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Let's Whump the Spider-Kid and Friends!

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Really, Peter’s had better days.

Like the day he saved Dr. Pipp’s cat from the window ledge, and the doctor had filled his pockets with the reception’s secret supply of candy. Or when he scored the last question in the decathlon finals with only a second left on the clock. Or when Tony had let him repair the Spider-Man suit solo for the first time, then clapped on the back with, “Great job, kid. You’re a natural.”

Yeah. All of those were good days.

This is not a good day. Peter missed his alarm. He forgot the homework assignment that had taken him well over two weeks to finish. And it was raining, because when Parker Luck strikes, it strikes hard. Peter hasn’t had the heart yet to tell May that his school shoes are worn down so thoroughly that rainwater leaks through in seconds. On rainy days he makes a wet trail and accompanying squelching noises down the school corridor which Flash used to never miss an opportunity to point out, as loudly as he possibly can, until one day MJ socked hard in the stomach.

It’s not raining now. It’s actually a beautiful day out. As far as silver linings go, it’s a pretty crappy one, considering that Peter is currently stretched out on his stomach along the roof of a building that's towering over an empty construction site, metal bands he can’t break pinning him in place. Whoever has left him like this has his arms out in front of him, rather than pinned to his side, but a band hugging his shoulders means he can’t lift or move them beyond flexing his wrists and wiggling his fingers.

In the palm of each hand is the knotted end of a length of barbed wire, which is currently stretched out to wrap around Tony Stark’s wrists.

Tony had come to consciousness later than Peter had, Peter burning through whatever drug that had been used to knock them out faster. He can’t have been out that long though, he’s still soaked from the rain, and he’s been awake long enough to assess the situation. To see exactly what’s coming.

Tony’s not on the roof. Tony is laid out on a platform overhanging the roof, bound down exactly like Peter is. The barbed wire starts at his wrists and wraps all the way up to his elbows. It hadn’t been cutting him when he’d been unconscious, but since his mentor’s been awake he’s been struggling to find a way out, which has only succeeded in making the wire start to dig into his skin.

“Mr. Stark,” Peter protests after Tony sheds first blood. “That’s not helping.”

“You got something else we can try, kid?”

“Not yet.” Peter’s tried everything he can think of, but they’re both locked down tight. Neither of them are going anywhere. He's tried calling for help with not so much as a bird flying by for an answer.

Every few seconds, Peter's eyes are drawn to the hinges of the platform Tony’s tied to. He can see where his restraints will retract, can see the long drop into the construction site below. Can see exactly where this is going if they don’t get out of this soon.

Tony must catch Peter’s dejected tone, because he stops struggling for a moment to look at him. “Hey. Eyes here.” He waits until Peter looks at him before he continues. “We’re going to be fine. We’re going to get out of this and then it’s going to be an awesome story to share with the crew later. I know you’ve been wanting to one-up Wilson and Barnes for ages, yeah? Well, here’s your chance.”

Peter swallows, shivering. The sky above him is bright after that morning’s rainstorm, but he’s soaked through enough that, as bright as the sun looks, the meager rays are doing nothing to dry him off. He tries for a deep breath, focusing on the smell of rain and the faint scent of the second cologne Pepper had bought Tony for their anniversary. The first had been too strong for Peter’s enhanced senses to handle, as he was able to taste the chemicals underneath, so Pepper had taken Peter out shopping until they found one Peter could stomach. Then Pepper had bought one for Peter too, shushing all Peter’s protests about the price tag.

“Wouldn’t it be easier for Tony just not to wear anything scented?” Peter had pointed out. “This seems like a lot of work, just for me.”

Pepper had given him a knowing smile. “Alright, caught me. I may have some ulterior motives for this little shopping expedition.”

“Sinister ones?”

“Not this time. If I was craving ice cream, would you indulge me?”

They moved from the mall into the park next door, weaving in and out of joggers and cyclists and prams. “Ice cream is the ulterior motive?”

“One of them.” Pepper delicately catches a stray drip before it can run onto her fingers.

“And the other?”

“Maybe I just wanted to spend some time with you.”

“Oh.” Peter is taken aback. He had spent time with Pepper before, but always with Tony or in a group setting. “Why? Not that I don’t want to!” he hurries on. “This has been really fun.”

“I agree.” Pepper is quiet for a moment before she says, “You mean a lot to my husband.”

Peter flushes. “I -”

“That wasn’t a question.” Pepper finishes her cone, depositing the napkin in a nearby trashcan. “Does he mean a lot to you?”

“I mean, yeah,” Peter says, trying to keep up. “I…yeah. Of course he does.”

“Why?”

“Because…” How does Peter even sum it up? Germany, the Vulture, Titan, the final battle against Thanos. The Avengers had stayed scattered for some time after that, but this time it wasn’t due to infighting or a devastating defeat. Earth’s heroes had needed a break, and they sure as hell had deserved one - from fighting at the very least.

Which didn’t mean there wasn’t still work to do. After the returning of the Infinity Stones to their proper timelines, Steve had announced to the team that he was retiring in order to spend more time with Bucky and Sharon, and would be passing the shield onto Sam. Sam had respectfully turned it down, saying that the world needed repair more than people in costumes right now.

Displaced from their apartment, Peter and May had spent a gorgeous summer in Wakanda, with Peter becoming fast friends with Shuri almost right out the gate, only for them to become a trio when Cassie Lang had joined them too.

Peter and Shuri had been busy, firstly with helping Bruce Banner and Carol Danvers recover from their own Snaps, and then bringing Wanda over in order to resurrect Vision. Tony and Shuri had attempted it alone after the Snap, but Wanda’s powers had been the final ingredient they had needed to bring the android back online. Clint had come with her for emotional support, and had brought over Scott and Cassie too, as they were still easing the transition of Cassie’s guardianship. After the loss of his kids during the Snap, and after the surviving Avengers had located a newly orphaned Cassie, Clint hadn’t wasted a moment into stepping into Cassie’s life and raising her through her teenage years.

Then there had been a world to start rebuilding - people without homes, jobs, who had been separated from their families. Tony and Pepper had started building every foundation they could think of to get people back on their feet. But five years of damage didn’t vanish overnight, as seen with the rising of the Flagsmasher movement, and Sam decided that maybe Captain America - a real Captain America, and not a murderer disguised as a marketing ploy - was needed after all.

So they’d reassembled. Tony set up the Tower for them after the destruction of the Compound, and Peter couldn’t deny the thrill of being given his very own bedroom in the New (Old?) Avengers HQ. He now split his time between there and Queens, working alongside the Avengers as the world began to return to some sort of normal again, and the team solidified into a routine.

With the return of familiar faces, the team said goodbye to others as well. Thor announced he would be accompanying Rocket, Nebula and the rest of the Guardians into space to locate Gamora. During the time heist, Nebula and Rhodey had traveled to Vormir to seek the Soul Stone, with Nebula making the argument that it belonged to her as the closest person in her life had already been sacrificed for it. As Steve had since returned the Soul Stone and a version of Gamora from the past had accompanied them into battle, the green alien’s state of being remained something of a mystery. Carol Danvers too had jetted off into space after her recovery, saying she was confident the Avengers had this planet well protected.

“He’s my mentor,” Peter lands on, even as he read in Pepper’s expression that that isn’t the answer she's looking for. “And…my friend, I guess?” The idea of having adult friends had initially felt a little odd, but he's seventeen now and almost an adult himself. Besides, it’s not as if half of the team act like adults half the time anyway.

“Mentor and friend,” Pepper repeats. “Not like…a dad?”

Peter turns beet red, hastily taking another bite of ice cream to try and cool himself down. “No. I mean, I know the Avengers joke about it sometimes, but I had a dad. When he and my mom died, May and Ben raised me. And it’s not like Tony’s a replacement for either my dad or Ben. He’s just…a new addition. Still important. But separate. I’m not making any sense.”

“I think you’re making perfect sense.” Peter might have been imagining it, but he was sure that Pepper looked a little more relaxed than before. “Thank you for telling me. I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.”

“Same page?”

The next smile Pepper gives him is tinged with sadness. “Tony hasn’t let many people into his life. And even so, some have slipped through the cracks that have hurt him. Badly. I want to make sure you’re not one of them, whether directly or indirectly.”

Peter halts mid-step. “I’d - I’d never hurt Tony. I think. I hope. I’d certainly never try to deliberately, I wouldn’t -”

“Ok, Peter. Take a breath. That’s all I wanted to hear.” They walk on in silence for a little longer before Pepper says, “You say the Avengers joke about it sometimes. With Tony being your dad. Does that make you uncomfortable?”

“A little,” Peter admits.

“Ok,” Pepper says simply. “I’ll make them stop.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

Peter makes a mental note to never get on Pepper Potts’s bad side. Which letting her husband fall off a building into a construction zone just might. “Hey,” Peter protests. “My stories are way better than Sam and Bucky's." 

Tony snorts, even though Peter can see he’s fighting to keep the tone light. “What, like that cat thing?”

“Saving a cat is like, Hero 101 stuff, Mr. Stark! It’s a classic. You never saved a cat?”

“How about I save a Spider-Kid? How does that sound?”

“Oh, you won’t be saving anyone, Tony. This time, it’s on Peter to save you.”

“Ah, cue the creepy disembodied bad guy voice. An oddly familiar disembodied bad guy voice.” Tony’s brow furrows. “Hey, Jigsaw - do I know you?”

“Well well well, the great Tony Stark remembers me. I’m honored, really.”

Peter turns his head as best he can, looking for the source of the speakers. It sounds as though it’s coming from above them, but that makes no sense. There’s nothing above them but blue skies. “What do you mean, I have to save Mr. Stark?”

“Do you really have to ask, Peter? And I thought you were smart. Then again, Tony wouldn’t know brilliance if it slapped him in that stupid goatee.”

“Hey,” Tony protests. “This goatee is iconic.”

The voice on the speaker turns to anger “You stole my life’s work, Tony. Only fair I steal your life in return.”

“Actually, that doesn’t sound fair at all,” Peter chimes in. “There’s more to life than work, you know? Maybe you should get out more, mystery man, see the world.”

“Kid’s got a point,” Tony adds. “What, you had nothing better to do than set this up? How long did this little contraption take you? I’d give you points for originality, but when you’ve been in the hero business as long as I have, you’ve pretty much seen -”

The platform under Tony drops.

It happens so fast that Peter reacts completely on instinct. He sees the platform hinge to vertical, sees the restraints keeping Tony in place fall away, and he clamps down on the one thing that's stopping his mentor falling to his death.

There are about three disorientating seconds when it doesn’t hurt. Peter feels the wire cut into flesh, but it’s abstract, distant. There isn’t even any blood.

Then Tony hits the side of the building with a yell, the barbed wire stretching tight, and it slams into Peter all at once. Blood blossoms from both palms as his shoulders scream out in protest at the unexpected weight. He can just about see Tony, and swallows back a wave of nausea when he sees his mentor dangling from the wire with nothing else to hold onto, the metal spikes piercing his skin from wrist to elbow.

“The rules are simple,” the voice announces. “The second Peter lets go of the wires, the restraints around him will release. He’s free to go. Of course, Tony will have broken every bone in his body by then, but it’ll be fun to see how much pain your intern is willing to go through before that happens.”

The pain in Peter’s hands and shoulders intensifies as he realizes the full impact of their situation. “You’re crazy! I’m- I’m not going to let go, ever.”

“We’ll see about that,” the voice taunts him. “And as much as I’d love to see the ending, I must be on my way.”

“You’re leaving?” Peter feels the wire slip and grips it tighter, feeling a barb slice even deeper into his palm. “But -”

“But nothing. As fun as it would be to see how long young Peter can last before he lets his beloved Iron Man tumble to his death, I have no desire to hang around and get arrested. Toodles, Tony. Have fun watching your protege let you die.”

“Wait!” Peter tries, but the voice is gone. They’re alone.

“Pete?” Tony’s voice is strained, obviously in incredible pain, but also fighting to keep it level. “You good?”

“Um…” Peter forces himself to take several steady breaths, locking on to the faint scent of the cologne he’d picked out with Pepper still lingering in the air. “I mean, yes? I don’t really have a choice in the matter.”

“I mean, you can choose to let me fall.”

“Not funny, Mr. Stark.”

“And I thought Gen-Z was all about gallows humor.” Tony’s voice turns serious. “Alright. We’re two certified geniuses, right? We can figure a way out of this, starting with the obvious. Can you pull me up?”

Peter strains, wincing as the movement sends the barbed wire deeper into his palms, but the way his shoulders are pinned gives him no leverage. “I don’t think so.”

“Yes or no answers there, bud.”

Peter hesitates for a moment, then admits, “No.”

“Alright. Calling for help?”

“Tried it. I don’t think anyone’s around, Mr. Stark.”

Tony swears under his breath. “Ok. So we do this on our own. How badly are you bleeding?”

Peter checks his palms. “Not too bad, actually.” He peers over the building again, taking the numerous cuts up Tony’s arms. The blood is soaking into his t-shirt, staining the white AC/DC art red.

“The wire is in your palms, yeah? Give it a minute.”

“A minute to what - woah!” Where a second ago there was nothing, now the blood is flowing thick and fast, streaming from his palms. It’s not super heavy, and he doesn’t think he’s going to pass out from blood loss any time soon, but if they’re up here long enough - “Can you try walking up the building?”

Peter hears Tony exhale, considering. “Yes. It’s going to suck, real bad, but yes. You got a good grip on me?”

Peter looks down at the wire biting into both palms. It’s already beginning to throb, and even the smallest of twitches from Tony sends the barbs in deeper. “Hold on,” Peter calls down. “I can get an even better grip. If I wind it around my wrists as well.” He inhales, readying himself. “What was that you were saying about sucking real bad?”

“Do it,” Tony says without hesitation. “Come on, kid, I got stuff to do today.”

And if that’s not an indication of how much pain Tony’s in, Peter doesn’t know what is. Tony goes to sometimes suffocating lengths to stop even the mildest of pain headed Peter’s way, in a way Peter often finds frustrating. He’s Spider-Man, something he swears Tony forgets daily. “I’ll heal,” Peter calls down as reassurance. “Advanced healing.”

There’s a half a beat too long before Tony replies. “Good. That’s good. Don’t want to see you hurt more than what’s necessary.”

Peter blinks, something off about that phrasing that he can’t pinpoint, but Tony’s dangling off a building right now so he has bigger priorities. “Ok, Spider-Man,” he mutters, readying himself. “Just a few tiny stabs that’ll heal in minutes, you’re fine, you’re fine.” Then he braces himself and pulls, wrapping his wrists into the wire.

It only pulls Tony up by an inch or so, brutally and messily if Tony’s howl of pain is anything to go by, but it has the effect Peter wants. Not that he exactly wants barbed wire cutting into his wrists, but it’s a firmer grip than just hanging on with bleeding hands.

“I got it,” Peter gasps then, louder, so Tony can hear. “I got it, Mr. Stark! Start walking!”

“You sure?” Tony presses him. “Because once I start this, my life is totally in your hands. You get that, right?”

“I mean, your life is already in my hands,” Peter points out. “And you’re heavy, so can you please start moving?”

“When did you get bossy?” Tony shoots back, and Peter relaxes a bit at the more familiar teasing tone. “Alright. No time like the present, and all that.”

Peter hears Tony pull in a breath, bracing himself. Then he swings himself at the building.

The movement doesn’t shift the wires like Peter expects it to, but Peter is distracted from that thought a second later as he’s hit with the scent of blood, both his and Tony’s. It’s growing thicker by the moment, making Peter gag, and Peter buries his head on the concrete below him for a moment of reprieve. Then Peter hears shoes hit the side of the building.

He dares to lift his head, hopes rising when he sees Tony take his first step up the building. It’s gruesome, the wire slicing a little deeper with into Tony's skin with every inch Tony manages to gain, but it’s worth it to know that they solved the puzzle. They’re getting out of this. They’re going to be ok.

Tony is only a couple of feet from the edge of the building when he slips.

They both see what’s going to happen before it does, but there’s nothing either of them can do to stop it. Peter sees Tony’s eyes go wide as his shoe loses its grip against the building’s side, scrambling for purchase. But there’s no purchase to gain, and then Tony’s falling, only to be jerked to a halt by the wire.

“Mr. Stark!” Peter forces his eyes open, ignoring the tattered remains of his skin to check on Tony.

What remains of the skin on Tony’s arms is in ribbons. Peter can barely see flesh for all the blood, the silver wires glinting in the torn muscle. Tony is still conscious, and Peter has no idea if that’s a blessing or a curse as he takes in the pure agony written over his mentor’s face.

Peter gives them both thirty seconds to recover, but all the extra time is doing is increasing the pain and fatigue, not assuaging it, so Peter pulls himself together and calls down to his mentor. “Mr. Stark? I don’t know…I don’t know how much longer I can hold on. We need to find a way to -”

“We need to do nothing.”

Peter freezes. He’s never heard Tony sound like that - at least not aimed at him. Tony’s yelled at him before, sure, but it’s always been when Peter has done something particularly stupid on patrol or during a mission. Peter knows the signs well enough now to know that Tony only ever snaps at him out of fear, because he’s worried about Peter getting hurt. He’s never heard Tony sound actually angry at him. “We can think of something else, we -” Peter tries, but Tony cuts him off.

“No. No more out of you. Climb up the building, what a stupid idea.”

“I -” Peter stutters, completely thrown, before he remembers that Tony is dangling off a skyscraper by nothing but sharp metal burrowed under his skin. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry isn’t going to get me back up there, Peter. So shut up and let me think.”

“Um, ok,” Peter agrees, voice small. He’s actually pretty sure Tony has never called him Peter - it’s always some kind of nickname - and he’s certainly never told Peter to shut up.

Barbed wire. Dangling. Drop to the death.

Peter repeats that mantra until the sting of Tony’s words reduces somewhat. It’s a high-pressure situation. They’re both in extreme pain and Tony is about to die, the least Peter can do is try and cut his mentor some slack.

The silence goes on until it becomes oppressive, and Peter checks on Tony to make sure he hasn’t passed out. “Mr. Stark?”

“What?” Tony must read the look on Peter’s face, because the harshness in his expression reduces somewhat. “Right. Sorry, kid. Just in a lot of pain down here, I shouldn’t be taking that out on you.”

“It’s…it’s ok.”

“No. It’s not. I’m the adult. I should be getting us out of this.” Tony heaves in a breath that looks more like a grimace. “Don’t suppose you have any handy forms of rescue on you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“What did I say about yes or no answers?”

“Right.” Peter feels himself flush. He’s messing this up so badly. “No. I can’t feel my phone, and even if I had it I can’t move.” He strains against the metal bands, testing for weaknesses he knows aren’t there. “But someone will notice we’re missing, right? The team will notice?” Peter peers past Tony to the ground below, but the construction site remains empty. “It’s a Thursday. Shouldn’t people be working?”

“How am I supposed to know what hours normal people work?”

“Maybe people will come in later,” Peter tries. “Or the team will notice and come find us. Or -”

“Are you really going to be able to hold on until then?”

Peter swallows, forces himself to look at his ruined wrists. “I don’t have a choice.”

“You can choose to let me fall.”

“You already made that joke.”

“Who says it was a joke?”

“I’m- I’m not just going to drop you!”

“You might not have another option,” Tony argues. “That wire is cutting deeper into your skin every second. Eventually, it’s going to rip right through, and then it’s goodbye to me. If you don’t just let go before then.”

Peter tightens his grip instead, ignoring the fresh well of blood the movement causes. “I’m not letting go. Not ever. You’re going to be fine, Mr. Stark, I promise.”

“Or I fall and take most of your hands with me. Not sure even your super-healing will fix that, kid. So maybe it’s better if -”

“Stop it!” Peter buries his head back in the ground. He’s shivering now, and he still feels soaked through, which he guesses must be sweat added to the morning rain. He crunches up his toes in his soaked shoes, not an ounce drier than when he’d been snatched on his way to school. “I’m not letting go. Someone will come. I’m not letting go.”

He hears Tony’s exasperated sigh from beneath him, but when he speaks his voice is soft. “Alright, Pete. We’ll hold out. See if somebody comes.”

Tony stops talking after that, and while Peter wishes he had him as a distraction, it’s not fair to expect Tony to provide that when he’s so badly hurt already. Instead, Peter tries to think of anything else; running through his decathlon flashcards, seeing how much of A New Hope script he can recite from heart, mentally rebuilding the Spider-Man suit from scratch. And all the while keeping an eye out for help, occasionally screaming out an SOS or leaning over to check on Tony. His mentor has gone so still that more than once Peter is sure he’s passed out, but then Tony’s eyes will open, establishing that he’s just trying to prevent further damage while they wait.

And all the while, the barbed wire cuts in a little deeper with every passing minute.

“Peter.” Tony’s voice is exhausted, beyond pain.“You have to let go.”

“What?” Peter’s eyes fly open, staring down at Tony, deliberately avoiding looking at his own hands. His mentor’s torso is soaked in blood now. “No! You’ll die!”

“I’m dying anyway,” Tony whispers back. “Blood loss. You are too.”

“Someone will come.”

“They’re not coming, kid. You pass out from lack of the red stuff too, you’re screwed. You heard what the crazy man said. Let me drop, and you’re free to go. Let’s have at least one of us make it out of this.”

“We’re both going to make it out of this, Mr. Stark, I -”

“You’re not strong enough, Peter.”

Peter goes rigid. “I am,” he insists. “I am, Mr. Stark, you’re going to die if I’m not, you -”

“Either I die, or we both die,” Tony interrupts him. “Either way I’m done.” He looks up, so he’s staring right at Peter. “This is on me, ok? I never should have put so much pressure on you, dragging you into this hero business. You’re a kid, you should be out there doing kid things, not trying to live up to my legacy, or whatever.”

 

I just wanted to be like you.

And I wanted you to be better.

 

A lump that has nothing to do with the pain forms in Peter’s throat. “I- I’m sorry.”

“It’s ok,” Tony presses. “Like I said - it’s all on me, ok? I never should have roped you into a life you couldn’t handle. It’s over, and there’s no point prolonging the pain - mine or yours. So just let go.”

Tears burn Peter’s eyes. “But I’m Spider-Man.”

“Sure,” Tony replies, voice still gentle. “But looks like Spider-Man isn’t enough for this one, bud. It’s ok. You can give up now.”

“No.” Peter squeezes the wire in his palms, the fresh wave of pain giving him focus. “No, I am strong enough. I am. I am.”

“I’m one of the smartest men in the world, Peter. If there’s a way out of this, I would have seen it. And I can’t see it, so it doesn’t exist. So let go and save yourself. Consider it my dying wish, ok?”

“I’ll heal,” Peter insists, and then it strikes him. “I’ll heal.”

And then he forces himself to look at his hands.

It’s so subtle that he would have missed it if he wasn’t looking for it, but there, around the jagged corners of the multiple cuts is fresh skin, slowly growing over the wire. “I heal,” Peter breathes, and then, down to Tony, “I’m healing.”

“Pete, you have barbed wire wrapped up in your veins right now.”

“And I’m going to heal over it,” Peter insists. “So I’m going to stop bleeding. I won’t pass out from blood loss, I’ll be fine.”

“Fine, huh?” Tony shoots back. “And what about when we have to pull that wire out later? Are you going to be fine then?”

Peter’s stomach lurches, but he forces the trepidation down. “Better than you dying.”

Tony swears, although not as creatively as Peter is used to hearing from his mentor. “I’m still going to die of blood loss, you realize that right?”

“Rescue will come,” Peter insists. “It will.” Because there’s no other option.

Peter doesn’t know how much time passes, although it’s enough for an ache to begin in his stomach, a scratch growing in the back of his throat. The thirst becomes a problem before the hunger does, given the amount of Peter’s blood now staining the rooftop, but even so Peter doesn’t feel as thirsty as he should be given the mockingly sunny skies above him. He’s still wet too, and cold and shivering and miserable, but Tony’s still here, still alive, as Peter’s skin starts to close around the barbed wire.

“We’re going to be ok, Mr. Stark,” Peter calls out at intermittent intervals, more to himself than Tony. “Rescue is coming, it’s got to. We’re going to be ok.”

He doesn’t know how many times he says it before he hears the familiar whine of repulsers.

Peter slumps against the rooftop in pure relief as he sees the War Machine suit incoming. It lands with a thump next to Peter’s side, the faceplate opening up to reveal a both frantic and relieved Rhodey. “Peter! Are you ok?”

“Get…get Mr. Stark.”

Rhodey reaches out, testing Peter’s restraints. “Wow, he locked you down good, didn’t he?”

“They’ll open up when I let go.” Peter lifts his head. Why isn’t Rhodey doing something? “You need to get -”

“Kid. I got him.”

Peter squints at his hands, to where Rhodey was now gripping the barbed wire in the War Machine gauntlets, right below where it's enmeshed in Peter’s skin.

“I got him,” Rhodey insists. “You did great, Peter, you really did, but I got it from here. You can let go.”

“Listen to him, Pete,” Tony calls up, voice strained and exhausted. “Good job. I’m saved. Let go.”

Peter swallows, picturing tearing the barbed wire out of his skin. “Wouldn’t it be better if you grabbed Mr. Stark instead? Flew him up here?”

Rhodey fixes him with a look. “Who’s the more experienced one here, Peter?”

“I mean, you, but -”

“Then trust me. Let go.”

“But,” Peter scrambles in his tired brain for the reason Rhodey would have for insisting on doing it the more painful way. “Can’t you just -”

“Pete, not to rush you, but I really want this over with,” Tony calls up. Then, softer, “It’s ok, son. We got this.”

Peter freezes. “What did you call me?”

“Peter, come on, we don’t have time for this,” Rhodey tries to prompt him, but Peter’s not listening.

“Pepper said you’d never call me that,” Peter says. “That none of the Avengers would anymore. Because of Dad. And Ben.”

“I’m dangling off a roof by my now skin-less arms kid, give me a break.”

“Count of three,” Rhodey says, gripping the wire tighter. “Then you’re letting go, and we’re getting you both straight to the hospital. Three.”

Peter squints up at Rhodey, the sun gleaming off the armor blinding him. The sun. The sun when there had been a rainstorm just that morning.

“Two.”

The sun that Peter has been lying in for god knows how long and he still isn’t dry.

“One.”

“No!” Peter's head spins as it tries to wrap itself around the new information. “What's happening? Where am I?”

“You’re holding me off the edge of a roof,” Tony’s pained voice reminds him. “So -”

“You’re not Tony!” The moment Peter says it out loud, he’s sure it’s true. Snapping at him. Telling he wasn’t strong enough. Son. It’s not Tony. It never has been. “This- this isn’t real. I don’t understand how but I know- I know that.”

“Aw, Peter, why’d you have to go and ruin all the fun?”

The words come out of Rhodey’s mouth, but it’s not Rhodey’s voice. A very un-Rhodey-like grin splits the colonel’s face, only for him to flicker and fade out of existence.

The rooftop goes with him. And the construction site. And the blue skies.

The restraints and the barbed wire stay.

Peter’s inside. It looks like an old warehouse, judging by the shape of the roof, the huge garage doors on the far side of the building, all closed. Peter’s still high up, still tied down, but it’s not to a rooftop. He’s on top of what looks like a large stone pillar, and the wire isn’t connected to Tony at all, it’s connected to -

A sack. Frayed, dusty, ordinary. Filled with just enough bricks to make it feel like Peter was holding up his mentor.

Tears sting his eyes with the pure unfairness of it all, before anger takes over. “Why?”

“Because Tony Stark ruined my goddamn life, Parker, that’s why. So I thought I’d have some fun with his precious little intern as payback.”

Peter twists his head, looking around the warehouse, just catching the corners of what might be drones in the edges of his vision. “It was a hologram.”

“Good, aren’t they? So many uses. So many applications. And your moronic mentor turned them into a therapy gimmick with a crappy acronym and didn’t even credit me.”

Peter bites down on his lip, staring down at his now almost healed over wrists. He’s going to have to tear the wire out if he wants to free himself of the heavy sack.

“Well, I hope Tony enjoys the little home video I’m making for him,” the voice continues. “Why don’t you finish it off there, Peter? Grand finale time!”

Peter doesn’t want to. Even though it means an end to the ordeal - if whoever the crazy voice belongs to even lets him go - the idea of ripping the wire out through his freshly healed skin makes his empty stomach turn. “You can do this,” Peter breathes, trying to psych himself up. “Just pull, and then it’ll be over. You can do this. You can do this.”

He readies himself, pulling in some deep breaths to steady himself, breathing in the scents of, not a construction site, but a warehouse, all of it tinged with -

Blood. But not just his. Peter has a split second to register that it’s kind of gross and messed up that he knows what Tony’s blood smells like before he catches the other lingering scent.

The cologne.

“Aw, is little Petey scared?” the voice taunts him. “So much for big bad Spider-Man. Come on, Peter, you’re only going to heal more the longer you wait.”

It’s too much detail. There’s no way whoever this is got enough of Tony’s blood to make this work. There’s no way whoever this is knows the exact cologne Pepper Potts buys her husband so that his intern won’t have a reaction to it.

No. Tony’s here. He’s bleeding and he’s hurt and he’s here.

Peter’s resolve strengthens. “Where is he?”

There’s a pause over the loudspeaker. “You’ll have to be more specific.”

“Tony,” Peter demands. “Where. Is. He.”

Another long pause. Then a bout of surprised laughter. “I have to say, Parker - I did not give you enough credit. I can see why Tony took you under his wing. Shame you’re about to let him die, though.”

There’s another shimmer, and Peter braces himself, waiting for his setting to change again. It doesn’t. It’s still the warehouse. He’s still on top of the stone pillar. But there’s no longer a sack dangling from his abused wrists.

It’s Tony. He’s battered and exhausted and every bit as bloody as the holographic version of him had been, something thick and black wrapped around his mouth. Below him isn’t a construction site. It isn’t a stone warehouse floor. It’s an honest to god spike pit, a dozen or so jagged bits of steel pointing straight up to where Tony is helplessly dangling.

Peter sees his mentor’s eyes widen as he sees that Peter can finally see him, then indicates with his head the far corner of the warehouse. Peter follows his gaze, catching the tiny camera there. “Well, this has been fun,” the voice crows. “You should have seen Tony’s face when his cute little mentee thought his hero was telling him he wasn’t strong enough to save him.”

Tony’s eyes narrow in an indignant glare in the direction of the camera.

“Come on, Tony, don’t look at me like that. It’s not like I’m wrong. We’re right back to where we started. Peter, I meant what I said about releasing you once you let go. And you are going to let go - everyone here knows it.”

Tony swivels his head back to Peter, shaking it, and Peter reads the message in his mentor’s eyes. You got this. You are strong enough.

“I got this,” Peter repeats, a new energy surging through him. This guy doesn’t get to win, Peter isn’t going to drop Tony, and they’re both going to walk out of here. “I got this.”

“Adorable,” the voice mocks him. “You really did pick a plucky one, didn’t you, Tony? I hope it doesn’t ruin him too much, knowing that he caused Iron Man’s death.”

Tony frantically shakes his head at Peter. Not your fault.

“Doesn’t matter,” Peter gets out. “You’re not dying.”

The voice is saying something else now, but Peter blocks it out. He has one task now. Don’t let go.

He doesn’t know how much time passes. He can feel the wire burying into him, feel the last of the flesh close shut around it. Thoughts are trying to crowd him, the voice on the loudspeaker not helping, reminding him that Tony could still die of blood loss, that the damage to both of them might be irreparable even if they both survive, but he crowds them out and replaces them with three words.

Don’t. Let. Go.

The next time he hears Rhodey’s repulsers, they’re real, and accompanied by the flap of metal wings and the singing of a vibranium shield.

The shield cuts right through the metal band trapping Peter’s shoulders to the top of the stone pillar. Peter scrambles upright, finally having the space to try and heave Tony upright, only to have the weight vanish entirely.

There’s a heart-stopping moment of panic when Peter is sure he somehow dropped Tony after all. Then he sees a flash of silver as Rhodey sores upwards, gripping Tony around the waist and guiding them both onto the roof.

“Mr. Stark?” Peter tries. Tony looks awful, pale and bloody and exhausted, and from the concerned look his mentor is throwing him, Peter doubts he looks any better.

Tony fumbles for the gag, his ripped-up fingers ineffectual, so Rhodey reaches up and snaps the straps for him. Tony tosses it aside, and Peter just gets a glimpse of sound-proofed padding before Tony’s tilting Peter’s chin up, worry lining his face. “Pete. Kid. Are you ok?”

There’s the clash of metal on metal, and Peter twists around to see Sam using the shield to free the rest of him. “But- the guy-”

“Bucky has it,” Sam explains, a second before a scream echoes out over the loudspeaker. “Sounds like he really has it.”

“What the hell?” Rhodey flips the faceplate of his suit up, looking down in disgust at the wire still connecting Peter and Tony’s arms. “Is that stuff in you, kid?”

“Um…” Peter looks down at where the wire is poking out from the newly grown skin. Now that the urgency of the situation has passed, the full gruesomeness of it hits him. “Guess we really went down to the wire on that one.”

Tony groans. “Please don’t tell me puns are going to be your new thing.”

“I make no promises.”

“Here.” Rhodey leans forward and breaks both wires in two, so at least Peter and Tony can move without pulling on each other. “We’ll sort the rest out in the Tower med bay.”

“Is there going to be…” Peter swallows as he looks over Tony’s emaciated arms, remembering the voice’s words. “You know. Permanent damage?”

“Not if we move fast,” Sam assures him. “The Cradle should even prevent the scarring being too bad.” He claps Peter on the shoulder. “Amazing work, Peter, really.”

“Hey,” Tony protests. “That’s my line. I mean it,” he adds, looking at Peter. “Beck should have known better than that you’d fall for his cheap tricks. It was the son comment, right?”

“That and I’m wet,” Peter explained. “If it was that sunny I would have dried off, holes in my shoes or not.”

Tony stares at him. “I think this is the blood loss talking, but did I just hear holes in shoes?”

“They’re fine,” Peter says quickly. “Really. Just not when it’s raining.”

“Kid, do you even remember who I am?” Tony sighs, leaning heavily against Rhodey’s side, Rhodey wrapping a protective arm around his shoulders. “Alright. Here’s the plan. Med bay. Get this stuff cut out of us. Replace some blood and other important bits. Then I’m buying you a pair of top-of-the-line shoes for every day of the year.”

“No, Mr. Stark, you don’t have to -”

“You just saved my life, kid, so -”

Rhodey interjects. “How about for every day of the week, like a slightly more normal person, and I get to take you to the med bay right now?”

Peter meets Tony’s gaze, seeing the pride there behind the pain and exhaustion. Remembered how Tony had looked at him, trusted him. You got this. You are strong enough.

“New shoes sound great,” Peter gives in. “I get to choose.”

“Ok. Nothing cheap.”

“I just said I get to choose.”

“Or Captain America themed.”

“Hey,” Sam protests. “My merch is way better than Steve’s ever was.”

Peter zones out after that, letting them bicker, not even complaining when Sam scoops him into his arms to carry him back to the med bay. It’s over. They’re safe.

He was strong enough.

Chapter Text

“Where am I?”

“This is day one of tests for Subject 9A, code name: Spider-Man.”

“Who are you?”

“Tests will target the specimen’s advanced healing factor, increased strength, and enhanced senses.”

“Why can’t I move?”

“Test one will include data sampling of blood, skin, hair, saliva, and bone.”

“No, don’t, get away from me. Don’t. Don’t -”

 


 

“Day 2 of testing will include trials of Subject 9A’s enhanced healing.”

“Screw you.”

“As a control, we will begin with surface-level damage.”

“What, yesterday didn’t count as surface-level enough?”

“We will then proceed to the osteo stress tests and regrowth experiments.”

“No, stop, don’t touch, get away from -”

 


 

“Please. Please let me go. Please.”

“Subject refuses to volunteer information on its anatomy.”

“What about any of this screams voluntary to you?”

“Noise reduction measures therefore -”

“Jesus, Mike, just gag the damn thing already. It’s splitting my head open.”

“I have to do it the official way, Paul! We have procedures for a reason.”

“Save the speeches for Osborn. Where’s the muzzle?”

“No, don’t, just let me go, please please -”

 


 

“Nnngh!”

 


 

They’re into the fourth day now. Peter’s not sure if he wants to make it to a fifth.

He’s staring determinably at the ceiling and not down at his body. The skin over his stomach has been peeled back and pinned to the surgical table like he’s a beetle on a plaque, allowing access for the two ‘scientists’ who have been working on him for days to rummage around in his insides.

The worst part is that it’s his own stupid fault. If he hadn’t fought with Tony, he wouldn’t even be here, and the fight had practically been over nothing.

“You can’t keep doing this,” Peter had insisted. They’re standing on a rooftop, Peter nursing a jaw that’s definitely fractured, not that he’a going to tell Tony that. It will be healed by tomorrow anyway. He’s fine. “You can’t fly in every time the first hint of trouble strikes. I can handle things on my own!”

Tony folds his arms, looking thoroughly unimpressed. “Yeah? A broken jaw is handling things on your own?”

Ah. So Tony had noticed. “It’s not that broken.”

“There’s no such thing as ‘not that broken’. It’s broken. All because you couldn’t keep your little quips to yourself.”

Peter’s temper flares. He and Tony hardly ever fight, not like this, but he’s tired and injured and humiliated so it all comes out. “You’re one to talk. You’re giving me a hard time about throwing quips in battle? Mr ‘You throw another moon at me and I’m going to lose it’?”

Some of the color drains from Tony’s face, and Peter feels something like regret. They hardly ever talk about Titan, and definitely not that flippantly. “You were doing fine,” Tony starts, clearly trying to keep his own temper in check.

“I think winning is a bit better than fine.”

“And then you have to go and insult the Harley Quinn wannabe with a baseball bat -”

“Did you forget that I’m Spider-Man? In a suit you designed? I can take a hit from a bat!”

“Your face says otherwise. You know part of my deal with May is that I have to tell her every injury you sustain on patrol, right? Under my watch?”

“You’re overreacting.”

“You got yourself a completely unnecessary injury because you couldn’t resist being a smartass for five seconds -”

“Way to victim-blame.”

“- and sometimes you need to keep your damn mouth shut!”

Well, Tony, you got your wish, Peter reflects as he swallows around the muzzle pinning his tongue down. He’d stormed off after that, angry and hurt, ditching the suit and with it all of Tony’s trackers, just wanting five minutes alone to stew without someone jumping down his throat.

Then he’d been grabbed. Heck, Tony probably hadn’t even started searching for him until the next morning, sure Peter was off sulking somewhere and dodging his calls. Plenty of time for Norman Osborn’s team to stash him away in a place it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Avengers couldn’t find.

Something pokes inside him, way too deep and foreign and invasive, making his eyes blur. He just wants this to end. He doesn’t care that Tony was mad anymore, doesn’t care about their fight, he just wants this to be over so he can go home.

“Alright. I think we got what we need. Sew him up.”

Peter squeezes his eyes tight shut so he doesn’t have to see the needle, but he can still feel it, prodding in and out of his skin as they knit him back together. They’re nearly done when there’s the whoosh of the laboratory door and a new set of footsteps entering. “Hello, Peter.”

He forces his eyes back open. No one here ever addresses him directly, let alone by name. It’s always the subject, the specimen, it, with people talking about and around him but never to him. It seems that’s about to change as Peter cranes his head up to see Norman Osborn smirking down at him.

Peter pulls on the restraints binding him to the table, more out of instinct than anything. He’s been undertaking tests of his own the past few days, and the results are conclusive. They’re not going to break. “Don’t fret,” Osborn’s saying, mock-soothing. “Your stay with us has been overdue for a while now. You must have known we’d cash in eventually.”

Peter fights past the pain and the fear and the fatigue to level Osborn with the most hateful glare he can summon. From the way it makes Osborn chuckle, he doesn’t think it’s working.

“Spider-Man,” Osborn muses. “Hero. Avenger. No one stopped to think just where the spider part of that came from though, did they? No one thought to give us credit. Recognition. Compensation.” He skims a hand over Peter’s chest, making Peter flinch. That just makes Osborn press down harder, pushing his bare back into the cool metal beneath him. “But don’t worry. We’re rectifying that now. Soon we’ll have a whole army of you. I doubt you’ll survive the process, but progress always comes with sacrifices.”

The lab door opens again. This time Peter whips his head around to catch it, still trying to figure out how it works. When he’d first woken up here, he’d been sure there was no exit to the room. There are no windows, just white walls on all sides, and it wasn’t until one of said walls moved did he realize that the door is there, just carefully concealed. “Sir!” A woman runs in, breathless and panicked. “The Avengers. They’re here.”

Peter lets out a groan of pure relief before he can catch himself. Now that the door is open, he can hear the sounds of distant fighting, what might even be a Hulk roar. Maybe Bruce is having fun scaring some Osborn employees. Or maybe he’s just that mad.

Osborn curses, rounding on his employees. “Bottle up what you can, load up the escape vehicle.” The two men nod and get to work as Osborn turns back to Peter. “Well, this has been fun, but I guess we’ll say our goodbyes. Nice of your friends to come after you.” His smile grows, too wide and too toothy. Goblin-like, Peter’s brain provides. “Too bad they’re not going to find you, though.”

Osborn winks at him, ruffling his hair, and Peter’s heart rate spikes as he sees him heading for the door. The secret door.

“Goodbye, Spider-Man,” Osborn waves, and then the door is shut, sealing Peter alone in the hidden room.

Peter pulls in a few breaths through his nose, trying to stay calm. His team is here. They’ll find him. They have to find him.

The noise of fighting ceases, morphing into the sounds of a search party instead. See, they’re looking. They know you’re here.

There’s a banging nearby that sounds awfully like an Iron Man suit running, and Peter takes his cue. Pulling as much moisture into his dry throat as he can, he hauls in a deep inhale, and screams.

I’m here, he yells into the gag. Here, here, I’m in here.

It comes out muffled and muted and incoherent, and the multiple suits he can now hear outside aren’t slowing down. “All our sources said he had to be here.” Rhodey. That’s Rhodey.

“Sources can be wrong.” That’s definitely Pepper. See, they brought everyone. They’re looking as hard as they can.

“I don’t care about sources!” And, there, the one voice Peter’s been desperate to hear for four days. It’s just as angry as he had last heard it, and Peter is still the cause, but now for a very different reason. “Is he here or not?”

I’m here I’m here I’m here I’m HERE -

“We’ve looked everywhere,” Rhodey’s trying to placate him.

No, you haven’t, you haven’t looked in here, I’m in here!

“Then Osborn took him with him,” Tony decides. “Round up the troops, start pursuit.”

No, don’t go, please, don’t go, don’t go -

Then Peter gives up on words altogether and just hollers, but the combination of the muzzle and his fatigue and the door is too much. His only response is retreating footsteps.

He slumps back onto the table with a moan, hot tears running over his cheeks. That was it. Osborn’s not coming back for him, and no one knows he’s here. He’s stuck. He’s not getting out of this one, all because he decided it was a good idea to make a crack about a bad guy’s batting average.

The room is deathly quiet after his would-be rescuers have retreated. After the constant hum of voices and machines and his own bones being broken, the silence is oppressive. He makes a noise in the back of his throat just to break it, but soon gives up on that tactic when he hears just how tiny and hoarse it is.

This is it. He’s out of hope, out of options. He’s done.

“Woah, hey, guys - did you see this?”

Peter’s eyes fly open. He knows that voice. A voice that is in the room with him.

He turns his head to the side, searching but seeing nothing. Then - “Oh, god. Peter!”

There’s a blur of movement and then a fully-grown Scott Lang is appearing in front of him, removing the helmet of the Ant-Man suit. Peter makes a muffled sound of gratitude, letting his head fall back so hard it hits the table. He barely notices.

“Guys!” Scott is saying into the comms. “I found him, he’s still here! He’s in some secret room, I could only see the opening because I was small- hold, on I’ll just show you.” He sprints across the room, shrinking on the way. Peter’s heart skips, thinking he’s going to be left alone again, but there’s a spark and a whir and the door is opening. Scott pops back to full-size, dashing back to Peter’s side. “Alright, hey, you’re alright. Let’s get you out of that, sound good?”

It sounds like the best idea Peter’s heard all year, and he was there when Ned invented the pizza taco. Scott vanishes again, and a few seconds later Peter is hearing clicking around the cuff keeping his left wrist down.

“Ok, hold on, it’s a little tricky but I think I see - aha!”

The cuff flies open, cool air brushing over Peter’s wrist. He immediately tries to move it, to lift it to his face to get the cursed muzzle off at last, but his limb is refusing to move, pins and needles erupting up his arm. He feels Scott move onto the restraint on his left ankle when there’s movement in the doorway, and then a frantic Tony Stark is rushing to his side. “Peter!”

Peter makes an answering hum in response, and then the Iron Man suit is melting away and human fingers are lifting his head, fumbling for the clasp and then pulling the device away from Peter’s head completely. Peter coughs and gags as it comes out, Tony lifting his head higher so he doesn’t choke. “Alright, easy kid, we got you.”

Scott gets the restraints off on Peter’s right side before returning to full size, Tony scooting behind the table so he can lift Peter into a sitting position, leaning heavily against Tony’s chest.

“You…you left.”

Tony’s face falls. “I’m so sorry. My scans didn’t pick up the room, and they should have, I know. I’ll fix it.” He glances over at Scott. “Thank you. Really.”

“Just doing my bit.” Scott goes pale as he takes in the still healing incisions over Peter’s body. “What did they do to you?”

“Everything,” Peter mumbles. “Stole…DNA. Make more spider-men.”

“The team is chasing them down,” Tony assures him. “They won’t get far. So let’s just focus on you, ok?”

“Ok,” Peter agrees. Then - “I’m sorry.”

“None of this is your fault, kid.”

“Stormed off. No trackers.”

Tony winces. “Yeah, well, that wasn’t my favorite move of yours, I’ll admit. But if we’re doing blame, I think we should share it.” He bites his lip, looking down the discarded muzzle. “What I said about you shutting your mouth - that wasn’t my finest moment. I just hate it when you get hurt when it could have been avoided, you know that right?”

Enough feeling has returned to Peter’s arm that he can limply lift it to whack Tony in the chest. “Big softie.”

“Yeah, that’s something I actually do blame you for.” Tony gently lies Peter back down and Peter has a moment of panic that he’s going to have to stay in the room for even longer, only to hear the reassembling of the nanotech suit before he’s being lifted into metal arms. “Alright, let’s get some actual doctors looking at you. You can run your mouth the whole time, no complaints from anyone, I promise.”

Peter smiles weakly. “You’re going to regret that.”

“Yeah, I know,” Tony sighs, as he carries Peter towards the exit and towards home.

Chapter Text

It’s been going on for as long as Peter can remember.

There’s always been someone. There’s always one person who sees his clothes or his size or, before the spider bite, lack of coordination and glasses held together by tape, and decides that Peter is their next target. Anthony Dirk in kindergarten. Mildred Jones in primary. David Hist in middle school. Flash Thompson at Midtown High. Then Peter hits senior year and he thinks he’s safe.

He’s wrong.

Flash still tries to rile him up on occasion, but being turned to dust was the wake-up call Peter’s former bully needed to finally act like a halfway decent person. Besides, Peter’s a senior now. He’s top of his class, has an internship at Stark Industries, and is dating the most amazing girl in Queens. This should be the best year of his schooling life.

Then Matthew Bates joins Peter’s senior class.

He’s an exchange student from Canada, a hulking bear of a kid that makes it hard to believe he’s only seventeen. They run into each other on Bates’s first day, Peter introducing himself with a friendly hello and a handshake, and that is all it takes for Bates to decide to make Peter’s life hell until they graduate.

Peter tells no one. He knows MJ suspects, has caught her and Ned whispering about it behind his back more than once, trying to figure out how they can help.

“It’s not that bad,” Peter tells them when they corner him one day after school. “Really guys, just drop it. It’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

They don’t, but there’s not a lot they can do without Peter corroborating their story, and so it continues.

And really, it isn’t that bad. Peter gets worse from a regular week out on patrol. Whenever it goes further than that, past the point of just the odd punch or trip-up in the halls, Peter consoles himself with the knowledge that he could take this guy down in seconds if he wanted to. It’s fine. It’s fine.

The only real worry he has is that Bates will notice just how fast the bruises he leaves fade, that he’ll put two and two together that Peter is more than a regular human. But Bates seems content enough that he’s not leaving incriminating marks never to press it.

Weeks pass, and then a month, and Bates gets bored. Peter’s so used to pain by now that the bully is hard-pressed to get a rise out of him with punches and kicks. Peter finally relaxes, thinking it’s over. He stood his ground, stayed the bigger person, and now he can move on with his life.

Then he starts finding the notes in his locker.

The first ones are standard, taunts once thrown at him so regularly by Flash that they roll right off Peter’s back. Loser. Nerd. Pussy.

They go on rotation, so boring and predictable that Peter is not at all prepared when he opens the one that reads Orphan.

It’s stupid that that’s the one that gets to him. It’s not even an insult, not really, it’s just a fact.

Maybe that is why it’s the one that hurts. Because it’s the one that’s true.

Bates is watching when Peter sees it. Sees his reaction. And then presses that sore point for all it’s worth.

It comes in the form of more notes and veiled comments and spiteful whispers. Soon, Peter dreads going to school, the place a constant reminder of the two people who are no longer in his life. That wound had long since turned into a scar, but Bates picks and picks and picks until it's reopened again, and his new bully keeps it too fresh to heal again.

Peter hits his breaking point the day Bates brings up Ben.

He doesn’t know how the other boy found out. It’s not exactly a secret that Peter’s uncle was shot, but it’s also old news, and most of the school is too preoccupied with their own lives post-Blip to remember such details about their classmates, even the macabre ones. But Bates learns about it anyway. And Peter cracks the second Ben’s name leaves his lips.

He only hits Bates once before he reels it in, knowing the damage he could do, knowing that he’s not supposed to know how to fight at all. But once is enough.

Peter doesn’t go back to school that day. He doesn’t go to the Tower like he’s scheduled to either. Instead, he sends a text to Natasha to cancel their sparring session, asks Ned to cover for him in class, and goes home to lock himself in his room until the injuries from the beating heal.

 


 

Or at least, that’s the plan. A plan that is rather ruined by the presence of Natasha Romanoff sitting on his twin bed.

There’s no time to hide from her. No time to hide the black eye and the split lip and the bloody nose, and because he’s come straight from school they haven’t yet had time to heal.

There’s a beat of silence, both of then recovering from the shock of seeing each other, albeit for different reasons. Then Natasha’s rising from the bed to put a gentle hand on Peter’s cheek. “Malen'kiy pauk, who did this to you?”

Peter dodges the question. “What are you doing in my room?”

“You never cancel training.”

“Yes I do!”

“You never cancel training with me,” Natasha stresses. “What happened?”

Peter pushes her hand away. “Spider-Man stuff. Come on, like Clint doesn’t get worse than this on a weekly basis.”

Natasha cocks an eyebrow at him. “You’re not trying to lie to me, are you? Because Tony keeps going on about you being a genius, and lying to me is not a very genius move.”

“It’s nothing.”

“That doesn’t look like nothing, Peter. Talk to me. What’s going on?”

Peter shuffles, staring at the floor. “I can handle it.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“It’s just some guy at school,” Peter insists. “It’s not that bad.” Loser. Orphan. “I deal with muggers and robbers and like actual supervillains all the time. It’s nothing.”

Natasha surveys him for a minute. “Ok. Come and sit down.” She guides Peter to the bed, so they’re sitting side by side. “Just because it’s a smaller threat, doesn’t stop it being a threat. A bully is a bully, no matter what level of damage they’re causing.”

Peter shifts, uncomfortable. “You sound like Steve.”

“Steve doesn’t get the monopoly on bully troubles.”

“Well, bully for you then.”

“Come on, I feel like you should know me by now. Puns aren’t really my style.”

“Thanks, but...you don’t get it.”

”Don’t I?”

“Right, like you’ve ever been -” Peter breaks off, seeing the look on Natasha’s face. “You? When?”

“A lot of my life,” Natasha says quietly. “He wouldn’t have thought of it that way, of course. He never did see, not even at the end. But that’s what he was, really. A big bully, picking on those he thought were weaker than him. And you know what happened to him?”

Peter fidgeted. He hadn’t missed the past tense. “You…unalived him?”

Natasha doesn’t sugarcoat it. “I know this won’t align with how you see things, Peter, but I promise the world is a better place without that man in it. And yes, I took him down. But I didn’t do it alone. I couldn’t have done it alone. I had help.”

“But that sounds like, you know, a proper bad guy!” Peter bursts out. “This is just one stupid kid. I should be able to handle it on my own.”

“I’m not saying you’re not capable of handling it yourself,” Natasha assures him. “I’m saying you don’t have to. Does anyone else know? May or Tony?”

Peter shakes his head, voice growing small. “Please don’t tell them. Or anyone at the Tower. I don’t want them to know.”

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of here.”

“But there is! This shouldn’t be a big deal.”

“Then let’s not make it one.” Natasha places a gentle hand on his knee. “We can keep this just between you and me, alright? Now, I had help taking down my bully. I would really like to help you deal with yours.”

“Um, don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re not going to, you know…” Peter draws a finger across his throat.

“Do you want me to? I’m very discrete.”

“No, of course I don’t want -” Peter breaks off, seeing the curve of Natasha’s lips. “Right. Joking. You’re joking.”

“I’m just going to have a little chat with him,” Natasha promises, and Peter feels a shiver go down his spine at how dangerous those simple words sound. “Now - what’s this young man’s name?”

Matthew Bates doesn’t bother Peter again. He doesn’t bother anyone again. He lasts a week, casting terrified glances over his shoulder every time Peter’s in the same room with him. By Friday of that same week, he’s dropped out and returned to Canada, and there’s one more note in Peter’s locker.

He opens it with dread, expecting one last parting shot from Bates now that he’s retreating to the safety of his home country, only to see four words in Russian, written in a beautiful cursive script instead.

Tebya lyubyat, mladshiy brat.

Peter smiles, tacking up the note to his locker door with a stray piece of web fluid, so he can see it every day, and remember. He may be an orphan, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a family.

Chapter Text

“That’s it, I’m taking you to Strange.”

“Mr. Stark -”

“Nope, it’s official. You’re cursed, Parker. Some voodoo priestess put a curse on your family name and it’s high time we got it removed. How else would you keep ending up in situations like this?”

“Um, hello?” The man currently holding a gun to Peter’s head looks thoroughly put out. “I’m doing a thing here.”

“Oh, sorry!” Peter says, almost sounding like he means it. He probably does mean it, and Tony doesn’t hold back the eye roll. “You go on. I’m sure you’ve practiced really hard and everything.”

Tony lets the Iron Man helmet melt away so he can fix Peter with a look - Tone it down, kid, we’ve got company.

They’re in the New York headquarters of Stark Industries, one of the busiest floors of the building, and it’s filled with employees currently cowering under desks and trying to not make themselves look like targets. There are five intruders total, ready to open fire with machine guns at the first sign of trouble. Tony wouldn’t normally be that worried - he has a pulse in his suit ready to fire that could take the intruders out in seconds. The problem with that plan is that their leader had done his homework, snatching Peter right  from Tony’s side the moment they had burst through the doorway. And just to make everything more complicated, the baddie of the week not only has Peter at gunpoint, but is also holding him barely an inch from a broken window.

They’re several stories up, and if Tony fires the pulse to knock everyone without a suit unconscious, Peter’s going to fall the second there’s no balaclava-wearing bad guy holding him up, and Tony has never regretted insisting Peter take a day off from Spider-Man to be a regular intern more. No web-shooters. No suit. No using his powers without exposing his identity to a dozen or so strangers, a few of which are sneakily filming. Tony really hopes that’s with the intent of giving evidence later and not for Tik Tok clout, or he’s really going to have a chat with HR about what kind of people they hire.

“Surely you know we don’t pay ransoms,” Tony begins, but the leader cuts him off.

“This isn’t ransom. This is compensation.”

He looks proud of that line, and Tony braces himself for the usual spiel. Property damage during the Battle of New York. A lost home in Sokovia. Someone who had it better during the Blip than after. “Ok, let’s talk compensation,” Tony says slowly, lowering his repulser a fraction. If it’s money they want, and not revenge, that lowers the chance that they’re going to shoot Peter.

Great, now he’s gone and pictured it.

The man readjusts his grip. It looks as though he’s just trying to get a firmer hold in Peter’s t-shirt, but it still knocks Peter’s feet against the edge of the broken window. His heels are now over the long drop, and Tony’s heart stutters. It must show on his face, if only for a split second, because he can hear the man’s grin in his next words. “So, our sources were right. You do care about this intern.”

Tony makes a mental note to track down any sources that are leaking to low-level bad guys that Peter is a pressure point for him. Which the kid is, but they really don’t need every criminal and their grandma to know about it. “I care that you’re holding a gun to a seventeen-year-old’s head on my property, yes. If you shoot him, I don’t even think my PR team can turn the press in my favor again. So how about you tell us what you want so we can all go back to work, yeah? These people are on the clock.”

He belatedly hopes that his employees recognize that the nonchalance is for show - everyone in this room is getting two weeks paid leave minimum after this - but the man with the gun isn’t amused. “You don’t even know who I am, do you, Stark?”

“How is he supposed to know who you are when you have a balaclava covering your face?” Peter points out.

The man starts a little, realizing. With a curse, he shifts his gun arm so it’s wrapped tightly around Peter’s chest, leaving a free hand to pull off the cloth mask. It’s…a guy. Mid-forties, brown hair, totally unremarkable. Didn’t Tony’s villains used to have class once upon a time? Or at least a little flair? “There! Remember me now?”

“This is very awkward,” Tony replies. “But no.”

“And if you wanted him to know who you are,” Peter adds. “Why did you cover up your face in the first place?”

Tony shrugs. “Kid’s got a point.”

The man’s response is to get both arms around Peter again, shoving the gun so tightly against his head that he breaks skin. “I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation. Or did you forget who has the hostage here?”

“Yeah, about that,” Peter continues. “Um, Mr. Stark, can we wrap this up? This really isn’t a cool enough bad guy to take me out.”

“Yeah, no bad guys are taking you out, Underoos, period.”

“That so?” The gunman tries to get ahold of the situation that’s quickly slipping through his fingertips. “Then you’re going to give me what I want, Stark. What I deserve - what all of us deserve!”

There’s a murmuring of agreement from the other hostage-takers. “Yeah?” Tony counters. “And what do you deserve?”

“Mike Snow.”

“I - what?”

“That’s my name,” the guy snaps. “What, doesn’t ring any bells?”

“No, Mike, it doesn’t.”

Peter groans. “Your name is Mike? That’s so lame, dude. Couldn’t you have, like, a cool villain name or something?”

“I’m not a villain!” The words come out as a yell, jostling Peter a couple of centimeters further out of the window. “I’m a victim! Of Tony Stark.”

Tony decides it’s time to take Peter’s advice and wrap this up. As incompetent as this guy is, his intern’s still being dangled out a window and his employees are being traumatized. “Alright, bring it. What did I do?”

Snow narrows his eyes at him. “You really don’t remember me.”

“I ruin a lot of people’s lives,” Tony says bluntly. “And when I try to stop doing that, when I try to save people, it always ends up worse for someone - look at the Flagsmashers. Welcome to real life. So why don’t you tell me what I did that was apparently so horrible that it justifies holding a teenager hostage?”

Snow casts an almost surprised look at Peter, as though actually seeing him for the first time. “I won’t hurt him if you give me what I want. I won’t hurt anyone except you. Because you deserve it. Because you fired me.”

Tony blinks. “That’s it?”

“You think you’re so high and mighty,” Snow retorts. “You think you saved us from the Blip? What about all of us that came back and didn’t have jobs to go to? At your company? So much for taking care of your employees.”

Tony looks around at the multiple people cowering under furniture. “Yeah, I’m not buying your ‘concern for my employees’ angle right now.”

Snow flicks the safety off the gun, the small click deafening.“Ok, ok.” Tony holds up his hands, placating. He’s not sure if Snow will actually shoot Peter, but now an accident is just waiting to happen, and with Peter’s luck he doesn’t want to risk it. “I’m here, I’m listening. You got me. What do you want? And please don’t say your job back, because that’s going to be a very awkward conversation.”

“He can have my job,” Peter offers. “I’m not a big fan of it right now.”

“I don’t want my job,” Snow snaps. “I want you to get out of the suit, Stark. Now.”

“Ok, if you want the suit, I have to warn you that it comes with a very complicated set of piloting instructions and security codes that -”

“I don’t want the suit!” Snow’s finger twitches against the trigger, and Tony has a minor heart attack. “I want you out of it, so I can shoot you.”

The room goes deathly silent, except for the harsh breathing and occasional sob from the trapped employees. Peter breaks it. “I really want to say ‘Cool motive, still murder.’ But decidedly uncool motive, dude. It’s a job.”

Snow turns on Peter. “Like a rich little brat like you would understand.”

“I understand that Stark Industries set up like a million foundations for when people got back from the Blip,” Peter retorts. “Including a fund to help the unemployed. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than scaring a bunch of innocent people.”

Snow actually looks thrown for a moment. “They’re not innocent. They’re Stark’s employees!”

“What, like you’re so upset at not being anymore?” Peter counters. “Come on, they’re not part of this, why don’t you just let them go?”

Tony feels a swell of affection and admiration for the kid. If the civilians get out of the way, Tony has a much better chance of taking out the people with guns without anyone getting shot. And if some Spider-Man mojo is needed to help that happen, the fewer witnesses the better.

But Snow isn’t buying it. “They can leave after Stark takes off the suit.” Snow switches the arm wrapped around Peter’s shoulder to gripping the back of his t-shirt again, pulling him backward until he’s leaning right out over the drop. The move lowers Tony’s chances of getting to Peter before he either gets shot or shoved out of the window to pretty much zero. “Or I can kill your intern. Either way, I’m getting my payback.”

Tony’s brain shorts out for a minute, because it’s so stupid - all the security measures he’s put in place around Peter’s safety and some asshole with a grudge just waltzes right through every one of them. He doesn’t see a way of getting them both of this without either one of them or the civilians getting hurt.

“Take the suit off,” Snow repeats, voice dangerous, and Tony realizes that he means it. This is happening. And if it’s him or Peter, then -

“No!” Peter protests, seeing Tony move to retract the suit. “No, Mr. Stark, don’t!

“Yes, Mr. Stark, do,” Snow mocks him, levering Peter so far out of the window that only his toes are left on the edge, Snow’s grip on his t-shirt the only thing keeping him from falling. “Or say goodbye to the kid.”

Tony runs through scenarios, making a catalog of Peter’s powers. But even if Peter can escape his captor, Tony also knows that the kid isn’t going to do anything while there are other people held at gunpoint too.

“Don’t,” Peter repeats, but this time it’s bolder, more confident. He’s looking around, glancing out the window at the ground below him, and Tony knows him well enough to recognize when Peter’s coming up with a plan. He shuffles himself backward, carefully so Snow won’t catch him, and Tony realizes with a fresh stab of panic that Peter is preparing to jump. He meets Tony’s eyes, letting Tony read the message there. Do you trust me?

Slowly, Tony nods. Peter knows Tony has that pulse ready - he helped Tony design it. He’s getting himself out of the way so Tony can use it. Peter can be reckless, but he’s far from stupid. He’s found a way to catch himself. Or, the Avengers have been alerted and there’s now someone with flight abilities around to catch him - Rhodey, Sam, Vision, Wanda. Hell, it could be Pepper, this idiot is messing with her company after all.

“Yes,” Tony decides. “I trust you.”

Peter nods. “Thanks, Mr. Stark.” Then he steps backward and tumbles out of the window.

Tony’s immediately moving, taking advantage of the intruders’ shock to send out the pulse wave, knocking every soul except him in the room unconscious. It takes out the hostages too, but it can’t be helped, and as much as a vindictive part of Tony wants to watch Snow fall, he still does his duty and flies forward to catch him before he can topple out the window.

Through it all, he listens intently for the sound that will indicate which of the Avengers swooped in to catch Peter, or maybe the thwip of a concealed web-shooter that means Peter caught himself. Tony hears neither.

Instead, he hears the crunch of Peter’s bones as the kid hits the sidewalk.

 


 

“For the last time, Mr. Stark, I knew exactly what I was doing!”

“Kid. You yeeted yourself out a window.”

“And I’m fine!”

Tony sighs, beyond exasperated. “I can’t even count all the bones you broke, Webs. Look at you.”

To say Peter’s a mess doesn’t even cover it. He’s laid out in a hospital bed, and Tony can barely see his intern’s body for all the splints and bandages being used to help his shattered skeleton knit itself back together. “The doctor said I would be out in a week! Or did you forget that I heal, like, crazy fast?”

“I feel like you’re missing the point.” Tony slumps back in the hospital chair, back complaining at him from sitting in it for so long. He doesn’t care. He wasn’t going to move until Peter woke up. “I trusted you, and you go and pull that stunt?”

Peter deflates a little, but he stays defiant. “That guy was going shoot you.”

“It’s not your job to worry about me, ok? You put yourself first.”

“What, and let you get shot?” Peter sees Tony about to argue, and presses on. “I could see that you were about to take your suit off. And I knew I was going to be fine. I did the math.”

“The math,” Tony repeats flatly.

“Yeah,” Peter insists. “It was just gravity and velocity and stuff. I’m not fifteen anymore - I know what my body can take and what it can’t. I knew I’d live. I wasn’t sure you were going to. So I jumped.” His lips twitch. “You could say that I did understand the gravity of the situation.”

Tony ignores that last sentence. “You still got hurt,” he points out. “Very, very hurt, kid.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t die, and neither did any of the hostages. I don’t mind a few broken bones that will heal in a week if it means no one else got hurt.”

Tony sighs again, but this time he can’t stop it from sounding affectionate. “You’re making it really hard to be mad at you right now.”

“If it helps, I think May is mad enough for both of you.” Peter bites his lip. “That guy. Did he really lose his job?”

“Do you care?”

“Well…I know he overreacted, big time, but I’ve seen what happens when people lose their employment. It happens around my apartment building all the time. It really messes with people’s lives.”

“So, funny story. Yes, the guy did lose his job. But not because of the Blip. He was actually lined up to be fired the morning of, but before HR could tell him he was fired…” Tony snaps his fingers. “Dusted.”

Peter still sounds concerned. “But why was he fired?”

“Inappropriate workplace conduct towards female employees.”

Peter wrinkles his nose, concern evaporating. “Oh. Gross.”

“Yep.” Tony leans forward, voice turning sincere. “For what it’s worth - you did good, ok? But next time, if there’s a way out that doesn’t include you getting hurt, you take that one. Especially if the option you’re considering includes jumping off of any buildings, and especially especially if you’re asking me to trust you with something like that.”

A smile tugs at the corners of Peter’s lips. “But I heard it’s a good team-building exercise.”

“What is?”

Peter lets himself grin. “Trust falls.”

Tony groans. “That’s it. You’re fired now.”

“You can’t fire me when I’m injured! That’s workplace discrimination.”

“When you’re healed then. You’re out of here, Parker.”

“Fine. Did you want me to leave via the door or the window?”

“Too soon, Pete. Way too soon.”

“When then?”

“Give me at least three days to recover. Then we can joke about it. Deal?”

“I think I can manage that. I understand that situation needs some gravity.”

“I will leave this hospital room.”

“No, you won’t.”

Tony sighs. “No, you’re right. I won’t.” He pats the last of Peter’s unbroken limbs. “Get some rest, kid. You earned it.”

“Then I won’t miss my window of opportunity.”

“Peter!”

Chapter Text

There’s an intruder in the Tower.

Peter’s spider-sense is tingling as he’s roused by a noise from downstairs; a thud and a gasp and then nothing, as though the person has frozen. Waiting to see if they’ve been caught.

Usually Peter would write it off as one of his teammates sneaking out for a midnight snack that probably doesn’t have their name on it, except his spider-sense is urging him move danger move. “F.R.I.D.A.Y., wake everyone up,” Peter hisses. There’s someone in the Tower. F.R.I.D.A.Y.”

No answer.

Peter’s stomach plunges. An intruder who can mess with F.R.I.D.A.Y. is not a good sign. Mournfully he realizes that not only is it a school night, but also that he’s meant to meet Natasha for training before school, and he has to stay up late tomorrow night to replenish his depleted supply of web solvent. But the interruption to his sleep can't be helped - there’s danger afoot. Peter fumbles in the dark for his mask and web-shooters, pulling them on before carefully exiting his bedroom, muttering something about inconsiderate bad guys.

He debates getting backup, about waking everyone else up first, and then decides against it for time reasons - even though Tony is definitely going to chew him out for it later. Unless…

Sam’s room is closest. It wouldn’t take much of a detour, he probably has time before the intruder does whatever they’ve come here to do, and it’ll save him a Tony Stark Signature Lecture later down the line.

Peter knocks on Sam’s door. No answer. “Sam?”

The door is unlocked. Praying that Sam doesn’t sleep commando, Peter nudges it open.

The room’s empty. The bedsheets are a mess, as is the floor. As though Sam left in a hurry. Or as though someone made him leave in a hurry.

Spooked, Peter backs out of Sam’s room. Is this about Sam? Are the intruders here to grab their leader? Or just wanted a hostage in case they got caught and Sam was the closest?

The noise is still coming from the kitchen downstairs. Peter pads towards it, straining his ears. No lights are turned on, and it only sounds like one person at least, but Peter’s been in too many scrapes by now to know that means nothing. Sometimes one person is enough, and it’s always better to overestimate their opponents’ competence than underestimate it. Peter readies his web-shooters. They’re the basic set he keeps by his bed, nothing fancy, but the classic webs are more than enough when used properly.

As he approaches the doorway to the kitchen he swaps from walking to crawling, scooting up the walls and clinging to the ceiling. His spider-sense isn’t growing at least, just a steady beat of danger danger danger as he gets closer.

He enters the kitchen, still tip-toeing along the ceiling, letting his eyes adjust. The figure below him looks male, although he can’t assume that’s correct just by shape, and is moving with impressive stealth. Just one - no accomplices or captives in sight. So whoever has Sam is elsewhere in the building. Or else they’ve already left, which would not be a good point in Sam’s favor, but if Peter can nab this guy maybe he can lead them to Sam later.

The intruder is rifling in a bag of some kind, and Peter’s brain goes down the paths of spyware gas bomb all at once.

Not that it matters. Peter’s not going to let it get that far. He creeps a little further, making sure not to make a sound as he hovers right above the man with the bag. He glues his feet to the ceiling so as to free up his wrists, readying his web-shooters.

Then he fires.

He catches the man across the arms and the mouth, not wanting him to be able to activate the bag or call out to any friends for help. He gets a muffled yell of surprise and outrage in response as the intruder flies backward with the force of the web. He keeps his feet though, which Peter quickly rectifies by launching himself from the ceiling into the intruder’s chest.

With his arms bound, the man loses his balance, falling back on his ass as Peter makes the most of the opening, following up with a punch to the side of the head.

The intruder’s quick though, dodging Peter’s blow as he throws himself to the side, skidding across the floor. He huffs through his nose, trying to say something through the webbing, but Peter isn’t here to listen. He’s here to take this guy out, then go find out whatever his friends have done to Sam.

This time when he flies forward, the man isn’t quick enough, and Peter’s fist connects with his nose just as the kitchen lights turn on.

The sudden change from almost pitch blackness to the blinding lightbulbs sends Peter’s senses into overdrive. He cries out, throwing one hand over his eyes and sending a web in the direction of the door with the other.

“Stand down, Spider-Man. Your quarry has been subdued.”

That voice. He knows that voice. “Natasha?”

It’s followed by a choked, nasally, muffled yell of protest, and Peter snaps back to his captive, arms strapped to his sides, mouth sealed shut, now choking on his own blood from a very broken nose.

“Sam?” Peter indulges in one moment of pure shock before he’s diving forward, forcing Sam’s head down. He whips off the Spider-Man mask, using it to hastily clear Sam’s nose of blood, trying to unblock the remaining unwebbed airway. “I - why are you breaking into the Tower?”

Sam makes a noise of equal confusion and protest in response as Peter fumbles for the edge of the webbing around his mouth, looking for a weak point he can exploit.

“I was helping!” Peter retorts. The webbing isn’t coming loose, not without him tearing Sam’s lips off with it, but Sam needs to breathe and his nose isn’t an option right now. “Um, this is going to be weird. Sorry.”

And he shoves his fingers through the webbing, right into Sam’s mouth.

Sam jerks his head back, coughing. “What the hell, Parker?”

“I’m sorry, I thought you’d like access to oxygen sometime tonight.”

Sam glares at him, heaving in breaths through the tiny gap Peter’s made between his lips. “Again. What the hell?”

“I thought you’d been kidnapped!”

“So you broke my nose?”

“I didn’t know it was you!”

“How did you not know it was me?”

“It was dark and my danger sense went off and F.R.I.D.A.Y. wasn’t working and -”

There’s the sound of a throat being cleared, and both Sam and Peter look after to where Natasha is watching them from the doorway with an arched eyebrow. But it’s not just Natasha. She’s hauling two unconscious men behind her.

“Um,” is Peter’s brilliant response. “What?”

“There were intruders,” Natasha says. There's the slightest curve to her lips, and Peter has a nagging suspicion that she’s trying not to laugh. “From what I got out of them, two of Justin Hammer’s lackeys come to steal some of Tony’s latest material, seeing as Hammer is clearly not able to come up with his own. But thank you for taking out our deadly fridge tamperer, Spider-Man.”

Peter looks over at the bag. It’s filled with energy drink. Specifically, Bucky’s favorite Mango Tango Blast-flavored energy drink. “I’m still lost.”

“His delivery came today. I was going to shake them before I put them away,” Sam explains. “So when he opened one it would - you know. That’s all. Wait.” He whips his head towards Natasha. “The Tower got broken into?”

“Yep. Don’t worry, I got it.” She indicates the prey at her feet. “I’ll dump the security issues on Tony in the morning, he can sort it out. Thank god I survived that time heist - what would you do without me?

“I - yeah. Good. Do that.” Sam struggles against the webbing, quickly becoming frustrated when he can’t get his arms loose. “Um, hello? Can you let me out?”

“Right. Sorry. I was trying to save your ass though, for the record.” Peter reaches for the solvent he always keeps in his suit, only to remember he’s in his pajamas. His very, very faded Captain America pajamas, that he really hopes Sam remains too pissed off to notice until he can get away. And that isn’t the only issue with the solvent. “Ok. Don’t get mad.”

“Too late.”

“I…don’t have any solvent for the webs right now.”

Sam attempts to wriggle free increase. “Ha ha. Very funny. Now go get some.”

“So, I might not have made more yet? But don’t worry, the webs dissolve on their own in twelve hours."

“Twelve hours? Just rip through them! You just tore through the webs on my mouth like wrapping paper."

"And you make a very pretty present, Sam," Natasha supplies.

"Don’t even start, Romanoff.”

"I always fire a way bigger dose on the arms. What?" Peter protests at Sam's expression. "It's tactical."

"You can't just leave me like this!" Sam squirms, but no dice.

“Yeah, so…” Peter glances at Natasha, guilty. “I guess I’ll be missing training in the morning?”

“Hm, no you won’t.”

“But it’s already so late, I need to sleep!” Then, at Sam’s sound of outrage, “And someone needs to stay with Sam to make sure he’s ok until the webs dissolve. Obviously.”

Natasha smiles sweetly. “I’m sure Bucky will be happy to look after him. Especially after he finds out just what you were doing with his Mango Tango blast, Sam.”

Sam groans, making one last half-hearted bid for freedom before slumping forward, defeated. “This isn’t happening.”

“Karma’s always happening,” Natasha replies. One of the men at her feet moans, starting to stir, only to go still again after Natasha kicks him in the head. “Hope you have a strong bladder, Wilson, or you and Bucky are about to get really close.”

“I said not to start!"

"Too late."

“Wait,” Peter remembers. “Your room. It was a total mess, like someone had ransacked it!”

Sam flushes. “That’s my personal space, ok?”

Peter stares at him. “Even my room isn’t that bad.”

“So? My room’s messy, what does that - you broke my nose! We were invaded. How am I the bad guy here?”

“But…you’re Captain America.”

“Not in my bedroom I’m not!”

"Aw," Natasha pretends to pout. "You're going to disappoint a lot of ladies with that attitude, Sam."

Peter presses his hands over his ears. "Ew. Gross."

Natasha smirks at them. “Well, you two have a very pleasant evening. Peter - don’t you leave Sam's side until Bucky comes to relieve you. I’m sure Sam can walk you through resetting his nose.” She leans down to grip the foiled robbers by the collars. “I’m taking these two to our brig.”

“Last question,” Peter says, as she turns to leave. “We’re, like, the most secure building in New York. How’d they get in?”

Natasha smiles, all innocence. “How all robbers get into buildings, Peter. Intruder window.”

Chapter Text

Peter didn’t know it was possible to feel this hungry.

He doesn’t know how long it’s been. It’s impossible to measure time in the abandoned base. The room has no windows and is deep enough into the stone building that he can’t measure time by temperature. Early on he’d tried counting, more for something to distract himself than anything, but his head has since grown fuzzy, the numbers swimming together.

He’s working through any and all other distractions he can think of. He’s recited the plot of every movie that’s come to mind, counted up every prime number he knows and then tried to find new ones, pictured exactly what he’s going to eat when Tony finally comes back for him.

He gives up on that last one pretty quickly. It just makes him hungrier.

 


 

“We’d be in and out of here in like, ten minutes if we had the suits. Just saying.”

“I thought you were keen to do some good old-fashioned spy work.”

“I was. But I pictured, I don’t know. Disarming bombs and dangling from vents. Not inventory.”

Tony snorts, finishing up the room they’re currently searching. “No bombs for you. I have dinner plans with Pepper tomorrow. She’s not going to be impressed if we cancel our reservations at Le Bernadin because bits of me are smeared over one of Hydra’s old file rooms.”

“Gross. Are we done in here?”

“I would say so. Come on, one more.”

“Then we can go home?”

Tony sends Peter an offended look. “What happened to the puppy dog who used to beg to come on every Avengers’ mission?”

“I went on enough missions to learn which ones were the good ones.”

“Wow.” Tony leads the way into the final room. It appears to be full of old film reels, packed away in rusted tins. “Fine. I’m letting Romanoff do all your spy training from now on.”

“She practically does.” Peter starts searching, picking up the first tin. “How do we even determine what in here is worth taking?”

“Not by opening the tins,” Tony answers quickly. “Don’t expose the film to light until we can do it properly. Just check the labels.”

“They’re in Russian. Why didn’t we bring Natasha again?”

Tony sighs, loudly and deliberately. “Just search.”

“For what? You didn’t even tell me what to look for.” The last past comes out harsher than he means it to, pushing past playful banter into complaint territory. “Sorry. Just tired. And hungry.”

Tony nods, sympathetic. “I know it’s been a long day, but you’re doing great. Once we wrap up here we’ll go back to the plane, ok? Dehydrated beef goulash for two.”

“I’m hungry enough for that to actually sound good.”

Peter places the film cases he’s looking at to one side and moves down to the back rows, trying to analyze them properly instead of just skimming. He’d been a little surprised when Tony had offered to take him on this mission, sans suits, gadgets and quinjet. “It’ll be good for you,” Tony had assured him. “We’ve hit enough snags in past missions by now to know that we can’t always rely on the suits or a quick escape. Sometimes it’s just us, and we have to make that enough.”

Which had sounded exciting, until Peter had discovered that the ‘mission’ was just retrieving old files from a recently discovered Hydra base in Ukraine. They’d been at it for two long, freezing cold days, and it had felt more like grunt work than the spy training Tony had promised. Considering Tony had been consistently busy over the past month, between the Avengers and SI and Morgan, Peter didn’t know why his mentor had decided it was worth giving up two days for this.

Free enough for this and not for lab time, a voice keeps pressing him, but Peter shuts it out. At some point in between Titan and being invited over to the Starks’ lake house for Taco Tuesdays, Peter had forgotten that Tony was still, well…Tony. He had a million more important things to do than spend time with a teenager he’d known for barely two years - or seven years, depending on how you wanted to run the Blip math.

Peter’s train of thought is interrupted when the lettering on the film tins turns from Russian script to a symbol he recognizes all too well. “Mr. Stark!” Peter calls. “I think I found something!”

“Really?” Tony sounds surprised, then hastily covers it up. “Of course you did. Because there was always plenty to find in this place. Hold on, I’ll come and take a look.”

Peter shoves away the intrusive thoughts that this whole mission was a waste of time to focus on the tins in front of him. Specifically, the little red star-emblazoned in their centers. He goes to step closer, trying to get a better look.

“Pete, no, don’t step there!”

“What?” Peter freezes, just as he feels a stone under his foot sink and strong hands grabbing at him, shoving him out of the way.

 


 

Peter’s trying to conserve his water. He only has half a bottle left, but the room is starting to spin. If he falls off the pressure plate he’s trapped on he’s gone, and it’s not going to matter how full his water bottle is or isn’t.

A couple of swallows. That’s all. He can save the rest for later.

He pops the lid off the bottle, mouth watering in anticipation. Just a couple of swallows. That’s it. He needs to save the rest.

Then cool liquid is hitting his throat, and survival instincts obliterate any form of logic and he’s chugging the rest of the water with desperate greed, not realizing what he’s done until the bottle is empty. He still bangs the bottom of the bottle, sucking at the lid to make sure he’s gotten every last drop.

It feels so good that he can’t even bring himself to regret finishing the water. Some of the lightness in his head is gone, stomach gaining a false feeling of fullness.

Even if he knows that it’s not going to last long.

 


 

“Mr. Stark?”

Peter shakes off the shock of being shoved against a wall of old film reels to look back at where Tony’s standing, completely frozen. One booted foot is now on a tile indented into the floor.

“Mr. Stark,” Peter repeats, staring down at the traitorous stone. “Please don’t tell me the first cool thing that’s happened on this mission is a booby trap.”

“We really need to go over what classifies as cool and uncool there, Webs.” Tony moves his gaze to the reels of film Peter was looking at. “Ah. Information on our old friend the Winter Soldier.” His attention returns to the pressure plate he’s now trapped on. "Apparently important enough information to risk blowing up if the wrong people got too close to it. Or the right people, depending on how you want to look at it.”

“Blowing up?” Peter’s heart rate ratchets up. “Why the hell would you push me out of the way if you knew there was a bomb under there?”

Tony gives him an exasperated look. “Do you really have to ask me that at this point?”

“But- but I triggered it! It was my fault, I didn’t see it, I set it off -”

“Hey, hey, take a breath. I used to specialize in bombs, remember? Merchant of Death.”

“Ugh. Don’t call yourself that.”

“It was pretty accurate, once upon a time. But now we’re going to use that knowledge to save some lives, ok?"

"But -"

Peter,” Tony presses. “I’m going to be fine.”

“Right. Right.” Peter nods, because of course Tony's going to be fine. There's no other option. “What can I do?”

“We can get down there, take a look. And by that I mean you can get down there, because I’m a little stuck right now.”

“Right. Ok. Taking a look.” Peter kneels down, gingerly surveying the trap. “Now what?”

“Check the stones around it. See if you can get them loose. Preferably without blowing us up.”

“Mr. Stark! Too much pressure!” Peter forces himself to breathe as he checks the stones around the booby-trapped one, heart leaping when he notes a loose one. “I think I found something.”

“Alright. Turn it over.”

Peter swallows. “Um. Are you sure it’s not going to...you know.” He mimes an explosion.

“Like…eighty-eight percent sure.”

“So twelve percent chance we’re going to explode.”

Tony shrugs. “Better odds than we usually get. Lift that bad boy up, Underoos. Don’t think about it.”

“I am very much thinking about it!” Peter hauls in a breath then, before he can wimp out, pries it up.

Nothing happens.

“Nice,” Tony says, far too calm for someone currently standing on a bomb. Then again, this is Tony. This probably seems like a regular Saturday for him. “Flip it over, let's take a look under the hood.”

Peter carefully turns the stone over, confusion growing. “What the hell is that?”

 


 

The fake fullness of the water has long since faded.

Peter sways, then catches himself, trying very hard to not think about how long it’s been since he’s eaten something. He’d been hungry long before he’d even set off the trap, and it’s a long flight back to New York in the plane they’ve taken. And Tony needs to get there and back.

You’re going to be fine, Peter tries to reassure himself. Tony’s going to come back and get you out. Just hold on a little longer.

His stomach growls. His head aches. His eyes try to slip closed.

Come on, Tony. Please hurry.

 


 

Tony learns forward as much as he can without moving his foot. “The disarm needs a code.”

“So…” Peter starts at the tiny device now clutched in his hands. “We can hack around it, right? Right? This is the part where you say, 'Of course we can, kid, we can do anything when we work together!'”

"I don't sound like that. If I ever start talking like that, shoot me, because I'm probably a skrull." 

"Actually, Captain Danvers said the skrull were the good guys."

Tony is only half-listening as he runs down the list of options. He grimaces, seeming to hate all of them. “Alright. This lovely little trap our tentacled friends left us isn’t quite beyond me, but due to what’s at stake - that being me sticking around at least a few more years - and considering we have a handful of Hydra experts just loitering around the Tower, I’m making the call. Which is that you are going to get help.”

“Mr. Stark, I am not leaving you here.”

“We don’t really have a choice here.”

“We can just disarm it!”

Tony’s resolve is set. “No, Pete. We can’t. Especially with you standing that close."

“So if we can't disarm it, what do we do?”

“I already told you. Go get help.”

“You want me to fly all the way back to New York?”

“The plane doesn’t have F.R.I.D.A.Y. but it does have autopilot. Plug in the location, radio the others when you get back in range. Bucky, preferably.” Tony looks down at the little device for disarming the bomb, wrinkling his nose. “If anyone is going to know how to disarm something this archaic and Hydra-related, it’s our resident half-cyborg.”

“I don’t think one arm qualifies as half.”

“Stop stalling. The sooner you go, the sooner you can come back.”

“I can’t just leave you, it’ll take hours! You're going to stand in the same position without food for hours on end?”

“Yes. And every minute you wait here is another minute I’m standing on Hydra’s little parting gift.” Tony gives him a reassuring smile. “I’m ok, Peter. Go.”

“Alright. Alright.” Peter stands, holding out his hand.

Tony looks at it, bemused. “What, are the kids doing handshakes now?”

“Well, I don’t want to risk hugging you. So. I don’t know. Handshake.”

“You’re so weird, kid.” Tony reaches out to take Peter’s hand, only for Peter to grasp it, stepping close, ignoring Tony’s surprised shout as Peter grabs him around the waist and uses his foot to slide Tony’s off the trap.

 


 

Peter’s nearly done.

He knows it. There’s nothing he can do. There are no more distractions. No more water. Just the hunger and knowledge that he’s not going to be able to hold on much longer.

“It’s ok,” he mutters, trying to calm himself. “Tony got out. That’s all that matters. It’s ok.”

Everything is spinning. He closes his eyes, but that just makes it worse. His stomach is trying to eat itself, there’s nothing left. There’s nothing.

“Peter!”

Peter’s eyes fly open at Tony’s voice. It’s his fatal mistake. The sudden visual stimuli starts him spinning again, sending him reeling and knocking him off balance.

Knocking him right off the pressure plate.

Peter inhales sharply, waiting for the inevitable flash of pain and heat before - nothing. Gone. Black.

He gets red instead.

“What?” He looks down at his now glowing body, kept rigidly in place. “Wanda?”

Wanda appears in the doorway of the room a split second later, hands glowing in front of her. “Bucky wasn’t available. But I thought I would suffice.”

Tony appears behind her a split second later, flushed and out of breath, now dressed from the neck down in nanotech. “Hold on, kid. We’re getting you out.”

The brick under Peter’s foot glows red next. “It’s contained,” Wanda announces. “You can move, Peter.”

Peter looks down at his foot. “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely sure.”

“I can move.” He doesn’t.

“Ok, ok, I got it.” Tony crosses the room, placing his hands on Peter’s elbows. “We’ll do it together. Alright?”

“But…but bomb.”

“But bomb is contained,” Tony assures him. “And I have a yummy nutrition shake with your name on it as soon as you get your ass moving.”

Food. Food.

“Ok. I guess I can move.”

“On three, alright? One. Two. Three.”

Tony’s hands tighten and pull him off the bomb. Wanda’s magic contains it. It doesn't blow up. He made it. 

“Oh, thank god.” Peter’s legs give out, Tony catching him and lowering them both to the ground.

“Here.” Tony pulls a pouch of something gray and thick that looks like cement. Peter doesn’t care, reaching for it immediately.

The first gulp of nutrients does nothing to quell the ache in his stomach, and he whines when Tony takes the pouch away.

“Slowly,” Tony warns him. “You know the drill.” He sighs, taking in Peter’s exhausted body. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“I set it off,” Peter mumbles. “My fault.”

“Actually, when we’re on a mission together, everything that happens is my fault.”

“That sounds wrong.”

"So does the person with the enhanced metabolism choosing to replace the one that doesn't. So much for quality time.”

“Quality time?”

Tony shrugs. “I know I’ve been busy. Too busy. That’s not fair on you. I thought a mission together that took longer than a few hours…Well. Should have known something would happen, what with our luck.”

Peter manages a smile. “You just wanted to spend time with me.”

“Duh. Although if that’s going to lead to you pushing me off more bombs, I’ll take it back.” Tony offers the pouch again, letting Peter drink a bit more this time. He turns to Wanda. “I’m taking Peter back to the jet. You good here?”

Wanda nods. She crushes the magical bubble, disarming the bomb. “Get him home.”

“No arguments here.” Tony gets one arm under Peter’s knees and the other under his neck, scooping him up. “And I mean it about no taking shots for me anymore. And me finding more ways to spend time with you that doesn’t involve bombs.”

“Hm. You have a lot on your plate.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean -” Tony cuts off. “A lot on my plate. Like a pressure plate.”

“Ha. Got you.”

Tony sighs, but it sounds affectionate. “Yeah, kid. You got me. You got me good."

Chapter Text

“Spider-Man, incoming!”

Peter’s already ducking before Sam’s voice explodes in his ear, spider-sense telling him to dodge move now. Turns out the downside to having a danger sense is that it has limited use when everything around him is a danger. Which is apparently the case when an army of deadly robots decides to invade the city. Every available Avenger has been called out to deal with the threat, the team balancing taking out the bots while also keeping them within a confined perimeter to prevent property damage and civilian loss.

“Are we sure there’s no mothership to blow up?” Sam’s saying over comms. “One that will conveniently destroy the whole army with it?”

“Hey!” Tony protests. “What part of flying into a wormhole with a nuke as a heroic sacrifice sounds convenient to you?”

“Um, all of it? Come on, you didn’t even die from the fall. Banner saved your ass. Because he conveniently showed up."

"And you guys give me crap for never shutting up on comms," Peter throws at them. A blast takes out the patch of pavement where Peter was standing only seconds earlier, just for a second robot to swoop at him fists first. Peter throws an arm out, firing a web to take it out. Before he finds out if the bot or the web is going to hit first, an arrow slams into the robot’s side, knocking Peter's adversary away before the arrow detonates.

Peter throws his arms up to cover his face from debris before twisting around to throw a thumbs up at one of the remaining buildings still standing in their sector. “Thanks, Hawkeye!”

Clint salutes him, which alerts Peter to a formation of robots heading straight for the block of apartments Clint’s chosen for his perch. Apparently the mechanical army has gotten tired of the Avengers' eyes calling out patterns and strays.

“Hawkeye! Incoming!”

Clint’s already seen them, firing another exploding arrow into their ranks, but it’s too late. A combined blast from the attacking robots lights up the bottom floor, and then the building is falling.

“Clint!” Pete races for the building to help, firing a web at the ruined apartments on either side of it and yanking himself upward. Clint’s supposed to be positioned right in the center of things, lending sniper support to those fighting on the ground, closer to the action. It’s been working, but it also means that anyone with flight capabilities is on the perimeter - too far away to catch a falling teammate.

Peter fires a second web that allows him to swing sideways, plunging down again. Clint’s fired a grappling arrow, trying to catch himself, but the piece of the building it attaches to just crumbles with him. Peter readies an arm, bracing himself, then catches Clint only a few yards from the ground as he fires another web, this one bringing them back up.

Clint grunts in pain at the impact but manages to cling on as Peter swings them up onto the balcony of the building over. It’s partially destroyed, the railing completely gone, but it’s big enough for them both to crouch on and catch their breath.

“Wow,” Peter breathes. “Very close.”

Clint allows himself a wry laugh, wincing as it tugs on what must be bruised ribs from where Peter caught him. “Nah, I was fine. I got Spider-Man around to save me.”

Peter flushes a little, glad it’s hidden by the mask. Even though he’s been coming on the Avengers’ missions for months now, it still feels surreal at times that he’s fighting alongside his long-time heroes. “Well, you saved me first. So we’re even.”

“We save each other, how about that?”

“Kid. Barton. You ok?”

“We’re fine, Tony,” Clint replies, running his hands over his quiver to check for arrows, grimacing when he realizes he’s running low. “I’m almost out of ammo though. Might it be time for me to join Nat and Bucky on the ground.”

“Yeah, I got a better plan. One of you catch.”

Peter just has time to see a blur of red and gold above him before he’s shooting out his hand to catch the small, black triangle Tony has dropped to them. He turns it over, then holds it out to Clint. “Think this one’s for you.”

Clint takes the arrowhead, frowning at it. “You going to tell me what this is or what?”

“I’m getting there, jeez. Mixed up a little EMP on the fly. Get it to whatever is controlling these things, and we can get them all at once. Efficiency and all that.”

“So what you're saying is," Peter grins. “There is a convenient mothership we can blow up.”

“Again. Almost died to do that. So not at all convenient.”

Clint rolls his eyes. “Let it go already, Stark. So - where’s the center of this army?”

“So, here’s the thing.”

“You don’t know where the center is, do you?"

“I’m multitasking here! Look, I think we can get them all the old-fashioned anyway, but I’m a big fan of Plan Bs. So if you can find the shot that takes them all out, great, but in the meantime-”

Danger move danger DANGER -

Peter shoots a hand out to grip Clint’s wrist, looking around wildly.

“Peter?” Clint presses. "What's going on?"

“Danger,” Peter murmurs, still trying to locate whatever has put his spider-sense into overdrive. “But I can’t see- where is-”

He doesn’t get any further before a piercing blast almost knocks him off the building. He sticks to it with one hand while tightening his grip on Clint with the other, eyes watering before everything goes completely dark and silent.

“Karen?” Peter asks, only to realize he can’t hear his own voice. His eyes are open but he’s not seeing anything, it’s just black and quiet.

There's nothing. He's alone in the middle of a battlefield, and he can't see or hear a thing. He's a sitting duck. 

And then breathing.

He can hear breathing. And see a spot of light. Then more than a spot.

Peter blinks rapidly, the world coming back into blurry focus around him. He sighs in relief as his senses come flooding back. “What was that?”

“A sonic weapon,” Karen informs him. “I believe your mask prevented you from suffering the worst of the effects.”

“My mask,” Peter repeats, before his stomach twists, because only one Avenger up here has that kind of protection. “Clint! Are you ok?”

He doesn’t get an answer. Peter shakes his head, willing away the rest of the fogginess to feel Clint hanging onto his arm like a vice, gazing straight ahead of him, breaths getting more ragged by the second.

“Clint?” Peter presses, reaching his other hand out.

It’s a mistake. Clint flinches the second Peter touches him. He pulls away with a snarl, hackles raised, the complete opposite of the joking teammate Peter had been working with only seconds before.

“Clint, it’s me! It’s Peter!”

Peter senses the punch coming before it does, dodging it, but that only gives Clint the opportunity to scoot further away from him - right towards the exposed balcony edge.

Cursing, Peter lunges forward and grabs Clint’s other wrist, anchoring his feet to the ground as Clint fights to get free. The archer’s eyes are still empty, staring at nothing, and he’s not responding to verbal cues either. Clint’s no match for Peter’s strength but he’s proving himself to be damn slippery, only freezing when his foot slips right off the edge of the balcony.

Peter goes still with him, both of them trying to catch their breath. Clint swallows, eyes darting around but focusing on nothing. “Peter?”

“Yeah. It’s me. Just me.”

Clint’s hands tighten on Peter’s arms. At first, Peter thinks he’s trying to get a better grip, but then notices that Clint isn’t just hanging on. He’s running his fingers over Peter’s suit, as though checking the texture of it.

A sonic weapon. “Um, Clint?” Peter says slowly, already dreading the answer. “Can you hear me?”

He doesn’t get a response. That’s confirmation enough.

“Peter?” Tony’s saying in his ear. “What happened? Why aren’t you moving?”

“We got hit,” Peter replies. “By…something.”

The concern in Tony’s voice ratchets up a few notches. “Are you ok?”

“I’m fine,” Peter says quickly. “But Clint isn’t. He can’t…he can’t see.” Peter leans around, trying to get a better look at Clint’s hearing aids. They look fine, but that doesn’t mean much right now. “And I don’t think he can hear either.”

Tony swears over the comms. “Hey, Cap - you getting this?”

“I think…” Peter swallows, surveying the battle below. “I know it’s all hands on deck down there, but I can’t just leave him.”

“No, you can’t,” Sam’s voice chimes in. “We’re ok - the battle’s turning in our favor. Prioritize getting Clint back to the Tower.”

“On it,” Peter confirms. “Easy.” He peers over the partially destroyed balcony to the ground below. He raises his hand to get a web ready to get them down, only for Clint’s vice-grip to tighten even further.

Alright. So not so easy.

“Clint,” Peter starts, then remembers. “Right. You can’t hear me. Um -”

“Can you undo it?” Clint bursts out before Peter can finish. “You got the suit, right? Something in there to- to- you know.”

“Karen?” Peter tries.

“Without access to the weapon, it is difficult to ascertain the extent of damage, or how to remedy it.”

Carefully, Peter shifts Clint’s hand to his cheek so Clint can feel him shake his head.

Clint inhales sharply. “But it’s not, you know- permanent. Right? It’s just- it’s just for now. Temporary.”

“Without access to the weapon -”

“Ok, ok, I get it.” Peter decides to nod anyway, to try and give Clint at least some reassurance, but his hesitation isn’t missed.

“You don’t know,” Clint breathes. “That’s- ok. Ok.” He swallows, then obviously tries to calm himself down. Peter remembers being in this position only moments before, sure he was stuck like that, how absolutely terrifying that had been. And now that's Clint's reality. "I’m guessing the next step is to get us off this building.”

Peter nods again.

“Alright.” Clint takes one more shuddering breath, then rallies himself. “Ok. Dealt a shit hand. Got to play it anyway. Let’s go.”

This time when Peter wraps an arm securely around Clint’s waist and prepares to fire, Clint doesn’t fight him. Even so, the archer is so tense he’s shaking, unable to see or hear the threats coming. And Clint doesn’t even have a suit out here.

“We’re going to be fine,” Peter mutters, sticking a web to a stable-looking piece of balcony, trying very hard not to think about just how firmly Clint’s life is in his hands right now. “Just fine. Nothing is going to happen, just got to get down from this building.” He tests the web, makes sure it’s got a good hold, and jumps, just as one of the robots flies by and cuts the web in two.

Peter's already firing another one, only for the same robot to burn that one away before it can stick, and then Peter and Clint are free-falling to the ground below. Peter continues firing webs, but the robots seem to have caught onto that trick and cut them off before they can catch onto anything. Clint must work out they're in trouble because he starts to struggle in Peter's hold. Peter panics a little, trying to cling on, but between the fall and trying to shoot webs and Clint actively trying to escape him, it’s too much. Clint slips out of Peter's grip.

“No!” Peter twists in midair, with the intention of firing one web upwards and one down to catch Clint, when something hard and solid locks around his waist instead. It knocks the wind out of him, but that’s nothing compared to when he jolts to a sudden halt a couple of seconds later, only a few feet above the sidewalk below.

He’s dropped a second time only a moment later, dimly aware of a cry of pain he’s pretty sure isn’t his own. Peter heaves himself upright, pushing the bottom of his mask up to vomit up his pre-mission Banana Berry Blast protein smoothie. The movement sends fire all the way through his ribs - definitely broken.

“Ow,” Peter moans, rolling over on his back, wincing as the movement jostles cracked bone. “That sucked. That really sucked.”

There’s a pained groan from behind him. Peter hastily pulls himself together enough to check on Clint, the momentary relief of his teammate being alive quickly replaced by horror at the state of his arm. The fall hadn't been kind to either of them, but Clint had definitely got the short end of an already very short stick, with the archer's shoulder having been wrenched right out of the socket.

“Oh, gross.” Peter forces himself up on his hands and knees, ignoring the fresh wave of agony the movement sends through his lower torso. He touches Clint’s uninjured arm as gently as he can, trying to indicate it’s a friend and not foe. Clint still flinches away from him anyway, only to go rigid with a shout as it pulls at his damaged arm.

“It’s me!” Peter rubs the Spider-Man suit against Clint’s forearm, hoping the familiar texture is registering through the extreme pain Clint must be in. “How did we stop falling? None of my webs were catching!”

Then he sees it. Clint’s bow, now laying in pieces a couple of feet away, the remains of a grappling arrow beside it.

“You caught us,” Peter realizes. “You used a grappling arrow to catch us. Even though you couldn’t even see- damn, that’s so badass!”

Clint reaches out blindly, and Peter puts his hand in his. “Save each other,” Clint says through gritted teeth. “Yeah?” And then he guides Peter’s hand down to his dislocated arm.

“Ah,” is all Peter's brain provides, every first aid lesson he’s ever gotten from Sam choosing at that moment to go completely out the window. “Surely we can wait until -”

“Fix it,” Clint talks over him, voice strained and pleading. “Please. Hurts.”

Peter swallows, registering that Hawkeye losing his eyes and his drawing arm all in the same afternoon is probably not doing wonders for Clint’s state of mind right now. “Ok,” he breathes. “Dislocated shoulder. Just got to pop it back in. Piece of cake.”

He gingerly moves his way around to where Clint wrecked the joint by catching them both before they hit the ground. Clint pulls away with a hiss and a grimace when Peter touches, only to lock his body back down, resolute. “Do it.”

Peter inhales. Exhales. And pops the joint back in.

The shriek of pain he gets in return pierces his eardrums, but the arm is at least looking somewhat back to normal. Still, he’ll be amazed if Clint hasn’t torn several important somethings in there with the stunt he pulled, although Peter guesses it’s better than both of them hitting the sidewalk at full velocity.

“Alright,” Peter says. “On the ground. Some broken stuff.” He touches his ribs gingerly. “But we can still walk, yeah? So let’s get back to the Tower. Out of the way. And take all the painkillers. Yeah. Good plan, Peter."

Peter’s just weighing up how best to get Clint back on his feet without straining his own injuries too much, when a robot lands right in front of him. And then another. And another. And then many others.

“Guys?” Peter says into the comms, readying to fight. He shoves his mask back down, feeling it lock back onto his suit. “Any chance of backup?”

Clint frowns, shooting out his good hand to feel the ground that’s now vibrating. “More robots?”

Peter places a hand on Clint’s good shoulder and pushes him down, hoping Clint gets the message to stay out of this one as the robots start to converge.

“Pocket,” Clint’s saying, struggling to sit up. “In my -”

Then a blast is being fired Peter’s way, and he’s deep into the fight. Any strategies he’s been forming about how to fight a small legion of deadly robots while also keeping a near-defenseless teammate out of harm’s way evaporate as it quickly becomes a game of deadly dodgeball.

Peter ducks the first three blasts, swinging up behind two of them and knocking their heads together so hard he sees circuitry. “Ha! Rust in peace!” He throws those two into their companions, knocking them down like bowling pins, before shooting a web at the one coming up behind him and yanking it into the ground. “Byte me.”

“Parker!” Tony’s voice bursts in his ear. “Stop making puns and focus.”

“Wouldn’t need to focus so hard if I had some backup right about - take that!” Two more down, and Peter’s just thinking that maybe he’s on the winning side of this when a metal hand catches him right in his broken ribs. He doubles over, swallowing bile he can’t spit out with the mask in the way. “Oh, I’m sorry, am I pushing your buttons?”

Tony says something else, almost definitely another rebuff, but Peter’s distracted when he hears a pained voice cry out behind him. He whirls towards it, ignoring the fresh pain that ignites up his side. “Clint! Hold on, I’m -”

But Clint is no longer lying where Peter left him. He’s on his knees, being held there by a metal claw around his throat. Peter’s eyes travel up the claw to the arm it's attached to, settling on a man in a long back coat and sunglasses who has four, silver, robotic limbs sprouting out of his back. The man takes him in, face splitting in a grin as he hauls a helpless Clint closer to him. “Hello, little spider.”

 


 

“This isn’t going to work.”

Peter tugs against the handcuffs pinning him to the metal chair. They’re thick, heavy, clearly designed for those beyond normal human strength, but even so he thinks he can break them. The problem with that being that he’d still be trapped in a warehouse filled with killer robots, a man with way too many limbs, and a blind and deaf teammate.

Peter hadn’t had a lot of choice but to go with the man with the metal arms, not unless he wanted to leave Clint’s corpse behind for the Avengers to find. The metal claw hadn’t released from Clint’s throat until they’d both been secured to chairs in the warehouse, the concerned voices in Peter’s ear cutting off as soon as they crossed the barbed wire fence surrounding it.

“No?” The man tips Peter’s chin up, catching his jaw in one of his metal claws when Peter tries to squirm away. “You are outnumbered. My inhibitors are blocking your trackers and your communication devices. Your friend is useless against me. Tell me, Spider-Man - how exactly do you intend on stopping this from happening?”

Peter casts a nervous look at Clint, who’s tied to a chair next to him, eyes fixed blankly on the ceiling. Peter's still wearing the mask, so his features are hidden, but the spider eyes must widen with his because the man grins at him.

“Exactly. You wish to protect him. Your friends will wish to protect you. And I,” the grip on Peter’s chin tightens to the point of being painful. “Wish to protect myself. So in a way, we’re all about to get what we want.”

“The Avengers won’t do a thing you want.”

“Oh, I think they -” the man starts, only to be interrupted by Clint.

“I hate to break it to you,” Clint calls to the room at large. “But if you’re setting me up for torture, you’re about to be very disappointed.”

The man ignores him. “They will do what I want,” he insists. “They’ll do whatever I tell them to do, if they ever want to see you and your friend -”

“I mean, you’d be disappointed anyway,” Clint goes on. He sounds casual enough, but Peter can still catch the undercurrents of pain in the words. Sitting with his arms bound behind him can’t be easy on Clint’s recently dislocated shoulder. “I’m pretty resilient, you know. Once spent three days with Chinese breakers, so let me tell you now, they’re pretty hard to top. No one’s managed yet. The things they can do with red peppers, you wouldn’t believe. Ruined Mexican food for life. That was the true torture.”

“Find something to shut him up with,” their captor snaps at a passing robot.

“But believe or not, torture actually requires the person you’re torturing to, you know, hear the questions you’re asking them, and as you assholes took out my hearing aids, that’s going to make life a lot more difficult for everyone.” Clint pulls on the handcuffs. They’re not the heavy-duty ones that are locked on Peter, but Clint still grimaces when the metal tugs on his shoulder.

“We’re going to do a little live broadcast,” the man says to Peter. “Get your team’s attention. And when we’re on the air, you’re going to -”

“Wait. Wait.” Clint wriggles in the chair, wrinkling his nose, putting together the pieces. “Do not tell me this is a hostage situation.” He huffs, seeming to give up the escape attempt to slump into his restraints. “Guys. Guys. Come on, I have a reputation to uphold. A good one. That doesn't involve being downgraded to a bargaining chip. Guessing you wouldn’t know much about reputation though. Faceless robot army? Come on, we’ve seen that like a hundred times already. Get something new. What’s next, a sky beam?”

A robot drops two lengths of cloth in their captor’s hands, the man wasting no time in forcing the first one into Clint’s mouth. Clint makes a muffled sound of protest, trying to twist his head away, but there’s nothing he can do as the second length of cloth is forced between his teeth and knotted at the back of his head. “Now,” the man says. “Where were we?”

“You were telling me how you’re going to make me a TV star,” Peter reminds him.

“Of course. I’m about to give the Avengers some demands. And as I can’t gag you through that pesky mask of yours that doesn't seem to want to come off, you’re going to be a good little spider and not call out any information about where you are. Alright?”

Peter opens his mouth to protest, but before he can the metal claw is around Clint’s neck again. Clint quits his struggling, going rigid.

“You’re not really going to make me do the whole or else speech, are you?”

Glaring at him, Peter shakes his head, meaning it. It’s not worth the risk.

“There’s a good spider.” A second metal claw reaches over to activate the camera pointing at them, and Peter tries not to wince as he sees the red light turn on. He’d promised Sam he’d get Clint back to the Tower. He couldn’t think of a way he could have failed that task more spectacularly.

“Hello, Avengers,” the man is saying. “My name is Doctor Otto Octavius, although I’m sure you’ve figured that one out already. Quite the little dust-up we had today. I’ll admit you came out on top of that one, but I still managed to nab a couple of consolation prizes.”

Something cold and unyielding clasps the back of Peter’s neck, making him shudder.

“Don’t worry,” Octavius goes on. “I’m not overly attached - not yet. At least, not as attached to the resources currently located in Avengers Tower.”

Resources? Peter tests his bindings again. They’re not budging, at least not stealthily. If he’s going to bust out of them, he’s going to need to choose a moment where it’s not going to get him or, worse, Clint punished for it. “You wanted to get us all out of the Tower,” Peter realizes. “That’s why you attacked the city. So you’d have free reign to get inside.”

Octavius laughs. “Well, isn’t your spider the bright one? Although apparently not bright enough to remember I told him not to speak. Last warning.” The claw closes a little harder, and Peter fights not to flinch. “This next message is for you specifically, Stark.”

Peter cringes, because he can picture every detail of Tony’s face as he watches this video.

“I’ve sent a list of what I need to the Tower. You have an hour to prepare it. I will then send you the location of the trade. If I see any Avengers get near me before then, or if you try to cheat me out of what I ask you to bring…” Octavius looks pointedly between Clint and Peter. “Well. You get the picture.”

The claw on the back of Peter’s neck releases as Octavius makes his way towards the camera to switch it off. Peter pulls in a breath, glancing over to see that he’s also let go of Clint. Peter strains against the cuffs, ignoring the pressure it places on his still-healing ribs, and feels something in the metal give. Before he can shake out of them all the way, however, Octavius is back in front of him.

“It’s rude to stare,” Peter shoots at him. “In case you didn’t know. Some people don’t. Always best to give people the benefit of the doubt, you know?”

He tenses a little more in the cuffs. Maybe if he rips them off super fast and just lunges straight for Octavius, he can take him out in time. Maybe being the operative word.

“I’m not sure what I’m staring at,” Octavius muses. “Would be nice to speak face-to-face, don’t you think?”

“Says the guy who’s wearing sunglasses indoors.”

Octavius chuckles, reaching up to remove the glasses. “There. Your turn.”

Peter tries to play dumb. “My turn for what?”

“Your mask, little spider. Off it comes. Show me what’s underneath.”

Peter’s heart rate accelerates. “It’s not a mask. This is just my face. This is my whole body, actually, horrible accident, you know, but I’m making the best of it.” He uses the words as cover for pushing the handcuffs a little harder, hearing the metal creak. Almost there.

“Oh, of course,” Octavius says. “Let me help you with those.”

He moves around the back of Peter’s chair, ripping the handcuffs off just as two of the robots come forward, both of them placing a blaster against Clint’s head. Clint inhales sharply around the gag as the metal touches him, going stock still.

“Interesting.” Octavius considers the cuffs. “Looks like I’ll need to design something stronger to keep you locked up, hm? That’s good to know.”

Peter’s already out of the chair, backing away. “In the next hour? Good luck with that.”

A smirk breaks across Octavius’s face that Peter really doesn’t like the look of. “Oh, little spider. You and I are going to be spending a lot longer together than the next hour. Your sharp-eyed friend too.”

Peter’s stomach drops. “But you said- the trade-”

“The ones which the Avengers definitely won’t agree to? Please, I know when I’ve lost a battle. But I think it’s only fair I get to walk away with something for my efforts, don’t you? I just needed to keep your friends busy while I make my getaway.”

Octavius rests a hand on the top of Clint’s head, making Peter start forward. “Don’t touch him.”

The doctor ignores that, tipping Clint’s head back to consider his eyes. Clint grunts in protest, but there isn’t a thing he can do that won't get him shot. “The effects of the sonic blast are not permanent,” Octavius says, and Peter feels a swell of relief that Clint isn’t going to be blind forever. “I wouldn’t want to waste such a pair of exceptional eyes. I cannot wait to get them in my lab.”

Any relief Peter’s feeling evaporates. “Wait. Wait.”

“Of course, that’s nothing compared to the excitement of getting to study you.”

Peter swallows, his throat dry. “No. I won’t- I won’t let you.”

“You I need alive,” Octavius remarks. “Best test results that way. But I don’t need your friend to keep breathing. In fact, I don’t really need your friend at all. Just a couple of parts.” He strokes Clint’s cheek, thumb brushing within a hair’s breadth of his eye. “Or you can behave, and you both get to keep breathing. Your choice.”

Peter darts his eyes between Clint, Octavius, and the guns. He’s not fast enough. Not right now, at least. This isn’t his moment. “Don’t hurt him. Please. I’ll…I’ll behave.”

“So polite! Well, as you asked so nicely.” Octavius lets Clint go, waving at the robots to back off a little, even if they don’t lower their weapons. Clint can’t see that though, so the moment the guns aren’t in direct contact with him, he starts struggling again. “But words and actions are two different things. Let’s put it to the test, shall we? Take off your suit.”

Peter’s stomach drops. “I- I can’t.”

“You’re not taking your friend’s safety very seriously,” Octavius remarks. “Last chance to be a good boy. Now, take off the -”

Three things happen at once.

The first is a loud snapping noise, grotesque and familiar enough that Peter knows it’s a bone snapping. The second is a flurry of movement as something small and black is aimed at his head. The third is a muffled shout, and even through the gag Peter recognizes Clint shouting “CATCH!”

Peter does, the EMP arrowhead Tony had dropped off to them slotting neatly into his palm.

Octavius steps forward, before seeming to change his mind and go for Clint instead, but that split-second hesitation is enough. Peter has no idea how the arrowhead is supposed to work, but he’s pretty sure that arrows are meant to hit things. So he throws it, striking Octavius right in one of his metal arms.

The echoing boom through the warehouse is enough to knock Peter on his back, hearing crackling as whatever functions are left in the Spider-Man suit short out. When he raises his head again, the robots are down. Octavius is down.

And so is Clint.

“Clint!” Peter dives forward, checking for a pulse, breathing a sigh of relief when he finds one. One of Clint’s hands is mangled, broken of his own accord to get out of his cuffs, but it worked. They’re free.

Peter lifts Clint’s head in order to pull off the material keeping the gag in place, Clint spitting it out with distaste. “Did we win?” Clint asks, working his jaw. “We won, right?"

Peter raises Clint’s hand to his head so he can feel him nod. Clint slumps backward, tension draining from him. “Oh, good. Also, ow.”

“Agreed. Ow. Very accurate summary of events.”

Clint raises his other hand, making grabbing motions until Peter takes it. “We save each other,” Clint says.

Peter smiles. “Yeah. We save each other. Eye see what you did there.”

Clint blinks at the ceiling. “Why do I know that you just made a pun? Do me a favor and don’t repeat it to me later.”

Peter shakes his head in an I definitely will gesture.

“Yeah, I figured,” Clint sighs. “After all - it’s the one thing today I saw coming.”

Chapter Text

It starts with a sneeze.

“Bless you,” Peter says automatically.

“Thank you, Peter.”

Peter freezes when he hears whose voice it is, turning around to stare at Vision, who looks just as confused as Peter is. “Vision?”

“Yes, Peter?”

“Did you just sneeze?”

“I believe I did, yes.”

Ten minutes later, they’re gathered in Bruce’s lab with a concerned Tony and Professor Hulk looking on, Vision laid out on one of Bruce’s workstations. “I can’t find anything wrong,” Tony’s saying. “And by that I mean F.R.I.D.A.Y. can’t find anything wrong. If you want me to, um, look under the hood I can, but I’m not…you know.”

“I am not thrilled about that idea either,” Vision finishes for him. “But if it is necessary, then do what you must.”

“Are you feeling off in any other way?” Bruce inquires.

“Are you asking if I am ill?”

“I don’t know. Is that even possible?”

Vision considers it. “I would not have thought so. But I have also evolved in ways neither yourself nor Tony ever planned on.”

“Planned on implies Tony didn’t do it two minutes after he thought of it,” Bruce mutters. “Not that we’re not pleased to have you around, Vis.”

“I’m aware that the circumstances surrounding my creation were not ideal.”

“Hey, it worked, didn’t it?” Tony starts scrolling through his screens almost faster than Peter can keep up.

Peter takes a tentative step forward. “Can I help?”

“Sure, kid. You got any theories?”

“Maybe it’s not biological or mechanical,” Peter suggests. “Which is why you guys can’t figure it out.”

“Figure it out yet,” Tony insists. “It’s only been a few hours - even we need time when it comes to this kind of stuff.”

“What do you mean?” Bruce presses Peter. “Not biological or mechanical?”

“I mean, what if it’s magical? Magic stuff is a thing too.”

Tony looks thoroughly put out. “Magic is just science we don’t understand yet. Ergo, I will understand what is going on here soon. Very soon. Magic hasn’t gotten the best of our science yet.”

“I think Stephen would disagree with you on that,” Bruce replies. “We should probably call Wanda anyway. She’ll want to know about this.”

“She is on a mission with Natasha and Clint overseas,” Vision provides. “She may be out of contact for some time.”

“She won’t be completely out of contact, even on a mission,” Tony points out. “And Bruce is right, she’d want to be here if she knew that…something is happening to you, Vis.”

“I am sure Dr. Strange will be more than able to fill in any gaps when it comes to magical knowledge.”

“Even if that’s true,” Bruce says. “She’ll want to know. She’s your partner.”

“I do not wish to disturb her work because of a couple of sneezes. Perhaps if it progresses, we can open up this discussion again.”

Tony sweeps away his screens, folding his arms. “Are you two having a lover’s spat or something?”

Vision’s expression turns uncomfortable. “We have been having a couple of minor difficulties. That is all.”

“What?” Peter starts forward. “But you guys are like, super in love. You never fight!”

Vision sends him a small smile. “Every couple fights, Peter.”

Tony’s not ready to let it go. “What did she do?”

“Tony,” Bruce tries to head him off. “It’s not our business.”

“I’m making it my business. What happened?”

“I may have made a suggestion that she did not agree with.”

“Such as?” Tony demands.

“That for a mortal human who ages, I may not be the ideal choice of partner.”

A silence falls over the room, broken finally by Bruce. “Oh shit.”

“Are you breaking up?” Peter asks. “But you two are so good together, and -”

“And it’s none of our business,” Bruce repeats. “I still think Wanda should be informed of the situation just in case -” Bruce breaks off, peering at Vision’s face. “Ok, please don’t get weird about this. Actually, scratch that, we’re definitely going to get weird about this.”

And he looks right up Vision’s nose.

“Yep, you made it weird,” Tony comments.

“Tony - come see this.”

“I am not checking for android boogers.”

“I mean it. Look.”

Screwing up his own nose, Tony bends down and follows suit. “Huh. Would you look at that?”

“Look at what?” Peter asks, still reeling a little at the idea of Wanda and Vision breaking up. The two of them had been inseparable for weeks after Shuri had finally worked out the combination of magic and science needed to bring Vision back from Thanos’s attack. Peter’s always liked Tony and Pepper’s witty back and forth, the constant teasing and playful digs at each other, but he’s always had a kind of admiration for how Wanda and Vision show their affection for one another. Their love is gentle, soft and yet open, only made stronger after Vision’s death and resurrection.

And now it might be ending?

Hey, Vis,” Tony’s saying. "Following the trend of weirdness - did you always have nose hairs?”

“Not that I have ever noticed.”

“Nose hairs?” Peter repeats. “Like…human ones?”

Tony and Bruce share a look. “Alright,” Tony decides. “Put everything else on hold. We’re figuring this out. You with us, kid?”

Peter nods, eager. “Of course.”

“Alright then.” Tony claps his hands together. “Three geniuses in the same room. How long can this take?”

 


 

“I would say this is progress.”

“Brucie, hun. It’s gotten worse.”

“Which gives us more data to work with! I count this as an absolute win.”

Tony snorts, rapping a screwdriver against his palm in frustration as he hovers his hands over his network of screens. It’s been three days now, and none of them are any closer to figuring out what is happening to Vision.

Or, more accurately, the cause of it. Because what is happening has become apparent.

Vision is turning human.

Tony leaves the screens to poke a finger into the organic skin now covering a portion of Vision’s chin. “You can feel that?”

“Yes. Also, ow.”

“Stop prodding him,” Bruce chides. “It’s not helping anything.”

“It’s part of my process.”

“Actually, I am with Dr. Banner on that one.” Vision raises his hand when Tony’s comes for him again. “And while I appreciate all you have done, I believe it might be time to admit that this is not within your areas of expertise.”

“Stephen will be here tomorrow,” Bruce replies. “It was the earliest he could get here. Until then, we might as well keep trying.”

“And we still don’t know it’s magic,” Tony puts in. “It’s- I can fix this.”

Vision touches a patch of skin on his cheek. “I have been thinking a lot over these past few days. And I am beginning to question…perhaps it is not something that needs to be fixed at all.”

There’s a long pause. Then Tony shuts down all his screens at once. “Explain.”

“You want to be human?” Bruce asks. “Vis, that’s…we don’t know what that will do to you.”

“I am aware there are risks,” Vision replies. “But it would a number of things…less complicated."

Tony folds his arms, looking suspicious. “You mean you and Wanda wouldn’t have to break up.”

“Knowing I would age with her would be a comfort, yes.”

“And whose idea was this, exactly?”

“Tony,” Bruce warns him, as Peter shifts uncomfortably. Most of the team get on so well these days, the events that had happened over the Accords well overshadowed by the loss and devastation caused by Thanos, but Tony and Wanda have never quite been able to put their differences to rest.

“It’s ok,” Vision says. “I understand you are trying to look out for me, Tony, and I’m grateful for that - but it was my idea. Not Wanda’s.”

“Unless it was,” Tony argues. “Think about it. You say to Wanda that you want to call it quits on your relationship status because she ages and you don’t. Next minute, you’re growing squishy bits and sneezing all over Bruce’s lab, and we can’t figure out why.”

“Wanda wouldn’t do that,” Peter cuts in. “She wouldn’t.”

“I’m not saying she did it on purpose,” Tony presses. “But Wanda’s magic has applications that she doesn’t even understand. What if it was unconscious? Boyfriend says they can’t be together unless he’s mortal. Next, boom - he’s turning mortal.”

“I also know what Wanda’s power feels like,” Vision replies. “And this does not feel like her.”

Bruce looks torn. “Tony’s theory isn’t baseless,” he points out. “Whenever Wanda used her powers on you in the past, Vis, it was always at a pretty high capacity. Maybe this is more low-level.”

“And,” Tony adds. “You don’t have the Mind Stone anymore, buddy. What if the reason you can’t feel her magic anymore is because Shuri put you back together without it?”

Vision hesitates. “You make good points,” he allows. “But if this is something Wanda wants, surely that’s all the more reason to let it continue? While I understand that it would compromise my position on the team, I do not feel as though my departure would leave you short-staffed at this stage.”

Tony isn’t convinced. “So out of nowhere C3PO stands to grow skin and hair, and we’re just going to let it continue? Not knowing anything about what’s causing it?”

“That’s not what’s being suggested,” Bruce calms him. “Whatever decision we end up making, we’ll be sure to get to the bottom of this. Make sure it’s not anything damaging, intentional or not.”

“I don’t like it,” Tony says bluntly. “Whenever life seems to hand you something you want this easily, it goes wrong. Every time. Because the universe is crappy like that.”

Vision looks as though he’s going to make a counterargument, but sneezes again instead. “Excuse me.”

“No problem.” Bruce locates a box of tissues, holding them gently between his large thumb and forefinger as he passes them over.

“Thank you,” Vision says as he takes one. “I must say, having human symptoms is very…odd.”

“Yeah, we still don’t know how to manage them all either.” Tony’s pulled his screens back up, brow furrowed. “What, is human you getting a cold? Is that a thing that’s possible now?”

“Perhaps.” Vision blows his nose. “Do you have a trash can?”

“Um,” Bruce says, reaching behind him for a petri dish. “Actually, can I keep it?”

“Gross,” Tony states.

Bruce rolls his eyes. “Tony, take this seriously.”

“Fine. Gross, but necessary, because science!”

“Of course, Dr. Banner.” Vision deposits the tissue in the dish. “I’m happy to assist in any way I can.”

Bruce takes it over to his station, getting to work. “Let us know if there are any other…body fluids.”

“Shall do.” Vision swallows, testing. “Perhaps saliva?”

“Really?” Tony perks up again in interest, moving out from behind his screens. “Pete, move over so I can look in Vision’s mouth.”

Peter’s phone pings as he steps out of Tony’s way, and he sighs when he sees the notification. “Mr. Stark? May says I’ve skipped too many dinners with her and I can’t skip this one too. Sorry, Vision.”

“No apologies needed, Peter. Your assistance is greatly appreciated.”

“Less talking,” Tony chides him. “More going ahhh so I can shine this light down your -”

“Tony!”

“I’m taking things seriously, god!”

But Bruce is already across the room, gripping Tony’s upper arm in a giant green hand and tugging him away, ignoring Tony’s yelp of surprise. “Get out, right now. You too, Peter.”

Peter looks up from his phone. “I was headed back to May’s anyway -”

“No, you’re not. Both of you are going to the isolation ward, now. And I’m taking your blood. Actually maybe I should take your blood first.”

“Bruce!” Tony manages to wriggle out of Bruce’s grip, throwing a concerned look at Peter. “What is going on?”

“The thing that’s making Vision sneeze,” Bruce says grimly. “It's not a cold.”

 


 

“So? How’s solitary?”

Peter sighs, hearing it crackle down the phone line. “Boring. Wish you were here.”

“You wish I had some exotic virus? Some boyfriend you are.”

“I’ve stopped falling for that, MJ.” Peter flops back on his bed, huffing his hair out of his eyes. There are worse things than being trapped in the med bay, and he gets why Bruce is being so worried about him after what’s going on with Tony. But it’s been days, Peter’s fine, and yet Bruce still won’t let him leave.

“When are you getting out?”

“Who knows? I don’t even get sick!”

“True,” MJ says. “But Tony could have died if Bruce hadn’t caught the virus when he did. Can you really blame him for being so cautious?”

Peter sobers. “I know,” he mutters.

“Are Tony and Vision going to be ok?”

“We think so. Dr. Strange seems to have worked out a way to reverse the magic transforming Vision and Tony’s on the mend. We’re going to be ok.”

“So it was magic?”

“Seems so.”

“And they are turning him back?”

Peter pushes himself off the bed, starting to pace. “They have to. Every time a new part of him turns human the virus targets it. And the android parts of him are preventing us from treating the virus as a whole. So if they let him keeping turning human, he’ll die.”

“Wild. So when he’s back to normal, does that mean he and Wanda are going to…you know. Split?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Peter sighs. “Vision seemed pretty set on it.”

“And what does Wanda think about that?”

“I…don’t know, actually.”

“Sounds like maybe she should get a say in the relationship she’s part of. Especially as Vision’s argument is stupid anyway.”

“Um, you know Vision is like a few steps removed from being a super computer right?”

“So? Relationships aren’t about building a logical argument and then forcing the other person to agree with you. They’re about listening to each other.”

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that. What did you say?”

“Ha ha. I’m just saying, if Vision’s whole thing is that he’s going to outlive her, then someone needs to remind him that he didn’t. Twice. If he doesn’t want to go through seeing her age and die that’s another story, but if he’s doing it for her benefit only? I call bullshit.”

They chat for a while longer, catching up on school and gossip, and then MJ is gone and Peter is left alone in his room again.

He lasts all of five seconds before he’s lonely again. He’s confined to the isolation ward, but not to his room, and Tony is still weak but is at least allowed visitors now. Perking up at the idea that he can talk to his mentor again, Peter makes his way out of his room and down to Tony’s, only to hear voices floating down the corridor.

“Stephen says he should be able to return you to normal.”

Peter hesitates at the sound of Wanda’s voice. He doesn’t want to eavesdrop, but it’s quiet in the isolation ward, and with his enhanced hearing sound tends to travel. “It can’t be helped,” he hears Vision reply. Or at least, he’s pretty sure it’s Vision. The voice is raspy, straining, coming in between ragged breaths. “I am sorry this did not work out the way we had hoped.”

“The way you had hoped. Or did you forget the part where I told you I’d love you no matter what form you were in?”

“That is what worries me. Perhaps Tony was correct, when he said the universe does not hand you the things you want so easily.”

“Tony Stark doesn’t know anything about us,” Wanda snaps back. “We make each other happy. What else matters?”

“I’m not sure I really can, Wanda. Make you happy.”

“Please don’t say that. It’s not true.”

“Wanda. For the first time since we have met, we are not constantly fighting evils or living in stolen moments. It has given me time to think.”

“To think about what?”

“About us. About how, in the long term, I am not what is best for you.”

“Vis.”

“I am not human, Wanda. I do not age. I do not grow like they do.”

“That’s not true. You have said yourself that you’re evolving beyond what was made to fight Ultron. You don’t even have the Mind Stone anymore. We don’t know what’s waiting for us in the future. All I want is for us to face it together. You don’t need to be human for us to do that.”

“Tony did suggest…”

“What did he say now?”

“Perhaps this was your power. An unconscious wish, to keep us together.”

There’s a heavy pause. “But I don’t wish that. For you to be human, at least.”

“My transformation was a rather convenient solution to the problem at hand.”

“So our relationship is a problem now?”

“For you, yes. I believe it is.”

“So you’re deciding what’s best for me now?”

“I’ve looked at all the scenarios, at all the outcomes, and I cannot help but draw the conclusion that this will end with you hurt. You know I would do everything in my power to avoid that happening.”

“Everything in your power except listen to what I want.”

“Wanda -”

“You think taking yourself out of the equation is going to make me happy? As if losing you for a fourth time would be good for me?”

“I did not intend to insinuate that.”

“I hated that I had to choose between leaving you and obeying the Accords. And then what Thanos did- what I had to do destroyed me, Vis. The grief was fathomless. I left, then I killed you, then Thanos killed you. And now you’re suggesting we just end things, when we can finally be happy?”

“I’m not sure we will be.”

“I don’t know what I would have done if Shuri hadn’t found a way to bring you back without the Mind Stone. You know that, right?”

“Which makes me worry. About you. About the impact I’m having on you.”

“And I think I’m an adult and can make my own decisions.”

“I believe we should at least consider all the options. Because I care about you and I want what is best for you. And when I look at all the scenarios, the best one for you is the one without me in it.”

Another nasty pause, before there’s the sound of a chair scraping backward. “You may not be fully human, Vis, but you are being such a man right now.”

Peter barely has time to scramble out of the way before those footsteps are coming right at him. Before he knows it a teary Wanda Maximoff is almost walking into him, coming to a halt when she realizes she’s not alone.

“I’m sorry,” Peter says quickly. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. Just. Super-hearing. Sorry.”

Wanda sniffs, digging a tissue out of her pocket. She’s dressed more casually than Peter’s ever seen her, in faded jeans and a red hoodie, limp hair pulled into a low ponytail. She looks absolutely exhausted, and Peter can’t blame her. He can’t imagine what it would be like to watch MJ slowly dying, and then on top of that having MJ tell him that they should break up. “It’s fine, Peter. Sounds like the whole team is going to know soon anyway.” She changes the subject. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m ok. No symptoms. You?”

“None here either. Death always seems to skip me.”

“I mean, you got Snapped.”

Wanda gives a wet laugh. “I suppose so.”

“Can I, um, help in any way?”

Wanda’s miles away but she blinks as she takes in the offer. “Are you busy?”

“The exact opposite.”

“Can you sit with Vis for a little bit? He shouldn’t be alone and I just need…a moment.”

“Of course I can do that. Easy peasy.”

Wanda smiles at him, but Peter can see the sadness there. “Thanks, Peter. You've always been good to me. To both of us.”

"I think you're someone who deserves being good to."

Wanda's smile fades. "Not everyone thinks so." And she's gone before Peter can reply. 

Peter makes his way up the corridor, knocking on Vision’s door to make his presence known. “Vision? It’s Peter. Can I come in?”

“Of course. As long as you stay on the other side of the glass.”

“Yeah, Bruce has told me like a million times, I got it.” Peter steps into the room, only to freeze when he sees the figure in the bed before him, jaw dropping.

“Apologies,” Vision says. “Perhaps I should have warned you that I do not look myself.”

“That’s one way of putting it, I guess.” Peter makes his way into the room. Vision is laid out in a hospital bed, surrounded by tempered glass that has been acting as a barrier between him and the virus spreading any further. There are sheets pulled up to his chest, but that still leaves his face and arms bare. The purple metal is now dotted at various intervals with pale human flesh, stretched tight and clammy with fever. Half of Vision’s lips have turned human, as well as one eye, one ear, but not on the same side. It’s scattered throughout him in a way that looks almost painful, and Peter has to swallow back something that feels like disgust as he pulls up the visitor’s chair. “A little, um, uncanny valley. Does it hurt?”

Vision shifts, wincing. “Well, one of the benefits of having human body parts is that painkillers are now somewhat effective, so -” He breaks off in a round of coughing, harsh and coarse.

“Dr. Strange is turning you back tomorrow?”

“He’s putting the final touches on the spell tonight.”

“That’s good, at least. And they still don’t know how this happened? Or why?”

“Not as of yet, no. I did press Dr. Strange if it could be replicated, but it’s not a kind of magic he is overly familiar with. As for the why, I do have a theory.”

“Yeah?”

“I believe whoever did this intended the virus to spread further than it did before it was detected. After all, if you were suspecting any of the Tower occupants to be carrying a contagious disease, I would likely not come to mind.”

“So they turn you human, make you sick, and then you make others sick?” Peter twists his fingers together. “I guess? I mean, they got Tony. But he’s going to be ok,” Peter adds quickly. “Like you said. Bruce caught it in time. So we’re all going to be fine.”

Even though Vision very much does not look fine. Peter swallows, dropping his gaze to his shoes. It isn’t as though he’s not used to near-death calls, they’re unavoidable with the work the team does, but it’s nearly always an injury, a shot that gets too close or a stunt miscalculated. He hasn’t had to sit through one of his teammates dying of illness before, and the fact that it’s Vision, who Peter had considered all but invulnerable, makes it even worse.

“My appearance is upsetting for you,” Vision comments. “I can summon Dr. Banner if you would prefer to return to your own room.”

“No!” Peter says quickly. “No, I’m fine to stay, really.” He pulls the sleeves of his hoodie over his hands, fiddling with them. “Just…I guess wrestling a bit with the idea that anyone on this team could just randomly. You know. Even you. Kind of scary.”

Vision looks a little surprised. “I will be fully healed by tomorrow. There is no need to worry.”

“Yeah, but…what if Bruce hadn’t asked for your tissue? Or what if Dr. Strange couldn’t figure out how to turn you back?”

“But they did. Peter, I am going to be ok.”

Peter tightens the hoodie sleeves. “I guess I’m just saying…” He recalls MJ’s words. “You’re so worried about outliving Wanda because you don’t age. But you’ve died before she has - twice. And if this proved anything, it’s that either of you could die any moment. Wait, no that’s super depressing, let me rephrase. Maybe you should make the most of the time you do have with each other you know? Yeah, that's better. And, you know…I’ve lost people. But I wouldn’t trade the time I had with them for anything.”

Vision sighs. Peter notices that one side of his chest expands more than the other, as though there’s now a lung in there somewhere. “I am sorry, I do not mean to bring up painful memories for you.”

“It’s ok. I mean, it’s still sad, and I miss them a lot. But, you know. I’m glad I had them in my life for a bit, even though I lost them. I'd still choose to have loved them. Even though I’m going to…well, unless an accident or something happens, I’m going to outlive May and Tony. Which I don’t like thinking about. So I just enjoy having the time I have with them now.”

Vision takes that in. “You enjoy the time you have with them now,” he repeats.

“Sorry, I don’t mean to overstep I just- I really ship you guys. You and Wanda. OTP level of ship.”

“Thank you, Peter,” Vision says softly. “That’s…something to consider, I suppose.”

“Ok. Cool. You know, I just really want you two to be -” Peter breaks off, all the hairs on his arm standing on end.

“Peter? Are you well?”

“Danger,” Peter breathes. “Close. And - ow!”

“Are you hurt?”

“Spider-sense. It’s- danger. Close and huge and it just came out of nowhere and -” Peter jerks his head around to the door. “Tony. It’s near Tony.”

Peter’s barely out of his chair before the door to the room is bursting open an explosion of purple light, a woman stepping through it with wild brown hair dressed in violet cloak. The woman floats into the room, hauling in a bound and cursing Tony Stark behind her. “Hello, dears.”

Danger danger DANGER. Peter listens to his instincts and acts without thinking, using the chair as a springboard to dive forward and attack.

He barely makes it a few feet before something latches around his ankles, pulling him back. He stumbles, throwing his hands out to catch himself, but then there’s something wrapping around them too, pulling them so tightly behind his back that he feels his shoulders pop. He’s sure he’s going to go nose-first into the floor, but the strings binding him yank him upright, hovering a couple of feet off the ground as he struggles to get free, vaguely aware of Tony calling out his name. “Let me go!”

“No, I think I’ll keep you right…here.” The woman makes a sweeping gesture, and Peter feels himself jerked sideways, to the corner of the room. He wriggles in the bindings, which feel no thicker than dental floss, but the purple loops of light aren’t budging. A second later Tony's sprawled on the floor below him, wrists and ankles bound in the same way.

Despite being on the mend, Tony still looks awful, pale and clammy, blinking rapidly as though he’s fighting to stay conscious. “Kid. You…you good?”

Peter struggles to get free, but he’s well and truly trapped. The woman is approaching Vision’s bed. “Now to get rid of this.”

Another wave of her hand, and the glass partition separating Vision from them vanishes, Peter redoubling his escape efforts. “Leave him alone!”

Vision manages to sit up in the bed, albeit with visible effort. “Am I correct in assuming you are the cause of my current ailment?”

“Oooh, how proper. I can see why she likes you, all British and gentleman-like. Very suave.”

Vision narrows his eyes, one human, one mechanical, at her. “If you are referring to Wanda, if you are here to harm her in any way, I would highly recommend reconsidering.”

“Oh, that’s sweet.” She turns to Peter and Tony. “Isn’t he sweet? I can see why losing him made Wanda a little…” She twists her finger next to her temple. “You know.”

“Wanda’s not crazy!” Peter fires at her.

“Not in this timeline she’s not.” The woman takes a few steps closer to Vision, and there is nothing Peter can do to stop her. He glances down at Tony, seeing if he has a plan instead, but Tony's barely able to sit up right now. “No, this is not the timeline that was meant to occur at all. So really, I don’t feel too bad about all of this, considering the android is supposed to be long dead anyway.”

“Timeline?” Peter asks. “What does she mean, there’s another timeline?”

“You are referring to a multiverse,” Vision says. “That is purely theoretical.”

“Was purely theoretical,” the woman corrects him. “And as a little bit of divination magic told me that a very different outcome was meant to occur from your dust-up with the big purple guy, I’m betting I’m on a divergent timeline, which is not really working out for me. Really threw a wrench into my plans, so to speak.”

“And what are your plans?” Vision demands. “What do you want with Wanda?”

“See, I could explain,” the woman goes on. “But the star of the show is about to arrive, and I hate having to repeat myself, and so let’s wait until everyone is present, shall we? Speaking of - time to set the scene.”

This time Peter sees it coming, but with the way he’s suspended in the air he doesn’t have a chance to dodge the purple noose that encircles his throat. Tony yells out, pulling at his bindings, but the witch sends him slamming against the wall with a flick of her fingers. Tony hits his head with a groan, slumping forward. “Mr. Stark!” Peter calls, alarmed, but then Tony’s stirring, not quite unconscious yet.

“You just stay out of the way now, dear,” the witch is saying. “These two will give me plenty to work with."

Peter sees the second noose being thrown towards the bed, tries to shout a warning, but the sickness ravaging Vision’s mostly-human body is keeping him weak enough that there’s nothing he can do as the magic grabs him by the neck. There’s a cry of pain as the woman hauls him out of the bed, not giving him a second to recover as she drags both him and Peter towards her, using them as shields just as Wanda bursts into the isolation room.

“Ah, there’s my girl! Oh, no you don’t.”

Red magic is pouring from Wanda’s hands, but she freezes as the purple witch jerks on the threads looped around Peter and Vision’s necks, tugging them closer. Wanda’s eyes go wide, quickly clocking Tony in the corner before she refocuses on the witch. “Let them go.”

“We need to have a little chat first. Girl to girl, you know?”

“Wanda,” Vision gets out. “She’s after you - you need to run.”

“I think we both know she’s not going to do that. Not while I have her precious love in my grasp.”

Wanda’s magic flares before she reels it back in, not wanting to risk it. “Who are you?”

“The name is Agatha Harkness, dear, but the much more interesting question is - who are you?”

Wanda glances behind her, as though debating going for help, but with a snap of Agatha’s fingers the door slams shut.

“None of that. I’ve waited a long time to meet you, Wanda Maximoff. This isn’t how I expected it to go, but when our deadline came and went and you were still here, living it up in Avengers Tower of all places, I decided - screw destiny. Might as well take matters into my own hands. That’s kind of more my style, anyway.”

Peter’s completely lost now, and judging by Wanda’s expression, she’s not far behind. “I don’t believe in destiny.”

“As you shouldn’t. Not anymore. Not since the sacred timeline was broken. Now any outcome is possible. Which sounds wonderful and all, but when you have waited millennia for one particular moment, only to realize that moment could be on any one of hundreds of diverging timelines and you’re on the wrong one? Not fun. Not fun at all.”

Peter twists his wrists together, trying to get free, but they’re not budging. Wanda's eyes are darting between them, trying to puzzle out how to fight without anyone getting hurt. “You’re going to be ok. Both of you are going to be ok.”

“Well,” Agatha says. “That’s half-true.”

There’s a yank on Peter’s neck, and he yelps as he’s dragged backward, the cord acting like a leash. Wanda’s magic flares again, but she doesn’t dare move closer. “If you hurt him - any of them - I will hurt you back, worse.”

“Hm, little late to stop anyone getting hurt. I have to say, Wanda - couldn’t you have fallen in love with a nice human boy? Someone squishy and, I don’t know, easy to kill? You really made me work for this one, although I am quite proud of my little solution. Find a spell to turn your precious boyfriend human, and then pump a nasty virus into those newly organic veins. Was working just fine until you got the Sorcerer Supreme involved, that hack. I know he’s on his way to undo my little spell here, so I decided - why not speed things up on my end? Bit more of a hands-on approach, you know?”

“Why?” Wanda demands. “I don’t even know you!”

“Which is a shame, really - I actually think under different circumstances we’d be excellent friends. But it’s not a different circumstance, is it? You have something I want, and something you are going to give me. I know Stark’s life probably isn’t much incentive for you, but I’m betting you want this cute little teenager to live, don’t you?” The noose around Peter’s neck tightens a little, making him gasp. “Really, look at those big brown eyes. And those curls, my word. Bet you have the prettiest girlfriend, don’t you, sweetheart? Maybe you should ask Wanda there to follow my next instructions so you’ll get to see her again.”

“Don’t you dare touch him!” Peter hears Tony call out from behind them. “I don’t care who you are, Sabrina, you are not hurting -”

“Oh shut up and let the women speak.”

Tony’s voice cuts off with a strangled yelp. Peter twists around, panicked, but Tony’s unhurt. His mouth is still moving, but no sound is coming out, and then Peter’s being jerked around to face Wanda again.

Wanda’s eyes narrow. “You’ll let everyone live.”

“See, here’s the thing, dear.” Agatha pulls on Vision’s noose instead, drawing out a sharp inhale as he’s dragged until he’s almost leaning against the witch's leg. “What I want, you don’t have yet. Because in the timeline we were supposed to be on, your boyfriend here -” She tugs on Vision’s throat again. “Is very dead. As in being deconstructed in a S.W.O.R.D base dead. And when he died, your grief consumed you, allowing you to access the full potential of your power. Allowing you to become what you were always meant to be.”

“I’m already who I’m meant to be,” Wanda retorts. The magic in her hands intensifies until the room is crackling with it. “Now let them go. Last warning.”

“Oh,” Agatha breathes. “You don’t even know what you are capable of, do you? All that power. All that potential. And you don’t even know what it is. But don’t worry, dear. I know.”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

“On the contrary, Wanda. I know more about you than you know about yourself. You have no idea how dangerous you are. You’re supposed to be a myth. A being capable of spontaneous creation. And here you are, using it to play dress-up with your little hero friends.”

Red sparks burst from Wanda’s hands. “I told you to let them go!”

Agatha just pulls her captives closer to her instead, Peter unable to bite back the gasp as the chord digs into his throat with the movement. “Oh yes. Your friends. Vision. This whole little life you’ve made for yourself here. It’s built on the back of chaos magic, Wanda. And that makes you the Scarlet Witch. Or at least - it almost does. You’re not quite there yet. But don’t worry - Auntie Agatha’s here to help you along. Your power is activated when your grief is. Let me help you Wanda, and no one but Vision dies today.”

But Wanda’s done holding back. A red burst of energy floods the room, and Peter feels the strings binding him burn. The pain rips a scream out of his throat as his wrists, ankles and throat all light up as though on fire, but through it he can feel them loosening, weakening, so he makes the most of the moment and pulls.

Peter tastes freedom for all of two seconds before the magical ropes tighten again, then are joined by new ones, this time snaking around his arms and torso, forcing him to his knees as the noose tightens until it hurts to swallow.

“Let’s try that again, shall we?” Agatha cups a hand under Peter’s chin, gripping it and forcing his head upright so he has no choice but to look right at a furious and scared Wanda. There’s movement in the corner of his eye, and Peter can just make out Vision collapsed on the floor behind him. “Vision is meant to die, Wanda. That’s how things were always supposed to happen. I’m just putting the world back to rights.”

“No!” Wanda starts forward, but Agatha tightens her grip on Peter in response, making her freeze again.

“That’s right, dear. Just let me do what I need to do here and the little cutie here can go, no harm done.”

“Wanda.” There’s a shuffle to Peter’s left as Vision struggles to push himself upright, coming into Peter’s eye line, and Peter’s heart drops when he sees the human transformation is almost complete now. “It’s ok. Save Peter.”

“Wait -” Peter starts, but fingernails bite into his cheeks, cutting him off.

“It’s ok,” Vision says again. “I want you to have a life. I don’t want to hold you back.”

Wanda falters. “Vis…you have only ever helped me move forward. After Pietro, joining the Avengers, helping me through the Accords fallout. I want to keep moving forward with you. Always.”

Comprehension dawns on Vision’s face. “I know. And I shouldn’t have threatened to take that away from you, without even giving you a say. I’m sorry.”

“Aw, how sweet,” Agatha coos at them. “You two really are in love, aren’t you?”

Vision’s eyes are locked on Wanda’s. “Yes. Yes we are.”

“Wow. Just, wow, you two,” Agatha says. “True love. So rare. No wonder this loss will be enough to break you and unlock all of that power.”

“Why?” Wanda rounds on her. “Why do you care how powerful I am?”

“Well, I’m not going to steal your power unless I get the most out of it, now am I?” Agatha tightens the hand not holding Peter on the noose around Vision’s neck, pulling it taut. “Do you two lovebirds have any last words before I turn this one’s lights off?”

“I unlock my power when I lose Vision?” Wanda says. “That’s what’s meant to happen? My grief consumes me?”

“That’s the ticket, dear. For the record, I don’t want to do this. You two are very sweet together. But I want your power more. Come on, look around - you don’t even know what you’re doing with it. Better pass it along to a real witch, don’t you think?”

Wanda and Vision are still looking at each other, an understanding passing between them. “Well,” Wanda breathes. “What is grief, but not love persevering.” She turns to Agatha, eyes blazing red. “I don’t care what happened in that other timeline. This is my life, and I choose how it goes. And I choose that this time, it won’t be grief that unlocks that power. It’s going to be love.”

And the room explodes with scarlet chaos magic, just as the noose holding Vision turns white-hot.

This time when the strings holding Peter break, they don’t burn. Instead, they melt away like cool water. Peter doesn’t waste a moment in pulling himself out of the witch’s grip, throwing himself across the floor towards Vision. The now human man is splayed out on the floor, free of Agatha’s grasp but not breathing.

“Vis!” Wanda drops down to Vision’s side, throwing out a hand as she does so. This time, it’s Agatha caught up in magical strings, these ones red.

The witch doesn’t even seem to care, smiling down at Vision’s still form. “Whoops. Looks like you’re too late.”

“No.” Tears fill Wanda’s eyes as she cradles Vision’s head in her lap, running her hands through the blonde hair now covering his head. “No, I’m not losing him again.”

A hand touches Peter's shoulder and he flinches, only to see that Tony’s made his way towards them, out of breath and shivering. Peter maneuvers them so Tony can lean heavily on his shoulder, both of them staring in horror at Vision’s lifeless body. “Wanda,” Tony croaks. “I’m so sorry. I -”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about yet,” Wanda interrupts him, turning fiery eyes on Agatha. “Turn him back. Now.”

Agatha shifts in the strings, unfazed. “Too late, dear. What is done cannot be undone.”

Tentatively, Peter reaches out to take Wanda’s wrist. “Wanda, she said it herself. You’re stronger than she is.”

“I’m stronger than she is,” Wanda repeats.

“She said you were capable of spontaneous creation. That you had chaos magic.”

“Chaos magic,” Wanda breathes. “But not based on grief. My power is based on love.”

And she leans down and kisses Vision.

For none heart-stopping moment, nothing happens. Then, slowly, Vision’s eyes flutter open. Vision’s mechanical eyes.

It begins slowly and then all at once, purple flooding the pale skin. Wanda changes too, the faded jeans and hoodies turning into a deep crimson battle dress, a headdress forming to push her hair out of her red-glowing eyes. 

“Impossible,” Agatha states. “That’s - no! That’s not how this goes! He dies and you become the Scarlet Witch and then I take your power, that’s what’s meant to happen!”

“I’m done with being told who I am,” Wanda retorts. “Or who I’m supposed to be, or who I’m not. I choose who I am from now on. And who I’m with. If he’ll have me.”

“Wanda,” Vision says, voice low, filled with so much wonder that Peter backs away, helping him and Tony retreat so as to let them have their moment. “I’ll always have you. I only wish…” He looks down at his metal hands again. “I wish I could be more for you.”

“You have always been more than enough for me,” Wanda replies “In any form. In any timeline. I know that comes with challenges. But I’m willing to face them if you are. Together.”

They’re interrupted by a hacking sound near the door, as Agatha mimes throwing up. “Ugh. If you’re going to do the soppy romance stuff please do it after you let me go.”

“Who says I’m letting you go?”

Agatha laughs. “Please. Do whatever you want. I’ll get away eventually, and then I’ll be back, I’ll always be -

Magic flares up the red ropes, and then Agatha is unconscious, hanging in the air like a disused puppet.

“Yeah, shut up,” Tony mutters. “See how you like it.”

“What are you going to do with her?” Peter asks.

Wanda consider. “Right now? I don’t care. Maybe I’ll never wake her up.”

Peter whistles. “Wow. That’s cold.”

“Wanda.” Vision lets her pull him in a sitting position. “I see now I was wrong to force a choice that affects both of us. But are you sure? About us? Considering our…differences.”

“I’ve lost you too many times now to be anything but, Viz. I’m sure.”

“Then, perhaps we can make it more official, so to say.”

Wanda’s face lights up, realizing. “Really? You mean it?”

“If you want to.”

“If you want to what?” Peter asks, then backs off. “Sorry. Intruding on the moment. My bad.”

Wanda is beaming, eyes wet. “Of course I want to!”

“Then we have preparations to begin.”

Peter raises a hand like he’s in class. “Still lost. What are we doing?”

“Maybe you should ask properly,” Wanda suggests. “Just to make sure we’re on the same page.”

“Of course, darling.” Vision manoeuvres himself around so he’s on one knee. “Wanda Maximoff, will you marry me?”

Wanda takes his hand, and Peter's never seen her this happy before. “Yes,” Wanda breathes. “A hundred times, in any timeline - yes.”

A cleared throat brings their attention to Tony. “I don’t care that you don’t approve,” Wanda says drily. “Don’t ruin my moment.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Tony says. “And please consider any reservations I had about the two of you officially revoked. That’s my bad. Let me make it up to you with an extravagant wedding gift. Like, let’s say, paying for the entire thing. That might be a good start.”

“It’s more than enough,” Vision assures him. “Thank you, Tony.”

“Well then,” Tony says. “Looks like we have a wedding to plan.”

Chapter Text

For the next month, all anyone on the team can talk about is Wanda and Vision’s wedding.

Tony insists on paying for everything, and Pepper convinces Wanda to actually take him up on the offer, and then everything kicks off. The guest list, the theme, Wanda’s dress. All easily decided on except for one detail. The location.

Clint offers his farm without a second thought; Tony insists he can get them any location at any date under the sun. At one point even New Asgard is suggested, with the rolling green hills and still lakes providing a more than romantic backdrop. But the weeks go on, and the location for the ceremony remains undecided.

Peter’s in his workshop when F.R.I.D.A.Y. calls him into the Avengers’ main common room for a team meeting. A little nervous, Peter puts away his suit and jogs to the elevator. Team meetings are generally reserved for emergencies or as a flimsy cover for a surprise birthday party. Peter’s pretty sure it isn’t anyone’s birthday, and as he walks into the room to see every other Avenger gathered in a definite team meeting pose, he suspects it’s the former. “What’s going on?”

Peter casts his eyes around, catching sight of Thor and Steve in the far corner, heart sinking a little lower. If they’ve even called in Steve, who’s retired, and Thor, who now spends most of his time in space with the Guardians, then things must be pretty serious.

“Take that look off your face, Webs.” Tony waves Peter in, the elevator doors shutting behind him. “Our resident Harry and Sally just have an announcement they want to share with the class.”

Peter looks over to where Wanda and Vision have taken center stage, holding hands as they look out over their team. “Yes,” Vision says. “We have something we want to propose to you all.”

“I was never into polygamy,” Tony quips. “So it’s a no from me, but I don’t speak for the rest of the team.”

“Tony,” Steve warns him. “What did you two want to tell us?”

Wanda and Vision share a look, before Vision keeps talking. “We have chosen a location for our wedding,” Vision announces.

A ripple of surprise goes through the room, Thor speaking first. “Congratulations! Have you considered our offer of getting married in New Asgard?”

“While we very much appreciate the offer,” Vision replies. “Wanda and I have both decided that we would like a location that is a little more…personal.”

“The farm is completely on offer,” Clint joins in. “I know it doesn’t look like much, but you’d be surprised what some fairy lights and flowers can do. And it’s free.”

“They don’t care about that,” Tony counters. “I meant it when I said whatever you two want, you can have. Cost's not an issue." 

“Wanda,” Natasha prompts. “You’re being very quiet.”

“Go on, love,” Vision urges her. “They’ll understand.”

Wanda nods, gripping Vision’s hand a little tighter as she says, “I want to get married in Sokovia.”

All the air is sucked from the room.

“Wanda,” Sam says finally. “I can understand why you would want that, but for a lot of us…Sokovia isn’t the happiest of places to think about.”

“That’s why I want to get married there.” Wanda looks around at them all, face set. “Because you all remember it as a place of failure and destruction and defeat. Because I think of it that way. And I don’t want to - I want to remember it as home again.”

The unease in the room doesn’t lift. Even Peter feels wary about the idea - he wasn’t there, but he knows what that final fight against Ultron had meant. What it had cost them. The team got ripped apart by something called the Sokovia Accords, after all.

“We won’t force this on you,” Vision breaks the silence. “We are more than grateful for all the other options you have offered us.” He squeezes Wanda’s hand. “All that really matters is that we’re together, and you’re all there to celebrate with us.”

There’s another long pause, until Steve finally stands up. “This is your wedding. You should have it wherever you think is right. And if this feels right to you, we should support that.”

“Agreed,” Sam says. “We shouldn’t forget what happened in Sokovia, but that’s also in the past. It might even be cathartic for those of us who were in that fight to return for a happy reason. Help us move on.”

Peter catches Clint and Natasha having one of their silent conversations, constructed out of raised eyebrows and head tilts. “Clint and I are in,” Natasha states. “Sam’s right. We shouldn’t forget, but it’s not fair of us to condemn Wanda’s home to nothing more than a war zone either.”

“It’ll be good for Laura and the kids to see it too,” Clint mumbles. Not taking his eyes off the floor he adds, “Not just where Wanda came from. But Pietro too.”

“We’ll have to be discreet,” Bruce points out. “I get where Wanda’s coming from, I do, but I don’t think the residents of Sokovia would be quite as welcoming to the Avengers returning to their soil. Coming from the least discreet person in this room.”

“Anyone can be discreet if you know what you’re doing,” Bucky mutters. Then, louder, “I know it’s not exactly the same thing, but since joining you guys properly we’ve been raiding old Hydra bases and cleaning up the rest of their mess. And it helped, going back. Seeing them as me, and not as the Winter Soldier. It unlocked something in my brain I didn’t even know was there. Those places stopped being scary nightmares - they became real again. And they were just…places. I know I wasn’t in Sokovia, but I do think it would be good for those who were there to return. See it with fresh eyes.”

Sam looks vaguely impressed. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say that many words all in a row.”

Bucky just thumps him on the leg in response.

“I’m just happy for a wedding,” Scott throws in. “But I wasn’t there either, so I’m not sure I get a vote here.”

“The Wakandans can probably help with the discreet aspects,” Rhodey offers. “Especially as we’re inviting T’Challa and Shuri. And I’m there with the idea of going back.”

The discussion continues, but Peter’s attention has drifted. He’s watching Tony, who seems to be attempting to vanish into the wallpaper. “Mr. Stark? Are you ok?”

The room falls silent again, everyone looking over at Tony. “Tones?” Rhodey prompts.

Tony’s head jerks up, looking cornered. He flounders for a moment with the sudden attention, then pulls himself together. “This doesn’t negate my offer to pay for everything. Get married wherever you want. But I think it’s pretty obvious that I can’t come.”

“Actually, I don’t it’s obvious at all,” Natasha replies. “Our friends are getting married, Tony. We’re going to celebrate with them - all of us.”

“All of you. Except me. I can’t go back to where...” He breaks off, scrambling for words. “Ultron was on me. My fault. So -”

“Not just yours,” Bruce heads him off. “Or did you forget who was Ultron’s other creator?”

“Yeah, because I pressured you,” Tony shoots back. “You said no. I said yes. And then we got Ultron.”

“That was the same combination that led to my creation,” Vision points out. “And for that reason and many others - I would very much like to have you at my wedding, Tony.”

“As would I.” Wanda slips her hand out of Vision’s, making her way across the room to Tony.

Tony shifts, uncomfortable. “Come on. Let’s not pretend here. It’s your day, fine - surely you’d prefer me to stay away from it, especially if it’s Sokovia.”

“Because it’s Sokovia, I want you to come,” Wanda insists. “You say you pressured Bruce? I pressured you. I saw you feared for your friends’ lives and I exploited that. I am not devoid of blame for what occurred in my home either. But I want to start thinking of it as my home again. I couldn’t think of a better way to do that than beginning such an important chapter of my life where such a disastrous one ended. I lost a family there.” Wanda turns so she’s taking in the rest of the team. “And now I want to celebrate my new one in the same place.”

Tony huffs, but some of the defensiveness has left his posture. “Well. That is incredibly hard to say no to.” He claps his hands together, coming to decision. “Alright, folks. Let’s have a wedding.”

 


 

The ceremony is beautiful.

Wanda chooses a church not too far from where her parents and Pietro are buried. Her dress, which she had designed with Natasha - her Maid of Honor - and then had tailor-made, is in the Sokovian tradition and modeled after Wanda’s mother’s. It comes with a graceful train that sweeps behind her as Clint walks her down the aisle to where Vision is waiting, about to start their lives together as husband and wife.

When the officiant asks for the rings, Peter’s ready. He had been taken aback when Wanda had asked them to be their ringbearer, only for Wanda to insist on it. “This should be my brother,” she had explained. “He is always with me, and he always will be. But a spirit cannot carry rings. As far as I’m aware, at least.”

Peter takes in the pair of metal bands Wanda’s showing him. They’re made of uru metal; Thor’s wedding gift to the two of them. “They’re beautiful.”

“You remind me of Pietro, a little,” Wanda goes on. “And you have always been very kind to me, Peter. I would be very honored if you would be a part of my wedding.”

The celebrations go on long into the night, even after Wanda and Vision depart for their honeymoon. There’s drinking and dancing and singing and everything Wanda had asked for - a new beginning, a new meaning for Sokovia.

By the time it is over, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

Chapter Text

“Hi, my name’s Peter Parker, I’m here to see -”

“Room 2B, second door on your left.”

Peter pauses at the Tower's med bay reception desk. “How did you know?”

“Only got the one patient. Thought you lot were getting better at taking care of yourself, and then you started popping up like daisies in my med bay with all kinds of injuries.”

Peter shrugs, already moving towards Bucky’s hospital room. “Must be October.”

He knocks on the door before easing it open, smiling when he sees a dozing Sam sprawled out in the visitor’s chair next to Bucky’s bed. The super-soldier is fast asleep, a mass of bandaging covering one side of his head. Not wanting to wake either of them, Peter tip-toes to the other vacant chair, dropping into it.

“Hey, Spider-Kid.”

Peter leaps right out of the chair again, heart pounding. “You were asleep! Also, why?”

Sam cracks one eye open, grinning at him. “Because it’ll always be funny. Don’t you have that spider-sense thing?”

“Doesn’t work on friends. Even when they’re being dicks.”

“And that’s why I’ll always be able to sneak up on you. Perks of the job and all.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Peter settles back into the chair, jerking his chin at Bucky. “Is he ok?”

“With that thick skull? Yeah, he’ll be just fine. Pushed me out of the way of a falling bit of debris and took it himself. Idiot,” Sam adds, with a level of affection that Peter definitely hasn't ever heard him use while Bucky’s awake. “He thinks he’s invincible because he has one little vibranium arm. I have vibranium wings. And a vibranium shield. And a bullet-proof, Wakandan-designed suit.”

“And yet nothing to cover the top of your head,” Peter muses.

“Hey, we fixed that! The first suit was just a prototype anyway.” Sam sneaks a look around the otherwise empty hospital room. “Hey, so now that you’re here -”

“What?”

“Jeez, turn down the suspicion a few notches there. Steve was meant to show up like twenty minutes ago but he’s trapped in traffic, and I really don’t want Bucky to wake up alone. But also I really, really have to take a piss. Like now.”

"Oh, really?" Peter leans back in his chair. "So if I just left, you'd just be stuck needing to - hey!"

Sam's already moving for the door. “Like your soft little heart is going to ditch him. He might be a bit confused, so if he wakes up just tell him his name and where he is, and call for a nurse. The button is-”

“I know where the button is.”

“Right. Forgot I was talking to the walking disaster magnet here.”

“Hey,” Peter starts to protest, but Sam is already out of the room. Peter settles back into his chair instead, drumming his fingers for a few seconds. He’s itching to reach for his phone - he never was any good at sitting still for even short periods of time - but he also doesn’t want the first image Bucky sees when he wakes up to be his visitor absorbed in a screen.

Peter run his eyes up and down Bucky instead, assessing damage. A few scrapes and scratches that should be gone by the end of the day given the serum. Then there’s the worst offender - the hidden wound on Bucky’s temple. Morbid curiosity getting the better of him, Peter leans forward for a better look, only to be scared shitless for the second time in as many minutes by a pair of eyes watching him.

“Damnit, Bucky - did you and Sam plan this? Is he filming or something?”

The blue eyes narrow, unsure. Probably not a prank then. “You’re in the med bay,” Peter says quickly, recalling Sam’s instructions. “And you’re Bucky Barnes.”

The eyes just grow more suspicious, raking up and down Peter instead. It doesn’t look like Bucky recognizes him, but Sam had said that he might be confused, so Peter continues, “I’m Peter. Peter Parker. We’re on the same team.” He reaches for the button to call the nurse.

He doesn’t make it. A vibranium arm reaches out to catch his wrist.

Peter senses it coming and catches it out of habit. “Woah, hey. Same side, remember?”

Bucky is staring down at his metal fist like he’s never seen it before, still clasped in Peter’s super-strong grip. “You’re like me.”

Peter hastily lets Bucky’s hand go. “Well, not really. I mean, strong, yeah, and the healing thing, but otherwise…” He’s reaching for the button again.

“What are you doing?” Bucky asks.

“Just getting a doctor, because honestly dude - you need one. How hard was that hit to the head?”

Whatever reaction Peter was expecting, it isn’t Bucky’s eyes to fly wide in total panic, and he’s never been so relieved to hear Sam’s voice as the captain steps back into the hospital room. “Trust you to wake up when Peter’s here when I’ve been sitting by your sorry ass for - Buck? You good, man?”

“I think he’s just a bit confused,” Peter starts to say, only to see Sam start forward as Peter feels a presence moving behind him.

In hindsight, he could have dodged it. If it were an attacker creeping up behind him, Peter would have gotten out of the way. But his brain doesn’t register an attacker, it registers Bucky, and the next thing he knows a metal arm is clamping around his neck while a flesh one fastens around his torso, trapping his hands to his sides and pulling him tight against Bucky’s chest.

“Bucky, what the hell?” Sam’s yelling, only to come to the same conclusion Peter does a moment later. “Oh crap. Oh, crap.”

It’s not Bucky. It’s not their friend who is currently hauling Peter towards the exit, using him as both shield and warning to keep Sam at bay.

“Ok,” Sam says, switching to the calm, in control, Captain America voice that Peter is now well-used to hearing as he moves to block Bucky’s path. “Bucky. I know you’re in there. This isn’t Hydra. You’re not the Winter Soldier anymore. No one is trying to hurt you.”

Bucky’s response is to pull Peter in tighter, the threat clear, and Sam goes statue-still. “Bucky -” Peter tries, only to get cut off with a harsh sh, right in his ear. Peter feels Bucky’s head move, a savage jerk to the side. A message for Sam - Get out of the way.

“I think we both know I can’t do that,” Sam continues. There are footsteps now, running, urgent, and Bucky lets out a distressed whine. “They’re not going to hurt you,” Sam tries to assure him. “Not if you just let Peter go so we can -”

Then Peter’s moving at the same time Bucky is, ripping a hand free and snaking it between the metal arm and his throat just like Bucky himself had shown him, trying to keep a pocket of air. But the move isn’t designed for vibranium limbs, and all that Peter achieves is getting his fingers crushed along with his larynx.

“Damnit, Bucky!” Sam curses, looking for the out, but this isn’t Bucky he’s talking to right now, judging by the fact that Peter’s currently gasping for air. “I can’t just let you leave with him!”

Bucky’s answer is to snarl back at him, deep and animalistic. Sam’s wavering, eyes on Peter. I’ll be ok, Peter mouths at him.

“Famous last words,” Sam mutters, just as the med bay security team appears behind him, guns drawn and ready to fire, only to hesitate when they see Peter.

Bucky whines again, shifting his grip. It lets Peter breathe again, thank god, but it’s a far cry from being released.

“Don’t shoot!” Sam throws out an arm, keeping the security at bay. “Peter. Hey. You’re going to be alright.”

“Sure,” Peter gets out. He’s still holding onto Bucky’s metal arm, but he’s not making any moves to get it away. He might well be the only thing standing between Bucky and a bullet right now. “Captain America’s here to save me.”

Bucky jolts a little behind him at the words, as Sam throws Peter a look that clearly says Do not joke right now. “Alright. Bucky?”

No response.

Sam bites his lip before he seems to come to a decision, looking like he’s just bitten down on a lemon as he says, “Soldat?”

Bucky goes very still, tensing his grip.

Looking like he’d rather be saying anything else, Sam goes on, “You’re misbehaving. Disobeying orders. But it’s not too late to avoid punishment.”

Bucky’s shaking now, making Peter’s teeth click together.

“So why don’t you release our…comrade, and -”

It’s a step in the wrong direction. Bucky’s flesh arm digs into Peter’s stomach, making the bones in his trapped wrist creak as he starts backing up. Right toward the window.

“No, don’t -” Sam starts forward, only to come to an immediate halt when Bucky increases the pressure on Peter’s neck again. “You can’t break the window,” he tries instead, forcing calm. “You’re just going to get very hurt if you try.”

Bucky jerks to a stop, back now against the far wall. His breaths are coming short and fast, now holding onto Peter as much for balance as for insurance.

Sam looks behind him at the wall of guns, then makes the call. “Leave. All of you. You’re only making this worse.”

The woman out front glances at her colleagues, unsure. “With all due respect, sir, surely it would be best for us to -”

“Leave, I agree.” Sam waves them off. “Go. We’re fine here. Captain’s orders.”

Reluctant, the security guards back out of the room and out of sight, but Bucky doesn’t relax even a fraction. Peter tries for a deep breath, attempts to plant his feet more securely. It gets him pulled closer to Bucky as a response, but the touch no longer feels as threatening. It’s almost like Bucky is trying to pull him away from Sam, not closer to protect himself.

“Alright,” Sam says, going to close the door. “Let’s have a chat, ok? Let’s just -”

“You should go too.” Peter tenses after he says the words, waiting for another sh and a tightening of the chokehold, but it doesn’t come. Instead he hears a slight skip in Bucky’s breath, indicating that he’s on the right path.

“There is no way I’m -”

“Sam,” Peter insists. “Listen to me. You need to go.”

Sam’s eyes dart between Peter and Bucky, unsure. “Peter, you haven’t met the Winter Soldier. I have. You don’t know what he can do.”

Peter closes his eyes, feeling with his spider-sense. Feeling for danger. He comes up with nothing. “You’re right. I haven’t met him, I know that.” He opens his eyes again, looking at Sam dead on. Trust me.

Sam isn’t sold. “I can’t just leave -”

“You sent the security guards away because they weren’t helping,” Peter points out. “Neither are you, not right now. Please, just…just go.”

When Sam still doesn’t move, Bucky does. In a move more fluid and deadly than Peter’s ever seen him move before, he shifts his grip back on Peter to one of pure threat, shifting his flesh hand to the top of Peter’s head instead.

Sam starts forward. “No, don’t -”

“Leave,” Bucky growls at him.

“Bucky, it’s Sam.”

“Leave!” The shouted word is accompanied by a twist on Peter’s neck that actually hurts for a second, enough to make him gasp.

“Alright!” Sam puts both hands up, recognizing defeat as he moves towards the door. “Don’t hurt him. Ok? We can work this out, but not if Peter gets hurt - understand?”

Bucky doesn’t so much as shift in answer, leaving Sam no other option but to back out of the room and close the door behind him, leaving Peter and Bucky alone.

They stay like for about a minute, Bucky’s eyes rooted on the door, as though sure someone’s going to come in. “I don’t think they’re coming back,” Peter says finally. “I think we’re good.”

The arms slacken slightly, before Bucky’s back is hitting the wall and sliding down it, taking Peter with him. They end up in the most awkward position possible, with Peter sitting practically in Bucky’s lap. Bucky’s still got him in the chokehold, although it’s not as urgent as before.

“Cool. Sitting down. Nice.” Peter tries to shift, only to get treated to the bear trap-like grip again. “Can you chill? I’m just trying to get comfortable.”

The grip hesitates, as though Bucky has no idea how to respond to that. Peter makes the most of it, working his legs out from under him to save him from pins and needles down the line. He slumps back against Bucky, trying to think of him as more of a vaguely uncomfortable armchair than a confused former assassin who has more than enough ability to snap his neck right now.

“So,” Peter says finally after a few moments of silence. “What now?”

He gets an uncomfortable shift behind him in response.

“You don’t have a plan? Great.” Peter huffs through his nose, debating whether to try getting the arm off his throat. It’s not hurting him though, and he actually thinks Bucky might be keeping it there to keep himself upright more than anything now - the poor guy did get a nasty knock in the head after all - so he leaves it. “Sam wasn’t lying about the window.”

Bucky tenses, so Peter guesses he was still thinking of it as an option.

“They’re pretty much unbreakable,” Peter goes on. “That’s usually to stop people getting in rather than people getting out, but still. Well built, you know.”

Peter casts about for something else to say, only to jump a little as Bucky finally speaks, the words ghosting over Peter’s ear. "You said Captain America was here."

"Oh. Yeah. Um..." Peter searches for words. He figures that trying to explain that the man Bucky had just been talking to is Captain America now isn't going to be a winning move. 

"Is he here?" Bucky's breathing has picked up, unsure. "Did they- is he here?"

Somehow Peter doesn't think the words 'he's stuck in traffic' are going to compute, so he goes with, "No. Steve isn't here."

Bucky doesn't exactly relax, but his breathing evens out a bit, so Peter takes that as a win.

“You’re like me.”

“Um, yeah, you said that.” Peter tries to recontextualize the words now he knows what’s going on in Bucky’s head. “Like a super-soldier?”

Bucky’s voice is so low that Peter almost misses the next words. “Like an Asset.”

Oh. Oh. “I’m not…I’m not a prisoner here. Neither are you. It’s safe, Bucky, I promise.” Peter risks twisting his head around a little, even though it’s not enough to see Bucky’s face. “I am talking to Bucky right now. Not the Winter Soldier. Right?”

Bucky shuffles a little. “How do you know that name?”

“Because we’re friends.” Peter casts about for something more convincing to say. “You wouldn’t let me them take me. But it wasn’t because you needed leverage. You were protecting me from them.”

Bucky exhales, long and slow. “You’re a child,” he says finally.

“I’m seventeen,” Peter replies, indignant.

Bucky ignores that. “They shouldn’t- it’s- wrong.” He tenses on that last word, as though he’s going to get punished for it. Hell, in the mindset he’s currently in, he probably thinks he is. “It’s wrong,” he says again, more insistently. “They shouldn’t do this.”

Damn, and isn’t that just a little heart-breaking. Bucky thinks he’s back in Hydra, back to being tortured and controlled, and his first instinct had been to protect a kid he doesn’t even (at the moment) know?

“No,” Peter agrees quietly. “No, they shouldn’t have done any of that. It is wrong.”

Bucky’s breath stutters a little at the confirmation, about to say something else when the hospital room door opens again.

There’s movement, and Peter braces himself to resume his role as reluctant human shield. But this time Bucky is moving Peter behind him, blocking him with his own body, and it really shouldn’t be possible for anyone to look that intimidating dressed only in a hospital gown with massive amounts of bandages wrapped around their head, but this is not a Bucky Peter wants innocent people around right now. “Don’t come in,” Peter calls out. “I got this, really, I -”

“Steve,” Bucky breathes, and then his face crumples. “No, they can’t, you were safe, they didn’t get you, you were safe.”

Steve’s eyes widen, hastening to close the door behind him and hurry across the room, dropping to his knees by Bucky’s side. “I am safe, Buck. I’m not- I’m not Hydra’s prisoner, or whatever you’re thinking right now. And neither are you.”

Bucky fists his hand tighter in Peter’s t-shirt, shoving him even further out of sight despite Peter’s protests, but these eyes are fixed on Steve. “Are you…are you real?”

Steve’s eyes glisten. “Yeah, Buck. I’m real.” Carefully, he reaches out to take Bucky’s free hand, the flesh one, rubbing circles over it with his thumb. “Feel that? I’m real.”

“He’s…” Bucky’s energy is clearly flagging, but he’s clinging on with everything he has left. “He’s just a kid.”

Steve glances over at Peter, seeming to understand. “I know.”

“Don’t…don’t let them…it’s wrong.”

“Yeah, it is,” Steve breathes. “But he’s going to be ok now. You did great, Buck. I’ll take it from here.”

They’re the words Bucky needs to hear. He goes limp, fingers finally uncurling from Peter as he collapses forward into Steve’s waiting arms, Steve pulling him in close. They get barely a taste of that serenity before the room is flooded with people and familiar hands are tugging Peter away. “Peter. Hey. Are you ok?”

Peter watches with trepidation as doctors begin conferring with Steve, preparing to move Bucky. “What are they doing to do with him?”

“Put him out properly,” Sam replies, voice grim. “MRI, x-rays, the works.”

“Is he going to be ok?”

“He’s going to be fine,” Sam assures him. “A head injury, some confusion, some lost years - nothing that pesky serum of his isn’t going to put right. And if it doesn’t, we will - ok?”

Peter nods, slightly mollified.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“You asked me a question?”

“Yeah, genius, I did. Specifically - are you ok?”

Peter massages his throat. It’s probably going to bruise, but other than that he’s fine. “Yeah. I’m cool. He didn’t actually want to hurt me.”

“We know. We were listening.” Sam looks over at where Steve is still holding Bucky’s hand as a stretcher appears for him. “Damn, all these months trying to get him to open up and Steve still gets all the glory.” He catches himself. “Not that that matters. What matters is that everyone’s ok.”

“He thought he was back in Hydra,” Peter said quietly. “I don’t know how far back, but long enough ago that he thought capturing Steve was still an option for them. So before his death. Long, long before he met you. Him not recognizing you back there isn’t a reflection on how much you’ve helped him. We all know you have, Bucky especially.”

Sam takes that in, then gives Peter a nudge in the stomach. “Hey, being the team therapist is my trope.”

“I’m stealing it for today, tough luck.”

“Thanks for saying it though,” Sam adds after a moment. “Not that it’s about credit.”

They stand aside to let the doctors carry Bucky out of the room, Steve in their wake. “So,” Peter breaks the silence that follows. “I guess Bucky could have been a good candidate for Captain America too.”

Sam narrows his eyes, suspicious. “I’m not doing a setup for whatever pun you’re coming up with right now.”

Peter isn’t deterred. “You know. Because he’s pretty good with a shield.”

“What?” Sam’s brow furrows in confusion. “No one had the shield today, what are you -” He catches on. “No. No, not funny.”

“Because I was his shield.”

“Nope, Parker, we don’t joke about being taken hostage by our friends.”

“I think I made a great hostage. A choice Bucky could really get behind, you know?”

“You’re off the Avengers.”

“Hey. Hey, Sam.”

“No.”

“Do you know what the hardest part of the- stop walking away! Do you know what the hardest part of the night is?”

“Not doing this.”

“It’s his shield.”

“Goddamit, Parker.”

Chapter Text

“I knew both Jack and Rose could have fit on that door.”

“We all know that, kid.”

“Rose was a door-hog.”

“I’m surprised you’ve even seen Titanic. Also if you call that one a really old movie I’m going to have an existential crisis.”

“What, the idea of baking to death surrounded by freezing water isn’t doing that already?”

“No one’s getting baked. No fried spiders allowed on my ship.”

“I think your ship needs an upgrade, Mr. Stark.” Peter rolls over to give his back a break from the blistering sun, facing straight upwards instead. He closes his eyes against the sunlight, pulling at his soaked t-shirt, currently wrapped turban-style around his head.

They haven’t been here that long, it can’t have even been more than a day, but it’s already one day too many. They get an inch of space between them on the floating piece of plane wreckage, bobbing in the waves with not a speck of land in sight.

Peter still doesn’t know who attacked them, and Tony doesn’t know either or isn’t spilling. As time wears on, Peter begins to suspect the former, and then decides he doesn’t care. It’s the same outcome either way. They’re drifting in the open sea, both of their suits long since sunk to the bottom of the waves, with no hope of rescue. They’ve salvaged what they can from the crash, bits and pieces still bobbing on the waves. Tony’s still insisting he can fix a now broken and very waterlogged radio, but he’s lying for Peter’s sake, and they both know it.

“Someone will know we went down,” Tony keeps saying. “They’ll come. They’re taking their sweet time about it, but they’ll come.”

Tony’s back at the radio, tongue poking into the side of his cheek like he always does when he’s concentrating, so Peter at least knows he’s trying for real now. “I wouldn’t mind an iceberg,” Peter decides. “Big block of ice. Sounds delicious.”

“Uh-huh. Ice. Cold. I’m sure that would be- ow!” A spark flies out of the radio. Tony glares at it, popping his scorched finger in his mouth. “Betrayal!”

“It’s ok,” Peter says quietly. “If you can’t. You know. Fix it.”

“It’s not ok. It’s very much not ok. I’m meant to be keeping you safe, kid, as difficult a job as you make that.”

“Yeah,” Peter says quietly. “Yeah, I know.”

Tony pauses in his work. “Hey, what’s that face for? I was joking. Kind of. In that you do throw yourself into danger at the worst possible times, which is terrible for my heart on multiple levels. But this one isn’t on you. Pretty sure it’s on me.”

Peter rolls over so he’s fully facing his mentor. “You attacked your own plane? Baller.”

Tony snorts. “You’re meant to be in school,” he gripes. “And then I insist pulling you out to take you to some conference in Japan, which wasn’t even going to be interesting -”

Peter straightens up. “You promised me it was going to be fun!”

“Yeah, for me. If you came along to relieve some of the boredom.”

Peter settles back down on the plane wreckage, mollified. “Really? Me being there would make it fun for you?”

“Of course it would. And fat lot of good it did you.” Tony gestures around them. “Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink, and all that.”

“Actually, it’s Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

“Alright, showoff.”

“It’s one of MJ’s favorite poems.” Peter swallows, putting his head back in his arms, completing his 360 degree turn. It feels pointless regardless - there’s no comfortable way to lie, no escape from the heat.

“Hey.” Tony squeezes Peter’s shoulder, his fingers uncomfortably hot. “Don’t get all mopey on me. You’ll see your scary girlfriend again. This isn’t over yet. Look.” He indicates the sky. “Sun’s getting real low.”

“I’m not the Hulk.”

“Good, because out of all the teammates to be stranded on a tiny piece of metal in the middle of the ocean with, he’d be last on my list.” Tony seems to consider it. “Unless he could power swim us to shore or something. Point is - it’s going to cool off soon.”

It’s not much of a comfort, except that maybe they’ll die of hypothermia before they die of thirst. Peter doubts it though. He feels like a desert’s been growing in his throat.

“Mr. Stark,” Peter says quietly. “Can I ask you something? Kind of…a weird favor?”

“Not sure I’m in much of condition to grant any favors right now, but I’ll do my best. What do you need, kid?”

Peter swallows, trying not to think about how much it hurts. “I just…if this is it -”

“It’s not.”

“- then I don’t want to spend our last hours pretending that everything’s going to be fine.”

Tony swivels his head around to look at him. “You want to spend the next few hours…what, talking about us dying? That’s morbid.”

“Not really.” Peter goes to shrug, then realizes his burnt shoulders hurt far too much. “Maybe more…I don’t know. I want to talk about something that matters.”

Tony goes back to staring at the bright sky, a range of emotions crossing his face as he works through that. “Sure,” he says finally. “So tell me, Peter Parker. What matters?”

“I don’t know. How did you meet Pepper?”

Tony lets out a surprised laugh. “Really? That’s your definition of a deathbed discussion, meet-cute stories?”

“I don’t know!” Peter repeats. “You asked me what matters and my mind went to, you know. People. Our people. You know?”

“Not a bad place to end up.” Tony considers for a moment. “She pepper-sprayed me. In the face.”

Peter blinks, sitting up a little. “How have I not heard this story?”

A smile plays on the corners of Tony’s lips. “My personal assistant was a tough job to hold back in the day.”

“Yeah, I bet.”

“Hey. But accurate.”

“So she applied to be your assistant and got it? And then…pepper-sprayed you?”

“Don’t try to guess, because you’re not going to get it. Yes, applications for that position were open. Again. I went through assistants pretty fast back then. But that’s not the job she showed up to interview for. I don’t actually know what job she was there for. I probably should know that. Anyway.” Tony grimaces as he remembers. “Oh, yeah. That’s why you don’t know this story.”

“You can’t stop now! We’re going to die anyway, what does it matter?”

“We’re not dying, which is why this story comes with a hefty warning that I was a very different person with different habits before Afghanistan. Alright?”

“I know.”

“You say that, but…” Tony breaks off with a sigh. “Ok, so I’m meant to be interviewing new PAs, but instead I, um…got blind drunk is probably the most accurate term for it. Used to do that a lot back then. Somehow I ended up out the back of the building, in the parking lot. I can’t confirm this but I’m pretty sure I was there to…” He hesitates, then presses one nostril down, miming snorting. “Which you don’t get to do ever, understand me? You can barely handle coffee.”

“I can so!”

“Really? Well then, when we get back let’s feed you an espresso and get it on camera.” He catches Peter’s look. “Right, right, not talking about getting back right now. Anyway. Story. Don’t ask me why I was in the parking lot, everyone knew I was doing that stuff, it wasn’t exactly a secret. But the point is - ok, before I tell this part, I was drunk and high. Do not forget that.”

“What did you do?”

“I tripped.”

“Is that it?”

“Right into a certain strawberry blonde stepping out of her car, carrying a freshly made Starbucks and wearing a brand new, white Chanel dress.”

“Oh. Oh.”

“For the record, there was zero ill intent. But all Pepper sees is some guy clearly off his rocker lunge for her in the shadows of a parking lot. Next thing I know I’m in a staff bathroom with Obie yelling at me as he runs water over my face.” Tony screws up at his face at the mention of his previous business partner.

“So what did Pepper do?”

“She sued me.”

“She did not.”

“She did. We managed to explain that I wasn’t trying to, um…you know. But that white dress? $5000. Which was barely anything to me, but to Pepper at that time was everything.”

“Did she win?”

A fond look crosses Tony’s face. “Unfortunately, Obadiah squashed the case. Didn’t want anyone else to get ideas. But not before the lawsuit Pepper had written up ended up on my desk. I hired her the next day.”

“You hired the woman who pepper-sprayed you and then tried to sue you?”

“I sure did,” Tony says happily. “Best decision I’ve ever made.” He glances over at Peter. “One of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Called her Pepper after that, and it stuck. I mean, her last name is Potts, it was right there.”

“Hm. Wait. Wait. Pepper’s name isn’t Pepper?”

“No, it’s Virginia.”

“Oh. That’s…my mind just got blown.”

“You’re welcome.” Tony dips his hand into the ocean, sighing at the cool feel of the water. “Alright. Your turn.”

“My turn for what?”

“Your girl. Your MJ. How’d you meet?”

“We go to the same school? Not exactly as exciting as your story.” Peter shifts on the plane wreckage. “When did you know you were in love with Pepper?”

“Back to me already?” Tony considers. “I think since that first day. A part of me always knew. But I also wasn’t great at, you know, people back then. I guess I knew that if I went for that, tried to have more, it would ruin what we did have and I didn’t want to lose her. At least if I kept dolling out her paychecks I knew she’d stick around.” Tony blinks, coming back to himself. “That’s enough about my love life. Let’s talk about you. You and MJ good?”

Peter nods. “Yeah. Except for, you know…”

“Ok, how about we make a compromise on this how ‘talking about dying’ thing? I won’t act like everything’s going to be fine, even though it is, and you don’t get to talk like we’re definitely going to become permanent lifebuoys out here. Deal?”

Peter bites his lip. It’s not exactly what he wants, but clearly Tony doesn’t want to dwell on the fact that they probably won’t last through the next few hours, and he wants to keep them talking while they still can. “Deal.”

“So. MJ. Do you love her?”

“Mr. Stark!”

“We’re floating on a piece of plane debris in the middle of the ocean. If now is not time for you to start calling me Tony, I don’t know what is. And don’t dodge the question.”

“I…don’t know. I mean, yes, of course I do, but…Yes, I do. I do love her.”

“You say that like it’s a problem.”

Peter hesitates.

“Come on, kid, we’re doing the whole deep and meaningful thing here, spit it out.”

“Only if you don’t think I’m awful.”

Tony swivels around. “It would literally be impossible for me to ever think that.”

Peter flushes. “Oh. Ok. Um, so I really like MJ. And I don’t want us to break up, or anything, but sometimes I also catch myself thinking, like…is this it?”

“Is this it, like is this what a relationship is? It’s not what you expected?”

“Not really. More like, is this my person? And if it is, that’s amazing, I’d be so lucky, but…but also, if I’ve found my person now…” Peter bites his lip. “It’s not like I want to date anyone else. But also, I don’t like the idea of not dating anyone else? There was Liz, kind of, and now MJ, and sometimes I wonder…is that all I get? Which is awful,” he hurries on. “Because MJ is so amazing, and I don’t want it to end, but…”

“But you’re seventeen and you don’t want your dating life to end before it’s even really begun.”

“Maybe. Yes.”

“Pete, that’s not awful. In fact, I think that sounds very healthy.”

“Really?”

“It’s good that you’re not focusing all in on this one person. I’ve done that before, with Pepper. Made pretty much my whole life about not losing her, and then Killian exploited that, and I ended up losing her anyway. And you’re young, kid, even though you insist you’re not. You’re going to change so much in the next few years. Neither you nor MJ are going to be the same person you are right now that you will be when you’re twenty-five. Maybe those new people you’re going to turn into are going to be compatible, maybe they won’t be. But worrying about it now won’t change anything.”

Peter takes that in. “So…we just stay together? Even though it might not last?”

“Is it good right now?” Tony presses.

“Yeah. Really good.”

“Is she pushing you to be someone better? Do you feel supported by her? Do you feel secure with her?”

“Yes,” Peter breathes. “Yes, all of the above.”

“Then it’s good right now. And maybe something will change that one day - a career opportunity that can’t work for both of you, or you just grow apart. But a relationship doesn’t have to be forever for it to be worthwhile. Not if you make each other’s lives better for being in them.”

“Wow. That’s…wow.”

“Me and Pepper have done a lot of couple’s counseling. Some of it stuck. Besides,” Tony adds. “Your generation being all modern or whatever, there’s plenty of other options down the line. Polyamory, open relationships. Maybe you can both take a break at some point, see what else is out there. You might try that and find that all you want is each other.”

That makes Peter smile. “I like that last one.”

“That’s what me and Pepper did. Of course, the ‘all you want is each other’ bit came with a lot of work, mostly from my end. But we got there.” Tony dips his hand in the ocean again, and Peter fights back the desire to know what it would feel like to having it run over his cracked lips. “Who’s turn is it?”

“To ask a question? Me, I think.” Peter chews on what to ask. “What do you regret?”

“Oh, god. We won’t get through even a quarter of that before we -” Tony breaks off, not wanting to finish the thought.

“One thing then. One regret.”

Tony is quiet for a long moment. “Siberia,” he says finally. “I’d undo Siberia. Not just because of what happened there, but after.”

“Do you mean...you know. Thanos? The Avengers ending up separated?”

Tony considers, then shakes his head. “I’ve long since learned that you can only dwell on the battles you’ve lost for so long before it becomes detrimental. Maybe we would have beat Thanos the first time around if we’d all been together. Maybe it would have been worse. I more mean…after. During the Blip. Steve and I were ok, we kind of had to be with the world being the mess that it was, but once we’d done what we could, I just kind of…vanished. Took Pepper to the lake house to raise Morgan and left the others to it.”

“And you regret that?”

“We should have grieved together,” Tony says quietly. “I see that now. All of us. And we didn’t, because of a dust-up over…well not over nothing, of course it wasn’t, but still. It didn’t need to happen. Bucky and I are friends now, for god’s sake.” Tony blinks, seeming to come back to himself. “Ok. That’s enough of that. We’re all one big superfamily now, so at least we got there in the end. Lesson learned. What about you, young buck? Are you even old enough to have regrets yet?”

Peter stares up at the sky. The heat is beginning to cool at last, the sun fading. Considering he’s not going to see daylight again, that’s not as comforting as he wants it to be. “I regret not saving Ben.”

Tony freezes, then rolls over to push himself on his elbows with energy he really should be saving. “Peter, no -”

“I could have done more,” Peter whispers. “I could have gotten to a phone. Or gotten help. Or acted faster. I could have -”

“Done absolutely nothing else.”

“That’s not true. It’s not,” Peter insists when he sees Tony about to argue. “There were so many ways I could have acted differently. If I had, maybe he’d still be here.”

“Hey. Look at me. Look at me right now.”

Reluctantly, Peter turns his head away from the daylight that’s slipping all too quickly away.

“Remember what I said about dwelling for too long on those things getting detrimental?” A new thought seems to occur to him. “How long have you blaming yourself for this?”

“I don’t know. Since it happened? I’m sorry,” he adds, seeing Tony’s look of horror. “I didn’t mean to -”

“Have you talked to anyone about this?”

“I mean, no? May would just get upset and I don’t want to, you know, burden anyone else with that.”

“Kid, take it from someone who has learned this the slow and painful way. Those are definitely the kind of burdens you share, or they eat you alive from the inside.” He flops back, energy to sit up evaporating. “Look, I know I wasn’t there. But I do know that there is nothing a ten-year-old - nothing a full-grown adult - could have done differently. Or, ok, maybe they could have, but different doesn’t mean better.”

“I just…didn’t want to leave him. But maybe if I had -”

“Nothing would have changed and he would have died alone.”

Peter takes that in. “I haven’t thought of it that way before.” He scans the ocean, seeing the odd bit of debris bobbing in the waves. He thinks of the remains of the plane, lying right beneath them, lost and empty, probably forever. The image spooks him, and he shudders. “Do you believe in fate?”

“No,” Tony says immediately. “I think everything we screw up is on us and thinking anything else is dangerous.”

Peter hums. He’s trying to rid himself of that image of the abandoned plane on the ocean floor. His brain is making the aircraft bigger than it should be, filling it with shadows and monsters to hide in them. “It’s just. Funny.”

“You found a joke in all this? Then please share with the class.”

“Not ha-ha funny. The other kind. That my parents died in a plane crash. And now. Me. Funny.”

“Hey, hey, none of that.”

“You said we could talk about things that matter.”

“We can. But you don’t really have the water to spare there, bud.”

Peter blinks, feeling salt that isn’t seawater sting his eyes. He hadn’t even noticed. “I was meant to go with them,” Peter goes on. “On the plane trip. But I got chickenpox. They wouldn’t let me travel. So May and Ben looked after me while they went. I was meant to be on that plane. And now. Fate. It caught up to me.” He shivers again.

“Or,” Tony presses. “The fate was that you got sick and couldn’t go. Fate had you survive. Because the universe knew it needed Peter Parker to stick around a lot longer. Not that fate is real anyway. Come here.” Tony scoots across their makeshift raft, closing the distance between them and putting his arms around Peter, pulling him close. The sun has sunk now, and the body heat is welcome despite being scorched all day. “Ok. My turn to ask a question. Tell me a happy memory. The first one you think of.”

Peter manages a smile.

“Ah, so you did think of one. Tell me then.”

“It’s just…it’s not like a big thing.”

“The best memories often aren’t. Come on, spill.”

“Do you remember the night you and Pepper took me and MJ to see that play? The one with the two guys that just talked the whole time? For someone to come for them?”

“Waiting for Godot?” Tony frowns. “That’s your happy memory? I thought Beckett wasn’t your cup of tea.”

“MJ loved it. And she got to meet you and Pepper. But that’s not what I thought of. I thought of…after."

Tony still looks confused. “I can’t remember doing anything afterward. I thought we all just went back to the lake house and went to bed.”

“We did. But before then, when we rolled up to the house. Rhodey had been babysitting Morgan, and she’d refused to go to bed.”

“Of course she did. Little madam, that one.”

“So she ran out to greet us because she was so excited to see everyone. But she ran to me first.” A lump forms in Peter’s aching throat, but it’s for a very different reason now. “That’s it. That’s the memory. And it wasn’t as though I didn’t feel like a part of the family before, but it just… felt right. In that moment, everything felt right. Does that makes sense?”

“Yeah,” Tony agrees quietly. “It makes sense. Sometimes it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Peter clears his throat. “Your turn. What’s the first happy memory you think of?”

Tony considers for a second before a little surprised, “Oh,” leaves him.

“What did you think of?”

“It doesn’t…hold on, I’ll think of another one.”

“The question was the first one you thought of. What was it?”

“It’s just…I feel like I should say something that you were there for.”

Peter shakes his head. “I remember those moments already. Tell one I don’t know about.”

“Ok.” Then, seeming to brace himself, “Ok. It’s kind of like your thing. Something small. But also something huge.”

Peter waits, patient, until Tony’s ready to tell him.

“Ok,” Tony says, yet again. “This happened when I was pretty young. Maybe seven, eight-ish. My dad was never…well, you know. The whole world knows. I don’t even remember the specifics of what happened. I’d let him down somehow, like I was always doing. Some project gone awry or a media thing bungled, whatever. And if I got upset he just got angrier so I’d always hide. You know. Until I wasn’t upset anymore. But this time someone found me.”

Another long pause, Peter not interrupting.

“Have I told you about Edwin Jarvis?” Tony says eventually.

“A bit. He’s the one J.A.R.V.I.S. was named for.”

“Yeah. Family friend. My godfather, actually. Good man. Went long before his time.” Tony clears his throat. “So I’m upset, over whatever, and Jarvis finds me. And I expect him to say…actually, I can’t remember. But I knew what I wanted to hear. That I’d done a good job. That I hadn’t actually made a mistake. That he was proud of me. Which, I didn’t actually want to hear from Jarvis, but, you know. Take what you can get.”

“Is that what he said?”

Tony shakes his head. “No. He just…held me. And told me I was ok. Not doing ok, not that it was going to be ok. You’re ok.” Tony blinks rapidly. “God, I haven’t thought about this in years. I think I might have buried it, actually. Because if I kept it around, then that would mean dealing with the idea that I didn’t need approval or praise. That what I actually needed was to feel was ok. Safe. Secure. Held.”

The sun’s gone. Peter buries his head in Tony’s chest, already beginning to shiver, body heat dropping far too fast. “Tony?”

“Yeah, kid.”

“I just…I really need you to know. I know there was a bit of a rocky start there, with the ferry and the suit and stuff, but ever since then. I’ve always felt safe with you.”

Tony goes very still.

“I know you think you’re like your dad. I know a lot of people say you are. But if that’s how he made you feel, then it isn’t true. Because you make me feel ok. You make me feel secure, like I can depend on you for anything; like you’ll always be there. You make me feel held.” A full-body shiver runs through him, the ocean turning black. “Thank you. For being my Jarvis.”

The silence that stretches on after that goes on for so long that Peter starts to think that Tony might already be gone. He’s not that far behind when he hears Tony’s voice, quiet and thick, “Thank you, Peter. Thank you for…thank you.”

“Tony?”

“Hm?”

“You said you started calling Pepper that because she pepper-sprayed you?”

“That’s the one.”

“But also because her last name was Potts. Pepper Potts.”

“Catchy, I know.”

“So…Pepper’s name is a pun.”

Tony might answer. He might not. Peter’s not listening anymore, distracted instead by faint flecks of gold cutting through the silver moonlights.

Peter sits up, shaking Tony’s shoulder, trying to rouse him. “Tony. Tony.”

The sparks intensify, forming a golden circle, warm light spilling from it as a very annoyed-looking Stephen Strange glares down at them. “Do you have any idea how difficult it is to search the surface of an ocean?”

“The wizard’s here?” Tony manages to get upright, although he needs to lean heavily on Peter to do so.

“The doctor’s here,” Stephen corrects him. “And by the looks of it, you two need one. Unless you want to stay there.”

“Definitely not.” Tony gets an arm around Peter’s torso, helping him up through the portal, before Peter turns around to help his mentor in turn. Tony flops to the ground of the Sanctum with a groan, before looking up at Stephen. “Damnit. Now I owe you or something, don’t I?”

“This one’s free,” Stephen assures him. “Can’t guarantee the next one will be.”

“Fair enough. Maybe you’ll finally let me do something for those hands.”

“Hm. Might be time.” Stephen’s already checking Peter over. “Right, time to get some fluids in you. Then rest. A lot of rest - no arguments.”

“No arguments,” Peter agrees, finally letting himself give up, knowing that the people around him would keep him safe.

Chapter Text

Peter has decided that he can really do without waking up bound.

He struggles his way back to consciousness, his shoulders already aching from where his arms are anchored behind his back. He’s tied to a chair, hand and foot with an additional length of chain wrapped around his torso. A couple of tugs confirm he’s not going anywhere, and he would put a curse on the people who brought vibranium into the world if they weren’t Shuri’s ancestors and therefore probably pretty cool people.

He’s barely processed kidnapped drugged chained when the bucket of seawater catches him full in the face.

“Wakey-wakey, Spider-Man! Your friends are waiting for you to join the party.”

That gets Peter’s attention even more than the water does, scrambling for the continuity between whatever he was doing last and how he’d ended up…wherever here is. He’d been following a tip regarding suspicious activity at the docks, to do with the weapons dealer he’s been messing with for months. Sam and Bucky had eventually taken the case into their own hands and told him to stay out of it, that they had it handled, but it had been weeks and nothing had been happening, so Peter had gone back on the down-low to sort out the case himself. Neither of them had even picked up the phone when Peter had tried to call in his latest discovery earlier that day. Now he can see why.

Bucky’s bound the same way Peter is, also in a reinforced chair with half a dozen extra bonds around his metal arm, while Sam is stuck to his chair with what look like industrial-grade zip ties, and both of them are looking at Peter like he just set fire to the American flag.

“We told you to stay out of this.” Sam struggles in his bonds, looking at Peter with an exasperation that could match Tony’s when it comes to Peter finding himself in dangerous situations. Or, Peter just finding dangerous situations in general. And then running into them without much more of a plan than stop bad guys doing bad things.

“Yeah, kid,” Bucky joins in the telling off. “We told you we had this.”

Peter uses his chin to gesture to the chairs they’re tied to. “No offense, but this doesn’t really look like 'having this’.”

“Enough.” A man steps into Peter’s field of view, and Peter’s stomach drops as he recognizes him. He’d only seen the face once, and then it had been unscarred, but the description Karen had given had been enough to stick the face in his mind. “This reunion is cute and all, but we have plans for you three, and I’ve waited long enough for this, Peter Parker.”

Peter glances down at himself, realizing with a start that he’s still wearing the Spider-Man suit. Sans mask. His heart pounds a little harder. “How -”

“Toomes wanted to be noble about it,” Mac Gargan goes on. “Given you’re barely out of diapers and all. But I don’t give a crap about your age if you’re messing with my operations, and Toomes didn’t hide his wife and daughter quite as well as he thought he had.”

Peter’s insides twist a little tighter. “Did you hurt Liz?”

“Friend of yours? Interesting. But she’s fine. Price of that outcome being you under the knife instead. Nobility tends to go out the window when loved ones are on the line.”

Peter feels the mistake a second after it’s made, but he can’t help it, it’s instinct. The second Gargan says loved ones, Peter’s eyes slide over to Sam and Bucky.

Gargan follows the movement, chuckling. “So you do care for them. Good. When I set this up I had Stark in mind, maybe your aunt or one of your little school friends, but then these two came stumbling right into my trap. It’s almost poetic.”

“Then you have crap taste in poetry,” Bucky bites out. He’s still straining in his bonds, more subtly than Sam is, searching for weaknesses.

Sam turns his attention to Peter instead. “Peter. We’re fine. You focus on you, ok?”

“That’s sweet.” Gargan gestures to a man over by the door, reminding Peter to take in his surroundings now that the remnants of the knock-out drug are clearing. The building indicates they’re being kept somewhere in the docks still, if the scents of boat oil and spoiled fish are anything to go by, with a single door that’s bolted shut from the inside. There are four other people in the room that Peter can see, although his spider-sense tells him there’s one more behind him, out of sight. All of them are armed, but none of them are enhanced, and Peter reckons it’ll only take getting one of the Avengers in the room free to even out the odds. Problem with that being that he can’t see a way any of them are getting out of the chairs.

The man by the door is bringing over a contraption Peter doesn’t like the look of at all; a black box with jumper cables attached to it. The henchman pauses between Sam and Bucky, looking at Gargan for instructions.

Gargan deliberates, clearly enjoying himself, before pointing at Sam. “Start with that one.”

Any nonchalance Peter has been feigning about the situation evaporates. “Stop,” he tries, struggling against the chains. “It’s me who’s been messing up your operation, and who got Toomes arrested, and -”

“And gave me this?” Gargan points to the gnarled scarring creeping over his face. “Yeah. I know it was you. I also know that whatever I do to you won’t hurt nearly as much as making you watch whatever I do to them.”

“Don’t listen, Peter,” Sam interrupts, face stoic even as the henchman leans down to pull off Sam’s shoes, then attaches one jumper cable to each of Sam’s big toes. Sam screws up his face as he tries to throw him off, but his ankles are bound too tightly. “This better not be a foot fetish thing. Because you do not have my consent for that.”

Peter risks a look at Bucky. The super-soldier has redoubled his efforts to break free, occasionally throwing worried glances at Sam, but the chains keep him stubbornly in place.

“This is how this is going to work,” Gargan announces. “I want to play a game, Spider-Man.”

“I don’t,” Peter says weakly, eyes rooted on the cables now locked on Sam. There has to be something he can do to stop this, he’s not letting this happen, there’s no way -

“I’m going to torture one of them,” Gargan smirks, smile widening when all the color drains from Peter’s face.

“That doesn’t sound like a game,” Bucky calls out, face blank. Now that he’s stopped struggling, he looks almost bored. “That just sounds like very middle-of-the-line sadism.”

Gargan ignores him, keeping his eyes on Peter. “The game part,” he continues, rancid breath hitting Peter right in the face. “Is that you get to choose who we hurt.”

Every quip about breath mints and toothpaste is eradicated from Peter’s mind as he darts his eyes between Sam and Bucky, panic rising. “No. No, there’s no way, I’m not choosing -”

“If you don’t choose, then I do.” Gargan nods at the man standing next to Sam. “Get it ready.”

There’s the distinctive hum of electricity, and Peter’s brain completely shorts out in panic, but Bucky’s jumping in before he can. “Choose me.”

Gargan finally shows interest, every trace of apathy gone from Bucky’s face as he glances between Peter and Sam. “Don’t,” Sam responds, just as quickly. “Don’t play, Peter. I’m fine.”

“He's not playing if I make the choice,” Bucky presses. “Do it to me. We both know I’m stronger.”

Sam looks more put out than anything. “Oh, and what am I? Captain America, that’s what. I got this.”

Bucky isn’t even paying attention to Sam, eyes still rooted on Peter. “Hydra. Seventy years,” he says bluntly. “There is absolutely nothing these stooges can do to me that they didn’t. I can take it. Choose. Me.”

“Stooges?” Sam repeats. “Man, if that is your most recent reference then we have some movies to watch.”

“Enough.” Gargan cuts into the brewing argument, turning to Peter. “I’m going to fry Wilson’s insides now. You want to change that to Barnes, you just let me know, ok?”

He pats Peter’s cheek even as Peter flinches away, heart hammering. This isn’t happening. It isn’t.

Then the man beside Sam switches the machine on, and it is.

Sam’s panicked gasps quickly turn to screams, pained, stifled things that sift through clenched teeth, Sam’s body rigid against the chair.

“Stop!” Peter full-body rails against the chains, but they aren’t moving. “Stop hurting him!”

“You want me to stop?” Gargan comes around the back of Peter’s chair, reaching out and gripping his chin, forcing him to look at Sam. Peter could close his eyes, but it feels like such a coward’s move to cop-out when Sam can’t. So Peter watches as Sam continues to jerk and spasm, sweat quickly soaking his forehead and dripping onto the Captain America uniform. “You know what to do.”

“Do it to me,” Peter pleads. “You want me to choose someone? I choose me.”

“That’s not one of the options, Spider-Man.” The grip on his chin tightens, swiveling his head between Sam and Bucky.

Bucky’s yelling, trying every trick to get free, alternating between shouting insults at Gargan’s crew and pleading with Peter. “Tell them to do it to me!” Bucky demands. “I can take it, Peter, I’m a goddamn super-soldier, do it to me.”

A tiny part of Peter’s mind is screaming at him that it’s the rational choice; that Bucky’s pain tolerance is higher, that he’s the one less likely to sustain any long-term damage, but the logic of it doesn’t reduce the horror of deliberately sentencing one of his friends to torture. Then Peter catches the scent of burning skin, Sam’s burning skin, and the words are tumbling out before he’s even really made up his mind to say them. “Switch!” The word comes out muffled, and Peter jerks his head out of Gargan’s hold so as to free his jaw. “Switch,” Peter repeats, the strength to watch gone as he stares at the floor. “Switch…switch to Bucky.”

The sound of electricity shuts off, as does Sam’s yelling, turning to harsh, ragged breaths instead. There’s a noise that sounds terrifyingly similar to a sob and Peter’s heart stutters, because somehow the idea of hearing Sam cry is even worse than hearing him scream, until Peter realizes that it came from him. His cheeks are wet, wrists rubbed raw from trying to get free, and the henchmen are moving over to Bucky and god, they haven’t even really started yet.

“Parker. Eyes here.”

It takes every bit of resistance Peter has left to look up at Bucky as the super-soldier's shoes are shucked just like Sam’s were.

“I got this,” Bucky assures him. “Little bit of electricity? It’s nothing. Barely a tickle.”

“Hey,” Sam complains, voice still hoarse, but Bucky doesn’t let it deter him.

“Hydra used to shove me in a chair and fry my brain until I couldn’t remember my own name,” Bucky goes on. “I’m still here. Still fighting. This is my choice, ok? Not yours.”

Peter knows the words are meant to be a comfort, but they have little effect as the machine is switched on once more.

At least Bucky wasn’t kidding about his pain tolerance. That almost makes it more horrible, knowing that he can take this only because Hydra put him through so much worse. He shakes and jerks in the bonds but keeps his teeth gritted shut, deliberately not giving Gargan the satisfaction as however many volts are sent coursing through his body.

“Ok,” Gargan says finally, raising a hand for the machine to be shut off. “This is getting boring. Move on to the next one.”

“The next one?” Peter repeats. “But -”

“Oh, kiddo, did you really think I only have one form of pain cooked up for your little action figures over there? Give me some credit.”

“Do it to me,” Bucky says, yet again. He’s hunched over, sweating almost as bad as Sam is by now, but the grim determination on his face hasn’t changed. “Don’t you dare switch back to Sam, you hear me? You do it to me.”

“Drama queen,” Sam mutters, slumping back in his chair. He’d been staring resolutely at the ceiling throughout Bucky’s torture, the look of concentration on his face indicating that he’s been trying to puzzle a way out. Peter hopes he’s made some progress because he has nothing.

“Get it,” Gargan orders, and then Henchman No. 2 is stepping up with a flat blade.

Bucky laughs in his face. “Go ahead. I’ve been needing a manicure anyway.”

The guy works his way through four of Bucky’s fingernails before Gargan holds up his hand for him to stop. “One more,” Gargan muses. “And this one has already lost so many. So what do you say, Peter? Think good old Captain America can take one for the team? Or are you going to make his sidekick take all the damage?”

“I’m nobody’s sidekick,” Bucky mutters. “And if I was, I definitely wouldn’t be Sam’s.”

“You can be my sidekick,” Sam offers. “I’ll let you be on the merch and everything. Just one size smaller than me, got to remember who’s on top.”

“Let me out of this chair and we’ll see who’s on top.”

“Ok, getting weirdly sexual,” Peter cuts in, making both Bucky and Sam stop in their tracks.

“As if I would ever,” Bucky starts.

“Yeah, I have standards,” Sam cuts in.

“And why would I bother,” Bucky finishes. “When I already have the superior Wilson sibling just waiting for -”

“Watch it, Buck.”

“Oh, you want to tell Sarah she’s not the superior Wilson sibling?”

“We both know she is, and that’s why you’ll never -”

“Enough!” A sharp pain suddenly splits Peter’s lip, making him taste blood, and Sam and Bucky instantly fall silent. “Choose, Parker. One last fingernail. Who’s losing it?”

“Me,” Bucky says, even as Sam starts to protest. Bucky shoots him a glare. “No you don’t. You may have inherited that shield but you don’t get Steve’s self-sacrificing bullshit too. I’m taking the rest of whatever these idiots have to throw at us, all of it.”

“Hypocrite,” Sam accuses him, but whatever new round of banter they’re about to have cuts off as the henchman rips Bucky’s last fingernail from its root.

It doesn’t stop there. After the fingernails, there’s a blowtorch, drowning, a hammer taken to Bucky’s already abused hand. Bucky takes all of it in stride, although Peter can tell that he’s finally beginning to flag as the last of his fingers breaks.

“Stop,” Peter tries - no, begs. He’s begging. He doesn’t even care at this point. “Do it to me, whatever you want, just let them go, please.”

“Sorry little spider.” Gargan doesn’t sound sorry at all. Quite the opposite. “This is what you get for messing up my plans.”

“And messing up your face.” Bucky’s words are slurred, but he still manages a crooked grin as he spits blood on the floor. “And I thought Sam was ugly.”

The insults are weak, but it’s an indication that Bucky’s hanging on, and Peter will take what he can get.

“This is getting old,” Gargan decides.

“Nice to know I’m not putting on a good enough show,” Bucky answers drily.

“Oh, you’re doing just fine,” Gargan replies. “It’s Peter here that’s not living up to his part. The whole point of the game was for you to switch between them, kiddo.” He ruffles Peter’s hair. “Maybe that’s on me. Maybe the choice is too easy - one with super-healing, one without and all. Maybe I should go after Stark after all. Perhaps pick up your pretty aunt on the way. Maybe they’ll give us a better time, what do you say?”

“I say good luck even getting near them,” Peter retorts, only to have it ruined by the quaver in his voice.

“I’m tempted,” Gargan admits. “But in the meantime, I’ll make do with what I have. Bring out the last one.”

The tone in the room shifts at the word last. Peter hasn’t even considered what comes after, and he realizes with a numb kind of dread that Gargan's probably going to have them killed. They’re all going to die, and it’s his fault, and there is nothing Peter can do to stop it.

The ‘last one’ is presented in a small, innocuous grey box. The member of Gargan’s crew who has been lingering behind Peter finally comes forward, presenting it with almost reverence. Gargan indicates for her to show the box to Peter, Peter peering inside to see a small silver disc, barely bigger than Bucky’s now-missing thumbnail. “What is that?” Peter asks, not even sure if he really wants to know the answer.

“That,” Gargan drawls. “Is a handy little device that can access memories. Specifically traumatic memories.”

Sam’s head jerks up, on high alert, while in contrast Bucky goes statue-still.

“After it accesses them,” Gargan goes on. “It makes the wearer relive them. As though they were there.”

Bucky’s breath has picked up. For the first time since their capture, there are the traces of fear on his face.

“Nasty thing,” Gargan muses. “Drives people quite insane, I’ve seen it. Not ideal for interrogation, but as a deterrent? Very powerful.”

“Deterrent?” Peter asks.

“From messing in my affairs,” Gargan snaps. Then seeing the surprised look on Peter’s face, he adds, “Did you think I was going to kill you? And, what, have the Avengers on my tail forever? No. Two of you are going to walk away with this with your minds intact, to tell your other pals just what will happen to them if they cross me. One of those people is you, Parker. Who’s the other one going to be?”

“It’s going to be Bucky.”

It’s the first time Sam’s spoken since the last fingernail was plucked. He’s had his eyes fixed on the ground, taking long breaths through his nose, but now he lifts his head to meet Peter’s gaze.

“Sam,” Bucky starts, but Sam cuts him off.

“Worst memories, huh? Like, I don’t know, being turned into the Winter Soldier?”

Bucky darts his head towards Peter. “That programming’s gone. It’s gone.”

“And what do you think reliving the memories of them putting it in is going to do, Buck?” Sam turns to Peter. “It’s ok, Peter. Switch back to me for this one.”

“No,” Bucky protests. “No, don’t, I volunteered for this -”

“Because you’re stronger,” Sam gets out, his voice steady. “Because your pain tolerance is higher. Because you heal faster. And I knew those things, so I let you. But this isn’t physical. This is mental. And it doesn’t take Dr Phil to see that I have a massive headstart in that area.”

“I’ve done therapy,” Bucky gripes, but that hint of fear is quickly turning to full-blown panic as the situation dawns on him. “You don’t know it’ll set me back."

“You won’t know me or Peter if it does,” Sam points out. “You won’t discriminate us from anyone here if you start hurting people.”

“I -”  Bucky tries again, but he’s out of arguments. Everyone in the fish-stinking room knows what has to be done.

“I don’t want to.” The words leave Peter’s mouth before he can think about them, and he immediately hates himself a little for how childish they sound.

“You’re not. My choice,” Sam assures him, repeating Bucky’s words from earlier. “I’m choosing this Peter, alright? Not you. Me.”

“That’s not how the game works.” Gargan claps Peter on the shoulder. “Little Pete here has to choose.”

They’re just words. The choice has already been made. It doesn’t make them any easier to say. “Switch,” Peter manages. “Switch to Sam.”

Gargan ruffles his hair. “Attaboy. I have to say, taking out Captain America, even the knockoff version - that’s kind of a moment, you know?”

“Sam's not a knockoff anything you -” Bucky starts, only to be cut off with a grunt when the henchman behind him squeezes one of his damaged hands.

Sam doesn’t rise to the bait at all, leveling Gargan with a steely look. “You’re going to pay for this. I hope you know that. I’m literally on a team called the Avengers, what do think they’re going to do once they learn you’ve taken out their leader?”

Gargan isn’t bothered, gesturing to the woman with the device. “Run and hide, most likely. Or have another one of you receive the same treatment. We’ll see which comes first.”

The woman pries the tiny disc out of the box.

“Wait -” Peter says, or maybe Bucky says it, or maybe both of them. Whoever says it, there’s nothing either of them can do as the small circle of silver is pressed against Sam’s temple and switched on.

For a moment, nothing happens. Sam looks more confused than anything, blinking a few times before he relaxes. “Sorry to break it to you, but I think your little toy is -”

Then he cuts off, going rigid, leaning back into the chair with a gasp as his eyes go blank.

“Sam!” Bucky strains against the chains, the movement so much weaker than before. Bucky is one big mess and Sam is staring straight ahead, seeing something they can’t, and Peter is stuck in a stupid chair unable to help either of them.

“Well, I think that’s our cue.” Gargan reaches over to rest a hand on Sam’s shoulder.

“Don’t touch him,” Bucky snarls and, wow, Peter is glad he officially joined the team after all of Bucky’s Winter Soldier programming was removed, because he would not like to be on the receiving end of that look ever.

Gargan just smirks, locking a hand around the back of Sam’s neck instead. Sam doesn’t seem to notice, his mind somewhere else. “You know,” he muses. “I wonder if it’s enough. Just one Avenger. If that’s a strong enough message.”

He lets go of Sam, only to make his way over to Bucky instead, scooping up the bloodied blade that had been used to pry up Bucky’s fingernails.

“No!” Peter throws himself against the chains, but the chair doesn’t so much as shift. “You said I had to choose! That was my choice! I chose…I chose Sam, so leave Bucky alone!”

“Hm, you didn’t really choose though, did you?” Gargan toys with the blade. “They chose for you, really. Doesn’t make it much fun for me. And if you get to break the rules, why can’t I?” And he shoves the blade deep into Bucky’s stomach.

Bucky doesn’t respond beyond a pained grunt, eyeballing Gargan as he twists the blade. “You’re going to die,” Bucky promises him.

“One day,” Gargan agrees. “But not by the Avengers’ hand.” He makes his way towards the door, turning back for one more look at Peter. “It’s been fun, Spider-Man. I know I should hope this dissuades you from coming after me - you heroes are terribly bad for business and all - but I’d be lying. This game was fun, I’d just love to play again some time. Maybe next time we can invite Stark after all, yeah?”

Then he’s gone, along with his crew, locking the door behind him.

The second they’re alone, Bucky’s talking. “Sam. Look at me.” Nothing. No reaction. Bucky sees Peter looking at the wound in this stomach. “I’ve had worse, I promise.”

“You keep saying that.”

“Because it’s the truth. I’ll be ok. We’re going to be ok, alright? Just -”

He doesn’t get any further. Sam lets out a small cry of distress, lurching against his bonds, face twisting as he sees something that isn’t there.

“Sam,” Bucky tries again. “Sam. Sam. Look at me!”

It doesn’t make a lick of difference. Sam can’t hear them.

“Someone will come,” Bucky says, although Peter suspects at this point it’s more for his benefit than Peter’s. “Sam’s not going to- It’s fine. It’s fine.”

“No!”

The cry makes them both flinch, looking over at Sam with trepidation. Bucky starts up a mantra again, trying to break through, but it only takes energy he doesn’t have as blood leaks onto the floor from the stab wound, and none of it gets through to Sam anyway.

“Don’t shoot her!” Sam riles up against the restraints, so hard and so sudden that for a moment Peter is sure they’re going to break. They don’t, but Sam’s skin does, blood trickling from his wrists over the zip ties. Sam doesn’t even notice. “No! She’s just a kid, don’t - don’t!”

Bucky’s words stutter and then halt, crushing realization rolling across his face.

“Karli!” Sam cries, and Peter just - shorts out for a moment. The Avengers are a lucky dip of mental illnesses and traumas, but Sam has always been their rock. Their voice of reason. Seeing him this way is wrong. Even as Peter has the thought, he recognizess how unfair that is. Sam has been through as much as the rest of them. Maybe he has better coping mechanisms in place, but he's still coping.

“Karli!” Sam shouts a second time, before his pupils dilate, so quick it’s frightening, from blown to small and then back to blown again, and when Sam speaks again his voice is smaller. “I’m sorry. Steve, I’m sorry.”

Bucky freezes in his attempts to get free. “Sam. Sam, come on, it’s Bucky, look at me.”

“I’m sorry,” Sam repeats, and this time it comes out as a sob. “I never meant for it to happen, I know I messed up, with the shield and the blood and I’m sorry, I shouldn't want the shield at all, I’m so sorry.”

Bucky lets out an agonized yell that Peter is sure has nothing to do with the litany of injures littering his body. “It doesn’t matter what Steve thinks,” Bucky tries. “All of that was on Walker, Sam, not on you, none of that was on you.”

But Sam’s pupils have already blown wide again. “Get up,” Sam whimpers. “Get up, Riley, come on, get up.”

Peter's own eyes are hot. He doesn’t want to listen to this. It feels so private, so naked, and definitely not for their eyes or ears. He doesn’t even know who Riley is, and for the first time he realizes that he doesn’t really know Sam, not outside of the Avengers. He never talks about this stuff, and Peter’s never asked and maybe…maybe that’s a mistake on his part.

It only gets worse.

Sam seems to cycle through a few of the same memories - Karli, Steve, Riley - before his pupils flare gain and he draws in a shuddering gasp that's more painful than the rest. Peter glances at Bucky, seeking an ally in the room, any kind of reassurance, only to see that Bucky is slumped back in a pool of blood, unconscious.

“Bucky!” Peter thrashes in the restraints, his skin long since bruised and red, but it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. He’s trapped, Bucky’s bleeding out and Sam is -

“NO!”

The absolute terror in Sam’s scream jerks all of Peter’s escape attempts to a halt. He’s never heard- Sam isn’t meant to sound like-

“Stop,” Sam begs, voice different than before. Higher. Younger. “Stop, I don’t want to see it, I don’t- don’t-”

And Peter just. Whites out again. Gone. This is so private. So intimate. He shouldn’t be hearing this.

“Stop,” Sam gasps. “Stop, stop it, MAMA! HELP ME! HELP!

Peter squeezes his eyes shut as though that will close his ears as well. He has absolutely no idea what childhood memory Sam is being forced to relive right now, doesn’t want to know, and it’s his fault, Gargan’s only doing this to hurt him and it’s working.

“HELP!” Sam screams again, and Peter curls his hands into fists so tightly that his nails break skin. That and a split lip are the only injuries he’s sustained through this whole ordeal, and it’s not fair, it’s not -

And then, as though, Sam had summoned their rescue, the door to their prison bursts open, and a flash of red and gold is sprinting towards them. “Peter? Peter!”

Tony locks eyes on Peter, apparently seeing nothing else until yet another choked howl of anguish from Sam splits the room.

“Get Sam first,” Peter pleads. “There’s a device thing. On his temple. Switch it off.”

Tony's helmet melts away, torn between helping his mentee and the teammate who needs it most.

“Please, Tony - Sam.”

The words are enough, and then Tony’s lunging forward and ripping the small silver circle from Sam’s forehead before snapping the zip ties binding him to the chair. Sam collapses forward, hacking and coughing, Tony letting the gauntlets melt away so he can sit Sam up with bare hands. “Alright, Goose, there you go. You’re ok.”

Sam draws in a full breath, and that’s enough for Tony to justify making his way to Peter instead.

“Why it is always you, kid?” Tony’s voice is tight with worry, pulling out a small device that he aims at Peter’s handcuffs, Peter feeling the metal there starting to melt without heat.

Peter looks between the unconscious and bloodied Bucky to the shaking and pale Sam. “This time it wasn’t me at all.” His hands come free, Peter rolling out his shoulders in relief as Tony moves onto his ankles. “Where’s everyone else?”

“Coming. Twenty minutes out.”

“Twenty minutes?”

“We were busy! I don’t know why the bad guys always target New York.”

The chain around Peter’s chest is last, and the second he’s free he’s staggering to his feet, pins and needles erupting up all four limbs.

“Woah, kid, hang on,” Tony tries, but Peter’s already making his way over to Bucky. The man’s breathing at least, and the blood seems to have clotted, but a piece of paper has more color. Tony goes a little whiter himself as he looks Bucky over, melting his restraints away the same he did Peter’s. “Who?” he demands, voice dark.

“Doesn’t matter.” Then seeing Tony’s expression, “Doesn’t matter right now,” Peter amends. “We can get him later. Hospital first.”

“You’ll bet we’ll get him later.” Tony looks between the three of them, realization dawning. “And I can only carry one of you, at least safely.”

“Take Bucky,” Peter decides without hesitation.

“Pete -”

“I’m fine,” Peter insists. “I already told you, he…he didn’t touch me. So take Bucky and then come back for me and Sam, ok?”

He can tell Tony hates it, but there’s no chance of either him or Sam dying any time today. The same can’t be said for Bucky, so there’s no choice. Or, there is a choice, but it’s the same choice Peter’s had all day. One or the other. And he has to choose the best of two awful options.

“Fine,” Tony grumbles, looking Bucky over. He goes as though to lever him into a fireman’s hold, reconsiders due to the knife sticking out of Bucky’s side, then gives a put-upon sigh as he lifts Bucky into a bridal carry instead. “I don’t get paid enough for this.”

“Technically, you pay us.”

“I don’t pay you, I’m your sponsor. Big difference.” Tony hoists Bucky more securely into his grip. “I’ll be back, or the rest of the gang will show up. Do you think you can manage to not get into trouble before one of those two things happen?”

“I make no promises.”

Tony sighs. “That’s probably for the best.” Then he bundles Bucky towards the door, and Peter hears the sound of repulsers as they fly off into the skies, leaving Peter and Sam alone.

“Sam?” Peter tries. The man is still in his chair, head in his hands, shaking. Cautiously, Peter approaches. “Sam. It’s Peter. We’re safe now.”

It feels odd, giving an adult assurance, especially the one who is known for giving the comfort and not receiving it. Peter swallows, thinking about Sam’s anguished cries as he was put through the events post-Blip again. Definitely a mistake on their part, letting Sam take care of them and not the other way around.

Peter gets within touching distance, gently laying a hand on Sam’s shoulder.

It may as well be red hot, the way Sam reacts. He jumps so violently that he falls out of the chair, Peter diving forward to catch him before he can hit the ground. “Sam! It’s just me. It’s Peter.”

There’s an awful moment when Peter is sure that rescue came too late, that Sam’s mind is already broken. Then Sam blinks, recognition coming back. “Peter.” Then, beyond relieved, “Peter. You’re alright. Where -” He turns around and sees Bucky’s empty chair, the blood.

“He’s ok,” Peter says quickly. “Tony took him to the hospital. There are more people coming for us.”

“Ok. Ok.” Sam is desperately trying to pull himself together, even though he’s still shaking violently. “Alright. That chip thing? Not a fan. Where do the bad guys even get this stuff?”

“Badguystuff.com?”

Sam doesn’t laugh. He sits back against the chair, wrapping his arms around himself, and then just - stares at his knees.

“Um, Sam? Are you good?”

Sam doesn’t move.

“Sam, you’re um, kind of freaking me out.”

Nothing. As though all Sam had needed was to know that Peter and Bucky were safe, that help was coming, and then he’d checked out.

“Ok.” Peter wraps his arms around himself, feeling in some ways even more freaked out than when Sam was being tortured. “Ok. So we’ll just wait then.”

No response.

Sam’s still shivering, and Peter wonders if at least a part of it is cold - it is chilly down at the docks, he’s never liked it. He scoots over so he’s right next to Sam. “Ok, so I’m going to, um…” With extreme caution, he wraps an arm around Sam’s shoulders. “Is that ok?”

Sam doesn’t respond, but he does lean into Peter’s touch, so Peter takes that as a win.

“Cool,” Peter mutters, drumming his free hand on his knee. “I’m sorry. That you had to see all that stuff again.” Then it all comes tumbling out. “I’m sorry I went off on my own, and that he caught me, and then he took it out on you and Bucky -”

“S’fine.”

The words are so low that Peter almost misses them. “It’s not fine,” he insists. “You’re not- and Bucky’s not- neither of you are fine!”

There’s a long pause, where Peter has absolutely no idea what will happen next. But whatever he’s expecting, it isn’t Sam to lean forward and start sobbing into his chest.

Peter freezes, utterly unsure of what to do for a moment, until instinct takes over and puts his other arm around Sam, ready to wait it out. It goes on for some time; long enough for Peter to wonder how long Sam has needed to do this.

Finally, the sobs turn into hiccups, and then Sam is pushing himself upright, hastily mopping his eyes on his sleeve. “Sorry.”

“Hey,” Peter tries for a light tone. “You’re the one who’s always pushing healthy emotional expression on us.”

Sam gives a wet laugh. “Yeah, but I shouldn’t be- you’re a kid. I shouldn’t be offloading to you.”

“Then who are you offloading to?”

Sam goes quiet then. “I’m the leader,” he says quietly. “That comes with- there are expectations.” Sam looks over at the now empty chair. “When I was- during. Did you hear…?”

Peter considers lying for all of one breath before he nods his head instead. “I’m sorry,” he says quickly. “I know it was…it sounded, you know. Private.”

Now it’s over, a part of him wants to know what the childhood memory was, but the wiser part of him that sounds like May knows he can't ask. That some things aren’t meant to be shared.

“I’m ok,” Sam says quietly. “Or at least, I’m working through that stuff. Slowly. It takes time. And it’s hard. But I’m working through it.”

“I’m glad,” Peter says, meaning it. “That’s good.”

“I know it’s good, Parker.” Sam sobers. “None of this was your fault. You know that, right?”

Peter fidgets. “He only went after you guys -”

“Because he’s a sadist,” Sam finishes. “No other reason. Ok?”

“I- ok.”

“Let me hear you say it.”

Peter sniffs, the exhaustion of the day finally catching up to him. “It wasn’t my fault.”

“And now like you actually mean it.”

“It wasn’t my fault.”

“There you go.” This time, it’s Sam who puts his arm around Peter’s shoulders. They stay like that, together, until rescue comes for them at last.

Chapter Text

Peter blames Sam.

Their captain has barely finished saying, “Alright, team, looks like we’re going to win this!” into the comms when the blast knocks Peter out of the air mid-swing.

They’ve been fighting the alien slug-monster crossed with centipede…things for well over six hours, clearing them out of New York’s downtown. The Avengers are outnumbered but not outgunned, but even so they’re only just now seeing the crest of victory on the horizon.

Which is of course when Peter takes a hit.

The slug monsters have turned out to be surprisingly dextrous with their aim, but even so Peter’s managed up until now to avoid catching a shot from one of their ominously green-glowing guns. The second the shot hits him, he’s glad he’s avoided a hit until now. It slams into him with all the force of a freight train, knocking him into a building and then through it, landing in a pile of rubble and pain in what looks like an office reception. A serene picture of a beach is telling him to ‘Take a moment, for moments are all we have.’

Peter doesn’t have a moment, thank you very much generic motivational poster. He goes to push himself right back, well aware that despite Sam’s words that the team’s victory is hanging by a thread and they need every player on the field, when Karen’s voice explodes in his ear. “Peter, don’t move!”

Peter freezes. “What? Why?”

“Significant suit and organ damage sustained. Sending out an SOS to all team members now.”

“No, Karen, everyone is needed to -” Then her words catch up to him. “Wait, did you say organ damage?”

“Kid?” Tony’s voice replaces Karen’s, filled with worry. “What’s going on? Karen says you’re hit.”

“I’m fine,” Peter insists, sitting up so he can see the damage for himself. “Really, it’s just a scratch- oh. Oh, god.”

“Peter? What’s going on?”

Peter resists the macabre urge to poke at his exposed insides. “That’s so gross.”

“I’m on my way,” Tony starts, but Sam cuts across him.

“Tony, you are the only thing holding up the east perimeter. You leave your position, these things are going to run rampant through the whole city.”

“But Peter -”

“I’m on it,” a new voice joins in. “I’m closest to Peter’s location anyway.”

Peter’s not sure if Tony would have given in if it was anybody else but Rhodey who had volunteered to come and get him. “Alright,” Tony agrees reluctantly. “Peter - you do every single thing Rhodey says or I’m coming there myself. And then New York is going to be invaded by monsters and it’ll be all your fault.”

“That is emotional blackmail, Mr. Stark.”

“Good, it’ll be effective then. Don’t you dare move until Rhodey says it’s ok.”

Peter opens his mouth to argue out of habit before he remembers that his intestines are currently leaking onto a faded, very ugly office carpet. “Fine. Waiting.”

He doesn’t have to wait long at least. Rhodey shoots through the hole Peter made in the wall, the War Machine armor touching down beside him and the faceplate flipping up to reveal a very tired and horrified Rhodey. “Woah, Peter. That’s -”

“Not where my guts are supposed to be? Yep, I’m aware.” Peter dares to look down at himself again, the morbid fascination mingling with the horror as he looks down at the gaping hole in his stomach.

Rhodey drops down beside him. “Diagnostics, Karen.”

“There’s a hole in me,” Peter supplies.

“I didn’t ask you.”

“Significant internal damage sustained. Immediate medical attention recommended.”

Rhodey looks towards the door where the battle’s still raging. “Where? I can’t get Peter to the Tower through all this. If moving him is even a good idea at all.”

“Moving Peter in this state is not recommended.”

“I’m ok,” Peter says automatically. “Doesn’t even hurt that much.”

“Your vitals are indicating that you’re going into shock.”

“Oh. Shock. Yeah, that…that makes sense.”

“So if I can’t move him, what’s the best way to deal with this?” Rhodey asks, hands hovering over Peter’s injuries.

“Closing the wound to prevent further blood loss is the recommended course of action.”

Rhodey and Peter both look at the grizzly hole, then at each other. “And how would you recommend we do that?” Rhodey asks, although from the mounting tension in his voice, Peter would guess he already knows the answer.

“Due to the extreme circumstances and nature of the injury, cauterization will be the most effective method.”

“Cauterisation,” Peter repeats. “Like…burning it? Aren’t you going to scorch, um…everything inside me?”

“Due to your accelerated healing factor, you should survive.”

“Should?” Peter and Rhodey repeat together.

“How’s it going in there?” Tony demands over the comms.

Rhodey seems to come to a decision, readying himself. “Focus on the fight, Tones. We got this. Also, we’re about to turn off the comms, so don’t have a hissy fit about it when we go dark.”

“Why? What’s going -”

Rhodey switches his comm off and then reaches for Peter’s, pulling back the Spider-Man mask. “Huh,” Peter says. “Fresh air. Feels good.”

“Well, this is not about to feel good.”

“Oh. Right. Burning me closed. Cool.”

“Uh, kid? Not cool.”

Peter thinks he might have giggled. Definitely shock then. “Not cool because it’s hot.”

Any humor he has about the situation vanishes when he sees Rhodey fire up a repulser, the full reality of the situation hitting home. “You’re going to use that to -”

“Yep.”

“To save my life?”

"Well, you saved mine back in Germany. I would have hit the ground hard if you hadn't caught me, then who knows where we'd be? Scott still hasn't stopped apologizing for it." His voice softens. “We don’t have any other options here, Peter.”

“Right. No, I know.” Peter takes a deep breath, tries to steady himself. “This is gonna suck, isn’t it?”

Rhodey hesitates. “It’s not like I have pain medication just stashed on me, but I got a couple of ways I can make this easier.” Without waiting for an answer, he balls up Peter’s mask. “Something to bite down on, at least.”

“Is that sanitary?”

“Kid, there’s a hole in you. We’re well past sanitary.”

“Right. Got it.” Reluctantly, Peter opens his mouth, letting Rhodey stuff the fabric in.

“There. At least we’ll get a break from the puns for a while.”

Peter makes an indignant sound, but he’s distracted the next second as Rhodey moves over the wound, repulser ready. “If you feel the need to pass out, do it. It’ll make things easier for both of us. Here.” Rhodey slips his free hand into Peter’s. “Clamp down as hard as you want, you won’t hurt me through the suit. Ready?”

Peter nods, even those he’s not ready, not even a little bit, heart rate skyrocketing. He hasn’t really felt any pain so far due to the shock, so maybe it won’t hurt quite as bad as he’s fearing it will.

That theory is contradicted the very next second as Rhodey gets to work.

Peter immediately sees why Rhodey insisted on turning off the comms before they got started. His screams are deafening even though the makeshift gag, squeezing Rhodey’s hand for all that he’s worth as he feels his already torn and vulnerable skin light up with hot, burning agony.

There’s a point where it becomes too much, where he finally thinks he’s going to black out and pass out into the sweet oblivion of unconsciousness, but he’s back a second later with a weight on both legs, pinning him.

“I’m sorry,” Rhodey’s saying. “You were moving too much.”

Stop, Peter tries to say, tries to move away, but the weight of War Machine armor is too much to shift in his present state. Please stop.

Rhodey doesn’t, but he seems to understand at least. “Nearly there,” he promises. “It’ll be worse if I stop and then start over.”

Peter doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about a single damn thing except getting the pain to stop.

He screams and fights and struggles until there are hands on his shoulders instead, fabric being worked out of his mouth, a voice trying to break through the haze of pain and misery. “Peter! Peter, hey it’s done, alright? It’s done.”

Peter forces his eyes open. The world is blurry. “D’ne?”

“Yep. All done. Here.” A hand - human, not metal - is caressing his face, wiping away the tears running down his cheeks. “You did great. Really.”

Peter’s brain is slowly coming back online. It still hurts, but it’s not quite the absolute pits of hell that was the actual cauterization. “Done?” he repeats, just to be sure.

“Done,” Rhodey assures him. He reaches up to flick his comms back on. “Peter’s stable. How are you lot going?”

“Just catching strays,” Sam answers. “Hang tight, we’ll get an extraction team to you.”

“Anyone else hit?”

“Nope. Looks like Peter just got unlucky.”

“Parker Luck,” Peter groans.

“Actually, I think this one’s on Sam,” Rhodey smiles back. “He totally jinxed you.”

“Hey, that’s what I thought,” Peter says, or he thinks he says. Sam is saying something indignant over the comms, mixed in with Tony’s concerned voice demanding updates, but all Peter’s thinking about is why he’s passing out now and not during the damn operation. The last thing he feels is Rhodey pulling his head into his lap, assuring him that help is coming, that he’s going to be just fine, because Peter embraces the sweet, pain-free darkness finally rushing up to greet him.

Chapter Text

“When I signed onto work for Tony Stark - visionary, futurist, genius of our generation - this is not what I had in mind.”

“I’m telling him you said that. And come on, it’s not that bad. You get to spend the whole day with me!”

“Yes. Joy. Just what every top-level bodyguard dreams of doing. Giving driving lessons to teens in unsecured locations.”

Peter checks his mirrors for the umpteenth time, even though they’ve yet to leave the parking lot. It’s a small patch of gravel on the outskirts of Queens that’s usually empty, with minimal things to crash into, which makes it the go-to for teenagers in the area learning to drive.

“Why’d we have to come here again?” Happy gripes. “Tony has a million parking lots for us to practice in. With security cameras. And guard gates.”

Peter flushes a little. “Every kid on my block learns here. It’s kind of a rite of passage.”

“And if every kid on your block jumped off a bridge, would you do that too?”

“Probably, considering I would be shooting webs and saving them all.” He sees Happy about to argue further and jumps in, “I just really want to learn how to drive here, ok? And it’s an empty lot - what could happen?”

Happy sighs, giving in. “Knowing your history,” the bodyguard grumbles. “We’re probably going to get into a crash before we even take the car out of park.”

“Hey, I’m not that unlucky!”

“We get through this without your Parker Luck getting involved, I’ll never mention it again. I'll burn out my tongue. That’s how sure I am that something bad's going to happen.” 

“It’s like you don’t trust me.”

“That’s because I don’t.”

“Ouch.” Peter's joking, but it still stings. He's known Happy almost two years now, Blip not included. He thought that warranted at least some trust between them. 

“People who tell me they’re fine on patrol when they’ve been stabbed -”

“I was fine! It was a very mild stabbing!”

“- don’t get my trust. End of story.” Happy shifts in his seat, clearly holding back further complaints about the car. They’ve borrowed May’s so as to be inconspicuous, and it’s a far cry from Happy having his pick of Tony’s garage. That restraint lasts until he sees the controls. “Ugh. It’s an automatic?”

“Well, yeah. There’s nothing that says I have to pass the test in a manual.”

“Learning to drive an auto is not learning to drive a car. When you get good enough that I believe you maybe won’t crash in the first five minutes, I’ll show you what an actual car can do.”

Peter brightens. “You’ll give me more lessons even after I pass my test?”

Happy seems to realize what he just offered. “Damnit.”

“No take-backs!”

Happy sighs through gritted teeth. “Let’s just do this. Are you familiar with the gearstick?”

Peter fights back a grin. “You mean…the PRNDL?”

Happy glares at him. “The what?”

“The PRNDL,” Peter repeats innocently, indicating the gearstick. “P, R, N, D, L. That spells PRNDL.”

The glare intensifies. “Is this another pop culture reference I’m not getting?”

“Of course not, don’t get so wound up.”

“I am not getting wound up.”

“Maybe you should relax, turn on the radio. Would you like am or fmmmmm?”

“Ok, we’re going home.”

“No, Happy! Teach me to drive! Please?”

Happy exhales through his nose. “Why isn’t May doing this?”

“She tried. I love her so much, but she is the worst teacher. Ever. Don’t tell her I said that.”

Neither of them brings up Tony. Peter hadn’t even asked. Tony trusts Peter with a lot of things, but considering Tony’s history with car crashes, allowing an inexperienced Peter to drive him anywhere is off the table.

“And, I don’t know,” Peter shuffles his feet. “I want it to be you. Because…because.”

“Because because? That’s your grand reason for dragging me out here on my day off, huh?”

“There’s a reason I’m decathlon and not debate.” Peter gives Happy his most winning smile.

“Fine,” Happy mutters. “Only because it’s embarrassing that you’re seventeen and a senior and you still haven’t got your license.”

“I’ve been busy!” Peter protests. “Spider-Man and college applications and being dust for five years are all real time-sucks.”

“Not funny.”

“It was a little funny.”

Happy huffs. “You’re going to be the death of me, Parker. Alright, first things first - seatbelt.”

“We’re parked.”

“Seatbelt. Before you do anything else, every time. No exceptions. Let me hear you say it.”

“I’m not five!”

“Do you want me to teach you to drive or not?”

“Well, yeah, but -”

“Then whenever you get behind a wheel, the first thing you do is put on your seatbelt. And make sure your passengers are wearing seatbelts. Now you say it.”

“You sound like one of Steve’s old PSAs. Hey, does that mean they’re going to make Sam re-record those at some point?”

“Focus, kid.”

“Alright, alright.” Peter clicks his seatbelt into place, then raises his hand like he’s saying the pledge. “Whenever I get behind a wheel, the first thing I do is put on my seatbelt and make sure my passengers are also wearing their seatbelts. Happy? I mean, you’re always Happy, because -”

Peter doesn’t get to finish. One moment he’s in the car with Happy - a perfectly ordinary Sunday afternoon - and the next his spider-sense is on full alert, telling him to move now move MOVE.

But there isn’t time to move. Peter catches a glimpse of a black SUV barreling towards them, way too fast, and then he’s shoving Happy's head against his chest and wrapping his arms around both of them as their car goes flying.

It can’t be more than a few seconds, but it seems to take a lifetime for the car to fall. It turns over in midair before it hits the parking lot roof-first, skidding along the gravel before it comes to a grating halt.

Peter’s ears are ringing. “Happy,” he tries. “Happy. Happy.”

To his relief, Peter feels Happy move beneath him, trying to wriggle out from Peter’s grip. “What the- Peter, look out!”

Both doors are ripped open and then there are hands on Peter, way too many and way too rough, something sharp and silver cutting through the seatbelt before he's being hauled from the wreckage. “No!” Peter gets out, swinging an elbow, feeling a satisfying crunch and grunt of pain. He follows up on it, throwing his head back into whoever is dragging him away from May’s now totaled sedan.

He breaks a nose, judging by the spray of hot liquid that hits the back of his neck, and that’s enough of an opening for him to throw himself sideways, ripping him out of the grip of the rest of them. He’s still dizzy from the crash, ears still ringing and vision doubling, so he relies on his spider-sense to tell him what’s coming next. A fist coming at him from the left is caught and broken, Peter only restraining himself from using his full strength at the last second. He flings the attacker away and throws a punch at the next one, sound and sight reconciling to something like normal, just in time to see -

“Enough.”

Peter freezes. Happy either got hit harder by the crash or his lack of freaky spider DNA is preventing him from bouncing back as fast as Peter did. Either way, he’s barely struggling as two black-clad men haul him to his knees, one wrapping an arm around his throat to keep him there as the other shoves a gun against his head.

“Stop!” Peter throws both hands up, trying to calculate. There are four of the men in black in total, one now with a very bloody nose and one cradling his hand, both staring daggers at Peter. The fifth man, the one who spoke, is the only one with his face uncovered - blonde hair and an expensive-looking grey suit, probably the leader. Peter appeals to him. “Don’t hurt him.”

“Aw, that’s cute.” The man in the suit steps forward, flicking imaginary dust off his sleeves as he surveys Peter. “So. What are you supposed to be, then?”

Peter swallows, stealing another look at Happy. He still seems to be coming back to full consciousness, the seriousness of their situation only just dawning.

“I asked you a question,” the man in the suit presses, a dangerous edge to the words. “What are you?”

Peter hesitates. He doesn’t want to give these men something they don’t already know, but if they do know, then he doesn’t want to lie and risk getting Happy hurt. The next moment, that point becomes moot, as the blonde man sighs and signals to the guy with the gun. The man doesn’t even hesitate, flipping it around and smashing the butt of the gun straight into Happy’s cheekbone, making Peter start forward. “Stop it!”

“Then answer my question.”

“Leave the kid alone.” Happy spits out a mouthful of blood, glaring at the blonde man, only for his eyes to fly wide in confusion. “Wait, you’re -”

“Dead?” The man spreads his arms wide in a what are you gonna do about it? gesture. “Looked like it, didn’t it? But here’s the funny thing about Extremis.”

For a second, Peter is certain that he did hit his head in the crash and he’s seeing things, before remembering that he’s seen far weirder things than a man’s arm glowing like lava.

“Extremis regenerates,” the man spits out. “And it can regenerate anything. Even being blown to smithereens, apparently. Took a few years for all the pieces to find each other, and you can bet I was conscious that whole damn time. Do you have any idea how that feels? To be burning for years?” He snaps his fingers, as though remembering. “Wait. I can just show you.”

He goes to grab Happy’s chin, arm still glowing. Happy tries to pull away, but between the headlock and the gun there’s nowhere to go, and then Peter is smelling burning skin.

“No -” He leaps forward, intending to pull the man away but then there are hands on him too, a gun in his ribs, holding him back, “Get off him!”

The blonde man cups a hand around his ear as Happy’s breathing picks up, the burn intensifying. “I’m sorry. What was that?”

Happy cries out then, short and harsh, and that’s enough for Peter to get out, “Please. Please stop hurting him.”

“Well, as you asked so nicely.” The man finally takes his hand away, and Peter swallows bile as he sees the now raw and burnt skin left behind. “This boy seems to be a big fan of yours, Hogan. That’s going to be useful.”

Happy’s struggles start again. “Don’t you dare. You have me, Killian, you know I helped Tony take you down. The kid wasn’t a part of it - he wasn’t even in high school then.”

“Did you help though? I seem to remember you being in a coma for a good chunk of me and Tony’s Battle Royale.” The man - Killian - grins down at him. “I also remember ‘I’m too good to talk to anyone who isn’t a hot piece of ass’ Tony Stark spending an entire night in your hospital room after you walked into my trap. How sweet.”

“You,” Peter remembers. It’s not a part of Tony’s life his mentor talks about very much, but it was all over the news at the time. Killian. Aldrich Killian. “You’re the Mandarin.”

“I like this kid.” Killian finally leaves Happy alone to come survey Peter instead. Peter tenses, spider-sense insisting get away get away, but the gun in his back is making that a little difficult at the moment. “You never answered my question, little boy.” Killian reaches forward to cup Peter’s chin and Peter freezes, waiting for Killian to burn him like he did Happy. “What are you?”

Peter swallows, feeling his Adam’s apple dip against Killian’s hand. “He’s an intern at Stark Industries,” Happy calls over before Peter can answer. “It’s a puff piece. Some poor kid from Queens with some extra IQ points gets a shot at SI. That’s all.”

Killian hums, clearly unconvinced. “A puff piece, is that right? And yet I haven’t seen anything about an internship program in the news. Try again, Hogan.” The hand on Peter’s chin flares, just once, but it’s hot enough to make him gasp.

Happy’s eyes go wide. “No, don’t burn him!”

“Then tell me who he is.”

Happy sends an apologetic look at Peter. “He’s no one, ok? He has no value to you. You have me - let him go.”

Peter’s ready for the burn this time, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less. He bites down on his lip to keep from crying out, but it has the intended effect anyway.

“Stop!” Peter’s never heard Happy…scared before. And now it’s something he really doesn’t want to hear ever again. “Stop hurting him!”

The burning ceases, although the sting lingers on his skin, hot and bright long after Killian takes his hand away. “You know who I think he is?” Killian says, eyes rooted on Peter. “I think Tony’s playboy days finally caught up to him. I think he’s a secret Stark lovechild that Tony foists on his bodyguard when it's his weekend to play Daddy. Am I right, kid?”

“I already told you,” Happy snaps. “He’s not part of this.”

“The way you’re protecting him right now says otherwise, Hogan. And looks like that's two-way. So.” Killian releases Peter, moving back over to Happy as he directs his next words at the man who has Happy in a chokehold. “Open his mouth.”

“What are you doing?” Peter asks as a black-gloved hand wraps around Happy’s jaw, forcing it open. “No, stop - stop it!”

Killian lights up a single finger, surveying it. “Well, if all you’re going to do is lie to me, then I don’t see the point of letting you keep your tongue.” He starts pressing the glowing finger between Happy’s lips.

“I’m his son.”

The glowing coal of a finger pauses, even as Happy throws Peter the look he knows all too well by now, the one that says Don’t be an idiot and Don’t you dare get yourself hurt all in one.

“I’m Tony’s son,” Peter lies. “So if you need someone to get back at Tony, hurt me.”

“There.” Killian’s finger stops glowing as he retracts his hand. “Was that so hard?” He indicates to his crew. “Get them in the car.”

“What? No!” Peter redoubles his struggles, even though it gets the gun shoved harder into his spine, wondering if this is the moment where secret identities take a backseat to the John Mulaney voice in his head screaming to not them get taken a secondary location. “You have me, let Happy go.”

“Why would I?” Killian replies, clearly enjoying himself. “You’ve just made it clear this is going to be a lot easier if I have you both. If one of you acts out, tries to run, or hurts me or my crew, the other one gets punished for it. Got it?”

Peter stops fighting, looking past Killian to Happy. This is his fault. They could have been in one of Tony’s secure parking lots, they could have been anywhere other than here, and Peter had insisted all because he’d wanted…something stupid, if this is the consequences for it. “I got it. Just leave Happy alone.”

“Peter,” Happy protests, but he isn’t fighting his captors anymore either, making one more bid for Peter’s freedom instead. “Tony doesn’t even like the kid. Why the hell do you think it’s me and not him giving the driving lessons?”

“Well, I guess we’ll just find out about how much Tony cares together then, won’t we?” Satisfied that Peter’s not going to fight him, Killian gestures for the men holding him to let go. Peter has a brief relief of being free from unwanted touch until Killian is throwing an arm around his shoulders instead, pulling him in close. “Driving lessons, huh? That’s cute. Well, how about you let Uncle Aldrich give you a lesson instead? How does that sound?”

“Pretty crappy,” Peter spits back, trying not to squirm, aware that Killian’s arm could light up his whole upper body right now.

“I promise I’m an excellent teacher,” Killian replies. “Look how I’ve taught you how to behave for me already.”

Peter flushes. He’s not behaving. He’s protecting Happy. There’s a difference.

Killian jerks his chin at his men. “Get Hogan in the car. Keep a gun on him.” His arm tightens around Peter’s shoulders. “Ready for your driving lesson? Peter, wasn’t it?”

Killian doesn’t wait for an answer, just shoves Peter in the direction of the SUV. He stumbles with the force of it - ok, so super-strength as well as glowy skin then - but manages to catch himself, staying upright. It’s the best opening he’s had to make a move, but Happy’s already been bundled into the back of the SUV. He’s now out of sight behind the blacked-out windows, and Peter quickly learns that he’s not ready to risk Happy’s life until he’s completely out of other options.

There’s a jangle of metal behind him, and Peter turns just in time to catch a pair of car keys being flung at his head. He stares at them. “Seriously?”

“I said I was going to give you a lesson.”

“I thought you were joking!”

“Come on, Pete, it’ll be fun.” Killian moves towards the passenger seat, raising an eyebrow at him. “You’re thinking about running, aren’t you?”

Peter bites his lip. He has the car keys. They won’t be able to drive after him. And if he gets away, Happy’s the only leverage Killian has left on Tony, so wouldn’t shoot him. Right. Right?

Killian’s hand becomes lava again, him considering it fake-casually. “Go on. Run. See how far you get.” Then he gets into the passenger seat, leaving Peter alone in the parking lot, practically free to go.

Peter swallows, remembering the threat to burn out Happy’s tongue. He gets in the driver’s seat.

“Kid,” Happy groans when he sees Peter hasn’t run. He’s sandwiched between two of the men in the backseat, hands pinned behind his back and a harness-style seatbelt crisscrossing his chest.

“Aw, come on, we don’t want Peter here to miss out on his driving lesson.” Killian sprawls out in the passenger seat, indicating the gearstick.

Peter ignores it. “Where are we going?”

“Nice try. I’ll give you directions as we go. Don’t screw it up and Kevin Costner back there might make it through this in one piece.”

Peter frowns. “Who?”

Killian's looks positively offended. “Kevin Cost- The Bodyguard!”

“…Happy’s the bodyguard.” Peter twists around to look at Happy. “Is this what it feels like when I make references you don’t get?”

“Jesus, you are young, aren’t you?” Killian snaps his fingers in Peter’s ear, making him wince. “Pay attention. Put the car in gear.”

Peter tenses his fingers on the steering wheel, trying to stall. “Actually, I was taught the first thing you should do is put your seat -”

“Do you want me to put a bullet in Hogan’s leg? Put the car. In. Gear.”

Peter swallows. “Ok. So, here’s the thing. I don’t know how to drive a manual car -”

“PUT THE CAR IN GEAR!”

“Don’t yell at him!” Happy is glaring daggers at Killian, but quickly swaps his gaze to Peter, expression morphing into reassurance. “It’s alright, kid. I’ll talk you through it. We’re going to be fine, ok?”

“This is not what I had in mind when I asked you to teach me to drive.”

“Yeah, me neither. But at least I get to teach you how to drive a manual, so that's something. Alright, you done that first step I told you?”

Peter glances down at his seatbelt, then the harness Happy is locked into. Neither Killian nor his crew are wearing theirs…which Peter thinks might just be exactly Happy’s point.

“Peter? Did you do the first step?” Happy gives him a pointed look.

“I…yeah,” Peter breathes. “Yeah, I did.”

“Sometime today, please.” Killian’s hand burns hot again, reaching for Peter’s shoulder.

“Push the clutch pedal down,” Happy says quickly, and Killian pauses, even if he doesn’t retract his hand just yet.

Peter stares down at his feet. “Which one?”

“Left.”

Peter puts his foot on it. “Ok. Next?”

“Move the gearstick into first gear.”

Peter follows the instruction. “Got it.”

“Ok, you’re doing great. Now use your right foot to press down on the accelerator -”

Peter jams his foot down, the engine complaining loudly at him.

“Press it down gently!” Happy hastily corrects him, and Peter quickly obliges. “Alright, it’s ok. That’s fine. You’re doing fine.”

“You’re going slow,” Killian complains.

“You put a teenager who’s never driven a manual before in your driving seat, give him a break.”

“I thought it would be more entertaining,” Killian grumbles, then brightens. “Alright. New game. If Peter doesn’t get us out of this parking lot in let’s say…sixty seconds, Hogan gets shot.”

“What!” Peter whips around to look at Happy, horrified. “No, that’s not - you need us both. If you kill him, I’ll- I’ll stop cooperating, I’ll fight you, I’ll -”

“Woah, woah.’ Killian raises his hands. “Ease up on the dramatics, huh? I just meant in the leg or something, jeez. Fifty-nine. Fifty-eight.”

“It’s ok,” Happy says quickly. “We’re nearly there, just keep following my instructions, ok? Use your left foot to lift the- to slowly lift the clutch pedal to the bite point.”

“To the what point?”

“To the - until it starts to vibrate!”

“Forty-one…”

“Now remove the handbrake."

"Thirty-seven…”

“Now increase your revs while taking your foot off the clutch.”

“Ok,” Peter breathes, the car starting to edge forward. They’re moving. He can do this.

“Now just use the accelerator, and we’re good to go. See?”

“Twenty-six…”

“I’m moving,” Peter snaps at Killian.

“We’re not out of the parking lot though, are we?”

“I’m getting us there.”

“Twenty.”

They’re too far away at this pace. So Peter shoves his foot down on the accelerator.

“Peter, don’t!” Happy gets out, but it’s too late. The car stalls.

“No,” Peter breathes. “Wait, I can fix it, I can -”

“It’s ok,” Happy’s saying, way too calm given that there’s now a gun pressed into his thigh. “Just slow down. Start again."

“I don’t have time.”

“Peter,” Happy says, still calm. “Take a breath.”

“Fifteen…”

“Go through the steps.”

“Fourteen…”

“You got this. Alright?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I got this. I got this.” Clutch. Gearstick. Accelerator. Bite point. Handbrake.

And they’re moving.

“Five…”

Peter’s instincts are screaming at him to move faster, but he can’t afford to stall again, so he forces himself to be gentle on the accelerator as they roll towards the road.

“Four…”

“Almost there,” Peter says, not really sure who he’s talking to. “We’re going to make it.”

“Three…”

Peter risks nudging the gas pedal again. No stalling. Their pace increases.

“Two…”

The exit to the parking lot. It’s right there. It’s right there.

“One…”

They clear it a second too late. Peter slams on the brakes on the edge of the road, trying not to hyperventilate. “Don’t shoot him. It was barely over sixty seconds, don’t, don’t -”

“Will you calm down?” Killian rolls his eyes. “You really think I was going to deal with the mess of a leg wound in here?”

“You -” Peter goes still. “You were never going to shoot him?”

“God no, like I need that hassle.” Killian slumps back in his chair. “But the tongue thing is definitely on the table, so don’t mess with my directions. Make a left.”

Peter follows Killian’s directions through the backstreets of Queens. It’s quiet at least, which is going to be key if Peter does what he thinks Happy wants him to do. He glances back at the bodyguard in the backseat, Happy giving him a nod of reassurance.

Killian catches it. “Stop communicating.”

“I’m just giving him some support,” Happy says. “Reminding the kid that I trust him.”

Peter swallows, the reality of what Happy is really asking hitting home. “Really? Are you sure?”

“Very. You got this.”

They hit a patch of open road, and Peter takes his chance. He slams his foot on the accelerator.

“Hey.” Killian sits upright, instantly on guard. “Slow down. Now.”

Peter floors it instead.

Killian lunges for the wheel and gets a face full of Peter’s elbow in response. An orange glow erupts in the passenger seat, Peter realizing his one escape is literally being burned way next to him. As the needle spikes on the speedometer, Peter slams on the brakes.

It doesn’t go like he hopes.

He had pictured the car screeching to a halt, goons thrust into the front row seats while Killian goes flying through the front window. Instead, the car catches, skids, and then for the second time that day, he’s in a car that’s flying through the air.

It crunches into a sidewalk, Peter immediately fumbling for the seatbelt that’s stopped the worst of the injuries, when a red-hot hand reaches over and snaps it off for him. “No!” Peter tries to knock it away, only ending up burning himself on it instead. The hand wraps in his t-shirt, singeing it as Killian hauls him out of the car. “Get off me!”

“Shut up, brat.” They clear the car, Killian getting an arm around Peter’s neck as well, forcing him to still, less he get burned. “You’re going to regret that.”

Peter twists around as best he can to look back at the ruined SUV. It’s a wreck, and no one else has emerged from it yet. “Happy!”

“Did you forget what happens when you pull something like that on fragile humans? It’s a miracle you’re still around - Hogan’s definitely dead.”

Peter’s heart stops. No, they’re not dead, Happy had been wearing his seatbelt, he had said he’d trusted Peter. He isn’t dead. He isn’t.

Killian is still pulling him away, firing up his arm every time Peter tries to free himself or dig his heels in. “You best hope that your dad gives a crap about you,” Killian’s hissing in his ear. “Now that you’ve killed my other leverage.”

"No, I didn’t, I- Let me pull him out and I’ll come quietly, I won’t fight you, I promise, just let me -”

The arm on his throat flares, making him cry out. “Go ahead and fight all you want. Doesn’t matter to me how much of your skin you want intact when this is -”

Killian doesn’t get to finish his sentence. One second his arm is burning into Peter’s throat, the next a repulsor blast is knocking him backward and away.

Peter doesn’t even pause to see who shot his captor. He sprints forward, diving for the car. “Happy!”

The wrecked car door comes off with a single pull, Peter bypassing a groaning bad guy to rip through Happy’s harness instead, pulling him out into the street. Happy’s hands are cuffed behind him, which Peter makes quick work of, chucking the metal away. The bodyguard is scarily still, face covered in blood.

“Hey, Happy, wake up.” Peter checks for injuries. There’s nothing obvious, but Happy’s eyes are closed, and, they’re not opening, and - “Happy!”

Then - “Ugh. Too loud.”

Pete collapses backward, face in his hands. “You’re not dead.”

Happy’s eyes flutter open, scrunching up when they see sunlight. “Ugh,” he says again. “You crashed the car.”

“I thought- with the seatbelts- I thought you wanted me to- ”

“I did,” Happy assures him, voice pained. “I did want that. No secondary locations.”

“Street smarts!”

“If that is another pop culture reference -”

They’re both distracted as a blue suit flies over to them, faceplate flipping up to reveal a very satisfied-looking Pepper Potts. “I have to say, taking that asshole out a second time felt pretty damn good.” She bends over Happy, cupping his head tenderly, careful to avoid his burned jaw. “Ambulance incoming.”

Happy leans into her touch. “Oh, thank god. Things aren’t where they’re supposed to be.”

Pepper looks over at Peter. “Are you ok?”

“I think so.” Peter swallows, feeling the sting of his still burning throat, suddenly hyperaware that there’s another man’s blood still coating the back of his neck. “A little, um, crispy.”

Pepper glares over Peter’s shoulder at what looks like a mound of lava. Don’t worry - this time he isn’t coming back.” A small smile crosses her face. “Maybe we can turn him into a lava lamp. Would make a nice trophy.”

Police arrive on the scene with the ambulance, Pepper cleaning up what’s left of Killian while Peter and Happy are seen to. “I’m sorry,” Peter tells him. “This is my fault.”

Happy shakes his head. “Hey, if I was in the driver’s seat I would have done the same thing.”

“Not that.” Peter swallows, a lump forming in his throat. “I could have let you teach me somewhere more secure, like you said. It was me who insisted on that parking lot. That’s how they got us.”

Happy sighs. “As much as I’d like to babyproof the world for you and your danger magnet of a mentor, I know I can’t. They could have grabbed us anywhere, Peter.”

“But they grabbed us there. In that parking lot. All because I…it’s stupid.”

“You want to talk about it?”

“Only if you don’t get weird about it.” Peter takes a breath. “So I said that’s where all the kids in my neighborhood learn to drive, right? I wasn’t lying about that but…it’s where my dad always said he’d take me when I was ready to for lesson."

Happy goes very still.

“And then when he died, Ben said he’d take me instead, and then…” Peter shrugs. “I don’t know. I just really wanted to learn there. With…you know. Someone important to me. Did I make it weird?”

His answer is Happy throwing his arm around Peter’s shoulders, pulling him gruffly against his side. “Yes. You made it weird.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“You know, if we put in the proper security measures, and if this experience doesn’t put you off driving for life, we can try that parking lot again. When I’m out of the hospital. Which may be a little while.”

A smile tugs on Peter’s lips. “I’d like that.”

“We’ll have to put in some extra hours to get you ready for that test.”

“Well, I’ll be very driven to succeed.”

“I’ve changed my mind.”

“Happy, no!”

“Fine. But no puns.”

“I’m making no promises.”

“I know, kid. I know.”

Chapter Text

“See, this is what happens when you try to come on missions.”

Steve rolls over on his bunk to glare at Bucky with righteous indignation. “This would have happened whether I came or not.”

“Nope,” Bucky retorts. He’s lying on his back, staring at the ceiling, tactical gear replaced by the white jumpsuits they’ve all been given to wear. Peter’s swimming in his, the decontamination team insisting that they didn’t have a smaller size available. “It’s you, Steve. I’ve been running missions with Sam for months now. Smooth sailing. You join us for one raid. Boom. Poisoned. You’re a trip hazard. A trip hazard who is meant to be retired.”

“We don’t know we’re poisoned,” Steve counters. “And you guys are a couple of soldiers down with Wanda and Vision on their honeymoon, so why not let me help out until they're back?”

“We are definitely poisoned,” Bucky states, sure of himself. “Because you came, even though we would have been fine.”

I never said you wouldn’t be!”

“Just admit that you can’t go five minutes -”

“I’ve been retired for nearly a year now.”

“- without getting yourself in some sort of trouble. Punk.”

“Jerk,” Steve shoots back. “And you forget Natasha goes with you on a lot of those missions. Smooth sailing, my ass.”

Bucky sits up in mock indignation. “Steve! There is a child in the room!”

“Hey,” Peter protests, as Steve rolls his eyes.

“One time. I made a language quip one fucking time.”

Bucky snorts. “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”

Steve sighs, sinking back into the starch-stiff blankets. “I’d just come off a school tour,” he gripes. “A primary school tour. I’d got used to keeping the cursing to a minimum - Captain America doesn’t go around swearing in front of little kids."

Bucky’s lips twitch. “Someone should inform Sam.”

“You making excuses again, Old Cap?”

Peter lifts his head, pushing himself off his bunk at the familiar voice. He, Steve and Bucky had been waiting in a containment chamber for a couple of hours now, waiting for results of a gas that had been released during their latest raid. The regular human members of their team had tested clear within the hour, but the chemical had insisted on hanging around in Peter’s and the two super-soldiers’ bloodstreams.

“Not my fault if you activated the part of my brain that said children were around, Tony.” Steve sits up too, looking hopefully over to where Tony and Rhodey are watching them through the room’s observation window. The set-up makes Peter squirm a little, even though he knows he’s safe in the Tower. Still, he can’t help but feel a little like an exhibit in a zoo.

“Tell me you’re here to say we can go,” Bucky says. Tony and Rhodey glance at each other, which is enough for Bucky to fall back onto his bunk with a groan. “Of course. Damn it, Steve."

"I didn’t do anything!” Steve protests.

“Danger magnet,” Bucky accuses him. “Can’t take you anywhere.”

“I know the struggle,” Tony chimes in, winking at Peter. “Got one of those myself.”

“Karma,” Rhodey tells him. “The universe wanted you to know how it feels.”

“Are we getting out of here or not?” Bucky asks.

“Yes and no,” Tony begins.

“It’s one or the other.”

“Calm down, Terminator - yes, you’re getting out.”

Peter relaxes. “Oh, thank god.  So we’re not poisoned?”

“Well…”

Peter stares at Tony. “We are poisoned?”

“Only for the next eight hours.”

“Eight hours?”

“You’re all going to be fine,” Rhodey steps in. “The toxin is reacting a little differently to your DNA, but it’s going to run its course and then you’ll be free to go. We’re not expecting lasting side effects.”

“Run its course?” Steve repeats, wary. “Like…we’re going to get sick?”

Bucky’s expression turns to one of worry, but it’s aimed at Steve, not himself. Peter would bet his entire lego collection that Bucky had seen enough of his best friend getting sick for a lifetime by now. That worries increases when Tony and Rhodey share another look. “Spit it out,” Bucky demands. “How bad is it going to get?”

“Well,” Rhodey says slowly. “It’s not actually going to get bad, per se.”

“You could even say that it’s going to get good,” Tony puts in. “Probably. We think.” He points a finger at Peter. “Not that I condone this type of activity. This is an accidental one-off, so enjoy it while it lasts.”

“We’re…” Peter blinks, putting the pieces together. “Are we going to get high?” He glances at Bucky and Steve, seeing they’re not thrilled about it either. “Like seeing things and hallucinating stuff?”

“No, none of that,” Tony assures him. “Not if we stay on top of it. Your reality is going to get a little distorted, but Rhodey and I are going to ride it out with you and make sure it’s a good time, not a bad one.”

“I don’t consider getting drugged against my will a good time,” Steve retorts. He’s gone very still, arms folded across his body. At first glance, he’s radiating indignation, but Bucky seems to see it for what it really is, because he pushes off from his own bunk to come sit on the edge of Steve’s, laying his flesh hand on Steve’s ankle.

“I know it’s not ideal,” Rhodey says. “But let’s just say Tony and I have had plenty of experience trip-sitting. You’re not going to lose control or start hallucinating if we keep you calm, your reality is just going to get a little distorted. We’ll walk you through all of it and you’ll always have at least one of us watching you. Ok?”

Peter stares down at his hands, still trying to process. “Wow. My first trip.”

“Your only trip,” Tony warns him.

“Well, yeah,” Peter agrees. “That’s not really up to me. I didn’t even know I could get high.”

“Neither did we,” Steve adds. “I thought we metabolized stuff too fast for that.”

“Hence mystery enhanced-attacking loopy gas,” Tony says. He indicates Steve and Bucky. “Come on, you two, you skipped the seventies altogether without even getting a taste. It’ll be fun.”

“It’ll be safe,” Rhodey clarifies, shooting a warning look at Tony. “But we did get you some, um, entertainment.”

A hatch in the door opens, and several long boxes are pushed into the room. “What the hell?” Bucky demands, crossing the room to examine them. The first one he opens contains paint supplies - acrylics and brushes and big black canvases that all look like they’ve been bought with little kids in mind. “We’re not children.”

Tony throws his hands up. “Use them, don’t use them, up to you.”

“Steve,” Rhodey calls over, voice concerned. “Are you ok?”

Steve hasn’t moved from his position in the very back corner of the bed, dropping his gaze when everyone’s eyes turn to him. “We’ve already ingested the gas. Whatever is coming is coming.”

Bucky abandons the art supplies to return to his seat at Steve’s side, this time placing his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Neither of us are big fans of strangers messing around our bodies.”

Dawning realization hits Tony. “Right. Of course.” He casts a regretful eye over the packages. “Ok, I see that we maybe have gone about this the wrong way.” He casts a wary eye over Peter. “How you feeling about this, Webs?”

Peter shrugs, thinking about it. “I mean, it’s kind of like Steve said. It’s coming anyway.”

“I know it’s intimating,” Rhodey reassures them all. “But from what we understand, you’ll be in control the whole time if you stay calm and listen to us. Your reality is just going to get a little funky. If it gets too much, just remember that you’re in the Tower, with two, um, rather experienced trip-sitters who are completely sober and entirely focused on keeping you all safe. Ok?”

Peter nods, still trying to digest the situation. “Ok. I trust you guys.”

“I guess I do too,” Bucky adds after a moment. “Steve? You with us?"

"It’s just…” Steve bites his lip. “I’ve never even been drunk before.”

“But you have been high,” Tony points out. “Those pain meds Bruce and I cooked up for you in the early days? The ones that make you go loopy and rant about how you saw all the colors in the Wizard of the Oz for the first time after the serum? We keep you safe whenever you end up on those, right?”

“Yeah. I know you do.”

“This is the same thing. Nothing’s going to happen while we’re watching you. Speaking of Oz,” Tony goes on. “Not a bad analogy. Imagine the world is in black and white right now. You’re just about to see it with a bit more color and glitter. But it’s still the world. Cool?”

“Like going to Oz, huh?” Steve rallies himself. “Alright. Let’s do this.”

“Not that we have a choice,” Bucky mutters. “I’m not painting though. Parker?”

Peter nods. “Bye-bye Kansas.”

Tony throws him a peace sign. “See you on the other side, Dorothy.”

 


 

“Steve. Steve. Steve.”

“Stop it, Buck,” Steve complains. “You’re interrupting the rhythm.”

“There’s no music!”

Steve rolls over to glare at Bucky, pupils blown wide. “There is though, Buck. All the time. I just couldn’t hear it until now.”

“Woah,” Peter breathes. At some point he’s slid off his bunk to lie on the floor instead. The sheets had insisted on moving too much. “There’s music all the time?”

Steve nods sagely. “People used to be able to hear it. When the world was quiet. Then the world got loud, you know?”

“So loud,” Peter agrees. “So many people. And machines. It’s like whoosh whoosh whoosh all the time.He motions with his hands, immediately getting distracted by them. “Woah. Woah. Guys, look at your hands.”

“So loud,” Steve repeats. “The future is so loud.”

“Steve,” Bucky whines. “Look at my picture.”

Steve turns over in the bed to stare at the paint Bucky’s splashed across one of the canvases. At some point he’s bypassed the brushes altogether, smearing colors around with his fingers, which are now dripping blue. “Bucky. That’s amazing.”

Bucky smiles, mollified. “I am the paint.”

“I can see that,” Steve agrees solemnly. He cranes his head around to take in the painting better. “I can see you.”

“Look at your hands!” Peter repeats. “They’re…so weird.”

Steve lifts his hand to his face, expression morphing into one of confusion. “I don’t think these are mine.” Then, in a stage whisper, “I stole these hands. My old ones weren’t good for anything. Don’t tell anyone.”

“Guys,” Bucky whispers, staring down at his own hands in horror. “They’re wrong. Why are my hands wrong?”

“Because they’re covered in paint,” Tony calls from outside the window. “It’s paint, Buck.”

Buck turns around to glare at Tony. “It’s my hands, and they’re wrong.”

Tony’s expression turns amused. “They’re your hands. They’re covered in paint. You are the paint, remember?”

Bucky’s eyes go wide in understanding. “I am the paint. Come be paint with me, Steve.”

Steve’s face screws up. “I don’t think my body wants to be paint right now.”

“You’re all on your own journey,” Rhodey offers. “You’re going to want to do different things at different times. Just go with it.”

“And don’t forget to eat at some point,” Tony adds.

Peter wrinkles his nose. He can’t think of anything worse right now.

Tony sees. “I know, but you’ll feel better afterward. Try the blue box.”

Reluctantly, Peter tears his face away from the bumpy, oily skin sausages that are apparently the same fingers he’s looked at for seventeen years, and goes on a hunt for the blue box. “Aha. I see it.”

“Good job, kid.”

“Do you know you have a really nice voice, Tony? You sound like a smile.”

"Hey," Rhodey says. "Kid's finally calling you Tony."

“Thanks, Underoos. Now the trick about opening boxes is you need to move over to them first.”

Peter frowns. “I am moving.”

“No, you’re lying on the floor. Move forward, please. Arms and legs.”

Peter locates his arms and legs again. “Oh. Wow. This is way faster.”

“Sure it is. Now pop that lid, get some chow.”

Peter manages to get the lid off, peering down into the box. “Liquid bread,” he states.

“Protein shakes,” Rhodey corrects. He also sounds like a smile right now. It’s nice. Peter wishes everyone sounded like that. “Pick a flavor and chug one every so often, keep your calories up.”

Peter rakes his eyes over the various blue, green, and pink textures. “I think I want my insides to be blue right now. I want to match Bucky’s hands.”

“Blue,” Bucky insists.

“Blue it is,” Tony agrees. “If you can get one into Picasso and Mozart over there, power to you.”

Peter gets the shake down, shuddering a little. The texture is off, slimy and seeming to trickle down his throat for far longer than it should, but it doesn’t taste of much. He decides that, as they’re all in this together, then they should all be blue, grabbing one each for Bucky and Steve. “Bucky,” Peter says as he crosses a room that is far bigger than it should be. “You need to -” He frowns, trying to remember.

“Get him to drink the shake,” Rhodey reminds him. Then, to Tony, “We can’t just go in there ourselves and feed them? The gas doesn’t affect people without enhancements.”

“Bruce said no,” Tony grumbles. “Best to err on the side of caution and all that.”

“Well, if anyone has the right to say that, Bruce Banner does. Shake, Peter.”

“Right.” Peter crouches down next to Bucky, careful not to ruin his painting. “We need to eat.”

Bucky pauses, confused. “What?”

“It’s a protein shake. It’s not that bad. Kind of weird. Bucky?”

Bucky doesn’t seem to be hearing him, blinking rapidly instead. “I can do words or I can do colors right now.”

“It’s fine,” Rhodey consoles Peter. “Try again in a bit, if you’re able.”

“Trust the teenager to be the adult out of the three.” Tony leans a bit closer to the glass. Someone has fetched him and Rhodey chairs at some point, and Peter has that uncomfortable ‘animal in a cage’ feeling again.

Then again, he is stuck in this room, for however many more hours. With people watching. And he’s different from them. He has spider DNA in him. Which is…weird, really. Not even human. Peter squeezes his eyes tight shut, trying to locate his human stuff, anxiety spiking when he can’t. Now his eyes are gone, he can’t count how many he has. Spiders have eight. Eight eyes. Eight legs. And he has…a number of eyes and legs. It’s hard to tell in this void.

“Peter? Open your eyes!”

Peter searches for his eyes in the darkness. It’s difficult when he’s not sure how many he has.

“PETER!”

Peter’s eyes fly open on instinct, gasping a little when he realizes he’s still in the containment chamber. He immediately looks down at himself. Four legs. No. Two of those are arms.

“You alright?” Tony’s standing now, worried. “Not liking that expression, Pete. You thinking something not fun?”

“Um…” Part-spider. “Maybe?”

“No, nope, head that off before it can take hold.”

Peter blinks, still reeling a little bit. “There’s a void in the room.”

“Ah,” Rhodey nods, understanding. “Yeah, that can happen. Don’t go in the void, trust me.”

“Don’t go in the void,” Peter repeats, looking around. “Where did it go?”

“Don’t think about the void,” Tony says quickly. “Why don’t you see if Steve wants a shake when he’s back, how about that?”

“Back from where?” Peter looks around the containment chamber, realizing it’s just him and Bucky now. Steve has vanished. “Woah.”

“Yes, we’ve heard the Keanu Reeves impression plenty, thank you. He’s just in the bathroom.”

As if on cue, the door to the small bathroom in the far corner bursts open, a pale Steve coming back through it. Relief blossoms on his face when he sees them all.

“You alright there, Steve?” Rhodey calls over.

Steve looks a little haunted. “I got lost.”

“Understandable,” Rhodey replies. “Welcome back. Think you can eat something?”

With Peter’s coaxing, they manage to get a shake into Steve, and then Steve gets one into Bucky, who grumbles at being distracted from his work. He’s onto his third canvas now, painting with dogged determination.

“Hey, Peter, Steve,” Rhodey says. “You guys want to paint?”

Steve considers the question solemnly. “It isn’t time yet.”

Bucky nods in understanding. He’s covering up the blue with red now. “You’ll know when it’s time. You’ll just know.”

“We left you more goodies,” Tony suggests. “Take ‘em or leave ‘em.”

Peter and Steve leave Bucky to it, Peter reaching for the next box in the pile.

“Good choice,” Tony tells him. “I grabbed those with Steve in mind, but the art supplies were also mostly for him, so who knows at this point.”

Peter pries the top of the box open and is rewarded with a burst of color. “Woah. Woah woah woah!”

He takes the top painting off the box and pushes the rest across to Steve. Peter knows the picture he’s holding, he doesn’t need to be an art buff to recognize Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, but he’s also never seen it like this.

“Ooooh,” he breathes, holding it out at arm’s length to see it better. “Oooohh.”

“There you go,” he’s vaguely aware of Tony saying, but Bucky’s earlier comment about words and colors not both being able to fit in his brain suddenly makes perfect sense, and right now Peter very much wants to stay with color.

He’s not sure how long he stares at the painting. It’s moving, a beautiful harmony of golds and oranges, but eventually his brain comes back online enough to remember that there are plenty of paintings in the box to explore. He reverently lays the Sunflowers print aside, going to reach for the next painting when he sees Steve.

“Steve? Are you…are you good?”

Steve doesn’t seem to hear him. He’s staring down at his own print, an A3 replica of Starry Night, silent tears dripping off his chin. “It makes sense now,” he’s saying, over and over again. “It makes sense.”

Peter suddenly feels sober, so quickly it’s disorienting. “Steve?” he tries again, but before he can touch him, Tony stops him.

“Leave him, kid.” Tony’s voice is uncharacteristically soft. “Let him have this.”

“But he’s…so sad.”

“They’re just on their separate journeys,” Rhodey adds, prompting Peter to look over at Bucky. The paint has changed to silver now, almost no blue left to be seen, and Peter feels a little sick as he notes the color palette of silver and red on the black canvases. The paint is so thick now that it’s not having a chance to dry, and Bucky just keeps adding more and more of it.

“Bucky?” Peter tries.

Bucky doesn’t look up, fixated on the work. “It’s coming out,” he insists. “All the paint is coming out of me. It’s been in me for so long, but I’m getting it out.”

A little spooked, Peter backs away. The world still feels a little swimmy, like he’s on a boat, but his head feels clear. “Guys? I think it’s wearing off.”

“Hate to be the bearer of bad news, kid,” Tony replies. “But you’ve got another four or so hours to go. You’re just in a lucid period. Would be a great time to eat something else, actually.”

Peter nods, this time picking up a green shake before going over to the window to sit beside Tony and Rhodey. Tony immediately slides off his chair, sitting cross-legged on the floor so it’s almost like they’re sitting next to each other. “You doing ok?”

“Um…” Peter looks out at where Steve is still crying over the painting; Bucky buried in his work. “They’re freaking me out a little bit.”

“They’re ok,” Rhodey reassures him. “Sometimes people go through really intense stuff. It can actually be cathartic.”

“And sometimes people just like the pretty colors,” Tony adds. “It’s a mixed bag.”

Peter shifts away from the glass he’s leaning on, suddenly too cold and hard. Like diamond. Like icy diamonds. “Ugh.”

“You ok?” Tony asks.

“Glass. Texture. Wrong.”

“Oh, I think you’re about to come back up. Best finish that shake quickly, so I can tell Bruce I got you to drink at least two.”

Peter stops drinking the green fluid with a grimace. “Ugh. Hulk. Hulk juice.” He shoves it to one side. “I don’t want to see green anymore. Ever. F.R.I.D.A.Y., delete green.”

“No green,” Tony promises. “Just be careful when you open the last box then.”

Peter narrows his eyes at him. “Is there green in there?”

“A little bit.”

Peter shudders.

“Worth it though,” Tony promises. “Sometimes the simple pleasures are the best ones.”

The idea of seeing green is still making the hairs on his arm stand up on end, but eventually curiosity wins out and Peter opens the last box. He tilts his head to one side, disappointed. “Glow sticks.”

“Crack one,” Tony prompts him. “Trust me.”

Peter decides that orange is a safe color right now, and breaks it.

A universe explodes in his hand.

There’s a noise Peter thinks might be him but he doesn’t care right now. He leans closer into the glow stick, mesmerized, seeing a universe begin and grow in his hands, splitting and breaking apart and it’s too much. He squeezes his tight shut, because he doesn’t want to see the universe breaking and -

 

- they can’t let the universe end, not today, not ever. They can’t let it happen, but it is. They’re losing. Tony’s bleeding and broken and beaten and everything Tony Stark isn’t meant to be. There should be more people here. There should be, but they’re gone now. They’re gone and he can feel something inside of him breaking. It feels wrong, it hurts, his body going into overdrive to heal it but he’s not injured so what is it healing -

 

There’s noise around him, too loud, too much. Someone’s shouting, saying it’s not safe, but there are footsteps running towards him anyway, shouting his name.

They sound awfully far away.

Something is wrong with his body. He’s sure of it. Everything inside of him is breaking down, crumbling, and it’s spreading through him. It’s going to annihilate him. It’s going to leave nothing behind at all. He’s just going to be gone.

He’s gone.

“Peter!”

He’s breaking down. He can feel it. A power he doesn’t understand is cracking through him, and he’s dust, he’s dust he’s dust and there’s nothing he can do to save himself.

Then there are hands where his used to be and it’s wrong, too hot, too wet, and he jerks away with a whine.

“Ok, ok, no touching, I hear you. But you need to open your eyes, kid.”

“I don’t have any.” Gone. They’re gone, he’s gone.

“Yes, you do, and I need you to use them to look at me. Or anywhere at all right now.”

“Mr Stark.”

A hesitation, then. “Right here. I’m right here.”

“Mr Stark, I don’t feel so good.”

He feels the presence next to him freeze entirely, until a new voice joins too. “Peter? It’s Rhodey.”

Rhodey? That…doesn’t make sense. “Rhodey isn’t here.”

“I am, Peter. Me and Tony are both right here.”

“Rhodey’s on earth.”

There’s a sharp inhale to his right. “Pete, hey. You’re on earth.”

“I’m…nowhere. Dust. There’s just dust. Dust and dark.”

“No,” Rhodey’s voice corrects him. “You’re in the Tower, remember? Your reality is a little warped right now, but you are in the Tower, and you’ll see that if you open your eyes, ok? Can you do that for us?”

“Peter,” Tony says gently. “There’s ground beneath you. You feel that?”

“No.” There’s nothing. There’s nothing but black, and it's going to be this way forever.

“Focus kid, come on. Ground. Hard. Cold.”

Through the unending darkness, Peter finds what he thinks might be down and reaches for it. And…there. “Maybe?”

“Can I touch you?” Tony asks. “Just very quickly. Just want to show you that you still, um, have a body.”

“Having a body would be nice,” Peter agrees.

“Ok. Here we go.” The hot, wet things are back and Peter grimaces, but Tony’s still talking, which relieves the discomfort somewhat. “This is your foot, feel it? Your ankle. Your knee.”

“I…yeah,” Peter breathes. The three points Tony touched light up - beads of light in the dark.

“Ok, good. Hand. Elbow. Shoulder. That’s your whole right side. Ok for Rhodey to do the left?”

Rhodey repeats the process on Peter’s left side. Peter's whole body is made of light now. “My head,” Peter whispers. “It left.”

“Nope,” and a tap comes right in the middle of Peter’s being. “That’s your head. With eyes in it. You ok to get them open now?”

It takes a minute for Peter to orientate himself, but finally he managed to find his eyes and pry the lids open, only to immediately shut them again. “Ugh.”

“No, come on, Peter,” Tony pleads with him. “You need to see the room.”

“Your face.”

“It’s right here.”

“No. Too much. You’re too much detail.”

“Just look at the ceiling then,” Rhodey encourages him.

It takes Peter a hot minute, but eventually he manages to focus on the ceiling. The white, ceiling. With his eyes.

“Oh,” he breathes. “I’m in the Tower.”

“You are,” Tony reminds him.

Peter suddenly grabs the floor, the return to a solid form disorientating. “I think…”

“Tell us what you want,” Rhodey prompts him.

“I think…when I came back the other time…” Peter’s eyes fill with unwanted tears. It had been loud and confusing and scary as hell, but he’d come back and… “I want that.”

“Here.” Tony maneuvers himself around Peter, careful to avoid his eye line. “Ok to touch now?”

Peter nods tearfully, and Tony pulls him into a tight hug, moving them back so they’re leaning against the wall. Warm and solid and there. No darkness. No dust. He's ok, just like he had known he would be when Tony had pulled him into an embrace on a chaotic battlefield. 

“This ok?”

“Yeah. Very ok,” Peter breathes, then remembers. “Wait - you’re not meant to come in.”

“Screw it,” Tony shrugs. “Bad trips suck. Wasn’t going to let you go through that alone. Neither of us were.”

Peter nods. “Thanks.” He risks lowering his head, seeing Steve and Bucky also watching him, nervous.

“Peter?” Steve’s eyes are bloodshot, but he otherwise looks like himself again. “Are you ok?”

Peter nods. “I, um…I thought I was turning to dust again.”

His eyes find Bucky, who gives him a little nod of understanding.

“But I’m not,” Peter says, confirming it. The floor beneath his feet. Tony behind him. Friends in front of him. “I’m ok.”

“You’re ok,” Tony affirms. “We’ll stay in the room for the rest of it, make sure nothing bad will happen. Bruce can yell at us later. Deal?”

Peter nods. “Sounds good. Thank you.”

“Any time. Now, I think glow sticks are a no-go for you, but I’ve got some other options we try. Music, maybe, or painting?”

Steve looks over at the canvases at the mention of painting, eyes turning serious.

“Is it time?” Rhodey prompts him.

Steve nods, grim. “It’s time.”

 


 

They hang Steve’s painting over in the place of honor over the dining table in the Tower common room.

“It’s amazing,” Peter breathes the first time he sees it in full.

Steve shrugs, modest. “It was just what was inside of me.”

It’s all of them. The whole team. The Van Gogh influence is clearly there, but it’s not entirely in his style. Most of it is recognizably Steve’s.

Peter doesn’t ask what happen to Bucky’s - if he had kept his acrylic rendition of the Winter Soldier or destroyed it. The last Peter had seen of it, Bucky had thrown himself away from the canvas, hands dripping with paint and eyes wild, proclaiming “There. He’s out. He’s finally out.”

“You kept saying ‘it made sense’,” Peter says. “When you saw the Van Gogh prints.”

Steve smiles, a little sad. “I’ve missed this,” he says quietly, gesturing to the Tower. “The missions. The purpose of it. I know I still run missions when you need an extra pair of hands but I was thinking about coming back full time. Not as Captain, obviously - that well and truly belongs to Sam. But feeling useful again.”

“And?”

“And then I saw… the art.” Steve swallows, eyes raking over the painting again. “And realized that that’s all there is. Just beauty and expression and love. That once, before the war started, I wanted to be an artist.” Steve twists his hands together. “I have people I care about and a passion to pursue. It’s a lot more than some people get. And for the first time I saw that so clearly. It was…a lot. But a good a lot. Something I think I needed.” Something else crosses his expression. “Not that I’m endorsing drugs.”

Peter snorts. “Yeah, Tony says I’m never allowed to do that again, even though he and Rhodey all but told us that did that all the time back in college. Hypocrites.”

“If you had the option - would you do it again?”

Peter considers, then shakes his head. “No. There were fun parts, but the, you know. Turning into dust again. That was scary. Put me off.” He allows himself to smile. “Guess you could say I was the trip hazard.”

Steve cocks his head, confused. “What do you mean?”

“You know,” Peter explains. “Trip like drug trip. But it’s the same thing Bucky called you when you came on the mission.”

Steve still looks confused.

“No?”

“Sorry, Queens.”

“Trip hazard,” Peter insists. “Come on, that’s one of my better ones!”

“Better what?”

“Puns! It’s a -” Peter breaks off, realizing. “Oh, screw you.”

“What?” Steve says innocently. “I didn’t get it.”

“Yes, you did! You -” Peter huffs, giving up. “Can we please just go get something to eat that isn’t a Hulk juice smoothie?”

“I think we can manage that, Queens. One non-Hulk-themed beverage coming right up.”

Chapter Text

“Come on man, that’s nothing.” Clint sends Sam a knowing grin as he strips down to his undershirt. He tugs the cloth up to reveal his right side, receiving a gnarly row of healed-over puncture wounds. “Fell off a building right onto a spiked guard fence.”

Peter is equal parts impressed and horrified, leaning forward to take a better look. “And you lived through that?”

“Phil said I should have died,” Clint finishes happily. “All the doctors said I was going to.”

“Because you should have,” Natasha puts in. “You’re only here because of dumb luck.”

Peter swallows, feeling a little nauseated. But he doesn’t want to ruin their game, so he stays silent.

Clint shrugs. “I should definitely be dead. Everyone knows that. But apparently the universe finds me too entraining, so here I stand. Sit. Whatever.”

Peter shifts a little in his seat at that. It earns him a concerned look from Natasha, and he immediately stills, trying to keep his face neutral.

“Come on, a fence scar?” Sam scoffs. “That your best, Barton?”

“Oh no. I’m just getting warmed up. Got plenty to share with the class.” Clint gestures broadly at Sam. “Go on then, Cap. What you got?”

Sam bends down to peel up his trouser leg, and Peter winces in sympathy as he sees the jagged scar etched all the way up Sam’s calf. “Bit of shrapnel caught it, back when I was still doing tours in Afghanistan.”

“That’s it?” Clint looks thoroughly unimpressed. “Shrapnel?”

“Shrapnel I caught flying away from an exploding building. After evacuating it.” Sam catches Natasha’s raised eyebrow. “Oh what, Romanoff, you got something better?”

“I just think the true success story would have been to stop the building from being destroyed altogether. You boys and your explosions.”

“What are we talking about?”

As one, Peter, Clint, Sam, and Natasha all look over to see Scott hanging in the doorway, Bruce looming large and green behind him. “Coolest scar competition,” Clint supplies. “What you got, Lang?”

Scott brightens. “Oh, fun. I got shanked once. Here.” Scott makes his way into the room, taking the beer Sam offers as he pulls up his shirt, revealing a deep indentation between his two lower ribs.

Clint leans in for a better look. “What did you do?”

“I did…prison.”

Right. Peter sometimes forgets about that. Scott hardly ever brings it up, and when he does it’s usually in a throwaway sentence that doesn’t invite questions. He’s definitely never talked about getting injured during his incarceration.

Bruce makes his way into the room next, surveying them all with something between bewilderment and amusement. “This is what you lot do for fun?”

“Better than whatever you do in that lab all day,” Sam counters. “Alright. Nat. Go.”

Natasha shrugs, then pulls down the sleeve of her top to reveal two rows of evenly spaced red marks dotted along her shoulder. “Shark bite.”

Sam scoffs. “No, it’s not.”

Natasha shrugs, taking a sip of her beer.

“It’s not,” Sam repeats, now unsure. “Right?” He turns to Clint. “Is she lying?”

“Of course not,” Clint says innocently, before sending Natasha a wink.

Sam narrows his eyes at both of them. “Storytime.”

“I got dropped in a shark tank,” Natasha explains simply. “A shark bit me. I punched it. Then I took the bad guy out.”

“Now I know you’re lying. That stuff doesn’t actually happen.”

Natasha points at Peter in response. “Sometimes Peter fights a man called the Green Goblin who rides around on a hoverboard and throws bombs shaped like pumpkins. Also him.” She points over at Bruce. “I think I win. Shark bite is definitely coolest.”

Peter can see what she’s trying to do. Trivialize it. Make it a joke. It’s not working.

Sam holds up a finger. “We’re not done yet. Come on, Parker - pony up. Let’s see what you - Peter?”

But Peter’s already making his way out of the room.

“Hey!” Sam calls after him, voice laced with concern.

Peter keeps going. He doesn’t look back.

 


 

Peter’s not quite sure why he ends up in Bruce’s lab. Maybe because it was mentioned earlier, and his brain isn’t really working right now. He makes his way over to one of the large bay windows, staring out over the city, trying not to picture gnarled skin and scar tissue and marks of old injuries that nearly spelled death.

“Peter. Are you ok?”

Peter jumps so violently that he smashes his forehead into the window, stumbling back. “Ok. Ow.”

“Ooh, sorry. I didn’t even realize it was possible for me to sneak up on people anymore.” Bruce ducks his head and turns sideways to enter the lab. “Didn’t mean to scar you.”

“It wasn’t that much of a fright.”

“Scar,” Bruce says, as though that’s an explanation. “Scare? Scar. You know, it’s that thing you do.”

It takes Peter a moment. “Are you talking about puns?”

“Yeah! It’s a pun.”

Peter rubs his forehead when it smashed into the glass. “If you say so.”

Bruce surveys him, brow creased. “Are you ok? You ran out of there pretty fast.”

Peter shrugs, wrapping his arms around himself. “Sorry. It just…got a bit much.”

Bruce still looks confused. “Didn’t take you for the squeamish type.”

“It’s not that.”

“Then what is it? Because I’m completely lost here.”

“It’s just…” Peter wraps his arms around himself, and then it all spills out at once. “How do you cope with it?”

“Cope with it?”

“You know,” Peter casts about for the right words. “Being on the team with…people who aren’t like us."

“People who aren’t like us. You mean non-enhanced.”

Peter gestures down at himself. “No scars. I don’t get them because of my healing factor. I’m always fine. I know they were just joking around but they get hurt, all the time, and they don’t just, you know, bounce back like us. I’m not making sense.”

“Actually, I think I’m caught up now.” Bruce considers for a moment. “Do you know what originally got the Avengers together?”

“The Battle of New York?”

“Kind of.” Bruce sits in one of his reinforced chairs, gesturing for Peter to do the same. “It was actually a man named Phil Coulson. He was with us on the helicarrier that day. He was closest with Nat and Clint, but we’d all met him at one point or another. All liked him. Then Loki killed him.”

Peter frowns. “But I’ve met Phil Coulson. Like, met him this year met him.”

Bruce waves that away. “Well, killed is a little relative in this case, but at the time - very much killed. Don’t think about it.”

“I definitely will.”

“The point,” Bruce continues. “Is that it was the push we needed. Seeing someone we all knew die, just like that, because we were too busy fighting with each other to see the actual threat right in front of us - it put things in perceptive. Made us get our act together. Gave us someone to avenge, sure, but also reminded us of how easily lost human life is. How quickly it can end.” He gives Peter a sad smile. “Although I’ve been aware of that for a long, long time.”

“I guess, I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it? Them getting hurt - like hurt hurt. They’re the Avengers. They’re meant to be invincible. But they’re just -”

“Human?”

Peter tightens his arms around himself. The throbbing in his head is already gone. It won’t even bruise. “Yeah.”

“Do you know why Fury insisted on having Nat and Clint on the team in the first place? Skillsets aside, of course.”

Peter shakes his head.

“As a reminder,” Bruce finishes. “Of the people we’re protecting. People like Phil Coulson. How fragile they are; how easily they can get hurt. Having two humans without enhanced healing abilities made us think twice in the field before we did anything too crazy - it’s why Code Green was always a last resort before…” He gestures down at himself. “Well, until Hulk and I worked that out. To put it all of this simply: when you have team members who can get killed easier than others, it makes you think before you act. Prevents us from making calls that will get civilians killed too, no matter how noble our intentions.”

Peter’s not satisfied. “I still don’t love the idea of them getting hurt.”

“No one does.”

“So I just live with it?”

“You have their backs. Trust them to have yours. Accept this is all a life they’ve chosen.” Bruce stands, offering Peter a hand up. “Coming back upstairs?”

After a moment, Peter takes it. “Yeah. Ok.”

“And please don’t tell a single person in that room that I called them fragile.”

“Wouldn’t dare.”

“I mean it. Fragile egos, mostly.”

Peter manages a smile. “Thanks, Bruce.”

Bruce ruffles his hair with an oversized hand. “Anytime, Peter. Good to talk those things out so they don’t leave a mark.” He looks down to see Peter’s unimpressed face. “No?”

“Best leave the puns to me from now on, doc.”

Chapter Text

“Well, this can’t be good.”

Peter’s standing. It’s not usually the first thing he remarks on when he wakes up in an unfamiliar place, except that he has woken up in an unfamiliar place, and he’s done it standing up. Which is odd. Unsettling is probably the better word. Eerie, maybe. Peter’s having trouble finding words to describe this whole situation at all right now.

He can feel the comforting embrace of the Spider-Man suit encasing him, even though the mask is missing, and checks himself for injury. Nothing, not even the fuzzy aftertaste of knockout drugs. It’s as if he’d been ending study group one moment, preparing to head up the Tower to see what Tony will not stop calling the ‘super brat squad’, and then he’d blinked into…wherever this is.

The room is so dark that Peter can’t see the edges of it, stretching into pitch-black nothingness beyond. The only reason he can see anything at all is the glowing symbols shining up from the floor. They form eerie red circles which light up the feet of nine other figures, none of whom he can see the bodies or faces of.

“Karen?” Peter tries, although he’s not particularly surprised when he doesn’t get an answer. He remains equally unsurprised when he can’t locate his phone or comms either, although his trepidation does increase when none of the functions of his suit decide to work. There’s an infinitesimal amount of fluid left in his web-shooters, but that’s it.

“Hello?” he calls out, half-expecting his voice to echo around the fathomless room. It doesn’t. In contrast it feels muted, contained, as though he’s in a sound booth. “Ok, Peter,” he mutters, trying to decide on the best course of action. “You’re kidnapped by an unknown enemy. Surrounded by people you can’t see. Without a working suit or any means to call for help. That’s fine. This is fine.”

He glances down at his own set of symbols currently illuminating his toes. The circle they’re forming is barely a foot wide, meaning he can’t shift his feet without brushing up against one of the glowing signs. He doesn’t recognize any of them, even as his mind supplies alien. He peers at the feet of the person to his right, nudging a foot over his circle in order to get a better look.

The result is two forms of agony slamming into him simultaneously. The ear-splitting alarm that shrieks through the room is accompanied by an electric shock cracking through him, making him taste blood as his teeth go through his tongue. Peter spits out red, gasping, hastily returning his foot to his assigned foot of space. “Ok. Ow. I’m guessing that means you don’t want me to step out of the circle. Also, again. Ow.”

He doesn’t get an answer. Peter shuffles his feet, nervous energy rising as he feels sweat begin to form under the suit, but he's not willing enough to take another shock to try moving again. That first one had been brutal, even for him - he’s not even sure he can take another one without something of importance getting damaged.

“Hello,” Peter calls into the abyss again. “Don’t you know it’s rude to keep people waiting? At least offer me a glass of water, ask me to take off my shoes, or - ah!”

His hands fly up to his face, shielding his eyes as a bright, white light suddenly bombards him from above. Stars blink in front of his eyes, hot white spots that seem to take forever to die away, only to reveal that he’s not the only one in the room illuminated. That he can see the other nine figures now.

He recognizes every one of them, and his heart sinks, the stakes of the situation tripling.

The first person Peter sees is Harley. The older boy is standing directly across from him, standing but unconscious, like a doll waiting for activation. “Harley,” Peter calls over. “Harley. Wake up.”

“Peter?” The voice from Peter’s left is achingly familiar and yet not so, because Peter is not used to hearing MJ sound confused or unsure about anything. “What’s going on?”

Peter swallows, trying to put some authority into his voice when he says, “I don’t know. But we’ll figure it out.”

“Oh, what now?” The Wakandan accent brings Peter’s attention to Shuri, and also the person standing between her and MJ.

MJ notices too, brow furrowing. “What the hell is Flash doing here?”

“Who the hell is Flash?” asks the person on Harley’s right, and Peter’s dread increases as he takes in Lila Barton, standing in the circle next to the one that holds AJ Wilson. Lila sees AJ too, muttering a curse. “Who dragged the ten-year-old into this?”

As if Lila herself isn’t barely thirteen. Peter forces himself to keep his breathing in check as the rest of the room starts to wake up. Cassie Lang is on a now stirring Harley’s other side, while completing the circle is Ned to Peter’s right, and Betty Brant in between Peter’s best friend and AJ.

“What the- what is happening?” Flash’s head jerks up, eyes flying wide as he takes in the strange room, the people both familiar and not so gathered around him. “Where are we? Is this a prank? I am so telling my dad.” He makes to step out of his circle of symbols.

“Wait!” Peter cries out. “No one move!”

Flash freezes, only for his eyes to narrow when he sees Peter. “Nice Halloween costume, Parker.”

“Really?” MJ sends Flash a scathing look. “Now?”

“I tried to step off before,” Peter explains, ignoring Flash. “I got a shock. A big one.” He scans the rest of the room, at the nine very much not enhanced humans in here with him. “One I don’t think anyone in here should risk.”

“Please,” Flash scoffs. “If you can take it -” And he makes to step off the circle.

Peter doesn’t hesitate, raising his web-shooter and firing a web, gluing Flash down. “Don’t, Flash. Ok? Whoever put us here doesn’t want us to move yet.”

Flash is staring down at the web, eyes bugging out of his head. “No. No way.”

Peter has half a second to reflect that he’s just given away his biggest secret to Flash Thompson of all people, when he’s distracted by stirring on his right.

“Ugh. What? Ugh.” Ned blinks blearily around at them all, eyes focusing when he gets to Betty. “Betty! Are you ok?”

Betty nods, even though her hands are shaking. “I’m ok, I think. You?”

“Um…good question.” Ned casts a confused look over all of them, relaxing a little when sees Peter. “This is an Avengers thing? Do I finally get to be a part of an Avengers thing?”

“Avengers?” Flash is still reeling at the Spider-Man suit. “This is bullshit. Penis Parker is not Spider-Man, that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever-”

“Shut up, Flash!” MJ snaps at him. “Literally the lowest priority thing right now.” She turns to Peter instead. “Is this an Avengers thing?”

“I don’t know. Do you know anything?” Peter asks Cassie and Lila, but they shake their heads. “Shuri?”

Shuri bites her lip, grim. “Wakanda has enemies, sure. But this doesn’t feel targeted at me. Bringing along Avengers’ kids, sure, we have an alliance with you guys after all. But why them?” She gestures at Peter’s high school friends.

“Hold on,” Flash cuts in. “Are we seriously going to not talk about the fact that Parker is Spider-Man?”

“No, we’re going to talk about how to escape,” MJ retorts.

Lila’s raking her eyes over Flash, wearing the exact expression her dad does when someone is about to get seriously hurt. “What did you call Peter before? Because that didn’t sound like his first name.”

Flash shoves a finger at Lila. “Who the hell is she?” Then in a sweeping motion to the rest of the room, “Who the hell are half of these people?”

“Friends,” Peter tries to calm him. “Like it or not, everyone in this room is a team now, and that means Flash is on it. So let’s figure this out, together.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Betty speaks up. “But I actually think Flash has a point.”

Ned turns to her, horrified. “Take that back and then never say it again.”

“Peter being Spider-Man is a pretty big deal!” Betty points at Peter. “And did that girl refer to the others as Avengers’ kids?”

“Oh, Tony’s going to have to do so much paperwork after this.”

Peter’s head whips across the room to where Harley has just woken up, rubbing his head and taking them all in, wary. “Harley,” Peter calls out. “First of all, don’t step off your circle. Second - are you ok?”

Harley surveys the room. “I knew something like this was going to happen when I moved in with Tony. You lot are so weird.”

“Tony,” Flash repeats. “As in Tony Stark? How the hell does this random know Tony Stark?

Harley shrugs. “We’re connected.” He takes in the rest of them, eyes resting on the still unconscious AJ. “Oh, hell no. Grabbing the rest of us is one thing, but these two?” He gestures between AJ and Lila. “Someone’s seriously getting their asses kicked today.”

“I’m fine,” Lila glares at him. “I’ve had more training for this kind of thing than nearly all of you have put together.”

“That depends on what kind of thing this is,” Shuri mutters, as Cassie and AJ finally start to come to.

“Don’t move!” nearly everyone calls at once.

AJ goes rigid, taking them all in. “What- where am I?” He looks around them all for assurance, eyes selecting Peter.

Peter aims for what he hopes is a reassuring smile. “We’re going to be ok, AJ. We’re making a plan.”

“Well. This whole set-up is unsettling.” Cassie looks down at the symbols surrounding her feet. “I assume there’s a reason we’re still standing in these.”

“You’ll get shocked if you step outside of them,” Peter warns her. “I already tried, and I think I only survived because of Spidey stuff.”

“Which we only have his word for,” Flash mutters, looking down in distaste at his still webbed foot.

“That’s actually a good point,” Betty states.

“Betty.” Ned turns to her. “It’s Peter.”

“Who is also Spider-Man,” Betty counters. “Something we weren’t privy to until a few minutes ago.” Her eyes narrow, taking in Ned’s reaction. “Or something Flash and I weren’t privy to, at least. You don’t seem that surprised at all.”

“I didn’t…it’s not that…” Ned stutters, casting a panicked look between Peter and Betty. “I swore I wouldn’t tell anyone!”

“I am your girlfriend!” Betty retorts, outraged. “I’m not anyone!”

“Of course you’re not,” Ned replies hastily. “But Peter’s my best friend, and -”

“And that makes you choose him over me?” Betty looks past Peter to MJ. “Michelle doesn’t look surprised. So Peter told his girlfriend.”

“Actually, I figured it out,” MJ corrects her. “It was super obvious.”

Ned ignores that. “Yes, but that’s Peter’s girlfriend - that’s different!”

“How?” Betty demands.

“Because it’s a really big secret and it wasn’t mine to tell and we haven’t even been dating that long so -”

“Relationship problems later, you two,” Shuri interrupts them. “Peter is Spider-Man. You finding this out is not the most shocking thing that has happened today. Work it out when we don’t have electrical charges under our feet.”

“I want to go home,” AJ mumbles, fidgeting in his circle.

“You will, AJ,” Peter assures him. “We all will. As soon as we figure it out - what is that?”

“What is what?” Cassie asks, before her eyes widen. “Wait, no - I hear it too. Everyone shut up.”

“No one was talking,” Flash grumbles.

“You’re talking,” Lila shoots at him, before she glances at the floor, brow furrowing. “Ok, I hear it now. Like a hum, right?”

No sooner has she said the words than the floor in front of them lights up. Peter stares, fascinated, at ten long triangles spread out in a circle before them.

“There’s one pointing at each of us,” MJ muses. “That is ominous as hell.”

“Seriously, what is this?” Flash demands.

“None of us know,” Harley replies, surveying the triangle pointed at him. “So shut up and help us figure it out.” He looks over the rest of the Midtown students in the circle. “Let me guess - he never does any of the work in the group projects and still takes all the credit?”

“Yep,” Peter, MJ, Ned, and Betty all say in unison.

“Look,” Shuri announces. “It’s reactive.” She has her hand out in a fist in front of her, twisting it back and forth while watching the triangles.

Peter frowns, but Betty says the words before he can. “Nothing’s happening.”

Shuri’s head shoots up, confused. “I’m choosing which triangle is lighting up. You guys can’t see that?”

“Let me try.” MJ shoves her own fist out in front of her, face lighting up when she begins to twist it in a mirror image of what Shuri’s doing. “Ok. So I can move it around too.” She lifts her head, taking in the perplexed faces. “But you guys can’t see which triangle I’m choosing.”

The rest of them shake their heads, putting their arms out too, Lila encouraging AJ to try with them. Peter follows suit. Sure enough, as soon as his arm is extended, the triangle to the right of him - the one pointed at Ned - lights up with a soft golden glow. He moves it slowly around the circle, through Betty, AJ, Lila, Harley, Cassie, Shuri, Flash, and then finally back to Ned, skipping over the triangle pointed at him. “I can’t light up the one in front of me.”

“Neither,” MJ confirms. “Everyone else’s, but not my own. And we can only see the ones we’re lighting up. We can’t see what triangles other people have chosen.”

“What is this?” Flash repeats. “What the hell is going on?”

“We don’t know,” MJ reminds him. “But we’re trying to figure it out, so why don’t you actually help for once?”

“Any ideas about what the hell is happening?” Cassie puts to the room.

“We’re being pranked?” Ned offers. “Intergalactic reality TV?”

“Reality TV,” Shuri murmurs, still fixated on the triangle. “Like a game show.”

Ned looks a little panicked. “I was kidding. It’s not actually an alien game show, right?”

“It’s not much of a game,” Harley snorts. “Be nice if they told us some rules. Maybe asked for consent, you know. That fun stuff.”

“I don’t want to play a game,” AJ bursts out.

Betty’s expression softens as she looks over at him. “Maybe we won’t have to,” she tries to comfort him. “I’m Betty, by the way. What’s your name?”

“AJ,” AJ sniffs. “I know everyone else. Except him.” He points at Flash.

Flash folds his arms. “Well, I don’t know you either. Or most of you.”

“I’m happy to keep it that way,” Lila mutters.

Cassie’s fixated on the triangles, same as Shuri. “Maybe there’s a pattern,” she suggests. “We all have to work it out together, as we can’t see what the other people are choosing.”

Harley cocks his head, considering that. “How are we meant to figure that out though? There are no clues.” He checks his feet. “We all have the same symbols around us. Not like there’s a code there to figure out.”

“Maybe it’s not the symbols?” Ned suggests. “Maybe it’s something to do with us instead. A pattern between us somewhere.”

“Or maybe -” MJ begins, only to cut off as the hum begins again. “Oh hell no. What now? More triangles?”

“It’s another clue,” Harley says. “It has to be. Or, the first clue, really, seeing as they didn’t really give us -”

Harley halts, all of them freezing as more lights turn - spotlights, just like on the ten of them, except these ones are a few yards behind each of them. Ten new participants, all standing on their own set of symbols, all unconscious.

Peter sees who’s behind Harley and starts forward without thinking. “Tony?”

“Don’t move!” Shuri’s voice makes them all halt at once. “This is so clearly a trap - do not move.”

“Peter…” Harley’s voice trails off, dread sinking into Peter’s stomach as Harley first roots his eyes on whoever is standing behind him, and then slowly starts to travel around the room. Peter follows him, horror mounting as he sees each new face that has been added to the game.

Tony behind Harley.

Clint behind Lila.

Scott behind Cassie.

T’Challa behind Shuri.

Sarah Wilson behind AJ.

Betty’s father behind her.

Ned’s mother behind him.

MJ’s grandfather behind MJ.

A woman Peter doesn’t recognize behind Flash.

There are gasps from around the room, names called out, and under all of it the reminders to each other to not step off their circles, that that was likely only going to make things worse. The guardians behind them who are Avengers are still dressed in their various suits and uniforms, as though they’d been taken from a mission or even the Tower. Peter doesn’t want to think about what that implies about their captors.

Peter doesn’t want to look behind him, even though he knows who’s there. He’d promised her that he’d keep her safe. That Spider-Man stuff would never affect her. He’d promised.

He locks eyes at Harley, who seems to be in the same dilemma Peter’s in, not wanting to turn around. “So,” Harley says finally. “Tony’s behind me right now?”

Slowly, Peter nods. “May?” is all he says in response, stomach twisting when Harley confirms it.

“What is happening?” Betty demands. “Why am I part of this? Why is my dad a part of this?”

“We don’t know.” Lila had barely glanced over her shoulder before turning to AJ instead to try and keep him calm. The boy is currently staring at his statue-like mother in complete horror, calling out to her softly without response. “None of us know.”

“Well, you should know!” Flash shouts at her. “Some of you have Avengers behind you. The rest of us just have ordinary people who aren’t a part of anything!”

Peter looks at the woman behind Flash again. She’s a Chinese woman who looks to be somewhere in her forties, and Peter has met Flash’s mother. This definitely isn’t her.

Then, without warning, a klaxon sounds. Even with all the yelling, it’s the first sound in the room that has felt loud since everyone woke up.

“What is that?” several voices yell at once. Peter casts about, looking for clues, meaning, anything, but all that happens is the alarm gets louder, almost unbearable, until -

Ned’s spotlight turns red.

Ned’s face loses all color, staring up into his spotlight, even though it appears to be sourceless. They can’t even see the ceiling. “Guys? Why did my spotlight go red?

“The triangles,” Shuri points out. “Look at the triangles. Can everyone see the one that’s lit up?”

They can. It’s the one pointed at Ned’s feet. The rest are dark.

“Hold on, man,” Peter says quickly. “We’ll figure this out. You’ll be ok.”

He’s not even finished saying it when there’s a flash, an electronic whir, and then Ned and his mother both vanish.

Everyone reacts at once, mixed reactions from panic to confusion to shouting at everyone else to shut up. Peter just stares at the smoking circle where his best friend had just been standing. The spotlight is dark now, as is the one which held Mrs. Leeds.

“NED!” Betty screams above the rest of them. The room is back to normal now. Peter squints off into the darkness behind Tony’s unconscious form, but still can’t see the edge of the space they’re trapped in, even with the extra spotlights. “What happened to him?”

“Is he dead?” Flash gasps. “Is he seriously dead?”

“Of course not,” MJ says quickly, but she doesn’t look as though she believes it. “We don’t know that.”

Betty turns to Peter, pleading. “You’re Spider-Man, right Peter? You know about this stuff. What happened to Ned?

Peter opens his mouth, then falters, not even sure what to say, when Shuri beats him to it. “We voted for him.”

The entire room falls silent. “No one voted,” Betty says finally. “No one- who would do that?”

Shuri is twisting her wrist again, focused on the triangles, her face grim. “Who had the triangle pointed at Ned lit up last round?”

“Round?” Harley repeats.

Peter barely hears him. “I did,” he admits, his throat dry.

Betty stares at him. “You what? Why would you do that?”

“I didn’t mean to!” Peter buries his face in his hands, the movement jostling his bitten tongue, making him swallow back the taste of blood. This isn’t happening. Ned didn’t just- he didn’t. “I was just trying out the triangles the same as anyone else, I didn’t mean to leave the one I could see on Ned!”

“But you did,” Shuri presses.

MJ finds her voice. “Leave him alone. None of us knew.”

“No, we didn’t,” Shuri agrees. She's taking in the symbols around his feet, something like recognition in her expression. “But now we do. And we need to collect data before it happens again.”

“Again?” Betty repeats, horrified. “We’re not doing this again!”

“Peter,” Shuri insists. “Did you vote for Ned?”

Peter swallows against the lump in his throat. “Yes,” he whispers, voice hoarse. “Yes, I did.”

Shuri nods. “Me too.”

Cassie glances between Peter and Shuri then admits, voice small, “I think my triangle was on Ned's as well. I didn’t know.”

“But now we do,” Shuri presses. “So when it happens again -”

“How do you know it’s going to happen again?” Harley interrupts, then throws his hands up when Shuri eyeballs him. “I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m just trying to follow your logic.”

“It’s like Ned said,” Shuri replies. “It’s a game. Games have rounds. Games have rules. We just learned what one of them is.”

“So we’re voting who should die,” Lila confirms. “And not just that person. Their guardian dies too.”

Peter suddenly feels the full weight of having May right behind him. From the looks everyone else throws over their shoulders, he senses that everyone else is feeling that exact same pressure.

“We don’t know they’re dead,” Peter tries, not willing to accept yet that Ned is just gone.

“We don’t know they aren’t,” Shuri counters, then softens when she sees Peter’s reaction. “I’m sorry about your friend. But grief comes after battle, not during, or we will never see victory.”

“That some Shakespearean crap?” Flash gripes at her. “Like English class is going to be helpful right now.”

Shuri gives her the full I am royalty stance. “It’s Wakandan. African. A saying centuries older than your little bard in tights.”

“Not my bard,” Flash mutters. He twists his hands together, eyes darting around at them all. “Maybe the people in the inner circle don’t die. Maybe it’s just the outer ones. Like a test.”

“Why the hell would only the outer circle people die?” Lila snaps at him. “In what world does that make sense?”

“I’m just saying,” Flash retorts. “That if we approach it from that angle, it makes choosing a lot easier.”

“We’re not choosing anyone,” Peter insists. “If this is a game, then we aren’t playing.”

“No. Hold on. What did you mean?” The entire room turns to look at Lila, who’s staring down Flash like she wants to incinerate him. “That only having the outer people’s lives on the line makes it easier to choose?”

Flash quails for half a moment before standing his ground. “Well, most of these people are like, middle-aged, right? All except for -”

MJ doesn’t let him finish. “Don’t you dare finish that sentence, Eugene. Don’t you dare.”

“What?” Flash points at MJ’s grandfather. “He’s old! He’s lived his life! Everyone else in here has decades left. You’d let one of them die for someone who only has a few years?”

The room erupts again, MJ the loudest, but Peter is distracted a moment later by movement to his right. “Betty, don’t!”

Betty freezes, her foot an inch from the edge of her circle. “Why not?”

They have the room’s attention again. “You’ll get shocked,” Peter warns her. “Like I did. It was definitely enough to kill a normal human.”

Betty’s breath has sped up. “I’m not just waiting around here to die.”

“No one’s dying,” Peter promises her.

“Someone’s already died!” Betty shrieks back at him. “My boyfriend. Look!” She points at where Ned was previously standing, and Peter’s stomach swoops. It’s not true. It can’t be. He’s not accepting that. “So why don’t we just leave?”

“Because this is too well set-up,” Shuri tries to reason with her. “Look around. They know what they’re doing. They’ve done this before.” She opens her mouth to go on, but before she can, the klaxon sounds.

“No.” Betty’s shaking her head. “No, no.” She whirls around to where her dad is standing. “He’s right there. Let’s just get them and go!” She moves to leave the circle, and Peter fires his web-shooter.

But there’s no burst of webbing. There’s just a click. It’s empty. Betty’s foot hits the darkened floor, away from her circle.

There’s a moment where everyone is holding their breath together. Peter braces, waiting for the jolt, knowing there is nothing he can do to stop it as the klaxon whines on.

Betty lets out a little laugh, looking down at herself. “See? Nothing’s going to happen. It’s all a big trick. We can just -”

She and her father vanish.

There’s a response of swear words, shouting, a sob Peter is pretty sure comes from AJ. Forcing down the horror of seeing two more people disappear (not dead, not accepting that) right in front of him, Peter focuses on the youngest of their group, ignoring the fact that the only reason he has a clear line of sight now is because Betty and Ned are both gone. “AJ. Hey.”

AJ looks up at him, teary and breathless. “Peter?”

“We’re ok,” Peter tries to reassure him, even though they’re not, they’re not ok. “It’s going to be alright.”

He looks over at MJ as he says the last part. Her eyes are wet, locked on where Ned and Betty had been standing.

“We don’t know they’re dead,” Peter finds himself saying.

“We don’t know they’re alive either,” MJ breathes.

“Focus,” Shuri calls their attention back to her. She's still taking in the symbols making up their circles. “Ok. Now we have more data.”

“Nice to know you see those of us who aren’t your friends as data,” Flash accuses her.

“Says the guy who was more than willing to execute his friend’s grandfather a few minutes ago,” Lila retorts.

“Yeah, he’s not my friend,” MJ adds, then turns to Flash with a defiant expression. “My paps has as much right to live as every other person in this room, whether he has five years left or fifty.”

“We’re not going to hurt him,” Peter says, the words aimed at Flash. “Or anyone else. No one is voting here! We don’t trade lives.”

“Not sure we’re going to have a choice,” Harley mutters. It brings Peter’s attention back to him, eyes sliding off Harley onto his unconscious mentor beyond. A part of Peter would give anything for Tony to wake up right now, to take charge, to tell them what to do. But if the adults were going to wake like the rest of them, they would have by now. They’re on their own. “This doesn’t feel like the kind of game with an opt-out button.”

“I don’t want to kill anyone,” AJ says in a tiny voice. “I don’t want to vote.”

“We won’t make you,” Cassie tries to calm him, but Shuri contradicts her.

“Yes. We are. Hear me out,” she adds, before anyone can protest. “That countdown? It’s two minutes. More accurately, there are two minutes between rounds. Two minutes for us to decide to choose who goes. Either by voting or by sacrifice.”

They all look at Betty’s empty square. “Sacrifice,” MJ repeats, a little stunned. “That wasn’t her intention.”

“The circle doesn’t care about intention,” Shuri points out. “It only cares about the final result.”

A noise makes them all look at MJ. “Sorry,” she murmurs. “Just…I’m not sure if that’s true. About the room not caring about intention. Why else would they do this?”

“The room has a moral high ground?” Harley replies. “What, they’re seeing who we choose and why?”

“Like a test,” Lila adds. “Are we being tested?”

“Irrelevant,” Shuri heads them off. “The why doesn’t matter right now. What matters is buying ourselves as much time as possible to figure out the how. This isn’t magic.”

“How do you know?” Harley asks. “This isn’t like any tech I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m used to far more advanced tech than you, including this one."

"You know this tech?" Peter asks, surprised. "How?"

"No time to explain this round. Let's just say for now that this tech is different and alien and…and weird, but it’s not magic. Which means I can figure out how to get us out of here. And for that I need more data.”

“There’s that word again,” Flash mutters.

“What do you suggest?” Cassie asks Shuri.

“We all vote for the person on our left,” Shuri says. “Rig the vote. Maybe if there isn’t a majority, no one has to go.”

“Or we all go,” Flash counters.

“That is a very real possibility,” Shuri replies coolly, draining the color from Flash’s face. “But I’m going to bet it’s not a likely one. Whoever is doing this wants this to play out as long as possible.”

“And is that based on data too?” Flash retorts.

“Life experience,” Shuri replies. “Lots of bastards in this world. Plenty more in all the others.” She puts her fist out, twisting it to the left to vote for Cassie. “Alright, come on. Let’s do this.”

Peter almost protests, asking if they could vote for the person on their right instead so he doesn’t have to cast a killing vote for his girlfriend and his best friend all in one day. Then he realizes that, with Ned and Betty gone, that would mean he’s voting for AJ, and he doesn’t really want to vote to execute a terrified ten-year-old and his mother either.

MJ seems to read his mind. “It’s ok, Peter,” she whispers to him. “Vote for me.”

Lila already has her fist pointed out, grimly casting her vote for AJ before she encourages him to do the same. “I don’t want to vote for Peter,” AJ’s saying.

“No one wants to vote at all,” Lila assures him. “But this is a good plan. Because it’s Shuri’s plan. You know how smart Shuri is, right?”

“Very smart,” Shuri adds, giving AJ a wink. “It’s ok, AJ. No one else is going to vote for Peter. It’s not going to hurt him.”

“Yeah, watch me choose Lila,” Harley says, casting his vote. “I like her brothers better anyway.”

“Well, I like your sister better than you,” Lila shoots back.

The room is nearly ready, with everyone preparing a vote for the person on their left. MJ shoots Flash a dangerous smile as she votes for him. “Better hope no one changes their mind, Eugene.”

“No one is changing their mind,” Shuri states. She’s assured, calm, but Peter’s known the princess for long enough to know that those are her tells for when she’s scared. Truly confident Shuri is witty, sarcastic, quick with a joke. All of that is long gone now as she takes charge of them all.

The klaxon sounds, and everyone tenses as the countdown begins.

“No one move!” Shuri shouts over it. “This is going to work. It is.”

Peter twists around to lock eyes with MJ. I love you, he mouths.

She nods. Love you too.

Peter’s so focused on MJ, on the hammering of his own heart as the countdown reaches zero, that he almost misses it - the slight twitch of Flash’s wrist as he twists it to his right just as the klaxon issues its last chime.

MJ’s spotlight turns red.

“No!” Peter yells, preparing to launch himself across the space. It’s not going to happen, he’s going to stop it, he’s going to save her.

MJ shakes her head at him, even as she realizes what's about to happen. “Don’t. Please don’t move, Peter, don’t -”

He can’t just not move. He can’t just do nothing. It’s MJ.

“Peter Parker, stay where you are!”

The voice brings Peter up short, shoes scuffing on the edge of his circle just as MJ and her grandfather both disappear.

Peter looks around wildly for the source of the voice, only to see Harley’s eyes watching him, overbright and terrified. “Jesus, dude. I thought you were going to jump.”

“You…” Through the horror of what’s just happened, Peter registers something he thinks is disappointment creeping through. “I didn’t just hear Tony?” Peter had been so sure it was him, but Tony is still behind Harley, unmoving and silent.

“Please.” Harley tries for a smile. In the white spotlight, it looks grotesque. “I know what Tony’s ‘you’ve made me mad because you’ve made me scared’ voice sounds like.”

“You stopped me from jumping by copying Tony’s voice.”

“Worked, didn’t it?”

Peter turns back to the circle where MJ had been standing just a few seconds ago. “I could have gotten to her.”

Cassie shakes her head. “No, Peter, you couldn’t have. None of us could do anything.”

“I could have!” Peter bursts out. It’s too much. He can’t lose Ned and MJ in the span of six minutes that’s - no. That shouldn’t be possible. It isn’t possible. “I could have gotten to her.”

“Focus,” Shuri orders. “Now we know -”

Peter rounds on her. “Are we not even going to take five seconds to acknowledge my girlfriend just died?”

Shuri doesn’t back down. “No, we’re not. Because our clock is already ticking down to losing someone else. I know you, Peter. I know you don’t want anyone else in this room to get hurt. Battle first - grief later. And I saw what you did.”

For a disorientating moment Peter is sure she’s talking to him, before she turns on Flash. “You idiot. Why the hell would you do that?”

Flash goes pale. “Do what?”

“Do not play stupid with me,” Shuri comes at him. “You voted for MJ. I saw you.”

“Dude,” Harley breathes, staring at Flash in disbelief. “You didn’t.”

Flash flails, seeming to consider denying it. Peter doesn’t give him the chance. “I saw you too.”

Flash freezes. “I- I didn’t.”

“You did,” Peter whispers. “You killed her.”

“One of those votes wasn’t mine, Parker.”

It’s a punch to the gut that feels so physical that Peter nearly stumbles out of his circle with the force of it. He voted for MJ. He voted for Ned. Even Betty - that wouldn’t have happened if he just kept on top of his web fluid levels like Tony keeps telling him to.

“Don’t you dare put this on Peter!” Lila shouts at Flash “We agreed to all vote for a different person. We would have all been safe if you had followed the plan!”

“You don’t know that!” Flash retorts. “Maybe we all would have gone. Or you heard what Michelle said - one of you could have changed your vote for me. I know you’re all thinking it.”

“Well I am now,” Lila snarls at him. “I don’t know about you guys, but I think we have a pretty strong candidate for our pick next round.”

Flash changes from indignant to terrified in an instant, throwing a look over his shoulder at the woman behind him. “No, wait - don’t hurt her!”

“No one is hurting anyone,” Shuri interrupts the brewing argument. She’s bent over her circle, careful not to leave it, running her hands over the symbols around her in purposeful movements. “This time, we’re doing the plan properly.” She fixes her eyes on Flash, even as she doesn’t pause in her work. A click and a snap, and Shuri is suddenly lifting one of the symbols out of the floor, with an assurance that displays she’s worked with this kind of tech before. “I am watching you, rich boy. You wasted a round, you got one of us killed -”

"Peter."

“- and this time you are playing by my rules, or everyone in this room will vote for you. Got it?”

"Peter!"

“Ah!” Peter claps his hands over his ears. As much as he wants to give into the chasm that’s rapidly tearing his heart apart, Shuri’s right. If he falls apart now, more people are going to die. He needs to focus, and hearing MJ’s voice in his head right now isn’t helping.

"Peter, I don’t know if you can hear me -"

"PETER! Maybe if we try together?"

“Don’t,” Peter whines, shutting his eyes, ignoring the concerned words from his remaining friends in the room. He doesn’t want to hear Ned either. Battle first. Grieve after. That’s what he needs to do right now.

"Betty, you too - count of three."

Peter blinks. That’s a…weird thing for the manifestation of his dead best friend to say. Unless he’s properly cracking, which isn’t allowed, because Shuri and Harley and Cassie and Lila and AJ and even Flash all need him, he needs to -

"PETER!"

The volume of it almost knocks Peter out of the circle. Three voices combined slam into him, deafening now that he’s listening for it. And it’s not coming from inside his head. It’s coming from above him.

Peter whips his head up to the ceiling so fast that he cricks his neck. “MJ! Ned!”

"Peter,"  MJ’s saying. "If you can hear us, we’re alive, we’re ok. The circle doesn’t choose who to kill. It chooses who to save."

Then it cuts out, gone, as though a new layer of soundproofing has been slid in between them.

“Damnit!”

Peter cuts his gaze to Shuri instead, head rising from her circle to meet his look. The symbol she had been holding is gone, replaced in the seamless floor as if by magic. “What are you doing?” Peter asks her.

“You heard them?” Shuri presses.

“I- yes, how did you- ”

“I told you. It’s all just tech. These,” she gestures to the circles around their feet. “Aren’t killing devices. They’re teleportation circles.”

A weight vanishes off Peter’s shoulders and he bends over, catching his breath like he’s run a marathon. MJ’s alive. Ned’s alive. All six people who have left the circle are alive.

“Are you sure?” Harley presses her. “Not a mistake we can afford to make here.”

“I don’t make those kinds of mistakes,” Shuri states.

“And I heard them,” Peter backs her up. “Briefly. Can you do that again? Remove whatever that sound dampening thing is?”

“Yes, but I don’t think that’s the best use of our time.”

Flash looks almost as relieved as Peter is. “If we’re all getting teleported to safety one by one, what’s the rush? We’re going to be fine, right? Right?”

“No.” They all look at Lila, who’s chewing on the inside of her lip. “No, that’s not right. What’s the point of this if we all just get out?”

“Maybe we weren’t supposed to figure it out,” Cassie offers. “Maybe they wanted to make it look like we were all killing each other and wanted to see how we’d react. We did say this might be a test.”

“Or,” Harley says quietly. “It’s not about choosing who dies first. It’s about choosing the person - people - who have to stay behind at the end.”

There’s a rapid movement to Peter’s left, and he twists his neck round to see Flash desperately trying to free himself from the webbing still keeping his foot glued to the circle. “You’re kidding,” Peter says.

Flash glares at him. “You said we’re getting out, right? What does it matter what the order is?”

“Because maybe not all of us get to go,” Harley reminds him.

“You don’t know that,” Flash fires back, but he sounds unsure.

“No, but it’s a good theory,” Shuri says. “Karma. Imagine people fighting to kill off their friends to save themselves only to realize at the end that it’s the most brutal person who gets zapped instead. That’s the game show I’d watch.”

Cassie raises an eyebrow at her. “You’d watch that?”

“If I was sick and twisted enough to set this up, I’d watch that,” Shuri amends. “And our two minutes are nearly up, so we need to make a decision.”

“AJ should go next,” Cassie says immediately. AJ has curled up on himself as much as he can, arms wrapped tightly around his torso as he sends occasional looks back at his mother. “Then Lila. They’re the youngest.”

“I’m fine,” Lila insists. “I got this.”

“You’re thirteen,” Cassie counters. “That’s too young. We should choose her after AJ.”

“I’m fine,” Lila repeats. “I’m trained for this. I got it.”

Cassie goes to argue, but her eyes aren’t on Lila. They’re behind her - on Clint.

Peter feels the presence of May behind him again, still not wanting to turn around and actually see her. If it was just him, he’d be ok to remain behind if that meant saving the others. But he can’t run from the fact that every round he chooses to stay in, every time he chooses to risk getting closer to that finish line, he’s dragging May along with him.

“We should all vote for the person to our left again,” Shuri decides, just as the klaxon begins to sound again, indicating their time for voting is almost up.

“Why?” Harley calls back. “Cassie’s right, we should get AJ out of here.”

“Because we need data,” Shuri insists. “And the asshole with the stupid name over there messed that up. We need to see what happens if there's a tie.” She’s already got her fist out, twisting it towards Cassie again. “Maybe more people get out. Maybe we skip a round and don’t have to choose anyone. Maybe an equal-way tie ends the whole game. We need to know this, and there’s no time to argue. Vote for the person on your left - now!”

With their time almost up, everyone scrambles to cast a vote. Something sick twists in Peter as he’s forced to choose Flash as his choice to save. He doesn’t want Flash to die, but he’s still reeling from the image of his former bully sending MJ to her supposed death with nothing more than a flick of his wrist.

The klaxon ends. All the triangles light up at once. No spotlights turn red.

“It worked,” Harley breathes. “We didn’t choose anyone. It worked.”

Which is the exact moment both Lila's and Cassie’s spotlights turn a blindingly bright gold.

“What’s happening?” Cassie asks, looking down at herself, getting steadily more panicked as she looks from Lila, to Clint, and finally whirling around to look at Scott. “Why are mine and Lila’s gold? What does it mean?”

“Guys.” Peter twists his wrist back and forth. He can only light up one of two triangles now. Lila or Cassie’s. “I think it’s forcing us to choose one of them.”

Shuri nods, satisfied. “Good. That’s good. If we can make a tie every single round, that’s going to increase time in between voting. Give me more time to see if I can figure out the teleportation circles and make sure we all get out.”

Cassie takes in a breath, throwing a slightly desperate look to Scott before she says, “We said little ones first. That’s what we agreed. Vote for Lila.”

“Stop calling me little! I’m fine!”

“I know you are!” Cassie retorts, anger boiling over. “But it’s not just about you!”

Some of Lila’s bravado falters. “Of course I want to save my dad. But I also know that he wouldn’t want me to when there was someone who needed it more. Or a better option.”

“Better?” Cassie repeats, incredulous. “What do you mean better?”

“Smarter,” Lila clarifies, then extends her next words to the whole room. “We’re doing this wrong.”

Shuri’s brow furrows. “Wrong? How?”

“I get why you would want to send me and AJ out first, I do.” Lila looks to Shuri. “You said you think that you can get us out another way? Without us having to play at all? Like hacking their tech?”

“Hack isn’t the word I’d use, but yes. I think that can be done.”

“Ok. So hear me out - we shouldn’t choose who to save based on who is the most vulnerable in here. We should vote based on who is the most useful out there.”

The whole room goes quiet as they take in her words.

“She’s got a point,” Shuri agrees. She looks over to Scott, still dressed in the Ant-Man suit, even though the helmet is missing. “What if there’s a gap somewhere in here that only Cassie’s father can find?”

“Or the comms in the suit could activate once he’s out of here,” Harley offers. “Not every Avenger is in this room - there’s still back-up we could call.”

“But…” Cassie looks torn.

“What?” Lila challenges her. “You call me out for not wanting to prioritize my dad’s safety, but you’re not going to prioritize yours even when there’s a practical reason for you to do so right now?”

“Of course I want my dad to be ok!” Cassie shouts back, tears springing into her eyes. “But I want to save Clint too! I don’t want either of them to die, and I don’t want to make that choice!”

Lila looks completely thrown, and Peter’s not far behind her, until it all makes sense. Clint raised Cassie for five years through the Blip, when they didn’t have anyone but each other. Of course his safety’s a priority for her.

“No one’s dying, Cassie,” Peter assures her. “We’ll get everyone out before there’s one person left. We’re not going to get to a point where we find out what happens to the last person standing, I promise.”

The klaxon starts up again.

“Vote,” Shuri instructs them, raising her hand and flipping her wrist over to her left, in Cassie’s direction. “Lila’s right. We need to be practical about this. Extend our time and open as many options for escape as we can.”

“Agreed.” Harley also votes for Cassie, twisting his wrist left instead of right. “Besides, we all know Lila Barton is tougher than Thor’s hammer. She’s got this.” He sends Lila an encouraging smile, which she returns.

Lila tries her own wrist, and grimaces. “Looks like neither me or Cassie get a say in this one. AJ,” she prompts the boy next to her. “Vote for Cassie.”

AJ still looks small and scared, but nods and casts his vote.

“Good job,” Lila tells him, and gets rewarded with a tiny smile. “You’re doing great.”

“Flash,” Shuri prompts.

Flash blinks, seeming to come back from miles away. “What does it matter? Majority vote’s already been cast.”

“Would be nice to know if you were on the same page,” Shuri rolls her eyes at him, but the klaxon is nearly at an end, and Peter only has time to throw his vote for Cassie too before it shuts off, turning Cassie’s spotlight red.

She looks out at them all, a single tear spilling down her cheek as she looks out at all the friends she’s leaving behind, ending on Peter. “Figure this out,” she tells him, throwing a meaningful look between Tony and May. “Fast. Don’t put yourself in this position.”

Then she vanishes too.

Shuri immediately gets back to work on the teleportation tech. Peter bends down to his too, tries to examine it, but he doesn’t even know where to start. Maybe if he had a lab where he could open it up and take a look under the hood, but it’s completely foreign to him in a way it doesn’t appear to Shuri.

“Who’s next?” Lila asks, only to be interrupted by the tiniest sob that Peter’s ever heard, as though the person crying is desperate to hide it.

“Ok, hear me out,” Peter says, not being able to take the image of AJ not only terrified but now trying to mask it from them. “I know we just had a long conversation about getting out the most useful people first, but I really think AJ should be next.”

“I’m fine,” AJ insists, but it’s undercut with a wobble in his lower lip. “I can be brave.”

Harley looks up, meeting eyes with Peter, an understanding passing between them. “I agree,” Harley announces. “He’s too young for this. Let’s get him home.”

“No.” Shuri straightens up. She takes them all in, and then states in a voice that leaves no room for argument, “We’re going to vote for me.”

“You?” Flash scoffs. “What, are you more important than all of us now?”

“I think the word we were saying is useful,” Shuri counters. She surveys the room. “I can’t get us out from the inside. But I do know this tech well enough to know that I can do it from the outside. I just need to get there. We’re sending me.”

“You keep saying you know this tech,” Flash repeats, disbelieving. “You know how this weird, alien tech stuff works. And now it can suddenly be defeated from the outside. How convenient.”

“I didn’t want to say so until I was sure I couldn’t do it from here,” Shuri fires back. “And now I’m sure.”

“How do you know?” Harley presses her, but he sounds more curious than anything.

“Because it’s the same technology the Children of Thanos used,” Shuri explains. “Or use, if they’re not quite as dead as we thought. And one of their spaceships ended up right in our backyard when Thanos did. I’ve been studying it ever since I came back from the Blip.”

“Children of Thanos,” Peter repeats, shuddering as he remembers the one he had encountered - the one Tony had called ‘Squidward’ that had taken Doctor Strange. “Is this them?”

“Or someone with access to the same technology. Either way, I know how it works, and I know I can fix it from the outside.”

“Or you’re lying,” Flash replies. “And you just want out right now.”

Harley looks between Shuri and AJ, unsure. “We can’t send AJ first? And then Shuri?”

“The more time you can give me, the better.” Shuri looks to AJ, softening. “I’m really sorry, AJ, but that’s the way it has to be. For everyone’s sake.”

AJ nods, sniffing. “That’s ok. You can go first.”

“It’s not ok!” Flash is glaring at Shuri. “Don’t give me that ‘best for everyone’ crap. You just want to save yourself. Leave all us useless people to rot.” He gestures at the empty circles. “I didn’t miss that the first three to go before we knew we were saving and not executing were the other three with no association to the Avengers.”

“Ned was an accident,” Peter reminds him, temper rising. “Betty stepped off her circle before anyone could vote at all that round. And MJ’s gone because you were a coward and voted for her to save yourself!”

Flash casts a nervous look at the woman behind him again. “Come on, Peter.”

“Oh, so you do know how to use my first name.”

Flash flushes a little, but doesn’t let it deter him. “Useful. That’s what they’re saying. Tell me - how exactly is your aunt useful by their standards?”

“I trust Shuri,” Peter argues. “No one is dying. She can get us out.”

“You trust her, huh? To do what’s best for everyone?” Flash folds his arms, turning smug. “Well tell me this then. We need an engineer on the outside - to get useful people outside. Tony freaking Stark is in this room, and she hasn’t even suggested him and the other kid go next.”

“She has a name,” Shuri says drily. “It’s Shuri. That’s Harley. Not that you bothered to ask.”

Flash looks at Harley as though seeing him for the first time. “What are you, like Tony Stark’s secret kid or something? Don’t you want your dad to be ok? Why aren’t you fighting for him?”

“I moved in with Tony last month,” Harley says flatly. “And of course I want to save him. I just care about people other than myself, douchebag.”

“What, and she does?” Flash desperately tries to put the blame back on Shuri. “Surely Tony Stark, Iron Man, is the best choice of engineer there is, not some random chick who thinks she can boss everyone around. But no - she just wants to be the one to go next.”

“You’re right.”

“I - what?” Flash turns to Shuri, confused. “I’m right?”

“For the record,” Shuri says, very clearly. “I’m sure that I can get us out from the other side. It makes sense for all of us to send me next. But if there’s the tiniest chance I can’t? I’m not going to be the one left behind here. Or, to clarify - I’m not leaving him here.” And she points over her shoulder at T’Challa.

“Well I don’t want to leave my -” Flash cuts off. “My person here either. Why do you get to save yours first?”

“His name is T’Challa, and he’s my brother,” Shuri says, voice dark. “And if he was just my brother, then yes, it would be the same stakes as it is for everyone else in here. I’d wait my turn, I’d play it out. But he’s not just my brother. He’s my king.”

Shuri folds her arms, daring anyone to challenge her. No one does.

“This isn’t just a case of rescuing someone I love,” Shuri continues. “It is following through on my sworn duty to protect the king of my country. The king of my people. The king of my home. They survived without the Black Panther for five years. It wasn't pretty. I’m not sure we’d survive that loss a second time. I’m not just another kid in here - I’m a ruler and I have to think about my people. So I’m going, and I’m taking my king with me. Any arguments?”

Peter takes a breath, feeling May behind him, seeing Tony and Harley across from him, taking in the two youngest kids chosen as well as Clint and Sam’s sister to his right. “It’s not going to matter anyway,” he says finally. “Because you’re going to get us all out.”

Shuri relaxes a little. “Of course, I could have stepped off my circle and gone,” she points out. “But I think that’s what you Americans call a ‘dick move.’ I’d rather do this with your blessing.”

“Hey,” Flash calls across the room, and it takes Peter a second to register that he’s talking to AJ. “Little kid. AJ, right?”

AJ looks up, panicked.

“Leave him alone,” Lila warns.

Flash ignores her. “You’re hearing what they’re saying right? They’re going to get out all the important people. Look around - every pair in here has an Avenger as part of it, except for me and you. They’re going to leave us here.”

AJ’s eyes fly wide, but Harley cuts Flash’s next words off. “Jesus, dude. We’re not leaving anyone.” He puts his fist up, twists it to the left. “A vote for Shuri is a vote for escape and getting the hell out of here.”

“Catchy slogan,” Lila remarks, doing the same. “AJ. Vote for Shuri. She’s smarter than Tony anyway.”

AJ looks a little thrown, looking over to Shuri for reassurance. “You’re going to get all of us out?”

Shuri gives him a reassuring smile. “You bet.”

AJ rallies himself, casting his vote for Shuri too. “Good job,” Lila whispers to him.

Peter throws his vote Shuri’s way too, as the klaxon sounds. “I trust you.”

“You’d better, white boy.” Shuri’s spotlight turns red. “Keep doing the tie-breakers. Give me as much time as possible.” Then she and T’Challa are gone too. Half the spotlights are extinguished now, the darkness growing even more oppressive

There’s a sob and a sniff from Peter’s right, and his heart breaks a little at seeing AJ trying to hold himself together. “Nearly there,” Lila promises him. “You and your mom are going to be fine, AJ, I promise.” She looks over to Harley. “I think we should get you and Tony out next. Give Shuri all the help we can.”

Peter doesn’t miss the look of relief that crosses Harley’s face, even as the older boy tries to hide it. Something loosens a little in Peter’s chest too. None of them are going to die, that’s not going to happen, but he still relaxes a little at the idea of taking Tony off the chopping block.

“Of course that’s who you choose,” Flash scoffs. He’s still wiggling his foot in Peter’s webs, but it’s stuck fast.

Harley glares at him. “You suggested Tony last round!”

“No,” Flash counters. “I was making a point. That you’re going to prioritize all your superhero friends and leave us ‘worthless’ people to figure out who has to take that last spot ourselves.”

“There isn’t going to be a last spot!” Peter retorts. “Also, this argument coming from the guy who said ‘let’s kill MJ’s granddad because he’s the oldest’? Really?”

Flash ignores him. “AJ.”

“Don’t you dare,” Lila growls at him.

“You know I’m right,” Flash presses.

“Stop talking to him!” Lila snaps. “What is that even going to achieve?”

“Oh, so you don’t want to save the now traumatized ten-year-old who’s worried about his ‘useless’ mom dying in front of him?”

That makes AJ cry harder, and Flash is damn lucky that Lila doesn’t have her bow in her hands right now. “We need to choose what’s best for the group,” Lila reminds Flash. “To maximize all our chances of getting out ok. Get on board with that already.”

“Easy to say when you have an Avenger standing behind you, which apparently makes you more valuable than the people who don’t.”

Lila finally loses it. “I had a chance to get my dad out, asshole! I could have gone instead of Cassie. It was me who suggested you choose her instead, because her dad had a more useful skillset than mine did to help us. But I chose to stay. I chose to risk my person. Because I want all of us to live, instead of manipulating ten-year-olds into saving my own skin.”

“It’s not just my skin!” Flash snaps. “It’s my …” He flicks his eyes behind him again and then, to Peter’s surprise, aims his next words at him. “Don’t laugh.”

“I can’t find a single funny thing in this situation right now,” Peter counters.

Flash swallows, color creeping into his cheeks. “She’s my nanny. Ok? Her name’s Fen.” He glares out at all of them. “And before any of you start off with she’s worth less than your guardians or something because she’s not related to me, or that I don’t care about her as much as I would a blood relative, I’ll point out that both my parents are alive and kicking and yet whoever set this up chose her. She has even less to do with whatever this is than I do and I’m not letting her die just because she doesn’t have a use.”

“No one is saying that, Flash,” Peter replies, even as something starts in his gut as the other boy’s words. He can still hear AJ crying quietly, trying to hide it from them.

“Listen,” Harley tells Flash. “I know what it’s like to have someone look after you who isn’t a parent. That bond isn’t worth any less than a blood one. But that’s not how we’re choosing who to vote for here. I’m not saying Tony and I should go next because we’re worth more, I’m saying we should go next because -”

“Flash isn’t wrong.”

Harley cuts off, staring at Peter like he’s just grown an extra head. “You did not just say that.”

Flash whirls around to face Peter, eyes wide as he senses the escape coming. “Really? You’ll let me and Fen leave next?”

“This isn’t about you,” Peter retorts. The sting of seeing Flash vote for MJ hasn’t abated. “But I am saying that maybe just going purely by ‘most useful’ isn’t fair either. There’s more at play here - like the fact that two pairs of people in this room…” He feels May behind him again. “Two and a half pairs of people in this room signed up for a life that includes these kinds of situations. And two pairs didn’t. Isn't it part of our bond as heroes to rescue civilians first?”

“Yes,” Flash agrees immediately. “That’s exactly what I’ve been saying.”

“Which is why we should vote for AJ,” Peter finishes. “He shouldn’t be here. He’s too young for this kind of thing. And his mother has nothing to do with this except for being Captain America’s sister.”

“Wait,” Flash blinks, staring at AJ. “You’re related to Captain America?”

Peter ignores him. “He’s young. He’s scared. Let’s get him home.”

“No,” Lila says flatly. “I’m sorry AJ, I am. But we should vote for Flash.”

Flash starts, as though he’s sure he’s misheard. Peter’s not far behind. “Lila?” Peter says. “We’re voting for people to save, remember?”

“Oh, I know,” Lila says coolly. “I also know that Shuri asked for as much time as we can give her. And I know that we can’t vote for ourselves. We don’t know how long it’s going to take Shuri to get us out, but it could well be long enough that it comes down to two people. And as those two people will have to vote for each other, there’s no way to pick a winner. So I’m guessing the final round of the game is meant to be who jumps off their circle first.”

Peter swallows, seeing the picture Lila is painting. “We’re going to be left with two people who might need to wait out those final two minutes,” he finishes. “To give Shuri as much time as possible.” He looks at Flash’s webbed foot. The boy is still fighting it, and the minimal amount of web fluid Peter had left is looking like it’s starting to weaken. Peter has no idea if it will hold all the way to the final round.

“One of those last two people can’t be Flash,” Lila points out. “He’ll save himself the moment he can. He won’t give Shuri the time she needs to work to save the last person and their guardian.”

Peter pictures the clock counting down, trying to stay still with May’s life on the line. From the look on everyone else’s faces, they’re thinking the exact same thing. “AJ shouldn’t be one of the final two people either,” Harley states. “That’s not fair to put that kind of pressure on him.”

The klaxon starts to sound, and Peter’s heart rate jumps. The countdown’s begun, and they haven’t chosen yet.

Lila shoves her wrist out. “I’m voting for the idiot over there. He’s just going to compromise things for the rest of us if he stays.”

“I’m going to vote for him too.” Everyone looks at AJ, who has his own shaking fist out, looking tearfully at Flash. “I am related to Captain America. He’s my uncle. I can be brave like him.”

“I’m sure you can,” Harley assures him. “But you shouldn’t have to be. I vote AJ. He shouldn’t be here.”

“Peter,” Flash pleads. “Come on. The girl’s right, I’m just going to mess things up for you, you’ll have a better chance if I’m not in your way.”

Peter puts his hand out, and makes up his mind. “No one is dying. Doesn’t matter if they’re related to an Avenger or not.” He looks to Flash. “I will keep you and Fen alive. I promise.” Then, to the group at large. “I vote for AJ too.”

Flash curses, then twists his hand just as the countdown ends. “I vote for Peter then.”

The klaxon ends, and both AJ and Flash’s spotlights light up gold.

“Bastard,” Lila spits at him. “You split the vote.”

“The bossy girl told us to! I’m doing what you guys wanted!”

“What I want is for you to get out of here as soon as possible so you don’t screw everything up!” Lila doesn’t move her hand. “I vote for Flash again. He needs to go.”

“I still vote for AJ,” Harley counters. “Flash can suck it up and get with the program. I’m not putting a little kid through another second of this.”

Everyone in the room looks to Peter. The deciding vote here is his.

“Peter,” Flash tries again, but Harley’s faster.

“No. Peter doesn’t even need to vote.” Harley turns to AJ. “Just step off the circle, AJ. It’s ok - go.”

“What?” Flash looks down at his own webbed foot, not yet weakened enough for him to escape. “That’s not fair!”

AJ is frozen, with no idea what to do.

“Go,” Harley prompts him. “It’s fine, AJ. Just step off the circle.”

But AJ shakes his head. “Flash is right,” he says, voice small. “It isn’t fair. It should be everyone’s choice.”

“Think about your mom -” Harley starts, but Lila cuts him off.

“Don’t. Don’t you dare put that on his shoulders.” It’s too late though - the words have hit hard, and AJ starts crying anew.

“She’s right, you know.” Flash is pointing at Lila, but he’s looking at Peter. “About me messing it up. I will. Best to get rid of me now.”

“Nice,” Harley glares at him.

“Accurate though,” Lila argues. “Vote him out, Peter. Then we can get Harley and Tony out to help Shuri, then AJ, then you and me can do the final two minutes.” She keeps her head resolutely forward through the last past, very deliberately not looking back at Clint as she says it.

“I don’t…I don’t know!” Peter lowers his hand, all too aware of the precious seconds ticking away until a choice has to be made. Every sob AJ’s making pulls at his heart, but he turns to Flash. “You’d seriously sabotage us. Really?”

“He voted for your girlfriend,” Lila points out. “Didn’t give a crap about her. Only himself.”

“That’s not true!” Flash shoots back. “It’s not just me! It’s -” He breaks off with a hitched breath, burying his face in his hands. “None of you understand! What she’s done for me. What she means to me. It’s not fair that she’s here!”

“None of us understand.” Harley’s voice has gone deadly. “Really? None of us understand?”

Flash lifts his head, eyes bright. “She’s a good person. She’s not- she’s not like me, I promise. She doesn’t deserve this.”

“What, and you think the rest of the people in this room do?”

“I can’t lose her!” Flash shouts back at him. “She’s the only person I have left!”

“I mean, that wouldn’t matter, because you’d both be dead,” Lila points out.

“Not helping,” Peter quiets her. “And no one is dying.”

Harley isn’t done with Flash. “You want to know why whoever set this up chose Tony for me? And no, it’s not because I’m his biological kid. To be honest, we weren’t even that close until after the Blip. It’s because if the criteria was guardian, then Tony’s the closest thing I have. Because my mom’s dead. Barely a month ago. Cancer. Don’t get me started on my dad.”

Something like confusion crosses Flash’s face. “I don’t - what?”

“You want to yell at us about only having one person left?” Harley gestures behind him. “I get one last adult in my life who gives a crap about me. And he’s up for execution too, Flash.”

Flash doesn’t back down. “Yeah. And we already said we’re getting him out. That’s pretty much a guarantee that you’re both going to be fine. It’s not the same.”

“Ok,” Harley counters, then points a finger at Peter. “What about him?”

“Harley, don’t,” Peter tries to warn, but Harley’s not stopping now.

“What about Peter?” Flash asks, cautious.

“You want to shout at us about how awful it would be to lose a guardian? How none of us understand? When you’re standing right next to someone who has not only lost three, but hasn’t put him or his aunt forward as a voting option since we started. None of us have.”

Flash goes white. “I didn’t- I didn’t mean- ” He swallows, looking around at them all. “You don’t under-“ He cuts off, tries again. “Fen saved me. I can’t even describe- I have to save her back. And I thought -”

“That you’d appeal to Peter to save you?” Harley finishes. “I’ve known Peter long enough to know who you are, Flash Thompson. Little late to start being nice to him now.”

Flash trembles, staring at his shoes. “Not Peter,” he mumbles, so low that Peter almost misses it. “Spider-Man.”

Peter looks down at the Spider-Man suit. He’d almost forgotten he was wearing it. “Flash…”

“You’re my freakin’ hero, do you know that?” Flash continues. “Spider-Man, always there to save the day. I always figured if I was in trouble…I don’t know, it was a comfort. Knowing Spider-Man would save us.”

“Except you’re not the only person who needs saving,” Lila reminds him. “You say Spider-Man’s your hero? Then act like it. Do what he’s doing right now.”

“Flash,” Peter prompts, mouth dry. “Look at AJ.”

Flash peers up, seeing the crying kid standing across from him.

“Come on, man,” Peter says. “I want to vote for him. But if you really meant what you said about trying to sabotage the rest of us in the next few rounds, then I’ll send you out instead.”

The klaxon begins.

“Flash,” Peter tries again. “This isn’t about Spider-Man saving everyone right now. It’s about all of us working together to save each other. I need your help here.”

Flash swallows, then laughs wetly. “Spider-Man needs my help. Wow. That’s a moment.”

“Yeah. Big time. We’re all going to be ok, I promise.”

Flash nods. Sucks in a breath. Then - “Ok. Vote AJ.”

With a second to go, Peter twists his first right, and AJ’s spotlight lights up red. AJ bursts into tears in sheer relief, looking up at Flash. “Thank you.”

Something crosses Flash’s face that Peter’s never seen there before, and then it’s only Peter, Flash, Harley, Lila and their respective guardians remaining.

“Ok,” Peter breathes, then clears his throat and tries again. “Ok. Our goal now is to give Shuri as much time as possible. We’re going to split the next vote between Harley and someone else, wait that full two minutes, and then Harley and Tony are going to go help Shuri.”

“Who do we split with?” Lila asks.

Before anyone can answer, a voice echoes down from above. "Peter! I really hope you can hear me."

Peter jerks his head to the ceiling. “Shuri?”

"I’ve managed to remove the sound dampener from this side," Shuri’s saying. "None of us up here will be able to hear you, but your hearing should be able to pick up my voice now."

“What’s she saying?” Harley asks, but Peter shushes him, focusing on trying to hear Shuri. Even with his enhanced hearing, he has to strain to catch the words.

"We’re ok,"  Shuri continues. "But none of the people who were unconscious in the room are waking up."

Peter’s heart jolts. They’re not waking up? At all?

"They’ll be fine,"  Shuri assures him. "We just can’t wake them up here, which changes the plan. I can see what needs to be done, but I need you or Harley - preferably both - on the inside to help."

Peter’s stomach sinks. They’re not getting Tony out next round after all, and the selfish part of him he’s been trying to suppress since this whole ordeal started hates that change in plans.

“The guardians aren’t waking up when they get out of the room,” Peter explains, deliberately not looking at Harley when he says it. “Shuri thinks they’re going to be ok eventually, but -”

“But there’s no point getting Tony out next,” Harley finishes.

“And we need to stay.” Peter makes himself lock eyes with Harley. “Shuri needs help on the inside, and we’ve got the most engineering experience. It has to be us.”

Harley takes a moment to absorb that. “Fine. Lila and Clint next then.”

Flash opens his mouth as if to argue, then closes it again, gritting his teeth.

Peter has to fight to keep his breath steady. It’s happening - the very position Cassie warned him not to get himself into. It’s going to come down to May or Tony. Except it’s not. Because they’re all going to live.

“Let’s start by splitting the vote,” Peter says. “Get ourselves an extra two minutes. Flash and Lila - vote for each other.”

Lila does so, even though it’s with obvious distaste, watching Flash’s wrist movements the whole time. “I’m voting for you,” Flash insists.

“Yeah, yeah,” Lila replies, clearly disbelieving. “Still not over the MJ thing, if we’re being honest.”

Harley raises his fist. “I’m voting for Lila. What?” he says off Peter’s look. “I’m not voting for the douchebag over there, even if we are splitting the vote.”

“Fine.” Peter votes for Flash. It’s the quickest decision they’ve come to so far, and it makes the two-minute countdown somehow even worse now that they have to wait it out without having anything to talk about during. Peter can’t find where to look, that mental block refusing that he turn around to see May. A small of him worries that if he sees her, he’s going to crack. He’s going to step off his circle and leave the others if it means she’s safe and out of harm’s way. So he doesn’t look, but looking straight ahead isn’t an option either, because then he can see Tony instead.

It feels so wrong, seeing his mentor so still and inactive. He’s usually always a hive of activity, with at least one screen going or moving them from place to place, unable to stay still for more than a few minutes at a time except when he’s buried in a project - which works for Peter, as that’s something they have in common. He can look to either side, but on his right is Lila and Clint, and on his left is a still teary Flash with an innocent woman a few yards behind him.

In the end, Peter elects to look at his shoes, so he doesn’t have to see anyone until the klaxon finishes sounding, and Flash and Lila are both bathed in blinding gold.

“Ok,” Lila says, still glaring at Flash. “You got your wish. You get to go.”

“Lila,” Harley starts.

“He’s a civilian,” Lila reminds him. “So is his nanny. Fen. They should go next.”

“No.” Flash raises his head, eyes closed, looking like it takes every ounce of strength for him to say, “Choose Lila.”

“What?” Harley’s shock turns to suspicion. “You trying to pull something?”

Flash shakes his head. “Early on, we said. We said. Youngest first.” He manages to open his eyes. “She’s just a kid. She’s barely older than the other- than AJ. If we said he should go, so should she.”

Lila blinks at him. “It’s a trick. This is a trick.”

“It’s not!” Flash shouts at her, then reels it in, looking to Peter. “I’m sorry. About Michelle. That was- I panicked. That’s all it was, I swear, I didn’t mean to. So let me…” He gestures to Lila. “Let the little girl save her dad.”

For a moment it looks like Lila’s going to argue, like she has been this entire time. Instead her lip trembles, tears forming, and Peter is suddenly forcefully reminded that he was at her thirteenth birthday party only a few weeks ago. The tears spill over, and for the first time since the ordeal started, Lila Barton looks her age. “Dad always taught me civilians first,” she whispers, voice wet. “I can’t- He wouldn’t want me to -”

“Lila,” Harley says softly. “If it was just him, probably. But I think if Clint was awake and had a say, he would have chosen you to go first.”

Lila breaks down properly now, the stress of the situation destroying the rest of the strong facade. “I do want to go,” she sobs. “I’ve wanted to go since the beginning. I want my dad to be ok.”

“Then go,” Flash prompts her, trying for a smile. “Save him.”

The klaxon sounds. A few seconds remaining. Lila pulls herself together a bit, glaring at all of them. “The rest of you better get out. Or else…or else.”

“Right behind you,” Peter promises. “You’ve been so brave. Clint is going to be beyond proud of you. Now get him out of here.”

Lila nods, takes a breath, and then steps out of her circle.

“And then there were three,” Harley mutters. “So how are we doing this?”

“Three-way tie,” Peter decides. “I vote for Flash, Flash votes for Harley, Harley votes for me. The room will choose two for us to vote between, but Flash can just step out of his circle.”

“Um,” Flash wiggles his webbed foot. “Not sure that’s going to work.”

“Here.” Peter digs in his suit for his web solvent, tossing it to Flash, who catches it, surprised.

“Peter,” Harley hisses. “You should have waited!”

Peter locks eyes with Flash. “It’s fine. He’s not going to use it until the last minute - right?”

Flash takes in a shaky breath, but nods. “No. I’ll stay.”

“Good. So until then…”

Peter.

Peter holds up his hands for the others to be quiet. “Shuri’s talking.”

"You better be able to hear me. Alright, I know the way out. Going to walk you through it now."

“She’s figured out how to get us out,” Peter announces, feeling a good chunk of the tension in the room lift at the words.

"I’m doing some rewiring outside, but you’re going to need to do some on your circle too. Harley too, if he can."

Peter’s already crouching down, indicating Harley to do the same.

"I can’t shut it down,"  Shuri’s explaining. "Not with the time we have. But what we can do is rewire it to work in a way that it’s not supposed to. It’ll overload the entire system and that will shut it down. Now - follow my instructions. Symbol to your left. One that kind of looks like pi - press on it as hard as you can."

“Press on the pi-looking symbol,” Peter relays to Harley. “Really hard.”

Harley nods, spotting the correct symbol. Peter places a palm down on it and forces it, not with full strength at first just in case Shuri meant as hard as a regular person could. When nothing happens, he forces harder, and then even harder that that, until the symbol sinks into the circle around him.

“Woah,” Peter breathes. He peers down into the exposed wiring.

“How’d you do that?” Harley demands, trying to follow suit.

“Super-strength.”

“Figures.” Harley stands up, clearly frustrated, but doesn’t press it, letting Peter focus instead.

"Hopefully you can see the wires now,"  Shuri says. "Now do exactly as I say, and let’s get you guys home."

Peter’s so absorbed in the work that he barely notices when the klaxon sounds and Harley and Flash’s spotlights turn gold. He’s vaguely aware of Harley reminding Flash to stay right until the end, when they get their warning alarm, but other than that he’s entirely focused on what Shuri’s saying until - “Peter.”

Peter finally glances up, locking eyes with Flash.

“Thank you,” Flash says. “And sorry again. For Michelle. For all of it.”

“Tell her yourself.”

Flash nods, then steps out of his circle, just leaving Peter and Harley remaining in the game.

Peter’s distantly aware of Harley’s nervous shifting, but only pauses to throw his last vote Harley’s way. This is it. It’s so close, right down to the wire, but they’re going to make it. They’re going to do this. Everyone is walking out of this.

"Final step," Shuri says, and Peter’s heart leaps. "See that wire with the weird ridges along it? Like spikes? You’re going to take that and -"

The klaxon sounds, and Peter panics as it drowns out Shuri’s final instruction, only for that panic to increase tenfold as the exposed wiring beneath him vanishes, the symbol snapping back into place, looking completely untouched.

“No. No!”

“What happened?” Harley demands.

Peter shoves his palm against the pi-like symbol again, but it’s not budging. “No. Open. Open!”

“Peter…”

Peter’s head jerks up as his spotlight turns gold. So does Harley’s. And Shuri’s voice is gone.

“No.” Peter slams his fist into the symbol, and then into every single symbol in the circle. “No. We were getting out. We were all getting out!”

“Peter!”

Peter raises his head, sees Harley’s panicked face. “It’s not working,” Peter breathes, horrified. “I don’t know- I can’t hear Shuri- I don’t know what happened!”

Harley whirls around, looking desperately at Tony before glancing over Peter’s shoulder at May. “Peter. We…we have to…”

He can’t say it. Neither can Peter. But they both know it.

It’s time to make the final choice.

“What if we both step off at the exact same time?” Harley suggests. “Maybe -”

“It won’t be exact,” Peter argues. “Even if it’s by milliseconds, someone is going to hit the ground outside their circle first.”

“Oh god,” Harley breathes. “Oh, god. Two of us are really going to die.”

Peter’s right there with him. If it was just him there, alone, it would be easy - he’d tell Harley to take Tony and go - but it’s not just him. If he sacrifices himself, he takes May with him. May.

Harley’s face is wet now, Peter not far behind. “I’m sorry,” Harley’s saying. “I’d- I’d stay but- ”

But Tony.

But May.

Peter squeezes his eyes tight shut, trying desperately to think of some way out of this where none of them die.

“You’re fast,” Harley suggests. “Really fast. What if you just- I don’t know- I don’t know!”

Peter doesn’t either.

“Maybe the last two people don’t die,” Harley suggests desperately. “We don’t know that. We don’t know that.”

They don’t know that. And yet they do. It’s the point of the game.

The point of the game.

The point of -

“Harley.” Peter straightens up, mind racing. “Why are they doing this?”

Harley looks at him like he’s gone crazy. “You think that matters right now?”

“Yes!” Peter shoves his brain into overdrive, trying to reach the solution he knows is there. “Children of Thanos. But Thanos’s whole thing wasn’t just massacring people. It was reducing populations. It had a point.”

Harley opens his mouth, then shuts again, trying to keep as calm as he can given the circumstances. “So what’s the point of this? Not just, I don’t know, sadistic entertainment?”

Peter shakes his head. “Imagine you want to reduce populations. But you improve upon Thanos’s plan. It’s not random. You want to choose specific people. But you don’t know what specific people need to be saved. What would you do?”

Harley’s eyes go wide in realization. “You’d gather data.”

“This whole time,” Peter breathes. "This whole time. That’s exactly what we’ve been giving them. Valuing certain lives over others. Choosing who should and shouldn’t be saved. Based on survival tactics, skillsets, age. That’s what this machine is measuring. And maybe if we can’t manually rewire it to work a way it shouldn’t -”

“Maybe we do it ourselves,” Harley finishes. He swallows, tries to calm his panicked breaths. “We don’t choose.”

“We don’t choose,” Peter confirms. “Both of us stay.”

Harley’s breath hitches, clinging to the last vestiges of resolve as he looks over his shoulder at Tony. “And what if it doesn’t work? What if it just kills all four of us? At least if one of us goes, we’re guaranteed to save two of us.”

“I know,” Peter replies. “But that’s how it expects us to act.”

Harley licks his lips, breathing hard through his nose. “You really think this is going to work?”

Peter almost says yes. Offers the comfort Harley is so clearly fishing for. But he’s not lying, not now, so instead he says, “I have no idea. But I’m also done trying to put values on our friends’ lives. Aren’t you?”

Harley takes that in. Weighs it. Then nods. “Yes. We don’t trade lives.”

“We don’t trade lives,” Peter agrees, as the klaxon, the final countdown, begins.

“So we’re agreed,” Peter calls out over it. “We stay.”

“We stay.” Harley nods, shifting his feet, planting them firmly in his circle. “No one’s life is worth more than anyone else’s.” He lifts his head. “Hear that, sadist alien assholes? We’re all worth the same!”

The klaxon is ringing on, approaching the end. Peter and Harley lock eyes, bracing themselves.

Please, Peter finds himself thinking. Please work. Please don’t kill any of them. Please.

Just as the final alarm sounds, he has a moment of weakness. He could just go. Step off. Save May. Save himself. Get at least two of them out of this.

From the way Harley’s leg twitches, Peter’s sure Harley has the exact same thought.

But Harley doesn’t move.

And neither does Peter.

Both remain in their circles as the final alarm bell rings.

The game is over.

 


 

"Whose idea was it to have a freaking games night?”

Harley leans against the wall where Peter’s currently loitering, offering him a Barton Farm home-brewed cider from the stack of them currently chilling in the fridge, the door of which is slowly being filled up with postcards from Wanda and Vision’s honeymoon. Peter takes the bottle, looking out at the range of games currently scattered across the Bartons’ living room carpet. “Yeah. I think I’m done with games for a while. Or forever. Forever sounds good.”

“Same here.” Harley takes a sip of his own cider. The house is mostly empty with it being such a beautiful evening outside. The living room window gives a perfect view into the backyard, and for the past few minutes Peter has just been watching.

Watching Clint and Scott argue lightheartedly over the best way to barbecue. Rhodey and Happy chatting with Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne over beers. Watching Laura pass Nate to MJ to bounce on her knee as T’Challa talks politics with her and Betty, while Ned and Cassie are tag-teaming entertaining Cooper, AJ, Cass and Morgan. Lila can be spotted in the background, currently in a BB gun shoot-off with Bucky which Sam has insisted on supervising, which in turn had Natasha insisting on supervising Sam’s supervision. She had originally pulled Steve alongside her, but he has since vanished along with Sharon with a line about making up for lost time. Peter is sure Bucky is letting Lila win, although he’s rather distracted as he flirts with Sarah in between shots. Thor has introduced Jane to Hope and Valkyrie, who are in an animated conversation with Pepper and Darcy, while Erik, Shuri and Bruce seem to be in some kind of heated scientific discussion. Probably solving all the world’s problems at once.

And there, in the far back, laughing over ciders on the picnic table, May and Tony are talking. Peter doesn’t know what they’re talking about. It doesn’t matter. They both look happy. They’re both safe.

Harley follows Peter’s gaze, seeing what he’s looking at. “I need to tell you something.”

“Go for it, man."

Harley looks down into his cider. “Right at the end,” he mutters. “I thought about... You know.”

Peter nods. “Me too. But you didn’t.”

“You didn’t either.” Harley nods, as though Peter’s answered a question. “Ok. Good to know. And it worked. Machine broken."

"Machine broken,"  Peter repeats. "Guess it didn't know what to do when we stopped choosing who was more valuable." 

"Where is it now?"

"Wakanda. Shuri's breaking it down so we never have to see or think about it again. Or be even more prepared for if they come back."

"Are they coming back?" Harley asks quietly.

Peter bites his lip. He wants to say no, to be reassuring, especially after those last few awful moments before he realized that everyone was safe. He'd still refused to believe it, even as May and Tony had finally woken up, confused and disorientated. He still hadn't believed it even as Shuri had told them that she was going to activate the teleportation circles, taking them to where their friends were having their own tearful reunions. Peter had just gotten a glimpse of Sarah Wilson comforting a crying AJ next to where Cassie had sandwiched herself between Scott and Clint, Clint's other arm wrapped tightly around Lila, before he was being slammed into from both sides as MJ and Ned had run to embrace him. Even then, Peter hadn't dared to believe they were safe.

He hadn't believed it until Shuri had shown them out of the alien pod they were being kept in and he had gotten his first glimpse of blue, clear skies.

"All we know is that they're not on Earth," Peter said finally. "That makes them the Guardians' targets now. If Captain Danvers doesn't find them first." He tightens his hands on his cider. "But they are gone. And they're not our responsibility anymore."

"Yeah, I think it's fair to say that we did our part. And it's over now."

"It's over now," Peter agrees, surprised to find that he means it. "We did it."

"We did it," Harley agrees. "All of us. Surprisingly. Speaking of - have you heard from Flash?”

“Kind of. We still go to school together.”

“Are you guys…” Harley seesaws his hand. “Well, not ok, because you guys have never been ok, but…you know.”

Peter nods. “I don’t think I’ll ever forgive him for voting for MJ on purpose. But he’s not going to reveal to the world I’m Spider-Man so, you know. That’s something.”

“Yeah, because Tony would sue his ass six ways from Sunday if he tried.” Harley finishes his cider. “And thanks. For not…you know.”

“We don’t trade lives.”

“We don’t trade lives,” Harley agrees. His eyes slide past Peter onto the mess of abandoned games. “Oh hey, UNO. I can’t remember the last time I saw a pack. You game, Parker?”

Peter goes back to window-watching. He just wants a little longer to take it all in. “Maybe in a bit?”

“Alright.” Harley claps him on the shoulder. “I’ll see if any of the little ones want to play.”

Peter continues looking out the window long after Harley’s left. They’re all here, happy, safe, alive. He takes a moment to savor that, to tuck that image away for keeping, and then goes outside to join his family.

Chapter Text

The photo is everywhere.

“It was CPR,” Peter protests to MJ for the umpteenth time that morning. “I was soaking wet. Beside a river. Tangled in a parachute. How are people not getting this?”

To her credit, MJ hasn’t told Peter to stop repeating himself, even as Peter makes the same points over and over again. “We get that,” MJ insists. “It’s just magazines trying to make a quick buck off a stupid rumor. It’ll go away in a few days.”

But a few days pass, and it doesn’t.

“Have you talked to Tony about it?” MJ presses.

Peter shakes his head. “He says we should keep our distance until it blows over, even as just Peter and Tony. With. You know. What people are saying.”

The picture has since passed from front-page tabloid news into meme territory, and it’s rapidly becoming clear that it’s not going away any time soon. “At least people don’t know Spider-Man is you,” MJ attempts to comfort him. “I mean, they know Spider-Man is young, what with your voice and everything, but -”

“What’s wrong with my voice?”

“- they don’t know he’s young young. Or, that you’re young. You know what I mean.”

“They still saying Tony’s cheating on Pepper with a guy, like, thirty years younger than him,” Peter snaps, then reels it back it. “Sorry. Shouldn’t be taking it out on you.”

He shoves his phone in his locker with the rest of his textbooks, grabbing his gym bag instead. He doesn’t even want to open any of his devices anymore. He’s either getting concerned messages from the rest of the team or new articles about Tony and Pepper rallying to try and fix a problem he created, and he can’t get on a single social media site without seeing the stupid photo-turned-meme. The one of Peter laid out on the side of Hudson River, a parachute still wrapped around his limbs, the bottom half of his mask pulled up with Tony’s mouth on his.

“It was CRP,” Peter mutters. “Obviously.”

“Obviously,” MJ agrees.

“The life-saving kind of CRP,” Peter presses, reflecting how he had somehow managed to nearly drown via a parachute and river combination twice in one lifetime.

“I think you’re forgetting the most important part.” MJ swings her gym bag over her shoulder as they start to make their way to class. “Which is that there is a parasailing enthusiast who would be rather dead if you hadn’t swung in to save him.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Peter sighs. “Still. Why couldn’t he have been the one Tony gave CRP to?”

“Because you always prioritizing others over saving yourself so you’re the one who ended up in the river? You know what really happened,” MJ adds. “So does everyone whose opinion matters. Who cares what people so bored with their own lives that they believe rumors like that think?”

“Yeah, I know,” Peter says, trying to convince himself as much as MJ. “I know. You’re right. I - damnit!”

“You good?”

“I forgot my shoes. Cover for me?”

“If I absolutely must. And if you run.”

Peter doesn’t so much run as walk at a brisk pace back to his locker, caught between not wanting a tardy slip and relishing the idea of cutting off a few minutes of gym time. Gym had sucked before the spider bite, when Flash or whatever wannabe jock of the week had constantly ridiculed him for barely passing the lowest of bars. Now he has to face the same humiliation, except knowing that he could rub it in their stupid faces. He won’t, of course. But he could.

He’s just retrieved his shoes and is closing his locker when he hears it. “But, are you even surprised though?”

Peter freezes. There’s no reason to think they’re talking about him and Tony. Except for the fact that the school hasn’t talked about anything else all week.

“Nah, I reckon this was always coming,” a second girl replies. Peter strains his ears, catching three heartbeats. Risking a glimpse, he sees three sophomores he doesn’t know very well, skipping class without a care as they hang around the water fountain. “I mean, haven’t you guys always found Tony Stark a little, I don’t know…gross?”

“Totally,” the first girl says. “He literally bragged at every opportunity about how many people he’d slept with. He was known for treating women like absolute trash. I’m kind of surprised that he hasn’t been canceled already.”

Peter swallows, fighting not to rise to the bait. MJ’s right. Who cares what these people think?

“He hasn’t been canceled because his press team is too good,” the second voice insists. “But come on, you know all of those women can’t have been consensual. And now he’s sleeping with young boys, it’s hardly a stretch. Besides, isn’t Spider-Man like Iron Man’s protégée or something?”

“That’s one word for it,” the first voice says. “But I all think we know the better word and it’s grooming. Poor Spidey, I hope this is a wake-up call for him. Or at least the rest of the Avengers. They’d better do something about Stark after this.”

“Guys, don’t think I’m horrible,” a third voice joins in. “Because I agree with everything you’re saying but…I don’t know, it is awful to still think he’s kind of sexy?”

The first two girls squeal in equal parts shock and delight as color flares right up to Peter’s ears.

“He’s like fifty,” the first girl says with mock horror.

“So what?” the third girl replies. “That just means tons of experience. Bet he’d let me call him Daddy and everything.”

Peter’s heard enough. He slams the locker door shut, making the three girls behind him shriek. “Tony’s not like that,” he rounds on them. “I know plenty of men in positions like that are, I know it’s a problem, but Tony’s not one of them. And you talking about him that way is not ok.”

The tallest girl eyes him up and down. “And who the hell are you?”

“That’s the kid who works at Stark Industries,” the girl to her left answers in a stage whisper. “As an intern.”

She makes the word sound dirty, and Peter flushes at the implication, realizing that he’s possibly just made things worse. “I’ve never met even Tony Stark,” he tries to cover.

“Really?” the tall girl challenges him. “You were defending him pretty intensely right now.”

Peter tries to backpedal. “Just…word like that spreads pretty fast, and I’ve never heard a thing while I’ve been working there. And Pepper Potts has a zero-tolerance against sexual harassment at SI, against any gender - look it up.”

The sophomores' leader isn’t giving up yet. “Bet it’s a cover-up,” she retorts. “For all the things her husband has apparently being getting up to while her back is -”

“What are you lot doing out of class?” A classroom door has swung open without any of them noticing, a bemused Mr Harrington poking his head out. “You three,” he nods at the girls. “Hall passes?”

They freeze, deer in headlights. Peter takes the escape route, grabbing his backpack from his locker and heading for the door.

“Peter?” Mr Harrington calls after him. “You ok?”

“Um, family emergency!” Peter calls back, praying that Mr Harrington likes him enough to buy it. The teacher calls after him, in concern rather than anger, but Peter is already out the front doors, not sure where’s going except away.

 


 

Peter doesn’t end up going back to May’s. His aunt is still at work, and Peter doesn’t want to face an empty apartment, so he heads to the Tower instead. He fires off a couple of quick replies to MJ’s and Ned’s concerned texts and tells them not to worry, and then rides the elevator up to his room only to realize that he doesn’t want to be there either.

He doesn’t really know what he wants. A part of him wants to talk to someone about it; a part of him wants to purge it from his mind as though it never happened. He wants to back out of the place in his head this whole mess has unlocked and throw away the key. But now he knows that place is there and he can’t ignore it.

Peter ends up in the gym, more due to nervous energy than actually wanting to run through a workout. He flies through the obstacle course a few times anyway, not even pausing when he sees a shape drop through the ceiling vents.

He finishes his lap, flipping back to the main floor to see a vaguely concerned Clint Barton watching him. “You trying to set a new record there, Spider-Kid?”

“Yelena can’t hold it forever.” Peter catches the water bottle Clint throws at him, then gestures at the course. “Did you want it?”

“Nah, I’m good.”

Peter waits for him to say something out, maybe pick out another corner of the gym or head to the range, but he doesn’t, and Peter realizes. “Ah, crap. You’re here for a talk, aren’t you?”

“Only if you want me to be.”

Peter fidgets a little, still on the fence about between wanting to talk versus wanting distraction. He stalls instead. “Why would you think I need to talk?”

“Because I learned today that Tony isn’t talking to you, so someone has to. And the way you were tearing through that course confirms it.”

Peter looks away. “Tony’s not…not talking to me. He just says we should keep our distance until the whole Spider-Man/Iron Man thing blows over.” Even saying it out loud makes him wrinkle his nose, just as the full implications of what happened at school hit him. The way the girl had said intern. It hadn’t been hard to guess what she meant by that. What others might infer from it, if they saw Tony and Peter together right now, and Tony had been working so hard in the press and Peter had screwed it up with one stupid outburst.

“Ok, let’s sit down,” Clint decides, steering Peter onto one of the resting benches around the sides of the gym. “Why don’t we start from the beginning, yeah?”

Peter runs Clint through the overheard conversation at school, how he’d jumped in. “They’re going to spread rumors now, aren’t they? About me and…about the internship. That’s the exact thing Tony’s been trying to avoid.”

Clint’s been fiddling with what looks like an old hair tie the entire time Peter’s been talking. He stretches it out now, before letting it ping back around one finger. “And that’s been uncomfortable for you, yeah? People talking about you like that?” His eyes narrow a little. “No one on the team has been teasing you for it, have they? I know Sam and Bucky like to get under your skin.”

Peter quickly shakes his head. “No, nothing like that.”

“Alright, that’s a good start.” Clint bites his lip, considering. “Look, this kind of stuff - press and media attention - not my bag. But teenagers I am starting to get a hold on, now Cooper and Lila are growing up. And I know stuff around sex and bodies is uncomfortable enough without every clickbait article commenting on it every second of the day.”

Peter shuffles his feet. “It’s not…I mean I don’t love that part. But that’s not really what got to me.” He suddenly realizes he doesn’t know what to do with his hands, and Clint pushes the hair tie into them.

“Don’t worry if you break it. I got loads.”

“I - why? Your hair’s short.”

“Natasha’s isn’t.” Clint leans forward, making a go on gesture.

Peter starts twisting the hair tie around his fingers. It’s surprisingly grounding. “I didn’t like…how they were talking about Tony.”

Clint’s expression morphs from surprised to gentle understanding. “Ah. I see.”

“It’s not…” Peter twists the hair tie harder. “I mean, I know there’s a lot of bad men out there in power. I know they’re a big threat, especially to women. I don’t want to invalidate that. But they were saying things like…like accusing him of stuff and then they said…” But the words stop there. He can’t say it. "It was gross. The way they were talking about him was gross."

“Ok, first off,” Clint replies. “It’s very sweet that you want to look out for Tony like that. But it’s also important to remember that Tony’s been in the media spotlight literally since he was born. He’s had decades to practice dealing with those kinds of rumors, and he has Pepper and a very expensive PR team to help him. He knows what he’s doing.”

“I know. I know. But…” The hair tie snaps, and Clint immediately presses another one into Peter’s hands.

“But it’s still uncomfortable?”

“Yeah. A lot.”

“Give it a few more days,” Clint starts, but Peter doesn’t let him finish.

“That's what everyone is saying! But it’s not going away, it’s getting worse.” A new fear occurs to him. "Am I going to have to choose between giving up the internship or putting up with the rumors forever?"

“Definitly not. People will get bored,” Clint promises. “The second there’s something fresh for them to fixate on, they’ll forget.” A lightbulb seems to go off in Clint’s head. Peter waits for him to explain, but he doesn’t, indicating the obstacle course instead. “You down here for a little distraction?”

“I guess.”

“Well, if that’s the ticket needed, you want to come say hi to Thor? He just arrived.”

Peter brightens. “Thor’s here?”

Clint fakes an Asgardian accent “Yes, Man of Spiders, our mighty God of Thunder has graced Midgard with his presence!”

“You know he doesn’t actually talk like that.”

“I know. But it’s still fun. Come on.” He gets to his feet, offering Peter a hand up too. “One Asgardian-shaped distraction coming right up.”

 


 

"Is a press conference really a good idea? Right now?” Peter fidgets underneath the Spider-Man mask as Pepper lays comforting hands on his shoulders.

“Hiding from rumors is as good as confirming them,” she says firmly. “And we’re not going to talk about that photo. We’re here to talk about Thor rejoining the Avengers on a part-time basis. Anyone asks you a question about anything else, you just say, ‘That wasn’t on the agreed-upon agenda.’ Ok?”

Peter’s not sold. “But they are going to ask about the photo. Aren’t they?”

“Not if they want to keep their jobs they won’t.” Pepper ushers him towards the stage where most of the Avengers are already sitting in their assigned places on the panel. “You’ll be fine, Peter, ok? I promise.”

For the first half of the press conference, Peter actually starts to believe her. All the reporters stay on topic, and the photo doesn’t get mentioned - although Peter believes that’s purely due to Pepper Potts putting the fear of god into them rather than any journalistic integrity.

But in the end, it’s not the journalists who mess it up.

“Kiss!”

Peter whips around, seeing a gaggle of pre-teens hovering outside the conference room windows, holding signs with words and symbols about him and Tony that make him immediately turn beet red under the mask.

Tony whips his head around, rolling his eyes when he sees what they’re holding. “For god’s sake. Can we remove them, please?”

From the side of the stage, Happy regretfully shakes his head. “They’re on public property, Boss. Technically it’s legal.”

Tony sighs, shooting Peter the quickest of It’ll be fine looks before returning to the press. “I’m sorry, I believe we’re here to have a press conference. Please continue.”

“Kiss!” comes the continued chant from the window. “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!”

Peter decides that he would take drowning in that parachute over this any day of the week. He shrinks back in his chair, wishing a new spider power of vanishing would magically manifest.

“Sorry,” comes a new voice, and Peter whips his head around to where Clint is tapping his ears, miming confusion. “Hearing aids cut out for a second. They want a kiss?”

“Barton,” Tony warns, but Clint doesn’t stop, instead surveying the rows and rows of cameras all pointed right at them.

“Come on, Tony, it’s just a kiss. What’s the harm in giving the people what they want?”

Peter’s heart full-on stops for half a moment, only for Clint to lean over sideways and kiss Thor full on the mouth.

The cameras erupt, Peter dropping his head so he doesn’t have a sensory overload at the sheer amount of flashing. When he looks up again, Thor is beaming as he punches in the fist in the air and yelling, “We are good comrades indeed!” as Clint sends Peter a roguish wink.

There’s a new photo, a new rumor for everyone to talk about, and the photo by the river gets finally gets dropped. The photo of Clint and Thor, on the other hand, gets framed in a place of honor on the common room fridge, making Peter smile every time he walks past it.

Chapter Text

“Spider-Man! Help!”

Peter changes direction mid-swing, following the distressed voice. It sounds young, almost definitely a child. That suspicion’s confirmed a moment later when Peter lands in an alleyway a few feet away from a teary girl, no older than six.

“Spider-Man?”

“That’s me!” Peter scans the alleyway, relaxing when he doesn’t see any imminent threats. “You can call me Spidey if you want though. What’s your name?”

She sniffs. “Laura.”

“Hey! I have a friend named Laura.” Peter snaps his fingers, as though realizing something. “And now I have two friends named Laura! Aren’t I lucky?”

The girl manages a wobbly smile. “I don’t have any other friends named Spidey.”

“That’s ok, you only need the one.” Peter shoots a web and pulls himself up so that he’s dangling from the wall, upsidedown, making the little girl giggle. “What did you need help with, Laura? Are you lost?”

Laura shakes her head. “No. I live just there.” She points at the top floor of an apartment building one street over.

“Well, what are you doing outside without your parents? Queens can get pretty dangerous, you know.”

Her lower lip trembles. “I know. But we just got a new cat and I was supposed to keep him inside but I forgot and I went out onto the balcony to go play and he ran away!”

They’re a step away from the waterworks starting up again, so Peter hastens to reassure her. “Hey, no, that’s ok! I’m sure he just hasn’t learned that you’re his new family yet. Is he a kitten?”

Another shake of the head. “No. We got him from a shelter. No one else wanted him.”

“That’s really nice of you, Laura, rescuing that poor cat and giving him a home. Does he have a name?”

Laura nods, brightening. “Yeah, my moms said I could name him. He’s called Mr Mittens because it looks like he’s wearing -”

“Mitten, got it. You got any other details for me? Like a collar?”

“He won’t wear one. But he’s black with white feet and he’s missing an eye, if that helps?’

“That’s super helpful, Laura, thank you. So how about instead of you wandering the streets all by yourself I walk you home, and then I go and find Mr Mittens for you?”

Laura looks hesitant. “My moms will get home soon. They’re going to be so mad I let him out.”

Peter frowns. “They left you home alone?”

Laura shakes his head. “No, Mr Perkins, our neighbor watches me. But he’s always asleep.”

“That doesn’t sound…ideal.” Peter makes a mental note to check out this little girl’s home life later, but one problem at a time. “Well, let’s get you to Mr Perkins and I’ll find that cat of yours and bring him right home, sound good?”

“Thank you, Spider-Man.”

“Hey, that’s what I’m here for. Always happy to help.”

He says those words like he always does, with a smile, only to sincerely regret them four hours later, when he’s swinging through a thin sheet of rain as night starts to blanket the city, still looking for this stupid cat.

“Mr Mittens!” Peter calls, swinging into yet another side street. “Come on! There is the most adorable little girl just waiting to give you so much love and affection and food and - and I have homework to do so get out here!”

He perches on top of a wall for a breather, trying not to get frustrated. He’s here to help the citizens of Queens, without exception, and he is getting little Laura her cat back. Even if it means pulling an all-nighter to finish his science project which he knows he should have started two weeks ago.

“Ok, Mr Mittens. I have a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for cats like you. I will look for you, I will find you, and I will…rescue you.” Peter braces himself to resume the search when he hears, right above his ear, a low, incredibly grumpy meow.

He freezes, then turns as slowly as possible to look upwards and - there. Black fur. White, mitten-like feet. A missing eye.

“Woah,” Peter breathes. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Mr Mittens, but you are the ugliest cat I have ever seen.”

The ball of patchy fur and tattered ears glares back at him, tail whipping up a storm.

“Ok,” Peter mutters. “You stay right there. I’m just going to pop up and - no!”

The second Peter moves, the cat makes a run for it. Peter shoots a web and swings around the building, landing right in front of a now incredibly startled and put-out feline.

“Aha! Got you!”

Mr Mittens hisses at him.

“Hey! I’m rescuing you here, be nice to me.”

He gets another grumpy meow in return, what remains of the fur on Mr Mittens’s tail puffing out as he raises his hackles. Not a fan of people then - and Peter doesn’t even really look like a person at all right now, which probably isn’t helping things.

“Hey, Karen? Any security cameras or civilians around me right now?”

There’s a long pause then - “There aren’t now.”

“I- wait. How did you -”

Another angry hiss refocuses his attention on the mission at hand.

“Ok. Here we go.” Slowly, Peter reaches up to pull off his mask. “See? Not some weird alien monster thing. Just a person. A very nice person who wants to take you home to Laura who probably has some yummy cat food and toys and cuddles all waiting for you. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

Peter takes a step closer. Mr Mittens doesn’t relax, but he doesn’t move either.

Emboldened, Peter edges forward another foot. “Here, kitty kitty. Nice kitty kitty. Yeah, you’re just a big old softie really, aren’t you? People didn’t like because you look so rough, but deep down I bet you’re just the sweetest, cuddliest little -”

Mr Mittens flies at his face.

Peter gets the briefest glimpse of teeth and claws before the pain erupts, making him stumble backward. “Mr Mittens, no!”

He raises his hand to bat the tiny predator away, but the thing hangs on with surprising alacrity. It somehow finds an even deeper hold in Peter’s skin, all the while yowling as though Peter is the one who’s attacking him.

“You appear to be in distress, Peter.”

“Karen -” Peter tries, only to inhale a mouthful of fluff. “Help!”

“Activating instant kill.”

Peter feels the extra legs sprout out the back of his suit. “No! No instant kill, no - ow!” A particularly vicious swipe misses Peter’s eyeball by a millimeter. Instincts kick in and he grabs the cat by the back of the neck, flinging it as far away as possible before realizing his mistake a second later when he hears a panicked screech. He whirls around to see the fluffy blob he just yeeted flying towards the edge of the building. “Mr Mittens!”

Peter fires a web against the side of the building the uses it to yank himself forward, flying off the edge after the cat and catching it mid-air. The problem is, said cat doesn’t want to be caught, and Peter ends up right where he started except now he’s falling off a building.

He fires another web, bringing himself to a sudden halt that makes the cat howl in panic and cling even tighter to its reluctant rescuer. It doesn’t, however, seem to want to fight the one thing keeping it from becoming a kitty-cat pancake on the sidewalk below. Peter takes that as a win as he swings himself up to the top of the building, landing with a furious and almost definitely traumatized cat trying to squirm out of his arms again.

Peter lets him, only to fire a web the second the cat hits the rooftop. “Got you!”

He gets an enraged yowl and a hiss in response, but the web holds firm against all escape attempts. Mr Mittens had been conquered.

“Camera detected.”

“What? Where?” Peter spins around, groping for a mask long since dropped, only to see a silver and red drone hovering a couple of feet behind him. “Oh no. No no no no no -”

There’s a flash of blue and silver, and then Sam is landing on the rooftop beside Redwing. “Oh yes, I think are the words you’re looking for there, Spider-Kid.”

“This isn’t happening. You did not get that on camera.”

“Yeah, we did.”

Peter jumps a mile, whirling around to see Bucky watching him from the next rooftop over. “What- how long have you been there?”

“Long enough.” Bucky straightens up, easily clearing the gap between rooftops with a single jump.

“Showoff,” Sam muttered, indicating for Redwing to return to his suit. He raises an eyebrow at the captured cat. “I see you’re leveling up your villains.”

The deep red of Peter’s face no longer has anything to do with the cat attack. “You are deleting that footage. Now.”

“Make me.”

Peter crosses his arms. “I won’t have to. I’ll- I’ll hack it, I’ll banish it from existence.”

Sam raises both hands in a peace gesture. “Relax, Peter. No one is going to see it except the team. And probably May. And definitely Happy.”

“You are not sending it to -”

“Already sent, kid. Wouldn’t want them missing out on this catastrophe.”

Peter groans, burying his face in his hands. “You’re the worst. The absolute worst.”

“That’s the spirit. You want to tell us why you were in feline fight club to begin with?”

“He’s lost,” Peter explains. “He belongs to a little girl. I have to get him back to her, she was really upset.”

Sam’s expression softens a little. “Wow, way to make me feel like the asshole.” He claps Peter on the shoulder. “Let’s get him home to this sad little girl then, shall we?”

“I guess. But he’s pretty vicious, and I don’t really want to present him all covered with spiderwebs, so how are we going to -” Peter turns to spot where the cat had been tied down, having a mini heart attack when he sees that it’s gone, only to hear…purring?

Bucky has the now de-webbed cat nestled between his chest and his metal arm, with Mr Mittens looking like the most content creature in the world.

“How?” Peter demands. “Just - how?”

Bucky’s lips crook up in a grin. “Well, you know I’ve always had a way with p-”

“Buck,” Sam cuts him off, with a meaningful look at Peter.

“Cats,” Bucky hastily corrects himself. “I’ve always had a way with cats.”

Peter rolls his eyes. “I’m seventeen, guys, not twelve.” He shoves his mask back on, feeling a little better once the litany of bloody scratches and bite marks are covered up. “Come on, let’s take the little monster home.”

He has to endure further ribbing from the two of them the entire way there, but they eventually shut up when they get to the apartment building Peter points out. It isn’t hard to find Laura’s apartment - she’s huddled outside of it, face awash with tears as she sits with her arms around her knees.

“Hi, Laura!” Peter calls out, giving her a jaunty wave.

Laura’s head shoots up, misery turning to joy in seconds when she sees Mr Mittens once more, only for her eyes to blow wide when she sees just who’s holding him. “You found him!” she runs forward, happily accepting the now snoozing cat from Bucky. “Spider-Man and Captain America and the Winter Soldier found my cat!”

“We sure did!” Peter smiles at her. “Make sure to keep that door shut from now on, ok?”

“Hi, Laura,” Sam greets her. “How long have you been sitting outside that door, huh?”

Laura hugs Mr Mittens closer. “A few hours. Mom was really mad so that means I have to sit outside for a bit.”

“Uh-huh.” Sam straightens up, entering full Captain America mode. “Well, would you mind if I popped inside to have a chat with your parents about that?” When Laura looks unsure, Sam adds, “You’re not in any trouble, I promise.”

“Yeah. Your parents are in trouble,” Bucky finishes. “So we’re just going to talk to them about the best way to keep you and Mr Mittens safe, ok?”

Laura shuffles her feet. “Like I won’t have to sit in the hallway anymore?”

“Definitely not,” Sam promises her. “Lead the way.”

Laura still looks a little unsure. “Can Spider-Man come?”

Peter almost says yes out of habit, before remembering the science project sitting untouched in his Tower workshop. “Spider-Man has to go help some other kids right now, is that ok?”

Laura’s face drops. “Five minutes?” Sam prompts him.

“I really need to -”

“Surely crime can wait for five minutes.”

Peter flushes, lowering his voice so Laura can’t hear. “I have homework.”

Sam blinks. “Sometimes I cannot believe we're on the same team, do you know that?” He claps Peter on the shoulder. “Off you go then. Good job with catching the cat - he was a fur-midable opponent.”

“Also, puns are my thing.”

“Come on, Spider-Man,” Bucky chimes in. “After all, today makes quite the tail. Could even say that it’ll go down in fur-story.

“Hey,” Sam looks at Bucky with delight. “The staring machine finally has jokes!”

Bucky shrugs. “It’s not my fault if my wit goes over your head.”

“Sure, that’s the reason. And not just because you’re a big sourpuss all the time.”

“I’m leaving,” Peter states. “Goodbye.”

“Bye, Spider-Man!” Sam calls after him. “Stay paw-sitive!

“Call us when you’re not feline so sad!” Bucky adds.

“Don’t forget we’re just kitten around!”

Peter avoids the Tower for a week after being unable to go anywhere in the building without someone shoving the video in his face. When he finally braves a return, there’s a basket on his workshop desk.

Peter approaches it with extreme caution, expecting another poke at his wounded pride. But it’s not. It’s a homemade card, showing Spider-Man holding a miraculously smiling Mr Mittens, with a note inside:

 

Dear Spider-Man,

Thank you for finding Mr Mittens and for bringing Captain America over to talk to my parents. They say I don’t have to sit in the hallway when I’m bad anymore and Mr Perkins has to stay awake when he’s watching me. Also I told everyone at school I met you and everyone wanted to sit with me at lunch all week and was really nice to me.

Love,

Laura and Mr Mittens

 

Peter smiles as he tucks the card into a corner of one of his workstation whiteboards, and takes the rest of the light-hearted teasing with grace.

Besides, it’s always nice to make new fur-ends.

Chapter Text

“When I had envisioned my first official Avenger’s invite to New York, this is not what I had in mind.”

“For the record, our hospitality is usually at least slightly higher quality.” Peter struggles against the chains binding him back to back with Shuri, but whoever has grabbed them clearly knew who they were dealing with, because they’re not breaking. Peter can’t see a thing in front of him, but they’ve squirmed around enough now to know that they’re only a few inches from walls on all sides. From the cheap carpeting and faint scent of rubber, they’ve decided it’s almost certainly a car trunk.

Which Peter is definitely dealing with just fine. He’s fine.

“Careful,” Shuri warns him after Peter moves them both a little too suddenly. “If you knock the masks off, we might not be able to get them back on. Have you ever seen a body that died of asphyxiation? Let’s just say it’s always a closed casket funeral.”

“Got it.” Peter tries to breathe normally, not wanting to use up the little oxygen they have. Whoever’s left them like this has at least strapped oxygen masks over their noses and mouths so they won’t suffocate, but the tanks they’re connected to are small and clearly not meant to last. Not to mention that it’s freezing in here, to the point where Peter wonders if they’re parked in some kind of industrial fridge.

They hadn’t spent much time discussing who had done this or why. With T’Challa traveling over from Wakanda to announce an alliance between the kingdom and the Avengers Initiative regarding world catastrophes, it hadn’t been a stretch to deduce that Peter and Shuri were leverage to prevent said alliance from being struck. “So my brother and the Avengers announce the alliance void, and we get released,” Shuri had stated. “Or they say no, and we suffocate. Or they say yes, and we still suffocate. Terrorists don’t tend to let their hostages live.”

Peter’s stomach had tried to turn itself inside out at the idea of slowly gasping to death in the tiny space. Then he had reminded himself that if whoever had done this had contacted Tony, then Tony would have every resource out looking for them - and so would Wakanda.

“It’s just demeaning,” Shuri complains. “You know I take over as Black Panther if anything ever happens to T’Challa right? Well, except when he turns to dust. And I’m also dust. Then I didn’t get to be the Black Panther at all. But in any other circumstance -”

“Shuri..."

“Never cut me off, white boy. One of us is royalty here.”

“And both of us are tied up in a car trunk!” The words make Peter feel as though he’s being plunged underwater, and he fights to keep his breathing even. He’s ok. The space is big enough for two of them. They have oxygen. There is no logical reason for him to be panicking right now.

Shuri slumps back against him. “Mother is never going to let me leave the country again.”

“Tony’s never going to let me leave the Tower again.”

“If Tony locks you in a tower, which one of us is really the princess?”

“Alright, alright.” Peter strains against the chains again, but they hold fast. He’s in a tiny space with limited air and he can’t move. And that is fine. He’s fine. “Are we the only teenagers in the world who are worried about getting into trouble after we get kidnapped?”

“Probably. Because we’re not normal teenagers. We’re us. Super-genius teenagers who don’t need their brother or their mentor to come and rescue them. Or anyone to rescue them.”

“So we get out of this ourselves.”

“Already ahead of you, white boy.”

They start by trying for the obvious - a trunk release hatch and checking their pockets for phones or trackers. Nothing.

“So we kick our way out,” Shuri decides. “Upwards first, and if that doesn’t work we go through the backseat.”

“That’s a good plan. Except for one little thing.” Peter rattles their legs, shackled together. “I can’t break these. Unless we kick at the roof together?”

“You boys and your need to break everything.” Shuri’s shifting, shoving their backs together in a way that Peter is definitely not comfortable with.

“Hey, Shuri? I have a girlfriend.”

“As if you’re my type.” Shuri shoves against him, harder, forcing him into the side of the trunk in a way that presses his mask down against his lips with a terrifying crack.

“Shuri, wait!” His mask is cracked. He’s going to lose his oxygen. He can’t move and it’s pitch black and soon he won’t be able to breathe -

Shuri curses in Wakandan. “Was that your mask? Is it ok?”

Peter feels it with his tongue. “I think so.” He’s now jammed between the trunk wall and Shuri’s back, oxygen tank clinking against the chains. He sucks in a breath, then another one, trying and failing to keep them steady.

“Hey,” Shuri calls back to him. “Don’t waste your oxygen.”

Peter’s heart rate spikes up another few notches. “I’m trying.”

“You’ll run out faster if you hyperventilate.”

“That’s not helping me not hyperventilate!”

“You’re ok,” Shuri says quickly. “Peter, listen. I know we’re trapped. But look at who you’re trapped with. I can get out of anything. I will get us out of this. Trust me.”

Peter sucks in another desperate breath and then shoves against Shuri’s back, trying to give himself space. “Move over. Please, Shuri, move.”

“I need this space, Peter. I’m going to get us out of the chains so you can kick the trunk open. Then it’ll be over.”

“I can’t- I can’t breathe -”

“You can breathe in a few minutes!” The twisting behind him intensifies. “I’m not a hostage. I don’t need a rescue. I am Princess Shuri of Wakanda and I don’t help with any-”

“SHURI!”

“I - Peter?” There’s gasp and then a shuffle and then there’s space between Peter’s chest and a solid surface again. He hauls in a breath, which only reminds him that he only has so many that he can take before he’s out of air, and he’s wasting them, he’s just killing himself faster -

“Peter, hey it’s ok. You’re ok.” A hand’s fumbling for his, squeezing it. The angle is awkward from the way they’re tied up, but they manage to interlock a couple of fingers.

“Match my breath,” a comforting voice is saying. He knows that voice. He likes that voice. “Come on, Peter, we can’t afford to take you through this slowly. Match. Me.”

The back he’s bound to inflates with a loud inhale, and he tries desperately to follow suit, even as his breath still hitches.

“That’s ok,” the voice is saying. “You’re doing great. Keep going.”

A second breath, then a third, and then, at last, it evens out. Peter hiccups, closing his eyes against the oppressive darkness, trying to imagine that there are miles in front of him instead of inches.

“Are you ok?”

Slowly, Peter nods, then remembers Shuri can’t see it. “Sorry. Yes.”

”I think it might be me who owes you that apology. Want to share with the class what that was?”

“Um, claustrophobia?”

There’s a beat of silence. “Well, damn. This is not a great situation for you then, is it?”

“Not a great situation for anyone, really.” Peter counts three more breaths. “How much oxygen do you think I just wasted?”

“I think there’s no point thinking about that. We’re getting out soon anyway.”

“What were you doing?” Peter tries to keep the resentment out of his voice, but it still sneaks through. “I asked you to stop.”

“I was escaping!”

“I thought we were escaping. Together.”

There’s a long pause. Then - “I’m sorry. I just…” A long sigh. “You don’t know what it’s been like. Since I’ve got back from the Blip. Everyone is treating me as though I’m going to crumble back to dust at any moment. Like a breath of wind is going to destroy me. Me. I’m the Princess of Wakanda. The Head of the Science and Information Exchange. An honorary member of the Dora Milaje and the heir to the Black Panther title.” She tugs on the chains. “I’ve done so much in my life to warrant the trust and respect of my people. And one little kidnapping is going to undo all of that.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

“It is. They treat me like a stupid child and I’m not.”

Peter shuffles in the chains, sending them clanking. “I get it.”

Shuri huffs, seeming about to fire something back, before she stops herself. “The Avengers?”

“Mostly Tony. And I understand where he’s coming from,” Peter hurries on. “I turned to dust right in front of him. And then I was gone for five years. I get why he’s overprotective. 'Better to overreact than under react,' as he puts it. But it can still be suffocating.” He blinks, realizing what he just said. “For once, pun unintended. So,” Peter says after a beat. “Should two not-so-stupid children get out of this now? I assume you had a plan beyond shoving me into the trunk wall without warning.”

“I’m sorry,” Shuri says, sounding like she means it. “I should have warned you. Long story short - kind of been taught how to escape every kidnapping scenario imaginable since I was six. Including these chains. Felt like a good first step.”

“That makes sense.”

“And for that, I’m going to need room. As much room as you can give me.”

“As in…”

“As in I’m going to need to shove you right up against that wall again. With your permission this time.”

Peter’s heart rate speeds up, the image he’s conjured of the football field of space in front of him evaporating. “Shuri -”

“It’s our only way out. It needs to be done.”

“Right. I know. I know. Has to be done.”

“Ok. So I’m just going to -”

“Wait!” Peter feels Shuri tense against him and pushes back. “Wait. I can’t. I can’t. I know it’s stupid, I know we need to get out, but I can’t.” He huffs. “So much for not being stupid kids who need rescue.”

There’s another long pause, where Peter is sure Shuri is gearing up to chew him out, but instead she says, “It’s not stupid. And neither are you.”

“It is if it’s getting in our way. If it might kill us.”

“Look, it needs to happen, sure. But why don’t you tell me what’s going on in that head of yours first? Was there a triggering incident?”

Peter swallows. “Not one I really want to think about right now.”

“It’ll help. Trust me. Do you trust me?”

“You know I do.”

“Then tell me.”

“Alright. Alright. So in Spider-Man's early days, there was this guy called the Vulture.”

“God, you Americans and your supervillain names.”

“Your brother is panther.”

“And your point is? Finish the story.”

“There isn’t actually much of a story,” Peter continues. “He dropped a building on me. A whole warehouse, actually.”

“I’m guessing that didn’t kill you.”

“Considering I’m still breathing? No.”

“Well you can’t blame me for not keeping track, you guys are always dying and coming back like it’s nothing. So warehouse?”

“So warehouse.” Peter shudders, remembering. "I thought I was going to die. I couldn’t get out. There was no one who was going to help me. No one even knew where I was except the guy who put me there, and there was all this weight on my chest, and I couldn’t breathe -” He breaks off with a soft whine, the chains around his chest feeling tighter than ever.

“And then?” Shuri prompts him. “Did you get help?”

“No.”

“Did the rubble shift?”

“No.”

“So how’d you get out?”

“I got myself out.”

“How?”

“By…being Spider-Man.”

“Alright then, Spider-Man. So let’s get out of this one, what do you say?”

“I say that sounds pretty good.”

“Feeling better?”

Peter assesses. “Yes,” he admits, surprised. “I do.”

“I know.” Shuri hesitates before she adds, “And it’s not stupid. We all have our thing. Even me.”

“Yeah? What’s yours?”

“Drowning. Ready now?”

Peter inhales, braces himself. “Do it.”

This time when Peter is shoved against the wall of the trunk, he manages to hold himself together as Shuri uses him as a brace to start squirming out of the chains. It’s awful, claustrophobia closing in on him from all sides, but he measures his breaths and gets through it. Shuri’s right. This is the way forward. He can do this.

It takes several minutes, and a lot of cursing from Shuri, but finally her hand slips free. “You need to teach me all those Wakandan swear words,” Peter says.

“I think I may have just invented some new ones.” A clink of metal, and then Shuri’s working her arm loose. “Are you ok?”

The chains loosen, and Peter lets his chest expand all the way, eyes still closed. He’s fine. He’s in a spacious room. Not a care in the world. Definitely not in a car trunk. “I’m ok. Thank you.” He tries his arm, finding enough slack to slip it out of the confining metal. It takes several more tries, but finally they’re shucking the chains entirely.

“That's the first step done,” Shuri states. “Next - we get out of the trunk. I believe you’re up.”

“The dream team.”

“Don’t call us that.”

“And now I definitely will. Stand back…lie back.” Peter shuffles until he’s on his back with his legs pointing at the trunk. As much as he wants to get out, he hesitates. “You know there might be a ton of bad guys on the other side, right?”

“There is nothing on the outside of this car that I - that we can’t take.”

She’s nothing but confidence, and that bolsters Peter enough to draw his legs into his chest, and then slam them into the roof of the trunk. He’s rewarded with a crunch of metal, only for the air pressure in the tiny space to change as water starts dribbling in the crack now made in the trunk’s opening. “What the -”

Shuri figures it out a second before he does. “No. No no no.”

“We’re ok,” Peter says quickly, even though they’re not ok, they’re really not ok.

“Peter…we’re underwater. They’re keeping us underwater.”

Peter swallows, braces himself. “We can’t be that deep.”

Shuri’s answer is a shuddering breath.

“Hey,” Peter says, feeling around in the dark until he finds her shoulder. “You got me through my thing. I’m going to get you through yours now. Drowning, right? Tell me about it.”

“We don’t have time -”

“We do. We have oxygen tanks.” Even as he says it, Peter can feel that his is getting distressingly light. Shuri’s can’t be far behind, and a panic attack isn’t going to help matters. “We have an air pocket. Just give me the TL;DR version.”

Shuri sniffs, fumbling until she finds Peter’s hand and squeezing it. “I was young. Really young. It’s one of my earliest memories.”

Peter focuses on her voice, trying very hard not to think about the sounds of trickling water spilling into their prison, at the dampness seeping into his shoes.

“They told me not to go in the falls,” Shuri breathes. “They told me I was too young. But I didn’t listen. I never listened when someone told me I couldn’t do something. I just assumed I could. I couldn’t.”

“You’re doing great,” Peter prompts her. “Really great. And you got out, right?”

“T’Challa pulled me out,” Shuri breathes. “I’ve never seen him that angry. Or that scared. All because of me.”

“But he saved you.” Peter finds her other arm, places their foreheads together. “Because you needed it. Like I needed it a few minutes ago so I didn’t burn through all my oxygen. It’s ok to need help sometimes, Shuri.”

Shuri laughs, disbelieving. “That idea sucks.”

“I know it does. And I don’t mean to rush the character growth moment of this adventure but we’re in a car trunk filling up with water so…”

Shuri grabs onto Peter’s arm. “Ok, white boy. I trust you to get us out of this. Swim us up.”

Peter flipped onto his back, preparing to kick the trunk open wider. “Ready?”

“No. Do it.”

Peter slams his feet into the trunk, popping it open as a rush of icy, polluted river water sweeps in to consume them. He doesn’t waste a moment, wrapping his arms around Shuri and pulling them into the river beyond.

He feels Shuri struggle on instinct. Peter sends out a silent apology as he pulls her closer, then kicks for the surface, praying they aren’t in one of the deeper parts of whatever river they’d been chucked into.

Nearly there, he tells himself as he swims skywards. The oxygen mask isn’t designed to be waterproof, quickly filling with gungy water. They better not get out of this only to die of infection later.

And then there. Above them. A light.

Peter kicks for it, trying not to think about how still Shuri’s gone in his arms as he goes up, up, up -

And breaks the surface.

He doesn’t even get a breath in before he’s sinking again. He inhales on instinct, and instead of oxygen gets a mouthful of river water. He coughs, splutters, ripping the mask off and letting the now empty tank sink to the bottom. He does Shuri’s too, wanting to check if she’s ok, but his limbs are burning and he needs to get them to shore where people are pointing and waving at them, and he needs to get them there now.

He strikes out, but there’s no air in his lungs, and he’s got Shuri’s weight pulling him down, and if he could just get a breath of oxygen he’d be ok but the surface is getting further and further away and he can’t breathe and -

And he’s going upwards.

He bursts above the water a second time, but this time he doesn’t go back down again. There are hands supporting him, pulling him along. He tries to keep a hold of Shuri, only for a gruff New Yorker accent to break through the sounds of the water. “We got her, son. It’s ok now. We got you.”

“Thank you,” Peter gasps as a burly woman lies him down on the riverbank, saying things his waterlogged ears aren’t hearing. He rolls over, searching. “Shuri!”

She’s very still, soaked through, but her eyes are open. Peter struggles his way across to her, his hand finding hers. She offers him a small smile. “Good job, white boy. You saved us.”

Peter looks around at the gathered New Yorkers. “You saved us first. And I had some help at the end.” Ambulances are coming, blankets being wrapped around them, asking who they can call. “Are you ok?”

Shuri looks down at herself, wrinkling her nose at her now ruined dress. “That’s what Mother gets for making me dress in ‘appropriate clothing’. But I am ok. Really. We make a good team.”

“Dream team?”

“You’re never letting that go, are you?”

“It’s what we are. Live with it.”

Shuri reaches out, grasping Peter’s hand weakly in hers. “Living sounds good. So sure - dream team for the win.”

”You could even say this whole experience was breathtaking.”

”And no more dream team.”

”Aw, come on, get with the puns. You know you want to.”

Shuri turns to grin at him. “Let’s just say…I prefer a dry sense of humor.”

Chapter Text

“Mr. Stark, I don’t know if I can do this.”

“You can.”

“I can’t.”

“You can. You absolutely can. You know why? Because you don’t have another choice right now.”

“But -”

“Peter. Look at the civilians.”

“That is so not fair.”

“Look at them. Look at them balancing on top of that tower.”

“I…I know. I see them.”

“What do you see?”

“Civilians.”

“More specific, come on. Whose lives are you saving right now?”

“I see…”

“Go on.”

“A woman.”

“Someone’s daughter, Peter. Could be someone’s sister, mother, partner, friend. There’s someone in her life waiting for her to come home. She’s a person.”

“Yeah. Yeah, she’s a person.”

“Who’s next to her?”

“A man.”

“Someone’s son. A brother, a father, an uncle. A long-suffering mentor with a plucky teenage ward. And there’s someone else.”

“No, don’t -”

“Come on. Look at them. Look at them.”

“It’s a kid.”

“That’s right, Pete. It’s a little kid up there. You going to let them fall to their death?”

“No, of course not -”

“Then keep this tower up. Ok?”

“I - ok. I will.”

“I know you will.”

“Maybe.”

“There’s no maybe here. We’re a team, and you’re the smartest person on the Avengers bar me.”

“That’s wildly inaccurate.”

“Back off, Barnes. Don’t distract the kid.”

“I’m distracting him?”

“I’m not distracting him, I’m motivating him!”

“Mr. Stark, stop talking! You’re making it worse!”

“Peter. You know you what you have to do.”

“No, Wilson, you don’t get a say here.”

“We can’t wait around forever, Stark. It’s now or never.”

“I’m not ready!”

“Come on, Underoos. Look at the civilians. Remember what’s at stake.”

“Right. What’s at stake.”

“Exactly. You know what happens if this tower comes down. You don’t want that to happen, do you?”

“No. I don’t. But, Mr Stark -"

“No buts. Take a breath. Make your move. You got this.”

“I got this.

“Yeah you do. Know which brick you’re going to move?”

“I - yeah. I see it.”

“Attaboy. Off you go.”

“I’m going.”

“Finally.”

“Distraction is disqualification, Barnes.”

“Whatever.”

“What did I just say?”

“You’re all distracting me! Just quiet. Please.”

“Kid -”

“Quiet!”

Peter sucks in a breath, considering the brick in front of him. Just one. He can do this. He can do this. He reaches for it.

“Ooh, here he goes.”'

“Shut up, Sam.”

“Spider-Kid’s getting snippy.”

“Need a nap there, Parker?”

“Barnes! Stop distracting him!”

“You’re all distracting me!”

The room falls silent, Sam opening his mouth to say something else only to be silenced by a fist to the thigh from Tony.

Peter focuses on the task at hand. It’s just one little brick. It’s physics. He’s got this.

He shifts the brick. A centimeter comes free. Then another. Then another. The room holds its breath.

The brick comes free, Peter exhaling in relief. It’s done.

Which is when the tower wobbles.

“NO!”

But it’s too late. The damage has been done. As though in slow motion, the Jenga tower topples, taking the three lego figurines perched on the top with it.

“Yes!” Sam punches the air, reaching out to high-five Bucky.

Peter’s sure he’s never seen Bucky grin that widely as he smacks Sam’s palm with his own. “Suck it, you two.”

“Rematch,” Tony declares. “Right now.”

“Oh no.” Sam leans back, smug. “You bet ‘em, you lose ‘em.”

Tony casts his eyes at the remains of their tower, darting over the destruction as though he can magically rebuild it. “I’m not doing it.”

“Too late.”

“I’m not. Why did we even bet this anyway? You’re Captain America.”

“And a big part of my job is delegating the various duties of that position to -”

“Ok ok, shut it.”

"I’m sorry,” Peter mutters, miserable. “I thought that was the right choice.”

Three expressions immediately soften. “Ah, Webs.” Tony claps Peter on the shoulder. “Sometimes there’s nothing even you can do.”

“Yeah, people die all the time in these things,” Bucky adds, gesturing to the lego figures, now buried in a pile of Jenga bricks. “That’s life.”

“Woah.” Sam turns to stare at him. “Turn down the broody assassin act there, Robo-cop.”

Bucky shrugs. “It’s true though.”

“Don’t make the kid feel worse!” Tony shoots at him.

Peter stares glumly at the head of the male lego figure. “Why’d you have to compare him to you?”

“Yeah, Peter,” Bucky says, mock-serious. “Why’d you kill Tony?”

“Stop that,” Tony warns him.

“Yeah, can’t kill off our new PSA spokesperson,” Sam grins. “Thank god that won’t be me.”

Tony’s eyes narrow. “What will it take to get you to trade back?”

“Oh no. You lost the bet. Suck up the consequences.”

“Hang on.” Bucky’s considering Tony’s words. “We have an opportunity here.”

Sam catches on. “Interesting. Tell us, Stark - what is not recording these PSAs worth to you?”

Tony folds his arms. “Alright, I see how it is. What do you want?”

“What are you offering?” Sam counters.

Tony considers. “I’ll cover for you in press conferences for a fortnight.”

“A month. For starters.”

“Enough expensive booze to carry you to Christmas.”

“Intriguing.”

“I get to choose your picks for movie night,” Bucky adds in.

Sam throws him a look. “That’s the best you got?”

“What? Tony has crappy taste.”

“Says the guy who likes forties music,” Tony retorts.

“Actually, I think Buck is on to something.” Sam turns back to Tony. “We get pick of the music in the quinjet.”

“Easy. For what, a couple of months?”

“For good.”

“For good?”

Sam shrugs. “Well, if you want the next generation of kids to associate Iron Man with lecturing them about detention, be my guest.”

Tony shudders. “Fine. Ugh, fine.” He shoves his hand out, and Sam takes it, grinning from ear to ear as they shake.

“So,” Peter says cautiously. “Tony and I don’t have to make the new PSAs?”

“Yeah, I’m just bargaining for me here, Pete. You’re still on the hook.”

“What!” Peter leaps up from his chair. “That’s not fair!”

“You let the tower fall!”

“And you said there was nothing I could have done! You said we were a team!”

Tony shrugs. “And now the game is over. Have fun telling Gen-Z why gym class is important.”

Peter collapses back in his chair, glaring at all of them. “You all suck.”

“No, you do. At Jenga,” Bucky counters.

“This is totally going to ruin Spider-Man’s image.”

“Not my problem,” Sam replies. “Maybe Steve can give you some tips.”

Peter groans theatrically. “Not fair. None of you could have kept that tower up either. The odds were totally stacked against me.”

Sam pulls out his phone, taking a note. “I’m adding a PSA on why puns are terrible.”

“No one is going to watch -”

“It’s just for you.”

Peter sighs, Tony patting his shoulder. “It could be worse.”

“How?”

Tony shrugs. “I could be doing it with you.”

“That would make it better!”

“Not for me.”

“Some mentor you are.”

Tony raises an eyebrow at him. “Guess you say I built you up to knock you down.”

“That’s it,” Sam declares. “You’re both making a PSA on puns.”

“Sam,” Tony starts to complain.

“Nope. Captain’s orders. Unless.” Sam eyes the fallen Jenga tower. “Want to play for it?”

Tony’s already back in his seat. “Stack that tower, Cap.”

Chapter Text

“Well. This is definitely not my bedroom.”

Peter pushes himself off what could, very generously, be called a bed. It’s a bundle of blankets, more of a nest than anything, smelling faintly of musk and hay. He’s not in a stable though. The last thing he remembers is swinging through downtown Queens, following a cry for help. Which he realizes now, and only now, was definitely a trap, considering that he’s currently being contained in a giant glass box.

“Hello?” Peter calls out. At least he’s still in his suit - he even has the mask still in place. “Karen?” Peter tries.

Nothing. He runs through the suit’s functionalities. Which are…functional.

“Ok,” Peter murmurs. Functioning suit. But no Karen. Odd. Time to get more data.

The glass box is large, bigger than his bedroom back home, filled with cushions, comics, and Peter notes sickly, soft toys. He picks up one of the comics, blinking down at the title: The Adventures of the Amazing Spider-Man! By Simon Sykes.

It’s clearly homemade. The art isn’t bad - it’s consistent at least, hours of practice making up for lack of talent. Apprehension growing, Peter flicks to the first page. Then the second. Then the third. Then the whole comic. It’s basic - Spider-Man saves the day 101 - but it’s long. And there are many of them scattered throughout the room.

“Hello!” Peter calls again, more insistently, and when he doesn’t get an answer he moves to the glass and peers out. The room beyond is dim, compared to the floodlights streaming into the box, making him feel like he’s an exhibition on show. He can just about make out some shapes in the darkness beyond, but nothing concrete.

“Alright,” Peter decides. “Too weird. Not doing this.” After a brief inspection shows no obvious doors or windows, he steps back and then runs at the glass as hard as he can, expecting it to shatter.

He wakes up several seconds later instead.

“Ok. Ow. Ow ow ow.” Peter shakily gets to his hands and knees, glaring at the glass. “Oh. So that’s how you want to play it, huh?”

He prepares to have a go at breaking the box again, only to hesitate at the throbbing in his head. “Yeah, ok. Maybe don’t run into the glass,” Peter mutters. “Now I know that. Making progress.” He places a hand against the glass wall. “What the hell is this made of?”

Which is the moment all the exterior lights turn on at once.

Peter reels back with a cry, the mask taking a moment to adjust to the sudden influx of light. “You’re awake,” a voice is saying. “You’re not supposed to be awake yet!”

Peter blinks, trying to pull himself together. Kidnapper in the room. Time to focus. And he’s not here as Peter Parker. He’s here as Spider-Man - he can afford to scare them a little.

“Um, hi?” He winces. Ok. Not a great start on the scaring. He tries again, dropping his voice. “Who’s there?”

“Oh, gosh. Ok. I really didn’t expect - I really thought you’d be asleep a bit longer. I had a whole thing planned and now it’s ruined.” The voice breaks off, trying to calm himself. Peter is pretty sure it’s a he, and leaning closer he sees the lanky outline of a guy somewhere in his mid-twenties, greasy hair, worn clothes, including, Peter notes with a jolt of dread - a faded Spider-Man t-shirt. “I’m sorry. I wanted this to be special.”

Peter’s eyes have adjusted now, and he looks past his captor to the room at large, mouth going dry as he sees that every inch of space is covered in red and blue. It’s Spider-Man memorabilia, posters and photographs and artwork smothering the walls, any spare space crowded with action figures and plushies and every other gimmick under the sun, both official and knock off.

“I’m Simon,” the man hurries on. “Simon Sykes. I’m your biggest fan.”

“Yeah, I can see that.” Peter swallows, trying to calm his spider-sense which is screaming at him to get away from this guy. I can’t, he argues with it. Not yet. “Hey, so, I shouldn’t really do meet and greets without Tony’s- without Iron Man’s approval. It’s a PR liability and stuff, you know?”

Simon’s expression turns confused. “Oh, I’m not here to meet you.”

Peter’s trepidation triples. “Then what am I here for?”

“You’re the final piece,” Simon says, as though that’s obvious.

“Final piece to what?”

“My collection.” Simon’s face lights up with pride. “I own every kind of Spider-Man collectible that’s ever been made. Even made some of my own. But it never felt finished. There was always something missing. And then I realized that thing was you.”

Oh, crap. “Look, Simon,” Peter begins. “That’s really nice that you’re such a big fan, and I’m super flattered and everything, but I’m not a collectible. I’m a person. With, you know, a life.”

Simon cocks his head to one side, not comprehending. “Don’t worry - I’ll take really good care of you. Every single one of my pieces is in mint condition.”

“I’m not a piece.” Peter looks around the glass box - no, display case - proper panic threatening to take over. “I mean it. Let me go.”

Simon’s face falls. “But I’ve been preparing for months. Look!” He scurries over to what looks like a fridge, inputting a code. For a few seconds, nothing happens, then a slot in the floor opens and a bundle of what looks like junk food spills out. Peter leaps at it, trying to get a sense of how the contraption works, but it’s closed again by the time he gets there. “I’ll get you all your favorite foods,” Simon is promising. “And I made it really comfy in there, and gave you loads to read, and I didn’t even remove your mask. I know how important your secret identity is to you.”

Peter runs a hand over said mask. “Right. Because I’m a superhero. On a team with other superheroes. Who are going to come looking for me.”

Simon shakes his head. “They won’t find us. I hid us really well, I promise.” The tone is more assuring than threatening, as though he and Peter are in this together. “I know this is a really big change, but I did all the research I needed to make you’re happy here. Like making sure you have enough to eat, and there’s lots of space for you to move around, and I even left your web-shooters and gadgets intact so you can still do Spider-Man stuff!”

“The web-shooters aren’t Spider-Man stuff!” Peter snatches up the comic he’d leafed through before, slamming it against the glass. “This is Spider-Man stuff. Saving people. Helping those in need. That’s why you like Spider-Man, right? Well, I can’t do any of that stuff if I’m locked up here, can I?”

“That’s ok,” Simon says brightly. “I’ll make up stories for you. I actually have a huge online following; loads of people tell me they’re really good. So I’m sure you’ll like them too.” He indicates the comic in Peter’s hand. “That’s my favorite, actually. That’s the one where Spider-Man meets this new friend, who becomes kind of like his sidekick? Except at the end Spider-Man ends up in trouble and it’s the sidekick who comes to his rescue, and then Spider-Man realizes they’ve always been equals and makes him his partner instead. Kind of like a subversion of expectations, you know? New take on the trope.”

Peter folds his arms, glaring out of the box. “And let me guess. This sidekick’s name is Simon.”

“Did you read it already? Did you like it? And I’m completely open to feedback by the way, I’m not, like, one of those artists who is super precious about their work or anything.”

Peter bites back on every retort he wants to throw at this guy. As much as he hates this, Simon Sykes has the power here, not him. Besides, it’s not like it’s going to last. He’s going to break out or Tony is going to track him down. He’ll be out of here in no time at all.

 


 

Peter refuses to believe it’s been a week.

The lights have been switched on and off seven times, his only indication of time passing, and yet Peter stubbornly maintains the idea that Simon is messing with his sleep pattern. Because there’s no way an amateur comic book artist has built a prison that can contain him for this long. No way that Tony or one of the other Avengers hasn’t found him yet. No way he's still trapped here with no hope of escape.

Simon has busted every tracker in the suit. It had been of the first things Peter tried - shucking off everything except the mask in order to open the suit up to take a look. There’s only so much he can do without proper tools, but even that brief inspection was enough to realize the suit had been butchered. There's no way any of the communications or tracking equipment is going to be functional without a full replacement. Which Peter doesn’t have in this crappy, stupid, and yet entirely unbreakable glass box.

He’s tried everything he can think of, which is a fair amount of options considering Simon had left him with most of the suit functions. That had boggled Peter at first - why risk it? - until he realized that Simon doesn't want a helpless, captive Peter here. He wants Spider-Man, and that meant Spider-Man’s gadgets.

Peter had humored Simon for the first few days. The guy’s clearly out of his mind, but he hadn't started acting malicious yet, and so Peter had smiled and flattered and cajoled him with the hopes that the novelty would wear off; that Simon might miss seeing his hero out in the real world. No luck. Peter sitting through Simon's detailed explanations of every piece in the collection and swinging around the box doing tricks turn out to be a waste of time. And any kinship Peter has fostered between them is shattered the next morning when Simon walks in on Peter trying to break out.

“What are you doing?” Simon asks.

Peter doesn't see the point in denying it. He's bent over the food dispenser in the floor, trying to pull it apart to see if there's anything useful inside of it. “What do you think I’m doing? I want to go home.”

“You are home,” Simon insists. “This is the perfect place for you. Why would you want to be anywhere else?”

The next day isn't any better. Peter has stopped trying to be subtle about escape and has pulled out all the stops, not caring that Simon's watching on.

“Why do you want to leave?” Simon keeps saying. “My collection is perfect with you here. I’ll look after you so well.”

“You know I’m not just Spider-Man, right?” Peter presses him. “You know I have a secret identity, but do you know why that is?”

Simon’s eyes light up. “So the bad guys can’t track you down. Because Spider-Man never gets caught.”

Peter blinks, waiting for Simon to realize the hypocrisy of what he’s just said. He’s not really surprised when it doesn’t register. “No,” Peter says slowly. “It’s to protect my loved ones. Family. Friends.”

Simon’s brow furrows. “Like the Avengers? But the Avengers are untouchable.”

Yeah, I wish. “No, non-Avengers people. People who are missing me a lot right now. People who I miss right back. I need to go home to them.”

But Simon’s shaking his head. “Spider-Man doesn’t have anyone outside of the Avengers in the comics.”

“Because -” Peter breaks off, trying to swallow his temper. As badly as reasoning with this guy is going, Peter doesn’t really want to find out what happens if Simon gets mad. “Because the Avengers all have final say on that kind of stuff. My secret identity isn’t in the comics, so neither is my family. That doesn’t mean I don’t have one.”

“I would never, ever ask you to give me your real name,” Simon replies solemnly. "I'm that serious about keeping you safe." 

Peter runs a hand over the mask, glad it’s hiding his frustration. As comfortable and breathable as Tony has made it, it’s not designed to be worn for days on end like this, and Peter’s claustrophobia is starting to creep up on him. “Simon. I have people who care about me. Let me go home to them.”

It’s the wrong thing to say. Simon’s eyes narrow, taking a few steps away from the glass. “Not as much as I care.”

“Simon -”

“I’m your number one fan. Me.”

“I’m not saying that’s not true! But -”

“I bet they don’t even know how many lines are on your suit. Or read the original Issue 51 from November 2018 that suggested you were Tony Stark’s son before they took it off the shelves. Or…or…” Simon whirls around and grasps what looks like a knock-off Funkopop from one of his display cases. “Or sunk two months of wages into this.”

Peter swallows as he takes in the figure. It’s definitely not official. All merch goes through Tony and Sam for final approval, and they definitely wouldn’t have allowed anything that depicted one of their team turning into dust. “The people I want to get back to aren’t fans,” Peter argues, trying very hard not to stare at the missing chunk in the Spider-Man figure’s head. “They're people who actually care about me!”

Simon’s face shutters. “No one cares about you more than me. No one. No one else deserves to have you.”

Later that night, when Peter opens the food delivery system in the floor, it’s empty.

 


 

“Use your webs.”

“No.”

“Then climb the walls.”

“No.”

“Do something.”

Peter twists his head around to glare at Simon. “No. Want to hear it in Spanish? No.”

Simon crosses his arms, sulking. “You stole that line from Teen Wolf.”

“So I’m not in the mood to come up with my own zingers. Sue me.”

Simon stomps his foot, put out. Peter has zero sympathy. He’d stopped playing along days ago, and he’s paying for it. Simon’s not quite starving him, but the food has been significantly lessened, the lights at night turned up to their fullest to prevent him from sleeping, even with the mask. But Peter’s not giving in. Appealing and reasoning hadn’t worked. So now he’s going to make Simon bored with him instead. So far that plan is not going as great as he’d hoped. “You’re Spider-Man,” Simon whines. “So do Spider-Man stuff.”

Peter pushes himself out of his blanket nest, ignoring how the world tilts for a second when he stands upright. “You want me to do Spider-Man stuff? Like in the comics?”

Simon nods, eager. “Yes.”

“Like help the little guy? Fight villains? Swing through New York?” Peter squares off to his captor through the glass. “Then let me go.”

Simons’s eyes narrow. “They don’t deserve you.”

“Who? The people who actually need me?”

“They don’t even know you! They say they do, but they don’t, not like I do. People who only own like one or two pieces of merch and say they’re collectors, or people who say they’re fans but haven’t even read all your comics, or people who only say they like you because it’s cool now. None of them are actual fans. Not like me. None of them have the real-life Spider-Man right in front of them. But I do. I - hey!”

Peter’s already turned his back on him, flopping back down into the nest that serves as a bed. There’s a part of him that’s reminding him of Natasha’s training - he should be looking for weaknesses, chinks in Simon’s armor, trying to exploit them. But he’s so tired and hungry and miserable that he’s finding it difficult to do anything but throw an arm over his face to block out the blinding lights and try to pretend he’s somewhere else.

Peter doesn’t even notice when Simon leaves, fed up with his new toy that won’t play with him anymore. Peter doubles and then triples-checks he’s alone before making use of the artfully disguised composting toilet in the corner, before checking the food dispenser. Nothing today, not even the meager portions Simon’s been throwing him lately. His stomach growls in protest, but Peter bites down on it. He’s not giving in to this psycho, no matter what. He’s not going to be someone’s personal dancing monkey, shooting webs and flying around a stupid glass box just to satisfy -

Webs. Flying. Box.

Peter’s tried breaking out every way he could see how, but he hasn’t actively tried to break the glass since the disastrous first attempt on his first day. Running at it hadn’t worked. But swinging at it?

It’s impossible to do the calculations without knowing about the integrity of the glass, but Peter has gone through buildings before while swinging - usually unintentionally. It’s going to hurt, and anything with broken glass is always a risk, but he’ll take that chance any day if it means getting out of here.

Peter shoots a web to the top of the box, propelling himself as high as he can go. “Feet first,” Peter states repeats. “Right at the glass. Break through. Go home.”

It’s only after he begins the swing that he considers that this may be a mistake, but by the time that thought occurs, it’s too late. He hits the glass feet first just as the exterior lights turn on, blinding him as every bone in both of his feet shatter.

He collapses onto a nearby blanket pile with a scream of pain, helpless tears pooling behind the mask. The scream jars both legs, sending agony shooting up both limbs that communicate that the foot bones are not the only ones that are broken.

“Spider-Man!” There’s a clatter on the other side of the glass that Peter barely registers. He’s broken bones before, before and after Spider-Man, but never this many and never so localized. Even breathing causes them to shudder against each other, sending fresh waves of pain through him again and again and again.

“Help,” Peter gets out. “Please. I need. Please.”

“Oh my god,” he can hear Simon panting. His voice sounds distant, as though Peter’s lying at the end of a long tunnel. “Oh my god. What- what do I do? Oh my god.”

“Please,” Peter tries again. “Help.”

“Right. Yeah. Help.” But instead of entering the box, or doing anything remotely useful, Simon turns on his heel and runs for the door.

“No,” Peter croaks, throwing a hand out weakly. “Come back, don’t…”

When he senses unconsciousness coming, he sinks into it without complaint.

 


 

“Spider-Man. Spidey. Hey, bud.”

Peter groans, not daring to open his eyes. There’s a dull ache through both his legs, occasionally a pain spike, but it’s better than the ripping agony that had been there before.

“You awake? Do you want some water or…well, I don’t have any water, but I can…not do much.”

That voice. Peter knows that voice. It’s a voice that’s not Simon Sykes. It’s a voice from his team.

The team. The team came. They got him. He’s home.

The first thing Peter sees when he opens his eyes is blinding display lights. “No.” He sits bolt upright, only to sincerely regret that decision a second later as the sudden movement sends a fresh wave of pain through his broken bones.

“Woah, hey, let’s not do that, alright? At least you got that super-fast healing thing. Otherwise this would be really bad.”

“Scott?” Peter forces himself to focus, even though his brain is screaming at him that none of this makes any sense. Because this is definitely Scott Lang tending to him, dressed in the Ant-Man suit, albeit without the helmet. “Why are you- you’re here?”

Here still being the display case. Peter's not out. It didn’t work. And now it’s not just him and Simon - Scott's been dragged into this nightmare too. “Yeah,” Scott assures him. “I’m here.”

“But - why?”

“I got you help!”

Peter grits his teeth, his new least favorite sound in the world being Simon Sykes’s voice. He bears the pain of turning on his side to get a better look at the window. Simon is beaming at him, a kid expecting a reward. “You got me…help.”

“Just like I said I would. See, I told you I would look after you.”

Peter looks down at his legs, now covered from toe to knee in splints and bandages. “I did the best I could,” Scott apologizes. “First aid isn’t really my forte, but hopefully that holds you until we get back to the Tower.”

Peter’s heart sinks. He has a strong feeling they’re not going back to the Tower any time soon. He twists back to look at Simon, trying to smile. He can’t piss this guy off now, not with a teammate's wellbeing on the line. “Thanks, Simon. I really appreciate it.”

Simon’s smile stretches wider. “I got the first Avenger I could,” he says happily. “I knew they’d know what to do.”

“Thanks, man. That was really cool of you.” He fights to keep the next words casual. “Well, I’ll heal now. So you don’t need Scott anymore. You can let him go.”

“Spidey,” Scott begins, but Simon cuts him off.

“Ant-Man said he’ll look after you. I don’t want to take any risks. I told you - my collection is in mint condition. Every piece.”

“Right,” Peter swallows. “But I’ll heal. You don’t need him now.”

There’s a nasty pause. “I don’t usually collect non-Spider-Man-related pieces,” Simon says finally. “But you made me.”

“I’m sorry about trying to break the glass -” Peter begins, but Simon isn’t finished.

“You’re not being Spider-Man,” he gripes. “You’re being boring, and that’s not fair!”

“How many marbles exactly has this guy lost?” Scott mutters.

“Far too many,” Peter replies, eyes still on Simon. “Alright. I can be Spider-Man for you, ok? You don’t need to involve anyone else.”

“Too late.” Simon still looks upset. “I don’t want to. You should be Spider-Man because I’m your biggest fan. You owe me that.”

“It’s ok,” Scott says quickly. “I’m not leaving anyway, Spidey, not while you’re hurt.”

“No one's leaving,” Simon fires back. "You better heal fast. I don’t like my things getting broken.” Then he turns on his heel and storms out of the room.

“What a nutjob.” Scott takes in the room again. “So. This is where you’ve been hiding for the past week.”

“Wouldn’t call it hiding,” Peter mutters, sinking back into the blankets. He has to be on some kind of pain medication, but it’s already wearing off, the ache in his legs intensifying. “Being hidden, maybe.”

Scott makes a sound of sympathy. “For what it’s worth, the whole team was out looking for you. Is out looking for you,” he corrects himself. “And now me. Hopefully.”

“How’d he get you?”

“Kind of hard to say no to someone saying that Spider-Man’s hurt and is going to stay that way unless you do something.”

Peter jerks his head up, staring at Scott. “You came willingly? But, no, I’m not worth that.”

“From the way my daughter never stops talking about you, I highly doubt that’s true.” Scott takes another look around the box, trepidation growing. “How is he feeding you?”

Peter’s heart sinks. He’d been holding out that if he didn’t perform his part, Simon would get bored of him and let him go. He’d been happy to forgo food and sleep in order to play that plan out, but now it isn’t going to be just him that gets starved if he doesn’t play along. Which he’s betting is exactly the reason Simon’s decided to keep Scott around.

“He’s not, really,” Peter mutters. “But I can get him to feed both of us. If I…behave.”

Scott shakes his head. “No need. We’re not staying.”

“I’ve tried everything to get out. There’s no way. Even swinging at the glass didn’t help.”

“Oh, didn’t it?” Scott gestures to the glass. Peter squints and - there. He can just see the tiniest crack.

It’s not enough to raise his spirits. “Ok, so I cracked it. And it took breaking the lower half of my body, so I don’t see how I can do it again.”

“You don’t have to do anything.” Scott bends down to the side of the blanket pile, scooping up the Ant-Man helmet.

Something like hope blossoms in Peter’s chest. “Your suit still works? But Simon butchered mine. He took out all the trackers.”

“Same here,” Scott says. “And he took the Pym Particles. But here’s the thing about Hank Pym. The second a Stark lays a finger on his work, he redesigns it.”

It takes Peter a second to figure out the implications of that. “The suit can shrink without the particles.”

“Yep.”

“You can fit through the crack in the glass? Go get help?” Peter swallows as he pictures Simon returning and realizing he’s lost one of his captives - that rescue is on the way. Peter doesn’t really want to think about how his kidnapper is going to react to that news, but at least it would get Scott out of this mess, which he’s only in because of Peter.

“Not quite.” Scott stands to make his way over to the glass, running a finger over the crack. “But this suit goes two ways, remember?”

“You mean -”

“Yep.” Scott comes back over to him, picking up a stack of blankets. “I’m going to cover you in as many of these as I can, and then we’re getting out of here. Sound good?”

“So good,” Peter agrees.

Scott is barely done with the blankets when there’s a pounding of feet on stairs, and then Simon is bursting back into the room, white and panicked, apparently having heard their plan. “Wait. Wait.”

“Dude, you’re going to want to move,” Scott urges him, placing a hand over the crack in the glass. “There’s about to be a lot of sharp, pointy things in here.”

“Don’t go.” Simon is staring right at Peter, imploring him. “I’m sorry I took away your food and didn’t let you sleep. I won’t do that anymore."

Scott rounds on Simon. “You did what to him?”

“Please,” Simon begs. “No one will ever love you like I do. Look.” He gestures at all the memorabilia. “I know everything about you. I’ve collected every piece of merch that’s ever been invented and then I made more. I love you so much, don’t you get that?”

“Back off him. This isn’t love,” Scott shoots at Simon. “It’s obsession. And very, very creepy. Seriously, get a life.”

Simon’s lower lip quivers. “This is my life. There’s nothing else. There’s no one else.”

“Well, you’re about to have a lot of new friends,” Scott promises him. “I made some awesome connections in prison. BG and I still grab enchiladas once a month.”

Simon changes his angle. “You’ll die,” he fires at Scott. “Your neck will break before the glass does if you grow.”

“See, it won’t though.” Scott taps the crack Peter’s already made. “Structure is compromised. I’ll be good.”

“But -”

“Goodbye, Simon. And by the way, you’re not Spider-Man’s biggest fan. That’s about to be me.”

Peter throws the blankets over his head, covering himself best he can as he hears one more scream from Simon outside, followed by the sounds of breaking glass. Then he’s being scooped up, lifted into a giant arm, blankets and all. He pokes his head out. “We’re out?”

“Yep,” Scott’s voice booms. “Next stop, Avengers Tower!”

There’s an agonized cry from below them, and for one heart-stopping moment Peter is sure Simon has been impaled. But peering down, he sees that the guy isn’t even bleeding. He’s crawling out from under one of his display cabinets, staring around at his ruined collection. “You destroyed it!” he’s yelling. “How could you - this is my life’s work!”

“Then your life is pretty sad,” Peter mutters.

“We’re meant to be together! You and me! That’s how it’s meant to be!”

“I’m just going to walk away,” Scott says. “That cool?”

“Very cool,” Peter agrees. Scott raises a huge arm and bats at one of the walls, clearing the way, and Peter breathes in a huge lungful of the first fresh air he’s had in days. “He is going to prison, right?”

“Oh, yeah. But I say we let someone else handle that part. Let’s get you to a hospital. Put you on the good drugs.”

“I don’t think Spider-Man is meant to endorse drugs.”

“Well then I’m not talking to Spider-Man anymore, I’m talking to Peter.”

Something swells in Peter’s chest. “You’re talking to Peter?”

“Just Peter. Is that ok?”

“Yeah,” Peter breathes. “Just Peter is good. Thank you.”

“Any time, Peter. Any time.”

Peter flops back, closing his eyes. “You’re really cool, do you know that? You can even say I look up to you.”

”Hey, pun! Puns are great.”

Right?”

Not as good as dad jokes though. Want to hear some?”

”Hit me.”

Chapter Text

Peter walks in on Steve and Sam having a full-on argument.

“For the last time, Steve,” Sam is saying. “It’s not going to work.”

“So what, I’m meant to sit back and do nothing?”

“No one is saying that,” Natasha counters just as Peter rounds the corner towards the common room. “But Sam’s right. You’re too recognizable. You’re just going to scare the one lead we have away, and that’s only going to make things worse for Bucky.”

“What happened to Bucky?” The entire room turns to stare at Peter as he enters. Steve and Sam appear to be in a stand-off, with Natasha and Clint on a couch, both looking tense and serious, and Tony in the back surrounded by holograms.

“Sorry, kid.” Tony flicks his wrist to send the digital screens behind him. “You’re not cleared for this one.”

“Why not?” Peter demands. “If Bucky’s in trouble -”

“We don’t have time for this!” Steve pushes Sam’s hand off his shoulder. “I’ve decided. I’m going in.”

“No, you’re not,” Sam argues. “You’re not Captain anymore, Steve - I am. Because you trusted me with the shield. You don’t think I care what happens Bucky too?”

Steve deflates a little. “You’re right. And of course I trust you, Sam. Always have. But I can’t just sit back and do nothing while those people have him.”

“What people?” Peter demands. “Who has Bucky?”

“No,” Tony states. “No way. This one’s rated R18, no exceptions.”

“I’m eighteen in a few months!”

“So you’re seventeen, is what I’m hearing.”

“Enough.” Natasha rises from the couch. “Peter’s an Avenger, just like the rest of us. Let him stay.”

“That’s not your call, Romanoff.”

“Tony,” Steve cuts in, exasperated. “I’m sure Peter can handle hearing about it, at least.”

“Can keep them kids forever,” Clint adds.

Tony glances around them, huffing. “I see I’m outnumbered.” He jabs a finger in Peter’s direction. “This does not mean you are invited to our little rescue party, capeesh?”

“Can someone please just tell me where Bucky is?”

Steve and Sam share a look before Sam launches into it. “We’ve been tracking a group of people for a while. Traffickers.”

Peter’s stomach flips. “Traffickers? Like…buying and selling people?”

Steve sinks into a chair, hands curling into fists. “I thought we were done with this. I thought people would finally leave him alone.”

Sam lays a comforting hand on Steve’s shoulder. This time, Steve doesn’t brush it away. “These traffickers and their clientele are specialized in…unique individuals.”

“Like the Winter Soldier,” Peter finishes, then looks over at Steve. “And super-soldiers. You want to let them catch you to lead the rest of the team to them. Like a Trojan Horse.”

"And Spider-Kid’s right on the money.” Tony’s back at his screens, a mix of names and photos and street maps. “A good plan, except for the fact that former-Cap’s face there has been splattered over memorabilia since the 1940s. Means we can’t exactly dress him up as a regular joe. Well, a regular joe with super-strength and America’s a-”

“We know there’s an auction tonight,” Natasha cuts across Tony. “But not where it is.”

“I still say our best bet is we join our S.H.I.E.L.D. friends already combing the streets,” Clint offers. “We know these guys operate in the train yards - let’s stake it out, grab the first one we see. Nat and I are more than capable of making them talk.”

“And what if we don’t find one?” Steve argues. “Or they don’t know where the auction is? We know not every member of their gang know the auction locations. It’s too risky. I still say we send me in.”

“You’ll scare them off,” Sam insists. “They’ll go completely underground if they know we’re onto them, and they’ll take Bucky with them. We’ll lose the trace.”

“So what, we just let him get sold?”

“Send me.”

The room falls completely silent, everyone turning to look at Peter. Tony breaks it. “No. No way. No.”

“You need an unrecognizable enhanced, right?” Peter presses. “They don’t know what I look like without the Spider-Man suit. I can be your Trojan Horse. I can lead you to Bucky without them knowing the Avengers are on their tail.”

Tony looks at the others, disbelieving. “We’re not entertaining this.”

“Peter…” Steve looks thoroughly torn. “That’s very brave of you to offer, but these people…they don’t exactly treat their prisoners well. You shouldn’t have to go through that.”

“Neither should Bucky,” Peter points out. “And you said the auction was tonight, right? They’ll only have me for a few hours. How bad can it get in a few hours?”

Sam and Steve glance at each other. “Bad,” Sam says bluntly. “It can get bad, Peter.”

Peter squares his shoulders. “I can take it.”

“This is a waste of time,” Tony declares. “Because the answer is no. The kid’s not ready for that, not even close.

“Tony.” Steve still looks indecisive. “If it’s the best bet of getting Bucky back -”

“We’ll think of something else,” Tony presses. “I’ll find him, or F.R.I.D.A.Y. will, or we can go to the train yards and -”

“Bucky would do it for me.” That gets everyone’s attention on Peter again. “You know he would. And you know if it was me in danger, and if Bucky volunteered for this, none of you would protest.”

“It’s not the same thing,” Tony starts, but Peter’s done being talked down to.

“Why not? He’s an Avenger. So am I. Am I part of this team or not?”

“Peter’s right.” Natasha moves over to Peter so they’re standing face to face. “We’ve all seen what Peter’s capable of, both in the training room and on the battlefield. He’s got this.”

Peter manages a smile. “Thanks, Nat.”

Tony isn’t sold. “These people are the worst of the worst. And we’re just talking about sending Peter in there, completely defenseless?”

“Then let’s not make him defenseless,” Clint replies, also standing. “I get it,” he says, before Tony can argue further. “None of us want to do this, alright Tony? But Nat’s right, Peter’s got this. And it’s Bucky.”

Tony falters, then finally gives in. “Ok. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but ok. But we be smart about this. We do not take a single risk we don’t have to - we give Peter every tool in the tool shed to make sure he’s as safe as he can be.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” Steve agrees. “Thank you. Both of you.”

“Alright,” Sam announces. “Let’s go get our friend back.”

 


 

An hour later, Peter’s alone in the train yards.

He can still taste the lingering metallic flavor of the tracker he’d swallowed before Sam had dropped him off a few blocks away. “Saying SOS out loud will trigger an alarm in our comms,” Tony had told him as he slipped what looked like a mesh ring onto Peter’s finger. Two taps and it had seemed to vanish, even though Peter can still feel it. “Or you can press that if speaking is going to give you away. You don’t be a hero, ok Pete? You need us, you call us. Don’t try and tough it out if it gets too much, or you’re grounded through college.”

“You can’t ground me.”

“I will get May to ground you through college.” Then Tony had pulled him into a hug, brief but tight. “I mean it. We all want Bucky back, but you know he wouldn’t want you to get hurt, and neither do we. So smart, and stay safe.”

Sam repeats Tony’s sentiments after he and Peter touch down. “If it gets too much, the second you get in over your head, you call for us. No matter whether or not you’ve found Bucky. Ok?”

Peter nods. “Ok. Got it.”

“Peter.” Sam’s more serious than Peter’s ever seen him. “I know you. I know you’ll push yourself to extreme limits if it means helping someone else. This is not the night for that, ok? You put your safety first.”

“I -”

“You know what Bucky means to me,” Sam says, his voice low. “So you know I don’t ask this lightly. If things go south - get out or call for us. Promise me.”

Peter swallows, nervousness intensifying. But he’s not backing out now. “Alright. I- I promise.”

Sam claps him on the shoulder. “Good. Stick to it. See you in a few hours.”

“Me and Bucky both. Now can you please leave? You’re going to blow my cover.”

“Alright, alright. One undercover mission and you get bossy, jeez.”

It feels horribly exposing, showing off his super-strength without his mask on. They’ve agreed that he’s not going to display anything else - just a strong, enhanced human like the ones that have been cropping up in Hell’s Kitchen. The plan is to go through a Mr Incredible-inspired workout of hauling around trains and wait to get noticed.

He’s not waiting long.

He senses the net coming for him long before it hits, his spider-sense screaming danger move danger, but he grits his teeth and lets it happen.

The net is electrified, the crew that comes to grab him efficient, and Peter’s last thought before unconsciousness takes him is that he maybe, maybe has bitten off more than he can chew.

 


 

Electricity sends him under, and electricity brings him back.

He wakes to a ring of fire around his throat. He bolts upright, but his limbs aren’t moving and he topples over immediately, slamming his face into a vibrating floor with a muffled shout. There’s voices, an engine. He’s in a van.

The world slowly comes back into focus. There are people around him - a quick count of shoes indicates at least six. His spider-sense is off the charts - no wonder with all the guns crammed into the tiny space, the collar he can feel clamped around his neck, and with the fact that none of them are bothering to hide their faces. It peeks when a woman in her late sixties bends over him, craning his chin up. Peter struggles on instinct, but his arms are wrapped behind him in cuffs that go up to his elbows and cover both his hands, forcing them into fists so he can't use his fingers. A similar metal is wrapped around his legs from knee to ankle, gluing his calves together, and there’s something thick and hard crammed between his teeth, a painful pressure at the back of his head.

Gagged. He’s gagged. And he can’t move his fingers to set off the ring either. No triggering an SOS now unless he can find a way to get the restraints off, and from the way Boss Lady is surveying him like a present on Christmas Day, he doubts that’s happening any time soon.

Peter pulls himself together. It doesn’t matter. He chose this. Now he’s finishing it.

“Hello,” Boss Lady breathes. Her breath is an overpowering mint. “What did my boys catch, hm?”

“We’ll take him to analysis,” someone Peter can’t see says. “Shouldn’t take more than a week.”

Peter makes a quiet noise of distress before he can catch himself. They’re meant to take him to the auction, where Bucky is, not somewhere else entirely.

“No. We’ve stayed in this city long enough. Sell him with the others.” Boss Lady smirks at Peter, tightening her grip on his jaw. “The pretty ones always fetch a nice penny anyway.”

It only gets worse from there.

The van ride is short at least, which Peter really hopes means that they’re operating close to the train yards, and not that he was knocked out for a long enough time for them drive him miles away. He spends the time trying to test the restraints without being caught, but it only succeeds in Boss Lady setting off what he quickly learns is a shock collar, and a powerful one at that. He stops fighting after the first warning shock. Boss Lady smirks at him, ruffling his hair after he goes still again without protest. “Good boy.”

They don’t bother to be gentle when removing him from the van. Peter gets a glimpse of night skies and one last gulp of fresh air through gagged teeth before he’s being hauled inside a building that reeks of metal and chemicals and, underneath all of it, the unmistakable odors of unwashed bodies and fear.

Boss Lady sees Peter wrinkle his nose. “Enhanced senses too then, I take it?” Then, without warning, she leans down and presses an overlong fingernail into the delicate skin under Peter’s eye. He flinches away, but that only digs the nail in deeper, slicing along his face, stopping just short of his actual eyeball. “Let’s see if you heal too, hm? The other strong one did.”

The other strong one. Bucky.

Peter grits his teeth around the gag, trying not to let his panic rise at just how much information Boss Lady is gathering about his physiology. She’s clearly smart, has to be to have this kept this operation going in the Avengers’ backyard for god know’s how long. What if she puts enough of the pieces together and figures out it’s not just a random enhanced teenager but an Avenger that’s walked straight into her grasp?

But that thought soon becomes the least of his worries, as the web of limbs carrying him dump in a dank back room, and then someone is cutting off his clothes.

Everything in Peter tells him to struggle, but the scissors are flashing with enough efficiency for him to tell that they’re sharp as hell. He lies as still as he can to avoid getting cut, which gets him another “Good boy,” painting his cheeks red with the humiliation of the whole situation. His breathing accelerates as first his shirt and hoodie are removed, then his jeans, working the fabric out from under the restraints. He knows what’s next, tries to brace himself for it, but that doesn’t make the removing of his underwear feel any less invasive or him any less exposed afterward.

Someone is talking behind him, numbers that Peter first realizes are prices, and then realizes they’re prices for him. Boss Lady thumbs over the already healing cut under his eye. “Strong, enhanced senses, accelerated healing factor.” He thinks she’s going to stop there, but then she adds, “Young, unmaimed, attractive.” And finally, most horrifically, “Put him down as fifteen. And say he’s a virgin to drive the price up.”

And Peter’s brain just goes - offline. It’s only for a second, a brief flash of missing time, before he’s rudely brought back by a jet of hard, freezing water hitting him in the face.

He splutters, the water having gone up his nose, unable to close his mouth against the spray with the gag in. His choking only becomes more desperate as the barrage of icy water continues, unable to breathe even as it moves from his face down his body. Finally, hands grip him under the arms and haul him upright onto his knees, and he feels a stab of gratitude that he can finally lean his head forward to get air when he realizes just why they’ve put him in that position, where the hose is firing next, just why they would want that particular part of his body to be clean, and -

And, god, Tony was right. He’s not ready for this, he is so far from being ready for this. They had told him it would be bad, and Peter hadn’t listened. And they’d only let him do this in the first place because they thought he had an out if it got too much, and Peter doesn’t. Both of his exits are sealed away under cruel and unyielding metal and he has absolutely no choice but to endure whatever is coming next until his teammates come and pull him out.

The hose is finally switched off. Peter hardly gets a second to breathe before he’s being affronted from all sides with rough towels, rubbing his skin raw as they dry him off. Boss Lady is there again, surveying him, reaching to touch him again, and Peter can’t help himself. He growls at her.

The shock collar goes off.

When his vision clears, her face is right in his. “None of that,” she warns. “What happened to my good boy, hm?”

Peter makes a muffled noise, the claustrophobia of the restraints ratcheting up another few notches. It’s not for much longer, he tries to assure himself. There’s a tracker in your stomach. The Avengers are coming for you soon.

There’s another conversation happening, and he desperately tries to tune into it. Something about length. Length of what? “Short,” Boss Lady decides. “Not all of it though. Keep it pretty, but easy maintenance.”

He doesn’t have to wonder what she’s talking about for long. He’s hauled upright again, unwanted hands keeping him in place as the scissors return. But he’s not wearing any clothes, so what is there left to cut? A meaty hand grips his neck, keeping him still as Peter fights not to struggle, even when the first lock of hair is chopped off.

It shouldn’t be the worst part. Peter is deep-diving for logic - he’s been electrocuted, stripped, half-drowned in icy water. This is just hair. Hair grows back. It doesn’t even hurt. Still, he can’t help the sting of tears as he watches the soaked floor around him slowly fill with lopped-off curls.

It continues until Boss Lady is satisfied, reaching out to brush away a few stray hairs that have caught behind his ears. “Alright. Load him up and put him with the others. Someone go and tell the auctioneer that we have a bonus lot for tonight.” She cups Peter’s chin one more time. “It’s almost a shame he’s guaranteed to fetch me a pretty price tonight. I wouldn’t have minded keeping this one.”

She pats his cheek, then arms are pulling him around again, except this time it’s through metal bars until they’re above his head, under his body, surrounding him on all the sides. Then the cage is shut and padlocked, and Peter’s being carried.

He squirms as much as he can with his limbs locked together. The cage is tiny. By the time he maneuvers himself onto his knees instead of lying painfully on his arms, leaning over double to give himself the barest amount of privacy, the metal bars are squeezing his shoulders and he can’t lift his head. He’s bowed in on himself, folded to fit into the limited space, holding onto the thought that the Avengers know where you are. The Avengers are coming.

He hears murmurs, then a voice telling them to settle down. The auction is about to begin. Any time guys. Preferably before they display me on a stage. Then more sounds trickle in, little cries and whimpers that pull at Peter’s heart. Peter tries to twists from his limited vantage point to try and get a look before he’s unceremoniously dumped onto a hard floor. There’s no way to brace himself with the way he’s tied up, so his head slams into the top of the cage and is then immediately sent crashing into his knees, splitting his lip. He gives a pained grunt in protest, but no one is paying attention to him anymore, and an amplified voice is calling, “Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats as we announce Lot Number One.”

Peter’s currently seeing nothing but a brick wall, so he tries to twist his neck around to take in his surroundings better. He sees the floor of a stage and a bright light, but that’s not enough, so regretfully he begins the awkward shuffle of twisting around on his side, trying very hard not to think about how that exposes certain parts of his body, but it’s worth it. It gives him a full view of the four other cages lined up next to his, each containing a different person in various states of restriction. One of them, a girl who looks no older than thirteen, is tied up similarly to he is. Two are relatively free beyond cages, gags, and collars, while the fourth is in what looks like a metal cocoon. The contraption is kept in place with chains locked with six separate padlocks, with just a couple of breathing holes poked in where their nose would be. Peter swallows, dread increasing when he realizes this experience could somehow be even worse, when one of the less tied-up enhanced starts screaming.

Peter flinches, checking for injury, but the guy doesn’t appear to be hurt in any way. It appears to be unbridled panic spilling over, making the young man thrash in his cage as his skin starts to work through several different colors - red, purple, green, blue and then back to red again.

The other one without any cuffs, a girl a few years older, is trying to reach him through her bars, pleading through her gag for him to calm down. Both of their collars go off at once, but even that doesn’t calm the color-changing enhanced down. If anything, it only intensifies his panic as he starts kicking against the cage bars.

The murmuring of the crowd outside intensifies as the auctioneer asks for their patience. Boss Lady strolls into the backstage area, looking livid. “Can’t you lot control the items for five minutes?” She strolls up to the panicking enhanced, looking down at him in disgust. “Ah. The color-changer. That’s all he does, right?” One of the crew confirms it, and she sighs heavily. “This is what you get for scraping the bottom of the barrel.” Then she pulls out a tiny remote, and twists the dial.

There’s a brief moment where nothing happens. Then the enhanced’s screams turn from panic to those of pain, high and piercing and terrified, before the collar snaps his neck in two.

Peter’s stomach lurches, hastily slamming his eyes shut, but it does nothing to erase the image of the twisted mess of bone and cartilage and muscle, blood soaking out from the bottom of the cage. Peter’s own collar suddenly feels overwhelmingly tight, now he knows just what it can do.

“Right.” Boss Lady claps her hands together. “Someone go and tell the auctioneer that Lot Number 2 is no longer available, and to apologize to our clients for the delay.”

The auctioneer repeats the words, a few mutters of disappointment rippling through the crowd. As though they’ve just been told the kitchen is sold out of the soup of the day, as though there’s not a body laying just a few yards away. And it isn’t as though Peter hasn’t seen people die before, but he’s never seen someone die in cold blood just because they’d been an inconvenience.

“Apologies again,” the jarringly soothing voice of the auctioneer is saying. “But we do still have Lot Number 1, a very exciting piece brought to you this evening, as I’m sure you’ll agree. As I’m also sure that many of you will be familiar by now with the Winter Soldier.”

Bucky.

Peter hauls in several breaths through his nose. He needs to see him. He needs to see that Bucky’s ok, or at least alive, that the last couple of hours of humiliation and horror have been worth something. He just has to open his eyes again. That’s all.

There’s the rustle like a cloth is being removed, and then oohs and ahhs from the audience, even a few gasps. Peter needs to see. This is the auction the Avengers are going to prevent, they’re going to be here any minute, he needs to see.

He opens his eyes.

He tries not to look at the body, but his vision is immediately pulled to it. It’s even worse a second time around - the bulging eyes, the crushed neck, the still twitching hands. The girl who had been trying to soothe him is crying silently, tears dripping over her hands as she presses them over her face. Swallowing back his revulsion, Peter transfers his gaze to the sliver of the stage he can see instead.

Bucky’s tied up similar to Peter, with cuffs that encase his arms and legs, the same style of leather-wrapped bit shoved between his teeth and locked around the back of his head. His cage is taller though, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s been forced onto his knees, as naked as the rest of them, leg cuffs locked to the floor of the cage and arm cuffs to the back. Two further chains attach to his collar, locked to the bars above his head, meaning he has no choice but to sit in the position they’ve placed him in, fully on display. He can’t even bow his head, expression totally blank as the auctioneer starts the bidding. The first offer is already in the millions.

Peter risks calling out. It gets him shocked, which only makes him cry louder before he hastily shuts up, the collar around his neck oppressive. It’s enough to get Bucky’s attention though, eyes darting behind the wings and landing straight on Peter.

Bucky’s eyes fly wide, going from shock to anger to landing on a weary kind of resignation. He tugs at his chains, but they’ve left him hardly a centimeter of slack and he barely moves beyond tensing his muscles, and there’s no real heart in the movement.

It slams into Peter then - that once upon a time, Bucky would have been used to this. Being passed around from person to person and having absolutely no say in the matter. Peter had known that, knew the outline of Bucky’s time with Hydra even though he’d never been privy to the details, but it was one thing to know about it and another to see it - to see how quickly Bucky seemed to have resigned himself to a familiar fate.

The Avengers are coming, Peter tries to project across the room. We’re getting rescued really soon, just hold on.

Something sparks behind Bucky’s eyes, which Peter really hopes means that some of that had shown on his face. Then an offer is made with enough zeroes that might even make Tony sit up and pay attention, and just like that Bucky has been sold.

Any minute now. They’re coming any minute now.

A blonde woman adorned in a black evening gown glides across the stage, a gem-encrusted fox mask hiding her features. She bends over her prize, examining him. Bucky doesn’t meet her eyes. He’s back to that terrifying blank mask, eyes as downcast as the chains holding his head up will allow.

Come on, guys, Peter thinks, even as he desperately holds out hope that they will keep all their ‘items’ until the end to be picked up later, like a regular auction. But luck isn’t on his side tonight. A black cloth is thrown over Bucky’s cage, and then two huge men in black suits are lifting him, carrying him away, out of Peter’s sight.

He’s gone. Peter went through all of this with the sole purpose of getting the Avengers to Bucky’s location, and now he’s gone, and they still haven’t come.

The next three enhanced are sold far too quickly, with the one in the metal cocoon going for an even higher price than Bucky did, and then it’s his turn. His cage is lifted and carried out onto the stage, Peter closing his eyes to avoid a close-up of the mangled corpse they seem to have no interest in removing or cleaning up. He’s set down on the stage with relative gentleness, the lights blinding. He squints his eyes open slowly, gazing out into a crowd of people in evening wear and masks, every single one of them staring straight at him.

Peter flushes bright red, hastily returning to his position on his knees to shield as much of himself as he can, but it doesn’t make a difference. He’s never felt this exposed and vulnerable in his life, and there is absolutely nothing he can do about it. He just has to sit and take it - to listen as people bid to take his freedom away.

At first there’s a wide interest, which does absolutely nothing to make Peter feel better about the situation, before it boils down to two bidders - a man in the back, and a woman in the front.

Peter risks raising his head, biting down on the bit to ground himself as he tries to assess his two potential captors. The woman in the front is in a blinding red number complete with wolf mask, but even with half of her face obscured he can read the hunger in her expression. His skin crawls in a way he can’t stand as she gets gradually more irritated as the numbers grow higher. Occasionally, an older man next to her will lean down to try and get her attention, only for her to keep bidding higher and higher and higher, relentless and determined. Peter can’t see the man in the back at all, can’t hear anything but his voice. It sounds Southern, is about as far as Peter can get, and he is bidding a lot more calmly than the woman in red.

The next time the woman raises her hand, the man next to her slaps it down, clearly having had enough. She stomps her foot and harrumphs like a stroppy child, but her hand stays in her lap as the auctioneer bangs the gavel and announces Peter sold. The crowd murmurs, then begins to disperse now that there are no more items to sell.

And the Avengers still haven’t come.

Peter struggles against his bonds, but they’re as unmovable as when they were first locked around him, and even if he gets out, where is he going to go? He’s surrounded by the enemy with a deadly shock collar around his neck, and his only ally in the room is long gone. I’m sorry, Bucky. I tried.

As footsteps approach the stage, Peter tries to cling to the hope that there’s still a tracker inside of him, but it’s fading fast. Surely if the tracker was working, the team would already be here and this nightmare would be over.

“Let’s take a look, then.” The Southern man is bending over, and while what’s left of Peter’s tattered pride is urging him to meet him head-on, Peter finds himself doing exactly what Bucky had done. After getting a glimpse of a beer belly stuffed into an expensive suit, Peter stares down at the man’s over-shined shoes instead. “Where’d you get it?”

It. Like he’s not even a person. Peter shudders, closing his eyes. At this point he almost believes it.

He’s not sure if it’s an improvement when a black cloth is thrown over his cage as well. He’s plunged into darkness, completely unaware of where he’s being taken as the cage is lifted once more, this time being carried away from the stage. On the other hand, there’s no one staring at him anymore. He curls into himself even more, knees and shoulders and jaw aching, and with no other visuals to latch onto his brain starts a cycle of the mangled neck of a corpse, the resigned look on Bucky’s face, a pair of lips saying Good boy.

The cloth doesn’t block out sound, at least. Peter can hear when inside turns into outside, only for him to be chucked onto a surface that feels like carpet. A few seconds later the carpet is vibrating with the sound of an engine, and they’re moving. Another van. He’s being driven away from the auction house, away from Bucky, and still no one has come to get him.

Something more important called them away. Or the tracker’s broken. Or they’re waiting for Peter to give the signal, one he can’t give, and all the while he’s being driven further and further away with a man he doesn’t know, for what purpose he has no idea. The swaying of the van and lack of vision is making him nauseous, and he swallows desperately against it. If he throws up right now, he’s going to choke.

Then again, maybe that’s a better fate than wherever this guy is taking him.

The van hums for about fifteen minutes before it stops. Peter holds his breath as he hears the driver’s door open, then the back of the van. They’re here, wherever here is. And the Avengers never came.

The cloth is pulled off the cage, Peter squinting against the sudden brightness of the car’s interior lights. He tries to rearrange his features into something that looks halfway brave, because no way is he going into whatever this is like a crying, scared child, when he hears a familiar voice. “Peter? Jesus, what the hell did they do to you, kid?"

Peter goes still. No. It can’t be. They didn’t come. They didn’t - “C’int?”

“If that’s you trying to say Clint, then you’ve got it in one. Hold on, let me get you out of all that.”

Peter sags like a puppet with snapped strings as he hears the cage door being unlocked. Here. The Avengers are here.

Suddenly, with freedom so close, the claustrophobia triples rather than abates. Peter throws himself against the restraints, hitting them against the side of the cage. The collar feels like it’s cutting off his airway; the collar that could shock, could snap bone, could -

“Woah, woah, Peter. I get it, that looks uncomfortable as hell, but I can’t do anything if you’re thrashing like that.” A gentle, calloused hand places itself on the small of Peter’s back. “Take a breath for me.”

Peter tries. He hauls in a shaky inhale through his nose, managing to keep still except for the tremors now running through his body.

Clint swears under his breath, rubbing small circles on Peter’s skin. “Alright. Looks like the easiest way to do this is to untie you in the cage, otherwise I’m going to have to drag you out and that’s not going to be pleasant for either of us.”

Peter nods in agreement. He’s had enough of people hauling him around for one night.

“Cool, cool, see? On the same page already.” The hand on his back travels to his arms, then freezes when it gets to Peter’s bound-up hands. “Oh. Peter. You couldn’t -”

Peter hangs his head. They were waiting for his signal.

Clint starts moving again, searching for the locks to the arm bands. “We didn’t know,” Clint’s explaining hastily. “Jesus, Peter, we thought you were ok. Or, not ok, but ok enough to keep going.”

Clint keeps talking, alternating between apologies and explanations, but every thought on Peter’s mind shrinks down to free free free.

Pain erupts up both arms as Clint rips the cuffs away, a soft thud indicating that he’s thrown them to the other side of the van. “Careful, careful. Don’t move them too fast.”

Clint's hands are gliding over his, massaging out his palms where his hands have been balled into fists for so long, but there’s only one thought on Peter’s mind now, and it’s getting out of the deadly collar. He rips his hands out of Clint’s, reaching for it before stopping an inch away, hesitant. What if tampering with it sets it off?

“Ok, I hear you. But I can’t reach it while you’re in the cage. So legs first, ok?”

Peter shakes his head, desperate. He wants it off now, wants the threat gone and done with.

“I know,” Clint tries to soothe him. “But the only way I’m getting to that thing with you in there is pretty much climbing on top of you, and that’s not something I’m comfortable with only one of us dressed, so let me do your legs.”

He’s already moving, trying to maneuver Peter’s lower body as gently and tactfully as he can to reach the locks. Peter’s fingers remain hovering by the collar, too scared to touch, but not wanting to pull away either.

A hand grips his bare foot, giving it a quick squeeze. “Hey. They gave me all the controls. That collar is not going off, ok? You’re safe, Peter, I promise.” Clint doesn’t give Peter time to respond, but Peter’s just grateful that he can feel the metal binding his legs together loosening, then removed entirely. “Alright, let’s get you out of that thing.”

With extreme care of where he’s touching, Clint guides Peter backward out of the cage, placing a hand on his shorn hair to prevent Peter from banging his head. As glad as he is to be out of the thing, the world suddenly feels too big, even in the back of the van, and Peter curls in on himself again, placing his head between his knees.

“Nearly there,” Clint promises. “Which one did she say- right. Got it.”

Then there’s a clink and a click, and the collar is gone. Relief floods Peter as cool air pools around his bare neck. It’s gone. It’s gone.

“Last piece,” Clint murmurs, and then the final lock is undone, and Clint is massaging Peter’s jaw until it’s loose enough to spit out the gag. “There you go, all done. Just let me…”

The comforting presence behind him vanishes, and Peter’s a second away from forcing himself to look up to see where Clint has gone when something soft and warm is being wrapped around his shoulders. Peter draws it close to him as Clint slaps the roof of the van, and it starts moving again. “Who’s driving us?” Peter manages. His tongue feels bruised and heavy.

“F.R.I.D.A.Y. She’s taking us right back to the Tower.”

“And Bucky?”

“Safe,” Clint promises him. “Natasha has him. She’s taking him to what I’m sure will be a very soppy reunion with Steve right this minute.”

Peter blinks, trying to remember as he pulls the blanket tighter around himself. “The blonde woman. That was Natasha.”

“Yep. The others were too recognizable, but Nat and I know a thing or two about going under the radar when we need to.”

“There were other enhanced. Three more.” Four more.

“We have them,” Clint promises. “Called up some old S.H.I.E.L.D. friends to pose as buyers. They’re all going to be just fine.”

“Oh. That’s, um. That’s good.”

“Hey.” Clint shuffles around so they’re face to face. “It’s done. You did it. You got them all out.”

“Ok.” His voice sounds far away.

“Peter, if you’re able to - can you please tell me how I help you right now? Do you want space, or do you want touch?”

It’s not even the kindness or the concern that’s the breaking point. It’s the choice; the first one Peter has been offered in regards to his own body in hours. “Touch,” he says, his voice cracking.

Clint doesn’t hesitate. He leans forward and wraps his arms around Peter in a bear hug, maneuvering them so they’re leaning against the van wall. Peter buries his head in Clint’s chest, inhaling. No matter how much time Clint spends in the city, he always smells a little bit like fresh air and newly tilled soil.

Peter’s blanketed hand touches something soft and spongy, and he recoils a little in surprise. Clint looks down at where he’s touching. “Oh, that.” He reaches down to remove the padding that’s making up a fake belly under his shirt. “Laura keeps saying I’m going to get a dad bod any day now. Consider this a trial run - I think I pull it off.”

Peter nods against Clint’s chest, words failing him.

Clint pulls him in a little tighter. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asks gently.

Pretty. Virgin. Good boy. “I…I don’t know.”

Clint is silent for a beat. “I’m not going to force you to talk to me,” he says quietly. “But as someone who’s run their own fair share of crappy undercover missions, I can tell you that it’s better to get it out while it's fresh rather than having to dredge it all up later.”

Peter shifts. He can still taste metal in his mouth. “They grabbed me at the train yards,” he begins. “Like we planned. Knocked me out. When I woke up they’d…” He swallowed.

“I know this sucks, but I promise it’ll feel better after,” Clint presses. “Ok?”

Peter nods. “They’d tied me up. And gagged me. And there was the shock collar. And…and a woman. She was their boss.”

“We know the one,” Clint says. “You’re doing great, Peter.”

“They took me to…” Peter searches for the right words. “The auction house? And, um…they stripped me. And washed me.” He stumbles over the next part. “They cut my hair.”

Clint shifts a hand up to the back of Peter’s head.

“It shouldn’t- it’s just hair. I shouldn’t be -

“They modified your body without your consent,” Clint interjects. “And that’s awful and violating. Doesn’t matter what part, doesn’t matter how temporary.”

A tiny amount of the shame Peter’s carrying lifts. “Oh.”

“You know,” Clint continues. “I’m actually the family hairdresser, out at the farmhouse. Not like there’s a salon nearby. I can’t put it back to what it was, obviously, but maybe we can work out something that you like. Something you choose. How does that sound?”

It sounds pretty damn good, actually. Peter relaxes a touch more. “I’d like that.”

“We can do it tonight, if you want. You won’t even need to look in a mirror until I’m done.”

“Thanks,” Peter mumbles. “I…yes. I want that.”

Clint gives him a squeeze. “Are you ready to keep going?”

Peter sucks in a breath. He’s nearly there. Might as well finish. “Then they put me in the cage, and they took me to where they were selling everybody. And there were other enhanced there and…” His breath catches, but he forces himself on, because Clint’s right, this is helping. “There was this one guy there and he just started panicking. This girl tried to calm him down but he wouldn’t be quiet, so that woman in charge she just…she killed him.”

Clint goes very still. “And you saw that.”

“She…she broke his neck. With the collar.”

Clint lets out a string of curse words. “Peter, I -”

“I want to finish,” Peter interrupts him, because he’s so close now. “So, the man…died, and then the auction started. And I…and I saw Bucky. And…” He searches for the words, Clint patiently waiting for him to do so. “I don’t know. He just looked so…like he’d given up. Which isn’t fair, I know, but he just looked like he’d been through that so many times before that he just. Took it. I’m not judging,” Peter hastens to add. “I’m not, I’m just -”

“I know,” Clint assures him. “When you have a history as long as Bucky’s, you learn to adapt any way you can. Just because Shuri took all the Winter Soldier programming out, doesn’t mean she erased all the coping mechanisms and learned responses too. Those things can’t be erased with the flick of a switch.”

Peter swallows. “I know. I mean, I thought I knew. But it was different. Seeing it.” He shifts a little to roll out his sore shoulders. “Can I see him?” It suddenly becomes the most important thing in the world, as though seeing Bucky free and safe and healthy will erase that last image Peter now has of him, resigned to his return to a caged life.

Clint hesitates. “I’ll check in with him,” he settles on. “He’ll probably need some time with just Steve before he sees anyone else. But I’m sure he’ll want to see that you’re ok too.”

Peter can’t argue with that, so he nods. “Then they sold me,” he finishes. He reaches for the details. “There was a woman in the front row.” Then he’s stuck. That’s it. The words won’t come out anymore.

“I was there for that bit,” Clint says quietly. “I saw. And heard. And Peter, I promise you we didn’t know it was anything like that. We thought they were trafficking enhanced as weapons, maybe exotic pets. If we had known there was anything like that on the table, we never would have let you do this. Ever.”

Peter just nods again, a lump growing in his throat. Then, the question he’s been burning to ask tumbles out. “Why didn’t you come?” He feels Clint freeze again and hastens on. “I mean, I know you did come, otherwise I wouldn’t be here, but I thought you were going to storm the auction house. That you were going to track me there and then…and you didn’t come.”

He hates how childish it sounds even as he says it, how small and wobbly his voice is, but Clint just hugs him tighter. “The agents who were looking into it found another auction house, and when your SOS didn’t go off, and we thought you were ok, we figured it would best to keep our covers - get you and Bucky out without letting them know we were onto them. That way we could get deeper into their operation, find more houses, track who they’ve sold other enhanced to. We didn’t click that you hadn’t called us in because you couldn’t. I’m so, so, sorry Peter, that we put you through that. We would have come in a second if we’d known how bad it was getting in there.”

Peter hauls in a breath, some of the tension leaving his shoulders. “You were tracking down the operation? Finding more enhanced that they’ve already sold?”

“Yes,” Clint confirms. “I’m sorry - we only got the intel on the second house after they’d taken you, and we didn’t have a way to tell you that we were going to come and get you undercover instead.”

Peter sits up, pulling the blanket around himself, seeing Clint watching him with concern. “No it’s…it’s good. That you’re going to find those other enhanced. That they’re not going to sell any more. That’s…that’s good.” He sniffs. “Um, can I please have some water?”

“You absolutely can, hold on.” Clint unwraps his arm from Peter’s shoulders to grab a bag from the corner of the van, retrieving a bottle of water. “You hungry too?”

Peter considers, the queasiness of the car sickness still lingering. “Maybe in a bit.” He cracks the water bottle open, swilling the first few mouthfuls before he swallows them, finally washing the lingering taste of the metal bit off his tongue.

“Alright, you just let me know.” Clint studies him. “I don’t want to assume anything, but you look a little better.”

Peter nods. “Talking…telling you about it. Helped. And knowing why, you know. Things happened the way they did.” He takes another swig of water. “I’m glad I could help. But I’m not quite sold on this undercover thing.”

“Well, we’re just glad that you weren’t quite sold at all tonight. No one was. Because of you.”

Peter finishes the water. “That’s…that’s good.”

“We are approximately ten minutes away from Avengers Tower,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. informs them. “The team are awaiting your arrival.”

“Thanks, Fri, that’s good to - Peter? What’s wrong?”

Peter’s gone very still again, heart rate accelerating. “Do I- Am I going to have to tell them -”

“You’ve given me all the details,” Clint assures him. “You’ve done great. So when we get there, I can do most of the talking.”

“No.”

“No, you want to do the talking?

“No, I- I didn’t do great.” The relief of being free and safe is hastily evaporating, overtaken by a whole new host of anxieties. “I didn’t get through this because I was strong or brave or whatever. I didn’t have an out, I didn’t have a choice -”

“Which is a situation we should have never put you in. So much for Tony's 'Better to overreact than under react' mantra. This was on us, not -”

“No!” Peter buries his face in the blanket, trying to piece together his thoughts. “I don’t- I don’t want them to know. I don’t- Can’t we say it just went fine? That I was fine. That I am fine.”

“Hey,” Clint says softly. “You know it’s ok to not be fine right now, right? Or for a while.”

“I just- this is the biggest thing you guys have ever trusted me with. And I don’t want you to think that I messed it up, or that I wasn’t ready, or -”

“You weren’t ready,” Clint points out.

“Yeah, but I don’t want the team to know that!”

“Ah, ok. I think I’m beginning to see.” Clint drums his fingers over the van floor. “And is that the only reason you don’t want to tell them?”

Peter tenses. “I- I don’t want them to think- ”

“Hey, judgment-free zone here. Nothing said in the van leaves the van, I promise.”

“I don’t want them to think that I wouldn’t do it again, if I had the choice,” Peter mumbles. “That I would have just left Bucky like that, and the other enhanced. Not that I think I would have, but I don’t want them to know…”

Clint finishes for him. “You don’t want Bucky to know what you went through to get him out.”

“I would hate it if one of you guys went through that for me. And he already looked so…” Peter swallows. “I don’t want him to know,” he finishes. “Or. Or Steve. I don’t. And…”

This time Clint doesn’t supply the words, leaving Peter to figure them out for himself.

“I don’t…” he tries again. “I don’t want them to know. What…that the auctioneer was saying about me.” Virgin. Pretty. Good boy.

“Ah,” Clint says, understanding.

“I don’t want- I don’t the team seeing me like that. I don’t-”

“They’d never,” Clint says quickly. “Ever, Peter, you got that? And I’m sorry someone made you see yourself that way.”

The shame intensifies, bright and hot. “I just. I don’t want them to know.”

Clint considers. “Ok,” he says finally. “I have a compromise for you. How much we’re going to tell Bucky and Steve is a complicated conversation for another day, but we won’t tell the whole team about some of the finer details, alright?”

Relief washes through Peter. “Ok. Ok, thank you.”

“But we do have to tell Sam and Tony.”

The relief vanishes. “What? No! I don’t- I don’t want to. I don’t want them to- to see-”

“Sam’s your team lead,” Clint reminds him. “Mine too. And Tony is your…Tony. It was ultimately their call to let you do this, so they need to know the full consequences of that call.”

The panic ratchets up another notch. “It’s not their fault! They didn’t know -”

“No, they didn’t, and I’m not blaming them. But they still need to know. Tony set you up with an escape route you couldn’t use, and Sam is going to be faced with calls about what missions he lets you take on in the future. If any of this is going to become a trigger for you that’s going to compromise how you act on missions in the future, he needs that knowledge to keep you - and the rest of us - safe. Does that make sense?”

It does. Peter hates that it does, but he sees where Clint’s coming from. “I…ok. But just them tonight, right?”

“Just them,” Clint promises.

“And…and you’ll stay with me? When I tell them?”

“Absolutely.”

“And…when we get the Tower…”

“Whatever you need, Peter. Just ask.”

“Can someone please get me some pants?”

Clint crosses the space between them, making sure Peter isn’t going to pull away before he lets him lean into his side again. “I think pants can be achieved.” The van rolls to a stop, indicating their arrival at the Tower. “You ready for this?”

“Not really.”

“You going to do it anyway?”

Peter nods. “Yep.”

“Good man. You did well tonight, Peter. Amazing, actually. Don’t you let anyone else, including yourself, tell you otherwise, ok?”

Peter colors a little. “Thanks, Clint.”

Clint claps him on the shoulder. “Anytime. Now - pants, haircut, debrief, bed. Sound good?”

“Sounds good,” Peter agrees, letting Clint lead him into the light and the warmth and the safety of the Tower.

It’s over. His team came for him. He’s safe.

It’s over.

Chapter Text

“Ok. Nearly there. I was just browsing this place last week, I wasn't even looking for anything in particular and then I found it. It's beyond perfect, and it's not even that expensive considering - Bucky?”

Peter hesitates at the entrance to the market, realizing his shopping partner is now nowhere in sight. It takes him a couple of moments, but eventually he spots the dark shadow lingering near the street corner.

“Bucky?”

The shape shifts a little.

Peter jogs back up the side street, dodging pedestrians. The row of stalls they're about to explore has become the go-to trendy spot for vintage buys and authentic street food, and the nice weather is swelling the Saturday afternoon crowd even more. “Hey. You ok?”

Bucky somehow manages to sink even further into the shadows, glancing up and down the street from under the brim of his baseball cap. “There's a lot of people in there.”

“That's the main part of the market,” Peter explains. “But there’s hardly anyone in the shop we’re going to. You kind of have to know it to find it.”

“Well, aren’t you trendy?” Bucky still looks uncomfortable, fiddling with the glove covering his metal hand, and Peter feels a little guilty. He knows Sam and Steve have both been encouraging Bucky to get out of the Tower more during daylight hours, but maybe a crowded side street with limited vantage points and exits is a bit much for what's meant to be a fun shopping trip.

“Why don’t I go buy it?” Peter suggests. “I'll meet you at the Starbucks on the corner when I'm done.”

Bucky starts, caught out. “I’m fine. And you dragged me all this way, might as well see what you won’t shut up about.”

“Hey,” Peter protests. “I’m not dragging, I'm helping. And I already promised it’s the perfect present for Sam, because it is.”

Bucky sighs, giving in. “It’s close?”

“Just like, two streets over.”

Bucky gestures for Peter to go ahead. “Lead the way then, Queens.”

Peter weaves his way through the crowd of shoppers, making sure not to lose Bucky who, for all his insistence of being just fine, stays very close to Peter. He's looking around the whole time, just waiting for danger to strike, until they round a corner and Peter leads them to a faded green door in the wall.

Bucky frowns at it. “I’ve been to black market weapons deals that looked less shady than this.”

“Trust me." Peter opens the street door, the scents of musk and dust seeping out of the stairway within. He leads Bucky upwards, towards the black door on the second story, ignoring Bucky’s noise of skepticism.

Peter had been a little unsure himself when MJ had first shown him this place, but it was MJ, so of course she had delivered. The building is small, cheap-looking, designed not to catch the eye. "That's the point," MJ had insisted. "You have to hear about it from someone else.”

"You're quickly veering from cool alternative to New York hipster vibes, you know that, right?"

MJ had thumped him on the arm. "It's not that way because it's how the customers like it. It's how the owner likes it. He's the sweetest guy, he just gets a little overwhelmed when it comes to people. He only really likes customers he knows and their friends in the shop. So if you want to tell anyone else about it, it has to be special, ok?"

And Peter had kept that promise. “Voila!” Peter pushes the second door open, activating a jangling bell, then steps aside to let Bucky have the whole view.

Peter’s stacked up quite a few accomplishments over his time with the Avengers, but seeing a nervous Bucky Barnes’s face absolutely light up might just hit his top five. “It’s music,” Bucky breathes.

“Yeah! Like, all the music. This is the modern stuff.” Peter leads Bucky over to the first row of records out of many, gesturing to cardboard covers showing Doja Cat and Dua Lipa and Lil Nas X. “And then it goes backward by decade.”

Bucky tilts his head, picking up Doja Cat’s Hot Pink. “I thought all music was online and stuff now.”

“It is. But artists often put their stuff on records too. Some people like something physical, I guess?” Peter doesn’t really get it - music is music to him, no matter the medium, but MJ has a fair collection growing. He spots a Daisy the Great album she’s been talking about getting and plucks it from the stacks.

“Something physical,” Bucky repeats, running his hands over a corner of the album cover.

“I don’t think Doja Cat’s going to be quite your taste,” Peter comments. “Or hey, maybe she is. I can’t tell you what to like.”

Bucky slots the album back into place, eyes traveling wistfully down the stacks to the older records. “You said there was a present for Sam in here?”

“Oh, yeah! We have to ask for it though, I asked the owner to put it on hold. His name is Mr. Narvaez, he's super nice." Peter looks around the empty shop. “Just a little shy, especially around new people."

The bell jangles again, making Bucky flinch. He's still a little on edge then. “Someone followed us here."

“Why would someone follow us to a record shop?”

“Because…” Bucky tenses his metal arm, only for a kid to run inside the room. He can’t be older than eight. The kid stops dead when he sees Bucky, blinks a few times, then sprints to the back, disappearing behind the counter. “He knew me,” Bucky mutters.

“Yeah, well, a baseball hat isn’t exactly a master disguise. I keep telling you guys that.”

Bucky doesn’t relax, instead peering over to the door the kid vanished through. “He knew me.” Then, mind made up - “Something isn't right. We should go.”

Peter bites back on a response, trying not to feel frustrated. Given Bucky’s past, it would be more than a little insensitive to get annoyed at him for being jumpy. “Ok, no worries. Just let me just grab Sam’s present, alright?”

“I said we should go.”

“It’ll take two seconds! I told Mr. Narvaez I was coming today, he should have it ready and everything.” Not waiting for an answer, Peter makes his way up to the counter, dinging the bell. “Hello?”

“Peter," Bucky hisses at him.

“It’ll be so quick!” Peter leans over the counter, eyes lighting on the record set aside with the name Peter Parker scribbled across the sticky note on top. “Look, it’s right here!”

Bucky goes to protest again, only to fall silent as Peter scoops up the record, moving the note aside to show Bucky the full detail in all its glory. “Is that…”

”It’s original,” Peter goes on. “It’s from 1972, first edition, and that’s not even the best part.”

Peter flips the record around, Bucky coming closer to take a better look. “That’s not real.”

“It is so real.”

Bucky takes the album reverently, a little less nervous than before. “How did you find this?”

“Well, I looked online first, but I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t, you know, like so many dollars. And then MJ and I were just browsing and I saw this tucked away in a back corner. I thought it was going to be really expensive but Mr. Narvaez said that, as he didn’t even notice the signature, he’d sell it to me for regular price.”

Bucky traces the scrawl that’s Marvin Gaye’s signature on the back of the Trouble Man album cover. He glances around the empty shop again, then looks a little sheepish. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to get jumpy on you.”

“That’s ok, I get it.”

Bucky clutches the album a little tighter. “This is…this is perfect. Thank you. I, um…” He clears his throat. “I just really wanted to, you know. Sam’s done a lot for me over the past few years. Least I could do is get him a decent birthday present. Show him, I...you know."

"Aw. You guys are so cute."

"Watch it, Parker."

"Hey, I just found you the perfect gift, be nice to-"

He breaks off as the door to the back of the shop opens. Peter expects Mr. Narvaez, but instead the same little boy from before bursts out of it, shooting a look at Peter and Bucky before he races out of the store. A scared look. “Bucky.”

“Where’s the owner?” Bucky’s saying. “Seriously, I don't even see any cameras here. It’s practically an invitation for someone to rob the place.”

“Bucky.” Peter reaches out to grab Bucky’s arm, the hairs on the back of his neck standing to attention. “You were right. Danger. Here. Now.”

Bucky has the space of a blink to take that in before the door behind the counter is bursting open. Peter has a split-second moment when he’s sure he’s wrong, that all he’s seeing is the elderly, Puerto Rican owner, before he registers the terrified look on the man’s face and the gun shoved into the small of his back.

Then Bucky’s arm is clutching Peter’s, dropping the album and throwing Peter behind him as he squares off to the threat. Peter starts to protest, he doesn’t need to be shielded, before he remembers that he’s not Spider-Man right now. His mask, suit and web-shooters are all tucked into his backpack, and he’s not getting them out in any way close to subtle in the near future.

“Hey,” Bucky’s saying. “I can guarantee that whatever you came here to steal, it’s not worth killing anyone.”

“Good thing I’m not here to steal then, isn’t it?” That voice. Peter knows that voice. Then the robber is following the owner inside, the hand not holding the gun fixed firmly on the other man’s shoulder, and it’s not a robber, not at all. “Hey, Buck. Long time no see.”

Bucky’s expression morphs from disbelief to anger to a closed-off wariness. “Walker?”

John Walker makes his way fully into the room, dressed in what looks like an all-black mockery of his Captain America uniform, steering the hyperventilating shop owner in front of him. “Please,” Mr. Narvaez entreats his captor. “Please, por favor, I don’t carry much money in the till, but you can take it, please -”

“Shut up,” Walker instructs him, giving him a prod with the gun. “I don’t care about your money. I’m just here to have a chat with an old friend.”

Bucky’s hand tightens on Peter. “Old, maybe, but definitely not a friend. But sure, let’s chat. Just you and me.”

“Bucky -” Peter starts to protest, but Bucky’s grip becomes a vice, almost painful, clearly instructing Peter to shut up.

“Por favor,” Mr. Narvaez starts up again, eyes looking around Bucky and widening when they see Peter. “He is a child, no? Don’t hurt - ”

“I told you to shut up,” Walker reminds him. “Don’t make me ask again.”

“What do you want?” Bucky demands. “Me, right? Not them. Let them go. Or are you worried I’m going to be a little much for you one-on-one after the Dora Milaje kicked your sorry ass?" 

Walker snorts. “Who says it will be one-on-one?”

Then the door behind the counter is opening again, as is the front door to the shop, and Peter's spider-sense goes off the charts as a whole squad of black-clad, gun-toting people enter, every single barrel pointed straight at Bucky.

Bucky pulls Peter in tight behind his back, whirling around to take in the rest of the store, but it’s no use. They’re surrounded. “What is this?” Bucky demands. “How did you- you were discharged!”

Walker’s expression turns ugly. “Yeah. I hadn’t forgotten. No pension, no benefits. I haven’t exactly had training for any other career path. Helping people is all I ever wanted to do, and you and Wilson took that away from me."

“Oh, boo-hoo,” Bucky shoots back at him. “Maybe you should have thought of that before you murdered a guy.”

“I was apprehending a terrorist.”

“By beheading him? Yes, he was very apprehended.”

Walker looks like he’s going to retort, but then reels himself back in. His head wobbles a little on his neck, reminding Peter of a snake about to strike. “Well. When life gives you lemons.”

“If life gave me lemons I’d squeeze them in your eyes."

“Sure, if it’s worth someone here getting a bullet in the head. Go for it.”

Bucky takes in the number of armed people around them, and Peter’s worked with him for long enough to see the hint of fear that’s creeping through the stoic mask. “How’d you even set this up?”

“I was hired. By someone who actually appreciates my talents. And as a little bonus, they're helping me tie up a few loose ends.”

There’s a banging then, growing closer and closer, something heavy being lifted up the stairs. Peter wants to look, to see what’s coming, but he doesn’t want to take his eyes off Walker either. “And I'm guessing I’m one of those loose ends,” Bucky says flatly.

“One of them,” Walker says. He takes a step forward, jostling Mr. Narvaez, who has started running through several prayers in Spanish. “But you’re mostly a means to an end here, Barnes."

Even more agents walk into the room, carrying someone huge and silver between them, and Bucky goes absolutely rigid.

“Ah good,” Walker smirks at him. “You recognize it.”

Bucky’s breathing has picked up, now clutching onto Peter it seems more for support than to protect him. It isn’t hard to figure out what the silver thing is. Even without having seen it before, it doesn’t take much to piece together why a chair with a halo attached to it would scare Bucky so much.

Peter grips Bucky right back, using the other man’s distraction to step out from around him. “You’re not putting him in that thing.”

Walker transfers his gaze to Peter. “Who’s your friend? Couldn't get anyone your own age to hang out with you?"

"Don't really have a lot of options for friends my age." Bucky rips his attention away from the chair. “And he's no one. Leave him out of this." 

“You’re being pretty damn protective for no one.” Without warning, Walker flips the gun around, slamming the barrel into a trembling Mr. Narvaez's head. The man crumples to the ground and doesn’t get up again.

“Hey!” Peter cries, starting forward, only to freeze when every barrel in the room is pointed at him instead.

“Relax, he’s not dead.” Walker sheathes his gun, which does nothing to improve their chances. Even Peter and Bucky combined aren’t taking out all of these guys at once without one of them - or the unconscious shopkeeper - getting shot. “Get in the chair, Buck.”

“Don’t call me Buck.”

Peter glances around at all the guns, where they're pointed, and can already see where this is going. “Don’t do it,” he says quickly. "Don't get in the chair, Bucky. I'll be ok."

“Wow. How brave.” Walker’s making his way over to them now, Bucky placing himself between him and Peter. “I’m not bringing the Winter Solider back, if that's what you're worried about. I’m not stupid.”

“Could have fooled me,” Bucky mutters.

Something flashes across Walker’s face. “I’m not,” he growls. “I’m not any of the things they said I was. I’m Captain America - I earned that shield, fair and square.”

“You didn’t earn shit,” Bucky scoffs. “And it’s with the person who actually deserves it now. Get over it.”

“Who, Wilson? Look, Sam’s a nice guy and all, but come on. He’s…”

Bucky’s eyes narrow. “He’s what?”

“Come on, it’s not like that. You know I meant that he doesn’t have the serum. Now, we’re kind of on a timer here - so get in the chair. Don’t make me shoot the kid.”

Even though Peter’s seen it coming, he still draws himself a little closer into Bucky before he can catch himself. Bucky gives his arm a quick squeeze of assurance before he says, “Go on, then.”

Walker's eyes narrow. “Well, when I say me, I really mean I’m going to give the order for one of the agents here to take the shot. I already said, I’m not stupid - I’m not going to draw a weapon in your grabbing range.”

Bucky darts his eyes at Walker’s stowed weapon, as though he had been planning on just that. “If you fire a single bullet, you’re going to alert every person in the area what’s going on.”

Walker’s response is to jerk his head to one of the gunmen in a signal, and Peter’s spider-sense flares a second before there’s a white-hot pain in his thigh.

“Peter!” There are arms to catch him as he collapses, one flesh, one metal, and Peter catches the gruesome scent of his own blood. Already dreading what he’s going to see, he glances down at his trouser leg.

Blood. But not as much as he’s expecting. “A graze,” Peter breathes. “It's just a graze.”

“Next time it won’t be,” Walker warns.

“But,” Peter says. “No sound?"

Bucky shakes his head, and Peter checks his ears for the usual ringing that follows a gunshot. Nothing.

“Good, aren’t they? Completely silent. I could fill both of you full of bullets and even the next-door neighbors would be none the wiser. Let's just say my new employer is well-connected.” Walker steps back, gesturing to the chair. “After you, Buck.”

Bucky grits his teeth, preparing to stand, and Peter grabs at him. “Don’t do it.”

“I’ll be fine,” Bucky assures him, but he’s not selling it. “Better chance of getting out of this if we’re free of bullet holes.”

There’s nothing Peter can do without someone getting hurt - nothing except watch Bucky walk over to his old torture device. “In the chair,” Walker prompts him.

But Bucky doesn’t seem to be able to go any further. His breathing has picked up, staring at the chair with wide eyes, frozen in place.

“For god’s sake.” Walker signals to the agents, and the two nearest to Bucky lower their weapons to wrestle him into it themselves. Peter expects Bucky to fight, to take the agents down like they’re nothing and run. Then he feels the cool end of a gun barrel pressed against his temple, hears Walker clear his throat as he steps closer to him.

Bucky glances over, some of the blankness fading when he sees Peter’s predicament. He gets in the chair, a small sound that Peter refuses to acknowledge as a whimper slipping out as the metal bands slam shut and lock over his body.

“Right.” Walker grabs Peter and shoves him towards the nearest agent. “Tie that one up too.”

“With what?” the agent asks. “We only brought the chair and the backup super-soldier restraints.”

“Then use the super-soldier restraints, who cares? Not going to matter in a few minutes anyway.”

“Well, that’s ominous,” Peter mutters. He tenses as he sees an agent produce two sets of metal bands, locking eyes with Bucky. He darts his eyes around the agents, cocks an eyebrow. Fight?

Bucky immediately shakes his head, warning him off. Peter considers it anyway, but decides Bucky is right. They’re outnumbered, there’s still an unconscious civilian in the firing line, and Bucky’s tied up. Peter doesn’t love the idea of being tied up either, but he’s stronger than the average super-soldier. He should be able to break out of the cuffs. Hopefully without revealing his identity to a group of armed agents and an unhinged former Captain America.

The cuffs slam shut as the agents force Peter to his knees, the second pair going around his calves. He tenses, testing them. They’re tight, and heavy, but he won’t really be able to get a read on just how strong they are until he can try and break them without being watched.

Which he is, right now, mostly by Bucky, who doesn’t take his eyes off what the agents are doing for a second. “Walker,” he calls over. “Look, I screwed you over, ok? Well, I didn’t, but you’re obviously looking for anyone to blame but yourself right now. Nothing to do with a teenager or a record shop owner. We don’t need to drag innocent people into this.”

Walker spreads his arms in a what can you do gesture. “Can’t have any witnesses. Speaking of, find something to shut the kid up with. Don’t need him screwing this up by yelling.”

“I won’t yell,” Peter says quickly. “Honest, I don’t want to bring anyone else near this.”

“They won’t tell anyone!” Bucky tries. He’s straining against the chair, but the restraints aren’t budging. “Come on, you have me. Let them go.”

“And I already told you,” Walker replies. “It’s not about you.” He makes his way over to the chair, reaching for Bucky’s upper thigh.

Bucky full-body rails against the restraints at the unwanted touch, breathing becoming fast and hard.

Walker just grips him harder. “Jesus, you flinch at one little touch? Man up, Buck.” He shoves his hand into Bucky’s pocket, ignoring Bucky’s sound of protest as he digs around until he finds Bucky’s phone. “Just needed to borrow this. Unlock it for me, will you?”

Bucky gives him the full force of what Sam refers to as his murder stare. “Go screw yourself.”

Walker rolls his eyes. “Come on, man. Don’t make me threaten the kid again.”

Bucky darts his eyes over to Peter, conflicted, and Peter shakes his head. “Don’t.”

But of course, Bucky does.

“There. Was that so hard?” Walker opens Bucky’s contacts, finding the one he’s looking for and dialing. "Now. We're going to call our good buddy Sam. And you're going to tell him to come and meet you here." He slaps the chair, the sound echoing through the room. "Be good, and I won't need to turn this on." He looks over at Peter. "That goes for both of you. Keep your mouth shut, kid, or we'll do it for you."

"You want Sam." Bucky bites his lip, torn, before he nods. "Ok. Just - don't use the chair. Please. Don't."

"There you go. See how easy this can be?" And Walker dials.

Sam picks up on the second ring. “Alright, was it you or Peter who got into trouble this time?”

“Don’t come, Sam!” Bucky yells, which gets him a slap in the face from Walker. His head whips to the side, lip split.

“Bucky? What’s happening?”

Walker sighs, bringing the phone back towards him. "Really, Barnes? I gave you one job."

"Walker?" Sam's voice starts incredulous, then turns wary. "Where's Bucky? What did you do to him?"

Well, look at that. The so-called Captain America remembers my voice. Buck and I are just catching up.” Walker grips Bucky’s chin with his free hand, wiping a thumb over the bleeding lip. It leaves a red smear over Bucky’s cheek. “Thought we’d invite you to join the party. I’m inclusive like that.”

“Inclusive isn’t the word I’d use. What did you do to Bucky?”

“Nothing. Yet.”

“How original.”

Bucky twists out of Walker’s grip, freeing his jaw. “Sam, if you come here we’re all screwed. Don’t be an idiot.”

“I wasn’t intending to be."

Walker places a hand on Bucky's knee, making him flinch. "Speak again and I'm putting a bullet in the shopkeeper. Got it?"

"John, listen. I know things ended badly between us. I know you’re in a rough place right now. But that doesn’t have to get worse - let’s just talk.”

Walker rolls his eyes, unimpressed. “That was always the problem with you, Sam. Talk over action. You think our forefathers won wars by talking about them?”

“I think your forefathers and mine would have been fighting for very different goals. I mean it, John. Don’t make this uglier than it already is.”

“That is entirely up to you.” Walker leans over Bucky, ignoring the sheer level of contempt Bucky is radiating at him right now. “I know you’ve already tracked this call. Come now, come alone. Then maybe your partner and the kid get to live.”

There’s a pause on the other end of the line. “You’re threatening kids, now?”

“Not my fault,” Walker snaps back. “I just wanted Barnes, but he's never on his damn own. But that’s the difference between you and me, Sam. I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”

“Yeah? And for what end? Revenge?”

“Justice.”

Sam outright laughs, abruptly cutting off when it gets Bucky hit again, the slap loud enough to be heard through the phone. “Ok, ok. Calm down. No one needs to get hurt today.”

“Not if you get your ass down here.”

“Guessing there’s a time limit?”

“I’ll be generous. Twenty minutes.”

“I’m all the way at the Tower -”

This time it isn’t a slap. Walker puts the phone’s speaker next to Bucky’s flesh hand, then grabs the fingers and bends them backward. There are several sharp cracks as Bucky sinks his teeth into his lip, trying not to cry out, but a pained gasp still slips through.

“Bucky! Are you ok?”

“Fine,” Bucky grits out. “Sam, I’m fine, don’t -”

“Twenty minutes,” Walker barks into the phone. “Alone. Bring the shield.”

“Wait!” Sam says quickly. “You said there’s a kid there too? I’ve only heard Bucky. Let me talk to him.”

“You can talk when you get here,” Walker says, and then he hangs up, casting the phone aside and turning to his team. “Alright, Wilson’s incoming. Set it up.”

“Set what up?” Bucky demands as the team starts moving.

The answer doesn’t take long to be revealed. Black cases are produced, opened up to reveal -

“You’re kidding,” Bucky breathes. He starts struggling in the chair again, even though it’s clear he’s going nowhere. “John, come on - that’s enough C-4 to blow up this entire block.”

“And I said,” Walker replies. “That I’m willing to do what’s necessary.”

Peter's done staying quiet. “Necessary for what?” he demands. “How is killing a bunch of innocent people necessary for anything? You want to prove you'd be a good Captain America? This is like, the opposite.”

Walker rounds on him. "I am Captain America."

"Not according to the government," Bucky retorts. 

"So what? Steve Rogers -"

"Don't you bring him into this."

"- was a fugitive for two years. That didn't stop him being a hero - throwing away his life for you." Walker smirks. "Well. At least that's one thing Steve and Sam are about to have in common."

Bucky yanks on the restraints, ignoring the way it jostles his broken fingers. "You're not getting Sam. He's too smart for you.”

“You think so? Let me paint you a picture.” Walker looms over Bucky until his face is an inch away from his. “America thinks Sam Wilson is so great? That he deserves the shield over me? Because, what, I struck down a guy we were all chasing?”

“Chasing, not killing.”

“Right, like you have such a clean track record, Winter Soldier. How are those amends coming?”

"That wasn't Bucky," Peter argues. "That was Hydra, not him! What's your excuse?"

"Can someone shut the kid up, already? Where was I?"

“You were describing your oh so valiant plan to me," Bucky says dryly.

“I got kicked to the side for taking out one bad guy,” Walker says. “How do you think the public is going to react when they see Sam fail to save an entire block filled with innocent civilians?”

“What?" Peter stares at him. "You’re going to kill all those people just to, what, make Sam look bad?”

“It’s necessary.”

“You said that already. Why?"

“Because then they’ll give the shield to me,” Walker spits at him. “And I’ll save more people than some non-serumed wingman ever could.”

“So you kill some for the good of many,” Peter retorts. “Gee, where have we heard that philosophy before? Oh yeah. Thanos. Big purple alien dude. Killed half the universe for a while.”

“Sir.” One of the agents approaches Walker. “We’re finished.”

“No!” Bucky tries yet again to break out of the chair. “No, John, listen. Don’t do this.”

“Afraid to die?”

“Not for a long time,” Bucky shoots back, sending a look at Peter. “At least let the kid go. And the shopkeeper. Please.”

"Bucky -" Peter starts, because no way is he just going to let Bucky throw himself on the wire like that, but then there are hands his in hair, restraining him as someone fixes duct tape over his mouth. He makes a muffled sound of protest, tries to pull away, but his lips are glued shut.

“Can't have witnesses,” Walker reminds Bucky. “And I don’t really care if you’re scared of dying or not. The point is, Sam is scared of you dying, and today we’re making that fear come true.” Walker leans even closer. “Sam is going to watch you die knowing there is absolutely nothing he can do to stop it. See how he likes it.”

Bucky doesn’t break Walker’s gaze. “Don’t you dare pretend that this is some kind of justice for Lemar. This is revenge, John - and Lemar wasn’t even Sam’s fault!”

Walker wavers a little. “It was,” he insists. “He was there. He could have...he doesn’t know how it feels. He should know how it feels.”

“He does,” Bucky spits back. “Sam's best friend. Riley Underdahl. Shot out of the sky right in front of him. And I haven’t seen Sam decapitating anyone on live television. Didn’t see Steve take it out on the first guy he saw either, after I fell off the train. No - Steve grieved and then he kept fighting and then he gave his own life to save others. So did Sam. So what the hell are you doing, Walker?”

For a moment, something like doubt creeps across Walker’s features, before his resolve strengthens. “It’s not the same.”

“It’s exactly the same! Come on, man, just…just walk away, alright?”

“I think it’s time for you to stop talking.” Walker snaps his fingers, and then something black and leather are being put into his hand.

Bucky recognizes it a second before Peter does, eyes flying wide with horror. “Don’t,” he croaks.

Walker doesn’t pay attention for a second, lifting Bucky’s head to put the Winter Soldier-style muzzle on. Bucky lashes out with the one weapon he has left, teeth missing Walker’s hand by a millimeter. Walker barely seems phased, more amused than anything. “Someone put a bullet in the kid's kneecap."

“No,” Bucky says instantly. “No, I- don’t. Don't hurt him.”

“So you’re not going to bite?”

Bucky stares at the ceiling for a couple more seconds. Then he shakes his head.

“There you go. Can't have either of you warning Sam when he flies over here trying to play hero.”

This time, the muzzle goes on without complaint.

“For what it’s worth,” Walker says as the agents pack up, ready to leave. “It never had to end this way. We could have been a team. We could have saved the world.”

We did save the world, Peter thinks savagely. Without you. He expects Bucky to continue to glare, or make one more bid for freedom, but he doesn’t. He just lies there, still staring blankly at the ceiling, as Walker and his team leave them alone in a shop rigged to blow with them inside.

The second they’re gone, Peter’s moving. He’s not locked down into place like Bucky is, but inch-worming his way across the worn carpet doesn’t seem like the best use of their limited time. No, if he’s going to get them out of this - he has to get out of the restraints first. Moment of truth. He pulls on the arm cuffs.

Nothing happens.

Peter huffs in a breath through his nose, his sealed mouth limiting his oxygen, glancing over at Bucky. The super-soldier is gazing at the ceiling, breathing as hard as Peter is, eyes wide and empty. Peter calls over to him the best he can, but either the muffled sounds aren't loud enough or Bucky is too zoned out to hear anything right now. Not good, and neither are the restraints being better built than he bargained for.  

But that’s fine. Peter’s stronger. He has to be.

He pulls again, this time feeling give, just as something pops in his shoulder. Peter grunts in  pain, pausing to analyze. He's not that badly injured. Just a twinge. Then again, he’s barely bent the cuffs yet.

Getting out is possible. It’s just going to cost. But not as much as what it’s going to cost to not break out of them.

Peter pulls. Strains. Wrestles. Something snaps. Then something tears. But he doesn’t stop. He can’t stop. Peter looks from Bucky, to Mr. Narvaez, to the bombs waiting to blow up a full marketplace full of people. And he keeps pulling.

The arm cuffs break.

So does his wrist.

Peter shoves the pain down, knowing that he's not going to be feeling anything at all in a few minutes if he doesn't get his ass moving. The cuffs around his legs are easier, as he can use both his legs and arms to pull them free, ignoring the pain in his shoulder and wrist to do so. He has adrenalin on his side and he’s going to use it, snapping the second set of bonds and then ripping the duct tape off his mouth.

“Bucky!” Peter's saying the moment he can talk again. “I’m free. We’re going to be ok.”

Bucky doesn’t seem to hear him, which probably isn’t good, but Peter has priorities right now and it’s bombs.

“I’ve got us,” Peter says, as he dashes to the first one. It’s a simple design at least, and he snaps the first charge from its timer in seconds. “I got us, I promise. We’re going to be ok. Everyone’s going to be ok.”

Second charge. Third charge. Fourth charge. One to go, just as he hears the beating of Sam’s wings in the distance. Their twenty minutes are up, and Peter isn't finished yet.

“No!” Peter throws himself across the room, landing right on his injured wrist. He howls in pain, but there's no time to dwell on it, reaching out with his last good hand and disarming the final bomb.

"We did it," Peter breathes, collapsing onto his back. "We're ok. Bucky. We're ok."

Barely a few minutes later, there’s the singing of a shield and then Sam is crashing through the record shop window. “Walker, I swear to god, if you've hurt them -”

Sam lands, looking around, confused, only for dawning realization to hit when he sees the bombs. “Trap,” Peter confirms.

Sam pushes his goggles off, eyes wide when he sees Peter's wrist and shoulder. “What the hell did you do to your arms?”

“They’re fine,” Peter says quickly, even though the pain is really beginning to kick in now the adrenaline is draining away. “Bucky needs help. And there’s a shopkeeper - he’s pretty old and he’s been unconscious for a while now.”

Sam nods, touching his comm. “Send in medics and a bomb removal team.” He’s already moving across to Bucky, grimacing when he sees the position he’s trapped in. “Buck, hey, It’s Sam.”

Bucky doesn’t seem to see him, even when Sam cups his head in order to unclasp the muzzle. “Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes,” Bucky says the moment he’s able. “32557038.”

“Yep,” Sam soothes him, “That’s you. You’re alright.”

"I'm not...I'm not doing the mission. I'm not. I'm not."

"You don't have to," Sam's saying, still in that calm tone. "There is no mission."

"Too many." Bucky still doesn't seem to be seeing him, eyes fixed on something only he can see. "Don't- I don't want to."

The door to the record shop bursts open, a med team running in.

“Him,” Sam says, pointing at Peter without taking his eyes off Bucky. "And the man next to the front desk. Hold on, Buck, I’m going to get you out of this.”

Medics attend to Peter and Mr. Narvaez as Sam makes his way through the process of untying Bucky from the chair, murmuring gently to him the whole time, but Bucky makes no moves to get up even when he's free. "Please. Don't make me. Please. Too many."

"No one's making you do anything. Can you look at me?" When Bucky doesn't comply, Sam gently puts a hand on his cheek, tilting his head towards him. "Do you know me?" 

After a long moment, Bucky blinks, recognition coming back. “Yes."

"You know me?"

"Sam."

"Yeah, Sam. You remember when we met? Properly, when you were you again?"

Bucky's eyes grow wet. "After- after Hydra."

"Yeah. After Hydra. You're a long way into after Hydra, Buck."

Bucky blinks a few more times, then seems to recall just what he's sitting on. He scrambles to get out of it, Sam trying to help, although it just ends up with them in a heap on the floor.

"Someone get this out of here," Sam orders, indicating the chair. 

Bucky untangles himself from Sam, looking around wildly. "Peter?"

"Right here." Peter excuses himself from the medics, making his way over. "I'm ok."

Bucky takes in Peter's freshly applied bandages - shoulder, wrist, and over the graze on his leg - and his eyes narrow. "Walker. I'm going to kill that asshole."

“Rhodey’s on it. Well, probably not the killing part. The arresting part. What arresting is supposed to be.”

Bucky relaxes a little. “You didn’t come alone.”

“I said I wasn't going to be an idiot. What’s the point of leading a team if you don’t let them help you?” Sam touches him comm. “Rhodes? How are you going?”

“I got Walker. His team too. You guys good?”

“We’re good,” Sam confirms. “See you back at the Tower.” He looks around, taking in the record shop. “What were you guys doing out here anyway? You know all this stuff is on Spotify, right?”

“Um, getting you a birthday present?” Bucky looks towards where the record was dropped. “Still think you should change it to the fourth of July, by the way.”

“Yeah, not happening.” Curious, Sam retrieves the record, eyes going wide when he sees the cover. “No way! How did you even find this?”

“Peter did. For the record.”

“Hey,” Peter protests. “Making the final pun is my thing.”

A ghost of a smile crosses Bucky’s face. “Yeah, well, you did most of the heavy lifting in this one. Thought I’d help out a little.”

“You did help,” Peter reminds him. “He could have shot me. Several times. You stopped him.”

“The point is that you’re all safe,” Sam says. “And thank you. For the record.”

“Don’t steal my pun,” Bucky shoots at him.

“Yeah,” Peter joins in. “Thieves are always punished.”

Both Bucky and Sam groan in unison. “Come on,” Sam says, tucking the record under his arm. “Let’s fix that busted hand of yours, then it’s birthday celebration times.”

“Your birthday isn’t until Thursday,” Bucky points out.

“Do you want cake or not?”

Bucky gives in. “Cake sounds good. Peter?”

Peter smiles. “As long as there's no more trouble, man."

Chapter Text

“No peeking.”

“I’m not! I promise.”

“And no Spider-Man stuff. That’s cheating.”

Peter huffs a laugh as he presses his hands tighter over his eyes. “I can’t turn it on and off, Morgs. I guess you’re just going to have to be really, really good at hiding, in order to stay hidden from Spider-Man.”

Morgan scoffs dramatically, in a way she’s definitely copied from Tony. “Even Spider-Man can’t find me.”

“Well, then I guess you’d better get running. One hundred. Ninety-nine.” Peter hears an excited squeal, then the padding of tiny sneakers across the forest floor. “Ninety-eight. Ninety-seven. Ninety -”

“You know you don’t actually have to count all the way down, right? She can’t hear you anymore.”

Peter risks a peek through his fingers. Sure enough, Morgan is long gone, a trail of trampled leaves and snapped twigs in her wake. “If you don’t count down, how do you know how long until you need to seek?”

Cassie Lang fixes him with a look. “She’s five, dude. Just wait until you’re ready, then go. That’s what I do when I’m babysitting Nate, and he’s never noticed.”

“Nate doesn’t have the DNA of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts.”

“No,” Cassie admits. “But he does have the DNA of Clint Barton, and that makes him a sneaky little devil. Kept me searching for like forty minutes once. You know where he was? He’d climbed a tree in order to perch on top of the barn. He’s four.” Cassie runs an appraising eye over the trail of destruction an over-eager Morgan Stark has left in her wake. “You know, Clint’s trained us all pretty good in forest survival stuff. Maybe we can bring Morgan along next time.”

“She wouldn’t say no - everything is ‘superhero training’ these days. Tony about has a heart attack every time she insists she’s going to be the ‘Iron Princess’ and fight bad guys one day.”

“Sounds like my mom,” Cassie agrees. “Dad’s a bit more open to it, even though he’s pretending he’s not.” She checks the woods, even though they’re out here alone. Tony owns the entire plot of land out the back of the lake house and, idyllic as it looks, there are security measures everywhere. “Can I tell you a secret?”

“Um, yes please. Always.”

Cassie lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’m not even supposed to know this - it’s meant to be a surprise. But I was snooping around Uncle Hank’s lab the other day, and I found a new suit. As in, not an Ant-Man or a Wasp suit, but a brand new design. In my size.”

“No way - really? That’s amazing!”

“I think it’s for my eighteenth birthday,” Cassie finishes. She casts a jealous look at Peter. “They won’t let me do anything but train before then.”

“Hey, Tony put something called the Baby Monitor Protocol in my first suit - it’s not like they just let me run around doing whatever I wanted. Have you picked out a name?”

“I was thinking…Stinger.”

“Stinger.” Peter rolls it around in his mouth. “That’s super badass. And bug-themed!”

“Long live Team Bug Squad.” Cassie peers through the trees. “I think we’re good to do the seek part of this hide and seek thing.”

They wander out into the trees, the sun dappling gently through the leaves. As much as Peter loves the Tower with its high-tech gadgetry and awesome views, he can’t deny that nothing really beats the Starks’ lake house. He can see why Tony moved out here after the first Snap; wanting peace and quiet after all the loss. That, and for better air quality. Peter's seen the photos of that first year after the Decimation. The air had been thick with the ashes of the dead for months, everyone protecting their lungs with face masks until Tony's resources and technology had finally managed to make the cities breathable again.

Tony and Pepper don’t live here full-time anymore, with Pepper back at work in the city and Tony’s Avenging duties at the Tower, but they still often come up on the weekends. When a Stark Industries emergency had come up last minute, Peter had offered to take a disappointed Morgan up to spend the day together and had invited Cassie along for additional company.

It still blows his mind sometimes that Tony has a daughter, and a five-year-old one at that. It fills Peter with a sense of melancholy sometimes; he adores Morgan, and they got along from their first meeting when Peter used his ceiling climbing abilities to scare the pants off Happy, but he still wishes he could have been there for more of it.

Tony’s changed too. At first Peter had thought that it had just been the aftermath of a near-deadly battle, of that terrifying moment when he had been sure Tony was about to snap before throwing the Stones to Carol Danvers. But as time progressed, Peter had seen that that change had been permanent. Tony was softer, gentler, no longer a hive of activity always striving to achieve the next great thing. It made sense; Tony had married Pepper, had Morgan, and reconciled with the rest of the team, not wanting to make that loss permanent after suffering one that felt so at Thanos’s hand. Even so, Peter had been expected to be put aside. There were so many people competing for attention in Tony’s life now, and what had felt like seconds to Peter had been years to Tony.

But it had been the opposite. If anything, Tony had pulled him in closer, held him tighter, with an openness and affection that he had always been guarded against showing before Thanos had happened. He’d introduced Peter to the rest of the team, to their children - to Scott and Clint’s kids and Sam’s nephews. Made him part of a bigger family than he’d ever dreamed of.

He’s bonded with Shuri and Cassie the most, the trio of them spending a beautiful summer out in Wakanda after the battle. Cassie’s the same age as Peter now, despite him being born five years before her, which still trips his mind out on occasion. She’s also one of the few people who gets what he has with Tony, because she has it with Clint after he took her in after the Snap - a little more than mentor/mentee, not as easily categorized as parent and child.

Their first proper conversation about that had been at the Avengers’ Christmas party, both of them feeling too old to play with the other kids, too young to join in with the adults sipping red wine and beers around the ridiculously-sized Christmas tree Tony had insisted on filling up their common room.

“Do you want a drink?”

He’d turned around to see Cassie holding out a beer. “I’m good.”

“Spider-Man too high and mighty to drink?”

Peter shrugs. “I don’t see the point. I don’t like the taste and my metabolism burns through alcohol too fast feel the effects so…yeah.”

“You can’t get drunk? That sucks, dude.” She considers. “You ever tried with something stronger than beer?”

And that’s how they had ended up on the balcony, sipping from a bottle of pilfered whisky that Cassie had snatched. Peter’s actually a little buzzed by the time they get onto the topic of Tony and Clint. “You are way too good at that,” Peter says, indicating the stolen booze.

“My dad was a thief, remember? Runs in the genes.” Cassie takes another sip, considering. “Can I confess something to you? You can’t tell anyone.”

Peter mimes zipping his lips closed.

“Dork.” Cassie muses for a second before she blurts out - “Sometimes it’s weird. Being with Dad again. Is that awful?”

Peter quickly shakes his head. “Of course not. He was gone for five years. He vanished when you were eleven - you were basically a different person.”

“Yeah,” Cassie breathes. “Sometimes I catch him. Staring at me. When he thinks I can’t see. Which is fair, I know it’s a shock, obviously but - I don’t know. Just sometimes he looks so sad. He’s sad I’m me.”

Peter casts about for words, only to come up short.

“And then…” Cassie’s words are becoming a little slurred. “And then I’m really awful. Because then I don’t want him around at all. Not gone, not vanished - just. Not with me. He’s not the person I want to be with.” Her eyes slide over to where Clint is chatting with Rhodey, bouncing a grizzling Nate on his lap.

Peter finds his voice. “You miss Clint.”

Cassie shrugs. “It’s not like he just abandoned me. We still hang out. But it’s never just us. His kids are always with us. Or other Avengers. And it’s not like I want that to change, of course I want him to have his family back - like I wanted my family back but…Mom and Dad and Jim weren’t there. They don’t know me anymore. And it’s not like any Clint’s kids actually know -” She breaks off. “I’m being awful.”

“Stop saying that.”

“I am.” She turns to Peter. “You don’t ever just - I don’t know. Want Morgan gone? So you didn’t have to share anymore?”

“No. But that’s different,” he adds when he sees Cassie’s face drop. “I got Dusted - I didn’t have to live through the Blip. I can’t even begin to imagine what that was like, having to adapt to a world like that. And if you and Clint got each other through it, I don’t think it’s awful at all to want to be with that person again, and not with the people who don’t get it.”

Cassie relaxes a little. “Yeah. Yeah, they don’t get it.”

For a moment, Peter is sure she’s about to say something else, is building up for another confession, only for them to get busted by a very salty Happy that is not living up to his name about the underage drinking happening under his watch.

“Morgan!” Peter calls, only to catch an elbow in the side. “Ow!”

“You’re going to give away our location.”

“Yeah, that’s the point. Give her time to re-hide if she wants.”

“That’s not how you play the game.”

“She’s five. Also a very stroppy loser - letting her think she’s won is easier, trust me.”

“Guess I should, considering we’re going to be teammates soon.” Cassie’s face lights up as she considers it. “Ant-Man, the Wasp and Stinger. Nice ring to it, right?”

“Hm, it’s a little wordy. The Bug Family. Shrinking Trio.”

“Lame. You suck at names.”

“Spider-Man caught on just fine.”

“By some miracle. Most people don’t like spiders, you know that right? And your web thing and the buggy eyes don’t help anything.”

“Hey, the webs are iconic!”

“I think the Iron Spider is cooler.”

Peter shrugs. “Yeah, it’s too closely associated with Tony though.”

“Is that a problem?”

“I mean, Spider-Man is mine. Tony improved it, and he designs a lot of the suits, but he didn’t make me Spider-Man, you know?”

“No, that was a random spider who decided to bite a dorky teenager.” Cassie sees Peter’s reaction. “Hey, come on, I’m kidding. Everyone knows you made Spider-Man a thing before the Avengers grabbed you. Happy now?”

They banter on for another ten minutes or so, before a shiver runs through Peter. The day is growing late, the air starting to cool. “Morgan!”

“Wow, this kid is really good at hiding,” Cassie says. “Not quite Nate Barton level, but damn.”

They hunt for another batch of ten minutes as the day tiptoes closer to dusk and Peter’s anxiety starts to stir. He usually lets Morgan win these things, but they’ve been earnestly hunting for nearly twenty minutes now and there’s no sign of her. “Morgan?” Peter calls, trying to keep the worry about his voice. The woods are safe. Tony make sure of it. He knows that. “Alright, we give up. You win!”

Cassie bits her lip. “Ok, maybe she is Nate Barton level. Should we start checking the trees?”

“Morgan!” Peter’s done pretending he’s not worried. “Game’s done, ok? Let’s get home before it gets cold and dark. You can brag to everyone how you beat Spider-Man, that you were too good at hiding for him to find you. How does that sound?”

There’s no answer. Peter’s just about to try again, firmer, making sure Morgan knows he isn’t kidding around, when all the hairs on his arms stand bolt upright.

“Peter?” Cassie says. “I’m sure she’s fine - Peter!”

Peter’s already running. “Spider-sense,” is the only explanation he gives, and then he’s sprinting in the direction of where his instincts are chanting danger danger danger.

It doesn’t take him long to reach his destination, skidding to a halt when he sees the scene in front of him. He’s found Morgan, but any relief that comes with that is eradicated by the fact that there are strong, unfamiliar arms wrapped around her. One is gripping her waist, pulling her tight to her captor, while the other is fixed firmly over her mouth.

“Let her go. Now.” Peter readies his web-shooters, strains his ears to see if Cassie has run after him. She hasn’t, and Peter hopes that means she’s gone for help instead.

The man holding Morgan doesn’t look like he’d planned to grab anyone. He’s unarmed, clearly scared, his blue eyes wide and darting around him as though trying to work out where he is. Morgan makes a terrified sound under the hand, and Peter’s anxiety ratchets up several more notches. It isn’t a completely unfamiliar situation - he’s had opponents grab civilians and even teammates before - but it is unfamiliar, because it’s Morgan. Peter cannot think of a worse or scarier situation than the one that was never supposed to happen, but is happening, right now, right in their backyard.

He raises his hands placatingly, trying to arrange his features into something he hopes is comforting as he looks at Morgan. “You’re fine. It’s going to be fine. I’m not going to let him hurt you.”

The man’s hair is overlong, clothes filthy, as though he’s been living rough for a while. Peter can smell him from where he’s standing - he can’t imagine what it’s like for Morgan, pressed right up against him.

“This doesn’t have become anything,” Peter says to the guy. He’s reaching for all the training he’s ever been given for this, sure there are steps he’s meant to be following, but all his mind is providing him with is get Morgan away now. “Just let her go. Just walk away. I won’t even follow you.” He’s pretty sure that isn’t right, that he shouldn’t be offering to let this guy go at all, but he doesn’t care if that means those hands come off Morgan.

The man finally focuses on him, those bright blue eyes narrowing, as though trying to place Peter's face. “I don’t know you.”

Peter doesn’t know how to reply to that, so he ignores that. “Is this about Tony Stark? A ransom?” He risks a step forward, then halts when that just makes the man draw Morgan closer to him. “Then take me. I’m his…intern. I’ll work just as well as leverage.”

Morgan’s eyes go wide at Peter’s offer. She redoubles her efforts to get free, but it’s a five-year-old against a fully grown adult and there’s no competition.

The man just grows more confused. “Tony Stark,” he repeats, as though trying out the name. “Tony Stark.” Then, in a sudden outburst of anger - “TONY STARK!”

It echoes across the trees, loud and harsh and unexpected, and whatever bravery Morgan’s been hanging onto crumbles. She bursts into tears, harsh, desperate sobs even muffled by the hand, and Peter would happily give up a limb or two right now to stop this happening. “It’s ok,” he says, not sure if he’s even talking to the man or to Morgan. “It’s ok, we can work this out, it’s -”

“TONY STARK KILLED MY DAUGHTER.”

Every bone in Peter’s body becomes ice. An attempted kidnapping is one thing. But if this is revenge, an eye for an eye, that is beyond worse. He reevaluates the situation, looking for options for taking the man out. Nearly every single one risks hurting Morgan, but if the man is here for revenge of the worst kind, that might be a price Peter has to pay. “I’m sorry,” he tries, still looking for the path without violence, but the man isn’t listening.

“She was my baby,” he howls. “Tony Stark turned her to dust. SHE WAS DUST.”

Peter’s trying to keep up. The man in front of him is clearly not all there, and he’s angry and grieving all in one, and Peter can’t think of a more dangerous combination for Morgan right now. “No. That- that was someone called Thanos. The Avengers killed him, Tony helped and- and if she was Dusted, she’s back now right?”

The man stares at him, all wide eyes that indicate a mind long-since broken, but Peter doesn’t think he’s really seeing him. “She died,” he growls at Peter. “She was dying and then she turned to dust and then she came back and she died.”

“You mean…” Peter puts the pieces together. “She died again after the Blip. You lost her twice.” He swallows, really hoping that Cassie’s going to return with backup any second now. “I’m really sorry,” he says in what he hopes is a soothing voice. “That sounds awful. But that’s -”

He’s about to say, that’s not Tony’s fault, but catches himself. That probably isn’t what the man in front of him needs or wants to hear right now.

“You want to make Tony understand,” Peter guesses. “You want him to know what that’s like? Well, hurting Morgan isn’t going to do that.”

The man’s eyes narrow, as though actually seeing Peter for the first time.

“He’s never lost her,” Peter goes on. “But he’s lost me. I was Dusted. I got brought back. If you want him to experience going through losing someone twice - losing a kid twice - you should hurt me.” He glances at Morgan, trying to look apologetic and comforting all at once. “I won’t fight you if you let her go. And if you don’t make her watch.”

The man is wavering, Peter can tell, so he presses harder.

“You seem like you were a really great dad,” he presses, and the man’s lip wobbles. “A really great dad wouldn’t want to hurt a little kid, right?”

“A really great dad,” the man repeats, looking almost amazed. He looks down to where Morgan’s tears are soaking his hand. “I’m a really great dad.”

“Right,” Peter agrees. “So let’s not hurt -”

The man’s head snaps up, glaring at him. “Why would I hurt my little girl?”

“I never said -”

“STAY AWAY FROM HER.”

The man has started to back away, and Morgan has no choice but to be dragged with him. Peter starts forward. “What are you doing?”

“DON’T TOUCH HER.”

“That’s…that’s not your daughter,” Peter tries desperately. He thumbs his web-shooters, getting ready. He can knock the man away from Morgan, but with how tightly he’s holding her, she’s going to go flying with him. Maybe if he throws one web at the man to knock him away, then another at Morgan he can tug her out of his grip. Except he’s done that move before on patrol, and he’s seen it break bones of someone a lot older and bigger than the five-year-old currently relying on him to save her. “You wanted to hurt Tony remember? By hurting me? I’ll let you, whatever you want, just please, please let Morgan -”

He doesn’t get to the end of his sentence. One moment the man is hauling Morgan away, eyes wide and scared and confused, and the second there’s a flurry of movement behind him as Cassie Lang appears out of nowhere and grabs the pressure point in his neck.

It only takes a few seconds for the man to keel over, knocked out, and then Peter is throwing arms out wide as Morgan Stark barrels into them. “Peter!”

“I got you.” Peter hugs her as tightly as he can without hurting her as she buries into him, sobbing into his shoulder. “I got you. You’re safe now. I got you.” He looks up and down at Cassie, now clad in a skin-tight suit of black and purple, unclipping a helmet to reveal worried features. “I thought you said you weren’t getting it until you were eighteen?”

“So I may have snuck it out of Uncle Hank’s lab for a pre-birthday test drive, sue me.” The words are breathy, the banter-like quality forced. “Is Morgan ok?”

“Just shaken up, I think.” Peter indicates the unconscious man. “He’s out out, right?”

“Should be.” Cassie looks down, then completely freezes, something Peter can’t read crossing her face.

“Cassie? Are you ok?”

Before Cassie can answer, there’s the roar of repulsers, and then twin suits of red and blue are dropping into the trees around them. “Kids!” Tony’s calling before he’s even touched the ground. “Are you ok?”

“The intruder alarm went off,” Pepper explains, her helmet peeling back as she rakes worried eyes over each of them. “We came from the city as fast as we could.”

Morgan raises her head out of Peter’s shoulder, suddenly struggling to get down. “Mommy!”

Peter’s heart cracks open a little more. He’d referred to Pepper as Morgan’s ‘mommy’ once, only to have Morgan turn her nose up and call it ‘babytalk’. He hastily places Morgan on the ground, Pepper’s suit opening up so she can scoop Morgan up into her arms instead, placing a gentle kiss on the top of her hair and murmuring comforting words in her ear.

Tony exits his suit next, leaving it on sentry mode as he briefly places his forehead to Morgan’s before transferring his gaze to Peter. “Are you ok? Both of you?”

“We’re fine,” Peter says quickly. “It was just…a guy.” He points him out, seeing Tony’s eyes narrow. “He’s not- don’t hurt him, or anything. He’s not all there, I don’t think he even knew what he was doing. And we’re all ok.”

That mollifies Tony exactly zero as he takes a step forward, only for Cassie to throw herself in his way, blocking his path. “Don’t you dare hurt him!”

Everyone freezes, surprised, even Cassie.

“Sorry,” she says. “Sorry, I- Peter’s right. He just needs help.”

Tony opens his mouth to say something, but Pepper gets there first. “I’m taking Morgan back to the house,” she announces. “And calling the police. They can handle this.” Then, with a pointed look at Tony, she steps back into the suit and flies Morgan away.

Some of the anger ebbs away from Tony’s stance, leaving just worry behind. “Right. Police.” He turns to Peter. “Webs, can you…webs?”

“Right.” Peter readies his web-shooters. “Cassie? You’re in the way.”

She blinks, seeming to realize. “Right. Sorry.” She stands aside, allowing Peter to web the guy up.

“I’m sorry,” Peter mutters. “I should have kept a better eye on her.”

Tony shakes his head. “Looks like you watched out for her just fine, kid.”

“Actually, Cassie did most of the work. Crept up on him and knocked him out.”

Tony turns to Cassie instead. He still looks a little wary, no doubt from Cassie’s odd outburst, but manages a smile. “First the adult ant starts a time heist and saves this one,” he ruffles Peter’s hair. “Then the baby ant saves our Morgan. I think we owe the Lang family a long-overdue gift basket.”

“Only if it’s filled with chocolate. Fruit is for boring old people,” Cassie replies, but it’s clear her heart isn’t in it. Instead, an odd blankness has wrapped around her, and it doesn’t shift an inch as the three of them follow Pepper and Morgan back to the safety and warmth of the lake house.

 


 

Cassie endures barely half an hour of fussing from Pepper and Tony before she excuses herself, saying she’s expected at home. Now Pepper is tucked up with Morgan upstairs while Tony deals with the police, both of them preoccupied enough that it’s easy enough for Peter to whisper to Tony that he’s going to catch a ride with Cassie back to the city.

“You sure?” Tony presses. “You can stay the night if you want. Both of you.”

“It’s ok. I promised May I’d get back.”

A line forms on Tony’s brow, as he excuses himself from the officer for a moment. “I’m not mad.”

“I know.”

“I’m not,” Tony insists. “That guy got past my perimeter, that’s on me. A perimeter that’s meant to protect everyone in this family. That includes you, got it?”

Despite the stress of the day, a smile tugs on the corner of Peter’s lips. “I got it.”

“Alright. Good. So you’re not leaving because you think I’m mad at you?”

“No. I promise.”

“Good. And, um,” Tony fidgets for a second before he adds, “And it’s not because you think me and Pepper need family time with Morgan or something? Because that’s not how things work around here. You’re stuck with us.”

Peter lets the smile seep through. “How could I forget? I just genuinely have to be back in the city tonight, that’s all.”

“Ok. Good. Good.” Tony reaches forward and Peter reciprocates, expecting a hug. What he’s not expecting is the kiss on the forehead he gets along the way. Which is new. Nice, but new. “On you go, young buck. Call me when you get home, yeah? That’s non-negotiable.”

Peter is a second away from teasing Tony about the kiss, but Tony is already moving back to the group of policemen. Peter’s pretty sure his mentor didn’t even realize he’d done it. Then he hears the front door close and shakes himself out of it, running after the sound. “Cassie! Wait.”

He catches her just as she gets to her car. At first he thinks she’s ignoring him, until he arrives at the passenger side and she almost jumps out of her skin. “Peter! Don’t- don’t sneak up on me.”

“I was calling you.”

“Oh.” Her brow furrows. “Sorry. Miles away.”

“All good if I catch a ride with you?”

“A ride? I thought you’d want -” Cassie glances back at the house, the light from the windows streaming into the darkness. “No, that’s fine. Hop in.”

They drive in silence for twenty minutes, Peter waiting to see if Cassie will break it. He’s itching to check his phone or turn on the radio, but he also wants her to know that she has his undivided attention if she wants it.

Finally, when it becomes clear that she’s not going to start the conversation, Peter goes for it, skipping right over the are you ok? and straight to the “Do you want to talk about it?”

Cassie’s hands tighten on the steering wheel. “Talk about what?”

“Come on, dude.”

Cassie exhales, long and shaky. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Peter twists his fingers together, considering. “You know, I’ve seen a lot of stuff. Even before Spider-Man. And then definitely after Spider-Man. But I’m not sure if I’ve ever been as scared as when I saw that guy holding Morgan.” He glances sideways, seeing if Cassie’s responding. She’s just staring straight out at the road, knuckles white. “It was really scary. You totally saved us, by the way.”

Cassie ignores that, drumming her fingers. “What do you think will happen to that guy?”

It comes out in a rush, and Peter’s reminded of the way she had sprung to his defense. “I don’t know. Hopefully he gets help. There’s a lot of programs for post-Blip stuff like that - Tony and Pepper initiated a lot of them.” When he doesn’t get a response, he turns to face her more fully, and catches sight of the speedometer. “Woah, Cassie - slow down.”

Cassie ignores him. If anything, the car starts going faster.

Peter’s spider-sense begins to itch. “Cassie, I mean it, this is too fast. Cassie. Cassie!”

The slamming of the brakes gives Peter whiplash, the seatbelt cutting into his chest as the entire car swerves. He throws out an arm on instinct to keep Cassie in her seat, but the car is already stopping, hovering on the side of the road.

Peter jabs the button for the hazard lights, trying to catch his breath. “What- are you ok?”

He doesn’t get a response. Cassie’s eyes are still mounted on the road, crying silently. Or, not crying - there’s no sobbing or sniffles. Just tears over a completely blank expression.

Spooked, Peter eases off his seatbelt, still trying to catch his breath. “That guy back there,” he asks quietly. “Did you know him?”

It’s the only thing that makes sense to him at the moment. The way Cassie had defended him, how upset she is now. But Cassie slowly shakes her head.

“Then what?”

For a moment, Peter is sure she isn’t going to answer. When she does, the last thing he expects her to say is, “I saw Clint like that once.”

The oppressive energy in the car swells. Peter remembers the crazed look in the man’s eyes, the grief, the anger, the desperation. “Like…like that?”

Slowly, Cassie nods. “After the Snap. When Clint took me in. He was always really clear that he wasn’t going to try and be my dad. That I wasn’t a replacement for his kids. That family came in all shapes and forms, and we could make our own, with our own rules. And one of those rules was Alone Time.”

Peter opens his mouth to respond, then realizes that now is not his turn to talk.

“The rule was, at any point, if it got too much - either of us could call Alone Time. We’d go into our rooms and we couldn’t bother each other unless it was an emergency. At the time I thought it was Clint trying to give me space, letting me be a pre-teen. But now I see that it was more for him. Or, to keep me away from him. When he needed me to be gone."

A car zooms past them, hammering its horn. They both ignore it.

“And it was fine,” Cassie continues. Her voice is calm and steady, even as the tears continue to stream. “Or as fine as it could be. Things got kind of back to normal. School. Twelfth birthday. And then one day Clint’s in Alone Time, and I get a nose bleed.”

She sucks in a breath. “It was so stupid. I could have handled it myself. But there was just so much blood and it came on so quickly and the first thing I thought was I want my Mom. Like I’m five or something. And then I start crying, because I know I don’t have my mom, not ever again, and I know Clint’s in Alone Time but he said we could break that for emergencies and this wasn’t one but I just- I just wanted him. Someone. An adult. So I went into his room. And I saw -” She breaks off.

“It’s ok,” Peter says quietly. “You can tell me.”

“He was- I mean I knew,” Cassie gets out. “That he was grieving. I cried for my parents every day for a year after the Snap, but even so I can’t imagine what’s it like losing a kid, let alone three of them, all at once. And I also- I also knew. What he did.”

“What…he did?”

“Before,” Cassie says shortly. “But abstractedly. Hawkeye. Avenger. Perfect shot.” Then, biting out the word, “Assassin.”

“I…yeah.” Peter had never really thought about it that way. When he thought of Clint, he just thought of the jovial, joking archer who was quick with a wry comment or a way to wind up a team member. “I guess he was.” When Cassie doesn’t elaborate, he adds, in a low voice, “What did you see, Cassie?”

Cassie swallows. “You saw it today. In the woods.” The tears haven’t slowed yet. “He didn’t notice I’d come in. I don’t think he had his hearing aids in and he wasn’t - he wasn’t quite there either. So I just left, and I never told him. But then, every time he told me needed to go to Alone Time, I knew he was…going to turn into that. And there was no one else in our house most nights. It was just us two. Me and…”

She blinks, seeming to realize for the first time that she’s crying. “Damnit!” She hastily mops her eyes, and jerks her head around to look at Peter, suddenly fearful. “You can’t tell him. Clint. Or anyone. Not my dad, not Tony, not anyone.”

“I won’t.”

“Because Clint never, ever brought that side of himself out around me,” Cassie presses on. “Not once. He always dealt with it alone, so I wouldn’t have to. He gave me everything he could after the Snap, even though he was dealing with something unimaginable.”

“Cassie -”

“And not just physical needs - he was there. He was always kind and ready to listen and willing to give me a push when I needed one.”

Cassie.”

“He looked after me even though he didn’t have to, so don’t you dare think -”

“I’m not thinking anything!” Peter assures her. “It’s like we were talking about at the Christmas party. No one who was Dusted can ever really know what the people who weren’t went through. I’m sure Clint - and you - did the best you could. Who would I be to judge otherwise?”

“Ok.” Cassie appears slightly mollified. “Ok. Good. Because I don’t want you to think -”

“I’m not.”

“Ok,” she says again, pulling in a deep breath. “Don’t tell anyone. Please.”

“Of course not. That’s your business.” Peter fiddles with the sleeves of his hoodie. “You know…you can hide of all that from your parents and Clint and stuff, and I can see why you wouldn’t want them to know. But you don’t have to hide from me. If you don’t want to. If, you know - you want to talk a bit more about it. With or without Tony’s stolen whiskey.”

“Oh, definitely with.” Cassie takes the offer in. “I think…yeah. That would be nice. It’s just so hard because I don’t want Clint to think he messed up, and I know Dad already feels guilty for being on a mission that took him away from me for five years, even if that decision ended up saving the whole goddamn universe.”

“Well. Half of it.”

But Cassie shakes her head. “You weren’t here. You didn’t see. Trust me - it saved all of it.” She takes another breath, steadier than the first. “So, Peter. How’s your driving?”

“According to Happy, not great, but better than yours right now.”

“Ok, I deserved that.” She unbuckles her seatbelt. “Thank you. For listening.”

“Any time.” He holds out his fist to hers. “The Bug Squad need to be here for each other.”

“Dork.” But she bumps her fist against his anyway. “Now drive me home.”

“Bossy.”

“Get used to it. Bug Squad is going to need a leader.”

“Oh, and that’s you, is it?”

“Well, duh.”

They swap places, Peter starting the engine and driving them out of the dark and back towards the bright lights spilling from their city.

Chapter Text

“Mr. Strange, this is so awesome!”

“Dr. Strange. And yes. It is pretty awesome.”

Peter fights back a smile as he sees Ned wander through the halls of the New York Sanctum, jaw on the floor. “Dr. Strange,” Ned corrects himself. “Right. And you live here? Like all the time?”

“Well, not all the time,” Stephen says. “I have duties to attend to.”

“Duties like babysitting?” Wong appears at the top of the staircase, looking down at them impassively. “I would have thought you considered such pastimes beneath you, Stephen.”

“This isn’t babysitting,” Stephen shoots back. “Peter has been asking to visit the Sanctum for a while, so I’m obliging him and his…friend.”

“You are showing two teenage boys around our base of operations.” Wong waits at the top of the stairs, not looking convinced. “For fun.”

“We’re allowed to have fun from time to time, aren’t we?” Stephen places a hand on Peter’s shoulder and steers him into the next room, Peter reaching out to grab Ned to tow along in turn. “This room is the library. Well, one of the smaller ones.”

There’s a crackle of gold energy, and then Wong is stepping through a portal, making Ned jump. “Dude, that is so awesome!”

Stephen raises an eyebrow. “What, you couldn’t take the thirty seconds to walk down the stairs?”

“To the room I swore to never leave you alone in?” Wong replies. “I thought best to move with haste.”

“And here I thought we were friends, Wong.”

“If we were friends, you’d remember we have a meeting with the Romanian sect this afternoon.”

Stephen starts a little, then pinches the bridge of his nose. “Ah. Damn. I completely forgot.”

Peter frowns. “I thought you had a photographic memory.”

“Yes. And I use it for important things only.”

Peter’s about to say that he’s pretty sure that’s not how photographic memories work, but Wong speaks before he can. “This is important, and your attendance is non-negotiable. I’ll meet you in the main library to pick up the scrolls we promised them. Don’t be late.” And he portals out of the room.

Stephen sighs, turning to Peter and Ned. “Sorry, boys. Duty calls.”

Peter looks up from what looks like a short staff with demon heads on both ends. “No problem, sir. You do you.”

“Please, we saved half the universe together. I think we’re beyond you calling me ‘sir’.”

“Ok. Stephen,” Peter tries.

“That feels weird, but I’ll allow it.” He considers. ‘You know, the Romanians like to keep things brief. If you promise to behave yourself until I get back, we can pick the tour up again in an hour or so?”

“You’d let us be here alone?” Ned gasps. “We can go anywhere?”

“No, actually, I more meant stay in this room and this room exclusively.” Stephen makes his way over to the door. “Feel free to peruse any of the books but don’t touch any of the artifacts.” He lifts the staff out of Peter’s hands, tucking it into his robes. “But no matter what, under no circumstances are you to open the trapdoor in the back corner. Do not see what is under there. Don’t even think about what is under there. Ok?”

“Anything you say,” Ned says quickly. “Stephen.”

“That feels even weirder. See you soon, boys.” Then Ned and Peter are left alone in the small library.

Ned lets out a long breath. “He is so awesome.”

“I guess, yeah.”

“You guess?”

“I mean, sure, he’s nice. Once you get past all the…” Peter waves vaguely. “I thought Hulk was your favorite hero.”

“He is,” Ned says, picking up a nearby book. “But Dr. Strange was just a guy once, you know? I mean, so was Dr. Banner I guess, but what happened to him was an accident. Like what happened to you. Dr. Stranger learned all of his stuff. He made himself a hero. And I know he’s really smart and stuff, but it’s kind of cool to know that someone without power can go off and do…that.”

Ned starts moving absently through the aisles of books, Peter following. “Hey,” Peter says carefully. “Are you saying, if you had the option…you’d be a superhero?”

Ned shrugs, embarrassed. “I mean, who wouldn’t be? Not that I don’t love being your Guy in the Chair, because I one hundred percent do, but, I don’t know…I see what you do, and you hang out with the freaking Avengers all the time. And obviously you help a ton of people, like every day. It’s so cool.”

“Sometimes,” Peter admits. “But there are downsides too. I don’t see you or MJ as much as I would if I wasn’t Spider-Man. And splitting my time between the Tower and Queens means missing out on stuff with May sometimes."

There are days that I almost wish I wasn't Spider-Man, Peter almost says out loud, but stops himself. He wouldn't really wish that away if he had the option, even it did mean that he could spend more time being a regular teenager, with the few non-Avengers people he had left in his life.

"Also I get kidnapped," Peter says instead. "Like a lot. Like an improbable amount of kidnappings.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed - what is up with that?”

“You tell me. Point is, it’s not just hanging out with the Avengers and having powers, you know? There are cons as well as pros.”

“Peter, it’s ok. You don’t have to make me feel better.”

“I’m not trying to- well, I am, but also I mean it.”

“I just…” Ned ends his row of books and rounds the corner, Peter still following him. “It’s stupid. Not like it’s going to happen for me anyway. We can’t always get what we wish -”

“Ned!”

Peter shoots a hand out, catching Ned’s arm a second before he steps on a shabby-looking trapdoor.

For a long while, the two boys just stare at it. “We’re not going to open it,” Peter says finally.

“Of course not. Stephen said not to. Is it ok if I call him Stephen too?”

“You already did."

"Yeah, and he said it was weird."

Neither of them has looked away yet.

“We’re not opening it,” Peter decides. “We don’t need to know what’s under there.”

“It’s probably something really bad,” Ned agrees. “Like, really bad.”

“Definitely. Best not to even think about it, like Stephen said.”

“Who says we’re thinking about it? I’m not thinking about it.”

“Well, I’m not thinking about it either.”

“Thinking about what?”

“Exactly!” Peter looks back to the trapdoor. So does Ned. “We could be super quick about it.”

“Like super quick.”

“A peek.”

“Half a peek. A squiz.”

“A what?”

"I don’t know, it’s what that Aussie kid at school’s always saying.” Ned leans a little closer to the trapdoor. “No one needs to know.”

“No one will know. We’re going to be that quick.” Peter grabs Ned’s t-shirt and tugs him behind him, readying his web-shooter. “Ready?”

“Let’s do this thing.”

“Three…two…one…”

Peter fires.

The web catches the trapdoor, heaving it up to reveal…

Darkness.

Ned squints. “Can you see anything with your freaky spider eyes? ‘Cause I can’t see bupkis.”

Peter peers closer. “Nothing.” He hears shuffling to his left, then sees Ned pulling out his phone. “What are you doing?”

Ned turns on the phone torch. “Light.” And he starts moving closer to the trapdoor.

“Ned!” Peter hisses, lunging for his friend's t-shirt. 

“We said a squiz! It’s not a squiz if you don’t actually see anything.”

“Still, I really don’t think we should get too close to -”

“Is your spider-sense going off?”

Peter pauses. Tests. “Huh. No.”

“So it’s fine! Probably Stephen playing a prank on us, trying to wind us up and get in our heads about some stupid old trapdoor.”

“Ned, I’m not sure…

“Come on, I know you want to see it too! And it’s just here.” Ned leans over the trapdoor, toes brushing over the edge.

And then Peter’s spider-sense goes off.

“Ned!” Peter leaps forward, firing one web behind him as an anchor as he latches on to Ned’s arm, but it’s no use. They’re falling. Not down a ladder. Not a short drop into a room below.

They fall into complete and utter darkness, and then hang there.

“Ned?” Peter clutches Ned’s arm so hard that he makes his friend cry out in pain, but he refuses to let go. Ned’s his only point of contact and he’s not releasing it for anything. Peter fumbles around so he’s holding Ned by the waist instead, pulling him in against his side. “Are you ok?”

“Peter?” Ned’s voice comes out as a squeak. “Where are we?”

“Um, probably in the place under the trapdoor Stephen told us under no circumstances to open?"

“Greetings, mortals.”

“Oh, shit!” Ned grabs onto Peter this time, narrowly missing poking Peter in the eye. “We’re dead. We’re so so dead.”

“I have no need of killing you, young ones.” The voice feels older than time, surrounding them and filling Peter’s head all at once.

It's a voice that can’t be heard. The thought comes to Peter without prompting, making perfect sense even as he scrambles to comprehend it. He feels something break when he pushes to understand it, and quickly just accepts it as truth instead. It’s a voice that can’t be heard. Thinking about that for too long will break his brain, so don’t think about it. Got it.

The situation is quite the contrary. I can give you what you desire.”

“No, thanks,” Peter says quickly. “Pretty sure we’re not meant to make deals with spooky voices in forbidden trapdoors.”

The voice laughs, long and loud. “I wish you no harm, Peter Parker. Ned Leeds. I can give you what your heart longs for most.”

“It knows our names,” Ned whispers. “Peter, it knows our names!”

“I know all things. I know what is in your heart. I know the prize you seek.”

“Peter, how do we get out of here?”

“You may leave at any time you like. I will not keep you here. But do you not wish to take what is so freely offered?”

“No, home please,” Peter says quickly. “Very sorry to disturb you Mx. Scary Voice. We’ll just be off now.”

“All parties must desire to leave.”

“Ned,” Peter hisses. “Say you want to leave.”

“I…”

“Ah,” the voice breathes. “One of you is bolder than the other.”

“No,” Ned says quickly. “There’s no way I’m braver than Peter. Peter’s Spider-Man, come on.”

“Because of an accident. Because Peter was in the right place at the right time. On a school field trip you also attended, Ned.”

“Don’t listen,” Peter insists. “Let’s get out of here!”

“It would be so easy, to turn back the clock,” the voice goes on. “To give that spider a different target.”

“No,” Ned whispers. Then, more certain - “No! I don’t want- Peter’s Spider-Man. Not me."

"It is a mantle your friend tires of. Surely one so willing as yourself would suit better."

Peter feels Ned square his shoulders. "I don't care. I wouldn’t take Spider-Man away from Peter, not ever.”

“You seek an even greater power?”

“That’s not what I said!”

“Because I can make you great. I can make you the greatest hero that ever lived.”

“The…greatest hero? Ever?”

“Don’t,” Peter urges him. “Come on, there’s always a price with these things.”

“No price. All you must do to receive my gift is to accept it.”

“Ned doesn’t want your gifts!” Peter shouts into the void. “He’s already a hero! He doesn’t need you!”

“See how your powered friend speaks for you? See how he tells you not to take the power. He fears you will overshadow him, as he has overshadowed you for years.” 

“That’s not true!” Peter yells back.

“I mean…" Doubt has crept into Ned's voice. "It kind of is though.”

Peter’s jaw drops. “It's not. It's not."

“It’s fine. I’m used to it.”

“You don’t have to be. You could be the hero for once, Ned. More powerful than any Avenger has even been or will ever be again."

"An Avenger," Ned breathes.

"Leave him alone!" Peter says - or tries to say. Before he knows it he's being yanked backward, away from Ned, away from his one anchor in the unending darkness.

"Ned!" Peter tries again, but there's no answer. He can't even hear Ned's heartbeat anymore. "Ned. NED!"

"Peter Parker. I see what you desire."

"I desire to take Ned and get out of here!"

"Of course you can have him back, Peter. You can have all of them back."

"All of them? What do you mean, all of them?"

"Peter," a new voice says. New, but not strange. It's achingly familiar. "My brave boy. I've missed you so much."

"Mom?"

"I'm right here, darling."

Peter tries to back away, to retreat into himself, but there is nowhere to go but the unending darkness surrounding him. "You're not real."

"I'm as real as you are, Peter. I'm just in a different place to you right now. But we can be in the same place again, if you want it. Your dad and Ben too."

Tears blur Peter's eyes as he squeezes them shut, even though that does nothing to block out the sound of his mother's voice.

"You can have us back, Peter. Just ask."

"You're dead."

"That doesn't mean we're gone. Wouldn't you like to see us again? Have us back in your life?"

"Of course I would. I want that more than anything."

"Then ask."

"I...can't."

His mother's voice turns cold. "Why not?"

"Something bad will happen."

"It won't, darling. You've been through so much hardship. So much grief. You deserve something good. Don't be afraid to take it. Or do you want us to stay dead?"

"Of course I don't!"

"Then why aren't you bringing us back, Peter? We could all be standing by your side right now and you're choosing to keep us in the dark, alone, forever."

"Please stop."

"It's so dark here. So cold. So lonely. We're hurting, Peter. Me and your father and Ben. It hurts, Peter."

"Mom. Please."

"Why won't you save us, Peter?"

"I -"

"Just ask, Peter. That's all you have to do. Just ask and -"

"Leave him alone!"

Warm hands collide with his arm, scrabbling to take hold. Peter lurches back at the sudden contact, only for the hands to grip tighter. "Ned?"

"Hold on, I got you."

But his mother's voice isn't fading. "Bring us back, Peter. Just ask and you can have us."

"Don't give in," Ned presses him. "Whatever it's offering you, say no."

But the voice of Mary Parker doesn't abate. "Don't you want your family back, Peter?"

Peter reaches out to grab Ned's shoulder. "I miss you so much, Mom. Every single day. But I have a family. And I have to protect them."

"You would leave your family with me, Peter Parker? To do what I wish with, for all eternity?"

"It doesn't have them," Ned says in his ear, and Peter latches on to his best friend's voice. "It's just trying to trick you, you know that. Come on, let's just go."

"You would give up what I offer you so freely, Ned Leeds? Power. Glory. Recognition. You don’t have to be anyone’s…what is your quaint term for it? Guy in the Chair? You could be so much more.”

“Guy in the Chair,” Ned repeats. “I’m Spider-Man’s Guy in the Chair.”

“Take my gift, and you will not be Spider-Man’s anything. You can be anyone you want to be.”

“I know,” Ned breathes. “And being Peter’s Guy in the Chair is pretty damn awesome. So I think I’ll keep that job, thanks.”

“You deny ME?”

“Yeah, dude. Considered yourself denied. Rejected. Excommunicado."

“YOU CANNOT.”

“Actually, you said I can do whatever I want. And what I want to do is leave. Peter?"

Peter sinks his hands as firmly as he can into Ned's without hurting him. "Yes. Let's leave." 

“NO!”

The scream would have shattered Peter’s eardrums if it was audible, but then they’re rushing up and up and up, towards a bright light, Peter clinging to Ned for dear life as they collapse at the feet of one very bemused looking Stephen Strange. “So,” the sorcerer says. “I see you found the trapdoor.”

Peter is still using Ned as a touchdown, gulping air as he takes in the library. "Did we just..." He looks up at Stephen. "Was that real?"

"Depends on what you saw. Although 'real' is rather relative in my line of work."

Peter stares at him, heart still pounding aginst his chest. “You don’t even know what’s down there?”

“No one does. We’re just told to avoid it at all costs. And we do, because a warning like that should be listened to.”

Ned flushes. “We’re sorry," he says. “Really sorry. We just wanted to look. We didn’t mean to go in.”

“I understand the temptation."

"So," Ned mumbles. “Are you going to kick us out and tell us never to return or something?”

Stephen hums, considering. “Are either of you hurt?”

They both shake their heads, Peter a little after Ned does.

"Peter?" Stephen presses, and Peter catches something new in his expression. It almost looks like...guilt? "Are you ok?"

Peter looks down at his body, registering that he's shaking. "I'm not injured. Just..." We're hurting, Peter.

Ned takes his hand, eyes wide with worry. "It wasn't real. You know that, right? Even if you had said yes, it wouldn't have brought them back. Or it would have brought them back wrong, like...like what if they were zombies? That probably wouldn't have ended well."

Peter gives a shaky laugh. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right." There's a rustling around his shoulders, and then the soft material of the Cloak of Levitation is nestling around his shoulders. Peter smiles a little as he pets it. "Thanks, Cloaky."

"Do not refer to the Cloak of Levitation Cloaky." Stephen surveys them both. “Did either of you do anything stupid? Besides opening the trapdoor I expressly told you not to.”

“I don’t think so,” Peter says. “We didn’t make any deals with voices we couldn’t hear, at least.”

“A voice you couldn’t hear,” Stephen muses. “Fascinating.”

Ned turns to Peter, eyes wide. “You had that thought too?”

“Yes!” Peter exclaims. “And it kind of -”

“Broke your brain a bit?”

“Just a little."

“What kind of deal did this voice offer you?” Stephen asks.

Peter's words stick in his mouth, both Ned and the Cloak holding him a little closer. "My parents," he whispers. "And Ben. It said it could bring them back. If I asked for them."

The words are met with dead silence, and Peter is sure he's never seen Stephen Strange lost for words before.

"It's fine," Peter says quickly. "Well, not fine, but...it was our fault. You told us not to open it and we did. We're sorry."

"Well," Stephen lands on. "You're both ok. That's what matters." His voice turns uncharacteristically soft. "And for what it's worth, Peter - there is no magic or science that can bring back dead that have died of natural causes. You did the right thing, saying no."

Peter blinks the tears away, managing a smile as he looks at Ned. "It wasn't really me. Ned got us out of there."

Ned turns beet red. "I didn't really do anything."

"Not true!" Peter protests. "You totally saved me. Thank you."

"Hey, that's what a Guy in a Chair is for."

"Ned," Stephen cuts in. "This voice you couldn't hear. What did it offer you?"

Ned's eyes hit the floor. “Does it matter?”

“Very much so.”

“Power," Ned says after a moment. "A lot of it. Like the most powerful Avenger ever amount of it."

“Ned didn’t take it,” Peter says quickly. “He turned the voice down. It was super badass.”

Stephen considers Ned for a long moment. “You were offered a great power and you turned it down? Why?”

Ned shrugs. “I figured any weird monster thing that offered me something that already belongs to my best friend is bad news. Well, that and you know. Creepy trapdoor. Unending darkness. Also pretty big red flags.” He glances up, sees that Stephen is still scrutinizing him. “It’s not that big a deal.”

“To the contrary,” Stephen replies. “There are very few people who could resist such a temptation. I am not sure that I myself am one of them.” He smiles, reaching down to give Ned a hand up. “You are a very wise man, Ned Leeds.”

Ned turns, if possible, even pinker, letting Stephen pull him to his feet just as a portal opens in front of the library door. A very annoyed-looking Wong steps through it. “I have been waiting for twenty minutes!”

“Waiting for what?” Peter pushes himself up, confused. “I thought Stephen went to his meeting with…” He trails off, catching on. “You did not.”

“Did not do what?” Stephen says innocently. “I merely had a bad feeling you boys would get into some trouble after I left and returned to oversee you. Thank goodness I did.”

Peter’s not buying it. “‘Don’t even think about what is under there.’ You knew if you said that we’d go exploring! Why?”

For a second, Peter is sure Stephen is going to deny it. Then the doctor bursts out, “Because Wong gave me the same instructions and it’s been driving me nuts not knowing what's under that stupid trapdoor. That’s why!”

Wong snorts with laughter. “And then I put up a barrier to make sure he couldn’t open it. No magic-user could. I didn’t factor in two curious teenagers.” He levels a look at Stephen. “Well-played, Strange.”

“You didn’t know what was in there,” Peter clarifies. “So you deliberately left us here alone to find out for you? I knew you didn’t forget that meeting!”

Stephen shrugs. “Well, obviously I wouldn’t have tried it if I had known it was a super powerful deal-making demon down there that was going to offer to return dead family members.” He turns to Wong, affronted. “Which, as the Sorcerer Supreme and the leader of this Sanctum, I do think I should have been informed about.”

Wong shrugs. “Yeah, but it was funny watching it drive you up the wall.”

“Yeah, hilarious.”

“For me? Very much so, yes.”

“Wait,” Ned says. “Big demon. Making deals and stuff.” His next voice is a conspiratorial whisper. “Was that Mephisto?”

Stephen rolls his eyes. “Not everything is Mephisto. A lesser demon, I’m sure. If you had agreed to its terms, it would likely have been freed from its prison, or something similar.” He sighs, turning to Peter. “I owe you two an apology. I didn’t realize the danger I would be putting you in, or that it was going to reopen old wounds. I would like to make it up to you. Perhaps I could offer you a couple of magic lessons - I feel as though Ned especially might take to them.”

Ned’s eyes grow huge. “Wait? Really? You’d teach me?”

“I feel it is the least I could offer. Peter?"

Peter considers it, before he shakes his head. "Honestly, between Spider-Man and school and college applications and MJ I barely have time to sleep right now. Besides," he adds. "I have my thing already. This can be Ned's."

"Technically it's my thing," Stephen reminds them, before narrowing his eyes at Peter. "What do you mean you're not sleeping?"

Peter hastily steers the subject back to magic lessons. "I mean, maybe one or two things could be useful?" He eyes Stephen's sling ring, imagining being able to portal in and out of emergency situations. Maybe if that offer's on the table, he should take it. When he finds time. He can definitely find time. " But teaching Ned is such an awesome idea! He'd be an amazing wizard."

"Sorcerer," Stephen corrects him. "We’ll start with the basics. See how you go. Then we can renegotiate. Sound good?”

Ned nods so vigorously that Peter’s sure his head is going to come off his shoulders. “I won’t let you down. I will work so hard and I’ll be super dedicated and -”

“Training starts at 5 am sharp tomorrow.”

“Oh, wow, early. But I’m there,” Ned says quickly. “Totally there.”

Wong clears his throat, already making another portal. “Stephen. Meeting.”

“Alright, alright.” Stephen goes to the portal, giving Ned a little salute. “5 am. Bring coffee.”

“5 am. Coffee. I'll be there. Wait, what kind of coffee- ah, damn he left.” Ned looks back at the trapdoor, going a little pale. “Well. That was scary.”

“Very. But hey, now you get to learn magic, that’s so cool!”

“Yeah,” Ned breathes. “Hey, what the voice said, about you know…offering me Spider-Man. You know I’d never really want that, right? It’s yours.”

“I know, man. You turned it down.”

“I mean,” Ned mumbles. “I’ve thought about it. What kid hasn’t? But you’re right, it’s not really something I want. I see all the stuff that happens to you because of it. And I know you weren’t magically handed a gift on a silver platter - I know you work really hard for it and you don't get a lot of breaks to just be a kid, you know?”

“Thanks," Peter says, meaning it. "Really, that’s…thanks. I think that might have been something I really needed to hear.”

“And I’m going to work really hard at my thing too!" Ned goes on. "But I’ll still be your Guy in the Chair. Just with some cool magic tricks.”

“Damn, that’s going to be so awesome. So - definitely cool on the Spider-Man thing?”

“Definitely,” Ned agrees. “And it was something I used to think about, but not anymore. You could say it was a stage I was going through.”

“Sure, I meant we all go through stages in high school, right? That’s what -” Peter breaks off, realizing. “Stage you’re going through.”

Ned’s grinning. “Oh, are you getting it now? Because a trapdoor in the theatre is -”

“A stage you go through.” Peter weighs that for a few moments. “Damnit. That’s the best one yet, isn’t it?”

“I’d say so.”

“And I didn’t even think of it.”

“Maybe you should go back through the trapdoor. Ask that voice thingy to gift you with better puns.”

“The only gift I need is you for a friend, Ned.”

“Don’t try to distract me by being sappy, I out-punned you! Admit it.”

“Fine. You out-punned me. You are the new Pun Master and I bow to you.”

“Damn straight you do. Pun Master wants a grilled cheese from Mr. Delmar. You in?”

“Delmar's sounds perfect.

Ned pauses in the doorway. "Hey - all that stuff you were saying before, about sometimes there are downsides to being Spider-Man? That's not what you'd really wish for, is it? For Spider-Man to go away?"

"Of course not," Peter says easily, because it's the obvious answer. Because of course he wants to always be Spider-Man. Of course. "I'll always be Spider-Man. Just like you'll always be my Guy in the Chair."

And if there's a niggle of doubt behind those words as Peter leaves the Sanctum, he chooses to ignore it.

Chapter Text

MJ: Hey, loser. Stop skipping school to play dress-up.

MJ: Ok, I can’t stop you from skipping school, but you are not skipping decathlon practice.

MJ: Don’t you dare Parker. You got five minutes to get here.

MJ: I can’t believe you.

MJ: Ok. Look. Your ‘internship’ is important. I get it. And I actually do get it, by the way. I know what I signed up for when we got together. But when you don’t text me back I start thinking you’re dead in a ditch or something and that feels really crappy. So…text me back.

MJ: You better not be dead in a ditch, dork, because that’s going to make me look real bad. I got a reputation to uphold, you know.

MJ: Genuinely worried now. Not cool.

MJ: Peter?

 



"Hey, so it’s me. Leaving you a voicemail like an old person. Your phone rang through so I know it’s not out of battery or anything. Which means…I don’t know what that means. Call me back."

 


 

"Obviously you’re not checking your phone so I don’t even know what leaving another voicemail is going to do but…I’ve seen you, you know. Seen seen you. I know you bust your ass at school, and decathlon, and college applications, and with…the other thing. And I’m just starting to wonder if you’ve taken on one thing too many. And…and I’m thinking that I’m that one thing you can’t fit in right now. Because I can’t you ask to drop school or the other thing but also I need, you know. I want to feel wanted. Not like an obligation you fit into your schedule. None of this matters if you’re dead anyway. Don’t worry, I won’t put any of this in your eulogy."

 


 

"Ok I think the eulogy thing was in poor taste, even for me. Maybe you’re just taking a nap. You need one, big time, dude. That’s…that’s fine, I guess. Hey did they invent a technology yet that lets you erase voicemails?"

 



MJ:
Before you listen to your voicemails, know that I care about you a lot and I just want you to be ok.

MJ: Loser.

MJ: Peter. Please, please text me back. Please.

MJ: Please.



Peter:
This is Pepper Potts using Peter’s phone. Happy’s coming to pick you up now to take you to the Tower med bay.

 


 

Peter wants to stay where he is forever.

It’s warm and cozy and soft, and for once he’s not dreaming. No Vulture, no Titan, no army that he’s ripping apart with iron limbs. There’s nowhere to be - no labs, no training, no mission. Just this amazing, comfortable, made out of clouds bed, and Peter can't remember the last time he just laid down and rested. 

Except…

Except he feels like there is somewhere he should be. Somewhere or…or someone

“Peter. Hey.”

Voice. He knows that voice. It’s a good voice.

“Are you waking up?”

No.

“You’ve been asleep for nearly eighteen hours. Maybe now is a good time.”

Eighteen…eighteen hours? That’s not right. He has combat training with Natasha, and magic lessons with Stephen, then school, then decathlon, then -

Oh. Oh god.

“Don’t stress,” the good voice is saying. “Tony called your teacher and explained. You’re ok.”

Peter forces his eyes open, light streaming through them. MJ, he tries to say. “Ugh,” is what comes out.

“Sounds about right. Think you can sit up?”

Peter tries, a pair of gentle arms coming around to help him, propping an extra pillow behind his back before something cold is being pressed into his hands.

“Drink as much as you can. The nurse said you’d be dehydrated.”

Peter raises the glass to his lips, a second pair of hands helping like he’s a toddler. He wants to protest, but he’s pretty sure if the other person lets go he’s going to end up spilling oral rehydration salts all over the bed.

He gets most of it down before he turns his head away, the other hands removing the glass, and then Peter is looking down into the concerned face of Pepper Potts. “How are you feeling?” she asks him.

Peter closes his eyes, accessing. “Pretty awful,” he admits after a few moments. His head is pounding, his tongue heavy, and despite the eighteen hours of sleep he’s already had, he feels like he could go another eighteen and then some. “What happened to me?”

Pepper hums, considering him. “You passed out,” she says simply.

“Passed out? From what?” Peter frowns, searching for his last memory. “I was on patrol…did something happen? Did I get attacked, or fall, or -”

“You collapsed,” Pepper clarifies. “Your vitals went haywire, so Tony flew out to get you. He’s asleep in the next room - he’s going to be pretty annoyed that he waited so long and still missed you waking up.”

“Tony had to come get me? Great.” He hasn’t had that specific humiliation in quite a few months. “Not that I’m not grateful, or anything. Just…he shouldn’t have to do that.”

“No, he shouldn’t. Do you know why you collapsed?”

“I’m…sick?”

“In a way. You were exhausted, Peter. Your body just gave out on you.”

Peter blinks a few times, trying to absorb that. “But…but I’m Spider-Man.”

“Just because you have different limits to other people doesn’t mean you can’t push them. You're taking on too much."

Something like annoyance makes its way through the haze. "It's not like I can drop anything. Between being an Avenger and senior year and college applications...I can't just stop."

Pepper hums, reaching behind her to retrieve what Peter notes is his phone. “Your girlfriend has been quite distressed about you.”

Peter takes it with trepidation, heart sinking as he reads through all the texts, sees the three voicemails. “MJ never leaves voicemails. Oh crap. I really scared her.”

“Yes, you did. She’s on her way here,” Pepper says. “But I wanted to talk to you about something before you talk to her.”

The trepidation increases. “Ok?”

“I could give you the whole ‘you need to take better care of yourself’ speech, but you’re going to get that from quite a few people already, so I’m going to tell you something they might not. Ready?”

“Not really?”

“Do you know why Tony and I broke up?”

“You and Tony broke up? When?” Then Peter remembers. “Right. Before Tony met me. Sorry. And, um, not really.”

“The official story,” Pepper goes on. “Is that Tony promised to stop being Iron Man, and then he broke that promise.”

“Is that…not true?”

“It’s the big picture version. But we might have made it through that, if it wasn’t for all the little stuff.”

“Little stuff? Like what?”

“I was Tony’s assistant before I was his girlfriend. And my duties in that role went far past just paperwork and scheduling meetings. I had to get him to pretty much everywhere. I had to make sure he got up in the morning. I had to make sure he was going to act appropriately at least on occasion in front of the press.”

“I hope he paid you well.”

“Oh, you bet he did. And I was ok with doing all of it, because it was my job. It was an unconventional job, but I knew what I signed up for. I was qualified enough to quit and go somewhere else. I chose to stay and do that work. And then I stopped being Tony’s assistant. Except in some ways, I didn’t.”

Peter is beginning to see where this is going. “You still had to do all that stuff, even after it stopped being your job.”

“He got better,” Pepper admitted. “But then we had new problems. I had to urge him to go to therapy. To take his medication. I had to make sure he had eaten that day when I came home from work. And a certain amount of that is part of being someone’s partner, but not the amount Tony put on me. He didn’t mean to, but he did. I was still his assistant. Sometimes I felt like his mother. That’s not very conducive to a healthy, romantic relationship. And over time, it collapsed in on itself, because I wasn’t willing to hold it up alone anymore.”

Peter looked down at the barrage of texts. “MJ and aren’t like that. I think. Are we?”

Pepper nodded at the phone. “You really like this girl, right?”

Peter flushed a little. “Yeah. Yeah, I really do.”

“Then pull yourself together, so she doesn’t have to do it for you. If she’s right for you, she will guide and support you, but the bulk of the work? That has to be on you, Peter. Or she’s going to resent having to take on that emotional load, like I did.”

Peter clutches the phone a little tighter. “Ok. Yes. I hear you.”

“I know you do.” Pepper gives him a smile. “You are a very sweet and loving man, Peter. But even the best men can unintentionally put more on the women in their lives than they mean to. Just keep that in mind, alright?”

“Alright. Wait,” Peter calls out as she rises to leave. “You and Tony. You’re ok now, right? I mean, obviously you got back together and got married but…you are ok. Aren’t you?”

“We’re ok,” Pepper assures him. “I feel like I actually have a partner now. Someone who takes an equal share of the load. It took a lot of trust for me to risk trying that relationship again. It might have taken even longer, but Tony being Tony, he found a cheat code.”

“A cheat code?”

“He proved he could be responsible and caring; be giving rather than draining. Showed me he could be the man I always knew he could be. The man I deserved to be with.”

“But how did he show you - oh.” Pepper was still smiling knowingly at him, and Peter caught on. “Because of…me? Really?”

“Really.” Pepper stands, smoothing out her already creaseless skirt. “Now how about I do you a favor and give you some time alone with MJ before Tony wakes up?”

“That…sounds good. Thanks, Pepper.”

“Anytime.”

Peter picks up his phone, re-reading the texts before sending one back.

 

Peter: I know you’re on your way, but just saying I’m awake and that I’m sorry.

Peter: And that I care about you a lot too and I want you to be ok. And I know you can’t be completely ok if you’re always worrying about me.

Peter: I’ll do better.

 

The text bubbles appear, three dots blinking at him before they vanish. Appear. Vanish again. Then -

 

MJ: Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.

Peter: I mean it. I like what we have. I don’t want it to collapse.

Peter: Like I did.

MJ: Such a dork.

MJ: I like it.

MJ: I like you.

Peter: I like you too.

Peter: I haven’t listened to the voicemails yet by the way. I won’t if you don’t want me to.

 

“Maybe you should.”

Peter glances up from his phone, seeing a very tired and worried-looking MJ hanging in the doorway. “Hey, you.”

“Hey.” MJ slowly makes her way in, wrapping her arms around herself. “You good?”

“Yeah.” Peter puts his phone aside. “So. We should probably talk.”

“You breaking up with me, Parker?”

“No,” Peter says hastily. “The opposite actually. Very, very much the opposite.”

“Oh. Good. That’s…good.” Some of the tension leaves MJ’s shoulders as she sits down in the visitor’s chair. “Alright. Let’s talk.”

Peter looks back at the phone, considering the voicemails. "Did you want me to listen to them or..."

MJ bites her lip. "I guess I should just bite the bullet and tell you what they said." She twists her fingers together, unable to look Peter in the eye. "I'm not always very good at asking for things I want. Too used to, you know. Those requests not being listened to."

"I'll listen to them," Peter promises. "I really care about you, MJ. If you want something from me I'm not giving you, then I want to fix that."

A hint of color stains MJ's cheeks. "I want to feel wanted. By you."

Peter blinks, taken aback. "But I do. Want you. In my life, as my girlfriend - all of it."

"You say that but...sorry. Words." MJ takes a moment to find what she wants to say. "I always feel like you're rushing off to other places. Like spending time with me is something you check off a list. Training, school, decathlon, patrol, girlfriend. You cancel half our dates because of Avengers stuff. And it's Avengers stuff - how could I ever measure up to that?"

"Hey." Peter reaches across the bed, taking her hand. "If I had to choose between you and Spider-Man right now, I'd pick you."

"But I don't want that either," MJ presses. "I don't want you to feel like you have to give that up for me. I guess...I don't want to feel like another task on your to-do list anymore."

"That's not how I feel."

"It's how I feel," MJ insists. "But it's not just about me. Peter, look at where you are right now."

"Come on," Peter tries to shrug it off. "When am I not in the med bay. Really, you think the advanced healing factor would prevent this many sick days."

"You're not sick," MJ points out. "And you're not injured. You're exhausted. You can't keep doing this to yourself. And I don't want you to keep doing it to me either. And I'm not trying to ultimatum you, really - but if you can't find time for me, if I'm constantly worrying about if you're dead in some ditch or if I'm the part of your life that's going to get cut...that's not who I want to be in a relationship with."

"You really worry I'm going to break up with you? Or that I'm hurt? All the time?"

MJ shrugs. "Pretty much." 

 

Even the best men can unintentionally put more on the women in their lives than they mean to.

 

"I'm sorry," Peter says immediately, meaning it. "I had no idea. I'll do better, I promise."

"You say that, but I don't really see how at this point. Without giving up Avengers stuff."

Peter hesitates, just for a moment, but MJ still catches it.

"Peter? You good?"

"The Avengers stuff...I know it's important. Really important. But sometimes I wish there was less of it too."

It's MJ's turn to be thrown. "Really? I thought you loved being on the team."

"I do," Peter says quickly. "They're family. I don't know what I'd do without them around but...I have family that aren't them too. And non-Avengers stuff that I really like and want to do. Like that big Europe trip you guys took. That looked so fun. And even though Tony promised to take me over to Venice anyway, it's not really the same. Don't tell him I said that."

"So what are you going to do?" MJ asks quietly.

"I don't know," Peter admits. "But from now on, you come first, I promise. Besides, we only have a couple of months left of senior year. I want to make the most of it. With you." He rolls over in bed so he's facing her fully. "Prank Day, Graduation, Prom, the works."

"Oh? And who are you going to prom with?"

"What?" Peter scrambles upright, only to sink back down as his head spins. "Bad idea. Don't leave the bed, Peter. And...aren't I going to prom with you?"

"I don't know. You haven't asked me."

A heavy silence falls over the med bay room. "Ah," Peter says finally. "My bad."

"Yeah. A bit."

"I think maybe a lot."

"You are in a hospital bed right now, I'm not that callous." After another long pause, MJ finally says. "So. Are you going to ask?"

"Oh, I'm going to ask. I'm going to give you the biggest, more public, corniest Promposal ever, Michelle Jones."

"Ugh. Forget I said anything."

"It's going to be huge. The whole school is going to see it. There's going to be a fog machine."

"Stop."

"And a skywriter."

"I mean it."

"I'm going to sing. How do you feel about Rihanna?"

MJ punches him lightly in the shoulder. "Dork. Be careful, I might hold you to all of that."

"Nah, I'll spare you. I know you'd hate that." Peter takes her hand again. "MJ - will you go to prom with me?

"Hm. I'll have to think about it." But the slight curve of her lips tells him she's joking.

"I'll take it," Peter replies. "And MJ? I promise to make it the best prom night ever." 

Chapter Text

Everything is chaos.

Tony's voice is echoing in his comms, yelling at him to stay on the sidelines, to not get involved, but Peter has one chance to show him that he's worthy of being here and he's taking it. He sees the giant man looming over the airport, recalls an old movie scene and knows what to do, and is sure it is working until a garbage truck-sized hand swipes Rhodey right out of the sky.

Peter knows what happens next. He throws a web. Catches the armored suit. Gets Rhodey safely to the ground. He raises his webs - lets the web-shooters click. 

Nothing happens.

Peter watches in horror as Rhodey falls, trying to desperately activate his webs, but his hands no longer exist. He's a ghost; a helpless bystander as the War Machine armor crumples against the concrete and doesn't move again. There's a yell of panic, Tony's voice splitting in his ears as a streak of red and gold dives for his fallen friend, and then Peter is back in his body again.

But he's not at the airport. And this battle is nowhere near as civil.

Sensation comes flooding back. Peter’s never been this exhausted, but he knows he can’t stop. If he stops, he dies. If he stops, his friends die. If he stops, the universe dies.

He’s long since activated Instant Kill, something that once seemed so over the top and unnecessary that is now the only thing keeping him alive. Aliens die to the left and right of him every second, but he clutches the Infinity Stones to his chest even tighter and keeps running as fire rains from the sky.

He can’t remember when he lost his mask, but he’d give every one of his possessions for it right now as dust and grit cloud his eyes. He’s running, nowhere in particular except away - away from the Mad Titan who is cutting through the battlefield like a wheat field as he pursues the power Peter now holds in his hands.

Then the heavens are falling and there’s nowhere left to run. All he can do is curl up on himself and wait to die.

He doesn’t die. He knows what happens next. He knows who saves him.

Except he doesn’t come.

Peter braces himself against the chopped-up ground, the ruined remains of the planet beneath him. And when he looks up, it’s not Tony standing above him, diving next to him and activating the shield in his suit to protect them both.

It’s Carol Danvers, standing over him without a care in the world, as though this was a normal Tuesday for her. “I’m Peter,” Peter hears himself saying, without any intention of saying it. “Peter Parker.”

Carol’s lips twitch. “Hey there, Peter Parker. You got something for me?”

She’s reaching for the Infinity Stones, and as hard as Peter tries to hold onto them, he can’t prevent himself from handing them over. This is wrong, he tries to say. This isn’t how it happened. Tony took the stones off me. He tried to snap. But I stopped him. I gave them to you instead.

But now Carol has them, and she’s not snapping, instead she’s bolting across the field, the Stone changing hands over and over again until they end up in -

No! Peter tries to yell, but his mouth isn’t working. Tony, stop!

He doesn’t stop. He raises his now glowing hand, face full of determination. “I. Am. Iron Man.”

There’s nothing Peter can do to stop it. He’s rooted in place, wrestling with a body that won’t move, even as he fights with every ounce of his being to cross the battlefield before the worst can happen.

But it doesn’t matter how much he fights. It doesn’t make a difference. Tony snaps.

“We won, Mr Stark,” Peter’s saying. “We did it. We won.”

“Peter.”

This isn’t winning. Peter’s seen winning. It’s a return from the battlefield with all of them bleeding and bruised and exhausted but alive, and this isn’t what happened, so why is Peter watching Tony die in Pepper’s arms, seeing the light in his eyes go out at the same time as the arc reactor does, and then he’s still and he’s gone, he's gone - 

“Peter.”

Tony’s gone.

 


 

“Peter!”

Peter bolts upright, coated in cold sweat as he gasps for air. There’s an overlarge hand on his arm, rubbing comforting circles there.

“Ah, good. You’re finally awake.”

Peter slumps back into his pillows. A dream. It was only a dream. Then he suddenly clocks just who is at his bedside. “Thor? What- what are you doing in my room?”

Peter fumbles for his bedside lamp, flicking it on to see a very worried Thor watching him. “I heard you yelling,” Thor explains. “I was worried for your safety.”

“Right.” Peter sinks even further into his bed, embarrassment quickly overtaking the panic coursing through his blood. “Sorry. Just a nightmare.”

“Hm.” Thor’s still patting his back. A part of Peter wants to tell him to stop, that he can go now, but the contact feels nice after seeing- after just watching- “On Asgard, we prescribe meaning to our dreams. They are omens of events to come, or messages from the past we are only now ready to hear.” He considers his own words. “Sometimes. Once I dreamed I was in a play my brother had written, but he kept changing all the words right before I went on stage, and the whole kingdom kept laughing at me. That dream variation is very common on Asgard.”

“We have that dream here too.” Peter fiddles with his blanket, working up the courage to ask Thor to leave, even though he doesn’t want to be alone right now. “It felt so real.”

“You had the stage dream?” Thor nods solemnly. “This is indeed cause for much distress.”

“No,” Peter breathes. “I was…fighting Thanos.”

Thor’s breath hitches, even as he tries to hide it with a large cough. “Thanos.”

“Yes. Or, his army at least.” Peter shakes himself, wishing a little bit that he was at May’s and not the Tower right now.

“You wish for your aunt.”

“What?” Peter stares at Thor. “Can you mind-read?”

Thor chuckles. “Not at all. I just know the look of one who wishes for their guardian to assure them.” He pats Peter’s knee. “I am not your May, but can I assist in any way?”

Peter pulls the covers a little tighter around himself. “Usually when I have a bad dream, May makes me hot cocoa,” he admits in a small voice.

“Then hot cocoa shall be had!”

It ends up being Peter that makes the cocoa, heading off the disaster that is Thor left alone in a kitchen. He stirs in the cream and cinnamon and then pushes one across the table to Thor. “Careful, it’s hot. Or maybe that doesn’t bother you? It probably doesn’t.”

They’ve kept the lights dim, but even so Peter can feel Thor’s scrutinizing gaze boring into him. “You do not have a very extensive knowledge of my powers.”

Peter shrugs. “I don’t know. You’re Thor. Pretty easy to believe that you can do anything.”

Thor drops his head, staring into his cocoa. “Believe me, there are many things I cannot do. Many things I have not done.” He clears his throat, changing the subject. “Would you like to discuss the events of your night terrors?”

Peter clutches the warm mug a little tighter, trying to find the words.

“You were fighting Thanos,” Thor prompts him. “A situation to bring about many dreams worthy of fear.” He gives Peter a little salute. “Our final stand against his army was not for the faint of heart.”

“You dream about him too? Sorry, I don’t mean to pry,” Peter hurries on.

Thor is quiet for a moment before he nods. “Very often,” he says, voice low. “That final battle too.”

“I thought you would be used to that. Battles and war and armies and stuff.”

Thor nods, grave. “Once I did. When I was young and foolish. Well, more foolish than now. I thought victory on the battlefield was everything, would take any chance I could see - or make - to find glory.”

“And now?”

“Now…I am not a warrior. Or a king. I don’t know what I am.” He smiles. “And for the first time, I believe this is a good thing.” The smile fades. “I only wish my brother could have found a similar path.”

Peter shifts, a little uncomfortable. He’d been pretty young when the Battle of New York had happened, but had never forgotten the destruction played out on live television, the growing death count. He doesn’t bring it up though. It’s not up to him to dictate who others are allowed to grieve.

“Thanos killed him,” Thor goes on, voice distant now. “Right in front of me. As well as half of my people. There was nothing I could do.”

Peter tries to swallow back the image of Tony snapping, so close and yet impossibly far away. It had felt so real.

“He died saving my life,” Thor finishes. “He died trying to kill Thanos. To keep the Space Stone away from him. I don’t know if you knew that.”

“I…didn’t,” Peter admits. That did not sound like the same Loki who had attacked New York.

“And then I had a chance to avenge him. And I failed.” Thor makes a little stabbing motion, seemingly unconscious of it. “At least, the first time. But the second time did not bring any solace. Those were some dark years, before we righted the world again.” He shakes himself. “I should not have offered you comfort only to seek it instead. I am sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Peter says hastily. “And…I’m sorry about brother.”

It still feels a bit odd to say, but Thor nods in appreciation. “Thank you, Peter. Sometimes it does not feel as though he is gone at all.” He laughs, quiet and sad. “Who knows, maybe he isn’t. He has pulled that trick many a time before.”

Peter doesn’t exactly find that thought comforting, but perhaps a Loki willing to give his life to try and kill Thanos and save his family wouldn’t be the threat that had stepped foot on Earth all those years ago. “Thor, can I ask you something?”

Thor brightens at having some way to help. “Of course! Anything at all.”

"On Asgard, you said dreams could be omens of events to come. How did you know which dreams were omens, and which were just, you know…” He gestures around his head. “Muddled up brain soup?”

Thor considers the question seriously. “Most are muddled up brain soup,” he confirms. “But, if a dream felt particularly vivid, as though one was living through the events - we would seek an Elder for advice.”

“Well, you’re definitely my elder.” Peter swirls the cocoa dregs around, making a dark whirlpool. “It felt vivid. Really vivid. Like I was there, even though I couldn't control my body. But it can't be an omen, can it? The battle against Thanos was in the past. The Infinity Stones are gone. It’s not like it can happen again.” A stab of panic shoots through him. “Right?”

Thor exhales, considering, which is not the answer Peter wants right now. “When you were in the battle,” Thor says finally. “Was the same as when you fought him on this plane of existence?”

Peter shakes his head. “No. I gave Carol the gauntlet, but in the dream she didn’t snap. It was…” He draws in a shuddering breath. “It was Tony.”

“Ah.” Thor nods, sage. “I see now why this dream has shaken you so.”

“It felt so real,” Peter breathes. “Like it was happening to another version of me, and I was just trapped in his body, unable to do anything. And Tony just…he was just gone. And I just watched.”

Thor is quiet for a moment before he says, “I understand. How awful that is.” He reaches across the table to lay a comforting hand on Peter’s elbow. “I’m sorry I do not have the answers you seek. But I can tell you that Tony is not dead. None of us are. We’re all still here.”

“I know.” Peter nods, pulls himself together. “Just a dream. Stupid.”

“Not stupid,” Thor insists. “Perhaps it means more. Perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps you are not ready for that answer yet.”

“That is…very cryptic.”

“It is what my Elders used to tell me.” Thor frowns. “It is cryptic. Perhaps they didn’t know either. Maybe no one knows. Were they having me on?" He considers that for a moment, then shrugs. "Probably. And maybe that is ok, if I found it helpful at the time.”

“Maybe.” Peter looks down into his empty mug. “I'm not sure if I find not knowing comforting. But I do know there are more cocoa ingredients left if you want another.”

“Another! Yes, that would be most excellent. Allow me to make it this time.”

Peter hastily puts a hand on his shoulder as Thor tries to stand. “Yeah, in your dreams. I’ve got this one.”

The next morning, the first thing Peter does is visit Tony’s workshop. His mentor is there, safe and sound, arguing good-naturedly with Rhodey.

Peter waits for the last of the worry to abate, now that he sees they're both ok. Waits for the images of the last night to vanish - of the War Machine armor lying shattered on the ground - of the life draining out of Tony's eyes. None of it was real. Peter caught Rhodey in time; Carol snapped Thanos's army away. There's nothing to be scared of.

A nagging voice in the back of his head tells him that's not true. 

Rhodey catches him watching, knocking Tony on the shoulder to get his attention. "We've got company."

Tony raises an eyebrow at Peter. "I was under the impression that it was physically impossible for you to be awake at this hour of this morning.”

Peter shrugs. “Couldn’t sleep. Bad dreams.”

Tony beckons him into the workshop. “Yep, had my fair run of those.” He gestures over the various workbenches. “Pick a project, get to it. Best treatment is to take your mind off it."  Then, softer, “Whatever it was - I promise it was just a dream. Ok?”

“Yeah,” Peter agrees, getting to work. “Just a dream.”

But as the day wears on, and the unease doesn’t fade, Peter begins to doubt it’s that easy. Can't shake the feeling that something’s coming for them.

That something’s coming for them soon.    

Chapter Text

Peter doesn’t know how long they’ve been here.

Steve estimated a month last time Peter asked, his inner clock better honed than Peter’s is. Peter doesn’t want to believe him, doesn’t want to accept it’s been that long, but he’d quickly learned that it’s impossible to track time when you’re underground and not allowed to sleep more than a few hours at a time.

They’ve only been given the bare minimum to keep them breathing, and even that’s been a stretch. Peter’s long since stopped turning his nose up at the mud-flavored shakes they shove at them whenever they start to flag in their work, and that’s only when the yelling or the whipping doesn’t get them back up first. They’d both given into the regime without any more fighting about a week in, although Steve pushed that it was a tactical choice, not a defeat. Keep their strength up best they can. Last as long as they can go for. Give their team as much of a chance as they can to get to them before it’s too late.

Their captors don’t care about maintaining their workers beyond making sure they’re giving them the most out of their bodies before they give out. Earlier on, before he learned that he’d do anything to avoid the whip, Peter had snapped at them when he’d see a boy barely older them him collapse. Surely they’d be more productive if they fed them more, let them sleep, let them rest?

He doesn’t question them anymore.

He and Steve are in the same sector of the mine, hauling vibranium out of the walls of the unending tunnels. It’s hot, heavy, dirty work, and Peter hates himself a little for being glad that Steve is there with him - that he doesn’t have to endure it alone. He’s pretty sure he’d be dead already without Steve watching his back, urging him awake whenever their captors get near, keeping him on his feet before the whips and the words do it for him.

(He refuses to use the word owners, will hold on to that one tiny dignity until his final, dust-choked breath.)

They hadn’t even been on a mission when they’d been captured. Peter’s history class was covering World World II, and Peter wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity to interview someone who was actually there. Steve had been more than happy to help, (Sam insists that retirement’s been good for him, but Peter can tell that the former captain still gets bored on occasion), taking Peter on a trip to some of his old training sites before he’d been shipped overseas.

It’s the worst part of all of this; that it’s Peter’s fault they’re stuck down a mine being worked to death. That they were only in that location because Peter had wanted a good grade, because Steve had been generous enough to help. Because they’d gotten to Peter first and used him to get Steve to come quietly.

Steve hasn’t held it against him for a second though, going as far to push some of his meager rations on him at the beginning, with Peter’s metabolism burning even faster than the super-soldier’s does. Peter had initially refused, then had accepted after picking up on Steve’s need to feel useful, and then had gone back to refusing when both of them had registered that this was not going to be a short-term stay.

Their team doesn’t know where they are, that much is clear. And why would they? It’s not as though the Avengers have heard of a group of vibranium smugglers kidnapping humans with enhanced strength to work their mines. Peter doesn’t doubt for a second that they’re looking - they just aren’t looking in the right place.

Escape is impossible too. They get a three feet by three feet square to operate in and stay chained to the wall there until their owners captors decree that there is no more vibranium to be had there. Then they chain them up to the next square and they start again. Peter and Steve have tried to match their movements, so they get moved together, but sometimes a square will take an hour to clear out and sometimes days, and Peter is past the point of being willing to risk getting caught slacking off. They’re only allowed tattered trousers down here, and he can see the marks the regular whippings are leaving on Steve’s back despite the serum, the scars from the chains littering his wrists and ankles. Peter doesn’t doubt that, if his isn’t the same yet, it’s only a matter of time. If he lives that long.

It’s getting close. He can feel it. Can see it on Steve too, even though he’s trying to hide it for Peter’s sake. Their work rhythms have only just got them back chained up side-by-side, after a panicked few days of being separated. The end is coming. The place where he’s just not going to be able to work anymore. He’s seen it happen to every enhanced around him so far. Why should he get to be the exception?

“Peter. Incoming.”

Peter’s eyes fly open, hastily redoubling his efforts with the pickaxe, seeing that the mine boss today is Gomez. They rotate sections between them, and none of their overseers are kind or merciful, but Gomez is by far the worst - the quickest to pick up a whip at any sign of trouble, the first to deem a worker ‘done with’ and ‘ready for disposal’. Sometimes they’re not even dead when they get hauled off, to where Peter doesn’t know. They must have a pretty thorough disposal system though, if no one on the outside is finding the bodies.

And Peter is Gomez’s favorite worker.

Not a favorite in that he gets perks. Favorite in that the man takes delight in a now scrawny teenager being able to keep up with the enhanced that show their strength in their build, like Steve does, and yet Peter can lift more than any of them can. He’s constantly pushing Peter harder, taking delight in seeing how far he can go, forcing him past limits even Peter didn’t know he was capable of.

Peter tries to make himself as small as possible as Gomez approaches, praying that once, just once, the man will pass him by and leave him alone.

No luck. “You’re still not dead?”

Peter grits his teeth, keeps his head low, continues working. He can feel Steve’s eyes on the two of them, watching, but it’s not as though Steve can actually do anything when Gomez starts in on him. He tries anyway. It just gets them both hurt instead. “No, sir.”

“You think you’ll be dead tomorrow?”

“No, sir.”

Gomez hums. “You going as fast as you can there, runt?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you sure?”

There’s no right answer to this question. No means punishment for slacking off. Yes means punishment for being insubordinate. Peter tries for something else. “My totals today are -”

Stars explode his vision as Gomez whacks the back of his head with a meaty fist. “Did I ask you what your totals were today, runt? Did I?”

“No, sir.”

“What did I ask you then?”

“Leave him alone.”

Peter groans inwardly. No matter how many times he’s told Steve to stay out of it, that there’s no point in him getting a beating too, that it’s not going to change a single damn thing, Steve always jumps right in the line of fire anyway.

Gomez turns away from Peter. “Am I speaking to you?”

“You are now.”

Gomez considers Steve, cocking his head to one side as he reaches out to run a hand through Peter’s matted, overlong hair. He’s not hurting Peter, except for when his fingers get caught in a tangle, but it’s clearly unnerving Steve anyway. “Your friend is very protective,” Gomez breathes in Peter’s ear. “You two must be close.”

Peter goes very still, praying that Steve isn’t going to make things worse. Thankfully the hand on Peter’s head seems to be enough of a deterrent for him to stay quiet for now.

“Interesting,” Gomez muses, finally shoving Peter away. “Whip the runt.”

“For what?” Steve demands.

“Twice,” Gomez adds then, when Steve opens his mouth to protest further, “I can make it three times.”

Steve shuts up, sending an apologetic and panicked look at Peter as he realizes he’s made this worse and there is absolutely nothing he can do to stop it.

“Interesting,” Gomez says again. “You better not die yet, runt. I got a bet going with Pinter that you’ll last at least another three days. So no wimping out on me before then, got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

Because down here, even dying needs permission.

 


 

“Peter, I’m so sorry.”

The mines are as freezing cold at night as they are scorching during the day. Their captors don’t unchain them from the walls even then; just let them sleep where they collapse at the end of their shifts. Peter’s curled up on his side, facing Steve, to both keep the fresh cuts from rubbing against the rough ground and Steve from seeing them. They’re not healing like they should; they’ve barely clotted, and he’s feeling that blood loss. He’s going to feel it even more tomorrow.

They always sleep the same way when they’re fortunate enough to end up next to each other, curled into balls to conserve heat while facing each other. They’re chained too far apart to touch, but even just being able to see that the other is ok is as much of a comfort that can be found in this place.

“Not your fault,” Peter mumbles. He wants to sleep, he’s beyond exhausted, but the throbbing in his back is making that difficult. “His fault. Asshole.”

“Asshole,” Steve agrees. Then, the same as every night - “Hold on. They’ll come for us soon.”

Usually the words mean something, even as the days turned into weeks, stuck down here being worked to death. But tonight they don’t. Tonight Peter just doesn’t believe them anymore. “I think I’m going to die tomorrow."

He doesn’t mean to say the words, wishes he hasn’t the moment he sees Steve’s face. “You’re not,” Steve states, as though if he wills it hard enough it’ll happen. Then again, this is Steve Rogers, so maybe him willing something to be so is enough. “You’re not. They’ll find us first.”

He means it. He always means it. “Why?”

“Because they’re our family, Peter. You think you would quit if we lost any of them?”

“No, but…It’s been a month. Maybe longer. They don’t know where we are, so why haven’t you given up?”

A sad smile crosses Steve’s face. “I was buried in ice for seventy years. Bucky was buried in Hydra for longer. And we were both found. Kind of hard to believe a month-long absence is going to beat me after that. They’re coming, Peter. So no dying before then, ok Queens? Captain’s orders.”

Peter’s drifting off to sleep. He vaguely wonders if he’ll wake up again. If he even wants to if it means going back to working the wall. “Not a captain…anymore. Not the boss of me.”

Peter doesn’t hear Steve’s response. He’s out, and then he’s awake again, in a time that feels no longer than a blink. Someone’s saying his name, loud, urgent. “Peter. Peter, you need to get up. Peter.”

He’s not getting up. It’s not a choice. It’s a fact. He’s done. He’s filthy and skeletal and lying in a pool of his own blood. There’s nothing left anymore.

“No,” he hears Steve protesting. “No, don’t, he’s already lost enough blood, don’t!”

“You freaks should be able to handle a few little cuts,” he hears Gomez saying, and then the whip is coming down on his back. It’s agony, like it always is, but he doesn’t even move to cover his head. This is it. He just knows it. “Don’t you dare lose this bet for me, runt.”

“If you want him to survive, let him rest,” Steve is pleading. “I’ll do his square today, ok? As well as mine. Just give him one day to recover and then -”

Another swish of the whip, another impact of leather on skin. But Peter doesn’t feel the subsequent sting on his back. And the cry of pain it wrings out isn’t his.

A new jolt of energy, what he knows is his very, very last one shoots through him, lifting his head just in time to see the whip come down on Steve’s back a second time. “Stop,” he croaks. He can’t remember the last time his voice sounded like his own. “Stop hurting him.”

Gomez just brings the whip down a third time. “What - does this bother you? You don’t like watching me hurt your friend? Then. Get. Up.”

Steve opens his mouth to protest further, but each of the last three words is punctuated with another lashing, and he falls quiet on the last one, words of comfort or encouragement gone. Peter doesn’t blame him. Steve’s been here just as long as he has, has been starved and beaten and deprived of every human decency. Peter knows he’s been putting on a front the last week or so for Peter’s sake, has probably been expending energy he doesn’t have to do so, but it’s still awful to watch it finally fall away as Gomez whips him again, wrenching out a sound of pain that Peter didn’t even think it was possible for Steve to make.

“Stop,” Peter begs. Steve’s only here because of him. He can do this. He can do this all day.

Except he can’t.

Gomez tosses the whip aside in disgust, stomping over to Peter and hauling him up by the neck. “No. I’m not going to stop.”

You just did, Peter thinks, and really hopes he doesn’t say. His head is getting hazy. That probably isn’t good.

“You know why, runt? Do you know why you don’t get to die until I tell you too? Because the second you entered this place, your life was mine, and I decide when it ends. So get back to work, before I decide to end your friend’s life.”

“You…”

“Watch what’s about to come out of that mouth.”

“You…you made a pun.”

Gomez stops, completely confused for a second. “I - what?”

“Pun,” Peter repeats. “Mine. Mine. Pun.”

Gomez is saying something else, maybe even hurting him, or Steve, or both of them, but Peter is beyond registering it. Instead, his soup-like brain is conjuring up all sorts of nice sounds for him right now. Tony’s repulsers. Sam’s shield. Bucky’s arm. He supposes it’s kind of it to paint a happy picture of rescue to send him out on.

He’s falling, which he decides really isn’t very nice, collapsing to the ground in a heap as his eyes decide to get in on the happy hallucination action. A shield goes rocketing over him, knocking Gomez against a wall headfirst. He doesn’t get up again.

There’s a blur of silver to his right, and he squints to see a very realistic-looking Sam and Bucky, apparently in a foot race to see who can get to Steve first, and Peter feels an odd jolt of loss a second before there are metal arms on him, turning him over, so he can see -

“Oh, nice,” Peter breathes. “Good job, dying brain.”

“Oh no,” Tony’s voice is saying, the Iron Man helmet melting away. “No dying today. Got that Peter’s brain? We came way too far for you to check out on us now, that’s just rude.”

Peter squints a little harder. Surely if he was making Tony up right now, he wouldn’t make his mentor look so tired and worried. “You’re here.”

“Yep. Right here, bud.”

“You found us.”

“We always will. Here.” It takes Tony a few tries, but eventually he manages to get Peter out of the chains. “Right. Home. No checking out on the way, got it?”

“People need to stop telling me…when I can die.”

“Um, no they don’t. Because this is me, right now, telling you can’t die, not until you’re well over a hundred and even then I’m not super thrilled about the idea. So you keep that heart beating, ok?”

They’re moving. Peter wants to squirm, to look back, but his body isn’t obeying him anymore. “Steve.”

“Steve’s fine, the Blues Brothers have him. Let’s just focus on you, ok?”

Peter thinks he maybe has a response to that, but then there’s -

Air.

Fresh air. His cheeks grow wet.

“Woah, kid, you ok there? Not sure you have the fluids to spare.”

“I’m outside.”

Tony’s voice is softer than Peter’s ever heard it when he says, “Yeah. Yeah, kid you’re outside. And you’re going to get many, many days outside, ok? Hold on.”

“Can I…rest?”

“Rest as in sleep, right? Not…not the other thing.”

“Sleep.”

“Then yes, you can rest. Rest all you want, kid. We got the rest from here.”

“Ha. Pun.”

“I - damnit! Go to sleep, Parker.”

Peter’s never been so happy to oblige.

Chapter Text

Peter knows he’s not going to last much longer.

It’s the end of the third day trapped in the old church. When he’d first woken up here, wrapped up head to toe in chains with a thick cloth knotted around his mouth, he’d braced himself for whatever villain was going to come for revenge, or the inevitable ransom call, or - the worst option - whatever Avenger Peter was the bait for falling right into whatever trap this would turn out to be.

But no one’s come, friend or enemy, and Peter has realized that whoever did this has left him here to die.

The chains and the support beam they’re locked to are both unbreakable even with Peter’s strength, and his captors have wrapped him up too well for him to wiggle so much as a finger free. He’s long since given up trying to get the gag that is soaking every ounce of moisture from his mouth out. The material is splitting the corner of his lips, his jaw consumed with a persistent ache from how tightly they’ve tied it. He’d tried screaming through it anyway, hoping to catch the attention of anyone nearby, but the church is desolate, the corners filled with