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Berceuse

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Never before had there been a day more dual in nature; more joyous and tragic; more festive and solemn.

Before that Day, the people of Corona were preparing for the death of their Queen Mary, who had fallen ill as the time came for her to deliver her child. The kingdom anticipated both the loss of their queen and the only prospective heir to the throne.

But King Richard was not one to give in, not when so much was at stake. He’d heard of a flower that could heal whoever ingested part of it. And so, he sent out his guards to search for the flower as a last attempt to save his family. When the people of Corona heard of the plan, they joined the hunt in droves, travelling great distances in pursuit of the flower.

The flower was called the Spider Lily, and legend said that it grew from a drop of sunlight that gravity plucked from the cosmos. The legend, however, neglected to mention the flower’s keeper.

Quintus Becce had been born in the days of the Caesars, and had discovered the flower in his old age. The years passed and he watched as men rose and fell, but as for Quintus Becce – or Quentin Beck, as he became known – he neither rose nor fell, staying stagnant and keeping to himself.

Every few months, he would sneak out into the forest, uncover his Spider Lily, and pluck a single leaf from its stem. Then, taking extraordinary care, he would pop the leaf into his mouth and hide his Spider Lily away from the world.

He was on one such trip that Day, enjoying the feeling of mid-morning air on freshly youthful skin, when he heard the sound of someone approaching. Thinking quickly, he hid in the brush nearby and did what he did best.

He watched.

He watched as an Earl, Anthony of House Stark, emerged from the woods, closely followed by a small band. The Stark spotted the Spider Lily, clumsily hidden by a man, who had grown accustomed to having it to himself, who could only watch as the men, under the leadership of Stark, pulled the flower out of the ground and carted it off.

And he watched.

Stark and his men hurried back to Corona, where the Spider Lily was delivered to the queen. The attending physicians cut up the flower, tearing every leaf from its stem, plucking every petal from the flower’s face. The bits and pieces were added to warm water, which the sick queen drank until no evidence of the flower remained.

The flower had reached her just in time. It healed her, strengthening her blood and returning the lost color to her face.

 


 

The baby was born in the early hours of the morning. His parents smiled on him with delight, the joy in their eyes doubling at every giggle, every moment of open eyes, and every second of pinched, yawning cheeks.

And the kingdom celebrated.

An impromptu festival was thrown together, full of laughter and raucous dancing. People painted emblems of the Spider Lily on their walls, alongside the royal crest of the Coronan royal family.

The brother of the king – Benjamin, Grand Duke of Corona – joined in on the merriment. That was where he met Maybelle, a humble potter whom he instantly took to calling “May”.

During that Day, Anthony of House Stark was summoned by King Richard, who decreed that, in return for his bravery and unwavering loyalty to the crown, he would retain the title of earl no longer, and would instead become a duke. The Stark humbly accepted the position, but politely refused when the king asked if he wanted to hold the newborn child.

“A thousand pardons, Your Majesty,” the new duke excused himself, “but children do not take to me.”

The so-far unnamed child blinked at him almost skeptically, which, in Anthony’s opinion, was a ridiculous notion, yet it remained in his head.

“You saved our lives,” the queen said. “I would have made you his godfather, had we not offered the place to the Grand Duke several months ago.”

“I thank you, Your Highness,” Anthony returned, “but any more titles and my ego will become dangerously inflated.”

“Very well,” King Richard said with a smile. “Enjoy the festivities.”

That was the last decree he would utter.

The people of Corona eventually retired to their beds – the king and queen after bidding their son goodnight, the grand duke after kissing the hand of his budding love in farewell, the Stark after returning home and informing his friend James Rhodes of the honors bestowed upon him.

Everyone should have been blessed with dreams of sweet things, but that was not to be.

An alarm sounded in the late hours of the night from the depths of the castle. Soldiers rushed about the city, hunting for someone with rage and grief in their eyes.

Anthony woke up and ran outside, spotting a figure running through the streets. The figure paused, listening for the incoming soldiers, and that is when Anthony caught sight of the man’s face, and the man caught sight of him in return.

From that Day onward, neither would forget the other, but at the time, there was no significance in the features of the other’s expression.

In the morning, Duke Anthony Stark was notified that the king, queen, and grand duke had been slaughtered in their sleep, and the newborn prince was missing. The throne now fell between him and the other man that bore the same status and title – Thaddeus Ross.

 


 

Quentin Beck didn’t know where the hell Peter had picked up his ridiculous curiosity streak, but it had almost gotten him in trouble several times.

For one, even as a child, the boy had always asked about the loud noises from the fireworks that Corona set off every year on his birthday, always wanting to go investigate and see what caused the noise. That particular interest had been stopped as soon as Beck told the boy that it was the sound of the monsters that came out every year on his birthday.

Eventually, the boy had stopped believing in monsters, but he did not pick up the issue again. Instead, he would sit by the closed window after he thought Beck had fallen asleep, listening to the faint crackling and sizzling that sounded from far away. Beck would watch him through the crack in his open door, watching as he always did.

The curly-haired child would scrunch his toes against the cool tile floor, keeping his ear pressed against the locked wooden shutters of the tower until the fireworks ceased. He would wait there a little longer, lingering in the hopes that the fireworks had merely lulled, but there would be no more for another year, and as soon as he confirmed this, he would take himself back to bed, humming his lullaby until he drifted off to sleep.

Then, the boy had started picking up hobbies, which, okay, if Beck had to choose between having the boy be interested in a new area of science every week versus having the boy be interested in a new escape plan every week, the choice was obvious, but it was expensive. When Peter picked up inventing skills, it was downhill from there. He spent most of his time inventing, making what he called “webs” to help Beck get out of their homely tower faster, testing his own skills...

Yes, he was curious, but he was also obedient to a fault – a fact that Beck found himself appreciating more and more as the years passed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And indeed, many, many years passed.

Chapter Text

A red and blue spider sat lazily in the upper corner of the window – the only port of entry into and out of the tower. Its web was expertly woven, and stayed undisturbed, so long as it did not become large enough to cause discomfort to whoever was entering or exiting (which is to say, so long as Beck never saw the spider or any evidence to suggest the presence of said spider).

Sensing something nearby, it blinked two of its eyes open, catching sight of the teenaged resident of the tower as he raced out of his room, sliding down the banister to reach the main floor faster.

“Watch for Father, Karen!” Peter called, racing over to the dining table that he had taken over with his inventions as soon as Beck had left the tower.

Karen rolled her open eyes and nestled back into her corner. Soon, the sun would move to where the warmth of the rays of sunlight would cease to heat the windowsill. She intended to take advantage of the comfort while it was there.

Her attempt at napping was furiously disrupted by the clanging and screeching sounds of Peter as he worked in the tower, fervently running about as he endeavored to put the tower back in order. Karen peaked one eye open and watched as the boy ran back to the stairs, carrying armfuls of inventions and tools indiscriminately, and hopped over the banister, ramming his shoulder into the wall but continuing up the staircase unfazed.

“Is he here yet?!” Peter yelled.

Karen chittered a huffy negative. If Beck’s usual patterns were anything to go by, he wouldn’t be back until afternoon. Then, he would make another batch of “Mysterio’s Elixir” overnight, and head out again in the morning.

Peter ran out of his room and onto the upper landing of the staircase, leaping clean over the railing and grabbing hold of one of the banisters, which he swung from to land neatly by the half-cleared table. “I really should’ve made a list or something- or just, y’know, started clean up yesterday. Have you seen the bowl?”

Karen pointed a leg to the wardrobe, next to which a wooden crate sat, full of various utensils and chemicals. Peter’s eyes fell on it and he breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you. Let me just-” The teenager swept up an armful of blueprints and sketches, running back up and disappearing into his room.

Seconds later, he ran back out of the room, jumping as he did before to grab the beam above but then twisting so that he could pull himself up onto it. With freakish balance, he moved from beam to beam until he was directly above the dining table. Then, he carefully aimed his palms at each end of the table, tapping two fingers to the shallows of his palms. Webs shot out of the webshooters on his wrists and attached to the ends of the table. Peter then twisted the web strands together, looping them over the beam he was standing on, and then pulled, lifting the table about a foot into the air.

After securing the web, he jumped down from the rafters and rushed to the closet under the stairs, peeking in and grabbing a broom.

“Karen,” he began as he started to sweep the room, “you are going to have to move sooner or later. Father doesn’t like spiders.”

Karen rolled her open eye and closed it again. Peter wouldn’t make her move – not until the last minute. She could take a nap... Beck wouldn’t be back until the afternoon, anyway...

Before she realized what was happening, she fell asleep.

Peter continued on with his chores, talking to the sleeping spider periodically, unaware of his inattentive audience.

Hours passed, and by noon, the entire tower had been organized, cleaned, reorganized, and cleaned again. Though his back ached, he looked around the room with pride. He set the broom aside, dusting off his hands on the brown trousers that he had learned to make himself.

“All right, Karen,” Peter said, turning to the widow. “Time for you to move upstairs.”

Karen didn’t move. Peter frowned, moving closer to the open window. “Karen...?” He finally got close enough to realize that the spider was asleep. At first, the temptation to scare Karen awake was tempting, but he caved quickly. He never had the heart for anything mean-spirited just for the sake of a joke. Instead, he scooped up the spider, holding her close as he made his way back upstairs and into his (not-as-clean) room.

“There you go, lady,” Peter said softly, setting Karen down on the nest she had made on one of his shelves. “Nice and cozy.”

“Peter!”

Peter’s head jerked up, his enhanced sense of hearing catching the familiar sound of the only other voice he knew.

“Kid, I don’t intend to wait down here forever!”

Peter raced out of his room, accidentally startling Karen (who promptly went back to sleep). The boy, checking to make sure his webshooters had full cartridges, ran over to the window and leaned out.

Far below, at the base of the tower, Peter could make out the red-cloaked figure that was his father, standing with hands on his hips as he looked up towards the tower window.

“What’s taking so long?” Beck called up. “I thought you’d be happy to see me!”

“One second!” Peter called back. He looked back into the room and found what he was looking for: a sturdy, backed, wooden chair, sitting beside the open window. He thwipped a web from each hand, and, taking care not to cut off the web, he looped the lines through the hook at the top of the windowsill. He pushed the chair out and braced himself inside the tower, slowly lowering the weight the seventy-something feet to the ground. Then, he waited until he felt a tug on the web, and started pulling the chair back up.

Just when Peter started to feel the strain on his muscles, the chair reached the top of the tower, with Beck sitting relatively relaxed.

He smiled when he saw Peter. “There’s my Spider Lily,” he said, stepping expertly off of the chair and into the tower’s main room. Peter hurriedly tied off the web, then ran forward to wrap his arms around the man.

“I missed you, Father,” Peter said, his voice muffled.

“Really?” Beck asked, pulling away from the hug and putting his hands on Peter’s shoulders instead. “I didn’t think you did. You took a long time to come to the window.” He squinted at Peter suspiciously. “Were you inventing something?”

“No, not today,” Peter said. “I was cleaning.”

“I see that,” Beck observed, taking off his red cloak and handing it to Peter to be hung up. His eyes fell on the crate of tools that had been moved over towards the table. “Somebody’s eager,” he remarked.

“I just...wanted to get it over with,” Peter confessed, rubbing his thumb against the shallow of his palm.

Beck motioned towards the chair still hanging outside. “Well, bring that in, and I can get started.”

Peter nodded once and hurried to comply. Once the chair was inside, he closed the shutters and cleaned off all of the web residue that he could find. After all, the webs – while practical – were not Beck’s favorite house decoration.

Peter moved the chair to the middle of the room, setting it against the pole that supported the rafters (which, after Peter had started to climb across and hang from them, required the extra brace).

Dutifully, Peter sat down, but he did not relax against the back of the chair. He tensed when Beck turned around, a thick white ribbon in his hand. Peter looked away and let Beck grab his arm, tying the ribbon tightly above his elbow.

“You are helping so many people,” Beck reassured. “You should see the hope on their faces when they’re cured.”

“I know,” Peter interrupted, “I know. I have the power to help, so I should. It’s just...”

“You still don’t like needles,” Beck said, an understanding smile on his face.

Peter returned the expression. “I don’t think it’s possible to like needles.”

“Just look away,” Beck instructed, turning back to his tools. “I’ll be done in a minute.”

Peter looked to his left, instead, choosing to look at the blueprints and-

A cold, sharp pain in his arm.

-other drawings that he had put up only earlier this week-

A dripping sound.

-He spotted an error in one of his calculations and mentally corrected it. Three times-

Pressure on his arm.

-sixteen is forty-eight, times four for the number of levels is-

The dripping sound intensified. Peter rested his head against the back of the chair, looking up and trying to keep his breathing under control.

-one hundred and ninety-two. But that would mean the original calculation was correct-

“Almost there, buddy,” Beck said, placing a hand on Peter’s shoulder. Peter nodded, but didn’t say anything. He instead wondered how Karen was doing, and whether he should tell Beck what he wanted most for his birthday, and if the bright crackles and pops that always happened on his birthday would come back this year, and-

“All done,” Beck announced. The pressure on his arm abated. Beck procedurally untied the ribbon and retied it around the new red gash on Peter’s arm. Then, once the blood flow stopped, he moved the bowl of liquid crimson over to the table. “You did wonderfully, Spider Lily.” Peter nodded, attempting to stand up from the chair, but a sudden lightheadedness pushed him back onto the chair.

Beck crouched in front of him and placed a hand against Peter’s cheek. Peter subconsciously leaned into the contact. “I took a little more this time than I usually do,” the man explained. “You might feel a little dizzy. Come on, let’s get you to bed. You can just sleep it off.”

“Wait,” Peter protested. “I wanted- I wanted to ask you something.”

Beck raised an eyebrow. “What would that be?”

Doubt suddenly surged through Peter. “I... It’s... I-I...”

Beck looked at Peter as if he was surveying an object rather than looking at a person. “Blood loss must be getting to your head. Up you get.” Beck stood and pulled Peter up with him, supporting most of the boy’s weight and leading him over towards the stairs.

“N-no,” Peter said, sticking his feet to the ground. Beck staggered and, once he regained his balance, he turned an annoyed eye on him. Peter had to say something- If he didn’t, he wouldn’t get the chance- Beck would be gone again by the time he woke up-

“I want to go with you tomorrow,” he blurted.

Beck closed his eyes, the annoyance deepening in his brow. “Peter-”

“I know you don’t want me to go off on my own,” Peter said in a rush, “but you can take me. I won’t run off, I promise. I just want to see the people you help- and then maybe we can go see where the loud noises come from? For my birthday- It’s in three days, so we could probably make it in time-”

“Do you ever listen to me?” Beck snapped, his gaze as sharp as his tone. Peter looked down, unwilling to maintain eye contact. “I have told you what it is like outside!” Beck continued. “You’re too young to handle yourself out there-”

“I’m almost fifteen-” Peter mumbled.

“Be quiet,” Beck snapped. “You don’t know anything about the world. You haven’t seen...” He trailed off, coming to a realization. “You haven’t seen the outside. How about I show you?”

Peter looked up hopefully. “Then, can I go-?”

“Watch, Peter,” Beck instructed.

Beck deftly pushed Peter back towards the middle of the room, and, with a snap of his fingers, the lights went out.

Darkness wasn’t a thing that Peter was ambivalent about. He hated the dark – particularly because of his sensitive hearing and overactive imagination. He would hear some animal in the woods outside, and instantly, his mind would conjure up some horrifying creature that he had seen somewhere in one of his books.

No, the dark was not a friend to Peter.

He blinked rapidly, trying to clear the spots out of his eyes and get his bearings, but before he could, a hand grabbed his shoulder. At first, he guessed it was Beck – he had never seen anyone else, after all, and they were the only two in the tower – but when he turned around, the face staring at him was not that of his father.

Instead, a curved jowl of stubble poked out from a cowl. A row of crooked teeth caught the light in a glinting grin. “Are you lost?” the stranger rasped in a gravelly voice.

Peter stumbled backwards, but he only took a few steps before the caped stranger disappeared, leaving Peter in the dark.

Hushed whispers circled around him.

Self-consciously, Peter crossed his arms, almost hugging himself to provide momentary comfort.

“Father?” Peter called out quietly. “Please bring the lights back- I can’t see-”

Suddenly, a distant scream sounded. Peter looked around wildly, trying to find the source- then he saw her. She lay on the ground, unmoving. He had read about this in books; someone stopped moving, stopped breathing. There was no mistaking it. She was dead. A chill went into Peter’s bones.

Dead. And Peter didn’t even know her.

Cold fingers curled around his arm. “Flower...” a voice crooned. Peter froze, his breathing speeding up and limbs locking. “I hear your blood is precious,” the voice hissed. “Why don’t you sell me some? I’ll give you a nice price for it.”

“Get away from me!” Peter jerked away, scrambling to get away from the voice, but he couldn’t hide. He would start off in one direction only to be blocked by a stranger, and when he flipped around, a new stranger would appear. Everywhere he turned, figures appeared, each one as grotesque and twisted as the last, each one reaching out and calling for his blood.

“You have no right to it!”

“It was mine!”

"Won’t you help me?”

“Selfish!”

"Insolent!”

“Greedy!”

“No! No, I’m not- Please!” Peter cried out, squeezing his eyes shut and huddling in a ball on the floor. He shook with full-body tremors, clamping his hands over his ears in an attempt to shut out their voices. Their hands reached for him, scraping at his back and gripping his arms. They pulled at him, each trying to grab him and pull him in their direction, resulting in Peter being pulled every which way-

“Go away, go away,” Peter said, repeating it over and over again like a mantra. His heart thumped in his chest, pounding against his rib cage like a bird trying to get out. Fear pumped adrenaline through his veins, increasing the tremors that wracked his body. “Go away, please go away.” He heaved a sob, tears overwhelming his eyelids and streaking down his cheeks.

“This is the real world, Peter,” Beck said, his voice rising among the others’. “Heroes don’t exist. If you go out there, all you’ll see is sickness and death. This tower is the only thing preventing them from coming in here, from taking you off and using you for their own profit.”

“I won’t go,” Peter hiccupped, keeping his head down. “I’m sorry I- I won’t leave, I promise, just...just make them go away! Please, Father, please...”        

As quickly as they had shown up, the figures disappeared, and their voices faded into echoes. Peter took shaking hands away from his ears carefully, looking up slowly. His eyes flitted around the dark room, searching the shadows for any more threats, when a shaft of light fell onto Beck, making his green, red, and gold garb glint heroically. The man smiled gently, opening his arms towards Peter. As soon as he offered the invitation, Peter rushed and stumbled towards him, falling into the embrace and weeping into Beck’s shoulder. The tears on his cheeks rubbed into the red cloak, and his frame still shook with heavy sobs.

Beck held him tightly, gently rocking him back and forth. “I’m just worried for you,” he said softly. “I don’t want someone taking you in the middle of the night and hurting you.”

“I know,” Peter sniffled, his voice small. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think-”

“That’s right,” Beck interrupted gently. “You didn’t think. But that’s all right. You just leave all the thinking to me, all right? That’s my job.”

Peter nodded mutely, arms still latched around Beck; he was too tired to do anything else. He reluctantly relaxed his hold when Beck grabbed his shoulders and looked up into the eyes that he trusted since he was little.

Beck smiled. “There’s my Spider Lily. Come on – off to bed you get. I’ll wake you for dinner.” Peter simply nodded again, allowing Beck to push him and guide up the stairs and into his room, but before they entered, Beck stopped them again. “Peter?”

Peter looked up in response, and Beck leveled a stern look down at the boy. “Never ask to go outside. Ever again. Do you understand me?”

Peter’s eyes fell, but he nodded mutely. Beck patted his cheek. “There’s a good boy,” he said, and he gave Peter a little push into his room.

As soon as they entered through the doorway, a certain red and blue spider latched all of her eight eyes onto them. Karen watched from her nook, ever on her guard around Beck, but as for Peter? He was asleep as soon as he hit the mattress.

When he awoke several hours later, there was a brief note on the table next to a bowl of brightly colored salad, and a long trail of web blowing in the soft wind.

Beck was long gone, carrying with him his usual case full of vials of Peter’s blood.