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One Last Breath

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            He was past it. Mostly, at least. He was mostly past it. Nobody could expect more from him. Except himself, of course, because he really thought he should have been past it. It had been seven years. Seven years was more than enough time to move on from something, he figured. He barely even remembered it. It was locked away in the deepest part of his mind. So why couldn’t he be past it?

            Truthfully, he didn’t think about it too much. There were moments where he’d freeze up or moments where he flinched away from touch, but that was it, really. Sure, he refused to be around Ned without adult supervision for almost two years. Sure, he refused to hang around the older kids when he was a child. Sure, he really hated Albert Einstein. But these were just small things. It was never too much a problem once he, with the help of his aunt and uncle, worked through the trauma, or at least the trauma they knew about. Sometimes, he’d see someone who looked so much like him that he froze. Other times, a simple touch would bring him back to being eight years old again. It wasn’t like his waking-thoughts were full of him, but when he did think about him, it took over.

            Skip Westcott would never leave his life altogether, and that was just a fact of life for Peter.

            Every year, it hit him. He couldn’t remember an exact date, so his mind decided on when to suffer without giving him warning. It started this year with a nightmare. He woke up in the midst of a panic attack, clawing his throat for air that just wouldn’t come through. He was sweating, shaking, and his mind was playing tricks on him. Every shadow was Skip. Every shape he couldn’t fully make out, every noise that normal human ears wouldn’t even be able to pick up, every fiber of his clothes that were touching his skin – it was all Skip. He let out a sob, resorting himself to hiding underneath the covers like a child. He wasn’t Spider-Man right now. He was just Peter Parker.

            The knock on the door both frightened him and brought him comfort. It was a scare because anybody could be on the other side, but it was a comfort because he knew it had to be Tony. He didn’t wake up screaming, so he didn’t have to worry about anybody hearing him, but Friday would have, no doubt, alerted Tony to Peter’s nightmare. This comfort calmed down the panic attack but didn’t stop the tears. The person who knocked opened the door and it wasn’t who he expected. It was Pepper. “Hey, Peter? Friday said you were in distress.” She shut the door behind her and sat next to him on the bed. “Do you wanna talk about it, or do you want me to sit here in silence until you’re ready to go back to sleep?”

            “I don’t wanna sleep anymore tonight,” he said, his voice croaking from the fact that he just woke up mixed with the tears.

            “That’s fine,” she said. She reached out to put her hand on him over the blanket, but once her hand came in contact with him, he flinched away, so she pulled her hand away from him quickly. “Peter, you know-”

            “I know,” he interrupted, angry at himself for flinching away from Pepper. “I know, sorry.”

            She was silent for a minute before standing up. “Let’s go to the living room, okay? I’ll make us something to snack on.”

            “You don’t have to sit up with me. You’re always so busy. You need your sleep.”

            “I’m never too busy for you, and I’d rather make sure you’re not awake scared and crying all night by yourself. Now, up, come on.”

            He shakily did sit up and got out of bed. He knew he must have looked horrible, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care. He wrapped a blanket around his shoulders, put some socks on, and put on his now-upgraded homemade web shooters before walking out behind Pepper to the living room. He took his normal seat at the arm of the couch, curling his legs up so he was in a ball, while she left the room. When she came back, she had a tray with two mugs of hot chocolate and store-bought chocolate chip cookies. She took a seat on the opposite side of the couch, giving him his space, and left the tray in between them.

            “You know,” she said as she grabbed the TV remote, “you’re not just Tony’s kid. You’re mine, too.”

            Out of everything she could have said, that was a curveball. “I know Mr. Stark just made this decision to adopt me without talking to you.”

            “He knew he didn’t need to. I would have agreed in heartbeat,” she said. He looked over at her, but she wasn’t looking at him. Instead, she was scrolling through the TV as if she hadn’t just started a deep conversation. He didn’t look away from her, though. “You have a special place in everybody’s hearts. That started before we took you in. And now? I never thought I wanted kids, let alone an already grown teenager, but you are one of the greatest things to happen to everybody here, me included. Once Tony and I get married, you’ll legally be my kid, but Peter, you already are.” When Peter didn’t speak up, she continued. “I know Tony is usually the person you go to. When he’s with you, he’s a different person. You’ve changed everyone for the better, but you’ve especially changed him. I know you rely on him, even before. But you can rely on us, too. Whatever it is that’s bothering you, whatever made you have a nightmare bad enough for Friday to alert us, you can talk to me about it.”

            Slowly, he reached out to grab his hot chocolate. He swirled his finger around the top of the cup, keeping his eyes on the drink. “It was just a…just a bad memory from a long time ago,” he finally admitted. “I don’t usually get dreams about it. This is the first in a long time.”

            “What do you usually do when you do get them?” she asked.

            “Nothing,” he said with a shrug. “Just kinda…work through it, I guess.”

            Whenever the two of them watched a movie together, it was usually some animated movie. This time was no different as she settled on Mulan. A little while later, the cookies were eaten, and the hot chocolate was gone, so Peter moved the tray to the floor and laid across the couch with his head on Pepper’s lap. He curled up and hugged his knees to his chest and Pepper started running her fingers through his hair.

            He didn’t even make it to I’ll Make A Man Out of You before he fell asleep.

            The next time he woke up, it was to his pillow moving away from under him. Meaning Pepper was moving. She held his head steady as she slid out and carefully laid his head down under a real pillow. “I’m sorry for not waking you,” she was saying, confusing Peter. Who was she talking to? She still thought he was asleep.

            “I see you had it handled.” It was Tony. “Is he okay?”

            “He had a nightmare last night. Friday said it was bad. We came out here for a while, but he ended up falling back asleep.”

            “Did you sleep any?”

            “After he did. My neck is going to kill me today.” She sighed. “He was scared. He didn’t say what his nightmare was about except that it was something from a while ago.” Her voice started fading as she kept talking and he heard footsteps retreating, so her and Tony must had been walking away.

            Once they were gone, he sighed and opened his eyes. It looked early, according to the light coming in, and he was half-tempted to go back to his room to catch a few more hours of sleep, but he decided against it. He had been able to fall back asleep once with no nightmares; he wasn’t about to test his luck. The TV had been turned off and the small mess was cleaned up. He debated whether he should get up or just turn the TV back on and lay around for a while. He decided to go with the former. This way he could take a shower and hide out in his room for the rest of the day like the scared hermit he was. Spider-Man could take a day off.

            Before he could make it back to his room, Peter was intercepted by Tony. “I know when you’re pretending to sleep,” he said. He was sitting at the counter, a cup of coffee in his hand like a true dad who wasn’t ready to be awake at too-early-o’clock. “I sent Pepper off to get a few more hours of shut-eye.”

            “I didn’t mean to keep her awake so late,” he said, the guilt raising.

            “She’s a stubborn woman. She wouldn’t have stayed with you if she didn’t want to. Sit.” Peter obliged, taking a seat on the opposite side of the counter and avoiding eye contact. He kept his eyes on his hands which he had in his lap. “When Friday alerted us, Pepper woke up and decided not to wake me. I reviewed the footage.”

            “What about privacy?” he asked quietly.

            “Friday said you were in distress. That’s the only time I’ll ever check the footage. You know that.” Peter nodded in response. “I’ve seen you have a lot of nightmares. I’ve never seen you cry like you did while asleep.”

            His cheeks heated up in embarrassment. “I’m sorry, I-”

            “You don’t need to be sorry,” Tony was quick to say. “I’m just worried, kiddo."

            “I know. I’m fine, though.” That didn’t even sound convincing to himself, so he tried again. “I’m fine. It was just a bad night. We all get them from time to time, right?”

            “Right.” He sounded hesitant. “Do we need to talk about this?” Peter shook his head no in answer. “If you change your mind, you know we can talk.”

            “I know. I do. Thank you, Tony.” Over the summer, he had been actively trying to change it from ‘Mr. Stark’ to ‘Tony.’ They were well past the point where he needed formality. They had known each other for over a year by this time. There was no excuse to avoid calling him by his name anymore, especially since they were living together, and, on paper, Tony was his dad. “I’m just gonna go sleep a few more hours. Okay?”

            “I’m not going to even pretend I believe you’re going back to sleep, but I’m not gonna stop you from having time to yourself,” Tony said, standing up and walking around the counter to get closer to Peter. “Just come talk to me if you want to get it off your chest.” He went to put his hand on Peter’s shoulder, but Peter flinched away so hard that he ended up on the floor and staring up at him with big eyes as his mind briefly left the kitchen of his home to the bedroom of his…friend as a child.

            Neither of them said anything for a long time. Tony was standing as still as he could, refusing to move if it meant scaring Peter again, and Peter was too shocked by his actions to do anything but stare. On one hand he was grateful that he didn’t think to use his web shooters for protection, but on the other he knew just flinching was bad enough. This silence and lack of movement lasted minutes – long enough for someone to join them in the kitchen. Rhodey stumbled in, something Peter was used to. First thing in the morning, Rhodey had less control over his legs. It was one of those things that he needed to actively remind himself that his legs weren’t normal anymore, so when he first woke up, he had to reteach himself how to walk normally. Rhodey stopped only a couple of steps into the room, becoming almost as still as Tony himself. “What’s going on here?” he asked, sounding suspicious in the way only some people could where he phrased it as if it was a casual inquiry.

            “I am so, so sorry, Mr. Stark,” Peter said, snapping out of the surprise at himself to jump to his feet and waving his hands. He resorted back to calling him ‘Mr. Stark’ in his panic. “I’m just-just tired. I wasn’t expecting any touch. My-my…my Spidey-sense is going a little crazy right now. I’m sorry.”

            Tony moved slowly, keeping his hands in a defensive, innocent position in front of him and up high. “You don’t gotta apologize, Underoos. I’m sorry for scaring you.” He was even talking slow, pacing out his words so as not to make any sudden noise. Treating Peter like an injured animal or scared child.

            “I’m just gonna, um, yeah,” Peter mumbled, walking a little too quickly out of the room heading to his own. He heard Rhodey questioning what just happened and Tony answering he didn’t know, and Tony sounded worried and upset.

            He upset Tony.

            The second the door was closed, he broke down in tears. He sat on the floor in front of his door, covering his head with his hands as he sobbed. His ears were covered, his face was hidden, and he probably looked so gross thanks to the sweat mixed with tears and emotion. He gasped for air, begging Friday not to say anything as he did.

            “It is per my protocol to alert Tony or the nearest Avenger if he is not present,” she argued.

            “Wanna be alone,” he choked out, hoping she would understand enough out of that so he didn’t have to keep talking. Air was always too precious to waste in the midst of a panic attack, let alone a hysterical breakdown. 

            He just flinched away from Tony. Not only that, but he essentially cowered from the man. Tony sounded so upset when he was walking away. He hurt his feelings and made him worry. He probably was now wondering what he did to make Peter scared of him, but that wasn’t the case. He felt safest with Tony. He would never be able to put that trust into words, and now he feared he’d never be able to make Tony think otherwise. Peter hated himself: he was always messing something up. Maybe now Tony would see Peter was too much to handle and would go back on his adoption. No, Tony was kind. Tony somehow actually liked Peter, but what if Tony thought Peter was scared of him? He would definitely give him up at that point simply to make Peter feel safe.

            He messed everything up so bad.

            A few minutes into the panic, Peter had to force himself to his feet and move as quickly as possible to his connected bathroom because he was about to throw up. He made it to the bathroom, but he didn’t make it to the toilet. He leaned over the sink and threw up the snack he and Pepper had a few hours before. Throwing up when already struggling to breathe was only more painful. Painful enough to cause him to try to curl into himself, but he fought to keep himself up straight because if he curled down, he’d soon be cleaning his insides up from off the floor, and nobody wanted to do that.

             Coming down from a panic attack was sometimes more exhausting from the panic attack itself. The way the adrenaline leaves the body so suddenly and the need for sleep increases makes it seem impossible to stay awake any longer, not to mention the emotional exhaustion that goes with the physical exhaustion. Peter turned the water on and washed out the sink before brushing his teeth. Then, he sank to the floor and decided he was staying right there for the rest of the day because the idea of having to stand back up made him want to start crying all over again.

            He curled into himself on the floor in front of the sink, but that only lasted a moment before he decided laying down was the much better way to do it. He crossed his arms in front of him and laid his face on them to block out the light. He didn’t fall asleep, not that he wanted to. Instead, he just laid there motionless for hours, ignoring Friday when she spoke to him and ignoring the occasional knocks on his bedroom door. Doing nothing was good and being away from people was even better, especially when he was just going to end up flinching away from them and hurting their feelings.

            The amount of time that passed was unknown to him, but his growing stomach finally got the best of him and he got up. He knew it had to be at least a few hours, probably longer. The smell of lunch had come and gone, which meant he kept himself hidden in the bathroom for a very long time. It hadn’t been breakfast time yet when he ran, so he was missing through two meals. Breakfast was not a surprise considering how late he slept during summer, but he rarely slept through lunch, mainly because they would wake him up to make sure he didn’t miss it most days when he wasn’t out of his room by the time it was ready.

            A shower could wait until after he was fed, he decided, and he walked out of his room, realizing for the first time that he was still in just socks and sweatpants. He figured he’d just grab his blanket from the couch and wear that around his shoulders instead of going back for a shirt, which is what he did when he got to the living room. He ignored the way everybody stopped to look at him. Everybody didn’t really include everybody. Only Rhodey, Steve, and Clint had been sitting in the living room. Everybody else must had been on their own floors for a change, because everybody usually migrated on his and Tony’s floor throughout the day. The tense atmosphere surrounding them, though, meant that somebody had told Steve and Clint what had happened earlier that morning.

            With the blanket wrapped around his shoulders, Peter rummaged the kitchen in search of something to eat. Nothing sounded appetizing despite his obvious hunger, but there was a plate in the fridge wrapped in aluminum foil with his name written on it in sharpie. It was his lunch from that day that somebody had saved for him. It was chicken salad which was good enough for his hungry stomach. He debated whether he wanted to take it back to his room to eat but decided against that since he and Tony never really discussed if eating in his room was allowed. He usually ate in the kitchen or living room.

            His eyes were barely open while he ate. He had his face rested on one hand while he ate with the other. All he did besides eat was blink tiredly at the counter, wishing he could pay more attention to the room around him but not quite being able to. His mind was screaming ‘Danger!’ while he Spidey-sense seemed to have went on vacation in the past few hours. With his Spidey-sense calm, his brain wouldn’t sharpen his senses enough to be more than aware of what was happening around him. Because of this, he felt the presence behind him too late, and he jumped away in a hurry. He had flipped head first over the counter, landing in an impressive position for how panicked his jump had been, and he instinctively reached for his web shooters this time. He was on his feet facing the person who scared him with his arm reached out and his fingers over his shooters because there was no way he was going to let Skip hurt him again.

            Then he realized it was Vision who appeared behind him and he had to fight another panic attack before it even reached him. He had to go over Bucky’s ‘five things you can see’ trick in his mind, but after about a minute he had beaten the panic. Vision hadn’t moved at all even after Peter put his arm down. Once the panic subsided, Vision floated backwards away from Peter a little bit, so Peter figured that Vision saw how scared he was and decided not to move. Just like Tony hadn’t moved earlier, either. The fact that it was Vision explained why he hadn’t heard him enter, but he normally could hear him when his senses were acting the way they should when he wasn’t drained. “I apologize for frightening you,” Vision said, sounding more human than he normally did.

            “That wasn’t, uh, it wasn’t your fault. I wasn’t paying attention,” Peter said, fidgeting with his web shooters. Too many times, he flinched away from the people who cared about him that day. He was ready for it to be over already. 

            “You seemed to have been stuck in your head,” he said. “But I must say, your reflexes are intact.”

            “Uh, thanks, I’m just gonna, uh…” He wasn’t hungry anymore.

            “No, please, you stay here. I’ll excuse myself.”

            When he turned around and banged his head into the refrigerator, he didn’t know somebody else had taken Vision’s place with him in the kitchen. “You probably shouldn’t do that,” Clint said. Peter cursed, this time just startled by a friendly presence instead of brought back into that bedroom with that friend. “Whew, don’t let Stark hear you say those dirty words. He might rinse your mouth out with soap.”

            “You scared me,” he said, defending his language.

            “Yeah? Is that the reason you just slammed your head against the fridge?” Clint countered, and Peter kept quiet. “That’s what I thought. C’mon, kid. Out with it. You’re smart enough to know why banging your head against anything is a bad idea, especially for someone with your kind of strength. Sit down. Let me make sure you didn’t give yourself a concussion while you start explaining yourself and convincing me not to tell Tony.”

            Peter didn’t pout, but he came close to it, when he sat down with a sigh. “Vision accidentally snuck up on me, and then he left, and I don’t know if it’s possible to hurt his feelings, but if it is, I’m scared I hurt his feelings.” He could say that. That wasn’t the whole truth, but that was definitely part of it. He was hating himself pretty hardcore for flinching away from everybody and making them think he’s scared of them. “I almost shot at him with my shooters.”

            “And you decided your head against metal would make that better?” Clint asked sarcastically, opening up the flashlight on his phone and flashing it into Peter’s eyes, which was something he always hated, by the way, thanks to his heightened senses. The heightened senses that dulled out minutes before and was now back with a vengeance.

            “Not really, but I was frustrated, and I didn’t exactly think it through.” Peter knew he was about to be looked at as the kid who hurt himself when upset, and that was not something he wanted people to think about him, so now he was even more frustrated. The one time he lets his emotions out that way, someone walks in on it. Nobody would probably believe that he didn’t normally react like that when alone now. “I don’t actually make a habit out of doing something like that.”

            “I would hope not,” Clint mused. “Doesn’t seem like you have a concussion. It’s gonna bruise, but that’ll be gone in a few hours, won’t it? So, I have the vague explanation for your actions. Give me a reason I shouldn’t tell Tony.”

            There wasn’t a good reason not to, Peter didn’t want to admit. “Because it never happened before, and it won’t happen again?”

            “That’s like saying we shouldn’t be concerned over how jumpy you are today just because we’ve never seen you like this before. Just because it never happened before doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried about it.”

            More than a good point, but this was a conversation he really didn’t want to have with anybody. He was barely stomaching it with Clint and that was just because he was caught in the act. “Please don’t tell Mr. Stark?”

            “He’s already worried about you because of earlier, and yes, he told us about that. Asked us to keep an eye on you. This is definitely one of those things we should be keeping an eye out for.”

            “Like you said, he’s already worried. I don’t wanna make him more worried just because of one lapse of judgement.”

            “What about jumping when I came in? Or almost shooting Vision with your web shooters? You’re scared of something and we don’t know what. I don’t want to be that guy, but I’m gonna have to go to Tony about this. You know that.”

            “Yeah, I know, but…but please?”

            Clint’s eyes softened, but he shook his head. “Sorry, kid. Unless you plan on telling him yourself?”

            “Please?” he tried again, though more desperate this time. “I think he’s finally getting back to seeing me as…well, as who he saw me as before. Back when…back before I moved in. These past few months have been hard, and he’s stuck by me and helped me through it, but he’s been treating me less like I need help and more like the same Peter Parker he met over a year ago. It’s like I’m finally putting all the mess behind me, and I don’t want him to go back to looking at me as if I’m made of glass and going to shatter at any given moment. I-” his breath caught in his throat, but he pushed his thoughts out anyways “-I love Tony. He’s already worried about me. He doesn’t need any more worry from me.”

            He stared straight into Clint’s eyes, refusing to be the one who breaks contact. After a few moments, Clint sighed and looked away. “I’ll make you a deal. Tell me why you’re so scared, and I’ll keep this little incident between us unless you get caught doing it again or I have reason to believe you’re being violent against yourself.” When he tensed up, Clint took a step back. Respecting his personal space, acknowledging that he wasn’t comfortable. That was a good thing because Peter didn’t have to worry about being sent into another panic, but it was a bad thing because it meant Clint saw more of an issue which was never good. “Woah, kid, relax. Now you got me worried. What happened?”

            The anger wasn’t a response either of them had been expecting, but it was what they were given. “It doesn’t matter,” Peter snapped, standing up and glaring hard at Clint. He knew what he was doing was wrong, and he fought himself to stop before snapping turned into yelling. Misdirected anger. He forced himself to close his eyes and take a few deep breaths. “Sorry. I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that.” His voice was tense because he still wanted to yell, but he had to show self-control. “I’m not mad at you. I swear. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I’m not, and I’m sorry. I’m just…I don’t want to talk anymore, okay? I’ll be in my room.” Clint was the type of person not to let anybody walk out without talking things through, so he should have been surprised that he was allowed to walk past him and out of the kitchen. Instead, he was just grateful.

Trigger Warning

“C’mon, Einstein, it’ll be fun.”

            Honestly, he didn’t mean to slam the door shut as hard as he did, but his voice stuck out so clearly to him and he couldn’t stop himself from using strength. The strength he wished he had as a child. Maybe if he had that strength, he would never have been hurt. The thought made him want to slam something else. Break something. Destroy it.

He was always trying to help. He was the teacher’s helper in school all the way until they were too old for such things. He comforted his uncle whenever he missed his brother too much. When Ben died, he became the rock for May. He was strong when she was weak. He kept his tears hidden whenever the pain was high. He went out almost every night, avenging the uncle who was taken away too soon, promising to protect everybody else the way he couldn’t protect his family.

Peter was not somebody to destroy anything. He preserved things. Kept them safe, held them together when the structure was weakened. He was not a violent person. He wouldn’t even hit the bad guys too hard. There was the obvious need to keep his strength under control, but even so, he didn’t break noses. He didn’t give concussions. He contained their violence instead of dishing it out, too.

If all that was true, then why was he itching to shatter something? Hear it smash under his hands?  

“Friends do this for each other. Aren’t you my friend?”

            He threw something, he didn’t know what. Whatever it was, it was probably broken by now. Good. He needed to break things. He needed something else to be as broken as he was right then.

“It’s gonna have to be a secret, okay? Friends keep secrets. Don’t you wanna share a secret with me?”

            He covered his ears with his hands, gripping at his hair and pulling as he did. He didn’t want to hear it anymore. He wasn’t ready. Nothing would ever prepare him for that experience. He wasn’t okay when it happened, and he wasn’t okay years later. Nothing would ever be okay. He yanked harder on his hair, wanting something to draw him from the past and bring him back to the present before he lost himself for good.

“You see what those people in that magazine are doing? Doesn’t it look like you’ll have a good time?”

“No, I don’t. Can’t we just play with Legos?”

“We always do what you want to do. Isn’t it time for you to return the favor?”

            He felt the hand on his thigh. Logically, he knew it wasn’t there, okay? He knew. But the hand felt too real, the voice was too clear. He went to push the hand away, but it didn’t budge. He didn’t want to go through this again. He couldn’t do it. Shouldn’t he scream? Wasn’t that what his parents taught him before his aunt and uncle made sure he remembered? Scream? He didn’t live far away, and Uncle Ben had the day off from work, so he would hear.

If only he remembered how to scream.

“It’s not fair if I’m the only one doing it. See how I’m touching you? Can you do that to me? I want to feel good, too.”

“It doesn’t feel good.”

“It will, and I want to feel good with you.”

            He was so stupid. Why didn’t he fight it? He was small, sure, but he could have fought. He should have fought. He didn’t flinch away. He barely slid over on the bed to avoid it. He just sat there and took whatever was being done to him. He was weak. He let it happen, so was it really the other guy’s fault? It had to be his own. If he fought back, it wouldn’t be his fault, but he didn’t, so it was. Everything was always his fault.

            It was his fault his parents never came home. He must have chased them out somehow, though he never did find out why. He would never get the chance to apologize to them, either, because they were now dead. Dead in the ground. He remembered the funeral. Closed caskets. He couldn’t even go up to their bodies and say sorry for where he went wrong. It was his fault that May cried. It was his fault she was scared for the future. It was his fault that Ben felt he wasn’t doing enough. It was all his fault.

            He was just a child.

“Skip, please. I don’t wanna do this. I wanna go home.”

“Einstein, you’re hurting my feelings. I thought we were friends.”

“We are friends, but we could do other fun things together.”

“Why are you crying? This is fun. Here, I’ll take over. Can you kneel here right in front of me and open your mouth? This way we can still have fun together.”

            There was a scream, he was sure. Someone screamed. Who was screaming? Was it him? Did he finally remember how to? No, he couldn’t of, because if he remembered how to scream, Ben would have heard. His uncle Ben would have been running to save him, because even though Peter did a lot of things wrong, his uncle was a good man who loved him. Ben would save him if he could scream, so who was screaming?  

“Pl-please st-stop.”

“We could have finished this a long time ago if it wasn’t for your crying. Such a baby.”

            The hands flipping him onto his stomach felt so real. The scream happened again.

“It’ll feel good soon. If you scream, though, I’m gonna have to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you, okay, Einstein? Please don’t scream so I don’t have to hurt you.”

“It already h-hurts!”

“It’s gonna hurt a little more at first, but then you’ll feel good, okay? Hang in there. You’re a smart, brave boy. Just count to ten.”

            There was no reason he should be remembering the events as vividly as he was. He shouldn’t be able to smell the cologne he was wearing. He shouldn’t be able to picture his shirt, the way the bed felt on his face, what color the wall was. He shouldn’t be able to remember the pain he felt and go through it for a second time. Was it happening again? Or was he still that eight-year-old little boy, creating a whole new world inside his mind to escape the pain? Hadn’t he read about that happening somewhere?

            This was happening. Right then. It wasn’t a memory. Memories couldn’t be so realistic.

“I told you what would happen if you screamed.”

“No! I’m sorry! P-please, I-I’m-”

            Somebody was holding his arms down to his sides, but the hands were gentle. The hands were almost cradling him, not trying to hold him down. Not forcing themselves on him. He felt these hands, but they seemed so far away. Somehow it felt more real than…than everything else. That didn’t make sense to him. The hands on his arms didn’t hurt the way everything else hurt, so he wanted to focus on that instead. He clawed through his mind, searching for those hands, aching to find something to hold on to and help him escape the pain.

            “Peter, Petey, I need you to breathe. Underoos, you can beat this. You’re Spider-Man, remember? Hey, hey, look at me. See me?”

            Underoos. Spider-Man. That was him. He remembered the spider bite. He remembered the first time he accidentally stuck to the wall and the way he climbed up to the ceiling trying to get un-stuck. He remembered the literal blood on his hands as he tried to keep it inside his uncle. He remembered walking home from school and seeing Tony Stark sitting on his couch, having found out about his secret. There was a fight at an airport. Captain America was from Brooklyn, he said, and there was a guy with a metal arm. Ned – Ned found out a few months later. Ned was his best friend, nothing like Skip. He was safe with Ned. May, he remembered the moment the life left her eyes. He remembered turning to Tony, moving in, and he remembered getting closer with the Avengers – his family. He wasn’t in Skip’s bedroom. The memories had taken over, but they weren’t happening now. He wasn’t in danger anymore.

            “That’s it, buddy, you’re doing great. You’re in your bedroom. You’re safe. You’re okay. It’s July 23rd. Hear me? We’re in the Tower – Avengers Tower. You were just talking to Clint. You remember, kiddo?”

            Avengers. He was an Avenger, or semi-Avenger.

He blinked his eyes a few times, taking notice of the surroundings. He was standing in the middle of his bedroom with Tony right in front of him, not laying in a bed with Skip on top of him. He was facing the door, so he wasn’t face-first into the bed, where there was a crack in the wall and a broken doorframe. It was wide open. Bucky was standing on the outside of the room, looking in with wide eyes, and Pepper was right behind him. No Skip to be seen. He looked back at Tony, taking in the panic in his eyes and the proximity. “Tony?” He felt the need to clarify that this was Tony. That he wasn’t where his mind tried to tell him he was only moments before. He was safe with Tony.

            The relief that flooded Tony’s face should have made him feel better, but Peter only felt worse because he gave reason for Tony to not be okay for a minute there. “Good job, buddy, you did good,” he said, reaching a hand up to cup Peter’s cheek. His thumb wiped away some of the tears. “You know where you are? Know what’s going on?”

            More tears came to replace the ones Tony wiped away and he threw himself into Tony’s arms. “I’m so sorry,” he cried. “I’m-”

            Tony shushed him, wrapping his arms tight around Peter. Grounded him in the present, probably without even meaning to. Or maybe it was intentional. Tony was a smart man, and a great dad, even if it wasn’t biological. “You have nothing to be sorry for, Pete.”

            “It-it usually doesn’t get-I don’t underst-stand. It shouldn’t-why does it still- still bother me?”

            “What happened, buddy?”

            “It was-I was eight. I don’t-why does this-every year. Every year this-I’m sorry.”

            While still in Tony’s arms, he felt them moving, and then he felt them sitting on his bed. This is when he let go of Tony and instead buried his face in his hands. It was all so real. He was probably more shaken up about it at that moment than he had seven years before when it actually happened simply because he could understand it better at almost-sixteen than he could at almost-nine.

“You have to make sure you don’t tell anyone about this, okay, Einstein? It’s our secret. The blood is normal. It’ll stop soon. Just take a shower, and later we can build the biggest Skyscraper ever, okay?”

            “Breathe, Underoos. I don’t wanna lose you again.” Even though he had let go of Tony, Tony hadn’t let go of him. Instead, he was pulled close to be leaning against him.

            None of this probably would have happened had Peter worked through everything before. He never told Aunt May or Uncle Ben how far it had gone. They confronted him about how differently he was acting, and, after holding the secret for about a week, admitted to them that his friend touched him. That’s all he admitted to; touching. As far as they were concerned, Skip didn’t even come close to taking it all the way with Peter, so Peter never really got the chance to work through the full event. He knew the stress of losing both May and Ben within a year and a half of each other was the reason for the severe nightmare, the flashbacks, the fear, and the agitation. He understood that, but that didn’t make him calm down at all.

            “Pete,” Tony said, dragging him once again from his thoughts, “talk to me. What happened?”

            He could get through it. He made it through the ordeal, so he could make it through talking about it, too. He removed his hands from his face, placing them on his knees instead as he forced in breaths. He kept his voice at a whisper as he worked to calm down. “Okay, okay, five things. Floor, my socks…Tony…my dresser…the wall. Four, uh…my clothes, the bed…tony, and, uh, the floor. Three…three, uh, me-”

            “What is that? What are you saying?”

            “Something, ah, something to calm me down,” he admitted. Five things he could see, four things he could feel, three things he could hear, two things he could smell, and one thing he could taste. “A, uh, a good friend taught it to me.” He didn’t want to say it was Bucky. He didn’t want to throw Bucky’s business out there. The Avengers generally knew everybody’s problems, but he wasn’t sure just how much they all knew about the others. His breathing was easier. His face was still soaked from tears, but there were no fresh ones. “I’m good now. I’m good.” He took another deep breath for good measure. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Stark. I-I don’t know. I didn’t mean for any of that, and, uh, I’m sorry about the door. And the wall. And whatever else I broke.”

            “None of that matters, you hear me? Why don’t you talk me through what just happened? The audience that was here left.” That meant Bucky and Pepper weren’t around to hear or see anymore, which was always a good thing. He tried to limit the amount of people he embarrassed himself around.

            “I had a friend when I was younger. He was an older friend. I was in elementary school and he was in middle school. We lived near each other and, uh, I dunno. He kinda became my babysitter, sorta, but we were already friends. I didn’t have friends before. I’m not great with people, you know? So, when I came home with a friend, May and Ben…they were happy. They were proud of me.” He took another deep breath. “His name was Skip, or, uh, Steven, but he went by Skip. We were friends all summer. Then, he…” He kept his eyes on the ground, running his finger along his web shooters. “Well, he, uh…he turned out not to be a great friend. He did stuff to me. I told May and Ben, but I never told them how…bad it was. I’m fine. Really. I rarely think about it, but sometimes I do, and when I do, it’s a bad day. Just a…just a bad day.”

            “Did he…?”

            “Yeah,” Peter said, answering the unasked question. “He, uh, he did it all.”

            Tony didn’t say anything for a long moment. He went so still that Peter almost thought he stopped breathing. “I didn’t know,” he finally said. “Before I came to recruit you, I did background checks on you and anybody you were in semi-regular contact with. There were no police reports.”

            Peter probably should have felt violated by the fact that Tony did intensive checks and was willing to admit it as if it wasn’t a huge breach on his privacy, but he understood. Tony couldn’t just bring in anybody to fight against the Avengers. “We never reported it to the police. Skip was…he was a kid, too. May – she wanted to hurt him. I remember her and Ben that night. He stopped her from going out. The next day, they talked to his parents about what happened. His family all moved away a few days later.” He wiped his eyes before anymore tears could leak. “I know it’s okay that I’m not fully over this yet, but I feel like I should be, and this year was the worst. I, uh…I’m usually better than this.”

            “You went through a trauma. We all process pain differently, and we never really ‘get over’ something,” Tony explained. Hesitantly, he pulled Peter closer to him. Peter relaxed into the touch, worn out entirely from the day. “I’ve known you for so long now, and even I had no idea that there was even a possibility. I’d say, for handling things, you’ve handled this really well. And it’s okay to talk about this. Sometimes, I still talk to Pepper about things that happened ten years ago. Just because it happened a while ago doesn’t mean you’re inclined to stop thinking about it or stop talking about it.”

            “You’re the first person I’ve told,” he admitted, his voice a whisper. “Well, said the whole truth to. Even though I didn’t actually say it, I guess, but…but nobody else knows.” Suddenly, he got to his feet and walked a few feet away from Tony. “I know it’s okay, and I shouldn’t apologize, but-but I’m gonna say sorry again, okay? And I just, I just need you to tell me it’s okay because…just, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the commotion I probably caused, and I’m sorry for whatever is broken.”

            “It’s okay,” Tony said, speaking quietly. “Nobody blames you but yourself. Everything you’re sorry for – it’s forgiven. Okay?”

            “Okay. Okay.”

            “I’m not going to tell anybody.”

            “I know. I know. I trust you. I-you’re great, Tony. I don’t tell you it enough, but, but you are.” He turned around to face him. “Everything you’ve done for me, even before taking me in-I’ll never be able to thank you enough. You shouldn’t have to deal with a teenager with as many problems as me, but you do it, and I’m sorry that you do. I know this is just one more problem on top of all the other problems.” He didn’t bother wiping away any of the tears that came now. “I love you, Tony. You’re a-you’re a great man. I know people try to tell you differently, but don’t let them. You’re…you’re a superhero, even without the suit.”

            Without letting Peter ramble out any more words throughout his crying, Tony jumped up and engulfed him in a hug. “I love you, too, kid.”

            And if the two of them cried themselves out and fell asleep in Peter’s room shortly after, nobody would mention it.