The cup of coffee sitting on his workbench had gone from steaming to stale, but taste didn’t really matter that much to Peter. He’d been locked in his lab at Horizon for three days, and in that time he could count on one hand the number of hours he’d slept. Strewn about his office were numerous papers from several different files: the medical records and test results he’d received from the ass-hat doctor (when Carol found out what the doctor had said, she’d nearly thrown him through the observation window, but Peter didn’t know about that), as well as several of Carol’s files from S.H.I.E.L.D., which he’d received from Steve.
He’d checked in every day, just as Steve requested, and every day Peter had told him the exact same thing: “I still haven’t figured it out.”
He called to check on Carol every day, too, and while on the first two days he’d spoken to Carol herself, today one of his fellow Avengers answered the phone. “What’s up, Webs?”
“Logan?” Peter asked, pulling his cell phone away from his ear to check which number he’d dialed. “What are you doing there?”
Peter could hear Logan eating chips on the other end of the line. “Came down to check up on Carol,” he said, stuffing a handful of chips in his mouth. “Me and her go back a ways, y’know?”
Thanks to the files laying all over his lab, Peter did. Back during her time with the C.I.A., before she received her powers, Carol had done some covert operations with Logan. The two had become friends through the experience, and that bond continued over their tenure as Avengers. “Any new developments?” Peter asked.
“Nah, not really. She’s sleeping more today than she was yesterday, but that’s about it,” Logan said. Peter hummed to himself and wrote it down. He didn’t like that she was sleeping more than usual. It meant her body was growing too tired from fighting her illness to stay conscious for very long. “Thor was down here earlier,” Logan continued, crunching more chips into the receiver. “Offered to shoot her up with lightning, see if the energy boost might help her get past this thing, but Carol told him her absorbing powers are on the fritz.” Logan punctuated the statement with a loud slurp and an even louder belch.
“Logan,” Peter said, “Are you drinking in the hospital room?”
“Heh, yeah,” Logan said before catching himself. “I mean, uh, no, Webs, no. It’s just water.”
Peter had to smile. “That’s good,” he said, “because I’m sure you know that Carol is a recovering alcoholic, and it would be really bad form to be drinking right next to her.”
His sarcasm was not lost on Logan. “Don’t you worry, bub,” he said. “You know me. I’d never do anything that inconsiderate.”
In the background, Peter heard the clinking of glass bottles, as well as Carol screaming “Han shot first!” He laughed for the first time since getting to his lab, and it felt good. He’d been too somber, too focused on how hopeless he felt in this situation.
“Sorry, Webs,” Logan said, “Carol wanted to have a ‘Star Wars’ marathon, but we only had the Special Editions.” Peter heard another grumble of dissent as Jabba the Hutt appeared next to the Millennium Falcon.
“Is that Peter?” he heard, and his heart lodged itself somewhere near his throat. “Tell him he should come by later, I’m finally gonna get around to watching ‘Ghostbusters!’”
“Did you catch that, Webs?” Logan asked.
Peter ran a sweaty hand through his hair. He didn’t know why he was trying to make himself look better while he was on the phone. “I did, yeah,” he said, scratching at the three-day-old stubble growing under his chin. His eyes scanned the machine that was busy compiling the DNA analysis. It would be finished in a few hours. “Tell her,” he said, sighing, “Tell her I’m sorry, but I’m busy working.”
“Yeah, I gotcha,” Logan said. “How are things going down there, anyway?”
Peter didn’t have an answer for that. Everything he’d looked at so far had shown him that Carol should be nothing but a more than healthy woman. The only thing he could think of at this point was that it had to be something in her DNA itself, which was why he was doing the analysis. If it wasn’t there, he was going to turn the case over to Reed. Bigger brains than his had to be able to figure something out. But he couldn’t leave Logan hanging, so he said, “Still looking for a cause, then I can get to work on a cure.”
Logan grumbled on the other end. “Well, work fast. I don’t wanna worry you, but just because Carol’s got energy now doesn’t mean she’s gonna stay that way.” Peter heard him walking back toward where Carol was laying. “You may wanna come see her while you can.”
The phone clicked, and Peter tossed his cell down on the counter. He knew what Logan was saying, but he felt like he couldn’t leave the lab. If he did, he would be letting her down, taking time away from looking for her cure, wasting his energy on something less important.
He realized that he couldn’t think of anything that could be more important right then. Galactus could be fighting the Tri-Sentinel in the middle of Manhattan with the entirety of the Kree and Skrull empires battling it out next to the moon, and he would still be sitting in that laboratory. He wondered how he could reconcile that with his “Great Responsibility.”
Because “Great Responsibility” doesn’t mean the greatest number of people. Uncle Ben always taught me that my first responsibility was to my family, to the people I care about most.
To the people I love.
His phone ringing derailed that train of thought, and Peter grabbed it to check who was calling. “Hey, Cap,” he said.
“Peter,” Steve said. “Just wanted to check how things were going.”
Sighing, Peter stood and started walking around the room, which for him meant up the walls and onto the ceiling. He smiled, reminding himself of how Carol had told him he’d be crawling up the walls. “I don’t have much for you, Cap. I’m waiting for some test results. I’ve got a few hours to kill before they’re done, so I was going to start looking over the files again, see if there was something I missed the first six times.”
Steve sighed on the other end. “Peter,” he said, “If you have a few hours, I suggest you get some sleep. I doubt you’ve had much.”
Sometimes Peter couldn’t stand how perceptive Steve was. “I don’t have time, Cap. We still don’t know what’s wrong with her. She could be dead by tomorrow and I won’t have any answers.”
Peter could practically feel Steve reaching through the phone and grabbing his shoulder. “Son,” he said, “If you don’t get some sleep you won’t have an answer for ‘What’s your name?’"
He knew Steve was right, and he hated it. But Peter thanked him for his concern and promised he would get some sleep soon, as well as call once the test results come in. From the ceiling, Peter crawled down the wall and sank into the bed he’d placed in the lab. His eyes closed as the rhythmic pulsing of the machines lulled him to sleep.
Six hours later, Peter opened his eyes and threw off the sheets, concerned that he’d slept too long, that he might have missed something important. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, checked for messages or missed calls. Nothing. That was good, it meant there wasn’t any drastic change in Carol’s condition.
He walked over to the analyzer and examined the screen for a few minutes. “That can’t be right,” he said, zooming in on the image on the screen. He was staring at a strand of Carol’s DNA, which, rather than having a double helix shape like full-blooded humans, instead was comprised of an interesting, and beautiful, in Peter’s opinion, triplicate helix shape. He initially assumed the analyzer was thrown off by the uniqueness of her DNA, but he knew that couldn’t be it. The machine had been designed by Reed, and held the strands for every alien and extra-dimensional species the good doctor knew of, including the Kree.
Instead, the analyzer was prompting Peter to play a simulation. He pushed the button on the touch screen and watched for roughly thirty seconds. “Oh, this is bad,” Peter said. “This is really, really bad.”
The suit was not comfortable, especially with his Spider-Man costume underneath, but Peter knew it was appropriate for where he was. Sure, he could’ve waited to tell Steve what he’d found until they were both at Avengers’ Tower, but Peter wanted to do it right then, and right then meant meeting Steve at his day job.
S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters was even more imposing than the Helicarrier, which Steve had virtually mothballed since becoming Director. A giant sculpture of the encompassed eagle logo sat in the lobby, where agents hustled about like they were trying to save the world by bringing their superiors coffee.
Peter walked up to the reception desk and dropped the large number of files he was carrying on the counter. The man sitting there looked up from his computer and saw Peter resting his head on his palm, with his elbow sitting on the files. “Can I help you, sir?” the man asked.
“Yes, I have an appointment with Commander Rogers,” Peter said, not moving his head.
The man rolled his eyes; clearly people tried to come in and see Steve regularly. “Name?”
The man scanned through his computer, and his eyebrows raised for a moment. Seconds later, a plastic card was printed out of the desk, which the man put on a lanyard before handing it to Peter. “This is your visitor’s badge,” he said. Peter looked at the badge and saw it had a picture of him running his hand through his hair as he walked through the front door. An agent appeared next to Peter, seemingly out of nowhere. “Agent Diaz will escort you upstairs.”
Diaz grabbed Peter’s elbow and led him to the elevators, where they took a quick ride to the top floor, which was, in its entirety, Steve’s office. Peter walked in and looked around. In a glass display case was Cap’s original shield, still dented from the damage it had accrued in the Second World War. The man himself was sitting behind a large brown desk, wearing a black t-shirt. As Peter and Diaz walked into the room, Steve got up from the chair and walked over to them. “Hello, Mr. Parker, thank you for coming,” he said, shaking Peter’s hand formally.
“It’s my pleasure, Commander,” Peter said.
“Thank you, Diaz, you’re dismissed,” Steve said, turning to the agent. Diaz saluted Steve, then walked back toward the elevator. As soon as the doors closed, Steve walked Peter over to his desk. “What do you have for me, Peter?” he asked.
Peter dropped the files on Steve’s desk. “How much do you know about Carol’s past?” he asked.
Steve scratched his chin. “I’ve read the files,” he said, “But, admittedly, there’s a lot I don’t understand. What does this have to do with her illness?”
“She’s not sick,” Peter said, opening the top folder. “You remember this from her file?” he asked, holding up a picture of an incredibly alien machine.
“That’s the Kree device that gave Carol her powers?” Steve said.
“The Psyche-Magnitron, right,” Peter said, putting away the photo. “Do you know what it did?”
“It was basically a wishing machine,” Peter said, digging deeper into the file. “And, at the moment she struck it, Carol wanted nothing more than to be like Mar-Vell. The Psyche-Magnitron is what made her half-Kree.”
“Go on,” Steve said, leaning his back against the lip of his desk.
“Fast forward a few years, Carol is now Ms. Marvel. She’s a hero, everything is cool. Except,” Peter pulls out another photo, this one of the mutant Rogue, of the X-Men, “She has a run-in with Rogue in San Fran, which saps all of her powers and memories.”
“What does this have to do with what’s going on now, Peter?” Steve asked, disinterested in the history lesson.
“Everything,” Peter said, pulling out another photo. “Not long afterward, Carol was kidnapped and experimented on by the Brood, which bound her with a white hole, and turned her into this.” He held up the photo, which was of Carol with red skin and fire burning through her costume. “She eventually lost this level of power by sustaining the sun. And here I thought she was hot now.”
“Please get to the point, Peter,” Steve said, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger.
“Ok, ok,” Peter said, pulling out a still shot he’d taken from the DNA analyzer that morning. “The point is, her genetic structure has been messed with more than anyone I’ve ever seen. Hulk, yourself, anyone. And it looks like all that genetic screwery,” Peter set the photo down on the desk. The triplicate-helix strand looked like it was half-unzipped. “Is literally tearing her apart at the seams.”
Steve picked up the photo and looked at it for a few seconds. “What are our options?” he asked.
Ever the tactician, ready to try to tackle the problem head on.
“I’m not sure,” Peter said. “I would need something that could… I don’t know… strengthen the bonds that hold our DNA together. Something to fortify the genetic structure, somehow. I just don’t know.” Peter sat down in one of the guest chairs next to Steve’s desk and started rubbing his eyes. “I’m hoping that Reed or Tony might be able to shed some light, because I don’t know of anything that can do what needs doing here.”
Steve snapped his head up from the picture, and turned the corner around his desk. “I might,” he said, opening a drawer with his fingerprint and retinal scan and starting to dig.
Peter wanted to get up out of the chair and go look, but he was just so tired. He still hadn’t shaved, and the musk in the room told him Steve either had a hidden gym in there somewhere (which he didn’t doubt), or he needed a shower. Without warning, a thick file landed in Peter’s lap, kicking up dust. Peter looked down at it, and noticed it didn’t have a S.H.I.E.L.D. logo; instead, it carried the insignia of the United States Army. “Whose file is this?” Peter asked, standing and wiping dust from his lap.
Steve smiled. “Mine.”