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Four Days

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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?”

“Mmm!”

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.

“Really, May?”

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.

“Thanks May.”

“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.”

“Okay, okay.”

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

Chapter Text

 

He dreams he’s back in the warehouse. It collapses, and he is trapped. But this time his arms are pinned to his sides by rubble and there are shooting pains up and down his biceps, like he’s been impaled, like he’s on fire. Water is pouring down over his head, but he can’t pull the mask off to take a breath, can’t make a sound, can’t dig himself out, and Toomes is flying away and he can’t move--

 

Peter wakes with a gasp. His head jerks up and smacks against a wall, but he’s too disoriented to feel the pain, his senses buzzing, his vision screaming with fluorescent lights and dusty shadows. Peter squeezes them shut, forces himself to take a breath, tries to get a handle on the sudden and overpowering sensory overload.

 

When he opens them, he almost thinks he’s still dreaming. He is in a warehouse. His heart rate spikes, but it takes just a second to realize this is not Toomes’s lair. Never mind that his was destroyed; this one is clearly older, mustier, with a dirt floor instead of a cement one. The ceiling is made of wood, and sunlight streams through the splinters in jagged bursts. Peter can hear the sounds of traffic, but they’re distant; he wouldn’t be able to if not for his enhanced hearing. He might still be in the city, but he’s on the outskirts.

 

He’s sitting on the floor, propped in a corner. His head and arms are throbbing, while the rest of him feels limp and distant, as if his lower half has been disconnected.

 

When he looks down, he finds that his arms and legs are in chains.

 

His breathing quickens. It escapes him with an audible choking noise. He looks around wildly, trying to see an out, to see--to see--

 

“I wouldn’t move too much if I were you.”

 

Peter stops struggling and jerks his head up in time to see the figure of a man step out of the shadows and into a shaft of sunlight. Peter goes still. The man is tall, well-muscled, white and middle-aged, but relatively nondescript. Peter has an almost preternatural memory for faces--has since before the spider bite--and he’s sure he’s never seen the man before.

 

Peter sucks in a breath and holds it while the man approaches, because he is hyperventilating and he doesn’t want his kidnapper to see how frightened he is. But it’s impossible to hide his fear when the man stops at Peter’s feet, kneels down, and looks directly into Peter’s face, his own impassive.

 

Peter holds the man’s gaze as long as he can, but his eyes are watering from the effort not to breathe and it ends when he lets out a sputtering gasp and sends himself into a coughing fit,

 

The man’s expression doesn’t change a whit. He gets to his feet and reaches for something on the wall. Peter flinches as, with a clunk, a series of hooded lights, the kind they use for school photos, come on all around the perimeter of the room.

 

It’s only then that he sees the camera. It’s six feet in front of him and pointed directly at him. Behind it, toward the center of the warehouse, he sees a makeshift workspace that looks part office, part chemistry experiment: computers on one side, titers and flasks and charts on the other.

 

Peter is so scared he can barely think, but he still tries to speak.

 

“We don’t--”

 

His mouth is dry and tastes like ash. He swallows hard and tries again, head rolling to look up at his captor.

 

“We don’t have any money. You won’t get any ransom.”

 

The man quirks his head as he looks down at Peter, considering.

 

“I think we both know there are people out there who would pay more than a fair sum to get Peter Parker back,” he says, “and even more who would pay to get their hands on the Spider-Man. But that’s not why you’re here today.”

 

Peter swallows convulsively, his panic kicking up a notch. The man knows who he is. He is not here by accident. In the space of a second Peter cycles through every way someone could have gotten their hands on his identity, all the safeguards he knows Mr. Stark has put in place to prevent it from happening. He comes up with only one answer: He must have fucked up somewhere along the way.

 

But there’s no time to dwell because the man is walking toward the camera now, and he pauses beside it, adjusting the lens, peering into the eyepiece.

 

“I’m not making a ransom video,” he says as he finishes, moving now to the table at the center of the room. Peter is too low on the floor to see what he is doing there, but he can hear the clink of metal on metal as the man moves something. “The camera is there for purely scientific purposes.”

 

Peter is struck by a sudden clarity: It does not matter how he got here. It doesn’t matter why. He knows only one thing, and that is that he does not want to know what the man means by “scientific purposes.”

 

The man turns his back, and Peter takes the opportunity to look around the room. The lights are blinding--his senses, already dialed up to nearly unbearable levels, are made all the worse by panic--but he does see that the wide open space of the main warehouse is lined on all sides by dilapidated wooden staircases, which lead to a walkway lined with doors. Offices, maybe. It looks like this building might have been an old-fashioned factory at some point, though it’s obviously long-defunct.

 

In a corner, he sees his backpack. It is open, his clothes strewn all around it, the little gift bag with the Off! lying nearby, but from what he can tell nothing is missing, which means… his phone .

 

He turned it off to sneak it into camp, and it’s inside a wad of socks thick enough that there’s a chance the man didn’t notice it. If he can just get to it…

 

Peter has never wanted his web-slingers more in his life, nor felt more useless without them. The shackles on his arms and legs are connected to the wall by heavy bolts, but he once lifted a building off himself--if he’s quick and decisive maybe he can rip them out of the wall before the man knows what happened.

 

Steeling himself, Peter takes a deep breath and lifts his arms.

 

He gasps, arms immediately falling limp at his side. He’s been so caught up in the immediate horror of the moment, assessing his surroundings-- find a way out, find a way out --that he failed to assess himself. As soon as he tries to lift his arms pain shoots from his elbow to his spine, hot and electric. It’s not hard to see why: there are holes in his biceps, round and the size of a pencil eraser, at least five in each arm. They must be fresh because they are still bleeding, little rivulets flowing into the crooks of his arms and dripping to the floor.

 

He wants to cry. He can feel it prickling behind his eyes, but he forces himself to swallow the urge and looks up.

 

“I told you to keep still,” says the man, not looking up from his work station. “But I figured you might not listen. That’s why I targeted the radial nerve. You like science, right Peter? You know all about the nerves in the arm. Know what happens when you put pressure on a nerve?”

 

Peter knows. He is still jolting from it, skitters of pain alternating with numbness, making him shake.

 

“But still,” he says, “the jab to the nerves was really just a precautionary measure. You were starting to wake up, and I needed a way to keep you still while I put the rest of these in. You metabolize sedatives at an impressive rate. I wonder what else you can do?”

 

He steps away from the table, and now Peter can see that he is holding what looks like a massive version of the piercing guns they use at the mall. He can see the gleam of a needle the size of his finger at the end of it, and he immediately tenses, only fighting the urge to try to run because he knows what will happen if he moves his arms.

 

“What is it?” he asks, and hates himself for it, because he needs to know and he knows the man won’t tell him, and all he’s done is expose the fear in his voice, raw and unadulterated.

 

“A concoction I made just for you,” says the man, surprising Peter. “Of course, I based it on the spider and not the…” --he looks Peter up and down-- “ man . So who knows what it will do to you in reality. But let’s find out.”

 

He approaches so rapidly that Peter throws himself backward, smacking his head against the wall again. When the man kneels beside him he can’t help it; he jerks his right arm away.

 

When he’s finished screaming, the man is still kneeling beside him. There’s no stopping the tears now, but as he attempts to suck in a breath, Peter forces himself to look the man in the eye.

 

“Don’t you want to know what I’m doing, Peter?” he says softly.

 

Peter chokes on his next breath, clamps his lips shut, and gives the man the hardest stare he can muster.

 

The man punches him in the face. Peter is still reeling with nerve pain and lingering sedatives, otherwise the hit wouldn’t have affected him; as it is, stars burst in front of his eyes and he has to blink them away as he swings his head up to look at his captor.

 

Blood trickles into his eye. The man is wearing a ring. Peter catches a glimpse of it as he lowers his fist: it’s bulky like a class ring, and there is a perfect circle stamped at the center.

 

Then the man grabs Peter’s face and forces him to look up.

 

“I said,” he hisses, “don’t you want to know what I’m doing?”

 

Peter nods.

 

In reply, the man drives the needle into his arm and pulls the trigger.

 

Peter’s whole body jolts with white-hot pain, heat like lava spreading from the injection site, but this time he bites back the scream. Fresh blood trickles down his arm when the man pulls the gun away.

 

“I’ve just given you a subdermal implant,” says the man. “You have five in each arm now, though I bet I’ll have to set a few more before you and I are done with each other. The implant is full of a little drug I whipped up just for you--something to stop you from leaving. They’re set to go off on a timer, but the vials are pretty fragile, and I imagine if you thrash around too much they might go off on their own. Do you want to see what they do?”

 

Peter hesitates, because he wants to be brave (“ I just wanted to be like you! ” springs unbidden to his mind). But he’s fucking scared. He shakes his head.

 

“That’s too bad,” says the man.

 

He drives his thumb into the newest injection site.

 

Peter’s world goes white. The blankness is inviting, but only for a moment. Then that moment morphs into a terrifying awareness: he is blind and he can’t breathe and everything is shaking and he’s going to die like this, shackled to a wall with no one to see him go, no one who knows where he is--

 

Peter’s vision returns first. The ceiling is in his sight, quaking. But it’s not the ceiling that’s shaking--it’s him. His whole body is stiff and quivering as every neuron fires at once in a chaotic mess.

 

The shaking stops, eventually. And then Peter can’t move. He knows his eyes are open because he can’t close them, can’t even blink.

 

It takes all his effort to draw in a rasping breath.

 

The man’s face appears in his line of sight, scowling but somehow also eager, almost aroused.

 

“You ruined my life, Peter,” he says. “Let’s see if you can fix it before I end yours.”

Chapter Text

Whatever the drug is, at least one effect lingers: Peter isn't exactly paralyzed; he can wiggle his fingers and his toes, shake his head from side to side slowly, but he's so weak he can't do much else.

It's a familiar sensation. The day the spider bit him he had gone home feeling like he was coming down with the flu, headed to bed, and woken up in the middle of the night feeling like he was going to die. Feeling certain he was going to die, certain in a way that he hasn't felt before or since, an almost trancelike state of acceptance and muted fear--muted because he was too weak to muster that much feeling--that, looking back on it through the haze of excitement and teenage revelry that’s come since, feels so peculiar and distant he can’t begin to grasp the memory of the emotion. He had lain there that night, sweating and shivering feebly, too feverish to think straight but wondering idly if he should try to reach for his phone and listening for any sign that Aunt May and Uncle Ben might be coming to check on him, though at that point they hadn't checked on him in the middle of the night in a good three years. But they knew he was sick, so maybe.

It didn't even occur to him to shout to them. He knew he wouldn't be able to muster his voice.

They didn't come. Peter had lain still, listening to the sound of his own breathing growing slower, harsher, until each inhale was a rasp that made him think of cracked asphalt and skinned knees, which was the last image in his head before he had slipped into unconsciousness.

When he awoke, he awoke as Spider-Man.

He doesn't feel like Spider-Man now. He feels like the kid who went to bed that night, shaking with fever and frightened for his life. Only this time he isn't certain about anything. He doesn't know why he is here.

He feels like he might die.

But the man has kept him alive this long.

While he is immobilized, the man gets to work. The first thing he does is draw blood, but not with a needle. He makes a series of shallow cuts with a scalpel on the backs of Peter’s arms and scoops the blood into vials, then marks each cut with a felt pen, though Peter can’t lift his head to see what he writes. He spends some time at the table--again, Peter cannot see what he is doing--and then comes back and does the same to his other arm.

He’s quiet while he does this. So is Peter. The cuts sting, but there is so much else going on with his body that Peter doesn’t even flinch the second time the man digs the scalpel in.

His head is tilted back at an uncomfortable angle, digging into the hollow of the corner in which he is chained, but it gives him a view of the cracks in the rotting ceiling. The sunlight through the cracks is changing, sharpening and stiffening as morning shifts to afternoon. He’s been here for hours and no one has come for him. Which means this was well-planned. The man must have gotten ahead of them, told the camp he wasn’t coming somehow.

No one knows he is here. No one even knows he is missing. Aunt May is probably at work, thinking about nothing more than what she is going to order for dinner and the sleep she is going to get for once, knowing that Peter is safe in the hands of his counselors.

Maybe, he thinks, maybe Mr. Stark will check up on him. Maybe he’s put some sort of tracker in Peter’s clothes, something he didn’t tell Peter about because he knew Peter would rebel and try to remove it. Maybe he knows exactly where Peter is and is rushing here right now, blasters prepped, ready to--

But Peter halts the line of thought, bringing it to a screeching and forceful stop. Because if any of that was true Mr. Stark would have already been here.

If Peter is going to get out of this, he is going to have to do it on his own.

When the man heads back to the desk, Peter lifts his head.

It takes an enormous effort, but he does it. He can feel the drugs beginning to leave his system, sloughing off in the sweat pouring out of him like runoff after a heavy rain, and once his head is up he tries his feet--slowly, slowly so the chains don’t rattle. He wishes he had a clock to be sure, especially since he has no way to know how the drugs have addled his thoughts along with his body, but he guesses twenty-five minutes have passed since the first implant went off. Twenty-five minutes to start to regain some of his faculties, and he has no idea when the next one is set to burst.

The thought makes panic rise in his throat, bitter and dry. But he swallows it, hard. He can't afford it. He cannot afford to panic. He was offered a place with the Avengers, and that wasn't by accident. He imagines what Steve Rogers would do, but it's a discouraging line of thought. Captain America probably would have ignored the pain and ripped the chains off immediately, would already be home with a trail of bad guys unconscious in his wake. Peter is no Captain America.

What would Mr. Stark do?

He knows the Iron Man origin story--everyone does. Tony Stark, most famous man in the world, kidnapped and held in a cave; of course the world knows, tells the story over and over. But it is only now occurring to Peter that even though he knows the basics, was obsessed, as a kid, with the pictures of the original Iron Man suit being dug out of the sand and the now-ancient first arc reactor, he doesn't know any of the specifics. How Mr. Stark felt. What his captors did. Mr. Stark doesn't talk about what really happened, not with the press and certainly not with Peter.

Was he frightened? It's hard for Peter to imagine. He's seen Mr. Stark worried and angry and disappointed, but never scared. He can't have been scared like this, this buzzing, numbing terror that makes it impossible to think, because that's how Tony Stark escaped that cave, how he faces every obstacle: he thinks his way out of it.

Peter takes a deep, steeling breath. Mr. Stark trusted him with the suit, trusted him with the Avengers, trusts him on the streets of Queens every night...it shouldn't matter if no one is coming. He shouldn't need anyone to come. He can take a leaf out of Mr. Stark’s book and find a way out of this.

He looks down at his arms. The round holes where the man placed the implants are starting to knit, but normally an injury so small would be almost fully healed by now, so Peter has to guess there is something in the implant that inhibits his healing factor, if only to a small degree. Still, he decides to risk it, thinking he can bite back a scream if he needs to. He raises his right arm, then his left.

Tingles run up and down his arms, but nothing like the electric pain he felt the first time. This is a low, thrumming ache, like someone is gently plucking the nerves as one would a guitar string, and the longer he holds himself up the more it fades. The nerves are healing, almost healed.

But Peter is still weak, too weak to rip the chains out of the wall or fight his captor off. Keeping an eye on the man, who has his back turned to him, Peter slowly rotates his right wrist to examine the shackle. To his dismay there is no lock, just a narrow crack in the metal where the two halves close. He can see the faint blue of an LED light through the crack, which tells him the shackles are electronic, probably controlled by the computer at the center of the room. The joints, then, will be his best bet for getting them off, but he will still need a tool or some way to get leverage--

The man turns, and Peter is so wrapped in his thoughts that he drops his arms a second too late. The rattle of the chains tips the man off. His eyes narrow as he approaches again.

“I was wondering how fast the nerves would heal. You could probably change a lot of lives if you submitted yourself for study. Let science get its hands on you.”

Peter’s heart jumped as soon as he saw the man step toward him, but this time his head is clearer, he feels more focused. So he swallows and replies hoarsely, “Weird, I thought it already did.”

The man purses his lips. He's standing over Peter now, but he doesn't have anything in his hands. He's just watching.

“So is that what I should call you? Mr. Science? Or maybe Dr. Science? Have you ever noticed that so many evil dudes are doctors? Do you think Columbia has like, a seminar in How to Take Over the World?”

He's babbling, but he wants to stall as long as he can. He doesn't want the man to get any closer.

“You don't have a good sense of when to shut your fucking mouth, do you?” says the man.

“So that's a yes on Dr. Science?”

The man kicks him in the ribs.

It's swift and painful, but even as Peter gasps in shock he knows it didn't do much damage. The drugs are leaving him more rapidly now, and he's relieved that they haven't totally stripped him of his powers. Still, he has to work not to try to curl in on himself, because he knows if he does he risks setting another capsule off.

The man steps back as if to survey his handiwork, and Peter glances up at him through his sweaty hair, which is falling into his face.

“Maybe we should introduce ourselves more formally,” says the man. “Since we’re going to be spending so much time together. You can call me Morell.” He sneers and adds, almost as though he can't help it, “Doctor Morell.”

“Called it.”

Morell looks like he wants to kick him again and Peter braces, but it doesn't come.

“You're lucky I need that tongue,” he says, “or I'd have half a mind to cut it out.”

“Was that one of the lines from the seminar, or is there a reference book for corny threats that they give out at the end of the semester?”

This time Morell does kick him again.

Half of Peter knows he's being stupid mouthing off, but he won't stop. Talking gives him confidence, makes him feel less like Peter Parker and more like Spider-Man, and besides, it buys him more time to look around the room on the guise of catching his breath. He just needs something--anything--he can use as a tool.

But Morell has been careful. There is nothing even remotely within Peter’s reach, not so much as a screw.

Peter’s gaze goes to his bag, sitting in the corner. It feels miles away.

He flexes his hand, then clenches it into a fist. The shackles are tight but not excessively. Maybe he can--

Peter looks up, and Morell is gone.

Peter looks around wildly, breath hitching, but he's nowhere in sight. Far from relief, Peter feels a wild surge of fear and anticipation, because he's sure once Morell comes back he's going to have something worse, do something worse.

Once again he fights it off. Any time Morell is out of the room is an opportunity. With each passing moment his strength has returned, a little at a time, and though he can't yet imagine breaking out of here he can ease his arms back, shift his weight, and strain against the shackles. The cuffs slip up on his wrists but get stuck where his thumb meets his palm.

He tugs until the metal begins to cut into his skin and then stops. Short of breaking his hand, he isn't going to be able to slip the cuffs. He casts around for another plan. There might not be any tools in reach but he is close to the cement wall against which he is propped. He could try to smash the shackles against it, but that would require momentum and momentum would require movement, and he doesn't want to experience the blankness and the shaking and the horror that comes with not being able to move...all of which will happen if he moves his arms too fast, or too hard.

He's stuck.

Again Peter wants to cry, this time just as much out of frustration as fear. He has only felt this trapped once, when Toomes dropped a building on him, and that only lasted a few moments. He's been in this warehouse for hours now.

There is a sound to his right, a metallic clunk that he places as a heavy lock sliding back. There is a door somewhere over there, shrouded in shadow.

Morell steps into the light. There is something in his hand.

Peter starts to struggle almost without meaning to, wrists straining and chafing against the shackles, but he stops when Morell steps close enough for him to see what he's holding. Not another needle. Not some instrument of torture. A phone.

Peter holds his breath, blinking away tears, and looks up at Morell with a question straining at his lips. Morell answers it before he can ask. He holds the phone up and presses the screen.

If there is anything Peter is not expecting to hear in this moment, in this place, it is Aunt May’s voice.

Have fun, sweetie. And call me!

Then, his own voice. Peter feels a humming around his head at the sound of it, a vibrating unreality that makes him feel like he is upside-down, or underwater. The cheerful affection sounds like a foreign language, much less his own words.

They said no cell phones! 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.

Peter can't help it. Two tears spill from his eyes, which are wide, and roll down his cheeks. He doesn't make a sound. May’s words from this morning feel like they were spoken years and years ago, and hearing them is twist of the knife: what will she do when she realizes what has happened? How will she survive all this loss if he can't come back to her?

But he also knows--as much as his anguish appears to please Morell--that's not the only point of playing this recording.

He wants Peter to know he's been watching. Listening. That he knows where May is, and how to get to her.

The man scrubs the recording back and plays it again, then once more for good measure, until Peter’s heart is pounding so hard with terror and homesickness he almost can't hear it anymore.

On the fourth time through, he cuts the recording short, so all Peter hears is, “Have fun, sweetie,” before May’s voice is gone.

“Your aunt isn't making things easy on me,” says Morell lowly.

Peter looks at him, a desperate plea written all across his expression, but he cannot speak.

“No witty rejoinders this time? Well, that's good. But you’re going to have to find your voice quickly, Peter. You're going to call her.”

“You want me to tell her--?” Peter says, horrified for a second that Morell wants to torture him by torturing Aunt May. But Morell cuts him off.

“No, Peter, that would be counterproductive,” he says. “Because what you and I are doing here is going to take some time. Your aunt is expecting to hear from you. She misses you.” He spits the word like he can't stomach the idea of anyone missing Peter. “And if she calls Camp La La and finds out you never showed up, you and I are going to have to work a lot more quickly. And believe me, you're going to want me to take my time.”

Peter's mind is working fast now, too fast, panicked thoughts flashing through his head too quickly for him to cobble them together. He wants to say something smart or dismissive, but what he says is,

“She’s gonna know something's wrong. I can't keep secrets from her. I'm no good at it.”

Morell smirks. “I thought you might say that. So here's just a taste of what you'll get if I think there's even a whiff of a reason for her to be suspicious.”

He presses something else on the phone.

And then Peter is screaming. It's pain like he has never felt before in his life, all-over pain, pain without end or origin, pain like he is being turned inside-out--

It stops as abruptly as it came. Peter’s whole body goes instantly limp but his smallest muscles keep twitching like a jackrabbit on amphetamines, all of him still buzzing with aftershock. The shackles are electrified.

It takes a minute for him to become aware that he is sobbing, another for him to get it under control.

“Now,” says Morell, and he sounds very close, though Peter is too muddled and foggy to see him, “if you try to call for help, or tip her off in any way, you'll have another dose of that. A bigger dose. How many times do you think I could do that between the call and the time someone got here? Or maybe I would just flip the switch and let you burn to a crisp before anyone could find out where your screams are coming from. And in the meantime I could pay your aunt a little visit. Do you want me to do that?”

Peter opens his mouth and all that comes out is a grunt.

Morell snaps his fingers under Peter’s nose, then grabs his chin and forces his eyes up. It makes Peter think of Aunt May--Child of mine, do you think New York sprang into existence the moment you put on that suit?--and the tenderness of the way she touches him is in such stark contrast to the cold, firm grip of Morell’s hand that he tries to jerk away. It just makes Morell hold on tighter, fingers digging in hard enough that if Peter were anyone else they would leave a bruise. Maybe they do.

“I need you to use your words, Peter. Do you want me to do that?”

“N-n-nuh-no!”

It's the best he can manage and he clenches his teeth in shame at the sound of his voice.

Morell sighs and releases his face. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a syringe. It's not nearly as large as the implant gun, but Peter still balks at the sight of it, still tries to shove his twitching body deeper into the corner to get away. But it's no good. Morell jabs the needle into the side of Peter’s neck and pushes the plunger.

There is a rush of something hot and almost pleasant in his veins, followed by swooping clarity. He stops shaking. His teeth stop chattering. But almost as swiftly his heart starts to pound uncomfortably against his rib cage, like a man in prison trying to get out. Caffeine doesn't affect him anymore, and he has never touched drugs, but he doesn't need to have experimented to know Morell just gave him some sort of upper. He feels clearheaded and aware, almost uncomfortably so.

“Now,” says Morell, pocketing the syringe, “how does that feel? Can you talk?”

“Yes,” says Peter.

“Do you know where you are? Do you know what I want you to do?”

He’s checking Peter’s mental status. A very, very small part of Peter wants to tell him to go fuck himself. A much larger part is terrified of being shocked again.

“I’m going to call my aunt and tell her I’m at camp,” he says.

Morell nods tightly.

“Make it believable,” he says, and he dials.

The plan comes to Peter in the few seconds between the time when the phone begins to ring and the time the voicemail picks up--You’ve reached May, leave it at the beep!--as he knew it would, because May is at work and she only answers her phone at work when he is home sick or if it’s the school calling. Whatever was in the syringe has allowed him to sort through his thoughts, allows the plan to fall into place, but he almost doesn’t muster the courage. If he had any longer to think about it he might have chickened out.

But then the phone beeps and Peter is talking.

“Hey, Aunt May, it’s me,” he says, surprised by how even his voice sounds, how easily the words flow when her life is on the line. “Camp is good. Lots of trees. I’m making friends — uh, there’s Rob, and Harriet, and a guy named Anthony that we just call Tony. Um, I miss you. Try not to burn down the apartment while I’m gone.”

Peter glances up at Morell, but all Morell does is nod again and hang up the phone.

“Very good, Peter,” he says.

He didn’t notice. Peter can only hope May will.

Nor does Morell notice that his pockets are lighter when he pulls away from Peter to hang up the phone. Peter covers up the rattle of the chains by pretending to shudder, and he tucks the pilfered scalpel under his leg while Morell gets to his feet.

He doesn't have to pretend for long.

There is a twist in his stomach. Whatever effect the most recent drugs had, it is morphing, changing from energetic clarity to a sick, squelching feeling in his abdomen, and he shudders for real, big, unstoppable tremors. Just as soon as the ability to think came, it slides away.

The runoff of built-up adrenaline is fierce. He realizes he hasn’t eaten since that morning, which is probably also a factor: since the bite, he has found he has to eat almost constantly during the day to keep up with his energy expenditure. But he can’t imagine asking for something to eat, doesn’t think he would trust it if Morell offered. The hunger and the fear and the drugs make for a dangerous combination. His system is so overloaded he suddenly feels like he might pass out from all the input. His vision is just beginning to tilt and swirl ferociously when Morell stands and walks away.

Peter doesn’t pass out. He does vomit though: a thin yellow trail of bile trickles down the graphic t-shirt he spent so much time picking out that morning (it’s red and says This shirt is blue if you run fast enough). He watches it slide down his chest like a slug, rolling over and over itself in a cocoon of saliva before settling into the fabric, hot for a minute and then cold.

Morell turns back to look at him, disgust burning low and hot in his features.

He says something then, but Peter doesn’t hear it. Another capsule bursts; he feels a sharp pain in his bicep, a tiny firework under his skin.

Then he doesn’t feel anything.

Chapter Text

Twenty-five minutes before he regains enough strength to lift his head. Thirty-five to move his arms. An hour before the next capsule goes off.

It takes Peter two more cycles to recognize the pattern. Once he does, he takes another cycle to despair the revelation. By the time he’s come to terms with the twenty-five minutes he will have to break out of his shackles and escape, the fourth capsule has already gone off.

While Peter is semi-conscious after the fourth cycle, Morell takes the opportunity to inject more capsules, so that when he wakes his arms are swollen and too painful to move even as the effects begin to wear off. So the fifth cycle is gone too.

All the while, Morell has been… experimenting . Peter doesn’t know what else to call it. He doesn’t know exactly what Morell hopes to accomplish, but he knows what he’s doing, most of the time. Morell tests his hearing, his reflexes, checks his throat, almost as if he’s performing a simple physical. But there are other tests too, cruel tests. Morell jabs his muscles with electrified needles that make him jump and twitch like a frightened mouse, shines lights in his eyes, so bright he can’t see anything but hot white spots at the center of his vision for nearly an hour. During one cycle he plays a screeching, tinny note continuously, until Peter is ready to leap out of his own skin to escape the noise.

His only relief is that Morell hasn’t electrocuted him again. As long as the shackles stay dormant, he thinks, he can withstand the rest.

He hasn’t eaten. After the fifth capsule, Morell sticks a sturdy needle in Peter’s neck, near his carotid, and attaches it to an IV bag that he hangs from the bolt holding the shackles to the wall, out of Peter’s reach. Peter doesn’t dare touch it, but he eyes it nervously throughout the cycle, wondering when the awful effects of whatever drug Morell was giving him will kick in until Morell, noticing his gaze, says, “It’s just fluids. Vitamins. I need you alive for a while yet.”

This, Peter realizes, is dinner.

They are well into the night at this point, and while Peter is nursing his newly-injected arms and trying desperately to bring himself back to the present, to focus, to focus even though everything is spinning and sliding, the colors on the walls rolling and dripping like the world is melting--while Peter is doing this, Morell comes back from his workbench with a needle.

Peter doesn’t flinch. Morell morphs continuously in his vision, like an illustration of a bad acid trip.

“We’re done for today,” he says. “How was it?”

Peter coughs.

“Yes, well, I imagine it takes some getting used to. But if it’s any consolation, you are a beautiful specimen. The things I’m going to do with these results… OsCorp will be shitting their pants to have me back.”

Peter is so foggy at this point the words don’t register right away, not until he catches sight of the man’s ring, the same one that cut his eyebrow earlier and remembers the round engraving. Not a circle. An “o.” O for OsCorp.

Oh, he thinks.

But Morell has already stuck the needle into the port on Peter’s IV and pushed the plunger. The revelation will do him no good tonight. Peter drifts.

Blessedly, mercifully, he does not dream. 

When he wakes on the second day, he is alone in the warehouse. He's stiff and sore all over, but he's alive.

It’s a toss up as to what woke him: the first slivers of early-morning sunlight are beginning to stream through the slats above, but Peter thinks it’s more likely the smell. Like raw, untreated sewage, like campground port-a-potties, and he first thinks this must be some new form of torture until he realizes the smell is coming from him. He has wet himself in the night--or maybe before, probably several times, but he was so out of it yesterday he doesn’t remember.

Shame rises, hot and sour. He can feel himself turning red and he curls instinctively to put his face in his hands. He’s so caught up in feeling furious with himself that it takes a moment for him to realize his arms don’t hurt.

Peter looks down. There are scars peppering his biceps where Morell stuck the implants, but they are pale white, already mostly healed and fading. There have been no new injections in the night. What’s more, none of the implants have gone off in hours, probably not since Morell sedated him. Whatever is in the capsules, it’s possible he doesn’t want Peter to OD. Maybe he doesn’t need them to go off during the night. 

The respite has returned some of Peter’s cognitive capabilities, reinvigorated him… just enough, anyway. He looks around the room, listens--listens as hard as he can, to the sounds of his own breathing, to the distant honk and screech of cars in the city--and concludes that Morell is, at least, not in the warehouse.

He glances at the camera next. The light is off. He doesn’t think it’s on.

Peter reaches under his leg. The scalpel is still there. When he pulls it out there is a fine crust of blood along the edge from when Morell cut him. But those cuts have healed in the night too. He rubs the blade on the leg of his pants until it’s clean. 

Now what to do with it?

His original plan of going for the joints is quickly scrapped. The bolts are welded within the joint, making them utterly inaccessible. So Peter turns instead to the fronts of the shackles, the thin beam of light he saw in the cracks there. Tentative, checking over his shoulder, he sticks the point of the scalpel into the crack.

It’s too big. The tip doesn’t make it past the metal casing. Chest tight, he scrapes the scalpel along the outside of the shackle, searching for an access point--and, miraculously, finds one. A hidden compartment, the margin between it and the rest of the shackle so fine it is invisible until he jiggles it with the scalpel tip.

Peter’s breath hitches and an incoherent string of pleas tumbles from his mouth in a whisper, “ Please please please please…”

The casing pops off.

He catches it before it can fall and skitter away, his reflexes nearly back to normal after a night of drug-induced sleep and intravenous fluids. He tucks it carefully underneath his leg in place of the scalpel. Beneath the casing is an intricate network of wires and chips, all surrounded by heavy insulation. The shackles are computerized.

Peter takes a breath of relief so shaky it is almost a sob. He knows computers. He knows this . One glance tells him all he has to do is find the right wire and he can cut off contact to the remote on Morell’s phone, maybe even get them to open. Another moment of searching--where the power comes from, how it is diverted, which wires are dedicated to the circuit controlling the current and which go to the remote antennae he can see deep within--and he thinks he knows what he has to do.

But instead of certainty, Peter is struck by a dizzying wave of fear.

His mouth goes dry. He has no idea when the capsules will start going off again, no idea when Morell is going to return. If he’s going to do this, he has to do it now.

There is an urgent lurch in his stomach, so potent he drops the scalpel. He scrambles to retrieve it and takes a deep breath, closing his eyes and muttering, “It’s okay. You’re okay.”

He’s not, and his body knows it, even if it takes his mind a second to catch up. The memory of electricity fills his mouth with a taste like copper, and he shudders. He doesn’t want to have to do this. He doesn’t want to be here, alone, shivering and aching all over from sitting in the same position so long. He wants to go home, where Aunt May can make a bed for him on the couch like she did when he was a kid and had the flu, and they can watch old episodes of Happy Days and Scrubs together--Uncle Ben’s old favorites.

“Stop it, Parker,” he snaps. He almost doesn’t realize that he’s speaking out loud. “You want to go home? Then get yourself home. You can do this. You can do this.”

He takes a deep breath and opens his eyes. The open panel sits before him, delicate wires zigzagging through it. 

Peter jabs, quick, with the scalpel, just to test. There is a little buzz and he flinches, but the shock is nothing like the one from yesterday--it’s more akin to brushing up against an exposed wire from an extension cord, uncomfortable but bearable. He grits his teeth and goes in again, jittering at the sensation of low-voltage snaking up his arm. Peter cuts a red wire--the phone--and then a blue one.

All at once, the shackles spring open.

The rush of relief and adrenaline is so fierce that Peter’s vision swims dangerously with the onslaught. He forces himself to blink it away. He can’t afford to pass out. There’s no time to revel in his small victory--he is still in the warehouse, still who knows where in New York with who knows how much time until Morell returns or until another capsule bursts, rendering him useless.

Peter kicks the shackles away from his feet, but he removes the ones on his wrists more carefully, trying not to move his arms too much. They fall away with a clatter that makes his head rattle, but that’s it. They are off.

“Okay, Peter,” he says. “And now all you have to do is move.”

Peter has caught speeding cars, steered a plane from the outside wearing nothing but a tracksuit, and pulled people out of burning buildings. He’s lifted a building off himself and hauled searing-hot metal off of enemies.

He never thought standing up would be such a daunting task.

But twenty-four hours spent either sitting in the same position or twitching and jerking against drugs and electric current and all kinds of torture has turned his joints to lead and his muscles to jelly. He can’t get his legs to work, and he’s too frightened of setting off a capsule to use his arms. After several moments spent shuffling uselessly in the dirt, Peter ends up wedging himself into the corner and using it to sort of shimmy up the wall until he is standing. It’s awkward and humiliating, but as soon as he’s on his feet his legs loosen up a bit, relieved to move. Peter braces himself, takes a step.

Something jerks painfully at his neck. He almost falls--would fall, except he manages to fling himself back at the last minute and prop himself against the wall instead of pitching forward. Peter hisses--he’d forgotten about the IV.

He doesn’t want to lift his arms. He’s terrified of what will happen if he moves them. But the IV bag--empty now--is locked to a hook on the wall, and the needle is deep in his neck.

He is struck, once again, with the overwhelming desire to be home, to be done, to not have to do this . They must be looking for him by now. They have to be. Even if May didn’t understand his message, chances are someone--May or even Tony, maybe--has checked in at the camp and realized that he’s not there. Maybe the Avengers are tearing the city apart looking for him and all he has to do is sit down and wait.

Peter makes a choked sound that is not quite a sob and not quite a laugh. There’s something ridiculous about the idea of all of the Avengers rip-roaring through New York, searching for a lost teenager. Even if that teenager happens to be Spider-Man. Especially if that teenager happens to be Spider-Man. Because that’s the thing about being an Avenger (or “ not an Avenger ,” air quotes emphasized), isn’t it? They’re great when they’re a team, but they’re on their own more often than not. Every single Avenger has gotten into some sort of scrape and had to get out of it alone. Why should Peter be the exception?

Peter is shaking so hard he might as well have a club at the end of his arm instead of fingers, for all the dexterity they provide. But--slowly, slowly--he lifts them anyway. He doesn’t slide the needle out so much as jerk it out, gritting his teeth against the tearing pain and the gush of warm blood down his shoulder. But then it’s out. And Peter is still conscious, still standing. Okay.

Peter drops the needle, retching as another wave of relief and terror washes over him, both  in equal measure.

There is something about being totally unshackled that is almost as frightening as being trapped.

But he doesn’t stop to psychoanalyze it. He takes a lurching step forward and this time it works. He keeps his feet. He takes another, and another, until he is standing in front of the door to the warehouse, panting like he’s just run a marathon.

He hooks his fingers--careful, careful--around the latch and pulls.

Locked.

“Of fucking course,” he mutters, the panic that has been lapping at the backdoor of his mind rising like floodwater. “Any other curveballs, universe? Should I try to figure out the secret fucking password?”

Peter kicks the door.

It turns out to be a stupid move.

Not only does it not budge--probably reinforced on the other side--the force of the kick sans the ability to balance with his arms sends Peter tumbling backward. When he lands on his back the wind is knocked out of him so sharply that he thinks for just a second that a capsule has gone off.

He doesn’t think about it long, though, because his kick has a third and much, much worse consequence.

Somewhere--somewhere distant but not distant enough, somewhere in this building, somewhere close to Peter--someone stirs. He can hear it--hear them --get to their feet and begin to approach.

Morell is coming.

“Dammit,” Peter whispers. “Dammit dammit, shit, dammit.”

He scrambles to his feet, almost not bothering to think about his arms, and turns in a dizzying circle, looking for another exit, another way out. The equipment Morell is using to conduct his experiments gleams, a morbid beacon, at the center of the room.

He looks instead to a lump in the corner, dark and distant.

His backpack .

Peter is just about to take a lurching step toward it when the door behind him swings open and instead he whirls around, finding himself face-to-face with Morell.

Morell looks disheveled, shirt half untucked, deep circles under his eyes, and a day’s worth of stubble on his chin. Peter can smell the alcohol lingering on his breath and in his blood, and in the fraction of a second while Morell is frozen and wide-eyed, Peter realizes that he has been afforded his escape attempt because Morell went on a bender last night. 

Then Morell’s surprise is swept away by an unmitigated fury. He pauses just long enough to kick the door shut behind him--Peter hears the lock slide into place automatically--and then Morell lunges.

Peter stumbles back, graceless and unsteady on his feet, and only avoids Morell’s grasp because by some miracle he is still holding the scalpel. He swings it out in a wide arc as Morell comes toward him, and manages to swipe a gash straight through Morell’s palm.

Morell screams in pain and fury, and while he is clutching his bleeding hand, Peter turns and runs. It’s not really running--more like a limping stumble, trying as he is to keep his arms stiff at his sides--and he doesn’t get far before Morell tackles him.

Peter goes down hard. He somehow manages to keep his arms at his sides, but this means he lands squarely on his face, and his jaw smacks against the dirt and concrete hard enough that he sees stars, his teeth clattering together.

But it’s Morell’s turn to regret his choice: Peter might be stiff and hurt all over; he might not want to lift his arms for fear of that blank white space and he might be trapped and terrified… but he has been off of whatever is in those capsules for the past eight hours, and he still has superpowers, even if he doesn’t feel like it at the moment.

While Morell tries to get a hold on him, Peter rolls onto his back and kicks as hard as he can.

Normally Peter wouldn’t put his full strength behind a kick aimed at a typical human, but he’s not exactly in control at the moment: Morell goes flying . He slams against the door through which he just entered and slides down it into a clustered heap on the floor, unconscious.

Stupidly, Peter’s first instinct is to go and make sure he is all right. He almost does it, but then he sees Morell breathe and that is enough.

Peter scrambles to his feet and crosses the remaining distance to the backpack. He falls to his knees beside it and dumps it over with a clumsy, stiff-armed smack: clothes and snacks and a paperback copy of Of Human Bondage that MJ lent him scatter across the floor (Peter will think about this later, though it will take some time to appreciate the small irony of the book). The Off! rolls listlessly away, noticed only peripherally by Peter, who is focused on one thing: the lump of socks at the bottom of the bag, where his phone is hidden.

It takes just a moment of shuffling through the detritus to realize it is not there.

“Do you think I’m a fucking idiot?”

Peter, eyes prickling, throat tight, whirls around on his knees to see Morell, spitting blood and looking more predatory than Peter thought was possible, getting slowly to his feet. Peter is weak with disappointment and fear, so when Morell takes an unsteady step, then another, all he does is scramble backward.

But Morell doesn’t approach him, not right away. He staggers over to the table at the center of the room and seizes something from the countertop. For a second Peter thinks it’s the phone Morell has been using as a remote and he flinches, even though he’s not shackled anymore. But then he recognizes the case on the phone--a cartoonish, rubber, 3D render of the Hulk’s snarling face (which Ned got him as a joke but which Peter secretly loves, without a touch of irony). It’s his.

Morell’s mouth stretches into a grotesque grin when he sees how crestfallen Peter is. His teeth are smeared with blood. Peter is sure the phone is disabled-- Of course it is, he thinks, the voice in his head almost hysterical, because what easier way to track someone than their phone, it would have been the first place he looked, you idiot, you idiot -- but that doesn’t stop Morell from flinging it to the ground and crushing it beneath his heel, as if to demonstrate the death of Peter’s last flickering hope. 

While Peter watches, holding his breath and unable to think of what his next move should be, Morell picks up a gun. Not the one he used to place the implants, but not a real gun either: Peter can see the red tuft of a tranquilizer dart poking from the end of the barrel.

He scoots back again when Morell lifts it. His hand brushes something cold and metallic.

There’s no time to think and no time to consider the consequences. As Morell lifts the gun and levels it at Peter, Peter closes his hand around the Off! and springs to his feet.

He gets Morell with a full blast to the face just as Morell fires. Morell shrieks and the shot goes wide, missing Peter by a hair. Morell drops the gun and lifts his hands to his eyes, screaming and clawing as if he can scratch the chemicals out--and Peter runs.

There’s only one way out besides the door. The office doors loom above him, surrounded by the rickety, grimy walkway that looks like it hasn’t been used in decades. One of those offices will have a window. He hopes.

Peter runs to the nearest staircase but doesn’t make it two steps before the whole thing crumbles under his weight, as easily as if it were made of sand. Peter doesn’t fall far, but this time he can’t help it--he throws his hands out to catch his weight and instantly grits his teeth against the inevitable shaking, the whiteout.

But again it doesn’t come.

Trembling, Peter pushes himself to his feet. Behind him, he can hear Morell doing the same.

The staircase is gone, the other one all the way across the warehouse. There’s only one choice left. He has to climb.

Peter jumps for the wall just as Morell comes lurching up behind him, and avoids a tranquilizer dart by a millimeter.

For the first time in over a day, Peter’s heart thrills. Whatever has been done to him, he is still this , still Spider-Man somewhere under all the fear. He can do this.

Peter climbs a little higher to ensure he is out of reach and turns around, clinging to the wall crab-style. Morell is below, the gun hanging limply at his side as he blinks up through swollen, angry eyes, trying to see where Peter has gone. Peter has a brief hope that he is totally blind, but then Morell catches onto him and raises the gun.

“I think you got something in your eye,” Peter says, and then skitters sideways.

The quip is the distraction he hoped it would be. When Morell fires a dart in his direction, he avoids easily.

Morell roars and fires off another round, which Peter dodges.

“Dude, maybe you should see an optometrist. I’d help, but that might be a little out of my purview as a high school sophomore. Tell you what--I’ll go find someone.”

And he flips around to continue his climb.

Below, he can hear Morell screaming a barrage of curse words, practically incoherent with rage. The higher Peter climbs, the higher he feels . He can see the office doors growing closer, thinks he can even sense the open air beyond. He’s almost out, and once he’s out he can climb or run or do whatever he has to do to find a phone, to call for help. And then Mr. Stark will come and take him home. Just a few more feet now--

Just as he is about to make it to the walkway, there is a tiny bloom of pain in his right arm.

Peter barely has time to feel his own heart sink before he is taken by the nothingness. 

***

When consciousness returns, the first thing he becomes aware of is something on his neck, sitting heavy on his throat.

The next thing he is aware of is the pain in his ribs, his ankles. He landed hard when he fell from the wall: his ribs are cracked, his ankles twisted. 

Twisted--but not shackled. It takes a few minutes for him to have the strength to lift his head, and when he does, the weight on his neck increases, almost choking him. His feet are not shackled, but he has something around his throat, some sort of metallic collar. His hands are bound, in front of him, this time, but not tied to anything.

Peter cannot help but groan as he rolls his head to look around. He is lying at the center of the warehouse floor. Morell is off to his left, crouched over the corner where Peter escaped his shackles that morning. Judging from the light, it is now early afternoon.

Hearing Peter’s groan, Morell looks around. His eyes are still red but not so swollen as they were: Peter can see the stark veins in the whites, surrounding pupils wide as saucers. When Morell sees that Peter is awake, he snarls and, wordlessly, pulls the phone from his pocket. 

Peter doesn’t know how long the shock lasts. Longer than he is able to scream. By the time Morell turns the collar off, Peter’s mouth is working silently and uselessly, neither taking in air nor producing sound.

He chokes on his first breath and curls onto his side, feeling like he’s torn every muscle in his body. He can’t even reach for the collar.

Morell is standing over him. He reaches down and hauls Peter to his feet, holds him up long enough for him to stand on his own. It’s more effort than almost anything Peter has ever done, nearly more effort than it took to lift the building when Toomes dropped it on him.

Morell is taller than him. Almost by a foot. Peter didn’t notice it when he was sitting in the corner, but he notices it now.

“I’m fixing your mess,” says Morell, jerking his head at the shackles in the corner. “Lucky for you, I have a project for you to work on in the meantime. Walk.”

He steps aside.

Peter’s mind is still sluggish from the drugs, his body almost useless from the shock. He doesn’t realize what Morell is telling him to do until the taller man shoves him in the small of the back and says again, voice low and dangerous, “ Walk. ” 

Peter shuffles a few steps and glances over his shoulder to check if this is what Morell wants, only to see that he is already moving back to the corner, pulling tools from his back pocket.

His foggy brain can’t make sense of it. He can’t make sense of anything except an encompassing sense of disappointment, like cotton in his mouth, suffocating him. He was so close. So close .  

Dully, in the back of his mind, he realizes he is probably going to die here.

“Keep walking.”

Morell’s voice is eerily calm considering Peter’s escape attempt, and Peter can’t figure out why he’s speaking, or what he hopes to accomplish. He takes a few more steps and then his ankles give out and he crashes to the floor.

The collar goes off again. Peter screams this time, but it’s a weak, gurgling sound. Like his throat’s been cut. This shock doesn’t last as long as the first one, but it does leave him trembling on the ground, lying on his side with tears of pain dripping into the dirt around him. 

“I’d get up if I were you,” says Morell, “and keep walking.”

Only then do the rules of this new game become clear, as does the reason for Morell’s placid exterior. He doesn’t need to get angry. Peter is already being punished.

Peter gets to his feet.

***

After an hour, Peter loses track of how many times he falls, how many times the collar goes off.

He loses track of everything, including himself.

***

By the afternoon, the capsules start going off again. Peter lies on the ground when this happens, convulsing with drugs and shocks administered simultaneously.

The first time it happens he tries to get back to his feet when the drugs wear off, but another capsule knocks him over almost as soon as he staggers upright.

He isn’t aware of much of anything after that.

***

Peter wakes to a needle in his neck.

This is followed by that sweeping, giddy clarity, same as the day before. Peter hates it, hates it, hates it. He doesn’t want to be aware. He wants to sink into the darkness and never emerge, never.

But if there’s anything Peter is learning, it’s that he’s not going to get what he wants. His vision clears as his stomach swoops.

He is back in the corner. The shackles are back on his wrists and ankles, so tight this time they almost cut off circulation, and the first thing Peter sees is that Morell has welded the compartments concealing the interior wiring shut. No more escape attempts.

Morell swims into sight, crouching in front of Peter.

He is holding the phone.

“It’s that time, Peter,” he says softly. He’s almost crooning. The near-loss of this morning has been washed away, replaced by the obviously-thrilling knowledge that he has Peter well and truly bested. “Tell me what you’re going to do.”

“I’m going to call my aunt,” says Peter. Amazingly, his voice doesn’t slur at all. Whatever was in the needle is potent stuff.

Morell presses the call button.

Peter almost doesn’t even think about it this time. After today, he couldn’t care less if Morell catches him, and the only thing that gives him pause--the only thing that keeps him from full-on screaming when he hears May’s recorded message--is the fear that Morell might get to her first if Peter does it. May still matters.

But he has to try. A part of him just wants to die, but most of him still wants to go home.

The machine beeps.

“Hey, Aunt May,” he says. “Me again. Today we went on a hike. I learned some really corny camp jokes. Like what do you call Tony the Tiger when he runs a copy machine? A copy cat. Yeah, I know, it’s lame. Hope work is good. Miss you.”

Morell hangs the phone up, and there is a glint in his eye that makes Peter sure that he noticed this time. But Morell just gets up and walks to the computer at the center of the room, his back to Peter.

The comedown is just as swift today as it was yesterday. Peter chokes and retches as the shakes begin, but his stomach has nothing to produce.

It doesn’t take long for the next capsule to go off. This time, Peter welcomes it.

***

When Peter wakes, the warehouse is dark.

It’s night. Morell is gone, leaving Peter with just the silvery blue light of the moon for company. He looks around listlessly, too tired to move or think except to wonder how much longer Morell will keep him, how many more days until he will be allowed to die and hoping Morell will just hurry up--

But wait. There is movement in the corner, something gleaming in the moonlight. Peter sucks in a fearful breath and flinches back, barely moving at all. He’s too weak. The fear is good though. That he can still feel fear means he’s not gone, not yet. Not quite ready to give up.

The thing in the corner moves, coming closer. Peter holds his breath, expecting Morell.

Instead, Iron Man steps out of the shadows, faceplate retracted, revealing the pale and stunned face of Tony Stark.

Chapter Text

5.

“Mr. Stark!”

Peter tries to shout, but his throat is raw from screaming. It barely comes out as a whisper.

Mr. Stark is frozen for just a second, taking Peter in--the shackles, the fresh injection sites on his arms, which are so streaked with blood and dirt the wounds are almost hidden. The IV, which Morell replaced before he left. Then he opens the suit and sprints the short distance between them, leaving the suit at the center of the room. He skids to a halt a foot or so away from Peter and stares down at him, horror written all over his face.

“Peter?” he says. “Christ, kid, what happened?”

When Mr. Stark kneels down next to him, the rush of relief is so potent Peter feels dizzy with it, like he might pass out. But he forces himself to stay awake, swallowing the tears that are threatening to fall.

“Mr. Stark, I’m sorry,” he rasps. “I tried to get away but I couldn’t. I’m so sorry.”

“Jesus kid, don’t apologize,” Mr. Stark breathes. He’s inspecting the shackles, hands fluttering and hovering but not touching. Peter tries to lift his arms, to give Mr. Stark better access to get them off, but he doesn’t have the strength. “Are you okay?”

The question strikes Peter as odd--he’s chained to a wall, bleeding and terrified--but Mr. Stark isn’t always emotionally tuned-in. He forces himself to nod.

“How did you find me?” he asks.

Mr. Stark is looking at the IV now.

“I got your messages,” he says absently. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t come sooner, Pete.”

Peter swallows, and now the tears are pressing harder at the backs of his eyes.

“It’s okay,” he says. “Thank you for coming. Thank you.”

“You know I’m always glad to pencil you in, kid. But next time maybe just call my secretary direct.”

Peter laughs weakly, but it’s not that funny. In fact, it’s really not funny, and as soon as the laugh escapes him Peter frowns, because Mr. Stark might have trouble with the emotional give-and-take, but he’s not stupid . He must know Peter doesn’t want to joke right now. He just wants to get the hell out of there.

“Mr. Stark?”

“Just hold still, Peter, I’ll have you out of here in no time.”

Mr. Stark is inspecting the chains on his ankles, and Peter understands, he does, because the shackles are electrified and who knows what will happen if he just starts tearing them off, but Mr. Stark doesn’t seem to be in any sort of rush, and the fear is starting to creep back in, the fear that Morell will return and find them, find a way to stop Mr. Stark from rescuing him.

“We have to hurry,” Peter says. “I don’t know when he’s coming back.”

“Who?”

Peter shakes his head.

“I’m not sure,” he says. “He said his name’s Morell”--he swallows convulsively to combat the bile that rises in his throat-- “I think he works for OsCorp. Or he used to.”

Mr. Stark freezes.

“OsCorp?”

“Yes. Mr. Stark, we have to go, if he comes back… The chains, they’re--”

There’s something wrong. Peter can’t place it right away, but he can feel it, some anxious bubbling feeling in his stomach. It’s only when Mr. Stark glances over his shoulder, toward the bolted door, that Peter realizes what it is: though he’s inspecting and hovering over Peter, Mr. Stark has yet to touch him--or to touch the shackles.

Peter swallows, not yet able to explain the lump in his throat.

“Mr. Stark?” he says. “Please, we have to get out of here.”

Touch me , he thinks. Please just touch me. Just put your hand on my shoulder or touch my hand or something. Please.

Mr. Stark doesn’t answer either of his pleas, spoken or otherwise. Instead, he sighs and hangs his head for a moment, then looks up at Peter with a baleful expression.

“Peter,” he says, slowly, as if calculating his words, “I want to help, kid, I really do. But I have to be frank here. OsCorp is one of my biggest competitors. I have to consider how this is going to look.”

“What?”

Peter’s voice is so thin it’s barely audible. His mouth floods with what little saliva his body has, as though he is about to vomit, but he knows there is nothing there to throw up. His stomach feels as small and as hard as a walnut.

Mr. Stark gets to his feet. It’s only then that Peter notices how strange it is that Mr. Stark would leave the Iron Man suit at the center of the room. It hovers behind him, and that is strange too, because Peter can’t hear the repulsors working, nor the whir of the machinery within.

“I’m really sorry, kid,” Mr. Stark again. “But can you imagine the headlines? Sneaky Stark Steals Student from Scientist . Or something. I’m not a writer. But I bet it would be pithy. And if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s pithy headlines.”

Peter is reeling. His vision narrows from the panic, his throat along with it.

“Mr. Stark, it’s not funny,” he croaks. “You have to get me out of here. You don’t know what he’s doing--what he’s doing to me.”

“It’s not really my business what he does to you, is it, Peter?” He tilts his head, almost like he is mocking Peter. “Isn’t that what you wanted? For me to stop treating you like a kid? Aren’t you supposed to be a superhero?”

There’s a glint in Mr. Stark’s eye, now, something Peter has never seen there before. He takes a step backward, away from Peter, and looks down as if to survey what Morell has done. But there’s no horror in his expression now, no pity. He looks almost pleased.

“You’ve been a thorn in my side from day one, Parker,” he says, and there is something off about his voice. It’s changing, lowering in pitch, becoming more gravelly. He sounds almost like Toomes. “I knew I should never have given you that suit.”

“Please,” Peter whispers.

Something shifts in the shadows. Peter jerks his head to look, the IV straining painfully, but there is nothing there.

When he looks back, Mr. Stark and the suit are gone.

Peter sucks in a breath and holds it, staring blankly into the space Mr. Stark and the suit just vacated.

Not real , says a small voice in the back of his head.

Peter never thought disappointment could kill you, but this feels like it just might.

Something moves in the shadows again.

Peter doesn’t jerk around to look this time, just rolls his head, almost unseeing from the force of his anguish.

Anguish is shoved aside by horror.

There is someone standing in the corner.

It’s not Tony Stark. This person is taller, and his brown hair is longer, mussy and wavy, a lot like Peter’s. He’s wearing jeans and a brown leather jacket, but his back is to Peter, his face obscured. He is staring at the corner, hands hanging limp at his side.

It’s not Morell, either.  Peter is sure of it, though for some reason knowing this doesn’t still the pounding fear that began the moment he spotted him.

“Hello?” he says.

The man’s shoulder twitches, but he doesn’t turn around.

Peter starts to tremble.

“Hello?” he says again. “I’m--I need help.”

The man takes a step--a stupid, loose step forward, moving like a ragdoll. He thumps into the corner, then does it again, like he didn’t notice the first time.

He’s dead , Peter thinks.

He doesn’t know where the thought comes from, but he knows he’s right.

Peter starts to strain against the shackles.

The man, as if realizing the futility of his forward movement, instead takes a shuffling step sideways, still facing the wall. Then another. He’s coming toward Peter.

Peter doesn’t know what this is. He just knows he doesn’t want the man to come any closer. He doesn’t want him to turn around. He pulls at the shackles, feeling them dig into his wrists.

“Help,” he croaks. Then, louder, his voice cracking with the effort, “Help. Help!”

To his horror, the man replies.

You gotta fend for yourself .”

His voice is as hoarse as Peter’s. Familiar. It has a gurgling, wet quality, and as soon as he speaks something gushes to the floor, as if he was holding water in his mouth. But the smell hits Peter quickly. Not water. Blood.

Peter struggles harder.

“Stay away from me!”

You gotta fend for yourself, Alex .”

Peter freezes, befuddlement stilling him. He knows that line.

Half-dead, ” says the man. “ Sittin’ in their own sick. The scent... thick.

It’s Hamilton . Just before Ben died he bought tickets for Aunt May’s birthday, a rare extravagance that May had protested until the moment the curtain rose. As soon as the show started the protests ceased, and for weeks after that it was all she could talk about, the soundtrack on repeat in the background of pretty much every family meal and in the car on the days Peter rolled out of bed too slowly and May had to take him to school. Peter had gotten sick of it fast--he was in more of a Wu Tang Clan phase at the time--but Uncle Ben had glowed every time May put on the soundtrack, laughed every time she tried to rap along with Leslie Odom, Jr.

The music stopped abruptly when Ben died.

Peter tried, a few weeks after, to put on “Alexander Hamilton” in the background while May made dinner. He didn't think it through--he was just tired of finding her in the living room in the middle of the night, eyes red-rimmed and weary. He associated the song with her smiling, laughing.

As soon as the beat started, May went stiff over the sink, shoulders hunching like she could use them to cover her ears, to protect herself.

“Please honey,” she said, voice wavering, “can we just have a quiet dinner?”

Peter snapped the music off, and didn't say anything about the fact that all their dinners had been quiet, lately.

That was the last time he’d listened to the song.

Bastard, ” says the man. “ Orphan. Son of a whore.

He shuffles closer and then, five feet away from where Peter is straining to free himself from his too-tight cuffs, to the point that blood drips from his wrists to his knuckles. He stops.

This kid is insane, man! ” he says, voice so low Peter almost can’t hear it even with his enhanced hearing.

Peter knows he is about to turn around. He knows and he can't stop it, can't look away, can't protect himself.

Uncle Ben turns slowly to face him. His collared shirt is drenched in fresh blood from a gaping hole in his chest. The blood is wet enough and thick enough that it glimmers in the moonlight. Ben’s face is pallid, white and purple and green like a bruise that will never heal, and there is blood coating his chin, down to his neck. When he opens his mouth a gush of it almost obscures his words.

Will they know what you overcame? ” he says.

His lips turn up slowly, a nightmarish grin, teeth coated in blood so red it is almost black.

“They're going to forget you, Peter,” he says.

He looks like he is going to say more. But by now Peter is struggling so hard he might break his own wrists. Would, even, if it weren't for the capsule that the movement sets off, plunging him into unconsciousness.

***

Others visit him throughout the night.

Sometimes they are people he knows. Avengers, mostly, the people he has always looked up to, idolized. Hawkeye prowls the edges of the room, aiming his bow and arrow into the corners, never firing. Black Widow comes at some point, too, and runs her hands over the equipment at the center of the room. “He’s got you in a chokehold, Pete,” she says. But she doesn’t offer any advice about how to get out.

Mr. Stark is there intermittently. He doesn’t mock Peter again, just stands near the door, wearing expensive suits and inspecting his nails, as if bored.

Sam--Falcon--shows up too, but he just drifts around near the ceiling, circling lazily like a vulture, silent. Peter watches him idly until he disappears. By this point his voice is gone completely, and he knows better than to ask for help.

Sometimes they speak to him and sometimes they are silent. But they never touch him. Never get close enough to actually help. And they all disappear, sooner or later.

The only constant is Uncle Ben.

Uncle Ben stays in his corner, now, and he is facing Peter. Sometimes he is the ghoulish, bleeding figure who came first, but sometimes he seems to revert to his old self, like a time lapse of fruit rotting played in reverse. When this happens his face becomes fuller, his shirt clean, his eyes bright. He looks at Pete and doesn’t grin horribly or chant song lyrics. Sometimes he smiles softly, and once he looks like he is crying. It’s then that Peter wants to cry out to him, but he doesn’t, afraid that Ben will turn back into the shuffling, whispering creature from before.

“It’s not real,” Peter mutters, over and over and over, until he can almost believe it.

Does he sleep? Or does time just slip away? Night recedes and daylight comes, sweeping Peter’s visitors away.

The next thing Peter knows is the sting of the needle, the hot rush of the uppers.

He gasps, more from shock than the drugs. He has no memory of the time between sunrise and now, but the light tells him it is mid afternoon, and Morell, crouching in front of him with cell phone in one hand, needle in the other, confirms this.

He has no idea what’s gone on for the last eight hours, no idea if he was awake for any of it. His body is a flat landscape of constant pain, there’s no point of reference anymore. He just hurts.

Peter looks at the corners. They are empty. He and Morell are alone.

“It’s time, Peter,” says Morell. “Not much longer now.”

Peter doesn’t know if Morell really says that last part, or if he imagines it. The clarity of today’s drugs is not as sharp. Morell is bright and defined in front of him, but the edges of the world are blurry, lack definition. Peter’s thoughts feel the same way: he can tell what’s in front of him, can grasp the thoughts at the forefront of his brain, but he has the sensation that there is something on the periphery, something he can’t grab onto.

“What are you going to do, Peter?”

Peter opens his mouth to reply, but it feels like it’s full of glue.

Morell sighs, stands. He returns with a bottle of water, which he tilts roughly into Peter’s mouth. It clacks against his teeth, but Peter doesn’t even care, so grateful he is for the water.

Morell pulls the water away far too soon.

“What are you going to do, Peter?”

“I’m going to call my aunt.”

His voice has already healed. For the first time, Peter hates his healing factor. Aunt May won’t be able to hear what’s been done to his throat--what’s been done to all of him.

Morell dials.

Peter doesn’t even know if it’s worth it anymore. Aunt May hasn’t called Tony. She hasn’t realized anything is wrong. No one is looking for him, because no one knows he is missing, and by the time they do, he will already be dead.

After last night, he’s not sure this is such a bad thing.

But then May’s message plays. Short-- You’ve reached May, leave it at the beep! --but with that little hint of a laugh she sometimes has, making it sound like a joke even when she’s not joking. He has a vision of her grin as she slapped the admissions packet down on his desk, followed by a flash of her back, hunched and quavering while she held back tears over a sink of crusty dishes.

He has to try.

“Hey Aunt May.” His voice sounds weary even to his own ears, so he adds, “Long day at camp.” Pause. “We told ghost stories by the fire. Some kid said he had a full conversation with the ghost of Alexander Hamilton. I tried to call Tony a liar, but he wasn’t having it…”

Peter trails off, because as soon as he says it Morell’s eyes go wide, his jaw clenching.

He heard.

Peter swallows hard. He knows what is coming next. Morell hasn’t hung up yet, and that is good, because this message has just become a good-bye.

“Anyway — um — I miss you. I love you. Bye.”

Morell hangs up. He leans in close, so close Peter can smell last night’s liquor on his breath, and see the red rimming his eyes.

“You’re going to regret that,” he says.

And then he sets about making sure Peter does.

Chapter Text

When May does realize that something is wrong, two thoughts strike her simultaneously. The first is just a name, like a shout in her mind: Stark.

 

The second is this: I’m never going to forgive myself for not noticing sooner.

 

Three days. It takes her three days before she has an inkling.

 

Peter had been right about one thing: May was relieved when she got that acceptance letter. Stupidly relieved--or maybe she will just come to color it as stupid through the lens of what follows. But stupid or not, it was potent. Knowing he would be out of the city, in the woods without any alien weaponry or robbers with guns or sliced-up ferry boats--knowing that let her just breathe for the first time since she found out he is Spider-Man.

 

Peter might think she avoids the subject, and she does--with him. May watches every news report, Googles every variation of Spider-Man’s name at the end of the night, hordes the shaky cell phone videos that pop up on YouTube in a file hidden under layers of other files on her laptop. Without half the technology the billionaire has on his side, May has accumulated a knowledge of Spider-Man’s-- Peter’s --doings that is almost as extensive as Tony Stark’s.

 

Some of what she sees makes her so proud she doesn’t know how she doesn’t just float right off the floor, so awed she is by this kid she raised.

 

But mostly it makes her want to vomit with fear. Most of the time she feels paralyzed by it, and not metaphorically. There has been more than one night where she has sat, staring at her computer screen well beyond the point where the damn thing has gone to sleep, barely noticing that she hasn’t moved for an hour or more, barely breathing for how utterly out of control she is.

 

She wants to do something about it. She wants to stop it and knows that she can’t stop it, knew it well before, after an epic argument with Peter the day she had walked into his room to find him in that skin-tight getup of his (he hadn’t even tried to deny it, just asked, “How dead am I?” and given her a wide-eyed look that told her he knew he was so, so dead), she had driven upstate to continue the shouting match with one Tony Stark.

 

She’d hated Stark that day, hated him like she had never hated anyone before in her life. This was not helped by the ensuing fight, when they had duked it out like divorced parents, like Peter was their kid, not just her kid, a fact which had incensed her beyond all reason. Where was he when Peter’s parents died? Where was he when Ben died? For that matter, who taught the kid to tie his shoes and boil water and dance with a girl?

 

She had gotten her licks in, still resented Stark for getting his in as well. But in the end what stuck with her was what Tony said when things were winding down, when they were both coming off the high of their righteousness and anger and panting like boxers in opposite corners of the ring.

 

“May,” he’d said, the first and only time he’d used her first name all night, “I know I didn’t play this right at the beginning. I know I fucked up along the way--hell, I’ve probably fucked this up more than I’ve gotten it right, and to be honest I just don’t know what to do different, though you’d better believe it keeps me up at night. But let me ask you--and answer me honestly--do you think I could stop him, even if I wanted to?”

 

May hadn’t said anything. She hadn’t needed to. Instead she’d met his eye, hard, and that was all the answer he needed.

 

“Then let me help him,” Stark said. “Because if you never agree with me on anything else, you gotta agree with me on this: the kid might be a stubborn idiot when it comes to his own wellbeing, but he’s worth keeping alive.”

 

“You have no goddamn idea,” she had snapped.

 

But even then, she had the feeling Stark did.

 

And what’s more, he was right. May knew it, Stark knew it, and Peter--Peter knew it, even if he looked guilty as all hell every time he came home trying awkwardly to cover a half-healed bruise or a limp. Peter, so empathetic, senses May’s nerves, her worry, and tries to compensate by pretending nothing bad ever happens to him. May compensates by pretending she believes him. Because she doesn’t know if she could tell him the truth--lay her raw fear out--without showing him how terrified she is, making his guilt worse, which would make her guilt worse... and what’s the point if he’s not going to stop?

 

The psychological merry-go-round is exhausting, so May puts her energy toward the one thing she has some modicum of control over: making sure the time Peter spends outside of the suit is as normal as possible. But even this is no easy feat. Peter has always been whip-smart, ideas and projects spilling out of him so fast she’s never really been able to keep track. She and Ben had discussed sending him to private school, or having him test ahead a grade or two, but they had ultimately decided against it, wanting him to have as good a shot at a normal life as an orphaned kid with a genius intellect can have. But as May has thrown more energy into monitoring Peter’s days than she ever did pre-Spider-Man, she has begun to wonder if they made a mistake in not just letting him loose when he was younger. She keeps him fed and checks on his social life and makes sure he does his homework, but she cannot keep track of the books, the computers, the science projects, the decathalons--that’s all Peter.

 

He’s moving too fast , she has caught herself thinking more than once. One day I’m going to reach for him and find nothing but air.

 

In this way, too, camp is a godsend. Peter will be around adults who understand that side of him, the frenetic intelligence he gets from his parents and from Ben (May doesn’t discount herself; she’s brilliant, in her own way, but art and literature exist on a different plane) but he will also be at camp , which is so inherently childlike and innocent it makes her want to laugh or cry or both when she sees that letter. She does laugh a little when she sees him standing in the doorway on his way to the bus, dwarfed by his giant backpack and looking, despite himself, nervous and excited. It’s not a cruel laugh. It’s a love laugh.

 

She tells him to call her.

 

Later, thinking back on that first message, May will tell herself she should have known from the start. She had kicked herself for weeks for missing Spider-Man, for not putting the many clues together faster. That guilt won’t begin to touch the guilt she will feel over this.

 

Hey, Aunt May, it’s me. Camp is good. Lots of trees. I’m making friends — uh, there’s Rob, and Harriet, and a guy named Anthony that we just call Tony. Um, I miss you. Try not to burn down the apartment while I’m gone.”

 

Peter sounds tired and a little lackluster. May, who is eating pad thai and watching old episodes of Scrubs by the time she gets the message, having stayed late in her office to meet with a panicked undergrad and grade papers, frowns a little when she hears how flat his voice sounds. She chalks it up to fatigue and the fact that, regardless of how eager he’d looked in the doorway that morning, she knew he was thinking about the suit at the top of the closet (still there--she had checked). He’ll be better by tomorrow, when he’s had a chance to actually do some of the neat stuff they looked over in the brochure.

 

She hopes to catch the next call and ask him if it’s going well, if he’s having fun, but he calls around the same time the next day, right when she is in her afternoon lecture. Peter knows when she has class, but these camps keep pretty rigid schedules, so she isn’t upset, just a little disappointed. It occurs to her, as she presses the notification and holds her phone to her ear, that Peter has never spent more than two nights at a time away from home and she feels that little ping of sadness and longing she gets when something from his childhood slips away--the last lost tooth, the first time he walked to school on his own, the whisper of hair on his chin that Ben taught him how to shave… thank God he still loves Legos.

 

Hey, Aunt May. Me again. Today we went on a hike. I learned some really corny camp jokes. Like what do you call Tony the Tiger when he runs a copy machine? A copy cat. Yeah, I know, it’s lame. Hope work is good. Miss you.”

 

It is lame. So lame May utters a little “Ouch, Pete,” when he says it and grimaces at the phone as if he can see her through it. It’s almost funny in how painfully unfunny it is, she guesses, but again May feels that little undercurrent of doubt. He doesn’t sound as upbeat as she hoped he would by today. Weren’t they supposed to build drones or something? If Peter had built a drone, why wasn’t she coming home to a ten-minute-long message detailing every moment of the process? Peter loves to document anything he finds exciting, regardless of whether anyone else would; her days are filled with texted snapshots of foraged technology, usually in selfie form, Pete holding up some ancient CPU or radio while grinning like he can't believe his own luck, giving the camera a clumsy thumbs-up. Once he sent her a video of he and Ned trying to repair a seven-inch black-and-white TV that looked like it had been built in 1955, speaking to each other so fast they sounded like barely-pubescent chipmunks and laughing uproariously every time something threatened to catch on fire. May missed most of what they said, but she didn’t miss the enthusiasm.

 

So where is it now?

 

She should have called then.

 

But May doesn’t. She doesn’t call until the next day, when the third message comes through, and this time it isn’t because he sounds tired or unenthusiastic--though he does, more tired than either of the previous days, tired in a way that makes her want to reach out and feel his forehead even though he is miles away.

 

Hey Aunt May. Long day at camp. We told ghost stories by the fire. Some kid said he had a full conversation with the ghost of Alexander Hamilton. I tried to call Tony a liar, but he wasn’t having it… Anyway — um — I miss you. I love you. Bye.

 

The Hamilton thing has May pricking her ears, sitting up straighter on the couch as if readying to run, because Peter hasn’t brought up Hamilton in months and she knows he wouldn’t be so casual about it under any circumstance, even one that has nothing to do with the musical. But before she can really process her own reaction, she hears the I love you and her heart falls through her stomach and straight to the floor.

 

She’s only heard Peter say I love you like that twice in her life. Like it’s a question and an apology at the same time-- am I going to lose you too? If I am, I’m sorry.

 

The first was right after his parents died. Peter, seven years old and already so hyper-aware of the needs of the people around him, had whispered it as she tucked him in one of those first nights, so quiet she almost hadn’t heard it as she turned around to switch off the lights. It was the first time he’d said it since the accident, and May could hear the guilt in his voice even before he started to cry. Like he was afraid he wasn’t allowed to love someone as much as he had loved his own parents, afraid that she didn’t love him as much as they had. Afraid to ask her to.

 

May had curled around him that night and held onto him until he stopped crying and well beyond, until his sobs had turned to snuffles and his snuffles to steady breaths, and she had loved him so fiercely in that moment she almost couldn’t stand it.

 

The second time was the night Ben had died.

 

May calls the camp with numb, fumbling fingers.

 

“Yellow River Ranch.”

 

The girl who picks up can’t be much older than Peter. May takes a breath, trying to make her voice sound even and calm, because she probably is overreacting.

 

“I need to speak to Peter Parker,” she says.

 

“Is he a camper?”

 

Of course he’s a camper! she wants to scream. What else would he be? Don’t you know your own camp ?

 

“Yes,” she says instead.

 

“Do you know what cabin he’s in?”

 

May flinches. Details, details. Where are Peter’s details? Why hasn’t he told her what cabin he’s in? Why didn’t she look it up?

 

“No,” she says. “Can you please just find him?”

 

“Sorry, ma’am, are you his mom?”

 

May hesitates. “Yes.”

 

It’s a lie she tells sometimes, because if she says she’s his aunt she sometimes gets backlash-- we can only give that information to his parents, ma’am --and if she says she’s his guardian… well, that just doesn’t sit right with her. She doesn’t tell Peter she does this.

 

“Okay, give me a minute to look up where he’s staying.”

 

She puts May on hold.

 

May stands in the center of the living room, barely realizing she is holding her breath until the girl’s voice returns, sounding smaller this time, timid.

 

“Ma’am?” she says. “Are you May Parker?”

 

“Yes,” May whispers, because she knows what comes next from a voice like that.

 

“Mrs. Parker, we got an email from you a little over a week ago saying Peter had to drop out due to a family emergency. He never arrived on the camp bus, we didn’t send it for him. Is everything okay, ma’am? Do I need to call the--”

 

But May hangs up before the girl can even mention the police.

 

Her panic is so sharp she almost feels like she’s going to pass out from it. But she doesn’t. She won’t .

 

May still can’t say she is a fan of Tony Stark’s, but her hatred for him has cooled significantly since that first fight. She calls him sometimes, when there has been a particularly brutal YouTube video, or when Peter is acting unusually suspicious, and he gives her the details she needs to help in the ways she can--an ice pack waiting on his pillow, his favorite movie on the TV, usually. Peter stays with Tony upstate, sometimes, and on the nights when that happens Tony always loops her in, or makes Peter do it, and May is grateful for that too. Hell, she even sent Peter once, surreally, to a party with the Avengers, because how the hell was she supposed to say no to that?

 

She and Tony aren’t exactly chummy, but if they are like divorced parents, they are at least doing better at the whole coparenting thing of late. Amicable.

 

She texts him all three voicemails and then calls him before they have even fully sent.

 

Tony picks up on the second ring. He always answers for her, no matter how busy he might be. May has never mentioned it, but she notices it.

 

“May,” he says. “I didn’t realize I had signed up for one of your lectures. How may I apologize to you today?”

 

May doesn’t even register the sarcasm, just blurts, “Is Peter with you?”

 

There’s a fumbling sound on the other end of the phone, like Tony has knocked something over.

 

“Peter’s at camp this week,” he says, all traces of humor gone from his voice, “isn’t he?”

 

May’s face feels numb now, but she can’t give into it, not yet.

 

“I just called them,” she says. “He never showed up. Please tell me he’s there with you, doing that stupid training he thought I didn’t know about. Please tell me he’s just… just gotten better at lying to me, because--”

 

“When did he leave?” Tony cuts across her, and that’s answer enough. She can hear more movement now, people talking in the background. “May, what day was camp supposed to start?”

 

“Sunday,” she says, almost choking on the word. Oh my God, it’s been three days . “He was supposed to take the bus.”

 

“Are you sure he’s--?”

 

“He left me messages. Three of them. I sent them to you.”

 

Tony doesn’t reply, just puts her on hold.

 

There is an excruciatingly long moment of silence.

 

When Tony returns, his voice is sharp and serious in a way May has never heard before, not even the night of that first fight.

 

“Are you at home?” he demands.

 

“Yes,” she says.

 

“Stay there. I’m sending someone to pick you up.”

 

“Someone has him, don’t they?”

 

She knows the answer. She knew the answer before she even called that goddamn camp, should never have wasted another five minutes doing so, should have just called Tony right away. But she needs to hear him say it.

 

Tony hesitates, so briefly May almost doesn’t catch it.

 

“Yes,” he says. “But I’m going to get him back.”

Chapter Text

Just like May, Tony is relieved when Peter calls to tell him about the camp, though not for the same reasons. He is not so hindered when it comes to Spider-Man as May is--just the opposite, in fact--and should probably be a little more upset when Peter cancels on training: if May is responsible for making life as normal as possible for Peter, after all, then it stands to reason that it falls to Tony to tackle any Spider-Man related issues in order to make Peter’s life last. Training is one of the ways he can do that.

But they’ve known something is coming for a while now.

There have been whispers among some of the more technologically advanced crooks they’ve taken on lately, and among some who aren’t crooks. People from both camps have taken an interest in the stars since New York--God, has it been eight years?--and the rumors disseminate quickly. Difficult to confirm anything, but Wanda and Vision have a shared sense of growing unease, which is proof enough for Tony even without the garbled messages they have been getting from Thor, who is off-world. (The fact that something which sounded suspiciously like Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” was playing in the background of one barely lightened the mood for a moment: it seemed as though Thor was saying, “He’s coming,” which is never what one wants to hear on an interstellar transmission). Tony has thrown himself into improved weapons, armor, technology--much of which Peter saved from Toomes that night on the beach--but without knowing exactly what they’re up against, he feels like he’s building airplanes for a fight that’s going to happen underwater.

Of course, the doubt doesn’t stop him. If he can’t prepare for something, dammit, he’s going to prepare for everything. Tony never has been one to just hope for the best.

He’s been working on Peter’s suit, too.

He’s not sure he wants to give it to him.

He offered Peter that spot on the team months ago. Tony trusted him then and he trusts him now, but everything that has happened in the intervening time--the party, that ridiculous egg, watching the kid train his ass off every other week with Natasha like he would rather die than give anything less than his level best--has made Tony all the more aware of just how young Peter is. Younger than Tony ever allowed himself to be at that age, and Peter’s been through a hell of a lot more by the age of fifteen than Tony had to encounter before forty. The fact that all that goofy youth is battling such fierce opposition from circumstance makes it seem all the more precious. Tony wants it to last.

He knows it can’t.

But that doesn’t mean he relishes the idea of being the one to hand the kid the burden of crushing responsibility, effectively stripping all that wide-eyed innocence. And, okay, Tony acknowledges that he probably already has, that he enables every dangerous impulse and harebrained plot that springs into that kid’s life, and if he ever forgets it he knows May Parker will be there shouting it in his face. Your fault, Tony!

But this… this is different. This is bigger. Every time he thinks of giving Peter the improved Iron Spider suit he is halted by the memory of an open, silent sky, of waking up in a cold sweat every night, not even able to scream because there’s no air, and how can he do that to a kid?

He will have to. Even if he tries to keep Peter out of this, Tony knows it won’t work. Peter has a way of getting sucked into these things--the bigger the conflict, the stronger the pull. Tony could blame it on fate, but it seems more apt to blame it on Peter. It’s just like May begrudgingly admitted at the end of their very long, very grueling fight some months ago: Peter won’t stop just because someone tells him to. He can’t.

But that doesn’t mean Tony doesn’t jump at the chance to postpone the inevitable. He had planned on giving Peter the suit the week that he came to train, teaching him how to use it… When Peter calls to say he can’t come, Tony’s sigh of relief almost drains his lungs.

It turns out to be a good chance for making some more improvements to everyone’s tech all around. What was supposed to be a week-long training for everyone turns into a lame party: Thor is still off-world, Banner is who knows where… Steve has to drop out last minute to accompany a platoon of US soldiers (how is the army still a thing?) to some classified location in southern Africa, and Vision and Wanda disappear on Friday to help SHIELD with a difficult reconnaissance mission. In the end, only Clint, Natasha, and Sam show up, and at that point they do so in the mutual agreement that this is more of a well-earned break than a training exercise. It would be pointless to try to make it anything else: Clint and Natasha could spar each other in their sleep, and Sam is still a little testy about the Accords--no one wants to push it by adding firepower to his irritation.

And Tony--well, Tony is busy.

He doesn’t mean to throw himself into work quite so completely when the others arrive, but it’s the first quiet week he’s had in god knows how long, the first week without robots or evil CEOs or getting up in the middle of the night to dig teenagers out of whatever mess they’ve buried themselves under. Tony goes to his lab thinking he’ll spend the afternoon and then see the others, and he emerges three days later, and only when Natasha appears at his doorway with a cup of coffee in each hand and a wry smile on her face.

“Always nice to see such a dedicated drinker take a break for the sake of his work,” she says.

“Who says I haven’t been drinking?”

Tony gets to his feet, stiff from sitting so long, and takes the coffee. He gestures to the couch at the center of the room, ostensibly for relaxing in between projects, though the last few nights it’s functioned as his bed. Natasha sits and places her own coffee on the coffee table. Tony sits across from her and takes a sip, pulls a face.

“Is this cyanide?”

“Hazelnut,” she corrects.

“Shame.” He takes a long drag, the heat doing more to wake him than the caffeine, and places the cup between them with a clack.

Natasha regards him for a moment, and both of them wait for the other to speak first.

“You’re working hard,” she says.

“Are you here to scold me?” says Tony. “Is it just me, or is my life a perpetual round of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t?’”

Natasha smiles and shakes her head. “Not here to scold. Just to suggest you come upstairs maybe once or twice a day. And to check you haven’t lit yourself on fire yet.”

“You mean intentionally?”

“I’ve heard the transmissions, too, Tony.”

Tony raises an eyebrow. “You’re… strangely calm for a woman preparing for an imminent alien attack.”

“Intentionally calm,” she says. “There's only so much we can do until we know what we’re dealing with.”

The eyebrow goes higher. Tony gestures around the room. “And I plan on doing all of it.”

But Natasha doesn't drop it.

“We can’t only be fighting all the time, Stark. We have to occasionally take time to consider what we’re fighting for.”

“Are you pregnant?”

Natasha’s smile instantly turns to a scowl.

“You’re just acting very maternal and it’s freaking me out. What happened to the super serious mega spy we all used to know and fear?”

The scowl softens. “Maybe the two aren’t so mutually exclusive as I thought,” she says, and Tony wonders if she is thinking of Peter like he is. When Tony opens his mouth again she cuts across him, “And no, I’m not pregnant.”

It's not what he was going for, but he runs with it.

“Then what? You’re a little young for a mid-life crisis. Aren’t you? God, wait, do you even age? How long have I known you?”

“Tony.”

The only people who can cut off the beginnings of an I’m-changing-the-subject-now rant like that are Natasha and Pepper. Tony sighs, cowed, and takes another sip of his coffee, which is already cooling. He grapples for a minute, trying to find the words to describe the bigness of it all, of everything beyond them, trying to describe how impossibly small he feels in the face of it. In the end he can’t do it. Exposition is beyond him.

All he says is, “You haven’t seen it, Nat.”

“I know,” says Natasha.

There’s a moment where neither of them say anything, where, if they weren’t the sort of people they are, they might have hugged, or held one another’s hand. Instead Tony stares at his knees and Natasha sips her coffee, then says,

“What I have seen is Clint running around like an idiot with about four hundred pictures of Nathaniel’s birthday party on his phone. He’s demanding you come look.”

“God, is Nathaniel one already?”

“Two.”

“Sweet lord in heaven, that’s not humanly possible.” Tony gets to his feet. His phone buzzes in his back pocket, but he ignores it. “You’ve convinced me. I’ll come look at pictures of the rapidly aging baby, but only because we might need to recruit him for his powers. Not that I’m not aging rapidly enough as it is.”

He’s just turning for the door, feeling just incrementally lighter than he did before Natasha appeared, when FRIDAY interrupts.

“Incoming call from May Parker.”

Speaking of kids.

Tony sighs, immediately running through a list of potential fuck-ups for which he might have to answer to May. Admittedly there are a few, but he thought he might have earned some brownie points for encouraging the kid to go to camp instead of the training like they’d planned.

Natasha raises an eyebrow at him. Tony grimaces, holds up a finger, and pulls his StarkPhone out of his pocket instead of answering on FRIDAY’s system. He’d rather not have Natasha witness just how much he flails under the skillful verbal beatings of May Parker.

“May,” he says. “I didn’t realize I had signed up for one of your lectures. How may I apologize to you today?”

On the other end, May says, “Is Peter with you?”

Tony turns toward Natasha almost instinctively and knocks his shin against the table. His coffee tumbles over, splattering the floor and his feet. Tony can tell from Natasha’s expression that his own must be alarmed. And he is alarmed. It’s not just May’s question--it’s the tone of her voice. He’s heard her angry and frustrated and even frightened, but not this. May sounds like she is using every ounce of her willpower to hide the terror rising in her throat.

“Peter’s at camp this week, isn’t he?”

At Peter’s name, something flickers in Natasha’s expression.

“I just called them,” says May. “He never showed up. Please tell me he’s there with you, doing that stupid training he thought I didn’t know about. Please tell me he’s just… just gotten better at lying to me, because--”

He never showed up.

Tony is already running through every possible explanation, scenarios bursting like machine gun fire in his head. The kid is hiding out with his friend Ned, sneaking around so he can keep using the suit. But no, Tony set an alert this week for precisely that scenario, and Peter hasn’t used the suit at all since Saturday. Then he’s with that girl, the one from the restaurant. Again, no--Peter is neither so rebellious nor so bold, and he has a feeling the girl would never allow it even if he was. But then--but then--

“When did he leave?” Tony says.

“Tony, what’s--?” Natasha says, but Tony holds up a hand.

“May, what day was camp supposed to start?”

“Sunday.” Tony’s heart plummets, because that can’t be right, he must be mixing up the days, losing track of time in the lab, because he could swear today was Tuesday and that would mean no one has seen Peter in three days. “He was supposed to take the bus.”

“Are you sure he’s--?”

Tony cuts himself off, because he doesn't know what he's about to say and he doesn't want to find out.

“He left me messages. Three of them. I sent them to you.”

Tony jabs the hold button and says, his voice strangled even to his own ears, “FRIDAY?”

FRIDAY directs the messages to the speakers without asking and Tony is glad for it, because without the confirmation of Natasha’s shared horror at the sound of Peter’s voice--even and strong but tired, bereft of all his usual puppy-dog eagerness--Tony might have thought this was some particularly vivid bad dream.

“Hey, Aunt May, it’s me. Camp is good. Lots of trees. I’m making friends — uh, there’s Rob, and Harriet, and a guy named Anthony that we just call Tony. Um, I miss you. Try not to burn down the apartment while I’m gone.”

At the call Tony, Natasha and Tony look at one another sharply. Natasha nods tightly--she heard it too--and turns on her heel toward the exit, strides purposefully out of the room. Later, Tony will appreciate that Natasha’s feelings of horror manifest only as swift and decisive action, but right now he can't feel anything but tight, sharp fear and his own heartbeat thumping in his skull.

He's not ready to accept it until he hears the second message, the same plea concealed in the halfhearted “camp update.” But that's enough; he doesn't even make it to the end of the third message.

Call Tony, call Tony, call Tony.

It pounds in his head like a furious mantra.

He takes May off hold, so angry and terrified that when he speaks--telling her he's sending someone to get her, that he's going to get Peter back--it is almost like he is observing himself rather than controlling his own mouth.

He is similarly disconnected when, after dispatching Happy to the Parker residence, he calls for the Iron Man suit. He's halfway to blasting through the hatch that leads directly outside when a harsh, “Tony,” stills him.

Natasha is standing on the stairs. Clint is behind her, looking bemused but determined. They both step toward him like he is a live bomb they have to defuse.

“Someone has Peter,” he grates out. “I told him to go to camp and someone--just--took him.”

“So what are you going to do?” says Natasha, impatient and uncompromising in the face of Tony’s all-consuming panic. “Where are you going in that suit, Stark? Take a breath and think.”

Against all instinct, Tony does.

Because Natasha is right. If he blasts off now he's not just being reckless with his weapons, with the precious time they have--three days, he's been gone three days--he's being reckless with Peter’s life. From the sound of those messages the person--or people--who took Peter is trying to hold out as long as possible before anyone finds out Peter is missing, but if he takes off now and starts jetting around New York he might as well hire a skywriter to put the words “Give Me Back My Kid” in giant letters over the skyline, and who knows what this sick fuck--what are they doing to him to keep him compliant?--will do to Peter once he knows they are on his trail. As tempting as it may be to start knocking down doors, he cannot afford to be so careless.

Tony disengages the suit and stumbles out of it, to Clint and Natasha’s visible relief.

Sam appears at the foot of the stairs. He, at least, appears to have had the same idea as Tony: he is already suited up, his expression one of unmitigated fury.

“Is Natasha right?” he says. “Peter’s gone?”

Tony feels naked and powerless without the suit. He nods dumbly.

Shit. Is there any way to communicate with him? I thought that suit you gave him had every kind of tricked-out tech you could think of, why hasn't he tried to contact us?”

Tony doesn't miss the accusation in Sam’s voice, but he can't argue with it because he is thinking the same thing: this is his fault.

“He doesn't have the suit,” Tony says, mouth dry. “He's supposed to be at camp.”

There is a brief, brief silence, and Tony knows they are all thinking the same thing: Peter is so assured of his own invincibility that when they are fighting alongside him it can be easy to believe in it too, but now the fact that he is fifteen years old hangs over them like an accusation.

Fifteen, without his suit, missing for three days. And to subdue a kid with super strength and Peter’s smarts is no easy feat.

What if he’s--?

But Tony can't go there. The last message was received just a few hours ago, and if whoever did this is still bothering with calling May to keep up their cover, then they need Peter alive for a while yet.

Clint is saying something. Tony blinks hard and shakes his head, because right now everything sounds like it is underwater.

“...any idea what phone he was using to call?”

Right. Be present. Be focused, goddammit. Natasha opens her mouth to answer Clint but Tony cuts across her.

“FRIDAY, send those messages to Clint and get me everything you can on the phone he used. Sam”--he tries to ignore the fact that Sam is glaring, that Sam still doesn't accept him as the de facto leader of their little group when Steve isn't around-- “Peter’s aunt says he never made it onto the bus, which means he was taken somewhere near his apartment, maybe even his building. Start there and radiate outward with everything you have--don't make me regret loading your suit with every kind of drone imaginable. Chances are he's still in the city, it would have been dangerous to move him far, especially if they knocked him out.”

It's a testament to the direness of the situation that Sam merely nods and takes off without a word.

Clint is already on one of the monitors at Tony’s workstation, so Tony turns to Natasha and says, almost helplessly, “Is anyone else available? Is there any way we can get in touch with Steve?”

She shakes her head. “He's been out of contact for a couple days now.”

“What about the guy from Germany? The--the big guy, weird helmet.”

“Scott? I can try, but last I heard he's involved in some sort of experiment out in Los Angeles, he hasn't checked in in weeks.”

Tony tells her to do it because at this point he will take any kind of help he can get, but he can tell from her expression she isn't holding out hope. Natasha takes up her station beside Clint and begins combing through the extensive security footage around Peter’s apartment while Tony wonders how anyone possibly managed to get past all of the safeguards he has put in place around that kid since he met him.

Tony is about to take up his own task, look through everything the Spider-Man suit has recorded for the past few months to see if there is anyone who might be holding a particular grudge against the homegrown hero, but when he turns to the bench he abandoned in favor of Natasha’s hazelnut coffee what feels like years ago, he freezes.

The Iron Spider suit is sitting there, open to expose the wiring within. He was fiddling with the web shooters this morning, aware that he was probably overdoing it as he installed far-fetched settings and combinations and feeling vaguely proud--as well as a little irritated--at the kid’s precocious and casual intelligence, and that he has never been able to really improve upon the basic web formula that Peter cooked up in the back of a freshman chemistry lab. He remembers also feeling anxious as he did so--that deep down, pit-of-the-stomach unease and uncertainty about whether it was even right to think about pulling Peter into something that is so much bigger than him, so much bigger than all of them.

The thought seems stupid in retrospect. At this moment nothing is bigger or more important than Peter. He should have given him this suit ages ago, should have insisted on it the day the kid turned down the Avengers. Should have armed Peter with every weapon in the arsenal and told him to never, never let his guard down. But he was so worried about what was happening out there he never even stopped to think that there might be danger lurking in something as innocuous as science camp.

He stares at the suit for just a second, less than a second, but it is enough for him to think, What if I never get to give it to him?

The thought is so repellent that Tony physically staggers back, drawing stares from Clint and Natasha.

He glances at them but doesn't really register their concern. He knows he must look like he is panicking. He is panicking. The only thing he can think of that resembles this feeling is watching Pepper fall into that fire and thinking, I did this.

He can't stay here.

“I'm going to Queens,” he announces.

There's a hard drive in Peter’s suit that holds all of the recordings, more secure and harder to tamper with than the transmissions sent wirelessly to FRIDAY. The information stored there will be more accurate than what he can pull up here.

“Tony, do you really think--”

“I'll be subtle,” he snaps. “Keep looking. And keep me updated.”

He pauses just long enough to change into jeans and a hoodie and then calls for one of his less conspicuous--but still fast--cars. Even so, getting to the city is an agonizingly slow process compared to the suit. When Tony pulls into a parking spot a few blocks away from Peter’s apartment night has descended. He has to unstick his hands from the steering wheel when he shuts the engine off. He's been gripping it so hard there are indents in the leather. He yanks the hood up before he exits the car and taps the watch gauntlet on his wrist--a version with a little more firepower than the last--but just to reassure himself it’s there, not to engage it.

While he drove Natasha sent updates. Sam has already swept the apartment, collected footage from Tony’s own numerous surveillance devices, and then set off a tiny EMP to knock out any unauthorized tech they might have missed--only temporarily, as if there has been a power outage. If someone is watching they can’t afford to tip them off. Still, as far-fetched as the possibility of whoever did this coming back is, Tony isn’t about to waltz into this situation unarmed.

Tony jams his hands into his pockets and keeps his head down, skirts around to the back of the building and overrides the building manager’s keypad to take the stairs rather than the elevator up to the seventh floor, where he almost knocks on the door to the Parker apartment before he remembers that Happy has already taken May upstate, to the facility he just left. They probably passed each other on the way.

Maybe he should have waited for her. But he can’t just stay still.

He’s about to engage the gauntlet and force the lock, but on a whim he tries the doorknob instead and is a little surprised to find it is unlocked. It makes him nervous for just a second, and then he realizes this is May’s doing. She’s left it open in case Peter comes home.

Tony sucks in a breath and pushes inside.

The apartment is in its usual state of organized chaos. May has left the light on, possibly on purpose but more likely because she left in a hurry: Tony told Happy to get her out quickly so they could sweep the place. Tony’s eyes run over the kitchen and the living room, the detritus of books and cereal boxes on the countertops, and come to land on Peter’s room. He strides toward it purposefully but falters outside the door, not sure why he feels a tightening in his chest at the thought of going inside. Tony steels himself and shakes the sensation away; he’s here because they need information, and he doesn’t get to walk away from that because of his own emotional instability. Fuck, he doesn’t get to be emotionally unstable; there is too much on the line.

He opens the door and goes inside.

Peter’s room is that weird mix of neat and messy that seems to so perfectly reflect its occupant: his bed is made, but there are stacks of old computers and floppy discs in one corner, piles of unused blankets on the top bunk, a stack of obscure vinyls by the door that look like they were just snatched off the back table of some unpopular estate sale. The desk, like the bed, is tidy and organized, but the closet is stuffed to brimming by someone who has clearly not taken to heart his aunt’s edict that he begin folding his own clothes (the fact that Tony knows about such an edict is proof that he has become far, far too involved in the kid’s life, but he can’t take it back now, nor is he sure he would want to if he could). All of it looks makes him half-expect Peter to walk through the door at any moment, looking startled and embarrassed to find Tony there, spluttering some excuse about how he was on patrol, how he lost track of the time.

But Peter wouldn’t lose track of three days. That type of egregious oversight falls squarely on Tony’s shoulders.

The closet is where he heads first. He is almost disappointed to find the suit in a box on the top shelf, because even though it would make no sense, there is a part of him that was hoping somehow Peter had ignored his aunt and Tony and taken it with him anyway. But no--the very meticulously designed protections the suit affords are stuffed uselessly away between a Thor Halloween costume and crumpled Star Trek sheets.

Tony lays the suit out on the bed and opens it. He ejects the minuscule hard drive and plugs it into his StarkPhone, pulls up the hologram, rewinds through the footage just quickly enough to expedite the process, not so fast he misses anything.

There’s nothing to miss. Everything is there, no gaps in the footage. He watches Peter swinging from buildings, knocking thugs out with their own weapons, tripping over himself trying to chase down an escaped housecat, all with a growing sense of panic because there is nothing there, nothing that would suggest an imminent kidnapping.

He receives a little jolt when Peter’s face appears on the footage.

“Stop it there.”

The shot freezes. He’s not imagining it. That’s Peter, looking right at the camera, and the camera is only on when the mask is on, which means--what? Someone stole the suit? But why wouldn’t Peter have mentioned something? Unless he was embarrassed, ashamed, and wouldn’t that be typical, Peter trying to play tough while putting himself in danger, just like he has a hundred times before--

“Play it from here,” he instructs, and FRIDAY rolls the footage.

“Dude, I have no idea what to do about it,” Peter is saying, looking bemused and faintly desperate. The distress in his expression sets Tony even more on edge than he has been, if that’s possible. “One minute she’s, y’know, she’s giving me books and agreeing to hang out, but the minute someone’s looking I don’t even exist anymore. And it’s like, it wouldn’t even be a problem except she’s so--so--”

“Evil? Dark-hearted? Possibly possessed by Satan himself?”

The second voice is coming from within the mask, and it’s familiar, but Tony can’t place it right away.

Cool,” says Peter.

“Dude, you did not just call Michelle Jones cool.”

“What? You don’t think she’s cool?”

“Of course she’s cool. But she’s cool in a totally villainous way, not an oh man I want to date her kind of way. She’s like...Voldemort cool.”

The realization dawns slowly. They are talking about a girl. The voice behind the mask is not some sinister kidnapper. It’s Peter’s friend Ned, who once called Tony in the middle of the night because Peter hadn’t shown up to some movie premier.

“Voldemort isn’t supposed to be cool, Ned,” says Peter, confirming his friend’s identity. “And Michelle is Hermione if she’s anything.”

“Can you not go full-on Harry Potter spaz on me right now?” says Ned. “And maybe stop being an MJ spaz while you’re at it. I thought we were going to play Zelda.”

“Yeah, man, sorry.” Peter stands up, his head disappearing from the frame as he heads to the closet to retrieve the game. The same closet from which Tony just retrieved the suit.

He should stop watching. There are other things he could be doing, other trails he could follow, and there’s no time for this, but for some reason he is rapt. It’s so rare that he gets these unguarded glimpses into Peter’s life. Peter does not have a good enough grasp on himself to totally mitigate his dorkier tendencies when he wants to, but he always has his guard at least partially up around Tony, is always aware of the expectations heaped on his shoulders both by Tony and by himself. Tony watches Peter now, utterly relaxed in his friend’s presence in a way he never is in Tony’s, with an almost breathless attention.

Peter retrieves the game and drops back into the frame as he flops to sit beside Ned, then uses his web-shooters to retrieve the remote for the gaming console.

“You are such a show-off, Peter.”

“Hey!” says Peter, indignant. “You’re the one who hasn’t taken the mask off all night! I’m letting you wear that because I’m awesome, by the way, not because I have to.”

“Fine, fine. Just play the game!”

Ned pulls the mask off and the footage ends.

Just as it is about to roll into the next clip of Peter on patrol, Tony hears the door creak behind him.

He has the gauntlet on before he has even fully turned around, blaster charged and ready. But when he raises it he finds he is not pointing it at an unknown assailant but at Sam, who is standing in the doorway with his own wrist dart aimed at Tony.

They both lower their weapons at the same time, with identical huffs of disbelief and relief.

“What the hell?” says Tony. “How did you get in here?”

“The door is unlocked,” says Sam, “which I’m guessing is how you got in too. And speaking of what the hell, what the hell? Why are you sneaking in here like some goddamn cat burglar?”

Tony rips the hood from his head and glares.

“I’m following the breadcrumbs, chief, which is what I thought I sent you to do. Why are you in here instead of out there looking?”

“Uh, maybe because the sentry drone I left outside picked up footage of some middle-aged creep in a classic evil-guy getup sneaking in the back entrance.”

Shit. In his hurry to get to Queens, Tony neglected to tell Sam he was coming. Sam is looking at him like he's a crazy person and maybe he’s not far off the mark: Tony feels crazy. It's remarkably similar to feeling helpless.

Tony retracts the gauntlet.

“Sorry,” he says. “Just… I'm sorry.”

Sam narrows his eyes, but then something in his expression shifts, and he shakes his head.

“It's fine,” he says. “We’re all on edge.”

Tony nods, which is the most gratitude he can muster.

“Tell me you have something on the drones besides me.”

“I'm widening the perimeter but nothing yet.” Sam pauses. “It's nothing and not nothing,” he says.

“Well what the hell does that mean?”

“I didn't find anything in the initial sweep of the apartment,” says Sam. “There's no way someone pulled this off without some surveillance, so that either means it's advanced stuff and I missed it--and hopefully the EMP got what I didn't--or…”

“Or he came back to clear his stuff out after he grabbed Peter,” says Tony. “Christ, that means he's been back here since what? Yesterday? How could I have been so--”

“It means,” Sam interjects, “that wherever this guy is he’s close enough that he can make the trip down here and back to wherever he's keeping Peter in less than a day. That's something, Tony.”

It is an unexpected bit of reassurance from someone Tony has never really been able to call a friend, and more recently has been closer to an enemy. He has to look away quickly to avoid betraying himself by expressing his surprise.

In yet another gesture of unexpected kindness, Sam averts his own eyes, looks around the room instead.

He whistles.

“Damn, the kid’s a real nerd, isn't he?”

Tony wants to say something to defend Peter, but there's no denying it. It would almost be an affront to Peter to try, so boldly does he display it himself.

Sam strides across the room, which only takes one step. Again, Tony tenses, almost feeling as though something private has been invaded. Which is ridiculous, because he's never exactly held the kid’s privacy in high regard.

“I knew he was young,” Sam says, “but he's young.”

Tony turns, snide remark ready on his lips. He's had this conversation a thousand times, with Pepper and Natasha and even Steve. He’s had it a thousand more times with May. And he'll be damned if he has to defend himself to Sam Wilson, of all people, when instead of arguing they should be out there doing something.

But the anger dies before he can say anything. Sam is touching one of the posters above Peter’s desk lightly, and it takes just a second for Tony to see that the poster is a homemade blowup of a picture from the Times: Steve and Sam, suited up and standing back to back with arms crossed, above a headline that reads “The New (And Old) American Heroes.”

When Sam turns back to Tony, it's with an expression of cold fury.

“So,” he says, “which one of us gets to kill the motherfucker who did this?”

Tony swallows the hard lump in his throat.

“We have to find him first.”

As if on cue, his phone rings.

Tony picks it up so swiftly it doesn't even get through the first ring, puts it on speakerphone and says, “Go.”

It's Natasha. From the little pause before she speaks, he knows before she says it that it's going to be bad, but Natasha, ever blunt as she is, says it anyway.

“Tony. It's not good news.”

“Tell me.”

“Clint tried to backtrack the phone Peter’s been using, but the guy has it rerouted through a thousand different towers and all of them are dead ends. We think he's still in the city but at this point he could be literally anywhere.”

“And the security footage?”

“Wiped. All of it… including ours. Whoever did this planned it, and planned it well.”

“Well keep looking,” Tony snarls. “There has to be something, I didn't make sure we're living in the age of fucking cameras everywhere for nothing.”

“I'll keep looking,” says Natasha. “We all will, Tony, you know that. It's just a dead end, it doesn't mean we’re giving up.”

“Then stop wasting my time and look,” he snaps.

“Tony, you need to--”

“Don't tell me to calm down!”

But Natasha, bless her, is not and will never be intimidated by him.

“I will tell you to calm down,” says Natasha. “You have to. For Peter’s sake.”

Tony sucks in a breath, bites back his response. Lets it out slowly, counting to three. One, two three… call Tony, call Tony, call Tony.

“Tony,” says Natasha, more gently this time. “I think you should come back.”

“I have to--”

“May Parker is here,” says Natasha. “She doesn't look… I don't think she’s doing so well. I think you should come talk to her.”

Tony hesitates. He owes May at least that much, though he has no idea what he's going to say to her. Sorry someone took your kid, we have absolutely no leads? But when he looks up at Sam, Sam nods, and it's the confirmation Tony needs.

“I'll stay and keep looking,” says Sam. “Natasha’s right, Stark, none of us are giving up.”

Tony has to clear his throat a couple of times before he can lift the phone to respond to Natasha.

“Right,” he says. “Tell her to wait for me. I'm coming home.”

Chapter Text

0000 hours

 

The clock rolls to midnight so quietly it feels like a betrayal.

 

Day four, Natasha thinks, and then returns her gaze to her computer.

 

She's been poring through YouTube and Instagram and Facebook videos for hours. It's slow work. Every time she finds something that looks like it's near Peter’s apartment she has to backtrace the IP address of the poster and hack into their computer to find the exact time the video was created. Even the ones that were posted recently mostly turn out to be a few days or even weeks old, so thus far it's all been dead ends.

 

She perseveres. Right now it's all they have.

 

The others are losing patience with digital sleuthing. Tony is obsessively running through all of the protocols from Peter’s suit, searching for anything that might have been tampered with. Beside her, Clint is analyzing the recordings for background noises, face calm, but every now and then his shoulder will twitch, which she knows is an involuntary nervous response. Funny, though: he usually only does it when he's talking about Laura or the kids. Sam is still on the ground in Queens, but at this point even he is just watching feeds from the drones, waiting.

 

Their cumulative desire to stop staring at screens and punch something is like a physical shroud, stifling the air in the room.

 

Natasha is used to it. She's also used to being the one to mitigate it. Self control. Patience. Skills one may learn while being raised by assassins, but ones which are particularly natural to Natasha.

 

But no mitigation has been necessary since Tony got back. That's not because of Natasha. That's because of May.

 

Peter’s aunt hasn't cried since she got to the compound, which Natasha respects. May does, however, look like she is about to crumble into a thousand pieces at any moment. Natasha watched from afar while she and Tony talked earlier, having what appeared to be a surprisingly civil conversation (from what she's heard, May can be a real spitfire when it comes to Spider-Man), and then as Tony guided her into the basement lab, which has become their recon room, and sat her on the couch where Natasha and Tony sat drinking coffee earlier that day. He had glared at Clint and Natasha as he helped May settle in, but neither of them had questioned it; if Natasha had wanted to, that brief thought was pushed out by the stark, exhausted terror in every line of May Parker’s face.

 

“Anything you find, you let May know immediately,” Tony had said, as if their quiet acquiescence hadn't convinced him.

 

“Anything you need, ma’am,” Clint had replied, and that was that.

 

As the hours have worn on, Natasha has begun to wish Tony hadn’t said anything. Their silence is a confession and a condemnation all at once: with each moment that passes it reinforces the fact that they have found nothing. The best they can do is feign at calm while they become collectively more desperate.

 

May has been almost unmoving all night, staring at her phone--already equipped with a tracker in case Peter calls again--without touching it, as if she can will it to ring by the force of her need.

 

Around ten past midnight, May gets abruptly to her feet.

 

Everyone swings around to look at her.

 

“I think--” May’s voice cracks. She swallows and tries again. “I think I need to go home.”

 

Natasha and Clint glance uneasily at each other, and Tony gets to his feet.

 

“May,” he says, and if Natasha didn't know him so well she almost wouldn't be able to hear the strain under what is a deliberately calming voice, “it's safer for you if--”

 

“What if he comes home?”

 

Tony flinches as if stung. Natasha knows why: if Peter could come home, he would have by now. With every passing hour his chances of breaking free on his own become less, not more, especially if the person who has him is torturing him.

 

But Tony isn't about to say the word torture to May. Natasha doubts he's been able to say it to himself, even though--with no ransom demand, with the complicity Peter displayed in the messages--it is the most likely scenario.

 

“May,” Tony tries again, “this guy, this-- fucker… we think he might still be surveilling your place, it's really--”

 

“If he--” May interrupts again, cuts herself off, and swallows hard. “ When he is able to, Peter knows to come straight home. He knows to come home in an emergency if he can't get to his phone, and he can't get to his phone, obviously, so that means he might try to come home.”

 

Tony shuts his mouth and presses his lips together. May’s eyes are red-rimmed and looking right past him as she speaks, as if she isn't really talking to Tony but convincing herself.

 

When Tony doesn't reply right away, she goes on.

 

“It's our plan,” she says, turning to Clint and then Natasha. “It's our plan since Ben died; if he can't get in touch with me or I can't get in touch with him, we both go straight home, okay? So if he goes home and I'm not there, what is he going to think? I need--I should--”

 

“May--”

 

“She's right, Tony.”

 

Natasha gets to her feet and shakes her head minutely at Tony as he tries feebly to object once again. She can see the beginnings of a panic attack rising in May, and it's the last thing any of them need at the moment.

 

“We still don't know if this guy is keeping an eye on the apartment,” she offers, meeting Tony’s eye, hard. “It'll tip him off if she's gone all night.” She turns that hard eye contact to May next, but instead of the shut up look she was giving Tony, she tries to make her gaze as even and grounding as she can. “I'll go with you. Peter will kick Tony’s ass when he gets back if anything happens to you.”

 

Natasha thinks it's the when that does it. May takes a deep breath and gives her a shaky nod and a muttered, “Thank you,” which Natasha returns with a reassuring smile, even though Tony is glaring at her from behind May’s back.

 

“I can work from their place,” she says to Tony once Happy has escorted May upstairs, before he can spout his objections. “She needs to feel useful, Tony.”

 

Tony huffs and scrubs a hand through his hair, which is the messiest she has ever seen it from similar treatment all night. “Don't we all.” He glances at Clint. “You're sure we don't need you here?”

 

“It's better if I'm with her,” says Natasha. “Besides, someone needs to be with her when the next call comes in.”

 

Tony gives her a look of alarm that is very close to the one May has been wearing all night.

 

If we get that far,” says Natasha, because the calls have been coming around 2:30 every afternoon. “Breathe, Tony, I'm just trying to be prepared.”

 

Tony concedes. He's disappointed and she knows it: he relies on her to keep him grounded. But May needs her more, now. If it is her function to keep everyone level-headed in crisis, that means knowing where her skills are best put to use.

 

She moves forward, as always. Calm.

 

0345 hours

 

“Do you have kids?”

 

Natasha looks up from the laptop she brought with her, where she is setting an alert for any new videos posted that take place in Queens. She's fairly certain she has exhausted everything that's been put up in the last few days. It's frustrating, but it's not the end of the line. It only irritates her because it means there's not much left to do but wait.

 

There are other things she could do, of course. To say Natasha is stealthy is an understatement: she could be out on the street, finding informants, searching for physical clues. It would be more satisfying than sitting in the Parkers’ cramped apartment, staring at a screen until she goes cross-eyed with fatigue, but it would be pointless: Sam is out there. Sam is thorough. She trusts the team.

 

She is needed here, besides.

 

After following May and Happy down to Queens on her motorcycle and sneaking into the apartment through the basement, Natasha had set up her workstation and then suggested May take one of the Tylenol PMs she found in the cluttered medicine cabinet in the bathroom. May had roundly declined, choosing instead to make a pot of the strongest coffee Natasha has ever tasted and then resume her vigil over her phone.

 

Over the hour or so since they got here, May has alternated between the kitchen and the living room, picking up books and setting them down, pouring herself a bowl of cereal and then forgetting about it, checking the locks on the windows over and over. Twice Natasha has watched her stride purposefully over to Peter’s room and then stop abruptly, hand hovering in front of the knob like it is superheated. She has yet to go in.

 

The question is the most May has said to Natasha all night. She is sitting in a chair by the window when she asks, a little calmer than she has been or maybe just beginning to succumb to the terrible fatigue that comes with perpetual worry. Her voice sounds more even than it did at the facility.

 

Natasha regards her for a moment. May is looking out the window, so Natasha waits until she turns to make eye contact before she answers, so as to make sure May knows she spoke out loud.

 

“No,” she says, when May does.

 

“Why not?”

 

Natasha is used to the question. All childless women over thirty are.

 

“It's not really suited to the lifestyle,” she says.

 

It's her standard answer, the one that gets people off her back quickest, but as soon as it is out of her mouth she regrets it. May’s expression crumples--just for a second before she yanks her composure back into place, but enough for Natasha to see. She sets the computer aside and moves to sit in the chair next to May.

 

“I shouldn't have said that,” says Natasha. “It's not the lifestyle that's not suited to it, it's me. There are people on the team who have kids, and they're-- he is a great parent.” She hesitates, wondering if she's overstepping a boundary. She steps anyway. “Peter will be a great parent too, someday. If that's what he wants.”

 

May forces a watery smile and presses the sleeve of the ancient, tatty men's sweatshirt she is wearing to her mouth. She looks back out the window and for a second Natasha thinks that is that, is about to return to her station, but then May speaks again.

 

“I never wanted to be a mom,” she says.

 

Natasha lowers herself back into her seat, gives May a “go on” look.

 

“It was the first thing I said to Ben on our first date. I was so used to men running for the hills when they heard that, so I started getting it out right away, to save myself the time. Ben thought it was hilarious. It was one of the reasons I married him.”

 

She takes a shuddering breath.

 

“I was there the day Peter was born,” she says. “I got there right after, and Mary put him in my arms and I loved him, I did, but I kept looking at her and how tired she was and thinking how tired she was going to be , for the next few months or maybe the next few years and even though I loved her and I loved Peter all I could think was Thank God I'm never going to have to do this. And that's what I thought every time I visited them and saw how messy their house was, or how exhausted she and Richard were. No matter how much I loved Peter or how much fun we had with them I would always turn to Ben after and say, ‘Man, I love that kid, but thank God we get to hand him back to his parents at the end of the day.’” She made a face that might have been a smile but looked more like a grimace. “He was a handful even then. Not hard or annoying, just so energetic and smart, you know? Like it didn't even seem like that much energy could be contained in such a little body. Richard and Mary were the smartest people I ever met and even they could barely keep up.”

 

Natasha nods. May is ranting, but Natasha is a little relieved. It beats the razor’s edge of silence on which they have been balancing all night. Natasha would rather slip onto the side of rambling and reminiscing than the side of all-out panic.

 

“When--after the accident, Ben was Peter’s only living relative and he was so scared to ask me what I thought of taking him in. I think he was scared I would leave him. I was scared, too. I had spent my whole life--my whole life-- thinking I would never need or want anything except me and Ben, and suddenly we had this kid coming to live with us who was grieving and growing and I thought I might just about lose it on the car ride to child services to pick him up. I was so nervous I was shaking, but Ben was too distracted and worried to do anything more than just hold my hand.

 

“But then… but then…” She sniffs and wipes a stray tear almost unconsciously, in a way that makes Natasha think she hasn't realized she is crying. They are the first tears she's seen May shed all night. “We got there, and Peter was standing in some god-awful CPS person’s office, wearing a backpack twice his size and holding this old HAM radio his dad had given him, and the second he looked at me I just knew. I knew, That’s my kid. He always had been.”

 

May looks at Natasha now, meets her gaze, her eyes full of tears, and says, “What am I supposed to do if I lose him?”

 

And before Natasha can answer May is full-on sobbing, face buried in her hands. Natasha gets to her feet and wraps an arm around May’s shoulders but doesn't say anything, just lets her cry. It's not just that there is nothing to say: it's that Natasha has never been in the business of making promises she can't keep.

 

At least, not out loud.

 

She can make all the promises she wants to herself, though. They'll get him back. Because if the expression on May’s face when she finally calms down enough to stop crying--a mixture of shock and determination--is any sort of clue, it's not just Peter’s life that depends on it.

 

0850 hours

 

After the tears, May falls utterly still and silent. She spends the rest of the night facing the window, and even Natasha, who can usually read this sort of thing from miles away, cannot tell if she sleeps at all. But when May finally turns to her with doleful, bloodshot eyes around 9:00am that morning she has a sense the answer is no.

 

“Nothing?” says May.

 

Natasha shakes her head. “We’re not giving up, May.”

 

May’s expression goes suddenly and frighteningly hard, so swift and so intense that Natasha instantly understands why Tony visibly winces every time May’s name comes up on his phone.

 

“You'd better fucking not,” she says, and she snatches her phone and disappears into her bedroom.

 

1215 hours

 

“I don't understand how we don't have anything .”

 

Natasha watches Sam pacing in front of the camera he has set up at the makeshift work station they asked him to establish for the sake of this call. In the light of day he's had to abandon his suit--too obvious--and continue on foot. He's been breaking into abandoned warehouses and parking garages all day, based on the one and only clue Clint has been able to glean from the messages: that, based on the slight echoey quality of Peter’s voice, he is probably being held in a building with wide, high-ceilinged spaces. Sam is covered in dust and grime, but so far nothing.

 

On the split screen, Clint sits in the foreground with Tony in the back. Tony is standing with his forehead against the far wall, unmoving. Natasha raises an eyebrow at Clint, who shrugs as if to say, I'm not even going there.

 

“We keep looking,” says Natasha. “It's still--”

 

“It's been three and a half days,” says Sam. “What is the point of being a goddamn Avenger if we can't find one scrawny teenage kid?”

 

“We still have the videos,” Clint says. “Didn't you say you thought you had something, Nat?”

 

Natasha nods. A nauseatingly unstable video of some kids doing kick flips on their skateboards was posted a few minutes ago, set off her alert because the kid who posted it lives a few blocks away, but it's so blurry and shaky that Natasha can't tell if they have the right neighborhood let alone the right street. She's cleaning it up, searching for usable stills, but it's slow work and they are all sharing a collective sense that time is running out.

 

“I'm sending frames as I get them,” she says. “We just need to--”

 

Tony pounds his fist against the wall, so loudly Natasha glances at the closed bedroom door to see if May will finally emerge. She doesn’t.

 

They all look at him.

 

Tony stays where he is for a second, forehead to wall, gathering himself before turning. When he does his face is sallow and drawn, like he's spent the night with a bad case of the stomach flu.

 

“You need to get ready to trace that call, Natasha.”

 

“We still have a couple of hours.”

 

“We aren't getting anywhere in a couple of hours,” Tony says. Not harshly. Defeated. “Get ready for the call, Nat. Patch us in the minute it comes.”

 

Natasha nods and disconnects the video feed.

 

1300 hours

 

May has calmed since this morning, or is at least not as angry, but it still takes a bit of back and forth before she agrees not to pick up the phone when the call comes. May wants Peter to hear her voice, to know that she loves him even if they can't communicate that they are coming for him. Natasha knows that May is in absolutely no state to keep a level head long enough to lock a trace.

 

May agrees, eventually, with Natasha’s repeated reassurance that it will only take a few seconds of the message recording to get Peter’s position. All those movies where it takes a minute or more didn't have Stark Tech on their side.

 

May relinquishes the phone and even sits beside Natasha on the couch, watching over her shoulder as she sets up the tracking software on her computer.

 

“I've never felt so crazy in my life,” May says after a while. “How is it possible to feel this awful and just keep breathing?”

 

Natasha knows the feeling. Well. Knows it and doesn't know it. Her whole life has been a series of crises, but she's not sure she's ever had one where the future of someone she loves as deeply as May loves Peter has been the one in danger. Usually she is the one in danger. And, she thinks, looking at May’s drawn, pallid face, thank God for that.

 

Still, her ache might not be as acute as May’s obviously is, but she still aches. A surprising amount. And that ache has been growing all day, as more and more time has passed and they haven't found him.

 

“I told you last night I wasn't suited for kids,” says Natasha. “I think you should know, I would probably make an exception, too, if that kid was anything like Peter.”

 

May draws in a rattling breath and gropes for Natasha’s hand. They sit in silence, then, and watch the phone together.

 

1525 hours

 

The call never comes.

 

1600 hours

 

By four o’clock Natasha has no choice. May isn't hysterical--Natasha has the feeling she isn't the type--but she is also not the type of person who does well with helplessness, and she is clearly heading for a panic attack, pacing and clenching and wondering over and over why the call hasn't come. Natasha calls Happy, who has been circling the neighborhood as inconspicuously as possible all day, and together the two of them convince her to take a mild sedative. It doesn't knock her out but it allows her to sit down, glassy-eyed, and finally take a breath.

 

“But why hasn't he called ?” she pleads one last time, and then she puts her face in her hands and falls silent.

 

Natasha knows why he didn't call. Has a hunch, anyway, has had it since she first listened to that third message. Something changed in Peter’s voice between the call Tony and the I love you, and her guess is that is because his captor caught on to Peter’s trick.

 

She didn't voice it last night and she won't now. She tells herself she is protecting May and Tony, but she is protecting herself, a little, too.

 

What she cannot admit is this:

 

Peter is probably already dead.

 

1642 hours

 

Not long after May’s sedative kicks in, the computer pings. The images have finally finished cleaning, and not only are those images clearly of the street right outside, many of them also contain license plates.

 

She forwards these images to Tony. A few minutes later, he replies with a name: Cameron Morell.

 

Natasha joins in the effort of directing FRIDAY’s facial recognition tech, but in the end it is Tony who finds him first, walking into a convenience store some eight blocks away from where Natasha is currently sitting.

 

She's practically out the door before Tony even has a full location, telling Happy to get upstairs and ignoring the way May’s head snaps up as she runs out, ignoring the, “Did you--?” that follows.

 

Natasha whips her motorcycle through rush hour traffic so fast it's a miracle no cops tail her to the abandoned factory. It's a miracle she doesn't break her own neck. She drops the bike on its side almost before it's even off and kicks the rusty panel doors in, gun drawn.

 

Only then does it occur to Natasha that she has barely drawn a breath since she left the apartment, and that she has potentially just alerted any living creature within a mile to her presence with the force of her breaking and entering.

 

Calm down. Stay grounded.

 

She inhales, takes in her surroundings. No one has emerged from the shadows to attack her, but possibly only because there is nowhere to emerge from. She is in an empty hallway with just a desk and an old punch clock sitting by a door on the far end, which is where Natasha heads. Unlike the punch clock, which looks like it is from the 1960s, the door is fitted with an electronic lock which Natasha knows is brand new and extremely expensive, made by OsCorp. She knows this because it is her business to keep up with all such technology, and to know how to crack it.

 

She does this in fifteen seconds flat.

 

There is an unexpected rush of light that has Natasha squinting and blinking. Not just light--a strobe light, bursting rapidly and continuously from the center of the room.

 

She ducks low and crosses the room in a crouch, right to the center, where she smashes the offending bulb with the butt of her gun.

 

The light normalizes. The room is still lit, brightly, by hooded lights all around the perimeter. The smashed bulb is sitting atop a metallic table, which is covered in a gruesome array of medical equipment. Natasha catches a glimpse of a scalpel, crusted in blood, and a used syringe, and it almost makes her afraid to look around.

 

But she does.

 

Peter .”

 

Peter is slumped in the corner, upright but limp, and in the second it takes her to cross to him, she isn't sure if he is alive or if his body is just propped up that way, feigning aliveness. Then she gets close and sees that his eyes are scrunched shut in a way that only someone making a conscious effort could manage.

 

His wrists are shackled. So are his legs. A litany of fresh bruises and cuts spackle every inch of his skin, clearly bespeaking a recent beating. He’s also soaked and shivering, an overturned bucket nearby suggesting that Morell doused him. It hasn’t done much to wash away four days’ accumulated filth.

 

He’s muttering something under his breath, so low she can’t hear. He doesn't open his eyes at the sound of his name.

 

Natasha is so shocked to find him alive she almost can't say it again.

 

Again, though, she does. Calm. Grounded.

 

“Peter?” She crouches next to him, one hand still clutching her gun. “Peter. Hey. Open your eyes for me, Pete.”

 

“Go away, go away,” Peter whispers.

 

She doesn’t know if he doesn’t realize who she is or if the muttering is part of a larger delusion. It makes her reticent to touch him--a reticence which increases when she sees the smattering of holes in his biceps. She knows those holes, knows that jostling him will set off whatever Morell has implanted there. But Peter’s muttering is becoming more frantic and he’s starting to twitch, as if to get away from her, and, not wanting him to set them off himself, she reaches out and puts a hand on his cheek.

 

Peter’s eyes snap open. His pupils are the size of pinpricks--the strobe light, she realizes, was a form of torture, one especially potent for a kid with sensory enhancement as intense as Peter’s--so small she is sure he cannot see her. But after a moment of searching they lock onto hers.

 

“Hey,” she says. “Hey, honey.” She’s not sure where the endearment comes from, and it tastes a little foreign on her tongue, but Peter relaxes ever so slightly at the word so she rolls with it. “I’m gonna get you out of here, okay? Can you talk?”

 

“This isn’t real,” Peter says thickly.

 

He thinks he’s hallucinating. She’s not surprised. Between the drugs and the torture, it’s a toss-up to what’s caused it, but further investigation will have to wait.

 

“It’s real,” she says. “I promise you, it’s real. We got your messages, Peter. You did really good, okay? Hard part is over; now I’m just gonna get these shackles off.”

 

But this, evidently, is the wrong thing to say. Peter snaps his eyes shut again and grimaces, lips pressed tightly together as if he can will her away by closing himself off. He flinches away from her hand. She removes it.

 

“Okay hon,” she says. “Just hold tight.”

 

Natasha purses her own lips, banishing the tight heat that is rising in her stomach, and tucks her gun into the holster on her thigh to examine the shackles. Like the lock, she’s familiar: they’re a particularly illegal brand favored by the Russian mafia, remote controlled and electrified. Judging from the burns on Peter’s wrists, they have been used, and recently.

 

But this is unusual; the compartments have been clumsily welded shut. She pulls her laser pen from her ankle holster and is just wondering what could have necessitated the rushed job Morell did on the shackles when she hears the door slide open behind her.

 

Thirty years of instinct kick in before Morell can register what she is doing there, and that only takes a second. Within that second--wherein she hears him curse and draw a gun--Natasha gets to her feet and steps to the side, drawing the fire away from Peter, then leans away from the shot when it actually comes.

 

She turns around, fury low and hot in her abdomen. Morell, who she recognizes from the picture Tony sent, ooks similarly enraged, advancing with gun drawn and teeth gritted. He is wild-eyed and unshaven, and looks like he hasn’t bathed in days.

 

She could shoot him now. But she wants him to know what’s coming. She wants him to fucking feel it.

 

Morell fires again, and Natasha ducks, sidesteps another shot--Peter curls up, trying to put his hands over his ears, but the shackles are too short--and then rushes Morell.

 

She sees Morell’s eyes go wide, rage turning to fear in the space of a breath, but she is on him before he can get another shot off. A roundhouse knocks the gun out of his hand; it skitters away, bounces off the wall near Peter, whose eyes are open now but who makes no move to indicate that he is aware of what’s going on.

 

Natasha steps sideways while Morell is nursing what is almost certainly a broken wrist, gets behind him and wraps an arm around his neck. She uses the full weight of her body to slam him to the ground.

 

Morell makes a pathetic, whining gasp and tries to sit up, but Natasha digs a knee into his pelvis and he reels back, head smacking against the dirt and concrete floor.

 

Morell puts his hands up and wheezes, “Please, no.”

 

It’s almost too easy. But it will have to do.

 

Natasha places the laser pen under Morell’s jaw. He flinches and all of the color drains from his face.

 

“Why did you do this?” she demands. “Talk!”

 

“He--I’m a scientist! I’m a scientist. I had to know how he--please, you have to believe me, it was important, what I was doing was important and he ruined it, he ruined me --”

 

Natasha pulls the laser pen away from Morell’s face and flips it on. She drives it into his bicep, which is where he has been injecting Peter with God knows what for nearly four days now.

 

“So you thought you’d get your revenge on a kid?” she says while Morell shrieks. “He’s a fucking child!”

 

There is a groan from the corner. Natasha whips around. Peter is watching them, eyes wide and glassy, seeing and not seeing.

 

She turns the laser off and Morell gasps with relief.

 

“Please,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Hey Pete,” says Natasha, keeping her voice as gentle as she is able. “Close your eyes, honey, okay?”

 

Peter squeezes his eyes shut immediately, raising his hands as high as he can to try to cover them.

 

When she looks back at Morell, his own eyes go wide.

 

“Please,” he whispers. “Please, calm down. We can talk, we can--”

 

Natasha stares at him, just long enough for the fear to really sink in. Then she smiles.

 

“I’m always calm,” she says, and, cleanly, she breaks Cameron Morell’s neck.

Chapter Text

Peter dissociates from the pain eventually. The high-pitched note of it is continuous, but it becomes reedy and distant, after a time. Inward he goes, into a jumble of colors and words and smells without coherence or meaning.

You could never--

What the fuck?

Death, death, that smells like death something is rotting and I can't

How could you hide this from me don't you know I love

You could never let me--

Your stupid fucking trick, you

Someone is screaming I think it's me, screaming, me is that me

Moving people are moving and talking but they're not here not here not here and it isn't real it isn't real hold onto that hold onto the not-realness because maybe then none of it is real and you're not here not here not here

Please don't hurt her I'll do anything I'll say anything

Screaming

You could never let me down--

Light light light endless light can't see can't think just cover up go away cover up

Peter

You could never let me down, kid.

Peter Peter hey open your eyes for me Pete

But the light the light the screaming the death go away go away not real go away

Someone touches his face.

There have been many, many hallucinations of many kinds, many visitors, many disappointments. But this is the first to touch him.

He opens his eyes.

His vision is hot and white with red all around the edges because of something Morell did, something he can't remember now. It hurts to open them--everything hurts, but opening his eyes brings him back to the pain, makes it real again. He wants to close them but there is something at the center of all that hot white nothing, something shimmering and hazy but human.

“Hey,” says the human. “Hey, honey.”

It’s May. She hasn't been here, yet, not like the others, and for just a second he leans into the hand on his face, relieved--I thought you were dead I thought--but then she says she is going to get him out of there and that doesn't seem right because May is dead, Morell killed her--didn't he he must have because I said the wrong thing but what did I say--and she can't be here.

“This isn't real,” he tells her.

And maybe he is right, because the person touching him doesn't sound so much like May when she tells him she is going to get the shackles off, she sounds more like Natasha which is almost worse because Natasha is who he would expect to come and get him and it's too much too much he can't take the disappointment anymore, the disappointment is so much worse than the pain.

He jerks away and the hand disappears.

Without the hand to anchor him, he drifts. There is sound, sound like a hammer to his skull but Morell shortened the shackles so he can't cover his ears so he watches as the shape of May or maybe Natasha leaves just like she has a hundred or a thousand times before, watches something happening something distant and terrible and when Natasha or May tells him to close his eyes he does because he knows she is telling him so she can disappear without feeling guilty and it's okay it’s okay it’s not real and it won't be much longer the IV has been gone all night and eventually he's going to let you die not much longer now you could never let me down kid never

But then she’s back. His vision is starting to resolve, the circle at the end of the bright tunnel widening, and he can tell now that it is Natasha, not May, crouched in front of him and she is doing something to the shackles and telling him she's going to get him out, shushing him like he's had a nightmare and needs to go back to sleep, and it's already too much, too much to bear, it's not real and Morell is going to come back and she will leave and he can't take it, can't take the idea of her disappearing again.

As if this wasn't cruel enough, then Tony is there.

He is there behind Natasha and he steps out of the Iron Man suit just like he has in all the nightmares and hallucinations and when Peter tells him that he's not there he says, “No, kid, we’re here,” and Peter closes his eyes because he needs them to go away now, he needs it.

“Peter, could you keep your eyes open for us?”

Peter does, but not because she tells him to. It's because one of his wrists is suddenly free and he has to look at it to know it's real. It's not real, it can't be, but it feels real and it looks real and maybe he did this? Maybe he broke it, somehow?

But if he did he is going to be punished.

“He's gonna come back,” he tells the hallucinations, even though the longer he looks at them the more he is not sure, because his wrist is free now and Tony doesn't look angry or bored or derisive. He looks--he looks scared, pale and hovering over Natasha’s shoulder with an expression on his face like he's just watched the whole world drop away. Peter doesn't know how he could have imagined an expression like that, he's never seen anything like it on Mr. Stark’s face before. “He's gonna--”

“No, he's not,” says Tony. “I promise you, he's not.”

Clarity comes in a rush.

It almost knocks the wind out of him how fast it comes. The babbling stream of chaos in his head ceases like a television that's been switched off. The blurry edges of his vision solidify. And suddenly he is aware that he is sitting on the floor, covered in blood and dirt and his own waste with two Avengers kneeling beside him and another--Falcon--walking quietly in through the busted door behind him.

There is something--someone--lying on the ground nearby. He thinks it might be Morell.

“Shit,” he says, and he leans his head back, dizzy.

“I called for med evac,” says Sam quietly, and the fact that this one just might be real sinks in a little further.

Instead of relief, he feels more ashamed than he ever has in his life. He can practically feel the adrenaline vacating his body, and he definitely feels it when, after the second shackle pops free, every inch of him starts to shake, violently. He tries to stop and he can't.

“Hey, hey,” says Natasha. “Almost out. Two more to go.”

They're all here because of him. Because he couldn't stop this. Couldn't get away.

“Th-thanks,” he says.

He tries to look up. He wants to help. But he is shaking too hard and his head slumps forward, like his neck is made of rubber.

A hand on his forehead eases him back. It's warm and gentle and Peter is so desperate for the contact, the reassurance that this is all true and real, that in spite of his humiliation he finds himself dreading the moment that hand pulls away.

But it doesn't. Peter looks up to find that the hand belongs to Mr. Stark, who holds it there, firm but gentle, his eyes searching Peter’s face. It only now occurs to Peter that Mr. Stark, usually so hyperverbal, has barely said anything at all. He looks ashen and has dark circles under his eyes like he hasn't slept. His hair is unkempt, too, and that almost frightens Peter, who is pretty sure Mr. Stark even designed the Iron Man suit with his hair in mind: he's seen him step out of it minutes after a battle without so much as a cowlick.

What has he been doing to look so disheveled? So scared?

Peter’s stomach is empty, empty, empty. He's not even hungry anymore, like his body has just resigned itself to never eating again, and he's sure he's dehydrated because Morell stopped the IV after his last phone call. But his insides still squirm at the expression on Mr. Stark’s face, the same way they do when he comes home limping and sees the little grimace of worry on May’s face.

“M-Mr. Stark?” His teeth chatter and he's stuttering. He knows he's wet and freezing but can't remember why. He's glad the hand is still there, glad for its small warmth.

“Yeah, kid.”

Mr. Stark sounds almost breathless and it's really starting to freak Peter out. So he forces a smile.

“Disneyland was shit.”

But Mr. Stark just stares at him, like he can't understand a word Peter is saying. Peter wants to say something else, to let him know it's okay even though it's not okay, and it's very possible that nothing will ever be okay again. It still shouldn't be Mr. Stark’s burden. Peter is the one who got snatched, the one who couldn't get away.

But before he can open his mouth the last of the shackles pops free and Mr. Stark pulls the hand away, moving from his knees to a crouch and reaching for Peter. Natasha grabs him and whispers something in his ear, but Peter doesn't catch it because as soon as Mr. Stark is no longer touching him he feels like the tenuous thread connecting him to consciousness has snapped. His whole body feels heavy and distant, and the pain is washing away too, replaced by a heady numbness that is all too inviting.

Kid.”

Peter blinks. He hadn't noticed his eyes sliding shut, but the harsh light upon opening them renews the knife of consciousness and he starts to shake harder while Natasha continues to whisper something to Tony.

He almost knows it's going to happen before it does.

His body is too muddled from injury and cold and starvation to really feel the capsule go off, but his other injuries don't mitigate the white space, the shaking, the sensation that he is going to die like this. And wouldn't that be fitting to go, now, just when he finally thought he was going to get to go home…

“Peter.” The hand is back, on his cheek this time instead of his forehead. “Peter, can you hear me?”

I want to go home, he wants to say. But it takes all his effort just to draw a breath.

Mr. Stark tells him to stay still. But at the thought of home another thought rises, and Peter takes another breath because there is something he has to ask, something that cannot wait for him to be ready to ask because he will never be ready. He summons the last of his will and says,

“Can you--did someone--?” But he can't find the words. “Aunt May,” he says finally, and hopes it's enough.

“Of course, kid. I'll call her right now.”

It's not what Peter was asking. He just wanted to know if she was alive. The last twenty four hours are a mess of agony and senselessness, often mingled together, but he has a vague memory of Morell threatening to kill her, a not-so-vague memory of believing he had.

The relief that she is alive and, it seems, uninjured is so great Peter could sob. But he doesn't have the energy. Instead he lets it sweep over him and then carry him away, into the warm darkness of utter unconsciousness.

***


Tony watches the kid go under with a mixture of horror and relief. Horror at what's been done to him. Relief that he won't have to feel it, so long as he is out.

The medical team is arriving. Tony stays kneeling next to Peter, hand on his cheek until one of the paramedics instructs him, gently but firmly, to move, and even then he feels like he has betrayed the kid by stepping back. He feels like he should never let him out of his sight again.

Natasha explains the implants as quickly as she can and the medevac team takes it all in professional stride. They're the best. They should be: Tony vetted them himself. So why does he want to scream at them when they strap Peter’s arms and legs to the backboard to stabilize them? Why does he want to punch the paramedic who tightens the strap in the face?

He watches them wheel Peter outside with a sense of utter loss.

He wants to follow. But there's something he's supposed to do, something he has to do first.

Natasha and Sam are moving Morell’s body into the corner, Natasha already making arrangements to have it picked up. Tony wants to set the whole damn place on fire with the fucker’s body inside, but the suggestion catches in his throat. There is evidence here, evidence that he is terrified to look at.

What is he supposed to do?

Right. He told Peter he would call May.

Call Tony, call Tony, call Tony.

Tony retreats to the corner farthest from Morell’s body and the two people tending to it, not sure if what he's feeling is rage or shame and not trusting himself to find out, which he almost certainly would if he had anything to do with that operation.

The only reason he is even able to make this call is because of what happened last night. Arriving back on the compound Tony had expected May to flay him alive and, honestly, he had kind of been hoping she would. God knew he deserved it. And there had been something in her expression when he had walked in, something that might have been anger lingering under all the fear and worry, but when he had walked up to her it had flickered and disappeared, and May had slumped as though in defeat.

“Are you okay?” she had asked, and Tony had been so gobsmacked by it that he hadn't been able to say anything.

“I know…,” said May, “I know you care about him. Peter knows too. Just please find him.”

Now Tony has found him, and he owes May this phone call, but there is nothing he has ever wanted to do less in his entire life.

May answers on the first ring.

“Did you--? Is he--?”

“We found him. He's alive.”

May’s sob of relief is like a knife in his chest. Because he has to follow it up with this:

“He doesn't--he's not doing great, May.”

May goes silent on the other end, waiting. Tony closes his eyes and tilts his head back, hoping for some cosmic inspiration to strike and inform him of the best way to tell a parent that their kid has just been brutally tortured. But of course none comes. Because there is no good way to say this, no way to make the news palatable or even bearable. He just has to say it.

“The guy was torturing him. We don't know all the details, yet, but I have my team taking him to the medical bay at the Avengers facility, and they'll give us more information there. He's going to need surgery. There are some sort of… implants in his arms, they need to come out as soon as possible. I know we’re not always by the book in this situation, but our staff doctor might want your permission before--”

“Of course,” says May breathlessly. To her credit, she sounds determined rather than destroyed, which is how Tony feels. “Of course, tell them to do whatever they need to do. Tony, is he--” She swallows hard enough that he can hear it. “Is he going to die?”

Tony rubs a hand over his face so hard it hurts, trying to wake himself from this nightmare. It doesn't work.

“No,” he says. “No, he's not going to die. But I'm still sending a helicopter for you. If you go now you might be able to get there when he does. I think you should be there before he wakes up. I'm… May, for what it's worth, I am so sorry.”

It doesn't feel like it's worth shit.

But May takes a shaky breath and says. “It's not your fault. Thank you, Tony. Thank you for finding him. Thank you for… thank you for everything.”

It doesn't make Tony feel better. He doesn't deserve a word of it. Everything he has done has served only to draw more attention to the kid, from giving him the suit to letting him hang around the most internationally famous group of people in existence. The consequences were bound to fall on their heads eventually, and Tony could kill himself over the fact that this is how they came down.

But he doesn't say any of this. What he says is, “We’re finishing here. I'll meet you as soon as I can.”

He's about to hang up when May’s voice cuts across the line, clipped and a little uncertain.

“Tony--?”

“Yeah?”

“The man who did this…”

Tony inhales deeply and looks at the body in the corner, which Natasha has rolled onto its side to face the wall in lieu of a sheet to cover it.

“He's dead,” says Tony.

There is a pause.

“Good,” says May, and the conviction in her voice is both frightening and a little awe-inspiring.

He gives her instructions for meeting the helicopter and then hangs up. As soon as he looks up from the phone he sees Natasha is watching him. There’s no expectation in her expression, just a wariness that Tony thinks is probably justified. He feels like he’s going to be sick.

Instead he lets out a breath that sears in his chest and says, “That fucker was going to kill him.”

Natasha looks over at the body in the corner and there is no pity or regret in her eyes. She looks like she wants to kill him all over again, an action Tony wouldn’t mind getting in on.

“Yeah, well,” she says, “we got him first.”

“What the hell is all this?” says Sam.

He’s at the center of the room, where Morell had been keeping his equipment. Tony has been so caught up in Peter he hasn’t taken a look yet, but now that Sam brings his attention to it Tony wishes he hadn’t. Even from a distance he can see the outlines of used medical equipment, and the places they take his imagination are places he has never wanted to go.

But Sam is less interested in the medical equipment than he is the computer next to it. He runs his hand over the keyboard, presses a button, and then--

“Please don’t hurt her. Please .”


It’s Peter’s voice, crying, and at the sound of it Tony freezes, veins flooding with ice. Morell recorded him, recorded the kid pleading for his aunt’s life, and whatever he was doing to make the kid’s voice sound like that, Tony cannot listen to it right now.


“Turn it off,” he says.


Sam is already trying, pressing keys and buttons, and Tony becomes aware that in addition to the audio there is a video playing on the screen and he turns his head away.


“I’m trying, I — ”


“You think I wouldn’t figure out your little plan? Your stupid fucking secret code? I swear to god, if I see one fucking Avenger within thirty miles of this place, I’ll head back to your apartment myself and blow that aunt of yours to — ”

It doesn’t even occur to Tony that of the three of them in this room, he is probably the most equipped to figure out how to shut the computer down. He can’t move.


“Please , no, I’ll — I’ll say anything you want, you can — the next time you call her, just tell me what to — ”


Then the kid screams and Tony can’t help it; he looks. On the screen, Peter is still propped in the corner they just rescued him from minutes ago, his body straining against the shackles as it goes rigid from the electricity, every vein in his bloody, ruined arms popping out from the force of it.


“You’re lucky I still have tests to run,” says Morell, “or you wouldn’t have any skin — ”


“Turn it off!” Tony shouts.


A bang from behind him makes Tony jump, and the screen goes black, the place where the kid was struggling replaced by a sparking, smoking hole. He looks around as Natasha strides past him, tucking her gun into the holster at her hip, and rips the hard drive out of the computer.


“We’re going to need this when they’re figuring out how to treat him,” she says.


Tony wishes he was better at expressing his gratitude for Natasha. Because if it was up to him he would destroy that hard drive, destroy everything in this warehouse and never look back. But he knows that would be useless. He could erase this place from the map and it wouldn’t erase what happened here.

They have to move forward, now, and Tony has no idea how.


“I should go,” he says, still staring at the hole in the computer screen. “I should--I should be there when--”


“You go, Stark,” says Sam, who, despite looking wide-eyed and shaken, is straightening, gathering himself in a way Tony hasn’t been able to muster. “I’ve got backup on the way to help us here.”


Tony nods stiffy. He feels like he’s becoming less aware of his body at each passing moment and he has the sense that it has something to do with this place, this factory.

He turns to Natasha, who nods, knuckles white on the hard drive, and says, “We’ll meet you there, Tony. If there’s anything useful on the tapes I’ll let the doctors know.”


Tony nods again and turns to the Iron Man suit, which has been idling by the door this whole time. He is about to engage it when something stops him and he turns back.


“Nat.”


She looks at him.


“I need to--I don’t know how to thank you, for this. For saving him.”


Natasha frowns, like Tony has just said something that makes her sad, and it’s genuine and a little odd to see something real and raw on Natasha’s face like that, in this place.


“We all saved him, Tony,” she says. “Try to remember that.”


***


Tony’s suit can break the sound barrier, so despite the fact that he is the last to leave for the medical bay, he is the first to arrive, ahead of both the helicopter carrying Peter and the one carrying May. Peter’s gets there first, and for that Tony thanks the heavens, because May does not need to be witness to the small chaos that is Peter arriving.


Tony goes straight to the landing pad and sends the suit back to storage, then stands shivering on the roof in nothing but the t-shirt and jeans he has been wearing since he left for Queens almost twenty-four hours ago, watching the sky. FRIDAY has already informed him that the chopper is five minutes out, but he feels like an eternity passes before he hears the thwap of rotor blades and sees the speck of them in the distance.


“Helen?” he asks, before the sound of it can drown him out.


“Prepping surgical, boss,” FRIDAY replies. “I've already informed the paramedics.”


Tony nods as the helicopter descends, but silently he is kicking himself, because it has only just occurred to him how little they know about the kid’s physiology, and what a task it is going to be to get those capsules out with limited knowledge. He makes a mental note to run some tests on Peter’s blood, get some tissue samples so they can have the results ready, in the future, and then erases it: The image of used needles and bloody medical equipment is too fresh.


He wishes Bruce was here.


But Helen is good. Helen is more than good; next to Bruce, she is the absolute best. He trusts her, and not only because he has no other choice.


He is just wondering if he's made a mistake coming up here, if he's just going to be in the way, but then the chopper is landing and the paramedics come streaming out with the stretcher between them and Tony gets one look at the kid’s face--he's awake, somehow--and he forgets all thoughts of not being here.


Peter’s eyes are wide and looking around so rapidly they almost appear to be rolling, like he's having a fit, but he's not moving and he keeps trying to lift his head to look down at his restrained arms and Tony instantly recognizes that it’s not madness or illness in his expression, it’s fear. The kid is awake; the kid is terrified.


He runs up to the stretcher and jogs alongside it as the chopper takes off to make room for the one that is incoming.


“Why the hell is he awake?” he shouts at the nearest paramedic, over the sound of the helicopter.


“He came back on the way over. Dr. Cho gave us strict instructions not to give him anything until we know what he’s been dosed with,” says the paramedic who, to her credit, simply keeps the stretcher moving and doesn't balk under Tony’s fury.


Of course, it makes sense, but it does nothing to change the fact that Peter is clearly in a state of panic, muttering and tugging feebly at the restraints keeping his arms still. The fact that he hasn't torn through them like paper is even more frightening than the raw terror on the kid’s face: whatever Morell did to him has left him weak as a baby.


As they wheel him into the elevator to take him to the basement levels, Tony gets alongside him and tries to get in his line of vision, but the kid just keeps straining to see the straps on his wrists. He's muttering something that sounds like not real again. Tony falters, but then he hears the paramedics say something about rapid heartbeat and low blood pressure and he's no doctor but he knows that neither of those things are good on their own, let alone in combination, so he reaches out and takes the kid’s face in his hands, firmly but gently, and forces Peter to look at him.


“Peter, you're right here. Look at me, kid.”


He almost expects Peter’s panic to deepen at his touch. He has no idea what Morell did over the last few days, he's still afraid to think about it, but he knows that for a full eight months after Afghanistan the only people he could stand to let touch him were Pepper and Rhodey. But as soon as Peter meets eyes with Tony he relaxes.


“Oh,” he says, voice so small it’s almost inaudible. “Mr. Stark. I thought--I thought--”


“I know, kid, but you're right here. You're at the Avengers facility. Your aunt is on her way, okay? But right now I'm thinking you're gonna need a huge dose of the best shit we have in-house and a long nap, okay?”


“Yeah,” says Peter. “Yeah, that sounds…” His eyelids flutter and for a second Tony thinks he's unconscious again. Then they snap back open, search wildly for a second, lock onto Tony's once more. “Are you gonna stay?” he gasps. “Are you really here?”


“I'm really here, kid. I'll be here, cross my heart.”


Peter gives him a smile, so small it’s barely recognizable as one, and it's the most heartbreaking thing Tony thinks he's ever seen, because the kid shouldn't even be able to smile at a time like this. Tony sure as hell isn't.


Then Peter is really out again. Tony releases his face as the lift doors open on the medical bay to revel Helen Cho and her team, and they take him from there, Helen giving him a nod of understanding before whisking Peter away. We’ve got him.


For a moment Tony just stands in the lift, watching them go. The doors begin to slide shut in front of him and almost close, but a hand juts between them at the last minute, forcing them open again.

And then there is Pepper. Pepper, who is supposed to be in South Africa negotiating a trade deal with the local government on behalf of one of their charities; Pepper, who he realizes now he didn't even call when all of this started and who should by all rights be furious with him for that because she knows Peter, too, likes him the way that everyone likes Peter, and has even said, slyly and on more than one occasion, that she thinks Peter has done a better job of softening Tony up in six months than she has done in fifteen years.


But Pepper doesn't look mad. She looks rumpled and sleepless, like she has spent the whole day getting here (she probably has), but she doesn't look mad. She doesn't say anything as the lift doors slide back open, just gives him a look that Tony knows all too well from countless, countless bad days: Are you okay?


Tony is not.


He steps out of the lift and into her arms. Pepper wraps around him, better armor than the Iron Man suit ever has been, and kisses his hair when he sinks his forehead into her shoulder. He's done nothing, nothing to deserve this, but he takes the comfort she offers like it's water and he has been stranded in the desert for weeks.


“Oh, Tony,” she says.


But the small break from his already-tenuous composure is just that: small. Just as he and Pepper pull apart, still gripping each other by the arms, to look at one another, FRIDAY speaks across the intercom.


“May Parker is arriving, boss.”


Tony sniffs and squeezes Pepper’s hand.


“I gotta go, Pep.”


“I'll come with you,” says Pepper.


Tony knows she will. She always does.

Chapter Text

The operating theater feels massive by the time the surgery is over. The largeness of it is thanks to the absence of those others who have come during the course of the operation—Sam and Clint and Natasha, mainly, though Happy also made an awkward check-in at one point, and Tony received an unexpected call from Steve, who finally got Natasha’s messages and informed Tony in a surprisingly gentle voice that he was going to head back as soon as he was done debriefing—but who were all, eventually, dismissed by Pepper, who still had enough of her wits about her to recognize when May became overwhelmed. Tony was glad for it, too, for a while, but after a time the silence of waiting seemed to expand, pushing the walls out as it did, until they were all sitting clustered at the center of a void composed of their own worry.

But there was nowhere else to go.

It’s just them, now—Pepper and May and Tony—and they all stand as Helen sidles in.

“Well,” says Helen, “we’re all finished.”

May is clenching her hands at her sides. Tony glances at her and sees that she isn’t looking at Helen but watching through the theater window as a team of nurses and orderlies wheel the gurney holding Peter out of it, her expression strained. He knows the feeling, but he wants to hear what Helen has to say before he runs after them. And if there’s any mercy in the world—doubtful, but he clings—the kid will get a few more hours of rest before he has to start dealing with this mess.

That falls to Tony, for now.

With a great effort, he tears his eyes away from the kid and fixes them on Helen. She seems to have been waiting for his eye contact, because as soon as he makes it she says,

“We got all of the capsules out, though I won’t pretend it wasn’t an effort. I’m sending them with my best chemist to figure out what was in them, exactly, but from what Natasha told me about their effects, my best guess is some sort of paralytic neurotoxin, probably organic. I’m thinking it was derived from the venom of a spider or snake, but for now, again, that’s just guesswork.”

In between visits to the medical facility, Natasha and Clint have been watching the videos and researching Cameron Morell, keeping Helen informed on their findings via a comm link that Helen has kept in her ear the entire time. As venoms and poisons were Morell’s specialty at Oscorp, Tony thinks this guess is probably spot-on.

“From your records,” she goes on, nodding to Tony, “I gather that Peter has a pretty impressive healing mechanism as part of his enhancement, but whatever was in the drug Morell gave him seems to have built up in his system to the point where it’s counteracting his ability to rapidly metabolize the substance. It’s interfering with some systems but not others: he doesn’t seem to be healing as quickly as I would expect from the burns, bruises, and injections” — May flinches as though she is the one who’s been burned— “but for whatever reason, he’s running through anaesthetic like it’s going out of style. My anesthesiologist earned his salary today, and that’s saying something, as he’s on Mr. Stark’s payroll.

“I have every reason to suspect Peter’s strength and healing will return to normal—normal for him, that is—once the drug is out of his system, but that’s where things get tricky. I had to keep him under for the operation, obviously, but that was a risky decision on my part. I did it, ultimately, because I don’t think Peter would be able to handle another dose of the neurotoxin, and therefore removing them was ultimate priority. The downside, of course, is that I’ve just heaped a load of surgical-grade sedative on top of whatever was already in his system. Natasha tells me his captor was also giving him something I suspect was an amphetamine so he could make the phone calls” —another flinch from May, and from Tony, this time— “and so our primary concern, now, is going to be observing him for possible interactions. I want someone with him at all times for the next forty-eight hours, and we’re going to draw blood every two to monitor his levels until he metabolizes it on his own or we’re able to come up with an antidote.”

“I’ll stay with him,” says May, before Tony can offer the same thing. And of course she will, because she, not Tony, is Peter’s guardian, and she, not Tony, did nothing to get him into this mess. Luckily only Pepper seems to notice Tony open his mouth and then snap it shut, and she has the grace to pretend not to.

Helen looks at May with a slightly softened expression.

“That’s a good idea,” she says. “I think he’ll be glad to have you there when he wakes up. I’ll post a nurse outside, so if you get tired or need a break she can take over. Does that sound all right?”

May nods.

“Great,” says Helen. “Well, like I said, he’s running through the anaesthesia faster than we can give it to him, so there’s a chance he’ll be awake within the hour. Pepper, could I ask you to take Mrs. Parker to his room? Two-oh-three, it’s Tony’s usual. Tony, do you mind if I have a word with you about some maintenance issues?”

Pepper nods and smiles reassuringly at May as she takes her arm and steers her out of the operating theater. Tony watches them go with a weird mixture of longing and relief, and then braces himself as he turns back to Helen. He knows there are no maintenance issues, and sure enough, Helen’s professional, impassive expression is gone when he looks at her. She looks exhausted and, worryingly, almost as shaken as she looked after Ultron.

“That,” she says, “was a very close call.”

Tony almost tells her that he doesn’t want to hear, that so long as Peter is going to pull through he doesn’t need to.

Instead he says, “Say it.”

Helen sighs and takes a seat, gesturing for Tony to do the same. He does, and she presses the heel of her hand into her forehead and stares at the floor as she speaks.

“You found him just in time,” she says, “just in time. I think another few hours… there’s a downside to his powers, you know. That kid’s metabolism is crazy fast, like I said, but that doesn’t just mean he filters drugs quickly: it also means he burns calories and nutrients like a furnace. His kidneys and liver were about five minutes from shutdown when you brought him in, because whatever that sick fuck was giving him, it’s clear he wasn’t feeding him. At all.”

Tony feels a swell of anger, but as its subject is dead it is quickly overtaken by a wave of disgust and defeat.

“Nothing?” he says. “For four days, nothing?”

Helen shakes her head, still staring at the floor between her feet.

“There was an IV. Basic banana bag, probably, electrolytes and vitamins, but nothing substantial, nothing to keep up with his needs, and it looks like that was stopped a while ago. It’s no wonder he was hallucinating when you found him, his level of dehydration was what I’d expect from someone who’d been without water for several days, not several hours.”

She takes a shuddering breath and for a second Tony thinks she might be crying. It frightens him, this possibility, because he suddenly realizes that he is entirely unused to women crying. None of those in his life do. Even May has been remarkably calm through the surgery, her only outward sign of what must be a terrible inner turmoil the tight squeeze she gave Natasha’s hand before the latter slipped out for the last time an hour or so ago.

But it turns out Helen is not crying either. She looks up, finally, and her gaze is fierce.

“I know this won’t change things,” she said, “but for the sake of my own conscience I want you to know that was the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

Tony tries to keep his gaze even under the fire of her glare, though the urge to drop his eyes in shame is almost overwhelming. She holds contact practically longer than he can stand it before she goes on.

“You people are one thing,” she says. “Grown men and women… your choices might be dumb as hell half the time, but at least you’re old enough to make them. And so long as that’s true I’ll come in here at all hours and sew you back together as best I can when it goes wrong. You know I don’t flinch at it, because it’s necessary.

“But what part of this was necessary, Mr. Stark? What good was done for the world because that boy got cut and burned and beaten and who knows what else?”

If there is an answer, Tony cannot think of one. Helen holds the stare for a moment longer and then lowers her eyes to the floor once again.

“I’m not doing that again,” she says.

“Helen, I don’t—”

“I don’t mean I won’t treat him,” she says. “I said what I said because I needed to, but I know what you all are like, and if Peter is half as stubborn as you all are, I know there’s nothing I can do about him going out there.”

“He’s twice as stubborn,” says Tony, but neither of them smile. Helen just nods.

“I mean,” she goes on, “I’m not going in there unprepared, without a clue what to expect from his healing or if he might wake up while I’m digging a scalpel into him. If he’s going to keep fighting with you, he’s coming in for tests, first. I want data, and I want it long before the next time I see that kid on my table, understood?”

Tony does understand, he does, because Helen is absolutely right. They— he has been reckless, careless with the kid’s well-being by not preparing for every scenario, no matter how unimaginable, and to send him into that operating room without the very information Helen is calling for was more of a gamble than Tony has fully come to terms with.

But he also balks, and he understands why Helen had May leave the room before she gave this ultimatum. The image of dirty medical equipment at the center of an abandoned warehouse is in his mind like a brand.

“Can you… just give me a while to talk to his aunt about it? I think she might need some time to get used to the idea. She might need to get used to the idea of a next time, too.”

So does he.

“You talk to her,” says Helen firmly, “ before I send him home. Or I’ll do it myself.”

Tony sighs, nods. Starts to get to his feet, but Helen is not done.

“I have another condition,” she says. “Or—not a condition. I guess I don’t really have authority over this, but from what I’ve just seen and heard, I really think you should consider it, and try to get his aunt on board, too.”

Tony raises an eyebrow.

“Therapy,” says Helen. “As soon as you can get someone in here. He’s going to need it.”

On this count, at least, they are in agreement. It’s been flickering in the back of Tony’s mind like a lighthouse beacon ever since he left the warehouse, but he hasn’t brought it to the front yet because, even though he understands the necessity with much less reluctance than he does the medical tests Helen wants to run, the logistics of her second request are a thousand times more difficult. He’s never hired a staff psychologist because there is no such thing as a superhero specialist. No way to tell who the best in the field is, because there is no field . Add to that the fact that Peter is an adolescent—an adolescent whose identity is secret and staying that way , thank you very much—and he has no idea where to begin.

But he says, “I’m on it, Helen, thank you,” and he means it.

Now, at last, she stands, and Tony follows her lead. He’s shaking a little with the runoff of adrenaline, but he stills himself by clenching his hands and stuffing them in his pockets.

“Right,” she says. “I’m going to check on him. Are you coming?”

Tony means to say yes, but something else rushes through his mind— it’s clear he wasn’t feeding him at all —and what he says instead is, “I’ll catch up. Have FRIDAY call me if you need anything in the meantime.”

Helen heads for the door, but hesitates halfway out of it.

“Tony,” she says, turning back, “I might be overstepping, here, but that therapist?”

Tony grunts, go on .

“Might be a good idea for more than just Peter.”

“You might be right,” says Tony. He raises an eyebrow. “About overstepping.”

Helen presses her lips together in displeasure, but she nods curtly and leaves the room.

Tony waits until he is sure she’s gone before following her out, but instead of turning down the hallway toward the hospital rooms, he takes a left and heads for the elevator. He feels like a sleepwalker, his brain mostly blank, as he takes it down another level, into the lab. His brain is still buzzing as he steps off, so he’s not totally sure what he’s doing there until he spots Natasha and Clint in a corner, their heads together, their eyes fixed on one of the screens inset into one of his many work surfaces.

Natasha notices him first, and she pauses the screen as he draws level, getting to her feet to block it from view.

“Tony.” She sounds a little breathless, as though he’s caught her in a lie, even though he knows exactly what they’re looking at. “What are you doing here? Is Peter out of surgery?”

“I want to see it.”

Clint gets to his feet now, too. They both have sunken, deadened looks in their eyes, and he can see them physically forcing their expressions into neutral, which doesn’t bode well. He holds his ground.

“Tony,” says Clint, “I really don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“I want to see it,” Tony says again, not caring that he sounds like a petulant child. “So move, or I’ll move you.”

Clint and Natasha glance at each other, wary. But Natasha doesn’t hesitate long before she looks back at him.

“You’re sure?”

“He had to go through it,” says Tony. “I’ve got to at least watch it.”

And this, thank God, is all it takes to convince them.

The two of them move aside to make room for him over the screen. Tony glances down at it and almost loses his resolve: frozen on the screen is Peter, half his face caked in blood, looking down at a shackle with an expression that is just short of panic on his face. This is probably the least of it, Tony knows, but it’s enough to set every muscle in his body on high alert, that look on the kid’s face. It’s with a great effort that he takes his seat between the others.

“It’s a lot of footage,” says Clint, who still looks doubtful, though Natasha is back to stony-faced. “That cocksucker was recording the entire time. FRIDAY’s been helping us scan it for relevant pieces but we’re still… yeah. It’s a lot of footage.”

Tony nods tightly, eyes still on the screen, and waves his hand impatiently to signal that they should go on.

Natasha presses play, and onscreen Peter lifts the shackle a little closer to his face, his arms shaking. They are already peppered with implants, but from the kid’s color and relative vigor—compared to what he looked like when they found him—Tony concludes that this must have been one of the earlier days. This is quickly confirmed: FRIDAY has helpfully embossed the date at the bottom of the screen, along with the addendum DAY TWO.

Sure enough, there is an IV in the kid’s neck, a short tube leading back to a bag on the wall with just a small amount of sickly yellow fluid in the bottom. The chains are longer than they were when they found him. This is to Peter’s advantage. He is turning the shackles over, examining them with more calm than Tony feels, though his lips are moving, quickly and silently, as though he’s talking to himself. As they watch, he reaches under his leg and withdraws a scalpel.

In retrospect, Tony will see it as a minor miracle that he watched this part of the tape first. Hearing the kid get caught—which happens off-screen, since the camera was pointed in the wrong direction to capture it—is agonizing, but the thrill Tony feels when the shackles pop free, and when Peter shouts insults down at Morell even as he’s fleeing for his life, even though Tony knows how it ends, is almost enough to carry him through the rest of it. Tony tries to hold onto Peter’s look of triumph and shock when he realizes he is free, tries to keep that image in his mind when Morell drags him, unconscious and trembling, back into the center of the warehouse like a hunter dragging his kill. He tries to hold on to the fact that the kid clearly got a few licks in before he was taken down: Morell’s head is bleeding, his eyes so swollen he can barely see.

It’s almost enough.

But then he sees how the kid was punished, and it’s not enough anymore. Nothing could be enough, nothing could be worth it, even though there is some small part of him that roars with furious pride when he sees how Peter doesn’t give up, how he gets back up over and over, no matter how many times Morell shocks him, and keeps going. There is another, similar roar when the kid calls his aunt for the second time, because he can’t believe how steady he is. Uppers or no uppers, Tony knows he couldn’t have done it, couldn’t have held Morell’s gaze and spoken so calmly and still kept his wits about him enough to try to get a message out— a message it took us two more days to fucking figure out— under the pressure of such a terrible set of circumstances.

By the time they reach night on the second day, Tony is digging the tips of his fingers into the knees of his jeans so hard he can’t feel them anymore, but it’s the only thing keeping him from punching the screen. Clint and Natasha want to skip ahead, at some point: they’ve already seen this, because FRIDAY has been playing the clips in order of medical relevance rather than chronologically, but Tony knows if he stops for even a second he won’t be able to start up again. The others head to a different screen, a different corner of the room, and then Tony is alone.

He watches as Morell finishes his work for the second day, watches as he leaves the kid in the subtle light of the stars, crumpled and ruined, and wishes he could bring the fucker back to life and kill him all over again. However Natasha did it, it couldn’t have been enough to pay for this.

Peter sleeps—or is unconscious—for a time, but he wakes long before morning. Tony watches as the kid’s eyes rove the darkness for a second and then settle on something off-screen. Tony is expecting Morell to step back into the frame, and receives a terrible shock when he hears his own name.

“Mr. Stark!”

If Tony thought Morell’s ministrations were terrible, this is somehow worse. He watches the kid babbling into dark space with a dawning comprehension, remembering how fervently the kid had repeated his mantra when they found him— not real, not real— and knows this is why. He thought Tony had come for him, that night after the second day, and having to watch him realize that the Tony he saw—who, by the sound of things, was less than kind, a notion which very nearly makes him lose his cool altogether—was not really there is worse than any version of hell Tony could have concocted for himself.

The kid, it seems, did not sleep any more that second night. A capsule goes off, once, but its effects don’t last long before the kid is struggling upright, his eyes scanning the dark for rescuers who will not, for another two days at least, find him there.

Tony watches him shout at his hallucinations for a while, but it doesn’t take long for him to stop interacting with them. Tony knows they don’t leave because Peter’s eyes never stop following them, but for a long, long time, he is silent. It feels like hours.

At some point it is too much. Tony doesn’t know how long he’s been there, isn’t really aware of the aches in his body or the screaming pain in his chest that, when he does give it a moment’s thought, he doesn’t believe has any physical cause, but he can’t brush his reactions aside forever, and somewhere in the middle of that terrible night he drops his heads to his hands and presses his palms into his eyes until wild patterns appear behind his eyeballs, and with any luck he will be blind when he opens them again.

“I’m so sorry.”

Tony’s head jerks up so fast he nearly topples out of his chair. It’s the first time Peter’s spoken in what feels like hours, but more than that, it’s the first time his voice has sounded anything other than horrified. It does take a second for Tony’s vision to return. When it does, he sees the same scene he’s been staring at this whole time, except now Peter’s expression is crumpled into one of unmistakable regret. He is looking toward some distant corner, and Tony would give anything to crawl into his skull, to see what he is seeing there.

“I know,” says Peter softly. “I know, you said that, but I don’t think…” He trails off, bites his lip. Nods. “Okay. Okay.”

There is a moment of silence. Tony leans forward, wondering if that will be it, but the kid takes a shuddering breath and continues.

“I just want to say,” he says, and it looks like every word is an effort, “thank you for everything you’ve done. I know I mess up sometimes. I know I messed up this time. But I want you to know, before you go, that I really, really tried. Will you please tell Aunt May that, if you see her? I know she forgives you, even though she wasn’t okay at first. And she’ll want to know that I tried. I’m really sorry. Really.”

Peter drops his eyes, as though ashamed, but Tony can tell he’s listening, listening to some voice that isn’t there, and Tony would give anything to know whose voice he’s hearing, and if it is saying kind things.

But he will not get the answer. As he watches, something shifts in Peter’s face. The contrition and the guilt leave it, replaced by a distant, hazy expression, and Peter turns his eyes toward the ceiling, where they start to trace wide circles. Tony has a feeling not even the Peter on the screen, in that moment, could tell him who he was just speaking to, or what was said.

There is a brief second when Peter’s eyes drift down and forward, so they almost appear to be looking straight at the camera, straight out of the screen to where Tony sits, holding his breath.

This is where the footage freezes.

For a second Tony thinks something has gone wrong and he stares blankly at the kid’s deep, vacant eyes. Then he realizes it has just been paused.

“FRIDAY?”

He must have been here longer than he thought. His voice is raspy with disuse. He glances over at the corner containing his teammates and sees that they are looking at him, with bemusement to match his own.

“Sorry, boss,” says FRIDAY softly. “May Parker asked me to page you. Peter’s awake, and he’s asking for you.”

Chapter Text

There is a sensation of warm waves.

Peter has the impression he is lying at the edge of a warm ocean, and water is lapping at him from all around, buffeting him slightly. There is a sound, too, like soft sighs, or breathing in sleep, and the overall effect is one of utter calm. It is wonderfully pleasant.

But as soon as Peter puts words to the feeling it is intruded upon by another: suspicion, followed quickly by doubt. He has a sense, suddenly, that he should not be relaxing, that there is something he needs to be doing, something very important and maybe dangerous. And as soon as he thinks this, he can feel the waves recede, along with the gentle hush of whatever this formless, lovely place is. He fights it; he wants to stay here forever. But it is too late—he’s rising, up and away.

Peter wakes.

His eyes try to snap open, but as his eyelids weigh a hundred pounds each, it happens as more of a flutter. He still feels floaty, but now it is distant and slightly nauseating, not totally unpleasant but nothing like the soporific wonderland of before. The feeling is vaguely familiar.

“Peter?”

The voice sounds far away. He can’t place it. There is something resting against the side of his face and he reaches up to find a tube, taped to his cheek and snaking into his nose. It isn’t until someone grabs his hand and pulls it away from the tube that he realizes—his wrists are not shackled.

It must be a dream.

But as it’s the least horrible dream he’s had so far, Peter raises his head. Like his eyelids, it feels abnormally heavy, and he is grateful when someone adjusts what seems to be a hospital bed, upon which he is lying, into a more upright position, allowing him to look around without having to hold himself up under his own power.

“Peter? Honey, can you hear me? Are you awake?”

He rolls his head to the side, and May appears. She’s sitting by the bed, and both of her hands are wrapped around his. She looks exactly as bad as she did the night Ben died, her face blotchy and puffy, her greasy hair in a knot on top of her head. She is looking at him with wide, watery eyes, almost like she doesn’t believe that he is real.

“Hey, Aunt May,” he says.

His voice sounds like his throat has been through a meat grinder. It kind of feels like it, too, though pain—in his throat, his body—feels hazy and distant, as though he’s having it described to him instead of really feeling it.

“Oh, my God. Thank God.”

May drops her head and presses her forehead to his hand for just a second, while Peter takes the opportunity to blink hard, trying to clear some of the fog from his vision.

He’s in a hospital room, but a much bigger one than any he’s seen before. There is an IV beside him, which might explain the floaty feeling if any of this were real: he realizes when he spots it that he feels like he did when he was thirteen, and they gave him Vicodin for a broken arm. There is also a bag of some milky substance, which is flowing into the tube in his nose. Automatically, he reaches for it again, this time with his other hand.

“Hey, hey.” May looks up, grabs his hand gently before he can touch his face. “It’s alright. Just leave it for now, okay?”

Peter drops his hand obediently, blinking again while he tries to focus on her face.

“Are you okay?” he says.

For some reason, May starts to cry. Peter touches her hand, tries to make a shushing noise, but it comes out garbled. He wants to go back to the floating place. This dream isn’t exactly unpleasant—though he hates how sad May looks—but he knows how painful it will be when it disappears and he would rather get it over with quickly.

“I’m sorry I made you cry.”

May shakes her head and immediately stops.

“No. No, no, no, honey, I’m the one who’s sorry. I should never have—” She takes a deep breath. “Just don’t worry about me, okay? I’m really, really happy to see you, kiddo. Like, crazy happy.”

She tries a smile. It comes off pretty watery.

“Okay,” says Peter. “Yeah. Me too, Aunt May.”

Peter’s thoughts are rolling. He can’t grab onto them. He thinks of the dangerous thing again, but he can’t remember what it was and after a minute he forgets about it. Maybe this confusion shows in his face, because when he looks back at May she is watching him warily.

“How are you feeling, hon?”

“A little…,” he waves a hand vaguely, “high.”

Peter giggles, even though he doesn’t feel very humorous.

For some reason, this seems to relax May. Which actually is a little funny, because he’s pretty sure he’s not supposed to be high as a kite in front of his aunt. Or, you know, at all.

“You get away with it today, kiddo,” she says, and she sounds a little more like herself. “I’m so happy to see you I feel kind of high myself.”

“Why am I here?”

The relief that had ghosted across May’s face disappears.

“We can talk about that when you’re feeling better, okay?”

But it’s not the comfort she seems to mean it as. It’s the kind of thing the others might have said, that night they all visited, Natasha and Sam and… and it makes Peter feel like she is trying to leave, trying to make it so she can go without finishing the conversation, like she wants to hide things from him. His breathing quickens.

“Woah, woah, woah.” May stands again, puts a hand on his cheek, runs it up to his forehead like she is checking for a fever. It feels more real than any of the pain or the drugs and he closes his eyes to savor it, is surprised when it doesn’t go away. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

“Sorry,” he gasps, because he doesn’t want to waste their time together being upset. “Sorry, I’m just—”

“It’s okay, it’s okay, don’t apologize, it’s okay. What happened? What did I say?”

“I just” —he squeezes his eyes shut tighter— “I don’t want you to go anywhere, okay?”

“I’m not, honey, I’m not. I won’t go anywhere, I promise. Hey, open your eyes for me.”

Peter Peter hey open your eyes for me Pete .

He opens them and she is there, holding onto him and looking frightened, as though he might shatter.

The memory slams into him so hard it knocks the wind out of him. The warehouse. The messages. The shocks and the marching and more shocks and then just pain. Natasha. The shackles, breaking open. The feeling of shame. And Mr. Stark, Mr. Stark promising it was real, promising he would stay, but Peter’s eyes dart around the room and he is not there, so is it real? Can it be?

“Peter? Baby, talk to me, tell me what you need.”

Peter swallows. “Mr. Stark?” he says. “Was he really here?”

“Yeah. Yeah, he’s still here, he’s just taking care of something. I’ll tell—I’ll tell someone…”

“I can fetch Mr. Stark up here if you’d like, ma’am.”

May isn’t used to FRIDAY’s disembodied voice and she jumps a little, but to Peter it is a comfort. It feels like a confirmation. He takes a breath, tries to force his thoughts away from dirt floors and chains and needles, the last of which is especially difficult because it seems there are several currently sticking out of him.

He feels something stir in his chest, something that feels treacherously like hope.

This might be real.

“Um, thank you…,” says May, glancing at the ceiling like she expects to see a face there, looking down. “Would you, please?”

“On it.” There is a pause and then, “Boss is on his way up from the lab.”

“You’re not mad at him?” Peter says.

It feels like May has been mad at Mr. Stark forever. Since before she knew. Not a fan , were her exact words.

“No,” says May, “I’m not mad at him. He’s been really worried about you, too.”

“Really?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe.”

“How did you find me?”

May takes a deliberate breath, her eyes filling with tears once again.

“Your messages,” she says. “Peter, I’m so sorry. I should have known right away. I never should have sent you to camp in the first place, but when you called, I had a feeling. I had a bad feeling but I thought—and I should have just—right away, I should have just—”

“It’s not your fault,” says Peter, genuinely bemused. “May, please don’t cry. It wasn’t your fault, I was the one who—”

But he is cut off by the sound of footsteps.

He looks up, a thrill of anticipation making its way through the drugs, but it’s not Mr. Stark. It’s a woman, a pretty, dark-haired woman wearing scrubs and a white coat. She looks almost as tired as Aunt May, but when she sees that Peter is awake she smiles.

“Mr. Parker,” she says, approaching the bed, “I’m Dr. Cho. I’m glad to see you up. How are you feeling?”

The introduction of a stranger has Peter’s face burning. She sounds kind, but he feels embarrassed, now, because if Dr. Cho works for the Avengers then she must know who he is, and he is suddenly aware of how stupid she must think he is, for getting himself caught like that. He feels like a little kid under her smiling gaze, like she is looking at a silly toddler who has just fallen on the playground.

“I’m okay,” he says.

“He seems pretty disoriented,” says May, sounding worried. “I don’t think he remembers how he got here.”

Dr. Cho nods, still smiling.

“Well, I’m not surprised. Your body’s had a lot to contend with, Peter, I’m kind of amazed you’re awake at all. Those are some really impressive powers you have.”

The embarrassment swells. Impressive powers, are they? He couldn’t even keep himself out of the hands of a drunken maniac. Suddenly Peter wants to ask May to call Mr. Stark off, to tell him not to come up here, but he doesn’t want to say it with this stranger watching.

“Yeah,” he mutters, “I’m really something.”

But Dr. Cho doesn’t seem to hear him. She’s nudging May aside to check the IV, and whatever substance is flowing into his nose. More shame, when he realizes how stupid the apparatus must look. He reaches for it a third time, more out of refex than a real intent to remove it, and this time Dr. Cho is the one who grabs him.

“He’s been doing that since he woke up,” says May.

“I can’t imagine it’s very comfortable. We put in a nasogastric tube, Peter, to start replenishing your calories and nutrients while you slept, all right? It’s not permanent, we’ll get it out when you’re ready for solids, but try to leave it alone for now.” She glances at May, who nods as though the question was meant for her. “Is it okay if I ask you some questions now that you’re up?”

Peter doesn’t say anything, because she might have just offered him a thousand pound barbell—which would have been fine, any other day, but right now feels as daunting as it would to any other person. He feels like he is watching them through a badly-adjusted camera lens. They keep going all fuzzy. But May nods again.

“Okay, do you know what day it is?”

“Um.” Now his mouth tastes heavy, too, which is kind of funny because heavy isn’t a taste. He tries to laugh again but it doesn’t come. “Tuesday?”

“It’s morning on Thursday, but that’s close.” Dr. Cho turns to May. “Don’t worry, that’s a standard, but it was a long shot that he’d get it. Peter, do you know what five plus seven is?”

“Twelve.”

“Nine times nine?”

It doesn’t take long for Peter to realize what she’s doing. The cognitive test isn’t just a cognitive test: she is moving slowly around him, checking the bandages on his arms and wrists, flexing the fingers on his hands, running her little rubber hammer along his nerves very gently., looking at the IV. Peter is grateful for the distraction, even though he’s suddenly so sleepy he barely has the energy to feel the squirm of anxiety in his stomach when she touches him.

“Eighty-one,” he slurs.

“Impressive, for a kid who can barely keep his eyes open. We’ll let you go back to sleep in just a second, okay? Want a harder one? Let’s say… square root of eight hundred and forty-five.”

“Uh, that’s… thirteen square root five, I think.”

Dr. Cho raises her eyebrows. “Okay… I was kidding, but I’m going to take your word for it.”

“He’s probably right,” says May.

“He is.”

They all look around.

Tony Stark has just appeared in the doorway and he looks… awful. Just as awful as May, though to Peter it looks worse because May he has seen with the flu, or hungover (pretending it’s the flu), or drenched from sudden rain storms, or mourning the death of her husband. He has never seen Tony look so disheveled under any circumstance. His hair is sticking in all directions, there is a coffee stain on the sleeve of the hoodie he’s wearing, and, perhaps most startling of all, he doesn’t look like he’s shaved in at least twenty-four hours. There is dark stubble all around his meticulously-trimmed goatee.

It’s because of him. All because of him, Peter realizes, and he drops his eyes to his hands.

“Hey, Pete.”

“Hey,” Peter mumbles.

At the top of his eyeline, Mr. Stark takes a nervous step into the room. This doesn’t jive, either, because Mr. Stark doesn’t take nervous steps. Mr. Stark blasts into rooms, sometimes literally, drowns everyone in the vicinity in whatever it is he wants to say, and makes absolutely no apologies. Peter can’t look up, not while he’s acting like this. It feels almost indecent.

“How are you—?” Mr. Stark swallows. “How is he doing?”

“Very well, all things considered,” says Dr. Cho briskly, cutting across the awkwardness. “His levels look good, and his reflexes are…”

But something odd is happening to Dr. Cho’s voice. It goes all muddled, wonky like an adult in a Peanuts cartoon and then, suddenly, cuts out.

And he is back in the warehouse.

Peter gasps, fear flooding him so fast he goes dizzy from it. He closes his eyes, trying to force it away, but when he opens them the high ceiling, the dirt floor, the smell like a sewer—all remain.

Except…

Except he is not in the corner. He is on the wall. He’s clinging to it with his toes and fingertips, looking down on the scene below like he is the lone spectator in some quiet gladiatorial match. Beneath him, there are two figures, doused in blinding light even though, from the cracks in the ceiling above, Peter can tell it is night.

“What are you going to do, Peter?”

The voice sounds hoarse. It is a whisper, but it carries to where Peter clings and the sound of it almost makes him lose his grip on the wall. His skin goes cold. And then, his own voice answers.

“I’m gonna tell her— I’m gonna tell her—I don’t—I don’t remember.”  

The Peter below him sounds scared, and the Peter above can feel his fear like it’s his own, because it is his own. He doesn’t remember, he doesn’t. He’s supposed to say something, but he has no idea what it is, only that if he doesn’t get it right terrible things will happen, terrible, terrible things, and then he isn’t on the wall anymore, he is in the corner, and there are shackles on his wrists and a face in his, a horrible, red-eyed face, veins bulging as it screams—

“Peter !”

Peter sucks in a breath and sits up straight, guided into that position by three pairs of hands. He is in a dark room. There are white sheets on his legs, and even though they are shaking so hard they are basically useless, there are no shackles on his arms.

His chest, on the other hand, is searing.

“Okie dokie,” says a deep female voice he doesn’t know. “Okie dokie there, kiddo, you just take a deep breath there. Like this.” The owner of the voice demonstrates and Peter finds himself following along, even though some distant part of him hates the kiddie voice being affected, because his body feels like it hasn’t gotten oxygen in weeks. “There ya go, pumpkin, just like that. And another.”

It takes a few breaths for the room to stop spinning. When it does, he sees he’s not in the warehouse. He’s in the same hospital room as before, but it’s dark now, and Dr. Cho is gone. There is a nurse with a tight ponytail and a thick neck right in front of him, and she has one hand on his chest, the other on the pulse in his neck.

“All righty then, you can go ahead and ease him back. Nice and easy.”

The other pairs of hands help Peter settle back in his bed, and Peter rolls his head from left to right to see who they belong to. Aunt May, who is shaking, and—Mr. Stark.

The shame returns. This time it is like ice. He closes his eyes again, and wishes he could shut his ears too.

What in the ever-loving hell was that?” says Mr. Stark.

“A side effect we expected we might see. His brain just forgot to breathe for a second, nothing to worry about.”

“Nothing to worry about?” Aunt May repeats incredulously. “How the fuck is that not something to worry about?”

“It’s something that’ll go away once the neurotoxin filters out,” says the nurse, unphased. “I can teach you the sternal rub, if you want, or I can just stay nearby in case it happens again.”

Ah. That explains why his chest feels like someone took a jackhammer to it.

“I don’t want to know how to do that, I want you to make it so that never, ever, ever happens again,” says Mr. Stark, who is still gripping his shoulder. “You know usually, the big scary nurses are the most competent, or are you just the unlucky except—”

“Mr. Stark, I don’t invent side effects just to tick you off, his brain is overtaxed, he—”

“Square roots.”

The conversation stops abruptly. Peter opens his eyes, touching his bruised chest, and sees them all look down at him.

“Square roots,” he says again. “That’s what did it.”

He blinks at the looming, bemused faces, all of them like distant moons.

“Overtaxed my brain,” he says. “I was doing great ‘til then. Who makes a guy do math in a hospital?”

There is a pause and then—

May laughs. It’s a desperate, shaky laugh, short at first, but then she drops her head to her hand and giggles until there are tears running down her cheeks.

“Oh, Peter,” she says. “Oh, Pete, that’s—that’s really bad, hon.”

“Can I get a freebie for my overtaxed brain?” he asks, and she laughs harder.

Peter knows she’s not just laughing at him. He knows that laugh means more than just relief. But the relief is there. And Peter is so glad for this, so much less burdened, that he doesn’t even notice that Mr. Stark’s expression has gone, somehow, even darker.

***

This is how the jokes start.

It’s May’s relief, at first, that gets him going. He keeps drifting off, and though he doesn’t stop breathing like he did that first time, he can see the worry in the lines of her face every time he comes back around, and he sees those lines ease—though never disappear—every time he plays it off with a one-liner.

It helps him, too. It makes him feel less ashamed, and it keeps him out of the warehouse when he’s awake, even though he keeps visiting it whenever his eyes slide shut involuntarily. His strength is returning, but slowly, so these quips feel like the only part of his old self that he has back, keeping him grounded. So Peter clings to them, and turns his back on the rest.

The others are happy to join him in this.

It takes a full day before he’s up to it, but once May gives the go ahead, they start to come. Clint and Natasha drop by separately, ruffle his hair affectionately, tell him they’re happy he’s back. Both of them laugh, surprised and delighted, when he slides an off-handed comment in here and there. Sam comes with Peter’s phone, thankfully not mentioning where he found it or how he fixed it, and together they remix the Captain America Fitness Challenge into what Peter thinks is a halfway-decent play on “Lose Yourself,” then have a surprisingly decent afternoon piping it into the facility gym, much to its subject’s displeasure. It’s good. Peter hates the looks on their faces when they come in, like they’re afraid if they stare at him too hard he’ll blow up, or something. But when he talks—when he can make them laugh, especially—it’s like the events of the last week just melt away. And then he’s not the dumb kid who got himself kidnapped out of his own elevator. Then he’s just Peter again. Maybe even Spider-Man, someday.

The only person who doesn’t seem happy about this arrangement is Mr. Stark.

After that first night in the hospital, Mr. Stark has felt like a constant presence. He hasn’t been there the whole time, no—he’s left to shave and to shower, to snap at nurses, to take care of other business. But for the most part he’s been there, lurking in the hallway or lingering in the corner, sitting in a visitor’s chair next to May and pretending to work on his tablet. He hears the conversations, the laughter, but even though Peter has been keeping him in the corner of his eye practically the entire time, he has yet to so much as crack a smile.

It’s really putting Peter on edge, and he doesn’t know how to stop it.

They had one conversation that first day, when the drugs were still pretty heavy and he kept drifting off every few minutes The memory of it is kind of hazy already, but he knows he tried to joke, thinks Mr. Stark might have shut him down. He remembers telling Mr. Stark—or maybe just implying, his tongue loosened by morphine—how much of an idiot he feels like for letting him… letting it happen.

Mr. Stark told him it wasn’t his fault.

Peter doesn’t even bother trying to believe him. He can’t go there without spiralling into another, far darker place.

Mr. Stark also told him he had to talk to someone. It’s another no-go, as far as Peter’s concerned, but thankfully Mr. Stark didn’t press it, at least not then. Just watched as Peter fell asleep again, and by the time Peter woke, he was back in his hunched vigil in the corner. Serious and silent.

Even if Mr. Stark doesn’t like it, the humor keeps him sane during the day. It keeps the shame and the horror of what happened at bay. It stops him from visiting the warehouse in his mind every minute of every day.

Night is a different story.

While the stuff from the capsules—the neurotoxin—is leaving his system, Peter gets the nightmares every time he drifts off, but while they are terrible they are at least bearable. In them, he is almost always watching from above, and they never last long enough for anything really awful to happen: he usually wakes before the horror peaks. There’s uncertainty, every time he wakes this question—is it real?—but then something will ground him, a touch or a word from a familiar voice, and he will be okay. Or sort of okay. Okay as he can be, considering.

But then he starts to get better.

And the nightmares get worse.

Now it seems like every time he closes his eyes, he’s back in the warehouse. In the corner, now, sometimes shackled, sometimes chained so tight he can’t move. Ghosts surround him, ghosts of Uncle Ben and the crueler versions of his friends who visited him that terrible night he was hallucinating. And Morell… Morell is there, always there. Always—

So Peter goes for the obvious solution, and he stops sleeping.

Thank goodness for his sense of humor. Thank goodness, because he’s pretty sure it’s what keeps everyone off his back once he forgoes that one essential element of his health, which they are all striving so hard to maintain. The more days go by the more relaxed everyone seems, until they are no longer walking into his room with those fragile, sick-bed expressions on their faces. Dr. Cho compliments him on how well he’s doing, even removes the NG tube on the condition that he keeps up with eating on his own. With each passing day May looks less and less like she is made of fragile glass. She loosens up, and, after some urging from him, even starts making trips home, to sleep or to grab fresh clothes and books. And none of them seem to notice the circles under his eyes deepening, nor the tremor in his hands or the way his words slur just a little bit when he’s not careful. When May does ask about it, he brushes it off. She buys it, or at least seems to.

At night, when May is at home or sleeping down the hall, and when Mr. Stark is… elsewhere (he doesn’t really know where Mr. Stark goes at night, because he hasn’t said anything about it, hasn’t really talked to Peter much since that first woozy conversation), Peter sits awake in bed, watching YouTube videos or texting Ned—who thinks Peter got sick at camp, because Peter has no idea how to tell him the truth—until his eyes get so tired they start to cross, and then he just sits up straight, unsupported by the bed because it’s too tempting to drift off if he doesn’t have to hold his own weight, and he stares into nothing.

To be honest, he’s not sure how long he can keep it up. Maybe if he was at full capacity, a few days. But he’s still healing, so slowly it’s driving him nuts, and his body is tired. But he doesn’t want to give in. It becomes a sort of challenge, seeing how long he can keep his eyes open to stop himself from slipping into that place, and the challenge adds an element of competition that helps him keep it up.

But he never figures out just how long he could make it.

It happens on the second night of the no-sleep games. The nurse has already come, checked his IV with her back turned to him, and gone. May is home, catching up on some papers and some sleep, and Mr. Stark is gone, though he did give Peter a particularly sharp look before bidding him good night. Peter is just settling into another YouTube marathon, when suddenly he is not watching a Vine compilation anymore. Suddenly, he is writhing on the ground as hundreds of volts of electricity rage through his body, and Morell is above him laughing, taunting. You’ll never go home, Peter, never see your aunt again, never be fucking Spider-Man, never, never, never—

He wakes with a jolt that shakes his whole bed, and sits up, gasping and clawing at his own wrists, just in time to see Mr. Stark come running into his room. He turns on the light and Peter flinches, still feeling for the shackles on his wrists, sure that the light is going to start flashing terribly any second—

But it doesn’t. Mr. Stark crosses the room to stand next to his bed, hovering, with the same lost, worried expression he had when he came in the first night.

“Kid. Peter. You’re at HQ. You’re safe, you’re—”

It was just a dream. A dream, and Peter—Peter realizes that he must have been screaming, to get Mr. Stark running in here like that, and he drops his gaze to his hands.  

There is a pause, and then—Mr. Stark puts a hand on his shoulder. Peter flinches, but the contact is grounding, just like all contact has been. He wishes it would stay there forever.

“Just breathe,” says Mr. Stark, who sounds breathless himself. “It’s over, kid, wherever you think you are—”

“I wasn’t supposed to—I didn’t mean to—” Peter feels an urgent need to explain himself, to explain why he was screaming in a way that will make it less horribly embarrassing, to let Mr. Stark know he was trying to prevent it, but his tongue feels like rubber, and even as he forces his hands to sit still in his lap, the urge to feel his wrists for electricity-heated metal is almost overwhelming, “—how was I asleep? I just—I swear that I was…”

Mr. Stark swallows, and something like guilt joins worry in his expression.

“You clearly needed it,” says Mr. Stark. “You might have everyone else in this compound fooled, kid, but you haven’t slept in days. You look like an extra on a low budget zombie movie.”

Peter takes a sharp breath and tries to swallow the still-present threat of panic as he absorbs the information that Mr. Stark had him drugged. It creates a little lick of anger, but he can’t explore that, right now. He doesn’t have the faculties, or the energy, or the… anything. He is utterly, utterly exhausted, and not just from lack of sleep.

So he chooses the old fallback, and staves the feeling off.

Trying to cover up the little gasp that escapes him when he opens his mouth to speak again with a laugh, he says “The undead got sexy again. In like, 2007. Look it up.”

But when he glances up to gauge Mr. Stark’s reaction, there is no humor there. Something hard and desperate flashes through his eyes and he says,  “For the love of all that is holy and unholy and in the gray area in between, can we quit it with the jokes, kid?”

And now the anger rears. He’s just been drugged, again , he doesn’t want to be serious, and besides, Mr. Stark is doing it too. He always does it, because it’s how guys like him deal. Guys like them .

But when Peter opens his mouth Mr. Stark seems to anticipate what’s coming, and cuts across him.

“You’re not nearly old or jaded enough to pull it off, it’s not a good look.”

Peter goes still, mouth still half open. He waits, heart pounding half in indignation and half out of a wild fear that has risen, a fear that he is about to be punished.

But the next second, Mr. Stark slumps. He takes his hand off of Peter’s shoulder and puts it on his own forehead, where he rubs it back and forth like he’s trying to get rid of a deep-set stain.

“You don’t have to be … tough about this, or whatever you think you’re doing. It was fucked up. Not because you’re a kid. It was baseline fucked up for anyone. Believe me. I know.”

Peter’s breathing is steadier now, but he still feels on edge, still feels like he might fall into either the looming terror or the strange, unexpected anger, and as he’s afraid of both options he says nothing, just looks up at Tony and waits for him to continue. Hoping he’ll tell him what option to take.

“So here’s what you’re gonna do," says Mr. Stark. "You’re gonna quit this not sleeping bullshit before you hurt yourself and further aggravate my publicly known, well-documented heart condition. You’re going to talk to someone about this, and I mean talk like a person, not like a UCB student in the bitch slot of Tuesday night standup. And you’re going to stop feeling embarrassed about a thing that you know deep down was completely and utterly out of your control. Got it?”

Peter raises his eyebrows at him. There is a sarcastic retort at the tip of his tongue— you don’t know what it’s like! But then it occurs to him that this is exactly what Mr. Stark has been trying to say, trying for days to get across to him. He does know what it’s like. He gets it.

Maybe, just maybe, Peter doesn’t have to do this all alone.

He slumps, the fight draining out of him as fast as it came, and nods.

“Got it.”

“Good. Now, uh … “

Peter leans forward, on the same instinct that made him reach for the NG tube earlier—because he hates the implication of weakness, and because he needs something to fidget with while he avoids Mr. Stark’s eye. But then something strange happens. Mr. Stark leans forward at the same time, and hugs him.

It’s not the first hug he’s received since he was rescued, but it is the most unexpected. Peter’s eyes go wide and he almost pulls back, certain Mr. Stark has made a mistake. But he can’t. This is more real than anything, a better reminder that he is safe, and protected, than he has has so far, and for just a second he leans into it, lets it happen.

But the moment passes quickly. He knows he can’t stay like this, because he needs… eventually, he knows, they will both need to find a way to get back to how things were. Or better yet, find a way to move forward.

For the first time, the thought of forward doesn’t fill him with dread. He grins into Mr. Stark’s shoulder.

“Um, that’s not a hug, Mr. Stark. I’m just adjusting the IV.”

Mr. Stark withdraws a little reluctantly, but when he looks at Peter it is with narrowed eyes and a badly-concealed smile of his own.

“You’re lucky you’ve grown on me, you little shit.”

And, Peter thinks, he really is.