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A Beautiful Lie

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Thursday - June 9, 2016

Stark Tower - Med-Bay

11:01 AM

Dr. Valentina Torres was an intimidating woman.

At least, that was the initial impression that jumped out at Peter as he dragged his feet behind his mentor, trying his absolute best to disappear into the shadows of the man striding along in front of him.

Tall slender legs stretched up into a petite form no taller than 5'3. But what she lacked in stature she more than made up for in aura. Her sheer posture, stiff and rigid with pressed coat and tall heels, exuded an air of professionalism and stoic solemnity. Her dark brown hair was tied back into a ponytail, not a single hair out of place against her sharp cheekbones, lips pressed into a tight line, and eyes sharp and attentive behind large owl-rimmed glasses. And as she turned to face them, setting down the papers she'd previously been rummaging around, she looked less like a doctor and more like a staff member of the US Senate, camera ready to deliver a rousing take-down.

Peter swallowed and shuffled further into the shadow of his mentor.

Said man didn't seem too perturbed by the woman's aura, simply clapped his hands as he strolled further into the room. "Alright, Doc. Let's get this show on the road."

Torres reached up to reposition the glasses on her face, pushing them up the bridge of her nose. "Tony Stark," she said smoothly, voice strong and level with hints of a Latin accent. "Nice to see you again, and in one piece at that."

"Not for lack of trying, but for the record, it's been at least two hours since I've considered partaking in anything dangerous and/or irresponsibly rash. Making me a little fidgety, to be honest. Might be withdrawal. But if we start talking about me, we'll be here all week. So let's steer the conversation to yourself and ask how you've been."

The woman didn't seem all that bothered by Tony's twist-about manner of speaking, taking it in stride as she gave a simple shrug of the shoulder.

"Can't complain. My work keeps me busy, especially my patients."

"Honduras, right?"

"Mm-hmm." She turned back to the papers she'd been fiddling with, straightening them out against the desk before fastening them to the clipboard under her arm. "Believe it or not, mutant populations have been skyrocketing in the Southern Hemisphere and my clinic seems to be the continental hotspot for half of Latin America." She faced them once more and Peter noticed her tight-bound lips suddenly twitch with the hints of a smirk.

"But it's still more relaxing than the headaches I used to get dealing with you caballos."

Tony fell silent, and Peter craned his neck up to watch the man's face take on a more serious note, albeit with his smile remaining. Perhaps a bit more genuine though, laced with traces of fondness and familiar amity. "Missed you too, Val,"

Torres huffed and Peter noticed her face soften as well, her features rounding at the edges the way one does when reminiscing over long-lost memories. Tony cleared his throat and the moment of old camaraderie passed as quickly as it had appeared. "Anyway, I brought someone new for you to play with. Hopefully, he's tamer than we ever were."

He stepped to the side, leaving Peter defenseless against the newly sharpened gaze that struck him hard.

"Dr. Torres, meet Spider-Man. AKA Peter Parker, AKA the second most primary-colored vigilante you'll ever treat next to Captain Twinkle Toes and his star spangled frisbee."

Peter, immediately feeling wholly exposed, tightened his shoulders and brought his hands together in some ditch attempt to shrink himself down as much as possible. Even so, he noticed a certain shift in the woman's gaze, a ripple in the otherwise calm and collected waters that settled onto her face, a pebble of surprise that made her brows rise and her eyes widen just a tad.

"Spider-Man?" she asked hesitantly, casting her piercing green gaze back over towards Tony, as if she wasn't sure she'd heard him correctly.

"He also responds to Spider-Boy, Spiderling, and the Crime Fighting Arachnid."

Peter didn't roll his eyes as he normally would have in any other circumstance. Instead, he kept his eyes locked dead on the woman before him, gauging her reactions and the slight twitches of her face. Her surprise had well since settled back into quiet neutrality that was terrifyingly unreadable.

And the moment she took a step towards him, his previous restraint finally caved and the teen retreated, backpeddling over towards Mr. Stark as he once again leaned behind the man in a not-so-subtle manner of trying to hide. Mr. Stark only gave him a mild look of surprise before giving a little smirk and patting the kid comfortingly on the back.

Peter didn't look up during the moment of silence that followed. Though he could imagine the looks now being shot between Mr. Stark and the doctor. He felt his cheeks reddening and glued his eyes to his hands. He only lifted his head at the sound of heels clacking again, watching as the doctor took a step back this time. When she spoke, her voice was gentle. Quieter.

"It's nice to meet you, Peter."

Peter bit at his lower lip, giving a little nod before looking away, tucking himself even closer into Mr. Stark's shadow. He knew it was childish, hiding behind the man like a toddler. But in that moment, he couldn't bring himself to care.

"N-nice to meet you, too."

Still, he was nothing if not polite.

Mr. Stark gave the kid a 'one minute' gesture before walking closer towards Torres and pulling her over towards the back wall. He ducked his head as he spoke in a hushed tone. "Listen, in case it's not already painfully obvious, the kid's real nervous about this. I talked to him a little, prepped him a bit, but he's still….apprehensive."

Torres sniffed, casting one last glance over towards Peter. "Am I to assume he's never seen a doctor about his powers?"

"Kid's never even told anyone about them, aside from me, of course." Tony sighed, tilting his head a bit as he shrugged. "He likes his secrets, so Spider-Man's never really been a hot topic in the Sharing Circle, if you know what I mean, so just…go slow, alright?"

Torres stared at him down the brim of her glasses before giving a muted nod, pausing for a moment before cocking a questioning brow. "He doesn't have super hearing, does he?"

"No, I do."

They both turned towards him.

Peter scuffed his shoe nervously on the floor. "Sorry. I, uh…could probably still hear you even if you were a few floors away, so…"

Tony smirked, striding back over to the kid with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Yeah, but it's nice to keep up appearances." He elbowed the kid in the side and Peter couldn't keep the grin off his face as he swatted him away.

Torres merely rolled her eyes and turned towards the files she'd brought in. "Nice to see you haven't changed, Stark."

And Peter, matching the teasing smirk Mr. Stark was aiming his way, couldn't have agreed more.

Despite the current circumstances, the past week had played out in a manner more akin to fantasy than real life. But that was usually the case around Tony Stark. The billionaire had taken his new rules in stride, sticking them up all over the Tower in less than subtle areas. In the rooms, framed on the kitchen walls, scrolling on the screensavers of the lab computers, inside the fridge, on the ceiling. Peter had even found a sticky-note with the list stuck to the underside of the toilet lid.

And maybe it was the carefree, joking manner in which Mr. Stark discussed said rules, even going as far as to air the idea of laser-engraving them into his cutlery (to which Peter had quickly pointed out the ridiculousness of such an idea, ridiculousness that Mr. Stark subsequently said was his right as a 'stupid-rich billionaire-douchebag.'). Maybe it was how different they were from the rules he still had listed in the notebook stashed under his bed. Maybe it was the way Mr. Stark never got defensive whenever Peter asked a question about this rule or that, the billionaire always taking the teen's shyly asked inquiries in stride with a wave of his hand or a shrug. Or maybe it was just the fact that Mr. Stark hadn't changed.

("Things are going to be different now, son.")

His father had changed. When those rules came, his father had changed in every way.

Mr. Stark hadn't. Nothing about him had. He still answered every question with a quick quip and a teasing smirk. He still stopped and listened whenever Peter gave some input or advice for how to program a certain segment of armor. He always turned to Peter first when deciding what to get for dinner, only giving minor suggestions whenever they'd had too many pizza nights in a row and Pepper had griped about "healthy choices and childhood obesity."

Despite everything, Mr. Stark was still just...Mr. Stark.

Despite that week of hell. Despite that screaming match. Despite every bump and crack and pothole they'd encountered in the short stint Peter had spent at the Tower, the ride had smoothened out. The roads were clearing. The air was lifting.

Peter no longer waited five to ten minutes just pacing in his room every morning wondering if his presence was welcome. He didn't wait for someone to make eye-contact at the dinner table before speaking, simply jumping in once a lull entered the conversation. And even if he was still shy about taking food unannounced and without explicit permission, he did grab a bag of chips from the pantry one night (albeit after he'd asked FRIDAY to page Mr. Stark for permission three separate times, to which the man had eventually come downstairs, grabbed an armful of chips and basically just dumped them into Peter's hands before shoving him back to bed.)

It was getting better. They were getting better. And Peter couldn't have been happier.

"So, I'll go ahead and leave you guys to it."

Except for that. Peter definitely could have been happier without that.

Instantly, he whirled around, wide eyes landing on Tony as he pulled out his phone and started to tap away. "You're leaving?" he asked, hating how frightened his voice sounded in that moment. Though, he supposed it matched the tightness he could feel encroaching on his chest.

Mr. Stark didn't seem as bothered by the teen's nerves. For he leaned in a bit and rested his hand on the boy's shoulder. "I have to, bud. Your dad might have given me temporary medical guardianship, but the rules are still pretty strict when it comes to mutant exams." He pointed a thumb over his shoulder. "Only you and the doc can be present, even if I already know about your powers."

Peter lifted his gaze over towards the doctor, who was giving him a sympathetic look. "Standard procedure."

He bit at his lower lip, hands fiddling together as he swallowed. "But-"

"Hey."

Mr. Stark brought his other hand up so that they were both holding onto the teen's shoulders tightly. "Deep breath."

Peter hesitated for a moment before sucking in a shaky bout of air, feeling how unsteadily it trickled down his throat. Mr. Stark kept watching him until he'd taken a few more satisfactory breaths. The man nodded. "I might not be able to hear you from 12 miles away, but I'm still just a shout down the hall."

Peter stared up at him, drank in the confidence and stability he found staring back at him in those dark brown eyes.

Before the internship, before the Tower and the days upon days of solid, surefire proof that Tony Stark was not a foreseeable threat to his very livelihood, Peter had never even considered revealing Spider-Man. Not to his friends. Not to his family. And most certainly not to a total stranger.

Spider-Man was just the same as any other secret: a loaded gun. A gun pointed straight at Peter's head. Keeping these secrets, keeping Spider-Man hidden and away from the prying eyes of any who'd like to look underneath the mask kept the gun at bay, kept the fingers away from the trigger and the safety clicked in place.

But each time a secret fell into the hands of another, each time someone else uncovered his identity, another finger fiddled with the trigger. One person could keep a secret. Maybe two. Maybe three. But sooner or later, his secret would pass to the wrong person, someone who couldn't keep their mouth shut, someone with trigger-happy fingers. Sooner or later, the gun would go off. Sooner or later, one person, one finger, one blabbering mouth, would do him in.

Which is exactly what he'd told Mr. Stark the night he'd brought up the idea of Peter seeing a doctor (after the blind panic and repeated assurances from Mr. Stark that he was not, in fact, going crazy, and did remember that Peter's DNA was 'freakier than a resin-coated mosquito bloated with dino juice' as the kid had put it.)

Said week of bliss was how long it had taken Mr. Stark to finally convince him to see a mutant specialist, on the caveat that Tony explain in excruciating detail his past history with her and all the reasons why she was to be trusted with the life-altering, soul crushing information that was Spider-Man. And while being under the previous employ of one Nick Fury and serving as the Avengers' past on-call doctor was an impressive resume, it was safe to say that Peter still had his doubts.

Even safer to say that the idea of discussing Spider-Man with the same level of casual conversation that one uses to talk to their family dentist left him itching with a tingling anxiety.

And said anxiety only skyrocketed with the implication that Mr. Stark would not be around to play mediator, as he'd been led to believe. But he simply flexed his fingers and took one last breath, tried to absorb as much warmth as he could from the man's grip on his shoulders and finally gave a little nod, folding his arms as he glanced away. "Don't go far," he said softly.

Tony chuckled and patted his shoulder, giving him a little wink that Peter couldn't help but smile at.

The man pulled away much too quickly for the teen's liking, turning to face the doctor who had still maintained a comfortable distance. "Take good care of him," he said quietly. Peter was surprised at how serious his voice was.

She nodded. "Of course."

With that, the billionaire gave Peter's shoulder one last comforting pat before he strolled back out through the door. Peter watched him leave, watched the door shut behind him. And try as he might to will the door back open with force of mind alone, it remained shut.

So, with one last deep breath to try and steel his nerves, Peter turned back towards the doctor. Her eyes were on the door too, but once she noticed Peter's gaze, she shook back to attention and gave him another smile.

The teen didn't return the gesture, simply bit at his lower lip and glanced away, rubbing awkwardly at his arm as he resisted the urge to widen the distance between them. Thankfully, Torres didn't make another attempt to approach him, instead gesturing for him to sit on the examination bed positioned near the center of the room.

Peter complied, albeit slowly and with frequent glances at the doctor.

Nothing immediately jumped out as suspicious about Dr. Torres. The energy she was radiating didn't necessarily lend itself to danger and aggression, more an aura of calm, level-headed quiet; a certain expertise and sophistication bleeding through just in the way she carried herself. The analytical gleam of her eyes made Peter squirm, but they weren't necessarily heated.

In fact, as she watched him sit up on the bed, waiting until he'd gotten into a comfortable position, Peter noticed a certain softness to her gaze that hadn't been there during her conversations with Tony. Her smile, while small, didn't seem strained or plastic like Sandra's or O'Hara's. It was hard to really place the expression in her features, but whatever it was reminded him of May and Pepper, gentle and with no signs of malice or deceit.

But gentle features didn't take away from the fact that she was a stranger. And Peter wasn't about to let his guard down.

"Alright, Peter. Why don't we just start small, hmm?" she said as she took a seat on the chair across from him, pulling out her clipboard. Peter's ears twitched as she clicked her pen. "Now, I've seen some footage of Spider-Man in action, so I have a basic idea of your power set. But do you think you could go ahead and give me the run-down on your abilities please?" She tilted her head. "We can go slowly if you'd like."

Peter shifted a bit in his seat, bringing his fingers to fiddle with the hem of his sleeves. "Um…how…h-how should I start?"

"Just start from the beginning."

He swallowed, giving a stiff nod before wetting his lips. To keep his fingers from fidgeting any more, he stuffed his hands into his pockets, skin grazing against the cool metal of the coin Mr. Stark had reminded him to bring along. His fingers brushed the engravings.

"I, uh…well…I first got them when I was…about eight years old."

Scribbles. He blinked a bit as he watched her hastily writing in the margins of her paper, biting back a stutter in his heartbeat. He'd have to be careful with his words if she was listening this closely.

"Did they manifest naturally or was there an outside factor?"

("Spiders? What do you need them for?")

(A new test I'm running, Peter. Spiders are known for their remarkable abilities in the animal kingdom. Seems a waste to horde it all to themselves, wouldn't you say?")

 

. . .

 

("Can't believe…two months and NOTHING! Nothing but a pack of useless insects.")

("You better pick up each and every piece of glass, Peter. And make sure those spiders get rounded up. I don't want to see them in the house, you got it?")

 

. . .

 

("What do you mean he's sick? Where is he?")

 

"They…just appeared naturally," he said with a stiff shrug. "One night I was normal. The next morning I broke the bathroom sink trying to turn the faucet."

Not technically a lie. Max had been pissed about the water spraying out of the broken pipes.

"So, enhanced strength was the first ability you manifested?"

"I think so. I also, uh…I didn't need my glasses anymore. Or my inhaler. So…t-that was weird, I guess. And also hard to explain to the school nurse, which was…weirder, I think?" he hesitated, wincing a bit at how awkward the words sounded coming out of his mouth. He glanced away. "Sorry. I, um…don't really know how to do this."

Torres stopped writing, pen tip hovering over the paper. "It's alright, sweetheart. There's no right way to do this." Her smile was gentle.

"...This still probably counts as the wrong way."

Her smile remained though. "You're doing fine. We'll be over with this in no time." She readjusted her glasses and gave a nod, an obvious motion for him to continue.

Peter let out a steadying breath, despite the way his knee continued to bounce. After a second to gather his thoughts, he pushed on.

For the next twenty minutes, Peter ran through the basics of his powers, the order in which he remembered them appearing; the physical, external changes his body had undergone; the extent to which they'd interfered with his everyday life; even little details like how certain foods that had had no effect on him before the bite now left him nauseous and reeling in disgust. And throughout it all, Dr. Torres was fairly silent, nodding along as he spoke, scribbling a few notes here and there and only ever interrupting to ask a question or two.

And as he spoke, as Torres continued to write note after note with a certain gleam of intrigue in her eyes, Peter found the words slowly flowing with less obstruction, felt his voice growing a new stronger tone. Talking about the logistics of his powers, the science behind his abilities and the extent of his feats, it almost reminded him of decathlon or talking with Mr. Stark in the lab.

Peter wasn't one to ramble unless he had something useful to say, which, according to his family, was usually never. But there was just something about science, something about math, physics, chemistry, things he knew about. Things he was good at. The confidence his voice adopted when explaining the dimensions of a new web shooter model or the chemistry formulas for a new synthetic adhesive he was thinking up - it was almost hard to recognize. When his mind strayed from anything and everything besides the numbers and the formulas, the calculations and the equations, leaving no room for anything else, nothing but the concrete, sure-fire science; the pure, unpolluted musings of millennia of minds and genius cultivating into single logarithms, proven calculations, tested theories.

There was a freedom to be found in the world of science. A safety. Peter craved it.

"And the adhesiveness of my limbs doesn't seem to be affected by weather, either. Rain or snow, it's all the same. Even humidity factors don't have an effect."

"Interesting. And you said you're able to climb to the top of the Empire State Building without the pressure change having any effect either?"

"No, it's all the same. My ears pop sometimes, though."

Torres chuckled. "Wait till you're my age. Just climbing the stairs will get those things ringing."

Peter smiled, watching as she flipped to a new page as her scribblings continued. "Now, how much weight, on average, can you support?"

"Um…I'm not really sure. I've never been able to measure it before, but I did stop a car going around 45 miles per hour from ramming into a bus at an intersection once, so…maybe 5000 pounds?"

"Complete stop?"

"Yeah."

Torres nodded, smirking a bit as she added a new note. "Very impressive, Mr. Parker."

Peter blinked, quickly looking away as a new heat began to bloom around his cheeks. "J-just in that one instance, though. Maybe it was just adrenaline."

"Well, we can do some controlled tests later to get more accurate measurements," she said with a nod, slipping the pen into the side of the clipboard as she stood, setting the pad down on the counter. "But for now, I think I have everything in terms of preliminary reports. So, we can go ahead and move onto the physical exam."

Peter stiffened.

She reached into her lab coat and pulled out a stethoscope, striding over towards the cabinets once more. "These usually take longer with the patients that have extra appendages or prehensile body parts. But seeing as the spider part of your namesake didn't extend to four additional arms, this should be fairly quick," she chuckled, pulling out a pack of medical-grade wipes from the cabinet and wiping down the ear pieces of the stethoscope. She positioned it against her ears and walked over. "So, if you could go ahead and remove your jacket and shirt, please, we can get started."

Peter hesitated for a minute before giving a stiff nod. "R-right," he said softly as he slowly lifted his fingers towards the zipper resting on his chest, skin grazing the cold metal.

("Parker! Where's your uniform? Everyone needs to change into their gym clothes for class, and that includes you!")

His muscles tensed at the voice ringing in his ears, fingers slipping off the zipper for just a second before he quickly repositioned it. He could hear it shaking in his grip, though, the metal sides bumping against the fastened teeth embedded into the fabric. He tensed his jaw and mentally shook himself for his hesitance. Slowly, he pulled the zipper down, listening to the sounds of the teeth unhooking from each other as the jacket slowly opened. The zipper caught on the bottom stopper and he slowly detached the clasp, hands carefully pushing the jacket off his shoulders where it dropped to the bed below him.

("Hey, Penis Parker! Why you changing in a stall? I'm sure I got some loose change rattling around if you wanna show those tits off for us!")

His hands stilled, felt a new bareness to his skin despite the fact that his arms were still covered by the two long-sleeve shirts he had on. Still, something about shedding layers made an uncomfortable itch prickle underneath the fabric, a tingling heat that made his fingers twitch.

He swallowed, biting down on his lip as he stared at the bottom hem of his shirt. The tips of his fingers brushed against it.

"M-maybe...just the jacket?" he whispered, sparing a careful glance up at the doctor.

His words startled her, her attention having been preoccupied by the charts she was filling out on her clipboard. She seemed confused when she noticed he hadn't yet finished undressing, pausing for a moment before tilting her head.

"Your shirt's going to get in the way too, honey."

("Come on, Peter it'll be fun! The whole class is going to this party and I even have a new swimsuit I can use! We could use a little sun anyway.")

"C-course." He ducked his head and latched his fingers onto the bottom of his shirt. "Sorry..."

Torres didn't go back to the charts in hand, though. Instead, Peter could feel her eyes lingering on him, the added weight making his movements even tighter.

"It's...it's alright," she murmured with a blatant uncertainty in her voice. "Are you okay?"

"Mm-hmm."

He nodded his head stiffly, neck aching at how jarring a movement it was. He forced down a breath, forced down another when the added air only made his head swim. His fingers were curling, nails digging into the cotton of his shirt. He wasn't moving. Why wasn't he moving? Why wouldn't his hands work? He just had to take it off. Take it off and toss it to the floor so she could see...

So she could see-

("Hit him again.")

Peter scrambled off the bed.

"A-are you sure we need to do a physical exam?" He asked suddenly, Torres rearing back in surprise at how fast Peter had gotten to his feet.

"I mean, I can just tell you whatever you want to know and anything I don't know probably isn't even important anyway," he said with a smile, hastily shoving his jacket back over his arms, hands shaking as they slid through.

"Peter-"

"Like you said, my mutation didn't evolve into outward physical appendages, which I guess is a blessing cause it would be really hard to hide my powers if I had fangs or something but my point being that externally, I'm just the same as anybody else. So I really don't see the point in having an exam." He turned. "It would probably just be a big waste of your time which would make me feel horrible cause Mr. Stark told me how important you are and how busy your schedule usually is so the thought of filling it with useless procedures is stupid, right? Isn't it stupid? I think it is."

"Hon-" She took a step forward. Peter stumbled back, smile tightening.

"We can just go ahead and do the other tests you wanted, right? T-the strength...you said something about a strength test? We can just do that." He turned, eyes darting towards the door. "Or maybe you wanted to test my hearing. Like I said before, I can hear voices coming through the floor so maybe we can try going to different rooms to see how far away I have to be before I can't hear you anymore. It'll probably have to be pretty distant so I can go ahead and look for a place that's nice and f-"

(burn)

His body spasmed, throat letting loose an animalistic screech of dread somewhere between a cry and a choke as he flung himself against the wall, elbow smashing into the glass cabinet hanging on the wall.

(burning-)

(burning-)

(breathe-)

Silence.

He swallowed, forced down the sudden urge to vomit as his shoulder burned. Burned with the remnants of her fingers, her skin, her mere presence touching him.

Peter didn't move. Didn't face her. Didn't react to the glass now littering the floor around him. Didn't even flinch at the fine glassy dust powdered over his sleeve. He simply breathed. Breathed and listened and tried to get body to stop shivering.

(Burning)

(No burning)

(Nothing)

(It was nothing)

(Breathe.)

Torres was silent.

"Sorry..." he finally said after a full minute of silence had passed. He did not turn to look at her.

Torres let loose a small breath, the faint shiver of composure slipping slightly as he heard her swallow. "It's alright," she said slowly. "I shouldn't have touched you. I'm sorry."

Peter sniffed, wiping his nose with the back of his hand as he took a moment to try and salvage the last ounce of calm he'd stored away and grasping at it tightly. He swallowed, letting out a little sigh afterwards, dismissing the brief notion of attempting to salvage the last few minutes to continue on with the exam. Instead, he spared a glance over at the door, eyes lingering as he finally spoke, voice quiet and calm.

"I don't want this. I don't...want a doctor."

He glanced over. Aside from a few questioning blinks, Torres didn't give much of a reaction, merely tilted her chin in silence as she narrowed her eyes.

Peter lifted a hand and began to brush the glass dust from his sleeve, if only to give himself something to do as he spoke, a feat that seemed much easier when he wasn't meeting the woman's gaze. "I don't mean to offend you, ma'am. That's not what this is because you seem like a really great doctor and you've been super nice to me and everything. You're not the issue here, I swear. I don't want you to think that you are. It's just..."

Peter paused, pursing his lips slightly as he breathed. "I don't need this. I do fine on my own. I've never needed a doctor before and I don't need one now."

Words that hadn't worked on Mr. Stark. Maybe they'd work on her.

He waited a moment before sneaking another glance. Torres stared at him in silence, piercing eyes boring straight through him, their bright intensity making the teen fidget. She let out a steady exhale, pursing her lips a bit as she gave a nod.

"Okay."

Peter blinked, watching as she turned and began to make her way over to the counters, removing the stethoscope from around her neck as she did so. He held his breath, waiting for her to reveal her joke, her annoyance, her frustration and indignation at his words. Waited for her to demand FRIDAY call in Mr. Stark to set him straight. But she just went about coiling the stethoscope around her hand, replacing it back in the cabinet where she'd acquired it. "Well, it was nice to meet you, Peter."

Wait.

"I...what?"

She turned. "Hmm?"

"You're...not upset with me?"

"Of course not." She shut the cabinet and reached over to her clipboard, detaching the files as she spoke. "The choice whether or not to see a doctor is just that: a choice. Your choice. If you say you don't need me, then I won't force it." She glanced up from the papers and raised a brow. "No offense, but with the caseload I deal with, I don't really need to go chasing after patients."

Peter opened his mouth, but found he didn't know what to say now that his previous arguments had no reason to be voiced. Was it really going to be that easy? After all of that? After the sheer strict aura of no-nonsense control she'd given when they'd met, she was really going to just let him walk out, no questions asked? No hesitations? Nothing?

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, stupid. Cut and run before she changes her mind.

"O-okay. Um..." he swallowed, resisting the urge to rub his hand against the back of his neck. "T-thank you for understanding, I guess..."

"Mm-hmm."

She didn't even glance up at him, simply kept rearranging the papers she'd previously been writing on. Peter watched her for a moment longer, eyes narrowed in slight confusion as he tried and failed to get a proper read on the woman in front of him who was showing no signs of emotion for him to pick up on. Nothing. Not even a twitch of frustration. This was the woman Mr. Stark had told him about? The same woman who apparently had no troubles going toe-to-toe with the Avengers whenever they tried to refuse treatment only to get the full force of her spitfire insistence?

( Something's wrong. )

( Leave. )

( Now. )

"I'll just go...tell Mr. Stark."

He started for the door, the sleek metal sliding open with a whoosh as he felt his muscles tensing, the hairs on the back of his neck-

"If I may ask though-"

-starting to stand on end.

He hesitated, focused on capping the sudden surge of warning before turning back to glance at the woman. She was still busy scanning the pages in her hands, making little notes on some while discarding others. "You seem like a smart boy, Peter. Which is no doubt why you've been able to handle your little vigilante career with minimal injury up to this point. But do you have any plans in place for emergency situations?"

He stared, casting one last glance at the door before stepping further back into the room. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, what happens if you find yourself in a situation where you can't handle yourself?" She was scribbling something, her hand moving with lightning speed. "You seem to make it a habit of swinging into gunfire. The possibility of life-threatening injuries is substantially higher for a kid like you."

Peter shuffled a bit, shifting his weight between his feet as he stuffed his hands into his pockets. "I...can take care of myself," he said in a voice that sounded much more convincing in his head.

"And if you can't?"

He looked up sharply. The prickling intensified.

Torres set her pen down and finally lifted her head, owl-rimmed glasses only adding to the strength of her stare. "Do you have a plan?"

Peter took a breath, felt his fingers twitching against the coin in his pocket as he took note of the tone in her voice, the same 'I'm an adult and I know better' tone he'd come to know and hate. She didn't necessarily give off an aura of contempt, but the undertones in her voice still made Peter's shoulders stiffen.

"I...yeah. Mr. Stark is..." He turned away, jaw tensing as he felt a new hesitance to speak. "...I have him. It's...okay."

He heard the woman exhale once more and watched as she readjusted her glasses. "Stark is a brilliant engineer, not a trained medical professional. Something tells me he wouldn't be as much help as you might think."

"Don't say that," Peter bristled, suddenly angry. "Mr. Stark is...he helps a lot. He helps me a lot. Don't say he doesn't, okay? Don't say that."

To her credit, Torres did give an apologetic nod of her head. "I'm sure he does help, Peter. But in a medical emergency, he wouldn't be able to provide the help you might need."

Peter took a breath, blew out the irrational bout of heat that had suddenly accumulated in his chest at her words of derision. He didn't stop to think about why said heat had arisen so suddenly in the first place and merely gave a little shake of his head. There was no point in dragging this conversation out any longer, and if ending said talk would put a stop to the prickling against his neck, he'd gladly walk out. "I'll be fine, ma'am," he said softly, hesitating for a moment before cautiously meeting her gaze. He tried giving a reassuring smile, but knowing him, it probably just came out wobbly and crooked.

A for effort, though.

"Thank you for your time. And your concern."

With that, Peter turned and began to make for the door again. What would Mr. Stark say about him cutting their meeting short? Hopefully the man wouldn't be too disappointed.

"Of course. I just wouldn't want to see you collect any more."

"Any more what?"

"Scars."

The blast of cold air that hit his face and the blood that drained from his cheeks suddenly made his body freeze over. He felt his mouth go dry, tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth as his jaw tensed so hard he could feel his teeth creaking. He couldn't hear any movement, couldn't hear Torres shuffling papers anymore. Just silence. And their heartbeats, off-rhythm and disjointed.

The prickling was painful now.

He turned, body stiff. "I...I never said I had-"

"You didn't have to."

Torres pulled open one of the cabinet drawers, taking out an empty manila folder as she spoke. "You see, in my...quaint little home village, you can't throw a stone without hitting someone's scars. 'Trophies' as they like to call them. Mostly the gringos drowning in their tequila and machismo, thinking their stupidity makes them look tough."

She set the papers from before in the file and set it aside before turning. She didn't seem at all affected by the way Peter stood stiff near the back wall, eyes wide and face set into a perpetual look of suspicion and unease.

"Glass houses, though. Cause I got a few of my own."

With that, she took off her glasses and set them down on the counter before taking a seat on the nearby chair once more. She reached for her sleeve, Peter's breath cold and biting against the sides of his throat as he watched her push up the fabric to reveal the crook of her elbow. Along her caramel skin sat a grouping of pale pink spots, like needle marks.

"I had a patient. A ten-year-old girl. Whenever she'd get nervous, these huge five or six inch spikes would come out of her skin like barbed wire." She reached up and traced her fingers against the marks. "I was drawing blood when a bunch of spikes popped out of her arm and stuck me like a pack of meat skewers."

She lifted her hand towards her head, curling her fingertips underneath a section of hair resting against her hairline and brushing it aside to reveal a discolored section of her scalp. "This one? One of my patients was worried I was going to rat them out to the police for their powers. Sent a fire ball right at my head before I could explain that the police would be the least of his worries should he burn down my clinic, which just so happened to border a meth lab at the time, housing some unsavory characters that would most definitely be out for blood should their supply go up in flames."

Again, she moved her hand, this time to the collar of her blouse. She pulled the fabric away from her shoulder, revealing a faded patch of burns that had left the skin pinker and pale. "This? A runaway sixteen year old that cried tears of acid. That didn't stop me from letting her cry into my shoulder despite the third degree burns I'd later have to be treated for." This time, she broke out into a full grin as she laughed. "And when she found out about my injuries, she felt so guilty that she just cried even more and burned through all the tissues we gave her. And part of the flooring."

Peter didn't laugh. He didn't say anything. Not even as she quieted and her face grew a bit more pensive, a bit more reserved. When she spoke next, her voice was softer. Slower.

She reached for her other sleeve and pulled it up, revealing a group of crochet bracelets of varying colors and levels of quality, like some were professionally made while others looked more like elementary school crafts. She seemed to hesitate for a moment before carefully removing them, her movements delicate and precise. She turned over her wrist once it was uncovered, revealing-

"And these? Well...these aren't too special. See them all around the village." She smiled, but it didn't quite reach her eyes. "Let's just say my community liked to push the idea of alcohol and cigarettes onto single mothers who had very little self-restraint and too much distance between them and the ash tray, you know?"

Peter did know.

Curt liked to smoke, too.

Liked putting them out even more.

He didn't say this though, simply watched her flip her wrist back over, hiding the burns from view. Instead, she just stared down at the bracelets now held in her hand, tracing the stitches with her fingers for a moment of silence before her smile returned. "My patients made these for me."

Peter swallowed, eyes narrowing as he glanced away. "Why are you telling me this?" His voice wavered.

Torres stared at him for a moment before she slowly leaned forward, resting her elbows against her legs as she let out a low breath. Her voice was gentle.

"I have them too. They're nothing to be ashamed of."

For a moment, they sat there in the silence, gazes locked. Peter poured over her stare, the details of her face, the slight twitches of movement. There were no outward signs of hostility. No clues of deception and deceit. Merely a film of reservation and hardship lingering underneath her piercing gaze, a layer of strengthened resolve and tenacity that he'd previously thought to be coldness. But it wasn't. It wasn't an apathetic professionalism. It was a carved determination, a cultivated layer of warmth underneath those harsh lines, those rigid features.

A gentleness under the coarse stone. Just like-

("I want you to be happy here.")

Peter forced a deep breath, held her gaze for a moment longer before giving a slow, solemn shake of his head. "I don't trust you," he said in a whisper. "I'm sorry. I just don't."

The woman said nothing for a moment, didn't huff or pout. She just stared at him, long and hard. Finally-

"Do you trust Tony?"

He narrowed his eyes, shoulders instantly tensing. "What?"

"Tony. Do you trust him? Trust in his judgement? Trust that he wouldn't recommend me unless I was the best for the job?" She slowly stood up from her chair. Peter found himself resisting the urge to step back. He held firm. Held her stare as she spoke.

"I don't expect you to trust me, Peter. Most of my patients don't when they first come to me, and I understand that. Really I do." Her lips slowly curled into a warm smile, calming and quiet. "But you don't have to trust me. You just have to trust him. Trust that he made a good choice in bringing you to me. I swear I won't let you regret it."

She held out her hand. Peter noticed the crochet bracelet now being extended to him.

He stared at it, at the felt strings intertwined around a few plastic beads, cheap and homemade. The colors were slightly faded and the string was a bit frayed on some ends. A child's work. A child's gift.

("I made it for her...")

His hands trembled, eyes misting for a brief moment before he blinked it away, the film of water distorting the bracelet for a second, a millisecond, a fraction of time where those braided strands almost looked like the beaded work of a necklace long lost at the bottom of the Hudson.

Slowly, he lifted his hand, fingers quivering ever so slightly as they brushed up against the rugged fabric. Torres carefully removed her own fingers from the bracelet and let it slip into his palm. He pulled it back and held it close to his chest, staring down at the ragged little thing.

("It's not just you anymore, Pete. It's Pepper and Rhodey and Happy. It's your friends and May and...anyone and everyone you can count on now, even if it's not a lot of them. And that includes me. Cause like it or not, I'm here to stay.")

Peter set his jaw, curling his fist around the bracelet as he lifted his head and took a deep breath.

"Please don't prove him wrong."

 


 

Thursday - June 9, 2016

Stark Tower - Med-Bay Waiting Room

12:48 PM

"And another thing! You're the one who made their suits and gear. Rogers and his cronies wouldn't even be able to do half of the illegal bullcrap they're pulling had it not been for your work, as if your obligation to step in wasn't already high enough."

"Uh-huh."

"Our teams are being stretched to their limits. Do you know how many calls we get from civilians claiming Steve Rogers shops at their grocery store? Who do you think has to check these claims out? Meanwhile, you're hoarding away top of the line satellite tracking technology that could probably find them in a blip while we're out here chasing our tails!"

"Yeah, for sure."

"And now we have even bigger problems. The council won't ratify any more additions to the Accords while this case is still open. Right now, they're making your rogue teammates their top priority, which means that until they're caught, everything's on standstill. Do you know how many issues this is creating?! First of all-"

Tony licked his thumb and pinched the corner of the magazine before flipping the page.

"Hey, Ross. Did you know they're adding a new exhibit to the Museum of Modern Art? This new guy's supposed to be hot stuff. You wanna go see it together?"

"-putting out fires left and right while you waste time tinkering with your toys! I've had no less than fifteen meetings with the Department of Damage Control these past ten days ALONE!"

"Maybe next week then."

Tony bounced his knee, the magazine he'd been flipping through for the last hour or so resting comfortably in his lap. Ross's voice filled the waiting room, the StarkPhone he was being broadcast from almost bouncing in anger from how loudly the man was shouting, clattering noisily against the chair Tony had set it on.

He paid it no mind, though. Not even as he lifted his gaze from the magazine and cast a glance down the hallway towards the still-closed door not too far off. And if his eyes lingered on the doorway for just a few seconds too long, well, he couldn't be faulted for that. Even Ross's dulcet sounds grew old eventually and Tony was starting to get fidgety. Not fidgety enough to start getting worried, mind you, because he knew everything was going fine. He'd said as much to his protégé not even two hours ago...

One last peek.

Still nothing.

He sighed and turned back to the magazine in hand, flipping to the next page. Somehow, the article on which celebrities were cheating on who wasn't enough to hold his attention.

Tony would be lying if he were to say that Peter's doubts on seeing a doctor hadn't also been mirrored in him. The idea hadn't even occurred to him until a few days after Peter had arrived at the Tower and Tony was hit with the frighteningly sobering thought that he had no idea if Peter was allergic to any of the foods he'd bought, which had then led to the frantic line of thinking: 'Do mutants have allergies' and 'Can he even GET sick with his powers?' and finally, 'Is there ANYTHING I know about this kid's medical info other than Spider equals WEIRD?!'

Calling Richard wasn't an option. Scheduling a normal doctor's appointment wasn't one either. Which had left Tony...where? Option number three? Walking on eggshells for the next two months hoping no emergencies came up and Peter never had to have medical attention that would ultimately be vastly unprepared seeing as how nobody knew his medical information?

Considering the teen made it a habit of spending his nights around trigger-happy hooligans, option number three was a nix as well.

Which had eventually led Tony to option number four: a mutant specialist. Someone who worked with people and kids like Peter on the daily and knew that discretion was key, would know how to work with his freaky adaptations and get all the info he needed in case one of those wackjobs on the streets of Queens ever decided to use the kid for target practice (a thought he tried desperately to hide away in the back of his mind lest he have a full-blown panic attack at the idea of people actually trying to hurt Peter).

And when it came to mutant specialists, there was only one number Tony had on speed-dial.

Valentina Torres was recruited by Fury not long after the Avengers themselves, the man insisting that with how stupid and reckless his team of super-powered freaks usually were, it was important to have someone to stitch them back together whenever they blew each other up. Which is how they'd found themselves under the guide of Torres, a no-nonsense woman that had no trouble treating high-profile people like Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. The man could remember when they'd first met, the woman merely giving him a brisk nod before threatening him with a slap to the face should he ever get fresh with her (a remark that had instantly filled the man with an air of respect for her and, just slightly, a hint of arousal).

Of course, after SHIELD's fall, Torres had taken a leave of absence to return to Honduras now that she wasn't under Fury's thumb, leaving the Avengers under the hand of Helen Cho, who had apparently been a coworker of Torres's back in the day.

Tony hadn't thought much of it at the time. People came and left without a second thought from him. But now, he found himself immensely grateful that he'd kept Torres's number in his phone, and even more grateful that the woman had actually picked up.

She'd been skeptical when she'd first answered, declaring that her work was too important to be messing around with Avengers anymore. However, once Tony had brought up that this particular case involved a kid, she'd immediately piped down on her gripes. Tony might not have been close with her back in the day, but he'd figured out enough to know that child mutants were her soft-spot. Add in the fact that said child was Spider-Man, and she'd hung up after stating that she'd be on the next flight over.

He'd have to remember to increase the yearly donation he made to her charity organization in Honduras.

The thought had just finished crossing his mind when the door across the hall slid open and out stepped Torres. She turned back towards the door, smiling at something just out of sight. And from beside her stepped Peter, following in her trail as she stepped out into the hall.

Tony was instantly on his feet, dropping the magazine onto his chair before leaning towards the phone just a tad.

"Hey, Ross. I'll be right back. Hold down the fort for me, 'kay?"

"-going crazy with people blowing up store fronts and filling the streets with wild animals and stray refugees! That's the next step! The next point we're heading for!"

"Cool, thanks."

He strolled over, meeting the pair halfway as he sidestepped the woman and instantly zeroed in on the kid, resting his hands on his shoulders as he scanned him over.

"Hey! How was it? Are you alright?" He asked just a bit too overzealously, swallowing back a wince of embarrassment at the very not-Tony-Stark display of nerves. He could cry about his shattered ego later. Right now, he was too busy scanning his eyes back and forth over the kid, checking to make sure everything was still in place and the kid was in one, whole, solid piece.

Peter didn't seem to mind the man's ridiculous meddling as he shrugged and absentmindedly started to fiddle with the edges of his sleeves. "Yeah. It...it was fine," he murmured with a passing glance over at Torres. "I-I'm okay. Really."

And Tony would never admit it because his steadily crumbling image of flippant arrogance and grade-A douchebaggery that he'd spent years building into a fine wine of snobbery was already on the cusp of withering away whenever he so much as entered the same room as this goddamn kid, but the smile Peter sent his way made his chest ache with a warmth he couldn't put into words.

Nor would he ever.

He had a reputation to maintain, goddamn it.

Thankfully, before his resolve could crumble under the weight of his own bullshit, Torres stepped forward, effectively taking control of the conversation as she faced the man. "I have to say, Peter here was a model patient. My clients could take example from him. And I'm not just saying that because he didn't throw anything at my head."

She turned her attention away from the billionaire and quickly zeroed in on the boy. She seemed to hesitate for a moment before bending her knees slightly so that her eyeline matched that of the kid in front of her. "It was a pleasure to work with you, honey," she said softly, her usually sharp, powerful voice dwindling into a soft hum of noise.

Peter's nervous little smile remained, accompanied by a stronger tug on the hem of his sleeve. "Y-you too."

"So, if it's alright with you, I would very much love to become your physician. We could see each other whenever you wanted, if you're feeling sick, or maybe if you need another check-up every once in a while just to make sure everything's still ticking properly." She tilted her head, ponytail swishing around her neck. "Do you think that's something we can work out?"

Tony shifted uncomfortably at the question. He'd planned on bringing it up later when he and Peter were alone, banking on the comfort of familiar privacy swaying the kid to agree. If Peter was feeling any sort of lingering nerves from before, then the teeming anxiety might bribe him into agreeing just for the sake of trying to appease everyone, regardless of his own insecurities.

So when the kid's eyes lifted and met his gaze, Tony couldn't do much other than give a silent gesture that he hoped conveyed just how much the decision was Peter's and Peter's alone. The kid needed a doctor, that much was obvious. But it would be a doctor Peter agreed to on his own terms.

The kid at least deserved that, right?

However, once Peter's eyes drifted away from Tony's encouraging gaze, he watched the teen turn towards Torres and give her a small smile. It wasn't a placating plastered-on grin that Tony had seen before whenever the kid interacted with people he was more or less forced to be around. It was genuine, reminding him of the smiles the kid used to give him back when they'd first met. Apprehensive and nervous, but real. Hopeful.

"Yeah. I...I think I'd like that," he said softly, flicking his eyes back towards Tony one last time before again meeting Torres.

Tony heard her give a soft hum of joy, rising back up as she smiled. "Maravillosa." She took a moment to lean forward, cupping a hand to her mouth as she angled towards the kid. "That means wonderful," she whispered with a teasing glint in her normally professional eyes.

Peter leaned forward a bit as well and mirrored the cupped hand to his own mouth. "I know," he whispered back. "I'm in Spanish II."

Torres's smile grew, as did Peter's. The kid took that moment to lift his hand and Tony finally noticed for the first time that Peter was holding something: a crudely-made crochet bracelet that he was now extending out to Torres. The woman stared down at it for a moment before letting out a little amused hum. She shook her head. "Keep it. Consider it my thanks for giving me a chance."

Peter blinked at her, obviously surprised at her answer. But he didn't argue, simply ducked his head and gave a shy little nod before tucking his hand away, bracelet clutched tightly. Tony decided not to ask.

The teen took that moment to sneak his way back over towards the billionaire. Torres's eyes followed him before drifting up and landing on Tony. And the knowing glint of seriousness he saw reflecting back at him instantly made him stiffen. They had a lot to talk about, he was sure. And the sudden dread he felt squirming around in his stomach only made him tighten his grip on the kid's shoulder.

"Right. Listen, bud." He spun the teen to face him. "I'm gonna chat with the doc about some stuff for a sec, kay?"

Peter stared up at him for a moment, big brown eyes scouring over the man's face before he cocked his head to the side. "What kind of stuff?" he asked lightly, though Tony knew him well enough to see the hints of apprehension in his gaze, not to mention how stiff his shoulder suddenly got underneath Tony's fingers.

"You know, boring adult shit. Sorting our tax returns, discussing pension plans, arranging new curtain deliveries from Crate and Barrel."

Torres perked. "Ooo, you know what? I need some new decorative salt shakers for my collection."

"Gross," Peter grinned, making a face at the sheer mention of home shopping. Tony smiled as well, but he could see the light of humor quickly fade from the boy's expression, the teen hitting him with a pointed look that said he wasn't distracted that easily and Tony should know better.

And he did.

So with that, the man guided the teen further down the hall, sparing them a few more meters of privacy away from the doctor. "Why don't you wait for me down in the study, huh? I'll be there soon."

Peter, obviously done with the charade, now did little to mask the worry that quickly made itself known on his face. And Tony couldn't say he blamed him.

They both knew what came next.

They both knew the discussion that was coming.

And they both knew how unpleasant it was going to be.

"Just...don't lose your head...okay?" Peter said softly, eyes gleaming with a heaviness that seemed to thicken the very air around them, prickling overtop Tony's skin in a wash of chills. They both remembered. That day in the med-bay, shifting a broken nose back into place, cleaning a bloodied and bruised face. They both remembered the sheer emotion Tony had been unable to control seeing what he saw, the effect it had had on him. Peter was worried. Peter was worried about a repeat performance. Peter was worried about him.

Tony couldn't have that.

So, he cocked his hips and gave the kid an offended look. "I'm Tony Stark. I always lose my head. My specialty is knowing how to screw it back on again, usually after I've blown up a building or two."

The kid paled a bit. Tony quickly continued.

"But I'll practice some restraint. A lesser known specialty of mine."

"Seriously?"

"Yeah. Why do you think my Mark 1 suit wasn't a diamond-studded flying Lamborghini? Restraint is the only reason I'm not on the cover of TMZ magazine every other week. They'll have to settle for every other month."

There it was. There was that smile again. Peter couldn't keep it off, cheeks dimpling as he grinned and shook his head at the man's antics. Tony could still see a film of hesitance lingering over the boy's eyes, but he could also see the sheer restraint Peter himself was practicing in not saying anything else. The kid was choosing to believe in him. Choosing to believe his words, albeit with an extra fidget to his hands and a new jitteriness to his movements.

Tony would take it.

Progress was progress.

Still, he couldn't resist the urge to lean just a bit closer as he smiled. "It's gonna be okay." And, with an exaggerated motion of checking behind him to make sure the coast was clear (which also successfully garnered another chortle from the boy), Tony raised his hand and extended out his thumb and pinky finger in their usual shaka gesture. Peter's smile widened as he leaned closer as well, looping his own pinkie around the man's and pressing their thumbs and knuckles together into a make-shift fist bump.

Secret handshakes. Were they lame?

Most definitely.

Would he ever leave Peter hanging?

Abso-fucking-lutely not.

So with that, the teen craned his neck a bit to peek out from around Tony, catching the doctor's eye one last time. "Bye, Dr. Torres. It was nice to meet you," he said quietly but with no shortage of that proper politeness he always seemed ready to dish out.

And Torres, no more immune to its effects than anyone else that came into contact with the kid's infectious smile, returned the grin with a little wave. "Nice to meet you too, Peter."

Tony slowly made his way back over towards Torres as they both watched the boy's retreating form. And the moment the elevator doors closed and separated them from the radiant aura of the kid's warming personality, the air around them instantly seemed to drop to frigid temperatures.

"Alright, Stark. Let's get down to business," Torres said as she whipped around immediately, the previous softness of her features now replaced with the familiar rigid jawline and professional gaze he was more accustomed to seeing. She reached up and tightened the knot of her ponytail. "And we have a lot to talk about."

"Fun. But one second."

With that, Torres followed behind him as Tony made his way back over towards the chairs and sofas of the waiting room. There, the tinny voice of a raging Senator could be heard bouncing off the walls, radiating out of the tiny little phone sitting innocently on the chair he'd previously occupied.

"We're talking massive casualties in the thousands! Cities burned! Lives ruined! Inaction is the bane of this country and I won't stand to see you drag it down with your incessant need to wallow in self-destruction!"

Torres cocked a brow and pursed her lips as she watched Tony stride over and pluck up the phone. "Why do you have him on speakerphone?"

"I don't."

He cleared his throat. "Hey Ross? Yeah, all super great points. In fact, why don't we continue this discussion right now?"

"Don't think your flippantness goes unnoticed, Stark! You're not as sly as you like to believe. But I'm tired of your shenanigans, have been since day one. It's time someone held you accountable."

"Oh yeah. Ms. Potts's line is available if you wanna ring her for tips on that. Hey, FRI? Open the windows." He pulled the phone a little ways away as he craned to view the ground floor lot from the slowly opening windows. "We're above the back lot, right? It's usually empty this time of day."

"You've had your fun. Now it's time to get serious and if I have to be looming over your shoulder pushing you to that finish line, then you damn well better get used to the sound of my voice!"

"I'll set it as my ringtone immediately, sir. In fact, why don't you tell me a little more about what you're planning on this Rogues front. Go into long excruciating detail, if you would be so kind."

"I don't appreciate your tone, but I'll gladly start spelling out exactly what your role in this is going to be. First off-!"

Tony sniffed as he casually tossed the still-screaming phone through the window, Ross's voice slowly fading into obscurity as it fall out of sight.

"Ah, lost him. Reception up here is pretty shitty." Without so much as a passing blink, he reached into his jacket and pulled out another phone of strikingly similar appearance. He tapped a few keys before filing it away into his pocket and turning to face the doctor, who had watched the entire scene with nothing more than an impassive glance.

"Lead the way, doc."

 


 

Something Tony had learned about self-restraint over the years - first when he'd donned the suit, later with Steve and Siberia, and most recently with the introduction of Peter and Richard Parker - was that it always seemed most important in the moments when it was sorely unwanted. The rational part of your brain may understand the benefits of keeping a level head, of thinking through the next steps before actually walking forward. But the gnawing in your gut says otherwise, an obsessive need to fulfill the urges within.

Even if you know deep down in your bones that self-control is a must to understand the nuisances and details of an otherwise messy story, the need to satiate those urges, to punish a brutal betrayal, can drive you into the throes of a raw, bloody brawl in the middle of an abandoned winter bunker.

Tony was familiar with this rationale. Was even more familiar with ignoring it for favor of these urges.

And after meeting Peter Parker, he had become even more familiar with the consequences that could follow a lifetime pattern of acting before thinking (consequences that seemed just a bit more substantial - and much more blatant - than the burner phone he'd stored somewhere in the back of his office drawer.)

Tony knew there was a difference in how he handled Peter Parker's life and how he handled his own. When he made said irrational and self-indulgent decisions, more often than not, he was making them with the assumption that any consequences would fall on him and him alone (if even that; money makes for one hell of a magic eraser.) But that was not the case for Peter. He knew the kid was in a delicate situation, a balancing act that Tony could very well throw into free-fall should he make the wrong move, should he act the way he had been for the past couple decades.

Just like with that first press conference after Stane's reveal, just like with Siberia, just like now, his lack of self-restraint always seemed to come back to haunt him, ghosts of a pivotal lack of control on his part. And it had taken a shamefully long time for Tony to realize that his decisions did not just touch his own life, but the lives of those around him as well. Would Rhodey have had to relearn how to walk again if he'd just stuck to the cards in front of those cameras? Would Steve be here to give some sorely needed advice in more words than could fit in a Fed-Ex envelope? Would his friends have better lives if he'd just learned for once to keep his mouth shut?

Tony would never know. Nor would he ever be able to stop wondering about these questions in the middle of the night, sitting alone in a Tower that was once bustling with life.

But it was with these questions in the back of his mind that Tony had called Torres in the first place. Peter Parker's involvement in his life had already strengthened his restraint (case in point, the fact that Richard Parker was still alive and not floating in the Hudson with a five-inch hole in his sternum and a bullet between his eyes), and Tony knew that eventually he'd have to open his eyes and face the full extent of what he was dealing with.

Torres could show him that extent, whether he liked it or not.

And despite the fact that Tony still worried about the tug-of-war game that was constantly dueling in his stomach, a match between the raw emotional urges and his more reasonable ideals, said urges were usually held at bay by one single, solitary thought:

This isn't about me.

It wasn't a particularly complex thought, but it was heavy. Heavy enough to ground him in even his more fiery moments.

And it was with this thought that Tony stupidly assumed he'd be able to handle whatever Torres threw at him.

He was wrong.

 


 

"How much do you know about healing factors?" Torres asked after nearly ten minutes of strict silence had passed between them, the lights from the projected images bathing the biolab in eerie washes of cold blue light.

Tony blinked, the only sign that he'd truly registered her words. He didn't respond. Didn't do much of anything aside from gaze up at the pictures.

Torres didn't concern herself with his silence, pushing on regardless. She strode closer to the center console and gestured up at the various x-rays and close-up shots of Peter's torso, arms and back: images she'd been able to collect during his examination as she'd previously explained to Tony before he'd gone radio silent.

"I counted 18 individual breaks, all of which have left little evidence of their existence save for the faint scar lines you can see here along the bones. These include five separate tibia fractures, three spiral fractures of both the ulna and radius, a snapped clavicle, seven individually cracked ribs, ripped ligatures between the pelvic girdle and femur bones suggesting frequent leg and hip dislocations, and two missing molars in the back of the jaw. Also, various healed burn scars centered around the shoulders and forearms, numerous deep-tissue incisions along the back, chest and arms, and even some minor spinal lacerations, commonly seen in victims of severe head-on collisions. Not as common in eight-year-old children."

"He's fourteen," Tony heard himself mumble, as if it were the only thing his brain was able to process.

But Torres, instead of backtracking, merely turned and fixed him with a hard stare, her glasses catching the light of the projections behind her, dark black frames glinting a harsh bluish-white. "No, Stark." Her voice rumbled, gravely and deep. "He's eight. Or at least, he was eight when he got these injuries. Maybe even younger."

Tony blinked again, felt the air in his lungs warming, burning up against the sides of his throat. He breathed, imagined smoke billowing from his nostrils, twin streams of thick black ash filling the room. He turned his gaze to her. She raised a brow.

"All that time you spent with the super-friends, I figured you'd have picked up something on mutant abilities."

"Spare me the jib and just explain the fucking thing."

She pursed her lips, lifting a hand to push her glasses further up the bridge of her nose. "Contrary to popular belief, healing factors are not a reverse button, Stark. They heal. They do not undo."

"Well, what the hell is the difference?"

Torres took a breath, long and deep, before folding her arms and leaning up against the center console. She almost seemed to hesitate for a moment, taking the tense second of silence between them to consider her words carefully. Though, when she finally did speak, her tone held nothing but cold professional terseness.

"It's called the One-Way Effect. It's a common phenomenon you see in individuals with superb healing abilities. It explains how a healing factor essentially picks and chooses which injuries to heal and which to ignore."

She turned her head, working a few of the keys on the console before a new image appeared, a video this time. It showed Peter sitting on the medical bed, Torres herself sitting in front of him. She pricked his finger, a drop of blood pooling on the surface of his skin, which she quickly collected in a sampler. The video then zoomed, focusing on the wound on his finger, the skin around it literally seeming to ripple and shift as it morphed along the prick and began to grow back overtop the injury, leaving a swathe of clean, unmarked skin with not even so much as a scab.

"Healing factors are essentially a biological vacuum cleaner, the metaphorical dust being any injuries a mutant receives. Healing factors recognize said injuries and work to sweep it up, to leave the body clean and untouched." She gestured above her at the now-paused video. "But many mutants aren't born with their powers. They develop over time, usually when they're children. And that stretch of time before their powers emerge is very important. Because before their powers awaken, their healing abilities are the same as yours or mine: slow and methodical. Effective, but time-consuming. Average. And their bodies adapt just like ours, with bruises and scars and scabs. And when their powers emerge, when their healing factors activate, any new injuries they get will heal overnight, sometimes within the hour, or even the minute as you just saw. But those old injuries? They remain."

Again, the paused video zoomed, this time focusing in on the palm of Peter's hand. And while his finger now showed a patch of unmarked skin, Tony noticed a faint discoloration near the base of his palm: burn scars, old and faded. Scars that had not been healed.

Torres shifted against the console, fingers tensing against her arms. "Healing factors cannot work in reserve. They cannot heal injuries that were already present before his powers ever emerged. Only those that came after. It's only a one-way direction. And Peter said his powers first developed when he was eight, correct?"

Tony didn't nod. Didn't need to.

"Which means...this is what his body looked like when he was eight years old. This is the state he was in by the time his powers first emerged," Torres said with a glance over her shoulder at the images still staining the air. "His powers didn't heal these wounds. They never will. But that also means any injuries he got after his powers emerged-"

"...are missing." Tony's mouth was ash-dry now, desert sand coating his tongue.

"There's about six years of injuries that are unaccounted for here, hidden behind his healing factor."

Tony sucked on the inside of his cheek, teeth gnawing on the gums as he took a small step forward, eyes darting back and forth across the numerous projections, the countless details that had been photographed and blown up to dizzying proportions.

Pictures of a bare torso so small it seemed like a skeleton of twigs and branches had been wrapped in rice paper, each bump and groove of a breathing ribcage sticking out like gouges in the earth, including chicken-scratch marks littered across the surface, too numerous to count.

A pale back with sickly visible spinal column and protruding scapula wings, complete with a host of deeper claw-like scars stretching from one shoulder down to the hip, disturbingly similar to recognizable whip marks.

Forearm shots revealing skin so translucent that each vein could be counted one by one were it not for the thick, raised portions of burned patchy skin that stretched from wrist to bicep, including dotted cigarette burns freckled across the stretch.

Fingernails chewed to the nub, callouses on the palms, burns on the heels of feet, even a few missing teeth near the back of the jaw, replaced with fillings and caps.

"But, believe it or not, this doesn't seem to be the worst part."

Tony swallowed, air and saliva mingling into a harsh choking noise as he let out a wet scoff, thick and uneasy. "Are we looking at the same things here? How in holy hell can this not be the worst of it?"

Torres strode past him, grabbing at the clipboard she'd previously set aside when they'd entered. "Healing factors have their limits, and in this case, I'd say they reached those limits years ago." Her fingers flicked past the pages, lifting up some while skipping others altogether. She stopped on one particular paper.

"Peter weighs exactly 74 pounds and stands at only 5 feet. Not only does that put him nearly 50 pounds below the average but also four inches shorter than a boy his age should be reaching. So, not only is he incredibly small for his age, but he's also displaying signs of severe malnutrition, the extent of which still remains unclear, but according to these blood results, I could probably hazard a guess."

Turning back towards the console, a new set of projections appeared, this time showing various blood test markers. Torres gestured to them as she spoke. "Prealbumin levels, serum albumin, creatinine, transferrin, RBP, serum cholesterol, growth hormone, leptin, zinc, and Nesfatin-1. All showed seriously low levels, conclusive with prolonged malnutrition and starvation. Now, serum albumin is the best marker for long-term malnutrition given its half-life status. And judging from these levels..." she took a breath, tightening her lips for a moment. "This has been going on for years. Long enough for his body to begin adapting to these deficient levels."

"Adapting...I, adapt- what do you mean adapting?"

"He's still out there fighting crime with glucose levels that would usually knock down a fully-grown adult. He's walking around, talking, going to school, all with these markers indicating that his body is in a constant compromised state. If these calculations are correct, his internal systems have been working on fumes for years now and it's adapted. He's adapted."

Another glance down at the clipboard. Another flip of the papers. "Normally, the body will turn to fat stores to get the energy it's missing. But as obvious by his weight chart, Peter has barely an ounce of fat on him."

"Well, ten minutes ago, you just walked me through how the kid can realistically bench-press a semi-truck without even breaking a sweat. How have his muscles not atrophied by now?"

"You constantly seem to forget, Stark."

Tony furrowed his brows. Torres raised hers.

"Peter is not like you. He's not like me. He is a mutant and as such, his body can handle things you and I can only dream of."

He watched in silence as she again turned back to the console, setting down the clipboard and readying her hands against the keys. "Peter's healing factor is basically on a continuous non-stop stream of replenishing his nutrients and glucose levels. His metabolism is already remarkably fast, which makes his lack of food even more dangerous. However, there have been cases where mutants with a specific strain of healing gene combined with a serious lack of proper sustenance have actually produced a new hormone to counteract the strain on their bodies."

Again, a new projection appeared on the console, what appeared to be the molecular structure of some unknown hormone.

"It's called Ditroglucatrin. It works to suspend the patient's digestive and absorption processes to stretch across periods of no food. Their metabolisms might be fast, but this hormone works to slow the time it takes before the body begins to require more energy by binding to the glucose molecules that enter and increasing the energy outputs that a single molecule can supply. In sum, it allows what little food they do eat to go a longer way, almost enhancing the nutrients they receive to fill the gaps that inevitably follow. It doesn't relieve the hunger pains, but it prevents full body shut down. Of course, it has its limits and it's certainly no replacement for proper sustenance, but it does explain how Peter's body retains a semi-functional internal structure while also displaying dizzying feats of external power."

She sniffed, fingers tapping thoughtfully against the side of her cheek. "Still, there's no doubt that the lack of constant nutrition has interfered with his adolescent growth, hence why he's so small for his age. He simply isn't eating enough."

She finally stopped, finally fell silent, leaving her words and the images behind her to fill the air with a toxic stream of tension and weight. And if she turned her gaze on Tony, perhaps to show her expectations of continued conversation, he didn't notice.

He didn't notice any of it, really, just tightened the grip he had on his wrist, trying to focus on something other than the churning he could feel in his stomach that threatened to make an appearance on the floor of the lab, skin vibrating with a flushing heat of rage and nausea that he tried to swallow down.

He'd prepared.

He'd expected this.

But still...

Not even his imaginings came close to the reality of it all.

He shut his eyes and tried to take a deep breath, tried to fill his lungs despite the crushing force he could feel pressing down on his chest, the tightening vice wrapping around his ribs, snaking up his throat and scratching against his ears. Whispering and snarling and cooing one single thought.

One single, solitary thought, warm and relieving and all too enticing.

(Time to kill Richard Parker.)

And suddenly it was all he could think, all he could hear, the only sound he could make out in the deafening static beginning to fill his head. All at once, he felt his body beginning to move, felt himself making for the door, the calls for a suit already on the tip of his tongue. Which would get the job done fastest? Mark 13? Maybe 22? Something quick, but not too quick. This needed to be painful.

"Tony?"

He stopped, body almost vibrating at the force of will it took to keep still. He gritted his teeth, felt that telltale acidic aftertaste of bile coating his throat. Torres was still here. The world had not shrunken down to include just him and Richard and Peter and the suits that would shrink that number to two. She was still here. Still expecting answers. Answers he wasn't sure he could give. Answers that wouldn't matter once he finished doing what had to be done. Because this had to be done. Had to be. What else was there to do? What else could he do? His legs started to move.

("Just...don't lose your head...okay?")

Only to stop once more.

And just as suddenly as the wave of rage had taken him, Tony felt something else strike him with similar breathtaking force. And it took him a moment, a moment in which he felt his throat thicken and his eyes beginning to sting that he finally realized his rage had suddenly and shockingly turned to tears. The feeling was so foreign and so unexpected that Tony almost laughed. The number of times he'd cried in front of people, let alone people he didn't known with embarrassing familiarity, was low enough to count on two fingers. And the desire to raise that count wasn't strong enough to keep him from blinking them away. But the blackness they left coating his chest remained. The grip on his heart remained.

Because the sheer tension holding him up, the unfairness of it all - the grip these two voices had on him: one pleading for calm while the other roared for fury and vengeance - was so strong and so polarizing that Tony thought he might actually collapse. His hands, shaking with so much emotion that he couldn't keep them still, slid into his pockets, fingers catching onto something cold.

And all at once, the world went quiet.

Tony breathed, a hitching, distorted lump of air that slid down his throat. Slowly, he lifted his hand and came face to face with himself.

The gold coin was polished so perfectly that it reflected the room around it, including the worn features and trembling face of Tony himself, staring down at the etched grooves and perfect edges of an antique he'd given the kid weeks ago. An antique Peter must have slipped into his pocket out in the hall.

Peter...

Peter.

("Everything's going to be fine...because I'm going to make sure of it.")

This was about Peter.

Not him. Not Richard. Not satiating whatever bloodlust was thrashing against the bars of his self-restraint. He clenched his eyes and forced himself to take a breath. Forced himself to swallow the vitriol and fury that continued to flare just behind his clenched teeth, a wild animal flinging itself against its cage.

This was about Peter.

This was all about Peter.

And this one thought drowned out the others, made the static haze of rage that had been clouding his mind dissipate into calm. There would be time for rage. Later.

He glanced down, tightened his hold on the coin, and turned back around.

Surprisingly, Torres made no signs that she'd noticed the internal war Tony had just gone through, simply folding her arms over her chest as he finally acknowledged her.

And judging by the look on her face, this war was far from over.

"How long have you known about this?" she finally said in a tone that was strikingly difficult to decipher.

He held her gaze for a second before lowering his head. Taking one last moment to ensure the cap on his emotions was screwed on tight enough to keep from having a breakdown in the next few seconds, Tony made his way over to one of the chairs near the side wall. He pulled it close with the toe of his shoe and plopped down before muttering, "four months."

"And he knows you know?"

"Otherwise he wouldn't be letting you tell me all this."

Torres took a breath, wetting her lips for a moment before she straightened up and placed her hands on her hips, jaw tightening as she set a steely stare onto the man before her. "Alright, Stark. I need the full story here right now."

Tony sighed, didn't even try to match her attitude with his own. "I can only tell you if you swear not-"

"No. You're not listening to me. That was not a request." She stalked forward. "You will tell me everything you know about this right now because I've been a physician for both children and mutants for over thirty years and this is one of the worst cases of abuse I've ever seen and I need to know all the reasons why this wasn't the headline of every news station on the East Coast four months ago." She took a breath and lifted her chin, voice going deathly quiet. "So, either you tell me what you know or I walk out of here with this information at the ready. And you bet your ass I'll have no issue sharing this with the appropriate authorities."

Tony stared at her, held her gaze as it burned into him, her face stone-cold and serious. And despite the steadily thickening air, despite the aged look in her eyes that said she was one hundred percent serious about jeopardizing everything he'd been working towards for months now, despite the way his hands continued to shake as they rested against his legs, Tony couldn't help it.

He laughed.

He lifted a hand and pinched at his eyes, lips spreading into an almost manic grin as he chuckled, as his shoulders bounced and his head shook. And thinking back on it later, Tony would chalk the whole thing up as a symptom of the very real and very sudden mental break he'd been close to having, a snippet of instability, if you will. Every attempt he made at quieting down, another bubble of laughter would boil from his throat and he'd fall into another fit of chuckling mirth. And while a few ill-placed giggles was better than the inky-black despair he'd previously been choking on, neither were very appropriate.

A fact Torres was not afraid to make known.

"You think this is funny?" she said, words dripping with an intensity that was only matched by the piercing glare she was now laying on him, conveying nothing short of silent wrath.

Tony finally began to calm, chuckling to himself as he wiped at an eye and let out a deep sigh. He smiled, a hollow feature stretching across his face, giving a slow solemn shake of his head as he did so. "No..." he finally said.

"You just make it sound so simple."

 


 

Twenty minutes later found the biolab still and silent, Torres staring intensely at the floor while Tony sat with his arms folded in his seat, watching her closely, taking note of the expressions - or lack thereof - on her face and gauging her moves. He'd taken to rolling the coin in hand up and down along the top of his leg, a smooth steady back and forth motion against the tips of his fingers. If Torres noticed his new trinket, she didn't mention it. In fact, she hadn't said much of anything since Tony had finished explaining everything minutes previous.

And maybe it was just lingering traces of the emotion he'd barely been able to keep at bay; maybe it was the aftereffects of seeing those images in bright, bold clarity and realizing it would be a long time before he'd be able to sleep soundly without their presence in his head, or maybe it was a combination of the last few weeks and the stress he'd been juggling with surprising precision, but whatever the case, Tony could feel it.

He was nervous.

This wasn't like telling Pepper or Rhodey. They knew him better than anyone. Knew that his actions, while more often than not questionable and cause for objection, had reasons behind them. They trusted him, trusted his judgement with this case, trusted that he could handle it.

And while it certainly helped that his blatant transparency in keeping them up-to-date on the Parker case assuaged any fears they might have had by allowing them to keep a sharp eye on him, if only to make sure his claims of 'I'm handling it' were actually true, they were more or less letting him deal with Peter in his own way.

Torres was different.

She was an unbiased party. Pepper and Rhodey weren't exactly lining up to call the cops on him, despite some of his better efforts from the past. They knew his intentions were pure. Torres, however, didn't know anything aside from what she was seeing and what he was telling her. She hadn't witnessed the past four months. She hadn't seen Richard Parker and all his slime-toothed charms first-hand. She hadn't yet faced the enemy they were fighting against.

And despite the fact that they had history, Tony wasn't a hundred percent certain that that would be enough to persuade her. For all he knew, he was just giving her more information to feed to the cops, more insight to give to CPS. And if Peter found out that the reason for that new insight was because Tony had played his cards wrong and spilled info to the wrong person, he could forget about getting the kid out. He could forget about all of it. Peter would be gone.

So he sat. And he watched. Waited for her to finish digesting everything she'd heard, everything he'd said. Waited to see whether or not he'd get the payout he wanted from this gamble.

He thought of Peter. And rolled the coin again.

Finally, she wet her lips and straightened up in her chair, fixing him with a guarded stare. "And his father doesn't know about his powers?"

Tony held her gaze for a moment before giving a half-shrug. "Peter claims he doesn't. And I'm inclined to believe him. Knowing Parker, I doubt he'd be happy knowing about a supposed 'flaw' in his picture-perfect family."

"Who else knows? Ms. Potts, Colonel Rhodes, Mr. Hogan. Is that it?"

"He's got two friends from school. They're pretty close. They know a lot. Same with a family friend that lives in his neighborhood."

"And you're in contact with them?"

"Constantly." He sat up, bringing a hand to rub at his eyes. "Believe it or not, children aren't exactly my area of expertise, so I take advice from wherever I can get it, even if that now means my latest informants are high on pimple cream and energy drinks." He tightened his lips into a thin line. "But aside from them...he's pretty good at keeping secrets."

"Most mutants are."

He glanced up.

Torres was fiddling with the bracelets around her wrist, twisting her fingers against the threads interwoven in twined patterns, etching her nail against the grooves. Her eyes stared off at nothing in particular, but even so, Tony could make out the pensive gleam of concentration shining in her gaze, a thoughtfulness that left her face bare of any real outward expression.

He swallowed.

"Listen, Val. You cannot tell anyone about this. I know it goes against everything you stand for as a doctor, but you gotta trust me on this." He stood, Torres watching in silence as he began to pace, legs striding in time with his words. "Believe me, the first thing I wanted to do when I found out was call someone, anyone, anyone who would know how to handle this better than me. Cause in terms of my ranking on the list of people who are actually qualified to handle this, I place somewhere on the crumpled-up napkin that you'd haphazardly write my name on before thinking better of it, but..."

He stopped near the side of the room, curling his fingers before rapping his knuckle on the metal counter. "Richard's...smart. And he's covered his bases. The reason he let me get so close in the first place is cause he knows there's nothing I can do about it without coming across as a bitter business rival looking to stir up a scandal for clout's sake. His neighbor, May? She's a low-income waitress moonlighting as a charge nurse and definitely has something to gain going after a man with billions. His friends? Kids that nobody will take seriously, and even if they did, teens make up stuff all the time for a bit of internet fame."

He turned, fixing Torres with a glare that did nothing to convey the disgust beginning to work its way up his throat again. "Anybody who does have any insider information is in no position to share it. He's made sure of that. In fact, he probably already knows May and the kids are on to him and he just doesn't care. He doesn't have to care. Cause there's nothing they can do about it anyway."

He clenched his fingers, felt the coin pressing against his skin, against the scars on his palm. "But I can do something about it. I just need the time," he said, for once having no qualms about adding a hint of desperation to his voice. Pride be damned. There was no room for it now. "I need to make this as bulletproof as possible so that when he does come for me, there's nothing for him to shoot at."

Tony held her gaze, stared her straight in the eyes as he took a breath and tried to get his hand to stop shaking.

"I'm trying. I swear."

Torres held his stare right back. She said nothing, simply lifted her chin a bit as she seemed to inspect him up and down, the lenses of her glasses catching the lights above, masking them in stark white light that hid her eyes for just a second before she finally turned her head back down to the bracelets on her wrist. She fiddled with them again. Still, she said nothing.

Tony let out a sigh and found himself leaning up against the counter, bringing his free hand to rub at the back of his neck. His eyes caught the door and he found himself glancing over.

He wanted to go. He wanted to head out and check on Peter, grab the kid by the shoulders and feel the warmth of his living, breathing body under his palms. Because according to the past thirty minutes, according to the images he'd seen and the reports Torres had given, Peter's each and every breath was nothing short of a miracle, a mistake of biology that somehow led to his survival. And the inky rage he'd felt previously had morphed into something new, an anxiety bubbling in his stomach, urging him to go out and check on the kid, once, twice, fifty times. As many as needed to get that bubbling to stop.

And yet, there existed a different feeling within him as well. A certain hesitance that arose alongside his anxieties, two dueling impulses: one urging him to go out and check on the kid while the other pulled him back. And he knew it didn't come from a place of mystery. Because he knew in his gut that the second he saw Peter, he'd see those scars, imagine them under his sleeves, feel the rage that followed. And he had to find a way to be okay with the information he now knew. He had to find a way to keep that rage in check and under control lest he do or say something in front of Peter that they'd both regret. He had to have full control of himself. And in that moment, standing in the lab with the memory of those images still lingering in the corners of his eyes, Tony felt anything but controlled.

("Don't lose your head.")

But control was not a luxury he could afford to do away with anymore.

It was a responsibility.

. . .

. . .

. . .

"...I had a neighbor."

It took a second, a second for Tony to take one last deep breath, blinking open his eyes and wearily drifting his gaze over to Torres.

She was still staring off at nothing, back pressing into the rigid chair seat as her fingers fiddled with the bracelets around her wrist. He noticed her glasses had slipped further down the bridge of her nose. She made no efforts to push them back up.

"When I was a little girl, when I'd walk to school, before I'd ever even considered a job in health care and medicine and..." she paused, giving a vague gesture to the lab around her. "...all this. I had a neighbor. A little boy, maybe about four or five. I'd see him sitting on the front lawn playing in the dirt with these little things of thread, like...colored strings. Just...winding them around his fingers. Whenever I'd see him wandering around the village, he'd always have those little things of thread."

Her fingers scratched at a loose string on one bracelet. "Almost ever time I saw him, he'd have a black eye or a bloody nose. His mother was the village drunk, and everybody knew it. But nobody said anything about it. Every time they'd see the two of them walking down the street, that woman tugging on his hair or slapping him across the face, everyone would just turn away, would just duck their heads and say 'mind your own business. He's probably been a bad boy, anyway.' I asked my own mother about it once. She just said, 'No nuestro caballo. No nuestra mierda.'"

With this, she finally turned her head and fixed Tony with a stare. He noticed the desolate gleam in her eyes, darkened by the wry, barren smile tugging at the corners of her lips. She shrugged. "Not our horse. Not our shit."

Tony swallowed, felt it slip down the sand-paper coating of his throat.

She turned away. "One day, I come home from school and...he's not there. His strings are on the lawn, sitting in the dirt like they're waiting for him. But no boy."

She hesitated for a moment, glancing down at the tips of her fingers before slowly reaching up to push the bridge of her glasses further up her face. She sniffed, pursing her lips with a cold stare. "Come to find out his mother had smashed his head in with one of her beer bottles."

Tony turned away, wet scoff catching in his throat as he turned his gaze to a spot on the wall and tried to erase the mental image of Peter on the floor with a pool of blood underneath him. It took a few blinks before his eyes cleared of the sight.

"The whole village went to the funeral; women crying, men holding their hats. Like they were witnessing the tragedy for the first time and hadn't watched it play out day after day for years." Torres rested her arm on the lip of the chair back and tapped her fingers against her cheek. "My mother and I watched from our porch when the police finally came to get her. On her way out, her parting words? 'The worst part of all this was that I had to go and waste a perfectly good beer.'"

The sound of heels clacking on the floor alerted him to her movements, but Tony didn't pay her much mind. Just watched his fingers drum against the metal counter, felt the cold steel underneath his skin. The urge to go out and see the kid was growing stronger by the minute. But so was the rage. He decided to stay put.

"I was a pediatrician before all this," Torres said quietly as she approached the center console from before. She rested her hands on the surface.

"Before the mutants and the superheroes and the spectacle. Because I wanted to make a difference, I suppose. Help those children before they wound up on the wrong end of a bottle. Be somebody who was willing to turn and look at the problems instead of sticking my head into the sand and pretending that shit people don't do shit things, but...it was never enough."

She turned and, taking a page out of Tony's book, leaned up against the console, resting her palms against the surface as she stared at him.

"Tony...you don't know how many children I saw. How many of them came into my office looking like all the world was ready to crumble around them. How many of them stared at me with nothing behind those eyes, an emptiness I can still feel within me to this day. They were so...lost. And eventually, I stopped counting the number of reports I filed on cases of child abuse, molestation, neglect, what have you. You think social services are swamped here in the states? You have no idea what it's like back home."

She folded her arms and narrowed her eyes, face tightening with a frustration that held decades of tension, decades of disregard and disrespect. "Most times, my reports never even garnered a phone call, let alone a home visit. Nobody checked in on those children. Nobody looked. Nobody cared."

Tony glanced over, watched as she reached up to remove the glasses from her face to rub at her eyes, letting her words sink with a certain heaviness.

("I didn't think you'd care.")

His fingers curled.

"But you know what? Getting my reports disregarded and my exams ignored? That, somehow, wasn't the worst part." She stared down at her glasses, pinched the eye pieces between her fingers. "Every once in a while, despite my workloads and how...frowned upon...it was, I'd make a home visit myself. Go and check on these kids that no one else seemed to know even existed. Most often, I'd get a door slammed in my face and a couple curses spit my way. But my presence was always noticed: by neighbors, kids, bystanders. And every time, every time I made eye contact with one of them...I knew."

Her gaze hardened, a sharpness curling into the edges of her stare. The tips of her fingers began to whiten with how tightly she was pinching her glasses. "I could see it in their eyes. I knew they knew. They knew what went on behind those doors. They knew why I was there. And they still did nothing. So many people who could stop it, so many people who could help these children, sound the alarm and step in. So much...indifference."

With that, she lifted her hands and placed the glasses back on her face, pushing them up the bridge of her nose as she walked over to Tony, stopping in front of him as she set a cold hard glare onto her face. Tony stood as well, meeting her stare head-on as she spoke, her voice hard as flint, her eyes icy hot with resentment.

"Indifference is what hurt those children, what killed that boy in my village. Indifference was the bane of my entire career. And when I saw Peter, when I saw that look in his eyes, that same look I saw in so many of those children who were begging me for help...I'll admit. I was ready to tear you apart. Because I knew you knew. And I was not about to let someone else's apathy hurt any more children."

Tony held his breath and braced to be bombarded with a mass of insults as to everything he was doing wrong. Everything he'd screwed up and mangled in a situation that required utmost delicacy. Everything he could be doing better, every reason why he was not fit to play this part. And how could he counter it when she'd most likely be right on the money? He wasn't fit to handle this. He was just the guy who'd stumbled onto the mess. And was that a good enough reason?

"But then I saw how he looked at you. And I saw how you looked at him."

Tony blinked, watched as Torres gave a little nod of her head, lips tightening into a thin line. "Children who've suffered from situations like this, prolonged abuse going back years...it changes them. Their first thoughts are distrust and suspicion, their first instincts are to run and hide or fight back and bite. Either way, their mindsets are the same: they expect the worst, in life and in people." She lifted her head, voice low. "They do not trust easily." "

Tony couldn't help but let out a little scoff, glancing away as he shook his head and pinched at the bridge of his nose. "Yeah, tell me about it."

Torres, however, sidestepped around him and placed herself back into his central line of sight, face hard-set with a newfound look of determination. "But," she said sharply. "that also means that the trust they do instill in a person...is their entire world. It means...everything to them, because more often than not, it's all they have."

He lowered his hand, staring back into the earnest gleam flickering in her gaze.

"They cling. They cling with all their might because the thought of losing that, of losing that one figure of trust and comfort...is earth-shattering."

She stepped forward, pressing a finger into Tony's chest. He stared at her, lips parted as she spoke, eyes wide and focused.

"He's attached himself to you, Tony. Do you understand that? That isn't something that would come easily. That takes work. Months, sometimes even years of it." She tilted her head. "I know you're trying. I saw the evidence myself."

Torres took a step back, folding her arms over her chest as she let a loose little smile fall onto her face. "And maybe we weren't as close as we could have been all those years ago, but I know Tony Stark doesn't waste his time on things he doesn't think are important." Her expression softened, head tilting a bit. "And I know he's not a monster, certainly not one who would willingly leave a child to suffer without doing anything about it."

Tony said nothing, simply let out a breath as he lowered his gaze, thinking back to all the time he'd spent on Peter, all the time he'd invested with this kid, dedicated to a boy that, a year ago, he hadn't even known existed. His eyes drifted back over to the newly deactivated console table, the blown-up projections of scars and burns still seemingly hanging over him, hovering before his eyes like a carving in the walls.

A year ago...

How many injuries had Peter gotten because Tony wasn't there?

Because nobody was willing to be?

"You care about this boy...don't you?"

He didn't even hesitate, didn't think. Just nodded.

He did care.

He cared a lot.

And surprisingly, the thought didn't scare him as much as it would have four months ago.

"Hmm...well, looks like I have my work cut out for me."

Tony jolted at the words, turning back towards Torres as she walked across the room towards the stack of files she'd previously been rummaging through. "Do you have a folder on evidence of mistreatment?"

Tony furrowed his brow, watching as she began to collect the files and slip them under her arm. "Uh...yeah?"

"Good. FRIDAY? Pending your boss's approval, which, if he knows what's good for him, he'll green light with no problems, add the pictures I collected today to the evidence file he's creating. We're going to have to stockpile a pretty insurmountable horde of clear-cut evidence if we want to stand a chance against Richard Parker," she muttered under her breath, striding across the room like Tony - shell shocked and flabbergasted - wasn't even there anymore. "Bastards like him usually have lawyers on speed-dial so it certainly won't be easy and-"

"Whoa, whoa!"

She turned, brow raised. "What?"

Tony scoffed a bit in disbelief, arms crossing over his chest. "I...you're really...okay with this? You're not going to report it?" he asked with more than a bit of apprehension in his voice.

Torres straightened a bit, lifting her head as her professional aura returned full-force. "No. I'm not. If," she snapped, all but jabbing a finger under Tony's chin. "if you tell me exactly what your plan is to help this boy. I've seen how these things work. I've seen the system fail these children time and time again, only stepping in when it's already too late. And I've seen how people look at Richard Parker. They'll sooner let Peter fall through the cracks than admit they were wrong about that scumbag."

She stared at him, face tightening into a sure-fire wall of strength and resolve. "My patients are my top priority, Tony. And Peter is now my patient. I will not take his safety lightly. And I will not compromise on his security. If I feel you are not prioritizing his safety, I will take matters into my own hands, whether you like it or not. So if you want my silence, then you clue me in. You keep me involved and you let me help," she finished with a strict glare.

Tony didn't hesitate in his nod. "Already done. I'll send the files I've already gathered on Parker."

"Good." She glanced down at her watch, shifting the files under her arm a bit. "Damn. I have an appointment in Manhattan soon."

"I'll have one of my drivers take you anywhere you need to go."

She nodded at this and made towards the door, Tony following at her side. "How long are you going to be in the city?"

"Well...something tells me I'm going to have to work out a temporary long-distance plan for my clinic back home."

"I can have a choice of apartments for you to look at first thing tomorrow morning."

"I should hope so. There have to be some perks to knowing a billionaire."

She grimaced at her watch one last time before shaking her hand. "But we'll discuss this more later."

He nodded, giving a relieved shake of his head. "Right." She started to move off, only for Tony to take a step forward and lightly grab onto her wrist. She stopped and glanced back at him. "Val, I..." he swallowed, trying to process the success he'd somehow managed to pull off and put it into words of gratitude, a skill he'd still yet to completely master. "Thank you...f-for-"

"Don't." She pulled her hand out of his grasp and placed it instead on his shoulder, lips quirking into a smile, warm and genuine. "Don't thank me just for doing my job. Just make sure you do yours."

With that, she turned away, the door sliding open with a hiss. She made it through halfway before pausing, resting her hand against the frame as she turned back around. She hesitated for a moment, staring back at Tony as she seemed to consider what to say. She lowered her gaze.

"I took his strings."

At Tony's confused stare, she continued.

"My neighbor's. They were just sitting there in the dirt after the funeral." She rolled up her sleeve and revealed the bracelets once more, fingers tracing against the oldest looking one, the colors so faded and worn it almost looked brown. "I made them into a bracelet, wore it throughout my entire college career, during my residency, all of it."

Her lips drew into a thin line. "The patients I treated long-term...they always noticed it. And sometimes, I'd get a new one, a new gift of appreciation," she smiled, running her fingers along all of them, evidence of her past life, of her work before him and the Avengers and the craziness they brought with them, work that Tony was beginning to realize seemed much more important as he stared at those bracelets.

"I always wear them..." she said with a small smile. "...every time I see a new patient. I always have them with me. If only to let them know...that there's somebody out there thinking of them."

She held his gaze for a moment, took one last steadying breath - which Tony noticed wavered at the end - and narrowed her eyes. "You keep thinking about this boy, Tony. You understand me?"

She waited just long enough to see him nod before turning and striding out the door.

 


 

Thursday - June 9, 2016

Stark Tower - Main Study

02:13 PM

The Tower's main study was, unsurprisingly, beautiful beyond all compare.

Vaulted cream ceilings and elegant crown moldings; lavish wooden staircases that wound up to a second and third story, filling the room with the thick scent of aged books and warm, curling wood; deep, crimson curtains hanging from the arching windows, draping against the wood floors with the elegance of full ballroom gowns; the ceiling-high bookcases filled with old leather-bound novels and weathered texts; even a grand piano standing regally between the twin staircases, catching glints of the sun drenching in through the glass.

Peter barely registered any of it.

("They're nothing to be ashamed of.")

He scratched at his wrist and resisted the urge to spare the entryway another glance. The muffled and muddied garblings of conversation he'd been listening to for over an hour now had suddenly stopped moments earlier, letting him on to the fact that Mr. Stark had most likely wrapped up his dealings with the doctor. What state the man would be in when he arrived was a different matter, a much less certain one at that.

His knee started to bounce against the wooden floors below, falling in tune with the distant tickings of the grandfather clock on the second-floor balcony. The noise made his fingers twitch, made his palm begin to burn, a phantom longing for the cold steel of his father's pocketwatch. Something to hold. Something to feel against his skin. Something stable.

But he remained silent and still as he sat by the back windows, head down and eyes locked on his interwoven hands. And the longer he waited, with each minute that passed where Mr. Stark did not arrive, Peter could feel a cloying stickiness gathering in his chest, coating overtop his lungs in a constricting, vice-like grip. It was an all-too familiar feeling, a flushing heat rising overtop his cheeks and neck that left him swallowing dry spit.

("Peter...look at this! This is- Jesus. These are burn scars. Did he burn you, that rat bastard?!")

("Ben. Ben, honey, stop it. You're scaring him.")

("I'M scaring HIM? May, look at this! Look at these marks, they're all over the place. Peter, take off your shirt. Take it off right now!")

("Stop yelling at him!")

("There's more. There's more of these fucking things. Oh my god. Oh my GOD!")

("Benjamin, you stop this right now. You're- damn it. Peter, honey, don't cry. It's alright. Oh, no sweetie, it's okay. It's okay... don't cry, baby.")

("Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, May. What has he done? What has he done to him?")

The memory faded, replaced instead with the feel of a cold metal table underneath his fingers, Mr. Stark cleaning the blood from his face with a damp washcloth, watching the man's eyes widen and his breathing hitch as he'd caught sight, a glimpse, barely a peek of what lay underneath the teen's shirt.

And the anger. The furyThat he remembered in excruciating detail.

How would the man react to high-def pictures?

He scratched again. Didn't dare roll up his sleeve. Instead, he shut his eyes and tried to take his mind off of the prickling ache he could feel shooting up and down his skin, suddenly very aware of each and every blemish, every burn, every scar. His skin felt tight, uncomfortable, like it wasn't his, like it was being stretched over his bones. He wished it was. He wished it was a suit, as easy to peel off as Spider-Man's mask, discarded and tossed aside to reveal clean, untouched skin.

Because then he wouldn't have to see Mr. Stark's face twist the same way Ben's had. The same way May's had. The same way everybody's did whenever they caught a flash of his uncovered wrist or a bare portion of his shoulder. Because then the great big ball of red-hot shame boiling in his stomach wouldn't be threatening to crawl up his throat and splatter all over the polished wooden floor alongside chunks of that morning's breakfast.

("They're nothing to be ashamed of...")

He swallowed it down. And watched Mr. Stark finally amble into the doorway.

The man walked slowly and without the sure-footed purposeful stride he usually equipped, shuffling into view looking very much like a soldier returned from battle, haggard and drained, shoulders sagging with an unseen weight, eyes shining with a haunting glare. Peter knew the look well.

Mr. Stark scanned the study, brows furrowing for just a second until his gaze finally landed on Peter sitting quietly by the arching windows. And the look that flashed across the man's face - the sudden, instinctive way his body stiffened and his eyes sharpened made Peter's fingers dig into the fabric of his jeans. It was such a little thing, such an unnoticeable twitch that it was gone within a second, but it still made Peter grit his teeth and turn away as his cheeks burned.

("Pathetic boy.")

He scratched again.

Peter heard him swallow, heard him shift his weight back and forth from foot to foot and the soft scratching of his fingernails rubbing against his cheek. After a second, the man moved forward once more, angling for the closest seat he could find, which happened to be the piano bench in the center of the room. And despite the obvious exhaustion pulling at his muscles, Peter thought he noticed a certain deliberateness in the man's movements. He stepped carefully and cautiously, like he was trying to make as little noise as possible. And when he went to sit, he moved with a noticeable hesitance, as if slowing his actions would somehow buy him more time to come up with something to say. Peter couldn't tell if he'd imagined it or not.

Nevertheless, the boy continued to fiddle with his sleeve, fingering at the lip of cloth as he stared down at the sleek wooden flooring below his feet. The grandfather clock - signaling the quarter hour - began to chime, filling the otherwise silent room with something besides the growing tensions mounting with each second.

He could hear the man's heartbeat, heard the subtle quickened skips that slowly fell in tune with the tickings, the ringings, the echoings bouncing around him. He felt his own heart beginning to ache from the strain.

"So..." Mr. Stark said slowly, the word drawn out long and thick like a piece of chewing gum stretched between two hands. "We need to talk about something important."

("I can't even LOOK at him, May.")

The heat increased tenfold, burning his neck and ears, so much so that he imagined himself to be as bright as a tomato. But he simply bit his lip and gave a silent little nod, eyes locked on the floor like his life depended on it. He couldn't watch the man's face twist in disgust. So instead, he held his breath and braced himself, fingers digging into his knees, shoulders stiffening-

"How much should we charge for tickers to an MMA-style brawl between you and the Hulk?"

He paused.

Blinked.

What?

Peter glanced over.

Mr. Stark, now leaning back in his seat with a sudden wave of casualness, folded a leg overtop the other and pressed a hand to his chin. "Actually, that might lean a bit too heavily on city-wide destruction, and if I'm not mistaken, we're actually trying to tone down on that. I don't know, the guy that would usually be yelling at me about it is currently being swept up by the gardening staff in the courtyard. Maybe we could bring it down to arm-wrestling. That's still violent enough for people, right? So how bout it? Twenty bucks per ticket? Maybe more?" He sniffed and glanced down at his cuticles. "Now that I have medical proof that you're somehow stronger than an eighteen-wheeler doing eighty on the interstate, we might as well put it to good use and I've always wanted to see someone avenge me for that loss I suffered in 2013. Extra-strength suit with reinforced bicep guards and that Big, Green Asshole still beat me in half a second. Ridiculous. Anyway, I would recommend throwing in the Star Spangled Pain in my Ass, but he's currently not taking my calls nor am I feeling too inclined to start making friendlies with the chart-toppers of the FBIs Most Wanted List, so we'll have to settle."

More blinking. More blank stares. Mr. Stark turned to meet his gaze. And as the man's face broke out into its usual teasing smirk, Peter felt himself take a breath, a tentative, careful inhale. His eyes scanned the man's face, his features, his posture.

("I can't do this, May. I can't...look at that boy. I-it's too much.")

Mr. Stark was staring right at him. Him. Not at what he imagined to be underneath his sleeves. Not shifting uncomfortably in his seat as he averted his gaze and looked anywhere but at him. His posture was genuine. His heartbeat had evened. And he was smiling.

Peter felt his fingers relax, felt his grip slacken as the previous tension carefully began to retract its claws, slinking back into the shadows as his body released the iron-clad strings that had been holding his muscles in rigor. He wet his lips and let his shoulders drop, trying to ignore the slight shiver of relief that trembled down his arms.

"Did you really arm wrestle with the Hulk?" he asked softly as he rose up to his feet.

"If you can even call it that. Like I said, half a second. You better last at least two."

The teen finally felt his lips quirk into a hint of a smile as he made his way over, Mr. Stark sliding to the side as the teen plopped down on the bench next to him. The man - seeming to take the move as an invitation - lifted a hand and wrapped his arm around the teen's shoulders. Peter felt the telltale prickle of nerves shoot up his spine at the touch, the same tingling he'd felt in the examination room. But this time, as the prickling slowly faded, he didn't pull away, didn't fight it. He leaned in.

For a moment, they sat in silence, relishing in the air of calm that had finally settled against the whirlwind of tensions they could both still feel within. They made no mentions of it - simply sat and stared at the view before them. He shut his eyes and breathed, listening to the silent inhales and exhales of the man beside him, letting the rhythm calm his nerves to a simmering heat.

"I feel I should ask..."

Carefully inhaling a breath, Peter noticed Tony's head tilting from the corner of his eye and instantly knew where his gaze had fallen. He didn't turn, though. Didn't try to hide his arms behind his back despite the overwhelming urge to do just that. He swallowed and kept his eyes on the glow of the window.

"Do you understand why your...your scars...why they're ..." Tony trailed off. Meaningless, really. A single glance between them filled the blanks his voice had left untouched.

("Peter...oh, god. Oh, God.")

Ben hadn't been able to fill the blanks either. Peter remembered that. His skin did too if the way it began to prickle was any indication.

He still couldn't blame him. To this day, Peter couldn't bring himself to feel any anger. Not for Ben. Ben, and his slow, soft-spoken manner of conversation, his quips and inside jokes reserved for only his innermost circles, his calloused and roughened hands that hid the gentlest of touches. Hands that could never do harm. Hands that couldn't even fathom it.

Mr. Stark took a breath.

"Do you understand why you still have those scars?"

...Mr. Stark could fathom it.

"The One-Way Effect," Peter said softly, watching the man's gaze scour his face carefully. "I've had a lot of time to do my own research, Mr. Stark. I know all about it. It's pretty interesting actually. Less so when you see it up close, huh?" His attempt at levity was met with stony silence. Peter turned his attention back down to his fingers, tried to focus on the warm weight of the man's hand on his shoulder. Grounding. Steady.

"Are you angry?"

This time, Tony didn't respond at all.

"It's okay. You're allowed to be angry." Peter slipped his fingers into his sleeve and felt the tips of his nails scratch at his inner wrist. Gentle. Searching. "I...probably should have warned you. About what you were going to...see. I just, uh...it's just that..." He felt his throat twitch, felt it constrict and tighten. His nail dug a little deeper.

Mr. Stark must have noticed his pause, for the hand on his shoulder suddenly gave a little squeeze. "I'm not angry at you. You know that, right?"

And Peter did know that. He could have sworn he did. Maybe?

"I should have told you sooner. I would have told you sooner. I just...I can't, um...I-I..." It was strange. A familiar feeling of hesitance lodged in his throat, the pitter-pattered stutterings he thought he'd rid himself of months ago. He narrowed his eyes, felt his fingers curl tighter into his skin. He wasn't doing this again. Wasn't going back to choking on his words with every other sentence. "I c-c...I... just don't...um...d-d-don't-"

"Hey."

He lifted his head, let his eyes meet Tony's gaze.

"Breathe."

He inhaled, felt the burning of his lungs dissipate in a whirl of air he hadn't known he'd needed. He felt the man's thumb resting against his collarbone, felt it press down gently. "Take your time, Peter. It's okay."

The teen swallowed, letting his eyes rest against the man's gaze as he took another breath, felt his fingers retracting around his wrist, muscles uncoiling, toes uncurling. The knot in his throat slowly sank back down into his stomach, where it sat with a heavy thud. When he finally found his tongue again, the words were slow. Spoken softly and with careful precision.

"I just...don't know how to talk about it. I...don't think I can."

Peter lowered his head as he felt his cheeks beginning to heat again. Unable to resist any longer, the teen ducked his arms away and out of sight as he wrapped them around his midsection. Mr. Stark didn't seem to mind this, though, as he leaned closer and gave another reassuring squeeze of the boy's shoulder. He waited a moment before speaking again.

"That's alright, Peter. No, hey. Yes it is," he said a bit more forcefully as Peter shook his head. "I know this is hard. Don't rush yourself. Just because I saw those pictures doesn't mean anything is going to change. And it doesn't mean I'm going to start demanding answers from you. Besides, I...more or less...already have a pretty good idea of how you got them."

Peter pursed his lips but said nothing.

"Regardless, when you're ready to talk about them...if you ever are...I'll be here, alright? I'll listen."

It took a moment for the words to garner any sort of reaction, but after a few seconds, Peter finally gave a little nod of confirmation. He wasn't entirely sure how he felt about the prospects of that future conversation, but the realization that said conversation wasn't happening right then and there was enough to get his shoulder sagging in relief.

He noticed a similar release in the man beside him, Tony leaning back in his seat as he let out a little sigh. It made Peter's lips quirk a bit - the fact that Mr. Stark seemed to be just as awkward and nervous as him when it came to said topics. The realization was...comforting, in a sense.

"Oh, by the way..."

Mr. Stark reached into his pocket and pulled out-

"I hope you weren't expecting to get away with this."

He flicked the coin into the air and Peter floundered to catch it what with his cheeks burning red again. "I-I-I don't know what you're talking about!" He sputtered as he fought to get a grip on the trinket bouncing between his hands. He snatched it out of the air before it could hit the ground and spared the man a peek. Mr. Stark's face was unabashedly smug, brow raised questioningly.

"I must have just...dropped it," he mumbled lamely as he felt the metal heating in his now-sweating palms.

"Uh-huh. Subtlety is not your strongest suit either, Mr. Parker."

Peter averted his gaze and stared hard at the coin in his palm, catching a glimpse of himself in the metal's polished reflection. He traced the tip of a finger against the rim, running it over the indented grooves and etched markings of each side. "Did it...help?"

He lifted his head and met the man's gaze once more. Mr. Stark seemed to hesitate for a moment before he smiled. It wasn't the teasing smirk from before, but instead a small, weary look, highlighted by the wrinkles that appeared on his cheeks. Nevertheless, seeing the man's nod, Peter couldn't help but give his own little smile back, especially as the man gave a pat of his shoulder and pulled him in a bit closer.

"Thanks, kid. And...not just for that."

Seeing the man gesture to the coin, Peter furrowed his brows and cocked his head. "For what then?"

"For taking a chance."

Peter's look of confusion remained, though he did straighten in his seat a bit. Tony rubbed at his neck before continuing.

"I talked to Torres. She agreed to keep everything confidential as long as we keep her in the loop," he started, confirming what Peter had already suspected. Mr. Stark wasn't a fan of beating around the bush. If he'd had bad news, he would have led with it.

"But you didn't know that when we went in. Honestly...neither did I. You had nothing to go on with Torres. Just my word that she wasn't a reporter in disguise looking for her next superpowered meal ticket. And I had the balls to ask you to reveal to her - a literal stranger - one of your most well-guarded secrets with nothing but my assurances that it was safe to do so." He leaned in a bit, narrowing his eyes in earnest. "You didn't have to go through with it. But you did. I like to think that's not a decision you made lightly."

Peter stared at him, blinked a bit as his words settled in his mind.

In all honesty, with the stress and anxiety of meeting Torres followed by the worries about Mr. Stark's reaction to his scars, Peter hadn't truly taken the time to digest the reality of what had happened - what he himself had agreed to do. Months ago, he never would have dreamed of revealing his secret no matter who asked him to. His friends, his aunt, his family. None of them knew. None of them could know. His secret was too important. Too dangerous. And yet Mr. Stark was right. He'd revealed his identity to a complete stranger! All because...!

Because...

Peter lifted his gaze. Stared at Tony.

"I was scared," he heard himself say, voice quiet and shaky. "But...you said you wouldn't let anything bad happen. I...I wanted to believe that."

And he had. Somehow, against all odds, he had.

Tony blinked, holding the teen's gaze with a seriousness to his eyes that left little room for humor or levity as he tightened his grip on Peter's shoulder. "If there's anything you can believe...it's that."

And sitting there, staring back into the man's surefire gaze, listening to the absolute determination setting his words like stone and the warm, steady grip of his hand against his shoulder, Peter suddenly became aware of each and every detail bursting before him with excruciating precision: the bright glints of sunlight slanting in through the glass, bathing the room in a golden glow that washed across the wood floors and illuminated their faces in daylight shine; the warmth of the hand on his shoulder and the feel of another human pressing against his side; the strong steady beating of the man's heartbeat echoing in his ears, all of it culminating into a single, solitary moment of time, a moment in which Peter suddenly felt the need to shut his eyes and inhale, to sink into the seconds, to try and absorb the feeling, the comfort, the warmth. Try to grab hold of anything and everything he could feel in that moment; the cushioned bench under his hands, the weight on his shoulder, the sun on his cheeks - grab it and immortalize it in memory, hold it within his aching chest. Because suspended in that second of time, Peter felt a ripple of warmth settle in his chest, bursting out from his heart and dissipating into faded waves of water, overwhelming and unending.

He only took a breath again when he felt the sudden need to blink back tears.

Because in that moment, that fraction of a second, that blip of time too easy to miss...there was nothing and nobody he trusted more than Tony Stark.

 

. . .

 

Of course, Peter being Peter, that moment ended with the grace of a bony elbow bashing into the keys of a grand piano.

The teen yelped and fell to the floor in a mess of limbs at the sudden crunch of notes. Tony, after his own little startled jump, stared at the kid in shock before cracking a grin and letting loose a loud scoff. With that, the moment was gone and the billionaire swung his legs underneath the piano to face the keys. If he'd noticed the previous look in Peter's eyes, he didn't mention it. Instead, he cracked his knuckles and spared the kid a glance over his shoulder. "You play?"

Peter, hand to his heart as he tried to catch his breath, gave a little shake of his head as he pushed himself up. "Uh...n-no. I'm probably tone deaf anyway. If I'm remembering her correctly, I'm pretty sure my mom was like, the worst when it came to holding a tune. So she probably didn't have much to pass down."

Tony pressed his fingers against the keys and played a chord as he stretched his hand. "You can hear a pin drop from two miles away. I'm sure you can figure out pitch." He gestured for the kid to sit again. "Come on, if my mother was able to teach me, then that means anyone can learn, even bugs."

"Spiders are arachnids, Mr. Stark. We cannot go over this again."

"Sit your bony ass down, Parker."

 


 

Saturday - June 11, 2016

Queens NY - Prachya Thai, 57th Street

12:02 PM

An elbow banged against the restaurant window, making Peter jump in his seat and drop his fork of noodles. Ned turned in his chair and pressed his face against the glass, trying to catch a glimpse of the group of kids that had just run by. Even through the ratty windows, their cries of laughter could be heard loud and clear. Peter watched them race past the glass, dollars fisted in their hands and candy spilling from their pockets, before disappearing around a corner.

Summer had swept into the neighborhood like an afternoon storm, filling the streets with the unmistakable aura of levity and laughter. Up and down the streets, children ran along sidewalks and through gushing fire hydrants, the roads a perpetual mess of dancing kids and watery puddles. Chalk drawings were sprouting on sidewalks, roadways, buildings; street vendors were popping up on every corner, peddling crystal necklaces, wool scarves, fancy rings and anything else that could pass as 'authentic'. And teens, unencumbered by any busy spring schedules, loitered outside apartment steps, cigarettes pinched between their grinning teeth and jeering faces.

Peter imagined Danny among these teens with a captain's helmet on the top of his head, rallying the troops, readying to march on the local convenience stores with a vendetta at heart and mischief on the mind. He couldn't help but huff in amusement at the mere thought of it.

He was pulled from these thoughts when he felt the dull end of a fork jab against his cheek. He turned towards Michelle, watching as she pulled her fork back and stabbed at her tofu pad thai. "You didn't answer my question, Parker?"

"Which was?"

"Stark. Who's his main?"

"He likes Samus."

"Seriously?"

"It's the armor. Says it's like looking in a sexy mirror."

"Gross."

"Yeah. But, believe it or not, he's actually pretty good. Apparently, he likes to play Smash when he's taking phone calls from the Secretary of State. We even had a little tournament last night with Happy and Rhodey, winner takes the pot of pantry snacks."

"And? How'd you do, dude?"

Wordlessly, Peter reached into his backpack and pulled out two bags of Cheetos, tossing them onto the table. He rolled his eyes. "Please."

They'd spent the morning roaming through the neighborhood, no set destinations in mind and a few crumpled bills stuffed in their pockets. After stopping by Delmar's and chatting up a few friendly faces, they'd ended up at their regular hangout: the Thai restaurant down the block run by Ms. Li and her sons. The former - a short older lady with leathery wrinkles and wispy strands of white hair, stood near the corner of the dining area, broom in hand and eyes sharp for any signs of mischief or tomfoolery. Her sons stood sweating over the grills, pans in one hand and fly swatters in the other, swiping at the air every few seconds.

Michelle rested her elbow on the table and brushed back a strand of curly brown hair. "So, it's been - what? About three weeks now?"

Peter, mouth stuffed with noodles, quirked a brow.

"Since your 'relocation?'"

"Oh." He swallowed, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand. "Uh, yeah. Just about."

"And? How's it been?"

He shrugged, using his fork to sift through his plate, soy sauce pooling near the bottom. He stabbed at a piece of broccoli. "Well, the sleep's pretty terrible. Mr. Stark and I will work well into the morning if Pepper doesn't catch us. And his cooking isn't getting much better. It actually might be getting worse now that I think about it. He burned the cereal this morning which was definitely impressive but not-"

"Peter."

He glanced up, noticed Ned had set his fork down and was staring at him in earnest. Michelle's brows were furrowed, face pulled into a hard frown. Both obviously unfazed by his attempts.

They'd kept in constant contact over the past three weeks, Ned and Michelle either texting him nonstop throughout the day or ending their nights with three-way face calls curled in bed with the lights down and the covers pulled overtop their heads. And despite the inane, random conversations they had and the lighthearted atmosphere they created when they had midnight arguments over which neighborhood restaurants had the best onion rings, Peter knew their intentions. Could see them plain as day. What he couldn't do was blame them. Not really. Nor should he have been surprised that on their first real hang-out day since Peter's move to Stark Tower, their first instincts were to question how he was and if he was okay (or at least, better than he had been.)

Peter glanced down, tapping the end of the fork against his glass of Sprite, condensation dripping onto the metal tip. For the past few days, he and Mr. Stark had been spending hours in the lab, working on the prototypes for the latest Iron Man suit models, calculating the nanospacing dimensions, 3D printing buffer panels, breaking their backs falling asleep at their workbenches or crashing on the couch in the back of the lab. In fact, Mr. Stark was the one who suggested Peter go out with his friends, his exact words being something like 'keeping a minor in a closed-off sterile lab feels creepily similar to some horror movie plotlines, so you should probably go stretch your legs before you start turning into a Goldblum-esque man-fly."

"What?"

"God, you're so uncultured it hurts. FRIDAY. Calendar. Movie night - 80s edition. Don't tell Happy which movie. He hates horror and I love watching him squirm at the gory parts."

Or something along those lines.

He drummed his fingers against the side of the table, vaguely noting that his friends were still staring patiently at him, seemingly waiting for a response. He lifted his head, curls brushing against his forehead. "It's good." He swallowed, chewing on his bottom lip for a second before realizing it was to keep from breaking out into a face-splitting grin. "It's...it's really good, actually."

The grin won out. His friends didn't seem to mind.

Honestly, neither did he.

It was early afternoon, the sun just beginning to arch past its peak, when the trio finally left the restaurant and began to make their way back down the street. Only then did the high from Peter's joy begin to dim, allowing him to see clearly the one niggling blind spot on his otherwise sunny week. Michelle noticed it first, as she always did. The slight frown on his face as they made their way back towards the neighborhood center. She didn't ask until they stopped at a crosswalk, eyes on the light.

"It's my dad."

Instantly the mood shifted. A darkening that wafted over all of them.

"Did he contact you?"

"No. That's just it. I haven't heard anything from him. We've never gone more than a couple days without at least checking in on each other and it's been three weeks now with nothing." The light flickered. Peter sighed and led the way across the street, glancing over his shoulder as he did. "I'm starting to get worried."

Ned shook his head, twisting his face with an unfazed shrug. The movement seemed stiff. "I'm sure he's just busy, man. He's in Shanghai, right?"

"Tokyo."

"Well, he's probably in the middle of a business deal or something."

Peter exhaled, glancing down at his shoes as they walked. He sidestepped a pair of girls and their hopscotch chalk lines. "Maybe he's mad at me."

He heard a sigh. "Pete-"

"Maybe I did something wrong." He whirled around to face them, seamlessly transitioning into a backwards gait. "I've texted him a bunch of times but I never get a reply. Maybe I said something I wasn't supposed to and he's angry at me. Maybe that's why he hasn't responded."

Ned and Michelle did not respond. They did, however, share exasperated looks with each other. Peter pursed his lips.

"Here." He reached into his pocket and shoved his phone into Ned's chest, the boy floundering to grab it. "Why don't you read through the texts and see if anything I said looks wrong or out of place. There's a couple days worth in there so you're going to have to scroll a bit. I-"

DANGER.

Peter froze, halting in place then and there on the sidewalk, body jolting with a sickening lurch of nerves that shot up his neck. His stomach flipped. His mouth went dry. And his ears began to ring. Pinpoint. Precise. Listening. He barely registered his friends nearly tripping over themselves to keep from crashing into him. His eyes were on the roads. The sidewalk. The building windows.

Where?

"Ugg, Peter. Come on, man. You're overthinking again. I'll look if you want me to, but I'm not going to find anything. Your dad's just - whoa. That's a lot of texts..."

There were people. All over the place. Walking their dogs along the sidewalks, browsing the knick-knacks at the vendor stalls, hailing taxis near the corner. Peter swallowed. Breathed. Listened.

Ned was still talking behind him, rambling something or other as he scrolled through the phone. Peter could hear his fingers tapping against the screen, the slight scraping of his skin sliding across the glass. Michelle was beside him. Breathing. Silent. The faint clicking of her eyelids blinking up and down.

Beyond. Beyond them.

The jangling of the dog collar across the street, scrapes from his pads running across the concrete ground. The ticking of the wrist-watches splayed overtop a vendor table, disjointed and tinny - fake. Rusted. The sound of the seller grinding his teeth together, spitting a wad of dip onto the floor. The splat. The squelch.

The jingling...

Another twitch, another shot of nerves. Peter whipped his head around towards the source and came face to face with a pair of dark green eyes.

Familiar eyes.

The girl was sitting on a rusted bench outside the pawn shop, legs spread and arms dangling between them as she rested her elbows on her knees. Her skin was dark, black hair tied up into twin braids that draped down her back and brushed against her stomach, the tips dyed a dark red. She reached an arm up, hand bandaged like a boxer, and pinched the cigarette in her mouth between two fingers, pulling it out before blowing a stream of long gray smoke from her lips. Her other arm, littered with tattoos that wound up her shoulder, reached for her chest. With a finger, she gently flicked her necklace: three bullets tied together by a piece of tattered black string. It jingled.

He hadn't noticed it two weeks ago...the first time he'd seen her.

If Johanna had issue with the fact that he was now staring at her, she made no moves to show it. She merely twisted the cigarette between her fingers, tapped out a bit of ash, and popped it back into her mouth.

Danny had mentioned she was good for a smoke. Hadn't mentioned much else about her. Peter was starting to regret not asking. Maybe if he had, it would explain why one of Danny's homeless 'friends' was now staring at him from across the street, making his neck tingle like a live cable was being snaked up his spine.

"Peter?"

He heard Ned calling him. Felt him nudge his shoulder. Johanna flicked her necklace again, the noise tickling the insides of Peter's ears, scratching at the back of his neck like claws scraping his skin. His fingers started to twitch, eyes narrowing as he held her stare. She wasn't even trying to hide it. Why was she watching him? Why had she been watching him before up on that rooftop with Danny two weeks ago? Was it coincidence? Then why wouldn't his head stop ringing? Why was his heart pounding all of a sudden?

She smirked.

He swallowed.

And suddenly someone was yanking him down the street.

"Gah!" He felt his feet fumbling over each other, fists clenching before his eyes adjusted and he realized Michelle - death grips on his and Ned's wrists - was now pulling them along. "MJ! What are you doing?" Ned asked before Peter could, the two of them trying to get their feet to catch up with the rest of their bodies as she all but dragged them around a corner.

The girl didn't respond, just kept pulling them along in a hurried pace, grip tight and sweaty. Peter, brain finally catching up with the movements of his body, whipped his head around towards where Johanna had been sitting, only to realize she'd vanished. He could barely process the unsettling clench of his stomach before Michelle was shoving them into an alleyway, the two boys sputtering in shock as she pulled them towards the pile of dumpsters and garbage.

"MJ. MJ - Michelle. What are you doing?"

"I think we're being followed."

Peter's face twisted in shock and his eyes instinctively glanced back over to where the girl from before had been sitting, only to yelp as MJ shoved both him and a flabbergasted Ned behind the nearest dumpster. She crouched beside them as well and rested her hand against the side of the greasy metal, peeking her head out to peer at the entranceway of the alley.

Peter and Ned shared baffled glances with each other before hesitantly peeking their own heads out as well.

"What do you mean we're being followed?" Ned whispered as he shifted his feet against the dirt.

"I mean exactly that. Now quiet."

Peter furrowed his brows, pressing his shoulder against the metal dumpster as he trained his eyes on the alleyway entrance. Was she talking about Johanna? Had MJ noticed her too? Had she really been following them all day and Peter hadn't noticed? Then why hadn't his senses gone off earlier? Or better question:

Why weren't they going off anymore?

Before he could consider it, all three teens simultaneously tensed as a figure appeared at the mouth of the alley. Peter narrowed his eyes and felt his fingers tighten against the metal.

They were wearing a dark black hoodie pulled over their head, masking the details of their face in shadow. But Peter could still make out the smooth cheeks and lanky stature of a teenager. He relaxed his grip on the dumpster just a tad. They stopped by the entrance, turning their head a few times as if unsure of their next steps before slowly venturing into the alley.

"It's a kid." Peter heard himself say. Michelle exhaled sharply from her nose in response as they watched the figure begin to move in deeper. Ned shifted against him, shooting him a half-confused, half-excited glance. Peter frowned in response.

The teen kept walking, eventually passing the dumpster they were hiding behind as they came up to the brick wall closing off the path. They stopped, casting a few wary glances at their surrounding before pulling a phone from their pocket. Peter's ears perked as he heard the teen mutter a whispered curse. A boy. Slight southern accent. Obviously not a local.

Peter tilted his head, about to ask Michelle where she'd seen him, only to realize she was no longer crouched beside him.

"Hey!"

Everyone whipped around towards Michelle who was now standing beside the dumpster with her arms folded and her face pulled down into a nasty scowl. "Why are you following us?"

The teen stared at her. Stared at them. Ned and Peter awkwardly stumbled to their feet.

"How did you know?" Peter murmured, shuffling over to her as the random kid slowly slipped his phone back into his pocket.

"I spotted him at Delmar's this morning. Then again at the Thai place. He left when we did." She pursed her lips, eyes narrowing. "And he's been tailing us ever since." With that, she took a few more steps forward, Peter and Ned hastily trailing after her, the former with his hand outstretched, ready to pull her back should she get too close.

"Who are you? What do you want? A picture?"

Peter scrunched his face. "A picture? Picture of what?"

"Oh, come on! That Parker Stark story is old news," Ned - catching up with the plot - finally chimed in, seeming to absorb some of Michelle's indignant energy. "Get lost and find a new tabloid story to gawk over and leave him alone, okay? How long are you bloggers going to keep harassing him?"

Peter turned back to the stranger. Was that what he wanted? Am exclusive on the Stark conference? Peter hadn't heard anything about it in weeks and Pepper had assured him that the media fire was nothing but whispers now. Everyone had all but moved on to the next big scandal. So why-?

"What is this, your little bodyguard squad?" The kid folded his arms and took on a more relaxed pose. "That's actually adorable. I love it."

"I...what?"

"Anyway, I'm not actually here for a picture. Although this back alley dumpster would make for a great backdrop. Actually, let me just..." The kid pulled his phone out again and before any of them could speak, he suddenly had Peter by his side, phone in the air, camera flash making them all blink stars from their eyes.

"Memento, you know? Tony's never going to believe we met like this. Hilarious."

Peter shoved him away, biting down on the tingling that crawled up his skin at being touched by a stranger. It distracted him enough that it took a few seconds for him to process what the boy had said. "Tony? Wait...M-Mr. Stark?" he glanced back at his friends who, just like him, were now completely lost.

The kid reached up and yanked the hood from his head. "Geez, you guys are formal. He better not expect me to start with that bullshit."

The boy was tall, taller than Peter. Probably around Danny's height with long surfer-blond hair that reached his shoulders, and a mess of freckles overtop his rounded nose and tan cheeks. His eyes, bluish-green, blinked down at him with a look of mischievous curiosity like a kid alone in a toy store, left to his own devices and destructions.

And yet...

Peter focused, zeroed in on the noise, the whispers, the sounds. And he found a heartbeat. New. Unfamiliar. Earnest.

For some reason, the hairs on the back of his neck stayed flat. His skin did not jolt with waves of electricity. And his heart did not sit like a stone in his chest, heavy and dreadful. Johanna might have set his nerves on edge. But, strangely enough, this kid did not.

Peter spared his friends one last searching look before he finally turned back to the boy. He straightened his shoulders, swallowing the uncertainty rising in the back of his throat at confronting a stranger in an alleyway.

"...Who are you?"

If the boy noticed Peter's trepidations, he didn't show it. Instead, he scoffed and waved a dismissive hand in the air. The mannerisms were strikingly familiar. "Right. Introductions. I'm great at those. Check this out."

He cleared his throat and grabbed onto Peter's wrist once more. The teen went to protest, only to find himself being forced into a handshake, arm limply swinging up and down.

"Nice to meet you, Peter Parker. My name's Harley. Harley Keener. Two e's, one ny and not 'ie'. I'd remember it if I were you. You're going to be saying it a lot from here on out."