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It's a Little Bit Like Falling Up

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Penny pressed her back against the wall, muscles tensed and fingers and toes clinging to the crumbling brick behind her, body tucked into a shadowed nook in the corner of the warehouse. The men below her were bustling around, two of them setting up a video camera, another hovering over a laptop, brow furrowed.

A fourth was looming over the small figure sitting in a chair with her arms tied behind her back, silent except for a small whimper every few seconds and stifled sobs. There was a black bag over the kid’s head but Penny could tell that she was probably a girl from the long blue skirt she was wearing. Her shirt was bright red and featured Iron Man on the front and Penny had a strong feeling the kid had dressed herself that morning because those colors clashed something awful. Penny could tell how loved she was by the bright white tennis shoe with an intricate flower drawn on the side with sharpies. Somebody who cared about her had done that, and these men had taken her from them.

“We about ready? I’m tired of this kid already and we haven’t even asked for the ransom yet.”

Penny pressed her lips together. She could hear her breath, feel it puffing against the material of her mask. She had no idea what to do. She’d heard the little girl screaming while she was webbing past a few blocks away, moving quickly to get back to the group home before lights out. Of course, she'd changed directions to see what was happening. When she’d arrived, there had been seven men in fatigues carrying guns slung over their shoulders, and one of them had had a struggling kid under his arm.

She’d managed to stick to the shadows (thank god for the cloud cover blocking out the moon or she would have been spotted for sure) and crawl in through a window that had been left open at some point. That had been almost forty-five minutes ago and she still wasn’t sure what the right move was.

Her phone was dead so she couldn’t call the police and she wasn’t sure she could protect the hostage and take out all the men. They moved and communicated like professionals, even if they were baseline humans. The other three were patrolling outside, she could hear their sure footsteps and constant updates over their comms. That made taking them out one by one without alerting the others that there was trouble impossible.

Think, Penny, think. What was the point in being top of her class at Midtown if she couldn’t outwit a couple of thugs? She bit her lip and looked up at the rafters high above them. At least that was one thing going for her - easy swinging while she was inside. The yard outside of the warehouse, however, was distressingly large with no conveniently high places to swing from, but she knew there were a few containers and building materials piled in the back that she could use as cover while running at least.

Still, getting to the girl, untying her, and getting away without either of them being shot would be almost impossible. So Penny resigned herself to waiting and watching.

A few minutes later, the man at the computer sat back. “Okay, we’re ready. Masks on, then into position.”

Penny narrowed her eyes and shifted forward when they pulled out ski masks and pulled them on. Two of them went to stand on either side of the girl after switching on a floodlight behind the camera to illuminate the pathetic figure she made. Penny swallowed, already feeling awful for whoever this girl’s parents were.

The computer guy, face now covered, lifted three fingers before ticking them down. A moment later, the sound of a phone ringing filled the room, emitting from the speakers of the laptop. After three rings somebody picked up.

“Stark,” a clipped voice said and Penny barely held back a gasp. If that was Tony Stark, then that meant...

“Hello, Mr. Stark. I believe we have something that belongs to you.” Penny would have rolled her eyes at the cliché line if it wasn’t referring to the kidnapped daughter of the man who had saved half the universe just months ago - including Penny herself.

“Daddy!” the little girl sobbed. “Daddy, I’m scared.” Penny’s chest clenched and she blinked back tears.

“I swear to god if you’ve hurt her -”

“You’ll what? I guarantee there’s nothing you can do fast enough to keep us from putting a bullet in her.” Silence met his proclamation. “Is that what you want, Stark?”

There was a rush of air as Mr. Stark presumably released a deep breath. “You know it isn’t.” It was a special kind of awful, hearing Iron Man sound so defeated.

“Well, follow our instructions and you won’t have to worry about it. I’m not completely heartless, so why don’t we switch this to video and let you see your little angel, huh?” 

The man tapped away at the keyboard and a moment later a ragged breath filled the room. “Jesus,” Tony said. “Morgan, baby, can you hear me? I’m going to get you out of there, sweetheart.”

“Daddy,” she said again but was crying too hard to get anything else out. Another gesture from the man and the bag was ripped off her head, making her scream shortly in surprise and blink into the bright light.

Morgan Stark was a bit of a darling of the media and for good reason. She was a beautiful child who had smiles for everyone - even paparazzi on the very, very rare occasion that they caught a picture of her. She was a perfect mix of Tony and Pepper Stark with wide brown eyes and wavy dark hair, but right now her eyes were swollen and red and snot was mixing with the tears on her face. It was pitiful and heartbreaking and Penny’s determination to save her solidified. 

She would get that little girl out of this dingy warehouse and away from these monsters, or she would die trying.

“Morgan, baby, it’s going to be okay. I promise, sweetheart, I’ll get you home.”

She hung her head and curled her shoulders in. “O-okay, daddy. I l-love you three thousand.” 

That was definitely a sob Penny heard from Mr. Stark’s end of the line but his voice was clear when he said, “I love you too, baby.”

“Very touching. But if you want to keep your promise, you’d better listen carefully to our instructions. In twenty minutes, we want two billion dollars put into the account I’m about to send the information for to your phone.” He paused, but there was no reaction from Mr. Stark at the number so he continued talking. “As extra...incentive for you to move quickly, every five minutes that goes by without that money in our account, we’ll take one of these precious little fingers.”

“No!” Mr. Stark yelled. “Jesus, don’t - it’s impossible to get you two billion dollars in five minutes.”

“I didn’t think Iron Man did impossible. Tick tock, the timer starts...now.”

She heard muffled yelling from the other side of the line and Mr. Stark clearly saying to someone in the background, “Just get it done.”

“I’m going to hang up now, but don’t worry, I’ve also sent along a link to a live feed so you can keep an eye on your little girl. Wouldn’t want you to miss out on the consequences if you don’t get our money to us.”

“Wait -” 

“Daddy!”

Penny felt sick but she couldn’t give herself time to think about the heartbreaking conversation she’d just heard. It was obvious these men wanted to hurt Morgan and that five minutes would not be enough time to get the money to them. She was pretty sure that even billionaires didn’t just leave that much cash lying around in accounts.

She scrambled up the wall, mentally keeping count of the time while being careful not to be spotted. It was difficult to block out Morgan’s pitiful little sobs while she carefully set up what she needed for her - admittedly long-shot - plan. 

Her preparations were barely complete when she heard computer guy say, “Well, time’s up. You know what to do.” He sounded gleeful, and Penny wondered what Mr. Stark could have done to make them hate him so much.

Penny leaned over the railing to watch, waiting for the perfect moment to make her move. Both men moved the guns from their hands to their backs (which was great for her) and Penny flexed her fingers and rolled her shoulders. Adrenaline was thrumming through her veins and something in her went cold when one of them untied Morgan’s arms and forced her to straighten one out to the side where the camera would be able to pick up every detail of what they planned to do. 

The other had pulled a pair of miniature bolt cutters from his back pocket and was now moving towards her, reaching for her fingers. Penny aimed at the fourth man who was standing with his semi-automatic held loosely in his hands behind the camera and let her webbing fly. At the same time, she dropped from the rafter, slowing her descent with another stretch of web.

The man shouted when she tugged the gun from his grasp and flung it across the room and the other two men paused in their attempts to subdue a kicking, screaming, and biting Morgan. Penny was actually kind of impressed when she used their distraction to sink her teeth into bolt cutters’ arm. 

Penny landed behind them and wasted no time punching bolt cutters in the face hard enough to knock him out. She then ducked down in one smooth movement and brought her leg up and over Morgan. It smacked the other man’s jaw with a crack and he dropped to the ground.

Both of the other men in the room were already moving towards her, computer guy pulling a sidearm from a holster at his hip. Instead of attacking, Penny flipped over the chair, crouched down, grabbed a wide-eyed Morgan under the arms and tossed her high into the air - not as hard as she could have, but hard enough to send her flying up a good twenty feet. Her little arms flailed and she screamed, high and sharp, before landing with a soft oof in the web Penny had strung out across the rafters.

Her spidey sense tingled and she ducked just before she heard the gunshot. The bullet grazed her cheek, leaving what felt like a blaze of fire in its wake, but she was already kicking the legs out from under the man she’d taken the semi-automatic from and webbing the gun in computer guy’s hand.

“Not so tough now, are you?” she taunted and flipped him over her shoulder when he tried to punch her with the webbed fist. Two quick flicks of her wrist had him stuck to the floor. She turned and knocked out the last guy with another well-placed kick. 

“That was a pretty damn pathetic showing, actually, but it’s exactly what I’d expect from guys who get their kicks from hurting little girls,” she said to computer guy, who was furiously struggling against the webbing and screaming obscenities at her. "Hey, you shouldn't swear in front of children." She took great joy in webbing his mouth shut.

A set of doors to her right burst open and the three men who had been patrolling outside raced into the room. Her guess that they were professionals was proven correct when they took in the situation within seconds and started spraying bullets in her direction. She twisted and kicked the chair Morgan had been sitting in at them. Two of them had to stop shooting to dodge it. The third lost his gun to her webbing and she took the chance to get out of there.

“We’ll meet you at Stark Tower!” she yelled towards the camera before webbing up to the ceiling, snatching Morgan from the web she’d made on her way past. 

The girl wrapped her arms and legs around her and clung tightly when Penny took off running across the rafters, zig-zagging between them in easy bounds when the men turned their guns upwards. The sound was deafening and it didn’t help that Morgan was screaming in her ear while sharp pieces of wood peppered them from all sides when bullets took chunks from the beam she was running across and the ceiling above her. 

The windows were close - only ten feet away - when her leg gave out from under her and she fell hard. Penny wrapped one arm around Morgan’s back and cushioned her head with her other hand, managing to keep her from getting hurt when they bounced across the old wood, sending dust flying.

Penny gritted her teeth against a scream when pain bloomed in her thigh. She’d been hit. The men had stopped shooting after she went down and Morgan’s whimpers were loud in her ear. Penny flexed her leg and glanced down at it. There was a disturbingly large chunk taken out of her thigh but it didn’t look like the bullet had hit anything vital. She was pretty sure she’d be able to run on it.

“Did we hit her?” one of them called.

“Must’ve. Come on, we need to get up there.”

Penny took a breath and focused back on Morgan, who was staring up at her, dark hair spread around her and expression serious. “Are you okay?” Morgan whispered.

“Yeah, I'm just a little shot but it’s not bad,” Penny whispered, wishing she could smile reassuringly but the mask and goggles made it a bit tough to communicate anything via her expression. “I’m going to get us out of here but I need you to do something really important for me, okay?”

“Okay,” Morgan said solemnly. “Don’t worry, daddy says I’m the bravest.”

Penny could hear the men dragging something across the floor and computer guy yelling, “Turn off the damn camera!”

“That’s good because I’m not gonna lie, this next part might be a bit scary, but I promise you’ll be okay.” Morgan nodded and Penny swallowed back the bile rising in her throat. This was going to hurt. A lot. “Your job is to hold on to me really, really, tight and not let go no matter what happens, okay?”

Morgan wrapped her arms back around her neck and her legs around her waist. “Like this?” she whispered.

“Yep, just like that. Here.” She took off her goggles and fitted them over Morgan’s head. “Those are my very special goggles, sweetpea. They've always kept me safe and they’re going to keep you safe, now.” The endearment May used to call her slipped out almost unconsciously, but it felt right. It had always made her feel better on the bad nights after her parents' and then Uncle Ben's deaths, and she hoped it would offer Morgan some comfort now.

Morgan sniffled. The men were now discussing who would be climbing up to retrieve them and Penny could feel the blood on her leg, hot and sticky. 

“Okay,” she said shakily, then, “I’m Morgan Stark.”

Penny hesitated before saying, “My super-hero name is Spider-woman, but since you’re the bravest girl I’ve ever met you can call me Penny, okay? Just don’t tell anyone that’s my real name - it’s a secret.”

“I won’t, I promise.”

“Okay. Tuck your face in my neck. Good girl. Now hold on tight, tight, tight,” she whispered, then gathered her strength and shot to her feet.

Her leg wobbled but held and she ignored the shouts behind her and took off at a sprint. Agony flared from her wound but the adrenaline allowed her to push through it. Bullets were spraying around them again but Morgan didn’t scream this time. She just clung tighter and pressed her face harder into her neck.

Penny lifted her arm and aimed for the spot just above the large dirty window that was now only a few feet away. Her web caught and a moment later she was airborne, hunching her body over Morgan’s and covering the back of her head with her free hand. They hit the window and shattering glass joined the cacophony of noise behind them. Penny felt shards of it tearing at her clothes and cutting into her skin in places, but then they were free of the building and sailing through the night air. 

The webbing caught on the window and jerked them upwards. Penny was already scanning the yard for a good place to land. She chose a large crate and after a quick calculation released the web. Morgan was shaking in her arms but she didn’t let go or make a sound and Penny gritted her teeth and braced for impact. 

Her feet hit the crate and she couldn’t stop the scream of pain that ripped from her throat. It was instinct that carried her forward into a roll, neatly avoiding smashing Morgan against the surface. She came to her feet at a run, well aware that the men wouldn’t be far behind her.

She jumped off the crate and made sure she landed mostly on her left foot. “You’re doing great, Morgan,” she said and dodged around a pallet stacked high with steel bars. “Soon you’ll be home with your mom and dad, I promise.”

Morgan didn’t respond but she did cling harder to the material of her suit. Penny could feel the edge of her goggles digging into her neck and the sound of their ragged breathing and her stuttering run was loud in the cool night air.

“Which way did they go?” someone yelled from the direction of the warehouse.

“I don’t know - pull the car around. Fuck, we have to get her back! This was it, our only chance.”

Penny put on another burst of speed when she came around a pile of tires and saw the gate ahead, looming ten feet in the air and topped with barbed wire. 

Ten feet was nothing for Spider-woman, injury or no injury. Her smile was wild and triumphant as she sailed over it and Morgan let out a small whoop when they landed safely on the other side. She heard shouts but she was already moving for the train station, high above the ground in this part of Queens and the perfect thing to use to web back towards Manhattan.

She waited until they were blocks away, perched above a subway stop, to rest. Her whole leg was wet with blood but she didn’t feel dizzy. Not yet. She sat down and let out a breath. “Okay, Morgan, you can let go, now.”

She didn’t see blood on the girl or feel any rips in the fabric of her shirt, so it seemed she’d made it through the window unscathed. Unlike Penny, who probably looked a bit like a horror show. Morgan leaned back and pushed up her goggles and Penny prepared herself for tears or screaming. 

What she got, however, was a wide smile and bright brown eyes, lit by a streetlamp somewhere behind them. “That was so cool! Thanks for saving me, Penny. Are you a superhero, like daddy? Did you build a suit that makes you super fast? Do you make webs like spiders? Are you -”

Penny laughed and held up her hands. “Woah, woah, one question at a time. First of all, you’re welcome. To answer your questions: I made the web formula, it doesn’t come from inside of me, and I use these web-shooters to fling them.” Morgan showed them the proper amount of awe when she lifted her sleeves to show her while she continued. “I got my powers when a radioactive spider bit me, no suit needed. And Morgan, thank you for being so brave and helping me get us out of there.” 

Morgan beamed at her. “Sometimes I help my daddy with his suit,” she said smugly. “Though he said he’s retired now cause he only has one real arm and his burns hurt him.”

Penny had a feeling Iron Man would not want Morgan to be telling her those things, but she was well aware that kids didn’t have much of a filter. She watched the younger children at the group home all the time. Which made it especially stupid that she’d told Morgan her real name, but the kid had just looked so scared that she’d wanted to give her something special, and her name was about all Penny had left in the world.

“I bet you’re a pretty good engineer,” she said softly.

“That’s what daddy says.”

“Well, Morgan, I was wondering if I could ask you for another favor. It’s kind of a big one.”

“Of course! Do you need me to make you a suit? Yours is kind of...”

“Hey, I made this suit myself!”

Morgan wrinkled her nose and it was pretty damn cute. “Oh.”

Penny rolled her eyes. “I got hurt, and I was wondering if it would be okay if I ripped the bottom of your skirt to use as a bandage. I’m sorry to ask -”

“That’s okay, Penny! I have lots of skirts at home. Are you hurt bad? You’re bleeding a lot.” Penny looked down at the various spots of blood blooming on her. Her right leg was covered in the stuff from her thigh to a bit below her knee. She’d have to make a new suit, this one was trashed.

“Nope,” Penny said and set her down at her side. “It looks a little gross, but I actually heal really, really fast, so it’s no biggie.”

She carefully ripped a strip of fabric from the bottom of Morgan’s long skirt. Morgan was leaning forward to look over the ledge and Penny kept a close eye on her to make sure she didn’t fall. Now that she wasn’t being held at gunpoint, Morgan seemed pretty fearless. 

Penny took a deep breath before gritting her teeth and wrapping the cloth snuggly around her leg. The bleeding was already slowing now that she’d stopped to rest but she knew she’d need to stay stationary for at least a few hours before it would be well and truly on its way to healing.

“That’s a lot of blood,” Morgan said doubtfully, eyeing her pants.

“Yeah, but I regenerate fast. Don’t worry about me, sweatpea. Come on, we should get you home. Your parents are probably pretty worried.” 

Penny held out her arms and Morgan happily went back to her octopus impression. “You holding on tight?”

“Yep!” Morgan said after putting the too-big goggles back down, which was just all sorts of adorable. Penny couldn’t believe there was anybody who could look at that face and want to hurt her.

“Alright, one, two, three!” she yelled the last word and stepped off the roof of the tracks. Morgan let out a delighted scream when the first web caught and they swung forward. 

“This is so cool!” She was looking around them with no hint of fear and every time they dropped into freefall before they caught on the next web she’d laugh, loud and sweet.

The tight, miserable ball that had been coiled in Penny’s chest since she came back to a world where she was all alone loosened just a bit. She had almost forgotten that there were still pure, wonderful things worth fighting for. How Morgan could be so full of joy after what she’d just gone through was baffling and more than a little awe-inspiring.

It took them a few hours to get back to Midtown since Penny had to stop and rest twice thanks to blood loss. Each time Morgan had peppered her with questions and for some reason, Penny felt compelled to answer them truthfully. Maybe it's because she hadn't felt this connected to another human being for almost five months.

“Where do you live?

“Queens.”

“With your parents?”

Penny had swallowed and looked away. “No,” she said quietly. “My parents died a long time ago.”

“So who do you live with?”

“I...don’t really have anybody.”

“That’s so sad.”

Penny had reached over to ruffle her hair. “It’s not so bad, sweetpea.”

After that, she’d turned the conversation towards favorite movies. Penny didn’t recognize half the ones Morgan named off. She hadn’t exactly caught up on the last few years of cinema.

By the time Stark Tower came into view the sky was starting to lighten and Morgan was half-asleep. Apparently, the Starks had bought it back a few months after Thanos snapped half the world away and it had become a symbol of hope and victory after Tony Stark had brought everyone back.

“Look, Morgan, you’re home,” Penny whispered. 

Morgan lifted her head and blinked blearily at the building across the street. “Mom and dad are there?”

“They sure are. Okay, you holding on?

Morgan perked up and nodded enthusiastically. They were standing at the edge of the building directly across the street from the tower and with her sharp vision she could see Tony and Pepper Stark standing anxiously in front of the building, drawing strange looks from the people around them along with a bit of a crowd that was being held back by security. She’d planned on taking Morgan to the roof but she supposed this would have to do, even if it meant probably being caught on video from one of the people on the street.

With Morgan holding on tight she lowered herself over the edge of the building and started crawling down the side of it feet first. Her leg was screaming at her but she ignored it. She was almost done with this whole awful, wonderful night. Awful because of the situation and wonderful because she’d gotten to meet someone as special as Morgan.

Her feet finally touched the ground and the first shout from across the street sounded. “Tony! There! I see them.”

Morgan let herself be lifted down to the ground before she reached up to pull off the goggles and turn eagerly towards her parents, who had bowled over a few of the people loitering on the sidewalk and were sprinting across the street without care of the traffic. Penny swallowed and knelt down next to Morgan, pulling her attention back to her.

“It was nice meeting you, Morgan,” she whispered and her voice wobbled just a bit.

Morgan leaned over and hugged her. “It was nice meeting you, too. Do you want to come inside and see my bedroom?”

Penny sniffed and pushed her away gently. The footsteps were almost on top of them. “Sorry, sweetpea, I can’t. Thanks for being such a big helper,” she said and leaped up onto the building just as Tony Stark fell to his knees and swept Morgan into a hug, followed quickly by his wife. Both of them were crying and running their hands over every inch of Morgan, checking for wounds. 

For just a moment Penny froze, watching the family with a mixture of relief, pride, and jealousy. Then the first of the onlookers appeared, holding up their phone, and she flinched out of her daze. When she glanced back over all three Starks were staring up at her.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Stark said. “Thank you so much.”

“You forgot your goggles!” Morgan yelled.

“Keep them, sweetpea!” she called back, then turned to make her way up the building.

“Wait!” she paused again and glanced over her shoulder, recognizing Tony Stark’s voice from the multiple times she'd seen him on a screen. He was holding one hand out towards her - the flesh one, not the prosthetic she knew was under the hoodie he was wearing. “You’re hurt,” he said and jerked his head towards her leg. “Come inside, let us patch you up.”

Penny swallowed painfully. Part of her wanted to say yes - wanted to soak in the warmth of Morgan’s smile, let the love the three of them obviously held for each other soothe the scars in her heart for just a little while. Instead, she shored herself up and shook her head. “Sorry, but I’ve got this whole secret identity thing going, can’t really do house calls.” She sent a cheeky peace sign at the onlookers before she attached a web to the side of the building and swung away.

This time she didn’t look back, not even when Morgan screamed at her to come back.