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Peter and the Jailbirds

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Memo 2914

From: Thaddeus Ross, Secretary of State

To: NYPD

Subject: Sokovia Accords Enforcement

It has come to my attention that New York City police have been negligent in their enforcement of the internationally adopted Sokovia Accords. As I’m sure you’re aware, New York City police officers and related personnel are required to enforce international laws in addition to city, state, and federal laws. The vigilante known as the Spider Man has violated principles II-IX of the Sokovia Accords (attached below) and is therefore found in contempt of international law. New York City police are hereby ordered to arrest the Spider Man and detain it in secure custody until an international task force can make a final ruling on the consequences for the Spider Man’s actions.

  • The Avengers will no longer be a private organization and will operate under the supervision of the United Nations.
  • Any enhanced individuals who agree to sign must register with the United Nations and provide biometric data such as fingerprints and DNA samples.
  • Those with innate powers must submit to a power analysis, which will categorize their threat level and determine potential health risks.
  • Any enhanced individuals who do not sign will not be allowed to participate in any national or international conflict nor may participate in missions undertaken by the Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D., or any other intelligence organization.
  • Enhanced individuals, including members of the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, will no longer have the authorization to cross international boundaries at any time they wish.
  • They must be given clearance by either a nation's government or the United Nations subcommittee before taking any action in that country, either on their own or as a part of an organization.
  • If an enhanced individual takes unauthorized action or obstructs the actions of those acting in accordance with the Accords, they will be arrested.
  • Enhanced individuals who break the law, violate the Accords or are otherwise deemed to be a threat to the general public may be detained indefinitely without trial.
  • All enhanced individuals with innate powers who agree to sign the Accords must wear tracking bracelets at all times.
  • The creation of any and all artificial intelligence is strictly prohibited.

Note: For the purposes of the Accords, an "enhanced individual" is defined as any person, human or otherwise, with superhuman capabilities. This includes individuals whose powers are an innate function of their biology as well as individuals who utilize highly advanced technology to grant themselves superhuman capabilities.

Signed,

Thaddeus Ross
Secretary of State

 

 


 

 

“I’m sorry—yes—yes, I know—yes—you’re right, sir, I—yes.” Captain Lopez twirled the phone’s cord around her finger again, then unwound it. “As I’ve said before, sir, I’m deeply sorry. My unit will be severely disciplined for their actions. We will not let the Spider Man escape again. Yes, I—yes. Yes, of course. Sir. I look forward to speaking with you again, once we catch it. ”

Captain Lopez hung up the phone, leaned her elbows on her desk, and steepled her fingers beneath her chin. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep holding the Chief of Department off,” she said at last. “Ross is leaning on him hard to catch Spider-Man.”

“However long it takes,” Sergeant Ali said, leaning back in his chair. “I’m not going to be the one who turns Spider-Man in.”

“Me neither, but—you willing to lose your job over it? To let the entire squad lose their badges?”

Sergeant Ali shrugged. “We’re here to keep the city safe, aren’t we?”

“Yeah,” Captain Lopez sighed. “Yeah, we are.”

 

 


 

 

“We finished analyzing the blood today, sir. Yes, we—yes. We ran all of the tests you asked for, and—”

Dr. Marshall sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, waiting for Ross to finish his tirade. “Yes, sir,” he said at last. “We’ve been working on synthesizing a serum. However, we ran into a problem—I’m sure it’s a small problem, no big deal—yes—yes, sir, of course we’re capable of creating a serum. It’s just that—yes. Yes, I appreciate your confidence in myself and my lab. I simply felt that I should—yes—yes, sir.”

One of the lab techs at the other end of the table was currently poking the results in his petri dish with a glass wand while the other giggled. Dr. Marshall snapped his fingers. The lab techs hurriedly resumed working, heads down, mouths shut.

“The problem we ran into, sir, is that the DNA in the sample is not—no, of course the sample is viable for experimentation, sir, absolutely. You’ll have your army in no time. I merely wanted to inform you that the DNA in the sample was not entirely human—no, of course there were no contaminants. We sequenced the DNA itself and found that it’s only 99.4% human. So—well, yes, that’s a very high percentage, but—I know that 99 rounds up to 100, sir—no—no, of course not, sir, I meant no disrespect. My apologies.”

Dr. Marshall tapped his pen against the solid black counters, admiring the way the pen’s reflection glinted in the pristine epoxy resin.

“Yes. Yes, so—as I was about to say, chimpanzees and bonobos share approximately 99% of human DNA. We’re only separated from our ancestors by—yes—yes, of course I can rephrase that to fit in with creationism, once we write up our findings for the press—I quite understand, sir. Absolutely. Our results therefore prove that the Spider Man’s DNA is very nearly human, but not quite. Yes—yes, I share your enthusiasm, sir. We’ll have that serum to you as soon as possible—yes—of course, sir, we will work as hard as we can. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. I look forward to speaking with you again, sir.”

Dr. Marshall ended the call, slid his phone back into the pocket of his lab coat, and twirled his pen between his fingers.

“Theo.” Dr. Seamon set a tray of samples on the counter by Dr. Marshall’s elbow with a bright clank. “We’ve got a problem.”

“I know.”

“Hmm.” Dr. Seamon leaned against the counter and looked up at Dr. Marshall, idly toying with the cuffs of her lab coat.

“What?” Dr. Marshall snapped.

“That’s not your ‘it’s okay, I have a brilliant solution up my sleeve’ face,” Dr. Seamon said.

“No. It’s not.”

“So when Ross calls again…”

“I will continue to assure him that it is possible to synthesize a supersoldier serum for humans using compounds from blood that is not, in fact, human.”

“While making arrangements to disappear to Argentina.”

“There’s enough in the lab’s endowment for three tickets,” Dr. Marshall said. “Be sure you’re one of them.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

“No,” Tony laughed. “No, I have no connection to the bug-brat. Are you kidding me? I have no need for his spandex-suited nonsense. Saving cats, etc. I’m running a corporation here. I have more important things to do.”

“As I’m well aware, Mr. Stark,” Ross said. Even over the phone, his voice reminded Tony of the castor oil he’d once been forced to take, despite his best efforts to dissuade and distract his nanny.

The castor oil didn’t go down any easier this time.

“However,” Ross continued, “that ‘spandex’ suit you mentioned appears to be capable of far more than ordinary spandex ought to be. Footage of the Washington Monument attack, for example, clearly shows a pair of pseudo-wings emerging from the suit. In addition, the ‘webs’ the Spider Man produces display incredible tensile strength, beyond that of ordinary military-grade cables. Clearly, someone with advanced technological capabilities is aiding the Spider Man in his vigilantism.”

“You’re implying that I made his suit.” Tony leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on his desk. “Are you crazy? If I’d made his suit, I would have put so many more things into it. Repulsors, gas grenades, a jetpack—”

“An AI?”

“That,” Tony said, “would be a direct violation of the Sokovia Accords. So no, obviously.”

“Obviously. However, footage clearly shows the Spider Man talking to someone. We initially assumed it was idle chatter, or telecommunication with a distant operative, but the conversations indicate that the interlocutor is doing rapid calculations, faster than a human could input into a computer. We know, therefore, that the Spider Man was talking to an artificially intelligent computer inside the suit. Which could only have been created by Tony Stark.”

“Maybe he created his own.”

“Are you suggesting that the Spider Man could be smart enough to independently create an artificially intelligent computer?”

“Yes."

“I see,” Ross said. “Thank you for your time, Anthony.’’

“A pleasure,” Tony said. “As always.” He poked the speakerphone button again with the end of his pliers, tipped back upright in his chair, and got back to work on his latest iteration of a retractable parachute prototype.

“You’re ‘running a corporation here,’” Pepper said, leaning against the glass doorjamb.

“Oh, come on. I was lying through my teeth for twenty minutes with that stuck-up son of a bitch, and that’s the line you pick on?”

Pepper pressed a quick kiss to Tony’s cheek. “For a good cause like this, I’ll forgive you. But don't make a habit of it.”

“Believe me, not a chance. If that man calls again, I’m going back to my habit of putting him on hold forever. That was a much better strategy.”

“Speaking of which, you’re going to need a better strategy than lying. You’re not nearly as good at it as you think you are.”

“You have any better ideas?” Tony said, sliding his welding mask back down over his eyes.

“You’re asking me." Pepper stared across the workshop at Mark 51, watching as sparks danced in the corner of her vision.

“Yes,” Tony said. He set the torch down, slid the mask back up, and squinted at his creation.

“You really are getting desperate.”

“First, that’s absurd; second, I value your opinion.”

“What did I just tell you about lying?”

“I’m not lying.” Tony cocked his head, then reconsidered. “About your opinion, I mean. The first part, I can neither confirm nor deny at this time.”

Pepper settled into the couch at the end of Tony’s workshop with a sigh. “FRIDAY,” she said. “Gather everything you can find from Ross’ records.”

« On it, boss. »

“Seriously, FRIDAY?” Tony scowled upwards. “I resurrect you from the ashes of a long-forgotten file, set you in charge of my entire realm, and this is the thanks I get? Excuse you, I’m the boss. Pepper can be the…mistress.”

Pepper looked at Tony.

“Never mind,” Tony said. “You’re the boss.”

 

 


 

 

 

“Do you remember,” Ross said, “what happened when the committee showed Tony the footage of other countries attempting to create an Iron Man device? He went to great lengths to prove that it was not, in fact, possible. That no one else was as smart, as highly-advanced, as brilliant as he was. But there he was, suggesting that the Spider Man might be.”

“You’re saying Stark thinks the Spider Man might be a real threat,” Lieutenant Yates said.

“No,” Ross said. “I’m saying that Stark is lying.”

“But even if he is involved,” Yates said, “there’s no way to prove it. We can’t even find a trace of where the Spider Man goes after a fight. He swings around, saves a cat from a tree, swings some more. He never goes home. He never goes to work. There’s no trace of him, anywhere in the city. I'm telling you, he’s hiding out on a rooftop somewhere.”

“We should sweep the warehouses,” Captain Bellington said. “Down by the port. Maybe he’s hiding in the ceiling of one of them, like a real spider. I mean, he could—”

“There’s no trace of where he goes after a fight,” Ross said.

“That’s correct, sir,” Yates said, “that’s what I said, we can’t find any data on—”

“A negative result is still useful,” Ross said icily. “If the footage of him returning home is wiped or tampered with, there must be a trail of that. Follow it.”

“Yes, sir,” Yates said, and saluted.

 

Chapter Text

Peter froze outside his apartment, keys hovering halfway inside the lock. His spider-senses were shrieking at him, but—as usual—not actually sending him any useful signals, like mugger at your two o’clock, armed with a .45 handgun and a switchblade

When he turned towards the hallway, listening closely for signs of a robbery or assault somewhere in the building, his spider-senses immediately shut up. Peter turned back towards the door and stumbled a little, struck again with extrasensory panic.

Think, he ordered himself. Calm down and think. What would Iron Man do?

Go in guns blazing, that was obvious. Not an option for Peter. He fingered the edge of one webslinger, hidden beneath the cuffs of his shirt, and closed his eyes. This would have to do.

Peter fitted his key into the lock, slipped into his apartment, and snagged the guns out of both goons’ hands before anyone even noticed he was inside. Another quick snap of his webshooters, and they were both webbed tightly to the wall with a satisfying thwip.

“Peter, run!” May shouted from her seat at the kitchen table. “Get out of—”

“It’s fine, May.” Peter hurried towards her, checking for injury. “They can’t hurt you anymore. I’m so sorry, crap, I—”

There was a bomb wired to May’s chest.

Peter’s heart stopped.

“Impressive,” a man said. He strolled out from Peter’s bedroom, slowly golf-clapping. “Very impressive. And really, really dumb. Bag on the ground, hands in the air. Any funny business, and she’s done.”

“No,” May rasped. “Peter, go!”

Peter looked up at the man. Older, greying, dumb mustache. Crisp suit, not as nice as Tony’s.

“Or, of course, I could give you a few more reasons to comply.” The man flicked his fingers. Ten soldiers stepped out from the hallway leading down toward May’s bedroom, assault rifles aimed at Peter and May.

He could grab May—chair, bomb, and all—and run, crash through the window and swing to safety. He could shoot webs at their guns, try to get them all before they shot May. He was fast, but—not fast enough.

They would kill May.

And he couldn’t live with that.

With shaking hands, Peter set his backpack onto the floor and raised his hands in the air.

“There we go,” the man said. “You know, it’s really a pleasure to meet you after all this time. I’m Secretary Thaddeus Ross. You may remember me from—”

“The Accords,” Peter said, voice cracking up an octave or two. He’d only ever been this scared before when Toomes had opened the door to his house.

“What do you want with Peter?” May snapped.

“Not much.” Ross stepped forward and set a hand on May’s shoulder. May twitched away, trapped in place by the zipties securing her wrists to the arms of the chair. Peter’s teeth clenched.

“I’m much more interested in the Spider Man,” Ross continued, “which you very clearly are. Nice performance, by the way. Too bad you couldn’t make a proper exit. It’s a lot easier to go tromping around the city when it’s just you, isn’t it? When you’re not quite as worried about casualties? Which is, of course, the very reason vigilantism is illegal. While you’re focused on your own little plans, a ferry cracks in half. A priceless monument is ruined, because you were too young and too stupid to understand the stakes of what you were dealing with.”

“Peter,” May said, preternaturally calm. “He won’t hurt me. I’m his only weapon against you. He needs me. You need to run. Now.”

“I can’t take that chance,” Peter rasped.

“Peter—”

“What do you want?” Peter asked Ross.

“I want you.” Ross smiled beatifically at Peter. “You are under arrest for violation of the Sokovia Accords, principles two through nine.”

“Right,” Peter said.

“Hands behind your back,” Ross said. “Remember what I said about funny business.”

“Hard to forget. You only said it a minute ago.” Peter was lightheaded now, dizzy, operating somewhere outside his body. It was surprisingly easy to be a smartass in that state.

Nothing was real, and his life was over.

He winced a little as they locked his wrists into a heavy set of vibranium cuffs, but didn’t fight back.

“Wait,” May was saying. “You didn’t even read him his rights! You have to—”

“Fifth Amendment rights apply to civilian humans. You—” Ross smiled at Peter— “are neither.”

 

 


 

 

“Tony,” May snarled. “Get your fucking ass down to Queens. Peter’s been—”

“Arrested,” Tony said, voice echoing strangely down the line of the prison phone. “For the Accords.”

“You knew?” May shouted. Her hand clenched on the phone's plastic handle. “You knew and you didn’t—”

“Ross has been sniffing down my tail for the last two months. I’ve been putting him off the trail every way I possibly can. FRIDAY’s been wiping security footage from every camera that’s ever seen Peter change into his suit, out of his suit, head home, or leave home. I’ve been trying—”

“Well, try harder! Peter’s in jail now. They’ve got him in a holding cell somewhere, cuffed and shackled and—he’s all alone, they won’t let me talk to him, they’re just—” May swallowed hard. “They’re keeping me here too, they know he’ll cooperate to keep me safe. They’re going to try him tomorrow, privately, they—they—they’re going to—you have to keep him out of the Raft, Tony, you promised me you’d keep him safe, you—”

“I’m going to keep him out of the Raft the same way I kept the rest of the Avengers out of the Raft.”

“Half of the Avengers are still on the Raft."

“I know,” Tony said, and hung up.

 

 


 

 

The holding room door slid open, then shut. Peter scrambled up from his narrow bench. Ross stepped up to the bars separating Peter’s cell from the holding room.

“You could break these bars if you wanted to, couldn’t you,” Ross said.

Peter shrugged.

“But you’re not going to. Because we’ve still got your feisty little aunt.”

“Why are you here?”

“I have a proposition for you,” Ross said. He sat in the folding metal chair and hooked one leg over the other, completely at ease.

Peter held his gaze. “What,” he said.

“The Raft is somewhere under the Atlantic right now,” Ross said. “Prisoners don’t get phones, visiting hours, internet...anything.”

Peter nodded stiffly.

“Your genetics—” Ross said.

Peter’s stomach sank before he even finished the sentence.

“—could be tremendously useful for science,” Ross continued. “Your healing factor, your strength, your agility. Lot of researchers would love to learn more.”

“No. No, no—no. No. Absolutely not.”

“You’d be able to call home every day. Your friends and family would be able to visit. You’d still be above the water, in your own country. You’d be contributing to science. You’d have your own suite, a real bed, windows, everything. You’d be able to stretch your legs, do some of that swinging around you love so much. How long do you think you’ll last in a box like this one?”

“As long as I need to. Until I get out again.”

“From under the water? We both know that’s not possible.” Ross held Peter’s gaze. “You’ll be on the Raft for the rest of your life. Alone. Trapped. You sure you want that?”

“I want to ask you something.”

Ross raised an eyebrow.

“How do you sleep at night?”

Ross’ smirk twisted downward. “You’re pretty sassy for a kid who’s about to go to the worst juvie on the planet.”

“Because I don’t sleep well, sometimes.” Peter paced across the tiny holding cell and back again. “Sometimes it’s because of nightmares, but sometimes—sometimes it’s because I can’t stop thinking about the people I couldn’t save. There was a really bad car crash last week, did you read about it? No, you didn’t, it wouldn’t make the national news. Just the Queens local. I—I couldn’t save them all, I didn’t get there in time, I wasn’t fast enough. I got the first two out and then—then the car went up in flames, boom, nothing left alive.”

“Funny thing is,” Ross drawled, “you wouldn’t have that problem if you weren’t a vigilante. So you know what, I don’t really care.”

“But if I hadn’t been there at all, the other two people would have died. Because I was there, they’re still alive, they got to the hospital in time, they’re going to be okay. So if you throw me in the Raft—”

Peter grabbed the bars and stared Ross down. “The next car crash. The next fire. The next overarmed mugger. The next kid who runs into the street after a ball, right into traffic. That’s going to be on your head. I’m not a vigilante. I don’t kill people. I save people. Whenever I can. You refuse to understand that because—no, you know what? I don’t know why. I don’t know what your game is, man. But I refuse to be part of it. I am not your pawn.”

“Hmm,” Ross said.

Peter folded his arms across his chest.

“You don’t play chess, do you,” Ross said.

“I—I have. Um. Once or twice.”

“Because if you did, you’d remember that a pawn can become a queen. The most powerful piece on the board, Parker, remember that? But—” Ross smiled— “only if it obeys.”

Ross adjusted his tie, stood, and looked down at Peter. “I’ll ask you again,” he said. “Eventually. You may feel differently after you’ve been living in a six-by-six cube without sunlight or fresh air for a few years.”

“What pawns do,” Peter said, voice shaking slightly, “is sacrifice themselves. For the greater good. I have no regrets.”

He had a lot of regrets.

Like, a lot. A crapton. A shitload. An overloaded dumpsterful.

Ross just looked at Peter for a moment. “When I visit you on the Raft,” he said at last, “you’ll be old enough to grow a beard.” He clicked the door shut behind him.

 

 


 

 

May strode into the courtroom, head held high. After a quick debate, the guards at the door stepped aside, allowing May to step into the nearly-empty courtroom. Tony had pulled a lot of strings to be allowed into the private trial, accompanied by the people Peter would need to see before—well. Before. 

“Happy, scoot your ass over, take the kids with you,” Tony said as May stalked toward them. “This isn’t going to be fun to watch. You didn’t bring any whiskey, did you? I’d really love a nice—”

“I think I should stay and talk with Ms. Parker,” Happy said. “She really doesn’t—”

“Good morning, Ms. Parker,” Tony said as May slid onto the bench beside him. “How are—”

“Why didn’t you have him sign the Accords?” May snapped. “You supported them, you fought for them, you—”

“—like you very much,” Happy said, and scooted over towards MJ and Ned with a tired sigh.  

“Went home and took a moment to actually read them,” Tony said, adjusting his sunglasses. “I had a lot of time to sit by Rhodey’s hospital bed and look through the fine print. Have you ever read them? Not great bedtime reading, except for the boring factor. Peter’s identity would be revealed to the world. He’d have to wear a tracking bracelet. His powers would be ‘analyzed’—we both know that doesn’t mean a few fill-in-the-bubble tests.”

“Do you?” May asked. “Have the tracking bracelet, I mean.”

“Well,” Tony said, “that depends how you define ‘have.’”

“Tony.”

Tony pulled up his cuffs to reveal a slim metal loop around his wrist, blinking a steady green. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

“So when you came to our apartment to talk with me, after I found out that he was Spider-Man, they knew where—”

“Of course not,” Tony said, eyes on the slowly filling courtroom pews. “FRIDAY helps me out a bit.”

“Couldn't you have done that for Peter?” May asked.

“Nope. Too visible. If he’s out swinging the streets of New York and getting uploaded to Youtube, his tracker would have to show his actual location. Second, he’d still have to stop being a vigilante. And…we both know he’d never have stopped, May.”

“You could have stopped him,” May said. “Why didn’t you—”

“Well, I tried to take the suit back, but—”

“Before that. You knew damn well he was Spider-ing for months before that ferry incident.”

“Ah,” Tony said. “Well.” He rolled his cuffs down again and adjusted the sharp platinum links.

“Tony,” May said.

Tony closed his eyes. “I was proud of him,” he said, almost too quiet to be heard. “The things he was doing—I saw the videos, May. Youtube and security footage and—he was incredible, he was so good, he was helping so many people, I just…couldn’t tell him to stop.”

“He would have. If you’d told him to. He looks up to you so much, Tony. He’d have signed the Accords, worn the bracelet, whatever you asked him to do.”

“Until the next emergency rattled down the pipes, of course. Like the Vulture. Face it, May, there’s no way we could have kept him off the streets forever.”

“Duct tape in a closet,” May muttered.

Tony barked out a laugh. “He’d rip his way out of it like we’d wrapped him in toilet paper instead.”

“I know. But still...a parent can always dream, right?”

“Well,” Tony coughed, “at any rate, it doesn’t matter now. Violators of the Accords are locked up in the Raft, period. No apologies, no second chances.”

“There must be a way to get him out of there. With all of your money, all of your power, all of the Avengers—”

“The Avengers are extinct.”

“He could escape,” May whispered, “he could hide, go underground—”

“If he did, he wouldn’t be able to contact us. He’d be all alone, no team, no backup. When Ross finds him, he’ll be dead. Or worse, he’ll disappear, and you’ll never find him again.”

“He could join up with Captain America,” May muttered, sneaking a look at the guards. “Don’t try to tell me you don’t know where he is.”

“Surprisingly enough, I don’t. But at any rate, Peter fought Cap in Germany. Why would Cap trust him now?”

“What about the others? Black Widow, she was on your side, wasn’t she? Peter’s only talked about that fight twenty million times since I found out about him.”

“Black Widow doesn’t trust anyone. Ever. She’d assume Peter was going to turn her in. At any rate, all Ross would have to do is threaten you, publicly, and Peter would tie himself up with his own webs and plop himself down on Ross’ doorstep.”

“I hate that,” May rasped. “I hate that about him.”

“No, you don’t.”

May pulled a tissue from her pocket and folded and refolded it into tiny squares. “No,” she said at last. “No, I don’t. I—”

The courtroom doors clanked open again. Tony craned his head to see Peter as the guards frogmarched him down the courtroom aisle, between empty columns of pews. He was still in yesterday’s clothes, rumpled and exhausted, eyes bruised dark with lack of sleep.

Peter’s eyes locked onto May and Tony.

Tony recognized the look in Peter’s eyes. He’d felt it in his own upon waking up in a cave in Afghanistan, strapped to a car battery.

The guards shoved Peter into his seat and locked the cuffs to the back of the chair. Peter twisted to look back over his shoulder at May and Tony. Tony lifted one hand in a mock salute. May gave Peter a watery smile. MJ waved. Ned flashed him two thumbs up. Happy nodded staunchly. The judge entered with a flourish of dark robes.

Tony watched Peter’s thin shoulders straighten and set, back erect, ready for the firing squad. Feet planted firmly on the floor, hands clasped behind him to stop their shaking, one finger compulsively running back and forth over the cuffs.

Chapter Text

That weird heist, a few weeks ago. The drug dealers who were weirdly stab-happy, despite the obvious gun-shaped lumps beneath their jackets. Who were weirdly eager to run, leaving Peter with $10,000 in prime street heroin (according to the police, when he’d left it at the station).

They’d gotten what they wanted: Spider-Man’s blood on their knives, a plea deal with the feds, amnesty for their own crimes. The stab wound in Peter’s side had long since healed, but the DNA matched the sample they’d taken from him in the holding cell.

After the first three hours of deliberation, Peter tuned out the case and focused instead on the streak of sunlight slowly tracking its way across the ceiling. The flotilla of crisply dressed lawyers conferred amongst themselves and raised argument after argument to the court, pressing Peter’s case from all angles.

He was just a child, and should be tried as such—but, the prosecution argued, he’d been fighting as an adult.

Tony had been the instigating factor behind his continued vigilante acts post-Accords—but Peter had known it was wrong, and had gone ahead anyway. Behind Tony’s back, sometimes.

This case was a private kangaroo court, acting without due process—but this was a confidential military hearing, convened as necessary to decide the fate of a highly wanted criminal. Allowing reporters to publicize the trial would only disrupt the due process of justice. 

("You can due process my ass," Happy muttered under his breath. 

"Mine first," Tony said, and started cleaning his sunglasses for the fifteenth time.)

The defense argued that there wasn’t enough positive evidence that Peter was Spider-Man—Peter didn’t even have a mark from the supposed stab wound, after all.

The prosecution alleged that he had super-healing, à la Captain America. They presented video after video of Spider-Man taking incredible blows, getting visibly wounded, and swinging from the scene without even a blood trail.

Peter rose and walked towards the bench when he was called, flanked by the guards, still wrapped in a haze of disbelief.

“You can’t do that,” Tony was arguing. “This is ten different kinds of illegal. This is—”

“A specially-convened confidential paramilitary court for a unique case in the history of America,” the judge cut in. “Sit. Or you will be thrown out.”

They released one of Peter’s cuffs and laid his arm on a metal lab cart. A white-coated technician from the prosecution’s forensics team swabbed Peter’s forearm with an alcohol wipe and readied a clean scalpel.

Peter gritted his teeth, ignored the shrieking spider-sense in the back of his neck, and let the blade bite into his skin, leaving a two-inch long gash. The prosecution documented the trickle of blood as it flowed freely, slowed, stopped. As Peter’s skin knit itself back together, leaving no trace of the incision after five minutes.

Peter returned to his chair. The lawyers argued. Peter closed his eyes and wrapped himself into a tight web-hammock, safe and sound and high above the city.

 

 

 

In the end, it was very simple.

  1. There was incontrovertible evidence that he was enhanced—a mutant human, not a superhuman.
  2. He’d been acting as a vigilante for the past year.
  3. In direct violation of the Sokovia Accords.

Punishment: life imprisonment in the Raft.

Peter clenched his hands together and tried to keep breathing.

 

 

 

“Guilty,” the judge ruled, and the bottom dropped out of Peter’s stomach. The guards hauled him up out of his seat and started dragging him towards the door.

“Please—” Peter stuck himself to the floor so they couldn’t drag him any further. “Please. Let me—just let me—say goodbye, please—” His voice cracked in half.

“Any funny business,” Ross said, looming over him, “and your aunt gets it. Got that?”

Peter nodded, jaw clenched.

“Two minutes,” Ross said. The guards unlocked his cuffs.

Peter turned to May. His hands were shaking, he noticed distantly. He wasn’t entirely present in his own body.

She threw her arms around him as though she could keep him home through sheer force of hugging.

Peter buried his face in her shoulder and tried to keep breathing. “May—” His voice cracked.

“You’re going to be okay,” she rasped. “I love you. So much. We’ll get you back. I promise.”

Peter’s stomach lurched again. He straightened out of the hug and stared at May, trying to memorize the safety of her face.

“Peter.” Tony took Peter’s shoulders and met his gaze with red-rimmed eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Peter nodded, throat too tight to speak.

“I will keep fighting for you. I promise. I will get you out of there.”

You’ve been trying to get them out for months, Peter said, but the words wouldn’t leave his mouth.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Tony said, eyes hard on Peter’s. “I mean it, kid. They don’t mess around in there. Do what Pepper would do, okay? Make good choices.”

“Can you—” Peter whispered, leaning in closer, “protect them? Now that everyone knows who I am, they’ll be—they’ll be in danger, and I won’t be there to—”

“Already on it. Apartment’s been set up with 24-hour security, remote scanners, the works. DItto for your accomplice and your girlfriend.”

“She’s not my—”

“I’ll keep an eye on things, kid. Don’t worry about it.”

“Thank you,” Peter said, trying to hold his voice steady.

“Hang in there.” Tony clapped Peter on the shoulder. “I’ll see you soon.” He turned to consult with his lawyers again, crisp and secure in his Italian suit, buffered by more money than the world had ever seen.

“You did this to get out of the Spanish test tomorrow, didn’t you?” MJ asked.

Peter turned around, indignant—and closed his mouth again as she spread her arms a little, inviting him in. He flung his arms around MJ, buried his face in her hair, and inhaled deeply, trying to pull her familiar scent into his bones.

“Practice your decathlon facts,” she mumbled. “Don’t you dare forget anything. I’m counting on you for Nationals. You hear me?”

“I will,” Peter croaked. “I promise.”

“Good boy.” MJ patted his back and let go.

Peter reluctantly pulled away and turned to Ned next—the best hugger he’d ever met, bar none.

”I will write you so many letters, man,” Ned said, pulling Peter in close. “Endless letters. You won’t even know what to do with them.”

“No communication with Raft prisoners is allowed,” MJ said.

Peter jerked up out of Ned’s hug and stared at her.

“I researched it,” she said. “This morning. Before the trial started.”

Peter tried to pull in a full breath and royally failed.

“We’ll still be here,” May rasped, in a desperate attempt to rally. “The whole time. We’ll be right here, and we’ll be thinking of you. Missing you. Remember that, okay?

MJ nodded. “I’ve already started a grassroots campaign to build sentiment against the Accords and sway public opinion towards you. Who would lock up a dork like you, anyway?”

“You’ve got all of us on your side,” May said.

And they have an international task force and a super-super-supermax floating prison on theirs, Peter thought.

I’m never going to see you again.

He nodded instead of screaming. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I—yeah. Yeah. We’ll—”

“Time’s up,” Ross said behind Peter’s shoulder.

Peter opened his mouth, then closed it. He tried to pull Luke Skywalker’s power into his bones—offering his hands to be cuffed, staring down the Emperor, choosing to follow the Light. If Luke could do it, so could he, right?

Of course right.

He stared at his feet, shoulders square, jaw clenched. The guards resecured his wrists in the vibranium cuffs. Peter let them, ignoring the spider-sense shrieking at him to get out get out get out. Then there was a cold weight across his neck—

Peter’s head jerked up in alarm. May, Ned, and MJ stood in a frozen row, staring at Peter as the guards locked the collar in place. He swallowed hard, feeling the collar’s unyielding grip around his throat.

“Don’t bother trying to crush that,” Ross drawled. “It’s pure vibranium. Just there as a precaution, in case you think about doing anything unwise. All of the guards have a set of controls.”

Controls.

For a shock collar.

Luke. I can be as strong as Luke. I have to be.

The guards dragged Peter back a pace before he managed to stick his hand to the nearest railing. “I love you,” he said, staring at the three of them as though he could burn their image onto his heart.

“I love you too.” May tried to smile at him through her tears.

“I know,” Ned said. MJ whacked him, but Peter laughed a little.

“We’re going to get you out,” MJ said, eyes fixed on Peter’s.

“Thank you,” Peter said, voice cracking up a couple of octaves.

The guards tugged at him, harder this time. Peter let go of the railing with a shaking hand, feeling like he was letting go of the only web holding him aloft.

 

 

 


 

 

 

“If I didn’t know better,” Clint drawled, “I’d think they were prepping that cell for a new prisoner.”

“Could be Bucky,” Wanda said, one sympathetic eye on Sam. “Or Ant-man?”

Clint shook his head. “Nah, man. That dude disappeared. No reason for him to be human-sized again, ever.”

“Except for his family,” Sam said quietly. Clint shrugged.

“You think they could trap T’Challa?” Wanda mused.

“No way.” Sam paced back across his cell for the umpteenth time, skin itching with the pressure of three months of extreme confinement. “He’s got an entire country to back him, the most technologically advanced in the world.”

“Natasha?” Wanda offered.

Sam shook his head. “She signed the Accords. So did Vision, if they could even trap him in a cell somehow.”

“Yeah, how would that work?” Clint chimed in. “Would he—”

“Either way,” Sam said over their speculations. “Whether it’s Steve or Bucky. The other will come to get him out.”

“Alone?” Wanda rocked back against the wall, arms shifting beneath the straitjacket. “They would have come for you already, if they could. This place is impenetrable.”

“Whoever the poor fuck is,” Clint said. “I’m sorry for him already.”

Chapter Text

They dragged the poor fuck in the next day, just after the second and last meal of the day.

Fortunately or unfortunately, he was neither Steve nor Bucky—too small. Two guards manhandled the new prisoner into the cell. Four more stood behind him, guns trained on his back. The new prisoner’s head was covered with a dark hood; his hands were locked behind his back with massive cuffs—vibranium, maybe?

Sam sat up straighter. Not just a new human Avenger, then. A new superhuman. Too bad he was already behind bars.

The guards yanked the thick dark hood off the prisoner’s head, removed the cuffs, and slammed the door shut in one swift series of motions.  The prisoner stumbled forward, then righted himself with preternatural grace—just like Steve, Sam thought, with a twist in his gut.

With a last menacing stare around the cells and a disparaging rap against Clint’s cell, where he was probably flipping the guards off, the guards filed out.

The poor fuck looked around his tiny cell. Raked his hands back through his hair. Touched a shaking finger to the—holy fuck, that was a shock collar around his throat, heavy as Wanda’s.

“Welcome to Camp Shithole,” Clint announced. “Reveille is promptly at ass-o-crack in the morning, taps is whenever the fuck these goons want to peace out and watch the game. My name’s Clint. I’m that annoying little kid who farts too much. This here is Sam, our counselor, the only reasonable one of us all. Wanda, currently AWOL, is that weird chick who appears and disappears at really fucking inopportune moments. And that concludes your tour! Any questions?”

The newest prisoner slowly turned around and looked from face to face, eyes wide in—awe, maybe? Wonder? Whatever it was, it turned to horror before Sam could even get a good look at the prisoner’s face.

The prisoner crumpled down onto his bed, pulled his knees up to his chest, and buried his head in his arms.

“I’m sorry, man,” Sam said, chest aching. “I’m really sorry.”

“So, what’s the escape plan?” The prisoner’s voice rasped deep in his throat, as though he’d been screaming or something. “There’s an escape plan, right? I can help. Distract the guards, or—”

Sam sighed. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been in jail before, son, but there’s usually not this much talking about escape plans while the guards can hear you.”

“Sorry, sorry!” The prisoner’s voice skipped up an octave before scraping low again, as if he was—disguising his voice? “Never mind. Um—”

“Holy fucking shit,” Sam said.

Clint raised one admiring eyebrow at Sam’s profanity and golf-clapped. “I knew you had it in you, Sam-my-man, I knew you—”

“You’re the guy who fought us in the terminal. Spandex-assed crazypants.” Sam pressed a fist against the glass of his cell door.

The new prisoner’s shoulders hunched further, as though he could disappear into himself. “Um—”

“You serious?” Clint’s eyes sharpened on the new prisoner. “This little guy? He’s the incredible warrior who nearly landed you and Barnes while you desperately fought for your lives—”

“I never told the story like that—”

“I did beat you,” the prisoner said, peeking up from behind his knees with a mutinous glint in his eye. “It was only your dumb drone-thing that took me out of there. You guys were down.”

“Always watch your back, man.” Clint shook his head. “Classic rookie move.”

“You’re part of the reason we’re here.” Sam’s hand clenched into a fist. “You and your shiny suit, your crazy little—”

“I’m sorry,” the prisoner said, voice cracking again. “I didn’t know they were going to put you guys here. Or keep you here so long. This is—it’s wrong, I’ve debated against it in school, I should have asked Mr. Stark what the fight was about, I didn’t—I didn’t even think to ask him. I’m sorry.”

“‘In school’?” Clint unfolded himself from his lazy perch on the edge of his bed and padded up to the door of his cell. “How the hell old are you, anyway? You’re—”

“What did Tony tell you?” Sam interrupted. “About the fight.”

“That Captain America had gone crazy,” the prisoner said wearily. “That I had to help stop him. I thought he’d help Captain America get sane again, or something. I didn't know about the Accords then.”

“And here you are now.” Clint rocked back on his heels. “Whipped by your own belt. You never signed the Accords?”

The prisoner shook his head.

“Why not?” Sam asked. “You were dead set on impressing Tony, why not sign on the dotted line?”

“He never mentioned it. And, um. Everyone would have known my real identity. Bad guys would have been able to go after—” The prisoner shut his mouth and hid behind his knees again. “Anyway. I was doing good things. Stopping crime. Helping people. That shouldn’t be illegal.”

“Preaching to the choir, kid.” Clint drummed his knuckles on his thigh.

“Oh. Right.” The prisoner slumped further. “I’m sorry I fought you guys. I know it doesn’t help now, but I—I am. Really. Sorry.”

“I’m sorry too, son,” Sam said quietly. “How old are you?”

“Old enough.”

“I’m thinking twelve, maybe thirteen,” Clint mused.

The prisoner glared at him over his knees, but didn’t take the bait.

“So how did you end up in here?” Clint asked. “Ol’ Tony got tired of babysitting and turned you in?”

“No,” the prisoner growled. “They tracked the security footage that FRIDAY had been wiping. Followed the trails back to my apartment. Mr. Stark tried to protect me. He’s still trying. He’s going to get me out of here.”

Now that sounded familiar. Trust Tony to take care of his shiny new toy, and trash the malfunctioning ones that dared to disagree with him.

“You trust him?” Clint cackled. “Kid. What’d I just say about watching your back?”

“And when I get out,” the new prisoner said, eyes fixed on Wanda’s empty cell, “I’m going to make sure they let you both go, too. I’m not leaving here without you guys.”

Clint rolled his eyes. “Stick to the truth, kid.”

“I mean it!” The prisoner sprang to his feet in one fluid motion.

Not a superhuman move, Sam thought. Not like Steve. A mutant human move.

“This is wrong,” the prisoner pressed. “You guys have been in here for what, three months?”

“That depends.” Clint’s attention sharpened on the kid. “What day is it?”

“I—” The new prisoner looked from one to the other, at a loss. “Uh. They, uh, captured me on  December 12th. I think the trial and the flight were a day? So it’s probably December 13th now.”

“Uh-huh,” Clint said.

“You were pretty damn close, man.” Sam patted the wall between their cells—as much comfort as he could offer here.

“Mmm-hmm,” Clint said.

Sam looked down at his feet at the sound of two careful scratches in the smooth wall of Clint’s cell. “Clint—”

“It’s okay, man. Don’t worry about it.” Clint brushed his hands together and returned to a carefully casual perch on his bed. “Two days. No biggie.”

“You don’t get any contact,” the prisoner said. His face was open and vulnerable as a pan of milk, far too young to be a real Avenger. “With the outside world, I mean. None. At all. Really?”

“Who needs the outside world?” Clint linked his hands behind his neck and lay back on the bed.

“Natasha,” Sam asked, because Clint wouldn’t. “Black Widow. Is she okay?”

“I—yeah,” the prisoner said. “Yeah, I think so. I’ve never really met her. But I haven’t heard anything bad, and I think that would make the news, so, uh. No, I think she’s okay.”

“Colonel Rhodes?” Sam asked.

“Who? I don’t—oh, wait a sec, does he go by Rhodey, or something like that? Because I’ve overheard Mr. Stark and Happy talking about him sometimes. Mr. Stark was working on a gadget for him, some sort of—leg device, maybe? I never saw it.”

So…paralyzed, then. Probably. But alive, at least. Sam swallowed hard. “And Bucky?” he asked.

“Who’s Bucky?”

Clint snorted. “How about Steve? Captain America, I mean.”

The new prisoner shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything about him either. He must have gone undercover or something. Underground? Whatever the word is. There was a rumor that he might have gone to Wakanda, but I don’t know what he’d do there.”

Sam leaned his head against the door of his cell and closed his eyes for a moment. “Bucky’s the Winter Soldier,” he said, focusing on the chill of the glass against his forehead instead of the lump in his throat. “Guy with the metal arm. You were a big fan of his, sounded like.”

“Oh, yeah! Yeah, he was cool. Your suit was awesome too. Mr. Stark made it?”

“He did, in fact. Was a little worried he’d built in some kind of failsafe in case I went rogue, but I didn’t, um—” Sam winced— red alert red alert mayday— but his mouth carried on without him. “Didn’t fall out of the sky. So. Anyway. You feel like telling us your name, oh boy of mysterious age?”

“Mr. Stark made my suit too,” the new prisoner said. “It’s got a drone and web-wings and a heater and everything.”

“Course it does,” Clint drawled. “Tony’s great at making toys. Not so good at cleaning up after himself.”

“He’s going to come,” the new prisoner said, jaw clenched mulishly. “He said he would fight for me.”

Sam shot a warning glare at Clint— don’t you dare take his hope away— and cleared his throat. “I’m sure he will, son.”

“So, uh.”  The new prisoner shifted in place, clearly restless already. “How do things work around here? We just…like…stay in these things? Is there, like, a mess hall or something? Whatever it’s called? Exercise yard? Don’t jails normally have that?”

“This ain’t jail, punkface,” Clint drawled. “This is Camp Shithole. These ‘things’ are all we’ve got.”

“You’ll be all right,” Sam said, because if he couldn’t believe it himself then at least someone should believe it. “You get used to it.”

Clint cocked an eyebrow at Sam— oh, so we’re lying to the kid already? “Sam used to keep people sane for a living,” he explained to the new prisoner, “so he thinks he can do the same thing here. Joke’s on him, I’ve never been sane.”

“You have a name, son?” Sam asked, ignoring Clint with the ease of long practice.

“Spider-Man.”

Sam snorted. “A real name, kid. The one your parents gave you.”

Spider-Man shook his head. “Just Spider-Man.”

“You're pretty serious about this secret identity business, aren’t you,” Clint laughed.

“Don’t seem to be doing too well at it, though,” Sam mused. “What’d they put on your internment forms—Man, Spider hypen?”

Spider-Man slowly sank back down onto his bed. “No,” he said quietly. “No, I guess—no. They must have used my real name. They used it in the trial, and everything. The trial was supposed to be private, they didn’t let the public in, but—the government knows. Ross knows.”

“Jig’s up, huh?”

“Yeah,” Spider-Man said, and swallowed hard. “I don’t know if they actually kept it private, or if they put it in the news. But if everyone knows, that means—that means—” He buried his face in his knees again.

“Easier to get a date at the prom?” Clint guessed. Sam kicked the wall between their cells.

“Means my—family’s in danger.” Spider-Man’s voice cracked. “My friends. And there’s nothing I can do to protect them.”

“Maybe you shoulda thought of that before you put your faith in a man who’d already sold out his team,” Clint said.

“Mr. Stark’s coming,” Spider-Man said. “He’s fighting for me. I know he is.”

“Uh-huh,” Clint said, and propped his feet up on the wall.

“And where’s Captain America?” Spider-Man jumped on top of his stool, fists cocked on his hips. “If he’s so much better, why hasn’t he come to get you guys out of here?”

Sam folded his arms across his chest in a futile attempt to hold his hurt inside.

“Stay out of what you don’t understand, kid,” Clint said, and threw his blanket over his head for a nap.

“He’s coming,” Spider-Man said. “I know he is.”

“Shut it, kid,” Clint mumbled, voice muffled by the thin cotton blanket. “Look. Blanket over head. Naptime.”

“Right,” Spider-Man said. “Right, sorry. Um. Shutting up now.”

 

 

 

Peter sat quietly for at least four seconds, then started exploring the corners of his cell. It was nerve-wrackingly tiny, and depressingly boring. Floor. Ceiling. Four walls. Bed. Blanket. Stool-table-thingy. Random handle-thingies on the wall. Probably to cuff us to, he realized, and regretted it.

Maybe with enough momentum he could crack the glass of the cell door, but how could he build up momentum like that in the tiny cage? And even if he broke the glass, would he be able to fit through the bars? He was still pretty small, despite the spider bite, but not that small. At any rate, the guards would probably shock him the moment he tried.

“So, kid,” Sam said, a few minutes later. “What are you, anyway?”

“Naptime, man!” Clint protested.

“New rule. New roomie takes precedence over naptime. How’d you get your—powers, or whatever it is you do?”

“Got bitten by a radioactive spider,” Peter said.

There was a moment of silence.

“Seriously,” Sam said.

Peter laughed a little. “Seriously.”

“Well, shit,” Clint said. He sat up, letting the tiny blanket slide down around his shoulders like a scarf. “You think that’s weirder than Bruce or Thor?”

“No way,” Sam laughed. “A actual god from another world? That is the weirdest shit I’ve ever heard. Second to that, someone who turns into a rage-monster because of some kind of radioactivity is straight-up bizarre.”

“And physically impossible!” Peter hopped up onto his bench again. “It completely ignores conservation of mass—”

“Oh, fuck.” Clint flapped a hand at Peter. “Get your sciency shit out of here. Point is, radioactive spiderbites are only at third place, at best, for weirdest powers we’ve got. I’d still vote for telekinesis and telepathy for third place. Wanda’s got some weird shit up her sleeves.”

“Clint’s just jealous,” Sam explained with a little smirk, “because he still rates dead last for most interesting powers. I mean, good aim? Any damn sniper can have that.”

“Sam’s just jealous,” Clint explained, smirking right back at Sam, “because I called the whole bird-nickname-thing before he did, but he didn’t have any other creative ideas, so he just copied me.”

“Keep telling yourself that.” Sam grinned at Peter. “We were going to make a band, you know. Wanda and the Jailbirds. Except none of us can sing, so—” His smile faltered and died. “Anyway, the spider. How did you—”

“A band?” Peter asked, before his brain could catch up to his mouth. “That’s so cool! What happened to it?”

“They didn’t like it when we sang,” Clint said. “So they didn’t give us rations for three days.”

“Oh,” Peter said.

“The spider,” Sam pressed. “Just crawled down from your ceiling, or what?”

“It’s…a long story.”

“The one thing we’ve got here,” Sam said, “is time. You can—”

A rattle and thud; the door to the airlock opened, revealing a pair of guards dragging in a young woman in a straitjacket—and a collar that matched his, fuck. Must be Scarlet Witch.

God, he was even more screwed. Who else was hiding in this place, Ant-Man?

The guards deposited her in the empty cell across from Peter’s, slammed the door shut, whacked the bars of Clint’s cell—ha, he was flipping them off, good idea—and left.

“How you doin’, roomie?” Clint tossed the blanket over his shoulder and rolled up to his feet.

She shrugged. “You guys have been busy.”

“Yeah, Sam finally popped out a kid.”

“Clint,” Sam sighed.

Wanda looked Peter up and down, eyes catching on—oh shit, she was staring at the shock collar. Peter hunched into himself a little. Was this how fish in aquariums felt all the time? It was nerve-wracking to have nowhere to hide. His spider-senses hated it.

Actually, the rest of him hated it too.

“Why is there a kid here?”

“You want to introduce yourself?” Clint cocked a brow at Peter.

“Uh.” Peter waved. “Hey. Um. I’m Spider-Man. You threw cars at me.”

Sam snorted.

“So,” Wanda said, looking at Sam and Clint.

“He says Tony’s coming to rescue him,” Sam said.

“It’s a sweet little fairytale, really,” Clint said. “You think Tony’ll ride in on a white horse? Or just that stick he keeps up his ass?”

“Clint.” Sam shot him a look. “Shut it, man. Leave the kid alone.”

“So they’re keeping a kid locked up in here.” Wanda struggled to her feet, hobbled by the straitjacket, and paced the cell.

“He also said that the others are still out there,” Sam said.

“Maybe,” Clint added. “Probably. No news is good news, right?”

Wanda scowled. “Could be. But if they could have gotten us out, they would have done it already. So every day that passes in here makes it less likely that they ever will. How long are you going to keep waiting for something that will never come?” There was a weird, raw edge to Wanda, like a wire coiled too tightly.

“Wanda,” Sam said quietly. “You’re back with us now. Focus.”

“For how long?” Wanda rounded on him. “You think they’re going to let me stay in here for a whole week this time before tossing me in there again?”

“We’re all in the same shit, all right? Learn when to mouth off and when to shut up. Get better at keeping a lid on it, and they won’t throw you in solitary again.”

“Oh, so it’s my fault now—”

“Stop,” Sam said flatly, holding her gaze. “Don’t you take this out on us.”

“Right.” Wanda turned away and sank down to her bed. “I’m sorry.”

“They have solitary here,” Peter said, and swallowed.

“And sense-dep,” Clint said, “that’s the really fun one—”

“Only if you get on their nerves,” Sam said, eyes soft on Peter. “Stay quiet, do what they tell you, you’ll be fine.”

“Oh, okay. Yeah. Uh. I’m really good at that.”

Clint cackled.

“Just keep your cool, all right?” Sam sighed. “Don’t talk back to the guards. Not worth it. Solitary’s bad shit, man. Probably worse for a kid.”

“Yeah. Yeah, okay. Yeah. Uh. Yeah, I can do that.”

“Could be a lot worse,” Clint shrugged. “Could be in an actual prison.”

“How would that be worse?” Peter flung his hands in the air. “We’d get visiting hours! Mail! Fresh air!”

“Shivs!” Clint added enthusiastically. “Gangs! Assault!”

“You guys are super-soldiers. Wanda’s got powers. I’m Spider-Man. We’d be fine.”

“He’s got a point,” Sam mused. “I feel sorry for the poor shit who goes after Clint.”

“Damn right.” Clint grinned toothily.

“And I could go around breaking up fights,” Peter said. “Look out for the guys who can’t defend themselves.”

“Until they found a way to get around your defenses,” Clint said, “or threatened someone else to make you bow to their demands, or ganged up on one of us.”

“Mail,” Peter said again, staring at his hands. “Visiting hours. Fresh air. A chance to escape.”

“Guards who set your collar off just for fun,” Wanda said.

Peter met her eyes across the prison floor.

“It could be worse,” she said. “Much, much worse.”

“Yeah,” Peter said. He slumped back down to his bed and pulled his knees up to his chest. “I guess.”

“Do you have an actual name, Spider-Man?” Wanda asked.

Peter shook his head. “I need to keep my identity secret. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

“Don’t worry, I would not go after your family. These days, I try to minimize collateral damage.”

Peter’s breath huffed in something vaguely resembling a laugh. “Yeah. Well. Still. I’ve worked too hard to keep this a secret to blow it now.”

“But clearly, you did blow it. You're here now.”

“Yeah.” Peter swallowed hard. “Yeah, I am.”

“Welcome,” Wanda said. “I think.”

“Camp Shithole!” Clint proclaimed, flinging his arms open wide. “Come for a summer, stay for a lifetime!”

“Clint,” Sam sighed.

“I always wanted to go to summer camp,” Peter said. “This isn’t really what I was expecting, though.”

“Fewer mosquitoes,” Clint offered. “That's a plus.”

Sam’s lips twitching into a begrudging smile. “Still stings,” he said.

Peter laughed, but thinking of itchy things reminded him of the collar. He scratched beneath it yet again, unable to ignore it.

“Is it hurting you?” Sam asked. “The collar.”

Peter glared at him.

“I’m sure you don’t want to talk about it,” Sam said. “But if you get sores or something under it, you need to—”

“Doesn’t seem like they’d do anything about it.”

“Maybe not.” Sam shrugged. “But you need to keep tabs on it, all right?”

“That shit can do real damage,” Clint added. “They added padding to Wanda’s after the first week, because it was getting real bad.”

“Won’t happen to me,” Peter said, eyes fixed on the far wall. “I heal fast.”

“You’re not entirely human, are you,” Sam said quietly.

Peter’s lips pinched together. “No,” he rasped at last. “That’s why I’m here, isn’t it?”

“Well, no,” Clint said. “You’re here because you didn’t sign the Accords.”

“I couldn't!” Peter leapt to his feet again. “They would have—have you ever read them?”

“Enough to know that plans that start with rounding up everyone in a certain group and registering them is a bad idea, always,” Wanda said. “Tracking bracelets? Power analysis? Experimentation, that’s what that means. That’s not what my family fought for. Died for.”

“The Accords weren’t what Ross said they would be,” Sam said. “Having more support, supervision, teamwork—that would have been great. But the whole registration-analysis-tracking bullshit made it obvious that they’re more about the government controlling us than about us doing our jobs better. If an Avenger breaks the law, there should be consequences, of course there should be. But ‘detained indefinitely without trial’? That’s insane.”

”I made mistakes,” Wanda said. “I fucked up. Many times.” Her shoulders shifted beneath the straitjacket with pent-up tension. “At first, I thought the Accords would help me be better. Not hurt anyone again. But this shit?” She spat. “Owning anyone who is different. Watching them. That’s not helping anyone. That’s just tyranny in a snappy suit.”

“What else does tyranny ever wear?” Sam sighed. “All of us—well, except you, I guess—would have been targets under Hitler. HYDRA, too. They hid inside S.H.I.E.L.D. before. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve leveled up to hiding in the US government now.”

“Nazis wouldn’t have been happy with me being bi,” Peter said. “But I get what you mean. And…crap, I  wouldn’t be surprised if HYDRA is inside the government now. Or, honestly, we don’t even need HYDRA to come in and mess things up.”

“Ain’t that right,” Clint muttered.

“But I wouldn’t be surprised if Ross is working for HYDRA,” Peter said. “He—”

White-hot pain lanced down Peter’s spine, crackling out through his muscles. He crumpled to the floor, seizing uncontrollably. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t see, he couldn’t—

The current ended as abruptly as it had begun, leaving Peter crumpled on the floor of his cell in a still-shaking heap, gasping for air.  

“Kid,” Sam was saying, hands pressed against the door of his cell. “Spider-Man! Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Peter rasped. “Fine. I’m fine.” He pulled himself back onto his bed with shaking hands and clawed his fingers back through his hair.

“We’re all fine here,” Clint sighed. “How are you?”

I think that means yes, Peter thought to himself dazedly. Ross is working for HYDRA, and so are these goons.

Probably shouldn’t talk about HYDRA again.

But he couldn’t give in to these…assholes. Bullies. Jerkfaces. Toilet plungers. Not yet, at least. He had to stay strong. Or something. Wasn’t that what prisoners of war told themselves?

What would Princess Leia do?

Snark back at all times. Hold your head high. Never give up.

“He offered me a deal,” Peter said, clenching his hands together to stop them from shaking. “Ross did, I mean. He said he’d let me stay in the country, get mail, maybe phones or visiting hours if I obeyed.”

“Well fuck, kid,” Clint said. “Why didn’t you take it?”

“He wanted you,” Wanda said, eyes locked on Peter.

“He wanted to…learn about my abilities.”

“To experiment on you,” Wanda said.

Peter nodded. “I think so.” He looked down at his hands. “I—I said no, but he said he’d come back after a few years and ask me again, and…I don’t think I could say no again. I can’t—” He looked around the prison. “If they can’t—get us out, if we’re stuck here forever, I—I don’t—I think I would take the deal.”

“Don’t,” Sam said quietly. “That deal is bad news.”

“I know,” Peter said. “I know, I know, but—but—how do you guys not go nuts in here?” He threw himself against the impenetrable glass wall.

“Who says we haven’t gone nuts?” Sam asked.

“At first you go a little bit insane,” Wanda said. “Then, after you’ve been here for a while—” She raised her eyebrows in an approximation of a shrug. “Then you go a little bit more insane.”

“Hey, kid,” Clint said. “Is it true that you can scale glass walls? Sam swears you did that at the airport, but I’m pretty sure he’s just lying to make himself feel better.”

“Yeah. Yeah! I can climb walls. Ceilings. Bridges. Anything.” Peter bounced on his toes.

Clint shook his head. “I still doubt it.”

Peter stopped bouncing and glared at Clint. “Look,” he said at last. “I may be a kid, but I’m not stupid. You’re trying to distract me into showing off.”

“Yep,” Sam nodded. “Yep, he is.”

Peter cocked a brow, then shrugged. “Well. I guess it’s got to be better than just sitting around in here.” Before he even finished the sentence, he leapt into a neat backflip , landed on the ceiling, and executed a perfect upside-down bow. “Lady, gentleman, and Clint,” he said. “Welcome to The Spider-Man Show.”

Chapter Text

“You going to try anything?” One of the guards held up a tiny metal remote.

Peter glared at him in silence.

The guard tapped his thumb idly on the button. “Yes? No? Make up your mind, kid. I’m dying to see what this thing does. I wasn’t on shift last time it went off.”

“No,” Sam said. Peter’s eyes snapped to his. “No, he will not try anything.”

Peter stared at the guard. “No,” he said, jaw clenched. “I won’t.”

“Good.” The other guard nodded at him. “Come on. Outta there.”

The cell door slid open. Peter let the guards cuff him and stepped out into the main floor, absurdly grateful to be out in the (relative) open again. His spider-senses shouted at him to overpower the guards and run—he could steal the remote, easy. So easy. But all of the other guards had the same remote. He’d be shocked in seconds. Back in the cage.

Peter followed the guards into the elevator, down a level or two, and along the narrow corridor to the tiny metal shower. At least he was afforded relative privacy—the guards remained in the room, but a flimsy curtain cordoned off the shower.

The guards unlocked one cuff and locked it shut again around a metal handle on the shower wall. Peter didn’t bother telling the guards that even though he couldn’t break the vibranium cuffs, he’d be easily able to rip the handle off the steel walls. Even if he did, the guards standing there or the guards in the surveillance room would shock him.

Peter scrubbed down every inch of his body with his one uncuffed hand, trying not to think about the turtle-patterned shower curtain in their apartment, the flowery-scented bottles of May’s shampoo, the razor he’d optimistically bought a few months ago still sitting unused on the top shelf of the medicine cabinet. At least it felt good to be clean at last, regardless of his surroundings.

He scrubbed up his arms, chest, neck—shit. Peter stared at the wall for a few seconds, throat closing up.

Right.

The shock collar.

Peter scrunched his eyes shut and scrubbed beneath the collar with his pinky, the only finger small enough to fit beneath it. He had to stop after a few moments to breathe, because there wasn’t enough room beneath the collar’s tight grip for both air and his finger.

A timer beeped. “Thirty seconds,” one of the guards droned.

Peter hastily rinsed off before the water shut off automatically. The guards gave him scant seconds to dry off and dress, then marched him back down the corridor and up through the elevator to his cell. They shoved him back into his cell, uncuffed him, and took Clint next, going in order around the ring of cells.

Wanda was still gone, in whatever shower-contraption they’d fitted up for her. Peter hadn’t asked. Didn’t even want to think about the possibility of getting stuck in a straitjacket like hers.

He curled up on his bench, facing the wall.

“Spider-Man,” Sam said. “You okay?”

Peter closed his eyes.

Sam sighed.

Peter swallowed hard, trying to get himself under control. “Do you have a family?” he rasped at last.

“Everyone’s got a family, son.”

“I mean, like, a wife or something. Spouse. Kids. Parents? Cousins? I don’t know.” Peter slid down to the floor and sat by his cell door, imagining he’d just randomly chosen to sit so far from Sam.

“Yeah,” Sam laughed. “I’ve got a family. Parents. Sisters. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Grandma. The whole shebang.”

“Do they know about you?” Peter asked. “About, you know. Falcon.”

“Yeah. They do.”

“Do they, uh, worry?”

“Kid. I’m alive. Of course they worry. Why wouldn’t they worry? That’s what families do. Some families, at least.”

“Whoo.” Peter sucked air through his teeth, glad to be back on steadier ground. “Yeah. They really do.”

“Uh-uh, kid, no, you do not get to pull that card. In your case, it’s completely reasonable. A teenage—yeah, I know you're a teenager, don't give me that look—crimefighter? Are you crazy?”

Peter thought about this, then shrugged. “Probably, yeah.”

That startled a laugh out of Sam. “At least you’re honest about it, huh?” He shook his head. “How about you? You got a family?”

“I have, um. I have an aunt.”

Sam looked at him in silence. Peter braced for the question, but— “You guys get along?” was all Sam asked.

“Uh.” Peter blinked for a second, adjusting to the unexpected line of conversation. “Yeah. You know. Mostly. She, uh, wasn’t thrilled that I’m Spider-Man.”

“I can imagine,” Sam said dryly. “Good for you for telling her, though.”

“Yeah…” Peter winced. “Well. I kinda didn’t? I, uh, had just put on the suit, but I hadn’t closed my door, so—quit laughing! I called for her when I got home! She didn’t answer. I thought she wasn’t home. And then…yeah. I told her I was just cosplaying. She gave me—she has this Look, you know? Like—”

“Ohhhhhh yeah. I know that look.”

“Yeah. So. I told her the truth.”

“Glad you did?”

“So glad,” Peter said wistfully. “I mean, she wasn’t happy about it, she called Stark and swore at him—”

“Good for her.”

“Yeah. Well. She came around, eventually, and we’re figuring it out. Or, you know. We were.” Peter stared at the cell door for a moment, surfing the surge of panic. “We are. So, uh, you know. Anyway. It felt really good to tell her. To not have to sneak around anymore. No secrets, no being scared in my own apartment.”

“Mmm. I can imagine.”

Peter looked up at Sam, caught by something in his tone. “I thought you said your family knew you were the Falcon.”

“They do,” Sam nodded. “They were also conservative Baptists when I was growing up, and I’m gay. I was scared shitless for years that they’d find out.”

“Oh, crap. I’m sorry. Did you ever tell any of them?”

“Packed a quick getaway bag, pretended I was a hell of a lot braver than I felt, and came out to my parents and sisters one night. They blinked a few times, asked a couple awkward questions, hugged me, and went off to turn on the grill and make dinner.”

“Aww.” Peter grinned at him. “I’m glad. Sounds like they really love you.”

“They do, thank God.” Sam took a deep breath. “They really do. Sounds like your aunt really loves you too.”

“Yeah. Yeah, we—” Peter cleared his throat a few times. “She’s all I have,” he rasped at last. “She’s all I have.”

“I’m sorry, kid.” Sam pressed his hand against the glass of his cell door, mouth twisting in sympathy.

Peter nodded. He pressed his hand against his own cell door and closed his eyes.

Please, he prayed. Please.

“So, uh,” he asked, once he could trust his voice to not crack too badly. “You dodged the question about a spouse, or somebody like that.”

“You fishing, kid?”

“No! Jeez. I’m just curious. If you want to talk about it.”

“I mean, it’s a fair question. What’s a handsome guy like me doing in a place like this?” Sam leaned back against the wall. “I do have a ‘somebody like that,’ actually. A boyfriend.”

“How’d you guys meet?”

“I was running,” Sam said, with a quiet smirk. “He was being an asshole.”

Peter laughed a little. “Now there’s a good meet-cute story.”

“Mmm.”

“Do you miss them?” Peter whispered. “Your family, friends. Your team. Your boyfriend.”

Sam just looked at Peter. “Like nothing else, kid,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry,” Peter murmured.

Sam nodded. Looked at his hands. “I want to tell you it gets easier,” he said at last. “But it doesn’t. It really doesn’t.”

Peter flinched at the dull thud of the elevator door sliding open. The guards shoved Clint back into his cell, uncuffed him, and slammed Clint’s cell shut again.

“Hey, guys.” Clint’s eyes flicked between Peter and Sam as he put his hearing aids back in, completely ignoring the guards. “What’d I miss?”

“Talking about how much nicer it’ll smell in here now that your stink’s been washed away,” Sam said as the guards opened his cell, grabbed him by the elbows, cuffed him, and marched him into the elevator. “Spider-Man’s, too!” Sam called over his shoulder.

Clint stretched out on his bench, one knee cocked up in the air. “Sure, it doesn’t smell like stale sweat in here anymore,” he yawned. “Stinks up to high heaven of feelings instead.”

Peter snorted.

“I don’t do feelings, kid,” Clint said, staring at the ceiling. “But I’m pretty good at hand-to-hand, and you suck. Want to learn?”

“Yeah,” Peter said. “Yeah, I would.”

 

 

 


 

 



The lights shut off with a series of jarring alarms. Peter jumped halfway to the ceiling, then squinted out into the pitch-black prison.

“G’night,” Sam sighed. Something shifted and rustled—he must have settled onto his bed, Peter guessed.

“Night, motherfuckers,” Clint mumbled. He set his hearing aids on the stool in his cell and flopped back onto his bed with a thunk-thunk of shoes on metal. Wanda muttered something in Sokovian that did not sound like a nice word to use at a tea party.

“Good night,” Peter said. He huddled onto his bed, beneath the meager blanket, and didn’t think about the comforting clip of May’s shoes on the kitchen floor as she puttered around on her way to bed.

 

 

 

Peter scrambled back into the corner of the ceiling, hands braced before him in defense, throat still raw from screaming. What—what—where?

“I think he’s awake,” Clint said, fitting his hearing aids back into his ears. “Kid, you can come down now, there are no mice on the floor.”

“Spider-Man,” Sam pressed his forehead against the door of his cell, squinting out towards Peter. “Want to talk about it? You were—you sounded—”

“Like you were not dreaming about kissing your girlfriend,” Wanda said.

“Hey.” Clint linked his hands behind his neck. “You never know what some people are into. We don’t kinkshame around here. I don’t think. Do we?”

“Clint,” Sam sighed.

“I might,” Clint mused, “if it’s something weird enough. Like—”

“This would be a great time for you to stop talking,” Wanda said.

Clint shut up.

“Spider-Man,” Sam said again. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Peter.” His voice cracked up half an octave, then back down again. “Peter,” he said again, hands shaking. “Peter, I’m Peter. Peter. My name is Peter.”

“Nice to meet you, Peter,” Sam smiled warmly up at him.

“Oh, that’s a relief,” Wanda said. “I was afraid you would have one of those god-awful Twilight names.”

“Oh shit, yeah,” Clint nodded. “Like Eddie, or Jacobius. I would have made fun of you endlessly for that, you know.”

“He knows,” Sam said, lips twitching. “Anyway. Thank you for telling us your name, Peter. Do you want to talk about it now? Your dream?”

“No,” Peter said. He dropped slowly from the ceiling, dangling from his fingers until he was close enough to fall back down onto the floor. “I’m sorry I woke you guys up. You can go back to sleep now.”

“If you think,” Sam said, “you're the only Avenger who has nightmares, you’re pretty damn wrong.”

“I’m not an Avenger,” Peter said.

“Nope,” Sam said. “You’re way too young. But you’re still—”

“No, I mean—Mr. Stark offered, he said I could—but I didn’t want it, I didn’t—I just wanted—I wanted to be home.” Peter’s voice cracked. “To go to school. To be with my friends. And my—um. My, uh. Family.”

“Don’t we all,” Wanda said.

“Yeah,” Peter said. “Well. Stupid.” He slumped back onto his bed and pulled his knees up to his chest.

Sam closed his eyes.

“How do you stand it?” Peter’s voice cracked. “You’ve been here for months, how do you—I can’t—” He clawed his hands back through his hair.

“‘In the middle of winter,’” Sam said, “‘I finally found within me an invincible summer.’”

“He’s got a lot of those,” Clint whispered to Peter. “Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.”

“You have to find something,” Sam continued, ignoring Clint, “that keeps you going. Doesn’t matter what it is, really. But you need to hold onto something.”

“What do you hold onto?” Peter asked.

To his surprise, Sam smiled. “There are people out there who love me. Who are trying to get me free.”

“Spite,” Wanda said. “Pure, 200-proof spite.”

“Mmm-mmm-mmm.” Clint nodded. “Tasty, tasty spite.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Being smartasses, that’s really what gets us through.”

Peter laughed despite himself. “There are worse things, I bet.”

“There are.” Sam’s face quirked up into a crooked grin.

Peter tipped his head back against the cold wall of his cell and closed his eyes. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “I’m—I’m—I’m so sorry you’re in here.”

“You too,” Sam said quietly. “Do you want to talk about your dream?”

“I think I just did,” Peter said. “Thank you. Um. Good night. See you, uh, see you tomorrow, I guess. Or later today. Whatever. Anyway.”

“You’re welcome, kid,” Sam laughed. “Peter, I mean. Good night.”

“Well, this has been lovely,” Clint said. “But if we’re done here, I was in the middle of a dream. A really, really good—”

“Clint,” Wanda said.

“Right.” Clint eased his hearing aids out again, set them carefully beneath his bed, and yanked the blanket over his head again. “Good night,” he said, voice muffled by the thin cotton.

“Good night,” Wanda sighed, and lay back onto her bed.

“Good night, guys,” Peter said again, and curled up beneath his own blanket.

The red light of his cell door blinked at him like the smoke detector that hung over his bed at home.

Clint snored slightly. Wanda’s straitjacket scratched against her bed. Sam rolled over and tucked his blanket in tighter around his feet. Peter closed his eyes and listened to the sound of his prisonmates’ breaths, sifting between the bars of their cells.

With a hitching sigh, Peter fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Time passed.

Wanda taught them all Sokovian. Peter had a long way to go to catch up to the others, but he tried. He taught them everything he could remember from decathlon practice. Clint taught them ASL. Wanda couldn’t participate, but she at least learned how to understand them. Sam taught them about reading wind currents, cooking edible food, and actually managing emotions in a healthy way. Clint was skeptical about the last part, but he tried.

Wanda promised to bake them her favorite Sokovian pastries. Sam promised to take them all on a ride, one at a time. Cint promised to let Peter try out his bow, as long as Peter didn’t aim at him. Peter promised to teach them all how to do basic backflips and somersaults.

They were each granted a tiny, pre-blunted pencil and a few sheets of paper per day—if they asked nicely and the guard felt like giving it to them—so Peter wrote letters. Endless, endless letters. To May, Ned, MJ. To Ben, Tony, Karen, Mr. Delmar. To Flash. To Dron-E. To that really nice lady who’d given him a fresh peach from her fruit stand last week after he’d stopped a car from crashing into it.

They drew each other, compared the results, laughed at their sloppy sketches. Wanda looked on in jealousy. They took turns writing down letters she dictated—usually in Sokovian, which none of them could spell in Roman characters, let alone in Sokovian Cyrillic. But the papers were always confiscated and incinerated the next day, so it didn’t really matter in the end.

No contact would be allowed between the prisoners on the Raft and the outside. Ever.

 

 


  

 

As the elevator slammed shut behind Peter and the pair of guards, Sam stretched to his feet and paced towards Wanda’s cell. “What’s your deal with Peter?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

Sam just shot her an unimpressed look. “He reminds you of Pietro,” he said.

“You know, I really hate it when you—”

“You’re the telepathic one,” Sam said, “you really have no high ground to stand on here.”

“For such a nice guy, you can really be an asshole sometimes.”

“Yep,” Clint said. “You gotta watch out for the nice ones.”

“Damn right,” Sam said.

“I’m not telepathic in this…thing,” Wanda said, lip curling in disgust. “Anyway, it’s Clint’s turn to deal with his feelings.”

“Is not,” Clint said.

“It’s been your turn for the past three months,” Wanda said.

“Look,” Sam said. “You’ve got four minutes until Peter comes back from his shower. You want to talk about it or keep avoiding it for another 24 hours while Peter wonders why the hell you act so weird around him?”

Wanda stared across the prison.

Sam sighed. He sat back down on his bed, tapped his pencil stub against the metal handles on the wall, and started up again where he’d left off on his umpteenth letter to Steve.

Four minutes later, the low rumble beneath their feet heralded the rise of the lift coming up from the shower block.

“They would have gotten along so well,” Wanda said. “They’re both stupid, snarky, cocky, hero-complex assholes.”

Sam looked up at her.

“And his aunt is never going to see him again. And I am never going to see Pietro again. And—” Wanda kicked the door of her cell as hard as she could. “I really, really want to break the Raft into little shrapnels and leave the guards for the sharks.”

“Amen.” Clint tapped his fist against the cell wall.

“Would it help to talk about Pietro with Peter?” Sam asked.

The elevator slid open. Peter stumbled back to his cell between the two guards and stood still, jaw clenched, while they uncuffed him and slammed his cell door shut. Clint hastily took out his hearing aids and stepped forward to let the guards cuff him and drag him to the showers.

The elevator door clanged shut again. Peter picked up his pencil stub and piece of paper, flipped up to the ceiling, and started to write.

“Listen up, spandex-butt,” Wanda said in Sokovian. “Peter. Time to practice. You’re months behind these idiots.”

“I understood about…a quarter of that?”

“Your name,” Wanda said in English. “You mean that you understood your name.”

“That too.” Peter reached down to set the paper and pencil back down on his bed, then sat crosslegged on the ceiling and folded his hands in his lap. “Okay, go. What’s the lesson for today?”

 

 


 

  

“Do you have a family?” Peter asked Clint one day, after the elevator doors closed behind Sam and the guards. Wanda was still curled up on her bed, eyes closed, hair falling haphazardly over her face. “Or, I don’t know, a girlfriend-boyfriend-spouse-lover-person-thing?”

“Lover-person-thing,” Clint mused. “Now that’s exactly what I’d call her. Perfect.”

“Good luck with that,” Peter laughed. “How’d you guys meet?”

“At work. Kind of a hostile takeover situation. I went a little off-book, hired her onto my team. Worked out pretty well in the end.”

“You were a businessman?”

“You sound a little surprised, kid.”

“I am a little surprised. A lot surprised. And very skeptical.”

“Yeah, you know, I’ve done a lot of weird jobs in my day. Been in weirder jails, too. With dumber-looking guards,” he called.

“Strike one,” a bored voice said over the intercom.

“And a checkmark for Tuesday!” Clint beamed at Peter.

Peter snorted. “Why do you always try to piss off the guards?”

“‘Try to’? I’ve never been so insulted in my life.”

Peter cut his eyes at Clint.

“Nope,” Clint said. “You’re going to have to work on your murder glare, kid. Still needs some work.”

“You know, I am getting really tired of being told I’m not intimidating.”

“You should talk to Black Widow. She’s the best I’ve ever seen.” Clint’s expression turned a little wistful, and Peter rushed to fill the gap.

“Seriously,” Peter said. “Why do you keep poking the guards?”

“Because it’s really fucking satisfying to piss people off. It’s my favorite pastime.”

“Uh-huh. I mean, I’m sure that’s part of it, but not all. You could just piss us off instead, and not risk getting thrown back into, um, s-solitary.”

Clint eyed Peter for a moment. “Look,” he said at last, “People only work here because they’re bullies. And bullies like a target. As a straight white adult male of the species—even with the whole shitty-hearing thing—I look a lot less target-shaped than the rest of you. So if I can keep you all safe by poking the guards to keep their anger pointed towards me, I'm going to do that.”

Peter blinked. “You know, he said at last, “for someone who talks an awful lot about being a dumb jerk, you’re really not.”

“Shhh. Don’t spoil it, man.”

“Sooner or later, the guards are going to snap and punish you for real.”

“Oh, they already have. Plenty of times. Nothing I can’t handle. And no, kid, fucking no. I can already see those stupid gears turning in your damn hero head. Don’t you even think about it.”

“Too late. I’m thinking about it.”

“No,” Clint growled. “Absolutely not. Look, solitary—solitary’s bad, all right? It’s really bad. And worse for kids, I’ll bet.”

“I’m not a kid—”

“You’re damn close enough.”

“I’m the only one of you who’s—who’s—e-enhanced, all right? I can take it a lot more punishment than the rest of you can. I—”

“Shut up,” Clint said raggedly.

Peter shut up.

“Another kid already died for me, all right? And he shouldn’t have done it either, and there’s no way to undo it now, so I just—I just have to live with it. And move on.”

“I’m sorry. You—”

“Don’t make me do that again. That would not be doing me a favor. Any of us a favor. Promise me you won’t do anything stupid.”

“You know, I'm getting really tired of people saying that to me too.”

“Maybe it’s a sign that you should start listening when people say it.”

“Nah.” Peter grinned at Clint, slightly maniacally. “You know us vigilante types. Gotta have someone to save. Otherwise I’ll go stir-crazy. Well, okay, more stir-crazy than I already am.”

“God.” Clint shook his head. “You really are—”

They both tensed as the elevator doors clanged open. The pair of guards marched Sam back to his cell, roused Wanda with a sharp kick to her shoulder, and dragged her out to her own shower.

“Sam,” Clint asked as the elevator doors slammed shut again, “how are we supposed to put up with this kid all day? He’s like a goddamn puppy.”

“Puppy?” Sam snorted. “I’m thinking one of those little Chihuahuas, you know the ones, too damn small for their little spandex doggy coats, barking up a tree like they’re going to knock it down and show it who’s boss.”

“Unbelievable,” Peter said, and flopped back onto his bench.

 

 


 

  

Peter’s eyes snapped open.

Wanda’s hair rustled against her straitjacket with each steady breath. Clint was quietly practicing his archery stances, aiming at the red light on his cell door. Sam—

Peter sat upright. “Sam,” he said. “Sam, wake up.”

Sam groaned again—a tight, pained sound, nearly inaudible above the creaking of the Raft.  

“Sam.” Peter slipped off his bed and thumped his cell door. Clint stopped mid-pose and put his hearing aids in, glancing between Peter and Sam.

“Sam,” Peter said again. “Wilson. Falcon. Come on, man. Wake up. You’re—”

You’re safe, was on Peter’s tongue, same as May and Ned and Mj always said when he was the one shaking in the middle of the night. But they weren’t safe now, were they? “You’re dreaming,” Peter said instead. “Sam! Wake up.”

Sam shook awake with a strangled gasp and sat up, hands fumbling for something on his chest—his wings, maybe?

“Hey, man,” Peter said, slumping back with relief. “Good morning.”

Sam squinted across the prison floor. Peter realized that it must seem a lot darker to the three of them than it did to him. “It’s just me,” he said. “Peter.”

“What am I,” Clint said, “chopped liver?”

“What do you have against chopped liver?” Wanda asked sleepily. “Chopped liver is delicious. You’re more like that cabbage soup my mom used to make at the end of the month, when money was tight.”

“Anyway,” Peter said. “It’s just us. You know. The circus. You’re okay, man.”

“We’re on the Raft,” Sam said, voice hoarse with sleep and nightmares and probably something more. “We’re so far from okay, I can’t even see it from here.”

“Sam,” Peter said, unnerved by Sam’s sudden lack of his usual calm. “Do you—do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” Sam said, and huddled back under his blanket. “Thanks for waking me up. Go back to sleep. Good night.”

“Oh, no you don’t,” Clint yawned. “Time for a taste of your own medicine. Let’s talk about feelings. Only as sick as our secrets. What were your other slogans?”

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” Peter sighed. “Leave him alone, Clint.”

“He flapped,” Wanda said. “Isn’t that the word? The unflappable Sam Wilson just flapped.”

“I mean, he is the Falcon,” Clint mused. “Makes sense.”

“Guys,” Peter groaned. “Come on. Leave him alone.” He jumped back up to his bed and curled up in the thin blanket. The red light on his cell door mocked him. He stuck his tongue out at it and closed his eyes.

“He keeps falling,” Sam whispered.

Peter sat up again. “Who keeps falling?”

“Steve. Captain America. He keeps jumping, and I keep trying to catch him, and I’m just not fast enough. I’m never fast enough. And he dies.”

“That didn’t happen,” Clint rapped his knuckles against the wall between his cell and Sam’s. “You’ve told that story how many times now? The way Cap tells it, you caught him like a guardian angel, right when he needed you.”

Sam stared at his hands, shoulders slumped in a tired arc. “He just falls,” he whispered. “Over and over and over. And there’s nothing I can do but watch.”

“It’s not true.” Wanda leaned towards Sam. “It’s a dream. A nightmare. He’s okay, he’s far from here. Probably bickering with Natasha.”

“One of these days I won’t be there. Or I won’t be able to catch him in time. He’ll do something stupid again, try to save someone he can’t, and then—” Sam shook his head.

“I’m pretty good at catching people.” Peter stepped towards the window of his cell. “So’s Wanda, I bet. Clint could probably shoot Cap a grappling-hook arrow or something, I hear he can do that.”

“Damn right, I can,” Clint said.

“You’re not alone,” Peter pressed. “Not anymore. If you can’t catch him, we will. And then we’ll yell at him for you, and tell him to not go jumping off of things.”

Sam’s breath huffed out in a tired laugh.

“And we’ll catch you too,” Peter added. “If your wings ever jam, or something. We’ll be there.”

“Last time my wings jammed,” Sam said, “was because—”

“I know.” Peter’s voice cracked. “I know. I’m so sorry. And I’m—never going to do that again. Ever. I promise you.”

“And when Tony calls?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what I’ll do. But I’m not going to fight you guys again. And I’m not going into any more battles without knowing exactly what I’m fighting for.”

Sam met Peter’s eyes across the prison floor.

“I’m not an Avenger,” Peter added. “I’m not sure I want to be one. But if you want me, if I could help, I—I could be your ally. Friend? Comrade? Teammate?”

To his surprise, Sam’s lips twitched up towards a smile. “Been a long time since I’ve heard an offer like that.”

“Seriously,” Clint said. “Chopped liver? Come on, man, we joined your team too.”

“Four months ago,” Sam said. “Not sure you’ve noticed, but, you know, a lot’s happened since then. Have you heard anything nice out of the guards’ mouths? Because if so, I want to know what your secret is.”

“You said that what kept you going was knowing that there are people out there who love you,” Peter said. “But we’re—we’re here too. If, you know. If you ever want to talk, or something.”

“Speak for yourself,” Clint said, but he was leaning against the wall between his cell and Sam’s.

“I don’t need your guilt, kid,” Sam said. “Or your pity.”

“Good,” Peter said. “I don’t have any pity to give you. I do have a lot of guilt—like, at least one fuckton, probably three or four—but that’s mine, all mine. I’m not sharing.”

“Not all yours,” Sam said quietly. “It’s our fault too. If Cap and I had made everyone sit down and talk instead of punching first and thinking second, we could have kept you safe. Out of here. Out of the fight in Leipzig, too.”

“Mmm, this is great,” Wanda said. “This is excellent. Can I join the club? If I hadn’t fucked everything up in Lagos—and helped Ultron—they would never have brought up the Accords in the first place.”

“Okay,” Clint yawned, “I'll play. If I had shot Loki on sight instead of letting myself get mindfucked by him, I wouldn’t have helped him bring the Chitauri down and destroy half of New York.”

“Hey,” Peter said. “Hey, no no no. Stop that. Bad Avengers. This is my guilt party. Not yours. I was trying to help Sam feel better.”

“‘Feel better,’” Wanda said. “What kind of fuckery is that? Never heard of it.”

“Not sure that’s going to happen,” Sam said. “At least, not tonight.”

“I’m sorry,” Peter said. “I—I don’t know what to tell you, man. I don’t know how to help.”

“You already did.” Sam leaned back against the wall behind his bed and pulled his knees to his chest. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome? Um. I’m not really sure what I said, I just—”

“Like I said,” Sam said, “it’s been a while since anyone joined our team.”

“Oh,” Peter said.

“Yeah,” Sam said.

“Good,” Peter said. “I meant it. Not much I can do in here but, you know. If I can help. I want to.”

In the silent darkness, Peter could hear the distant tread of boots on the guards’ observation level, the creak of hatches opening on the upper levels, the roar of the wind on the surface of the Raft, the quiet shudder of Sam’s breath.

“Well,” Sam rasped at last. “If you’re going to join our band, you’d better start practicing. Tryouts start tomorrow morning, bright and early. Or, you know, early. Not very bright in here.”

“I mean,” Peter said, “I can’t sing. Like, at all.”

“Then tap-dance,” Clint yawned.

“On the ceiling,” Wanda added.

Sam nodded. “Sounds about right.”

“Well,” Peter said, “you’ve got me there. Tomorrow, huh?”

“Tomorrow,” Sam said softly, and slid back beneath his blanket, and closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

Peter bolted upright from his nap—which is to say, he fell from the ceiling onto the entirely uncooperative floor of his cell. Ow.

Sam glanced up from the paper he was writing on. “You all right there, kid?”

“Shit,” Peter said breathlessly, hands clenching into fists. “Shit, shit, shit.”

“You’re at least 40 years too young to use that word,” Clint said.

“You didn’t get hurt, did you?” Sam rose and paced towards the door of his cell. “At Leipzig, you took much worse than that without even flinching—”

Peter pulled at his hair. “He’s here. He’s here, he’s here—”

Sam’s face lit up with painful hope. “Who is?” he whispered.

“No, no, not—not Captain America. Sorry. Or any of the—it’s just—just Ross.”    

“What the hell is that fucker doing here?” Clint crumpled up his paper and threw it into the corner of his cell.

“To sneer at us again,” Wanda said. “He likes to gloat. Fill up his—what’s it called, spank bank?”

“No no no, see, this is how we corrupted the kid.” Clint wagged a finger at her. “We’ve got to watch our mouths.”

“The real question is, how do you know he’s here?” Sam asked, eyes sharp on Peter.

“I heard him. He got off the helicopter—”

Sam’s eyes widened. “You heard him from all the way up—”

“He’s on the elevator now,” Peter said. “Coming down here.”

“What does he want?”

Peter bit his lip.

The elevator opened.

“Hello, boys.” Ross stepped out, as cleanly pressed as ever, and nodded around the prison. “And girl. How’s the weather down here?”

“Oh, come on, man,” Clint sighed. “You never even googled that joke book I told you to read, did you. It’s like you’re not even trying.”

One of the guards rapped on Clint’s cell in warning.

“Enjoying your stay?” Ross asked Peter.

Peter bit back at least ten different sarcastic comments. The collar weighed heavily on his neck. Don’t get on their nerves, Sam had said. Stay quiet. Do what they tell you.

“I brought you a present,” Ross said, and pulled an envelope out of his jacket’s inner pocket. Peter could clearly see May’s bold handwriting scrawling his name across the flap. He couldn’t stop the little sound of longing in his throat, like a punch to the gut.

And crap, it was so much harder to face evil villains without a mask.

“What do you want?” Peter asked, jaw clenched.

Ross smiled at him. “About twelve milliliters of blood.”

“No.”

“Yeah, I know, you like being difficult.” Ross turned the letter over and over in his hands. “I don’t suppose you know any more about training dogs than you do about chess?”

“What the hell do dogs have to do with it?” Sam asked tightly.

Ross turned to him.

Sam stood still, back straight, hands clasped behind his back. If Peter hadn’t spent six weeks cooped up in tight quarters with him, he would never have seen the ticking muscle in the corner of his jaw, the razor-edge stillness in his posture.

“To train a dog,” Ross said evenly, “you start with a reward. And if rewards don’t work…” He spread his hands.

“To train a dog,” Sam said, with a thread of unyielding vibranium in his voice, “you start by loving it, keeping it safe, and giving it what it needs.”

“If I didn’t know better, Wilson, I’d say you’re criticizing my methods.”

“Well,” Sam said, “I would never argue with what you know.”

“You know,” Ross said, “if you ever get tired of the décor in here, you could take a look around the level beneath this one. There’s a nice, quiet, private room down there. Maybe that’ll be more to your taste.”

Sam smiled coolly—and crap, suddenly the tension in his posture made sense. He wasn’t scared, he was on the attack. Keeping Ross away from Peter. Protecting him.

Well, screw that. Peter wasn’t going to let anyone take a fall for him. There was only one solitary confinement cell on the Raft, and he had dibs. “It doesn’t matter what kind of reward you give me,” he said loudly. “I’m not a fucking dog. And I’m not rolling over for you.”

Ross stepped up to the door of Peter’s cell, lips curling up into a slight smile. “Would you prefer we do this the hard way?”

“How? I’m never going to go willingly. If you shock me, you won’t be able to keep me still long enough to stick a needle in. And if you try to hold me down—”

“‘—I’m gonna spit in your eye and saaaaaaay,’” Clint belted, “‘that you can’t stop the beat! Ever since this whole world began, a woman found out if she shook it she could shake up a man—’”

Ross flicked a finger. Four guards opened the door to Clint’s cell, wrestled him down, cuffed him, and dragged him—still singing—to the elevator.

Shit shit shit. Peter could only watch in horror, hands pressed against the door of his cell. “Clint—”

Clint stopped singing for a moment and grinned at Peter. “Always wanted to star in my own movie musical, you know. And now I get a solo!”

Peter pressed his fingers to his mouth, then lowered them as the elevator doors closed on Clint. Thank you. He caught a flash of blond hair dipping in a nod before the outer doors shut and the lift clanged downwards.

“And how about you?” Ross turned to Wanda. “No comment? Really? You were so full of sass last time. They didn’t gag you, did they? I would have wanted to see that.”

Wanda just smiled up at Ross. “I am sorry, my English is not so good. I am not sure how to translate what I want to say.” Her eyes flicked up to the camera in the corner of her cell. “Maybe the interpreter can help.”

“What interpreter?”

“How stupid do you think we are?” Wanda sighed. “Don’t bother denying it. Here, interpreter-pal, how would I translate this?” She rattled off a quick sentence in Sokovian.

After a moment, the prison comm system buzzed and a halting voice offered, “May your breakfast always include plenty of fruit?”

Ross blinked.

“There, that’s it!” Wanda beamed up at him. “Vitamins are so important, you know.”

“I appreciate your concern for my dietary habits,” Ross said evenly. He idly flipped the envelope over in his hands again, revealing the two shock collar remotes in his palm.

Peter went very still. Wanda’s face, which normally held some variant of I will kill you all, crystallized into a rigid silence that would have impressed the Ice Queen of Narnia.

Ross turned back to Peter’s cell. “Your aunt would be so disappointed to hear that you didn’t bother reading her letter,” he said.

“Well, you know,” Peter said, instead of fuck you. “I usually prefer texting. Kids these days, you know? My handwriting sucks.”

Ross’ smile was still ironed onto his face in one neat crease. “I’ll visit again in a few years. Once you’ve had enough time to acclimate here. Let’s hope your aunt doesn’t get into any trouble before that, or this will be the last chance you had to hear from her.”

Peter stared up at Ross. “Seriously, man,” he rasped at last. “How do you sleep at night?”

“Wonderfully. How about you?”

Peter’s jaw clenched.

“So good to see you all again,” Ross said to Sam and Wanda. “Tell your prisonmate that he does not have a future in musical theater. I’ll be back in, oh—” he checked his watch— “two or three years, give or take.”

He left with the guards.

Peter listened to the clip of Ross’ shoes, the grating whine of the doors on the top of the Raft, the roaring wind. When the hazy chop of the helicopter’s blades finally faded away over the ocean and the roof clanked shut again, Peter sank back onto his bed, pulled his knees to his chest, and tried to pull in a full breath.

“Well, that was fun,” he managed hoarsely. “What, uh, what did you mean, Wanda? Fruit for breakfast? I thought you said Sokovian had the best curses.”

“We do,” Wanda said. “Have you ever had Sokovian stewed prunes? So delicious. The little old lady who lived next door—she was 91 when Stark’s missiles destroyed our apartment—had them for breakfast every day, and swore by them. Best way to stay up-to-date on the news. You can get through an entire newspaper by the time you’re out of the bathroom.”

Peter snickered despite himself. “Clearly, I need to learn more Sokovian.”

“Of course you do. And work on your pronunciation, it’s terrible.”

“I’m trying,” Peter said, not entirely sure what he meant. “I—I—I’m trying.” He closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against his knees. “Fuck.”

“Proud of you,” Sam said quietly. “You did the right thing.”

“Yeah?” Peter swallowed. “Um. Thank you. I, uh—yeah. Uh. I hope so.”

“Once he gets something from you,” Sam said, “anything, a milliliter of blood or a reflex test or a fingernail, he won’t stop asking for more. And then using it, for…whatever fucked-up plans he’s got up his sleeve.”  

“He looks at me,” Peter said, “like—like—”

“Like you are not human,” Wanda said.

“I’m not.” Peter’s voice cracked. “I haven’t been since the bite.”

“If you could get unbitten,” Sam said, “would you?”

Peter opened his mouth, ready to say yes, of course yes, then I’d still be able to be home, I’d be safe, I’d be— He stopped short, closed his mouth, hugged his knees a little closer to his chest. “A lot of people would be dead if I hadn’t been bitten,” he said at last. “So…no. I think…no.”

“Hold onto that,” Sam said.

Peter looked up at him. The thought of not human kept smashing up against a sun-glaring skyscraper in his head and going splat like a bug.

“You all right?” Sam asked softly.

“Dude, what does that even mean?”

To his surprise, Sam laughed. “Yeah, that’s fair. It’s just a thing I've heard people talking about, you know? Sounds kinda nice.”

“Yeah,” Peter said. “Yeah, it does.” The real question was: why were his hands shaking now, when he could face down a full football team of muggers and bounce home with no problem.

“Are you okay?” Peter asked Sam.

“You know,” Sam nodded, “I see what you mean. That is a dumb question.”

“Why did you do that?” Peter asked. “Try to tick Ross off, I mean. All your talk about be quiet, Peter, don’t get on their nerves, Peter, do as you're told, Peter—”

“Haven’t you noticed it’s much easier to dish advice than to take it?” Sam flashed Peter a crooked grin, then sobered. “But I meant it, kid, and I still do. I know teenagers aren’t famous for their ability to keep a lid on it, but it could save your life. For real. Or at least your sanity.”

“And what about yours?”

“My sanity?” Sam cracked up and fell back onto his bed. “Right. My sanity.”

“I mean it!” Peter protested. “You have to take care of yourself, too.”

Sam sat back up and folded his arms across his chest. “You haven’t been to solitary yet,” he said. “You don’t know what it’s like down there. You’re a kid, it’s going to hurt you a lot more than it hurts us. If I can protect you from that, I’m going to.”

Peter squinted at Sam. “Is this what they mean about superhero complex? I think I finally get why May hates it when I say things like that.”

“Probably.” Sam shrugged. “Kinda comes with the suit, you know.”

“I can protect myself.”

“I know.”

“Then why—”

“What else can I do?” Through the hairline fracture in Sam’s voice, Peter caught a glimpse of Sam’s furious despair, tamped down and pressurized like a locked seismic fault. “Pace? Do another push-up? Write another letter for the trash compactor?”

“Uh—” Peter blinked at Sam.

“You’re not the only one with a reason to hate that guy,” Sam said quietly. “He fucked up my life, hurt people I love, and threw me in here. If the only thing I can do now is poke him, then—” he shrugged— “I’m going to poke him.”

Peter opened his mouth to object, then stopped. “Oh,” he said. “That, uh. That makes sense.”

“Damn right, it does.” Sam’s lips twisted up into something that was somewhere within the zip code of a smile.

“I’m so sorry he hurt you,” Peter said. “All of you.”

“You too, kid,” Sam said. 

“Do you ever wish you hadn't—”

“Stolen government property in order to commit treason with a renegade weapon of mass destruction?” Sam asked.

“Yeah,” Peter said. “That.”

“Of course.”

“Then why did you do it?” Peter asked. “I mean, you don’t even have superpowers, man.”

“Why did you put on that Spider-Man suit?” Sam countered.

Peter stared at the blinking red light on his cell door. “I had to,” he said.

“Uh-huh,” Sam said.

Peter bit his lip, hard.

“You lost something,” Sam said. “Someone.”

“I—” Peter’s protest flopped back down before it could even get off the ground, webs spiraling into empty air.

“Look,” Sam said quietly. “We’re called Avengers, aren’t we?”

“Um. Yeah?”

“Mostly because Fury thought it was a cool name. But it’s true, you know? We’re all crazy. Humans and superhumans. All of us. Trying to save the world, trying to get revenge. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like there’s much of a difference.”

Peter stared at the blinking red light on the cell door. “Who did you lose?” he asked quietly, throat closing up.

“My wingman.” Sam closed his eyes.  “My best buddy. Riley. They shot his wings out. He fell from the sky. Just whoooosh.” He arced his hand down towards the floor.

“Like Rhodey,” Peter breathed, horrified.

“Like Rhodey,” Sam agreed. “But without the whole War Machine suit to protect him.”

“Shit. I’m so sorry.”

"Yeah." Sam rubbed his face. “Well.”

“Stark’s bombs killed my parents,” Wanda said. “My entire neighborhood. And then I—my brother and I, we helped Ultron get strong enough to destroy Novi Grad…and kill my brother. It’s my own fault he’s gone. I thought if I fought with the Avengers, maybe someday I could do enough good to make up for all of the people I’ve destroyed.”

She tipped her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. “Turns out that’s not actually possible,” she said. “Who would have guessed?”

The silence wrapped around Peter’s neck like a wool scarf pulled just a little too tight, a vibranium collar still warm from an electric charge. He swallowed, swallowed again, cleared his throat. Nothing worked.

“My uncle,” he whispered. “Ben. They shot…he…I had my powers, I could have…But I didn’t. I froze. I didn’t save him. He died because of me. That’s why I started.”

“I’m so sorry, son,” Sam said quietly.

“So,” Wanda said, “there you go. Avengers. Crazy. All of us. Welcome to the club.”

“Thanks,” Peter said. “I think?”

Sam smiled crookedly. “You’re welcome,” he said. “I think.”

Chapter Text

3:34pm MJ: Apollo 13 or The Princess Bride?

3:35pm May: Peter’s not here.

3:35pm MJ: I know. But the three of us are. Do you want to have a movie night?

 

 

 

5:46pm May: Yes. I would. You guys pick the movie, I don't care what we watch.

5:47pm Ned: [ten rocket ship emojis]

5:47pm Ned: Failure is not an option.

5:48pm MJ: I can’t argue with that level of enthusiasm.

5:49pm May: [thumbs up]

5:49pm May: Thai or Indian?

 

 

 

MJ liberated the remote from Ned’s hand and paused the movie. “Duct tape,” she said.

“…Yep,” Ned said. “That’s how they’re fixing the ship. You want to press play now so I don’t die from suspense?”

“You already know how it ends,” May snorted. “You and Peter have watched this movie how many times?” Her eyes were still pinched at the corners, but her lips twitched against a smile.

“Duct tape,” MJ said again.

“We broke her,” Ned said. He poked MJ’s shoulder. “MJ? Earth to MJ? Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

“We have Peter’s phone,” MJ said.

“Yes,” May said, smile gone.

“He has Stark’s number.”

“I’ve tried calling him,” May said. “I’ve left seventy-nine voicemails. He won’t respond. Happy picked up the first time I called him, but he doesn’t know how to get Peter out any more than I do.”

“What the hell does this have to do with duct tape?” Ned asked.

“Does Peter have Pepper’s number?”

May retrieved Peter’s phone from her purse and scrolled down through his contacts. “No,” she said. “But he does have one contact labeled Hypercompetent Boss Lady.”

“Duct tape,” MJ said.

“MJ,” Ned said. “Seriously. You’re kinda freaking me out here.”

“If you don’t have the tools you need,” MJ said, “you use the tools you have.” She slid to her feet and held out a hand for Peter’s phone. “Can I?” she asked.

After a moment’s hesitation, May handed the phone to her. MJ tapped Pepper’s contact, propped the phone against her ear, and rummaged in her bag for a notepad.

 

 


 

 

The thing was, Tony worked fast. Always had. Peter knew this; he’d heard it from Happy and Pepper and the news often enough. When Tony set his mind on something, it happened, and it happened fast.

So the fact that it had been more than two months, with no sign of progress towards rescue…

That wasn’t good.

And by not good, Peter meant that he was completely, utterly, and totally screwed.

But staying on the Raft for life wasn’t an option. May needed him. He needed May—and Ned, and MJ, and swinging through the city, and his own room, and school, and—no, no, he couldn’t keep thinking about what he’d lost. He’d go nuts.

 

 

 

He was going to go nuts anyway.

This was the Raft. Stay until you die or go insane. Or both, most likely. He could see the strain tightening into deep lines around Sam’s mouth every day, clenching in Clint’s knuckles, creasing into a tight glare in Wanda’s eyes. They had their own little world in here, a mini academy for Learning All Kinds of Random Shit, but it wasn’t enough. It could never be enough. And no one was coming to save them.

 

 

 

So he would have to save them.

 

 


 

 

One more circuit rerouted, one more screw untwisted— Peter tucked the blanket closer around himself, making sure it still covered his head and his hands as he worked on dismantling the shock collar. He should have done this months ago. It was time to grab his freedom with his own hands instead of waiting for rescuers who weren’t coming. Sure, the collar itself was vibranium, but the screws weren't. The plating over the circuitry wasn't. And the circuits themselves? Definitely weren't.

He listened absently to the pace of the guards’ boots in the observation deck, the grating rasp of their laughter. The distant thuds sickened him by now. One last connection to snap off, and then—the collar clicked open.

The world spasmed around Peter, white-hot and blinding. Every muscle in his body was cramping, convulsing. He couldn’t fucking breathe. Pain jolted through his nerves, seized his fingers into claws, burnt through his lungs.

The shock ended abruptly, leaving him laid out on the floor of his cell like a spider on a collection page. Peter tried and failed to pull a breath into his aching chest for ten long seconds before his lungs finally cooperated. His body was still completely numb, burning all over.

He struggled to bring his arms up to take the collar off, but they wouldn’t respond—the collar clicked shut again.

Peter closed his eyes.

“You want another taste of that, punk?” one of the guards laughed. He held up his remote and tapped the button. “Looked like fun.”

“Stand up, face the wall,” the other guard said. “Hands behind your back.”

“You can’t do this,” Sam argued, but the guards didn’t even turn to look at him. “This is inhumane! He’s just a kid. You can’t—”

“Count of ten, punk. Or you get another shock. From one of us this time, no automatic switch-off.”

Peter’s stomach lurched. He tried to find the strength to stand up and walk towards his punishment. They were going to take him to solitary. He couldn't go. He couldn’t.

“Don’t tape over my shows,” he croaked at last, and struggled to his feet, still trembling with aftershocks.

Clint leaned against the door of his cell. “You’re too young to make that reference, kid,” he said.

And he was right, Peter was. But as long as he could remember the way May always said it— says it, voice dry and snarky, he could hold onto hope of returning home someday.

He faced the wall, held his hands out behind him, and let them cuff him and march him out of his cell.

“Looking good, kid,” Clint said.

Sam’s arms were folded across his stomach, his eyes pinched with sorrow. “You can do this,” he rasped. “We’ll be here when you get back.”

Peter nodded at him, then stumbled after the guards as they dragged him away to solitary.

 

 


 

 

They marched him back into his cell seven days later, right as the webs holding his heart steady were beginning to fray. Peter didn’t fight back after they took the cuffs off. Didn’t lunge to pin the guards against his cell walls before they slammed the door shut behind him.

Just sat on the bench.

“Hey, Peter,” Sam said.

“Hey, guys.” Peter’s voice cracked.

“How are you?” Sam asked.

Peter looked at him.

“Well, it was worth a try,” Clint said. “But feelings are for wimps, right? What’d I tell you, kid?”

“What’d I miss?” Peter asked.

“Clint’s been teaching us some nice new swear words,” Wanda said.

“You’re going to have to work hard to catch up,” Clint said. “But it’ll be worth it, I promise.”

Peter focused on the blinking red light of his cell door. “Are we going to die here?”

Silence.

“You remember Bucky?” Sam asked.

Peter blinked up at him, thrown by the non sequitur. “Metal arm,” he said.

“Cap and I searched for his sorry ass all around the world for two years,” Sam said. “One thing about Cap? He doesn’t give up. Stubbornest bastard I’ve ever met. The most loyal, too. I know he’s going to come for us, as soon as he can.”

“But what if he’s dead? I mean, I think he was still out there when I got, uh, captured. But what if he died after that? What if we’re stuck in here for the rest of our lives?”

Sam looked at Peter for a moment, arms crossed against his chest. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, kid,” he said at last, “but we don’t have a lot of stuff around here. Hope’s just about the only thing we’ve got left.”

Peter nodded.

“So if you’re going to lose hope,” Sam said, “keep it to yourself.”

 

 


 

 

Well, Peter had lost hope. The only things that had been keeping him in the cell were the collar and his belief in Tony and Cap coming to save them. But Tony and Cap weren’t coming, and he had managed to open the collar. He’d heard the lock click open, clear as anything. He hadn’t been able to remove it because of the electric shock, but if he could position the collar on something that would pull it off him as the shock began…

Peter huddled beneath the blanket again, pretending to nap. He’d given it a few days—so the guards would be less suspicious, he told himself. He definitely wasn’t scared of getting shocked again, or of going back to solitary if his plan didn’t work. Not scared. Not at all.

Okay, screw it, he was terrified. But that didn’t matter now. Freedom was more important. He had to get out, and he had to get his jailmates out too.

Peter tied one corner of the blanket to one of the bars on the wall above the bed, took a deep breath, and tied another corner around the collar. One last circuit, and—

The world exploded around him again in jagged bolts of electricity. Peter seized, and seized again, muscles cramping into impossible contortions. His mind went static. The current scorched his neck, shot bolts of lightning up and down his spine.

But then without any warning, the current stopped, and the collar clicked open.

Peter tumbled to the floor, neck bruised and burnt and free, holy crap, he was free. He lunged towards the circuitry beside the door, ripped the panel off, and started rerouting circuits, figuring out how to persuade the door to open for him.

There was a faint click-hiss above him.

Peter stared at the others for one terrified, frozen moment before lurching into action again. He held his breath and tried combo after combo, trying to find the circuitry that would open the door. His hands shook on the wire as the need for fresh air rose sharply, desperately.

His lungs spasmed with a drowning reflex, breathing without his consent. He held his breath again, but the damage was done. The gas had no color, no smell—just carbon monoxide, and lots of it. The circuits began to spiral before his eyes, warping into shadowed swirls. His arms refused to obey his commands. His legs crumpled.

Peter stared out towards the prison floor, trying to find Sam and Clint and Wanda’s familiar shapes as his body shut down.

 

 


 

 

He woke up in a silent, empty, pitch-black cell.

Chapter Text

Peter staggered to his feet and pressed his hands against the wall. “No,” he said breathlessly. “No, no, no. Please. No.”

The silence and darkness pressed against him like a living thing, smothering him like a supervillain he’d failed to take down. The collar weighed heavily around his neck. Peter punched the wall, then slumped back against it, viciously scrubbing back tears. He was sure they were listening in, maybe even watching him on an infrared camera. He couldn’t give them the satisfaction of watching him collapse. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. He’d be fine.

It was just dark, after all. And quiet.

Really dark.

And really quiet. Even to his enhanced senses.

He was fine now. Completely fine. Everyone was fine here. But who knew how long they’d keep him here? Could be a day. Could be a week. Could be the rest of his life.

He was so fucked.

He could escape, maybe, punch his way through the wall. How thick could it be? Find the seam, pry it open. His hands weren't even cuffed. They couldn’t have had time to reinforce the collar with vibranium over the circuits. He could find a way to take it off again.

And then what? They’d gas him again—easy, when the entire place was a series of airtight chambers. They’d shock him. They’d put him back down here, for good this time. If all else failed, they’d threaten May. How long could Stark’s security keep her safe?

“Please,” he whispered, voice cracking in half. He pressed his forehead to the wall, hands splayed across the cold steel. “I just want to go home.”

He wondered, distantly, when he’d start hallucinating.

 

 


  

 

“Hey, Tony,” MJ said.

“FRIDAY,” Tony said without looking up from his workbench. “I’m sure there’s a great reason you let Michelle and Ned con their way into the compound.”

« They’re very persuasive, boss. Also, Pepper put ‘em on the list of permitted guests two months ago. »

“Is there a reason you’re talking to your AI instead of the people standing in front of you?” MJ asked.

“It’s nothing personal,” Tony said, voice echoing strangely off the smooth lines of the Iron Man suit he was working on. “FRIDAY and I have an understanding. I prefer electronic communication.”

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” MJ said. “Because we came here to talk to you.”

“How did they even get in here?”

« They rang Pepper. Happy drove them upstate. »

“Happy!” Tony roared.

“Pepper told me to,” Happy called from the corridor outside Tony's lab.

“Oh, I am going to have a Talk with Pepper,” Tony said.

“No, you’re not,” Happy said.

“No, I’m not,” Tony agreed. “Also, you both need to trot back to Queens with Happy. Chop-chop. I can’t help you with your homework.”

“You need to get Peter out of the Raft,” Ned said.

“Thanks.” Tony wiggled his screwdriver out of the tight socket he’d stuck it into, then stuck it behind his ear. “Any other helpful suggestions?”

“You promised you would,” Ned pressed. “It’s been two months, and he’s still there. We can help.”

“You don’t understand how these things work.”

“I’ll give you a second to think about how condescending that was,” MJ said.

“You’re in high school.”

“Then teach us,” MJ said.

“I don’t have time for that.”

“Like you don’t have time to help Peter get out, either,” Ned said. “Even though it’s your fault he’s in there.”

“Nope. Not my fault. I didn’t write the—”

“You signed them,” MJ said. “That was enough.”

“And I have been doing everything I can to take them down.” Tony set down the Iron Man gauntlet and turned to face them. “Sweet-talking. Bribes. Lobbying. Arm-twisting. Threats. More bribes. Seduction. Hostile business takeovers. So many bribes. Nothing worked then, and it’s not working now. They aren’t even listening to money.”

“That must be a new experience for you,” MJ said. “Do you seriously think the Avengers can’t crack the Raft?”

“The Avengers are gone.”

“The Avengers disbanded.” MJ leaned closer. “Because you put half of them in jail and drove the rest underground. But they’re still alive. They could still help you.”

“Thor is in his own dimension. Bruce hasn’t been seen in years. Black Widow betrayed us. Rhodey is out of commission. Vision claimed he hit Rhodey because he was ‘distracted.’ Androids don’t get distracted, so I’ve decommissioned him until I have time to work through his algorithm to see what went wrong. The Black Panther was never an official Avenger, and anyway he has a country to rule. Ant-Man is also not an Avenger. He’s a party trick.”

“And Captain America?” Ned folded his arms across his chest. “The Winter Soldier?”

MJ stood firm, shoulder-to-shoulder with him.

“Are you guys trying to look intimidating?” Tony asked. “Because it’s really not working.”

“Even if the three of you are the only Avengers left,” Ned said, “you could still take down the Raft.”

“And then what? Live as fugitives for the rest of our lives? Join Natasha and Bruce and the giant bug in their hideout?”

“And then you find a way to fix this.”

“I’ve tried everything I can.”

“You haven’t talked to Captain America,” MJ said. “If you had, you’d have found a way break everyone out of the Raft by now, or fix the Accords so they can go free. Why haven’t you talked to him?”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Then explain,” Ned said.

“The Winter Soldier killed my parents.”

“So you said hello, my name is Tony Stark, prepare to die?” Ned asked.

Tony reddened slightly. “He deserved it. So did Cap. He knew, and he never told me.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” MJ said. She stepped closer to Tony, quietly enjoying the way he had to lift his chin slightly to look her in the eye. “You know who else doesn’t have parents? More than 18 million other children in the world. Including Peter. You’re allowed to grieve. You’re not allowed to hurt other people because of your grief. That’s not how it works.”

“You have no idea how it feels to lose your parents,” Tony hissed.

“Do you have any idea how it feels to lose your child? Because May has lost hers.”

Tony’s eyes pinched at the edges, glinting slightly in the bright light of his workbench.

“You have power,” MJ said. “Many kinds of power. Use them."

 

Chapter Text

Seven days later, the guards marched Peter back into the cells. Peter squinted against the prison lights, but didn’t struggle. They unlocked the cuffs, tossed him back into the cell, and left.

Peter lay down on the bench and curled up.

“Hey, Peter,” Sam said, throat aching. “Welcome back.”

Peter nodded.

“I’m gonna kill ‘em,” Clint growled, and punched the wall of his cell.

“You’re here, Peter,” Wanda said. “You’re back. It’s okay.”

Peter nodded again.

“Talk to us,” Sam said. “That’s an order. Come on back, kid. You’re here with us now.”

Peter stared blankly across the prison. Sam turned away and rubbed his face, fighting back a surge of furious sympathy for the kid.

Peter murmured something.

Sam spun around. “What?”

“It was really dark,” Peter mumbled again.

“No shit,” Clint said, fingers twitching around an invisible arrow. Sam sighed—he hadn’t seen that particular tell in a while.  

“And silent.” Peter sat up slowly and pulled his knees to his chest. “They must have designed it for people with—with enhanced senses. Superhumans. Mutants.”

His face twitched a little at the word, but his eyes remained blank. “I paced for a long time,” he said. “I slept. I thought about stuff. I went over all of the decathlon facts and Sokovian and ASL that I could remember. I practiced Clint’s hand-to-hand moves.”

“Overachiever,” Clint snorted. “What, you learned some Latin too?”

“And I was still in there. For hours, or—days? Weeks? I don’t really know how long it’s been. I thought I would hallucinate. Kinda wanted to. Wanted to see you guys. But I didn’t hallucinate. I don’t know why not. Probably the spider.”

Sam’s eyes sharpened on Peter. Only his VA training kept his mouth shut and his ears open and his hands by his sides, not breaking the cell wall down so he could hug the kid like he so desperately needed to.

“So I started pacing again,” Peter said. “I walked up the walls, and across the ceiling. Around and around, until I could feel the cell around me without seeing it. And then I—I started to flip tricks in it. My spider-sense warned me before I crashed into the walls, and—and I realized—”

He fell silent. Even Clint stayed quiet, waiting for Peter’s next words.

“When I’m swinging,” Peter said at last. “at the end of a web, there’s a moment when I just have to let go before I shoot another web. There’s nothing to hold onto. I just…fall. And it should scare me shitless, but it—it doesn’t. I hold onto nothing, and I keep going anyway.”

“But you are holding onto something,” Sam said. “You’re holding onto the idea of a web that will appear.”

Clint blinked at Sam. “He’s what now?”

“I think I’m in the wrong classroom,” Wanda said. “Philosophy 101? I did not sign up for this.”

“A web might appear,” Peter said. “Or it might not. My webshooter might be empty, it might jam, I might be too far away from a building for the web to stick to anything, something might knock me out of the air before I can do anything. At that moment, I’m holding onto—”

Peter spread his hands. “Nothing at all. I’m falling, but I’m also—flying. I’m holding onto what is. And there’s nothing there. And that’s okay. I can last like that as long as it takes.”

Sam nodded slowly, eyes fixed on Peter.

“I—” Peter cleared his throat. “I—I’m not sure I believe they’ll ever get us out of here. Mr. Stark, Captain America, the other Avengers…anyone. And if we’re stuck here, if this is it, if we—we never get out, I—I can’t keep going by just holding onto some vague hope I don’t actually believe in.”

“I do believe,” Sam said fiercely. “Steve’s done crazier things in his life. And if Tony’s really on your side the way you say he is, then…who knows. Maybe he’ll show up too.”

“I know.” Peter’s voice cracked. “I know you believe in them, and I’m glad, I’m really glad. I'm sorry. I don’t mean to take that from you. I don’t know them like you do. I’m just trying to say that—that it doesn’t work for me. Maybe they’ll rescue us. Maybe they won’t. But I have to be okay either way. Giving up is not an option.”

“Damn right,” Sam murmured.

Peter met Sam’s gaze with his own quiet steel. “You said that hope is one of the only things we have left, and it’s true, but it—it’s not the only thing. We’ve still got people out there rooting for us. We’ve still got each other. And we’ve still got our own selves. There are so many good things in the world. Even here, now, in this—sh-shithole. It’s not enough to hold onto, it’ll never be enough, but—but it’s all we’ve got. So it has to be enough.”

Sam smiled at Peter, eyes stinging with tears. “There you go, son,” he said.

“Seriously, kid?” Clint flopped back onto his bed. “You leave for a week and come back as a Hallmark commercial?”

“So,” Peter said with a small, exhausted smile. “What’d I miss?”

 

 


 

 

“If,” Tony said, “hypothetically speaking, I were to imply that I might possibly appreciate a little assistance, what would you say?”

“Try that again in the indicative case,” Steve said.

“The what?”

“Oh right, I forgot they don’t teach that anymore. Say it simpler, Tony. Loud and clear.”

“How about I text you a picture of me on my knees, genuflecting to a picture of you?”

Silence.

“Tony, what’s going on?”

“I need your help,” Tony said.

“Yeah, thanks, I got that part the first time. What’s going on?”

“They took my kid. Spider-Man, you guys met. Put him in the Raft.”

“And you want me to break him out,” Steve said.

“If you could break him out by yourself,” Tony said, “you’d have broken your own team out already.”

Silence.

“What do you want, Tony?” Steve rasped.

“I want to help you break your team out,” Tony said, staring at the faint blue light of the old reactor, shining from one of the suits.

“And then what? You pull out the big guns, trap us in there, and take your kid home?”

“You know, I find your lack of faith incredibly disturbing.”

“Tony. I know you. When you decide on something, you don’t back down. I know you still hold a grudge, or you’d have called months ago. You’re calling now because you want to use me. And when you’re done, then what? You going to let the press say that you helped a gang of internationally wanted criminals escape from the US government?”

“Then I’m going to publicly denounce the Sokovia Accords. The two of us are going to lead a public interest campaign to bring them down. Then all of you can go back to living in the daylight. Work on that pasty skin of yours.”

“Right,” Steve says.

Tony can hear Cap shaking his head. Probably raising one of those disapproving eyebrows. Maybe even that little pout he does, when he’s really Disappointed In You.

“Remind me again why I should trust you?” Steve asked.

“I need my kid back.”

“You’re the one who put him into a war zone.”

“I know.” Tony leaned an elbow on his desk and buried his head in his hand.

“How old is he, anyway?”

“Too young to be in a tiny cell in a supermax prison with no contact with the outside world for the rest of his life.”

“Actually, I don’t think there’s an age when a person’s ever ready for that.”

“I didn’t know they were going to put them there,” Tony growled. “Not my idea.”

“You didn’t fight it, either.”

“Actually, I did. I’ve tried everything. Nothing worked.”

“I’m your only hope,” Steve said.

Tony blinked at the phone. “They have movies underground, now?”

“No.” Steve’s voice warmed a fraction. “I watched it with Sam. Before all of this went up.”

“‘Down,’ Steve. ‘Shit went down’ is the common parlance.”

“‘Up in flames’ is what I was going for. But shit works too.”

“Language, Cap.”

Silence.

“I’ve gone there twice,” Steve said at last. “Never made it far enough to get them free. That place is a fortress, Tony.”

“I know. I’ve seen the plans. Unlike some people, I tend not to blaze into places, swing my shiny ass around, and hope for the best.”

“Really,” Steve said.

“You know, I can hear your disbelief, and it really doesn’t look good on you. All right, fine, I try not to do that. It doesn’t tend to go well.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

Tony closed his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly, hand clenched on the edge of his desk. “I was wrong. I didn't read the Accords until it was too late. I should have found a better way to settle it than trying to punch your lights out. You should have told me about Bucky, but...I shouldn’t have tried to kill you, either. For that, I’m—sorry.”

Silence.

“You want to repeat that a little louder? I’m getting old, my hearing’s not so great.”

“Asshole.”

“Likewise.”

“So.” Tony cleared his throat. “You in?”

“This kid is really important to you, huh.”

“You know,” Tony said, “I’ve really been working on my mentoring skills lately, parenting, all that. Fatherhood. I think it’s working. Still haven’t succumbed to the dad jokes, I’m keeping a close eye on that. So I would hate to lose the kid before I’ve molded him into the ideal world leader. Maybe without the playboy part, he could probably skip that. Genius, soon-to-be billionaire, philanthropist. The whole package. Plus super-skills, I mean—this kid could be president, could be CEO of a massive corporation, could be an eccentric tyrant. Anything he wanted. You don’t lock a kid like that up in a floating time-out chair.”

“You don’t lock anyone up in a prison like that.”

“He turned me down, you know that? I offered him a place on the Avengers. He said no. Wanted to, you know, play with his friends. Do his homework. Have dinner with his unreasonably attractive aunt—that’s his guardian, his mom, basically. Swing around his little neighborhood. I never expected him to say that, but, you know. Kids. Apparently they’re not so great at taking direction. Who knew?”

“Tony. Where are you going with this?”

“You know, the kid’s a teen, right? Fights with his aunt sometimes. They argue, but they’re still family. They figure their shit out, make up.  Hug it out. Apparently that’s what families do.”

“Tony—”

“He’s not my son, just so we’re clear. Not biological or adopted or anything like that.”

Silence.

“But he’s my family, Steve. And so are all of you. I miss you. I need you.”

Silence.

"Don't make me say it again," Tony said. "Hurt enough the first time." 

“You think we can do it,” Steve said.

“Together, right? Stronger together? Don’t make me give you an inspiring speech. I’m not wearing my power tie.”

“This time around, you’re going to listen to us. All of us.”

“Anything you want.”

Silence.

“We’re in,” Steve said.

“‘We,'” Tony said. “Who’s this ‘we’?”

“I’ll send you coordinates. Bring Falcon’s suit and Hawkeye’s bow.”

“Will do.” Tony saluted his empty workshop. “Wear the arm magnets for your shield.”

Silence.

“Tony. Tony, you—really?”

“See you there.”

Tony clicked the ancient flip phone shut and tucked it into his pocket.

Chapter Text

Clint knocked out yet another set of one-handed pushups, then switched hands and kept going. Sam wrote in tiny script on the single piece of paper the guard had allotted him that day, face set in concentration. Wanda leaned back against her cell, eyes closed, murmuring to herself in Sokovian. Peter hung from the ceiling and drilled himself on the decathlon facts they’d practiced months ago, huddled around that library table, pouncing on the bell as soon as they—

Peter fell to the floor in a pile of limbs, just barely tucking his head up before he concussed himself on the floor of his cell. 

“Oh, good,” Clint said. “Gravity still works. I was starting to wonder about that.” 

“You okay, son?” Sam asked. “That was a pretty rough landing—”

“Shh! Please.” Peter held a finger to his lips. 

Wanda cocked an eyebrow at him. “You didn’t hit your head, did—”

“Shut up!” Peter hissed. He scrambled to his feet, pressed his ear against his cell wall, closed his eyes for a long moment—and slumped back down to his bench.

“What’s going on?” Sam murmured. 

Peter shook his head. “Thought I heard something. It’s just Ross again, and his helicopter. Probably going to come down and sneer at us a bit.”

THEY’RE HERE, he signed, hand partially concealed from the cameras by his thigh, spelling Sokovian words with ASL letters. They had a Sokovian interpreter and an ASL interpreter up there, he was sure—but hopefully not one who knew both. The delay until the guards managed to put the languages together might just be enough time. 

Sam’s eyes widened. WHO, he signed in Sokovian.

TSNRSRBB, Peter signed. 

Sam’s face cracked open for a moment, then settled back into a pretense of calm. “How much longer until dinner?” he asked. “I’m getting hungry.” 

“A minute?” Peter shrugged. “I don’t know, man, I don’t have a clock.”

Sam nodded slightly, set his paper and pencil aside, and stretched to his feet. “Long as it gets here in the end, I guess.” 

“Fuck, I’m tired.” Clint stood up and rolled his shoulders in his usual post-workout routine. “Wish I had a beer.” He lifted his right hand to them in a toast, fingers closed too tightly to fit around a can of beer.  

“I’m not old enough to drink,” Peter said automatically, then shook his head. “Anyway, I don’t think there’s any beer on the Raft. But you could ask a guard.” 

Clint’s face fell slightly, but he gave Peter a tiny nod of acknowledgement. 

Wanda’s eyes sharpened on the door—the sounds of fighting must finally be within normal hearing range, then. “Why waste time on beer?” she asked. “I’d love a nice fruit brandy—something bright red, and strong.”

“I’ll stick with juice,” Peter said, heart pounding in his chest. “I would even settle for one of those dumb juice boxes. But they always end up dripping somewhere, and then my hands get sticky.”

“Well, we can’t have that,” Sam said, mouth twitching against a grin. “But I’m with Clint, here. Beer, one of those nice patriotic brands with an eagle or some shit on the label, big flappy wings. That would be just the ticket today.”

“Now you’re talking,” Clint agreed. “But we’re a little too far from shore for an American beer.” 

So yeah, they were unarmed. But they were still strong and they had help and—and maybe they could get free, maybe maybe maybe—

With a deafening clang, the door to the prison buckled halfway inwards. Sam pressed his hands against the window of his cell, face taut with hope. 

“Not every problem needs to be solved by brute force, you idiot,” a woman was saying on the other side of the door—Natasha, must be. With a crackle and a hiss, the door slid halfway open, just enough for Captain America to wrench it out of the way, throw it behind him, and stumble into the main prison floor. He smashed his shield against each cell, just hard enough to break the glass. 

Peter flung himself over the mess of shards just in time to see Sam take a flying leap at Steve, who caught him around the waist and dipped him into a deep—kiss?

Oh. 

That explained a lot, actually. 

Sam cracked an eye open, caught sight of Peter’s face, and cracked up too hard to keep kissing. “You look a little surprised there, kid,” he said. 

“You didn’t tell him about me?” Steve asked. 

“Oh, he talked about you all the time,” Peter said dazedly. “He just failed to mention that his amazing incredible wonderful boyfriend was Captain fucking America.”

“It’s crazy, right? Who would want to shack up with this hunk of meat?” Natasha poked Steve’s ass. She drew a crossbow and quiver from a pack on her back and handed them to Clint with a private look nearly as intense as Sam and Steve’s kiss. 

“You met her 'at work,’” Peter said. “This makes so much more sense now. I hate you both. You’ve been trolling me this entire time?”

The Iron Man suit whirred to the entrance, halted, and folded open to let Tony out. “Sorry we’re late,” he said. “There was a little traffic, you know how it is—”

Peter flung his arms around Tony and buried his face in Tony's shoulder. 

After a long, frozen moment, Tony wrapped his arms around Peter and hugged him back. “I’m sorry,” he murmured in Peter’s ear. “I’m so sorry.”

“You’re here,” Peter rasped, “you came, you’re really here, you’re—”

“I hate to interrupt,” Natasha said. “But you’re going to need to table this moment for later. They’ve got backup.” She tapped one ear—Peter recognized the black-and-green comm the guards wore. “ETA thirty seconds.”

“We’re twenty levels down,” Steve said. “We won’t be able to get back to the jet that fast.”

“Then we get to beat some asses,” Clint said, and snapped his bow into place. “Sounds like fun.” 

Steve was already shrugging a heavy rucksack off his shoulders and pulling out the wingpack. As Sam strapped the wings on and pulled the goggles down over his eyes, Steve shoved a bundle of red and blue at Peter. 

Peter stared at it. “But—I thought—they destroyed it! They—”

“You don’t think I made any backups?” Tony grinned at Peter. “It’ll sync with our comms, too, so you can hear us.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you—”

“Have your moment later, kid.” Natasha nodded at the door. “Let’s go.” 

“Right! Right, right. Yeah.” Peter hastily stripped down to his boxers, stepped into the suit, pulled on his mask, and pressed the spider to tighten the suit. “Hey, Karen! Wow, I missed you. How did—oh, he kept you on the cloud, that’s incredible, that’s amazing, holy cow. We have so much to catch up on.”

“Who’s Karen?” Natasha asked Clint. 

Clint shrugged and finished hooking up a comm to his hearing aid. “Wouldn’t be surprised if the kid has an imaginary friend.”

“So what’s the plan?” Peter asked, ignoring Clint with the ease of long practice. 

“The plan is,” Tony said, getting back into the Iron Man suit—

“We’re going to—” Steve said, stepping into place at the head of their group.

They looked at each other.  

Tony waved a hand at Steve, looking as though someone had just spilled an entire happy meal onto the floor of his limo. 

Steve nodded at Tony. “We’re going to get up there as fast as we can, keeping close together and minimizing casualties and collateral damage. Bucky’s guarding the jet. He’ll brief us on the situation when we get closer to the top level. Sam, Clint, Wanda, behind me. Get ‘em out of our way. Nat, Tony, bring up the rear. Stay alert. Queens, you’re going in the middle. Don’t do anything stupid. Anything. At all. Got that?”

Peter saluted. “Sir yes sir!”

Steve’s lips twitched. “God, you’re even worse than Tony. Just—stick with us, do what I tell you, and get into the jet as quickly as possible.”

“Got it.” 

“Then let’s go.” 

It felt so crazily good to finally get out of the prison block, back in the spider-suit, and—possibly best of all—surrounded by the entire Avengers squad, joshing and bantering and getting into a groove. Peter listened avidly—did this mean he was an Avenger now? holy crap—and tried not to hyperventilate. Tony had come back for him. They were breaking out of prison. Going home. 

This was the greatest day ever. 

They charged up the stairs one by one, past room after room filled with broken equipment and clusters of guards, either unconscious or tied up or surrendering. 

“The shock collar remotes—” Peter started uneasily.

“Dealt with,” Tony said, voice hard and metallic through the Iron Man suit. “All of them.” 

“Thanks,” Peter said, and webbed up one guard who was already coming around. 

“My pleasure,” Tony said. 

 “Backup has arrived,” a flat voice said in Peter’s ear, followed by a distant metallic crash. “Four large copters. Unloading now. Looks like alien tech.”

Tony swore. 

“Thanks, Bucky,” Steve said. “We’re on our way. Hold ‘em down, fly away for a bit if you have to. Protect the jet.”

“Rogers that,” Bucky said. 

“Is he—” Sam said quietly. 

“He’s okay,” Steve said. “Tell you later.” 

“Rogers that,” Sam said. 

“You’re both impossible,” Steve said, but Peter could hear his grin loud and clear. 

Three more levels up, the cacophony from the top of the Raft was deafening. 

“Trident formation, on my six,” Steve ordered. He crouched beneath a hatch, bashed it open with his shield, and rolled out onto the top of the Raft. 

Sam and Clint poured out behind him, shooting down the scattered rows of guards as Wanda shoved a helicopter out over the ocean with a crackle of red light. Peter webbed the guards up in their wake and hurried to catch up. 

Tony’s repulsors whirred, then fired; the second helicopter crashed onto the deck just in time for Natasha to snap a set of darts at it. Clint shot a hail of arrows at the helicopter Wanda had in her magical grip. It exploded a moment later, raining metal shards into the ocean. 

Sam soared up over the third helicopter and shot out their controls, then banked hard to avoid their answering gunfire. The gunmen spilled out onto the Raft and shot up at him as their helicopter crashed onto the Raft. 

Another volley of gunfire erupted from behind a pile of crates. Peter shot a few web grenades at them, hoping they’d stick to at least some of the mercenaries hiding behind the crates. 

Tony blasted the entire stack of crates, then landed on the jet’s gangplank and held a hand out to Peter. “Get up here, kid!”

Peter raced across the Raft towards the jet. 

“Go, go, go!” Steve was shouting in the comms. He took out a line of gunmen out with his shield, then leapt into the back of the jet and yanked Clint up after him. Wanda reached back out towards the Raft and tore the fourth helicopter apart in a burst of scarlet flames, then staggered as the effort caught up with her. Clint caught her and hauled her into the jet. 

Sam jinked and swerved to avoid the arcs of machine gunfire from the downed helicopter, then dove tightly towards the jet, wings tucked in tight to his body. 

Peter had spent a lot of time thinking about vectors in the months since he’d first swung on a web. Projectiles, pendulums, arcs, angles. Timing. He tracked the machine gunfire against Sam’s rapid plunge, tuned out Karen’s rapid chatter and the shrieking din of his spider-sense, and made his choice. 

Peter shot a web at the jet and leapt into the air, legs stretched out to knock Sam sideways. Sam hit the gangplank and rolled to a stop just as Peter slid in behind him. Tony shut the gangplank with a solid clang. 

The jet was already lurching into the air, engines roaring at full power. Another fusillade shook them—the jet banked sharply to the side, avoiding the full brunt of the shots. 

“Avengers, report,” Steve ordered. 

“All good, Cap!” Clint shouted from the cockpit. “Thanks for coming to pick us up! A little late, but that’s okay. I guess. You definitely owe us, though.”

“Present,” Natasha said. “Clint, shut up and help me fly this thing.”

“I’m good,” Sam panted, unbuckling his wings. “Wanda’s all right too, vitals normal, but she’s out cold. Probably a little much to go right from a straitjacket to chucking helicopters over the side.”

“Present,” Tony said. “Suit’s dented, few bruises. Nothing I haven’t gotten in a bar fight.”

“Present,” Bucky said. “Raft’s dented.” 

“Spider-Man?” Steve asked after a few minutes, squinting towards the dark bulkhead. “Oh, there you are. Come on up to the cabin, son, there’s plenty of room.”

“Yeah,” Tony said, “I paid for first-class tickets for everyone. No champagne, though, sorry. Next time. Anyway, you’re too young to drink. Just get up here and pop a squat.”

“Peter?” Sam asked, craning his head to see better. “Are you all—oh fuck.” He leapt over the back of his seat, knelt by Peter’s side, and took Peter’s bleeding arm in gentle hands. “You’re all right, son. I’ll patch you up. With those healing powers you keep talking about? No biggie.”

“What happened?” Tony leaned over Peter, squinting in the dark corner of the jet. 

“Just a graze,” Sam said. “On his arm. Hurts like hell though, huh? Here, come on up to the medbay.” He pulled Peter’s mask the rest of the way off and started to help Peter to his feet. 

Peter slipped in his own blood and fell back to the floor of the jet, unable to stand. “P-present,” he croaked, and coughed wetly. “Hey, Mr. S-stark, I think my suit’s a little dented too. ‘M sorry.” 

“It’s okay, kid,” Tony said distractedly as Sam patted Peter down. “What the hell happened to you?”

“Cap, get the stretcher down here.” Sam’s voice was strained. “Got two—shit, four GSWs. What the fuck, Peter. You knocked me out of the way, you knew they were shooting, I thought they missed!”

“They did,” Peter managed, breathing hard. God, his body fucking hurt. He was so tired. “They missed you.”

“I never asked you to take a bullet for me.”

“Didn’t have to.” Peter met Sam’s eyes for a moment, then crumpled, coughing again. 

“Oh,” Sam said, steadying Peter through the coughing fit. “I shoulda figured you’d be another one of those stupid hero types, huh.” 

“Sorry,” Steve said, as he laid the stretcher beside Peter. 

“Yeah, they’re really a dime a dozen around here,” Tony said. “But no, I think he’s more of a stubborn teenager type.”

“Well, if the suit fits,” Sam said, guiding Steve as he eased Peter’s body onto the stretcher. 

Peter closed his eyes, gasping for air. Pain rolled through him in white-hot surges, turning the world on its head. His leg, his arm, his—fuck, he didn’t even want to think about what had gotten hit. He’d gotten shot before, stabbed, but never—never this bad, this was—this was bad. Really bad. 

“Ow,” he said at last, once he had a little more oxygen to work with. 

“Yeah, I bet,” Sam said as he and Steve maneuvered the stretcher into the medical bay of the plane. “Don’t do that again, okay?” 

“No p-promises.” 

“I mean it, son.” Sam yanked a pair of gloves on and examined Peter—shit, oh shit, that hurt. 

“Your suit’s not—” Peter’s jaw clenched as Sam tipped him towards his side to check for exit wounds. “Bulletproof,” he managed at last, forehead beading with sweat.  

“Neither’s yours, kid,” Sam said, tipping the stretcher up so that Peter wasn’t lying flat anymore. 

“But I—heal.”  

“Explains how you took a bitch-slap from Ant-Man and didn’t die.”

“Yeah,” Peter coughed. “That was, uh, that was not my finest moment.”

“Well,” Sam said, lips twitching, “for a little guy, he can sure hold his own in a fight.” He grabbed the trauma shears and started to—

Peter pushed Sam away with a shaking hand, then pressed the little spider in the middle of his chest. The suit sagged around him. 

“Okay,” Sam said, gently tugging the suit off, “that’s a neat trick. I was wondering how you lubed yourself into there.” 

“That’s because you were too busy kissing Cap here to watch him get dressed,” Tony said. “Sam, what the hell happened to him?” 

“Gloves on, hold there, press down,” Sam said, setting Tony’s hand onto the wound in Peter’s arm, which hurt like fuck please no no no— 

Peter’s mind fritzed into static, overwhelmed by the pain. 

Chapter Text

“It’s your own damn fault Cap and I haven’t seen each other in four months,” Sam said, mentally cataloguing Peter’s wounds: graze on his forearm, through-and-through in his bicep and thigh, and a really worrying shot in his abdomen, towards the upper left. Stomach, probably, which would explain why Peter kept choking on his own blood.

Tony snorted. “Yeah, well—”

“Put pressure on it, Tony, seriously—shit, Peter, no, don’t fight us, stay still, I know it hurts, I’m sorry, we have to—oh, shit.”

Tony picked himself up off the floor of the other side of the jet and dusted off his ass, leaving another bloodstain across his suit. “Jesus, kid, if you punch like that while half out of it, I’m not getting in any fights with you again. That wasn’t payback for the teenager comment, was it?”

Warily braced for a similar punch, Sam tucked Peter’s uninjured arm back by his side. “Cap,” he ordered, steeling himself for what they’d have to do to keep Peter alive. “Bucky. Come hold him down. Gloves first, fuck’s sake, you’d think you were born in the stone age. Here, Cap, wrap the dressing around his arm—secure it—yeah, like that. Do the same for his thigh, Bucky—yep, there you go, now press down hard. Harder, come on, he bust your ass once before, you’re not going to break him now. That’s it. Cap, put pressure on his arm and his stomach once I’ve finished bandaging—yeah, right here.”

Peter’s face went sheet white with pain as Steve pinned him down on the stretcher. “Sorry, son,” Steve said. “You can get me back for this later, all right?”

“You got that from Sam, didn’t you,” Peter coughed, “Calling me ‘son.’”

“He does, huh?” Cap said, with an inscrutable glance at Sam.

“Pretty sure I got it from Steve, actually,” Sam said, leaning over Peter again to slide an IV of dextrose and saline into his wrist. "This walking anachronism's full of weird phrases. I have to watch myself, or I start sounding like I'm 99 years old."

Peter laughed wetly, then closed his eyes, fighting for breath.

Sam fit an oxygen mask over Peter’s mouth and strapped it into place. “Your job,” he said, “is to breathe. Got that?”

Peter nodded.

Sam grabbed a syringe of dilaudid and—Tony grabbed his wrist.

“Don’t,” Tony said. “They don’t work on him.”

“I know he’s a little extra,” Sam said, shaking free of Tony's grip. “Just like Cap. I’m going to increase the dose until I find a level that works.”  

“No,” Tony said. “It’s not the amount—he’s not like Steve, okay? His DNA is different. Human medicines don’t bind to his receptors properly. They just make him sick for a little while while his immune system fights them off. We’ve been trying to engineer a replacement, but nothing’s worked yet.”

Sam blinked at Tony. “Nothing works? Nothing at all?”

“He’s taken fluid replacements before, electrolytes, that sort of thing. He can’t take a transfusion from a normal human, but we’ve got a few bags of his own blood on hand here, and more in the tower.”

Peter was staring up at them, eyes wide and full of dread.

“It’s okay,” Sam said automatically, and set a hand on Peter’s shoulder. “It’s okay, son. You’re going to be all right. We’re going to take care of you.” He set the dilaudid syringe aside and reached into the medical hatch, sifting past bags labeled—

Sam blinked at the labels again, then glanced back at Tony.

Tony spread his hands in a silent shrug.

“Thanks,” Sam said quietly. He flipped past Banner, Barnes, Barton, and Maximoff, slid one of Peter’s transfusion bags out of its slot, and started setting up another IV line.

“Don’t let it go to your head,” Tony said.

“You’re not as good at being an asshole as you think you are,” Sam said. “Which really isn’t saying much, but it’s a start.”

“Thanks,” Tony said. “I think?” He stepped back and started poking at his phone, muttering at it under his breath.

“You’re welcome,” Sam said. “Probably.”

Peter barely flinched as Sam slid the infusion IV needle in and taped it in place. He was starting to shiver, eyes going in and out of focus, so Sam yanked a metallic blanket out of a storage slot and worked it around Peter’s body, navigating around Steve and Bucky as best he could.

“How’re you doing, Peter?” Sam asked.

“Hnnngh,” Peter said.

“That good, huh.” Sam set a heart monitor and pulse oximeter onto Peter, then hooked them up to the Starkpad set into the medbay wall.

“I’ve got to call base,” Tony said. “Nat, what’s our ETA?”

“‘Bout three hours,” Natasha called from the cockpit.

“Three?” Sam looked up at Tony in horror. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“What part of ‘middle of the ocean floating super-super-supermax prison’ wasn’t clear?” Tony snapped, pulling out his phone and tapping at it. “What am I telling May?”

Sam turned back to Tony so that Peter couldn’t see his lips and said, as quietly as he could, “Maybe don’t tell her that if he doesn’t get into an OR within an hour, he’ll be dead. Or he would be, if he were normal. You sure there’s nowhere else we can land?”

“No other medical facility’s equipped to handle him.”

“I can—” Peter rasped— “hear you.”

Sam cupped Peter’s cheek in his palm, around the oxygen mask. “I am going to bring you home,” he said, holding Peter’s gaze. “I swear to you, son. I held Cap together until we could get him to a safe medical facility. I’m going to do the same for you.”

“Tell—” Peter started to cough again, harsh and wet.

Sam lifted the mask off enough to wipe the blood away from Peter’s face, then set it back in place. “Shut it and breathe,” he said. “That’s your job now. I’m serious. You got that?”

“Mission success,” Tony said. “No—yes, of course we—Rhodey, you have no faith in me, I would never—oh hi Pepper, how are you, do you know where we could find some—hi May, how’s it going—yes, Peter’s with us, we’re all here. We’re on our way home, be there in three hours.”

Peter’s eyes locked onto Tony.

“Well, he’s a little…busy right now, you know, the plane’s pretty cool and all, you know how he gets around new tech, he’s—”

Peter stretched his fingers toward Tony, eyes pleading.

“No, I am telling you the truth, I—” Tony deflated a little. “Yes. No. Yes, I—I know. Right. Well. He’s—he’s fine, May. We’re going to get him home. Yes, I—I was getting to that okay? Hang on. He got, uh, well. He got shot. Sam’s patching him up—yeah, Sam Wilson, the Falcon. Once a pararescue, always a pararescue. Anyway, he’s, uh, got Peter on oxygen, doesn’t want him to talk. But— yes, May, yes, he’ll be okay. He heals, you know? He’s had worse.” Tony squinted at Peter. “I think. Maybe not. Irrelevant. Anyway. He’s in the best hands. He’ll—”

The plane tipped to the side, ramming Steve’s hand deeper into the wound in Peter’s stomach. Peter screamed and arched upward, hands clenching into fists.

There was a piercing silence from the phone.

“Bring. Him. Home,” May rasped, clearly audible in the phone’s tinny speakers.

Tony swallowed hard. “I’ll call again in an hour,” he said, and pocketed his phone.

“Hey, Clint,” Sam called. “Mind holding this thing steady for a while?”

“We’re trying to,” Natasha yelled back.

“We’ve lost our weather god,” Clint added. “There’s nothing I can do about turbulence. I think. What the fucking hell is going on back there?”

“Peter got shot,” Steve said. “Threw himself in front of a gun to save Sam.”

There was a moment of silence, then—

Sam turned off his comm, distracted by the explosion of Clint’s multilingual cursing, and swept Peter’s sweat-soaked hair off of his forehead. “All right, kid,” he said. “I’m going to start stitching your leg now, and then I'm going to do your arm. It’s going to hurt like a motherfucker, but then it’ll be done, all right? Just hold on tight and focus on breathing. I don’t want to have to intubate you while you’re still awake. And you don’t want that either. Got it?”

Peter nodded, jaw clenched in anticipation.

“Bucky, take your hand off the wound. Keep holding him down.” Sam opened up the suture kit, leaned over Peter’s thigh, and got to work.

Peter jerked under Bucky’s hands, struggling away from the needle, but Steve and Bucky held him down tight enough for Sam to stitch him up.

“I’m sorry, son,” Sam murmured. “It’ll be over soon, all right? Hang on tight.”

“It’s okay,” Peter rasped. “It—”

“Hey, what’d I say about talking? Focus on breathing, all right? You’ll—”

“—doesn’t hurt anymore,” Peter finished, eyes glassy and unfocused.

Sam exchanged one terrified look with Steve before clipping off the last suture and racing to get started on the wound in his arm.

“That’s a good thing, right?” Tony said. “Not hurting sounds like a good thing. Why isn’t that a good thing?”

“Keep him awake,” Sam said.

Tony shoved his phone into his pocket and slid to his knees beside Peter. “Hey, kid,” he said. “Don’t you do that dreamy-eyed thing, all right? Sam doesn’t like it, and when Sam doesn’t like something, it’s usually a bad thing. That’s probably why he gets along with Pepper so well. I’m not quite as reliable that way, but I’m trying. Most of the time. Sometimes. Anyway. Are you listening to me? Listen to me. Rise and shine, kid.”

Peter blinked at Tony.

“Yeah, see? There you go. Just keep listening to me. Good things happen when you do. I’m thinking about modifying the suit a bit, did you know that? I had this idea the other night—well, Dum-E helped a bit, I guess, but it was mostly my idea—anyway, I’m going to—”  

Peter lifted a shaking hand towards his chin.

Steve pushed Peter’s hand back down to the stretcher. “The mask stays on, kid, what are you—”

Sam glanced up from his sutures and froze. “Wait a sec,” he said. “Peter. Are you—you’re trying to sign something?”

T E L L, Peter spelled out, wrist pinned to the stretcher by Steve's iron grip.

Sam could guess the rest. “You’re going to tell them yourself, son,” he rasped. “We’re going to get you home. I promise.”

M A Y N E D M J L O V E

“Stark will tell them in the next call. And then you’re going to tell them yourself when we get back to the compound. All right?”

T Y, Peter signed, and let his eyes slip shut.

“Stark,” Sam said, trying to keep his voice steady. “Pull out another transfusion bag for him, all right? I’ll show you how to put it in while I finish up on his arm here.”

 

 


 

 

“Yes, hi Rhodey, we’re still flying steady, ETA two hours or so, wind’s holding—yes, he’s here, he’s fine, Sam says he’s stabilized a bit, whatever that means, bunch of numbers, I’m not that kind of doctor, I—yes, May, I promise. I’m telling the truth here.”

Tony’s shoes clicked against the floor as he paced the floor of the jet. “No,” he said at last. “You can’t talk to him now. I’m sorry. But he’ll be—”

Sam checked Peter’s vitals again, trying not to listen in to Tony’s call.

“Because he’s unconscious,” Tony said quietly. “I’m sorry.”

Another long silence.

“We’re trying to,” Tony said hoarsely. “I promise, May. We’re going to bring him home to you.”

He ended the call, buried his head in his hands, and closed his eyes. Sam tucked Peter’s blanket tighter around him and fiddled with the rate of oxygen flowing into the mask.

A blanket settled around his shoulders—he blinked and looked up.

Steve settled next to Sam on the narrow medbay bench and offered him a mug of something hot. “Cocoa?”

“Thanks.” Sam cradled the mug in his hands. Steve leaned back against the corner of the jet and touched Sam’s shoulder—hesitant, awkward, hopeful.  

Sam leaned back against Steve’s chest. Steve wrapped his arms around Sam, pulled him in close, and tucked his chin onto Sam’s shoulder.

“How are you?” Steve murmured.

“About to lose my first child patient,” Sam said, because that was easier than saying I’m wondering how the fuck am I supposed to go back to normal life after being locked into a tiny cube for the last four months. Oh, and will I ever actually start to trust the people who put me there? Are my plants still alive? Is your stuff still in my apartment? Do I still have an apartment? What my mother will say when she sees me again? Is my grandmother is still alive?

“How’s he doing?” Steve asked.

“Well,” Sam said. “If he were human, he’d be dead.”

“What is he, exactly?”

“Radioactive spider bite.”

“Are you shitting me?”

“Dude,” Sam said. “You're one to talk.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Well. You want to keep dodging my questions, or tell me how you’re actually doing?”

“You’ve been going to therapy,” Sam said.

“Yeah. Well, no, not really. I had to go pretty far underground. Didn’t want to risk asking someone to stare at my face for an hour. But I found a self-help book at a used book sale. Bought it. Read it.”

“Nice,” Sam said, and meant it. “Good for you, man.”

“Thanks,” Steve said softly. “It was a pretty dumb book. I could hear you arguing with it on every page.”

“Missed me that much, huh?”

Steve pressed a fervent kiss to Sam’s shoulder, arms tightening around Sam’s waist.

Sam closed his eyes and sagged back against Steve’s solid warmth. “I missed you too,” he murmured.

“I’m so sorry I couldn’t get you out,” Steve whispered, voice thick. “I tried, I went to the Raft twice, I couldn’t get past—”

“I know, man.” Sam turned around in Steve’s arms, needing to see his face. “I know you did.” He drew a deep breath. “What happened? After you left with Bucky.”

Steve told him the story in quiet, halting fragments, mouth pulling down in exhausted lines.

“But you had your shield, just now,” Sam said. “In the fight.”

“Tony gave it back,” Steve said.

“So are the two of you…”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen when we get home. But you’re out now, so—at the very least, I should have a better chance of getting you all to safety. I hope.”

“You don’t trust him,” Sam said.

“No.”

“Hmm.” Sam settled back against Steve’s chest so he could go back to keeping an eye on his patient. “Peter does. Except I think the kid is actually on our side now.”

“Enough to go against Tony? To fight Tony, if it came to that?”

Sam considered Peter’s unconscious form, face slack and pale, hair matted with sweat. “Maybe not fight,” Sam said. “But stand up for us, yeah. I think he would. He’s a good kid. Too many principles for his own good. Like someone I know.” He grinned a little and elbowed Steve. “Hate to break it to you, though—he’s from Queens. Born and bred.”

“I know,” Steve said with a quiet laugh. “Still, I’d rather fight with him than against him. And you distracted me again, you know.”

“I know.”

“How are you?”

“How’s Rhodey?”

Steve sighed. “Alive. Recovering. Paralyzed from the waist down. Stark made him a pair of mechanical legs—they’re still in beta testing, whatever that means. So he’s mostly in a wheelchair.”

“Shit.” Sam closed his eyes.

Steve nodded against Sam’s shoulder. “I just saw him for a minute, right before we headed out. He’s doing okay, I think—at least, as okay as anyone could. He’s angry, but—he’s coping. ”

“I should have caught him.”

“From what Rhodey said, sounds like you did the best you could.”

Sam was silent.

“How are you?” Steve asked.

“I want pancakes for breakfast,” Sam said. “I want to go for a really fucking long run, until my legs are falling off. I want to curl up on the couch with you and watch movies until we fall asleep on top of each other. I want to call my family. I want to go flying until the jetpack runs out of gas, land on a mountain or something, stay up there for a few hundred years. I want to get absolutely blind fucking drunk. I want to water my plants. I want to sleep with you. And I really don’t want to talk about how I’m feeling.”

Steve was quiet for a moment, heart beating loud and strong by Sam’s temple. “You really think you can get away with that?” Steve asked at last. “You’ve trained me better than that by now. I’m going to keep asking you how you’re feeling until you’re ready to tell me.”

Sam shrugged, mouth twitching up towards a grin. “Figured it was worth a try.”

“Well,” Steve sighed. “In the meantime, that does sound like a good list. You think your mom would finally give us her pancake recipe?”

“Not a chance,” Sam said automatically, then reconsidered. “Well, maybe. Long-lost prodigals? I think we might have a chance this time. As long as we promise to visit as often as we can.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Steve said, and cupped Sam’s face to his, and kissed him.

Chapter Text

May stared at the phone, because if she stared at it long and hard enough, it would ring again, with Peter’s grinning face at the other end of the line.

Pepper slid a glass of water across the counter. “Drink,” she said.

May drank.

Once upon a time, she’d sat in a police station with Peter, shoulder to shaking shoulder in the cheap metal chairs as he had stuttered through his story. An officer—she’d forgotten his name, had tried to forget everything about that night—had brought her a pointy-ended cup of water from the cooler and told her to drink, and to put her head between her knees if she felt like she might faint.

She hadn’t felt faint.

She’d wanted to jump back in time, and see him again. To move to a different borough, to the suburbs, to some tiny cornfield town where the sheriff's log listed speeding tickets instead of homicides.

She’d wanted to find the mugger and create just a little more space—three inches would do, or maybe a whole city block—between his head and his neck.

She didn’t do any of that.

Instead, she’d pulled a tissue from her pocket, handed it to Peter, and tried to wrap her head around the idea of a world with just the two of them.

 

 


 

 

“Should I,” Peter said, still shaking, “m-move out? I mean, Ben was the one who—you’re not even related to me, I—you don’t—don’t have to—”

“What do you fucking mean we aren’t related?” May asked, because Ben was no longer there to tell her that maybe, just maybe, she could try to talk a little more like Midtown and a little less like Queens. “You're our kid. My kid.”

She took him by the shoulders and leaned in close, until she could only see one of his huge brown puppy eyes. “Peter. I know I’m not your mom. I could never take her place. But as long as you want me in your life, I will be there. With bells on. You will always belong with me.”

“May.” Peter’s voice cracked. “I—I—”

“It’s okay,” May said, and hugged him close. “It’s going to be okay. I promise.” If you say it, Ben always says—had always said— often enough, and you try to believe it, it will be true.

“No,” Peter said, shaking his head against her shoulder, “no, I—I—what happened out there, I—”

“I’m sorry,” May rasped. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. You should never have had to have seen that. I know it must have been…terrifying,”

“I could have—I should have—”

“You did exactly the right thing.” May leaned back and cupped Peter’s face in her hands. “You called 911. You stayed with him. You told the paramedics what had happened. What else could you possibly have done?”

Peter just looked at her with those huge brown puppy eyes, red-rimmed and drowning.

There was something else in his eyes now, something she’d seen a few times in the last month, but she didn’t know how to ask what it was. Teenagerhood, angst and secrets and too many changes, too fucking fast. He’d talked to Ben, he trusted Ben, he told Ben his secrets. She didn’t know how to get him to talk to her.

“I will always love you,” May said, instead of OH GOD PLEASE HELP ME . “Okay? No matter what.”

Peter closed his eyes.

May brushed her thumb across his cheek to wipe away his tears. He fell forward and hugged her again, just a little too tight, his whole body shaking.

 

 


 

 

Peter. Superhero.

Superhero. Peter.

It just didn’t add up.

“What do you mean, you’re Spider-Man?” May asked again, like the broken record that had once told her fourteen times that she couldn’t always get what she wanted, before she’d finally danced across the room to switch the record.

“Do you want me to show you again?” Peter asked wearily.

Maybe. But seeing him walk across the ceiling again wouldn’t help her stop feeling like she’d tripped into a bizarre, overcaffeinated nightmare. “I don’t understand,” she said at last. “Why didn’t you tell me? Spider-Man’s been around for—what, a year now?”

“Ten months.”

“Of course,” May said, lips twisting in a bitter line, “I should have guessed that. That’s when you started sneaking out at night. God, I thought it was just—you know, grief does weird things to people. You needed some space, somewhere to think, to be alone, or maybe you’d found people you could cut loose a little with, I don’t know.”

Peter scraped at the peeling edge of one of the placemats as though he could just duck his head beneath the curl of plastic and disappear.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” May asked again. “I know you don’t—you don’t trust me the way you trusted Ben, that’s okay, I get it, we’re not as close as you two were, I—”

“That’s not it! I do trust you, May, I—”

“Then why didn’t you tell me?”

Peter’s lip trembled.

“Peter. Just tell me. Whatever it is, it’s—it’s okay. We’ll figure it out.  But you have to talk to me. Please.”  

“I killed Ben,” he whispered.

For a moment, May just stared at him. “What,” she said.

Peter bit his lip, hard.

May sank into the kitchen chair. “Talk,” she said.

In halting, half-cracked words, Peter told her the story. The foggy night. The convenience store, brightly lit. The shrieking danger in the back of his neck. The muggers. The terror that had frozen his feet to the sidewalk. Ben’s blood, hot in his hands, spilling out onto the ground.

“I’m sorry,” he said, voice cracking halfway through the words. “I’m so sorry.”

“Oh,” May said. She stood up, carefully, balancing against the back of the chair, and walked to her room, and closed the door behind her.

 

 

 

Peter stood in the middle of his room, trying to pack. He didn’t even know where to go. He hadn’t texted anyone. Every time he tripped over the idea of not living with May anymore, all alone, it’s all over, his brain did a full system reboot, as though that could possibly change the situation.

He’d known he was living on borrowed time. He’d known that he didn’t deserve the easy warmth of her love, buying him new backpacks and asking him about his day as though he hadn’t irreparably ruined her life.

May knocked on his door.

Crap. Peter grabbed his backpack and tried to zip it up, but the laces of his sneakers got caught in the zipper. He just crushed it to his chest instead, jumped onto his desk, pushed the window open—

The door opened. “What the hell are you doing?” May shrieked.

Running away, his brain yelled, shoving his butt towards the open air. Peter froze, one leg out the window.

“Peter.” May held out her hands as though placating a wild animal. “Come back. Please. Come inside. Please, sweetheart. I’m not mad at you. Don’t leave.”

“I’m sorry,” Peter rasped, I have to leave, “I’m so sorry.”

“I know,” May said. Her hair stuck out in odd directions all over her head—she’d been crying, he knew that, he’d heard her. “It’s not your fault, honey. Please, just—let’s talk, okay? Don't run away.”

Peter’s brain jumped out the window. Peter’s traitorous hands dropped the bag onto his desk instead. It spilled out everywhere, just a few probably-clean boxers and an energy bar and a pair of sneakers and a physics textbook and a faded t-shirt and a graphing calculator. He stood frozen on the desk, staring down at her, hands braced against the window behind him.

“You did the best you could,” May said, voice trembling in that way it did when she was about to cry.

“But I didn’t,” Peter croaked, “that’s the p-problem. I didn’t.”

“Peter.” May cleared a place on his bed, sat down, and patted the bedspread next to her. “Come here.”

Peter sat on the far end of the bed and pulled his knees up to his chest.

“You’ve been living with this for months now,” May said.

Peter nodded.

“Oh, honey.” May’s voice caught. “I’m so sorry.”

“Stop. Just—stop. Don’t do this.”

“Don’t do what?”

“Pretend to forgive me. I fucked up. I know that. I—I can’t undo it.” Peter’s stupid-ass voice cracked. “I killed your husband. I ruined your life.”

“You didn’t kill Ben. The mugger—”

“I could have stopped him.”

“Who held the gun?” May asked.

“I could have—”

“Who pulled the trigger?”

“That’s not—”

“Not what?” May asked. “Not what? The only fucking fucker of a fuckhead who is responsible is the mugger. And he’s in jail now. He’s gone. Remember? He got caught trying to mug someone again, caught red-handed by Spider—”

She stopped short and blinked at Peter.

Peter bit his lip.

“Oh,” May said.

Peter closed his eyes to shut in the stupid-ass tears that refused to stay inside his stupid-ass tear ducts where they belonged.

“Oh,” May said. “Oh, fuck.”

The bed dipped in front of Peter as she slid closer, then wrapped her arms around him. He buried his face in her shoulder, hugged her back, and cried.

 

 

 

A few hours later, Peter was perched cross-legged on the kitchen counter, inhaling mac-n-cheese from a gigantic cereal bowl. May leaned against the counter next to him, eating her own normal-sized share of fluorescent orange goo. A cacophony of honking rose up from the street below, accompanied by the usual shouting and mayhem, then faded out just as quickly as it had begun.

When she looked up, Peter was stacking as many X-wing noodles onto his fork as he could, making one tall stack of skewered spaceships dripping with cheese.

May snickered.

Peter caught her eye with a tentative grin. “Old habits die hard?”

“At least you’re not counting them.”

“Hey, that was good math practice!” Peter protested. “At least, it was when I was little. And, uh, how do you know I’m not counting them?”

“How many,” May sighed.

“Forty-three. And a half. On one fork. New record.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks!” Peter shoved the whole forkful into his mouth.

As May laughed, Peter hopped off the counter in an awkward gangle of limbs and went to wash his bowl and the pasta pot in the kitchen sink. May watched him, fork poised on the rim of her bowl.

“You don't have to do that,” she said at last.

Peter glanced back over his shoulder. “‘Do your chores, Peter’? ‘Always, Peter’? ‘Have you washed the dishes yet, Peter’? ‘That means you, Peter’?”

“Not that,” May said. “The clumsiness.”

Peter’s hands slowed, then stopped, dripping with suds.

“You didn’t do that when you were showing me what you can do,” May said. “I’ve seen the videos. TV. I know you’re not like that on the streets.”

Peter nodded.

“No more secrets. Okay? Please. Just…be…” May waved a hand. “Who you are.”

“I thought you wanted me to stop being Spider-Man.” Peter finished washing the pot and set it on the dishrack. “‘Dangerous’ and ‘irresponsible’ and ‘too young’ and—’”

“If Ben had seen you,” May rasped, “he’d have been so proud.”

Peter turned around and stared at May with those huge eyes again—shoulders hunched a little, like she’d punched him in the gut, mouth working on soundless words.

“You heard me,” May said.

Peter launched himself across the kitchen and wrapped her into a tight hug, hands tangled in a towel behind her back.

“I'm proud of you too,” May whispered into his hair.

 

 


 

 

Do your chores, Peter, that means you, Peter, May had added to the List of Conditions for Continued Superhero Activity, right after the Fourth Condition: Thou Shalt Maintain Your Grades.

“But really,” May had told Peter, “I’m not that worried about you keeping up in school. You’ve been doing fine. What worries me is when your teachers tell me you’ve been falling asleep in class. When you fall asleep during movie night , I mean—you have to take care of yourself first. Oxygen mask and all that, you know?”

She pointed to Condition the Third: Sleep at least 7 hours a night, at least 6 days per week. “Whatever it takes—cutting patrol short to get to bed on time, talking about what happened so you don’t dream about it—do it. Peter’s just as important as Spider-Man. More important. You have your own life to live.”

Which is why all of the Conditions—including #2, Tell me when you get hurt or so help me god I’ll— really boiled down to the first commandment on the list: Thou Shalt Come Home Safely.

 

 


 

 

“They’ll bring him back safe,” Pepper said. “Sam’s a fantastic medic, and the Quinjet’s got everything you could possibly need on board, and more. You know how Tony is. They’ll bring him home. He’ll be okay.”

“If Peter—” May couldn’t finish the sentence. “I’ll hunt Ross down, cut his balls off, and fry them into knishes.”

Pepper nodded. “I’ll see if I can dig up my great-grandmother’s recipe,” she said. “Best I’ve ever had.”

“Thanks,” May said, and blew her nose.  

Chapter Text

“I need to be in there,” May said—eyes rimmed red, shoulders set, head held high. “I’m his guardian, I—”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Parker.” Dr. Cho shook her head. “I can’t have anyone else in the OR during a surgery.”

“He’s awake,” Ned protested, ears still ringing with echoes of Peter’s scream through the speakers of Pepper’s phone, tinny and agonized. “You can’t make him get surgery without anesthesia, strapped to that…thing…all alone.”

“Do you think you could handle it?” Dr. Cho asked, holding May’s gaze. “The distress of family and friends tends to increase the patient’s distress and interfere with our work.”

“I need to be there for him,” May insisted.

“I’m going in,” MJ said, and turned to May. “He doesn’t like you seeing him when he’s hurt. He knows it scares you, and he doesn’t want to hurt you.”

“I know that,” May interrupted, “and I don’t need protecting, I—”

“I know, and he knows, because we’ve all told him before, and he doesn’t listen. If you were in there, he’d be trying to be tough. That’s not going to help anyone. ”

“If something happens—”

“You’re going to scrub up now,” MJ said. “So that if something happens, I can duck out and you can come take my place.”

May opened her mouth, then closed it again, eyes glinting in the sharp clinic lights.

“And I’m going to sit here with you,” Ned said. He caught MJ’s eyes for a moment, and she nodded gratefully. He hadn't been able to handle the frog dissection; there was no way he’d be able to sit through an entire surgery. And he knew May better than MJ did, after all. They’d be able to keep each other reasonably okay. Hopefully.

May pinched the bridge of her nose for a long moment, eyes shut tight. “Keep him safe,” she croaked at last. She looked from Dr. Cho to MJ. “Please.”

“We’re going to do our best,” Dr. Cho said. “I promise you, Ms. Parker. I need to run a few scans and consult with my team now. The jet will touch down in 90 seconds. He’ll be here in 97 seconds. Luis—” She beckoned to a passing nurse. “Will you get Ms. Parker and Michelle some scrubs and show them how to wash up, please?”

Before she left the room, MJ met Ned’s eyes again.

It wasn’t the Ieshia Evans face she’d worn while facing down riot police—I am braver and stronger and better than this. It wasn’t her decathlon captain face either—we’re going to win, or I’ll know why not. It was a new face entirely, something Ned had never seen before—MJ, ready to go into battle for the people she loved.

MJ nodded at him. We who are about to die salute you.

“May the Force be with you,” Ned said.

MJ rolled her eyes, but Ned caught the twitch of a smile before she turned to follow May and Luis.

 

 

 

MJ was standing at the edge of the operating room, still fidgeting with her cap—she’d had to yank her hair into a tiny bun to fit beneath the scrub cap, and it just didn’t feel right—when they wheeled Peter’s gurney into the operating room.

Peter’s eyes were glassy with pain, staring blankly across the room. Mind not entirely present. And shit, that fucking collar was still wrapped around his neck. He didn’t seem to be aware of it anymore.

Captain America and Barnes followed the gurney, scrubbed up within an inch of their lives just like MJ was. She smiled a little at the sight of a latex glove over Barnes’ sleek prosthetic hand—murder turned to healing, she thought, fingers absentmindedly searching for a pencil in the pockets of her scrubs.

“Three, two, one—”

Peter cried out as Captain America and Barnes lifted him onto the table. MJ realized with a sudden lurch why they’d been tasked with strapping him in, instead of the doctors. Peter struggled desperately against their hands as they locked each padded bar into place, pinning him to the operating table.

“Please.” Peter’s voice cracked. “Please. Stop.”

“Stop!” MJ found herself halfway across the room, facing a bemused Captain America, Barnes, and surgical team before she realized what she’d done.

Well, no turning back now. “Listen to him,” she said. “We aren’t Hydra.”

She stepped up to the table, trying not to look too closely at the bloodied bandages or the dried flecks of blood in Peter’s hair. “Hey, nerd,” she said. She reached out carefully and swept his hair off his forehead. “How’re you doing?”

Peter blinked at her, eyes dazed and unfocused. Gradually his eyes found hers between the surgical mask and the scrub cap. MJ, he mouthed.

“Remember me? It’s been a while.”

Peter’s face slowly cracked into a tiny, exhausted, disbelieving smile.

MJ swallowed hard. “Do you know where you are?”

Peter squinted out at the room, eyes catching on pair of nurses arranging a set of scalpels on the cart. “Surgery,” he said, or tried to. MJ didn’t think at all about the fact that he must have lost his voice from screaming on the plane. Not at all. Thanks, brain.

“Yep,” MJ said, keeping her voice as steady as she could. Which was…not very. But it would have to do. “They’re going to put you back together. But first, they have to finish strapping you in. Is that okay with you?”

Peter blinked down at the table, then jerked in surprise, as though he’d forgotten about it entirely. His uninjured leg struck out in a kick that missed both Captain America and Barnes, who were standing at a safe distance from the table.

“Slow your roll, Parker,” MJ said. “They're trying to help.” She watched as Peter tried to pull himself together, bit by little bit.

“Okay,” he rasped at last, breathing hard and fast and shaky. “Do it.”

In conclusion, your honor, he’s not actually okay at all.

“Hey.” MJ leaned over Peter a little, just enough to block his view of the rest of the operating room. “If you try any of that tough-male bullshit, we’re going to have to have a Talk later. This is going to really fucking suck, and then it'll be over. And you’re going get through it, and you’re going to be okay, but in the meantime you’re allowed to scream. Maybe even say crap a few times.”

“Don’t think…I’ve ever…heard you swear before,” Peter croaked.

“Words have power,” MJ said. “I believe in using them where appropriate.”

Peter closed his eyes. MJ watched his eyes track beneath his lids. Watched his chest rise and fall with slow, labored breaths. Watched his forehead furrow in pain, then slowly smooth out.

His eyes fluttered open again and found hers, bleary but present. “Missed you,” he whispered, voice scratching in his throat.

“I missed you too,” MJ said. Her hand reached out and cupped his cheek, around the oxygen mask, without her conscious decision.

Peter leaned into her touch just a little, as far as his head could go in the restraints, and looked towards Captain America and Barnes. “You can,” he said, and swallowed hard. “Do it. Let’s get this over with.”

“There you go, Queens.” Captain America patted Peter’s foot as he finished locking Peter onto the surgical table. “Proud of you.”

“Look, Spider-punk.” Barnes clicked the last restraint into place over Peter’s ankle. “There’s only one thing you really need to remember: if they bite, bite back. Got it?”

“Got it,” Peter coughed.

“Good luck,” Captain America said, and patted Peter’s shoulder. “See you on the flip side.”

“You finally learn some new slang, and it’s already thirty years old?” Barnes shook his head and followed Captain America out of the operating room. “You need to watch more TV, punk.”

Just before the door closed behind them, Captain America turned back and saluted MJ. She nodded at him, nonplussed, and saluted back.

The door closed behind them.

MJ took a deep breath.

Luis pushed a chair towards her; she thanked him, settled into it, and took Peter’s hand. “Pretty sure I told you to not do anything stupid like this,” she said.

“Had to,” Peter rasped.  

“I know,” MJ said. “And—”

“You can’t hold his hand,” Dr. Cho said, bustling towards the operating table in full white-coated armor.

“I—what?” MJ blinked at her.

“He’ll crush your fingers,” Dr. Cho said.

“I wouldn’t—” Peter protested.

“In the middle of surgery? If you lose track of what’s going on? You might.” Dr. Cho hurried off to consult with the nurses over the cart.

Peter’s mouth trembled, then set into what MJ had always thought of as his Tough (way too young to be a) Soldier mode—lips pressed together, jaw clenched, eyes staring straight ahead.

MJ reluctantly withdrew her fingers from Peter’s and set her hand over his instead. “We’ll get back to that thought later,” she said. “All right? I do like my fingers, but you're normally a pretty good hand-holder.”

Peter nodded.

MJ studied him for a moment. “That’s your cue, you know. Dramatic lines. ‘You shouldn’t be here,’ ‘you don’t have to stay,’ that sort of thing. Manipulative statements that make me want to prove you wrong.”

“If you didn’t want to be here—” Peter broke off in a fit of coughing. MJ rubbed small circles into the back of his hand and waited for him to recover. “You wouldn’t be,” Peter rasped at last.

“Good boy,” MJ said. “I’ve trained you well.”

Peter’s eyes crinkled around the edges just a little.

“But really,” MJ said. “Do you want me to be here? Is this going to help?”

Peter looked up at her, eyes wide above the oxygen mask. After a long moment, he nodded—just a tiny twitch beneath the restraints. “Yes,” he rasped. “If you want to, please—please stay.”

Dr. Cho stepped up to Peter’s side again. “How’s the table?” she asked. “Can you move?”

MJ only knew from the pained pinch in Peter’s eyes that he was trying to strain against the table. The vibranium-laced steel held him in place from head to toe.

“No,” Peter said at last, and swallowed hard. “Can’t move.”

“Good.” Dr. Cho adjusted the oxygen mask and swept Peter’s hair off his forehead. “You’re doing really well, Peter. I’m proud of you.”

“For not moving?” Peter’s mouth twitched into a shadow of a smile, but MJ could see how much effort it took to not slur his words too badly.

“Yes.” Dr. Cho smiled at him. “Do you want me to tell you what we’re going to do here?”

Peter hesitated, then nodded.

“Well,” Dr. Cho said, “the good news is that your body’s already started healing. The bad news is that it’s healed up wrong in some places, according to the scans. I’m going to have to reopen the wound at a few sites and then sew it back together properly. So you’ll feel a series of incisions, and then a lot of suturing, and then we’ll be all set. All right?”

“Mmm,” Peter said.

“I know it’s going to be rough,” Dr. Cho said, eyes steady on Peter’s. “I’m sorry. We’ll be done before you know it, all right?”

“Mmm-hmm.” Peter’s eyes slid shut again.

“Are you all right here?” Dr. Cho asked MJ.

MJ nodded. “I’m fine.”

“Good.” Dr. Cho looked down at Peter again, then pulled the curtain across his chest to hide the surgical site from the two of them. “Keep him awake if you can, all right?”

“All right,” MJ said. “You hear that, Parker? It’s not naptime yet.”

Peter cracked one eye open and squinted up at her.

MJ gave him her best shit-eating grin. “You sure you missed me?”

Peter brushed his thumb against hers. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it abruptly, eyes flicking towards the curtain, where the team was still murmuring amongst themselves.

“Ready for the first incision,” Dr. Cho said, loud enough for MJ to hear.

A moment later, Peter’s body went rigid beneath the restraints. MJ rubbed the back of his hand, realizing all too late how utterly unprepared she was to help him.

“You’ve got this,” she murmured. “It’s okay to scream.”

Peter’s hand shook beneath hers. His eyes were shut tight against the pain; his jaw was clenched hard.

More murmuring from behind the curtain.

Peter groaned low in his throat.

The metal tools clinked on the cart before a faint squish.

Peter screamed, raw and agonized, hand convulsing beneath MJ’s. She folded both of her hands over his and bowed her head, desperately wishing she believed in some god enough to pray now.

Peter’s scream suddenly choked into coughing, hard and wet.

“Hold everything in place,” Dr. Cho ordered the surgical assistants. “Ready…now.”

One of the nurses lunged towards the head of the table and jammed down a button. The table tipped precipitously to the side.

Peter coughed up blood, red as a horror movie, into a gauze pad another nurse held by his mouth.

MJ pressed her knuckles to her lips, over the surgical mask, and tried to remember to breathe. This was so much more intense than dissecting frogs. Even fetal pigs hadn’t been so—human.

Hadn’t been alive.

Hadn’t been her friend.

One nurse suctioned the remaining blood out of Peter’s mouth, turned the wand off, and set it back in its socket on the cart. Another pressed a button that slowly tilted the table—and Peter—level again.

MJ resumed her seat and folded her hands around Peter’s again. “So—” she cleared her throat— “that sucked.”

Peter blinked at the ceiling. His face fell in slack, grey folds, cheeks glinting with tear-tracks. MJ leaned in and brushed the tears away, careful not to jar the oxygen mask. Peter didn’t seem to notice her. He seemed awake—probably, maybe, sort of—but not entirely present.  

“Peter,” MJ said. “Peter.”

Peter lay still, mouth parted, struggling to breathe.

“‘At lunchtime I bought a huge orange,’” MJ said.

Peter’s eyes flicked to hers, glassy with pain and confusion.

“‘The size of it made us all laugh,’” MJ continued, rubbing her thumb over the back of Peter’s hand. “‘I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave. They got quarters and I had a half.’”

Peter’s face slowly cracked into the tiniest, wobbliest smile she’d ever seen on him.

“‘And that orange,’” MJ said hoarsely, “‘it made me so happy, as ordinary things often do just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park. This is peace and contentment. It’s new.’”

Peter’s eyes fluttered closed again, brow tight with pain.

MJ quietly recited the rest of the poem, watching Peter’s lips move with hers: “‘The rest of the day was quite easy,’” she said. “‘I did all the jobs on my list. And enjoyed them and had some time over. I love you. I’m glad I exist.’”

Peter lifted his thumb to brush against the side of her palm.

“Scalpel,” Dr. Cho said, and Peter’s face crumpled.

“You can do this,” MJ said, knowing that she definitely couldn’t.

Peter held on for three breathless seconds. MJ’s hands tightened on his. Dr. Cho’s tools rattled on the cart. Peter struggled against the restraints with a ragged groan. MJ closed her eyes and held on tightly to his hand. Peter tipped his head back and screamed.

Chapter Text

The only thing worse than listening to Peter’s screams was the scream that just stopped, followed by absolute silence.

May stopped pacing mid-step and stared at Ned.

Ned stared up at her.

“FRIDAY,” he said. “What—”

A hologram of the operating room popped up from the coffee table. Peter lay bound to a glinting contraption that bore an unsettling resemblance to a torture table. MJ leaned over his head, patting his cheek and saying something—the audio was off. A nurse checked the monitors, then tipped Peter’s head back slightly on the table. On the other side of the curtain, Dr. Cho paused for a moment to confer with one of the other nurses, then resumed— oh god no, Ned was not watching that.

“He must have passed out,” Ned said shakily. “It’s…probably…better that way? May—May, sit, please. Don’t fall over, okay?”

May fell into the nearest chair, eyes fixed on Peter’s pixelated blue outline.

“They’re not panicking,” Ned said, absolutely panicking. “And they would have called you in if something happened, right? They said they would.”

“I can’t do this,” May rasped.

“None of us can,” Ned said.

“You don’t have to do this,” May said. “Go home, get some sleep, get—”

“Are you kidding? I’m Peter’s Guy In The Chair. His wingman. His brother, you know? Kinda, sorta, ish. Whatever. I’ll be here as long as it takes.”

May covered her eyes with one hand. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Wait a sec,” Ned said. “FRIDAY, that thing over there—that’s the heart monitor, right? Zoom in.” He squinted at the translucent image. “There,” he said, and touched May’s shoulder. “There, look. He’s okay. He’s alive. They’re taking care of him. He’s going to be fine.”

The line on the heart monitor jagged up and down, weak but steady.

Falcon burst into the waiting room with Captain America hard on his heels. “Steve heard,” Falcon said, “it’s so quiet, is he—is he—”

“He’s alive,” Ned said. He pointed to the heart monitor. May was still staring at it fixedly, one hand clenched around the ring she wore on a chain around her neck.

“Oh, thank god.” Falcon’s shoulders slumped in relief. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you, I just—I just—”

“You coulda just asked FRIDAY,” Hawkeye said, and landed with a quiet thump.

Ned jumped halfway out of his seat. “What the—where did you just—”

“The vents,” Captain America sighed, “he lives there, he was probably a mouse in a former life.”

“I’m thinking a rat, actually,” Black Widow said, dropping down from the vents on Hawkeye’s heels. “Maybe a cockroach.”

“Anyway,” Falcon said, turning back to Ned and May, “I’m really sorry about this. I didn’t mean to bring the horde in here. We’ll leave you guys in peace.”

“No,” May said, eyes still locked on the heart monitor. “No, it’s okay. You can stay.”

FRIDAY moved the hologram towards the center of the room so that everyone could all see the hologram. Ned froze as Peter’s heart stuttered, then steadied again. A little elf in the corner of his brain was jumping up and down, shouting CAPTAIN AMERICA FALCON HAWKEYE BLACK WIDOW OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD THIS IS THE MOST AMAZING THING TO EVER HAPPEN TO ME EVER OF ALL TIME EVER… but if Peter didn’t make it out of this, it wouldn’t matter how many Avengers autographs he could score.

“How was he?” May rasped. “Before—all of this.” She waved a hand at the hologram.

“Obnoxiously cheerful,” Hawkeye said. “Spent the whole time bouncing off the walls. Like, literally bouncing off the walls.”

Falcon elbowed him. “Peter was doing all right,” he said. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you all. He talked about you all the time, Ms. Parker. You too, Ned.”

“Oh,” May said, “it’s just May, Mr. Wilson. Please.”

“Well, then you ought to call me Sam.” Sam stretched a hand towards May. “It’s great to meet you.”

May shook Sam’s hand. “You too,” she said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You saved Peter’s life. I’m always going to owe you.”

“Yeah, I see where Peter gets the drama from.” Sam grinned at May. “Nah, he’s a good kid. And he saved my life first, so, you know. I was just paying my own debt.”

“Still,” May said, “thank you. So much. If there’s anything I can do, let me know, ok? And…I’m sorry, I know it’s an awful thing to say, I’m so sorry you were in there, but…I’m glad you were there for him. I’m glad he wasn’t alone.”

Sam’s jaw tightened for a moment, but his eyes were steady on May’s. “Yeah,” he said. “Well. I’m sorry Peter got thrown in there too, but—but it helped to have him in there. He’s so hopeful and kind and funny and—he’s a good kid, May. You should be proud of him.”

“It kinda hurts me to say this,” Hawkeye said, “but Sam’s right.”

May’s eyes glittered brightly under the fluorescent lights of the waiting room. “I am proud of him,” she rasped. “I am, and thank you. So much.”

 

 


 

 

MJ dropped her blood-stained set of scrubs into a bin, tugged her jeans out of the locker they’d given her, and started yanking them back on.

A minute later, Dr. Cho stepped into the changing room, slumped onto one of the benches, and rested her head in her hands. “Are you okay?” she asked.

“No,” MJ said.

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. Well. Peter’s going to be okay, right?”

“I hope so,” Dr. Cho said. “God, I’d like to pass out in a bottle of wine right now.”

“Then go do it. Someone ought to get drunk now.”

“I can’t,” Dr. Cho sighed, and started to change into a new set of scrubs. “I’m on call until Peter’s recovered. Or at least out of immediate danger.”

MJ studied Dr. Cho for a moment, memorizing the lines of her face to sketch out later. “You asked me if I thought I’d be okay going into the operating room with him. But you—”

“Didn’t ask myself if I was okay with operating on a person who was wide awake and screaming,” Dr. Cho said. “Correct.”

“Well,” MJ said, “now you know you don’t have a future as a torturer That’s an important thing to learn about yourself.”

Dr. Cho cracked a smile. “True,” she said. That is a relief. And you? How’s your supervillain future looking?”

“Someday,” MJ said, “I’m going to be in a protest where the police start shooting, or tear-gassing, or just beating people up. I needed to know that I can keep my head when people I love are hurt.”

Dr. Cho held MJ’s gaze for a moment. “And? Can you?”

“I don’t know.” MJ took her hair down from its tiny bun and started pulling it into a looser ponytail, just to have something to do with her hands. “But I think so. I hope so. I’m going to have to.”

Dr. Cho bent over to tie her shoes. “I hope you never have to,” she said, “but I think you’ll be able to handle it. Not many people can do what you did.”

MJ shrugged, lips twitching against a small smile.

“That thing about the orange,” Dr. Cho said. “Was that a poem?”

“His favorite,” MJ said.

“It’s cute.”

“It’s ridiculous. And dorky. And awkward. And lame. And silly. And sweet. And loving.”

“Ah,” Dr. Cho said.

“Don't give me that look,” MJ said. She shoved her feet into her shoes, trying and utterly failing to suppress a stupid grin.

Chapter Text

MJ leaned against the entrance to the waiting room. “Hey,” she said.

“MJ! Are you okay?” Ned rushed up to her.

“Thank you, MJ,” May croaked. “Thank you, thank you. So much. Is he—is he—”

“He’ll be okay, I think,” MJ said.

“Are you?” May asked.

MJ blinked at her.

“Come here, sweetheart.” May stepped towards her, arms held out for a hug.

“Hey, we got you,” Ned said at the same time, opening up his arms to her.

MJ looked from one to the other, laughed tiredly, and fell forward towards both of them.

“Thank you,” May whispered again. “Both of you. I can’t thank you enough. Are you all right?  I’m going to go sit with him now, until he wakes up, but you should go back to the city, get some rest. I’m sure Happy can—”

“Are you kidding?” Ned said. “I’m staying until he wakes up.” He nudged MJ. “What do you want to do now?”

“I," MJ said, trying to find a few words to string together. "I want to stay."

“Hot cocoa and a couch and a blanket?" Ned asked.

MJ’s head bobbed in an exhausted nod.

“Hey, FRIDAY—” Ned said.

A bright yellow line lit up a path out of the waiting room.

“Thanks,” Ned said. “Hey, um, Falcon—”

“Just Sam. Please. I am not putting those wings back on tonight.”

“Sam,” Ned said, definitely not spazzing out over the idea of being on a first-name basis with one of the Avengers—the actual, honest-to-god Avengers— “Uh. Yeah. Great. That's, uh. That's cool. Hi, Sam. I'm Ned. This is Michelle. You want to join us?

“I am always,” Sam said, “always, without a doubt, ready for some hot cocoa and a couch and a blanket.”

“Great.” Ned beamed at him, then turned to May. “Do you want us to bring you some cocoa?”

“Not right now,” May said. “But thank you, Ned. And thank you for—for—”

Ned grinned. “Told you, I’m Peter’s Guy In The Chair. Sometimes that means waiting room chair.”

May’s smile trembled outwards. She hugged Ned again, then MJ, and then—with a laugh—accepted Sam’s open arms.

“Let us know when you need a break,” Sam said, voice muffled by May’s hair. “Lot of people here would be happy to spell you for a few hours, let you get some sleep.”

“Maybe later,” May said. “But not right now. Thank you.” She straightened up out of the hug, gathered up her purse and followed the red-and-blue line Friday had lit up for her.

 

 


 

 

“How's the kid?” Rhodey asked, voice crackling a little through the phone's slightly dented speakers.

“Alive.” Tony didn't take his eyes off of the mostly-steady zigs and zags of the heart monitor FRIDAY was displaying for him.

“Wanda?”

“Out cold. Cho checked her out after the surgery was over. She's okay, normal brain function, all good. Should be up again in a few hours, maybe a day or two. Just…”

“Overwhelmed by going straight from six months in a straitjacket to using her powers to destroy a helicopter?”

“Yeah,” Tony said. “That.”

“How about the rest?”

Tony tapped a staccato dubstep beat on Dum-E’s arm with the end of his pen.

“Uh-huh,” Rhodey said.

“Don’t you raise your eyebrows at me like that,” Tony said.

“Did you hack my phone’s camera again? That’s creepy, man. You can’t spy on me like that. It’s creepy. No. Uh-uh. Creepy.”

“Didn’t have to hack anything,” Tony said. “I can hear your eyebrows from all the way up here. If you want to give me that look in person, you could always get your ass outta the Pentagon and come up here where it’s—”

“Colder and snowier and home to a murder of cooped-up superheroes ready to explode at a moment’s notice?” Rhodey asked. “Yeah, no thanks. I’m good here. I’ll come up when the dust is clearing out.”

“Coward,” Tony said. “Think you can just stay in your cozy little—”

“Of course I can,” Rhodey said. “Some of us are doing actual work.”

“So am I! Once a year or so. Whether I need to or not.”

“Uh-huh,” Rhodey said. “Have you even made any progress with—”

“Tony Stark, you have a call on line two,” Tony said, “Tony Stark, line two. Great timing. See ya, Rhodes. Don’t get in too much trouble.”

“Goddammit, Tony—”

Tony hung up on Rhodes, admired the blinking 62 missed calls from: Ross! in the phone's display again, sighed, and pressed accept call.

“Stark's home for renegade superheroes, you nab em we grab em,” Tony said. “So good to hear from you. Did you get those files my friend sent? Great. The mailman should be along any minute now to get your signa—of course I can. And I did. You’re welcome. Oh, there’s the mailman, I can hear the noise. Great talk. See you soon.”

Tony hung up. Dum-E picked up his pen and started wiping it down with a motor oil-stained rag. The phone's exuberant 62 missed calls from: Ross! display faded down to a despondent You have no missed calls.

“I liked that pen,” Tony sighed. “Do you even understand what you’re doing, Dum-E? Are you doing this on—you’re doing this on purpose. Right. I knew that. Great.”

 

 


 

 

By the time Ned, MJ, and Sam got to the kitchen, Steve was already coming out of it with a tray of cups of hot cocoa. “Sam,” he said, “FRIDAY said something about cocoa? Did you—oh hey, Michelle. And you’re Ned? Nice to meet you both.”

“I’ll just help you out with one of those,” Sam said, and liberated one of the mugs from Steve’s tray. “Thanks.”

“Captain America just made me hot cocoa,” Ned said. “This is a thing that’s happening.”

“Well, technically, Tony’s artificially intelligent coffee machine made the cocoa,” Steve said.

“Details.” Ned waved a hand at Steve, took two mugs, and steered MJ towards the couch. “Here,” he said, placing a mug into her hands. “Drink.”

“Thank you,” MJ rasped. She closed her eyes as Ned draped a blanket over her and cuddled in close.

“How are you?” Ned asked.

MJ cracked one eye open and looked at Ned.

“Figured,” Ned sighed. “We could, uh, hear him.”

MJ shuddered a little. She tucked her legs up onto the couch and lay her head on Ned’s shoulder.

The armchair across from them creaked once as Steve sat down in it, then again as Sam sat on top of him.

“Right on top of me?” Steve sighed. “Really?” He wrapped an arm around Sam’s waist to hold him steady.

“Hello to you too,” Sam grinned. “Missed me?”

“You know,” Steve said, “I forgot how much of an jerk you are.”

“Oh, I’m the jerk?”

Steve kissed the back of Sam’s neck. “A lot,” he said. “I missed you a lot.”

MJ looked at Ned.

Ned looked at MJ. “So,” he said. “That’s another thing that’s happening.”

“Uh,” Steve said, flushing slightly, “we’re not entirely public yet, so—”

“Why not?” MJ asked.

“Because Sam has a family. And bad guys tend to see loved ones as pawns.”

“Oh,” Ned said.

“I’m sure Tony's got good security on all of you,” Sam said.

“Well, Peter’s still got the whole secret identity thing,” Ned said, “and the trial was private, so I think we’re okay.”

“Good,” Steve said. “If you could just keep this off of the snapping chat and all of that, we’d appreciate it.”

“Speaking of which,” Sam said, “I charged my phone back up and I have two honest-to-god Snapchats from you. What the hell.”

“I learned how,” Steve said.

“My little old man,” Sam sniffed. “All grown up.”

“Fuck you.” Steve kissed Sam’s shoulder.

Ned’s jaw dropped. “You—did you—just—you really—”

“Words are more powerful than fists,” MJ intoned in a deadpan mimic of Captain America’s cardboardy PSA voice. “You should always watch your language, just like I watch out for dangerous enemies.”

Sam’s face lit up. “They still show the PSAs?”

“No,” Steve said frantically, “no, they don’t, they wouldn’t, I’m a war—”

“They do,” Ned said. “They totally do. And in real life, you totally swear. This is an actual thing. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

“Breathe.” MJ patted Ned’s back.

“I’m from Brooklyn,” Steve said, lips twitching against a smile. “What did you expect?”

“You see,” Sam said, “the thing about Cap is that once you clean off the glitter—and you gotta scrub hard, because that shit gets everywhere—what’s left is a little punk from Brooklyn who can’t say no to a fight.”

Peter needs to meet Captain America for real, Ned thought suddenly, throat closing up. “You sound a lot like a friend of mine,” he said instead.

“How was he?” Steve asked. “I’m on shift again in an hour, Bucky’s there now in case they need, you know—”

“We know,” Ned said, a little harsher than he’d intended. “FRIDAY, how is he?”

« Peter Parker is currently asleep in an intensive care room under medical supervision. Would you like to see his vitals? »

“No,” MJ rasped. “Dr. Cho’s got him. And May’s with him too. He’ll be okay.”

“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, is it,” Sam said quietly. “Being a superhero, or loving one.”

In the sudden silence, Ned could hear the artificially intelligent cleaning robot zoom into the leg of the couch, retreat, and bash into the corner of the coffeetable. Steve's face was making some kind of despondent frown, a new expression, something Ned had never seen from the PSAs or TV clips. Ned didn't like it. And he really didn't like the way Sam's leg tapped against the arm of the chair, so much like Peter's never-ending energy.

He watched the marshmallows float across the surface of his cocoa. “At Homecoming,” he said at last, “I saved Peter from a bad guy, and then Peter did his whoosh whoosh thing and webbed the guy up and…I was so thrilled to be fighting bad guys with him that it didn’t hit me until a few days later that—if I hadn’t been out there, Peter would have died. Like, actually died. Gone. Done. Funeral. Coffin. The whole shebang.”

MJ snuggled up to Ned a little closer.

Ned closed his eyes. “I was so excited to be part of something bigger,” he said. “I didn’t realize until Peter left—went onto the Raft, I mean—that I had also become part of something much smaller. Me, MJ, May, Peter. Taking care of each other. Saving New York and making it through history without falling asleep. Keeping secrets. We were, like—I don’t know, a team. A squad. It was the most awesome thing in the world, of all time, ever, but it was also…scary. A lot scarier than I ever thought it could be.”

“Yeah,” Sam said softly. “It is.”

“Worth it, though.” MJ buried her nose in her cocoa.

Ned grinned at her in surprise. “Yeah?”

MJ looked around the room, as though she was surprised that everyone was still looking at her. “Have you ever met someone who cares about people as much as Peter does?”

Sam snickered. “You know, I actually do. And he’s just as annoying.”

“Thanks…I think?” Steve sighed. “Same back at you, you know.”

“You're welcome,” Sam said. “I think.”

“I mean,” MJ said, “school is painfully boring. The world is a terrible place. Books are great ways to escape and watching people is endlessly amusing, but none of it builds to something. I’m trying to change the world, but change happens really slowly. And sure, swinging around and stopping little crimes isn’t going to help anything in the long run, but…it’s nice to go to bed knowing that someone’s a little better off because of you.”

“Damn right,” Ned said.

MJ grinned at him. “Most people I know care about some things, my parents come with me to protests and stuff sometimes, but I don’t know anyone else who stays up at night just worrying about how to save the world. What he does now doesn’t change anything about the system, but he could. We’ve been talking, the three of us, about how to use this Spider-Man stuff to do more than just stop little crimes.”

“You’ve got ideas, huh?” Sam asked.

“I,” MJ said, “always have an idea.”

“Usually five,” Ned said.

MJ nodded. “You have ideas too,” she said. “They just usually come framed with angle brackets.”

“Let me know what you guys figure out,” Sam said. “Kid’s got potential. And so do the two of you. I’m glad you’ve got each other. He loves you guys so much. Wouldn't shut up about you.”

“That’s because he never shuts up, period,” MJ said.

You’ve got a great game face, Ned thought, snuggling up to her a little closer, but I know you better than that, buddy.

“Is it worth it for you?” Steve asked, not quite meeting Sam’s eyes.

“I’m here, aren’t I?” Sam gestured with his mug. “It’s worth it. Usually. Except when you throw your ass off of buildings and nearly give me nine heart attacks on the way down.”

“Or when you announce a crazy, self-sacrificing, only-way-out-of-here plan,” Steve said. “That, uh—”

“Sucked,” Sam said.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Yeah, it did. A lot.”

“But other than that,” Sam said, “it’s been a crazy ride, but I wouldn’t trade it in for a newer Dodge.”

“How about a Humber Hawk?” Steve offered.

“How about a what now?”

“See, this is because you didn’t want to go to that car show with me this summer.”

“That was an antique car show,” Sam said, “you obsolete relic. If I’m going to go to a car show, it’ll be to sit in a brand-new Porsche and imagine I’m Stark, but better-looking.”

“That’s because you've never seen a Humber Hawk,” Steve said.

“Now, if it were a Humber Falcon,” Sam said, “that I might consider.”

“Is this…” Ned wasn’t quite sure what he was trying to ask. “Normal?”

“I mean,” Sam said, “define normal, because, you know, my boyfriend time-traveled, and I can fly, and I know a lady who can read minds, and a kid who sticks to the ceiling, so—”

“Yes,” Steve said. “We go out, try to beat up bad guys, get beat up, come back inside, and drink some cocoa. That’s basically how it works around here.”

“Paperwork,” Sam said. “You forgot the paperwork.”

“You weren’t here when SHIELD was still a thing,” Steve said with a faint shudder. “It’s so much better now, trust me.”

“See, that’s the problem,” MJ said. “Bad guys don’t go away when you beat them up. If the situation has gotten to the point where your only option is punching the bad guys, you’ve done something wrong.”

Sam and Steve shared a silent glance.

“And…that’s my superpower,” MJ said, untangling herself from Ned. “Stopping nice conversations in their tracks. I’m going to…yeah. Thanks for the cocoa, Steve. And FRIDAY.”

“Hey, whoa.” Sam reached towards her. “You're right, okay? You're right. It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a while. We’ve talked about it sometimes, but…”

“Something always comes up,” Steve said. “That was true back before, too. Peggy and I used to talk about it. But we can’t save the entire world. We’re just a bunch of—”

“Spandex-suited lunatics,” Sam said. “But we’ve got a lot of money—or Stark does, at least, and as long as Pepper thinks it’s a good idea then it’s our money too—and the entire world watches us.”

“You need to find an actual solution,” MJ said. “Not this Accords stuff. Something that actually helps people.”

“You said you had ideas,” Sam said. “Lay ‘em on us.”

MJ blinked.

Sam raised an eyebrow at her.

“You really,” MJ said.

“You’re damn right we do,” Steve said.

“Oh.” MJ sank back down to the couch and curled one leg beneath her. “Are you taking notes?” she asked.

“I am,” Pepper said. Ned turned to see her standing in the doorway, Starkphone and stylus in hand. She settled gracefully into the chair next to Sam and Steve and smiled at MJ. “Go for it.”

MJ closed her eyes. Ned leaned his shoulder against hers and watched her take an In The Zone breath, just like she had before the debate final.

“First of all,” she said, “you could be doing a lot more than motivational speeches.”

Chapter Text

“Hi, May.” One of the nurses stepped into Peter’s room, pulling a cart behind her. “How are you doing? I’m Yolanda. I’ll be looking after Peter for a little while.”

“Hi, Yolanda.” May sat up straighter in her chair and dabbed at her eyes again with a very used-up tissue. “It’s nice to meet you. I'm May. May Parker. You knew that already. Um. Anyway.”

“Nice to meet you, May,” Yolanda laughed. She took Peter’s vitals, checked his temperature, then frowned and checked it again.

“What's wrong?” May asked, trying not to panic and completely failing. “Besides the obvious, I mean.”

“His temperature is a little elevated,” Yolanda said. “We're just keeping an eye on it. Since there's not much we can do for him medicinally, Dr. Cho wants to keep on top of the fever as much as possible.”

“Fever? Why does he have a fever? He never gets sick.”

“I bet he doesn't. His healing factor should knock out any random bug he gets exposed to.”

“Then why does he have a fever now?” May asked.

“He was shot in the stomach," Yolanda said. "Chances of sepsis are really, really high. Normally we'd bring out a course of antibiotics, but—”

“But they don't work on him."

“No. When we ran tests on him a few months ago, his healing factor just burned them up.”

“Won't it do the same for this fever?”

“We're hoping it will.” Yolanda smiled down at May. “He's a tough little nugget, May.”

“If you mean ‘stubborn little nutcase,’” May said, “yeah, you’re right.”

 

 


 

 

“You know,” May said, “if you're going to get 114 on something, I’d really rather it be on your report card than on a thermometer. Can we talk about this sometime? I should have added it to the List of Conditions. I know you're an overachiever, but this is really starting to be overkill.”

Peter mumbled something and started to move, flushed with heat, before stopping short with a wince of pain. His hair fell across his forehead in scrawling hashmarks, matted with sweat.

“Shhhh,” May said. “Don't move. It’s all right. You're going to be all right.” She tucked one of the icepacks closer to Peter’s arm and brushed his hair away from his forehead.

Peter blinked up at her, eyes hazy with pain and fever. “Mom?”

May bit her lip in a mostly futile attempt to force down her tears. “No,” she rasped. “No, sweetheart. It’s just me. May.”

Peter’s mouth drifted towards a delirious smile. “Mom,” he said again, and reached out to pat her hand, clumsy and weak. “Mom.”

His eyes fluttered shut again, which was just as well, because the lip biting just wasn’t cutting it anymore. May pulled a tissue from her purse and blew her nose.

“How’s he doing?”

May whirled around to find Sam in the doorway, shoulders slumped, hands jammed into the pockets of his sweats. “He’s,” May said, and lost it again.

When she could breathe again, she found Sam sitting in the chair next to her, chin propped on his hand. Just giving her space. “I’m sorry,” she croaked. “I didn’t mean to—I’m sorry.”

“Don’t you ever apologize for crying,” Sam said, quiet and steady. He watched Peter for a moment. “Fever’s still rising?”

“One-fourteen,” May said, trying to keep her voice level.

“Shit,” Sam breathed. “That can’t be right. One-fourteen and he’s still—” He shook his head. “Never mind. I should know better than to ask that by now. I think Steve’s gotten up to 117 before, although that’s probably cheating. He usually runs a little higher than average.”

“Please don’t tell Peter,” May said, lips twitching into a smile despite herself. “He’ll take that as a challenge.”

“Little idiot.” Sam patted Peter’s shoulder with a fond smile.

“Dr. Cho thinks he’ll be okay,” May said, trying to rally. “Just have to wait for the fever to break.”

“Without any antipyretics. Or even an ice bath, I guess, with those stitches. Jesus.”

“I feel like I walked into a medieval TV show. Set in—” May waved a hand at the sleek surroundings, FRIDAY’s quietly shimmering holograms— ”space.”

That startled a laugh out of Sam. “Felt like one of those old-timey Captain America serials at first, rescuing good guys and punching bad guys.”

“And now?”

Sam smiled a little, eyes fixed on Peter. “Feels like…life.”

“I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be encouraging or threatening.”

“Both?” Sam shrugged. “It just is.”

“What I would give to be a soccer mom,” May sighed. “Aunt. Guardian. Whatever.” She shook her head. “Are you, you know, acclimating okay? Called your mother?”

“All of them,” Sam said. “The whole crew. Surprised my ears are still attached.”

May pulled another tissue from her purse and handed it to him. He laughed a little, but accepted it.

“Clint,” Sam said. “Come out of the goddamn vents and say hi like a normal person.”

Silence.

A pair of boots thumped on the floor behind them; May whirled around to find Hawkeye dropping to the ground beneath an air vent. “How the hell did you know he was up there?” she asked. “I didn’t hear a thing.”

“Neither did I.” Sam grinned at Hawkeye. “Just guessed right.”

Hawkeye wasn’t grinning. “Looks worse up close,” he said, bending over Peter. “What is it with these kids?”

“Something in the water,” Sam said.

Hawkeye looked May up and down with an unsettlingly sharp glance. “Clint,” he said, and shook her hand. “Barton. Hawkeye. For the record, I told him not to do this.”

“Nice to meet you,” May said. “I think. I’m May.”

“I know.” Clint perched on the arm of one of the armchairs on the other side of Peter’s bed. “For the other record, I’m glad he did it.”

Sam pulled in a shuddery breath. “I’m not,” he said. “I should have—”

“Don’t,” May said, “Just—don’t. If I’ve learned anything from all of this, it’s that guilt is just…useless. Don’t go there. I shouldn’t have let him continue, once I found out. But I did. Because that’s—who he is. And so is this.”

“He ever does this again,” Clint said, “I’m going to string him up for target practice.”

May pulled another tissue out of her purse and shoved it at Clint.

Clint rolled his eyes, but accepted it and stuffed it into one of the many tiny pockets on his tac vest. “He’s going to be okay,” he said. “Right?”

“Dr. Cho thinks he will be.” May cleared her throat. “He’s pretty out of it right now, though. Just called me ‘mom.’”

“Sounds pretty oriented to me,” Sam said. He glanced over at her, a small smile playing around his lips. “He talked about you all the time, over there. Loves you like it’s nobody’s business.”

May swallowed hard. “Why do I get the feeling that Peter came out of there with more fathers than he went in with?”

Sam and Clint exchanged a glance. “Because he did,” Clint said. “Get some rest. Both of you. Get out of here. Sleep. Or whatever. Go.”

“I’m not leaving,” May said.

“Seriously, go,” Clint said. “Bedtime. I got this.”

“Cool your jets, birdie,” Sam said. “If you want to actually use that tissue, I promise I won’t tell.”

“I will.” Black Widow dropped out of the vent after Clint and settled into his chair.

“You realize we could actually make a band now, right?” Clint said. “Peter and the Jailbirds. And Wanda. Wanda and the Birds and the Bugs? I’ll keep working on it.”

“I think I missed you,” Black Widow said. “Didn't I miss you? I don’t remember why.”

“Beats me,” Sam said. “Want to introduce yourself to the nice lady?”

Black Widow looked May up and down, then smiled a little, to May’s surprise. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Natasha. Your nephew is insane.” She thought for a moment, then added, “In a good way.”

“Thanks,” May said. “I think.”

 

 


 

 

There was a cool, wet cloth on his forehead, sweeping his hair back and giving him a moment of relief from the fire in his blood. As it swept over his cheeks, Peter’s eyes fluttered open.

Ned smiled at him shakily. “Hey, man.”

It took Peter a few minutes to find words in the boiling-over soup of his brain. “Hey,” he managed at last. That was a word, right? Probably?

“How’re you doing?”

Burning up, Peter tried to convey to Ned through his radioactive brainwaves. It didn’t seem to work so well. Wasn’t he telepathic? Or had he dreamed that?

“I know you’ve never had any chill,” Ned was saying when Peter tuned back in, “but this is a little much, even for you. Wanna take it down a notch?”

Ned rearranged something by Peter’s body. A distant sense of coolness spread across Peter’s skin. He shivered. Why was he shivering? He was too hot.

Fever. He had a fever. Such fever. Much wow.

Oh god.

Peter finally managed to follow a thought through from start to finish, hanging onto its tail for dear life. “Sep,” he rasped at last. “Seps—”

“Yeah,” Ned said. “You have sepsis. Great job, dude. A-plus effort. We’re all so proud of you. You caught ‘em all. Now maybe, just maybe, you could tone it down a bit? We get the point.”

“Gon’ die,” Peter said. He didn’t like this thought anymore. He tried to get rid of it, but it bit his hand—it bit him! rude. that hurt—and hung on tight.   

“If you die,” Ned said, “I will personally respawn in hell and drag your spandex-covered midget brain out of there.”

Peter closed his eyes. God, it hurt. Everything hurt. His arm, his thigh, his stomach. His body. His brain. It was so hard to breathe. 

“Don’ wan’ die,” he whispered.  

He was on fire. Melting. Like hot fudge. He liked hot fudge.

The cloth was on his forehead again, even colder this time. Icy fresh. Dripping down the back of his neck like a snowball on his collar. Why didn’t he usually like snow dripping down his neck? It was wonderful. Many wonderful. Much good.

“Peter,” Ned was saying. “Peter! Focus, man.”

Peter blinked up at Ned again.

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Ned said. “I mean it.”

He looked like he was about to cry, which was bad, so bad, all of the bad, really bad, no, Ned, don’t. It’s okay.

It took Peter twenty-three tries to uncurl his hand from the sheets and stretch it towards Ned. Or maybe just four tries, but twenty-three was a pretty number, a number you could dance with, dance all night, every night.

His brain did another loop-de-loop around that thought, spinning in rainbow-sparkled circles. Dancing. Dancing was nice. What if he had a rainbow suit? That would be so cool. No, he was red and blue. Red and blue makes purple. Ned should have a rainbow suit. With wings. And a fire extinguisher.

Peter was burning up. Into ashes.

Ashes, ashes. Glittery ashes. Fall down.

Ned folded Peter’s hand between his own. “I got you, man,” he said. “Just hang on, okay? I got you.”

Peter hung on tight to Ned’s hand and closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

He was aware of the pain before he even realized he was awake. It surged over him like the breakers off of Coney Island, all-consuming and overwhelming. He clenched his fists to weather it, but it didn’t end, it wouldn’t leave him alone—

But he was alive. He was awake, and…he hadn’t really expected to wake up again.

He cracked one eye open and squinted out into the room. The lights were dim. The room was quiet. The tubes of a nasal cannula draped over his ears. A sheet covered his body. May sat slumped against the side of an armchair, eyes closed, snoring softly.

Hi, Peter said, I love you, I missed you, are you okay? but it came out as “Hnnnnngh.”

May jolted upright, glasses slightly askew. “What’s going on? Who—oh, Peter. She swept his hair back from his forehead with a trembling hand. “Sweetheart. How are you?”

“Hey,” Peter rasped, or tried to. He crumpled forward in a coughing fit that hurt, crap, that hurt. May’s hands were on him, steadying him in place, stroking his arm. At last he sank back to the pillows, eyes shut tight, and took long slow breaths until he didn’t feel like he was drowning anymore.

“Oh, honey,” May was saying. “I’m so sorry.”

“Water?” Peter croaked.

“We’re not allowed to let you eat or drink anything,” May said. “I’m sorry. Not till you’re healed.”

“Nothing?” Peter’s eyes widened. His mouth still tasted like blood.

“You just survived sepsis and a one-seventeen degree fever,” Luis said, bustling into Peter’s room, “if you think we’re going to play fast and loose with the rest of your recovery, I may have to check you out for a concussion.”

He tapped one of the machines by Peter’s bed and started to take Peter’s vitals. “How’re you feeling?”

“Crappy,” Peter rasped.

“Seriously?” Luis laughed. “You got shot three times, you’re allowed to swear if you want to.”

“‘S that how it works?”

“Yup,” Luis said.

“Does that mean I’m not allowed to swear?” May asked.

“Are you kidding? I’m from Staten Island. I know a Queens accent when I hear one. I’m not even going to try to stop you.”

Peter started to laugh, then really, really, regretted it. “Yeah, okay,” he whispered, as the white-hot surge of pain slowly receded. “This really sucks.”

“Atta boy,” Luis said. “As long as you can make jokes, you’ll be fine.”

“Don’t encourage him,” May said, but her eyes were already crinkling into a smile.

“Nah, don’t worry,” Luis said. “If he’s still not swearing after three months with Clint, I don’t think he ever will.”

“Not what I meant,” May sighed.

Luis grinned at Peter as he tied Peter’s hospital gown back into place. “Tell FRIDAY if you need me, all right? And try not to get into too much trouble.”

“Okay,” Peter said.

Luis squinted at him, then pulled out his thermometer and scanned Peter again.

Peter held his straight expression for another second, then cracked up. “Your face,” he cackled, then clenched his fists with a quiet groan. “Ahhh. Oh god. No. Okay. No laughing. That hurts. Crap, that hurts. No more jokes. I promise.”

“Karma,” Luis cackled. He patted Peter's uninjured shoulder and left the room.

The sudden silence was a little deafening. May folded Peter’s hand between her own and held on tight, as though he might disappear at any moment. “Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” Peter said. “Are you…okay?”

“Your room’s just the way you left it,” May said. “Except cleaner.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t you ever sacrifice yourself for me again,” May said, because for an animal-lover, she was surprisingly great at murdering elephants in the room. “When Ross took me, I told you to run, I told you to—I would never want you to be hurt because of me, do you hear me? Never. Ever. At all.”

“That’s not…something I…can promise.”

“I don’t know how you do it. How is it that I’m completely furious with you, and also—” May shook her head. “So goddamn proud.”

“I’m sorry,” Peter croaked. It was hard to breathe, harder when May had that look on her face like she was cracking up like a cement sidewalk under the Hulk’s feet.

“No, sweetheart, don’t. Please. I’m just glad to have you back. Alive. Almost in one piece.”

“Only…one piece!” Peter protested.

“With a few holes.”

“Like that…Swiss cheese…you liked.”

“Sure I can't persuade you to retire?” May asked.

Peter just smiled up at her, half-drunk with the sheer joy of being (almost) home again. “Can try,” he said.

“Endless cookies.”

“That…you baked?”

“I can try to learn how to cook! You can help. We can bake them together.”

“That sounds,” Peter said, and coughed. Something was stuck in his throat. Probably the elephant. There was an young spider who swallowed an elephant…no, that’s not how the rhyme went.

It was entirely possible that pain was playing tricks on his brain.

When he managed to focus again, May was still holding his hand. “What kind of cookies,” she said softly.

“All of them,” Peter croaked. He could picture them baking together, lazy weekend sunshine fluttering through the kitchen curtains, laughing their heads off, the smoke alarm blaring until he crawled across the ceiling and took the batteries out. Giving up and eating the cookie dough straight from the bowl. Ned offering helpful tips and finally just taking over from May, because he was actually a really good baker. MJ sketching them all and stealing bites of Peter’s cookies.

Home.

Something was still stuck in his throat. Probably not an elephant.

“You’re safe, hun,” May was saying. “It’s all right. Go back to sleep, all right?”

“Are you,” Peter tried again, “okay?”

May just looked down at him for a moment, then brushed his hair back from his forehead. “You wouldn’t object if I wrapped you in a few dozen blankets and kept you there for the next ten years, would you?”

“Right now?” Peter asked sleepily. “Okay.” His eyes caught on the fond star-lines of May’s eyes, the exhausted droop of her shoulders. “Might object later.”

“I’ll settle for right now,” May said. She tucked the blanket in a little tighter around Peter’s shoulders.

I love you, Peter said, I missed you, I don’t know what I’d do without you. I’m always going to sacrifice myself for you. Every time. There’s no way I’ll ever let them hurt you. Not if there’s a way I can stop it.

“Now,” Peter said instead, already halfway asleep, “now sounds great.”

 

 


 

 

Peter cracked an eye open and squinted out at the room. Dim, quiet, clean. Window tinted to let just a hint of the bright morning light inside. Sam sat in the armchair beside his bed, halfway through a novel.

“Hey,” Peter croaked.

“Don’t you ever do that again,” Sam said, eyes fixed on his book. 

Peter smiled a little.

“I know,” Sam sighed, and looked up at Peter. “I just had to at least give it a try, you know? Pro forma.”

“Thank you,” Peter rasped. “For—” He had to stop for a moment to breathe, hands fisting in the sheets. “Saving…my life. On the jet.”

“That was just payback, son. You saved mine first, jumping in front of that gun like the insane motherfucker you are.”

“No. I helped…put you…in the Raft. Still…owe.”

“Doesn’t work that way.” Sam patted Peter’s uninjured arm. “You’re on my team now. We don’t keep score.”

Peter just looked at Sam, eyes pinched with pain. “Owe you,” he said. “Lot. Kept me…sane.”

“Same back at you, son.” Sam met Peter’s gaze with a quiet smile. “Seriously. At the very least, I might keep you on as my personal nightmare detector. You’re damn good at it.”

Peter smiled a little. “Okay,” he coughed. “Can do that.”

“But right now, your job is to get better, capisce?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“I’ve got a magical playlist. Works wonders on wayward superheros. Been refining it over the years. Want to listen?”

“Gonna fall asleep. Maybe. I hope.”

“That’s okay. It works just as well when you’re asleep.”

“I’ll owe you more,” Peter murmured.

“Seriously, man. It doesn’t work that way. But if you're still feeling guilty when you’re up and about again, you can help me and Cap move back into our apartment, how’s that sound? Move all of the big shit. With Cap. So I can just lie back on the couch and tell you two where to set everything up."

“Okay.” Peter grinned sleepily up at Sam. “Can do.”

“It’s a deal.” Sam patted Peter’s shoulder, then leaned back again in his chair and propped his feet up against the railing of Peter’s bed. “Hit it, FRIDAY.”

Peter was asleep within the first two bars.

 

 


 

 

Peter’s eyes fluttered open slowly.

The room was still blessedly dark. Ned tapped quietly on his laptop, eyes fixed on the screen. MJ, perching haphazardly on her own armchair, caught his eye over her book.

Peter blinked at her.

MJ’s face cracked into a crooked grin. “Morning,” she said. “How’s the weather over there?”

“Hey,” Peter croaked. “What’d I miss?”

“This dumbass won the science fair,” MJ said, elbowing Ned. “AcaDec won regionals, lost nationals. The country’s still a dumpster fire. But not literally. They’re waiting for you to come back and hop into it.”

“Wouldn’t be,” Peter rasped, “a dumpster fire…without me…in it.”

“Yeah, I still want to work on that.” Ned propped his elbow on the arm of his chair and beamed at Peter. “I don’t care if your suit’s mostly fireproof, you still stink up the entire room when you come back from one of those.”

“Sorry,” Peter rasped.

“I miss that smell,” Ned said.

Peter nodded shakily. “I,” he said, and coughed again. “I missed you guys.”

“I sent you so many texts,” Ned said. “Like, so many. I think I may have set a record for most texts ever sent with no response.”

“I think I may have set that with Happy, actually.”

“No,” Ned said, “nope, nuh-uh. World record, Peter. On your phone. Read them, or maybe don’t, they don’t make a lot of sense. But anyway, I missed you. A lot. Welcome back to your natural habitat.”

“Thanks, man.” Peter lifted a hand to start their handshake, then let it fall back to the bed, too tired to move that much. I wrote you both so many letters, he wanted to say, but he wasn’t quite ready to talk about that yet. Ned tapped his fist to Peter’s anyway, in lieu of their full handshake.

“How are you?” MJ asked, eyes intent on Peter’s.

“I’m,” Peter said, and stalled out in midair. “Uh.”

“Later,” MJ said. “We can talk later.”

Peter nodded.

“Morning, Spiderling.” Tony strolled in, already back in a crisp suit. “How’s life back in the free world?”

“How is everyone?” Peter asked.

“All present and accounted for. Clint’s jokes have not improved. Sam and Steve have disappeared to do some absurdly cute reunion ceremony, or something, I don’t ask them too many questions. Nat’s in the armory, restocking. I don’t ask her too many questions either. Bucky’s disappeared entirely. Would be weirder if he hadn’t. I think. Anyway. Wanda’s in the PT room, getting checked out for, uh, damage from that goddamn straitjacket. Looks okay, though. Your suit’s in my shop, getting a full repair and upgrade. Got a few ideas for new features.”

“Yeah? Like what?” Peter shifted to get more comfortable, reached up to scratch an itch on his neck, and stopped short. “Uh,” he said.

“What?” Ned straightened up in his chair. “What’s wrong? Should I call in one of the nurses?”

“Why,” Peter said, desperately trying to keep his voice level. “Why is the collar still on?” For a moment, the world lurched around him. Was he still in custody? Were they going to send him back there? Keep this on forever, just to keep him docile?

“Well,” Tony started, “it looks pretty good on you, you know—”

MJ and Ned shot a joint deathglare up at Tony. It looked like they’d been practicing.

“Right.” Tony swallowed hard and refocused on Peter. “So. It’s got a funny little feature, designed to incapacitate the occupant during removal or deactivation. The backup power source administers a 90-second—”

“I know,” Peter interrupted.

“A 90-second what?” Ned’s eyes widened.  

“You—” Tony stopped short and shook his head in fond dismay. “You got it open. Of course you got it open. Why am I not surprised.”

“You made that disgusting thing?” MJ shot to her feet.

“And I can get it open again,” Peter said. “I know how. I just need to tie it to—”

Tony held up a hand as though to freeze Peter in place. “Ah-ah-ah. Nope. Cho said your body can’t handle a shock like that right now. She’s going to monitor you and wait until you’re more recovered before taking it off. At least 24 hours, probably 48.”

MJ flipped the sheet up over Peter’s face and plonked down onto the bed beside him in one smooth motion. Peter closed his eyes, embarrassingly grateful for the mask. He wasn't going to cry, he wasn't going to cry, he wasn't going to cry, he wasn't. He could still feel their hands on him, manhandling him against the wall to put on the cuffs, shocking him just long enough to keep him still. He needed it off, please, please—

“That’s a really fucked-up design,” MJ said.

“I know,” Tony said quietly. “And while the kid’s been napping, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to dismantle that feature. But I can’t change it while it’s still around his neck. I’ve tried. It’s still going to administer a shock.”

“I can take a look at it,” Ned said, “maybe—”

“Go for it.” Tony tossed him a datapad. “FRIDAY, give him the specs and the code. But seriously, kid, I’ve been trying. Nothing gives.”

“I mean, I kinda hacked into his suit before, so—”

“I know.” Tony’s tone was probably supposed to be disapproving, but ended up sounding more like and Pepper will be making you a job offer in a few years. “But this isn’t a hacking job. It’s a masterpiece of electrical engineering, and a—badly designed object.”

“You really just said that,” MJ said. “I’m so proud of you.”

“Look,” Tony said. “It’ll just be another day. Or two. All of the remotes keyed to this collar are sinking towards the bottom of the Atlantic. No one’s going to touch it. He’ll be all right.”

Ned and MJ were silent.

“I’m sorry,” Tony said.

“It’s okay,” Peter said from beneath the sheet. “It’s okay, it’s fine, it’s okay. It’s okay.”

“Shoo,” MJ said.

Tony’s shoes clicked across the floor. The door slid shut behind him. Ned started to confer with FRIDAY in hushed tones.

MJ tapped her knuckles against Peter’s forehead, through the sheet. “Can I come in?” she asked.

Peter laughed a little. “Yeah,” he said, and lifted the edge of the sheet. She slid beneath it and curled up next to him. He shifted a little closer, winced, and stopped short.

“Serves you right for moving,” MJ said, and scooted a little closer to meet him.

“Mistake,” Peter agreed. "Huge."

“You were going to show me Star Wars,” she said.

He blinked at her in surprise. “That—we were talking about that months ago,” he said. “Before. You still—”

“Of course I still want to see it, dumbass. It'll help me understand about 50% more of your conversations with Ned.”

“Oh,” he said.

“Oh,” she agreed, and flipped the sheet back down so they could see the translucent screen on the wall. “Hey, FRIDAY,” she called. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

 

 

 

By the time the Falcon shot up out of Mos Eisley, Peter was well and truly asleep. MJ paused the movie, slipped out of the bed to retrieve her sketchbook, and drew Peter’s face—mostly peaceful, marked by a few pinches of lingering pain. She turned to Ned next and drew him too, lit in sharp blue by Stark’s datapad, mouth tightening into increasingly bleak lines.

Even Stark couldn’t do it, she wanted to say, it’s okay.

But he hadn’t said that to her while she’d waged an increasingly desperate war to gather public indignation against the Raft and set Peter free.

So instead, she flopped onto the couch beside him and leaned over his shoulder.

“Electrical engineering isn’t my specialty,” she said. “But I’m a pro at cutting through Stark’s bullshit.”

Ned laughed at that and angled the datapad so she could see it better. “You’re going to need a machete for this,” he said. “The bullshit and the engineering are both strong with this one.”

“That’s another Star Wars quote, isn’t it.”

“Yep,” Ned said. “You haven’t gotten to that point in the movie yet. But see? You’re already getting the hang of Star Wars!”

“Nope,” MJ sighed. “I’ve just gotten the hang of you two nerds.”

Chapter Text

Peter cracked an eye open and looked out into the cell. No, the room. Not a cell. Just a room. With a door he could open, if he could figure out how to get out of bed.

He started to sit up, then slumped back against the pillows with a punched-out groan.

“Moving’s overrated,” Tony said, leaning back in his chair. “Trust me. All the cool kids are staying still.”

“Mmm,” Peter said. God, his body hurt. Pain lanced up his body in iridescent darts, twisting his nerves like fraying optical fibers.

“Your accomplice and your girlfriend are in the atrium. I kicked them out of here for an hour. Told them they need to take a break. Sleep, or eat, or something. I don’t know. I don’t think they are. No one listens to me.”

“She’s not my—” Peter sighed. “You…told them to…take a break?”

“I don’t appreciate your tone of voice,” Tony said. “I know perfectly well how to take care of myself and others.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“In my own home. I don’t believe this. FRIDAY, what did I do to deserve this?”

« Item one out of 316: You— »

“If you finish that sentence I will deprogram you,” Tony said, smoothing the creases out of his pants. His hair was greyer than Peter remembered, much greyer. Maybe he’d just stopped dyeing it.

“Missed you,” Peter said.

Tony looked down at him. “If you ever throw yourself in front of a gun again, I’ll add little floaty wings to your suit. You know, those things little kids wear in swimming pools.”

“Could…come in handy. In the river.”

“I’m sorry about the collar,” Tony said quietly. “Wasn’t meant to be used on—” He waved a hand at Peter.

“You don’t,” Peter said, smile fading, “get to decide. Who uses your tools.”

Tony smoothed an invisible crease out of his pants. “Like the Tellor Propellant Rifle that ‘missed’ Sam?”

“Well,” Peter managed, because as long as he could make a joke, he could ignore reality. “Now you know they work.”

“They do.” Tony looked at Peter, mouth pulling into a tense line. “And clearly, we don’t. It’s not working out. The whole mentor-mentee, paternal figure thing.”

“What? What—what do you mean? I—I’m sorry, I—”

“No no no, not your fault. You’ll still be on the team, or adjacent to it, if you still want to keep a low profile. I’m just going to tag Steve in to be your mentor, instead of me. It’s about time he took on more of a leadership role. Be good for both of you.”

“I’m sorry I…got shot,” Peter said, breath coming painfully fast. “I—”

“Kid.” Tony leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees. “Listen to me. You’ve done nothing wrong—well, in this situation, at least, there have been plenty of other situations where you—no, that’s irrelevant, that’s not what I’m talking about here.  This is just a changing of the guard. New year, new coach. Fresh start.”

“You’re…leaving.” Peter stared up at him, eyes wide.

“No, I’ll still be here. Make you some new tech, and all. I just won’t be your handler anymore.”

“Oh.” There was a sick lurch in Peter’s stomach. It was probably the stitches pulling something deep inside him. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Tony said. “What do you mean, okay? Okay like, you’re going to crawl in my window at night and—”

“If you want to leave,” Peter said, fighting to keep his voice steady, “then leave. Won’t stop you. Not getting up…anytime…soon.” Maybe this was his fault, maybe it wasn’t. Either way, he didn’t want to be anyone’s burden. The last thing he’d ever wanted was someone keeping him around but not really wanting him.

“Look, kid,” Tony said. “I'm not doing this to hurt you. I'm doing this to help you.”

“You think leaving…will help me?”

“Obviously. You deserve a better mentor.”

“Right,” Peter said. He just couldn’t breathe, it hurt, crap, it hurt too much. Everything hurt. He couldn’t juggle both coherence and tact at the same time. “So what…happens now? You…give me a speech…and leave? Again?”

“I’m not—the ferry was different, kid. You needed that. A hard restart, you know? Flush out your cache. Reset your system.”

“Maybe I…needed…the speech. But walking…away?”

“I’m not walking away, kid, I’m passing you on. Like a torch.”

“Torches,” Peter coughed, “are for Olympics. Not people.”

“Go ahead, pick on my metaphor. Steve’s a solid guy, knows his stuff. He’ll have plenty to teach you.”

“Steve teaching me…and you leaving…are two separate things.”

“You need someone who can teach you how to be the hero you want to be. That's not me. So I’m transferring you to better hands. More, you know, stable hands. Noble hands. Patriotic hands. Hands that have punched more Nazis than any of us can ever hope to.”

“Did you ever…at any point…think about asking me what I needed? Or did you just…make the decision…for me?” Peter’s thoughts slid hazily around coherence, unmoored by pain. Brain-to-mouth filter seemed like an unnecessary hindrance.

“Look, Peter. I wanted to be a good, you know, mentor, father-figure kind of thing. Tried it. Failed at it. I'm shit at this whole parenting business. So I'm going to hand you off to someone who can do it right.”

“I don’t,” Peter said, voice scraping painfully in his throat, “fucking need. Another father. I had Ben. And my dad. And I have May now for—for everything. I don’t need anyone else.”

The heart monitor ticked crisply in the silent room.

Tony stared down at Peter, jaw clenched.

“You can’t…replace them,” Peter rasped. “And I don’t…need you to. I don’t need you to…put on some kind of…best-dad-ever act. If you want to leave…then leave. But don’t pretend you’re…doing it to help me.”

“I am. You don’t need me around. I'm the reason you were in there so long. I should have swallowed my pride. Called Steve earlier.”

“So,” Peter said, voice raw. “You fucked up.”

Tony’s knuckles whitened around the arm of his chair.

“I’m not,” Peter croaked, “going to try to…talk you out of your guilt. I know…no one can do that. Only thing…you can do…is move forward. Make it right.”

Tony reached out slowly and brushed the tears off Peter's cheeks.

Peter closed his eyes.

“You want me to stay,” Tony said. “Be your mentor. Instead of Captain America.”

Peter lifted his good shoulder in an approximation of a shrug. He couldn’t open his eyes. He didn’t want to watch Tony search for the right words to let him down slowly.

“Are you insane?” Tony asked.

Peter blinked up at him, completely nonplussed. “Yeah,” he said before he even registered the question. “Probably.”

“I just want to make sure you have someone who’ll teach you the ropes around here. Make sure you live to your twenty-first birthday. Hopefully your hundred and first, too.”

“Technically…you’re older. Than Steve.”

“Excuse you, Steve is ninety-nine years old.”

“Frozen.”

“That’s just cheating.”

“No. Science.”

Tony laughed softly. “God, I missed you, kid.”

A desperate strand of hope wrapped itself around Peter’s throat and tightened, cutting off his air. “Missed you,” he managed at last. “Too.”

“But you don’t want another father figure.”

“No,” Peter said. His mouth twitched towards a disbelieving smile. “But I could always use another crazy friend.”

“That,” Tony sighed, “I can do.”

“You’re going to…stay?” The heart monitor kicked up a notch, echoing against the tinted glass of the window.

“I know I can’t replace your father. Or your uncle. And I don’t want to repeat my recent friendship adventures, say, ever. But if you want me to stay…” Tony sighed. “I’d be honored to. You’re completely bonkers to choose me over Coach Steve, but hey, I can work with bonkers."  

“Oh,” Peter said, instead of crying with gratitude. “Uh. Good. B-bonkers is all I’ve g-got.”

“I’m going to keep fucking up. Regularly. Ask Pepper.”

“So will I. Ask…anybody, really.” Peter’s half-laugh quickly dropped into a pained groan. His hand hovered over the bandages around his waist, afraid to touch anything.  

“Recovering from surgery without painkillers isn’t for the faint of heart, is it,” Tony said.

Peter nodded, eyes screwed shut. He just needed the pain to go away, just for a minute, just to let him breathe, think clearly, relax. Just for a minute.

The bed clinked a little as Tony put his feet up on the railing. Peter blinked up at him. Tony patted Peter’s shoulder in the most awkward non-hug Peter had ever experienced.

“FRIDAY,” Tony said. “Play Peter’s favorite movie.”

“How does FRIDAY know—”

“Shhhh,” Tony said. “Don’t argue.”

“Kinda creepy, man,” Peter said.

“Oh, come on. Hacking the Parker household’s Netflix account is hardly the worst breach of your privacy I’ve ever done.”

“That really doesn’t make it better,” Peter said.

Tony squinted at him. “Already regretting keeping me on as your crazy friend?”

“Nah,” Peter said. “Just wondering how long it’ll take Ned to hack your movie collection.”

Tony sighed and shook his head. “In my own home,” he said again. “I don’t believe this. I’ve been doing so many nice things for you, you know? I even made some improvements to your suit. Added a cooling system, not that you’ll need it until the snow melts. Improved the durability and elasticity of the fabric, so the suit’ll still fit when you hit your growth spurt…” He squinted at Peter. “If you ever hit a growth spurt.”

“‘S okay,” Peter sighed, “Always been shorter than MJ. Bad guys. Everybody else. Used to it.”

“Positive attitude. I like it.”

“Mmm,” Peter said, closing his eyes.

Tony patted Peter’s shoulder again, a little smoother this time. “Sleep, kid,” he said. “We’ll be here when you wake up. I’ll even leave you a flyswatter, so you can shoo me away when you come to your senses and realize that you want Cap to be your mentor instead of me. Which you probably already have, come to think of it.”

“Nah,” Peter murmured, already halfway asleep. “You’re crazy. So am I. Great match.”

“Oh, is that how it is.” Tony tucked the blankets in a little tighter around Peter’s shoulders.

“Mmm-hmm.” Peter was pretty sure Tony said something like love you, kid, but he was already mostly asleep, so it was probably just a weird pain-induced dream.

 

 


 

 

May opened the door as quietly as she could and poked her head inside. Tony glanced up, one finger already at his lips to shush her. Peter was still in bed, asleep, alive. He was frowning slightly in his sleep, but his color looked better, even in the flickering black-and-white lights of the TV. The Marx Brothers were playing on silent, subtitles scrolling by. Not that she needed them to know what Chico was saying, after watching them with Ben and Peter far too many times to count.

May looked at Peter again, then raised a brow at Tony. Tony shrugged, one corner of his mouth crooking upwards in a rueful smirk. He rocked one hand in the air, so-so.

There was something different in his posture, something that didn’t raise her hackles as high as he usually did. Maybe it was the way Peter’s hair stuck up above his forehead, like Tony had swept it back for him. Maybe it was the way Peter’s head was turned slightly towards Tony, hands open and loose. Maybe it was the shadows under Tony’s eyes, standing out sharper in the flickering black and white of the TV.

May nodded. Thank you, she mouthed, and closed the door as quietly as she could.

Chapter Text

“What the hell did you do?” Wanda shouted, barreling into Peter’s room and bashing the door open so hard it bounced back and nearly clipped her heels on the way in. “You fucking idiotic bastard—” She went on for another five minutes in Sokovian, probably cursing Peter’s hair and farm and family and fashion sense and honor and car and future career and romantic prospects, all in one volcanic tirade.

“I'm sorry,” Peter said at last, when she seemed to be winding down. “I’m really sorry, Wanda. But I had to, okay? What else could I have done?”

Wanda stepped up to Peter’s bed, loomed over him, and stared him down. “Don’t you ever do that again,” she said. “You scared the shit out of Clint.”

Peter stared back up at her, uncowed. “I had to. Sam would have died.”

“I know.” Wanda clawed a hand back through her hair. “I know, I know. But you almost died too. There must have been a way to save him without getting fucking shot. What the fucking hell is wrong with you idiotic superhero boys?”

“Everything, like, so many things. All the things. Are you looking for a particular category? Alphabetical order?”

Wanda leaned in way too close, until her forehead was almost touching Peter’s. “If you ever do that again,” she said, enunciating each word with deadly precision, “I will cut off your ears, chop them into tiny bits, and smoke them into paprika sausages.”

“You really put a lot of effort into your curses. I appreciate that kind of dedication and—ow!” Peter winced as Wanda grabbed a handful of his hair and tugged on it. “I already apologized,” he said, before she could start in on him again. “And I meant it. I’m sorry I scared you. I’m sorry I reminded you of Pietro. But I'm not sorry I did it. And I’m not going to promise to not do it again. I’d do it for any of you.”

“Motherfucker,” Wanda said. She sank into the chair by Peter’s bed and put her head in her hands. “You’re going to train with me,” she said. “To find ways to save people without getting shot.”

“Deal,” Peter said, trying not to hyperventilate at the idea of actually training with Scarlet Witch holy shit.

“But right now…”

“I’m not allowed out yet,” Peter said, watching Wanda’s face carefully for any reaction.

“Of course not. You have more holes than a Russian stewpot.”

“Mmm.”

“And far less common sense,” Wanda added.

“Hey. I resemble that remark.”

“Focus up, spandex-butt,” Wanda said in Sokovian. “Lesson time.”

“You know,” Peter said, lips twitching against a smile, “‘spandex’ sounds about the same in Sokovian as it does in English, so I’m pretty sure that the word after it is, like, ‘man,’ or ‘spider.’ Or ‘hero,’ maybe? That’s your nickname for me, right? Spandex-Hero?”

“Don’t play dumb, spandex-butt.”

“This is great,” Peter said, “I knew I was getting the hang of Sokovian.”

“Today I am going to tell you a story,” Wanda said. “You will translate after me.”

“Okay.”

“Once upon a time,” Wanda said. “A pair of twins were born in a beautiful apartment in the east end of Novi Grad.”

“Once upon a time,” Peter said in slow, halting Sokovian. “You had a brother.”

Wanda stared down at him.

“What was he like?” Peter asked.

“Once upon a time,” Wanda said—first in Sokovian, then in English— “he was my partner in everything. We rioted together. Volunteered for—this—” she held up a hand, fingers flickering with red— “together. Fought the Avengers together. Protected a city together. And then he was dumb, just like you, stupid idiot with no thoughts in his head. So now there’s no body, no grave, nothing.”

“I’m sorry,” Peter said in Sokovian. “I’m so sorry.”

“Seriously,” Wanda said, “your accent is terrible. Come on, let’s work on it.”

 

 


 

 

Sam turned to Steve as soon as the door to their room closed behind them. “Do you want to fuck?”

Steve blinked at Sam. “Um,” he said.

“Fucking,” Sam said. “Yes? No? Been too long. I don't have time to waste.”

“This is new,” Steve said. “You sure you don’t want to, you know, talk? Feelings and shit?”

“No,” Sam said. “No, I really don’t want to talk.”

“Did you get a personality redo? Reset? Reboot? Whatever it’s called?”

“Maybe.” Sam slumped onto the bed and put his head in his hands. “Probably. God. I don’t know.”

Steve cautiously sat next to Sam and wrapped his arms around him. “You don’t have to be okay,” he said.

“Good.” Sam’s breath hitched unsteadily. “I’m not. I need to—I need to—” He stood in a rush, hands clenched into fists.

“Go for a run?” Steve asked.

Sam pointed at him. “Man with a plan,” he said. “Yes. Exactly. Where the hell are my sneakers?”

 

 

 

“You don’t have to hobble yourself to keep up with me,” Sam said. “Go for a real run, I’ll meet you at the end.”

“I know,” Steve said, not even winded. “I already ran this morning. I just wanted to come along for a nice cooldown walk.”

Sam glanced over and noticed that Steve wasn’t even running, just racewalking with a smooth, even gait. “I hate you,” he said.

“I love you too.” Steve grinned at Sam.

“I didn’t believe in you,” Sam said. He stopped short, hands on his hips, breathing hard.

Steve jolted to a halt a few paces beyond Sam. “What?”

“I didn’t believe you would ever get us out of there.” Sam couldn't meet Steve’s eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, face crumpling. “Fuck, Sam. I’m so—”

“I know,” Sam said. “Don’t make that face at me, man, I know you did everything you could, that’s your MO, no reason to change that now. I’m not trying to—blame you, or some shit. That’s not what I’m saying.”

Steve nodded, brow pinched tight.

“I thought—the whole way through,” Sam said, “I thought you were coming to rescue us. I knew you were. I believed so hard. It kept me going. Kept me sane.”

“I was trying to rescue you,” Steve rasped, “fuck, Sam, I never stopped trying—”

“I know. I know. And I held onto that as hard as I fucking could. But at night, sometimes I started thinking—what if you were dead? Or decided to get out of this game, cut your losses and grow a beard and move where no one would recognize you. What if you’d been captured too, brainwashed by HYDRA, blackmailed by Ross, who knows? Anything could’ve happened. It—it got—hard to believe.”

“I get that,” Steve said.

“No,” Sam said, “no, you don’t. You jump out of planes and roll a little, everything’s great. When I jumped out of planes, before I had wings, I had to just believe so goddamn hard that the parachute would open when I pulled the cord. That it wouldn’t jam, that I wouldn’t fuck it up. That I would be safe. Nothing to hold onto but hope.”

Steve stepped closer, eyes locked on Sam’s.

“You lose that hope,” Sam said, “you're just a bunch of dead weight falling through the air.”

Steve nodded, eyes glinting in the moonlight.

“But,” Sam rasped, “the thing is, even if that parachute doesn’t open, you’re still in the air. You’re still flying. And maybe it’s a quick drop, but god—” Sam spread his hands. “What else am I going to do? If this job does get me, one of these days—”

“It won’t,” Steve said fiercely, grabbing Sam’s arms. “It won’t.”

“If it does, I want to go down while I’m flying. I want to fall, and know that I’m falling for something important. So that’s what I held onto, at night. When I lost that hope.”

Steve reached up slowly, brushed tears off of Sam’s cheek.

“I thought,” Sam rasped, “‘well, here it is. I’m falling. And I’m still alive.’”

Steve wrapped his arms around Sam and hung on tight. Sam leaned into his embrace, eyes dry, staring out across the training grounds.

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered, voice catching. “I’m so sorry, Sam.”

“Yeah. Well. You did come. We’re out of there now. It’s okay. Everything’s going to be fine.”

“Everything is going to be what now?”

“Fine.”

Steve leaned back and squinted at Sam’s face.

“Hi,” Sam said. “Is there a reason you’re staring at me like—”

“You’re the one always telling me that it’s okay to not be fine,” Steve said. “What was I saying about a personality reboot?”

Sam stared back at him, brow pinching into a hard line. “I think you’re probably kidding, but I wasn’t, earlier. I—” He stopped short.

Steve’s thumb traced the hard stress-knots in Sam’s shoulders. “Talk to me,” he whispered. “Please.”

Sam closed his eyes. “I don’t think I’m the same guy now as the man who went into there,” he said at last.

Steve’s arms tightened around Sam. “You know,” he murmured into Sam’s shoulder, “That part, I think I understand pretty well.”

“Yeah,” Sam laughed, breath hitching. “Yeah, I bet you do.”

“And I love you,” Steve added. “So much. Always.”

“Love you too,” Sam mumbled, voice muffled in Steve’s shoulder, “you great big sweaty galumphing beefcake.”

“Same back at you,” Steve said. “Want to talk more, or get back to running?”

“Running,” Sam said, and took Steve’s hand.

Chapter Text

As Wanda unfolded herself from the chair at the end of their lesson, Peter leaned closer. “Close the door?” he whispered in Sokovian.

Wanda frowned at him, but did it. “Why?” she asked, settling back into the chair and propping her chin on her hands.

“What’s really going on?”

“What’s really…what do you mean? Did you hit your head, too? That’s not the KGB out there.”

“Are we—what’s happening now? With the Accords?”

“They’re working on a new set of Accords now,” Wanda said. “Hasn’t someone told you about it?”

“I mean, yeah, but—like—what’s going to happen to us?” Peter asked. “Are we allowed to leave?” His eyes flicked around the room, wondering how many bugs FRIDAY had, and how long it would take to trigger any alarms that had been set up to catch them.

“Of course, spandex-butt. What do you mean?”

“I just—I mean, I—I’m still in here, still with—” Peter gestured to his neck, noticing with a pang of bitter jealousy that her collar was already off. “I mean, are we—are we allowed to go outside? To go home? Is Ross going to come back for us, and…”

Wanda stared at Peter for a moment, face completely blank. “I’ll be back in a sec,” she said, and left his room.

The door shut behind her with a final click.

“No,” Peter whispered. “No, no, no. No. Please.” He frantically looked around the room, gauging the distance to the window. Could he gather enough momentum to break the glass and leap out to freedom? He started to sit up, then lost a few seconds, mind staticy with pain.

The door clicked open again. Peter’s hands clenched on the sheets, ready to make a break for it anyway—however much it hurt—before he recognized what Wanda was pushing in front of her.

A wheelchair.

“I would like to note,” Dr. Cho said, leaning against the doorjamb, “that I do not advise getting out of bed at this point.”

“It’s medically necessary,” Wanda said. “Hey, FRIDAY, can you ask MJ and Ned if they want to come on a adventure with us?”

“Just tell me the truth,” Peter whispered. “Please.”

Wanda knelt by the bed, eyes level with Peter’s, and spread her hands. “Do you see a straitjacket?”

“No, but—”

“There is no fucking way they will ever put me back in there. Or you. Or Sam. Or Clint. Or anyone here. Not going to happen. Is that very clear?”

Peter bit his lip.

“Time for a field trip,” Wanda said. “Yes? No?”

“Yes! Yes, please.” Peter looked up at Dr. Cho. “I mean—can I?”

“Ten minutes,” Dr. Cho sighed, and went to detach Peter’s IV and PICC lines. “Not one minute more. No getting out of the chair, no straining yourself, no walking or running or flips or tricks or moves or any kind. If at any point the pain starts to be too much, you come straight back, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 ridiculous Avengers who refuse to follow my medical advice.”

“I have been following it! Or at least trying to?”

Dr. Cho waved a hand at him. “I actually do agree with Wanda on this one. An excursion is not medically advisable, but it is probably necessary. Go. Have fun. But not too much fun.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you so—”

“Just don’t complain tonight when everything hurts,” Dr. Cho said, and stepped out of Peter’s room.

MJ and Ned clattered to a halt outside Peter’s room, already in their coats.

“Dude,” Ned said. “Are we really doing a jailbreak?”

“Too soon,” MJ said.

Peter grinned at them. “Hey, guys! Are you coming on this field trip too?”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Ned said.

“Don’t move,” Wanda said, and stretched out her hands towards Peter.

“Holy shit,” Peter said, clenching his fists on air as he floated off the bed and into the chair in a crimson haze. “Whoa. That’s so cool. I didn’t really get a chance to appreciate it earlier.”

“When I was throwing cars at you.”

“Yeah, that.” Peter leaned against the back of the wheelchair and just breathed for a bit, trying to focus through the pain.

“You sure you’re okay with this, man?” Ned asked.

“Mmm-hmm.” Peter gripped the arms of the wheelchair.

“Here.” Wanda dumped a pile of blankets onto Peter’s lap and started to tuck them in around him. “It’s cold out there. Remind me why we haven’t moved to Florida yet?”

“Dude, you’re from Sokovia,” Ned said. “Aren’t you used to winter?”

“Of course,” Wanda said. “Doesn’t mean I have to like it.” She pushed Peter out of the room and paused for a second to pick her own coat up from the floor— “Thanks, Clint,” she called, and got an answering bang from deep inside the vents.

Peter had a sneaking suspicion she’d also paused to let him take a second to handle being out of his medbay room and in the much larger medical atrium.

It was a big room.

Like, a really big room. Or maybe normal-sized. But it felt big. Really big. Had he mentioned yet how big it felt?

He was free.

Everything was a little bit dizzying, and it wasn’t just the effort of sitting upright in the chair.

Ned snuck in to take charge of the wheelchair’s handles while Wanda was still tugging her hat down over her ponytail. “To infinity…” he said, starting to roll Peter down the hall to the elevator.

“And beyond!” Peter laughed, eyes stinging a little.

MJ tucked a tissue into a fold of one of the blankets.

He looked up at her.

She smirked down at him. “It’s cold out there,” she said. “Wouldn’t want your nose to drip all over these lovely blankets.”

Peter unclenched his hand from the arm of the wheelchair and brushed his fingers against hers. “Thank you,” he said.

MJ tangled her fingers with his.

“Should I fine them for being too cute?” Ned stage-whispered to Wanda. “I mean, this is just obscene.”

“Of course you should,” Wanda said. “That’s what friends are for.”

“You both owe me a dollar,” Ned said.

“Do I even have money now?” Peter asked. “I mean, I feel like the government would have taken all of my assets ASAP.”

“Did you have any assets before?” MJ asked. “Like, an actual bank account? Investments? Property?”

“I…had a piggy bank shaped like the TARDIS?”

“The what?” Wanda asked.

“Oh my god,” Ned said. “Remedial nerdage, stat. Tonight, after dinner, Peter’s room, be there or be a hopeless square.”

“I have a feeling that particular asset is still safe,” MJ said.

“For now,” Peter said, and glanced up at MJ.

MJ smirked down at him.

“You should probably just take it, Ned,” Peter said.

“Yep,” MJ agreed. “I’ll bring you mine when we get back to school.”

“I mean,” Ned said, “I was mostly kidding about fining you guys. I’m glad you're being cute together. You deserve it.”

“Don’t make me fine you for getting sentimental on us,” MJ said.

“You’re right,” Ned said. “What was I thinking? I’m sitting on a gold mine here.”

The elevator doors opened out into the garden, glittering from an ice storm. Peter’s breath caught at the cold, but he’d been buried beneath enough blankets that even a snowstorm wouldn’t have been able to get through.

The wheelchair shot forward with sudden speed— Peter looked over his shoulder to find the handles laced with red fire. Ned and MJ ran after him, laughing. Wanda’s fingers flicked; he shot to the right, down a smoothly shoveled-out path.

And god, the compound was huge and the sky was a brilliant blue and the trees were as tall as high-rises and the sun was blinding and the garden was laced with diamonds. Frostbitten bushes glittered with ice-encased leaves. Evergreens bent over his head beneath the weight of the snow.

The wheelchair spun in place; Ned and MJ stumbled to a halt to avoid tripping on it. Peter’s cheeks hurt from smiling too hard. He reached towards them. MJ took his hand.

“Another dollar,” Ned said. “I’m going to start keeping track, you know.”

“That’s fair,” Peter said. “But wait a sec, is it a dollar from each of us every time? Can we split it? Or should the instigator pay? We should really negotiate the details here. I want a lawyer.”

“Here, you’ve got one.” Ned packed snow into the world’s tiniest snowman and dropped it in Peter’s lap, then pivoted on his heel to hurl a massive snowball at Wanda. She blasted it to bits, shaped the fragments into an ice-tipped crown, and floated it over to settle on Peter’s head.

“Oh, no you don’t.” MJ shook her head. “If his head gets any bigger, we won't be able to fit him back inside.”

“Hey! I resemble that remark. Wow, crap, that’s dripping down my neck. Ugh. Why is it so cold? The moment Cho clears me for action, you are all so busted.”

“All of us?” MJ asked. “Excuse you, I haven’t even touched the snow.”

“Which makes me nervous. What are you plotting?”

MJ just looked down at him with a crooked smirk.

“I’m doomed,” Peter sighed. “It was great knowing you guys.” He picked up the half-melted snowman sitting atop his pile of blankets and squinted at it. “Is that a lightsaber? How did you make such a tiny Jedi snowman?”

“Judge me by my size, do you?” Ned cackled, and attacked Peter with a snow-Jedi of his own. Peter met him blow for blow, breathless with laughter.

MJ wrapped her scarf over Peter’s eyes and tied it behind his head.

“Seriously?” Peter protested. “How am I supposed to save the galaxy like this?”

“Use your spidey-whatsit,” Wanda called.

“That doesn’t work on snow-people! No actual danger.” Peter lunged a little too far forward, pulled something in his side, and lost a few moments to a stab of blinding pain.

When the world blinked back into place around him, MJ was standing over him, hand cupped around his cheek. Ned hovered over her shoulder, eyes wide with fright. “Crap,” he was saying. “Oh, crap crap crap crap crap. That was a bad idea. Like, such a bad idea.”

“You think?” MJ asked. “Oh, hey, Peter. Good morning. You still with us? How’re you doing?”

Peter blinked up at her.

“Yes,” Wanda said, “that’s it, we’re done here.” The wheelchair spun in place, wheels laced with crimson, and headed back towards the doors.

“Oh my god,” Ned said, hurrying to keep up with the wheelchair. “Dr. Cho’s going to kill us.”

“No,” Peter rasped, “no, wait, guys, please. Stop. Stop!”

The wheelchair stopped. They all turned to look at him.

“It hasn’t been ten minutes yet,” Peter said, “has it?”

“You got hurt,” Wanda said, face locked down into Scary Vengebot Mode. “It is my fault. I should not have taken you out of the room.”

“No,” Ned said, “it’s mine. I shouldn’t have gotten into a lightsaber fight with you, it’s too physical, and I know how you get when we start playing Star Wars. Nothing stands between you and fulfilling your destiny.”

“It was a good game,” MJ said. “You guys were having fun. It’s my fault for not speaking up. I could see you were hurting.”

“Wow,” Peter said. “Seriously? Why are you always accusing me of having an overactive guilt complex? I’m the one who was dumb here, all right? I even melted my poor little snowman, I think, or at least I can’t find him anywhere.”

“I gave him an honorable burial in the snow,” Ned said.

“Thanks,” Peter said. “I think. Anyway, I just—can we—I mean, there’s the whole garden to explore, I’ve never been here in the snow before—”

“We’ve already been out here for nine minutes and fifteen seconds,” Wanda said. “I’d like to stay on Dr. Cho’s good side. I don’t heal like you do. I’ll probably need her to patch me up at some point, and not give me an extra nose.”   

“That’s…not a thing doctors do here,” Ned said.

“Or anywhere,” MJ said. “I hope. But it only takes thirty seconds to get back to Peter’s room from here.”

The wheelchair spun again, angling Peter’s body to face the sun.

“You’ve got fifteen seconds to improve your tan,” Wanda said.

Peter tilted his head back and let the sun’s heat sink into his bones, glinting off the snow almost as well as it glinted off the Chrysler Building. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “Thank you all. So much. I—”

“Seriously,” MJ said. “Sentimental. Don’t make me fine you.”

“The more you fine me for getting mushy,” Peter said, “the less I have to pay Ned when we earn a fine.”

“That’s…surprisingly logical for you, Parker,” MJ said.

“Fever must be coming back,” Ned said.

“Can’t believe I missed you guys,” Peter sighed. “What was I thinking?”

“I have no idea,” MJ said.

“That’s it,” Ned said. “I’m fining you. Forget the TARDIS, I’m pulling out Venmo.”

Chapter Text

Happy instinctively tossed Peter an energy bar as he entered the room, then reconsidered. “Oh, wait. Shoot. You’re not allowed—”

Peter snatched it out of the air with his uninjured arm and hugged it against his chest. “No take-backs.”

“It’s for your own good, kid.”

“I’m starving!”

“Isn’t that what one of those tube thingies is for? I thought Helen fixed you up with the delinquent teenage superhero special.”

“Well, yeah, but I still feel like I’m starving! I’m keeping this bar.”

“No, you’re not.”

“How about we negotiate?”

“Kid.”

“No. Absolutely not. It’s mine now.”

Happy held out a hand for the bar.

Peter handed the bar back. “I hate you all,” he grumbled.

“I know,” Happy said, settling into the armchair by Peter’s bed. He rummaged through his pockets for a pen, scrawled Peter’s name onto the wrapper, then stashed both pen and bar back in his pocket. “I’ll just keep this under escrow for a few days."

“Thanks, man,” Peter sighed. “A little life advice? Don’t get shot in the stomach. Worst ever. Such a bad idea. What on earth was I thinking?”

“Is it my imagination, or have your sass levels increased since I last saw you?”

“Always improving. It’s my mission in life.”

“Can’t believe I missed you, kid.”

Peter grinned at Happy. “Me neither.”

“Does this bed have a tray?” Happy asked. “Get the tray out.”

Peter slid the tray into place just in time for Happy to start dealing a deck of well-worn Iron Man cards. “ERS?” he asked hopefully.

“Do I look stupid? You still owe me a pen.”

“Hey! I won that fair and square.”

“Using your reflexes to swindle poor old men? You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“No regrets. It was a great pen.”

Happy stopped mid-deal and looked at Peter. “Was,” he said.

“MJ won it from me in a poker game. She’s unbeatable. And much less likely to lose a pen, so it’s probably safer with her. Hey, you could always play her and see if you could win it back!”

“Play poker against MJ?” Happy shook his head. “Kid. Even I’m not that dumb.”

“Yeah,” Peter sighed. “I’m a sucker for a beautiful brainiac.”

“You’re hopeless,” Happy agreed. “Just don’t play strip poker in the suit, okay? Unless you’re going to count each cartridge as a separate piece of clothing.”

“Spoilsport,” Peter said, and picked his up cards with a grin.

 

 


 

 

“Hey.” Steve rapped on the jamb of Peter’s open door. “Up for a little company?”

“Uh...sure! What’s up? Did you—holy crap!" Peter jerked away and yanked the sheet up to cover his face, heart tripping double-time. “What the hell, man.”

“It’s okay, Peter.” Steve stepped into the room. “Ken’s a friend.”

“What did you do?” Peter asked, fighting back nausea, and not just from the pain of moving. “Why would you tell someone?”

“I trust him, all right?” Steve said. “I fought with his grandfather in Germany.”

“For the record, he didn’t tell me,” Principal Morita said.

Peter blinked. Mr. Morita was still there, one large bluish shadow on the other side of the sheet.

“I read the news,” Mr. Morita said. “And I’ve also read you the riot act. Repeatedly. My youngest daughter is obsessed with Spider-Man, so I tend to notice when he’s—when you’re—on the news. Eventually, I noticed the pattern. I mean, D.C., really? Spider-Man is there once and only once, at the same time that the decathlon team is there, at the same time that one of our kids goes missing for a few hours? And then you disappeared three months ago, around the same time that Spider-Man did. Not that hard to connect the dots.”

“Oh my god. Oh my god.”

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Morita said. “I thought Steve had talked to you about—”

“No,” Peter said, “no, he did not. Seriously, man. You could at least ask first.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said. “I forgot you’ve got the whole secret identity thing. I won’t do that again.”

“I’m not going to tell anyone, Peter,” Mr. Morita’s voice dipped low and firm. “I promise you.”

“Am I expelled for real this time?”

“Nope. I came to bring you your make-up work.”

Oh, right. Three months of missed school. Peter had been trying not to think about that part. “Are you sure I can't just be expelled instead?”

“And go to a school where the principal won’t let you get credit for your internship at Stark Industries, where you work closely with Spider-Man and learn the ins and outs of the superhero life? Read a few books on the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, law enforcement, write a couple essays, and you’ve got yourself a credit. Which, of course, leaves you with one free block. You could even sleep late a few mornings a week.”

Peter peeked over the edge of the sheet.

“Hi, Peter.” Mr. Morita grinned at him and settled into a chair by the bed. “How're you feeling?”

“You know,” Peter sighed, dropping the sheet back onto his lap, “when I imagined you finding out, it was always after I’d, like, heroically saved the day or something. Not while I was stuck in bed, wearing a Hello Kitty-patterned hospital gown, about to get the homework packet of a lifetime.”

“‘Hello Kitty’?” Steve asked. “Is that what that is?”

“Yeah, I was wondering about that,” Mr. Morita said.

“Don’t ask,” Peter groaned. “Long story.”

“Anyway,” Mr. Morita said, “it’s not the packet of a lifetime. As long as you study enough to pass the tests you missed, you don’t have to make up all of the homework you would have been assigned. A few essays, a couple of projects, and you can slide right back in.”

Peter stared at him. “Seriously? It’s that easy? What am I supposed to say about when I was gone?”

“Mono,” Mr. Morita said. “That’s what May and I decided on months ago, and it’s a little too late to take it back now.”

“Good thing MJ already knows the truth,” Peter said, and then clapped a hand over his mouth. “Um. Anyway. Moving on. So, uh. Are you serious about the whole internship thing?”

“Very,” Mr. Morita said, lips twitching towards a smile.

“Wow. Wow. That’s…wow.”

“We can talk details when you’re feeling a little better. I’m thinking a public appearance by someone else in the suit, a nice motivational speech in front of the whole school while you're sitting in the bleachers, should squash any suspicions.”

“Thank you, Mr. Morita, I—I don’t even know how to—to thank you. So much.”

“I’d like to thank you too. D.C. would have been a tragedy if you hadn’t been there.”

“They were only in trouble because of me, though. If I hadn’t messed with that Chitauri bomb thingy, if Ned hadn’t had it in his backpack, they’d have been fine.”

“You mean,” Mr. Morita said, “you realized you had made a mistake and you did what you could to fix it? What more could I ask of you? It’s almost like you listened to the detention PSA.”

“Hey,” Steve said, “so, about those. I was thinking, you know, you’ve been using them for a while, the kids are probably bored of them, maybe we could…you know…”

 “Replace them with a Spider-Man version?” Mr. Morita asked. “Appeal to today’s youth with a more contemporary message? That’s a fantastic idea. I was thinking the same thing.”

“No,” Peter said, “no no no no no. No. Absolutely not. Bad idea. Horrible. Terrible. No way.”

“We’d get one of Stark’s vocal modifiers, of course,” Steve said.

“Maybe a few shoulder pads for the suit. Just so there’s no risk of recognizing him.”

“No,” Peter said, “no way, is anyone listening to the kid over here? No?”

“Credit for the Stark internship,” Mr. Morita said.

“You didn’t say that came with strings!” Peter protested.

“It doesn’t.” Mr. Morita focused on Peter again, serious now. “And you don’t have to do any PSAs if you don’t want to. But, you know. If you ever decided to. You’d certainly score some points with Cap over here.”

“A lot of points,” Steve said, “seriously, all of the free burgers you want, whatever it takes.”

“Huh. Well. I’ll think about it.”

“Don’t hurt yourself.” Mr. Morita patted Peter’s knee and stood, dropping an overstuffed folder onto Peter’s nightstand. “There’s your reading material. Might be enough to keep you off the streets for a day or two.”

“Not likely.” Peter grinned up at Mr. Morita.

“Well,” Mr. Morita laughed, “it was worth a try. But seriously, Peter. It’s an honor having Spider-Man in my school, but it’ll be even better to see you live till graduation. You think you can stay safe—or at least alive and relatively unharmed—for another two and a half years?”  

“Trying to.”

“Guess that’s all I can ask. Get better soon, all right? Your teachers miss you. At least, Mrs. Warren does. She misses you so much, she gave you not one, not two, but five physics tests to make up. Good luck.”

“Thanks,” Peter sighed. “I think. Five? Really? Geez.”

“It’s all right,” Steve said, “we'll help you study. FRIDAY can drill you while we train with you. Good practice for fighting those weird bad guys who like to talk a lot. Two birds, one stone.”

“One shield, one flat spider,” Peter said, but holy shit the thought of training with the Avengers was a good one. Like, a really good one. Like, almost enough to make being stuck in bed with a half-functioning body worth it.

“You break my student,” Mr. Morita said, “I’m going to have to talk to you.”

“Ouch, Cap, try to avoid that. He does a real riot act.”

“Getting sent to the principal’s office,” Steve said dreamily. “Now, those were the days.”

“Impossible,” Mr. Morita sighed, “both of you. I don’t know how May does it.”

Peter shook his head. “I don’t know either, man. I just keep her supplied with coffee and hope for the best.”

“You know,” Steve said thoughtfully, “I should try that with Tony.”

“No. No!” Peter pointed at Steve. “Don’t you even think about it. Milk, maybe, or juice. That man does not need more caffeine.”

“Fair,” Steve laughed. “I’m sorry for busting in on you like this, Pete. I’ll run it past you first, next time. If there ever is a next time.”

“Thank you.”

“See you in school,” Mr. Morita said. “When you’re up for it again. Just, you know. Try to keep the mayhem to a minimum this time? Don’t go smashing up my buses, I can’t afford too many more of those.” He tossed Peter a friendly salute and walked out the door with Steve.

“No promises,” Peter called, just before the door clicked shut behind the two of them. He carefully reached for the folder of homework, lay back against the bed, and adjusted the pillows a little, wincing as the movement jarred his body. And wow, Mr. Morita hadn’t been kidding about the five tests. At least physics was fun. Two history essays…that was going to be one soggy web-swing.

Was it pathetic that despite the pile of work, he was still looking forward to going back to school? Like, a lot. It was kind of overwhelming how much he missed it. Even Flash, and dried-up gum splats, and the chaos of the hallways.

Even detention.

“Hi,” Peter intoned to himself. “I’m Spider-Man. I’m here to talk to you about the importance of…yeah, screw it, there’s no way I’m doing one of those.”

Chapter Text

“Whoa,” Steve said softly, just behind her shoulder. “That’s beautiful.”

“Thanks,” MJ said. She carefully smoothed out the line that had jagged, ever so slightly, when she’d first heard his quiet footsteps enter the medical atrium.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, “I didn’t mean to bother you. I was just looking for Sam.”

“Excuse you,” Sam said from the couch, without opening his eyes. “I’m napping.”

“Haven’t seen him anywhere,” MJ said.

“Yeah,” Steve sighed, “he’s probably nesting on top of the roof or something, trying to talk to birds again. I’ll go check there.”

“I don’t know, man,” Sam said. “Birds don’t eat steak for dinner.”

“Huh,” Steve nodded. “That’s true. A damn shame. I’ll try the kitchen instead.” He grinned at MJ and left as quietly as he’d come in.

MJ blinked at her sketchpad for many long moments before she was calm enough to draw Captain America’s crooked smirk.

“Your boyfriend’s kind of an asshole,” MJ said.

“I know,” Sam grinned. “Isn’t he the best?”

 

 


 

 

“All right, buddy,” Ned said. “You got this. One foot, two foot.”

“Red foot,” Peter said. He gritted his teeth, stared across the small medbay room, and stood one-legged, like a stork, keeping all of his weight off of his still-healing leg. “Blue—fuck.” His hand hovered over his stomach, as though it could absorb some of the pain through near-field communication.

“You know,” MJ said, not looking up from her sketchpad, “I don’t think Dr. Seuss used that kind of language.”

“That’s what you think,” Peter said, but even he could tell that was a lame retort. It was a little hard to think through the pain, okay? Not his fault.

“She’s got a point,” Zainab said from her perch on the bureau. “You got the first foot part, time to put some weight on the other foot.”

“He just had surgery,” Ned said. “Like, a day ago. Two days? Whatever. Can’t he get a little break before you shove him out of bed?”

“Nope,” Zainab said, and popped her gum. “The sooner you start physical therapy, the sooner you get back to a full range of motion. Come on, Peter Pan. Think of happy things and walk.”

With a quiet groan, Peter stepped forward and slowly eased his weight onto his injured leg. It hurt slightly less than it had the previous evening, when Zainab had coached him through a few gentle exercises and helped him walk across the room and back. Only problem was that “slightly less” than “a huge fricking lot” wasn’t really a significant improvement.

“One small step for arachnid-kind,” Ned said.

“Shut up,” Peter said, but he couldn’t stop himself from smiling a little. He was home, after all, or close to it, eventually, hopefully, maybe. On solid land again. Upright. Moving. Surrounded by friends. What more could he really ask from life?

One more step, and then another. Forward. Always forward.

“Rate your pain?” Zainab clicked her pen.

“Two.”

“Seven,” Ned sighed.

“Six,” Zainab agreed. “Doing great, Peter.”

“Six isn’t even halfway between two and seven!” Peter protested. “Why does no one listen to me?”

“Oh, wonderful!” Zainab said. “Your basic math skills are intact.”

“I hate you all.”

“We love you too,” Ned grinned at him. “But you have got to get more honest about these things.”

“I am honest! Sort of. Mostly. Whatever, man. Pain doesn’t work in numbers.”

“Would you prefer to draw a picture of how it feels?” Zainab asked. “I took an art therapy elective in undergrad. I could interpret it for you.”

“I already did that for him,” MJ said, and held up the sketchpad.

Ned took one look at it and collapsed into a fit of giggles.

“I don’t believe this,” Peter said. He turned around, determinedly not bracing himself against the bureau or the wall, started back towards the bed, and tripped over one of Tony’s sentient roombas. He sprang back upright before he even realized what had happened, but he hadn’t even touched the ground.

Zainab was at his elbow a split-second later, just in time to help Peter regain his balance. “You have insane reflexes, kid,” she said. “What was that, the patented Peter One-Legged-Jack-in-the-Box? That’s insane. You’re insane. Are you made out of jello? I’m pretty sure you bent a few joints backwards just now. Do you know how long I normally have to work with patients to get them back to anywhere near that amount of flexibility?”

“Well,” Peter said, “the rest of the Avengers are a lot older, so, you know.”

“Oh, is that how it is.” Zainab braced Peter through his first step, then let go so he could walk back to his bed on his own. “Go ahead, gloat away. You’ll be old and grey too, someday, insha’Allah.”

“Will he, though?” MJ asked. “I looked at those photos of Captain America from the forties and he’s barely changed.”

“I mean,” Ned said, “he was a popsicle for most of the time in between.”

“Yeah, but he’s been out of there for five years. People’s faces usually change between twenty-five and thirty, but he hasn’t changed as much as he should have. And Peter looks the exact same now that he did a year ago.”

“You know, I really don’t like where you’re going with this,” Peter said. “That’s impossible. I mean, I'm not immortal.”

“NO. YOU’RE NOT IMMORTAL. HOW MANY TIMES DO WE HAVE TO TELL YOU?”

“Inside voice, Ned,” MJ said.

“Not immortal, I know that,” Peter said. “But, like, not aging?”

“You’ll love that someday,” Zainab said.

“Not until I look at least twenty-one,” Peter groaned. “Are you sure, MJ? That would be the worst.”

MJ grinned.

Peter squinted at her. “Are you messing with me? You’re messing with me. Ned, is she messing with me?”

“Honestly, dude?” Ned said. “I have no idea.”

“You people are the worst,” Peter said. “I—” He stopped mid-step, just before bumping into the bed. He was back. Already. And he hadn’t even noticed the rest of the walk.

“What was that?” MJ asked, chin propped on her elbow.

I love you all, Peter said, but for some reason it came out more like: “If you’re messing with me, I swear I’ll web all of your underwear to your butts.”

“At the same time?” MJ asked. “Like, all of the pairs we own stuck to our butts all at once, or just the pair we’re wearing now? You really need to be more specific with your threats, dude. Ask Wanda.”

“You’re only wearing one pair of underwear?” Ned asked. “I never leave the house with less than three.”

“Fewer than three,” MJ said, “and no, you don’t, why are you so weird.”

“The worst,” Peter said, easing himself back into bed. Fuck, that hurt. And that. And that too. Ow. Come on, body, stop it. Behave. “What did I do to deserve you guys?”

“Yeah, I know,” MJ said. “You love us.”

“Yeah,” Peter sighed. “I kinda do.”

 

 


 

 

Tony walked into the atrium outside of Peter’s room, looking remarkably like he’d just spotted a days-old mouse stuck to his glue trap. Ned hastily straightened up on the couch, nearly tipping MJ’s legs off of his lap.

“I have a question,” Tony said.

“Peter’s napping,” Ned said. “I think physical therapy this morning wore him out. Want me to ask him when he wakes up?”

“Not for him,” Tony said. “For you.”

“For—” Ned pointed at himself, mouth gaping open.

“Do you have any experience working with AIs?” Tony asked.

“No, uh, of course not, that’s against the Sokovia A—”

“Uh-huh.” Tony took off his glasses and started cleaning them with a cloth from the inner pocket of his suit. “Cut it, kid, I’m short on time.”

“Um…well, uh, yeah, I’ve fixed Karen a couple of times when she glitches out. Added a couple of features.”

“Come with me,” Tony beckoned, and started out of the room.

“You’re not seriously ordering Ned around,” MJ said. “Try that again.”

“Come with you…to your lab?” Ned asked breathlessly. “To work on an AI with you? Or to feed me to your newest sentient toaster?”

“Yes.” Tony paused in the entrance and gestured to Ned impatiently. “Come on, come on, my coffee’s getting cold.”

“‘Please,’” MJ said.

Tony looked at MJ.

MJ looked at Tony.

“Please,” Tony said. “Come with me.”

“Can MJ come too?” Ned asked. He shot MJ a quick glance, eyebrows raised.

MJ grinned at him and clutched her sketchpad a little tighter.

“No, you do not get a plus one, this is a very important project—”

“Whose idea do you think it was to improve the interrogation mode voice? HAL’s voice is more realistic for Peter’s body type, and a lot less melodramatic than Darth Vader. And who do you think planned out the design with me?”

« Can I guess, sir? I have an idea. »

“No, FRIDAY,” Tony said. “No, you absolutely may not guess. Hold my calls for the next sixteen hours, we’re going to be working.”

Tony resumed his brisk stroll down towards the elevator. Ned and MJ hurried to catch up with him.

“How did you know about the sentient toaster?” Tony asked as the doors slid shut.

“It’s genius, dude,” Ned said. “Total genius. But, uh, you should have made the bread settings adjust automatically instead of relying on plain language. This is New York, dude. There are a bajillion different kinds of bread, and everyone calls them something else.”

“That would explain why it burnt Clint’s bialy when he told it to toast a bagel,” Tony said.

“I’m pretty sure Clint did that on purpose,” MJ said. “He’s told us the story three times already.”

“Yes,” Tony said, “well, the new one is going to shut down entirely when Clint enters the room.”

“Add a protective exterior that can roll down to cover it from projectiles,” Ned said.

Tony looked at Ned.

“And give me a cut of the profits,” Ned said, because he was going down into Tony Stark’s lab to work on an AI with Tony Stark, which pretty much meant he had already died and gone to heaven. He couldn’t die twice, right? Of course right.

“Talk to Pepper,” Tony said.

Ned stared at MJ.

MJ flipped her sketchbook around to show him a quick sketch of him in a snappy plaid suit, bowtie, and fedora, gesturing towards an unidentifiable new tech prototype.

Ned beamed at her.

 

 


 

 

“I couldn’t figure out how to take it off without shocking you,” Ned said quietly. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Peter said. “Look, even Stark couldn’t, and he made it. Thanks for trying.”

“I’m still going to feel bad about it,” Ned said.

“Whatever works for you, man.”

“Did you really get it open before?” Ned asked.

“Yeah. Twice.”

“That’s pretty badass, dude.”

Peter’s mouth twitched towards a smile. “Yeah?” he said. “I guess.”

“Did it hurt?”

Peter drummed his fingers on the bedsheet.

“Did it feel like Luke and the Emperor?”

“Uh—” Peter blinked at Ned. “Yeah? Maybe? But without the whole saving-the-galaxy thing. Also no weird daddy issues.”

“On your end, maybe,” MJ flopped down onto her chair, book still open. “Stark’s middle name is Daddy Issues.”

Peter snorted.

“I heard that,” Tony said, striding into the room. “Good news, Underoos. Cho’s given me the green light to take the collar off. Here, let me—” He leaned over Peter’s bed and angled his screwdriver towards the collar.

“Get off!” Peter choked, face flushing with a weirdly intense fury Ned had never seen on him before. He batted Tony away from him.

“I—” Tony started, bewildered. “I’m just going to take it off. You wanted that. Right?”

“Did you forget the whole 90-second shock thing?” MJ asked. “Give a guy a little warning first.”

“Sweetie? What’s going on?” May hurried into the room.

“Dr. Cho says the collar can come off now,” Peter said.

“Oh, that’s—that’s wonderful,” May said, sinking unsteadily into a chair.

“So, we’re good now?” Tony flipped the screwdriver from hand to hand.

“I’m going to take it off,” Peter said. “And I don’t want an audience.”

“Right,” Tony said. “Well. I’ll head out now.”

“I’m sorry,” Peter said, eyes flicking up to May. “I just—you shouldn’t see this. It’s not—not going to be—um.”

“You’re going to need someone to take the collar off,” Tony said. “Once you’ve opened it. Before it locks itself back up.”

“I can do it,” MJ said, eyes steady on Peter’s.

Peter nodded.

“Wait, they get to stay?” Tony asked. “Why do they—yep, I’m shutting up now, Michelle, I’m leaving, please don’t teach Pepper that look, I’ll never get anything done.”

“Me too?” Ned asked, already standing to leave with May and Tony.

“You’re my guy in the chair,” Peter said with a little smile. “I always need you. I mean, I need you too, May, I just—I don’t want you to—it’s not going to be—”

“It’s okay, sweetie,” May said with a shaky smile. “I understand. I’ll just step out for a sec. You’re going to be all right.”

“Thanks, May,” Peter said.

May bent to press a kiss to Peter’s forehead, then walked out after Tony.

Peter closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and started working the collar’s circuitbox open. Ned leaned in to watch Peter’s fingers move along the circuits, giving him quiet tips based on the diagrams FRIDAY had sent.

Peter hesitated when he got down to the last connecting circuit, eyes fixed on the opposite wall.

“You got this, man,” Ned said. “Just like Luke. Fewer daddy issues.”

“Time for the fireworks, nerd,” MJ said. If Ned hadn’t hung out with her nearly every day for the last two months, he might have missed the tremor in her voice. She shifted closer and set a hand on Peter’s shoulder. “You got this.”

“Don’t touch me.” Peter flinched back.

MJ yanked her hand back, flushing slightly. “I’m sorry. I—”

“No, no, I didn’t mean it like that—I’m sorry, MJ. You’re okay. I just meant, uh—” Peter’s hand tightened a little on the edge of the collar. “If you touch me while it’s going off, you’ll get shocked too. So, uh, stay clear. Please. Until it stops.”

“Oh,” MJ said.

“Yeah,” Peter said. He stared straight ahead at the wall and took a deep breath, then another.

“May the Force be with you,” Ned said.

At that, Peter’s face cracked into a shaky, slightly manic grin. “Thanks,” he said, and broke the last circuit open.

With a grating crackle, the collar sparked to life. Peter arched off the bed in a soundless scream, face twisting in pain. MJ flinched backwards. Ned reached for her; she grabbed his hands and held on tight. Peter convulsed over and over again, hands frozen in desperate claws.

It went on forever. The longest 90 seconds of Ned’s life.

At last the collar finally, finally shut off. Peter slumped back down to the bed in a pile of uncoordinated limbs. He stared at them with wide, terrified eyes, mouth open, straining to breathe.

“You’ve got this.” MJ slipped onto the bed beside him. “Breathe, Peter. It’s done. It’s over. You’re okay.”

She carefully clicked the collar open and eased it off Peter’s neck. He pulled in a ragged, gasping breath and shut his eyes.

Peter made an abortive motion towards his neck with a hand that shook too hard to move properly. MJ wrapped her hand over his and guided Peter’s hand around his neck, tracing lightly over his skin. A line of calluses still ringed his neck, punctuated by freshly raw, angry burns, but they’d all fade in time. The collar was gone. He was free. It was over.

Peter turned his hand in hers and twined his fingers with hers. “Thank you,” he rasped.

“You’re welcome, dumbass,” MJ said."Don't you ever—ever—ever do that again." 

 

Chapter Text

“So,” Sam said. “What happens now?”

Tony clasped his hands behind his back as they walked down the skywalk between the training arena and the main building. The doors to the garden far below them flung open, releasing a trio of crazy high schoolers into the glittering snow.

“What happens now,” Tony said, “is lunch. I was thinking pizza, maybe—”

“Tony,” Sam said.

Tony cleared his throat. “We’re going to take down the Accords. Write a revised draft, take it to the UN, hold a trial, etc. Lot of standing around in suits and promising to behave. The usual.”

Sam stopped short and stared at him. “You were willing to tear us to shit over the Accords. You did. Nearly killed Rhodey, and Cap, and Bucky. And now you're willing to let go of them over this kid you’ve known for—what, a few months? Let me guess, there wasn’t a lot of mentor-mentee bonding time before he was taken. How often did you even text the kid?”

“First, that hurts; and second—” Tony continued pacing the length of the skywalk.

Sam followed, staring out at the blindingly bright snow.

“Don’t make me say it,” Tony said at last.

“Oh, I’m waiting. I’ve waited six fucking months for those sweet little words.”

Tony stopped, turned to Sam, and even managed to look him in the eye for the first three words. “You were right. Your whole team. Cap, Bucky, Clint, Wanda. I still think some kind of Accords are necessary, but—I should have found a better way to come to an agreement over them. A way that didn’t end up with me drinking alone in the top of my tower. I thought I could win you over, and I—I was wrong.”

“You thought you could win,” Sam said. “And then we would follow you.”

Tony squinted at him. “That’s what I said.”

Sam looked at Tony for a moment, then sighed in resignation. “It’s not. It’s really not. You know, maybe you should go stay at the lovely Raft hotel for a few months. Great for philosophizing. Getting in touch with your feelings. All that good stuff.”

“Yeah, I’ll pass. Look. You made a decision.” Tony rapped the railing with his knuckles. “Your whole team. You knew what you were getting into. The kid had no idea. I didn’t—it was my job to make him sign, and I didn’t. Because I knew it would be a bad gig for him. And then they took him away, and there was…”

Peter walked slowly through the snow-capped garden far below them, buoyed on both sides by his friends. Sam smiled a little at the sight—Peter was moving slowly, carefully, leaning a little on Ned’s arm, but he was vertical, and healing fast.

“There was nothing I could do.” Tony said at last. “They wouldn’t even take a bribe, I mean, who does that?”

“Honest people.”

“Irrelevant. Anyway. I called a couple of friends, brought out the big guns, and—” Tony spread his hands. “Here we are!”

“Where are we, exactly?”

“Applesgate. Lovely town in upstate New York, population—”

“You know that’s not what I meant,” Sam said.

Tony stopped, removed his sunglasses, and started polishing them with his pocket square.

“I’m sorry,” he said at last, and managed to look Sam in the eye for the second time in five minutes—a lifetime record for emotionally honest and vulnerable statements he’d ever made in one conversation, probably. “I’m really sorry.”

“You know, sorry doesn’t actually cut it here,” Sam said.

“I know.”

“It’s a start, though.” Sam shrugged. “Keep working on it.”

“I made some upgrades to your suit. Didn’t do a lot of sleeping these past six months.”

“Funny story, neither did I.” Sam leaned against the skywalk railing and checked on the midget lunatics below them.

At the edge of the garden, with Ned filming and egging her on, Michelle tried to rugby-tackle Peter. He just grinned at her, immovable as a Greek statue, before dramatically toppling over backwards and rolling around in the snow with her like a pair of ridiculous bunnies.

“Engines are a lot more powerful now,” Tony was saying when Sam tuned back in. “Wings are a little lighter. Drone can go farther. The suit’s also a little more webproof, but I hope it doesn’t come down to that again.”

“I don’t think it will.” Sam smiled to himself. “We’ve come to an understanding, Peter and I.”

“His new suit,” Tony said, “will be bulletproof.”

 

 


 

 

“Peter? Are you still—” May stopped short and leaned against the entrance to the living room.

Peter was slumped against Ned, eyes closed, body loose with sleep. MJ was sitting cross-legged on the end of the couch, sketching the two of them. On the screen, Luke Skywalker—at least, May was pretty sure that was him—was flipping around a darkened room, doing Spider-Man level stunts without the webs.

MJ glanced up at May with a crooked smirk, then poked Peter with her toe. “Hey, nerd. Wake up. It’s time for bed.”

“That makes no sense,” Ned sighed. “Why would you wake him up just to go to sleep again somewhere else? We’re cozy here. It’s all good. Can’t he just sleep here?”

“And wake up sore the next morning?” May said. “Let me go ask Dr. Cho.”

“No, Peter mumbled, “I know what she’ll say, healthy decisions blah blah blah still healing blahhhhhhh.”

“Oh, wow,” Ned snorted. “Think we’re going to have to carry him?”

“Not it.” MJ unstretched from the couch in a tumble of long limbs and headed up past May towards the elevator. “Go grab one of the oversized hunks hanging around here with nothing to do. Good night, May.”

“Good night, hun,” May said.

“Come on, Peterfish,” Ned said. “Up.”

“Mmmmph.” Peter sat up for a moment, then toppled down to the couch on his other side so Ned’s shoulder was free. “There. Go forth and prosper. I’m going to sleep here.”

“Uh-huh.” Ned hopped up from the couch and patted Peter’s shoulder. “Keep telling yourself that, buddy.”

“G’night, man,” Peter mumbled. He lifted one hand to do their handshake, then flopped back to the couch.

“Goodnight, you nutcase,” Ned said fondly, and followed MJ to the elevator.

“Up and at ‘em, kiddo,” May said.

“‘M comfy here,” Peter mumbled.

“Nope. You’ll regret this in the morning.”

“That’s what you think.”

“You bet I do,” May laughed. “Can I give you a hand up? Would that help?”

“No. Uh-uh. ‘M stuck.”

“Peter.”

“‘M sleeping.”

“Peter! Come on. Get up.”

“Yes, sir.” Peter shot to his feet, then froze, one hand balanced on the back of the couch. For a moment, his face was completely blank, eyes wide, slightly lost.

Oh, god. May pressed her fingers to her lips. “I’m sorry,” she babbled, “sweetheart, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—I shouldn’t have—”

“It’s okay,” Peter said. “It’s—everything’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”

“Come here,” May said. “Please. Please, come here, sweetheart.”

Peter limped towards her slowly, carefully, with none of his usual grace, and let her hug him. She rocked them a little, listening to his shaky breaths. “You’re okay,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. It’s going to be all right. I promise.”

Once they dredged the Raft up from the bottom of the Atlantic, she was going to tear it apart with her bare hands. It would be fun. She’d make a sculpture out of it. Maybe with a middle finger pointing right up to the sky. Maybe she would just take the shards of steel and spear them into Ross’ heart like a flower.

Maybe she’d spent a little too much time thinking about this in the last three months.

Peter leaned his head against her shoulder.

“I’ve got you,” May murmured. “You’re okay, sweetheart. You're safe. I promise.”

“I didn’t think I was ever going to see you again,” Peter whispered, nearly inaudible. “Or come home. Or go outside. I—I—”

“Hey,” May said quietly, stroking Peter’s hair. “Hey. I’m right here. Okay? You’re all right.”

“He had a letter. From you. I—I wanted it, I wanted it so—” Peter’s voice cracked.

“That letter?” May’s breath huffed out in something just short of a laugh. “God.”

“You mean it—it was real? I didn’t know if—”

“I really did write it. I knew he was going to do something fucked-up with it, but—if there was a chance he was really going to give it to you, I wanted to at least give you something to hold onto.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t read it,” Peter said.

“Are you kidding? I’m sure you had a good reason not to. He was up to no good, that motherfucking—oh, shit, I was going to stop swearing, now that you’re back—dammit, I messed up already—and I did it again, didn’t I.”

“Don’t worry,” Peter laughed shakily. “Nothing I haven’t heard a bajillion times in the last few months.”

“Well,” May sighed. “Anyway. Screw that power-hungry maniac. You want to read it now?”

“The—the letter?” Peter straightened out of the hug and stared at her. But—he took it, I never got to—”

“You’re not the only one who knows how to operate a phone.” May grinned at him. “Here. Let me find it.”

She pulled her phone out of her pocket, flipped through the photos, then held it out to Peter.

 

To: Ross

Go fuck yourself.

 

Dear Peter:

I love you, always. And I know you can do this. Hang in there.

Love,

Aunt May.

 

Peter stared at the letter.

“I knew he was going to read it,” May said. “And I was pretty sure he’d never give it to you, but—just in case.”

“He,” Peter said. “He wanted—”

May wrapped her arms around Peter again. Peter hugged her back just a shade too tight—and god, when had his iron grip changed from something that scared her to something she missed?  

“I love you,” May murmured. “I know things are going to be….hard. Really hard. But we’ve done hard before, and we managed. We always manage.”

“Yeah.” Peter drew back and wiped his eyes on the overlong cuffs of his sweater. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m—”

“A wise man told me recently,” May said. “Don’t you ever apologize for crying.”

“Yeah,” Peter rasped. “Well. It’s either cry or punch things, and Dr. Cho doesn’t want me to get back to training quite yet.”

“Not till you get a good night’s sleep, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Better get a good start, then.”

“I was,” Peter said, eyes finally glinting with a bit of his usual humor. “Before I was so rudely interrupted.”

“So rude,” May agreed. “Unbelievable. What a jerk.”

“Absolutely.” Peter hugged her again, then set off down the hall. “G’night, May. Thanks for…” The doors opened for him while his hand was still hovering by the side of the elevator, automatically searching for a button that wasn’t there. He stepped inside and turned back to face her—face open and vulnerable, like when he paced their kitchen after a nightmare.

“Everything,” Peter said at last, as the doors started to close. “Love you, May.”

“Love you too,” May echoed, and fell back into one of the armchairs. She stared at the dark screen of her phone for a while, lost in thought.

At last she swiped it open, hastily closed the photo of the letter—if she never saw it again, ever, that would be more than enough—and googled what to do when your child comes home from jail.

« I have three books on that subject in my files. Would you like me to download them to your phone? »

“That’s creepy, FRIDAY,” May said. “What have I told you about creeping on me? But yeah, sure. Why do you already have books on file about that?”

« Boss downloaded them last night. »

“Did he.” May pinched the bridge of her nose. “Just tell me, he didn’t look up how to file for joint custody, did he?”

« Nah. But he did read a book on co-parenting. »

“Oh, god,” May said. “I take it back, FRIDAY. You’re still creepy, but useful. Thank you.”

« You’re welcome, Spider-Mum. Have a lovely evening. »

“You too, FRIDAY,” May sighed. “You too.”

Chapter Text

Peter shot awake with a strangled gasp and looked around his cell, hands shaking. Four walls, ceiling, floor, blanket, blinking light in the ceiling—

He fought free of the blanket and staggered to his feet. There, there was the light, bright white and curving, shining beyond the window of his cell. Peter threw himself against the cell door, desperate to get out—and tumbled out with a crash of glass, head over heels.

He grabbed for the building’s smooth walls, but he’d catapulted himself too far out of the window to reach them. Instead, he plummeted through the crisp night air, tucked his limbs in to protect his head, hit the ground with a roll, and sprawled out on the pavement.

The moon’s cratered face looked down at him, mildly amused.

Peter stared up at it. The air filled his lungs with the crisp smell of snow, quinjet fumes, and evergreens.

“Peter,” MJ said.

Peter squinted towards the building. MJ stood by the cracked teeth of his shattered window, one hand on the the window jamb, t-shirt fluttering a little in the night breeze. She hadn’t raised her voice.

“Hey,” Peter said, then realized she probably couldn’t hear him from that distance. He stood up slowly, wavered a little, steadied himself.

He spun in place, drinking in the free air, the easy-flowing wind, the whisper of the trees’ branches, then walked back towards the house.

 

 

 

 

MJ stepped back from the window as Peter climbed up the glass walls like it was nothing—because, for him, it was nothing. Peter stopped outside the window and just looked at her, eyes wide in his stupidly sweet face.

He swallowed. “I’m sorry I woke you up,” he said. “I—I’ll walk you back to your room, if you want. I’m sorry.”

“Get in here,” she said. Peter vaulted over the remains of the shattered window and landed on a relatively clear section of the floor, a few feet away from her. MJ reached a hand to him. He stepped closer. She pulled him into a hug.

She could feel him trembling in her arms, like aftershocks from the collar.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered again.

“It’s okay.” MJ patted his hair. “Just don’t do that from any skyscrapers, okay? I don’t think you could just roll out of a fall like that.”

“Probably could. I think. But I won’t try it. I promise. At least, not on purpose.”

“Good enough,” MJ sighed. “You didn’t pop any stitches there, did you?”

“Stitches are out already.” Peter tugged his shirt up to check the mostly-healed wound on his stomach, wincing a little at the motion.

MJ had to blink a few times to clear the Spider-Ab-shaped spots out of her eyes. “Come on,” she managed at last. “Back to bed. It’s too early in the morning for gymnastics. Where are you going to sleep?”

“I’m going to clean up the glass,” Peter said, as though she wouldn’t notice that he hadn’t answered the question. “I’ll, uh, walk you back to your room first.” He headed towards the door, then stopped and looked back at her when she didn’t follow him.

“Try that again,” MJ said.

“Um.” Peter rubbed his face, shoulders slumping in exhaustion. “I’m sorry, I—I don’t know what you—oh. Um. What do you need?”

“There you go.” MJ grinned at him. “When I woke up, the compound was under attack and my best friend was probably being kidnapped again. I’m a little too wired to go back to sleep right now. If you’re still up, I’ll stay up for a bit too. Is that all right with you?”

“That’s—that’s, um. That would be awesome.”

“Good.” MJ hopped up onto the edge of the bed and wrapped the duvet around her shoulders. “Then hop to it, Spiderella.”

“Spiderella? Really? I see how it is.” Peter shook his head, but she’d managed to get a tiny new-moon smile out of him. “FRIDAY? Where would I find a little broom and—”

« The Avengers Compound is staffed with artificially intelligent robots that can— »

“No, I want to do this. Please. Can I—”

One of the handleless drawers in the wall slid out, revealing a little brush and pan.

“Thanks, FRIDAY.” Peter knelt at the edge of the mess and started to sweep up the shards of glass.

“Careful,” MJ said. “Don’t want to shred your knees there.”

“I’m being careful. Anyway, I heal fast. It’s fine.” Peter swept a pile of shards into the pan, then stood with that silent groan of his, just a long controlled sigh, the one he always made when he was still healing from being shot. Or stabbed. Or thrown through enough buildings to break a bone.

She was overly familiar with it, was the point, and would probably someday be able to label what part of his body had been hurt in what way at what point in time. Unless, of course, he ever found a better hobby than letting criminals use his body for target practice.

Unlikely.

Peter crossed the room to dunk the panful into the wastebasket, then returned and resumed sweeping the floor. MJ watched his still-trembling hands.

“It helps, sometimes.” Peter placed a few large shards into the pan, then swept up the smaller fragments. “Doing things. Something distracting, and quiet. It helps me calm down.”

“If you ever want to come to my apartment and do some of my chores, feel free. Soapsud therapy. My parents will love you even more than they already do.”

Peter laughed a little. “Careful, I might take you up on that. I’d have to finish my own first, though.”

“Fights crime and washes dishes, huh? The deluxe package, all-in-one.”

Peter started stacking the largest shards into a pile in the corner. “I missed this,” he said, halfway across the pile of wreckage, a jagged pane of glass sticking to his fingers. “So much. Hanging out with you. Doing things. Being outside. Climbing. Swinging. Homework. I even missed English homework.”

“Oh, no. The horror.”

Peter grinned up at her. God, she’d missed that smile. It caught in her gut like a fishhook, pulling her forward and—poetry makes more sense when I’m around you, she wanted to say, but the words wouldn’t leave her mouth.

Peter clanged the pan against the wastebasket, then walked back to sweep up the last remnants of glass. “I couldn’t do this without you,” he said, eyes locked on the glittering shards. “You, and Ned, and May. I’d be—I don’t know. Dead in a ditch somewhere. Kidnapped in some megalomaniac’s basement.”

“Wearing the same shirt for an entire week. Telling bad science puns that no one laughs at. Falling asleep on top of your sandwich.”

“That, too.”

“So, your epiphany is that you’ve finally realized the importance of interdependence, which most non-Western cultures have known and honored for millenia.”

Peter sat up to consider this, then shrugged. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s what I mean.”

“Well.” MJ poked his stupidly rock-hard abs with her toe. “Good. It’s about time.”

“Yeah?” Peter beamed at her. He’d probably forgotten his entire train of thought. That seemed to happen to him a lot. Especially when she was around—although, to be fair, she didn’t have a lot of evidence from when she wasn’t around.

“Glass,” she said, nodding at the forgotten pan and broom in his hands.

“Oh, right.” Peter went to dump the last panful in the trash.

“I’m going to go back to bed now,” MJ said. “How’re you doing?”

“I’m fine.”

MJ waited.

Peter’s shoulders slumped a little. “You know, life was a lot easier when you pretended to believe my bullshit.”

“I bet. Poor you. So sorry.”

“Yeah,” Peter snorted. “Well. I’ll just, um. I guess if you’re going to bed now, I’ll go back to sleep too.”

“Where?”

“Where what?”

“Where are you going to sleep? You had a disagreement with the window, remember? It’s freezing in here.”

“Oh, right.” Peter squinted towards the shattered teeth of the window. “I’ll, um. I’ll go find an empty room. There are a lot of extra rooms.”

“Please don’t lie to me,” MJ said.

Peter blinked at her, eyes wide and a little wounded. “I,” he said. “Um. I’m sorry. I don’t really…sleep isn’t…um…”

“I know,” MJ said, trying to be a little gentler this time. She just wasn't good at this part, okay? Being soft. Feelings that didn't go away when she told them to. “Look. You don’t need to talk about it right now, if you don’t want to. You do need to take care of yourself. Because when you don’t, it affects the rest of us. The window, for example.”

“And you. I’m sorry I woke you up.”

“You said that already. Just don’t do it again, all right? What do you need?”

“I don’t know,” Peter said, rubbing one toe along his calf like a flamingo. “I’ll probably just, uh, go study, or something.”

“Don’t make me quote May at you.”

“I’m not a ‘growing boy,’” he groaned. “I will always be shorter than you. Forever. So therefore I don’t need sleep.”

“This is what happens when you nap while we go over logical fallacies in AcaDec practice.”

“I practiced them.”

“You…what?”

“All the AcaDec facts. Everything I could remember. I practiced them over and over again. Could recite them in my sleep, I think.”

“That would be more productive than jumping out of windows,” MJ said, instead of oh. Oh. Ohhh.

“Yeah.” Peter laughed a little. “Um. Anyway. I’ll be fine.”

“Do you want space,” MJ said, holding his eyes. “Because I can leave you alone, if you want. That’s one of my superpowers.”

Peter didn’t laugh, which meant that the feeling she’d been trying to avoid just kept twisting around her neck and tightening.

At last he shook his head, just a little jolt. “No,” he whispered. “I—I don’t really want to be alone.”

“Then come sleep in my bed,” MJ said, because she’d gone temporarily insane…or maybe because if Peter’s unofficial motto of ‘all in, all the time,’ was a little contagious…or maybe because she was too tired to make reasonable decisions…no. No bullshit. She just wanted to, that was all. Really, really, really wanted to.

“Uh.” Peter blinked at her. “You want me to…sleep with you?”

“Just sleep,” MJ said. “In case that wasn’t clear. It’s just an option. If you want. I don’t want to scrape spider-shaped bits off of the pavement tomorrow morning because you had another nightmare and forgot to tuck and roll.”

“I—” Peter’s shoulders slumped a little. “I’m not going to jump out of another window.”

“Because you’re not going to sleep?”

Peter bit his lip.

“Look,” MJ said. “I trust you to keep your hands to yourself. It’s a gigantic Stark-sized bed. Plenty of room. If you hog the blankets, I’ll poke you until you wake up.”

“Um. I. Uh. You’re sure.”

MJ just raised an eyebrow at him.

“I’d,” Peter said. “I’d love to. Um. Thank you. So much.”

“You’re welcome. Just don’t snore.” MJ walked back to her room, listening to his quiet footsteps behind her. She curled up beneath the covers on one side of the huge bed and adjusted the blankets one last time to her satisfaction.

Peter flopped onto the other side of the bed, bangs falling over his eyes. Her fingers swept a line along her thigh instead of his forehead, because her heart was doing strange things to her and it needed to stop.

“Here,” she said instead. She heaved A Colony in a Nation off her nightstand and handed it to him.

“What? I—oh. Uh. Thank you,” he said, staring at her in wide-eyed wonder. It was a hopelessly dorky look, she told herself for the hundred and third time, because if she practiced saying it often enough, she’d believe it someday.

“Learn something,” she said, and snuggled into her pillow. “FRIDAY, turn the lights off, please. But keep one on for Peter.” She cracked one eye open and looked up at him. “That’ll help, maybe? Keep the nightmares away. No streetlamps coming through the blinds here.”

He laughed a little, eyes crinkling at the edges in that way that warmed her from the inside out, like a mugful of hot cocoa. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. No sirens, either. That’s kinda nice.”

“Mmm. That means you have to stay in here with me. Poor you.”

“Poor me,” Peter agreed. He stared at her for a moment, fingers twitching a little by his side. “Can I—” he asked at last.

MJ nodded, a little breathless.

Peter brushed a stray lock of curls away from her forehead and tucked it behind her ear. There was something in his eyes that hadn’t been there before he’d been taken—something quiet, and exhausted, and—sweet?

“You’ve been thinking about doing that for a while,” she said, suddenly hoarse.

Peter bit his lip. “Yeah.”

“What took you so long?”

Peter shrugged, finally smiling a little. “You know me,” he said. “I’m always a beat behind you.”

“It’s because you don’t sleep enough,” MJ said. She closed her eyes so she didn’t have to look at his face anymore, because god knew what would happen if she kept staring like that. “Good night, Parker.”

“Good night, MJ.”

The cover cracked open. Pages flipped. Peter breathed. MJ fell asleep.

Chapter Text

[ One week after Homecoming ]

Peter drew a deep breath, leaned back against the heavily annotated map of the world that hung behind MJ’s narrow twin bed, and squinted at her in the faded October sunshine. “You already know, don’t you,” he said. Her set of WE THE PEOPLE posters stared at him from across the room, trying to decide if they believed in him.

“Know what?” MJ looked up at him, pencil still poised over her calculus homework, feet dangling off the bed. She could get into the Best Poker Face Hall of Fame any time she wanted, she really could.

Peter did his best to skewer her with his most intimidating glower.

MJ choked on a laugh.

“You know what I mean,” Peter grumbled, manfully resisting the urge to leap out the nearest window. His heart was racing. It was entirely possible—probable—definite, in fact—that voluntarily telling someone about his secret identity was dumb. Like, really dumb. Like, someone-get-that-man-a-PSA dumb.

But he, Peter Parker, Youngest And Dumbest Not-Quite-Superhero, trusted her. And if she’d really known for months, and hadn’t told anyone, then she wouldn’t tell anyone now, would she?

MJ was still looking at him, eyes steady on his, hair backlit with the warm glow of a smoggy Queens sunset.

“I’m Spider-Man,” Peter said.

“Dammit,” MJ said.

“What?”

“I lost the bet.”

“You made a bet?” Peter scrambled off the bed, voice cracking up an octave or two. “With who? Who were you talking to? Who did you tell?”

“Calm your boots, spandex-man.” MJ propped her chin on her elbow. “I made a bet with myself, duh. That you wouldn’t tell me for another three weeks.”

“Oh.” Peter blinked at her.

“Mmm-hmm.”

Peter sank back onto the bed. “How long have you known?” he asked, not entirely sure he wanted to hear the answer.

“Since D.C. I suspected for a few weeks before that, but D.C. was the last straw.”

“But you didn’t tell anyone.”

“I don’t tell people’s secrets.”

“Thank you.”

“But honestly?” MJ said. “If you want to keep Spider-Man a secret much longer, you have got to figure out the difference between your outside voice, your inside voice, and your top-secret-super-important-only-Ned-can-know voice.”

Peter laughed, startled out of himself. “Yeah. Well. I’m sorry it took me so long to actually tell you.”

“Course it did,” MJ said. “I’m the first person you’ve ever told, right?”

“I—what? No, I mean, Ned and May both know—”

“They found out by accident.”

“Well, yeah, but—wait, how do you even know that?”

“Inside voice,” MJ said. “Outside voice. Difference.”

“Right,” Peter sighed. “Well. Uh. Yeah. They did.”

“And Tony found you on his own.”

“Yeah. Um. Yeah. I guess you're right. You are, uh. The first person I’ve ever decided to tell.”

“Why now?” she asked.

“What?”

“Why did you decide to tell me now?”

“Um. I—I don’t know. I’ve wanted to tell you for a couple of weeks now.”

“I know,” MJ said. “I’ve got your I’m going to tell you a really important and scary secret about myself—whoops, wait, never mind, not now sigh memorized, start to finish.”

Peter covered his face with a hand. “Is it really that obvious?”

“Yup. So, the truth this time. Why now?”

“Because…” Peter swallowed hard. “I really hate lying to you. I’m tired of…hiding, and flaking out on you without being able to at least explain why. And because…I really like you, and I want to be your friend, and I can’t be that if I’m lying all the time. It’s a really important part of me. I—I trust you.  So, um. I, uh. Decided to tell you.”

“Oh,” MJ said.

“Is…that okay?” Peter asked.

A car honked in the intersection below, then another, then the whole streetful. MJ didn’t even twitch. Peter’s spider-sense lay quiet, so he didn’t move to check on it. Just another dumb tourist blocking the box. Welcome to Queens.

MJ was still staring at him.

“Um,” Peter said. “Did I break you?”

“Shut up.” MJ yanked her sketchbook out from beneath her calculus textbook. She started sketching Peter with quick, furious scratches, eyes flicking up to his face and back down to the page.

Peter held still, watching her draw, waiting for her to think her way through whatever thoughts were tangled in her tongue. One thing that had become very clear to him was that MJ didn’t jump into action the way he and Ned usually did. She watched, she waited, she analyzed, she considered, then she moved.

“Thank you,” she said at last, rubbing carefully on a shadow beneath his ear. “For telling me. I’m honored.”

“Of course,” Peter said, startled. “You’re a good friend. I’m sorry it took me so long to get up the nerve to say it.”

“I think you guys are the first real friends I’ve ever had,” MJ said. “Since Ana in third grade, but that was a while ago. Doesn’t count anymore.”

“I'm sorry,” Peter said softly. “It’s their loss. I’m glad you transferred to Midtown.”

MJ nodded. “Me too,” she said after a while.

“Do you want to join us?” Peter asked, because he knew by now that MJ would never ask on her own behalf. “Team Spidey, I mean. At least, that's what Ned calls it. If you have a better name for it, please tell us, I’m begging you.”

“What do you mean, join you?”

“You know, come over, stay on the comms with Ned, tell me where to go, all of that. Dinner. Movie night, if you want.”

“I’m not much of a team player.”

“What do you mean? You’re the captain of AcaDec.”

“I was appointed captain. That’s different.”

“You deserved it,” Peter said. “You’re the best on the team. And you’re a good leader, too. Even Flash sometimes pays attention to you.”

“Stop that,” MJ said.

“Stop what?”

“Saying nice things like that,” MJ said. “You do it all the time and it really weirds me out.”

“Oh.” Peter bit his lip. “I—I’m sorry. It’s not flattery, I promise. I really mean it. All of it.”

“I know,” MJ said. “That’s what makes it weird.”

“I…I can stop, if you want me to. But it’s true. It’s really true.”

MJ looked up at him, then back down at her page. “Maybe we can agree to disagree,” she said.

“We could.” Peter said. “Or maybe I can say it more often. So you can get used to it.”

“Stop moving,” MJ said. “You’re changing all of the shadows.”

“Sorry.” Peter stayed as still as he could.  

“Once a day,” MJ said at last. “If you want to. No more than that.”

“Okay.” Peter grinned at her. “I can do that.”

“Good.” MJ picked up her eraser and started gently smudging beneath the line of Peter’s jaw. Peter’s eyes got lost for a second in the sun-tipped whorls of her hair, the focused line of her brow, the graceful curve of her fingers around the eraser, the warm light in her eyes.

“The Web,” MJ said.

“What?” Peter blinked down at her.

“That way if anyone overhears us, they’ll just think we’re talking about some dumb nerdy internet thing.”

You’re brilliant, Peter said, I love you, will you marry me?

“That’s perfect,” he said instead. “Oh, man. That’s so perfect. I love it. I gotta text Ned and tell him. Do you want to come over for dinner tonight? You like Indian food, right? May was gonna get some Indian takeout tonight.”

“What’d I tell you about moving?”

“Oh, right.” Peter froze again. “Sorry.”

The setting sun winked off of the metal eraser cap of MJ’s pencil. The graphite nib scratched quietly across the page. The elegant nub of her nose wrinkled just a little in concentration. Her eyes flicked up to his just in time to catch his gaze.

She pressed her fingers to her lips to stifle a laugh, then gave up and rolled across the bed, shaking with helpless laughter, startled and bright—the auditory version of the sparkle emoji.

“Six and a half…minutes!” she managed at last, wiping at her eyes. “You almost managed to hold kinda-sorta-vaguely still for six and a half minutes. I just wanted to see how long you could do it.”

“You are the worst!” Peter threw his pencil at her, then collapsed onto the bed next to her, already cracking up with her contagious laughter.

“I know,” MJ said. She held his gaze, still grinning. “I know. And I’d love to come over for dinner with you dorks.”

 

 


 

 

The early morning light crept up the spine of A Colony in a Nation, over Peter’s forehead, and through his hair, lighting up each strand like a goddamn halo. His face was smooth and peaceful in sleep, half-shadowed by the book.

Peter woke slowly, stretching in place like a cat. The book fell a bit further onto his face; he flailed a little, catching it easily before it slid to the floor.

MJ flipped to a new, clean page and sketched his oh-god-why-am-I-awake-why-is-there-a-book-on-top-of-me face as quickly as she could so she’d have something to show him other than the detailed drawing of his sleeping face she’d been working on. By the time Peter had yawned himself upright in the bed, she was done.

She flipped her sketchbook around to show him. He cracked up and collapsed back onto his pillow, a hand over his eyes. She slid the sketchbook onto her nightstand and snuggled back under the covers on her side of the bed.

He stashed A Colony in a Nation safely on his own nightstand and flipped to his other side to face her—another one of his stupidly beautiful superhero moves.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey yourself,” she said. His eyes were bright and well-rested, for once. No more dark bruising underneath.

“Thank you,” he said. “For being here. And for the book. It’s really good. I might have to keep reading it.”

MJ raised an eyebrow. “Good? Seems like it knocked you out cold.”

“That too. But I read a few chapters first. And I didn’t think I was going to be able to fall asleep again, so that was—nice. Really nice. Uh. Did you sleep okay?”

“Mmm-hmm.” MJ stretched a little, feeling the sunshine soak into her bones.

“You never said,” Peter started hesitantly, with that honest voice like he really wanted to hear what she had to say, “how it went. If you don’t want to talk about it, because it didn’t work, or something, that’s okay, I just—I was wondering—about your campaigns. You said you were going to try to gather support to end mass incarceration. How did it go?”

MJ shrugged. “I got a few state reps to agree to try to end cash bail in New York. Doesn’t stop the whole problem, but it’s a decent start.”

“Whoa.” Peter’s brows rose. “Good for you!” He raised his hand for a high-five.

She rolled her eyes and high-fived him back. One of their senators had also agreed to draft a piece of legislation against the Raft and try to persuade her fellow senators to get on board, but MJ didn’t want to bring the specter of the Raft into their little peaceful morning bubble.

“You’re going to change the world,” Peter said, with the kind of awe in his voice that most people had when talking about Spider-Man. “I can’t wait.”

“I mean, it’s not like anything’s happened yet. Change takes time, my young padawan.”

“Did…” Peter stared at her. “Did you just…you…oh my god.”

MJ grinned at him. “Someone’s got to protect us from power-hungry rich white emperors. Look out for all of the little people.”

“Can I help?” Peter asked. “Write letters, or make calls, or march somewhere, or, I don’t know, show up at an office and impress someone with my white-man-ness while you talk.”

MJ snorted. “I may ask you for some of those, if I ever need. But I’ve been doing okay so far. Turns out most people are willing to listen if you barrage their office for three hours a day, every day. And honestly, I don’t think you could intimidate anyone.”

“You and the rest of the world,” Peter groaned. “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be intimidating?”

MJ just raised an eyebrow at him.

“I could be intimidating!” Peter insisted. “I just choose not to be.”

“Uh-huh. Keep telling yourself that.”

“I could! You’ll see!”

“With that sweet little smile? No way.”

“Sweet?”

“Ridiculously sweet,” MJ said, understanding how Spider-Man felt in the lurch between web-swings.

Peter blinked at her.

“Can I kiss you,” MJ said.

Peter nodded, eyes wide.

MJ leaned in a little, bracing herself on his pillow, and kissed him. The quiet sound Peter made went straight to her gut. After a frozen moment, his hand crept cautiously to cup the back of her neck, fingers tangling in her hair.

She leaned over a little too far and lost her balance; he caught her easily and tucked her close to his chest, wrapping an arm over her waist. Time stretched and snapped around her, spiraling into the soft press of his lips against hers. The texture of his mouth around her tongue. The planes of his shoulderblade beneath her hand. The crease of her shirt beneath his arm. The unsteady shudder of his breath. Safe. Scared shitless. Loved. Here.

At last he pulled back just a little, thumb running over her cheek. “You’ve been waiting to do that for a long time, too,” he rasped.

“Yeah,” MJ said. “Thoughts? Yea or nay?”

“I,” Peter said, and blinked at her again. “I think I’ll need to try that again to know for sure. Once. Or twice. Or many times. You know. For science.”

“For science,” she agreed, and leaned in again.

Peter jerked away from her a moment before the door opened, revealing a sleep-rumpled Ned. He blinked at Peter, then at MJ.

“About damn time,” he said at last. He shut the door, then immediately opened it again. “Do I want to know what happened to Peter’s window?”

“He jumped out,” MJ said.

“Oh,” Ned said. “Right. Of course. Carry on.”

Chapter Text

Kissing was great, Peter decided. Great. Ten out of ten, A-plus, one hundred percent best decision ever. Highly recommended.

Unfortunately, even kissing couldn’t distract them forever from the disgruntled grumbling of his stomach.

“Breakfast,” MJ mumbled at last against Peter’s lips.

“Hmmmgh?”

“Breakfast.” She leaned back a little and grinned at him, hair tousled out of its loose bun, eyes low and hazy.

I did that, Peter thought, and I probably look like that too. He grinned back at her.

"So?" MJ was saying when he tuned back in. "Yes? No?"

"What?" Peter blinked at her.

“You didn’t hear a thing I said, did you,” MJ said.

“Uh..."

MJ laughed and tugged at his hair. “I said, unless you can train your stomach to growl on key, I’d like some better music.”

“Oh.” Peter rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m sorry. Uh. I guess I am kinda hungry.”

“It’s okay, spandex-man. I think Steve was planning to make pancakes this morning.”

“Pancakes?” Peter sat up.

MJ fell back against the pillows and cracked up with laughter, shoulders shaking. “God, you are such a dork,” she gasped at last. “I’m going to say that in class someday, just to see if you pop up like that again.”

Peter shrugged, grinning down at her. “Probably will. I’m kinda stupid that way.”

“Well,” MJ said, “it’s good to be consistent.” She rolled off the bed and rummaged through her suitcase for her clothes. “Out. Go cleanse thyself. See you at breakfast.”

“Right,” Peter said. He slipped off the bed, then hesitated by the door. “Hey,” he said. “Um. Thank you. For, like. Everything.”

“You said that already.”

“I know. I’m saying it again. I, uh. This was, um. Really…really…”

“Yeah,” MJ said quietly.

“Yeah.” Peter swallowed. “So, uh. See you in a bit, I guess.”

 

 

 

It was entirely possible that MJ spent five minutes putting the finishing touches on her sketch from the morning, and then another five staring into space.

Kissing.

Good stuff.

Who knew?

By the time she went to join Peter for breakfast, he was already outside her door, freshly showered and wearing a new physics pun t-shirt—YOU MATTER, UNLESS YOU MULTIPLY YOURSELF BY THE SPEED OF LIGHT SQUARED, THEN YOU ENERGY.

“You didn’t have to wait for me,” she said. “I don’t want you to faint before you make it to the kitchen.”

“Yeah,” Peter said, “so, uh, about that. Do you want to, like, go somewhere? I could take you out for breakfast! Like a real date and everything. There’s gotta at least be an IHOP or something, even out here in the middle of nowhere. I could swing us there. Lots of trees.”

MJ squinted at him for a moment. “Ohhhhh,” she said at last.

“Uh…is that a yes? Yeah? Good? Great plan?”

“You’re a coward,” MJ said. “Are you serious right now?”

“I have no idea what you're talking about.”

MJ folded her arms over her chest.

Peter deflated faster than a popped balloon. “How did you know?”

“I don’t smell anything burning,” MJ said, “so the food is probably okay, and I can’t hear anything from here, but I bet you can. You were so excited about pancakes. Now you want to run for the woods. Please don’t turn to a life of crime, okay? Lying is not your strong suit.”

“Please,” Peter said. “I’m begging you.”

“Nope,” MJ said. She held out her arm to Peter. “Come on, spandex-man. Screw your courage to the sticking place.”

“We’re going to die,” Peter said, but he took her arm and walked down the hall with her.

“Don’t even joke.”

“I'm sorry,” Peter sighed. “I just—”

“You missed us,” MJ said. “Weren’t you just saying that?”

“I did,” Peter said with a little smile. “I really did. But it was nice having dignity while it lasted.”

“What dignity?” MJ said. “I’ve seen you fall into a dumpster with one leg in your super-suit, one leg out.”

“That was—”

Peter stopped short on the threshold of the kitchen.

The entire Avengers squad, plus Ned, May, and Happy, rose from their seats and gave them a slow-clap standing ovation. A paper banner flopped haphazardly from the ceiling, spelling out FUCKING FINALLY in Clint’s distinctive scrawl. Two plates, each with a spider-symbol and a cursive MJ inscribed in syrup inside a whipped-cream heart on a stack of pancakes, were laid out on the table in front of the two remaining empty chairs.

“Coulda gone to IHOP,” Peter said.

“Coward,” MJ said. “Thanks, guys! This is so sweet of you. Who won the bet?”

“What bet?” Steve said.

MJ rolled her eyes.

“I did,” Happy said, looking smugger than the pardoned Thanksgiving turkey.

“Congratulations,” MJ said. “You deserve it. Come on, spandex-man. Eat your pancakes before you fall over.”

“We were going to have a second bet on who would initiate the kiss,” Sam said, “but no one bet on Peter, so it was moot.”

“Well, joke’s on you,” Peter said. “It was totally my idea. Come on, MJ, back me up here.”

“Are you asking me to lie in front of Captain America?” MJ said. “For shame.”

Peter put his head in his hands.

May ruffled Peter’s hair. “It’s all right, sweetheart. We’ll stop teasing you eventually.”

“No, we won’t,” Ned said.

“Damn right,” Clint agreed.

“Anyway,” May said over them, “MJ, from the bottom of all of our hearts, thank you for putting both of you out of your misery.”

“Who was miserable?” MJ asked. “I was having a great time.”

“For shame,” Sam said. “Lying in front of Captain America.” He patted MJ’s shoulder. “Enjoy your pancakes, kids.”

“Thanks,” MJ said. She picked up her fork and glanced sideways at Peter. “Is it worth it?” she asked, too quietly for anyone else to hear.

Peter’s eyes crinkled like stars. “Yeah,” he said. “Definitely. And for you?”

“You bet,” MJ said, and nabbed a bite of his pancakes.

 

 


 

 

“All right.” Tony looked around the table. “All exogenous superheroes’ weapons and suits have been stashed elsewhere, all endogenous superheroes have promised to ‘behave,’ and everyone is drinking chamomile tea. We’re locked, loaded—sorry, unloaded—and ready to go.”

“Nice watch,” Sam said.

Tony narrowed his eyes at him.

Sam smiled peacefully up at Tony. “You were saying?”

Tony reluctantly took off his watch, opened the door, handed it to Happy, and shut the door again with a clang. “Watch gone. No suits. No gauntlets. No remote-controlled roombas for FRIDAY to hit you with. FRIDAY doesn’t even have access to this room right now. We good?”

“We’re great,” Steve said.

“Now you,” Tony said. “Take your righteous ass and—”

“Tony,” Rhodey sighed from his holographic perch at the end of the table.

“Sitting down now,” Tony said. “You were saying?”

“We are here to come to a consensus on the Accords,” Steve said, standing up at his end of the table. “The events of the last six months have made it clear that whatever the public and the government decides about us, we need to form a unified front. If we are divided again, we—”

“Are you really going to do the whole ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ business again?” Tony asked.

“Yes,” Steve said. “You said it yourself. We’re stronger together.”

“I was quoting you! I want no part of—”

“Gentlemen,” Natasha said. “Do you need a ruler?”

They both fell silent. Steve’s ears flushed bright red. “Sorry,” he said. “As I was saying, we need to decide as a team how we plan to proceed and what the Accords should, and should not, entail.”

Silence.

“Well, all right,” Sam said. “I’ll start. The human rights violations in the Accords need to go. No tracking bracelets. No invasive ‘power analysis’ bullshit. And definitely, definitely no holding indefinitely without a trial.”

“Amen,” Clint said.

“On those points, I agree,” Rhodey said, “but limits on powers are a good thing. Checks and balances. That’s what separates the good guys from the bad guys.”

“So the question is,” Wanda said, “how do we keep ourselves in check without ending up back in that incomprehensible Sokovian curseword ever again?”

“There are systems that already function,” Steve said. “We could work with the army, the police. Interpol. The UN. That sort of thing. On a more equal footing, with less potential for corruption, than the Accords. More of an oversight system, like SHIELD, than a punitive system.”

“Define ‘function,’” Sam said. “The police shoot down unarmed people of color all the fucking time. All their ‘checks’ and ‘balances’ do is keep the status quo intact. You really want to join a system like that?”

“So we improve it from the inside,” MJ said.

Eight superheroes jumped and looked around for the source of the disembodied voice. Peter just grinned.

“I thought you said FRIDAY was off in this room!” Steve said.

“She is,” Tony said, looking slightly ill. “I’m going to strangle you, Ned.”

“Get in line,” Ned said. “No, don’t, there’s no line, but that sounded pretty badass, didn't it?”

“Are these children?” Rhodey asked. “Why are there children in the compound?”

Tony dropped his face into his hands with a groan. “This is a private, confidential meeting for those who are directly affected by the Accords,” he said.

“Everyone is directly affected by what the Avengers do,” MJ said.

“She’s got a point,” Natasha said, still reclining in her chair with her feet up on the table. “And I agree about changing a system from the inside out. It’s always better to start off by playing nice and making friends before you start making people disappear.”

“We’re not making anyone disappear,” Sam sighed.

“Says you,” Clint said.

“Peter,” Tony said. “Will you get your goddamn fellow midgets out of this room’s speakers and back to their naps where they belong?”

“What makes you think I’d be able to order them around any better than you can?” Peter grinned at Tony. “Or that I’d even want to? Anyway, I agree with them. What else do you guys do all day, while you’re waiting around for the next epic alien invasion? There are people hurting right now. We could help. Join the system, start some changes, make it right.”

“They’ve got a point,” Clint said. “Lot of big, shiny butts in here. Let’s swing them in style.”

“You don’t even know how to swing dance!” Bucky said.

“Children,” Wanda sighed. “The sooner we finish this, the sooner we get to go outside. Let’s get back to business.”

“Right.” Steve rapped his knuckles on the table. “Order, order. First question is—”

“Shh!” Peter froze in his chair.

“What—” Steve said. Sam elbowed him.

“They’re here,” Peter said, swallowing down sudden nausea. “Ross’ people. There’s a plane landing on the runway now. Not the Quinjet.”

He belatedly realized that he was gripping the arms of his chair so hard that they’d crumpled beneath his hands. Sam, Clint, and Wanda were already halfway out of their chairs, tensing in readiness.

“What’s—what’s the plan?” Peter rasped, hands shaking. “Fight? Escape?”

“Kid,” Tony said. “Breathe.”

“They’re here.” Peter’s voice cracked. “I don’t—I don’t want to go back, I can’t, I—”

“Do you sense danger?” Tony asked, eyes intent on Peter’s. “Or do you just hear a plane?”

“I—just a plane,” Peter said, subsiding slightly. “But—I mean—it’s not the Quinjet, it’s got to be Ross and his—”

“They’re not Ross’ people,” Tony said. “FRIDAY? Patch us in.”

“FRIDAY’s still off in this room,” Ned said, “but I can get you into their system in a sec—wait, hey, what’s going on—”

“Good morning, Avengers,” a warm and oddly familiar voice said.

“I really need to upgrade my security,” Tony muttered. “And hire an entirely new set of white hats. Good morning to you too!” he said louder, pitched up towards the room’s microphones. “Welcome to America. Hope you brought your coats. Still a little chilly around here.”

Is that— Rhodey mouthed, pointing up to the speakers.

“Yes, I am,” the voice said. “Good to see that you are recovering well, Colonel Rhodes. Give my regards to Washington.”

“Oh my god,” MJ whispered, too quiet for anyone but Peter to hear.

“Oh my god oh my god oh my god,” Ned whispered. “How is this happening? How is this real? Am I dreaming? Are we dreaming? We’re not dead, are we?”

“How’s the package?” Tony asked.

“Safe and sound,” the voice said. “And yours?”

“Little banged up,” Steve said, with a little grin for Peter, “but we’ll be all right. Thank you so much, Your Majesty.”

Chapter Text

It’s so nice to meet you, your majesty, Peter said while King T’Challa shook Steve’s hand with a beaming smile.

Thank you so much for coming to help us, Peter said while Clint gave T’Challa a Wakandan salute and exchanged a few laughing sentences with him.

It’s an honor to meet you, your majesty, Peter said while T’Challa admired the smooth workings of Bucky’s arm.

We’re so grateful for your help, Peter said while T’Challa hugged a completely speechless Sam.

“Good morning, Mr. Parker,” T’Challa said, shaking Peter’s hand with a firm, friendly grasp.

Peter blinked up at him, like, way up, wow, he was as tall as Steve and Bucky. “Uh, hi, Mr., uh, Kingship, I mean, majesty man? King Panther-ness? Um. You are, you know, your help, uh, really great. That was, you know. Awesome. Really…uh…awesome.”

T’Challa’s face twitched with the effort not to laugh. “Pleasure to meet you as well, Mr. Parker.”

“Yeah? Wow. Uh. I just…you know…you know what? I’m just going to go, uh, sit down now.”

Not his best moment. Probably not his worst either, come to think of it. Which wasn’t much consolation.

At all.

Anyway. They were definitely going to tease him for this. A lot. They’d stop eventually, though, right?

No. They probably wouldn’t. Like, ever.

Oh, crap.

Peter stuck one finger to the cover of the giant binder on the table in front of his seat and idly cracked it open and shut while the other Avengers finished greeting King T’Challa and took their seats.

Clint eyed Peter from across the table, then walked his fingers up his shoulder to his ear, itsy-bitsy style.

Peter shrugged, trying not to dislodge Dron-E from its perch beneath his collar or mess up the way Ned had artfully arranged his hair to cover the comm wired into his ear. As Tony had barred Ned and MJ from hacking into the room under pain of never being allowed back into the Avengers’ compound, Ned and MJ were watching through Dron-E, which was tiny enough to be completely hidden to everyone but, apparently, those with super-eyesight. Hopefully Steve wouldn’t notice.

“So.” Tony drummed his fingers on the table. “Weapons are gone, chamomile tea in hand, security’s been upgraded, no one’s eavesdropping. I hereby call this war council to order—”

“Tony,” Steve said.

Tony shut up.

“I’d like to start by formally welcoming King T’Challa,” Steve said. “Thanks to his agents, Ross is currently enjoying Wakandan hospitality.”

“No,” T’Challa said. “Hospitality is for friends, not liars and murderers. But we’ll take good care of him.”

“Wait, what?” Clint leaned forward. “You nabbed Ross? How the hell’d you do that?”

“I believe Mr. Rogers would call it the ‘ol’ one-two punch,’” T’Challa leaned back in his chair with a quiet smile. “With some last-minute assistance from Stark, my…agent…exposed Ross’ connections to HYDRA by hacking into his communications array, then my warriors caught him by the scruff of the neck when he tried to run.”

Mr. Rogers, Peter mouthed in awe.

“Well,” Sam said, with a wicked gleam in his eye, “We and Mr. Rogers are deeply grateful for your help.”

“Of course.” T’Challa smiled at Sam. “After years in seclusion, Wakanda is rejoining the world. We are happy to be your neighbor.”

“A king who makes puns,” Ned whispered in his ear. “I'm in love.” Peter nodded in fervent agreement. Clint gave him a strange look, then rolled his eyes. 

"I believe," Rhodey was saying when Peter tuned back in, “that the Pentagon plans to extradite Ross to stand trial here, for treason."

“They can try,” T’Challa said. “He will not be released. I do not trust the American judicial system. More importantly, Ross was careful to not engage in any HYDRA-related activity on U.S. soil. He met with his contacts on the Raft, which stays in international waters. Wakanda is holding him now on behalf of the UN, who will arrange the trial.”

“And the Accords?” Bucky asked.

“Have been revealed for the power grab and human rights violations they are,” T’Challa said. “The international grassroots movement against them has grown exponentially in the last three months. Hashtag Rights for All. Hashtag Break the Raft. Hashtag Let my Superheros Go. Hashtag Accords My Ass.”

“The last one is Ned’s fault,” MJ whispered in Peter’s comm.

“Damn right it was,” Ned agreed. “We needed something a little punchier.”

Peter snorted. Steve squinted at him suspiciously. Peter hastily cleared his throat and straightened in his chair.

“It’s still going to be an uphill battle to get a better version ratified,” T’Challa was saying. “But we have many more allies now.”

“Are those allies going to have our backs when the government gets its act together and comes after us here?” Natasha asked.

T’Challa shrugged. “They cannot catch what they cannot find.”

“What?” Rhodey frowned.

“How else do you think we’ve hid our asses from the government since the breakout?” Tony asked. “His Majesty over here generously lent us a smaller version of the shielding technology that hides Wakanda from the world, to keep the compound invisible until we come to an agreement on the Accords.”

“You gave Tony a new toy?” Sam asked T’Challa, aghast. “Are you insane?”

“The operative word here is ‘lent,’” T’Challa said with a sweet smile. “My agents have been keeping a close eye on it to prevent any…shall we say…extended borrowing.”

“How?” Bucky asked. “Are they here?”

“Of course,” T’Challa said. “They’ve been here for the last two weeks.”

“Wait a sec,” Tony said. “They’re just camping out on my lawn? Where are they?”

“Under their own invisibility shield,” T’Challa said. “Making sure it would be safe for me to fly in.”

“They could at least come in for some cocoa,” Tony said.

“Perhaps,” T’Challa said. “If they behave.”

“The hell’s that supposed to mean?” Clint asked, then shook his head. “Never mind. What I really want to know is, how the hell did Steve and Tony convince you to help out?”

“Half of New York City was destroyed when the Chitauri came,” T’Challa said, losing his smile. “Two years later, it was good as new. An entire neighborhood of Johannesburg was destroyed by the Hulk. Two years later, it is still half-buried under rubble.”

“Johannesburg wasn’t the Hulk’s fault,” Wanda said quietly. “That was mine. I was controlling him.”

“I am not here to throw blame,” T’Challa said. “We have all seen where that leads. The wrongs of the world cannot be righted by killing people. They can only be righted by protecting, defending, providing.”

He looked from face to face around the table. “When things go wrong,” he said, “Avengers-level wrong, the rich people take shelter, and then rebuild. The poor—usually people of color—cannot do either. Fixing the way superhumans operate may help change that.  As an…‘enhanced individual,’ shall we say, with a seat at the UN, I am uniquely positioned to speak to both sides of the issue. After Tony called for help, I discussed the situation with Mr. Rogers, asked my agent to investigate Ross’ dealings, and drew up a plan for the breakout.”

“Thank you,” Peter said. “God, thank you. You didn’t have to do that for us.”

“Maybe not,” T’Challa said. “And maybe I did. My father…supported the Accords. But we did not check that the final text of the Accords matched the draft that Ross’ lawyers had shown us.”

“None of us did,” Rhodey said. “Till it was too late.”

T’Challa inclined his head in agreement. “I am here now to watch the law carefully, he said. Make sure it is right. Revising the Accords is a natural first step in Wakanda’s path towards fostering safety, prosperity, and greater opportunities for people of color around the world.”

“God,” Sam said. “Where have you been all our lives?”

“Excellent question,” T'Challa said. “We can talk after this meeting, if you would like. But we have a lot of business to take care of first.” He cocked an eyebrow at Steve. “Mr. Rogers,” he said. “Thank you for your gracious welcome. I believe we are ready to begin.”

“Right.” Steve tapped his binder. “The document you all have now is a preliminary draft of the Revised Accords, written by King T’Challa, Colonel Rhodes, Tony Stark, me, and an international team of lawyers. We are here to review it and compile a list of any changes we feel are necessary. Let’s begin with article one, section A, item one.”

Peter cracked the binder open. In his ear, he could hear the click of MJ’s—well, formerly Happy’s—favorite pen.

“Not bad,” MJ whispered as Peter scanned down the page. “Not bad at all.”

“Hey, wait a sec,” Ned whispered. “Go back up. Section B, item five.”

Peter read it, then reread it, seeing MJ stare down the debate finals judges—shoulders squared, confident and unbeatable in a crisp navy blazer, just a week before Ross had caught him. He underlined the item, added MJ’s initials on the side, and just barely restrained himself from doodling a little heart around her initials.

“They listened,” MJ whispered. “They took notes.”

“You should get writer’s credit for that,” Ned said.

Peter flipped to the list of contributing lawmakers in the very back of the binder. And there it was, in neat Times New Roman font, size 12: Michelle Jones, U.S.

This time, he couldn’t resist drawing a tiny heart next to her name.

“Oh, my god,” Ned sighed. “Get a room.”

 

Chapter Text

Peter pulled his coat tighter around his body, dangled his legs off the edge of the roof, and tilted his face up to the sky, trying to soak up the sun. While King T’Challa and Steve brought the Avengers’ revisions back to their lawyers for yet another round of discussion, the rest of the Avengers—which now included him? holy crap—had been given a few hours of recess. Peter was pretty sure he could sit here on the roof for the next five years and still not have quite enough sunshine to make up for…

“Trying to photosynthesize?” Natasha asked. “I think there are energy bars in the kitchen.”

“No,” Peter laughed. He squinted up at her. “Just, you know. It’s nice out.”

“Mmm.” Natasha sat next to him. “Everyone does this in Russia when spring finally comes. Just goes outside and basks, like lizards. No one pays attention to anything but the sun. It’s the best time to…” She shook her head.

“Probably don’t want to know the rest of that sentence,” Peter said.

Natasha snorted. “Maybe not,” she said. “Do you want to be alone? You looked like you were meditating.”

“Nah, it’s okay. I was just thinking about, uh. Stuff.”

“Stuff.”

“Yeah.” Peter snuck a glance at Natasha, trying to read her face. Completely impossible. “Just, like, going home. I can’t wait. Even going back to school.”

“But,” Natasha said.

“What?”

“If that was all you were thinking about, you’d be inside already,” Natasha said. “You know I interrogate people for a living, right? Don’t try me.”

“Oh,” Peter said. “Um.”

“But I’m not interrogating you. If you don’t want to talk, that’s fine. I’ll leave. Or if you want to talk about something else. The weather? The Mets?” She wrinkled her nose. “I might be a little rusty on small talk.”

Peter laughed softly. “So am I.”

Natasha sat with an eerie stillness he would never be able to match, hands at her sides in constant readiness. That kind of tension looked exhausting, but—familiar, too, if he was being honest.  

“I was thinking,” he said. “I haven’t had to lie in the past three months. I mean, the guards already knew my real name, since they’d used it in the trial, so it was okay to tell Sam and Clint and Wanda. And they all knew I was Spider-Man. It's the longest time I’ve ever spent as both Peter and Spider-Man, together, no lies. It just…it was so wonderful. To not have to lie. To be myself, my full self, all the time. I missed home so much, and school, but…it’s going to be hard to get back to lying all the time. You know?”

“No,” Natasha said.

“What?”

“I have no idea what you mean.”

“But—you don’t have a secret identity. You don’t have to lie to anyone. Everyone knows you’re an Avenger.”

“My entire identity is a secret.”

“Well—but—I mean, you must have some kind of real self under there. Your name, and stuff.”

“Stuff,” Natasha agreed. “You know, I don’t even know my real name.”

“What?”

“I was taken as a small child. They gave me so many different names. So that we would practice responding to different names without hesitation. I have taken so many different identities over the years—new hair, new contacts, new name, new wardrobe, new personality. I have no idea which one is mine. Doesn’t matter. I am what I decide to be.”

Peter was silent for a while. “I’m sorry,” he said at last.

“For what?”

“That you were taken. That you don’t know who you are. That sucks.”

“Why be sorry? It was a gift. Great training. It’s why I’m still alive.”

“Because you assume everything is a trap until proven otherwise?”

“Everything,” Natasha said, “is always a trap. There is no otherwise.”

“I don’t think I could live like that,” Peter said. “I hate lying.”

“Maybe you don't have to lie anymore,” Clint said.

“Of course I have to,” Peter said. “I have to keep them safe.”

“Wait, really?” Clint said. “Neither of you are even going to pretend to be surprised that I’m suddenly here?”

“Knew you were there,” Natasha said.

“Heard you climbing out of the vent,” Peter said.

“Goddammit,” Clint said.

“Keep trying,” Peter said. “You’ll get there someday.”

“No, you won’t,” Natasha said.

“Will too!”

“He’s never caught me,” Natasha confided in Peter. “Not once.”

“Oh, I see how it is. What about Budapest, huh? You wouldn’t even be here now if I hadn’t nabbed you.”

“You missed,” Natasha said.

“I never miss.”

“Whoosh,” Natasha said, gliding her hand out towards the evergreen view. “Right past my head. Enough space to drive a bike through.”

“Exactly where I was aiming. Not like I wanted to kill you. Would have kinda ruined the message.”

“He taped a piece of paper to the arrow,” Natasha told Peter. “S.H.I.E.L.D.: Now Hiring. Good pay. Great benefits. Free ammo.”

“It worked.” Clint flopped down to the roof next to Natasha.

“Because I wanted information from you. I only pretended to cooperate until I could—”

“Fall hopelessly in love with my gorgeous ass."

“Clint,” Natasha said. “Not in front of the kid.”

“Heard it before,” Peter sighed. “Many times. Can’t unhear it anymore. Just didn’t know it was you he was talking about.”

“Yeah,” Clint said. “I did kinda want to apologize about that. I knew Sam couldn’t say that the guy he was dating was actually Steve, not while the guards could hear him and report it to someone who would use him as bait for Steve. Didn’t seem fair to talk about Nat.”

“Nice of you,” Peter said.

“Shhhhh,” Clint said. “What have I told you about that? Anyway, we all know what Nat really wanted was the ammo.”

“True. I was fresh out. Not a big problem, though. I’ve won harder fights with less.”

“Anyway,” Clint said, “I won, she’s here, we’re all good now. Nat still puts on disguises for fun, it’s her hobby, it’s okay, I don’t judge, there are weirder hobbies to have, I have at least five of them. But you? You don’t have to live in disguise, kid.”

“Of course I do," Peter said. "May and Ned and MJ, they’d all be at risk. The entire school, if a villain decided to go after me during the day. My apartment building. Even Mr. Delmar.”

“Anyone who goes up against you,” Clint said, “has to go through me first.”

“Get in line,” Sam said, clattering to a landing on the roof and folding his wings up. “Look, at least some of the bad guys already know your identity, right? And nothing bad has happened to your family in the last three months.”

“Don’t jinx it—” Peter protested.

“Point is,” Sam continued, “anyone who goes after you or your family would have to be idiotic enough to take on the entire Avengers clan. Nat here eats idiots like that for breakfast.”

“With mustard and relish,” Clint said. “It’s kind of inspiring. Mortals like me just stick to Cheerios and—”

Nat grabbed Peter’s wrist and fired his webshooter right at Clint’s mouth. Peter let her, fairly sure that if he struggled, his voice would never finish deepening, and he really needed that to gain more street cred as Spider- Man.

“I’m sorry, man,” he said instead.

“Hnnnghh hnnngghooo,” Clint said.

“Same to you,” Natasha said. “Sam, you were saying?”

“I was saying,” Sam said, giving Clint a sympathetic pat on the back, “that if you want to take off the mask, maybe you can. Hurts to lie to the people you love.”

His eyes held Peter’s.

“Yeah.” Peter cleared his throat. “Yeah, it does. But at least I don’t have to lie to May or Ned or MJ anymore. The only people I lie to are…well, everybody else in my life. Including the people who could hurt my—” He shook his head with a half-laugh. “You keep calling them my family. Almost got me doing it too.”

“Call a spade a spade,” Natasha said. “Like Sam said, we’ll do everything we can to protect them.”

“With all of the crazy villains out there who hate my guts,” Peter said, “and all of the future villains I haven’t pissed off yet…you really think you can keep them safe?”

“You bet,” Sam said.

“With pleasure,” Natasha said.

You’re damn right we will, Clint signed.

Thank you, Peter signed. He held Clint’s gaze for a moment, then crumpled into laughter. “I’m sorry,” he gasped. “I’m sorry, man, I just can’t take you seriously with a web on your mouth. Here.” He pulled the little bottle of web solvent from his belt and tossed it to Clint.

“Think about it, all right?” Natasha grinned at Peter. Peter blinked the spots out of his eyes.

“Nat,” Clint sighed, wiping the half-dissolved web goop off of his face and smearing it into Peter’s shoulder instead. “What have I told you about dazzling the locals? Don’t worry, kid, the effects wear off in time. Hopefully you’ve still got your state secrets by then.”

Peter laughed a little, then sobered again. “It’s really nice of you guys to offer,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter. Even if you could probably keep them safe, that’s not enough. I can’t let anything happen to them. Especially not because of me.”

“It’s all right, son,” Sam said. “You don’t have to tell the world who you are. We know, and your family knows. Is that enough?”

"It’ll have to be."

“Well,” Clint said, “still. Think about it. We’re a pretty feisty bunch, when it comes down to it. Happy to punch any and all supervillains that need punching.”

“That would be all of them,” Sam said.

“Now that’s the right attitude,” Clint said. He threw the web solvent back at Peter, hooked one arm around Natasha’s waist, shot a grappling arrow at the edge of the roof, and jumped off.

“It’s a miracle they haven’t set the compound on fire yet,” Peter said, watching their barely controlled descent.

"Of course they have. Five times in the last year alone." Sam bumped his shoulder against Peter’s. "I’m going to take off again. Gorgeous day. I need to be in the skies. Want a ride?"

“God, yes. Just, uh…please don’t drop me.”

“Wouldn't dream of it,” Sam said. “I—”

A rubber-tipped arrow flew just over their heads, followed by a pair of Natasha’s green practice darts, the ones that (according to Clint, who was a dubious source at best) only administered a light shock.

“Right.” Sam reshouldered the wingpack. “Let’s go. What’s our strategy?”

“Against the Black Widow? Run. Or, you know, fly. Fast. To Canada. It’s not that far from here. And I hear they have nice healthcare.”

“Nah,” Sam said. “We can take ‘em. Get ready, we’re doing a flyby. Three, two, oops, think quick—”

Sam launched himself from the roof, cackling with glee. Peter leapt onto to Sam's back, rose to his knees, and shot a web at Clint’s bow.

“God, I missed this,” Sam said quietly. The wind carried his words easily to Peter’s ears. “Glad you're part of our circus, kid.”

“Thanks,” Peter said, and hung on tighter.

Chapter Text

“So.” Tony rapped on the table for order. “All listening devices, phones, drones, and extraneous non-assistive technology has been removed. All recalcitrant non-enhanced teenagers are playing a nice supervised game of Monopoly. FRIDAY is barred from this room. We good to go?”

“We’re good,” Steve said. “Let’s begin. In our discussions this afternoon, the lawyers accepted most of the changes we proposed, with a few exceptions. The most significant of those is that they insist that it is not, and should never be, legal to join a civil organization—in order to continue superheroing—under a secret identity.”

Peter’s stomach lurched.

“Well, obviously that’s bullshit,” Clint said. “So, tell them it’s bullshit.”

“They’re requiring enhanced people to register?” Bucky asked. “I thought we ditched that part of the Accords.”

“No,” Steve said. “They’re on board with not reviving the registry plan. They agree that it would be an invasion of privacy and a quick trip to serious discrimination or genocide. But they are insisting that if any enhanced individuals want to use their powers in the public sphere, they must reveal their identities.”

Peter carefully let go of his pen before he broke it.

“How about the private sphere, then?” Tony asked. “What if I set up my own non-governmental superheroing agency?”

“You could do that on your own land, in your own country,” Steve said. “But your team would not be allowed stop crimes, either domestically or internationally.”

“So, a bunch of trained housepets,” Bucky said. “Not superheroes.”

“Exactly.”

“I thought you were going to make it very clear to them that secret identities must remain legal,” Wanda said, pinioning Steve and T’Challa with a death glare.

“We tried,” T’Challa sighed. “For hours. The reasoning behind it is in the packet in front of you, if you want to look through it.”

“Maybe you can summarize it for us,” Bucky said, leaning back in his chair.

“The lawyers are concerned,” T’Challa said, “that anyone may assume a superhero’s secret identity. Who is to say, if someone shows up to a police station in a Spider-Man suit, that they are actually Peter?”

“Um—” Peter raised his hand. “Have you met anyone else who sticks to walls?”

“With a specialized suit…” Tony said.

“Shut up,” Tony, Natasha said.

“Peter’s got a point,” Sam said. “I mean, even exogenous superheroes like me, Clint, and Nat are pretty impossible to impersonate. Never seen anyone else shoot like Clint or move like Nat. And the rest of the EXO-7 program either dropped out, failed out, or…fell out.”

“I tried the wingsuit once,” Clint said, unsubtly giving Sam a second to regroup. “Thor had to pluck me right out of the sky before I turned into a ground pancake.”

“Karma’s a bitch,” Sam said, smile returning. “Don’t steal, kids. It’s bad. Point is, the only ones who could be impersonated are the big suits. Tony and Rhodey put that armor on and they were good to go. So did Stane.”

“I would resent the implication,” Tony said, “if I’d been listening. Fortunately, I wasn’t. Because it doesn’t matter. Rhodey and I don’t use secret identities. Only one who does is Peter.”

“Thanks, Tones,” Bucky said. “Never woulda figured that out without your help.”

“Children,” Natasha said. “I remember now why I never wanted to be a parent,” she said to Clint.

“The reason Peter’s identity is secret,” Wanda said, “is because unlike the rest of us, he’s got a family.”

“He’s not the only one,” Sam said. “Clint and I both have people at home.”

“And there’s a reason People magazine still asks you if you’ve met any nice women lately,” Rhodey said. “You still stay as private as you can. Neither of you revealed your identities on purpose. Clint was just a SHIELD agent—”

“‘Just’ a SHIELD agent?” Clint flicked a paper plane through Rhodey’s hologram.

“—and Sam got hauled in to help Cap.”

“Not ‘hauled,’” Sam said. “I knew damn well what I was walking into. Lot of lives were at stake that day. I made my choice.”

Would I do that too? Peter wondered. If saving lives meant giving up my identity and putting Aunt May and Ned and MJ at risk, would I do it?

No way in hell. I have to keep them safe.

Of course I would. How could I let someone else’s family die to save my own?

Oh, crap.

“Peter,” Tony was saying.

Peter jolted in his chair. “Um. Uh. What?”

“Breathe, kid.” Tony held Peter’s gaze. “Promised you I’d keep them safe. No matter what happens.”

“Yeah. Um. Thank you.”

“Can’t we make them stand down on this one?” Sam asked. “I mean, come on. He’s fifteen. We could at least get a waiver for superheroes who have families, or underage superheroes, or—”

T’Challa shook his head. “I am sorry. They will not budge on this point. Part of the reasoning behind the Accords was a need for greater transparency. Secret identities do nothing to help that.”

“Says the king of an invisible country,” Clint said, folding his arms across his chest.

“Correct. I am only a king. I cannot give orders to the UN. It is possible that we may be able to amend the Accords someday, but for now, they insist that secret identities cannot be allowed.”

Peter put his head down on the table

“Kid.” Sam laid his hand on Peter’s shoulder.

“Specialized suit,” Tony said.

“Not now,” Natasha snapped.

“Yes now,” Tony countered. “Spider-Man reveals his identity to the world. Takes off his mask. Sticks to walls. Grabs his Stark Industries paycheck when he returns the sticky suit to us. Peter reports for duty in his actual suit, with the mask, no one knows the difference. All we have to do is find someone with roughly Peter’s build and a similar voice. Or use a vocal modifier. Someone we trust. Someone without a family, no one to lose.”

“Where’re you going to find a person like that?” Rhodey asked. “No family, no friends. Who would you trust to do that? Outside of this room.”

“Happy,” Tony said.

“Wrong build,” Rhodey said.

“Pepper.”

“Better. But then she takes off the mask…no. It’s gotta be someone new.”

“Loki. He’d be perfect.”

“If he shows up around here,” Clint said, “I can’t be responsible for the consequences.”

“Anyway,” Steve said, “they’re both back on Asgard, or something.”

“I could reprogram Vision,” Tony said. “Peter would watch through his eyes, speak when he needs to. Put him in a body exactly like Peter’s.” Tony snapped his fingers. “That’s it. That’ll work. Lemme go—”

Bucky stuck out a foot to stop him from leaving the room. “Hold your horses,” he said.

“Actually,” Tony said, “in the 21st century, the correct term would be ‘hold your jetpacks.'”

“You're ridiculous,” Rhodey said, “and it would be a decent idea, but it’s just too risky. The moment the charade collapses, the world loses trust in the Avengers. It’d be like the first round of the Accords all over again.”

“So he doesn’t sign,” Clint said. “Keeps on ticking the way he’s been. Who’s going to stop him? Kid is fucking strong.”

“And when he gets caught?” Steve said. “We’ve done away with the whole ‘held indefinitely without trial’ thing, but he’ll still be tried—there’s plenty of evidence, we’ve seen it already—and sentenced.”

“I’m not—” Peter’s voice cracked. “I can’t go back there, I—”

“We know, son,” Sam said, eyes gentle. “Not letting anyone get thrown in there again.”

“So that’s it?” Wanda said. “We just let them walk all over us? United front, you said. We can get them to back down. Make an exception.”

“They’re already making an exception for Peter,” Steve said. “Originally, they insisted that everyone who signs the Accords and acts as a superhero in the public sphere be of age.”

“Well, great,” Clint said, “but it doesn’t matter if you got him in despite his age if they’re going to make him reveal his identity.”

“But—”

“What if we—”

“Why don’t we just—”

Sam rapped his knuckles on the table. “Are there any other viable options?”

Steve looked at T’Challa. T’Challa looked at Steve.

“I do not believe so,” T’Challa said. “We will meet with the lawyers and press this issue again. See if they might be willing to make an exception or back down entirely. But we already pressed them as hard as we could when they first brought up this issue. We must be prepared for the possibility of losing this particular battle.”

“Fucking fuckeroony fuckeroos,” Clint muttered. Bucky nodded in agreement.

“Mr. Parker,” T’Challa said.

Peter sat up again. “Yes, um, your majesty?”

“If it does come down to a choice between revealing your identity and ceasing your superhero activities, which would you choose?”

For one horrifying second, Peter wished he was back in the Raft, where he could just pull his blanket over his head and disappear for a few hours.

“I,” he said at last, and shook his head. “I—I don’t know. I can’t put May and Ned and MJ in danger. But I also can’t leave New York in danger. I—I don’t know how I could choose.”

“Witness protection,” Natasha said. “A false identity. Fake your death. There are ways to get around the law. We’ll handle it.”

“They already found him once,” Steve said. “What’s going to stop them from doing it again? You said everyone who was at that trial knows his name. However much Ross is paying them to keep quiet about the fact that they shoved a kid into a supermax prison for life, there’s always going to be someone out there willing to pay more.”

“I think I can handle that,” Tony said.

“So they take your money and then betray Peter,” Rhodey said.

“What I’m hearing,” Sam said, “is that there are people who could find him even if he doesn’t publicly reveal his identity. People we may not be able to bribe enough to keep them quiet forever.”

“Entirely possible,” T’Challa said.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Secrets come out in the end.”

“So if Peter reveals his identity now,” Pepper said through the room’s speakers, “we have a chance to control the narrative.”

“What the hell.” Tony clawed at his hair. “Who is doing this? Happy, if you let the children out to play, I swear to god, I will block your access to Downton Abbey.”

“It’s not Happy’s fault.” T’Challa pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes.

“Mr. Kingship, sir?” Clint raised an eyebrow. “You know something about this?”

T’Challa spoke in a language Peter had never heard before—must be Wakandan. A delighted voice answered through the speakers in the same language. After a few exchanges, the room finally fell silent.

“I apologize for the interruption,” T’Challa said. “We are alone again. Or else I will find the hacker and something very menacing in Wakandan. Where were we?”

“Maybe we should open up the meeting to everyone who’s trying to listen in,” Peter said, staring at his hands. “I can’t make a decision like this without talking to the people it’s going to affect.”

“Fair enough,” Rhodey said. “Pepper’s an expert on image control, after all.”

“I heard that,” Tony said.

“Good,” Rhodey said.

“Let’s move on to the other items on the agenda,” Steve said. “The rest of the changes to the Accords that the lawyers rejected do not concern you very closely, Peter—do you want to take a break? Talk to your family?”

“I’m okay,” Peter said.

“Not what he asked,” Sam said quietly.

Peter took a deep breath. “I’d like to stay. Um. If that’s all right. I’ll talk it over with them this afternoon.”

If this was the last chance he’d get to feel like he was part of the Avengers, he’d take every minute he could get.

Steve nodded and flipped to the next page of the Revised Accords. “Then let’s move on to item two,” he said.

Peter stared at the page. Michelle’s amendment to the Accords had survived four rounds of revision and looked likely to make it to the final draft. He doodled aimlessly in the margin of the page, remembering the light in her eyes as she’d sketched in the corner of Ned’s room, a double-bladed lego lightsaber stuck precariously into her hair above her ear.

After Peter and Ned had finished the Lego Interdictor-class star destroyer, MJ had let them flip through her sketchbook to admire the finished drawings. Pencil sketches of Ned making a ridiculous face at Peter in shop class; Mr. Delmar’s cat nibbling at a sandwich; sunshine glinting off of a trash can by the entrance to Midtown Tech, the three of them dressed as Finn, Poe, and Rey; and Spider-Man leaning off of a roof at an impossible angle, balancing the scales of justice in his hands.

Peter’s pen cracked in his grip.

Chapter Text

Peter blinked a few times. Rubbed his eyes. Squinted.

Nope. Still didn’t make sense.

“FRIDAY,” he said. “Are you sure this is May? And not, like, an alien impostor? Artificially intelligent aunt?”

“Come over here so I can whack you,” May said.

“Oh, good,” Peter said. “It is you.”

May flicked some flour at him and resumed kneading a bowlful of dough. “You want to eat some knishes, you gotta help me.”

“But you haven’t burned anything yet,” Peter said. “I kinda want to film this. Just so I remember that it really happened.”

“Unbelievable,” May said. “You see what I have to put up with?”

“So rude,” Pepper agreed, coming out of the pantry with a handful of potatoes. “Hey Peter, come help me peel these.”

“Gotcha.” Peter hopped up onto the counter, caught the potatoes and a vegetable peeler as Pepper tossed them to him, and started peeling as ordered. He worked quietly for a moment, listening to the faint sizzle of the onions Pepper was stirring in a pan.

“So,” Peter said. “You’re stress-attempting-to-cook because…you heard what happened with the Accords.”

“Mmm-hmm,” May said.

“And…why knishes?”

May looked at Pepper. Pepper looked at May.

“Because they’re tasty,” May said.

“Right,” Peter said. “Probably don’t want to know. Anyway. Um. I—I’m not really sure how to ask this.”

“Do you want me to step out so you guys can talk? “Pepper asked.

“You can stay,” May said. “Happy says you’re good at crisis management. Identity reveals. Being a target for violent wackjobs. That sort of thing.”

“Well,” Pepper said. “I try. Hey, you ready with those potatoes? Stick ‘em in the microwave.”

Peter slid off the counter and followed Pepper’s well-manicured hands.

“At the end of the day,” Pepper said, “I don’t think revealing your identity now is really going to change anything. You’re a much better liar than Tony is—which isn’t saying a whole lot, because he’s never developed a brain-to-mouth filter—but no matter how careful you are, secrets come out in the end. How many people found out about Spider-Man? The Vulture—”

“That was a freak coincidence!” Peter protested.

“Coincidences happen,” Pepper said. “Freakishly often. Also on the list: Tony—”

“That’s not fair,” May said. “He’s got FRIDAY. And he’s probably a genius or something. Don’t tell him I said that. That means you, FRIDAY.”

« Roger that, boss. »

“Jury’s still out on whether he’s actually a genius or just remarkably pigheaded,” Pepper said, “but at any rate, he’s not the only person who’s found your identity. Ross, Ken—Mr. Morita, I mean, and Michelle all figured it out. Other villains will catch on eventually. And then they’ll have the advantage of surprise, because you’ll still think you’re safe. If you go public now, you will be in control. You’ll be openly backed by the Avengers. They’re not going to have a lot of leeway to protect you later, if you continue being a vigilante in secret. They might even get called in to capture you.”

“They wouldn’t do it, though,” Peter said. “Right?”

“No,” Pepper agreed as the microwave dinged. “At least, they’d drag their heels as far as they could, and they’re good at that. But the government will get restless eventually. Here.” Pepper dropped the potatoes into a bowl, stuck a fork into one of them, and handed it to Peter. “Mash these.”

Peter destroyed the potatoes. Total mush. No survivors.

“No one else will find out,” he said at last, staring at his bowl of tuberous wreckage. “Because if I don’t reveal my identity and sign the Accords, I can’t keep being Spider-Man. So I won’t.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Pepper said. “How long is that going to last? Your impulse control is almost as bad as Tony’s. The next time someone is in danger, are you going to walk right on by?”

“I could,” Peter said. “Maybe? I think?”

“Stir.” Pepper dumped the panful of onions into Peter’s bowl and whirled away to find the spices.

“What do you want to do, sweetheart?” May asked. “It’s your life.”

“It’s a lot of lives,” Peter said, eyes fixed on the swirling mix in his bowl. “Mine. All of yours. Anyone in New York. I don’t know how to make that kind of decision.”

“Trolley problems get a lot harder when it’s your own family on the line,” Pepper said.

Peter stopped stirring to un-crumple his fork, then resumed, trying to be a little gentler.

“Oh, sorry.” Pepper took the fork from him and came back with a giant-sized version. “Thor tried to cook once. I decided this kitchen should be a little better prepared. The reinforced implements are in the third cupboard on the right.”

“Good to know,” Peter sighed. “Thank you.”

“You remember what I said when I found out you were Spider-Man?” May asked.

“Lot of things. Mostly swearing.”

May swatted his butt with the rolling pin, grinning. “What else?”

“Um,” Peter said. “That, uh. That Ben…wasn’t my fault. That I should be who I was. That I should follow the List of Conditions.”

“And,” May said.

The reinforced fork warped a little beneath his grip. Peter set the bowl down. “I can’t,” he said. “I can’t lose you guys.”

“Then don’t sign,” Pepper said. “Stay on the ground.”

The kitchen was way too small. Peter dropped the bowl on the counter, slipped off the counter, and paced across the kitchen, hands linked behind his head, trying to  remind himself how big the space actually was.

Pepper and May doled the filling out onto the dough and started rolling it up, conferring quietly. There was a streak of flour in May’s hair just above her ear, an easy glint in her eyes as she laughed with Pepper. She hadn’t looked so relaxed since…well, since before Ben had died. Definitely not since she’d found out about him.

Probably helped to have someone to talk to. Someone who knew what it was like to love a lunatic with an inadequate self-preservation instinct.

If he signed, May could have this anytime she wanted.

If he signed, she could get killed.

“Hey,” May said. “Get your but over here. Please.”

Peter got over there.

May swept him into a Thor-sized hug. “It’s your decision, sweetheart,” she murmured into his hair. “Whatever you pick, I’ll back you to the end of the line.”

“Thank you, May.” Peter let her rock them a little, breathing in the familiar some-kinda-flowery scent of her shampoo. He still felt a little—maybe a lot—okay, definitely a lot—hug-starved.

“What else did I tell you,” she whispered. “When I found out.”

“You said Ben would be proud of me,” Peter rasped, voice muffled in May’s hair.

“Half credit.”

“And—” Peter cleared his throat. “And that you were proud of me too.”

“Now there’s my honors student.”

Peter snorted.

“I meant it,” May said. “And I still do, sweetheart. Always.”

“Thank you.” Peter leaned his head on her shoulder and closed his eyes.

 

 


 

 

“Hey,” Peter said. It was amazing, really, how much his heart slowed down whenever he saw Ned—like the little screaming elves in his brain collectively decided to settle down into their seats, open their textbooks, and start doing their homework.

“Hey, dude.” Ned finished the line of code he was working on one-handed and lifted his other hand to meet Peter’s in their not-very-secret handshake.

“How’d Monopoly go?” Peter asked.

“Great!” Ned closed his laptop and swiveled around to face Peter.

“Who won?”

“Guess,” Ned said.

“MJ suggested that you all join together and live in a socialist paradise where everyone benefits, instead of slowly losing all of your assets while one smug jerk slowly wins them all. You accepted. Happy didn’t, until he was clearly losing with no chance of ever making it out from bankruptcy. Then you all lived happily ever after in socialist paradise.”

“We are kinda predictable, huh.”

Peter grinned at him. “Wish I’d been there.”

“Next time. Hey, you want to keep working on the Millenium Falcon?”

“What else would I ever want to do with my life?”

“Fair.” Ned slid to the floor beside the wreckage of the seven-thousand-piece ship and patted the carpet beside him. Peter plopped down next to him and started flipping through the instructions again, trying to find where they’d left off.

“I still can’t believe Tony bought this for us,” Ned said.

“I mean, he still hasn’t admitted it,” Peter said. “Are you sure he did?”

Ned nodded sagely. “AIs never lie.”

Peter snorted. “Should I be worried? I think you’re replacing me with FRIDAY.”

“Mmm. She’s got a lot of talents. Knows everything. Never flakes. Reminds me not to be late for dinner. Doesn’t go swinging off into danger. Tells me everyone’s secrets.”

“Now I’m really worried.”

“On the other hand,” Ned continued, “she can’t do Legos, I can’t sit in the chair and figure out how to keep her from dying and/or falling into a dumpster again, she doesn’t commiserate about history homework with me, and she doesn’t do hugs like you do. So, you know. You’ve got your talents too.”

“Good to know,” Peter said. “I’ll work on the, uh. Other stuff. Not flaking. And all that.”

Ned glanced at him. “Dude. You know I’m kidding, right? I missed you like—” He shook his head. “Hand me the instructions? I forget where we left off.”

“Well, I’ve got a half-finished bench here,” Peter said, “so I think we were doing the benches around the dejarik table.”

“Right, right.” Ned rummaged through the pile for the right pieces. “Man. This is so complicated.”

“Yeah. This is the best Lego set I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s all downhill from here, you know.”

“Nah,” Ned said. “Once we finish this, we combine all of our sets to make the most badass Millenium Death Falcon Interdictor Star the world has ever seen.”

“Dude.” Peter grinned at him. “I like the way you think.” He started in on a joint connecting to the top of the ship while Ned tackled a piece of the roof.

They worked in comfortable silence for a while, clicking pieces together and trading the instructions back and forth.

“They gave us paper, sometimes,” Peter said at last. “And, like. A really tiny pencil. If they felt like being nice.”

Ned blinked at him. “That’s…good?”

“I wrote you so many letters.”

“Ohhh. Crap. I never got any of them, man, I’m so sor—”

“No, no, they didn’t let us send them or anything. They just threw them in the trash compactor or something.”

“So your letters are probably in the belly of some dianoga on the bottom of the Atlantic?”

Peter considered this. “Well, yeah. Probably.”

“Dude."

“Yeah.”

“Well,” Ned said, “next time we get an epistolary project or whatever in English, you can rewrite them for me. Did you listen to my voicemails?”

“And read your texts. Took me four hours. I think you actually did set a record for most unanswered texts.”

“It’s an honor,” Ned said. “Hard-won and deeply cherished.”

Peter snorted.

Ned grinned at him. “Speaking of which, have you written your speech yet?”

Peter dropped the cluster of pieces he’d been working on. “Uh. I, uh, thought you weren’t listening in.”

“I mean, I didn’t hack into the room again, but I did kinda hear through the grapevine. FRIDAY likes me.”

“What do you think I should do?”

Ned stared at him. “Are you kidding me? You aren’t really thinking about not signing the Accords, are you? Look, you already tried to stop being Spider-Man, and look how that went down.”

“I didn’t have a choice! I had to stop the Vulture.”

“Of course you had a choice. You always do. So did I, at Homecoming. But we both knew what those weapons could do if the Vulture got them. You telling me you’d make a different choice next time?”

Peter slumped. Ned snapped his little section of the ship’s hull onto the chassis and turned back to the instructions.

“I’d never be able to be just Peter Parker again.”

“You’d never have to be. You could be all of your selves, all of the time. No hiding. No lying.”

“I’ve hid it before. You didn’t know I was Spider-Man for months.”

“I knew something was wrong.” Ned lost his smile. “I thought you were still grieving for Ben. Never thought you’d go crawling around in red and blue pajamas. You really want to go back to those days? You were jumping at every little thing.”

“Yeah.” Peter looked down at the pieces in his hands. “But it’s not like that would end if I signed. I’d just be hiding from paparazzi instead.”

“So web up their cameras. Accidentally.”

Peter snorted. “They might go after you too, you know. They already know you're my friend, so it wouldn’t change much if I announced that you're my Guy in the Chair. If you want me to.”

“Would that make me an Avenger?”

“Basically. I think. Kinda. Or maybe the newest version of S.H.I.E.L.D. Also a great paparazzi target.”

Ned smirked.

“I think hacking into someone’s computer and deleting their photos is illegal,” Peter said.

“Mmm. But their emails might just…fail to load any attachments. Get lost in cyberspace. It’s a wild west out there, you know.”

Peter laughed.

“See?” Ned said. “It’s going to work out.”

“You think I should go public as Spider-Man.”

“It’s who you are, man. It’s what you do. You really want to shut it off for the rest of your life?”

“I could. Or at least, I’d try. If it would keep you guys safe.”

“You really think we would want that?” Ned asked. “I mean, my life isn’t worth someone else’s.”

“It is to me.”

Ned looked at him. Peter fixed his eyes on the cluster of pieces in his hands.

“Come on, man, hug it out.” Ned held out his arms to Peter. "You think I’m going to just let that slide?"

Peter leaned into the hug with a sigh. “I mean it,” he said.

“I know.” Ned patted Peter’s back. “You’re adorable. And I really appreciate it, dude. But I would never want someone else to die because of me. I don’t need that kind of guilt in my life. I don’t want that to come between us. You got that?”

Peter shut his eyes and hung on tight to Ned’s secure shoulders. “Ned—” His voice cracked.

“Exactly,” Ned said. “Now come on, man. Let’s figure out your speech. ‘I’d like to thank my neighbors for being totally oblivious and not noticing the idiotic vigilante sneaking up their walls—’”

“Dude.” Peter cleared his throat. “We need to come up with a better title for you, okay? 'Guy in the Chair' doesn’t even cover half of it.”

“I’ve always liked ‘Grand Vizier.’ Has a nice ring to it.”

“I’d like to thank Ned, my best friend, teammate, and Grand Vizier,”Peter said. “Yeah. That’s much better.”

“Dude.” Ned met Peter’s hand for their secret handshake. "It's an honor."

Chapter Text

“Hey.” Peter leaned against the doorjamb. “Can I, um, talk to you for a sec?”

“For a sec?” MJ squinted at him. “The ‘I’m revealing my identity to the world and you might now be in mortal danger from the paparazzi and also from deranged reprobates with terrible taste in costumes’ conversation only takes a sec?”

“The ‘I might reveal my identity, but only if you’re totally completely absolutely on board and if not then never mind, forget I said anything about it,’ conversation,” Peter said.

“Push-ups,” MJ said. “Go.”

Peter held out his hands to her with a quirk of his eyebrow.

MJ hopped onto his back instead, gave him half a second to adjust, tucked her sketchbook beneath her arm, and tugged on a lock of his hair. “Onward,” she said.

Peter automatically reached up to hang onto her thighs, thought better of it, tried to hold onto her knees instead, and took off for the training arena, ears flushing bright red. MJ cackled and held on tight.

When they reached the massive steel-walled arena, Peter set her down carefully on the bleachers, shucked off his shoes, and started in on a set of push-ups.

“Is there a reason you wanted to have this conversation over push-ups?” he asked after a few minutes of quiet.

“You mean other than the view?” MJ asked.

“Yup,” Peter said. Five minutes of non-stop pushups and he wasn’t even out of breath, the bastard.

“And the not having to look at each other’s faces?”

“Ah. That’s, uh. That's not good.”

“It’s great. Also, the view. Did I mention the view?” MJ flipped to a fresh page and started a quick action sketch, outlining delightfully wiry biceps and tousled curls that flopped with each new push-up.

“This is serious, MJ.”

“Remind me again why you mouth off to bad guys?”

“Oh,” Peter said. “Well. Okay. You got me there.”

“So,” MJ said. “Deep intense scary conversation time. Go.”

Peter flipped easily to his feet and looked her in the eye like the ridiculous gentleman he was. “The Accords,” he said. “What do you want me to—”

“I don’t think you’re really asking our opinions,” MJ said. “You’re asking for permission.”

Peter blinked.

MJ met his eyes evenly. Didn’t scratch her nose, even though it desperately needed a good fuck, I made it awkward again scratching. Added a yeah, you heard me slow blink for good measure.

“I wouldn’t sign the Accords,” Peter said, still holding her gaze. “If you asked me not to. I’d put the suit away. I promise. You’re always saying that swinging around doesn’t do much, anyway. That there so many different ways to start fixing the world. And you’re right. I don’t need to be Spider-Man to do any of that.”

“Mmm-hmm,” MJ said. “I’m always right. And you might stop Spider-Manning, but you can’t stop being Spider-Man any more than you can stop being a nerd. It’s part of who you are. We’re going to start fixing the world from the inside out. You really want to give up on that now?”

“If I sign the Accords,” Peter said, “the minute the world finds out that we’re together, you’re going to be in danger. We should probably b-break up.”

“I’m a queer black woman and an activist.” MJ held his gaze because she was capable of talking about her feelings if she had to, goddammit. “You think I don’t know from danger?”

“Different kind of danger,” Peter said, standing his ground.

“Push-ups,” MJ said.

Peter rolled his eyes, but complied, switching to endless sets of one-handed push-ups.

MJ carefully penciled in the tense line between his brows. “Sometimes,” she said at last, "I let danger stop me from doing things. Because I'm a reasonable person and I like being alive. This is not one of those times. Some things are worth the risk.”

“Are you kidding?” Peter’s voice cracked. “I’m not worth you risking your safety. Your life.”

“Of course not,” MJ said.

Peter switched to the arm that had been shot. He was a little unsteadier, a little slower, but given that she couldn’t do half as many push-ups with both hands, unshot, she could probably cut him a little slack.

“What is worth the risk,” MJ said, holding on tightly to her pencil, “is me living my life. That includes going to school and fixing this dumb world and leading decathlon and hanging out with you dorks and...going out with you. Being your girlfriend.”

And yeah, okay, she hadn’t really meant to use that word yet, but it was out there now and she wasn’t pulling it back.

Peter’s eyes flicked up to hers beneath the untamed tumble of his bangs. “You’re crazy,” he said, but his eyes were crinkling.

“Damn right I am, Mr. Pot. That’s what we kettles do.”

Peter laughed a little. He stopped to tuck his shirt into his shorts, then flipped his legs up and started a set of handstand push-ups, facing her. “Okay,” he said. “Fair.”

“And don’t you tell me what I should be doing with my life,” MJ added.

“I won’t. I’m sorry.”

“You’ll just think it really loudly.”

“I…might,” Peter said. “Probably. But I won’t say it out loud. I promise.”

“Good. I’m giving you a pass on this one, Parker. I know you have…baggage…about losing people. And I would really rather not get kidnapped by a megalomaniacal psychopath in a furry cosplay. I’ve talked with Tony about security for all of us. He’s got gadgets. For every super enemy you guys make, we’ve got another super friend. We’ve got a chance. As much as anyone else does.”

“God, I hope so.”

“So there’s my answer, spandex-man," MJ said. "If you want to go public, go do it.” She decided to take a little artistic license with the next sketch and untuck Peter’s shirt for him. 

“You said—” Peter bit his lip. “Um. Girlfriend. Did you—”

And great, they were back to the Word. But it did kinda have a nice ring to it, right? Right? To go from having no friends to two friends to a best friend and a boyfriend in six months was a little dizzying.

“When do I ever not say what I mean?” MJ said.

“All the time. I thought you and Ned calculated that you were sarcastic at least 83.4% of the time.”

“That was forever ago!” MJ laughed, startled.

“Yeah.” Peter’s voice dropped a little. He tried to disguise it by flipping around and starting a set of one-handed handstand push-ups with his back to her, but he’d always been a terrible liar. “I guess it was.”

“Pretty memorable, though,” MJ said. “And true. But I mean it this time. If you want to.”

“Be your boyfriend?” The pleased grin in Peter’s voice came through loud and clear. “Yeah. Um. But, uh.” He flipped back around to face her and dropped down from the handstand, settling unconsciously into his usual crouch. “I gotta be honest with you. I think I might be a pretty shitty boyfriend.”

“You mean flaking on dates as often as you flake on decathlon practice?”

“Is there a difference between the two?”

MJ snorted. “No,” she said, flushing a little. “There's not much of a difference.” She looked at her hands. “Look, I do mind it when you flake. It’s rude. We need you in decathlon. You deserve a life as much as anyone else, and there are plenty of problems the police and fire department can solve as well as you can, or better. But I know you’re doing it for a good reason. Hard to be jealous of whoever needs rescuing. And I also…”

He cocked his head a little, eyes focused on her with way too much caring for her to handle this early in the morning. Oh wait, it was afternoon already. Well. Still.

“Push-ups,” MJ said. “Don’t make me sit on you.”

“Is that a threat or a promise?”

MJ groaned with mock annoyance, hopped down from the bleachers, settled cross-legged onto his back, and started sketching a close-up of his arm in motion as he started a new set of push-ups. And yeah, okay, if this was a perk of being his girlfriend, she was definitely here for it.

“What were you going to say?” Peter asked.

“I…” MJ took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I really love being on the line with Ned, deciding on the best strategy. I love talking with you about how to be a better costumed lunatic. How to save the world. I love that you care so much about these things. Jumping around in red and blue underwear is as much a part of you as bad science puns. If someone needs saving, go save them. That has nothing to do with how you are as a boyfriend. It's part of your life. And it's part of mine too, girlfriend or not.”

Peter faltered for a second, then resumed the set of push-ups. “Thank you,” he whispered. “I didn’t really think—I mean, I know I go a little bit overboard sometimes with the whole, like, need-to-save-people thing. I’ve been told that often enough. I don’t think anyone else understands it like you do.”

“Well,” MJ said, sketching out the shadows between his splayed fingers, “that makes two of us.”

“Yeah?” Peter smiled a little. “But—I mean—for you, it’s obvious. Of course you have to go save the world. Who else is going to do it as well as you can?”

MJ’s cheeks burned. “I’ve told you,” she said, “about saying too many nice things.”

“I’ve told you,” Peter countered, switching to another set of one-handed push-ups, “about meaning every bit of them. That was my one nice thing for today. No more. I promise.”

MJ cupped his cheek in her hand, turned his head to face her, and stared at him. Peter adjusted his position slightly, twisting awkwardly to look back at her, and held her gaze.

“Huh.” MJ let him go. “You’re weird, Parker.”

“It’s been great to meet you, Ms. Kettle."

MJ cackled.

Peter switched to his mostly-healed arm and wavered a bit, jostling her careful perch. His free hand came up automatically to steady her, then resumed its position by his side. She flipped to a new page and tried to catch the slightly off-kilter grace of his constant motion, the lean lines of his back, the lock of hair that stubbornly refused to flop at the same rate as the rest of his hair.

“So,” he said at last. “If you're okay with me flaking when necessary. What do you care about?”

MJ refined the line of his shoulder where it stretched the thin cotton of his shirt, then added the little smudge of sweat on the back of his neck.

You’re stalling.

Am not.

Are too.

MJ took a deep breath and gathered the no, you move courage that powered her towards old white dudes with briefcases until they yielded the game of sidewalk chicken to her.

No, scratch that. This sort of conversation required an entirely different genus of courage. Being soft was…scary. She took a deep breath, held onto her courage, and jumped.

“What’s important to me,” she said, “is that you care about me. Listen to me. Trust me. Respect me. That you’re honest with me. That I’m important to you. Flaking, I can handle. Those are non-negotiable.”

Peter was quiet for a moment, nodding to himself as though committing the words to memory.

“I can do those,” he said at last. He twisted to look back at her, eyes wide and stupidly sincere. “I think. Or at least, I’ve been trying. And I'm going to keep trying as hard as I can.”

“I know you will,” MJ said with a quiet smirk. “And you already do. That's why I kissed you.”

Chapter Text

Peter stayed on the roof, knees pulled up to his chest, eyes closed, as Sam landed behind him.

“Turn it down, man,” Sam called, folding his wings up. “I can’t hear my music over your angsting.” He set the wingpack aside, plopped down beside Peter, and nudged Peter’s shoulder. “Want to talk?”

“You’re a little close to the edge there,” Peter said. “Making me nervous. Want to scoot back a little?”

“You said you’d catch me,” Sam said.

Peter cracked an eye open and looked at Sam. “Course I would. Always.”

Sam grinned at him. “Talk? Or how about I guess what you’re thinking about, and you tell me if I’m getting closer.”

“You're right,” Peter said. “Whatever your first guess was going to be. Nailed it. Right on the head.”

“Mmm. I knew all of those psychology classes were good for something. Telepathy could really come in handy someday.”

“How did you do it? Come out to your family, I mean.”

“I guess…" Sam looked out over the snow-draped pines far below them, knee jiggling against the sun-warmed concrete of the roof. "Eventually, I realized that the internal screaming wasn’t going to stop. I was never going to be calm and zen about it. I had to just…jump.”

“You could have just decided to not tell them."

“That’s what I mean, though. I was terrified to tell them. And I was also pretty sure that if I never told them, I was always going to be screaming a little inside.”

“Oh. God. I’m sorry.”

Sam shrugged. “Like I said, it turned out great. No screaming and crying and disowning, just some awkward hugs and a really great steak dinner. But you’re in a different situation entirely. You’re not worrying about disappointing your family, you’re worried about losing them altogether.”

“But so are you. Isn’t that why you lie about your relationship with Steve?”

“Well, yeah, but that’s different, I—” Sam stopped short.

“You keep your relationship a secret to protect your family. I need to keep Spider-Man a secret to protect mine.”

“Yeah. I guess…yeah.”

“Did you ever think about going public with Steve?”

“And what? Have a gigantic wedding with paparazzi on all sides and constant pranks from all of you bums?”

“So what I’m hearing is, yes, you think about it a lot.”

“Busted.” Sam smiled a little, staring out at the sunset-tinted snow, then shook his head. “And then the supervillains attack, and half of the wedding guests get kidnapped and the other half get…”

“Good presents?” Peter offered Sam a crooked smile.

“Something like that. So. That’s why we can’t.”

“I’m sorry, man. That really sucks." Peter kicked his legs against the roof for a while. "But hey," he said at last, "you could at least have a little wedding here, right? With us and your family and, I don’t know, anyone else you trust.”

“And then what, get matching tattoos somewhere the sun don’t shine? Wear rings and talk about our invisible wives back home?”

"Oh, right. Crap.”

“It’s not a life I’d wish on anyone,” Sam said quietly. “Lying to everyone, all of the time, about something that’s an important part of you. Making excuses until they stop trusting you.”

“Yeah.” Peter closed his eyes. “Maybe these Accords are a good thing? Skip right past the years of angsting over whether or not to go public.”

“Oh, yeah,” Sam said. “It’s always great to have your choices taken from you.”

Peter cut his eyes at Sam.

Sam beamed at him.

“Yeah," Peter sighed. "Well. Does your family at least know about the two of you?”

“Mmm-hmm. They weren’t even surprised. Of course, out of all of the people in the world, Captain America would choose their wonderful son. Makes perfect sense.”

Peter laughed. “God, I really want to meet your family.”

“Hope you can someday. Once we settle these Accords and go home.”

“I can’t. If a neighbor or something sees Steve visiting your parents, that makes sense. You’re both Avengers. But me? Why would you bring a random Stark Industries intern home with you?”

“If you're saying that you’re thinking about showing the world your spandex underwear in order to try my parents’ cooking, I gotta say, that sounds like a pretty good reason to me.”

"Me too."

“You know that whatever you decide,” Sam said, serious again, “you’re always going to be one of us, right? Even if you decide to stay on the ground for a while, play it safe.”

“Thank you.” Peter cleared his throat. “Um. That’s, uh. Wow. Thank you.”

“Course.” Sam tilted his head back to catch the last of the sun before it set. “If we kick you out, Clint will name our band the Witchy Birds, or something.”

“Has a nice ring to it. Or maybe, Wanda and the Birdbrains.”

“Oh, I see how it is.”

“You bet.” Peter grinned up at Sam. “And hey—if you and Steve ever decide to get married, and you want a security guard who can tell when villains are on their way and at least try to stop ‘em before they get too close, I think I know a guy.”

“Thanks, man,” Sam laughed. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

Peter sighed, eyes fixed on the sliver of sun disappearing behind the Catskills’ uneven peaks. Sam scooted a little closer. Peter took the invitation, relaxing against Sam and closing his eyes.

Sam wrapped an arm around Peter’s shoulders. “Better than a hand against the glass, huh,” he murmured.

Peter shuddered a little. “Yeah. Much better.” He leaned his head on Sam’s shoulder.

Sam rested his head atop Peter’s. “Gonna get through this,” he said. “All of us.”

“How do you know?” Peter asked.

“Have I ever been wrong?”

“There was that time when—”

“Hush,” Sam said. “Let me have my moment.”

 

 


 

 

“Do you want to go public?” Sam asked.

Steve dropped his shield onto the floor of their room with a deafening clang.  

“'No' is an acceptable answer,” Sam said. “I know it’s a scary idea. I just—I don’t have a lot of fucks to give anymore, you know? Life is too damn short.”

“You were the one who said ‘let’s keep it quiet,’” Steve said. “Your family would be a target—”

“I was worried,” Sam said, “and I’m still worried, but—I mean—let’s face it, I’m an Avenger, and so are you. If they go after my family, they’d know you and the whole crew would come rescue them, whether we’re together or not. If anything, it would protect my family more, if the bad guys knew they’d be facing not only Captain America, but his beefcakey boyfriend.”

Steve stared at him.

“Rogers,” Sam said. “Gonna need a yes, no, or ‘I’ll think about it’ here.”

“Husband,” Steve said. “Beefcakey husband.”

“I really need to get my ears checked,” Sam said. “Noise-induced hearing loss is a thing, and—”

“Will you marry me? I mean, I think the government probably seized everything I have, but I could probably scrounge up enough for a city hall wedding. Or something. Dime store rings, at the very least. And something better, so much better, when I can afford it again.”

Sam stared at Steve. “If I looked on your birth certificate,” he said at last, “I’d see Steven Grant Go Big Or Go Home Rogers, wouldn’t I?”

“And fuck ‘em all,” Steve said. “Steven Grant Go Big Or Go Home And Fuck ‘Em All Rogers. Except I'm not actually fucking them all, I'm only fucking you, but not in a fuck-you kind of way, just—”

“God, I love you.” Sam kissed Steve. “But I'm thinking maybe we shouldn’t hyphenate.”

“I asked them,” Steve said, slinging his arms around Sam’s waist. “Your parents. Months ago. Before…anyway. Your dad said yes, and your mom said—lemme see if I remember this right—that if I ever hurt you, she would cut off my super-testicles and put ‘em in a jar, but she’d do it with one of her clean scalpels and standard operating room procedures, because we’ll probably still need Captain America to help save the world, balls or no balls.”

“Yep,” Sam nodded. “That does sound like my mom. You know she’s kidding, right?”

“Well, she hugged me afterwards, so I think we’re good, but if you ever want to put in a good word, just to make sure—”

“Don't you even start. She loves you.”

“Well, good,” Steve said, “because—”

“Steven Grant Go Big Or Go Home And Fuck ‘Em All Walking Over-Romantic Cliché Rogers, quit the platitudes and kiss me already.”

“But do you—are you—I mean, you haven’t said—”

“I’m waiting for a real proposal, you dork,” Sam said. “And you’d better get a move on, if you don’t want me to beat you to it.”

“Yes, sir.” Steve knelt before Sam, fumbled in his pocket, and pulled out a keychain ring. “Sam. The moment I met you, I—”

“Uh-uh. Nope. Don’t you even think about pulling a romantic speech on me. You want me to be coherent by the time you get up the nerve to ask, you better just pop the question already.”

“Sam,” Steve laughed, eyes glinting a little. “I love you. Will you marry me?”

“Hell, yes.” Sam hauled Steve up by his elbows, swung him around, and kissed him.

Chapter Text

“Kid.” Tony grabbed Peter’s arm and spun him around. Peter’s hands snapped behind his back, wrists crossed, ready for the guards to—

He blinked.

Glowing diagrams. Lab. Tony. Prototype-designing bench.

“What?” Peter said. “Sorry. I, uh, zoned out for a bit. Where were we?”

“Spider-Suit 3.0. C’mon, kid, focus. If Her Princessness calls my tech ‘cute’ one more time, I will punch something.”

“Won’t be me. I’m pretty good at ducking.”

“Nah,” Tony said. “It’ll probably be Butterfingers. He deserves it, anyway. Hear that? Yeah, you did, don’t play dumb with me. That’s your brother’s job.” He aimed his laser pointer at a holographic projection of the current spider-suit. “All right. Where were we? Oh, right. Having to replace web cartridges when you run out is ridiculous.”

“And very cute,” Peter said.

Tony leveled the pointer at him. “Don’t tempt me, minion.”

“You know that’s not a lightsaber, right?”

“It’s not?” Tony squinted at the pointer. “Huh.”

“I mean, we could change that. Probably. I think. Ned’s working on a couple of designs with me. Or, you know. He was, last fall, before. Anyway. Um. Webshooter cartridges. Replacement.”

“An absurd design,” Tony was muttering to himself. Peter wasn’t entirely sure he’d been listening. “Cartridges on the belt? What was I thinking? Clunky, inefficient…”

“And, you know,” Peter said. “Dangerous.”

“Yes. That. So. Any ideas?”

“The well of webfluid would have to be located close to the shooters,” Peter said. “Longer connecting tubes would make it more likely for the flow to get jammed or interrupted.”

“A well. Yes. Bingo. Much better than cartridges. One large container, refill when needed, no need to stop and reload. And don’t think I missed that part about the tubes getting ‘interrupted.’ If you get shot, you mean. Don’t do that.”

“Yeah, yeah. Sure. But look, it’s going to happen again—”

“Jesus, kid, can we please—”

“Lectures later, science now?”

Tony squinted at Peter. “Decent save.”

“Thanks.” Peter grinned at Tony. “I’m thinking instead of one tube connecting the well of webfluid to the shooters, we should make a venous system—well, more like an arterial tree, I guess, because they’d have to be—uh—why are you looking at me like that?”

“Brilliant,” Tony whispered, entire face lighting up with excitement. “Active redundancy. And while we’re at it, why rely on one fallible heart? Multiple webfluid chambers, sending signals to each other. Spread the load over the entire system. Would balance the suit better than having one big mainline, anyway.”

“With a lot of valves to prevent backflow,” Peter added, “so if one does break, it won’t spill all of my webfluid.”

“Uh-huh, uh-huh. Would still need to be well guarded, though—vibranium coating? FRIDAY, remind me to finish that discussion with His Kingshipness about a vibranium allowance for supers.”

« Gotcha, boss. »

“Would vibranium really work?” Peter asked. “The tubes would have to be hard enough to not break when I get hit, but soft enough to shrink as the webfluid levels decrease. To maintain—”

“Web pressure,” Tony finished. “Exactly. Dilating and constricting blood vessels. Why the hell didn’t I think about making a vascular system before? We’ve already got that whole webbing pattern on the suit. Make it real. Dammit, we really do need to get Her Princessness in on this, she’d know. Lab look okay? I put away the projectile-proof toaster designs, right?”

“You have a tech-crush on Shuri,” Peter said. “This is adorable.”

“And you don’t? Fix your hair, kid, this is a classy lab we’re running here. FRIDAY, call—”

« The Mad Scientist Protocol does not allow for more than two of the following: Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, Peter Parker, Ned Leeds, and Princess Shuri to be in the laboratory at the same time without supervision from an actual adult. »

“I didn’t add that protocol,” Tony said.

« No, boss. You didn’t. Pepper added this to the original Hawkbutt Protocol, which forbids Clint from ever entering the elevator that leads to the laboratories. »

“Goddammit. Tell Pepper that I am Very Displeased. Bad things happen when I’m displeased. You know that.”

« Yes, boss. »

“So call us a chaperone,” Tony grumbled. “Not Steve. Anyone but Steve. He never lets me have any fun. And ask Princess Shuri to join us. Beg her, if you have to.”

« Princess Shuri's currently working with her agents on a highly classified project. She says she will join you at 2:45pm tomorrow. Until then, she says to make sure to factor in temperature changes, ‘cause they’ll affect the webfluid’s volume. »

“It actually doesn’t expand a lot in the heat,” Peter said. “Otherwise the cartridges would explode every time I fought a molten lava man.”

“Does…that happen often?”

“Once was kind of enough."

“Right,” Tony said. “FRIDAY, get me the baby monitor footage. I want to see that.”

Peter winced. “You really don’t have to—”

“Of course I have to,” Tony said. “How else will the world get more high-resolution Spider-Memes?”

“You know Ned can hack into FRIDAY and get the footage of you making the previous Iron Man suit prototypes, right?”

“You fight dirty, kid.”

Peter shrugged, lips twitching against a smile. “It’s a rough world out there, you know. Meme for a meme, epic fail gif for an epic fail gif?”

Tony shook his head in dismay. “I would say I’m impressed, but I really don’t want to encourage this kind of behavior. I’m still going to watch that footage. I have to, you know, analyze your fight patterns. So I can improve the suit. For fights against future lava people.”

“Uh-huh. Sure. I’ll get FRIDAY to piece together the best scenes. Make it a movie night with Ned and MJ. Ten Years of Iron-Fails: A Retrospective.”

Tony narrowed his eyes at Peter.

Peter grinned at him.

“Just for that, I’m putting web-shooters on your feet.”

“You know, that could actually come in handy. But I kinda don’t have opposable toes.”

“Details.” Tony waved a hand. “Toe-button, or something. We’ll figure it out. It’ll be great. Another redundancy in the system. Twice as many web-shooters, half the chance of failure. And you don’t mind being upside-down for a while, so you could totally swing from your feet if you had to. Brilliant. Genius. Not cute at all. Let’s do this.”

“Tony,” Peter said.

“Too much? Would it be too weird? It would definitely be fun for the rest of us. I could see that leading to some great YouTube videos. Spider-Kid Flies Upside-Down Through New York, Splats Upside-Down Onto Billboard Because He Can’t See Where He’s Going.”

“No, no, web-shooters on my feet would be great. Better than taking the subway in my suit because both of my wrist-shooters broke. But, um. Before we get going, I just wanted to—”

“Whatever it is, spit it out faster, kid. We’ve got science to do here.”

“Can you not,” Peter said. “Um. Grab my arm like you did earlier. Please.”

Tony turned to Peter and slid his safety glasses up to his forehead. “Like what,” he said.

“Like that.” Peter grabbed his own bicep to illustrate.

“Did I do that,” Tony said.

“Yeah. Uh. Kind of a while ago. I should have spoken up then. I guess.”

“Oh." Tony's eyes were alarmingly intent on Peter’s.

Peter stared back at him, fighting down the urge to explain. Also, fighting down the urge to collapse into a ball of all-consuming embarrassment and/or hide beneath the subway system for the rest of his life. He really didn’t want to talk about it, he really—really—really didn’t. They were having fun. Fun was good. Science was great. The sooner they got back to working, the better.

“Is this okay?” Tony lifted a hand towards Peter, then seemed to think better of it and grabbed his own shoulder instead. “Like this.”

“Yeah.” Peter’s face burned with embarrassment. “That’s fine. Like, anything other than the grab-and-spin thing is fine. I think.”

“Uh-huh.” Tony stared at Peter a little more, then nodded. “You want FRIDAY to spread the word?”

“No, I'm fine, I—um.” Peter’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “Yeah. Maybe.”

“Got that, FRI?”

« Sure thing, boss. »

“Great.” Tony slid his glasses back down and resumed poking at the holographic diagrams with his laser pointer. “So, how many web-shooters are we talking, here? Another set on your knees for really short bad guys? Grab your kit, kid, let’s bang out a prototype.”

“Thank you.” Peter rummaged through his corner of the lab for his toolkit.

“Of course. Thanks for speaking up. Great chat. See, this is great. Open communication.” Tony waved a hand between them. “We’re going to do that door-always-open, mentor-dad-coach aesthetic they have in movies and all that, right? Great. Oh, speaking of which: safety glasses. Put ‘em on. Pepper said I have to wear them to set a good example for you. If you don’t wear them, that means I have no influence on my underlings, and that just encourages Dum-E to act out.”

Peter put on his safety glasses and rejoined Tony at the workbench. “Did you just…compare me to a robot?”

Tony cocked his head to think about it. “It sounded better in my head.”

“At least it’s an artificially intelligent robot. I’m flattered. I think.”

“Good,” Tony said. “Let’s get to work. Where’s all that hollow tubing I ordered for the filtration suit? Oh, right.” He pulled a series of coiled tubes from one of the drawers and laid it out on the table. “Beautiful. That’ll do for a prototype. Oh, hey, this may be TMI—”

“Then maybe you—”

“I used to like it when Pepper pulled my hair.”

“—shouldn’t say it,” Peter sighed.

“I don’t like it anymore.” Tony waved a hand over one tube and pushed the resulting projection into the air above their bench. “Since Afghanistan.”

“Oh.”

“On the other hand, if she does it accidentally, that no longer completely kills the mood. So, you know. World is fucked. So are we. Some things heal. Some things don’t. Think I just broke every single rule in those parenting books I read a few nights ago. You're not going to grow up to be a supervillain now, are you?”

“Depends,” Peter said, eyes stinging a little. “You got any snacks around here? I’m very bribable.”

“See, this is why I keep a mini-fridge for you.” Tony pointed to Peter’s corner of the lab without looking up from his network of diagrams. “Don’t let Dum-E make you a smoothie.”

“Thanks. Maybe I won’t turn evil today.” Peter headed towards the fridge to give himself a moment to breathe.

“Hey, kid?” Tony said.

“Yeah?”

“While we're doing this feelings thing. You know I like having you around here. Right?”

Peter blinked at him. “Uh,” he said.

“Forget I said that. Feelings suck. Moving on. Going to need a compression system…channel the webfluid through…yeah, right there…” Tony buried his head in the diagrams again, opening a translucent layer of a human arterial tree over the spider-suit.

Peter turned back to the fridge and stared at it for a while, trying to remember what he’d come for. Oh, right. Snacks. He grabbed a shake, rejoined Tony at the workbench, and used his own laser pointer to adjust the arterial tubing to fit the webbing on the suit.

“You know it’s mutual, right?” Peter said at last.

Tony dropped his laser pointer.

Peter caught it easily and tossed it back to Tony. “Yeah,” he said. “Never mind. You’re right. Feelings suck. Let’s add more webshooters instead. Elbows? I’m thinking elbow shooters would be great.”

Chapter Text

Peter leapt towards the ceiling’s punching bag again, feet poised for impact—and crashed to the floor. He stumbled to his feet, drenched in sand, and brushed the shredded remains of the punching bag off of his shoulders. Third punching bag he’d broken in an hour. Also, completely coincidentally, third time he’d smashed onto the training arena floor in an hour.

Ow.

And crap, even better: someone was clapping.

“You know I charge by the minute, right?” Peter called. “Bucket’s by the door, Clint, pay up. I’d like to see you break one of these things.”

“Not Clint,” a young woman said with an accent that matched T’Challa’s. “But I can send him the footage if you would like.”

“No!” Peter whirled to face her, hands out in supplication. “No, no, that’s, uh, that’s fine, no need to send him anything, it’s all good, it’s great, we’re just going to—uh—keep this between us, right?”

She shrugged, lips twitching against a smile. “If you insist.”

“You’re, uh, you’re Princess Shuri, right?”

“Would it help if I wear one of those American name tags? ‘Hello, my name is how many other Wakandan princesses do you know,’ yes, of course I’m Shuri.”

“Hi.” Peter stuck his hand out, then realized it was still covered in sand, then realized that Shuri was shaking his hand anyway, then tried to find a working neuron to transmit some kind of linguistic data through his tongue. “I’m,” he managed. Good job, brain. A+ for effort. More stuff like that. “I’m Peter. It’s, uh. It’s so nice to meet you. Wow. Your designs are incredible.”

“Thanks.” Shuri grinned at him. “Nice work destroying that punching bag. You have some anger issues, you know that?”

Peter’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah. Uh. I guess. I’m trying to figure out some stuff.”

“Whether you’re going to reveal your identity to the world.”

“Oh. Right. I forgot you were listening in.” Peter tugged his mask off and wiped the sweat off of his face, leaving a muddy streak across his forehead. Crap. “Hey, uh, do you have a sec? I, um, I had a question for you.”

Shuri raised an eyebrow at him.

“You made King T’Challa’s suit, right? And a lot of the Wakandan tech? I know you’re already going to come help us with the vibranium tubing, but I was wondering if you, uh, would be willing to make—”

“A revamped, reinvented, infinitely better spider-suit for you? Yeah, I’ve got a few ideas. That’s why I came to see you in action before I come down to the lab this afternoon.”

“Oh my god.” Peter’s eyes widened. “That would be awesome, wow, that—whooo. Oh my god. But no, what I was going to ask you was—would you be willing to, uh, make something to protect my aunt and my friends? I know it’s, like, not your job, you make tech for Wakanda, not random other people, but—”

Shuri pressed a finger to Peter’s lips.

Peter shut up.

“Do you always talk this much?” Shuri asked.

“Uh. Maybe. Mostly when I’m nervous.”

“Mmm. I’ve seen the videos.” Shuri narrowed her eyes at him. “Didn’t Tony promise to protect your family?”

“Yeah, he did, and I’m sure he’ll make something great too, I just—the more the better, right? If anything happens to them because of me—”

“I’ve been working on condensing our blanket shields into a compact version that could fit inside a bracelet or a watch and activate by mental command,” Shuri said. “I’ll send them over.”

Peter stared at Shuri, completely speechless.

“It’s not contagious, is it?” Shuri said. “This Captain America freezing thing.”

“This—what?” Peter shook his head. “I just—wow. Thank you. So much.”

“I told you, I’ve seen the videos. You do good work. At least some of the time.”

“Thanks,” Peter said, dazed. The princess of Wakanda has seen me rescue twenty-three people from a burning apartment building, he thought, immediately followed by: the princess of Wakanda has watched me miss my webshot and slam into the side of the Flatiron.

Oh, crap.

“How do you even have time to watch those videos?” he asked.

“I’m the princess of Wakanda. I have time for whatever I want to do.”

“Oh. That’s awesome. I thought being princess meant you have a lot of work to do for the country, and stuff.”

“Of course it does,” Shuri said. “Being princess also means that I’m a highly trained diplomat. That means I have a degree in lying.”

“Right,” Peter said. “Of course.”

“That’s also a lie,” Shuri said. “Wakanda just rejoined the world. We haven't had much time for diplomacy yet. What I do have is an older brother. Therefore, I have a degree in playing pranks.”

“You know what? I’m just going to stay on your good side.”

“Excellent choice.” Shuri beamed at him.

“And—look, Shuri, I—I don’t even know how to repay you, I—”

“You can start by answering a question for me.”

“Of course, anything—”

“How do you plan to live like that?" Shuri asked. "Knowing that your family is always in danger. Just because of who you are and what you do.”

“Oh.” Peter twisted his mask in his hands. “Asking for a friend?”

Shuri’s finger inched towards one of her kimoyo beads. “Don’t make me…”

“Isn’t that the one that releases holographic glitter into the air? Ned and I watched your videos too, like, all of them. Many times.”

Shuri smirked. “Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. You sure you want to find out? Just answer my question.”

“I can’t. I’m stalling because…dude, I have no idea. If you figure it out, let me know, okay? I just…god. Even before the Raft, I worried about them all the time. Like, all the time. And they worried about me, which made me worry about them even more, like this crazy regenerative circuit, going—”

“They don’t still use those here, do they?” Shuri asked, horrified. “I knew the rest of the world was backward, but—”

“No, no, most radios use superhets now—”

“Oh, you’re kidding me.” Shuri made a face. “Well. We'll discuss your Precambrian tech later. I don’t have time to worry about everyone like that. Don’t look at me like that, I’m a princess, I’m allowed to lie all I want.”

“Uh-huh,” Peter said. “I’m not a princess, so I'm going to agree with you here and hope you don’t execute me.”

“Smart move.” Shuri pointed at him. “But clearly, you’ve never studied Wakandan law. Our justice system is restorative, not punitive. No executions. But for you, I could make an exception if you want.”

“No, no, that’s good, that’s great, um—”

"Anyway," Shuri said, “what I'm hearing is that you have no actual plans for how you’re going to live with your mask off.  You’re just going to do it. Stupid? Brave? Tune in tomorrow at eighty-seven central to find out.”

Peter snorted. “It’s just eight/seven—never mind. I know it’s a stupid thing to do. And I think I’m going do it anyway.”

“Big mood.” Shuri nodded her approval.

Peter laughed. “Thanks. I'm glad you agree. And thank you again for the shields, thank you so much. You really don’t have to, I mean—”

“Of course I don’t have to. But I’m going to try. I know what it’s like to lose someone you love.”

Peter blinked at her.

“You know what?” Shuri said. “I’m just not going to drink the water here. Maybe that’s the problem. Unfreeze. Unfreeze!” She snapped her fingers in front of Peter.

“I just—” Peter shook his head. “Thank you. God. I’m so sorry about your dad. That was awful.”

“Oh no, not just him. My brother, too. And my country. In one week. Very efficient.”

“Your—wait, but isn't King T’Challa your only—”

“So he came back from the dead,” Shuri shrugged, “pretty nice of him, but there was still a week when he, my father, and my country were gone.”

“Oh, god. I’m so sorry. I’m really glad he didn’t die for real. What’d you do when he came back? Wrap him up in blankets and keep him safe for a few years?”

“And watched all of our favorite movies. And stole his popcorn. But first I helped him suit up and go into battle to save our country.”

“You…wait, what? Right after he came back from the dead? Holy crap. Wasn’t that hard?”

“As they say around here,” Shuri said, “no shit. Of course it was hard. But locking him away from the fight would have hurt him worse than getting, you know, stabbed and thrown off a cliff, or something. Sometimes…there are more important things than safety, you know?”

“Yeah.” Peter closed his eyes. “I know.”

“I know you know,” Shuri said. “You’re an idiot, a tiny, dorky idiot, even worse than your ‘let me paint a bullseye on my shield so people know exactly where to shoot’ gigantic idiot friend, but at least you're the brave kind of idiot. First thing you do after getting out of jail is take a bullet for Sam. First thing you do when you’re healed is decide to put your family at risk so you can help people. Ballsy. Dumb. And very brave.”

“Uh,” Peter said. “Thanks? I think? I don’t feel very brave.”

“Of course not. You're still in the scared-out-of-your-mind stage.”

“Yeah.” Peter cleared his throat. “What, uh, what stage comes next? It’s the ‘sit back and relax’ stage, right? Because I could really use a better night’s sleep.”

“Next stage,” Shuri cackled. “‘Next stage,’ he says. If there is one, I haven’t found it yet. So. That’s why I’m giving your family the shields. At least, when T’Challa and I went to fight, I knew he was wearing my tech. He had a chance.”

Peter stared at Shuri for a moment, biting his lip in thought. “Sounds like,” he said at last, “you’re just as much of a brave idiot as we are.”

Shuri squinted at him.

“I meant that as a compliment!” Peter held up his hands. “For real. I mean, going into battle without superpowers—you’re not even a soldier, right? That’s crazy impressive.”

Shuri was still staring at him.

“I’m going to be executed now, aren’t I,” Peter said.

“Yes,” Shuri said, “but you’re also right. There haven’t been any assassination attempts in Wakanda for the last sixty-two years. My brother and I trained with the Dora Milaje, but I’d never been in a serious battle like that before. The shields around Wakanda kept us safe.”

“So now that you’ve opened Wakanda to the world—”

“We’ll always be in danger, yes, thank you for reminding me, I had almost forgotten for half of a nanosecond. And my dear stupid brother will be the biggest target of all. Wonderful.”

“I’m sorry,” Peter said quietly. “Look, if there’s anything I can do to help—”

“You mean with your adorable little tech?” Shuri patted his arm. “It’s nice. For a non-Wakandan.”

Peter winced. “Thanks? I meant more like…I don’t know, moral support. Brainstorming. Dumb memes. Whatever you need.”

Shuri tapped one of her kimoyo beads and traced a few Wakandan characters onto the screen that popped up.

“What are you…”

“Adding this to my list. That’s the seventy-sixth time someone’s asked me for my number in the last three weeks.”

“I’m not—” Peter sighed. “I just meant—I felt really alone sometimes, when I started patrolling. I was really worried about what might happen to the people I loved if anyone figured out my identity. The one good thing about the…the Raft…was being with people who got the whole superhero thing. So…I don’t know. I just wanted to offer the same to you. If you want.’”

Shuri was staring at him again.

"Crap," Peter said. “Maybe it is contagious."

“I understand now,” Shuri said.

“Uh—”

“Everyone made this noise when they talked about you. Kind of a sigh, like they couldn’t decide whether to whack you or hug you. I thought they were just being silly. Now I kind of want to make the same noise.”

Peter laughed. “Or you could just join the play-pranks-on-Spidey club. It’s gaining new members every day.”

“That’s it,” Shuri said, eyes wide.

“Oh, crap.” Peter covered his face with one hand. “I'm doomed.”

“Not you,” Shuri said, eyes glinting wickedly. “Or maybe also you. But mostly my brother. I play pranks because I care. Also, I am compiling a video long enough to play all night during his wedding next year. It’s going to be epic.”

“I am really, really, really going to stay on your good side.”

“Coward.” Shuri grinned at him. “Look, as long as I can still mess with T’Challa, I plan to. It’s my mission in life.”

“That’s your epiphany?”

“I play pranks,” Shuri said, “because I care.” She patted Peter’s arm. “And so does your family. And you let them, no? I’ve read about your extra-sensory twitchiness. They wouldn’t get anything on you if you didn’t let them. And T’Challa knows, by now, when I’m about to mess with him. He lets me play pranks anyway.”

Peter bit his lip. “Yeah,” he said at last. “Yeah, I guess I do. And so do—”

“Peter!” Ned poked his head into the training arena and grinned at them. “FRI said I’d find you here. Do you want to—” His eyes widened. “Oh. Oh my god. Hey. Um. Your, uh, your highness! Princess of Wakanda! Hi!”

“Don’t give me that ‘highness’ crap.” Shuri flapped a hand at him. “I’m off duty. If you start calling me fancy names, I’m going to have to put on some actual princess clothes, and these sweats are much more comfortable.”

“Right,” Ned said, eyes wide. “Uh. Shuri. How did you hack into Tony’s new system? That was incredible! I—”

Peter started to lose the thread of conversation after that—he went to a STEM high school, sure, he knew a thing or two about computers, but he wasn’t nearly the expert that Ned was.

MJ strolled up to the training arena door a minute later, glanced from Ned, to Shuri, and back again, and yanked a sketchbook out of her pocket.

Ned’s hands flew through the air in emphasis until Shuri grabbed his fingers and used them as part of the diagram she was drawing in the air. Ned’s cheeks flushed a deep rose. He adjusted the diagram a little and explained his idea to Shuri, who agreed delightedly, bouncing on her toes in excitement.

Peter caught MJ’s eye and grinned. She mimed pulling a mask over her head. Peter tugged his mask on, coughing a little at the explosion of dust inside it. MJ tapped at her phone, then shoved it back into her pocket and resumed sketching Ned and Shuri.

A pair of texts popped up on Peter’s HUD in quick succession:

      MJ: You owe me $10

      MJ: Also, what are we going to do with these two

“Karen,” Peter whispered. “Text back: If we play a prank on Shuri, the Dora Milaje are going to show up in the middle of the night and make us disappear.” 

      MJ: Worth it.

She grinned at Peter, one leg cocked back to prop herself against the wall of the training arena, a little charcoal smudge above her eyebrow, eyes glinting with mischief.

“Yeah,” Peter sighed. “We’re totally doomed. Karen, text back: what’s your plan?”

Chapter Text

Peter clattered out of the elevator into the compound’s central lobby, cheek still burning up from MJ’s quick good-luck kiss. “Hi,” he panted, “hi, I’m here, I’m here, the jet didn’t leave yet, right? I’m sorry, I’m sorry—”

“Nah,” Tony said, tapping at a screen by the door, “you’re good, we’re still waiting on half of the other supers…” He looked Peter up and down. “Wait a sec. That’s your suit?”

“Uh….yeah?”

“FRIDAY,” Tony said.

A bright light scanned up and down Peter’s body.

“Tony,” Pepper said, bustling into the room. “What are you doing? You’re due at court in an hour. Half the Avengers are on the quinjet already. There’s no time to make a Peter a new suit.”

“He can’t go in like that,” Tony said, waving a hand at Peter.

“This—this is my nice suit!” Peter protested. “My power tie. I wore this tie to—”

“Wait, why aren’t you in the suit and shoes I ordered for you?” Pepper frowned at Peter. “Come on.”

Peter followed Pepper out of the room, feeling like a stick of driftwood floating in a yacht’s wake. “Uh,” he said, “where are we going? You made me a suit?”

“Of course I had a suit tailored for you,” Pepper said, ushering Peter into a dressing room already stocked with a suit that looked roughly his size. “That tie will clash horribly with your mask, and your shoes are scuffed. Come on, come on!”

“Thanks? I think?”

“You’re welcome,” Pepper said, breezing out of the room. “Try not to flex too hard, all right? The suit should fit perfectly, but it’s not vibranium.”

“Right,” Peter said, still dazed. “I’ll, uh, keep that in mind.”

 

 

 


When Peter returned to the lobby, new suit sliding neatly over his spider-suit, mask stuffed in his pocket, Sam looked him up and down and started laughing. “You too, huh?”

“It’s a designer suit,” Peter whispered, brushing at his lapel as though he could wipe off the mind-blowing expense of it. “This is insane.”

“Not the suit,” Sam snorted, shaking his head. “The shoes, they’re—”

“What? They’re nice shoes!”

Sam cocked an eyebrow.

“Stark’s his mentor,” Natasha said, sweeping into the room in a sleek black pantsuit. “What’d you expect?”

“They’re just…” Peter picked up one foot and ran a finger down the smooth leather, the undeniable lifts on the heels. “Very thick soles?”

“Next time,” Clint said, leaning against the doorjamb in a surprisingly sharp suit of his own, “wear actual heels.”

“Is that a challenge?” Peter asked.

“Yup,” Clint said.

Peter shrugged. “All right. You’re on.”

Steve wandered into the room behind Sam, put his phone away—was that Candy Crush?— and looked Peter up and down. “You know, in my day—”

“Yes!” Sam held out his hand with a grin. “I’ve been noshy all morning. You think there'll be a vending machine in the courtroom? Didn’t have room for my wallet in these damn tailored pants.”

Steve sighed and dug a dollar out of his pocket. “Don’t you at least have to put it in the Steve-isms jar first?”

“Nah,” Sam, shoving it into his pocket. “More efficient this way. Hey, Petey—”

“All right, come on.” Tony popped his head into the lobby and waved at them. “Wheels up in thirty seconds, people, let’s move. It’s showtime.”

Peter swallowed hard.

Steve picked Peter up on his way out the door and set him on his shoulders. Peter yelped and hung on tight, well-heeled shoes knocking against Steve’s chest. “We’re going to do this, son,” Steve said. “And if anything happens…” He hung back a step and murmured quietly enough for only Peter to hear. “I’m going to get all of us out of there. T’Challa’s offered us refuge in Wakanda if we need it again. We’re going to be all right.”

“Yeah.” Peter ducked low as Steve stepped onto the plane, then slid off Steve’s shoulders and took a seat.

“Hey, spandex-butt,” Clint called to Peter from the alcove he shared with Natasha, “if anything happens to the plane, you’re on duty. I hear you’ve got experience corralling renegade planes.”

“Excuse you,” Tony said, kicking his heels up onto the leather footrest between his seat and Peter’s, “I could repair this plane in midair, if I had to.”

“I could hold it up,” Wanda said.

“I could fly it,” Natasha said. “The important part.”

“I could call in an Air Force backup,” Rhodey said.

“You know that we are flying right behind you?” T’Challa’s voice came in over the plane’s speakers. “If anything happens to the plane, we will pick you up.”

“Guys,” Steve said, “I’m fine. Really. I promise. I haven’t panicked on a plane in—”

“Oh, but we worry,” Clint crooned, “you know how we worry—”

“But not about you.” Bucky dealt cards to Wanda and Rhodey with an efficient snap. “We’re worried about us. I don’t trust you around flying machines.”

“Once,” Steve said, “you crash a plane once and they never let you—”

Peter collapsed into laughter and cocked his feet up on his own footrest, almost able to forget that they were flying to their doom.

 

 

 

Tony knelt beside Peter on the courtroom's cold bathroom floor, one steadying hand on his shoulder. “Easy, kid,” he said. “Thought you got all of this out of your system on the jet.”

“Guess—” Peter coughed— “not.”

“You don't have to reveal your identity now. Seriously, Peter. If it scares you, you can—”

“It’s always going to scare me. That’s not gonna change.”

“Then don’t do it. Lay low. At least for a while, until this Accords stuff blows over. My legal team is still working on an alternative where you could keep your secret identity.”

“And if something happens before then,” Peter said, “and I help out, and get caught, I’ll be on the R-Raft again. I can’t. I can’t do that. And I can’t stand by while someone needs help.”

“Once you let the secret out, that’s it, no take-backs. This is your life now.”

“The thing is,” Peter said, “it’s always going to be my life. Whether I tell them or not. I…I spend my life lying to people. My teachers. Classmates. Neighbors. I don’t have to lie to May or Ned or Michelle anymore, that’s great, but—but every time I lie, I get a little bit more…”

“Yeah,” Tony said.

Peter’s eyes flicked to his.

Tony lifted his shoulder in a half-shrug. “I don’t have a secret identity,” he said, “not like I managed to keep Iron Man a secret for more than a few seconds, but I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve said ‘I’m fine.’”

“Exactly. I can’t spend the rest of my life lying to everyone. Professors. Roommates. Boss. Wondering if this is the time they’ll finally give up on me because I flaked once too often. If they'll leave because I lied too often. I—I’ll go nuts, living like that. And I’d go even more nuts if I had to stand by while someone was getting hurt.”

“You tell the world your identity, and you’ll spend your life wondering if people like you for you or for the Avengers fame.”

“Yeah.” Peter laughed a little.

“What?”

“Oh, I just—when I talked about this with my friends at breakfast this morning, Michelle said that I’d fuck up pretty often, and I’d be able to tell my real friends by who stuck with me when I was on the wrong side of the press.”

Tony snorted. “Harsh, but true.”

“Realistic. And true.”

“You’re really doing this?"

Peter nodded, eyes fixed on the curve of the toilet bowl. “As scary as it is,” he said quietly, “it also feels kind of…right. I’ve kind of wanted to do this for a long time. I need to. Just…”

Tony rubbed small circles into Peter’s back, waiting silently.

“Promise me,” Peter rasped. “You'll keep them safe?”

“That's not the sort of thing I can promise, kid. Even for Pepper. But I can promise you that I will try as hard as I fucking can to keep them safe.”

Peter looked down at his hands and crumpled the tissue Tony had given him into a tiny ball. “Thank you,” he said at last. He pushed himself to his feet, stepped out of the stall, and steadied himself against the bathroom counter.

“Of course.” Tony rose with a groan, pulled a small golden flask from his pocket, and offered it to Peter.

Peter cocked a disapproving eyebrow at him. “Seriously? You know I don’t—”

“Just water. I promise. Drinking it from a flask helps me with…cravings, sometimes.”

“Oh. Um. Thanks.” Peter rinsed his mouth out, spat into one of the sinks, handed the flask back to Tony, and made a face at himself in the mirror.

“Nope,” Tony said. “Mustache still hasn’t grown in.”

Peter gave Tony his best death glare. Tony grinned at him.

The door creaked open. “We're on in two,” Steve said, and ducked out again.

Peter drew an unsteady breath, then let it out. “Okay. Okay. Oh, god.”

Tony opened his arms to Peter.

Peter blinked at Tony in surprise, then fell into the hug, flinging his arms around Tony like he might not get another chance. Tony leaned his head against Peter’s and ran through his villains-attack-Peter’s-family contingency plans yet again. They were ironclad, right? Vibranium-clad? If anything happened to Peter’s family, Tony would…

Peter was right: oh, god.

Either shit was about to get very, very real, or it always had been, and he’d only just noticed it.

Or both. Probably both.

“Ready to face the music?” Tony asked at last.

“Yeah,” Peter said. He straightened out of the hug, yanked his mask out of his jacket pocket, tugged it on, and squared his shoulders. “I’m ready.”

“Attaboy,” Tony said, and walked out of the bathroom at Peter’s side.

 

 

 

As they filed into the courtroom, Sam and Clint kept bumping shoulders with Peter, tripping on his heels and poking his sides.

“Are you done yet?” Peter hissed as they reached their assigned bench.

“If there’s one thing we’re good at by now,” Sam said, “it’s distraction. Get us back for it later.”

“And take that ‘Kick Me’ sign off of your back,” Wanda whispered.

“What ‘Kick Me’—” Peter whirled and slapped at his own back, then glowered at Wanda.

She beamed at him. “That was way too easy.”

“Children,” Rhodey sighed from the end of the row, absently massaging the knees of his StarkLegs. “Please.”

“Why so worried?” Natasha asked as they took their seats. “It’s only our entire future at stake.”

“Oh, is that all? I thought—” Peter choked on the word as the spider-sense that had been simmering in the back of his neck rose to an eerie drone, like a thunder warning. He shot to his feet and gripped the back of the pew before him, trying not to crush it.

“Kid,” Sam said, rising along with Clint and Wanda. “Breathe. What’s going on?”

Tony straightened in his seat, eyes fixed on Peter. “What’s up?” he asked.

“Knew it was a fuck-ass idea to not bring my bow,” Clint muttered. “If the superhumans get to keep their powers in here, it’s only fair if we can keep our weapons.”

As the courtroom doors opened again on the next entering party, Sam twisted to look. “Oh,” he said, and turned back to Peter. “Son. He can’t do anything to us here.”

“So good to see you boys again,” Ross said, sweeping in front of their pew, hands cuffed behind his back, escorted by a set of Wakandan guards. “And Wanda.”

“Fuck off, numbnuts,” Clint said.

Ross ignored him, smiling down at Peter. “You’re in above your head now, little mutant. Keep playing superhero with your circus here. We’ll get you. All of you. Right when you let your guard down.”

Peter looked up at him. For the first time, he faced Ross with a mask on, and almost wished he could take it off. “You know,” he said, “I’ve been playing a little chess with Black Widow the past few days. Pretty fun game. Even a pawn can take down a king. If, you know, it has a little backup.”

“You have no idea what kind of friends I have,” Ross hissed. “You have no idea what kind of power you threw away.”

“True.” Peter shrugged. “But you know what? I really don’t care.”

“You will.”

“Yeah. Probably will. I care about a lot of things. Go-Gurts, for example. Do you know they’re making a Spider-Man Go-Gurt now? That’s a little disturbing.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Guess now we’ll never know,” Peter said, "since your lab got shut down. But I bet the good folks here could make you a starter list.”

“Hogs the popcorn,” Clint informed Ross. “Had to make him a separate batch, and he still stole some of mine.”

“Wakes up way too early,” Sam said, “and is happy about it, the little nutcase.”

“Enjoys physics,” Wanda said. “Who the hell does that?”

"You think you're so—" Ross sputtered. 

“All rise,” a crisply uniformed man intoned from the front of the court. The Avengers, plus Peter and T’Challa, rose to their feet.

“As a man of the medical profession,” Sam murmured, watching Ross’ guards yank him down the aisle to the prisoner’s bench, “it hurts me to see a person in such desperate need of a cranial-rectal inversion.”

Peter snorted. He was pretty sure his hands would stop shaking. Maybe. Someday.

“Sam, my man,” Clint said, “I love you.”

“Sorry,” Sam said. “Taken.”

“Dammit."

A text popped up on the HUD of Peter's mask:

      Tony:  I was going to give you a lesson on how to handle the press

                 but never mind

                 just canceled it

Peter glanced down the row. Tony grinned at him.

“Karen,” Peter whispered. “Text back—”

Another text popped in before he could figure out what to say.

      Tony:  proud of you, kid

Oh.

The fizzing noises in Peter’s brain made it a little hard to hear the judge rapping his gavel to call the court to order.

Chapter Text

The only thing worse than doing something terrifying, Peter decided, fidgeting on the wooden pew, is having to wait before doing it.

The court’s first order of business that morning was finishing Ross’ trial, which they had already been deliberating for the two days before the Avengers arrived. After a few seconds of valianting attempting to understand the rapid-fire legalese, Peter got lost and starting thinking longingly about taking a nap under the bench instead. No one would miss him, right? He could just take nice slow breaths and try to pretend he wasn’t about to throw his family to the supervillains of the world.

Or not. Maybe it wasn’t too late to back out?

Crap.

At last, the judge rapped his gavel for silence, straightened his papers, and read from them in a monotone: “This court finds Thaddeus Ross guilty of the following crimes: treason, for aiding and abetting an organization working to overthrow the government of the United States, as confirmed by multiple witnesses in a court of law; accessory to the assault and invasion of privacy of a minor by paying for blood to be drawn without a warrant; and conspiracy to conduct unethical experimentation on a minor. Thaddeus Ross is hereby sentenced to ninety-five years in prison without parole, to be served in a secure Wakandan facility.”

“Wait a sec,” Clint whispered. “They missed a few crimes in there. Throwing us in the Raft was legal? Bribing everyone in Peter’s trial to stay quiet, trying him as an adult, and throwing a minor in jail for life was legal?”

“Unfortunately,” Rhodey murmured, eyes fixed on the judge, “under the Sokovia Accords, yes. All of it. If Shuri’s agents hadn’t uncovered Ross’ connections to HYDRA and to the lab that sequenced Peter’s DNA, he’d still be untouchable.”

“I’ll show him untouchable,” Clint muttered.

“Clint,” Natasha said.

“How’s the food at Wakandan prisons,” Wanda asked, leaning across Natasha to talk to T’Challa. “And the bathrooms, how are the bathrooms? If this place is nicer than the Raft, I swear I’ll—”

“We believe in humane punishments,” T’Challa said, “and in not sinking to the level of our enemies. Vengeance helps no one.”

Wanda snorted. “You sound like Peter,” she said.

“The good news is,” T’Challa continued, “no one has ever escaped from a Wakandan prison. On the rare occasions that we deem a person bad enough to be removed from society, we remove them from society. Forever.”

“Now that’s more like it,” Wanda said.

 

 

 

As the council to ratify the New Accords dragged on, Peter oscillated from numb boredom to acute terror with every new speaker.

“Discuss the ramifications of the modified contract as applied to extra-terrestrial beings, including but not limited to deities, eldritch creatures, and parahumanoid entities,” one council member requested.

May I please take a nap, Peter replied. Please. Please? I won’t snore, I promise.

“Clarify the incarceration policy for gross violations of the Accords,” another council member asked.

Fuck, Peter thought. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck—

Breathe. Just breathe. Keep doing that. A-plus effort, man, great work.

When Peter managed to tune in again, Tony was already walking down the aisle to the podium…which meant that the next order of business was signing the Accords. Oh god oh god oh god—

Tony stepped up to the lectern, adjusted his cufflinks, and looked out over the crowd. “Everyone makes mistakes,” he said. “Humans. Superhumans. Mutants. Gods. Aliens. Bad guys. Good guys. Punishment can’t repair the damage. The only thing you can do after a mistake is learn from it. Do whatever you can to make it right.”

Oh.

Peter pressed his hands to his lips, throat tight.

Tony’s eyes flicked to him with a small smile, then refocused on the council. “A system that exists only to punish wrongdoers,” he said, “is useless. If the point is to make humanity safer and ensure justice for all, the system has to focus on prevention and cure, not incarceration. The goal of the Sokovia Accords was to further HYDRA’s goals by splitting us apart—half of us in prison, the other half on a short leash. That does nothing to make the world safer. The only superpowered individuals who weren’t limited by the Accords? Supervillains. Hence the 376% increase in crime, destruction, and regional conflict around the world after the enactment of the Sokovia Accords.

“The New Accords we present to you today center around protecting the world while maintaining rights for humans, superhumans, and mutants. I am proud to sign them.” He nodded out at the crowd of reporters in the back rows. “That’s it. I promise. Short speech. Almost stuck to my notes.”

“No, he didn’t,” Pepper muttered.

“Oh right,” Tony said, theatrically rummaging through his pockets, “I didn’t have any notes.” He scrawled his name with a flourish of the pen, ignoring the cacophony of questions from the reporters, and walked back to his seat, steps punctuated by camera flashes.

“All you had to do was state your name and sign,” the judge sighed. “Next.”

 

 

 

“Next.” The judge rapped his gavel as Wanda set the pen down next to the Accords and walked back to her seat.

Peter adjusted his mask one last time, straightened his tie, walked up to the stand, and tried to remember the lines he’d practiced with Pepper. “Um,” he said. “Hi. I’m here to sign the New Accords and act as a semi-independent auxiliary to the NYPD.”

The judge waited for a moment, then leaned in to his mic. “You are aware that in order to sign the New Accords, you will have to reveal your identity.”

“Yeah.” Peter swallowed hard.

“That means take off your mask and state your name for the record.”

“Yeah.”

“So…” The judge spread a hand. “What are you waiting for? A drum roll?”

My heartrate to return to normal, Peter thought, but that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

He took a deep breath, pulled off his mask, and closed his eyes against the blinding glare of a courtroom full of camera flashes.

“My name—” his voice cracked. He cleared his throat and started again. Lines. Just say your lines. “My name is Peter Parker. I have been protecting the people of Queens since last March under the alias Spider-Man.”

“Hold on a minute,” one of the councilmembers said. “How old are you?”

“Um,” Peter said, opening his eyes again. “Fifteen? And a half.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Clint signing, Adding a half doesn’t help your case, kid. Peter smiled a little.

“And is it correct,” the councilmember continued, “that three months after the Sokovia Accords were passed, you were convicted of illegal vigilantism and taken to the Raft.”

Peter lost his smile. “Yes,” he said.

The councilmember looked around the room. “Can someone please explain to me why a child was thrown into a supermax prison on a life sentence?”

Silence.

“Mr. Ross,” the judge said. “I believe this was your idea. Why don’t you explain your decisions to the council, starting with your decision to keep everything about this case quiet.”

“My client declines to comment,” one of Ross’ lawyers said.

“Were you, perhaps, concerned how the public would react?”

“My client declines to comment,” the lawyer repeated, mouth twisting in a remarkable impression of a man eating a mealy apple.

“I see.” The judge nodded. “Proceed, Mr. Parker.”

“Excuse me,” another councilmember cut in, “how are we supposed to believe that this kid is Spider-Man? He’s way too small.”

Peter folded his arms across his chest. Don’t you dare come at me with a scalpel again to test my healing. Don’t you dare.

“Mr. Parker,” the judge sighed. “Would you provide positive proof of identity, please?”

“Uh…” Peter flipped up to the vaulted ceiling, stuck to it with one foot, and dangled for a moment. “That good enough?”

“That’ll do,” the judge said, mouth twitching towards a smile.

Peter dropped back down to the podium.

“The previous trial,” the judge continued, “established that your DNA has been deformed from that of a normal human. How did this happen?”

“I became a m—” Peter bit his lip. The word was still too hard to say. “I got my powers,” he said instead, “on a school field trip when I was fourteen. I was bitten by a radioactive spider.”

“Objection!” one of Ross’ lawyers barked. “Contempt of court.”

“Mr. Parker.” The judge leaned forward in his chair. “You are under oath. Stick to the truth.”

“And not to walls!” some looney tune in the crowd shouted.

“That is the truth,” Peter said. “I know it’s crazy. But that’s what happened.”

“You expect us to believe that a radioactive spiderbite made you Spider-Man?” the judge asked.

“No,” Peter said. “It didn’t.”

The crowd started rumbling in outrage. Peter ignored them. You want to call me deformed? Mutant? Screw you. All of you.

“It gave me my powers. Made me a—m-mutant.” Peter swallowed hard, trying to get the taste of the word out of his mouth. “But that’s not why I started patrolling.”

He dropped the web of rehearsed lines he’d been swinging on and hurtled forward.

“I made a mistake. A huge, horrible mistake. That cost me someone I loved. Someone who m-meant the world to me. I made a promise to myself that I would never let that happen again. To anyone. That I would spend my life making it right. So I became Spider-Man. I made a suit. I invented web fluid and designed a pair of webshooters. And I started patrolling, whenever I could. Trying to keep Queens safe.”

“A nice story,” one of Ross’ lawyers drawled. “How long did it take you to rehearse that?”

“I’m sure the reporters back there have googled me by now,” Peter said. “Ask them about it.”

“It’s true,” one of the reporters said. “14-year-old Queens teen sole witness to mugging and murder.’ Back in March. Victim was Ben Parker. Kid’s uncle and guardian.”

“Sole witness, huh,” another reporter said. “How cold is that? Murdered your own uncle to make a sob story for the—”

“He—” Peter had to clear his throat a few times until he could speak again. “He was a father to me. Don’t you dare say—I—”

He turned away from the blinding lights, one hand covering his face. Keep it together, Parker. Keep it together keep it together keep it—

“Objection,” one of Tony’s lawyers barked. “The case was closed, no contest. The perpetrator was caught red-handed in a subsequent mugging. My client was never a suspect.”

“Objection sustained,” the judge sighed. “There are tissues in the podium, kid.”

Peter pulled himself together. He’d gotten back up after the Rhino had thrown him through a two-foot-wide concrete wall, after all. This couldn't be too much harder.

(It was harder.)

(Much harder.)

(He would really love to be trading punches with Rhino right now. What a great guy, Rhino. Real pal.)

(Anyway.)

“I’m here now,” Peter rasped at last, turning back to the courtroom, “to sign the New Accords. I’m going to work in conjunction with the NYPD to protect all of New York City. In addition, I will fight with the Avengers in the case of another catastrophic event.”

Stick to the script, Parker. Get it done. Get out of here. Fall apart later.

“Signing,” the judge said patiently, “means picking up that pen and writing your name, son.”

“Oh,” Peter said. “Right.” He signed with a shaking hand—Peter Parker, Spider-Man—at the bottom of the list, right below Wanda Maximoff, Scarlet Witch.

“Welcome to the ranks of New York’s Finest,” the judge said, and banged his gavel. “Next.”

Chapter Text

“I can restore your spinal cord,” Shuri said.

Rhodey’s eyebrows climbed towards his hairline.

“I’ve done it before,” Shuri said. “Easy. Back to full function. Walking, running, everything. No complications. Oh, and no cost! I always forget to add that part. This insurance stuff is ridiculous.”

“Uh-huh. Yeah. I heard what you did for Ross. The other Ross, I mean. The nicer one.”

“Exactly! A very satisfied customer.”

“Mmm.” Rhodey adjusted the cuffs of his suit, squinting against the glaring sunshine on the runway. “You know something?” he said at last. "There are a lot of other paralyzed people in the world. And they don’t have these fancy StarkBraces and all-included Avengers healthcare. Go do the procedure on them first, whoever wants it, then come back and we’ll talk, all right?”

“For a military strategist and MIT grad, how are you so predictable?” Shuri leaned back against the Royal Talon Fighter’s gangplank railing. “I’ve already planned the initiative. We’re rolling it out next month. Offering the procedure to every paralyzed person on Earth who wants it. Should be finished by…oh, maybe November.”

“By November? Of this year? Are you serious?”

“Yes, we ran into a few bureaucratic delays, had to push the estimate back a bit.”

“No, no, I meant that’s insanely early to—”

“I know, I know, the rest of the world moves much slower, back in the Circuit Age, have to be patient and understanding, blah blah blah.” Shuri flapped a hand at him. “Anyway. I will come back and talk to you once we finish the initiative. It’s been an honor, Colonel.”

Rhodey shook Shuri’s outstretched hand, still looking a little shell-shocked. “Likewise, Princess. And thank you for all of your help. I’d say ‘stay out of trouble,’ but I’ve already seen you talking to the three little musketeers, so I guess that’s a lost cause.”

“Always.” Shuri beamed at him. “Oh! Speaking of. I need to go say goodbye to the little dork before my dear brother drags us back to our ship. Great to meet you. Keep doing good work. Goodbye!”

She waved at Rhodey and hurried off towards where Peter was standing at the edge of the group, hands in his pockets, staring up at the wings of the jet. “I found a lost puppy,” she called to him, “anyone want to take him home? Look, he's so adorable, you won't even mind when he bleeds all over your shoes.”

“Hey, Shuri.” Peter turned to her with a shaky smile. “You're heading home?”

“Yes, I have already spent too much time away from my lab. I get cravings, you know how it is…”

Peter laughed. “Yeah, I know. Enjoy. I can't wait to see your next creation.”

“Me neither! Make good choices, okay? No, forget that, who am I kidding.”

“I make great choices!” Peter protested. 

“Have you tried out the new suit yet?”

“No, we haven’t finished testing the vascular webfluid system, so—”

Shuri rolled her eyes. “And you let that stop you from going for a spin in it? Bad choices. Ridiculous. Anyway, I just wanted to say goodbye, so, you know. Goodbye!” She tapped one of her kimoyo beads.

Peter’s phone gave a delighted beep. “What the—” He pulled it out of his pocket. “It says I’ve got a new…contact?” He looked up at Shuri.

“The things I do for you outworlders,” Shuri sighed. “Translating your tech to ours is…” She made a face. “The kind of project I give my lab technicians on their first day. But the WaTalkanda app works. Added a few features this morning when I got bored of watching the trial.”

“Thank you, thank you! This is…wow. So cool. Now I can send you all the Vines you need to—”

“Ned showed them to me. All of his favorites. They’re…cute.”

“But,” Peter sighed, “lemme guess, there’s an infinitely better Wakandan version.”

Shuri flashed finger-guns at Peter. “Now you’re catching on. I knew there was a reason I liked you. Yes, there is. You’ll see it when you visit this summer.”

“When I…”

“Ned would probably get homesick on his own, no? And you can probably help us in the lab. Or at least—you like jumping off cliffs and all that, no? You’ll be a great test subject.”

Peter blinked. “What even is my life,” he said.

“I know, right? I haven’t had to work with a solid screen since my grandfather gave me some old tech to play with on my fourth birthday. It’s kind of fun. Retro. Brings me back.” She patted his cheek. “It was great to meet you.”

“You and Ned are going to gang together and play pranks on me all summer.”

“Your quick intellect, yes, that’s what I like about you. But look! Maybe you and I can prank Ned a few times.”

“No, dude, go for it. Prank me all you want. Working in your lab, getting to see Wakanda, and watching out for frogs in my cereal all summer? I really can’t think of anything I’d rather do. Except—" Peter's face fell. "I can’t just leave New York like that. I have to—”

“Shiny Tin Can has agreed to patrol in your place all summer in exchange for more vibranium for your suit. Any other objections?”

“I just…” Peter stared at her. “Um. Uh. Wow. Thank you. That’s going to be…holy crap.”

“Yes,” Shuri said. “I get that a lot.”

“Shuri!” Okoye called from the Royal Talon Fighter’s gangplank. “We’re ready for takeoff!”

“Gotta make like a tree,” Shuri said. “I know, I know, they don’t say that anymore. I’m bringing it back. Goodbye! Keep working on that suit!” She hugged Peter quickly and ran off towards their ship.

“What just happened?” she heard Peter ask as she reached the gangplank. She turned back towards the runway to watch.

“Don’t worry.” T’Challa clapped Peter on the back. “It’s a very common reaction to meeting my sister. Should wear off in a few days.”

“It’s got to be something in the water,” Shuri said.

“The centers of all of our documented cases of freezing are Wakandan women,” Okoye said, coming up behind Shuri to watch over her shoulder. “Maybe that’s the real reason.”

“That’s it!” Shuri fist-bumped her. “You’d make a great scientist.”

"Just get onto the ship," Okoye sighed, lips twitching against a smile.

 

 


 

 

"Hey, spandex-ass. You alive down there?"

Peter cracked an eye open and squinted out at the interior of the jet.

Clint held out a glass of something bright blue and probably strong enough to melt Peter’s suit. “You,” he said, “have earned a drink. As many as you want.”

“No, thanks,” Peter said, voice muffled by the leather cushions of one of the jet’s couches.

“Extenuating circumstances, kid. I’m sure your aunt would understand.”

Peter rolled onto his side so Clint could hear him more clearly. “She’s always been okay with me drinking a little. Just, you know, being safe about it. Not getting wasted.”

“Compared to Spidey,” Clint said, plunking himself down in an armchair near Peter, “a little booze doesn’t even rate, huh?”

“No, she’s just—”

“The cool aunt,” Tony said, sauntering up with a mug of coffee cradled between his hands.

Peter rolled his eyes. “Anyway,” he said. “I can’t drink. Alcohol just makes me sick. Same as medicine or any other chemical.”

Clint whistled in sympathy. “Sucks, kid. Talk about a life sentence.”

“Actually,” Sam said, “can we not talk about life sentences?” He settled onto the couch next to Peter, beer in hand.

“Sorry, man,” Clint said. “Gallows humor, right? Makes everything better.”

“I think that’s the tequila, actually.” Natasha patted Clint’s head.

“Mmm.” Clint took another gulp of his drink and leaned back in his chair. “It’s all right, Peternut-butter. Guess you’re just going to be the squarest superhero of all time.”

“Hello,” Sam said. “Have you seen the shenanigans this kid gets up to on a glass of orange juice alone?”

“You know,” Tony said, “you’ve got a point. Oh! I almost forgot. I have a present for you, kid.”

“Please,” Clint said, “not a sentient keychain. The world isn’t ready for that.”

Tony gave Clint a half-hearted whack on the shoulder. “From Happy,” he explained, handing the little gift-wrapped package to Peter.

Peter facepalmed.

“Yeah,” Tony said. “He said to wait to give it to you until after the trial because you’d be too nervous to eat beforehand.”

“Still too nervous,” Peter said. “I’m going to be scared out of my mind for the rest of my life.”

“I’m not catching you if you fall over, kid,” Tony said, “so you better eat it.”

“Yup,” Sam said.

“Mmm-hmm,” Natasha agreed.

“I’ll sell the photos to the paparazzi,” Clint said. “I could always use a buck.”

“You guys are ridiculous,” Peter said. “You know that?” He sat up with a sigh, shredded the wrapping paper, tossed the remains at Clint like confetti, and opened the energy bar.

“Wait a sec,” Sam said, “that’s Happy’s present? I thought you meant a nice set of chocolates or something. Hell, son, I could have offered you that.” He pulled a Captain America-sized energy bar out of his jacket pocket and stuck it behind Peter’s pocket square. “I was waiting until we got back to the compound, so at least you’d know where to go if you needed to upchuck.”

“I was waiting until you got cranky,” Clint said. “I love Cranky Pete. That’s when the truth comes out.” He rustled an energy bar out of his own pocket and tossed it at Peter.

Peter caught it out of the air instinctively and stashed it in his pocket. “All three of you brought food for me?" he asked. "That’s—”

“Hey,” Natasha called. She hopped onto the coffeetable, pulled a peanut butter sandwich out of one of her tactical pockets, and dropped it onto Peter’s head. “Who brought food for Peter?”

“I did.” Steve tossed Peter an apple over the back of his chair. “Wait, you guys did too?”

“I win.” Bucky threw a packet of gummy worms at Peter.

“Oh, please.” Wanda floated a bar of chocolate over to Peter in a red haze. “Obviously, I win.”

“Didn’t realize it was going to be a competition,” Rhodey said. “I won anyway.” He flung a glittery packet of some kind of Wakandan snack at Peter.  

Peter caught all of the snacks with ease and stared from face to face around the room. “Guys,” he said. “Putting aside the fact that you don’t think I would remember to bring something to eat—”

“Did you?” Natasha asked.

“Putting that aside,” Peter said loudly. “This is—this is so nice of you guys. Thank you. And thank you for…everything. It means the world to me.”

“Watch it, Hallmark,” Clint said. “Don’t make me hit you.”

“You’re right,” Peter said. “What was I thinking? I just—I’m kinda scared out of my wits here, but you guys—you—you make it seem like it’s going to be okay. So, um. Thank you.”

“A pleasure.” Sam patted Peter’s back. “You’re one of us now, kid. Can’t get rid of us if you try. Not even if you go to another planet. Thor’ll find you.”

“Thank you,” Peter said.

“Just do us all a favor,” Tony said, “and don’t check the news. Don’t Google yourself. And for fuck’s sake, don’t read the comment section.”

Nodding seemed like a more reasonable choice than screaming in a small plane crowded with highly excitable superheroes, so Peter nodded.

Natasha cracked her knuckles. “Moderating comments is my job.”

“No head-bashing,” Tony said tiredly. “Please.”

“I’ll come with her,” Clint reassured Tony. “I know your counter-sue fund is running low.”

“Just a little persuasion,” Natasha said. “So they decide there are better places to send their paparazzi. Don’t worry your pretty little head, Stark.”

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes.

“Eat up, kid,” Rhodey told Peter, lips twitching against a smile. “Can’t have the newest Avenger falling over in front of the paparazzi when we get back to the compound.”

“Don’t worry,” Bucky said, “We wouldn’t leave you behind. If you faint, Stevie here’ll just bridal-carry you inside.”

“Oh, god,” Peter said, and unwrapped Happy’s bar.

“Still sure you want to be an Avenger, son?” Sam asked.

Peter grinned at him. “I’ve been planning out a prank to play on Clint,” he said. “Want to join?”

“Hell yeah,” Sam said. “Text me the details.”

“Hey,” Clint said, “wait a sec, what prank? No, no, don’t you whistle at me like that, what prank? Hey. Hey! Goddammit.”

Chapter Text

“Motherfucking asshole," Flash said, staring at the screen.

“Eugene,” his mom said. “What have I told you about language like—”

“That’s Penis Parker!” Flash shouted.

“Eugene.” The screen cut to black.

“Hey! Turn that back on!”

His mom gave him the Look. “Program’s over,” she said.

“No, it’s not! I have to see that! It’s—”

“Time to study,” his mom said. “Right here, where I can see you. Without your phone. Maybe with a higher grade in physics, you’ll be able to remember what words are and are not appropriate for use around polite company.”

Flash was staring at his physics homework before he even realized he’d gone back up to his room to get his textbook. The Look usually worked like that. He needed to find some kind of deflector shield, like they used in Star Wars—

God, Nerd #2 must be in on it too. Was the whole school laughing at him? This was the Worst. The absolute Worst.

…On the other hand, he went to school with Spider-Man.

Life could be worse.

 

 


 

 

“Abe,” Betty said without preamble, the moment he accepted her call. “Cindy says you have mad glue stick skills.”

“I do,” Abe said. “It’s all in the swoosh—”

“Can you—”

“Come over,” Cindy cut in, voice tinny through the speakerphone. “Now. Please. We need you.”

“Desperate times,” Abe intoned, “call for—”

“Quickly!” Betty said. “Please. School starts in sixteen hours. We’re on a serious time-crunch. Are you in?”

“I was born for a challenge like this,” Abe said. “I will grab my glue stick collection and join you in twenty-six minutes.”

“Oh, thank god,” Cindy said.

“You’re welcome,” Abe said, and hung up.

 

 


 

 

Flash was standing on the steps of Midtown, surrounded by his friends.

Oh, god. Why. It is way too early in the morning for this. Peter shouldered his backpack, stepped off the subway, and trudged across the training fields.

“Peter fucking Parker,” Flash said as Peter neared him.

“Heyyy, Flash,” Peter said. “How’s—”

“You wrecked my car on purpose.”

“No, I didn't—”

“Like fuck you didn't,” Flash said, swaggering closer.

“I had to stop the vulture,” Peter said, “I had to—”

“Dude, he saved your life in DC,” Jason said.

“If you ever even touch my car again—”

“I had to,” Peter said, standing his ground.

“Bullshit. You did that on purpose.” Flash smashed his fist towards Peter's face.

Peter caught Flash’s fist with ease—feet planted, arm loose, not even trying. Flash ground his fist harder into Peter’s palm, trying to shove him over. Peter just raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah.” Flash dropped his hand. “I figured that would happen. Pretty cool, dude.” He grinned at Peter and sauntered off, hands on his pockets. “Oh,” he called over his shoulder, “you can sit at my table today, if you want.”

“Thanks,” Peter said, “but I'm good.” He continued up the steps, then staggered to a halt the moment he stepped inside Midtown Tech.

WELCOME HOME, SPIDER-MAN was plastered all over the walls, flashing on the announcement screens in the hallway. Blinded by the display, he almost didn’t notice Ned and MJ running up to greet him.

“Dude!” Ned beamed at Peter. “Isn't it awesome? You can finally be the cool guy! Everyone knows it's you!”

“I—” Peter sputtered— “this—but—what did you guys do?!”

“We didn't do anything,” MJ said. “This was student council's idea. They put all of this up.”

Peter stared at her.

“It’s a little different, huh,” she said.

The Vulture’s wings would have torn right through the banners. Scattered them like tissue paper at a birthday party. If his goons ever returned to New York, they’d know right where to go to find Peter, even if Toomes kept his mouth shut.

They were all doomed.

“Yeah,” Ned sighed. “I know that look.” He led Peter to his locker, opened it, and used it as cover to hide the flash of his brand-new WakandaWatchIsThat. “Remember these? And the chips in our shoes? And the panic buttons on our phones?”

It’s not enough, Peter said, but the words got trapped in his throat beneath the shock collar.

“Peter,” Ned was saying. “Breathe.”

Peter took a deep breath, then let it out. He touched his neck. Nothing there. Just calluses, mostly faded.

I'm holding onto what is, he’d told Sam. It’s all we’ve got, so…it has to be enough.

“Calc,” Peter said. “We’ve got calc first. Right? Mrs. Kumar?”

“Yup,” MJ said. “Got your make-up tests?”

“Yeah.” Peter grinned at MJ, happy as ever to be near her, and offered her his arm. “To class, milady? Before we’re late?”

“If you’re on time,” Ned said, “Mrs. Kumar won't even recognize you.”

“Good.” MJ looped her arm with Peter’s. “Let’s keep ‘em all guessing.”

Peter hooked his other arm through Ned’s elbow and set off down the hall, holding on tight to his friends.

 

 


 

 

Peter followed Tony into the conference room, looked around the room, and choked on his breath a little. “Hey,” he said. “Um. You’re the guys who set up the fake traps, aren’t you?”

Captain Lopez exchanged a look with Sergeant Ali—and wow, it was weird to finally be able to put faces to the voices he’d heard while swinging. “It was that obvious, huh?”

Peter tapped his ear with a rueful smile. “Might have heard you planning it.”

Sergeant Ali rolled his eyes. “Of course.”

“I mean, don’t get me wrong. I really appreciated your help. I—” Peter looked from one to the other, sobering slightly. “I know it was a huge risk for you guys, and your whole station, to not come after me like Ross told you to.”

Captain Lopez waved a hand at Peter. “Don’t worry about it, Spidey. Part of the job. We all agreed to it. We keep everyone in Queens safe, human or super or mutant or…whatever the hell you are.”

“Oh, he’s definitely a ‘whatever the hell,’” Tony said, leaning back in his chair. “Sounds about right.”

“Speak for yourself,” Peter said, riffling the papers in front of him into a messy fan. He glanced between Captain Lopez and Sergeant Ali. “Really, though,” he said quietly. “Thank you.”

“Thank us by working with us,” Captain Lopez said. “Helping us do what we need to do.”

“You don’t always do the right thing,” Peter said, because if MJ could speak truth to power, so could he. Probably. Would help if his voice would stop conspiring to make him sound twelve years old. “No one dies on my watch, all right? No one. No matter how bad or good I think they are. I mean, I know you started those non-violent takedown trainings last spring, but…it’s not enough.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Captain Lopez met his eyes evenly. “Change takes time. Lots of it. But…”

“With a new, high-profile, ex-felon, spandex-suited lunatic on the squad?” Sergeant Ali smirked at Peter. “Could shake things up a bit more. Increase the rate of change.”

Peter grinned at him. “I’ve never been happier to be called a jerk.”

“What?”

“Ignore my small apprentice,” Tony sighed. He rubbed his beard in what looked suspiciously like a facepalm in disguise. “One of these days, he’ll learn that physics puns won’t help him win any lovers.”

“Really.” Captain Lopez squinted at Peter. “I was under the impression that you already had a girlfriend. Or is she just a really devoted Spider-Man fan? She’s showed up at the station at least fifteen times in the last three months.”

“Oh, god,” Peter groaned. “Why am I not surprised? And yeah, I mean, she wasn’t then, but she is now—wait. Why am I telling you this? You’re going to be even worse gossips than the Avengers, aren’t you.”

Captain Lopez and Sergeant Ali glanced at each other from their identical chinhands. “I don’t know about worse,” Sergeant Ali said.

“Yeah,” Captain Lopez agreed, “I’ve met that Thor guy a couple of times. He can dish.”

“And that annoying guy, what’s his name, Anthony something-or-other,” Sergeant Ali agreed. “Never met a secret he didn’t want to share with the world.”

“I resemble that remark,” Tony said.

“Yes, you do,” Captain Lopez said, lips pressed together in a futile attempt at a straight face. “So. To business. In order to comply with the New Accords, we have to put you on the actual books as a special auxiliary with the NYPD.”

“Does that…” Peter stopped. “No. Never mind. Sorry. Continue.”

Sergeant Ali raised his eyebrows.

“I—I was just going to ask, you know, uh….does this mean I get paid?”

“It does indeed, kid,” Sergeant Ali said with a crooked smile.

“No way,” Peter breathed.

“Yes way,” Captain Lopez said. “It also means you have to abide by certain limits, like child labor laws and—”

“I already have plenty of limits!”

“Oh, no,” Tony sighed.

“I would never go web-swinging in New Jersey,” Peter said. “I have my standards.”

 

 

 


 

 

 « Good afternoon, Peter. How are you? »

“Doing great, Karen,” Peter said. “How ‘bout you?”

« I am an artificially intelligent program. I do not experience emotions. »

“Not what I asked, Karen.” Peter gave Ned and MJ two thumbs-up, slipped out of his window, and climbed towards the roof.

“Hang on,” MJ said, slightly tinny in his ear, “I don’t think the program's finished loading. Ninety-one percent, ninety-four…there we go. Try again.”

“How are you, Karen?” Peter asked.

« Just peachy. »

“That’s great!” Peter said. “Also, definitely not on the list of emotions we agreed on last night.”

“Oh, yeah,” Ned said. “None of those are on the program. That was a dumb list.”

“Thanks, man,” Peter said. “Messing with my AI behind my back. I really appreciate it.”

“Hey, it was MJ’s idea to change the emotion list.”

“No regrets,” MJ said. “Needed to be done.”

“Brilliant, as always,” Peter said. “I think.” He sprang up onto the edge of the roof and perched there, surveying the city. “They’re all safe for work, right?”

“Uh…mostly,” Ned said.

“Don’t worry,” MJ said. “We wouldn’t hurt your innocent little ears. At least, not too badly.”

“Sure, you wouldn’t,” Peter sighed. “Karen, I apologize on behalf of my friends.”

« You have great friends, Peter. They are brilliant coders. »

MJ and Ned exploded into laughter, bright and tinny through the comms.

“I love you guys,” Peter sighed. “I really do. I think I do. Don’t I?”

“We didn’t,” Ned wheezed at last, “even program her to say that. I swear to god. I’ll show you the code.”

“Should have, though,” MJ giggled—and man, oh man, it was wonderful to hear her giggle. “We could really lean into this.”

“Just remember,” Peter said, “I know where you sleep. Karen, can you hook me into the police radio? Thanks.”

“‘Threats are the last resort of a man with no vocabulary,’” MJ said. "So says the great Tamora Pierce, and she's always right." 

“Excuse you, I aced the last vocab quiz,” Peter said, just as the blue shield icon flickered on in the corner of his HUD. He hastily straightened his shoulders, as though they could see him. “Spider-Man, reporting for duty,” he said, voice automatically dropping an octave or two before he remembered that he didn’t have to hide anymore. “What’s going on?”

“Bout time, kid,” Sergeant Ali said, voice crackling over the comms. “How’d that Spanish test go?”

“Lo has clavado,” Peter said. “I think. I hope. I’m a little rusty. And I started to answer one of the questions in Sokovian before I realized it. But I probably did okay. Where do you need me?”

“Crisis negotiation on Atlantic and 109th,” Captain Lopez said. “Watch, listen, take notes, keep your mouth shut, stay out of sight, and don’t intervene unless the commanding officers on the scene ask you to. We’ll debrief later. Negotiating is an important skill.”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am,” Peter said. “On it.” He leapt off the roof, shot a web to the nearest building, and swung down low over traffic.

“‘Just peachy,’” he said. “You know, Karen, I think I see what you mean.” As he soared up to the end of the web’s arc, he let go and hurtled through the air for a moment—then shot another web and swung forward.