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A Right Hand Grip

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An abbreviated list of things Peter Parker knows:

1. Lymphocytes produce antibodies; they are found in increased numbers in the presence of a viral infection.

2. The lizard guy that’s been slithering around Manhattan recently has an English accent.

3. Hematopoiesis refers to the creation of blood from progenitor stem cells in the bone marrow.

4. Death hurt. Resurrection was worse.

5. Tony Stark is avoiding him.

(Or perhaps he is the one who is avoiding Tony Stark.)

In preparation for tomorrow’s anatomy and physiology test in second period, they’ve assembled in Peter’s room is various states of reclination. Ned has sprawled across the bottom bunk of the bed, face half-obscured by a hulk plushie serving as a pillow. MJ has taken the rolling chair, feet propped up on the disheveled desk, textbook in her lap as she reads out practice questions. Occasionally orange dust floats down from where Peter is stuck to the ceiling, eating hot cheetos upside down.

“How do we know the lizard man isn’t just a harmless furry?” Ned asks, flopping over like a dead fish to address Peter.

“He eats people,” replies Peter.

“Some people eat human flesh to cope, Peter,” MJ says, and all of them snort out a laugh.

“You said he’s British?” asks Ned.

“Dunno. Something like that,” says Peter, crunching.

“Pass the cheetos.”

Peter rolls up the bag and drops it squarely on MJ’s open book. “You’d think that being an official Avenger now would garner you a bit more of a challenge than some posh lizard,” she says, passing the bag on to Ned.

“Oh, well.” On the ceiling, Peter shrugs. He’s glad, abruptly, that she can’t see his face from this angle. Hopes his voice betrays nothing. He’s getting better at being impenetrable, these days. The more there is to keep in, the stronger the dam is, maybe. “It be like that sometimes.”

She goes back to the book. “What is the functional unit of the kidney?”

“Nephron,” Ned and Peter answer in tandem.

“God, I’m so fucking bored,” says Ned, shifting restlessly. “I wish aliens would invade again or something.”

Peter says nothing. The cheetos are thrown back up to him, and the catch reminds him to breathe. He takes solace, sometimes, in the fact that he was the only one of them taken out by Thanos’s snap. Everyone lost at least someone—Ned’s brothers and mom, both of MJ’s parents—but at least his friends don’t have to know what he knows. They didn’t have to feel what he felt. Loss of another is one thing. But loss of the self, the brutality of it—

He’s not thinking about that anymore. He must remember that.

“When are you getting your next Avengers mission?” Ned asks.

Again, Peter mimes an unaffected shrug. “Whenever the next crisis comes, I guess.”

“I still can’t fucking believe you went to space without me,” Ned groans out.

Peter doesn’t reply. This is a kind of silence he’s learning to perfect. Around his friends, around May, around himself in the early hours of the morning when he’s staring at the wall and the force of it all is closing his throat the way it did on Titan, in those last few moments. Say nothing. If it’s not in words it isn’t real. He’s always been one to vocalize, to talk himself or Karen through a problem until it was solved, but now he knows the secret. Say nothing. Say nothing, and it’ll all fade.

MJ glances up at him. He looks away.

“The first stage of primary hemostasis is…” she asks, flipping a page.

“Vascular spasm.” Peter nearly knocks himself off the ceiling with the force of his answer. He dangles for a moment, one hand still stuck to the plaster, and then MJ throws a rubber band ball at his head. He hits the ground laughing. It all almost feels real.

 

 

He’s looking forward to the day when he’ll be able to look May in the eye without wanting to apologize. Without thinking only of his absence. The weight of it all, again, on his chest. On hers. Without thinking of that far away place. Surely, that day will come.

(Because he knows the secret, now. Say nothing, say nothing.)

May works second shift on Tuesdays, so he makes spaghetti and leaves her a serving in the microwave. He likes to wait for her to come home before he heads out on patrol. Another apology. They eat together, watch something stupid on TV, wear collagen face masks that are decorated like jungle animals. If he squints, it’s like it was before.

Then he puts on the suit to head out and he’s back on Titan, feeling himself come undone. Swallowing back the taste of ash on his tongue.

“Everything okay?” May asks, watching him from the hallway as he inspects the dark circles under his eyes in the bathroom mirror. “You know you don’t have to go out every night. If it’s too much, with school and your college applications, you don’t have to—”

“I do,” he says quietly.

“I’m sure Tony wouldn’t mind if you took a day off.”

“It’s not about him,” he replies, expression suddenly sharp-edged.

May crosses her arms, looking taken aback. Again, he fights the urge to let out another sorry. She inspects him for a long moment, until he looks away. “You don’t seem to be spending as much time with him as you used to.”

“I’m just busy.” He shrugs, trying for a smile. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees success in the mirror. “Like you said. College and senior year and stuff.”

She steps forward, placing a warm hand on the nape of his neck. He leans into the touch more than he intends. Something aches, vaguely, in the core of him. He thinks, again, of what this apartment must have felt like with only her in it.

“I just think you should be getting more sleep,” she says.

“I’ll come home early tonight,” he replies, and wonders if he’s lying.

“Alright.” She kisses him on the top of the head. He closes his eyes, and slips out of her grip.

 

 

The lizard guy seems to be quite partial to the subway tunnels.

By midnight, Peter is on the prowl, following a trail of shed skin through the humid dark. He sticks to the ceiling, keeping a few meters following distance so that the thick, swishing tail of the lizard stays just within his line of sight.

“Karen, turn on night vision,” he murmurs, and then the tunnel is bathed in a sea of radioactive green light before his eyes.

“Peter, your heart rate is a little elevated. Are you alright?” asks Karen.

Peter takes a long breath. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

The darkness is starting to bother him. It never used to. The blackness had come for him, on Titan. It hasn’t left. He stops for a moment, presses his forehead against the cool brick above him. The lizard man slithers out of sight ahead of him, rounding a corner.

“There’s a train coming in two minutes,” says Karen.

“Where’s the lizard fucker?”

“One hundred and three feet ahead of you, tucked into an enclave that leads to a service door.”

“You think he’s waiting for the train?” Peter asks, more to himself than to Karen, but it’s still nice to hear a response.

“That seems possible.”

A few more paces along the ceiling and he gets eyes on the lizard again, just as the headlights of the train begin to cast a glow down the tunnel. The rhythmic clunk of the wheels across the track crescendos. The hairs on the back of his neck raise.

He’s still trying to work out the physics of his next move when a number of things happen all at once.

The train arrives; the lizard man lunges for the first window of the second car. On instinct, Peter shoots a web that catches the tail of the lizard, and he feels himself slingshot forward as the train passes beneath him. He hits the roof of the subway with a thud that knocks all the breath out of his lungs, then slides down the side until he can wiggle into the window the lizard has already broken through.

Once inside, he takes stock of the scene unfolding: commuters huddling toward the back of the car to avoid the potential line of fire, the gashes in the metal where the creature’s claws have crushed through steel and glass, the momentum of the train still carrying the chaos forward into the blackness of the tunnel ahead. The lizard has already pulled his way forward into the next car, and seems to be working his way toward the conductor.

“Hey, come on, dude,” Peter says, jack-knifing his way through the debris. “You’re not the weirdest shit people have seen on this train, but you’re close.”

The creature turns back to catch a glimpse of his pursuer, just as Peter webs his left hand to the nearest pole and then his clawed right foot to a bench. There comes a roar; Peter leaps onto the ceiling for a better angle and starts webbing down various other flailing, scaly limbs. A moment later and he’s almost finished; the thing is almost pinned.

And then the lights go out.

The black is impenetrable. Peter is vaguely aware that the train has slowed to a crawl, and he can hear the nervous whispers of the remaining passengers, but that represents the extent of his senses. He can’t see his own hands in front of his face, much less the rest of his body.

And if he can’t see his body, then maybe it’s not there.

His heart has begun to pound.

The lizard lets out another roar, and begins to leverage himself, tearing at the webbing that only halfway binds him. Peter is frozen in place, staring into the dark. The sound of his heartbeat blocks out all else. For a moment, all the pain comes back to him. All the fear. He’s disintegrating again, coming apart piece by piece, stripped away into nothing. He feels himself rip apart slowly. Say nothing, say nothing. If he says nothing, it didn’t happen.

He can’t breathe. He pulls up his mask to the nose, takes in great, gulping breaths, but it doesn’t help.

The lizard breaks free. Peter hears heavy footsteps making a beeline for the window and, finally, jerks his arm forward. A web springs forth, but in the dark he can’t make out where it lands. There’s the sound of breaking glass. Peter manages to throw himself into motion again, feeling around for the window the lizard had gone through. Impatient, he instead lays hands on the nearest expanse of glass and throws a heavy punch. It shatters; a brisk bolt of pain implodes across his bicep and forearm. In the black, he can’t make out the extent of the injury, and doesn’t much care to either.

The lights flicker back on. Peter leans out the broken window only to find that the lizard has vanished—the tunnel is empty and silent in both directions.

“Shit,” Peter murmurs, leaning back inside the car.

The commuters, looking frazzled but not particularly surprised, start to filter back to their previous positions. Peter, still breathing hard, looks around to plan his escape, until he notices the blood dripping on the floor.

“You alright, son?” asks a man in wrinkled scrubs.

Peter winces.

“Um, yeah, I think so,” Peter says, sparing a tentative glance down at his arm. The suit is saturated with blood from the shoulder down on the left side, and shards of glass stick out at all angles. If he thinks about it, he can feel the pain, just barely, but his mind is still racing too quickly to really anchor him in anything physical. The glass catches the red emergency lights, sending a kaleidoscope of color across the floor.

“You’re just a boy, aren’t you?” asks a woman about May’s age, laying a gentle hand on his uninjured shoulder.

He realizes, abruptly, that his mask is still partially pulled up. The other patrons are all looking at him, a mix of pity and weariness in their expressions. He’s shaking a little; he feels like he might cry.

“I gotta go,” he says, voice unsteady. He pulls his mask down.

“Go ahead, honey,” says the woman.

Peter climbs up, holding his bloody arm close to his chest, and nods once to the crowd of commuters before leaping back onto the tunnel ceiling and slinking away.

 

 

The wounds in his arm won’t heal on their own with the glass still embedded. Once he’s above ground again, he ducks into an alleyway to assess the damage. The pain has grown, steadily—it’s now a dull roar in the back of his mind, a persistent wave beating against the beach of his brain—but the bleeding has started to slow down.

“I can help you locate some of the smaller pieces,” Karen says. “But you’ll need tweezers.”

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he mutters, leaning back heavily against a brick wall. None of the options available to him are good. He can try and make a break for home, but the thought of May finding him covered in blood is somehow too cruel to contemplate. He can’t do that to her, not now. He has to be better.

But the risk of passing out if he tries to fix this himself is an unavoidable obstacle. He needs help. He needs someone.

Of course, he knows what he has to do.

He looks down at the mess of exposed flesh that is his arm, thinks about his anatomy test tomorrow, thinks about irony. About how Tony brought him back to life, yet all Peter can think about when he looks at him is death.

Say nothing.

He takes a deep breath, and turns himself in the direction of Tony’s penthouse.

Chapter Text

He notices it immediately.

There’s an interruption in what should be the smooth black of the windows running along the eastern wall. A shape outlined against the swift darkness outside. The hairs on the back of his neck rise, but then the shape moves just so, twitches just a little in the way that Tony knows so well, and all is revealed.

“What are you doing here?” is the first thing out of Tony’s mouth; it comes out a little sharper than he intends. He waves his hand for Friday to interpret and the lab plunges into luminescence.

Peter Parker doesn’t look up from his phone. “Fast internet,” he says, balancing on one foot for no apparent reason. Something about him is even more kinetic than usual. Then he raises his left arm and Tony sees the blood. “And this.”

To their credit, neither of them collapses.

“What did you do?” Tony crosses the room in impossibly few strides. His heartbeat blocks out the sound of his own voice in his ears. Peter just brushes him aside, though, and wobbles toward a rolling chair.

“Punched through a train window,” he replies, teeth gritted. Shards of glass stick out of the flesh of his arm at all angles—an avant garde sculpture of the organic and the industrial meshed haphazardly into one bloody amalgamation.

Tony waits for the kid to elaborate—neither of them are fans of silence—but the exposition doesn’t come. It’s unnerving. Peter lets out a short, pained breath and hoists his injured arm up onto the workbench beside him, careful to avoid driving any glass in deeper. Tony reaches for the nearest first aid kit, rolls up his sleeves, and urges his hands not to shake.

“Does it hurt?” Tony hears himself ask. “Do you need something?” Nevermind that his metabolism is too fast for any painkiller within easy reach. Tony sees the tight set of the kid’s jaw and has to ask.

Peter doesn’t look at him. “I’m fine. Felt worse.”

There’s really nothing to say to that.

So Tony sets to work on the glass fragments using tweezers, reading glasses slipping down his nose. Friday helps him identify the smaller shards, guides him through removing the ones sitting dangerously close to the brachial artery. Regardless of his regenerative abilities, Peter can still bleed out, if his veins are given the proper motivation. Unsettling silence notwithstanding, Tony’s glad the kid showed up here. He doesn’t like the idea of Peter trying to take care of this on his own.

He puts a hand over Peter’s where it lies on the desk beside him. “Unclench your fist,” he says. “You’ll bleed less.”

Peter does as he’s told, but doesn’t react to the touch. The last of the shards are out, placed on a paper towel to their left. The wounds are already starting to close, the bleeding has all but stopped, some of the color is returning to Peter’s face. He flexes his arm experimentally as Tony wraps it in coban tape and gauze.

“The nanos are fried,” Tony says, inspecting the tears in the suit’s arm. “I’ll need to go in and fix them before you go out again.”

“I can do it myself,” replies Peter, already on his feet.

Tony is aware that his heart is still fluttering, distantly, with residual anxiety. He’s also aware that Peter can undoubtedly hear it with his enhanced senses. And that he probably should be saying something now—because he’s Tony Stark and he always has the words ready, at any moment, to diffuse things. To evade them. Something to hide behind, until later, when he can sift through what he doesn’t understand.

Silence.

“So,” says Peter, eyes on the horizon out of the window he’d come through earlier. “I’ll be out of your hair, then.”

And then he’s leaping out, swinging away languidly on a web, bad arm tucked against his chest. Disappearing into the night. Tony looks down at the red-stained glass, the balled up gauze, the discarded tweezers.

There’s still blood on his hands, but it’s better than ash.

 

 

Despite Tony’s many attempts to persuade her otherwise, Pepper has not taken any time off since entering her second trimester. Currently, she’s in Geneva, ignoring the emails he sends her full of links to articles about the risks of strenuous activity and sleep deprivation for five-month pregnant women. When she’s home, though, she does at least heed the sticky notes he leaves around the house—reminders to take her supplements and get a minimum eight hours sleep and eat green things at least three times a day.

In between fits of obvious anxiety, he worries quietly, subterraneanly, continuously. In truth, he always has. He’d old enough now to admit that, probably. To himself if not to others. But things are different. There’s no looming threat bearing down on them to keep his hands busy. No Thanos loitering at the edges of his consciousness.

Rather, this is something new. This pregnancy is a kind of limbo, he thinks. An in-between space, neither past nor future. A thing he can’t control, a place he can’t quite fathom, a subject he doesn’t understand.

We’re all still here, he finds himself repeating. It’s important to remind they’ve survived, and they’ll keep on surviving. But to remember this he must also remember that at one point, Peter was somewhere else. Another place he can’t quite fathom.

There should be something therapeutic in recalling mistakes he’s righted but, sometimes, there just isn’t.

He came back, he whispers sometimes. A mantra against the crawl of the dark. We got him back.

Or maybe he’s not back, not entirely. This is one mistake that has not been entirely righted. Maybe they’re all still on Titan, toiling in the red earth, feeling themselves come undone. Because there must be a reason why Tony still can’t quite look him in the eye, can’t quite call him up like he used to and invite him to dinner or the lab or a boring charity gala that Pepper doesn’t want to bother with but Peter will love and never shut the fuck up about. The ease of it all has evaporated. To look at Peter is to know he failed once, and that he could do it again.

He’s done wrong by the kid. He’s doing wrong. He knows it. Maybe there’s still a certain selfishness in him he hasn’t been able to shake.

But something has snapped inside him. A bone he didn’t know he could break. It split open on Titan; it hasn’t healed. He looks at the boy and the wound widens. It widens, too, when he looks at Pepper pat the round moon of her stomach and guides his hand to do the same.

He thought, once, that he knew all there was to know about worry. About guilt. But this is new.

 

 

Rhodey has taken to coming over on Tuesday nights, now, to keep him company. Ostensibly, it’s part of a slow, rolling upgrade of the War Machine suit, but mostly they end up watching Downton Abbey with Happy. It’s a method of getting Tony out of the lab, of sending him to bed at a reasonable hour after everyone has a few drinks. They’re all too aware of what it looks like when Tony starts to go off the deep end, and he himself can feel it too. It’s always a few steps off. The precipice looms even when he’s not actively descending into it.

“Where is Pepper, exactly?” asks Rhodey, deciding on a dubiously equal gin to tonic ratio for he and Tony’s drinks.

“Switzerland,” Tony replies crisply, crossing his arms.

“And why is it that you’re not with her?”

Tony turns his eyes toward the ceiling. “First of all, she doesn’t need me. That’s pretty well-established at this point. Two hundred pounds of deadweight in the business arena at this point.”

Rhodey hands him his drink, unimpressed. “And?”

“And...I feel like I should be here,” Tony adds, shrugging. A good facsimile of something casual, he thinks. “Just in case.”

“In case of what?”

“Aliens. Rogue AIs. The federal government.” He plops down into an armchair. “And the kid.”

“Yeah, how is the spiderling these days?” Rhodey narrows his eyes. “I feel like I’ve hardly seen him.”

Tony waves a hand, the gesture too tight to be nonchalant. “He’s, you know, spidering. As one does.”

“So he’s doing alright?” Rhodey’s gaze is still locked onto him. Tony does his best not to sweat. “He’s settling back in after everything—”

“Do you think we need, like, some cheese and crackers to go with this?” Tony asks, clinking the ice cubes in his drink. “I think so.”

And then he’s on his feet again, trotting back into the kitchen with all the purpose he can muster.

“And you’re alright, too?” Rhodey calls after him, and Tony pretends not to hear over the sound of digging through the silverware drawer.

 

 

Pepper calls him late in the night—early in the morning, Geneva time. She’s already finished her five am run and her hair is still wet from a shower. Tony’s in the lab again, wiping down the table where Peter’s blood leaked and tossing glass shards into the trash. With a swift swipe of his hand he brings up the video feed above the desk and keeps scrubbing, even after there’s no visible blood left.

“You look tired,” is the first thing out of her mouth.

“Thanks, honey,” he retorts.

“That’s not a reflection on your appearance so much as an order for you to sleep,” she replies, without missing a beat. Her expression is withering.

“I’ll get around to it,” he says, and finally looks up at her fully. “How’s the little one?”

“Kicked me all night long,” she says, but can’t keep the grin off her face. “I’ll have to have a talk with her. Or him.”

“It’s definitely a her.” He’s back to scrubbing, his hands turning steady once again.

“Oh? And how would you know?”

“Because I know everything,” he sighs out. And then remembers it’s supposed to be a joke, and makes an effort to smile.

Pepper snorts. “Of course.”

The last piece of glass, hidden beneath the edge of a microscope, clatters to the floor.

“Also I got a pretty thrilling news alert today that Spider-Man fought some lizard guy on the F train,” she says, holding up her phone as evidence next to her smirk. “That kid really gets into some weird shit, doesn’t he?”

Something in his expression must freeze, or maybe the facade just cracks for a moment. She always has been able to catch these things. She stops moving, leans forward toward the transparent holoscreen. “You’re taking care of yourself, aren’t you?” she asks. “Tony?”

“Yep,” he murmurs, avoiding her scrutinizing gaze. He doesn’t have the energy for another attempted interrogation tonight, no matter how adept. “I’m not as fragile as everyone seems to think.”

“You’ve gotta take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else,” she says immediately, like the words have been waiting. He doesn’t like the idea of his mental health taking up such space in her mind—not now, when they should all be growing rather than regressing.

She deserves better, he thinks, but she probably always has.

“Yeah, well, luckily I’ve got the mental health thing down pat,” he says, pointing a brisk finger at his temple. “It’s all good in here. All the time. Pink champagne on ice, all day long.”

She smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “You can check out but you can never leave?”

“Well, I wasn’t going to go there.”

In the background, he sees a door open, and then an assistant with a clipboard is approaching her desk. Pepper glances behind her, then back at him, and lets out a sigh. “Tony, I’ve got a meeting.”

“Of course.”

“We’re finishing this conversation later.”

He raises two smug eyebrows, keeps his voice light. “What conversation?”

“You’re insufferable.” She smirks, but then turns serious a moment later. “Please get some sleep.”

“I’ll work on it. Definitely starting to hit critical mass for tiredness. Should pass out any minute now, I think.” He’s babbling, now, hoping to keep her on the line for just a moment longer. But it’s too late. She smiles at him once more, wishes him goodnight, and then the lab is silent once again.

Chapter Text

After spending most of the night before contemplating the exposed fibers of his own triceps brachii, the anatomy test is a breeze. And the wounds in his arm have sealed, painlessly, by lunch into thin red scars, vanishing further into memory with every passing minute. He eats with Ned and MJ in their corner of the lunchroom. There’s something a little sacred about it. It’s quieter. And it’s out of view of the banners adorning the front wall—Liz’s old stomping ground. She still lingers around the edges of his mind, every now and again. And then he thinks about glowing green eyes and the weight of concrete.

There’s far too much inside his head, sometimes.

He spends the rest of the day avoiding a blood drive in the gym, since last time he tried to donate blood the massive sixteen gauge needle broke off on his skin. It was blamed on a manufacturing defect; he managed to escape before they tried to stick him again. Irony has become an easy way to measure the distance between real and unreal, these days. He can’t go through the motions of being a baseline good citizen by offering up his O positive platelets, but he can swing through the night as a masked vigilante and fight (mostly) petty crime.

“That shit is wild,” says Ned, when Peter tries to explain this dichotomy to him. Somehow, it’s the only thing Peter wants to hear.

He’s back home by 3:30, laying his suit out in the cool dark of the bedroom to inspect the tears in the arm. Ned plugs his laptop in to the suit’s port; MJ inspects the rips with gentle fingers. They’ve taken to following him home nearly every day now. Routines change when you come back from the dead.

“This is going to be complicated,” Ned says, scrolling through the code.

“But we can do it, right?” Peter asks, standing up abruptly from where he’s hunched over the fabric.

Ned purses his lips, eyes wandering, then points an incredulous gaze at Peter. “Why exactly didn’t you ask Mr. Stark to help you with this?”

“Don’t wanna bother him.”

“He already built you the suit,” MJ says. “It can’t be that much more of an imposition to help you keep it working.”

There’s a lot of things he almost says—a litany of excuses, oscillating closer to the truth, then veering away. Say nothing, he thinks, a little desperately, but it’s too late.

“He already brought me back from the dead,” he mutters.

MJ is looking at him intently; he doesn’t meet her gaze. “And that’s enough?” she asks.

The room has gone still.

“We can fix it ourselves,” Peter says, eyes resolutely blank.

They get to work.

 

 

By nine, the arm of the suit is more or less in working condition. Karen says that there are still microtears, that the suit will run inefficiently, but Peter can’t find it in himself to care. Ned and MJ head home. He heads out on patrol.

At half past ten, he breaks up a drug deal under the BQE, but the dealer has a nice dog named Grace and Peter stumbles, thinking about what will happen to Grace if her owner’s in jail. The dealer must see him deliberate from where Peter’s webbed him to a dumpster. Peter bends down to pet Grace, grounds himself in the fur beneath his gloves and the roar of traffic somewhere to his left, and thinks.

“I’ll give you a couple of free joints if you let me go,” says the dealer, helpfully.

“Whatever,” says Peter, and cuts him loose. He waves goodbye to Grace, and wonders if he would’ve made the same decision before Titan. Wonders, distantly, whether the version of himself that lives and breathes now is the same that dissolved into nothing. He thinks about matter, about how it cannot be created or destroyed. Just pushed and pulled into new shapes. The clay of existence. There’s no reason to believe he’s made of the same stuff he was before. This new arrangement of molecules could be something entirely different. Something far more fragile.

He spends a couple more hours diving in and out of conflict in Brooklyn—breaking up bar fights, walking a girl home, joining the search for an escaped cat. At some point he finds himself swinging in the direction of home, but stops on an empty rooftop before he gets there. He’s tucked the free joints from Grace’s owner into his waistband, and now they seem heavier. Somewhere behind him is the distant drone of LaGuardia approach, and below the amorphous drawl of the city leaks through the night.

He finds a seat on a length of chrome ductwork and lights up the first roach.

It’s purely a matter of scientific curiosity, he thinks. An interest in the competition between the drugs and the pace of his enhanced metabolism. Mr. Stark would approve of such practical experimentation. He smokes down both joints one after another, is bored by the lack of noticeable effect, then abruptly loses his train of thought. His mind disconnects from his body.

Shit, he thinks, and then maybe starts crying. Or laughing.

It becomes kind of the same thing, once he’s swinging between skyscrapers again. He realizes, eventually, where he’s headed, and forgets again shortly thereafter. Until, that is, he collides with and sticks to a massive penthouse window in Midtown and watches Tony Stark drop his mug in surprise on the other side of the glass.

“Mr. Stark,” he hears himself say. “Do you think I’d be a better Spider-Man if I had little pincers?”

He unsticks his hands and uses his fingers to mime having mandibles for reference. Tony opens the adjacent window and yanks him inside before he can fall backwards into metropolitan oblivion.

Peter struggles with the change of scenery; the room swirls. He’s still thinking about the whistle of the wind in his ears, even though he can’t hear it anymore. He allows himself to be lead to a couch, even manages to bend his legs when Tony’s hand press down on his shoulders so that he’ll sit.

“There’s a lot to unpack here,” says Tony, eyeing him from across a coffee table. “Also you made me drop my drink.”

Peter sways, slightly, in his seat. He looks at his hands—they’re still there. The rest of him must be, too.

“Who gave you whatever you’re on?” Tony asks.

“This dealer,” Peter murmurs. “...a dog…”

“The drug dealer was a dog?”

“No, that was Grace,” he replies. “The drug guy’s name was David. He goes to Parsons.”

“Of course he does,” mutters Tony, turning towards the kitchen behind him. There’s the sound of water running, and then shortly thereafter a glass is pushed into his hands. The space between the cup and his mouth seems like miles. He watches ripples move across the surface of the liquid and tries to sit very still so he doesn’t fall. Tony is pacing around and saying something, again. He interrupts.

“Mr. Stark, I’m sorry.”

The pacing stops. For a moment, Peter can hear it—the sound of the red dirt crunching beneath his feet on Titan. He takes a deep breath. “Your drink. I’m sorry about your drink.”

Tony still hasn’t moved. “Don’t be.”

Peter reaches up to pull his mask off with one slow hand. He glances at his arm—the haphazard repair on the nanos is already coming apart at the seams. He sucks in another breath, and thinks he must be sobering up in the warmth and the light of the room. It’s not been much of an experiment. He doesn’t know how long it’s been since he smoked, and so has no data on how quickly he’s metabolizing. He’s spent the night failing both as a crime stopper and as a scientist.

“I’m ordering you McDonald’s,” says Tony, looking intently at his phone. “That should get you back to normal before you go home. Large fries?”

“Hell yeah.” His voice cracks. And then: “Are you avoiding me?”

Maybe he’s not as sober as he thinks. Not yet. If he were, he might take a moment to appreciate the fact he has just managed to shut up Tony Stark, a feat considered by most to be generally impossible.

He looks at Tony; Tony looks at him. He knows they’re both seeing the same thing. His last few moments on Titan, fear mirroring fear. A feedback loop of trauma every time they meet eyes. Then Peter closes his lids in a long blink and he’s in the other place. The place he can’t quite remember and doesn’t want to. It’s less of a visual memory so much as a feeling in his chest. An empty field. The starry horizon distant and unreachable. He’d sat there in the swaying grass for an eternity, paralyzed, marinating in fear and in the horror of being between life and death. Ripped invisibly between the end and the beginning. No, he can’t quite remember that place precisely—but the existential hideousness of it has implanted itself firmly in his chest.

What he does remember is that when they’d brought him back, it was the worst pain he’d ever felt. It echos inside him, still. A reverberating ache.

“I don’t know,” says Tony after a while, crossing his arm defensively. “I don’t—I don’t know how to help you. Or how to not help you.”

Peter is still perched on the edge of the couch cushion but he feels closer to solid, now. More connected to the floor and to his own brain.

“I usually end up making things worse,” Tony adds, voice a shade quieter. His gaze is far off and unfocused, darting nervously around the room. The anxiety emanating off him is palpable. Peter is tired of being the source of it. He’s an endless imposition, it seems, injecting himself into Mr. Stark’s life, leaving him upended and clinging to dead children on empty planets. Peter’s legacy, it seems, is only stress.

“I don’t need any help,” Peter says. “You already saved my life. I’m fine.”

He gets to his feet quicker than he should. Black spots spill across his vision, but he stays standing by letting one hand grip the armrest. “Peter, you’re not invincible—” Tony starts again, drawing nearer.

Peter scoffs. He can’t help it. “Trust me, I know.”

Tony has a hand on his elbow, now, eyes darting down to where the tears in the suit’s arm have become even wider. Friday cuts in with the announcement that an UberEats guy has arrived with McDonald’s. Dum-E brings up the food and Peter realizes, finally, that Tony’s penthouse seems strangely empty, tonight. No Pepper or Rhodey or Happy to fill the expanse. Tony has engine grease on his t-shirt, too. It must be an ‘alone in the lab’ kind of night. The kind Peter used to be invited to, periodically, when neither of them could sleep and the need to hyperfixate was too strong.

Peter sits back down. Tony deposits the food onto his lap, then disappears while Peter eats. From the hallway comes the sound of fabric sliding past fabric, of a closet door sliding open and then closed.

“Guest bedroom’s made up,” Tony says, materializing again in the living room. “Probably better to sleep it off rather than risk swinging home. Friday can scan you in the morning, make sure you’ve metabolized it all out.”

“May?” asks Peter, through a mouthful of his second burger.

“Told her you’re staying over to help with a project for the Shanghai expo.”

Tony isn’t going to let him back out into the night. Maybe he doesn’t want to go, anyways. Maybe he just wants to sit.

He can manage being an imposition a little longer, he supposes. Since Ben, he’s become well-acquainted with guilt.

“I’ll get your suit fixed,” Tony adds, directing Dum-E to sweep away the shards of glass from the dropped drink. “I think you still have spare clothes around here somewhere.”

Peter just nods. With his mouth full, it’s easy to ignore the tightness in his throat. He watches Tony’s left hand shake, almost imperceptibly, from across the room. Peter swallows hard, and closes his eyes.

Footsteps approach him, eventually. Pause next to him. Then fade away.

When he opens his eyes again, the room is empty.

 

 

He dreams about that in-between space often enough. That empty field. The feel of the grass brushing his back. The dimness of the light; a perpetual, mournful twilight. The feeling of stagnation. Rotting from the inside out.

Sometimes, though, he dreams about waking up.

He’d come to on Titan, sprawled screaming in the dirt. His senses came back to him slowly but he was overwhelmed, regardless. He’d realized, at some point, that he was sobbing—big, open-mouthed gasps. And there was a hand in his hair and another on his chest, just above where his heart had started beating again.

“I’ve got you,” Tony had said, hand sliding around to support his neck. “I’ve got you. It’s just me.”

They’d looked at each other then the same way they look at each other now—life and death and unequivocal, eternal fear, all rolled into one.

Chapter Text

He’s not sure what the kid will do. He never is, really.

So, for now, he listens. He leaves the door cracked to the lab, brings up some results from trials he’d asked Friday to run earlier, and stares at them blankly in favor of straining to hear Peter’s quiet footsteps. The kid finishes his meal, and then does the exact opposite of what Tony expects: he actually goes to bed. He pads by the door to the lab, the one that Tony had left open on the vague hope that Peter would come in without either of them having to ask, and heads for the guest suite. After a while, the footsteps fade; the bed creaks. And then nothing.

Tony rises from his desk chair on autopilot, moving silently down the hall. The door to the guest bedroom is ajar, too, and through it he sees the Spider suit laid out over a chair. He slithers in to grab it but stops when he sees the kid tucked under the blankets, breath even. Genuine sleep, perhaps. Some part of him must still be surprised that Peter hasn’t fled out the window. It feels like a small victory. For both of them.

Then Tony spends the rest of the night bent over the suit, pulling together the severed edges where the amateur repair has come undone. He can see Ned’s signature all over it. He’s not done a terrible job, truthfully, considering the limited resources at his disposal. Karen pops up at the terminal in his workbench and gives him an update on the rest of the suit’s functionality.

“The heating coils need to be replaced again,” she says, the code scrolling down across the screen in front of him.

“Again?” he asks, removing the mini screwdriver from between his teeth.

“An unfortunate side effect of making the suit machine washable,” she replies primly.

He sits back in his chair as the clock ticks towards four in the morning. Pepper’s flight should be putting down in Beijing any moment; she’ll text when she lands, he imagines. The sigh that escapes him isn’t quite weary. He still feels keyed up—seeing Peter unexpectedly stuck to the window of his thirtieth floor penthouse had dislodged some loose part inside him and sent him tumbling into panic. Nothing new there, he supposes, but his guts are still tangled up in each other.

“How is he, Karen?” he asks, eyes on the ceiling. “Is he okay?”

“Right now he’s sleeping soundly. Normal heart rate and breathing.”

This is not the answer he’s looking for, of course, but it was a stupid question anyways. Obviously, Peter is not okay. Neither of them are. And they’ll continue not to be, if they keep up this little game. Where Peter says nothing and Tony says nothing and they pretend like the world didn’t just end. Pretend like Tony didn’t spend a month, after the Snap, watching all of Karen’s archived footage of Peter’s exploits up until the day Thanos’s minions showed up on Bleecker St, just so he could hear the kid’s voice saying something other than I’m sorry.

Before Pepper had departed for her latest trip they’d gone for another ultrasound at Tony’s insistence, just to confirm that she was in good enough condition to fly. She was, of course, because she’s Pepper and nothing’s stopped her yet. And Tony had saved the sound of the baby’s heartbeat to Friday’s innermost memory drive to listen to, periodically. Trying to decide whether the flutter of it comforts or terrifies him.

 

 

He falls asleep by five on the shorter of the two couches in the living room, legs and arms all jammed into a protective knot. When the sun rises shortly thereafter, though, he’s awake again, scrolling through a mental list of potential worries. Cataloguing the day’s anxieties, sorting them into an inventory that has only grown as time passed.

First on the list is Peter, today. Words gather on his tongue and then slither back down his throat. He, of all people, should know what to say. Should know what it means to come back from the edge. He tries to think of what he would’ve wanted to hear from his father if he’d been alive when Tony had faced death as many times as he has over the years. Tries to think of something both soothing and intuitive. But his mind shuts down abruptly at the mere thought of Howard, and drives all rational ideas from his head again. He curls his left hand into a hard fist, until it stops trying to shake.

Maybe it’s just too much pressure, he thinks. Managing another’s mental health on top of his own.

That doesn’t bode particularly well for the heartbeat stored safely in Friday’s archives.

Tony is still lying on the sofa, muscles half-locked in the rigor of contained fear, when Peter begins to stir. Some part of him expects the prophecy from the night before to be fulfilled—that Peter will do what he’s become so partial to doing. That he’ll take his suit and duck out a window, and avoid the silence that plagues both of them. But he doesn’t; his footsteps begin to pad down the hallway.

Brave, Tony thinks. Braver than me.

But he already knew that.

“Hey, Pete,” he says, taking significant effort to untangle himself from the couch.

“Morning, Mr. Stark,” he replies, rubbing sleep from his eyes. He’s a child, Tony remembers, a little desperately. Still a child.

“You know you don’t have to call me that, right?” Tony says, slipping into a sitting position. He flips his wrist and Friday brings up a newsfeed were a woman reports on bridge and tunnel delays. He appreciates the white noise, the familiar patter of faraway voices.

“I know,” Peter says, face obscured by the opening of a kitchen cabinet. Still, Tony thinks their might be a smirk pulling at the kid’s mouth.

“Listen, Peter,” Tony begins, without any clear idea of where he’s headed. He just can’t bear the thought of letting the silence fester any longer.

Peter turns toward him; they meet eyes for the first time in what feels like years.

Then Peter’s gaze darts somewhere behind Tony’s head, and his eyebrows raise impossibly high. “Oh, fuck.

Tony turns to the forgotten newsfeed behind him, only to encounter newscopter footage of what looks like a massive, sentient lizard rampaging through Washington Square Park. He squints at the screen. “What the hell is that?”

Peter is already on the move, dashing back toward the bedroom and no doubt the suit within. “Oh my god, do you know that lizard?” Tony asks, calling after him.

“Not, like, personally,” Peter says, wriggling the suit on over his pajamas. “But we’ve met?”

“What’s his deal?” Tony says, interest piqued. On some level, there’s relief flooding his senses. This is a much easier conversation than the one he thought he’d be having this morning. “Genetically engineered? Alien creature? Robot?”

“Dunno.” Peter cracks open the bedroom window, then rolls the mask down over his face. “Still working on that.”

And then he’s diving indifferently out the window, in a way that still makes Tony’s heart beat in his throat just to look at. A moment later and he catches a glimpse of the kid’s graceful swing between a skyscraper and a crane and thinks that he should probably get out there, in case Peter needs back up.

 

 

The deal he has with Pepper regarding Iron Man is somewhat nebulous, and in her absence he’s a little ashamed to take advantage of that gray area. But it’s for Peter—he’d like to think she’ll understand.

Still, all he has available and in working condition is one arm’s worth of nanos, since he’s taken the port out of his chest. So he calls Rhodey, and finds that he’s inbound from overseas and should be touching down in DC in an hour, but can make a detour north if necessary. Feeling a little closer to secure, he lets the armor bleed over his fingers and climb up his shoulder, then has Happy bring the car around.

“What’s he gotten himself into now?” asks Happy, without preamble, dodging fearlessly around stopped traffic as they speed downtown.

“Nothing he can’t handle, I’m sure,” says Tony, without looking up from the news coverage on his phone. Spider-Man is on the scene now, dodging blows from the lizard as it climbs up the side of Bobst library.

For all that Tony has done his best to keep his tone flat and unaffected, Happy still looks pointedly at him in the rearview mirror. “We won’t lose him again,” he says, and Tony pretends not to hear.

By the time they actually reach the park, Peter and the lizard have fallen off the side of the library and torn through the fountain. Causing significant property damage in the way that only Avengers can. A collection of NYPD officers are waving guns around and adding to the chaos. Peter looks like he’s getting the upper hand, actually, just as Tony steps out onto the curb.

But then something happens.

It’s hard to catch. Tony only sees it because he’s looking. Maybe he expects it; maybe that’s why he’s here. Peter freezes. Just for a split second, but it’s long enough for the lizard’s tail to swing around and knock him fifteen yards back into the grass. He hits the ground hard, and doesn’t get up.

At which point Tony steps in and shoots the strongest energy beam he can muster with his one working arm at the creature, sending it skittering down Fifth Avenue with a trail of police cars following in its wake.

Then he’s dodging pedestrians and police vehicles over to where Peter is struggling back to his feet, mask raised over his nose. He’s gulping in shaky breaths, fingers ripping bark off a tree with the force of his grip.

“I don’t—I don’t know what happened,” he gasps, once he sees Tony galloping toward him.

“It’s okay,” Tony says, reaching out to pull the mask back down over his chin. “It happens.”

“It’s not supposed to—”

“Come on,” Tony murmurs, noticing a mixed herd of press and emergency workers moving in their direction. “Let’s get you out of here.”

“Mr. Stark, any comment on what just happened out there?” asks a woman with a microphone, stepping into their path.

“Big lizard,” he replies. “You all saw it.”

“Spider-Man, are you alright?” asks another, following to where Happy has pulled around to meet them.

“I’m fine,” says Peter, but his voice drops out on the last vowel.

Tony lets the backseat swallow Peter first, then moves in beside him and shuts the door with what is probably more force than is wholly necessary. Then Happy hits the gas. None of them say another word until the drone of sirens fades completely from the air.

“I don’t understand it,” Peter mutters, head sinking into his hands. “Something just, like, stops me. Every time something dangerous happens, I start thinking about Titan. The same fear comes back. I don’t know.”

He’s looking at his hands, now. Like he’s making sure they’re still there.

“Anything broken?” Tony asks, in the absence of any idea what else to say. “You took a pretty hard hit out there.”

Peter is silent. Tony knows he’s ruined it; managed to say the exact wrong thing in the exact wrong moment.

“Yeah,” says Peter, after a moment. “Just bruises.”

Tony, briefly, tries to scheme some way to resurrect the candidness of the minute before but the words aren’t coming. Or, rather, only the wrong ones are. He scrambles internally, circles around to that same thought from before—what would he have wanted Howard to say to him, if Howard could have been fucked to say anything at all?—and it all just becomes more impossible. That familiar cocktail of guilt and panic chokes him.

“You can drop me off here,” says Peter.

“No, it’s no trouble to take you home, or back to my—”

“Nah, here is better.” He’s already got a hand on the door. It’s too late. “I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah,” says Tony. He’s never hated the sound of his own voice more.

Then Peter’s out the door. Tony watches him pick an alleyway, scale a brick wall, and then swing off—fading into the horizon just as the full light of the morning begins to blossom.

Chapter Text

Queens was spared the brunt of the damage in the 2012 Chitauri invasion; still, Peter recalls spending the better part of a day huddling under the dining room table with Ben and May, wondering vaguely if they were all going to die. They had the TV on, though, and once Iron Man and a collection of others in bright colors showed up, Peter’s worries more or less faded.

There is one memory of that day, though, that is filled with such a visceral fear that it overshadows all else. An image he can’t get out of his head.

Iron Man falling through a black hole in the sky, limp like a ragdoll. Dead.

Even then, Peter knew that it was a man inside that suit. Just a man. Understood, somehow, that piercing the veil between mundane reality and the vast emptiness in the sky beyond requires a sacrifice—you don’t come back in one piece. Now, he wonders if the sharp knife of fear that cut through him upon seeing Tony Stark plummet through the fabric of the known and the unknown was more of a premonition. Had he known, even then, what was in store for him? Had his cells vibrated with the intensity of what was to come?

 

 

May is waiting for him when he limps through the front door, the TV tuned to the local news covering the cleanup operation in Greenwich Village. She’s on him before he makes it three steps into the apartment.

“Peter, are you alright?” she says, cupping his face, scrubbing with her thumb at a smear of dirt across his cheekbone. “It looked like you got hit so hard. I’m gonna kill that fucking lizard thing myself, I swear to God, if it touches you again.”

“I’m fine,” he murmurs, eyes unfocused. He doesn’t like the idea of May seeing him take a hit like that. Witnessing the split second where he didn’t get up, but just sat there and gasped. He’s put her through enough.

“Are you?” she asks, tipping his chin up.

He can feel his bottom lip trembling already; he knows what’s going to happen if he looks her in the eye. Instead, he bites down hard on the inside of his cheek and leans forward, into her embrace. Her arms slide around him. “Oh, honey,” she murmurs, muffled against his hair. “It’s alright. We’ll get you patched up.”

 

 

He spends the day in bed, the overcast sky throwing his room into shades of blue to match the bruise that snakes up across his back. A headache pulls at the back of his skull. He nears toward sleep, periodically, but always manages to pull himself out of it at the last moment, before the nightmares start.

It’s Saturday, but May is covering someone’s evening shift. She comes in to sit on the edge of his bed before she leaves, feet soft on the carpet, voice softer. Afraid, it seems, that he won’t be able to manage anything more intrusive. Maybe she’s right.

“You have to talk to me,” she says, patting his ankle with one light hand. He looks stalwartly at the wall. “If not me, than someone. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. But I know that’s why you’re struggling. I know you’re not sleeping, that you’re getting beat up more than usual. I know you’re avoiding Tony.”

Peter takes a long, shuddering breath. His voice is untrustworthy, now. Say nothing.

In the twilight, he looks at his hands. Grounds himself in his own body. He is here, home. Not on Titan. Not spending eternity in that field, with that endless horizon, rotting. He’s here.

“I lost you once,” she says, voice thin and brittle. “I feel like I’m still getting you back. Whatever it takes—we can figure it out.”

Evening is slowly submerging the room in darkness. May reaches out for his hand and he squeezes it. “Okay,” he says, finally, throat raw. “Okay.”

“You’re gonna talk to me? Or Tony? Or someone?” she asks.

He sits up slowly, digs his palms into his eye sockets until he sees spots. “Yeah. Just...yeah. Soon.”

“Soon?”

“Tonight I gotta work on some college stuff first but later. I’ll go see Mr. Stark,” he replies. The idea is firming up in his head. Maybe today was the breaking point—getting smacked into oblivion by a lizard on live TV may be what is finally enough to get him to look Tony Stark in the eye and ask him that question that seems to follow him everywhere, these days: what am I supposed to do now?

“I’m so proud of you, you know.” The warmth in her eyes is almost too much. It’s the kind of tenderness that he wishes he could save in a jar, uncap it the next time the universe kicks the shit out of him. Because there’s always a next time. She kisses him on the head and slips out, calling out a goodbye when she leaves for work.

 

 

He does, mostly, what he said he would do. An hour is spent proofreading his essay for the Common App, and another staring blankly at his supplements for MIT. They all feel a little subpar, now. Achingly superficial. The importance of failure, as exemplified by a shitty grade on a calc test. A boast about his ascendancy to treasurer for the Spanish Honor Society.

He can’t talk about anything that matters, about the things that sit so heavily in his mind. The Stark Internship features pretty heavily on his resume, but every time he sits down to write something about Tony, he doesn’t know what to say, where to start. What role they’re meant to play in each other’s lives. And deaths. The moment he labels it, he feels like it’ll slip away, just like everyone else he’s ever tried to hold onto.

I’m bored, Ned texts at eight. You wanna go eat?

They meet for shawarma half an hour later, after an early evening rainstorm has turned the city metallic-edged and inky black. The booth in the back left corner is theirs, all but officially. A framed photo over the cash register shows the Avengers, post-battle, taking up the entire center table. There is some speculation that it’s photoshopped but even if it is, just a glance at it always has Peter smiling.

“I can’t believe that you, of all people, can’t think of a killer college essay,” Ned says, carefully calculating the ratio of hot sauce to mustard on his fries. “You’ve done the coolest shit ever.

“Yeah, but I can’t talk about any of it,” Peter says, throwing a paranoid glance at the cashier a few yards away. He leans in, lowering his voice. “Can’t exactly brag about saving babies from runaway trains in my pajamas.”

“But you could talk about Tony Stark,” retorts Ned, eyeing him suspiciously.

“And say what?”

“‘Hi, I’m Peter, Tony Stark’s not my dad but I really fucking wish he was,’” says Ned, affecting a falsetto.

“I don’t wish—” Seeing Ned’s eyeroll, Peter stops and tries again, feeling himself flush. “...well, that’s beside the point.”

“You also have an incredible sob story,” Ned points out. “Admissions loves that shit.”

Peter has pondered this before—the combination of dead parents, of Ben’s violent death, and the money problems since then seems like the kind of things he should be writing about. The kind of personal details that he’s supposed to want to share. But he’s been living with secrets for so long now that revealing anything feels like weakness. And that brings him back to his promise to May: he’s supposed to talk to Tony, confess his troubles, show him that he’s not the infallible youth he’s spent so much time convincing everyone he is. Fail Tony again, just like on Titan. Not strong enough to avenge anything, not even himself.

“I think I figured out what the deal with the lizard is,” Peter says, finally, through a mouthful of flatbread.

Ned gives him a look at the change of subject, but motions for him to continue.

“I think he’s some escaped OsCorp project,” he says. “Since Hammer Industries collapsed they’ve been trying to corner the genetic engineering market.”

“But they fucked up and made a homicidal lizard man?”

Peter shrugs. “It happens.”

“So how are you gonna take it out?” Ned has to lean in, now, as a group of tourists comes in to admire the Avengers photo.

“I haven’t gotten that far yet.” In fact, he’s hardly gotten anywhere at all. Just thinking about the lizard issue is an uphill battle—the strange and contrary combination of a pervasive and deafening fear of anything dangerous against an overwhelming desire to put himself in the line of fire without thinking, like he used to, has him by the throat. It’s combat in his head, constantly. Throw himself into the fight, remember death. Look at Tony, think only of decay. Say nothing, feel himself come undone at the seams all over again.

The bell above the door jingles, and MJ steps in off the street. Peter waves her over to their table and then all their laptops are out, alternating between studying for the next round of this year’s decathlon and investigating what little they can find out about shady OsCorp projects.

This is as close to normal as his life is ever going be again, he thinks. From this vantage point, that doesn’t look like such a bad thing.

 

 

He heads home by eleven, and then contemplates whether he should go out on patrol or not. He can still feel himself vibrating, a little, from the shake up this morning, and knows that kind of volatility is its own kind of feedback loop. If he puts on the suit, he’ll be on edge—more prone to mistakes, more reckless. And, if he survives it, he’ll end up back here again, shaking slightly at the idea of sliding on his mask.

Instead, he starts a physics project that’s not due for another three weeks, putting on headphones to block the mere thought of anything else. Sleep, at this hour, is out of the question—he needs to be far closer to exhaustion if he has any hope of rest deep enough to avoid nightmares.

And he supposes he should call Tony, because of course he’ll be awake. He can always tell when Pepper is away on business because Tony immediately spirals into whatever problematic coping method is closest at hand. Or he could drop in in-person; Tony never seems to mind when Peter appears in his apartment. He should be fulfilling his promise to May and spilling his guts in midtown by now, but then he’s sucked into a problem he can’t quite solve involving some tricky integral and convinces himself that that’s what has him rooted to his seat.

May gets home by midnight, and he hears her fumble around the kitchen garbage can. He takes a break from the equation and wanders out to greet her. She has the trash bag in her hand.

“I can take that down to the dumpster,” he says, motioning to the bag. “It’s sketchy out there at night.”

“You sure?” she asks, and then smirks. “You don’t think I can handle myself in a creepy alleyway?”

“I’m sure you can,” Peter teases, already halfway out the door. There’s a chill in the air; he grabs May’s fluffy pink bathrobe from the hook before he goes. “I just don’t want anyone else getting hurt too bad. Spider-Man has a no-kill policy.”

He hears her laugh before he slips out, then trots toward the back staircase. The building, even at this hour, is alive with noise. Conversations and TVs and music and shuffling footsteps, all competing for his enhanced senses to latch onto. It’s a comfort to be around so much life, sometimes. To be so far from the silence of that endless field.

Maybe that’s why he misses the signs.

By the time he sees the van parked at the end of the alleyway, it’s too late. Something pungent smelling goes over his nose and mouth. His metabolism makes a valiant effort to fight the effects of the chemical, but he can feel himself fading off. He hits the pavement, hard, but barely feels the impact. Then he has the vague impression of being dragged.

Then nothing.

Chapter Text

By the time Rhodey touches down on the rooftop landing pad, Tony is already elbow deep in an old supercollider.

“What did you do?” Rhodey asks immediately, eyes narrowing.

“What do you mean?” he replies, without lifting his head.

“You look fucked up.”

“Thank you,” Tony retorts, rolling his eyes. “Thank you for that.”

“And you’re not usually this fixated on something before noon,” Rhodey says, depositing himself into a discarded rolling chair. “Never a good sign.”

There’s a thunk as Tony drops his wrench. He rolls back on his haunches, then takes a heavy seat on the floor.

Rhodey bites his thumbnail absently. “What’s this about a lizard?”

“The kid’s a mess and I’m responsible,” Tony blurts.

Rhodey nods, unsurprised. “I don’t think you’re responsible for him being a mess. But you are responsible for pointing him toward not being one.”

“I can’t fix him,” Tony says, hand balling around the nearest screwdriver. “I can’t even fix me.”

“You don’t have to.” Rhodey shrugs. “You know that. You just have to be there.”

Tony sighs.

“You already know all this,” Rhodey adds.

“I just needed some reminding,” Tony agrees.

Rhodey stands, crossing over to him in a few quick strides and offering a hand. Tony accepts it and pulls himself to his feet, but throws an arm around Rhodey before he can escape and traps him in a hug.

“Oh my god,” Rhodey groans.

“I miss you when you’re off saving the world,” Tony says, against his shirt.

“I’ve got shit to do.” But he pulls Tony closer.

 

 

Pepper, finally, makes her return from abroad by dinner. Dinner, which Tony spent hours pouring over recipes for, then falling into despair and watching reality TV with Happy and Rhodey. It takes all three of them, but they end up making omelettes.

“This is so pathetic,” says Pepper, upon seeing their combined efforts.

“But sweet?” says Tony hopefully.

She smiles and kisses him hello. “But sweet.”

Later, once they’ve climbed into a bed he hasn’t slept in since she’s been gone, he asks, “And how’s the little one?”

“He has hiccups all the time,” says Pepper. “It’s somewhere between cute and annoying. Takes after you, I suppose.”

“She,” corrects Tony. “She takes after me.”

“Whatever.” Peppers rolls her eyes. “And how’s the big one?”

“The what?”

“Peter.”

“Is that what we’re calling him?” There’s something poetic about it, he thinks. The big one and the little one; two sides of the same anxious coin, in Tony’s mind. He’s not really objecting so much as stalling.

“Have you talked to him recently?” Pepper asks, turning impatient.

“Yeah,” Tony replies. “Just saw him fight a big lizard on the Lower East Side.”

“That’s not talking.”

“I’m still working on that part.”

“Oh my god,” she mutters, looking unimpressed. “You are literally the only person on earth who understands the particular cocktail of fucked up that his life is. You’ve gotta talk to him.”

“But that’s the exact problem,” he retorts. “Whatever I say to him is going to actually matter. It’s too much pressure. My conscience is full already.”

“I believe in your ability to not fuck this up,” she says. She’s still smirking, a little, but there’s nothing but sincerity in her eyes. “And it’ll be good practice for not fucking up our son’s life.”

“Daughter.”

“Go to sleep.”

It takes him a moment, but he veers toward sleep, the beginnings of a conversation brewing inside his head. Words meant for Peter, he thinks, if he can just get them to congeal right.

Then the phone rings.

“Who’s that?” asks Pepper, still working on her tablet.

Someone’s screaming at him before he can even get the phone to his ear. His blood abruptly runs cold. He knows that particular furious, hysterical pitch.

“Fuck,” he says. “It’s May Parker.”

Then he listens very, very closely.

 

 

By midnight, they’ve stationed themselves in the Parker apartment. May has wrapped herself in a blanket because apparently Peter wore her bathrobe to take out the trash in the alleyway. He never came back up. Happy has taken one of the cars and is circling the block, looking for any trace of Peter or his belongings or anything that may indicate where he’s gone. Pepper manages to get a decent angle on the dumpster from the CCTV of a nearby restaurant. A white van with the decal of a biohazard disposal service pauses in front of the alleyway around the time Peter would’ve been there, but the view from the camera isn’t good enough to see whether anything is loaded inside. Then the van speeds off north, turning a corner and vanishing out of sight.

“Do you think it has something to do with that lizard thing?” May asks, eyes boring into him.

“Maybe,” says Tony, feeling twitchy. “Did he say anything to you about the lizard? Any leads on where it is?”

“Ned might know,” May replies.

Peter’s phone is still in his room, the screen so hopelessly shattered that it takes an agonizingly long stretch of time for Tony to get any of the keys to work. Finally, he gets it ringing, and the rooms falls silent until Ned answers with a groggy, “Peter?”

“Hi, Ned,” says Tony, summoning a smoothness into his tone. The illusion of control. “It’s Tony Stark.”

There’s a beat.

“Am I dreaming?”

“Nope,” says Tony. “Have you seen Peter?”

“Not for a few hours. Why? Is something going on?”

“Did he mention anything to you about a lizard?” Tony asks. “Any theories?”

There’s the sound of fumbling on the other end of the line. Tony feels his throat constrict with impatience. Ned seems more awake when he answers, “He said he thought it came from OsCorp. Genetic engineering.”

He sends a meaningful look at Pepper, Rhodey, and May. “Anything else?”

“That’s all he knew,” Ned says. “Did something happen?”

May motions for him to hand over the phone and Tony passes it to her. Her voice is brittle as she explains the situation; he can hear the raised pitch in Ned’s voice too, on the other end of the line. But he can’t focus on anyone else’s panic, not now. Not now, when he’s trying so hard to temper his own.

“The disposal company that owns the truck has a contract with the bio sciences department at OsCorp,” says Pepper, eyes on her tablet.

“Is there an address?” asks Rhodey.

“A couple,” she replies.

“Most secluded? Most likely to be empty?”

“This one, in the Bronx,” she says, showing Rhodey a map. “I’ll send the directions to your suit.”

Rhodey is already jogging toward the door. Tony texts Happy, tells him to meet him outside. “Whoever gets to him first gets to beat the shit out of his kidnapper,” says Tony. The joke doesn’t quite land; his jaw is too tight.

“It’s on,” says Rhodey, resolute. Tony appreciates the firmness of him. Always good in a crisis—whether it was a jammed printer for a last minute paper in college or saving the world.

Happy violates a neat collection of traffic laws on the way to the Bronx address. Rhodey beats them there, but not by much. He’s kicking in the door of a decrepit looking warehouse when they pull up. Tony still only has one arm of a suit, so Rhodey keeps him one step behind as they enter. Happy covers the door, handgun drawn. Inside, the darkness is near total; only the glow from Rhodey’s suit and Tony’s lone repulsor casts any light around the room.

“Any life signs?” Tony asks.

Rhodey runs a scan. “Nothing warm but rats.”

The deepest part of Tony’s brain wonders whether the sensors in Rhodey’s suit are strong enough to pick up residual heat from a corpse. He hadn’t thought to test for such a thing. In the dark, his eyes paint familiar, crumpled shapes out of shadows. He swallows, hard. No, Peter isn’t dead. He would know it. He knows what it feels like to live in a world without him, and they’re not there yet. They’re not going to be, either.

They turn the place over, looking for any sign of a recent visit. A fine layer of dust over every horizontal surface would indicate not, but then out the back door they find a white van parked and empty, the engine still warm and the back loading doors flung open.

Inside, all that’s left is a pool of blood.

“Fuck,” says Rhodey, face plate sliding back.

Tony takes a staggering step back, turning away from the flash of red. His hands go up to pull at his hair. He breathes, but only with effort. In through the nose. Out again. In. Out.

“Tony—”

Tony slams an armored fist into the back wall of warehouse, leaving a sizable dent.

Rhodey’s tone is gentle. “That’s not enough blood for me to worry that he’s going to bleed out. It’s probably just a face wound. You know how those gush.”

He closes his eyes. Another breath. “I know.”

“Guys,” Pepper’s voice comes in over the comm in his ear. “We just got a ping from Karen. He must’ve had his mask with him when he got taken and just put it on.”

“So the tracker’s activated?” Tony asks, hustling back toward the front of the building.

“Transmitter seems damaged, but yes. He’s moving north on 95 toward New Rochelle. Or was. Stopped now.” She pauses, as though listening to someone. There’s an ugly beat of silence where she seems to deliberate. “And, um...Karen wants you to hurry. Something’s happened.”

Rhodey looks to him. “I can get there fastest.”

Tony doesn’t hesitate. “I’m coming with you. You can carry me.”

“It’ll be intense for you, flying without a suit.”

“I’ve been through worse.” Tony comes over, wrapping his arms around Rhodey’s torso and activating the magnets in the armor on his hand so he won’t slide off.

“Take a deep breath,” says Rhodey. It could be advice for the flight, or for what they’ll find when they land.

Tony does as he’s told. Then they’re rocketing up, into the depths of the night and whatever lies ahead.

Chapter Text

Whatever they’ve drugged him with makes an admirable attempt to keep him bathed in dreamless sleep but, still, he comes out of it rather earlier than he imagines his kidnappers had intended. A gray expanse slowly arrives before his eyes. He registers, eventually, that he’s face down on a carpeted floor. And that that floor is moving. An engine revs. He’s in a van, and it feels like it’s still weaving through NYC traffic, if the stops and starts are any indication.

His senses stretch out of their own accord. The voices from the front seat are muffled, but one of them has a perfectly crisp English accent. “Take this exit,” it says. “We’ll do the transfer in just a moment.”

The van starts to slow, and he feels the front wheels hop a curb into a parking lot. Peter closes his eyes again, evens his breathing out back into the facsimile of unconsciousness. But his muscles are still taut, beneath May’s pink robe and his pajama bottoms beneath. There’s going to be a moment, he thinks. Or at least a flash of one, when the odds might be in his favor. His head feels a little like it’s packed with cotton, but he has some hope that instinct will kick in.

He takes a deep breath. The back doors of the van yank open.

“Get his feet,” someone mumbles, and then he’s being pulled across the rough surface of the van upholstery and into the crisp night air. They only have the loosest grip on his ankles; he dangles between the two of them, barely above the ground, his shoulder joints protesting. He realizes, latently, that the web slingers have vanished from his wrists. His enhanced hearing picks up the swish of the liquid where it bangs around in someone’s pocket.

There’s a click as the trunk of a car opens. His feet get dropped in first. There’s only one pair of hands on him, then. A weak grip around his arms.

Peter’s eyes shoot open and he moves quicker than he ever has before.

Or he tries to, at least. The aftermath of the drug has him wobbly on his feet. He gets a good kick in for the guy on his left, sending him flying backward into a dumpster, then whirls around to throw a haphazard fist at the owner of the British accent, who looks vaguely lizard-ish. The punch lands but the guy doesn’t go down. A third man arrives out of nowhere swinging a crowbar which Peter ducks easily, diving in close and delivering a cracking blow to the guy’s ribs. The force of it sends them both stumbling backward. Peter reaches around blindly for the dropped crowbar, swaying on his feet, but doesn’t find it before something smashes into the back of his head hard enough that black spots fill his vision.

“Fuck, dude,” he mutters, reaching up to feel warm blood beginning to trickle across his scalp.

The possibly-lizard-man, looking scalier by the second, is holding the crowbar. He’s a prim looking man in a suit and lab coat, regarding Peter coldly as a greenish-yellow tint spreads across his face. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll come quietly.”

Peter rolls his eyes, and charges him.

He doesn’t make it far before hands snatch him back. The two henchmen he’d dispatched a moment ago have recovered, it seems, and one of them gets an arm around his throat and begins to squeeze. Peter gags, and then wheezes, and then paws silently and uselessly at the man behind him until his brain begins to shut itself off. When they finally do release him, he hits the ground hard, and then a knee lands on his chest. Still dazed, he barely feels the first blow to his cheek.

But he feels the next one. And the one after that.

His head lolls, eyes flickering open and then knocking abruptly closed again after each punch. His nose cracks. Blood trickles into his mouth as skin gives up and splits.

“That’s enough,” says the Brit. His skin is no longer veering toward green. “That’s enough. Christ alive.”

The blows halt. Peter keeps his eyes closed, but distantly he feels his own lips pulling into a smile, a laugh bubbling up into his throat.

“Shut the fuck up,” says the man with the knee on his chest. “Shut the fuck up or I swear I’ll kill you, right here, you little shit.”

“How?” asks Peter, the mirth barely recognizable through a mouthful of blood. “I already died. Once. They brought—” He cuts himself off with a painful cough. One eye is already swelling shut. “He brought me back.”

“What’s he talking about?”

Someone shrugs out a reply, but Peter has stopped listening. Because the lizard man’s on the move—dunking another towel in chloroform and approaching where Peter is sprawled across the ground.

“He always brings me back,” Peter murmurs, eyes unfocusing. He thinks, vaguely, of that distant, empty field, but can’t find it in himself to be scared of it anymore. They drag him toward the car again, folding his limbs into the backseat and then binding them together with zip ties. The towel goes over his nose and mouth, and he winks out of consciousness once more.

 

 

He dreams of falling. Of wormholes opening up and corpses plummeting through them, turning to ash before they hit the ground. He dreams of the way the light in Tony’s eyes had vanished the moment Thanos stabbed that blade through him, on Titan, of the way that the cry of anger and fear had ripped through Peter like a blade of its own. He’d been alone, then, still webbing his way through the ruins. No one had heard.

Tony had come face to face with his own death that day, just as Peter had with his. They walked the same path, then; maybe they still are. For all that he sees his own death when he looks at Tony, he sees that stab wound, too. And he sees Tony on his feet afterward. Life, on the heels of death. All of it more closely entwined than he’s ever imagined, more intimate.

Tony knows, he thinks. He knows resurrection. The sloppiness of it. The pain that feels almost like mourning. Like grief.

Tony will understand, if he listens.

And Peter knows, on a level beyond intuition, that he will.

 

 

They’re going through a tunnel when he comes to again. A short one. Or not a tunnel—just a skyscraper spreading above the road. The Cross Bronx Expressway, his mind fills in. His head aches and both his eyes are nearly swollen shut, but the healing factor has him conscious, which feels like at least something of a victory. He flexes his wrists experimentally against the zip ties, and is fairly confident that he can break them, despite his leaden limbs. It’s just a matter of when.

“We’ll need to make an example of him,” someone is saying, voice carrying from the front seat. “Buy us some time. Ward off any Avengers.”

“Or sic them on us,” says the voice of the lizard man. “It’s better just take him out quietly. Dump the body. That’ll keep them occupied for a few days while they search. And then we’ll mobilize.”

Every breath is a terrible effort. His ribs feel tight and constraining. He doesn’t quite like his odds, anymore; there’s something like panic rising in his throat, blurring out everything else. Painfully, he readjusts his neck to get a better view of his hands. They’re still there. He pushes the red dirt, the smell of rot that had permeated the air on Titan, to the back of his mind, grounds himself in the pull of the leather seat cover across his cheek. There’s no death here. Only life.

For now.

The evening traffic begins to slough off as they head further out of the city, towards the unknown. Towards wherever they plan to leave what’s left of him. His window of opportunity is closing, but he’s not entirely sure what lies in it to begin with. Brick walls rise on each side of the road, so even if he managed to climb out at high speed without getting pinched by the visible sidearm of the man sitting in the passenger seat, without web slingers there isn’t much leeway for escape. And to try and fight in the confined space of the vehicle would be to risk plowing the car into something and sending them all flying.

There’s no good option. He’ll have to pick the best bad one there is.

Again, that panic swells in his esophagus, threatens to submerge him in ash and the smell of decay. If he dies here, again, does he end up in that field? Is that stagnant eternity waiting for him, patient and venomous? A place that should have been peaceful, he thinks, if he hadn’t been so alone.

He’d been afraid on Titan, when he’d felt himself slipping off into the unknown. But now it’s no longer unknown, and the fear is like nothing he’s ever felt.

He bites down hard on the inside of his cheek, thinks of May. Of Tony. Of Ned and MJ. Of shawarma and sandwiches and Grace the drug dealer dog and the people on the train.

There’s only one way back to it all, through the fire.

Through the risk.

He grits his teeth and moves.

The zip ties around his limbs break with a sharp pop. Before either of the men in the front seat can move he’s lunging up, propelling himself toward the steering wheel, settling two hands on the cracked surface, and yanking it haphazardly to the left. The car careens into the eighteen-wheeler beside them, metal grinding against metal, glass shattering. The lizard man yanks the wheel back from him and sends the car sliding right, and then spinning as its bumper catches on a barrier. A minivan rams into the front quarter, and then they’re airborne.

Peter feels himself go weightless, and involuntarily holds in a breath. Time slows; the world blurs. He finds himself stuck to the ceiling as glass shards rain around him like snowflakes. The car barrels rolls, a mixmaster of blood and bone and metal, then lands hard on its roof on the pavement. The squeal of brakes comes from all sides as traffic stops in horror.

There’s a moment of long silence.

And then Peter, upon finding himself unexpectedly alive, has his first coherent thought: I’ve ruined May’s bathrobe.

The once pristine-pink fabric is shredded and bloodied. He’s lying on the ceiling of the flipped car, staring at what was once the backseat above him, surrounded by gouged steel, but he discards the remains of the robe as he crawls toward the nearest broken window and slithers out onto the pavement.

His pajamas have fared better. On his hands and knees now, Peter splits blood onto the pavement and pats himself down for anything life threatening, and in the process something drops out of his back pocket. The Spider-Man mask gazes up at him from the asphalt. It takes him a moment to string together the idea that he should probably put it on. There’s a sting and a deep down ache as he pulls it on over his bruised face.

“Karen,” he gasps, finally. “Karen?”

“Peter?” she says, revving back into existence. “Your heart rate’s elevated. What’s happened?”

“Call Mr. Stark,” he breathes. “Please.”

He feels himself begin to sway, and looks back down at his legs. There’s something warm spreading across his pant leg. After a second, he realizes it’s blood.

“Please,” he says again, hands hitting the pavement, scrambling for purchase. A weakness is spreading through him, overtaking him, transferring via osmosis into the depths of his flesh.

“Ms. Potts says he’s almost there, Peter.”

“Good,” Peter sighs out, letting himself descend to the cool surface of the road, resting against the solidness of the earth. “He’ll bring me back.”

He can barely hear his own voice. His last thought doesn’t even make it to his lips.

He always does.

Chapter Text

Tony hardly notices the cold.

The combined blast of the wind at altitude and the roar of Rhodey’s repulsors has his ears ringing. The speed of their ascent dries his eyes out so fast he has no choice but to slam the lids shut. He grits his teeth, holds on, becomes a lacuna—blind and deaf and aware only of the press of the cool metal of Rhodey’s armor against his cheek.

When they hit the ground, he releases the magnets in his gauntlet and stumbles out of Rhodey’s grip. It takes him a moment to get his bearings. To survey the carnage they’ve landed in.

“Shit,” says Rhodey, face plate drawing back.

In front of them is an overturned car, surrounded by twisted metal and broken glass. Behind them is a sea of stopped traffic, drivers just now stepping out of their vehicles to get a look at the latest Avengers situation, and somewhere far off the sound of sirens pulls closer. In the front seat of the car, two bodies are motionless, but notably neither of them is Peter.

Then Tony’s eyes catch on a trail of blood, leading from the remains of the backseat to the other side of the vehicle.

His brain becomes static.

He thinks he must be running, but his progress seems glacial. Then he rounds the corner and Peter is there, spread out on the pavement, and it hits him like a heavy punch because it’s Germany, again. Or Titan. The ring is back in his ears; the air catches in his throat. Peter is motionless. Tony drops to his knees beside him, placing himself between the kid and any onlookers.

“Pete,” he murmurs, voice barely a whisper. “Pete, come back.”

The mask is halfway pulled upon his face, exposing a bruised and bloodied chin. Tony’s hands are moving of their own accord—one slipping under Peter’s neck and the other pulling off the mask. Peter’s breathing is ragged, filtered through a spectacularly broken nose.

“Mr. Stark?” he gasps out, but looks hardly surprised. His head starts to loll back but Tony adjusts his hand to catch him.

“Yep.” He starts to pat Peter down. “How bad is it, kid?”

Peter lets out a pained sigh and motions downward. Tony gets a glimpse of blood staining his teeth. “Leg, mostly. Face isn’t as bad as it looks.”

Tony frowns. “It looks pretty bad.”

But he’s already focusing himself on the rip in Peter’s pajamas bottoms, where an alarmingly large and jagged metal shard has lodged itself. Far worse than a swollen face, but luckily it seems to have missed the major artery. He can tell by Peter’s calm that he hasn’t seen the full extent of the injury; Tony hopes his own face doesn’t betray too much. He tears off his jacket and ties it quickly, as tight as he can, above the wound.

“Alright, Peter, stay with us,” he mutters, almost to himself. Peter’s eyelids are flickering, his face already looking paler than before. His metabolism unable to hold off the shock any longer. “We’ll get you out of here.”

Rhodey has rounded the car behind him. “I can’t carry you both.”

“Just take him. I’ll call Happy, get there as fast as I can.” He leans over Peter again, lays his palms on both of the boy’s cheeks. Hopes he can keep the tightness in his throat out of his words. “Come on, Peter. Stay awake. I’m not losing you again.”

Peter’s expression is resolute, even as his eyes threaten to close. He flicks a hand up at the spread of collateral damage around them. “I’m sorry about the mess.”

“It’s fine,” Tony breathes. Only the barest of threads binds him to sanity. “You’re fine.”

Valiantly, Peter stays among the conscious while they maneuver him carefully into Rhodey’s arms. It’s only once he’s passed the kid off that Tony’s hands begin to shake. He barely registers the blood on them.

“I’ll see you soon, okay?” He runs a final hand through Peter’s hair. To Rhodey, he adds, “Take care of him.”

“Of course.”

Once they’re off, rapidly becoming a speck in the night sky, it takes an incredible effort for Tony to stay upright. He stumbles, catches sight of the pool of blackish blood where Peter had just been, then stumbles again. He catches himself on the side of the overturned vehicle, and finds the Spider-Man mask looking up at him. Imploringly, perhaps. He stashes it in his front pocket.

Fumbling his way back around to the front of the vehicle, he finds an OsCorp scientist and some degenerate henchman still unconscious in the front seat. The wave of violent anger that sweeps through him is so white hot and visceral that it almost scares him—it sends him back to things he doesn’t want to revisit. His singular repulsor is raised and charging before his brain catches up with his body. Even then, he’s not sure his brain entirely disagrees.

But there’s Peter to consider. Spider-Man doesn’t kill; doesn’t support it. The mask is heavy in his pocket. This is not how this should be done. He’s let his selfishness in his dealings with Peter carry on more than long enough.

He lets his arm drop. Takes a deep, steadying breath.

He’d thought, after Thanos, that things would be simpler. That the concept of an end game would invite a reprieve in its wake. But there’s no end to anything, just a continuum. A path to walk. A long hill to climb toward, perhaps, something like balance.

 

 

Helen Cho happens to be speaking at a Philadelphia conference, and makes it to New York by the time Rhodey has finished preliminary first aid. Pepper arranges an airlift for her and May back to the penthouse, which also happens to include the most well-stocked medical facility in the country as a result of Tony’s potent combination of anxiety, genius, and near-unlimited financial resources. Tony, still minding the clean-up on the Cross Bronx Expressway, gets an update soon enough that Peter is in stable condition. All the breath leaves his body; he takes a heavy seat on a Jersey barrier and closes his eyes. I’m sorry plays back through his head again, a record on repeat, but now its tinged not by panic but by reassurance. The meaning of it has changed.

He’s been stalling, out here. Talking to police he could easily bypass, the horror creeping up his throat again at the sight of Peter’s blood. Too afraid of what he’ll find back in the penthouse. Peter, pale beneath the fluorescence. Peter, not there at all.

But the news is good. His healing factor is kicking in, Pepper says. They’ve set his nose and removed the metal from his leg and he’s already pulling himself back together, the internal machinations of his spidery self stitching furiously.

Still, the shake in his left hand won’t leave. Not even when Happy pulls up, not even when they’re fluidly navigating through the light traffic of the early morning city. He feels ragged. Burnt out in a way that feels both independent of the aftermath of the Snap and yet still compounded by it. Exhaustion may be just his natural state, now, after all that he’s seen.

Pepper is waiting for him when he arrives at the penthouse, her feet propped on a pillow on the coffee table in front of her.

“Where is he?” he asks. He hardly recognizes the scratch of his own voice.

“Asleep,” she replies, setting her tablet down to look at him. “You alright?”

He takes a long breath to think for a moment, rubbing absently at his left hand, then shakes his head.

She beckons him over until he’s beside her on the couch, laying his head against her shoulder. “I don’t know how to do this,” he murmurs, gesturing vaguely toward her belly and the heartbeat within.

“You’re already doing it,” she says simply.

“I’m always a moment too late.”

She clicks her tongue. “I don’t know about that. Seems you’ve often arrived just when you’re meant to.”

Tony pushes himself into a more upright position. “Is May with him?”

“Yes, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind you popping in.”

The trot down to the medical bay is quiet in a way that unsettles him more than it should. He’s always felt, more or less, that he’s walked alone in this world, but these days the presence of others of importance in his life has disrupted this notion. Challenged the person he thought he was when he was by himself and left him avoiding quiet rooms as a result. Ten years gone and almost too much change to comprehend; best to avoid a moment of solitude, without something to work on, wherein that change might be contemplated, might spiral into anxiety at the thought of how easily it could be undone.

When he turns the corner, Peter is awake and sitting up. He smiles around a cracked lip, looking soft and unwound in a way that Tony hasn’t seen in months. “Hey, Mr. Stark.”

“Hey, kid.” Tony motions to the two black eyes adorning Peter’s face around the bandaged nose. “You look like a panda.”

May, sitting as his bedside, shakes her head in exasperation. “He was supposed to take his senior pictures on Monday.”

Peter shrugs. “I think it’ll look cooler this way.”

May exchanges an eyeroll with Tony. She looks as exhausted as he feels but looser, somehow. Her place in the world more secure. “I’m gonna grab some coffee, okay?”

She squeezes Peter’s hand one more time as she slips out, clapping Tony on the back as she goes. Tony takes a stiff seat in the chair she’s vacated, eyes on his own feet. “How are you feeling?” he asks.

“Fine. A little like dog shit. But mostly fine.” Peter focuses an intent gaze at him. “Did you get him? The lizard guy?”

“The police have him,” replies Tony. “They raided his lab, found all sorts of unsavory projects.”

Peter just sighs.

Tony finally meets his gaze, frowning. “Look, I know you probably wanted to get him yourself, but you did a pretty damn good job regardless. Considering the circumstances, in particular.”

“The circumstances?”

There’s a pregnant beat.

Tony swallows hard, massages the palm of his hand. “The thing is, I know you’ve been having a hard time lately. And the fact of the matter is that I should have said something sooner.”

He looks up again at Peter, finds his expression hesitant. Waiting.

“I think I just mean to say that I’m sorry I don’t know how to do this. But if it means anything to you at all, I want you to know that I’m so, so proud of you.”

The silence elongates. Tony finds that he can’t lift his head from the floor, not for a long while. When he does, Peter is gazing at him, eyes wide and wet. Tony has never seen such a bare expression—so exposed, with the unity of death and resurrection and fear encased inside it. He feels his throat tighten, and aches for them both.

“He really should be sleeping, you know.” Dr. Cho has appeared in the door. “You both should be, in truth.”

Tony nods in acquiescence, pushing himself to his feet. He feels Peter’s eyes follow him. The silence has turned soft in a way it’s never been before. He leans down, kisses the top of the kid’s head, and departs just as May appears in the doorway.

Chapter Text

He gets an email regarding his early action application to MIT at some point during his stay in the medical unit of Tony’s penthouse, but decides not to open it immediately. College, suddenly, feels rather far away. The decision about where to go almost arbitrary. There’s so much behind him now that whatever lies in front seems trivial in comparison.

He’s on his feet by the next day, admiring the array of bruises across his nose and cheekbones in the bathroom mirror of the med suite. Dr. Cho appears impressed with his healing progress; he tells her he’s nothing if not an overachiever, and smirks. The levity in his expression feels closer to natural than it has in months. Something’s been shook loose inside him, he thinks. Something that needed to break again in order to begin to mend.

May hovers by his bedside unapologetically, and he’s glad for it. But Tony hovers, too, always somewhere in the periphery. Peter still thinks that what he’d said in those early morning hours might have been a dream—that Tony Stark confessing, in no uncertain terms, of his pride in Peter is something only his sleep-deprived mind could pull out of some fantastical recess.

He hadn’t known what to say. He still doesn’t.

Tony comes by, periodically, with snacks and things to read or work on. They don’t quite manage to hold eye contact for longer than a few seconds at a time. Even in this discomfort, though, there’s something close. Closer, perhaps, than there was before. When Peter is given the go-ahead to return home on Sunday night, Tony walks him down to the car waiting on the curb.

“We’ll talk more later,” Tony says quietly, settling a soft hand on Peter’s shoulder.

Peter turns toward him. For a moment, neither of them looks away.

“I’d like that,” says Peter, letting a smile pull on his lips. He thinks, distantly, of the MIT email waiting patiently in his inbox, and slips into the backseat of the waiting car.

 

 

He arrives early to school on Monday in preparation for the senior photoshoot to find Ned and MJ already in line for the photographer. MJ has been forced by her parents to wear her hair in a neat up-do and Ned is looking stifled by the starched collar of his button-down shirt.

“Holy shit, what happened to you?” says MJ, as soon as she lays eyes on Peter’s face.

His nose is still bandaged, and while the healing factor has helped with the bruising, the rest of his face still ranges from a light purple to a shade of sickly yellow. “The usual,” he replies, with a shrug.

“That thing on the news in the Bronx…” Ned eyes him suspiciously, then lowers his voice. “Was that you?”

Peter just nods. “Lizard nonsense.”

“You’re alright?” asks MJ, looking him and up down.

The place where the metal shred of a bumper had entered his thigh is already only a scar. “Yeah, it’s all good.”

“Jesus Christ,” says Ned, shaking his head. “This is kind of perfect, actually. Your fucked up face in the yearbook. Really represents your true self.”

“Thank you?”

At the front of the line they give him a graduation gown to wear and a fake diploma to hold and he smiles with teeth, the way May would want him to so she can put the picture up at home, until his lip cracks open and begins to bleed again.

 

 

“Hey, kid,” Tony greets on Tuesday afternoon, when Peter arrives in the lab at the appointed hour. Tony is leaned over his usual workbench, the one facing the floor-to-ceiling windows. The sun is just beginning to set spectacularly behind them. “Your face is looking better. How’s the leg?”

“Pretty much fine,” Peter replies, slinging his backpack onto the nearest flat surface, which isn’t terribly flat anyways—his bag ends up resting on a pile of half-finished arc reactors, fitted with nano casings. “Just a little wobbly.”

“Great. Helen really knows her shit, doesn’t she? I’m in awe of her work, as per usual. Not to take all the credit away from your healing factor or anything.” Tony is rambling in the way he does when he’s nervous, or maybe he’s still just a little wound-up from the weekend’s drama. He hasn’t looked up from whatever he’s taking apart with a screwdriver in front of him. “You want something to eat? I’ve got this shawarma place that never lets me down. Actually it’s in Queens, maybe you know it? We could order—”

“Mr. Stark,” cuts in Peter, feeling a potent combination of anxiety and excitement pooling in his chest. “I got into MIT.”

Finally, Tony looks up.

“Holy shit, Pete,” he says, screwdriver slipping out of his hand. “Did you just find out?”

“Sort of. I got the email a few days ago but just opened it.”

“Wow. Your patience is impressive.” Tony’s grinning now, but trying to hide the expansiveness of it. Maybe he’s trying to spare Peter the pressure of what is surely his next question, but Peter already knows what his own answer will be. The light in Tony’s eyes is persuasive enough.

“And I’m gonna go, I think,” Peter says, even though a few days ago he’d had no such clarity about his future. But the look on Tony’s face is enough to dissuade any doubts that he may have. He’d ship himself off to whatever god forsaken place necessary to put a smile like that on Tony’s mouth.

“That’s—” Tony, for once, is at a loss for words. A distinctly unfamiliar feeling for both of them. “That’s just—I’m floored. Wow. Congratulations.” He blinks a few times, takes a deliberate breath. “Also, if you need any help with paying for it, you know I’m more than willing to chip in so you don’t have loans.”

“No, it’s okay. May and I have been saving up. Cutting back on the Montauk vacations for the last few years.” Peter shrugs.

“That’s very mature of you and also super depressing.” Tony shakes his head. “I change my mind. I’m paying for the whole thing.”

“Mr. Stark, you can’t—”

“Too late. It’s happening.” Tony rubs his hands together elatedly. “Alright, so what should we do to celebrate? Dinner with the university president? Car shopping? Europe trip?”

Peter just smiles, an expression both exasperated and fond. “Can’t we just, like, be here?” He looks around for a swivel chair, then rolls himself up next to Tony’s bench. “Work on something?”

“If that’s your idea of a celebration, we’re gonna have to work on that,” says Tony, eyes rolling. But with Peter’s hopeful gaze on him, he relents easily. “Fine. Whatever. I’m working on a War Machine upgrade. That good enough for you?”

The novelty of these sorts of moments is never going to wear off, Peter thinks. Elbow to elbow with Tony Stark, working into the afternoon, so normal it’s nearly routine. He’d felt alienated, before, by the combination of life, death, and fear that existed whenever he met Tony’s eyes, but now he realizes that perhaps there’s something intimate in it. Something only the two of them will ever understand. The price of resurrection, of rebirth. Knowing what it means to come back from the precipice.

He may still, sometimes, have the impulse to stare at his hands. To confirm they’re still there.

But the urge to say nothing no longer has him quite so tightly by the throat.

They work into the evening, into the night. The lights of the city span out below them. A shawarma break interrupts them eventually, and Peter sits close to the windows, letting the glow of the city press toward him. He’ll miss it, he knows. But maybe there’s something for him in Boston, too.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you, you know,” Tony says, after a while. He’s sitting just behind Peter, both of them enjoying the view. Peter keeps his eyes on it, taking bites out of his food absently while Tony begins to speak. “I’ve just been trying to figure out how to say it. How to help.”

Tony crumples up the foil wrap from his food. “But no more excuses, right? The truth of it is this: after I got back from Afghanistan, for the longest time I couldn’t listen to the sound of a kettle going off without feeling my blood fucking curdle with fear. I got rid of all the kettles in the Malibu house. Avoided coffee shops, restaurants, other people’s kitchens. I just couldn’t handle it. I thought I was going insane. I did this shit for years, didn’t tell anyone why because I didn’t think there was a reason. I thought I had just lost it.

“Then a few years ago I got drunk enough to confess it to Rhodey and he just nodded like it was simple. Like it was common. Said that there was a kind of grenade the hummed the same note before it went off—and that it was often used by insurgents in the area where I was kidnapped. He said he knew at least a dozen veterans who had the exact same response to the sound of a teapot that I had. I couldn’t believe it.”

He pauses, and breathes in slowly. Peter keeps his eyes on the vista, afraid to look back. After a moment, Tony’s voice comes back quieter.

“You already know what I’m getting at, here. I spent all these years thinking I was alone, telling myself I was alone, letting the traumas rack up and thinking that it was better to stay silent, to not put anything more on Pepper or Happy or Rhodey or whoever. Thinking that the rest of the Avengers would just write me off for good if they knew what was going on in my head. But you can’t live like that. You can’t keep it in, because it only gets worse.” He reaches forward, lays a hesitant hand on Peter’s shoulder. “So, yeah. I just want you to know you’re not alone. You can always talk to me, if you want to. I’m here.”

Peter has stopped eating. In fact, he can feel himself coming undone—can feel the slow unraveling of his defenses, so carefully laid. He brings a hand up to his mouth, bites down hard on the inside of his cheek, and squeezes his eyes shut.

“Peter?”

Peter gets to his feet, turns around, and pulls Tony into a bone-crushing hug.

And even with his face buried in the older man’s shoulder, he can still hear the soft murmur of his voice as he returns the embrace. “You’re alright,” Tony says. “I’ve got you.”

Somewhere deep, deep inside his mind, that eternal field with its rotting, everlasting sunset still lurks. The endless wait in the fabric of death still pervades him. But there’s something else now, beneath that. Something just beginning to claw its way to the surface.

There’s life, and it won’t let him go.

Not again.