“Hey, kiddo, it’s alright, I got you. Breathe.”
Peter gulps for air as he surfaces from under the choking blanket of blood-stained destruction he’s inhabited for an unimaginable period of time and finds Tony leaning over him, concern blinding in the lines on his face. Tony grips his arms, shaking him gently awake, and the illusion of Titan begins to fade.
He shudders. “Thanos—”
“He’s gone. He can’t hurt you.” Tony combs a sweat-drenched swathe of Peter’s hair away from his eyes, sincerity glistening in his eyes. “Just another nightmare.”
Sucking in a laboured breath, Peter tries to relax in Tony’s hold.
“Take it easy.”
Standing in front of the full-length mirror in his room, Peter shucks off his pyjama shirt and surveys his appearance.
He’s regained all the weight he’d lost, muscle rapidly regenerating after his metabolism had restarted. If it weren’t for the puckered, pale line surrounded by still-tender flesh over his stomach which he’d been told quietly would never fully heal, he would bear no physical sign of his ordeal on Titan and the Milano.
Peter has watched his recovery with apathy. His mind is still trapped on the Milano, in the hospital bed.
Thumbing through his closet (Tony’s, not his, but he’s stayed at the Compound this whole time – where else can he go?), he pulls out jeans and a shirt, buttons the blue chequered material right up to his neck in the way he does nowadays, closes the closet door, crosses the distance to his door, opens the door, leaves the room, closes the door behind him, pulls at it to check it’s shut and won’t creak on its hinges and disturb him from the floor below.
In the kitchen, a group hologram call is open, blue-tinged projections of Rhodey, Rocket, Carol and Okoye facing the gaggle of Compound residents. Thor leans back in his chair in the corner of the room, inhaling bread as is customary for him, although Peter had coaxed him into trying peanut butter with it a few weeks ago to liven up his meals just a little bit. Natasha and Steve stand before the holograms, the former taking rapid notes, the latter nodding morosely as Okoye speaks.
Tony rises as soon as he’s through the door and ushers him towards the circular table him and Pepper had been huddled around, setting him down firmly in front of a laden plate. “Full English. I know you like it.”
Peter looks up at Tony, who remains decidedly poker-faced, and twists his lips upwards in a smile. “Thanks,” he says, steeling himself to eat.
Tony makes him breakfast every morning in a similar fashion, and Peter eats as much as he can bear just for his mentor’s sake. The worry behind Tony’s eyes is still discernible when he thinks Peter’s not looking, and Peter can tell Tony’s still terrified he might have to watch him starve again.
So, he piles his fork and Tony’s hands on his shoulders drop away.
The hologram calls are commonplace; Peter’s learned to tune them out and wait. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpses the new haircut Carol had mentioned she might get the week before, cropped strands of hair gracing her cheekbone. It suits her.
One by one, Rocket, Okoye and Rhodey drop out of the meeting, leaving Carol standing and catching Peter’s eye pointedly from across the room. “Can I have a chat with the kid?” she asks.
Peter’s immediate reaction is to jump guiltily as he’s singled out.
Am I giving myself away? With the way the other occupants of the room are looking at him, it’s a possibility.
“Yeah, of course,” Tony replies, rising in a manner that is clearly a deliberate attempt at nonchalance. The other Avengers follow suit, all exchanging a smile or word of parting with Peter as if they’re consoling him at a funeral. He accepts the interactions with a downturned head and awkward thanks.
Before he ducks out of the room with his coffee, Tony ruffles Peter’s hair affectionately. “Have fun, bud.”
The room falls silent; Peter drops his cutlery and tucks his legs in front of his chest. Carol scrutinizes him for too long.
Breaking the silence, he ventures: “Do I look bad again?”
Carol sighs. “You don’t have to look good all the time, you know.”
“But if it- it makes everyone else stop feeling so bad…”
“Kid, you’re totally transparent with this sort of stuff. Trying to look good won’t fool them.”
Feeling a sudden, pounding rush in his temples, Peter drops his head onto his knees until it passes. From this position, he changes the subject. “How are you doing?”
“Alright,” she shrugs. “Aid is taking a long time… most people are scared out of their minds, won’t co-operate. But it’s good to see them smile when I help them out.”
The clouding behind Peter’s retinas is gone as soon as it had come; he grins faintly up at her. “That’s good.”
“You had another nightmare, didn’t you?”
She can read him eerily well.
“One this morning. And the one before. They’re kind of on and off.” On and off meaning less than every night. It’s an improvement.
“The same as the ones before that?”
“Well... not, like, exactly the same – but it’s still you. He always goes for you too when you’re away on missions.”
Over the days, weeks, months, his mind has delighted to torment him with colourful visions of Thanos advancing on him, then tossing him aside like trash to watch helplessly as he turned on Carol, Tony, May, Ben, his parents, Pepper, Ned, MJ, Rhodey, Natasha, Thor, Peter Quill, Mantis, Doctor Strange…
“I’m sorry.” Carol seeks his eyes with sincerity. “C-91 is taking a long time to get back on its feet. A really high percentage of the population were Snapped.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I just… I miss you. But it’s fine.” Papering a smile across his face, Peter exhales. The last thing he wants to do is pull her away from helping out other planets.
Carol smiles encouragingly, turning away briefly as if something has called her attention. She scrunches up her nose fondly. “I’ll be back before you know it. Go get ‘em, Rocketman.”
Peter huffs out a reluctant laugh. “Keep saving the world, Glowing Lady.”
The last thing he sees before Carol disconnects the call is her small wave.
The minute he’s alone in the room, Peter’s on his feet, propelled by an unbidden instinct. Oh crap, here we go again.
It’s a growing habit, not one that he’s ever admitted to anyone. In fact, maybe it’s not important at all, because he barely remembers what he’s done afterwards.
Peter swipes the leftovers on his plate, tips them into a Zip-Loc bag and dashes for the door, intending to stash them with the growing pile under his bed, when he senses someone coming down the corridor and ducks back into the room.
Just put it in the fridge, you can move it after.
But what if someone takes it? What if there’s nothing left?
A brief flash of a blade through his stomach stops him in his tracks with a gasp. Hunger pains or stab wound? He drags a hand under his shirt and probes the area. Stitched up. Fine. Not hunger pains, either, because he's so full he's a little nauseous.
It's nothing. It's nothing.
Fridge. He slides the food in behind a stack of vegetables and breathes.
Restlessness. It’s followed Peter for too long, giving him a sense of being a caged animal in the Compound, trapped with the stabbing aches in his temples and stomach and the growing, rankling stash in his closet. Even Tony’s comforting words and touch can’t quite assuage the need to… do something.
Once, about two weeks ago, he’d given in to the instinct without thinking straight, had tapped on the band ringing his wrist, engaged his Iron Spider suit, and leapt out of the window, but he’d barely made it a mile from the Compound’s expansive grounds before Tony had patched a call through to Karen. The way his mentor’s voice had shaken had so unsettled Peter that he’d turned around and headed right back to find Tony waiting for him, hands clenched into fists of panic. Tony had collided with him in a crushing hug, muttering, “Jesus Christ, kid, oh my God – don’t do that again. You could’ve- you could’ve—"
Glimpses on news stations are all he’s seen of the chaotic Post-Snap world. Peter gets the feeling Tony’s trying to keep him from burdening himself with the state of the universe, but it’s not like the destruction at their doorstep is easy to ignore.
Maybe Tony would let him go out if Peter asked – they could take a car together and… do what people do now the shops, restaurants, parks, streets, towns, countries, are lost in clouds of doom. Leaving and staying are equally daunting. Restless. Trapped.
Just a few days after Tony had so fretted at his three-minute disappearance, Peter had haltingly asked him. “When will it… is it- is it okay if I go out? Like, patrolling – as Spider-Man?”
“Why would you wanna do that?” Tony had replied a little bluntly.
“I don’t- I guess… to help the little guy out, just- yeah, I wanna help people out like old times.”
As if it pained him to turn Peter down, Tony had swallowed before speaking. “Pete… I’m gonna be honest to you, there’s not much Spider-Man can do right now. And it’s not just them – it’s you, too. Stark Industries is doing enough to co-ordinate rehabilitation without you risking yourself, okay? You need to keep resting your heart.”
When he’d gone into cardiac arrest in Tony’s arms on the Milano, he’d been left with occasional but lasting arrythmia, his heart never quite returning to its healthy rhythm.
He’s sick of the laundry list of ailments tailing behind him. He’s sick of the power the events of five months ago still have over him. He’s sick of this being it.
Maybe it’s these thoughts which drive him to begin hastily shedding his clothes; maybe it’s pure insanity. In under ten seconds, he’s shivering in his boxers, tapping the band on his wrist to activate the bubbling form of the suit around him.
Out. Out. Out.
The main kitchen window slides smoothly open at the press of a button to its right. Activating his mask, Peter lifts a leg to crouch on the sill, gathering himself for a second and pushing aside the memory of Tony in a fit of panic, preparing to leap from the ledge and—
“Hi – uh, is anyone home?”
From the glassy central table erupts a wide hologram screen, making Peter start. The image is of the main gate: a rust-coloured and worn-down van is parked outside, driver’s side door open. Standing at the closed gate and hollering into the security camera he must have spotted already is a man.
His voice… do I know him?
“This is Scott Lang,” the mystery man shouts, waving wildly at the camera. Peter slips back inside the window frame, brow drawn, and stoops without looking to retrieve his crumpled shirt and jeans.
“We met a few years ago - at the airport in Germany? I got really big.”
This, Peter knows. A thought dawns on him—
“Ant-Man? I know- I know you know that.”
Peter’s jaw drops. “Oh my God. I do.”
This is hope in the form of freezing, drenching water; in the sparks of brain synapses connecting and mysteries solving, although to what avail he can’t quite place yet; in a sudden influx after months of a vacuum in its absence - and for a moment Peter flounders, hands bracing the sides of his head. “Oh my God, Oh my God.”
FRIDAY chips in. “Peter, your heart rate is elevated. Would you like me to call in Tony?”
“Wait - you know what? Call them all in. Everyone in the Compound. Get them all down here, tell them it’s really important.”
He wants to laugh as FRIDAY responds almost immediately: “Tony seems distressed. He wonders why you’re calling everyone.”
Biting his lower lip against a mouth curling upwards, Peter stutters: “Ju-just – tell him it’s okay. It’s… good, actually. Really good, I think.”
He surges with the liquid hope. It’s something after nothing, nothing, nothing.
Noticing Scott still gesticulating on the hologram, Peter activates the two-way speakers and calls hesitantly to Scott: “Ant-Man – I mean, Scott? Hi, it’s- it’s Spider-Man. P-Peter Parker. From Germany. What are you… what are you doing here?”
“I think I know how to bring everyone back.”
Hope, like liquid gold, fills Peter’s every orifice, even spilling from the eternal scar at his torso that before had been a symbol of so much suffering. It’s bright and relieving and carries with it the heaviness of distrust, but it’s painted over with light.