The camp is May’s idea.
To be more specific, the camp is May’s order. In the time before she knew about Spider-Man, May was never exactly an authoritarian--still isn’t--but in the time since she has made a become more insistent with what Peter secretly refers to as her Daytime Dictatorship, a strict regime of gentle reminders: “Is your homework done?” “Did you remember to take out the trash?” “Have you and Ned done anything fun lately?”
It irritated him just a little bit when the reminders began, because pre-Spider-Man May had always been hands off in this arena, trusting him to be responsible and helpful as he always had been. But it didn't take long to realize why post-Spider-Man May had made the switch: having realized she could do nothing to prevent Peter’s nighttime activities, she had instead thrown all of her efforts into making his days as normal as humanly possible. School. Chores. Friends.
You're still a kid, and what’s more you're my kid.
The implication goes pretty much unspoken, but as soon as Peter recognizes it, he stops feeling bothered by the questions. Instead he just makes an extra effort to be sure the answer to each of them is always “Yes.”
The camp is the first time he hesitates.
He's doing homework (“Yes, May, love you!”) when May walks in, extra-large envelope in hand, and slaps it triumphantly on the desk in front of him.
“Full scholarship,” she announces, with all the bravado of a sportscaster announcing a touchdown. To add to this effect, she throws her arms in the air and points down at Peter. “I had my suspicions for a while, kiddo, but it turns out I raised a smart cookie.”
Peter raises an eyebrow at her. “May, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but college isn't for another two years.”
“Damn!” May sits on the bed in mock defeat. “I thought I would finally have the apartment to myself. I was going to make your room into a yoga studio. And I was going to take up yoga.”
Peter is grinning now, half in amusement and half in anticipation, because whenever May gets this excited it usually means something stomach-churning. New recipes. An age-inappropriate art gallery opening in Brooklyn. Once, in an effort to get more involved in his school activities, she had volunteered to run a bake sale (even though he had been in seventh grade at the time, Peter still burns with embarrassment at the memory of spread she had created, the looks on the other parents’ faces as they politely nibbled rock-hard lemon cake).
“You're kind of terrifying me, Aunt May.”
May wraps her arms around his shoulders and squeezes, and it's so affectionate and excited that Peter forgets about the bake sale for a moment.
“It’s camp,” she says. “The natural sciences camp in Connecticut. You got in. Full scholarship.”
It still takes Peter a moment to realize what she is talking about, but as soon as he does his stomach slips a few notches and he has to work to keep the smile on his face. The camp. The camp for “gifted and talented young scientists” that May helped him apply for months ago, before Germany and Toomes, but after the spider incident. It had been another era of forced normality in the Parker household, when May was trying to hold everything together for another reason: Uncle Ben had just died.
Fitting, that it has come back around right as she is trying to spool together the many strings of Peter’s double life on his behalf.
Her excitement is why Peter returns her high-five, albeit half-heartedly, and says, “Oh wow! I totally forgot.”
“Well lucky for you I'm the one who checks the mail. Isn't this exciting? Aren't you excited?”
May’s smile slides off. Peter never did have a great poker face. It's a wonder he kept Spider-Man secret as long as he did.
“Peter. I know that face. C’mon.”
“No!” He tries to backtrack. “It's...it’s great May, wow, it’s just…” He’s almost as bad at backtracking as he is at lying in the first place. He digs nervously at his palm as he says, “It’s just, isn't that camp a whole week? Like, all of fall break?”
“And?” She gets to her feet, eyebrow raised, and for all of his super-strength he feels totally dwarfed by her. “You have other plans that you’d like to tell me about?”
“No! I mean, maybe? Ned and I were talking about how he was going to visit his sister upstate and he said maybe I could--”
“Peter.” May’s voice is stern now, but not as hard as it could be. Not as hard as the night she walked in on him in the suit. She sits down again and this time reaches for his chin, which she holds gently to make him look her in the eye.
“Child of mine, do you think New York sprang into existence the moment you put on that suit?”
Peter is instantly chastened. They don't talk about Spider-Man, at least not head-on, not unless something bad has happened or the topic is absolutely unavoidable. And Peter has been careful not to really let her know about the worst of it. She doesn't bring it up herself, not since that first time, though Peter suspects she has had more than one conversation with Tony Stark about it (a fact which mortifies him even more than the bake sale). That she is talking about it now makes him snap his mouth shut ahead of the excuses poised on his lips.
He shakes his head.
“Then why do you think it will disappear if you leave it for a few days?”
Peter swallows. He has answers. He has half a dozen bad guys under his belt who might have wiped New York off the map if it hadn't been for him. (Okay, one bad guy, who was admittedly wiping it out very slowly with relatively small illegal weapons, but there have been several others he has fought with the help of the Avengers--killer robots, anyone?--and a whole host of small-timers who might not have destroyed Queens, but they certainly weren't trying to gentrify it either). But he doesn't say any of it. Because May’s voice might be stern, but her eyes are pleading.
It’s a week away. A week in the forest with a bunch of nerdy kids and their nerdy counselors, away from illegal weapons and the men who wield them, away from genetic experiments and alien encounters and potential falls from very high heights. May isn't asking because she wants to be a strict parental figure. She needs this.
Peter forces a smile.
“You're buying the bug spray, right?”
It's almost frightening how fast the tension leaves her body. She pulls him into a slack, one-armed hug, as though she has just been told she can put down the 300 pound barbell she’s been toting for months.
“Gallons of it,” she says into his hair. “You've had more than enough bug bites for a lifetime.”
He calls Mr. Stark a few days out to let him know. He’s had Mr. Stark’s private number for a while now, ever since he turned down the Avengers opportunity, but he still feels jittery whenever he uses it, nervous that Tony will pick up, nervous that he won’t. He literally paces up the wall without thinking while the line rings, almost falls off when Mr. Stark answers.
“I assume the fact that you’re calling from your cell and not your suit means you haven’t been, I don’t know, sucked into a plane engine or dragged to the bottom of the Hudson or something. Please tell me I’m right.”
There’s clanking and whirring in the background. He must have caught Mr. Stark in the middle of a project. He feels bad for a moment and then realizes that Mr. Stark answered the call, which he was under no obligation to do, particularly not if he was busy. Peter drops from the wall to his bed.
“Hey. No, I’m fine, I’m good,” he says. “Uh, how are you?”
“Peachy-keen, kiddo,” says Mr. Stark. Then, “Hey, drop it!”
Peter looks down at his hands. As if he could see Peter telepathically, Stark adds, “Not you. New project. I’m sure you’ll read all about it in the news. Or possibly my obituary, if things keep the direction they’re headed.”
Peter is about to apologize and hang up, suddenly feeling very stupid--because come on, it’s camp--but then the noise in the background fades away and Mr. Stark says, “So go for it. Hit me up. What are you calling for?”
He actually stepped away from his work for this. Peter is both touched and a bit embarrassed. Because again, camp.
“Yeah,” he says, “so. Um. I just wanted to let you know I won’t be able to uh, to train with the team like we discussed.”
And they had discussed it. Ever since his first hand-to-hand session with Black Widow a couple of months ago, Peter has been going upstate to train every other week. The last time they had seen each other--as Peter was leaving from a partly-fantastic, partly-disastrous post-robot-battle party--Mr. Stark had mentioned, somewhat offhandedly, that it might be a good idea for Peter to spend at least part of his break at the compound.
“Even if you’re ‘not an Avenger’”--Tony had emphasized the air quotes-- “you spend enough time with us that you should know how not to get your ass kicked.”
“I didn’t get my ass kicked!” Peter protested. “We totally won!”
They had won. And the sprained ankle and bruised ribs were healed by dinnertime, so they didn’t really count as an ass kicking.
“Dumb luck doesn’t factor, kid. At least not for long. And to be honest, I’d feel better knowing that when you totally disobey me and show up where you’re not supposed to be, at least you’re prepared.”
Peter didn’t protest beyond that, because indignant though he might be about the criticism of his fighting skills, which were hardly sub-par, the idea of spending even a few nights with the rest of the team, training full-time...well, frankly that sounded awesome. He had turned the Avengers down so he could have some semblance of a real life, but this felt a lot like having his cake and eating it too.
He had been so obviously excited at the prospect that it’s no wonder Mr. Stark sounds--is he imagining it?--a little worried when he asks, “Everything going alright in your neighborhood? Bullies bothering you? Algebra got you down?”
“I’m taking calculus this year.”
“Way to read between the lines, kid. That was the information I was looking for.”
“I mean, it’s not because of school. I, uh… I have to go to camp.”
He flinches a little at how immature it sounds. Sure enough, he can practically hear the smirk in Mr. Stark’s voice when he replies.
“Like camp-camp? Like marshmallows by the fire and cannonballs into the lake and girls with cooties type of camp? That camp?”
“Never mind,” says Peter loudly. “Hanging up now!”
“Wait, wait. What is this camp?”
Peter sighs. “It’s science camp,” he says miserably. “Aunt May signed me up months ago, but I just found out I got in. I tried to get out of it, but I think I’ll break her heart if I say no. I tried to tell her about training, but we don’t really talk about, you know, Spider-Man stuff unless we can’t help it, and--”
“Woah woah woah. Slow down, Pete. What’s the camp called?”
“It’s natural science week at Yellow River Ranch. For teens,” he adds, as if this will somehow make it sound less dorky. There is still a pause before Mr. Stark replies that makes Peter certain he is stifling laughter.
But it turns out Peter is wrong.
“That’s a good program,” Mr. Stark says when he speaks again, and Peter realizes he was looking the camp up, which gives him a little jolt of happiness. Tony Stark cares enough to check up on the place where Peter is condemned to spend the next week. His happiness swells when Mr. Stark adds, “You need help with the tuition?”
“Um, no,” Peter says, taken aback. “No, but thank you Mr. Stark, that’s really...that’s really nice of you.”
“I’ve literally spent millions on your suit, Peter, not to mention cleaning up your many messes, and you’re getting bashful at a couple grand? At least let me have Happy drive you up.”
“No, it’s not that! I just mean I got a scholarship. All paid up. No need for help. And there’s a bus. But wait, does that mean you think I should go?”
“I thought that’s what you were calling me to say.”
“It was. It is. But what about training?”
“It’ll be rough without you, but somehow we’ll manage. Maybe you can call in the evenings so Hawkeye doesn’t cry himself to sleep? Of course, Sam will be inconsolable, but that’s--”
“Ha ha,” Peter says. The happiness from earlier evaporates. “I get it. I’m not needed. No need to rub it in.”
“Go be a kid, kid,” says Mr. Stark. “Everything will still be here when you get back. Now, do you need anything else? Because I’m only forty percent sure that nothing is on fire in my lab right now.”
“It's a week,” Peter blurts. “A whole week. And I don't think I can bring the suit. It's definitely a shared living situation, which would make changing kind of awkward.”
“Changing for what? Ents? All the villains hiding in the forest with Robin Hood’s merry band? Actually, you know what, I'm not gonna jinx it. But if you're worried about New York, I think the city can survive seven days while you squint at butterflies with nerds your own age.”
“Umm.” Peter hesitates. “Okay. But--tell the team I’m going somewhere super badass.” He casts around for something that will sound rugged and intense. “Like--uh--backpacking, or something.”
“Disneyland it is,” says Mr. Stark, and before Peter can splutter his objections, he hangs up the phone.
And that's that. Three days later Peter is standing in the doorway waiting for May to wish him goodbye, wearing an enormous backpack and feeling for all the world like he is five years old and on his way to his first day of kindergarten. The humiliation is palpable and he is already itching to get back into his suit--which he dutifully, if somewhat begrudgingly, left in its box above his closet--to counterbalance this.
But he's also a little excited. He and Ned looked into the camp more once he realized he had no choice but to go, and some of it actually looks pretty cool. There's a wilderness survival course, and a day where they just learn how to use drones to map difficult terrain, which might actually come in handy when Peter gets back. He's been wanting to be more involved in programming his suit; maybe Mr. Stark will be more amenable if he has some practical experience. Ned had even looked a bit jealous.
“May, I'm gonna be late!”
May comes dancing out of her room, holding a paper gift bag stuffed with wrapping tissue. She kisses him on the cheek and hands him the bag.
“For my little scientist,” she says.
May makes an exaggerated serious face.
“Sorry. I mean, for my hulking, manly scientist. Chemicals. Machinery.”
“Thanks, that's better.”
He opens the bag. Inside is a massive bottle of aerosol Off! and a note: No more bug bites!
Peter grins and stuffs the present into his already overflowing backpack, barely managing to zip it.
“Have fun, sweetie.”
She hugs him. Her giddiness is contagious, and Peter starts to feel glad he is going. Maybe he could use a break. Just a small one. The suit and the city will be here when he gets back.
He returns the hug and turns for the door.
“And call me,” May calls after him.
“They said no cell phones!” Peter says, even though he has his wrapped in a pair of socks at the bottom of his bag. “We’re supposed to be immersed in the wild or something. You know, with drones and computers to offset all that nature, but still. Healthy balance.”
“Use the camp phone, then. Just once a day. I already miss your voice.”
He waves over his shoulder as he leaves, smiling and a little nervous, no longer thinking about the suit in his closet but rather the fact that he doesn’t know anyone at camp. He wishes MJ or Ned was going, but Ned really is going upstate to visit his sister and when he told MJ about it--nervously, because they still haven't really defined what they are, but thinking he might call in a favor with Mr. Stark for late admission and maybe take the opportunity to find out--she had just mimed tugging a noose around her neck. So that was out.
New friends. Nerds his own age. This is a good thing, right?
Peter is rehearsing potential introductions (“Hey, Peter Parker. Yeah, I go to Midtown. Yep, 2017 decathlon champions, that’s us”) in the elevator when he first senses that something is wrong. It’s an indistinct whisper in the back of his head and, not knowing what to make of it, he turns around to check the corners right as the elevator shudders to a halt.
The lights go out.
Peter is fast--already on his toes, fists up--but someone else is faster. There is a sharp sting on the right side of his neck and Peter flings a hand up, but whatever pricked him has either fallen away or was so small he can’t feel it.
The drugs work quickly. He has just a moment to think before he slips into unconsciousness, and with that precious small time he doesn’t even come up with anything useful. What he does think is this:
I should have used that bug spray.
And then he is gone. Peter slips to the floor just as the ceiling panel opens and a dark figure drops into the elevator to lift him out