Peter wakes up to a wave of nausea and self-loathing and the voice in his head still yelling at him to Be quiet. You’re loud. Why are you so loud? Be quiet.
His hands itch for his phone, already typing out a message in his head, because he’s gotten better about telling Tony about his Bad Days. About how sometimes he needs to throw himself into work as a distraction and other times he just needs a bone-crushing hug to—
The self-recrimination that courses through his body nearly brings him to his knees. The image of crushed bones still dance behind his eyelids, and he immediately pulls his hand away from his phone.
Don’t be loud, Peter, the voice reminds him. Just shut up for once.
So he does. He leaves his phone on his bedside table, untouched, and gets up to get ready for the day.
He knows it was just a dream, but as he moves, he can almost picture his bones cracking under—under what? the pressure of being?—the weight of everything he cannot—will not—say. Anxiety ricochets inside of him like a bullet, tearing through his bones, and he reminds himself to breathe.
He wants Tony.
Peter swallows the thought down. He won’t give those bullets to him. For once in his pathetic life, he’ll make his own splints to hold himself together.
When he gets to school, Ned and MJ greet him and he smiles back. He hugs his textbooks close to himself, his ribs flimsy inside his body, and tells himself that this is how to be better.
I wanted you to be better.
This is him being better.
During lunch, he robotically forks food into his mouth, if only so he won’t have to speak. So he won’t be tempted to speak. He watches Ned talk animatedly about a new show that’s coming out, and MJ is listening attentively.
She looks tired, Peter notices. He knows her parents are going through a divorce and her dad’s been an ass about it all, and now that he’s finally taking the time to look at her, he sees the exhaustion chipping away at her skin.
He hates himself for thinking it, but for a moment, he’s jealous. How? he wants to ask. How do you keep it contained? How do you exist in you sadness without leaving collateral damage in your wake?
The thing is, he tries. He tries to be good, tries to be… to be manageable. But sometimes he gets so mad or frustrated or sad, and then he opens his mouth and bullets come out and Tony is probably tired of it. Tired of taking the hits of Peter’s sadness and still putting him back together.
Peter jumps, startled. Ned is staring at him expectantly, as if waiting for an answer to a question Peter didn’t hear. MJ is looking at him too, eyes narrowed, and Peter reminds himself to inhale—why? why is that so hard?—and smile.
“Oh shit, I’m sorry. Not gonna lie, I zoned out for a second,” Peter admits, because that’s better than letting out the bullets rolling inside his stomach.
Oh shit, I’m sorry, he could have said. I’m just really anxious about the fact that I’m overly-dependent on everyone around me and it’s damaging to them and also just pathetic.
“Nah, you’re good. I was just asking if you wanted to keep up with the show with me?” Ned asks hopefully, and Peter feels guilty because he’s already forgotten what the show even is.
“Yeah, sure!” he says anyway, because he has to be better. Has to be the kind of person that gives more than he takes. Ned’s face lights up with renewed enthusiasm, and Peter thinks it was worth it.
When Happy picks him up after school, Peter scrubs at his face, as if trying to physically slap a mask on. He chirps an enthusiastic hello and Happy rolls his eyes affectionately before putting the partition up so he can play music without listening to Peter’s complaints of, “Happy, why do you have the music taste of an old woman?”
Peter let’s out a breath of relief and he sinks into the seat and rests his head back for a moment. Now that everything is quiet, anxiety roars back to life, never content to let him rest, and Peter panics as he wonders how he’s going to hide this from Tony. Tony, who is so observant, who knows Peter too well, who Peter is trying to protect, to be better for.
Peter raises his hands and stares at them, thinking about the nightmare from last night that’s somehow managed to bleed into the day. He remembers his bones cracking, crumbling, completely giving way inside of him, and he remembers opening his mouth to scream for help, for Tony, for anybody.
But a voice always stopped him. Too loud, it would chastise. Look how happy they are. Just be quiet and help yourself for once in your life.
Peter pulls his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them, a desperate version of a hug, an attempt to self-contain his brokenness. He feels like a stupid child, hates himself for feeling alone and for hating it. Wishes he could thrive by himself.
As he walks into the lab, Peter’s game plan is simple: talk as little as possible without being suspicious.
“Hey, kid!” Tony greets as he walks in. Peter smiles and slings his book bag onto the old couch Tony keeps in the workshop.
“Hey! Whatcha workin’ on?” Peter asks, curiously looking over Tony’s shoulder.
“The thrusters in the left boot of my suit are faulty, so I’m just re-building the whole damn part,” Tony tells him.
“Oh fun,” Peter. “And by fun, I mean ‘tedious’.”
Tony snorts. “Tell me about it. You know what you want to work on or do you wanna help me with this?”
Peter looks over at his desk to the old computer he’d found in the dumpster a few days ago. “Um, I think I’m gonna mess around with the computer and see if I can reanimate its corpse.”
Tony wrinkles his nose. “Why did you have to say it like that?”
Peter laughs. “Sorry I can’t suppress the Gen Z speak. You’re just old,” he quips. Tony mock stabs at him with a pair of wire strippers and Peter dodges and heads to his own work area.
As he walks, he can almost imagine the ruins inside of him. Part of him aches to turn around and ask Tony to help him, to help put him back together, and the words well up inside of him like bullets ready to fire.
He swallows them down, and gets to work.
His hands move methodically, even has anxiety and longing shoot through his body, stealing his breath away. Breathe, he reminds himself as he takes the computer apart piece by piece. He wonders if someone did that to him what they’d find.
Peter closes his eyes for a second and pictures it. Pictures a surgeon opening him up and finding his insides in ruins, physically torn apart by an anxiety and sadness he could never kill. He pictures hairline fractures all the way to the tips of his fingers, ribs crushed, piercing into his lungs, a tangible explanation for why he can never fucking breath.
“Peter,” a voice says sharply, and Peter turns around to find Tony watching him carefully.
“Sorry, I got distracted,” Peter apologizes quickly. “What were you saying?”
Tony cocks his head and studies him for a moment before saying, “You’re shaking.”
“What?” Peter asks, even as he looks down at his hands to find that they are, indeed, trembling. He clenches them into fists and reminds himself to inhale again. “No I’m not. I’ve had a great day!”
Tony’s eyebrows shoot up at that. “Oh? That’s good to hear. It’d be more reassuring if you didn’t sound like you were trying to convince yourself of that.”
“I’m not,” Peter says through gritted teeth. The truth sits heavy on his tongue, metallic and hard and Peter is surprised it doesn’t just barrel through his teeth.
“Okay,” Tony says simply, before turning back to his bench. His tone isn’t upset or irritated, but the word has sharp panic racing up Peter’s throat.
He doesn’t want Tony to turn away. He wants—god, he doesn’t want to feel like this. He wants Tony to wrap his arms around him and put all his bones back in place and tell him things will be okay. But he doesn’t want to bother him again and again. The truth is, depression gets old. No one wants to hear about his pain.
“I-I’m sorry,” Peter stammers, and Tony looks at him, confused. “I’m sorry,” he repeats. “I’m—I didn’t—I’m sorry.”
Tony’s expression quickly changes to one of concern as he takes a step towards Peter, who backs away.
“I’m sorry,” Peter says yet again, because at least those are words that fix instead of break.
“For what?” Tony asks gently.
Peter swallows thickly and looks at him, desperation and self-loathing and longing fighting for dominance inside of him. He presses his hands into his eyes for a second, flashes of his dream from the night before playing before they fly open again.
“I’m sorry—it’s stupid. It’s so—I’m sorry.” He can’t seem to get past those words. He’s just sorry for—for so much. For being so disgustingly dependent, for being clingy and childish and loud in his pain. He tries to start again. “I had a dream last night.”
If Tony’s surprised by the change in direction, he doesn’t show it. He simply pulls up a stool and perches on it, watching Peter struggle to find the right words.
“It reminded me of—of something my friend told me. And I can’t, um—she said that ‘hurt people hurt people’ and it—I’d forgotten about it. It means that—that when I’m feeling hurt or bad, I bring people down with me,” Peter explains. “And I always—I always go to you or bother May and I know you guys worry and that sometimes it’s too much but you’re too nice to tell me but one day you’re going to hate me for it and I want to change, I want to be better, but what if this is the ugly truth of who I am? That at the core of me, I’m a taker? That I’m—I’m parasitic—”
“Whoa whoa, Peter, stop,” Tony finally cuts in firmly, pushing away from his stool and taking the kid by the shoulders. Peter nearly whimpers, torn between leaning into the touch and pushing away. “First of all, let’s not compare you to a leech. Those are gross and you’re nothing like them. Got it?”
Peter nods hesitantly, and Tony squeezes his shoulders.
“And secondly, did you know that Pepper once broke up with me?” Tony asks, and Peter nearly jerks in surprise, both at the information and the change in subject. Tony nods. “Yup. I was all into the whole self-sabotage thing and I couldn’t hang up the suit and was every definition of a taker that you could possibly say. She gave and gave and I never gave back anything she needed. So she left, and rightfully so.”
Peter’s eyes widen. He had no clue they’d ever split before. Tony shrugs and then waves his hand, looking intently at Peter.
“The point is, I get it. Sometimes people who are hurting end up hurting the people around them, too. But Peter—lying to me, withdrawing? That’s not going to help you or me or anyone. The difference between me then and you now is that back then, I didn’t really try. For awhile, at least. And Pepper didn’t want to watch me throw my life away. But you—Peter, you’re trying. I know you’re trying. I see it everyday,” Tony says firmly. “You give back plenty. Being around you, helping you—it’s not a chore. Of course I hate seeing you in pain, but Peter—this is part of love, okay? You’re my kid. I see you trying. So let me meet you halfway.”
Peter breaks, then, the outside finally mirroring the inside. His face crumples as hot tears race down his cheeks, and Tony steps forward and replaces the arms Peter has wrapped around himself with his own.
Peter’s body sags with relief for just a moment before pure self-loathing washes over him, and he lets out a violent sob. Tony’s arms tighten around him more, and that almost makes it worse.
“I’m—I’m pathetic,” Peter chokes out, practically gagging on the words.
Tony pulls back, then, just enough to frame Peter’s face in his hands, brushing away hot tears.
“No, no, no. You’re hurting,” Tony corrects, looking him straight in the eye. “You’re hurting. And that’s okay.”
Peter’s breath comes in hitching sobs, and he makes himself nod, desperate to believe him. Tony shushes him gently, tenderly brushing Peter’s curls back before pulling him close again. Tony simply holds him for as long as he needs.
And, piece by piece, bits of Peter start to fall back into place.
(Here’s the thing: Humans are made for community. It’s okay to get help from others. Maybe you’re more of a giver, and maybe you’re more of a taker. But whatever you are, you just have to meet others halfway. And it’ll be okay. It will.)