Peter and Ned are walking to school, and then the window of a shop is blowing out behind them and they're ducking into an alley and Ned is jumping up and down.
“Are you gonna do it?” he asks. “Tell me you're gonna do it.”
“Check this out,” Peter says. He has one hand braced against the wall, the other fumbling through his backpack. His fingers fold around the red and blue fabric and he looks up. “Actually, don't check this part out. Turn around.”
Ned stills. “Dude.”
“Come on,” Peter says, whining. “It's part of the Spider-Man illusion. Just turn around.”
He waits until Ned has turned his back before he yanks his sweater over his head and kicks his jeans off, stepping into the suit and hitting the emblem on his chest to mold it into place. At his confirming noise, Ned spins back to face him.
Okay,” he says with a nod. “It was worth it.”
“I know.” Peter slides on his mask and webs his backpack to the wall. “You should head to school. I'll be right behind you.”
“Wait, can I have your autograph?”
Peter elbows him in the stomach. “Go,” he says, laughing, and shoots a web at the top of one of the buildings sandwiching them. Every hair on his arm stands straight.
Ned gives him a cheerful wave.
- - -
The fight doesn't take long.
It's all over the news by the time Peter walks through the doors of Midtown, but Peter misses his bus in the process of saving lives and he has to swing through the city and find a place to change before walking the rest of the way there.
Ned is waiting for him at his locker.
“Dude,” he says, eyes wide, watching Peter with a vague sense of awe as Peter spins the code for his lock. “How did you do that?”
Peter breathes out a laugh. “We've been over this before.”
“Yeah, the superpowers part, but not the fact that you literally dodged an attack before you knew it was coming. Don't think I didn't see like ten videos of it already. It was insane.”
“Oh. That.” Peter pops open his locker and deposits his books inside. He's just in time to hear the first bell ring. “I have a sense sometimes. It tells me when something bad is about to happen.”
“Like a danger sense?” Ned moves with him down the hall, jogging to keep pace, and Peter slows to match him. “No, no, wait. Like a spider sense?”
Peter shrugs. “Sure. Like a spider sense.”
“How does it work?”
“I don't know. It just kind of … does. I get this feeling and I just know what to do.”
“Oh my god.” Ned is quiet for a moment, and then, way too loud, announces, “We should tell everyone.”
Peter gives him a sharp look. “What? No. No, we shouldn't.”
“Okay, just a few people?”
“No one, Ned,” Peter says. “It's a secret for a reason.”
“These secrets are killing me. My best friend is the greatest superhero in the world and I can't tell anyone.”
“I'm not the greatest in the world.”
“Well, I mean, Thor is pretty cool.” They pause outside Peter's homeroom class. People filter in on either side of them. Ned squints and says, “Hey, speaking of Thor, how come the second floor of a building is worthy enough to hold his hammer and I'm not?”
“Because second floors don't tell secrets,” Peter says.
He leaves Ned standing in the doorway and goes to take his seat.
Tony tells him the key to being a friendly neighborhood hero is to take every threat seriously. Then, after school, Peter finds himself head-to-head with a man dressed like a walrus.
“Hey, buddy,” he says, swinging down to meet him at the corner of the street. The man gives him a brief glance and continues on his journey. Peter purses his lips. This guy is doing nothing more than causing mild property damage, an annoyance at its best, and the citizens busting down the sidewalk don't seem to care when he picks up a large dumpster and hurls it into an alley.
“Karen,” Peter says. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Because I am programmed to answer your questions and give advice,” Karen says.
Peter follows the walrus man further into the alley. He's oblivious to Peter's presence, hands pulling at the metal bin in a pathetic attempt to rip it apart.
“That's not what I mean,” Peter says. “I mean just like a generic 'why.' All encompassing.”
“I'm afraid I don't understand.”
“Me either.” He clears his throat and the man whirls around. The hood over his head slips a little, revealing his eyes. Peter tries not to laugh at the wool tusks hanging near his ears.
“It's time for you to go, bud,” he says. “And consider getting a new costume while you're at it. Maybe a narwhal. They're all the rage right now.”
The man growls at him. “I will not be a narwhal,” he says. “My uncle worked hard to make me this way. I have the proportionate speed, strength, and agility of a walrus. I am the walrus. And you will take me seriously, Spider-Man!”
Peter can't contain the laughs any longer. They spill from his lips. “You – you're – what?” He doubles over, hands on his knees, hiccuping between gasps of air. “Speed, strength, and agility of a walrus? Are you – are you kidding me?”
The hairs on the back of his neck stiffen. Peter is still giggling when he webs himself to the building next to him, high enough to be out of reach of the meaty hands that dive for his throat. Seething, the man grabs the dumpster again and throws it at Peter. Peter scuttles to the east wall to avoid being hit.
“Wow,” he mutters, sobering. “This guy is kind of mean. But I guess I would be mean if I had the agility of a walrus too.”
His body screams at him in warning. Peter climbs higher, but the man is no longer in his line of vision. He's nowhere to be seen.
“Karen, is there –”
Peter's voice catches in his throat. As soon as he's starting the question, his fingers have lost their grip on the bricks, and he's falling, wind rushing through his ears, two stories up, and then colliding into the pavement, two stories below.
Pain swallows him. He must black out, because the next thing he knows, someone is poking his shoulder, asking, “Spidey, are you okay?” while someone else says, “Don't touch him! The first rule of first aid is to never move someone until you know how hurt they are.”
Peter cracks open his eyes. Two faces hover above him, a boy and a girl, both young, somewhere in their twenties.
“That's not the first rule. Isn't the first rule to see if they're breathing and have a pulse?”
“Well, is he breathing?”
“I'm breathing,” Peter chokes out. The pair startle.
“Holy shit, Spider-Man,” the boy says. “Are you okay?”
The girl scowls, and says, before Peter has a chance to talk, “Of course he's not okay. He fell from a building.” She looks at him and softens her expression. “Don't worry. An ambulance is on its way.”
Peter sits up despite their protests. His chest and back hurt, and he's having a hard time pulling in breaths, but he knows he can't stay here and let paramedics look over him.
He struggles to his feet. “No worries,” he says, giving them a fake smile he hopes looks more real than it feels. “I've got strong bones. Drink your milk, eat your vegetables, blah blah blah.” Peter flexes his wrist and aims a web across the street. He takes off, calling, “Thanks for your help!” and ignores them yelling after him.
- - -
A mile away, he drops into an alley and curls up on himself, his legs pulled to his chest, arms wrapped tight around them.
Karen says, “Would you like me to call for emergency medical assistance?”
Peter shakes his head. He touches his forehead to his knees. “Just – give me a sec.”
He sits until he feels like he can move again without wanting to cry. Then he picks himself, because no one else is going to, because no one is coming to help him, and he drags himself home.
- - -
Spider-Man Central @SMCW
Did anyone see Spider-Man fall today from that building? Is my baby boy okay?
Replying to @SMCW
My friend said he was out cold for like ten seconds and then just got up and swung away.
Iron Man Stan @supersuperduper
Replying to @juliesees
holy shit. he just got up and left? How??? #isspidermanhuman #therealquestions
Ur Lucky Charm @jadennotsosmith
Replying to @SMCW
hahahaha but did you see him fighting that guy dressed like a walrus? i am literally dying. pleass tell me someone got it on video
hannah jane @subparme
Replying to @jadennotsosmith
- - -
Man Plummets From Two Stories Up. What Happens Next? – I'll Never Be the Same. whdn.us/8aZIpa
- - -
guy in the chair:
are you okay?
you're on the front page of reddit
Lol was he really a walrus?
guy in the chair:
how can I become a walrus? you guys have all the cool powers
He had no powers. He was just a guy in a onesie. don't become an animal.
guy in the chair:
*captain america voice*: “so, a genetic experiment turned you into an animal.”
guy in the chair:
guy in the chair:
can I get a do over?
guy in the chair:
uhhh, are we still friends?
Peter's back is molted with bruises. They heal mostly overnight, traces of yellow and green left behind, but he is still sore in the morning when he climbs off the bus and stumbles his way into school.
Ned is there, like always, lingering by his locker.
“Peter!” He grins wide, but his eyes are concerned, taking in his appearance. “What's it like being superhuman?”
“I'm not superhuman,” Peter says.
“Normal humans don't survive falls like that. Are you all right?”
“I'm fine, Ned. All good.” Peter shoves his books into his locker. He can still feel Ned staring at him and he lets out a breath, turning to give him a reassuring look. “I promise. I'm fine.”
Ned gives him a tight-lipped nod. Peter nudges his arm.
“Come on, let's get to class.”
In between second and third period, he gets a call from Happy, who doesn't bother with pleasantries, instead just follows Peter's greeting with a short and clipped, “Why am I seeing you on the news?”
Peter pushes his phone closer to his ear. “Um, because I'm charming and irresistible?”
The hallway is too loud, and the extra voices around him drown out Happy's response. He ducks into a bathroom and closes himself in a stall.
“Uh, sorry, what was that?”
“The building, kid,” Happy says, irritated. “Why are you falling from buildings?”
“Oh.” Peter's stomach twists. He traces his thumbnail along a drawing of Mickey Mouse someone has craved into the door and laughs, a little too high, a little too manic. “You know, just keeping people on their toes.”
“What the hell does that mean? Look, you know when you look bad, I look bad. And having you all over the news faceplanting into sidewalks isn't good. Did you even go get checked out by someone to make sure you didn't rupture something? If people knew there was –”
Peter closes his eyes, tuning him out. He presses the fingers on his right hand against the wall. They don't stick. A pang of fear shoots down his spine.
“I gotta go."
Happy pauses. He says, “Kid, if something is going on, you need –”
“Nothing is going on,” Peter says. “I just gotta go. I'm at school.”
Happy doesn't sound like he believes him, but he sighs and mutters, “Yeah, all right. Try not to fall off any more buildings, okay?”
Peter holds the power button on his phone until it goes dark. He turns and vomits into the toilet.
- - -
Later, when he lays his palm against a cement wall during patrol, his hand stays glued where it is.
Later, when he scales the side of a building with no incident, he counts his victories.
But later, when he's asleep and dreaming, he falls anyway.
He wakes up clawing at his blankets, at his bedframe, grabbing anything to keep him from hitting the ground. Panic hums at the base of his skull, the kind his body gives him when danger is close. He rolls out of bed. He snatches his web shooter off his nightstand.
There's no one there.
The apartment is empty. May is working the night shift, one in a series she's been picking up lately to get a bit of extra money, so Peter pulls his mask on and has Karen scan for heat signatures. Nothing shows.
Little by little, the feeling of danger fades, but Peter is still tense, still on high alert. He sits on the couch and listens to the noises downstairs in 12C, where Steve with the overbite is watching TV loud enough to be unsettling.
He doesn't go back to sleep.
- - -
It happens again in Spanish class.
This time, there's no falling, but he's listening to Ned fumbling his way through a paragraph in their textbook and then his body is flushed cold, hairs on his neck sticking up, his mind screaming, danger move danger get out danger danger danger.
Peter straightens up. He grapples for his web shooter, fingers twitching against the trigger. He asks, in Spanish, if he can use the bathroom and then he runs through the halls, barreling out the front doors, expecting an alien creature or a hole to be opening wide in the sky above.
He sees nothing. There's a gym class out on the football field, and a few faces turn to him, wondering if what he's doing is more interesting than what they're currently doing, but Peter clasps his wrists behind his back and tries to look casual. His danger sense – his spider-sense – trickles slowly away.
He makes his way back to class feeling skittish and off balance. No threat ever comes.
Tony tells him the key to being a friendly neighborhood hero is to take every threat seriously, and then he takes it back.
“I didn't say that. You must be thinking of someone else.”
His voice is loud inside Peter's mask, just a picture this time, no video. He can't see Peter when he reaches a hand under the fabric to rub at his eyes.
“Are you just saying that cause you saw the headlines?” Peter asks.
“You mean the ones talking about the miracle spider boy who walked away from a two-story fall?” Tony snorts. Peter bites his lip to keep from making a comment about the disbelief in his tone. “I have no idea what you're talking about. This is just a totally normal check-up call.”
Peter props himself on the edge of a fire escape, his legs dangling over the metal bars.
Tony says, “I wanna run some upgrades on your suit. Come by headquarters this weekend. I'll have Happy pick you up.”
“Mr. Stark, the suit is great, really, I don't need anything else.”
“You do if you're gonna be tumbling off buildings.”
“I'm not gonna be tumbling off buildings,” Peter says. “It was one time. It was – it won't happen again.”
“Yeah, listen, kid, if there's anything I've learned in life, it's that if something happens once, it can most definitely happen again. I've had enough one-night stands come back to bite me in the ass. Figuratively speaking, of course. Happy will text you with the time. I'll see you this weekend.”
Peter opens his mouth to argue, but Tony is already gone.
He thinks, Great. Just great.
He thinks, How am I going to explain this one? while he pulls his hand away from the railing and examines the pads of fingers.
He's got no answers.
- - -
“Okay,” Ned says, “But if I lift Thor up, and he's holding his hammer, am I technically lifting the hammer? Am I worthy through his worthiness?”
The cafeteria buzzes around them, fluttering with an abundance of noise that makes Peter's head ache. He picks through his fries mindlessly. At the end of the table, Michelle peers over at him. “I don't think that's how worthiness works.”
“Who gets to decide though? Does the hammer decide? Or does Thor decide?”
“I don't know, Ned.” Peter rubs his temples. He's expecting it, this time, when the feeling of danger spikes through him. It's short-lived, a couple seconds at most, but he still jerks his head up to make sure nothing is soaring at them.
All day long, the feeling comes and goes in short bursts. In Biology, in gym, in study hall. He touches things as he passes them to see if they'll stick to his hand. Some do. Some don't. After school, he locks himself in a handicap bathroom and calls May at work. She talks gently about things that don't matter – like what she had for lunch and why Sarah from the third floor is quitting her job and moving to Canada – until Peter feels less like he wants to crawl out of his skin.
He exhales into his palms and shakes his head when she asks, “What brought this on?”
“I'll be home for dinner,” May says. “Let's get Thai. Or pizza. You want pizza? Pizza always makes you feel better.”
“Pizza sounds great,” Peter says.
“It's a date. Be there or be square. People still say that, right? Have I officially become the uncool aunt?”
Peter lets out a shaky laugh. “You're still cool to me.”
“Then I call that a success.”
If she knows about him toppling off that building, she doesn't say anything. He's glad, either way.
He decides not to go patrolling. He stops by Delmar's on the way home and marvels at the new design. The deli has been under construction for months, ever since the fight in the bank across the street where the gun went off and sliced right through it, and it's finally done, standing bright and new and hopeful. Peter says hello to Sal outside and rushes in.
Delmar looks up from behind the counter. “Hey, Mr. Parker. Been a while. How do you like the new setup?”
“It's great,” Peter says. “Really great. Looks perfect.”
“Number five, right?”
“Yeah. With pickles. And can you smush it down real flat?”
Delmar turns to Benny, who makes a shooing motion on his way to the ingredients sprawled out on the back table. “I remember,” Benny says. “Coming right up, boss.”
Delmar leans forward onto his elbows. “So how's it going?”
“It's, uh, you know. School and other chores. Boring stuff.”
“Uh huh,” Delmar says. “Well you enjoy this 'boring stuff' while you can. One day you're gonna be an adult like me. That's when the real boring stuff happens.”
Peter smiles. He fishes a ten out of his wallet and hands it over. Delmar passes him a plastic bag with his sandwich inside.
“Keep the change,” Peter says. “Glad you're back in business. See you later.”
“See you later, Mr. Parker. You tell that aunt of yours I say hello.”
- - -
When May gets home, they order pizza from Ray's. They watch a rerun of The Empire Strikes Back and spread out along the couch. Peter picks pepperonis off his pizza slice. May doesn't ask him about what happened earlier.
They are quiet while they eat, and then the TV cuts to a commercial break and a lady from the news with too much lipstick and a flower in her hair says, “Wondering how local vigilante Spider-Man survived his near brush with death? Stay tuned at eleven to hear a leading expert's theories on super-powered beings.”
Peter dives for the remote but it's too late. May narrows her eyes.
“Oh-ho-ho.” She turns on him, laughing without humor. “You are so grounded.”
“May, it's not what you thi –”
“Grounded,” she says again.
Peter sighs in defeat and scrubs a hand back through his hair. “Yeah,” he says. “I know.”
- - -
He wakes that night in a cold sweat, panic thrumming beneath his skin. The back of his desk chair is splintered and broken from where he must have reached out to hold onto something in his sleep. He can't remember the last time he broke something without meaning to. He tapes it back together and watches the sun come up.
In class, he learns the Mona Lisa is deteriorating. Her colors are fading, her smile is cracking and no one knows why.
And he thinks, if Mona Lisa can fall apart, it's only fair he can too.
- - -
guy in the chair:
I think I figured it out
it's like the pythagorean theorem
if I'm lifting Thor, thor's lifting hammer, then by this theorem, I'm lifting the hammer
guy in the chair:
that's why the second floor is worthy. cause it works on the basic principle of math
cause I dunno how heavy that hammer is
guy in the chair:
but that means I'm as worthy as the floor
guy in the chair:
guy in the chair:
- - -
Meet me downstairs in five.
- - -
The ride upstate is filled with silence.
The compound hasn't changed, not in any physical way he can see, but Peter still bounces with nervous energy when they pull up. It's weird, to him, whenever he's back here, whenever he's walking through the halls of the sub-levels in the basement like he belongs in a place with this much security.
Happy leads him into an empty room. The black top tables remind Peter of the ones in his lab at school, and when he sits down on a stool behind one, he reaches without thinking to pull open a drawer to see what's inside.
Happy types away on his tablet, not looking at him. “Don't touch it.”
“I'm not touching anything,” Peter says. He shoves his hands into his pockets to keep from reaching for something else. His gaze wanders over the lab, his ears picking up the small sounds of drills and the hum of engines coming from spaces around them.
“What are they working on?” he asks.
“I don't know," says Happy. "Some something to do with particles.”
“Wait, seriously? Do they have a particle accelerator?”
“Can I see it?”
Peter frowns and rips his hands free from his pockets to push into his eyes. The thrill of butterflies in his stomach at being in HQ isn't enough to mask the other symptoms his body is feeding him, the achy feeling in his bones, the layer of exhaustion muddling his thoughts. He wants to be at home, in his bed.
“So,” he says. “Um, is Mr. Stark coming down to meet us, or …?”
“He'll be here in a minute. He's wrapping up a meeting.”
“Like an Avengers meeting?”
“Like a boring, business meeting,” Happy clarifies. “Don't get your hopes up.”
Peter is tempted to lay his head down on the table while they wait, because he's so, so sleepy, but then Tony is there, talking to someone in his earpiece, stepping into the room with his usual amount of flourish. Happy glances at him and returns his attention to his screen. Peter grabs the plastic Target bag at his feet.
“I told you,” Tony says. “No house parties. I've got an important meeting. Call me later.” He taps on his ear and then clasps his hands together, looking Peter over. “I see Hap has been entertaining you.”
Happy sends a glare Tony ignores. He's already crossing his way over to Peter, taking the bag from him with a raised eyebrow. He peels it open and pulls the suit out.
“There's my beautiful creation.” He drapes the fabric over his arm. To Peter, he says, “You look moderately well put together for someone who barely escaped death. Well, that's what the articles online say anyway. And everything on the internet is true. I saw a quote from Abe Lincoln saying so. You know he can't tell a lie.”
Peter shifts in his seat. “There's so much wrong with everything you just said.”
“No, I don't think so.” Tony stares at Peter long enough to make Peter drop his eyes to the ground, squirming, uncomfortable at the silent attention. He's not really sure what he is to Tony anymore. Lately, their relationship has been nothing more than the occasional call or text message. Peter still checks in with Happy, a deal they'd all decided on after he turned down the Avengers invite, but that part is simple, and this, this Iron Man and Spider-Man part, is not.
“I looked into your 'accident,'” Tony finally says. He turns a notch on his watch and brings up a virtual screen, displaying security footage from a camera across the street from the building Peter fell from. It shows the exact moment he starts his descent toward the ground. Peter's chest tightens with the memory of pain.
“From what I know, the texture of the skin on your hands acts like glue. I've got video evidence you scaled the Washington Monument with no fluctuations. So why is it, exactly, that after already sticking to the surface of this building, you still fell?”
A strange, static feeling crawls across Peter's limbs. His spider-sense drones low. “If you're thinking I did it on purpose, I –”
“I'm not saying that,” Tony says. “What I am saying is that I think something is up with you. Could be hormone related, could be radioactive spider related. The two are pretty similar. But kid, let's be real here, you look like hell.”
Peter's hands shake. His body is urging him to get away, telling him danger is near, he needs to leave, to move, to do something.
Shut up, he begs it. Please just shut up.
It flares in response. Peter grinds his teeth together in frustration. He darts his gaze around the space just in case something decides to take him by surprise.
From the corner of his vision, he can see Tony watching him.
“I'm fine,” Peter says, his jaw twitching. “I'm just tired. School is stressful. I probably didn't have a good grip on the wall. It happens sometimes.”
Tony sounds doubtful. “Sure. But how about we get you checked out anyway? For my own benefit. So I don't have to worry about cleaning the blood out of your suit if you fall again.”
Peter knows it's a joke, but the pain is still fresh, and he's no longer in any mood to be teased. His spider-sense pulses with his heartbeat, and he feels oddly like he's going to scream.
At his silence, Tony blows out a breath and says, “Kid, you just – you gotta trust me.”
They've come a long way since Germany. They have. But Peter is still all too familiar with the sounds of disappointment. Of automated voicemails and empty promises, questions that are never answered, check-ins that get passed around without ever making their way back to him. He remembers Homecoming, remembers the collapsing building and the crashing jet, begging Tony to listen to him about the illegal alien tech. Missed call after missed call after missed call. Happy ignoring his texts, Tony ignoring his warnings.
He remembers before.
Because before Germany, before all of this, Peter was still Spider-Man. In his cheap, homemade costume, and then in it again when Tony took away the expensive one he made. He wanted so badly to prove himself that he forgets sometimes he was a hero without anyone's help.
And now, here he is, in front of Tony, and it's like so many other times before, and all he can hear is those dial tones and prerecorded voices and he feels the same twinges of disappointment he thought would never end. Missed call after missed call after missed call.
You gotta trust me.
He digs his nails into his palms and wets his lips. “I did.”
His spider-sense screams.
Peter is used to handling things on his own. He'll handle this too.