The end of the world came during third period.
Peter ran to the windows with the rest of his classmates, watching in slack-jawed shock as a hole opened in the sky and dozens of crazed UFOs came pouring down. Explosions echoed like thunder in the distance, and soon everyone had their phones out, streaming the news and texting their friends and dissolving into chaos. When their teacher turned on the television at the front of the room Peter abandoned the windows and hopped two rows of desks to get closer. He turned up the volume and tasted his heart in his throat as he watched the impossible images playing out before his eyes.
"Peter." Gwen clung to his elbow. "Don't."
Peter gulped. Sweat collected on his forehead as he thought of the suit stuffed in his locker. "I have to," he said. "Who else will?"
"That's not just one lizard out there," Gwen insisted. She clutched his arm. "Please. Don't."
"I'm sorry." He eased her hand off. "Just stick with the class, and try to get everyone to the basement, if you can. It might be safer there." When she reached for him again, he backed out of range. "I'm sorry, Gwen," he said, and then he bolted out.
Peter changed in the bathroom and rushed across the city as fast as he could. By the time he reached central Manhattan where the worst of the fighting was happening, the streets were overrun with reptilian beasts and screaming machinery. He narrowly dodged a pair of speeding crafts and landed on the roof of an apartment building, only to be chased off again by a barrage of laser fire. "This is insane," he complained as he swung through a narrow alley. When the shots followed, he glanced back and cursed as one of the alien ships swerved after him. It was gaining. Peter latched his web onto a building to his left and tensed against the pull of gravity as he swung out of the way.
It didn't stop his pursuer for long enough. Peter didn't even have enough time for a quip before the alien invader was bearing down on him, close enough that he could see the creature's gaping mouth and spit-slick teeth. So he did the only thing he could think to do--he shot both web shooters behind him, catching the front of the craft. Just as they collided he vaulted over the top, his weight and momentum lifting the nose of the craft enough that it veered out of control. Peter severed the webs and retreated to a flag pole to watch the ship crash into a billboard.
"Hell yeah!" Peter cheered as the wreckage dropped to the street below. "Uh, actually, I hope there was no one below that. But that's one down." He turned back toward the portal. "Three thousand to go...."
Peter moved down a few more blocks and was still trying to think of some kind of plan that might end with him in one piece when a bolt of lightning struck the billboard behind him. He whirled, but could only make out a blur of red and silver streaking overhead. At first he thought it was Iron Man, but then he heard a pulse of thrusters from further down the street, and spotted red and gold flashing in the other direction. Something green and much larger was smashing its way across the front of a building opposite him. Peter's heart pounded as he slid up to the edge of the building and adjusted his mask so he was sure to get a good view of what the hell was going on.
Manhattan was a warzone. The aliens were everywhere, but among them six figures fought to contain and neutralize the threat of their advanced weapons. Peter recognized the flash of Tony Stark's Iron Man armor, and he would never forget the green beast that had rampaged through Harlem while he and his aunt and uncle watched news coverage through the night. The rest he had never seen before, but he couldn't help a pang of awe as he watched a man and woman hold the invasion on the streets with little more than their bare fists, and a sharpshooter picked off the ships from the rooftops, and another struck them with lighting while flying overhead. It was surreal and brilliant, and Peter stood, eager to join them in fighting for the city, just as he had only weeks before.
The billboard behind him creaked, but Peter didn't realize that it was falling until its shadow fell over him, and he turned just in time for a shower of metal to knock him to the ground, unconscious.
"It's not fair," said Peter. "I was there, just like everyone else. How is it that they get all the press? I mean, sure, invaders from Mars is bigger news than one mutant lizard, but still. No one was this excited about me. My suit is red and blue, too. Right?"
Peter turned to the pigeons that were pecking about on the roof ledge next to him. "Are pigeons colorblind?" he asked of them. "Can you see this stitch-work? I didn't learn this in home ec, you know." He shooed them away out of spite.
A week had passed since the dramatic battle that ravaged New York, and the pieces were still being pasted back together. For days Peter had spent his nights in Manhattan, tying up looters and spying on the reconstruction efforts, just in case they needed help with heavy lifting, or saving a street of civilians from falling debris or equipment. Sometimes, he daydreamed that a crew would spot him and ask him to come down, hey, buddy, give us a hand with this. That would be the day.
Peter abandoned his pigeon roost and headed further downtown. He had left Manhattan in favor of Brooklyn for the night, which hadn't received as much attention thanks to the greater need across the river. It was dark, overcast, making it easy for him to remain out of sight as he picked a new vantage overlooking a string of small stores. They'd been hit hard in the aftermath, and on a dark night he never went home empty-handed. He wasn't on watch more than ten minutes when he spotted a pair of men in black masks ducking into the alley alongside a small electronics shop.
"Maybe I should tell them there's nothing left worth stealing," Peter said to himself. He checked his wrist shooters to make sure they had plenty of webbing left and then followed them down.
One of the men was trying to force a lock on the side door when Peter landed on the lid of a dumpster opposite them. They jumped at the clatter. "Come on, fellas," he said. "This is a time for all us New Yorkers to--"
The taller of the two men whipped around, a gun in his hand, and didn't waste time in firing. Even with his superior reflexes Peter barely avoided getting shot in the chest. "Okay," he grumbled as he leapt from the dumpster to the fire escape. "That's how we're going to play it."
The man kept firing. Peter stayed on defense, leaping and tumbling out of range while he waited for an opening, but the gun had an awful lot of bullets. When he finally heard the click of an empty magazine he whipped around and shot a ball of webbing that stuck the gunman's hands together. Before he could do more, however, the second man leveled his weapon and opened fire in his friend's place. More annoyed than worried, Peter managed to get off another shot before he was forced again to evade.
The web caught him full in the face, and in a panic he began to fire wildly, his shots ricocheting off the dumpster and cracking brick. "Hey!" Peter shouted, retreating further up into the alley to stay out of the way of his blind firing. "You're going to hit your friend that way--"
Something spiraled down the alley and struck the would-be-thief in the back of the head, dropping him like a stone. A third player darted through the shadows and took out the accomplice with one punch. Peter pressed himself to the wall above, watching and waiting, but it was too dark to make out any detail on the man that had provided the very efficient assist.
"Is someone else back here?" the stranger called into the dark. "Are you all right?"
Peter checked to make sure he had more than one avenue of escape. "Are you a cop?"
"No. Not exactly."
The stranger started dragging the thieves together, and after another moment of weighing his options, Peter lassoed the edge of the roof and then lowered himself to the alley floor. He stayed on his tether, though, just in case.
"That was an impressive kill steal you just pulled on me," Peter said, upside down, as he surveyed the unconscious outcomes.
"What? They're not dead."
The stranger turned to face him and stopped. Peter couldn't help but be taken aback himself. His "rescuer" was tall and broad-shouldered with a square jaw that could break bricks. The blonde hair and old school leather jacket didn't hurt, either. "I mean, thanks for the help," Peter said. "You saved me the trouble of finishing them off myself."
The stranger cocked his head to the side. "And who are you supposed to be?"
"What, you don't know?" Peter heaved a sigh. "This is what happens when guys in capes steal your press. I'm Spider-Man. You know, vigilante wild man? The scourge of Queens?" When the stranger continued to stare at him in confusion, he rolled his eyes--and his head, just to get the gesture across. "I've been on the news for weeks."
The man shrugged. "I haven't really been in town until recently." He went back to the thieves, clearing the webbing away from the one's face enough that he would have no trouble breathing. "But you shouldn't be out like this at night. The streets are still pretty rough."
Peter let go of his tether and hopped to the ground. "Do you not understand the concept of a vigilante? I'm fighting crime, here. These guys were about to--"
"Get someone shot? That's what it looked like."
"Because I stopped them from robbing the place," said Peter. "Who are you anyway? Maybe you shouldn't be out on these dangerous streets."
"Steve Rogers," the man introduced himself. He pulled a cell phone out of his pocket. "I heard the gunshots."
"And you were wandering around alone at night because...?"
Steve paused in his dialing. His lips curled in a smirk that was almost sheepish. "I had my eye out for looters," he admitted.
"Aha! Got a bite from the vigilante bug, did you? That's what I like to see."
"It's called being a good Samaritan," said Steve. He punched in three numbers and hit send. "Citizen's arrest. They still do that, right?"
"Oh yeah. I do it all the time, actually." Peter paused. "Wait, are you calling the cops?"
"Of course." Steve brought the phone to his ear. "This is Captain Steve Rogers," he said, and he sure sounded like military. "I could use a patrol car to pick up a couple of crooks."
As Steve related the address, Peter hopped back onto the dumpster. He was still curious about his unexpected ally, but not curious enough to risk a run in with the police. "Uh, I guess that's my cue," he said. "But it was nice thrashing some scum with you, man. Let's do it again sometime."
"Hey, wait." Steve turned back. "I want to know who you are."
"I already told you." Peter shrugged. "I'm Spider-Man." He leapt onto the web thread he had left earlier and climbed to the roof. It was late enough that he felt okay about heading straight home. His mind was buzzing and the first thing he did after slipping back into his room, before even de-suiting, was put "Captain Steve Rogers" into Google.
The first result had him gaping. "Holy shit," he hissed, clicking through pictures and articles and blog speculation and cell phone videos. "Holy shit."
Peter went back to Brooklyn the very next night, and it didn't take long to find Steve Rogers again. He would have liked to say he used his skills of deduction and tracking to uncover Captain America's secret lair, but as it turned out, Steve was waiting for him in the parking lot opposite the alley they'd met in. It was awfully open and well lit, but there were buildings nearby that Peter could latch onto and escape with if he needed to. With a deep breath he dropped behind a parked van and crept closer.
Steve was leaning against the side of a handsomely refurbished vintage motorcycle. His attention was on his phone, but he perked up once Peter was in range, detecting him far earlier than most normal people. He smirked into the darkness. "I thought you might come back."
Peter hopped onto the roof of a Chevy next to him. "Yeah, I thought you might think that," he replied. "And I hate to disappoint a national hero, so here I am."
Steve's smile was downright bashful. For a grown man, he was pretty darn adorable. "So, you looked me up."
"Yeah." Now that he had the chance to see Steve in better lighting, it seemed so obvious. "All-American" screamed from his every pore, from the way he parted his hair to the way he kept his hands in his jacket pockets after tucking his phone away. He looked the part of every high school jock Peter had ever known, but he didn't carry it like those assholes did. If Peter had to pick one word to describe him, it might have been...swell. He seemed like a swell guy. And how often did you get to say that?
"You have an impressive résumé," said Peter. "You can finish off my punks for me any day."
"Yours isn't so bad, either. Stark says you saved the city from a nasty lizard problem not long ago."
Peter's heart gave an uncharacteristic flutter. "Stark? Mr. Tony Stark?" When Steve nodded, he was grateful that his mask was able to hide him openly gaping. "You talked to Tony Stark about me?"
"Well, sure." Steve shrugged. "He said he was sorry to have missed the show. That was some good work." He grew a bit more serious. "But I also heard you beat up a group of cops along the way."
"Sort of." He had the feeling that Steve wouldn't necessarily offer him sympathy if he admitted they had tasered and shot at him first--his leg still throbbed on him some days. He also wasn't sure how much about Captain Stacey had made it into the report, and dwelling on it put stones in his stomach. He let the guilt and worry slough off. "It's part of the job description, unfortunately, when you're a masked hero working the streets."
Steve frowned, and Peter thought it might have been his unfortunate phrasing, but then he said, "Why do you do it?"
The words stopped Peter in his tracks all over again. He thought of the dozens of small time crooks he had nabbed, and of pulling a small boy out of a falling van. He thought of flying through the city each swing at a time, free and powerful and weightless. He even thought of Gwen's mischievous little smile. But it was remembering the tense dinner at the Stacey home that brought him back to street level. He remembered Dr. Connor's pained face, and more than anything, his uncle's blood against his hands. He remembered the stones in his gut.
"I..." Peter swallowed hard and stared straight back at Steve, hoping to convey his sincerity even with the mask in the way. "I just want to help people."
Steve watched him for a long, silent moment. He was impossible to read. "So why don't you just become a cop?" he suggested at last.
Peter scoffed, but when he realized that Steve was still serious, he had to pause and give it more thought. "Well because...of course cops help people, too, but come on," he said awkwardly. He plucked at the front of his costume. "You know they wouldn't let me keep looking this good."
Steve's lip quirked. "The local police uniform isn't that bad, either," he said.
"Yeah, but..." Peter did his best not to squirm. "No offense to the police, but they just can't do everything I can. Case in point: our friend Mr. Lizard. And look--I can do this."
Peter pressed both hands to the hood of the car and swung his body upright in a handstand. That part was easy. He transitioned carefully from both hands, to fingertips, to only his thumbs and pinkies and waited for the applause.
Steve pressed his boot against the front of the truck's bumper and, when Peter didn't protest, he shoved, giving the vehicle a hefty shake. Peter wobbled but didn't fall, and Steve whistled. "That's pretty good," he said. He sounded like he was just playing now. "But I'm not sure I see how that helps you stop crime."
Peter rolled his eyes and thumped onto his butt, his legs dangling off the front of the truck. "Crime stopping is all about dexterity," he said knowingly. Seeing that Steve still wasn't moved, he offered up his wrists. "Okay, how about this." He engaged both triggers, and a pair of web shoots caught the streetlight overhead. Peter leaped into the air and jerked on the strands, sailing easily over Steve's head and onto the post. Steve craned his neck to watch. "Not bad, huh?" Peter called down. "I invented these myself. Stronger than steel and, obviously, more flexible. I can lift cars with just one strand."
"Invented them?" Steve waved him back down. "Let me see."
Peter hopped onto the seat of the motorcycle and tugged the sleeve of his costume down just enough to show Steve the mechanism. "Yeah, that's all me," he bragged. "Goes with the motif, you know? Spider, web. It's a thing with me."
"I noticed." Steve took Peter's wrist to get a better look. His fingers were warm and huge, and the press of his callouses against the bare inside of Peter's arm gave him unexpected goose bumps. Peter had the feeling Steve could snap his arm in two with barely a thought, super-human strength be damned.
"That's not bad," said Steve. "But you should show this to Stark. He'd probably have a better appreciation for it than me."
Peter tried not to beam all the way through his suit. "Really? You think I should show Mr. Stark?"
"Yeah--science is his thing, after all."
His hand shot out, aiming for Peter's mask, but reflexes were a Godsend. Peter dodged easily out of the way and leapt back to the light post. "Wow," he called down. "That was pretty tricky for a good Samaritan."
Steve laughed. "Do you blame me?" He pushed away from the bike so he could turn and face Peter properly. "Come on down, son. I won't try it again."
"I am so too old to be your son," Peter retorted.
Steve sighed, but after a moment of weighing his options--maybe contemplating how little effort it would take for him to uproot a parking lot light post--he shook his head. "You just be careful," he said. "I appreciate the sentiment behind what you're doing, but you can't do anyone any good if you get yourself hurt or worse. And there are legal options for helping people."
Peter shrugged. "Sorry, Cap, but like I said, I'm just not police material."
"There are options other than that, too," Steve said with a secretive little grin. He climbed onto the motorcycle and started it up. It wasn't until he was pulling out of his space that Peter realized what he might have meant, and he started.
"Hey--wait!" Peter leapt back onto the Chevy and winced when he dinged the hood. "Are you talking about your friends? Your hero friends?" When Steve started to drive away Peter gave chase down the line of cars. "You want me to join up? Because I really was there, you know, I just--"
"It's not up to me," Steve called back. "Just give it some thought, all right?"
"Yeah, but--" Peter started to follow him out of the lot, but stopped when he realized it still wasn't that late out--there were cars on the street, and a few people wandering the sidewalks. One or two even noticed him and began to whisper and point. "Aww, crap," he grunted, and as Steve took off down the street, he retreated to the rooftops. Following Steve home was definitely an option, but for once it seemed oddly...disrespectful. He crossed his arms over his chest as he perched on the roof ledge, trying to decide if he'd know what to say given the chance anyway.
"If it's not up to him, who is it up to?" he wondered aloud, and his gaze drifted toward the river. "Who's in charge of the superhero team?" His heart gave a thump and he steeled his resolve as he set out toward Manhattan.
Stark Tower at eleven o'clock at night just might have been the most peaceful place in New York City, and it suited Bruce just fine. During the day he kept to the small collection of private rooms Tony had graciously lent him on the upper floors--for his brief and temporary stay in the city--but after hours, Bruce had free rein over the top development levels. The tower afforded him every piece of equipment and every terabyte of computing power he could have ever asked for, and he even found himself humming a cheerful tune as he scooted from station to station in his office chair. With the lights down low and a handful of easy pet projects in the first stages of conception, Bruce was able to pretend that he was back in his private military lab, or even further back, as a student in Navapo.
It was an easy way to live, waking up in a king-sized bed, being treated to whatever food he liked whenever he liked, working in private on whatever he felt mattered at the moment. Tony was an incomparable benefactor, and Bruce sometimes went for hours at a time forgetting what an imposition his presence must have been, how many people in the world were making do on a fraction of what he was being afforded. When he remembered, he reminded himself that it was only temporary. He had no intention of staying on with Stark Industries in the long term. He would use Tony's resources to advance his research as far as he could, and then he would move on. It was the only sensible course.
Even so, when JARVIS reminded him that his blood sample analysis had been completed, he saved the results without looking and turned to something else. He was just contemplating how he might be able to help Tony improve the efficiency of his arc energy transfer methods when something smacked into the seventy-ninth floor window.
Bruce jumped, but he had long since learned how to soften his own reactions to unexpected stimuli, even when several hundred feet above street level. He pushed off the desk, his office chair hissing quietly across the tile as he slid toward the line of windows. It was a dark night, with only a few buildings nearby with windows high enough to offer spots of light. When Bruce was close enough, he was startled to see what looked like a pair of legs in red and blue leggings climbing up the side of the building.
"JARVIS," Bruce said into the air as he pressed himself up to the glass. "Can you identify what's climbing around on the outside of the building?"
"My apologies, Dr. Banner," JARVIS answered from the nearest speaker. "Currently my external defenses are limited to the penthouse floors."
"Well it looks like that's where it's headed. Whatever it is." Bruce's heart beat a little faster as he headed for the elevator. "Let me know if you can get a visual, please."
"Of course, Dr. Banner."
Bruce hopped into the elevator and had to input an extra security code to be taken to the penthouse. He was just clearing floor eighty-six when JARVIS took over the display screen in the elevator panel. "Sir, I have a visual of the intruder."
Security camera footage filled the screen, showing a strange, slender man in a tight suit pulling himself up onto the helipad. When JARVIS zoomed in, Bruce was able to make out the two tones of the stranger's jumpsuit and his wide, black eyes. "Is that...?" he mumbled.
"It appears to be the masked criminal referred to in the media as the 'Spider-Man," JARVIS supplied. "Mr. Stark had me add him to my active databases just eight hours ago."
"Spider-Man," Bruce repeated curiously. "I think he did mention something about that..."
"Shall I contact building security, sir?"
Bruce considered as he watched Spider-Man creep up to the balcony's glass doors and peer inside. It looked like he was knocking. "The news was calling him a vigilante, not a burglar," he mused aloud. "Don't worry about security just yet, JARVIS. I'll see what he wants."
"Very well, sir."
The elevator stopped at the penthouse, and Bruce stepped out. He wasn't sure what he really intended to do. He should have known better than to confront strange men in colorful pajamas when Stark Tower itself was still undergoing heavy construction. He could even feel a familiar heat prickling beneath the hairs along his arms and back, but he was confident he could handle himself. Where that confidence was coming from, he was less certain of.
Spider-Man was still creeping along the glass doors when Bruce entered, and he flinched back when the lights flicked on in and outside the main room. He certainly didn't look as if he were trying to break in, so Bruce took only a deep breath as preparation as he moved to the door. "JARVIS," he called again, as a precaution. "Please just keep an eye on me, all right? Tony taught you how to look for trouble, didn't he?"
"Mr. Stark has empowered me with a vast number of trouble-identifying subprograms, Dr. Banner," JARVIS replied. Never before had science achieved such artificial sarcasm. "I will stand by to alert security, should it be deemed necessary."
"Thank you, JARVIS," Bruce said, and then he keyed in the code for the balcony door.
The glass swung open, and Spider-Man shuffled far out of the way as Bruce joined him outside. He was a bit more impressive in person than Bruce had imagined from the bare details in the papers and blogs: tall and lean, clearly well defined in musculature, effortlessly balanced. The suit, questionable in color choice as it may have been, seemed to fit to his body like a second skin. Like an exoskeleton, Bruce reminded himself with a faint smirk. He closed the door behind him. "It's a little late for house calls, isn't it?" he said.
"Yeah. Um, sorry about that." Spider-Man straightened up; at his full height he had a few inches on Bruce, though he was no match in weight despite even Bruce's small stature. Only slight shifts of the suit around his head and neck indicated that he was looking Bruce up and down. "You don't look like security, though."
"Well. You know what they say about books and their covers," Bruce said pleasantly. "Is there something I can help you with?"
"Actually...." Spider-Man pushed up on his toes in an attempt to see around him. "I was hoping to meet Tony Stark. He's not in bed already, is he? Doesn't seem like him."
Bruce frowned thoughtfully--he didn't dare disclose too much of Tony's personal life. "He's not in."
"Damn." Spider-Man scuffed his foot against the balcony floor and glanced over his shoulder. "Guess I'll try again tomorrow."
Not a burglar, then. Bruce considered him a moment longer, and when it looked like the stranger was about to leave, he halted him. "Wait. What do you want with Mr. Stark?"
Spider-Man turned and dropped into a crouch in one smooth motion that was actually pretty impressive to watch. "Are you really security?"
"Oh, no. I'd be the worst security there is." Bruce rocked back on his heels as he considered many variations of the truth. "I'm just one of his friends he lets play with this toys."
"You're a Stark scientist?"
Bruce wondered if it really counted if you lied to a wanted criminal. "Yes." He gestured to the room behind him. "I did just come out of the penthouse, no?"
"In that case..." Spider-Man straightened up and moved closer. "I wanted to show him this," he said, tugging down his right sleeve.
Bruce plucked his glasses out of his shirtfront pocket and slipped them on. "I made it myself," Spider-Man went on as Bruce looked it over. "Captain America said maybe Mr. Stark would be interested."
Bruce brushed his fingers carefully over the mechanism. He could tell immediately that it was custom made, and roughly so, but not without a degree of finesse. "Ah," he said. "So you met Steve after all."
Spider-Man flinched. "'Steve?' So, you've met him, too? I thought--hey, careful, or you'll--"
A few flicks of Bruce's fingernails and the device dropped off Spider-Man's wrist and into his hand. He held it up to the balcony lights for a better look. "You really made this yourself?" he asked, turning it over.
"Well, yeah. Just be careful you don't--" When Bruce ejected the cartridge into his hand, Spider-Man relaxed. "Okay, clearly you know what you're doing."
"It's good work," said Bruce, thumbing the cartridge. He gave it an experimental sniff and then popped it back into place. "Lightweight, durable." He turned the nozzle away and tried to engage the trigger, but nothing happened.
"It takes a good thirty pounds of pressure to trigger it," said Spider-Man. "Don't want it going off accidentally." He pressed the trigger, and a strand of thick, white webbing shot out of the end and smacked into the balcony door.
"I'm detecting a perimeter disturbance," said JARVIS from an intercom next to the door.
"It's okay, JARVIS," said Bruce. "It's just me." He ran his fingertips over the web, feeling the sticky cling that was already rapidly drying. He gave it a twang, and the reverberation that ran up his arm felt familiar. "What's the tensile strength?" he asked.
"One hundred twenty pounds per square millimeter," Spider-Man replied, sounding very pleased with himself. "With the elasticity of nylon. Biodegradable, too. It completely breaks down within an hour."
Bruce wrapped the strand around his wrist. "Reaction to oxygen in the air?"
"Carbon dioxide, actually."
"Interesting." He tugged the strand tight, and the feeling of it cinching against his skin put a strange, familiar pressure in his stomach. "Now I remember. I've come across this before."
Spider-Man straightened up. "How?"
Bruce's eyes narrowed. He wasn't about to tell anyone that General Ross had attempted to catch him with a net of Oscorp spun spider web a few years ago. "This is Oscorp technology," he said. "They use it for heavy lifting, but it's not particularly popular. Too much give for most applications." He slipped his arm out of it and gave his fingers a shake. The reminder was eerie. "You didn't steal it, did you?"
"Of course not," Spider-Man said quickly, offended. "Mail order." He paused. "Paid for in cash--untraceable."
Bruce smiled. "I'm not interested in turning you in, I promise." He handed the device back, and when Spider-Man accepted, he couldn't help but take notice of the intricate make of his costume. "You made the uniform yourself, too?" he asked.
"Huh? Oh, yeah." He offered up his arm for Bruce to inspect. "It's not exactly Captain America caliber, but it's surprisingly efficient."
Bruce traced the seam that ran down Spider-Man's arm, from the reinforced gloves to the curve of his shoulder. "Olympic grade spandex," Spider-Man explained as Bruce moved around behind him. He tried to crane his head to watch. "The webbing is woven rubber, like they use in heavy work gloves. Could stand to be a bit more tear resistant, I'll admit."
"You have to give up durability for flexibility whenever it comes to protective gear," Bruce mused. He pressed his palm flat to Spider-Man's back and drew it from one shoulder to the other, feeling out the little ridges. It was a remarkable piece of work for an amateur, and the lovingly detailed spider decal on the back made him smile.
Muscles tightened subtly beneath his fingers--the man inside the suit was toned, that was for certain, though on the skinny side. Bruce was suddenly very curious about the kind of person it took to hand-make his own persona and thrash common criminals in back alleys. They couldn't all be Tony Stark underneath, could they? He followed the curve of Spider-Man's spine.
Spider-Man cleared his throat. "Am I going to need a parental consent form for this?"
Bruce chuckled and moved around in front of him again. "Sorry. Your work is very impressive. You're really not backed by anyone? Private security firm, U.S. Army?"
"Just me and my big sexy brain," Spider-Man replied, and then paused, as if embarrassed. "I mean, yeah. So, what do you think? Am I Stark material?"
"I'm worried he'll like you so much, he'll want to dissect you," said Bruce honestly.
"That sounds, uh...awesome." He scratched the back of his head. "Then maybe I'll drop by tomorrow, if he's in."
"You could try the front door next time," Bruce suggested. "Without the costume."
He laughed, short and sarcastic. "Yeah, no thanks. I'm still kind of wanted around here. But it was nice to meet you, Mr...?"
Bruce hesitated. "Doctor," he corrected. "But you can just call me Bruce." He offered his hand.
"Nice to meet you, Bruce," said Spider-Man, shaking it. "Maybe I'll see you around."
He turned, and with only a few steps he was at the edge of the balcony and then throwing himself off of it. Bruce's heart leapt and he hurried to the ledge, just in time to see Spider-Man lasso the next building over and swing away. He shook his head. "Who the hell is this guy?" he said to himself as he headed back to the door.
The webbing was still stuck to the door. Bruce fingered the strand, and when he breathed on it he smiled as the fibers shriveled. "Carbon dioxide," he muttered as he pried the webbing off the door and took it inside with him. "Interesting..."
In the morning Bruce wandered up to the penthouse in search of breakfast, and wasn't particularly surprised to see Steve at the table with bags of takeout. Tony was pouring the coffee while Pepper arranged omelets and fresh toast onto plates.
"Morning, Sunshine," Tony greeted. He offered Bruce a mug.
"Thanks." Bruce and Steve shared a nod as he sat down at the table. "Did you have a nice date last night?"
Pepper's cheeks went rosy as she passed Bruce a plate full of food. "Yes, we had a lovely time."
"JARVIS says you had a date of your own," added Tony. He plunked down at the table. "Courting potential B&Es?"
Bruce chuckled against the lip of his mug and then took a long sip. "It was just Spider-Man," he said.
"Just Spider-Man," Pepper echoed, amused. "What is the world coming to?"
"Did he want to show off his equipment?" asked Steve. "Because I may have given him that idea, sorry."
"Actually, he did." Bruce cut into his omelet. "I was surprised, to be honest. For just some guy working on his own, he's fairly well equipped. Cocky little thing, though. I can't imagine many people willing to scale Stark Tower just to talk to you, Tony."
"You'd be surprised," said Tony. "But I've got to admit, he's bolder than most. So what is his deal? Who is he, where did he come from? And what's with the spiderness?"
Bruce shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine, but you can ask him yourself tonight. He said he'd be back."
"We're leaving for Madrid on a ten o'clock," Pepper reminded him.
Tony heaved a sigh. "We can leave tomorrow morning."
"You're expected to be in the meeting by then. You can't put this off, Tony."
"So I'll just take the suit."
Bruce and Steve exchanged dry smiles and continued to eat while Tony and Pepper had it out. "Do you want me to hang around tonight?" Steve offered quietly. "If you're worried about him?"
"I'm not," Bruce said honestly. "He's sharp, whoever he is. I doubt he's interested in making trouble."
"You should still be careful. He may mean well, but what he's doing is illegal. I'm not sure we should be encouraging him."
Bruce was about to say that he wasn't, but then Tony turned toward him. "You're on your own with him," Tony said. "Apparently Spain will sink into the ocean without me, and I'd hate to let Portugal down like that."
"We'll be back on Sunday," Pepper took over. "I'll even add 'date with Spider-Man' to our itinerary." She frowned. "Should I hire in more security for the night shift?"
"He's harmless," Bruce insisted. "And the more people know he was here, the better chance of someone taking it to the press. There's no reason for us to get him in trouble." He motioned to Tony with his mug. "Or let the press connect him to you."
Everyone exchanged glances. "Just don't do anything to scare him off before I get to meet him," said Tony. "If anyone's going to pants the little sucker, it's going to be me." He set his mug down decisively. "We don't need two show-boaters around here."
"You're right about that," said Steve. Bruce only hid another smile against his mug. He already had his plans for the rest of the day.
Googling "Dr. Bruce" was a lot less helpful than "Captain America." Peter spent his lunch period in the computer lab hunting through articles about Stark Tower and the work being conducted there without any luck. He even moved on to Oscorp afterward, thinking that Bruce's familiarity with the webbing was more than coincidental, but again there was nothing to find. After trying a few different angles he gave up just in time for the fifth period bell. With a sigh he sulked to English class with Ms. Henson.
Gwen was already at her desk. Peter gulped, a little flutter in his stomach as he moved past her. She didn't glance up, but he saw her shoulders tighten. It was a strange, awkward dance they had to do every day. Sometimes they managed to have whole, even enjoyable conversations, but there was still that heavy feeling in Peter's gut that swelled whenever she looked at him with concern in her eyes. Everything he did put her in danger. Every moment they were together risked everything. Sometimes he could even taste blood at the back of his mouth.
Peter set his things down at his desk, and then on impulse slid into the chair ahead of her. "Hi, Gwen."
Gwen looked up from the notes she'd been studying. It was only then that Peter remembered they had a quiz that hour, but it was too late to worry about it. "Hi," said Gwen. She tried to smile. "Everything all right?"
"Yeah." Peter shifted awkwardly. "Yeah, everything's cool. How are you?"
"I'm good. Pretty good." Gwen offered him her notes. "Need to cram?"
"Ha, actually, I wanted to ask you something." Peter scratched the back of his neck. He knew it wasn't fair of him to bring up anything related to Oscorp, as Gwen had long since quit her internship there, but she was his last hope. "When you were an intern, did you ever meet a scientist named Bruce?"
Gwen frowned. "Bruce what?"
"I dunno." Peter laughed. "I don't know what his field is or if he even worked there, I just know this scientist named Bruce. He's working for Stark now."
The rest of the class was filtering in, and Peter had to give up his seat to its rightful owner. He moved to the chair behind Gwen, and she turned to face him. "Sorry, but I don't think so," said Gwen. "Stark and Oscorp are rivals, you know. Someone leaving Oscorp for Stark is pretty rare."
"Yeah, I figured." The owner of his second chair was watching him impatiently, so he relinquished it as well and finally sagged behind his own desk. "Thanks anyway."
"Why are you asking?" Gwen pressed. "Who is he?"
"No one," Peter said quickly. "Just someone I met at Stark Tower." Ms. Henson was moving to the front of the room to begin class, so he gave Gwen a reassuring wave. "It's nothing important, really."
Gwen was still frowning as she turned forward. "Just be careful, Peter."
Peter slumped in his chair. He wanted her concern to make him feel better. It didn't.
It was just after eleven o'clock again when Bruce heard something thump loudly against the side of the building. He smiled to himself as he left his workstation and opened the nearest window. As before, a pair of red and blue legs was crawling up the sheer wall. Bruce wished he'd had the foresight to check the soles of the man's feet for some kind of climbing adhesive, as he couldn't make sense of the impossible dexterity otherwise.
"Hey!" Bruce called.
Spider-Man stopped, and a moment later he shot out another web lasso and swung down to Bruce's level. "Oh, hey," he greeted. "Stark must work you guys pretty hard down in R&D, huh?"
"You have no idea," said Bruce, leaning out the open window. "He left us here all alone while he and his girlfriend jetted off to Spain."
"What, really? He's not in?"
"Damn." Spider-Man hung off the webbing with one hand as he surveyed the city. "I guess I should have known it wouldn't be that easy."
Bruce leaned back inside and waved him in. "Well, you're here," he said. "Come in anyway. There's something I want to show you."
Spider-Man grabbed the window ledge. "Show me? What is it?"
"Come in and see." When Spider-Man still hesitated, Bruce chuckled. "It's not blue and wearing a badge, I promise."
At last Spider-Man crawled inside. Bruce sensed that he was preparing another witty remark but was halted once he had eyes on the lab. Despite his masked face he was surprisingly easy to read in his body language as he looked over the rows of computers and various equipment with quiet awe.
"You really work here?" he asked, stunned.
"After hours, it's all mine to use," said Bruce. He waved for Spider-Man to follow him, and that time, he didn't hesitate. They moved deeper into the workroom, to the station Bruce had taken over. "Tony's very generous towards his friends." He flashed Spider-Man a wry grin. "He was very disappointed to have to miss you again."
Spider-Man hopped onto one of the office chairs--perched on all fours like an overexcited puppy. "Yeah," he said distractedly. "Me, too."
Bruce should have just told the man when Tony was coming back. Instead, he let Spider-Man twist on his chair, looking over the stations, taking it in. He remembered being overwhelmed by labs half the size in his younger years, and there was something exciting and refreshing about being able to share it with someone--someone who had no reason to mince words or flinch away from him. Someone who could dive out the seventy-ninth floor window to safety if he needed to.
"Over here." Bruce took a seat at his favorite station and opened up the window he had been working in. "I did a cell analysis of that webbing you left behind," he said. "It's fairly sophisticated, being organic. But I think that by treating it with a special enzyme, it could improve the tensile strength and even prevent it from breaking down so quickly."
Spider-Man kicked against a nearby desk, and his chair clacked loudly as he slid in behind Bruce. "A stronger webbing isn't a bad idea," he said. "But it's kind of important that it breaks down as quickly as it does. I leave the stuff all over the city."
"Yes, but suppose there was a time you needed it for something heavier duty." Bruce tapped the keys to bring up one of the computer simulations he'd done. "The enzyme is easy to synthesize, and treatment is as simple as injecting the mixture into one of your fresh cartridges. You might find some use for it."
He called up the molecular structure of the enzyme, and Spider-Man leaned forward to see better, in the process setting his hand down on Bruce's shoulder for balance. The pressure of textured spandex was unexpected, and Bruce couldn't help but flinch beneath it. Spider-Man immediately transferred his hand instead to the back of his chair. It was a brief, trivial exchange, but it made Bruce feel foolish. He had thought he was making progress in terms of being personable.
"You're probably right," said Spider-Man. "It might have come in handy against...well, recently." He tilted his head toward Bruce. "But why would you bother doing this for me?"
"Idle curiosity, maybe." Bruce shrugged and couldn't hide a bitter little smile. "Sometimes when you're stuck on a problem of your own you can't solve, it helps to work on someone else's for a while."
"Huh." Spider-Man considered for a long moment--he was probably right to be cautious--and finally reached for his left wristband. He ejected one of his spare cartridges and offered it up. "So I guess you'll need one of these?"
Bruce accepted, more pleased than he ought to have been by the cooperation. He opened a case on his left and removed the syringe he had finished preparing only an hour earlier. Holding it where Spider-Man could easily see, he injected the pale yellow solution in through the cartridge's nozzle, being especially careful not to trigger a release of the cable inside.
Spider-Man watched with what Bruce interpreted as rapt attention. "So, Dr. Bruce," he said casually. "How long you been working for Stark, anyway?"
Bruce smiled humorlessly; he knew an interrogation when he heard one. "You tried to look me up, didn't you?"
"Uh...yeah. Well, of course I did." Spider-Man pressed one foot against the desk and rocked back and forth on his chair. "Wouldn't you?"
"I would," Bruce admitted. "And I did. I found out all about your incident with Dr. Connors."
He hadn't meant for anything sentimental to creep into his tone, but Spider-Man caught it anyway. "Did you know him?" Spider-Man asked carefully.
"Knew of him is more accurate," said Bruce. He finished with the syringe and sealed the cartridge back up, setting it gently into a waiting dish. "We met a few years ago during the course of my research, but only briefly. Our fields were close enough that we thought we might be of use to each other. Regretfully, we were not."
Spider-Man continued to rock on his chair. "He was a good man," he said after a substantial pause. "I'm not sure that part made it into the news. What happened to him...was only partially his own fault."
Bruce turned away from his experiment. "So you knew him."
Spider-Man fidgeted. "Sort of. I was the one that stopped him, after all. But I did get to work with him for a while before that, too." He abruptly straightened as if realizing he was saying too much. "I wish more people knew what really happened, but...you know."
"I know the feeling." As per Tony's suggestion, Bruce had made every effort to avoid the news coverage coming out of his latest venture through New York's streets, however well-intentioned and despite the positive outcome. It wasn't worth knowing what the general population thought of his "better half." It didn't stop him from wondering, though. "Science isn't perfect. And unfortunately, it's only when it goes wrong that most people take notice." He slipped his glasses off. "It's funny, really, how many of us turn to science thinking we can save the world. But being a scientist isn't like being a super hero." He indicated his guest and smiled dryly. "Everyone cheers for a hero when he succeeds. Mostly they don't notice us at all."
Spider-Man stopped rocking on his chair. "I don't know," he said. "Why can't you be both?"
Bruce frowned, suppressing a tiny, warm spark in his chest. "Like you?" he teased.
"I was thinking more like Tony Stark. The dual occupation route seems to be treating him pretty well."
Bruce chuckled and turned back toward his monitor. "That it is." He tapped a few keys. "It looks like the synthesis is going to take a few more minutes, if you can wait a while longer."
"Of course. You're making this for me, right?" Spider-Man took a look around the lab. "Hey. You got anything to eat around here?"
"There's a vending machine in the hall just outside."
Spider-Man plucked at his skin tight suit. "No pockets," he said sheepishly.
Bruce smiled to himself as he freed his wallet from his back pocket. He handed Spider-Man a five. "See how far you can stretch that," he said. "I could use some sugar."
"Preference?" Spider-Man asked as he kicked off the desk. He skated toward the door.
"Nothing messy." Once Spider-Man had hopped off the chair and disappeared through the door, Bruce shook his head. "Banner," he said, "what have you gotten yourself mixed up in this time?"
A minute later Spider-Man returned with a Coke, a bag of pretzels, and packages of Skittles and M&Ms. Though tiny skittering candies that could get lost under desks perfectly fit Bruce's definition of "messy" he accepted the Skittles. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had them, and he amused himself by popping two in his mouth at a time and trying to guess the flavors without looking. Spider-Man resumed his position on the desk chair and tugged his mask up just enough for a long gulp of cola.
Bruce paused to watch. The sight of soft human flesh jutting out from the synthetic blue and red of the costume reminded him sharply that he was dealing not just with some unknown vigilante, but a person, and all the fallibility that came with it. His curiosity burned all over again. There wasn't much detail he could draw from what he was given, other than a smooth chin and a wide mouth, and he wished he was bold enough to reach for the mask.
Spider-Man finished his drink with a sigh and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "So," he said easily, "what's your problem?"
Bruce started guiltily. "What?"
Spider-Man tore his bag of pretzels open. "You said you're putting off something of yours to work on this," he said. "Anything I can help you with?"
It was an absurd notion from every angle, and Bruce couldn't help his incredulous huff. "I really don't think so."
Spider-Man's mouth twisted in a frown--it was amazing, really, how much actually seeing the expression gave weight to his already boisterous personality. "I may not be on Stark's payroll, but you said yourself I'm pretty smart. You're not even going to tell me what it is first?"
"I said your work was impressive," Bruce corrected him. "But my work is...complicated." When Spider-Man continued to stare back at him, unconvinced, he added, "And confidential."
"Because it has to do with Dr. Connors'?" Spider-Man asked with a hint of suspicion. "What field is 'close to' advanced genetic manipulation?"
Bruce sighed. He was fairly certain that his records had been redacted beyond the reach of your everyday Google search, but without knowing Spider-Man's true origins or intentions, he dared not disclose too many details. "My research involves mutating human genes," he said carefully. "And, more importantly perhaps, retarding and reversing those mutations."
Spider-Man paused with a pretzel halfway to his mouth, and something behind his mask seemed to twitch before he completed the motion. He crunched thoughtfully. "Sounds even more like you would have known Dr. Connors," he remarked.
"Exactly why I sought him out in the first place," said Bruce. "But his research was focused more on directly manipulating the human genome, through gene therapy, invasive DNA. My research is into less controllable outside factors and their effect on human DNA."
"Such as?" Spider-Man prompted.
Bruce felt a warning pulse between his temples. He forced a smile. "That's the part that's classified," he said.
He thought that Spider-Man would press, and he already hated the thought that he would have to force him to leave, but Spider-Man only mulled it over for a minute and then shrugged. "Fair enough. Sorry to pry--I just thought I could be useful to you. Two brains are better than one and all that."
"Yes. Of course." Bruce shook himself to dispel his paranoia, and was relieved when his computer beeped. He turned back to the experimental cartridge and, making sure his thumb was pressed tightly to the nozzle, gave it a vigorous shake. "Looks like it's ready to be tested."
Spider-Man took another long gulp of his soda and then set it aside. Bruce was oddly disappointed to see him tug his mask back down as well. He popped the cartridge out of his left wrist and accepted the new one. "Where should I shoot it?" he asked, all excitement once more.
"Let's go by the windows."
They moved to the line of windows at the rear of the lab, and Spider-Man sat himself on the edge of a desk and aimed his wrist toward the window. On the count of three he depressed the plunger and shot a length of sticky white webbing against the glass. But rather than the thin, semi-translucent fibers, the webbing was fully opaque and much thicker. When Bruce touched the strand it stuck immediately to his palm in a wet, gooey mess. He grumbled under his breath as he tried to free himself and only managed to get his other hand stuck as well.
"Huh," said Spider-Man, severing the strand at his wrist. He squirmed backwards to keep from being caught in the same predicament Bruce was. "Looks more effective as a web, if nothing else."
Bruce chuckled despite his irritation. Seeing as he was already well trapped, he twisted both hands in the web and yanked. "There's no use testing tensile strength using Tony's equipment when it's like this," he said. "The janitors would kill me." When he wrapped the sticky rope around his wrist and pulled he felt an almost instinctual wariness. "I have the feeling the enzyme did manage to increase its strength a decent amount, though."
He opened his hands and tried to pull them free, but the web was too annoyingly adhesive. Even when he blew on it, not a fiber shriveled or gave way. "Fixed the evaporation issue as well," he noted dryly.
"If I ever need to capture a dinosaur, I'll be in good shape." Spider-Man risked one fingertip to test, then pulled back. "Hang out for a second, will you?" He hopped to the floor and disappeared back into the lab.
Bruce sighed. The more he tried to free himself the more the webbing stuck to his hands and forearms, and he finally stopped fighting it. Instead he tried to get a better look, testing the strength and elasticity of his concoction. It was too soon to tell if it would be an effective barrier against the Hulk, but he had no doubt that it could slow him down faster than the nets Ross had once employed. But then, maybe he didn't need to worry about such measures as much anymore.
It was a nice dream, anyway.
Spider-Man returned a few minutes later with a bottle in his hand. He motioned for Bruce to hold out his hands as far as he could and then poured a tablespoon worth of turpentine over the knot of sticky webbing. Almost immediately the webbing began to dissolve and Bruce was finally able to free himself.
"Very clever," said Bruce.
Spider-Man popped the cartridge out and hunted out a permanent marker from one of the desks. He drew an X on it before returning it to the string of extras around his wrist. "Not exactly something for everyday use," he said.
"Guess my formula could still use some work," said Bruce. "But it's a start."
Bruce washed up in the bathroom, and by the time he had returned Spider-Man had finished cleaning up the mess in the lab. He pointed to a jar on Bruce's desk. "I saved you a chunk, in case you wanted to test it."
Bruce scanned the sample in and nibbled thoughtfully on one end of his glasses as the results flashed across his screen. "Structurally, it is more stable than the unaltered sample," he said, half to himself, as Spider-Man tipped his head back to gulp down the crumbs from his pretzel bag. "Without interference, it could probably go for several hours before losing its adhesive properties, several days before breaking down."
Spider-Man hopped back into his chair and scooted over. "Definitely would have come in handy against those aliens recently," he said. When he leaned forward to read the screen he again placed his hand on the back of Bruce's chair, and seemed to be careful not to breech his personal space by actually touching him.
Bruce watched the hand out of the corner of his eye. "Hopefully, you won't have to use it for catching aliens anytime soon," he said. "I think New York has had its share of monsters for a while."
"Yeah, no kidding. Why can't these things ever go after New Jersey for a change?"
Bruce smiled, but he was still distracted, and he abruptly blurted out, "It's okay. You can..."
...put your hand on my shoulder. He caught himself before he could finish the embarrassing and nonsensical declaration. But Spider-Man had his head inclined, awaiting an answer, so he grasped after the closest and least incriminating. "...Take that mask off," he finished.
Spider-Man leaned slowly back, which was worse than if he had lurched. His hand came off the chair. "It's not like I can identify a million New Yorkers just by their face," Bruce reasoned. "I don't even leave this tower most days. And I'm the last person who would ever turn you in."
Spider-Man fidgeted, his continued silence fueling Bruce's frustration more than he thought it should have. Bruce swallowed and, hoping to sound unconcerned, tried a different angle. "Can't you at least give me something to call you?"
"Is 'Spider-Man' not good enough?" he replied guardedly.
"It doesn't have to be your real name," Bruce persisted. "Can I call you Dan? Michael? Lucas?"
"Peter." Spider-Man shifted again and then shrugged. "You can call me Peter."
Bruce wanted to ask if that was his real name but figured he had stretched his luck far enough. "Peter," he said. He smiled. "If you think of a way to fix this goop, will you let me know? It's going to bother me until I get it right."
Peter chuckled. "Yeah, sure. I know the feeling." Taking that as a cue to leave, he grabbed up his Coke and his M&Ms and hopped to his feet. "But I should get outta here. Maybe actually fight some crime." He tilted his head in what Bruce could only interpret as an eye roll. "Before they take my card away. But I know where to find you."
Bruce leaned back in his chair. "I'll be here."
"Thanks for the...goop," said Peter on his way to the window. With a salute he showed himself out by vaulting into the open air and swinging away.
Bruce moved to the window so he could watch Peter disappear between the buildings and into the distance, free and weightless. He wasn't sure if it was awe or envy that tightened his chest, but he held onto it.
"Your enzyme increased the ratio of pyrrolidine," said Peter as he scrolled through the latest report from Bruce's computer. "It changed what would normally be an ampullate strand into more like an aggregate. Made it hygroscopic."
Bruce hummed thoughtfully from the next desk over. "A side effect of increasing the amount of potassium nitrate to prevent it from denaturing. But how to affect one and not the other..."
"Maybe if we introduced the enzyme under heat, it would prevent it from forming into proline...?"
Peter glanced over at him. For the third night in a row he'd come back to the tower to mull over the problem of his webbing. Not that it was even a problem, really--his webbing had served him perfectly well, as far as he was concerned, and he wasn't convinced that extra MPa would make that much of a difference. Still, he enjoyed the challenge. He'd spent most of fourth and fifth period reading up as much as he could on spider silk, complex proteins, synthetic enzymes and anything else that seemed useful. It was far more interesting than his school work and he felt a little thrill of victory whenever Bruce got that little gleam of approval in his eye.
Despite its tragic ending, Peter had enjoyed his short time working with Connors. It had helped him feel useful and valued in a way skinny nerds like him seldom experienced in high school. More than that, knowing that Connors had at one time worked alongside his father had given him a closeness to his long-departed parents. During those short days he had often wondered if he might have worked alongside his father in a similar manner, if fate had been kinder.
But working with Bruce didn't remind him of Connors or his Father. Bruce was too much of a mystery. He was easy and light-hearted, refreshingly so, but sometimes Peter caught a hint of tension beneath his slow smile, like a wire drawn taut under his skin. He watched Peter out of the corner of his eye as if he were the hungry spider watching a fly in its web, waiting for a lowered guard or an exploitable mistake. Sometimes there was only fondness. Sometimes there was something else, something childish and hopeful, and Peter couldn't help but think it was the way his six-year-old self had looked to potential friends on the playground.
Which was kind of strange coming from a forty-year-old man, but Peter wasn't about to complain.
"Spiders create different varieties of webbing by accessing different glands," said Bruce as he tapped at his keyboard. "I wonder if we might get the properties we're looking for by following their example, and using more than one cartridge at a time."
Peter rocked in his chair. "Sounds interesting, but maybe not as practical. I have to use this stuff on the fly, you know."
"Oh. Right." Bruce chuckled. "Practical application: the enemy of speculative science."
Peter laughed with him. "I'm going to grab a snack," he said. He pulled a rolled up bill out of the back of his mask. "I came prepared this time."
"Skittles," Bruce replied with a smirk.
Peter hopped into the hallway. As he stood in front of the vending machine he thought of the revelations from the night before. "Human genome," he muttered to himself as he punched in the various letters and numbers. It hadn't left his mind, the fact that Bruce had talked about reversing mutation. Just thinking about it made his palms itch for a wall to hang off of. All through the day he had considered telling Bruce the truth about his own unique circumstances, but that would likely entail revealing his identity, and he wasn't quite up to that yet.
Peter returned with a handful of junk food and pulled his mask up enough for a drink of sweet caffeine. He was about to suggest another strategy when he noticed Bruce staring at him, but not in the hungry, fond, or hopeful way Peter was used to. "What?"
Bruce brushed a hand over his mouth. "What happened?"
"Hm?" Peter touched his jaw and finally remembered the bruise stretching down the corner of his mouth. "Oh yeah--I got sucker-punched by a fire escape on my way over. This punk pulled a knife on me, and when I went to dodge--wham. Kind of embarrassing." He gave it a brief rub and then took another drink. "Doesn't hurt anymore, though."
Bruce continued to stare a moment longer, putting a self-conscious itch between Peter's shoulder blades. It wasn't that Bruce was concerned--he had seen enough side-eyes from Gwen and Aunt May that he knew what "I wish I could tell you to stop" looked like. It was something else. It was as much a mystery as the goop they were making out of his webbing.
Bruce ripped open his Skittles, but only ate one before turning back to his computer. "Tough work, being a super hero," he said.
"Yup." Peter stole a Skittle when Bruce wasn't looking. "Goes with the territory."
"You might consider getting better protection than spandex...?"
Peter chuckled. "What, you don't like the suit? You had your hands all over it the other night."
Bruce had been reaching for the candy when he coughed sharply, and he spilled a handful across the desk. His glare said "I told you so" but Peter only shrugged. "The suit is fine," he said, a little red in the face as he tried to herd the Skittles into a huddle. "But there is something to be said for Kevlar."
One of the Skittles escaped and clattered across the floor, and Bruce rolled his eyes. Rather than chase after it he went back to his computer. Peter smirked to himself as he retrieved the wayward orange. "You know, there's a certain spider that produces silk stronger than Kevlar." He gave the Skittle a blow and figured the five second rule applied.
"Caerostris darwini," Bruce supplied. "Darwin's bark spider."
"Huh." Peter began nudging the Skittles into an all too familiar formation. "So did you become an arachnologist overnight?"
"Just trying to keep up with you," Bruce said with a smirk.
Peter tongued the inside of his cheek, pleased. "Aaaaand, nitrogen," he finished triumphantly. "There it is. Our nemesis."
Bruce cocked an eye, and he shook his head at the sight of Peter's Skittle-molecule. "Pyrrolidine. Whatever are we going to do with you?"
Both were quiet and contemplative for a moment, and then Peter stole one lime-flavored carbon atom from his molecule. Bruce narrowed his eyes and nudged the remaining "atoms" into a new structure. "Isopropylamine," he muttered, smiling to himself as if proud that he could identify the new formula so easily. And then Peter almost literally saw the light bulb appear over his head: his eyes lit up, his spine straightened, and he flashed Peter a secretive grin. "I know what we're going to do with it," he said.
Peter straightened with him and felt a contagious prickle of eagerness. "You do?"
Bruce set his foot against Peter's chair and pushed, sending Peter skidding away from the computer so he could take his place. "Isopropylamine is used as a regulating agent in certain plastics," he said as he began typing furiously. "And other coating materials, like rubber..."
Peter grabbed at the desk to keep from sliding too far away. "I think I see where you're going," he lied, "but we can't just replace the pyrrolidine with iso-whatyousaid by plucking out carbon atoms."
"No, no, no, it just inspired me." Bruce slid his tongue along his teeth--it was the most animated Peter had seen him, and it was amusing to watch. "We're switching gears, here. Less web-slinging, more..." He drew the word out into a hum as he hurried to complete his inputs. "Mooorrreee...this."
Bruce pushed away from the desk and waved for Peter to come back. Peter did so, stealing another handful of Skittles on the way, and sucked on them thoughtfully as he looked over Bruce's new project. It took him a moment to realize what he was looking at: their goop formula represented not as a string, but as a woven, structured web in lines like fabric.
"Okay," Peter said slowly. "Which gear did we switch to?"
He was a little worried that Bruce would be irritated in having to explain, but he needn't have been; Bruce was all too eager. "With the webbing now, the main limitation is its practicality, as you said. Getting the silk to spin at a precise viscosity and tensile strength is an incredible challenge, especially on demand. However, there are ways to treat the silk and alter its properties in a more controllable setting, without the constraints of field use, after it's spun. The current formula increased the tensile strength enough that if we found a way to delay the denaturation process even further, it could be worked into...well, a textile, I suppose."
Peter finally caught on, and he was glad that Bruce wouldn't be able to see his feet kick excitedly under the desk. "Like Kevlar?"
Bruce pressed two fingers to Peter's right shoulder and pulled, drawing them over the rubber ridges that decorated the spandex. He traced a particular strand all the way from one shoulder to the other, sending a little shiver cascading down Peter's spine. "How often do you go through suits?" he asked.
Peter started to answer, but was distracted when Bruce paused to rub his thumb against a tear in the costume just above his left shoulder blade. "This is...the third. Or fourth, I think." He chuckled and wished it didn't sound so thin all of a sudden. "Sometimes I have to patch in sections. It's durable, but like you said, being a super hero is rough. It's a good thing I found a site where I can get a good deal on materials, because I do a lot of repairs."
"If we can create for you a...an exoskeleton," Bruce said, sounding pleased with himself, "it would help the suit last longer. It might even dull a knife blade." He laughed. "Though I'm not sure it'll help much against fire escapes."
"Ha, ha." Peter leaned back into the pressure of Bruce's hand against his shoulder. It was heavy and warm, and oddly comforting. "But that still doesn't solve our problem of the web being sticky and gooey."
"That can be treated once it's been fired," said Bruce. "Maybe if we sprayed the webbing onto a glass surface to form a sheet, and then dehydrated it, or else treated it with some kind of sealant. It doesn't have to come out of the cartridge perfect if you're not using it to swing about, right?"
"I guess not." Peter snatched up his Coke for a long drink as he tried to consider every angle. "And it's flexible and lightweight enough that it shouldn't hinder me. The hard part will be fixing it onto the suit." He craned his head back. "You're not going to stitch it on the suit with me in it, are you?"
"Actually, I'm thinking of getting permission from Tony to sic JARVIS on you," Bruce said. "Then we can get a full body scan."
Peter arched an eyebrow beneath his mask. "Full body scan," he repeated. "Sounds kind of kinky."
It really wasn't the way to be talking to a man twenty years his senior, and Peter still wasn't sure where his gall was coming from, but when Bruce gave the back of his neck a subtle squeeze it didn't convince him he wanted to stop. "We are talking about Stark tech, here," Bruce teased back.
"Yeah." Peter glanced around the lab again. "All this cool stuff, all to yourself. After dark. Mr. Stark must like you a lot to let you play with his toys like this."
Bruce let go and returned to his own chair, to Peter's slight disappointment. "It seems he does, though I couldn't tell you why. I haven't even known him that long." He pushed his glasses up on his forehead and picked through the rest of Peter's snacks. "He'll be back on Sunday, by the way. If you're lucky, you might even get to meet Ms. Potts."
"Ms. Pepper Potts?" Peter tugged his mask down before Bruce could see his boyish smile. "She really seems like something. I mean, not that I'd know. But, you know. From the interviews."
Bruce smiled sideways at him. "You don't have a thing for red-heads, do you, Peter?"
Peter laughed self-consciously. "No, I'm just saying, she seems...capable. You'd have to be to be with Tony Stark, right?"
"That she is."
Peter watched as Bruce opened a bag of potato chips. A sudden curiosity gripped him. "You married, Bruce?"
Bruce showed off his bare left hand. "Nope."
"No." Bruce's expression twitched. "Not exactly."
Since they seemed to be taking a break, Peter leapt at the possibility of some more personal information about his strange new friend. "Not exactly," he echoed. "That sounds like, 'there is someone, but she doesn't know I exist.'"
"No, it's not..." Bruce scraped the back of his hand across his mouth, smearing away a flash of irritation. "It's not like that, really. I had someone. But I screwed that up long before my work got in the way, and now..." He shrugged helplessly. "It is what it is, I guess."
Peter scooted a little closer. "So you're saying I shouldn't ask you for relationship advice?"
"God, no." Bruce surrendered a self-deprecating laugh. "It's a Friday night and I'm in here, aren't I?"
"You're not alone," said Peter. He had meant it as a joke, but when Bruce's eyes flickered to him, warm and grateful, it felt like something more.
"What about you?" asked Bruce. "Do you have a 'not exactly?'"
"Well..." Peter pulled his feet up on the chair. "It's complicated."
"I'm not going anywhere."
Peter hesitated, but it was difficult to hold it in when Bruce was watching him so expectantly, without judgment. There might not have been anyone else he could tell. "There's a girl," he said, and immediately the sober tone in his voice erased Bruce's grin. "A girl I like. Liked. I'm not sure now." He fidgeted. "She's knows about me being Spider-Man, and for a while that was cool, you know? Having someone to talk to about it. And she's gorgeous."
"Of course," said Bruce, sounding somewhere between amused and sympathetic.
"I don't know if things would have worked out, if everything had gone down differently," Peter continued. "But things went...wrong. Really wrong." Peter's throat tightened, and the only way he could think of to fight through it was to surrender the truth. "Her dad's dead because of me. I know she doesn't blame me--she says she doesn't--but it's not the same, being with her now. I can't..."
Emotion got the better of Peter, and he had to stop, frustrated that he'd let things go so sour so quickly. He rubbed his face through his mask, but before he could figure out a way to continue, Bruce beat him to it.
"You can't look at her anymore without feeling that guilt," Bruce supplied grimly. "That pit deep in your stomach, telling you she's better off without you. Might even be better off if you'd never met at all."
Peter swallowed; he felt it. "Yeah."
Bruce looked away, his gaze losing its focus--locked on some distant memory, maybe. He was quiet for a long moment, took a breath, and then hesitated again before finally admitting, "I know what you mean. There was a time I thought that maybe the whole world would be better off without me." His words were chilling, but then he smiled, slow and sincere. "And I was proved wrong."
He turned to face Peter. "Don't ever sell yourself short, Peter," he said, meaning it. "I don't know if you can work things out with your friend, but even if not, you have a lot to offer others." His lip quirked. "Especially women, I'm sure."
Peter groped after a response and came up wanting. His chest was tight and for the first time in Bruce's company he felt young--desperately young. He didn't know what to make of the wise look Bruce had fixed on him. He cleared his throat. "Thanks."
Bruce took in another breath and forced a chuckle. "Well. That got serious fast, didn't it?"
Peter laughed, expelling his remaining tension. "Yeah, sorry. A pair of nerds commiserating over their failed love lives? Could we be more of a cliché?"
"Tony would be ashamed of us," Bruce agreed. A computer two rows over began to beep, and Bruce pushed up from his chair. "I know what he'd say, though: that we both just need to get laid."
Even with his mask firmly in place, Peter was grateful for Bruce's turned back as heat crept up his neck and ears. He struggled back several virginity-revealing responses, in the process missing his opportunity for a sharp comeback. But saying nothing was even weirder, so after a few beats he finally blurted out, "Are you waiting for me to volunteer?"
Bruce laughed. "Only if you promise to keep the suit on," he tossed over his shoulder.
"Oh, wow." Peter grabbed for his drink again. "Getting kinkier all the time up in Stark Tower. This is going to be my Friday night destination of choice from now on."
Bruce continued to chuckle to himself as he replaced his glasses and checked on the computer that had sounded. His expression darkened, and with a few quick keystrokes he closed whatever program had been running. "Let's get back to work," he suggested as he returned. "We can at least toss a few more ideas around before it gets much later."
"Sure." Peter finally sat up in his chair properly, eagerly to get his mind back on more structured topics.
They worked for another hour, mostly just talking about the possible processes they could use on Peter's new suit accessory. Peter noticed that Bruce was becoming touchier--if he passed behind Peter he would set a hand on his shoulder, sometimes boldly, as if having to prove he was capable of it. Peter wasn't sure he understood the significance, but he felt it, and was happy to let Bruce have it.
When Bruce followed him to the window to see him off, Peter turned back, half perched on the sill. He still had his mask on and wasn't ready to change that yet, but he hoped Bruce understood his sincerity through it. "Hey," he said. "I don't know what your deal really is, but I just want to say...you were wrong. I think the world could use a lot more Bruce." He chuckled. "Like, a lot more."
Bruce smiled warmly. It was almost embarrassing, how easy it was to see what those simple words meant to him. "Thank you."
Peter sailed off, feeling proud of himself.
As soon as Peter was gone, Bruce returned to the computer and called up the results of the test he'd been running for most of the day. They were negative: not a viable solution, so it said. Even Stark's super computers didn't think any amount of gene therapy could dull the Hulk.
Bruce shut everything down and returned to his guest suite above. He told himself not to be disappointed. He hadn't really believed the answer was in tampering with his DNA even with the recent advances in technology. But it was still another closed door. One by one they were shutting before his eyes: radiation treatments, pharmaceuticals, environmental changes, organic and synthetic enzymes--science was running out of suggestions. Before long he would be resorting to acupuncture.
Bruce flopped into bed and sighed, stretching out on his back. As he stared at the ceiling, trying to think of new options, he was interrupted by the memory of Peter's parting words. He closed his eyes and let them filter through him, taking an inordinate amount of satisfaction from that brief but meaningful expression of acceptance. Peter didn't know him, didn't know his "better half." He had no idea what Bruce was capable of and what he risked just by spending time in Bruce's presence. His words were well-meant but they were ignorant; they should not have affected Bruce, but he couldn't stop thinking about it.
Because maybe Peter was right. Maybe the world could do better than simply tolerate Bruce Banner--maybe the world was better off with him in it. He had made a mess of Fury's Hellicarrier, but in the wake of that failure he had become stronger and fought alongside new peers, saving lives and protecting all of Earth. He was more than worthwhile, he was a hero, and every day he spent absorbed peacefully in his science gave him greater confidence. There were people who respected him, liked him and his company, even among those who knew what he was and what he'd done in his past. For the first time in years he felt real hope that he needn't be working on a way to relieve himself of the Hulk, only that he need trust himself to let the creature out when needed, and call it in again when the dust cleared. He could live like this and not be afraid anymore.
Ridiculous, that playing science with a man likely a decade his junior made it so easy to imagine. "Peter," Bruce mumbled. "Who the hell are you anyway?"
Bruce still had no idea, though his imagination had supplied him with a wide variety of possibilities. All through the day he had speculated, trying to picture who lay beneath all that spandex and sarcasm. Peter was rough, and playful, and young, but he was talented, even if he still had a lot to learn. Was he an ambitious grad student? Secretly an Oscorp employee, which would explain his access to the webbing solution? Government sponsored after all? Bruce should have been wary, but he had the feeling that army spies didn't joke about sex in spandex suits, and if they did, maybe he ought to get back on the radar.
In the dark of the bedroom, Bruce let his mind drift. He wondered about the man beneath the suit, proven to be human only through the briefest glimpses of wide, red lips. He remembered the feeling of the cool fabric beneath his fingers and imagined slipping beneath it, peeling it from Peter's long body inch by inch. He dared to fantasize about sucking caffeine and sugar from Peter's grinning mouth and could almost taste wry laughter against his tongue.
Bruce took a deep breath and slipped his hand beneath his waistband, tentatively stroking his half-hard cock. It had been a long time since he'd allowed himself this. In the years since his accident he'd spent several uncertain he was capable of excitement for its own sake, and fear more than anything had prevented him from even private pleasures. But tonight, he felt good. He knew better than to think his banter with Peter to be anything more than merely that, but just having that connection to another person--someone clever and quick-tongued and able-bodied--put hope in his chest and arousal in his blood. He could have a lover like Peter. He deserved it, and his confidence spurred him on, until he was stroking in earnest.
He wanted Peter wrapped around him. Shamelessly he imagined cool, ridged spandex sliding over his naked skin, and he gasped, planting his heels in the mattress so he could thrust into his closed fist. He could almost feel slender fingers gliding over his body and between his thighs, the quiet rush of breathless laughter against his ear. Even when his heart began to pound he ignored the old warnings, determined to have his moment. He licked the salt from his lips and moaned with the pleasure he'd denied himself for too long. His body was his. He could command and release it at will, he was sure of it, and there was no reason to fear losing himself in even his most intimate moments.
Bruce tensed and came suddenly, his back arching off the mattress as he surrendered to a swift and stuttering orgasm. With low, pleased murmurs he squeezed every drop from his overly sensitive cock and then laughed. As foolish as it seemed, he hadn't been as proud of his climax since his first, decades ago. Just knowing that he could do this much with no fear of warning bells and police action spurred him to boyish elation, and he laughed.
He slept better than he had in years.
Peter spent most of his Saturday catching up on schoolwork he'd missed through the week. Finals were coming up and he hated the thought of missing more spider-time for studying, but even as a senior he didn't want to let his final grades slip. Aunt May offered words of praise for his educational voracity as he downed snacks between reading segments. By the time it got dark she was perfectly willing to believe that he was turning in early for the night, and not slipping out his window in full costume.
Bruce was waiting for him with cartons of leftover Chinese food that Peter was all too eager gulp down. He seemed to be in a rare mood, showing off the work he had done on their formula since the night before. Once Peter had made short work of the rice and pork they set out on their first test run, spraying a freshly altered cartridge on a sheet of treated glass in weaving lines. As they waited for the sealant to dry they sat back, discussing the various methods they could use to fix it to the suit. Making a life-sized model of Peter came up maybe more than once, and the mischievous little gleam in Bruce's eye reminded Peter all over again how different his latest science friend was than the last.
"You'll be back tomorrow, won't you?" Bruce asked as he spread their new web-textile out on a work table. "To meet Tony?"
"Hell yeah, if you think he'll see me." He helped Bruce stretch the web and tacked it to a cork strip on the end of the table. "Is he really the leader of the super-hero team?"
Bruce laughed as he fixed his end down as well. "Who told you that?"
"Well, no one," Peter admitted. "But Captain America kind of implied it'd be up to him if I wanted to join."
"He did?" Bruce shook his head incredulously. "Imagine that."
Peter watched as Bruce began hunting among the desks for something. "How well do you know these guys, really?" he couldn't help but ask. "Do they all work for Stark? Or is Stark working for the military after all?"
"It's complicated," said Bruce. He returned with a pair of scissors. "And classified. I'm not sure it's the sort of thing you can just 'join' like the police force, or if Tony's endorsement would do you the most good." His lip quirked as if recalling some anecdote. "But if it's a sponsor you're looking for, you could certainly do a lot worse than Tony Stark."
Peter grabbed one of the strands and stretched it out as far as he could. "It's not that I want a sponsor, I just want to help," he said honestly. "Or at least keep doing what I'm doing without so many cops on my tail."
"What you're doing is against the law," Bruce reminded him. "That won't change whether you're government approved or not. There's a reason Steve and Tony don't go around busting criminals in the streets, you know."
Peter shrugged. "I just figured they were too busy doing more important stuff."
Bruce tried to cut through the strand and had no luck. They tried sheers and a box cutter and everything sharp within a two floor radius and found nothing that could cut it. "At least it's durable enough," Bruce said with a chuckle. "Though we might have to spray in patterns if we don't want overlap on the suit."
Peter watched Bruce a moment longer and finally blurted out, "Are you a super-hero, too?"
Bruce's brow perked, but he didn't look up right away. "What makes you think that?"
"You have access to all Tony Stark's private labs," said Peter, leaning forward against the table. "His penthouse. You're on a first name basis with Captain America. You're obviously a genius." Bruce smiled modestly, so he continued. "Most of the internet can't even decide if it is a team, but you've been referring to it that way. So what's the deal?" He lowered his voice without realizing. "Are you a hero, too, Bruce?"
"No." Bruce's gaze flickered to him only briefly. "I'm just trying to help however I can."
They continued to work, testing the webbing's tensile strength and resistance to elements. Peter even slid his fingers through the gaps at one point and fit the rest over his arm like a glove, testing how it flexed over his skin. Bruce helped by pinching the web closed in various places, allowing Peter to bed his elbow and wrist. They had left teasing behind by then, but Peter still felt a tingle when Bruce touched him. His hands were broad, sturdy, but so careful--steady like a surgeon's. Unlike the casual touches he often fleeted to Peter's shoulders and back, he had no qualms boldly probing up and down Peter's biceps when it was for an experiment. It reminded Peter of when Steve had taken his arm, and the way he could feel the man's strength lying in wait beneath a seemingly tender exterior. He hadn't expected to feel that strength in Bruce, and it made his arm prickle with goose bumps.
"We might have to fuse it on in sections, with open spaces around your armpits and such," Bruce suggested as he wrapped the web over Peter's shoulder. His deft fingers tried to arrange it in a way that wouldn't bunch under Peter's arm and wasn't terribly successful. "Otherwise it might wad up. Back of the knee, groin..."
He moved the section to Peter's ribs. His eyes behind his glasses were focused and thoughtful, his hands firm as he mapped Peter's chest to his back. It shouldn't have been so distracting--Peter couldn't even think of any groin-related comebacks. Having Bruce fix such scrutiny and such care on him was making him feel young again.
They parted at the window, making plans to meet at the penthouse floor Sunday night. "I almost don't want Tony to come back," Bruce admitted. "I've kind of enjoyed having you to myself."
Peter laughed and hoped Bruce couldn't hear the bubble in his lungs, as ridiculous a notion as that was. "There's plenty of me to go around," he replied, just because it was something to say. Bruce's slow smile only made the bubble worse.
When Peter got home that night, he couldn't sleep. His chest felt a few sizes too small and he couldn't stop puzzling over the mystery that was Bruce. It was as if Bruce's low voice was rumbling through his bones. He was nervous, and excited, and even a little afraid, and he didn't know why. He wished he could learn everything there was to know about Bruce, why his eyes sometimes flicked away when things got too serious, how he knew two famous heroes, what he was supposed to be working on instead of web goo, why his every touch and smile and joke wouldn't get out from under his skin--
"Cut it out, Parker," Peter told himself, burying beneath his sheets. "What are you getting worked up for?" He huffed. "Just imagine when you meet Tony Stark."
He groaned and resorted to counting sheep.
Tony and Pepper made it back to the tower in the early afternoon, and Bruce all but leapt up the stairwell to meet them in the penthouse. The tower chef had prepared a handsome lunch, and as they sat down together to eat, Bruce shared his adventures with his friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Pepper was bright and interested, but all through his story Tony kept squinting at him in a way Bruce was at a loss to interpret. When the lunch dishes were cleared he even spread out the web he and Peter had made the night before.
Tony fingered a strand and said, "This is Oscorp."
Bruce frowned. "Well...originally, yes," he admitted. "I remember the spiders that spun it from my short time working with Dr. Connors." He yanked on opposite ends. "But look at how much the treatment--"
"Where did it come from?" Tony interrupted.
Bruce hadn't seen much of Tony's serious side since winning the battle for Earth, but he definitely recognized it. He leaned back. "Spider-Man brought it with him."
"Did he steal it?"
"Of course not." Bruce gathered the web back up, determined not to be disappointed with Tony's less than stellar reaction. "He says he purchases it, mail order."
Tony crossed his arms over his chest. "Are you sure? Because if stolen Oscorp tech ended up in my building that would be a problem for me."
Bruce tried to smile it away and glanced to Pepper for her help, but she only smiled back with eyebrows raised. He deflated a little. "Yes, I'm sure," he said. "Come on, Tony, I've only worked with it after hours. I haven't told anyone about it, either." He rubbed his chin. "Though now that you mention it, maybe it would be better if we came up with something entirely original, possibly synthetic..."
Tony rolled his eyes--his disapproval was starting to get on Bruce's nerves. "What?"
"I leave you here unattended all week, and this is what you come up with?" Tony said with exasperation. "No volatile chemicals, no lead into gold? No anti-alien technology? No Slushie machine for my suit?"
Bruce blinked at him. "Was I supposed to be working on one of those things?"
"Don't mind him," said Pepper, looking too amused by the whole exchange. "He's just jealous you've made a new friend."
Tony rolled his eyes again and pushed to his feet. "Millions of dollars' worth of the best lab tech in the world, and you're making doilies for your boyfriend. It's just not what I had in mind when I gave you my all-access pass."
As Tony moved away to pour himself some fresh coffee, Bruce looked to Pepper. "Did Madrid not go well?" he asked quietly.
She winced. "Not so much."
"And I still haven't gotten to meet this guy," Tony continued from the other end of the kitchen. "He had better be amazing. Because some of us have saved the entire world and not just, you know, Queens."
"You'll meet him tonight," Bruce promised. "He's young, but he's bright. And he wants to be part of the 'team.'" He chuckled to himself.
"How young?" asked Pepper.
"Well...I'm not exactly sure." Bruce pushed his glasses up his forehead. "I assume he's a grad student. Maybe even an intern for...someone around here." Tony gave him a look as he returned to the table, so he kept talking before he could get interrupted. "But you're going to like him. If it were up to me I'd offer him a job."
"In the building?" Tony sat back down. "Or on the team?"
Bruce frowned. He had treated Peter's enthusiasm toward being an Avenger with amusement, and had never actually considered the possibility of rushing into battle with his new friend alongside. He didn't like that thought. "The former. The later...I don't know. I wasn't around to see his body of work, was I? But I'm sure Fury has a file on him somewhere."
"I'll bet." Tony drummed his fingers on the table impatiently. "Do you think he'd let us see it if we asked nicely?"
"No," Bruce and Pepper said at once.
"Might be able to sneak another subprogram into their mainframe, then. JARVIS--"
"Hey." Bruce pushed up from the table. "You gave yourself the whole day off, right? Let's head down to the lab. There are a few other things I've been working on--unrelated to spiders."
It was a crude distraction tactic, but it worked; Tony immediately perked and stood to join him. "That's more like it."
Sunday nights, Aunt May had dinner with her garden club friends. It was a perfect opportunity. Peter suited up early and checked the costume for any nicks or scrapes that could be fixed or hidden for the big meeting. There was no point in combing his hair when it would be shoved inside a mask for the whole trip, but he tried anyway. He set out just before sunset and headed southwest, thinking he would take the Williamsburg Bridge across to Manhattan. As he leapt roof to roof, excited for and already overwhelmed by the encounter to come, he was distracted by a sound of sirens in the distance.
Peter perched on a ledge and, certain there was no one close enough to see anything, lifted his mask to get a better view of the skyline. Smoke rose from the south. "A fire?" Peter murmured. He tugged his mask back in place and debated. "I guess it's on the way. And I've been slacking on the hero stuff lately...." With a deep breath he set off toward it.
The fire was gradually consuming a three-story apartment building. Peter crept to the edge of the roof on the other side of the street, watching as the fire truck that had responded did its best to maneuver in the narrow, car-laden avenue. Thick, black smoke poured out of the windows, several of which were crammed with residents trying to get air while crying for escape. With people crowding the streets to watch and the firemen well on their way to extending their ladders, Peter considered leaving the rescue to the professionals. That was before the explosion.
From somewhere within the third floor there came a tremendous percussion, and the last of the windows shattered as fire and smoke burst out of the already crippled building. The crowd screamed and retreated beneath a hail of debris as the firemen shielded their heads. Peter bit his lip and didn't need more prodding to jump into the fray. He lassoed the building next door and all but flew across the street, swinging into position alongside a blown out third floor window.
Even the brick was hot. Peter took a deep breath, wishing he and Bruce had finished some kind of suit prototype that was a bit more heat resistant. "Reason number forty-three to have a science genius in your back pocket," he said to himself and then darted inside.
It had seemed like a fine idea at the time, the kind of thing any super-hero would do, rushing into a burning building. The reality hit him as hard as the smoke. Though the mask protected his mouth and nose from inhaling too much, the inside of the small apartment was a wash of orange and black against his eye slots. "Hello!" he called, but against the roar of the fire there was no point.
Five sweaty fingers grabbed Peter's shoulder, and he jumped. He turned and found a middle-aged woman clinging to him, shaking and coughing. Operating on instinct he pulled her to the window, but before he could devise a way to get her out, she yanked on him. "My husband--"
"I'll get him," Peter said close to her ear. "Just hang on tight!"
Peter shot his webbing into her stomach and guided her hands to it. She didn't seem to be in any kind of shape to fly out a window or even climb down with the help of the web rope, so he had no choice but to lower her by hand. The firefighters on the street below stared, uncomprehending, but lent their assistance once she was close enough for them to get their hands on her. As soon as she was safe, Peter turned back inside.
The woman's husband was lying face down on the floor. His left arm was blackened, with blood or burns Peter couldn't tell. Wrestling the dead weight to the window was more of a challenge but he lowered the man the same way.
"Is there anyone else?" Peter called. He tried to creep deeper into the apartment but the hallways were burning, and he could feel the rubber on his suit grow soft when he got too close. He felt around as best he could for more bodies, and when he found none, he pulled himself out through the window.
The walls were still blistering. Peter tugged his mask up over his mouth, hoping for a quick gulp of clean air, but the smoke was still pouring out too thickly, and he only ended up choking. Someone was shouting. Peter shook his head to try and clear it and turned, spotting hands reaching for him from the next window over.
"I'm coming!" The firemen had wrestled their ladder under control and were working on the second floor, so Peter continued along the third floor and ducked into another apartment.
Three young boys had been left alone. Peter wound them together, and as he lowered them to the street he saw a familiar face waiting to receive them. He stared. "Captain?"
Steve Rogers was among the firemen in his preppy shirt and slacks. He caught the three boys and freed them from the webbing. "Is that it?" he called.
Peter ducked back inside, but he couldn't reach the hall there, either. As he peered through the mounting wall of flames he thought he heard someone on the other side, but he couldn't be sure that it wasn't groaning and snapping wood. When a panel of ceiling drywall cracked inward he leap outside once more and had to pause, clinging to the sill, his head pounding. The smoke particles were beginning to fill in the fibrous spaces in his mask.
"There are more apartments on the courtyard side," Peter shouted down. "I'm going to check!"
Steve glanced up and down the street, but the buildings were all pressed close together, and there were no nearby streets or alleyways to pass through. "Be careful!"
Peter webbed the roof and vaulted over. The smoke was just as bad and even for the short time he ran across it the soles of his feet burned. As he came to the edge he stopped to take another moment, but there wasn't time--a man was preparing to jump from the third floor window.
"Hey--hey!" Peter aimed for the man's shoulders and got him with both webs. The weight snapping taut dragged Peter up against the ledge but he planted his feet and managed to keep steady until his charge was standing in the courtyard below.
"The kids!" the man shouted, waving frantically at the window he'd just leapt from. "Get the kids!"
Peter swung down to the window and was shocked to find a dozen eight year olds crowding and crying in the opening. Several of them had crumpled party hats hanging off their ears.
"You've got to be kidding me," said Peter.
The man below had his arms up, but Peter wasn't about to start flinging children at him. He climbed inside and did his best to calm the kids down, but they were screaming and coughing, and the fire was spreading fast. "Okay!" he shouted over them. "Three at a time!" He pried two off his legs and grabbed a third, winding them together with his web like he had on the other side of the building.
The first two batches went smoothly with the father waiting below to help catch and wrangle the boys. By the third Peter knew they were out of time. His was sweating through his suit, the ceiling was caving in in places, and the floor below them was creaking ominously. It was getting harder to see all the time. "Come on, guys," he said as he wound four together. "Hold onto each other--there you go. Don't look down."
Peter lowered them down, but when they were about halfway down something crashed behind him, and the two remaining boys latched onto his hips. He struggled not to let go of the boys as he glanced over his shoulder. Through the smoke he could just barely make out a hole where the kitchen appliances had been.
"Okay, out of time." Peter dropped the kids faster than he would have liked, and he heard a few shrieks, but a quick glance out the window showed they were safely away. He turned back to the last two. "Now let's just--"
The roof caved in. Peter only had a moment to react--he grabbed both boys to his chest and leapt for the window. He might have made it if not for the floor buckling beneath him. His foot went through and he pitched forward, smashing his jaw into window sill. His already throbbing head turned into a jackhammer but he forced himself up, ignoring the debris raining down on his shoulders and back. He jumped, one boy under his arm and another wrapped around his neck, but when he tried to fire the webbing on his free hand, nothing came out.
Peter grabbed--at the sill, at the flat brick walls--and was jerked to a halt when his fingers hooked over the second story window ledge. The impact twisted him around, smacked his shoulders into the wall, and in one heart-stopping, horrifying moment, he felt the boy slip out of his arm. His stomach dropped and he tried to snag the boy's shirt or arm, but he was disoriented and when the second boy yanked on his neck he couldn't risk losing both. Without taking a breath he pawed at the wall using his feet, turning just in time to see the lost boy land safely in Steve Rogers' outstretched arms.
Peter wasted no time in relief. He made sure the last child was secure against his chest and jumped, landing easily in the courtyard. As he finally released his burden the children crowded around, shocked and awed, their voices a chattering blur.
"Is that everyone?" Peter asked blearily.
The father took a head count and then clapped Peter's shoulder. "That's everyone. Thank you--thank you, you saved their lives."
"Yours, too," Peter reminded him, but he was light-headed and his sarcasm wouldn't be up to the task much longer. When Steve pressed a hand to his back he leaned into it gratefully.
"Good work," Steve said. Even his voice was masked by the roar of the fire still behind them. "We can take it from here, if you need to get lost."
"Okay." Peter blinked around, trying to get his bearings, but his mask was full of soot and his limbs suddenly felt twenty pounds too heavy. Everything was smearing around him. "Okay," he said, plopping himself down among the children. "I just need to...catch my breath..."
Before the children could crowd in too close, Steve crouched down next to him. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah," Peter said, but the more he tried to get a full breath, the harder it was to take. He hunched with a chest-rattling cough. "I'm fine..."
He'd barely finished talking when Steve scooped him up in his arms. It was almost embarrassing how easily Steve hefted his weight, but Peter didn't have it in him to protest. "I know you don't want to talk to cops right now," Steve said as he carried Peter swiftly to the other side of the courtyard. "So I'll do you a favor just this once."
Peter relaxed. "My hero."
The world went dark. Peter wasn't sure if he passed out or if it was just losing the light from the fire, but he was only distantly aware of Steve's strong arms supporting him as they put the scene behind them. With the adrenaline thinning from his blood he became aware of just how dizzy he was, how thick his throat and lungs felt, and he wasn't ashamed to surrender entirely to Steve's care. He zoned out to the rhythm of Steve pulse beating against his ear.
It was peaceful--weightless, even. He thought inexplicably of Bruce.
Peter didn't regain his senses until they stopped moving, and a lumpy sofa appeared as if by magic under his weary back. He sank into the cushions with a long, pleased sigh, and before he could think better of it, he pulled his mask off. But when he tried to take in his first full breath of clean air, he was stopped again by a twist in his chest and he ended up hacking.
"Hey--take it easy." Steve sat down on the edge of the sofa and took Peter's shoulder, holding him steady until his fit had passed. "You inhaled a lot of smoke." He frowned. "I should probably take you to a hospital."
"I'm fine," Peter said quickly. He closed his eyes to keep the room from spinning and soon relaxed. "I can't go like this anyway."
"You could just take the suit off," Steve suggested.
Peter's lip quirked. "Not wearing anything under it."
He opened his eyes again, hoping to get a smile out of Steve, but the expression fixed on him was one of solemn concern. "What about the rest of you?" Steve asked. "Burns? Broken bones?"
Peter wiggled his fingers and toes. He was sore and overheated and embarrassed, but he'd had worse. "I'm okay," he said. He pulled off his gloves to check his hands and found a few scrapes but nothing that looked more serious than a first degree burn. "Nothing permanent, anyway."
Steve continued to stare at him, and after a moment he reached out. Peter stayed very still, his heart suddenly in his ears as Steve's broad fingers gently probed his jaw. "Looks like you're going to have a nasty bruise," he said, reminding Peter all over again about the tumble he'd taken on his way out of the building.
"I heal fast," Peter mumbled.
Steve wasn't satisfied. He pressed two fingers against Peter's jaw, carefully feeling out where he was tender. He urged Peter to tip his head back so he could rub the soot off his neck, where he had pulled the mask up for a brief and unsuccessful gulp of air. Peter kept still as Steve checked his hands and even a few spots where the suit had become especially singed. It was surreal. Peter's senses still felt muddled with smoke and ash, turning the room around them into a smear of light and shadows, but he was excessively aware of Steve and every move he made: of Steve's weight, sinking the cushions near Peter's waist; of Steve's hands, broad and warm, ash under his nails; of Steve's bright blue eyes flicking with calm, steady scrutiny over Peter's body. It reminded Peter of the second night they met, feeling the latent strength in even Steve's easy grip. There was something awing and almost humbling just being next to someone like that, let alone having his attention on him.
Peter was so absorbed that he didn't realize Steve had been talking the entire time until he patted him on the chest. "Still with me?" Steve asked.
Peter started. "Y-Yeah." Steve's hand felt like a bear paw on him, and his stomach fluttered. The sensation was fascinating and unnerving at once and he didn't know what to make of it. "Sorry. I'm kind of out of it."
Steve frowned again, and then that hand was on the side of his face, turning Peter to look at him. Peter's cheeks flushed nearly as hot as they'd been in the fire. "Are you dizzy?" Steve asked seriously. "Hit your head? I hope you don't have a concussion."
"No, I'm..." Peter did his best not to squirm, but when Steve pulled his hand back, the drag of his fingertips against Peter's cheek put full on butterflies in his insides. "Thanks, but I'm okay. Really."
"All right. I'm glad." Steve finally leaned back, but he left his hand perched on Peter's chest protectively. After a moment of contemplation, he smiled. "You did good tonight."
It was the smile that did it. Peter's toes curled and suddenly he realized--this was just how he had felt tumbling into Gwen's bedroom with lizard nails in his chest. His breath was buzzing in his lungs and his face was burning and he liked Steve's broad hands moving over him. He wanted calloused fingertips on his skin. He might have even wanted to curl up in a pair of strong arms again, and an understanding came over him, drawing into focus a hundred errant thoughts and half-formed impulses years in the making.
"Oh shit," Peter whispered.
Steve made a face, and Peter grimaced, trying to recover. "I just realized," he babbled. "I mean, I kind of knew before, but I..." might be gay? He flushed all over again. No, bi? What is going on with me? "...I was supposed to meet Bruce," he finished lamely. "He was going to introduce me to Tony Stark. Man, I don't think I can make it to Manhattan like this, though. I don't even have his number to tell him..."
"I do." Steve gave him a pat and then stood. "Just take it easy--I'll let them know."
Steve moved away, and in his absence everything became a bit clearer. Peter rubbed his face with both hands and groaned. "What's gotten into you?" he mumbled, sinking deeper into the sofa. He was half wishing he'd been swallowed up by the fire.
He thought back over the last several days--the late night visits, the teasing and touching and...flirting? Was that what it had been all this time? He remembered Bruce's hand against his back, firm and almost possessive, and his skin prickled with eager goose bumps. He tried to remember if Bruce had specified male or female in their talk of lost loves and couldn't. His stomach was dancing up into his ribs and he forced himself to keep his eyes open, studying Steve's modest apartment as if it could keep his mind off the inevitable conclusion he was smashing head-first into.
Calm down, Peter told himself. Just calm down. This doesn't necessarily mean...anything. Does it? He swallowed, and when he heard Steve's voice lift from the other end of the room, he strained to overhear.
Bruce glanced up at the sound of the phone. He had spent the last half hour telling himself it wasn't late yet--not enough for his visitor to be considered missing, anyway--but he couldn't help the little sparks of anxiety and eagerness in his stomach. After Tony's delightful display of confidence earlier, he had hoped that Peter would show early and impress.
Rather than answer the actual phone, Tony pressed something on the living room end table that flashed the incoming call up on the television. The number appeared along with an irritatingly cheery clip art of an American flag. "Rogers," Tony greeted. "You'd better get over here if you want to meet Bruce's amazing Spider-Man."
"That's just why I called," replied Steve. "I have him here with me. He wanted me to let you know he won't be able to make it there tonight."
Bruce frowned and almost didn't notice when Pepper took a seat next to him and offered a cup of tea. He managed a cursory smile but his attention was fully on the conversation. "Why not?" Tony was asking. "He get cold feet?"
"There was an apartment fire down near Greenpoint. We both happened to be in the neighborhood and lent a hand."
Bruce shifted forward to the edge of the sofa. "Are you both all right?"
"We're all right," said Steve, and as he continued Tony began pushing buttons on his table screen, calling up the local news. A muted video of smoke and fire pouring out the windows of a three story building appeared on the television. "But Spider-Man took a few rough hits and I don't think he's doing any more web-slinging tonight. He sends his regards."
Bruce set his tea aside untouched. He watched, fingers laced, as the news played footage from someone's camera phone: Spider-Man crawling from one window to the next. "Look at that," Tony said to Pepper. "Crawling right up a flat wall just like a spider. How does he do that?"
Bruce couldn't take his eyes off the spectacle. "Okay," he said. "Thanks, Steve. Tell him to take it easy, and when he's up to it, he knows where to find us."
"Ask him how he does that wall-crawling thing," added Tony.
"Good night," said Steve, and he hung up.
Bruce pressed his chin into his knuckles as he continued to watch the news coverage. With the phone conversation over the volume lifted, and he listened attentively as the reporters confirmed zero deaths and mostly minor injuries. It was when a dozen children were marched out of the courtyard that Bruce felt his stomach clench, and he swallowed hard.
"Okay." Tony shot Bruce a dry smirk. "I have to admit, saving kids from a burning birthday party? Not bad."
Bruce rubbed his eyes. He was proud of his new friend, and he wanted to say so, but his mind's eye was full of the image of Peter leaping into an inferno of red flame and churning smoke. He knew how easily things could have gone wrong. It burned in him an unwanted reminder that this was no uncommon occurrence. Peter was out there all the time, against knives and bullets and disasters of every variety. He was risking his life for strangers for no reason other than it was the right thing to do, and Bruce felt an inkling of shame that he couldn't do the same--that he was disappointed Peter wasn't coming even though it meant a dozen lives saved.
"Bruce?" Pepper touched his shoulder. "Are you all right?"
"Yes--sorry." Bruce took in a deep breath. "It's just...really something."
Tony raised an eyebrow. "You know," he said, "if he's going to be an Avenger, he's going to be mixed up in a lot worse."
"I know--I never said I wanted that for him." Bruce smoothed his hair back. "It would just be nice, maybe, to have a friend who wasn't in the line of fire. So to speak."
Tony and Pepper both gave him a look, but even he didn't know what he really meant. He picked his tea back up and took a long sip, hoping they would go back to conversing amongst themselves and spare him the embarrassment. Thankfully, Tony obliged, and was soon engaging JARVIS in speculating on how Spider-Man was able to stick to flat walls. Bruce thought he was safe, but as soon as he took the cup away from his mouth, Pepper leaned in again.
"I'm sure your friend is fine," she said with a gentle smile.
Bruce grimaced and hoped he wasn't blushing. "I know," he said, his eye wandering again to the news. Watching it made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. "Thanks."
Steve returned from his phone call with two aspirin and a glass of water, which Peter was all too happy to accept. He still felt as if his face was on fire, and having Steve retake his seat on the couch with him didn't help. It especially didn't help when he at least realized that he wasn't wearing his mask, and Steve was staring him full in the face. He gulped down the entire glass and his stomach squirmed. "So, we're good?" he asked, hoping to distract himself.
"They said you're welcome back whenever you're up to it," said Steve.
Peter sighed with relief. "Okay, good. Thanks."
He was contemplating the best way of getting the hell out of there when Steve's expression grew serious again. His bright blue eyes were inescapable. "What's your name, son?"
Peter gulped and immediately wished he hadn't drunk all the water. All things considered there was no reason to lie, or even to protest Steve's choice of address. "I told Bruce he could call me Peter," he said, his voice coming out weaker than he would have liked.
"How old are you, Peter?"
He clutched the glass resting on his stomach. "Seventeen, sir." The last part slipped out involuntarily.
Steve smiled grimly. "A little young to be doing this kind of work, don't you think?"
"No," Peter said without hesitation. "No, I don't think that."
Steve didn't reply right away, so Peter went on. "Look, I know I'm not that great at this yet, but I did save a lot of lives tonight, including kids, didn't I? And a whole lot more before you and your broad-shouldered super-hero friends showed up. So I think I'm plenty qualified to put on spandex and fight crime just as much as anyone else."
Steve chuckled as he held up a hand in surrender. "No, you're right. You're right." His smile tipped with genuine fondness. "You did great. To be honest, if I could I'd probably be suiting up with you every night."
Peter's heart gave a heavy thud. "Uh...so why don't you?" He pushed himself up on his elbows. "Because it's not like I'm territorial or anything; you could come. We could bust some heads together. If you wanted."
"Some of us are bound by due process and personal liberties," Steve said. "But I'll give you my phone number. If you ever need help with something a bit more humanitarian than busting heads, you know who to call."
"Yeah?" Peter sat up as he watched Steve leave to retrieve his phone. "You, uh, wouldn't be willing to give me Bruce's number, too, would you?"
"I don't think he has one." He tossed Peter his phone.
"Huh." Peter entered his phone number into Steve's contacts as simply "Peter" and sent himself a text. "I guess if he never leaves the tower he doesn't have much use for phones, either."
Steve frowned thoughtfully. "So you're still meeting with Dr. Banner, huh?"
Banner. A pulse of heat shot down Peter's spine but he managed to keep the effects out of his face; he finally had a full name. His name is Dr. Bruce Banner. "Well, yeah. He's been helping me work some things out."
"How much do you know about him?"
They were back to serious-Steve. Peter had the feeling Steve wasn't a great liar--if he ever did it--and his face showed easily that he was looking for a specific answer without wanting to ask for it. Peter had no idea what it could be. "Not much," he admitted. "He's friends with Tony Stark. He's a genius scientist. Not much of a social life." He's handsy when he's in a good mood. Peter pretended to drink from his glass even though it was empty. "He likes Skittles. That's about it. Why?"
Steve continued to stare a beat too long and then shook himself. "Nothing. He's a good guy. If you're getting along, I'm glad."
Peter could almost inhale the history, and it tasted a lot like don't break my friend's heart, but he was sure he was imagining it. Too much smoke in his brain. Before he could let the errant thoughts slip to his tongue he handed Steve his glass and his phone and pushed to his feet. "Well, I should go. I'm feeling better and I want to get home before my...before it gets late. Later." He tugged his gloves and mask back on.
"Are you sure you don't want a ride?" Steve asked.
"I'll be fine. I'll go slow." He started to offer a salute, but then Steve put his hand out, so he shook it instead. "Thanks for your help tonight."
"And you," Steve replied. "Take care."
Peter showed himself out onto the fire escape and immediately made for the roof. When he was sure only pigeons were around to see he tugged his mask up. He could still see the smoke from the fire billowing in the distance, and it helped him get his bearings. "So, Captain America lives in Brooklyn," he said to himself, taking note of the address. "I guess it figures." With his brain crammed full of a million questions he headed--slowly--for home.
In the morning, Aunt May got up early and made an expansive breakfast of eggs, potatoes, bacon, toast--a feast. She didn't mention the apartment fire and neither did Peter, but as she buttered the toast he caught a significant look from her that he recognized: the I'm proud of you but please don't die look. Peter cleared his throat. Someday, he was going to tell her outright. Someday.
But Peter had other things on his mind. He had fallen straight to sleep after coming home but it had been restless, full of vibrant dreams made of flames and fingers and a heartbeat close to his ear. He woke in the morning with the sensation of a hand resting on the back of his neck, his body battered yet full of anxious energy. It was Steve that had dragged him away from the burning building, Steve that had looked after him, but all he could think about was Bruce holed up in Stark Tower, disappointed and waiting for him.
"So," Peter said as he poured two glasses of orange juice. "I met this guy yesterday."
Aunt May stopped dishing eggs onto the plates and cast a glance at him. He recognized that look, too: it was I knew it. Her knowing eyes more than anything the night before put coals in his stomach. He took a quick gulp of orange juice. "Um, he works at Stark Tower," he went on. "He's a scientist."
"Oh!" Aunt May blushed a little as she finished dividing the food and brought both plates to the table. "Really? Stark Tower?" Her eyes twinkled. "Not Mr. Stark himself, I assume."
"Naw. Not yet." He winked at her. "But he says I have potential. I was thinking maybe I'd ask him about doing an internship this summer, or something."
"That would be fantastic," said Aunt May with full enthusiasm. "Maybe even a paid internship?"
Peter chuckled. "Well, I don't know. I haven't even asked him yet." He started to eat. "But either way I'll get a job. Maybe Stark Tower needs a janitor?"
"Oh, Peter. I think you can do better than that."
They chatted through breakfast, amusing themselves with the possibilities, and Peter felt a lot better up until it was time to leave for school. At the door Aunt May squeezed his hand with both of hers and looked him full in the face. "I love you, Peter," she said seriously. "No matter what. You know that, right?"
Peter swallowed the lump in his throat--was it possible to hide anything from her? "Of course." He kissed her cheek. "I love you, too, Aunt May."
Monday passed as any high school Monday. Between third and fourth period Gwen caught his eye, and they snuck to a quiet section of the hall near the A/V lab. "I saw you on the news last night," she said. She was making that same face Aunt May made so often. "That was really amazing."
"Thanks." Peter smiled and hoped it looked sincere. Just talking to Gwen, being around her smile, her wide eyes, and her blond hair, was muddling his brain all over again. "Oh, um, hey." He scratched the back of his neck. "Do you remember I asked you about that scientist, Bruce? I found out his name is Banner. Dr. Bruce Banner. I tried looking him up and got nowhere."
Gwen pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Still doesn't ring any bells. But I can ask around, if you want."
"You don't have to do that," Peter said quickly. "I know it's--"
"No, it's okay." She took a deep breath and nodded to herself. "If it'll help, I want to do it. I'll let you know."
"Okay. Thanks." Peter struggled awkwardly. There was still so much he wanted to say and ask, and Gwen was the closest he had to a real confidant, but even considering laying more of his baggage on her made him sick. "I'll talk to you later."
They separated, and Peter was sure she looked back, but he couldn't do the same.
Peter told himself not to go back right away. The smart thing would have been to stay home for a night or two, take a breather, sort himself out. He could work it out just like poring over a science project or a missing equation. So of course as soon as Aunt May went to bed Peter suited up and headed for Manhattan.
It was later than usual when he arrived, but there was still one floor lit up among the lab floors of Stark Tower and a window open. Peter gulped back the butterflies and hopped lightly onto the sill. "Hello?"
Bruce was at his desk, as always, hunched over his computer. He perked immediately at the sound of Peter's voice and turned, his face lighting up so brightly it gave Peter second-hand embarrassment. It felt good, though, making someone's night just by showing up. He climbed inside as Bruce moved to greet him.
"Peter!" Bruce stopped well within Peter's personal space and touched his neck with both hands, as if trying to get a good look at him despite the mask. "Are you all right? I'm glad you're here, but I didn't expect to see you so soon, after what Steve told us."
Peter suddenly wished he'd done a better job of eavesdropping, but that concern quickly faded beneath the pressure of Bruce's hands. Bruce had touched him a dozen times in the past several days, often around his shoulders and neck, but Peter's realization changed everything. Bruce liked touching him. He liked being touched. It was warm and welcoming and daunting, and it took a great deal of will power just to get his voice past his throat.
"I'm fine," said Peter. "I don't know what he told you, but it wasn't all that bad, really. Just a few nasty bumps and some smoke." His hands fidgeted at his sides. "Sorry I missed you."
"Don't worry about that--I'm just glad you're all right." Bruce gave the back of Peter's neck a squeeze. "Tony's upstairs. Do you want to come up with me, or should I go get him?"
He started to back off, his fingers slithering along the ridges crossing Peter's collar, but before he could get far Peter's hands moved on their own. He grabbed at Bruce, his fingers catching awkwardly in his shirt around his ribs. "No," he said sharply, and when Bruce stared in confusion, he winced. "No, that's okay, I...."
Peter gulped. He had no idea what he was doing but he couldn't let go. He wanted to know, even if it meant risking everything. He stretched his hands and pressed them into Bruce's sides gingerly, thinking that he could still play this off as a joke if he needed to. "I came here to see you," he finished.
Bruce blinked at him, his hands still poised against Peter's collar. The brightness faded quickly from his expression as he stared at the slots in Peter's mask, searching, maybe wary. He might have even held his breath for a moment as his eyes narrowed in intense scrutiny. Peter tensed beneath him. His heart pounded into his ears and he told himself to back off, to laugh, to do something--anything--to break the suddenly insufferable atmosphere. He had made a mistake. He had--
Bruce stretched his fingers in a slow, testing trace of the suit's shoulder seams. Peter's own fingers curled in response against Bruce's ribs. It was as if their bodies were coiling around each other like timid snakes, and then, impossibly, Bruce leaned closer. His hands slid back to Peter's neck and he tipped his head to press a little kiss to Peter's mask. Even through the fabric the gentle pressure of warm lips to his made him light-headed.
Bruce leaned back and laughed. "Did I miss?" he asked.
"No," Peter said quickly. "No, you...you got me all right."
Bruce laughed again, with all the pleased relief that was already running circles around Peter's stomach. "I never thought that you actually...." He shook his head and grinned openly as he slipped his fingertips under the lip of Peter's mask. "I'm so rusty I thought you were just teasing me."
"I kind of...was?" Peter prickled with goose bumps as Bruce tugged the spandex up over his jaw. "I wasn't sure that I was...that you...you know. Sorry."
"It's okay," said Bruce, and when his eyelids drooped happily Peter allowed himself to really see how handsome he was like this, all eager smiles and blushing cheeks. "I know."
Bruce kissed him again, and it felt so much better with their lips meeting properly. He started slow, soft and explorative as if each gentle kiss was his first. Peter was all too content letting him set the pace. His concerns from the night before faded and he thought that maybe kissing guys wasn't so different from kissing girls after all. As he gained confidence he slid his hands around Bruce's back and tugged him closer, their bodies slotting together. Even though it was disorienting at first to have a broad chest leaning into him, Peter overcame the new sensation quickly thanks to a tiny murmur of approval from Bruce.
But then Bruce started to push the mask higher. Peter tried to reach for it but his arms tangled with Bruce's and he had to resort to turning his head away. "Don't," he said, a thin thrill of panic coursing through him. "Leave it on."
Bruce grumbled in disappointment. "Don't I finally get to see you?"
Peter squirmed, tempted, but he had no idea how Bruce would react. Would he realize, just as Steve had, how young he really was? His stomach clenched guiltily but he couldn't bring himself to give up just yet. "Leave it on," he said again and, hoping to distract him, he pressed another, harder kiss to Bruce's lips. "You made me promise."
It did the trick, more so than Peter was prepared for; Bruce all but purred as he returned the deeper kiss. "So you were volunteering," he said, his voice lowering to an almost predatory murmur that rumbled into the pit of Peter's stomach.
When Peter remembered exactly what that conversation had been about, he tensed all over again. Suddenly the heat of Bruce's body leaning into him was overwhelming, and his feet shifted against the tile floor. They stumbled awkwardly and Bruce pulled back with a muttered curse.
"Sorry," Peter said involuntarily.
"No, you're--" Bruce extricated himself and looked over his shoulder. After a moment of searching he took Peter by the arm and led him toward a corner of the lab. "Over here."
Peter followed. His feet were lead weights and his brain was circling them somewhere up by the ceiling. "This is the one corner the cameras can't see," Bruce was saying, each word echoing off Peter's ears as if he were in the burning building again. Then Bruce pushed his back up against the wall and there was no helping it; a thin groan of dizzy arousal rippled out of him.
Bruce mumbled something in reply, but as he leaned back in, he paused suddenly. He felt out the bruise on the underside of Peter's jaw. "Oh, Peter."
"It's fine," Peter insisted. "It doesn't hurt."
Bruce kissed it better. His lips ghosted along Peter's jaw and then down his throat, tracing the tender flesh with care that bordered on adoration. His hands were not so gentle. His fingers worked beneath the mask, and though Peter flinched at first thinking he meant to dislodge it, Bruce was only interested in twisting his fingers in the hair at the back of Peter's scalp. He tugged, tipping Peter's head back against the wall.
It felt amazing. Peter clutched at Bruce's back, startled and a little intimidated by how easily his body was willing to surrender to Bruce's possessive strength. Five thick fingers and a dozen fleeting kisses were more than enough to heat his blood to boiling. When he couldn't take anymore he pulled against Bruce's grip--God that was even better--and demanded a proper, tongue-melting kiss.
Bruce murmured as they pulled apart. "Shh." When Peter tried to kiss him again he resisted, pressing his lips instead to Peter's ear. "We can go slow."
Bruce shifted his weight, and Peter realized then that he was trapped; Bruce couldn't match Peter's height, but he was broader, his body sturdy. When Peter stroked his back he could feel the muscles drawing tight beneath layers of skin. He wasn't a big guy but he had all the leverage--even with his abilities Peter wasn't sure he'd be able to throw him easily if he wanted to. It was more exciting than it should have been. His pulse hitched and throbbed into his groin as he squirmed between Bruce and the wall. Everything was moving too fast, but he was getting hard and he didn't want to stop.
"Fuck slow," Peter huffed. He yanked at Bruce's belt anxiously.
Bruce's chuckle emptied hotly against Peter's neck. "If only I'd met you ten years ago."
His hand was still tight at the back of Peter's scalp as he rocked into him for another kiss. The friction of his hips against Peter's cock put stars in his eyes. Peter groaned shamelessly into Bruce's mouth as he pulled and wriggled in a desperate attempt to get them closer together. He wanted that strength and that heat all around him, and he would have crawled right up inside Bruce if he could have.
"God, this suit," Bruce said abruptly. To Peter's disappointment he relinquished Peter's hair, but then his hands were on the move, massaging Peter's shoulders and chest, chasing the contours of the fabric across his lean body. "Your body in it is...exquisite."
"Exqui...oh yeah?" Peter slumped against the wall and tried to catch his breath, but Bruce's slow groping kept stealing it from him again. His mask was bunched and askew but he didn't try to fix it; he closed his eyes and focused on the stern fingers circling his pecs, gliding down his abdomen, dipping between his thighs--
Peter arched his back, senseless and eager, but Bruce diverted his attentions too soon. Instead of reaching for Peter's now aching erection he nudged Peter's knees further apart. When he leaned back in Peter felt a pulse of mixed arousal and apprehension seethe through him. No one had ever touched him like this. Even Bruce's normally mellow and even shy exterior had melted away for something raw and hungry. Bruce may have been trying to restrain it, but Peter could feel the need pulsing between them--more clearly than ever when Bruce pumped against his crotch.
"Oh shit," Peter gasped. His abdomen clenched and he bit his lip hard to keep from coming on the spot. His hands snapped around Bruce's biceps in search of stability. "Oh shit, what happened to slow?"
Bruce pressed a kiss to the point of his chin. "That was before I found this."
He grabbed Peter's ass and squeezed, his blissful sigh drowned out by Peter's startled groan. "If I had an ass like this, I'd probably wear spandex, too," he teased. "It's almost unreal."
"It's..." Peter shoved his shoulders into the wall at his back. He couldn't form coherent sentences. "Oh fuck."
"I've wanted to do this for a while," Bruce confessed in whisper, stroking and kneading Peter's perfect ass. "God, Peter, you have no idea, how long it's been--how much I've missed--you don't know what this means to me."
"What?" Peter tried to focus, but then Bruce kissed him again, his mouth hot and desperate, and he couldn't help but respond in kind. Feeling Bruce's cock hard against his own turned his brain to mud. The mere thought that someone as talented and intelligent as Bruce could want him with such ferocity seared away the last of Peter's inhibitions, and he spread his legs even further. When that wasn't enough he bent one knee and braced his foot against the wall, letting it stick. With the other also in place he could open himself fully to his eager partner, and Bruce took full advantage, worming greedily between his thighs.
It took Bruce a moment to realize that Peter was defying physics. When he did he pulled back and stared at Peter's feet while his hands continued to roam distractedly up and down his thighs. His brow furrowed. "How are you doing that?"
"Ah, you know." Peter shrugged. "Science."
Bruce's chuckle deepened into a moan as he settled in again. "Just when I thought I couldn't be more turned on by you."
Peter wrapped his arms around Bruce's shoulders as they met for another long kiss. When his hands shook he twisted them in Bruce's shirt and pulled, needing anchorage. He had no idea what he was doing anymore but he couldn't stop, helpless against the hormone-laced adrenaline racing through his system. He squeezed and sucked and writhed against the heated body pressing into him and couldn't understand how Bruce remained so steady, rocking him into the wall with slow, measured thrusts.
Bruce encouraged Peter's thighs to tighten around his hips and then reached for his ass again, clearly delighting in fondling it. "You're beautiful," Bruce mumbled, tracing Peter's tailbone and sliding down between his cheeks. "I could stay just like this all night."
Peter whined in frustration--his organs were churning and Bruce talking like that made him want to throw certain scientists across the room. "I couldn't," he blurted out, clutching at Bruce's shoulders, mouthing the point of his jaw. "I can't--keep going." He let one foot off the wall and shoved his heel into the small of Bruce's back, trying to urge him into heavier motion. "C'mon, Bruce. C'mon, please."
Bruce tried to answer, but then Peter jerked him into a needy kiss. His breath huffed out his nose as he shifted his weight, leaning into the strong leg wrapped around him. "Okay," he said when he was able to, amusement in his breathless voice. "Don't worry--I'll take care of you."
Bruce palmed him through the spandex. Even that much made Peter shudder, but then he began to stroke, the meat of his hand rubbing a smooth line along the underside of Peter's straining cock. It sent pleasure stuttering all through him, and he jerked, shoving his hips forward. "Oh fuck," he moaned, pawing at Bruce as each long caress set his nervous system on fire. "Oh fuck, don't stop."
"Shh," Bruce soothed, his other hand still tight and territorial against Peter's ass. He smothered Peter's mouth with his own, sucking out each deep sound of pleasure as he sped up.
It didn't take long. Peter was already nearly in pieces, and when Bruce's hand dipped lower to squeeze his balls it unraveled him completely. Climax wracked his long body and left him curled and quivering around his partner. For those brief moments there was only Bruce's strong hands, and Bruce's quiet breath in his ear, and pleasure flowing in and out of every extension of his weary body. He kept still for as long as he could as if that would help him savor it.
Bruce pressed little kisses to his slack lips. "Seems like you've been waiting for this as long as I have," he mumbled with approval.
He gave Peter's cock a gentle squeeze, but even that was too much for his oversensitive organ, and Peter quickly urged his hand back. "Ahh--wait. Wait."
Bruce hummed an apology and went back to stroking Peter's thigh instead. As they leaned together, Peter catching his breath and Bruce silently patient, a slow burn of emotion crept up the back of Peter's throat. He tried to swallow it down but the words were already easing onto his tongue. He wanted to tell Bruce the truth: that he'd never done this before with anyone let alone another guy; that he was awed and anxious in the face of Bruce's greater age and experience; that he was afraid of what would happen next. He wet his lips, but before he got the chance to say anything Bruce was there, kissing him eagerly. And that was a lot easier than saying the truth, so Peter let him.
Bruce took Peter's wrist and tugged his hand up. With his mask still askew Peter couldn't see what he was up to, but he definitely felt it when Bruce drew two of Peter's fingers into his mouth. He sucked on them slow and hard, lavishing with his tongue, sending a trickle of heat into even Peter's weary groin. When he seemed satisfied he moved on to the next two, then Peter's thumb, humming and almost slurping. But it wasn't until Peter heard a man's fly being opened that he figured out what was going on.
"You'll take care of me, too, won't you?" Bruce said close to his ear. His voice was husky and hopeful at once, as much a teenager as Peter. He nudged Peter's hand toward his open pants.
"I..." Peter's other hand clenched against the back of Bruce's neck. "I've never jerked off a guy before," he admitted.
Bruce made a quiet, surprised noise at the back of his throat. "Well, that's okay." He nuzzled Peter's cheek--Peter was sure he imagined the faint scrape of teeth. "You masturbate, don't you? It's the same thing."
"Not exactly the same...." Peter took in a deep breath. The thought that Bruce might be as desperate as he had been and merely hiding it spurred him past his nerves, and he slipped his hand down the front of Bruce's pants. Blind as he was, it took him a moment to work his fingers beneath the hem of Bruce's boxers, and another to steel his courage and take hold.
Bruce sighed heavily. Though he was tense his patience stayed true, and he very calmly adjusted their stance and position so that Peter had an easier time reaching. "Yes," he mumbled, and when Peter gave him a slow, testing squeeze, a shiver passed through him. "Yes, just like that."
Peter gulped as he slid his fingers up and down Bruce's cock. It was bigger than he'd expected, heavy and full in his palm, and so sensitive--Bruce twitched and groaned with every stroke. Feeling and hearing his reactions made Peter sweat all over again inside the confines of the suit. The fingers clenching against his ass were their own reward, but it was Bruce's hissing breath and hunching shoulders that excited Peter into picking up the pace. It thrilled him to know he could get Bruce off just as much as Bruce had him.
"How's that?" Peter tightened his grip, and his heart skipped when Bruce's hips stuttered in answer.
"God, those ridges," Bruce groaned. He pumped against Peter's hand eagerly. "It feels so good."
Peter licked his lips. "Just imagine if we put the new webbing on it," he said, gaining confidence all the time. "All wet at gooey..."
Bruce made a strangled sound and kissed Peter hungrily. His restraint was finally slipping, and with each squeeze of Peter's over-eager fingers his lips became more frantic, his breath sharper. He shoved his pants down further and grabbed Peter's hand, shaping it the way he wanted. "There," he panted, sliding his cock into the ring of spandex and slick rubber. "Hold it just like that--don't move." He rocked his hips back and forth to be sure of the depth and angle. "Don't move."
"Okay," Peter breathed. "Come on."
Bruce started slow but quickly picked up momentum. At first he kept Peter's wrist clasped, holding him steady as he fucked the loosely closed fist, but then his hand had better things to do. He tangled his fingers in Peter's hair again and pulled, demanding rather than seeking more lung-aching kisses. Peter didn't protest. His skin tingled with electricity as he welcomed Bruce against his body. He was granting someone he cared for pleasure, and judging by the vulgar noises seeping past their pressed lips, plenty of it. He'd never seen Bruce lose his composure and having him buck and gasp between his thighs excited him almost as much as when Bruce was groping him in earnest.
"Come on," Peter spurred him on, loving each tremor, each half-formed curse Bruce offered. He rubbed Bruce with his legs and pulled on his hair as he kissed him hard and messy. "Come on, come on."
Bruce bared his teeth, and a growl spilled from him that didn't quite sound human as his hips spasmed in sudden, all-consuming release. Peter squeezed the back of his neck but kept his other hand still until Bruce was spent and panting. When he finally did let go he hesitated only a moment before wiping his soiled fingers on the front of his suit. It was a mess anyway.
"Got any tips for getting jizz out of spandex?" he teased.
Bruce leaned into Peter, his shoulders hunched and taut as if he were still teetering on the edge of climax. "Wait," he gasped.
"Don't worry--I'm not going anywhere." Peter chuckled weakly. "Not sure I could stand if I--"
"Wait." Bruce turned his face against Peter's shoulder and braced both his hands to the wall. "Just stop, please, just wait."
Peter clapped his jaws shut. Something had changed and he realized that the tension in Bruce's frame wasn't lingering excitement after all. He was shaking. Frowning, Peter finally adjusted the mask slots to his eyes, but all he could see was the dim night lighting throughout the lab. "Are you okay?" he asked quietly.
Bruce had to take several deep breaths before he could answer. "Yeah. Just give me a minute, I..." He was pressed so close Peter could feel him gulp. "I need to get my heart rate down."
The fright in his tone sobered Peter completely. He shrank against the wall, uncertain of what to do. When a minute had passed and Bruce showed no signs of calming, he snuck his hand between them and gave Bruce's chest a gentle rub. Bruce sighed, which he took as permission to continue. With one hand still curled at the back of Bruce's neck he unbuttoned Bruce's shirt and pressed a slow massage into his chest and collar.
Gradually, Bruce calmed until he was able to straighten up. "Thank you," he said. "I'm all right."
Peter was still a little shaken himself but he tried not to let it show. "You got a heart condition?"
"Something like that." Bruce took in one last deep breath and smoothed his hair back. "It's not as bad as it used to be, but sometimes when I get over-stimulated, just thinking that things could go wrong makes it worse." He smiled wearily. "But I'm okay."
"Good." Peter plucked at his suit. "Because if you had a heart attack, all of this would be pretty hard to explain to a paramedic."
Bruce laughed and finally backed up enough that Peter was able to get both feet on the ground. Just as he'd suspected, his knees gave out almost immediately, and they stumbled against each other with more laughter. "There's a wash sink in the corner," said Bruce, "and a bathroom just across the hall, so you can clean up. No one else is on this floor this late."
"Okay. Thanks." Peter snuck a quick glance as Bruce tucked his dick back into his pants and then forced his wobbly legs to carry him to the bathroom.
Getting the stains out of the suit wasn't going to happen without some kind of detergent, so he satisfied himself with a quick rinse and dry. It wouldn't be comfortable getting home, but he had half a finished costume waiting, so retiring the current one soon was an easy option. Reminding himself that there wouldn't be cameras in the bathroom, he took his mask off to splash some water on his face.
His reflection was waiting for him. He stared at himself for a long moment, letting the water evaporating off his face give him cooling clarity. "Parker, what are you doing?" he muttered, too many sensations warring in his tight chest. He couldn't remember how everything had escalated so quickly and had no idea where to go next.
When he got back to the lab Bruce was sitting at his desk, leaning thoughtfully against his clasped hands. His eyes were glazed in the same helpless look Peter had fixed on himself a moment ago. It gave Peter a much needed boost of conviction, but he made sure his mask was secure before approaching. "Hey."
Bruce turned his chair and smiled awkwardly. "Hey."
"So, wow." Peter tried not to fidget. "I'm glad we cleared that up, at least."
Bruce laughed. His voice was still rough and it made Peter smile. "I suppose we did," he agreed.
Peter came closer and, feeling bold, sat himself down in Bruce's lap. He only got a cursory protest before Bruce gave up, leaning back in the chair with just his fingertips trailing over Peter's thighs. "The cameras can see us here, you know," he said.
"So?" Peter shrugged. "They can't fire me."
Bruce sighed. "What am I going to do with you, Peter?"
"I was just wondering the same thing." Peter poked gingerly at Bruce's chest. "Seriously, even. Because I have no idea what I'm doing."
"At least that makes two of us."
Knowing that they were both just as confused eased the worst of Peter's worries, but to be sure he tugged his mask up and kissed Bruce. Bruce's lips were lazy but they were welcoming. I can do this, Peter thought as he slid his hands to the back of Bruce's neck. He could be a hero, and do great science, and have a boyfriend--a great boyfriend who stayed holed up in a tower, who couldn't get hurt or be used against him. It all seemed pretty perfect, and Peter kissed Bruce eagerly as if it would convince him of the same.
Bruce hummed between them, and when Peter started to get a little too eager, nudged him back. "Now don't get riled up on me," he said. "I'm still catching my breath."
"Come on." Peter turned his mouth on Bruce's throat. "You said you could do this all night."
"That was before." Bruce sighed, but he did tip his chin back, inviting Peter's little kisses. "Give me a minute. I'm not exactly a teenager, you know."
"Well I am," retorted Peter. "So it's okay."
Bruce chuckled, but his humor trailed off at about the same time that Peter realized what he'd said. He went very still. "Wait. What?"
Peter swallowed back the instinct to curse, but there was nothing he could do about his flinch. "What?" he repeated innocently. He took Bruce by the jaw and kissed him, hoping it would be a worthy distraction.
It only worked for a moment; Bruce took Peter by the shoulders and urged him back. "What did you just say?"
"What?" Peter tensed defensively despite his attempts to remain calm. "I'm just joking around."
Bruce's hands flexed against Peter's shoulders and his eyes narrowed. "How old are you, Peter?"
Caught. Peter gulped, and that alone must have tipped Bruce off for certain. The air quickly grew thick, but before Bruce could get to separating them, Peter hopped to his feet on his own. "Does it matter?" he asked, more sharply than he'd intended.
"It matters now, yes." Bruce forced a laugh. "Please don't tell me you're in high school or something."
"Um...okay." Peter was quickly approaching panic. "I won't tell you that."
The color flooded out of Bruce's face. "Oh my god."
"Only for about another month," Peter added.
It didn't help. Bruce recoiled, his chair skidding back several inches. "You're--you're in high school?"
Peter instinctually pulled his mask back down as if it might offer protection. "So?"
"So?" Bruce started to get up but stopped himself, one hand gripping the edge of the desk. "I knew you were young but I figured you were at least in college, a grad student maybe, or--"
"What difference does it make?" Peter interrupted. "We've been working together all this time. You said yourself you were impressed that I--"
"That and this--" he waved between them "--are totally different, don't you understand? I thought you were an adult, not...not that I was just humping a minor, Jesus Christ, Peter!"
Peter shifted from foot to foot; he was boiling in his skin, mortified. "Hey," he retorted helplessly. "Seventeen is totally legal in New York."
Bruce rubbed his face with both hands. "My god, you're seventeen."
"So what?" Peter insisted. "You're really making a big deal out of nothing."
"I am old enough to be your father," Bruce groaned through his hands.
"But I...!" Peter threw his hands up in exasperation. "We're only talking about, what, a few years anyway, right? So, what, I'm old enough to save the entire flipping city from becoming lizardmen, but not quite old enough to get jerked off, is that it?"
"Stop it--stop it." Bruce finally made it to his feet. "I think you should go."
Peter stepped back. His shoulders drooped and his knees felt week, as if the air were rushing out of him. He understood but his heart was pounding, and watching Bruce turn away after everything they'd just done sent his lungs caving in. He hadn't wanted this. He was hurt and frustrated and it came out of him the only way he knew how.
"So that's it?" Peter said. "Just 'fuck off, get out of here?'"
Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose. "It's not like that. I just think--"
"Do you have any idea how shitty that is?" He throat stung and he hated himself for it. "You just--just feel me up like it's no big deal, and you know, an hour ago I wasn't even sure--"
"I wouldn't have done anything if I'd known you were a kid," Bruce interrupted. His face had gone from dead white to brightly flushed and he had to stop to wipe the sweat off his brow. "Damn it."
"I'm not a kid," Peter snapped. "And it's not my fault you never bothered to ask. It's not like I would have lied!"
"Enough, all right?" Bruce tried to rub the grimace out of his face, but his hands were trembling. "Just calm down."
"You calm down, old man." Peter shoved a desk chair out of his way. "You've got your blood pressure to worry about."
Bruce's eyes snapped to him, and all at once a stillness overtook and twisted his features. The intensity that had only minutes ago drawn Peter in was suddenly overwhelming and almost frightening. It shot under Peter's skin like an electric current, a swift and indescribable warning.
"Get out," Bruce snarled.
Peter retreated a step and started when his foot struck the desk chair he'd just shoved. His anger fled and there was only instinctual panic pulsing between his temples. "Bruce--"
"Get out." Bruce started toward him. "Get out!"
Peter's body reacted without him. Long before Bruce could have reached him he darted for the open window and leapt onto the sill. He turned back, an apology in his mouth, but there was something terrifying in Bruce's wild eyes, and every thought in his brain turned only to escape. He shot his webbing to the next building and fled.
Bruce slammed the window shut and turned away. Already he burned with shame, and when he scraped his arm across his mouth he could taste the sweat slicking his fevered goose bumps. His heart was wild in his ears but all he could think was stupid, stupid. He regretted every word and it made him sick to try and imagine Peter's face beneath the mask, the hurt and anger he must have felt. Then he remembered the situation he was in and everything crashed in and he was furious.
He was pacing and didn't notice when the door to the lab opened. A quiet tap of footsteps echoed in the empty space. "Bruce?"
Bruce turned, but when he saw it was only Tony, he went back to pacing. "What?"
Tony watched closely as he came closer. "Everything all right?"
"It's fine." Bruce avoided Tony's gaze as much as possible. "It's nothing--go away."
Tony made a quiet, irritated noise. "So what's the matter? Have a fight with your spider-boyfriend or something?"
The heat flared back into Bruce's face. "He's not--no. No, it's nothing like that. What do you want?"
He risked a glance. Tony was still watching him intently, perfectly calm, but there was something knowing in his expression that dug under Bruce's skin. He felt ill all over again and he almost asked Tony outright if he'd already watched the security feed.
"Nothing," Tony said with a shrug. "Pacing helps me think sometimes, too. So." He cocked his head to the side. "What are we working on?"
Bruce glared at him incredulously. Tony knew--he had to know. Tony knew everything. He wouldn't have come down otherwise. Bruce waited for Tony to say more, but when he didn't, his patience swiftly wore thin and the truth tumbled out of him.
"I'm wondering," Bruce huffed, "what I did that was so damn wrong."
Tony's eyebrows perked. "Come again?"
"I'm a scientist, for God's sake," he continued, pacing fasting. "I don't believe in karma. But then why is it? Why is it that every time I think that maybe I finally have something, it's--it's gone. I just don't understand."
"It's not karma," said Tony.
"Then why?" Bruce insisted. He was babbling and he didn't care. "It's not fair. He should have told me. He should have said, straight up--what the hell am I supposed to do now? I should never have come here. I'm so stupid--stupid!"
"Bruce." Tony leaned his hip against the nearest desk. "What's blue and lives in the ocean?"
Bruce was so thrown by the change of subjects he stopped to stare. "What?"
"It's a riddle," said Tony. "What's blue and lives in the ocean?"
"You asked me what was wrong and I'm trying to tell you," Bruce said incredulously. "Now you want to play games?"
"Come on, Bruce, I know you know this one."
Bruce smeared his hands over his face. It was too hard to think--his brain felt overly large in his skull, wringing all his rationality from it. "I don't know," he grumbled. "Um, fish."
Tony crossed his arms. "More specific, please."
"I'm not a zoologist!" Bruce shook his head and resumed prowling up and down the aisle. "A bluegill."
"That's fresh water."
"That blue fish," Bruce said, gesturing with his hands. "The blue and yellow one with the...you know, they're in every restaurant."
Tony shook his head. "I'll give you a hint--it's not a fish."
"Okay." Bruce took in a deep breath. He had to figure it out because Tony would be insufferable if he didn't, and in order to figure it out he had to think. "Okay. It's water."
Tony shook his head again. "Water is only alive in the metaphorical sense. And it's not really blue."
"You didn't say it couldn't be metaphorical."
"I'm saying it now."
"This is ridiculous," Bruce muttered, but he hadn't given up. "A whale. A blue whale."
Tony hooked an office chair with his foot and pulled it over. "Whales are gray. Come on, you're close."
Bruce licked his lips. "Coral?"
"Blue..." Bruce stopped pacing at last, his brow furrowed, his eyes narrowed and focused. "Blue, a blue..." He snapped his fingers. "A blue marlin!"
Tony snapped back. "Yes," he said, to Bruce's relief. "Yes, that's it. A blue marlin."
Bruce let out a sigh that was half weary laughter. "Tony," he said pointedly. "A blue marlin is a fish."
"So?" Tony turned the chair toward Bruce.
"You said it wasn't a fish."
"I don't even see how that's a riddle anyway." There was no point in arguing, so Bruce only shook his head and sank into the chair when Tony offered it to him. "So," he said. "What do I win?"
"You tell me." Tony fixed him with a serious look. "Are you all right?"
Bruce started to answer, but before he could get the words out he realized they weren't true. His heart rate had slowed from moments ago but it was still fluttering behind his ribs. His skin felt bloated and slick with cold sweat. When his gaze swerved left and right the room smeared and sharpened at once, swimming in and out of focus. They were all the warning signs he'd trained himself to identify before they happened, and they were ravaging him. He went cold all over again. "Oh my god." He looked to Tony. "Did you just...?"
"It works on hiccups, too," said Tony. "But seriously, Bruce: are you all right?"
"No." Bruce pressed his hand to his chest. He was shivering, fragile even, and his insides were devouring each other in shame and fright. "But I'm not about to...change." He leaned over his knees and thought he might be sick. "I'm all right."
Tony scooted closer along the desk. "You wanna tell me now what happened?"
Bruce licked his lips. He didn't want to, but he wasn't about to get into an argument with Tony, too. "Spider-Man was here," he admitted. "You were right--we had a fight. My god." His head sank into his hands as he remembered Peter fleeing through the open window. "I could have killed him."
"You didn't," Tony said immediately. "As far as I can tell, you didn't even come close. So don't get worked up over it. Your control is--"
"I don't have control," Bruce interrupted. "That's the part that..." Bruce grimaced and forced himself continue. "...frightens me. I really thought that I was getting a handle on it. That maybe I could control it. I was getting better--that's the only reason I agreed to come here in the first place. But I was wrong." Bruce pressed his eyes shut. "Nothing's changed."
Because he had almost given in, and not to bullets or explosions. Not to himself willingly to face a mortal threat. He had almost lost everything he'd worked for over a stupid fight with a horny teenager.
"That's bullshit," Tony said, and Bruce envied him, that he could make it sound that easy. "Come on, Bruce, did I not just talk you down from a Hulk-out, here? You think that would have worked a year ago? A few weeks ago? Give me some credit; being here has been good for you." He pushed away from the desk and smacked Bruce's shoulder. "Come on. Let's go upstairs. We'll make some coffee; we'll talk it out."
Bruce allowed himself to be prodded upright, but once on his feet he felt a tremor pass through him. "Wait." He took Tony's arm. "In my desk, bottom drawer." He stared at the floor. "I have sedatives prepared."
"I thought you didn't like taking those," said Tony.
"I don't. But I have to do something. It's..." Bruce took a deep breath and rubbed his chest. "He's still right here."
Tony reached behind him and pulled a loaded hypodermic out of his belt. "Can it wait until we're upstairs? I'm not the best carrier."
Bruce smiled wearily, but then his attention was drawn to Tony's hand and the circlet on his wrist: the Iron Man bracers. He gulped. "You were watching, weren't you?" he asked. "Through the security camera? You knew I was in trouble."
Tony gave him a tug toward the exit. "It was JARVIS," he said. "When you moved in, I asked him to monitor the stress levels in your voice. He let me know something was up." He cocked an eye. "Too creepy?"
Bruce wasn't sure if he should have been relieved; as humiliating as it would have been to know Tony watched the entire encounter, at least it would have saved Bruce from having to recount it. "No, it's fine." He let Tony lead him out of the lab. "Thank you, Tony. I mean it."
As soon as Peter reached home, he yanked his suit off and headed straight for the shower. He hoped that the hot water would sear away the imprints of hands and lips, and it did, but then all he could think about were Bruce's piercing, angry eyes. He couldn't figure out what had happened and how it had turned so quickly. It was unfair and humiliating, and Peter cycled continuously between anger, shame, and confusion as he scrubbed himself clean and finally just rested against the tile, trying to think.
It was Aunt May knocking on the door almost half an hour later that finally chased him out. He didn't bother to dry his hair, just yanked on a T-shirt and boxers and crawled into bed. Though exhausted, he knew he wouldn't be able to sleep, and was almost relieved to hear his phone chime with a saved message.
Peter stretched as best he could to get the phone without leaving the bed. He had a voicemail from Gwen, asking that he call back. Several minutes of nauseous deliberation later, he dialed her number. She picked up on the third ring and sounded sleepy.
"Hey, Peter." He could hear her smothering a yawn. "Were you out saving the world again?"
Peter tried to gulp down the lump in his throat. "Yeah, something like that. You called?"
"Uh-huh. I went by the Oscorp building after school today. Dr. Wessler was there--he recognized the name Bruce Banner."
Peter's heart beat faster as he burrowed into his sheets. He suddenly wasn't sure he wanted to hear. "What'd he say?"
"Not much," said Gwen. "He didn't know him personally." Peter he could hear her rummaging about. "But he did say Dr. Banner used to be top in the field of radiation studies. Umm...gamma radiation, to be exact."
"Radiation," Peter echoed, his skin prickling.
"Yeah." Gwen lowered her voice. "Is that why you asked me about him? Does he have something to do with the spider that bit you?"
Peter scraped the back of his hand over his mouth. "I don't know," he said, and he felt emotion creeping up on him again. "Honestly, Gwen, I don't know anything right now. It's...it's just all so stupid. I'm an idiot."
"Peter? Are you okay?"
Her concern was sincere. Peter squeezed his eyes shut, hating the way her gentle voice dove into him and made everything make even less sense. He wanted nothing more than to curl up in a cocoon of old quilts and be alone, without having to worry about the beautiful girl with the dead dad, or the tower hermit with warm hands. He just wanted to sleep.
"Yeah," Peter forced out. "Sorry--I'm fine. It's just been one of those days."
Gwen was quiet for a moment. "There's one more thing, if you up for it."
"Yeah, yeah." With a deep breath Peter had his composure again. "What is it?"
"Dr. Wessler said the reason no one knows much about Bruce Banner is because he's been dead for years," said Gwen. "He was killed in a lab accident. It must have been serious because the feds came to Oscorp and asked around."
"Dead?" Peter tried to take it all in and felt dizzy. "Wait--Gwen. You didn't tell this doctor why you were asking, did you?"
"Of course not. I made up some story about hearing the name from Dr. Connors. But Peter." Gwen hesitated. "Be careful, okay? Whoever this guy is--"
"I know," said Peter. He was exhausted and he didn't want to talk about Bruce anymore--didn't even want to think about him. "Gwen, thank you. For doing this. But please, don't go back there, all right?" He scraped his hand over his face. "I've caused enough trouble for you already, and I don't want you mixed up in this. I'm sorry you are even this much."
"I'm okay," Gwen insisted. "But don't worry; I've had enough of Oscorp to last me a long time."
"I'm sorry." Peter shook his head. "Sorry--I gotta go. I'll see you at school."
Peter hung up and let his phone drop to the floor. As he curled up under the blankets, trying to sleep, he couldn't help but repeat Gwen's words over and over in his head. Bruce specialized in radiation studies--he had sought Connors out because of the spiders. Something in his research had gone wrong. The world thought he was dead, so he stayed holed up in Stark Tower doing pet projects for teen vigilantes. It all made a weird kind of sense, but Peter knew he was still missing something. There had to be one more thing that tied it all together.
Peter slept only in short bouts of exhaustion. When his alarm went off he got up and prepared for school as if it were any other day. He saw Gwen in the hall and gave her a smile to show he was all right, but all through first period his stomach twisted and lurched. He couldn't concentrate on anything past Bruce and the conversations they'd had over the past several nights.
"Mutating human genes," Bruce had said while they bonded over junk food and spider goo. "Reversing those mutations. Uncontrollable outside factors and their effect on the human genome."
Peter skipped the rest of school. With Aunt May at work he returned home and, after getting a few suggestions from Yahoo Answers, set about cleaning his suit. It was embarrassing work but his brain was still spinning with questions to distract him. When he finished he moved onto his half-completed spare suit, piecing it together with what was left of his last purchase of spandex. He tried not to think about how much more durable it might have been with Bruce's augments.
As Peter ate lunch in his room, he retrieved the small glass vial from the deepest drawer of his desk. The spider inside had long since died but its body was still well preserved, along with its vibrant colors. Peter turned it gently over in his palm. He had given up wondering about its strange origin and the inexplicable nature of the powers it had granted him; none of that mattered as long as he was able to continue his work. But that was before Bruce.
"Come on, Parker," Peter muttered to himself as he reached for his backpack. "Idiot or not, you can't ignore this chance."
Bruce rolled over and looked to his desk clock: just after 1:00pm. He groaned. "At least the sedatives work," he grumbled as he dragged himself out of bed.
Bruce took his time. By then Tony and Pepper would have left on their various business ventures and the tower scientists would be filling the labs below, leaving him to work in his private rooms in peace. He didn't feel particularly up to it. Though well rested he still felt hazy at the edges, as if his skin were too thick for his body. He pulled a bathrobe on and was contemplating lunch when JARVIS alerted him.
"Dr. Banner," he said through Bruce's laptop. He still wasn't quite used to JARVIS ringing him up so casually in his own room. "Captain Rogers is requesting to be patched through to your private line."
Bruce slumped into the desk chair. "I have a private line?"
"All right, then." Bruce had a bad feeling about it, but he couldn't very well refuse. "Put him through."
A window popped up on the screen displaying Steve's number and an audio readout. "Steve," Bruce greeted. "What can I do for you?"
"Hey, Bruce," said Steve. "Sorry about this, but I just got a call from our mutual spider-friend, and I promised I'd ask you."
Bruce's heart gave a thud; he was glad they weren't on a video call. "What is it?"
"He wants to talk to you. If I give you his number, will you call him? He was really insistent."
Bruce rubbed his eyes and tried to think of a reason to refuse, but he had known this conversation was coming. He just hadn't expected it to be so soon. "All right," he said. "I'll call."
Steve gave him the number and then asked, "Is everything all right? The kid's not giving you trouble, is he?"
"No," Bruce said quickly. "We're fine. Thanks, Steve."
For several minutes after hanging up Bruce remained in the chair, just staring at the laptop monitor. It was not unlike being in high school, he thought, fretting over a phone call. He told himself he was being childish a dozen times before finally dialing the number. It picked up on the first ring.
"Bruce?" Peter sighed. "Hey. Um, thanks for calling."
Bruce tightened his robe and then felt foolish for it. "Yes. Well. I figured it would be immature not to. I'm sure you want to talk."
"Yeah. Could you maybe...open a window and wave or something?"
Bruce looked to the window and frowned. "You're outside?"
"I assumed you wouldn't be in the lab during the day," said Peter. "But still somewhere in the tower. So...a little help?"
Bruce moved to the window and lifted the blinds. He winced against the daylight, and as soon as he had wrestled the window open Peter said, "Ah, there you are. Would you mind moving to the side?"
Bruce wanted to protest, but it was a little late by then. He did as asked. "What are you going to--"
A pair of web shots smacked into the upper sill, and a moment later a blur of blue and red streaked through the opening and into Bruce's bedroom. Peter tucked and rolled across the carpet until he was halted by the far wall with an impressive thud.
"Jesus." Bruce swiftly shut the windows and the blinds. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," said Peter. He had landed against the wall on all fours, and remained stuck in place almost a foot above the ground before dropping to his feet. He straightened and loosened the backpack that was strapped to his chest, letting it rest on the floor. "Sorry about the dramatic entrance. I wanted to get in fast before anyone saw me, it being broad daylight and all." He glanced around the room. "You're alone in here, right?"
"Yes." Bruce moved to the laptop, hanging up on his end of the call. "Tony and Ms. Potts are both out on business, and there aren't any workers scheduled up here for today, so...yes. We're alone."
Bruce turned to face him again and there paused awkwardly. Now that he knew the truth it was so obvious it was almost painful. Peter was tall and toned but he was still gangly, still growing into his skin. His tiny fidgets and downturned head betrayed his youth so well Bruce could have kicked himself for not catching on sooner.
"Listen," said Peter, but then he had to pause for a deep breath before he could get the rest out. "I want to apologize. You were right--I should have said something." After another moment of fidgeting he sat himself down on the edge of the bed. "It's just, before, it never came up and didn't seem to matter anyway. And last night..." He scraped his feet against the floor. "I thought about telling you, but by then we were making out, and it felt good. I didn't want you to stop."
Bruce's mouth went dry. As he rubbed his jaw he couldn't help but look to Peter's hands, curling and uncurling, the spandex making little ridges at his knuckles. He shook his head as if it might clear the smog still whirling around his brain.
"So, um. That was my bad. Probably." Peter shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry."
"No. I mean, it's okay." Bruce felt disturbingly like a teenager himself as he took a seat next to Peter on the bed. "You were right, too--I never asked." He ducked into his shoulders. Peter wouldn't understand the significance but he had to say it anyway. "And I'm sorry that I lost my temper. That wasn't...like me."
"Yeah, I know." Peter chuckled weakly. "Honestly, you were a little scary."
Bruce winced. "I've been told that before. It's one of the reasons I prefer to work alone."
"They've got classes for that," Peter teased. "Anger management. It's not good for your heart to be that wound up even without a condition."
"No." Bruce looked to the floor. "No, it isn't."
They both quieted awkwardly again. As Bruce struggled to think of something to say his chest tightened with an almost lonely sensation. He missed Peter already. All their harmless flirting, all the selfish fantasies he'd privately indulged in had been seared away. Until last night he had never thought they would culminate in anything anyway, but they had been his to savor in a world that offered him few outlets. A deep and shameful part of him was even angry at Peter for taking that away from him.
"What happens now?" Peter asked carefully. "If you don't want me back, I get it, but I've really liked coming here."
"And I've liked having you," Bruce admitted. "It's been a nice distraction."
"We could just pretend nothing happened. Couldn't we?"
"I don't know." Even just having Peter beside him reminded him too much of long arms wrapped around his shoulders, welcoming him into a warm body and panting breath. It made him eager and bitter at once and he didn't know what to do with himself. "I don't know, Peter. I might not even be here much longer."
"What?" Peter straightened. "Why? Where are you going?"
"My situation with Tony was never meant to be permanent," Bruce went on. It was intimidating having the wide black eyes of the Spider-Man mask fixed on him, but he was glad not to have to face Peter directly. "He invited me here so that I could use his equipment for my work, but I've already done all that I can. I hate the city." He glanced to the window and the lights blaring beyond the glass. "It's time I moved on."
Peter stared; Bruce could feel his body drawing tight, and it infected him with anxiety. "You're full of shit," Peter blurted out. He jumped to his feet. "A scientist like you is just going to walk out of the best lab in the country? Turn down free reign of Stark Tower? You'd have to be insane."
"You don't understand," said Bruce.
"I understand that you didn't say one word about jumping ship before last night. If you don't want me to come back you can just say so. Maybe you have twenty years on me but I'm not an idiot, all right?"
Bruce shook his head. The last thing he wanted was to get into another argument and he took a deep breath before speaking, to be sure that he would say exactly what he meant. "I'm not making up excuses. What I'm telling you is the truth. My situation is complicated."
"Your situation of being legally dead, you mean?" said Peter.
Bruce leaned back. "What?"
"I finally figured it out," Peter went on, though he didn't sound as confident as he was trying to be. "I heard you were in an accident--everyone thinks you're dead."
Bruce's hands fisted in the bed sheets, and he had to concentrate to keep each breath slow and even. "Who told you?"
"It doesn't matter."
"It does matter--there are people looking for me." Bruce shifted forward to the edge of the bed. "Did you tell anyone that I'm here?"
Peter's body language gave him away before he spoke. "No one you need to worry about," he said. "Trust me, Bruce, I'm the last person who would ever turn you in. Remember?"
Bruce shook his head again. He wanted to run. He had already lost his temper with Peter once and he wasn't sure he could forgive himself if it happened again, even over something as serious as his location being broadcasted. When he closed his eyes he remembered Tony prattling in his ear and it somehow made him calmer. "I do trust you," he said. "I just have to be careful. There's a lot you don't know about me, Peter."
"I know." Peter shifted his weight from foot to foot and at last headed for his discarded backpack. "That's the other reason I came to talk to you."
Bruce felt a prickling of apprehension. "What is it?"
Peter took a small glass vial out of the pack and tossed it to Bruce. "Do you know what this is?"
Bruce caught it, but he had to retrieve his glasses from the bedside table before he was able to get a good enough look at the contents: a large red and blue spider. "I've never seen a spider like this before," he said. "But then, I'm not an expert." He glanced between the specimen and Peter and caught on. "This is one of Oscorp's spiders--the ones that spin their silk."
"Yeah." Peter moved in front of him again. "The first time I went to Oscorp it kind stowed away with me. I didn't steal it. Not on purpose, anyway."
Bruce was about to ask if that was how he was managing to harvest the silk, but a gentle shake to the vial showed that the spider was dead. "If I'm remembering correctly, these spiders have been irradiated," he said. "It's not safe for you to have it, even if it's dead."
"There's not much it can do to me it hasn't already," Peter said. He took a deep breath. "It bit me."
"It bit you?"
"And it changed me," Peter continued. "It's the reason I can do all this hero stuff--it made me stronger, faster, even more flexible somehow. I know it sounds crazy but it gave me super powers. That's how I can do this."
Peter crouched down and then jumped, summersaulting backwards in mid-air to land on all floors against the ceiling. Bruce had had seen his stick-trick a few times but he was still taken aback, and he gaped openly as Peter crawled across the ceiling and then hung from his feet just to prove his point. It was fascinating and for the moment Bruce forgot all the strife that had led to this moment. He didn't even bother to try figuring it out for himself, simply asking, "How are you doing that?"
"I honestly don't know." Peter dropped and landed on his splayed fingertips. His balance was nearly perfect. Once he was upright again he faced Bruce with full seriousness. "I was hoping you'd help me figure that part out."
"Me?" Bruce took another look at the spider in his hands and licked his lips. "I don't know..."
"You said your field is mutant genes," Peter insisted, stepping closer. "Mutations caused by radiation. That's what you meant when you said you and Dr. Connors were in a similar field, wasn't it? Which means you could, you know, study me, maybe. Tell me how this happened and if it's permanent."
"Slow down," said Bruce. His pulse was already faster than he would have liked and he didn't want to be drawn in by Peter's momentum. "You're really saying that irradiated spider venom gave you the ability to climb walls?"
"I know, I know. But it's the truth." Peter pulled his gloves off and tossed them roughly in the direction of his backpack. "Here--give me your hands."
Bruce's mouth went dry again. He placed the vial on the table behind him and turned back, uncertain what to expect. As he lifted his hands it occurred to him that he had never seen Peter's hands exposed--or any part of him except for the lower half of his face. It was oddly intimidating but he pressed his palms flat to Peter's all the same. At first he felt nothing, and he was about to ask Peter what he was supposed to be waiting for, but then something tickled his weather-worn callouses. When he tried to pull his hands back, Peter's came with them, and wouldn't release even though his fingers were straight and flat.
"It tickles," Bruce said, flexing his hands so he could feel Peter's skin gently pulling. It might not have been the tactful reaction but he couldn't help when fascination made him grin. "And you can do that through the spandex? I suppose it helps that the material is porous." He drew Peter's hands closer. "It's unbelievable. The spider venom actually overwrote parts of your DNA to give you scopulae? Is it just your hands and feet or is it all over?"
"Um, just hands and feet, as far as I know," said Peter. "I haven't tried anything else. It's mostly involuntary."
"That's...extraordinary." Bruce gave his hands a gentle shake, and Peter released him. He then clasped Peter's hands from below and rubbed his thumbs experimentally against the center of his palms, testing to see if he could feel the tiny hairs. "I'm wishing I had my microscope."
Bruce lifted his head, and though Peter was still hidden beneath the mask, he could sense the change in him. Peter was tense and almost breathless, and Bruce quickly sobered. He had to remind himself he was dealing with more than a science experiment. "What do you need from me?"
"I don't know," said Peter. His fingers curled tentatively against Bruce's. "But I want to understand what's happening to me, and you're the only one I can ask." He huffed out a sigh as if trying to make light, but Bruce could hear the thread of frustration beneath. "And not just about the spider stuff, either."
Bruce swallowed. He understood what Peter was feeling, and it put fresh guilt in his stomach. Not everyone had to endure the bitterness and fear of having a rage monster under their skin, but he remembered almost too well what it was like being a gangly teenager on the edge of self-actualization. He shoved aside his selfish anxieties and twisted his wrists so he could grip Peter's hands properly. "Was that your first time?" he asked gently, trying not to remember the events in too much detail, for his heart's sake. "Being...physical with another man?"
Peter squirmed uncomfortably. "First time past second base at all," he replied. "I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I'm kind of surprised you didn't throw me off halfway through."
Bruce chuckled and was sure he was blushing; so much for not reminiscing. "You were fine," he said. "More than fine."
The thread of eagerness under his voice was oddly infectious. "Yes," said Bruce. He wasn't sure if it was right to encourage Peter, but he wasn't about to discourage him, either. "I certainly couldn't tell."
"Good." Peter laughed. "Because I totally need that on top of everything else: to be bad in bed."
Bruce laughed with him even though his chest felt tight. "So much for pretending it didn't happen."
Peter's hands flexed against his. "Is it..." He shrugged. "Is it really that bad, even?"
Bruce sighed. "Peter."
"I don't want to start another fight," he said quickly. "But honestly, now that the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, does it even matter that much?" He let go of Bruce's hands and instead touched his chest. "I'm a teenager; I'm not toxic."
"Actually, you're potentially radioactive," Bruce corrected. He took Peter's waist almost without thinking. "But I guess you're not the only one."
"Oh?" Peter tugged at Bruce's bathrobe. "Are you glowing under there?"
Bruce blushed again, but before he could urge them apart, Peter leaned closer. "Seriously, Bruce," he said. "Why does it matter?"
Bruce wanted to answer. Just because was at the top of his hastily crafted list of reasons, but he didn't make it even that far. Peter was warm and in his arms and maybe it didn't matter as much as he thought it did. He shook his head, trying to remain rational, but then Peter tilted his head, and it was too much to resist. He stayed still and let Peter kiss him.
It was strange, through the mask. He could feel the soft texture of the rubber against his lips, and though he never would have considered himself a man of many kinks, he had to admit that it excited him. When Peter's hands pressed into his chest he imagined what it would feel like if they were to stick to his skin. The thought made him shiver, and he kissed Peter back, even becoming bold enough to flick the tip of his tongue against the ridges.
Peter reached for his mask. He got it just over his mouth before Bruce stopped him. "Leave it on," said Bruce. It was selfish, and stupid, and he wasn't sure he could go through with it if he saw Peter's face and fully appreciated the gap between them. "You promised."
Peter laughed breathlessly and leaned into him. A feeling of defiance overwhelmed Bruce. He had something here and he suddenly couldn't think of a good enough reason to let it go--not Peter, not Tony and his tower, not the progress he'd made. One stupid fight meant nothing and he could still control himself. He was here for a reason that meant more to him than the breach of social propriety that was having a crush on a stubborn teenager.
"Okay," said Bruce. He rubbed Peter's back encouragingly. "I'll help you however I can. I'm not going anywhere just yet."
"Good." Peter licked his lips. "Does that mean we...?"
"One thing at a time." Bruce urged him back. Part of him would have been happy to repeat last night, but focusing was more important. "I'll take a sample of your blood for analysis," he said as he led Peter into the next room where his personal kits and equipment were. "And I'll hold onto that spider of yours for a while, if you don't mind. Though I'm not sure how much I'll be able to learn from it, considering it's been dead for some time."
Peter watched him pull a syringe out of his satchel. "What if you had a live one?" he said.
"That would be a huge help." Bruce pulled a pair of chairs together and motioned for Peter to sit down while he prepared the needle. "With a live one I could observe the amount of radiation they give off, maybe even get a sample of the venom. It might be the only way to know for sure what its capabilities for mutation are."
Peter sat down and rolled his sleeve up. He remained quiet while Bruce swabbed the inside of his arm with alcohol. It took Bruce a moment to really catch on.
"Don't get any ideas," Bruce warned.
"There's only one way to get a live one," said Peter.
"No." Bruce met his gaze seriously--or at least, as much as he could through the mask. "I know how you feel but it's not worth the risk. We'll make do with what we have. All right?"
Peter frowned, but he nodded. "All right."
Bruce took his blood and then immediately began setting up a workstation. "I might have to take a trip downstairs to get a proper analysis done," he said to himself. "Without letting the whole lab find out where it came from. You don't mind if I bring Tony in on this, do you?"
"Of course not." Peter poked at the Band-Aid on his arm a few times before pulling his sleeve back down. "I'd still like to meet him sometime. Unless..." He squirmed. "Does he know? About...us?"
Bruce grimaced. "I didn't give him the details, but I'm sure he'll figure it out eventually. I'll handle it." He flashed Peter a sympathetic smile. "You just focus on you for a while, all right?"
"Yeah." Peter tugged his mask down. "I guess I should go."
Bruce walked him back to the bedroom window and opened it. "I'll get started right away," he said. "Well, after I clean up a little. Now that I have your number, I can call you once I learn something."
"Okay, great." Peter tugged his backpack on. "Take good care of my spider, okay? I know she's already dead and everything, but...you know." He shrugged. "Sentimental value."
"I understand," said Bruce. "I will." He took Peter's hand and gave it a squeeze. "I do know what you're going through, believe it or not. And we're going to figure it out together, I promise."
Peter gripped Bruce's hand in both of his. "Thank you."
As Peter sailed away, Bruce turned back inside and picked the glass vial off the table. "Spider venom," he murmured to himself as he turned it back and forth. It seemed ridiculous, but he was grateful that he had such an unusual puzzle to keep him occupied.
"Don't get any ideas," Peter said to himself. "Right."
The sun had just set, and inside the Oscorp building only a handle of windows glowed with light as the last of the scientists and reconstruction workers retired for the night. Peter crouched on an opposite rooftop and watched as they flickered off, one by one, until only emergency lights in the stairwells remained. He had dressed in black sweats and a ski mask over his usual costume, rendering him almost invisible against the darkened skyline. It made him sick to his stomach, but the last thing he wanted was to be recognized for what he was about to do.
The Oscorp building was still undergoing construction. After Dr. Connor's attack on the city there had been a number of lawsuits and investigations conducted that had slowed the progress, and the upper levels where Dr. Connor's lab had been wouldn't be in use except for the workers. There wouldn't be anyone afterhours, and hopefully, minimal security. It was the best chance Peter had or would have, as far as he knew.
He couldn't wait. His meeting with Bruce that morning had gone better than expected, but he couldn't shake the feeling that Bruce had just been trying to appease him with promises; any day he could go to the tower and find Bruce gone, his chance of having his questions answered with him. If a blood sample wasn't going to be enough Peter needed to have something else to turn to while there was time.
"Oscorp has hundreds of those things; they won't miss one," Peter mumbled, working himself up to it. "I'll get in, get one, get out. Easy peasy. They owe me, anyway." He shifted forward on the ledge. "It'll be fine. Totally fine."
Peter waited a few minutes more, watching the lights flick on and off in various rooms as security made their rounds. Finally he found his nerve. "Come on, Parker. No more stalling. Let's get this over with."
A few web swings later and Peter was on the roof. The construction wasn't very far along, to his eye, and he could still easily identify every crack for how it had been made. The stains had washed away, at least. Peter did his best not to look as he crept along the construction equipment and dove beneath one of the exterior cameras. From there he glanced out over the roof, taking note of the crane on one end, and what looked like a fresh Oscorp sign mostly covered in thick tarps just waited to be hoisted.
The heating system was always a viable point of entry. Peter didn't like the idea of navigating down several floors via the air ducts, but at least it meant not having to dodge cameras. The weather was mild enough that there wouldn't be a need for much air flow, either. "More like a rat than a spider," Peter grumbled as he climbed up the side of the wall and nudged the security camera just far enough off its path that the ventilation shaft wouldn't be caught. "But it'll have to do."
The vent was cramped, but Peter made the most of it. Slowly and patiently he worked his way down the floors, slipping out of hiding in supply rooms and bathrooms when he needed to for a breath of air and to get his bearings. He hadn't anticipated how hot and how chaffing it would be in two layers of costume and he could feel sweat trickling down his spine.
Several times he wondered what Bruce would say when he showed up with his illegally earned prize, only to argue himself into continuing. Bruce may have claimed to understand, but he wasn't the super-powered mutant in need of answers.
When Peter reached the sixty-second floor his real work began. Using a pry bar from his backpack, he opened up the ceiling panels closest to the hallway exit and poked his head down, taking stock of the nearby cameras. After a brief duck into the ceiling to locate and gently reposition the one facing the door, he dropped down and slipped into the exterior hall.
The city was glimmering. Peter let the familiarity of New York's skyline settle his thoughts for a moment before continuing on. He crawled along the ceiling, his backpack against his chest, avoiding and adjusting cameras as necessary. The hair on the back of his neck prickled as he traced the route he had taken before, all the way to the biocable development lab.
Peter was fairly certain that after having one of their lead scientists go rogue Oscorp would have changed the security code for the lab, and decided it was safer not to attempt the one he remembered. Instead he resorted to the trusty pry bar, opening up the ceiling just beyond the door. It took more time and involved more noise than he would have liked, and a few times he stopped to listen up and down the hall for an approaching guard. Hearing nothing, he continued, until he was back in the ceiling. After getting through another set of panels he dropped down into the lab.
Everything was just as he had last seen it. Machines lined the walls, weaving and twisting the spiders' silk into threads, preparing the cartridges. Peter ran his fingertips over a line of finished products and told himself very sternly that he wasn't going to take any. He crept across the room on the balls of his feet, touching nothing else until he reached the far door. "Here we go," he murmured, and with a deep breath he stepped inside.
It wasn't the same as entering the first time. Experience tempered the awe he had first felt and left him breathless and even wary. He watched the spiders scurry up and down their webs and again thought of Bruce's disapproval. It was too late to back down. Peter pulled a plastic container out of his backpack and moved closer. "I'm going to remember to give you bugs this time," he promised as he used the lid to usher one of the spiders inside.
As soon as he closed the lid, the spiders began to buzz. Peter held very still, determined not to repeat his previous mistake, but it was then that he heard what had set them off: footsteps hurrying across the lab. The door handle twisted and Peter had nowhere to go but up.
A flashlight beam streaked across the chamber, sending the spiders racing away. Peter ducked as high as he could into the ceiling corner as a security guard entered and looked around. "I don't see anything," the man called over his shoulder.
"I know someone's here," replied a second voice. "Something set off the pressure sensor in the ceiling duct."
"Ceiling," the first guard repeated thoughtfully, and Peter could only watch with mounting panic as the flashlight beam crawled higher up the wall.
Peter acted before it reached him. Without giving himself time to second guess, he pounced, sealing his palms to the wall just above the doorway so that he could swing his knees into the guard's chest and send him sailing backwards. He had hoped that the second guard was close by and would be toppled with his friend, but no such luck: not only was he fast enough to dodge out of the way, a third guard was already entering from the hall. Peter remembered just in time not to use his webbing, instead simply throwing himself at the second guard before he could draw his gun. The impact was enough to drop the man, and as soon as he was on his back Peter moved on, kicking the last guard to the side. He dashed into the hall.
"Security breach!" one of the man hollered into a radio. "Sixty-two, west corridor!"
"Get off sixty-two," Peter said under his breath as he ran past the lab door he had used on the way in. "Get off sixty-two, get--"
The stairwell door opened, and another security guard emerged. Peter tackled him without hesitation and bolted up the stairs. He had no idea how many guards were in the building, but he had glimpsed firearms on each of them, and they were well organized enough that he could expect to be cut off if he continued up the stairwell. After only two floors he abandoned it, instead turning his attention to the service elevator. Once he managed to wedge his fingers between the doors he had no trouble shoving them apart.
"This is an 'I told you so' moment, right here," Peter grumbled as he began climbing the elevator cable. He could hear sirens blare to life in the surrounding hallways and labs. "If I get arrested, I'll never hear the end of it."
Peter climbed hand-over hand for the next ten stories. The web would have been faster, but having already been discovered in the biocable lab he didn't want to leave any more evidence of his identity hanging around. It might have already been a wasted effort. He struggled to remain focused despite his pounding heart and the increasing commotion from the floors he was passing.
The service elevator seemed to lead all the way to the roof. Peter could have kicked himself for not thinking of it earlier, only to remember that he had on the way over, and dismissed it assuming the guards would be using the elevators. He paused, glancing below him where the elevator had remained during his entire climb. Security ought to have figured out where he was by then, but still there had been no attempt to truly halt him. It made him nervous.
He reached the top, and made sure his backpack was secure before leaping to the door. With his feet stuck in place he slipped his fingertips into the cracks and pulled, prying the doors apart. He only got six inches when the barrel of a gun fit through the opening and pointed directly at his chest.
"Don't move," said a voice on the other side.
Peter froze. The exterior lights were on, making blurred silhouettes of the half-dozen guards watching him with guns drawn. "Definitely an 'I told you so' moment," he said to himself.
"Come out of there with your hands up," the lead guard ordered.
"Okay, okay. Don't shoot--I'm not armed." Peter shifted his feet closer to the door edges as he tensed, hastily constructing a plan. "But could someone give me a hand with these doors? They're a lot harder to open than they look."
The guard motioned two of his peers closer. They holstered their guns so they could take hold of the doors, and Peter faked a lot of strain as the opening slowly widened. As soon as there was enough space for him to pass through he propelled himself through and kicked with both feet, toppling the two men. Shouts rang out but by then Peter was already dropping to the ground. A quick sweep kick felled the remaining guards. Before any could regain their footing Peter bolted.
The edge wasn't far. Even when the guards started shooting it was close enough, and there was enough equipment for Peter to zig zag through, that he was confident he could make it. In his disguise he was nothing more than a streaking shadow and not even Oscorp's trained security could get a bead on him. It didn't stop them from trying.
In hindsight, Peter would think of it as bad karma. He was only a few steps away from freedom when a guard's wild shot ricocheted off the construction equipment and smashed into a poorly shielded propane tank. The explosion was close enough that it took Peter off his feet, slamming him face first into a stack of steel beams. His brain rattled in his skull and he groaned as the taste of blood filled his mouth. He was too close to quit, he told himself, staring blearily across the open roof. He could see only the smeared shapes of the guards and wasn't sure if they were any steadier than him. It was the shrill screeching of metal on metal that drew him quickly back to focus.
The explosion had rocked the new Oscorp sign off its wooden braces. Glass shattered and the frame squealed as it crashed against the edge of the roof and began to tip, its oblong shape giving it just enough momentum that it was sure to go over. Peter cursed as he pictured how many people could be traveling the sidewalks below. His escape forgotten, he lassoed the sign's edge with a pair of webs and pulled, hoping that if could halt its inertia he could sling it back into stability on the roof.
A bullet raked down Peter's side. It was only a glancing shot but the sting shook him, and he lost his traction. The sign continued to tip and him with it. Peter's heart raced into his ears and in desperation he let go with one hand to fire off another web. It tangled in the construction scaffolding in time, but before Peter could brace himself the lines jerked taut.
The pressure snapped across Peter's body like a crack of a whip. With only one hold on the sign it twisted and pulled, and Peter wasn't able to bite back a yelp as his arm was wrenched. Something gave way with a sickening pop and pain stabbed through his shoulder. Still he gripped the webbing, trying to force all his strength into his good arm. He couldn't let the sign fall. He thought of a crying eight-year-old tucked under his arm and couldn't bear to let it fall.
"Hold it!" shouted one of the guards.
Peter scraped his feet against the roof as sweat steamed the inside of his hood. He glared at the approaching guards with angry disbelief. "What the hell is your problem?"
The guards looked, and slowly it dawned on them what was going on. Thankfully, once they understood, they were quick to act. Half of the men grabbed for the sign, using their weight to try and see-saw it back onto the roof, while the rest ran to grab chains and cables that could be used to aid in the pull. Their efforts were crude, and Peter moaned dizzily as his injured arm was further swayed. He could feel bone grinding out of its socket and he wanted to vomit. One guard had the good idea to chain the edge of the sign to the construction crane, and with the weight finally leveraged, they were able to draw the sign, creaking and shuddering, back into a safe resting spot.
Peter let go and sagged onto his knees. His shoulder and side were on fire, and it was getting hard to breathe with his mask full of blood from his split lip and throbbing nose. Throwing up was still on the table, too. The guards crowded around him, shouting orders, but he couldn't make anything out until one said, "Must be Spider-Man under there after all."
A hand came down on the back of Peter's head. Instinct kicked in and he lashed out with his good arm, punching the man soundly in the gut. He doubled over, and as the rest reached for their weapons Peter dove for the ledge.
The ground fell out from under him. Wind screamed past his ears and he shot his web, not caring where it caught. The jerk of the line which had become so familiar was suddenly agonizing, and Peter clenched his jaws tight to keep from crying out. He hit the opposite building hard. After a full minute of pained wheezing he was finally able to clamber up to the roof he'd started out on.
"Stupid," Peter muttered as he hunched in the shadow of an access door. "So stupid." He tried to move his left arm and grimaced against a hundred needles threading through his shoulder and neck. He pulled off his ski mask but with the Spider-Man hood still on it didn't help him breathe any better. "Shit. Now what?"
Sirens echoed from the street below. Smoke was still rising from the Oscorp roof and it wouldn't be long before a news chopper flew in for a closer look. Despite the pain hammering through him, Peter stripped out of his sweats and shoved everything into his backpack. "You gotta go," he told himself. "You can't stay here. Come on, Parker, get up." He dragged himself to his feet. "Gotta go."
Home was too far. The thought of crossing the bay with one arm made Peter dizzy all over again, and instead his gaze fell on a familiar tower gleaming in the distance. With a deep breath he started toward it.
Bruce and Tony were down in the lab, boggling together over Peter's bizarre blood sample, when Pepper's anxious voice came through the intercom. "Boys," she said, "I think you'll want to see this."
They joined her in the penthouse, where the television was already taken up with news coverage from further uptown. "We're seeing the first footage from the Oscorp building now," the anchorwoman was saying as a helicopter swooped over a smoking rooftop. "Where not long ago an explosion was reported to have been set off on the roof. Officials on the scene are blaming an intruder that was caught in the act of stealing Oscorp technology from one of the upper level labs."
Bruce's stomach lurched into his throat. "Oh, Peter," he whispered.
Tony and Pepper looked at him. "Sounds like your boy," said Tony.
"I'm sure it is." Bruce scraped the back of his hand over his mouth. "God damn it, I told him no."
A second screen appeared in the corner of the television. "Sir," said JARVIS, "you have an incoming call from Captain Rogers."
"Put him through."
Steve's cheery American flag flashed onto the screen. "Stark, are you seeing this?" Steve said as soon as he was connected. "At the Oscorp building?"
"Yeah, seeing it now." Tony glanced to Bruce. "And I have a pretty good idea who's behind it. I guess I could suit up and do a flyby, see if I can pick him up."
"You'd draw too much attention," said Bruce. When Tony raised an eyebrow he added, "We're not turning him in."
Pepper winced sympathetically. "This is a bit more serious than him sneaking in here. Someone could have been hurt."
"We don't know what happened yet," Bruce insisted. "I'm sure Peter didn't go there looking to cause explosions."
"Well, I'm already in Manhattan," said Steve. "I'm heading your way. Let me know if you hear anything."
"Sure thing." Tony hung up the call and turned to Bruce again. "He's your boyfriend," he said. "How do you want to handle this?"
"He's not--" Bruce rubbed his eyes. "Just, wait. Wait, all right? I want to hear from him what happened."
He moved to the console next to the sofa and dialed Peter's number. His pulse hitched as it rang on and on with no answer and finally went to message. He hung up without leaving one. "Damn it."
"So far, no casualties have been reported," the anchorwoman resumed. "But there seems to be a good deal of damage to the exterior of the building, and--"
She was cut off by the phone ringing, and JARVIS dutifully reported, "Sir, you have an incoming call from the number Dr. Banner just dialed."
"Put it through," Tony and Bruce said together.
A generic phone message box appeared. At first there was only hissing static, and Bruce leaned forward involuntarily, straining to hear. Then he realized it was actually someone's labored breathing, and his stomach leapt all over again. "Peter?"
"Hey," said Peter. His voice was muffled by his mask, as always, but there was something else off about it, as if he was speaking under great strain. "Sorry, Bruce. I didn't take your advice."
Goose bumps rippled up Bruce's spine. "Where are you?"
"Outside." There was a long pause. "Under Mr. Stark's balcony. I had to get away from the chopper."
"Okay." Bruce let out a long, low breath. Peter was there--he was all right. They would figure this out. "It should be safe here, now. Come on up and you can tell me what happened."
Another long pause. "I don't think I can," Peter said hoarsely.
Tony clapped Bruce on the shoulder. His firm hand and stern gaze were very welcomed supports, and Bruce understood immediately. "All right," said Bruce. "Just stay there--we're coming to get you."
Tony headed for the balcony, but before joining him, Bruce turned to Pepper. "Could you please go to my room and get the brown leather bag?" he asked. "It sounds like he's hurt."
"Of course." Pepper hurried out.
Bruce took a moment to wipe his brow and then followed Tony outside. By then Tony was already halfway into his armor. "Never a dull moment in the Big Apple, is it?" Tony remarked as the metal plates fit into place.
Bruce didn't know what to say. He stood back as Tony finished suiting up and hopped off the edge of the roof. Anxiously he waited, listening to the whine of the Iron Man engines navigating below the balcony. At last Tony emerged with Peter clutched to his chest. Bruce paled at the sight of blood staining the familiar blue and red costume, but even more disturbing was the way Peter was curled against his rescuer, shivering around his backpack. Once they had landed, Peter lifted his head.
"Hey, Bruce," he said weakly.
Bruce rushed forward and accepted Peter into his arms. "I've got him," he said, startled by how light Peter was. He carried Peter swiftly down the steps and back inside while Tony went about de-suiting.
"I'm sorry," said Peter. "I didn't--"
Bruce shushed him. "Not now. You can explain later."
By the time they returned, Pepper was waiting with the medical satchel. She spread a thick comforter out on the sofa and stood back as Bruce deposited his charge gently onto it. "Easy, now," Bruce murmured. He winced when easing the backpack off Peter's shoulders elicited a moan of pain. "You're safe here." Once Peter was settled, Bruce reached down and pulled off his mask.
Bruce wasn't prepared. Wide brown eyes stared up at him from within a young face--a face younger than Bruce had ever pictured. He saw Peter for the first time and it was with tear tracks staining his bruised cheeks, with blood in his mouth and pain in his grimace. The charming trickster that had inspired so much in him was hurting and afraid, and Bruce could have never expected how deeply that face would stab into the pit of him. His hands shook and his throat clenched.
Someone had done this to his Peter. Bruce's heart pitched into his ears and he ached to charge into the world and find whoever was responsible. He wanted to tear Oscorp to the ground, wanted to smash and rend and take vengeance. He had lost so much, and someone deserved to die for trying to take anything else from him. Someone deserved all the hate and fury a monster like him had to offer.
Peter shuddered. "Bruce?"
The crack in his voice reeled Bruce in. With a gasp he stumbled back as if realizing for the first time he was standing on a ledge. Cold sweat was on his brow and his skin felt bloated and thin, as if it might give way at any moment. The shock had come too quickly, too strongly, and his sight was beginning to blur.
"Bruce?" It was Pepper this time, and she reached for his arm.
"Don't," Bruce wheezed. He let Peter's mask fall and retreated several more steps. "Don't touch me." He turned for the balcony.
Peter tried to push himself up and couldn't. "Bruce--"
Bruce fled. He passed Tony on his way in and just managed to gasp out, "Stay away from me!" Tony said something but Bruce ignored him. He rushed outside and took in a deep, gulping breath of fresh air. It helped but it wasn't enough, and soon Bruce was curled up against the wall, his head in his hands, his nails in his scalp.
"Stop," he hissed, eyes squeezed shut as he quaked beneath the weight of his anger and shame. "Don't do this, you can't do this. Please stop--please don't, not now." He drew his knees in. "Please, not now."
Peter watched Bruce retreat, confused and frightened. There was something wild in Bruce's eyes that reminded him of their fight the night before. "What's going on?" he asked as Tony and Pepper shared a few short words. "Is he all right?"
"He's fine," Tony said distractedly. He tapped on the side table. "JARVIS, have contingency plan Jolly Green Giant on standby, would you? Keep me updated."
"Pepper, could you..." Tony gestured vaguely to Peter.
"Tony, I'm not a nurse," she protested.
"And I am?"
Peter sagged into the couch. He felt miserable and if he'd had the strength to get the hell out of there, he would have. He licked his bloody lips and tried to speak, but was interrupted by a chime from the elevator.
Tony heaved a sigh of relief. "Perfect timing."
Peter looked for himself, and wasn't sure if he should be elated or ashamed when he saw Steve heading toward them. He tensed, which only made his throbbing shoulder worse. "Captain..."
Steve shrugged out of his leather jacket and crouched down next to the sofa. "Hey, Peter." He took a quick survey of Peter's injuries and winced. "Looks like you've had a rough night."
"I'm sorry," Peter said automatically. "I had to--I didn't mean for--"
"Calm down. Let's get you cleaned up first." He glanced over his shoulder. "Pepper, could you get some water and a wash cloth, please?"
"Have you got this?" Tony asked as Pepper moved away. "I need to check on Bruce."
Steve frowned, clearly understanding a heavy significance beneath the words. "Yes--go ahead. I'll take care of him."
Tony rummaged through Bruce's leather satchel and then headed for the balcony. "What's going on?" Peter asked again. "What's wrong with Bruce? Is he all right?"
"I'm sure he's fine." Steve leaned forward. "For now I'm more worried about you. You hurt your shoulder?"
"Yeah." Peter tried to move the arm and had to stop, hissing. "I think I dislocated it."
Steve gently probed Peter's shoulder. "I think you did, too." Carefully, he stretched out Peter's arm. "Hold onto my shoulder," he said. "And...here." He snatched Peter's mask off the floor and twisted it. "Bite down on this. I'm going to pop the bone back in."
Peter squirmed and sweat beaded on his forehead. "You've done this before, right?"
"A few times." He urged Peter to bite down on the fabric and then positioned his broad hands over Peter's shoulder. "I'll do it on the count of three, all right? Take a deep breath. One--"
He didn't make it past one. He shoved with the meat of his palm and the bone popped back into its socket with a horrible jerk and a stinging pain. Peter cried into his mask as Steve held him still until his shuddering had passed. "Easy," Steve murmured, and when Peter had calmed he began working the suit off him. "Once the swelling goes down you'll be fine."
Peter spat his mask out. He would have liked to wipe his eyes but then Steve was helping him get his arms out of the suit. "What happened to two and three?"
"I didn't want you to tense up." Steve continued to roll the spandex down, and slowed when he reached the wound in Peter's side. "What happened here?"
"Um..." Peter grimaced. Pepper was coming back and he wasn't sure if he should make an effort to hide the truth from either of them. "I was kind of...shot. Grazed."
Pepper looked concerned, but Steve just shook his head as if he'd already known. His disappointment was palpable and it made Peter sick.
"You can say it," said Peter. "I fucked up."
Steve accepted a rag from Pepper and used it to clean the blood from Peter's mouth and nose. "We'll talk about it later."
"But no one got hurt but me," Peter went on anyway. "There wouldn't even be any damage if those guards weren't firing blindly like maniacs. I really tried to--"
"Peter." Steve set his hand on the top of Peter's head. "I know. I want to hear everything, but for now, just calm down so I can make sure you're all right."
Peter swallowed hard, but he really was exhausted, and it was all too easy to surrender to Steve's care. "Okay," he murmured. He closed his eyes and was sure he could have passed right out. "Thanks."
Steve jerked his hand back suddenly, and Peter started, opening his eyes again. "What?"
Steve frowned at his hand for a long moment and then gave it a shake. "Nothing." He turned his attention back to Peter's wounded side. "It doesn't look like it's still bleeding, but I want to clean it up as best I can. Try to hold still."
"Okay." Peter settled in, and when Pepper caught his eye they shared a brief, nervous smile. "Thank you."
Bruce shrank back against the wall. He was still shaking, and his skin felt blistering, as if his sweat was steaming off of it. If he had more time, if he had just a bit more clarity, he could fight it, but with his eyes closed all he could think of was a young face, covered in blood--
"Bruce," Tony said again, closer than before.
"Don't." Bruce jammed his hands into his ears. "Stay back. I don't know if I--"
A needle slipped into his neck. Bruce tensed but he knew better than to jerk or try to pull away for fear of snapping it. Even so, Tony's fingers wound in his hair to keep him still. "Listen," said Tony. "If you so much as blush I'm gonna pump you full of sedative. Either this ends with you getting yourself together or you down and out until sunrise, so what are you so afraid of? Trust me, Bruce, this is already over. So take a deep breath and make a choice."
Bruce's lips peeled back in a sneer. "Damn it, Tony. You make it sound so easy."
"It is easy. It's so easy you've already decided, right?" Tony gave Bruce's scalp a rub with his thumb. "You're okay, Bruce, and so is Peter. Steve is with him now and he's fine, but he needs you. So come on. Take a deep breath with me."
Tony sucked in a long breath, and though Bruce was half tempted to punch his lights out, he rallied himself enough to follow suit. They let the breath out together. "Now what's blue and lives in the ocean?" Tony asked.
Bruce chuckled incredulously. "A blue marlin," he huffed.
"Good man." Tony leaned back. "So can I pull the needle out?"
Bruce took in another deep breath and held it. He was still thrumming but the sensation had dulled, and when he opened his eyes he was finally able to focus. "Yes. I'm all right."
Tony slipped the needle out, and with a wince Bruce covered the tiny puncture wound. "That really stings, you know," Bruce complained.
"Yeah, I know." Tony gave Bruce's shoulder a clap and then took his hand to help him up. "You're welcome."
Bruce wobbled on his feet for a moment. He still felt light-headed, even disconnected, like he sometimes felt after having come out of a transformation, but one more long breath helped sort him out. Realizing what a close call it had been, and how only a few encouragements had pulled him out of it, filled him with pride. "I am getting better," he murmured, mystified.
"You are," Tony agreed. "Now come help us look after your boy."
They rejoined the others in the penthouse just as Steve was applying a sterile gauze pad to Peter's injured side. The blood had been cleaned from Peter's face but he was still bruised and pale, and the guilt in his eyes when he looked up made Bruce's stomach clench. "Bruce," he said quickly. "I'm sorry."
Bruce leaned against the sofa's armrest and reached down, smoothing Peter's mussed hair away from his face. "It's okay. I know why you did it."
Peter winced loudly as Steve finished applying the bandage. Seeing him in pain didn't help Bruce's still fragile state, but he stayed, gently stroking Peter's unblemished cheek. "Just relax," he said quietly. "Try to sleep, if you can. We can sort this out later."
Peter glanced between the four of them. "Are you going to turn me in?"
Tony and Steve exchanged a look, but Bruce set his hand over Peter's eyes before he could see it. "No," Bruce said. "No one's turning in anyone. Rest, Peter. You're safe here."
Peter nodded, and when Bruce pulled his hand back, his eyes remained closed. As his breath evened out Pepper drew the blanket over him. Bruce continued to lightly stroke Peter's face and hair until it seemed he'd finally fallen asleep.
Steve used a rag to clean the blood from his fingers. "Bruce," he said gently.
"I know." Bruce rubbed his eyes. "What a mess."
"You told me he didn't steal that webbing from Oscorp," said Tony.
"He didn't--he doesn't. This wasn't about that." Bruce dropped into the opposite sofa, and after a moment Tony joined him. "Peter isn't just smart and athletic," he explained. "His abilities are superhuman. He told me he got those abilities while at Oscorp. He's just trying to understand himself."
"But Bruce." Steve drew a chair closer and sat down. "He was shot tonight. It's going to leave a scar, and it won't be the only one."
Bruce stared fixedly at the far wall; he was afraid that if he looked at Peter he would start imagining the dozen ways he could have--and probably had--been injured. "I know."
"He's a good kid," Steve continued. "He's saved a lot of lives. I know--I've seen him in action. But he is a kid, and he's lucky he didn't have his lung shot out tonight. That luck is going to run out."
"So what are you saying? That we should turn him in?"
Tony took over. "Oscorp doesn't mess around. Not only has he been using their webbing, he's drawn first blood. They will go after him."
Bruce leaned into his hands. His head ached and he didn't feel up to making important decisions. "If we turn him in, he'll go to prison. I'm not doing that to him."
"We don't want that, either," said Steve. "But this isn't okay. We have to talk to him."
"I know." Bruce sighed and shook his head. "Just give him some time. Give me some time. I can't think straight right now."
They relented. Tony turned the volume back up on the news report and they watched without speaking as Oscorp's head of security gave a statement. Only one camera had caught any part of the fight on the roof, and it showed little more than a man dressed in black moving very fast. No one was able to properly identify the intruder as Spider-Man, but Bruce couldn't take much solace in that fact. The city's vigilante had had his reputation tarnished.
Pepper made fresh coffee. She passed it out to the grateful men, but when she got to Steve, she paused. "Are you all right?" she asked.
Steve drew himself up in his chair. "Yes, sorry." He accepted the mug and took a sip. "Thank you."
Bruce went back to watching the news, but then Pepper spoke up again, and it drew his attention. "Are you sure? You look flushed."
"I'm fine; just a headache."
Pepper pressed the back of her palm to Steve's forehead. "You feel warm to me."
Steve tried to say again that he was fine, but by then Pepper was already waving Bruce over. Bruce complied, and when he touched Steve's forehead he was startled by how hot it was. He felt out the lymph nodes below Steve's ear. "You have a fever," he said incredulously.
"It's nothing," Steve insisted.
Tony watched them over the lip of his mug. "I thought the Super Soldier Serum meant he can't get sick anymore."
"It does." Despite Steve's protests, Bruce checked his eyes and the inside of his mouth. "But it sure looks like he's fighting something."
"Bruce, I'm fine," said Steve. "I've had worse, believe me."
He started to urge Bruce's hands off him, but then Pepper jumped and grabbed his wrist. "What is that?"
She showed his hand to Bruce. A red bumped had swelled near the joint of his thumb. "I don't know," said Steve. "Something bit me, I guess, a minute ago. A spider, maybe."
Bruce's heart skipped a beat. "A spider? Are you sure?"
"Maybe. I didn't see it."
Bruce looked to Peter, still asleep on the couch. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and he hurried to Peter's side. "Peter." He shook him gently awake. "Peter, wake up."
Peter groaned and stretched. "What?"
"You went to Oscorp tonight to get a spider, didn't you?" he asked urgently. "Did you manage to get one?"
"Yeah." Peter eyed him nervously. "It's in my backpack. Why?"
As Bruce grabbed the backpack Tony set his coffee aside and stood. "What's going on?"
Bruce found the plastic container, but when he went to pull it out, the lid shifted. It hadn't sealed properly and there was nothing inside. When Peter saw it, his eyes went wide. "Oh, shit."
Bruce dumped out the contents of the bag and gave it a shake while Peter combed his hair with his fingers and checked under the blanket. The brief searched turned up nothing, and with a grumbled curse of his own Bruce returned to Steve and inspected his hand again. "It really looks like a spider bite, doesn't it," he said under his breath. He pressed two fingers to the inside of his wrist and measured his pulse.
Steve watched him closely. "What is it?"
"Seriously," added Tony. "What is going on?"
Bruce felt new sweat form on his brow and he took Tony by the elbow, leading him a few paces away. "I think he's been bitten by the spider Peter brought back from Oscorp," he said. "His immune system must be reacting to the venom."
"They're venomous?" Tony flinched. "Wait, those spiders are radioactive."
"Exactly. Think about it, Tony." Bruce lowered his voice. "What happens when you expose that serum to radiation?"
Tony straightened with understanding. "You." He poked Bruce in the chest. "You happen."
"Hey," snapped Steve. "Will one of you please tell me what the hell is going on?"
Bruce and Tony exchanged a look. "How do we handle this?" asked Tony.
Bruce didn't know. The thought of someone else sharing any part of his affliction put a taste of bile in his throat. There was still too much he didn't understand about the serum they shared and he had no idea what to expect. He took a deep breath and returned to Steve's side. "You're all right," he said, trying to sound reassuring, but Steve must have seen right through him. "Here--get up. I'm moving you to the couch."
Peter scooted up against the armrest and drew his legs in so Steve had room to lie down. "Is he all right? Did he really--"
"I think so." Bruce urged Steve to stretch out and shoved a pillow under his head. "I need you to relax," he said. "Close your eyes, rest. You'll be fine but this is important."
Steve pushed him back and started to sit up. "I'm not doing anything until--"
"Steve." Bruce pressed both hands to Steve's chest. "Please. I need you to keep your heart rate down."
At last Steve caught on, and he sank onto his back. "Oh my god."
"You're all right." Bruce yanked his leather bag closer and dug through it. "But the spider that bit you may have been irradiated, and what you're feeling is a reaction to the venom. I'm pretty sure your natural immunity will take care of it, but just in case, I'm going to take a sample of your blood down to the lab. In the meantime, I need you to sit tight and stay calm, all right?"
Steve obediently rolled up his sleeve. "Okay. Okay."
Peter leaned forward, rubbing his sore shoulder as he watched Bruce slip the need into the inside of Steve's arm. "He's going to be all right, isn't he?"
"Of course he is." Bruce pressed a cotton swab to the tiny puncture and then secured his sample. "I'm just being as safe as possible." He gave Steve a pat and then pushed to his feet. "I'll be back soon."
"Do you want me to come with?" Tony offered.
"No. I'd rather you stay here and keep an eye on him." Bruce hesitated. "Do you still have that syringe?" When Tony nodded, he continued on. "Use it if you have to. I'll give you an update as soon as I can."
Peter watched him leave with a lump in his throat. Once Bruce was gone he turned back to Steve and winced all over again. Steve was staring up at the ceiling, making a visible effort to take each breath slowly and calmly. It was such a different image than the last time Peter had seen him, so strong and comforting and in control, and it chilled him. "Hey...Captain?"
Steve didn't look at him. "Yes?"
Peter edged closer. "I'm sorry," he said. "This is my fault. I didn't mean for anyone to get hurt, I just--"
"Peter." Steve closed his eyes. "Not right now, please."
Peter wilted. He watched Steve's measured breath and flushed cheeks and neck; he felt horrible. Tony and Pepper were staring at him and he wanted to find a crack to hide in. "I'm sorry," he said again, curling up beneath the blanket.
The room fell quiet except for the news. Peter listened as it moved on from the Oscorp break-in to weather and sports. He wanted to ask what the reporters had said, if he had been recognized and if the police were looking for him, but he didn't dare speak up with Tony watching him the way he was. He wasn't sure how to identify the tight expression. Suspicious, maybe.
"So," said Tony. "Tell us about your spider."
Peter gulped and tried to straighten up a bit. "Um, I actually don't know much about it," he said. "I was trying to get one so that Bruce could help me learn something."
Pepper took the seat Steve had been in. "Did that thing really bite you? And that's how you can walk on walls?"
"Well, yes." Peter didn't suspect a demonstration would be welcome at the moment. "I was visiting Oscorp as an intern when it happened. I fell asleep on the subway on my way home, and when I woke up, I had...super powers. I don't really understand it myself, but that's what happened." He glanced to Steve. "So, uh, maybe if we're lucky--"
"I don't need super powers," interrupted Steve.
"You mean, more than you already do?" said Pepper lightly. "You never know, Steve. Maybe climbing on walls will come in handy."
Steve's brow furrowed. "I'd really rather not," he said, his fist clenching against his stomach. "I've seen what this serum can do when it's misused. I don't want that." The tendons on the back of his hand stood out, and Peter was just thinking that they were inordinately pronounced when he realized the mark of the spider bite had turned black.
"Mr. Stark...?" Peter waved at it, and Tony and Pepper both moved closer.
When Steve noticed them crowding around him he jerked his hand back. The black stain spread along his raised tendons and darkened his knuckles. "Don't touch me!" he snapped.
"Rogers, calm down." Tony held his hands up in a placating gesture. "We just want to see."
"Don't." Steve clutched his hand to his chest and tried to squirm away. His breath hitched with panic. "I'm fine."
"Do you want me to get you some water?" offered Pepper. She winced. "Or maybe a Valium?"
Steve sat up. His face was still flushed and perspiration gleamed on his skin. Peter watched with horrified fascination as his skin continued to blacken, spreading out from the bite like spilled ink. "Leave me alone," he gasped, drawing as far away from them as the sofa allowed. His eyes were glazing over. "Stay back!"
Pepper continued to try and calm him while Tony retrieved a syringe from a nearby side table. Peter could only stare in shock as Steve's knuckles cracked and widened, and his dry skin thickened to ragged husks. The more the transformation spread the more desperate Steve became, and when Tony approached to sedate him he lashed out, knocking the syringe away. The sharp movement of his arm drew the spreading venom into the rest of his body even faster, until his chest was expanding, his spine rippling against the confines of his button down, his jaw stretching.
"Stay away from me!" Steve shouted. His voice grew hoarse and inhuman as the transformation took him over. His bony shoulders and pelvis ripped through his clothing, revealing his distorted physic and hard, exoskeleton-like skin. His hair blackened and spread down his neck and body in prickling scopulae. His face was last. Steve's eyes sunk in and his bones warped, leaving a dark, skull-like form with a protruding brow and exposed fangs.
Tony grabbed Pepper by the arm and drew her back as Peter leapt for cover behind the couch. "JARVIS--" he shouted.
Steve's lips peeled back and he let out a shrill bellow. A panel opened from the ceiling but before any machinery could emerge Steve fled, casting furniture out of his way on his way toward the balcony. The glass doors shattered easily and then Steve was gone, having flung himself over the edge.
Peter began yanking his suit back on. "Holy shit. What the hell just happened?"
"JARVIS, stand down," ordered Tony. "He's gone." He headed for the balcony. "Pepper, tell Bruce. I'm going after him."
Peter followed him outside despite his wobbly knees. Together they ran to the edge and looked out, easily spotting the new, monstrous Steve as he climbed down the side of the tower to the street below. "I don't suppose this is a side effect you're familiar with," said Tony.
Peter shook his head. "N-No. Not that I remember."
Tony stepped back and headed for the stairs that led to his armor assembly. When he realized that Peter was still following, he waved him back. "Go back inside and tell Bruce."
"I'm coming with you," said Peter. "I can help."
"You'll just get in the way."
The upper balcony opened up, and Peter gaped as the Iron Armor was fit, piece by piece, onto its host. He wished the circumstances weren't so dire and he had the chance to fully appreciate what he was witnessing. He shook himself. "I can help," he repeated. "And it's because of me that--"
"You've done enough," Tony snapped. The face mask clanged down. "We'll handle this."
Peter stood back as Tony took off. Bile burned the back of his throat but he wasn't about to give up. He charged back down the stairs and into the penthouse to grab his web slingers and mask.
"And then he just took off," Pepper was explaining to Bruce as he stepped off the elevator. "Tony went after him. We have to do something."
"We will." When Bruce spotted Peter he hurried over. "What are you doing?"
Peter clicked fresh cartridges into each of his shooters. "I'm going after them," he said firmly.
"Peter, Steve won't recognize you in the state he's in. He might try to hurt you."
"And anyone who gets in his way, right?" Peter finished and rolled his sleeves down. A deep breath solidified his conviction. "I have to go after them. Mr. Stark might need help, and this is my fault!" He stood and faced Bruce directly. "It's my responsibility, and I don't know if I could forgive myself if something happened to Captain Rogers because of me." He could still taste blood in the corners of his mouth and it made him sick. "Too many people have been hurt because of me already."
He started to turn, hoping to make a run for it before Bruce could stop him, and was startled when Bruce said, "All right. But I'm coming with you."
Peter eyed him. "How? You're not that big, but too big for me to carry."
"You won't have to." Bruce unbuttoned his shirt.
"Are you sure about this?" Pepper asked carefully. "After what almost happened a few minutes ago?"
"I don't have a choice," said Bruce. "I'll be all right. This time, it'll be on my terms." He lifted his head. "JARVIS, do you still have the Hulk contingency prepped?"
"I do, sir."
"I need you to eject one of the cartridges for me."
Peter stared in confusion as Bruce tossed his shirt aside and then took off his shoes, socks, and belt. "What the hell are you doing?"
"You'll see." Bruce lifted his head, and when a metal cartridge the size of his hand popped out of the ceiling, he caught it and began taking it apart. "Since you came clean with me this morning, I guess it's my turn," he said with a slight shake of his head.
Peter pulled his mask on. "What's that?"
Bruce shed the metal casing and revealed a thick glass vial full of yellow liquid. "It's the first thing Tony and I developed when I agreed to stay here," Bruce explained. "A much more refined derivative of EA-3167, military grade incapacitating agent. It'll render almost any living thing unconscious with less than a milligram dosage." He handed the vial to Peter. "When we get close enough, break that close to Steve's face. It'll take aerosol form and should, hopefully, put him to sleep. Just make sure you don't breathe any in."
Peter slid the vial into his sleeve. "Okay."
"Take this, too," said Pepper. She handed him an earpiece, which he slipped into place under his mask. "JARVIS and I can track you, and you'll be able to keep in touch with Tony, too."
"Be careful, both of you."
Peter and Bruce moved out onto the balcony. "Here we go," said Bruce, rallying himself. He glared at the city skyline and took a deep breath. "Don't try to catch me--I'll be fine."
Peter blinked at him. "What?"
Bruce took off running. Peter followed, his heart leaping into his throat when he realized that Bruce was headed straight for the edge. With every step, Bruce changed; his skin darkened to rich green, his muscles bulged and expanded, his entire body swelled and flexed and grew monstrous. By the time he reached the balcony ledge he was something else, and he jumped, his legs propelling him an inhuman distance to the roof of the next building. Peter was so shocked he almost forgot that he was racing toward the same ledge, and only just had enough presence of mind to launch his web when his foot hit empty air. His shoulder ached but held as he swung to the next building and landed next to his companion.
He wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes: Bruce was gone, replaced with a green beast that only bore the barest resemblance. The creature hunched down, meeting Peter's gaze with steely patience. Peter gulped. "It's you," he blurted out, overwhelmed. "That thing from Harlem--you are one of them, you're--"
"Hulk," the creature said. He extended his arm, and when Peter failed to understand, he grunted and waved.
"Hulk," Peter repeated. "Okay..." With a deep breath he climbed up Hulk's arm onto his back. There was only smooth skin to hold onto, so he crouched against Hulk's broad shoulder blades and stuck in place with his hands and feet. He gulped. "I'm ready."
Hulk rotated his shoulders. Once he seemed reassured that Peter was secure, he straightened up and took off for the next rooftop. Despite his huge size he sailed through the sky as if weightless, and landed with perfect balance and a cushioning bend of his knees. Peter held on tight, too amazed to think clearly as they made their way toward the flash of Iron Man's repulsors in the distance.
Traveling via Hulk wasn't the smoothest ride ever, but it certainly beat swinging across the city on an injured shoulder. Peter kept close against Hulk's back as they raced from rooftop to rooftop, trying not to think too hard on what had just happened. Bruce was the Hulk--Bruce was the giant green rage monster that had helped drive back an alien invasion. Peter wondered if he should have seen it coming somehow and quickly realized, no, who could have? It was absolutely insane.
Hulk skidded to a halt on the top of a hotel, and as he turned about, getting his bearings, Tony in his Iron Man armor flew past. Hulk moved to the edge to get a better view of the situation while Peter put his hand over his earpiece. "Ms. Potts? Can you hear me? We've found them."
"Good. I'll patch you through to Tony."
There was a burst of static that made Peter wince, and then his earpiece filled with the background hum of whirring engines. "Mr. Stark?" he asked hesitantly.
"That you, Spider-boy?"
Hulk jarred to life once more, and Peter had to make a quick grab for his shoulder. "I'm here with Bruce. He gave me a sedative to try and use on Steve, but I'll have to get in close. I don't think it'll have much range."
Hulk leapt to the next building, and finally Peter was able to spot Steve: a mass of hard black skin and long limbs was crawling up the side of a bank, to the horror of the onlookers below. Tony was headed for the roof to intercept. "I'll try to pin him down for you," said Tony. "But be careful with that stuff--it'd knock out a whale if it had the chance."
"Okay--whoa!" Peter had to wrap his arms around Hulk's neck as another tremendous jump threatened to toss him. Within seconds Hulk was scaling the bank, and once they reached the roof Peter leapt clear. He touched his sleeve to make sure the sedative was still secure and then faced their unlikely target.
Steve had grown since leaving the tower. His back was hunched and his bones stuck out all over at odd angles. There was still something eerily human and tortured in his grotesque face, and his eyes, black and glossy, swiveled in their sockets between Hulk and Tony.
"Stay away from me!" Steve shrieked.
"Rogers?" Tony held his hands up and stepped slowly closer. "You still in there?"
Steve shrank back, twitching and chattering. The tiny hairs covering his body stood on end. "Stay away from me," he repeated, but his voice was halting, as if parroting the words rather than truly speaking them.
"Captain Rogers," Peter tried anyway. "It's all right--we're not going to hurt you." He dropped to all fours and edged closer. "We're here to help."
Steve hissed at him, and when Peter got too close he abruptly charged. Peter leapt out of the way as Hulk rose to meet him. The two giants crashed together, cracking the roof as they wrestled and struck at each other with their oversized fists. Hulk had weight on his side but Steve was quicker, and his clawed appendages drew long welts in Hulk's shoulders and back as they twisted together.
Peter pulled the vial out of his sleeve. The pair was putting up a monumental fight but he watched closely in case an opening presented itself. When he tensed, ready to enter the fray, Tony quickly spoke up in his ear.
"Don't. You don't want to get in the middle of that."
"But they could kill each other!" Peter jumped back when Hulk was tossed free, only to accept Steve's angry pounce against his chest a moment later. "We have to stop them."
"Just wait," Tony insisted. "Neither of them is going down that easy, but you will if you take a hit from either of them."
Hulk caught Steve around the torso and heaved, sending him clear off the side of the building. With a curse Peter gave chase. Cars screeched and people screamed as Steve crashed into the middle of the street, cracking it. Thinking it his only chance, Peter darted forward. Steve was struggling to get up, and in his disorientation Peter was able to leap onto his chest. He pulled back his arm.
Steve stared up at him, and his already alien face twisted in a look of horror that Peter hadn't expected. He was terrified. His twitching was actually trembling and his breath was rapid with panic.
"Captain." He looked so stricken that Peter felt guilty threatening him with even just a sedative. "It's okay," he said. "You're gonna be all right."
"Stay away from me," Steve hissed.
He slammed Peter in the back and sent him flying into the next lane. Peter landed flat on his stomach, but it was the vial slipping out of his fist that made his chest constrict. He leapt after it, and when that wasn't enough resorted to lassoing it with a shot of webbing. As he skidded to a halt he was so relieved to have saved his trump card that he didn't notice the car headlights until they were almost on him.
A pair of hug green legs appeared in the way. Peter ducked his head and cringed as the car hit, its breaks squealing, but the impact didn't seem to move Hulk at all. With a snort of irritation Hulk shoved the car back several meters and then looked down.
Peter glanced around him and saw the driver struggling out from under the airbag; he seemed all right, at least. "Thanks," Peter said. Hulk only grunted.
Peter hopped to his feet. Steve was still in the middle of the street, this time scraping and clawing at Tony. A shot from Tony's repulsors knocked him to the ground, and when he tried to make a run for it Hulk grabbed him from behind and managed to pin one of his arms. Tony joined in, grabbing Steve's other arm with both of his. "Kid, get over here!" he shouted.
Steve howled, and before Peter could reach him his entire body gave a shudder and began to creak. His legs wrapped around Tony and his knees cracked, splitting his thighs apart. A second pair of legs spread from the first and twisted upward to grab Tony's mask.
"Jesus!" Tony let go of Steve's arm to yank at the claws on his face. Metal squealed, and in desperation Tony fired off his repulsors. The impact separated them and then Hulk twisted, heaving Steve to the road.
Steve landed on four feet, and as he hissed and cowered his arms ripped apart as well, until they were facing down an eight-legged monstrosity with that same twisted, terrified face. "Away!" Steve shrieked as he again turned to flee, cars blaring and swerving out of his way.
Tony tried to adjust his skewed helmet. "That is some damn powerful venom," he said, rocketing after him with Hulk only a step behind.
"Mr. Stark--" Peter yanked the webbing off the vial of sedative and shoved it back in his sleeve. Before the chase could continue too far ahead of him he shot a pair of webs at Hulk's back and sling-shotted himself back into place. His shoulder throbbed at the rough landing but he managed to stick, and once there felt better with a broad, strong body supporting him.
Up ahead, Steve leapt, clawing with his eight limbs up a concrete pillar to the Williamsburg Bridge. Incoming traffic swerved and braked, and in an effort to avoid them Steve jumped onto the metal support struts. He looked more like a spider than ever as he scuttled horizontally across the beams. It only took one powerful jump for Hulk to reach the bridge, but with his greater bulk and Peter clinging to his back he didn't have nearly so easy a time following Steve's route. Grunting in frustration, he jumped instead to the pedestrian walkway above.
Peter looked behind him and saw flashing lights; they were still far away, but it wouldn't be long before the cavalry had mobilized. Already he could see a helicopter headed in their direction. "By the time we get to the end of the bridge, the Brooklyn side will be swarming with cops," he said. "We have to stop him before then or they'll shoot him apart."
"It's the police that have to be worried about him," said Tony, following along the bridge. "But I hear you."
Peter shook his head. "He doesn't want to hurt anyone--he's scared. He's heading home, to Brooklyn."
"Either way, we need to end this fast."
They were coming out over the water. Peter leaned down, close to Hulk's ear. "Are you all right?" He had no idea what being a Hulk entailed or if Bruce was another one they had to look out for. When Hulk only rolled his shoulders and ran faster, Peter fell quiet again.
"Looks like there's a break in the traffic up ahead," said Tony. "I'm going in."
Tony banked, and when he caught up to Steve he grabbed him around the waist and yanked them both to the street. Peter winced at the cracks they left--it was going to take a while longer before he was used to battling superheroes. When Hulk leapt down to join them Peter lassoed a support beam and swung clear. His wounded side throbbed but he ignored it, bracing himself up on the wall as he watched Hulk pounce onto Steve's back. They grappled like B-movie monsters, howling and thrashing, and whenever one of Steve's flailing limbs looked to be getting the upper hand Tony intervened with a shot from his repulsors, or a well-timed dive attack. It looked like something straight from the alien battle only weeks ago, and on both sides of the bridge men and women got out of their cars to gape from what they thought was a safe distance.
"This is nuts," Peter said under his breath.
Hulk's fist caught Steve full across the jaw and sent him crashing again to the ground. He grasped at the concrete, trying to drag himself away from his pursuers. Seeing him so panicked only made Peter more sure of himself: Steve wasn't trying to hurt anyone, he was trying to get away. Part of him understood what was happening to him. Peter shuddered with guilt and was more determined than ever to put an end to it. He leapt down from his perch, and before Hulk could get close enough to resume their frantic sparring, he pulled the vial out of his sleeve and heaved it straight for the ground next to Steve's face.
Steve's second pair of arms twisted around and caught it before it hit. Peter was still processing the miss when Steve rolled and threw the vial directly into Tony's face.
The glass shattered. The liquid inside immediately produced a burst of yellow gas, and Tony rocketed backwards, trying to avoid it, but the cracks in his helmet had already given it a path directly to him. His heels clipped the edge of the bridge and he dropped like a stone.
"Shit--" Peter snared Tony with his web, and he had to duck under the continuation of Hulk and Steve's brawl as he was dragged to the edge of the bridge. The thought of having his shoulder snapped again woke him before the line could pull taut. He dove around a support beam, winding the web tight just in time. Even when it seemed secure he added another two just to be sure.
"Mr. Stark!" Peter hooked a line for himself and swung down. "Mr. Stark! Can you hear me? Oh shit, please don't be in a coma."
He waved his hand in front of the mask. Tony's arc was still glowing brightly and he could hear tiny motors whirling inside, but he got no response. Peter shook his head in disbelief. "Can this night get any worse?"
"Peter?" Pepper asked over the comm. "What's going on?"
"Mr. Stark took a face-full of knockout gas," said Peter.
"Oh my god. Is he all right? Other than being unconscious?"
Peter gave the lines a tug. "He's safe for now. What should I do? Bruce said--"
"There's a counteragent," said Pepper. "Tony showed me how to administer it." He could hear her rushing about. "I'm on my way down there, but it's going to take a while. Please just make sure he's out of harm's way."
"He's okay. He's not going anywhere." Peter started back up to the bridge. "I just have no idea what to do now."
Hulk and Steve were back at it. They'd already traveled a dozen meters, forcing many of the bystanders to abandon their cars as roofs and hoods became sparring ground. Neither seemed to even be slowing. Peter groaned as he jumped again onto the support struts and hurried after them. Every hit made him wince, but it was when Hulk grabbed an industrial tool box out of the back of a truck and cracked it against the back of Steve's shoulders that he picked up his pace. And just in time--when the tool box wasn't enough, Hulk started to pick up the truck.
"Whoa--whoa!" Peter webbed the truck's bumper and fastened it to the bridge wall, so that when Hulk tried to swing it, the frame slipped right out of his hands. The truck smacked loudly onto the bridge. "Bruce!" Peter shouted as he jumped onto a nearby Sedan. "Don't get carried away!"
Hulk scowled at him and turned. Steve was trying to get away again, and Hulk grabbed him by two of his feet, slinging him into the pavement. Steve struggled but he was finally showing the effects of the fight. He lashed out, clawing at Hulk's chest and arms and drawing blood from his snarling lips. In a blur of black and green they rolled to the edge and warped the railings.
Peter watched helplessly. "It's like freaking Godzilla," he muttered, and suddenly he was hit by inspiration. He pulled down his sleeve and ejected his spare cartridges, finding the one he'd marked with a black X. "All or nothing," he said as he popped it into his left shooter.
Steve had two legs wrapped up in the supports, and when Hulk came at him again he latched onto the whirling green fists with all his remaining limbs. With a sharp twist of his body he ripped Hulk off his feet. His face was twitching and he lurched forward, jabbing at Hulk's face and chest with his clawed appendages. Hulk fought back but the hands were everywhere, pulling his hair back to expose his throat. With an inhuman snarl Steve lunged, fangs bared.
Peter leapt at him. He shot the special webbing at the side of Steve's face and pulled, drawing him off course. The loud clap of his jaws snapping shut gave Peter a start, but he shot again, this time at Steve's claws. The solution was as thick and sticky as when they'd first used it, and it went quickly to work, fusing together two of Steve's arms. Steve shrieked and swung, but Peter dodged back and forth, dragging the gooey lines around his ankles and wrists.
"I've got him," said Peter, aiming another shot at Steve's feet to be sure he couldn't try to run again. "I've got him--"
Hulk pushed to his feet and charged. Peter barely had time to get out of the way let alone try to stop him, and could only stare as Hulk smashed into the trapped Steve and sent them both hurdling off the bridge. Peter leapt to the edge but by then he could already hear the splash.
The water below rippled outward, and Peter leaned down, scanning each wave for some sign of the pair. It wasn't until he started to feel dizzy that he realized he was holding his breath. The inside of his mask still tasted like blood and it brought to life a hundred terrifying thoughts: that he had killed Tony Stark, stopped his heart with military grade knockout gas; that he had trapped Steve and Bruce in a web that couldn't be torn or dissolved and left them to drown. His selfishness and carelessness had killed half a team of invincible superheroes, and he shivered against the concrete, fighting back a swell of tears.
"God damn it, Bruce," he whispered. "I said I had him."
For what felt like hours, nothing stirred. Then the water parted, and from it sprang a wide green hand. Peter's hand shot forward almost without him and fired off a strand of his normal webbing. It caught Hulk's open palm, and then Hulk rotated his wrist, getting enough of a grip that he could pull his head above the water. He gasped, shaking his wet hair out of his face, and at last shoved a second body up: Steve, as small and fleshy as he had ever been, his eyes closed.
Peter secured his web to the bridge and then fired another, sticking to the goo already tangled around Steve's now human body. Using a beam as leverage he began to pull Steve up while Hulk used the first to climb. The pain in Peter's shoulder faded to the back of his mind as he put everything he had into each yank of the line. Finally, Steve was topside. The water had dulled the stick of the special webbing enough that Peter was able to drag him away from the edge without getting stuck himself, and he stretched Steve gently out on the road.
"Captain?" Peter yanked one of his gloves off and cupped it over Steve's nose and mouth. The soft breath against his palm almost reduced him to tears. "Ms. Pepper--er, Ms. Potts. It's Steve--he's back to normal. He's unconscious but he's okay."
"Thank god. What about Bruce?"
Peter lifted his head. Hulk pulled himself onto the bridge and blinked back and forth, looking dazed but, thankfully, out of angry steam. "He's okay, too," said Peter. "He's okay. I think it's over."
Peter sagged, and he started when he was halted by Hulk's broad hand against his back. He looked up and couldn't help but laugh, he was so damn exhausted. "It's over, right?"
Hulk smiled down at him. It was strange seeing Bruce's warmest expression on such a large countenance, but Peter would have recognized it anywhere. Despite the rough ride, they had done it. For a moment Peter forgot that he had been the cause and he beamed, proud of them both. It was a very different sensation than his first major victory at the top of Oscorp, cowering next to the body of Captain Stacey. They had worked as a team and they had won. The spectators watching from up and down the bridge could see Spider-Man being welcomed by one of the heroes that had saved the world.
The moment didn't last long. Hulk suddenly lifted his head and stared out over the water. He growled.
"What?" Peter used Hulk's arm to stand up and looked for himself. A jet was coming up the bay, dark and sleek and without markings. He cringed. "Whoa. That looks...decidedly unfriendly."
"What?" asked Pepper urgently. "What's wrong?"
"It's a jet." Peter hopped up on the rail for a better look. "A big one, coming this way."
Hulk stood up. "Run," he said.
The sound of his voice startled Peter into turning. "What is it?"
"Run," Hulk said again. He ushered Peter away from the edge and pointed up into the bridge's maze-like structure of beams. "Run away."
Peter glanced behind him, but he wasn't inclined to argue. "Okay." He nodded, and though he would have liked to curl up against Hulk's back again for a slower ride home, he replaced his glove and then followed the instructions up into hiding. Once he was a dozen meters away and safely obscured by the bridge itself, he turned back to look.
The jet stopped overhead and hovered. Peter watched, awestruck and a little frightened, as its back opened up and several soldiers in combat gear appeared. He ached to go back, but when he lowered his gaze he saw that Hulk wasn't just surrendering to them, he was shrinking. With every second that passed he grew smaller and paler, until there was only Bruce, collapsing into unconsciousness just before the men and women repelled down to him.
"I sure hope those are the good guys," said Peter.
"Peter?" Pepper was still in his ear. "Peter, it's okay. I've just heard from SHIELD. They're on the scene and they'll handle the rest. Are you still there?"
Another figured repelled down from the jet: a woman with brilliant red hair in less formal combat attire. Peter leaned forward to get a good look and pulled back just as quickly when she seemed to glance his way. Hulk's warning rang in his ears and he retreated further down the bridge. "I'm here," he said. "I'm okay. I'll leave the rest to them." He slipped the earpiece out of his hood and flicked it off. Though it was probably dangerous to stay on the scene, he remained, watching until Steve and Bruce had both been secured in stretchers and flown away.
Bruce awoke to the familiar sensations of vague confusion and too-tight skin. He didn't try to fight them, letting each breath come when it was ready, letting his mind slowly clear. He was lying naked in a bed of soft sheets--his bed in Stark Tower. Slowly, he tested each of his sore limbs, and he frowned when he finally realized that one of his hands was caught in five warm fingers.
Bruce turned his head to the side and was met with Peter, his hand gripping Bruce's, his head pillowed on his arms. He was still in his Spider-Man suit sans mask and, it seemed, deeply asleep. Bruce stared for several minutes. It had been years since he'd woken up from the Hulk to a hand in his, and his heart swelled in his chest until it was almost painful. While meeting Peter the first time he would have never thought that he would end up there, with Peter watching over him.
Bruce slipped his hand free and instead ran it through Peter's hair. "Where did you come from, Peter?" he murmured, emotion thick in his throat. "And what am I going to do with you?"
Peter stirred. He lifted his head, and the smile that touched his lips the moment he saw Bruce was sweet and captivating. "Bruce." When Bruce turned his palm against Peter's cheek, Peter leaned into it. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, now." Bruce gently traced the shape of a bruise under Peter's left eye. "Are you?"
"Just a little banged up, but okay." He chuckled. "I've had worse."
Bruce smiled, but he didn't want to think about worse. "How'd we do?" he asked. "Is Steve all right?"
"You don't remember?"
"No." Bruce could only recall the briefest flashes of their fight through the city. "Nothing."
"In that case, I single-handedly saved the day," said Peter with a weary smirk. "Except, well, Mr. Stark might still be in a coma or something. I haven't checked in a while."
Bruce sighed. "The gas?"
"Yeah. Right to the face." Peter squirmed. "But it wasn't my fault, really."
"I'm sure." Bruce continued to lightly stroke Peter's face, and at last gave the back of his neck a tug. "Come here."
Peter didn't need further coaxing. He leaned forward against the mattress and let Bruce pull him down into a kiss. His lips were bruised but still sweet, and Bruce didn't want to let them go. It wasn't any less wrong than ever, he tried to tell himself. Peter was still too young, too inexperienced for it to be anything short of taking advantage. That didn't stop him. He had something and he wasn't ready to give up on it yet.
Peter jerked back suddenly, and before Bruce could ask why, he had leapt to the ceiling. The door opened a moment later and Bruce jumped at the sight of Director Fury leaning in.
"Dr. Banner," Fury greeted precisely. "Now that you're awake, would you mind joining us?"
"Um...sure." Bruce sat up and managed not to glance to the ceiling. "Just give me a minute to get dressed."
Fury nodded and left again. Once the door had clicked shut, Peter dropped to the floor. "The suits picked you up after the bridge," he said. "I had to sneak in here through the window."
"Fury's not your everyday suit," said Bruce. He climbed out of bed and hunted out some fresh clothing. "You're lucky you were in his blind spot when he came in."
Peter sat down on the edge of the mattress as Bruce got dressed. His shoulders sagged. "I guess now's when I get turned in, huh?"
Bruce frowned and buttoned up his shirt. "I'll talk to him," he said. "Fury's tough but he's reasonable. He won't hand you over to the cops if he thinks he can get some use out of you."
"Use?" Peter straightened. "You mean, on the team?"
"We'll see." Bruce cupped Peter's chin and pressed a kiss to the top of his head. "Just stay put. If it seems to be going well, I'll give you the cue to come in. Everything's going to be all right, Peter."
He headed for the door, but once his hand was on the knob Peter spoke up. "Hey, Bruce." He leaned back on his hands. "You are going to tell me the story behind the Big Green You sometime, aren't you?"
"Yeah." Bruce smiled wearily. "I will."
Bruce closed the door behind him and let out a long sigh. He felt as if he were about to go into battle, but he steeled his nerves and followed the sounds of voices into the main commons of his set of rooms.
"Ugly little sucker, ain't he?" Fury was saying. "Maybe I should pay Oscorp a visit myself. It seems to me this has to be breaking some kind of safety violation."
Bruce entered and found Fury studying the contents of a plastic container: a small blue and red spider with its front legs pawing at the sides. "You found it?" He slipped his glasses on, and Fury handed him the container for closer inspection.
"Agent Romanoff found it," said Fury. "I'm guessing it's a spider thing." Natasha, who was seated nearby with her arms folded, only shrugged.
Bruce gave the spider a once over. It looked just like the last one he had seen, though much more alive. Satisfied that it was safely contained, he turned his attention to the rest of the room. Pepper was seated near Natasha, a tablet balanced in her lap. The only other occupants were Tony and Steve, both wrapped in bathrobes and seated side by side on the couch. Each sported an ice pack on the top of his head, and they both looked haggard and possibly nauseous, but at least Tony was awake and Steve fully human. Bruce handed the spider back to Fury and moved to Steve, checking his pulse and temperature.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
"Exhausted." Steve didn't protest any of Bruce's prodding. "Fuzzy."
"We've already sent a blood sample back to the lab," said Fury. "It should be able to tell us if this 'condition' of Captain Rogers' is going to be perpetual."
"The radiation given off by these spiders is very minimal," said Bruce. "Nothing like what I was exposed to. I'm fairly confident it'll dissipate and he'll be fine."
"Even so, he'll be coming back to the carrier with us for observation until we're sure."
Bruce gave Steve's shoulder a squeeze, which he seemed to appreciate. "And Tony?"
"Splitting headache," Tony grunted. "Thanks for asking."
"At least we know the EA works."
"Dr. Banner." Fury gestured for him to sit down. "I'd like to hear your version of the events tonight."
Bruce took a seat next to Steve. He glanced to his peers and they looked back, clearly trying to communicate something, which Fury was quick to interrupt. "None of that," he said. "I see you trying to get your stories straight. Just tell me what happened, Doctor."
Bruce licked his lips. "Captain Rogers was exposed to trace amounts of radioactive material, via that spider." He waved toward the container. "It reacted badly with the Super Soldier Serum already in his blood and he suffered...a mutation, as I understand. I didn't see it myself. There isn't any footage, is there?"
Pepper tapped on her tablet a few times and then handed it over. Several screens were playing, including security camera footage from the tower balcony, several shots from a news chopper, and even a few Youtube videos taken on cell phones. Bruce all but beamed with excitement as he took in the sight of Steve's grisly transformation. "All that from such a small dose of radiation," he said, mostly to himself. "Extraordinary."
Steve watched the videos with mixed guilt and apprehension. "I don't remember anything after Dr. Banner telling me to lie down on the couch," he said.
"It's not unlike my better half," Bruce went on, fascinated. "The transformation, the loss of cognition and control. Steve's original formula reacted in a very similar manner to mine. Do you realize what this means?" He looked to Tony excitedly. "It means I was right about the formula after all. It wasn't my chemistry that was wrong, it was the gamma radiation only. Everything else I did right."
"Does that mean something?" Steve asked blearily.
"Of course it does. What it means, I'm not sure yet." Bruce restarted the videos. "But this is amazing. I have a lot of work to do..."
Steve sighed. "At least something good came out of it."
"Dr. Banner," said Fury. "Focus."
"Ah, yes, sorry." Bruce continued to watch the clips. "You were saying?"
Fury glared at him. "You need to tell me where the spider came from."
Bruce kept his head down, stalling. He managed to catch Tony's eye but Tony only shrugged. Before Fury could lose his patience, he said, "It came with Spider-Man, I assume."
"The security guards at Oscorp headquarters swear that Spider-Man robbed their lab tonight," said Natasha. "The police haven't been able to confirm because no one will say what he stole, and there are no prints or other physical evidence that put him at the scene, let alone hint to his identity."
"I don't know anything about that," Bruce said quickly. "Honestly. All I know is that Spider-Man showed up here needing medical attention. We took care of him. And then Captain Rogers suffered the bite."
One of the video clips showed Steve's other form locked in a fight with the Hulk, and Bruce was distracted watching it. It was always a little surreal. "He helped us get things under control, though, didn't he?"
Fury pursed his lips. "He did," he admitted. "As far as we can tell."
Bruce closed the windows and handed the tablet back to Pepper. "Director Fury," he said, "Spider-Man has been active in New York for some time now, as I understand. Surely you have a file on him already."
Fury didn't look pleased to be the one put on the spot. "I do."
"Did you know that his abilities are super human? Artificial?"
"We've suspected as much, yes."
Bruce licked his lips and leaned forward. He prayed he was making the right move. "He's special," he said with conviction. "Sir, Spider-Man is smart, and he's talented, and we all know his heart is in the right place. I know what happened tonight could be labeled a fiasco, and--" he glanced to Steve and Tony "--it could have ended with a lot worse than property damage, but it takes more than some kid in a skin-tight suit to handle me at my worst, let alone two of me. And he did just that."
Fury looked him straight in the eye. "What are you asking me to do, Dr. Banner?"
"I think..." Bruce took in a deep breath. "I'm asking you to consider him for the Avengers."
Steve and Tony were very quiet next to him. Bruce couldn't tell if it was disapproval or acceptance motivating their silence, but he didn't try to look. He stared straight back at Fury and tried to convey all his confidence and none of his ulterior motives. It didn't seem to be working, but then Fury leaned back and frowned thoughtfully.
"Is he here?" Fury asked.
"He...was." Bruce managed not to look at the door. "I don't know if he still is."
Natasha stood, but Fury waved her down before she could leave the room. After another thoughtful moment he said, "I'll consider it."
"If he was here, I'm sure he'd thank you," said Bruce.
Everyone paused. No one looked at the door even though that was where their attention was. When nothing happened, Fury shook his head. "In the meantime, I have a lot of reports to write," he said. "And you, Captain. You're coming with me."
"Can you give me a few minutes?" asked Steve. "I'd like the chance to clean up a bit and find some clothes before getting in a helicopter."
"Fair enough." Fury's lip quirked; he always seemed to know everything. He motioned to Natasha. "We'll wait outside."
"Wait." Bruce sat up straighter. "If you don't mind, I'd like to keep that spider."
Fury raised an eyebrow at him. "What for?"
"My research, of course." Bruce held his hand out, but when Fury didn't budge, he was forced to elaborate. "It could provide me much needed data," he said. "The effect it had on Captain Rogers is extraordinary, and it deserves to be studied. In a safe environment, of course." He swallowed. "I might even be able to figure out precisely where it came from."
Fury grunted. "I suppose I can't consider it stolen property if the owners haven't reported it stolen yet," he said carefully. "But you be very careful with that, Doctor. I'll be checking up on you and I'll want to see what you learn from it."
"Of course." Bruce wanted to explain the full situation to Fury, but he had the feeling that would only tie Fury's hands in a way neither of them wanted. "There's no safer place for it than here," he said, and Fury at last handed the container over.
"If that's settled," said Fury, "we're leaving." He fixed Steve with a hard look. "Meet us at the pad."
"I'll come with you," Pepper volunteered. "Maybe you'd like some coffee before you go?"
"I'd like that," said Natasha, and the three of them left together.
As soon as they were gone Bruce turned toward the hall. "You missed your cue," he called.
Something thumped and then Peter emerged, looking sheepish. He shrugged. "Sorry."
Bruce glanced at Tony and Steve, but they were both watching him expectantly. With a wince he moved to meet Peter in the doorway. "I thought this was what you wanted," he said quietly. "If you want to be on the team, you're going to have to face up to Director Fury at some point."
Peter fidgeted, and after some biting of his lip and rubbing his shoulder, he finally shook his head. "Thank you, Bruce. Really. But I think all of this has just made me realize I'm not ready for that. You know, maybe someday. Just not yet."
Bruce smiled. "I understand."
Tony cleared his throat loudly. "Something you want to share with the class?"
Bruce stepped aside, and with a deep breath Peter moved past him. He faced Tony and Steve resolutely. "Mr. Stark," he said. "Captain Rogers. I'm really sorry about all of this. I know how much trouble I've caused."
"I know the spider was an accident," said Steve, "but you really shouldn't have been at Oscorp in the first place."
"I know." Peter ducked his head. "I'll find a way to make it right, if I can. But it looks like you're not going to turn me in, so...I apologize, and I won't do it again. I won't need to now that we've got a spider, right?"
Steve sighed and rolled his eyes. "Everyone in the future is a smart ass," he complained.
"There weren't any casualties, at least," said Tony. "Except my pride. You turning into a giant spider and wrecking some cars isn't the worst thing that could have happened."
"We've all made mistakes," Bruce butted in. "And we're all a little wiser, right?" He set his hand protectively on the back of Peter's neck. "All the same, you'd better lay low for a while."
Peter watched him out of the corner of his eye. "Does that mean I'm not welcome back here anymore?"
Bruce blushed and looked to Tony for assistance. For a moment it looked as if Tony wasn't interested in a save, but then he pushed to his feet. "Let's get you some clothes, Rogers," he said. "Happy left some things here that you might be able to squeeze into."
As Tony helped Steve up, Bruce turned to face Peter properly. "As long as I'm here, you're welcome," he said seriously. "I said I'd help you figure out your abilities, and I meant it. I know what you're going through."
Peter offered a lopsided grin. "Yeah. I really believe it." He shifted his weight. "What about...the rest?"
Bruce's blush darkened. "We'll...work on that," he said. "But at a much slower pace than we were."
"So." A look of mischief flashed in his eyes that already made Bruce doubt his self-control. "I guess that means no more humping in spandex for a while?"
Steve hadn't quite made it out the door, and he stopped, turning to face the pair. "Wait, what?"
Bruce stuttered over an answer, but before he reached one Peter darted in to kiss him full on the mouth. By the time he even thought to push him off, Peter was already leaning away. "I gotta go," Peter said lightly. "My aunt's gonna kill me." He looked to Tony and Steve. "No hard feelings, right, guys?"
"Stay out of trouble," said Tony. "For real this time."
Peter saluted. "Glad to finally meet you, Mr. Stark." He tugged his mask down and headed for the window.
Bruce wiped his mouth and flashed the gaping Steve a helpless grin. "Peter--"
"I'll call you tomorrow," Peter said as he opened the window and climbed out. "We still have a lot to talk about."
"Yes, but Peter..." Bruce followed him to the window, and Peter waited, but once he was there he didn't know what to say. He sighed. "Be careful getting home."
"I will. Take care of yourself, too, Bruce." He blew Bruce a kiss and then leapt away from the sill, letting a shot of webbing carry him out into the city. Bruce watched until he was out of sight. He wasn't sure he'd ever tire of seeing Peter glide between the buildings so effortlessly.
"Hey," said Steve. "What the hell was that just now?"
Bruce turned back shyly. "Kids," he said, shrugging. "They're inexplicable."
Steve made a face, but then Tony shoved at his back to get him out of the room. "Come on, Rogers," he said. "Let's make you up nice and pretty for Director Fury."
He managed to usher Steve out, and once they were gone Bruce breathed a sigh of relief and moved back to the window. Peter was long gone but he knew they'd be seeing each other again soon. He had no idea what would come next, but for once, the sensation of not knowing didn't bother him.
"Guess I'll be staying in the city for longer than I thought," he said thoughtfully, and he headed back to his room, hoping to get a few more hours of proper sleep. Come morning he would have a lot of work to do. The thought made him smile.
EDIT: This fic now has a sequel, Let's Glow in the Dark. Thanks for all the support, everyone!