Sometimes he just felt…overwhelmed, for lack of a better word, with everything he saw while he was out as Spider-Man, whether that be on his own or with the Avengers. Sometimes, just being out as Peter Parker while walking the streets of New York was enough to churn his stomach. Life was cruel to some people. It was unfair to watch. He felt so hopeless, even when he was able to do something about it, because that never meant everybody came out the other end unscathed. There were some people who had gotten hurt before he was able to show up. Others got hurt in the crossfire. Some ended up mentally scarred from the event. Now, Peter could never check up on any of these people, but he had a pessimistic streak when it came to his own world. He wanted to believe everybody made it out on the other side okay, but he knew the likeliness of that was minimal because if he came out a little mentally scarred, he couldn’t imagine how some of the victims felt.
Peter saw all sorts of crime. Honestly, he’s witnessed it all. Murder, attempted murder, burglary, arson, sexual assault, physical assault, you name it. Murders were, of course, the worse to see. Attempted murder came in a close second. On a personal, Peter Parker level, though…sometimes, the sexual assaults got to him the deepest.
When he heard a woman scream just for the scream to cut off abruptly, he immediately started swinging in the direction of the noise. Karen pinpointed where the scream came from and he wasted no time, using the large buildings of New York City to help bring him closer to the woman who needed saving. Landing in the alley, he saw that the woman was actually, in fact, a little girl. She was nine, maybe ten. Could have been older, could have been younger, but she looked right around that age. A man stood behind her, one hand covering her mouth and the other touching places nobody that young should even know about. Once this man saw Peter land in his signature position squatting with his hand on the ground in front of him, he let go of the girl and took off running in the other direction.
There was no doubt about it; Spider-Man had a reputation in the city. He was annoying. He was loud. He was talkative. But he always stopped or at least caught the bad guys, and he was never even kind of funny with people hurting an innocent child. There were reports about it on the news and online. On the Twitter page dedicated to updating people on Spider-Man’s moves and what crimes he had stopped, they acknowledged that there were more injuries to the people guilty of trying or succeeding to hurt a child. It wasn’t always intentional. Other times, like this time, it so was.
The web escaped his suit before he realized he shot it. He caught the attempted rapist by the ankle and pulled his arm back, dropping the man to the floor. Once on the ground, he webbed both of his feet and one of his hands to the ground. The other was up, protecting his face from harm. “I hope prison is anything but kind to you,” Peter spat, punching the man only once with as much force as he could without knocking the man out. “Don’t you even think about hurting another child. I’ll know if you do.”
Another thing that people noticed about Spider-Man was that if the hurt or almost hurt child was still around, the violence was at a minimum. They drew these conclusions thanks to police reports and eyewitness accounts.
Peter held his hands up in surrender as he walked towards the little girl, who had her back against the wall and was openly crying. “Hey,” he said carefully, keeping his voice a little lighter. “You know who I am?”
“Spider-Man,” the girl answered.
“Yeah!” Peter said enthusiastically. “Why don’t we walk out of this alley to the street, okay? We’ll be safe in the open, don’t you think?” He waited until she nodded to offer his hand to her, which she took hesitantly, and they walked to the sidewalk. “Do you live around here?” At her panicked look, he quickly changed tactics. “You don’t need to tell me. How about instead, we go find a phone you can use, and we can call your guardians.” Personal experience kept him from using the word ‘parents’. “There should be some open building on this road. Do you want to walk with me until we find one?” When she nodded, he nodded, too, and he started leading her down the street to a 24-hour convenience store that was just a few blocks down.
“Footage and location has been sent to the police station,” Karen informed him. That was one of the awesome things about Karen. Before the upgraded suit, back when he was barely Spider-Man yet, he had to carry around quarters and stop at payphones every little while in order to report the crimes to the police. Now, Karen did that for him. He didn’t have to worry about calling the cops again.
Checking the time on a clock in a building they walked past, he noticed that it was only eleven o’clock. It wasn’t a school night which meant his curfew wasn’t for some time, but he wasn’t feeling his patrol anymore. Seeing children in need of saving always made his job a little harder. Always made him a little sadder. Always made his tears last a little longer.
“Do you know your guardian’s phone number?” Peter asked as they approached the store.
“I know my mom’s work number,” she said. “I wasn’t supposed to be out this late… What if she’s mad at me?”
“I think she’ll be more glad to hear you’re okay,” he answered. “Why were you out?”
“I get bored,” the girl said, barely shrugging her shoulders. She was still crying, but at least she was able to function. “I made a friend with this homeless dog that mom said no to bringing in. I like to go check on him whenever mom goes to work.”
She was so pure that it ached Peter’s heart. How would she grow up after that? Would she shove it aside for years only for her to panic down the line at what almost happened when she was walking the streets at that age? Would she have nightmares about it every night for weeks? Would she toughen up and work to make sure she was never in that type of position again? Or would she just shrug it off, the most difficult option there was? “It’s dangerous in the city at night,” Peter said after remaining silent for far too long. “That’s why people like me exist. I wish it wasn’t that way, but…” He shrugged. “It’s dangerous to be out this late, even if you aren’t alone. For children like you, it’s even worse.”
“I know. But Chipotle was probably thirsty.”
She named the homeless dog Chipotle, I’m going to cry.
He stood by as she called her mom. “Mom? I need you to pick me up. I’m sorry.” She was crying even more now. “I went out to see Chipotle. A man tried to – he tried to hurt me, but Spider-Man came. He’s waiting here with me now. Please come pick me up.”
The relief that flooded his body when he found out that her mom worked only five minutes away from that very convenience store was so strong that even the girl noticed him slouch in relief. He smiled at her before he remembered he had a mask on. “You’re being very brave about this,” he commented. I never felt that brave when I was put into a situation like this, but it still would have been nice to hear. “I’m glad I got to you in time.”
“I’m glad too,” the girl said, wiping her nose on the neckline of her shirt. It was a unicorn. She’s so young. “But you always come save the day.”
“Yes,” he said. He wondered why his eyes were watering. “I do my very best. What’s your name?”
“Hannah? Like Hannah Montana?”
He gave an exaggerated sigh. “Children today have no taste in good pop music. Hannah Montana was this popstar who lived a double life, sorta like me. I have who I am under the suit, but I have who I am with the suit, and we live two separate lives. You know Miley Cyrus, at least, don’t you?”
“Yeah! Mom wouldn’t let me go see her in a concert, though.”
The mom made a good decision, considering the craziness of Miley Cyrus only a few years before, but he didn’t comment on that. At least she seemed to chill out a little bit. Peter loved her either way. “Miley Cyrus was Hannah Montana. You should search her up whenever you get the chance. You seem smart, and smart people like Hannah Montana.”
She giggled then, smiling up at him with all her teeth showing. He was finally starting to relax which was good because that meant he could help this girl – Hannah – relax. “I try to be smart.”
“Hey, as long as you’re trying to be smart, you’re already acting smart.” He paused. An idea came to mind. “Hey, Karen? Can you play music through my suit?”
“Karen is a computer that helps me with my suit,” he explained, just as Karen answered yes. “Can you play Nobody’s Perfect by Hannah Montana?”
And so, at eleven o’clock at night, Spider-Man was singing along to Hannah Montana, dancing beside a giggling Hannah who danced with him, jumping up and down to try and match Peter’s obnoxious dance moves. He found himself smiling, too, forgetting how much he loved interacting with kids. He wished he had a chance to do more of that without a danger, but that was his life, and he just had to accept it. A little more than halfway through the song, a car sped right up to where they were standing and slammed on the breaks. The music stopped, and he went to stand protectively in front of Hannah, but then she screamed, “Mom!” so he let her go by.
“Hannah, oh my god,” the mom said, jumping out of the car with the door wide open to grab ahold of her daughter and pulling her into a hug. She was crying and now Hannah was crying again, too. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” When she pulled away, she saw Spider-Man and pulled him into a hug, too. This wasn’t the first time a parent hugged him after he protected their child, but it never stopped making his heart ache in his chest. He didn’t think he would ever get used to that. “Thank you so much. You saved my little girl. I don’t know how I can thank you.”
“She’s a sweet girl,” he said, opting for the easy way out of the conversation. He was ready to swing back to the Tower and call it a night. “Smart, too. She’s a little fighter. You two take care now.”
Before he got the chance to remove himself from the conversation, Hannah gave him a hug, too. “Thank you, Spider-Man.”
He didn’t want to touch the kid. He hated touch after it happened, and many people shared his feelings. But she was holding onto him so tightly, and her mom didn’t seem worried, so he slowly hugged her back. He waited a moment for any argument, and when none came, he hugged her back just a little bit tighter. “No, thank you for listening to my awful Hannah Montana impression.”
The fact that Hannah didn’t leave his mind after he left the scene really made his heart hurt more than it already did. He swung back to the Tower after having Karen turn off the crime alerts they had set up because he really didn’t want to deal with it anymore that night. The shorter the distance between where he was and his home, the more the tears threatened to spill form his eyes. He landed on the roof of the Tower and waited until he was inside before he ripped his mask off. It was suffocating him. There was a difference between Spider-Man and Peter Parker, and in that moment, he was one hundred percent the latter.
He was knocking on Tony and Pepper’s room before he really consciously had the thought to do so. When Pepper said come in, he opened the door and slid his feet across the floor to their bed. Tony wasn’t there, probably down in the lab, but Pepper was there. She was laying down. The light was on as well as the TV. She probably hadn’t been trying to sleep just yet, so Peter only slightly felt bad about crawling under the covers and lay beside her. She wrapped an arm across his shoulders as he positioned himself to lay his head on her. “You okay?” she asked him. He shook his head no, setting his mask down and wrapping his arm across her so he was effectively holding on to him. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Why are people so mean?” he asked, voice muffled only a little bit from where it was pressed into the blanket around him and Pepper.
“I wish I knew. I wish there was a way to make the bad people go away or make them good,” she said with a sigh. She started running her fingers through his hair. “Did something happen on patrol?”
“I don’t like hating people.”
“Who do you hate?”
“People who hurt kids.”
“Did someone hurt a kid?”
“Is this kid okay?”
“Her mom picked her up.” Peter wiped away the tears that finally escaped his eyes. He wasn’t sobbing or inconsolable or anything, but the tears weren’t going away any time soon. “I sent the police after the guy. After I webbed him up…Being Spider-Man is hard.”
“How do you mean?”
“Doing what I do comes easy but dealing with it sucks sometimes. So much bad happens. No matter what anybody does, there’s always going to be bad things to see. A kid with bruises. A woman being intimidated by a strong guy. Someone getting robbed. There’s always something.”
Pepper laid her head down on top of Peter’s, moving her hand to hold his instead. “It’s just the way the world works, honey,” she said. “If there was something else I could say to make this easier on you, I would, but there isn’t. If you stopped, you’d be cursed with the knowledge that it was happening. You can’t go out more because you’ll lose part of yourself if you do. It’s never going to stop. The bad things will always be there. You can’t help everybody. None of us can.”
“I know. That’s what makes this so hard to deal with. Sometimes, when I’m out there, it feels like I’m so far away from real life. Does that make sense?”
“Maybe it will if you explain a little more,” she said.
He didn’t know how to, but he tried. “There’s so much happening out there every day. It just doesn’t feel real. It feels like I leave my life behind at home every day as someone else goes out to do what I do as Spider-Man. I know what I do as Spider-Man. It all sticks with me. It just sometimes feels like I’m watching the memories on a screen that somebody else has lived. I feel so disconnected from Spider-Man. Then there’s other times, like now, where I can’t separate him and me. Spider-Man was out there saving that girl, but all I could think about was Peter Parker being a little boy who needed saved.”
“I think I get it now, at least a little bit of it,” Pepper said when Peter fell silent for a few moments. “Some things, I don’t think I’ll ever understand because I never had to worry about living two different lives like you do, but I understand from an outsider point of view. Spider-Man is you, but you can differentiate the two, and sometimes you can’t. When you do, you feel removed, and when you can’t, it hurts.”
“You worded it better than I could,” Peter said, closing his eyes. He just wanted to feel content in the present. He didn’t want to be held captive by his memories. It hadn’t happened for months, and Skip barely crossed his mind, but sometimes when Spider-Man had to deal with a child in danger like that, it became so hard to remember that he was more than just Peter Parker. “I’m not…scared, really. Not right now, not of him.” He knew Pepper understood who he was referring to. “But, it still hurts. Right now. It hurts a lot.”
“Do you want to sleep in here tonight?”
He never slept in the room with Pepper and Tony. When there were no nightmares, no panic, no injuries, they all slept in their respective rooms. Now, however, he didn’t feel like an intruder for agreeing. He didn’t feel like he didn’t belong. In fact, laying down with Pepper to go to sleep felt so natural to him that he barely gave it a second thought. He had fallen asleep but woke up briefly to the sound of voices some time later. “He fall asleep in here?” It was Tony. He must had come up from the lab for bed.
“I asked him if he wanted to stay,” Pepper answered, her voice groggy. She either was almost asleep or had woken up when Tony came in the room, too.
“Why? Did something happen?”
“He saved a little girl today,” she explained. “I think the situation just hit him the wrong way. You know what you told me about his therapist telling you he dissociates? I think it’s a bigger problem than we first thought.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, now sounding worried.
“He was saying how he feels separate from Spider-Man. I think the metaphor he used was he remembers what he does when out, but it’s like watching someone else’s memories. Today, I guess he didn’t keep both him and Spider-Man separate, and what he saw just made him sad.”
The bed dipped on the other side of him from where he was still connected to Pepper. “He’s too old to be sleeping in our bed like this,” Tony said with a sigh. “If it helps him, I’m fine with it, but I also know how he is: he’s probably gonna get mad at himself for it later.”
“And we’ll just tell him later how stupid he’s being if he gets mad at himself for this,” Pepper said smoothly. “I still slept with my parents occasionally well into college. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“I know that but try telling it to him.” Tony, he could tell by the hand, had started rubbing his back. He was still wearing his suit, but he was so tired that it didn’t bother him. All he needed was for them to stop talking and he would be able to fall back asleep. At the same time, he didn’t want to stop hearing their voices. “Should I talk to his therapist about it?”
“Probably, but maybe talk to Peter about it before you go any further. This way he doesn’t think you went behind his back or anything.”
“You’re right as always. Alright, I’m beat, and we’ll wake the kid if we keep talking. I swear, if he’s a blanket hog…”
“Like father, like son.”
“Oh, shut up.”
In the morning when he woke up, he was alone in Pepper and Tony’s bed. His body felt like a mixture of tingles and lead. He blinked tiredly at the window, watching the rain come down, but when he opened his eyes again, he saw sunlight shining in. He didn’t feel like he had fallen asleep, but he didn’t know how else to explain the sudden change in weather. He pushed himself up, sliding his legs over the edge of the bed before heading to his room. He remembered planning to get into the shower, and then suddenly he was drying his hair off in the mirror. Part of him said that he should be concerned over the time passing, but the other part of him didn’t…well, it didn’t not care, but also didn’t care.
“Well, at least you showed up for lunch,” someone said. “Even if you were late.” He blinked. Now he was in the kitchen? It was Clint at the counter, finishing up cooking what looked like grilled cheese. He was smirking at Peter before the smirk fell. “Hey, kiddo, you okay?”
He floated his way through lunch, joining in conversations that he couldn’t remember for the life of him. Had he really talked? He remembered talking. He remembered opening his mouth and words coming out. He remembered listening to what the others had to say. He even remembered laughing. But he couldn’t remember what he said. He couldn’t remember what anybody else was saying. He couldn’t remember why he laughed.
He did remember the conversation from the night before when Pepper told Tony that she thought Peter was dissociating more. This felt a lot like that. He remembered learning what dissociation was from speaking with his therapist. She explained it in detail, helped him learn signs that he was dissociating, and then she taught him how to break out of it. It all felt foreign, though. He knew deep down that they had talked and she told him that information directly, but it felt as if it went through a sort of filter in his mind. Like someone had plugged a USB into his brain and downloaded it there. The information was there to escape it, but it still seemed too far away to completely access. So, he left it alone.
Someone pulled him aside sometime before dinner. He knew it was before dinner because he hadn’t had dinner yet, but he also knew it was closer to dinner because he had been sitting at the counter and saw Steve pulling out ingredients, and it made no sense for him to be cooking a second lunch when he already ate. He turned to see who had grabbed his arm and saw Bucky. Once the two of them were in an isolated hallway, Bucky stopped moving. “Kid? What’s going on?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been sitting at the counter for two hours. Not talking. Not moving. We’re trying to avoid getting Stark, but we’re getting close to that point.”
“What’s wrong, pal?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
Bucky stared at him for a long moment before grabbing his arm and leading him somewhere else. He followed obediently, though he probably couldn’t stop himself from walking if he tried. He blinked and found himself sitting on the couch in the living room. Bucky was kneeling on the floor in front of him. “Kiddo, this is very important, okay?”
“Did you get hurt while out yesterday?”
“Friday, can you call Stark up here? Something ain’t right with the kid.”
Time passed quickly again because suddenly Tony was kneeling in front of him instead of Bucky and there was a tight pressure on his hand. He glanced down and saw that Bucky’s vibranium arm was squeezing his hand. It looked like there was some force behind it. The longer he stared at it, the more intense the feeling got, before he suddenly flinched at how painful it became. He yanked his hand away, staring wide eyed at Bucky and then at Tony. “You back with us?” Tony asked, grabbing the hand that Bucky had held and rubbing and lightly.
“You remember what your therapist said, Pete? Tell me what she said.”
“She said to use my senses to stop.”
“Why aren’t you doing that?”
An answer came easily without any thought. “I don’t remember how to.”
“We can work with that. What are you sitting on?”
Tony smiled. “Good. It’s soft, isn’t it?”
“The couch. It’s soft, right? Moves a bit like foam, doesn’t it? Press down on it with your hand.” He used his hand that wasn’t in Tony’s to do what he was told. “See how it forms around your hand?” He looked down to watch it and nodded. “Let it and watch it reform. Soft?”
“And what about the ground? You’re not wearing shoes, so this should be easy. The ground is hard, right?”
“Can you feel the soft carpet above the hard ground? I want you to press down into it. Do that, okay?”
“You see me?”
He looked up from the couch and looked at Tony. His hair was a mess, there were slight bags under his eyes, and he was wearing the nanotech armor on his chest. He was wearing one of his greased-out shirts with a few holes covering it. His usually perfectly shaped facial hair was a little longer than usual and very unkempt, but he never really groomed himself up if they were all just hanging out at home. It made sense for him to look like that. “I see you.”
“And you see Bucky?”
He turned his head to see Bucky sitting beside him. He was freshly shaved. His hair was pulled up in a man-bun, something that was normal for him on lazy days. He was wearing a camo-themed shirt. He was frowning. “I do.”
“Can you tell me and Bucky about your day?”
The request was odd, but Tony always had a reason for everything. “I woke up. Took a shower. Had some lunch. Now I’m talking with you two.”
“That seems odd, doesn’t it?” Tony asked. Peter turned back to look at him. He didn’t get the chance to question his statement before Tony spoke again. “It’s almost six o’clock. Friday alerted me to you waking up at ten. You didn’t join us until noon, and lunch only lasted thirty minutes. You left out a lot of your day.”
“I don’t remember the rest of the day,” he said truthfully. He was starting to feel more like a person again without his thoughts on autopilot. He was looking at Tony, but now he felt as if he could see him. “I…I think I’m here now. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. You can’t help it,” Tony said, pulling Peter into a hug now that that ordeal was over.
Peter hugged him back tiredly. “It’s never been that bad before.”
“I know,” Tony sighed. “We’ll work it out, though, okay?”
“What was that?” Bucky asked.
Tony pulled away, looked at Peter in question, who only shrugged. “Peter has a dissociating problem. That means that sometimes Peter becomes…detached from what’s going on around him. We found out last night that this happens sometimes as Spider-Man. We knew it happens sometimes with him here, but it’s never been that serious before. Around some bad times, he’ll go through some events without much thought, but he doesn’t usually lose time like that. Right?”
“Right,” Peter confirmed. He autopiloted his way through a lot, but he never completely lost memories like that. It must had been getting worse. There was no reason for what happened. Nothing traumatic caused it.
“I’ll see if your therapist can make an emergency visit out here right now, okay? We’ll talk through this with her, figure out a plan. You’ll be okay.”
“I think it’s Skip,” Peter admitted hesitantly. Tony’s expression got even more serious, and Bucky got off the couch to leave the room. This wasn’t a time to intrude. “Last time we talked about this, it was because of my uncle Ben, but whenever this happens, it’s usually Skip, and I. I don’t know. I think it’s because of him. I just want him to go away.”
“Hey,” Tony said softly, contradicting the hard expression on his face. He cupped Peter’s cheek in his hand, bringing their foreheads together. “We. Will. Get. Through. This. Okay? We’ll talk to your therapist. We’ll tell her what just happened. We’ll tell her what you think is causing this. Then, we’ll move from there. But we will figure this out. You don’t have to worry. You don’t have to be scared.”
Peter closed his eyes and allowed himself the comfort that was just Tony’s presence. “Thank you, dad.”