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Making Sense of Chaos

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When Spider-Man fought, he was always cautious about his strength. He could break someone’s bones just by poking them too hard; he could dent steel with a flick of his wrist. Killing someone would be easy, if he wasn’t careful.

 

Spider-Man was always careful.

 

He wasn’t like Daredevil, who beats the ever-loving-shit out of the criminals he catches (there was a reason why the criminals of Hell’s Kitchen were too scared to say his name, and why the first thing anyone in trouble in that city did was scream for the Devil to save them); he couldn’t be, with his strength. It was too dangerous, too risky. Spider-Man was more of the humiliate them, incapacitate them, and web them brand. Granted, he did get in physical confrontations past simply webbing them, but he was always - always - careful to only use the barest fraction of his strength.

 

He always hit the attempted rapists the hardest, though.

 

Where a simple mugger would have gotten harsh bruises and sprained muscles, rapists got fractured ribs and broken bones. He didn’t mean to hit them the hardest per se - Peter had never gone out with the explicit intention of hurting them the most - but his strength always seemed to be more difficult to control around them.

 

It didn’t mean anything, though.

 

Anybody would punch those types of criminals the hardest, Peter justified. There was an entire YouTube channel dedicated to Daredevil’s exploits, for instance, and when they graphed out the injuries of his opponents - literally graphed them out, on a chart and everything, as if it was for school - the human traffickers and the sexual predators always had the highest injury count. Jessica Jones had snapped the neck of her rapist. It was a human, visceral reaction to act harshest towards those types of violations.

 

It didn’t mean anything.

 

It didn’t mean anything to him.

 

It wasn’t personal.

 

It wasn’t.


 

When Peter was seven, Skip became his babysitter.

 

Steven Westcott - Skip - was a much older, much cooler boy that lived a few streets down from Peter, and he was the only kid in a fifteen mile radius that didn’t avoid strange little Peter Parker for the sole reason that the seven year old could solve equations that gave college professors trouble.

 

“Aren’t you that kid whose nose is always buried in a textbook?” he had greeted. “Name’s Steven Westcott; call me Skip.”

 

Peter had glanced over the rim of his glasses to see a taller, older boy staring down at him with a cocky grin and quirk to his eyebrows. The seven year old had anticipated a short, empty conversation that ended the moment Peter said something that sounded a bit off coming from someone without a PhD, or a less short, painful confrontation that ended with a bloody nose and another pair of broken glasses.

 

He hadn’t expected the older boy to actually try to befriend him.

 

He definitely hadn’t expected him to succeed.

 

“Which way do you live? I never walked Einstein home before.”

 

“You don’t have to, Skip.”

 

“I want to. Einstein, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!”

 

And, strangely enough, it had been. Peter honestly couldn’t understand why Skip hung around him; most children wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with someone so much younger than them, let alone one that was so weird that kids his own age hated him. He never asked why Skip kept coming around; he was too afraid of doing anything that could end the friendship just as it began.

 

Skip had been Peter’s first, best, and only friend.

 

Three weeks after he met Skip, May and Ben made him his babysitter.

 

They had been hesitant, at first. May and Ben had been so young when they received the orphaned Peter, newlyweds, really, and hadn’t been ready for a child, let alone the pint-sized genius they were aunt and uncle to. While Peter knew they loved him, they were stumbling through parenthood, and had overanalyzed every little decision - and regretted every decision they hadn’t, like when they impulsively told Peter to call them May and Ben instead of Aunt May and Uncle Ben. The idea of leaving their nephew with an older boy they didn’t know very well had grated on them, friend or no, and it had eventually been necessity that had persuaded them to accept Skip’s offer of free babysitting.

 

(“It’ll be fun,” Skip had informed Peter with a wink. “Not really babysitting at all, just the two of us, hanging out.”)

 

May and Ben had dropped Peter off at Skip’s house before leaving for their weekend shifts, hovering uncertainly before departing.

 

“Don’t worry, Mr. and Mrs. Parker, “ Skip had beamed, ruffling Peter’s hair. “I’ll take good care of him.”


 

Peter ran into Captain America while he was patrolling Brooklyn.

 

“Captain,” he greeted awkwardly. “You’re back.”

 

“Uh, yeah. Been back for a few days now; I understand I have you and your friends to thank for that.”

 

Peter shrugged noncommittally. “The Accords were crashing and burning on their own pretty well. We just sped up the process a bit. It was all just a coincidence, really.”

 

The Accords had crashed and burned, in a massive, fiery kind of way that would have been almost funny, if it didn't take so many innocents down with it.

 

Massive amounts of bureaucracy was never conducive to fast response times, and when aliens were falling from the sky, or mad scientists were making their bid for world domination, or Nazi organizations that resurrected phoenix style were trying to kill half of the planet’s population, sooner was always better than later. The world became painfully aware of this fact when disaster after disaster occurred with no Avenger in sight. Countries began to pull out of the Accords one by one, starting with Wakanda and continuing from there.

 

First, it had been some deranged mad scientist with some kind of laser tech in Minsk. The Avengers had stopped him before with very little trouble (he just kept escaping, resulting in them having to catch him again), but this time, the Oversight Committee in charge of deploying the remaining Avengers had decided their help wasn’t needed.

 

In the past three attempts the villain had made, only one person had died, and that was before the Avengers even showed up.

 

This time, seventeen people died.

 

Belarus, Poland, the Ukraine, and Germany left the Accords less than a week later.

 

Next, it was some lunatic lobbing grenades and an unknown, highly destructive concussive device around London. The local authorities couldn’t stop him due to the near-indestructible armor he was wearing. They requested the help of Iron Man and the Vision, and thus, the debates began. The Oversight Committee was still debating when the crisis was eventually stopped - after forty-seven deaths and countless injuries - when an everyday citizen revealed themselves to be powered and took down the madman with very little trouble. Instead of being thankful that lives were saved, the Committee tried to imprison the hero without a trial because she had never signed the Accords and didn’t wait until they gave the okay for superhuman intervention. England closed ranks around their new favorite hero, left the Accords, and basically gave the middle finger to anyone who tried to prosecute her.

 

And it so continued, one by one, until the only big holdout left was America.

 

Honestly, Peter was surprised it had taken so long. When Captain America was more welcome anywhere but America, you know something’s gonna snap. He just hadn’t expected it to snap with him in the center of it.

 

Hydra attacked Times Square less than six months after Captain America and Co. had become fugitives. Despite being only two blocks away, Stark was unable to intervene, stuck in his tower because the Oversight Committee was withholding his suits from him until they made a decision regarding intervention, all while Hydra rampaged through the city.

 

Spider-Man suited up, swung by Hell’s Kitchen to pick up Daredevil - marking the first time the man had ever fought outside of Hell’s Kitchen - and arrived in time to stop an armored Jeep Wrangler from crashing into a crowd at sixty miles per hour. He then proceeded to rip the door to the car off its hinges, yank out the Hydra agents - who Daredevil proceeded to beat the daylights out of - and throw said Jeep into the gun turret they had set up on the other end of Times Square.

 

It really went downhill from there. For Hydra.

 

Jessica Jones and Luke Cage pulled up in a taxi - a freaking taxi - halfway through the fight, and pretty much sealed the coffin on the already dwindling Hydra forces. Unlike Daredevil and Spider-Man, however, neither of them wore a mask. Apparently, any attempt at a secret identity for Jones had already been shot to Hell, due to the small fact that she had a tendency to casually crumple steel with her bare hands as an intimidation technique, and since she ran around throwing goons through walls and claiming to have laser eyes (she didn’t, Peter asked) whenever she delivered court summons for Hogarth. On top of all that, everyone and their cousin knew who she was after the Kilgrave debacle. Cage had an equally unlikely chance of ever maintaining a secret identity, since he had walked out of exploding buildings and bar fights alike without a scratch.

 

By the end of the battle, four exhausted superhumans were still standing, dozens of Hydra forces were on the ground, and a helicopter with mounted Chitauri weapons was dangling between buildings, caught in a web of Peter’s creation.

 

“You have three fractured ribs,” Matt informed him. “There’s also a few minor lacerations, major bruising, and a torn ligament.”

 

“You aren’t looking too hot yourself,” Peter shot back. It was true. The man had a cut cheek, bruises scattered across his visible skin, a split lip, and a limp.

 

Daredevil grinned, blood leaking across his teeth in a way that made Peter understand why there were criminals convinced he was Satan incarnate. “I wouldn’t know.”

 

“Oh, hardy har har. You’re so very funny. You know, those jokes only make sense when people know who you are; other people have no idea what you’re talking about.”

 

“That’s what makes it so funny.”

 

Peter reached out to shove the man, then groaned at the movement. “That sucked. That sucked so hard. Can I borrow concealer or something from Karen? My aunt’s gonna wonder why I got hurt, and then she’s gonna wonder why the bruises disappeared overnight.” Peter had had enough trouble trying to explain why his war wounds from Steve from Brooklyn had healed during the half-hour he had an icepack on them; he didn’t need anymore trouble.

 

“Yes, tell me more about the troubles of accelerated healing,” Daredevil intoned dryly. “The cross you bear must be so heavy. I’ll just go home and count myself lucky that I’ll have to spend the next few weeks claiming I fell down the stairs.”

 

“Man, you don’t need an advanced healing factor; you’ve got Catholicism. Pain just kind of rolls off you.”

 

“The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen is Catholic?” Jones interrupted. Peter turned around. The pair had crossed the Square while they had been talking, coming up behind them.

 

Matt cocked his head. “And if he is?”

 

Jones shrugged. “Nothing. Just thought Catholics had something against dressing up in bright red fetish gear before hanging around in dark alleys.”

 

Peter snorted a laugh. “I like you,” he declared. “Spider-Man,” he introduced, before pointing at Matt. “Daredevil.”

 

“We know who you are,” Cage said. He cast a surveying glance around the destroyed area. “What a mess.”

 

“Coulda used Stark or some shit,” Jones agreed. “Pizza?”

 

“Sure,” Peter shrugged. Behind them, the helicopter creaked and groaned ominously. “I... should probably get that down now; those webs dissolve after an hour, and I don’t want falling on someone.”

 

They ended up on the floor of Jones apartment, eight large pizza boxes set between them as they watched the news role in.

 

By the time the Council approved the use of Iron Man and Vision, six out of the eight pizzas were gone, Spider-Man had beaten both Jones and Cage in an arm wrestling contest, and Daredevil had beaten all of them at darts. (That in itself wasn’t very impressive to the other two, but Peter knew Matt was blind, just like he knew that the man was listening to the air currents or something to figure out the best way to hit the bullseye.) By the time the Council found out that the crisis had been resolved by four non-signed individuals, all the pizza was gone, and Jones had broken out her booze stash.

 

“Absolutely not,” Daredevil declared, not even looking up at the proffered bottle. “If you so much as look at an alcohol bottle, Webhead, I’m dragging you out of here.”

 

“You know, it’s highly unlikely I can even get drunk.”

 

“Don’t care. Until you’re twenty-one, you’re sticking to water.”

 

Jones looked at them incredulously. “He’s not twenty-one yet?”

 

Cage looked slightly disturbed. “You’re over eighteen though?”

 

“I plead the fifth,” Peter grumbled.

 

The bottle clunked on the floor. Jones spun on Daredevil. “Why the Hell are you letting him go out?”

 

“He doesn’t let me do anything,” Peter protested. “When we first met, he tried to duct tape me to a fire escape to keep me from fighting. He hadn’t figured out I had super strength yet.”

 

“You can’t really keep Spider-Man from doing anything,” Daredevil agreed reluctantly. “He’s too stubborn for that.”

 

By the time the Oversight Committee had issued warrants for their arrest, Jessica and Luke had mostly gotten over Peter’s age, and Matt and Peter were about to leave.

 

“They’ll have to figure out who we are before they can get close,” Matt pointed out, “but you two don’t have the same luxury. You were caught on camera fighting; they’ll find out where you live. You may want to get lawyers.”

 

“I’ve got one,” Jones replied. “Real shark, too. She’ll run circles around them.”

 

What followed was, quite frankly, a train wreck.

 

The NYPD refused to go after them. The police force - the people who had been shooting at them since day dot - would not fulfill the warrants for any of them, and even dropped the warrants they already had for Spider-Man and Daredevil.

 

“Why should we arrest them for saving our asses?” one officer scoffed, on live TV. “It’s more than the ‘official’ forces did.”

 

Frustrated, the Joint Counter Terrorist Center sent out their own forces, who were easily dodged by Matt and Peter, and buried in legal precedents by Jessica’s attorney, Hogarth, who, according to Matt, could smell the blood in the water better than an actual shark. Then, the videos of the fight hit YouTube, where one could find clear images of Daredevil single-handedly fighting off six men trying to attack a group of kids of a field trip, Jones throwing Hydra goons into one another, Cage shielding bystanders with his body, and Spider-Man physically catching a crashing bus before it could ram into a building. That resulted in protests from the New Yorkers, who were immediately offended that someone was being arrested for saving their lives. The Accords began to teeter in their last stronghold, and, as a last ditch effort, the Oversight Committee ordered Iron Man to bring in Daredevil and Spider-Man (they were still wading their way through red tape when it came to Jones and Cage).

 

Tony complied, then texted his completely normal grant receiver Peter Parker what neighborhoods he would be searching before taking off, merrily blasting ACDC as he went.

 

Say what you will about politicians, but they always know which way the wind was blowing. The second there was higher approval ratings for a mouthy kid in brightly colored spandex, a couple of alcoholics who literally stopped mid-fight to take a swig from a flask, and a man that half of the criminal underworld is convinced to be the Devil himself than for the heroes they championed, they changed their tune. Congress pulled out of the Accords in record time, as soon as the public pressure grew to the point it threatened their reelections.

 

The warrants out for Spider-Man, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Captain America, and the rest of the rogue Avengers were cancelled. Rumor had it that Captain America was returning to New York, but nothing had been substantiated. Peter had pushed the issue to the back of his mind, seeing as he had never expected to see the man again.

 

And now, of course, he had no idea what to say to him. Sorry for stealing your shield and webbing your hands? I didn’t realize how stupid the Accords were when I helped Stark, I just didn’t want him to tell my aunt on me? Totally not sorry for taking down your huge friend, that was awesome? Please don’t smack me in the face with your patriotic frisbee of justice?

 

In the end, the Captain spoke first. “What brings you to Brooklyn? I thought you were a Queens boy.”

 

“I am. I try to take care of all parts of New York, except its huge. I don’t have to worry about Hell’s Kitchen, Daredevil’s got it handled, but other parts don’t have their own vigilante. Mostly, I hang around Queens and Midtown, but I swing by Brooklyn, Manhattan, and a few other places whenever I can. Crime’s pretty bad around here.”

 

“Hopefully not for much longer,” Captain America replied. “I was planning on keeping an eye on the place.”

 

Peter’s eyebrows shot up from behind his mask. “Seriously? I guess I’ll head to the Bronx for a while, check out things around there. Oh, but make sure to check on Vinegar Hill, there have been some guys causing trouble the past few days, and they may be back. And there’s a group out in Fort Greene who keeps stealing cars, they seem to be dragging them back to a shop somewhere but I haven’t been able to find it yet. Also, a few gangs in Downtown have been acting up, but if you go after any of them, make sure they don’t find out where you live, because they’ll burn your house down. And -” Peter paused. The Captain was looking at him a tad bewildered, and a bit overwhelmed. “You’ve never been a vigilante before, have you?”

 

“Does everything that went down from Lagos to Siberia count?”

 

“No.”

 

“Then no.”

 

“Okay,” Peter breathed. “You’re more prepared than any of us were when we started out, so you shouldn’t have much trouble getting the hang of things. You’ll probably have your fair share of mishaps though, so be careful. Don’t piss off the police, or they’ll put warrants out for your arrest and shoot at you. When Daredevil started out, he got thrown into a lot of dumpsters - and I mean a lot - so if you want tips on how to avoid that, talk to him; they’re more helpful than you think. But for the love of all that is good and sweet, don’t drag trouble after you into Hell’s Kitchen unless you want to get the crud beaten out of you. Some of the us vigilantes meet every Thursday to spar; you’re welcome to come if you want. We keep burner phones in case we need backup; you might want to consider investing in one.”

 

“You’ve all really thought this out, haven’t you?”

 

“Trial and error, mostly. I - I heard that they’re still considering prosecuting Sergeant Barnes.”

 

“We don’t know yet,” he admitted. “But it looks like it’s heading that way.”

 

“Well, I’m guessing you’re not about to use Mr. Stark’s lawyers.”

 

Captain Rogers looked down. “No, I’m not. It wouldn’t be right to ask him that.”

 

Quickly, Peter reached down and pulled a worn business card from his boot. “Here. They’re good attorneys, someone to at least consider. They only represent the innocent in their cases, and they do a lot of pro bono work.” Peter paused. “Can you pay them? Because they’ll probably take your case either way, but innocent isn’t always synonymous with financially secure, and they get paid in bananas a lot.”

 

Rogers chuckled. “I can pay them. Nelson and Murdock,” he read. “I’ll check them out. Uh… You carry their business card in your boot?”

 

“...Yes.”

 

Sirens began blaring through the air, and if Peter concentrated, he could just make out the red glare of the lights. “Duty calls.”

 

“Spider-Man?” the Captain called after him. “Thanks. For looking out for this place, that is.”

 

Peter paused. “Have you spoken to Mr. Stark since you got back?”

 

He looked down. “Not yet. My shield was already in my apartment when I got back, but that’s the closest thing we’ve had to a communication. I didn’t want to push him if he didn’t want to see me.”

“Maybe… maybe you should consider it. I may not know what went down between the two of you, but I know that it can’t all be because of the Accords.” More sirens joined those already blaring. “I should go. Good luck, Captain.”


 

“Come on, Einstein. I want to show you something.”

 

Peter followed, curious. “What is it?”

 

Skip led him to his room, letting Peter sit on his bed while he rooted through his closet. Eventually, he let out a cry of victory and pulled out a magazine from the top shelf before offering it to Peter. “Bet you’ve never seen pictures like those in a stuffy textbook.”

 

“Uh, no…” Peter admitted. Frankly, he had never seen pictures like that anywhere. They looked like something May would ground him for knowing of their existence, let alone looking at them. Feeling uncomfortable, he shoved the magazine away.

 

Peter hadn’t noticed Skip sitting down next to him; the older boy was suddenly there, a bit too close for comfort.

 

“What do you say we conduct a little experiment of our own, Einstein?”

 

Skip put his hand on Peter’s tigh.

 

“Let’s see if we can touch each other like the people in that magazine.”

 

“Don’t, Skip,” Peter stuttered. “I - I have to go,” he scrambled. Then, he paused. Where would he go? His aunt and uncle wouldn’t be home for hours.


 

The call came while Spider-Man was swinging between buildings. Quickly, he flipped to a stop, landing on the rooftop to an apartment building.

 

“Hello?” he answered.

 

“Peter Benjamin Parker,” Foggy Nelson hissed. “Did you give Steve Rogers our business card?”

 

“Based on your tone, that question is rhetorical.”

 

“Captain freaking America just asked Nelson and Murdock to represent James Buchanan Barnes, Peter! And he says he heard about us from Spider-Man.”

 

“You sound mad,” Peter observed. “Does this mean you’re not taking the case?”

 

“Of course we’re taking the case,” Foggy said. “But a little warning that Truth, Justice, and the American Way was about to walk in our doors would have been nice.”

 

Peter paused. He hadn’t considered that. “Oh. Yeah, I suppose so. Sorry.”

 

Foggy sighed. “I’m a flexible person; I feel I’ve learned how to handle the weird pretty well these past few months. My blind best friend turns out to be a ninja vigilante with freaky heightened senses? Sure! He drags back another vigilante with a similar coloring scheme one day to mentor, as if Spider-Man’s some kind of little lost puppy? Why not? But right now there’s a superpowered World War II vet sitting in my waiting room, and damn it, I have earned the right to a heads up!”

 

“I am not some kind of lost puppy - wait Rogers is there right now?”

 

“Uh, yeah,” Foggy replied. “Matt’s not in yet, and Captain Rogers didn’t want to have to repeat everything twice, so Karen’s waiting with him while I ducked in my office to make a few phone calls.”

 

“Foggy!” Peter hissed. “I’ve been to your offices; the waiting room is literally right outside of your office!”

 

“So?”

 

“Captain Rogers has heightened senses; Stark warned me about them before Germany! They’re not close to Matt’s level, but they’re still jacked up! He’s probably heard every single word of this conversation!”

 

“What? Oh God, oh God, I’ve mentioned Matt in this conversation! I’ve mentioned Matt as Daredevil in this conversation!”

 

“Technically, you never pointed out that he was specifically Daredevil until right now.”

 

Foggy swore. “Heightened senses were not on his Wikipedia page!”

 

“Calm down,” Peter soothed. “We don’t know that he heard anything.”

 

Foggy groaned. “No, he definitely heard everything. His face has gone really red and he keeps glancing over at the office.” Foggy groaned again. “And now he’s even redder, and he’s flat out staring at the office. And he just waved. And now Matt’s walking in. I am screwed. I am so screwed. I blame you for this, Parker.”

 

“You’ve mentioned my name in this conversation too, along with the fact that I’m Spider-Man. This is not my fault!”

 

Across the line, Peter could hear the sound of a door opening.

 

“Foggy, why did Captain America just greet me as Mr. Daredevil?”

 

Peter wisely decided that this was the best time to hang up.

 

The fact that his encounter with Rogers may or may not have led to the reveal of both his and Matt’s secret identities was potentially bad, but not disastrous. Tony “I am Iron Man” Stark had figured out his identity months ago, and it was still safe; Rogers seemed to be cut from an even more secretive cloth. Even though the situation wasn’t ideal, he probably wouldn’t tell anybody.

 

Either way, freaking out about it wouldn’t do anything.

 

Sucking in a deep breath, Peter attempted to center himself. Whenever his emotions ran high, his senses went haywire. Matt had been teaching him how to handle his enhanced awareness, but he had nowhere near the effortless control of the man; he still needed time to get them in hand.

 

He breathed in.

 

He breathed out.

 

He listened to the sounds of the city.

 

And he heard something.


 

The hand inched higher.

 

By the time Peter truly realized what was happening, he was too scared to run.


 

Everything had spiralled out of control so quickly.

 

One second, Peter had been sitting on the roof of the apartment building, the next a noise from the structure itself had him spinning into motion without a thought, and suddenly, a window was in pieces and Peter was standing in somebody’s living room.

 

And Peter found that none of that mattered, because there was a trembling boy named Tony in front of him, no more than ten years old, and he was pinned to the ground by an older woman, his belt already unbuckled and his pants halfway down his legs.

 

The woman jumped away as if she had been burnt. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?” she snapped.

 

Peter had heard her speak from the roof, had heard every word of the horrific, disgusting conversation that had just occurred. He had heard Tony’s laughter as she played with him, heard his innocent request to watch Star Wars together. He had heard promise that they could if he just did one little thing for her: if he just took off all his clothes.

 

He had heard naive laughter morph into confused stammers as harmless tickles turned into disturbing touches.

 

Suddenly, Peter wanted to snap back at her. He wanted to shoot webs over her mouth so she could never make such a disgusting request again, wanted to treat this as if were just another back alley crime.

 

Except this wasn’t some random rapist in the dead of night; this wasn’t just another back alley crime. This was Tony’s mom, or aunt, or cousin, or neighbor, or babysitter, and it was suddenly so close to memories better left forgotten that Peter couldn’t breathe.

 

What he wanted more than anything, he realized, was to get Tony away from this ugly scene that could only cause pain.

 

And so he turned away from the woman, and back towards the boy. “It’s okay,” he began.

 

“Don’t talk to him! This is trespassing, get out!”

 

Peter ignored her. He focused on Tony, who was glancing between Spider-Man and his attacker with undisguised fear. “You don’t have to be afraid.”

 

“Tony, go to your room!”

 

Peter wanted him to understand, to understand better than little, seven-year-old Peter ever had. “You can leave. You don’t have to stay with her. You can go.”

 

Tony made a decision.

 

He scrambled to his feet and hiked up his pants, cheeks burning red with shame. Then, he ran to Spider-Man, casting a wary glance at the panicking woman. “I - I want to go.”

 

Peter didn’t think twice.

 

They were back out the window and over the city in moments, thin arms wrapped around Peter’s neck as he swung through the air. Peter set the two of them down on a rooftop a block away. The minute his feet touched the ground, Tony scrambled away, stumbling to a stop and falling to the ground.

 

He started to cry.

 

Awkwardly, Peter hovered next to him, silently freaking out. He was terrible at comforting people, and he didn’t even have the foggiest clue as to how to make this better. He was standing on the rooftop with a crying little kid who had just been assaulted, and Peter still needed to talk to him and find out just how long it had been going on and how far it had gone and a million others things, but he had no idea how to do any of that.

 

Oh, and it was possible that he had technically kidnapped this kid. Couldn’t forget that part.

 

Peter carefully raised his hand to touch the boy’s shoulder in a hopefully comforting way, but dropped it again instead. Shifting awkwardly, Spider-Man crouched down next to the crying child, flinching internally when the boy sobbed harder and shrank in on himself.

 

Eventually, the tears dwindled. Tony began to abruptly tear at his skin in a frantic manner, red scratches appearing along his arms.

 

Peter gently placed a gloved hand over the boy’s. “Stop,” he warned softly.

 

Tony shook his head. “I feel dirty.”

 

“I know, Tony, but you can’t -”

 

“Know?” the boy snapped, tears forming in his eyes again. “How could you know? You’re a superhero! You’re Spider-Man!” he stated with a watery hysteria. “You don’t understand!”

 

Peter swallowed.

 

He could speak in hypotheticals, could tell Tony about a “friend” he once knew. He could walk away without ever voicing a terrible truth aloud.

 

He couldn’t.

 

“I do understand,” Peter answered slowly. “I - I understand perfectly.”

 

Comprehension dawned in Tony’s eyes.

 

“But - but you’re a superhero,” he stuttered slowly. “You have powers.”

 

“I didn’t always. I used to be just a scrawny little kid, too scared to run, too embarrassed to ask for help.”

 

Tony watched him through red-rimmed eyes. “You - you were scared?”

 

Beneath the mask, Peter smiled humorlessly. “Terrified,” he answered honestly. “More terrified than I had ever been in my entire life.”

 

“Did you ever tell?”

 

“Eventually,” Peter nodded.

 

“Why?” Tony glanced up, looking simultaneously hopeful and scared for the answer. “If you were embarrassed, why did you tell people?”

 

“Because I was even more scared that if I didn’t, it would never stop.”


 

By the time May and Ben returned, Peter’s clothes were back on.

 

His belt was buckled.

 

His pants weren’t even rumpled.

 

(Skip had made sure to finish with him long before his aunt and uncle came back.)

 

“Did you boys have fun?” Ben questioned.

 

“We had a great time!” Skip beamed, innocent, charismatic grin in place.

 

Peter didn’t answer.

 

(But he also didn’t tell.)


 

Tony’s parents worked as lawyers at Hogarth, Chao, and Benowitz.

 

Because of course.

 

Peter had to give this to the law firm: soulless sharks or not, they knew how to hire some impressive help.

 

The receptionist was giving Peter a look that was part bored, part pure, unadulterated steel, as if it was completely normal to have Spider-Man standing in your waiting room, clutching the hand of a young boy. Then again, this was the firm that Jones worked with, so it probably wasn't the strangest thing she had ever seen. “Mr. and Mrs. Lewis are in a meeting at the moment,” she said, barely glancing up. “They're not to be disturbed.”

 

If they wanted to play hard ball, that was fine by Peter; he could be just as stubborn as them. ‘Disturb them’ had almost left his lips when Tony interrupted.

 

“We can wait,” he hurriedly said, dragging Peter back to the waiting area. Reluctantly, he followed.

 

It had been a long, painful talk with Tony on that rooftop. While Peter didn't force him to say anything he was uncomfortable with, he did find out the important things, namely that it was the first time his babysitter, Judy, had ever tried anything, she had only just begun to touch him when Spider-Man showed up, and he really, really didn't want to tell his parents.

 

That last part held a bit more difficulty than the others.

 

It had taken over three hours of hesitant conversation, soft arguments, and a thousand repetitions of “It’s not your fault” in order to convince Tony that his parents wouldn’t be upset with him.

 

They would be upset with Judy, granted, but not with him.

 

When Tony finally seemed to come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t his fault (something Peter had struggled with much longer than him), Spider-Man web-slung the two of them over to his parents’ work; this wasn’t the type of thing you sat on.

 

Tony was clutching Peter’s arm with a strength that would have been impressive if he wasn’t, you know, Spider-Man. Peter glanced down at him with concern. “You okay?”

 

Tony swallowed. Hard. “Yeah,” he stuttered. “Just fine.”

 

Okay, stupid question, Parker.

 

“How did your parents take it?” Tony asked suddenly, his voice hushed.

 

“They weren’t upset with me, Tony,” Peter promised. “And yours won’t be either.”

 

“I know that,” he rushed to respond, though he didn’t sound all that convinced. “But how did they, you know, react?”

 

“Well,” Peter said thoughtfully, thinking back to that day he had finally said something, “they did cry. And then my au - mom tried to take a tire iron to my babysitter's head.” She didn’t make it out the front door or anything, thank God - the last thing they had needed was assault with a weapon charges. When May had rooted up the heavy metal tire iron from the basement before walking towards the door with obvious intent, Ben had intervened, grabbing away the bludgeoning device and holding her. She had fought him briefly, still trying to get to the door, before bursting into tears.

 

Neither of them had realized that Peter was watching from the top of the stairs.

 

“And then they called the police,” he finished.

 

Tony looked worried.

 

Frankly, Peter wasn’t really sure which part was worrying the kid more: the tire iron part or the police part.  

 

He wasn’t really sure how to reassure him either, in all honesty. The tire iron probably wouldn’t happen for him, and the police definitely would, but there was no getting around that.

 

“What the Hell?”

 

Peter snorted, not even bothering to turn around. “Eloquent as always, Miss Jones.”

 

“What are you doing here, Webs? Hogarth didn’t manage to get her claws into you, did she?”

 

“Nah, I’m here for something else,” Peter responded. Nodding at his companion, he said, “Jones, this is Tony. Tony, this is my friend Jessica.”

 

“Nice to meet you,” he piped up, giving a wane smile before glancing back down at the ground.

 

Jessica shot him a questioning look; Peter shook his head in response.

 

“Tony?”

 

Tony jumped to his feet. “Hi, Mom.”

 

There was a pretty, dark-skinned woman staring at the pair of them, her elegant features pulled back into an expression of sheer worry. A tall man dressed in a dark business suit was coming up behind her, and, based on his likeness to the boy, he was Tony’s father.

 

“Are you alright? Why aren’t you with Judy?” Her gaze fell to the brightly colored vigilante sitting next to her son. Awkwardly, Peter gave her a small wave. “Why are you here? Did something happen?” she demanded, her sight locked on the vigilante, her eyebrows furrowed, and her gaze dissecting Peter’s every move.

 

“Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, hi,” Peter responded. “There’s - there’s something Tony needs to talk to you about. In private.”

 

Concern prickled at the corners of her eyes. “We can go to my office. Come on, Tony.”

 

As she reached for her son, Tony dug in his heels and clenched Peter’s hand tighter. “You said you wouldn’t leave,” he accused, staring at Spider-Man. “You said you’d stay until I so it was okay.”

 

“And I won’t leave,” Peter promised.

 

Visibly, the boy relaxed, and Peter suspected it was more due to the fact that he was someone who knew what he was going through rather than the fact that he was Spider-Man.

 

“What did you want to tell us?” Mr. Lewis asked, his deep voice pinched with worry.

 

And, in short, painful sentences, Tony told him.

 

What happened next was much of what Peter remembered of when he told his aunt and uncle: horrified gasps, tears, and the completely and utterly devastated look of someone trying to figure out how the Hell this had happened.

 

When Peter finally left, they asked him what they could ever do to repay him.

 

“You - you already have,” Peter answered with a slight, barely noticeable tremor in his voice. “It may not seem that way, but you’ve done more than repay me.”

 

And then he was gone.


 

When Peter got home, he went upstairs, turned on the shower as hot as it could go, and scrubbed at his arms until they bled.

 

No matter how hard he scrubbed, it never seemed to wash Skip away from him.

 

But with the burning water raining down on him, Peter could pretend the warm streaks flowing down his cheeks were from the shower.


 

Peter cried.

 

He left Tony behind, found a tall, abandoned rooftop far enough from Hell’s Kitchen that Daredevil could never hear him, and sank to the ground and cried.

 

Peter had always liked to shove his past to the back of his mind, pretend like what had happened had gone away the moment Skip finally left his life. But, deep down, it had been there every step of the way, dogging him from the shadows of his mind.

 

Deep down, there had always been a dark, ugly part of him whispering itwasyourfaultyourfault yourfault.

 

It wasn’t until he met Tony, saw the parallels between the two of them, that he truly realized he hadn’t done anything wrong.

 

He wasn’t responsible; he didn’t need to feel ashamed or disgusted with himself anymore. It wasn’t his fault.

 

It really hadn’t been his fault.

 

It was as if a weight had been lifted from Peter’s mind. For the first time since Skip had touched him, Peter felt whole again. It was finally over.

 

The relief of it was enough to make him cry.

 

When he stopped, he felt different. Cleansed. As if a black film of disgust had finally been removed from his mind, freeing him.

 

Peter got up, changed out of his costume had went home, feeling lighter than he had in a long, long time.

 

“Peter?” May questioned, her worried gaze dropping from his red-rimmed eyes to his haggard appearance. Instantly, the overprotective lioness that had hovered just beneath the surface since the day he told her what had happened resurfaced. Granted, she didn’t believe in helicoptering over every little thing he did, but she had also developed a keen radar for BS after Skip slipped under hers. She had never really forgiven herself for falling for his only-child, Peter-is-the-brother-I-never-had act, despite Peter’s insistence that it wasn’t her fault. Unfortunately, that same overprotective lioness was the reason he could never tell her about Spider-Man: Peter hadn’t exaggerating when he told Mr. Stark she would freak out. “What happened?” she demanded. “Did someone hurt you?”

 

Peter remembered the way she had cried when she found out what Skip had done to him, remembered the scorching fury in her voice and the “damn straight we are pressing charges” she had snapped out at the police officer who dared ask. Smiling, he hugged her, wishing for a moment that he didn’t have super strength, because it made everyone else delicate porcelain he could so easily break, and he didn't want to risk that with May. “I’m okay, May,” he promised, pulling back. “I’m really, really okay.”


 

It would never happen again, Peter vowed.

 

What had happened with Skip had been a dirty, foreign thing that he - despite his high IQ and above average intelligence - didn’t understand. Somehow, Peter doubted that he ever would. It felt like something that he could never make sense of because it didn’t make sense, and would never make sense. All that he knew was that it made him feel filthy and ashamed, and he never, ever wanted it to happen again.

 

And it wouldn’t. He would avoid Skip; take away the cause, and the problem would disappear with it. Eventually, Peter told himself, he would forget. It would be nothing but a distant, foggy memory that didn’t affect him anymore. It was over.

 

It didn’t matter anymore.

 

It didn’t.

 

It didn’t.

 

(It did.)

 

He could be okay again, Peter vowed. He would be okay again.

 

(Peter didn’t really believe this, not yet.)


 He wasn’t okay.

 

He had been okay, had been better than okay. Peter had been free. He was free of the disgust, free of the crawling feeling of someone’s hands where they weren’t supposed to be, free of Skip.

 

It should have gotten better from there.

 

But instead, Peter had fallen asleep early that night, mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted, and ended up sleeping through the night and straight through the morning as well, not waking until past noon.

 

When he woke up, Peter couldn’t even bring himself to be mad at himself for missing out on patrol that night. He was still stuck in the languid, floating sense of freedom, too drunk on relief to imagine all the people he could have helped if he had patrolled rather than slept. He got up, poured himself a bowl of slightly stale cereal, and vowed to go out as soon as he finished eating. Absently, Peter trailed into the living room, noting that May hadn’t picked up the newspaper before she left for her Saturday morning shift at the hospital; it may be old fashioned, but both Peter and May loved reading the fine print, and most mornings the paper could be found on their coffee table, defiantly displayed against everyone that said print was an outdated form of media.

 

(*cough* Stark *cough*)

 

Plopping solidly down on the sofa, Peter grabbed the remote and flipped on the TV at random, barely noting that it had landed on the news station before he noticed the headlines.

 

Scrawled against the bottom of the screen in massive, unmistakable block letters, it read: Spider-Man’s Tragic Story, Shocking Abuse Scandal Rattles New York.

 

The bowl shattered in his hands.

 

Peter barely noticed the ceramic shards cutting into his fingers, didn’t register the milk and knock-off brand Corn Flakes splashing all over the floor. Instead, he listened as the over-dressed newscaster spoke in a fake-devastated tone about how one of New York’s favorite heroes had been raped as a child, an unmistakable gleam of excitement in her eyes at having such a scandalous story at her fingertips.

 

Peter’s hands became clammy and his heart began to race. This wasn’t supposed to happen; he was supposed to get better from here; no one was supposed to find out.

 

(They still did.)

 

Peter could barely hear that stupid, obnoxious reporter over the wave roaring in his ears; he didn’t want to hear her. But his super-hearing obviously didn’t get the message, as he managed to pick up her gleeful voice soliloquizing about how the Amazing Spider-Man had rescued a poor little victim of sexual abuse yesterday - whose name had not been revealed, thank God - and how an “unnamed source” had overheard the boy talking to his parents at the police station about how he wouldn’t have told them what happened if it hadn’t been for Spider-Man, who convinced him it would be okay after telling him how his sexual abuse had stopped when he went to an adult.

 

Oh.

 

Oh.

 

Peter sucked in a shaky breath before sinking to his knees and starting to pick up the shards on the ground. He wasn’t mad at Tony; he really wasn’t; after all, he had straight up told the kid to be honest with his parents about everything. He just hadn’t exactly expected one of those things to include what he had told him.

 

People finding out, it didn’t matter. It didn’t affect what he did as Spider-Man, and it certainly didn’t affect what he did as Peter Parker. He would just keep doing what he was doing, and people would forget about it in a few weeks. It didn’t matter.

 

It didn’t.

 

It didn’t.

 

(It did.)

 

Peter’s jacket began to buzz. Startled, he cut his finger on a shard and, swearing, he jerked the burner phone from his pocket. When he saw the blinking display flash up at him, Peter swore again. Matt was calling him, and he had had apparently been doing it all morning, if the twelve missed calls were an indication. Peter had put it on vibrate the day before - he had been searching through a warehouse that was a suspected front for arms-dealing, and he hadn’t wanted to alert anybody of his presence by something as ridiculous as his phone ringing - and had forgotten to turn it back to sound. Quickly, he punched the answer button, praying that Matt wasn’t calling because he had been kidnapped or shot or was dying in a dark alley somewhere.

 

“- don’t know, Karen, he’s not picking up, calm down and let me listen-”

 

“Matt?”

 

“Peter! Are you okay? I’ve been calling all morning; you haven’t been picking.”

 

“I was asleep,” he explained numbly. “Sorry, I didn’t realize.”

 

“Karen and Foggy were worried,” Matt explained. The ‘so was I’ went unspoken. “Karen was about to head to Queens and break down your door.”

 

A smile tweaked at the edges of Peter’s lips. “I think that would be a little hard to explain to my aunt.”

 

“Peter... Have you seen the news?”

 

Peter slumped backwards. Of course it would be about this. “Yeah,” he answered, closing his eyes. “Yeah, I have.”

 

A pause. Then, “Is it true?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Silence.

 

Peter sighed. “If you keep clenching the phone that hard, you’re going to break it, and then Foggy will give you the 'Matt Murdock, why must you do these things' look, and Karen will give you the 'we have no money, damnit Matt, this is why we can’t have nice things' look, and you will be able to sense them somehow despite the fact that you’re blind and sensing the disappointed looks of your coworkers is not part of the other four senses, and then you’ll be upset and go beat up the Bulgarian mafia or something, which is bad for both the Bulgarian mafia and you, because they’ll be in the hospital and you should be in a hospital but you’ll be too Catholic to go, and then poor Claire will be called and she’ll give you the 'I’m a nurse not a miracle worker, Murdock' look before she calls Foggy and Karen, and then there will be all new looks and you’ll go out and beat up even more people. Don’t break the phone, Matt. It’ll cause a vicious cycle.”

 

It’s a point of personal pride that, despite everything that was going on, that sentence managed to pull a bewildered “What?” from Matt’s lips.

 

“Vicious. Cycle.”

 

“I’m not clenching my phone, Peter,” Matt, the lying liar who lies, lied.

 

“You totally are. Whenever you are pissed, but there’s no one around you can punch, you clench whatever you’re holding really tight and it breaks. Always. I’ve seen you break a cane handle like that, which is really impressive seeing as those canes have survived you chucking them in every alley under the sun.”

 

A tired sigh. “Don’t change the subject, Peter.”

 

Quickly, Peter’s heart picked up, beating to the tune of he’snotsupposedtoknownoone’ssupposedtoknowhecan’tknowhecan’tknowhecan’tknow. “Subject?” he evaded. “What subject? Pretty sure I’m on subject. We were talking about your phone, and how you’re totally going to break another one of them - which, come one, happens a lot, you really didn’t need to throw that last one at that guy’s head, it didn’t even hit him that hard - which segues nicely into how you do that with everything, an excellent example of which is that perfectly good cane you broke last week. So, really, I’m not changing any subject,” he rambled.

 

“Peter,” Matt started again. “Are - are you okay?”

 

Which, for Matt “Of course I’m okay, it’s only a slight ninja sword on freaking chains wound” Murdock, roughly translated to: You’re totally hurt and we both know it, but we also will never admit it, so please, please don’t do something stupid that will end with you getting mortally wounded, because God knows I will have to come running in after you like the overprotective mama bear that I am, and we do not need to fuel anymore rumors that Daredevil and Spider-Man are dating, you are fifteen and that is a freaking felony.

 

Instantly, he deflated. “I will be,” he promised.

 

“Do you want us to come over?”

 

When he had first started vigilante-ing, the very idea of someone knowing his secret identity, let alone knowing where he lived, would have been enough to send him into a nervous breakdown. Of course, that was before he met Tony “Privacy? What is this privacy you speak of?” Stark and Matt “I can hear your heartbeat from ten miles away, and it’s not creepy at all” Murdock.

 

Secret identities kind of go to Hell around those two.

 

Briefly, he considered letting them come over. Matt had had his fair share of people defining him by only one aspect of himself, so it was highly unlikely he would treat Peter any different now that he knew. Karen would definitely be her usual badass self - really, Karen only had one setting, and that was badass - and bulldoze anything she deemed stupid, harmful to her loved ones, or stupid. Foggy would be, well, Foggy: He would march in ready to impose something he called “self-preservation skills” on the reckless, dumbass vigilantes he surrounded himself with, viciously mother everything in sight, and probably call someone a handsome duck. Because that was how Nelson and Murdock (and Page, damnit, I put up with way too much of your crap for way too little pay, I deserve my name on that door) rolled. It would be nice, he supposed, to hang out with them without it involving crime fighting and copious injuries.

 

“Nah,” he dismissed. “I’ll be fine.”

 

Matt didn’t ask if he was sure, which Peter was grateful for. Instead, he made him promise to call if he needed anything before passing the phone to Karen and Foggy, who somehow managed to talk about absolutely everything except what was on the news without making it sound like they were avoiding the elephant in the room, God bless them.

 

Eventually, they hung up, leaving Peter sitting on the floor, little shards scattered around him as the news gleefully broadcasted about the worst thing that had ever happened to him.

 

He had been such a fool to think it was over.


 

Peter stuttered to a stop at the foot of his staircase.

 

Skip was standing at the his front door, platnium blond hair neatly combed and that too-innocent, oh-God-how-did-I-not-see-how-fake-it-was smile on his lips.

 

“Hey, Einstein,” he grinned. “Come on, your aunt and uncle asked me to babysit again.”

 

And Peter realized that he had been a complete and utter idiot to think it was over just because he wanted it to be.

 

After all, Skip hadn’t stopped before just because Peter wanted him to. Why would he start now?

Chapter Text

Jessica Jones was many things. Blunt, for one. She had the subtlety of a bulldozer and the strength to match it, and for her, that worked. She also wasn’t one for dancing around a subject. When she wanted to tell you something, she did, and when she didn’t, she didn’t. There was no sugar coating, no easing someone into the information; she was just hard, fast, and efficient.

 

So it spoke volumes about how bad the news situation was if she asked Peter to please drop by her place, that it was important and probably shouldn’t wait.

 

Peter hadn’t wanted to go out. He hadn’t wanted to do much of anything, honestly, but that urge probably did more harm than good. If he didn’t do something, he would end up doing nothing but sit on that stupid floor all day - like he had been doing for the past four hours - broken shards and soggy cereal around him as he watched the news focus on his past for hours. And hours. And hours.

 

Deep down, Peter was grateful that Jones had called him; it gave him a reason to pull himself out of his fog. On the surface, however, he was much less gracious about the intrusion as he suited up, throwing on the iconic outfit with the temperament of an upset child preparing to visit a much hated relative.

 

Before he left, Peter hesitated. Before, when people saw the suit, all they saw was the Amazing Spider-Man. A hero. Someone strong, unbreakable. Now, he would be the tragic little victim: someone to be pitied and tip-toed about. Peter had had enough of that treatment when the aftermath of Skip first occurred; he didn’t need to deal with it again. Not as Spider-Man.

 

Peter took a deep breath, braced himself, then threw himself out the window without a second thought.

 

There were many things Peter loved about being Spider-Man. Helping people was an obvious one, along with the thrill of adrenaline in his veins.

 

One of his favorite things, however, was that he got to fly.

 

Well, swing, but in Peter’s opinion, it was even better than flying. Stark flew. He could climb in an insulated metal container and jet off at supersonic speeds, all the while protected from the rush of wind and the weightless ecstasy by the Iron Man suit.

 

Web slinging was so much better.

 

When Peter flew, he did it as him. There was no suit other than thin spandex, nothing keeping him from the thrill of the sky. He whipped through the air at blurring speeds, hanging briefly at the climax before hurtling down, waiting until the last possible second to throw out a new line.

 

Peter flew, and he was free.

 

(Secretly, Peter thought that the rushing wind did a better job at wiping away the past than all the hot showers in the world had.

 

He refused to repeat this thought aloud.)

 

“You ever think about using the front door, kid?”

 

Peter slid the window shut behind him. “I sincerely doubt that that constitutes as a door.”

 

The “door” to Alias Investigations was in its usual state of constant disrepair. Jones must have had yet another unhappy customer, because the glass was broken, the door knob was bent at an unnatural angle, and there was a hole in the exact center that happened to be in the general shape of Jessica’s fist.

 

The owner of said fist shrugged. “It does the job.”

 

“Does it? Because that doesn't seem to be able to keep out much of anyone. You know, I can always fix it for you.”

 

Jones shrugged noncommittally. “Maybe one day I'll take you up on that. Maybe not. Having Spider-Man fix your door for you is hardly inconspicuous. Besides, I kind of like the way it is; it gives me street cred.”

 

Peter snorted. “I think you've got plenty of that on your own.”

 

Slowly, the good spirits brought on by the banter dwindled. “You, uh, said it was important.”

 

Jones nodded shortly before turning around and sliding back behind her desk. “It is. Kind of. I mean, I know I implied it was the ‘time sensitive’ brand of important, which it isn't really, but I figured it would be best to get you here anyway. It… It isn't good to be stuck in your head with everything that's going on. Doing something helps.”

 

She would know, Peter realized with a growing sense of chagrin. Her past with her… attacker…. was a lot worse than his. He had manipulated by his babysitter for a few weeks; she had been the plaything of a demented psychopath for months on end.

 

Compared with Jessica, his problems were nothing.

 

“What'd you have in mind?”

 

“I, uh, got a call from your Tony Lewis. This morning, when the… story…. first broke. He remembered that you had introduced me as your friend, and was hoping that I had a way of getting in touch with you. He was scared you were mad at him for letting your… past… get out.”

 

“I’m not mad,” Peter promised. “I’ll - I’ll go check on him later.”

 

Jessica nodded, looking down. “Did you know he liked you even before you saved him? You were his hero. Now,” she smirked tightly, “now you walk on water.”

 

Neither of them spoke.

 

Clearing her throat awkwardly, Jessica gave him a hesitant look. “They say that talking about it helps or something. That it’s good for the healing process or whatever.”

 

Peter gave her a short, humorless laugh. “Yeah, uh, I’m not going to talk about it. I’m - I’m good. I can handle it on my own.”

 

“Did you ever see a shrink?”

 

“Once.” Peter winced at the memory. “It didn’t go very well.”

 

He had seen some psychiatrist that specialized in child trauma after the whole Skip debacle, but he had never gone back. Dr. Matthews had spent half the lesson pitying him - as if that would have helped anyone - and the other half of him pushing him to talk about it, as if that would have changed what happened. She had been condescending to the extreme, acting as if Peter was some kind of mentally-disabled toddler that needed to be handled with kiddie-gloves, instead of the literal genius he was. By the end of the session, Peter had felt even more sick and frustrated than he had been when he walked in the door.

 

After that, Peter had begged his aunt and uncle not to send him back. And, so sick with guilt over Stick were they, they agreed without much argument.

 

“I saw one a few times, after... what happened. Total waste of time, didn’t get much out of it, but they did teach me this thing to help calm down when the memories got too much: Street names. Just list the names of the streets that you grew up on as a kid. It… It helps more than it sounds.”

 

Peter swallowed past the knot in his throat. “Thanks, Jones. Maybe I’ll try it sometime.”

 

“Yeah, well…. Just start using the door, Webs. It’s what normal people do.”

 

Peter laughed, and left by the window.


 

Skip never told Peter not to tell.

 

It was implicit, granted, that what happened while he was babysitting was to remain between the two of them, but that was all. The words “don’t tell” never left his lips.

 

Sometimes, Peter wished they had.

 

“Don’t tell” meant that it was something shameful. It meant that the person had something to hide, something that could hurt them if it got out.

 

It meant that there was a weapon to combat them with.

 

On a level, Peter knew that Skip was exactly the kind of person that all those educational videos at school warned you about; he knew that Skip was the type of predator that people had preached about since preschool, the words tell a trusted adult falling off teachers’ lips like a mantra. He knew - on a level - that he should go to someone for help.

 

Except.

 

Skip never told him not to tell.

 

He never said the two words that all those infomercials had warned them about, those two words that were always there in the hypothetical situations they laid out for them.

 

He never showed just how weak he really was.

 

He never handed Peter the very weapon with which to defeat him.

 

He never said those two little words that signaled that what he was doing was completely, irrevocably wrong.

 

And without those two words, Peter hesitated.

 

He shouldn’t need those words to know how to fight this; he shouldn't need Skip to spell it out for him. Peter was smart; deep down, he knew that those two words didn't change the result of their interactions.

 

But what if Skip really didn't care if Peter told? What if Peter did tell, and no one cared? What if he laid out the entire embarrassing affair at the feet of people he loved, only for them to say, no, you got it wrong, Peter; this isn't at all what we were warning you about; and we really don't care what's happening to you with Skip, so go run along with him now?

 

Two little words could end this all.

 

Skip said a lot of words, most of which Peter hated. He said soft cajolences and harsh insistences and subtle manipulations and annoyed insults that accompanied eyerolls. (He also said panted praises and sometimes gasped expletives and sometimes just Peter’s name, but Peter only thought about those words when he woke up in the nights trembling, drenched with a cold sweat, the ghosts of hands that didn't belong to him in places they weren't meant to be.)

 

Skip said a lot of words.

 

“Don't tell” were never some of them.

 

This was not a mistake.

 

Here's the thing: Peter was a smart kid. He was brilliant, in fact, and he had always been the most intelligent one in any relationship he had ever had.

 

But that didn't mean that the other one in the relationship was stupid.

 

That didn't meant that Skip was stupid.

 

Because he wasn't.

 

Sometimes, when Peter looked into Skip’s eyes (which was happening less and less, because whenever he did he saw what he once had mistaken to be friendship bubble up stronger, and when that happened, Peter knew what was happening next), he saw crazed lust and selfish possession and something he couldn't recognize, but mostly, he saw cunning intelligence and sly planning.

 

Sometimes, when Peter looked into Skip’s eyes, he saw that Skip was so much smarter than the older boy had ever let on.

 

Because he knew exactly what he was doing to Peter by never telling him not to tell.


 

This time, Peter entered through the doors.

 

Granted, they were the glass balcony sliding doors on a tenth-floor apartment, but they were still doors.

 

Peter went straight to Tony’s apartment after talking to Jessica; he didn’t want to put it off, lest he chicken out. When he touched down softly on the terrace, Peter paused.

 

Tony was sitting on the living room couch, his parents next to him. It was simple to hear his words; Peter had been able to  hear the apartment clearly from the rooftop, let alone just outside the doors.

 

“...if he hates me now?”

 

“Spider-Man doesn't hate you,” Mr. Lewis soothed.  “He would never hate you for something you didn't do.”

 

“But now everyone knows about what happened to him! And he told me that in confidence! What if he never talks to me again?”

 

Peter knocked.

 

Three heads swiveled in unison. When Tony saw who it was, he fell off the couch and scrambled to the sliding doors. “Spider-Man!”

 

Peter smiled nervously beneath his mask. “Hey, Tony.”

 

Tony’s parents hovered awkwardly behind their child. Nobody moved. Spider-Man remained on the balcony. The family remained standing in their living room. A stray pigeon cooed at the group from its perch on a deck chair before flying off. All eyes followed the movement.

 

Eventually, the tension broke. “Would you like to come in?” Mrs. Lewis offered maladroitly.

 

“Uh, sure,” Peter replied, stepping carefully into the apartment. He glanced around his surroundings. The living room was lavishly furnished, with a sleek yet comfortable design that spanked of wealth. At one look, he could tell that it was far, far above what the Parkers would ever be able to afford. Everything was perfectly designed, perfectly coordinated, and perfectly maintained.

 

Except for the trash bag taped to the broken window. That kind of killed the ambience.

 

“I’m sorry about your window,” Peter stated awkwardly.

 

“It’s fine,” Mr. Lewis rushed to tell him. “It’s just a window. We’re just thankful you were there.”

 

The uncomfortable silence descended once more.

 

“Do you want to sit down?”

 

“Uh, sure.”

 

Peter became very interested in the pattern of his armchair. Across from him, seated on the couch, the Lewis’s did the same.

 

Awkwardly, Peter cleared his throat. “Jessica said you wanted to speak with me?”

 

“Right,” Mr. Lewis checked himself. “That is, we were hoping that we could - we were worried that -”

 

The couple were avoiding his eyes actively, and shifting nervously in their seats. Between them sat Tony, looking desperate and contrite all at once.

 

“Could I speak to Tony alone, please?” Peter ventured. It was one thing to discuss an incredibly emotional and touchy subject with someone who he had already discussed it with; it was another to have the conversation equivalent of pulling fingernails with two people walking on eggshells around him.

 

Mrs. Lewis frowned. “I'm not so sure that -”

 

“Please, Mom,” Tony jumped in. “Can I talk to him alone?”

 

Her gaze softened as she looked to her son, but her frown remained. “I don't know… We don't know him all that well, all things considered, and -”

 

She was scared to leave her son after what happened, Peter realized. May had been that way for a while after Skip; it had taken months for her to be comfortable leaving him with anyone again, and even then, she had to have known them for ages.

 

She even had a full background check done on his fifth grade teacher. Mr. Thomas actually did turn out to be a felon under an assumed name, so May felt justified in her paranoia.

 

The school had quickly found a new teacher, and then suggested that Peter transfer to Midtown Science, the chain of public schools with a focus on science and math; they also claimed that May’s actions had no effect on their decision. Peter doubted this, but was too happy to finally escape the land of arts and crafts and shiny stickers to care.

 

“But it's Spider-Man, Mom.”

 

“Alright,” she eventually acquiesced. “But we'll only be one room over,” she declared. “Just call if you need us.”

 

Once they left, Tony shifted nervously in his seat. “Do you hate me?” he piped up.

 

Peter blinked. “Why would I hate you?” he asked, bewildered.

 

“Because it’s my fault you’re all over the news!” Tony blurted. “It’s because of me that everyone knows what happened!”

 

“It’s not your fault, Tony,” Peter vowed. “It would have happened eventually. It’s the nature of the news cycle; they get their claws into everything. How have you been doing with everything?”

 

“They arrested Judy,” Tony informed him, looking uncertain. “Sent an officer to her house, and dragged her back in cuffs and everything.”

 

Peter watched him carefully. “And how are you feeling about all of that?”

 

“I dunno,” Tony mumbled. “Judy… She was nice to me, before…. what happened. And now they think she’s gonna go to prison! I didn’t mean to get her in so much trouble!”

 

“What she did was wrong, Tony, and there are consequences to actions. And if she doesn’t go to prison for what happened, there’s always the chance that she’ll do it again with another kid. I know that it may seem like all the nice memories lessens the bad ones, but they don’t.”

 

That concept… that had been something Peter had struggled with for ages. Skip had been his best - only - friend; he had been the only kid that paid any sort of positive attention to Peter. The idea that it hadn’t been real had been something Peter had refused to comprehend, let alone accept.

 

“I guess…” Tony nodded, glumly. He didn’t seem convinced.

 

It was a process.

 

“Are you sure that you’re not mad at me?”

 

“Of course I’m not,” Peter soothed. “Give it a few days, and it’ll all blow over.”


 

 

 

friend noun |\frend\ : a person who you like or enjoy being with, a person who helps or supports someone or something (such as a cause or charity)

 

Research always helped clear Peter’s head.

 

If he had a problem, he went to the library with it. A few hours amongst the dusty tomes, and he’d usually be able to come up with a solution for it.

 

But this time, with this problem, Peter wasn’t so sure.

 

His past problems had been teaching himself physics. His past problems had included dense texts about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the Laws of Thermodynamics, and whether or not May’s meatloaf was actually slowly killing them (it wasn’t, unfortunately - then he might have had a valid argument towards discontinuing the dish).

 

With this problem, Peter didn’t even know where to begin.

 

His search for answers started with a table  at the front of the building, in clear line of sight of the librarians. The library was right next to their apartment complex, and the librarians all adored Peter, so May and Ben were alright with walking him to building and dropping him off until he was done, since the attendants had agreed to check in on him periodically. Usually, Peter sat at his usual table in the back, where it was quiet and unlikely that he would be discovered by bullies, but this time, he chose the table farthest from that one as possible.

 

He had met Skip at that table.

 

His fruitless search had ended with a frustrated Peter leafing his way through a Merrian-Webster dictionary, confusion in his mind and desperation in his blood.         

 

Running away had already been ruled out, as the likelihood of Peter surviving on the streets was negligible, and he loved May and Ben too much to try. Likewise, Peter had also ruled out anonymous tips to the police - likely to be ignored - and avoiding Skip until he was big enough to fight back - too long of a time frame, too high of a chance of failure.

 

The problem, Peter decided, was that he didn’t have enough data about the situation. He needed to understand the situation itself, understand Skip’s argument, and understand the opposing argument before he made any final decisions.

 

Skip had said that they were friends. Repeatedly, he had claimed that what they did was alright, because they were friends and friends did favors for one another. That Peter owed this to Skip.

 

Peter frowned. He had enjoyed being around Skip, before the older boy started… started. But now, he preferred being as far away from him as possible. But did that matter? Was it only his initial reaction that was relevant, or could it change as they went?

 

 

 

favor noun | fa•vor | \fā-vər\: a kind or helpful act that you do for someone; approval, support, or popularity; preference for one person, group, etc., over another.

 

Well, that wasn't helpful at all.

 

Did this fall under the umbrella of favors? It wasn't necessarily an act that Peter was doing for Skip so much as something that Skip did to Peter, with zero heed to any protests that Peter might have. But the definition didn't mention anything about consent. Did it matter if Peter said no? (Because he had; he had said no until his throat was hoarse, and Skip didn't stop.)

 

Peter decided to look up one last definition.

 

 

 

rape noun | \rāp\: an act or instance of robbing or despoiling or carrying away a person by force; unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against the will usually of a female or with a person who is beneath a certain age or incapable of valid consent — compare SEXUAL ASSAULT, STATUTORY RAPE; an outrageous violation.


 

It did not blow over.

 

Instead, the previously mercurial media had decided to focus on one thing for the first time in history. Namely: him.

 

Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad if the news hadn't broken so soon after the - as it had been affectionately dubbed by the public - “#HydraSmackDown.” After the incident in Times Square, people had begun to focus less on the far-off, hidden away heroes that were the Avengers - especially seeing as they only showed up for alien invasions and cities falling from the sky - and more on the commonplace, constant heroes whose presence was shown everyday, on every street as they battled normal crime. Specifically, they focused on everyone that had actually come to the “#HydraSmackDown” - the “Defenders,” apparently.

 

Foggy had thought that “Reckless Idiots in Spandex” was more accurate, but Twitter had spoken, and the name stuck.

 

And, well, Spider-Man was the newest of the group, and therefore the least was known about him. Jones and Cage didn't even have a secret identity; their pasts were open books to the public, which had been exploited on more than one occasion. And while Matt’s identity was safe, people knew a heck of a lot more about Daredevil than they did about Spider-Man. Granted, that information included “not actually a terrorist,” “possibly the actual Devil,” “terrible taste in costumes,” and “scary as Hell,” but it was still a lot more than what the public had on Spider-Man. For the first few months of Peter’s vigilantism, he had been nothing but an urban legend. And when people finally realized that there actually was some weirdo swinging around on webs and fighting crime, it was mostly the criminals that Peter beat up that made the connection. By the time the public figured out that those videos were real, they were confronted with the unpleasant truth that they were all the information they had.

 

Until now, that is.

 

Which meant that for the past week, Peter’s past had been the subject of headlines, news broadcasts, and social media. For the past week, the thing that Peter was trying to forget had been thrown in his face over and over and over again.

 

Peter shuffled into Stark Industries, clenching his backpack strap tightly as he slid into the side elevator. The world had not stopped turning just because he was - slightly - distressed; he still had his usual obligations to fill. One of those obligations being the meetings for the grant that Mr. Stark had actually given him, instead of it just being a ruse to get past Peter’s aunt.

 

Peter had money.

 

Well, technically speaking, he had money to develop new tech, and that tech would be evaluated for marketability by Stark Industries, but if it was marketable, he would get royalties from that. And, while he had only one of these meetings previously, some of his inventions had been released by Stark, meaning Peter was turning a profit.

 

So yes, Peter had money.

 

It was a novel experience.

 

The last time Peter had come, it had actually been fun. Mr. Stark had appointed himself to be the one to evaluate Peter’s work, and the meeting - which Peter had been fretting over for weeks beforehand - had ended up being like one big episode of MythBusters. Apparently, all those rumors of how Stark was in the lab were true, complete with the explosions and the random streams of fire extinguisher. It was awesome.

 

But now, Peter was coming back after that had been blared across the TVs for days.

 

Maybe Mr. Stark hadn't noticed, Peter thought desperately. He had a tendency to hole up in his labs for an inhuman amount of time, right? Maybe he hadn't seen the news. Maybe he had, but he wouldn't mention it. Maybe it wouldn't affect this.

 

And maybe Iron Man and Captain America would hug out their differences.

 

The elevator dinged. Peter was screwed. He stepped through the doors with as much enthusiasm as a man headed to the electric chair.

 

“You are cheating on me!”

 

Peter blinked, bewildered. “What?”

 

“With lawyers,” Stark declared, crinkling his nose in distaste. “What are they giving you? Drugs? Money? Drugs? Petey, Petey, Petey, I can hook you up such better stuff.”

 

“I think this entire conversation is illegal,” Peter pondered, a smile twitching at his lips. He'd been worried over nothing.

 

“You'd know. Lawyers.”

 

Stark was seated in the corner of his lab, the top half of the Iron Man suit on as he fiddled with the chest plate, sparks flying as he jiggled tools in the mechanisms.

 

“What's wrong with lawyers?” Peter asked defensively. “And how'd you even know that I was working with them?”

 

Stark rolled his eyes. “One of them showed up at your school and filled out the paperwork to make you their intern. Which brings me back to my original point: You’re intellectually cheating on me! And you're not even doing it with scientists! How could you, Peter? How. Could. You? You’re my intern; you’re supposed to be blindly loyal to me!

 

“No, I'm your grant receiver,” Peter corrected, exasperated. “There’s a difference. And the terms of the grant never said that I couldn’t intern elsewhere.”

 

Midtown Science had a policy meant to encourage extracurriculars, which allowed students with internships to leave school early for work. Upon learning this, Matt and Foggy had agreed to change Peter from that weird kid that occasionally fought crime with Matt and showed up randomly to fix their office supplies, to that weird unpaid intern that occasionally fought crime with Matt and showed up less-randomly to fix their office supplies. Of course, at the time it was because Peter needed to leave early to fight a ninja death cult with Matt - it was a time sensitive matter, Foggy had refused to let Matt One Man Army(TM)  it - but they couldn't exactly cancel the internship after one day.

 

Still, Peter found he liked it. His ties to both science and law had made him officially “well-rounded;” he had more ancient tech to cannibalize than ever before; and they never got mad if he was late because he had to jump into a burning building on the way.

 

“...And how’d you know Foggy was at my school?”

 

“I hacked your district’s database.”

 

“That’s illegal, Mr. Stark.”

 

“Your lawyer is showing, Webs,” Stark muttered childishly. “What do you even do for them anyway? You’re a science geek, not a law nerd!”

 

“I fix things,” Peter shrugged. “Their tech sucks; I make it suck less. Sometimes I help pull up files or dig through old cases And I fix things for their clients.”

 

“Since when do lawyers double as handymans?”

 

“When they’re representing tenements against their landlord, they do,” Peter shot back.

 

Stark glanced at him, puzzled.

 

“In a tenement case, usually a landlord is trying to kick their renters out, despite that they have a contract protecting them,” Peter explained. “So the tenements go to Nelson and Murdock, who file a civil suit. When that happens, the owner usually sends people around to make the place unlivable on the pretext of making repairs. I fix what’s broken, so that they aren’t forced to leave before it even hits court.”

 

“And then Nelson and Murdock gets the landlord in the legal arena?”

 

“No, then the landlord usually hires someone to assault and/or kill one of the tenements as an intimidation technique,” Peter replied thoughtfully. “And I spend a few nights waiting on the rooftops as Spider-Man to beat up whoever they sent.” Well, mostly Daredevil did that work, but Stark didn’t need to know how closely affiliated the vigilante was with the firm. “And then Nelson and Murdock gets the landlord in the legal arena.”

 

Stark looked disturbed. “Oh.”

 

“Yeah,” Peter agreed. Suddenly, worry began to brew in his gut. Stark knew about his affiliation with Nelson and Murdock, and he had no qualms about digging into people’s histories. Did he know about Daredevil? “So, how else have you been stalking my firm?”

 

Stark shrugged. “Nelson and Murdock: founded by two bleeding heart roommates from Columbia. Graduated top of their class, got highly sought after internships, only to turn down an actual job in favor of rescuing the innocent and fighting Wilson Fisk, apparently. One of them’s blind - which explains your strange fascination with accessibility tech for the visually impaired; those are doing pretty well in the market, by the way. Only other workers are you and the first person they ever defended, one Karen Page. Oh, and they’re pretty closely associated with Daredevil, probably how you met them. Devil’s been relaying his internet purchases through the blind guy; smart, if you ask me. Nobody would ever suspect the sightless lawyer to be the one aiding and abetting a known vigilante.”

 

A part of Peter relaxed; Stark didn’t suspect Matt - yet. Another part of him zeroed in on another one of the man’s statements. “Mr. Stark, it’s really, really illegal to be looking at Matt’s internet history without a warrant.”

 

“Details, details,” he waved off. “They, uh, also just took on the Winter Soldier as a client,” Stark continued tightly. “Kinda makes their ‘only innocent policy’ a bit hypocritical now, doesn’t it? Though, what are the odds that you’d end up working for the same people representing Barnes?”

 

Peter bit his lip. “Pretty high, considering I was the one that gave Captain Rogers their business card.”

 

The sparking of Stark’s tools paused. Then, they started back up again. “Why would you do that, Peter?” he asked tightly.

 

“Because he deserved representation. And because I decrypted the Winter Soldier files from the SHIELD drop.”

 

“Oh?” Stark asked, his voice forcibly light. “That couldn’t have been easy; the firewall on those things gave even JARVIS trouble. Takes determination to do something like that. Curious about something?”

 

“Yeah,” Peter replied carefully, watching his mentor for a reaction. “Some of the things that Rogers said didn’t line up with what you had told me. I wanted to find out the truth for myself.” No response. “Mr. Stark, why didn’t you tell me who we were going after?”

 

A pause. Then, “I did.”

 

“No, you told me we were bringing in the guy responsible for the bombing on the Accords Convention. You never told me that we were going after a Prisoner of War that had been tortured and brainwashed for over seventy years!”

 

“Would it have made a difference?”

 

“Yes!” Peter exploded. “It would have made a massive difference! Namely, I wouldn’t have come!”

 

Frankly, Peter still felt massively guilty about coming in the first place. He had just hopped on Team Iron Man, with almost no information or justification as why he should do so. What was his reasoning? That he didn’t want his aunt to find out he was moonlighting as a vigilante? Didn’t change the fact that he had contributed to multiple people being held without trial in an underwater prison-submarine.

 

Granted, he did - does - believe that supervision is necessary for international level superheroism - country’s borders should be respected, the individual laws of each country should be followed - but it shouldn’t be at the cost of the rights of the heroes themselves. After Germany, Peter read up on the Accords: Forced conscription, required registration - like what the freaking Nazi’s did - suspended habeas corpus, lives being subjected to the whims of an unelected, unknown Oversight Committee…

 

They weren’t making heroes responsible for their actions; they were making them into weapons controlled by the UN.

 

Stark clenched his tools tighter, a stubborn set to his jaw. “He’s not as innocent as you make him out to be.”

 

“Like how?” Peter demanded.

 

He didn’t respond.

 

“Look,” Peter sighed, “I obviously have no idea what happened between all of you - and don’t say it’s the Accords, because it’s not. Captain Rogers is in Brooklyn; he wants to talk with you, but he doesn’t know if you want to talk to him. I’m not saying you should… but you could.”

 

For a moment, Stark’s jaw tightened even further, then relaxed. “Right,” he said faux brightly. “Let's talk grant work, shall we? What'd you got for me?”

 

Slowly, Peter nodded, and pulled his projects out of his backpack.

 

The atmosphere of the lab relaxed notably as they slipped into science jargon. It was easy, Peter supposed, to lose themselves in equations and diagrams. At least, it was much easier to do that than it was to face their personal demons.

 

Suddenly, Peter smiled. For a little while, he had forgotten the chaos being dredged up from the past. “Thanks, Mr. Stark,” he said honestly.

 

Stark looked at him warily. “This feels like a trap. What is it?”

 

“Nothing,” Peter answered, shaking his head. “Just thanks.”

 

“Okay,” he nodded slowly. “Whatever. Come on, I’ll show you how your portable braille notetaker is selling. FRIDAY, pull up Mr. Parker’s file.”

 

“Right away, sir,” came the Irish lilt.

 

Over the holo-table, a row of digital papers blared to life. At the center was a rising and falling line graph, showing the trend of success for Peter’s products. Another one of the files, one to the side of the line, caught Peter’s eye. His stomach clenched. “What’s that?”

 

“What’s what?”

 

But Peter was already sliding the windows aside in favor of a too-familiar document.

 

A police report.

 

Peter’s police report. The same one that had been filled out before his eyes, as Peter touched that stupid, anatomically correct doll in the same places Skip had touched him while robotically describing in explicit detail exactly what happened whenever Skip babysat. Something cold curled up in the pit of Peter’s stomach and dug in its claws. “This.”

 

“Oh - shit, kid, that wasn’t meant to be there. FRIDAY I told you to put that in my private file -”

 

Peter flipped through even more of the reports, scanning the documents with an increasing panic. Hospital records, counselor reports, court records -

 

And the current whereabouts of one Steven Westcott, complete with camera footage.

 

The something-cold tightened its claws and twisted.

 

Peter had known, on a level, that Skip would be out of jail already. After all, he had gotten off easy, taking the plea bargain and everything. He had been underage, a first time offender, and had cooperated with authorities. Skip had gotten good grades; he was a star basketball player; by all means, the boy was full of potential.

 

Skip would have had a good future ahead of him, if it hadn’t been for the small fact that he was a pedophile.

 

Knowing that he was out of prison had affected Peter less than one might think. Granted, there was a part of him that was constantly squirming at the thought that the person who had stolen so much from him was walking free, but Peter had done his best to ignore that part. Surprisingly, that had been easy to do. With the last image he had of Skip being one of him getting dragged off in cuffs, he could ignore the one of him being released from those cuffs. With the restraining order, Peter had room to breathe. He had moved on; he focused on fixing the parts of his life that had been broken. Peter had brought his grades up from where they plummeted while Skip was still around, made friends with little, safe, his own age Harry Osborn from his class, and tried to forget.

 

And if he still flinched whenever May touched him too suddenly, or if one of his classmates had called him Einstein and Peter spent the entirety of study hall in the bathroom having a panic attack… well, he would work on that.

 

Of course, refusing to acknowledge something that you know to be true is very different from seeing the proof right before your eyes and still not realizing it.

 

Prison hadn’t changed Skip, Peter realized as he stared at the footage; he had the same platinum hair, same devil-may-care grin, same everything. “What are you doing with these?” Peter hissed. “These - these were sealed files. Private files. And - and Skip - you’re watching Skip -”

 

Peter felt violated. Throughout the entire process, officials had promised him that the only people that would see the reports were those that had to for their jobs. They would be people that Peter didn’t know and didn’t know him, and he would never have to look them in the face and know that they had seen the ugly proof of that.

 

And Tony Stark had gone and walked all over those boundaries as if they didn’t exist.

 

Stark was talking now, babbling really, with careless explanations and waving hands. Peter watched him numbly. “- statistically speaking, he’s going to be a repeat offender, and I can pull a few strings and make sure the key is thrown away for good. The surveillance is just until Westcott slips up -”

 

The recidivism rate for sexual offenders was ninety-eight percent, Peter’s brain informed him. A ninety-eight percent chance that he would do what he did again; a ninety-eight percent chance that some other little kid would never be the same. When he first learnt that statistic, it had given Peter nightmares for weeks. Now, with Spider-Man, it had been easier to cope with. Because while they may try again and again, Peter could be there to stop them. He would be there.

 

That rationality really gave Peter mixed feelings about the surveillance.

 

On one hand, it would obviate exactly what Peter had been scared of all those years. With Stark watching, Skip wouldn’t be able to hurt another kid, because he’d have Iron Man pounding down his door the moment he tried.

 

On the other hand, it created a whole new slew of problems. If Iron Man did pound down some random pedophile’s door, it wouldn’t be a far jump to connect him to Spider-Man. And while Peter didn’t care about the possible threat to his secret as much if it meant protecting other kids, the surveillance in itself could pose a threat. In the past, some people may have let anything Tony Stark did slide for the sole reason that he was Iron Man. Now, though, after the shitshows that were Sokovia, Lagos, Germany, ect., superheroes didn’t have the same blind trust that they once did; he wouldn’t be able to get away with as much. And if some judge decided that any video footage would be inadmissible in court, because Stark hadn’t had any warrant or even official capacity to watch him, Skip would go free.

 

He would go free, and be able to hurt even more kids.

 

Stark was still talking, Peter realized. “-’cuz I understand now, kid, about the whole, ‘if you can do something and you don’t, it happens because of you’ thing -”

 

“What?” Peter interrupted. “Are - are you saying that you think that I’m Spider-Man because of Skip?”

 

Stark blinked. “Yeah. It all makes sense now, so you don’t have to worry about -”

 

“My uncle’s dead, Mr. Stark,” Peter informed him coldly.

 

In all honesty, Peter could see how Stark could draw the connection between Skip and his decision to be Spider-Man. Heck, the majority of the country had made the exact same one. It was a reasonable assumption that something like that could trigger Peter’s desire to protect others.

 

Except.

 

It had always been for Ben.

 

When Peter first went out, it was with the sound of a gunshot ringing in his ears and the memory of too-warm blood covering his hands. Every time he saved someone, it had been because his uncle had taught him the importance of standing up for what was right long before Peter had ever heard the name Skip.

 

It was because Peter’s family had an irreplaceable gap in it, and he would do anything to make sure that those gaps didn’t fill other families lives.

 

Petty criminals was what they called the people Peter fought. Petty crime, something that only Daredevil, Spider-Man, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage - and, more recently, Captain America - had cared about enough to stop.

 

Petty crime was such an ugly, misleading term.

 

In the world of super villains and alien armies, it had become a catch-all for any crime that didn’t involve a diabolical plot for world domination, a stupid costume, and special powers. It had become an umbrella term for all the lesser crimes, the ones that no superhero had ever shown up to stop.

 

Like murder. Like rape. Like assault and human trafficking and the thousand other crimes that destroyed lives every single day.

 

Sometimes, people called the Defenders vigilantes, as if they should be offended by it. They acted as if they should strive to be more like superheroes, complete with only showing up when the world was falling around your ears. As if it was some terrible, horrific insult to be called a vigilante. It wasn’t.

 

It was a badge of honor.

 

One that Peter put on everyday, along with a red and blue suit and the memory of an uncle he had lost to petty crime.

 

And to make this all about Skip, to claim it was just his way of coping - like every single psychologist that had gone on the news with insight into the psyche of Spider-Man - would debase all that. Yes, Peter was still affected by what had happened. Yes, when he hit sexual predators the hardest, it was personal.

 

But Peter was still Ben’s nephew, and he was so much more than what Skip had made him.

 

So when Stark acted like that one thing of his life defined everything he had built, Peter took offense.

 

“He’s dead,” Peter spat. “He was shot in the street over thirty-seven dollars. Did you come across that file when you were digging through my life?”

 

“What? I -”

 

“Did you come across the part where I could have stopped the man that did it?” Peter asked, stepping closer. “The day he died, I was there, less than a block away. And the man that murdered him, the man that decided his life was worth less than the contents of his wallet - I had seen him first, mugging tourists five minutes before he murdered my uncle. I had seen him, and I hadn’t stopped him, because it wasn’t supposed to be my problem. And everything that happened afterwards was my fault. So when I put on my suit, Mr. Stark, it’s for my uncle,” he finished, hammering his point home with a poke to the man’s chest. The gold titanium alloy crunched inwards, a sizeable dent the result of Peter’s strength.

 

Peter found that he didn’t care.

 

“It’s not for him,” he finished, waving at the floating projection of Skip’s face.

 

Stark was staring at him now, a mixture of regret and surprise on his face. He sighed. “Look, kid, I’m really sorry I -”

 

Peter was really, really not interested in hearing whatever apologies the man had. Suddenly, he wanted to get out of that lab, and away from those files that were never supposed to be there. “I’m leaving,” he muttered, shouldering past the engineer.

 

“Peter, wait!”

 

Stumbling, he grabbed onto one of the nearby stainless steel tables. The metal crumpled in his grip. Peter released it as if he had been burned. There was a perfect mold of his handprint on the edge.

 

Wincing, he thought back to the Iron Man chestplate. At the time, he hadn’t cared about it, but now, he was remembering all the damage he could do when he lost control of his strength - which tended to happen whenever Peter was upset.

 

He needed to calm down before he hurt someone.

 

Peter grabbed his backpack, nearly tearing off the strap by accident. Quickly, he walked over to the glass doors, only to stop in frustration. “FRIDAY, could you open the doors?”

 

“Of course, Mr. Parker.”

 

“Hold that order, FRIDAY,” Stark corrected

 

“Look,” Peter interrupted, before Stark could say anything. “We both know that I can break through whatever this door is made out of, so it would be a lot easier for everyone if you would just open it.”

 

For a moment, Peter thought the man would argue. But instead, Stark gave him one last conflicted look before he nodded, stepping back.

 

The doors slid open. The elevator was already waiting for him.

 

Stark let him leave.

 

Peter slid down the wall of the elevator, clenching his fists until his nails cut into his palms, drawing blood. He could handle this; he could get this under control.

 

What was that Jones had said about calming down? Street names. Peter could do street names.

 

“Ingram Street,” he began. “Puritan Avenue. Ascan Avenue. Whitson Street. Greenway Stre-”

 

Peter choked.

 

Because suddenly, all he could see was that stupid, stupid sign for Greenway Street - Skip’s street - and he was seven years old again, walking with his aunt and uncle to his babysitter’s house, trembling with fear but unable to tell his family why.

 

Peter had been so grateful when they moved after Ben’s death, away from that sign filled with memories.

 

The elevator opened.

 

Peter fled.


 

“Are you okay, Peter?” May hummed, reaching up to brush the hair out of his eyes.

 

Peter flinched.

 

Slowly, May lowered her hand. She exchanged a not-at-all-subtle look with Ben. The had noticed something was wrong with Peter during the past few days; of course they had. His emotional state had been deteriorating by the day.

 

“Is everything okay, sweetheart?” she asked, blatantly concerned. “You know you can tell us anything.”

 

No, Peter really couldn’t.

 

Before, he could. Before, he could go to his aunt and uncle about anything, and he knew it would be fixed.

 

Before he met Skip, that is.

 

And now, Peter couldn’t see a way out of this situation. Granted, he could go to his aunt and uncle, and that might fix it - though his fears that they’d do nothing gnawed at him constantly - but what then? What about after? Peter couldn’t change the past; the memories wouldn’t magically disappear. What if he never stopped feeling the hands all over his body? Worse, what if he did tell May and Ben, and they started treating him differently?

 

What if nothing was ever the same again?

 

It was better to wait, until he had enough data to make a decision. It was better to do nothing, until the fear that he would screw this all up stopped eating away at his insides.

 

If he could last that long, that is.

 

“I’m fine,” he said unconvincingly. “Tired.”

 

May looked doubtful. “Are the kids in school bothering you again?”

 

Peter looked down.

 

May took that as confirmation. Her hand slammed down on the table. “I knew it! I swear, I am going to the principal tomorrow and -”

 

“No!” Peter interrupted. “I’m fine, really! You don’t need to go to the principal’s office!”

 

“I’m not about to sit by and let the other kids hurt you,” she insisted. “I’m your aunt, Peter; I help you.”

 

Peter’s stomach clenched. “No one’s hurting me,” he lied. “I’m fine. I’ve just been studying too much lately.”

 

May carefully watched his face for falsehoods. “Are you sure, Peter?”

 

Funnily enough, Peter found he was much better at lying recently. “Yes,” he promised.

 

Slowly, May nodded. “Okay,” she sighed. Then, she gave him a smile. “Well, this ought to cheer you up: you’re going over to Skip’s house tomorrow. You’re always happier after you hang out with him.”

 

And once, Peter had been.

 

Before.


 

Peter was finding that it was much more difficult to have a not-crisis - because it wasn’t a crisis, Skip hadn’t been a crisis since Peter was seven, it definitely was not a crisis - when you had obligations to society.

 

Like the fact that he had an internship to go to.

 

Granted, Matt, Foggy, and Karen probably wouldn’t be upset if Peter called in sick, but they would be worried, and Peter didn’t want that. Besides, he refused to give this situation any more power over his life than it already had.

 

He was done with Skip’s control over him.

 

The half-hour walk from Stark Tower to Nelson and Murdock helped calm him down. Peter sucked in the brisk air, veered away from any fellow pedestrians, and kept his hands in his pockets so he couldn’t hurt anything. Then, he was jogging up a set of decrepit stairs in a forgotten corner of Hell’s Kitchen, and the door to the tiny law office was swinging open before Peter could think about it.

 

They actually had clients, Peter realized in disbelief. Clients that Peter knew. Clients that knew Peter, but didn’t know they knew them.

 

Captain America, the Winter Soldier, and the Falcon were sitting across the conference room table from the entire staff of Nelson and Murdock, a spread of papers between them.

 

Granted, he had known that they had hired Matt and Foggy, but that was very different from actually seeing them there. As normal, non-powered Peter Parker.

 

A facade that may not last that long, considering Captain Rogers knew Spider-Man’s real name.

 

And they were all staring at him. Right. “Sorry,” he said eventually. “Didn’t mean to interrupt your meeting.”

 

“It’s fine,” Matt said smoothly. “This is our intern, Peter,” he introduced, turning to the men. “He’s just going to be fixing the copy ma - what did Stark do?”

 

Since meeting Daredevil, Peter had had to deal with certain truths.

 

One of them was that Matthew Murdock absolutely hated Tony Stark.

 

Technically, that hadn’t started until after Matt met Peter, and learned all about the Airport Incident. Namely, the man that had some kind of very personal grudge against anybody that used child soldiers found out that Iron Man had dragged a teenager into his war against the world’s greatest super soldier, and formed a lasting hatred.

 

Peter was actually really, very lucky that Matt didn’t lurk outside of Stark Tower in full Daredevil regalia, lying in wait for him.

 

This also meant that he was very ready to address any perceived wrong that Stark may or may not have committed.

 

“What makes you think he did something?” Peter asked defensively. Which, granted, he did, but Matt didn’t need to know that

 

“You smell like Stark Industries and frustration. Explain.”

 

“Nah, I’m good.”

 

A very unwelcome light of realization entered the good captain’s eyes. “Wait, Peter?” he asked slowly. “Peter Benjamin Parker?”

 

Peter paused. “Oh my God, Captain America just called me by my full name. I didn’t even do anything, and I still feel ashamed.”

 

“Peter,” Matt sighed. He sounded pained.

 

“Seriously, I feel like I just shot a bald eagle or something,” Peter insisted. “And that I have to join the Army in penance.”

 

“You’re not allowed to join the Army, Peter.”

 

“Why not? I can be patriotic. Like, not cover myself in the America flag and fight Nazi’s patriotic - no offense, Captain, you be you and all that - but I can totally serve my country.”

 

“How old are you?” Rogers blurted.

 

Peter stared at him. “Fifteen,” he admitted.

 

The captain had turned an interesting shade of white. Peter hadn’t realized that there was a color whiter than chalk. “Fifteen,” he repeated. “Fifteen.”

 

Foggy watched the national icon in worry. “Peter, I think you broke Captain America.”

 

“I did not break him,” Peter protested. “Maybe Matt broke him.”

 

Matt frowned. “Foggy, I did not break our only paying customer. Peter broke him.”

 

“Fifteen.”

 

“Boys,” Karen threatened.

 

Everyone instantly obeyed her unspoken request to start acting like normal human beings. Karen was scary like that.

 

“Are you the same Peter Benjamin Parker that told me about this place?” Captain Rogers interrupted.

 

“Uh, yeah,” Peter sighed, scratching his head sheepishly. “I am. Nice to meet you for real, Captain.”

 

“I dropped a bridge on you,” he responded, his face twisting in horror. “During the fight, I dropped a bridge on a fifteen year old.”

 

“You did what?” Matt snapped.

 

Peter winced. “It was a small bridge,” he soothed. After the Stark fallout, he had made the executive decision to not tell Matt about the whole ‘Captain America knocked out the supports of the jet bridge I was standing under,’ thing. It didn’t seem to be a big deal, in Peter’s opinion. It had been a fight; it was only expected that something like that would happen.

 

“It weighed almost ten tons!” Rogers whispered in alarm.

 

Instead of looking upset, a scary calm descended on Matt’s features. “I see.”

 

For a moment, Peter was confused, before a horrified realization came over him. He stared at the Captain. “I invited you to sparring practice. Please tell me you haven’t accepted yet.”

 

Rogers looked confused. “I did...” he replied slowly.

 

Peter groaned. Foggy and Karen looked completely unsympathetic.

 

“I don’t have to come if you don’t want me to -”

 

“You’re coming,” Matt declared with finality.

 

“Matt’s got this whole ‘no one hurts my apprentice in vigilantism except me’ thing going on,” Peter confided. “Even if it’s totally fine. So he’s not going to spar with you; he’s going to try his hardest to kick your ass.”

 

“I don’t hurt you,” Matt protested.

 

“You kicked me in the head last week.”

 

“That was sparring practice.”

 

“Yet I felt pain. Therefore: hurt.”

 

“Can Matt win this fight, though?” Karen pondered absently. “I mean, it’s Captain America.”

 

“Never underestimate power of Matt’s Catholicism,” Foggy warned. “Guy can ignore pain like nothing else. Even if he doesn’t win, Rogers still won’t be getting off unharmed.”

 

“You guys can’t blame everything on my religion,” Matt sighed, rubbing his temple.

 

The Falcon - some ex-paratrooper named Wilson, if Peter was remembering correctly - stared at Peter. “You’re the motor mouth?”

Matt definitely looked like he was in pain. “Peter,” he groaned. “You didn’t.”

 

“I totally did.”

 

“Did what?” Wilson asked, still glancing at Peter warily, as if he was about to start spewing quips then and there.

 

“The talking thing,” Matt said, pinching the bridge of his nose. He had been doing that a lot more since he met Peter, according to Foggy. “His stupid distraction technique.”

 

“My highly efficient distraction technique,” Peter corrected.

 

“He annoys people into submission,” Matt explained. “During fights. He just keeps talking until they’re so distracted and confused they don’t see his next punch coming. Or they’re grateful for it; we’re not sure which.”

 

“One guy even surrendered to get me to shut up,” Peter preened. “It was awesome.”

 

Everyone stared.

 

“But I’m very sorry about using it on you,” Peter amended. “Really. Very sorry.” Did that sound convincing enough? “Regret,” he added on meaningfully.

 

“Right,” Wilson shook his head. He didn't seem convinced. “What I don't get is why you were there in the first place. Most fifteen year olds aren't that involved in politics, and certainly not enough that they'd be willing to fly to Germany and fight Captain America. How'd Stark convince you?”

 

“Oh he didn't,” Matt broke in tightly. “He just walked into Peter’s apartment, told his aunt he was taking Peter for grant work, then told Peter that if he didn't come to Germany he'd tell his Aunt May about his after school activities. Peter didn't actually know what it was even about until a half hour before they landed.”

 

“It was a bit more complicated than that, Matt,” Peter protested.

 

Matt continued as if he hadn't heard Peter. “Which is why Tony Stark has a standing invitation to sparring practice.”

 

Rogers’s eyebrows shot up. “Stark spars with you?” he asked, curiosity and a bit of desperation barely restrained in his tone.

 

“Nope,” Peter snorted. “I refuse to be party to Matt’s schemes to beat up billionaires, so I’ve never given him the invitation. He still doesn’t know.”

 

“This brings me back to my original question: What did Stark do this time?”

 

“He didn't do anything!” Peter lied. Which probably wasn't the best idea seeing as Matt could hear heart beats, but Peter didn't have many options.

 

“Your heartrate’s elevated, you smell like anger and frustration, and you dented the doorknob when you opened it,” Matt listed.

 

Peter swore. He had thought that he’d gotten his strength under control. “I can fix that,” he promised.

 

“And is that copper I taste in the air?” Matt asked, frowning.

 

Foggy’s head darted up, zeroing in on Peter’s bloodied palms in moments. “Yep, he's bleeding.”

 

“I'm going to fix the copy machine,” Peter groaned.

 

“Stop right there, moody teenager!” Foggy ordered. “You know the rules: No open wounds in the office. Sit.”

 

“But you’re in the middle of a meeting!” Peter protested. “And it’s only a couple scrapes.” Quickly, he rubbed his palms on his pants’ legs in an attempt to get off some of the residual blood. “See? I’m fine.”

 

Foggy crinkled his nose up in disgust. “You did not just do that. Oh my God, sit, you caveman. We were just about to stop for a break when you walked in, so you’re not interrupting anything. You can get back to bastardizing our poor copy machine later.”

 

“I can make that thing so much cooler, if you’d let me,” Peter argued, dutifully taking a seat. “So much of that monstrosity is unnecessary. I can shrink the hardware down to an eighth of the size, and use the rest of the space for useful stuff.”

 

Foggy returned, wielding a truly impressive first aid kit. “We don’t need the world’s tiniest panic room in our fax machine.”

 

“Well…” Matt attempted.

 

“No.”

 

Ignoring all protests that Peter could do it himself, Foggy grabbed the teenager’s palms and began to apply antiseptic with a fervor. “Do it yourself,” he scoffed. “You two are like wolves that lick their wounds and think ‘Done! That’s all the first aid needed!’ And quit your smirking Murdock, don’t think I didn’t see you limping this morning! You’re next!” Foggy frowned, staring at the row of deep half-moons before him. “Did you do this with your nails?”

 

Peter winced. “Accidentally, yeah. I was upset, and I lost control of my strength for a little while.”

 

Matt glowered. “What did Stark do?”

 

“Let it go, Murdock,” Peter said, rolling his eyes. “He meant well.”

 

“You’re sitting in my office injured. Doesn’t matter if he meant well, he -”

 

“He tracked down Skip, okay?” Peter snapped.

 

Everyone stilled. “Skip?” Matt said, testing the word carefully.

 

Already, Peter was regretting his outburst. “Yeah,” he sighed. “Skip. He had pulled up some reports that were supposed to be private and did some really illegal surveillance and made some presumptions… And I dunno, I snapped, okay? We’re not talking about it.”

 

An awkward silence descended. Peter cleared his throat. “So… Captain, how’s Brooklyn doing?”

 

“It’s, uh, good,” he replied. “I checked out those places you suggested. And those gangs Downtown won’t be a problem anymore.”

 

“Oh? That’s good. They didn’t burn down your house, did they?”

 

“They threw the punk in a dumpster,” Barnes chuckled. “Came running over here the next day for tips.”

 

Peter glanced at him in surprise. Up until now, Barnes had been silent, but had watched the interactions carefully. He had a new metal arm, Peter noted absently. Made from a different material than before. Was that vibranium? “Oh?” he asked, cracking a smile. “That makes three of us now. Four, if you count Jones, but according to her, she jumped into that dumpster.”

 

For a moment, the once Winter Soldier was silent. Then, “You’re too young.”

 

Peter ducked his head. “So I’ve been told.”

 

“Maybe you should listen.”

 

“Maybe,” Peter agreed. “But I won’t. I’ve got my reasons for doing what I do.”

 

Another awkward silence. Great, Peter groaned internally. More people who were drawing this back to Skip.

 

“So, yeah,” the Captain broke in awkwardly. “Vigilantism is going good. Different, but good.” A slight smile played on his lips. “It reminds me of before the serum, somehow.”

 

Peter thought back through all history lessons, documentaries, and biographies made about Captain America. No matter how dramatized the story, they all had one thing in common: When Steve Rogers started out, it wasn’t as the world’s greatest soldier. It wasn’t as a superhero.

 

Instead, it was as a scrawny kid in the back alleys of Brooklyn, standing up to every bully he could find.

 

He wasn’t so scrawny anymore, but the act itself was the same. After the chaos that he had gone through since waking up, maybe it would be good for him to get back to his roots.

 

“And the case?” Peter questioned, nodding towards the files. “How’s that going? If you don’t mind me asking, that is.”

 

“No charges have been filed yet,” Karen explained. “Right now, we’re trying to stop this before it even goes to trial.”

 

“If it even gets a chance trial,” Wilson muttered mutinously. “Weren’t too keen on even giving us lawyers, in Berlin. Might be the same case here.”

 

“It won’t be,” Foggy assured. “That shouldn’t have happened in Berlin, and it won’t happen here. Things like that are exactly why the Accords were doomed from the start, with or without the Spandex Squad over there,” he proclaimed, waving at Peter and Matt.

 

“What do you mean?” Rogers asked.

 

“Have you ever heard of the 2001 Patriot Act?”

 

“It’s been mentioned. Don’t know too much about it, though; I’ve had a lot to catch up on.”

 

“It was post 9/11,” Foggy explained. “Bush administration. At first, they thought they could totally suspend habeas corpus too, just throw people in Guantanamo and deny them an attorney. It didn’t work out that way. That’s the thing about government agencies recently: They think they can ignore civil rights in the name of safety. But the Bill of Rights isn’t as irrelevent as they’d like to believe. Plus, it gets worse. At the time of Berlin, the Sokovia Accords weren’t US law yet.”

 

“But they had already been signed,” Wilson argued.

 

“By Secretary Ross,” Foggy corrected. “But that’s not how laws are made in America. They have to be passed by both the House and the Senate, and then they have to be signed into law by the President -”

 

“- which they were, after Germany -” Matt added.

 

“- but not at the time of the airport fight. It doesn’t matter how powerful you are in the government; if it hasn’t been passed by Congress and the President, it’s not a law.”

 

“The same thing happened with the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, post World War I,” Karen explained. “President Wilson signed the Treaty, but it never made it into US law, because he couldn’t come to an agreement with Congress over the League.”

 

Foggy nodded. “Which means at the time of the fight, you weren’t bound by the Accords yet. So the UN basically sent a paramilitary team after US citizens and illegally held them without representation. And then locked them on a prison submarine.”

 

“There’s a reason prison ships aren’t in use,” Matt inserted. “The British used them during the Revolutionary War, and thousands of people died. Locking you into small cells with no visitation, no recreation time, and no way to get in touch with an attorney is not only cruel and unusual punishment, but it violates numerous civil rights.”

 

“Exactly,” Foggy nodded. “Not only that, but the fact that it violated so many civil rights means that it’s ineligible for US law. Eventually, it would have gone to the Supreme Court, but the Times Square Incident happened first. In America, there are checks and balances in the government for a reason. Since Fundamental Rights were involved, the Accords would have gone under the Strict Scrutiny Test, which pretty much guarantees that they would have been overturned. So, basically, the only way you wouldn’t get a trial would be if they decided not to press charges.”

 

“Which they’re going to want if they have half a brain,” Matt muttered.

 

“Why?” Peter asked.

 

“For one thing, they wouldn’t come out clean if they pursued this. Illegal imprisonment, sending Stark after them before they had the legal backing to do so, not even reading Miranda - it’s a mess, and one they don’t want to dredge up. That gives us leverage. Besides, even without all that, it sets too big of a precedent. They can’t prosecute him for the attack on the Accords, because it’s already been established that that was Zemo. So all they’ve got is the Winter Soldier assassinations, and they won’t want to go near that with a ten foot pole. There was a reason the DA fled from the Kilgrave case, and it wasn’t just because Hogarth showed up: If they win a case that prosecutes someone that was under mind control, they’ve left the rest of America vulnerable, including themselves. All they would need was another Kilgrave or Hydra to walk into their offices, and they’d be held responsible for actions that weren’t theirs. And, since the SHIELD data drop, it’s public knowledge that the Winter Soldier was being controlled. We’re hoping that once we make this clear, they’ll drop the case.”

 

“Well,” Foggy proclaimed, slapping Hello Kitty band aids onto Peter’s hands, “you’re done. Be gentle to my poor copy machine.”

 

Peter rolled his eyes as he left the conference room, walking over to the partially dismantled behemoth. “Your poor copy machine hasn’t worked properly since the 80s,” he called.

 

“False! It has been in perfect working condition as recently as 1991!”

 

“What was that?” Peter yelled back childishly. “I can’t hear you over the sound of me installing your new panic room!”


 

“Hold still.”

 

“Stop it, just please - no! Please, Skip, just stop!”

 

“Stop what, Einstein? We're not really doing anything: it's just a little experiment.”

 

“I - I want my pants back now.”

 

“But the experiment's not done yet, genius. And aren't you always prattling on about how important it is to finish an experiment? How it could make the results unreliable if you didn't do it properly?”

 

“That’s - that's different.”

 

“No, it's not. This is just another experiment, and I need you to finish it correctly.”

 

“But-”

 

“Aren't we friends, Einstein?”

 

“I - I don't -”

 

Aren't we?”

 

“I - I guess so.”

 

“Well, don't friends help each other? Didn't I help you with you with your science experiment when you needed an outside party?”

 

“Well, yeah, but -”

 

“Then shouldn't you return the favor? I helped you with your experiment, now you have to help me.”

 

“My experiment didn't hurt you !”

 

“What? Of course it didn't. And my experiment hasn't hurt you.”

 

“But you -”

 

“I've always been careful, haven't I? Aren't I always gentle with you, Einstein? You've never been injured, have you?”

 

“Well, not exactly, but-”

 

“But nothing.”

 

“It feels wrong, though! Doing these things feels wrong, and I don't want to do them anymore!”

 

“And you don't have to. If you feel uncomfortable, you don't have to do anything to help me with the experiment.”

 

“Really, Skip? Thanks, I -”

 

“I can do it; you just have to lay there. Someone as smart as you, you can get that much right.”

 

“W-what?”

 

“The experiment still has to be completed, Einstein, you know that. But if you don't want to do anything, you don't have to. I can do it, but you need to be still while I perform all the trials.”

 

“But - but you just said -”

 

“You're not participating in anything by being still while I finish. Stop complaining, Einstein; I’m doing you a favor. After all, laying there isn't doing anything, is it?”

 

“I guess not, but -”

 

“Then stop being such a spaz about it. The sooner you stop yammering, the sooner we can get going again. Come on, it's time to start the next test.”

 

“I just don't think -”

 

“Peter.”

 

“...okay.”

 

Finally . Now, turn around and lay face down on the bed. And stop shaking, Einstein, there's nothing to be worried about. I'll be gentle, I promise.”


 

The Daily Bugle released an article.

 

About Spider-Man. And about Spider-Man’s rape.

 

Peter really should have seen this coming.

 

After all, he had worked for the Bugle, before he started getting money from the September Foundation ; he knew how much Jameson hated Spider-Man. He had realized that they were being far too silent about the whole thing, but he had been too grateful to care about why.

 

Now, he knew. They weren’t silent; they were just preparing.

 

The article never outright said that Spider-Man deserved to be raped - that would be too inflammatory, even for the Bugle. Instead, they claimed that it hadn’t been rape at all.

 

If Spider-Man was underage at the time it happened, any sexual endeavour he had would have been considered Statutory Rape - which wasn’t real rape, according to the Bugle. Spider-Man had obviously been very loose as a teenager, the article claimed - his skin-tight Spider-Man costume was referenced, along with the rumors that he was intimately involved with Daredevil - and he must have “ensnared” an older man or woman, and let them take the fall for his willing participation. Now, he was just painting himself as a victim to elicit sympathy.

 

When the article first broke, Peter had gotten so sick that he couldn’t go to school. It was as if the Bugle had taken all his fears and blared them across the front page. May had found him with his head in the toilet, retching up everything in his stomach had to offer. At first, she had been puzzled, until she found the newspaper Peter had crumpled into a ball.

 

May lit the paper on fire, called Peter in sick, and spent the entire day forcing Peter to watch cheesy 50’s horror movies with her instead of holed up in his room.

 

Even when she didn’t know the whole story, she still knew how to make him feel better.

 

And, with that one little article, the Daily Bugle escalated something that was only of interest in New York and parts of the United States to an international debate.

 

This wasn’t about Spider-Man’s past, not anymore. No, now it was about rape culture and blaming the victim. Now, Spider-Man’s past was an example to be held up by both sides of the argument.

 

What was once a public interest piece had become a crucial point that was determining how society as a whole thought about rape.

 

It became a movement, one that held Spider-Man up as their banner. People gave speeches; they organized rallies. #ForSpidey trended. One t-shirt design popped up and spread across the country overnight. It had Spider-Man’s iconic symbol in the center, with the words I am not a victim - I am a survivor sprawled across the front, and the words True Hero on the back. Peter wasn’t sure who first made it, but it was everywhere - in his school, on the street, even in his home. When he first saw Aunt May wearing one, Peter cried, and couldn’t tell her why.

 

He thinks she understood anyway, even though she didn’t know the extent of it.

 

But there was also the other side of the argument - the ones that agreed with the Bugle.

 

People made jokes. About Spider-Man, and about what happened to him. One Twitter comment escalated into an overnight scandal, when somebody said that they “feel for” Spider-Man’s rapist - that’d they’d “do whatever it took to tap a bod like that” too. There were those that thought that Spider-Man had just gotten involved with someone while still below the age of consent, and therefore it wasn’t “real rape.” There were those that sympathized with Skip, despite the fact that the knew nothing about the situation. There were those that called Spider-Man a liar, a slut, and an attention seeker, because boys weren’t raped. There were those that said it didn’t matter.

 

And then Tony Stark bought the Daily Bugle.

 

It hadn’t been that surprising, all things considered. After the article, their stock had plummeted as people boycotted their paper for “perpetuating rape culture” - the exact words of CNN , who ran a special report over the incident. There were protesters that had camped outside of the building the same morning that the article first broke, and hadn’t left since. Stark probably got it for a song. The surprising thing was what he did when he had it.

 

He held a press conference to announce the sale. A joint press conference, to be exact. With Steve Rogers.

 

Everyone knew that the two had a falling out, though no one knew for sure why. They hadn’t spoken since whatever happened in Siberia, and rumor had it that the two would never cooperate again.

 

And then they did. On live TV. While wearing matching t-shirts. Which just so happened to be the True Hero Spider-Man shirts.

 

The message couldn’t have been clearer: If we are working together on this, it’s important, so shut up and agree with us.

 

Tony Stark didn’t crack a single joke throughout the entire conference. Instead, he proclaimed that Jameson had been removed from his job as Editor-in-Chief, that they had hired some  Political Scientist - someone named Darcy Lewis - to fill the position until they found someone who could hold it permanently, and said that he was taking the Bugle in a whole new direction. He said that they were done with the sensationalized, fictionalized stories that the Bugle was known for. From now on, there would only be real news based on real facts, and that no “vindictive, disgusting piece of shit passing as news” would get onto the papers under his watch.

 

Everyone knew which article he was talking about. No one mentioned it.

 

And then it was Captain America’s turn.

 

He was much more to the point. He gave a brief, impassioned speech about the need for justice, and about how justice was impeded if “certain individuals” of society refused to see the crime for what it was. He admonished the people making light of the situation, and stated that “rape is a horrific, disgusting crime that should not be trivialized.” Then, he spoke about what it was like when he was a kid, about how rape went largely unreported because the victims would be shamed by society just as much - and in some cases more - than the perpetrator. He went on to say that when he woke up, he was so thankful that that aspect of the public view had changed, and how ashamed he was of his country, after seeing how they had proven him wrong.

 

And, well, it was Captain America saying it. Even after the fiasco with the Accords, he was still seen as a paragon of virtue. People had grown up hearing stories about the man that stood for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and to hear him say that they had made him ashamed to be an American? Well, it fostered guilt like nothing else. #Sorryspidey trended in under ten minutes. Hundreds of videos of people - crying, ashamed people - apologizing for what they said flooded social media.

 

And thus was the power of Captain America’s Disappointed Face(TM).

 

By the end of the conference, everyone knew where Captain America and Iron Man stood on the topic, and it was with Spider-Man.


 

Peter trusted his aunt and uncle.

 

But that didn’t mean he could tell them anything.

 

A constant problem in Peter’s life: Not many people understand him.

 

That can be interpreted in two ways. The obvious interpretation was that Peter said a lot of things that you’d need a science degree to understand, which was very true. Granted, May and Ben didn’t understand them in those instances either, but they didn’t have to. It never stopped them from listening to Peter as he jabbered about whatever new thing had caught his interest.

 

But there was also the fact that people didn’t understand him.

 

Peter was a strange boy. Whereas most boys his age liked comic book superheroes, Peter liked scientists from the Age of Enlightenment. Whereas most boys had race car quilts and Power Ranger posters, Peter had pictures of Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday and a bedspread with astronomically accurate constellations on it. By all accounts, Peter was different.

 

And Aunt May and Uncle Ben were the only ones that truly accepted that.

 

When Peter babbled about chemistry, they smiled at him. When Peter read The Origin of the Species for fun, they asked him what it was about, and listened as he described it in a far-too comprehensive understanding for someone so young.

 

His peers bullied him for those same reasons. His teachers avoided him, for the simple reason they didn’t know what to do with him. And, for a moment, Peter had thought that he had finally found someone accepting in Skip, but that had proven disastrous. All he had left was his aunt and uncle.

 

And Peter couldn’t risk that.

 

The fear that telling would destroy the only blessedly accepting relationship Peter had had stayed his hand. What if that easy acceptance was gone the moment that they found out? What if he lost the only bright spot he had left?

 

Peter was scared.

 

And so he kept silent.

 

Chapter Text

Peter was finding that every vigilante/superhero had a specialty. A type of criminal they always ended up being the one to deal with. It may not be the only type of criminal they fought, and maybe occasionally their Big Bad would battle it out with another super, but at the end of the day, without fail, it was their problem to deal with.

 

Captain America fought Nazis and/or cult groups.

 

Iron Man outsmarted the biggest and baddest mad scientists, and blew up terrorist organizations.

 

Daredevil made Hell’s Kitchen’s organized crime pee themselves.

 

Peter got anything and everything that crawled out of the sewer.

 

Seriously. The sewer.

 

People who thought this job was glamorous were idiots.

 

As it was, Peter had already dealt with three attacks from the whatever-it-was-this-time that was wreaking havoc in the waste - literally - of society, and he had protocols to deal with it, now that the police actually liked him. Protocols. He would take down whatever thing was crawling around before, web them, and then call the special offshoot of animal control that had been created for exactly this occasion to pick up the creatures. Unless they were sentient. When that happened, he had a whole new number to call.

 

This was Peter’s life now.

 

Peter dodged the tail, then the claws, then the tail again. The sewer monster(s) of the week were three weird crocodile-lizard things, twice Peter’s size, with claws sharper than daggers.

 

Strangely enough, this was the most relaxed Peter had been in weeks.

 

Uppercut. Right hook. Roundhouse. Dodge. Cell phone.

 

Cell phone?

 

Instinctively, Peter yanked his burner off his belt and flipped it open, ducking a swing of an armored, scaly tail as he went.

 

If ever was there proof that he was a member of the teenage race, it was this.

 

“Spider-Man?”

 

Kick flip. Left. Duck. “Hey Daredevil!” Jump. Jab. Backhand.

 

“Are you busy?”

 

Back flip. Springboard kick. Jab. Irritated roar from Lizard-Croc #2. “Little bit!”

 

Webs. More webs. Even more webs. How were these things breaking his webs? Side step. Oh God, what did he just step into? He hated the sewers. Claws. Damn, those things were sharp. Webs to his own arm, to stop the bleeding. Dodge.

 

“It's important,” Matt replied tersely.

 

Duck. Punch. Fighting one handed was a bad idea, Peter was discovering. Feet knocked out by tail. Roll out of the way. Try not to think about what you're rolling in. Get back up.

 

I'm gonna have to put you on speaker!” Peter decided.

 

Tail. Claws. Tail again. Teeth - that was new. Lizard-Croc #1 was branching out, apparently.

 

Peter jabbed the speaker button on his phone before webbing it to the ceiling, allowing it to dangle from a thin thread. “What's up?” he shouted.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

Peter shot two streams of webs to the ceiling, jerking himself up and into a flip, and landed on Lizard-Croc #3’s back. He shot one stream of webbing to his opposite hand, then wrapped the thin cord around the monster’s neck, using it as a garrote. “It's important?” he prompted.

 

“Right - oh no, sweetheart, don't worry, everything's fine -” he said faintly.

 

Did the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen just call someone sweetheart?

 

Please let it not be him. Please God, don't let Matt be talking to him.

 

“Is someone else there?” Peter hollered.

 

But Matt wasn't even using his Batman voice. He always used his Batman voice around other people.

 

When Matt replied, it was in his normal, even tones, instead of the deep falsetto reserved for vigilantism and freaking out Foggy. “Three kids came into Hell’s Kitchen tonight, calling for me. Said they needed to get in touch with Spider-Man.”

 

Lizard-Croc #3 collapsed due to oxygen deprivation, finally. Peter flipped off the collapsing figure, landing squarely on his feet between the two remaining aggressors.

 

Well, crap.

 

Kick. Punch. Dodge. Dodge. Duck. Kick. Jab. “Can they take a message?” Peter screamed.

 

Matt sighed. “Gimme a second.”

 

One of the tails wrapped around Peter’s throat, hoisting him off his feet. “Take your time,” Peter rasped. He kicked forward, slamming his feet firmly in the center of the hybrid’s chest. The whatever-it-was released Peter and staggered back, eventually falling and slamming its head into the wall. It didn't get up again. Peter turned to face his last opponent.

 

Matt’s voice returned, presumably after he had walked away from his impromptu guests, this time soft but enraged . “They smell like adults, Peter. In a way no kid ever should. It's in their skin and their breath and everywhere. They say they'll only talk to you.”

 

(Once, Peter had asked Matt what made him start Daredevil. He had asked what had been so terrible that Matt had risked everything to fix it.

 

Matt had gone very still, looked out over his city with sightless eyes, and answered in a too-calm voice.

 

“Her name was Chloe. She was nine years old, had a dog named Turtle, and liked to sing You are My Sunshine. And every night before her father came in her room to rape her, she prayed to God to send an angel to save her.”

 

Then, he smiled, something grim and humorless and full of promise. “I got tired of waiting for God.”)

 

It must be killing Matt to not be able to help with this.

 

Peter leaped, yanking his fist back and slamming it into the skull of the beast. Staggering beneath the blow, it fell backwards. Peter didn't waste time; he grabbed the head of the Lizard-Croc, and rammed it into the wall. It didn't get up again.

 

Peter paused for a minute, his chest heaving. He was covered in sweat, grime, and God only knew what else. He had bruises and cuts scattered over his body that he should probably see to before they got infected by all this muck.

 

Peter walked over to the phone, plucked it from its thread, and raised it to his ear. “I'll be right there,” he promised.


 

In the end, it was the shower that revealed everything.

 

It wasn't the way Peter flinched every time someone came near him. It wasn't the nightmares, which had come every time Peter closed his eyes. It wasn't even the way he would sometimes start to cry, and couldn't stop again.

 

Instead, it was his long, hot showers, that had became progressively longer and hotter by the day.

 

Apparently, things like that drove the water bill through the roof, to the point where it was very noticeable to the person paying said bill.

 

May and Ben had seated him on the couch, and had only just begun to explain why they couldn't afford something like this, when Peter realized it.

 

It was never going to end.

 

Skip was never going to stop. There would be no unknown variable, no new factor that Peter could put into this equation and have it equal the end of this. He was about to lose the only thing that made him feel somewhat clean anymore, but the dirt would keep piling higher and higher. There was only one way to stop this.

 

And so Peter closed his eyes, drew his knees to his chest, and spoke.


 

Peter took a flying leap into the harbor before he went to the abandoned warehouse Matt and the kids were waiting in. Granted, it wasn't exactly a proper shower, but at least it washed off some of the grime from the sewers. Web slinging helped too; nothing dried you off quicker than flying through the air at high speed.

 

Silently, Peter slipped through a shattered window, and into the large, open, filthy building. Three kids were there: two boys and a girl. The girl was young, maybe nine, with dark red hair that curled at the ends. She was seated not far from the boys, one that seemed to be around twelve, the other no more than five. The older boy had dark brown hair and a split lip, and he was holding the younger boy, a blonde-headed child with red-rimmed eyes and a body that wouldn't stop shaking. Matt was still with them, crouched down a safe distance away from the two boys, whispering something Peter couldn't make out to the smaller one.

 

Peter flipped down, landing gently on his feet. For a moment, the children started and froze, merely staring at him.

 

And then the little girl scrambled to her feet, ran over to the lanky figure, threw her arms around him, and began to cry.

 

Peter stilled. The little red-headed girl buried her head in Peter’s chest, and cried harder.

 

Carefully, Peter wrapped his arms around the small form, rocking her gently. The girl sobbed, horrible, heart-wrenching things that sent tentative roots of grief out, twisting and scrambling until they found purchase in Peter’s heart.

 

Then, eventually, she calmed. She sniffled and wiped her nose, before looking up at Peter with so much hope, and said, “You’re gonna save us, right, Spider-Man?”

 

And Peter swore that he would.

 

The girl’s name was Marissa. She was, in fact, eight years old, and she had ran away from home that very day. The reason? For the past three years, her father had been making her take off her clothes before he molested her, and when she finally told her mother, her father said she was lying and her mother believed him.

 

Marissa left within the hour.

 

Through some twist of fate, she ran into the two boys, who had been on the streets for the past three days, and hashed out the plan to find Spider-Man together.

 

The boys’ tale wasn’t any better.

 

Sam was twelve, his younger brother Jim was five years old, and Sam loved Jim more than life itself. Their father had been a Marine who was killed in action, and their mother remarried a man named Frank two years ago, only to die in a car accident six months previously.

 

And Sam had no idea what Frank was doing to Jim until three days ago, when he walked in on the deed itself.

 

Sam tried to kill Frank; Frank almost killed Sam.

 

Sam took Jim and ran.

 

“Did you go to the police?” Matt asked, cocking his head.

 

Sam shot the vigilante a dirty look. “Frank is the police. He’s a detective in the Bronx, and he’s got a lot of friends. I took Jimmy there first, but ran when I overheard one of them calling Frank.”

 

Which left Sam three days later, out of options but with his head still lifted defiantely against the world, giving one last desperate attempt at saving his baby brother.

 

That attempt being trusting Spider-Man.

 

Peter’s been in quite a few critical situations since he became Spider-Man. He’s fought mad scientists and terrorists alike; he’s held the fate of the city in his hands. He’s been the difference between life and death.

 

But somehow, all of that seems ridiculously trivial in comparison to right now.

 

Matt and Peter discuss their options in front of the children; they had considered walking away, but decided against it after seeing the look on Sam’s face. They had been through too much to take away their choice now. When the decision was made regarding what to do next, it would be with their agreement.

 

“We need to talk to some police officer,” Peter argued. “They have authority where we don’t, and they can make sure you guys can get to a hospital.”

 

“It’s too risky,” Sam warned, shaking his head. He pulled Jim closer to his body, and the little blonde boy buried his head in his brother’s neck. “We don’t know that they can be trusted not to go to Frank.”

 

“Not necessarily,” Matt said. “I know a good cop, one that can’t be bribed. He could help.”

 

There was a hesitation there, though. They all knew what it meant: Matt wasn’t sure if he could send them to a male cop without them panicking. Despite seeking Daredevil out themselves, it was clear that the only reason the children had bothered with him was because of his connection with Spider-Man, coupled with the ease of locating him. After all, all you had to do to find Daredevil was walk into Hell’s Kitchen and yell the man’s name, before waiting to see if he would show up. And Daredevil would definitely follow the calls of three little kids alone in Hell’s Kitchen at night, if for no other reason to ensure that they made it home safely.

 

But that didn’t change the fact that they were terrified of the man.

 

Surprisingly, it was Marissa that spoke up. “Will Spider-Man be there?”

 

Peter glanced up. “Of course,” he vowed.

 

She nodded with a sense of finality. “Then we can go see the good cop. Spider-Man will make sure nothing bad happens.” Then, she slipped her hand into Peter’s, and clung to it like it was the only thing between her and Bedlam.

 

And something inside Peter broke.

 

(Another thing inside him was fixed.)

 

When they finally settled into a plan of action that everyone was comfortable with, the kids set about getting themselves ready. Marissa retrieved a backpack obviously meant for school in the corner, bursting at the seams from its contents; Sam sat Jim down and began to prepare, whispering to his brother gently with soothing promises and soft smiles.

 

“Are you coming with us?” Peter asked Matt.

 

Matt waited a moment before shaking his head. “They don’t trust me, don’t feel safe around me. They need you. Besides,” he said, the Devil creeping into his voice, “I have a few stops to make tonight.”

 

When they left, Jim peaked over his brother’s shoulder, glanced at Matt shyly, before whispering, “Bye, Mr. Daredevil.”

 

Matt smiled at him, soft and gentle with none of the Devil in it. “Goodbye, Jimmy.”

 

And then he was gone, leaping up trash cans and fire escapes to the rooftops with barely a sound.

 

Peter got the feeling that Daredevil would be sighted in the Bronx tonight.

 

(Peter wasn’t sure if he believed in God. He had vague memories of crosses hung on walls and church services with droning Latin before his parents died, at which point they ended for Peter entirely. He didn’t know much about religion - any religion - and he certainly didn’t have faith like Matt had.

 

But he did know that some religions, like the Catholic religion, believed that there was bigger plan for everything. That sometimes, bad things - terrible things - happened , but had the potential to do good later.

 

Like a little boy who saved a man only to lose his sight, and went on to use the senses granted to him in return to save a little girl crying out to God.

 

A thought never voiced aloud: Peter’s not sure if he believes in Matt’s God. But if Matt is right, and there is a bigger plan to all this, then Peter thinks that Daredevil was never waiting for God.

 

Because God had answered that girl’s prayer over a decade before it was uttered, when a little boy lost his sight.)


 

By the time Peter finished, his aunt and uncle were crying.

 

Looking back, that always would be the part that he remembered clearest: The two people he loved most in the world, with tears dripping down their faces.

 

It was enough to make Peter pause. To make him wonder if he should have kept quiet, if he should have spared them from the truth.

 

When his aunt tried to hug him, Peter flinched, and when she slowly drew back, it felt like he had broken something irreparably.

 

He didn't think she was mad at him. He didn't think she was upset with him.

 

But he did know that nothing could ever be the same between them.

 

Once hung, the Sword of Damocles could never be taken down again, not without cutting the string and allowing more damage to be done. It would always be there, waiting.

 

There were just some things you couldn't come back from.

 

Peter was grateful when they allowed him to go upstairs again.

 

On a level, he knew that it was only because they wanted to discuss him without him hearing, figure out how to manage this new world they had been thrust into. At first, he had had a brief flare of anger. He had already lost too much control over his own life; he deserved to be included in any decisions.

 

(May lifted a trembling hand to his face, hovered briefly above the skin, stopped, and drew back without making contact.

 

Peter went upstairs.)

 

He stopped at the top of the landing, just out of sight, however.

 

Peter sat on the last step, curled up into a defensive ball, and listened.

 

“-need to figure out what to do next.”

 

Ben’s voice, usually so strong and confident, was shaking.

 

May’s visage, barely in sight, gained a flinty expression. Her jaw tightened. “I know exactly what to do next.”

 

(Her voice didn't shake.)

 

Then, she walked out of sight, her enraged footsteps receding down the basement steps.

 

“May? May, what are you doing?”

 

When she came back up, there was a tire iron in her hand.

 

Ben stepped in her path. “May,” he began carefully. “Stop.”

 

Her hand on the tire iron tightened. “Get out of my way, Ben.”

 

“We need to think about what’s best for Peter right now.”

 

“What’s best for Peter?” she snapped, tears dripping down her face. “What's best for Peter is making sure that - that - monster never touches him again! No, actually - no it’s not. What would have been best for Peter was making sure it never happened in the first place. But it's too late for that, isn't it?” she snarled, shoving past her husband.

 

Ben caught her wrist.

 

“Let go of me, Ben!” May snapped. She slapped him, slamming her fists against his chest and arms. She cried harder.

 

Ben held her tighter.

 

Let go of me! Let go let go let -”

 

They collapsed in a heap on the ground, the tire iron falling with a clatter.

 

“How could we let this happen?” May sobbed. “How did we not see?”


 

The Hell’s Kitchen Police Department had seen better times. As of now, it was understaffed, overworked, and under budgeted. Its new recruits were already jaded, and its veteran officers even more so. The members watched their remaining coworkers with the type of wariness that only came with being stabbed in the back, and then turning around to discover seventy percent of your precinct holding the knife. They suffered through the long hours with bad coffee and a gun on their hip, sheathed in a holster with the thumb break snaps always a little bit lower than they would have otherwise been.

 

By the time Spider-Man walked through the door with three too-young children, no one was surprised.

 

Saddened, yes, but never surprised.

 

Peter had never really gotten used to being inside police stations. Before the Times Square Incident, the police preferred to shoot at him, and Peter preferred to not get shot. As a result, Peter preferred to ninja-slap the more persistent ones, and the more persistent ones preferred not to get ninja-slapped. Mutual avoidance had really been the only answer.

 

After the Times Square Incident, they had come to a tentative understanding. The Defenders wanted to protect New York. NYPD wanted to protect New York. New York was best served when the people who were protecting it were actually protecting it, rather than getting into a sissy-slap-fight with one another (*cough* Avengers *cough*). Therefore, they had to all suck it up and get along, because God knew the superheroes were taking their sweet time removing their heads from their asses.

 

Ten points to vigilantism and police work, then.

 

However, despite this agreement, Peter had only been in a police station as Spider-Man once, and when that happened, half the precinct tip-toed around him, the other was divided between the hero-worshipers and the Jameson 2.0s, and he spent the entire time trying to pretend that his voice hadn’t just broken less than a year ago. The entire experience had been a stressful mess, and Peter had vowed to avoid a repeat at all costs.

 

But at the time, he hadn’t been holding the hand of a little redheaded girl with a shake in her grip and trust in her eyes. He hadn’t been standing next to a boy with too much hard-won pride to hold Spider-Man’s hand, but who still stood ever-so-slightly closer to the man (teenager) he was trusting everything his brother everything with.

 

Some prices were worth paying.

 

The woman at the front desk had tangled brown hair, weary brown eyes, and a grim demeanor that only came with seeing too much in too short of a time.

 

(Matt had had that look once. So had Peter. So had Jessica, and Luke, and so many others of the people Peter was collecting like shards of broken sea glass. That look never went away.

 

You just learned how to hide it.)

 

“I’m looking for a Detective Mahoney.”

 

The woman stared at him, then looked at the children, a tired acceptance in her eyes. She nodded.

 

“Mahoney!” she hollered, jerking her head to the side. “Got a cape here for you.”

 

At the other end of the worn station there was a room with its door propped against the stained wall, completely ripped off its hinges. When Peter looked inside, he saw a pitiful break room consisting of a single coffee maker, a foldout table with no chairs, and an empty cardboard box serving as a trash can.

 

The dark-skinned officer hovering over a chipped coffee mug started, spilling a brown streak down his front. Swearing, he walked forward, his eyes down on his formerly-white shirt. “Why would Daredevil ever -” The man looked up. The words died on his lips.

 

“I’m a friend of Daredevil,” Peter offered. “He said you’re trustworthy.”

 

Brett Mahoney’s eyes fell from Spider-Man to Marissa, from Marissa to Sam and Jim. He had an all-too-familiar grim look on his face.

 

Peter raised his chin and tightened his grip and dared Mahoney to turn them away.

 

Slowly, Mahoney nodded.

 

(Sometimes, you see too much in too short of a time. Sometimes, you are a seven year old who thought you had a friend, only to find a predator. Sometimes, you are nine and blinded, ten and an orphan, twelve and abandoned. Sometimes, you try to help, and end up getting hurt. Sometimes, you are a hero and a victor and a victim and defeated .

 

Sometimes, life happens, and the proof of it becomes etched on your face.

 

Sometimes, it gets worse, and the proof disappears.

 

Because by then, you’ve learned that the world never likes to be reminded of its failures. They like the ones that smile even as they scream, the ones who don’t prove just how cruel life can be. You hide festering wounds with meaningless promises and worthless platitudes, and you laugh through the pain.

 

Because by then, you’ve got practice.

 

Sometimes, the tragedies get deeper and darker, and your protections get stronger and higher. You are constantly besieged by hate and pain and grief, and you learn how to keep fighting even when you want to fall.

 

And then, sometimes, it gets better.

 

You find a tiny pearl of goodness in the swine of humanity. You find the shred of kindness that you had been begging for but never once expected to receive. You find a woman that will risk her career and license to patch up a bunch of strangers, a priest that will offer a cup of coffee no matter your faith, a police officer that will butt heads with every damn one of his coworkers to help a group of kids he had never met before.

 

And for one moment, you are completely and utterly dumbstruck that this kind of thoughtless generosity still exists.

 

And for that one moment, all your defenses crumble, as useless as Jericho. Because you had built walls to keep out the slings and arrows, but hadn’t prepared for the doves. Your carefully crafted facade disappears.

 

Whenever that happened, Peter was very glad he wore a mask.)


 

They drove to the police station, walked up to the front desk, and told the attendant on duty that they needed to report a rape.


 

“Hi, there,” the nurse said, gazing softly at the five year old. “My name’s Claire. What’s yours?”

 

“Jim,” the boy declared shyly, a thumb firmly lodged in his mouth.

 

The Latina smiled gently, and there was pain in her eyes. “Well, Jim, I'm gonna take a look at where it hurts. Is that alright?”

 

Jim paused, shrinking closer to his brother. Sam held the boy tighter, muttering reassurances he didn’t truly believe.

 

Peter remembered this part too.

 

The group hadn’t been at the police station long when the decision was made to take them to the nearest hospital. For obvious reasons, the kids needed medical attention - and they all refused to go without Peter.

 

Peter had sat in the back of the police car, Marissa cocooned into his side and Jim clenching his hand, and he hadn’t felt so powerless since Skip.

 

Because he was Spider-Man. Because he had power. Because he was strong and fast and trusted - trusted to make the right decision, trusted to defeat the villain, trusted to make sure everyone made it out alright.

 

Because he didn’t know if he could win this fight.

 

It was easy, fighting in the streets. Peter could end fights with a flick of his wrist; he could stop speeding cars simply by digging in his heels. He would come home battered and bloodied and bruised, but in the end, it was really only him getting hurt.

 

Now, he was responsible for a bunch of kids that were so much like him but still so different that it ached , kids that could end up going back to their Skips if he screwed this up. Peter had only felt this kind of choking, suffocating fear a few times in his life - when his uncle was groaning and gasping below him, and when Skip was groaning and gasping above him, for two very different reasons but both absolutely terrifying.

 

And then Marissa would offer him a tremulous smile, or Jim would thoughtlessly, unhesitatingly rest his head on Peter’s shoulder, or Sam would look at Peter with a barely-trembling jaw that betrayed just how scared he was, and Peter would ignore his fears.

 

Fear didn’t matter anyway. All that mattered was how you dealt with it.

 

The hospital brought back unwelcome memories.

 

Peter had gone there after Skip, obviously. There had been tests and questions and more tests, and the police had wanted every scrap of evidence they could scrounge up.

 

(Skip had babysat the same morning that Peter went to the police. When they realized just how much evidence there was, May got sick, and Ben had to leave the room.)

 

Peter held Marissa’s hand as Claire began to ready the rape kits, and he wondered if this was how May had felt all those years ago.

 

What happened next was a blur.

 

There were doctors and police officers and social workers who spoke in soft, simpering voices that made Sam snap and Marissa cry out of sheer frustration. There were tests and evidence gathering and even more police, once the media figured out that Spider-Man was acting the protector to three kids and began harassing the hospital. Eventually, there was Peter attempting to intimidate people with the sheer force of his Spider-Manness.

 

It ended the way they always knew it would, but never wanted to admit.

 

Sam had figured it out from the start, and refused to have any illusions about it. Somehow, Peter found the fact that the boy had already outgrown hopeful impossibilities incredibly depressing, despite having done so himself at an earlier age than Sam.

 

In the end, Spider-Man could not stay.

 

He was masked, and fifteen besides, and could not act as guardian to three traumatized kids.There were CPS workers already making arrangements and officers that were barely tolerating Peter’s presence, and the best Peter could do was cajole the social workers into a promise to keep the kids together.

 

Then, he had to let them go.

 

Marissa and Jim cried. Sam didn’t.

 

“Here,” Peter choked out, pressing a crumpled piece of paper into Sam’s hand. “I want you to memorize that number. All of you. If anything happens, call me. I’ll come.”

 

Slowly, Sam nodded, and Peter thought he saw a little bit of hope growing in the boy’s eyes.

 

Peter left. He couldn’t look back.


 

May and Ben held Peter’s hand the entire time.


 

When he finally stopped web-slinging, he ended up on a tall, windy rooftop, and couldn’t remember how he got there. Very, very slowly, Peter sat down on the ledge, and looked out over the city. Before him was a blend of winking lights and buildings brighter than stars, and for some reason, Peter felt simultaneously lighter and heavier than he had in a long time.

 

It was the phone that snapped him back to life.

 

It wasn’t the burner, which, while signifying something was wrong with the other vigilantes, would have at least offered him some means of distraction. Instead, it was his normal, Peter Parker iPhone, which could only mean one thing.

 

May.

 

Peter didn’t want to answer. He did anyway.

 

“Peter?”

 

Peter swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Hey, May.”

 

“Where are you?” she demanded. “You were supposed to leave the office hours ago.”

 

Hoping to get home before worrying May, Peter had started his afternoon patrol at six o’clock. Now, it was 2:37am, and Peter had missed thirty-seven of May’s calls.

 

“Uh, yeah, sorry,” Peter muttered, looking down. “We got caught up researching for a case, and we lost track of time. I - I meant to call, I was just… busy.”

 

“Busy?” May deadpanned. “You were busy for eight and a half hours?”

 

“I’m sorry, May. I really, really am.”

 

“I don’t know if this internship is such a good idea,” May sighed. “It seemed okay at the time, but you’ve got so much school work and the grant and everything… You’re spreading yourself too thin, Peter. And an internship at a firm that will keep a fifteen year old this late is not good for you.”

 

“Nelson and Murdock is fine,” Peter cut in. “I’m fine. It’s just… it’s complicated. Can we talk about it later? Please?”

 

“Alright,” May slowly acquiesced. “Later. We will be discussing this, Peter. I don’t want you walking home so late; take a cab and I’ll pay for it.”

 

Peter hesitated slightly, staring out over the landscape of lights. He couldn’t go back, not yet. Not like this. “Matt said I could stay the night at his place when he realized the time. He didn’t want me heading back alone so late.”

 

It wasn’t the first time they had pulled the “my totally trustworthy, blind boss offered me his couch for the night” stint, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. May had met Matt, Foggy, and Karen not long after she agreed to Peter’s internship, and she adored the group - after running extensive, possibly illegal background checks on all of them. She trusted them enough to watch out for Peter, and that fact had helped cover up his nightly activities more than once.

 

This time, May hesitated.

 

“Is everything alright?” she asked cautiously. “You've been acting - off - lately.” A pause. “If something's happening - if - if someone’s hurting you again -”

 

“No,” Peter cut her off harshly.

 

“You've been having nightmares, Peter,” she pressed. “You think I don't hear them, but I do. And you've been coming home hurt, and you've been spending so much time at the firm, and you've been avoiding Stark completely - and - and I don't give a shit if they're blind or a lawyer or goddamn Iron Man, if someone’s hurting you, I'll stop it. I - I promise, Peter,” she finished, her voice breaking.

 

Peter clenched the phone in his grip, squeezing his eyes shut tight. “No one’s hurting me,” he answered softly. “That - that never happened. Not again. Everything's fine.”

 

A pause.

 

“You know you can tell me anything, right Peter?”

 

I’m Spider-Man. I have been since Ben died, and it was never meant to go this far, but it spun out of control and now I can't remember how to be anything else.

 

Or:

 

No. No, I can't. Because I did once, years ago, and maybe it was the right thing to do but it wasn't easy, and something broke in your eyes that day and never fixed again. And I can't do that again; I'm too scared about what will break this time.

 

Or:

 

I helped three kids tonight. They were like me, but not really. They trusted me, and I felt seven years old all over again. I was there for them, like you were for me, and I never realized how badly that must have hurt you until now.

 

Or:

 

I'm sorry.

 

Or:

 

Thank you.

 

“I know,” Peter lied.


 

When the police interview began, Peter asked May and Ben to leave the room.

 

(He trusted them more than anyone else in the world. He loved them so much that it hurt.

 

Which is why Peter never, ever wanted them to hear what he was about to say.)

 

There were only two officers - a soft spoken blonde lady with thick glasses and a look that screamed ‘psychologist,’ and a dark haired woman with bruises under her eyes and a hard set to her jaw - a notepad and pencil, and a small, boxy tape recorder left in the room. The only ones left to play witness to what Peter was about to say.

 

He knew how this went. He had researched it long ago.

 

Already, Peter had given statements to numerous officers, had listed names and accusations and touched that stupid doll the same way Skip had touched him. Already, he felt sick and vulnerable and violated.

 

They weren't done yet. Peter knew this.

 

It was protocol. There were questions, specialized questions, designed to make sure that Peter hadn't been coached. To make sure everything he said was true. There would be inquires and interrogations and stupid, prying questions , all to make sure that what Peter said happened had happened.

 

Peter wanted it to end. More than anything else, he wanted to be done with the entire thing. And while he couldn't finish it - he didn't think it would ever be over, not really - he could speed up the process.

 

Before either woman could say anything, Peter opened his mouth. “Who’s going to hear this tape?”

 

The dark haired woman looked at him evenly. “It will be cataloged as evidence, only available to those with clearance. It may be a part of future legal proceedings, but it won't be public.”

 

“And I won't have to meet the people that hear it?” Peter pressed. “At least not for long? No one I know will listen to it?”

 

A strange look entered the woman’s eyes. “That's right.”

 

“Not even my aunt and uncle?”

 

“Not even them.”

 

A fact: Memory formation is enhanced when a person is afraid. The brain triggers the adrenal gland, which releases adrenaline, which is involved in the creation of memories. Eventually, the brain becomes absolutely drenched in adrenaline, and every sound, sight, taste, and feeling becomes etched in the person’s mind - it's why PTSD occurs.

 

Another fact: Peter had an excellent memory.

 

A result: Peter remembered every touch, every movement, every second of Skip.

 

Slowly, Peter nodded, and began to describe in graphic detail actions that no seven year old should ever know about.


 

“Is this Spider-Man’s number?”

 

Peter raised his eyebrow, plopping down on a billboard ledge. Before he had even made it out of his neighborhood, his burner had rang, a hesitant, familiar voice on the other end.

 

His patrols had become systematically later and more broken up, May’s concern for him driving Peter to all new levels of secrecy. She was worried, and when she was worried she hovered, and a hovering aunt was never conducive to a vigilante lifestyle. Peter had to get creative.

 

(Sometimes, Peter thought about telling her everything, about confessing it all and hoping for the best. Sometimes, he opened his mouth, and lingered with the words on the tip of his tongue.

 

Then, he remembered the other time that he had let difficult words fall, and stopped himself.

 

Peter didn't regret telling Aunt May about Skip. If he could do it over again, he'd make the exact same decision.

 

But Peter doesn't want to be saved, not from this, not from Spider-Man, and telling her for the sake of telling her risks hurting her without a chance of being able to fix it. And that terrifies Peter more than any criminal ever did.

 

He closes his mouth. Always, always he closes his mouth.)

 

“Yeah…”

 

“This is Steve. Steve Rogers? Captain America, that is. Daredevil gave me your burner number, said to call for emergencies.”

 

Captain America was calling him.

 

Captain. America.

 

Which, yeah, Peter had met him, sassed him, punched him, but this was different. This was Truth, Justice, and the American Way personally calling up puny Parker for help. For vigilante help. Which Peter could actually provide.

 

Be cool, Parker. Be cool.

 

“Is this an emergency?”

 

A pause. “There's a little girl wandering the streets here in Brooklyn, looking for me. She's got nothing but her pjs and a teddy bear, and - and she's pretty beat up. She says she'll only talk to Spider-Man.”

 

Peter swallowed, his heart kicking up a notch. “Where are you?”

 

And so it began.

 

Three kids Peter stumbled upon while patrolling Queens. A little boy running around Hell’s Kitchen, yelling for Daredevil. A steady stream of people fleeing abusive relationships and family members into Alias Investigations. A few youngsters stumbling around Brooklyn, and a couple teenagers who found their way to Harlem.

 

Even a couple kids that walked into Stark Tower and asked to see Spider-Man.

 

(That call had been the first Peter had received from Stark Industries since he left that day. He almost didn't answer it.

 

Pepper was on the other end.

 

By the time Peter reached Stark Tower, Tony had already called the police, corralled the scared kids into his lab, and was regaling them with dramatic stories and controlled - for once - explosions. When the children ran from his presentation to crowd around Spider-Man, Stark briefly met Peter’s eyes over their heads, offered him a weak smile, and then looked away.

 

They didn’t speak the entire night.)

 

(Don’t worry about Tony, Steve(!) had texted him once. He’s never been much of one for privacy. And things like this, it’s just how he shows he cares. He always tries to fix other people’s problems any way he can, and sometimes he oversteps his boundaries.

 

And: He wants to talk to you, if you’ll let him.

 

Peter hasn’t replied to those. Not yet.)

 

At first, the people only wanted Peter. Slowly, however, they began to trust the others.

 

Captain America made the news by carrying a little boy into a hospital for a rape kit. Tony Stark was a constant, hovering presence at the NYPD, micromanaging the investigations of the children that came to him with all the flare of an eccentric billionaire. Daredevil’s YouTube channel - which was, to Peter’s endless amusement, called The Devil’s Mistress - noted a marked increase in the sexual predators the man battled, and guest star Brett Mahoney, while looking infinitely done with his life, commented on the surplus of both criminals and children who came to him because “Daredevil said so.”

 

(Peter sent Mahoney a fruit basket, and signed it Daredevil . He made sure it was delivered to the precinct when he, Matt, Foggy, and Karen were there for a case.

 

Matt glared in his general direction. Foggy gave him a subtle high-five. Karen graced him with a smile, then glared at Matt for glaring at Peter, her gaze employing that special type of badassery that could penetrate blindness.)

 

Jessica Jones harangued police officers into helping the people she found, threatened the CPS officers into finding the underage ones good homes, then tracked down Peter, reeking of booze and exhaustion.

 

“So,” she said candidly, carefully picking a piece of pineapple off her pizza before flicking it off the fire escape, “I’ve come to the conclusion that we are heroes.” She paused. “And it sucks.”

 

“Villainy probably would have paid better,” Peter mused, chomping down on his slice thoughtfully.

 

She laughed, low and bitter. “They look up to us. Why the Hell do they look up to us?”

 

“I… have no clue. I don't even look up to us.”

 

Jessica leaned against the metal framework, closing her eyes as she took a swig from a flask. “I used to think he was there,” she said. “All the time. I'd be doing something - stupid, everyday stuff - and then he'd be there. And I'd be so, so convinced it was real. I still do, sometimes.”

 

“That doesn't change all that much,” Peter admitted, settling next to her. “Hasn't for me, at least. Gets easier, sometimes. I can go days, weeks, even months, and I'm fine. And then he’s there again. Like nothing's changed.” Peter licked his lips. “I don't feel like a hero.”

 

“Yeah, me neither, kid.” Jessica looked out over the landscape, taking another long, slow swig from her flask. Her nose crinkled. “God, are we actually having a heart to heart? When did we become girls?”

 

“Around the second trimester for you. I've got irrefutable proof that I'm not. And that's an unfair stereotype, Jones.”

 

Jessica rolled her eyes.

 

“Kevin Thompson,” she eventually said, her eyes still glued to the horizon. “Didn't find out his real name for a long time. He was always Kilgrave to me. Kilgrave was… Kilgrave. Kevin was just a messed up kid.”

 

Neither of them spoke.

 

“Steven Westcott,” Peter eventually said. “Went by Skip. I was seven.”

 

Jessica looked at him askance. “Shit, kid.”

 

Peter shrugged. “Messed me up pretty badly for a while. But I didn't become a Kilgrave. And neither did you. We can't blame everything on our pasts. At some point, we all make a conscious decision to be a certain way, and - and we've got to be greater than what we suffer. Kevin and Skip made their choices, and we made ours. And no crappy history is going to change the consequences of that choice.”

 

“Poetic,” Jessica mumbled thoughtfully. Then, “You're a good kid, Spidey.”

 

A pause. “Peter.”

 

A smile, barely there. “You're a good kid, Peter.”


 

Peter hadn't wanted to go to the hospital.

 

Hospitals were for injuries. They were for those horribly hurt, the ones that needed the doctors and the bandages and the help. And Peter… Peter just wanted it all to stop.

 

But May’s eyes were still red and Ben looked like he had aged ten years in ten minutes, and Peter couldn't bear to fight the issue.

 

A kindly officer had promised to take them there in his cruiser, a nervous smile planted on his face as he made the offer.

 

“It'll be fun,” the man had promised with a hesitant look full of fake cheer. “You can try out the sirens, if you want.”

 

(Peter didn't want to, and he told the officer that with no small measure of pleasure.

 

There was a certain exhilaration, he thought, when people listened to what you wanted.)

 

They were walking through the front of the precinct when it happened.

 

The doors opened, and Skip walked through, hands handcuffed behind him and an officer on each side.

 

And Peter stopped, and looked.

 

On a level, he had known that officers had left to arrest Skip while he was still there - on a level. It had never been conceivable that he would have actually seen Skip here.

 

Based on the looks on their faces, it hadn't been conceivable to May or Ben either.

 

The officer before him flushed bright red, already muttering apologies and excuses. He began to turn towards the three of them, trying to shepherd them out of the corridor, when Peter flinched away.

 

It didn't take long for Skip to notice them.

 

This time, Peter didn't flinch. He lifted his chin and squared his jaw and forced himself to remain still.

 

Skip stared back. Then, very slowly, he nodded cordially, and moved on. Through the station, between the swinging doors, and out of sight.

 

Out of his life.


 

“Can't you at least go easy on him?”

 

“He's Captain America; I seriously doubt he needs me to go easy on him.”

 

“You wouldn't have to go full Devil on him,” Peter tried. “Maybe half. Three quarters?”

 

Matt hummed noncommittally. Which meant no.

 

“He shamed the Internet for me! That has to get him some brownie points.”

 

Matt smiled reasonably. “Of course it does.”

 

“So you won't try to break both his legs?” Peter pressed, relaxing slightly.

 

Matt snorted. “It doesn't get him ten tons worth of brownie points.”

 

Peter groaned before flopping backwards dramatically, turning the force of his Petulant Teenager to eleven.

 

Matt glanced at him, completely unsympathetic. “He’ll heal.”

 

“My pride won't,” Peter grumbled.

 

“You still have pride?” Matt cocked his head curiously. “I thought the last of that was destroyed when you were taken out by that poodle.”

 

“That thing was vicious!”

 

“Right, of course,” Matt agreed, nodding amiably. “That vicious poodle. Named Sugarplum.”

 

Asshole.

 

Peter narrowed his eyes. “Tread carefully, Daredevil,” he warned. “I have just as much blackmail on you as you have on me. Tell anyone, and it's mutually assured destruction.”

 

“I'm aware. Just like I'm aware that you can't use any of your knowledge to stop me without exposing yourself.”

 

“You don't have to beat up Captain America!”

 

Shrugging, Matt went back to strapping his thick, Melvin-approved, people-smashin’ Devil GlovesTM back on. “Yes, I do. I promised Foggy and Karen I would. Sort of.”

 

Thursday Vigilante Smack Down was not, in fact, every Thursday. They tried to have it every Thursday - if only for the sake of Foggy, Karen, Trish, and the rest of their assorted loved ones who preferred them beating the crap out of each other rather than ninja-slapping armed criminals and hoping for the best, and got a little peace of mind from the knowledge that they would all be together - but, practically speaking, it was impossible. If anyone figured out that all of New York’s (effective) vigilantes disappeared every Thursday, then criminals would come out in droves once a week. Besides, conflicting schedules made finding an actual date unbearable. If Jones was free, then Peter would be stuck studying for a Mandarin test. If Peter could make it, Matt would be spending the night destroying an arms trading ring.

 

Really, the only reason they were meeting tonight was due to the fact that Karen and Foggy got tired of Matt’s passive-aggressive quips and Steve’s eternal guiltiness, and forced Steve to swear on his Shiny Shield of Patriotism and Matt to swear on his Devil Horns of Badassness that they would finally go beat the crap out of each other, so they could rejoin the League of Adults, thank you very much.

 

Peter didn't swear on anything, but he was forced to attend nonetheless.

 

(Despite attending, he apparently was not qualified for joining the League of Adults, either. Apparently, he had “to be at least this old to ride the ride.”

 

Peter felt this was discrimination, and was planning his lawsuit accordingly.

 

Foggy said that was cute and called him a handsome duck before giving him a lollipop and telling him to run along now, little child.

 

Matt smirked.

 

Karen informed him that it only got worse the longer he hung out with them.

 

Peter hated them all.)

 

“Technically, you only promised them you would start acting like an adult again. You and the Captain both. That can be achievable without bodily harm. How about a contract renegotiation?”

 

Matt snorted. “Keep trying, councilor. We’ll make a lawyer out of you yet.”

 

Squawking, Peter sat up, offended. “Slander! I am a scientist! This is the deliberate defamation of my - oh forget it; I have been hanging out with you too long.”

 

“Probably,” Matt decided, standing up smoothly. “The Captain said he would be late; he had something to take care of in Brooklyn. Want to spar until then?”

 

Peter flipped to his feet.

 

Matt fought as he always fought: without holding back.

 

When he had first been taught to fight, Matt had been taught to never restrain himself, and it had been a habit that he had never been able to fully break. While he never killed, he didn't exactly show mercy, either. He just… fought. Like a warrior. Like an animal.

 

Like a devil.

 

He was teaching Peter to fight like that, too.

 

A result: Peter got hit a lot.

 

Peter found this fact to be strangely satisfying.

 

That was not to say, however, that he enjoyed getting beat up. It was not to say that he liked it when Matt didn't hold back.

 

It was simply that he liked the fact that Matt didn't hold back.

 

This was a small but important distinction.

 

When people found out his age, they tended to pander to him - especially during sparring. This fact frustrated Peter to no end.

 

After all, it wasn't like the super villains were about to hold back during a fight. He needed to know how to handle himself in the real world, and for that, he needed his teachers to actually teach him, not skirt around him as if he were a clumsy puppy beneath their feet.

 

Matt was more than happy to oblige.

 

And, as a result, Peter was actually learning.

 

Through pain. And bruises. And more pain.

 

But now he could backwards springboard kick flip a guy in the face, which was awesome, and more than enough of an incentive for showing up to the somewhat brutal lessons.

 

“Thanks,” Peter said, and he meant it.

 

Matt paused, wiping sweat from his brow. “For what?”

 

“For…. duct taping me to a fire escape. And for everything that came after.”

 

Hesitating, Matt turned his sightless eyes in Peter’s direction. The dark red lenses of the Daredevil mask winked in the dull light. “You know you can come to me, right? About anything. Whether about everything that’s been going on lately or -” he waved a hand ineffectually in the air “-anything. I’ll help.”

 

“It’s fine, Matt,” Peter replied, somewhat stiltedly. “I’m - I’m good. Really.”

 

And here was the thing: Peter was good. For the most part, he felt that he had moved past the whole “Skip” thing. It hadn’t gone away - wouldn’t go away, not ever, not that - but Peter had grown around it, scar tissue holding together what once had been a wound. Peter wasn’t flinching at every touch; he didn’t bear the same blanket distrust for everyone the way he once had. Most of the quirks Peter had developed during that part of this life, the little tokens Skip had inadvertently nurtured with each subsequent visit, had - not disappeared, but melded into the rest of Peter. They had grown with him, until their patchwork pattern almost blended in with the whole of his psych, only visible if Peter let you close enough to see the stitching.

 

There were just some things that still stuck with him, immutable despite the passed time. A few little quirks that still popped up every now and then, a sharp contrast against the balance he had obtained. Unpleasant things, but manageable.

 

(Once, Matt was trying to teach Peter a new grappling move, designed to flip your opponent just right, and his hand slipped a little too high on Peter’s thigh.

 

Peter threw Matt through a wall, then spent the next half-hour hyperventilating.

 

For the following three weeks, Peter alternated between apologizing profusely and refusing to explain why.)

 

(Cherry made Peter sick.

 

It has not always been this way.

 

Once, it had been Peter’s favorite flavor. Anything cherry, he would eat. Cherry lollipops, cherry gum, even cherry cough syrup.

 

Cherry popsicles.

 

Except then Skip babysat him for the third time, and Peter had spent the entire day leading up to it panicking uncontrollably. Surprisingly enough, Skip hadn't touched him the entire time - hadn't even looked at him funny - and that was supposed to mean that Peter was safe, damn it. But then Skip offered him a cherry popsicle, his favorite, and Peter had sucked the entire God forsaken thing into his mouth before he noticed Skip watching him with that nowronguncomfortable stop look on his face. He had tried to stop, tried to back away from the land mine he had unknowingly stumbled upon, but Skip made him finish every last bit of it. He watched the entire time.

 

Then, Skip was taking the red-stained stick from his hands and forcing Peter to his knees with a rough shove. And Peter hadn't understood, hadn't even guessed at what was going on as the older boy pried open his cherry-stained mouth, but he began to get an inkling when Skip shoved his pants open. Peter had tried to turn his head, but Skip had just buried his fingers in Peter’s hair and jerked him back into position before -

 

Cherry made Peter sick.)

 

Matt nodded. “I know. But if you ever aren’t… well, I’ve been made intimately aware of how important friends can be in our kind of lifestyle.”

 

Matt… Matt wasn’t offering pity. He was offering friendship.

 

And that was all Peter really wanted.

 

When the Captain showed up, Peter outright groaned.

 

Steve paused momentarily, his eyes flickering between Matt and Peter. “Everything alright?”

 

“No,” Peter stated mulishly.

 

“Captain,” Matt greeted, smiling tightly. “Step into the ring.”

 

“Wait!” Peter cried. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Not you, Matt. You don’t count.”

“I find that to be categorically untrue.”

 

“Your face is categorically untrue.”

 

“It’s fine, Peter,” Steve cut in. “This is fine.”

 

“Fine,” Peter groaned. “If you both are committed to beating each other up, you have to know The Rules.”

 

“The rules?”

 

“The. Rules,” Peter stated soberly. “The Sacred Rules of Vigilante Fight Club, passed down to us by the Mighty Overlords Karen and Foggy, signed into law by the Good Taskmasters Trish and Malcolm, enforced by the All-Powerful Hands of Claire the Inescapable-”

 

“It’s a wonder that anyone has ever confused him to be over fifteen,” Matt murmured thoughtfully. “I often think he’s younger, just from the way he acts.” Steve nodded his agreement.

 

Peter glared at them both. “I don’t suppose either of you would like to be the one to tell the others that The Rules were ignored?” Both of them blanched. “Didn’t think so. Karen made me memorize this so I could recite it verbatim; you all are lucky you only have to hear it when we get a new member; I hear it in my sleep. Rule One: No maiming. Rule Two: Those with super strength may only hit their opponents with force proportional to the endurance said opponent possesses. Rule Three: No, Matt, your sheer Catholic will does not count as super-endurance. Rule Four: Jessica, who is not currently here because of something called ‘actual work,’ is not allowed bring beverages of high alcohol content to the fights, as there is something known as an ‘impressionable teenager’ attending. Rule Five: Dumpsters are not to be used during any fights, either as a weapon or a place to throw our vanquished opponents. Rule Six: Peter, while webs may be your weapon of choice, they are a nightmare to get out of Matt’s armor, so if you don’t start avoiding the joints on that thing so help me God I will -”

 

The Rule list kind of degenerated from there. Privately, Peter suspected Karen was drunk when she typed it up, but had decided he valued his life more than his desire to ask.

 

“Any questions? Comments? Last Will and Testaments?”

 

Both shook their head.

 

“Alright let's get this over wit - wait!” Peter scrambled through the pockets of his sweats, searching. “I almost forgot!” Tapping a button on his phone, Peter closed his eyes as a satisfying ddddooooonnnngggg erupted from the app whose sole purpose was to replicate a gong. It may or may not have cost him $1.29 to download.

 

Worth it.

 

Peter opened his eyes again. Both Matt and the Captain stared at him. He paused. “The gong meant go.”

 

Slowly, Matt shook his head, then punched the human embodiment of Truth, Justice, the American Way - and likely eagles to boot - in the throat.

 

It really went downhill from there, but not in the way one might think. Because soon, it became abundantly clear that Steve was only fighting with the left half of his body.

 

Seriously. He didn't even pick up his other leg to move; he just left both right limbs hang numbly at his side, limp and pathetic.

 

This fact only enraged Matt further. “Are you,” he spat, “going easy on me?”

 

Going easy on Matt was a dangerous thing to do. It was far too reminiscent of the ableist assholes who were the reason that Matt now visited the gym after closing hours, and was liable to get oneself punched in a place no man wished to be punched.

 

“No,” Steve promised, wide-eyed and trustworthy, America pre-Internet personified. “I would never do that; you're more than capable of holding your own. And you're right to be mad at me for what happened at the airport; I'm mad at myself. Peter was obviously very young and untrained - not that you didn't fight impressively well, Peter, because you did. But that lack of training can be like you’re missing limbs during a fight. And instead of recognizing that as a sign of how very young you were, I exploited that, and endangered your life in the process. So if you had to fight me missing limbs, Peter,” Steve finished, nodding at his right side, “then it's only fair I do the same with Daredevil.”

 

Hesitating, Matt tilted his head for a moment, considering the Captain’s words. Then, he dropped his fists and stalked out of the ring, muttering under his breath. A true angelic-chorus, God-intervening-from-above miracle.

 

It was an incredibly good thing that Matt was blind, because if he wasn't he would have been able to see the slight quirk to the Captain’s lips, and the too-cunning gleam in his eyes.

 

Suddenly, Peter remembered that a) Matt was handling Steve’s best friend’s case, b) lawyer-client relations may have been somewhat impeded if they beat the crap out of one another, and c) not only was the Captain known for throwing a shiny object at Nazi’s heads, but also for his military genius.

 

Son of a bitch.

 

“Yeah, the Capsicle’s always that annoying.”

 

Peter spun around.

 

“Hey, kid,” Tony Stark greeted, somewhat awkwardly. “Got the invite. This Superhero Fight Club, right?”

 

“Vigilante,” Peter spluttered. “Not superhero.”

 

“Ah,” Stark nodded. “I heard you guys were kinda touchy about that.”

 

“I - uh - who gave you the invitation?”

 

“I did.”

 

Peter looked at the Captain.

 

“Daredevil said he had a standing invitation. So I gave it to him.”

 

Matt turned his head towards Steve. “I approve of you, now,” he solemnly informed him.

 

“Shut it, Horns.”

 

“Look, kid. Peter,” Stark amended, raising his hands defensively. “I’m not here to step on your toes. If you want me to go,” he promised, sucking in a painful breath, “I’ll go. But I’d like to talk to you.”

 

Peter clenched his fists.

 

If he was being honest, he wasn’t mad at Mr. Stark - not anymore, at least. That emotion had faded fast; he had too many reasons to hate nowadays, anyway.

 

The other emotions had remained. Namely, the fact that Peter was embarrassed.

 

Stark had read the accounts; he knew things that Peter hadn’t wanted anyone to know. It made Peter feel exposed, being around him, all the while knowing that he knew.

 

Peter took a deep breath. He centered himself.

 

“It’s fine,” he heard himself say. “You can stay.”

 

Slowly, Mr. Stark nodded. “If we’re being honest, I didn’t come here to let the Dominatrix over there beat me up,” he admitted, glancing towards Matt. “Hey there, Horns, love the fashion statement, have you considered adding a whip to the ensemble? Maybe a few chains? I think it’d really tie the whole theme together.”

 

Matt took a step forward.

 

“I’m kidding! What, they have no jokes in the Inferno? Lighten up, Lucy.”

 

The man was going to get himself killed.

 

“Why are you here then, Mr. Stark?” Peter interrupted.

 

“First, I’d like to - apologize,” Stark bit out, the words sounding awkward on his tongue. “For invading your privacy. And disregarding your wishes. And - everything. Can we… Would you… Forgive and forget?” he settled on.

 

“...Forgive,” Peter decided eventually. Not forget. He didn’t forget.

 

“...There’s something else.”

 

“What?”

 

“Did you know that for some reason the entire city thinks I’m your personal secretary?” the billionaire probed suddenly. “Get seen dramatically flying side by side once, and everyone calls you when they want to talk to a giant spider. Really, Webs, I should be getting paid for my services, because -”

 

“The point, Mr. Stark,” Peter reminded him.

 

Tony rambled when he was nervous. That… that was worrisome in this setting.

 

“What? Oh, right. Well, the City Council called me. They have this new program they're planning on implementing in the police department. It's a response to all the media heat they've been getting lately - a better training, improved funding, greater awareness type thing. They’re having some kind of ceremony to announce it, and they were hoping for a superhero endorsement.”

 

“And by that you mean a Spider-Man endorsement,” Matt interrupted, his voice cold, sharp steel against the timbre of Tony’s voice.

 

“Yes.”

 

“I can't,” Peter blurted instantly.

 

This fact had nothing to do with Skip. It had nothing to do with his memories. It had nothing to do with his fears.

 

It had everything to do with the people who looked up to Spider-Man.

 

They had given him something, these people. They had given him their trust. It felt precious, this fragile, starving thing, like something that would wilt with a breath of air.

 

But it was also strong.

 

It was enduring. They believed in him, had put their faith in him. For some reason, they were completely and utterly convinced that Peter couldn't - wouldn't - lead them astray.

 

It was an important distinction, Peter thought.

 

Couldn't means something is impossible. It means the scenario isn't even an option, because there is an overarching law of the universe preventing it from being so. Couldn't doesn't mean anything, because you couldn't know what would happen if that couldn't becomes a could.

 

(And people already could do many things.)

 

Wouldn't is different.

 

Wouldn't is a choice. It is the knowledge that something is an option, and it is the conscious decision not to do it. To say someone wouldn't do something is handing someone a knife and knowing that they could stab you in the back with it, but trusting them not to.

 

(It's handing someone a knife and exposing your back to them, blood still weeping from where you trusted wrong before.)

 

It's a special difference, this one letter distinction -  an honor, really, and one that Peter wouldn't betray.

 

“This is about you, Peter,” Stark pressed. “It's happening because of what happened to you. And while you and the vigilante squad are doing good work out there, it's not practical. You guys still have other crimes to fight; you can't monitor one type forever. And you can't give them all the help they need! If these people are going to get the resources they need, they have to go to the police for that, and they're not going to do that unless you tell them it's safe.”

 

“What if it's not?” Peter interrupted.

 

“Not what?”

 

“Safe!” Peter exploded. “What if they end up back in the same crappy situation as before - because they followed my advice? What if the program doesn't work, and the training fails, and I can't help them?”

 

“We have to make it work, Pete,” Mr. Stark warned. “We have to make sure this program works. It has a lot of potential to help people, wasted potential. What you're doing now is good, but its unsustainable. We have a golden opportunity to fix things now; we need to take it. We may never get another chance like this.”

 

Peter sucked in a deep breath and clenched his fists.

 

Because Stark was right.

 

What he was doing wouldn't work in the long run. It would get those that came to him out of their situation, granted, and help them go to the police, but it wouldn't help the dozens of other people Peter couldn't help. It wouldn’t help those that couldn’t find him, or those that were too scared to venture out in the streets to look - and rightfully so. Danger was not uncommon in New York City after dark; seeking him out had its own risks.

 

The police were more accessible. They were easily found, and had round-the-clock hours. Furthermore, they were there for a reason.

 

To help the same people Peter wanted to help.

 

“I want to see the program before I commit to anything,” Peter eventually stated. “I need to know what they’re planning before I endorse them.”

 

Stark didn’t even blink. “Done.”

 

“And - it’s a public appearance they want?”

 

None of them missed the hint of reluctance in his voice.

 

Peter wasn’t exactly the type of celebrity that did interviews and and engaged the press; his was of the more grainy photographs and shaky videos uploaded to YouTube variety. It risked too much, what with him being an underaged masked vigilante who had multiple bounties put on his head by various criminal organizations while being on uncertain ground with the law and all. Anything that jeopardized his anonymity was not worth it. And since the reveal, his instinctive avoidance of the press corps had only grown.

 

“It’s not like they can pinky swear you’re cool with it,” Stark joked hesitantly.

 

“It doesn’t have to be unbearable, though,” Steve jumped in.

 

Peter turned to look at him.

 

“I know that voice. Does the Star Spangled Man have a Plan?”

 

The Captain rolled his eyes at Tony’s antics. Then, he told them.

 

Mr. Stark nodded thoughtfully. “It could work. I'd have to up the security on the place, but I was going to do that anyway.”

 

“I don’t know,” Peter protested. “The Avengers may be used to this kind of stuff, but waltzing around a rally in Central Park’s not really a part of the vigilante lifestyle. I don’t know if the Defender’s would even show.”

 

“I’m fine with it,” Matt inserted.

 

Peter looked at him in surprise. “Really?”

 

Matt nodded.

 

“But you’re Daredevil; you only come out at night.”

 

“I think I’m qualified enough to decide what time of the day I can come out at.”

 

“People can tell how stupid your suit looks in the daylight.”

 

A tired sigh. “We all have our crosses to bear, Peter.”

 

Peter could hear him rolling his eyes.

 

“Are you sure? I’m pretty sure that suit is Fetish Red; there’s absolutely no way you can hide that.”

 

“Peter.”

 

“Thanks, Daredevil,” he smiled.

 

“Are you two going to hug? Because if you are, warn me beforehand. TMZ has put quite a price on a picture with any physical contact, and I didn’t become a billionaire by missing opportunities.”

 

“Can it, Stark.”

 

“Nice decor you got here,” Stark replied absently, glancing around. “The broken glass really ties it all together. And is this a blindfold?” he questioned, holding up the thin strip of black that was tossed on top of their emergency pile of first-aid supplies and Twinkies (Jones’s idea - super metabolisms could be a blessing and a curse). After he received a nod to the affirmative, the billionaire let out a low whistle. “You all have been holding out on me! Obviously, vigilantism is my calling. Have you all been getting up to things I would absolutely approve o -”

 

Stark stopped, then looked at Peter.

 

“I mean, I’m joking, obviously. I know you’re not - and he’s not -” Stark gestured between Matt and Peter, fumbling out a hand gesture that wasn’t exactly recognizable, but still likely illegal in at least four countries.

 

Peter rolled his eyes. “It’s fine, Mr. Stark; you don’t have to change your special brand of humor just because of what happened to me.”

 

“Ah,” Stark nodded. “Right. So what’s the blindfold for?”

 

“Me,” Peter said, snatching it from his grasp. “Daredevil’s teaching me how to fight in a pitch black environment.”

 

Stark frowned. “But there’s only one blindfold.”

 

“So?”

 

“Isn’t it kind of pointless to have a sightless fight when one of you can - holy shit.”

 

Peter could see the wheels turning in the genius's mind; his stomach clenched. Matt tensed.

 

“What?”

 

The Man Without Fear wasn’t afraid - but he was wary.

 

“You’re not funneling your purchases through the blind guy; you are the blind guy.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“It totally makes sense: You’ve been going after criminals you meet through your firm, you only work at night, and people say you can hit a target with those batons of yours without looking at them. You even got a Catholic-themed costume. The only question is how you’re doing it…”

 

Matt had glued his patent, you-are-a-moron-and-I’m-going-to-tell-you-exactly-why smile on his face, usually reserved for prosecuting attorneys and idiots who thought the blind guy wasn’t allowed outside without supervision. “I think you’re mistaken, Mr. Stark.”

 

“Dude, I’ve checked your Internet search history; no normal man goes through that much gauze and red leather patches without being a vigilante or having some weird preferences.”

 

“Accessing private purchases without a warrant is in direct violation of -”

 

Matt trailed off, realizing his mistake. Stark grinned triumphantly.

 

“Holy crap, I’m right! I didn’t even think I was right; it was a shot in the dark, so to speak. So is it enhanced hearing or something else? Rumor has it that Daredevil can hear anyone in Hell’s Kitchen - ‘course, rumor also has it that you’re Satan himself, so... “

 

“I’m not blind,” Matt lied, pinching the bridge of his nose.

 

“Right,” Stark nodded, unconvinced. “Are the lenses of that mask even see-through?”

 

“Of course they are!”

 

No. No they were not. Peter knew, because he had tried them on once and promptly run into a wall, even with his enhanced vision. Which had led to an awkward conversation with Melvin, who had apparently figured it out day dot and decided that it meant he could use the strong but non-transparent glass, never letting Matt into this little fact.

 

Of course, this conversation had also led to Peter being introduced to Melvin, who was awesome, and quite possibly Peter’s new best friend.

 

“Uh-huh,” Tony said, looking unconvinced. “In that case, what do those words painted on the wall say?” he asked, pointing to the left side of the gym. “And no asking the oversized Boy Scout for help. Or Peter.”

 

The Man Without Fear looked decidedly unafraid. Really.

 

“I fail to see why I should have to prove anything to you, Stark.”

 

You don’t,” he acknowledged. “‘Course, I’ve never been the type to be careful about what I have to say around the press. I may just share with them the humorous anecdote about how I once thought that Daredevil was really mild-mannered attorney Matt Murdock, who was known to be in cahoots with said vigilante and buying quite a bit of sturdy material -”

 

“Did you honestly just say cahoots?”

 

“Quiet, Peter, the adults are talking. And who knows, I may just imply at how I’m learning so much more about the man behind the mask, one layer at a time -”

 

Matt clenched his fists.

 

“Breaking my face will not silence me!”

 

“He’s telling the truth,” Rogers muttered mutinously.

 

Peter’s estimation of the Captain rose a notch.

 

“There are no words,” Matt guessed, a split-second decision rearing it’s ugly head. “You’re pointing at a blank wall.”

 

“Close, but no dice. I am pointing, Batman, at the artistic rendering of a unicorn with an afro riding into the sun on a rainbow. Interesting adaptation, in my opinion; do you think the sunglasses on the sun refer to our denial of our own nature? Or is it that the joint the squirrel is smoking is a symbol of mankind’s disregard of the environment? I feel this - graffiti? Graffito? Graffaitio? Do graffiti artists get their own name? - had a vision. Possibly a drug-induced one, but glass houses and all that.”

 

Matt tensed.

 

“Don't you worry, Lucy; it's fine. Your secret is totally safe with me.”

 

“I'm supposed to believe that?” Matt spat.

 

Stark held up his hands in defense. “I can keep a secret, you know; I just choose not to, in most cases.” He paused. “How do you do it?” he queried, curiosity bleeding into his tone.

 

“That's none of your affair.”

 

“Oh, come on!” Stark exclaimed. “You can't not tell me! I'll figure it out!”

 

“You do that, then.”

 

“You should come to my labs. Peter, you should bring him to my labs.”

 

“No.”

 

“I'll make you tech,” Stark bribed. “The best tech. That club could use an upgrade; a few tests, and I’ll make you a new one.”

 

“I already upgraded his club,” Peter protested.

 

He and Melvin had been introduced. Bonding occurred. High-fives were had. Matt may or may not currently use a cane that splits into two billy clubs, one of which possessed a grappling hook.

 

“There's always room for improvement,” Mr. Stark waved off. “Come on, Horns, what do you think?”

 

Matt tilted his head. “I think,” he decided, an edge to his voice that made Peter’s head snap up in wariness, “that you had a standing invitation here for a reason.” Daredevil stepped back calmly, lifting up the tense rope around the mat. “Step into the ring, Mr. Stark,” he smiled.


 

Skip was gone.

 

He was gone.

 

There was no reason to be scared anymore.

 

But somehow, no matter how much he rationalized it, Peter couldn't seem to stop shaking.


 

Peter had always loved his bird’s eye view.

 

Contrary to popular belief, Spider-Man actually liked to see what he was getting into rather than rushing in blindly, webs flying. The heights that were afforded to him through his webs gave him that advantage, allowed him to carefully inspect the scene before he went in.

 

Peter could see the glare of the Captain's shield next to the red of Iron Man’s suit, the tense form of Daredevil surrounded by gawkers glaring towards a laughing Jones. He could see others, too: Cage shifting through the onlookers and the swarms of press and the cops with gleaming badges against dark blue uniforms.

 

Peter turned around, went back the way he came, and then reentered Central Park ten minutes later from the street.

 

No one had seen him come the first time. And now, dressed in civilian clothes, no one would see him return. Spider-Man would appear eventually, of course - just not yet.

 

Contrary to popular belief, the event was not about Spider-Man. It was about a seven year old boy named Peter, and Peter wanted to see it for himself.

 

Just this once, Spider-Man could wait.

 

There were booths set up, with pamphlets and petitions and t-shirts for sale, and a large stage waiting for when the press conference began. There were milling groups and friends stumbling through the grass together and, sometimes, silent tears that were only noticeable for those that knew what to look for.

 

Peter found a tree, far from the mass of people, sat down, and watched.

 

Five minutes later, someone else came.

 

“Oh,” the boy said, stuttering to a stop. Brown eyes peered nervously through fluttering eyelashes, and small hands wrung the corners of a shirt distractedly. “Sorry. I didn’t think anybody would be over here.”

 

He looked no younger than seven, no older than nine. And when he looked at Peter, Peter could see himself - not his whole self, but just bits, sprinkled in between someone else.

 

“Great minds think alike,” he mused eventually. Peter nodded towards the other end of the large, wide tree. “You can sit, if you want.”

 

“I shouldn’t,” the boy snapped warily. “My parents are waiting for me.”

 

It was difficult, Peter supposed, to lie to a liar. “Let me guessed,” he mused, not entirely certain why, “your mom thinks you’re with your dad, your dad thinks you’re with your mom, and you just want a few minutes of peace without them hovering.”

 

The boy’s eyes widened, and he stumbled back a few steps. His right hand was crammed in his pocket.

 

Peter lifted his hands defensively. For one, two, three heartbeats, they looked at each other. Then, “It works best between your index and middle fingers,” Peter suggested.

 

The boy cocked his head, stupefied. “What?”

 

“The keys you have in your pocket,” Peter nodded. “I can see some of them pressed against the fabric. You’ve got one - whichever’s biggest - slid between a couple of your fingers, just in case you need a quick weapon. You get the best control when it’s between your middle and index finger.”

 

Slowly, the boy blinked, then removed his hand from his pocket, empty. “I’m being stupid.”

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

The boy sat.

 

“I used to do the same thing,” Peter offered eventually. “The mom and dad trick, not the key trick - well, actually, yeah, the key trick too. They worried a lot.”

 

The boy didn’t reply.

 

Then: “They say Spider-Man may come here.”

 

“I’ve heard that.”

 

“Do you - do you think I might get to meet him?”

 

Peter smiled, just barely. “I think so.”

 

“I wanted to ask him,” the boy blurted, earnest now, “if it got better for him. After. I - it’s stupid. He won’t come.”

 

Peter looked at him. “What’s your name?”

 

“Carter.”

 

“I think he’ll come, Carter.”

 

Carter looked at Peter, curious. “Why - why are you here?” he questioned, hesitant.

 

Licking his lips, Peter considered his answer. “I think,” he settled on eventually, “that I’m here for a lot of the same reasons you are.”

 

Carter nodded carefully. “I know.”

 

“Do you want to know a secret, Carter?”

 

A nod.

 

Peter took a deep breath. “It’s not going to get better. Not for a long time. And it won’t ever go away.”

 

A shaky breath. “That’s not a very good secret.”

 

“It’s not finished yet,” Peter promised. He closed his eyes. “It’s not going to go away. But then - it’ll be different. You’ll be different. One day, you’ll wake up, and you’ll realize that the memories aren’t quite so powerful as they used to be. You’ll realize that, somehow, you were always stronger than them. And you know what will happen then, Carter?”

 

“What?”

 

Peter drummed his fingers on the ground once, twice, three times. “You’ll be okay,” he decided. “You’ll be different but… You’ll be okay again.”


 

Peter hated the hospital.

 

The lights were too bright; the seats too cold; the whispers the doctors hissed to May and Ben too soft.

 

The tears of his aunt and uncle too loud.

 

Peter drummed his fingers against the cold railing of the bed once, twice, three times.

 

“Peter?”

 

The seven year old looked up.

 

Smiling kindly, the white-haired nurse reached for his arm, wrinkles and liver-spots staining her hand. “I have to take your blood pressure, Peter.”

 

“Oh,” Peter fumbled, raising his arm carefully. Vaguely, he wondered where his aunt and uncle were, before he remembered that they had been reluctantly coaxed from the room by a stiff-faced doctor. “Sorry.”

 

“Nothing to be sorry for,” the woman hummed carefully. Slowly, the thick black band began to tighten around Peter’s arm.

 

“Do you want to hear a secret, Peter? One you may not believe quite yet - but then, few people ever do, when it comes to secrets.”

 

Peter didn’t like secrets anymore. He didn’t like surprises, or things that he couldn’t understand, or magazines that were hidden on high shelves far away from adult eyes. He didn’t want to hear whatever new whisper she had for him, didn’t want to have to decide if it was dangerous or safe.

 

“What is it?” he asked instead.

 

The old lady smiled, something soft and old, and it pulled laugh lines tight across her cheeks. “You’ll be okay, Peter," she promised. "You’ll be just fine.”