Chapter 1: Sophomore Year
The first time he hit a roadblock with the Avengers was not when Doc Ock attacked a bank, or a super villain stalked Aunt May, or his full name came out. It was when Clint Barton offered him a drink.
Peter blinked. "I'm sorry, what?"
"A drink, Webhead," Clint said. "It's on me. Today was a rough one."
They were in the ruined remains of what had once been a bar, at least before the Hulk got to it. Chairs and debris lay scattered over the floor. Sunset poured through the gaping hole in the roof. A thin layer of dust covered everything. Natasha looked annoyed that it had bothered to blemish her hair. Peter didn't know how she always got out of fights looking viciously perfect.
Vision was off searching for Bruce, and Cap and Tony were arguing over something in the corner, their voices not quite low. Falcon was talking to an overly grateful old lady outside. Both Clint and Peter, the sole two near the bar, looked as scorched as they felt.
"I'm good," Peter said, "thanks. I don't drink."
Clint raised an eyebrow. Peter traced the surprise along his expression. It lasted longer than usual.
"Alright, Webhead," Clint said, before signing, "Whatever you say."
The archer poured himself a glass of whiskey on the ruined counter. Mahogany splinters blossomed from its broken center. Peter tried to sooth the sudden unease within him. It was the first time in several months that he thought they might be on to me.
The Avengers would not work with an underage superhero.
The whole "teaming up with the Avengers" set-up was an accident. Freshman him would have screamed. Sophomore him also screamed, but a little less loudly. And a little less shrilly. And mostly not in front of them. Except Nat and Vision, who definitely heard him. But Nat and Vision heard everything. It wasn't like he was a member or anything. He was mostly there for back-up. Still, the collaboration was going well. Peter supposed that he owed his success to the same man who had dropped a building on him a year ago.
The Vulture had catalyzed all this. After the perilous fight to stop The Vulture on Moving Day—which Peter had only known about through eavesdropping on lackies—the Avengers had taken interest in him. It was another three months before they spoke to him. Their rapport on the streets grew from there. Peter was just relieved that he was wiser post Moving Day, which made working with the Avengers easier. I embarrass myself enough, he thought. It would have been worse before that.
He frowned at the Scarlet Witch's text. Hey, itsy bitsy spider, it said, could u help me with homework? Nat is forcing me 2 learn and she won't let Vision help me. :(
"Oh, come on!" Peter exclaimed, staring at his cellphone. "Just because they don't know my real name doesn't mean they have to make a spider joke every time. Be more original."
Sure, he texted back. Hmu with the math.
It took less than five seconds for the reply. Thanks spidey, it said. You r a real hero.
Peter scoffed. "You're darn right. A hero of science and the streets."
"Peter! Are you ready to bring your laundry out? Your sheets are filthy!"
Aunt May's muffled voice echoed from behind his room door. Peter hastily got up, spilling pencils, papers, and a calculator off his bed. His tracfone landed on the pillow.
"Coming, Aunt May! I'll be out in a second!"
As Peter sorted out his school supplies from the vortex of tangled TMNT sheets, he had a moment to reflect on his phone's scratched screen. Why, he thought, does Wanda always come to me for homework help? Especially when Bruce is around?
Maybe it was time to lie low for a while.
"Underoos! Are you hanging in there?"
Tony's shout crackled through the headpiece. Peter heard his voice in the distance without it. Fire fumed on the pile of rubble nearby. Beams stuck out of the fallen concrete blocks like skeletal bones, leaking molten marrow. Peter tried not to throw up. Don't think about Moving Day, he told himself. Don't think about The Vulture. Or the time the Goblin trapped you in a falling building. You're outside. Breathe. Breathe.
"I'm fine!" Peter managed to sound stable. "The eight-armed pain-in-the-butt is down. Where are you?"
"Coming your way," Cap said, causing another crackle in the com line. Peter tried not to flinch. How annoying. He needed to get that fixed. "Falcon and Nat are taking care of the civilians. Vision and Clint are chasing down the octobots. They should be here soon."
"Roger that," Peter said, webbing down another one of Doc Ock's free arms. The super villain, stuck under several cement blocks and layers of webbing, groaned. Peter spotted the shine of Cap's shield down the street. Wanda flew behind him, surrounded in a red shimmer, and behind her followed the smoke of Iron Man's suit.
Doc Ock muttered something incomprehensible. Peter turned, frowning at him.
"You brought this on yourself, you know," he said. "If you put your ego to better use then busting buildings and self fellatio we wouldn't be in this situation right now."
"Nothing, Mr. Stark," Peter said. "Just talking to the metal octopus."
He swore he heard Wanda snicker.
Iron Man, Cap, and Wanda were almost to him—and Vision and Clint were visible—when it happened. His spidey sense went crazy. Hot metal scraped the back of Peter's neck. He lunged forward in time to escape a spray of sparks and the snap of mechanical claws on his spine. Doc Ock lay twitching in the rubble, nearly unconscious, one spasming metal arm swinging in the air. Material hung from one broken claw. Peter swore, webbing it down.
"Stop ruining my suits! I don't have the budget for a whole closet of them!"
"Spider-Man!" Clint's shout cracked in his ear.
"I got it, guys!" Peter yelled, pivoting as the swears of other Avengers overwhelmed him. "It's cool! He only scratched me. He's a bunch of mechanical nori now."
It took Peter a moment to realize that ashy air was kissing his face, all of his face, and that the cloth hanging from Doc Ock's claw was a mask.
The question didn't come up until five hours later. Peter spent those entire five hours dreading the moment it would and alternating between nervousness and stages of grief. When it did come up, they were in one of Stark's complexes. Everyone was tending to wounds. Clint slurped some noodles as he watched Wanda help Falcon pull shards of debris out of his wings. Peter stayed in the corner, claiming a couch for himself.
He restrained a flinch when Tony sat across from him, a take-out box of shawarma in hand. Iron Man was in casual clothes now. His arc reactor glowed through his GOT SCIENCE? shirt. A bruise covered the bridge of his nose and purpled his right eye, but otherwise, he seemed to be fine.
"You get enough food before the piranhas dug in?" Tony said. "I swear, these maniacs eat enough food to put a place out of business, especially the big guy. They're lucky I can foot the bill."
Peter didn't know if he meant Cap or the Hulk. He didn't ask. He managed a nod. Now that they were inside, his mask felt hot against his face. Peter couldn't bring himself to take it off nonetheless.
"So," Tony said, stirring his shawarma. Peter didn't need spidey senses to know what was coming next.
This is where I die, he thought.
"What year are you in?" Tony said.
A thousand useless excuses blistered Peter's tongue. All of them went out the window the instant Tony Stark spoke. How did any of them matter? They had seen his face. Almost all of them. There was no covering this up. It all ended here. Peter swallowed the lump in his throat. Tony poked at a chunk of chicken with impatience.
"I'm a sophomore," Peter said, fear swimming his veins. Tony nodded.
"Thought so. How's your major treating you?"
Peter's brain short circuited.
"Well," he spluttered, trying to find his bearings. "It's treating me well."
As Tony ate Peter made some calculations. The mention of 'major,' the requests for homework help, the offer for a drink, and Tony's indifference to his mention of sophomore year added up to one conclusion: the Avengers thought he was in college.
Holy shit, Peter thought.
Peter Parker didn't like thinking about it, but he looked older than he actually was. Not in a cute way. Not like the protagonists of those harlequin pulp novels MJ read but pretended she didn't. ("They're self-satirizing," she said. "The jokes write themselves.")
No, Peter resembled the polar opposite of appealing. Sixteen years old was the worst age on earth. The last growth spurt had placed him among the tallest people in class. It had not come with grace. Peter was 60% awkward legs and 40% awkward everything else. He had started growing facial hair last year, but not enough to shave. Patches of bristles splotched his not-quite-pointy chin intermittently. Peter felt like a haggard elf.
His voice was no more stable either. Sometimes it cracked into a deeper pitch, sometimes it stuttered into a higher one. It was mostly stable at a whine. Peter resented that. So the radioactive spider bite gave him abs, but it couldn't lower his voice by a few decibels? Or widen his shoulders to look more like Captain America's, or King T'challa's? Pretty please?
The long story short was that Peter looked like a missing link in the evolutionary aging process. His identity as Spider-Man didn't matter. Outside of the mask, he remained a pasty nerd between sixteen and twenty two that couldn't dress to show off the virtues he did have, because secret identities sucked. Ned had cackled when a waitress called him 'sir.' Peter was ready to be done with ambiguity.
At least before the unmasking occurred. Now, he was grateful for it. The Avengers thought he was in college! Captain America, Iron Man, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Vision, Bruce Banner and the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, all of them—they had no clue they were kicking ass alongside a high schooler.
Peter was so giddy he called Ned.
"Ned," he said, wiggling under his blankets. "Ned. I have the craziest news to tell you."
Ned shrieked just as loud as Peter thought he would.
"You have a name besides Spider-Man, don't you?" Cap said, looking exasperated after sitting through five minutes of Clint's puns.
Peter paused, mulling it over. The trees in Central Park dappled the grass with shade. Wanda was trying to convince Bruce to play volleyball with her. Vision was engaged in a staring match with a squirrel. Even directly after a fight, Natasha and Tony looked ready to recline with expensive sunglasses on and glasses of chardonnay in hand, per always. Clint and Thor had disappeared to raid a hot-dog stand Peter had recommended to them.
Peter extended his hand. "Peter," he said. "It's Peter."
Cap shook it. "Nice to meet you, Peter. The name's Steve."
Peter cracked a wide grin beneath his mask.
Lying to the Avengers was a risky undertaking, especially where the spies were concerned. Peter found that it came easy to him. He lied to the entire school about being Spider-Man. Lying to a few powerful but out-of-touch adults about going to college was a cakewalk. He had Decathlon, so telling the team that he needed to duck out for exams worked well. Peter found himself more relaxed. Not having to hide his schoolwork or his face all the time was a blessing. As a precaution, he didn't unmask around Natasha or Clint unless he looked particularly haggard.
Pretending to be near twenty was harder. Peter didn't have a driver's license or passport. He still had to watch what he said around the team. If one of them asked for his license, he had nothing to offer but a flimsy Midtown Science and Technology School ID, and that would not fly. The idea of buying a fake ID off one of the common criminals he webbed all the time melted Peter's brain slightly, so he let that thought be. Right now, praying that no one asked for identity verification was his best play.
"You're helping me with the party in July, right?"
"Of course." Peter switched his phone to his other ear, his backpack bouncing against his spine. "I'm ready for it. Over the hill birthday cards, black balloons, '100 years' candles, streamers, Foxy Grandpahats, dentures; the whole shebang. It's not every day you get to roast Captain America."
Sam snorted. Peter pictured him circling a building with his metal wings extended. "You're a gremlin."
Peter's retort died when he saw the local news scrolling across a taqueria's TV. HOME ROBBERY NEAR FOREST HILLS, it said. ONE DEAD. Forest Hills was his apartment. Forest Hills was May's apartment. The memory of Ben lying on the floor resurfaced.
"I have to go," Peter said.
It took three minutes to swing to the apartment. Every minute felt like a hundred years. By the time he burst onto the street, Peter's heart pounded a staccato against his ribs. Every web shot was not fast enough. The wind whistled by his ears in a scream. Peter almost slammed his face against the building ledge when he skittered onto his apartment's roof. He took the stairs two at a time, then three.
It was stupid to yell for her with the suit on, but he did anyway. Thankfully, no one was in the hallway, even if Peter could hear voices below. Police sirens wailed on the other side of the building. Peter scrambled to the fifth floor. The key threatened to shiver out of his hand. No signs of forced entry, a little voice in the back of his head noted. No spidey sense going off. That's good. It was forced with Ben.
He burst into the apartment. The door had barely slammed behind him before he ripped his mask off. Terror sped through him, real terror this time. It was muscle memory that made Peter yank his suit off. He threw it into his bedroom before throwing the door shut and fleeing into the living room.
Aunt May limped out of the kitchen, pale. Her cane clattered against the floor. Peter saw the news scrolling across their TV. SUSPECT APPREHENDED, it said.
The first thing Peter did was hug her. He was shaking too hard to feel her hand on his hair. She felt so frail, even if he couldn't tell her that. Peter sobbed into her shoulder as she hugged him back. May's tears speckled his shoulder.
"Thank god you're okay," she said. "I didn't know if you had come early. I knew you were visiting MJ for a while—"
"I'm okay, May," Peter said. "I'm okay."
They stood there as the news played out, holding each other. Peter sniffed and wiped his face when he pulled away. May rubbed at her eyes with a thin wrist, her delicate veins visible.
"Oh, Petey," she said. "You're crying."
Peter didn't correct her to 'we're crying.' He let her wipe his face with a handful of tissues. Aunt May's white curls stayed perched atop her head, more unshakable than both of them.
"I was worried," he said.
"I know." May pulled him into a hug again. "So was I."
This time, their embrace was broken by May's soft chuckle.
"Petey," she said, "why are you in your underwear? Where's your backpack?"
"I don't know," Peter said. His body wouldn't cease shaking. "I wanted to get changed I guess. I left the backpack at MJ's."
May rubbed his shoulder.
"You're cold," she said. "You should go get changed. I'll finish making dinner. Goodness, what a scare we had."
"Right," Peter said.
He limped back to his room. Instead of getting changed, he sat in his room for a long time, his face in his hands. He didn't move until Sam called him asking what had happened.
The DMV was not the best place to get a call for backup. Peter picked up his phone to hear sounds of explosions and maniacal cackling within the first second.
“Man of the Spiders!” Thor’s shout boomed through the speaker. “We request your assistance!”
The old woman sitting three seats away from Peter gave him a dirty look. Peter tried to shuffle away from her.
“Hey, Fabio,” he said, “can it wait?”
“I do not understand your nickname for me, despite how many times Darcy explains it. But I am glad you and Jane find it amusing.” Another explosion rocked the phone call. “No, it cannot wait. What is more important than heroism?”
Peter hesitated. His school ID and a bundle of papers lay scrunched in his lap. A chewed-on pen dangled from his fingers. The last number called had been right before him. The line to the DMV counter snaked around the room. Sheer hostility emanated from everyone.
“Listen, Thor,” Peter said, lowering his voice, “I really can’t. I’m stuck in a perilous place right now, and it will take lots of cunning and quiet to get out with my head attached. I have to call you back another time.”
“Are you in mortal danger?”
Thor’s tone shifted to seriousness instantly. Peter heard muffled screams in the background. A string of swears came directly afterward, followed by Falcon’s stern “watch your language!” Clint, Peter thought. Or Tony.
“I can come assist you.”
“No, no, no!” Peter grabbed at his papers as they threatened to plummet off his lap. His panic earned him several more death glares. “I’m fine! Peachy keen! The head thing was metaphorical. I’ll—be over later.”
“I see.” Thor hmm’d into the speaker. “Well, I wish you luck fighting your metaphorical danger, Man of Spiders. You know where to find us.”
“Thanks, Thor,” Peter said. “See you later.”
The woman at the DMV counter called his number. Peter rose.
“One last thing,” Thor said.
“What?” Peter said.
“I request a better nickname.”
Thor clicked his teeth. “No.”
The DMV line jittered. Peter grabbed his hair in desperation. “Space cowboy?”
“‘Space cowboy.’ I like it,” Thor said. “And to think I only had to twist your arm in order to earn a better nickname than Fabio. I dislike him. Goodbye, Peter!”
The line went dead. Peter stared at his phone in disbelief before the woman at the counter cleared her throat. He leapt up, scrambling to the desk.
“Sorry,” he said. “Where was I?”
Apparently it did not take long for a super villain battle to move across New York. Whoever it was, they enjoyed throwing large objects. Peter felt relieved to see the conflict’s arrival. In his nervousness over the driving test, he had forgotten to flick on his turn signal. His instructor was too busy quaking in fear at the vehicles plummeting from above to notice.
A bus came to a sudden stop above them, its sides groaning. The flashing sign on it went out. Peter watched as it rose into the sky, a familiar red cape billowing beneath it. Oh, no, he thought. Nearby, a taxi slowed its barrel roll and stilled before it could hit a building. It rolled upright, graceful. Peter glimpsed the terrified driver and passenger inside. Vision hovered beneath it with an placid expression.
Peter shrank as Vision made eye contact with him before flying away, Thor following suit. His drive back to the DMV wasn’t perfect, but since his instructor was passed out for half of his test, it worked out. Peter received his driver’s license.
“Man of Spiders, you said you were in peril. What gives?”
“I was, Thor,” Peter said, “really.”
The sun made the metal balcony of the hotel hot. A snack platter roasted on the grate-topped table nearby. Being Asgardian royalty had its perks, Peter thought, seeing that Tony had rented this room for Thor’s one week stay in New York. One night probably cost more than a week of his and May’s rent.
Thor did not look convinced.
“I must agree with Thor,” Vision said. Peter didn’t know why Vision never sat down unless invited or told to. He always looked so stiff when standing. “You did not seem to be in immediate danger.”
“It was, uh, an earthling rite of passage,” Peter said. “I had to take it. It was a test of manhood.”
“Ah,” Thor said. “So you have not yet completed all of your coming of age rites. At least until now.”
“Mr. Peter,” Vision said, fixing Peter in a gaze that Peter could feel through his mask, “we were at the local Department of Motor Vehicles. You appeared to be taking your driver’s test.”
“And?” Peter said.
“That is normally a test undertaken by those between sixteen years of age and—”
“I’ve very bad at it,” Peter said.
“Excuse me?” Thor said.
“The driver’s test,” Peter said. “Driving. I get nervous when driving. My spidey senses mess with everything. It makes it hard.”
He waved his hands for emphasis. Thor’s brows were creased in thought. A piece of salami stayed caught in his beard. Peter did not know what Vision’s convinced face looked like.
“This is my third time taking it,” Peter said, “since my aunt couldn’t afford a car last year and there’s my whole anxiety thing. It’s embarrassing to be 20 and retaking it, but I passed now, so that’s all that matters!”
Suspicion Peter had not initially noticed in Thor’s expression disappeared. “So you are retaking a test instead of taking it for your first time.”
“Yes,” Peter said, like a liar. “Would I ever lie to you, space cowboy?”
That seemed like enough. Thor went back to demolishing his third snack platter. Vision rolled a grape tomato between his fingers.
“You must be very bad at driving,” Vision said.
“Yup, that’s me,” Peter said. “Spider-Man, the worst driver alive.”
“Forget bad,” Thor said. “You underwent this rite three times. You must be awful.”
“Atrocious,” Vision said.
“Okay, that hurt my feelings.” Peter back-flipped onto the railing, readying his webslingers. “Party’s over. I’ll see you two later.”
He waved back at Thor and Vision as he swung around the corner of the hotel.
Getting a job on top of school was not appealing. I already have a job where I get pummeled by unreasonable, crazy strangers for little to no pay with awful hours, Peter thought. It's called being Spider-Man. But Aunt May was old. The rent didn't pay itself. The little money Ben had squirreled away for them was fading, and Peter did not want May to work more than she already did. Not when her hip ached hourly now. Not when she had done so much already.
So Peter Parker got a job. The interviewing process was nerve wracking, but it was no worse than getting thrown into a second story window by Rhino. By the end of it, Peter was a barista. Using his super powers to juggle multiple drink trays filled with overpriced lattes and slick smoothies was a first. His hands twinged every time he touched a hot cup. Ned laughed at him when he came by to buy a drink. Peter sat down his hot chocolate on the table.
"You look like a hipster," Ned said. "Look at that nerdy shirt and apron."
"No, I look like a college dropout trying to make ends meet," Peter said.
"It's not that bad," Ned said.
A table away, MJ extracted herself from her pile of homework, books, and Decathlon notes. She turned her sketchbook towards them. Peter saw his own mopey face staring back at him. 'I HATE MY JOB' the caption said. A tray of Americanos with names like Kayln, Lakenn, and Caitea balanced in his hands. Ned choked on a laugh, unable to stop it.
"Yeah, it is that bad," Peter said. Ned gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder.
"At least you're making money?" he said.
Well, Peter couldn't deny that part.
The Avengers did not need to know his age. Peter had decided that long ago. As he stared out at New York’s sparkling night skyline, his legs dangling from a skyscraper, he could not bring himself to regret that choice.
Adults always thought they knew better. Sometimes they did. Peter knew there was an infinity of truths he did not know. He also knew that adults would limit his infinities in a nanosecond. They were fast to dismiss, patronize, worry, and restrict. It didn’t matter that he could lift cars or swing between buildings under a rain of bombs. Tony, Cap, and Bruce would start fretting and trying to advise him. Worse: they might interfere with his superhero work. His age changed everything, including the dynamics between them.
Peter didn’t want another parent or mentor. He didn’t want more supervision. He loathed the thoughts of feats he just did as Spider-Man suddenly becoming special. Aunt May was the adult who treated him his age. Her fussy wisdom was more than enough for him. He needed no one else.
Wind chilled Peter’s lower face. He pressed his heels against the skyscraper glass.
What could the Avengers teach him as adults, anyway? He already knew about most of the pains they would try to protect him from. He knew about crying in the kitchen on birthdays for someone who wouldn’t ever come back. He knew about lying in bed all weekend. He knew about pain, about bullets buried in his flesh and ripped super suits and blood on the pavement. He knew about worrying himself into nausea over Aunt May’s shaky health. He knew about staring at the ceiling, thinking, it should have been me. I should have done something.
He knew about waking from nightmares in a cold sweat. He knew about stressing to pay rent or praying for lunch that day. He knew about suppressing panic attacks when he smelled burning oil, and giving in when he could not outrun the feeling of concrete crushing his ribs. He knew about self loathing. He knew about praying that his work didn’t get the family he had left killed. He knew about loneliness. He knew about the endless braid of guilt, responsibility, and power that would dog him until Spider-Man was no more, one way or another.
What did Tony Stark know about being poor? What did Captain America know about secret identities? What did Nat know about gracelessness? What did Thor know about lying down for bullies? What did Bruce Banner know about surrendering scholarships to take care of family?
Not enough. Not enough to tell them his age and ruin what he had.
Peter inhaled, tasting cool smog. Ambulance sirens rang in the distance. A stray pigeon wheeled over him in the dark. Peter pulled the mask over his face. He flexed, feeling miles of city beneath him. His city. Nothing would tear him away from it.
Then he jumped, wind and web flying by him.
There were too many customers to count. Everyone but Peter was sweating as they sprinted around the store, trying to get pastries and espressos into the proper hands. Peter wasn't feeling too hot either.
"Hey, barista," a voice called, "you! The scrawny one! I'll take a Cuban Expresso and black coffee. Vente."
Peter turned, two muffins and three drink trays balanced on his arms. A swear escaped his lips when he saw Sam in jogging clothes sitting at a nearby table, accompanied by a smug Natasha. He instinctively hunkered down in fear of paparazzi.
"I didn't tell you where I worked!"
"Why are you assuming we came for you?" Sam was innocent. "Nat, he's been hanging around Tony too much. He has an ego now. Nah, we wanted a coffee. That's all."
"I'm sure you did," Peter said, "you—"
A plate broke in the back room. Peter, with his enhanced hearing, was the sole one to hear it. Water boiled over. He swore.
"That's not workplace appropriate, is it?" Natasha said. "My, my." Sam shook his head in disappointment.
"I hate you," Peter said, struggling back to the kitchen. "So much."
Sam laughed. Peter ignored him, like a mature adult. Even if he wrote 'for the bird-brained jerk in the back' on Sam's cup. He deserves it, Peter thought. That'll teach him to get coffee somewhere else. Stupid nosy, supportive Sam. He wrote nothing on Widow's cup. He was an immature teenager, not stupid. Peter heard Natasha's laugh from the back when they finally got their drinks.
For all their ribbing, their thirty dollar tip was nice.
“That’s the third paper I’ve seen you typing today,” Tony said, an appropriate flask of alcohol in hand. “Shouldn’t you be skipping heroing to pass your class?”
“I don’t know.” Peter checked his watch. “Shouldn’t you not be drinking at… 5:30?”
“Harsh, kid,” Tony said. “You’re starting to remind me of Pepper.”
“I’ll take that as the compliment it is,” Peter said.
“A wise choice.” Tony sat on the couch.
The Stark lounge was always well-lit and full of cushy seats. For better or worse, Peter had grown accustomed to sprawling out on one couch or another and working on his homework. As long as no one looked at the content too closely, he was fine. His messy hair stuck out a variety of angles. Coffee stained his periodic table t-shirt. The time was long past for always staying in uniform.
Peter’s phone beeped. It was a text from MJ. Doing homework at your Stark internship again?
You know me too well, Peter typed back.
Tony sat his flask aside in favor of drinking a cup of coffee that had materialized from nowhere. Peter sniffed at the pungent smell.
“Is that Cap’s coffee?”
“No,” Tony said. “It’s Bruce’s. Cap would die if he consumed as much caffeine as we do, super soldier metabolism or not.” He sipped the black concoction, his gaze flitting down to Peter’s paper. “What college do you attend again?”
There was a distinct note of disapproval of Tony’s voice. Peter pulled his papers closer to him. His phone beeped again.
“Good god,” Tony said, “your phone is as basic as your classwork.”
“Hey,” Peter said, “don’t hate. It’s helped me many a time.”
He strangled a laugh at MJ’s text. Good luck, it said. I dont think I could deal with sitting in such a bougie place. I can smell the fair trade arrogance.
“Anyway,” Tony said, “if you’re done texting your girlfriend, back to your college.”
Peter flushed violently. He coughed. Why was Tony like this? He was worse than Flash. He and MJ were friends, and if he spluttered a bit more when talking to her, that was his business. Tony raised an eyebrow in amusement.
“Queensborough,” Peter said. “It’s a community college.”
He wasn’t at Queensborough. Not yet. But it was a possibility. School was expensive, Peter thought. Affordability would affect a lot. Among other factors. In case Tony snooped, Peter made sure at he knew at least one other Peter from Queens attended the school, and that he could rattle off a fake class schedule. It was far from foolproof, but it was something.
“So why Queensborough?” Tony tapped the side of his cup. “Why not MIT, or Harvard? Columbia? Cornell? Never too late to transfer. You’re capable enough for all of them.”
“I’m on a budget.” Peter shrugged. “Plus, I like to stay close to home.”
“Some of those are close. Your budget could be expanded. I'd be willing to help.”
“I’m your friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man,” Peter said, “not your friendly City Spider-Man.”
Tony’s dissatisfaction showed in his coffee stirring. Peter didn’t press the conversation. He ignored his thrumming heart at Tony’s comment about budget. Would Iron Man help pay for his college? Really? His head spun with possibilities. Peter shut them down quickly before he became dizzy. This wasn’t the first time Tony had implied he would be fine with helping Peter out. But it’s not the first time I’ve lied to him about my situation, either, Peter thought.
This whole thing was a mess. It was something Peter procrastinated on thinking about: a skill he did well. Once he got to college, Peter decided, he got there. If he got there. (Lots of thoughts swirled around Peter’s mind about heroing as a career. They made him a combination of ill and excited). Before then it was one step at a time.
"This is an awful idea," Bruce said, already sweating under his collar.
"It's a great idea," Peter said. "Trust me."
"I don't trust someone who lives off energy drinks and ramen."
"So what," Peter said, "you? But with fancier ramen?"
Bruce scratched his sides. He raked his teeth over his lips in anxiety. "I can't believe Tony approved this. He doesn't know you. He might squish you."
"Trust me, after getting pounded into pavement a couple of times by people who didn't like me inside or outside of costume," Peter said, "I think Hulk will be the least of my problems. He's met me before. He likes me. Maybe? Kind of? Sort of? Anyway, you like me enough. So as long as you're not hiding a super villain-sized grudge or nefarious plot to turn me into a spidey-shaped pretzel, I think we'll be fine."
Bruce gave him an unconvinced look.
"Really, Bruce, this will be good for him," Peter said. "Maybe he'd smash less things if you let him out to play sometimes, not only when you need him."
"Sure," Bruce said, devoid of conviction.
Peter waved at one of Tony's surveillance drones in the distance. He pretended that this totally meant everything was fine, and they were not unleashing two tons of green destruction on the world. Thor and Tony were on speed dial. That was something. Their train began winding to a stop, its breaks hissing. Outside the window, a myriad of disused roads and cow fences came into focus. The roads swiftly turned to dirt on the horizon. Peter could already see the giant dump. The top of a crane peaked above the forest surrounding it. Bruce began sweating more.
By the time they got to the dump, events accelerated quickly. Peter pulled his suit out of a duffel bag and yanked it on behind a pile of broken microwaves. When he emerged into the clearing, Bruce had well and truly hulked out. Hulk stood in the middle of the dump, observing the mountains of broken cars and trucks around him. He fumed with confusion. His attention snapped to Peter as Peter edged around him, hands up.
"Woah, woah, Hulk. It's okay. It's me! Spidey! You know, the little red guy who helps you sometimes? Who does the web thing and flippy stuff?" Peter mimed shooting some webs. Hulk narrowed his eyes. Peter swallowed as he got closer. "You're... really big. Wow."
"Me know," Hulk said.
Hulk moved to push a car away. Peter could read the expression on his face: There's trouble. Must find what needs smashing. He ran in front of Hulk, skidding to a stop when Hulk drew back, one shoulder rippling upwards and a hand rising into the air. Peter backpedaled.
"Hey, hey, hey! Don't leave, big guy! We're staying in here, okay? There's no trouble."
Hulk's confusion intensified. "No trouble?"
"No," Peter said. "But we are going to play a game." He pointed to a stack of twelve cars nearby, easily twenty feet tall. Three of them made up a layer on each part of the tower. "Have you ever heard of jenga?"
Hulk's brows furrowed together. Peter swore he smelled rubber burning as mental cogs worked overtime. "Jen... ga?"
Peter grinned, shooting a web onto a small truck in the middle of the pile. He braced his feet into the ground.
"Glad you asked."
The coffee shop had a roof, as unkempt as it was. Peter preferred sitting up here instead of inside the break room. His boss hadn’t objected to him being up here yet, so he intended to milk it for as long as possible. Peter munched on his sandwich. Several gulls fluttered by.
“I used to take shots at them,” Clint said, landing on the roof from the nearby window he had slipped out of, “but Pepper got mad. Said it was ‘bad publicity.’ I’d say it was a good sport.”
Peter almost choked on his sandwich. “Where did you come from?”
“Had work close by,” Clint said.
He cheerily settled next to Peter on the floor, out of sight from anyone on the street. Smoke boiled upwards from the several restaurants around them in a cloud of hot mist. There was a smudge of blood on Clint’s cheek. Clint wiped it off. Peter sighed.
“You want some of my sandwich?”
“Sure.” Clint snagged the half Peter offered. “What’s in it?”
“Pastrami. Mustard. Rye.”
Clint, mouth already full, gave him a thumbs up.
The two ate together until Peter’s break ended. Peter watched Clint disappear over the roof side, motions smoother than pouring oil. In the distance, there was shouting. Peter snorted.
“He’d rather get caught than miss a free meal. Of course.”
Work at the register felt a little less strenuous when he went back to it.
It was Peter's fault Bruce got hit and hulked out, because Peter's exhaustion and ten thousand thoughts about Aunt May's health, about missing another shift again and possibly getting fired, about school, about everything, had made him careless. The anxiety worsened that much more when there was a furious Hulk wrestling Rhino around Fifth Street. The sounds of blasters filled the sky above as Vision and Wanda downed the Green Goblin's helper bots.
By the end of the fight Peter had been thrown three blocks away. He spent thirty minutes helping panicky civilians escape the blocked off streets. The sounds of fighting had long died away as he limped back to Fifth Street. Surprisingly, the Hulk had dissipated already. So had Wanda and Vision. It meant everything was under control. That did not staunch Peter's thoughts of you're stupid. You're not focused. You're so, so stupid. What did you do? He tried not to cry on his way to the compound, or as he sat on one of Stark's expensive couches.
Bags hung under Bruce's eyes when he limped out of his lab five hours later. Peter fought the apology ripping at his windpipe. Bruce gave him a pained wave.
"Hey," Peter said.
Bruce slipped into the community kitchen. Peter stayed out of it, torn. If I apologize I'll cry. I'll mess it up, he told himself. I can't do that. I'm acting like a college student. I'm acting like a grown man. I'm Spider-Man, damnit! Why am I like this? As Peter fought the tsunami of regret, Bruce peered around the counter.
"He asked for you, you know."
Peter blinked. "What?"
"Hulk," Bruce said. "I don't remember most of what happened, but I remembered that. Had a few flashbacks of smashing cars. Lots of yelling. Don't think I've ever felt him be so happy about him making a sandwich out of two taxis and a super villain before knocking them over. Wanda told me he made a big fuss about winning and was disappointed when you weren't there to see it. Not sure what he 'won,' but I wanted you to know."
Peter wasn't sure whether he was going to cry or laugh.
"Yeah," he said, "next time I'll see him, I'll congratulate him on the victory."
The college website had to be a pit of hell designed to trap high schoolers, Peter thought. Had to be. There was no way this atrocious layout wasn’t intentional. People had to try in order to be this bad.
The clock already read 11:45 PM. There was still math homework and Decathlon practice questions left to do. Peter’s barista apron wasn’t clean, and he had a shift after school tomorrow. If he skipped again he would get fired. The giant bruises along his ribs and back from a tussle with the Green Goblin still burned. Peter groaned, slumping against the couch. He closed his computer. Right now, he was too exhausted to read another sentence.
May settled next to him with a cup of ovaltine. She ruffled his hair. “Someone looks tired.”
“Understatement,” Peter said.
May hummed. “Found any colleges you’re interested in?”
“Some. Not too many."
“Don’t worry too much about the cost,” May said softly. “There are scholarships. I don’t want to limit you. You’ve been through a lot, Peter. More than someone your age should have to be. Don’t get stuck on fretting about your old aunt. I want you to choose what’s best for you.”
You don’t know half of it, Peter wanted to tell her. I don’t know what’s the best for me. I don’t know what to do with my life. He closed his eyes. All of his past superhero escapades and class lectures flew through his mind. His bruises ached. Now more than ever, he was exhausted. He didn’t want to hide. He heard Ben’s voice: Peter, why don’t you trust your aunt?
A good question. The impulsive part of Peter responsible for quips and making bad decisions made it to his voice box before his self control did.
“May,” he said, “I need to tell you something.”
“Hmm?” May said.
Peter inhaled, taking May's hand. May rubbed her thumb against his fingers.
"Petey," she said, "are you alright?"
"I think so," he said. Peter tried not to lose his nerve. This is awful, he thought. She's going to hate me. A scream of panic filled his skull. Then Aunt May was there, squeezing his hand.
"It's okay, sweetheart," she said. "Take your time. Take your time."
Peter sucked back his tears. It was too early to cry, and he knew he was going to. He squeezed Aunt May's hand in return. The world came back into focus. Peter's gaze fell on the family picture sitting on their counter.
"It's a long story," he said. "But I think we should start with Ben."
Peter definitely borrowed the car he took the test in. Clint shooting seagulls is a reference to copperbadge's "Exclusive," which has one of my favorite portrayals of Hawkeye. Read it here: https://archiveofourown.org/works/847207/chapters/1618425
Starting with Ben was a good idea. It gave Peter time to ramble over all the less weird parts of being a spider-bite-made mutant. Peter spluttered through what Ben told him about responsibility. He talked about his guilt and how he felt he should take action if he could. He was incapable of looking at May’s face the whole time. If Peter had learned one fact from this experience, it was that their floor had a burn right next to the coffee table leg. May’s hand stayed holding his the entire time.
“I know, Peter,” she said. “I knew from the start how much his words meant to you. You were so serious after he was gone. I watched you grow years older in months. You always wanted to help the underdog. But we’re just ordinary people, Peter. The world is full of trouble no one person can handle. That’s not your fault. We can’t help everyone, even if we want to.”
“But I can help everyone, or I can try to,” Peter whispered, “because I’m not.”
“An ordinary person.”
“Of course you’re not,” May said, squeezing his hand. “You’re Peter Parker.”
That was when the panic itched up his spine. When the fear, assuaged for the past five minutes, really came. Peter released May’s hand. He stood up. His great-aunt sat on the couch with her cane, watching, filled with whatever strength allowed the Parkers to keep going even as the world ground them to nothing.
“May, I have something to show you. Please, please, don’t freak out,” Peter said.
He lifted the coffee table above his head with one hand. Before May could speak, he picked up the recliner in the other one. May paled. The tea spoon on the coffee table clattered to the floor.
“I know this is a lot,” Peter said, “but I’m still Peter—I’m still your nephew, I’m still me, I’m still just a normal idiot going to school even if it doesn’t look like it; May, please don’t—”
May raised a hand. Her wrist trembled. Peter saw her throat bobbing. Another hand crept up to shakily clutch her heart.
“Peter,” she said, “please put down the table.”
She’s old. This was a lot for her. Guilt crushed Peter. He sat the coffee table down, but too fast; the recliner crashed to the floor as his hand slipped. May flinched. Peter didn’t want to imagine the noise that had made a floor below.
“Sorry,” he said. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. I’m usually way better at catching stuff. I’m usually way better at everything except this, I guess, and maybe being responsible, or not talking when I’m nervous. Sorry. Can you tell I’m nervous about telling you? I’m nervous. Actually I’m terrified.”
May was covering her face. She took a deep inhale before patting the couch next to her. Peter scrambled over and sat down.
“Explain everything,” May said.
“Remember the field trip?” Peter said. “The one to Oscorp Labs in September that we had to get an approval for?”
“Yes,” May said.
“I got bit by one of their spiders,” Peter said. “I didn’t know what was happening. And now I can do this.”
He stuck his hand to a book, raising it into the air. The two-inch thick cook book remained suckered to his flat palm. May trembled again. The sound of their spluttery AC filled the apartment.
“If you’ll excuse my language,” May said, “what the fu— ”
Times Peter Parker got scolded for swearing: at least three times a year. Times Peter Parker heard his great-aunt drop a string of oaths with enough ferocity to outdo Clint Barton: once. Only once.
“You will not repeat a single word I have just said, you understand me?” May said.
“Yeah,” Peter said, weak at the knees from everything happening, “I understand."
May absentmindedly patted his arm. “Good. Now, I want a full explanation. For everything.”
Whether Peter wanted it or not, here came Spider-Man.
“I don’t want you doing this.”
The instant May said that, Peter felt as though he was dunked into a bucket of ice water. Protests rose on his lips.
“May, I need to! People expect me to help in Queens now!” Peter gestured at the TV screen. “When I see people in danger and I know I can help them, what am I supposed to do? Nothing? Those people are someone’s kid, or husband, or uncle, or mom!”
“So are you, Peter!” May grabbed his shoulders. “You’re my grand nephew, my godson, and the only son I have left. Am I supposed to let you run into burning buildings or swing into fights with that cyborg octopus man we’ve seen on the news? Or that Sandman fellow? They’re monsters, Peter. You’re seventeen.”
“I’m a durable seventeen year old,” Peter said. “Sandman isn’t that bad if you catch him off guard.”
May’s grip around his shoulders weakened. She looked devastated.
“Oh, god,” she said. “You’ve fought them before. Haven’t you?”
Peter wanted to hit himself. Not that it mattered. Since May knew he was Spider-Man, she would remember the news footage eventually, as well as see plenty of new footage. He enveloped May in a hug. She hugged him back, trembling.
“I’m sorry, May,” he whispered. “I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you. I didn’t want to make you worry.”
“You’re the only thing left of Mary, too,” May said. “What would she and Ben think if I lost you?”
Here we go, Peter thought, right on time. Here comes the Crying Express, choo choo. Passengers: May and Peter Parker, who have no one else to take with them.
What Peter wanted to say was “If something happens it’s not your fault. I owe you and Ben everything, but I want to keep being Spider-Man. I have to. Thanks for understanding, May.” What came out was the squeaky start of an ugly cry. Peter knew that MJ would have roasted him.
They both sat there for a while, getting it out of their system. By the time both of them wound down the last topic Peter wanted to talk about was Spider-Man. He took the tissues May offered him, exhausted. She settled back onto the couch with a refilled cup of tea.
“We’ve had quite a day,” May said, “haven’t we?”
Peter nodded. He traced his knuckles with his thumb.
“May,” he said, “I don’t think I can stop.”
He hoped May would say ‘what?’ so he could say ‘nothing’ (which was a lie. He meant being Spider-Man) and avoid this. It didn’t work. May stirred her tea, somber. She gazed into her cup.
“I know,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about it the past hour, and as much I hate to say it, I know. You’re a stubborn teenager, Peter. If I told you to stop putting on the suit you would listen for two weeks and then crack the instant someone shouted for help. Don’t wince. It’s not a bad trait. You’re like your uncle. Once he set his mind to doing what he thought was the right thing, heaven help me, nothing could dissuade him.”
“So you’re… alright with it, then?” Peter said.
“Peter, will I ever be ‘alright’ with sending my nephew onto the streets, knowing one day I might be sending him out to die?” May said.
There wasn’t a response for that. Peter pulled his knees up to his chest, sinking further into their old couch. Evening smog floated past their windows. From the top floor, Peter knew that he would be able to see the red line of sunset outlining all the buildings in Queens before nightfall. He wished he could take May to see it. He wished he could do better.
“I’ll say this,” May said. “Life is a risky endeavor. No matter what you do, where you are, or where you go, you could be in danger. You can’t hide from that.” She turned her face away to look at their family portrait. “You may as well live life to the fullest. I don’t like what you’re doing, but I won’t stop you. I’m proud of you. Ben is proud of you.”
Peter had never loved May more than he did then.
“At least, I won’t stop you in the future,” May said. “As of today you’re grounded for a month.”
“No sneaking out. No Spider-Man," May said. "No convincing Ned or Michelle to pry out of this. No calling any of your superhero friends. You lied to me for years, Peter. I need to know where you are for one month.”
May had that glint in her eye that meant arguing was useless. Peter tried it anyway.
"May, I can't quit being Spider-Man for a month. I can't," he said. "People will die if I do."
For a long moment, May held her hand to her mouth. When she exhaled, she sounded wounded. May looked like she had aged five years.
"Two weeks," she said. "Two weeks. Less, if you absolutely must."
Peter hugged her. "Thank you."
“You’re lucky I didn’t ground you for the rest of your adult life," May said, though they both knew she couldn't, not from this. "Never hide anything this big from me again, Peter. If you’re hurt or stressed, and you don’t tell me, I can’t help you. Don’t do that to me.”
“I promise I won’t hide anymore,” Peter said.
“Is that a Parker promise?”
“It’s a Parker promise,” Peter agreed.
For once that evening May was stable when she grabbed her cane. “Good,” she said. “Gracious me, I’m tired. You’ve kept me up far longer than I intended to be up.”
“‘Gracious me’? Really? You’re going to say that after what I heard earlier?”
May shook her mug at him. “Don’t sass me, Peter Benjamin Parker. I’m allowed a few indulgences per year. This situation called for it.”
“Okay, okay,” Peter said, finding a smile inside him for the first time that night. “I get it.”
“You should go to bed soon too,” May said. “It’s late.”
“I know.” Peter yawned. “I’m turning in before the hour ends.”
“You better be. Goodnight, Peter.”
After a last hug, May headed to her room. Peter gathered all of his belongings before trudging to his own bedroom. He flicked out the light with a final look at the living room.
YOU: I told May I was Spider-Man
NED: holy shit
MJ: RIP Peter Parker.
NED: what happened???
NED: are you okay? Do you need somewhere to crash???
YOU: im grounded for two weeks but she took it well
Being grounded for two weeks from both Spider-Man and friend activities was a pain, especially now that summer had rolled around. Sirens seemed to go off every five minutes. May caught Peter longingly looking at a news report on the Fantastic Four before she shut the TV off.
“It’s two weeks, Peter,” she said. “A week and a half, now. Besides, I don’t believe outer space issues are usually your forte. Are they?”
“No,” Peter said, “they’re not.”
May gave him a look that said she was assessing him but had chosen to believe him. Peter pictured himself flipping around in outer space as Spider-Man, shooting webs at asteroids and running up Saturn’s rings. Cool, he thought. Though getting to use my web shooters on anything right now would be cool.
Still, it wasn’t that bad. Anytime his spider senses tingled they usually faded as the danger was taken care of by someone else. The Queens department of the NYPD stretched their legs to their full pre-Spider-Man extent. Peter didn’t realize how much he enjoyed sleeping in again until he had a break. The summer almost felt... normal. He and May went to Coney Island, several festivals, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and tried wrangling May’s egg casserole into an edible form. It was a lot for two weeks. Peter also begrudgingly went through a set of ACT and SAT flashcards.
When Peter wasn’t at the library or hanging out with May, he worked. If it wasn’t for Ned and MJ’s missing presence, and the lack of Ben, the summer almost felt like it was from before the end of the beginning. As if Ben would return from a business trip at any point, and it would all be fine again. Peter didn’t know how he felt about that. He ignored it in favor of enjoying himself.
Losing his phone privileges and internet privileges, aside from the emergency settings, also made it easier to ignore the question all the tabloids, local papers, Youtube channels, and superhero watch twitters were asking: where was Spider-Man?
The call came through when they were grocery shopping. There was two days left on the break. Peter started, pausing the action of placing hot dogs in his basket. The number did not have a caller ID. Suspicion rippled through Peter. No one ever tried calling him, even scammers. I should take this.
Peter moved away from the meat section. The rest of the store surrounded him with well-stocked store shelves and halogen lights. Grocery shopping had never been so annoying since he could hear every squeak of a loose cart wheel or every squeak of shoes on tile. May was in the adjacent aisle, picking out honey sticks for her tea. Peter walked across the store before answering his phone. The shrill ringing did not let up once before then.
“Hello?” he said. “Peter speaking.”
Muffled discussion cut off on the other end of the line. “There he is,” Sam said, voice distant. Peter determined he was holding the phone away from his face. “I told you, Bruce. He’s fine. He might be immature, but he’s not incompetent. Give a man his break when he takes it.”
“Excuse me?” Peter said.
There was the sound of a phone being pressed to an ear. “Hey, Peter,” Sam said. “Long time no see.”
“Around two weeks, yeah,” Peter said. He meandered down another aisle. “What’s up? Is there an emergency? You could have called me with F.R.I.D.A.Y’s system.”
“Nah, there isn’t,” Sam said. “We just wanted to check in. Make sure you didn’t die in some awful Raid-related incident at the beginning of June.”
“Ha ha,” Peter said.
The voices in the background spoke again. Wanda, Peter guessed. Or Pepper.
“I told the others you were fine,” Sam said, “but Bruce is such a mother hen he made me call.”
There was a sharp sound of objection in the background.
“Also Wanda,” Sam said. “She misses her cheat sheet.”
“Why?” Peter said, feeling touched. The child sharing the baking aisle with him was giving him a stink eye. Peter grabbed a bag of marshmallows and dumped them into his basket.
“You disappeared off the streets for two solid weeks without letting anyone know, and you haven’t been responding to any of Tony’s texts or the group chat,” Sam said. “Surprisingly, most heroes don’t do that when something nice has happened.”
“Oh,” Peter said.
“Yeah,” Sam said. “‘Oh.’” He hummed. “You are okay, right, Peter? No broken bones or assassins keeping you off the street we need to know about?”
“I’m fine.” Peter shuffled towards the other end of the store when he heard May moving. “Family emergency came up, that’s all. It’s taken care of. Everything is good. I’ll be back in action soon.”
“Cool,” Sam said. “See you then.”
He hung up. Peter slipped his phone into his pocket. May was standing in front of the ice cream freezers when he found her. She pointed her cane at one of the many tubs of gelato.
“What do you think? Caramel gelato or Rocky Road?”
“The classic wins here,” Peter said. “Rocky Road, obviously.”
May considered his comment before taking out a tub of each. Peter held the door open for her.
“Why two tubs?”
“Because I know how you eat, and it was bad enough before the new metabolism,” May said. “I may be old, but I do like my ice cream.”
Why was everyone out to tease him today? Peter sulked. May tweaked his cheek.
YOU: i’m back!
MJ sent a link: “AMAZING Spider-fails, supercut edition, eighteen minutes: spiderman crashes into a semi”
YOU: MJ why are you sending my poor phone links
YOU: it takes a 4th of my data just to load a three minute video
NED sent a link: “spider man x johnny torch AMV Every Time We Touch”
NED: welcome back
MJ: Now that’s amazing
YOU: i hate both of you
If the 3/5 instead of 3/3 chapter fraction wasn't an indication, this fic has grown. I'll do my best to provide all of you good content without letting this story overstay its welcome. Thank you to those who commented. Though I can't reply to everyone, I appreciate and love every bit of feedback I've received on this story. You all are the ones that keep me writing.
The factor preventing Tony’s lab from being insufferable in summer was the giant complex of air conditioners. Peter didn’t want to know what it had been like during the lab’s construction. He fiddled with the end of the lab coat sleeve, impatient.
“Honestly,” Peter said, watching Tony fish out a rectangle of textile from a toxic-looking pan of liquid, “what did Bruce do before the invention of ultra-flexible material?”
“Just what you expect,” Tony said. “I had to work on this quickly before we got plastered with charges of indecent exposure. F.R.I.D.A.Y, drain the soak pan.”
“As you wish, sir,” F.R.I.D.A.Y’s voice said over the intercom.
The emerald liquid gurgled out of the pan. Tony and Peter leaned in to survey their handiwork, goggles still on. Tony prodded the material with a thick glove. Peter wasn’t sure how the smell alone had not disintegrated the new July page of the calendar on the wall.
“What do you think?” Tony said.
“It’s atrocious. Bruce will hate it.”
“You’re the one who came up with the pattern,” Tony said.
“Exactly.” Peter resisted the urge to scratch his nose. He didn’t need more mutations, especially not from whatever chemicals were in this setting liquid. “Do you think we can convince him to wear it?”
“If we take all the rest of his other clothes, yes,” Tony said. “F.R.I.D.A.Y, get on that. Generate a new protocol. Protocol name: Summer Beach Bash. Just take Bruce’s clothes and store them somewhere he can’t find them.”
“Consider it done, sir,” F.R.I.D.A.Y said. A few mechanisms whirred in the ceiling.
“We’re doomed,” Peter said.
“We’re just getting started,” Tony said.
MAY: Peter, could you pick up a jug of milk on the way back?
YOU: May im in costume
MAY: It’s only one gallon. I wanted to make pancakes tomorrow
YOU: could we just go the store tomorrow?
MAY: no, it’s a holiday.
YOU: okay. Skim or whole?
MAY: You better not be texting me while you're web swinging
Tony’s projects did not directly come to fruition. Peter knew from his own science projects and collaborating with Tony that much painstaking work, many prototypes, and countless failures went into science. It made satisfaction that much sweeter. Even then, whether Tony or Peter were happy with the outcome was debatable.
This project was not the case. It took five seconds for Peter to decide that watching Hulk trash the Green Goblin in rubber-ducky-patterned swimming trunks was the best spectacle he had ever seen in his life. He almost crashed into the side of a building mid-swing watching it.
“This is too good,” Tony said. Iron Man came to a hover beside the nearby bridge. His laughter had filled the com for the past five minutes. Steve had nearly kicked him out.
“You better be filming this,” Clint’s voice said.
“Waaaaay ahead of you.”
“Why do you have to do this to Bruce?” Natasha’s tone was full of disapproval. Peter webbed up a henchman so she could kick him into a gutter. “He’s going to hulk out again the instant he sees this footage.”
“I have to agree with Widow,” Cap said.
“Well,” Peter said, “it was worth it. And it was nice knowing you.”
They knew Thor had arrived when they heard his hearty boom of laughter on the skyline.
Both Tony and Peter waited in the complex lounge until Bruce emerged from the bathroom, hair ruffled, old clothes on, the oversized swimming trunks hanging from his grip.
“You couldn’t stand it long enough to make it to your room to change,” Tony said. “Wow.”
“I hated that,” Bruce said. “The two of you are devious.”
“I know,” Tony said. “Are you going to give them back?”
“Not on your life.” Bruce shook the fistful of material in his hand and shot them his middle finger. He stomped into his room, disheveled. Peter felt bad until Tony laughed.
“The best part,” Tony said, grinning, “was seeing him go through the rest of the drawer and pick that one out. I think it was a hard pick between those and the DNA ones. He liked them.”
“So we’re wasting valuable time and resources and making more, then?” Peter said. He wondered how much Bruce would hate him if he added Spider-Man themed trunks to the mix.
Tony hung up his jacket. “Absolutely.”
NED sent a link: Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, Spotted… Shopping? (5 Pictures, Slideshow)
NED: if that jug of milk actually made it back in one piece you have my kudos. It looked dangerously close to the ground a few times
YOU: it did, but at what cost
MJ: It’s not like you had a reputation to uphold anyway.
MJ: Sent to May. Hope you enjoyed that milk spidey.
Few times did a mission turn into a break. In this case, it did. Peter and Vision had chased a van full of the Vulture’s remaining henchmen up north before realizing it was a decoy. At that point, Natasha, Clint, and Falcon were on top of the real van that had gone south, and Wanda, Steve, and Tony had dealt with the vans going west, so there was no point in running to anyone’s aid. Everything wrapped up before it started.
Sit tight, Wanda texted them. We’ll come pick you up later. That way Vision doesn’t have to carry you back.
Thank god for Wanda. Peter did not want to develop the sore back and armpit bruises he always did when being carried around by someone who could fly. It never got better. Being smacked in the face by gnats while going thirty miles per hour was no game either.
“What should we do, then, since we must wait?” Vision said. A crow cawed in the conifer nearby.
Peter was already stripping off his hot suit and pulling on civilian clothes. “Relax,” he said.
As it turned out, the town nearby was having a delayed Fourth of July celebration. Peter wasn’t sure why. He didn’t question it. There were always holidays left over from when settlers were glad not to have gangrene or something. The Oregon Trail single-handedly generated fifty ‘Let’s celebrate because Pa isn’t dead’ holidays now celebrated nationwide, Peter thought. Wow. I’m starting to sound like MJ.
No one here knew the Avengers too well, which was nice. That alongside the prevalence of celebratory makeup meant that with a kitschy ‘MERICA shirt and $5 shorts, Vision blended in. Sort of. Peter made sure to text Aunt May with an update as he and Vision wandered around the stall-lined cobblestone streets.
“They live in the old buildings from when this was first settled,” Vision said. “Fascinating. I’ve always wanted to see a historical town.”
“If you want some postcards from the territorial prison I’ve got you covered,” Peter said.
Vision, in his quiet way, looked like someone had offered him the Holy Grail.
“Yes, please,” he said. “I would like Wanda and Rhodey to see this.”
Surprise ran through Peter. “Rhodey?” he said. He had not interacted much with Tony’s other favorite person besides Pepper and Bruce. Rhodey seemed busy from sun up to sun down.
“We are good friends now,” Vision said, waving to a child. “Rhodey was initially suspicious of me. I think I scared him. But I understood his fears about further militarizing our nation through creations like me, in one way or another. I think he grew fonder of me once he realized there could not be another me without another Infinity Stone. I accompanied him to some of his physical therapy sessions. He taught me to cook.”
This was a Civil War remnant. Peter didn’t know much about the conflict except the main events and one fact: after Colonel Rhodes crashed, the conflict stopped. There was nothing like a friend nearly dying to put a cap on squabbling.
“I haven’t spoken to Rhodey much,” Peter said. “He sounds like a cautious but nice guy.”
“In essence, that is Colonel Rhodes,” Vision said. “Well. Rhodey. I would like to call him Rhodey. Those close to him do. I do not know if he considers me as close a friend as I consider him.”
That was a familiar feeling. If she heard this May would adopt him, Peter thought. Instantly. Wanda is lucky her best friend hasn’t been stolen yet.
“Vision, from what I can tell, you’re good friends,” Peter said. “You should do it. What’s the worst he could do? Ask you to call him Colonel Rhodes again?”
Now that he knew Vision better, Peter noticed the crinkle in Vision’s mouth that meant he was running calculations.
“You have a point,” Vision said. “Thank you, Peter.”
Running around a country town with Vision was more fun than Peter expected it to be. The vestiges from JARVIS made Vision a walking encyclopedia, and his tranquil voice took him miles. Even the suspicious museum guide, who looked on the verge of throwing them out twice, answered all of Vision’s questions. Peter bought them both funnel cakes in time for the fireworks to start.
The two sat on the hillside, waiting for the show or the Avengers’ arrival, whichever came first. Night descended, bringing constellations with it. Darkness grew dense in the forest around them. Fireflies crawled across the damp grass. The town’s lights scattered throughout the trees in glittering specks.
“Yeah?” Peter spoke through a mouthful of funnel cake.
“Thank you for being a friend,” Vision said.
Peter waved it off, powdered sugar clinging to his fingers. Vision’s funnel cake sat untouched in his lap.
“No,” Vision said. “I recognize that gesture now. I mean it. This is very important to me. Peter, do you mind if I confide in you?”
“Sure,” Peter said. “Knock yourself out. I’m listening.”
“It’s been a few years since I was created, but adjusting to life in the new tower has been difficult. It was difficult even in the last one. I’ve talked to F.R.I.D.A.Y about it,” Vision said. “They don’t understand, obviously, but they have been helpful. Some of the coping mechanisms they have listed opened my eyes to new possibilities.”
Vision gently shoved a beetle off his funnel cake, flicking a sugar clump away with it.
“Before then,” he said, “I did not know that I and some of the population experience similar roadblocks. Like not using eye contact. Or misunderstanding certain gestures. Or reading expressions without commentary. Or knowing when to cease a conversation, or… read the room, as you would put it.”
"But it's still not the same," Peter said.
"No, it isn't," Vision said. "After all, they are human. I am far from it. The fact that F.R.I.D.A.Y replaced me in my old role proves that."
Peter tried to imagine waking up as a teenager and finding an old shell of Peter Parker in his place, running through his daily schedule—helping May with chores, looking up recipes for her, and fixing the wifi. What would that feel like? His imagination gave out after a point. It was too weird for him to comprehend. Vision’s forehead gleamed green in the night.
“Does F.R.I.D.A.Y know? I know F.R.I.D.A.Y wouldn’t really understand,” Peter said, “but you get what I mean.”
“They do,” Vision said. “I asked them about that, too. They know I was once Tony’s assistant. Their knowledge does not go beyond the basics.”
Some cars rumbled past them on the out-of-sight road. They’re probably going to set up the fireworks, Peter thought.
“I’ve been sidetracked,” Vision said. “I am sorry.”
“It’s fine, really,” Peter said, patting Vision’s bicep. “I don’t mind.”
“The Avengers are hardly a normal group of people, but I find myself lacking traits that come by them easily. I was missing those traits.” Vision said. “For instance, you, Peter, are a prime example of humanity.”
That was a supervillain line. Peter choked on his funnel cake. Powdered sugar shot directly into his lungs. Crumbs spilled down his chin as he coughed. Peter hunched, trying to get it out of his system. His reply to Vision emerged in a wheeze.
“Yes, you.” Vision waved at him. “You are funny and approachable when you are not dangerous, or pathetic. It took me five hours of studying human gestures one night to learn them properly. You naturally do many of them in less than a minute.”
“What I am saying is thank you,” Vision said. “I have been trying to fix my mannerisms in order to make those around me less… wary. You treating me the same as the others has helped.”
Vision’s hands twisted in a rare show of anxiety. Peter did his best to tread carefully.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “But really, Vision, you shouldn’t be thanking people for treating you like a person, especially me or the Avengers; that’s—kinda messed up.”
“I know,” Vision said. “Wanda has told me so.”
The people who drove by earlier were definitely setting up the fireworks. Peter heard rustling in the woods below, peppered with comments about setting up the rockets correctly. His spidey sense lay silent, so Peter was unworried. There were at least five people. Vision sensed them too. Every now and then, his head turned in their direction. It was a smooth twist too perfect to be human.
A twinge of resentment hit Peter. Vision is less than six years old, the nicest hero I’ve met outside of Cap, a walking Infinity Stone that could sock Hulk without dying, and he already feels like an outsider if he doesn’t act like the rest of us? Really? The world didn’t waste any time on making him feel bad. Peter pushed back his hair.
“Now that we’re on the subject? You don’t have to imitate me or the others,” Peter said. “Actually, most people do their best not to imitate me. It’s a good idea not to; that’s how you end up a loser. My classmate Flash would back me up on that. He’s a jerk, but still. Anyway, all that doesn’t matter. You’re an Avenger. You can do whatever you want. You can act however you want. Being different is fine. People will still like you and take you seriously.”
“Do you believe so?”
“There will be some jerks no matter what, but yeah.”
“Once again, thank you, Peter,” Vision said. “I am glad I decided to trust you.”
“It’s nothing. Really.” Peter picked at the remains of his funnel cake. His appetite fled. It was hard to look Vision in the face.
“To be frank, at first, I believed you were lying,” Vision said.
Peter’s stomach threatened to twist in half.
“You were insistent on your age being in the early twenties. My sources said otherwise,” Vision said. “When I was JARVIS, I needed access to a database of faces and their structures. For security purposes. Despite what others believed, your face matched up less to the alithogram of twenty year old males and more to the alithogram of teenage males between the ages of fifteen and eighteen.”
Peter was definitely going to throw up.
“Listen, Vision,” he said. “I need to explain.”
Vision enveloped him in an awkward side hug.
“Do not feel the need to defend your skeletal structure, Peter. There is nothing wrong with it. In every statistical gathering there is an outlier. As you said before, there is no harm in being different,” he said. “I am an android; you are a man with a freakishly adolescent face. I had my suspicions. But I am glad I went against them and trusted you about the truth. It led me to trust you now. I am grateful for that.”
As Peter opened his mouth to correct him the fireworks went off.
Vision released Peter, turning to watch the shower of sparks above the horizon. Red, yellows, whites, and blues rained on the forest. Smaller yellow stars exploded alongside the big rockets. Cheers echoed from the clearing below. Among the explosions in the sky came a the buzz of a text notification: hey guys, Wanda said. We’re here. Vision levitated, gliding towards the road with his cake in hand.
Peter Parker was left clutching his stupid funnel cake pan and feeling a whole new kind of sick.
There should be one more part to this summer interlude and then we will back on track. Enjoy this early and dubiously edited chapter in celebration of organic chemistry exams being over. The next chapter may be a few days late, but we'll see. Once again, thank you to everyone who commented. Your words keep me going.
For all the lives he saved, Spider-Man also got humiliated just as often. Sometimes it was the sort-of-funny humiliation (“Haha, Spider-Man slipped and fell on top of a car!”) and sometimes it was the far less funny humiliation (“Haha, Spider-Man almost drowned in Sandman and has nightmares about it!”)
This was not humiliating, Peter thought, hanging upside from a web looking at the camera in front of him. This is the polar opposite of humiliating. Several more camera flashes went off as the blond young man next to Peter waved at the press. His blue supersuit sucked in all the attention for miles around. The 4 on his breast shone like a beacon.
Peter refused to allow his real excitement to show. As he and the Human Torch looked at each other, he felt like he was having an out-of-body experience. This is the antithesis of humiliating, Peter thought. This is the CURE for humiliation.
“See you around, Spider-Man,” Johnny Storm said.
“See you around,” Peter said.
Before Peter could consider what was happening, they high-fived. More cameras went off. Johnny shot Peter a sympathetic glance— sorry —before stepping away, leaping into the air, and flying away in a column of flame. Most of the news reporters and filming crowd followed him.
Peter took the opportunity to escape before he could hyperventilate in the street about high-fiving one of the Fantastic Four.
YOU: That was the coolest moment of my life
NED: dude you always get to hang out with superheroes, I’m jealous
YOU: I’m going to faint
MJ: Someone has a crush.
YOU: I do not, the Human Torch is just amazing
NED: suuuure, Peter
MJ: That ass is amazing, but im sure you noticed.
YOU: shut up
YOU: still the coolest moment of my life though. He’s like a superhero superstar and part of F4, how do you top that??
MJ: do I need to link to the AMV again?
YOU: whatever, ur the only one I wouldn’t mind sharing a 240p quality, questionably cut, badly edited AMV with
YOU: AND NED i wouldn’t mind sharing one wth Ned, or my other two friends, or thor, everyone loves thor, who doesnt love thor? Hair, abs, capes! he has them!! Good AMV material! This isnt a deal
NED has left the group.
Sometimes, Peter saw individual Avengers in public. It always disoriented him. It was one thing if they were indulging him in a civilian activity, as sporadic as that was. They all knew he had a secret identity. It was another thing when Peter saw them out by themselves. He always blinked in shock. Perhaps the image was less jarring than when Peter had first started heroing, but it remained bizarre on some deeper level.
It was like seeing Rhino do a handstand on Front Street, Peter thought. Or Mysterio conjuring up a churro stand for everyone instead of exploding a bank. Sure, it could happen, but it was easy to forget it was plausible. Big time superheroes didn’t need nor lead mundane lives.
Except for the part where they did. Peter extended a hand to wave at Steve. Across the street, Steve waved back.
The two somehow managed to navigate across the swarm of beeping taxis and finagled their way into claiming a cafe table outside the movie theatre without buying anything. Despite the sweltering summer evening, Steve hunched into his jacket and ball cap. In hindsight, it was a good way to hide from the crowd. In the moment, Peter’s shock from spotting Steve in the middle of Queens ruined any coherent thoughts he had.
“What are you doing here?” Peter said, forgetting that maybe Captain America needed a better greeting.
Steve shrugged. “You know. Seeing the city. I remembered that you were from Queens, and I hadn’t taken a walk around New York for so long, so...”
It was good that Ned and MJ had gone home earlier and May was at work. Work, Peter thought. I need more of that. Even if I would like less. They’ll stop buying the ‘family emergency’ excuse at the coffee shop soon. Oh well. Now wasn’t the time to despair over job issues. He had the rest of the summer and school year for that.
Steve’s gaze had been stuck on the movie theatre wall for a while. Peter realized that he was looking at the array of posters outlighted in blinking lights. Throwback Thursday! The main one proclaimed. See all the classics in beautiful, newly restored black and white! Peter recognized half of the line up. Dr. Stangelove, Casablanca, a World War II movie he didn’t recognize, Citizen Kane, and another World War II movie he didn’t recognize.
Another World War II movie. Oh, Peter thought, watching Steve’s face turn to uneasy nostalgia. OH.
“Do you want to see a movie? It doesn’t have to be one of these,” Peter said.
Steve started. “I’m sorry, what?”
Steve tore his focus away from an old poster. It was the second World War II movie Peter did not recognize. One of the featured soldiers had long black hair. Peter wanted to face palm. Steve’s restlessness wasn’t subtle. Nor was the reason for it, Peter realized, if his heat-cooked brain would get around to realizing that.
It’s Bucky, Peter thought. That’s what all those updates from Wakanda were about. Plus Steve, Rhodey, and Falcon had that weird not-fight in the lobby about him going to the VA. Of course he’s not feeling great.
“I asked if you wanted to see a movie,” Peter said.
“Sure,” Steve said.
If Steve was expecting them to watch an old movie, he was mistaken. Peter walked them down the line of posters, not looking at the ones covered in snarls of barbwire and shouting soldiers. He sensed Steve’s gaze lingering on each other as they passed. Come on, Peter, Peter told himself. Pick a movie that won’t depress a two hundred year old veteran who has a PTSD-ridden friend stuck in an ice block. God, that’s a depressing sentence.
Their salvation came near the end of the selection. Peter halted in front of the second-to-last poster, triumphantly putting his hands on his waist. “Here we go,” he said. “This is a classic.”
Steve raised an eyebrow at the bright teal and blue poster. An alien spaceship hung over the White House, sending a beam directly into its center. Peter heard the explosions looking at it. INDEPENDENCE DAY, the title blared.
“This looks more like the modern version of a schlocky movie Bucky would pay ten cents to see at midnight,” Steve said.
“Nonsense,” Peter said. “It’s a cinematic classic. Independence Day is the Fort Knox of witty one-liners and it’s got national treasure Will Smith in it. It’s like if the Chitauri were just… stupid. Also if the president could fly a plane. Ask Sam; he knows what it is. He’d back me up.”
Steve looked ready to sigh before surrendering. “Why not,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been to the movie theatre. Let’s do it.”
The two bought their tickets and extra-large buckets of popcorn. Steve whistled at the ticket price as he and Peter shuffled into the dim movie theatre.
“Been a while since the tickets were fifteen cents, huh, old man?” Peter said.
“Enough out of you,” Steve said, shoving Peter.
Captain America looked larger than life when he was crammed into a old movie theatre seat. It took every fiber of Peter’s willpower to restrain himself from saying ‘So you got detention.’ He silenced his phone as the lights went down. Steve turned forward with anticipation.
Steve Rogers had good manners, so he spoke during the movie only once. It was right after Will Smith had punched out an alien and looked down on it with disdain before saying ‘Welcome to Earth.’ Peter felt his chair shift as Steve leaned towards him.
“Are you sure this is a classic?” Steve whispered.
Peter crammed a wad of greasy popcorn into his mouth, watching Will Smith flounder around the wreck of a spaceship.
“Oh,” he said, “definitely. ”
Aunt May’s call echoed from across the apartment.
“Yes?” Peter stopped before entering his room with an armful of snacks and Stark binders in tow. A pencil stuck out from behind his ear, and a broad band aid clung to his cheek from when a mugger’s knife had gotten too close.
“How is it that you are a superhero who can stop a truck,” May’s disembodied voice said, echoing from the kitchen, “but you can’t clean your room?”
“Sorry, May! I will soon!” he said.
“You better.” Peter caught May’s chuckle as he slipped into his room.
Though he had 300 pages of Stark patents to look through cleaning the room first felt a little more compelling.
OH CAP MY CAP: Peter.
OH CAP MY CAP: Whatever awful movie we watched has set Sam on fire. I made the mistake of mentioning it to me, and he won’t stop quoting it at me.
YOU: Sounds rough Steve
OH CAP MY CAP: We’ve watched three Will Smith movies in the past week. Sam looked ready to drop me mid-flight when I told him I did not know what The Fresh Prince was. We may be watching it. Help.
OH CAP MY CAP: Are you still not going to explain the nickname you set for me?
YOU: Don’t worry about it
Rescuing babies was sort of the worst.
“HEY!” Peter flinched as the two-year-old’s hand shoved into his eye again. “I know I have a mask on, but that hurt! Have you ever heard of keeping your hands to yourself, baby?”
The brown, curly headed toddler responded by kneeing him in the side again.
“Put down!” they shrieked, legs kicking. “Put down!”
“Okay, okay, okay!” Peter shot a web line to a lower building. “We’re going down! I promise!”
Spider-Man stuck the wall landing, but it took all of his effort not to twist and land in the dumpster below when another one of the toddler’s screams pierced his ears. With super hearing, it was hell’s dog whistle. Peter leapt onto the street with a stumble. The toddler’s struggle began anew.
Oh god, I hate kids, Peter thought, scrambling through the street in an effort to find a policeman. Is it bad if I made a toddler leash out of webbing? Would that be bad? Yeah, that would probably be bad. Again: I hate kids. Wait. No, I don’t. I love kids. I just dislike them right now. Geez, imagine if the Daily Bugle heard that. I can see the headlines now: ‘Spider-Man, Dangerous Vigilante, Preys on Queens’ Children.’ Or ‘Spider-Man: Child Eater!’
In a panic, the toddler grabbed Peter’s mask and yanked. Fortunately, the mask did not come off. Unfortunately, it did not come off because the toddler had managed to grab a fistful of Peter’s hair with the material. Peter yelped.
“OW! Come on, kid, I’m trying to help!” Peter pried the toddler’s hand off. “I’m a good guy! Ease off, Deadpool 2.0, you don’t need to scalp me! Please cooperate.”
The toddler began sniffling. “Quiero mamá.”
If Peter felt useless before he felt extra useless now. Peter fished through his pool of high school level Spanish knowledge and caught nothing but ‘sí, yo se.’ Very useful, he told himself. Definitely going to help with a panicking two-year-old.
“I know, buddy,” he said. “I’m trying to find your mom. I don’t want to keep you, believe me.”
The woman across the street started when he jumped over a car to cut down an alley.
“Excuse me!” Peter said, running out of the alley and onto the next busy market street. “Anyone lose a child? Anyone know someone who could help me return them to their parents? Hello? Police? Anyone?”
The toddler continued sniffling. A hiccup in their throat signaled that the sniffling was about to metamorphose into crying. Peter tried bouncing them in his arms the way he had bounced Ned’s cousin that one time at a picnic. (It didn’t work). The more clueless people he ran into the more his anxiety mounted.
The toddler started crying.
Great, Peter thought, shooting down another alley. I can’t wait to see this in The Daily Bugle too. ‘Spider-Man Abuses Child In Broad Daylight!’ ‘Nefarious Spider-Man Steals Toddler For Child-Eating Ring!’ Grow up an only child and suddenly everyone thinks you’re Spider-Pennywise.
When Peter entered the next street, he was in Brooklyn. Old apartment complexes were stacked to the heavens. Smog swirled around the factory in the distance. The sole patches of green were in grass blades that peaked between sidewalk cracks. Several fresh hopscotch squares stared up at Peter. If he didn’t have a crying toddler in his arms, he would have been tempted to try them out.
The toddler, sensing familiarity in whatever weird little magnetic field toddlers navigated with—or was that pigeons? Peter didn’t care anymore—doubled their squirming. Peter narrowly avoided getting his nose grabbed.
“Ow, kid, stop it! We’re going to become road pizza if you do this in the middle of a street! Do you think taxis stop for Spider-Man?”
The toddler’s wail indicated that no, they did not think so.
“Correct,” Peter said.
Peter went to cross the street when he heard a shout. A woman with long, curly black hair ran up the block towards him.
“Miles! Díos mio, there you are!”
Peter halted at mach speed and handed the toddler over. He was relieved to see them cease crying the instant they reached their mother’s arms. The woman cooed at her toddler another time before looking to Peter. Source of immense relief number two: she wasn’t angry.
“Thank you,” she said, “so much. He got lost in the commotion downtown and I couldn’t find him. I owe you, Spider-Man.”
“It’s no problem,” Peter said. “Really.”
“Rio Morales.” The woman stuck out her hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
Peter shook her hand in return.
“Spider-Man. The pleasure is mine.”
Now that he wasn’t being swung around buildings or carted down streets, Miles the toddler looked less scared. He observed Spider-Man with a look between suspicion and curiosity. One of Miles’ plump hands began rising. Please don’t point at me, Peter thought. Your mother looks like she could beat me to death with her purse. To quote the wise John Mulaney, ‘when babies point at me, I do not care for that shit at all.’
Miles pointed at him.
Crap, Peter thought.
“Bug,” Miles said, before gurgling out an incomprehensible stream of noises in toddler-ese.
“Yes, sweetheart,” Rio said, “that’s Spider-Man. The man who saved you. Say hi.”
Miles did not say hi. Well played, baby, Peter thought. Er. Toddler. He shot a web onto the fifth story balcony next to them.
“I should go,” he said.
Rio nodded. “Goodbye, Spider-Man.”
Peter waved at her as he made his swing around the building. If a little hand waved back alongside hers, he wasn’t sure.
Probably not, Peter decided. Toddlers were jerks.
YOU: Ned, please come back to the group chat
YOU: Ned I’m dying
NED: You made your bed, now lie in it
YOU: Ned please this is murder
NED: I won’t come back until you stop being so embarrassing around her
YOU: You think i’m not trying??
NED sent a file: youhavedisappointedmeforthelasttime.png
YOU: ok ok
Nothing haunted Peter like a bad decision. Most of the time, it was stupid choices he made on a patrol that got civilians hurt. On certain anniversaries, it was Ben. Right now, at the tipping point between July and August, it was his conversation with Vision.
I didn’t mean to let this go so far, Peter thought. I didn’t think anyone would be concerned about me. But now someone was, and that was an issue.
The main reason for lying to everyone at the start was that Peter didn’t think the Avengers cared about him.
Not in a bad way. Just in a ‘busy squad of superstar heroes with more important business than looking after the underage little local guy’ way. Which they would have felt obligated to do, because duh, they were superheroes. They couldn’t let someone public like Peter go without making an example of him. Especially not after Civil War.
Peter considered his options as he sat in front of his bedroom window, arms folded on the windowsill and his chin resting on his arms. He welcomed the sensation of an oncoming storm. The hairs on the back of his arms rose, sensing the electricity in the air. Peter closed his eyes.
Was the situation different now? Sure. But at the beginning, the Avengers had no reason to worry about Peter putting himself in danger other than him being a minor. They had no personal ties with him; it would have been an impersonal grounding with impersonal enforcement. Peter could not stand that. This was not their call to make, even if they believed it was the right one.
He scratched a finger against his broken window screen.
During the past three years Peter had expected the Avengers to call him out for one of his many slips. But no one had. As it turned out, the Avengers—Earth’s Mightiest Heroes—had a lot on their mind, all the time. None of them bothered to sleuth out the background of Spider-Man other than the main important parts.
With senior year on the horizon, Peter didn’t think the Avengers would care about his real age that much. He maintained the lie because he had planted it and it needed watering. Part of him was ready to reveal the truth the instant he turned eighteen. Another part of him screamed at that idea.
Here’s the real truth, Peter thought. Thor is a space god who started training at my age or younger. So did Natasha and Clint. Steve enlisted out of high school. Wanda is barely older than me. Rhodey probably doesn’t care about my age as long as I’m competent. Who knows what Sam, Tony, and Bruce think.
Peter finished poking a hole in his window screen.
The problem is that I lied to them. The Avengers don’t like being lied to. And the problem is that Vision probably cares about me lying to him, a lot, and in different ways than everyone else cares about me lying to them. Except maybe Wanda. She’ll be mad at me too. But I can wait to tell Wanda. If I don’t tell Vision now, our trust is toast, which means that in the future, the rest of the team’s trust for me might be toast too.
Which came back to the main issue Peter had been avoiding: even if didn’t tell everyone else, he needed to tell Vision.
He smelled the burning ozone and hoped it wasn’t a sign of events to come.
YOU: I’m about to do something stupid
MJ: You’ve been doing something stupid the past three years. Just tell them, you idiot.
NED: MJ… might be right
MJ: Of course I am.
MJ: Youre at least going to tell Vision w/o chickening out, right?
YOU: That’s the plan
NED: I need a wikihow article covering what to do if your best friend gets vaporized by an upset android
YOU: Thanks Ned
“What was it you wanted to discuss, Peter?”
Vision floated through his bedroom door, feet barely brushing the ground. Syrupy vinyl music continued playing from the next room.
“...Funkadelic?” Peter said.
“Yes,” Vision said. “Wanda recommended it to me. Is there an emergency? Tony said you wished to speak to me in private.”
“Something like that,” Peter said, already trying to catch his breath. “But it doesn’t involve vaporizing stuff. At least, I hope not. Can we talk? Maybe with surveillance off?”
“Without a doubt,” Vision said. “One moment.”
Vision phased back through his bedroom door. To Peter’s horror, the music ceased. There was no buffer between them and the silence. With a soft flicker of common room lights, Vision reemerged into his and Wanda’s lounge. Not a soul was to be found aside from him and Peter.
“Wanda is out on a mission with Natasha,” Vision said. “She will not be back for several days. Otherwise, I would invite you into the room. I have asked F.R.I.D.A.Y to temporarily disable the surveillance in the lounge. We are free to talk.”
“Good,” Peter said. “Great.”
He did not feel like any of those things. Vision was watching him. How was he supposed to start this? All the pre-rehearsed points he went over with Ned and MJ disappeared. Peter floundered until he harkened back to the conversation in July. He sat in a chair. His back itched with anxiety.
“Take a seat,” he said. “Or a float. Or something.”
Vision levitated to the chair next to Peter, neatly depositing himself in it. Peter removed his grip from the lounge chair before he broke it.
“Hey, Vision,” Peter said, “do you mind if I confide in you?”
Vision blinked. “Of course. We are friends.”
Peter took the fall.
It was hard to stop when he got started. Peter ended up not stopping at all. It was a one-way ride. He talked through everything: Ben, Spider-Man’s birth, when he started lying, when he told May, when he continued to lying to the Avengers, why he continued lying to them, the fact he wouldn’t tell the others the truth for a while longer; his feelings during the July conversation.
Peter gutted himself. Vision remained silent and listened. Now and then, he asked some logistical questions. Peter answered them.
At the end it was Peter, Vision, and the void.
“So you would prefer for me not to tell the others yet,” Vision said.
“Yes,” Peter said.
“But you will tell them, supposedly. After you turn eighteen,” Vision said.
Vision steepled his fingers together. He stared at the strip of light beneath his door as though it were a way out. His shoulders quivered, once. Peter’s nerves tied themselves into knots.
“You lied to me,” Vision said. “Even when I was honest with you.”
“I did,” Peter said.
Vision’s gaze turned to him. Its scrutiny seared a hole in Peter’s chest. So did the not-insubstantial hurt Peter detected.
“You took advantage of my openness,” Vision said. “I trusted you. You had an opportunity to tell me this then , to make that trust truly reciprocated. You chose not to.”
Peter almost came out of his chair. “I was going to, Vision! I wanted to tell you, and I was about to. But—”
“But you didn’t.” Vision raised a hand, silencing Peter. “It does not matter what you planned on doing, Peter Parker. You did not do it. There is an abyss between the deeds men do and would like to.”
The unsaid ‘I’m sure you are familiar with it’ hung between them heavier than any Chitauri ship. Peter ached, but keeping with his better judgement, he stayed quiet. Vision’s gaze refocused on the floor. Again, he looked melancholy, and Peter hated himself.
When Vision spoke it was with a firm calmness his posture did not have.
“If you were not a proven ally of ours, this would end here. I would inform the Avengers. We work in a world with many dangers and few second chances. Their safety is tantamount. It is only the fact that you have saved all of lives at one point or another—while risking your own, oftentimes stupidly—that keeps you here. Not our friendship. It is proof that you mean what you do.”
“Seeing that your age has not interfered with your work for the past few years,” Vision said, “I will not tell the others. It is not my business to determine what you keep secret from us when it relates to your personal life. I do this with the expectation that you will tell the rest on your own. If you do not, and you wish to cause more problems for yourself in the future, then so be it.”
“Thank you, Vision,” Peter said. “I owe you, more than you’ll ever know.”
“Yes?” Peter said.
“Please do not speak to me outside of missions for the next several weeks,” Vision said. “I would like to consider this new information by myself. If you agree not to mention this to Wanda, neither will I. ”
Peter wasn’t surprised. It hurt anyway.
“Okay,” he said.
“Is that a promise,” Vision said, “or I will I also regret this agreement? I trust you in a professional capacity. I am not sure that I trust you in any other.”
The previous sting was nothing compared to the salt rubbing in Peter’s wound now. His face and eyes burned. Still, Peter swallowed his pride. I did this, he thought. I need to deal with it.
The next breath was shallow, drawn between teeth. Vision waited. Peter’s fingers flexed, desperately searching for stable something to hold to; something, anything. But there was only broken trust, which nothing could cling to.
“This is a promise,” Peter said. “A real promise. I won’t fail you. You won’t regret trusting me again, Vision.”
“I would hope not,” Vision said quietly. He rose upwards, levitating out of his chair. “Goodbye, Peter. I will see you next mission.”
Vision phased through the wall into his bedroom. The music turned back on.
Well, Peter thought, wrecking a friendship to ‘Can You Get To That’ was a new experience.
The nightmares about the Vulture and being too late to stop a mugging got worse, sliding Peter into a hell dimension of uneven surfaces, saturated colors, and failures every time he slept. It was definite proof of what he, Ned, and MJ already suspected: graduation dread was real.
It didn’t get better. Peter found an infinite amount of questions staring him in the face. The future was a sea, and he could do nothing but stuff his hands in his threadbare pockets and gaze at its expanse.
Senior year was coming.
The first birthday celebration was a small dinner with Aunt May, Ned, and MJ, but the second one was in a Queens cafe with Wanda. New York sweltered in the summer. People shuffled in and out of the tiny cafe, carrying their iced drinks as they went. The kaleidoscope of colorful posters on the wall looked ready to peel off. Outside, the chattering on the streets never ended. It was two weeks before school started, so no one wanted to waste time.
Peter wasn’t sure how Wanda had managed to slip in undetected. The paparazzi were ruthless. Then again, he thought, how many people would expect to see Scarlet Witch in some hole in Queens? The two drank their strawberry lemonades, enjoyed the bit of freedom they had.
Wanda poked at the condensation on the glass. “This is… an unusual way to celebrate a 21st. I know Pietro would have partied like the world was ending.”
“I’m heading out for that later. You know me,” Peter said. “Party animal deluxe. Good old ‘10,000 party points’ Peter.”
Wanda laughed. “I don’t understand half the things that come out of your mouth.”
“That’s another one of my superpowers.”
The calendar on the wall next to them slumped, its AUGUST 15th page ready to peel off. Peter wasn’t sure how he felt about being eighteen. The end of high school loomed. So did college applications and his promise to tell the truth. Where could he go from here? The busy street outside, in combination with his super senses, turned into a boiling pool of noise. Peter tried to tune it out.
“Thank you for this.” Wanda twirled the straw in her cup with her powers. Red sparks glittered at its top. “I’m enjoying it. Pietro would have enjoyed it too.”
“Any time,” Peter said.
One day, Steve will watch The Dead Poets Society and feel foolish. Not today though.
It was hard to believe it was senior year. Too hard. Every now and then, Peter caught himself dizzily wandering through the school hallway, summer zephyrs from the open door brushing his face. Senior year felt like another world. This could not be real. When he was tired, and the phone buzzed with a text from Aunt May, preemptive wariness shot up Peter's spine. He sometimes forgot that she knew.
Months later, and the night he had told May that he was Spider-Man stayed one of the most stressful ones of his life. It fell right on the scale next to learning who Liz’s father was. Peter sat on rooftops sometimes, playing it over and over in his head. He winced at the splutters in his mind and marveled at May's responses. It made Peter wonder about himself. If he was a normal person, how would he have taken his nephew telling him about being a mutant superhero? If he was a normal teenager, would he and May just be focused on paying the rent and graduation instead of stressing over Peter getting home alive every night? Would he not be lying to most of the Avengers for the third year in the row about who he really was?
Maybe, Peter told himself. It was too late to know now. The roulette of life had given him this one. He tried not to focus on what could have been. He did that enough already. But whatever his other life would have looked like, Peter knew this: he was stressed, tired, stretched thin, and Spider-Man. Even if he was a mess, he had May. He helped people. Half the time, he was proud of himself.
Peter thought about his conversation with Vision. Guilt made him roll over in bed.
Correction: half the time, he was almost proud of himself.
There were few upsides to getting thrown around by Mysterio, but weaseling out of prom planning was one of them. Peter made it back to his backpack smelling of melted web fluid. When he checked his cellphone, he found 9 new messages.
Dude if ur not doing spidey stuff u should answer, Ned’s text said. MJ is full of so much hate abt the prom planning. It’s hilarious. I think she texted u to rant.
True to form, six of the texts were from MJ. The first started with prom is heteronormative BULLSHIT. Peter knew the remaining five would be a ride. One text was from May, checking in. Peter answered it first. Since he had told her he was Spider-Man, she brimmed over with new and old anxieties alike. Peter felt endlessly grateful for her support—what was the average percentage of homeless teenage mutants? Something like 40%, 45%? He was so lucky—but part of him wished May didn’t have to bear so much stress. She didn’t deserve this.
Peter shook off his gloominess. It was the beginning of his last year. He needed some motivation. The last text on his phone was from Tony. Dinner at the tower, it said. 6:30 PM. Pepper will be there. Don’t dress like a college student.
Peter snorted. “What an ass,” he muttered. Tony was a lot to handle, but for the most part, he had grown on Peter. Everyone had.
It didn’t long to swing back to his house, grab nicer clothes, and swing back to Stark Tower. Even if it was officially no longer Stark property, Tony could not resist purchasing a restaurant across from it. If Peter didn’t know better he would suggest Tony was nostalgic. Both Pepper and Tony were already seated at a table in the back. Appetizers and glasses of red wine sat before them.
“Hello, Peter,” Pepper said. “How are you?”
“Good,” Peter said, sliding into a seat and snagging a breadstick from Tony’s appetizer plate.
“Sorry for not waiting up for you to order,” Tony said. “I was starving. It’s been a long day.”
He had the bags under his eyes that implied it had been a long night, too. Probably one full of memories of elsewhere. Peter choked back an unwise comment with another breadstick.
“It’s all good,” Peter said.
Tony lifted a breadstick but didn't eat it. "Anyway, we won't keep you for too long. After we squeezed all we could out of Thor, Bruce and I started developing some Infinity Stone containment equipment. He wanted your feedback on the formulas and the tensile web strength for some of the wall components. He couldn't make it, obviously, but I would rather we spoke about this in person than over text."
"Gotcha," Peter said. "I should be over on Wednesday to help."
"Great," Tony said. He shook the breadstick at Peter before dropping it on his plate untouched. “Hold on, is that your work uniform?”
“I’m not drowning in income. After I lost my last job, I’ve had to hunker down. Some of us aren’t billionaires, Tony.”
“You have a Stark internship.”
“A fake one,” Peter pointed out. “Which doesn’t actually pay me. It’s a cover for whole ‘swinging around in a glorified onesie and shooting webs at super villains’ side gig.”
“That could change,” Pepper said.
“Maybe,” Peter said.
Tony sighed. “Keep trying, Pep. We’ll get him one day. I’d personally love to see a patent for that web fluid design, but that’s up to you, Pete.”
When in doubt, eat more breadsticks. Peter stole three more and crammed them into his mouth. He was not about to tell Tony that the only factor turning him away from a cushy internship was that this meant turning over his ID. The fact he had avoided telling the Avengers his last name or where he lived in Queens for three years now astonished him. Peter had a sinking feeling that a few of them might have known nonetheless. But no one had said anything. The gig wasn’t up yet.
“Jesus, kid,” Tony said. “We’re ordering a main course. The tab is on me. You don’t have to scarf everything down now.”
“Let him live, Tony,” Pepper said, amused, at the same instant Peter said “I’m not a kid.”
“You turned 21 a few months ago,” Tony said. “You’re a kid. I would ask F.R.I.D.A.Y how long ago my 21st was, but I don’t want to know the answer. How’s the graduation lining up?”
“Good,” Peter said. “It’s happening next May.”
“Congratulations. So you’re finishing in four years,” Tony said. “Good man. I definitely didn’t. Pepper, the true hero among us, did the same. How did you manage that again, Pep?”
“Not wasting my father’s money on lucrative parties meant to impress girls,” Pepper said. “Twenty credit semesters. Studying.”
“Touché,” Tony said. Pepper offered him a grin, reaching her ring-adorned hand across the table and slipping it into his. Tony grabbed a wine glass with his free hand. “At any rate, let’s offer a toast to Mr. Peter Overachiever Underoos, for a bright future.”
“I don’t drink, remember?” Peter said.
“Spidey, you’re in college,” Tony said. “You drink.”
Peter tried to avoid the spare wine glass being shoved at him. Pepper tutted. “Tony, set a good example,” she said.
Peter attempted his most winning smile as he pushed the wine glass away.
“Really, Tony. I don’t drink. Not that often. I try to be responsible.”
Pepper smiled back at him. Peter’s heart fluttered. People could say what they wanted about the Starks, and his awkwardness, but Pepper Potts remained one of the prettiest women he’d ever seen. MJ would agree, he thought.
“Maybe you should take some advice from Peter,” Pepper said. “It might do you good.”
Tony mumbled something acidic into his glass.
YOU: betty is going to be surprised when she realizes u were right about her flower arrangements looking like hot garbage
MJ: I told her, but she didn’t believe me. Just bc I hate prom doesn’t mean Im not good at arranging it. Ned’s gf is a square.
YOU: Hey, MJ. I know u think prom is heteronormative bullshit but
MJ: But what
YOU: Do u want to go w/ me? I would like to attend one prom before graduating w/o super villains or giant lizards crashing it. If u want to stick it to the man by not going i get it
MJ: To survive in a capitalistic society you must participate.
YOU: is that a yes?
MJ: It is, you nerd. Ive been waiting for you to ask. Pick me up at 6. I’ve got the flowers covered
YOU: ...how much does ned owe u
MJ: 15 bucks.
The part about not drinking was mostly true. Peter Parker had tasted alcohol. He was in high school, for crying out loud. He was graduating in half a year. Even if he didn’t get invited to any of the popular parties where alcohol flowed like milk and honey, Peter had seized a few opportunities to sample it. Aunt May needed him to be responsible. But Peter wanted to experience rites of passage like anyone else. He had pushed through the guilt to seize his moment.
Those times were not worth it. Peter didn’t like liquor. The taste of beer was awful, and after watching several classmates vomit their guts out into an alleyway, Peter felt no compulsion to experience drunkenness.
He had no interest in other illicit substances, either. The one time Peter had smoked weed was at Flash’s house. No one had planned on it. It was supposed to be a study group for Honors Algebra, and then it just… happened. By the time Flash’s friend was rolling the joint, both she and Flash were observing Peter with disdainful suspicion. Peter, desperate to gain social cred—some friends, any friends—had gone with it.
What followed was a miserable fifteen minutes of hotboxing in Flash’s bathroom. They were pressed knee-to-knee on his mother’s shaggy pink carpet, and the sploof was an ugly contraption made of dryer sheets and a dented toilet paper roll. Peter had taken one pull of the joint and nearly coughed his lungs out. After the fourth one, he was reduced to having a panic attack in the living room while Flash and his pal giggled. Their obliviousness came to end when Peter began crying and needed to be taken home.
I don’t think the girl stayed after I left, either, Peter thought. Nothing ruins the mood like the third wheel crying about missing his uncle.
That was during the summer before freshman year. Uncle Ben’s loss had been fresh. Flash had not spoken to him since, aside from when he went in for the bullying. Peter found that he didn’t care too much. Drugs had been a sub par enough time before the spider bite. Now that he had super strength and super senses that enhanced every taste, touch, and sound? No thanks. Getting high or drunk sounded like a recipe for disaster. Peter could wear a DARE shirt with almost zero irony.
So much for the debauchery Stark expected, Peter thought. The most exciting activity he did outside school and being Spider-Man was binging Samurai Champloo and building giant Star Wars Lego sets. As he looked at the news coverage of another super villain attack on New York, with a tired Falcon forced front and center to answer the press, Peter found that he didn’t mind the more boring parts of his life.
"On your left!"
Vision turned as Peter shot a stream of web into Doc Ock's face. The mechanical claw about to snap shut on Vision's wrist missed, clacking and waving around him. Vision zapped it out of the air. Peter's relief lasted the few seconds it took for another arm to grab him around the waist and slam him into the ground.
He hit pavement once, twice, three times; the world spun and his ribs screamed beneath the pressure. His battered cheek and hands glowed with pain.
"That's enough from you, Spider-Man!" Doc Ock said.
The pressure around Peter's chest loosened as he went flying towards the nearest skyscraper. Peter did not think so much he have a visceral feeling of 'this will hurt.'
He collided with a hard android's chest before he could hit the third story window.
"Spider-Man! Are you alright?" Vision said.
Peter came to with blood in his mouth. Shouts and sounds of flying metal filled the street as Wanda threw a truck at Doc Ock. Peter shakily reoriented himself as Vision sat him down. There was screaming in another street. Why did they think Vision, Wanda, and I would make a clean team?
"Yeah," Peter said. "I'm okay."
Vision gave him a look of concern before pulling back.
"Good," he said. "Let me know if you are not."
The two nodded at each other before rejoining the fray. Despite the bruise growing on his face, and the taste of copper pulp on his tongue, a kernel of warmth sat in Peter's chest. He shot two webs at one of Doc Ock's arms and yanked him backwards into a stop sign before Wanda smashed the second truck into him. A squeaky, hurt laugh emerged from Peter. Vision granted Peter an awkward grin.
This isn't fixed, Peter thought. But it's something.
Some days it didn’t get better. He avoided the Avengers then. He didn’t want to answer questions. Those days, the pitted scar on Peter’s collarbone felt raw. He felt a stray metal support stab into his skin again. He heard the whir of mechanical wings and felt pressure on his chest. He smelled goblin nerve gas. On the worst ones, he saw Uncle Ben again.
Today was a medium bad. Peter changed into sweats and a hoody before slinking onto the subway. Ned wasn’t home. He was interviewing for a scholarship. By a stroke of luck, MJ’s three organizations she ran and Honors Society had cut her a break this Thursday. Peter found himself crashing on her couch with a cheap bucket of popcorn as rain grayed the sky outside.
“Full offense, Peter,” MJ said, “but you need therapy.”
“I don’t have time for it.” Peter raised his hands in surrender, shrinking back from MJ’s glare. “Okay, I don’t have money for it. I’ll go once I attend college and have access to free sessions.”
“I thought so,” MJ said.
A clump of popcorn stuck to the side of the bowl. Peter poked it off. He listened to rain hiss down the window. New York lay shrouded in clingy mist.
“Ned is definitely getting that scholarship,” he said.
“Of course he is,” MJ said. “We’ll have to team up to tell him I told you so when he gets back.”
“He’ll be at home at MIT,” Peter said. “I’m happy for him.”
MJ leaned forward. “Wait, did they tell him if he got in already?”
“No,” Peter said, “but they’d be stupid not to take him.”
MJ collapsed back against the couch, her hair spilling up the cushion behind her. “Good,” she said. “I was about to chew him out for not telling me.”
Peter’s brain was fuzzy. The thought of attending college was a far away concept, one muffled by another screen of static in his mind. His college applications blurred together. He thought of Liz Allan trying to apply to university while her father was in prison. That had happened at the end of his freshman year. It had been junior year for her. How long ago that was.
Ben had always wanted him to go to college. He probably had not wanted Peter to complicate someone else’s shot at it.
“You’re still taking a year-long break to intern with Justice International, right?” Peter said.
“Absolutely,” MJ said.
Peter sunk deeper into his hoody. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve sent applications to everywhere but I’m not sure where I want to go to college. Or if I want to.”
“Hey, idiot,” MJ said. “Can I tell you a secret?”
“No one ever knows what they’re doing. Even if we pretend we do. I don’t know where you’ll be happiest after school, or what you want to do. But I think that if you’re planning to drop college because you want a career being a vigilante in tights, that’s kinda dumb. You have a lot of potential in careers besides ass-kicking. Doing that would be unfair to Peter Parker. He’s as important as Spider-Man is. But whatever you do, no matter how stupid, Ned and I have got your back. Always.”
Peter peaked out of his hood in astonishment. “Did you just give me a motivational speech?”
“It was my one for the year.” MJ stole another piece of popcorn. “Don’t get used to it. I’m being nice to you today, spider boy.”
“Thanks, MJ.” Peter had difficulty speaking. “Really.”
MJ shrugged, leaning against his shoulder. “No problem.”
Peter pecked her on the cheek.
Though studying for his final takes of the ACT and SAT was difficult, Peter still dug up the time to visit the others. He couldn’t fly through flash cards 24/7. Nothing cleared his mind like tinkering in the lab or convincing Thor not to spike a volleyball through a fifteenth story window.
As he fiddled with a sample of web fluid beneath a microscope, he heard Bruce’s footsteps behind him. His shirt was untucked and his pants disheveled, per always. Sometimes MJ teased Peter for being a walking mess that didn’t own a single hair comb. Peter felt like MJ hadn’t seen the half of it. Tony or Bruce always looked worse (at least, that’s what he told himself).
“How’s the coffee?” Peter said.
“Awful.” Bruce set his empty cup down. “If you don’t tell Tony I’m breaking lab safety rules by having this in here, I won’t.”
Peter shoved up his goggles, successfully ruining what tidiness his hair possessed. “How’s the big guy?”
Bruce granted him a tired smile. “Still kicking.”
“Tell him I said hello. He almost high-fived me last time.”
“That was a landmark for him.” Peter listened to Bruce root around in a lab drawer. “Tony almost looked jealous.”
“No, he totally was. I’ll make Hulk my best friend before the end of the decade,” Peter said. “You’ll see. No more Iron Man and Big Green sleepovers from here on out. Just Spidey and Hulk, throwing a party he’s not invited to.”
Bruce laughed, some of his strain evaporating. “You’re a good guy, Pete.”
“I try.” Peter refocused the microscope before pulling his goggles down again.
“You know,” Bruce said, softer, “if you need to talk about anything, we’re here for you. I get that we’re all messes. None of us exactly know what a healthy life looks like. But this is the closest to a support network we have. You’re welcome to use it.”
It took effort not to crush the new glass slide between his fingers.
“Thanks, Dr. Banner,” Peter said. “I appreciate it.”
“It’s Bruce,” Bruce said. “We’ve been over the ‘doctor’ part for a while.”
Peter remembered Bruce coming to talk at his school’s science convention last month, and how he had scrunched down and hid the entire time, full of shame.
“Right,” Peter said. “Thanks, Bruce.”
He got a contemplative hum in reply.
VISION: You left your homework in our lounge. I hid it for you.
PETER: !!! Thank you Vision. You didn't have to text me
VISION: No, I did not. I chose to.
PETER: OK. Thanks.
VISION: You are welcome.
VISION: What happened is not forgotten. But I wish for you to know that you are forgiven.
All activities performed alongside the Black Widow automatically felt five times more dangerous, no matter the situation. Which was why Peter felt on edge the entire time he was jumping around the park.
“Are you sure about this?” he hissed into his comline. “We don’t know where the scouts are.”
“We received confirmation from Hawkeye and Vision that they’ll be in the park within the next hour,” Natasha said, voice calm. Peter spotted her cat-eye sunglasses and thigh-length black coat two blocks away. “All we have to do is wait.”
“I hate weapons dealers,” Peter said. “Why can’t they do their business somewhere else? Like, not here? Isn’t trying to sell more Chitauri-salvaged tech in public a bad idea? Their boss got arrested three years back while being far more careful.”
“They’ve gotten lucky so far,” Nat said. “They evaded capture because they were far stupider than the Vulture. Our sources mistook their idiocy in constantly moving around as evasion prowess.”
Peter sighed. “Sounds about right.”
A pigeon fluttered onto the branch next to him. Peter waved a hand at it. It fluttered to the next branch, cooing. Its plump neck stretched out as its assessed Peter’s costume.
“Shoo, bird! I’m trying to work! Widow, how much longer do we have?”
“Updated ETA from Vision,” Nat said. “Two hours. Traffic delayed them.”
Two hours that could have been spent studying for finals or buying paletas with Aunt May before she went in for her doctor’s appointment. Peter couldn’t restrain his sound of dismay. His body was a tight spring coiled with stress.
“Everything good over there, Spider-Man?”
“Yeah,” Peter said. “It’s all good. Say, Widow—what was your post-high school experience? How did you figure stuff out? Asking for a friend.”
“I didn’t attend a traditional school,” Nat said. “I didn’t attend a tradition anything. I suppose you know that. But I would say the most important factor is to be aware of who you are and where you are. Learn how to land on your feet. The slips will be many, but you can quickly get up again, if you know how to handle it.”
“Learn how to recover. Got it.”
Peter waved away another flock of pigeons. They burst into the sky, their black-tipped tails spread behind them.
“Earlier, you meant post college experience,” Nat said. “Not high school. But I’m sure you know what you’re talking about.”
Peter’s heart stopped. He could no longer see Natasha. On the com line, he found nothing but silence. A child ran shrieking over the grass below. Then, the line crackled.
“You owe me,” Nat said. “Hawkeye was getting suspicious. So was Pepper.”
“Oh my god,” Peter said. “Yeah, I do. How long have you known?”
“We’re on a mission, Spider-Man,” Nat said. “Focus.”
“Right, right.” Peter refocused on the nearest street, head spinning. “Sorry.”
“But to answer your question: since near the beginning,” Nat said. “You don’t do a half bad impersonation of a twenty year old, for someone lacking a license or adam’s apple when you started it.”
Peter winched. “Ouch. Way to call me out.”
“That’s what you get for lying to me,” Nat said.
“You lied to the rest of the team after I did.”
“Maybe so,” Nat said. “But that’s a secret between us spiders.”
If Peter started bawling on a stake-out with Widow he would never forgive himself and he was fairly certain Widow would not forgive him either. A) They were superheroes, and this was a job B) it was not every day a professional spy assassin covered for someone’s goofs. For him! For him, dorky Peter Parker from Queens! If he wasn’t about to cry he would geek out. Peter sucked back his tears. When he knew he could speak, he did.
“I owe you,” he said.
“Everyone does,” Nat said.
All attempts at elegance flew out the window. “No, Nat, you don’t understand. If someone else had found out I would be off the team. I would be a vigilante again.”
A spike in noise at the end of the park prevented Peter from bumbling into his full speech of gratitude. A dog bolted by, chasing a frisbee. Natasha seized the opportunity to cut him off.
“Once again,” she said, “we’re on a mission. But I’ll be happy to accept all thanks in person afterwards. An invitation to your real graduation would suffice.”
“Of course,” Peter said.
“Naturally,” Natasha said, “you also owe me some explanations.”
That was less fun. Peter wished he could rake his fingers through his hair right now. “I figured,” he said.
Many comments were made about Natasha, especially as Black Widow, but the one Peter believed without question was her professionalism. It took less than a minute for them to segue back into silence. Traffic rumbled as it rolled around the park. Birds called overhead. Peter’s head stayed reeling.
He was grateful Natasha didn’t comment on his relieved mumbling to himself.
They didn’t blow up half of the park, so that was a victory. NYPD flooded the once tranquil park with sirens and flashing light. Any smoking craters received a taping off. Several smoldering beds of flowers threw the smell of burnt mulch into the afternoon. Peter stood back with Natasha, watching the three bruised and web-colored weapon dealers pile into the back of a police car.
“All’s well that ends well,” he said. “I’m surprised any of those goons didn’t blow their fingers off before this. It’s like no one taught them about bomb safety.”
“Surprisingly,” Natasha said.
The police sirens grew louder. Peter scratched the back of his head.
“So, uh,” he said, “should I get Clint an invite, too? In case he figures it out?”
“Just in case,” Natasha said. “Though if he doesn’t earn it, he doesn’t get to go.”
“He’s a resourceful man,” Natasha said. “He’ll adjust. ...I suppose you didn’t ever imagine an assassin would come to your graduation.”
“No,” Peter said. “But I expected some friends to come, so you’ll fit right in.”
A minor commotion arose in the cop car as one of the henchmen struggled to free himself. Natasha turned her head to observe him. Natasha’s pleased expression was rare, but for a fleeting moment, before her blonde hair blocked her face, Peter glimpsed it. Widow brushed her hair behind her shoulder as she strode towards the cop car.
“Let’s try to get this wrapped up soon,” she said, “shall we?”
Nightmares were awful. Panic attacks were awful. Scars that burned long after their healing were awful. Getting noticed by Bruce, Cap, Falcon, or Nat and receiving practical coping advice was… less awful. Peter found that he could roll with it easier than the years before. As he sat at his desk, waiting for his free period, Peter toyed with his pencil.
In freshman year, he had powers and no clue how to use them. He had a crush on Liz Allan the size of the moon and a dogged plan to do good no matter what. Now, in senior year, he was cooperating with the Avengers. He was going to graduate. He had survived hellfire, falling buildings, trauma, training, and a batch of physics exams, all while locally heroing.
Peter pressed his finger against a crack in the pencil. Tired pride flowed into him.
Not bad for a high schooler.
“Your college is in Queens?” Steve said.
“Where else would it be?” Peter said.
“Brooklyn is still the best.”
“Only in your dreams, Capsicle.”
The concept of an all-Avengers barbecue was bizarre, yet here they were. In a week, Thor was heading into space to search for the Infinity Stones. Tony had seen it fitting to give him a proper send off. Upstate New York’s forests surrounded them. Peter had never seen so much wilderness. Laughter came from the pool table. Tony, Bruce, and Nat continued their match of Russian Pyramid. Tony was mid-swear about a move Natasha had pulled, while Bruce looked more amused and tan than Peter had ever seen him.
Steve and Peter lingered at the back of the party. They both watched Falcon shoo Thor away from the barbecue grill for the umpteenth time, his KISS THE COOK apron smeared with charcoal. Wanda sat high in a tree with a smoothie, practicing guitar chords. Vision and Clint were investigating the skeet shooter on the hill nearby. Peter highly doubted that they were up to anything good.
“Congratulations on finishing college soon,” Steve said. “I’m sure you’re sick of hearing that, but it’s obligatory.”
“Thanks,” Peter said. He tried not to ogle Steve’s American flag swimming trunks and Freedom tank top. This is too much, he thought. Ned would freak.
“How would you feel about us attending your graduation? At least two of us,” Steve said. “Nat or Clint, really, depending on if they can get work off. I'll come if I can. It’s not every day an honorary Avenger has a positive landmark in their life.”
That was true. Peter could not say he recalled good news in recent history for any of the Avengers, unless one counted ‘not currently being attacked’ as good. Why is being a superhero so miserable? Peter thought. This job needs better hours and more perks. These guys deserve it. He trusted them. The Avengers were his trusted colleagues and friends in a world that offered few of either to anyone. That meant more than anything else to him.
The hesitation that had been building in Peter over the past year disintegrated. He looked around at the group surrounding him. Laughter, blue skies, and the smell of roasting meat completed a picture-perfect image. Peter wanted to grab the moment and hold it close to him forever. Even if Civil War II came, this had happened. Nothing could erase that. Peter thought of May, healed from her hip surgery and gardening in window boxes, MJ and Ned standing in their robes for rehearsal, his packet of college acceptance letters and scholarships, and Ben, proud of him until the moment he was gone. The future beckoned.
He was an honorary Avenger. Steve had said it himself. What could they possibly do now? Feelings would be hurt, yes, and trust damaged, but those could heal. They would have to. Peter had already experienced a trial run of the process with Vision. They were talking again, even if they weren't best friends. That was a good sign. He owed everyone the truth, anyway. Peter couldn’t lie forever. He didn’t want to.
“I’d love for you to come,” Peter said. “If you can. Though, yeah, maybe be lower key. It won’t be that crazy.”
“Gotcha,” Steve said. He pulled out his phone. “What did you say your school’s name was, again?”
“Midtown Science and Technology,” Peter said. “The high school.”
He heard Tony spit out his drink. Steve did not look like he had registered the statement. Nat sank a pool ball in a hole while Tony and Bruce were distracted. Falcon looked tired more tired than anything. Wanda's guitar strumming stopped. Thor kept hold of the steak he had stolen, ready to view the upcoming drama with a snack.
Peter's savior sprung from an unlikely source. Confused murmurs came from around the skeet shooter. Seconds later, Clint's shout echoed in the distance, cutting through every inch of tension.
“I knew it!”
For better or worse, the original fic was supposed to end here. (The original fic was supposed to be four chapters too, but c'est la vie). I know that is not satisfying to many of you. So, though it may take some time, and I make no promises, I will try to write an additional chapter. We'll see if life lets me. Once again, thank you to everyone who has commented on and critiqued this story. You are all the wind beneath my metaphorical wings. ❤︎
In the meantime, if any of you enjoy Bucky, Thor, questionably safe fishing trips, and more humorous angst, I have a oneshot written about the two of them: https://archiveofourown.org/works/13832628