Chapter 1: Stabbed
Tony pivots left, he jerks right, he feels the side of Thanos' fist against his head like a wrecking ball to a soft human skull. His bleeding armor tech can't keep up, can't go any faster; red and gold bits fleck off his helmet; the orange soil under his feet is indented with the force behind his block; he feels like maybe he's got a few broken ribs, and his breaths are fast and strained and panicked.
He tastes iron along his gums, and the bridge of his nose is gashed open and bloody.
The suit is failing — in a few swings, Thanos will beat him, if he doesn't figure something out. C'mon, Tony, use that big stupid brain of yours. Use that glorious mash of matter you call a mind. Think on your feet, before the bones in them are broken. Use those hands that build suit after suit, before Thanos rips every finger off them.
His enemy barely bats an eye. A vicious blow to the head leaves him spinning around, but he snaps back into focus.
"Leave him alone!" Spider-Man orders from on high. With a scream that bleeds into Peter Parker's indignant yell, Stark thrusts the blade formed on his right hook toward Thanos; sinking the weapon anywhere will do, if it means making the bastard bleed. Peter swings in, nimble and in tandem with his mentor, aiming a swift kick to the genocidal monster's skull — and suddenly he's grabbed and swung by the head in a huge hand, plucked from the air like nothing.
His helpless body is swiveled around and held out like a writhing shield.
Tony's blade punches through Peter's chest like a finger through aluminum foil.
Stark gasps like he's the one who had been stabbed. Peter's eyes are wide and caught up with the dazed longing for this to be a terrible nightmare, like he'll just blink and it'll be the ceiling in his apartment bedroom. Thanos' hand releases him. The nano-tech blade shrinks away. Blood pours out from the whistling hole in Spider-Man's suit as Peter crumples across Tony's plated legs where he's fallen in disbelief; the hero's arms scrabble to encircle Pete's muscular shoulders as a twisting and tearing agony floods his heart's every artery and vein. When the boy just slumps there against his collarbone, he shakes his head.
"No, no no no—"
Peter gasps for air, and something warm and full of life drains into Tony's lap and through his fingers.
"M-Mr. Stark, I— I don't feel —"
Wheezing. They're both wheezing. Peter can't breathe because he's got a fist-sized hole in his chest, where his compromised left lung would be nestled. Tony can't breathe because he put it there. The whole world keeps spinning in circles, even as he drags Peter closer and flips him so that he lays in his arms. The kid's head flops back. Tony's fingers press at the base of his skull with enough desperation to bruise, as Peter's chin tips back limply. "Pete, kid, hang on. Peter. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Peter — I never would — I wouldn't —"
Peter's brown-eyed, terrified gaze turns slightly. Tony puts a stained hand to the boy's cheek, leaving evidence of his mistake in stark red lines.
"M-mmh-" Peter tries. So much blood, too much blood, Tony tore right through an artery, the powers aren't helping either, they're not—
Thanos stands above the two, and though his expression is offensively softer, his hand shapes into a fist regardless; the stones glow. Tony feels like he's gone, plucked out of his body as his mind fuzzes over. He can barely see the kid in his arms. Is something wrong with his vision? Is he having another attack? The kind Pepper would usher him out of, on one of those ugly, blackened nights in the tower? Everything's numb, he can't see, he can't think, he can't feel, he can't fight, he can't build, can't think, can't see, can't fight, can't—
"Stop!" Strange yells.
Tears don't journey down Tony's face. Gravity takes them directly to Peter's shivering cheek instead. His lips part and his mouth is red like candy a kid would buy from a convenience store before vigilante patrols, the kind that stains your tongue and teeth. Strange says with aching defeat, "... Spare Tony Stark, and I'll give you the stone."
Peter's eyes roll back. Eyelids droop helplessly and fingers disentangle.
And if you died — I feel like that's on me.
Chapter 2: Bloody Hands
"—could you pick me up?"
Tony gets a call at about 2:31 am from a payphone that he was shocked even still existed, quite frankly. The real kicker is that he misses answering his phone entirely thanks to an impromptu shower to wash off oil and sweat and the aches of old age; he's almost in his goddamn sixties, his hair is as gray as New York skyline in the fall, and he is mildly peeved that someone is calling him despite being wide awake anyway. Just. The gall of it all. He taps his phone and plays the message as he towels off his hair, pretending not to be a little paranoid about it.
"H-hey, Mr. Stark, s'me. S'Pete. Hey." Peter Parker. Twenty-something Peter Parker. College-graduate-part-time-pain-in-the-ass-scientist-vigilante-kid Peter Parker. He'd roll his eyes at the fact that the kid thinks he has to actually say who he is, but there's a nestled concern at how labored the hero's breathing sounds. "So, um, m'pretty beat up, and I'm all out of web, and this is really fr-freaking embarrassing, but—"
There's a pause, and Tony's heart skips a beat as he paces towards his lab.
"—could you pick me up?"
He barks a laugh, mortified. Peter sounds like a teenager needing a pick-up from school.
"I'm on my way," he says, to a voicemail that can't answer back. He bypasses a room with a slumbering Pepper Potts and slips into an Iron Man suit he hasn't done anything with in months, figuring a few tabloids wondering if Iron Man is Back is worth the trouble. Anything's worth the trouble for Peter Parker. He tracks down the ancient booth, where a phone is hanging in the October breeze, smeared with blood, and his snarky humor is instantly dried up.
Peter's not here anymore. He looks around sharply, as FRIDAY starts scanning the area for clues.
She keys in on smears that wander up the side of a tall building halfway through construction, and Iron Man floats up seamlessly to follow. It takes little detective work to recognize the shape of handprints as they scale the great height.
When he finally reaches the top, relief starts in his head and rolls down his spine, into his soles. Peter Parker is a complete mess where he sits, propped against a metal beam lounging near incomplete construction work — which the kid admitted as much to in that ancient little phone-booth, so that has to be some sort of character growth since the last time he was beat to hell and quiet about it. Pete's clearly been sliced and diced at by some villainous asshole who Tony's hoping is webbed to a wall somewhere; the spider-suit Peter had proudly custom-made in Stark Labs is tattered, and Pete presses his palms to a particularly grisly cut on his ribs.
"... What took you so long...? I guess... the speed limit declines the older you get..."
"You know, I've got half a mind to leave you here to collect dust, Spider-Man." Tony rolls his eyes but takes one step forward, and Peter holds one arm up and hooks it without hesitation around a presented metal neck. Pete's always been lighter than he looks and has opted for trim muscle instead of hulking ones like Thor or Rogers. Not that it matters. He's motherfucking Iron Man. Peter just relaxes with a gloved hand pressing over his side.
"I'm guessing this is a 'don't tell MJ' situation," Tony says, beginning to lift off. May is just a given at this point. He doesn't bother stating the obvious.
Peter moans, "It was a pretty rough fight. New guy, calls himself The Cutter."
"Did he remotely think that through? Does he have a thing for AFI and Hot Topic?"
"Don't scare me like that again," Tony says sharply, suddenly, for the hundredth time.
"M-my bad... I won't do it again," Peter grimaces, for the hundredth time.
The medical ward back at headquarters has wondered where Peter Benjamin Parker went off to for so long.
Chapter 3: Insomnia
[This short takes place after Exploding Head Syndrome, but is not necessarily required! I tried to make it readable even without knowing EHS.]
"I can help you," Mantis says with beaming confidence, only to frown when Peter jerks his head side to side. "... Like I helped you on our ship, remember? I am very good at helping people sleep."
Peter has had a really difficult time with sleep, but that much was already obvious tenfold. After coming back from — from death, from that spiritual realm where he slept but didn't sleep, ate but didn't eat, inhale but couldn't breathe, there's a lot to get used to again in the land of the living. It was hard enough missing years of life, while that lucky (unlucky) fifty percent kept going. But now he lays in his bed at the apartment or at the Avengers compound and stares and stares and stares at a ceiling that is by all accounts boring and worth nodding off to. It's hard to explain to anyone else, because nobody remembers the inky black nothing that they'd drifted through.
He was the only one. The only one who remembered. Gamora never had to endure it, in her little spiritual oasis. Dr. Strange and the others trapped there, they didn't remember it — well, Big Pete remembered bits and pieces, anyways, but nothing concrete. He slept well, and even better now that he had Gamora at his side as he slumbered. The Guardians were actually visiting at the moment, just some little vacation from the usual insanity that plagued their livelihoods. That's why Mantis catches him walking in anxious circles in the main hallway. His eyes are dark-rimmed and fanatic, his hands curled in his shirt. And he's on the ceiling.
"Little Peter," Mantis says worriedly. "Are you alright?"
Her big, sympathetic eyes are black as coal and yet some of the kindest Peter has seen in his life. She's always been innocent and patient. Peter's gaze whips to her and he crouches sharply upside down, his big sweater nearly sliding up off him (his feeding tube scar is still there, from when he came back a fucking walking zombie, from when he was trapped in that other world and couldn't do anything but wander the complex).
"I can't sleep," he manages, shaking. He's said this reply for the last two weeks. He's so tired, but if he closes his eyes... If he sleeps, what will save him from the darkness? What if he goes back to being — like that? A listless, soulless doll? What if he can't break out of it?
"I can help you," Mantis says with beaming confidence, only to frown when Peter jerks his head side to side. "... Like I helped you on our ship, remember? I am very good at helping people sleep."
"No, nonono, I'm fine, I'm good, I'll sleep later."
"Mantis? What's going on out here?" Gamora asks. She walks out in Quill's shirt, and Quill is behind her, smacking his lips tiredly before he blinks at the spiderling on the ceiling. Peter feels a trembling panic roll down his spine, into his head. Like a rush of blood. Gamora looks at him with a sort of stern motherliness bred from concern and caring. "... Peter, come down. Dammit, I knew you were having trouble — have you been patrolling without sleep?"
Gamora's face keeps fluttering from one emotion to the next — worry panic anger rage worry anger panic rage misery laughter — and Peter rubs his eyes, trying to ignore the trickling voices that start up again. He's hallucinating. Because he can't sleep. He'll never sleep again.
"Dude, come down," Quill says, frowning.
"No, I can't," Peter whines, behind his palms. "I can't go back."
"Nightmares," Gamora murmurs. She knows the feeling, even if she can't relate to the sensation of darkness. Pete's pretty sure everyone in the building has them, though, so he doesn't want their sympathy.
If they're strong and deal with them alone... he can, too.
If he hides behind his hands and ignores the people down below, will they go away, or will they grab their gear and come grab him off the roof? What if he just sinks through the ceiling and floats away and never comes back? Would that be a good thing or a bad thing?
He startles backwards with a cry, when someone grabs his wrist. It's Wanda's upside down face. He frantically looks down below as her mouth moves wordlessly, and all he can see is a sea of Avengers. None of them are talking, but he can hear their voices in his head — so many angry voices, reprimanding him for not doing better at his job, for not saving enough, for giving in too early in his shifts. Spider-Man sucks. He can't even see straight, and his super-hearing keeps panicking between the too-loud sounds of the city and the phantom voices from his insomnia.
"It's okay," Wanda whispers. "Come down. Shhh. Shhh. It's okay."
He doesn't realize he's sobbing. "I'm so tired, I'm sorry. I can't sleep. I can't be alone again."
"It's okay, kid," Tony says. He runs a hand through Peter's shaggy hair; he's still in Wanda's arms, carried — mostly by her powers, because he only feels the faintest, feather-light touch of her arms on his back. Everyone's here, everyone's cautiously keeping at bay with worried frowns. Tony grabs his cheek, turning his face toward him. Judging by the concern there, he knows he looks like shit. Like someone who... well, who hasn't slept in days and days. "Hey, look. Mantis is gonna put you to sleep — no, don't look at me like that, hear me out. You're gonna sleep, and you're not going to worry. You know why? We're gonna make sure nothing happens while you're out. Got it?"
Peter nods, swallowing painfully as Tony keeps a hand on the boy's knee. The red light from Wanda's power dances under him where he hovers. He swears it's almost a rocking motion, and some small part of him wants to snap that he's not a child. The bigger part wants to cry and thank her.
"Pete, I want you to tell me you got it."
"I - I got it," he cries. "I'm—"
"No apologies," Tony says. He looks to Mantis, and soon there's a kind, cold touch to Peter's cheek. He falls away into sleep instantly, his head lolling back and being caught in the calculated, gentle waves of Scarlet Witch's gift. By the time he's fully tucked back into bed, a collection battle-scarred Avengers have made pallets on the floor throughout Peter Parker's room, or have taken up residence with their backs against the walls, arms folded, dedicated like a Queen's Guard. An ocean of watchful eyes, sitting ankle to ankle and touching scalp to scalp where they lay.
And none of them have any intentions of sleeping.
Not until Peter wakes safely in the morning.
Chapter 4: "No, stop!"
Bucky is mind-controlled yet again. Peter does what he can to help him. Even if it hurts like hell.
(Warning for mention of suicidal ideation and blood.
Takes place in that 'we're all in Avengers HQ and nobody's dead' land we all enjoy.)
"Mr. Barnes — please, ghk — No, no! No, stop!"
Bucky's bloody hands twitch, held high over his head, when everything comes back to him. It's like a puzzle formed back together to paint an ugly picture, bit by bit; the haunting pieces accumulate into a battered nose here, a swollen lip there, big brown eyes pleading for recognition. When it's solved, it's Peter Parker, collapsed on the ground in front of him with blood all over his face — and yet still shielding a screaming nurse, despite his wrecked appearance.
It doesn't feel real.
He slowly remembers the mind-control, remembers being told to take his target out without care for outside parties. The man in the hospital, the politician, he had to die, because it was ordered, and Winter Soldier never falls through on his missions —
But then Peter came in. Just Peter, no Spider-Man. He'd rushed in-between him and a nurse who had been trying to close the doors, and Bucky hadn't hesitated to start slamming his fists into the desperate teenager's face. For anyone else, it would've killed them; strong as Peter was, he had no training in hand-to-hand like Barnes did, even with some of the lessons Bucky'd given him the last two years. Spider-Man kicked, he swung, he used momentum and caught fists, but a bloody fight to the death? He was in over his head, and he was pacifistic to a fault, and he —
And here he was, barely conscious and on his knees. His powers are the only reason he's not a fucking corpse with its head bashed to pieces on the floor.
Flickers of Steve Rogers crosses his thoughts like dancing flame, reminding him of a time where he'd promised to stay with him — back when he was... He was...
Peter sways, blood pouring out of his nose and his teeth stained. Then he stands back up on wobbling legs. Blood drips on the floor, and Bucky flinches like he's been hit hard enough to dislodge teeth. The kid's clinging to consciousness. "S'okay, m'okay, m'fine... Jus'... don't... hurt anyone... Come back to the compound... Misser Barnes..."
He beat the shit out of the kid's face. He felt the bone shatter in his cheek. He remembers now. And he staggers backward, trying not to retch at the thought, while Peter moves to follow his steps. Bucky's got red on his hands — blood, like the Starks, and now he's nearly killed Tony's kid, and Tony'll fucking destroy him, because he forgave him once already—
Peter's hands end up on Bucky's neck, fingers curled around the back of it to keep him from pulling away. Then the kid presses his forehead to Bucky's, shakes violently with the strain of a broken cheekbone, a busted nose, bruised ribs. If the kid wasn't super-powered, he would have — he would have —
"S'okay," Peter says. "It wasn't you, s'okay. Jus'..."
His legs finally give out, and he collapses forward. Bucky hugs him close.
'Pete, you find him?!' Steve yells through the comm in Peter's ear, loud enough to hear with the boy unconscious in his grasp. 'Peter, where's your location? Kid?!'
Bucky buries his face in the hair on Peter's head, collecting himself for a moment.
When he looks up, the nurse he'd nearly killed is standing with newfound bravery. She looks at the teenager collapsed in Bucky's arms. He whispers, painfully, "Please take him. Please." When Steve and Tony get to the hospital, Bucky'll be gone — and Peter will be in a hospital bed, with a face so swollen he's not recognizable.
Tony's seething when he calls him, but for reasons Bucky doesn't expect.
"Don't you dare fucking beat this kid to a pulp then run off on him, Barnes," is the message on his phone. "It wasn't your fault. I've learned that. And I get you're guilty and angry at yourself. But leaving him here like this, after he put his ass on the line for you? That's all you. That's your choice. You get the fuck back here and talk to him before I find you and throw you into outer space. He'll be waiting back home."
He replays the message a few times, alongside the pleas of people like Steve and Sam and Natasha.
Bucky considers sparing people anymore trouble by eating a bullet.
Because if this keeps on being a merry-go-round he can't get off of, who is he protecting by carrying on?
But of all the worried messages, Tony's frustrated voice rings the loudest in his ears.
'He'll be waiting back home.'
He walks himself into the Avengers medical bay a day after the beat down, where Peter is sitting up in bed with gauze and tape all over his face, playing some ad-riddled game on a phone. He expects fear and panic and uncertainty in Peter's stare when he looks up — instead the kid watches him with pleasant eyes that are nearly swollen shut. And then he smiles, with a relief that opens the split on his lip again. Bucky almost laughs at how completely unshaken Peter Parker looks. Like he's just seeing someone he was worried bailed on him before the movies.
"Hey, Mr. Barnes."
Chapter 5: Poisoned
(In this house we love and respect Dr. Bruce Banner.)
Peter's first few missions went off without a hitch.
It's the big jungle hideout mission thingy that really screws the pooch, as Mr. Stark would like to say. The job was straightforward — flushing out secret terrorist bases affiliated with HYDRA scattered through the Amazon (he thinks? they never tell him anything about where they're going, but to be fair, he was sleeping after an all-nighter for a big test). And okay, 'terrorist' and 'big test' are not really things to lump together, and even though May's accepted his life's occupation she's probably going gray at this very moment, but he is sure to face-time her on a fancy Stark phone; Thor even joins him in the call with a charming god-dude smile.
(He does not have a fanboy crush on Thor, shut up.)
Anyway, point is, this is the mission where things go really bad. Power dampeners come into play, and it completely takes out half the team. Like, no joke. They're launching into their positions when the blast happens, and then Bruce shrinks back down into a confused doctor, and Peter feels his muscles doing something unpleasant just before he falls off a wall. Unstickified. He repeats that same non-word to Bruce with wide eyes, and Iron Man tells them all not to panic, he'll reverse the effects, just give him time.
Um. Time. He's a normal, skinny teenager and Dr. Banner is just an awesome brain in a relatively killable body.
Not good. And not much time. Also not good: being poisoned and normal. What was his exact phrasing over the comms, again? Something along the lines of, "Mr. Stark, a scientist stabbed me with a needle. I don't think it's the flu shot, but maybe it could be?" Which was met with a lot of yelling and panic and Mr. Rogers telling Iron Man to calm down and reverse the dampeners (Peter is not in the same area as Mr. Rogers, but he's pretty sure Natasha's guarding a really asthmatic Brooklyn guy that could easily be picked up with one arm). Oh man, is Thor de-powered, too? They're so screwed.
He rushes with Bruce toward an extraction point that Mr. Hawkeye can pick them up from, because the two of them are about as useful for combat right now as a noodle stuck to a wall. Um. He's not sure why that was the first thing that came to mind? His mind is really foggy. From the needle injection. Which was probably poison and he's gonna die and —
This sucks. "Don't panic," Bruce tells him, and maybe he feels really zen knowing he won't turn into a big green rage monster from the stress.
"I'm not, I'm not," Peter says. Then his eyes roll back and he collapses, very gracefully.
The next time he's regained consciousness, Bruce is knocking a swinging lab door open with his hip and pulling Peter by the arms through them. The boy winces, cold and clammy and feeling like he's gonna — oh, Mr. Banner's flipping him on his side so he can barf. It's probably the worst barf of his life, 0/10, thanks for asking. "Sorry, kid, hang on— No, Tony, I'm not going to the extraction point!" Peter peels his eyes open, looking through shaking vision as Bruce slides a metal rod through the handles of the door; then he pushes a metal push-tray in front of it. "Because if I try to drag him there, he's gonna die before we make it. I think I know what they hit him with. Tonytonytony... focus on what... got it under control..."
Bruce is kneeling down and picking him back up. "You're all arms and legs, kid, geez. Did you even eat before the spider?"
"Misser Banner, I don' feel so greaaat—"
He's not sure if his voice did that, or if time is stretching.
"No problemo, I got this. I know exactly the components to reverse engineer a cure, just don't die for, like, five minutes."
Okay no, that's definitely his head making Mr. Banner's voice do that. Otherwise he's mocking a dying poisoned person, and he's pretty sure Mr. Banner wouldn't do that. He's pulled haphazardly onto one of the experiment beds in the room, and Peter's not of a mind to think about who could have been here before him. His heart is pounding sofast, toofast, and he can hear the ramblings of a doctor at the cabinet as he starts pushing over some glass vials and taking others. Peter lifts his hand and touches his head, and there's nothing but sweat. He's turning all water. Or maybe he's just sweating profusely?
"Am Iiiiiuh turnnnninguh to waaaaahder, or sweauhting profussssly?"
"Ooooh yeaaah you're sweaaaatiiiing aaaaa suuuubstantial amooooount."
He thinks he hears a nervous laugh. Bruce's palm presses the side of Peter's hair, carding through the curls, and he realizes distantly that it's just to make him feel better. Then he's gone again, working some kind of mad scientist vibe that seems to go faster and faster until he's a blur of lights and arms and — and he's talking so much, and the lights are so loud, and then there aren't any lights at all —
Peter opens his eyes at last, pupils sharpening into pinpricks in the overhead light.
He feels sick, sweaty and shivering in the warm lab, and Bruce is holding a syringe, looking kind of scared.
"Are you okay, Pete?" On a nearby table, Peter's ear comm is blowing up with voices. Bruce touches his finger to his own ear, sighing in relief. "He's stable. I think it's working. Okay, okay, I know it's working. Yes, his nails are a healthy color again. Yes, he's breathing. Tony, you're seriously stressing me out here-" He looks at Peter. "He says you're grounded."
There's a knock at the door, which seems even more barricaded than before; a head of blond hair appears in the teeny rectangular observation window. "Banner! It's Thor! I'm still painfully mortal and pathetic, like you lot; please let me in?"
Bruce pinches the bridge of his nose.
Peter smiles, and some of the fog lifts from his mind.
An hour later, free of poison and power dampening, Peter lays in a cot set up on the helicarrier they're riding back in, feeling the nausea slowly draining away from him. Other than Natasha and Mr. Stark manning the front, it's gone quiet, post-battle energy drained from them. Even the non-mortals are sleeping, seems like, and Peter is left awake with his thoughts as Dr. Banner checks his pulse. "... Hey, Dr. Banner?"
"We should... take some notes on the power dampeners...? When we're done. So when you get stressed, you can manage the green guy?"
Banner looks fondly at him; he probably already had that idea, but Pete figured it wouldn't hurt to bring it up.
"... We should probably worry about testing that out later. But thanks."
"No problem. Um. Dr. Banner?"
"... Yeah, Peter?"
"Thanks for saving me."
Bruce ducks his head, grinning. "... Any time."
Chapter 6: Betrayal
"So Peter's in a hallway. Again. With another person he likes. Again."
This short plays with the possibility of Peter being bisexual and experimenting with his natural feelings and all that fuuuun teenaged stuff we all deal with in high school, when those hormones are running wiiiild and we're trying to figure out who we are (if we haven't already known and are playing oblivious lbh). IDK what I'm doing, I'm just spewing words and they're sort of filling prompts, only they're getting too long and I'm supER BEHIND-!
(This is a whumpfest, and that includes emotional/mental whumpage. So if you're sensitive to bullying about someone's orientation and homophobia and a dash of gay panic, you might wanna skip this prompt.)
He's never really put a whole lot of thought to relationships and crushes and all that. Sure, he had girls he was into, and he always wanted to have a girlfriend, because that seemed to be the thing boys got entangled in, but his first real crush had been Liz. And she was wonderful. She was kind and generous and so, so smart. And he screwed that right the heck up. So the next one had to be different. It had to be safer, better, more fair to the other person, right? And that's if anyone would ever want a big, awkward nerd like Peter Parker. And, uh, there's... this kid.
In gym class.
It was honestly not something he lingered on at first. But the more he hung around Andrew, the more he started wondering if maybe there was something a little more to the way he couldn't help but track him up and down from afar, or the way he was temporarily taken aback by his bright grin and high-rising eyebrows, so full of confidence. Full of muscle and grace. Not a pompous jerk like Flash, but cool and composed and actually genuinely liked and humble and —
And maybe he had a thing for Andrew. Maybe? And it makes him panic a little, because he didn't want to be — like, you know. Gay... ish... Gay. And it wasn't even because he thought it was — wrong, or anything like that. It's just... He didn't want to be gay, because he was already made fun of for a plethora of other reasons; why the unholy hell would he want to add another target on him? No, nonono, he should just... push back the feelings that flutter up in his stomach. Right? Right. Don't think of Andrew and his strong-looking hands, or the way he makes all the girls wave him down, or how cool his shirts are, or how funny his jokes can be from across the gym to your stupid enhanced ears—
Stop it, stop it, stop it.
But would Spider-Man be such a coward?
'I like you.'
"You should totally just go for it," Liz says over a skype call (he's not sure why he tells her about his crush first and not Ned, because it's not like he thinks Ned would ever judge him for liking both sides of the coin, but like—)
Peter's hand moves over a fastly beating heart. "Noooo, no, I can't."
"Why not, Peter? It's 2017. We're working on being allowed to be ourselves, right? You should always follow your heart." She smiles at him, pressing a pink pillow against her stomach as she looks between the screen and her cellphone, where there's no doubt another conversation going on via text; how the heck she does that and still seems so invested in their talk is beyond him. She's a magician. A smiling, confident magician who looks at him like he's being ridiculous for hesitating. "That's what you usually do, right? Follow your heart? You have a good one, so it's not, like, a big deal to do that."
Oh, how one wishes it was that easy.
So Peter's in a hallway. Again. With another person he likes. Again.
"I like you. I mean, I have — a crush on you. I think? I'm sorry."
Andrew runs a hand through his perfectly combed brown hair and looks a little stunned. Peter wants to melt into the floor and just die, his ears turning agonizingly red. He sucks his hands into his sleeves and strains the cuff fabric. "I'm so — I should go."
"I knew it," Andrew says. Then clears his throat. "Hey, man, it's cool. I knew it. I mean, you were always kind of watching me in gym, so. I figured as much."
"So, uh. I totally think you're cool, too. I just need some time to think about it."
Peter deflates a little, gaze locked on Andrew's clean converse shoes; he's probably rolling in cash, because he seems to have a new pair every other week. Always fashionable. Very popular. What the heck is your problem, Peter, picking the cool kids you have no right to be with? And now — to just go for it like this, maybe... "I didn't mean to make things weird, so I'm sorry if I... did that."
"Nah, no. It's cool." Andrew smiles, shrugging a shoulder. He looks a little uncomfortable, but. "I gotta go, but... you know, I think... maybe we can hang out more. Later. See how this thing goes? If you're interested in it, too."
"I am! I mean, yes — yes, I'd love to hang out."
He's so relieved, he almost wants to cry. For the second time in a year, he's walking quickly through the halls — practically skipping, if he's honest — and when he leaps the fence later and pulls on the Spider-Man mask, there's a bounce to his step that even Karen seems to notice. He wonders if he should ask someone for advice on how to approach this kind of thing? He knows some gay people, but he's really bad at opening up about this kind of thing. Has Mr. Stark ever considered boys? Has Aunt May ever considered girls? And why has it taken him this long to even fathom these kinds of talks? There's noooo waaaay he can go to them about something this embarrassing. Not that — not that being gay is embarrassing! Or is it? Is he being all secretly 'no homo' at himself? That'd make no sense. But gay panic is totally a real thing, and —
Oh, that's a purse snatcher down below, he's gotta focus.
"Hey buddy! That's so not your color!"
Spider-Man job now, Parker romance life later.
'SOLVE THE EQUATION:
LOSER + FAGGOT ='
Below the all caps written across his locker door, the predictable answer:
Peter stares blankly at the message for a long moment. Most of the other kids aren't really paying him any mind at the end of the day. One or two look embarrassed for him; another laughs at the joke sharpied across the metal; Andrew's friend Will nudges by him as the bell rings, echoing sentiments as his elbow sharply grazes Peter's spine: "Faggot."
Oh, Peter thinks. He probably wrote it. It's super unoriginal.
So, Andrew told his friends. He doesn't even bother hiding himself from Peter's radar... just stands with his friends close enough that when Peter turns, he locks eyes with him from down the hallway. There's no signs of that winning smile or twinkle in his eye. He just — stands with his arms folded, defensive, a flash of belated second thoughts in his expression just before he turns away and disappears to leave the campus for the day. Weekend. Good time to go hang out with friends, right? Good time to tell them all about the loser who admitted he liked you.
At his side, Ned catches him by the elbow, looking worried. He'd stayed behind longer to talk to the teacher about his essay rough draft.
"Peter? Dude, hey — " The boy quiets when his eyes meet the locker.
MJ is right behind him.
"Who did this?" she asks, expression darkening with indignation, as she motions a knife-like hand toward his locker.
He doesn't want to handle this. His stomach churns, and before he knows what his own legs are doing he's rushing blindly away through the hall, desperate to pretend nothing's wrong; the best way to do that would be to leave the school, just leave and go be Spider-Man and not think of how fucking stupid he is, how fucking naive—
"Peter!" MJ calls out.
He hears them try to follow, but he's Spider-Man. He's too fast. Fast enough to try and outrun any problem that comes along. Watch as the lockers pass, the teacher yelling 'no running!' futilely, the student he nearly knocks over in his mad sprint for freedom. He jumps down a long set of stairs, staggers, and then face-plants right into Happy Hogan's waiting chest. Panting, he's panting, and he must've really been booking it. "Kid? Hey, you didn't forget our plans tonight, did you? Tuna casserole upstate?"
He looks at Happy sharply, awed.
He hiccups a sob.
His face scrunches into something ugly and recklessly vulnerable. Does he ever learn? Being vulnerable is such a bad idea, no matter how hip it is in 2017. And yet he buries his face in Happy's shoulder as two drip-dripping set of tears squeeze by his pressing eyelids. He's gonna freaking barf; can't breathe or see or smell, but he does eventually feel the man's palms pressing on his shoulders. "What happened? Hey, are you alright?"
Then Happy's arms wrap around him with some hesitancy and hold him there, a small comfort the guy's not used to offering just anyone. Peter presses his hands into his face, stifling what feels like hoarse panic now.
"He told them — he told people, and he didn't really —"
A set of fingers hook around the back of his neck, pressing to comfort before leading him forward when his legs refuse to carry him.
"C'mon," Happy says, as grave as a six-foot hole reserved for a coffin. "Here, c'mon, get in, get in." He ushers him into the backseat of the car and Peter promptly curls up, forgoing a seat belt. He's Spider-Man. Spider-Man doesn't need a goddamn seat belt, okay? He can survive falls off ten story buildings, no sweat. This is nothing. And he shouldn't even be freaking out like this. How is a rude message scribbled on his locker worse than being dropped out of the sky on a fiery plane?
... He feels bad, leaving Ned and MJ behind; his phone keeps buzzing in his pocket, but he's scared to explain. He shouldn't be, because they love him, and they're his friends.
But he is.
"Listen, Peter," Happy says after a long and concerned pause. "We're gonna stop by the diner on 11th and order some burgers and fries, and you're gonna tell me everything, alright? Then I'm gonna decide if I need extreme measures. I'm not above endangering high school students, and trust me when I say nobody should want to cross paths with me on a golf cart in broad daylight."
"No, angry, I'm very angry. And stressed out. I don't get paid enough for being worried about emotional wrecks in superhero suits as often as I am." He looks at Peter and his puffy red eyes in the rear-view mirror, expression lacking any of the usual annoyed punch; he really does just look worried. "You know I'm in charge of you, right? So your problems are my problems."
"You don't have to help with these kinds of things," Peter says lamely.
Stopped at a red, Happy twists around in his seat to point at Peter.
"I want to, kid. There's a difference." A pause. He motions at Peter with a hand. "Crawl up here, spider-boy. Up front. C'mon, tell me everything. The diner thing still stands."
And boy, it'd be easy to leap out of a window and find somewhere to sling away into isolation. Easy, but not... what Peter wants, actually. He shrinks in his seat.
(Now, maybe he should text MJ and Ned back before they storm the Avengers headquarters.)
First things first:
"... Don't tell Mr. Stark?"
Peter's not sure why he doesn't want him to know. At least right now. Maybe because he blows stuff out of proportion? And this isn't even a big deal; he's making it a big deal. It's not the first time he's been taunted for being him. And yet Happy's words have eased back a harrowing panic in his lungs, and when the driver promises he won't say anything without Peter's approval, he knows this is someone who'd never betray him. He crawls into the front seat and wipes his nose on his sleeve. Happy sighs, "Okay, bud... Start from the top. And it'll be alright. Just breathe through it... I've been really working on my meditation expertise, if you need tips. Gotta manage my blood pressure somehow, right?"
Peter actually smiles at that. And even if Happy doesn't smile, too, he knows he's right where the guy wants him. They talk all the way upstate, through a diner, and over a bridge, and up many a-street, as Peter's blotchy face clears up.
When he hears all kinds of stories about the boys Happy had fallen for miserably in high school, he feels — less alone.
That's all he really wants, right now.