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Before You Go

Chapter Text

It was a Friday. Tony had spent the last two weeks in Beijing and his internal clock was all kinds of fucked. He’d planned for that—well, Pepper had planned for that. He didn’t have anywhere to be; he’d spent the day in the workshop. Tinkering. Mostly just puttering around waiting for Peter to show up after school.

He’d sort of wanted to go pick Peter up, but that was probably clingy and weird. He’d just missed the kid. The two weeks away had been the longest chunk of time he’d gone without actually seeing the kid in person since they’d started on the whole proper mentor/mentee bonding thing.

There’d been near-constant texting and the occasional video call, but it hadn’t been the same.

“Boss, there’s an incoming call from Midtown School of Science and Technology,” FRIDAY said in his earpiece. “Shall I accept the call?”

“Yeah, put it through,” Tony said, leaning back from the table. FRIDAY cut the music and relayed the call to his earpiece. “This is Stark.”

“Hi, Mr. Stark. My name is Nina Finch. I’m calling from Midtown,” Nina said.

“Is Peter okay?” he asked, because there was something—tension or maybe something else; he couldn’t put his finger on it—in her voice. It wasn’t the usual ‘ohmygod Tony Stark’ flutter he’d learned to identify and dodge well before he was Peter’s age.

“I’m actually calling because I need May Parker to come to the school as soon as possible, but I haven’t been able to reach her,” Nina said. “There’s been an incident.”

“Is Peter okay?” he asked again, sitting up straight while his mind whirled. ‘Incident’ could mean any number of horrible things. Fight. Sick. Active shooter. Horrible things happened in schools.

Maybe, possibly, this was Tony’s fault. There had been tension around the edges since those photos hit the internet, and more so since they’d filed all that paperwork. Peter was a minor so his name wasn’t public, but what if…

What if—

What if—

What if

“I really need to speak to his guardian—”

“I’m his legal guardian. May signed all sorts of paperwork; it should be on file with the school,” Tony said. He waved a hand at FRIDAY’s nearest camera, gesturing for her to pull up Peter’s info. “I’m allowed to sign off on medical treatments, bring him across state lines, all sorts of fun stuff. Now. Is Peter okay?”

Peter’s StarkWatch had registered a bump in vitals about an hour after he would’ve arrived at school, but it wasn’t something drastic enough to be concerning. Or it wouldn’t have been if the watch started reporting ERROR: NO VITALS DETECTED a few minutes later; it had been removed.

His phone had been completely powered down and the battery removed around the same time.

The microchips in his arms (the ones May had not known about until they were already implanted) weren’t broadcasting any sort of signal. They’d gone offline maybe fifteen minutes after the watch and phone.

The Spider-Man suit was green across the board, but the steady ping from the suit’s GPS put it at the Parker apartment in Queens, probably at the back of his closet or something.

“His class was on a field trip today,” Nina said, that something more intense in her voice. “There was an incident. We’re asking all the parents and guardians to come to the school as soon as possible.”

“You’re killing me, Nina,” he said, but he was already moving. The M21-nanite reactor was online and ready to go, and he put it in place on his chest over the grungy AC/DC t-shirt he’d been lounging in all day. “What happened to Peter. I’m not getting any signal from his tech, and I’m going to tell you right now that that’s a big deal.”

It was freaking him out more than a little bit that he hadn’t gotten any sort of alert when the signals had dropped.

“We don’t know,” Nina said, and her voice was actually quavering. She sounded like she was barely holding it together. “The bus is late and we haven’t been able to get in touch with anybody that was on it. We really need you to come into the school, please.”

Tony let out a shaky breath, tasting bile.

“I’m sorry, I have to call the rest of the parents. Please just get here as quickly as you can. The police have been called.”

He hung up and stepped off the balcony as the suit was engaging. The momentary dip and accompanying swoop in his gut helped get him out of his own spiraling thoughts.

“FRIDAY, call Happy,” Tony said, glad (many times over) his AI was smart enough to have already plotted a route to Midtown without his having to ask for it.

“Hey, Boss, what’s up?” Happy asked, answering on the second ring.

“Somebody grabbed the kid,” he said.

“What?”

“He was supposed to be on a field trip. He went offline hours ago,” Tony said. God, it had been years since he was this close to throwing up in the suit. “The school just called me.”

“Jesus.”

“I need you to go get May.”

“On it.”

“I’ll text if I get any more details when I get to the school. I’m five minutes out,” Tony said. He was pushing it with the speed a bit; he wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up with a few bills for window repairs as he shot past skyscrapers. “I’ve gotta call Pepper. FRIDAY, end call.”

He left Pepper a message. It didn’t even ring, just went straight to voicemail. (He’d expected it to; she was in a meeting. And she actually took things like that seriously.) He tried not to ramble, especially because he was just venting his terror since he had no real details. He promised to call her back later.

Midtown popped up on his HUD, his system noting police, marked and unmarked, and several other official-looking vehicles out front. There were also several badly-parked family-type vehicles that he suspected were parents that had just gotten the same phone call he had.

Tony had enough of his brain functioning (or maybe it was FRIDAY that was functioning) that he managed to land on the sidewalk without cracking the cement. He wobbled a bit on the transition out of the suit’s boots, but he was in too much of a hurry to care.

The school security guard—Blake, according to his nametag—just stared as Tony walked inside.

The vestibule/entryway gave him two options. Straight ahead through metal detectors and out into the school proper, or off to the left through a double-door into the office.

He went left, and there was Nina. She was an older lady with silver-white hair, reading glasses on a chain, and the general do-not-fuck-with-me vibe that told him she’d been working with too-clever teenagers for a long time. She looked like an unflappable woman about to hit her breaking point, though. There were uniformed officers standing just inside the office, a man in a cheap suit cut to mask the firearm he was carrying talking to the school principal, a woman with a detective’s shield hanging around her neck standing next to Nina and paging through a bunch of papers on a clipboard.

“Oh,” Nina said. He could actually see the moment she recognized him. “You’re that Mr. Stark.”

Tony didn’t even get the chance to say something flippant, not that anything sprang to mind in the moment. The vibe of the place, seeing the cops in the school office, it made it all very real.

He didn’t know where Peter was.

“What? Who called in Iron Man?” the man who’d been talking to the principal asked, looking around the room. “Sorry, Mr. Stark. This one’s out of the Avengers’ jurisdiction. I don’t—”

“I called him,” Nina said, barely glancing up as she began dialing the next number on her list. “We’re calling in all the parents and guardians of the kids on the trip.”

“Oh,” the man said, stunned. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

Part of Tony’s brain wanted to be asking questions—where were they, what could he do, what had they checked, what did they know, where’s Peter—but the part that was running his mouth just stood there in the doorway waiting to be told what to do.

“Would you come with me, Mr. Stark?” the detective standing next to Nina asked.

She didn’t give him a chance to say yes or no, just nodded her head toward another door and led the way. Tony followed her to what appeared to be a supply room. There were two clunky copier/scanners, shelves full of paper and office supplies, one of those paper slicer things that could take somebody’s fingers off.

“I’m Detective Fieri,” she said. There were no chairs, so they each claimed a clear-ish spot on the island counter in the middle of the room. It was a mess of left-behind printouts and glue sticks and other school-y things. “There are a few questions we’re asking all the parents, trying to get as much background on each family involved as we can. Would it be okay if I asked you those questions?”

Tony nodded dumbly.

“Okay. Thank you,” Detective Fieri said. She folded the cover off a tablet he hadn’t noticed she’d been carrying. It was an older model with a stylus. Normally he would’ve made a joke about old tech like that giving him hives. “To start, I do need to see your ID. And I need to know which student is yours.”

“Sure,” he said. He could count on one hand the number of times he’d been carded and have fingers left over. It made sense, though; kids were involved and the authorities needed to dot the I’s and cross the T’s. “And it’s Peter Parker.”

“Your son?”

“Ah, no.” Tony shook his head and took his ID back. “He’s my intern.”

“He’s an intern at your company?”

“No. He’s my intern. SI, the Avengers, the whole thing. R&D in the city on Wednesdays, Avengers compound every other weekend. Usually at least one other day every week depending on his aunt’s schedule.”

“His aunt?”

“May Parker. His legal guardian. She has custody.” Because there were sure to be follow-up questions about it, he took out his phone and pulled up the digital copy of the forms May had signed putting him in a more official guardianship role.

“So you’re his… mentor?” the detective asked, looking at the documents on his phone briefly. She sort of looked like she wanted to ask if he was dating May or something, but his very public engagement to Pepper was probably keeping the lid on that one for the moment. “His relationship to you is known? Maybe people at Stark Industries would know you’ve taken a special interest.”

He wanted to tell her that "taken a special interest" sounded creepy, but he couldn’t bring himself to be glib.

“It’s known. Marketing had him doing Instagram stuff for SI,” Tony said, then he hesitated. This was the part where he usually deflected. But this wasn’t some idle conversation, this was… He didn’t know where Peter was. “Peter is my legal heir. There are documents on file with my lawyers—the company lawyers and my personal lawyers. The Board knows, so the PAs all know, so it’s the company gossip if not everybody knows exactly who he is. He’s a minor, so we’ve been able to keep it out of the press. We’re trying to let him have something close to normal for as long as possible.”

“We’ll need a list of enemies, rivals, anybody who might want to use that connection,” Detective Fieri said, stylus dancing across her tablet as she made notes. “You said he spends time at the Avengers compound as well?”

“Yeah. I can have my people get you a list.” Tony scrubbed his hands over his face. He’d received his first death threat at eleven; it wasn’t a short list. “And, yes, he spends time at the compound.”

“Does Peter have any enemies? Rivalries?”

“No,” he said immediately. He would’ve laughed, except the moment he said it it occurred to him that Peter was also Spider-Man and Spider-Man had enemies. Lots of people would gladly grab Spider-Man off the street. “The only rivalry I know about is some kid on his academic decathlon team who picks on him because he took their spot as a starter or something. He won’t tell me their name.”

“Is there anything that stands out in your mind? Anybody who you immediately thought of when you learned Peter was missing?”

“No. To my knowledge, I haven’t received a serious threat in weeks. And it’s been years since anything has actually come close enough to be a danger,” he said. He was deliberately not thinking about the flip phone in his pocket or the long, pale scar that arced across his sternum. “If somebody was just after Peter, why would they take a whole bus-load of kids?”

“The kids here are all very high-performing,” Detective Fieri said reluctantly. “And the majority of them have… connections.”

Before Tony could decide what to say to that, his phone rang.

“Sorry. It might be May,” he said. But it wasn’t May. Or even Happy. The caller ID said Clint Barton. He tasted bile again and swallowed convulsively, declining the call. “Sorry about that.”

SOMEBODY GRABBED MY KIDS, Barton texted the moment Tony declined the call.

Fuck.”

Barton called again, and Tony accepted the call. He really wished there were chairs in the supply room.

“Don’t hang up,” Barton said. His voice was beyond urgent. Desperate.

“Barton—” Tony started, but Barton kept talking.

“Somebody took my kids. Cooper and Lila. They were at school.”

“When,” Tony asked, though it came out more of a raspy croak than a question.

“An hour ago,” Barton said. “The school called—they never came back after recess.”

“Oh, God.”

“I’ve got Nathaniel, and I can’t leave the goddamn property anyway,” he said. “Laura went into town.”

“Do they know anything yet? Is there security footage?” he asked, suddenly wanting very much to ask Detective Fieri the same questions. He’d been so preoccupied panicking because Peter was gone, that it might be his fault (was probably his fault) that he’d forgotten that he was fucking Iron Man and before that he was Tony Stark; he could do things, he could fix things.

“It’s not New York City, Stark,” Barton said. He sounded caught somewhere between laughing and crying and screaming.

“Traffic cameras, those doorbell things, anything,” Tony said. “We’re 100-percent they didn’t just duck out to play hooky?”

“Fuck you,” Barton growled. “I’m sorry I called you. Christ.”

“Barton, my kid is missing, too,” Tony said, cutting him off. “They took him on a field trip with a bus load of other kids.”

“This is… worse,” Barton said, sounding choked again.

“Stay where you are. Don’t break your house arrest. It will not make anything better if Ross starts in on the Accords again right now.” Tony took a deep breath, striving for calm. He expected Barton to jump in with protests, but he didn’t. “Text me Laura’s number. Call your parole officer or FBI guy or whoever. If you don’t hear from me within the next hour, call Hill and Ronson.”

Barton didn’t say another word, just hung up. He was proactive like that.

“What was that?” Detective Fieri asked. She didn’t look annoyed at the interruption, though. She had the stylus out, ready to add details to her case notes.

“This just became part of a bigger problem,” Tony said, setting his phone down on the counter to keep himself from starting to make calls. FRIDAY would be working in the background for him. “That was Clint Barton—Hawkeye. His two oldest were taken an hour ago, also from school.”

“I didn’t know he had kids,” Detective Fieri said, blinking a few times while she processed the information before she added it to her notes.

“That’s deliberate.”

Detective Fieri nodded, made a few notes, tapped a few things on her tablet, and then a new guy walked in.

“Mr. Stark, this is Special Agent Reese with the FBI,” Detective Fieri said. “Reese, this is Tony Stark.”

“I got that,” Reese said. His smile was practiced but still warm. His handshake was firm. His suit wasn’t cheap like the guy in the other room, but it had that same cut to it; a little extra room in the jacket to hide a shoulder rig.

“Is it standard procedure to call in the Feds for this sort of thing?” Tony asked. He’d never actually been on this side of a missing persons case before. (The thought made him feel a little bit sick all over again.)

“Nearly every single kid on that bus has some fort of connection to somebody rich, famous, or both.”

“High profile,” Tony said. Reese nodded.

“It’s better we’re involved early than playing catchup,” Reese said. “And that’s especially true if you think this might be connected to a child abduction in a different state.”

Child abduction. God.

Peter was just a kid. A child.

And he didn't know where Peter was.

Chapter Text

PP: SAVED THE SAME CAT FROM THE SAME TREE TWICE TODAY

PP: IT WAS NOT GRATEFUL, BUT ITS OWNER GAVE ME A STICKER

PP: (SHE WAS MAYBE 5)

Peter debated sending along a picture of the sticker, but figured Happy didn’t care. Happy didn’t really seem to care about the text messages either way, though.

It had been a development since the Vulture. Mr. Stark had said to keep Happy updated but save the phone calls for emergencies. And then Mr. Stark had given Peter his personal cell phone number, which was insane.

(Peter had yet to come up with a reason to need to use Mr. Stark’s number, but it was mind-boggling that he even had it in his phone.)

 

PP: HAD A CHEMISTRY QUIZ TODAY

He didn’t know why he’d sent that one. It wasn’t Spider-Man related.

Oddly, that one had gotten a response: HOW DID IT GO?

PP: FINE

PP: CHEMISTRY’S NOT BAD, IT’S THE SPANISH QUIZZES I’VE GOT TO WATCH OUT FOR

He kind of wanted Happy to ask about that one, because it was actually a fun story why he had to watch out for Spanish quizzes, but there were no further responses.

 

PP: STOPPED A BIKE THIEF

PP: WHO EVEN STEALS BIKES?

PP: LIKE

PP: REALLY??

PP: IDK

PP: ALSO GAVE A COUPLE TOURISTS DIRECTIONS AND THEY TOOK PICTURES WITH ME

PP: DOES THAT MEAN I HAVE A BRAND? TOURISTS KNOW OF ME

 

PP: HI HAPPY

PP: I STOPPED A ROBBERY AT A BAKERY AND THEY GAVE ME A CUPCAKE THE SIZE OF MY HAND

PP: IT WAS AMAZING

PP: ALSO STOPPED TWO MUGGINGS

PP: THERE WAS THIS DOGWALKER GUY WITH FIVE GOLDEN RETRIEVERS

PP: IT WAS AMAZING

PP: MORE TOURISTS WANTED PICTURES

PP: OH, AND THERE’S SPIDER-MAN GRAFFITI NOW???

PP: BLUE&RED SPIDER THINGS LIKE ON THE SUIT?

PP: <MIND BLOWN>

Happy texted back AMAZING almost an hour later, but Peter was pretty sure it was sarcastic.

 

PP: DO YOU THINK IT’D BE A HORRIBLE IDEA TO START AN INSTAGRAM AS SPIDER-MAN?

PP: WOULD THAT BE A BRAND THING??

PP: DO I NEED TO DO BRAND THINGS, OR DOES THAT JUST HAPPEN?

PP: ANYWAY, I JUST HAVE LOTS OF COOL PICTURES I CAN’T EXPLAIN HOW I TOOK

PP: <4 images, all impossible shots of New York City>

PP: <1 image, a selfie from the top of a building with the sunset over the skyline in the background>

DO NOT START A SPIDER-MAN INSTAGRAM, Happy replied almost immediately.

Then, hours later (Peter was actually at home in bed, just beginning to fall asleep), TONY SAYS JUST SEND HIM THOSE PHOTOS IF YOU NEED SOMETHING TO DO WITH THEM. AND STOP WORRYING ABOUT BRAND. IT’S WEIRD.

 

PP: LOOK AT THIS MR STARK!!!!

PP: <1 image, clear blue skies over the water with the city on either side>

TS: ARE YOU ON THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE? GET OFF THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE

TS: WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?

TS: STAY IN QUEENS.

TS: STOP CLIMBING TALL THINGS

PP: IT’S KIND OF WHAT I DO MR STARK

 

PP: I MET A GREAT DANE BIGGER THAN I AM TODAY

PP: HAPPY

PP: HAPPY, IT WAS HUGE

PP: BIGGEST DOG I EVER SAW

 

PP: SO BURNING BUILDINGS SUCK ON ALL FRONTS

HH: YOU OK, KID?

PP: I MEAN

PP: NOT GREAT

PP: BUT I’M FINE

 

PP: REMEMBER THAT CAT THAT I HAD TO GET OUT OF THE SAME TREE TWICE IN ONE DAY?

PP: SAME CAT

PP: SAME TREE

PP: THIS CAT HATES ME AND I DIDN’T EVEN GET A STICKER THIS TIME.

 

PP: <10 images, all selfies taken at odd angles from very high up, a few of them mid-swing>

TS: FOR THE LOVE OF

TS: DO YOU HAVE A DEATH WISH

TS: ?

TS: BOTH HANDS ON THE WEB, SPIDER-IDIOT

 

PP: I HELPED SOME GUYS GET A COUCH UP TO THEIR APARTMENT

PP: THEY GAVE ME PIZZA

PP: STOPPED A MUGGING

PP: I THINK I SORT OF HAVE A POLICE CONTACT NOW? I STUCK AROUND TO GIVE A STATEMENT ABOUT THE MUGGING AND THE OFFICER SAID I CAN CALL HIM TO REPORT THINGS

PP: AM I ALLOWED TO CALL HIM TO REPORT THINGS?

PP: CAN I HAVE KAREN CALL TO REPORT THINGS SO HE DOESN’T HAVE MY PHONE NUMBER?

PP: DOES KAREN USE MY PHONE NUMBER TO MAKE CALLS OR IS IT JUST THAT SHE’S A CRAZY AWWSOME AI ABLE TO MAKE CALLS ALL ON HER OWN???

PP: *AWESOME

 

PP: CRAZY STORM OUT THERE TONIGHT, HUH?

TS: YES.

TS: WHY DO I GET THE FEELING YOU DIDN’T HAVE THE SENSE TO NOT GO OUT IN THAT MESS?

PP: UNRELATED, I THINK THE SUIT MIGHT BE DUE FOR SOME REPAIRS

TS: WHAT HAPPENED?

PP: JUST GENERAL WEAR AND TEAR

PP: YOU KNOW

PP: AND IT’S A GOOD LEARNING EXPERIENCE, RIGHT? LEARNING HOW THE SUIT WORKS, LEARNING HOW TO CHANGE OUT THE WIRING AND DEBUG THE SOFTWARE

<Incoming call from TS>

“Hey, Mr. Stark, you didn’t have to—”

You got struck by lightning?” Mr. Stark said, talking right over Peter. “What the fuck, Peter?”

“Karen is such a snitch.”

Chapter Text

May had ranted for more than a little while after the whole Spider-Man reveal situation. She’d grounded him for a month. Cried a little bit. Called Mr. Stark and ranted some more.

After a weekend spent together watching Spider-Man videos on YouTube and talking through it all, another phone call to Mr. Stark, and a long (and a little bit painful) conversation about trust, he was only grounded for a week.

It had taken a full month before she’d acclimated to the idea of it, though. But she did come around.

May wasn’t keen to trust Peter and Mr. Stark colluding, though. Mr. Stark had been talking about doing more actual internship-learning-mentoring-type stuff since homecoming, but she’d been reluctant to sign off on any of it. A big part of that was that he’d sold Stark Tower, so any real workshop time was a two-hour drive upstate at the Avengers compound. She’d agreed to a few hours after school on Friday nights so long as Peter was back home by eleven. Which was hardly enough time to really dig into things, and Mr. Stark was working on nanotech and it was the coolest thing.

So, after much convincing (begging and pleading with absolutely no shame), May had agreed to a trip out to the compound on the first day of fall break. It was a Saturday, so the compound was down to a skeleton crew. She’d taken the weekend off work.

She wanted to see what they did upstate. Proof that he was safe and looked after when he was so far away from her, and that he was actually learning things rather than just messing around with dangerous robots or something. If Peter could convince her everything was okay, she’d agreed that he could spend the weekend sometimes.

Entire weekends at the Avengers compound. Even just the thought of it, the idea of it, made him smile like an idiot. Ned had just about lost his mind when Peter had mentioned the plan.

“This is the, uh, living room,” Peter said. He’d sort of expected Mr. Stark to tag along, but he’d just waved them off with a ‘you know where you’re allowed to be’ and told them he’d be down in the workshop. “Kitchen. The bedrooms are down that hall, and there’s a sort of game room up in the loft.”

“This is homier than I’d expected,” May said. She looked around at it all like she was checking it out for a potential rental, which he supposed was kind of what she was doing.

“There’s a gym downstairs—it’s huge—but mostly the SHIELD guys seem to use it,” Peter said. Mr. Stark had locked everybody out of it once and had him run on the treadmill adapted for Captain America, just to try to get a measure of the changes from the spider bite, but he’d sort of broken the treadmill. He figured he shouldn’t mention that to May right now.

“SHIELD is still a thing? Or it’s a thing again?” May asked. “I thought they’d been corrupted or something.”

“They sort of were. I think.” Peter shrugged. “The people who work here are what’s left of SHIELD and the Department of Damage Control people.”

“Not so many Avengers these days, huh?” May asked. She’d wandered down the bedrooms hallway, and most of the doors stood open on empty guest bedroom-looking rooms. Peter had a room at the end of the hall (done up for him when Mr. Stark had invited Spider-Man to join the Avengers, which hadn’t been a test and still boggled Peter’s mind a little bit), and Mr. Stark had a suite off the loft upstairs. 

“Not really,” Peter said. It was a little bit sad. “Mr. Stark has rooms upstairs. Vision and Colonel Rhodes are these two doors, but they’re not here. I don’t know where Vision is, but Colonel Rhodes is in DC.”

“But you have your very own bedroom,” May said, grinning wide.

“It’s so cool, right?”

It was the same size as the others, the walls painted the same neutral gray-tan color. The bed was huge, the comforter Iron Man red, the sheets unnaturally soft. There was a whole shelf of extra blankets in the closet, most of them dorky gimmick blankets, and Mr. Stark kept threatening to buy more of them because Peter was always cold. It was a very neutral room, not really his yet, but there was a cork board with that goofy picture they’d taken to prove his “internship” was “real” tacked to it.

“Very cool,” May said. Her eyes lingered on his school backpack left on the desk chair.

“What do you want to see next?” Peter asked. “I have a real desk over in the office area. And you should see the hologram setup in the conference rooms; it’s right out of Star Wars. And then Mr. Stark is in the workshop, which is really where we spend the most time…”

“Lead the way.”

 

“Okay, let’s do this thing properly, then,” Mr. Stark said later that night, clapping his hands once before leading the way up the stairs to his suite, then through the door at the top of the stairs into his office. Peter had shown May around all afternoon, and then there had been pizza and, at last, May had agreed to sign off on Spider-Man.

“What does that mean?” Peter asked. Mr. Stark just gestured at the couches in the corner of his office, though. He grabbed a stack of folders out of a cabinet before joining them.

“Internship paperwork for SI. Internship paperwork for your school’s post-secondary-slash-expanded education files,” Mr. Stark said, setting each folder down on the table in front of them as he said what was in them. “A consent form for the people here at the compound to have on-hand in case of emergency Spider-Man-type injury. And the Accords.”

“The Accords?” May asked. The rest didn’t seem to surprise her.

“I’ve got a team of lawyers with documentation ready to argue that everything Spider-Man gets up to could be considered Good Samaritan intervention,” Mr. Stark said. “Technically, he was in Germany as an independent consultant to the Avengers and thus did not violate the Accords. Though the paperwork that says so is entirely falsified, so there’s that.”

“If it comes down to it,” May said dryly, “he was technically kidnapped.”

“Well, there you go. We have no issues with the Accords to deal with retrospectively,” Mr. Stark said, grinning charmingly. May raised an eyebrow at him. “Working in a country where he is a citizen, and especially sticking to low-level stuff, is technically not a violation of the Accords, but you do tend to seek out trouble which edges away from the Good Samaritan thing into the vigilante thing.”

“Okay, seriously, I didn’t go looking for that smuggling thing, I swear,” Peter said. Mr. Stark just waved it away, though. (As if he hadn’t spent almost the entirety of their workshop time that particular Friday night lecturing him about it.)

“I know this is… big,” Mr. Stark said, looking back and forth between them. “If either of you are uncomfortable with it, like I said, I’ve got all those lawyers ready to go to bat for you. But. Accountability is important. Even if you don’t want to go that next step and officially join the Avengers right now, having this document on file with the UN promising to follow the rules if you ever do decide to go international will make it easier.”

“But what about the whole—It’s just—” Peter sighed, annoyed at himself for botching the words. “I’m not ready for people to know that I’m Spider-Man. I still have to, you know… go to school.”

“You don’t have to sign publicly. Your information has to be submitted to the UN, but unless you turn supervillain and the Accorded nations vote to have you detained, it’s sealed.”

“How do we know it’s really sealed?” May asked skeptically.

“Because it’s stored digitally and I’m the one that wrote the program for it,” Mr. Stark said, meeting her eyes without blinking. “FRIDAY keeps an eye on it, lets me know if somebody tries to peek.”

“If he signs now, does anything about that change once he turns eighteen?”

“A few people would have access to see his name on the list of people who have signed on,” Mr. Stark said. “Officials within the UN, not the general public.”

“They couldn’t see that now?”

“Not while he’s a minor, no,” Mr. Stark said. “The file will just say ‘Codename: Spider-Man’ or something, so the people who can view that list will know Spider-Man’s a minor. But they won’t know who he is.”

“What do you think, Peter?” May asked after she thought a moment.

“I’d like to do it,” Peter said, not pausing to think for as long as she probably would’ve liked. “I’d like to sign.”

“Alright then,” May said. “I did say Spider-Man was a go. I guess I better be all-in behind that, huh?”

“Thanks, May,” Peter said, trying to keep himself from smiling quite as big as he wanted to. He wasn’t sure it worked.

Mr. Stark put on a pot of coffee and walked them through it all. What he was signing up for, what he was agreeing to do, what he was agreeing not to do, what would happen if he broke the rules.

It was big. It was intimidating. It felt right, though.

He signed, and then May had to sign a separate page on top of that because he was a minor and couldn’t legally sign contracts.

“I have a binder with the full text if you ever struggle with insomnia or something,” Mr. Stark said, pointing to the official-looking navy binder absolutely littered with little posty-note-tab notations. “Or I can put a copy on a thumb drive if you’d like to have your own.”

May agreed to a digital copy just to have. Mr. Stark put all the papers back in the first folder and set it back on his desk. Then there was a bit of a lull. Peter wanted to know what was in the other files, but it was nearly midnight and one of them was bound to make a joke about his bedtime any second.

“Well, we’re all caffeinated and worked-up,” May said after that moment had hung there too long, “what’s next?”

Peter grinned.

Next was paperwork for a proper Stark Industries internship. Like, a completely legit internship. With an ID badge and a company-issue StarkPad.

“There’s already a bunch of stuff that works into what Midtown wants for their students’ internships,” Mr. Stark said. Peter was surprised to see forms from Midtown in with the SI stuff already, even though it probably shouldn’t have been surprising. “Your guidance counselor will probably be happy to see something that so neatly replaces Robotics Club.”

“This is like Robotics Club’s big brother on steroids,” Peter said, smiling too big again.

“It’s not all going to be workshop time,” Mr. Stark said, pointing to the paperwork from Midtown. “There are lots of boxes to tick. I’m going to ask Pepper if she can stick you with somebody in Marketing or Legal or something. It’ll be boring and awful, but it will keep the school from trying to push you into Debate or something.”

“Peter did Debate in middle school,” May said, pulling the folders closer so she could start signing. “He was good at it.”

“Debate’s competitions are on the same weekends as Academic Decathlon,” Peter said, shrugging. “I like Academic Decathlon better.”

 

Eventually, they slept. Spending the weekend hadn’t been the plan, but things had gone really well and there were plenty of empty rooms.

 

“Question for you,” Mr. Stark said when Peter finally dragged himself out of bed and down the hall to the kitchen in the morning. May was already up, wearing SHIELD-issue black sweatpants and a STARK INDUSTRIES t-shirt, hair damp from a shower, eating toast and drinking tea like it was their own kitchen.

“Okay?” Peter prompted when Mr. Stark didn’t continue and May just kept to eating her breakfast.

“Part of the Accords is accountability from the other side. It’s not just us saying we’ll follow the rules and only kick alien butt if whichever country they’re invading asks us to do it first,” he said. “It’s also that the countries who signed on… support us, I guess you could say. Backup from the authorities. If we get hurt, they provide medical treatment. There’s therapy, doctors who specialize in enhanced physiology, all sorts of things.”

“Okay?” Peter said again.

“He’s saying you’re getting a physical this morning and they have to do labs so no breakfast until after,” May said, popping the last of her toast into her mouth.

“Oh."

“What, that simple? You just say it’s—”

“He’s my kid,” May said, gesturing up at the staircase to Mr. Stark’s suite where they’d filled out all that paperwork last night. All that paperwork that she had had to sign because he wasn’t legally old enough to do it for himself yet. “He still has to do what I say for that sort of thing, even if he can bench press train cars. Can you bench press train cars? That seems impractical.”

“Never tried,” Peter said.

“You’ve got a dental appointment on Tuesday, while we’re on the subject.”

“Sure,” Peter said. He’d never really had any troubles with his teeth, so it wasn’t a big deal. “Great.”

“Huh,” Mr. Stark said, looking at them like they’d done something other than entirely mundane.

“Is there, like, a time? Wait, it’s Sunday, how can I have a doctor’s appointment on a Sunday?”

“Because you’re having it at a super-secret Avengers doctor’s office,” Mr. Stark said. “And since we’re keeping your identity on the down-low, I asked my guy to come in on a Sunday since the building will be all but empty.”

“Oh. Cool.”

“I don’t know why I was expecting to have to fight you on this,” Mr. Stark said, shaking his head and looking baffled again.

“I had constant doctor’s appointments before the spider bite,” Peter said. “I had asthma. I was allergic to, just, everything. I needed glasses.”

“Teeth were always good, though,” May put in.

“Yeah,” Peter said. “Good teeth.”

“Huh.” Mr. Stark finished off his coffee and put the mug in the sink.

“Go shower,” May said. “The doctor is on his way in. And the sooner we get to it, the sooner you get breakfast.”

“Right,” Peter said, turning and heading back toward his room.

He showered quickly, ignoring the grumbles of his stomach. He didn’t have to grab a change of clothes from the generic collection at the compound since Mr. Stark had bought him a few things when he’d furnished his room, but that just meant the sweatpants and the t-shirt were STARK INDUSTRIES. (And the sweatpants were Iron Man red.)

“Perfect timing,” Mr. Stark said when Peter rejoined them in the kitchen. He gestured at the forty-ish guy in scrubs and a zip-up hoodie pouring himself a cup of coffee. “Peter Parker, this is Dr. Andrew Costa, our resident physician specializing in enhanced individuals. Andy, this is Peter Parker.”

“Nice to meet you, Dr. Costa,” Peter said, shaking hands.

“Likewise,” Dr. Costa said, then smiled because Peter’s stomach rumbled loud enough for every single one of them to hear it. “Shall we head downstairs and get started?”

“What, exactly, is the plan here?” May asked. She seemed much more awake than she had the first time Peter had been in the kitchen.

“The big idea is to get a proper baseline in Peter’s medical file before it’s an emergency,” Dr. Costa said. They started walking, headed for the more public area of the compound where the medical offices were located. “I’ve read the basics of your enhancements—strength, stickiness, accelerated healing—but we’ll need to run some labs to figure out what that means medically. If you need a blood transfusion, can we use any donor that’s a type match, or do your enhancements mean you can only receive your own? Stuff like that.”

“Cool,” Peter said, because it was. May looked surprisingly relieved—he’d thought she’d be anxious about it, about the potential lab rat scenario of it all, but she seemed to be wearing her RN hat at the moment.

“You’re fasting, right?”

“Yep,” Peter said.

“And he’s miserable about it,” May added, smiling.

“I’m hungry about it,” Peter corrected.

 

The afternoon passed in a blur. They started with blood draws for the lab work, then they talked through Peter’s medical history and the changes he’d noticed since the spider bite. (Mr. Stark made him an omelet to eat while they talked, and it turned out to be the best omelet he’d ever had.) They spent a few hours in the gym with Peter hooked up to machines monitoring his blood oxygenation and heartrate and all sorts of things, doing endurance testing.

Mr. Stark took it as a personal challenge to come up with a way to test Peter’s super-strength thing. The weird weight machine they’d had maxed out at 10 tons and Peter had managed it with effort but no serious issues. (That meant he could lift more than Captain America, since that had been his weight machine before he was a fugitive. And that was crazy bonkers and he had to tell Ned ASAP.)

He found out a lot of interesting things about himself, really. For example, it hadn’t just been a particularly cold winter this year, he’d acquired issues with thermoregulation similar to a spider’s. And it wasn’t an aversion to all things minty, it was an actual allergic sensitivity to peppermint.

At the end of the day, Peter had a well-documented medical file. And appointments with Dr. Costa set up to run more labs every few weeks for the next year to keep an eye on things since he was literally the unwilling test subject of experimental genetic manipulation and they had no idea how things might change (or not change) as he got older.

 

He spent the ride home reading spider facts off Google while May laughed at all possible applications to him as Spider-Man. (She was weirdly invested in the idea that he could become venomous, but mostly, he thought, because it meant she got to make different versions of the same no-dating-til-you’re-forty joke.)

It happened when they were almost home. They were back in the city. The light was green. It had been green. They were the third car to go through the intersection, and there were plenty more behind them. The light was still green.

“May—” he started, because the weird spidey danger-sense had gone off like a claxon, but before he could do more than sit up straight, a truck smashed into them. A screech of brakes, the horrible wrenching noise of metal against metal.

The truck hit his side of the car hard enough to send their car skidding into the next lane, where it hit a minivan. The driver of the minivan leaned on their horn.

May hit the brakes, and Peter jolted forward against his seatbelt.

The car behind the minivan, now behind them, hit them hard enough that Peter’s head snapped back. He heard his headrest crack from impact, his beyond-human-durability skull sending the thing into the back seat. May wasn’t so durable, though…

“May? You okay? May?” Peter asked. He was trembling and he couldn’t hear much beyond the thunder of his own heartbeat and the rageful staccato of the minivan’s horn. He tried to take stock of himself, of the car, of May, but he couldn’t focus. “May?”

When he looked over, May was facing him. Her eyes were closed. There was blood on her face and on the airbag in front of her. It looked like she’d broken her nose, and he really hoped that was the only source of blood.

Outside the car, people were already rushing to help. Peter couldn’t move, couldn’t look away from May. He watched her, his world focusing down to the sound of her breathing.

 

Peter rode in the ambulance, May’s purse in his lap. They kept trying to talk to him, ask him questions, examine him, but he brushed them off.

May would need her purse. He couldn’t leave it; it was a pain to get a new ID if somebody took it. And she’d need her insurance cards.

Chapter Text

Things went hazy for a while. It all blurred together.

Somebody from the hospital—he couldn’t tell if she was a receptionist or maybe some sort of social worker—sat with him in the waiting room after May was rushed off deeper into the hospital. They wouldn’t tell him anything, just asked him questions for the forms. Her name, his name. Birthdates. Insurance. Allergies.

Then he was in an exam room. A private one, after they saw something in his chart—probably the alert put there just that afternoon by Dr. Costa. He was enhanced and they knew it. They didn’t know he was Spider-Man, but they knew he wasn’t… normal.

It was weird. He’d probably be more worried about it if he had any sort of emotional capacity to worry about anything other than May.

He got stitches on his right forearm and they put some sort of brace around his right knee. He had bruises all across his chest from the seatbelt; somehow, the sight of them (already greenish-yellow and fading) made it more real than the stitches did.

He half expected to end up in some social worker’s office—he was a minor and his guardian had been admitted to the hospital—but they let him sit with May. She was groggy but awake, lucid.

“I’m sorry,” he said, squeezing her hand gently as soon as they were alone. “I’m sorry I didn’t—”

“No. None of that,” May said, squeezing his hand right back. Then she squeezed tighter until he looked at her in the face. “This wasn’t your fault. There’s nothing to apologize for.”

“The truck—”

“No, Peter.”

They sat for a bit, just long enough for Peter to wonder what was going to happen, and then a doctor came in. Peter recognized him from the team that had come out to the ambulance when they’d first arrived, the doctor who’d seemed to be in charge when they were rushing her through to a room. He had a tablet with him and he seemed to be using it to review their charts.

“Basically, you’re both going to be fine,” the doctor said, smiling. His nametag said he was Dr. William Fox. “You both had a few lacerations that needed stitches, but there’s no signs of any sort of head trauma. Which is good. Peter, you sprained your knee. Like the nurse told you earlier, you just need to keep off of it as much as you can and we’ll give it another scan tomorrow to see how it’s healing.”

“So soon?” May interrupted. Peter tried to recall getting a first scan but it was lost in that blurry time when he’d been looking over his shoulder for a social worker.

“Well, according to his chart, he heals pretty quick,” Dr. Fox said, smiling.

“Right,” May said. Peter couldn’t tell if she was out of it from whatever pain medication they’d given her or if she was leery of his enhancements being listed in his chart.

“You, I’m sorry to say, aren’t quite so lucky,” Dr. Fox said, smiling again. It was a gentle, apologetic sort of smile this time. “We’re keeping you overnight to wait for the swelling to go down a bit before we get you back into imaging—I’m fairly sure we’re looking at bruised ribs on your right side, but I want to be sure nothing’s broken in there. And your wrist appears to be sprained, but, again, I’d like to get a better picture of it to be sure there isn’t something hiding.”

“Okay,” May said. She looked like she wanted to shift in the bed, move herself more upright, but she also looked too exhausted to try it. “That all sounds about how it feels.”

“Good news is your nose isn’t broken,” Dr. Fox said.

“That is good news,” May said. Peter couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not. Even if it wasn’t broken, she’d ended up with two black eyes.

Dr. Fox kept talking for a bit, telling them about the medications in May’s IV and when all the imaging was scheduled for the next day. It all seemed to make sense to May—which, duh, she was a nurse—but it went right over Peter’s head. He felt like he was crashing after an adrenalin rush. And he was starving.

Eventually, Dr. Fox left and they were alone. May was drowsy and Peter didn’t know what to say, so they just sat together. After a bit, she fell asleep.

To keep himself busy—to keep himself from wondering if a social worker had already been paged on his behalf—he grabbed the bag of their things sitting on the table next to May’s bed. It was a big, clear plastic thing. Her purse was in there, their phones, and the clothes they’d cut off of May in the emergency room. The plastic was smeared with blood in a few places. He did his best to ignore it.

Peter putzed with the stuff. He filled a few minutes putting her purse to rights, returning their insurance cards and her ID to her wallet then putting the wallet in the zipper pouch inside the larger bag. He folded her jeans even though they’d have to be thrown away later.

His phone had been destroyed. It was in one piece and the screen lit up, but it was so cracked that he couldn’t actually do anything with it. He could see fifty-eight missed calls from Mr. Stark, and three missed calls from Happy, but the touchscreen didn’t register a thing when he tried to do anything.

From the time stamps he could make out, it looked like Mr. Stark had gotten an alert when the hospital accessed Peter’s medical file. The first dozen or so calls had arrived all on top of each other. Then a pause during which Mr. Stark had probably called Happy, because that’s when the three from him had come in. After that, calls from Mr. Stark had come so frequently that Peter couldn’t actually make out the time stamp on them.

The phone rang again while he was looking at it, but it was too broken to answer it.

Instead, Peter went back to May’s purse and fished her phone out of the outer pocket. It was just about dead, but it wasn’t nearly as broken as his was. The top half of the screen was cracked all to hell, but the bottom half was almost fine. Or close enough to it.

She had a dozen missed calls from Happy and triple that in texts—who knew May and Happy texted?

Peter didn’t want to risk her phone dying on him, so he tracked down a pen and paper to write down Mr. Stark and Happy’s phone numbers, then he used the room phone to call Mr. Stark.

“This is Stark,” Mr. Stark said when he picked up, his voice hard.

“Hi,” Peter said. He hadn’t actually thought through what he was going to say. He just hadn’t known what to do, who to call, and the fifty-eight missed calls had seemed a good sign that Mr. Stark was the one he should call. “It’s me.”

“Oh, God, Peter,” Mr. Stark said. “Thank God. Are you okay? What happened? Are you hurt?”

“There was an accident,” Peter said. “We’re at the hospital.”

“Which hospital?” Mr. Stark asked. He sounded a bit desperate, actually. “They won’t tell me anything because I’m not family.”

“Wait, is that the kid? Is that Peter?” Peter heard Happy said, voice tinny on the other side of the phone.

“I’m okay I guess. Lots of bruises from the seatbelt. Stitches on my arm.” He looked at his arm. It itched like crazy, but the doctors would probably yell at him if he took the bandage off to see how it was doing. “They put my knee in a brace.”

“Is May there?” Happy asked. It sounded like there was a bit of a struggle for the phone. “What happened to May?”

“Where are you, Peter?” Mr. Stark said. He sounded like he was actually pulling his own hair out or wanted to.

Peter told him, gave him the room number. He expected Mr. Stark to hang up, but he stayed on the line. He relayed the info to Happy and told him to follow in a car, and then there was the familiar beep that signaled the call switching from Mr. Stark’s phone to the Iron Man suit’s HUD.

“Five minutes out, okay Peter?” Mr. Stark asked after what must’ve been just long enough to get airborne and oriented. “I’m on my way.”

“Okay,” Peter said. He looked over at May again, hating how pale she was. She had a cannula under her nose, and the bruised eyes, and the IV…

“You with me Peter?” Mr. Stark asked. “They checked you out, right? No concussion, no internal bleeding, no… anything else?”

“They checked me out,” Peter confirmed. “No concussion. I’m just…”

“It’s going to be okay, Underoos,” Mr. Stark said. There was a pause and then a heavy clank. “I’m here. I’m walking in right now.”

The phone beeped again as the call switched from the HUD back to Mr. Stark’s phone. It didn’t sound like he even stopped at the desk or anything, just walked right in.

“There we go,” Mr. Stark said, and Peter could hear his voice both through the phone and from down the hall. He could also hear a nurse who seemed to be following him, asking what he thought he was doing.

Peter hung up the phone and stood up, turning to face the door just as Mr. Stark opened it.

“Thank God,” Mr. Stark said again, shoving his phone into his pocket and pulling Peter into a tight hug.

“Hi,” Peter said.

Mr. Stark let him go almost immediately, holding him at arm’s length so he could get a clearish view without losing physical contact, looking him over. Then he pulled Peter close again. “We’re putting me on your emergency contacts list, got it? Nobody would tell me anything. I was looking everywhere. I’m trending on the whole goddamn internet.”

Peter snorted, because he probably was trending if he’d been going hospital to hospital in the Iron Man suit.

And then it all seemed to catch up to him at once and he was crying. Sobbing. Weeping. Big, snotty, horrible tears.

Mr. Stark just held him. He hugged him close and didn’t let go until Peter had cried himself out. It should’ve been embarrassing, but it just… wasn’t.

 

Peter woke up the next morning incredibly disoriented. He was in an unfamiliar bedroom. None of the sounds of the city were especially familiar, either, and it took him a moment to realize he was higher-up than usual. A taller building than their apartment in Queens.

He sat up, looking around. It was a bland guest room sort of setup, a bit dusty. There was a window with black-out curtains.

When he stood up, he remembered the car crash and then the rest of it came back. May had signed a bunch of paperwork so that he was allowed to go home with Mr. Stark, and then Happy had shown up and actually hugged him. They’d gone to Happy’s apartment in Manhattan, a fancy place in a high-rise, which was why everything sounded weird.

His stitches itched, but otherwise he felt fine. No more bruises on his chest, and his knee felt normal even though he still had the brace on it.

Peter poked his head out of the guest room, looking for Happy or Mr. Stark or whoever. It was still early, barely past sunrise, but the apartment was quiet. He could hear Happy snoring down the hall in what was probably the master suite. There was a bathroom directly across the hall from the guest room, so Peter used it before heading down the hall in the other direction.

Mr. Stark was sleeping on the couch in the living room. He wore the clothes he’d had on the night before, and he had one arm thrown over his head to block the sunlight from his eyes. It was such a weird thing to see, Tony Stark taking the couch.

Before Peter could start to feel awkward about being the only one up, Mr. Stark startled himself awake, jerking upright and looking around the room. For a second, he looked just as confused as Peter had felt, but it passed quickly; apparently this wasn’t the first night he’d spent on Happy’s sofa.

“Hi,” Peter said. Mr. Stark looked at him and blinked a few times, then scratched at his beard.

“Morning,” Mr. Stark said.

“I could’ve taken the couch.”

“You were in a car crash,” Mr. Stark said, giving him a weird look. He got up and stretched, groaning as his joints popped and creaked.

“But you’re… old.”

“Just for that, you don’t get any coffee,” Mr. Stark said, jabbing a finger at him as he walked past into the kitchen. It seemed like it wasn’t the first time he’d been left to his own devices in Happy’s kitchen, either; in just a few minutes, the coffee was percolating and he had breakfast on the stove.

“Thank you for bringing me here,” Peter said, leaning against one of the counters and watching Mr. Stark work. He already had hash browns on a back burner. “Not here specifically, I guess. Just. Thank you for coming to get me. I was pretty sure they were going to stick me in foster care or something while May was in the hospital.”

“You don’t have to thank me for that, Peter,” Mr. Stark said, giving him a weird look. Toast popped out of the toaster, and Mr. Stark buttered it and handed it to Peter, then grabbed a carton of eggs out of the fridge and started cracking them into a mixing bowl one-handed. “I’ve got you. We should’ve done the paperwork ages ago.”

“I just…” Peter let the thought trail off, not sure what he was trying to say. He ate his toast. “I can’t remember the last time I felt so completely out of control. Not Spider-Man stuff, not danger, but at the mercy of a system where I don’t get a say.”

“Here, let me—I’m really bad at this, so just give me—” Mr. Stark flipped the hash browns and turned to face Peter full-on after he’d put the spatula aside. “Remember after Germany, in the car, I said we weren’t there yet? Well we’re there. You need me, I show up. And probably drag Happy along with me just because that’s what I do. Excepting a few fairly traumatic interludes, we haven’t been apart for more than a few hours since 1997 and he gets separation anxiety.”

“I wasn’t even born in 1997,” Peter said because he wasn’t sure what else to say. His brain hadn’t really caught up to everything that had happened yesterday—from the paid official SI internship to the crash—and it was easier to lean into Mr. Stark’s joke than it was to actually process emotions.

“God, you’re an infant,” Mr. Stark said, but he was smiling. “What do you want in omelet number one? I think there’s ham here somewhere. Check the fridge for ham.”

There was indeed ham. And orange juice. Peter poured himself a glass while Mr. Stark diced up the ham, and in no time there was a ham-cheese-onion-pepper-spinach omelet on a plate in front of him. And more toast.

“I didn’t know you could cook,” Peter said between bites. It was the second omelet Mr. Stark had made him in as many days and it was delicious. Or maybe he was just that hungry, all of yesterday’s calories spent recovering from the crash.

“He can’t cook,” Happy said, joining them. He was in flannel pajama pants, a zip-up hoodie for some boxing club open over a faded Van Halen t-shirt. The sight was possibly even more mentally jarring than Mr. Stark sprawled on the couch had been. “He can throw together a decent omelet, and he’s not horrible manning a grill. Anything else is just a crime against kitchens.”

“Be nice to me, I made you coffee,” Mr. Stark said, not even turning away from the stove.

Happy retrieved a package of sausage links from the fridge, setting them next to Mr. Stark with the clear understanding that they would be fried up as well. Then he picked up his mug and joined Peter as the breakfast bar.

“How’re you feeling?” Happy asked after he’d finished half his coffee. “You look normal, but you’re not chattering my ear off and I’ve been in the room for a whole minute.”

“Hungry,” Peter said. “So hungry.”

“And we’re working on that,” Mr. Stark said, bringing over more food. He’d made Happy a spinach and peppers omelet, loaded the plate with sausage and hash browns. Peter’s second omelet was the same as the first but with even more peppers and spinach, and this time there were hash browns and sausage to go with more toast. Mr. Stark’s had everything in it including a few sausage links, and toast but no hash browns.

“Thank you,” Peter said before digging in. The two older men gave him fond looks that he decided to just ignore.

“You’re still trending, by the way,” Happy said a few minutes later.

“What did I do now?” Mr. Stark asked, though he didn’t seem particularly interested.

“They’re still on the hospital visits,” Happy said, smirking. He’d been scrolling through headlines on a StarkPad, and he turned the tablet so Peter and Mr. Stark could see it.

“Iron Man visits area hospitals,’” Tony read, raising an eyebrow. “Really, that’s not bad so far as my headlines usually go.”

“They all seem to agree you were looking for something,” Happy said, turning the StarkPad back toward himself to keep scrolling through. “They can’t decide if you were chasing down a bad guy or looking for a bomb, though. Never mind the fact that you shouted at staff at all of these hospitals, very clearly stating that you were looking for your intern.”

“Mr. Stark,” Peter said, groaning.

“You weren’t picking up your phone! I panicked.”

“Panicked is downplaying what you did,” Happy said. “Not that I blame you after seeing that car.”

“Was it bad?” Peter asked. He hadn’t looked back after they’d been pulled out of it. “I remember the fireman used the jaws of life thing on my door, but I was mostly worried about May.”

“The car was totaled,” Happy said. “It was bad.”

“Oh, May’s going to be pissed,” Peter said, setting down his fork and finishing off his orange juice. “She’s had that car since she was in college.”

“Speaking of May,” Mr. Stark said, the pinched look on his face clearly saying that he didn’t want to talk about the wreckage anymore, “she said they needed you back at the hospital by nine for your follow-ups. So finish your toast and find your shoes. We’ll swing by your apartment so you can change on the way.”

“I have no idea where my shoes are,” Peter said, looking around the room like he might spot them. “I barely remember how we got here last night.”

“By car,” Happy said helpfully.

“We tried going to my place, but there were reporters hanging around waiting to ask what I was up to with all those hospital visits,” Mr. Stark said. “So we came here instead.”

“I thought you sold your place?” Peter asked.

“Sold the Tower, yeah,” Mr. Stark said. “I’ve still got the penthouse I lived in when I was here before we built the Tower.”

“And the old family place on the Upper East Side,” Happy said.

“That doesn’t count,” Mr. Stark said, waving a hand. Happy snorted.

“Oh,” Peter said dumbly. It was like every time he half had his head wrapped around just how rich Mr. Stark was, something would come up and he’d have to wrap his head around it all over again.

“Didn’t think it’d be a good look to be seen bringing a beat-up kid home after Iron Man frantically chased him down at hospitals across the city,” Mr. Stark said.

 

“Malibu,” Mr. Stark said not so many hours later.

“What?” May asked. They were in her room waiting for the nurse to bring by her final discharge papers and the requisite wheelchair.

“You guys want to come to Malibu?” Mr. Stark asked, like that should somehow clarify anything.

“I’m sorry. I’m on a lot of pain medications,” May said, still looking at him blankly. “What?”

“You have broken ribs and aren’t allowed to work,” Mr. Stark said. He looked back and forth between them like that should’ve cleared everything up, but when they just looked at him, he continued, “Pepper’s got this nice little place on the beach. I’ve got to be in meetings all week, but you could relax. Peter can keep up with his homework while avoiding questions about his lack of bruises or whatever after the accident. We could even make it an internship thing—Peter can come to a meeting or two, learn how to smile at smarmy board execs and all that.”

“You’ve already done so much for us—” May started, but Mr. Stark interrupted with a wave of his hand.

“It will be enriching. Think of his education,” he said, widening his eyes comically. “And don’t tell me you won’t enjoy letting your ribs heal on a beach more than you would on the couch at home.”

 

Ms. Potts’s “little place on the beach” was anything but little. It was technically not a mansion, but it was definitely a beach house. It was a mix of the familiar modern minimalist style Peter had always associated with Mr. Stark (but of course it came from Ms. Potts; he should’ve put that together) and the house’s Spanish architecture.

There were palm trees and a private stretch of beach. There was a terrace with terracotta tile that was still warm into the evenings after spending the day in the sun. There were vaulted ceilings and huge windows to let in the light (and the views). There was a foosball table in the upstairs lounge.

The guest bedroom they put him in was bigger than his and May’s combined at home, and May’s was even bigger.

They’d arrived on Sunday night. Ms. Potts and Mr. Stark were out of the house by eight Monday morning, leaving Peter and May to spend the day relaxing in beach chairs (with one quick pause from the relaxation so that May could call and cancel his dentist appointment). When Ms. Potts and Mr. Stark came back for the night, they brought food truck tacos.

The week carried on like that. Peter did his homework. May lounged.

Wednesday, Peter went to Stark Industries with Mr. Stark—Mr. Stark loaned him a jacket to make his jeans and a t-shirt look more business casual than it really was, but Peter forgot to feel self-conscious or out of place within about ten minutes of arriving. He’d thought Stark Tower was huge and impressive, but it was nothing compared to SI’s main complex in Malibu. Because it was a complex. There was an airfield. There was a sprawling corporate campus with whole buildings dedicated to different departments. There were whole buildings dedicated to different R&D initiatives. The tallest of the buildings was the admin tower out front, with swooping glass features and five stories of lobby.

“Can we never leave?” Peter asked before they’d even gotten out of the car. Mr. Stark had driven a loop around the complex before heading for VIP parking under the admin building.

“Careful,” Mr. Stark said, but he was smiling, “that’s been known to happen.”

“What?”

“SI attracts workaholics. Always has.” Mr. Stark got out of the car and led the way to the elevators. “There’s a whole wing of HR dedicated to tracking people down and giving lectures on work-life balance.”

“That’s awesome.”

He said that a lot over the next few hours.

“Okay, I’ve got a meeting. You’re with Alex, okay? This is Alex. Alex, Peter. Peter, Alex.” Mr. Stark said, waving back and forth between them. “Peter, Alex is Pepper’s PA. Alex, Peter is my intern.”

“Hi,” Peter said, smiling and shaking hands. Alex did not smile back.

“They’re going to give you a tour, and by the time you’re done my meeting should be over,” Mr. Stark said, grinning at them both and giving Peter’s shoulder a good-luck sort of squeeze before walking off down the hall.

“Hi,” Peter said again when they were alone. Alex still did not look particularly impressed with him. Fiercely competent and terrifyingly professional in the tailored gray suit. Not delighted to be tasked with showing the intern around.

“Come with me then,” they said.

Alex eventually warmed up to him a bit. They showed him around the admin building, introduced him to a few people, pulled up a map of the complex on a StarkPad to give him the lay of it all. Peter spent the whole thing wide-eyed repeating “that’s awesome” so often and so earnestly they gave him an extra ten minutes down in the STARK INDUSTRIES THROUGH THE AGES room on the second floor.

“Okay, you don’t seem like a total idiot, so I think this might actually work,” Alex said. They’d ended the tour at Alex’s desk in the waiting room area outside Ms. Potts’s office.

“Um. Thanks,” Peter said.

“Do you have Instagram?”

“Yes?”

“Great, so you know how it works,” Alex said, going over behind their desk and pulling out a folder. It had a posty note on the front with PETER? written in bold Sharpie. “Marketing would like you to run an SI-based account as part of your internship.”

“That’s awesome,” Peter said, taking the folder and flipping it open. There were just a few pages inside, most of it content guidelines and warnings about proprietary company information.

“Right,” Alex said, thoroughly tired of his repetition by now. “The basic idea is PR. Good PR, hopefully. Iron Man is flashy and exciting, but also controversial. And people get so caught up in Tony Stark as Iron Man that they forget that he’s the Stark at Stark Industries.”

“So you’re saying you want me to post pictures of internship-related things to remind people how… science-y Mr. Stark is?”

“Exactly,” Alex said, then shrugged. “More-or-less, anyway.”

“Okay,” Peter said. He made it to the last page in the folder and discovered it had account details already set up for him. Marketing had created it, by the date stamp on the printout, the moment all those official papers May had signed had been scanned into SI’s system.

@Peter_the_Intern

I’m Peter. I’m Tony Stark’s intern. (You know who he is.)

It didn’t have a single post, but there were already almost fifty followers. All the official SI accounts followed it, a handful of people he vaguely recognized as SI admin, and Ms. Potts. And because Ms. Potts followed him, a bunch of people who followed her had followed him.

“Smile,” Alex said, taking a picture of him on their phone before Peter realized what was happening. “Perfect.”

And so a picture of him looking vaguely confused was @Peter_the_Intern’s first post. He was standing in front of frosted glass with STARK INDUSTRIES stenciled on it, so it made it look more official.

“Your folder has posting guidelines. Marketing wants at least one thing per week, but don’t go crazy with it. No live-streaming without explicit permission,” Alex said, ticking points off on their fingers. “And there’s a list of the accounts SI runs for whatever department or initiative, so you can tag them to help build up steam.”

“Cool,” Peter said, because it was. It was blowing his mind a little bit.

He still wanted to make Spider-Man an Instagram account. He knew it was a bad idea, but he just couldn’t shake it.

He logged out of his own rarely-used Instagram, then logged into @Peter_the_Intern. A few of the SI accounts had already liked the first post.

“Dot—she’s your social media point-of-contact for Marketing, her info’s in your folder—is working on getting you verified.”

“Verified?”

“Yeah. The little blue checkmark?”

“I know what verified means.”

“We want people to know you’re official.”

“That’s awesome.”

Alex gave him a look like they couldn’t decide if they wanted to be annoyed with him or tell him he was adorable. Peter just smiled; he got that reaction a lot.

Mr. Stark showed up then, and Peter forgot all about Instagram for the rest of the afternoon. They went to the R&D buildings, and Mr. Stark showed him all sorts of interesting things, introduced him to all sorts of interesting people.

 

The last of the week flew by. He emailed his teachers, sent selfies on the beach to Ned, hung out with May, did his homework. Ms. Potts roundly kicked his ass at foosball a couple times.

Chapter Text

“Dude,” Ned said, stopping dead right outside the door. “I think that’s your ride.”

“What?” Peter nudged Ned, getting him moving before the people behind them stampeded or something.

“Who else would be getting picked up in that thing?” Ned asked, letting himself be pushed along.

“Oh,” Peter said, finally looking past Ned at the line of cars waiting for pick up. There was a vividly orange Audi halfway down, already drawing the attention of the crowd.

“Dude, your life is insane,” Ned said. He turned and grinned, holding out his hand for their handshake.

“Yeah, it’s pretty weird,” Peter agreed, but he was smiling too. “See you tomorrow, man.”

“Yeah, see you,” Ned said. “Don’t forget we’ve got the presentation thing in Spanish!”

Peter just waved, jogging down the line of cars to where Mr. Stark was waiting.

“Hey, Mr. Stark,” Peter said, stopping at the curb, suddenly not sure if he should hop in or not. Mr. Stark had never picked him up himself before. It was always Happy.

“Hey, kid, how was school?” Mr. Stark asked. He looked relaxed, lazy, like wasting his time waiting in the pick-up line was a normal thing.

“Um. Fine.”

There was a beat. Mr. Stark raised his eyebrows, looking across the passenger at Peter over the top of his sunglasses.

“Well, are you going to get in the car?”

“Right,” Peter said, hurrying to do just that. “Sorry.”

The moment his door was closed, Mr. Stark peeled away from the curb. Peter held onto the door handle as tight as he could without damaging it.

He hadn’t been great in cars since the crash.

“So. Um. What’s going on, Mr. Stark?” Peter asked once they were well away from the school and safely stopped in the usual afternoon gridlock.

“What, I can’t pick you up unprompted for the hell of it?” Mr. Stark asked, barely glancing over his shoulder before he slid into the turn lane and shot ahead.

“No, you can,” Peter said, making a conscious effort to ease up on his grip on the door. “You just… don’t. Usually. Or ever.”

“Hap’s still with Pepper in Cali,” he said, shrugging.

“But it’s a Thursday.”

“It is.”

“I don’t…” Peter scrunched up his face, not sure why he was even bothering to question things. “Happy doesn’t usually pick me up on Thursdays.”

“Right, but May’s got a thing so she asked me to make sure you ate real food and did your homework or something before you went swinging off into trouble,” Mr. Stark said, going around another corner before sliding effortlessly into a spot in front of Delmar’s. “Is this the right place?”

“Delmar’s?”

“Yeah. Happy said you rave about this place.”

“They’ve got really good subs?”

“Great. Let’s grab some before the after-work crowd gets here.”

Mr. Stark jumped out of the car, fingers checking to be sure his dark sunglasses were in place. Peter wasn’t sure why with the dark sunglasses, since it was sort of his usual look and the car literally screamed Stark so it wasn’t like the glasses could somehow help him pass anonymously through the nonexistent crowd.

The bodega was mostly empty. Mr. Delmar was at the counter reading the paper and one of his nephews was stocking the refrigerators on the back wall.

“Parker, you’re early,” Mr. Delmar said, looking up from his paper when the bell over the door jangled.

“Hey, Mr. Delmar.” Peter smiled. He grabbed a bag of salt and vinegar chips off the rack and headed for the counter.

“You want the usual?” Mr. Delmar asked, glancing over at Mr. Stark like he was expecting to see Ned or May and then blinking hard a few times.

“Yes, please,” Peter said, smiling. “Smooshed down real flat.”

“Right,” Mr. Delmar said, looking at Mr. Stark again before he turned and pulled out of pair of crinkly food safety gloves.

“We’ll take one of whatever May usually gets, too,” Mr. Stark said, looking up at the menu board. “And a number two with red peppers.”

“Uh. You got it,” Mr. Delmar said, throwing a baffled glance Peter’s way before he turned around to work on the sandwiches.

Mr. Stark turned and looked around the little bodega. Peter wasn’t sure what he was looking for—or maybe he’d just never been in a little place like this before? (Actually, he definitely had; it had been a place just like this that he’d bought that stupid touristy t-shirt and the Hello Kitty pajama pants after the debacle on the ferry.) His face was pretty impassive and he hadn’t taken off the sunglasses, so it was hard to tell.

“Anything else, Pete?” Mr. Stark asked, taking a few more bags of chips off the rack and putting them on the counter. “You want cookies?”

“I’m good, Mr. Stark,” Peter said. “Thanks.”

“Well I’m getting cookies,” Mr. Stark said. He went down the near aisle to pick up a handful of Famous Amos packets.

“You want a bag for all this?” Mr. Delmar asked, adding a trio of paper-wrapped subs to their accumulated junk food.

“That’d be good,” Mr. Stark said. He handed over a few bills that way more than covered their order, refusing the change.

Mr. Delmar spluttered a bit, thanking Mr. Stark but also not quite seeming to believe the interaction was really happening.

“Thanks, Mr. Delmar!” Peter said, grabbing the bag of food from him and heading for the door. “See you!”

“Say ‘hi’ to your aunt,” Mr. Delmar belatedly called after them.

“I like him,” Mr. Stark said, smirking.

“You threw him off,” Peter said, smiling back.

“That does happen,” Mr. Stark said, but then they’d made it to the sidewalk and the smile fell right off his face.

There were people on the sidewalk. Just five or six of them, but they all seemed to be waiting outside Delmar’s for something. It didn’t even occur to Peter that it might be Mr. Stark that they were waiting for until Mr. Stark had grabbed Peter by the shoulder of his hoodie, hustling him toward the car as the people started shouting.

“Tony!”

“This way, Stark!”

“Who’s the kid!”

“Tony!”

“Is he your kid? Does Pepper know?”

“Tony! This way!”

“Hey, kid, what’s your name?”

“Over here, Stark!”

“Tony!”

There weren’t that many people, but it was still startling. Loud. Invasive.

Camera flashes started going off and Mr. Stark’s dark glasses suddenly made a lot of sense. The only reason Peter managed to get in the car without mishap was Mr. Stark’s steady grip on him.

Then the door was closed and the noise dropped significantly. There were still cameras pointed at him, and Peter was sure he looked like a complete idiot in any photo that they managed to catch him face in, gaping at them like a landed trout.

Mr. Stark walked around the front of the car, appearing completely unfazed by the strangers attempting to press into his space, then slid into the driver’s seat in another burst of sound. He blasted the horn just once and the people scrambled for the sidewalk, and then they were off.

“What was that?” Peter choked out, stunned. He had their bag of sandwiches sitting on his lap, so at least they’d come out of it with dinner. He might’ve crunched some of the chips in the rush to get in the car, though.

“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” Mr. Stark said. Surprisingly, he sounded just as tense as Peter felt. “Sorry. That was my fault. I screwed up. I’m sorry.”

“What?” Peter asked. “How was that your fault?”

“I didn’t think. I just came right from the airport,” Mr. Stark said. It almost seemed like he was talking more to himself than Peter, chastising himself. “Should’ve taken a different car. I didn’t think it through.”

“I don’t…” Peter had been about to say he didn’t understand, but then it clicked. Paparazzi. Or maybe just fans with no boundaries. They’d seen the bright orange hotrod with STARK on the license plate and hung around for the photo op. “Oh.”

It was kind of cool. Or it would’ve been cool if it hadn’t been… horrible.

“Yeah,” Mr. Stark said. He was holding onto the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles were white.

“Are you okay?” Peter asked. He’d seen Mr. Stark in crowds plenty of times, some of them crowds of paparazzi pushier than they’d been outside of Delmar’s, but he’d never seen this reaction.

Mr. Stark hesitated. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then shot Peter a look he couldn’t decipher before answering.

“Honestly? I’m riding the edge of a panic attack. So no. Not really that okay,” Mr. Stark said.

Mr. Stark swerved out of traffic and Peter was surprised to see that they’d arrived at his building. Mr. Stark went around the side and down the alley, parking in May’s reserved spot mostly out of sight. He shut the car off, took his hands off the wheel and took another long breath. His hands were trembling.

They sat there for a long minute. Peter had read up on a few strategies for coping with panic attacks after the Vulture had dropped the freaking warehouse on him, but he wasn’t sure it was his place to use them on Mr. Stark.

“Sorry. Sorry,” Mr. Stark said, squeezing his hands into fists and putting them in his lap. “Just give me a minute.”

“We’ve got all the time you need, Mr. Stark,” Peter said. “It will pass.”

Mr. Stark blew out another slow breath.

“Do you want me to go?” he asked hesitantly. He’d had exactly two panic attacks, and both times he’d wanted somebody close; he’d been sure he was about to die and he didn’t want to be all alone. But Mr. Stark was being so careful not to even look over at the passenger side… “I can wait outside the car if you want space.”

“Stay in the car,” Mr. Stark said sharply. His hand shot out, grabbing Peter’s wrist and holding on tight.

“Okay. I won’t go anywhere, Mr. Stark,” Peter said. He tried to just keep his tone calm and even, like the articles had said. “I’ll stay right here.”

“Good. Yeah,” Mr. Stark said. He looked away again but he didn’t let go of Peter’s arm. “Stay in the car.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Peter asked after another long moment had passed. Mr. Stark seemed to be trying very hard to just breathe through it, but his grip was even tighter on Peter’s arm.

“Stay in the car,” Mr. Stark said again.

“We’re staying in the car,” Peter said. Mr. Stark nodded, blowing out another deep breath.

After another minute or so, Peter could tell it had begun to pass. Mr. Stark was still concentrating on his breathing, but it wasn’t exaggerated breaths like it had been. His grip on Peter’s wrist hadn’t slacked, but it somehow didn’t feel quite so desperate.

“Not your first panic attack,” Mr. Stark said at last, finally turning to look at Peter.

“After—everything—that happened on homecoming…” Peter started, but then he just shrugged. “No, not my first.”

“Sorry,” Mr. Stark said again. He seemed to realize he was still holding onto Peter’s wrist and reluctantly let it go, balling his hand up in a fist again as he put it in his lap.

“It’s alright—” Peter started, but Mr. Stark had already opened his door and stepped out of the car. Neither of them spoke again as they made their way up to Peter’s apartment.

It was empty, as expected. May was off at whatever “thing” she’d told Mr. Stark about. The lights were off and everything was locked up. Peter had always found it weirdly reassuring to come home to the stillness, though the spidey-sense to warn him if somebody was lurking in the dark probably helped with that.

Mr. Stark flipped on the lights, made a quick loop of the place. The dark stillness obviously didn’t reassure him at all.

Peter put their bag of food down on the kitchen table, not sure if he should say something or let Mr. Stark gloss over it.

“Sorry, you shouldn’t have had to deal with that,” Mr. Stark said, rejoining him in the dining area. He took off his sunglasses and looked Peter right in the eye. “It’s usually not a problem if I know they’re out there. I just didn’t think.”

“Not your first either, huh?” Peter said, then looked away because maybe that was crossing a line.

“No,” Mr. Stark said, surprising him by barking out a laugh. He took off the suit coat he’d been wearing, draping it over the back of one of the chairs before dropping into one of the others and reaching for a bag of chips. “No, not my first. Used to be a bigger problem, actually. All sorts of things would set me off. One time, I called the suit in my sleep. Pepper was… not pleased.”

Peter tried to smile, because the idea of it was a little funny, but it also wasn’t funny at all. He grabbed the bag of food and pulled out their subs, opened his own bag of chips.

Mr. Stark sighed and pulled out his phone, sent a few text messages, then grabbed his own sub. For an awkward stretch of time, they ate in silence. Mr. Stark’s phone vibrated a few times, but he ignored it. Then it rang, an incoming call, and he finally picked up.

“Hey, Pep.”

“Happy told me what happened,” Ms. Potts said. Peter pretended he couldn’t hear it; if he wasn’t enhanced, he wouldn’t have been able to hear it.

“Yeah. I don’t think they got a clear shot of Pete’s face,” Mr. Stark said, rubbing a hand over his forehead. “But it shouldn’t have happened.”

“It’s not your fault they’re a bunch of vultures, Tony.”

“I should’ve taken the other car.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Ms. Potts said. “You’re both okay. We’re already in front of it. Everything is okay, Tony.”

Peter wondered if Mr. Stark had told her about the panic attack or if she just knew him that well.

“Right,” Mr. Stark said, but Peter couldn’t tell if he was agreeing with her or if he was just saying it.

“I’ll be home tomorrow, okay? I’ve got that eight o’clock with Gregson and then I’ll be on the jet,” Ms. Potts said. “We can do lunch.”

“That sounds good,” Mr. Stark said. He sounded calmer, at least.

“I love you, Tony.”

“You too.”

Mr. Stark hung up and sighed, glancing through the text messages before he put down his phone.

“My people have already been in touch with security at your school,” he said.

“At school?”

“Yeah,” Mr. Stark said, gesturing at the Midtown logo on Peter’s hoodie. “Just in case these guys are particularly idiotic and try to track you down or something.”

“I didn’t think of that,” Peter said.

“Not your job to think of that, Underoos,” Mr. Stark said, flashing a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

“I suppose you’ve been dealing with that sort of thing your whole life, huh?” Peter asked, suddenly feeling guilty for all those times he’d Googled Mr. Stark over the years.

“Freaking out because I thought some asshole was going to grab my kid? No.” Mr. Stark snorted. “That was a new one.”

“Because you thought—?” Peter couldn’t decide if he was more startled by the idea that any of those paparazzi guys had been paying any attention to him, or that Mr. Stark had just called him ‘my kid.’

Peter wasn’t sure what question he planned to ask next, but his thought process was interrupted anyway—May’s footsteps at the end of the hall outside their apartment. Stomping furious.

“Uh oh,” Peter said, turning toward the door.

“’Uh oh’?” Mr. Stark echoed. “’Uh oh’ what?”

“May’s pissed,” Peter said, and then they could both hear her key in the lock. She stormed into the room, flinging her keys into the little dish by the door, eyes scanning the room before zeroing in on them at the kitchen table, narrowing.

Stark,” she growled, jabbing a finger at them. “You parked in my spot.”

“Oh. Ah. Yes,” Mr. Stark said, eyebrows raising high on his forehead. “Yes, I did.”

“We got you a sub,” Peter said, holding it out and smiling as winningly as he could.

May blinked and looked away from Mr. Stark over to Peter, and then burst into tears.

 

There had been a shadow on one of her x-rays. Her doctors had hoped it had been from swelling after the crash, but they’d gotten clearer imaging and it had prompted them to run blood tests. She’d asked Mr. Stark to pick him up because she had gone in for a biopsy.

“The results should be in tomorrow or the day after,” May had said.

It was in her liver, if that’s what it was. May said all sorts of things about catching it early. Most of it went over Peter’s head, in one ear and out the other as he tried to process anything beyond… cancer. It might be cancer.

Mr. Stark hung around, holding May’s hand and making her promise she’d call him if she needed anything. Asking if she’d let him pay for specialists, consultations, expert second and third opinions.

Peter just sat there. Listening. Trying to listen. Trying to process.

His brain was stuck on a loop. The one clear memory he had of the night he’d found out his parents were dead and he’d be staying with May and Ben. Ben had set down the landline handset, his face had looked gray. May had taken his hand the way Mr. Stark was holding her hand at the table.

Chapter Text

Peter had forgotten entirely about the encounter with the paparazzi by the time he got to school the next morning. He’d wanted to stay home with May, but she had work and then an appointment with her doctor and she wanted everything to go on as normal. It was a possible diagnosis, and it turned out to be an actual diagnosis there were treatment options and she was going to be fine, so he had to go to school.

He walked up to the front gate, just as he always did. It was a cool fall morning, even cooler to him and his thermoregulation issue, and he had his hat pulled down over his ears as far as it would go. He’d been trying to text Ned back when his spidey-sense went off. Low-grade but more than enough to make him look up, and there they were.

Two guys in ballcaps and dark jackets standing on the outside of the fence. There was an extra security guy on the school property side of the fence, glaring at them.

Peter blinked, registering the fancy cameras as they were pointed his way. He held up a hand, remembering how Mr. Stark had been so fixated on whether they’d gotten a shot of his face or not. His instinct was to turn away, jump the fence, make a run for it.

“Mr. Parker,” the extra security guy said. He held out a hand towards Peter, still glaring at the photographers. Peter noted that he was careful to stay on the school side of the fence.

“Peter!”

“C’mon, kid, smile for the camera!”

“This way, Peter!”

Peter hurried the last few steps over and let the security guard put himself between Peter and the photographers. The shouting stopped almost the second he crossed onto school grounds; they knew they wouldn’t be allowed on the property, so they started packing up to move on to whoever else they were going to bother.

“Alright?” the security guard said. According to his nametag, his name was Tony. That was oddly funny.

“I’m fine,” Peter said. He didn’t dare glance back at the photographers; he could hear them mumbling to each other about him. “I just wasn’t expecting that.”

“Stark Industries called ahead. They’re sending a car for pickup so you won’t have to worry about them again,” Tony said.

“Yeah, I usually get a ride on Fridays,” Peter said dumbly.

“Sounds like a really cool internship,” Tony said.

“It really is,” Peter said, maybe a bit more blandly than he would’ve said it a week ago.

He hadn’t realized how keyed-up the photographers had made him until he nearly jumped out of his skin when his phone started yodeling.

“Alright?” Tony asked again.

“Yeah. Sorry. Speak of the devil, huh?” He held the screen so Tony could see it—Mr. Stark had seen Ned’s goofy contact photo and insisted on making a weird face for his too—before he answered. “Hey, Mr. Stark.”

“Hey, just wanted to check in. Midtown called a few minutes ago and there are a few photographers camping out,” Mr. Stark said. Peter wished he could see Mr. Stark’s face so he’d be able to gauge if he was really as calm as his voice sounded. “They’re just at the front gate, though. So you can go in one of the other gates and avoid them.”

“Uh. Well, I didn’t even think of that,” Peter said, wincing to himself. It would’ve made sense to go for one of the gates less visible to people not familiar with the school. “I walked by them a second ago.”

“Are you okay?” Mr. Stark asked, all the calm gone from his voice. He sounded like he wanted to call one of the Iron Man suits and fly across town to check on Peter himself.

“I’m fine, yeah,” Peter said, hurrying to reassure. “School security was right there, so the photographers didn’t get close. If they got any pictures, it was of me walking away or something.”

“Don’t worry about it, Peter. I’ll take care of it.”

“It’s fine, Mr. Stark,” Peter said. “I’m fine.”

 

He really was fine until about lunchtime. There was class to focus on, and he was pretty sure his teachers had gotten an email about the stupid photographers so they were extra keen on shutting down side chatter so nobody could bother Peter about it. It wasn’t like nobody else at the school had famous, or at the very least notable, connections; it seemed like every third car in the pickup line was a paid driver some days.

Ned thought it was kind of cool. Like cosplaying a celebrity.

It was like his reaction to the Spider-Man stuff, really. It wasn’t quite real to him, at least not the dangerous parts. It was like he got a contact high from the good bits and was able to just gloss over the bruises and challenges and late-night Googling of how to deal with panic attacks.

Peter tried not to feel disappointed in Ned about it. Part of the not-quite-resentment came from the fact that Ned hadn’t asked how May was doing, and that was completely unfair because Peter hadn’t told him about the diagnosis. Possible diagnosis.

The problem with lunchtime was that, on Fridays, he had the same lunch period as Flash. Usually, that just meant a snide comment or two, maybe random bits of food thrown his way. There were pictures making their way around the Midtown social media grapevine, though, and Flash was simmering with his usual jealous-resentful irritation about it.

Peter had just gone through the lunch line, tray loaded up because he couldn’t actually remember what he’d had for breakfast and his stupid stomach was telling him it had been nothing, when Flash meandered past and knocked the tray right out of his hands.

Peter had known it was coming. His spidey-sense had warned him. It was just that there was no way for him to dodge without giving away his enhanced reflexes.

The tray clattered to the floor. Loudly. Food went everywhere, including all over his shoes. He watched his apple roll away, ending up under a table halfway across the room.

Peter sighed. He thought, for a moment, that he might actually cry. He didn’t have money for a second lunch.

He just stood there, arms at his sides since there was no tray to hold up anymore, and stared at Flash. He was just so, so tired. Tired of Flash, tired of being hungry.

Then angry, for a moment. Angry because Flash had been doing this same shit since the day they’d met.

He really wanted to lash out. Punch Flash in the face. Shove him. Take his lunch, sitting safely over on the table by the wall.

Peter clenched his fists, took a deep breath, turned on his heel and walked out of the lunchroom.

He didn’t have a destination in mind, but he ended up in the bathroom. He needed something to do or he would give in and cry, so he took his time cleaning the bits of food debris off his shoes.

Ned hadn’t followed him out of the lunchroom, and he tried not to feel resentful about that, too. Their table was on the far side of the room; he probably hadn’t even seen what had happened.

He had no idea what to do next, where to go—he kind of wanted to grab his backpack and hop the back fence—but he knew that he didn’t want to wait out the rest of lunch in the damn bathroom.

MJ was waiting for him in the hall. Standing there, arms crossed, glaring at him like she’d been staring at the door and willing it to open.

“Uh. Hi,” he said.

“Here,” she said, tossing a brown paper bag at him. Her lunch.

“What?” he said, catching it deftly without even thinking. He was too surprised to fake fumbling for it.

“I’ve been thinking about taking up an eating disorder,” she said, deadpan. “Overcoming it will play well in college essays.”

“That’s not actually funny, MJ,” Peter said.

“Just eat the food,” MJ snapped, waving a banana that she’d apparently kept for herself at him.

“I—”

“I have to sit next to you in Lit,” she said. “You’ve got another thing coming if you think I’m going to listen to your stupid stomach grumble through the whole thing.”

She turned and walked away, peeling the banana as she went.

“Thank you!” he called after her.

She flipped him off and vanished around a corner.

Again, Peter thought he might cry. What a stupid, stupid day.

There was a stairwell not far from his locker that was out-of-the-way enough that the hall monitors didn’t check it often, and that was where Peter headed. He’d be able to eat MJ’s lunch—a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a baggie full to bursting with Cheez-Its, a baggie not quite so full of carrot sticks (it looked like she’d started on them before deciding to hand over her lunch), and a homemade chocolate chip cookie—in peace.

He ate slowly, breathing like Mr. Stark had in the car. It seemed impossible that that had only been yesterday.

 

Happy was waiting in the pick-up line just as usual. Usual black car, all of it just the same as always. There were eyes on them, though. Nobody had paid attention to which car Peter got into before.

Peter sighed and threw his backpack into the back seat before climbing in after it, only to startle back when the backpack thumped into Mr. Stark rather than onto the seat.

“Oof,” Mr. Stark said, fumbling with the bag a bit. “What do you keep in here, bricks? Jeez.”

“Sorry! Sorry, Mr. Stark,” Peter said, hurrying to get into the car and get the door closed so he could take his backpack. “Sorry. I didn’t know you were back here.”

“Aren’t you supposed to have a sixth sense for that sort of thing?” Mr. Stark asked, but he sort of smiled, too, and he didn’t hand the backpack back, just stuck it on the floor by his feet.

“It’s a sense for threats, Mr. Stark,” Peter corrected. “You’re not a threat.”

“What? I’m very threatening. I’m Iron Man.”

“Not a threat to me, though,” Peter said, rolling his eyes.

“What about your super senses, then?” Mr. Stark asked. “You didn’t hear me in here breathing?”

“Well, I mean, sure. But it’s the end of the school day so everything is just super loud right now. It’s all kind of one giant mush of sound around here. I can only focus on so many things, you know?”

“How’d that Spanish thing go?” Mr. Stark asked after giving him a weird look for the stretch of time it took Happy to pull away from the curb.

“Good. Great, actually,” Peter said, then added in his best clunky telenovela-dramatic accent, “Somos tan buenos en Español.”

Mr. Stark snorted. Happy shot him a look in the rearview and deliberately rolled his eyes when he knew Peter was looking.

Spanish had actually been really good, though. Ned had been freaking out about the presentation for days, but it went smoothly. (Actually, he’d been so worried about the presentation that he hadn’t even realized what had happened at lunch, and Peter had decided that was a good thing because he just didn’t even want to talk about it.)

“So speaking of school,” Mr. Stark said, so nonchalantly that it was clearly a deliberate segue. Not to mention the fact that he physically turned in his seat so he was facing Peter more directly. “What the hell.”

“Uh. What?”

Mr. Stark frowned at him and flipped his phone like he had the first day they’d met, projecting a holographic image between them. It was security footage from Midtown.

More specifically, it was security footage from the lunchroom.

Peter watched a grainy image of himself loading up his lunch tray. He glanced at Mr. Stark, not sure what he was supposed to say, but Mr. Stark was looking at the hologram. Glaring at it.

Hologram Peter paid for his food and walked toward the tables. Hologram Flash peeled off from where he’d been waiting just out of sight of the various adults supervising them. Hologram Flash sneered and knocked away Hologram Peter’s tray, and then the two of them stood there staring for a moment. Then Hologram Peter walked away, leaving Hologram Flash standing there in the mess, not looking nearly so proud of himself as Peter had expected him to be.

Mr. Stark tapped something on his phone and the hologram changed, switching to a view of the stairwell where Peter had eaten MJ’s lunch. He was sitting by himself on one of the lower steps, earbuds in, eating with one hand and filling in his Chemistry worksheet with the other.

“I repeat,” Mr. Stark said once Hologram Peter had packed up his things and headed for class. “What the hell.”

“It’s high school. Some days are shitty,” Peter said. He shrugged. “I’ll start bringing backup lunches again so MJ doesn’t feel obliged to share. And I got all my Chem done, so—”

Not the point, Peter. Jesus,” Mr. Stark said. “What do you mean backup lunches again? This is entirely not okay!”

“Yeah. Like I said: Some days are shitty.”

“Hey, language,” Happy said. Peter shot him a look, then almost had to laugh because the whole thing was so absurd.

“Are you—are you two parenting me? Is that what this is? Is that a thing that’s happening?”

Chapter Text

Peter’s internship properly got underway at the beginning of November. Happy picked him up from school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and brought him to Stark Industries–New York, and then one Friday a month Happy drove him out to the Avengers compound for the whole weekend.

SI–NY was huge, but somehow seemed small after what Peter had seen in Malibu. It was a trio of buildings on the river. There was an admin building, tall and mostly unremarkable, connected to the other two buildings by several skyways. There was a building that looked almost squat next to the tall admin building. And there was a stone building with weirdly decorative flourishes, the oldest of the three of them that had been the first east coast administrative building Howard Stark had had built.

The tall admin building held Legal, HR and Marketing, and nearly the top third of it was reserved for executive offices. Ms. Potts's office was on the top floor, and technically Mr. Stark had an office there as well even if he never used it. There were a lot of conference rooms. There was also a cafeteria that took up a floor all on its own.

The squat building was entirely R&D. Software more than hardware, since the facilities in Malibu had better space for testing. SI–NY was the home of StarkPhones and StarkPads and StarkWatches, maintaining and improving the company’s consumer mainstays.

The original building was mostly for tourists. There was a grand marble lobby with vaulted ceilings and elaborate windows, a STARK INDUSTRIES THROUGH THE AGES setup very nearly identical to the one in Malibu, more conference rooms. The top half of the building was call centers for various customer support services for all sorts of Stark products.

Mr. Stark spent most of his time in the R&D building. He had a suite of workshops and labs all his own, a desk set up in one corner of the smallest workshop so that he could avoid his actual office in the admin building where board members might go looking for him..

“Alright,” Mr. Stark said after he’d given a quick rundown of where everything was. “Your badge is all access, don’t let anybody tell you you’re not allowed.”

“Okay?”

“Okay,” Mr. Stark said with a decisive nod. “So, let’s talk about this.”

“Um. Talk about what?”

Mr. Stark gestured over a holotable, pulling up a holographic rendering of the Spider-Man suit’s schematic. Then he repeated the gesture and a second schematic overlaid the first, showing the fixes Peter had made the suit. (Mostly little repairs he hadn’t wanted to bother Mr. Stark with, but he’d also cannibalized a bit of the wiring to improve his webshooters.)

“First of all, this is brilliant.”

“I—What?” Peter had been expecting a telling-off about the thing with the webshooters at the very least.

“I can’t wait to see what you make with access to proper supplies. All these fixes. What you did with this wiring around the elbow here? Fantastic. I mean, it’s one jostle away from going through the underlayer and jolting you, but if you hadn’t had to sacrifice proper insulation to patch the wire in, it’d be perfect.”

“Um,” Peter said again. “Thanks.”

“And you changed your webshooters.”

“Yeah. I’m trying a new configuration,” he said. The last thing he wanted was Mr. Stark thinking he didn’t appreciate the suit. “It gives me a little more control—longer, stronger webs for swinging around versus the more wadded-up and sticky ones for restraining the bad guys.”

“I’m going to get you set up to patent that,” Mr. Stark said. Peter gave him a puzzled look, so Mr. Stark smiled and elaborated: “Your webs. It supports our cover story that we met because you were making Spidey’s tech. I’m telling people I found you in a dumpster, by the way. And it’s something that could be incredibly versatile with a little more testing, so I think you should really get your name on it and let me help you bring it to the masses. Or just get your name on it to stop somebody from figuring out something similar and bringing it to the masses before you. You don’t have to share it with the masses if you don’t want to.”

“You think it’d be versatile?”

“Don’t pretend like you don’t have a notebook full of your weird chemistry shorthand. I’ve seen it.” Mr. Stark smirked. “You know it’s versatile.”

 

“Hey, do you know anything about patents?” Peter asked, dropping into the chair next to Ned. It was a Friday, which meant decathlon after school even though they’d finished the competition season in September.

“Uh. Abraham Lincoln is the only president to date to have a patent to his name?” Ned said, looking up from his Chemistry notes with a wrinkly forehead.

“Fun fact,” Peter said, nodding. “Not what I meant.”

“I know you have to apply for a patent,” Ned said, then shrugged. “That’s the sum total of my patent knowledge. Those two things. Congratulations, now you know everything I know about patents.”

“Want to go to that secondhand book place with me after this?” Peter asked. He pulled out his packet and his blank notecards, ready to spend the next hour prepping his study materials for next year’s competitions. MJ had a whole system for them. He suspected she had color-coded charts to keep track of it all at her apartment, but she pretended she couldn’t hear him when he brought it up. (That was a major factor driving his suspicion, honestly.) “The one across from that arcade we used to go to in, like, third grade. With the Mrs. Pacman that was always somehow both sticky and greasy.”

“Sure,” Ned said. He took out his own packet, then shoved most of his arm into his backpack to fish around for his notecards. “Why?”

“Because I don’t know anything about patents, either.”

 

He bought way more than just a few books about patents. There had been a whole shelf of textbooks on clearance for a dollar a piece—they were outdated, but he was just after any sort of baseline so he wouldn’t sound like a complete idiot at SI–NY.

He was fairly sure, after reading up on the basics of patents and patent law and then reading through the internship contract May had signed on his behalf, that Mr. Stark had been ridiculously generous. It was probably nothing to him, of course. It meant a lot to Peter, though.

It was in his contract that anything he developed during his internship was his. The web formula was his, for example. Even if Mr. Stark and/or Stark Industries paid to file the patent application or whatever, it was Peter’s. Peter had final say in what the webs could be used for, and he was the one who got the paycheck. According to the books, there would be other negotiations, contracts after the patent was his so that Stark Industries (or whoever else) could develop it, incorporate the webs into other things, and then any income would be split up based on the terms of that next contract.

But Mr. Stark had just… footed the bill. No stipulations, no “finders fees,” nothing like that. He could’ve claimed all rights for himself, as the mentor, as the pocketbook, but he hadn’t.

Peter wasn’t sure how to bring it up, how he could thank Mr. Stark for it without making things awkward.

Chapter Text

The latest rumor on the Flash-generated grapevine was that Peter was involved in some sort of underground fight ring. High stakes, only the most exclusive underground parking structures, all that shit.

Best guess was that Peter’s gym shirt hadn’t covered the bruises from the incident with the ATM robber’s crowbar and Flash had decided to make up stories about it. Or possibly Flash had just watched Fight Club over the weekend and fell into his usual habit of making Peter’s life uncomfortable just for the hell of it.

“Honestly, I think this might be the dumbest one he’s come up with yet,” Ned said, slamming his locker and hoisting his backpack onto his shoulder. “I mean. Dude. Seriously?”

“It’s stupid, yeah,” Peter said. It was exhausting was what it was. “Really, I’m just hoping none of the teachers take it seriously. I feel like that would be a super uncomfortable conversation with the guidance counselor.”

“That’s hilarious.”

“Yeah, right.”

They parted ways at the front steps, Ned off to the subway and Peter headed for Happy’s waiting car. It was a Tuesday, and that meant a few hours after school at SI–NY before he met May after her shift.

“Hey, Happy,” Peter said, sliding into the back seat and smiling at Happy in the rearview mirror.

Happy grunted.

“Did you see the picture I sent you yesterday? The kittens?”

“Yep.”

“I can’t believe somebody just left them in a box on the curb like that,” Peter said, sitting back and watching the city pass by out his window. “It’s so sad. I brought them to the animal shelter, though. The volunteer there let me help hold them while she checked for chips just in case—they weren’t, of course—and then I posed for some pictures with them because she said it’d help them get adopted. They were so tiny and fuzzy, Happy!”

“That’s great, kid.”

“It was.”

The conversation meandered as they drove. Peter mostly just said whatever came to mind while Happy listened, nodding along, occasionally jumping in with a verbal response. It didn’t take much time at all for them to arrive at SI–NY, though; Happy dropped him out front, and Peter waved at the reception desk as he headed for the employee elevators.

“Hey, FRIDAY,” Peter said once the doors had closed. “What’s up?”

“Hello, Peter,” FRIDAY said. “I’ve alerted Boss that you’ve arrived. He says you should meet him in the workshop.”

“Alright,” Peter said. That was fairly normal for a Tuesday—Mr. Stark had been showing him the ins and outs of repulsor tech.

“He’d like you to properly meet Colonel Rhodes,” FRIDAY said.

“War Machine is here?”

“I believe they call him Iron Patriot now,” FRIDAY said. “And, yes. He is here. He is in the workshop with Boss.”

“Awesome,” Peter said, wiping his suddenly-sweaty palms on his jeans.

Peter punched his code into the pad outside the door to Mr. Stark’s workshop and let himself in, not at all surprised to be met with a cacophony of sound—Mr. Stark and Col. Rhodes talking, the clank of metal on metal as tools were moved around, old rock music not quite quiet enough to be properly background noise.

“Hey, Mr. Stark,” Peter called over the sound, and most of the noise immediately stopped.

“Hey, Underoos,” Mr. Stark said, head poking out from behind a mannequin standing on one of the workbenches. It looked like Mr. Stark had been working on a new set of braces for Col. Rhodes; the mannequin was modeling the braces and a USAF ballcap. “How was school?”

“Oh, you know,” Peter said. He knew better than to mention the Fight Club thing. “Standard high school stuff. Had a pop quiz in Lit.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Peter shrugged. “It was fine.”

“Hi,” Col. Rhodes said, walking over to Peter with a hand held out to shake, apparently deciding that Mr. Stark had taken too long to get to introductions. “James Rhodes. You’re Peter-the-Intern, right?”

“Yeah. Uh. Yes, sir,” Peter said, shaking his hand. “Peter Parker.”

He’d met Col. Rhodes just the once, and he’d been all suited up as Spider-Man. They’d barely introduced themselves, let alone shook hands. Black Widow had been there, talking fast with Mr. Stark about the airport layout and where the quinjet was and Peter had been trying to pay attention to that, and then they’d talked strategy and how Peter would probably just have to be present while everybody else talked things out, and then things had gone to hell.

“Yeah, yeah,” Mr. Stark said. “Peter, Rhodey. Rhodey, Peter.”

“My niece loves your Instagram,” Col. Rhodes said, stepping back and putting his hands in his pocket, looking more cool and at ease than Peter could ever hope to pull off in his life. “She says, and I quote, it’s ‘the prime Uncle Tony content the internet has been missing.’”

“I don’t even know if that’s insulting or not,” Mr. Stark said. He’d finally set aside his tools and come around the workbench.

“Honestly, I don’t know either,” Col. Rhodes said. “She does like to tease you.”

“’Uncle Tony’,” Peter repeated, mostly under his breath, grinning ear to ear. That was almost as funny as the idea of Tony Stark having in-laws.

“So you’re here to do internship stuff, then?” Col. Rhodes asked, directing his focus back to Peter. “What do you do? Coffee runs? Filing? It can’t all be Instagram-worthy.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mr. Stark cut in before Peter could stammer a coherent response. “We tinker. We're improving the nanotech, and Pete's the master of repulsor systems. And he's been perfecting webshooters 2.0.”

“Webshooters?”

“Well,” Peter said, because Mr. Stark had pretty clearly left the ball in his court—he could say he was Spider-Man or that he was the guy that built Spider-Man’s tech. “I’m Spider-Man.”

“Excuse me?”

“Um.” Peter glanced back and forth between them. Col. Rhodes looked pretty pissed. Mr. Stark looked incredibly pleased with himself. “I’m Spider-Man?”

“That’s what I thought you said,” Col. Rhodes said, then pivoted so his whole body faced Mr. Stark. “Now. I’m remembering you telling me a lot about your intern. How he was this kid. Genius kid. Prodigy. Amazing. But mostly how he was a kid.”

“Yep,” Mr. Stark said.

“So you’re telling me that Spider-Man—the guy you brought to Germany to bring in Captain America—is an actual child?”

“Teenager,” Peter said, aware even as he said it that it didn’t help his case.

Col. Rhodes looked over at him, lips pursed like he was trying to decide what to yell at him about first.

“Okay, you have a meeting,” Mr. Stark said, stepping in, smile never faltering.

“I do?” Peter asked.

“New employee orientation,” Mr. Stark said.

“Don’t change the—” Col. Rhodes tried to cut in, but Mr. Stark waved him off. (It definitely didn’t improve Col. Rhodes’s mood.)

“I have to go to an orientation?” Peter asked.

“Meet and greet for newbies,” Mr. Stark said. “Go network or something while I finish getting yelled at.”

“You shouldn’t fight,” Peter said. “You’ll traumatize me or something.”

“I’ll get you a therapist,” Mr. Stark said. “No, wait. I already did.”

FRIDAY had an elevator waiting for him, so he stepped in so she could take him wherever he was going for the orientation. She didn’t take him away quickly enough to keep him from overhearing the—discussion?—picking up again.

“He’s a kid, Tony,” Col. Rhodes said. “A kid. What were you thinking?”

“We didn’t expect it to end in a fight and you know it,” Mr. Stark said.

“Okay, then, what are you thinking now?”

“I know exactly what I’m doing,” Mr. Stark said glibly. “I’ve told you that before.”

“Yeah. Before when you were dying,” Col. Rhodes said. “You dying again?”

“Nope. I’ve just grown as a person,” Mr. Stark said. “I don’t have to be dying to share things.”

“So what is it you’re doing?” Col. Rhodes asked. He sounded like he was at the very end of his patience.

“I’m trying to keep him safe,” Mr. Stark said. “If all I can do to make that happen is tie my name to his very, very publicly and make it clear that I’ll come after anybody who comes after him—”

“Who? Who, Tony?” Col. Rhodes interrupted. “He was some anonymous kid, and now he’s Iron Man’s personal intern.”

“Somebody already knew. Somebody tried to kill him, and he wasn’t in the suit; they crashed into his aunt's car,” Mr. Stark said. “Everybody already knew me and Spider-Man were connected, now everybody knows me and Peter Parker are too. And it sucks that making that clear brings a lot of attention down on him, but I will take that over dead every day.”

They kept talking, but the elevator had taken Peter far enough away that he couldn’t hear them anymore.

“Hey, FRIDAY, what did he mean when he said somebody tried to kill me?” Peter asked.

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that,” FRIDAY said. “Access to that information needs permission from Boss.”

“Of course it does.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I believe he is planning to talk to you about it later this week,” FRIDAY said, conciliatory. “He had me prepare a data packet for you, but changed the plan when Col. Rhodes arrived.”

Peter mulled that over for a few floors. It was sort of a big deal. More than sort of—it was actually a really big deal.

Apparently he wouldn’t get answers just yet, though.

Apparently, employee orientation was all he’d get.

“Hey, FRIDAY, where am I going?” Peter asked as the elevator slowed to a stop.

“Employee orientation is in conference room C on the first floor of the administration building. You’ll want to cross the skyway on this level, then get in the other elevator to continue down to the first floor,” FRIDAY said. “It is scheduled to run from 4:30 to 6 o’ clock.”

“Thanks, FRIDAY,” Peter said, doing as he was told.

“It will be fun,” FRIDAY said once he’d found his way to the other elevator. Her tone was bright enough that he knew she was teasing him. “There are forty-one people in your group, and Dr. Clark Jasper from R&D is leading the session.”

“What projects is Dr. Jasper involved in?” Peter asked. He’d heard the name but he didn’t know anything about the guy.

“Dr. Jasper is a mechanical engineer. He has worked for Stark Industries for seven years. He is currently one of the leads on a solar technology project.”

“Cool,” Peter said, making a mental note to look up Dr. Jasper’s work later. He didn’t know a ton about solar beyond the basic process of it.

 

“Hey, FRIDAY?” Peter asked, picking up his internship-issue StarkPad after he’d spent almost a full hour staring at ceiling willing himself to sleep without luck.

“Yes, Peter?”

“Can you tell Mr. Stark that I overheard what he and Col. Rhodes were talking about this afternoon? And tell him I’d really like to talk about it on Thursday?”

“Of course,” FRIDAY said. She went quiet, and Peter set the tablet aside, assuming that was it, but apparently she’d just been talking to Mr. Stark because she spoke again after a moment: “Boss says that would be good.”

Then his phone vibrated, which was weird because he never set his phone to vibrate. Apparently it was some sort of override alert, though, because when he picked it up Mr. Stark’s face filled the screen on a video call.

“Um. Hey,” Peter said, turning his bedside light on before he scooted up to sit against the headboard.

“Hey,” Mr. Stark said. He appeared to still be in the workshop at SI–NY. “I wanted to apologize. You shouldn’t have found out I was looking into the crash the way you did.”

Peter just shrugged.

“I’m paranoid, Pete. I assume most things—well, most things like that—are intentional,” Mr. Stark said, defensive. “That sort of thing is catching, and I’m trying not to spread it to you. So I was looking into it, and if anything turned up I was going to tell you when I had answers.”

“FRIDAY said you were going to tell me,” Peter said. “So does that mean something turned up? It, um—it wasn’t an accident, you think?”

“There’s nothing for you to worry about, okay?” Mr. Stark said.

“Because you stuck a big PROPERTY OF TONY STARK sticker on my forehead?” Peter asked wryly.

Mr. Stark rolled his eyes and ended the video call.

GO TO SLEEP, PETER, he texted a moment later. WE’LL TALK ABOUT IT THURSDAY

 

Peter wasn’t able to not worry about it. He spent Wednesday looking over his shoulder. May was at work, which meant she wasn’t alone in their apartment, so he wasn’t so freaked out about her—it was Ned, the people at his school… He hadn’t spent a ton of time worrying about collateral damage, about people getting caught in his mess before.

It kind of sucked.

He met May at Blue’s Billiards room right after school. He was fairly sure she’d noticed he was stressed out that morning and had suggested it as a way to force him to take a break, and that was nice and all, but he spent the whole time they were eating fried pickles and shooting 8-ball looking over his shoulder and twitching whenever somebody walked behind him.

He was pretty sure May thought he was having some spider-sense-related episode.

 

When he finally made it to Mr. Stark’s workshop on Thursday afternoon, he fully embraced the drama of throwing himself face-down across the beat-up old couch in the corner and groaning from the depths of his soul.

“You have a test today or something?” Mr. Stark asked, walking around the workbench to poke him with a mannequin arm. (He’d been disassembling the setup for working on Col. Rhodes’s braces from Tuesday when Peter walked in.) “What’s your deal?”

“What’s my deal?” Peter asked, turning his head so he could glare at Mr. Stark. “My deal is you told me somebody probably tried to kill me, and then told me not to worry about it. Which is impossible because this stupid spidey-sense is basically hyper-focused anxiety that has been screaming at me for the past thirty hours—or however long—because I know nothing about this potential threat other than that it might possibly probably exist and it could be anything or anyone.”

“Wow,” Mr. Stark said, tossing the arm aside.

“Look at my arm, Mr. Stark,” Peter said, holding up his arm as exhibit A. “See all the hairs standing up? They’ve been doing that since Tuesday. Spidey-sense is on high alert, and it has no idea what for.”

“Jeez, Underoos,” Mr. Stark said. He shoved Peter’s legs off the sofa and sat down, waving at one of FRIDAY’s cameras as he did. A holographic display filled the air in front of them. “This is traffic camera footage from the night of the crash.”

The shapes were blocky, like FRIDAY had extrapolated things from low-resolution images. It was still clear enough what was happening—a Buick pulled up next to May’s car at a stoplight, just a driver with no passengers. The image shifted, and the same Buick was perpendicular to them at a different intersection. Then an image after the Buick had slammed into the passenger side of May’s car.

Peter felt a little bit sick, looking at it.

“Facial recognition of the driver came up empty,” Mr. Stark said, waving away the traffic camera images and waving for FRIDAY to display other results—a blurry picture of the man behind the wheel, pixelated from being zoomed in on the crappy image from the traffic camera, and a paper trail on the Buick’s license plate and the associated registration. “Car belongs to Nancy Fennlyson, deceased almost two years. FRIDAY tracked the Buick back to an impound lot, where it’s been since it was towed five days before Fennlyson’s death.”

“So he tracked us and deliberately crashed into us?” Peter asked. His chest was too tight.

“Yep,” Mr. Stark said, frowning at the display. “I tried to track him after the crash, but the car behind him—see, the one with no plates—took him down a couple back alleys. No clear imaging on the driver, even tracking back the footage. The car ended up under a bridge. Torched.”

“That’s… This is bad, right?” Peter asked. “This is, like, planning. Coordination.”

“The good news is that the minivan wasn’t involved,” Mr. Stark said, pointing to the minivan the Buick had pushed May’s car into. The one that had had its horn blaring through the whole thing, Peter remembered. “Dude was just pissed.”

“You thought the minivan was involved?”

“Driver reacted weird,” Mr. Stark said. “Turns out it’s just because he’d never been in an accident before and he freaked out, slammed on the brakes and laid on the horn.”

“So this was somebody trying to kill us?” Peter asked. “Kill me?”

“I’d like to say no,” Mr. Stark said. “But it looks a little bit like that was the goal.”

“Because of Spider-Man?”

“That’s what I haven’t been able to figure out,” Mr. Stark said. He gestured for FRIDAY to kill the hologram, then turned his body on the couch so he was facing Peter. Peter shifted to face him, too. “That is the answer I’ve been able to come up with that makes the most sense. And it’s why I approved the Instagram thing—it’s very public, it gets your face out there, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea at all until it became a way to protect you.”

“Protect me,” Peter repeated back flatly.

“Makes it clear Peter Parker has Iron Man and Stark Industries behind him whether he’s wearing the Spider-Man suit or not,” Mr. Stark said. “I know you heard me tell Rhodey that part already, though.”

“Right,” Peter said.

“Honestly, with all these unknowns, a little bit of celebrity works in our favor,” Mr. Stark said, it looked like it pained him to say it though. “More people paying attention to you means more people looking out for you if whoever did this gets another Buick out of impound.”

“Right,” Peter repeated.

“You... okay?” Mr. Stark asked after giving that a moment to sink in. “I get that that’s a lot.”

“It’s—Yeah, it’s a lot,” Peter said. He shrugged. “I think I’d rather know than not, though. You know? Like, that whole spidey-sense on high alert thing was unhelpful, but if I know what to look out for it can actually give me a heads-up. Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t really know how it works.”

“We should probably figure out a way to test it, help you figure it out,” Mr. Stark said. “Don’t need you jumping onto the ceiling next time you’re worried about something.”

You made me worry about it,” Peter said.

“You eavesdropped.”

“Enhanced hearing. Not my fault.”

“Still eavesdropping.”

Chapter Text

May used words like “attempted assassination” and it made things a lot more real. It was easier at SI–NY, where everything felt a little bit surreal anyway. Sitting in his living room while Mr. Stark installed security cameras and upgraded the locks was very real.

May hadn’t stopped yelling at him since he’d walked through the door.

“What do you want me to say, May?” Mr. Stark finally snapped, turning to look at her. He’d just finished installing a camera facing the door, recording to a local drive that would sync to FRIDAY’s servers as a backup every morning. “I have gone down every rabbit hole. I’ve got nothing. I’ve got shitty traffic camera footage of two dudes with no faces, and a car so burnt up I can’t even get anything out of it. That means it was planned. And you two stayed overnight when you hadn’t planned to, so how did they know to have the whole two vehicle setup ready?”

“Stark—” May started, but Mr. Stark just kept talking.

“I can’t fix this,” he said. “I don’t—I don’t have the tools. I don’t know who they are. I don’t know how they figured out who Peter is. I don’t know why the care who Peter is. I have done everything in my power to figure out who they are, and that includes a lot of sketchy fuckery I could literally be closed up in the Raft for. All I’ve got is this—”

Somebody tried to kill us,” May shouted over him. “Do you understand that?”

“Of course I—May. Stop. I know. I know.” Mr. Stark scrubbed his hands over his face. “This is literally the stuff of my nightmares.”

“He’s all I’ve got in this world, do you get that?” May asked, this time quiet rather than loud. And her voice was shaking. Peter could already feel his eyes getting hot—he always cried when she cried.

“What else do you want me to do?” Mr. Stark asked. His voice tight like it had been after the ferry. Before, Peter had thought it was anger, but now he knew it was fear.

“I don’t know,” May said, still quiet. “I just want him to be safe.”

“They didn’t come after me when I was out in the suit,” Peter said, hoping he didn’t make it worse. “They know I’m Spider-Man, but they didn’t come after me when I was out by myself. They set the whole thing up when we were in the car. That means something, right?”

May and Mr. Stark went quiet and stared at him, then May turned to look at Mr. Stark for an answer.

“Possibly,” Mr. Stark said after a long moment.

“So does that mean they don’t have a way to get to me when I’m not trying to keep the whole enhanced thing under the radar?” Peter asked. “I could dodge a bullet, but not a car?”

“Not funny, Peter,” May said tightly.

“Not joking, May,” Peter said. He shrugged when she gave him a warning look.

“I’ve pulled this thread all the way loose, kid,” Mr. Stark said. “There’s no way it lines up and makes sense.”

“Okay, so what can we do about it?” Peter asked. “What can we actually do?”

“Security upgrades,” Mr. Stark said, gesturing to his toolbox and the things he’d brought along with. “I mean, I’d love to lock you both down at the compound until I have real answers, but that’s not actually feasible.”

“Security upgrades,” Peter said, nodding. “Exactly. We keep an eye out. You have trackers in our phones and our watches.”

“It’s not as simple as that, Peter,” May said.

“I know. I know it’s not,” Peter said. “But what else do you want to do, May? Do you want to go upstate for some indefinite length of time? I have school. You have work.”

“Peter,” May said, holding a hand out toward him like she was telling him to wait.

Anger flared. He was the one the mystery Them were trying to kill, and she’d ended up hurt in the crash because of him.

“You have cancer, May. You have appointments and treatments; we can’t just pick up and—”

Peter,” May said more sharply. She took a deep breath and pressed her fingertips to the tip of her nose as she let it out. “I can’t do this right now.”

“May—” Peter started, the anger gone as quickly as it had come.

“I need a minute,” she said, and she crossed the room in a few quick steps, closed her bedroom door behind her.

Peter sat forward on the couch, putting his elbows on his knees and leaning forward so he could run his hands through his hair. The urge to cry was gone, but it had been replaced with the urge to punch something. That was unhelpful.

He took a deep breath, listening to May pace her bedroom doing her yoga breathing. He hated it.

“Is there something I could do to help figure out why this is happening?” Peter asked without looking up.

“If you’re asking if you can play bait, you can forget about it,” Mr. Stark said.

“You said you’ve tried everything else.” Peter looked up. He tried not to glare, but it was hard.

“We’re not having this conversation.”

“I don’t think Happy should pick me up anymore,” Peter said.

What?”

“For whatever reason, these people decided the best way to get to me was to crash a car into me. I should just stay out of cars,” Peter said. “I can ride the subway. And before you tell me it’s not safe, remember that whole spidey-sense thing. I can look out for myself.”

“Not happening,” Mr. Stark said.

“Why not? It makes sense,” Peter said, he stood up and started gesticulating. “May already got hurt because she was in the car with me. What if something happens to Happy? I don’t want anybody else getting hurt because of me, Mr. Stark.”

“And nobody wants you getting hurt, Pete!”

“I won’t.”

“And if you do?” Mr. Stark asked, glaring. “And if you do get hurt? That’s on me.”

“Not everything I do can be your fault,” Peter said, glaring right back. “In the suit, out of the suit. I didn’t show my work on most of my Calc quiz yesterday—is that somehow your fault, too?”

“We’re talking about your life, Peter. Not friggin’ quizzes.”

“Well then what do you want me to do, Mr. Stark?” Peter asked, throwing his hands up.

“I just want you safe."

 

Ned knew something was up even if he didn’t know what. After they finished their worksheets in Chemistry, they sat at the back doing “other quiet work” together, as usual. But instead of the usual greatest saves of the week-type videos, Ned queued up a long list of… uplifting Spider-Man shit.

Really, it was every embarrassing thing he’d ever been caught doing in the suit.

Long stretches of him dancing on rooftops. Times when he’d jumped off buildings to pet a cute dog. Playing soccer with a bunch of random elementary school kids. Pet rescues. Walking people home.

“Why are we watching these?” Peter asked when Ned clicked on a video that the title proclaimed to be four solid minutes of Spider-Man walking around at street level or riding in the subway. (In other words, a compilation of snippets from all the times he’d run out of web fluid across town from his backpack and the street clothes he’d left inside it.)

“You just seem kinda down,” Ned said. He shrugged and maintained eye contact when Peter tried to scoff. “Thought you might like to be reminded that people appreciate the random little things, too.”

“I’m not feeling unappreciated, Ned,” Peter said, sinking further down in his seat as the video played on the phone.

“You’re obviously feeling some type of way,” Ned said.

He wanted to tell Ned that somebody was trying to kill him, but he also really wanted to just… not. Ned didn’t need that kind of worry, especially because Ned couldn’t do anything about it.

“Thanks, Ned,” he said instead. Because he really did appreciate that he was trying.

“Guy in the chair,” Ned said, playing the video.

 

The one bright spot in the semi-lockdown of Mr. Stark and May’s agreed definition of “careful” was that he got to spend a lot of time at SI–NY.

It was sort of fantastic.

SI–NY had everything he needed. He had a corner in one of Mr. Stark’s labs where he could both mix his web fluid and compress it into the canisters for his shooters—that meant no more hiding labware in Chemistry, no more sneaking into the Shop classroom to use the air compressor after school hours. He could tinker and experiment and run simulations with FRIDAY’s processing power and expertise, cutting the planning stages of it all down by a large margin.

“I’ve put you down as assigned to ‘special projects,’ which in reality just means… whatever you want,” Mr. Stark had said when Peter asked what he was supposed to be doing. Then he’d laughed at Peter’s confusion. “I want to see what you can do. Free reign. No limits. Surprise me.”

At first, that had been intimidating. He’d always flourished with set expectations and goals; it was easy to do well when there was a simple list of things to complete. Free reign was… Well, it was a fairly foreign concept, and he wasn’t sure how, exactly, to prove he deserved Mr. Stark’s time without any sort of goals to accomplish to demonstrate.

He'd quickly gotten lost in it all, though. He’d forgotten to worry about whether he was meeting expectations as soon as he’d realized FRIDAY was more than happy (if an AI could be “happy”) to give him suggestions for tasks—she had access to all the project reports and systems queries for every project across the company, and she was perfectly willing to add him to meeting rosters or give him access to edit schematics or any number of other things, and she learned really quickly just how much background reading he liked to do on any given topic. (It was awesome; SI had an incredible research catalogue. Papers galore. He’d had plans to visit more discount book stores to find more old textbooks, but FRIDAY had almost seemed offended at the suggestion he track down hardcopy when she had everything he could possibly need—more often than not, SI either had their own research available, had already paid the fee to get access to the research, or was perfectly willing to approve paying the fee so Peter could read every snippet of data available. He wanted to climb on his soapbox about paywalls and academic research, but he was too busy absorbing new information.)

Twice, FRIDAY patched him into conference calls with projects out of Malibu and Chicago. He’d been too interested in the topics to be self-conscious about inserting himself on the calls.

Technically, he could’ve done most of it from home. And he did find himself scrolling through projects on his StarkPad at home on the couch while he and May watched TV. But he was avoiding home, because being there put a target on May. SI–NY was huge and not even most employees had full access to the whole place, so it was incredibly unlikely whoever was after him would be able to get to him in Mr. Stark’s lab.

Chapter Text

Not even a full week after Mr. Stark had installed the locks and the security camera, he stopped by again.

“What,” May said flatly, arms crossed, not even letting him in the door.

“May Parker,” Mr. Stark said, smiling like Pepper had given him permission to hack OsCorp. “Tell me all your secrets.”

“Excuse me?”

Mr. Stark held out a padded envelope like it should mean something to them and didn’t say anything else until May had taken the envelope and stepped aside so he could enter the apartment.

“Who’s Natalie Rushman?” May asked.

“SI employee. Former employee,” Mr. Stark said. “My personal assistant after Pepper took on CEO.”

“Wait,” Peter said. “Didn’t you say that the only personal assistant you had after Ms. Potts was Black Widow?”

“What?” May asked, glancing at him before she pushed on the edges of the envelope to open the top wide enough for her to peek inside.

“How do you even remember that?” Mr. Stark asked, but he at least seemed amused by it. “I barely mentioned it. More than a month ago.”

“I… remember things?” Peter said, raising his eyebrows. He wasn’t sure why he should be defending himself there. “I just do. It helps with the high school and the tests and the competitive memory contests I enjoy.”

“You are so weird,” Mr. Stark said. “We need to get this kid hobbies, May.”

“He has this one hobby that you spend lots of time and money enabling,” May said. “It’s great. Except for when him wanting to help people translates to somebody trying to kill him—”

Not him,” Mr. Stark said, that weird twinkle back in his eyes. He tapped on the envelope in May’s hands, encouraging her to take out the papers inside. “You.”

“What,” May said again, just as flatly as before.

“The reason I couldn’t find anything on whoever was trying to get Peter was because they weren’t,” Mr. Stark said. “There was, however, a hit on May Parker.”

“Somebody’s trying to kill May?” Peter asked, his guts going cold at the thought. He’d been spending as much time as he could away from her, trying to keep the danger away, and all that time he’d actually left her unprotected?

“Who would want to kill me?” May asked. “I’m nobody.”

“You’re not nobody,” Mr. Stark said. “But that is what I was going to ask you. Who would want to kill you?”

“Nobody. I don’t know,” May said, scowling at him. “I’m a pediatric nurse. I have no assets to speak of and a buttload of student debt.”

“I could—”

“If you’re about to offer to pay off my student loans I’m going to slap you in the face.”

“Right.”

“What am I looking at?” May asked, turning her attention down to the papers in her hands.

“Autopsy reports.”

You had Black Widow murder—”

“Jesus, May. No,” Mr. Stark said. “No murder!”

“Why am I looking at an autopsy report Black Widow gave you?” May asked.

“Nat has skills and access that I don’t,” Mr. Stark said.

“Wait, you asked Black Widow to look into the assassination thing?” Peter asked. May glared at him, probably for calling it an ‘assassination thing’ more than for interrupting her.

“I did not,” Mr. Stark said, but he nodded very deliberately as he said it. “That would be a violation of the Accords. I could end up on the Raft for something like that.”

“So entirely of her own free will, Black Widow looked into the guys who crashed a car into us?” Peter asked. It was the sort of thing he itched to tell Ned, and at the same time it was the sort of thing he never wanted Ned to find out about. He wasn’t ready for the shine of superhero-ing to wear off for Ned yet.

“Yeah. She’s good like that.” Mr. Stark smirked.

Why am I looking at autopsy results Black Widow gave you?” May asked again.

“She tracked it back,” Mr. Stark explained. “It was a two-man team, the driver who hit you and his getaway guy. Both of them are dead.”

“Just ‘conveniently’ dead?” May asked. Mr. Stark shot her a look before he continued explaining.

“Apparently the hit was posted in a skeevy chatroom—”

“As you do,” Peter muttered, but they both ignored him.

“—and the money was right so these two decided to go for it. Transcripts are in there. Whoever put the hit out provided the truck to hit you and the getaway car, plus a payout for completion,” Mr. Stark said, gesturing to the papers again as May flipped through. There were mugshots, transcripts of online conversations with certain bits highlighted. “Brandon Phillips, the guy driving the truck that crashed into you, died the day after. Internal bleeding from injuries during the crash that he didn’t get treated. Nat talked to the other guy, Will Sustacek, the getaway driver. He had screenshots of it all saved, which was good because the skeevy website had been scrubbed clean.”

“She talked to him?” May asked.

“Interrogated him.” Mr. Stark shrugged. “Potato potato.”

“How did she find him?”

“She’s very good at what she does,” Mr. Stark said.

“And you trust her to tell you the truth about this even though she’d an international fugitive because of a ‘disagreement’ she had with you?”

“More complicated than that,” Mr. Stark said. “And yes. I trust her with this.”

“But who would want to kill May?” Peter asked.

“You said she talked to this getaway driver and that she didn’t kill him,” May said, then held up one of the forms. “So why do I have an autopsy report for him?”

“Because he’s dead,” Mr. Stark said. May blew air out of her nose in an abbreviated sort of sigh that Peter had learned years ago meant that she was one more dumbass statement away from taking away internet privileges. (He had no idea what equivalent consequence that would be for Mr. Stark.) “Nat says it was a professional hit.”

“This makes no sense,” Peter said.

“Exactly. Nat is very good at what she does. Very thorough. She followed this up and down the line, which is why it took her so long to get back about it,” Mr. Stark said. “Somebody put a hit out on May, these two made an attempt, but as soon as they failed not only was the hit scrubbed from just about all electronic record but the guys involved were bumped off, too.”

“Can we not say ‘bumped off’ please?” May said.

“The good news is that nobody is trying to kill either of you any more. We know because Nat has contacts and she would pass any news on to me,” Mr. Stark said. “The bad news is that we still don’t know who put the hit out in the first place. So. May Parker. Tell me your secrets. Who would put a hit out on you?”

“I have no idea.”

Chapter Text

“We really need to figure out some sort of, like, code for this,” Ned said. It was barely a whisper because he was awesome like that.

Peter just groaned in response, and even that was too much. The sound of his own voice from inside his own head might just kill him.

He’d known it was going to be a bad day. He’d hit his head when he was out last night—not badly, Karen had kept track of his pupil sizes and asked him test questions and that had all been fine, but he’d had a big ol’ goose egg that had taken almost a full hour to smooth out—and that always tweaked his senses a bit. He’d been sensitive to light when he’d woken up, but it hadn’t been bad.

He'd also only managed to get about an hour of sleep, though, because he’d made it back to the apartment late and only then remembered that he had worksheets due in both Calc and Spanish. It was just busywork, easy stuff, but it ate up precious time he really could’ve used for sleeping.

And he’d skipped breakfast because he’d snagged that hour of sleep when his normal routine would’ve had him showering and eating. That was always a trigger, and he knew better, but… But.

He hadn’t even made it through his first class before his ears were ringing, his skull was pounding. His eyes just fucking ached. And everything smelled so bad. So, so bad.

Just. So many smells.

Lots of teenaged BO, lots of people trying to cover up all that BO with body sprays and perfumes and colognes and scented lotions.

And his first class of the day was right across from the main janitorial closet, which meant chemical cleaning smells.

It was just… bad.

“Red,” Peter said, realizing only as Ned guided him to a seated position that his friend had led him through the halls to one of the more out-of-the-way staircases. Compared to the classroom they’d come from, the stairwell was blessed silence. “Red across the board. Well. Not across the board. Touch isn’t playing up, but I’m sure I’ve just jinxed it.”

“Kay, I’m gonna keep holding onto you, then, okay?” Ned said, sitting down next to Peter and squeezing his hand. Peter squeezed back, gently as he could.

“Thanks, Ned,” Peter said.

“I’ve got you, man,” Ned said. He took his hand back and fished around in his backpack for something, eventually producing a pair of headphones. “Will these help?”

“Um…?”

“They’re noise-cancelling.”

“Worth a shot.”

Peter took the headphones, put them in his ears. His own headphones were also noise-cancelling, but they were in his backpack and he couldn’t actually remember where he’d left it.

Things were still loud with the headphones, but he couldn’t hear the ambient stuff so well. He could hear his own breathing, his own heartbeat. Same with Ned’s. He could hear that sounds were echoing in the stairwell, but it was random background noise rather than overbearing shouts from three floors up. When the bell rang, it was loud and uncomfortable, but not piercing or painful.

“Keeping with the stoplight theme,” Peter said, sitting forward so he could put his forehead against his knees. “I’m gonna update to green on touch, yellow on sight, yellow on hearing, red on smells. And I’ve got a headache.”

“You think you’d be okay if I try to get you to the nurse’s office?” Ned asked. “We can tell her you have a migraine. At the very least she’ll let you lay down for a bit. Maybe she’ll call May, let you go home.”

“May’s at work,” Peter said.

“Yeah. But she’ll come get you if you need her to,” Ned said. “And, dude, you need her to.”

“I don’t know where my backpack is,” Peter said.

“I’ve got it,” Ned said. Peter heard him kick something that did sound a lot like what his backpack sounded like when it was kicked. Peter didn’t want to open his eyes to look, though.

 

Thank God for Ned Leeds, Peter thought, hardly for the first time.

Ned had waited for the halls to clear, then half-dragged Peter to the nurse’s office. He’d listed off symptoms like he was reading them off WebMD—most of which Peter actually had, which was excellent for supporting the narrative—and sat there rubbing Peter’s back like some kind of dad while the nurse pulled out Peter’s file. And he’d shushed the nurse when she hadn’t kept her voice soft for Peter’s poor ears.

“You had better get on to class, Ned,” the nurse said after he’d shushed her. “I’ll write you a pass.”

“Thanks, Ned,” Peter said after Ned’s protests had failed.

“Text me later, dude,” Ned said, still whispering, then headed to class.

“Have you had migraines before, Peter?” the nurse asked. Her voice was quiet, but she was clicking through her computer files like the mouse had personally offended her.

“Once or twice,” Peter said.

She asked him more symptom questions, basically making him repeat everything that Ned had already told her. It made his head throb. By the end of it, after all the talking, he could see vague aura things around sources of light. The only good thing that came of it was that she left him be, turned off the lights and closed the curtain around the paper-covered bed thing, and went across the hall to have Mrs. Finch in the office call to have Peter picked up.

Mrs. Finch made a lot of calls. Peter drifted into a sort of half-sleep for a bit, listening to her and the nurse tsk back and forth about his various emergency contacts’ difficultness. Then he really did sleep, but not for long because the bell rang for the next class and Peter thought it might just kill him.

In the end, it was Ms. Potts that turned up.

“I’m so sorry,” he heard himself say as soon as he saw her. Hearing himself talk didn’t hurt anymore, or possibly the reverberating sound of the damn bell was still too fresh in his ears for anything to even compare. “It was supposed to be your day off.”

“Oh, honey,” Ms. Potts said, stroking his hair near his temple so exactly the way that Mr. Stark had done after the car accident that it made Peter wonder if Mr. Stark had picked up the gesture from her. “Let’s get you home, alright?”

Thank God for Pepper Potts, Peter added to his mental mantra.

Ms. Potts swapped out Ned’s headphones for wireless earbuds that played a very low static that was soothing like rain on a rooftop, blocking out whatever small amount of noise made it past the noise-cancelling built into the earbuds. Then she handed him a pair of sunglasses; normal, average, standard sunglasses—and they were wonderful.

Ms. Potts signed him out—Peter didn’t actually know when she’d been added to the list of people who could do that, but he wasn’t really that worried about it—and guided him out to a car with her hand gently resting between his shoulder blades.

She drove an Audi, which was not surprising because Mr. Stark drove a lot of Audis. What was surprising was that it wasn’t new or especially flashy. It was a convertible, but the top was up. It was silver, the convertible roof part black.

Slightly more alarming to realize was that Peter had spent enough time with Mr. Stark to know that it was a 2002 Audi TT. No crazy modifications—no souped up speaker system, no conversion to run off an arc reactor—just a regular rich people sort of car.

“You doing okay?” Ms. Potts asked after they were both in the car. “Anything you need right now? Is the a/c okay?”

“I’m okay,” Peter said, letting his head fall back against the seat and keeping his eyes closed even though the sunglasses had been helpful. “Thank you for coming to get me.”

“Anytime,” Ms. Potts said, putting the car in drive and pulling away from the school. “Glad I could help.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt your day off,” Peter said. “I know you don’t get a lot of those.”

“I don’t take a lot of days off,” Ms. Potts corrected gently, “because I hate taking time off. All I do is sit around and think about all the stuff I could be getting done. So thank you for giving me something useful to do today.”

Peter snorted.

“I’m sorry you feel so crummy, though,” she added.

“It’s got to balance out somehow, right?” Peter said, shrugging. “Superpowers via genetic experimentation, keyword experimentation.”

“Do you want me to call Dr. Costa?” Ms. Potts asked, sounding way more concerned than she had a moment ago.

“No. No. I swear I’m good, I’ll be good. Sorry,” Peter said, eyes flying open as he hurried to reassure her. That ache behind his eyeballs started up again. “I just skipped breakfast, and that always makes my senses a little, y’know, wonky.”

“That I can help with,” Ms. Potts said, turning off and pulling into a Starbucks drive-through. She ordered him two breakfast sandwiches, one of the cold tea mixer drinks with lemonade, and a caramel macchiato for herself.

“Thank you, Ms. Potts,” Peter said. Even just two bites into the first breakfast sandwich he felt so much better.

“You are very welcome,” she said, pulling out into traffic again. “And you can call me Pepper, you know.”

“Thank you, Pepper,” he said. She beamed at him.

Twenty minutes later, they were at the apartment. Pepper had set him up on the couch with a cool damp cloth across his eyes, turned off all the lights, taken out the trash, moved May’s scented candles to May’s room and closed the door.

“You’ve dealt with migraines before, huh,” Peter said. She’d locked the place down so quickly, taken care of all possibly-triggering stimuli, there was no way this was her first rodeo.

“Tony gets them sometimes,” Pepper said. She’d hesitated just a moment before moving him just a bit, settling with a pillow on her lap and his head on the pillow, her hand stroking his hair again. “When he overextends.”

“Thank you for helping me,” Peter said after a bit, not knowing what to say about Mr. Stark getting migraines.

 

Peter fell asleep on the couch, and when he woke he felt almost normal. Something smelled delicious in the kitchen. The lights were dim and indirect. Somebody had tucked one of the throw blankets around him. He could hear May and Happy chatting quietly in the kitchen, a quiet laugh from Pepper.

Peter was starving.

“Hey, baby, how are you feeling?” May asked the moment she saw him in the doorway to the kitchen.

“Better,” Peter said. “So much better.”

“Good,” May said, folding him into a tight hug, kissing his temple as she let him go. “Hungry?”

“Very,” Peter said. “Smells good.”

“Happy’s cooking,” May said.

“Deep dish,” Happy said, looking Peter once up and down with that security guard look on his face before turning back to slicing the pizza, apparently satisfied with whatever he’d seen.

“You made deep dish pizza from scratch?” Peter asked.

“Rule of thumb,” Mr. Stark said, walking into the kitchen from elsewhere in the apartment, “never doubt Happy’s skill in the kitchen. Happy’s got kitchen game.”

“Hey, Mr. Stark,” Peter said.

“Hey, kid,” Mr. Stark said, chuffing him on the shoulder before leaned against the counter next to Pepper. “Feeling better?”

“So much better,” Peter said, nodding. “Pepper took really good care of me.”

“She’s good like that,” Mr. Stark said, smiling, bumping his shoulder against Pepper’s.

“Alright, quit standing around my kitchen. Food’s on. Eat,” Happy said, holding out a plate to Peter. It had a giant piece of pizza on it. There was oozing, melty cheese.

Thank you,” Peter said, eagerly grabbing the plate and taking a huge bite as he followed Happy’s instruction to get out of the kitchen. “Oh my God, Happy. This is so good.”

“Never doubt,” Mr. Stark repeated.

They ate dinner. The food was good, and the company was good, and it was almost like those evenings before Ben died when it was just their little family on a random weeknight hanging out together.

After dinner, Peter volunteered himself for dishes and was only a little bit surprised when Mr. Stark took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and helped.

“That happen often?” Mr. Stark asked after they were alone in the kitchen, the others sitting in the living room debating what movie they wanted to watch.

“Not really,” Peter said, not bothering to try to deflect.

“Often enough you don’t seem especially surprised that it happened,” Mr. Stark pressed.

“I was… kinda dumb,” Peter said, glad he didn’t have to make eye contact. “My senses tend to go overboard if I don’t get enough sleep or if I don’t eat or if I get hit in the head, and it’s worse in combination, so usually I just… make sure to sleep and eat and try not to get hit in the head.”

“Words to live by, right there,” Mr. Stark said. Peter snorted.

“Yeah. Except yesterday I got hit in the head, and then I stayed up too late, and then I was running late this morning so I skipped breakfast.”

“You got hit in the head?”

“Not hard,” Peter said, rubbing at the spot where the goose egg had been. “Karen kept an eye on it. Not even slightly concussed, promise.”

“You should’ve had May call you in,” Mr. Stark said. “Or texted me so I could call you in—I’m allowed to do that now, you know.”

“I know,” Peter said.

“You gotta take care of yourself, Pete,” Mr. Stark said.

“I know,” Peter repeated.

They worked in silence, finishing up the dishes pretty quickly.

“I’m sorry it was such a SNAFU getting you out of school this morning,” Mr. Stark said once they’d finished everything up. Peter had expected him to head for the living room—they’d decided on The Princess Bride—but instead he was just standing there by the sink looking all awkward and earnest.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Peter said. “You’re right, I should’ve had May call me in. It was dumb.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Mr. Stark said, waving a hand between them. “I’m saying there’s got to be a better way to make this work. Your school had to make so many calls before we figured anything out.”

Peter just shrugged, not sure what to say, but Mr. Stark wasn’t paying attention. He had his phone out, tapping away, frowning. Then he nodded.

“K, gimme your phone,” Mr. Stark said, putting his own phone in his pocket and holding out a hand.

“My phone?”

“Yes. That near-bulletproof thing I made you that you keep breaking anyway,” Mr. Stark said, flexing his fingers in a ‘gimme’ gesture.

“Why?” Peter asked, but handed the phone over anyway.

“I’m introducing you to PASCAL,” Mr. Stark said. “This could be so much easier.”

“Who’s PASCAL?” Peter asked, leaning forward to try to see what Mr. Stark was up to. He appeared to be logging into the admin IT settings on the phone to update permissions.

“Pepper’s Awesome Scary Calendar Application’s Linkup. PASCAL,” Mr. Stark said, finishing what he was doing with a flourish and handing the phone back. “Not quite a full-fledged AI, but almost. It started off as a calendar function when Pepper was my PA; she loves color-coded spreadsheets and all sorts of weird stuff, so it pretty quickly grew into this absolutely terrifying calendar of doom situation. JARVIS, my AI before FRIDAY, expanded the calendar functionality after Pepper wasn’t my PA anymore and the replacement I hired turned out to be a plant from SHIELD.”

“So it’s… some sort of shared calendar?” Peter asked, scrolling through the visual interface.

“Basically, that’s exactly what he is,” Mr. Stark said with a shrug. “Completely voice-enabled, so you can ask him about whatever’s on the calendar or ask him to add things or ask him to send notes or questions to other people on the calendar. And he’s all kinds of secure and encrypted, which is important as a safety feature, so if one of us gets our phone stolen by a dipshit classmate, the whole school doesn’t know that all the active Avengers will be in a conference room on the west side of the compound at two o’clock next Tuesday.”

“I’m feeling so attacked right now,” Peter said, mostly out of habit. He was too interested in scrolling through the calendar.

It was… everything. And, as promised, it was color-coded for each person included. Mr. Stark was Iron Man red. Ms. Potts was violet. Happy was slate gray. Col. Rhodes was navy blue. Peter was the same light-ish blue as in his Spider-Man suit. May was forest green, and apparently she and Pepper met for coffee every Wednesday morning at ten o’clock. Huh.

It really was everything, too. Mr. Stark had Peter’s school schedule in there. Meetings, conference calls, project deadlines, homework assignment due dates, birthdays, anniversaries. Mr. Stark and Pepper had date nights. Col. Rhodes’s physical therapy schedule. Doctor and dentist appointments.

“PASCAL will tweak the interface however you want it. And if there’s anything you need to put in your schedule but don’t want shared across the group, just tell him,” Mr. Stark said, pointing out the functionality menus.

“This is brilliant,” Peter said. He’d already scrolled through into April; it was freaking artful.

“I’m nervous about having you shadow Pepper,” Mr. Stark said flatly, but his eyes were dancing with humor. “You’re going to come back to the workshop and bring spreadsheets with you.”

“You want me to shadow Pepper?”

“Of course you’re going to shadow her,” Mr. Stark said. “Probably over the summer. Maybe. Don’t know yet. It’ll depend on schedules.”

“Awesome,” Peter said.

“Back to this and how it pertains to you and school,” Mr. Stark said, waving off the internship talk and pointing to the shared calendar. “We’re all… busy. My schedule’s a mess. Rhodey’s active military. Happy and May’s work hours are packed. Pepper spends maybe five months out of the year actually in the city. It’s not your average family calendar, but it lets us make sure we know when to check on each other. And, more importantly, it will let you see who’s available if you need something.”

“Thank you,” Peter said, beaming maybe just a little bit too earnestly for either of them to feel comfortable about it.

“Just trying to make life a little easier, kid.”

“What do these icons mean?” Peter asked, half for a change of subject and half because he really was curious.

“Transportation,” Mr. Stark said. “PASCAL can get you whatever sort of ride you need, and he’s got subroutines for security.”

“Security?”

“Mostly that’s for Pepper. PASCAL makes sure she’s got somebody looking out for her. May, too, these days when she allows it,” Mr. Stark said. “He also keeps track of which cars are due for oil changes or need gas or something, since Rhodey knows where all the garages are and has been known to go joy-riding.”

“Joy-riding?” Peter couldn’t actually imagine Col. Rhodes whipping down the highway just for the hell of it. He was a pilot, so it made sense he liked going fast or whatever, but he just seemed… to mature for it. Or something.

“Don’t get any ideas,” Mr. Stark said. Peter smiled.

“Is it really important for everybody to know I have a Calc quiz next week?” Peter asked. He’d flipped the interface back to the current month and noticed lots of random things in his shade of blue. “And how do you know I have a Calc quiz next week?”

“Yes. Everybody can remind you to study,” Mr. Stark said. He had a shit-eating grin on his face.

“I don’t need to study for Calc.” Peter rolled his eyes.

Chapter Text

“Boss wants you in the gym, Kid,” FRIDAY said. “And he says there’s an audience.”

“Um. Sure. Okay.”

May was working all weekend, and she’d insisted Peter go with Mr. Stark to the compound. It was the first weekend he’d stay over since the crash. It was sort of unreal—he’d finished his homework on the drive upstate, then tinkered in the workshop with Mr. Stark until he’d literally fallen asleep standing up and Mr. Stark had sent him to bed. Peter wasn’t sure if Mr. Stark had even gone to sleep.

They’d been working on nanotech. Well, Mr. Stark had been working on it and Peter had just been trying to keep up. It had been great.

Peter went to his room and changed into loose sweatpants and an old Stark Industries t-shirt, then grabbed his bag of safety gear and headed for the gym.

The compound was quiet on the weekends. There were always people around, but they were usually tasked with monitoring something or other so unless they happened to be zombie-ing for coffee (second floor break room had the best brew for inexplicable reasons; every break room had the same grounds and machine) Peter rarely saw anybody. Today, though, there really was an audience in the gym. At least a dozen people gathered with clearly no intention to use any equipment.

Mr. Stark had the padded end of the room usually reserved for sparring blocked off with caution tape, and he’d set up extra mats along the walls. He was in the same jeans and t-shirt from the night before, and he seemed to have lost his shoes at some point (his socks matched each other, though, so at least there was that). He had the bulky charge chambers for the nanites set up on a table made of stacked mats, the laptop he’d been doing the programming on propped up next to them, and appeared to be running simulations on the StarkPad in his hand while he waited.

“Hey, Mr. Stark,” Peter said. He waved when Mr. Stark looked up, then smiled as cheerfully as he could at their audience. He figured it was best to just pretend he couldn’t hear the hushed conversations from around the room… most of them seemed to be convinced Mr. Stark was about to kill his intern. “FRIDAY said bring a helmet?”

“Peter. Yes. Good. Perfect,” Mr. Stark said. He set aside the StarkPad and stepped forward to hold up the caution tape for Peter to step under. “May signed all those waivers, right?”

“Yeah,” Peter said, because she had. She’d had no idea she’d been okaying playing human test subject when she agreed not to prosecute Stark Industries in the event Peter was hurt on company time, but it was probably way past too late to bring that up.

“Great. Helmet on. Stand there.” Mr. Stark pointed over to the center of the padded area.

Peter had brought the full safety getup Mr. Stark had put together. It had been sort of a joke, but this wasn’t actually the first time he’d worn it.

Helmet. Mouthguard. Elbow pads. Wrist guards. Knee pads. All of it black and a little bit bulky-looking so he looked kind of like a kid off to the skate park when he wore it all.

Their audience was taking bets about broken bones and lawsuits. Peter continued ignoring them.

“Okay. DUM-E is recording for science,” Mr. Stark said, indicating the robot parked in the corner. Its claw arm did indeed hold a far-from-top-of-the-line camcorder, the red recording light lit up. “This is nanite gauntlet 2.0 firing test 112. Five percent charge.”

112?” Peter asked even as he bent his knees a little to prepare for impact. “Did you sleep at all, Mr. Stark?”

Mr. Stark didn’t even answer, just tapped a few keys on his laptop and held out a hand for the nanites. They streamed out of one of the containment units, forming an Iron Man gauntlet in seconds. Mr. Stark nodded, smiling and showing the formed gauntlet and the glowing repulsor in the palm to the camcorder.

“Brace,” he told Peter, and without further ado he fired the repulsor.

 

It was a remarkably relaxing way to spend the majority of the morning. None of the blasts set off his spidey-sense, which was interesting; he wasn’t sure if the indicated how much he trusted Mr. Stark, or if it meant the sense could tell the low-charge blasts wouldn’t hurt him.

He fell over, he got back up. The audience oohed and cheered, laughed when he forgot to pretend to be normal and rolled into the impact.

“How you doing, Pete?” Mr. Stark asked after firing test 140. He’d tweaked a few things in the nanite gauntlet’s design, trying to maximize efficiency without losing any of the kick, but otherwise the design seemed solid. Or at least it did from the mat.

“I’m good,” Peter said, popping up to his feet again.

“Any pain, rushing fluids, crooked limbs?” Mr. Stark asked.

“I mean, I could go for a snack, but—”

Mr. Stark rolled his eyes and blasted him again. He hadn’t braced for it, so he tumbled ass-over-ears and rolled twice before bouncing up again.

“Gotta say, Mr. Stark. I think it works.”

Mr. Stark laughed and tapped a few things on the laptop, presumably a command because the nanite gauntlet folded away from his hand and flowed back into the charge chambers.

“Okay, show’s over,” Mr. Stark said, clapping his hands once and rubbing his palms together before he made a ‘shoo’ gesture at their audience. “Back to work.”

Peter followed Mr. Stark’s instructions, picking up the charge chambers and trailing behind him as he led the way back to the Avengers' common area. While Peter was busy pulling off the safety gear, Mr. Stark sliced cheese and salami and put it on a plate with a bunch of crackers and grapes.

“A snack for the teenager,” Mr. Stark said, gesturing to the plate when Peter looked over. Mr. Stark appeared entirely immersed in whatever it was he was doing on the StarkPad, but Peter smiled anyway.

“Thanks, Mr. Stark.”

“No, thank you,” Mr. Stark said, still not looking up. “You just saved me several hours of number-crunching by being a human test dummy.”

“It was fun.”

“I think I’ll have FRIDAY make me a highlight reel for the next time you’re annoying,” Mr. Stark said. “You falling over again and again will lift my mood, I’m sure.”

Peter snorted.

“She’s putting together a clip for your Instagram thing, too,” Mr. Stark added. “Take a picture of your snack to add to it so people know I’m not mistreating you.”

Peter laughed and did as he was told, taking a selfie with his plate of snack food (and the juice box he’d grabbed out of the back of the fridge, because it was funny). FRIDAY spliced together a 30-second clip for @Peter_the_Intern, including the bits about May signing all the waivers and Peter wanting a snack on either end of many, many blasts from the nanite repulsor.

 

Happy drove him back to Queens on Sunday night. It was snowing just a little bit. Very picturesque.

He’d texted May regularly all weekend. Sent random pictures, selfies, memes. He’d done his best not to feel guilty about having a really good time.

She hadn’t responded much. The odd smiley emoji or a thumbs-up, and once a box of takeout from that Korean spot she liked. He got the impression that she’d been glad to have a little bit of time to herself. The biopsy had confirmed the cancer diagnosis, and she’d been refusing to give him specifics (probably so he didn’t fall down a WebMD rabbit-hole, really), insisting they carry on as normal.

“Happy, can I ask you a weird question?” Peter asked as they were pulling up in front of his building. He’d been thinking about it almost the whole drive but he hadn’t realized he planned to ask until the words came out of his mouth.

“Shoot,” Happy said, and that really said a lot about how far their relationship had come in the last year.

“Did Mr. Stark give us a dishwasher?”

“You didn’t have a dishwasher before?”

“No.”

“And you’ve got one now?”

“Yeah.”

“He probably did, yeah,” Happy said, then sighed. “Let me park, okay? I’ll walk you up.”

“You don’t have to—”

“I should probably explain to May about the dishwasher.”

“What?”

“It comes with its own maintenance plan.”

“A maintenance plan?”

“Elevator. Now. Let’s go.”

Peter trailed along after Happy to the elevator, then down the hall to the door. He started fishing his keys out of his packet, but it turned out Happy had a key of his own.

“Hey, May,” Peter called into the apartment, trying not to give Happy a weird look about the key. “I’m back. Happy’s with me.”

“Oh. Hi. Hey, Happy.” May smiled and gave Peter a one-armed hug. “What’s going on?”

“Something about the dishwasher,” Peter said.

“Yeah. The dishwasher,” May said, letting Peter duck out from under her arm to put his backpack on the couch. “Is that from Tony? I definitely didn’t buy it, and if it’s the super trying to come up with another reason to up the rent I’m gonna—”

“Yeah, no, it was Tony,” Happy said.

“He said it comes with a maintenance plan,” Peter said, rejoining them. Happy sighed.

“A maintenance plan?” May asked.

“You didn’t hear this from me, right?” Happy said, looking like it physically pained him to explain it out loud. “It’s Tony’s love language.”

“What?” May asked flatly.

“He’s got money. He’s always had money. He has more money than he knows what to do with,” Happy said, sticking his hands in his pockets and then taking them out again, gesturing helplessly. “But he knows throwing money at people isn’t usually well-received, so, those of us who get to call him a friend tend to end up with random useful weird gifts.”

“Like a dishwasher,” May said.

“Right,” Happy said, sticking his hands in his pockets again. “He sees a need—or sometimes he imagines a need—and he fills it.”

“And the maintenance plan?” Peter asked, because he was used to the off-the-wall gifts from Mr. Stark; it was the maintenance thing that seemed weird.

“Tinkering helps him think. Usually that’s in his workshop, making new Iron Mans or working on tech or something, but sometimes he needs to get out of the workshop. So he tinkers, he fixes major appliances, small appliances, cars. Pepper won’t let him touch anything that isn’t actively leaking or sparking, and Rhodey lives too far away. He’s tweaked and fixed and upgraded everything at my place beyond reason, and now you’ve joined the club,” Happy said. “So he’s your maintenance plan. If it breaks, call him. But also don’t be surprised if he just shows up sometimes to take things apart while he talks to himself about some other problem his brain is chewing on.”

“Oh,” May said.

“And don’t be surprised if he chips you.”

“Chips?”

“Oh, he already did that,” Peter said.

“He chipped you?” May turned to him and raised her eyebrows. “Like, he feeds you potato chips?”

“Microchips,” Peter said, tapping the insides of his forearms.

“I feel like he should’ve asked me about that first.” May frowned.

“You signed off on it,” Peter said. “It was in the internship stuff.”

“Sneaky.”

“He put you in the suit yet?” Happy asked.

“Twice.” Peter rolled his eyes with his whole body. “It was horrible.”

“What? Horrible?” May asked, eyebrows up again. “Why aren’t you pumped? The Iron Man suit!”

“Vertigo. Crazy insane vertigo,” Peter said. “I puked.”

“You puked?” Happy asked, incredulous.

“I puked in the suit, Aunt May,” Peter said. “There’s nowhere for puke to go in the helmet. It was so disgusting. And then, the second time, I was supposed to fly it—and I sort of did—but then I crashed into the ceiling, and then a wall, and then FRIDAY let me out, and then I puked.”

“Did you tell Ned?”

“No. Do not tell Ned, Aunt May.”

May laughed, and Peter deliberately ignored that he could hear the way it made Happy’s heart speed up just a little bit.

Chapter Text

Peter landed on the fire escape and winced. Karen reported bruising, multiple lacerations.

The works, really.

It had been a long night. It was all he could do to crawl through his window and flop across the lower bunk of his bed.

“Hey, Karen?” Peter said after a moment. He was so stupidly sore.

“Hello, Peter.”

“Hi. Um. Can you tell May I’m home?” he asked. “Just, like, send her a text?”

“Of course, Peter.”

Not quite a minute later, May knocked once on the bedroom door before letting herself in.

“Hey, Pete,” she said. She had the industrial-size first aid kit.

“I love you, May,” he said, not quite ready to move yet. “You are my favorite adult.”

“Thanks, baby,” she said. He could hear that she wanted to laugh, but he didn’t have the energy to call her out on it.

Peter groaned and pulled off the mask so he could give her a properly scathing look, but she was unfazed. He gave her a quick rundown of what Karen had told him. She cleaned him up—it stung—and cooed over his bruises. She debated between stitches and butterfly bandages for his shoulder, but ultimately decided stitches wouldn’t be necessary.

“What did you even cut this on?” May asked, taking care of his knee.

“Honestly, I don’t even know,” Peter said.

“You should pay better attention,” May said. “You could end up with tetanus.”

Chapter Text

The morning had started off with real, actual work. Mr. Stark had been showing him the latest developments with the nanites, but then they’d branched off into the programming necessary to make it all work together, the protocols and subroutines and backups, integrations and redundancies, command codes and command gestures and linked processes and cascading functions.

Peter really wanted to read a book on it, a research paper, just anything to give him a little bit of background. But of course Mr. Stark was a solid decade ahead of anybody else, and publishing a paper would mean they might catch up to him—or, really, taking the time to write a paper would mean losing time he could’ve spent tinkering with the nanites.

Mr. Stark was a ridiculously good teacher, though. Peter would never had expected it before he’d spent so many hours sitting at Mr. Stark’s elbow, watching and listening. He answered every single question without making Peter feel stupid. He actually seemed to be excited about the questions a lot of the time, which Peter figured meant he was asking the right sort of questions.

They’d gotten off track at some point, though. When Dr. Costa turned up to go over Peter’s latest bloodwork and lab results and all that, they were probably a little too invested in a discussion about nuts in desserts. (Peter didn’t understand why perfectly good brownies had to be ruined by surprise walnuts; Mr. Stark said the ideal brownie was just a chocolatey vehicle for any variety of chopped nuts.)

“Andy. Tie-breaker,” Mr. Stark said, turning to the doctor after he’d waved for FRIDAY to let Dr. Costa into the workshop. “Nuts in desserts, yea or nay?”

“Couldn’t say on that one,” Dr. Costa said, quirking a smile. “I’m allergic.”

“That means ‘no,’” Peter said. “No nuts in brownies.”

“Doesn’t count,” Mr. Stark said. “He’s unable to cast a vote for medical reasons.”

I think ‘allergic’ should actually count as doubly a reason not to put nuts in desserts,” Peter said as primly as he could manage without making himself laugh.

Mr. Stark threw a screwdriver at him. (Peter caught it.)

“I have a meal plan I want you to try out for the next month,” Dr. Costa said, cutting off any further discussion on the topic. “There’s lots of options, lots of variety. And the cafeteria mixed up two more flavors for you, so you’ve got five protein bar flavors to choose from. And I compounded a new mix for your vitamins so it’s just one pill. It’s a big pill, so let me know if you want me to make them smaller. One every morning with breakfast—make sure you have it with food. And I want to see you drinking lots of water.”

“Right,” Peter said, taking the food journal to page through it a bit.

Dr. Costa opened the box he’d brought with, taking out a few pill bottles with labels declaring them vitamin supplements, loose protein bars in silver packaging so they looked like MREs or something.

“And if you get injured, I want you to double up on the protein,” he said. “Red meat seems to be the most helpful, but anything will do. Lots of leafy green vegetables, too.”

“Lots of leafy green vegetables in general,” Mr. Stark said. He took the food journal from Peter, flipping through it quickly. It looked idle, but Peter knew Mr. Stark was committing the thing to memory; there would be no getting out of the proper caloric intake.

“I know it’s a pain, but keep track of sleep and activity levels through this first month and then we’ll evaluate at the new year,” Dr. Costa said. “If it feels like all you’re doing is eating, we can look at trying out some variation of protein powders you can add into smoothies, drink mixes. There’s even some interesting research on growing meat substitutes that we could use to make some souped-up jerky that could do you some good.”

“Cool,” Peter said, because it was. He made a mental note to track down the research later.

 

Peter didn’t use the food journal. Not because he didn’t track his meals and activity and sleep and all that, but because Mr. Stark was way too invested to let him track it all in something he couldn’t have a look at whenever the whim struck.

It probably should’ve been creepy. The way the implants in his arms should’ve been creepy, the tracker in his watch, the Baby Monitor Protocol, all that.

Mostly it was just really convenient, because Mr. Stark had thrown together a protocol for FRIDAY so she made observations from his watch on food intake, activity levels, energy levels. She could even measure his blood glucose levels. All of the data went to a spreadsheet that Mr. Stark and May and Dr. Costa all had access to, and Peter really only had to add the subjective data like quality of sleep.

 

Then it was the break for Thanksgiving, and everything was a little bit off. MJ was at her dad’s, so she texted constantly and sullenly. Ned had gone to his grandma’s in Rochester, so he was basically incommunicado. Mr. Stark and Pepper had gone to Minnesota to visit Pepper’s family, which was just weird because Iron Man had in-laws.

Happy spent Thanksgiving Day with Peter and Aunt May. They volunteered at the soup kitchen like they had every year as far back as Peter could remember, then picked up takeout on their way home. Happy seemed to have a good time, though he also seemed a little bit appalled that there was no turkey or mashed potatoes or anything.

Peter learned that Happy was divorced, on good terms with his ex even though he rarely saw her since she lived in Sacramento.

Peter was also pretty sure that Happy and May had a thing. There was definite flirtation. It was delightful in a weird sort of way, since it was nice to see May blushing and smiling even though it made him miss Uncle Ben even more than being without him for another holiday always did.

Chapter Text

“How about we call it a night?” Peter asked, picking a rooftop and random and letting himself flop.

It had been… a night.

“You want me to call you a cab?” Ned asked, barely containing his laughter.

“Shut up,” Peter said, but he was too tired to put any venom into it.

He had been out doing the Spider-Man thing for exactly an hour. The first half of that had been random swinging around looking for somebody to help—the police scanners and the crime alert pages Ned tracked had all been quiet—and the last half had been one single very long… incident.

“Didn’t you ever take karate or anything when you were a kid?” Ned asked. The comms went too quiet after he’d asked the question, meaning he’d muted his line so he could laugh.

“I had debilitating asthma when I was a kid, Ned,” Peter said.

The line stayed muted, so Peter figured the laughter continued.

“Karen, disconnect Ned,” Peter said.

“Hey—!” 

“Guy in the Chair is off comms,” Karen reported.

“How’s the trip home looking?” he asked. He really didn’t want to get up, let alone swing across town. But it was December and so it was cold, and the suit’s heater was having issues keeping up with the changes in temperature following the vigorous exercise of that whole altercation followed by laying on a rooftop not moving. His nose was frozen but his toes were sweating; it was unpleasant.

“I’m afraid all of East Flushing is facing a serious swing-congestion issue, Peter. And we’re looking at web-to-web traffic after somebody’s webshooter stalled on Booth Memorial Avenue,” Karen said, a new, sarcastic, flippant, tone to her voice that Peter hadn’t heard before. She sounded a lot more like FRIDAY, actually. But no accent. “Our eye in the sky suggests the best route is to get down to street level and take a ride on the Long Island Expressway. And today’s weather report is brought to you by Stark Industries: Consulting in the Future. It’s cold. And in the future, it’s going to be cold too. It’s December. And it’s New York.”

“FRIDAY?” Peter asked, sitting up on his elbows, wondering if he should laugh or be worried. “Did you hack Karen?”

“I did not,” FRIDAY said mildly, though she sounded amused by her own cheek. Or at least amused by the cheek Mr. Stark had put her up to.

“Is the eye in the sky Mr. Stark in a suit and I just can’t hear him yet?” Peter asked, looking up.

“It is not,” FRIDAY said. “That was a joke.”

“You’re doing jokes now?”

“I am,” FRIDAY confirmed. “I am also doing sass. And I have a new subroutine for comebacks.”

“Does Mr. Stark ever even sleep?” Peter asked.

“He does,” FRIDAY said. Then there was a pause while Peter walked around the edges of the rooftop until he spotted the car with STARK on the license plate headed his way. Then FRIDAY added, “That was also a joke. I am aware your statement was rhetorical.”

Peter laughed, walking over the edge of the building and down the side, doing a little flip back upright when he reached ground level.

“It was a good one, FRI,” he said.

“Thank you.”

Still chuckling, Peter opened the back door on the car, expecting to see Happy behind the wheel, but there was nobody in the car.

“Uh. What?” 

“I will be driving tonight,” FRIDAY informed him from the car’s speakers. She turned up the heat by a few degrees, picked up his workshop playlist where he’d left off the last time he was at SI–NY, and flashed the seatbelt alert light at him. “Please fasten your seatbelt.”

Peter did as he was told, then let himself slump a bit in the seat. The windows were tinted, so he took off the mask and let himself bask in the warmth of the car.

“So, not that I don’t appreciate the ride, but what’s the occasion?” Peter asked eventually.

“The group chat was concerned,” FRIDAY said.

“The what?”

“The group chat.”

“What group chat?”

“Boss, Pepper, Aunt Hottie and Walter Sobchak.”

“Walter who?”

“The current designation for H. Hogan, Asset Manager.”

“What? Why?”

“Because Boss told me to change his designation.”

“What was his designation before?” Peter asked.

“Most recently, Sneezy,” FRIDAY said. “Before that, it was Barold.”

“No, we’re getting off topic—wait, Barold?” Peter snorted. “Don’t distract me. There’s a group chat?”

“We’ve arrived,” FRIDAY said instead of answering his question, doing an eerie imitation of the GoogleMaps voice.

He felt like he should have a conversation with Mr. Stark about the inevitable AI uprising just for his own peace of mind, but he wasn’t sure where that conversation could take place without FRIDAY overhearing it.

“Thanks for the ride, FRI,” he said, pulling his mask back into place.

“Have a good night, Kid,” she said.

She’d dropped him off a block away from his apartment; it was the closest spot to perfect for getting up off the street out of sight and making his way to his bedroom window without getting spotted by pedestrians or security cameras or anything.

If the AI uprising was going to happen, at least their leader seemed to like him.

“Hey, May,” he called once he’d changed into sweats. There was definitely a shower in his future, but snacks came first. “FRIDAY said something about a group—”

He stopped when he made it to the living room, gaping. May was on the couch with a bowl of popcorn, but she hadn’t eaten any of it. She’d turned to look at him over the back of the couch when he’d entered the room, and paused on the screen behind her was… him.

“What?” Peter asked dumbly.

“Did you know there are multiple fan sites devoted to getting as much footage of Spider-Man in action as possible?” May asked. The steely look in her eye meant the question was rhetorical, so Peter just chewed on his lips to keep himself from saying something. “And did you know that Tony has access to the footage from your suit?”

“Um—” Peter started, but May held up a finger.

“No. No. I’m not done,” she said. She pointed at the screen behind her. It was playing what had to be the Baby Monitor Protocol footage from the debacle from earlier in the evening. “This is unacceptable. They have knives, Peter.”

“They’re criminals, May,” he said. He felt like the knives shouldn’t be a surprise.

“Peter, honey, I love you, but you’re horrible at fighting,” she said. She stood up to walk around the couch and give him a hug.

“I’m Spider-Man,” he said, hating that it came out a little bit whiney. It made May laugh, though. “I fight crime and stuff. Like. Every night.”

“Peter. Honey.” May put her hands on his cheeks and gave him a look like she had in middle school when she’d told him she loved him but he had to stop doing finger guns so often. “You are quick and you are strong and you are sticky. You have your webshooter thingies. You are good at doing your thing, but your thing does not involve fisticuffs.”

“Fisticuffs?”

“I already talked to Tony,” May said, letting go of his face to reach over the back of the couch and grab the remote, turn off the TV. “He’s got a plan.”

“There’s a plan?”

“Yep.”

“What’s the plan?”

“You already go out to the compound once a month, now we’re going to do every other weekend,” May said. “There are Avengers trainers there and he says he can find one or two of them who can start you with the basics, and they’re familiar with working with enhanced people so you don’t have to worry about your super duper strength.”

“Every other weekend?” Peter echoed because… that was a lot. And it was full weekends. That was an insane amount of time. Of Mr. Stark’s time. He was so busy.

“Yep. And if he’s traveling, Happy’s going to box you.”

“Box me?”

“Yeah. He was a professional boxer before he got into the security guard thing,” May said. “He’s been saying a lot of things about precision and control, and I’m not sure if it’s because he wants to talk about how boxing is an art or if he’s nervous you’re going to throw him across the room. I guess Agent Romanoff took him down hard once. At least that’s what Pepper said.”

“Okay, speaking of you guys all talking to each other, since when do you guys all talk to each other?” Peter asked. He crossed his arms over his chest, trying to look accusatory but probably just looking defensive. “FRIDAY said there’s a group chat.”

“Oh, Peter. Of course there’s a group chat.”

Chapter Text

William Young looked a little bit like the Rock. He was an inch or so taller, and skin was just a little bit darker, but otherwise he looked like the Rock. Tall, muscley, bald.

Mr. Young had been a Marine, and then he’d been a SHIELD agent, and then he’d had an injury that left him with limited peripheral vision in one eye so he’d retired from field duty and started training up recruits. He outlined a plan to help Peter build reflexes, muscle memory, learn where to look when. He talked about self-defense and judo and tai chi.

He told Peter all of this while he had Peter running an obstacle course that was like some parkour daredevil’s wet dream.

It was awesome.

 

After a quick check-in with Dr. Costa while he was at the compound—confirming that he was keeping FRIDAY’s version of the food journal up to date and that he’d been taking his vitamin every morning, getting enough sleep, drinking enough water—Peter spent Sunday afternoon with Mr. Stark. He mostly chattered on about everything Mr. Young had talked about, which was embarrassing because Mr. Stark had been the one to arrange the whole schedule with Mr. Young and get him to sign extra NDAs and things so it wouldn’t get out that Peter-the-Intern was enhanced.

Then they talked about what classes Peter had signed up for in the coming semester. Whether he was adding any new extra curriculars.

They tentatively planned for Wednesdays to be internship days at SI–NY next semester, and still with every other weekend at the compound. Neither of them acknowledged that cutting one internship day a week was so that Peter could have one more evening with May; she still wouldn’t tell Peter much in the way of details on her diagnosis or treatment plans, but she was hoping to get into a new trial that she seemed excited about and generally everything seemed positive, but… But May still had cancer, and Peter was glad Mr. Stark was willing to move his schedule around so Peter’s free evenings lined up with May’s time off.

Chapter Text

“I think, maybe, I was just not meant for field trips,” Peter said.

Ned snorted a sort of stress-laugh, because he knew exactly what Peter was talking about, but he didn’t say anything.

“Everything will be fine,” Mr. Cobbwell said. He was doing his best impression of an Adult In Charge, but they were in very close quarters and Peter had very good ears—Mr. Cobbwell’s heart rate gave his nerves away.

Everything had started off really well. AP Chemistry had won an essay contest, and the prize was a trip to Carlson Pharmaceuticals to see Chemistry At Work In The Real World™. Peter had been looking forward to it.

Twenty kids from their class, four parent chaperones and their teacher. It had been a really good tour at the start. They’d gone through the lobby and past a few conference rooms and things that were pretty much just there to be on display and wow the public. (They’d been suitably wowed.) Then they’d gone through one of the main labs, and a few of the scientists had given little presentations. Then there had been a presentation on R&D and the process of idea to implementation. They’d just gotten in the elevators to head back down to the lobby level to walk through the Carlson Pharmaceuticals gallery—a showroom with everything from the company’s origins to their greatest developments and the pride-of-place teaser about what they planned to contribute to this year’s Stark Expo—when things had gone wrong.

The class had been broken up into smaller clumps to fit in the elevators. Peter and Ned had been the last ones—Mr. Cobbwell had gone back for them—and it had been just the three of them in the elevator car when the power cut out.

After a horrifying three seconds of freefall, the emergency system had kicked in and the elevator had come to an abrupt halt.

There was no announcement from the elevator’s speaker. No flashing lights or alarms. Not even some automated response telling them to be calm. It had just been silence and the reddish glow of the elevator’s emergency lights.

Mr. Cobbwell hit the telephone button on the elevator panel again. But, again, nothing happened. He pulled his cell phone out of his back pocket.

“Huh,” Mr. Cobbwell said. He held the iPhone up, moving his arm around the elevator like he was searching for a signal. “I’ve got nothing.”

“Me neither,” Ned said. His was a StarkPhone, not new but hardly old either. Ned showed Peter the screen, and in the upper corner there was not only a NO SIGNAL alert but a few error icons Peter had never seen outside of product testing.

“That’s really weird,” Peter said, pulling his own phone out of his pocket. Mr. Stark had souped up a prototype for him, loaded with special features and permissions. And, most importantly, bundled up with Avengers-level damage protection, and a firewalled version of FRIDAY that Mr. Stark had installed especially because Peter and Ned had hacked the Spider-Man suit that one time.

“You have service?” Mr. Cobbwell asked.

“Peter always has service,” Ned said, crowding in close so he could look at Peter’s phone over his shoulder.

“FRIDAY?” Peter asked, pulling down the control bar to turn off DO NOT DISTURB. “You wouldn’t happen to be running the Baby Monitor Protocol, would you?”

“Of course, Kid,” FRIDAY said.

“And?” Peter prompted when the AI didn’t tell him Mr. Stark had been alerted and he was in big trouble for breaking an elevator or something.

“Boss says hold tight,” FRIDAY said. “Something’s up and you’re safe where you are.”

“Am I? Oh good,” Peter said sarcastically. FRIDAY was a sophisticated enough program that she’d recognize the sarcasm, and sophisticated enough that she wouldn’t deign to respond to it. “What about the rest of the class? They were in elevators, too.”

“Carlson Pharmaceuticals guests, including the others in the tour group from Midtown, have been evacuated,” FRIDAY said. Peter didn’t bother to ask how she knew—Mr. Stark had probably given her permission to hack security feeds to keep an eye on him or something. “Staff is currently being evacuated as well.”

“Should we evacuate, too, then?” Mr. Cobbwell asked.

“I’m sorry,” FRIDAY said, her voice a bit more robot-automated sounding than before. “Unauthorized query.”

“FRIDAY,” Peter admonished. He just knew he was blushing. “Why aren’t we being evacuated? An offline elevator is not a secure area.”

“The elevator is offline; therefore, the building system cannot report your location,” FRIDAY said. She didn’t sound annoyed, exactly. Just like she usually expected Peter to be able to keep up with these sorts of things.

“That’s so cool,” Ned cooed, and Peter realized he hadn’t had the chance to show his friend the new features Mr. Stark had added. FRIDAY, for one. And fully integrated hologram displays.

“Right?” Peter said, grinning. “I’m beta-testing.”

“He wants to see if you can break it, doesn’t he?”

“Shut up.”

“Device durability has improved 210% since Boss made user: The Kid the primary—”

“Not funny,” Peter said, cutting her off. If laughing was something FRIDAY did, she would’ve been. Ned gave him a look with humor dancing in his eyes that Peter could absolutely not respond to because Ned was definitely thinking about Spider-Man. Not fair.

FRIDAY wouldn’t give him any other information, but there were no restrictions to what sort of information Peter could dig for. It didn’t take long to find news articles about a disturbance Carlson Pharmaceuticals —THIS IS AN EMERGING STORY. CHECK BACK FOR UPDATES AS MORE INFORMATION BECOMES AVAILABLE!—and then pull up footage from a CCTV camera across the street from the building so they could watch some of what was going on.

They ended up sitting in the elevator for more than half an hour before Vision phased in, scaring the bejesus out of them all (especially Peter, because he was used to being able to hear people coming).

“The crisis has passed; you are safe,” Vision said.

“Oh, thank God,” Mr. Cobbwell said.

Vision gave Mr. Cobbwell a puzzled look, then turned that same look on Peter and Ned (neither of them were holding it together especially well, mostly because they were excited to see him). Rather than comment, Vision simply placed his hand on the elevator control panel and then the electronics seemed to come back online. The elevator took them to the lobby, and then a few police officers hurried them out to regroup with their class.

It was anticlimactic, Peter thought, but that wasn’t the way Ned told it back at school.

Chapter Text

“You see Tony Stark on the regular, right?” MJ asked, dropping down into the seat next to him.

Peter had been trying to take advantage of the twenty-minute gap between the end of the school day and the start of decathlon practice to get through his packet for Calc. It wasn’t hard, but it was time-consuming because he had to show his work.

“Um. Yeah,” Peter said. “I suppose.”

“Please tell him that he is incredibly annoying.”

“What?” Peter asked, half laughing; it was just about the last thing he would’ve expected her to say.

“He’s so, so annoying,” she said. She tossed a packet of papers onto the desk. It was all articles about Mr. Stark, printed out, highlighted, notes in the margins.

“I mean, I already knew that, but I have a feeling you’re not talking about all his excessive lab safety protocols or the way he eats all the M&Ms out of the trail mix and leaves me—”

“No,” MJ said over him, jabbing her finger at the printouts. “I was going to write my paper on him, since he’s a billionaire and it’s excessive and all that, but then if you look at his public records and things…”

“He tries,” Peter said, shrugging, going back to his worksheet. “I’m pretty sure he actually donates a lot more than ends up on public record. And I’m actually the only employee that doesn’t make a livable wage. Even the intern positions are paid. It’s just that I’m a minor so there’s laws about, y’know, child labor and work hours and things.”

“Which he avoids by not paying you?” MJ asked hopefully.

“Which he enforces like some sort of madman,” Peter corrected. He was still a little bit salty about their conversation from the other day about all the time he’d been putting in on his company StarkPad from home.

“Damnit.”

“You’re going to have to write about Bezos again, huh.”

“Shut up.”

“If you want to be mad at him, you can be mad that he’s making me present at this conference thing this weekend.”

“Yeah? What are you presenting?”

“It’s a modification of Spider-Man’s webbing,” Peter said. “It’s sort of gummier than the stuff, uh, he swings around on. For medical triage. He’s been using it as field dressing. Mr. Stark helped me patent that—and the other webbing—and he says presenting like this can make it accessible for other people to build off of, which could be really cool. People looking at it with different expertise, making it better, making it useful for more things.”

“And so he can make money off of it,” MJ said.

“SI doesn’t own the patent, I do,” Peter said.

“But he helped you get the patent,” MJ said. “So he’s got you under contract, right? He gets a cut.”

“Nope. He’s not actually that sort of guy, MJ,” Peter said, poking her shoulder with the eraser-end of his pencil. “He has a lot of money; he’s not looking to screw over some kid to make more of it.”

“Damn.”

Peter laughed.

“If this conference goes well, maybe you can write that paper on me being irresponsible with my fortune,” he said.

“You are an obnoxiously decent person, Peter Parker.”

 

“Thank you,” Peter said, smiling, trying to make the smile easy and friendly the way Mr. Stark’s public speaking smiles always looked, but he could tell even without being able to see his own face that it was a tense, probably a little bit manic, sort of smile.

There was applause. A lot of applause.

Peter resisted the urge to wave—that was a Spider-Man thing—and walked offstage. Happy said waiting, clapping along with the rest, smiling. It was a laughing-at-him sort of smile rather than a you-did-good-kid sort of smile.

“Hold still just a moment,” Larry the sound guy said, hurrying over. He took the headset off Peter’s ear, flicked a switch, looked the mic over like he expected Peter to have been gnawing it or something, nodded to himself, vanished off to where sound guys went when they weren’t invading his personal space.

“You totally lied to me,” Peter said, turning to glare at Mr. Stark. He was just behind Happy, and his smile was of the you-did-good-kid variety. Peter didn’t allow it to sway him.

“I did not!”

“You said it was a small crowd!” Peter hissed.

“It is a small crowd,” Mr. Stark said, smiling again, reaching out to put a hand on Peter’s shoulder, squeezing gently.

“Small is, like, a classroom-size crowd,” Peter said. “A handful of people. Maybe twenty.”

“Yeah, Pete, he regularly presents to stadium crowds,” Happy said, smirking. “I have no idea why you thought his estimation of a small crowd would be anywhere close to the same as yours.”

“That was horrible,” Peter said, ignoring Happy because he was totally right. He clawed at his tie only for Mr. Stark to slap his hands away and fix the wretched thing back in place.

“You did good,” Mr. Stark said. “That went really well.”

“It’s a good thing all those lights were in my eyes, because if I’d been able to see how many people there were I would’ve puked,” Peter said.

“Why? You knew the speech. You put all the slides together yourself. It was a solid presentation; no reason to be nervous.”

“I was thinking it was a handful of people, Mr. Stark,” Peter said. He still sounded whiney but he didn’t care anymore. “Just the interested investors not… whoever all those people were.”

“Those were the interested investors,” Mr. Stark said, his smile hitching up a notch.

Peter forgot to keep walking.

“Shut the front door,” he said when they just turned around and looked at him.

“Like I said, it’s a solid presentation,” Mr. Stark said. “Actually, it’s a good thing FRIDAY flagged the chatter about your presentation. You were initially booked for a much smaller room.”

Mr. Stark.”

Chapter Text

“You absolutely don’t have to say ‘yes,’” May said to whoever was on the other end of the call. May had been texting somebody all evening, and whoever it was had finally gotten tired of the back-and-forth and called her. “I know. I’d just be more comfortable knowing—”

She went quiet. Listening.

May had had an appointment, and she still wouldn’t tell him the particulars, but she’d qualified for a trial. It started two days before Midtown went on winter break and ran through the first week of January. She’d still be in the city, but she’d be in a hospital for the treatment and monitoring. He’d tried to tell her he wanted to stay in town, keep her company during visiting hours, but she’d insisted; she didn’t want him spending his break worrying in a hospital. They’d gone back and forth about it for days—he didn’t want her to be by herself, she insisted she wouldn’t be good company, he explained that he didn’t give a damn about the company, she said she was the adult and it wasn’t his call, he said bullshit, it went on and on. In the end, May had put her foot down, said it was her choice to make.

“Thank you, Tony,” May said. “I really do appreciate it.”

When she hung up, Peter was still standing in the kitchen. He stared at her and she just grinned back.

“What was that?” Peter asked.

“A compromise,” May said, tossing her phone down on the couch.

“Compromise?”

“Pepper is in Tokyo for the next few weeks, so I figured I’d at least ask Tony is he had anything going on,” May said. “He doesn’t. Which means you can stay with him and keep each other company, and you can come visit me.”

“You stuck him with me?” Peter moaned. “May.”

“What? He likes you. You like him. He likes spending time with you. You like spending time with him,” May said. “You two will have a great time.”

“But, May, it’s not like he signed up for this,” Peter said. “He’s not, like—”

“Peter, he said he’d love to have you. And, technically, he did sign up for this—he literally signed guardianship papers and all that.”

“Yeah, I know, but it’s—”

“It is important for teenaged boys to have father figures,” May said, putting her hands on either side of his face to make him look at her, no matter how awkward it made him feel to hear her say it. “You have had lots of good father figures—you’re really good at finding them and letting them teach you things—and I, personally, think you’re good for him.”

I’m good for him?” Peter repeated skeptically. May just smiled, though, and let go of his face to start putting dinner together.

 

The trial started on a Wednesday. May packed a bag, loaded up a backpack with paperbacks and her sudoku book, and stuffed her favorite throw blanket into her pillowcase.

“Are you sure you have everything you need? Can I make you tea? I could put it in a thermos,” Peter said.

“Peter,” May said for probably the fifth time. “I’m all set. And you’re going to be in town, so if I forgot anything you can bring it to me.”

“Yeah. I know. I just worry.”

“Well don’t worry.”

“Not possible.”

“Try.”

“Shan’t.”

He grinned and turned away to make her tea. May stopped him, though, wrapping her hands around his and holding on until he looked at her.

“Before I go, I want you to know that I love you,” May said.

“Before you go, I want to make you tea,” Peter said, mimicking her serious tone. He squeezed her hands back gently, though.

May laughed.

Twenty minutes later, they were out the door. Peter rode the subway with her, sharing a pair of earbuds to listen to one of her podcasts. He was allowed to go into the hospital with her while she checked in, followed along to the rooms reserved for the trial. He helped her set up her bed, arranging her throw blanket across the foot of it and fussing with it.

“I love you. Call me every day,” May said. “Promise?”

“I love you, too,” Peter said, hugging her tight. “You call me, too.”

“Send me pictures of all the cool stuff you guys get up to,” she said.

“Just follow me on Instagram,” Peter said. “C’mon, May.”

It was really hard to leave. He wanted to plant himself in the chair next to her bed and be so sticky nobody could make him leave. He went anyway, though.

“Hey, kid,” Happy said.

“Happy.” Peter blinked. He hadn’t expected to see Happy until after school.

“You thought I’d just leave you by yourself dropping May off at the hospital?” Happy asked. “Walking out all sad-looking.”

“I’m not sad-looking.”

“You’re sad-looking. You look like somebody kicked your dog.”

“I don’t have a dog.”

“Get in the car,” Happy said.

Peter got in the car, surprising himself when he teared up a little bit.

“Thank you for being here,” Peter said after a few minutes.

“Of course, kid,” Happy said.

 

The day was weird. Just the whole school day.

Peter felt off. Not queasy, but not great.

May texted him a few times, sent a selfie after they’d hooked her up. Happy texted, which was just weird. Mr. Stark texted, which was also a little weird.

 

“Hey, kid,” Mr. Stark said when school finally let out.

“Hi, Mr. Stark,” Peter said, dropping into the passenger seat and putting his bag at his feet.

“So. How was the day?”

“Um. Fine, I guess,” Peter said. Then, when Mr. Stark didn’t say anything, Peter asked, “And how was your day?”

“Fine. The usual.” Mr. Stark shrugged. “Gotta say, the highlight was definitely telling that Griffin asshole from Legal that our meeting ended twenty minutes ago and I had to leave to pick up my kid.”

“Mr. Stark,” Peter groaned, letting his head fall back against the headrest. “You know that’s all everybody talks about already, right? There’s a betting pool.”

“That’s hilarious.”

“And Mr. Griffin isn’t an asshole,” Peter said. “He’s a lawyer. It stresses him out when you don’t sign things.”

“It stresses him out when I do sign things.”

Peter laughed.

 

Peter had half expected things to be awkward. It was such a… custody agreement sort of thing. Like MJ spending Thanksgiving with her dad.

They’d spent time together before, weekend visits. Visits were always good, full of interesting things. But this was just so far outside the usual mentor/mentee thing. There was no deliberate plan for SI internship stuff or Avengers stuff or lab time with Dr. Costa figuring out the spider stuff.

It was just… hanging out for the sake of hanging out. For almost two weeks.

 

They bumped along weirdly amicably. Mr. Stark introduced him to Isobel, who came in to clean and do laundry once a week, and gave him strict orders to make things easy on her by putting dirty clothes in the hamper rather than on his bedroom floor.

“God, I sound like Jarvis.”

“Jarvis?”

“Oh. Um. Our butler when I was a kid.”

“You had a butler? People have butlers?” Peter asked. “That always seemed like such a movies thing.”

“A butler and a cook and a housekeeper,” Mr. Stark said. “A couple of drivers.”

“That’s so weird.”

“It’s not weird,” Mr. Stark said.

“If it’s so not-weird, why don’t you have a butler and a cook and a housekeeper now?”

“You know what? Shut up,” Mr. Stark said, and Peter laughed. “Just for that you’re getting house rules. You have to finish your homework before you go do your Spider-Man thing.”

Peter smirked, because Mr. Stark definitely looked like he’d meant to have more to say than that. Mr. Stark flicked him in the forehead, and Peter gave in and laughed.

 

They almost had a routine. Peter went to school, stopped by the hospital after school for visiting hours with May, went back to Mr. Stark’s penthouse. He didn’t have much in the way of homework at all because it was the last week of the semester, but he had finals to study for so he spent some time hitting the books every night. He’d snack while he studied, then get in the suit and swing around for a bit, meet up with Mr. Stark or Happy or Pepper or whoever had the evening free for dinner (sometimes at SI–NY, sometimes at Happy’s place, sometimes back at Mr. Stark’s penthouse), and then usually ended up tinkering around with Mr. Stark in a workshop until Mr. Stark realized how late it was and sent him off to bed.

 

“So,” May said, “how’d finals go? Tell me everything.”

“Not much to tell,” Peter said. “I filled in all the little bubbles with a number two pencil. Honestly, I like those tests so much better—the other ones they make you show your work and it’s so much extra work to write it all out.”

“Oh, for sure.”

“Stop making fun of me,” Peter said, sticking his leg out so he could nudge her knee with his toe. They were in her hospital room, his guest chair pulled up so he could prop his feet up on the bed; she was paler than she had been but otherwise seemed okay.

“Everything went well, though?” May asked after she’d finished laughing at him. “I know you were worried about that Civics test.”

“Yeah, it was okay,” Peter said. “And I bought myself some wiggle room with this extra credit essay last week.”

“You work too hard.”

“I do not,” Peter said, rolling his eyes because he knew it would make her laugh. “I’ve got proof, too. I’m going to a party tonight.”

“Tony told me about that,” May said, smiling again. “Says he got you a tux just for the occasion.”

“He did not.”

“He did.”

“Is it weird that he keeps buying me clothes? Seems weird,” Peter said, slumping down further in his chair. It wasn’t an especially comfortable chair. “His tailor has my measurements on file. That’s not normal. Hey, did you know he had a butler and a cook and a housekeeper and multiple drivers when he was growing up? How weird is that.”

“It’s a whole different lifestyle, huh,” May said, letting him change the subject.

Sooner than he liked, visiting hours were up. He wanted to protest, but May looked like even the not-quite-two-hours they were allotted took it out of her.

“I’ll send you pictures of the stupid tux, okay?” Peter promised.

“Have a nice time,” May told him. “Dance.”

Dance?”

“It’s a gala. There will be dancing.”

“I will not be dancing,” Peter said, shaking his head, wondering who there would even be at the thing to dance with. Mr. Stark had made it sound like it was an event for donors and people like that, so there probably wouldn’t be anybody even close to Peter’s age.

“Bye, baby,” May said, laughing at him again. “I love you.”

“Love you, May.”

 

“Did you know you’ve grown a full inch since we had you measured in Malibu?” Mr. Stark asked, holding out a garment bag.

“Yeah. I’ve got the stretchmarks to show for it, too,” Peter said. He’d hit the thrift stores for new jeans, and he’d been relying heavily on the surplus wardrobe Mr. Stark kept him supplied with at the compound for SHIELD- or SI-issue sweatpants. “You should see my back.”

“Luckily FRIDAY noticed, too, because she gave my guy updated measurements,” Mr. Stark said. “So your pants will actually fit you.”

“Hey. These jeans fit me.”

“I’m—oh my god, we’re not having this conversation,” Mr. Stark said, tossing the garment bag at him. “This is parent stuff. May promised she’d have the weird parent conversations with you. The showering and the always-wrap-it-up and the vegetables and shit. I ordered you new jeans; they’ll be at the compound before we are. Don’t make it weird. Aren’t your ankles cold in those things?”

“I’ve got warm socks,” Peter muttered, but Mr. Stark just pointed at him and gave him a weird look, so Peter retreated to his room to change.

The Maria Stark Foundation Christmas Gala was a New York holiday season staple. Peter and Ned had watched the rich and famous arrive and do the whole red carpet thing on TV in middle school; Peter didn’t remember the year, but it had been before Ben died because Ben had spent the whole thing telling them about the people on TV, their causes, whether he thought they were in it for show or because they cared. It had been a good night.

Never in his wildest dreams would he have ever expected to be in Tony Stark’s penthouse changing into a tux that Tony Stark had bought him to attend the Maria Stark Foundation Christmas Gala. His life was so weird.

“Come out here when you’re dressed and I’ll show you how to do the bowtie,” Mr. Stark shouted through the door.

“We don’t have to stay long,” Mr. Stark said when Peter met him in the living room a few minutes later. “I have to do some schmoozing, then there’s dinner, and a quick round of handshakes when the cocktails start. Not even three hours, and most of that will be while we’re eating.”

“Are you sure you want me to go with you?” Peter asked. “I have no idea what to do at a gala.”

“It will be fun, Peter. And the food’s always good,” Mr. Stark said. “And you can wear the tux to prom or something.”

“There’s not a sophomore prom, Mr. Stark.”

“That last girlfriend of yours was an older woman, though.”

“Oh, God, Mr. Stark.” Peter groaned. “She wasn’t my girlfriend.”

 

I WOULD LIKE TO FILE A COMPLAINT, he texted to May after Mr. Stark had finished with his bowtie and shown him how cufflinks worked. He sent her a picture of himself dressed and ready to go, mostly because he knew she’d like it; he got no sympathy on his forced gala-attendance from her.

THIS IS REALLY WEIRD, he sent to MJ and Ned with the same selfie. Somehow their teasing—and the general agreement that it was really weird—helped him stop himself from freaking out. The cufflinks were suspiciously expensive-looking, and he didn’t dare Google the designer name he’d seen on the fancy garment bag the tux had been stored in.

 

“Okay, gameplan,” Mr. Stark said, handing Peter a pair of tinted lenses. “Put those on.”

“Okay,” Peter said, and did. He’d half expected them to have a HUD or be connected to FRIDAY or something, but they were just glasses with reddish lenses.

“These too,” Mr. Stark said, holding out a case for wireless earbuds. Peter frowned, but put them in his ears and stashed the case in his pocket. “Good. There’s always press outside the gala, and we don’t want to start this thing with an assault on your senses.”

“Oh,” Peter said. “Thanks.”

Mr. Stark just smiled and put his own pair of tinted lenses on. His were green.

“And now we take a selfie for Dot,” Mr. Stark said, coming around behind Peter and putting up a peace sign. Peter, slightly bemused, held up his phone and smiled. “Nice.”

“Do I post it now or later?”

“Do it now. Hopefully people will see it before we’re getting out of the car, and then they’ll be less surprised to see you.”

“Very strategic,” Peter said, posting it to @Peter_the_Intern and adding the tags the Communications people had put together for the gala.

“Alright. Social media duties complete, let’s go,” Mr. Stark said. He went to the front closet and grabbed a long black wool coat Peter had never seen before, and then handed a nearly identical long wool coat, this one gray, to Peter.

“You got me a coat?”

“It’s freezing out there, Mr. No-Thermoregulation-To-Speak-Of,” Mr. Stark said, draping a dark green scarf around his neck as well. He didn’t do up the buttons or tie his scarf, though.

“I have a coat,” Peter said, pointing to the bulky drab green coat May had got him from the army surplus place. It was ugly but it was warm.

“Yeah, but that would clash with the tux,” Mr. Stark said, tossing him a scarf. It was cashmere or something; it was so soft. It was also Iron Man red.

“Thank you, Mr. Stark,” he said, quietly and sincerely.

“You could just call me ‘Tony,’ you know,” Mr. Stark said, changing the subject. “Pretty sure we’re there.”

“Oh. Uh. Okay,” Peter said. “Sure.”

The elevator dinged, saving them from further awkwardness.

“Very festive,” Happy said, looking at Peter’s red scarf and Mr. Stark’s green scarf.

“It’s a Christmas party, Happy,” Mr. Stark said, stepping past him into the elevator.

“Hi, Happy,” Peter said, getting on the elevator as well.

“Pepper never coordinates with him,” Happy said.

“I didn’t even know I was going to this thing until, like, this morning,” Peter said.

 

The gala was… way better than Peter had expected it to be. The tinted glasses and the noise-cancelling headphones made the red carpet situation between the limo—because, yeah, Happy dropped them off in a real actual stretch limo—and the gala entrance tolerable. It was in some big hotel and everybody was very dressed up. He followed Mr. Stark around, mostly just smiling and listening; a few people told him they liked his Instagram, which was utterly surreal.

Mr. Stark made a quick speech to start the gala off. He thanked everybody for being there, thanked the Maria Stark Foundation people for their hard work, thanked the contributors for their contributions, called out a few of the year’s “big wins” for the foundation’s good works. He handed his phone over to Peter as he walked off the stage, as if there were legitimate intern reasons for his presence. (Peter put it in his pocket, not sure what the expectation was with that.)

Dinner was a five-course thing. He followed Mr. Stark’s lead to navigate the different forks. The food was good, very good. But it was fancy, almost decorative. Mr. Stark promised they’d stop for cheeseburgers after.

The cocktail bit was weird. Mr. Stark ordered him a Shirley Temple, which he seemed to mean as a joke but it was really good and there was a maraschino cherry in it. Mr. Stark ordered himself soda water on the rocks, which sounded kind of bland to Peter, but Peter wasn’t about to say anything. And then they… mingled.

Peter had never had an issue coming up with things to say to people, the issue had always been that they didn’t really like listening to him. Too clever for his own good, more than one teacher had said. Luckily, in this scenario, everybody just wanted to talk to Mr. Stark. Peter was able to interject now and again, and Mr. Stark kept looping him into things, but mostly he just stuck to Mr. Stark’s shadow and listened. Mr. Stark was really good at the schmoozing thing; almost everybody walked away smiling, or at the very least looking vaguely pleased about the interaction.

There was a Christmas tree. There was a band playing jazzy Christmas carol-adjacent songs for people to dance to. It had started snowing outside, so the whole backdrop was crazily picturesque.

A few people from the Foundation spoke. They all made a point to thank Mr. Stark for his contributions and efforts over the last year, and Mr. Stark smiled and nodded and raised his glass. More people headed for the dance floor, and the general atmosphere relaxed into a less official party sort of mood.

“Cheeseburgers?” Mr. Stark asked.

“Please.”

They snuck out. Well, not really snuck out. Peter didn’t think it was possible for Mr. Stark to actually sneak out of his own party without a few people noticing. He didn’t make a thing of it, though. He shook a few hands, made sure to talk to the people who’d given speeches at the end there as they headed for the coat check.

There were just a few photographers and reporters left out front when they left, and they were standing well out of the way behind ropes.

“You good if I take a few questions, or you want to plow through?” Mr. Stark asked.

“Questions would be fine, I guess,” Peter said. He’d put the glasses on again, but it wasn’t so loud that he felt he needed the earbuds. “What if they ask me questions, though?”

“Answer them if you want. If you don’t, just say ‘no comment’ or give me some sign and I’ll take it.”

“Sure. Okay.”

They walked out, and the photographers immediately took a few pictures, but they weren’t nearly as aggressive about it as the paparazzi that one time outside of Delmar’s. Mr. Stark even seemed to know a few of them.

“Headed out early tonight, Mr. Stark,” one of them observed.

“Well, this one’s got a curfew,” Mr. Stark said easily, gesturing at Peter.

“Peter, right?” the reporter said.

“Peter the intern,” Mr. Stark said, clapping Peter between the shoulders, then moving his hand up to rest at the back of Peter’s neck in that weird dad-grip that was somehow comforting and grounding even though the point of it seemed to be Mr. Stark keeping him standing still. “He’s very popular on Instagram.”

“Can you tell us why now? You’ve never taken an intern before, Mr. Stark.”

“Well, that was before I found Peter. Found him dumpster-diving, by the way.” Mr. Stark smirked. Peter rolled his eyes and stuck his hands in his coat pockets, which made Mr. Stark’s lip quirk halfway to a real smile. “Figured if he could make what he was making with salvaged parts, it’d be more than worth seeing what he was capable of with proper supplies.”

“What did you make?”

“Oh. You know.” Peter shrugged. He couldn’t tell if Mr. Stark was waiting for him to say that he’d designed Spider-Man’s webshooters or something. “All sorts of stuff.”

“He’s way smarter than me,” Mr. Stark said. “He’s going to change the world someday. It’s gonna be great.”

And with that, Mr. Stark clapped him on the shoulder again and directed him past the reporters to where Happy had the car waiting at the end of the red carpet.

 

They stopped for Five Guys and Mr. Stark ordered Peter two burgers and a large fry. It felt completely wrong to sit in the back of the limo eating greasy burgers in a tuxedo, but it was too delicious to really care.

“Pretty good gala, right?” Mr. Stark asked.

“First one I ever went to,” Peter said around a mouthful of fries, shrugging.

“Baby’s first gala,” Mr. Stark cooed, making Happy laugh.

“Shut up,” Peter said sullenly, but that only made them laugh harder.

Happy dropped them back at Mr. Stark’s place, and they headed upstairs. Peter put pajamas on and flopped on the couch, asked FRIDAY to pick some variety of Christmas movie for them, and started scrolling through his phone.

He just about dropped the thing when he opened Instagram.

His follower count was over halfway to a million. He’d been tagged in a bunch of posts about the gala and mentioned in a few articles from the reporters. None of them knew his last name, so they just called him Peter the Intern.

“Oh my God, Mr. Stark,” Peter said when Mr. Stark walked into the living room, scrolling through something on his own phone.

“Hm?” Mr. Stark asked without looking up.

“My Instagram is blowing up.”

“Dot will be very pleased,” Mr. Stark said, dropping to the couch next to him. Peter turned the phone so he could see the follower count, which continued to tick steadily upward even as they watched. “Wow.”

“Is this—like…” He blew air out his nose, trying to get his thoughts together. “Is this a situation? Do I need to—”

“Nope,” Mr. Stark said, cutting off Peter’s rambling before he could even start.

“What?”

“You don’t need to do anything,” Mr. Stark said, settling in more comfortably next to him on the couch. “It’s Christmas. We’re going to be here and then out at the compound, where neither of us even have to think of the press. Your account clearly says you’re my intern, which answers all the questions they get to ask. And Dot and her people can handle anything else that comes up.”

“Really?” Peter asked after half a second’s hesitation.

“Really,” Mr. Stark said. “We can have Happy give it a proper Security Guy rundown at the end of your school break if you want. See if the public is still paying attention, double check that the school still has all those nifty policies about who’s allowed on their campus.”

 

Sunday was Christmas Eve. Happy and Col. Rhodes showed up just before noon, both of them so loaded with groceries that it had clearly planned between them. Mr. Stark just rolled his eyes.

Peter spent the day in the kitchen doing whatever Happy told him to do. He stirred and chopped, and was granted the honor of tossing the salad. Happy made a roast ham with some sort of secret sauce that had raisins in it and was delicious. There were also little garlicky dinner rolls, several types of roast vegetables, and a cutting board covered in snacks that Happy insisted was a charcuterie tray. (It had cheese on it that he’d warmed up in the oven and put honey on top of, and it was gooey and melty and Happy told him to eat it on a cracker with a little bit of the special berry jam Col. Rhodes had brought from DC and it was so good.)

No gifts were exchanged. Nobody even mentioned gifts. Hell, Mr. Stark hadn’t even put up a Christmas tree.

They ate, they talked. Col. Rhodes told stories about when he’d first met Mr. Stark at MIT. Happy told stories about when he’d first met Mr. Stark at some point in the mid-90s. Most of them were cautionary tales.

Col. Rhodes’s mother called—apparently Christmas Eve was traditionally when he visited her, but his schedule hadn’t allowed him to get all the way out to Philadelphia for the weekend, just a quick trip into New York City for the afternoon even though it was Christmas—and he stepped out to talk to her for a while, then came back inside and handed the phone off to Mr. Stark so he could talk to her for a while. That left Peter alone with Happy and Col. Rhodes, and he half expected one of them to say something about the press or Spider-Man or the internship, but neither of them did; they puttered along just as well as they had with Mr. Stark in the room.

Eventually—it wasn’t even really late yet—Col. Rhodes had to head back to DC, and Happy decided he’d go back to his own place, and then it was just Peter and Mr. Stark. They watched Die Hard, but spent most of it arguing about whether it was a Christmas movie or not.

 

The hospital didn’t extend visiting hours for Christmas, and May didn’t look like she would’ve been able to enjoy the visit if they had. She was even paler, her eyes still bright even if they were a little bit sunken. It was hard to see; for the first time since her diagnosis, she looked sick.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?”

“Don’t be silly, Peter,” May said, patting his hand. “I spend most of my time napping; you don’t need to worry about me. Go upstate. Have a little fun on your break. Stop worrying.”

They bickered about it until the nurse came in to tell him visiting hours were up.

Usually it was Happy waiting for him outside the hospital, but this time it was Mr. Stark.

“How’s she doing?”

“She says she’s okay,” Peter said. “She looks… not great, though.”

“Not great?”

“She didn’t look sick before.”

Mr. Stark reached over and squeezed his shoulder.

They went back to Mr. Stark’s penthouse and Mr. Stark made them omelets for lunch. They drifted around the place for an hour or so before they decided they weren’t fooling anybody and packed everything into a car to head out to the compound.

They talked about all sorts of random things on the drive. Projects. Updates Peter had been thinking about adding to the Spider-Man suit. Updates Mr. Stark—Tony; he kept telling Peter to call him Tony—had been thinking about for the Iron Man suit. Peter’s sixteenth birthday coming up over the summer and the prospect of learning to drive. The test prep he had planned, the books he had to read for the next semester’s English class.

The first few days passed like that. Chatting. Tinkering. He video-called May during visiting hours.

It was… nice. Tony let him try whatever he could think of, even tinker with the Iron Man repulsors. He worked on his homework when he felt like it, had video calls with Ned, texted a lot with MJ. They went down to a sublevel definitely not listed on the elevator panel, and Mr. Stark let him help decommission what was left of the Iron Legion—well, not decommission so much as prepare for indefinite standby. They spent evenings in the garage area of the hangar; Mr. Stark had just bought a junky old Ferrari and he’d decided it was his purpose to teach Peter all about how cars worked.

 

“Hey, kid?” Mr. Stark said. He was sitting at the kitchen table like he’d been waiting for Peter to wake up. Actually, he looked like he’d been planning to go for a run or something (loose jogging pants and that old MIT hoodie, plus the remnants of one of those stinky green swampwater and spinach smoothies Mr. Stark had in the mornings) and gotten distracted. “Question for you.”

“Oh. Um. Okay?” Peter grabbed a packet of Pop Tarts and popped them in the toaster for himself.

“Why are you still in high school?” Mr. Stark asked.

“Because I’m fifteen?” Peter said, wondering if it was a trick question.

“Yes. I know,” Mr. Stark said. He gestured vaguely at all the textbooks and things Peter had left spread across the table when he’d gone to bed the night before. “But.”

“But?” Peter echoed, retrieving the Pop Tarts and sticking them on a napkin before he sat down across the table from Mr. Stark. “That’s my homework?”

“Peter,” Mr. Stark said. He rubbed his hands over his face, then fixed Peter with a look. “I was about to start my sophomore year at MIT when I was your age.”

“Yeah, but you’re, like, a genius.”

“And you’re at least as smart as I am,” Mr. Stark said. Peter opened his mouth to protest, but Mr. Stark cut him off with a gesture and then held up the practice test Peter had worked on while they’d watched Star Wars the other day. “No, no. I have proof. I got bored this morning and looked at your test prep. If this was the real thing, you’d beat my score—and you did it while you were busy quoting the movie at me.”

“It’s just a practice test, though. And you took the SAT when you were, like twelve.”

“Thirteen. And if you’d taken it when you were thirteen, you might’ve gotten closer to the same score as me rather than doing so much better,” Mr. Stark said. He put the practice test back down on the table, folding his hands over it and pinning Peter with that look again. “So I ask again: Why are you still in high school?”

“I don’t know. Social and emotional development and stuff?”

“Full disclosure, I had FRIDAY hack your transcripts,” Mr. Stark said, sitting back. He picked up the StarkPad he’d been looking at when Peter first entered the room, scrolling through whatever he’d been looking at (apparently Peter’s grades) before. “There are notes from every single teacher suggesting you be placed ahead literally all the way back to the second grade. You tested out of the freshman curriculum. All the classes you’ve taken this year are AP, and you’re carrying a better-than-perfect GPA. Somehow. In spite of your extracurriculars.”

Peter just shrugged, not sure what he was expected to say.

“Pete, you could be finishing up undergrad right now. I’ve met you; I knew you were smart, but this is—kid, you’re me without all those years down the drain to poor lifestyle choices. Better.”

He looked so earnestly baffled that Peter had to smile. He still didn’t really know what to say about it, though. He shoved the last of his Pop Tart in his mouth to buy himself a moment to think while he chewed.

“Okay. Well. You know my parents died when I was four, right?” Peter asked. Might as well start at the beginning, otherwise it probably wouldn’t make much sense.

“Yeah. Plane crash.”

“Right,” Peter said. He wondered if Mr. Stark had a file on him somewhere, maybe even had the official reports from the crash or something. “And I went to live with my dad’s little brother Ben. They were really, really not close. Like, at all. He was my only living relative, though, and he’s the most generally good and decent person I ever met, so of course he took me in. He and Aunt May had just gotten married, too. Like, not even six weeks after they got back from their honeymoon they inherited me.

“Anyway. The reason Uncle Ben and my dad weren’t close—and I didn’t actually learn this until right before Ben died—was that my dad was a dick. Not just a dick, but… just not a great person. Narcissistic, condescending, the works.” Peter balled up the napkin he’d been using as a plate and then just let it sit on the table in front of him all crumpled up. “He was also super smart. Skipped all of elementary school, did middle school in, like, a year. High school in two. He was a medical doctor and a geneticist.

“Anyway, my dad was a dick and basically went off to college and never looked back, so Uncle Ben hardly knew him beyond, like, passive aggressive phone calls with their parents and a few awkward Christmases. So what I’m trying to get at is that when my teachers started suggesting moving me ahead, Uncle Ben worried I’d get all isolated and turn out like my dad. And then Uncle Ben died when I was in middle school—it was just, like, a week later we got my test scores back for Midtown. The guidance counselor there wanted to place me up and start me on post-secondary, but we’d just lost Ben and he’d always had this plan that I’d stay with my peers and become a fully functioning human being rather than… You know.

“So that’s why I’m still in high school.”

Mr. Stark watched him thoughtfully for a moment, then got up and rinsed out his smoothie cup. When he came back to the table, he had a cup of coffee and a frown.

“Have you thought about post-secondary at all?” he asked thoughtfully. “You’re already a fully functioning human being and all that. Best one I know. And I know Captain America.”

That made Peter laugh, but not as much as it would’ve before Captain America had gone all rogue and dropped a jet bridge on him.

“Yeah. But everything is kind of perfect right now. I get to spend days with my friends, I like academic decathlon, I have the internship with you, I have time for Spider-Man stuff. I don’t mind sitting through Spanish class if I get to have that.”

“Yeah, I was wondering about the Spanish,” Mr. Stark said. “You’re fluent. I know you’re fluent. Why the hell are you taking Spanish?”

“Ned’s in Spanish,” Peter said. “And you need at least three language credits to graduate.”

Chapter Text

The food thing made a difference. A huge difference.

It wasn’t just consuming enough calories so that he kept up with his metabolism and actually didn’t spend most of the day feeling at least a little bit hungry. It was fulfilling nutritional holes in his diet.

Getting himself up to peak efficiency, May had joked. Then she’d tossed a protein bar and a banana at him and told him she’d give him a dollar if he crab-walked across the ceiling screaming like a pterodactyl the next time Mr. Stark invited himself over to mess with the appliances.

He felt… better. Awake. Aware. Like he was firing on all cylinders since his body wasn’t constantly playing catch-up to make up for missing nutrients.

He’d grown almost another full inch in just the last few weeks, which put him even with Mr. Stark. And his shoulders were wider, his arms and legs more muscular. Aunt May had taken him shopping since basically the only thing that still fit him were the t-shirts he’d pilfered from Uncle Ben’s closet, and the jeans Mr. Stark had bought him over winter break.

He could tell he was stronger, too. Swinging around took less effort.

The changes weren’t just physical, though. His brain was working… better. He’d always been clever, but it was a whole new level: He’d been scrolling through research papers, a compilation of things from SI archives and old SHIELD research, and he’d realized just how much he’d read in a relatively short span of time. He’d always been a quick reader, but…

“Hey, FRIDAY?” Peter said, tapping the icon at the corner of his StarkPad to be sure he hadn’t set her to DO NOT DISTURB since he was curled up on the couch at home.

“Yes, Peter?” FRIDAY said. So not muted, just letting him read in peace.

“Um. Are you able to calculate how quickly I’ve been reading?”

“Of course. Your rate has been increasing since I’ve met you,” FRIDAY said conversationally. “This afternoon you have been reading an average of 28,300 words per minute, which is more than 3,000 words per minute faster than the current record speed-reader. Congratulations, Peter.”

Peter rubbed his forehead. He’d thought it was kind of quick. His retention had improved, too. Near-perfect, as far as he could tell.

“Thanks FRIDAY.”

It was kind of awesome, but also a little bit frightening.

The spider bite had messed with his biology on a cellular level. And the modifications to the spider had all been experimental—Peter had read everything he could get his hands on about it; OsCorp hadn’t been trying to modify spiders to enhance people, they’d been trying to confirm that it was possible to genetically modify spiders. There was no predicting what would happen with his DNA, no telling if one day he’d start growing new limbs or develop colorations like the spider that had bit him or maybe the mutation would change the way his heart worked and it would just kill him outright. The strong and sticky was cool, useful, manageable. He didn’t like to think about what might happen when his hormones changed as he made it to the other side of puberty (though he had a feeling he might’ve already made it; his dad and Uncle Ben had been a little bit taller, but the men on his mom’s side were all shorter, he could grow a really shitty patchy peach-fuzz beard that Mr. Stark said was fairly standard for the young adult beard front, and his voice hadn’t cracked in ages).

And what about mental illness. Schizophrenia tended to turn up in the early twenties as brains got to the fully-developed stage, what if there was something spider-y lying in wait for him on that front?

Peter had been reading every bit of Dr. Banner’s research he could get his hands on—and it was more than what was available to the general public, since he had Stark Industries and Avengers access clearances. Dr. Banner had spent the better part of a decade at Culver University researching human enhancement before he’d gotten desperate and started the experiments with gamma radiation that had led to the Hulk.

He also convinced Ned to help him hack into OsCorp’s servers to get more information on the spider research. There wasn’t a ton, but that was almost weird. The invoices they could find noted a lot of private funding, but the biggest check had come from the Department of Defense. And why would the DoD throw money at a project seeking to prove that spiders could be genetically engineered toward a particular outcome?

It was fishy. But it was also not a glaring red flag. The government, the military—they sponsored a lot of research. Things that could become components in weapons. Maybe they’d been hoping the spiders could be made to produce fire-retardant webbing or something. And OsCorp was the leading weapons supplier to the military since SI had dropped out of the weapons business and Hammer Industries had folded, so it was almost as likely as anything else that the funding was some sort of wink-wink, helping-a-friend sort of thing.

“I guess at least we know nobody else is going to accidentally end up spider-powered,” Ned said, pointing to the abstract for what looked like the final report on the project. “’All specimens destroyed.’”

“What, they didn’t get funding for further research on any of them?” Peter asked, pulling the laptop closer so he could click into the full report. “They just got rid of the spiders?”

“Do you feel for them as spider-kin?” Ned asked. “We could hold a memorial.”

“We don’t need to have a memorial for a couple of spiders, Ned.”

“A hundred spiders, though,” Ned said. “Or probably more than that. They’d probably make more than one of each, right? For science.”

“As a person who ended up an unwilling participation in their ‘science,’” Peter said, “this conversation is getting creepy.”

Chapter Text

“Hey,” Peter said after Karen had played that little beep that meant the call had connected. “I think I need you to come get me.”

“What?” Mr. Stark asked flatly. The tone was enough to make Peter wonder what time it was.

“I sort of participated in a drug bust not on purpose.”

“What,” Mr. Stark said again, even less of a question than it had been the first time.

“I found a massive cocaine stash not on purpose.”

“Not on purpose?”

Peter could hear Pepper in the background asking if everything was okay, voice quiet but not quite groggy. So it was super late. They’d totally been asleep.

Or doing other bed things that Peter really didn’t want to think about, thankyouverymuch. That was like thinking about Aunt May and Uncle Ben… Yeah. No.

“Peter?”

“Right. Not on purpose,” Peter said wrenching control of his brain back and talking as quickly as he could before his thoughts went off on another tangent. “I smashed into the side of this warehouse, but it was a super old and not at all well-maintained warehouse. So rather than hitting the side and sticking there, I hit the side and broke right through the exterior wall. It’ll probably be on YouTube. I always end up on YouTube when it’s embarrassing. Anyway. Somebody was using the warehouse for their cocaine. It was… a lot of cocaine.”

“I’m still not following why I need to come get you. Are you hurt?”

“I landed in the cocaine, Tony,” Peter said. “Smash, poof.”

“Poof?”

“It was everywhere. Karen called the authorities, right, but they wanted to take my suit to, like, vacuum all the drugs off of it for evidence. But I ran away because secret identity. It would’ve been fine, except this is breathable fabric. It took a minute to really hit me, but… Yeah. It really hit me.”

“So you need a ride because you’re… high?”

“Very high,” Peter said. “So high. And I climbed on top of a different building to hide, so I’m very high that way too.”

“FRIDAY, can you get a location on Peter?” Mr. Stark asked.

“In other news,” Peter said, “cocaine really sucks.”

“You think so?” Mr. Stark asked blandly. It was that bland tone that usually meant he was trying not to freak out. Or maybe he was just trying not to be shouty-angry. Possibly he was trying not to laugh. It was hard to tell.

“Well. I’m very happy. That part’s great,” Peter said. “But my senses are off the freaking charts, Mr. Stark. Like. They’re already on their own separate charts from everybody else, but they’re off those. I swear I can taste the food from the restaurant three blocks over. And that would be cool, except for I can also smell all the slime that lives in the storm drains. I haven’t opened my eyes since I made it up onto this roof because it’s crazy intense, Mr. Stark. The sky is, like, wow, but there’s so much of it and what if I fall up into it. Do you think that’s a thing that could happen? Because I feel like if it happened to anybody it would happen to me. Oh and also sounds. There are a lot of them. Karen has the suit on complete blackout, but I can still hear everything perfectly fine. There’s this pigeon sitting on the roof across the street—watching me probably; did you ever think of making spy robots disguised as pigeons? I feel like that would be a thing—but this pigeon definitely has a heart murmur or something. Do pigeons ever have heart problems?”

“I’ve got your location and your vitals, Pete. You just keep on lying down. I’m on my way.”

“Great. Good. That’s awesome,” Peter said. “My metabolism will eat through this stuff before I die by overdose, right?”

“Peter—”

“I feel okay. Well, not okay. But I don’t feel like I’m dying,” Peter said. It was hard to pick out what he was feeling and what he was pretty sure the drugs were making him feel, though. It was probably weird that he was aware enough of his own brain chemistry that he could tell there was a difference. “This really sucks, though. Just for the record. That’s where I’m at on cocaine. Sucks.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Mr. Stark said. Peter couldn’t tell if he was being patronizing or not.

Karen beeped, telling him the call had disconnected, but that was okay because he could hear the repulsors slowing Mr. Stark’s approach for landing already. He must’ve been at his place in Manhattan.

“Hey—woah,” Peter said. He’d opened his eyes for the first time in a bit when he heard Mr. Stark land, and he’d forgotten about his senses being entirely out of whack until there was visual input to process. There was just… a lot. He could always see colors outside the usual human visible spectrum, but it was just… Woah.

“How are you doing, Pete?”

“Hey, Mr. Stark,” Peter said, squeezing his eyes closed again. “I don’t feel so good.”

Chapter Text

Saturdays had become his wildcard day. Sometimes he was upstate, sometimes he was in Queens with May, or sometimes, like this particular Saturday, he was hanging out with Ned running flashcards for academic decathlon.

“Continental shelf,” Ned said. He was lying sprawled across the couch, the shoebox full of their flashcards balanced on the arm above his head.

“The area of seabed around a large landmass where the sea is relatively shallow compared with the open ocean” Peter recited.

“Yep,” Ned said, tossing the flashcard on the coffee table and reaching for the next one. “Since 1900, the total real output of the U.S. economy has increased by this factor.”

“Uh. 32?” Peter said. He hated the economics questions. Not his strong suit.

“Yeah. Nice,” Ned said, tossing the flashcard on the table and then throwing a cheese puff at Peter. “You get a treat for that one.”

Peter caught the cheese puff and ate it even as he rolled his eyes.

“In what year did oecology become ecology?” Ned asked.

“1890… three? 1893?”

“You’re on fire.”

“Do I get another cheese puff?” Peter asked. “I am very food motivated.”

“Aren’t we all,” Ned said, tossing him another cheese puff. “Additive identity.”

“a+0=a and 0+a=a.”

“I don’t know why you even leave the math ones in here.”

“Because MJ will kill me if I don’t review the full set?”

“Yeah, there’s that.”

“Want to switch?” Peter asked, reaching for the shoebox. Ned sat up to grab the shoebox, cradling it on his lap.

“No. I’m not the one who missed practice last night,” Ned said, fending off Peter’s hand with another cheese puff. “I promised MJ I’d make you do the whole box.”

“That’s going to take all day,” Peter whined, but he took the offered cheese puff and flopped back onto the floor. “Besides, there was a giant sand monster thing. I couldn’t just stay at school.”

“Which I get,” Ned said diplomatically. “And that’s why I covered for you. But MJ is scary, so we’re doing the whole box.”

“Yeah she is,” Peter agreed. He was pretty sure MJ was scary in different ways to him that she was to Ned, though.

Best not examine that thought too closely. He was so not ready for that.

“Site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.”

“Prince William Sound.”

“And that’s in…?”

“Alaska.”

“There you go.”

“Cheese puff?”

“Continent with the largest human population?” Ned asked, tossing over a cheese puff.

“Asia.”

“Oh, I get it now,” a woman’s voice said from the doorway to Peter’s bedroom. Peter jumped up, already jamming his finger down onto the panic button Mr. Stark had built into his watch.

“How’d you get in here?” Peter asked, but his heart had begun to settle. It was Black Widow, which sort of answered the question he’d asked, but it also explained why she hadn’t set the stupid spidey-sense off. She was sneaky. And, going by her relaxed posture leaning against the doorframe, she meant no harm.

She was blonde, though, which was kind of weird.

“Fire escape,” Agent Romanoff said, shrugging one shoulder.

“Oh my god. Are you going to kill us?” Ned asked, clutching the shoebox to him again.

“I’m just here to pass along some intel,” Romanoff said.

“Pretty sure you’re not supposed to be here at all,” Peter said. “Actually, I think somebody gave me a business card at some point. There’s somebody I’m supposed to call if you ever made contact.”

“You going to report me?” She was smirking, like she enjoyed the idea of Peter trying to call in the cavalry to apprehend her.

“Well, I mean, I totally would, because I’m all about following the rules. I mean, look at me, I’m spending my Saturday running flashcards. But I may have accidentally sort of lost that business card. Because I’m fifteen,” Peter said. “Totally irresponsible. Typical teenager.”

“You’re far from that, which is why it suddenly makes so much sense,” Romanoff said. She smiled an easy, amused smile. Peter couldn’t tell if she was faking it. “You’re just like him.”

“Just like who?” Peter asked.

“Stark.”

Peter snorted, but didn’t say anything because Romanoff gave him a look that promised repercussions if he tried to disagree with her.

“So you’re not going to kill us?” Ned asked. He hadn’t loosened his hold on the flashcard box.

“Nope,” Romanoff said. She stood up and pulled a USB drive out of her back pocket, tossed it to Peter. (She was in jeans. How weird was that.)

“What’s on it?” Peter asked, catching it as easily as he had caught the cheese puffs.

“We cracked open a Hydra server farm,” Romanoff said. “Location’s on there if Stark wants to make an official pass.”

“Why pass it on to me?”

“It’s encrypted.”

“And your tech guy signed the Accords.”

“Right,” Romanoff said. Peter had expected her to tell him to lose the attitude, but she didn’t.

“You need anything?” Peter asked, because she’d already shifted her weight like she was going to go out the fire escape any moment.

“I’m just here to pass that along,” Romanoff said, nodding at the USB drive. “We don’t need anything.”

“I guess I meant more, like, you want a cheese puff or something? Road snacks?”

“I’m on foot.” She smirked at him. Peter rolled his eyes.

“No. You’re in a relatively new, or well maintained if it’s older, compact car. It’s idling down in the alley. Billy Joel’s on the radio,” Peter said. “And it sounds like Wilson is your getaway driver.”

“Oh, you’re enhanced enhanced, huh,” Romanoff said. The smirk turned into more of a smile and her hands went to her hips, ostensibly a more casual position but she was closer to a defensive balance and her heartrate had spiked.

“Tell him his Piano Man is pretty good,” Peter said. He didn’t want her to think he was trying to start something.

“Oh I absolutely will,” Romanoff said. Her heartrate had slowed, but Peter wasn’t sure if it was because she’d relaxed a bit or because she’d had years and years of training.

“Nothing for the road, then? I’ve got water, Dr. Pepper,” Peter listed off. “The cheese puffs were a one-time offer; they’re for flashcard rewards only.”

“It was good to meet you properly, Peter Parker,” Romanoff said, smirking at him again.

“This wasn’t properly,” Peter said. “This was you climbing up the fire escape.”

“Maybe next time, then,” Romanoff said.

“I can’t even send you off with water or something?” Peter asked. “Feels like an unfair trade. You brought me something—”

“You’re good, Parker, but we both know perfectly well that you called Stark the moment you saw me,” Romanoff said. “Stop stalling.”

“Worth a shot, right?” Peter said, shrugging as casually as he could. He’d taken a few steps closer to her side of the room, getting himself between her and Ned. Sort of. As close as he could get to being between her and Ned without obviously taking up a defensive position, and that would only antagonize her. Probably.

“Keep watching his back,” Romanoff said, sounding more sincere than she had at any other point in the conversation.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Peter said, if there was maybe just a hint of accusation in his tone she didn’t rise to it. Romanoff just nodded and stepped back out onto the fire escape.

Peter went to his window and watched her climb down, walk casually down the alley and out of sight. She must’ve somehow indicated to Wilson not to say anything, because they didn’t speak until Peter had lost track of them in the general noise of Queens.

“Peter that was so cool,” Ned said, leaping off the couch. Flashcards went everywhere. “Oh my god. That was Black Widow. She could’ve killed us.”

“She wasn’t going to kill us,” Peter said, but he couldn’t help but smile at Ned’s enthusiasm.

“But she could have,” Ned said, beaming.

“Well, if that was fun, you’re going to love this,” Peter said. Mr. Stark was in the suit and coming in fast.

“What? Did she bug your bedroom? Did she leave a bomb? Oh my god, Peter—”

Ned got up, presumably to see the bomb for himself, only to literally jump backwards when Mr. Stark dropped into view, repuslors firing to slow his descent and hold him steady outside the window just beyond the fire escape.

“Awesome,” Ned murmured.

“Everything is fine,” Peter said before Mr. Stark could start freaking out. “They already left.”

“They left? Who left?” Mr. Stark asked, still hovering.

“Romanoff and Wilson.”

“Romanoff and—what did they want? What were they doing here?” Mr. Stark asked, frowning. “They weren’t even supposed to know who you are.”

“I run an Instagram account called Peter the Intern,” Peter said. “And they have more context than most.”

“Back up, I’m coming in,” Mr. Stark said. He landed on the fire escape then stepped out of the suit. “FRIDAY, sentry mode.”

“Got it, Boss,” FRIDAY said, turning the suit so it looked out over the alley.

“Wilson didn’t even come up,” Peter said. “Romanoff just wanted to give me—”

“Hold on, Pete,” Mr. Stark said, taking his glasses out of the inside pocket of his suit coat and tapping the side of the frame once to activate FRIDAY. “Give me a scan. Any presents left behind?”

Mr. Stark did a slow turn, taking the room in. Peter could hear FRIDAY beep in the negative every so often as he spun, very faintly coming out of Mr. Stark’s ever-present earpiece.

“Awesome,” Ned murmured, holding so still out in the living room that Peter was pretty sure he was worried he’d be spotted and told to leave if he moved.

“Okay, all clear here,” Mr. Stark said. “Anywhere else I should check?”

“No. She came up the fire escape and left the same way, didn’t even make it into the living room,” Peter said. Mr. Stark nodded.

“Alright there?” Mr. Stark asked, raising his eyebrows at Ned.

“I’m—I’m great Mr. Iron Man, sir. Mr. Stark,” Ned said.

“So what’s up, Underoos?” Mr. Stark asked.

“She said they’d found a Hydra server farm,” Peter said, handing over the USB drive. “They couldn’t crack the encryption, so they brought it to me to give to you.”

“FRIDAY, left arm, if you please,” Mr. Stark said, eyeing the drive suspiciously. The suit crouched on the fire escape, sticking its left arm through the window so Mr. Stark could insert the drive into a compartment that opened on the back of the wrist. “Preliminary scan. Full quarantine.”

“That’s so cool,” Ned said so quietly Peter wouldn’t have heard it if he wasn’t enhanced.

“I’m reading 27 terabytes of data,” FRIDAY said. “It will take a while to decrypt, Boss. There’s a lot here.”

“No booby traps?”

“The drive itself is SHIELD-issue,” FRIDAY said. “Programmed to clone stored files.”

“That’s so much data on such a small drive,” Ned said, awed.

“Well, looks like we found our weekend project, Pete,” Mr. Stark said. “FRIDAY can crunch the decryption this week, and then we can start reading.”

“We?” Peter asked. “Isn’t it, like, classified or something?”

“Yep.”

“So I should just get you coffee since it’s above my clearance level?”

“Peter,” Mr. Stark said, eyes dancing like he was trying very hard not to laugh, “you have Avengers-level clearance. You have all the clearance. Have you not looked at your own file? You could walk into any embassy in the world and get anything from a latte to a full military response at your back, no questions asked.”

“Okay. That’s… terrifying,” Peter said.

“Nope. It’s useful. And, really, you sure as hell had better call me before you walk into an embassy and borrow the Navy or something.”

“I don’t even have a passport, Tony.”

“We should probably remedy that,” Mr. Stark said, taking his phone out of his pocket and tapping. Peter had no idea if he was somehow setting up a passport then and there or if he was programming a reminder.

“She said they’re all fine, by the way,” Peter said, because it was orders of magnitude easier to give a report than it was to contemplate all that. “Didn’t need a place to hide out, didn’t need a resupply. She’s blonde now.”

“When did you ask—” Ned started to ask, but then smiled hugely when it clicked. “Oh my god. There’s secret codes. You asked her secret spy code questions!”

“You memorized the handbook, huh?” Mr. Stark asked, but he seemed pleased. Peter shrugged.

“Didn’t want water or Dr. Pepper. And she had Wilson with her,” he said. “The car wasn’t anything exciting, but it was running just fine. You want make, model and plate number, or is it better if you don’t know?”

“They know you know there was a car?”

“Yeah.”

“Then they’re going to ditch it.”

“I figured that, but I don’t know if you’re keeping a file or something,” Peter said, rolling his eyes.

“Don’t sass me with your nonverbals,” Mr. Stark said, but he was still smiling so Peter just shrugged. Mr. Stark turned toward the fire escape and held out his hand. “Give it. Thank you, dear. Now could you fold up for me before the neighbors start staring?”

The Iron Man suit folded into a suitcase, which Mr. Stark picked up and brought into the living room, setting it in the entryway next to the tray for shoes. It was a little bit weird how not weird it was.

Happy burst through the door a moment later, looking just a hair less panicked than Mr. Stark had when he’d first put up the faceplate on the Iron Man suit.

“Hey, Hap,” Mr. Stark said, sticking the USB drive deep in a pocket and smiling. “Good drive?”

“Don’t you ‘good drive’ me,” Happy said, wagging a finger at him. “What’s happening? Where’s the kid? Where’s the suit?”

Mr. Stark,” Peter said, bending at the knees a bit. “You didn’t have to call Happy. It’s the weekend! Isn’t it your day off or something? Sorry Happy.”

“I didn’t call him,” Mr. Stark said defensively.

“No, I was kicking his ass at Mario Kart when your alert went off and he freaked out and ditched me,” Happy said, looking much more collected once he’d laid eyes on Peter. “Where’s the crisis?”

“Iron Man plays Mario Kart?” Ned asked, but Happy and Mr. Stark didn’t seem to hear him.

“Crisis averted,” Mr. Stark said, waving a lazy hand. “Nat showed up. She’s blonde now apparently.”

“Blonde?” Happy said. “That’s a choice.”

“You were playing Mario Kart? Seriously?” Peter asked, laughing. “How is it that I’m the teenager and I was here doing, like, responsible school-related things, and you’re the adults and you were playing Mario Kart?”

“We already finished our responsible school-related things,” Mr. Stark said, putting his nose in the air. “Years ago. So we’re allowed Mario Kart whenever we want.”

“You are shifting so many of my paradigms,” Ned said. Mr. Stark and Happy both paused to look at him like they’d encountered a teenager in its natural habitat and they weren’t sure what to do about it. Ned didn’t seem to know what to do with their attention, either. Peter smothered a snort.

“So what’re we doing?” Mr. Stark asked after an odd moment, clapping his hands. “Are you Spider-Manning today? That’s your usual Saturday afternoon thing, right?”

“Yeah, I was gonna go out in a bit,” Peter said.

“Great. Do that. Your guy can do his chair thing. We’re making lunch.”

“No. No we are not,” Happy said, physically steering Mr. Stark away from the kitchen. “I am making lunch. You are going to sit here and not touch any of the food. Or even think about any of the food. In fact, why don’t you run a software update on the TV.”

“It’s a Samsung,” Mr. Stark said. “I can’t fix that.”

Within a few minutes, Mr. Stark was tinkering with the fire escape window locks (professionally appalled that Black Widow had been able to trick the mechanism into not sending him an unauthorized access alert), Ned had his laptop set up to do his guy in the chair thing, and Peter was in the suit. It was really, really weird to have literally everybody in the apartment not only aware of the vigilante thing but playing an active role in supporting it. And usually they were all so… separate from each other.

“Okay,” Peter said, standing in the doorway to his bedroom with the mask in his hands, “I guess I’ll be heading out now.”

“Head east first,” Ned said without looking up from his laptop.

“Sure,” Peter said.

 

Peter spent the afternoon swinging around Queens. It was a quiet afternoon, really. He rescued that damn cat again. Helped a few tourists figure out where they needed to be. Had Ned package up footage from his suit to send to whichever precinct he was in when he almost literally stumbled into a drug deal. (He’d learned not to jump on those; he reported them just in case there was some larger plot going on and the police were using some low-level scumbag to crack a less-low-level scumbag or something.)

The big difference was that he could hear Happy laughing about it as the cat scratched him up. And Mr. Stark gave snarky answers to the tourists that made Peter glad he had a mask and didn’t have to try to hide his smile.

At some point, Mr. Stark must’ve finished with the window thing and moved to the living room because he’d queued up the stupid Baby Monitor footage for them all to watch live. Mostly they yelled at him about how they were getting motion sickness from all his swinging around.

May got home and joined the mess of it all. He’d been a little nervous she might not like to get home to a house full of people when she’d expected nobody, but she seemed genuinely glad for the company. And she was just as willing to heckle him over web-placement as the rest once she got over how high up he was. (Mr. Stark never got over how high up he was.)

Peter headed for home when Happy announced he’d made lasagna and it had ten minutes left in the oven. He got home just in time to change into sweats while May and Happy put things out on the table—lasagna and garlic bread and salad.

“Oh my god, Happy, this smells amazing,” Peter said, staring at it all. He was always hungry, and even hungrier when he’d been out on patrol burning calories. And it was homemade lasagna; Happy had run to the store for ingredients.

Peter ate three helpings of the lasagna, two bowls of salad, and all the garlic bread he could nick off Mr. Stark’s plate. They chatted. They laughed. May told them all about one of the babies she’d had in NICU for the last two months finally getting the all-clear to go home. Happy told a much more relaxed version of Mr. Stark getting the alert from Peter’s watch and rushing out mid-game.

Peter and Ned did the dishes, because they always did the dishes. The adults took over the living room, and by the time the kitchen was cleaned up they had devised some weird trivia game that involved Peter’s shoebox of decathlon flashcards and the Clue board.

It was… possibly the greatest Saturday in the history of Saturdays.

Chapter Text

“Okay. Accords committee has agreed to talk terms for Barton and Lang, so I’m headed to Geneva for probably the rest of the week,” Mr. Stark said when he called Sunday afternoon. “Sorry for the short notice. They made contact yesterday and the committee wants to make a decision before the public realizes something’s up and starts forming opinions and things.”

“Okay,” Peter said. “Um. What does that mean?”

“You’re going to be with Pepper. Sound good?”

“Okay.” Peter hadn’t spent a whole lot of time with Pepper. He liked her. He thought it was a little bit awkward because he knew things about her—both because he’d read about her in his economics class and as an Avengers-adjacent person of interest before he’d been Avengers-adjacent himself, and because Mr. Stark talked about her a lot.

“You’re Tuesday–Thursday this week. Happy will pick you up as usual, I’ve got stuff set up for you in my office and you can do homework or whatever. Alex will come get you when Pepper’s ready for you, and then you can tag along with her the way you tag along with me.”

“Okay.”

“Tuesday is a bunch of meetings and a big conference call. Thursday there’s a dinner with a client,” Mr. Stark said. “You’d have to check with PASCAL, though.”

“Do I need to do anything specific?” Peter asked.

“Nope. Just do what Pepper says.”

“I can do that.”

“If I can do that, you can do that,” Mr. Stark said, and Peter snorted.

“Sounds good,” Peter said. “Shadow Pepper, go to meetings. It’ll be good.”

“It’ll be great,” Mr. Stark corrected. “Two of my favorite people, hanging out, doing boring business things that Pepper for some reason loves. Maybe you’ll love them too and I’ll never have to do boring business things again.”

“You keep implying I’m your retirement plan and it’s getting weird.”

 

Happy picked Peter up from school Tuesday as usual. Peter had expected Happy to go with to Geneva, but apparently Mr. Stark was more concerned about Peter than himself. Peter tried not to dwell on that.

“Pep’s in a meeting until four. Tony said you’re set up in his office until then,” Happy said as he drove. “There’s a suit for you.”

“A suit?”

“Yeah. You’re not in the workshop tonight, you’re with Pepper. That means a suit.” Happy pulled up to the employee entrance of SI–NY and turned around to look at him over the back of his seat. “You remember how to tie a tie?”

“I think so.” Peter shrugged. “And if I forget there’s always YouTube.”

“No. If you forget, you call me.”

“You want to reteach me how to tie a tie?”

“Kid, my whole gig is keeping you pointed in the right direction, and that includes making sure you look like you should be walking in that direction,” Happy said. “And that means I will reteach you to tie a tie.”

“Thanks, Happy,” Peter said.

“Right. Go. Do what Pepper says. Text me when you’re done and I’ll get you back over to Queens.”

“No. Really. It’s okay,” Peter said. “I can just take the subway.”

“No. You let me know when you’re done and I take you home.”

“Happy. Really. You’ve got way more important things to do than drive me around.”

“No. I have way more important things to do than chase you down so I can drive you home,” Happy said. “So you text me.”

Peter nodded because Happy hadn’t unlocked the door yet. Happy gave him a look, then unlocked the door so he could go.

Peter badged into the building and went up to Mr. Stark’s office as directed. FRIDAY told him Mr. Stark had left him all sorts of snacks in the minifridge, which was awesome. He munched while he did his homework—sitting on the couch in the corner rather than at the desk because that was just too weird even though FRIDAY said it would’ve been okay.

The suit was there, too. It was a textured gray one similar to something Peter had worn in Malibu, except none of the suits from Malibu fit him anymore which meant that Mr. Stark had bought him more clothes again. There were shoes and a belt, both shiny black leather. Socks. A black tie.

And then there was the shirt.

“FRIDAY? Is there, like, a not weird-looking shirt I could wear?” Peter asked, looking hopefully up at the nearest camera.

“There is one on the hanger in front of you.”

“I mean, like… no pattern, FRIDAY.”

“That is a perfectly nice shirt, Peter,” FRIDAY said.

“Yeah. I don’t know what I was thinking,” Peter muttered. “He’s the one who programmed you. Of course you’d think it’s a perfectly nice shirt.”

It was a black shirt and it had a pattern of white-gray dots on it. And when he looked more closely, those white-gray dots were actually in a formation that looked a lot like the logo that had come to represent Mr. Stark’s arc reactor tech. Which was just typical, really.

Peter sighed. He considered wearing the button-up he’d worn to school, just for a moment, but it was wrinkled from being under his sweater all day.

Peter called Happy, hoping for a hail mary sort of save. Maybe Happy would bring him a plain old, normal, simple shirt.

“Happy, this is ridiculous.”

“What? Did you kill the tie or something?”

“Did you see what he picked for me to wear?”

“Yeah. Gray suit, black shoes,” Happy said. “That’s a rule. Black or gray suit, black shoes. Blue suit, brown shoes.”

“Did you see the shirt, though?”

“No. Does it not fit?”

“It’s—” He sighed and took a picture, sent it to Happy. “It’s ridiculous.”

“That’s not bad,” Happy said.

“Happy! It’s… There’s so much… Did you see the arc reactor dot pattern?”

“What did you expect? Tony Stark picked it out. It’ll probably be the most comfortable thing you’ve ever worn.”

“I’m not going to be comfortable in it at all.”

“Put the shirt on, Peter,” Happy said. “And tuck it in.”

Peter sighed again, but hung up and did as he was told. He tied the tie without any problems, then took a picture and sent it to Happy to prove that he’d done it.

There was a mirror in the private bathroom and he looked himself over. He didn’t really look like himself. He looked a lot like some kid who was trying too hard to look like Tony Stark is what he looked like. All he was missing was the tinted glasses.

Peter went back out into the office, all but decided that he was going to switch to the shirt he’d worn to school, but then he had to stop and take it all in for a moment. It had struck him that he was at Stark Industries, unsupervised in Tony freaking Stark’s private office, wearing a suit that Tony Stark hand-picked for him. A year ago, he hadn’t even met Mr. Stark yet. He’d just been a random kid slogging through high school, a fan with no expectation of ever meeting Mr. Stark in any real capacity.

So much had changed in so little time.

“Ready?” Alex asked, breaking him out of his stupor. They looked as unimpressed with him as ever.

“Probably not,” Peter said, smoothing the front of his jacket compulsively.

“Don’t do that,” they said. “Just leave it.”

“I hate this shirt,” Peter said.

“It’s fine.”

“I still hate it.”

Alex held open the office door, ending the conversation without further comment. They walked him from Mr. Stark’s office to Pepper’s, briefing him on the evening’s schedule as they went. It was insanely full. There were two more meetings, then a break for dinner, a chunk of time blocked for something to do with accounting, and then a conference call with district leads for SI’s manufacturing plants on the west coast.

“I’ve seen you in meetings with Stark. Just do what you do with those, and you’ll be fine,” Alex said. “I will be taking notes, so you don’t need to worry about it unless there’s something you want to make a note of to ask about later. But ask about things later. After the meeting.”

“Got it.”

“I will order dinner, but you will pick it up from reception because I’m off at seven tonight. You do whatever she says after that.” Alex badged them both through the door to the executive floor. “My advice is to keep as quiet as you can during the conference call. The manufacturing guys like to chat, and it’s not so late over there so they’ll gladly ‘shoot the breeze’ about just who the new intern is rather than getting through business so she gets real sleep.”

“Got it,” Peter said again.

Alex gave him a leery look but didn’t give him any further coaching, just sent him on into Pepper’s office.

“Hi, Peter,” Pepper said. She was at her desk sorting through a few folders that had things like PROPERTY OF STARK INDUSTRIES and CONFIDENTIAL stamped on them.

“Hi,” he said, very (very) glad when his voice didn’t crack.

“Did Tony give you the rundown at all?”

“Uh. Not really.”

“Of course not,” Pepper said with a little noise at the back of her throat that he thought was probably a laugh. “Have a seat. I’ll give you a summary, and then we’re on the move.”

Peter complied, sitting across the desk from her and putting on his best attentive face. She gave him a look like she thought he might be mocking her with the look, but then she ignored it.

 

It took Peter exactly those two days—Tuesday and Thursday—to fall in love with the whole of it. She was so busy. It was wonderful.

Some of it was boring. There were a lot of spreadsheets, a lot of long conversations about things like stock projections.

Most of it was awesome. He probably would’ve been enraptured sooner if he hadn’t had a bit of a learning curve to catch up to the business lingo, the accounting stuff, the CEO’s role within the various boards and foundations.

He hadn’t known that Pepper was a CPA. She’d started off at SI in Payroll, come to Mr. Stark’s attention when she’d threatened to pepper spray Obadiah Stane’s assistant, ended up Mr. Stark’s PA for more than a decade, and then he’d made her CEO.

It made so much sense after she told him the story, though. Mr. Stark thought of himself as a mechanic, and Pepper thought of herself as an accountant; they both liked numbers, clear problems with steps to take toward solutions. They were brilliant, and Pepper’s delight in making the system work in her favor matched up weirdly well with Mr. Stark’s penchant for ignoring the system altogether. Mr. Stark liked to think outside the box, and Pepper liked to reshape the boxes to fit his ideas.

Plus, she was really funny. It was a very dry sort of humor. She didn’t actually tell jokes or fire off little one-liners the way Mr. Stark did, but she held conversations and arranged situations that were just… funny. The stuffy old men who very clearly wanted to make gross “go make me a sandwich” jokes ended up floundering while Pepper gave them her patient CEO face, and Peter actually had to excuse himself from the room once to laugh about it.

She was awesome. She was unflinching. She was brilliant.

Peter would’ve gladly shadowed her for the whole year, but Mr. Stark put the kibosh on it when he caught them sitting on the floor of Pepper’s office just shy of midnight the evening he got back into town, color-coded holograms floating around them, so deep in it that neither of them had noticed the time.

Chapter Text

Peter woke up to a blaring text alert that just kept repeating.

“Ugh, no,” he moaned in the general direction of his phone. It was just barely past five in the morning, and he didn’t have to be up for school for more than an hour. “Stop. Shut up.”

It was a text from Mr. Stark, of course. FRIDAY was on his phone and it was super cool except for the part that it meant Mr. Stark had easy access to completely override his Do Not Disturb settings.

YOU DON’T HAVE SCHOOL TOMORROW, RIGHT? the text read.

Peter stared at it, processing slowly.

RIGHT, he texted back. PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT DAY FOR THE TEACHERS. OR SOMETHING

Then he sent a long string of question marks. He adjusted the volume to something more normal, but didn’t dare drowse because Mr. Stark would probably just text him back and wake him up again if he tried.

WANT TO GO TO CA?

Peter blinked. He held his phone away from him, looking around the room, pinched himself to be sure he wasn’t still asleep.

YES? he sent back.

EXCELLENT.

Peter jumped out of bed, showered, kept checking his phone for updates, woke Ned up with a bunch of excited texts. He sent May a few texts, too, but she was working and probably wouldn’t even look at her phone until her shift ended at nine.

Eventually, he went to school. Mr. Stark had said tomorrow, so it wasn’t like he was about to turn up at the apartment or something.

“Dude,” Ned said, appearing at Peter’s elbow and smiling that huge smile. “California? Like, Stark Industries HQ California? Or is he taking you to Disneyland? Oh my God, Peter, Mr. Stark’s taking you across state lines—that means May is going to make him sign papers so he’s, like, literally legally your adult for the weekend. Dude. Your life.”

Peter opened his mouth, not even sure what he was going to say—he hadn’t actually thought about what Mr. Stark wanted to take him to California for, just jumped at the idea of a trip with the coolest person he’d ever met—when Mrs. Finch from the front office paged him over the loudspeaker.

“Peter Parker to the office,” she said. She already sounded bored and the school day hadn’t even started. “Peter Parker to the office.”

“Ooh, what did you do, Parker?” Flash said from his locker across the hall. His eyes gleamed, like he had more ‘creative’ taunts where that came from, but Peter just ignored him.

“Do you think it’s Mr. Stark?” Ned hissed, grinning again.

“If anything, he’d send Happy,” Peter said. “But no. He said tomorrow.”

“Right. Right,” Ned said, nodding. “Cool. Cool.”

The bell rang and they parted ways, Ned hurrying off to first period while Peter pushed against the flow of the crowd toward the office.

It was Happy, and he was scowling at Mrs. Finch. Mrs. Finch didn’t seem particularly bothered about it, though.

“Uh. Happy?” Peter said, looking back and forth between them.

“Peter. Great. Let’s go.”

“Go?”

“Where’s your stuff? Got all your… homework? Whatever it is that you keep in your backpack that makes it weigh 300 pounds.”

“My backpack doesn’t weight 300 pounds,” Peter said, rolling his eyes.

“Go get all your books or whatever,” Happy said. Mrs. Finch looked like she wanted to say something, but Happy had dismissed her from his attention. “Whatever you need for the weekend. May says we get to keep you until Tuesday.”

“We’re going today?” Peter asked. “’Til Tuesday?”

“That’s what I said. Go get your stuff,” Happy said. He tucked his folder under his arm and got his phone out of his pocket, waving his hand at the door as he answered a call. “Yeah, no, I got him. We’re still in the school. I know that he’s just being slow. For some reason. Kid, move, plane’s fueled up and ready to go. No, no. Tony. I’m not putting you on speaker. Because I’m not. No, I work for Pepper, remember?”

Peter dashed off back to his locker, the trip much quicker since the halls were empty. He’d have to take all of his books since he had no idea what homework he’d have over the long weekend. Hopefully Happy would let him stop at the apartment; he didn’t have Physics on Thursdays so he hadn’t brought the book with him.

LEAVING FOR CA RIGHT NOW! he texted Ned after he’d grabbed it all from his locker. Ned wouldn’t text back since he was in class, but he had to share the crazy.

“Ready,” he said, jogging back into the office. Mrs. Finch and Happy were studiously ignoring each other.

“Finally.” Happy opened the exterior door and held it for Peter, then handed him the manilla folder as he passed by.

“What’s this?” Peter asked, taking it reflexively, putting his phone back in his pocket as they walked out to where Happy was parked at the front of the school (in the lane clearly marked ‘STUDENT DROP-OFF, NO PARKING.’)

“Copies for May,” Happy said. He opened the back door for Peter, slammed it as soon as he was in the seat. He didn’t elaborate on the folder. “We’re swinging by your place first. You get twenty minutes to pack a bag. Tony says think beach vacation.”

Logistics seemed to be his happy place—travel plans, security details, protocols.

“May really signed off on him taking me out of school to go to the beach?” Peter asked. He didn’t buy that for a second. (And he really hoped Mr. Stark hadn’t lied to May again…)

“No. You’re gonna be all over HQ, but Tony’s got you set up with stuff for that. It’s already in Malibu. All you need is stuff for the evening or whatever when you’re actually at the beach. And pajamas. And deodorant.”

“Tony bought me more clothes?”

“Kid, he bought you a Ferrari. Why are you surprised he’d buy you clothes?”

“Wait, the Ferrari is for me?”

“Jeez, Peter,” Happy said, sounding disgusted. But the warm look in his eyes when he looked back at Peter in the rearview mirror gave him away. “Look in the glove box next time you’re working on it. Your name’s on the title.”

“I… don’t know what to do with that information.”

Happy laughed at him. They’d arrived at the apartment, so he didn’t have to think of anything else to say at least.

Happy waited in the car while Peter ran up.

“May?” he called softly, not sure if she would’ve gone to sleep because she’d worked an overnight or if she’d waited up since he was about to leave for almost a week.

“Right here,” May said, poking her head out of the kitchen. She looked tired, but she was smiling a broad, teasing sort of smile. “How was school?”

“Brief,” Peter said, laughing. He handed her Happy’s folder. She took it like she’d been expecting it and immediately added it to the other folders and binders of important records in the cabinet above the sink.

“Your choice,” May said, turning back to him and waving toward his bedroom before he could ask her about the folder. “Ben’s old suitcase or my pull-behind carryon bag. I wasn’t sure what you’d need to pack, so I got you out options.”

Since Happy had said to just pack for the beach, Peter went with the carryon. He didn’t actually own much in the way of Malibu-type vacation-wear, but he packed his swim trunks, shorts and t-shirts, the one pair of flip-flops he owned. May amused herself by throwing various travel size toiletries at him, watching his ‘Peter Tingle’ move him to catch or dodge all of it.

“Thanks for letting me go on this impromptu trip thing,” Peter said once he was packed. He stood up to hug her properly. “This is so cool.”

“It’s an impromptu learning trip with actual internship things happening,” May said, squeezing him back. She held him at arm’s length after, giving him her best serious look. “If I see Spider-Man on the news taking on some bad guy with Iron Man somewhere, we are having a very serious conversation. And you’re grounded forever.”

Peter laughed and hugged her again.

“I was specifically instructed not to bring the suit. Promise.”

“Are you sure? What if you need it?”

“I’ll be with Mr. Stark,” Peter said, shrugging. He was actually weirdly excited about a little enforced break from Spider-Man. Spider-Man was just a New York thing; he couldn’t turn up in Malibu when Peter Parker was there. Somebody would trace it back, realize Spider-Man had turned up in DC when Peter Parker was in DC, and that would be bad. And a little part of him (okay, not a little part) liked the idea that Mr. Stark wanted to spend time with him that wasn’t Spider-Man-related.

“Have fun. Call me all the time. Leave me voicemails to listen to on my breaks.” May pulled him close for another hug. “Love you, sweetie.”

“Love you, May.”

“Eat something before you go, okay?”

“I just had breakfast, May.”

“Just. For me.” She held out one of his protein bars. “I worry. I want you to take care of yourself.”

“I’m eating it. See?” He took a big bite. “Eating it.”

“You remembered toothpaste, right?”

“Yes, May.”

 

“So there’s something I want to talk to you about before we get to Cali,” Mr. Stark said. They’d been in the air for maybe half an hour. Happy was sleeping—really sleeping, not faking like he had at the beginning; the snoring had tapered off and his heartbeat was slow and steady—and they otherwise seemed to have the plane to themselves. It was a private jet, after all.

“Okay,” Peter said, sitting forward a bit. Mr. Stark’s tone was casual, but his heartrate had spiked as soon as he’d started talking. So it was something that made him nervous?

“You know May signed a bunch of stuff so I can get you out of school and take you across state lines, right?”

“Guardianship,” Peter said, nodding. He’d seen the paperwork. May had official custody of him, but legally Mr. Stark was a second parent-type person. Peter had actually lost his scholarship at Midtown because of it—he didn’t meet the financial qualifications for a full ride with Mr. Stark’s assets in consideration. (Mr. Stark had written a check for the semester before Peter or May had even realized the scholarship status had changed.)

“Yeah. It’s something May and I have talked about on and off in the last few months,” Mr. Stark said, his heartrate still too fast, and talking too fast. Nervous? Averse to potentially emotional topics?

“May said she’d been doing really well,” Peter said. She still wouldn’t give him real details about the trial she was in, but she came back from appointments with her doctors looking optimistic.

“No. Peter, relax, no. She’s fine,” Mr. Stark said, then he smiled. “She’s just crossed that fun line where you’re forty and you sneeze wrong and throw your back out. It’s an old people thing. We throw our backs out and decide we’re just going to die about it and so we should probably have some sort of contingency plan in place for things.”

“She threw her back out?”

“No. It was a joke. May’s fine.”

“She has cancer,” Peter said.

“But she’s fighting it and she’s fine,” Mr. Stark said. He looked like he was wishing he’d approached the conversation from a different angle, and Peter sort of agreed.

“So. Contingency plans?”

“Exactly.”

“Okay?”

“I don’t want you to feel like I’m trying to step on any toes,” Mr. Stark said. “Or something.”

“Toes?”

“I know I’m not your dad. And I’m not your uncle Ben,” he said. Peter had not ever expected to see Tony effing Stark look vulnerable, but he did. “I’m just some guy who waltzed in with some shiny tech to drag you into a fight that wasn’t all your own.”

“To be fair, you didn’t think it would actually be a fight,” Peter pointed out.

“Not the point.”

“But valid.”

“Peter.”

“It really is fine, Mr. Stark,” Peter said. He wasn’t sure what to say. Mr. Stark was obviously trying to bring something up, but he was going in circles around it and his nerves were catching. Peter rubbed the sweat off his palms onto his jeans, avoiding eye contact. “You’re you, you know? Not anybody else. Not trying to be anybody else or something. Just you. And now you’re legally allowed to take me to the dentist or something.”

“Or California. California is way more fun than the dentist,” Mr. Stark said, smiling just a little bit too sincerely to play off the relaxed air he was putting on. Peter smiled back.

“Way more fun. Is Alex going to be around, or are they in New York since Pepper’s in New York?” Peter asked. “I’ve made it my mission to make them smile this time.”

“Alex is unflappable.”

“I got through to Happy, I’ll get through to Alex,” Peter said, rubbing his palms together and raising his eyebrows and generally trying to look like a cartoon villain.

“Okay, no, you’re not allowed to distract me,” Mr. Stark said, holding up a ‘one minute’ finger. “Serious talk.”

“Serious talk,” Peter repeated back, sitting forward and mimicking Mr. Stark’s posture.

“I did a thing after you stayed up at the compound over your school break,” Mr. Stark said. “I’m not planning for it to be a factor in anything for years, but I figure you should at least know about it.”

“Okay,” Peter prompted, nodding and trying not to look as nearly-freaked-out as he felt. Mr. Stark’s heart was racing again.

“You’re officially my heir.”

“I’m what now.”

“In the event of my death, you get all my stuff. FRIDAY has protocols for it. There’s paperwork on file. It’s all sorted out,” Mr. Stark said. He leaned forward and grabbed Peter’s wrist, squeezing tight a moment before letting go. “It’s the sneeze thing. Contingencies. Better to have a plan than to not.”

Mr. Stark—!”

“Don’t freak out,” Mr. Stark said, smiling now, reaching for his wrist again and this time holding on. “There’s all sorts of legal stuff built in about the company and things, and Happy gets about half the cars unless he goes first so don’t get too excited.”

“But. I mean. Pepper—”

“Pepper’s set. She’s taken care of—that’s part of FRIDAY’s protocols and the paperwork I was talking about, and she’s in charge of SI whether I own it or not,” Mr. Stark said. “She’s also flat-out refused to inherit my shares if I die because she says I’ll just die on purpose to put more responsibility on her.”

“There’s respon—Tony!” Peter took his wrist back so that he could run his hands through his hair. He sort of wanted to get up and pace and freak out, but his legs didn’t seem to remember how to move. “That’s so much.”

“Peter, you have had a debit card with a direct line to my checking account for months,” Mr. Stark said. His heartrate was back to normal and he seemed to be enjoying Peter’s spazzing out, which was entirely unfair. “You have used it to buy food—and not just junk, actual groceries; I checked—and a backpack.”

“I…” Peter blinked, frowned. “I thought it was, like, an employee expense card thing.”

“Nope.”

“I.. I don’t understand. Thank you, I mean. That’s a lot of… trust. Or something.”

“I’m really bad at this sort of thing, Peter. Family stuff,” Mr. Stark said. “I’ve just got a couple people in the world that stick around even when life’s a mess. It’s Pepper, Happy, Rhodey. And now you.”

“Mr. Stark…” Peter met his eyes, not sure what to say, but Mr. Stark just shrugged.

He’d been more-or-less continuously in Mr. Stark’s orbit for months, so any ‘oh my god Iron Man is my legal guardian’ was overshadowed by the fact that he’d been acting the part already. Aunt May had given him copies of Peter’s report card to put on his fridge and everything. But ‘oh my god Tony Stark wants me to take care of Stark Industries if he dies’ was impossible to overshadow.

“Sorry, but you’re the youngest of us, so it’s all going to end up with you.” Mr. Stark was trying for cavalier, a wry smile. “I’d like to put in a request for a home healthcare aid when I’m old and infirm rather than a nursing home somewhere. And I’ll wish you good luck getting Happy to stop driving even when he’s blind as a bat.”

 

They went to Pepper’s beach house. The guest room he’d stayed in before had a Star Wars poster on the wall and an Iron Man-red comforter to match the one on his bed at the compound. And the closet was full of clothes—real clothes, not surplus SHIELD and SI gear—that fit him.

“I don’t even know what to say,” Peter said, standing in the middle of the room.

“Don’t have to say anything,” Mr. Stark said, idly fussing with the lamp on the desk. “Just ditch your stuff. We’re getting barbeque on the boardwalk. Vamanos. Andiamo.”

 

PP: HE SAYS, AND I QUOTE: “THIS IS A BUSINESS TRIP. IF I WERE GOING TO TAKE YOU TO DISNEY IT’D BE FOR YOUR BIRTHDAY, AND WE’D BRING NED”

DUDE, Ned texted back almost immediately. DID IRON MAN JUST SAY HE’S TAKING YOU TO DISNEY FOR YOUR BIRTHDAY?????

PP: DUDE. HE’S TAKING BOTH OF US

NL: DUDE

 

They went out for barbeque, wandered a touristy boardwalk area, took touristy selfies. If anybody recognized Mr. Stark, they didn’t seem to care. There were no paparazzi, barely any attention at all. They stopped for ice cream cones on the way back to Pepper’s place.

Peter put a picture of his ice cream cone on the @Peter_the_Intern account. It had the sunset in the background and he captioned it FOR SCIENCE and Dot from Marketing dropped into his DMs to tell him to stop posting nonsense.

He spent Friday in a suit that cost more than his and May’s rent. It was tailored and really weirdly comfortable. Mr. Stark was in a three piece suit with a tie and everything, but Peter’s was just the pants and coat with a button-up. He’d been uncomfortable at first—first because of the weird fancy clothes, then because he worried he’d somehow be underdressed—but he’d quickly been distracted by how interesting it all was.

There were R&D meetings all morning. When those were done, there was a lunch meeting with a bunch of executives that Mr. Stark wanted him to know. Then, like before, they spent the afternoon spread out across the various R&D buildings; Mr. Stark let people tell him about their projects, gave suggestions, asked questions, directed some of their questions to Peter. And then they spent the evening in Mr. Stark’s workshop on the top floor of the tallest R&D building (R&D – West); Happy turned up just before midnight to drag them away and make them eat and sleep.

Saturday was more of the same but without the meetings. And he was allowed to wear jeans and a sports coat rather than a full suit.

Chapter Text

The following week, Peter walked into the workshop and came to a full stop. For possibly the first time ever, Mr. Stark wasn’t waiting for him, elbows-deep in whatever project was on the docket for the day. 

“Tony?”

“Yeah. Back here,” Mr. Stark said. “Have a seat.”

Peter entered the workshop properly, and there was Mr. Stark sitting on the couch in the office-y part at the back. He had Peter’s official internship binder sitting on the low table next to him.

“Am I in trouble?” Peter asked. The only time he’d ever actually seen that binder had been when they’d gone through all the paperwork at the compound with May. Peter had never once thought about the binder or check-ins or anything like that, even if the paperwork for the school said those were things that were supposed to happen regularly with whoever was supervising his internship.

“Not in trouble,” Mr. Stark said. He thumped a hand on the couch next to him. “Have a seat.”

“Am I dying?” Peter asked, dropping his backpack near his usual workbench and heading toward the indicated spot. “Are you dying?”

“Peter. Sit down.”

“What did I do?”

Mr. Stark gave him a look. Peter sat and tried to mimic Mr. Stark’s easy posture, but he really wanted to clench his hands or pick at his sleeves or something.

“Real talk,” Mr. Stark said. “What are your plans for the future?”

“The future?”

“Yes. Any ideas? You thinking college? Gap year? Skip college entirely to do Avengers full-time? Drop the Avengers idea and bury yourself in hard research until you forget what the sun looks like?”

“Um.” Peter sat back, eyebrows drawing together. Just about every adult in his life had begun probing at that sort of question, but not with the same candid open-endedness as Mr. Stark. “I’ve thought about doing all of those, I suppose.”

“If you had to pick your perfect future—no expectations, no limits—what would it be?”

Peter frowned because, coming from Mr. Stark, that was a loaded question. He made things happen. Peter had learned to be careful of throwaway comments.

But if he wanted honesty…

“Well. I suppose, perfect future…” Peter sighed. “It looks a lot like right now. I guess.”

“Sitting on this lumpy old couch in the workshop?”

“More or less, yeah,” Peter said even though Mr. Stark had been joking. “I like it here. I like all the different problems and puzzles. I like being Spider-Man. I even like listening to all your heads of department fight over budgets and things because even when they’re shouting at each other it’s about interesting things.”

“That’s what I was hoping you’d say,” Mr. Stark said, smiling a little bit. He picked up the internship binder and opened it up. 

Mr. Stark had been updating the binder every week, even if he hadn’t said anything about it. There were notations for every single meeting he’d attended, every single project he’d touched, every single person he’d shadowed. 

“Pepper and I have been talking,” Mr. Stark said slowly. “The wedding is coming up, and we’re starting to talk about what comes after that.”

Peter frowned. Mr. Stark shot him another look, tapping his finger on the binder a few times to focus Peter’s attention there.

“How about this. Look at your project list,” he said. Peter did. It was just a bullet list with little notes next to a few of them about his contributions. “Did you know you’ve had input on every single project in this year’s Expo?”

“Really?” No, he hadn’t known that.

Mr. Stark smirked and flipped a few pages in the binder.

“And I’ve had requests from every single department to borrow you. Not only that, but I’ve got three different sections in R&D who’ve started scheduling their project meetings around when you’re available to sit in.”

“I… I didn’t know that.”

Mr. Stark smiled.

“I know we talked about this over your break, and I get wanting to honor your uncle’s wishes, but I keep circling back to…” Mr. Stark sighed. “You’re not a narcissistic asshole, Peter. Mission accomplished. And you’re going nuts slogging through high school.”

“I am not!” Peter said, but it was a token protest. Mr. Stark gave him an unimpressed look and tapped something on his phone that brought up one of FRIDAY’s holographic displays.

“Your English homework takes you the longest to complete, and I was thinking it was because it’s not your strongest subject or something. But then I looked at a few of your essays, and… Really, Pete?”

Peter had to laugh. The essay Mr. Stark had pulled up on the display was his latest, a discussion of themes in Pride and Prejudice, and Peter had gone to great lengths so that the first letter down the left margin all the way through the essay spelled out “THIS IS THE THIRD TIME I HAVE READ THIS BOOK MR SCOTT.” It had been the first time Mr. Scott had caught on even though Peter had been doing similar things all year—it was just luck that it had taken so long, since Mr. Scott had been more than a little bit sullen about it overall; he’d still given Peter full credit, though.

“They all want to be the one who introduces us STEM heathens to Jane Austen,” Peter said.

“I have a proposal for you,” Mr. Stark said, waving a hand to dismiss his essay from the display. He tapped a few things on a StarkPad and handed it over. “I won’t be offended if you say no. I get it. But I want you to think about it.”

Peter took the StarkPad and looked over the plan Mr. Stark had put together. It was a sort of academic itinerary.

“If we’d come at this like any other SI internship, you would’ve been getting college credit for a lot of the work you’ve already done,” Mr. Stark said, fingers tapping idly on the internship binder still in front of him. “Looking at the way Midtown runs most of their post-secondary and internship programs, I could sign off on a lot of credits based on work you’ve done here, and you could test out of other things with your AP classes.”

Peter nodded, looking at the StarkPad. A summer spent ticking all the right boxes. If he didn’t fail any of the tests, Mr. Stark had plotted out a full schedule of post-secondary classes for the fall semester with just Spanish and Art at Midtown, and there would be open time for him to participate in academic decathlon. Options varied based on which school he did the post-secondary through—there were a few that Midtown regularly partnered with, not to mention a few that Mr. Stark had noted he’d be able to make work on Peter’s behalf (“might as well make celebrity status work in my favor,” his notation said).

Between actual classes and internship credits, Mr. Stark had plotted out a few different choices for Peter to get the last of the credits he needed to finish high school over the course the fall semester of his junior year, then transition to college courses full-time.

It'd be very busy. And he’d have to take the SAT in less than a month. But he had his Spanish class with Ned, and he got to keep academic decathlon with Ned and MJ. And there was time blocked off for the SI internship with actual potential projects that sounded awesome.

There was less time for Spider-Man than Peter’s current schedule, but it hadn’t been entirely carved away.

And Mr. Stark had blocked every other Sunday with “garage time,” which meant that he was still going to putz around teaching Peter how cars worked.

“If things play out the way I think they will—and, let’s be honest, they usually do—you could get through whatever undergrad program you chose,” Mr. Stark said. “I highly recommend MIT, but I’m biased. You can commute if you’d like, but there are remote options too, particularly with the lab facilities available here to complete any coursework.”

Honestly, it looked wonderful. It looked interesting and challenging. He hadn’t been challenged by school for as long as he could remember, and the idea of it was weirdly thrilling.

“What’s the asterisk by Spanish III?” Peter asked after he’d read the whole thing through twice.

“If you’re sitting a class for a language you already speak, you have to learn another one,” Mr. Stark said, smiling at him. “FRIDAY can quiz you. I suggest Italian.”

“Why Italian?” Peter asked, though he was already on board. Mr. Stark randomly talked to his robots in Italian, and it was weirdest funniest thing.

“Because I speak Italian.”

“Right. Of course.”

Certo,” Mr. Stark said, clearly mocking him (if gently).“Cosi sarcastico, cocciolo.”

Peter smiled, then looked at the document again.

“Would it be okay if I talked to May about it?” he asked. “I… want to do it. But I really don’t want her to think I’m trying to insult Uncle Ben’s memory or something.”

“Of course, Pete.”

 

He probably shouldn’t have been surprised that Mr. Stark had talked to May about it already.

“This was something Ben and I had talked about, honey,” May said when he brought it up. He’d stewed about it for the first half of the week, wondering if she’d hate that he’d decided he really wanted to go for it.

“Really?”

“Yeah. Absolutely it was,” she said. “Constantly, actually. It was easier to push it off when you were littler, when school was just as much about learning the social stuff as it was learning numbers and things.”

Peter felt like he should probably say something about social interaction being a big part of high school, but held his tongue.

“I don’t think you could’ve turned out like Richard even if he’d been the one to raise you, sweetie,” May said after a moment. She had that pinched look she always got when she talked about his dad—she’d only met him a few times and she always said she didn’t like to speak ill of the dead, but she’d heard more than a few stories from Uncle Ben. “You’re a good kid. And you’re really good at finding the right people to push you along.”

“You think so?”

“Yes,” she said definitively. “We did talk about it after winter break. His parents really pushed him, you know. He was always the smartest kid in the class and his parents wanted him to live up to it, be the next Stark, all that. It wasn’t good for him; I know you know that. The nineties happened very publicly for him.”

“Right,” Peter said, not sure what else to say. May didn’t seem to need more than a token prompting to continue, though.

“He doesn’t want to push you, and I don’t want to push you either, but I know you’re bored, honey,” May said, leaning forward so she could hold eye contact. “I didn’t realize how bored until he showed me those essays, though.”

Peter laughed, shrugged. May smiled at him.

“I really like the plan he made,” Peter admitted after a moment. “I still get to see my friends. I’ll be really busy, and midterms are probably going to be hell, but I think I can do it.”

“And if you decide you want to slow it down, you have that option,” May said, pointing a finger at him. “This is working ahead. You’re allowed to take breaks.”

They spent the rest of the night talking about college options for the post-secondary classes, potential majors, all of it. Mr. Stark had planned out a few options for him, and he was obnoxiously right-on with Peter’s interests, but he still wanted to look at all his options for the sake of looking.

There were so many options dancing around in his head, he had to go out and chase down criminals to blow off the adrenalin so he could sleep.

Chapter Text

Peter stared at the screen of his laptop. Glared at it. Turned his head to stare at it sideways. Squinted.

Yeah, no, the cursor thing was definitely just sitting there blinking at him.

“That essay’s not going to write itself!” May had quipped at him as she’d headed out the door. She’d been working shorter shifts since she started the trial, and they were more random than ever—this one was Thursday evening, but she’d be off by midnight.

“Do you think Mr. Stark could write me a note?” Peter had asked.

“Good luck explaining that one, kiddo.”

His task had been to finish his History essay. It was due Monday and he hadn’t started it.

May had left more than an hour ago, but he still hadn’t started it.

He did not want to write the essay. The essay was obnoxious.

The essay was on the Accords and he’d signed the Accords (or May had on his behalf, at least), which had to mean that he didn’t have to write essays on them for History.

His phone rang and he didn’t even look at the caller ID before he picked up. Because talking on the phone to a stranger was better than staring down that cursor for one more second.

“Parker, it’s Hill,” Maria Hill said. As in Nick Fury’s guy in the chair Maria Hill.

Maria Hill had his phone number.

“Oh my god,” Peter said because he had no chill.

“Are you free?”

“I’m so free,” Peter said, laptop already closed. Practically vibrating.

“Good. I’m on my way to your location,” Hill said. “We need you in civies. I’ll brief you in the car.”

“Cool.”

“ETA three minutes.”

“Cool,” he said again, but she’d already hung up.

“Civies” from SHIELD did not mean leave on what he’d worn to school. It meant nondescript—no print, no logos, nothing. Dark t-shirt, generic gray zip-up, dark jeans, grungy sneakers. He left his wallet and phone, because they were things that could identify him if dropped.

Hill was in one of those “anonymous” black government-looking not-trucks in the alley, which… cool. So cool.

“Hey,” he said, jumping into the back seat and smiling at her. “JV squad reporting for duty.”

Hill glanced at him, probably rolled her eyes mentally even if she was too cool and professional and stuff to actually do it. The driver flipped a switch on the dashboard and emergency vehicle lights flashed, a siren played (remarkably quietly inside the car thanks to soundproofing).

“US Marshals called for backup. Their witness—” Hill handed a file folder to him. “—Their witness is due in DC tomorrow to give testimony, but his location turned out not to be so secure. The people that grabbed him are enhanced. Marshals and NYPD tracked them to a bodega.”

Peter flipped through the file. The witness was a Byron Macalester, sixty-two-year-old UK-born scientist, decades of work at various private research institutions and a few think tanks.

“His testimony somehow involves enhanced people? Or they’re hired help?”

“His testimony does,” Hill said. “It could go either way, though.”

“What’s my role here?” Peter asked, because that was one thing he’d definitely learned from memorizing all those SHIELD manuals. There was always a plan. Every player on the board had a purpose.

“Get in, have a look around, hopefully walk out the back with the witness while NYPD moves in,” Hill said.

The driver had turned off the siren a few blocks back, and now turned off the lights as well as he parked in another alley.

Hill got out of the car and Peter followed, stuffing his hands in his pockets and wondering if that made him more or less conspicuous. She paused at the entrance to the alley, looking up and down the street briefly before she stepped back into the shadows and leaned against the building, waiting.

“Does Mr. Stark know I’m here?” Peter asked, mimicking her leaning.

“He’s been informed of the mission, yes,” Hill said.

A large delivery van pulled up, stopping just past where they waited, and Hill pulled the rear door open, held it for him.

“Good,” Peter said as he passed her. “Otherwise this would feel a lot like a kidnapping.”

He couldn’t see her face, but he’d bet she’d repressed the urge to roll her eyes at him again.

“No way this is the guy,” a plainclothes NYPD guy said after Hill had closed the rear doors.

“This is the guy,” Hill said.

“Hi,” Peter said, glancing at each of them in the van. “I’m the guy.”

There were four of them. The NYPD guy, two guys in FBI windbreakers, and a lady in a suit who Peter guessed was with the US Marshals. They were all youngish middle age and looked like they’d been running on coffee for way too long.

“We’re in position,” the driver said, knocking once against the partition between the cab and the back. The NYPD guy knocked back.

With one last leery glance at him, the US Marshals lady got him up to speed. Four hostiles, one hostage, civilians in and out for the last hour since they’d stopped. There were eyes on the exits, the alley behind. They’d sent plainclothes NYPD in on first arrival, but one of the hostiles had walked him back out of the bodega with a gun to his back.

This is a horrible plan, Peter thought, but he didn’t dare tell them so. It felt like a test. A horrible, imperfect, badly thought-out test. He sort of doubted they’d actually told Mr. Stark what was going on.

Hill gave him an earpiece that looked like a wireless headphone and a pair of glasses fitted out so they’d be able to see what he did, and Peter hopped out the back, then meandered his way down the street to the bodega. It was a generic bodega, really. Kinda dusty. It smelled really strongly of nearly-burnt coffee.

There was an employee behind the counter, presumably a civilian because Peter didn’t recognize him from the CCTV screenshots Hill had had of the hostiles. Also, he looked like he was barely holding it together. He gave Peter a tense, hollow-eyed smile. And that was telling enough because it was late on a weeknight in New York and no bodega cashier in their right mind would go around making eye contact with random teenagers.

One of the hostiles was definitely lurking over by the cooler case, watching the door and the cashier. He had a tattoo of a snake that went up the side of his neck, up the side of his face, then ended so that its jaws opened like the snake was about to take a bite out of his eyeball or something. The face tattoo meant Hill’s people had gotten a quick match back when they ran his image, though; his name was Gavin Devereaux.

Gavin.

Worst thug name ever.

Peter didn’t more than glance at Gavin, turning down the first aisle and making a show of perusing the candy. There were mirrors set up over the racks so the cashier could watch and catch shoplifters, and Peter moved around so he could catch the reflections for a better view of the room. It was empty except for the cashier and Gavin.

“Hey, do you have a bathroom key or something?” Peter asked, bringing a bottle of water and a selection of candy bars to the register like he was a real paying customer just in case that was some sort of prerequisite for bathroom-use. “Down the hall, right? Public use?”

The cashier just nodded and handed over a key attached to a backscratcher so people didn’t steal it. He looked like he might throw up.

“Thanks, dude,” Peter said.

In the super-secret-not-a-delivery-truck down the street, the authorities were having a muffled debate about whether or not he was the right guy. Hill didn’t participate. At least they’d had the decency to mute the comms while they talked about him, though he could hear them just fine.

He went down the hall toward the bathroom. The door to the men’s was on his left, women’s on his right, and straight ahead led to the weird strips-of-plastic door that separated the back room from the store area. Peter could hear people—at least five—moving around in the back room, whispering about waiting on their rendezvous.

Peter put the key in the door, opened it, closed the door without going in.

Gavin had heard the door opening and closing like he’d expected, so he wasn’t expecting Peter to hit him from behind. Peter had spent a lot of time working out how hard to hit in the last few months, and he was glad for it in that moment; the last thing he wanted to do was crack the guy’s skull open.

Gavin, it turned out, was enhanced. The blow that should’ve knocked him out cold just made him duck and look annoyed, a hand reaching around to the back of his belt for what was probably a gun as he spun in place to glare at Peter.

Peter punched him in the nose. Hard.

Gavin dropped like a sack of potatoes. Peter grabbed him, preventing him from knocking into the shelf behind him and making a noise that would attract the attention of whoever was in the back room.

The cashier made a sound something close to “guh?” but Peter ignored him, taking the gun out of Gavin’s waistband and removing the clip, getting the round out of the chamber. He put the bullets in his pocket, tossed the gun over by the register, and zip tied Gavin’s wrists. (It was a temporary measure; NYPD would be through as soon as the cashier was clear.)

“How many in back?” Peter asked once Gavin was secure-ish, turning his attention to the cashier.

“Uh. Nine? I think?” the cashier said. He’d looked sick before, but he looked even wobblier now. He had a death grip on the counter. “Or, no, eight. That guy was the ninth. And one of them was handcuffed, so I don’t think he was with them.”

“Okay. Good. Thanks,” Peter said, he waved the cashier out from behind the register, then waved again when the guy didn’t move. “Go left out the door. You’ll see the van. Police are all set up. They’ll have questions for you.”

“What about that guy?” the cashier asked, pointing behind Peter.

Peter spun, fists up, ready for somebody sneaky, but it was another civilian. A customer, tall and bald, a single energy drink in hand. Staring at Gavin.

“Mr. Dell?”

“Parker!”

“Okay. This is officially super weird,” Peter said, mostly to himself. Pressing on his earpiece like the mic was somehow not already active, Peter added, “Yeah, we’re going to need at least one NDA. I’m about to send out the cashier and a customer, and the customer is my History teacher.”

What a wreck of a mission.

“Copy,” Hill said in his ear.

“What the hell, Parker?” Mr. Dell asked, gesturing from Gavin to the tossed-away gun and back with his energy drink.

“Go with the cashier,” Peter said, doing his best to sound both apologetic and authoritative. “Out the door, to the left. The police are ready for you.”

“Parker—”

Go,” Peter said. “Please.”

The cashier went without a second glance. Mr. Dell gave him a hard look, left the energy drink on the counter, then followed.

“Shit on a stick,” Peter muttered to himself, then focused on the crisis at hand.

Seven bad guys, one hostage. Hill had only had info on four guys including Gavin.

He slipped through the heavy plastic door thing and the temperature dropped a few degrees. It wasn’t a large space, but there was a lot of junk. Tall, sturdy shelves piled with boxes of backstocked chips and candy, cling-wrapped pallets of soda.

There was one guy just inside the door, ridiculously excessive machine gun slung across his back. Peter repeated the maneuver he’d used on Gavin, trying to knock him out like he was an average person then quickly doubling down on the force behind the punch when it turned out he was enhanced. He confiscated the clip, slid the gun out of the way, then zip-tied the bad guy.

Six bad guys, one hostage.

Unless either of the enhanced bad guys regained consciousness and broke through the zip ties, because zip ties were definitely not enough to properly restrain them.

Peter followed the shelves down to the far wall, then stuck himself to the wall and crawled upwards until he had a view over the top. There was a break room sort of set up in one corner, a disgusting-looking couch and a boxy old TV. Macalester, handcuffed and his own tie around his face as a gag, sat on the couch. Two bad guys were trying to get the TV to work. One bad guy had the rear door propped open and was smoking a cigarette. The three others were spread around, looking grouchy and stressed.

“Any facial recognition?” Peter asked, moving a little higher up to get a better angle on the guys poking at the TV. He really, really missed his suit. The glasses and earpiece weren’t horrible—the connection was good, and he’d had a glimpse of the picture quality when he’d looked into the back of the van and it wasn’t bad at all—but he was used to Tony Stark-caliber tech. And the instant access to everything he could possibly need via Karen.

“The two at the TV are brothers. Surname is Griffin, but I couldn’t tell you which one is which,” the US Marshals lady said. Peter wished they’d told him their names. “They’re enhanced. Strong. Can take hits like nobody’s business.”

“And the rest?” Peter prompted, turning his head to recapture views of the faces he could.

“Big one by the door is Guy Johnson,” Hill said. “He was SHIELD. Well, he was Hydra pretending to be SHIELD. Went underground after Romanoff blew his cover. We thought he might’ve been dead until he grabbed Macalester.”

“Any of the oth—” Peter started to ask, but one of the brothers Griffin spotted him and grabbed a gun off the coffee table.

“We’ve got company!” he shouted.

Peter threw himself off the wall and behind the shelves as bullets pelted into the walls behind him.

“Move in! Move in!” the NYPD guy shouted in Peter’s earpiece, directing SWAT or whoever rather than Peter.

Peter jumped from the wall to the floor, then leapt up onto the shelves with enough force to knock them over. Two of the unnamed thugs had been standing close enough that that would keep them busy for a bit. Hopefully.

Peter didn’t pause to see how it turned out, rolling into his momentum and springing up to kick the nearest Griffin in the chest. It landed hard enough that the man went flying backwards into the wall. It knocked the wind out of him, which was just not fair because that had been a hell of a kick, but Peter didn’t have time to dwell.

Go,” Peter told Macalester, gesturing for the plastic door, then turned to punch the other Griffin as hard as he could in the head.

He usually tried very hard not to hit people in the head. And when he did hit them, he tried not to hit them very hard.

It was very weird to be in a fist fight going full-on. It was even weirder that the fight was happening sans mask.

The Griffin he’d punched stumbled backward, pawing at his nose as it gushed blood and snot. The Griffin he’d kicked had regained his breath and bellowed like some kind of crazy person before rushing at Peter, scooping him up like it was freaking WWE smackdown or something.

The intent had obviously been to slam him into one of the still-standing shelving units, but Peter punched him twice, quick and hard, in the kidney and then elbowed him in the ear. Griffin dropped him, stumbling away, and Peter aimed a roundhouse kick at his nearest knee. The joint bent sideways and the man went down with a choked scream.

Peter’s spidey-sense went off in a big way and Peter leapt up, grabbing one of the hanging lights and immediately regretting it because the thing was not attached to the ceiling firmly enough to handle his weight. The cheap brackets popped and he started falling, swinging madly, flailing, and then he landed on one of the guys who had been under the shelf.

Shots were fired. Peter’s body twisted out of the way of the bullets without his conscious effort.

The Griffin with the broken nose bellowed like his brother had, swinging one fist wildly. Peter grabbed the arm, manipulated the joint, forced him to the ground. He hesitated, but then let himself push just a little further to break the arm—he didn’t have any sort of zip ties that could’ve held the guy, but he needed him incapacitated so he didn’t end up shot.

“Making friends all over the place tonight,” Peter muttered, jumping up and looking for the next guy.

“Johnson grabbed Macalester,” Hill said in his earpiece. “Out the back door. Now.”

“You sure—”

Go.”

“Going.”

Peter rushed out the back door, jumping across as soon as he was through and sticking to the far wall just in case Johnson had been waiting for him, but there was nobody. Tires squealed at the far end of the alley, though, and he could hear the police stationed as lookouts shouting.

Peter raced down the alley, following the shouts, listening to the people in his earpiece calling out the make and model of the getaway car.

He had a feeling Mr. Stark was going to have a lot of things to say when all this was over.

Peter ran full tilt around the side of the building, down the block, back around toward the front of the bodega. The getaway car’s engine roared as the driver gunned it—the gathered authorities screamed at each other to get out of the way as the car rammed right through the police barricade.

Peter slowed to a stop next to the surveillance van, watching as a dozen vehicles turned on their emergency lights and gave chase.

He couldn’t help but shoot a glare Hill’s way even though she was focused on whatever she was up to in the van. He had a horrible, creeping feeling that Hill had wanted to see how he did. Like she’d cut Mr. Stark out of it on purpose. Like he was being tested.

No, not tested. Like she’d wanted to run him in the field and had grabbed this as her chance even though she’d had shit for a briefing and it had already been going sideways before he was even on the scene.

Who sends a single operative in when the number of hostiles doubles?

Nick Fury, that was who. At least according to Mr. Stark.

“If this is how SHIELD runs its missions, it’s no wonder Cap was a little leery of signing up for the dental plan,” Peter said, taking off the glasses they’d given him. He wanted to toss them aside for the melodrama of it all, but he just folded them and stuck them in the net pocket thing on the inside of the surveillance van’s rear door. “And I don’t want to agree with that guy. That guy dropped a jet bridge on me. I don’t want to be on his side! But, man alive, this was badly done!”

The people in the van all stopped what they were doing to stare at him.

“Parker—” Hill started, but Peter held up a finger to cut her off.

“Incoming,” he said, turning toward the noise. 

“What?” Hill asked.

Mr. Dell and the cashier looked, too. They’d been standing right at the back of the van, barely out of the way.

“Oh, shit,” Peter said, distracted from what he suspected was the Mark 51 suit Mr. Stark kept at his place in Manhattan by a very immediate Peter Tingle. He dodged, spinning around to catch the bumper of the freaking full-size sedan one of the dudes from the back room had thrown at them. “What the hell, man?”

Peter set the sedan aside as gently as he could, then jumped forward to meet the bad guy.

The guy made a sort of growling roaring noise, maybe getting himself pumped up. It was weird.

“As one genetic abomination to another,” Peter shouted, “this is not the way to deal with your anger!”

Then they crashed into each other. It was not like the sparring with Mr. Young or the boxing with Happy; those were both disciplined, all elbows in tight and knowing where to put his feet. The guy flailed, lunged, swung hard, announced every move with a yell or a grunt. He was probably used to having an incredible strength advantage, land one hit and the fight was over.

Peter was quick and he had the strength to match and surpass the shouting weirdo. And he’d had a lot of training. A lot of practice.

He wove around the guy’s side, dodging a fist and then a boot. He landed a few quick punches around the guy’s ribs, bruising if not breaking at least three, cracked a few teeth with an uppercut, then turned and kicked the back of his knee to knock him off his feet. The guy went down with another furious shout.

The Mark 51 showed up right as the guy staggered upright again. The Iron Man suit—sans Mr. Stark; Peter had learned to listen for a heartbeat—blasted him with a repulsor at center of mass. It launched the guy off his feet, and he tumbled ass over teakettle before landing with a cringe-worthy smack of his head against the pavement. He didn’t get back up, and Peter really hoped he wasn’t dead.

“You didn’t tell him at all, did you?” Peter asked, turning to the group gaping out at the Iron Man armor from the surveillance van.

“Who? Stark?” Hill asked, watching the suit.

“He sent a suit,” Peter said. “He’s pissed.”

“He’ll get over it,” Hill said dismissively.

“Hey, you’re the one who called a minor in to deal with live ammunition without alerting their legal guardian,” Peter said, shrugging as cavalierly as he could standing there in the middle of an op with his freaking History teacher as a witness. “You’re not supposed to do that. Section seventeen, part three, paragraph two.”

Hill opened her mouth like she had a retort, but the Iron Man suit nodded, adjusted something on its left wrist, and then turned their way.

“Hey, Mr. Stark,” Peter said, looking up when he heard more repulsors as another suit shot past them overhead. “In my defense, Hill told me she’d cleared it with you.”

“I said he was aware of the mission,” Hill corrected.

“Yeah, it’s all about the context, really,” Peter said. “You implied he was fully on board.”

“So I’m not hallucinating?” Mr. Stark asked, the suit’s speakers projecting his voice. “SHIELD really sent me across the country and then borrowed you on a school night?”

“It’s a high priority—” Hill started.

"It's a school night, Maria!"

“Can we continue this when the bad guys aren’t getting away?” Peter asked.

“Rhodey’s on it,” Mr. Stark said dismissively. “FRIDAY, scan him.”

“I’m fine, Tony.”

“Hold still.”

Peter sighed and held still, turning slowly so FRIDAY could get a full scan without needing to be told.

The police guy in the van was in contact with somebody that sounded suspiciously like Col. Rhodes, confirming that the other Iron Man suit had intercepted the getaway car.

“They really sent you off somewhere so they could try me in the field without you around?” Peter asked while the people in the van were coordinating with the police and whoever else on the scene.

“Highly probable,” Mr. Stark said. Peter could practically hear his teeth grinding through the comms.

“Well, you should know this mission has been a mess since go,” Peter said. “They sent me in with bad intel, didn’t keep people from wandering in off the street, and when the bad guys tried to run out the back there wasn’t anybody waiting to stop them. And I was specifically told not to bring my suit, so my face is all over their surveillance footage.”

“We’re going to have a very long meeting after all this,” Mr. Stark said. Peter could hear him typing. “I’m getting your face off their footage, though.”

“I had glasses and an earpiece. I saw seven cameras in the bodega, but I’m pretty sure at least two of them were fake.”

“You’re right,” Mr. Stark said. “Good eye.”

“Had a good teacher.”

“Don’t try to sweet talk me, Underoos,” Mr. Stark said, but Peter could tell it had worked.

“Parker,” Hill said, jerking her head to indicate he should get into the surveillance van.

The people in the van were chattering into the radios, clicking through their screens. Hill knocked on the partition and the driver started the engine. Peter could hear the Iron Man suit follow them, keeping pace high above.

It didn’t take long to get to the police station. They went in through the parking garage, a few other cars following. Both Iron Man suits followed a moment later.

Peter followed Hill to a conference room. The others peeled off, headed for office or locker rooms or wherever. The Iron Man suits fell into step behind Peter, which was thoroughly weird; they were probably just in sentry mode while Mr. Stark and Col. Rhodes used them to listen in, but it still felt like he was their leader or something. Which was weird.

He could hear Mr. Dell and the cashier giving their witness statements.

“I have to make a call,” Hill said, scowling at her phone. She’d been texting since the moment they’d entered the room, but she didn’t seem to be getting the responses she wanted.

“I’ll just… sit here, then,” Peter said, but she was already gone.

Peter tapped a rhythm on the table, looking around the room. There was nothing to see, though. It was just a room, beige walls, conference table. The two Iron Man suits standing on either side of the door were still cool.

Idly, mostly because he was bored, Peter listened. Mr. Dell was very hung up on Peter’s presence, not so much that he was Spider-Man but concerned about his student. The cashier was talking a mile a minute but he didn’t actually seem to be saying anything of substance.

Hill, on the other hand, hadn’t just gone to another conference room like he’d expected. She’d retraced their steps all the way out the back door, and she was on the phone with somebody who wasn’t happy with her. She kept asking for an extraction, and they kept asking her if she’d secured the subject. And they called her Colleen.

“FRIDAY,” Peter said, and both Iron Man suits turned their helmets like they were looking at him, giving him their attention. (Creepy. But awesome.) “Can you call Happy for me from one of the suits?”

“Of course, Peter,” FRIDAY said. “Connecting you now.”

“What’s up?”

“Uh. It’s Peter,” Peter said.

“Pete? Why are you calling me from the suit?”

“It’s a long story,” Peter said. “Can you just, um, call Maria Hill for me?”

“Maria Hill?”

“Yeah. And maybe check on May?”

“What’s going on, Peter?”

“There’s a lady who said she was Hill, but turns out her name is Colleen,” Peter said, scrubbing both hands over his face. “Mr. Stark sent the suit as backup, I guess? And things are getting weirder. Very much not good. So if you could get the real Hill here, that’d be great. And I think Mr. Stark has already called the Accords people. And I’m worried about May because if this Colleen lady knows who I am what if she tries to do something to May?”

“Are you okay?” Happy asked. “Are you hurt?”

“Oh, no. I’m fine,” Peter said, then he took a moment to actually take stock of himself. “Well. I’ve definitely got a black eye. But no blood. Nothing bleeding.”

“For some reason, I don’t believe you,” Happy said.

“Seriously. I’m fine.” Peter scrubbed his hands over his face again, wincing when he was a little rougher than he should’ve been with his eye. It was puffy and tender; it would probably be a miraculous shiner by morning. “Will you please call Agent Hill? I’ve got to go figure out who this Colleen person is and why she was pretending to be Hill.”

“Kid, I think you should probably—” Happy started, but Peter gestured at FRIDAY to end the call.

“Thank you, FRIDAY,” Peter said. “Will you send him a ping so he knows where I am?”

“Of course, Peter.”

Peter smiled at the suits, then slipped between them and headed for the door at the back. They turned and followed him.

“Well because Iron Man showed up, didn’t he?” Hill—Colleen said. She was in the passenger seat of a car parked maybe twenty feet down from the door. There were other parked cars and whatnot, but the street was otherwise quiet—no pedestrians.

“We spent months planning this, Colleen,” the man in the driver’s seat said. Peter didn’t recognize the voice.

“Yeah. I know,” she said. “And it went sideways from the beginning. He’s smart, John. Crazy smart. And the Griffins didn’t even manage to draw blood, let alone get hold of him. Hell, Johnson threw a car at him and he walked away from it. What was I supposed to do, grab him myself? No. We’ll try again.”

“There’s no ‘we’ in this, Colleen. You know you’re out,” John said. “You know.”

“No, I don’t know,” Colleen said. “You’re—”

Whatever complaint or protest she would’ve made was cut off by a gunshot. Peter took a step back, startled by the noise of the shot, the sound of the window shattering, the sight of the blood. But then he hurried for the car, rushing to try to help the lady that wasn’t Hill. The driver—John—got out of the car, saw Peter, and took off running the opposite direction. Peter considered giving chase for half a moment, but then a car pulled away from the curb; John jumped in the back seat and it peeled away. Peter committed the plate to memory, but shifted his focus to Colleen.

“Hey, you still got a heartbeat, so you’ve got that going for you,” Peter said, slowly opening the door and grabbing the lady by the shoulders, easing her out of the car. “What’s your deal, lady? Huh?”

She’d been shot through the left shoulder, like John had been aiming for the movie version of where her heart would be. It had gone straight through, and there was blood but not so much that Peter thought he’d hit an artery or something.

“How ya doing? Can you talk to me?” Peter asked. He laid her flat on the sidewalk. He knew the bullet wasn’t still in her shoulder because it had gone through and broken the window. And her heart was still beating, frantic but strong. “You conscious at all?”

Colleen flailed a little bit, hands going for the wound, then going for her face. To his surprise, she tore at something on her forehead and it looked like her whole face stretched away for one truly gross moment before the holographic mask failed, light refracting oddly before shutting down entirely.

“Okay. That’s cool, but also not,” Peter said. He pulled off his sweatshirt and bunched it up to press into her wound. She groaned. “Can I get any sort of verbal response out of you? At all?”

“I would’ve loved to read your autopsy report,” Colleen said, laying flat like she’d used up her last energy reserves to take the mask off. She looked at him like he was some animal that had escaped the zoo, interested but also more than a little bit wary. “It would’ve been fascinating.”

“I’ve gotta tell you, that’s the creepiest thing anybody has ever said to me,” Peter said, trying to keep his tone light even though the statement was absolutely true. It was horrifying.

Colleen didn’t say anything further, just passed out.

And then the police were there, and the real Maria Hill.

“Emergency services have been called,” FRIDAY reported from the Iron Man suits. “An ambulance will be at your location in one minute, ten seconds.”

“What happened?” the FBI guy asked.

“This is Colleen. She was pretending to be Agent Hill, wearing that mask thing on the sidewalk there,” Peter said, jerking his chin toward the holographic mask thing since his hands were busy keeping pressure on the wound. “She called some guy named John for an extraction, but he shot her instead. I don’t think he ever tried to murder anybody before, though, because he fired point-blank and doesn’t seem to have hit anything vital. He jumped out of the car and got in a different car.”

He gave them the license plate. The police just kind of looked at him, but Hill already had her phone pressed to her ear and FRIDAY started reading off all the information she had in a quick search of the plate number.

The ambulance arrived, forestalling any further questions. He got out of the way for the EMTs to shift Colleen to a gurney, then transfer her into the ambulance. After a brief debate, one of the officers climbed into the back of the ambulance and went along with.

“Let’s move this inside, shall we?” Hill asked, though it wasn’t so much a question as a direction.

Peter was allowed to use the locker room to clean up. He’d expected to be given some scrubs or something, but by the time he finished in the shower Pepper had turned up with a bag of his own things—clothes to change into, not to mention his watch and phone.

Peter found his way back to the conference room. They were already in the middle of a debate—Pepper had notarized forms declaring her his guardian by proxy or something, and Dr. Ronson from the Accords committee had arrived.

“Hi,” Peter said when they all stopped talking to stare at him.

“I still can’t believe you’re the guy,” the NYPD guy said.

Peter resigned himself to a very long night.

Chapter Text

“May is letting me borrow you for the weekend,” Pepper told him when they finally left the debriefing. “She’s already called you out for school tomorrow. Or today, I should say.”

“Borrow me?” Peter echoed. He was… very tired.

“Mhmm,” Pepper hummed. She’d been texting as they walked and hit ‘send’ with distinct finality before she put her phone in her pocket and smiled at him. “Tony knew full well that you were perfectly fine and in the debriefing, but he still texted me forty-one times, called me twelve times, and he left voicemails for half those calls.”

“He’s freaking out, huh?” Peter asked, not sure what to make of that at all. It sounded like something May would do, actually. Leave her rational mind well behind in a moment of panic. (Luckily, she’d been at work for the whole thing. Happy had gone to keep an eye on her and fill her in.)

“Oh yeah,” Pepper said, smiling at him again. They reached her car and she waved him into the passenger seat.

“And that means you’re borrowing me?”

“Yes. I’m putting you on the jet right now and sending you to Nevada,” she said.

Nevada?”

“If we don’t get the two of you in the same state, he’s just going to keep freaking out about it,” Pepper said, looking away from the road only enough to smile warmly at him. “Tony and Rhodey are flying formations this weekend—it took months to set the whole thing up—so I’m sending you to him.”

“In Nevada.”

“In Nevada, yes.”

“I’ve never been to Nevada.”

“You’ll be on a military base,” Pepper said. “Not sure if you’ll be able to get the full taste of the state from the base, but technically you can check it off your bucket list, I suppose.”

Peter smiled, but he was still baffled by the whole thing.

Pepper drove right out onto the tarmac at the airport. Peter expected to see Happy, but it was just airport personnel swarming around and Alex standing there with a leather weekender bag.

“This is one of the Avengers quinjets,” Pepper told him after she’d parked. “It flies itself. You just strap in, have a nap. You’ll be there in no time.”

“That’s so cool.”

“It really is,” Pepper said, smiling back at him.

“Clothes, toiletries, sunglasses,” Alex said, holding out the bag. “Shoes in the bottom compartment. Your aunt says not to forget about sunscreen.”

“Thanks,” Peter said.

“Say ‘hi’ for me,” Pepper said once she’d seen him buckled into the copilot seat with his bag safely secured in the back. “And don’t touch any of the controls.”

“I’m not going to touch the controls,” Peter promised.

Pepper smiled at him, pressed a button that seemed to start the autopilot doing its thing, and deplaned. Peter had half a mind to make an unaccompanied minor joke, but the door sealed up behind her too quickly.

Flying commercial, the trip would’ve taken at least five hours, probably six. Maybe longer.

The quinjet got up to cruising altitude, broke the sound barrier, and was announcing arrival barely two hours later.

“This is so cool,” Peter muttered again. He probably should’ve napped, but he’d spent the entirety of the flight taking pictures.

The quinjet landed like a helicopter, sort of hovering as it descended even though there was a runway and everything.

The base, from the look he got out the cockpit window, was everything he’d expected of a military base purely based on movies and TV. It was in the desert, so there was a lot of flat, sandy space. Long, low buildings. Big fence around all of it with guard stations at the exits, cement barriers, checkpoint lift-arm things. There were a lot of Humvees and trucks, camo. And a windsock thing.

“So cool,” he repeated.

He didn’t want the computer to yell at him, so he waited until he heard the engines begin to power down before he undid the seatbelt harness, grabbed his bag, and then just hoped the door would open itself because he had no idea where the button was. Luckily, it did, folding outward into a bit of a ramp so he could walk straight onto the tarmac.

“You okay, Pete? Good flight?” Mr. Stark asked immediately, looking him over critically. He reached over like he was going for a hug, but then he just gripped Peter’s shoulder firmly.

“Great. So great,” Peter said. “That was so cool.”

“Oof,” Col. Rhodes said. “Nice shiner, kid.”

“Yeah.” Peter poked gingerly at his left eye. The Accords people (or SHIELD people or whoever) had checked it over earlier, and Pepper had insisted on an x-ray to check for skull fractures. It had started off red and puffy; he hadn’t been able to open the eye fully because of the swelling. By the time he’d hit cruising altitude, though, it had felt much better. He hadn’t checked where the bruising was at, though, because he’d been too busy watching the clouds and the sky and all that.

“Come on, we’ll get you an ice pack for it,” Mr. Stark said, squeezing his shoulder again. “This is Lieutenant Xiong, by the way. Xiong, my intern.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Parker,” Lt. Xiong said, nodding to him. Peter smiled and kept his hands clenched on the strap of his bag to prevent himself from waving. “This is your ID. You need to keep it visible at all times while you’re on base.”

“Okay. Thanks,” Peter said, taking the card. It looked a lot like his badge for SI, only this one had CIVILIAN in bold under his photo rather than INTERN. He clipped it to the pocket of his jeans because that was where Mr. Stark had his badge clipped.

“Ice pack,” Mr. Stark repeated, letting go of Peter’s shoulder with a final squeeze and pointing toward a row of what looked like mobile homes.

“Thanks, Lieutenant,” Col. Rhodes said. “You’re dismissed.”

“Yes, sir,” Lt. Xiong said, then turned on her heel and walked into the nearest hangar.

“This way, Underoos,” Mr. Stark said. “We’re in VIP housing, just wait ‘til you see it.”

“You keep complaining and one of these times I’ll have them stick you in officers’ quarters,” Col. Rhodes said dryly.

“I am not complaining,” Mr. Stark said. “Did I not just say VIP?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Col. Rhodes said, catching Peter’s eye as he smiled.

The mobile home thing was long and narrow and had been split into two parts. Mr. Stark’s space—and apparently Peter’s too—was on the far end. Whoever was in the nearer end was snoring loud enough Mr. Stark and Col. Rhodes could hear it even without enhanced senses.

It really was a tiny space. There was a bar cart directly inside the door with a microwave on it and a coffee maker balanced on top of the microwave, instant coffee and microwavable popcorn and such stashed on the shelves beneath. A minifridge. A tiny table with two chairs. There was a little alcove closet sandwiched between the exterior wall and the wall to the pocket-sized bathroom (it looked like an airplane bathroom with a shower stall squeezed in on top of it all). At the far end of the room were two twin beds on opposite walls, one of them with a bag identical to the one Alex had given Peter on the foot. There were three windows, one of them with an air conditioner in it.

“K, roomie, stick your bag on your bed and then bring me that shiner,” Mr. Stark said, waving at the end of the trailer.

Peter did as he was told and by the time he’d turned around Mr. Stark had produced a first aid kit from under the sink in the bathroom and was activating a cold pack.

“So what happened?” Col. Rhodes asked, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, watching.

“Uh, got a call from this lady Colleen. She said she was Agent Hill and I believed her. Literally no help from the spidey-sense, and usually that goes off big time for stuff like this. So that’s weird,” Peter said, taking over holding the ice pack. “She took me to this bodega. They said a witness had been kidnapped and was being held in the back room, sent me in. Like I told you earlier, the whole thing was really badly run. They didn’t know how many people were in the back, didn’t keep anybody from following me in. My History teacher wandered in.”

“Jesus, what a mess,” Mr. Stark said, sitting down in one of the chairs.

“He and the cashier both signed NDAs,” Peter said, but knowing that didn’t make him feel any better and he doubted it would make Mr. Stark feel any better either.

“What happened after?”

“Colleen said she had to make a call, but I was bored and I listened in. I called Happy so he could call the real Hill, then I followed her out,” Peter said. He’d started gesturing, and Mr. Stark leaned forward to move the hand with the ice pack back to his face. “Then the guy in the car—she called him John—shot her. He jumped out of the car and this other car drove off with him. I got the license plate; FRIDAY was looking into it. I haven’t heard what happened to the lady, Colleen—one of the officers went to the hospital with her to get a statement after she got out of surgery.”

“What did Ronson say?” Col. Rhodes asked.

“She was actually really pissed to find out who I am,” Peter said, not able to keep himself from smiling. “I think she liked the precedent of the whole minors-get-privacy thing.”

“Ronson is great,” Mr. Stark said, smirking. “You know the only reason she hasn’t retired is that she doesn’t like Ross.”

“You can’t go around saying stuff like that, Tone,” Col. Rhodes said, but he was smirking.

“But am I wrong?”

“They were still working on tracking down who she is, who the cars belong to,” Peter said, because if he didn’t jump in they’d be too busy bickering to hear the rest of the story. “Pepper said Happy’s keeping an eye on May, since apparently these people who know who I am and have my phone number and have a disturbing interest in seeing my autopsy report.”

“Your autopsy report?” Mr. Stark repeated. Col. Rhodes shook his head and dropped into the chair across from Peter.

“Yeah. That’s what she said to me right before the EMTs showed up,” Peter said. “She was bummed she wouldn’t get to see my autopsy results or whatever. I don’t know if she meant because she’ll be in prison or something so she won’t have access to it when I eventually die in the future, or if she meant the whole thing was them trying to kill me and they failed so there’s no autopsy.”

“That’s dark, Peter,” Col. Rhodes said. “Jesus.”

“Yeah. It was top ten creepiest things anybody’s ever said to me for sure.” Peter nodded.

“FRIDAY, where are we at tracking this Colleen character?” Mr. Stark asked, pulling his glasses out of his inner coat pocket.

“I’m sorry, Boss. There’s not a lot in the public record. Her name is Colleen Meier,” FRIDAY said. Her voice was just in Mr. Stark’s earpiece, which was kind of unfair to Col. Rhodes because Peter could hear her just fine. She listed off a New York address, a lack of outstanding parking tickets. There was the preliminary report for the night’s incident with a lot of blanks left empty ‘pending witness statement.’

“Okay, so push in beyond public record,” Mr. Stark instructed. “Track that guy, too. John. Who’s he? Who’s the other driver? Where did they go? Who are the cars registered to?”

“I’ll need authorization—”

“Given. Whatever you need to do,” Mr. Stark said. His eyes were darting back and forth behind his glasses, reading a display only he could see. “Run it through my private servers. Fully encrypted, lock and key, all that. Nobody knows what we find—nobody knows we’re looking—until I give the all-clear.”

“Yes, Boss.”

 

Peter spent all of Saturday at an airfield. Mr. Stark and Rhodey were flying formations for the Air Force or the UN or somebody, working on maneuvers that could be incorporated in future missions. Peter stood under a bunch of camo shade stuff with all the techs, wearing aviators to hide the bruise around his eye (and because it was very bright).

Mr. Stark and Rhodey spent most of the day snarking at each other—Rhodey was trying to keep Mr. Stark on task, and Mr. Stark kept chasing metaphorical squirrels.

Peter posted a picture to @Peter_the_Intern, himself in his ridiculous sunglasses and even more absurd headset, smiling like a fool with a row of techs and equipment behind him. Dot sent him a reminder that he was supposed to highlight things other than the Avengers, but Peter contended that it was important that people saw them putting in the work to make Avengers-ing effective. (He didn’t think he’d managed to convince her, but at least she hadn’t made him take the post down.)

“Alrighty, honeybear, what’s good around here for dinner?” Mr. Stark asked after they’d had a chance to shower and change. (He’d been leaning into the distraction thing pretty heavily all day; changing the subject whenever Peter asked if FRIDAY had any results looking into Colleen Meier.)

They ended up at a bar a few miles out from the base. It wasn’t quite technically in town, but Peter wasn’t sure what the name of the nearest town was anyway. Mr. Stark ordered burgers and fries, onion rings, extra portions for Peter. A few of the officers Peter recognized from the afternoon were there with their families, but they just waved and got on with their dinners. Exactly two little kids asked for pictures with Iron Man, and Mr. Stark obliged, and then it was like he was any other guy.

Actually, it felt a lot like what Peter imagined going to a bar with his dad would be like. It had that rite of passage ambiance in a really weird but not weird at all way.

Rhodey had a few beers. Mr. Stark and Peter had root beer—or, technically, sarsaparilla, as Mr. Stark pointed out every time the waiter brought a new bottle. They told Peter stories about MIT, about visiting Rhodey’s family in Philadelphia over breaks.

“You ever shoot any pool, Peter?” Mr. Stark asked after they’d finished off their third order of onion rings.

“Yeah.” Peter shrugged. It had been May and Ben’s date night thing, going to a hole-in-the-wall dive bar with pool tables and pinball machines. He and May still went sometimes, though not to the same spot. “I’m pretty good at 8 ball.”

“I’ll take that bet,” Mr. Stark said, heading for the pool table off on the far side of the bar.

“What bet?” Peter asked, following.

“Oh, Pete, no,” Rhodey said, but he followed as well. “No, no. Never ever bet against Tony when there’s math involved.”

“It’s not math, it’s pool,” Mr. Stark said.

“It’s math,” Rhodey said flatly. “It’s angles and shit. I mean ‘stuff.’”

“Hundred bucks,” Mr. Stark said, turning back to Peter and holding out a cue.

“I get first shot, then,” Peter said. “I don’t have a hundred bucks.”

“You can borrow it off me,” Mr. Stark said.

“I don’t think you understand how bets work,” Rhodey said. He pulled up a stool and sat down with his beer to watch, and Mr. Stark just leaned on his pool cue and grinned at them.

It really was all math. Angles, force, all that. Peter was really good at math, and May had taught him all sorts of trick shots.

Peter broke, called solids, pocketed everything and then arched the eight ball around one of Mr. Stark’s stripes with one of May’s spin tricks. Rhodey put his beer down so that he could applaud.

“Hot damn,” Mr. Stark said, taking out his wallet and handing over a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill. “Do that again.”

Chapter Text

Pepper texted him on the first of the month: LUNCH?

Simple. One word.

Incredibly vague.

IN FAVOR OF, he sent back. Pepper had never texted him before. He didn’t know her text lingo. Did she think he was with Mr. Stark and she was asking for his order? Was she doing a weirdly focused marketing thing? Had she meant to send it to someone else?

NEXT SATURDAY?

He stared at the text for long enough that she sent another text with a time and location. He followed the link to the restaurant’s page; it was a bistro place with soup and sandwiches and all that. The menu highlighted their organic strawberry lemonade.

 

The Saturday in question arrived, and Peter felt a little weird about it. He took the subway into Manhattan, found the bistro, and shouldn’t have been surprised at all to see Happy at a table in back. Peter started toward Happy, but he gestured toward a different table on the other side of the restaurant with the spoon he’d been using to stir his coffee.

Peter nodded and headed for Pepper’s table. It was really weird not to go sit with Happy.

“Hi,” Pepper said, smiling. She had a tall glass of lemonade—no strawberries—in front of her already.

“Hi,” Peter said. “Am I late? Sorry.”

“Nope. I’m early,” Pepper said. “Happy wanted to give the place a once-over before the current CEO and the next CEO of Stark Industries both occupied space here.”

“Oh. Um.” He had no idea what to say to that. “You know, uh, you really don’t have to go along with Mr. Stark’s crazy inheritance thing. He showed me documents and stuff, and you can appoint your successor.”

“The fact that you read things through is certainly a point in your favor,” Pepper said. She signaled to a waiter, who brought over a pair of menus, then smiled at him again when they were alone. “That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Oh?” He picked up the menu, looked at it without really seeing anything listed.

“You’ve gotten the biggest dose of straight-up Tony Stark attention that I’ve seen in a very long time,” Pepper said. “It can be a lot.”

Peter shrugged. Again, he wasn’t sure what to say. Pepper seemed to decide to give him a moment, looking down at her menu. He followed suit.

They ordered. The waiter took away the menus, and suddenly Peter didn’t have anything to do with his hands.

“Tony can be a lot, and he puts a lot on people,” Pepper said. “You’re really young, and I know he’s putting a lot on you.”

“I can handle—”

“It’s not about being able to handle it or not,” Pepper said gently. “It’s about it being a lot of expectation to put on somebody, especially somebody who has a lot of potential roads ahead of him.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you should have a lot of choices and opportunities, and Tony has made the biggest of those choices for you.”

“It’s not not the choice I would’ve made for myself,” Peter said. “I always planned to go into something science-y, all he really did was pick where I did it.”

“The business side of it isn’t science-y.”

“There’s math involved,” Peter said, then grinned. “I’ve seen your spreadsheets.”

Pepper laughed. She let him stew on it for a moment, thanking the waiter when he brought Peter’s lemonade and a refill of her own.

“So is that what this lunch is about?” Peter asked. “Making sure I’m not collapsing under the weight of Mr. Stark’s personality or something?”

“I suppose,” Pepper said, smiling again. Her eyes crinkled when she smiled and meant it.

“I think I could be good at it,” Peter said, because he’d been thinking about it since Mr. Stark had first dropped the idea on him. “I’m going to need help. I’ve got a lot to learn—I know I do—but I think I could be good at it.”

“I think so too,” Pepper said.

Before she said more, the waiter came back with their sandwiches. Two for Peter, even though he hadn’t ordered two.

“What’s—”

“Happy is sitting by the door to the kitchen for a reason,” Pepper said.

“Yeah. Because it gives him a view of all the entrances and exits, and he can keep an ear on the kitchen.”

“And so that he can make sure you get an extra sandwich because we all know you won’t order one for yourself.”

Peter laughed, and for a bit they just sat and ate their sandwiches. The lemonade was really good. The sandwiches were really good. (Of course it was all good; Pepper had picked it out.)

“We’re going to do this properly, okay?” Pepper said.

“What do you mean?” Peter asked. “It’s already a real internship.”

“Yes. And I’d like to add to it,” she said. She pulled a file out of the bag on the seat next to her, turning it so it faced Peter and spreading the pages flat. “It won’t be as fun as workshop time, but it’ll build skills and connections that will help.”

“You’re really okay with this?” Peter asked after a minute of looking at the paperwork she’d put together. “You’re the one who’s supposed to get to pick your successor, and Mr. Stark basically, like, superseded your choice.”

“You’re a good choice,” Pepper said.

Peter frowned, flipping through a few more pages.

“It’s best the owner of the company and the CEO get along, are able to coordinate,” Pepper said. “I’m technically the first CEO of SI not to also be the owner, but that’s not saying much because I’m only the third CEO.”

“And you’re betting on my mental stability—being able to get along with myself?” Peter asked, smirking at her. Her eyes crinkled back at him.

He made it to the last page and stared at it. Pepper had already named him her successor, and the page was a photocopy of the documentation all signed by her and the SI lawyers and Mr. Stark.

“This is a lot, too,” Pepper said, reaching across and covering his hand with hers. “So I need you to know that you can change your mind. This is not stone. It’s a plan, and plans can be changed. You still get to make your own choices.”

“Thank you, Pepper,” he said, as sincerely as he could.

Chapter Text

“Will you tell me about my parents?” Peter blurted, then winced. He’d been thinking about asking about them ever since he’d read those files, but it was the sort of question he hadn’t asked in a very long time. Awkward.

“Your parents?”

“Yeah, I—Okay. I found an article my mom published. It was really interesting. Cool stuff. It just got me wondering, though.”

Almost a complete lie. He had read everything his parents had ever published, true enough, and it was really interesting stuff. But that had been ages and ages ago. The stuff he’d found on the drive from Black Widow had definitely never been published.

It had been a lot of spreadsheets full of data, and then... Well.

“What is it you want to know?” May asked, sitting down next to him on the couch, frowning with her forehead if not the rest of her face. “I didn’t know them super well, you know.”

“Just. How they met. What they were like. I know Dad and Uncle Ben didn’t get along great, but there had to be some, I don’t know, fondness, right? My middle name is Benjamin.”

“Alright. Well.” May sat back, looking a little more comfortable but also like she was wracking her brains for some new detail she hadn’t already given him when he’d been seven and every other question out of his mouth was about his parents.

“If you don’t remember it’s fine. Really. I was just curious.”

“No, it’s good, Peter. I suppose there are things we never told you when you were little because you were… little.”

“Like how my dad was a dick?”

“Exactly.”

They smiled at each other. May relaxed even more, then nodded to herself.

“Mary was five or so years younger than your dad. They met at Princeton. He had a research grant and she was a lab assistant or something along those lines.”

“Right,” Peter said, because she’d told him all that before.

“They worked together for ten years before they actually got together—I always suspected they had a thing for each other but they just enjoyed pining.” She smiled. “I met your dad first. It was at a funeral. It was really awkward.”

“That would be.”

“I didn’t meet your mom until right around when she would’ve first been pregnant with you. Something had happened with their project—something big at Columbia with special funding from OsCorp. Your mom went to school with Norman Osborn, I think; they were always close,” May said. Peter could remember that vaguely. He’d met Mr. Osborn enough times that he remembered meeting him. “They’d lost the grant from Columbia and the project had to be shut down, but it turned out to be perfect timing because that was when you came along.”

Peter snorted.

“Your dad proposed at Christmas—it was the first Christmas they’d come around to your grandma Parker’s since Ben and I got together. I think they showed up mostly so the family could meet you.” May smiled. “They got married that January, no big ceremony just down to the county clerk’s and then a reception cocktail party sort of thing. Grandma Parker was furious. The Osborns were there; I remember you and Harry Osborn being shuffled off together with a nanny and thinking how absurd that level of wealth seemed. Little did I know Tony Stark would buy me a dishwasher as an excuse to hang out not so many years later.”

Peter snorted again, shifting to hold his legs up out of the way when she tried to poke him with her toes.

“I didn’t see either of them again for a couple years. They came to the rehearsal dinner for our wedding, but then something came up with whatever their new project was—I think they were exclusively at OsCorp at that point—and they jetted off to some lab. Left you with the Osborn nanny again.”

“That’s kind of weird,” Peter said. “I do remember Harry, though. Vaguely. He threw a fit whenever I touched his stuff.”

“Sounds about right,” May said, smiling.

“And it was just a couple months after that that they left me with you instead of the Osborns, and that’s that, huh?”

“That’s that,” May said softly. She reached over and squeezed his arm gently. “I’m sorry, baby. I didn’t know them very well. That’s my whole story with them.”

“Why did Mom marry him?” Peter asked tentatively. “You said Dad was kind of a dick.”

“He was a dick to everybody but her,” May said. “It would be sweet if he hadn’t been…”

“Such an asshole?”

“He—” May sighed. “He wasn’t great at picking up on the social cues in any given room—no, actually, what was obnoxious about him was that he picked up on the cues just fine, he just didn’t care.”

“And my mom?”

“She was funny. Really sarcastic, but still very funny,” May said. “You look a lot like her, actually. You got her ears.”

“Ugh, the ears.”

“You have adorable ears,” May said, grinning at him. “You get your enthusiasm from her too, I think. That’s one thing I remember from the few conversations we had. She was driven. Excited about things. Her work, all sorts of science stuff that went right over my head. But about you, too. She catalogued every hiccup of yours the way she catalogued her experiments. Every detail was amazing to her. She was so excited to be a mom, to watch you grow.”

“Oh,” he said, because that was almost… nice. He hadn’t been expecting it.

“I know it’s blunt for me to say,” May said, “but it was very much a redeeming quality that she was so in love with you.”

 

The following afternoon wasn’t an internship day, but May had a cancer support group she wanted to try out and Peter had told her he’d made plans with Ned. (Ned was actually at Robotics Club, but he’d agreed to cover for him if May asked later.)

His plan had been to call Mr. Stark, because the more he thought about it the worse it all was, but he almost chickened out. MJ was free and she was almost always down to kill time at an arcade or see a movie, or possibly she’d drag him along to some protest meet-up and he’d learn something.

But no. It was important.

“Hey, kid. What’s up?” Mr. Stark asked, picking up on the first ring. “You okay?”

“Yeah. No. I’m good,” Peter said. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Mr. Stark said. Peter could hear the smile.

“Would you happen to be free tonight? At all?” Peter asked. He’d paced the apartment for half an hour before making the call, and he’d ended up laying flat on his back in the middle of his bedroom floor. “Are you in the city?”

“Yeah,” Mr. Stark said, stretching the word out a bit. Somewhere between suspicious and leery. “I just left my last meeting. I’m spending tonight in Manhattan.”

“Could I come over? Maybe?” Peter asked, then smacked himself on the forehead because he was just making it more awkward. “Unless you have plans. Of course you have plans, you’re you. I’m sorry. It can wait for Friday when you were actually planning to see me. Sorry. I just ended up with a free night and I figured I’d get it out of the way so I could stop dreading it, but that’s a me-problem not a you-problem. I’ll just—”

“Pete, jeez, take a breath,” Mr. Stark said. “I’ve got nothing going tonight. I was going to go through more of those decrypted files, but that’s not exactly urgent stuff.”

“Oh.”

“You know we don’t actually have to have make plans for you to come over, right? FRIDAY can let you in even if I’m in Malibu or something,” Mr. Stark said. “You can mooch the HBO or whatever it is you teens covet.”

“That’s—cool, thanks,” Peter said, reeling a little bit because that was… wow.

“That said, if Pepper’s in town and you just turn up, it’s totally not my fault if you—”

“Oh, God, c’mon, Mr. Stark,” Peter said, but it made him laugh. Mr. Stark laughed too.

“Just saying.”

“Yikes,” Peter said, mostly to himself, and it made Mr. Stark laugh again.

“Right. Am I picking you up, then? Where are you? What’s this not-you-but-me-problem that’s got you all wrapped up in your head?”

“I’m not exactly on your way,” Peter said. “I can swing over.”

“Sure. Your choice,” Mr. Stark said. “You want pizza?”

“The answer to that question is always yes,” Peter said, getting up and grabbing the suit out of the back of his closet. “If I ever answer otherwise, it’s a code. A cry for help.”

“Noted,” Mr. Stark said, and again Peter could hear the smile.

The phone beeped as the call switched to the suit. Peter thought about bringing his backpack, but he didn’t really need anything—he had clothes at Mr. Stark's (and wasn’t that weird now that he thought about it), and all his tech was synced up so he could access the files just as easily in Manhattan as he could in Queens. He checked to be sure the apartment was locked up behind him, then swung off on the familiar route to Mr. Stark’s place in Manhattan.

“You got a view of the sunset from the ground?” Peter asked as he swung around a corner and got the first good view of the skyline to the west. “Great color tonight.”

“If you’re about to send me another selfie from a height that will make me queasy—” Mr. Stark started, but Peter had already sent it.

“I don’t know why it would make you queasy, Mr. Stark,” Peter said. “You literally fly around in a robotic suit. You go way higher than this.”

“Yeah, in a suit that flies,” Mr. Stark said. “You’re just swinging through open air.”

“I was actually thinking about that this morning,” Peter said. “Do you think it’d be possible to put some webbing, something retractable, between the arms and legs so I could glide? That would be awesome.”

“I saw you sent me some specs on that,” Mr. Stark said. He didn’t sound enthused.

“And?”

“And I still wish you’d let me put repuslors in your boots.”

“The weight would throw the swing off,” Peter said, doing a flip as he released his latest web just because he could. “And I really don’t need them. I’ve never actually just flat-out fallen.”

“Don’t jinx it, kid.”

“I’m not going to jinx it,” Peter said, rolling his eyes.

“Besides, I’m thinking nanites for your next upgrade,” Mr. Stark said. The audio had changed ever so slightly, making Peter think he’d gotten out of the car and switched to his phone. “We can build in the wing things and repulsors, and you can interchange them as needed.”

“Okay, first of all, awesome,” Peter said, grinning like an idiot because nobody could see it with his mask on. “Second, people are going to have opinions about me stealing your brand if I start using repulsors.”

“I thought we were past this brand thing,” Mr. Stark said. “What is with you and brand?”

“It sounds better than calling it a gimmick?”

“Okay, repulsors are not a gimmick,” Mr. Stark said.

“Neither is the spider thing, really,” Peter said.

“More of a theme,” Mr. Stark said.

“I’m on your roof,” Peter said. The banter had distracted him for a moment but his guts were twisting again because he had no idea how the conversation was going to go. “Is there a particular window I’m aiming for? I usually come in off the street here.”

“Leave the windows alone, sheesh,” Mr. Stark said, then hung up because he’d walked out onto the roof. There was a patio set up there with a few lounge chairs and decorative lights. “It’s a private rooftop. There’s a door.”

“I’d never been out here,” Peter said, shrugging. He walked through the door Mr. Stark was holding open for him before he pulled off the mask.

“You go change,” Mr. Stark said, gesturing down the hall toward the guest room that at some point had become Peter’s room. “I’m ordering the pizza.”

Peter did as he was told. He wanted to linger, to take his time, to put off the conversation, but he didn’t want the dread to sit in his gut anymore.

“So what’s up?” Tony asked once they were both lounging on the couch. “Or is this an after-pizza sort of conversation?”

“I have no idea,” Peter said, picking up the nearest StarkPad and queuing up the files he’d been reading through the previous night. The drive Romanoff had delivered was huge and FRIDAY had been delivering batches as she finished decrypting them; Peter and Mr. Stark had both been slowly looking it all over since Mr. Stark hadn’t reported the drive to SHIELD or the UN or whoever it was the Avengers were supposed to report to on account of Romanoff had been the one to bring it in.

“You find something?” Mr. Stark asked, leaning forward and looking interested when Peter held out the tablet.

“It’s something, sure,” Peter said.

“Okay, are you freaking out or are you worried I’m going to freak out? I can’t tell.”

“Both, I think,” Peter said.

Peter scooted over so they were shoulder-to-shoulder and could both see the screen, then pulled up the video file.

“SHIELD shut down a project at Columbia in 2001,” Peter said. “OsCorp-funded genetics research. Actually, it looks like preliminary studies that turned out the spider that bit me. Anyway. The whole project seems to have been Hydra trying to come up with a way to enhance people without the whole Captain America serum thing.”

“Alright,” Mr. Stark said.

“There’s two things that are—alarming—but…” Peter sighed. “Just watch it first.”

He hit PLAY.

The video started with a woman in a lab coat staring at the camera. She wore a long gold chain necklace, had her hair pulled back into a tidy bun. The lab behind her was well-lit and all the more horrifying for it—the shelves against the far wall behind her were filled with large sealed specimen jars containing human fetuses at various stages of development, all of them tinted ever so slightly green from formaldehyde or whatever it was that had been used to preserve them.

“This log marks the beginning of phase two,” the woman, Dr. Fitzpatrick according to the embroidery on her lab coat, said. Her voice was low and calm, professional. “As previously detailed, phase one proved the survivability of initial genetic modifications in the subjects. Most optimally at ten weeks. Earlier introduction caused too much mutation, usually leading to suboptimal cognitive function. Introduction after twenty weeks was fatal.”

Peter had read through the accompanying reports. There had been no videos recovered from phase one, at least not in with the batch Peter had been reviewing, but the lab notes had made things clear enough. Spider DNA from genetically modified spiders had been introduced in vitro, and the sooner it happened the more drastic the mutations had been. More often than not, the modifications had led to miscarriage. (Or whatever it was called when the fetus was in a futuristic horror movie incubator version of a uterus and died.) A handful from each “batch” (as the researchers called them) had survived, at least those with the genes introduced before twenty weeks. The earlier ones had extra limbs, extra eyes, markings on their skin similar to the markings on SPEC42 (the spider’s designation), some of them seemed to be able to secrete webs. The ones who had had genes introduced at week eight or nine were mostly human-looking, though still often with strange markings or web production.

“All subjects will have modifications introduced at ten weeks. All subjects have been produced from the same parent set as all phase one specimens—”

She went on, detailing the parameters of the experiment. It was horrible as a concept, and made worse with the jars behind her.

At one point, Dr. Fitzpatrick had taken the camera with her to another room, walking up and down row upon row of incubation chambers. They were a cloudy translucent blue, labeled MTF/AES1 through MTF/AES50. Dr. Fitzpatrick had explained that they were at seven weeks, yet to be modified in any way, all of them receiving the same nutrients and stimulation and any number of other variable sets.

“So that’s pretty horrible all by itself,” Peter said when the log ended. There were more of them—dozens of them—but Mr. Stark had the idea of it, judging by the look on his face. “But it gets worse.”

Worse?”

“Yeah. Not only is this human experimentation and mad scientist genetic manipulation, but the, uh, ‘parent set’ involved weren’t exactly volunteers,” Peter said. He had no idea how to talk about this part. All of it would’ve been bad enough as a standalone thing, even worse because he’d been bitten by SPEC42 and ended up genetically modified without consent, but…

“They steal eggs and sperm from a fertility clinic or something?” Mr. Stark asked, though the look on his face told Peter that he knew it was somehow messier than that.

“The eggs are hers,” Peter said. “Dr. Fitzpatrick’s. There’s a whole log from phase one dedicated to the selection process. Genetic profiling. They were aiming for a ‘parent set’ with high IQs, not much genetic predisposition for diseases or defects or anything else that could throw off the science.”

“The science,” Mr. Stark snorted, looking disgusted again. Peter nodded.

“They collected the, uh, sperm at a conference. They had a donor in mind but he turned them down, so they got him drunk and…”

“That’s very rape-y,” Mr. Stark said.

“It is,” Peter agreed. “It’s… Here, there’s a video file. It’s corrupted—I think Dr. Fitzpatrick tried to delete it because she seems pretty drunk in the clip—but there’s enough of it to… Uh.”

Peter swiped away the phase two video and scrolled back into the phase one folder for the corrupted file. He’d almost played that one first, but it seemed better to have the context first before… Well.

“We did it,” Dr. Fitzpatrick sing-songed in the video. She wasn’t in her lab coat in this one; in fact, she looked like she’d come straight from a party. Her eyes were smokey and smudged, her lips stained with kissed-away lipstick. She was in a slinky party dress, her stilettos discarded on the lab bench behind her.

Dr. Fitzpatrick looked at the camera and giggled drunkenly, and then the file went a bit staticky for a moment.

“—I mean, it’s for science, right?” Dr. Fitzpatrick was saying when the video picked up again. “You’d think he’d be into it. He gets around enough anyway, and that’s hardly for science. For a greater purpose. I mean, do you know how many people passed the genetic screens? Not many, I’ll tell ya that. I’ll tell ya. And then fucking Richard goes and turns out to be sterile. I mean. What the hell? Do you know how hard it is to find somebody with the IQ we need? God.”

She rambled for a good minute. She didn’t mention Richard again, but Peter had a horrible feeling he knew exactly who Richard was. The phase one lab was at an OsCorp facility outside of San Diego. She’d just come from a party that she’d attended with her crazy Hydra colleagues. The DJ at the party had been horrible, but that had worked in her favor because that had been the line that Tony Stark had used to invite her back to his hotel.

“Good lay, overall. Gotta say,” Dr. Fitzpatrick said, staring into the middle distance and nodding with a loopy smile on her face. “I half expected to have to knock him out early, but, really, why not have a bit of fun in the name of science?”

She giggled to herself and the screen went fuzzy again, losing audio as the video showed her getting up and getting herself a bottle of water.

“I might be sick,” Mr. Stark said, sitting upright, pushing the StarkPad away from himself like the physical distance might somehow help.

Peter had no idea what to say. He hadn’t had any idea what to say about any of it since he’d first reviewed the files.

On the StarkPad, the corrupted file played a burst of static before resolving into a view of a glass-fronted fridge or freezer in the lab. There were neat rows of blue-stoppered vials full of unmistakable fluid. Each tube was labeled “AES” and a date.

“It did take the whole conference,” Dr. Fitzpatrick said, giggling again. “Luckily the guy’s got stamina in with all that genetic perfection. Stace got him first, because of course she did. Didn’t sleep with him, though, because of course she didn’t. Just got him back to his, ruffied him up, hand job into a cup. Presto gizmo.”

Dr. Fitzpatrick snorted, actually snorted, like she wasn’t talking about sexual assault.

Mr. Stark shot up off the couch and barely made it to the kitchen sink in time to puke. Peter turned the video off; the point had been made.

“I’m sorry,” Peter said when Mr. Stark had finished. Peter stayed on the couch, still with no idea what to say or what to do or if he should leave or if he should have even said anything.

“You said—You said there’s notes? Logs?” Mr. Stark said. He stayed by the sink. Peter couldn’t tell if it was because he was worried he’d puke again, or if he just wanted the distance to process it all.

“Yeah. There’s a lot in here. Most of it’s just really meticulous records,” Peter said. “Incubation temperatures, nutrient and hormone levels.”

“Jesus,” Mr. Stark said, mostly to himself. He made his way back over to the couch and sat down hard, running his hands over his face. He tried to smile. “Pepper likes to joke—when she’s mad at me—that I probably have a couple kids out there somewhere from all those bad choices way back when. But that’s… literally fifty.”

There had been more than that in phase one, but Peter didn’t say so. A detached part of him wondered how they’d managed so many viable embryos, but mostly he just felt a little bit sick.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know how to bring it—what to say,” Peter said. He set the StarkPad aside and ran his fingers through his hair.

“There’s really no good way to bring that one up,” Mr. Stark agreed.

The pizza arrived then, and Peter leapt up to retrieve it. Mr. Stark’s heart was racing and Peter really just didn’t know what to say to help, because it was big and horrible. It might’ve been years ago, but it was still bad.

“Should we call Pepper or Happy or somebody?” Peter asked, setting the pizza down on the coffee table even though he was pretty sure neither of them were going to eat it. “I get that your fifteen-year-old intern is not the best person to—”

“You’re fine, Pete. It was a long time ago. It’s fine.”

“It’s really not,” Peter said. Mr. Stark gave him a look.

“I will be fine.”

“Okay, well, I have a part two I really need to tell you,” Peter said, perfectly aware that he was making agitated little fidgeting motions and completely unable to stop himself. “And it makes everything worse.”

“I don’t have anything left to throw up,” Mr. Stark said. “Hit me with it.”

“Dr. Fitzpatrick was my mom.”

“What?” Mr. Stark asked after a long moment.

“Yeah. Mary Theresa Fitzpatrick,” Peter said, recalling the labels on the incubation chambers and knowing Mr. Stark would be too. MTF/AES. Mary Theresa Fitzpatrick/Anthony Edward Stark. “If it lines up the way I think it did, she got pregnant with me right before SHIELD shut this experiment down. She didn’t marry my dad until I was a few months old, and now I’m thinking she took his name to distance herself from this whole mad scientist thing.”

“Fuck.”

 

“The only thing FRIDAY has been able to turn up about Colleen Meier is that she was an OsCorp employee,” Mr. Stark told him a while later. Peter had managed a few bites of pizza, but mostly they’d just sat there, scrolling through the research.

“Are you thinking she was working on the spider research and that’s how she put together who I am?”

“That’s the thought, yeah,” Mr. Stark said, rubbing a hand down his face. “Can’t confirm any of it; they scrubbed her pretty thoroughly.”

“Does that mean OsCorp sent her?” Peter asked, feeling his guts twist all over again. “It was, like, condoned by the company?”

“Either that or they realized what she was up to and didn’t want it traced back to them.”

“The more I learn about OsCorp, the less I like them,” Peter said.

Chapter Text

“Cool. Okay.”

Peter had to ball his hands into fists to keep himself from doing finger guns.

“Right.”

He jumped onto the lid of the cardboard crusher thing, then stuck himself to the wall and crawled up as quick as he could. The woman started giggling madly. Peter flung himself from the building, shooting a web across the street and hauling himself across and up. Shooting another web to take him down the block. He didn’t stop until the woman’s laughter and the man’s embarrassed shushing were beyond his range of hearing.

“Karen, is it at all possible for you to leave me some shred of dignity by erasing the last twenty minutes from the Baby Monitor Protocol?” he asked, coming to a rest on the roof of a corner store. There was a ramshackle structure sort of thing that looked like somebody had once made a hobby of keeping pigeons or something, and while it was too busted up to be useful to pigeons it did serve as a decent wind-block for the moment.

“Sorry, Peter,” Karen said. “I don’t think I can erase any footage. I could try, but I feel I should warn you that it would trigger an alert to FRIDAY.”

“Okay, yeah, no. Definitely don’t do that, then,” Peter said. “I’ll just have to do something extra distracting later to keep him from noticing… that whole shitshow.”

“Sounds good, Peter.”

Peter groaned and repositioned himself, tapping the control on the wrist of his suit to turn up his heater a bit.

There had been a car chase. That part had gone well; he’d been helpful. The police had actually shouted instructions at him, what he could do as part of their strategy. It was a first. It was a win.

He’d ended up in the Bronx and been keeping his ears open as he headed back towards Queens when he’d seen what looked like the world’s most ham-handed purse-snatching. A man had grabbed the lady’s purse, then jogged not even a full block while the lady raged at him. He’d gone down an alley and she’d followed, which looked very much like the whole point of the snatching from Peter’s point of view.

Turned out it had been. Only where Peter had been thinking assault or worse, the people on the street had been thinking of a quickie behind a dumpster. Which, gross. But consenting adults and all that.

They totally knew each other.

Like, really well.

He’d jumped down, ready to web the guy up and escort the woman to the nearest police station to give a statement. There had been shouting and awkward explanations after that. And then Peter’s barely-finger-gun-less exit.

It was definitely not one to tell Happy about.

(And he was really glad that Ned hadn’t been on the comms.)

Peter jumped across the back alley and climbed the wall of the building behind it, sitting with his back against the half-wall the surrounded the gravel roof. He could see his breath.

He stared up at the sky. It was just barely past sunset, kinda cloudy, and really too bright in the city to see any stars. It was weird how he’d gotten used to spending time at the compound, out away from the light pollution; there was a balcony off Mr. Stark’s living room with a bunch of loungers that were great for sitting in and watching the sky after the place was shut down for the night.

Peter closed his eyes and just listened to the city for a moment. The hum of furnaces, traffic, conversation just outside the reach of his hearing. He could hear dishwashers running in the restaurants across the street. A handful of languages, most of the conversations light and friendly. Somebody in the building below him was bathing a toddler and it sounded like a challenge.

“Would anybody else like to share?” somebody asked, a voice from the building next door. It sounded like the second floor, probably. He would’ve turned his attention elsewhere, headed for home, because it sounded a lot like an AA or group therapy meeting, but the next voice froze him in place.

“I will,” May said. She sounded exhausted. And sad. It made him physically ache to hear her sound like that.

“Alright,” the first voice said gently. “Go ahead, May.”

May shifted in her chair. He knew she did, because he heard the rustle of cloth and the click of the bangle bracelets she’d been wearing when he left for patrol. She’d told him she was meeting a friend for dinner.

“I’m May,” May said. “I was diagnosed three months ago. Liver cancer. Very treatable. Caught it early. All those things I think most of us heard at the beginning.”

There was a murmur from whoever else was with her. He thought his group therapy guess had been right.

“Last month, they changed the diagnosis. My bloodwork was concerning so there were more scans, more tests. Specialists.” May sighed. “It’s in my pancreas, too. And this time they’re using words like ‘aggressive’ and ‘terminal.’ I haven’t told anybody yet.”

May said other things, and the group responded a bit. Peter couldn’t hear any of it over the sound of his blood rushing in his ears.

She hadn’t let him look into anything. She hadn’t wanted to worry him. She’d told him it was all going to be fine and she didn’t want him to stress.

She’d let him go to the freaking Avengers compound and spend nearly all of his freaking free time with Mr. Stark. Like his time with her hadn’t suddenly been slapped with a viscerally tangible expiration date.

“I’ve accepted it. I know it’s coming,” May said, the determination in her tone snapping Peter out of his fugue. He wanted to crash through a window, find her, shake her until she understood that she was not allowed to give up. “I’ve even started making plans for… everything. It’s not morbid, it’s just a part of this that I can control.”

“That’s understandable,” one of the people in the group said. Peter wanted to shake them, too. Tell them they were full of shit.

“My will has been updated. The money for the medical bills and the burial costs is in line. I even made a playlist for my wake.” She laughed wetly. She was crying. He could hear the click of her bangles again, probably wiping away the tears or maybe fidgeting with a tissue or something. “It’s just me and my nephew. He’s fifteen. I’ve been his legal guardian since he was four, and it’s just been us since my husband died when he was twelve and—” She broke off again. Took a deep breath. “He has this mentor. Great guy, great for Peter. He’s such a smart kid; I can hardly keep up with half the stuff he gets into, and this guy is with him every step of the way. And his fiancée is great. They’re solid. They’re financially solid. They’re… We’d already started the paperwork before I was diagnosed. So that if anything happened to me there wouldn’t be a question about what would happen to Peter. My nephew. And since I’ve been diagnosed, I’ve been… pushing, I guess? Encouraging them to spend more time together. Trying to build him a support network so that when I’m—when I’m gone—he won’t have to question what will happen.”

“Why haven’t you told him yet, May?” one of the group members, maybe the group leader, asked gently.

“I’ve tried. I’ve made plans to do it, set up whole days to work around to bringing it up. But I always chicken out,” May said. “I had dinner with P—with his mentor’s fiancée—tonight. We’ve become great friends, really, and I was going to tell her. Ease myself into it. But I couldn’t even do that.”

There was more talk about support networks. About Peter being there for May “through this.” And hints that it was only fair to him to warn him, to let him begin to process it.

Peter couldn’t listen to any more, though. He threw himself off the building, swinging furiously for—

He came to a full stop on a fire escape, checking his momentum so abruptly that he almost fell off of it.

He hadn’t been heading for home. Not even for Queens.

He’d been headed for Tony’s penthouse in Manhattan.

Because May was so horrifyingly good at parenting him.

She’d trained him to turn to Tony. If there was a problem, ask Tony about it. Ask Tony for help. Check in with Tony while he was on patrol because he was a worrier. Double-check with Tony about dinner on Friday. Send that meme to Tony, too.

In the last few months, Peter had grown closer to Tony—and Pepper and Happy—than he’d ever imagined. He’d taken over the guest bedrooms in all of their houses to the point that they just called them his room—Pepper’s condo in California, Happy’s apartment in Manhattan, the compound, Tony’s penthouse. He had a change of clothes and more at each place.

He’d called Pepper in a panic not even a week ago because he was pretty sure he had a bona fide crush on MJ and he was 88% sure she liked him back and he’d had no clue what to do with that realization other than call her.

She’d been at a business dinner with some big new manufacturing partners but she’d taken the call anyway. (And Mr. Stark had been there, and he’d spent the rest of the night texting about how mad he was that Pepper had been the one Peter had called for romantic advice.)

Peter turned and deliberately swung for home. He showered, changed into sweats. He thought about going to bed, pretending he hadn’t overheard anything, but there was no way he could keep that up.

He called Tony and was a complete mess about it. Crying, because May had completely set them up to have this bond but it existed and he loved it and he needed it and it was all so stupid and unfair and he wasn’t even the one who was dying so what kind of right did he even have to be complaining about anything being unfair?

Tony had offered to come over, but he was at the compound and it would take half an hour even in the suit (unless he went supersonic, which would break windows and things, and generally mean damages and paperwork), and by the time Peter had calmed down enough to be coherent he could already hear May making her way into the building.

“I’ll talk to her,” Peter said. He’d curled up on one end of the couch, box of tissues sitting on his knees and the coffee table littered with the ones he’d gone through already. “She’s in the elevator now. I’ll talk to her.”

“Call me when you’re done,” Tony said. “If I don’t hear from you before midnight, I’m calling you.”

“You don’t have to—”

“Peter,” Tony said sharply enough that Peter shut up. “You call me.”

“Okay.”

 

May had worked her last shift at the NICU the week before, gone on medical leave, arranged everything so she’d have insurance coverage for hospice care, met with her doctors to shift her care from actual treatment to managing symptoms. She’d been spending her days meeting with various counselors or lawyers.

He wanted to feel betrayed—he did feel betrayed—but mostly he was just sad. And May was sad. He wanted it to feel better that they were sad together, but that night it just felt like… more sad.

Tony called just after midnight; Peter hadn’t called because they’d still been talking. He put Tony on speaker and they talked more, cried more.

May had to call him in sick the next day at school because it was really just a wretched night and he woke up feeling just as gutted.

Chapter Text

“Pizza rolls,” Mrs. Leeds said, bumping the door open with her hip. “How’s the studying going?”

“I think my brain is full,” Ned said, setting aside the SAT prep book he’d been working through.

“Perfect time for a snack break, then,” Mrs. Leeds said. “How’re you doing, Peter?”

“About the same,” Peter said, but he didn’t look up from his prep book. Ned had months to study, and Tony’s crazy scheme meant Peter was down to days.

“Ned, make sure he eats a few pizza rolls. Your sister has dance tonight, so it's a while yet until dinner,” Mrs. Leeds said, setting the plate on the desk before she left.

“Pizza rolls,” Ned said, picking up the plate and waving it in Peter’s direction enticingly. “Dude. Pizza rolls.”

“I’m going to fail this test, Ned,” Peter said, but he looked up long enough to grab a pizza roll off the plate and pop it into his mouth.

“You’re not going to fail,” Ned said. “You’re, like, the smartest guy I know.”

Peter rolled his eyes.

“Seriously, though. We should take a break,” Ned said. “Want to build Mos Eisley?”

“Yeah, that’d probably be good,” Peter said. They’d gone straight to Ned’s after school for a long-overdue sleepover, settling in with the SAT prep right away.

 

“So you going to tell me what’s been bothering you?” Ned asked a few hours later. They’d alternated between test prep, YouTube videos, homework and building Mos Eisley.

“You mean besides my imminent demise by SAT?”

“Yeah. Besides that,” Ned said.

Peter looked at him, but Ned didn’t even blink. Peter sighed.

“You remember that drive Black Widow gave me?”

“Uh, yeah,” Ned said, eyes lighting up. “It was only the coolest thing that ever happened to me.”

“Right,” Peter said. “Well. Parts of it have been decrypted, and… it was a lot.”

“Like, dark stuff? Assassinations?”

“Not assassinations.” Peter sighed. “I found out my parents worked for Hydra, though. And my dad wasn’t my dad.”

What?”

“Yeah.” Peter put the SAT book aside and scrubbed his hands over his face. He hadn’t planned to say anything—he’d actually been trying not to say anything; not anything about Hydra, about the research, about May’s new diagnosis. Just hang on to normalcy with both hands, study for the test and hang out with Ned. Ned could always tell, though.

“How could you know that—?”

“There were these video clips that my mom put together. She just sort of dropped in there that Richard Parker was sterile.”

“No way.”

“No way to find out for sure at this point,” Peter said. “He and Uncle Ben are both dead, so it’s not like I can run a DNA test.”

“Dude.”

“Yeah.”

“So then who’s your dad?”

“Does it matter?” Peter asked. “Apparently my mother was a horrible human being.”

"Just because she had an affair or something doesn't absolutely mean she was a horrible—”

"She worked for Hydra, Ned," Peter interrupted.

“Well. Okay. Well. She’s dead too,” Ned said. “But you’ve got May, and May’s awesome.”

It should’ve been heartening—and he knew Ned was trying to be supportive and comfort him in the face of the totally bonkers news he’d just dropped—but Peter’s eyes immediately started burning. He let out a shuddery breath, wiped his nose, then grabbed the box of tissues off Ned’s nightstand.

“Peter,” Ned said, tossing his own test prep onto the bed and grabbing Peter by the shoulders. “I’m sorry. That was a horrible thing to say. I’m sorry about your mom—”

“It’s not that,” Peter said, wiping his nose again. “May’s really sick.”

“I thought you said the treatment—”

“It’s in her pancreas now too,” Peter said. “I found out earlier this week. No more treatments. Just—fucking—waiting to die.”

Ned didn’t say anything, just hugged him.

 

“Hey, Ned?” Peter asked later, lying in the dark.

“Yeah?”

“Do you think you could hack OsCorp again?”

“Um. I guess,” Ned said, rolling over to look at Peter over the side of his bed. “Why?”

“I think Norman Osborn might be my father.”

“What? Why?” Ned asked. “How?”

“My mom went to school with him or something. They worked together just as long as she and my d—she and Richard did.” Peter sat up, wrapping his blanket around his shoulders. “I was looking at my old pictures in Ben’s photo albums. I wasn’t really looking to see if I could spot my secret father or something, but I kept seeing Norman Osborn popping up right next to my mom in all the pictures. Work parties, conferences, he’s everywhere.”

“Doesn’t he have a kid your age, though? Like. With his wife?”

“Harry. Yeah.”

“So…?”

“So?” Peter just looked at him until it seemed to click for Ned that it wasn’t necessarily impossible for a dude to get two women pregnant around the same time.

“That’s so messed up,” Ned said.

“Yeah. The whole month has been messed up,” Peter said. The only thing that was allowing him to cling to any sort of normalcy was the panic-studying for the SAT. He tried not to think about wanting to do well so that May would have one last solidly good memory of him before she went, but the idea kept slipping into his head.

“Um. So, I guess we can hack OsCorp again. If you want,” Ned said. He got out of bed, grabbing his laptop off the desk before sitting down next to Peter’s sleeping bag on the floor. “What exactly are you hoping to find, though?”

“I have no idea,” Peter said. “Flirty emails? Maybe why Osborn and his wife divorced?”

“You know what would be nuts?” Ned asked, powering up his computer. “What if you’re the secret heir to OsCorp?”

“Gross. Don’t joke about that.”

“You’re the one who says he might be your dad.”

“I really hope he’s not,” Peter said. “There was just… Okay. There was this picture.”

“Okay?”

“Norman Osborn and my mom standing in this gazebo at a party or something. It must’ve been right before I was born, because she was super pregnant in the picture,” Peter said. She’d been in a flowy maternity dress with the long gold chain necklace she’d worn in some of those video logs, and Osborn had been in a khaki suit. “They were, like, leaning in close together as they talked. It looked… cozy.”

“Remember when the most interesting thing that happened in our lives was when Liz got a new skirt?” Ned asked, and Peter snorted.

 

OsCorp was a bust. Either whatever nebulous proof Peter was after had been erased from the servers or it had never existed in the first place.

They did find out that OsCorp was losing contracts right and left, though—basically their only major client still standing was the military, and they were nearing the end of the contract by the look of it; they’d even been given permission to tinker around with Chitauri tech to incorporate into new prototypes, but none of the project summaries looked especially promising.

“I think I’m calling it,” Ned said somewhere near two in the morning. “We’re not finding anything about some secret romance between him and your mom. At this point, it’s teetering on corporate espionage or something. You interning with the competition and all.”

“You think it’s a crazy idea?” Peter asked, not protesting when Ned shut everything down and put the laptop back on the desk to charge. “My mom and Osborn?”

“Honestly, I don’t know anything. We don’t know anything,” Ned said. “And, like you said before, everybody who did know is dead. I guess unless you want to ask Norman Osborn about it, but I always thought he was kinda creepy.”

Peter wanted to say, “You have no idea,” but he didn’t; it would just be stringing Ned along, dangling secrets in front of him that Peter wasn’t allowed to tell.

“Maybe I’ll run into him out doing Spider-Man things,” Peter said, flopping back down onto his sleeping bag. “I can sneak a few hairs or something and get Tony to run DNA.”

“Oh, it’s ‘Tony’ now, is it?” Ned asked.

“What?”

“You’ll get Tony to run the DNA?”

“He told me I should call him that,” Peter said. Tony had actually been saying to stop calling him ‘Mr. Stark’ for ages, but it had taken Peter a while to break the habit.

“Maybe he’s your dad,” Ned said. “They were part of the same scene way back when, right? Young and science-y. Maybe your parents realized your dad was shooting blanks but they wanted a kid, so your mom picked somebody who looked kinda like him?”

“Tony does not look like Richard Parker,” Peter said, deciding to not even go there with the rest of Ned’s suggestion. He wasn’t far off the mark where Mary Fitzpatrick’s moral compass landed on consent, and that still twisted in Peter’s guts a bit. Also, it brought to mind all those bluish incubators and the fact that she must’ve been checking nutrients and hormone levels, filling out all those logs Peter had read through, while she was pregnant with him. It was sick.

“Brown hair, brown eyes…”

“Ned.”

“It’s hard to say anyway,” Ned said. “You look a lot like your mom. You’ve got her ears.”

“Again with the ears,” Peter huffed.

Chapter Text

“Pete. You’re killing me with the pacing,” Tony said, waving a screwdriver in his direction. “You’ve gotta chill.”

“I’m sorry,” Peter said, not meaning it at all. “I took a huge test several months before I’d planned to, with just a few weeks to really study for it, and they’re posting the results literally any minute now and so you’ll have to pardon me if I’m freaking out a little bit.”

“You really should try to calm down, baby,” May said. “You want to maybe come down to floor level?”

“The furniture just gets in the way,” Peter said.

“Let’s try that again,” May said, fixing him with a look that was remarkably effective even upside down. “Come down off the ceiling or I’m going to get the broom.”

Peter sighed and let himself drop down to floor level, then plopped down on the couch. There was too much furniture to navigate around to effectively pace away the anxiety.

“You know you can retake the test, right?” Tony asked. He had the microwave mostly disassembled for reasons unknown, and he didn’t look up from whatever he was doing to it as he spoke.

“Oh god that’s worse,” Peter said, rubbing his hands over his face. “Then I’d have to relive the stress of studying and trying to sleep the night before and then the waiting for the results again and—”

“Wow. Okay. Noted,” Tony said. “Come over here and hold a flashlight or something.”

“I can’t. I’m useless right now.”

Tony looked up at him, frowning.

“You know you’re overreacting to this whole thing if Tony Stark thinks you’re being a little melodramatic,” May said. Tony snorted.

Peter groaned, but any further discussion of his stress was cut off by the alert ping from his phone.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” Peter took his phone out of his pocket and sure enough there was an email notification giving him the login he’d need to access his SAT results.

“Well?” May asked, sitting next to him. “How’d you do?”

“I’m still logging in.”

Tony set aside his tools and sat on Peter’s other side. Them looking at the screen while he logged in for his results did not help his stress levels, but at least he couldn’t see their faces.

“Holy shit.”

Nice, Pete,” Tony said.

“Holy shit,” Peter said again.

“You didn’t need to worry at all,” May said, giving him a tight sideways hug. “Good job, baby.”

“Holy shit.”

“Let’s celebrate,” Tony said. “C’mon.”

“Celebrate?” Peter repeated. “Where are we going?”

“Your choice, Mr. 1600,” Tony said.

“Hey, uh-uh,” May said, pointing at the microwave. “Yes, we’re going to celebrate, but we’re not going anywhere until you put my microwave back together.”

Chapter Text

“Couldn’t I just stay home?” Peter asked. It was not the first time he’d asked. He’d been asking since the permission forms had been handed out. (They’d been sent via email, too, so he hadn’t even been able to pretend it wasn’t happening.) “I’ve already been there. I go there all the time. And I could, y’know, spend the day with you.”

“You’re going, Peter,” May said, smiling at him.

“This is funny to you, isn’t it?” Peter asked. “You’re enjoying my misery.”

“You’re not miserable,” she said.

“Utterly miserable,” Peter said. “Completely. It’s going to be a train wreck.”

“Not every field trip can be a disaster. You remember that trip to the petting zoo in first grade? That one was great.”

“A llama ate my sunglasses.”

May laughed and set her tea aside so she could fix his collar and send him out the door.

Chapter Text

All the hair on his body stood up a split second before the shock wave hit. It was strong enough to rattle the glass and knock everybody in the room off their feet.

SI–NY was supposed to have been such a safe bet, too.

Peter got to his feet, only realizing once he was upright that the rest of his classmates seemed to be down for the count. Ms. Warren, too. And Leia, their tour guide.

“Um. FRIDAY?” he asked the room at large. The AI ran through the building, so she had sensors and speakers and everything even in the STARK INDUSTRIES THROUGH THE AGES room for tourists.

FRIDAY didn’t respond, and for a second Peter started to panic. If the blast had knocked out FRIDAY, there would be no security protocols going into effect, no lockdown, no summoning of emergency services, no emergency alert sent to Tony upstate.

But—duh—protocols. Tony had set it up so FRIDAY would treat him like any other kid on a tour. No special access or internship privileges.

“FRIDAY, emergency override. Cancel setting FIELD TRIP: DO NOT DISTURB,” he said, looking around the room like FRIDAY would somehow manifest. He knew there were cameras and speakers and all sorts of sensors, but it was all built into the walls and ceiling and floor, probably the displays too, and he couldn’t spot them.

“Hello, Peter,” FRIDAY said. “I am having difficulty connecting to the network.”

“You can’t connect?” He walked over to Ned, checking his pulse, checking he was breathing. Ned sort of groaned when Peter turned him onto his side in the recovery position, but otherwise seemed to be out cold.

“There was a detonation on sublevel two. An emergency lockdown is in effect,” FRIDAY said. Though her voice was as even as ever, there was a tinge of what Peter wanted to call nerves in her tone as well.

“Detonation,” Peter repeated. “What sort of detonation?”

“Unknown. I am having difficulty connecting to the network. Emergency services have not been called.”

“Did you call Tony?”

“No. I am having trouble connecting to the network.”

“Can you connect to the sensors in this room?” Peter asked, again pushing down the bubble of panic that wanted to crawl out of his guts and strangle him. He was usually much better under pressure, but this was SI–NY and he’d always been safe here. And it was his classmates unconscious around him. It was entirely different from swinging down a random street stopping a stranger from being mugged.

“Yes.”

“Does anybody need emergency medical attention? They’re all unconscious.” He gave Ned a little shake, but his friend just groaned again.

“I detect elevated heartrates, but no signs of broken bones. If you would like more specific readings, you’ll have to move your classmates closer to my sensors. I am having difficulty connecting to the network.”

“No. Okay. That’s good.” He got up and took a look around the room. They all looked alright, as far as he could tell. No blood, no head wounds. A few of them even seemed to be coming around. He checked his phone just to see if he could call 9-1-1 or Tony, but it just said NO SERVICE across the top. It was a StarkPhone, so it made sense if FRIDAY was having issues his phone would be having issues, too. “You said we’re in emergency lockdown?”

“Yes. A detonation was detected on sublevel two.”

“That’s employee parking, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Right,” Peter said, running his hands through his hair. It made sense that the building would go into lockdown following an explosion in employee parking. An explosion in one of the labs wasn’t unheard of, but an explosion in parking was suspicious at best.

“What happened?” Leia asked, hauling herself up on one of the display cases. She looked rumpled, but no worse for wear.

“Explosion,” Peter said. “We’re in lockdown.”

“Lockdown?” Leia repeated, and a few other voices from his classmates.

“Yeah,” Peter said.

Leia tried to make a few calls, but hers was a StarkPhone too. Then she tried her tour guide walkie-talkie (so that the tour guides could keep in touch with each other and coordinate space between the larger groups), but all it gave her was static.

“Everybody okay?” Ms. Warren asked, helping people up and doing a headcount while she was at it. “Peter, come away from the wall. What are you doing? You shouldn’t touch that.”

“It’s fine, Ms. Warren,” Peter said. He’d opened one of the access panels to try for a direct line connection he could hook his phone into. There were still old landlines in the walls for fax machines and things. “FRIDAY, what am I looking for?”

“A thick gray wire,” FRIDAY said, startling a few of his classmates and the tour guide. “Would you like me to give you an overlay on your heads-up display?”

“I don’t have my glasses with me,” Peter said, finding the wire she’d described and following it until he was able to tug an end loose at a junction.

“Sorry, Peter. I couldn’t tell,” FRIDAY said, sounding frustrated with herself. “I’m having difficulty connecting to the network.”

“And it’s driving you crazy, I know,” Peter said, though it was more to himself than anything else.

“It is,” FRIDAY agreed with him anyway. “The network is functioning normally; however, I am having difficulty connecting.”

Peter frowned. That was bad. That was very bad. That meant somebody who knew how the building operated had somehow cut access to the network, which was virtually impossible between wifi and data and landline connections and FRIDAY’s own hardwired system. And they also seemed to be jamming shortwave radios.

The others were talking. Ms. Warren had told him to get away from the wall again, but she was also trying to talk to Leia so Peter kept ignoring her.

“Does anybody have an iPhone?” Peter asked, twisting the wire into the shape he needed and hoping he wasn’t about to completely fry his phone. (It shouldn’t; it was a special design from Tony just for Peter and all the madness he got up to, but he’d never be able to live it down if he messed up something so simple.) He popped the back casing off his phone to get to the bits he needed. “Or an Android. Anything that’s not a StarkPhone?”

“Yeah?” a few people said.

Ms. Warren tried to shoo him away from the wall again, but Peter ignored her. Ned had put himself physically between everybody else and Peter, so exactly what he was doing with the wires was hidden.

“Do you have any signal? I just get a ‘can’t connect to the network’ message.”

“No. No signal,” Betty said. She held her phone up like that would somehow help.

“I’m not even getting wifi,” Ned said. “But mine’s a StarkPhone, so…”

“Mine’s Google,” Abe said. “I don’t have wifi. Or any sort of signal, either.”

“The emergency lockdown has been upgraded to a red alert,” FRIDAY announced. “Peter, shots have been fired in the lobby. I have detected four armed intruders, though there are likely more. I am having difficulty connecting to the network.”

“Okay, FRIDAY, I want you to quarantine the workshop system and run an emergency reboot.”

“Rebooting the workshop system,” FRIDAY said. “Multiple intruders detected in public access areas of the building. We are at red alert; shots fired in the lobby. Unauthorized personnel on sublevel one. I am having difficulty connecting to the network; emergency services have not been contacted.”

Somebody was crying. Most of them seemed caught up between nerves and excitement. Ms. Warren did another head count.

Peter finished wiring his phone in, crossed his fingers, and selected Tony in his contacts. The NO SERVICE banner had gone away, so he really hoped that meant the call would go through.

“Peter?” Tony’s voice came through the phone with a scratchy sort of echo to it. Peter hadn’t even heard it ring, so either Tony was that quick or it was another malfunction.

“Tony! Hi! There’s something going on here,” Peter said.

“What’s wrong?”

“I am having difficulty connecting to the network,” FRIDAY said. She probably transmitted it right along the phone line, too, rather than trusting the speaker on his phone to pick up her voice.

“Something detonated on sublevel two maybe ten minutes ago. Maybe not quite that long,” Peter said. He pressed his free hand over the ear that didn’t have the phone to it, trying to block out the sounds of his classmates. They were wondering how he had Mr. Stark’s phone number, reminding each other about the @Peter_the_Intern Instagram, bickering back and forth. Ms. Warren tried to tell him to get away from the bare wiring again. “There was a shockwave that knocked everybody down and put the building in emergency lockdown. FRIDAY hasn’t been able to call for help. Nobody has cell service or wifi—not just Stark tech, any sort of tech; even the tour guide’s radio is jammed. About two minutes ago, FRIDAY put the building in red alert. Four hostiles, shots fired in the lobby. Intruders on sublevel one.”

“Where are you?” Tony asked. There was more interference, but the general call quality was so bad that Peter couldn’t tell if he was in the air or if he was just in a crowded room or something.

“That museum room on the second floor,” Peter said. “I had to pull one of the hardlines out of the wall to get a call out. Sorry.”

“Never mind, you did good, kid,” Tony said. The line went so quiet Peter worried the call had dropped, but Tony was back a second later so maybe he’d just muted himself. “How many with you?”

“My class, my teacher, the tour guide,” Peter said. “Nineteen total, including me.”

There was a burst of gunfire, indistinct shouting, more gunfire. Several people screamed, taking cover behind displays. Ned edged closer to Peter, looking toward the noises.

“Unauthorized personnel detected on the second floor,” FRIDAY reported. “I am having difficulty connecting to the network.”

“Has the workshop rebooted yet?” Peter asked. He wanted to tell FRIDAY to stop telling them she was having difficulty connecting and just tell them when she could reestablish a connected, but he didn’t.

“Reboot of the quarantined workshop system is eighty percent complete,” FRIDAY reported.

“That was good thinking, Pete,” Tony said, sounding pleased. “FRIDAY, is there a safe route to get him up there?”

“I am having difficulty connecting to the network,” FRIDAY said. “I am unable to detect the safest potential route upstairs.”

“I could get to a window?” Peter suggested, thinking of the way Tony had been able to send the Mark 51 that one time.

“I can’t connect to anything at SI–NY,” Tony said. There was definite interference on his end, rushing air. “I’m at least twenty minutes out.”

“FRIDAY, can you send me something from the workshop?”

“I’m sorry, that system has been quarantined.”

“Right. Stupid.” Peter resisted the urge to tap his forehead against the wall, since that would be unhelpful.

“Sit tight, kid. Police and everybody will be there in minutes. Stay where you are. Stay safe,” Tony said.

There was more gunfire, muffled and indistinct compared to before.

“Casualties detected,” FRIDAY announced. “Third floor west.”

“That’s HR,” Peter said. “Why are they shooting people in HR?”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Ned said.

“No idea,” Tony said. “Stay put, Peter.”

“Reboot complete,” FRIDAY said. “I am having difficulty connecting to the network.”

Peter looked at his phone, jerry-rigged to the wall, then at Ned standing next to him with those expectant eyes, waiting for him to do something awesome.

Peter muted the call.

“FRIDAY, are you able to lock and unlock doors in lockdown?”

“I would need emergency override authorization from you,” FRIDAY said. “But yes.”

“And you can close the doors again behind me? Lock it down again?”

“Yes, Peter.”

Peter looked at Ned again. Ned looked a little more worried than he had, but he also flashed a thumbs-up.

“FRIDAY, is there anybody in the hall directly outside the Stark Industries Through the Ages room?”

“That hall is vacant.”

“Tell him I’m sorry,” Peter told Ned, holding out the muted phone so he could take over holding it up near the wall. Ned nodded.

“Peter—” Ms. Warren said, but Peter was too quick.

“Okay, FRIDAY, open the door.”

The lock clicked, and Peter slid through. His classmates immediately started gossiping to each other, agreeing with each other that he was absolutely crazy. Ms. Warren shouted for him to come back.

“How does he even have security access to do that sort of thing?” Leia wondered out loud. Peter wanted to smile back at her, come across all mysterious and stuff, but he had to focus.

“Lock it behind me,” he told FRIDAY.

Peter,” Ms. Warren said, grabbing for the door handle, but FRIDAY had already engaged the lock again.

“What can you tell me?” Peter asked. He really missed the HUD from his suit or the modified version in the glasses Tony had given him.

“I am having difficulty connecting to the network, but halls appear clear on this floor,” FRIDAY said. There was a pause. “Your safest route is to turn around and go back through the door you just left.”

“How did he get to you if he can’t connect?” Peter asked. Tony’s override was weirdly comforting even if it was a little bit inconvenient with FRIDAY not giving him directions.

“I am monitoring the call in the Stark Industries Through the Ages room.”

“And he’s the boss,” Peter said. “I get it.”

“He is worried for your safety.”

“There are casualties, FRI,” Peter said. “I can’t not try to help.”

He had to pass through a few more doors—each of them unlocked and locked again by FRIDAY even though she relayed Tony’s protests each time—before he reached the staff elevator.

“Any damage to elevator shafts?” Peter asked. He’d really rather just take the elevator, but he’d climb up the shaft if he had to.

“This elevator has not been accessed since the emergency lockdown began. All systems report it is functioning as normal.”

“Here we go,” Peter said.

The staff elevator would take him up to the seventh floor, where the skyway connected the original building to the squat one where Tony had his R&D workshop. The skyway was locked down, but FRIDAY let him through those doors as well.

“Anything to watch out for?” Peter asked as he entered the new building.

“I am not detecting any movement in the hallway,” FRIDAY said.

“Good. Okay,” Peter said, and he started jogging. Down the hall, unlock and lock the door to the emergency stairs (the elevators in the R&D building were central, and it would take longer to get to them and go up than it would to take the stairs), up the stairs.

The lockdown would be making it difficult for whoever the hostiles were to access the buildings. There were very few people with clearance to override security protocols like he’d been doing, and most of those were restricted to specific areas of the building. It was not a good thing that they’d made it to the seventh floor, though; they were well into the non-public areas of the building.

“Boss wants you to know that you’re in big trouble,” FRIDAY told him cheerfully when he asked her to unlock the door to the hall outside Tony’s workshop.

“Yeah, yeah,” Peter said, waiting until the door locked behind him before he jogged down the new hall and plugged his code into the keypad outside the workshop.

Tony’s workshops were Peter’s favorite places on Earth. Easy.

The one at the Avengers compound was the biggest and the most used. It was the one where Tony kept his robots, and the one Peter had visited first.

The one at SI–NY was nothing to scoff at, though. It had a main workshop area with smaller areas branching off of it. Containment spaces rated for the Hulk (not actually prison cells or something, but everything-proofed spaces for particularly volatile tests). The main workshop was two stories tall, and then the areas that branched off of it varied based on their purpose. The place was a mess of tools and scraps, projects in various states of completion, blueprints and sketches stuck to walls. There was a laser set up at the back of the ‘shop that hadn’t been useful for its intended function, but was perfect for roasting marshmallows for s’mores breaks.

Peter hurried through the workshop, grabbing the things he’d need before taking the stairs at the back three at a time to the top landing.

“I am having difficulty connecting to the network,” FRIDAY told him, voice calmer than it had been before he’d entered the workshop. This was the version of FRIDAY that had been quarantined off, so she was unaware of the emergency lockdown and the casualties.

“Hold tight, FRIDAY,” he said, headed for the break area at the back of the workshop that had a couch, TV and minifridge. “I’m working on it.”

Tony had a set of analog rabbit ears displayed on the media cabinet below the translucent glass that was his own design for a smartTV not available for commercial purchase. They were ironic and decorative, and, in this case, incredibly useful.

Peter found a broom in the maintenance closet and duct-taped the rabbit ears to the end of the handle.

“Do any of these windows open, FRIDAY?”

“No, Peter. For safety purposes—”

“How hard do I need to hit this window to break it?” Peter interrupted.

FRIDAY paused before she answered him, and he wasn’t sure if it was because she was offended that he’d interrupted or what.

He wrapped a sweatshirt he found in the break area around his elbow for extra protection before he jammed it into the window, shattering the glass. Air immediately whistled through the space, stirring up papers and tugging at the blueprints on the walls.

Peter stuck the rabbit ears end of the broom handle out the window as far as he could, then duct-taped the broom part inside the window. Then he duct-taped the duct tape just to be sure his stupid antenna didn’t fall off the building or something like that. He ran the wire he’d connected to the rabbit ears back into the workshop and pulled another panel off the wall to pull more wires out, stripping away the casing so he could hardwire FRIDAY to the antenna. He twisted the wires together, wrapped electrical tape around them, and tried not to giggle like a madman in anticipation on the horrified look Tony would give him.

“Thank you, Peter,” FRIDAY said, sounding as relieved as an AI could sound. “Connectivity issues resolved.”

“Excellent,” Peter said. He hadn’t been 100 percent sure that would work, since he had no idea what the hostiles had used to jam FRIDAY in the first place. “Connect to Tony.”

“You are in big trouble, Pete,” Tony said.

“Yeah, FRIDAY told me,” Peter said.

“Where are you?” Tony asked. There was a lot of interference, but it sounded like the mic on his end was picking up the rush of wind and the hum of the Iron Man suit at full thrust rather than jamming issues.

“Your workshop,” Peter said. The rabbit ears idea had been the quicker fix, so he’d started there, but he wanted to bring an interface in from the non-quarantined part of the building so he could access the sensors. He’d need… a lot more than a broom handle and duct tape.

“Good. Stay there.”

“I’ve got one more thing to do.”

“No. FRIDAY, lock—”

“No, Mr. Stark! Wait!” Peter interrupted. He dropped everything he thought he’d need on a rolling cart and rushed toward the door before FRIDAY could lock him in. “I think I can get you access to the building’s sensors and things. Just a few more minutes. I’ll be quick. And there’s nobody up here. FRIDAY said everything was locked down above the eighth floor.”

“I cannot confirm that,” FRIDAY said. “I have no access to video, audio or any other sensors beyond the workshop.”

“Which is why I need to bring an interface in so we can talk to the rest of the building,” Peter said.

“I swear to God, Pete,” Tony said. From his tone, Peter knew Tony wasn’t going to tell him no. “You are personally responsible for all of my gray hair. All of it.”

“Sorry, Tony,” Peter said, smiling.

If Tony had a comeback, Peter didn’t hear it because he was back in the hall outside the workshop. There were flashing red lights. Somebody had turned off the lockdown alarm, but Peter wasn’t sure if it had been FRIDAY or the intruders.

He’d only grabbed the rolling cart because he’d been trying to get out of the workshop before Mr. Stark told FRIDAY to lock him in, but he was glad he had it. There was a big flatscreen sort of thing embedded in the wall across from the workshop door, and it was a beast to get it unmounted without breaking anything. FRIDAY put up helpful diagrams on the display so he’d know the best way to do it, but it was still a pain.

It took longer than he’d wanted to get the thing onto the cart, then even longer to connect all the right extensions so that he could bring it into the workshop and talk to both parts of FRIDAY. He spent too long looking for the port for the mic only to realize that the display itself didn’t have one. Luckily, the thing was Bluetooth enabled, so he could just connect one of Tony’s wireless keyboards and input all his queries that way. It’d probably make things easier, anyway, because he wouldn’t have to constantly differentiate which FRIDAY he was talking to.

Peter taped his wires so the door wouldn’t pinch them or something, then rolled the cart back into the workshop. FRIDAY was piping Tony’s audio into the room, and a few of the displays were lit up for accompanying visuals. One of the holotables near to the door was reporting Tony’s vitals alongside the diagnostics for the Iron Man suit (which was very cool and also felt a little bit like none of his business, but that didn’t stop Peter from keeping an eye on the display).

Tony was on approach to SI–NY, talking to what sounded like police on the street below. There were a few others reporting in as well—Peter recognized Rhodey’s voice.

“Okay, Tony, I’ve got it,” Peter said. The chatter died instantly.

“Who is that?” an unfamiliar voice asked. “Who is this?”

“Um. I’m Peter,” Peter said.

“Peter the Intern?”

“Yep. That’s me,” Peter said.

“Somebody get the kid off the line,” a new voice said.

Peter took the high road and ignored that.

“I have schematics pulled up. There’s no audio interface, but FRIDAY’s giving me everything she sees,” Peter said. He added a few new queries and frowned at the information she fed back to him. “It’s not good, Tony.”

“Define ‘not good,’” Mr. Stark said.

“FRIDAY, can you give me a wavelength breakdown of those energy—yeah, those, thanks.”

Peter frowned, hating that the best he could do was a visual comparison. The sensors were getting a lot of strange feedback that he’d really hoped would turn out to be people pinging the network from private devices or something, but he hadn’t actually expected to be that lucky—energy weapons of some sort. Not like in the Iron Man suit, or anything Stark tech-based, but…

“They’re definitely using alien tech, Mr. Stark,” Peter said. “FRIDAY is picking up semiautomatics in her scans, but the other weapons don’t register at all except for the disturbances they cause when they’re fired. Closest match I can find is Chitauri tech.”

There was more chatter, but Peter kept talking. If Tony wanted him to stop so he could focus on what the others were saying, he’d say so. He was capable of multitasking, listening to multiple conversations, taking in many streams of information at once.

“Audio and visual are down in the lobby, but infrared is still up. Heat signatures are showing twenty-two gathered near the entrance scanners, probably seated, with five walking around. There’s one more heat signature behind reception, but it’s… cooling.

“Second floor is locked down. Third floor is locked down. Fourth floor…” he said, dragging the image up the building and wishing the display was holograph-capable. He punched a few commands into the display, asking FRIDAY to just show him the spots she sensed threats. “There we go. Tony, FRIDAY has a group of three locked in car two north, employee elevator. They’ve got a laptop and they’re hooked into the control panel, and she says they’re trying to override her. She took them down to garage level, though; they’re between sublevels one and two.

“Speaking of sublevels, there’s absolutely nothing coming from them. It’s all dark. Everything is locked out. FRIDAY’s worried about structural damage—whatever started this out seemed to come from there, and there was enough shockwave that everybody in the room with me on the second floor at least fell over, and most of them were unconscious for a bit.

“All the cameras and sensors—even infrared—are down in lab three in R&D. Have been for seven minutes.

“South elevator bay on level twenty-two has no video. Audio is coming through fine, but there’s nothing to hear.”

He kept on reporting. The police started adding their observations from ground level and from adjacent buildings. They’d begun evacuating the area just in case there had been structural damage to any of the SI–NY buildings; it wasn’t likely enough damage to topple any of the buildings could’ve been done without FRIDAY picking it up from a different level, but better to be cautious.

FRIDAY showed almost two dozen hostiles through the buildings. They were on the move, taking multiple routes toward upper floors. (Toward Peter, Tony had pointed out grumpily, though he hadn’t tried to get Peter to get out of there again.)

Most of the buildings seemed to be full of people sitting around, trapped by the lockdown doors, waiting to be told it was safe to leave. Peter could see the path the intruders had cut through in trails of cooling infrared marks, and after the first few floors he stopped telling Mr. Stark about them.

“Pete, I want you working on evacuation,” Tony said, the audio being piped into the workshop clicking as Tony shifted them to a private channel. “Tell FRIDAY if you need me to know something. Tell FRIDAY if anybody makes it to your floor.”

“Got it,” Peter said, dragging the building schematic around on the display while he asked FRIDAY to show him the evacuation plans.

“You’re doing real good, Pete,” Tony said, then switched back to the other channel.

He felt like he was a little bit useless, sitting in the workshop without any way to join the fight like he was used to, so that was nice to hear.

Peter got to work on evacuation. The workshop version of FRIDAY obligingly opened a connection for him to the police outside so he could tell them who to expect coming out of which door.

He stuck to areas FRIDAY had a clear view of. He didn’t want to un-lockdown a door and let the intruders through, so he started with rooms and halls that had working cameras. It got easier after Tony cleared the lobby and he could funnel people out the front, which had the most corridors of access since it was the main entrance.

He almost had a groove going when there was a whirring-rattling noise in the vent. It was very quiet, even though whatever it was was also close enough that it was setting off his spidey-sense.

Peter stood and picked up the most weapon-like thing in reach—a gigantic wrench—and was ready when a drone flew out of the nearest vent, spinning and whirring as it oriented itself in the room.

Peter smacked the wrench into it, dropping it to the floor. He would’ve followed up with a second smack, but a second drone shot out of the same vent and he hit that one instead, swinging the wrench like a baseball bat.

The second drone flew across the room and smashed into a wall. Its weapons systems were already beginning to spin up and Peter looked around for cover, but then FRIDAY activated the vent hood over the workstation where the drone had ended up, sucking it up and out. That hood was part of the workshop’s fire suppressant system and could clear the air out of the room in five seconds flat; luckily, FRIDAY had compensated with the other ventilation in the room so that Peter’s lungs didn’t get sucked out or something.

The rushing air also had the advantage of pulling that first drone off course, which was good because it had already begun firing at him. One of the bullets grazed his arm, but the rest all buried themselves in the wall next to him.

Peter threw the wrench at it as hard as he could (and that was fairly hard), and it set the drone lurching but didn’t disable it.

He looked for a new weapon. The workshop was full of useful things, but hardly any of it was combat ready.

He got hands on one of the Iron Man hand repulsors Mr. Stark had been tinkering with and jammed the loose wires into the power source. He slid the thing onto his hand just in time to get it up and fire off a pulse as the drone reoriented on him and fired again before the EMP hit it.

Peter hissed; he hadn’t been so lucky the second time. Two bullets had connected with his upper arm—the right arm, the same one that had been grazed before because of course he was just that lucky—and he had no idea if they’d gone all the way through or not. His whole arm burned and throbbed, going hot and cold from the injuries.

The repulsor was useless after that one shot. That was why Mr. Stark had been tinkering with it—the EMP worked, but it knocked out its own power source every time. Knocked out everything electronic within about two feet of its blast, actually; the drone had gone down, but so had FRIDAY’s display that had been behind it, several lights, and the display that he’d had on the rolling cart next to him when he’d fired the stupid thing.

“FRIDAY?” Peter asked.

“Yes, Peter,” FRIDAY said, her voice sounding oddly echoey with the offline speakers.

“Can you tell Tony I just lost my access outside the workshop, please,” he said, pulling back the sleeve of his shirt to get a look at the bullet wounds. Four holes in the meaty part of his upper am—through-and-through was probably a good thing, but it throbbed like a son of a bitch. “And tell him there are drones in the vents.”

“He has been alerted,” FRIDAY said. “I’ve also told him about your injuries.”

“What? FRIDAY! You didn’t have to tell him,” Peter said. If his arm didn’t hurt so much, he would’ve thrown his hands in the air. As it was, he rubbed as his face with his left hand and started looking for the first aid kit. “I’ll be fine. He just worries when he—”

“Don’t even try that, Peter,” Tony said, voice tight and angry. “You got shot?”

“Yeah,” Peter said, since there was no point trying to play it down. FRIDAY was a tattletale. “It’s fine.”

“It’s not fine,” Tony said sharply.

“They both went all the way through. Flesh wounds.” He sprayed the wounds with antibacterial stuff and hissed, then started to wrap his arm tight with a roll of gauze. Inadequate first aide, really, but it would do for the short term. “And the other one was just a graze.”

“You were shot three times?”

“It’s fine. I’ll be fine,” Peter said, getting a bandage on the graze as well. “The important thing is the drones. There are drones in the vents."

"What sort of drones?" Tony asked. Peter couldn't tell if the annoyance in his voice was about the drones or still about the getting shot.

"Uh, they're about football-sized and kind of oblong like a football too?" Everything was bandaged, and if he was already bleeding through the one on the graze he could ignore it with his sleeve pulled down into place again. "They're silver, and they're definitely weaponized."

"Oh, you think so?" Tony asked snidely.

"Hey, I'm just trying to—”

“FRIDAY, get Peter out of there,” Tony said. He kept talking, Peter could tell from his tone of voice, but he didn’t hear any of the words because the call had disconnected.

“FRIDAY,” Peter started, but Tony was the boss and his order overrode anything Peter might’ve said.

“Arms out, please, Peter,” FRIDAY said.

There was a soft click from across the room, then a loud burst of air as one of the new nano Iron Man suits flung itself at him. It was just a shield-looking puck about the size of his head, and it had planted itself in the center of his chest in the time it took him to get his arms up like FRIDAY had asked.

The suit spread out from the shield, and it was just the coolest thing. It was incredibly heavy, but the weight quickly redistributed and started to support itself as the nanites formed into the suit. (Tony was still working on a way to make it possible not to have to walk about with an eighty-pound block of nanites. He’d been working on things so far above Peter’s head—folding space sorts of concepts—that it was mind-boggling and wonderful.)

“Are you prepared?” FRIDAY asked after the suit had fully formed.

“Yeah. Go ahead,” Peter said, bracing himself for the vertigo and nausea that always accompanied flying in an Iron Man suit.

FRIDAY moved him into a proper flight stance, and then there was a vague sort of warmth as the repulsors fired. She shot him out the broken window and whipped him around the building, pointing him not toward the collection of emergency services vehicles down the road but farther off. He rocketed away from SI–NY.

Something in him wanted to scream, something else wanted to whoop, but he managed to keep his internal freak out internal.

There was a very disorienting moment when FRIDAY flipped him to slow his descent. Somehow, he still didn’t puke.

And then he was standing in the drive-up area outside an emergency room, doctors and nurses who usually ran out to meet an arriving ambulance blinking at him as the nanites retracted into the heavy puck that formed a convenient handle for him to hold onto with his not-shot arm.

“Um,” Peter said. “I’ve been shot.”

 

“I’m fine,” Peter said as soon as May walked into his room at the hospital. He’d been patched up—Tony had given permission via speakers on the nanite puck; it had been a whole thing—and everything was wrapped in clean bandages, and he really was fine. “I promise. I’m fine. It’ll be all healed up within the week.”

“Peter, you were shot.”

“Don’t freak out! May, I promise, I’m okay.”

“You good?” Tony asked, stepping into the room. “Doc said you were good.”

“I’m good,” Peter said, nodding.

Not good,” May said, spinning to glare at Tony instead of Peter. “Tony. Why did this happen? This was supposed to be a field trip. A freaking day off.”

“Wrong place, wrong time,” Tony said, dropping heavily into the other guest chair. His posture was relaxed, cavalier, but his expression was stone. “I’m sorry.”

“What does that mean?” May asked.

“Disgruntled former employee seems to be the preliminary consensus,” Tony said. He sat up, planting his feet, turning his eyes to Peter. Agitated. “Somebody who used to work on weapons and chose to leave the company rather than pivot into something new when I shut that section down.”

"They were after weapons?" Peter asked. "Like, Iron Man stuff from your workshop?"

“Yeah, seems like,” Tony said. He leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees, scrubbed his hands over his face. “Too soon to tell if they were after something specific, or if they just wanted to get whatever they could grab. Still. They weren't after you, you just happened to be in the way."

"How did they jam FRIDAY, though?" Peter asked. "She has her own dedicated network, her own servers. And what was with them going straight to HR first? That's deliberate. And strange."

"Can you shut off your analysis and debriefing for just a moment?" May said, and it was way more of a scolding than a question.

"Sorry," Peter said. He looked at Tony out of the corner of his eye, though; his heartbeat had skyrocketed and his hands were clenched, even though he was affecting a relaxed sort of slouch in the visitor chair.

May took a deep breath, then got up and left, mumbling about Peter's discharge paperwork.

“You okay, Mr. Stark?” Peter asked into the quiet she left behind.

“I think I’m the one who should be asking you that,” Tony said, not moving.

“We’ve established that I’m fine,” Peter said. “You’re doing that fake calm thing, though.”

“I’m calm,” Tony said.

“Yeah. You tell that to somebody who can’t hear your heartbeat,” Peter said, trying to smile to make the comment more flippant than accusing, but it probably didn’t work very well.

“Maybe it’s just residual panic from my kid getting shot,” Tony said. He was deflecting, but Peter decided to let him.

“I really am fine,” Peter said, holding up his arm so Tony could see the pristine bandaging more clearly. “The graze has already healed; it’s just all pink and tender. And the through-and-throughs have scabbed over and all that. Itches like crazy.”

Chapter Text

“Woah. Okay. I get it now,” Rhodey said, finally breaking Peter’s focus. He looked up from the drone casing—he’d been taking the drones that had attacked SI–NY apart looking for serial numbers or any other sort of hint toward their origins— and Rhodey was standing in the workshop doorway, smiling at him.

“Get what?” Peter asked.

“Why everybody thinks you’re his secret kid.”

“Everybody—what?” Peter looked down at himself. The rumor that he was some illegitimate Stark was hardly new, but he didn’t run into it in person hardly ever. He was in one of Tony’s old MIT hoodies, though, and his hair was probably lying flatter than normal because it was still damp from the shower.

“You look like 15-year-old Tony. It’s uncanny.”

“Right,” Peter said.

“Everything okay?” Rhodey asked, smile slipping a little bit when he realized Peter’s distraction hadn’t been from the idea of looking like Tony.

“Have you gone through any of the—uh—research Bla—”

“Nope,” Rhodey said, cutting him off. “Active military. Plausible deniability.”

“Oh.”

“You think there’s something I should know?”

“There’s a lot in there you really should know,” Peter said. “Nothing, like, urgent, though. Not really. It’s all old research we’re pretty sure led into the experimental spider I got bit by, and by all accounts it’s been shut down. But it’s just… I don’t know. It’s weird. And it feels like I’m missing something that’ll be super obvious after I figure it out, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“You want me to take a look?”

“No. It’s okay. You’re right.” Peter sighed. “Plausible deniability. Don’t want you court martialed for not reporting contact with certain individuals.”

“You think the attack at SI–NY was somehow related?”

“I don’t know yet.”

Chapter Text

“Okay, Tony, come watch this before I post it,” Peter said, queuing up the video on his phone. He’d shot it three times before he’d been satisfied with it—the tricky thing had been including everything Dot from Marketing had wanted him to include and everything Dave from Legal had wanted him to include without sounding like he was reading a script. (Even though he pretty much had been.)

“What am I watching?” Tony asked, but he dropped down on the couch next to Peter, setting his StarkPad aside without protest.

“The official switch-over video for Instagram,” Peter said.

“Oh, right. That,” Tony said, smirking. He’d been teasing Peter about it for weeks, since that was how long Peter had been forced to attend meetings about his freaking Instagram account.

“Just let me know if this sounds stupid,” Peter said, holding up his phone so Tony could see it easily and then hitting PLAY.

“Hi. I’m Peter,” the Peter in the video said. “Uh. Peter-the-Intern for this last semester. This video is to announce the completion of that internship, I guess, because there are, like, a lot of you following this account and I didn’t just want to disappear on you.”

The video went on for just shy of a minute. Peter had recorded it in Tony’s office earlier while Tony had been in a meeting, and the angle was such that the original SI–NY building was visible out the window behind him. He talked about how grateful he was for the opportunity, and how excited he was to share that he would be continuing with Stark Industries. He talked up the September Foundation a bit, though he didn’t go so far as to suggest there would be future internships directly under Tony Stark to be won.

“I’ve added links in the bio where you can find everything SI-related on all sorts of platforms,” Peter in the video said. “And, if you’re still interested in what I’m up to even when I’m not the intern anymore, there is a link to my Instagram that Legal would like me to make very clear is not at all affiliated with Stark Industries whatsoever.”

Peter in the video smiled cheekily at the camera.

“And I guess that’s it. Thank you all so much. This really has been the most fantastic experience I ever could’ve imagined.”

Peter in the video smiled one more time, more earnest than cheeky, and then the video ended.

“So I post that—or something like that—today, and then tomorrow afternoon Marketing officially takes over the account,” Peter said. “I think Dot is going to post a few of those pictures with the completion certificate we took back before it was a real internship.”

“That’s perfect, Pete. Nice work.”

“I just read a script.”

“Yeah, but it didn’t sound like you were reading a script,” Tony said, knocking his knee into Peter’s and smiling. “So this whole internship thing was worth it. You learned something.”

“Dancing monkey?”

“Hey, as the monkey who’s been dancing longer than you have, I resent that,” Tony said, but he was still smiling.

“Okay. I’m posting it, then. I’m done thinking about this video.”

Tony gave him a thumbs-up, and Peter posted the video. Then he logged out of @Peter_the_Intern and into his own account before he tossed phone on the cushion next to him and flopped back on the sofa in exaggerated bliss.

“Do I follow your other account?” Tony asked, settling in more comfortably next to him and holding up his StarkPad again. “Is it a new account, or the one you had before Marketing got you all plugged in?”

“It’s the same one as before,” Peter said. “I don’t think you follow it. It was a private account until last week, and I’d probably remember okaying the Tony Stark to see the account.”

He’d gone through his old posts with SI’s Marketing and Legal people even though SI was officially not connected to him beyond technically being his employer—Pepper had insisted (and he hadn’t actually needed any convincing); she’d said since he was going to eventually take over the company he might as well start off ahead of any social media difficulties. He’d only taken a few of the posts down, tweaked a few captions. He hadn’t started the account until his freshman year, so there hadn’t been a ton of content—pictures from various extracurriculars, a bunch of him and May around town, a handful of him and Ned building LEGOS, the few panoramic shots of NYC that had passed Tony's secret identity-preservation rules—and the last semester had only been reposts of @Peter_the_Intern with a scattered few from decathlon and one that May had taken of Pepper kicking his ass at foosball.

“Pepper beat me to it,” Tony said, tsking. “Or Alex did. Hard to tell.”

“Well now I should just turn my phone off,” Peter said, laughing a bit. “You follow, like, three accounts that aren’t Stark Industries. And one of them is Pepper, so I don’t know if that should even count.”

“I really never look at the social media stuff unless something is happening,” Tony said. He’d followed Peter’s account, though, and was scrolling through old posts. He tapped the heart under each and every post as he went. “FRIDAY lets me know when there’s something up.”

“I promise I won’t be offended if you don’t care about Instagram,” Peter said. Tony gave him an offended look.

“FRIDAY, set an alert,” he said, glancing at the nearest camera before he returned his eyes to Peter’s Instagram. “Make sure I see it if Peter posts.”

“Got it, Boss.”

“See?” Tony said, looking at Peter again with a cheesy smile. “I care.”

Peter snorted.

Chapter Text

“Flash is telling everybody that you’re on pills,” MJ said. She sat next to him and started unloading her lunch without actually looking at him while he just gaped.

“I’m on pills?”

“Yeah.”

“What sort of pills?” Peter asked.

Mouth full of peanut butter and jelly sandwich, MJ just shrugged.

“This is because of my SAT score, isn’t it?” Peter asked, though it was hardly a question.

“Probably.”

 

Peter was able to ignore it for almost two full days. That was as long as it took for Flash’s stupid rumor to spread beyond Flash’s immediate circle, and Peter’s stupid enhanced senses meant that he could hear the mutters that followed him down the halls. He would’ve just ignored it and hoped people would get over it, but he caught sight of the guidance counselor talking to three of his teachers; that might not have been suspicious in and of itself, but the way they kept glancing his way was certainly sketchy.

And then they searched his locker. He heard them doing it while he was in History.

Luckily, that gave him the warning he needed.

“Do you have a drawer or something where I could hide my suit for the rest of the day?” Peter asked after everybody had headed for their next class or lunch or wherever.

“Your… what?” Mr. Dell asked, frozen in the act of putting his dry erase markers back the way he liked them.

“There’s a rumor going around that I’m on pills. Mr. Dennis just searched my locker,” Peter said. “Before the end of the day, they’re going to want to search my backpack. They’re not going to find any drugs if they do, but they will find…”

“Oh.”

Peter tried not to look quite so desperate as he felt. He was also hungry and he wanted to get to lunch, hopefully get some food down before he was pulled aside to be searched.

“They searched your locker?”

“Yeah.”

“How could you know that?”

“I have really good ears,” Peter said, suddenly feeling twitchy. “But, um, do you have somewhere I could hide the suit? If not, I’ll find someplace else, I just figured you already know about it, so—”

“Sure. Fine. That’s fine,” Mr. Dell said. He opened the standing cabinet next to his desk, and gestured inside. His suit coat was hanging up, and there was a spare pair of tennis shoes in the bottom. “Does it… need a hanger?”

“It doesn’t need one, no,” Peter said awkwardly. “It can hang on a hanger, though. If that’s… easier?”

Mr. Dell handed over one of the spare hangers and Peter pulled out his suit, hung it up.

“Um. Thank you,” Peter said once Mr. Dell had closed the cabinet door. “I know this is kind of… super awkward.”

“It’s not going to do something weird, right? I’m not going to have to take that coat in to get webbing off it?”

“No,” Peter said, snorting. “It’s all shut down. I mean, the AI that runs it will get annoyed if you poke at her a bunch. But the suit’s not active.”

“There’s an AI that runs it?”

“Yeah,” Peter said. “Her name’s Karen.”

“Karen.”

“Yeah.”

“Like… from Spongebob?”

Peter just beamed at Mr. Dell and hurried off toward lunch.

(The name hadn’t been a deliberate Spongebob reference, but he sometimes wished it had been. It was funny.)

He was twitchy all through lunch, waiting for them to pull him aside to look through his bag, but it didn’t happen until after Spanish. The Vice Principal—Mr. Dennis—showed up, pulled him right out at the end of class, and he had to sit in the office while they went through his things, talked to him about their concerns, told him he was a bright kid and they really hoped he wasn’t making risky decisions.

Peter fumed.

Then they called May, and he fumed some more. She was supposed to be resting.

 

“That was ridiculous,” May said when they left the office. He’d missed the rest of the afternoon of classes. Mr. Dennis had given them a lot of pamphlets and ‘just wanted to check in and be sure’ May was aware that Peter had dropped most of his extra curriculars. She’d lit into him about the dropped extra curriculars having a lot to do with an internship that ate up a lot of his after school time, an internship that the school had on file, an internship that literally a million people followed on Instagram.

“Agreed,” Peter said, leading the way to his locker.

“Please tell me this isn’t the usual state of your locker, Peter,” May said when he opened it and everything was in disarray.

“No. It’s not,” Peter said. He had to let go of the locker door to keep himself from denting the metal. He couldn’t remember the last time he was so angry. “They searched it.”

“You know who started the rumor, don’t you?” May asked him, because of course she knew it. She could probably see it in his reaction.

“Yeah.”

“Let’s go back to the office, then. You need to tell Mr. Dennis,” she said. “These accusations are serious. You missed classes. It very well could’ve gone on your record.”

“It won’t do any good,” Peter said.

“Bullshit.”

That made Peter smile a bit. He shoved his things more-or-less to rights in the locker, grabbed what he’d need for homework, closed the locker.

“His parents are donors. Big-time donors,” Peter said. “Have been for years. A complaint won’t go anywhere.”

“It’s not right,” May said. Peter just shrugged.

He led the way to Mr. Dell’s classroom, fully prepared to tell a story about needing to check in and see if he’d missed any homework but they didn’t run into anybody he had to use it on.

“Oh,” Mr. Dell said when Peter poked his head in the door. “Wasn’t sure you were going to turn up.”

“Sorry,” Peter said. “Mr. Dennis just let us go.”

Mr. Dell looked puzzled for a moment, but then May had entered the classroom behind Peter and he just nodded.

“Hello, Mr. Dell,” May said politely. She held out a hand to shake. “Thank you for helping him this afternoon.”

Chapter Text

“Uh. Hey, Aunt May,” Peter said, surprised to see her. She and Pepper had had plans for a spa or something. The wine glasses on the table suggested they’d ended up staying in and talking instead, though it didn’t look like they’d made much headway on the bottle.

“Hey you two,” May said, smiling. Peter gave her a closer look—her voice sounded like she’d been crying, but her face didn’t give anything away.

“Everything okay?” Tony asked, letting the door close behind them. Apparently he’d heard it, too.

“Yeah. Um. Sit down, will you?” May asked, clearing her throat. The moment they sat down, though, she stood up and put the wine glasses in the sink. She looked like she was about to sit down again, but instead she put the fancy bottle stopper thing on the wine and put it in the fridge. Then, hesitantly, she returned to the table.

“Are you sure everything’s okay?” Peter asked. He and Tony had ended up sitting next to each other facing her across the table. He really wanted to reach across the table and grab her hand, but she’d put them in her lap. Very weird. Lots of red flags.

“I want to put an idea out there,” May said, looking back and forth between them. “And I want you to think about it before you say anything.”

“Well, you know us. Very good at thinking. Extremely clever,” Tony said. Peter couldn’t tell if he was rambling because he was nervous, too, or if he was trying to lighten the mood for May. “Lots of practice at thinking.”

“Tony, I want you to adopt Peter,” May said. That shut Tony right up; his mouth snapped shut and his eyebrows went as high as they could go on his forehead.

“You what?” Peter asked.

“He’s already your legal guardian. I think it would be a good idea if he were to adopt you, too.”

“Why?” Peter asked, blood pounding in his ears. “What about you?”

“Peter—”

You’re not even dead yet, May!”

He hated that it was the clichéd teenager thing to do, but Peter headed for his room and slammed the door. He’d stood up so fast that his chair tipped over, and he’d barely managed to control himself well enough not to snap the wood when he’d slammed the door.

He had half a mind to put on his suit and go swing off the anger, but he was so extremely far from the right state of mind to be out there. He dropped onto his bed, staring up at his ceiling. Glaring. Fuming.

The panel where he used to store his Spider-Man costume was still slightly warped.

“I don’t think I did that at all right,” May said in the other room. Neither of them had followed him.

“I don’t think there’s really a right way to start that conversation,” Tony said quietly.

May sighed. A big, deep, heavy sort of sigh.

“I’ve felt—different—these last few weeks,” May said quietly after a long moment. “I felt sick before. I knew I was sick. I knew it was bad. But, recently… I feel like I’m dying. I knew that was the diagnosis, but I had this feeling at the back of my mind that maybe I’d get lucky and be one of those crazy stories where it just cleared up one day, you know? Sudden reversal, score one for my immune system.”

“You shouldn’t lose hope, May,” Tony said. He sounded almost offended, which was good because Peter was offended.

“It’s not about hope,” May said. “It’s not about accepting what’s happening to me, either, because I did that months ago. I lost my mom to breast cancer. I watched her fight it—she beat it twice, too, but it came back and got her in the end. I know how this works, and I know what it feels like from the other side of it. I’m explaining this wrong.”

“Let’s circle back to Peter, then,” Tony said. “You know you don’t have to worry about him, May. He’s good. He’s set. He’s got me and Pepper and Happy. Hell, Rhodey would probably sign papers for him if you asked him—though I’ve gotta say, I think Peter would go crazy if he had to do the military kid thing. He also has a trust fund set up and tied off with a bow, no strings attached on the legal end; if it came to it, he could file for emancipation with that to support himself financially while he finished his education and decided what he wanted to do with his life.”

“You set him up with a trust fund?”

“Pepper did, actually,” Tony said. “I mean, I put a little extra in it after she told me about it. But all the points go to her for thinking of it.”

“I’m so thankful for you, you know that?” May said, her voice wobbling like she was fighting off tears. “I didn’t like you at first. Hell, I’ve been to a few SI weapons protests in my time. But then you showed up, and you kept showing up, and you’ve just been—I don’t know how I could do this without you.”

“May…” Tony said, and Peter could just picture him trying to decide what the hell he was supposed to do with his hands. Tony was awful at emotional stuff.

“Sorry. Sorry. I know. I’m off track again,” May said, sniffling. Peter heard somebody pulling tissues out of the box, then May blew her nose hard before she kept talking. “Adoption. I know it’s a big thing, and it’s not strictly necessary what with your already having guardianship if not actual custody.”

“You and Ben never adopted him,” Tony said.

“We were going to,” May said. “That was the plan.”

“Oh?” It sounded like he was prompting her to keep talking, letting her know she still had the floor even though she’d gone quiet.

“Norman Osborn and Mary, Peter’s mother, were friends. Worked together, might’ve even gone to school together; I don’t remember,” May said. “Anyway. After Mary and Richard died, Ben and I got temporary custody since he was already staying with us, and he was happy and all that. Well, happy as a kid who just lost his parents can be. We filed all the paperwork, started looking for an apartment with a proper bedroom for him, schmoozed his social worker, all that. Osborn filed a suit for custody, though.”

“He did?” Peter could practically hear Tony’s eyebrows raising up again. Peter’s own eyebrows raised, too; he hadn’t heard any of this before.

“Yeah. Family friend, kid around the same age, way more financially able to take Peter in,” May said.

“Sure, but have you met him?” Tony asked. “He’s worse that my dad was.”

“I met him a couple times, yes,” May said. “I don’t know a thing about your dad, but Osborn gave me the creeps. And Peter always came back from visits with them subdued. Well, more subdued. Clingy and quiet, asking permission to do everything from go to the bathroom to play with his own toys.”

“And you reported that to the social worker, and the court denied the custody suit, right?”

“No,” May said, and sighed again. “We reported it, of course, but all it did was draw things out. He had money, he had lawyers, he had time. The thing that actually prevented him getting custody was when his wife left him—very public, very messy divorce followed not even a full week later by her suspicious death.”

“I remember that,” Tony said.

“By the time he finally let the suit go, Peter was ten or eleven and we were already legal guardians and it seemed better to just keep on as we had always been rather than risking stirring it all up again,” May said. “But I’m worried he’ll try again when I’m gone. I know you have money and lawyers and could probably draw it all out until Peter’s past eighteen if you needed to, but I don’t want that for Peter. And Osborn still gives me the creeps.”

“He’s a creepy guy,” Tony agreed.

“So I want you to at least think about adopting Peter before I’m gone. I know it’s asking a lot, and I’ve already asked a lot—”

“I just want to talk to Peter about it first,” Tony said, probably waving away her waffling about asking too much. “I’m all in. I’ve been all in. Whatever any documents say doesn't change that I've got him, okay?”

 

They talked for a long time. Peter stayed in his room and listened, all of those half-baked theories that had grown out of the picture of his mom and Norman Osborn standing in a gazebo swirling around in his brain. Eventually, he rolled over to stare at the wall next to his bed rather than at the ceiling. At some point, without meaning to, he fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Tony had gone to Beijing, and it was weird. He’d been away before, but it was a two-week conference and that was the longest he’d been away basically since Peter had met him. The weird part was realizing how ingrained Tony’s presence had become in Peter’s routine.

Tony freaking Stark.

Iron Man.

Tony freaking Stark had also started adoption paperwork with May and a lawyer, and Peter wasn’t ready to examine that too closely just yet.

 

On Wednesday, he went to Tony’s office to change into a suit before meeting up with Pepper rather than going to the workshop. Over the weekend, he boxed with Happy and then they picked up May and went to the billiards place for the evening.

Peter tried not to think about how, in a few months or maybe a year if they were lucky, the parent-ish person missing in his life would be May rather than Tony.

 

“Don’t get shot this time, okay?” May said, smiling.

“It’s not too late to rescind permission,” Peter said, only half joking. “Or you could call me in sick?”

“And leave MJ all by herself?”

Peter groaned.

The field trip had been a whole thing, of course it had. He’d basically sworn off ever going on a field trip again after the disaster at SI–NY, but then the teacher had passed out permission slips to go see Macbeth, and MJ was in his Lit class, and he was basically the only one she talked to in that class, so chances were good she’d let him sit next to her at the play. And that sounded really nice.

“Have a nice time, baby,” May said, smoothing his hair. “Remember what I told you.”

“Tell her she looks nice,” Peter said. “Don’t be creepy.”

“And have fun.”

Chapter Text

Peter had gotten used to his spidey-sense going a bit nuts when he was in vehicles. It didn’t seem to matter if it was Happy’s car or a school bus, so Peter had just resigned himself to being a bit anxious the whole ride over to the theater.

MJ—because she was awesome—had noticed how tense he was but hadn’t said anything. She’d just parked herself next to him and started talking about some famous murder, and the ride had actually been a little bit great until they realized the bus pulled into a warehouse on the river.

“What are you—” their teacher started, but then the bus driver pulled a gun.

“Quiet,” the bus driver said. Then he stood up so that he could keep the gun pointed at Mr. Scott while he used his other arm to pull the crank to open the door.

Peter hit the panic button on his watch, but he didn’t have time to go for his phone because a stocky guy with lots of prison-looking tattoos came onto the bus and shot the driver. Everybody screamed. Blood and brains had splattered across the windshield and steering wheel.

MJ grabbed his hand, holding on tight. Peter wished he could say something reassuring, but he couldn’t think of a single word that would make anything better. His ears were ringing from the gunshot and the shouting.

“Off the bus,” Tattoos said. He walked down the center aisle, telling each seat to go as he passed.

They got off the bus. It was a big open space, a warehouse on the water with a cement floor and those high square windows. There was a line of that blue painter's tape along the floor just outside the bus, and a second bus parked on the other side of it. And there were three other thug-looking dudes waiting, two of them holding shotguns. The third had what looked like a first generation iPad. The thing was a brick.

“Please don’t do this,” Mr. Scott said. Pleaded.

“Line up right along the tape,” the man with the iPad said. He was a big dude. Huge. Muscle-y. Central casting’s version of ‘thug.’

Tattoos collected their phones, watches, anything even vaguely technology-related—they’d even taken Beverley’s hearing aids. Then he went over to a bench against one wall and began disassembling. He shut things off, took batteries out. If he couldn’t figure out how to turn something off, he dropped it to the floor and smashed it with a cinderblock.

While he was doing that, Central Casting Thug had begun going down the line of them, taking each student’s picture with the iPad.

MJ hadn’t let go of Peter’s hand, and when Central Casting Thug got to them he sneered but didn’t say anything.

“Alright, let’s see here,” Central Casting Thug said after he’d finished taking the photos. He tapped on the iPad screen, scrolling through something. Then he started walking back down the line. “You. You. Not you. Not—well, actually we can probably make it work with you. You. Not you. Not you. You.”

He walked in front of them, pulling seven of them out of line. One of the thugs put his shotgun down on the workbench by Tattoos and started putting zip ties on the remaining students. Mr. Scott tried questioning it all again, and Tattoos pulled the gun out of his waistband, crossing the room to hold  it to their teacher’s temple.

“You really want this to be how all these kids remember you?” Tattoos asked.

“Ooh, look at this here,” Central Casting Thug said, pulling Tattoos’s attention to the iPad.

“No way,” Tattoos said, grinning, putting the gun back in his waistband.

Mr. Scott took a shuddery breath. Peter was probably the only one to hear it.

“This is going to be a real good pay day,” Central Casting Thug said, and then they both turned to look at Peter.

Peter blinked at them. It didn’t make sense for a moment, and then he remembered he had very well-known ties to Tony Stark and Stark Industries. Apparently he’d made it to the worth-ransoming category for these guys.

God, he wished he’d brought his suit. Or even just his webshooters.

“Take that girl, too,” Central Casting Thug said, jerking his chin at MJ.

The eight of them who’d been pulled out of line were put on a second bus. Peter couldn’t decide if it was better for him to be with the group being taken somewhere else or if he’d be more use staying at the warehouse—they all needed help but he could only be in one place at a time…

Really, he should just stop going on field trips. Nothing good happened on field trips.

The bus rolled away. Eight students, Tattoos holding them at gunpoint, Central Casting Thug at the wheel.

Peter heard the other two thugs still zip-tying the students left behind in the warehouse.

“Hey. Stark’s kid. Face front,” Tattoos barked.

Peter sat forward, glaring. He could take Tattoos, but he wasn’t sure he could get to him before he shot somebody. A moving bus wasn’t a great place to go on the offensive.

“You better stop with that side-eye, or I’m gonna shoot your little girlfriend,” Tattoos said, leering at MJ. Her back stiffened, and Peter knew she was glaring right back at Tattoos, but she didn’t say anything.

They didn’t drive far, just down the road to where a woman in jeans and t-shirt waited with a duffel bag at her feet. She was standing just outside a subway station, looking for all the world like she was trying to figure out the route she wanted, but when the bus stopped she picked up her bag and hopped on.

So. Shit. This was a whole thing with planning and multiple stages and people involved and… This was really not good.

The woman didn’t say a word and neither did the thugs. She took a device with a sort of wand-looking thing attached by a wire out of the duffel bag and started scanning them.

“This one wasn’t on the list,” the woman said when she got to Betty. She’d been the one Central Casting Thug had said he could make work even though her picture hadn’t generated whatever response he’d been looking for from the iPad.

“She’s pretty,” Central Casting Thug said without turning around. Betty choked off a gagging noise and started to cry.

MJ’s fingers clenched tighter around his, and Peter thought he might be sick.

The woman just shrugged and kept scanning. The device beeped when she scanned Elinor’s upper arm, and the woman pulled a roll of reflective-looking tape stuff out of the duffel bag and wrapped her arm from shoulder to elbow, then duct taped the stuff in place before scanning again. It didn’t beep, and Elinor looked like she might start crying too.

When she got to MJ, the woman glanced at Central Casting Thug again, looking more annoyed than anything else, but didn’t bring it up again.

Peter didn’t put together that she was scanning for microchips until it beeped over his forearms. Tony had chipped him so he could send an Iron Man suit after him if need be, or at least that had been the reason he’d said—one of the perks seemed to be that they kept track of him even when he disabled the tracker in his suit and left his phone and watch at home.

These people were really, really prepared.

 

“JJ Bittenbinder would be so disappointed in us,” Elinor said.

Peter choked on a laugh. He’d been thinking the same thing since they’d been forced off the bus and loaded into a panel van. There were no windows and the thugs transporting them had closed them in without anybody to keep them at gunpoint.

“We seem to have arrived at our secondary location,” Flash said. He was subdued. Well, they’d all been subdued since the bus driver had been shot; it was just weirder to see it on Flash.

“Out,” Central Casting Thug said, throwing the doors wide.

They were on the lower level of a parking garage. There was no signage or anything labeling it a public parking structure or a particular business’s reserved space. The walls were gray, the floor was grimy. EXIT had been painted on one wall with a giant arrow pointing toward the ramp.

Peter might’ve considered making a run for it, finding help, but they were very much not alone. Tattoos had upgraded his weapon to an assault rifle. The woman who had scanned them for chips was there, her duffel bag on her back so her hands were free for her own assault rifle. Five new men stood in a line against the wall opposite the EXIT sign, all of them huge, all of them armed.

There were too many of them to make a move, secret identity or no. Too many guns, too many unknowns, too many hostages.

Fuck. All he’d wanted to do was sit next to MJ at a play.

“Go,” Central Casting Thug said, pointing to a door. One of the big guys standing against the wall held it open.

They went in a line, following the woman with the duffel bag.

They went down a grungy hallway, down several flights of stairs, and eventually came out into a long, low-ceilinged room. It looked like a set out of a bad movie—cinderblock walls, bare cement floor, and twin mattresses lined up against the far wall, each with a sheet folded at the foot of it. There was a shower curtain sectioning off one corner of the room and Peter had the horrible feeling that that was the bathroom.

This had been planned well enough that there was a bed for each of them, or each of them that they’d intended to grab. As grungy as it all seemed, they’d commandeered a bus, extracted exactly who they wanted, and seemed prepared to hold them for a while.

Scary shit.

“This is not great,” Peter said, mostly to himself, after they’d been shut in. MJ snorted.

There were eight of them total: Peter, MJ, Flash, Elinor, Frankie, Liev, Betty, Claire.

He’d known Elinor since third grade, and he’d had band with Liev and academic decathlon with Flash and MJ. The only thing he really had in common with most of them was fourth period Lit. None of them were really his crowd. He was a scholarship student, and while each of them absolutely had the grades for Midtown, they each also had…

Flash’s parents were loaded; he never shut about it. Elinor’s mother was some sort of publishing magnate. Liev’s dads were both big in the fashion world, designers or something. Frankie had a brother in the news a lot for his endeavors toward privatized space travel. Claire he didn’t know so well, but her dad picked her up in a car that was every bit as flashy as the hotrods in Tony’s garage.

And then there was Tony.

Oh shit all over again.

 

They were left alone for long enough that the shock had worn off into a useless sort of panic. There were tears and yelling, some of it directed at each other but most of it directed at their captors.

Peter felt absolutely useless. The only spot not watched by multiple cameras was the corner blocked by the shower curtain—a tiny cube of space with a toilet and a giant jug of hand sanitizer sitting on the toilet tank. And the shower curtain didn’t go all the way to the floor, so his feet would be visible if he managed to think of something to try in that corner.

Watched, recorded, enclosed.

The room was empty besides the mattresses. No rugs, no decorations, not even paint on the walls. The door didn’t have an inside handle and seemed to be made of steel or something heavy-duty along those lines. The lights hummed quietly above them, fluorescents in recessed fixtures in the ceiling.

What really made him crazy was that they were far enough underground that he couldn’t hear much background noise at all. No clues from street traffic. Not even the rumble of a single passing subway. Just the muffled sound of conversations a long way away, and the panicked heartbeats of his classmates.

“What do we do?” Liev asked. “I mean. Do we do something?”

“Wait to be ransomed, I guess,” Claire said.

“What do you mean wait?” Betty asked. She’d been pacing the long side of the room since the door closed on them. “That’s great for you guys. Waiting for your rich whoevers to pay to get you back. Didn’t you hear them? They took me to—to—They’re going to—”

“That’s not going to happen,” Peter said, his voice low and decisive. They all looked at him like he was crazy.

“What, because you know Iron Man?” Flash asked snidely. “Sure. Okay.”

Peter glared at Flash, looked at Betty, looked at all the cameras watching them, and tore the duct tape off his forearms. He had no idea if they were too far underground for the signal to reach.

“What are you doing?” MJ asked.

“There,” he said. “Even if they come in here and put the things on me again, Mr. Stark has a ping with our location. So yeah. It’s not going to happen. Because I know Iron Man.”

“You don’t even know if the signal—” Elinor started, but then jumped back when Tattoos and two of the big guys exploded into the room.

“No! Stop!” Betty screamed.

“Leave him alone,” MJ shouted, but Tattoos elbowed her out of the way.

The others shouted protests, too, but it was basically what Peter had expected. Tattoos slugged him hard across the face and Peter moved with it so the dude didn’t break his hand, falling backwards to the floor. One of the big dudes held onto him while Tattoos stuck the reflective tape stuff on his arms again and put on fresh duct tape, then punched him a few times in the torso before backhanding him across the face.

“Do not do that again,” Tattoos said. The three of them left, slamming the door behind them.

“And none of you even tried to duck out of the room while they were distracted?” Peter asked once he’d caught his breath. “C’mon, guys. Work with me here.”

“You’re insane,” Flash said. He sounded horrified. Disgusted.

Betty sat on one of the mattresses, sobbing. Elinor and Claire sat on either side of her without touching her, their eyes too wide.

Peter sighed and started working on the tape again.

“Don’t! What are you doing?” Liev said. “Are you crazy?”

“Eventually they’re going to make it so I can’t get the tape off. They might even be grabbing zip ties or something right now,” Peter said. The first arm came free. “The longer I have these off, the better the chance the ping pops up.”

“Peter…” Elinor said, looking between him and the cameras. He could see her hands shaking.

Peter got his second arm free and dropped the reflective stuff to the floor. When Tattoos and his buddies burst through the door a second later, Peter crossed his arms and held onto his elbows. He resisted for as long as he could without completely giving himself away, which wasn’t very long.

Tattoos punched him in the face again. He’d have some great bruises.

As predicted, they zip tied him after they put the reflective stuff back in place. They used more duct tape, put the zip ties on, then duct taped his forearms together too. Then they shoved him down against the wall and Tattoos kicked him in the ribs a few times.

Peter sat against the wall when they left, leaning his head forward while he waited for his nose to stop bleeding.

“Peter, stop,” Betty said when he started pulling at the duct tape around his arms with his teeth. “Stop. You’ll never be able to get it off with your hands zip tied like that, and they’ll just come and—and—”

“Yeah, but they’re so distracted by me they didn’t even notice Elinor took hers off,” Peter said, smiling what was probably kind of a creepy smile. He could taste blood in his mouth, which meant there was probably blood all over his teeth.

“Jeez, don’t look all at once,” MJ said. “At least try to be chill.”

Liev went over to sit on the mattress with the girls, obscuring the cameras' view of Elinor’s arm.

“That was really brave, Peter,” Elinor said after they’d all sat in silence for a moment. Flash snorted.

“It was also really stupid,” MJ said. “You’re lucky they didn’t break your ribs or something.”

Peter just shrugged. They weren’t broken, but they it hurt to take deep breaths. If he were a normal guy, they definitely would’ve broken.

That told him something about their kidnappers, and it wasn’t good. It meant they didn’t care what state they ransomed everybody back to their parents in. Dead or alive. Hell, they might even grab the money and then sell them all to the same people they were planning to sell Betty to. (Assuming this was a human trafficking thing and not Central Casting Thug’s personal source for underage girls.)

He also really didn’t like that none of the bad guys were even trying to hide their faces. That felt like a bad sign.

 

Peter had started a tear with his teeth and pressed outward with his elbows, slowly working the duct tape apart around his arms. Mostly he was just keeping himself distracted, giving himself something to focus on while he tried to listen to the assorted thugs outside their room.

There were at least a dozen of them. Mostly men, but more than one woman just going by voices. If there was a leader, they weren’t on site.

They’d been left alone for maybe half an hour when the door opened again. Central Casting Thug walked in, holding the door for Duffel Bag Lady (though she didn’t have her bag anymore).

“Your ride’s here, kid,” Duffel Bag Lady said.

“I think I’d rather stay here,” Peter said. “I mean, this is the best kidnapping I’ve ever experienced. Five out of five, would be kidnapped by you again. You’ve got mattresses and a toilet and everything. It’s like the Ritz of kidnappings.”

“Oh, you’ve got no idea,” Central Casting Thug said. He was really going against type, though—he had the look of the guy who would flex his muscles and not have any lines, but he’d been fairly involved with the whole thing. He’d been trusted to run the iPad.

And he was the one with the syringe.

“I should let you know that I’m allergic to, like, everything,” Peter said, eyeing the syringe. Central Casting Thug flicked the needle and squirted some of the whatever-it-was out like they did in movies. Was that a thing people did in real life? “So you might not want to inject me with anything unless you also have an EpiPen because no way is—guh!”

Central Casting Thug ignored Peter’s running commentary and emptied the syringe into the meaty part of his upper arm. It was a weird cold sensation going in and then his arm burned.

Peter wasn’t sure what the drug was supposed to do. Kill him? Knock him out?

Everything went sort of blurry. He felt like he was going to throw up. He could feel the horrible burning sensation traveling through his bloodstream with every beat of his heart.

Vaguely, he was aware that they’d added more zip ties and duct tape to him. Zip ties at his ankles, duct tape around his knees. More duct tape around his forearms where he’d started to split his arms apart.

“Hey,” Peter said. Two of the big guys had taken his arms and started hauling him up. Duffel Bag Lady was nowhere to be seen. Central Casting Thug was right in front of him, though, and he had a second syringe. “Do that again, and I’m gonna puke on you.”

His words were slurred together, and just the act of speaking made the room start spinning.

“God, these drugs are the worst,” Peter said, mostly to himself. Talking made it all way worse, though, and he clamped his lips shut to keep himself from doing it again.

Central Casting Thug smiled a leering-grin sort of smile and jabbed the second syringe into the same arm as before, and it hurt even worse than the first time.

Peter puked all over him, as promised.

“Hey, I warned you,” he said, flopping off to one side as the big guys holding him dropped him in order to avoid the vomit.

Central Casting Thug kicked him in the face, which was probably the nicest thing he could’ve done in that moment because it was all the push Peter needed to drop into unconsciousness so he didn’t have to feel the drug burning through his bloodstream a second time around.

Chapter Text

Peter woke some indeterminate span of time later. Somebody had taken all the zip ties and duct tape off of him, taken his shirt too—he just wore a grungy gray-white wifebeater with somebody else’s sweat stains all over it, his forearms wrapped in bloody gauze bandages. His wrists were handcuffed in front of him.

He’d woken because somebody—somebody new; this guy had a scarf or bandana thing wrapped around most of his face—had dunked him in a bucket of water down to his shoulders. It was cold. Very cold.

Peter lurched back and the guy let him, laughed as he fell back against a wall. Peter took a few deep breaths, then puked again. Or he tried to puke; there was nothing left to come up, so he just dry-heaved for a minute.

The guy watching him was laughing. Getting a real kick out of it all.

“Wh—” Peter tried to form a question, but his head pounded and his ears were ringing and everything was cold and wet and, just… horrible.

“You are quite possibly the unluckiest kid I ever met,” the guy said. Peter could only sort of blink at him; everything had gone fuzzy and gray around the edges.

Peter was hauled up to his feet by somebody he couldn’t see. For a moment, he thought he was even more out of it than he’d first thought, but then he realized they were in something moving. The back of a semi, he’d guess from the size of the not-room they were in.

“Wh—” he tried again, but again trying to talk only made it all worse.

He couldn’t tell how many people were around him. One of them seemed to be doing something with lights, or possibly he was just hallucinating.

Peter was hauled to one end of the shipping container or whatever it was, forced to his knees. There were people behind him, one of them holding him more-or-less upright. They were setting off his Peter Tingle like crazy and it was only making the nausea worse.

Somebody clipped something to his belt. Some sort of clamp. It was bulky, attached to a longer cord that flopped against his side.

“Hold this, kid,” the first guy said, handing him a car battery. The thing clipped to his belt was a jumper cable attached to the battery. Which made no sense.

“Wha—” Peter tried again, but the guy next to him knocked him across the jaw with the butt of his gun.

One of the other guys put a bag over his head, and where normally that would make it easier to concentrate on what he could hear this time it only made the sound of his own heartbeat louder.

His jaw throbbed where the gun had connected.

Somebody was talking but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. Somebody grabbed the back of the bag and a handful of his hair, using the grip to move him around. The hand moved to his shoulder, shoving him so hard he almost fell forward, then jerked him back again and pulled the bag off his head.

There was a video camera on a tripod, little red light blinking at him. He blinked at it, barely able to focus his eyes, clumsily trying to hold onto the battery, trying to fight off the nausea so he could focus.

“Got it,” somebody said from behind the camera.

“Good show, kid,” the first guy said, and then Peter felt the prick of a syringe in his same goddamn arm as the last two times.

 

Peter sort of woke up when the truck stopped. Or maybe it had stopped before and he hadn’t noticed. Whatever. When he struggled back to consciousness, the truck wasn’t moving. He was alone in the echoey metal not-room, damp because they hadn’t cleaned up any of the water that had sloshed out of the bucket they’d used to wake him up, freezing. There was no sign of the lights or the camera or the car battery.

It was almost pitch black in the container. He was tired, achy, cold. He couldn’t get up, and for a moment he thought they’d tied him down, but then he realized he was just… heavy. Worrying lethargic, really.

He tried to get up, but he barely managed to roll over. He wondered if it was the drugs or the cold—he couldn’t thermoregulate for shit; he’d probably go hypothermic and die even if the heaviness was due to the drugs wearing off.

 

He woke again to a woman yelling about allergic reactions and not getting paid if he died.

Somebody shone a light in his eyes, one and then the other. It was weird because he couldn’t open his eyes by himself, but whoever it was yanked his eyelids up for him.

He thought he might throw up again, but he passed out instead.

 

Peter woke in a basement. It was a squarish room with ancient shag carpeting (he could smell the dust in it) and cinderblock walls. The whole space reeked of damp and neglect. The only light came from a bare bulb dangling from the middle of the ceiling, dim and flickering.

“We were worried you might be dead,” a girl said. A little girl. Elementary school-age; she couldn’t be more than ten. She had brown eyes and long brown hair and had a tooth missing.

Next to her, a pair of kids that had to be siblings sat huddled together.

“How long have I been here?” Peter asked, really just glad that it didn’t set his head on fire to speak. Everything was throbbing, and his arm ached like he remembered from the last time he’d gotten a flu shot before the spider bite.

“Dunno,” the boy said. He looked like the oldest of them, twelve or thirteen. “Hard to tell time here.”

“They brought you in right after they fed us,” the second girl said. “And they haven’t fed us again since.”

“Oh,” Peter said. Talk of food made him realize how hungry he was, but it didn’t seem worthwhile to say anything about it.

“There’s water, if you’re thirsty,” the first girl said, pointing. Behind him, next to the door (which was creepy because it looked like it was made out of metal and had a little slot at the bottom) were three twenty-four packs of bottled water stacked on top of each other.

“Yeah,” Peter said, slowly pushing himself into a sitting position and then working his way to his feet. “Water would be good.”

He drained three bottles in silence, the kids watching him.

“I’m Peter,” he said when it became clear that they’d decided he was their default leader the way kids tended to do. Oldest is in charge.

“Cassie,” the first girl said.

“Lila,” the other girl said after a pause. She was older than the first, maybe eleven-ish—she looked early middle-school age, straight hair a lighter brown than Cassie, brown eyes. “My brother Cooper.”

“Nice to meet you,” Peter said. He had no idea what else to say.

The kids all looked like they were in better shape than he was. He was still in the wifebeater and the less-than-stellar bandaging job on his forearms. Lila had grass stains on the knees of her khakis with some dirt and blood too, the right knee ripped open to reveal an unpleasant-looking scuff. The other two kids looked unhurt, though.

Peter walked around the room, looking everything over. The shag seemed to be right over cement floor. The walls were painted cinderblock on all sides. The lock on the door hummed slightly, so some sort of electronic locking mechanism rather than a mechanical one he could force.

There was a single camera in the corner nearest the door, mostly watching the door. Apparently whoever was keeping them wasn’t worried about them getting up to something, they just wanted to be sure they weren’t standing by the door ready to make a run for it.

There was a bathroom. A toilet and a sink. No mirror. No shower. A sheet stapled to the top of door frame rather than a proper door.

Peter took a minute in the bathroom to try to clean up. He could only imagine he was a mess of bruises, and that wouldn’t help the kids feel at all safe. Not that they were safe… He just didn’t want them to feel more not-safe because he looked like hell.

The bandages on his arms and the lack of more duct-taped reflective whatever-it-was meant they’d probably taken out the microchips. The incisions had healed; there were just long bruises on the inside of each arm, already going yellow around the edges. The center of each bruise was lined with butterfly bandages. He put the gauze wraps back in place after washing his arms as best he could, hoping their captors wouldn’t look too closely.

He really didn’t like the creepy tank top they’d put him in. It was gross and stretched out and stained. At least he had his own pants and shoes.

What a weird, horrible day.

 

It really was hard to measure the passage of time. It was all just… gross shag carpet and the flickering of the stupid light bulb.

“I think it’s night,” Cooper said after a long period of silence.

“Yeah, probably,” Lila said.

Peter had sat with his back to the wall facing the door and slowly the three others made their way to sit next to him. Cassie first, curling herself into a little ball and resting her head on his shoulder. She fell asleep, snoring lightly, and that seemed to signal the other two; Lila leaned against his other arm with Cooper held tight in her lap.

Peter was exhausted but he felt too sick to sleep. He stayed still, listened to the kids breathing, listened to their slow, steady heartbeats. Eventually, his headache eased and he could start listening to things further out—the thick block walls muffled things way better than he would’ve expected, and it took him a moment to work out that it wasn’t so much the walls as the fact that they were in a basement, underground. They were probably somewhere isolated, too, because he couldn’t hear any sort of traffic noise or even people snoring in the next houses over.

What he could hear was… disturbing. Outside their door was an echoey space, no carpeting on the floor, and something was dripping; it made him think of getting his head dunked in that gross bucket of water on the truck. There were at least two floors above them. Immediately above them, probably the ground floor, had four maybe five people moving around in heavy boots, the hum of a refrigerator, the gurgle of a coffeemaker, the buzz of a very old TV playing what sounded a lot like Resident Evil (the first one). The second floor was quieter, but he could still hear at least three more people sleeping, rustling sheets, breathing slow, one of them snoring like a lawnmower.

There were no night noises he was used to. No distant traffic, apartment building settling as the air cooled, people chatting down on the street. There weren’t any country night noises he’d sort of expected either, though—no frogs or crickets or whatever.

It was all useless information. Useless superpowers. All of it was stuff he could’ve figured out already—they’d been kidnapped by a bunch of people, and now they were in a basement somewhere.

The light flickered again and Peter very much wanted to jump up to the ceiling and break the bulb just so it would stop.

Peter looked around the room again. It was still just… bland. Dusty and gross. Smelly. Uncomfortable.

The camera was the only new thing about the place. The carpet was from the ‘70s or something, and the rust stains on the sink and toilet suggested they’d been installed around the same time. The camera was anchored to the wall by shiny new bolts, not dusty at all. It had been hardwired, its cord passing through a hole drilled in the interior wall for just that purpose.

There was no mic on the thing, though. Video only.

That was something he could use. Maybe. Hopefully.

“Are your parents looking for you?” Lila asked, startling him. She’d been holding so still, her heart just as steady as when she’d been asleep, that he hadn’t even noticed that she was awake.

“Uh. What? Sorry?.

“Your parents,” Lila repeated. “They’re looking for you, right?”

I don’t have parents, he almost said, but that seemed like a bad thing to say to a kidnapped kid.

“Somebody’s looking for me, I know that,” Peter said.

“I hope they find us,” Lila said.

“You don’t think anybody is looking for you?”

“Well. Normally, I’d know my dad was looking for me. But he’s on house arrest.” Lila sighed. “My—our mom will be looking for us, but Dad’s really good at that sort of thing.”

“Maybe they’ll let him off house arrest to help find you,” Peter suggested. He had no idea if that was a thing, but it couldn’t hurt to try to give her a little hope. “Special circumstances.”

“I doubt it,” Lila said. “It was kind of a big deal.”

“Yeah?”

“You know that whole thing with the Avengers? How they split up and stuff?”

“Yeah,” Peter repeated, wary now. Dread formed in his gut like a lumpy wet rock.

“He was with them. He’s Hawkeye,” she said. She tilted her head against his arm so she could look up at him. “Have you heard of him? Sometimes people haven’t heard of him.”

“I know who Hawkeye is,” Peter said. “I didn’t know he had kids.”

“Nobody does. It’s supposed to keep us safe.”

“My dad was on house arrest like that, too,” Cassie said. It was all Peter could do not to physically startle; these kids and their sneaky not-napping. “He’s a superhero but he got in trouble.”

“The guy who got really small and got really big?” Peter asked. “Ant-Man?”

“Yeah that’s him!” Cassie said in a loud whisper, grinning at him.

“I don’t know what these people are thinking, then,” Peter said, shaking his head. He tried to find a more comfortable way to sit against the wall but there just… wasn’t one.

“Is your dad an Avenger, too?” Lila asked.

“No. Uh. Well.” Peter sighed. “I work for Mr. Stark. Iron Man.”

“Shouldn’t this be, like, a really stupid thing for them to try?” Cooper asked.

“You’d think,” Peter said, because he didn’t think he should share his other thoughts with a bunch of kids.

 

Peter sort of drowsed for a while. Every time he started dipping into a proper sleep, one of the kids would ask a question or one of the thugs in the house would make some noise or something.

He jolted upright some indeterminate stretch of time later. It was hard to tell if it had been minutes or hours, what with the only real change in the room being the ever-flickering light. His spidey-sense had gone off in a big way, though.

“What are you—” Cooper started to ask, but then they could all hear the clump of boots upstairs.

The four of them stood and Peter took a few steps forward, not getting close enough to the door that anybody coming in would see him as an aggressor but putting himself out in front of the little kids. If they were coming down to grab somebody, coming down to blow off some steam, it had to be him. He could take it.

Five thugs—goons? bad guys?—entered the room, four of them with guns.

“Alright, change in plan,” one of them said. He was blond and bearded, nondescript, average. “Some offers you can’t turn down.”

A few of them chuckled. It occurred to Peter that, except for the people in the shipping container, none of the thugs at any stage had worn masks. That seemed significant. And troubling.

The one without a gun pulled zip ties out of his back pocket, strapping their wrists together. He wasn’t gentle about it.

Cassie started crying. Silently. Big doe eyes, trembling lip, the whole works.

“You have no idea how lucky you are the deal already went through,” one of the guys with a gun said, shaking his head at her. Cassie just wiped at her face with her stuck-together hands, glare ineffective because her lip was still quivering.

They were frog-marched upstairs. Cooper tripped twice before the one without a gun picked him up and carried him roughly.

The house they’d been held in was average-looking if lacking in updates. Cracked linoleum in the kitchen, a huge water spot on the ceiling in the living room. Peter didn’t get to see much else.

There were a dozen guys out on the front lawn in full body armor, including helmets and goggles and the works. If it hadn’t been for his spidey-sense going off like a claxon in his head, he would’ve thought it was SHIELD there to rescue them.

One of the not-SHIELD guys walked up and examined each of them, holding a phone next to each of their faces to compare them to photos.

“Confirmed,” he said after he’d held the photo up to Lila, the last of the four of them.

Four of the guys in body armor stepped forward and started leading them toward the big armored Humvee-looking thing in the driveway. One of the guys who had walked them out of the house stepped forward like he was expecting a handshake to seal the deal or something.

The guys in the body armor opened fire. If Peter had been by himself, he would’ve ducked down and made a run for it in the chaos. He wasn’t by himself, though. The other three were little enough that the body armor guys leading them away picked them up and ran the rest of the way to the Humvee; the guy guiding Peter grabbed him by the back of the wifebeater and forced him forward.

Cassie was screaming. The two groups were shooting at each other. His spidey-sense was screaming at him to runrunrunrunrun.

And then they were moving. The Humvee roared along the dirt road, taking them away from the noise and the chaos.

“Drink,” one of the body armor guys in the back of the Humvee said. It sounded like a lady’s voice, and for some reason it surprised Peter.

She handed out bottles of water. Peter wasn’t especially thirsty, but it was probably a good sign that these new—and incredibly violent—bad guys were on top of hydration.

It quickly became clear that wasn’t the case, though. All four of them had sipped at the water, doing as they were told mostly because it wasn’t a hard thing to do and the person telling them to do it had a big gun. Within seconds, though, Cooper collapsed right off the seat.

Cooper!” Lila grabbed for him only to be shoved away by one of the body armor guys. She felt towards Peter, giving him a perfect view of her eyes rolling back as she passed out.

He looked to Cassie just in time to see her looking back at him, eyes huge and terrified, before she slumped sideways.

Peter dropped his water bottle. He was dizzy. His eyes wouldn’t focus.

He let himself slump to one side, closing his eyes, trying to go as boneless as the others.

“They’re out,” the woman said.

“Why didn’t you strap them in before you doped them?” one of the guys said. He sounded pissed. “They’re in the way.”

“Shut up,” another voice said, a different man. “Leave them. We’re three hours out. Radio it in.”

“Right,” the first man said. Peter heard him click something and then there was a crackle of radio static as he began relaying their location and ETA. Apparently they were somewhere in Missouri.

“How long do you think they’ll be out?” somebody else asked. There were hands holding Peter’s shoulders back against the side of the car, strapping the seatbelt across him.

“Maybe eight hours?” the woman said. “Around there. Plenty of time to get them in place.”

“Keep an eye on the older boy,” the one who’d been pissed about drugging them before they were strapped into their seats said. “According to those lunatics that grabbed him, he had a bad reaction to the last sedative. It didn’t work very well. Made him puke.”

“He doesn’t seem to be puking this time.”

“Just watch him, alright?”

Chapter Text

Eight hours was a very long time to pretend to be unconscious.

Peter forced himself to jerk against the seatbelt when the Humvee stopped, let himself slump forward when they unbuckled him. He didn’t react when they poked and prodded and teased. He didn’t resituate himself when they dropped him on a cold floor with is knee at an awkward angle.

He lay there, tried to listen to everything going on around him, tried to listen for the kids, tried to make sense of what was going on.

His spidey-sense just kept screaming at him.

The body armor crew was well-funded. There was more than one Humvee, more than one building. He could hear personnel all over the place. It was a whole operation.

When he heard Lila grunt and stir, Peter allowed himself to flop onto his back. He got his knee straightened out and it was all he could do not to wince as the blood rushed back into his lower leg, sending pins and needles shooting all over the place.

Time passed. Lila didn’t stir again, but Cassie’s breathing changed from the too-slow sedated pace to something closer to a natural sleep rhythm. Nothing out of Cooper and Peter tried not to worry about it.

Somewhere around the seven-hour mark, at his best guess, Peter got tired of lying still. He couldn’t hear anybody nearby, and most of the general shuffle sorts of sounds had died away as time wore on. Best guess, it was night.

Peter made a show of coming out of it. He rolled onto his side, drew his legs up to his chest, lay that way for a while. He went up on one elbow and then dropped down again like he was too woozy to move. He tried not to oversell it. He spotted three cameras without even really trying, though; they were definitely watching.

There was more really, really old carpet on the floor. It was the opposite of shag. It was the super low pile stuff they put in offices and schools to look just a bit friendlier than linoleum and muffle footsteps and things. The high-traffic areas were worn down to almost nothing.

They appeared to be in a hotel room just without the furniture. It wasn’t especially large. The wear in the carpet suggested there had been one big bed against one wall, a TV cabinet or dresser or something against another. There were discolored spots on the walls where the wallpaper hadn’t faded behind paintings or furniture or something. It was like a creepy, dusty ghost hotel room.

There was a window next to the door and a window in the bathroom, and they’d both been boarded over with plywood.

The thing that made the room scary was that it looked like it had held prisoners before. Peter wasn’t sure why that made it worse.

Peter stood, stretched a bit, tried to get the pins and needles feeling to go away by walking around a bit.

 

It was hours before the others were awake. By then, Peter had a horrible plan mostly formed.

These body armor guys were a whole different level from the people who had grabbed him. (Actually, he wasn’t even sure how many times he’d changed hands. Had the people at the house been the same as the people that grabbed him? Had the people who’d made that weird video in the back of the semi been the same as the people that grabbed him, or the same as the people at the house, or a whole separate deal?) They had, from the bits and pieces he’d been able to make sense of trying to listen in on conversations, interested parties.

They were going to be split up and sent off to the highest bidder. It didn’t seem to matter to any of them where they were being sent, what those parties were interested in.

The cameras were all active and being watched as far as he could tell, but it was better to make a break for it and get caught than to sit and wait to be—to be…

His best guess was that they were in some closed-down motel. The wall with the door in it faced the road or the parking lot, going by the vehicle noises he could hear. There was a walkway out there and, from the footsteps, some sort of regular guard rotation. The longer walls were shared with other motel rooms, both of them in use by the body armor guys even if he couldn’t really figure out what for just by listening in. The back wall, and the window in the bathroom, was another exterior wall. No walkway. No guard rotation.

The real problem was that the only way to have a chance at actually escaping was to throw caution out the proverbial window. They’d know he was enhanced, possibly even figure out he was Spider-Man. Probably figure out he was Spider-Man.

And they were already talking about selling them off. The sort of interested parties that bid on enhanced people were the sort of people Peter wanted to avoid at all costs. Horror movie secret lab types of people. Human experimentation.

Not at the cost of these three little kids, though. Absolutely worth the risk.

 

“Where are we?” Cooper asked, surprising the hell out of Peter. The boy had gone from dead-looking to upright and clear-eyed with no intermediate stages whatsoever.

“A motel I think,” Peter said.

“Why isn’t there ever any furniture?” Cooper muttered.

“Right?” Peter snorted. “Zero stars. Would not recommend. Least they could do is tie us to chairs or something.”

Cassie giggled. She was still sprawled on her side, not quite awake, but she was watching them and, apparently, following the conversation.

Cooper looked at him like he was on the crazy juice, then turned away to check on his sister.

A little bit of time passed as the kids woke up. They walked around a bit, shaking out their extremities like he had. Lila was worryingly groggy even as the other two perked up.

Peter half expected a guard to come check on them. Maybe bring them snacks or water or give them rules or something. He heard the usual footsteps pass by the door, the guard rotation, but they didn’t stop.

“I think I have a plan to get us out of here,” Peter said quietly, putting his back to as many of the cameras as he could and tipping his chin down toward his chest, trying to make it difficult for whoever was watching to read his lips or something. It was a moot point if they had audio, but he didn’t think they did—he hadn’t been able to find any listening devices, and the cameras looked kind of Spartan so far as it went.

“Really?” Cassie asked, perking up immediately. She’d settled herself next to him again, nearly tucked in under his arm. She was a very tactile kid.

“It’s not a great plan,” he said. “But I don’t think we can stay here.”

“I feel really rotten,” Lila said. She and Cooper were sitting shoulder to shoulder directly across from Peter and Cassie. “I don’t think I can do any running if that’s your plan.”

“You guys know what it means when a person is enhanced, right?” Peter asked. He had no idea if ‘I’m Spider-Man’ would mean anything to them; New York City knew who he was, and the internet, but none of them lived in New York and he wasn’t sure if they were too young for vigilante videos on YouTube.

“Like Captain America,” Cooper said.

“Right. Exactly.” Peter nodded. “Like that.”

“You’re saying you’re like Captain America?” Cassie asked.

“Not quite, but close enough I guess,” Peter said. He had a surprisingly visceral reaction to the idea that he was like Captain America. He didn’t like it at all.

“Why didn’t you bust outta there before there were all these people with guns, then?” Cooper asked, not quite shouting. He looked furious. Terrified.

Peter figured, of the three, he had the best idea what was going on, what could happen. For Cassie, it seemed to be a miserable sort of adventure. For Lila, she had a crummy role in one of her dad’s search-and-rescue stories. Cooper was just scared.

“I was waiting to see what was going to happen,” Peter said. “I was hoping we’d be rescued.”

“If you’re like Captain America, you can rescue yourself,” Lila said.

“I’m going to try to get all of us out of here,” Peter said. “If it doesn’t work, though. If they catch us. They might hurt us.”

“We’ll get away,” Cassie said confidently.

Peter didn’t want to burst her bubble. It wouldn’t help.

“Everybody use the bathroom,” he instructed. “And tie your shoes tight as you can.”

It was like three different kids entirely, even Cooper. Giving them tasks, something to do, a purpose. They were determined.

Peter listened, still waiting for something to change with the people watching them, with the guard rotation, but nothing.

One by one, the kids used the bathroom. Lila went first and cleaned herself up a bit, tied her hair back and washed not only her hands but her face and arms. Cooper and Cassie followed her example.

It was like they were preparing for battle and it was as cute as it was incredibly depressing.

“Okay,” Peter said, standing up when it was his turn. “You’ll hear a bang or something when I pull that plywood off the window. That’s when you come in. Cooper, you’re riding piggyback. Lila you’re on my left. Cassie you’re on my right. Just hang on tight as you can and try not to choke me.”

“You mean you’re going to carry all three of us?” Cooper asked, looking much less excited about the plan.

“Yep,” Peter said, and closed himself in the bathroom.

He did as he’d told them to do, using the toilet and then washing up a bit. He pulled his socks up and retied his shoes, did some stretches.

The plywood cracked in half rather than coming off evenly, smashing through the glass behind it. He cursed under his breath, trying to work faster without cutting himself on the broken glass.

They were on the second floor looking out at the back parking lot where the body armor guys seemed to store their Humvees. By some stroke of luck, nobody was out there for a smoke break or watching the cars or anything.

Peter pushed with his fingers around the edges of the window frame, and he could hear the nails give way. The whole window unit thing fell off the side of the building with a not-quiet crash.

“C’mon, c’mon,” Peter said, crouching so the kids could climb into place on him like a human jungle gym. “They definitely heard that.”

“You think?” Lila asked, mocking. Definitely mocking him.

“Everybody got a good grip?” Peter asked. He was sticky all over and that would help, but he wasn’t as used to manipulating the sticky on his torso and back the way he was used to using it on his hands and feet. He’d much rather they had a solid hold on him than rely on his weird super powers.

“I guess so,” Cooper said.

“Yep!” Cassie chirped.

“Let’s go,” Lila said.

Peter jumped out the hole in the wall where the window had been, launching himself across the space between the building and the roof of the nearest parked Humvee. He landed roughly enough that he would’ve liked to roll into it, but he couldn’t do that with three passengers. He sort of stumbled off the edge of the vehicle, losing momentum but not his footing.

“Awesome,” Cooper said.

“Okay, here we go,” Peter said, tightening his arms around the girls and making himself as sticky as he could be for them.

Then he started running.

He made it across the parking lot in a few loping paces and jumped again, vaulting the rickety privacy fence and landing in an overgrown parking lot that seemed to be storage for farm equipment. He could already hear their captors shouting from the motel, though it sounded like they’d just discovered them missing and seen the hole in the bathroom wall; he was fairly sure they hadn’t been spotted making their escape.

He turned left for no particular reason and ran parallel to the fence. The ground was flat, paved, easy terrain—he picked up speed.

“Cooper, you got any view of the road from back there?” he asked. He was almost out of fence and he had no idea where they were or which direction they should go. “Where—”

“If I open my eyes, I’m going to be sick,” Cooper said.

“Okay. Well. Then keep your eyes shut, please,” he said.

He ran out of fence and decided to veer off to the right, taking them further away from the motel. There was a gravel road and he followed it, then took a left when it met up with paved highway.

“Oh for—” he grunted, swallowing back a curse. They were definitely being chased. They hadn’t been spotted yet, but the bad guys all had cars.

According to the signage, he was headed west on E State Highway 47. The next town was Hawk Point and it was nine miles away. They were still in Missouri.

It was all just fields. This particular section of highway didn’t even have random houses or barns or anything to hide out in. It was June, which Peter’s brain said should mean lots of plants and tall corn and things to hide in out in those fields, but it was all just short and green. He felt like he should look up a few things about farms when he got back home; he was feeling very city kid out of his element and he hated it.

“You’re so fast,” Lila said, quiet enough that Peter was fairly sure he hadn’t been meant to hear it. Peter kind of wanted to tell them that he’d broken Captain America’s treadmill (take that, Brooklyn) but decided to take the high road. Or maybe just focus on his breathing because he wasn’t feeling tired or winded, exactly, but he definitely couldn’t remember the last time he’d flat-out run for so long.

“Oh shit,” Peter said after they’d gone a handful of miles in near silence.

“What? What’s the matter?” Cooper asked, tense.

“There’s somebody on the road behind us,” Peter said.

“Should we hide?” Cassie asked.

“Um,” Peter said, indecisive, but he didn’t stop running. There was nowhere to hide on this stretch of highway. There was a chain link fence on their left with some weeds overgrown around it, but that wouldn’t hide them. There was a ditch to their right, but it was full of gross-looking water and it wasn’t nearly dark enough for them to be able to hide in the shadows down there.

It all happened very fast.

The Humvee behind them accelerated as soon as it saw them. He could hear the body armor guys inside of it shouting into their radios, calling for backup.

“Stark’s kid’s enhanced,” the driver said. The tone made Peter’s gut go wobbly in the least helpful way. “Fuck, look at him go.”

He could hear more vehicles on approach. One from the direction of town, two from the direction they’d come.

“No, use the rubber bullets,” somebody else in the Humvee said. “They’re worth more alive.”

And then they were shooting at him. At them.

Cassie screamed. Peter stopped running in a straight line, twisting and moving to dodge bullets. Lila groaned and he was absolutely sure he’d end up puked on before they were done.

Cooper cackled like a madman. Peter wasn’t sure if it was a stress response or if it was some sort of danger rollercoaster to him.

“K, I’m gonna need to put you down,” Peter said. The Humvee was almost on them; he had no chance of outrunning it without somebody ending up shot. “Cassie first, then Lila, then Cooper. As soon as you’re down, get in the ditch and stay there. Got it?”

He didn’t have time for them to acknowledge him. If the tightening of their arms was anything to go by, none of them liked the idea of going into the ditch. At least this stretch of it was dry, though.

Peter dropped them as gently as he could. It wasn’t great and it wasn’t a smooth transition, but a few scuffs were survivable.

As soon as he had his arms free and didn’t have to worry about one of them being shot, rubber bullets or no, he turned back to face the Humvee. He didn’t stop running, just looped around and ran toward it instead of away from it.

“What is he—” the driver started to say, but then Peter had jumped onto the thing.

In movies, it always looked cool and coordinated when the good guy did that. In real life, it was disorienting as fuck.

He grabbed the top, using his momentum to swing his legs around the kick one of the body armor guys off the side. He punched the next one he saw at center mass, putting a dent in the chest plate of his body armor.

The driver slammed on the brakes and Peter went flying over the hood of the car along with the three body armor guys that had been holding onto the sides of it while they shot at him. Peter had to dodge a few more bullets, got low to the ground and swept one guy’s legs out from under him, took the gun off another guy and threw it at the Humvee as hard as he could, shattering the windshield.

There was shouting. A few of the guys were firing real rounds at him.

His spidey-sense was going crazy again, and it was a relief to just listen to it, lean into it, let it do the work.

He really missed his webshooters.

A second Humvee barreled into view and Peter hardly thought it through before he’d picked up the first Humvee and threw it at the approaching one. He’d never deliberately thrown a thing that big before and he didn’t do a very good job; it didn’t go far enough to hit the oncoming vehicle, but it did bounce and roll dramatically and force the new Humvee to pull off onto the shoulder.

“You guys still good?” Peter called toward the ditch where he could still hear three racing heartbeats.

“I hate this,” Cassie shouted at him.

“Yeah, me too,” Peter mumbled.

He grabbed one of the discarded rubber bullet guns and opened fire on the guys getting out of the new Humvee. They ducked for cover, but he’d never fired a gun before and they were all in body armor so he was pretty sure he hadn’t actually hit any of them. When he ran out of bullets, he threw the gun at the Humvee like he had before and looked for another one.

They started shooting at him again, one of them grazing his lower left torso. He hit the pavement, rolling, scrambling for the ditch on the other side of the road from where the kids were hiding.

He ran at the Humvee again, grabbing the first body armor guy he found by the shoulders and bending him forward so he could knee him in the face.

There was another Humvee on the way. He couldn’t keep this up.

His whole thing was swinging around stopping muggings, for God’s sake.

And then the sheriff showed up. Lights flashing, siren blaring.

Like the fucking calvary.

There was shouting. There was shooting.

Two more squad cars screamed onto the scene. It was the sheriff and two deputies plus Peter, incredibly outnumbered by the body armor guys. It was all a mess of shouting—the locals weren’t sure if Peter was the bad guy and the body armor guys were some sort of black ops team sent to capture him, or if Peter was a random kid with a bunch of mercenaries after him.

A third Humvee showed up and opened fire on the squad cars, conveniently solving that dilemma. Peter threw himself into the ditch again and the sheriff’s people started firing back, but the third Humvee seemed to have just shown up to collect the body armor guys that could run before it turned around and took off back away from town.

“Follow them,” the sheriff, a fortyish woman with a gray-blonde ponytail, ordered one of the deputies.

“We’ve got Greg from highway patrol on his way,” the other deputy said. “He’s calling the state troopers, too. And Bill.”

Peter scrambled out of the ditch and hurried across the road. The sheriff yelled at him to stop, stay where he was, but she stopped yelling when she saw the kids.

“Shit,” she said.

“Are you okay? Are you good? Are you hurt?” Peter asked, helping them to their feet and getting them out of the ditch since the danger had taken off back down the road. “Check for fleas and ticks. Or leeches. Whatever. I don’t know what lives in ditches.”

“That was so cool!” Cooper said, jumping around, practically bouncing a circle around Peter. He was like a whole different kid. “So you’re enhanced. Like. Are you a mutant, then? Or was it mad scientists? Can you run with just me piggyback? Can you do a backflip? Are you a superhero? Is that why you work for Iron Man?”

Lila watched her brother with dead-tired eyes. Cassie stood next to her, holding her hand, and they both looked so… small. So tired, exhausted, in a way little kids just shouldn’t look.

“Okay?” he asked the girls, ignoring Cooper for the moment. (It didn't dampen his enthusiasm any.)

“I think so,” Cassie said. Too quietly.

Lila just shrugged.

“What was—Who are—” The sheriff didn’t seem to know where to start. “Are you kids okay?”

“We were kidnapped, but Peter got us out,” Lila said, squeezing Cassie’s hand.

“It was horrible. They tied us up and stuck us in a trunk and it smelled like dog. And then they made us stay in a basement and there was no door on the bathroom, which was weird. And then they put us in those big Jeep things and they gave us water that tasted real bad,” Cooper said, barely pausing to breathe. “And then we were in a hotel with no furniture, but that’s when Peter grabbed us and jumped out the window and then ran all the way here with us on his back without even slowing down. And it was so cool.”

More emergency response vehicles were on the way; Peter could hear the sirens. He sat down, leaning back against the wheel of the sheriff’s car, suddenly exhausted. And starving. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten anything substantial

“He needs orange slices,” Cassie said. Even Cooper stopped talking to look at her, but she just shrugged and pointed to Peter as if they were somehow unsure who she’d been talking about. “My dad always says orange slices help after doing super things like that. For blood sugar and stuff.”

“Orange slices would actually be really nice,” Peter said.

The sheriff opened her mouth like she was going to ask a question, but then a fire truck showed up, quickly followed by an ambulance.

“I’ve got kids over here, Bill,” the sheriff said to one of the firefighters.

“What happened out here, Rube?” Bill asked.

“Still trying to figure that out,” the sheriff said, waving for the approaching highway patrol cars to shut off their sirens.

“I don’t know how long it’s been, but I was taken when I was on a field trip with my class,” Peter said, standing up because being prone on the ground with so many unfamiliar faces around had begun to make him itchy. “That was in New York City.”

“New York?” the sheriff repeated incredulously.

“We were at recess,” Lila said, gesturing to indicate herself and her brother.

“Me too,” Cassie said.

“You’re all from New York?”

“No,” Cassie said, scowling at the sheriff. “I’m from California.”

“I don’t know about these guys, but I changed hands a couple times,” Peter said. “One group took my whole class, then I was sent off. I think I was in the back of a semi for a while. Then I was in a basement with these guys.”

“The people who put us in the basement gave us to these guys,” Cooper said, nodding toward the line of body armor dudes who had been left behind. One of the deputies had been disarming them, taking off helmets, binding wrists and ankles with zip ties. “But these guys shot them up rather than paying for us or whatever. Then they made us drink this water that tasted horrible and knocked us out.”

“They were set up in a motel just off the highway,” Peter said, pointing back the way they’d come. “Just a few miles that way. There were at least ten Humvees and a bunch of personal vehicles. I don’t think there were any other captives, but I could be wrong. I was more concerned with getting us out than checking to see if there was anybody else to break out.”

And he really, really hoped he hadn’t left somebody behind. The body armor guys in that third Humvee had had a decent head start and the first deputy that had followed would be hopelessly outmanned. The body armor guys could easily overpower, destroy records, get away.

“Are any of you hurt?” Bill the firefighter asked. The EMTs had come over to check in and looked concerned, and the sheriff had stepped away to relay some of what they’d told her into the dispatch walkie thing.

Peter got shot,” Cassie said after the three of them had finished pointing to their scraped knees and elbows. Lila had bitten her lip hard enough to make it bleed at some point. They were fine.

“You’re Peter?” Bill asked.

“Shot?” one of the EMTs asked at the same time.

“Peter Parker,” Peter said, because there was no point in trying to withhold his name. “And it was just a graze.”

He held up his arm, making it easier to see the red stain on his t-shirt. It looked pretty gruesome, but the whole thing had already scabbed over.

“It’s already started healing,” the other EMT said, stepping in to clean the wound anyway. It stung and Peter wanted to pull away but he didn’t.

“He’s enhanced,” Cooper said, back to smiling and excited about it. “Like Captain America.”

“That’s why he needs orange slices,” Cassie said, giving each of the adults a reproachful look as if she expected they were somehow holding out on the citrus situation.

“Hey, I’ve got a Special Agent Reese from the FBI,” the deputy that hadn’t chased after the Humvee said. He’d started relaying things to whoever as soon as the body armor guys had all been restrained. “Descriptions might match his case. Do we have names for him?”

“Peter Parker,” the sheriff said, then turned to the kids.

“Cassie Lang,” Cassie said.

“I’m Lila and that’s Cooper,” Lila said. “Barton.”

“Holy shit,” the deputy said a moment after he’d relayed their names. “You guys are the Avengers’ kids?”

Everybody went still. Lila and Cooper exchanged a look like they expected to get in trouble for having been found out. The gathered officials just looked stunned.

Peter sighed. He was inclined to give the usual story—he was an intern, he worked for Stark Industries—but there really was no point. If the FBI was involved it was all official, they’d know.

“Here,” Peter said, holding his hand out toward the deputy. He could hear Tony fighting with Agent Reese on the other end, insisting to be given the phone, insisting they put Peter on.

He’d begun to tremble, coming down off the adrenaline of the last hour, but he ignored it. It was probably a blood sugar thing, too.

The deputy handed over his phone, looking more than a little stunned.

“Hey, Tony,” Peter said.

Peter?” Tony said. The call was just a little bit echoey, like it was on speaker.

“Yeah. It’s me.”

“Oh my g—Peter. Jesus. Happy get the jet in the air. Right now. Happy go. Call Rhodey.”

There was bickering. Somebody—Peter assumed it was Agent Reese—was telling Tony to slow down, that there were procedures to follow. Tony was vehemently ignoring him.

“Where are you? I’m on my way. I’m getting in a suit right now; I’ll be there quick as I can. Are you okay? Are you hurt? Are you safe?”

“Um. I’m okay. We’re okay,” Peter said. “We’re in Missouri. Hawk Point, Missouri, I think?” He glanced at the sheriff and she nodded confirmation, though she also looked like she wanted to take the phone away from him and possibly stick him in the back of the ambulance for safekeeping. “Yeah. Hawk Point. The sheriff is here and there’s all sorts of backup and stuff. We’re safe.”

“FRIDAY, send that location to Rhodey and Hap, and plot me a—Thank you, dear,” Tony said. “Okay, Pete. It’s going to be about an hour okay? I’ll see if I can’t find a good headwind or something to shave some time off. Sit tight. I’m on my way. I’m coming.”

“Okay,” Peter said.

The trembling was worse. He handed the phone back to the deputy, and Tony must’ve jumped out the window in his suit or something because he could hear Agent Reese pick up the conversation with him again.

“What did he say?” Cooper asked. “That was Iron Man, right?”

“Yeah,” Peter said. His knees were kind of wobbly, so he leaned against the sheriff’s car again. The EMTs noticed and looked like they wanted to jump in and evaluate him, but Peter just waved them off. “He’s on his way.”

“Iron Man is on his way?” the sheriff asked.

“Yeah. And Rhodey. Uh. War Machine. Iron Patriot. Whatever.”

“Oh my God the Avengers are coming,” one of the firefighters who’d been eavesdropping said. Peter pretended he hadn’t heard.

“Was my dad there?” Cassie asked hopefully.

“I don’t know,” Peter said, suddenly feeling guilty. He hadn’t even thought to ask. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, shit—” the nearest EMT said, stepping forward just in time to catch Peter as he keeled over.

Chapter Text

Peter jerked awake, registering that he was in the back of an ambulance hooked up to an IV. He panicked a little bit. In a quick motion, startling the EMT next to him, he tore the IV out of his arm and jumped away, stuck himself to the ceiling. His heart was racing, his spidey sense going crazy.

He’d surprised the EMT next to him and her shout had surprised the driver and he’d swerved off the road and slammed on the brakes.

“Okay back there?” the driver called even as he turned to look over his shoulder.

“Sorry,” Peter said, settling back to the floor of the ambulance but staying at the rear of the space, away from the strangers. “Sorry. I was just disoriented. Sorry.”

“It’s okay, Peter,” the EMT who’d been next to him said, holding her hands toward him palm-up, placating, as the driver started the ambulance moving down the highway again. “Are you okay?”

“What happened?” Peter asked. Everything seemed fine, but the Peter Tingle was screaming at him to dodge, to evade, to get out, to get away. “Where are we going?”

“Mercy Hospital Lincoln,” the driver said.

Peter didn’t recognize either of them. They weren’t the EMTs who’d been on the highway with the sheriff.

“No,” he said. “No. Take me back to Hawk Point.”

“Kid, you were shot. And then you collapsed,” the EMT next to him said. Her name badge said Collins.

“I’m fine,” Peter said. “Where are the kids?”

“With the sheriff,” Collins said. “They’re okay.”

“You shouldn’t have taken me,” Peter said. “And you shouldn’t have put the IV in me without permission from my legal guardians.”

“Kid, I don’t think you under—”

Don’t tell me I don’t understand,” Peter said sharply. “I am a minor. You’ve been treating me without consent. You’re taking me away from the place my legal guardian thinks I’m supposed to be. This could technically be kidnapping all over again.”

“You’re not being kidnapped,” Collins said. It seemed like she was trying to be soothing, reassuring, but Peter had to clench his fists to keep himself from punching her in the face. “You’re being taken to the hospital. You were injured. You weren’t given any drugs, just saline. You’re dehydrated.”

“Pull over,” Peter said. His mouth felt scratchy, like it was full of cotton. He highly doubted they’d been giving him saline. Probably some other drug that hadn’t reacted to his spidery metabolism the way it was expected to.

“Kid—” the driver said.

Pull over,” Peter said again.

The driver didn’t, so Peter opened the back door. The driver slammed on the brakes, and Peter held on until the ambulance had skidded to a halt. Peter had heard the car behind them but thought it had been random traffic; it was one of the Humvees.

“You guys suck so bad,” Peter said.

Collins rushed him from behind, but Peter stepped out of the way and drove an elbow into her side. She dropped to the pavement, the wind knocked out of her.

Peter slammed the ambulance’s rear door and jumped up on top of the thing. The guys in the Humvee were still trying to decide if they should shoot him or what their play should be; he didn’t have long.

“What the hell is—” the ambulance driver started to say, standing halfway out of his door, looking back toward the Humvee to try to see what was going on.

Peter kicked the driver in the back, catching mostly shoulders and a bit of neck. It probably gave him whiplash, but Peter couldn’t bring himself to feel bad about it. He dropped down as the guy went sprawling away from the ambulance, windmilling his arms comically but managing to stay on his feet.

Peter slid into the driver’s seat and closed the door. It was still running, so Peter put it in gear and spun the wheel. He gave it too much gas, almost tipped over sideways, and then finally got some decent traction—the ambulance raced forward as the first shots rang out, bullets impacting the rear doors.

“Shit, shit, shit, shit,” Peter muttered to himself. He really had to get Tony to teach him to drive. No—Happy. Happy should teach him to drive.

Somebody should, anyway. He kept ending up behind the wheel.

It was a straight stretch of highway, which was good. He didn’t really know what any of the buttons on the dash did, which was not so good.

None of the mirrors were oriented for him, so he couldn’t really tell if the Humvee had followed him. It didn’t sound like it was, which hopefully meant that they hadn’t gotten him so far outside Hawk Point that they thought they could catch up to him before he made it back, or at least made it somewhere where there would be witnesses.

He really, really wanted to go home.

He’d sort of got the hang of driving in a straight line when the road turned. That was okay. There were no buildings or anything, he slowed down, kept following the road.

And then he’d found E State Highway 47 again, which was the highway he’d been running on. He had no idea which way to go, though. No idea which way Hawk Point was. No GPS. No conveniently left-behind cell phone. Not even a radio thing connecting the ambulance to the dispatcher people.

FUCK!”

He had to be close, though. They would’ve chased him if he wasn’t close.

He was about to go right for no reason whatsoever when he heard a siren approaching from that direction. He hesitated, then got out of the ambulance and got as low as he could in the ditch.

The ambulance just raced past, though. The siren was too loud for him to hear if the people in it said anything, though they seemed to at least think about slowing down when they saw the ambulance idling off the highway.

“This is probably a stupid idea,” he muttered to himself, getting back in the ambulance after the other one had passed by. Then he followed it, figuring it had been the actual legitimate ambulance called in rather than the fake kidnap-y one.

And then he passed a sign for Hawk Point and he thought he might cry.

Peter kept going straight through town. He didn’t see any official-looking vehicles, no jet, no Iron Man suit. He assumed that meant he hadn’t been out for long enough for Tony to arrive yet, and the sheriff and crew—and therefore the kids—were still out in the middle of the highway.

A few miles out, he turned out to be right. Emergency vehicles had cordoned off the highway. There were flashing lights and barricades. A highway patrolman moved one of the barricades and looked like he was about to wave the ambulance through, then his eyes widened when he caught sight of Peter driving. Peter gunned it on past before anybody could holler at him to stop.

The ambulance he’d followed had stopped behind a second fire truck, this one with WARRENTON on the side of it rather than HAWK POINT. The highway patrolman must’ve radioed, because everybody was on alert and looking at him.

Peter put the thing in park, then jumped out, looking for a familiar face, looking for the kids.

“What happened?” the sheriff asked, pushing past people, a big radio thing with a long antenna in her hand. “Where did—”

And then Tony dropped out of the sky, cracking the highway blacktop on impact. It was dramatic as hell and such an incredible relief to see him.

“Peter?” Tony asked, the nanite suit retracting back into the housing unit as smooth as water flowing downstream. He’d recalibrated the—not important. Tony was looking around, scanning the crowd. “Peter?”

“Here,” Peter said. Tony hadn’t been looking at the cab of the ambulances, and he spun, half running half stumbling for him, grabbing him in a tight hug the moment he was close enough.

Peter hugged him back. He’d wanted to cry before, but he really might cry now.

“Peter,” Tony said, squeezing him close, putting a hand on the back of his head to hold him in. Then he jumped back, running his hands over Peter’s face and arms. He walked a circle around Peter, putting his glasses on while his mouth was running a mile a minute. “Are you okay? You said you were, but were you lying? Don’t try to make me feel better, just tell it to me straight. FRIDAY? Scan him. What did they do? Did they give you anything? What’s he—what happened here? You bleeding? FRI, is he bleeding?”

“I’m fine,” Peter said, and it was mostly true. He pulled the gauze off his forearms. (The fake—possibly real but bribed?—EMTs hadn’t bandaged the graze on his side.) “These already healed. And my side's scabbed over. It’s fine. I’m fine.”

What did they do?” Tony seemed caught between wanting to hold onto Peter some more and getting back into his suit to go kick some ass.

“Took the chips out, I think.”

“They did,” Tony said. There was something dark in his tone. “We found them in Virginia.”

“The state of Virginia?”

“Yeah. Maintenance room in a parking garage.”

“That’s so creepy.”

Tony made a noise that was weirdly close to a sob and pulled him close again, arms somehow even tighter.

“I thought I’d lost you,” Tony said, putting his hand on the back of Peter’s head again. His tone was impossibly soft.

"I'm okay," Peter said. "I think I'm okay."

“Did you get checked out?"

“She sent me off in that other ambulance, but the EMTs tried to kidnap me all over again.”

Tony held him tighter. Peter wanted to relax into it, but if he let himself do that the tremble would turn into shaking, and the shaking would be crying, and there would just be no end to it.

“You’re okay, Pete. I’ve got you,” Tony said. “I’ve got you.”

Peter’s whole body gave out all at once. He leaned hard into Tony, and Tony held him up, held him close. Peter held out for maybe two seconds, and then the tears came. Tony held him, rocked him, stroked his hair. He was making quiet, soothing noises. Or maybe it was words and Peter was just too lost to comprehend them.

“Mr. Stark,” the sheriff said. “Mr. Stark, my name is Ruby Delwin. I’m the sheriff.”

“Sheriff, honestly, you can fuck right off,” Tony said sharply.

“Mr. Stark,” Sheriff Delwin said, almost chastising. Tony’s arms tightened around Peter.

“Sheriff—” Tony started, but Peter snapped out of it, suddenly remembering that he hadn’t seen Lila or Cooper or Cassie since he’d been in the ambulance.

“The kids,” Peter said. He didn’t pull out of Tony’s hold, he couldn’t bring himself to do it, but he got his legs more firmly under him so he could look at the sheriff. “Where are they? Where did they go?”

“With my deputy,” the sheriff said.

“Like you sent me with your EMTs?” Peter asked, a new wave of panic hitting him.

“They’re here,” Sheriff Delwin said. She pointed to one of the squad cars just behind her, and once she’d pointed it out he could see the three familiar faces looking out the back window. “Right here.”

“So it’s just my kid you sent off with more kidnappers?” Tony said, and Peter could feel the glare even if he couldn’t see it. “What is it, an enhanced thing? They offer you a cut if you—”

Col. Rhodes arrived, landing more gracefully than Tony but with no less urgency.

Peter,” Rhodey said, the faceplate on the War Machine suit flipping back. His wasn’t nanites, so it didn’t retract any further than that, but it was nice to see his face. He reached out, putting a gloved hand on Peter’s shoulder. “It’s really good to see you, kid.”

“Hi,” Peter said. He wasn’t sure what else to say. Rhodey seemed to get it, though. He squeezed Peter’s shoulder gently, glanced at Tony, then took another moment to just look at Peter before he turned to the sheriff.

“Hi. Col. James Rhodes,” he said. “What can I do to help?”

“Helping might be putting her in restraints,” Tony said.

“I had nothing to do with—”

“Can it,” Tony said.

“What are you—” Rhodey started.

“Between the time that Peter called me and I got here, he was taken again,” Tony said. “Her EMTs.”

“Bradford and Collins have driven that bus for years,” the sheriff said. “I had no reason not to trust them.”

The three of them started yelling, drawing in one of the deputies and one of the new EMTs. Peter went over to the squad car and opened the back door, relieved when it wasn’t locked.

“You guys okay?” Peter asked. The three of them looked at him with wide eyes. They’d been enthralled to see Iron Man and War Machine—Iron Patriot—land, but the argument with the sheriff had them all a little white-knuckled.

“Why are they fighting?” Cooper asked.

“Did you steal that ambulance?” Lila asked at the same time.

Cassie just looked at him with too-wide eyes.

Before Peter could think of an answer, he heard the familiar not-quite-whine of a quinjet.

“Tony,” he said, standing up, looking toward the noise. It was too far off to see yet, even for him. “Are you expecting company?”

“What?” Tony asked. He was still arguing with the sheriff, but he’d taken a few steps closer to where Peter squatted next to the squad car.

“Jet,” Peter said.

“That’ll be Happy,” Rhodey said.

“It’s slowing down,” Peter said.

The Stark Industries jet came into view, sleek and so ridiculously cool even if Peter had seen it before.

“There will be more in a few minutes,” Rhodey said, face hard as he turned back to the sheriff. “FBI. SHIELD. Everybody’s headed this way.”

“Is my dad coming?” Cassie asked, so eagerly hopefully. Peter looked over at Tony, sympathizing with her.

“They can’t land on the highway!” the sheriff protested, but the jet had already done just that. The engines powered down, the ramp lowered, and that was that.

Barton and Lang were the first down the ramp, quickly followed by a pair of US Marshals to supervise them. Cooper and Cassie elbowed their way out of the back of the squad car, just about tripping over themselves as they ran for their dads. Lila had simply burst into tears at the sight of her dad, sitting in the back of the car sobbing for the minute that it took Mr. Barton to scoop Cooper into his arms and carry him across the road so that he could pull Lila out of the car and hold her, too.

“Where is he? You find him? You get him?” Happy strode down the ramp, looking around the way Tony had when he’d landed, looking to Tony and Rhodey and at the backs of the ambulances.

 

It took almost half an hour, but they ended up at the police station. Or the sheriff’s office. Whichever it was.

The fighting about which local authorities were trustworthy had settled down after FRIDAY had done some facial scanning. Rhodey had gone with a truly ridiculous number of SHIELD agents and a few state troopers to check out the motel. (The first deputy sent after the body armor guys hadn't returned or even radioed back.) The remaining SHIELD agents had taken over processing the restrained body armor dudes.

The station was smaller than any precinct office Peter had ever been in, but that probably shouldn’t have surprised him. There was a bullpen area with a few desks, the glass-walled sheriff’s office in the corner, then a long hallway that led to interrogation rooms and the jail. It looked like something out of a TV show, a slightly-dusty version of a small town police station from an after school special.

The EMTs from that second ambulance had looked them all over—FRIDAY had triple-checked they were who they claimed to be—and then they’d been allowed to use the showers in the locker rooms to clean up. Peter got clean scrubs to wear, which was… appreciated.

“You okay? You need anything?” Tony asked when Peter had emerged from the shower

“A very long nap would be fantastic,” Peter said. He and Tony were leaning against the edge of a desk, Tony with his arm across Peter’s shoulders so that Peter was tucked in tight against his side. It probably wasn’t the cool teenagerly thing to do, but Peter really just wanted to stay exactly there.

“I don’t think that’s in the cards just yet, kiddo,” Tony said, squeezing him gently. Peter wasn’t sure if it was meant to be apologetic or comforting or if Tony was reminding himself that Peter was right next to him.

“I know,” Peter said.

Tony turned so he could kiss the side of Peter’s head, then pulled him in even closer, using a hand to encourage Peter to rest his head against his shoulder, then pressing his cheek to the top of Peter’s head. Peter was afraid he might start crying again; it was the first time he’d felt clean and safe since the bus driver had been shot.

Peter looked around the room to try to distract himself before he could start crying.

Lila and Cooper were in scrubs like Peter, though even the smallest size was comically large on them. Mr. Barton had them both on his lap even though they were a little big for it, hugging them close to his chest, arms wrapped tight around them. He was murmuring soothing things, telling them he loved them, telling them he was sorry he hadn’t stopped it from happening.

Cassie was swamped in both the overlarge scrubs and her dad’s hoodie, her hair still damp from her shower. She clung to Mr. Lang like a monkey, and he held her back just as tightly. Peter was pretty sure they were both trembling.

The rest of the room was a mess of activity. People were coordinating with the agents at the motel, making calls. Dr. Ronson from the Accords committee had set herself up in the sheriff’s office and it sounded like she was on the phone with Secretary Ross. The FBI people were getting things organized to start taking statements or something.

“Okay. I don’t know when you last ate, but it really doesn’t matter,” Happy said, dropping a reusable shopping bag on the desk where Peter and Tony were leaning. “I’ve got snacks.”

“I hope you brought enough to share,” Tony said.

Happy gave him a look, opened his mouth like he was about to tell Tony off for wanting a granola bar when there was so much else going on, but Tony just nodded toward the kids.

“Course I did,” Happy said. “You kids like Red Bull?”

“I do,” Peter said, which was a complete lie. Caffeine had been weird since the spider bit him.

“Absolutely not,” Happy said.

It made Cooper laugh, which had sort of been the point. Happy handed out snacks—he had water and Gatorade, granola bars, fruit snacks, juice boxes, and a dozen of Peter’s special-made protein bars. The four of them were conspicuous enough about grabbing Gatorades rather than waters that nobody commented.

“What happens next?” Lila asked.

Chapter Text

Peter wanted nothing more than to just go home—he wanted his own clothes, and he wanted to know what had happened to everybody in New York—but he had to give a statement first. A preliminary statement, everybody kept calling it. Like there would be endless follow-up statements at some point in the future.

He was put in an interrogation room facing a video camera and the FBI guy, Reese. Tony sat next to him. Dr. Ronson was on the other side of the one-way mirror, observing.

He started with the bus driver and gave them as many details as he could remember. They didn’t interrupt or ask questions, just let him talk. He gave them the designs of the tattoos on the guy who shot the bus driver, the layout of the house where he’d first met the kids, the mile markers from the highway outside the motel. He told them everything he could remember overhearing, and, when Agent Reese looked vaguely skeptical about his ability to hear that much, Peter told him where everybody else in the station was and what they were talking about.

“We’re done here, right?” Tony finally said. It felt like it had taken hours, but Peter hadn’t even been sure what day it was to begin with so that didn’t really matter.

“Yes,” Agent Reese said, turning off the video camera. “Yes, thank you.”

“Great,” Tony said, standing up and putting a hand on Peter's back. “We’re going to head home, then. You’ve got my contact information.”

“We good?” Happy asked as soon as he saw them.

“Yep,” Tony said. He’d kept his hand against the back of Peter’s neck—Peter wasn’t sure if it was nerves and he wanted to keep Peter close or if he was using the hand to guide Peter along, but it felt a little bit like the only thing grounding Peter to the reality of his escape. “Let’s head out. You guys good to go? Coming with us?”

“Yeah, sounds good,” Mr. Barton said, like he’d just been hanging out waiting for their next move.

“Lang?” Tony asked.

“Um. Sure. Yes,” Mr. Lang said. He had Cassie on his shoulder, her arms and legs wrapped around him, completely limp with sleep. “That’d be great. Thanks.”

“Super,” Tony said. “Stark Airlines at your service.”

Tony directed Peter up the staircase thing into the jet ahead of him. He chose a seat at random, trying to relax. He didn’t seem to be able to unclench.

Tony didn’t say a word, just retrieved what looked like a gym bag from the cockpit. He sat across from Peter and took out familiar noise-cancelling wireless earbuds and tossed them over.

“Thank you,” Peter said. His throat was tight, like he might start crying again. He hadn’t even had to resort to the stoplight system; Tony had just known.

“I have the glasses, too, if you need them,” Tony said softly.

“No, I’m—my eyes aren’t bothering me.”

Tony just nodded, stowing the gym bag next to his chair before getting comfortable in his seat.

“Thank you,” Peter said, tapping one of the earbuds once he had them in place to activate the faint sounds of rainy static.

“We ready to go?” Happy called from up front before Tony could say anything. He didn’t wait for confirmations, either, just started flicking switches. The US Marshals in charge of watching Ant-Man and Hawkeye barely got on the plane before the stairs closed up behind them.

“We’re good, Hap,” Tony said, ignoring the dirty looks from the Marshals.

“Seatbelts,” Happy shouted back at them. The call was immediately taken up by Mr. Barton, triple-checking that his kids were buckled in, making them smile.

“Do I need to check your seatbelt?” Tony asked. Peter rolled his eyes and tugged at his seatbelt to prove it was latched.

The jet took off vertically, which was new from the last time Peter had ridden in Tony’s private jet. It was repulsor technology, like the engines in the quinjets. Peter was pretty sure Tony wasn’t supposed to put repulsor tech in non-Avengers things, but there was probably some legal loophole for it. Peter was just glad that it meant they were headed toward home that much faster.

Peter sat forward a bit once they hit cruising altitude, looking at Tony. Tony seemed to have been waiting for it.

“Will you tell me—uh…” Peter wasn’t sure where to start. He still wasn’t even sure how long he’d been gone, what day it was. “Can you tell me what happened? At home. Like. How did you know I was missing? How long was I gone? Did you find the rest of the kids from the bus? Is MJ okay?”

“MJ is fine. I met her parents,” Tony said. “They’re… a lot of fun.”

“You met all of them?” Peter asked, a smile tugging at his mouth. “Her mom and her stepdad and her dad?”

“All of them.” Tony nodded.

“Wow.”

“People will put a lot of stuff aside when it’s for their kids,” Tony said.

“Yeah. I guess.”

“Met a lot of parents from your school, actually.” Tony sat forward so they mirrored each other, talking softly—Cassie had slept through the whole takeoff, and the Barton kids looked like they were headed for dreamland, too. “Your school called was how I found out you were missing. May was at a doctor’s appointment so they couldn’t get ahold of her.”

“How is May? Is she okay?”

“She’s at the compound with Pepper,” Tony said. “This was… a lot. And she’s very sick. But Pep’s keeping an eye on her. She’s okay.”

“You’re sure?” Peter hadn’t been letting himself think about May. Ever since he’d seen Tony, he’d had a nagging worry that May hadn’t come in the jet because she’d died while he was away.

“Last I heard from her, she was going to try to take a nap while you gave your statement,” Tony said. “So she wouldn’t be so tired when you got home.”

“Oh. That’s… good.”

“She’s okay, Pete.”

“Okay.”

Tony reached over and squeezed one of his hands, then started to fill in a few things. He’d been missing for three days, almost four. They had received two ransom videos and found a post about him on a sketchy website a lot like the one that had advertised the hit on May so many months ago.

Peter’s stunt pulling the tape stuff off his arms had worked, and FRIDAY had been able to trace the pings from the microchips once she’d known to look for them. Tattoos and Central Casting Thug, as well as almost a dozen others, had been arrested. All of his classmates had been home with their families that night.

“Why don’t you try to get some rest?” Tony suggested, and even though Peter had a thousand more questions a nap sounded really, really good. “We can talk more at the compound. And we’ll know more by the time we get there—Rhodey’s still going over things at that motel.”

“Creepy motel,” Peter said. He sat back, shifting around in his seat to try to find the most comfortable position.

“Very creepy,” Tony agreed. He sat back, too, but he looked like he was settling in to watch Peter sleep. It was probably weird that that actually made it easier for Peter to relax.

 

“Seatbelts,” Happy called over his shoulder from the cockpit. It felt like Peter had barely managed to fall asleep, but it must’ve been at least an hour. “We’re coming up on the compound now.”

“Everybody ready for so many hugs?” Tony asked as the jet touched down and began to taxi into the hangar. “I feel like we’re all about to be hugged.”

Mr. Lang laughed. Mr. Barton looked like he was about to make a joke, probably at Tony’s expense, but then they’d come to a stop. Mr. Barton and Mr. Lang roused their kids, helping them undo seatbelts.

Peter followed Tony out of the jet. He’d been able to see May and Pepper standing on the walkway above the main hangar floor out the window, surrounded by people he didn’t know but guessed must be the rest of the Bartons and the Langs. By the time he’d deplaned, they’d made it to the clear space beside the jet.

Peter!” May called, and Peter hustled over to her—she’d been lagging behind the others, walking more carefully, with Pepper right next to her ready to help.

“Hey, Aunt May,” he said, hugging her carefully, willing himself not to cry but crying anyway. “Hi.”

“Hi, baby,” she said, holding him just as tightly as Mr. Stark had out on the highway. “Peter. Hi. I’m so glad you’re okay.”

“I’m okay,” he said. “I’m fine. I’m alright.”

“That was horrible,” May said. “You’re never leaving my sight again. Ever.”

“I think that might officially be Happy’s job now,” Peter said. He’d overheard something that sounded a lot like contract negotiations while he was making his statement back in Missouri—Happy talking to Pepper on the phone to arrange a security detail for Peter, the security detail being Happy.

“Good. I’m not even weirded out that that seems acceptable and normal to me.”

Peter laughed. It was a wet laugh.

May pulled away to get a better look at him. He could hear similar conversations going on around them. Tony had pulled Pepper in close, kissed her cheek. Cassie was getting hugs from her mom and step-dad. (Her step-dad had made a point to hug Mr. Lang, too.) Mrs. Barton was on her knees holding onto Cooper and Lila, Mr. Barton next to her with another kid.

“You’re really okay?” May asked him. “You look worn out, kiddo.”

“Just tired,” Peter said.

“You hungry?”

“Not really.” Peter shrugged. “Tony brought snacks.”

“Thank you for bringing him home,” May said, turning to Tony. Peter had half expected her to be angry with Tony, blame him in some way, but instead she grabbed him in a tight hug that didn’t seem to surprise him even a little bit.

“I promised I would,” Tony said so softly Peter was pretty sure nobody but May was supposed to have heard it.

“We were all so worried about you,” Pepper said, stepping in to take her turn at pulling Peter into a hug.

“I’m sorry,” Peter said.

“Don’t apologize,” Pepper admonished, squeezing him tighter. He almost managed to laugh.

“I need to hug him again,” May announced, and Peter and Pepper both laughed that time. May wrapped her arms around him and he let his head rest on her shoulder. After a second, he felt Pepper’s hand on his shoulder, Tony’s hand on the back of his head, then Happy’s hand on his back.

It was… He had his people around him. He felt safe.

Chapter Text

Peter showered again, changed into his own clothes. It was nearly midnight on the Tuesday after he’d been taken.

“Better?” Tony asked when Peter returned to the Avengers’ common area.

Peter just nodded, taking a seat at the breakfast bar and digging into the omelet Tony put in front of him—ham and cheese and onion.

Most of the rest of them had gone to bed. He’d been introduced to Mrs. Barton—Laura—and Lila and Cooper’s little brother Nathaniel, and Cassie’s mom and step-dad—Maggie and Jim Paxton. Cooper had given an excited retelling of their escape from the motel. But it was late, and everybody was physically and emotionally exhausted, and they’d all drifted down the usually-empty hall of bedrooms to find places for the night before Peter had headed upstairs to shower and change.

“I love you, Peter,” May said after she’d watched him eat the first half of his omelet. “I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”

“Okay,” Peter said. “I love you, May.”

May hugged him again, then headed for his old room down the hall. Tony had moved Peter’s room upstairs into his suite as a sort of “happy we-filed-for-adoption” present; it was supposed to have been a surprise for his next weekend at the compound.

“I think I’ll go to bed, too,” Pepper said. She kissed Peter’s temple, then Tony’s cheek, then headed upstairs.

Peter looked down at his plate, wondering if he would be sent to bed so the adults could talk shop.

“Rhodey sent an update while you were upstairs,” Tony said, not looking up from washing the pan he’d made the omelet in. “He’s sending along the first data packet recovered from the motel within the hour, and he’s going to call us for a proper check-in in the morning.”

“Is that a good sign?” Clint asked, eyebrows up.

“Too soon to tell,” Tony said.

“What about at that—the place before?” Scott asked. “The house. With the basement.”

“They’ve got fuckall on that,” Tony said. “Haven’t found it yet. Don’t even know where it is besides somewhere in Missouri.”

Clint and Scott nodded, glancing between each other and then at Peter. Happy laughed, but tried to hide it with a cough.

“What?” Tony said, scowling. “He knows the fuck-word. He knows all sorts of words. He can cuss you out in, like, three different languages. Four if you include Klingon.”

“I don’t speak Klingon,” Peter said.

“Well then who the—it’s you.” Tony turned, pointing at Happy with a huge grin on his face. “You speak Klingon.”

“I hate you,” Happy said, sighing as he stared back at Tony.

“Happy, you’re my favorite adult,” Peter said. He was smiling so wide it kind of hurt his face. It was just as much relief to be home and safe and surrounded by freaking Avengers as it was amusement at Happy and Tony’s usual schtick. “I can’t wait to tell Ned about this.”

No. Absolutely not,” Happy said. “You will not tell Ned I speak Klingon. Because I don’t speak Klingon.”

“I didn’t even know you were a Star Trek fan!” Peter said. “And of course I’m telling Ned. He’s gonna flip.”

“No,” Happy said, then turned his glare back on Tony. “This is your fault.”

“Yes,” Tony said, still grinning.

“I knew I should’ve left when Pepper went to bed,” Happy said, defeated. “Nothing good ever happens with the two of you unsupervised.”

“I mean, technically…” Peter said, pointing to Clint and Scott.

“I’m leaving.”

“Happy, will you teach me Klingon?”

“No.”

“Please?”

“I’m taking the Lam.” Happy stood up, clapped Tony on the shoulder, looked at Peter like he was checking to be sure he was still there even though he’d looked away.

“You don’t even have to try. Just speak in Klingon a lot and eventually I’ll pick it up,” Peter said. “It’s how I learned all the best Italian curse words.”

“Hey—”

“Not you. May.”

“Oh,” Tony said. “Nice. I’ll remember that for the next time she’s mad at me.”

“I’ll text you after I meet with the school,” Happy said, headed toward the elevators and not bothering to look back to be sure he’d been heard. “From what I remember of the last assessment, I’d say next week at the very soonest.”

“Thanks, Hap,” Tony said, but Happy just waved him off and disappeared into the waiting elevator.

“Do you think they sell Klingon audiobooks?” Peter asked. “I should get him a Klingon audiobook.”

“He might actually kill me for that one,” Tony said, but he still looked amused so Peter made a mental note to see if Klingon audiobooks were a thing.

“So…” Clint said after a moment. “Fuckall?”

“So far,” Tony said. Peter put his fork down on his cleared plate, and Tony immediately picked them up to wash since he’d finished with the pan. “I’ve contacted a mutual friend of ours to look into things.”

“Mutual friend?” Scott asked, eyebrows up.

“Nat?” Clint asked, sounding genuinely surprised. “You’re in touch with Nat?”

“Of course not,” Tony said. He’d finished with the dishes, but he stayed on the kitchen side of the breakfast bar, leaning his elbows on the counter. “That would get me in all sorts of trouble with all sorts of people.”

“How’s she doing?” Clint asked softly.

“Agent Romanoff is one of the most resilient people I know,” Tony said, shrugging one shoulder. “I’m sure she’s just fine.”

Scott looked confused but enthusiastic anyway. Peter hid a smile behind his hand.

“Anyway. I bet there’s some traction on that front by the time Rhodey finishes filling us in in the morning,” Tony said. He stood up, making a show of digging through his pockets, then he pulled a phone out of a pocket and tossed it at Peter. “That’s for you.”

“This isn’t my phone,” he said, turning it over in his hands. It looked like his old phone, but there was something different about the casing and it seemed ever so slightly heavier. “Did they mess up my phone?”

“Oh yeah. Killed it with a brick or something,” Tony said. “That one is cooler. Improved bells and whistles. If somebody takes the battery out it triggers a silent alarm. Sends an alert to FRIDAY, amplifies your GPS, all that jazz.”

“Cool,” Peter said. “Thanks.”

“I’m putting the same thing in your watch. Still working on that one, though,” Tony said. “You want a repuslor in there? I can put a repuslor in there.”

“I wouldn’t be able to wear it to school if you did that,” Peter said. The phone had unlocked with the same passcode as his previous phone, and the interface was the same as any StarkPhone. Tony had imported all his contacts and preferences, too. (Or maybe that had been FRIDAY.) “That’d be bringing a weapon to school.”

“Nobody else would know you had it,” Tony said.

“I’d know.”

“Fine,” Tony said, giving up quickly enough that Peter knew it hadn’t been a serious suggestion. “Webshooter, then. I’m putting a webshooter in there. Or maybe I’ll incorporate a bit of nanotech and we can do two.”

“Cool,” Peter said. Technically, his webshooters could probably be classified as weapons, but they weren’t nearly on the same scale as an Iron Man repulsor. And he already brought his webshooters to school half the time anyway.

“Webshooter?” Scott asked.

“You know—” Peter mimed shooting a web. “—Spider-Man. Webs.”

“The web stuff comes out of a device?” Scott asked, looking vaguely puzzled. “I thought it came out of you.”

“Gross,” Peter said. Scott just shrugged.

“I can hook your kids up, too, if you’d like,” Tony said. “Phones. Watches. Microchips. You’re getting chipped again, Peter. Soon as Andy gets your lab results back and gives the go-ahead.”

Chapter Text

“Morning,” Peter said, walking out of his bedroom to find himself with a clear view through Tony and Pepper’s room into their ensuite bathroom. There was no sign of Pepper, but Tony was at the sink shaving.

“Hey,” Tony said. “Pep already left for SI. The Bartons are making brunch. Rhodey’s going to call in about two hours with an update.”

“Can I look through the data he sent last night?” Peter asked. He wasn’t sure if he was allowed into Tony’s room or not. It had never been a thing with May and Ben, but Ned’s parents kept him and his siblings out of their master suite. The open doors seemed to be sort of an invitation, though.

Peter leaned against the bedroom doorframe, watching Tony shave. He should probably be paying attention to that, actually; he’d never had anybody show him how to shave. Hadn’t really had a need to shave, but it was very probably a skill he’d have to figure out.

“Yeah. It’s all loaded up right there if you want to read while we eat,” Tony said. He rinsed away the remaining foam and checked to be sure he hadn’t missed anything on his jaw before leaving the bathroom. He picked up a StarkPad on his way through the bedroom, handing it to Peter.

“How bad is it?” Peter asked, holding the StarkPad with both hands, not waking up the screen.

“It’s about what you probably expect, overhearing what you did while you were there,” Tony said.

Peter sighed. Then he had to look up to catch the sweatshirt Tony had thrown at him.

“Food,” Tony said, putting on a sweatshirt as well.

Brunch was a weirdly familial thing. There were pancakes and scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage, fresh fruit. Peter sat next to May, mostly listening to another retelling of the grand motel escape from Cooper.

He learned interesting things about the rest of the group, too. Laura had worked as an interpreter for SHIELD before retiring to start a family with Clint. Jim was a police officer in San Francisco. The Bartons had recently purchased goats; Lila loved them but Laura loathed them. Scott had been using his house arrest to accumulate random hobbies—card tricks were the latest thing.

“I’ve got to say, they’re way more normal than I was expecting them to be,” May said a bit later, helping him with the dishes. “I mean, Tony’s so… Tony. And that guy is supposed to be some sort of super spy, you know?”

“I think your metric for ‘normal’ might be a little bit skewed,” Peter said. “I’d like to blame Tony, but it was probably the spider-themed super powers.”

May snorted.

“Pete,” Tony called a second later, waving him over with a serious face.

“You go ahead,” May said. “I’ll finish up.”

“Right,” Peter said. He followed Tony to one of the conference rooms, Clint and Scott not far behind. Rhodey was already there, faintly blue because he was a hologram but otherwise looking very much like he was sitting at the conference table.

“Morning, Honeybear,” Tony said, dropping into one of the seats at the table. “What have you got for us?”

“Hi guys. Morning,” Rhodey said. “How you doing, Peter?”

“I’m good. Thanks,” Peter said. “How’s Missouri?”

“Not great,” Rhodey said, flaring his nostrils and shaking his head. “The more I find out about the operation out of this motel, the more I want to go have a shower.”

“That bad, huh?” Tony asked. He’d been trying for flippant, but his voice was flat.

“Yeah,” Rhodey said. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, looking around the table to be sure everybody had taken a seat before he started. “They were only after Peter.”

“Excuse me?” Clint said.

“This unnamed group—we’ve been calling them the BAGs since the kids all called them the body armor guys in their statements—was acting on a contract from somebody in New York.” Rhodey gestured and a new hologram activated, displaying what looked like a series of invoices. “They were after Peter. The others were just… bonus.”

“Can we not talk about it like that?” Scott asked.

“Yeah,” Rhodey said, scrubbing a hand over his face.

“So what are you saying?” Tony asked, sitting back and mimicking Rhodey’s posture. “You’re saying—”

“They destroyed a lot of the records, Tone. There’s no address for the house where they picked the kids up, but there is a record of gas and ammunition used to retrieve them,” Rhodey said. “They had a confirmed—buyer—for Peter. Financed the extraction. There’s some back and forth about… delivery.”

“Is there any sort of record from when I was first taken?” Peter asked, picking up the StarkPad Tony had handed him before brunch. “The group from the warehouse on the river?”

“Yeah,” Tony said. “It should be in the same folder as the data packet he sent over last night. What are you looking for?”

“They had an iPad, and they were looking for best offer,” Peter said, navigating back to the right screen to find the other file. “They got really excited when they got to me, and I assumed it was because, hey it’s Peter-the-intern from Instagram and Tony Stark has a lot of money, but what if it was because there was already somebody with, like, an offer out?”

Clint grunted. He was tense, like he wanted to pace or punch something—or murder something—but was held in place by years of training telling him to get all the information before he made a move.

“Good news—if any of this could be good news—is that we found the EMTs that tried to take Peter, and they’re talking,” Rhodey said, giving Clint a knowing look. “They’re with the FBI right now.”

“I want to talk to them,” Clint said.

“Probably not going to happen,” Rhodey said. “I can float it past Reese, though.”

“What are they saying?” Scott asked.

“The deputy who first chased after the BAGs was in on it—looking the other way on the human trafficking, not in on this whole thing,” Rhodey said. “He was the one to call in the EMTs, since they were on the take, too. They helped transport people. The deputy is in the wind, but I guess we had small town advantage on the EMTs—the sheriff knows their mothers or uncles or some family member and was able to get them in custody.”

“Here,” Peter said, handing the StarkPad to Tony. “Does that look familiar to you?”

Shit,” Tony said, then waved at one of FRIDAY’s cameras. (Peter couldn’t actually tell if FRIDAY could just intuit what Tony wanted or if he had some sort of endless lexicon of gestures that only he and FRIDAY could decipher. With very little direction from Tony, FRIDAY pulled up the transcripts of posts 'Natalie Rushman' had acquired for Tony.)

The listing Peter had pulled up on the StarkPad was a different skeevy website, different usernames, but the wording was almost identical. The same key phrases, and, most damning of all, the same coordinates for the “handoff.”

"What?" Clint asked.

"It looks a lot like whoever sent the body armor guys after me tried to have May killed last October."

Chapter Text

“Go,” Pepper said.

She hated it. It sounded like “goodbye,” and she knew he heard it too from the look he gave her, from the way he moved in to kiss her cheek before going through the glowing portal thing. And then she was alone on the jogging path. People were staring.

“Ma’am?” Victoria said, stepping in. She had been jogging behind her and Tony, a security detail they argued about almost every time.

“Let’s, um,” Pepper said, forcing her mind back on track. “Doug has the car, right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Victoria said, tapping her watch. “I’ll have him catch us up?”

“Yes. Please do.”

Victoria sent a text to the driver from her watch, looking at the loose crowd around them. Most of the people drawn in by the portal had lost interest after it was gone, but there were still a few people around waiting to see what she’d do after sending Iron Man off to do his thing.

Doug pulled up to the curb with the car a few seconds later, and Victoria held the door open for her. Pepper slid in, smiling at Doug, taking her phone out of her pocket.

“The office, please,” she directed, checking for messages like Tony would’ve already sent an update. Alex had sent through the minutes from yesterday’s quarterlies, so she had that to review for the drive. Keep herself distracted. Do something productive with otherwise dead time.

Pepper always had a few changes of clothes in her office, and she changed on auto-pilot. Part of her wanted to sit at her desk and focus on work to keep herself occupied, to keep herself from worrying about Tony, but most of her mind was too occupied worrying about Tony to even pretend to focus.

“Are you seeing this?” Alex asked, bursting into the office without preamble. They grabbed the remote and turned on the TV, switched over to a news channel.

“What?” Pepper asked, leaning her hip against the edge of her desk.

“More fucking aliens,” Alex said, tossing the remote down onto the couch a little more forcefully than necessary. Pepper sympathized.

The ship looked like a space donut, and it was close enough that if they’d been on the other side of the building they would’ve been able to see it out the window.

“Why can’t they attack London or something?” Alex asked, mostly talking to themself. “Beijing. Some other major city. It’s us every time.”

“Banner’s back,” Pepper said. “He and Tony seemed to be off to come up with some sort of game plan. And a new guy I hadn’t seen before—Dr. Stephen Strange, he said his name was. He appeared to be some sort of wizard.”

“A wizard,” Alex repeated flatly.

“Maybe he was from space,” she said. He’d been wearing a robe and she’d immediately thought ‘wizard.’ “I can’t even tell anymore—there was a glowing portal that appeared out of nowhere.”

“I’d call bullshit, except there’s a donut-shaped spaceship across town right now.”

Pepper snorted, then reached back to pick up her phone off the desk when it beeped with an incoming call.

“Happy,” she said when she could see the caller ID. Alex nodded and left the room, probably headed for the conference room on the other side of the building where they’d have a better view.

"Remember how it's been a year and we figured MOMA would probably be fine?" Happy said rather than 'hello' or anything else. "The kid just jumped off the bus. Went right out the window.”

“He did what?”

“He’s supposed to be on that field trip. We’re not even halfway there, Pep. He just went out the window, started with the webs.”

“Headed for the spaceship?”

“Looks like,” he said. “What’s going on with that, anyway? Tony see it yet?”

“I don’t know. Probably.” Pepper rubbed her palm across her forehead. The day was going to be a wash, she could already tell.

“He’s not with you?”

“Banner’s back,” she said. “They went off somewhere.”

“I’m gonna come get you.”

“Happy, you don’t—”

“I do.”

“I’m at the office. I’m fine. They’re all the way across town.”

“Do you hear yourself right now?” Happy asked. She could hear him accelerating; somebody honked at him. “You’re fine, the aliens attacking the city are on the other side of town. No. Nope.”

“Happy.”

“Pepper, I’m coming to get you. I’ll be there in ten minutes.” More honking, and this time it wounded like Happy was the one laying on the horn. “We’ll head upstate.”

“I have work—”

“You can work remotely.”

“Happy—”

“You know it’s the smart choice,” he said, and Pepper sighed. “Don’t fight me on this.”

“Fine.”

She texted Alex, then put the things she’d need in a briefcase and headed for the parking garage. She was stopped twice on her way to the elevator, once because Louis from PR wanted to know if she wanted them to put a statement out about the spaceship—no, it was Avengers business, not Stark Industries—and once because one of the new hires was gearing up towards a panic attack in the elevator lobby. Happy was waiting when she finally made it to the garage, glaring.

“I’m here. I’m here,” she said. He held the back door open for her, but she raised an eyebrow and he opened the front passenger door for her without further protest. Most of the time, they did the boss-driver thing and she sat in back, but she’d known Happy for way too long to stick to that when it wasn’t official company business, when they were both just trying to get to a place where they could worry about Tony from a safe distance. Worry about Peter from a safe distance, too, now.

“FRIDAY says they’re both on the ship,” Happy said. 

“They’re too similar,” Pepper said, shaking her head, folding her hands in her lap to hide the trembling. “It’s like they feed off each other.”

“It’s uncanny,” Happy said.

Pepper had to smile. It really was uncanny, but in the best ways. They both had that magnetic pull that let them take control of a room full of people by just taking a deeper breath than usual. They both rambled when they were with people they liked, wanting to share every bit of what was going on in their too-clever brains. They both had that self-sacrificing streak, though, and they really, really fed into each others’ superhero complexes.

“This is a mess,” Happy muttered, mostly to himself. The roads were flooded with people, though it was a crap-shoot every turn whether they’d run into people trying to get away from the spaceship or people standing in place to stare at it. “Get out of the street! Idiots.”

Pepper leaned forward, flicking through radio stations, trying to find a channel that had actual information rather than DJs shouting at each other about aliens.

She gave up on the radio, punching the OFF button hard enough that Happy gave her a sideways look.

Did that thing just go back to space?” she asked, leaning forward to try to get a better look. She’d just glanced over at Happy to return the stink-eye when she’d seen it behind his head, the donut ship rising above the city.

Happy slammed on the brakes, only mostly pulling off to the side of the road. People honked, but Pepper didn’t care.

“That DJ guy just said that Iron Man had been spotted chasing it up,” Happy said, staring out the window even though all they could see of the ship was a crescent-shaped glint in the sky. “Going after Spider-Man.”

Pepper’s hands shook as she unlocked her phone, calling Tony. She had no idea what she was going to say to him.

“Tony? Oh my God, are you alright?” she asked. She had butterflies in her guts—she hadn’t expected the call to actually connect. “What’s going on?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I just think, uh, we might have to push our 8:30 res.”

“Why.”

She knew why.

“Just because I’ll probably not make it back for a while.”

“Tell me you’re not on that ship.”

“Yeah.”

God, no. Please tell me you’re not on that ship.”

“Honey. I’m sorry.”

“Come back here, Tony, I swear to God. If you don’t come back here right now—”

She didn’t have to come up with a consequence to threaten him with, though, because the call dropped. There was no static, just silence.

She pulled the phone away from her ear, glaring at it, wanting to cry.

Not dropped. The call timer was still ticking

Come back,” she said as clearly as she could. “Tony?”

The phone beeped.

CALL ENDED

“Potts, I’ve lost Boss,” FRIDAY said from the phone’s speakers. The distress in the AI’s voice made it all hit home. Her throat felt… wobbly. Wet. “I can’t connect. I’ve lost Boss.”

“Tony?” Pepper said again, but the screen still said CALL ENDED and she knew he couldn’t hear her. He was on a spaceship and it had left the planet pointed toward deep space, and even Stark satellites couldn’t maintain that connection.

Chapter Text

“Last chance,” May said as Happy turned into the teachers’ lot at Midtown. “You sure you don’t want to homeschool to finish off high school? Find something online?”

“I’m sure,” Peter said for what felt like the hundredth time.

Happy had sat them down and laid out options, everything from pulling Peter out of school entirely to sending him to some fancy boarding school that catered to high profile families. (Elinor had texted him; her parents had withdrawn her from Midtown over the weekend while Peter had still been missing. They whole family was moving to New Hampshire, and her new school had a strict uniform policy. She hadn’t decided how she felt about it yet.)

May had wanted him to finish things from home and enroll in college even earlier than he’d already planned to, hoping that he’d be able to be a little more anonymous at a new school. Tony had said he didn’t care what Peter did just so long as Happy could be with him every second that he was in a public place

It had been a very long conversation.

In the end, they’d settled on something close to a compromise. Peter would finish out the semester at Midtown with Happy there as his bodyguard, and he’d enroll in summer courses at NYU as planned (again with Happy as a shadow). No more field trips. He’d spend most of his time at home, at school, at SI–NY, or at the compound. He’d always have his webshooters with him, as well as his souped-up watch and phone, and if Happy said he had to leave a place Peter had to follow along no matter what.

Spider-Man activities were completely on hold. That had been the hardest part for Peter, but it had been the one thing May and Tony had agreed on.

Peter got out of the car and followed Tony toward the side entrance to the building.

“Hey,” MJ said, stopping a few steps away from him, both hands gripping her crossbody purse strap so tightly that her knuckles were white.

“Hey,” Peter said.

“You good?”

“Sure.” Peter shrugged. “You?”

She shrugged, hands twisting the strap of her bag.

He sort of wanted to hug her. She wasn’t big on being touched, but she really looked like she wanted to hug him too. He stuck his hands in his pockets and stood next to her instead, watching as May and Tony greeted her mom, step-dad and dad. MJ stepped closer to him and bumped his shoulder with hers.

“Let’s get this show on the road, hm?” MJ’s mom said, her smile strained.

“It has been a full week of all three of them together and no fighting,” MJ said. “It’s starting to freak me out.”

Peter smothered a snort, falling into step with her as they followed the adults into the school. (Happy led the way, eyes roving ahead like he was expecting Central Casting Thug to jump out at them with a knife. Peter found the hyper vigilance weirdly comforting.)

The school had organized a meeting for everybody that had been on the field trip and their families. It had been a full week and most of the students had already been back in class, but everybody would be returning on Monday and so Principal Morita had felt compelled to get them all together and talk about security updates, new policies, updates from the bus company the school contracted with. There was a slide show, and Morita gave a short speech. Mr. Scott, a handful of other teachers, and the guidance counselor were there.

“You still think this will work?” May asked Happy after the official bits were done and everybody was just standing around in the auditorium chatting.

“The school has solid security measures in place,” Happy said. “And he won’t be leaving school without me. So this will work.”

“Happy, you’re going to be so bored,” Peter said, continuing his campaign to be allowed to actually attend classes without Happy at the back of the room. “So, so bored.”

“I’m real good at bored, kid,” Happy said.

“Hey,” Tony said, trying to look scandalized. “Are you insinuating that I did not keep you entertained?”

“You really don’t want me to answer that,” Happy said, and May laughed.

Peter’s spidey-sense twinged. Not an immediate threat sort of twinge, but a something-is-amiss sort of twinge.

“What’s wrong?” Tony asked, stepping closer to Peter’s side. They’d ended up against one wall of the auditorium, away from most of the crowd, unofficially waiting to walk out with MJ and her parents.

“I don’t know,” Peter said, looking around the room out of the corners of his eyes.

“Something up?” Happy asked, all the levity gone as he took up a more security guard sort of posture, taking a few steps to put himself physically between Peter and the rest of the auditorium.

“Just a… twinge,” Peter said. Nothing seemed wrong. Most of his peers were on their phones, killing time while their parents talked to each other. Flash’s mom had the guidance counselor cornered. “A persistent twinge.”

“You guys might want to bounce,” MJ said, stepping around Happy and holding her phone out toward Peter just as Tony’s phone started to ring.

“What?” Peter asked, noticing only after he’d read the headline on her phone that all his classmates had stopped scrolling and were staring at him.

BREAKING: INTERN TO INHERIT STARK INDUSTRIES

“It’s Pepper,” Tony said as he answered his phone. Then, rather than saying ‘hello,’ he said, “Just saw it.”

“Are you still at the school?” Pepper asked.

“It’s Pepper,” Peter told Happy when he looked over, eyebrows drawn together.

“Yeah,” Tony said. “We’re leaving, though.”

Happy nodded, glancing at the headline as he took the phone from Peter and handed it back to MJ.

“What’s going on?” May asked.

“Leak,” Happy said. He put a hand on Peter’s shoulder and started moving him toward the nearest door.

“Text me later, okay?” MJ said.

 

In the time it took to get from the school to Tony’s penthouse, the story exploded.

Bigger than the blurry shots outside Delmar’s, bigger than any chatter he’d ever stirred up with Instagram, bigger even than the buzz a few days ago when SI had issued a statement about the kidnapping.

“I’m gonna take May over to Queens so she can pack some stuff,” Happy said. “You two stay here. You hear me, Tony? Stay here. Peter, make sure he stays here.”

“Uh. Sure,” Peter said.

May and Happy left. Tony hung up with Pepper a moment later, and he had FRIDAY pull up holograms on the far wall so he could begin tracking down the source of the leak. Peter couldn’t tell if he was worried or pissed or some combination of both.

Peter sat on the couch, half listening to Tony and FRIDAY, but mostly watching it all bubble over. His phone had yet to stop popping up notifications from all his social media, and the calls and texts had been just as steady. He’d had to find himself a StarkPad to be able to scroll through the headlines.

The story was on all the major networks, all the major platforms, and every minor one Peter had ever heard of, too.

“They got hold of the adoption,” Peter said, watching it begin to dominate the hashtags.

“What? How?”

“Oh, nope,” Peter corrected, clicking on one of the posts at random and scanning the article. “They’re speculating that I’m your secret illegitimate kid from your party days and the internship was a red herring.”

“SI will put a press release out within the hour,” Tony said. “You’re not going back to school next week.”

“I’m going to have to go eventually,” Peter said.

“Nope. I’m buying a bunker and putting you in it until the world forgets who you are,” Tony said. “Actually, I might already own a bunker. I’ll have to ask Pepper.”

“I’m going to school on Monday,” Peter said. It wasn’t so much that he wanted to open himself up to all the attention, not to mention stress everybody out, but he had less than a full month of the school year left; it was going to be his last full-time semester at Midtown with his friends, and stupid as it was he wanted to have that time.

“No,” Tony said. “You’re not.”

“Why not, though?” Peter set the StarkPad aside and crossed his arms, glaring up at Tony. “Happy says the security is good. The press can’t get in, and even if it did he’s going to be right there with me.”

“Because teenagers are awful,” Tony said, crossing his arms and glaring right back. “They’re going to be right there in your face being awful, and they all have video cameras right in their pockets.”

“I’m a teenager,” Peter said. “So I’m awful? Gee, thanks, Tony.”

“Don’t try me with that shit. You know what I’m saying,” Tony said, not even blinking. “They’re all going to want to be your friend, and—”

“Give me a little more credit than that,” Peter interrupted. “I know who my friends are.”

“And if they don’t get what they want from you,” Tony continued, “they’ll make up whatever story gets them the attention they want. And the world will eat it up, because they always do. And then all of a sudden, your whole narrative is whatever these jealous teenagers want to say about you on flipping Twitter.”

“So what? So what?” Peter asked, throwing his hands up as he stood, tired of craning his neck to look up at Tony. “Haven’t you weathered that much and worse? For your whole life? Do you not think I can handle it? Why even put me on the paperwork, then, huh? It was inevitable that it would hit the press eventually, and the stocks are going to tank because I’m just some kid with a quirky Instagram. And apparently you’re pretty sure my stupid teenaged peers are all out to slander me for their own gains, so—”

“It’s not about handling it,” Tony said, gesturing just as wildly as Peter. “It’s about unnecessary risks. Yeah, I’ve been living in this particular fishbowl my whole life, but I was lucky enough that social media wasn’t a thing—”

“Oh, so you’re saying I’m inevitably going to do something stupid and somebody will blast it across—”

“I’m saying whether you go to the party or not, some kid is going to say you went to the party. And you’re pretty well associated with me, so you know exactly where that will lead—”

“What party? What are you talking about with this hypothetical party?”

“Forget the party. What I’m saying is you go back to school and every little thing is open to interpretation by the masses.”

“It’s like that anyway, Tony.”

“Well, I’m sorry for wanting to shield you from just a little bit of it for just a little bit longer,” Tony said. He’d dropped his arms to his sides, squared his shoulders. He looked like he wanted to pace while he ranted, but he was rooted to the spot staring Peter down instead.

“How the fuck will staying away shield me from anything?” Peter asked. “It will only generate more rumors, give people more to talk about.”

“They’re going to talk anyway," Tony said.

“Exactly!”

"It's not just about rumors or slander or attention, Peter—”

“Well you can’t ground me from school—”

“You were, just a week ago, kidnapped. Taken. Drugged. Shot. We have no real idea who did it, and too many ideas why. You could’ve been killed. You could’ve wound up in—I don’t even want to think about how bad it all could’ve gotten,” Tony said. He clenched his left fist, rubbing at the wrist with his opposite hand. “And some teenager looking to get a little attention could make it really easy for something like that to happen again.”

“Happy is going to be with me. We’ve already been over all this! Literally ad nauseum. To the point of nausea. I’m so sick of—”

“Yeah. Well." Tony shrugged, dismissive. "Things have changed since we went over it.”

But nothing has changed!”

“You’re staying home,” Tony said. “It’s final. Not up for discussion.”

“You’re not my father, Tony.”

The hell I’m not!”

Chapter Text

Peter had gone to his room, and the only thing that kept him from slamming the door was that it would have been too damned clichéd. He tossed his phone on the bed—it was still off the rails with incoming alerts, so he couldn’t even text Ned like he wanted to—and sat on the floor, leaning back against the footboard.

“I’m sorry,” he said when Tony knocked almost exactly a minute later. He didn’t look up, but Tony came in anyway, sitting on the floor next to him and leaning back against the bed. He’d brought a StarkPad with him, and he folded his hands over it, tapping a fingertip against the edge of the case. “I know you’re just trying to keep me safe.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Tony said. “I shouldn’t have freaked out on you like that.”

“I don’t understand what you want me to do,” Peter said. He stared at his knees. “You’re right. People are going to want things from me they didn’t before. But that’s why I want to stay at Midtown. I already know people; I have friends there. And we had a plan.”

“We did have a plan,” Tony said.

“But?”

Tony sighed and moved the StarkPad between them, unlocking the screen to show a video file already queued up.

“This was the first ransom video they sent,” he said, tilting the screen so Peter could see it.

The camera quality was poor, and the audio was scratchy, but the point was abundantly clear. Peter was on his knees at the center, a dark pillowcase over his head, a car battery clutched in his hands. The wife beater was as filthy and stained as he remembered. He was surrounded by men with bandanas or scarves or ski masks hiding their faces.

One of the men pulled the pillowcase off his head. The Peter in the video looked unwell; he was pale, and the dampness from the water they’d used to rouse him made him look all sweaty and clammy. He stared blearily at the camera, clutching the car battery while the man who’d taken the pillowcase read ransom demands off a sheet of notebook paper.

“And this,” Tony said, queuing up another video once the first finished, “was sent after they’d taken me in Afghanistan.”

The video was eerily similar. Beyond eerily—the people who had staged Peter’s video had clearly deliberately reproduced Tony’s ransom video. The men behind him had bigger guns than the ones in Peter's video, and he had bloody bandages on, but the staging was almost exact otherwise. No car battery, though, either.

“That video was never released,” Tony said, setting the StarkPad aside once the second video finished. “Actually, the only way to find it is if somebody pulls my file and actually has the clearance to see everything in it.”

“How did they recreate it, then?”

“Exactly.”

Peter frowned.

“I’m not suggesting you never go back to Midtown,” Tony said. “I’m asking for a week to figure out where the leak came from, what the intent was. A week to make sure you—and Happy, and your friends—will be safe. Because there are a lot of unknowns floating around right now, and every new detail just makes things worse.”

Peter nodded, and Tony relaxed fractionally.

“Why did they have me hold the car battery?” Peter asked, and Tony tensed up all over again.

“I hadn’t come up with something more portable yet,” Tony said after the briefest of hesitations, tapping his chest lightly where the arc reactor used to be.

“Fuck,” Peter said. Tony huffed a laugh.

“Yeah, it wasn’t a great time,” he said. “Which is why I flipped my shit when they sent me the video.”

Chapter Text

“SI survived shutting down the weapons division and Iron Man within a year of each other, it’ll survive this,” Tony said. “Besides, once everybody gets over the shock they’ll actually look at the information on you on the SI website and see that you’ve been involved and you’re competent.”

"What information on the SI website?" Peter asked. "There's, like, a link to Instagram."

"Dot's flying in from Malibu on Tuesday," Tony said. "Pepper wants some good photos, and then PR is going to put together a bio for you. I think Pep has me doing interviews about you all day tomorrow. It'll be good."

Peter wasn’t so sure, but he didn’t say so. He’d spent most of Saturday on the couch with May, sitting there in their pajamas watching it all play out on live TV. Pepper and Tony had held a press conference at SI–NY, confirming the broad strokes of the leak and adding a few details about Peter’s work at SI. It had somehow made the business talk shows quiet down about SI stock values but it had only stirred up more interest in Peter’s involvement with the company and Peter’s proximity to Pepper and Tony—nobody had missed the fact that he and May were staying at Tony’s Manhattan penthouse.

 

I THINK YOU BROKE FLASH, MJ texted him Monday morning.

PP: WHAT?

MJ: IT’S LIKE HE WANTS TO SAY YOUR INTERNSHIP WAS BULLSHIT

MJ: Y’KNOW. LIKE HE DOES

MJ: AND THEN HE CHOKES ON IT

Peter snorted.

PP: IT’S WEIRD, HUH?

MJ: IT’S MAGNIFICENT

Peter felt like he’d stood up too fast. He smiled stupidly at his phone, scrolling back through their old texts and taking a moment to be glad that he’d met Michelle Jones and that she’d let him be her friend.

And if his stomach fluttered and his hands got sweaty sometimes when he talked to her, that was nobody’s business but his. And probably hers, too, but he wasn’t ready to broach that just yet.

 

Tuesday, Dot met them in Pepper's office bright and early with a whole team of people. She put them in all black—Peter and Tony in black suits with black shirts, and Pepper in a black dress and black blazer. There were three photographers, hair and makeup people, a guy who adjusted random things in the rooms to make it all more photogenic or something.

“I don’t know what to do with my hands,” Peter said half an hour into the photo-taking.

“Just do whatever you normally do,” Dot said, not looking up from the StarkPad where the photographers' cameras uploaded each shot after it was taken.

“I don’t normally stand in one place making expressions,” Peter muttered. Tony snorted.

“Let’s do a few just Peter and Pepper,” Dot said. “And then we’ll move to the next location.”

“There’s more locations?” Peter said, and Tony was the only one that laughed.

 

Peter spent most of Wednesday on the classwork he’d been missing. He sat at Tony's desk in the workshop office area while Tony worked on whatever it was he was working on—he’d started off building something, but then he’d ended up on the couch with the laptop he seemed to prefer to use to write code.

“Well, shit,” Tony said, voice cutting through the sudden quiet after he’d muted the music.

“What?” Peter said, clicking ‘send’ on yet another essay assigned as make-up work.

“Janice Rushbrook.”

“Am I supposed to know who that is?”

“I figured out why the guys who attacked SI–NY went for HR,” Tony said. “They were digging for dirt. Finding out who had access to better dirt.”

“What?” Peter asked, not following.

He spun around in the office chair, and Tony waved at one of FRIDAY’s cameras—a hologram flickered to life displaying the personnel file of Janice Rushbrook. The day Peter had been kidnapped had been her last day with the company, but before that she’d worked in Records; she’d had access to only enough information to know that paperwork had been filed by Tony and Pepper naming Peter their heir. 

“Janice Rushbrook,” Tony repeated.

“So the drones were, what, a red herring?” Peter asked.

“Possibly,” Tony said. “Possibly you just took care of them before they got to whatever they’d intended to do here in the workshop.”

Peter scowled, looking at the employee photo of the woman who had added another level of weird to the mess that was his life. She was very normal-looking.

Nothing much had come of the investigation into the people who had attacked SI–NY. There had been four arrests, and all four of the guys had said they were after tech without being able to say which project they'd wanted or even what sort of tech.

And they’d never found anything even though they’d stripped the drones down entirely. FRIDAY had scanned every single component, but the best they’d found were spots where serial numbers had been meticulously removed. The weapons were modifications on Chitauri tech, like something Toomes had been selling, but the propulsion systems were repulsor-based like the Avengers’ quinjets, and that was Stark tech.

“Pep’s meeting the lawyers right now,” Tony said. “At the very least, Janice is in violation of her severance agreement. You know, the bits in the retirement package where we ask people not to spill company secrets and endanger minors.”

“You’re thinking she had something to do with the kidnaping?” Peter asked. “Maybe the newspapers weren’t first people she told.”

“I don’t know yet,” Tony said. He waved for FRIDAY to get rid of the personnel file, settling back into the couch with his laptop. “Still looking into it.”

 

It was decided that Peter could go back to school on Thursday. As far as anybody could tell, the leak hadn’t been a threat so much as really poor timing. (Not that there was a good time for somebody to break a confidentiality agreement.)

Nobody had been able to find Rushbrook, and that was nerve-wracking, but Happy and the school and May and Tony had all agreed that putting off a return to Midtown wouldn’t really help anything.

 

Peter had thought he’d been prepared for the staring, the phone cameras pointed at him, even the weirdness of having Happy walk down the school hallways with him. But...

His spidey-sense tingled all day, and Happy had to physically cut a path through the hall to get to first period. The table he usually shared with just Ned and MJ at lunch had been packed with people just staring at him as he ate. And somebody at school had posted on social media that he was back, so there were paparazzi waiting on the other side of the school fence at the end of the day.

“They’ll lose interest eventually, right?” Peter asked Happy after they’d made it back to the car.

Chapter Text

The last day of his sophomore year had been an easy day, really. A sort of check-in day.

Attendance had been taken, final grades given out, a few teachers had recommended various summer clubs or camps or other things and helped people sign up. Peter had had a meeting with the guidance counselor about the “very ambitious” schedule Tony had helped him set up.

He’d been looking forward to the challenge before the whole kidnapping thing, but after it was like the only salvation on the horizon. Everybody was just so weird about it all. He hadn’t been the only one taken (even though he’d been missing for the longest) and he hadn’t been the only one sent back to school with a bodyguard, but he was the only one associated with Iron Man, and the only one who’d been announced as heir to Stark Industries. And everybody was really weird about it.

His new schedule of classes would keep him too busy to fixate on people being weird. And if people in his summer courses recognized him (which of course they would), at least he hadn’t known them for years; he’d gotten pretty good at ignoring the eyes of strangers.

That was what he’d been telling himself anyway. Tony had managed to get through school with all that attention, so Peter could do it too.

“We are celebrating,” May told him when she met him out front. All the other parents/guardians/whoever were in cars, but she’d taken the subway; Happy’s car was parked in the teacher’s lot around back.

“Yeah?” Peter asked.

“C’mon,” Happy said gruffly, ignoring their chatting and the waves from Peter’s classmates (mostly from people who never would’ve given him a second look before he was a little bit Instagram famous) and directing them around the side of the school to where he’d parked. Tony said Happy had threatened to quit if he’d assigned anybody else to body guarding Peter, but mostly he seemed bored out of his brain.

“I got an email this afternoon,” May said, ignoring Happy’s stern look and smiling brightly at them both. “4.7 GPA on top of everything else you’ve been managing. We’re celebrating.”

They went to an Italian place. It wasn’t a fancy place, but it was authentic and absolutely delicious. Apparently, it was where Ben had taken her for their first date, which was kind of cool.

Happy chose their booth and insisted on sitting so that he had a view of both the front door and the door to the kitchen. And it seemed to stress him out that he couldn’t keep an eye on the bathrooms, too.

YOU SURE HAPPY SHOULD BE WORRYING THIS MUCH ALL THE TIME? Peter texted Tony while they were waiting for their entrees. HE’S SUPER STRESSED. WHAT IF HIS HEART EXPLODES

Tony didn’t text back, probably because he was stuck at a gala fundraiser dinner thing. He’d been complaining about it forever.

The food was amazing and the waiter barely blinked when May ordered him a second helping.

They talked about how he’d managed to buoy his grade in Econ with an absurd amount of extra credit to make up for the tardies (it had been his first class of the day). They talked about Ned and MJ’s summer plans. They talked about Peter’s ever-expanding role at SI.

It was late when they left the restaurant. Everything was busy, crowds gathering outside hot spots for evening entertainment, all the patio dining lit up and people spilling out into the streets. It was great.

Happy walked them up to the apartment as always, doing a sweep before he left for the night. May made him take the leftover tiramisu.

Peter was sure they’d been flirting. He didn’t know how he felt about it, but it was really funny to see Happy look pleased and wrong-footed, and it was really nice to see that sparkle in May’s eyes. It was a sad sort of sparkle, but it was there.

They crashed on the couch, watched a movie.

Peter had been drifting in and out, starting to fall asleep, when his spidey-sense went off. His Peter Tingle, as May called it.

He sat bolt upright, looking around for the source. All was quiet. They were home, the door was locked. There hadn’t been a single ping from any of the security cameras Tony had set up (and there were more than just the one watching their door that they’d started with). He couldn’t hear anybody in the hall outside or out on the fire escape. He couldn’t see a single thing to suggest imminent danger—they hadn’t left the oven on or anything.

“May,” he said, quietly but intently, shaking her shoulder gently. They’d been cuddled up mostly asleep and she’d just shifted back against the couch a bit more when he’d sat up. “May, wake up.”

May didn’t stir. His spidey-sense was screaming at him.

“May?”

He didn’t routinely focus on peoples’ heartbeats. It was weird. If they knew he was doing it, it made them uncomfortable.

But when he focused in on May’s heartbeat, it was wrong somehow. Not the normal steady background noise he was used to.

The rhythm wasn’t right. It was too quiet. Fluttery and irregular.

He tried to wake her again, called her name, shook her. She stirred a little bit, opened her eyes and mostly managed to focus on him in a sleepy blurry sort of way. She smiled at him. Then she stopped breathing.

“May!”

He did CPR. Tony had made him get certified when he’d decided to go all-in on the mentor thing. Tony kept all sort of certifications and permissions to operate as Iron Man (most of them weren’t actually required; he just held himself to that standard, or maybe Pepper did), and there were a few he’d wanted Peter to do as well.

“Plus, it’s just good to know,” he’d said. “Just in case.”

Peter had had to use the knowledge a few times in the last year. He hadn’t actually had to do CPR, but it had been good to know about things like the recovery position and basic first aid stuff so he knew what to tell EMTs or the nurses at check-in or something when he came across somebody who needed medical attention.

“EMTs,” he muttered to himself, switched from rescue breathing to chest compressions. He almost hesitated to stop CPR in order to call 911, but the alternative was not having any help coming.

He told them what had happened, gave them the address. The lady on the line was calm, repeating things back to him so he knew he hadn’t spouted off nonsense. He wasn’t panicking yet, but he knew it was coming. It was hovering in the air around him just waiting for the EMTs to get there so he could completely lose it. Like when he’d been kidnapped and he’d waited until he’d been safely back at the Avengers compound, in his own bed under his own comforter.

At her last check-in, they’d said she had weeks, probably even months. Maybe, maybe, a year.

It couldn’t—it had only been a few days.

The EMTs arrived roughly an eternity later. Peter had alternated between compressions and rescue breathing, letting the lady on the phone (she’d had him put her on speaker) talk him through it even though he knew what to do.

They checked her, exchanged a look Peter didn’t want to decipher. One of them took over compressions even though he wasn’t tired. They talked low and fast, evaluating May, seeming to get information out of her that was incomprehensible to him.

Her heart was beating on its own less than a minute later, though. They put her on a backboard, had a mask thing over her mouth so they could use a bag to breathe for her. Her eyelids fluttered, like REM sleep, but she didn’t wake up.

“You’ll want shoes,” one of the EMTs told him gently when he tried to follow them out into the hall in his socks.

“Right,” Peter said. That panic was still hovering around the edges, slightly less urgently since there were authorities present and her heart was beating on its own. He could hear it.

Peter put on shoes, made sure he had his phone and wallet. He grabbed May’s purse, because they’d need her insurance card and ID at the hospital. (He tried not to remember sitting in the ambulance with her after the car crash, hanging onto her purse like it was a goddamn comfort object.) He locked the door behind them.

The ride to the hospital was horrible. He couldn’t follow what the EMTs were talking about. He hoped it was a good sign that they were racing through traffic, lights flashing and siren blaring. He did as best he could to block the cacophony out, just focus on May’s heartbeat.

They arrived and it was all a rush again. Hard to follow.

He held May’s hand for as long as he could. They went down a long hall, the EMTs shouting medical jargon at the doctors who rushed out to meet them, and then Peter was told he’d have to wait. He wanted to fight them. Physically, there wasn’t anything they could do to stop him following wherever they were taking her, but there was a nurse in navy scrubs with a clipboard and he’d remembered to bring May’s purse.

It was too loud in the waiting area. Too many people, too many beeping and whirring machines. It was hard to focus. The nurse had to ask him the same questions two or three times before he managed to formulate the proper responses.

And then, a different nurse led him to a private room. She said something about a plan on file with the hospital. An end-of-life plan.

Peter wanted to fight it, fight about it, but it was pointless. May was dying, had known she was dying, had been dying for a while; the hospital wouldn’t perform extreme medical procedures to eke out a few more days of life that would just leave her miserable. May had said she didn’t want that.

He sat by her bed, held her hand, stared at her face willing her to just wake up. To give him just a few more words. One last smile. Or a frown. Tell him not to do anything stupid.

He just really, truly, desperately wanted more time. Just a little more time. Just a single fucking moment.

It wasn’t how he’d imagined it. Sitting there alone with her. Listening to her breathe.

The day before had been perfect. Dinner at her favorite spot, the happy memories of Ben all around them, that weirdly sweet potential with Happy hanging there too, the last day of school cheer.

But.

The last movie she’d watched had been Ghostbusters.

The original Ghostbusters, so of all possible movies hardly a bad choice. One of her favorites, actually. But, just… seriously. Ghostbusters.

The last time she’d seemed coherent, she’d smiled at him. So that was nice.

But she’d also seemed scared and alone after that. Confused. Hurting.

Peter picked up her hand and pressed his lips to the back of it. He had no idea if she could even feel it. She had an IV feeding in drugs for the pain, and they’d probably make everything else fuzzy too.

“I’m here, May,” Peter said, pressing his cheek to the back of her hand, leaning over her bed so that he could prop his elbows up on the mattress. “I love you. I’m here. You aren’t alone for this.”

A hateful little voice at the back of his mind reminded him that he was the one who would be alone. She’d be gone and she was the last of his family, the last tie he had to his parents no matter how messed up it seemed like they’d been.

He made a deliberate choice not to think about Dr. Fitzpatrick from the recovered Hydra files.

“Thank you, May,” he said, kissing the back of her hand again. “Before you go, I want you to know that you were wonderful.”

How horrible could his life have been if Dr. Fitzpatrick hadn’t died? If he’d been left in her custody. She would’ve raised him an experiment. He would’ve been tested and examined, probably killed for dissection at some point.

But instead he’d ended up with May. May and Ben. Wonderful not-parents. Some of the best people he’d ever met. Ever.

“Everything is going to be okay,” he told her, but he wasn’t sure which one of them needed to hear it more. “I love you, Aunt May.”

He’d swear, later, that she squeezed his fingers just the tiniest bit before she passed. He wasn’t sure if she could have in the state she was in, but he was sure she had. If anybody could will their way past morphine and fucking cancer to try to offer him even the barest hint of comfort, it was May Parker.

She went quiet. There were no dramatic, rattling final breaths. No blood, no seizures, no rushing of doctors or screaming alerts from machines.

One moment she was alive, the next moment she wasn’t.

Peter set her hand back against her leg, smoothed the blanket. He sniffed, wiped a tear off his cheek.

He didn’t have to wait even a full minute before the nurse was at the door. It was a different nurse from before, and he realized there’d been a shift change. It still felt like night, but, according to the clock hanging by the door, it was very nearly sunrise.

“I’m so sorry, honey,” the nurse said. She entered the room, did a few things with the machines that had been monitoring May, toggled the switch thing on the IV drip. “Is there somebody that I can call to be here with you?”

He shook his head, tried to smile at her but didn’t really manage it.

“I just need a minute,” he said, turning his eyes back to May.

“Of course, honey.”

May had died.

May was dead.

Peter sort of faded out for a bit. He looked at her, tried to let his eyes go unfocused so that maybe he could believe she was just sleeping, but there was just… She was dead. She was missing from the room even though he was looking at her face.

The nurse checked on him twice—he heard her even though she was quiet and she didn’t do more than crack the door to have a look at him—before the social worker turned up. She was in business casual rather than scrubs, and she had a clipboard, and he knew she was a social worker without reading her ID badge.

He thought he might be sick.

The social worker—Emily, she said to call her—brought him down the hall to a small conference room or a break room or something. Maybe it was a room specifically set aside for bad news. That would be sort of horrible.

“Is there somebody I can call to be here with you?” Emily asked, reiterating the nurse’s question from earlier.

Down the hall, back in May’s room, Peter could hear an orderly collecting her. The nurse had come in with the social worker, pulled the sheet up over May’s face, made some notations. The orderly put up the rails and wheeled May’s hospital bed out of the room, down the hall, past the horrible conference room for aggrieved family members, down to an elevator Peter hadn’t noticed before. He wondered if it was specifically designated for transporting the dead.

The dead.

May had died.

May was dead.

Emily sighed, but so quietly he wouldn’t have heard it if he wasn’t enhanced. She reached for his hand, but he pulled away from the touch and she sat back again.

“Peter. I’m so sorry.”

He nodded. He was sorry too.

“Can I get you anything?” she asked, and he realized he’d been sitting there staring at the table for almost ten full minutes. And she’d just sat with him, not touching him, giving him time. Her eyes were dark, concerned, earnest. He hated it because it was exactly the same tone he’d heard before. That horrible night when Uncle Ben had died. The nurses after the car crash. Even the way Dr. Costa had talked to him after the kidnapping.

And then he was crying. Great, heaving sobs. His whole body shook with them. He folded in half, hands wrapped around himself, trying to hold himself together.

“Peter,” Emily said, softly. She set a bottle of water in front of him and looked like she wanted to rub his back; luckily, his nonverbals were pretty clear on how much he did not want to be touched.

The thought of drinking the water made him want to puke. All he could think about was the bottles so carefully handed to them by the body armor guys. How it had tasted off.

Peter pushed away from the table, lurching to his feet. He sort of wanted to leave the room, find a bathroom, find someplace to hide until… Until. Until he didn’t know what.

He paced the length of the room once. Down and back, then back to his chair. He rested his palms on the tabletop on either side of the water bottle and stared at it like he could make it vanish with mind powers he didn’t have.

What were the chances that the hospital had the exact same brand of generic bottled spring water as a bunch of human traffickers from Missouri?

“Do you have a current number for your uncle, Peter?” Emily asked softly. He looked over at her, snapped out of the water bottle spiral by such a strange question. He frowned at her. “Ben Parker is listed as your aunt’s emergency contact but we seem to have the wrong number in our files.”

“I guess she never changed it,” Peter said. He felt numb. Numb was probably good. Numb meant there wouldn’t be much more crying for a bit. His lungs ached from the crying. “Ben died a few years ago.”

“Oh, honey,” she said again. “Peter, I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah,” Peter said. “Me too.”

She reached for him but thought better of it again and just patted his hand once before shuffling her paperwork.

Peter almost smiled because it was just so May. She’d updated her will, gotten everything together in Peter’s paperwork, arranged the adoption with Tony, got her stupid end-of-life plan on file, signed all sorts of things for Tony and Pepper and Happy and Stark Industries and the Avengers and just… not updated her own emergency contact. Even though she’d been dying for months.

He sniffed, wiped the fresh tears off his cheeks.

“Is there anybody we can call for you?” Emily asked. “Anybody you could stay with while we get this sorted out?”

“Yeah. There’s—” He had to pause to clear his throat before trying again. “She knew she was terminal. There’s guardianship all set up. I guess she just never… Maybe she thought she’d have time to do that later.”

Peter fished his phone out of his pocket. Emily was asking him questions, but he sort of had tunnel vision going on and his ears were buzzing and he felt like the world had started spinning the wrong way and he just had to…

“Hey, kid,” Tony said, picking up right away. Peter had left the phone on the table and put it on speaker, not trusting himself not to drop the thing if he tried to hold it up to his ear. Emily seemed to recognize the voice but didn’t seem to be able to place it. It would’ve been funny any other day. “I promise you don’t need to worry about Happy so—”

“I need you to come get me,” Peter said. His voice cracked and broke at the end, not quite a sob. “P-please.”

“What’s wrong, Peter?” Tony asked. His tone had changed from easy, joking, to concerned and deadly serious.

Peter wobbled, and then he was crying again. Emily reached over and picked up the phone, turned off the speakerphone and started talking quietly. Her name, the hospital name. She told him about May, and Peter was glad he didn’t have to be the one to say it.

It ended up being about half an hour. A very confused (and a bit starstruck) receptionist brought him in. For his part, Tony was less than interested in what the receptionist or Emily might be thinking and more focused on Peter.

Peter saw the moment Emily recognized them. The “oh that Peter Parker” moment. It was a nice distraction from the rest of it.

“Pete,” Tony said as soon as the receptionist opened the door, and Peter immediately started crying again.

Tony took over. He seemed to be asking all the right questions, questions Peter would never have thought to ask. He kept a hand on the back of Peter’s neck, bracing, anchoring him even when he felt… untethered.

“It’s not—Is this real?” Peter asked. He only realized he’d interrupted the two of them when they went quiet. “Tony…?”

“Can I take him home?” Tony asked, gesturing at Emily’s paperwork spread across the table in front of them. “He’s my kid. I've been legal guardian for ages, and the adoption is pending. You’ve got the paperwork. You’ve got May’s documentation saying how she wanted this part to play out. Do you need me to sign something? We can come back tomorrow with the lawyers and finish it all off, I just—”

“That will be fine,” Emily said, glancing between them.

Tony filled out one last form, giving her his contact information and arranging a time to come in for whatever paperwork was left.

“Alright, Pete. Ready?” Tony asked. “Did you have anything else with you?”

“I. Um.” Peter looked around the room, but he wasn’t sure why; it wasn’t like he’d brought his backpack along or something. “May’s purse.”

It was on one of the chairs. Tony looped it over his shoulder, took hold of Peter’s elbow, and then they were moving. Tony had driven his usual flashy car, and there were a few people lingering to admire it.

Peter’s heart dropped down into his stomach.

“Move,” Tony said. It was his authoritative Iron Man voice, not his Tony Stark In Public voice. “Back off.”

They did as he said, parting like the Red Sea. Tony angled his shoulders to put himself between Peter and the strangers, but they all seemed too surprised to even have their cameras up.

They were just random people passing by, though. No paparazzi.

“What happens now?” Peter asked. It felt like it should be the middle of the night or at least raining or something, but it was a perfectly nice summer morning. Sunshine, blue skies.

“Now we go home. You take a shower. I make us breakfast.”

“Okay,” Peter said, mostly because he had no idea what else to say.

They did as Tony said. They went home. Peter stared at the spot on the couch, the blanket they’d been cuddled under. Tony grabbed him and hugged him, kissed the side of his head, held onto him until he was finally so wrung out there just weren’t any more tears.

Peter showered, and when he finished Tony had breakfast waiting. Omelets stuffed with spinach and peppers and onions.

It smelled delicious, but he ate it mindlessly. He knew he needed it, his metabolism would churn through it all, but he didn’t really taste it.

“What happens now?” Peter asked again once the food was gone.

“Nap? You were up most of the night.”

“I don’t think I could sleep.”

“Okay,” Tony said. He’d started on the dishes. Peter felt like he should probably help, but he couldn’t quite get himself to move. “You don’t have to do anything today, Peter.”

“Isn’t there—Shouldn’t I—?” Peter looked over at the couch again. Tony had put the blanket away while he was showering. “Her—we need to bury her. And… do I have to do something with—something to collect her… body?”

Tony rinsed his hands and left the dishes half done in the sink, frowning.

“We can start on that,” he said. “You can take some time, though, Peter.”

“I just… I don’t like the thought of her in the hospital morgue. I know she’s… I know it doesn’t matter to her anymore, but I don’t like that she’s alone.”

“Alright,” Tony said. He sat down next to Peter again. He didn’t quite seem to know what to do with his hands, and for some reason that was totally absurd. He was Tony Stark; he always knew what to do.

“They said it was supposed to be weeks, Tony,” Peter said miserably. “Months.”

“I know,” Tony said. He scooted closer so he could put an arm across Peter’s shoulders and pull him into a weird seated half-hug thing. “I know.”

“I don’t know where to start. Do I have to tell people? People should know, right? And Ned doesn’t know. Happy—Happy should know; he’d want to know right away,” Peter said. He wiped his nose on the cuff of his sweatshirt. “What about the cemetery people? Do I have to rent a truck or a hearse or something?”

“The hospital will have contact info for the mortuary, and if they don’t FRIDAY can find it for us. That’s part of the paperwork we have to go back for tomorrow, signing to release her body to them for cremation or burial,” Tony said. “You don’t have to do anything today.”

“She had a plot at the cemetery picked out,” Peter said. “Next to Ben.”

“Did she pick out music for her funeral, too?”

“She hated funerals,” Peter said, surprising himself by chuckling. “Really, really hated them. She said the dead person wasn’t using the body anymore so what was the point of gathering around it and staring at it like a bunch of creeps.”

Tony snorted, and Peter smiled at him. It was a watery smile, but it was a smile.

“Ben would always say that the funerals were for the living, for closure. She went the whole nine yards for his funeral. Viewing, eulogies, brunch, gathering a few days later at the cemetery for more eulogies and the burial.” Peter wiped the tears off his cheeks. His whole face felt puffy from all the crying. “And she complained the whole time. Out loud, talking to his ghost or something. And then she’d tell me, ‘don’t you dare drag my corpse though all of this ridiculousness.’”

“Jesus, May,” Tony said, wiping a few of his own tears off his cheeks. He looked like he couldn’t decide if it was okay to let himself laugh about it.

“Yeah,” Peter said, his voice breaking again. “She was the best.”

Chapter Text

Peter had no idea what the adoption process was normally like. As far as it went, when the one doing the adopting was a billionaire and already the adoptee’s legal guardian, and when the legal guardian with custody had been on board, it mostly seemed to be paperwork.

May and Tony had started the whole thing what felt like years ago—before the kidnapping, before the press had a field day about SI, before May—and there had been a lot of forms. Peter had expected way more social workers popping up at odd hours, maybe a day in family court or something.

Late in the afternoon the day after May died, one of Tony’s lawyers brought more paperwork. Some of it was from the hospital for May, but most of it was for finalizing the adoption.

Tony signed everything the lawyer gave him without hesitation or flourish. He made a joke about getting Pepper to co-sign on the adoption with him, and Peter couldn’t decide if he should laugh or not.

Then the lawyer left and Peter closed himself in his room. He wasn’t sure what to do with himself, but he knew he needed some time alone. He sat at his desk and looked at the old electronics he’d been stripping apart in his spare time, his hands automatically going for his tools and beginning to work.

After a few hours, he had a desktop covered in bits of wires and other parts. He didn’t have anything to do with them, since it’d been months since he really did any serious tinkering in his own space—it was always one of Tony’s workshops, fully stocked with no need to fish VCRs out of dumpsters to scrap for parts.

Peter sighed and put away his things. He could hear Tony pacing around the living space, presumably trying to decide if he should keep giving Peter space or if he should check in. Peter really didn’t know which one he’d prefer.

“Hey,” Peter said, shuffling out of his room.

“Hey,” Tony said. Peter hadn’t realized he’d been crying, but the first thing Tony did was brush his thumbs over his cheeks. “Okay?”

Peter shrugged and Tony nodded and it was like that was permission for the floodgates to open. Tony let Peter rest his head on his shoulder, held him tight until he’d cried himself out.

Chapter Text

There was a lot of paperwork.

For some reason, Peter really liked having a stupid checklist of things to work through, plans to make, something to focus on while he tried to keep his head above the waves of emotion that kept crashing down on him. He’d be fine until suddenly he wasn’t.

He’d been looking through music on her laptop, looking for just the right song to play graveside, and he’d known he’d found the right one when he thought he might drown in the sadness of it.

He called Ned. Tony insisted. Peter had wanted to put it off—Ned was in Hawaii with his family until the end of the week—but Tony said it was something he’d want to know, and of course he was right.

And it helped, talking to Ned.

He called MJ, too, and she surprised him by leaving her apartment while she was still on the phone with him so she could come over and give him a hug. She didn’t seem to know what to do with herself once she was over and the hug had been given, and Peter hadn’t known either, but Tony had simply planted her on the couch next to Peter while he made them omelets for dinner. It really was the only thing he could cook, but at least he did it really well.

 

They buried her ashes next to Ben’s a few days after Ned’s family got back to town. Peter had no idea what day it was.

Per May’s wishes, they didn’t have a funeral. They just gathered at the cemetery, Peter played the song, then they put the urn in the ground. He knew there had been people there, a lot of people. He couldn’t have said who, though.

He was pretty sure he remembered MJ holding onto his hand.

There was a wake, if that’s what it was called. Lunch at the apartment after the burial. May had made a playlist for it.

 

Somebody, probably Happy, packed up his things. The whole apartment got packed up, but Peter’s things went to Tony’s penthouse. He’d already had clothes and a computer there, so there were weird duplicates. He had a truly unreasonable number of socks in the drawer. And he very clearly remembered standing in the middle of his room one afternoon staring at the two laptops on his desk, wondering if he was seeing double. Because they were both clearly his laptop even if one was the janky old one he’d repaired a hundred times with parts he’d scavenged from anywhere and everywhere, and the other one was a not-available-for-public-purchase Stark model.

He ate a lot of omelets. Like. A lot of omelets.

He had two summer classes. Tony tried to talk him into dropping them, reworking the schedule, giving himself time. They helped, though. Small, manageable goals. It was easy to sit in classes where nobody knew what was going on with him, where he could just listen to the lecture and leave. Homework was achievable. He could complete it and check it off the list, mark it as progress toward… He couldn’t remember what. Class and homework and tests. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out what subjects he was taking, not even when he sitting in the actual class, but his numbers were all good. Not up to his usual standard, but better than just passing.

He had nightmares. Those were crystal clear. Most of them were about feeling young and lost, wandering around a store looking for May and Ben, interspersed with cold-sweat sorts of things where Tony or Pepper or Happy died too.

 

MJ said his stages of grief were all messed up because he’d had time to mentally and emotionally prepare for the loss.

“Kind of sucks even more that way, though,” she said after she’d told him about a study from some journal he couldn’t remember the name of even right after she told him. “It’s like you do the whole thing twice. Anticipating it and then the actual loss.”

“It does suck,” Peter said.

They were lying on the floor of his room at Tony’s. Well, it was just his room, now. His primary room.

He had a bedroom at Happy’s place, the Avengers compound, Pepper’s place in Malibu. Technically, Tony had taken over the apartment in Queens, too, so his old room was still there. But it was…

They were on the floor in his room. It was a mess, since he’d hardly started sorting through all his stuff, just shoved his clothes in the dresser and dug out his charge cords.

MJ didn’t even seem to notice the mess. She just lay next to him, staring at the ceiling with him. He had a ceiling fan, and it was spinning really slowly even though there was central air.

She was holding his hand again. That was a thing. She did it all the time. He wasn’t sure why, or what it meant, or if it meant something. He was just glad she did it, because it was grounding. And nice.

 

Peter looked up at the sound of repulsors.

“Oh. Um. Hey, Mr. Stark.”

“You okay?” Tony asked, landing on the roof and stepping out of the suit. Peter had gone out as Spider-Man for the first time since it happened, swung around a bit, ended up on the roof of Delmar’s.

“Fine. Yeah.”

“Pete, Karen called me,” Tony said, crouching down next to him. Peter hadn’t realized that he was still sitting cross-legged on the bodega roof. He sort of thought he’d stood up when he heard the repulsors.

“Oh.”

“You’ve been here for nearly three hours,” Tony said. “She got worried.”

“I’m fine,” Peter said. “Nice of her worry, though. Thanks, Karen. You’re the best.”

“I’m here to help, Peter,” Karen said. She wasn’t as advanced as FRIDAY, but she still managed to sound worried.

“I didn’t mean to make anyone worry.”

“You’re shaking, Peter,” Tony said. He had reached out a hand, resting it a little bit on Peter’s shoulder and a little bit against his neck.

“Am I? I’m not cold.”

“Let’s go home, okay?” Tony said. “Can you stand up for me?”

Peter nodded and tried to stand up, but he’d been sitting the same way for so long that his legs had gone completely numb. He stumbled, but Tony caught him.

“I’m going to send you Iron Man Express, okay?” Tony said, already gesturing between him and the suit. “I’ll grab a cab.”

“I can just swing, Tony. I got it.”

Tony didn’t say anything, but he didn’t change the directions he’d given to FRIDAY. The suit closed around Peter, and he didn’t resist. It was a queasy sort of relief to let it take charge, to just be sent back to the penthouse.

He waited on the roof patio, sitting on one of the deck chairs with his mask in his hands. The Iron Man suit stood sentry, FRIDAY keeping an eye on him.

 

Toward the end of the month, his nightmares changed, gave way to something less like a nightmare and more like a really weird recurring dream. Even weirder because he’d had it before—sporadically after his parents died, then for a few weeks after Ben.

It was… a weird fucking dream.

He was in a room. Boring block walls, boring cement floor. In the dream, there wasn’t a door or furniture, but it was one of those dreams where that didn’t seem at all weird. There was just a rug on the floor, and a wall of windows. He knew that he wasn’t allowed to step off the rug, but that wasn’t a big deal because the rug covered almost the whole floor. And he couldn’t see anything out the window because it was very bright in the room and very dark outside, so all he really saw was his reflection. In the reflection, he was a little kid, like back before his parents died. Boxy striped pajamas, bare feet, curly hair. Just standing on the rug, looking at his own reflection, waiting to wake up.

Sometimes, the dream was a little different. The reflection would be slightly warped like there was a flaw in the glass, or his reflection would be wearing different pajamas. Once the reflection was taller and wearing the Spider-Man suit. Once there were two of him in the reflection.

 

Most of the time, Peter felt all dried up. Like he couldn’t feel any more; he didn’t have anything left. And then he’d cry again, or he’d clobber a punching bag until it busted, or he’d sit in Tony’s office and just stare at the wall until Tony insisted he eat or sleep or whatever it was.

Chapter Text

Things came back into focus incrementally.

Tony had him go see a therapist more often than he had been already—the same Accords Committee-approved therapist Tony and Rhodey both talked to—and that helped.

The routine of school and homework, weekends at the compound with Sunday mornings reserved for working on the Ferrari, helped.

Afternoons with Ned and/or MJ helped.

Getting back to SI things helped. (Getting annoyed calls from Alex or Dot became a highlight—neither of them thought Instagram needed quite that much math, and no matter how many times Peter protested that it was just his own Instagram not an SI account, they still called him about what he posted sometimes.)

Doing little things that he’d discussed with May before helped. Things like driving lessons with Happy—planned that way because May never had time and Tony drove like a maniac.

Mostly, just being busy helped. Moving forward.

 

He started going out again as Spider-Man. He stuck to Manhattan even though people always had something to say about why wasn’t he in Queens.

He and Ned took down the Manfredi family. A real, actual crime family. Like in the Godfather.

Ned spent a lot of time doing a Marlon Brando impression in Peter’s ear, and it wasn’t even a good impression.

Tony wasn’t exactly pleased when he found out what had happened, but it had all come together so well that he couldn’t be that mad.

Spider-Man made friends within the police after that, too. More than just grudging point-of-contact people for Ned to send alerts to at each precinct. More than officers who would wave him off rather than try to arrest him on sight. Actual officers of the law who weren’t annoyed on principle when they ran across each other.

It was kind of awesome.

 

After the Manfredis, Tony decided it was time to be more deliberate with Avengers-type training. He already had his lessons with Mr. Young, the boxing with Happy. He’d been given (and memorized) the SHIELD handbook from back when SHIELD had been a thing.

Tony started giving him old mission reports. Avengers stuff, SHIELD stuff. And, every once in a while, Tony would just… ask him questions.

“Okay. That’s your guy,” he’d say, pointing to a random employee in the cafeteria at SI–NY. Lab assistant, by the look of him. He was at a table with other probably-lab assistants, chatting while they ate lunch. “You have to extract him without raising any suspicions. What’s your play?”

And then Peter would have to come up with a plan, and Tony would pick apart the plan, tell him all the ways it sucked, then help him build a better one.

One weekend, Tony handed him schematics and settled in to teach Peter the ins and outs of an arc reactor. The whys, the how, the nuances that had changed since Tony had first miniaturized the technology. It was remarkable tech and had so much potential, and—They didn’t realize they’d been holed up in the workshop for literal days until Pepper stormed in on Monday morning, waving her hands, insisting they shower and go outside, reminding them Peter had an afternoon class and Tony was supposed to be in the city for a patent meeting with Legal.

“God, there’s two of you,” she muttered.

 

Spider-Man and Iron Man teamed up to take on a giant lizard creature that turned out to be Dr. Curt Connors from OsCorp. Apparently, they were still big into genetic modification. It turned into the window various state and federal organizations had been waiting for to raid OsCorp labs.

There was an official inquiry. Norman Osborn swore blue that Tony had personally orchestrated the whole scenario to discredit a rival tech company.

 

By the end of the month, Peter was ready to tackle unpacking. The boxes cluttering up his bedroom were annoying and in the way, he could never find half his stuff…

Yeah. MJ had told him it was part of grief. He didn’t want to unpack because it would mean everything was real and he’d never be going back to the apartment in Queens with May.

It was time, though. His summer classes were almost done, and decathlon competition season was coming up, and he just didn’t have time to go digging through box after box whenever he needed some random thing that should’ve just been in a desk drawer or something.

He made it through most of the stuff before he found the photo albums. They hadn’t been in his room—May had always kept them on one of the bookshelves in the living room—but Happy must’ve put them in with Peter’s things.

Which was nice. It was nice. Pictures were good.

The albums derailed him entirely, though. He’d gotten so much done, put so much stuff away, set aside a box for random stuff to donate. And then there were his baby pictures. Dr. Fitzpatrick. Ben.

“It’s weirdly quiet in there,” Tony called, tapping his knuckles on the door frame. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” Peter said. He closed the album and held it up so Tony could see the front.

Ben had been the photographer of the family, but May had been the organizer—every album had dates written in her loopy handwriting on the front.

“Show me?”

“Sure,” Peter said. It was unexpected, but kind of nice too. Tony didn’t really do pictures around the house. It made sense, what with the paparazzi and magazines doing specials on him and all that. He had maybe six in the penthouse, and Peter was pretty sure Pepper had put them there—two were of Pepper and Tony, there was one of Tony and Rhodey when they were at MIT, the photo Peter and Tony had taken with the internship certificate, and a few others.

The album he’d just opened was from third grade. His and Ned’s potato clock at the science fair. Big, beardy Uncle Ben. Aunt May looking bright and alive like she hadn’t since Uncle Ben had died.

“Look at you,” Tony practically cooed, sitting cross-legged next to Peter on the floor. “You and Ned were practically babies.”

“Ugh, I’m not showing you any more of these,” Peter said, but Tony smiled and pulled the album into his own lap before Peter could close it.

“Look at you with your science fair and your potato clock,” Tony said. “That’s fantastic.”

“Quit making fun of me.”

“I’m not making fun of you! I said it’s fantastic.”

“You’re the worst, you know. The actual worst.”

Tony laughed and turned the page.

“You’re so little,” he said. He almost sounded like he was sad he’d missed Peter’s infancy or something.

“I was the smallest in my class basically until the spider bite,” Peter said. Tony already knew that. They’d talked about it before.

“Look at all the hair.” Tony pointed to Peter’s school photo. He was all ears and curly hair.

“Oh, God, skip to the next album,” Peter said, remembering what came later that year. His Halloween costume, for one. He made a grab for the album, but Tony held on and Peter didn’t want to yank on it too hard and risk breaking it.

“What are you trying to hide, huh?” Tony asked, smiling, scooting around on his butt to keep Peter from grabbing the album again.

“You’ll see.” Peter groaned, sitting back against his bed frame. “It’s so embarrassing.”

Tony scooted around a bit again so he could enjoy Peter’s embarrassment while he flipped through the pages.

The first few were innocuous. Beginning of the school year stuff, him and Ned being goofy, a couple badly-framed shots Peter had taken of May and Ben.

And then Halloween.

He’d been Iron Man that year. Ben had bought a knock-off costume—a plastic helmet and repulsor gloves. And he’d had a t-shirt with a circle screen printed on the chest as an arc reactor.

“Oh, Peter. We’ve got to frame this,” Tony said, smiling, eyes shining. Enjoying it way too much.

“The worst,” Peter repeated.

“You obviously lie,” Tony said, holding up the album, putting his face right next to the picture of Peter in his Iron Man getup. “You like me.”

“I hate you.”

“But you’ve got my merchandise.”

“It’s all knock-offs.”

“It’s the sentiment that counts.”

Peter groaned, and Tony laughed again. But he finally flipped to the next page.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, a few school events. Ned had won some sort of Boy Scout award (Peter had never been in Boy Scouts, but he’d tagged along to a few of Ned’s things).

“Peter,” Tony said, the levity suddenly gone. “What year was this?”

“Uh. I was Iron Man for Halloween in third grade, so that was 2009 -2010 school year.”

“This is the Expo,” Tony said, pointing to one of the pictures. Ben had taken a lot of pictures at the Stark Expo because May had refused to go but he hadn’t wanted her to miss out.

“Yeah,” Peter said. “Ben won tickets at work.”

“But… this was the Expo. Everything went to shit,” Tony said. He flipped the page slowly, looked at Peter with too-wide eyes. “Tell me you weren’t there that night.”

Peter avoided eye contact.

“Peter. Tell me you weren’t there the night Vanko took over Hammer’s drones.”

“Yeah, we were there,” Peter said. “Me and Uncle Ben.”

“You were… okay? You didn’t get hurt? Your uncle didn’t get hurt?” Tony asked. He was gripping the album so hard that his knuckles were white.

“You saved me, actually,” Peter said, looking at anything but Tony. “I’d lost Uncle Ben in the crowd, and then you dropped out of the sky and blasted the drone that was about to blast me. You took off again, and this police officer lady grabbed me, took me to an office building down the street. Aunt May found me there, and then we found Uncle Ben a little bit later. We went to a 24-hour diner and had pancakes.”

“Jesus, Peter, of course that was you,” Tony said. Peter looked at him, surprised; he hadn’t really expected Tony to remember some random kid with all that had been going on. “You know I used to have nightmares about that kid—about you?”

“What? Why?”

“That thing was about to blast you because you were wearing that toy helmet! What if I’d gotten there a second or two later?”

“But you didn’t,” Peter said. “It was actually a really good story at school. Ned was jealous.”

“Ned was jealous. For Christ’s—you and Ned both need to sort out—you could have died, Peter!”

“But I didn’t.” Peter shrugged. “You saved me.”

“Of course it was you,” Tony said again, flipping the page back to look at the photos again. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“There’s not a good way to bring it up, y’know?” Peter said. “What would I say—oh, by the way, remember that time?”

“There you are,” Pepper said from the doorway. She was still dressed for work, but she’d left her shoes somewhere. “What did you find?”

“Peter is trying to kill me and has been since he was in the third grade,” Tony said, snapping the photo album shut and handing it over his shoulder to Pepper.

“What?” she asked, baffled. She took the album, though, and started flipping through. “Oh, aren’t you darling. Look at all that hair.”

Peter groaned.

Tony grabbed another photo album out of the box.

Chapter Text

“Dinner’s at seven,” Happy shouted as Peter headed for the balcony, pulling the Spider-Man mask over his head as he went.

“Got it,” Peter said.

“Seriously, Pete. Seven,” Happy shouted. “Don’t be late.”

“I won’t be late,” Peter shouted back, then jumped off the edge.

The best part about the penthouse—okay, not the best part, but one of the perks—was that it was so high up. He could get in a few seconds of freefall, shoot off a web, and he had enough momentum to get some speed up really quickly. It was great.

He had exactly a week free between the end of his summer classes and the beginning of fall semester, and he was going to take advantage of it. The first of his college-level finals had kicked his butt and it felt like he hadn’t been out to do Spider-Man things in ages.

Almost immediately, some kids flagged him down to take pictures. Which was cool. 

Peter had just begun to build up proper speed again when he almost full-body crashed into an enormous, Thanksgiving parade-style balloon.

“What the hell.” He yanked on his web, barely getting himself high enough in the air to clear the balloon, turning it into a flip and shooting off another web to pull himself to the nearest building before he could run into another balloon. The balloon he’d almost hit was Earth, all blue with cartoony waves and vibrantly green continents. There were others, though. And a crowd below—the street had been blocked off for some sort of festival. “Karen, what’s all this?”

“Quest Aerospace bought OsCorp Industries last week and is holding a celebration of the merge in OsCorp Plaza today,” Karen said.

Peter looked around and realized that he was, indeed, directly across the street from OsCorp headquarters. He hadn’t recognized it with the people out in the street and the balloons. Quest Aerospace had already put their name on the front of the building, too; the old OsCorp sign was nowhere to be seen.

“How’d Mr. Osborn take it?” Peter asked, not bothering to keep the vindictive smile off his face since his expression would be hidden by the mask.

“According to the Daily Bugle, he is expected to announce his resignation this afternoon after the festival.”

Peter had a snarky comment right on the tip of his tongue, but was interrupted by a weird humming whine from down the block.

“What in the—”

It appeared to be some sort of glider. The pilot wore a green suit with a weird-looking helmet, almost crouching on top of the thing.

The crowd below clapped, thinking it was part of the show, but Peter’s spidey-sense disagreed very urgently.

“Look out!” Peter shouted, but he doubted anybody heard him before the guy on the glider threw a glowing orange baseball-sized grenade at the balcony where a bunch of OsCorp and Quest Aerospace executives had been schmoozing.

The balcony freaking fractured.

Peter threw himself toward the OsCorp building, shooting off a web, heading for the balcony to get the people to safety before the whole thing fell the five or six stories down to street level.

The guy on the glider threw another grenade, more yellow than orange this time, and Peter looked at the balcony just in time to see three guys reduced to skeletons. Their flesh literally disintegrated, leaving behind bones and the steel rod that appeared to have been in one of their legs.

Peter attached a web to the balcony railing, anchored it to the building, hoped that would buy the people left on the balcony enough time to get inside, and then got a web on one of the balloons to swing in toward the guy on the glider.

“There he is!” the guy on the glider shouted, voice over-the-top gleeful, mocking.

Peter got a web on one of the adjacent buildings and changed his trajectory, launching himself at the glider. The guy flew off, crashing right through one of the giant balloons—it hissed, releasing air, drifting down toward the crowd. Luckily, the people below had caught on that this wasn’t part of the show and had started screaming rather than clapping, and most of them ran to get out of the way.

Peter kicked off the building, jumping down to street level to grab a kid that hadn’t been fast enough getting clear of the balloon, and then a few police officers who had been in the crowd as event security opened fire on the glider guy. The green suit and the weird helmet seemed to be some sort of body armor, though; nothing got through.

The guy dropped down to street level off the glider, landing right next to one of the officers and punching him hard enough that the cop’s head snapped back at a really unpleasant-looking angle. Peter jumped in to catch the next punch, trying to get a leg in to sweep the guy’s feet out from under him.

Instead, the glider zoomed at him from behind. His spidey-sense gave him enough warning to leap up and stick himself to the building, but that gave the guy the distance he needed to step onto the glider again.

And apparently the thing was weaponized. There were full-on Chitauri-modified gun port thingies on the front.

Peter crawled up the building, leapt for the balloons. The idea was to get the shooting up away from the crowd still desperately trying to clear the street. He could hear people in the upper floors of the adjacent buildings scrambling for cover, though, as the glider’s bullets (or pulses or whatever they were) impacted, chipped away stone, shattered glass.

Peter got a web onto a building across the street and flung himself away from the balloons, hoping if he was out there and visible the glider guy would chase him. He did, but it turned out to be a problem—Peter swung past the balcony that had been the initial strike and the glider shot it up some more. Huge chunks of stone fell away and part of the balcony itself separated from the building. There was just one guy left on it, and he clung to the railing.

The glider guy hit him in the face and it hurt. Like, hurt hurt. And it wasn’t the suit—dude was definitely enhanced.

“Hey, Karen?” Peter said, blocking a second punch and throwing one of his own. The guy swerved out of reach on his glider. “Now might be a good time to call Mr. Stark.”

“Calling Mr. Stark,” Karen said.

“Hey, kid,” Tony said, answering almost immediately. “What’s up? I thought Happy said you were out helping old ladies cross the street and stuff.”

“I am,” Peter said, shooting off another few webs to try to keep the balcony from falling with the guy on it. “Things just got a little bit out of hand here and I could use some help.”

“What happened?” Tony asked, and the call beeped as it switched from Tony’s phone to the Iron Man HUD. “I’ve got your location. I’m less than a minute away.”

“I guess Quest Aerospace bought OsCorp and they’re throwing this party,” Peter said. He gave up on the idea of the guy getting himself off the balcony and grabbed him, tossed him over the railing with a web on his back. It wasn’t until the guy looked up at him from the safety of the sidewalk below that Peter realized it had been Harry Osborn. “This dude on a weaponized glider is making a mess. And he has grenades.”

The glider took another pass, firing the Chitauri guns, making glass rain down on the street. Peter vaulted the railing, grabbing the glider. His weight and momentum hardly made the thing wobble.

The guy on the glider gunned it and the underside of the glider became a very hot place to be, forcing Peter to let go before he could catch a blast from the propulsion system right in the face.

“What is your problem, man?” Peter asked, shooting off a web, swinging back around, trying to give chase.

The guy on the glider cackled—full-on bad guy maniacal laugh—and started shooting the rest of the balloons, the buildings on either side of the street, the little festival kiosks set up below.

Peter heard the Iron Man repulsors maybe two seconds before the guy on the glider did. Peter switched from trying to chase the guy to getting down to street level to make sure nobody had been trapped under something.

“Shit,” the guy on the glider swore when he heard Iron Man, but he didn’t have time to do more than that before Tony rocketed into OsCorp Plaza and blasted him with a repulsor.

The guy was knocked back off the glider, falling maybe twenty feet down to street level. Most people that would’ve at least knocked the wind out of them, but the guy just jumped to his feet, swearing. Tony blasted him again, and the guy fell over again, but he also somehow sent a command to the glider and it opened fire on Tony.

Peter pulled Harry Osborn out from under the deflated Earth balloon—either the guy was a moron who couldn’t get out of the way or he had horrible luck—and passed him off to one of the cops, then turned to chase the glider guy. He seemed to be abandoning the glider to keep Iron Man busy, running off down the street.

He was quick. Peter chased him, but lost him almost as soon as they cleared the plaza.

“You good, kid?” Tony asked over comms.

“I lost him,” Peter said, jumping up and sticking to the side of the nearest building, crawling up a ways to try to get a better view. The guy was wearing that goofy-looking helmet; he shouldn’t be that hard to spot.

“Could use you back here,” Tony said.

“Okay,” Peter said, turning back toward the plaza. “What do you want me to do?”

“Hold this stupid glider still so I can blast it.”

“On it.”

 

The Daily Bugle called the glider guy the Green Goblin because of his goofy flight suit getup. Peter generally tried not to agree with a publication that regularly called him a public menace, but they weren’t wrong—the yellow eye things and the pointy helmet made the goblin thing actually work.

Peter had not, in fact, made it back by seven for dinner. But at least neither had Tony.

Chapter Text

His college fall semester started a few weeks before his classes at Midtown. He’d just had two classes over the summer, so jumping into a full course load was a bit of a shock even if the routine of it was really nice. But he had to cut down on time following random scientists around the R&D buildings, which wasn’t so nice. Also less time to pick apart the glider the DODC had confiscated, which was a bummer.

At some point, he’d become one of those students with a shoulder bag that was perpetually overfull even when all of his note-taking and most of his books were on his laptop; he felt like he’d unconsciously molded his image off the college interns he’d met at SI. He even had the glasses because they meant people had to take a closer look at him before they recognized him.

The anonymity of the college campus was nice. He wore hats and/or glasses, and he didn’t linger long enough for anybody to take special notice of him. People in his classes usually recognized him, but after the initial “you’re that guy!” they had too much going in their own studies to put much mental energy toward gawking at him. He got more attention for looking a little young to be a freshman than for having a bodyguard, even.

Midtown was another story altogether. He had a few classes Tuesday/Thursday mornings at Midtown, and then Happy brought him around on Wednesday and Friday afternoons for decathlon. There was… a lot of staring. Even the kids who’d been friendly acquaintances, like most of the decathlon team, followed him with their eyes like they wanted to ask him about May, about the kidnapping, about Stark Industries.

Peter ignored it. He kept his head down, he did his work, he raised his hand for class discussion just enough not to get docked points for lack of participation. He spent what little social time he had at Midtown with Ned and MJ.

He missed being able to spend large chunks of time at SI–NY. There was no time for travel between various SI properties for meetings or projects, but he dropped in remotely whenever he could. (He only got caught the once logged into an R&D project proposal meeting, listening with one earbud while he was in a lecture.)

Sometimes he could do Spider-Man stuff between classes. Not often, because it was hard to plan for solid time management when he entirely depended on what the criminal element was up to on any given afternoon, but sometimes it was nice to just swing around the city.

His curfew was midnight, same as it had always been over the summer and with May before that. And the threat was always there that if he fell behind on homework or any of the adults in his life thought he was overextending, the curfew would be made earlier and he wouldn’t be allowed out in the suit until he could convince them otherwise.

It didn’t happen, because he only seemed to need about three hours of sleep a night to function. Anything more than four hours of sleep and he felt over-rested, groggy, not quite right. And in a pinch he could get by on less than two hours, though it wasn’t at all fun.

(He felt like he should probably bring up the sleep thing to Dr. Costa, but he was sort of worried Dr. Costa would tell Tony he’d been averaging about three and a half hours of sleep a night and it would be a whole Thing.)

Classes were interesting.

Karen randomly spoke to him in Italian, so he was working on building vocabulary and that was interesting too.

Pepper showed up to his first decathlon meet of the season wearing a Midtown t-shirt he hadn’t known she’d owned. (And while it didn’t help at all with trying to coast along under the radar at Midtown, he’d been really glad she’d been there.)

Sundays were family dinner nights. Happy picked him up ungodly early and took him grocery shopping, usually hitting a farmers’ market or two so Happy could complain about how they weren’t there early enough to get the best of the selections. Then Happy gave him a driving lesson or took him over to the gym for some boxing, or sometimes both. Then they went to Happy’s apartment and hung out; Peter did homework, Happy did whatever it was Happy did, they usually ended up playing video games for a bit. Then they’d cook dinner—Happy was trying to teach Peter real proper adult skills like being able to feed himself something other than omelets (with varying success). Tony and Pepper almost always made it. Rhodey ate with them when he was in town. Vision showed up a few times, chatting in his amicably aloof way even though he didn’t eat. And then Peter would put the suit on to do Spider-Man things until he had to race his curfew back over to Tony’s penthouse. Back home.

It was… okay. It was nice. It wasn’t the same, and he missed May every day. But it was okay.

Chapter Text

Schedules finally lined up and Peter was able to spend a Friday night at Ned’s. Happy had done a full evaluation of the Leeds place, and Peter had had to promise to leave his watch on all night to project his vitals and location, but the sleepover had been given the green light.

It was refreshingly normal. They put together a few LEGO X-wings and strung them from the ceiling by the LEGO Death Star in the corner of Ned’s room. They ate pizza. They piled onto the couch with Ned’s little sister and all sorts of blankets to watch Stranger Things. They played video games.

In the morning, Mrs. Leeds made them chocolate chip pancakes.

“Thanks for letting this just be… normal,” Peter said. It had all been just like almost every sleepover they’d ever had, except instead of waiting for May or Ben to pick him up, they were waiting for Tony.

“What?” Ned asked, giving him a weird look.

“So much has changed. I’m hardly at Midtown anymore, I practically have a full-time job at SI, so it’s just… really nice to have one normal Friday,” Peter said. “Y’know?”

“I get it,” Ned said, smiling. “It’s been kind of nuts. LEGO night for the win.”

“Guy in the chair for the win,” Peter corrected, which made Ned smile wider.

“Peter! Your ride is here!” Mrs. Leeds called. “Ned, we’ve got to head out, too!”

“Coming!” Ned shouted, grabbing his bag as he stood up. He was headed to school to get on the bus to go to a Robotics Club competition.

“Peter, look at you!” Tony said when Peter and Ned made it to the entryway where he was waiting.

“Do I have something on my face?” he asked, turning to Ned. Ned shook his head.

“Peter. Tesoro.” Tony smiled at him, teasing. He pointed to one of the pictures on the wall. “You’re wearing the most fantastic hat in this picture.”

“That’s the marching band picture from freshman year,” Ned said.

“Why do you have marching band pictures on your wall?” Peter asked, walking over to look at the photo. He and Ned were in their marching band uniforms, plumed hats and all. Ned held up his saxophone while Peter held up his mallets.

“Because,” Mrs. Leeds said, looking entirely too pleased at his embarrassment, “you two look so sharp in your uniforms.”

“We look like a couple of idiots,” Ned said. “That’s why she likes it.”

“You look like you’re having fun,” Mrs. Leeds corrected.

“We were leaving, weren’t we?” Peter said, pushing Tony toward the door before he could take out his phone to scan the photo or something. “Ned’s got a Robotics Club thing. And weren’t you going to have lunch with Rhodey today? Wouldn’t want to be late to that.”

“Cancelled,” Tony said. “Rhodey’s somewhere in Europe.

“Oh, good. You can have lunch with Pepper, then,” Peter said. “She’ll like that. Let’s go.”

“Robotics Club, Ned?” Tony asked, not budging. “That sounds fun.”

“It’s great,” Ned said. “Peter used to be in it, too. Freshman year we built this alarm clock that would run away from you if you hit snooze more than once so you had to get out of bed to turn it off. It only ever made it as far as falling off the edge of the night stand, but we still scored pretty well.”

“And Peter is right, we really do need to get you over to the school,” Mrs. Leeds said, grabbing her keys.

“See you Monday, man,” Peter said, holding out his hands to do their handshake.

“Yeah,” Ned said. “Bye, dude.”

“So, percussion, huh?” Tony said when they were in the car.

“Yeah. Marimba mostly,” Peter said. “I couldn’t exactly do the marching part of marching band with asthma as bad as I had it.”

“And you played percussion in the concert band, too,” Tony said.

“Which you know because you hacked my transcripts that one time?”

“Because May told Pepper, and Pepper told me.”

“Grapevine.”

Tony nodded and they drove in silence for a while. He seemed to be thinking about something and Peter had no idea what until he said, “You ever miss it? Band.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Peter said. “I was pretty good at it. It’s loud, though. Even with earplugs, and especially playing at games or pep rallies where you’ve also got crowds.”

“I could work on those noise cancelling headphones some more,” Tony offered. “Build them up to the functionality you have in your suit. Give the school nurse a note saying you get migraines so the teacher has to let you wear them.”

“It’s really okay,” Peter said.

“I just—” Tony frowned. “Okay. I realized last night that you barely hang out with kids your own age.”

“I see Ned and MJ all the time. I've got decathlon,” Peter said. “And Cooper Barton texts me sometimes, and he’s younger than me so I feel like that should, like, weight the metric or something.”

“I’m just saying most sixteen-year-olds don’t spend their Saturdays with their—mentor-type-legal guardian-whoever—reading over classified reports.”

“You can just say ‘with their dad,’ Tony,” Peter said. He hadn’t even thought about it, just said it. And then he panicked, because he could hear Tony’s heartbeat start racing and his own heart was racing. So he leaned into the offhand tone and kept going: “There’s a whole file of documents that say you are legally my father.”

“Right. Yeah,” Tony said.

“Or. I mean,” Peter said, backpedaling when Tony’s heart just kept racing. “You don’t have to.”

“I just don’t want to step on any toes,” Tony said, looking over at him for a second when they stopped at a red light. “We know Richard Parker probably wasn’t your biological father, but he was your dad when you were a baby. And then you had your uncle Ben.”

"I— Um." Peter frowned, cleared, his throat, tried again. "I was really little when I went to live with May and Ben, right? I had a bunch of social workers checking in with me, the school counselor, all sorts of stuff, everybody trying to give me the, y'know, tools to deal with what had happened. Part of that, I think, looking at it with what I know now, was actually Norman Osborn trying to get May and Ben declared unfit or something so they kept having people check on me, but whatever. What I was trying to say was that you're not 'stepping on any toes.' I don't really remember my dad. Richard. He's a not-bearded Uncle Ben in my memories, even though I know he didn't look so much like Ben that that'd be how he looked. And the thing I remember most about my mom was this long necklace she wore. And May and Ben were always May and Ben. And you are you. It's not... I don't know."

"I get it," Tony said, reaching over to squeeze Peter's shoulder briefly. "Thanks, Pete."

 

PP: NED

PP: HELP.

PP: HE CALLED HIMSELF MY MENTOR OR WHATEVER AND I SAID TO JUST CALL HIMSELF MY DAD

PP: BECAUSE WE HAD THIS FIGHT FOREVER AGO AND I SAID HE WASN’T MY DAD AND HE SAID THAT WAS BULLSHIT AND THEN WE TALKED IT OUT BUT WE DIDN’T BRING UP THE DAD PART

PP: AND NOW WE’RE SITTING HERE NOT TALKING

PP: USUALLY THAT’S NORMAL, BUT THIS IS NOT NORMAL

PP: WHAT DO I DO?????

Ned, unhelpfully, sent a Darth Vader gif more than an hour later. And nothing else.

Chapter Text

It was a Saturday when Peter realized things were… not normal. Physically. Mentally.

He’d grown a lot physically in the last year. There had been that initial growth spurt after he’d started getting the actual nutrition his spider-metabolism needed, and he’d put on about twenty pounds of muscle. His senses had been slowly ticking up the scale too, though. It had already been intense, but everything was just… more. It hadn’t been so extreme as the first time, though.

A gradual sharpening of his vision to the point where he could read a newspaper across the street, and he had been noticing new shades of color and shadow for weeks. His ears had gotten more sensitive, but he seemed to have more control over it than he had before—it was easier to tune things out, focus on the mid-range sounds like voices and conversation. He could taste freaking everything, and that was both good and bad—he’d definitely caught himself favoring bitter, nutty or umami flavors, and he absolutely refused to think about how those were bug sorts of flavors. Touch had been the worst; it was a good thing Tony was funding his clothing options, because for a while anything but the softest fabric had left his skin irritated and itchy. Smell had intensified weirdly; it wasn’t that he could smell more things, but he could sort through the nuances of all the input.

That had all been so incremental that he’d barely noticed with everything else going on. What made him stop that particular Saturday afternoon, though, was an idle thought. Something a little bit terrifying.

He’d been reading just to have background on arc reactor tech; Tony wanted to figure out how to incorporate it in more commercial technologies because clean energy was a goal and it was incredibly versatile, but it was also incredibly weaponize-able. And Peter knew things. He had access to information that…

Bombs weren’t hard. He had access to everything he’d need to make a terrifyingly big boom with him in the office. If he went down to the workshop and put his mind to it, he could level New York City in an afternoon.

It made him think of Ultron. He’d read the reports; he wasn’t sure Tony knew that. It had been a simple mistake, a single moment of distraction, and so much had gone wrong and so many people had died.

He had the knowledge, the access, the power to make that sort of terrifying mistake.

Hell, he had enough biochem under his belt at this point that he could probably recreate the serum that had enhanced Captain America if he wanted to. Or any number of bioweapons.

So he was the brain and the brawns. All by himself.

“Peter?” Tony asked, and Peter had the feeling it wasn’t the first time he’d said it because he was crouching in front of him looking concerned.

“Hi, Tony,” Peter said, more reflexively than anything else.

“Hi,” Tony said, eyebrows still drawn down with the concern. “What’s up?”

“Do you ever worry about how easy it would be to take over the world?”

Chapter Text

“Hey,” Peter said, walking into the living room and wondering when it had become not-quite-so-awkward to interrupt Pepper and Tony when they were lounging together. They were all cuddled up watching something about stocks and trading, which was pretty much date night for them. “Um. Do you still have contact information for the FBI? And could I maybe borrow it?”

“Just… the FBI at large? Or a specific person at the FBI?” Tony asked. Pepper muted the TV.

“Either? Both?”

“…Yes,” Tony said.

“K. Because I have a duffel bag full of guns and I don’t know what to do with it,” Peter said. “I feel like I shouldn’t hide it under my bed.”

“Under your bed,” Tony repeated.

“Which is where it is right now,” Peter said, nodding.

“You have a duffel bag full of guns under your bed,” Tony said.

“Yes.”

“Peter,” Tony said, leaning forward and pressing his fingers to his eyes.

Pepper was trying very hard not to laugh.

Chapter Text

Peter made it to the end of the month before Tony unceremoniously invited himself to what had become Peter’s routine monthly check-in with Dr. Costa. They’d run the usual labs to be sure the food and nutrition plan was still meeting Peter’s needs and moved on to chatting about the endurance testing or whatever Dr. Costa wanted to run in the afternoon while Peter ate his post blood-draw breakfast when Tony joined them in the Avengers’ communal kitchen and handed a StarkPad to Dr. Costa.

“Did he bring up the part where he’s not sleeping?” Tony asked. “Because I feel like he might be deliberately avoiding bringing up the part where he’s not sleeping.”

“He did not bring that up, no,” Dr. Costa said, scrolling through whatever it was Tony had wanted him to see on the StarkPad.

“I didn’t bring it up because I don’t think it’s a problem,” Peter said, trying not to sound petulant.

“You don’t think it’s a problem that you’re sleeping barely four hours a night?” Tony asked.

“I sleep when I’m tired, and then I wake up,” Peter said.

“Tell me about that,” Dr. Costa said, cutting off whatever Tony had been about to say.

“Um. I don’t know what else I could say about it,” Peter said. “I sleep when I’m tired, I wake up feeling rested, so I get on with things. I taught myself Morse code the other night. And I got through the preliminary project proposals for the Expo.”

“What about the nightmares?” Tony pressed.

“I haven’t had a nightmare in weeks,” Peter said, and it was true. “I don’t really remember what I dream about, but I don’t think it’s anything freaky. I’d probably remember if it was something weird.”

He hadn’t had that one with the rug and the wall of windows since September, and that was as close to a proper nightmare as he’d had since the beginning of the summer. He vaguely remembered something from a few nights before about being desperate to catch a chicken, and it had been a chicken out of the Minecraft game that had escaped into the real world and he had to catch it before Happy noticed.

So okay, maybe that was a weird dream. But it definitely wasn’t a nightmare.

Dr. Costa arranged a sleep study anyway. Peter wore a bunch of electrodes to bed that fed information straight to FRIDAY, and he dictated a sleep diary to her throughout the night—how tired he was feeling, how restful he thought his sleep had been, that sort of thing.

He couldn’t even be mad when it turned out he'd been right and the amount of sleep he needed had simply changed with his enhancements—the data was fascinating.

Chapter Text

Peter was acting out. It was obnoxious for two reasons—one, because he was doing things and his own brain categorized it as acting out, and two, because they were possibly the stupidest methods of acting out he could’ve come up with if he’d intentionally set out to act out.

He was doing too many things. Intentionally. He snuck out to do Spider-Man things. He took on extra SI stuff, or unnecessary homework projects, or volunteer work.

It all backfired, but in weird ways. SI labs with real scientists in them asked him, specifically, questions and listed him as a participant in their work; and he ended up with two more patents to his name. He was invited to participate in actual university studies as a student studying at the university. One of Dot’s people found a photo of him volunteering (he had the t-shirt and everything) at some Stark event and tagged him on Instagram; his follower count had jumped another two thousand people and whichever of SI’s charitable foundations had been running the event reached out to thank him.

The only thing that actually earned him a dirty look had been the Spider-Man stuff. He hadn’t even tried to hide the sneaking out, the staying out even after Karen alerted him he’d missed his curfew. (Dr. Costa had literally signed off on Peter needing less sleep.) Tony just said that if it happened again he was sending an Iron Man suit to physically take him home, but he hadn’t said it like it was a threat or a punishment so much as a “you’re too good for this world, trying to help all those old ladies with their midnight street-crossing” sort of thing and the offer of a quick ride back for a hot shower.

He had no idea why he couldn’t just stick to the proscribed schedule. He was busy, he was happy, he was engaged. He got to see his friends, got to do things he loved. He hung out with the literal Avengers most weekends.

And yet he felt like he was going out of his damn skin most of the time.

Flash was finally the tipping point, because of course he was.

The Instagram account had shut Flash up about the internship. May’s death had shut Flash up about a lot of other things.

A few months of relative civility was the cap, apparently.

It happened at lunch. Well, sort of. Peter’s schedule didn’t actually have him at Midtown for very long most days. But on Mondays, he was there for third period Spanish III, and that meant he was leaving right as Flash was headed to his lunch period. Peter normally avoided him, ducking out a side door to meet Happy (because it had been agreed that Peter could sit classes by himself at Midtown and meet up with Happy outside the school) and get on with his day.

He wasn’t exactly sure what was said. Probably just the usual shit from Flash. Next thing, the spidey-sense was going off and Peter had to force himself to just take it, to move with the punches enough that Flash didn’t break a metacarpal or something.

The predictable circle of kids distracted from their pilgrimage to lunch formed up, chanting. That summoned teachers. Coach Wilson hauled Flash off of him. Mr. Dell helped Peter up, practically dragged him by the scruff to the nurse’s office.

“I’m fine,” Peter insisted. “Really. I’m fine. Can I just go, please? I have another class to get to.”

It was a lie. Usually he had a lab on Mondays, but the prof had cancelled it. Peter had been planning to go to SI instead, but there was no way that was going to happen with blood all down his face and on his shirt.

“Nope,” Mr. Dell said. “You get in a fight we have to call home. Especially with all your—you know—we gotta do it all by the book.”

“It wasn’t a fight,” Peter said. “I was punched.”

“I get you’ve got a lot of post-secondary going on, but if you get in a fight we have to call home.”

“I wasn’t in a fight,” Peter repeated. “I was punched.”

“And that’s why you and I went to the nurse rather than Morita’s office first thing, Parker,” Mr. Dell said, shooting him an unamused look as they walked.

The nurse’s office had been a very familiar place his freshman year. She’d been the one with his epi-pen and backup inhaler. Then, after the spider bite, he’d been a frequent flyer on days his senses had dialed up from the usual over-saturated eleven to fifteen or twenty; he’d claimed he’d started getting migraines. He’d been really good in the last year, though; he hadn’t had to go to the nurse’s office once.

“Long time no see, Mr. Parker,” Miss Tracy, the nurse, said, then frowned sympathetically at him. So his face probably looked about as messed up as it felt. “Oh, honey.”

Mr. Dell stayed with him while Miss Tracy checked him over, got him an ice pack for his eye. Then he escorted Peter across the hall to the main office, where he got a particularly pitying look from Mrs. Finch, the school secretary, as she gestured over toward Principal Morita’s office. The door was open, and Flash was in there, waxing poetic about how Peter had attacked him.

“Hi, yes, are you Mr. Parker’s guardian?” Mrs. Finch asked just after Peter had walked toward Morita’s door.

“No. I’m his bodyguard,” Happy said. Peter spun to see Happy just inside the office, face thunderous.

“Happy—”

“Not a word,” Happy said gruffly, stepping closer with his phone out, camera clicking as he took photos of the blood on his shirt and bruising on his face. “Turn. Other way. They land any other hits I should photograph?”

He started it,” Flash said, pointing a finger. His knuckles were visibly inflamed. His eyes were just a bit too wide, too; the heat of the moment had worn off and he was panicking a little bit.

“Funny,” Happy said, clamping a weirdly reassuring hand down on Peter’s shoulder and turning that thunderous look on Flash. “You’re the one with bruises on your knuckles. All his are on his face.”

“I was defending myself!”

“Kid, if Pete had fought back you’d be down for the count,” Happy said. Mr. Dell made a weird noise in the back of his throat at that, but Peter wasn’t sure anybody else heard it.

Happy’s phone beeped and he glanced at the message before taking a few more pictures, gently moving Peter’s face this way and that to get the best light on the bruises that sure felt like they were blooming already.

Flash scoffed.

“That’s enough, Mr. Thompson,” Morita said.

“You sure you don’t want to just test out of the Spanish so you don’t have to deal with this kid?” Happy asked. Peter shrugged, wiping blood from under his nose.

“I have to be enrolled in at least two classes to participate in Academic Decathlon,” he said. And decathlon was just about the only thing keeping him going at the moment.

Happy’s phone beeped again.

“Whatever action the school chooses to take in handling this, there will be a restraining order filed,” Happy said, looking from the phone to Flash to Morita and back.

“You can’t do that! We’re both on decathlon,” Flash said. He looked a lot like he wanted to stamp his foot. “And he hit me first. Just because I don’t bruise as easy as he does—”

“I’m going to stop you right there, you little—” Happy bit back whatever he’d been planning to call Flash and turned to address Morita. “I suggest you review whatever security footage there is. I’ve been boxing with Peter once a week for the past year. He trains with the same coaches that work with the Avengers every other weekend. If he was actually fighting, here, he wouldn’t—kid, why did you let him hit you?”

Peter just shrugged. He didn’t actually know why. Fighting back hadn’t occurred to him, and then it had been over.

Mrs. Thompson arrived, then. She was short, meticulously made-up, expression aloof.

“Hello, Mother,” Flash said quietly. She barely looked at him.

“What’s this all about, Principal Morita?” Mrs. Thompson asked.

“Pete?” Tony said, stepping into the main office. He’d directed the question at Mrs. Finch, asking to be pointed toward Peter like he knew her or something.

They’d probably met that time that he was kidnapped.

How messed up.

“Over here,” Happy said.

Flash made a choking noise at the sight of Tony, as if he and the rest of the school hadn’t been so incredibly weird about it all ever since @Peter_the_Intern had hit a million followers, since the kidnapping, since all of it.

“Jesus, it’s worse in person,” Tony muttered, wincing and running a gentle finger along Peter’s jaw. It was puffy, probably some vibrant red or purple already. “Alright, Peter?”

“I didn’t hit him back, I swear,” Peter said, because Tony there made it all the more real. They’d probably have to have a meeting with Dr. Ronson from the Accords Committee over it.

Stupid. So stupid.

“If you’ll join me in my office, Mrs. Thompson, Mr. Stark?” Principal Morita said. “Boys, you wait here in the main office.”

Happy directed Peter to one of the hard wooden chairs outside Principal Morita’s office, then planted himself in the chair next to him. Flash glanced around the room sullenly before sitting as far away from them as he could.

Happy looked like he wanted to keep yelling at Flash, but he didn’t. He just sat there, texting occasionally interrupted when he held up his phone to take more pictures of Peter’s bruising.

“He already saw the bruises, why are you taking more pictures?” Peter finally asked, mostly to distract himself from the conversation in the other room. It was like an after school special, Mrs. Thompson posturing and fluttering about how her son could never do such a thing, Tony’s angry responses, Principal Morita playing referee.

“Pepper,” Happy said, putting a hand on top of Peter’s head to turn his face to a new angle for another picture. “She’s getting stuff together for the lawyers.”

“The lawyers.” Peter groaned. “C’mon, Happy. It’s high school. It’s—”

“It’s unacceptable,” Happy said, letting go of Peter’s head and putting the phone down long enough to give him a very stern look. “It’s assault, and it’s worse because you’re not legally allowed to fight back because of those certain documents. Besides, now I have to go to your Spanish class with you, which is—”

“You don’t have to come to Spanish with me,” Peter interrupted.

“I do, actually. Stuck to you like glue for the foreseeable future.” His phone vibrated and he glanced at it, then sighed and held it up to take more pictures. “Boss is freaking out.”

“He’ll calm down, though. I mean—”

“Tony’s not my boss. Pepper is my boss,” Happy said.

“Pepper doesn’t freak out, though,” Peter said.

“Oh, she does. It’s just different.” Happy smiled weirdly fondly. “There’s a lot of paperwork involved.”

 

Flash was suspended for two weeks and dropped from the decathlon team. He also had to rearrange his electives so that he was in a different lunch period so he wasn’t out in the hall at the same time Peter was.

Peter tried to tell them it was overkill, but Pepper had made a slideshow of all the pictures of his bruised-up face and she had FRIDAY play it on the nearest screen whenever he started to protest.

 

“Real talk,” Tony said about a week later. They were in the workshop at the compound, Peter mixing up more web fluid while Tony tinkered with one of his nanite projects. “How are you doing, Peter?”

“Fine?” Peter said. He hooked his container into the air compressor apparatus Tony had helped him make and started pressurizing the web fluid into individual cartridges that he could snap into his webshooters. Any other air compressor would’ve been loud and he could’ve escaped the conversation, but Tony’s air compressor was all fancy and quiet.

“Nuh-uh, I said real talk,” Tony said. “The keeping yourself busy thing has been great, but I know you haven’t been sleeping. And I mean not sleeping for you. You’re working ahead. You’re out at all hours Spider-Man-ing. You haven’t had Ned over since you moved in.”

“I—I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do,” Peter said, sitting back from his workstation. The compressor was doing all the work anyway.

“You need to slow down every once in a while. Relax.”

“I’m fine.”

“Peter, seriously,” Tony said so quietly that Peter actually looked over at him. “After my parents died, I didn’t know what to do with myself either. I worked. And I self-destructed real hard.”

“I’m not—”

“I used drugs and booze, you’re using homework and good deeds.”

“That’s—”

“Like I’ve said, you’re way better than me.” Tony smirked, but his eyes were still dark and serious. “Still human, though.”

“Am I, though? Technically?”

“Don’t try to change the subject,” Tony said.

“If I slow down, if I try to relax…” Peter focused on taking the finished cartridges out of the air compressor apparatus, loading in the empties. “I dream. I have nightmares. And I just miss her, Tony. I miss her so much.”

“I get—”

“But it’s worse than that, because sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I forget. Or sometimes I just feel… This is all normal, you know? It’s just normal that I live in Manhattan with you instead of in Queens with her. And I have normal days just carrying on with normal things, and I forget that I’m sad. I’m actually happy a lot of the time, and that feels a lot like a—a betrayal, you know? Because she literally raised me and she was good and wonderful, and it’s not fair that she died, and it’s really not fair that it’s at all possible to, I don’t know, move on after she’s gone and just keep on and let things be… normal.”

“Is that why you let that asshole at Midtown punch you in the face?” Tony asked after a long moment. “You felt like you weren’t hurting enough, so you let him hurt you?”

“What? No. Why would—” Peter frowned, turning back to face Tony. “That wasn’t anything. That was Flash being Flash. It didn’t even occur to me to fight back. He’s just… Flash. It’s an attention thing. His parents ignore him unless he’s getting in trouble. I wasn’t—seeking out—”

“Okay. I believe you. Sorry,” Tony said, holding out a hand. “I just worry about you, Underoos. I don’t know how to help you with this.”

“You do help,” Peter said, turning back to his workstation and collecting the rest of his cartridges.

“Acceptance is part of the grieving process, too,” Tony said after a little bit. Peter had cleaned up his things, only half aware that Tony was doing the same with his own materials. “It’s just as hard as the rest of it.”

“I don’t want to accept that she’s gone. I have, though. I know she’s gone. I knew she was going to be gone,” Peter said, staring at his hands. “It just sucks.”

“Yeah. It does.”

Chapter Text

Nationals had been… a debate.

The last field trip Peter had been on had ended in kidnapping. Peter’s history with field trips in general was less than ideal.

But it was nationals for Peter’s only extracurricular. They were being hosted in Boston this season, and there were a handful of sightseeing stops. And MJ had promised they’d never find his body if he didn’t go.

Happy had gone along. He’d driven behind the bus the whole way, stuck to Peter like glue for the entire weekend, unsubtly made Peter wait while he cleared each new location, the whole bodyguard nine yards. (Peter sort of wished he hadn’t wound up traumatized to the point that Happy’s hypervigilance was comforting, but it was what it was.)

Everything actually went really well. They won, there wasn’t a single elevator incident, and everything had been great.

And then it happened. Because it was always something with field trips.

The news broke Sunday evening. They were on the bus headed back to New York, Peter had been editing the latest draft on his project proposal for a delivery system for the medical-grade polymer he’d developed based on his web fluid, MJ had been almost asleep with her head almost on his shoulder. Ned was in the seat in front of them, face smushed to the window, sound asleep.

His spidey-sense had gone off, but not really. Just enough that he felt vaguely unsettled. It had been enough for him to close his laptop and look around for the source, but there hadn’t been any immediate danger. Just his teammates, most of them drowsing like MJ, Mr. Harrington up front with most of his attention on a positive thinking podcast, and the bus driver who’d driven them to every single meet all season. And he’d been able to hear Happy following behind the bus, arguing with Tony about their favorite Malibu-based food trucks over the car’s Bluetooth.

Then a few of his classmates had perked up a little bit. Looked around. Started showing each other their phone screens.

Whispering.

Whispering and Peter’s name kept popping up.

Dreading what he’d find—the cold feeling in his gut said somebody somehow had found out he was Spider-Man—he opened the news app on his phone. It was the first article, but it wasn’t about Spider-Man.

BREAKING: TONY STARK’S SECRET SON

“That’s not even a good headline,” MJ muttered, letting herself slump against him, presumably so she had a better view of his phone.

“Clickbait,” Peter said, opening the article anyway.

He’d hoped it was the almost-usual rumor that had been going around since those paparazzi shots from outside Delmar’s had first hit the internet. It was worse than that, though. Somebody with access to city records (or county records, or state records, whichever) had talked to the press about the adoption, and they’d given it a scandalous spin by talking about how quickly and quietly it had been done.

That Tony had adopted Peter had been rumor among his classmates and suspected but no confirmed at SI. The source confirmed it all, though. The article’s author heavily implied that they’d seen the paperwork for themselves, though they at least knew better than to print it.

A second article with an equally bad headline reported the same story, quoting the other article rather than having a source of their own, but the second article put a pity spin on it. Poor Peter Parker, taken in on the death of his only living relative. (They’d got the date on May’s death entirely wrong.)

“This is great ,” Peter muttered. “I love this for me.”

MJ snorted.

“Look at this one,” MJ said, holding out her phone with a new article. Somebody had gone through and made a timeline of his relationship with Tony and Stark Industries, from the approximate date of the story Tony told about finding him in a dumpster to the adoption.

“Peter,” Cindy hissed, leaning over her seat partner across the aisle from Peter and MJ, holding out her phone for him to see the TONY STARK’S SECRET SON article. “Did you see this?”

“Just read it,” Peter said.

She looked at him, clearly waiting for him to elaborate, but he turned his attention back to his phone. The social media notifications were like a flood.

He could hear the conversation in the car behind them change. The playful bickering dropping to terse back-and-forth as Tony hung up to call Pepper and Happy started calling for additional security personnel to meet them at the school.

A quick check-in with PASCAL and Peter sent emails to his professors because he’d be missing all of his lectures at the very least. He emailed his lab partner apologizing ahead of time and offering to do the writeup off her notes. And he emailed all the homework due for the week in early, hoping his professors would look kindly on him and not dock him for attendance.

It was all easier with his classes at Midtown: Tony just had to call and tell Mrs. Finch in the front office that Peter wouldn’t be coming in all week, and, according to PASCAL, that call had already been made. Peter still sent his work in ahead, and he’d send his Spanish packet with Ned.

Schedule cleared, Peter braced for impact as the bus made one last turn and the school came into view.

“What the hell…?” the bus driver muttered under his breath. Peter was probably the only one who heard.

“What’s going on?” Mr. Harrington asked, putting his earphones into his coat pocket as he leaned over to look out the windshield.

Happy had called in a team. Peter had read the procedure in a file on the SI servers.

Three men and a woman, all in dark suits, expressions completely blank as they watched the bus pull in. They had earpieces and everything.

The single weekend guard from school security was in the little warming house thing at the entrance to the school driveway, on the phone. Peter wasn’t sure if they were talking to their superiors or somebody from SI, but they were talking about increasing security in the coming weeks until the public interest in Peter died down a bit again.

“Anybody know what this is about?” Mr. Harrington asked, barely glancing back at them as the bus pulled up to the school.

“Peter,” half the team said at once. Abe even pointed at him.

“Peter?” Mr. Harrington asked.

“It’s all over the internet,” Cindy said, holding her phone out even though they were nowhere close enough for Mr. Harrington to be able to read whatever article she had open.

“Tony Stark adopted Peter,” Sally said.

“People are freaking out,” Cindy said.

“Who are all these people, though?” Mr. Harrington asked as the bus came to a spot in front of the school.

“SI security,” Peter said. He shrugged when everybody turned to look at him. “Tony is freaking out, too.”

Chapter Text

Lt. Riri Williams was a badass. She was in the Air Force, stationed in Virginia. She flew helicopters. She loved the Jurassic Park movies. She’d gone to MIT, majored in mechanical engineering.  She was very cool.

She was also Rhodey’s niece, and she’d come along with him for Thanksgiving dinner.

“Peter, potatoes,” Happy said, gesturing at the stock pot full of freshly-boiled potatoes with the potato masher. “Lieutenant, the oven is all yours.”

“Thank you,” Riri said, smiling at Happy as she stepped around Tony to adjust the temperature on the oven. She’d brought a few pies—all assembled, ready to go in the oven and bake while they ate dinner.

Happy had turned up before Peter had even been awake, taking over the kitchen for the day. They had the most enormous turkey Peter had ever seen, plus two hams and a loaf of tofurkey. Peter didn’t think anybody was even vegetarian, they just had tofurkey.

Thanksgiving had always been a fairly low-key holiday at the Parker household—they volunteered at the food shelf, picked up takeout, maybe watched a movie. Peter was pretty sure Happy had made such a big deal out of the turkey and all the fixings because he knew that and he was trying to keep Peter distracted because he wasn’t allowed to go volunteer at a food shelf. He was barely allowed to leave the penthouse; it had been weeks and the only thing that had even started to distract the media from STARK ADOPTS INTERN was Black Friday sales.

“I still can’t believe you wouldn’t let me help even a little bit,” Tony said, tutting at Happy as Rhodey carved the turkey.

“For good reason,” Rhodey said, not looking up from the bird.

“It’s my kitchen,” Tony said.

“Fire of ’01,” Happy said, beginning to load a plate up. He’d decided they’d be doing things buffet-style, making their plates in the kitchen before they went to the dining room to eat because there was simply too much food. (It was weird enough seeing the dining table with a tablecloth and place settings rather than covered in paperwork.)

“You’ve got to let that go,” Tony said.

“Tell me about the fire of ’01,” Riri said, eyes dancing.

“No, do not tell her about the fire of ’01,” Tony said, looking between Happy and Rhodey, just waiting for one of them to betray him.

“Tony tried to make sweet potato pie Thanksgiving of 2001,” Pepper said, barely looking up from pouring Rhodey another glass of wine.

“Key word: ‘tried,’” Rhodey said, laughing.

 

After dinner, they ended up in the living room. Rhodey and Pepper played chess while everybody else watched, giving increasingly bad advice. It was... homey.

“Sorry,” Peter said when his phone beeped. Everything had been quiet conversation, the sun had set but nobody seemed to want to leave yet.

Ned had sent a link to a BREAKING NEWS sort of article, and then a spider emoji. For the first time in probably ever, he really wanted to ignore it. Just stay with his family, drink the apple juice Tony had put in a wine glass for him (Tony was drinking the same), and talk about things like the fire of '01.

The Green Goblin dude had turned up, though. The article said he was doing something elaborate on the Queensborough Bridge, buses dangling over the sides from some sort of cabling.

It screamed trap is what it did. A setup.

He couldn’t just leave all those people in the buses, though. The article said police were on the scene, but they’d just blocked off traffic. A wise strategy, really, considering the guy had those grenades.

“I’ll be right back,” Peter said, going for casual. For once he must’ve managed it, because nobody more than glanced at him as he headed for his room.

OMW, he sent to Ned. He was at his grandparents’ so he wouldn’t be able to do his Guy in the Chair thing, but he still sent a thumbs-up emoji back.

“This is a horrible idea,” Peter muttered, changing into his suit. “Hey, FRIDAY?”

“Yes, Peter?”

“You don’t have to tell him I left, but can you track my location as I go just in case he wonders?” Peter asked. It was the best way to subvert FRIDAY’s House Rules Protocols. If she thought Peter was sneaking out, she’d tell Tony. Hell, she might just tell him anyway. All Peter was hoping for at this point was a head start.

“Of course, Peter,” FRIDAY said.

“Thanks.”

He went out his window, crawling a few stories down before he shot off a web and headed for the bridge.

“Hey, Karen?” Peter said as his suit’s HUD came fully online. “Can you find any more information on what the Goblin dude is doing? Anything on social media?”

“Witnesses say he has two buses hanging over the sides of the bridge,” Karen said, popping up a few images in his peripheral. “He doesn’t appear to have communicated with authorities.”

“Not surprising,” Peter muttered.

He arrived at the bridge a few minutes later. It was weirdly empty, even for a holiday. Maybe especially for a holiday.

“Has he said anything?” Peter asked, approaching the police barrier.

“No,” the cop nearest him said. “There’s people on both those buses, though.”

“Is there—”

“Hello, Spider-Man,” the goblin guy shouted, mocking, from his place at the center of cleared space on the bridge. There were a few abandoned cars, one of them turned upside down, like he hadn’t exactly arrived and strung up the buses peacefully.

“Hey, dude,” Peter shouted back, waving just the once. “What’s with the buses? I mean—can you not?”

“You and I are not so different, you know,” he said, arms crossed in front of him.

“No. Not so much,” Peter shouted back, shrugging. “Green is really not my color.”

“They found you amusing for a while, the people of this city,” the goblin said, voice carrying like he had a speaker system in his helmet or something. He was playing to his audience of cameraphones standing just a few feet behind Peter, watching it all play out. “But the one thing people love more than a hero is to see a hero fail. Fall. Die trying.”

“Good pep talk,” Peter shouted back. “Can you jet off or whatever now? There’s a bunch of people in those buses and—”

“Here’s the real truth,” the goblin interrupted, taking a few steps forward. He’d uncrossed his arms, one fist clenched at his side while he pointed at Peter with the other hand. (Those few steps forward gave Peter a clear view of the horrifying-thin line of cable connected the two buses, apparently a single cable run from one bus to the other before the buses had been pushed off the sides of the bridge to dangle.) “There are millions of people in this city. And those teaming masses exist for the sole purpose of lifting the few exceptional people on their shoulders. Me. You. We’re exceptional.”

“You’re exceptionally crazy, I’ll give you that,” Peter said.

“I’m offering you a choice. An opportunity,” the guy shouted. “Surrender. Come with me. Imagine what I could accomplish, what I could create. Or what we could destroy—countless innocents in selfish battles again and again and again and again until we’re both dead. Is that what you want?”

Peter realized two things in that moment.

First, the goblin dude knew who he was. He knew about SPEC42 and the Hydra research at OsCorp. The so-thin cable was an OsCorp prototype, less exciting that the military glider they'd recovered before but still a suspiciously direct link to OsCorp. 

Second, the goblin dude was a character manufactured for exactly this encounter. The over-the-top flight suit, the almost cartoonish taunting, the elaborate setup with the buses. All to draw Spider-Man out, create an opportunity for capture. Dead or alive.

It was like Colleen wanting to see his autopsy results. The goblin dude was a Spider-Man-level bad guy. Not an Avengers-level threat, but still something too weird for the police to really tackle themselves.

“Well, to each his own,” the goblin said, then hit a button on the wrist of his flight suit. Another glider zoomed out from behind one of the cars, turning neatly vertical to catch the cable and slice through it, then flipping horizontal for the guy to jump up onto it. He flew high, cackling as he went.

“What the fu—”

Peter leapt forward, vaulting the police car he’d been standing behind, then he ran to the nearer side of the bridge and jumped over the railing.

“Hey, Karen, tell Mr. Stark I need backup.”

He landed on the first bus, shot off webs to connect it to the underside of the bridge. The people inside screamed. He could hear them shifting around inside, falling. There were at least a couple kids, all of them way past terrified.

The second bus had made it almost halfway down to the water. Peter jumped for it, overshooting it with the first web he sent after it (weight inside the bus shifting unpredictably, giving it a weird spin), but snagging it with the second. He braced his feet on the bridge supports and held on. For a moment, he was sure his shoulders would pop right out of their sockets, but he managed to take the weight.

“Kid, what the fuck,” Tony said, Karen connecting him to comms without so much as a beep as warning. “I thought you were in the freaking bathroom and then Karen calls and—Peter watch out!”

Peter didn’t have time to process the idea that Tony had queued up the Baby Monitor Protocol footage in front of anybody at home, because the Green Goblin had dive-bombed him with the freaking glider.

Peter hauled back on the web, launching the second bus upward, then let himself drop backwards through the supports. He barely cleared the open space between the beams before the glider flew through, the dude cackling all the way.

Peter shot off a web, pulling himself sideways and back up to street level. The bus was still flying upwards, the people inside of it not happy about that at all. And Peter couldn’t get another web on the thing without damaging the people inside and probably himself as well.

“This is insane,” Peter muttered, then started to create a web between the bridge deck and the nearest footing. Or whatever it was called—the main horizontal bridge bit and the big sturdy bit that went down into the water.

He kept an ear on the screaming people to gauge how much time he had before he had to shoot a web at the bus again, and he darted back and forth, putting up overlapping strands of webbing for the bus to stick to. Then he pulled the bus sideways at as close to the perfect moment as he could, catching it in the web like a giant metal fly.

“We’re not dead!” somebody inside the bus shouted. A few of the passengers cheered.

Peter figured that was as good as it was going to get in the moment. He really didn’t like leaving the bus dangling beneath the bridge like that, even if it wasn’t dangling so much as stuck in a bunch of webbing that was dangling from beneath the bridge.

It looked so stupid.

“This is so, so stupid,” Peter said. He looped another bit of webbing from the bus to one of the support struts, already wondering just how the hell he was going to get the poor passengers out of there.

His spidey-sense gave him a split second’s warning, and then the goblin barreled into him full-body-check-style.

Peter had been hanging off the strut, having one last look at the webbed-up bus before he went to check on that first bus (and he hadn’t heard a mass of screaming from that side of the bridge, so he’d figured they hadn’t fallen), and then he’d been free-falling out over open water and everything hurt.

Son of a bitch!” Peter shouted, arms and legs flailing.

“I’m almost there, Pete,” Tony said on comms. “Just hold on.”

Peter shot off a web, but the bridge was too far away. The glider wasn’t, though, and his second web connected.

His guts swooped with the familiar nausea of flight, his spidey-sense screaming at him.

Peter let go of the web, launching himself back toward the bridge. People had gathered along the railing, both watching the action and shouting down to the people in the buses.

“Oh my god, get off the bridge!” Peter shouted at them even though they wouldn’t hear. “What’s wrong with you? Get out of there!”

He had to get that first bus more secure. It was blowing in the wind pretty badly, wobbling as the people inside of it moved around. And he had no idea how firmly that first web he’d put on it was.

“I’ve got ya,” Peter said, bracing himself in the support beams under the bridge again and shooting off a few more webs, aiming for the ends of the bus to try to stabilize the wobble. It sort of worked. He shot off one more as close to center-of-mass as he could and began to haul it upwards.

The crowd at the railing cheered. It was kind of weird, but also nice.

“You’ve spun your last web, Spider-Man,” the glider guy shouted.

Peter had hauled the bus maybe halfway back toward street level when the glider sliced through his webs.

Shit!”

He jumped off the side of the bridge again, turning as he went to activate both webshooters at the same time. He ended up with a web stuck to the underside of the bridge in one hand, and a web stuck to the bus in the other.

Again, he was sure his shoulders would pop right out of their sockets the moment all the weight crashed into him, but again his crazy spider enhancements held up. (He was going to be so, so sore when it was all over.)

“Your death would’ve been quick and painless,” the goblin shouted, taking a wide loop around where Peter was dangling, “but now that you’ve pissed me off—”

The glider flew past him over and over, the guy messing with him, taking a swipe at him as he went. Peter had to contort himself to get out of the way, then again when he made another pass.

The people on the bridge started shouting. Some of them were shouting at the guy, but some of them were shouting to Peter, pointing to something down on the water. Peter really hoped it was Tony.

The glider made another pass, but he didn’t even come close to hitting Peter; the people on the bridge had started throwing things at him.

Peter wanted to laugh, but his muscles were burning and his spidey-sense screamed at him to—

A glowy grenade thing exploded right in his face.

Peter shrieked.

He might’ve passed out for a second, because the next thing he was aware of was being much closer to the water and not holding onto anything. He blinked, tried to look around, tried to focus.

The people on the bridge were shouting. The people in the bus were screaming.

There was something large moving through the water nearby. Very close. Very big.

The Green Goblin was laughing again.

The Iron Man suit’s repulsors were close. Not close enough to catch him before he hit the river, but close.

There was a crunch, and then a cheer. The bus had landed on a barge or something. That was good.

Karen deployed his parachute, and his whole body jerked as the air caught, swept him aloft. More cheering from the bridge. More cheering from the barge.

Peter blinked a few times, reaching out for the lines connecting him to the parachute. He got one hand around a line, the other grasping at air, and almost managed to orient himself, and then—

The water was freezing.

Immediate panic. He’d landed in the water before, tangled up in his own damned parachute.

And here he was again, freezing cold water, tangled up in his parachute.

Water went up his nose, then down his throat when he tried to cough. He flailed.

Half his mask was gone; he had no HUD. The skin on his face and shoulders burned even though the water was cold enough that his fingers had already gone a little bit numb.

Vaguely, even through the water and his own confusion, he could hear the people on the bridge shouting, wondering if he was dead.

Peter wondered if he was dead, too.

A current or something caught the parachute, pulling him along. He lost track of which way was up.

He was drowning, he had to be.

And then the only thing he could hear were the repulsors. The Iron Man suit’s hands under his armpits.

Peter broke the surface of the water trying to cough and breath at the same time. He was pretty sure the grenade had blown off his freaking nose.

He ached.

“Look out!” Peter shouted, trying to dodge. All he managed to do was half-fall out of Tony’s grasp, landing badly on a bit of pavement. It looked like a running trail next to the river.

“Pete—” Tony started, but then the glider smashed into him, swooping back out over the river.

The goblin guy wasn’t on the glider. Peter pushed himself to his feet, hands up, looking for the next attack. Everything hurt, though, and his spidey-sense was shot for usefulness when it was just… everything was bad.

The goblin guy came out of the freaking bushes, kicked him in the solar plexus, and Peter thought he might just die. He fell backwards and landed on his ass in a bush beside the running trail.

“You suck,” Peter said. “You suck so bad.”

Peter shoved away the pain, really hoped he hadn’t broken his ankle when he’d accidentally made Tony drop him, and threw himself at the goblin. He gave himself over entirely to muscle memory and whatever usefulness he could get out of the spidey-sense in his current state. Punching, kicking, ducking.

Twice he got the goblin in a joint lock only to get headbutted by the stupid pointy helmet.

Peter got a web on him and pulled, slamming the goblin dude’s face into his knee. Then he turned and used what little momentum he had to kick the guy upside the head. It only bought him a few steps of space between them, but it was enough room that Peter had the space to wonder about his best avenue of retreat. Because he absolutely couldn’t continue the fight. He was bleeding out somewhere; he knew he was. And he couldn’t hear for shit, and his eyes wouldn’t focus, and… If he had to keep on fighting he’d end up dead.

“Just think of the science we’ll—” the goblin guy started, clearly coming to the same conclusion that Peter had.

And then Iron Man blasted him with both gauntlet repulsors at full white-hot power.

The guy in the goblin-looking flight suit screamed.

“You good? You okay?” Tony asked, turning away as the guy stumbled backwards off the trail making horrible whimpering sounds. “Underoos?”

“Ears are ringing pretty good, Mr. Stark.”

“FRIDAY, where’d the cosplay dude end up?” Tony asked, looking over his shoulder once he’d ascertained that Peter wasn’t dead.

“In the water, Boss,” FRIDAY said. “Ten yards downstream and picking up speed.”

“Tony,” Peter said, because it looked like Iron Man was about to take off after the goblin guy. “Mr. Stark. I don’t feel so good—”

Things went blurry, then dark around the edges.

Chapter Text

Peter couldn’t open his eyes.

No, that wasn’t right.

He could open one eye, but the other one was hot and throbbing and so painful and swollen he couldn’t open it up.

His ears were ringing.

 

Peter jolted back to consciousness, his spidey-sense screaming at him to getawaygetawayGETAWAY, but he couldn't move and everything hurt.

One of his ears was ringing, but he could sort of hear real sounds out of the other one. The eye felt like it might fall right out of his head, and it hurt so badly that he sort of thought that might be an improvement.

Somebody pulled off the mask. Gently, but it still really hurt.

“Ugh,” Peter groaned. “That’s a no-no.”

 

The next time, he woke more slowly. He was vaguely nauseous, but the whole situation with his head was way better. The right ear was still ringing, the right eye was still swollen shut, but the pain wasn’t nearly as dramatically horrible as it had been.

Most of him was sore. His shoulders and arms especially so. And most of his upper half felt… crispy.

It was very loud, and it took him a moment to realize he was strapped to a special gurney-type seat in a helicopter. There was an IV line taped to the back of his left hand, and it itched.

He might’ve panicked if he wasn’t so tired. He still tried to panic a little bit, because there was a definite possibility that he was tired because the IV was pumping him full of sedatives, but he couldn’t muster it.

“You’re okay, Peter,” Tony said, and the eye Peter had managed to get open darted around the helicopter until it landed on him. Tony was buckled into a seat against the other wall, still in the jeans and button-up he’d worn to Thanksgiving dinner. He looked awful. “You’re okay.”

“Okay,” Peter said, and let himself drift back into the dimness.

Chapter Text

“The official word is that Spidey is recovering at the not-very-secret Avengers compound in upstate New York,” Justin, the guy who ran the SpideyWatch YouTube channel, said. “And that’s excellent news, because he was looking really beat up in the few photos people managed to get.”

The video switched from Justin behind a desk to a quick series of stills, all of them of Peter in the suit looking blown-to-hell. The top half of the suit had been blackened, ripped through entirely in a few spots on the right side of his head. Luckily, the photos were all a little bit blurry from zoom so he was far from recognizable.

“And it’s good to know that he’s going to be okay, because I’m very excited to talk about a few things we learned from the Thanksgiving Day altercation on the bridge and it wouldn’t feel right to do it if I knew he might not pull through.”

Peter sighed. He would’ve turned the video off, but Ned had sent it to him and he felt like he should at least make a token effort to watch the thing. Ned had sent him all sorts of similar videos and articles, also a string of texts asking if he was okay.

“First of all,” Justin said in the video, the image shifting again so it was a split screen with Justin at his desk on one side and shaky cell phone footage of ‘the Thanksgiving Day altercation on the bridge’ on the other. “Spidey’s way stronger than anybody realized. Look at this.”

The image switched to just the shaky cell phone footage. In it, Peter was clearly visible hauling on the web attached to one of the buses. Then he jerked backwards, flinging the bus up.

“You see that?” Justin asked in voiceover. The video replayed with a red arrow pointed at the bus falling and rising and beginning to fall again. “You see that control? Yeah, I said control. He caught the bus, tossed it back up in the air, then—wait a moment and there it is—yanked it sideways into the web. Points to Spidey for committing to the theme, am I right?”

The video changed again, showing just Justin at his desk.

“I Googled, and an average city bus weighs anywhere from 10 to 15 tons. He’s just tossing 10 or 15 tons around, perfectly in control of the weight. Totally unreal.” Justin grinned. “And I say in control because nobody on the bus reported more than bumps and bruises. He didn’t jerk the thing around so much that people were flying around inside. It’s amazing.”

The video cut to more shaky cell phone footage, not nearly as zoomed it. Peter and the goblin dude were close to the middle of the frame.

“The other thing we learned from this altercation was that Spidey’s been training,” Justin said. “We all know his schtick isn’t really this hand-to-hand thing—he webs up the bad guys and calls the cops—but he’s never hesitated to throw down. But just watch him here. Green Goblin is clearly enhanced; he’s keeping up with Spidey and actually managing to block punches—and we know there’s strength behind those punches because we just talked about how he juggles buses like nothing. But look at him.”

The video replayed. Red arrows popped up at a few spots, calling attention to certain moves.

“That’s practice. That’s training,” Justin said. “And you know what I think? I think it’s training with the Avengers.”

The video changed again, skipping forward. Peter kicked the goblin in the head, then took a large step backward and fell into a ready stance while the dude reeled backward. It hadn’t been planned, but the kick had bought Peter distance to get clear for Tony to fire repulsors at the guy. In the video, it looked like it had been rehearsed—Peter kicked, stepped clear, and Tony swooped down to blast him dramatically out of frame.

“In conclusion, Spider-Man is officially an Avenger. @ me about it. I dare—”

“Nope,” Tony said, grabbing the StarkPad right out of Peter’s hands. Then he collected Peter’s phone from the bedside table, too. “No YouTube. You’re grounded. No fun internet. You’re so grounded.”

“I’m grounded?” Peter echoed.

Grounded,” Tony repeated. He stacked Peter’s devices on the swivel table at the end of the hospital bed, then crossed his arms and moved to stand closer to the head of the bed.

“I’m grounded?” Peter repeated.

“You dipped out. You didn’t say anything, you just went out the window—and I know you knew it was a bad idea because you went out of your way to convince FRIDAY it was all cool,” Tony said.

“There were people in those buses,” Peter protested. “And that dude’s crazy. He was going to kill them if I didn’t do something!”

“He had clearly set the whole thing up!” Tony said, throwing his hands up, then dropping down into the guest chair next to Peter’s bed. “It was an obvious trap.”

“It didn’t matter that it was a trap,” Peter said, striving to keep his voice even. “Those people were in danger whether or not it was a setup. I couldn’t just not help—”

It’s not about not helping them,” Tony said, sitting forward with his elbows on his knees, running his hands through his hair, trying just as hard as Peter was not to give in and shout. “It’s about being smart about it. I was right there. Rhodey was there. You didn’t have to go in alone and have me rushing to back you up—we could’ve coordinated.”

“I didn’t think you’d let me go if I told you."

“Peter, when have I stopped you from doing Spider-Man things?” Tony asked, then held up a finger when Peter opened his mouth. “I’m not saying it was great from the beginning. There was a learning curve. I mean since we both went all-in on this thing. Have I ever stopped you?”

Peter frowned, and Tony nodded like that proved something.

“No. I haven’t stopped you. And there have been times when, as the adult, I should have held you back a step,” Tony said. Peter opened his mouth to protest, but Tony just held up his finger again. “Instead of giving you training and intel, I should be encouraging you to add band back into your schedule. You should be building LEGOS rather than looking at old Stark weapons schematics. You want to make those choices, though, and I have never stopped you. Because you can handle it. And I’d rather help you, because I reached for a lot of the same shit with both hands and some of it didn’t go so well.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Peter said after long enough of a pause that he knew Tony had said his piece.

“Next time, you tell me,” Tony said. “And I want you to promise me you’ll call me the next time that goblin guy turns up, whether he set up a trap for you or not. You pass him on the street, you hit the panic button.”

“Yeah. Of course.”

“I watched back the footage,” Tony said, leaning back in his chair, relaxing into the more comfortable conversation. “He’s not some random dude with a weird gimmick. He’s out for you.”

“He’s connected to OsCorp somehow,” Peter said. “He said something about all the science. He’s like that Colleen lady who impersonated Maria Hill.”

“I think you’re right,” Tony said. “DoDC recovered his glider yesterday and I’ve been looking at initial reports and the reports they made on that ruined one from the Quest buyout party. It’s an OsCorp prototype for the military. A different take on pararescue, like Wilson’s wing getup.”

“That would be really cool if it didn’t have Chitauri guns off the front of it,” Peter said. Tony snorted. “This means we’re digging into those creepy OsCorp files again, huh?”

“Yeah, looks like we need to bump it up the priority list.”

Peter nodded, settling back against the pillows. It had been 24-hours and he felt a lot better, but he was still quick to tire.

“You get some rest, okay?” Tony said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“You should get some rest, too,” Peter said, then smirked. “You look like shit.”

“Just for that, you really are grounded,” Tony said, but he was smiling, too. “FRIDAY, no fun internet for Peter.”

 

Peter was allowed to leave the medbay part of the compound Saturday morning. Dr. Costa had given him a very thorough exam and pronounced him mostly okay, but he’d said it reluctantly like he really wanted to keep Peter in bed hooked up to fluids and monitors for another day.

Peter mostly just felt sore. His shoulders ached, and even the littlest use of his arms made his muscles burn with fatigue, but he didn’t appear to have lost any range of movement. His face was one big , mottled bruise, all yellows and greens. His right eye was entirely bloodshot and looked like something out of a horror movie, but his vision was the same as it ever was.

“I’m giving official approval to go to school Monday,” Dr. Costa said. “I don’t like it. I’m worried about those strains in your arms and shoulder, but you should be okay for going to classes.”

 

“Did I mention everybody stuck around?” Tony asked as they pulled into underground parking at home late on Saturday.

“Uh. No,” Peter said. “No, you didn’t mention that.”

“Right. I knew there was something I forgot to tell you,” Tony said, smiling.

“You deliberately didn’t tell me,” Peter said, following him to the elevator. Tony just kept smiling.

The next few hours were real weird. Riri kept calling him Spider-Man, and he couldn’t tell if she was teasing him or trying to wrap her head around it. Rhodey just stood there and watched him without saying a word. And apparently everybody “in the know” had decided they’d waited long enough to hear from him, because his phone started blowing up with people checking in on him—the Bartons, the Langs, Dr. Ronson, Mr. Dell.

Black Widow sent him flowers with a cheesy get well card attached.

Chapter Text

Tony had lobbied hard for a nanite suit, and that would’ve been so cool, but Peter had wanted something closer to his usual suit. Something fabric.

“I interact with people, you know?” Peter had said. “I dance with little kids, or I grab people to get them out of oncoming traffic or whatever. A metal suit would be… cold.”

He’d won out, though he knew Tony had still shifted some of his focus to adding bells and whistles to the basic nanite suit he’d been working on since he’d offered Peter that spot on the Avengers.

Peter had finally put the suit on a week after Thanksgiving, and he’d been surprised at the reaction. He’d just gone out swinging around, getting a feel for the new suit, testing things out, but people had been super excited to see him. Shouting, waving, cheering him on for just swinging by.

GOOD TO SEE YOU DOING YOUR THING AGAIN, Rhodey texted, and that was what made Peter realize they were cheering him on for getting back on the metaphorical horse.

It had never occurred to him not to get back out there.

Chapter Text

“So. Um. I have a couple, um, questions,” Peter asked. He’d thought it would be less awkward if he just tackled it head-on, but he’d been wrong. Tony looked up, raising an eyebrow.

“Okay,” Tony prompted after Peter had lingered in the doorway without actually asking any questions.

“Right. Um.” Peter ran a hand through his hair, wondering why the hell it was so awkward. “Well. Can I have friends over? Just in general. And, more specifically, this Saturday.”

“Yeah. Of course,” Tony said, his other eyebrow going up. “Why wouldn’t that be okay?”

“I have no idea. It just hadn’t really come up yet, and I guess I got in my head about whether that was deliberate or just because things have been… It’s been a bit of a time.”

He’d sort of expected to be grounded after the fighting at school thing. It hadn’t been his fault, and nobody had said it was his fault, but it was just the sort of thing that usually involved consequences whether it was his fault or not. And he really had been grounded after the Green Goblin thing, but not even for a whole day.

And he hadn’t actually invited friends over since moving into the penthouse, which was months ago. He’d always gone over to Ned’s. MJ had shown up a few times, but she’d just done that rather than it actually being a plan.

“It has, yeah,” Tony said. He looked thoughtful, then drummed a pattern on his desk and seemed to bring himself back into focus. “What’s the occasion on Saturday?”

“Ned and MJ have a group project for Digital Media and I said I’d help,” Peter said. “Question about Saturday part two: Is it okay if we’re kinda loud?”

“Kinda loud?”

“Yeah.”

“In what way can you make Digital Media loud?”

“Okay. The project is to make a music video. The idea is to focus on combining audio and video and making it a cohesive thing, but it’s MJ and the only solid guideline for the thing is that each group member has to appear in the video. There’s a paper, too, but I’m not in the class so I sort of checked out when they were talking about that part.”

“So they’re going to be here… singing?”

“Oh, no. They already did that part. They already did most of it, actually—Ned and Greg, the other guy in their group, are both in band, so they were able to use practice rooms to record most of it. And MJ’s a really good singer, so she did that part,” Peter said. “Jackie was going to do drums for them, but then her grandma died and so she’s in Toronto for the next week for the funeral and they can’t wait for her to get back to get the drum stuff recorded. I said I could help, but now finals are coming up so the practice rooms are all booked for people who are actually in band or orchestra and they can’t monopolize one of them to film.”

“So I’m going to upgrade those super-duper noise-cancelling headphones for this weekend, got it,” Tony said.

“Greg’s brother has a garage band—but they play out of a basement, so does that mean it’s actually a basement band? Doesn’t matter—Greg’s brother is loaning us a drum set, but we can’t record in their basement because their mom works nights and she’ll be sleeping upstairs. So I said I’d ask if it would be okay if we recorded here. Only it would just be Ned and MJ coming over because Greg has a soccer thing.”

“Great. The three caballeros. We’ll order pizza or something,” Tony said.

“Cool. Awesome,” Peter said. “Thanks, Tony.”

“You live here, Peter. Of course you can have friends over. Jeez.”

“I should warn you that Ned’s mom is very… protective. She’s probably going to be the one who brings them over because the drum set will fit in the back of their van. But she’s going to want to hear it from you that there will be an adult present the whole time and all that stuff.”

“All that stuff?”

“Yeah. Y’know.” Peter shrugged. “Supervised-ish. Really working on a school project and not goofing off making content for YouTube.”

“I don’t understand how that would be a bad thing,” Tony said. “Shouldn’t she be worried about drugs and alcohol or something?”

“She worries about that, too, but she knows me and MJ,” Peter said. “We make her worry that Ned won’t be pushed to his full potential rather than that he’ll end up dead in a gutter after some sort of shenanigans gone wrong.”

“I’m sorry your friend’s mom doesn’t think you’re one of the cool kids.”

 

Saturday came, and Peter was weirdly nervous. Ned and MJ had both seen Tony before, but this was somehow different. It was all domestic and stuff.

MJ has said to wear all black, so he did. And he’d moved all the furniture in his bedroom off to one side so they’d have room to set the drum set and sound equipment up—there was better space in the living room, but the ceiling was so high the sound quality would’ve sucked from the echo.

Probably he was nervous because it was MJ and he wanted to impress her. And he was afraid Tony would tease him about his crush in front of her or try to get him to make a move or something, and he was definitely not ready for any of that to happen.

And MJ was just really good at music stuff. She sang like it was as easy as breathing for her, and she never seemed particularly impressed with herself about it—she wasn’t even in choir. She’d arranged all the music herself, though.

MJ was one of the most awesome people Peter had ever met.

(Peter may or may not have spent the entire week cramming every spare moment he had going over the music. He didn’t have a drum set, or even a practice pad, to use, but he’d done his best.)

Ned’s ringtone interrupted Peter’s distracted thoughts.

“Hey. You guys on your way?” Peter asked, heading for the living room. Tony was on his second or third cup of coffee, hanging around the kitchen reading something on his StarkPad and generally looking like he was keeping himself busy until everybody arrived and got settled so he could go tackle his to-do list in his home office. Or possibly he was just hanging out waiting for Happy so they could play video games or something. Hard to tell.

“Um, we’re here,” Ned said. “MJ said just go in the underground parking garage?”

“Yep,” Peter said. “Buzz the penthouse and FRIDAY will open the garage for you, and then I’ll come down to help you load everything into the elevator.”

“Are we just allowed into the parking thing?”

“There’s a panel of buttons,” Peter said. “Buzz the one for the penthouse.”

He didn’t want to tell Ned to just ask MJ, that she’d been there before. He wasn’t sure if Ned knew that MJ had visited him. He wasn’t sure if MJ would care whether people knew she’d visited him or not.

She hadn’t held his hand since school started and he wasn’t sure if it was significant or not. It felt significant, like he’d missed a signal or missed an opportunity or something.

(He was absolutely not going to ask Tony about it.)

“Your life, dude,” Ned said, then got kind of muffled as he relayed the instructions to his mom.

“Mrs. Leeds is going to want to physically see that you’re present before she leaves Ned here,” Peter said to Tony.

“She is aware that FRIDAY is built into this place, right?” Tony asked, but he set his StarkPad aside. “Even if I wasn’t actually here, it’s not like you’d be unsupervised.”

“Might be best not to tell her about FRIDAY,” Peter said. “It’d be a bit Big Brother for her taste. And not the reality TV one, the 1984 one.”

“Hear that, FRI?” Tony asked, looking toward the nearest camera. “Try not to freak the guests out.”

“I’ll do my best, Boss,” FRIDAY said. Peter snorted.

The parking garage was connected to FRIDAY rather than a buzzer by the door like the apartment in Queens, so Mrs. Leeds’s minivan was already parked off to the side by the elevator by the time they reached the parking garage.

“Mr. Stark,” Mrs. Leeds said, smiling at him a bit tensely.

“Mrs. Leeds,” Tony replied, putting his best PR smile on his face. “Good to see you again.”

“Is there some sort of cart or something?” MJ interrupted, appearing around from the back of the minivan. She jerked her chin at Peter and that was as close to a greeting as he expected to get out of her. “We’ve got a lot of stuff.”

It took the five of them a solid twenty minutes to get everything out of the van and up to the penthouse. Peter wanted to pull his hair out. Tony thought it was hilarious.

“Okay, here’s what we have so far,” Ned said once they were mostly set up in Peter’s room. It was pretty cramped with the drum set, the camera, Ned’s sound equipment, Ned and MJ’s laptops. MJ had taken over Peter’s desk and the chair that went with it, leaving Ned to sit on the foot of his bed and Peter to take his place over on the stool that went with the drum set.

“You have to stay over there while you watch it, though,” MJ said, waving a spare drum stick at him. “I’m balancing the lighting on this ancient camera.”

“It’s not ancient,” Ned corrected even as he turned his laptop so Peter would be able to see the screen without moving his stool out from behind the drum set. “It’s a perfectly good camera. Peter replaced the lens and, like, half the innards just a couple years ago.”

“It’s still old.”

Ned hit PLAY, ending the squabble.

The video was really good. Not finished at all, but good.

They’d chosen “Strangers Like Me” from Tarzan because the school band had played it for a pops concert the year before so MJ had had the sheet music to work off of. MJ had done the vocals, layering tracks to harmonize with herself and everything because she was awesome. Nobody played the guitar, but MJ had done the arranging so Greg and his buddies from the brass section could fill the part. Ned had manned the egg shaker maraca thing.

Ned had already layered all the audio tracks so the sound lined up, but the video had only barely been roughed together. It was still cool.

“This is really good, you guys,” Peter said.

“It will be when we finish,” MJ said. “Ready?”

“Ready,” Peter said.

“Ready,” Ned said.

MJ held a notebook page with PETER #1 on it in front of the camera, then Ned started the track in Peter’s headphones, and MJ’s recorded voice counted out the intro for him.

They kept going until Ned and MJ were satisfied. He ended up playing the whole thing through a bunch of times, but they had him repeat little bits and pieces again and again. And then Ned took the camera off the tripod and filmed close-ups.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to play it through twelve more times, because, I mean, you’ve only got, like, eighty takes,” Peter said once they’d finally declared themselves satisfied.

“Oh, God, don’t tempt them!” Tony called from the other room. “Come eat pizza instead!”

Tony Stark bought us pizza,” Ned hissed in an excited whisper. MJ rolled her eyes.

They ate pizza and Ned word-vomited about the project through the whole thing. By the end of it, MJ had warmed up to the idea of sharing about the project, too, and she hadn’t even looked at Peter to check and see if Tony was pulling her chain when he’d followed along and asked questions about the mic she’d used to record the vocals.

 

It was a little bittersweet after Ned and MJ left, and Peter had put his bedroom furniture back in place. It had felt like a normal Saturday afternoon. Hanging out with friends, working on homework, chatting about school.

He missed May.

Chapter Text

“Wheels up in twenty, let’s go!” Tony called, thumping his open palm against the door to Peter’s room as he passed.

“You shouldn’t say ‘wheels up’ if we’re driving,” Peter shouted back.

“Pepper?” Tony said, ignoring Peter entirely as he moved down the hall.

Peter grabbed his StarkPad and the noise cancelling earbuds Pepper had given him ages and ages ago, and headed for the living room.

“Why do I feel like I should remind you one more time that we don’t need to do gifts?” Pepper asked, following Tony out of their bedroom. “Just spend the day with us. You don’t have to get us… anything.”

Peter tried to hide his smile, turning away from them and grabbing a few snacks for the car. Pepper had been on about the no-gifts thing since Tony had first told them he had planned out Christmas Day because he’d got them something.

Apparently, there was a whole thing with gifts between Tony and Pepper. Mostly, it was just that they had a lot of money between the two of them and tended to just get things that they wanted when they wanted them, or they’d give each other things at random. And Pepper had a great story about an enormous stuffed rabbit that was too absurd not to be true, so Peter totally got why she’d want to put the kibosh on that whole thing.

The thing that they gave each other for holidays and birthdays was time. They were both busy; there was literally always something they could be doing no matter what time of day or day of the week it was. So they simply deliberately spent time together, and Peter found himself sharing that time.

“Pep, I swear you’ll like this,” Tony said, tossing a sweatshirt at Peter. “You can call it a Christmas present and a wedding present all wrapped up in one.”

“If it’s a wedding present, do you want me to hang back?” Peter said, dutifully putting on the sweatshirt even though he wasn’t cold. “I’ve got plenty of research I could be looking through—”

“Nope, you’re coming. No reading creepy Hydra files on Christmas,” Tony said. “This is a family event.”

“If you make us sing Christmas carols on the drive, I’m ducking and rolling no matter how fast we’re going,” Peter said, because it was easier to make a joke than to acknowledge the ‘family event’ bit.

Pepper smiled but tried to hide it.

 

They headed north, and then they kept heading north. At first Peter had thought they might be headed to the compound, but the highway exits out of the city had been a little bit different, and then they’d been pointed a little more northeast than would take them to the compound.

Finally, they turned off the highway. They were in the middle of nowhere, woods on either side and just the badly-in-need-of-repaving driveway winding through.

“Where are we going, Tony?” Pepper asked, looking at the woods and then looking at her fiancé with raised eyebrows.

“You’ll see,” he said. “Almost there.”

Tony drove around one last bend, and the trees gave way to a clear yard space. There was a broken-down cabin at the center of it, the roof mostly covered in tarps; it looked like there had been a fire. On the far side of the house was a lake, frozen over.

“Ta-da,” Tony said, parking the car not far from the cabin.

“What—what is this?” Pepper asked, looking at Tony, then back at Peter, then out at the cabin.

“Something we can make ours,” Tony said. “All of ours.”

Chapter Text

Peter had the week between Christmas and New Year’s off from high school and college, and Pepper had decided all three of them were taking something close to a holiday from SI for the week, too. Pepper still had at least one or two conference calls every day, and Tony worked on R&D stuff whenever she wasn’t looking, but they were all home together so it counted.

Peter had started off the week really trying to have a break—he read one of Uncle Ben’s dogeared paperback mysteries, played video games online with Ned—but it didn’t last. By Tuesday he’d fully immersed himself in the Green Goblin conundrum.

They had so much information. So much.

So much information that it made it tricky to actually step back far enough to be able to see the larger picture. FRIDAY was really good at crunching through data, but she needed the right questions in order to give them the answers they were looking for. Unfortunately, they’d spent months looking for the right questions.

After Thanksgiving, when they’d realized the Green Goblin was directly tied to OsCorp, Tony had hacked Norman Osborn’s personal servers. Then there was the drive from Black Widow. The data Quest Aerospace had given to SHIELD in a gesture of goodwill when they’d acquired OsCorp. The stuff Peter and Ned had found when they’d hacked OsCorp.

It was all a mess. It tied together, they knew it did, but it was like putting together a puzzle with only the general idea of the picture the pieces should make.

And there had been a lot going on in the last year to keep them from focusing on the problem, slogging through the information, taking a hard look.

Peter had a week off. He’d decided to take a hard look.

Most of it was tedious—spreadsheets tracking lab spending, memos about securing workstations at end-of-day.

Some was more interesting—OsCorp had sold its in vitro technology to a private fertility center, for instance; the research that had allowed so many viable embryos for horrific scientific experimentation had been put to work helping couples conceive for an outrageous fee.

And then he had FRIDAY do a search for Richard Parker or Mary Fitzpatrick, and she found something almost instantly: Richard Parker had headed up the SPEC42 spider research. Previous work had created a spider with venom that acted as a catalyst for genetic change, and his work, according to the notes on Osborn’s private server, had focused on engineering a spider to impart traits that would “enable the subjects to go toe-to-toe with just about any enhanced person on the market,” particularly Captain America or the Winter Soldier. Or even the Hulk.

There were no video clips, and Peter was thankful for it. A single photo of Dr. Parker smiling for the camera in front of dozens of glass terrariums full of spiders was enough to send a chill up Peter’s spine.

“Got a minute?” Tony asked, startling him; he’d been too focused on the photo and hadn’t heard Tony knock, though his fist was still held up close to the open door like he must have made some noise to announce himself before speaking.

“Yeah,” Peter said, spinning around on his desk chair to face Tony. “A distraction would be great, actually.”

“What are you working on?” Tony asked, turning to pull the desk chair from his home office into the room after him. He must’ve rolled it down the hall with him, and that would’ve been funny if Tony didn’t look so… off.

“Going through the stuff you pulled off Osborn’s servers,” Peter said. He gestured at his laptop, the picture of Dr. Parker and the spider terrariums still on the screen. “Mostly variations on things we already knew so far.”

“Me too,” Tony said. He sat in his desk chair and held his StarkPad up, tapping the edge of it idly with his fingertips. “That’s actually what I came in here for. I have something you should see.”

“Okay,” Peter said, rolling his chair closer so that he could see the StarkPad better.

“It’s… You should see it, but it’s a lot, Peter.”

“Same as last time, then,” Peter said, thinking of what a ball of nerves he’d been after he’d found Dr. Fitzpatrick’s logs in the data Agent Romanoff had recovered.

“A lot like last time, yeah,” Tony said, then he tapped the StarkPad screen and started the first in what looked like a long list of video files.

It was Dr. Fitzpatrick again. She had dark circles under her eyes and looked… really pissed off. The lab behind her was barren, just a few scattered office bits left on surfaces that had clearly been designed to house tech of some sort.

“Well, here’s the irony for you,” his mother said. She backed away from the camera a bit so she was in view from the waist up. She was pregnant. Not big, really. So it was maybe January or February before he was born. Weeks, maybe a month, after the last videos they’d seen of her. “I donated all my eggs to the project because I didn’t want kids, and here we are.”

“What?” Peter muttered, but it wasn’t really a question.

“Norman, I’m sending this on to you with the rest of the data packet from the project. We’re going underground with what we were able to salvage—we got word not quite a week ago now that SHIELD is going to be moving to shut us down within the month, and, as you know, we can’t let that happen,” she said. She looked away from the camera, stepping partly out of frame to click on a computer or something for a moment before she stepped back in front of the camera. “There were sixteen people able to carry a child and we all volunteered. Implantation was… Let’s go with uncomfortable. That’s irrelevant, though, of course. Unfortunately, only fourteen were successful.”

Dr. Fitzpatrick rubbed at her temples, glaring down at her midsection a moment before she continued.

“We lost so much data, Norm. I can’t—so much of our work.” She sighed. “And now, even with all of us self-monitoring and keeping conditions as uniform as humanly possible, it’s still so many variables. The decision was made to go ahead anyway because there’s no guarantee we’ll ever get another shot at this. It’s just very frustrating after all the work we put in to end up… here.”

She glared at her midsection again.

The video file ended and the StarkPad autoplayed the next. Peter just watched, frozen.

“This is the six-month mark for Subject 28, just shy of ten weeks since implantation,” Dr. Fitzpatrick reported dully. “All my screens have come in steady, all variances expected or acceptable.”

She was in an office rather than a lab, all dark wood and book-lined shelves. There was a freestanding chalkboard just barely in frame behind her, calculations and diagrams scribbled in white and yellow chalk. He recognized it from photographs; it was the home office at his parents’ place in Connecticut, the place that had been his home before they’d died.

Peter felt a little bit sick.

The video file switched again. Dr. Fitzpatrick was in the same room, but sitting further back from the camera so it was easy to see how hugely pregnant she was. The chalkboard was gone. There were stacks of manilla folders on the desk in front of her.

“I apologize for the delay since my last update,” Dr. Fitzpatrick said. “Richard and I have been laying groundwork with his family for our cover story. And, honestly, I just really hate being pregnant; I have not felt at all well, let alone felt up to making a report. I’m sure you have some idea, seeing as the word on the grapevine is that your wife is in a similar state.”

Dr. Fitzpatrick smirked at the camera, but it was very nearly a sneer. Like she had some private joke with Norman Osborn about how undesirable it was to bring a child into the world.

Peter swallowed down bile, not letting himself look away from the StarkPad. There was no way he wanted to miss something and have to watch the clips a second time.

“I will send on the full data sets with this report. The overview is that things are not going well,” Dr. Fitzpatrick said, tapping the manilla folders. “Of the fourteen successful implantations, ten of them have failed. Autopsies were completed, and we learned a good deal, so this hasn’t been a complete wash. Subject 7, in particular, shows interesting potential; I’ll let you read the report yourself, but we should chat about it.”

From her smile, Peter thought the “interesting potential” was probably along the lines of a bioweapon or something horrible like that.

“Two of the pregnancies terminated quite soon after implantation. One of those also killed the… mother. For lack of a better word.” Dr. Fitzpatrick wrinkled her nose and shot another slightly disgusted look at her midsection. “The four remaining subjects all appear to be viable. They’re on track with development. Scans have been coming back normal. There is some concern with Subject 37, as ultrasounds detect a heart murmur. That shouldn’t have happened. Best we can figure at the moment is that something happened during implantation that disrupted development.”

Dr. Fitzpatrick went on, opening the folders and giving too-detailed summaries of each. Ten dead “subjects,” all of them picked apart to bits, analyzed and filed. She gave storage tag information for all the samples so that Osborn could retrieve it from anonymous storage units to be filed at OsCorp until they could continue the project.

And obviously they’d continued the project, because that spider had existed to bite Peter.

In the next video file, Dr. Fitzpatrick was in a nursery. The walls were soft yellow, and there were fluffy blue and white blankets folded over the back of a rocking chair behind her. Peter had seen dozens of pictures of her in that room, his room, before. She’d always been smiling for the camera, looking like a glowing new mother. In the video, she looked… pleased with herself. 

“He came four weeks ahead of schedule,” Dr. Fitzpatrick said, the video picking up mid report. The audio was a little fuzzy, but the visual was perfectly clear. “He had to spend the last five weeks in NICU, so we’ve only just been able to get on with preliminary testing.”

She shot the crib a look like the baby in it had deliberately tried to sabotage her shitty experiment.

“We put Peter Benjamin Parker on the birth certificate,” Dr. Fitzpatrick said. “Peter for our ally who’d infiltrated SHIELD, got us word about the shutdown before they could get their hands on anything. He got himself burned for the warning, so it’s only fitting. Benjamin to ingratiate ourselves with Richard’s family, strengthen our cover story. And Parker because, again for the cover story, we’re probably going to have to get married at some point. We’re claiming Richard is the father; it’s what we put on the birth certificate and we’ve given no reason for anybody to question that. Luckily, he and Stark are both fairly generic white males. And the subject inherited my ears, which, while I have to admit is very strange to see, it does give us something to talk about with the people who turn up to ‘visit the baby.’”

“Fairly generic—” Peter echoed, glancing at Tony, but Tony was still looking at the StarkPad. Peter looked back down and saw that there were more video files.

“Subject 37 was stillborn,” Dr. Fitzpatrick said idly, like a comment on the weather. “Subjects 10 and 25 were born as planned on the expected date. The autopsy on 37 is underway. There appear to have been other defects beside the heart murmur detected in the ultrasound—”

The file ended abruptly, and in the next Dr. Fitzpatrick was back in the home office. She had her elbows on the desktop, fingers laced together with her chin resting on them as she looked into the camera. She looked annoyed, if anything.

“—implantation is the best guess for the discrepancies, though I can’t say that with complete certainty without a way to replicate the experiment.” She made a dry, unamused sound that might’ve been mistaken for a laugh. “Subject 28, for instance, has already shown signs of asthma or something like it. Numerous food allergies, as well as pollen. Subject 10 has the same food allergies, but not pollen. No asthma in the two that managed to make it to term.”

Her report was cut off by rustling from the baby monitor behind her. Dr. Fitzpatrick looked annoyed, expelled a long breath out her nose, then shut off the camera.

“Norm, this project has gone to shit,” Dr. Fitzpatrick said in the next video. She was in the home office again, pacing back and forth in front of the camera, sometimes walking right out of frame. “It had already gone to shit, but now it’s really done.”

She took a deep breath, threw herself into the desk chair, and pulled a black binder off a shelf, plopping it open on the desk in front of her.

“Subject 10 is dead. Victim of a random crime,” she said. “The subject, the ‘parents,’ the dog. All of them killed, apparently, for electronics and jewelry.”

The audio went out, but Dr. Fitzpatrick ranted at the camera for a while longer before the video cut out too. She seemed to be reading things out of the binder, probably autopsy findings or something gruesome like that.

The next video file was not in the home office or the nursery, but a new lab. It was white, sterile, huge. Peter recognized it as the OsCorp lab he’d visited on the field trip, and his gut turned.

The room was dim. Dr. Fitzpatrick was in a lab coat again, her hair pulled back into a hasty bun like she’d been working all day and tied it back to keep it out of the way. She had a pen stuck in the bun, and for some reason that humanizing factor turned his stomach just as much as the sight of the lab did.

“This is Project Genome, log one. The date is November 16, 2003,” Dr. Fitzpatrick said. “We are tracking two subjects—designated Subject 25 and Subject 28 as they were initially part of a larger batch.”

She went on, going over growth charts and behavioral tests and intelligence ratings. There were photos of identical boys—Peter couldn’t tell which one was him and which one was Subject 25. There were photos of them in the room that Peter had thought he’d only dreamed, the large empty room with just the rug and the wall of windows.

“Project Genome, log forty-seven,” Norman Osborn said in the next video. It was the first time Peter had seen him, but his tone made it sound like he’d been making just as many logs as Dr. Fitzpatrick. “The subjects are meeting all expected developmental markers. Subject 25 continued to outperform Subject 28 physically. The data suggests it shouldn’t make a difference once the second exposure occurs, but it will be an interesting counterpoint to observe.”

Osborn had inserted a photograph of the boys in rooms next to each other, the rooms as identical as the boys down to the rug on the floor and the pajamas the boys were wearing. He talked briefly about those same statistics and ratings Dr. Fitzpatrick had cited in the first log, but then went on to talk about the work with the spiders.

He talked about the “second exposure” a lot.

“Project Genome, log three-twelve,” Dr. Fitzpatrick said in the next video. The image was pixelated every few frames and the audio didn’t quite sync up correctly. “Supplemental.”

She shuffled her notes. Scowled.

The video went fuzzy.

“It doesn’t matter,” his dad—well, not his dad—Richard Parker said. He was tall and clean-shaven, wearing a lab coat with the same style embroidery on the pocket as Dr. Fitzpatrick’s. “Just use any of them.”

The audio went out but the video was clear, and there were the people he’d always thought were his parents going through paperwork together. Watching them, he could tell they’d been living and working in close quarters for a long time, were very comfortable with each other. There was a coldness to them, though—Peter didn’t know if he was imagining it, knowing what he did about their project.

“Project Genome, log three-twelve, supplemental,” Dr. Fitzpatrick repeated. She held up a photo of Peter, maybe three years old. He was in a big playroom, hands balled into fists, giving the camera a confused, or maybe worried, look. Harry Osborn sat on the floor next to him, scowling at Peter and holding a Captain America action figure. “Subject 28’s social—”

The log cut to static.

“Log… I don’t know what log this is,” Osborn said. He was flushed, eyes bleary. “Mary’s dead. Rich, too. We’re taking the project off the books for the moment—all anybody will say is that their plane crashed, but SHIELD’s poked around before. Wouldn’t put it past them to do it again.”

Osborn paused to drink deeply from a tall bottle of what looked like vodka. It was a clear liquor, anyway.

“Subject 28 was handed over to Parker’s brother, which was not the plan,” Osborn said, pointing a finger at the camera. Peter couldn’t tell if he was lecturing whoever the intended viewer was or if he was making excuses for himself to them. “I’ve had to back off my attempts for access. I offered to take custody, the man’s hardly set to take on a kid, but it just cemented the decision. The man was going on about taking care of family and what Richard would’ve wanted. Idiot.”

Osborn scoffed, drank again, then shut down the camera.

“Your designation,” Osborn said when the next file began to play. He stood on one side of a glass wall, binder open in his hands, wearing a lab coat like he wanted it to somehow legitimize the way he was looking at the boy on the other side of the glass. “Go on.”

“Subject 25,” the boy said. He looked exactly like Peter. Hair, eyes, ears, jaw. His hair was cropped very close to his head where Peter’s had always been a mop of curls. He was maybe a little bit heartier-looking, too; like he got exactly the nutrients he needed exactly when he needed them and always had, and like he could run and jump and play without worrying about needing an inhaler.

“Age.”

“Twelve years, two months.”

They carried on through a list of demographics like that, then Osborn started quizzing him on things like he was trying to prove the boy could think and speak and function like a human being. When they’d finished the questions in the binder, Osborn flipped a switch and the lights went out in the boy’s room. He turned to the camera.

“Subject 28 is still out of reach. According to what records I’ve been able to obtain, he is developing similarly. Chronic medical conditions mean he is not as generally healthy and robust as Subject 25; however, all indications suggest he is still a viable candidate for second exposure.”

The next video file made Peter want to puke, but he couldn’t move.

The other boy, Subject 25, was in that same room as always. There had been furniture in the last log—a bed, a desk, a few books—but it was just the rug again. This time, there was just a hospital bed. Somebody in a hazmat suit directed him to lay on the bed, and he did. Then he held still while the person put restraints on him, more restraints than could possibly be necessary for a boy.

“Subject is fourteen years old,” Osborn said, stepping just barely into frame. Again, he wasn’t on the same side of the glass as the boy. “See attached data packet for the full medical workup prior to second exposure. The date is May 2, 2016.”

On the other side of the glass, the person in the hazmat suit had finished with the restraints and picked up a glass jar. The video couldn’t see the spider in the jar, but Osborn started reading off statistics. SPEC42, he called it.

“40,000 years of evolution and we’ve barely even tapped the vastness of human potential,” Osborn said, seemingly more to himself than whoever he was recording the video for, as he watched the person in the hazmat suit take the lid off the jar.

The person in the hazmat suit turned the jar over on the boy’s arm, holding it in place and tapping at the glass to agitate the spider. The boy didn’t so much as blink, just lay there and stared at the ceiling. He flinched ever so slightly when the spider bit him, but it wasn’t like he was able to move much with the restraints.

The video changed angles to a camera suspended above the boy’s bed and time-lapsed through several days. Medical statistics played on the sides of the video like some twisted HUD, showing several hours of what appeared to be perfectly normal sleep before he began running a fever. Then he was awake, thrashing in the restraints, the movements almost comically jerky in time-lapse. There was no sound, but he was clearly calling out.

Really, it looked about right from what Peter could remember of his own experience with the spider. His second exposure to SPEC42. He’d been miserable and feverish for days. Nauseous. Starving, dehydrated, but completely unable to eat or drink anything without throwing it right back up. Terrified because he’d never felt so ill, no matter how sick he’d gotten with the asthma or anything else that had come up.

He’d had May, though. She’d soothed him, kept him clean, held his hand and stroked his hair.

It all looked so much worse, watching the boy go through all that alone. Strapped down. Nobody was even in the room with him to tell him it would be okay, to give him water or ginger ale or crackers. To just keep him company.

He was alone, strapped down, the only company a person in a hazmat suit who came to change out his IV bags every so often.

And then he died.

Alerts flared across the screen, the heart monitor reporting a complete lack of a pulse, the feverish temperature already dropping.

The room was flooded with people in hazmat suits. Osborn yelled at them from the other side of the glass, calling for medical personnel.

The video abruptly switched, not a new file but a new view for the after report.

“Subject 25 died on the fourth day after second exposure,” Osborn said dully. “Resuscitation was successful, however the fever was such that the subject suffered brain death and the subject was terminated.”

Osborn frowned, closed the binder on the desk in front of him. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then just determined.

“Subject 28 is due at the OsCorp lab on a class field trip in a week’s time,” he said. “Second exposure will be attempted. It will be uncontrolled, and there is no way to observe the way we did with Subject 25, but it’s our last shot.”

 

Another video file didn’t start up when it finished, and Tony set aside the StarkPad. He turned to Peter, obviously looking for some sort of reaction, but all Peter could do was smile. The smile seemed to confuse Tony. The laughter only confused him more.

“Peter?”

“It’s so incredibly anticlimactic,” Peter said, struggling to get the words out around the laughter. He felt giddy—or probably manic, more like.

“Anticlimactic?”

“Yeah?” Peter wiped tears from his eyes, sucking in a deep breath, striving for calm. “Don’t you think?”

“What?”

“You’d think it’d be this huge revelation, right? Like Star Wars. But it’s just…” Peter trailed off, shrugging. He laughed again before he could continue. “I mean, of course you’re my dad. Of course it’s you.”

“Sure. Right,” Tony said. He still looked wary, like he was waiting for the reality of it to hit Peter properly.

“I think I knew, you know? We both probably did,” Peter said. “I mean, we’ve known for months that Richard Parker was sterile, so he couldn’t be my father even if my birth certificate said so. Hell, it would’ve almost made sense to run a paternity test on us, knowing what we knew about my mother.”

“I didn’t want it to be negative,” Tony said quietly.

“What?” Peter asked, the laughter fading away a bit in the face of Tony’s solemnity.

“I thought of it. You’re right; it would’ve made sense to check, knowing what we did,” Tony said. “But I didn’t want to check it and find out it wasn’t me.”

“Oh.”

“It wouldn’t have changed anything,” Tony said firmly. “Legally, emotionally. You were already my kid, Peter.”

“How can it not change anything?” Peter asked, a few other things falling into place after the initial giddiness had passed. “How can you not hate me? I’m literally the product of your—your assault. She—”

“You are my son, Peter,” Tony said firmly, reaching over squeezing his wrist just a little bit until Peter looked him in the face. “You’re my son. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“I—?”

“How it happened is really messed up,” Tony said, lip twitching like he wanted to smirk but wouldn’t let himself, “but it doesn’t change the fact that it happened, and if it hadn’t happened neither of us would be here right now.”

“This is so messed up.”

“So messed up,” Tony agreed, but he let himself smile that time. “Kind of awesome, though, too.”

“Awesome?”

“You’re my son, Peter.” He let go of Peter’s wrist to tap at the StarkPad again, pulling up a file menu for the full data set he’d played just the selected video files from before. “The first time I went through all this data, you know what I was worried about?”

Peter shook his head, unable to come up with any words to say.

“I was worried Osborn was going to take you away from me,” Tony said. “The way he talks in the logs that come after that one, after you started doing your Spider-Man thing, he sounded like he was trying to put together some sort of case for apprehending you for… study. There are documented inquiries into the Accords, case precedents for mutants being detained, things along those lines.”

“He wanted to put me back in that room with the rug,” Peter said, his whole body going cold.

“The room with the rug?”

“From the video,” Peter said. He gestured at the StarkPad but he didn’t know which video file it had been and he didn’t want to replay it anyway. “The glass wall and the rug on the floor. I remember it; I’ve had dreams about it for as long as I can remember. I always thought it was a wall of windows and it was just too bright inside and too dark outside to see anything.”

“You remember—?”

“He was going to try to get me back there?” Peter asked. He felt like he was riding the edge of a panic attack, but at the same time incredibly calm. “Do tests and take samples since I’d survived the b—the second exposure?”

“He can’t,” Tony said firmly. “Nobody is ever going to take so much as a stool sample from you without your complete consent. And mine, for that matter. It would’ve been tricky for them to get you away from us, legally speaking, since the adoption. It’s all but impossible with paternity on our side.”

“And you checked it?” Peter asked, tipping away from the calm and into the panic. “It wasn’t, like, a fluke? The mutation didn’t mess with my DNA past recognition?”

“I had FRIDAY run our samples the minute I realized it might be a real possibility,” Tony said, nodding. “And you’ve got my mom’s eyes, Pete.”

“Your mom’s—?”

“You’ve been my kid almost since the day we met,” Tony said. “You and I both say that’s how it is. The courts say that’s how it is. And now we know that we have the security blanket of DNA to back it up if we need it.”

“That’s… that’s good. Right?”

“It’s very good,” Tony said, nodding again, smiling. “I’ll see about clearing it with the Accords Committee to withhold bits of this to keep your face and name out of it all, but I’m going to give the rest of it to the FBI. Osborn is going to spend the rest of his life in jail if I have anything to say about it.”

“What if he fights?”

“He doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” Tony said firmly. “He’s in multiple video logs. His name, his company’s funding, is all over the records. And OsCorp gets the majority of its funding from grants. Or they used to. Even if he somehow managed to worm out of the fucking myriad charges we’re going to drop on him, he’s done.”

“Ooh, myriad,” Peter said. “Vocab word.”

 

“I was worried it might be Osborn,” Peter said later.

“What?” Tony asked. They’d settled together on the couch, not talking or watching TV, just sitting next to each other… processing.

“When I found those first videos, and my mom mentioned that Richard Parker was sterile,” Peter said. “I don’t have many pictures from before I was with May and Ben, but most of them that I do have are from conferences or events or something, and Norman Osborn is in almost all of them. He and my mom were close.”

“And you were thinking maybe she and Osborn…?”

“Exactly.”

“Well. Now you don’t have to worry.”

“Right.”

They sat in silence for another moment. Peter was a little bit glad it was just them—Rhodey was somewhere in South America, and Pepper had ended up on a call.

“I’m glad it was you,” Peter said. He hadn’t been sure he wanted to say it out loud until he already had.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry they did what they did to you, but I’m really glad it was you. That you’re… you know.”

“What are the chances, right?” Tony asked, shifting so he could stretch his arm across Peter’s shoulders along the back of the couch and pull him in against his side. “Eight million people in this city alone.”

“I mean, it’s not a horrible longshot, really,” Peter said. “You’re the biggest name in the superhero business, and apparently I was literally genetically engineered to have these crazy superpowers, so—”

“Stop ruining my moment, Parker,” Tony said. “I was having a moment.”

“Right. Yes. Sorry,” Peter said. “The stars have surely smiled on us this day.”

“You are such a little shit,” Tony said, but he only held on tighter. He laughed to himself. “God, and you probably get it from me. That’s awesome.”

Chapter Text

“We should tell Pepper,” Tony said.

“You could print out the paternity confirmation and leave it for her to find,” Peter suggested.

“Nope,” Tony said. “Bad play. She’ll get mad.”

“She’ll get mad?”

“Yep. That’s me making her start the uncomfortable conversation,” Tony said. “Bad play.”

“Right. Okay. Sure. Uh—”

“Don’t do that to MJ.”

“Wha—we’re not, like, dating,” Peter said. “But noted. I guess.”

“Great. Look at that. Parental advice.”

“What about playing her the videos?” Peter asked, deciding to ignore that as an attempt at deflection.

“Honestly, I really don’t want to watch the videos again,” Tony said after just the slightest hesitation.

“Okay. So, she finishes her call, we’ll have dinner on the table already—maybe from that French place she likes?—and we’ll just tell her we have something really weird and uncomfortable to talk about. And then we ask if she wants to eat first, or if she wants us to tell her and then we eat after.” Peter frowned. “I can’t decide if it would be better to eat first because she might lose her appetite, or eat after so that if she pukes there’ll be less to throw up.”

“We’re going to have to eat while we tell her about it all,” Tony said. “She comes out here and sees dinner from the place that she prefers and we just sort of tolerate will be a red flag, and then she’ll die of curiosity if we tell her there’s something she needs to know but she has to wait to know it.”

“She won’t die.” Peter rolled his eyes.

“Well she won’t enjoy dinner, and if Pepper doesn’t enjoy the fucking flamiche there’s no point to ordering it.”

 

Tony had placed the delivery order and Peter had set the table, but that was as far as they’d gotten preparing for the conversation; they still hadn’t been able to decide the best way to bring it up.

It didn’t help at all that, apparently, Tony hadn’t told Pepper about the earlier videos Peter had found.

“I told Rhodey,” Tony said.

“Okay.”

“Don’t give me that look.”

“I’m not giving you a look.”

“You are. I know because it’s my dad’s look,” Tony said. “I’m the one who’s supposed to be using it on you.”

“I’m not giving you a look!”

“And now you sound like my mother.”

Tony,” Peter groaned, covering his face with his hands. “You’re deflecting.”

Tony made a humming grunt sound at the back of his throat and shrugged, saved from further comment for the moment by the arrival of their food.

“I think I should definitely start with an apology,” Tony said after he’d tipped the delivery guy. Peter took the bags and started setting out the containers on the table. “This is something I should’ve told her ages ago.”

“What’s something you should’ve told me ages ago?” Pepper asked, smiling at them as she entered the kitchen.

Tony shot Peter a look—Peter was supposed to have been listening so they’d know when her call finished—but all he could do was shrug since he’d gotten distracted. (He was hungry and the food smelled amazing.)

“Must be bad if you’re up to enduring French,” she said. She was still smiling and her tone was light, but her eyes were serious, assessing.

“I’ll pour you some wine,” Tony said, picking up the bottle he’d open to ‘let breathe,’ whatever that meant.

“Now I’m worried,” Pepper said, but she accepted the wine and let Tony kiss her hello.

“There have been a few things that have come up recently—in recent months—that I really should’ve shared with you, but I didn’t,” Tony said. “And I’m sorry.”

“Okay,” Pepper said. She took a sip of wine, then gave Tony an appreciative look and took another sip. “The good stuff. This must be big news.”

“Uh. Yeah,” Peter said, taking his seat at the dining table. “Kind of huge.”

“Should I be worried?”

“No. Well… no,” Tony said, holding a chair for Pepper before he sat as well. “It doesn’t really change anything.”

“But it also changes everything,” Peter said.

“Right.” Tony nodded. “It does.”

“But not really, when it comes down to it,” Peter said. “We were already there.”

“Emotionally,” Tony said, nodding again.

“Legally,” Peter said, nodding too.

“You know, that sort of byplay is exactly why there’s a betting pool at Stark about you being some sort of secret love child,” Pepper said.

Peter had just taken a sip of water, and he choked. Water came out of his nose.

Chapter Text

Shit.” Peter set the StarkPad down and sat back, staring at the spreadsheet. “FRIDAY, put that up on holo, please.”

FRIDAY did without saying anything, and the two nearly-identical spreadsheets floated in the air in front of him. Peter looked back and forth, confirming the little differences he’d suspected.

Shit,” Peter said again. “Highlight those differences for me?”

“Of course,” FRIDAY said, and the rows that hadn’t been on the first spreadsheet went red.

“Shit.”

Peter had tried to sleep, he really had. They’d talked over dinner, and then Peter had said his goodnights to give Tony and Pepper time to talk about it all more privately. He’d gotten ready for bed, and he’d even made it as far as reclining against his headboard, but he’d just ended up reviewing things on his StarkPad rather than his laptop.

He'd almost missed it because he’d looked at so many spreadsheets in the last few hours, but then there it was. Two spreadsheets, one from the data he and Ned had stolen when they’d hacked OsCorp, the other from the data Tony had stolen when he’d hacked Osborn’s private servers.

Both spreadsheets looked pretty straightforward at a glance. The first one was very standard, tracking things like paper and staples and other office things as well as labware requisitions and chemicals. Each item, from the copier toner to the litmus strips, had a billing department code attached—random office things for general use were billed to office services (and Peter had had to sift through a dozen other spreadsheets to find the list of billing department codes) while supplies earmarked for a particular project or study were billed to that project or study so that grant money was used appropriately and all that.

The information stored in the OsCorp servers didn’t match the information on Osborn’s private servers, but it did. It was all there. There were just more lines. Most of it was chemicals and raw materials, a lot of it controlled items Peter would have to do more digging to find out how they’d acquired off the record. The spreadsheet from the OsCorp server looked like things had been adjusted to compensate, almost every single number on mundane products bumped up just a touch down the whole list. There were even incident reports, once he knew how to look for them, that claimed materials lost in lab accidents that must never have happened.

Peter left the spreadsheets floating and returned to his StarkPad and the all-important third item: A copy of both spreadsheets saved together in the same file as security footage of him, Cassie Lang, and Cooper and Lila Barton laying on the floor in a motel room. A file among the data Rhodey had retrieved from the body armor creeps’ hard drives.

“FRIDAY,” Peter said, gesturing so that she’d add the file with the spreadsheets and security footage to the holograms, “can you find out why the human trafficker creeps had copies of OsCorp’s dirty books?”

“Of course, Peter,” FRIDAY said. “Just a moment.”

FRIDAY immediately began giving him new information on his StarkPad. First, an email directing the body armor guys to “acquire the subject” following a breech of contract. It was just signed “O,” and FRIDAY displayed a processing bar next to the signature telling him she was working on decrypting the sender.

Then, a whole slew of documents that, inferring from the file names, was blackmail to hold as insurance against “O.” Apparently the human traffickers had done their research before taking the contract.

From those documents, FRIDAY was able to give him a solid trail through to a digital footprint that tracked all the way back to the skeevy website with the hit on May.

“I have the sender,” FRIDAY said, breaking Peter out of rereading the chatroom negotiation.

“Yeah?” Peter looked up, and there was John, the guy who’d shot Colleen Meier. The lady who had impersonated Maria Hill and told Peter she wanted to see his autopsy report. Colleen Meier from OsCorp.

According to FRIDAY’s results, he was John Glass. Security guard as OsCorp for over a decade, night guard on the campus of Columbia University before that. It tracked with the SPEC42 project, Osborn keeping somebody around that he could trust to look the other way.

They’d never been able to track the guy down, never even known his last name—Peter had given the police the getaway car’s plate number, but they’d found it torched.

“FRIDAY, can you pull up the police report from after the accident,” Peter said, waving at one of her cameras to direct her to zoom in on the crime scene photos of the torched getaway car. “Tony had chased down all those rabbit holes looking into who crashed into us. I need to see the photos of that car without the plates, the getaway car.”

It didn’t even take her a second to produce the images, and they were exactly what he’d expected. Torched and abandoned under the same bridge.

“Shit,” Peter said again, running a hand through his hair and tugging at the back a bit. “Is Tony asleep?”

“Yes, Boss is asleep.”

“How long has he been asleep?”

“Not quite two hours,” FRIDAY said. He wasn’t sure if he imagined the hesitancy in her voice, like she couldn’t decide if she wanted to tell him to let Tony sleep or not.

“Hey, PASCAL, what’s on the calendar today?” Peter asked, picking up his StarkPad again. PASCAL didn’t really talk, just produced visuals to answer questions.

It was technically very early Wednesday morning. Pepper had a call with HQ in Malibu after lunch, and then she and Tony had reservations at a hibachi place. Tony was technically free besides the dinner.

“Shit,” Peter said again, hesitating. But it couldn’t wait. “Okay. Wake him up—gently; try not to wake Pepper up, too. And turn on the coffee maker.”

“On it,” FRIDAY said, and Peter could hear the gurgle of the coffee maker and the low beeping of an alarm in Tony and Pepper’s room.

Peter pulled on a sweatshirt and brought his StarkPad to Tony’s home office. They didn’t really need to have the conversation in the office, but he figured it had a door they could close and possibly buy Pepper a few more hours of quiet to sleep.

“What’s up, Pete?” Tony asked, shuffling into the office a few minutes later. He’d filled a mug with coffee on his way through the kitchen, but he still looked bleary at best.

“I have to tell you something.”

“You okay? You look a little…” Tony made a vague gesture that didn’t really illustrate however Peter looked.

“Norman Osborn,” Peter said. He pulled up the data on his StarkPad and gestured for FRIDAY to display it next to the desk as holograms while he talked. “From the car crash, it’s been Osborn trying to get his hands on Subject 28 to finish his research.”

“I’m sorry, Peter. I’m not following,” Tony said, taking a deep pull from his coffee mug as his eyes tracked the various spreadsheets and emails.

Peter went through it all. Glass had put the hit out on May, and it looked like the strategy there had been to put Norman Osborn in a position to take custody of Peter, just like May had been afraid he would.

Osborn had backed off after the car accident had only driven Peter closer to Tony. He’d tried to be more circumspect. Left May alone, tried to grab Peter.

The incident at Carlson Pharmaceuticals, when Peter had ended up spending the afternoon chilling in an elevator, had been Osborn masking an attempted kidnapping. Colleen Meier had impersonated Maria Hill and that had been an attempted kidnapping. The attack at SI–NY during his field trip had been an attempted kidnapping.

Then Peter had gotten caught up in somebody else’s kidnapping plot. Central Casting Thug’s people had grabbed him just when he was in high demand, and they’d made an obscene amount of money off selling him to the group at the middle-of-nowhere house in Missouri. But they’d put the “for sale” notice out and Osborn’s people had seen it, though they hadn’t acted on it quickly enough—hence the body armor creeps being contracted to extract him.

The contracts were… explicit. Osborn’s people hadn’t cared what happened to Cassie or Cooper or Lila; they’d just wanted Peter back in New York within twenty-four hours, dead or alive.

After they’d managed to get away from the body armor guys and the whole operation had been exposed, Osborn had gotten desperate. The supplies in the cooked spreadsheets suggested he’d used the shady research that had been an amalgamation of Dr. Banner’s work at Culver University, the SPEC42 research and Dr. Conners’ research that had ended up turning him into an aggressive lizard-man, and produced the Green Goblin. Peter hadn’t been able to track down who had volunteered as a test subject (or if it had been a volunteer at all—Osborn had definitely proven that he wasn’t above testing on unwilling, or unwitting, subjects), but the glider was an OsCorp prototype for the military, same as the green flight suit (though the helmet seemed to be a new touch of flair).

“I mean, it’s insane,” Peter said, gesturing to it all when he’d finished walking Tony through it. “But it’s there. They created the Green Goblin persona to draw Spider-Man out when even the most outrageous attempts to get their hands on me as a civilian didn’t pan out. And then Iron Man saved the day every time before the Goblin could disappear me to a secret lab somewhere.”

“Okay, first of all, you’re not allowed to be so collected when you talk about getting ‘disappeared’ somewhere for dissection,” Tony said. He’d set his mug aside and crossed his arms tight across his chest at some point. “I have a heart condition.”

“Sorry,” Peter said.

“How much of this did we acquire aboveboard?” Tony asked.

“Maybe half,” Peter said. He ran his hands through his hair, tugging lightly. "What Rhodey recovered from the body armor guys is probably enough to bring to the FBI—or whatever agency you'd want to go through—and have grounds for a judge to let us go after the rest of it properly. Legally. On-the-record. Whatever."

“Then we’ll have to do a bit of waiting,” Tony said, tapping idly on the desk. “Quest Aerospace is officially playing ball. Actually seem eager to have potential means to get Osborn out of their hair. But they'll still want a subpoena”

“I thought Osborn had been incommunicado,” Peter said.

“Right,” Tony said. “Nobody has seen him, not even his kid. And not Quest’s board of directors.”

“Nobody has seen him?” Peter asked. “Seriously? And that’s not at all fishy?”

“The general assumption was that he’d run off to Costa Rica or something,” Tony said, waving a dismissive hand. “But if he’s still trying to finish Hydra research, he’d be around town somewhere.”

“Around town?” Peter said. “Wouldn’t it be smarter not to stay in the city—oh. I’m in the city.”

“FRIDAY, I want us in lockdown,” Tony said. The lights immediately went to full brightness, red lights glowing on the lock of each window. “Ramp up the search for Osborn. No more passive scans. Track him down. Find him.”

“On it, Boss,” FRIDAY said.

“Why the lockdown?” Peter asked. “Nothing has actually changed. We just know more now.”

“Exactly. We know now.”

“Tony—”

“Tony, why are we in lockdown?” Pepper shouted from the other room. “Where are you? What’s going on?”

“Sorry, honey,” Tony said, standing up and heading out of the room to meet her. “We’re in the office.”

“It’s three in the morning,” Pepper said. She had bedhead and looked very much like she wanted nothing more than to crawl back between the sheets.

“It’s been Norman fucking Osborn this whole time,” Tony said.

“What whole time? What are you talking about?”

“Peter found a spreadsheet,” Tony said.

“And that triggered a red alert?”

“Osborn put the hit out on May, set up a bunch of kidnapping attempts, managed it the once, and then created that Green Goblin asshole to get at Peter,” Tony said. “We already knew he was involved, but now we know he’s a direct and active threat. And until we know where he is—”

“Tony—” Peter tried again, but again Tony ignored his protests.

“He almost killed Peter at Thanksgiving.”

“Killed is a little dramatic, don’t you think?” Peter said.

“No,” Tony said. “It’s not.”

“Okay, Tony. Fine,” Pepper said in that tone she used when she wanted Tony to know that he was being ridiculous and she was just going along with him to save time. “But let’s take the lockdown idea to Malibu.”

“Pepper—”

She shut him up with just a look.

Chapter Text

Tony barely waited for normal business hours before he started making calls. Somebody from the FBI, Dr. Ronson, Secretary Ross, the liaison with Quest Aerospace. Peter was pretty sure if they’d stayed on the east coast Tony would’ve driven out to the swanky boarding school Harry Osborn attended to interrogate him.

Peter had managed a little bit of sleep on the plane, but after they’d made it to Pepper’s place he couldn’t sit still. He paced her home office (she’d gone to Stark HQ), talking to FRIDAY and wishing Tony had installed the hologram tech in all the rooms at Pepper’s place the way he had back at the penthouse.

“I mean who are they, even?” Peter said, mostly to himself. He’d been trying to figure out the group that had first taken the Bartons and Cassie, but they didn’t seem connected to any of the rest of it.

“It looks like Col. Rhodes already answered that question,” FRIDAY said.

“What?” Peter stopped short.

“Col. Rhodes received an anonymous tip during his investigation. I’ll put his report on the desktop screen,” FRIDAY said. Peter walked around to the other side of the desk so he could see it. “The others were initially taken by a group of people who had been traveling with their children. They were at the airport when the Avengers fought.”

“Wow,” Peter said, scrolling down so he could read the rest of the report. It had been in the official file the whole time, but Peter hadn’t read through it (and that was an awfully stupid oversight—in his defense, he’d been kidnapped and then Aunt May had died, but he probably should’ve started with looking for updates to the report before he’d taken the deep dive into the rest of the research).

Parents had been separated from their children when the airport had been evacuated, and then they’d wanted to Avengers to feel as helpless as they had.

Rhodey hadn’t been unable to uncover how the parents had known about Cassie or Cooper or Lila—or Riri, or Wilson’s nephews—in the first place. The body armor guys had killed everybody at the house, then burned it down. The people at the house had had to be identified by dental records.

Peter was fairly sure, reading through the report, that Romanoff had been the one to figure it out. It seemed like her sort of thing, tracking dental records to addresses to email accounts to the shadier corners of the internet. At least a few of them had already been involved in criminal sorts of things, going by the records Rhodey had attached to his report.

“Okay. Well. That’s the answered,” Peter said. “What’s next?”

“I found a video file I think you should see,” FRIDAY said.

 

“Norman Osborn is the Green Goblin.”

“Excuse me?” Tony said, eyebrows raised high.

“Norman Osborn is the Green Goblin,” Peter repeated. He sat on the beach chair next to Tony’s, holding out the StarkPad. “FRIDAY found video.”

FRIDAY had been running the search since he’d first asked her to find out why the body armor guys had had copies of OsCorp’s dirty books. She’d found many answers, and she’d developed a few questions of her own along the way.

It wasn’t the greatest video—it had been recorded on a webcam, and the camera had ended up on the floor halfway through, but it was clear enough. Osborn had set up some sort of glass-walled chamber, filled it with gas. His vitals tanked, the assistant who’d helped him set everything up freaked out and evacuated the gas, then Osborn had broken out of the restraints, crashed through the glass, and killed the guy.

The video itself was hours long, most of it just a sideways view (because the camera had fallen onto the floor) of the shattered glass wall of the chamber, but toward the end Osborn had returned in the green flight suit that had inspired the Daily freaking Bugle to call him the Green Goblin, helmet under his arm, muttering to himself about how many glider prototypes he’d be able to make disappear.

“Holy shit,” Tony said.

“That’s what I said,” Peter said.

“Thank you for showing me this rather than running off after him,” Tony said.

“No, that’s not—Well, yeah. Of course. I said I would,” Peter said. “But that’s not what I was getting at.”

“What are you getting at?”

“We don’t have enough of a paper trail yet to make it about the kidnappings,” Peter said. “I mean, we do, but only because we hacked in.”

“And Ross might just use that as grounds for imprisonment,” Tony said, nodding, “so we nail him down for the Goblin and get the rest after the fact.”

“You think that’s where he’d come down on this one?” Peter asked. “I thought he’d be against experiments that could lead to more enhanced people.”

“That’s the thing about him—I met him a couple times back when I was selling the military weapons, and then again after Bruce first went on the run. Ross had been part of that project.” Tony sighed and sat up, turning to sit facing Peter and pressing his toes down into the sand. “When Bruce didn’t cooperate, Ross used his research on a soldier. A volunteer, but if you look at his file and the later reports he never should’ve been a candidate.”

“He created that other Hulk guy? In Harlem?” Peter asked. He’d been too little to know much of anything about it at the time, but he’d read the SHIELD reports last winter.

“More or less,” Tony said. “He gave the guy something closer to a watered-down version of the serum Cap got, and then the guy chased down Bruce’s stuff himself. And you know how that ended.”

“Yeah.” Peter shook his head. “So you’re worried that if it becomes clear to Secretary Ross that an enhanced person isn’t going to cooperate with him, he might just make some other enhanced person who will cooperate to do what he says?”

“It’s happened before, or at least that was the idea before.”

“This is why Dr. Ronson hasn’t retired, isn’t it?” Peter asked. “She knows what he thinks even if it’s different from what he puts on the record, and she’s in a place to keep him in check.”

“I think so, yes.”

“And it’s why you’ve been making all those calls,” Peter said, things clicking into place. “You want Ross out before he leans on the right person and gets himself an enhanced taskforce or something. His own Avengers, but soldiers that answer to him.”

“He already has the Avengers,” Tony said.

“Not really, though,” Peter said. “He has Rhodey, and don’t think I haven’t noticed the Air Force sending him all over. He has you, but you’re not military and you have enough clout on your own that it could backfire spectacularly if he tried to force your hand. Nobody really has Vision unless Vision agrees with the mission. I’m a minor and the paperwork is signed, so he can’t come after me without breaking the rules and he can’t call me in on anything yet. Scott and Clint are on house arrest. Everybody else is rogue, but he hasn’t been able to bring them in even with the international cooperation and the Iron Patriot buzzing around.”

“I have clout, huh?” Tony asked, smirking. Peter didn’t let him deflect.

“You think Ross’s name is tied to the OsCorp research,” Peter said. “You think if we bring something to the committee—even something we got legitimately—he’ll come after us.”

“I think he’s involved and I don’t know what he’ll do to keep that from coming to light,” Tony said.

“He’s been the missing link this whole time,” Peter said, thinking out loud. “He would’ve been able to see when May and I left the compound from the security logs, he could’ve passed it along to Osborn so his people could be ready to crash into our car. He gave them tech, access. All so Osborn could finish his research and make him—holy shit.”

“This is worse than I thought,” Tony said with a groan.

“You suspected Ross was somehow tangled up in it,” Peter said. Tony nodded. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I didn’t know,” Tony said. “I knew he had some sort of angle with the Accords that I wasn’t seeing, but I wouldn’t have guessed he had a hand in all this.”

“So what do we do?” Peter asked, deciding to believe him. No matter how suspicious he wanted to be knowing that Tony had left things out, hadn’t shared his doubts about Ross, it was Tony. He trusted Tony.

“You’re going to hate this,” Tony said. “But we lay low.”

“You’re right. I hate that.”

“We stay here for the rest of the week. We lay low,” Tony said. “We try to figure out where Osborn is camped out—and at least we know he’s the Goblin, now, because that means we know when he was last seen.”

“He went into the river on Thanksgiving,” Peter said.

“Exactly.”

“Okay.”

“We try and track him down, but we do it from here,” Tony said, holding up a finger when Peter opened his mouth to interrupt. “We’ll go back to New York for New Year’s. Pepper and I are supposed to be at some party, and we’ll make a show of everything being normal. And you’ve got plans with your friends, I haven’t forgotten.”

“So we just pretend like everything is fine?”

“We don’t want to set off alarm bells, drive Osborn underground. And we definitely don't want to tip-off Ross,” Tony said. “I have a meeting with Ronson on the second.”

“What if we find him?” Peter asked. “What if we’re here, keeping our heads down, and he’s in New York throwing buses off bridges?”

“If he shows his face, we can arrest him,” Tony said.

“Except we’re in Malibu!”

“Peter,” Tony said sharply. “I’m just asking for a few days. Not even a week.”

“People could die.”

“If we don’t do this right, we end up on the Raft. You get that, right? I know you get that.”

Chapter Text

“Dude. You have been here before,” Peter said.

“I am at Iron Man’s house, Peter,” Ned said, smiling just as dopily as he had been for the last twenty minutes. “And I didn’t break in. He knows I’m here. He knows my name.”

“Ned.”

“In, like, four hours, I’ll be able to say that I’ve spent the whole year at Iron Man’s house.”

“That is the dumbest joke and you haven’t even really told it yet,” MJ said without looking up from her book.

“Neither of you can spoil this for me.”

“Anybody puking, bleeding, or maybe even just vaguely suffering ennui?” Tony asked, poking his head into Peter’s room. He was in a tux, fancy cufflinks and everything, bowtie loose around his neck.

“Sorry,” Peter said. “All good.”

“I stubbed my toe earlier,” MJ said, looking up from her book just enough so that she could raise an eyebrow at Tony over the top edge of it. “Does that help?”

“Don’t encourage him,” Pepper said, stepping in the doorway too. She was in a party dress, long and black. Jewelry that probably cost as much as the monthly payment on the penthouse. She smiled at them, then pushed Tony’s shoulder so he turned to face her and she started on his bowtie. “Hold still.”

“I just really feel like we should stay home,” Tony said, but he held still like he’d been told. “There are children here that need to be supervised.”

“We skipped the Christmas Eve thing. We can’t skip the New Years thing, too,” Pepper said just as patiently as she’d said it the last dozen times. Tony had been complaining about the party all day. As if it hadn’t been his plan to make a show of business as usual once they’d returned to New York.

“Ned’s mom has a thing about adult supervision,” Tony said. It made Ned smile all over again.

“Happy will be here.”

“It’s his day off.”

“I thought that was why he was here,” Pepper said, adjusting the bowtie one last time before she kissed Tony on the cheek and stepped away. “Or is beating you at Mario Kart in his contract now?”

“Oh, it’s like that, huh Potts?” Tony said.

“Oh, it’s like that.”

They headed for the living room, flirting.

Peter made a mental note to leave his white noise machine on when he went to bed.

“Pizza’s here!” Happy called from the living room, drawing Peter, Ned and MJ out to the main room.

“Okay. Don’t do anything I would do. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Gray area,” Tony said. He pointed at Peter but looked at MJ and Ned. “Peter’s familiar with the gray area.”

“Everything will be fine,” Happy said without even looking up from where he was spreading the pizza boxes out along the counter. Peter knew there were extras hidden in the oven for him, keeping warm. Happy was awesome.

“Have fun at the party!” Peter said, as smiling and chipper as he could be because he knew it would annoy Tony.

“I won’t,” Tony said.

“I am going to leave you in the car,” Pepper said.

“That’s fine,” Tony said. “Doug’s driving, right? We’ll listen to a baseball game.”

“It’s not baseball season,” MJ said.

“That doesn’t seem to matter to Doug,” Tony said. “I think he has them on tape.”

“He does,” Happy and Pepper both said at the same time.

 

It was actually a really nice, mellow evening. They ate pizza. They played Minecraft—Happy had never played before, but he seemed happy enough to spend a few hours setting up farms and chicken coops; he did throw a pillow when Peter set his farm on fire, though.

After the pizza was mostly gone, they switched to old monster movies. They made some popcorn. Happy covered the coffee table in economy-size bags of candy, then told FRIDAY to keep an eye on them because he was headed to bed.

Ned fell asleep somewhere near the middle of Godzilla vs. Mothra, his head pillowed on Peter’s shoulder. MJ smiled and cuddled in on Peter’s other side, resting her head on his other shoulder. After a minute, she held his hand, too.

He missed May. She would’ve been teasing him, taking pictures of Peter there with his friends on either side of him.

A little later—the movie wasn’t quite done—MJ sat up and grabbed the remote, flicking from the movie to the channel playing the usual crap from Times Square. There was a huge crowd, everybody bundled up. Celebrities were being interviewed, but MJ had muted it so they didn’t have to listen to any of it while they watched the ball drop. They watched without saying anything. The crowd was cheering. There was confetti everywhere.

“Happy New Year,” Peter whispered, not wanting to wake Ned up.

“Happy New Year,” MJ said, squeezing his hand and sitting up off his shoulder. He looked over to see what she was doing, and she kissed him.

“Happy New Year,” Peter said again. Probably after too long of a pause. She’d sort of derailed his brain a little bit. She smiled at him.

“You said that.”

“Sorry.”

“Was that, um, okay?” she asked after a second. She bit her lip, and it drew his eyes to her mouth again.

“Yeah. It was really okay,” he said. He was probably blushing, but that was okay because she was totally blushing too. He smiled. “I’d want to do it again, but Ned’s sort of leaning on me and it’d be a little… weird. Y’know?”

MJ laughed, then kissed his cheek before she put her head back on his shoulder and flipped the channel back to their movie. He moved his hand so their fingers were laced together properly.

He should probably tell her he was Spider-Man. That felt like a thing she should know.

“Do you want to get lunch or something tomorrow?” he asked before he could chicken out. She’d kissed him. That probably meant she wouldn’t be totally insulted if he asked her on a date.

“Lunch?”

“Yeah. Like a date,” he said, because May had always said clear communication was key for this sort of thing. “You have that dinner with your dad, right? So lunch. Before school starts up again and we’re both all busy and stuff.”

“A date.”

“Would that be… okay?”

“Yeah. No. Cool,” MJ said. “A date.”

“We don’t have to call it a date if that, like, conflicts with your aesthetic,” Peter said. He was only sort of joking.

“Don’t spoil this for me, Parker,” she said, squeezing his hand. It was probably supposed to be an uncomfortably tight squeeze, but it didn’t really register like that. He smiled. “I have a date tomorrow.”

“Me too,” he said. He was probably smiling like an idiot, and FRIDAY was probably recording all of it so Tony could be embarrassing about it later. He didn’t even care.

On the TV, Godzilla roared and Ned startled awake.

“Wuzzat?” Ned flailed a little bit, trying to sit up but mostly just managing to lean against Peter a little more awkwardly. “Did I miss it?”

“Happy New Year,” Peter said, letting go of MJ’s hand so he could use both his hands to help Ned back upright. “You gonna make it?”

“Peter,” Ned said. Ned scooted a bit away on his cushion so he could look at them. “Peter, Peter, Peter.”

“What?”

“I’m at Iron Man’s house, Peter,” Ned said. “I’ve been at Iron Man’s house all year.”

MJ threw a handful of popcorn at him. Ned collapsed back against the couch, laughing.

Chapter Text

Peter managed exactly the one lunch date with MJ before Tony found out. Happy had snitched. Or maybe FRIDAY.

Probably Happy, though.

They’d just gone out for burgers, and he’d wanted to go to the arcade they liked but Happy said it wasn’t a “secure location,” so they’d just stayed at the restaurant and talked. Happy had sat at a table across the room, and he’d been watching them without blinking whenever Peter looked over.

“Oh my God, my baby has a girlfriend,” Tony said as soon as Peter walked in the door. Cooed. He had his hands clasped under his chin and everything.

“Oh my God, Tony.”

“So grown up.”

“Stop.”

“Do we need to have a talk? I’d say door-open policy, but FRIDAY can keep an eye on things,” Tony said, then his grin hitched into more of a smirk. Evil, evil smirk. “FRIDAY, let’s create a new protocol. If Peter and MJ get all hot and heavy behind closed doors—”

“Tony.”

“—I want you to play MmmBop—”

“God.”

“—Make it like a middle school dance in there, FRIDAY—”

“Tony.”

“—and I’ll come up with more bells and whistles later. That’s the base protocol.”

“Jesus.”

“Got that, FRI?”

“Got it, Boss.”

“The worst,” Peter said. “The actual worst.”

“I’m gonna call it the Baby Monitor Protocol 2.0.”

“Happy, stop laughing at me.”

“Not a chance,” Happy said, not even bothering to pretend he wasn’t enjoying Peter’s misery.

“I think they’re good together,” Pepper said. “She’s a nice girl.”

“Right?” Peter said, reaching for the potential change of subject with both hands. “She’s awesome.”

“Do we need to have conversations, though?” Tony asked, still smiling but a little more seriously. “Consent is key. Always wrap it up. Lube is your friend.”

“No. Nope. Stop making it weird,” Peter said. “May was a nurse. She already did all this. She was way on top of this.”

“Gotta love May Parker,” Tony said.

“And you’re totally sending mixed messages,” Peter said. “Don’t have sex at all, but have safe sex when you do.”

“I have met you, Peter,” Tony said. “I can make up rules and you’re still going to do whatever you want.”

“Whatever MJ wants,” Pepper corrected.

“Consent is key,” Tony repeated.

Happy just laughed.

Chapter Text

“Have a look at this,” Tony said, handing Peter a StarkPad.

“What is it?” Peter asked, tossing away his banana peel before he took the tablet.

“Proposed amendments to the Accords.”

“Oh,” Peter said. It was just about the last thing he would’ve guessed. “Wow.”

“Yeah. Wow.”

Peter read through the document, uncomfortably aware that Tony was noting how quickly his eyes scanned across the words. He chose not to comment.

“This is… huge.”

“Yeah. We’re still having—let’s call them conversations—about detainment, but ‘indefinite detainment without trial’ is out of the language of the thing entirely,” Tony said. “The biggest hurdle is that there’s so few places that can actually detain enhanced people. There are a few facilities on the east coast that can do it, but the Raft is the only long-term option.”

“And it’s not a great option.”

“No. Kind of extreme.”

“This is progress, though,” Peter said, handing the StarkPad back. “It’s huge that the committee is even open to negotiating amendments.”

“I think they expected to either have caught Steve and co by now, or for them to have turned themselves over to Ross’s custody,” Tony said, setting the StarkPad aside. “Since they’re completely out of reach and the handful of us that did sign have been pushing for amendments, they’re a little more willing to bend.”

“I’m sure all those events you’ve been attending—very publicly, too—have nothing to do with that flexibility, either,” Peter said dryly. Tony just shrugged.

“Sooner or later, something’s going to happen and we’re going to need all hands on deck,” Tony said. He sounded exhausted at the very idea of it. “There’s no telling what, and there’s no telling when. Hell, I’ve been thinking about it since New York and it hasn’t happened yet.”

“But it’s coming,” Peter said, less of a question than he’d meant it to be.

“It’s coming,” Tony said. “And if we somehow manage to have everybody close enough to help when it hits, the last thing we’re going to want is to end up in court after some alien smackdown.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Peter asked.

Peter had mostly stayed out of the Accords stuff. Since the meeting with Dr. Ronson at the beginning of the month, Tony had been going to schmoozy events at embassies or wherever, actually answering questions on the Accords at unrelated interviews, arranging ‘social’ dinners with particular people. Peter had been doing his utmost to keep his head down in his capacity as Spider-Man, keeping to neighborhood-level stuff. (Barely doing that, too, because he was too busy to do a whole lot of anything as Spider-Man—and he was pretty sure that had been part of the design when Tony had given him projects at SI to go along with the new semester’s schedule of classes.)

“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” Tony said after a moment’s hesitation. “You being you is proving to the Accords committee every day that this can work.”

“Any news on Norman Osborn?” Peter asked. Dr. Ronson had been making quiet inquiries since Tony had given her the report on their suspicions about Osborn and Ross’s potential (probable) involvement in, at the very least, unethical human experimentation.

“This is a long game, Peter,” Tony said, just like he had the last time Peter had asked. And the time before that. “She’s getting things moving on her end so that we can acquire evidence legally.”

“I hate this,” Peter said. “I hate the long game. I hate laying low.”

“I do too,” Tony said. “We want to do this right, though, right? And amendments are the place to start—no more threat of being thrown in a hole forever. It’s a really good start.”

“I’m not denying that,” Peter said. “I just… I hate feeling useless. And I feel useless with this politics stuff.”

Chapter Text

“So we’ve got workshop space in the garage—two levels of basement in there for storage—and it’s going to be an unattached garage for safety, Pepper’s call,” Tony said, pointing to the relevant bits on the blueprints. “In the house, we’re looking at kitchen, dining, living room and a guest room on the first floor, then bedrooms and some office space upstairs. Wraparound porch.”

“I like the porch,” Peter said.

“The porch is awesome,” Tony agreed. “I’m also thinking boat house. Nothing big with guest space or anything, but storage for a couple kayaks and pool noodles or something.”

“And you want to hide a spare suit in the attic,” Peter said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tony said, faux innocent.

Peter pointed at the notation Tony had made on the blueprint, telling the contractor to level-up the wiring in the boat house. Perfect setup for keeping an Iron Man suit connected to the network, not to mention giving FRIDAY full access to control the locks on the doors and windows.

“Boss, there’s something you should see,” FRIDAY said, not waiting for Tony to give her permission before she activated one of the hologram displays.

A John Doe had been found on a bench in Central Park. Somebody had called the police when they saw him on their morning jog, thinking he was dead. He hadn’t been. He’d obviously been living rough for a while, and he had an alarming number of partially-healed injuries, but the hospital said he was medically stable. Mentally stable was another question—the report said he rambled and raved, mostly about Spider-Man.

John Doe’s picture had been what caught FRIDAY’s attention. The man was in rough shape, scraggly beard, burns up his neck and onto one of his cheeks, but it was a clear enough picture that FRIDAY had a confirmed facial match for Norman Osborn.

“Look at that,” Tony said, almost smiling. “Looks like the world might be a safe enough place for you to go on that MOMA trip after all.”

“You seriously want to send me on another field trip?”

“It very much looks like the Green Goblin is officially off the streets,” Tony said. “Which means you get to enjoy some enrichment.”

“Field trips are not good,” Peter said. “Bad things happen when I go on field trips.”

“Hey, FRI, where’s Rhodey?” Tony asked, ignoring him. “He still in Atlanta?”

“I believe so, Boss.”

“Okay. I’m going to get Vision and go get things moving at the hospital, then.”

“I want to go with you.”

“Not happening,” Tony said. “This guy’s been gunning for you. I don’t want you anywhere near him.”

“Tony—”

“Nope. This one’s my call, Pete, and that’s the call,” Tony said. “You’ve got that lunch with Pepper anyway. Just go eat steak, schmooze your little heart out. I will call you as soon as I have news.”

 

Peter had expected to be distracted through the whole lunch, but he’d surprised himself by actually enjoying it. The food was delicious, and he’d spent the whole lunch talking to an older guy about the future of hybrid and electric cars. It was fascinating enough to let him forget that Tony and Vision had gone after Norman Osborn. The dude had some super insightful ideas, and then he promised to email Peter a selection of background materials on developments in Norway and Japan.

“I’m taking you to all of my business lunches from here on out,” Pepper said once they’d made it back to the car.

“It went that well?” Happy asked.

“I thought Gunderson was going to be the tough nut to crack, but Peter got him talking right away,” Pepper said.

“He was nice,” Peter said, shrugging. “He actually had some really good ideas. They’ve made some really interesting developments in Scandinavia—mostly Norway, but neighboring countries too since they have to deal with similar daylight issues being as close to the Arctic Circle as they are—with power storage and solar cells.”

“Yes, I heard him say he was going to email you some of the research,” Pepper said.

“Yeah. It’s so cool. Did you know they’ve probably worked out—”

“Peter, I need you to understand how huge that is,” Pepper interrupted.

“What?” Peter asked, trying desperately to reel his thoughts in and catch up with the conversation. She was giving him the same look she gave Tony when he went off on some tangent, which probably meant that Peter had gone off on some tangent.

“He’s sending you his preliminary write-ups, Peter,” Pepper said. “Gunderson.”

“Hold on. No. I thought he said he’d forward articles—”

“He hasn’t published anything yet! It’s too new! Bleeding edge, even beyond what we’ve been putting together at Stark,” Pepper said. “It’s why I’ve been trying to get a meeting with him on my calendar for months. There’s so much potential.”

“You’re saying that was Gunderson Gunderson?” Peter asked. “As in Dr. Frederik Gunderson?”

Yes,” Pepper said.

“Oh my God, Pepper,” Peter said. He wanted to slump down in his seat and cover his face and try to process that, but he also didn’t want to wrinkle his suit. “That was Gunderson.”

“You better read the research he sends you and respond to his email,” Pepper said. “You might’ve just sealed the deal on SI’s involvement in the green energy auto industry for the next twenty years or so.”

Oh my God, Pepper.”

 

“Norman Osborn has officially been detained in the Raft pending investigation,” Tony said hours later. Peter and Pepper had been in the kitchen going through takeout menus trying to decide on dinner when he’d walked through the door, grinning triumphantly. “Full psych eval is scheduled for the morning. And Dr. Ronson has already given the go-ahead to look into his personal servers, so you can tie a bow on that data packet you put together, Pete, and send it on over.”

“You couldn’t have sent any of that ahead in a text?” Peter asked, taking his phone out of his pocket and hitting SEND on the email he’d had prepped and ready to go since winter break. “We’ve been waiting for news for ages.”

“I’ve been in meetings and interrogations and things,” Tony said, shrugging. He smiled at Pepper and kissed her hello, then stayed close to her so he could look at the takeout menus over her shoulder. “What’s for dinner?”

“Incorrigible,” Peter muttered.

Chapter Text

“No, you’re going on the field trip,” Tony said, leaning against the kitchen counter with his coffee. “It’ll be fun. C’mon, Peter, it’s MOMA. What’s going to happen?”

It was his last high school field trip, so Tony wanted him to go. They’d been going back-and-forth on it as long as Osborn had been in custody.

“I dunno, but let’s review,” Peter said even as he threw extra granola bars into his backpack for the trip. “Freshman year, OsCorp. Got bit by a spider, almost died, got weird powers. Sophomore year, DC. Whole decathlon group almost died in the elevator at the Washington Monument. Then there was that trip where I was closed in an elevator for ‘security purposes.’ That one to SI–NY where I got shot. And what about last winter when I ended up kidnapped? And that’s just high school, I can keep going. Eight grade we went to Wicked and I had an asthma attack so bad I was carted off in an ambulance—”

“I get it, but you’re still going,” Tony said. “Happy vetted the whole thing, and he’s going to be tailing your bus. You’re not going to get kidnapped.”

“What about Ross?” Peter asked. “He’s been weirdly quiet even as we’re poking into the whole human experimentation thing with OsCorp.”

“Ronson has Ross all tied up with protocols and paperwork,” Tony said. “I give it two weeks and she’ll have him in front of Congress.”

“But we finally got to the stage where we can do polymer testing—”

“And you can feast on the results after your field trip,” Tony said. “Which you are going on.’

“It’s just so much extra work for Happy,” Peter said, shoving his suit in his bag with a few more protein bars.

“You’re bringing your suit to MOMA?” Tony asked, raising his eyebrows.

“You’re wearing the nanite housing on a jog?” Peter snarked back.

“You know what? Go to school. You’re going to miss your bus.”

“Can I point out again that we are closer to MOMA right now that I will be at school?” Peter asked, grabbing a banana and starting to peel it. “I’m going across town so that I can come back across town.”

“Go. Shoo. Learn something about art,” Tony said. “Become enriched.”

Peter groaned, but he went. Happy was waiting for him in the underground parking structure thing, and he refused to let him get into the car until he’d put the banana peel in the garage’s trashcan because he didn’t want his car to smell like bananas all day. Peter sort of hoped it was enough of a delay that he missed the bus, but he still ended up standing on the sidewalk with his History and Western Civilization class waiting for the bus. Ned was in the class, too, so at least there was that.

“I’m freaking out a little bit,” Ned said as the bus pulled up. “Are you freaking out? I’m freaking out. The last time you were on a yellow bus you got kidnapped.”

“I mean. Trying not to,” Peter said. It had been a large part of the morning’s campaign not to have to go on the field trip. Also, they really were finally at the testing stages of the polymers at SI and he really wanted to watch even though part of the testing was basically literally watching glue dry.

“Right. Sorry. I’m not trying to freak you out,” Ned said. “It’s just that I’m freaking out.”

“This will be fine. It will be fine. It’s art. It’s MOMA,” Peter said. He glanced over at the anonymous black car across the way. “Happy’s here, anyway. He’s gonna follow the bus. And he’s got an app that actively traces the implants in my arms.”

“Right. It’s good. It’s all good. It’s MOMA. It’s gonna be fine.”

“It’s gonna be fine.”

Chapter Text

Everything was fine for approximately twenty minutes. They got on the bus; it was a small enough class that everybody could have their own seat if they wanted it. It was a nice day. Peter watched Ned play SuperMario and listened to Happy talking back to his radio in the car behind them.

It was fine.

Then his spidey-sense went off in a big way. Literally all the hair on his body stood up at once.

There was a freaking spaceship over New York. It wasn’t like the bug-whale-looking things from 2012; it was shaped like a donut. That would have been funny except for his spidey-sense was shrieking at him to do something.

“This is bad, this is very bad,” he muttered to himself, reaching for Ned. “I need you to cause a distraction!”

“Holy shit. We’re all gonna die!” Ned said. He didn’t even look at Peter, just saw the ship out the window behind him and went running for a better view out the back of the bus.

“That works,” Peter said, grabbing his webshooters out of his bag and opening up the emergency handle. He got the mask on, then jumped off the side of the bus and swung along the underside of the bridge. He found a spot to change and shoved his clothes in his backpack, webbed it to the bridge; he hoped it didn’t take more than a few hours to deal with the spaceship because he really didn’t want to lose another backpack.

“Incoming call from Happy Hogan, Peter,” Karen said. “He called twice while you were changing, too.”

“Okay,” Peter said, heading for the ship. Karen played the little beep that meant the call was connected. “Hey, Happy.”

“Kid, what’s going on? I saw you get off the bus.”

“There’s a spaceship!”

“And you’re headed right for it. What are you doing?”

“There’s a spaceship!”

“Peter—”

“Sorry, Happy,” he said. “Karen, disconnect the call.”

The suit chirped to let him know that the call had ended.

Peter followed the sound of repulsor blasts to a little green space. There was a truly enormous dude in weird armor going after Tony with a sort of Morningstar hammer thing. Peter didn’t have time to get a better read on the scene than that; Tony was down and the hooked hammer-looking part of the Morningstar thing was headed right for his back. Peter jumped in because he’d already lost way too many parents.

“Hey, man,” Peter said to the enormous dude, just getting a slightly-puzzled-mostly-angry look in response. “What’s up, Mr. Stark?”

“Kid, where did you come from?”

“Field trip to MOMA,” Peter said, and he was about to make a snide comment about being sent on field trips against his will, but then he was flying across the lawn and almost landed in a fountain. “What’s this guy’s problem?”

“Uh. He’s from space. He came here to steal a necklace from a wizard.”

“Oh yeah?” Peter wasn’t sure if Tony was messing with him or not. Dude totally looked like he could be from space, and the donut ship supported the theory but the wizard thing sounded made up.

The problem was that he was huge, and his Morningstar seemed to function as a giant hammer thing as well as the swinging chain thing. He was throwing cars and smashing things, physically threw Peter around a few more times.

Then a red blur soared across the lawn, quickly followed by a floating Squidward-looking dude, and the day just couldn’t get any weirder.

“Kid, that’s the wizard. Get on it.”

“On it!”

Apparently the wizard bit wasn’t made up.

Peter chased them. They were moving way faster than his usual chases, what with being airborne and everything. And the Squidward-looking guy (possibly a wizard too? alien wizard?) was somehow throwing cars and billboards and shit into his path without even touching any of it. Not fair.

Peter full-body planted into a billboard, too. Not cool.

“Gotcha!” Peter said, finally getting a web on the wizard. He even managed to start swinging away, but then the donut spaceship turned on a tractor beam or something because the wizard was literally getting sucked up toward the ship in a ray of blue-white light.

“Uh, Tony? I’m being beamed-up.”

It would’ve been so cool if he hadn’t been headed for the lower atmosphere.

“Hang on, kid,” Tony said. So Peter did. He ended up sticking himself to the side of the spaceship, right next to the internal spinning bit. His best guess was that it was some way to generate artificial gravity within the ship, but it really wasn’t the right time to explore the idea. “Wong, you’re invited to my wedding. Gimme a little juice, FRIDAY.”

Peter could hear the repulsors from his place on the ship and over the comms. Tony was getting close.

“Unlock 17A,” Tony said, which didn’t mean anything to Peter. “Pete, you gotta let go. I’m gonna catch you.”

“But you said save the wizard!” Peter could hardly breathe, though. He yanked off his mask, gasping for air.

“We’re too high up; you’re running out of air.”

“That makes sense,” Peter said, but then things went fuzzy for a moment. When he came back around, he was falling, bouncing off the ship, and by the time he got his footing back he could breathe just fine. “It smells like a new car in here.”

“Happy trails, kid. FRIDAY, send him home.”

“Oh, c’mon!”

His parachute deployed, jerking him off the side of the ship, and it was all he could do to get a web on the ship before he was out of range.

“Karen, disengage the parachute!”

Nothing happened, which made sense after he had a second to think about it because he’d taken the mask off right before Tony put the nanite suit on him.

“Uh. FRIDAY?”

“Yes, Peter?”

“Disengage the parachute. Please?”

“Boss would like you to return to safety, Peter.”

“Tony needs backup. I can’t leave him up here alone,” Peter said. “Please disengage the parachute.”

FRIDAY hesitated for just a second, probably running some sort of algorithm to decide which protocol superseded what, but then she disengaged the parachute.

“Thank you!” He climbed the web as quickly as he could and pulled himself into the ship just in time for the panel to close over him. “I should’ve stayed on the bus.”

It was not a pretty ship. It wasn’t even a utilitarian ship. It was grimy, almost gross. Lots of dark metal and dramatic staircases. Just. A really weird number of staircases for a spaceship.

Peter found Tony on a platform looking down at what was probably the bridge of the ship. Or maybe Squidward-looking aliens did all their torture chambers with big windows. Peter had no idea.

The wizard’s floating cape thing tapped Tony’s shoulder, and Tony jerked back, charging up a repulsor before he realized what had touched him.

“Wow,” Tony said. “You are a seriously loyal piece of carpetry.”

“Yeah, uh, speaking of loyalty,” Peter said, figuring that was the best moment he was going to get to drop down without getting blasted by a repulsor.

“What the—”

“I know what you’re going to say.”

“I don’t want to hear it!”

“I was going to go home, but it was just such a long way down, and I just thought about—”

“And now I gotta hear it.”

“I was stuck to the side of the ship—and this suit is ridiculously intuitive, by the way, so if anything it’s kinda your fault that I’m here.”

“What did you just say?” Tony said, his face frozen, his eyes too wide. 

“I take that back,” Peter said quickly. “And—And now I’m here in space.”

“Yeah. Right where I didn’t want you to be.” Tony walked over closer, reaching for him. “This isn’t one of your neighborhood rescues or a field trip; this is a one-way ticket. Do you hear me? Don’t pretend you thought this through—”

“I did!”

“—I know you didn’t.”

“I did think this through.”

“You could not possibly have thought this through.”

“You can’t be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man if there’s no neighborhood,” Peter said. Tony just looked at him. “Okay. That didn’t really make sense. But you know what I’m trying to say.”

“Okay. We’ve got a situation,” Tony said, taking a shaky breath through his nose. Peter could just about see him packing the conversation away for later. (There was no way he wasn’t hearing about this again later.) “Your guy down there is in trouble. What’s your play? Go.”

“Okay,” Peter said, crouching down to take a look. It was a big space, not great for web-slinging because the webs would have to be so long; he’d get good speed with a long swing but he’d be useless for maneuvering. The alien wizard had the Earth wizard floating in place with glass-looking magic things going into him. It didn’t look comfortable. But it was just one alien guy, and he was focused on the wizard. “Did you ever see this really old movie ‘Aliens’?”

“Okay. I can work with that,” Tony said after Peter had explained his idea.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. You stay here.”

“What?”

“Stay here, then grab the wizard.”

“Tony—”

“No. You do as I say this time. Got it?”

“Got it,” Peter said, just barely managing not to sound completely sullen.

Tony nodded and put his helmet back up, then headed for the stairs. The cape thing followed him.

Peter did as he was told, hanging back, watching. When the weird alien guy started moving toward Tony, Peter started climbing down the side wall just to be a little bit closer.

And then it totally worked. It was fantastic! It was so simple.

Tony blew a hole in the side of the ship, the alien went flying out, and then Peter launched himself down to the lower level to get a web on the Earth wizard guy when he went flying for the breach, too.

Then his web gave out way sooner than it was supposed to—but, in his defense, he had not designed the formula with the cold of space in mind—and he had to let himself drop closer to the breach to get another web on the wizard.

“Yes!” he said when he managed it, noting that the suit had doubled the thickness of the web tethering the wizard to him. So damn intuitive. He wanted to look at the code. He probably wouldn’t even be able to appreciate all of it, but he wanted to look at it anyway. Then he noticed that it hadn’t just been his sticky feet keeping him inside the ship. “What are those?”

They were legs or something. Gold, like Iron Man. Very cool. Kinda weird. Mostly cool.

The legs launched him backward into the ship and Tony swooped in, sealing up the breach with nanites. Peter didn’t like that there would be fewer nanites for Tony to work with in his suit, but it was better than getting sucked out into space.

Peter and the wizard went flying when the pull toward the breach ended. He rolled to his feet, and there was the cape.

“Hey, we haven’t officially met,” he said, holding his hand out. But apparently it wasn’t the sort of magic cape that talked; it floated away.

“Turn the ship around,” the wizard said, limping after Tony.

“Yeah. Now he wants to run,” Tony said.

“I want to protect the Stone.”

“You can thank me now. Go ahead. I’m listening.”

“For what? Nearly blasting me into space?”

“Who just saved your magical ass? Me.”

“I seriously don’t know how you fit your head into that helmet.”

“Admit it. You should’ve ducked out when I told you to,” Tony said. “I tried to bench you. You refused.”

“Unlike everybody else in your life, I don’t work for you.”

“And due to that fact, we’re now in a flying donut billions of miles from Earth with no backup.”

“I’m backup,” Peter interjected, raising his hand.

“No,” Tony said, waving him off. “You’re a stowaway. The adults are talking.”

“I’m sorry. I’m confused as to the relationship here,” the wizard said. “What is he, your ward?”

“No,” Peter said.

“What, do you not have the internet at Hogwarts?” Tony asked.

“I’m Peter, by the way,” Peter said.

“Dr. Strange.”

“Oh, we’re using our made-up names.” Seemed kind of rude, but the wizard seemed like a bit of an ass so Peter was just fine with keeping some distance between them. “Um. I’m Spider-Man.”

“The ship is self-correcting its course,” Tony said.

“Can you control it?” Dr. Strange asked. “Fly us home.”

Tony hesitated.

“Stark.”

“Yeah.”

“Can you get us home?”

“Yeah, I heard you,” Tony said. He was making that face that he made when he knew he was making a choice that was going to make Pepper really angry. Then, quieter, he said, “I’m not so sure we should.”

“Under no circumstances can we bring the Time Stone to Thanos,” Dr. Strange said, stepping in closer to Tony. “I don’t think you quite understand what’s at st—”

“What—No. It’s you who doesn’t understand,” Tony said, taking a few steps to get in Dr. Strange’s face. “Thanos has been in my head for six years. Since he sent that army to New York. And now he’s back. And I don’t know what to do. So I’m not sure if it’s a better plan if we’re on our turf or his, but you saw what they did, what they can do. So let’s do different. It’s unexpected. So I say we take the fight to him. Doctor, do you concur?”

And Peter had to smile, because that was absolutely a movie reference. He didn’t know what movie, because he only knew it because it had been reference in that Leonardo DiCaprio/Tom Hanks movie “Catch Me If You Can.”

Did that mean Tony wasn’t so mad at him? He was making movie references. Had to be a good sign.

“Alright, Stark. We go to him,” Dr. Strange said. “But you have to understand. If it comes to saving you, or the kid, or the Time Stone, I will not hesitate to let either of you die.”

Harsh. And Tony looked like he had words to say about that, but he held his tongue.

“I can’t,” Dr. Strange said. “Because the universe depends on it.”

“I see,” Tony said. “Good moral compass. We’re straight.”

Tony walked away. He looked kind of like he wanted to throw up, but instead he held out an arm and touched the top of Peter’s shoulders like it was a sword and he was knighting Peter.

“Kid,” Tony said. “You’re an Avenger now.”

Peter tried not to smile. Because that was so cool, but it was also a big deal. Serious stuff.

And then things were just… awkward for a while. They were on a spaceship in space and that was cool, but Tony was wandering around trying very hard not to have a panic attack. Dr. Strange stood by the window watching space. Peter wanted to go try to help Tony calm down, but he had a feeling it was his fault so he probably wouldn’t help much. He also wanted to go watch space go by because how many times would he be able to see that in his life, but the wizards was a little bit… he didn’t want to go stand by the wizard.

Just when he’d made up his mind to go talk to Tony, the ship shuddered and the view out the big window changed. It wasn’t space streaking by, it was one particular planet getting bigger every moment, stars looking more like constellations than streaks of light.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Peter asked. The ship had a definite wobble.

“I think we’re here,” Dr. Strange said.

“I don’t think this rig has a self-park function,” Tony said, turning to give Peter a look. “Get your hand inside the steering gimbal, close those around it.”

Peter did as he was told, stepping up next to Tony and locking his arm into place.

“You understand?”

“Okay. Got it. Got it. Got it.”

“This is for one big guy,” Tony said, “so we have to move at the same time.”

“Okay. Okay. You ready?”

And then they immediately broke the ship. They ran into some starfish-from-hell-looking building, and Tony activated their armor, and Dr. Strange made some orange glowy ball of light thing around them all.

They totally crash-landed the ship. Peter ended up on the ceiling somehow and had to drop himself back down to Tony’s level on a web. He was almost halfway back to the floor when he heard something crunch on the hull of the ship, then quiet footsteps, voices whispering indistinctly.

“You alright?” Dr. Strange asked, helping Tony up.

“That was close,” Tony said. “I owe you one.”

“Let me just say, if aliens wind up implanting eggs in my chest and I eat one of you, I’m sorry,” Peter said, dropping down behind them.

“I do not want another single pop culture reference out of you for the rest of the trip, you understand me?” Tony said.

“I’m trying to say that something is coming,” Peter said, gesturing back toward the noises. It was at least a few people, three or four. Maybe a boarding party.

A baseball-sized something dropped in with them, then exploded. Peter’s ears rang, the world going out of focus for a moment.

“Thanos!” somebody shouted, a new voice. One of the boarding party? They sounded really angry, whoever they were.

Peter got his balance, and then there was a bug-looking alien with antennas and everything, rushing at him, bending over him. The tips of the antennas glowed.

“Woah, woah, woah, woah!” Peter said, scrambling away. “Please don’t put your eggs in me!”

He shot off webs, got up a wall. The crazy gold legs helped, but then something electric and grapple-y wrapped around him and the legs, sending him flying across the floor. The legs retracting didn’t even help because the shock rope thing just tightened up.

An alien with glowing red eyes grabbed him, hauled him up, and suddenly he was a hostage.

“Everybody stay where you are. Chill the F out,” the alien said. Then he tapped something on the side of his head and his head turned out to be a helmet. He was human. Or at least human-looking like Thor was. “I’m gonna ask you this one time. Where’s Gamora?”

“I’ll do you one better,” Tony said, standing right there ready to blast the guy. He let his helmet drop away, though. “Who’s Gamora?”

“I’ll do you one better,” the big gray guy on the ground under Tony’s boot said. “Why is Gamora!”

“Tell me where the girl is, or I swear to you I’m gonna French fry this little freak,” the guy holding onto Peter said. Which. Rude.

“Let’s do it. You shoot my guy and I’ll blast him!” Tony moved his hand to point at the gray guy’s head. FRIDAY manipulated the nanites into a crazy-looking laser gun thing. “Let’s go!”

“Do it, Quill,” the gray guy said. “I can take it.”

“No, he can’t take it!” the antenna alien said.

“She’s right,” Dr. Strange said flatly. “He can’t.”

“Oh yeah. You don’t want to tell me where she is. That’s fine. I’ll kill all three of you, and I’ll beat it out of Thanos myself.” The guy, Quill, pressed the space gun against Peter’s head. “Starting with you!”

“What—Thano—Alright, let me ask you this one question,” Dr. Strange said. “What master do you serve?”

“What master do I serve? What am I supposed to say, ’Jesus’?” Quill sneered.

“You’re from Earth,” Tony said.

“I’m from Missouri,” Quill shot back.

“Yeah, that’s on Earth, dipshit," Tony said. "What’re you hassling us for?” 

“You’re not with Thanos?” Dr. Strange asked.

With Thanos?” Quill said. “No. I’m here to kill Thanos. He took my girl—Wait, who are you?”

“We’re the Avengers, man,” Peter said. It was really cool to say it out loud and nobody contradicted him. Tony didn’t even roll his eyes.

“You’re the ones Thor told us about!” the antenna lady said.

“You know Thor?” Tony asked.

“Yeah,” Quill said. “Tall guy. Not that good-looking. Needed saving.”

That didn’t sound right at all, but nobody asked Peter.

“Where is he now?” Dr. Strange asked.

“He said something about a Thanos-killing weapon,” Quill said. “Took our other ship.”

“He wha—” Tony started, but then the ship shuddered around them and settled at a slightly different angle.

“Hey, um, could we maybe get out of here?” Peter asked. His spidey-sense had just barely settled down after they’d been fighting, but it had started going off again just before the ship shuddered, and it hadn’t stopped. “I’m getting the, uh, sense that the ship isn’t entirely stable.”

“Fine. Good. Truce?” Tony asked, stepping away from the gray guy but not putting away the big gun just yet.

The gray guy jumped to his feet with a grunt that was a lot like a roar.

“Truce,” Quill said. “No, Drax. Chill. Truce.”

The gray guy, Drax, looked disappointed.

“Little help?” Peter said, wiggling in the electric rope thing.

“Sure. Yeah. Sorry,” Quill said. He hit a button and the rope released and stopped glowing.

“That’s so cool,” Peter said, because it was.

“I’m Starlord,” Quill said, rolling up the rope and sticking it in one of his pockets. “And that’s Drax and Mantis.”

“Peter,” Peter said.

“C’mon,” Tony said, not bothering to introduce himself. He tapped Peter on the shoulder and led the way out.

The planet was… orange. It was orange and everything was broken. The starfish-looking things had glass window-looking bits at the center, and there were patches of stuff that looked kind of like grass, but it was… wrong.

“What the hell happened to this planet?” Quill—Starlord—asked, walking out after them. He pulled a device out of his pocket and held it up, watching it. “It’s eight degrees off its axis. Its gravitational pull is all over the place.”

Which explained how they’d crashed the spaceship so badly, actually. They’d been doing just fine, gliding in for the landing, and then they’d fallen into a starfish thing.

Not their fault.

“Well, we’ve got one advantage. He’s coming to us,” Tony said. He was looking around the ruined place, mapping angles with his eyes. Meanwhile Mantis had found a patch of funky gravity and was bouncing like a trampoline. “We’ll use it. Alright. I have a plan.”

Peter stepped in, looking around them and trying to see what Tony had seen in the place. It didn’t look like much to Peter. There were good overhanging things for him to swing off of, but with the gravity all out of whack he had no idea how much he could rely on his swings.

“At least the beginnings of one,” Tony continued. He was mostly talking to Quill. “It’s pretty simple. We draw him in, pin him down, get what we need. Definitely don’t want to dance with this guy—Are you yawning?”

Drax was definitely yawning. Mantis looked at him like it wasn’t something she’d seen him do before.

“Did you hear what I said?” Tony asked. Drax looked to Quill.

“I stopped listening after you said you had a plan,” Drax muttered.

“Okay, Mr. Drax is on his own page,” Tony said.

“See, not winging it is not what they… do,” Quill said.

“Ah, what exactly is it that they do?” Peter asked.

“Kick names,” Mantis said, “take ass.”

“Yeah,” Drax said, nodding. He looped his thumbs into his belt and stood there puffed up like she’d just—

They were absolutely going to die. They’d flown in a spaceship across the actual galaxy, and they were going to die on a weird planet with starfish-shaped buildings.

Peter looked over at Tony, hoping he had some miraculous plan to make it better, but Tony just let out a slow breath and closed his eyes. That totally meant that Tony thought they were going to die, too.

Not good.

“Alright, just get over here, please,” Tony said. “Mr. Lord, can you get your folks to circle up.”

“Mr. Lord.” Quill snorted. “Starlord is fine.”

He nodded to Drax and Mantis, though, and they took a few steps over.

“We’ve gotta coalesce,” Tony said. “Because if we all come at him with is a plucky attitude—”

“Dude, don’t call us plucky,” Quill interrupted. “We don’t know what it means. Alright? We’re optimistic. Yes. I like your plan. Except it sucks. So let me do the planning, and that way it might be really good.”

“Tell him about the dance-off to save the universe,” Drax said. He was completely serious, too.

“What dance-off?” Tony asked.

“It’s not a—It’s not a thing,” Quill said.

“Like in ‘Footloose’?” Peter asked. (And it didn’t count because he wasn’t the one who brought up the reference.)

“Exactly like ‘Footloose’!” Quill said, super excited. “Is it still the greatest movie in history?”

“It never was,” Peter said.

“Don’t encourage this, alright?” Tony said, turning away from the others. “We’re getting no help from Flash Gordon here.”

“Flash Gordon? By the way? That’s a compliment,” Quill said. “Don’t forget, I’m half human. So that fifty percent of me that’s stupid, that’s one hundred percent of you.”

“Your math is blowing my mind,” Tony said.

They were definitely going to die.

“Excuse me,” Mantis said, more serious than Peter had heard her yet. “But does your friend often do that?”

“Strange? You alright?” Tony called, but he didn’t approach the wizard and Peter didn’t want to either.

Dr. Strange was levitating cross-legged, glowing green, his head twisting and turning so quickly that it was blurry.

And then, abruptly, he was back to normal. He dropped the levitating thing with a shout, and Tony got over to him just in time to grab him as he got his bearings.

“You’re back,” Tony said. “You’re alright.”

“Hey, what was that?” Peter asked.

“I looked forward in time to view alternate futures,” Dr. Strange said, breathing hard, avoiding eye contact. “To see the possible outcomes of the coming conflict.”

“How many did you see?” Quill asked.

“Fourteen million six hundred and five,” Dr. Strange rattled off.

“How many did we win?” Tony asked.

“One,” Dr. Strange said after way too long of a pause. Peter felt a little bit sick.

 

Dr. Strange told them when it was time. He sat out in the open while the rest of them kept out of sight.

Thanos was huge. Bigger than Drax. Maybe as big as the Hulk, but Peter had never seen the Hulk in person so it was hard to tell.

He was huge. He was purple. He had golden armor, and this massive gauntlet on his left hand.

While they’d been waiting, Tony and Dr. Strange had given him the Cliff Notes on the Infinity Stones and just what that gauntlet was for. It was bad news. Just looking at it set off his spidey-sense.

For a little bit, it was really cool. Peter never seemed to get to fight with other enhanced people, people with abilities. It was always against enhanced people.

Tony dropped one of the legs of a starfish building on Thanos to start, which was awesome. Then Dr. Strange made magic circles for them to pop in and out of.

It took a few tries before they finally got Thanos pinned down. Peter got a web on his right arm. Dr. Strange did something red with magic, and then the big gray guy—Peter had already forgotten his name, which was horrible—held onto the arm as well. There was a magnet thing. Mantis had some sort of physic powers, so she sat on Thanos’s shoulders and used them to put him to sleep, or as close to it as she could get.

Tony grabbed the gauntlet, hauling on it for all he was worth.

“Parker,” he said after a moment, and Peter let go of his webbing to grab the gauntlet, too.

And then things went wrong.

Tony said Peter was impetuous and teenagerly and had no impulse control, but Quill was worse than Peter thought he’d ever been himself. They almost had the gauntlet off, and then Quill started whacking Thanos across the face, knocking antenna lady loose.

Peter’s spidey-sense went off, and then Thanos was awake.

He dropped a moon on Tony. It was insanity.

There was a blue lady with some sort of space sword. She was really, really angry.

Peter launched himself around, grabbing people. He’d forgotten all their names, but he webbed them up to things.

Dr. Strange was doing really cool things with magic. There were, like, a bajillion green butterflies for a moment.

And then Dr. Strange was unconscious and it was Tony throwing everything he had at Thanos. It was so freaking cool, but also terrifying.

“All that for a drop of blood,” Thanos said, and Peter heard it over comms. Which meant that Tony was right up next to him.

Cold panic bloomed in Peter’s gut.

“FRIDAY, I need a ping,” Peter said. “I know you don’t have GPS here, but gimme something to follow. Get me back over there.”

FRIDAY was able to point him in the right direction and Peter moved as fast as he could with the crazy gravity pockets, the debris.

Tony was making a sacrifice play. He’d let FRIDAY siphon nanites from his armor to shape weapons rather than armor, to increase power to repulsors.

Tony grunted and Peter missed his footing. The nanites had formed a sword-looking thing but Thanos had snapped it off and driven it into Tony’s side.

Peter stood, frozen and useless, listening to Tony struggle backwards, trying to breathe through the pain as Thanos loomed over him.

“You have my respect, Stark,” Thanos said. He had the gauntleted hand on Tony’s head, holding him upright by the hair.

Peter started running again. There was nothing to shoot a web at, no way to go faster. He just ran. He had too much distance to cover.

“When I’m done, half of humanity will still be alive,” Thanos said. Again, he was so close to Tony that Peter could hear him over comms. “I hope they remember you.”

Tony was struggling to breathe.

“Stop,” Dr. Strange said when Thanos raised the gauntlet. “Spare his life and I will give you the Stone.”

“No tricks,” Thanos said.

Dr. Strange shook his head. Peter was close enough he could see it. See Tony and Thanos both looking at Dr. Strange, Dr. Strange staring back at Thanos.

Don’t,” Tony said.

But Dr. Strange did. He held up his hand and pulled the green Time Stone out of nothing, held it out to Thanos.

Tony collapsed backward.

Peter was maybe a hundred yards away—so close, but too far to get there before Thanos added the stone to his gauntlet. He stumbled to a stop, staring at the three of them.

They’d failed.

Quill blasted out from behind a bunch of rocks. Helmet up, blasters in both hands. Shouting like he was somehow going to turn things around. As if it hadn’t all started going to shit because of him.

Thanos stepped backward into a blue-black thundercloud and was gone.

“Where is he?” Quill shouted. “Did we just lose?”

“Why’d you do that?” Tony asked, quietly, looking over at Dr. Strange and ignoring Quill.

“We’re in the endgame now,” Dr. Strange said.

“What does that mean?” Peter asked, rushing over and reaching for Tony. He’d used the nanites to create some sort of barrier to keep himself from bleeding out, but he didn’t look good.

Dr. Strange didn’t answer.

“You okay?” Tony asked, looking over Peter like he had a thousand times before. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine, Tony,” Peter said, because he was. He was hungry, but that was hardly worth mentioning. “I’m sorry. I should’ve been here. I shouldn’t have—”

“You were exactly where I told you to be,” Tony interrupted. “You did good.”

“You’re really hurt.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Something’s happening,” the antenna lady said, looking at the sky like she was expecting another spaceship to drop down on them.

And then, all at once, she turned to dust.

“Quill?" the gray guy said, holding up hands that weren’t there anymore. And then he was gone, too.

“Steady, Quill,” Tony said.

Peter’s spidey-sense began screaming at him. He’d though it had been extreme when the donut ship had shown up over New York City, but it was nothing compared to this moment. His entire being ached with it.

“Oh, man,” Quill said. Then he was gone.

Tony turned, looking for the others, looking for who was left, looking for Peter.

“Tony,” Dr. Strange said quietly. “There was no other way.”

Then he was gone, too.

“Tony,” Peter said, stepping closer, reaching for him. “I don’t feel so good.”

“You’re alright,” Tony said.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Peter said.

Something was wrong. Fundamentally. He knew it down to the atomic level.

Something horrible was happening.

Tony reached for Peter, like he was going to pull him into a hug, but he stumbled. Peter caught him, held on.

“I don’t want you to go,” Peter said. “I don’t want you to go. I don’t want you to go. Please. Dad. Please. I don’t want you to go.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony said softly, and then even the hand he’d had on Peter’s cheek was gone. He held eye contact to the last second, like he was memorizing Peter’s face for the afterlife.

Chapter Text

Stephen opened his eyes and was surprised to see Tony looking back at him.

In all the millions of times he’d returned on Titan, in all the millions of times he’d returned to Titan after giving Thanos the Time Stone in exchange for Tony Stark, Thanos had never once broken the deal. Not one single time.

Except this time.

“Peter?” Tony said, looking away.

“Here,” Quill said, making his way from the other side of the clear area. He held a hand out toward Drax, steadying him.

“Not you,” Tony said. “My kid. My son Peter. Yea high, way too much enthusiasm, was literally just right next to me.”

“Wait, that kid’s your son?” Quill asked, pulling a face “How did I miss that part?”

“It would have been a great honor to go into battle with my child by my side,” Drax said, fixing Tony with a very steady, approving look. “You fought well together.”

“It’s not—I didn’t bring him here on purpose,” Tony said. He spun back around, evidently having assured himself that Stark the younger was not among them. “Strange. What gives? What’s going on?”

“Nebula is gone, too,” Mantis said.

“This is different,” Stephen said, standing to look around as well. It all looked the same as it had every other time, but this time it was Peter Parker missing rather than Tony Stark. “Something changed.”

“You gave him the Stone and he screwed us over,” Tony said. “Why is that surprising?”

“Fourteen million six hundred and five,” Stephen said, frowning at Tony. “Fourteen million six hundred and five times through, and not once did Thanos break his word. No matter who he spared in exchange for the Stone, he always did as he said he would.”

“Well apparently not this time,” Tony said. He looked like he wanted to argue, ask how time could be reset if Thanos had the Stone, but he didn’t. He just turned away again, looking at the horizon like he might’ve somehow missed his son the first time he looked.

“Uh, guys?” Quill asked, looking at the horizon, too. “Does it look orangier here to you?”

“Orangier?” Mantis asked.

“Yeah,” Quill said. “More orange.”

“I don’t know,” Mantis said. “Maybe?”

“We’ve been here awhile,” Tony said. “Maybe it’s a sunset. Why’re you tweaking out?”

“I’m just thinking this isn’t gonna be a great place to be after sunset,” Quill said. “It’s a messed up place. There’s gravity fluctuations and shit, and the temperature is definitely dropping.”

“I’m not leaving until I find my kid,” Tony said.

“We are needed on Earth,” Stephen said. “Urgently.”

“How could you possibly know that?” Quill asked, throwing his arms up before walking off in the direction of his ship. Mantis and Drax followed him.

“Because every time I’ve done this before, when we returned the battle was on Earth,” Stephen said. “And that is where all the survivors from Titan went.”

“Don’t think I didn’t notice how you said ‘all the survivors’ and not ‘Peter Parker,’” Tony said.

“Hey, guys, we’ve got another problem,” Quill said, yelling down at them from the top of the ridge. “We got no wheels.”

“They likely took it when they left,” Stephen said.

“Pretty sure we would’ve noticed somebody making off with our ship,” Quill said.

“We weren’t here to notice,” Stephen said. “We were dust.”

“Yeah,” Quill said. “And then we came right back. Thanos messed something up with the whole snap away the—”

“He didn’t, though,” Tony said, cutting Quill off. “Did he?”

“No. He didn’t,” Stephen said. “This is new, so I can’t be sure. But before, more often than not, it was five years.”

“We missed five years?” Quill asked, stumbling and half-sliding down the slope back to level with Stephen and Tony.

“I don’t have time to explain,” Stephen said. “We need to get back to Earth. Prepare yourselves for another fight.”

“I am always ready for a fight,” Drax said. “I do not need to prepare.”

“Yeah, I’m good,” Quill said, stretching out his shoulders. “Let’s do this. Let’s go. Round two.”

Stephen glanced at Tony but found none of the recognition or commiseration he’d wanted to see—he’d spent a hundred lifetimes fighting this battle, but nobody else remembered.

Stephen raised his hands, moved one arm in a circle. The site of the confrontation had almost always been the Avengers compound in upstate New York, so that was where he started, and he could tell even before the portal had fully expanded that he’d at least been right about that.

They were late. The remaining Avengers had called for reinforcements—the All Hands On Deck protocol, Tony had said in one of the alternate futures—and the momentary lull while the two groups faced each other had passed.

He lost track of the others almost immediately. Quill blasted through with his rocket boots, Drax charged in with a blade in each hand, Tony had rushed off to one side talking to his AI about his armor.

“Is that everyone?” Stephen asked, catching sight of Wong.

“What, you wanted more?” he asked.

There was more to be said, but no time to say it.

 

“Hey,” Tony said, hurtling out of the sky in a new Iron Man suit. Stephen couldn’t actually track how much time had passed—the ground had been churned to raw earth and everything smelled of blood and magic. “You said one out of fourteen million we win, yeah? How we looking? Tell me this is it.”

“If I tell you what happens, it won’t happen,” Stephen said. Because they’d had this conversation before. Many times. And he’d tried so many different ways, so many different answers.

It was different this time, every single thing lined up like in that single success but ever so slightly off. He didn’t want Tony to doubt, though. Doubt wouldn’t help them.

“You better be right,” Tony said, then pivoted off out of sight again, repulsors blasting.

Not so far away, the world lit up red as Wanda Maximoff found Thanos. Seconds later, the warships overhead began firing down on them.

The others conjured shields and held them up to deflect and absorb the blasts, and Stephen turned to face the lake and what came next.

“Uh,” an unfamiliar voice said over comms, "is anybody else seeing this?”

Every time before, it had been Pepper Potts. Whether she’d had a child at home or not. Whether it had been two children or just the one. Whether she and Tony had split up or stayed together. Every single time, Pepper had been in the Rescue suit and she'd been the one to notice the wave.

The rest of his role in the confrontation was to hold back the water. He’d tried, time and again, to do something else. To help. It had always been worse.

The time it had worked, the one time, he’d been able to see Tony. He and Cap and Thor had been there standing against Thanos together, and then it had just been Tony.

Stephen couldn’t see them. Any of them.

The wave was too close, slowly gaining ground just like it did every time.

Everybody was shouting over comms, just like every time.

And then that moment of stillness. Millions of times before, that had been right before he’d gone to dust again and his spell had reset. Once, it had been before Thanos and his army had gone to dust.

Silence. And then the soft whisper of release, dust on the wind.

Chapter Text

“He did it,” the blue lady said, pulling Peter back into the moment.

Peter put his head in his hands and wished that it had been him. He was sitting on an alien planet, and he was covered in grit and ash that used to be Tony Stark.

“He lied to Dr. Strange,” Peter said. “He agreed. He said he’d spare T-Tony if he handed over the Time Stone.”

“We can’t stay here,” she said. “Where is your ship?”

“Um.” Peter cleared his throat. He had to pull himself together. He didn’t even know the blue lady’s name, but he got the impression that she would totally leave him behind if he didn’t get his head in the game. “It crashed. We crashed it.”

He and Tony.

How was one of the last things they’d ever done together crashing a spaceship? It was like the last movie May had ever watched as Ghostbusters. It was just… wrong.

“Where?” the blue lady asked.

“It was over there,” Peter said, pointing. “It got smashed up even more when we were fighting, though.”

The blue lady frowned, looking at the remains of the ship for a long moment.

“We will take Quill’s.”

“I’m Peter,” Peter said, because it was weird that they didn’t know each other’s names.

“I am Nebula,” the blue lady said, then she turned and started walking. Peter hurried to keep up.

Quill’s ship was a lot smaller than the donut ship, but still pretty big. It was more traditionally ship-shaped, with wings and stuff. Nebula walked in and started flipping switches, scowling at computer displays that were all in some alien language Peter couldn’t begin to comprehend.

“He was your father,” she said. Her tone was flat, a statement more than a question, and she wasn’t even looking at him.

“Yes,” Peter said. It was probably the first time that answer hadn’t been… fraught. “He was my father.”

And the first time he’d ever called Tony “dad” had been when he was turning to dust.

Peter’s eyes burned like he was going to cry, but he did his best to swallow the emotion back. Just for a little bit longer.

“He fought well,” Nebula said.

“We still lost,” Peter said.

Chapter Text

Peter had had FRIDAY make him a camcorder sort of thing out of nanites, mostly so that he’d have something to do. There was lots of random stuff on the ship, and he was so infuriatingly curious about the mechanics of the ship itself, but all of it was in non-Earth languages. And Nebula was… grouchy. So he wasn’t going to ask her to tell him about things.

He kept a video log, like he had on that trip to Germany. Except this was so much bigger than Germany.

Mostly he just needed something to do to keep from sitting in the bunk he’d taken over as his own and worrying what sort of horror they might be returning to on Earth.

The first video had had a lot of Stark Wars jokes, and he’d talked to Happy and Pepper and MJ and Ned like they were all somehow alive and back on Earth. He’d even said “Kirk out” at the end of it.

He was in the middle of recording in the kitchen-galley-type area when the ship shuddered around him. He couldn’t understand the announcement voice, but the flashing red lights made the DANGER, WILL ROBINSON of it all pretty clear.

“Uh, Nebula?”

“Follow me,” she said, stalking through the galley on her way towards crew quarters.

“Okay?”

She didn’t seem panicked, like she was leading him to an escape pod sort of situation. But she wasn’t extremely expressive—or at all expressive, really—so that could’ve been a total panic response and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to spot it.

His spidey-sense hadn’t stopped screaming at him since they’d left Earth, so it was no help. (It was exhausting, actually.)

“You said you are a quick study,” she said. Again, her tone was flat but he was pretty sure it was a question. “You can process a lot of information in a short amount of time.”

“Yeah. I mean, uh—yes?” Peter said, following as close as he dared. He’d spent the first day trailing after her around the ship, watching, asking questions. She hadn’t liked it—but apparently she'd been listening, because he'd definitely told her he was a quick study while he was following her around trying to convince her to tell him things about space. “But I can’t read any of the—gah!”

Nebula had taken hold of his chin with her robot hand, turning his face away from her. Then she’d pressed a thing that looked like a travel case for contact lenses into the soft bit behind his left ear.

It made a very disturbing kachunk noise.

“You are fine,” Nebula said, letting go of his chin and stepping away to put the contact lens case back into the drawer where she’d found it.

“What was that for?” Peter asked. He tried to rub the spot behind his ear because it felt flipping weird, but Nebula batted his hand away.

“You have to let it heal.”

“Let what heal?” Peter asked. “What did you do to me?”

“An implant,” Nebula said. “Universal translator.”

“You’ve had a universal translator this whole time and you’ve just been letting me record stupid videos rather than—”

“We must fix the engine,” Nebula interrupted. She grabbed his chin again and looked at the thing critically for a second before seeming to decide it was properly anchored to his skull or whatever. “Follow me.”

“What happened to the engine?” Peter asked, following her, clenching his fist at his side to keep his fingers from finding the sore spot behind his ear.

“I do not know,” Nebula said. “That is why you needed the implant. So that we can find the problem and fix it.”

They made it back to the main area of the ship and Peter stopped dead. There were screens everywhere, and Peter had thought a lot of it was decorative. But it wasn’t. With the implant, he could read the stuff on the screens. Each screen reported on different systems, most of them scrolling through line after line of data. There was flight data, atmospheric readings, maps of star systems, maps of something called “jump points.”

He wanted to sit down and read it all. Scroll through every screen. Absorb every detail of every bit of it.

“This is awesome.”

“We do not have time for this,” Nebula growled, then disappeared down the hatch to the underbelly part of the ship where all the access panels for the engines and fuel tanks and whatever were.

“This is so cool,” Peter said again, following her through the hatch and down the ladder.

“Read that while I begin diagnostics,” Nebula said, handing him an alien version of a tablet. She’d queued up what looked like the user manual for the ship.

“Awesome,” Peter repeated, sticking himself to one of the walls out of her way while he started reading.

 

Three days later, Peter had begun to understand the way Tony had looked out the windows on the donut ship when they’d been headed for Titan.

Space was vast. Endless. Infinite nothing speckled with stars too far away to be more than pinpricks.

It made him feel very small. Very finite. Very fragile.

“The fuel cells cracked,” Peter said, turning on the nanite camera because if he stared out into space any longer he was afraid he might just fall into it. “They were cracked already. We just didn’t realize it until too late. We set a course straight for Earth, and the problem with that is that it doesn’t take us anywhere near shipping lanes or any planets where we could stop to get things fixed.”

Peter sighed and shifted. The ache was constant; he couldn’t even differentiate between the hunger and the grief anymore. They'd rationed out the food so that they'd have enough to eat for as long as they had air to breathe, trying to make it all last as long as possible in the hopes that somebody was looking for them.

“It’s all held together by space duct tape, but—Well.” He sighed and thought about turning the camera off. Instead, he turned it away from him to capture the view. “You know, if it wasn’t for the existential terror of staring into the literal void of space, this would be really cool.”

 

“It’s day, uh, twenty-one,” Peter said, talking to the camera again. He’d read just about everything available, which had the benefit of keeping him out of Nebula’s way, but focus had become more and more difficult. And the more he learned about the ship and space travel, the better he understood just how screwed they were. “Maybe twenty-two. I probably should’ve been keeping better track of that.”

Peter set the camera on the night-stand thing and sat forward. He couldn’t think of what he wanted to say, though. Where to start.

Where to end.

“Oxygen will run out tomorrow morning. And that’ll be it,” he said. “Nice thing is that it’ll be like going to sleep. Would’ve been worse if the oxygen lasted another month, because at that point we would’ve run out of food no matter how much we tried to stretch rations and then we’re starve rather than just… Yeah.”

The fuel cells had just been the first things to go. They’d rerouted and jerry-rigged and bypassed, but all they’d managed to do was prolong the inevitable.

There was a very real possibility that the ship’s inertia would bring them back to Earth hundreds of years after they’d both died.

Peter turned the camera off. He’d intended to record some sort of goodbye, but he didn’t even know who was left to say goodbye to.

He hadn’t gotten to say goodbye to Tony.

 

Peter woke to a warm glow. He’d been sick of sitting in his bunk so he’d made his way to the copilot’s chair, but just getting there had been exhausting.

“Nebula?” he said, not sure if he should whisper or shout.

There was a glowing lady in space. No suit, just open space.

She was blonde.

“What is it?” Nebula called from wherever she was toward the back of the ship.

“Am I hallucinating?” 

 

The glowing lady’s name was Carol, and that somehow made it even more absurd.

Carol glowed, flew around space, and had no issues whizzing them across a billion light years under her own power so they made it to Earth before they ran out of breathable atmosphere.

Nebula put the ramp down after they’d touched down, then offered him a hand up. He hadn’t realized he’d need it until he tried to stand and realized he was trembling from the effort.

Nebula wasn’t big on facial expressions, so he had no idea what she thought of helping him down the ramp. She just did it.

Carol had brought them to the compound. It was night. The air was cool, quiet. It was peaceful.

Captain America sprinted out of the building, reaching forward. Peter wanted to flinch away, shout at him because if he’d been there rather than hiding from the Accords Committee maybe things would’ve gone differently. But he didn’t; he was too tired.

Rogers took his elbow, put a hand on his shoulder, then looked up the ramp like he was hoping for more.

“Couldn’t stop him,” Peter said.

“Neither could I,” Rogers said.

“I lost—”

“Kid, we lost,” Rogers said. Somewhere between earnest and like he was about to launch into a goddamned pep talk—‘buck up, kiddo, it’s not your fault.’

Peter had planned to say that he’d lost Tony.

“Is, um—?” He wanted to talk to literally anybody else, but mostly Pepper. Or Rhodey. Preferably both.

“Oh my god,” Pepper said, and Peter was surprised he hadn’t heard her running across the grass because there she was. She wrapped her arms around him, holding him tight.

Chapter Text

“It’s been twenty-three days since Thanos came to Earth,” Maria Hill said. It was a small group, all of them spread through the room like they were leaving space for those they were missing.

Pepper had wanted Peter to stay down in medbay, but he’d insisted on being there. Dr. Costa had put him in a fancy wheelchair with an IV stand built into it.

“World governments are in pieces. The parts that are still working are trying to take a census. And it looks like he did—he did exactly what he said he was going to do,” Romanoff said. “Thanos wiped out fifty percent of all living creatures.”

“Where is he now?” Peter asked.

“We don’t know,” Rogers said. “He just… opened a portal and walked through.”

Peter frowned and looked away. It was weird. Captain America was in a plaid shirt. Thor was in jeans. Not to mention seeing them all in at the compound, in spaces he’d only ever seen Tony and Rhodey and Vision before, was a whole new level of bizarre. Tony and Rhodey and Vision were gone.

“What’s wrong with him?” Peter asked, eyes falling on Thor. He’d had a haircut since the last time he’d been to Earth, and he’d been staring at the floor in silence since Clint had wheeled Peter into the room.

“Oh, he’s pissed. He thinks he failed,” the raccoon said. Like so much else, it would’ve been freaking awesome—an alien raccoon—under basically any other circumstance. “Which of course he did, but y’know there’s a lot of that going around, ain’t there?”

“We’ve been hunting Thanos for three weeks now. Deep space scans. Satellites. And we’ve got nothing,” Rogers said, looking around the room like he was a little bit disappointed in them. “Parker, you fought him—”

“Who told you that?” Peter asked. “No. He dropped a moon on Tony, and then that magician guy gave away the Stone. That’s what happened. There was no fight.”

“Okay—” Rogers said, looking down, avoiding eye contact like they all had been since Clint had wheeled him in. The kid who’d had to stow away to play backup because none of them had been there.

“There was no fight because he was unbeatable,” Peter said.

“Did he give you any clues?” Rogers asked, finally looking up. “Any coordinates? Anything?”

Peter rolled his eyes and mock-saluted. Why the hell would Thanos announce coordinates in the middle of kicking their asses? That didn’t even make sense.

“You know Tony knew this was coming,” Peter said. “Years ago. He didn’t want to believe it. Thought it was a bad dream.”

“Peter, I’m going to need you to focus—”

“Focus isn’t the issue.” Peter stood up, surprised again at his own unsteadiness. “You weren’t there. And now he’s dead. Half the world is dead. Half the universe.”

“You made your point,” Clint said quietly. “Just sit down. Okay? Before you fall down.”

“I guess that’s why it’s the A-vengers, huh? Not the Pre-vengers. Right?”

Peter didn’t even realize he’d hit the floor until he was staring up at them all.

“I’m fine,” Peter said. But when he tried to get up the room went fuzzy.

Chapter Text

Peter woke in his bedroom. It was exactly as he’d left it the last time he’d been at the compound.

Somebody had tracked down his backpack, because it was sitting on the desk chair and his phone was on his bedside table charging.

“FRIDAY? How long was I out?”

“You have been asleep for almost fifteen hours,” FRIDAY said. “It is 3 o’clock in the afternoon on Monday, April 23. It has been 24 days since the Decimation.”

“The Decimation?”

“That is what they’re calling the event that turned half the population to dust.”

“Oh.”

Peter sat up, slowly just in case things went sideways on him again. He seemed fine, though. And the fact that he wasn’t hooked up to an IV anymore was probably a good sign.

“What did I miss?” Peter asked, dropping his legs off the side of the bed and rubbing at his face, trying to wake himself up.

“The Avengers have gone to face Thanos and retrieve the Stones,” FRIDAY said.

Peter groaned. He would’ve liked to go with them for that, but he knew he wasn’t in any shape for it. His hands were trembling for no good reason just from the effort of sitting upright on the edge of his bed.

“Where’s Pepper?” Peter asked.

“Potts is in Boss’s office,” FRIDAY said.

“Thanks, FRIDAY.”

He didn’t get up and seek her out, though. His eyes landed on his phone and saw that it had blown up even crazier than it had when the inheritance had leaked, when the adoption had leaked. It was like everybody he knew had been reaching out, wondering if he was okay.

Not everybody.

Half the people he knew.

HEY, Peter texted Riri. It was a stupid thing to start off with 24 days after half the population vanished, but he hadn’t thought it through. He’d just seen her text among those from the decathlon team, his lab partner, people from SI, Happy, Pepper, Clint, Lila.

Nothing from Ned.

Nothing from MJ.

<Incoming video call from Lt. Williams>

What the hell, Peter—oh my god what happened to you?” Riri said when he accepted the call, going from spitting mad to worried in a blink.

“Hey,” he said, trying to smile but not really managing it.

“Are you okay? What happened?” Riri asked. “I saw you ended up on that ship. I thought you’d died, Peter. Is Uncle Tony with you?”

“I—Um—” He tried to choke back the tears but it didn’t really work. He hadn’t thought out the conversation at all. “I went to space. We l-lost. Tony was in really bad shape, and then everybody except the angry blue lady—Nebula, her name is Nebula; I should remember that—they all went to dust. We didn’t realize the ship was broken until it dropped us out of hyperspeed or whatever, and—I’ve never thought I was going to die before. Not like that. Not really, you know? I mean. It’s not like I don’t know that things are dangerous and there are real consequences, but actually staring out into nothing and being able to watch the atmosphere thingy tick toward red as the oxygen ran down?”

“Peter, I need you to breathe for me, okay?” Riri said. “Focus on that. You’re okay. You’re home. You’re safe. There’s plenty of oxygen. Atmosphere’s fine. Just in and out. Like that. Keep going. In and out. Again.”

“I’m sorry about Rhodey,” Peter said when he’d gotten himself back under control. “About your uncle.”

“Me too,” Riri said. She smiled, but it was watery and her eyes gleamed with tears that she didn’t seem to want to let fall. “I’m sorry about Tony.”

“Did he tell you he was my dad?” Peter asked, then shook his head when she gave him a puzzled look, probably about to point out that she’d been perfectly aware of the adoption. “Biologically. It was a whole thing—there’s actually a court case; I should look it up later and see if anything changes with all that’s been going on.”

“He didn’t tell me, no,” Riri said.

“I guess it was technically classified.” Peter shrugged. “But he was. And I never called him ‘dad’ even though—Is that a horrible thing? Do you know, it’s been such a long time since I’ve been anybody’s son that I didn’t even think of it? And then we were on this alien planet and he’s literally going to dust and that was the first time I ever—I ever—”

“Peter, sweetie, you’ve got to stop,” Riri said. She was crying now, too. “It doesn’t matter what you called him, or whether you were biologically related or not. You know? He loved you and he knew you loved him. I could see that from just the weekend I spent with you guys.”

“S-sorry,” Peter said. He propped his phone up on the nightstand and grabbed a bunch of tissues to mop up his face. He was still crying, so it was a losing battle.

“Nothing to be sorry for.”

“I just miss him,” Peter said. “I feel like I’d just found him.”

“What matters is that you found him.”

Peter nodded and grabbed another tissue.

“Hey, did I mention I’m an Avenger now?” Peter asked, desperate for a change of subject. “Actually I think I might be the only Avenger. Nobody else around here has signed the Accords. Technically.”

“You’ll just have to make me a suit of armor,” Riri said. She had her own handful of tissues. “You’ll need some back up out there—I’ll be the next Iron Patriot.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt, Peter, but a transmission has been received from the Avengers,” FRIDAY said. “Maria Hill is requesting to speak with you as soon as possible.”

“A transmission?” Peter asked, his heart sinking. A transmission meant they’d already found Thanos and had something to report. But there hadn’t been any alerts about all the people that had vanished coming back.

“Yes, Peter,” FRIDAY said. “Potts is asking to speak to you as soon as you are awake as well. What would you like me to tell them?”

Peter sighed. He really, really hoped the transmission was telling them that Thanos had hidden the Stones and they were on a mission across the galaxy to track them all down again or something. He didn’t have a lot of hope left, though.

“Tell them I’m up,” Peter said. “I’ll talk to Pepper first.”

“What’s going on?” Riri asked.

“I’m sorry. I’ve got to go,” Peter said. “They went after Thanos and they’ve just sent a transmission back.”

“I wasn’t kidding about that backup thing,” Riri said.

“You get up to the compound and I’ll have something for you to try on,” Peter said. “And we both know that I’m the backup.”

“I’m really glad you’re okay, Peter,” Riri said, smirking at him. He made a face and she made a face right back. “You are okay. We are going to be okay.”

“Thanks, Riri.”

 

They’d found Thanos, killed him. But he’d destroyed the Stones.

There was no way to bring everybody back.

Chapter Text

Steve Rogers held a press conference.

Well. All the Avengers were there on stage with him, but Rogers did the talking. He sounded so earnest and mournful that Peter wanted to punch him in his perfect teeth—he hadn’t been there.

Peter stood on stage between Black Widow and Carol, in a dark suit and a silk shirt that Pepper had picked out for him. He wasn’t there as Spider-Man; he was there as Iron Man's proxy.

Nebula stuck close to him, and he couldn’t tell if she was looking out for him or if she was uncomfortable with the whole situation. Whatever the reason, he was glad to have her at his back: Everybody wanted to know if he was going to be the next Iron Man. The next Tony Stark. Would Peter be putting on the armor?

It was like they expected him to smirk at their cameras and tell them he was Iron Man.

Tony would’ve known what to say. He would’ve had some remark that made people smile. Made them roll their eyes even as it helped them relax, reassured them that things would be okay even if they weren’t okay yet.

Instead, Peter stood surrounded by Avengers, looking out at the conference hall and its meager contingent of reporters and camera crews, and had no idea what to do.

When it was over, he had a dozen text messages from friends at school freaking out about seeing him on TV with the Avengers. It would’ve been funny—and just a little bit awesome—a month ago, but a month ago he would’ve been able to laugh about it with Ned and MJ.

 

After the press conference, after the Avengers had officially made a report to the world about how badly it had all gone sideways, Peter drifted from meeting to meeting—there were so many meetings. They blurred together, broken up only by Happy handing him fresh clothes and making him eat real food, but then it was right back into another meeting.

He met with Pepper. He met with Maria Hill, de facto Director of SHIELD. He met with Anne Marie Hoag, the Director of the DoDC. He met with the Avengers. He met with Tyler Hayward, Acting Director of SWORD. He met with SI Department Heads (or Acting Department Heads, in some cases). He met with what was left of the SI Board of Directors. He met with the Accords Committee.

Usually, he met with the same people more than once mixed up into different groups.

Then there were the calls. He was constantly taking calls. People checking in with him. People trying to check in with Pepper but not able to get ahold of her so they called him.

It was exhausting, but it also helped him cope. It was like after May died; he’d been able to push forward so long as he’d had a list to work down, goals to accomplish.

Pepper seemed to be coping by keeping herself even busier than he was and subsisting entirely on buttered toast.

 

The memorials started up at the end of the month, and they were worse than any meeting.

Somebody somewhere had decided that funerals would only be held for those that had died and left bodies behind, and the policy had been adopted more-or-less worldwide. People who’d died because they’d been on a plane and the pilots had been decimated were given funerals, while the pilots were given memorials.

Nobody knew how to properly memorialize the decimated. Nothing even came close to acknowledging it all.

Different places did different things. Most cities, states, provinces, countries polled their citizens looking for ideas. San Francisco was building a park with all the names carved into a Stonehenge sort of pillar arrangement. Paris had commissioned a statue to stand parallel to the Eiffel Tower.

Almost everywhere had started putting up smaller memorials, too. A lot of them were for Iron Man and other fallen Avengers—murals, documentaries, graffiti, pop-up memorials where people would leave pictures and flowers and things.

A lot of people wore black, or at least black arm bands.

Chapter Text

“Here,” Pepper said, holding out a surgical mask. “There’s an air quality alert in the city again today.”

“Thanks,” Peter said, taking the mask.

It had become fairly commonplace in most major cities in the last month. There was so much dusty ash in the air, especially in cites that had had dense populations, that people wore masks to keep from breathing it in. It was almost its own sort of memorial.

“We’re meeting your old Decathlon coach,” Pepper said, getting into the car. Happy was staying at the office, doing Head of Security stuff, and Pepper was driving them to the school in her old Audi. It was very strange. “Mr. Harrington.”

“This is the meeting about switching to remote attendance, right?” he asked.

“Yes. You were—Well. You were in space when most of the rest of the students had these meetings,” Pepper said.

“Right.” He frowned out the passenger window, watching empty streets whiz by. He’d had to withdraw from his college courses—taking Incompletes in most cases—because he’d been in space and he’d been marked down among the decimated. He could’ve fought it, told the dean the reason he’d been out of contact was classified, but he was too busy to try to keep up with a college schedule, anyway.

Schools, especially K-12 schools, had been one of the first things to get up and running again. They’d been a safe place for students to be while the adults tried to figure things out. They’d been a hub for donations. They’d been a way for whatever sort of functioning authorities had existed to be able to check in on kids, see who’d lost parents. Nothing had been perfect, and there had been problems ranging from staffing to orphaned kids squatting at their schools, but getting kids taken care of after the decimation had been a priority.

Midtown, as a private high school, had tried to get things back to running as close to normal as possible as quickly as they could. Chunks of the student population had transitioned to online schooling because their living situations had changed—some kids had ended up in entirely different states because they’d been sent to live with relatives. There were also at least a dozen kids who’d lost everybody and ended up living in repurposed classrooms.

“We could probably talk them into letting you back for those classes, if that’s what you want,” Pepper said when he hadn’t said anything else.

“Remote would be good,” Peter said. “It would be harder to go back, I think. No Ned. No MJ. Even the principal’s gone.”

“You know, you’ve been taking on a lot,” Pepper said. Her tone was casual, but Peter could just tell that it was a conversation she’d been meaning to have with him. Or maybe a conversation she felt like she should have with him. “It would be okay if you wanted to take a step back, take it easy.”

“So have you,” he said. “So could you.”

“Touché.”

Chapter Text

“Ready to go?” Happy asked. “Let’s go.”

Peter hummed and followed him out of SI–NY, scrolling through his email trying to find the one Riri had sent with all the modifications she wanted to try for her suit the next time they were both at the compound. She had actually gone to school for mechanical engineering and had way more know-how than he did, but technically she wasn’t able to legally work on it since she was active military and the Iron Man suits were Tony’s private property under the Accords and other weird legal reason. So Peter had built a basic model based on Tony’s schematics, installed the interface from the War Machine suit, and they’d been adding things as they went.

Easier said than done when the world was a mess.

“We’re here,” Happy said, cutting the engine.

“Right,” Peter said, following him into the elevator. He didn’t even know what meeting was next. Everything had been such go-go-go that Peter had just learned to roll with whatever came up in the schedule and thank God for Happy making sure he ate food and FRIDAY keeping a list of upcoming deadlines for him to work toward in any spare moment he found.

Peter had found the email he’d been after and was too engrossed in