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Peter is ten years old when he finally says something. 

He sits in the middle of a pile of Bionicle pieces that Ned had brought over to share (cogs and little plastic face plates, reminds him of Iron Man, man, he loves Iron Man). He likes Ned a lot, especially since they both know what it's like to not fit in: people make fun of Ned because he's a little bigger than the other kids, and people make fun of Peter because he's smaller than the other kids. And he only gets weirder with time, of course. But even if Peter chews his nails down to a painful nub, or plucks parts of his eyebrow, or grinds his teeth when he sleeps, or wears jackets when it's muggy and hot outside, or has to change his sheets sometimes, Ned doesn't really care. 

Ned's just Ned, and he's super cool with his LEGO sets and expensive superhero action figures. He doesn't need anything in return, in order to be friends. Peter's surprised by this, because he was under the assumption as of late that friendships required special favors; it helps settle his stomach, when the other boy spends the night and absolutely nothing happens. In the days that follow their new bond, they both help each other with their tiny state floats for history; Peter's got California for his project, and he builds a surfer with his surfboard out of nuts and bolts and tacky glue; Ned took Nevada, so he'd stolen dice from the Yahtzee board at his house and bam, Las Vegas, land of lots of money and lights. Peter can't imagine it being any cooler than Broadway, but it apparently is pretty hardcore.

"Hey, Peter? Earth to Peter," Ned waves a hand in front of his face, and Peter just sits straighter and smiles wide like he usually does when he's caught spacing off. Oh, right. Bionicle set. He snaps one toy arm socket into another, and it's satisfying; building things feels nice; it makes sense and accomplishes things. These are the activities he likes doing. He'd owe a million favors like this, if he could. He'd build all day long.

"Sorry. Just thinking." 

"Yeah, you do that. I'm gonna go make puppy eyes 'til your aunt gives us more snacks." 

Ned thinks Uncle Ben is kind of scary, since he can be real strict and serious sometimes, but Peter knows he's not all lectures or warnings. Aunt May always surrenders to the needs of the boys, though, even after a long day at work. So they sit with their completed figures and eat pizza bites (Peter loves pizza), and Peter's stomach is fluttering with the need to say something, anything. Because the bedroom door is closed. And he's not allowed to say anything to May or Ben, but nobody said anything about Ned — Ned, who gave him a Han Solo figure, free of charge. Ned, who shoved Peter's bully at school once at his boiling point and got in trouble. Ned, who had kept turning down all of Peter's fervent apologies... Good ol' Ned, who thinks Peter's really funny and really smart.

But even though he thinks Peter is smart, he doesn't make him do anything he doesn't want to do.

"Hey, Ned?"

"Mmph?"

"Did you ever get babysat?" He sits up, pushing his rounded glasses back up his nose with the edge of his palm. Sniffs, like it's not really a big deal. Like it's just casual conversation between friends, and not something that'll potentially ruin his whole friendship. "By, like... teenagers?"

Ned licks his fingers and wipes them on his pants. "My nana usually watches me, since she's super retired."

Peter's resolve dwindles, and he 'oh's, quiet and surrendered. Ned's perceptive, though. He's just as smart as Peter, even if he doesn't say it very much; he likes to bolster Peter's shrunken pool of confidence. "You have a babysitter, right? Steven? He seems cool. I mean, teenagers are supposed to be cool, I dunno."

"... He's cool..." Peter chews his fingernail. "He's, um, like. You know. He's cool."

Peter's stomach feels really bad. Maybe the pizza rolls were cursed by an ancient monk. He shouldn't have eaten so fast, but it doesn't account for how itchy his skin feels, or the way his toes curl in their socks. But he plays it cool like Steven Westcott, because he wants to be just as cool as him. "I don't know. Do you — Is it normal to, like, um..." He smooths his shirt down with his splayed hands. "Do you have friends who, who, who. Who... Do things? With you?" 

"Uuuh, yeah? Peter, friends do things with each other. Like how we're eating pizza rolls."

Ned throws his hands out, a grand gesture to the almost empty paper plates they came served on. Peter looks at them, at the finished Bionicle sets, at their half-done presentations for school... His stomach hurts worse, and he pulls his knees up a little more. "No, no, I know. I meant... I mean... He told me friends'll touch each other — like, you know. Touching — down there." His voice becomes a whisper, because if Aunt May or Uncle Ben heard him through the door, he'd never forgive himself.

"... Peter, what d'you mean?"

It's slow and uncertain, because as much as Ned knows something's really wrong, he's ten. He's not sure how to reply.

"Steven shows me... stuff. On his phone. Like, really dirty stuff."

"Oh." 

"He said friends do that with each other. They look at videos and stuff like that, and they — you know. They touch each other." And Peter's never really had a friend that close before, someone who seemed to take complete interest like Steven did. He complimented him. He did work with him and even did things Peter liked to do. He smiled a lot, even during times when Peter couldn't smile at all — even during times when it seemed like nobody should be smiling, because the wrongness of the situation was radiating through Peter like a deep burn. 

He doesn't much like Steven's smile anymore. 

Even if he can't grasp the concept yet, he knows, deep down, that it de-weaponizes his will to fight demands.

"Dude, that's bad. That's really bad. He, like, he touches you in those places?" Ned finally manages, though he sounds like he has stage fright, or has answered a call about some great nightmare come true. He can barely get the words out, but he finds the courage to turn toward Peter's curled, defensive form; he's a scrawny, defenseless kid who doesn't have an ounce of fat or muscle on him, and when Peter nods, Ned's frown deepens. Peter can see in him the same slow-burning outrage that Ned had felt when someone made fun of Peter's teeth being too big for his mouth, or the way his ears poke out a little too far. Ned says confidently, "That's bad, like, sick. And he's not supposed to do that. It's like in those videos they show you, to warn you about stranger danger—"

"Please don't tell May or Ben," Peter says abruptly, eyes wide behind the lenses. "Please, please, I don't want them to know."

Ned's eyes are just as wide as his, earnest in his concern. He doesn't smile the way Steven does when things are wrong. He looks just as scared as Peter does. "Peter, they said if anyone ever does that, you go straight to any adults. He's doing something really awful to you, dude."

"No!" His voice is still a whisper, but it's a struggle not to go above one while his whole body shakes with the lurching panic. He pleads, hands together, locked tight in a begging, praying gesture. "If they find out, they'll think my aunt and uncle are bad at taking care of me, and they'll send me away. Mom and dad are gone, and if I lose them, too, I - I'll..."

The air between them is frozen and nauseatingly thick, but eventually, Ned nods.

"Okay," he says at length, maybe because he doesn't want to lose Peter, either. That's a scary thought on top of even scarier thoughts, the kind that are impossible to fathom. "Okay, okay, um. Alright. I'll figure... something out. I'll think of something. I won't tell, though. I promise. We'll figure things out." 

The rest of the afternoon in each other's company is spent in tense silence, the bedroom door closed and Ned rubbing a few awkward circles into Peter's back, as Pete fights the pricking burn of tears. Ned says, over and over, "It's okay, I'm your friend. I'm not gonna leave you, okay? I'm your friend."

It makes Peter embarrassed, to have not known that this was what 'friend' actually meant, in layman's terms.




"Alright, Skip, there's 20 bucks on the counter if you boys get hungry," Ben says. 

A rich, friendly laugh. "C'mon, Mr. Parker, my grandpa calls me Skip."

"Pete, honey, are you alright?" May leans over the top of the couch to look down at the boy, who has a large textbook in his lap — one of those English/Reading ones that have the excerpts and short stories. He's been quiet since Steven got there. And Ned's been equally as quiet, at his side, subdued despite his pleading to hang out with Peter for the weekend. May presses her lips into Peter's unruly hair, and Peter closes his eyes, relishing the kindness from his aunt. 

She'd never know, because the bruises he collects are typical little boy bruises. Steven never bruises him. It's not like he forcefully does anything, because Peter only shrinks away — but never struggles, so it never actually hurts, never makes wounds. He can feel Ned watching him from the space next to him, unspoken, ugly secrets between the elementary schoolers.

"I'm okay, I'm just kinda feeling sick," Peter says.

"I'm gonna look after him! Don't worry, May," Ned speaks up.

"Should we pick up some Tylenol for you, before we go?" Ben asks, sliding a hand over Peter's forehead to check for a temperature. "No fever. Maybe a little clammy. Skip, you think you can keep an eye out, make sure he's not running anything later?" Peter shakes off his adoptive father's hand, wrinkling his nose; he's becoming a really good actor, or at least good enough that Uncle Ben considers it health defiance.

"I'm fine, Ben. Honest."

"Mm. Well. Try not to overdo it, anyway, kiddo."

He doesn't tell Peter to do his homework, because both of them know Peter always does it without prompting. Because Peter is a very good boy; Peter never causes trouble; Peter would never do anything to hurt them — and so he twiddles his fingers as they leave through the front door on their night out, the first one they've gotten to have in a long while. They both look happy to have it, and Peter keeps his mouth shut, like he always does. 

Steven Westcott is a senior in high school, and he'll be an adult in the summer. He's had a bunch of girlfriends, but he's always been good to them, he's told Peter. He had also described what he does for them in bed, and had promised to show him how to get girls when he's older, too, but if it's anything like what they've done before — then Peter never wants a girlfriend. Steven Westcott has a cool jacket and he's good at football. He kind of reminded Peter of someone who'd be behind a Power Ranger's mask, before. One of those actors, sharp jawline, a kindness that told you he'd keep you safe (a dirty trick).

Really big, and muscular, and impossible to fight back against. 

His heart is hammering in his chest, and when he glances at Ned from the corner of his eye, he looks... scared. This was a really bad idea, he thinks. This was a really big mistake, and he shouldn't have let Ned come here. But the two of them watch Cartoon Network, soaking in their dread, while Westcott talks to his girlfriend on the phone for an hour or two. Or three. It could have easily been ten hours, for all the focus Peter had on tracking time. 

Ned puts a hand on Peter's knee and leaves it there, a reminder of a promise.

As long as I'm hanging out, he can't do anything.

The conversation on the phone seems like it goes sour, at some point, and Steven's annoyed by the end of it, pinching the bridge of his nose when he wanders out from the back of the apartment, his phone pocketed in his tight blue jeans. 

It sets Peter on edge.

They order pizza, pineapples on top, Peter's favorite (Steven knows this well), and Steven asks questions about Ned's family, friends, schooling, favorite activities. Peter's thinking about all the terrible outcomes to this — he shouldn't have involved Ned. He should have turned Ned's plan down. And now he sits reliving those terrible afternoons and nights where May and Ben couldn't save him, just like he won't be able to save Ned. He can't protect him, he can't protect anything, he's not strong enough, and being smart hasn't stopped Steven from touching him—

Steven reaches over Peter's arms to hand Ned some napkins, and fruit punch ends up all over the front of Peter's shirt as the plastic Star Wars cup topples from his shaking hands. 

"Aw, geez, Einstein, chill out," the teenager says (threateningly? calmly? sympathetically? angrily? Peter can't tell). He stands Peter up from his stool the moment the opportunity presents itself and Peter just — just obeys, like a clay figure in class being propped back to standing. Ned looks between the two of them like he's not sure what to do, his hand weakly hovering at empty air. Steven's been waiting for this. Steven's good at taking advantage of a situation. "We'll be right back, Ned. Pete's gotta get out of these clothes and wash off."

He winks, tugging at Peter's hand, and suddenly the child is not himself anymore, leaving his conscienceness at the table, with the pizza and the Goosebumps books and Iron Man sketches, because he's scared to take all of himself into the bathroom, in case all of himself gets messed up there; he leaves the good parts of himself with Ned, all the parts that Ned said he thought made him awesome. 

If he doesn't let any of that into the bathroom, then none of it can be ruined—

But then there's a hand clasping his, tugging him back toward the kitchen. He squeezes it back instantly.

"That's not a good idea. He'll be embarrassed," Ned manages. "I'll help him."

Steven looks peeved now at the interruption, brow wrinkled, his fingers like burning ice where they're curled around Peter's much smaller wrist. "Okay, who's the babysitter here?" And there's something so sinister in that tone, that Peter isn't sure if he'll be able to keep dinner down.

"I said — no," Ned mumbles, weaker, unable to look into Steven's eyes. 

But his grip on Peter's hand is strong.

Especially when Peter looks desperately at Ned, behind glasses that seem too big for his face.

"Leave him alone," Ned whispers, almost inaudible now behind the drone of the refrigerator and the hum of the ceiling lights. They stand in a dangerous stance of tug-of-war for a never-ending moment with their breaths held, Peter's heart nearly jacksawing through his ribcage. He can't stop trembling, and Steven sees it. He sees how the pieces are falling into place, how Ned looks at him in steadfast caution, how Peter looks at his babysitter like he's going to eat him alive— 

He sees that his little game is over.

And he runs.

He wordlessly grabs his nice, new backpack and goes right out the front door in a mad escape from the nothing that chases him, cold sweat on his brow. Ned rushes to cling to Peter and bursts into tears the moment he does. And Peter — Peter rubs circles into Ned's back, staring at the door that slowly begins to creak back shut, eyes dry and listless. Fruit punch is staining Ned's shirt now, too, but neither of them can move away from each other.

Peter says, "It's okay."

It's okay, because when the Parkers come home to the two children, alone, there's at least no Steven (and really, it's the best case scenario, isn't it?). It's okay because Peter finally confesses that he'd been bad and got Ned involved when he shouldn't have been; they promise he's not going anywhere, and he hasn't done anything wrong (are they sure about that?). He has to sit with people who are qualified for this, because May can't talk about it without breaking down into tears, and Ben gets so angry he can't even think straight (and so he just cries, too, because he can't do anything with his anger), but it's okay

He feels like he is a friend-ruiner, but Ned hasn't stopped holding his hand, like he's scared that Steven will come back the moment their fingers separate. His parents come and get him, and his hand is too hot and sweaty by the time he gets it back.

Peter tells him later on, after the therapy and apologies, "It's okay if you don't wanna be my friend." 

"Dude," is what Ned leads with, clasping Peter's skinny shoulder in his hand as they sit in each other's safe company. "No way."

Peter still wets the bed until he's almost thirteen, but that is a secret Ned can really keep for him.

Years later, the two of them walk through a bustling high school after one terribly botched home-coming. Peter's chest and collarbone are littered with cuts and bruises from large metal talons, after a night of fire, of scraping metal and a crashed airplane carrying priceless crates. It's yet another secret to hide under his hand-me-down collared shirt and cheap gray sweater, but this time, it's something he can actually live with. His footfalls feel light; he can see without his glasses; he's all muscle; he's stolen Cap's shield and has fought next to Iron Man. 

He also fought as Peter Parker, just Peter Parker — and he won.
 
And when Peter tells Ned that his best friend had saved him, he knows it's not the first time.

Chapter Text

Peter has a nightmare about Westcott, which — despite what people would think to the contrary — is not at all a common affair anymore. The bad dreams had sort of tapered off with time, effort, and a hell of a lot of therapy (once a week, every other Wednesday, at one hour a day, back when May and Ben had made enough money to skate by on the insurance costs; how're you, Peter; are you happy with your diet?; what involvement do you have with the other kids, Peter?). Therapy had cut into crafting time with Ned; ergo, he barely tolerated it. 

But it was good that he did.

Thing is, the brain never runs on one's own schedule, you know? He had a bomb-ass day: he got his favorite Chinese dish with May for his 16th birthday, Mr. Stark texted him on another year well lived (and an upgrade to his web shooting distance, which he swore was strictly business), and Ned bought him a new pair of Nikes after he lost one of his old shoes in a dumpster mid-transformation. 

He also got an A on his extra credit paper about thermodynamics. 

A lot of people probably expect the nightmares of a once terribly traumatized kid to be perfectly sculpted windows to their mental strife, not smorgasbords of utter nonsense with memories spliced in, like how they actually end up. Because yeah, there's the feeling of heavy hands on him from time to time, or the glint of too-perfect teeth, and all kinds of ugly sensations he's evaded like the plague since he was ten years old. Then there's that inability to distinguish fact from fiction, the outlandish from the normal, because he swears he's trapped in his room with Steven blocking the doorway, cutting off all paths to freedom.

But mid-assault Skip's wearing Spider-Man-themed underwear when he peels off those stupidly tight jeans, and Peter ends up so infuriated by him being a fan, he spends the rest of his nightmare screaming noiselessly while May tells him to calm down, she'll just order pizza, it's really no big deal — "Ned, do you want pizza, or chinese?" And Steven crawls up the side of his bed like he's some kind of predator (he is) — "May, what are you talking about?! May, look at him, look at what he's trying to do, that's NOT Ned!" — Peter lays there in his bed (he's dreaming), doesn't remember how he ended up laying down, but he's there and Steven looks down at him, stops trying to touch him, and says — 

"Oh, that's fucking gross" —

And then Peter wakes up like he's been hit by a surge of electricity, fingers like claws over his chest and breath punched out of him by an unseen force... and then he groans meekly at the warm, wet patch around his boxers. Cool. Alright. He scrubs at his face and looks sideways; there's no Steven Westcott, just an alarm clock that says he's not getting up for another five hours. He hasn't dreamed about Steven in at least a year, and he hasn't pissed the bed in just as long, which was a record unbeaten. 

What would Tony Stark think, if he knew the person he had offered the role of an Avenger to wet the bed at age sixteen?

The sweat doesn't get a chance to cool in the furrow of his collarbone before he's up and shimmying off his underwear and old gym shorts off to put on a fresh pair of pajama bottoms, balling everything up into the soiled sheets so that he can just drag it all to the washer and dryer; maybe if he's quiet enough, he thinks, he can avoid waking May up. Last thing he wants is to inconvenience her sleeping schedule in the middle of an already too-hot New York night, all over something that's really not a big deal. Yes, his jaw hurts from the grinding session, and yes, he feels like he'll never get back to sleep ever again in his entire life, but it's no big deal.

Recovery's not always just ending up in a fetal position in a shower stall and letting boiling water spray on your skin until it's pink and clean. Sometimes it's just sighing like you're doing basic chores (like laundry, it's always laundry, Spider-Man shouldn't be wetting the bed, he stopped a dude from crashing a plane into an amusement park, this is shameful and stupid and he should be over it, but here he is, carting away a bundle of dirty bed covers in the dead of night—), and here you are, knowing full-well you're gonna be up for hours now anyway, so you might as well make yourself some coffee and watch Adult Swim or stupid infomercial ads in the living room...

Same amount of shame, but at least it saves on the water bill. No sad-crying in the shower. He might've done that a little after he'd lost the suit and Tony's approval, but that's for then, and this is now. A 'now' he grimaces to work around. Ugh. It's stupid. He hasn't had a night like this in over a year, and he's more than a little frustrated it's happened at all. Steven Westcott's been out of prison and vanished into obscurity since Peter started high school, and he'll never see that overly sharp grin ever again save for the terrible tombs in his head when the lights go out—

"Peter?" a sleepy voice calls, and he jumps a little in his skin, turning to look at May's lingering form in the dimness of the apartment. "What's going on? Everything alright?" 

"Everything's fine, May, just had..." But if there's anything May's good at, it's telling before she even finishes asking — she steps towards him with a furrow in her brow, eyes drifting to the familiar sight of sheets being covertly (or not so covertly) dumped for washing. Her expression softens, and he forces himself to continue with a flush to his cheeks, "Just had a little accident."

"Oh, honey," she says softly. It's never demeaning, when May sounds like that, because he knows her heart all too well. He's not surprised by her wandering over and taking the evidence from his hands, nudging him with her shoulder. "It's okay, it's perfectly fine. Just go relax for a moment, catch your breath. I can handle this." 

"I'm sorry," he starts.

"No, no, don't apologize. We look out for each other, don't we, Peter?"

She shouldn't have to look out for anything right now (it's so early in the morning), but she does, because she's the actual best — just like she's the best for not eternally grounding him the moment she walked into his room and found him head-to-toe dressed in Spider-Man's uniform, blue and red so searing it'd stolen her breath. That was a rough night in the Parker residence to say the least, and despite all of his misgivings, failing at keeping May from panic was not from lack of trying. Her nephew was and is Spider-Man. She freaked out. She made herself some tea and devised rules and regulations for the friendly neighborhood spider while trying not to employ an Italian brand of wrath towards both Peter and Anthony Stark in that order.

Spider-Man still needs his aunt, she had said once. Don't you forget it.

He wanders back to the couch now that he's been thoroughly disarmed of ashamed sheet-cleaning, rubbing his arm in defeat as he lays back against the cushions and listens to the beginnings of a whirring washer; wash the moment of weakness away, as they say. He doesn't like to think of any of the past anymore, but it's not exactly something that simply evaporates from his life, no more than Uncle Ben's death can leave his thoughts on a chilly New York worknight. He doesn't really ask why me anymore, because any pamphlet on the subject in the world will tell you why. He was extremely small for his age, skinny, inexperienced, awkward, and malleable. And lucky him, he already had a slew of self-confidence issues before a pedophilic high school student honed in on him, so he also adapts pretty well at letting that self-disdain go by the time May comes walking back into the living room. 

Her shawl has returned from whence it came when she slouches down beside Peter, their temples touching as she runs her hand through the unruly brown locks at the nape of his neck. The silence carries for a few minutes while they sit, fitted like worried puzzle pieces. Then she speaks up. "This hasn't happened in a while, huh?"

He hums in response, not really wanting to address any of it, but she clicks her tongue and stills the hand in his hair to scratch there with comfortably sharp nails.

"Uh-uh, you know how this works, Peter Parker. It's just you and me, right? Something like this comes back to you, you know we can't let it sit on its own. What's going on that took you back to all of that? Everything okay?" And really, sometimes there's nothing, nothing at all that he can think of to cause it all to come back again.

"I dunno, really... Wrong dream, wrong time? I stopped someone from kidnapping a little girl the other day, and I guess I thought about it a lot then — but that was days ago, and I swear, it hasn't really — I mean, I don't think it's really causing me any problems." He doesn't. It was a terribly ridiculous nightmare, and he'll be a little crabby come school-time, but it's nothing that will ruin his life. Skip already tried that, and he failed, and that makes Peter feel a little better.

"Okay... But if it keeps up, you'll let me know? I just want to make sure you're good."

"I am good. I am." He licks his lips, glancing at her with soft eyes. "Are you good?"

She seems a little surprised, eyebrows raising slowly as if it's the strangest thing he could have asked.

"Me? Of course." May doesn't say you're the one we should worry about, but they both know that's what's going on here. "Peter, I just..." She breathes through her nose, a hand sliding to palm his cheek gently; she looks at him with such kindness, and some nights, he doesn't know how to handle it. Tonight, though, it makes his chest warm. "I always want to do what's best for you. Sometimes I don't always know what that is — so... bear with me while I stumble around and pretend I know what I'm doing."

Peter cocks his head and smiles, the corner of his lips crinkling against her thumb.

"I'm sorry I'm such a handful."

"Hey — what have I told you about apologizing over something like this?"

"Save it for when I actually do something stupid?"

"Bingo, Spider-Man." 

Her smile fades a little, and the glint against her glasses doesn't hide the shift into something sad, something guilty. The years that followed weren't just Peter feeling apologetic; Ben and May felt culpable in his childhood ruination, which was just as ridiculous, because Steven Westcott was the most trustworthy and kind-hearted boy on the whole block, and nobody saw it coming; not even his own mother, who had never stopped trying to defend him. 

Peter wonders what it's like, to have a son who abuses instead of one that is the wide-eyed victim. Peter also wonders what it's like, to be the failed protector of the closest thing to a son you'd ever have. He would never want to be May or Ben. He'd never want to learn that the child he'd tried so hard to protect and love and worry over was suffering in silence. He was never the only one suffering — and he thinks, maybe, that their suffering was a different breed, but just as devastating. When he feels super low and awful to himself, he thinks of how much easier May's life could have been, if Peter Parker hadn't been unceremoniously shoved through their doorway.

He thinks more highly of himself now than he did then, but it won't fix how much rests on May's shoulders.

"... May?"

"Yes, honey?"

"It wasn't your fault, either. Sometimes, bad things just — happen."

"Or bad people," she says, strained in a way that is a mother trying not to crack under the weight of her son's earnest stare. Like she's done a thousand times, when she had been tucking him into bed at age eleven, when he was too scared to sleep, or when he would come home in a dizzying panic because a girl wanted to kiss him — a girl who didn't know how messed up he was, so why would he kiss her back, knowing he'd imprint that kind of maddening anxiety onto her? He squeezes May's hand.

"Or bad people." 

The silence grows, but only for a moment more.

"Hey, remember when you worried about lasting childhood trauma and not me stopping cars with my bare hands?"

"Are you trying to get your costume thrown out?"

"It's a pretty expensive costume, May."

"I'm sure Mr. Stark will survive the financial blow."

"But my internship—"

"... Magic Pillow? There's really a whole hour-long infomercial about pillows? How hard is it to make a pillow?" 

And they lay there for a couple of hours, chattering away in their PJs and letting the dryer work its magic, drinking cups of hot coffee while they make microwavable french toast... which a crime to breakfast foods everywhere, but it's filling and heavy on his gurgling stomach. At 6 in the morning, he drags on the NASA tee he found at the thrift store, pops in his headphones, and heads off to catch the train to 36 Avenue — Midtown tech. His new Nikes squeak a little on the train floors. He pushes the nightmares out of his mind and focuses on how he'll be swinging over the streets of Queens at three, keeping people safe — or at the very least, maybe a little happier.

School bustles.

Flash bicycles by and slaps him on the ass as he crosses the street. 

MJ steals an earbud and criticizes his taste in music.

Ned apologizes profusely for crushing a spider in his bathtub with a flip-flop.

May tosses clean sheets on his bed before she heads out.

And things are business as usual, the past buried under lit homework and Spanish tests.

The world would never have to know his other secret identity: the one out of twenty.

Chapter Text

At least a fifth of Tony's life now is making sure Peter Benjamin Parker is about as safe as he can be, give or take. 

Sure, he tries not to pry — he tries to respect privacy, even if he's a nosy bastard by nature, because he wants to be on good standing with the kid. But he does check in more and more regularly now, for sure.

It's hard to believe the kid's gonna graduate high school in another year. Where the hell has the time gone? And why does he suddenly feel really old? Unfair. Tony's not one to linger on his youth too much, because part of that youth involved drinking so much he couldn't remember the night before, but at least he had less wrinkles then. And at least he didn't constantly stress out about aliens — or spider boys who constantly seem to get into trouble out on the streets of New York. The friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is sometimes the friendly pancaked Spider-Man, or the friendly electrocuted Spider-Man, or the friendly curb-stomped Spider—

Point made. It'll only a matter of time before Tony will need to nudge the iron spider suit in Pete's direction.

And since the kid so elegantly turned it down nearly two years ago, he figures he can keep adding to it until it perfectly suits the stinker — in fact, he's got half-finished schematics for some spindly metal spider legs, which fit in perfectly with Peter's already wiry legs, and hey, it'll be a hit with arachnophobics. Not to mention, now that his aunt is fully aware of his secret heroism gig... well, Tony's always in the mood to make sure he personally gets her full blessing by instilling as many safety protocols as possible. He still remembers all too well, the day she had come to the Avengers headquarters on her own time and dime, arms crossed and expression sharp. Deadly. The lady's never murdered someone before, but Tony's a betting man that she'd definitely consider turning to crime when it comes to her nephew. 

He keeps far closer track of Peter's daily adventures now, thanks to hot aunt's little pow-wow with him. She laid down the rules with conviction: if he's going to do this, she'd said, he needs to be as defended as possible. He needs supervision. "He's a teenager, Mr. Stark, and he's had enough trouble in his life without getting himself into more of it." The Baby Monitor Protocol was for special emergency, but now it has become his method of being May's eyes. 

And... if he's honest, it's become somewhat of a mood lifter. 

Because here's the thing: Tony's not working for the little guy. Not really. He's always had a scope to his work that couldn't be just a neighborhood, or a borough. He had to be calculated, he had to be prepared, and he had no time readily offered to handle every small problem that emerged in the streets of New York City. Missiles in space became the status quo. But Peter? 

Peter is the kind of hero you put in a person's corner.

He'll never say it like that, because he is well-versed only in the Howard Stark school of parenting despite not wanting to be anything like him in that department (Peter's not my son, anyway). Obviously if you praise a kid too much, they'll get a big head about it, right? But Peter is earnest in every single thing he does, whether it's pulling a car door off a wrecked vehicle to save a woman inside or getting his ass kicked by a stray cat that doesn't want saving. Tony'll sit back, set his crossed legs on the ledge of his desk, and watch Peter's video feed from time to time with — let's just call it proud interest. And maybe a little residual positive energy. The kid always seems to shake it off like dandruff. Ugh.

"You're smiling pretty wide there," Pepper says as she passes through, and Tony glances at her with his chin in his palm.

"He's helping someone fix the mailbox he knocked over. Sometimes I just can't with this, Pep."




BABY MONITOR PROTOCOL — REPLAY, SATURDAY, 2:12 pm>>

A burst of wild gunfire erupts all too suddenly, and Spider-Man looks down at the pick pocket from his perch on the fire escape with a strangled sound of surprise. He scrabbles up the wall backwards as pieces of brick are violently broken away where his feet used to be by the rapid fire. "Holy shit!" Luckily, the thief ends up plastered to a parking meter not five seconds later by Peter's newly reinforced webbing; a new design by Parker himself, straight out of Stark Industry labs.

Language, Tony chides mentally (not that he's gonna enforce a code of conduct, he's Tony fucking Stark), and starts making notes on to teach Peter the basic signs of an armed man. Peter wears the stolen purse he retrieved through the rest of the feed, hoping someone'll recognize it as he swings around.

... Tony makes a note to remind Peter police stations are a thing, as well.




"Underoos, now is not the time to be shy about your — uh, underoos."

Peter's sitting on a counter with blood seeping out from his inner thigh, all thanks to a fleshy wound from what was probably a katana (who the hell carries a katana around the subway stations), which had sliced a gnarly hole in the Spider-Man uniform (maybe he should give him the iron spider suit now), and, therefore, a gnarly cut on the person in said uniform. It's not deep, Tony thinks, and Peter's accelerated healing will work wonders before May can freak out, but he'd rather get it cleaned and bandaged before the workbench looks like a murder scene. 

"I told you, the sword barely grazed me!" Peter whines. Actually whines, like an instrument made for ear torture. This fucking kid.

"Yeah, and now you look like you've started your period early, spunky. Get the suit off so I can make sure you're not going to need an E.R. instead of stitches. C'mon, or I'll let Dum-E try to sew you up." And most importantly, Tony doesn't really like the idea of Peter being hurt — but that's heroism for you, and he's not going to admit that he worries a lot more than he did the first year, or even more the year after. He's not gonna admit his guilt in taking Peter to Germany has since evolved into him keeping emergency sub sandwiches in the fridge that he knows Peter will eat if he staggers in for the afternoon. And he's definitely not gonna admit that he's programmed FRIDAY to know just what music to play, if the kid's alone in the lab while he's working on his own devices — even if Tony thinks most of his playlist sucks. 

Nope, he's fine, he's just playing helpful mentor. Pete falls, it's his job as mentor to pop the parachute.

Tony flicks his fingers against Peter's inner knee to try and let him see the wound, and the kid shrinks away like Tony's stuck a red-hot iron brand there, eyes rounding.

"Mr. Stark, stop," he squeaks out, though it sounds a little less funny, and a little more urgent. Okay, no, yeah, it's entirely creepy that he's trying to get a teenager to strip down to his boxers, so he puts his hands up in surrender and doesn't really think much of the way Peter looks anywhere but at him. He's just shy. By his own testimony, he used to be a skinny nerd who couldn't keep up with sports three years ago, so yeah, maybe he's shy about locker room banter. 

"Alright, alright, Dum-E it is."

"No!!"

It actually ends up being Pepper who helps clean him up, her patient hands dabbing away blood and fishing antibiotics out of a plastic case. Tony's a little jealous, because Pepper doesn't even scold Peter about being more careful on the job. Not even once. She even uses that overly sweet tone employed when she answers the Stark office line.

Lucky.




BABY MONITOR PROTOCOL — REPLAY, FRIDAY, 9:45 pm>>

Peter runs into a burning building like he was impervious to fire. That's no good.

There's smoke in Spider-Man's eyes, eclipsing his sight when the blinding orange of the flames don't; Karen warns him that the smoke is usually far more lethal than being burned alive, to which Peter chokes out a, "Oh, yeah, that makes sense." But he pushes further into the chaos, narrowly avoiding a beam that comes crashing down behind him, and finds nobody in the lower floors. Upper floors, way different story, and in the end, Spider-Man fashions a drop-down ladder out of his webbing and helps people from the top floors descend to the safety of the street below.

 Tony jots down MAKE UNIFORM MORE FLAME RETARDANT. And underlines it. Three times.




Tony is nose-deep in wires, wearing the safety goggles that hog most of his face, when Peter asks him a question behind the crinkle of a half-empty Doritos bag; there are a million chairs and Peter still sits on the counter right next to him, swinging around his feet with those dorky rolled up pant-legs and striped socks; Casanova he is not, and case in point — 

"How do you tell if a girl likes you?"

Tony has gotten too used to these random questions in a sea of productive silences, even when he's focused on something that's obviously critical (but really it's not, it's always something that can wait). He just rolls with it, eyes still glued to the small piece he's welding with utmost care. "Huh. Well. Usually, they don't pour their drink on your head when you walk by. That's your best bet in knowing."

Hey, he answered; he didn't promise they'd be completely sincere answers.

Peter is exasperated, so mission success.

"Mr. Stark, I'm serious. I mean, Liz told me she had a crush on me for a while, and it's not like I got a chance to really figure out more than that. Y'know." Tony can see from the corner of his eye, Peter's counting all the ways his first and only almost-girlfriend didn't work out on one hand, his brow furrowed. "Since her dad ended up being a villain and crashed a plane full of super dangerous weapons on the beach and she had to move to Oregon..."

"Have I ever told you that you already have the worst luck when it comes to romance? Because that's pretty bad luck."

"... Gee, thanks..."

"You worry too much anyway, Pete. Sure, you're a massive nerd — and I mean massive, but that's charming nowadays. The nerdier, the better. Besides, you're at the age where you're going to start collecting a whole lot of hearts, if you're not careful. Probably the plucky attitude." And Tony's pretty confident in this, because here's the thing — sure, Tony got a lot of chicks by just being a cocky, smart-ass with money, but Peter's a different breed altogether. He's loyal and sweet and he'll find and keep someone in his life way faster than Tony ever did, up until Pepper Potts walked all over him (as it should be).

"I don't know. If they knew the real me, they'd probably run screaming."

Tony finally looks up, because something in the reply doesn't sit well with him. As much of an asshole as he can be, it's hard to sit idly by when your protege speaks so little of himself. "What, your super cool hero gig wouldn't cut it for them?"

"I, I — yeah... Yeah. That's it."

Tony scoffs, waving a hand dismissively as he looks back down at his work. So that's what this is about? The whole secret identity thing. Really, someone ought to let Peter Parker know that having a secret hero boyfriend is all the rage nowadays. Like cuffed pant legs apparently are. He smiles slightly. "What brought this up anyway? You have someone at school making heart eyes at you?"

"No... I mean. Not really. I think. I'm actually not sure," Peter fumbles. "She usually seems like she can't stand me, actually."

"... If this is about the ever elusive MJ you've talked about before, then yes — she has the hots for you."

Peter spits soda all over Tony's fancy and very expensive propulsion system.

"Oh for—"

"Oh, crap, I'm so sorry— I'm sorry! I'll pay for a new one—"

"I had to loan you five bucks for a burger, and you're gonna buy a new propulsion system?"




BABY MONITOR PROTOCOL — REPLAY, YESTERDAY, 3:21 pm>>



"Oh, yeah, you just take a right, and then cut across Houston..."

 


 

BABY MONITOR PROTOCOL — REPLAY, LAST WEEK, 6:43 am>>



"It is I, Thor, son of Odin, strongest Avenger!"

 




BABY MONITOR PROTOCOL — REPLAY, YESTERDAY, 5:23 pm>>



"—don't worry, I'll wait here with you until your mom comes home. Okay, Zeke?"

Late in the afternoon. Traffic is still terrible going north. A child needs him.

Spider-Man's spider senses had alerted him, just before the sounds of a crying child did — and it had led him to an open window, high up on a set of older apartments in Queens, just as the sun began to set. The nanny ran the moment Spider-Man had crawled through the window... ran like the guilty always do, when they're caught — 

— fruit punch, cartoons blaring, sharp grins, and Ned's warm, sweaty palm in his — 

Zeke is eight years old. Eight. And the person hired to protect him took his clothes off of him and did things to him that revisit Peter's dreams. And Peter was too late to protect the boy from one more nightmare in technicolor; he could only swing in to save someone who had already been taken advantage of by the very person they should have been able to trust with their lives. Now they sit huddled together in the lonely, cramped apartment, as memories of Ned crying into his shoulder steal his breath away.

T his boy's name is Zeke, and he shouldn't have been treated like this (like Peter was, but Zeke's another member of the 'one out of twenty').


"Okay... Umm... Thank you, Spider-Man," Zeke murmurs.

They sit at the coffee table, and Spider-Man balances a three year old girl on his knee so she can reach her crayons and draw; he can't leave, not until they call the mother. She'll be frantic; it's not every day that your boy calls and says the nanny's ran off — that Spider-Man is keeping you company until someone comes back to the apartment. He sucks in a breath and tries to focus, but his voice wavers. "Oh, man, that's a really cute bunny you're drawing, Simone. Do you know what bunnies eat? They eat carrots."

Simone wasn't touched, Peter thinks. He — He's not sure. Her hair smells like lavender baby shampoo, and he presses his masked cheek against the crown of her head. Zeke had said the woman's been watching them for a long time now, when his mother's away for work. Peter's eyes scan the room. There's a Thor figurine wedged in the love seat. Cold chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs for a kid who was too terrified and sick to eat them sit on a worn out dinner tray. Happy pictures line a wall. Peter feels light-headed. Karen warns him that his vitals are abnormal.

Peter's seventeen. He doesn't know what to do. 

"Hey, Zeke, buddy? D-do you know your mom's phone number?"

"I do... I memorized it." 

"'Course you did, you're a really smart kid." He swallows the lump in his throat, and picks up a crayon that rolls off the table, returning it to the toddler who had dropped it. "Do you think you can tell your mom what she did to you? It's important to tell her everything, okay? Even if it's — scary."

Zeke looks terrified at the thought, which Peter knew he would. It doesn't make it hurt any less.

"I don't want to get her in trouble... She's usually really nice..."

Peter nods — no, Spider-Man nods. Peter hides behind his mask while Spider-Man nods, playing the part of a savior who is a few days, months, years too late. If Peter is too afraid to face this, he'll just be the friendly neighborhood spider, the kind that crawls along apartment complexes, who follows the sounds of crying children. Spider-Man says softly, "I — I know. I know you don't. But — but what she did? Her touching you like that...? It was wrong. It was a really bad thing to do, and she needs to be in trouble for doing a bad thing. You understand...?" 

If Spider-Man wasn't patrolling the rooftops, nobody would know. 

She would have kept doing this, and nobody would have known.

Zeke is on the verge of tears again. Peter doesn't remember being so small like this kid is. 

"I don't know. I don't know..." 

"It is the right thing, buddy. I promise, it is, and you'll be okay. Do you wanna know how I know?" The boy looks up, brown eyes pleading for any kind of answer that eases the twisting in his gut. Spider-Man smiles under his mask, stretched painfully when all he wants to do is curl up under his blankets and hide. But Zeke needs Spiderman. 

And Peter Parker. 

"Because a few years ago, I was almost as young as you... and someone I thought cared about me did the same awful things to me. They touched me in places I didn't like them to, even when I asked them to stop, and I — I was too scared to say anything after they did it, because I didn't want to lose my family. It hurts too much to keep it locked in here, you know." 

Peter presses his fist over his heart, something dangerously like confidence growing inside him.

He wants to be there for Zeke, because Simone is too young to be Ned, so someone has to be.

"You just have to remember, it wasn't your fault. It wasn't our faults. Okay? Sometimes bad people do bad things, but we can still be good. It hurts to think about, and sometimes you'll be really sad, but it's okay."

— spilled punch, goosebumps books, a closing door, nobody has to know —

"You're still a good boy."




The pen in Tony's hand falls, clattering and rolling along the tile floor. 




At least a fifth of Tony's life is supposed to be making sure Peter Benjamin Parker is as safe as he can be.

Chapter Text

BABY MONITOR PROTOCOL — REPLAY, YESTERDAY, 5:23 pm>>

"Because a few years ago, I was almost as young as you... and someone I thought cared about me did the same awful things to me. They touched me in places I didn't like them to, even when I asked them to stop, and I — I was too scared to say anything after they did it, because I didn't want to lose my family. It hurts too much to keep it locked in here, you know." 




BABY MONITOR PROTOCOL — REPLAY, YESTERDAY, 5:23 pm>>

"Because a few years ago, I was almost as young as you... and someone I thought cared about me did the same awful things to me. They touched me in places I didn't like them to, even when I asked them to stop, and I — I was too scared to say anything after they did it, because I didn't want to lose my family. It hurts too much to keep it locked in here, you know." 




BABY MONITOR PROTOCOL — REPLAY, YESTERDAY, 5:23 pm>>

"Because a few years ago, I was almost as young as you... and someone I thought cared about me did the same awful things to me. They touched me in places I didn't like them to, even when I asked them to stop, and I — I was too scared to say anything after they did it, because I didn't want to lose my family. It hurts too much to keep it locked in here, you know." 




Y'know, statistically speaking, one out of five girls and one out of twenty boys are a victim of child sexual abuse at some point — that's if they report it, anyway. And they almost always know the person who does it. Family member or friend or babysitter — someone close to them.

Tony had respected Peter's privacy to a degree, despite how it looks in a lot of cases. He knew he had an uncle, and he knew that uncle died. He knew his parents were not of this world anymore, rest in peace. And he knew Peter had a smoking hot aunt and that he could stop a three-thousand pound car with his bare hands. When he employed the kid to be his wrangler and help literally tie up the competition in Germany, he had been completely and utterly self-absorbed in his own vendetta.

He didn't give a shit where the kid came from, he just knew he needed him. He'll own up to that. He'll own up to any shitty thing he does. There wasn't an ounce of desire in him to be a — a mentor, or a guardian, or whatever the hell you want to call it, because he was already too screwed up to be anything but cancerous in the long term. 

Then the kid ate shit on an airport tarmac, and Tony realized with stomach churning clarity that Peter Parker took all but five seconds to endear himself to someone — by the time he'd given his suit back to him in a brown paper bag, he should have known he wouldn't have the heart to let the kid down.

Maybe that was Peter's greatest curse.

Being too endearing.

Even to people like Steven "Skip" Westcott.

Peter calls out sick from school the day after the incident, and Tony pulls up every file he can get his hands on with regards to Peter's life after Westcott. It's wrong — it's crappy and wrong but he's pissed in a way he was not anticipating, and he doesn't know where to direct any of this outrage for the scrappy teenager who had been eating all of his sandwiches and spit soda on his expensive equipment and generally had been a menace in his work space. At first he thinks he can't correlate the kid with someone who could say the things he's said to Zeke; then he realizes in a snap moment of clarity: he definitely, definitely can correlate the two, the longer he tries. 

And he shouldn't want to read any of the files that open in front of him — he doesn't want to (this isn't fair to Peter) — but he pours over anything he can, as if it's another equation to solve, but his hands are too jittery to write anything down now. He finds old case records and documentation, circa 2011. Tony was on WHiH World News in 2011, doing interviews about his identity as Iron Man before having a nice dinner with Pepper. Steve Rogers was being thawed like a fresh packaged steak in the 21st century. Bruce Banner was causing trouble in India as a big green rage machine and Phil Coulson was still alive and annoying. 

And Peter Parker was being sexually abused by his babysitter in Queens.

Steven Westcott gets no more than three years, released on good behavior as a first time offender the summer before Peter enrolled in high school, which then lead the bastard to promptly escape somewhere west, because nobody likes when a known registered sex offender is so close to the place they'd fundamentally fucked up a child's life. Oh, Tony reads every word of what he did. He reads it twice, three times, letting it fester into something that he probably shouldn't entertain. He figures out where he lives, who he's dating, where he's working, his bestest pals, and he methodically figures up ways to ruin every single positive situation the man has created for himself. Because see, Tony Stark isn't Spider-Man. He would sleep soundly on his pillow for the first time in the last ten years if he was able to use his influence to systematically destroy every single good thing in Westcott's life. 

He'd throw up a peace sign while he did it.

Iron Man is completely useless in this situation, but billionaire Tony Stark? He is a merciless human missile, hurtling towards his pal Skip

"FRIDAY, pull up official resources on CSA testimonials and support groups," he says in the quiet of his workshop, as if Peter hasn't already gone through all of these pamphlets and self-help sites himself. He compiles case study after case study, reads an e-book, cycles through interviews. His leg just won't stop jiggling compulsively, his heel tap-tapping on the hard floor, the once fallen pen clenched in his hand. Pepper and Happy sometimes look at each other in unspoken concern outside of the workshop. 

But, see, a year and a half ago, Peter had wet himself sleeping over on the couch, and Tony had tried to make him feel better by telling him an anecdote of the times he'd partied so hard and got so drunk he'd had the same problem (don't turn into a drinker, Petey pie, he'd said); Peter had been snappy and impatient and ashamed in response, and Tony had seen it all as another example of why Peter was too young to be involved in the big stuff, and now Tony feels like an idiot. There are a few times he's made an idiot out of himself in hindsight. 

"If you look at statistics, bed wetting's a thing kids can do in response to traumatic situations."

He says it out loud to himself, the calm, smooth curve of his words snapping at his mind like elastic.

Peter doesn't stop by the headquarters for a full week (he misses the 'hey, Mr. Stark!' that he harmlessly makes fun of sometimes), but Tony doesn't have the heart to interrupt whatever alone time the boy needs. After Aunt May tells Tony that he's just not feeling too well, Tony is more than happy to give him the week off, anyway. Hell, he offers her and the kid a trip to the Caribbean halfway through the radio silence, to Disneyland, Coney Island, to wherever the hell they'd want to go. He's got money to spend — that's something he can do, when there's nothing else. Spend money. Throw it like confetti. 

Here, patch up your trauma with some Benjamins, I'm sure that'll make it all just fine.

Tony lays in bed until he's about to lose his mind, and finally texts the kid. He just needs to know he's there, really.

 



Hey Peter Piper Pecked etc. etc., I can't sleep.

 



Mr. Stark it's one
AM
are you ok??

 



I'm Iron Man, so yes, I'm perfect. 
I need you to stop by ASAP for Karen's Windows Update

 



Oh 
haha, sounds good!
You're joking about the windows update thing right?

 



Me and bill g. are bffs so maybe, maybe not.
how've you been? 
your weirdly attractive aunt says you're under the weather.

 



I'm good
What's going on here, Mr. Stark? 

 



???? What dyou mean, young padawing?

 



It's padawan, yikes
you never text me like this is all 

 



What, NEVER never? Cmon pete

 



You hate texting, you make Happy do it all
I sent you a bunch of long replies once
you just wrote LOL NP and a peace sign

 



have you never heard of CHARACTER GROWTH
Just be here or be square kid, please. 

 



alright. Ok, Mr. Stark, you got it.

 



gracias, young buck.

 



LOL NP 

 

 


 

 


Waiting for Peter to get there is the worst feeling in the world, 0/10, would not recommend accidentally stumbling upon someone's messed up childhood. But in-between plotting how to raze a pedophile's life to the ground and promising more routine texting sessions to Pete, he knows that he has to tell the kid that he knows (he's not my kid, but imagine if he was, imagine how useless you are right now). Peter comes bounding in like nothing in the world is wrong, worn-out Nikes scuffing on the floor, hair getting a little too long and curving on top like a Prince Charming ocean wave.

"Hey, Mr. Stark!" 

"Pete," Tony nonchalantly offers, as if everything was totally normal. And boy, he's missed hearing that the past week. "There's some leftovers in the fridge if you're hungry. Pep's treat." Pep, Hap, and Pete, there's a vicious cycle of shortened names and attachment he doesn't want to outright admit to aloud — He clears his throat. He's so bad at this sort of thing, and really, Peter deserves better people to intrude on his personal life. Peter grabs him something to eat and finds a place to perch like always, Tony works on something as always, bounces around thoughts in the air that Peter can kick back at him — always good to have perspective —

They get to work. The suit AI is updated — 

Y'know, the one Peter decided to name after the computer wife in Spongebob.

Tony's thoughts are dragged away from him, like a dying dog out of a bush. No matter how focused he is, he thinks about the files hidden in FRIDAY's history. Black, inky letters that cloud his judgement and make it hard to work in tandem with Peter like he usually does—

e. Nature of Sexual Assault (Check all that apply).

"... You know, that's the thing, this nano-tech is really awesome at pre-existing cookie-cutter shapes; armor, guns, all that, and the replicating potential is out of this world, but I can't get the damn stuff to listen to me; I want the suit to form around me, not turn into some hideous balloon animal from a sad clown—"

"Mister—"

"—and then there's the problem with it not only conforming to your unique body type, but also bending at your joints so you don't end up with about as much range of motion as a Barbie doll face-down in her Malibu dream home after a crazy night on the town—"

b. Mark and describe all abnormal findings (e.g., scratches, lacerations, bite marks, burns, tears, ecchymoses, abrasions, redness, swelling, and tenderness, etc.) Describe any pattern of injury.

"Mr. Stark..."

"—maybe not my best analogy, but it's definitely not my worst. I also have to figure out a decent way to store it, which I guess is where the fake arc reactor comes in, because let's be honest, I'm all about staying on brand—"

18. Information for sexual assault victims and their families brochure given. YES ☐ NO ☐

"Mr. Stark."

Tony stops pacing, looking over at Peter with raised eyebrows as silence descends over the lab. He's holding his pen under one finger, hand hanging high mid-air like he's orchestrating a choir. Peter all the while sits cross-legged on the counter, his too-long shoe strings dangling off the edge; he's looking at Tony with a studious eye, picking something apart about the way the inventor-billionaire-playboy is carrying himself.

"Yeah?" Tony asks breathlessly, mouth dry.

"Mr. Stark, you've been talking, like, twenty minutes straight."

"Oh, well, sorry if I'm boring you with the inane details of a highly advanced hero suit here—"

"I mean, you like to ramble when something's really got you worked up, you know?" 

And just how often has Peter Parker been in this place, that he knows what worked-up, time-buying ranting looks like? The kid looks entirely too patient where he's hunched and pulling on the strings of his sweater absently. Tony can't get the police records and testimony out of his head — that's why he's here, isn't it? That's why he texted him, isn't it?

Tony fans his hands inward to point at himself.

"I'm not worked up, I'm great. I'm aces. Just a little wired; all that coffee, all that insomnia, the usual Stark routine."

'I'm just being selfish, because you're the one who got crappy end of a deal, and I'm just stupidly helpless about something I shouldn't have heard that's none of my business.'

Not much of a ring to that.

Peter shifts, worried, "If you say so..."

But he's side-eyeing the hero as he approaches the desk again. If Tony's honest with himself, really genuinely honest, he'd know that Peter and him share one thing in common above all else: they're awful at putting a cap on their feelings, because they're emotional creatures with little to no cages around their impulses. They use it differently, but recklessly all the time. Tony's guilty and worried and on edge. It's gonna show.

Under Peter's unfairly perceptive stare, Tony's shoulders sag, and he presses his palms into the edge of the dented table. His gaze drifts to the little work space next to him: the place Peter likes to sit at and work, evidenced by the crumpled plastic that used to have gummy worms and Redvines in it. The notepad has terribly drawn scribbles that he's pretty sure is supposed to be Happy with his hands on his hips, right beside Algebra 2 scratch paper. 

And again, Tony can't parse this image of goofy childishness with the knowledge of what Peter'd gone through.

"I know about Westcott," he says, closing his eyes. "Honestly — I know everything about it."

Peter stares at him for a moment, expressionless. Tony holds his breath and tries to figure out how to explain—

"I know."

That's — not exactly what he was expecting from Pete.

His mouth falls open. ".... You — what?"

Peter doesn't move from his spot, but he unfurls himself, letting his legs dangle. "I knew you were recording things in the suit and watching them back for May. And then you started asking May how I was doing so much lately, and — and then the texting, and the way you're acting now, I just... figured you could have heard what I said."

"... You knew about that?" He should have known Peter would know about their set-up. He's a brilliant kid, one of the smartest Tony's known. Not that he's known a lot of younger people in his life, but. But — "Then why'd...?"

"Because... Helping those kids was more important." Peter sits up straight, chin tilted slightly. "I didn't want him to be alone." 

Tony's eyes flutter shut, his temples throbbing. Peter was sexually abused for nearly two years before he told anyone what had happened. Peter was alone with these ugly secrets for two years, with his only confidant that of a monster. And here Peter is, willing to lay everything on the table for the sake of the little guy; Peter was a little guy once, too. One that loved superheroes and Star Wars. Not for the first time the last few days, Tony's heart twists for this young man. 

His co-worker? His protégé? His responsibility? He's gotten too close to him, hasn't he? Shit.

Peter squares his shoulders, sheepish. "I'm sorry if I freaked you out."

"That's a way to put it," Tony mumbles, quieting for a pregnant pause. He says more softly, "... I'm sorry there wasn't a Spider-Man for you."

"You serious?" Peter snorts. "I wore your mask for a year straight after that. To therapy and everything. It made me feel like I could handle anything. So yeah, you weren't there with me — but you were definitely there with me."

Oh, wow, is this a lump in his throat? And is that a lump in Peter's throat? No, no way. Playing it off seems only logical, and Peter swallows hard, tangling his fingers together in his lap. He still chews his nails really badly, it looks like. Peter continues at length, "The thing is... I know it bothers you a lot. It bothered May and Ben, and sometimes it almost feels like they took it worse than me. I mean, they probably did take it worse than me. Sure, when you're that young, it really messes you up. Big time. It makes you think a lot of things about yourself that isn't true at all. But when you're someone on the outside, seeing someone you love suffer — or, or being a hero and knowing something happened that's out of your hands..."

He breathes out shakily. 

"... Anyway. It was hard, and I had a tough time after, but... I'm glad I got to talk to that kid. Because for a really long time after that, I let what — Steven did to me effect how I saw myself."

Tony cocks his head away from him, if only to not let on that his eyes are burning something fierce. This fucking kid.

"I'm sorry, Pete."

"Don't be. Seriously, don't be." Peter sounds confident despite everything. "It was awful, but I have people like May and Ned — and you and Happy and Pepper... and when you've got people in your corner, it tears down a lot of what the monsters in the world do to you. Like your... nanotech Iron Man suit, right?" Tony looks up, eyebrows high on his forehead. Peter makes a firm fist, pressing it over his heart — like he had when he was sitting with Zeke and Simone, waiting for their mother to return home. "I wear your guys' words on me, and nothing can cut me down. It's been seven years. Now, I'm not gonna let him take any more time away from me than he already has."

He smiles a little. "Good. So — you're good."

It's not good. Tony will make sure Westcott's life is hell.

Peter grins in earnest, though. He breathes in like he's out in the mountains, taking in the fresh air and gentle breeze. Note to self — bite the bullet and take everyone camping somewhere, at some point (Tony will hate it, absolutely hate it). "I'm great. I feel great. I feel, like... this is how it was always supposed to be."

"... Actually, this was supposed to be a support thing. But I'm starting to feel like you're the support, here. It's making me look really uncool right now."

As expected, it's hard to tell if Peter is genuinely worried he ruined the moment. "Oh, shoot. You wanna add to it?"

Tony hesitates before holding out his arms. "... You want to cash in on that hug yet?"

The look he gets in response is one that belongs to a tricky little bastard, and Peter smugly shrugs.

"Hmm... Nah. I don't think we're there yet." 

He's not sure whether to be impressed at his teasing, or put out by the fact that he was definitely ready to give that hug for real this time. Regardless, there's a weight off his chest — and judging by the sudden ease in which Peter stands beside him, he thinks (hopes) that there's a weight off of Peter, too, between the two of them. And while webdings jr. has suavely joked his way from a hug, Tony's compelled to hold a hand up in the air.

"I'm proud of you, Pete."

Peter looks like an adoring fan when he high-fives back, squeezing the hand under his once, his grip firm. He looks like he'd trust Iron Man with just about anything, would believe in anything he promised. Tony doesn't want to let him down. He won't let him down. He's the one who pops the parachute.

"You wanna hang around for dinner?" Tony ignores the way Peter ducks his head and wipes at one eye. "Happy's making a casserole. You know how he gets when people skimp out on casserole night."

"Naaah, me and May got a family dinner thing. Buy one get one free at the local Italian restaurant. Then there's band practice and — oh, man, I gotta get her to sign off on this cool field trip coming up..." He collects his things from the desk; is it really already six? He'd been so busy being terrified of letting Peter down with this talk, he hadn't even noticed how quickly the hours ticked by. Should've set a damn kitchen timer. Peter looks pleased at the offer on the table, though. "But I'll stop by next week?"

"Sure. I don't see why not. Next week. Be sure to text Happy a million things you like to chow down on."

Peter nods, shrugging on his backpack, and Tony feels confident that he's leaving with a sense of freedom — none thanks to Tony, of course. It's all him. This guy's tougher than he looks, that's for damn sure. But before he can go out the wide metal doors, Peter hesitates and lingers.

"... Mr. Stark?"

"Mm?" 

"... Thanks. For worrying about me."

"Just don't make me worry any more than I already do and we're solid, champ." Peter isn't going to give him any promises, he knows — he can tell by the thinning of the boy's curled lips just as he turns away — but it doesn't mean he won't hold him to it. I'm not his dad, and he's not my kid, but like hell I'm gonna screw this up. Especially when Peter looks so relieved as he goes, and his back looks broad and confident as he vanishes into the hallway.

Even if Tony doesn't look out for the little guy, maybe Tony can at least look out for one of them.

Just like Spider-Man does.

... Ha.

"My hero."





"Last night, I dreamt we had a kid. So real."

Chapter Text

Uncle Ben used to tell him that all good things end — and all bad things end. 

Ben was one of those good things, and Westcott's abuse was one of those bad things. 

Maybe it's more complicated than that, but it doesn't always have to be if that's how you can fall asleep at night.

When he wakes up in the morning, the past doesn't consume him. It doesn't drown out the jokes May tells him at breakfast, or the goofy texts he gets from Ned, or the excitement he feels when he realizes its free comic book day. All of these things, they remain untainted. Sure, there was a time when everything was a nightmare that he traversed when he was eight, nine, ten. But Steven Westcott isn't the one in his shoes right now; he isn't going to be the one walk him through life empty, guilty, exhausted. He doesn't deserve such flattery.

Besides, his shoes are too nice for the likes of him: beat up and worn-out. Ned-approved.

Peter wakes up and walks through the house half-coherent. For breakfast, he lounges in bed for absolutely no reason other than laziness with a plate of strawberries and sugar balanced on his chest, and plays a Tetris knock-off with a million ads on it that he can barely see on his cracked phone (It's okay Mr. Stark, really, Parkers aren't good at getting rid of something until it's totally busted). He flosses ritually and winces at the signs of wisdom teeth pushing forward from the very back like a dental mosh pit, leaving his gum sensitive and his cheek eternally pinched. He wears the same jeans again for the second day in a row, because laundry sucks to do and there's no stains to be flustered about, and he pulls on another layer because he likes being warm more than he does cold. He's got three bucks tucked into his bilfold, the remains of a tiny allowance which will sate his sweet tooth before vigilante work; there's a Where's George bill among them, and he wonders where it's been (and then he thinks ugh, it's passed so many hands).

He goes to school — and realizes with some welcomed clarity that nobody in the hallway gives a single shit or know-how about Steven Westcott.

But they know Spider-Man.

Maybe it's immature to smile about that, but he does.

"Are you smiling at nothing?" MJ asks, peering around from behind him. "You loser."

Peter beams. "No, no — now I'm smiling at you."

For the first time in their three years as friends, it seems he's left her speechless, and he doesn't even mean to.

 




Peter stops by Zeke and Simone's in the afternoon, sometimes, too.

When things are quiet for once in the ever-bustling borough, the two children cross his mind — and then cross it again and again, zig-zagging around in there like a trapped moth. Their mother's name is Becky, and she has very pretty green eyes — and she's young (too young to have an eight year old), single, and extremely in over her head. His sympathy for her is a vast well that is constantly being poured into by relentless storm waters. What do you even say to a mother who feels like she's destroyed her own child by virtue of trusting the wrong person? He can tell she's taking it far worse than May did. Maybe because May had Ben.

But he comes and knocks on the window sometimes to say hello, because Zeke has gone very quiet lately — until Spider-Man comes to visit. It's easy to get a kid out of his dark thoughts, when you make him a swing in his own room. If he can do that at the very least, then he's had a successful day of hero-ing. 

Now, Zeke's a freaking awesome kid. He's smart and well-read, and he draws insanely well for his age, Peter's pretty sure. Anything Spider-Man draws with the boy is never as good, and that's something Spider-Man is more than happy to live with. And Zeke's also an avid toy car collector; he lines them up on fifteen dollar plastic shelves that are covered in Avengers stickers and knows the names of all them. There are no stickers of the friendly neighborhood vigilante on anything, of course, but the Avengers don't get to hang out with one of the smartest kids ever, so who is the real winner here?

Zeke's curled up on his couch with his face tucked against his knees, one day, when Spider-Man crawls in on the ceiling; there's something about the way the kid relaxes and looks up hopefully at him that makes Peter never want to let him down — ever. He plays it off and has learned with amazing accuracy how to be cheery in the face of things that are most definitely not. "Heya, Zeke! You wanna work on some homework stuff? I heard you were having a hard time with multiplication."

Zeke's not quite like Peter, after the damage was done; he's been failing classes and lashing out.

Peter had thrown himself deeper and deeper into perfect test scores and extra credit and hid from everyone else.

But it's okay, it'll all be okay, because it's only 5:32 pm in the afternoon, and Spider-Man is more than happy killing an hour with math flash cards. It gives him just as much purpose as anything else he does in the suit.

He feels bad not being able to stop by tomorrow afternoon, but he's got a field trip to get to that is gonna eat up his whole day.

"I'll bring you back something super cool, okay? Pinky promise."

Kids take their pinky promises really seriously; he can't afford to fail him now.

 


 

"Oh my goood, Peter, look at this."

Peter uncrosses his legs on the couch to get a better view of May while she's carrying out a large plastic tub from the storage closet. PETER'S STUFF is written on duct tape on the side that is so old, it's fraying like crazy at the ends. Y'know, the kind of old that leaves an impossible stickiness that goes all dark with dust and dirt. She pops the lid and carefully takes out things that Peter admittedly hasn't looked at in — years, really. In fact, it was ever since they'd packed up and moved their things after Ben had died, so they could survive on May's income. 

He tucks away the school newspaper he'd been scrolling through and flips onto his stomach to inspect these colorful bits and pieces of his life. Most of this, he can't even remember, but here's the proof of it — things like his father and him at the beach when he could barely walk, or pictures of him and the family cat that had died when he started the fourth grade (Nelly, the orange cat with nine lives, who somehow survived a face-off with lilies). An Iron Man drawing Tony would love to get his hands on for blackmail is perfectly folded on the side of the tub, as well as some of his smarty-pants medallions he'd collected to garner as much approval as possible from the people around him, and some ticket stubs from movies he didn't even particularly like.

"... Man, I really liked hoarding stuff."

 

... Oh.


At the bottom of the box is his slightly cracked and extremely worn Iron Man mask, which May playfully picks up and holds in front of her own face to nearly startle Peter out of his socks. "Oh, look who it is — How has he been fighting evil when he's trapped in giant Tupperware boxes?"

"Man, that's great; lemme look," he smiles.

She hands it off to Peter, and he runs a thumb over the eternally scratched up plastic eye covers. What feels like forever ago, he had gone to the Stark Expo — just after Steven had started causing years worth of therapy conversations — and had nearly gotten killed by out of control robots being used by a madman. Isn't that something? There he was, stuck spiraling into being nearly nonverbal, chastising himself for worrying his family, feeling like he was never gonna be freed from it; he donned the mask that day and, suddenly, he felt like he could do anything. 

And even more than that, he was far less scared of deadly suits than he was the babysitter. He had faced this murderous robot down, one that would have been more than happy to kill him without so much as a second glance. Peter had aimed his hand with confidence, feeling something inside him bubbling to the surface (if I can't protect myself from the bad things, I can protect my aunt and uncle) and — fired. And Iron Man looked at him, glinting in the night lights, and said he'd done good. 

Peter held onto that until the day he walked in and found Mr. Stark talking to May on the couch.

"... You're not going to start — wearing it around the house again, are you?" May asks, wrinkling her nose.

"What?" Peter flusters. "Nooo, no. No."

That would be ridiculous.

Not more than an hour later, Peter is laying on his bed with the Iron Man mask put on, absently twisting and turning the parts of an over-used Rubix Cube in his hands. Hours later and a few tacks worth of decorating, he's gotten brave enough to start putting his own pictures and trinkets on the new cork-board above his desk, filling those spaces once left for experiment notes with things from the Tupperware Box of Memories —reminders. He'd had a hard time before, looking at his own face, as if he were a walking landmine that he couldn't afford to pay attention to... But this is good. 

These things are proof, that he wasn't a bad kid. And most certainly not alone. And most certainly not unhappy, not every day, and most certainly not forever. If he were gone tomorrow, he'd want people to know. That he was good, no matter what happened to him before. He was here. He tried his best, and he likes to think he succeeded somewhere in that mess. 


Removing the Iron Man mask and letting it sit against his stomach, he closes his eyes and has a really, really good dream.