled thinly, then stood. His cape settled itself over his shoulders, waving a little as the sorcerer turned away. “A lesson for another time, perhaps. I’ll leave you, now. I imagine that Stark has it covered from here.”
Peter could feel the way Tony prickled at Strange’s dismissive tone. “I sure do, Dumbledore.”
Apparently, the sorcerer didn’t think that deserved a response, because he just opened a portal and stepped through without another word.
“You don’t have to be so mean to him, y’know,” Peter said, voice small. “He did save my life.”
Tony tensed, then forcibly relaxed. He set one of his hands on the back of Peter’s head and pushed his face into his collarbone. “Just go to sleep, kid.”
“Don’t you wanna go back to your bed?” He mumbled, voice muffled by the man’s t-shirt. He really kinda hoped that the answer was no.
“I have to watch you for dry drowning.”
“Oh.” Well, that was a relief. “Sorry.”
Tony sighed dramatically. “I don’t want to hear one more ‘sorry’ out of you until you’re 21, understood?”
“What if I actually do something that, like, I need to say sorry for?”
“Do you plan on doing something that you’d need to say sorry for?”
“I mean, no. Not really.”
“Then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Tony rubbed his back, and Peter could feel the tiny tremors still running through his hands. “Now go to sleep.”
To be fair, he did try. It wasn’t like he wasn’t tired. He was exhausted. Which, according to Strange, was a pretty normal thing to experience when a ghost possessed or influenced or whatever’d your brain.
It was just that the longer he sat there, the more he thought about it, and the more absurd everything started to seem. He… He couldn’t believe that it’d been a pool. She’d had him throw himself into a pool. Of all the places, of all the scenarios where his super-strength might’ve actually saved him, she had to choose a pool.
He was laughing before he could stop himself.
“Hey, Mister Stark?”
There was a pause in Tony’s response, as if he was considering whether or not Peter had gone insane. “Mhm?”
“Did you know that I can’t swim?”
Another pause. Then,
“I swear to god, Parker-”