According to megabus.com, a ticket to Boston from New York purchased two months in advance costs six dollars if one is willing to depart at 5 a.m. Peter isn’t sure how to tell MJ that he can’t afford the twenty-dollar noon bus and also eat that day, but he is pretty sure that she’s going to figure it out anyway when she gives the issue an ounce of her passing attention.
“Peter. Please let me get them for you,” says Ned. Ned’s mom is a hospital tech and his dad works at a restaurant. “I’ll let you pay me back, I swear!”
“There’s no need Ned, s’fine.” Peter ads the 5 a.m. ticket to his basket and hides the browser window a second before Mr Katz walks by their desks. “And anyway, the reception thing is tonight; I’ll just steal an ashtray and get ri-i-ich.” He grins; hopes it’s convincing.
Ned still looks worried, but eventually Peter succeeds in steering the subject towards the event he and MJ are attending in just a few hours. After all, Tony Stark is hosting a reception for all incoming MIT students at Stark Tower in Manhattan.
The invitation, an encrypted interactive file delivered two weeks ago to students all over the world, had promised them a fun night and zero alcohol, and had featured a brief clip of Tony Stark himself in orange-colored glasses. In it, Mr Stark had generously announced that he was paying for all overseas travel and housing expenses for those students living abroad, as well as any US-based scholarship recipients who applied for reimbursement. ‘Just... send my PR department an email and we’ll sort it out. Don’t need you paying for an Amtrak ticket just to see little old me; no Avengers cameos have been planned, I assure you’. Living in the same city as Stark Tower, Peter definitely falls under neither of those categories.
“Do you think he’ll actually show up?” MJ asks over lunch. “I’m thinking ‘nah’.”
Peter looks up from devouring his lentils. He hadn’t even considered that.
Ned frowns. “But he’s the host. He’s gotta show up, right?”
Even as Ned says it, Peter tries to frame the scenario realistically for the first time: Tony Stark, Iron Man, genius billionaire hero philanthropist, taking time out of his insanely busy schedule for a meet-and-greet with a bunch of college-aged nerds. Of course he won’t. It was stupid to hope that he might actually meet the superhero he’s trying to emulate.
“He’ll probably just call in,” Peter hears himself say, already picturing it: a pre-recorded video not unlike the one in the invitation, or a quick conference call type thing from some exotic location.
“Oh man, that sucks so much.” Ned looks distraught at the possibility despite the fact that he got into his number one computer science program at Stanford, and is not going to the MIT shindig. “Peter’s ultimate man-crush, crushing his heart at the last minute.”
“I think it’s just an ‘ultimate crush’ in this case,” MJ says with a raised eyebrow. “‘Man-crush’ gives me hetero vibes, and Peter is totally in love, no hetero.”
Peter sighs. He used to get all blushy and giggly and laugh along with his friends when they had this conversation before, but he just doesn’t have the energy for it these days. Even MJ's 'im so gay' memes seem less funny lately, with Liz gone and no one real to pine after, guy or girl. “I am not in love with Iron Man, no nothing.”
“Right.” MJ nods. There's a pause. “You're in love with Tony Stark, inventor of Iron Man—“
Peter drops his head in his arms and groans.
It’s spiralled out of control in the last few months.
Peter’s life, that is.
The day the package arrived from MIT he had been out patrolling, and Aunt May found it before he could hide it. He had decided to decline—to forgo college altogether, go straight into tech, find a job that would overpay him for an altered formula of the web fluid, maybe. But Aunt May had said: “Ben is so proud of you, somewhere. Oh, Peter... I just know that right now, he’s pretending not to cry,” and Peter had been hit in the solar plexus with that scrunched-up face Uncle Ben used to make when he was trying to hide his tears during the first five minutes of Up.
So he lied about getting a scholarship, because the astronomical tuition costs were nowhere near something Aunt May could afford and he didn’t want to burden her with loans, and he’d gotten a job with Mr Delmar three days a week and taken up tutoring for a bunch of sophomores the remaining evenings. Nights were for patrolling, and still are, and sleep is... sleep is for some other time.
The problem is that it’s not the 1960’s anymore, and he can’t pay off a college education by working two part-time jobs as a high-school student; he’s barely made a dent in those tuition costs, and now he has to start thinking about housing, bills, food—
It’s too much. He can’t do it. He won’t be able to.
But what other choice does he have?
Peter has walked past Stark Tower a couple of times during Manhattan field trips and he has flown past it as Spiderman chasing (or running away from) criminals, but he’s never been inside the building proper.
Aunt May drops him and MJ off with a proud sort of nervous energy that infects Peter, too—though his nerves manifest as a pit of dread in his stomach; dread that he is failing, is screwing everything up before it’s even started. Maybe this is the first and last MIT event he will ever attend.
MJ looks amazing in a sunflower-yellow dress, and she’s wearing two silver earrings shaped like Saturns, and Peter is grateful that she’s with him because otherwise he’s not sure that he wouldn’t have just chickened out before taking the elevator from the ostentatious lobby. He already feels underdressed in Uncle Ben’s old suit that strains a little on his shoulders, and this is not how he’d imagined entering Stark Tower someday; when he finally revealed his identity to the Avengers and they accepted him as one of their own—
He looks at MJ as the floors whiz past them—no hint of a pressure change within the perfectly-tuned environmental controls in the Tower. She’s staring straight ahead, but grabs his hand and squeezes it tight for a moment. Warmth flows up Peter’s arm from the point of contact, and he wishes in that moment more than ever that he could tell her and Ned the truth about himself, and about how bad things have gotten.
Then she lets it go, and the doors open.
There are dozens, probably a couple hundred students in the Stark Tower penthouse by the time they walk in. It’s not a rowdy affair by any means, and there is plenty of adult supervision, but it still feels more like a party than a formal college event. Background pop-music is playing loud enough to dance to if one wants to, and the decorations are MIT- and science-themed while still being festive. Giant neon-framed glasses are handed out as party favors; three large whiteboards invite the attendees to graffiti, theorize, or ‘come up with a good math pun’. Servers dressed in black are passing around creative finger-foods (toothpick-molecule tapas, petri-dish jelly). Even the name tags Peter and MJ are given when they sign in have mini interactive-screens that let them build a personalized emoji next to their name if they want to.
“Wow,” MJ says, and gives a reluctant nod. “Okay.”
Peter just stares.
It’s so colorful, so beautiful, backdropped by the inky black sky beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows. He can’t help wondering how much money has been poured into this single event; probably enough pay for several months of his college education. Things glitter in his periphery, all around them conversations are overlapping; enough stimuli that his heightened senses are overrun, something like static building in his ears. The seams at his shoulders tug, uncomfortable.
He almost makes a run for it even then.
Except, MJ steers him towards getting something to drink. A bar serving non-alcoholic choices has been set up in a semi-circle. In keeping with the theme, some of the glasses are beakers, while some of the punch flavors appear to be steaming with dry-ice effects. A large stack of big plastic syringes for ‘soda shots’ are piled to the far left, next to the plastic cups.
They people-watch while they wait in line. The crowd is as diverse as any Peter has been a part of, which he notices MJ notice out of the corner of his eye as she smiles a tiny, relieved smile.
Then two girls behind them start whispering and pointing, and Peter follows their gazes across the room: a Wakandan student is holding court near the window, the soft glow of the kimoyo beads on his wrist visible all the way from where they are standing. A flare of curiosity lights up Peter’s chest. That’s got to be the first ever Wakandan citizen to attend an international school publicly since the country opened their borders at the UN summit last year.
“Oh my God, look...”
“I wonder what his major is,” MJ mutters, decidedly not craning her neck to look. “He could probably teach the professors instead of the other way around.”
Peter nudges her arm. “You could go ask him?”
She scoffs. “Right.”
And that’s when the dimmed ceiling lights suddenly amp up to their full intensity, and the music stops and everyone sort of freezes.
And Tony Stark walks into the room.
He enjoys nights like these. A sort of wholesome thrill goes through him when he gets to throw a party for a good cause; undoubtedly an echo of his self-destructive mechanisms being fulfilled in a productive way--at least according to Sam. Granted, Tony does none of the actual party planning (they’ve used beakers for drinks, cute) but footing the bill makes him feel like he contributed. And, of course, showing up to meet the kids.
A sea of hopeful, shocked, and some adorably terrified faces stares at him from all over his penthouse. If they knew that the Incredible Hulk had beaten up Loki of Asgard on the very floor they are standing—
“Hi,” he waves briskly. “I’m gonna go ahead and assume you know my name because you are all very smart and that’s the reason you’re here. So. Not here to interrupt the party, you all deserve it. All I want to say is that I am very happy for you and your families must be very happy too, and I have a little announcement to make.”
He and Pepper had agreed that having the press upstairs was a terrible idea, but the announcement will reach the media some other way; half these kids have their phones out already.
“Okay here goes: starting this academic year, Stark Industries is going to sponsor ten internship positions for MIT students who demonstrate outstanding scholarly prowess.” He smiles, because the best part is: “Oh and they’ll be paid internships, by the way.”
D’Ajora is the first student to start clapping, Tony recognizes him from the picture T’Challa sent. The others join as soon as they recover; cheering with excitement and anticipation, some resolve, some nerves, some glee. The smile on his face widens in spite of himself, and Tony resolves to mingle a little while; the hero-worship really isn’t the worst part of his job, he can do this for another half hour.
“Thanks, thank you, but this is your night, so... just pretend I’m not here.” They all laugh. Predictable, but still nice. “If anyone has any questions, you know what to do.”
He signals the staff and the lights dim again, the music starts back up, and there is instantly a circle of soon-to-be college kids around him lobbing excited questions like fastballs.
Two hours later, he still hasn’t talked to every prospective student here (he’s using the tall girl in the yellow dress and her boyfriend as a barometer) and the emails and messages on his phone are piling up. FRIDAY has sent him two automated reminders about the fact that he was supposed to meet Rhodey for drinks and Rhodey himself called fifteen minutes ago and threatened to show up in full War Machine gear, undoubtedly unleashing a panic of fanboying and fangirling that would total the Tower.
In Tony’s defense, it’s hard to turn those expectant faces away, and there are so many. He’s becoming so soft.
“...happy to ask T’Challa about it, but that kind of exchange program will probably go through the Wakandan outreach centers’ education division. Right, Happy?”
“Right.” Happy, who has been at his shoulder the entire night and is growing progressively murderous, fakes his seventh smile of the evening. Tony’d be lying if he said he didn’t get a kick out of those. “Give us your email and we’ll send you some info.” He hands a pad to the interested student and she happily types into it.
“Thank you, Mr Stark!”
“No problem, kid.”
He needs to call it. He’ll be here for another hour if he’s not careful and he really does want to talk to Rhodey; to catch up but also because out of all the Avengers Rhodey knows him best and knows how to make him deal with the whole 'Winter Soldier acceptance' thing he's got going on. Steve's team being back at the Avengers compound is a huge comfort, but that team includes Bucky Barnes now.
“Hey, Happy, what say you we wrap—“
Tony’s heart lurches and he slams into defensive mode, and a second later he realizes that no, it’s not just dropped kitchenware, there is a real threat—
Something enormous and metallic and winged has crashed into the plexiglass window, and the kids are screaming, and—
“FRIDAY, activate security protocols! Happy, get these kids out of here!” He tears at his tie and scrambles for the emergency suit in Wall-safe-E, blood coursing with adrenalin, looking over his shoulder just once to ensure the thing cracking his glass hasn’t gotten through yet. “Everybody stay calm! FRIDAY, tell Rhodey—“
“War Machine on his way,” FRIDAY announces in his ear. “ETA six minutes, seventeen seconds—“
“Other Avenger locations?”
“Captain America on his way, ETA thiry-six minutes, ten seconds, Falcon on his way, ETA thiry-six minutes, ten seconds, Scarlet Witch on her way, ETA forty-two minutes, fifty-six seconds, Vision on his way, ETA forty-three minutes, one second.” He knew Steve and Sam were hanging out in Philadelphia, but Wanda and Vision he’d thought were in the city. Apparently not. “Black Widow and Hawkeye out of range,” FRIDAY continues. “Winter Soldier out of range. Black Panther out of range. Hulk out of range. Thor out of—“
“Fuck,” Tony growls, and then has the breath knocked out of him by his own breastplate clamping around him, heavy metal joints clattering into place at a speed he was proud of updating not three weeks ago, now feeling agonizingly slow.
He whirls around and sees through his visor that the kids are rushing for the elevators, the servers keeping their cool and helping Happy direct them to safety, and he flies quickly to interpose himself between the fleeing crowd and the thing attacking his window.
“FRIDAY, recon scan, prioritize weaponry, offensive tech.”
The thing is shaped vaguely like a man; it’s wearing a metallic suit of its own but it could well be a remote-controlled droid. The wings are what throw Tony at first; with propulsors in its boots it doesn’t need them—except he realizes a moment later that the wings are how it’s breaking through; they are tipped with a metal he suspects T’Challa would recognize.
“Vibranium coating in highlighted areas,” she displays an image with the information he suspected.
Behind him, Happy is yelling at someone. Tony filters out the shouting, the scared whimpering, the ‘Where’s Amanda? Did she get on the first elevator?’, the ‘Oh God, oh my God’s from the kids. Suddenly there’s another crunching, earsplitting CRASH and the plexiglass rips open, shatters inward, richocheting off the floor.
He’ll give it points for focus; it flies straight at him, beating its massive wings and carving screeching grooves into the floor.
“So you weren’t invited... this strike you as a proportional response, Fredbird?”
He charges back and fires a blast from his hand-gun just to see how it will react; unfortunately there are some absorptive properties to its coating because it seems to take the blast without a flinch. It charges at him again and he jumps out of its way, taking to the air so abruptly he almost brains himself on his own ceiling, fuck.
“FRIDAY where are we in terms of occupancy?” he hisses, switching to explosive charges instead of electricity-based shots.
“Room vacated by seventy-seven-percent, still at twenty-three-percent occupancy,” FRIDAY reports.
Tony doesn’t look to corroborate her estimates; she’ll be accurate. Shit.
He fires the explosives, and this time the shots do slow it down, which means he has a smaller arsenal but can still hit it with something. He flies up in the opposite direction of the elevators and the thinning crowd, and the person or bot intent on killing him follows, thank God. He chucks a remote charge behind him and it detonates in a flurry of sparks, landing a crippling-looking blow to its side, exposing more wiring and no blood. A bot, then.
The bot chases him, and it’s fast and more maneuverable than it looks, giving the Iron Man suit’s propulsors a run for their money as Tony banks and ducks and throws charges over his shoulder. He tries to get to the windows to lead it on a far-away chase into the sky but it blocks him every time, landing its own potent blasts and quickly weakening his shields down to an alarming fourteen-percent. But as long as he’s keeping it busy, he’s happy. He just needs to make time. Just has to get those kids out.
He chances another glance at the elevators: almost empty, thank fuck. But the bot takes advantage of his split-second distraction this time and goes full fucking turbo on him, almost splattering him against the high wall right before Tony is able to disengage from its grip and avoid the fucking vibranium-tipped wings from ripping his suit in half. He throws another charge over his shoulder, but this time the bot uses its wing to block it, and in tossing it sends it towards the floor.
It lands on the hardwood and clinks, innocently.
Tony lunges and barely has time to throw himself between it and anyone that might be left.
He feels the explosion all the way to his bone marrow.
“Suit in systems failure,” FRIDAY announces. Tony’s head is ringing, high-pitched, and he’s flat on his back on the floor. Something in his periphery is on fire. “Perforating abdominal wound detected, vital signs critical, risk of hypovolemic shock critical, emergency services paged—“
Tony blinks furiously and yeah, he can feel the fucking abdominal wound all right, thanks. “FRIDAY,” he spits, chokes. “Occupancy.”
Let it be zero, let it be zero—
“Room at point-four percent occupancy.”
Point-four percent. There were two-hundred and fifty people here including staff before; that’s one person. Him? No, he made two-hundred and fifty-one, and anyway she’d know to exclude him from the equation, he programmed her that way—shit, he feels faint, fuck.
He needs to get up. He needs to get the fuck up; it could be one of the servers, or Happy, or—
Tony manages to lift up on one elbow, enough to see... it’s a fucking student.
It’s a fucking kid, in a suit that’s a little tight on him, walking on the crunching glass on the floor, walking towards the winged monstrosity amid the blast-fire flames.
God, oh God, no—
“Hey!” he wheezes, and it comes out barely audible over the rattling mechanical folding of the wings behind the bot’s back. “H-hey!”
The kid doesn’t look back at him, just strides up to the intruder and takes a running leap at it, jumping impossibly high, straight into the air and shooting something—two ropes out of his hands, or his wrists, that wrap around the bot’s head and stick to its wings, tangling it all up without getting sliced by the vibranium tips. Tony gapes as the kid lands on the bot’s other side and shoots the ropes again, further tangling and trapping the mech, then somehow disabling its boot propulsors by shooting the same material at its soles.
“Hypovolemic shock imminent, emergency transfusion required—“
“Kid,” Tony tries to choke. “H-hey—“
He can hear sirens in the distance. Perfect timing; Rhodey is probably about to crash through the hole in the wall.
“H-hey...” He isn’t entirely sure any noise is coming out of his mouth anymore.
The bot flails and crashes to the floor, still whirring and clanking loudly but immobilized, almost encapsulated in the ropes that look like webbing, actually, now that Tony thinks about it.
The kid rushes to him, bending over him with wide, warm brown eyes. Tony must have seen him in the crowd before; he looks familiar.
“It’s okay, everything’s okay,” the kid says, voice raspy with stress and belying his words somewhat. He looks unhurt, but Tony isn’t really in a condition to check. “Y-you’ll be okay, Mr Stark.”
The rumble of Rhodey’s War Machine approaching suddenly becomes audible in the distance--it’s different than a helicopter, though Tony is sure those are coming too.
The kid looks over his shoulder, having heard it, too.
“Your friends are here,” he murmurs, nodding to himself. Then he turns back to give Tony one last earnest look; the flickers from the flames casting rippling, beautiful shadows over his face. “Everything’s gonna be fine.”
And then he turns and runs to the hole in the window, not slowing down in the slightest before he jumps out into the night air.
Tony’s scream tears out of his chest with rending force.