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Holding To The Ground

Chapter Text

Peter flipped his pillow over. His tears had soaked one side far past the point of comfort.

 

He wasn’t angry at May for the things she had said. Because she had only repeated what that voice in the back of his head had screamed at him for months.

 

You’re a murderer.

 

You could have stopped it.

 

You could have saved him.

 

It should have been you.

 

Because she was right, wasn’t she? As she threw all of the things she bought him around the room, things he had no right to, she told him that she had never asked to be burdened with him, she had only asked for Ben, and Peter had fucked it all up and turned it all around.

 

And now, staring at the possessions scattered around the floor, catching the light of the setting sun and casting long, dreary shaddows over the wall, he knew that she was right. He was nothing but dead weight.

 

His eyes landed on his Spider-Man mask, crumpled in a heap in the corner. May had snatched it out of his hand the second she saw him in the costume, and it had lain there ever since, abandoned but holding far too much truth that both of them knew.

 

That he could have saved the love of her life, but he didn’t.

 

 

He covered his mouth with his hand to stifle a sob. He wanted May to forget he was taking up her space, even for just a few blissful hours.

 

Tears streamed down his face silently. Peter curled his body into the smallest ball possible, drawing his knees up to his chest. He just wanted to disappear. He wanted to curl into himself until he was so small he couldn’t be seen and May could renovate his bedroom into something for her, an office or workout room or just a place with no Peter.

 

Soon, the fading twilight turned to darkness. He heard the front door open and close the moment May slammed his bedroom door hard enough to rattle the hinges, but nothing had moved in the apartment since. Silence and deep gray moonlight blanketed his bedroom in a dreary, empty melancholy.

 

Some hours after her storming footsteps had faded, they returned, soft and gentle as her jingling keys unlocked the door.

 

”Peter?” She called quietly throughout the apartment. “I got dinner.”

 

”O-okay,” he replied, his voice hoarse. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

 

He sat up, wiping his cheeks and sniffling. Here he was, nothing but a killer, and she had still spent her time and money on him. Food for him, and he smelled that it was his favorite Thai restaurant. The delicious scent only emphasized the ache in his chest. He had cost her a husband, a chance to be young, and now, five dollars and seventy-nine cents more.

 

He stood and opened his door, blinking at the bright light. Once his eyes had adjusted, he crept down the hallway, hesitating at the border between it and the kitchen.

 

May sat at the table, unloading two packages from the plastic bag they came from. The crinkling noise grated his ears. She placed one styrofoam container in front of herself, one at the only other spot on the table. Peter’s spot.

 

It should have been Ben’s.

 

He sat silently down before her and opened the package. He realized that she had gotten his order wrong; rather than his regular chicken fired rice, the bed of grain was studded with beef. He kept his face neutral as he forced himself to take a bite, but his chewing was reluctant. He hated beef.

 

As May took a bite of her perfectly steaming larb, she said, “Look, Peter, I said some really awful things earlier.”

 

Peter swallowed hastily. “No, May, it was—“

 

”Don’t interrupt me,” she commanded, and he shut his mouth instantly. Then, she continued in her former gentle tone, “I crossed lines that I shouldn’t have. I accused you of some awful things, and I should apologize. I was mean, but you have to understand where I was coming from. When I saw you in that mask and knew you could have saved Ben, I just—I saw red. I couldn’t help myself.”

 

Peter forced down another bite, but it did nothing to fill the growing hole in the pit of his stomach. May continued.

 

”When you got left with Ben and I, it was hard, but I had him to help me figure things out. But I’ve been doing everything myself this past year. I’ve been so stressed trying to keep us two afloat, trying to rearrange my life to accommodate you without Ben, and the stress snapped me. Seeing what you did to him, and seeing that you’d lied to me for so long—I just couldn’t handle you any more. But I’m not going to stop taking care of you just because of how badly you hurt me. I would never abandon you. Do you understand that?”

 

Peter nodded around the lump in his throat.

 

”Good. I knew you would,” she said. Taking another bite of her larb, her gaze landed on Peter’s meal. 

 

“Oh, Peter, I messed up your order, didn’t I?” Concern turned her voice sweet, raspy as it was.

 

”Oh, yeah,” he said, poking at the rubbery meat. “It’s alright, though, I’ll just eat it.”

 

”Are you sure? I could always go back.”

 

Something warm bloomed in Peter at that moment. Her offering to replace his meal meant she cared about his comfort, right? At least to an extent, she was forgiving, and she surely did far more than she had to do for him.

 

A small smile turned his lips upwards. “No, May, it’s alright. It’s still good. Thank you.”

 

May returned his joy, his relief. “You’re welcome,” she said. They finished their meals in comfortable silence. Peter ate every bite of his, and the relief that washed over him from May’s forgiveness made it taste delectable.

 

Once finished, he threw away both plates. He realized as his eyes began to drool closed against his will that he was exhausted, drained, so he bid May his goodnight.

 

She stood up and kissed his forehead, just as she had every night. “Goodnight, Peter,” she murmured into his skin.

 

He nearly stumbled over the discarded pictures and school projects that littered the floor, but made it to his bed without falling. He stripped off the day’s clothes and put on a pair of old pajamas. Peter crawled in between his sheets, full and warm.

 

It was as he drifted off into a calm darkness that he realized May had forgotten her usual I love you.

Chapter Text

Peter woke with the Sun.

 

The birds weren’t chirping, no, but the cars were honking and the pedestrians were yelling, so the average Queens morning was starting off fairly well.

 

He dressed quickly, his usual graphic T-shirt and jeans, and shrugged his faded yellow backpack over his shoulder. He placed a hand on the doorknob, but stopped. What if he ran into some trouble after school? What if he heard a desperate scream on the subway platform?

 

He hastily stuffed his suit into his backpack.

 

He walked into the kitchen to see May reading calmly on the couch, and a weight he had held onto from the night before lifted. Maybe she really did forgive him.

 

”Hey, Aunt May,” he said as he grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl and began to peel it. “I’ve got a chem test this morning so I’ve got to head out early. I’m gonna study gas laws on the train, and I’ve got pretty much everything else down—“

 

“Sit down, Peter.”

 

He stopped, the banana halfway between the bowl and his mouth. “What?” He asked.

 

”I said, sit down.” May’s voice was calm and collected, but held little warmth. Any relief he had garnered washed away instantly.

 

”Um, okay,” he said, setting his breakfast down and sitting next to her on the couch. She was relaxed, her feet tucked beneath her and her eyes skimming a cheesy romance novel over the rim of her coffee cup. Peter, on the other hand, stayed perched on the edge of the worn couch, his posture straight, fiddling with a wrinkle in his jeans.

 

For a moment, May was silent. Then, she set her coffee mug on the table next to her, dog-eared her page, and looked him in the eye. Her gaze was warm, and a familiar comfort washed over Peter even through his anxiety.

 

”Peter,” she said, “we need to talk more about last night.”

 

”I know, Aunt May, but I’ve got that test really early and—“

 

”That test is not more important than your family,” she interrupted. Her voice was hard, commanding. He was thrown back into last night’s lecture for a short moment and his eyes widened. Then, her fire cooled, and Peter was almost sure he had imagined her brief authority.

 

She said, “So, now that I know you’ve been sneaking out and such, I’m going to have to set a schedule. You may be a superhero, but you’re still a child, and it’s about time you started acting like it. I’ve been far too lenient on you, and starting tonight, you have a set curfew. I want you home by seven every day after school, and you can be out until nine on weekends.”

 

”What? May, that’s not enough time to help anyone—“

 

May leaned in close, cutting him off. ”Yes, it is. Queens got by just fine without you before, they can manage a couple of hours by themselves.”

 

“No, please, people need me!”

 

”They never needed you before. They can figure it out now. I need you. Alright?”

 

“But people will die!”

 

”And what about me? You would just leave me alone, waiting for you to come home, never knowing if you were dead or alive? Because there’s nothing very heroic about abandoning your family.”

 

Peter’s protests grew weaker. Who was he to deny his aunt her one wish? She wasn’t truly making him give anything up; he was still going to be Spider-Man, just for a few hours less. And—and with all he did to May, it was only fair that he spent some extra time with her. It was the least he could do.

 

He sighed. “Okay, May,” he said quietly, and that was it.

 

She smiled at him and patted his shoulder. “That’s my boy.” He returned her smile after a moment’s hesitation, shaky but there. 

 

“Now,” she said, “go run to school. You’re late enough as it is.”

 

Peter checked his watch. “Oh, my God!” He exclaimed, jumping to his feet. He had less than fifteen minutes to get to school, and the nearest subway was a ten minute run away.

 

He snatched up his backpack and ran out of the door, his breakfast forgotten. He called, “Bye, May!” Over his shoulder, and sprinted underground as quickly as he could without giving away a superpower or two.

 

——

 

Peter walked out of his chemistry class with tears in his eyes. He had shown up nearly thirty minutes late for the test, unprepared and rumpled. Every head looked up before the teacher motioned for them to continue their writing, but Peter saw the dissapointment in her eyes as she handed him his scantron.

 

He saw even more when she gave it back, a large Eighty-Two written at the top in purple ink. Her loopy handwriting scrawled Good Job! beneath the number, but they both knew that for him, it was anything but.

 

He spent the rest of the day in a slump, ignoring his lessons in favor of cycling through his own head, how far his GPA would drop, how many colleges would refuse his scholarship applications for that single slip up, how May’s eyes would turn downward in veiled dissapointment even as she reassured him.

 

Just like the night he called her ‘mom’.

 

Just like the night he couldn’t save Ben.

 

Ned found him at lunchtime, shoveling down his reduced-price spaghetti like it was ambrosia. With his banana forgotten, his stomach had begun rumbling on the train and hadn’t stopped since. 

 

“Hey, man,” he said, setting down his tray down and automatically handing Peter his apple, which he accepted with a small ‘thanks’. They had developed this system lately; with Ned’s surplus of money he could afford to buy extra food, which he would give to Peter to help sate his permanent hunger.

 

They ate in silence for a short moment, Ned quietly poking at his noodles while Peter ate as much as he could hold. Then, Ned said, “So, you seem pretty bummed today. Anything happen?”

 

Peter shrugged. “Nothing really. I failed that chem test, though.”

 

At Ned’s skeptical look, he corrected, “Okay, I didn’t fail it, but I didn’t do well either.”

 

”Why not? You know this chapter like the back of your hand.”

 

Peter stabbed his fork into the noodles. He suddenly wasn’t very hungry any more. “Well, May made me late. She wanted to have a talk about something She saw last night.”

 

Ned’s eyes widened. “Dude, did she find your porn stash?”

 

”What? No! No, Ned, she...” Peter glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching. Only Michelle sat ten feet away, absorbed in a book. He lowered his voice and said, “She saw me in the suit.”

 

Ned’s mouth formed an O shape. “Holy shit, what did she say?”

 

”She got mad about me lying and stuff, but she really just gave me a curfew and was okay with it. I was super shocked.”

 

Ned let out a breath and returned to his lunch. Peter did the same. “Well, thank God you’ve got the coolest aunt on the planet.”

 

Peter stared at the empty plate before him, the pit of his stomach suddenly heavy from more than just artificial tomato sauce. “Yup. Thank God.”

 

The rest of lunch was spent mostly with Ned talking and Peter listening. He rambled about his annoying sister, his newest LEGO set, the summer camp he was applying for, and everything in between. Peter was thankful for the opportunity to remain silent.

 

The topic of the test resurfaced. Ned insisted Peter had still done well, but Peter refused to show him the score. After a long persuasion, though, Peter quietly slipped his scantron out of his bag.

 

A long-fingered hand snatched it from his grasp. Peter looked up to see Flash lording over him, Peter’s clean scantron in one hand, his own crumpled one in the other. 

 

Flash laughed. “An eight-two? Parker, that test was easy! I got a ninety-three without even studying.”

 

”Piss off, Flash,” Peter said, but it held none of its usual bite. He slouched in his chair, trying to make himself as small as possible.

 

Flash ignored him. “I mean, you’re supposed to be the smartest kid here, right? But then you’re walking in late, letting your grades slip, and stealing food from your friend over here. Actually, no, I think you’re doing him a favor. The less he eats the better.”

 

Ned’s face turned red with rage, and Peter’s cheeks burned with humiliation. “Flash, just go away,” said Ned.

 

Flash raised his eyesbrows. He said, “Oh, baby’s got some fight in him, huh? What are you gonna do, sit on me?”

 

Michelle huffed from three yards away and set down her book, holding her place with her thumb. Her voice flat, she said, “Flash, go away or I’m getting you bumped off the decathalon team for good.”

 

Flash scoffed. ”Seriously? Who do you think you are?”

 

”The president of the decathalon team and the final voice in all decisions. I can have you kicked out here and now if I feel like it. So leave, before I get what I want.”

 

Flash huffed and stormed off, muttering something about favorites under his breath.

 

Peter let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. “Thanks, Michelle,” he said.

 

”Whatever,” she replied as she returned to her thick novel, but he saw the corners of her mouth twitch up.

 

Despite the morning behind him, his own did the same.

Chapter Text

Nearly a week had passed since that day.

 

Besides the new curfew, not much had really changed between him and May. He was glad for this fact; even though he had cost her her husband and her youth, she still cared for him each day. Something warm but heavy glowed deep in his chest at the thought. He was loved, and no matter how comforting it was, he knew somewhere deep down that he didn’t truly deserve it.

 

But she still had not told him I love you.

 

He pushed the thought deep down as he swung between buildings and power lines. There was no time for guilt when people were in trouble. No time to feel insignificant and alone.

 

An abrupt shriek pulled him out of his head. It was high and clear, and did not give out after a few seconds like an adult’s would. This was the terrified scream of a child.

 

Peter turned himself towards the source of the sound and swung as quickly as he could. Concrete and iron blurred past him so quickly he began to feel sick, but he persisted, even when he misjudged a web and clipped his shoulder on the side of a building. Hot blood began to stream down his arm and fling droplets into the air. He kept on.

 

He landed on a rooftop. The impact of the concrete underfoot sent an ache shouting through his entire body, but he ignored the pain. At the sound of his landing, both the screaming child and the man trying to toss her off of the ledge turned around.

 

Maybe Peter had never been abused. But he knew people who had. And he had read books about the topic. He knew enough to recognize child abuse.

 

And this little girl, her blonde curls matted with blood, her My Little Pony dress torn to shreds, her wrists and cut and bleeding with the red marks of rope burn showed every sign he could think of.

 

He didn’t say a word. He simply aimed his webshooter at the little girl and shot.

 

The webs wrapped around her body and she cried out in either fear or pain. Peter drew the webs back in until she was drawn away from the ledge and by his side. He swept her behind him with one arm, the other aimed on the man, whose face was contorted in fury.

 

”Are you her dad?” He asked.

 

The man didn’t answer. Peter started to repeat his question when the man rushed forwards, fists balled. The child behind him whimpered, and almost on instinct, he shot another web at the man. It bound his arms and legs together, and one more web stuck him to the ground. He struggled fruitlessly against his bindings.

 

Peter turned to the girl and crouched down to her level. Her face was tear-stained and blotchy, wisps of hair caught in the snot running down her face. “Hey,” he said gently, careful not to startle her. “What’s your name?”

 

She drew in a shaky breath and said in a tiny voice, “Alyssa.”

 

”Alyssa? That’s a nice name.” She nodded but didn’t smile. “Alyssa, did that man hurt you?”

 

Slowly, hesitantly, Alyssa nodded again.

 

“How long has he been hurting you?”

 

”A couple of months, I guess.”

 

”Yeah? And was he the only one?”

 

Alyssa nodded again, her eyes on the man as if she feared he would break free and punish her.

 

”Is that your dad?”

 

Alyssa didn’t answer. She was too focused on the man. Her eyes were wide and her face was pale. Tears started to well up in her eyes.

 

Peter touched her face gingerly, guiding her eyes back to him. “Hey, Alyssa, you’ve been so brave, alright? You’ve done so well, I’m so proud of you. I’m a superhero and I couldn’t do what you’ve done.”

 

”What did I do?” She asked, and Peter’s heart ached.

 

”You survived,” he whispered. “And you’re here now. And I’m proud of you.”

 

A small smile bloomed on her face, and Peter found himself returning it beneath the mask. “See, that’s a pretty smile! But I just need to ask you another question, okay?” At first She didn’t answer, so Peter lifted his mask up to his nose and stuck out his tongue. She giggled and did the same.

 

”Okay,” she said, gaining a bit of confidence.

 

Peter secured his mask back over his chin. “So, can you tell me who that man was? Was that your dad?”

 

”No.”

 

”No? So who was he?”

 

“My daddy’s boyfriend.”

 

Peter started to relax at her answer, but kept his guard up anyways. “And your dad didn’t know about this? He’s always been nice to you?”

 

Alyssa smiled just talking about her father. “No, daddy’s nice. He didn’t know what Mr. Pat was doing. But daddy always hugs me.”

 

Peter felt relief flood his veins. Alyssa wouldn’t have to go into foster care. Peter could simply call the cops and return the girl to her father.

 

”Oh, that’s good. Your dad sounds like a nice man. Where is he?”

 

”Um, he’s been gone on a busy-ness trip.” Peter smiled at her awkward speech. “But he’s coming back today. That’s why Mr. Pat tried to get rid of me.”

 

The relief vanished into thin air. Dark anger took its place, black and hot. “Get rid of you?” He repeated, eyeing the still-struggling form on the ground.

 

Alyssa nodded, oblivious to Peter’s hatred. “Mhm. I live in this building.” She gasped as an idea came to her, a high, joyful sound. “Oh, Spider-Man, do you want to wait with me? I can show you my Barbies!”

 

Peter’s smile returned once more. “I would love that. Just give me a second to call someone to take Mr. Pat far, far away, okay?”

 

Alyssa nodded and skipped away, humming to herself. Peter had no idea how children had such resilience, but he was thankful they did. After a near death experience, this little girl sang her favorite song like it was nothing.

 

He stood and walked over to the man.

 

”Karen?”

 

”Yes, Peter?” Replied the voice in his mask.

 

”Can you send the NYPD to this building and forward them all the footage from the past ten minutes?”

 

”Of course. Anything else?”

 

”No, thank you.”

 

Peter heard her shut herself off. Pat snarled up at him. Peter gave him one final kick, then followed Alyssa to her apartment.

 

——

 

A key clicked in the door just as Alyssa’s Barbie was about to marry Peter’s Ken. The door opened and someone called from the foyer, “Pat? Alyssa? I’m home!”

 

Peter stood up as Alyssa’s father walked in the room, his doll forgotten. “Daddy!” Alyssa called, her face split open in a wide smile. He ran over and hugged her father’s legs. His eyes, however were focused on Peter.

 

”Hey, baby,” he said absently, setting down his briefcase. “Who’s your friend?”

 

Shs tilted her head up to look at him. “Oh, that’s Spider-Man! Mr. Pat tried to throw me off a roof and he saved me! And then he came in and played Barbie with me!”

 

”Wait, hold on, Pat did what?”

 

Peter cleared his throat and gestured to Alyssa. Taking the hint, the man said, “Hey, honey, why don’t you go play Barbie in your room?”

 

”Okay, Daddy!” She said, and flounced to her bedroom.

 

Peter approached him slowly. He made his voice as professional as he could and said, “Sir, there’s no delicate way for me to put this but...I’m afraid that your boyfriend has been abusing your daughter.”

 

The man gasped. His eyes opened wide. “Wait, What?”

 

”I said—“

 

”No, I heard what you said, I meant—God, where is he now?”

 

”Probably on the way to the police station.”

 

The man shook his head. “Okay, hold on, just—just explain this to me from the beginning.”

 

And Peter did. He told the man how he found Alyssa on the rooftop, what she recounted about the past months, and described the evil look in Pat’s eyes. Tears welled up in the man’s eyes as the story went on. When Peter describes the moment Alyssa told him Pat’s plans for when he came home, they began to spill over.

 

By the time Peter wrapped up his retelling, the man had begun to shake in his seat. “How did I never notice?” He asked himself, his voice ragged.

 

”It’s not your fault,” Peter soothed. “Most people don’t notice until it’s too late. You just need to be glad Alyssa’s alive.”

 

The man nodded. “I am,” he choked, his voice thick with tears. “I am.”

 

Then, with no warning, he lunged forwards and wrapped Peter in a fierce hug. “Thank you,” he whispered into Peter’s shoulder.

 

”It’s just what I do,” Peter said.

 

The man sobbed into the fabric of Peter’s suit. Peter just let himself be held. This wasn’t the first time. Far too many children died before he could reach them.

 

Then, a small voice asked, “Daddy?” Alyssa had come out of her room to play, but her baby doll hung forgotten at her side, her eyebrows knit together in concern.

 

The man immediately pulled away. “Yeah, honey?” He said, wiping his face clean.

 

”Are you okay?”

 

The man smiled and walked over to her. He picked her up and balanced her on his hip. She giggled as he bounced her, and her corkscrew curls bounced along.

 

”I am now.”

 

Peter took that as his cue to leave. While Alyssa and her father we’re absorbed in one another’s company, Peter slipped quietly out the door and made his way back to the roof.

 

Pat was no longer there, and the residue of webs was the only sign he had ever even existed.

 

But something was off. The Sun was already down, the sky getting darker by the second.

 

Ice cold fear flooded Peter’s veins as he checked the time in the corner of his vision. The tiny clock read 9:18 pm.

 

Peter swore and swung in the direction of home as quickly as he could. Despite his relatively strong night vision, he grazed his arms on buildings so many times that by the time he landed home, the skin on both sides was all but gone.

 

He changed as quickly as he could and ran into the living room, where he found May sitting on the couch, staring blankly on whatever rerun played on the television. All other lights had been turned off, and Peter noticed with a flip of his stomach that her right hand held a near-empty bottle of red wine.

 

”Hey, Aunt May,” he said carefully.

 

She took a long swig from the bottle. “You’re late,” she said simply.

 

He rushed to explain himself. “I know, but there was this little girl who almost died and I had to wait with her until her Dad came home. I really didn’t mean to stay out so late, it was just so overwhelming that I lost track of time. I promise it won’t happen again, I really do.”

 

Peter waited silently for her answer. For a moment, the only sounds came from the television’s tinny speakers and the swishing of the liquid in May’s bottle.

 

”...May?”

 

Finally, her eyes still trained on the screen, she said, “I thought we’d agreed on a curfew.”

 

”I know, but that girl really needed me—“

 

”And what about me?”

 

Peter blinked. May continued, “Did you even think about how worried I was? Two hours past your curfew and you still weren’t home? I thought you were dead. Did you even care about how I feel? Do you care about me at all?”

 

Peter didn’t answer. What could he say? 

 

That was a mistake. Finally, May twisted to meet his eyes. Peter was taken aback; her gaze was shockingly vacant, without any familiar warmth he had loved so much for so long. Instead, somewhere deep within them, a spark of rage smoldered beneath the layers of ice.

 

”But maybe I shouldn’t have worried.”

 

Peter openly flinched at that.

 

”I mean, you can handle yourself, right? You’re an adult, you have superpowers. You don’t need anybody else. You’ll leave your aunt all alone with her cold dinner just to stay out for another hour, being some kind of hotshot.”

 

Peter’s lip started to twitch. “No, May I’d never.”

 

”But obviously you would!” She shouted, jumping to her feet. “You just did! You think random strangers are more important than the woman who keeps you alive even after you killed her husband!”

 

Tears spilled over Peter’s face at the mention of Ben as his Adam’s apple bobbed violently. He felt like he had just been stabbed.

 

”God, Peter, you’re so selfish! You only do what you want to do and you damn the rest of us. When will you realize that the world doesn’t revolve around you?”

 

The next breath Peter let out shook his entire body as the tears began to drip down his chin. He felt like someone was grabbing his stomach and squeezing as hard as they could.

 

”You know what? Maybe you should have stayed out! Putting yourself in all that danger, you’re bound to get shot one day. Then maybe I’ll get some goddamn peace around here, and I won’t have to look at the little shit that my dead husband’s brother left behind!”

 

May threw her bottle to the ground and it shattered, sending shards of glass flying around the room. By now, Peter’s entire body trembled, and he flinched violently as the bottle exploded. He began to sob openly, his body heaving.

 

May sniffed. “Pick this shit up,” she commanded. Peter waited for her to leave him to it, but she stayed, lording over him. He walked to the closet to find the broom, but May said, “No broom. Use your hands. See how I feel picking up your messes.”

 

Peter stared at her with wide eyes, disbelieving, almost asking her to bust out laughing and admit it was all a long joke.

 

That moment didn’t come. Slowly, hesitantly, Peter sank to his knees. He picked up the biggest shard carefully and held it in his hand. Then the next. Then the next. With shaking fingers he filled his right hand with sharp shards of glass, barely touching them to keep his skin in tact. He rose to his feet to throw them away when suddenly, May coughed. He flinched, and his hands curled into fists against his will. His hissed; the corners of each shard split open his skin. Blood began to pool in his palm and spill over his skin.

 

“Don’t you dare stain my carpet,” May said, her voice hard. Peter nodded quickly and rushed to the trash can, dripping the blood-stained glass into the bag. Holding his hand over the can, he tore off a paper towel and pressed it to his wounds.

 

He expected May to let him rest, but she said, “Keep going.”

 

He stared at her incredulously, but her hard gaze never wavered. He sunk back to the floor and continued his job.

 

He cried out whenever a new shard would prod his already-healing cuts, and had to sweep his hands over the floor to pick up any minuscule glass pieces, but eventually finished. When he looked up from sweeping the last pieces of glass embedded in his skin into the trash, he saw May swaying in place, tears running down her cheeks. 

 

“May!” He exclaimed, rushing over to her. He pulled her body to rest on her shoulders. After a moment, her downcast eyes focused on his face, vulnerable and open, a stark contrast from the hard authority she held before. “May, are you alright?”

 

She sniffed. “I’m a terrible person,” she said.

 

”No, you’re not. You’re just sad. It was my fault for staying out past curfew.”

 

”It was, right?”

 

With her propped over his shoulder, Peter started to guide them both to her bedroom. “It was. It was just me, it wasn’t your fault. I should have listened to your rules.”

 

May nodded along. “Yeah. You should have.”

 

She looked down at Peter’s bloody skin, staining her already-stained pajama shirt. “Oh, baby, go bandage your hands.”

 

”I will. Don’t worry about me.”

 

As he led her to her bed and helped her lay down, he said, “I’m sorry, May. I’m sorry for breaking your rules.”

 

”I forgive you,” she mumbled, crawling between the sheets like a child. She let Peter tuck her in, her tears slowly dying. Relief began to make his body sag. May issued a punishment and forgave him. Everything would be right again by the morning.

 

Peter stood in the doorway. “Are you gonna be okay?” He asked.

 

May, her eyes closed, mumbled something he couldn’t hear.

 

”May?”

 

She took in a deep breath and said, “You should have been on your parents’ plane.”

 

The color drained from Peter’s face. He froze, unable to believe what he had just heard.

 

What?” He asked, all relief sapped from his veins in favor of cold horror.

 

May didn’t answer. She was already fast asleep.

Chapter Text

Peter sat at his desk with tears in his eyes. His pencil hovered over a particularly hard equation, but he could hardly make out the answers. He hadn’t written anything down in half an hour.

 

Because everything May had said was true. Try as he might to deny it, wasn’t he truly selfish? He flung himself around the city for kicks without giving a passing thought to the people he left alone. Thinking back, he couldn’t remember the last time he hung out with Ned without dragging him into Spider-Man business.

 

A single tear slipped out and rolled down his face. He had school in three hours and hadn’t finished even half of his homework. His grades were slipping, his aunt was starting to see who he really was, and his Spider-Man work was getting less successful by the day. He was pathetic. A nobody. 

 

Why had he been given these powers if he was the wrong person to use them? Anyone else, even Cindy from comparative government would be better at all this than him. Why would the universe leave New York City in the hands of a selfish, irresponsible screw up?

 

Maybe it was all some big joke. Somebody far away was laughing at him. Look at that kid, they thought. No matter what he tries, he still can’t get it right!

 

Or maybe he was all alone. Maybe everything was chance, and all the die in the universe rolled wrong on that one fateful day.

 

He hoped that wasn’t the case. He wasn’t sure if he could survive another day if it was.

 

He set his pen down. Between his tear-blurred eyes and shaking hands, nothing was getting done anyways.

 

Peter buried his face in his hands. He wanted so desperately to sleep, to go somewhere else entirely for just a few short hours, but his mind wouldn’t let him. Any time he got close to rest, it would project the image of Ben bleeding on the concrete behind his eyelids.

 

With a sigh, he looked back up. Covering his eyes for too long was bad news. That meant sleep, and sleep meant remembering. He let his gaze slip around the room for something to grasp at, when he saw his suit laying in a haphazard heap on the ground. 

 

He stood slowly from his chair, careful to avoid the creaking of old wood, and walked over to it. He picked it up, examined the sides. They were reduced to not much more than a loose mesh of thread, scuffed and tangled from his journey only hours before.

 

Clearly, the fabric couldn’t withstand harsh grazes or sudden stops. And even though Peter could, it wouldn’t be nearly as impressive if he was naked and skinless by the time he landed. But what fabric was both strong and flexible, as well as opaque and easy to wash?

 

Right now? None. But checking he wath, he still had two hours and thirty-six minutes before he needed to get up for school. And if he had any worth at all, that would be enough time to invent one.

 

Peter sat back down at his desk, clutching the fabric in his hand, and picked up his pen. He flipped his math homework over and began scribbling chemical equations on the other side.

 

——

 

Mr. Harsch’s class was hell.

 

The teacher had stare at him with thinly veiled dissapointment when all he had to turn in were two barely legible equations done on loose leaf, and looked pointedly at Peter with every question he explained on the white board. Peter, though was hardly listening. He was so exhausted his could hardly think through the thick jelly of his brain. Every word from the teacher’s mouth sounded less like English and more like the noises made by the adults on Charlie Brown.

 

Coupled with Flash throwing torn up scraps of paper at him from the left and Ned whispering about the cake he was plannings on baking from the right, Peter was overloaded on every possible level.

 

His eyelids grew heavier with every passing second, and every blink was a struggle to keep from falling into sleep’s soft abyss. Because the alluring darkness was nothing more than a beautiful mask for the memories that he shoved deep down, the ones that were only ever let out when he wasn’t in control. 

 

But Flash was going the extra mile today and Ned just wouldn’t shut up no matter what Mr. Harsch told him and his dreams weren’t always bad, right? Sometimes they were nice, just scenes of him walking through parks or getting married to a person with a neutrally beautiful face. And this nap would probably be too short to let him enter a dream, anyways. What harm could it do.

 

Slowly, Peter propped his head on his chin and let his eyes droop shut. The second his eyelids made contact, the dark waters swallowed him.

 

——

 

Peter was on a rooftop. He stood in full view on New York City, unmasked and smiling. Because they knew his name. They knew the worth of Peter Parker.

 

He leapt off the edge of the building and fired a web at a nearby lampposts. As he swung by, he heard people calling his name, thanking him for all he had done around the city. The city smelled of flowers rather than smog, and no matter how hard he looked, he saw not a single trace of the color gray. Everybody smiled, no one fought, and the desperate screams he was so used to hearing were silenced.

 

He saved a kitten from a tree. It’s owner hugged him and thanked him, using his real name. “Thank you, Peter,” she whispered, and something warm bloomed in Peter’s chest. She handed him a wrapped candy from her purse and left. He popped it in his mouth and did the same.

 

He caught a little boy’s ice cream as he dropped it. He picked flowers too high for an old man. This was his life, now, lovely tasks not tainted with blood and people who sought to give him gifts and love.

 

Then, he heard a scream. Loud. Strained. Blood curdling.

 

He hurled himself in the direction of the noise, fading by the second. He pushed himself beyond his usual limits, but the burning of his muscles that he accompanied with such strain never came. 

 

He landed in front of a convenience store, one blanketed in darkness even though it had been daytime only moments before.

 

And he saw Ben. Ben, lying on the concrete, his hands slack over an oozing bullet wound, his eyes shut and his face pale. But it wasn’t Ben who had screamed.

 

It was Peter. Peter from that fateful night kneeled over Ben’s limp form, his shrieks reduced to gentle whimpers and sobs. Peter watched his younger self try in vain to plug up Ben’s bullet hole even though he was long gone by now. It’s useless! He wanted to yell, but he seemed frozen, rooted to the spot.

 

Sirens that he hadn’t even noticed grew ever closer, and soon the scene was bathed in red and blue light. Policemen and EMT’s swirled around him, not even noticing his presence. Peter’s cheek felt wet. When had he started crying?

 

And then, suddenly, he was at the police station. He stood in a dark corner, watching the scene before him unfold.

 

Past Peter sat in a hard plastic chair. He stared blankly ahead, his face slack, oblivious to the blood smeared over his face and hands. He swayed slightly in place, but showed no outward signs that he even knew where he was.

 

And May was there. May, collapsed on the floor, sobbing so hard her entire body heaved, her wails echoing off of the bright white walls. An officer crouched next to her, whispering soothing words with a detached pity. May didn’t seem to hear them. She just cried and cried and cried.

 

And then something happened that Peter didn’t remember. Something entirely new, but entirely real.

 

A man materialized from the shadows. He was short and skinny, but his face was covered by a dark mask. He walked slowly across the tiled floor, every step calculated. The police officers and concerned citizens gave him a wide berth without even truly noticing his presence. He walked up behind May, who still wept on the ground, and pulled something metal from his pocket. A gun.

 

Peter scrambled to get to her, but his feet were still rooted to the floor. May was about to die, the only person who truly loved him, and he was too useless to even try and save her.

 

He watched helplessly as the man raised the gun to May’s head, who remained oblivious to the danger she was in. Then, with one hand, he slowly peeled back the mask from his skin.

 

And underneath it was Peter’s on face, scuffed and smiling. Peter struggles against his invisible bindings, but to no avail. Looking him straight in the eyes, this other Peter turned off the safety with a quiet click.

 

The gun banged.

 

The world exploded.

 

——

 

Peter shot straight up. “May!” He shouted, his voice tight. He panted, his chest rising and falling rapidly. He scanned the room with wide eyes, expecting to see splatters of blood and piles of splintered bones. Instead, he saw walls plastered in inspirational posters and rows of desks. The students seated in them stared at him with wide eyes, as did the teacher. His expression seemed to be a battle between annoyance and concern.

 

Peter’s cheeks burned and he wilted under his classmate’s accusing stares. Ned asked quietly, “Are you okay?”

 

Peter swallowed. “Yeah. Yeah, I just had a bad dream.”

 

Mr. Harsch clearer his throat to get Peter’s attention. He said, “Peter, would you like to step out and gather yourself?”

 

Peter cocked his head. He was fine, just a little shaken up. But when he raised a hand to his cheek, it came away wet.

 

His cheeks burned three shades darker.

 

”No, I’m alright,” he mumbled.

 

Mr. Harsch stared at him with a deep breath. “Alright then,” he announced. “Back to the board, everyone.” The students groaned in unison, forcing their attention back to the class subject now that their distraction was gone.

 

The rest of the day passed in a blur of Peter ducking away from students and sitting as far away from Ned as possible. He ate lunch in the empty band room and sat as far away from Ned and MJ as he possibly could in all his classes. Despite his efforts to disappear, though,  students would turn to stare at him periodically throughout the day. Peter shrunk into himself just as much every time.

 

And then, before he knew it, he was walking out of his school’s wide glass doors and slipping into a sleek black car waiting for him. Happy didn’t say anything to him as he closed the door, and for once, he was grateful rather than hurt. 

 

Well, he was still hurt, but at least he didn’t have to recount his day. Peter just plugged in his headphones and stared out the window, letting old eighties songs wash him to a place of static.

 

He kept his headphones on even as they entered the evelator. Happy shot him a suspicious glance out of the side of his eyes. Peter kept his gaze straight ahead.

 

“Bye, Happy,” he said as the elevator doors closed behind him. Happy didn’t even get his farewell out before the metal clanged shut.

 

With a sigh Peter stuffed his headphones in his pocket and punched his personal code in the door’s lock. It opened silently and he stepped through, and the sharp scent of oil and bleach hit his nose instantly. He spotted Tony instantly, huddled in the corner, surrounded by what he recognized as what must have been at least twenty different versions of Rhodey’s prosthetics. He hummed some unidentifiable tune that Peter could just make out over the sound of a drill.

 

He walked silently to the desk nearby and opened his bag. He placed his notes, a calculator, and his Spider-Man suit on the top and rooted through the cabinet above for the necessary chemicals.

 

He slowly mixed together the complexly labeled substances with laser focus, heating it until the color changed from a misty yellow to clear. He was in the process of brushing the liquid over every inch of his suit’s fabric when Tony approached him. He didn’t flinch when a hand came down on his shoulder; he had heard the footsteps approaching from the moment he’d stood.

 

”Hey, kid,” said Tony, “What are you up to on?”

 

Still focused on his work, Peter said, “Using a compound I found last night to strengthen my suit. It got pretty roughed up last night.”

 

”...That’s it?”

 

”Yup.”

 

Tony clicked his tongue. He watched for a second, then leaned down and grabbed Peter’s scratch equations. Peter let him. He didn’t need them any more, anyways.

 

Tony whistled as he reviewed the sheet. “Damn. When did you have time to do all this?”

 

Peter shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep last night. I figured I’d do this instead.”

 

Tony took a seat in the empty chair next to Peter. “Why not?”

 

”May yelled at me. I was too upset to sleep, I guess.”

 

“It was that bad?”

 

”Mhm.”

 

A long moment passed. Tony fiddled with a spare pen. “What’d you do?” He asked

 

"Hm?" Peter hummed, coating his brush in another chemical layer.

 

"You know, what's you do to make May go all--" Tony rolled his eyes comically.

 

Peter felt a quick stab of shame at the memory, but he pushed it deep down. “Came in after curfew,” he said.

 

”Since when do you have a curfew?”

 

Peter sighed and put down his solution. He knew he’d have to admit it eventually, anyways. “Aunt May found out I’m Spider-Man.”

 

Tony’s eyebrows disappeared into his hairline. “Shit, kid. What’d She say?”

 

Peter swallowed. It still felt weird taking to Tony like they were friends, even after all this time. “Nothing too bad. She yelled at me about putting myself in danger and stuff.”

 

Tony laughed, and Peter finally met his eyes. How could he think Peter’s pain was funny? Was Peter that much of a joke to the world?

 

”Yeah, that’s how it goes sometimes,” Tony said.

 

”...Really?” Peter asked. Could her harsh words and sudden turn-around be...normal? Tony seemed to think they were, and Tony usually had his best interests in mind.

 

”Yeah,” Tony said. “She was just worried about you. She’ll calm down soon, she just freaked out, you know?”

 

Peter’s brow furrowed. He had thought before that something was off with May, but maybe he was just paranoid. Maybe he was the one in the wrong “Um—yeah. Yeah, I know,” he said.

 

Tony leaned in, his eyes soft with concern. “Hey, you alright?” He asked.

 

Peter plastered on a shaky smile. He raised his head as met Tony’s eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.”

 

Tony patter his back. Peter flinched as the motion forced his still-healing hand into the sharp corner of the desk, but kept his small grin.

 

”Well,” Tony said, crossing the room again. “Get back to it, Pete. Hope your suit keeps you safe.”

 

Peter looked down into the white eyes embedded in red fabric. If he focused enough, they almost stared back. 

 

“Me, too,” he whispered, so quiet only he could hear the melancholy echo. “Me, too.”

Chapter Text

When Peter got back to the apartment, May took his phone.

 

”You just use it to talk bad about me to your friends,” she told him, her voice venomous and accusing. And he was so exhausted and afraid of her hard gaze that he just handed it to her, tears in his eyes. And when she kissed his forehead and whispered that she was all he needed anyways, he nodded his agreement and trudged quietly to bed, where he crawled between the sheets and pulled the quilts up to his chin, trembling until the warm waters of sleep washed over his body.

 

May didn’t come home on Saturday. Or on Sunday morning. But when she came home on Sunday night with a bag of his favorite chocolates and let him pick the movie, he smiled at her love, even if he knew he didn’t deserve it. It seemed that whatever pleasant emotion that bubbled up within him was bogged down with a heavy sickness, because he knew that joy and love and comfort were wasted on someone like him.

 

Even so, even as it hurt, the warmth of May’s unconditional love felt so, so good.

 

And that love kept him warm throughout Sunday night and Monday morning. A small smile played on his lips during his first four classes, even when Flash’s assaults began to turn merciless; his smile remained as he reminded himself to fall limp when Flash pulled his ankle in the middle of his track class’s clump. He was trampled by at least fifteen students before anyone helped him up. And yeah, the bruises sucked, but he was healed by lunchtime anyways.

 

He watched the last yellow bruise fade into his skin as Ned set his lunch tray across from him. He opened the Jello cup placed in front of him almost mechanically, shoveling the jelly into his mouth as if on instinct. As always, MJ sat a safe distance away, her nose in a novel as thick as her head.

 

”What’s up,” greeted Ned.

 

”Nothing,” Peter said. “How was your weekend?”

 

”I mean, nothing really happened. I just kinda hung out. You weren’t answering your phone, though.”

 

Peter took another bite. “Oh, yeah. May took my phone.”

 

”What? Why?”

 

Peter shrugged. “I went to Mr. Stark’s without telling her. She’s getting really mad when I’m not home, lately.”

 

”Well, you know,” said Ned. “She probably just gets really worried now that she knows about...you know...” Ned lowered his voice to a pathetic version of a whisper. “The internship.”

 

Peter drained the last of his dessert. “You think?” He asked.

 

”Yeah, man. When my mom found out how dangerous my walk home from school was she didn’t let me stay out for five months. She made me get a tracker on my phone, but you know me.”

 

”God, Ned, you hacked your own phone?”

 

“Well, yeah! What was I gonna do, skip out on decathalon?”

 

Peter hummed. After a long moment of silence interrupted by chewing, Peter said, “So, like, this is normal? May’s not overreacting or anything?” Even after all she’d done for him, a seed of doubt still hung heavy on his heart.

 

”Yeah Peter, don’t worry about it. She just wants you to be safe. She’s gone all Aunt-crazy, but she’ll be fine soon. You just gotta wait it out.”

 

Peter nodded, content with Ned’s answer. 

 

“Hey, you want your eggs?”

 

Ned scoffed. ”Um, yeah? Go beg MJ if you’re still that hungry.”

 

MJ made a rude hand gesture from across the table, her eyes still glued to the book.

 

Peter looked back to Ned with wide eyes. “Absolutely not,” He said.

 

——

 

Peter came home to an empty apartment.

 

He dropped his bag to the floor and slipped off his shoes, calling, “May, I’m home!”

 

No response. He crept into the kitchen, scanning the small room.

 

”...May?”

 

Silence reigned supreme. May was nowhere to be found. The bedrooms stayed dark, no one echoed his greetings in the bathroom. He was alone.

 

Peter sat down on the couch, his hands clasped in front of him. Without his phone or Spider-Man, there wasn’t much for him to do. He’d re-read every book in the house ten times over, and although May didn’t explicitly ban him from using the television, being grounded from his phone usually meant being without technology altogether.

 

He eyed his backpack. He might as well get ahead on some homework, right? Summa cum laude wasn’t going to earn itself.

 

But twenty minutes into his analyzation of Things Fall Apart, he found that he couldn’t focus on the work before him. Every few seconds someone would shout or a siren would scream by, and he would be reminded of all the good he could be doing instead of sitting around uselessly. But he shook the thought away; it was already five o’clock, and he had promised May he wouldn’t go out tonight.

 

He tapped his pen absently on the table. People out there could handle themselves, right? They’d always survived before he came around, and he was never particularly worried about the citizens before he got his powers.

 

As someone smashed a bottle three blocks away, Peter realized that that was because he had never been able to hear their anguish. 

 

Checking his watch, he stood suddenly. May probably wouldn’t be home for a few hours, right? He could just sweep the area for danger and come straight home, sitting on the couch when May came back. She’d never find out, and he could save a few lives while he snuck out. Most teenagers did way worse when they ran away.

 

He changed quickly into his suit with that thought as a constant reassurance. As he strapped on his webshooters he considered just giving up and staying in. He felt dirty lying to May, even if it was for a good cause.

 

A choked cry for help slipping through the walls threw that thought out the window.

 

Only minutes later, Peter had strung up a mugger and walked home the shaken up but overall fine victim. She gave him a long hug before she stepped into her apartment, and he smiled beneath the mask.

 

That night, the people of New York didn’t much need his help. He broke up a few drunken fights and stopped another mugging, but he mainly just waved at pedestrians and flipped for tourists. The time sped by as he laughed into the breeze, flying through the air with not a care in the world. The buffeting wind stripped away all of his worries, all of his insecurities until there was nothing left but the calm knowledge that he could save twenty lives in a night.

 

He decided to turn back home when the moon rose over the city’s skyline. Sharp anxiety began to bubble up in him as he swung towards his apartment, but he forced it down as best he could. It’s not like he could change anything now, right? If she was home, she was home, and he would just face the consequences and go to bed.

 

It didn’t help, because something in him knew that wasn’t true.

 

He slid in through his window, taking off his mask but not changing out of his suit. The lights in the house were off and everything was blissfully silent. He breathed out a sigh of relief; he was still alone. His spider sense buzzed a warning, but he disregarded it as leftover anxiety from the trip home.

 

He padded to the kitchen. His footsteps echoed quietly off of the faded walls, and the soft light that shone through the windows threw eerie shadows across the floors. He opened the fridge, squinting at the harsh light inside. They didn’t have much; orange juice and some leftover Mexican takeout were all that was left in the white drawers. 

 

With a sigh and a growling stomach, Peter grabbed a small container of dirty rice and closed the fridge. Blanketed in darkness once more, he sat at the table to eat his cold meal.

 

As he swallowed the first bite, his sensitive ears picked up something he hadn’t noticed before; a heartbeat, growing ever closer, and another, louder thumping. Footsteps. From inside the house.

 

Peter stood slowly, abandoning his dinner, and crept to the doorway. He curled his hands into fists as the intruder twisted the doorknob and opened the door.

 

Thankfully, Peter never threw a punch, because standing in the doorway was May, her hair in a ruffled bun and her hands clasping a worn bathrobe tight around her body.

 

She clicked the light switch on, and Peter shielded his eyes.

 

”May!” He exclaimed, jumping backwards. “What are—what are you doing home?”

 

”I live here, Peter,” she said, her voice hard, and cold fear flooded his veins. “But obviously, you don’t.”

 

His stomach plunged down to his feet. Her face was stony, but with the way her fingers twitched, he could tell it wouldn’t be for long. ”May, I’m really sorry I left when you told me not to but you weren’t home and—“

 

”And that was a good reason to disobey the one fucking rule I set for you?”

 

Peter took another step back. May hardly ever cursed. In fact, he wasn’t surely he could remember the last time he’d heard her use such language against him, if she ever had.

 

Peter said, “I’m—I’m so sorry, I just didn’t think. I swear it won’t happen again.”

 

”Oh, but it will, won’t it? This is the second time you’ve come in late.”

 

Peter gulped. His spider sense began to rise to a high shriek, every hair on his body standing on end. His clenched and unclenches by his fists on instinct, as if preparing to fight a villain. But he would never hit May. He would never have a reason to.

 

She continued, approaching him slowly, her voice rising with each word, “I’ve taken care of you all these years. Even after everything you’ve done to me, and you just run around in your own little world like I don’t exist. When was the last time you did something for me, huh? Never. You just abandon me for the first fucking butterfly to flutter on by. I’ve given up everything for you, you little bitch, and you still won’t listen to a word I say! I don’t know why I even wanted to spend time with you tonight when you clearly don’t care about me!”

 

Tears began to brim in Peter’s eyes, but even through them he could see May’s fuming face, red and almost swollen with rage. With a trembling voice, he said, “May, you know I love you—“

 

”But not enough to even want to talk to me! Not enough to listen to the one rule I gave you! I could have banned you from doing your spider thing, but I didn’t, because I know that you care about it. Maybe I should have, though, right? I think the power isn’t getting to your head head, and you need to be taken down a peg or two.”

 

Peter’s heart fell at the very thought. Without Spider-Man, he would be a total waste. He would just be another kid with no potential and no one who truly cared about him. Of course, he always had May. She was family. But if he kept going the way he was...maybe he would lose her, too.

 

May continued, her face turning a deeper shade of crimson by the second. ”You just want to go live out your stupid little superhero fantasy and leave your lame aunt all alone! How many lives did you save today, Peter? Who did you help when you decided to choose your super friends over me?”

 

Peter thought back to the night; not one person he ‘saved’ had been in any true danger. They all could have made it out without them, even if they were down a few dollars by the time it was all over. “None,” he whispered.

 

May scoffed. “None.” She crossed her arms, shifted her weight. 

 

“None!” She repeated, her voice suddenly a shout. Peter cringed back, curling into his torso. His tears finally began to spill over, slipping down his skin and dripping off of his cheekbones.

 

”So you really chose a night out over me. You just want to go have fun and forget about any responsibility! You think you’re an Avenger, Peter? You’re not. You’ve never saved a single person, not really. All you do is let people die. You kill. You’re a murderer. And do you know who you really killed?”

 

Peter’s entire body trembled. He didn’t answer, but he already knew the name she would say. A heavy sob slipped between his lips.

 

May stalked over and grabbed his face, forcing his eyes to meet hers. And he found them hot, blazing, a sick, twisted perversion of the loving warmth he remembered so fondly. Spittle flew from her mouth as she yelled, “Do you know who you killed?”

 

Peter nodded, sobbing openly now. His body heaved with each cry. May’s grip was too tight and his jaw ached in her hold. Her long nails cut crescent moons in his skin.

 

”You. Killed. My. Husband!” With the final word, May struck Peter across the face. He crumpled to the ground, gasping in shock. He hardly had time to raise a hand to the flowing cut on his cheekbone before her foot connected with his side. He cried out, curling in on himself. He scrunched his eyes shut, feeling the tears mix with the stream of hot blood.

 

Above him, May watched as he sobbed and shook. After a long moment of silence interrupted only by his soft moans and cries, she sniffed. “Clean your face and go to bed,” she said. She tore her eyes away from her shivering nephew and walked back to her room, clicking the light back off as she went.

 

Slowly, shakily, Peter sat up. He sniffed, feeling the cold air on his wet face. He looked around the room, unsure what to do now. The tile beneath him was too cold on his skin, the suit too tight. Everything felt like too much.

 

He stood up as if he weren’t in control and trudged towards his room. He wanted to text Ned, turn to a friend, but that didn’t happen. It couldn’t, with his cell phone under May’s control. Peter shivered at the thought of her and ice flooded his veins.

 

He pushed May out of his mind. In his room, it was just him. No family. No Spider-Man.  Keeping the lights out, he stripped out of his suit and crawled beneath the sheets.

 

His mind was blank. Every breath hurt.

 

He thought of nothing. Was the blood staining his pillow?

 

He pushed away the pain, the night’s memories. How long had he been crying?

 

Peter closed his eyes against the cold and let himself slip into a silent sleep.

Chapter Text

Peter winced when he sat up the next morning. He slammed the off button on his ancient alarm clock.

 

Smog-filtered sunlight shot through his window in rays, casting a square of yellow light over his face and onto his floor. He squinted against the bright, groaning as he turned his head. His neck was stiff, his ribs ached, but besides that, he felt fine.

 

Slowly, he swung his legs over the side of the bed. He stood with a groan. He dressed in the first garments he saw, a scuffed pair of jeans and free T-shirt from a science fair, and padded slowly out of his room. He strained his ears and heard that May’s heartbeat was slow, steady. He breathed out a sigh of relief; she was asleep. 

 

Renewed, he unwrapped a granola bar that had been left out on the table. He hummed quietly to himself as he fumbled around the apartment, gathering books and binders and stuffing them haphazardly into his backpack. 

 

As he tied his shoes, he heard May’s heartbeat begin to speed up. He heard her sheets rustle as she stirred.

 

By the time she woke up, Peter had flown out the door and was halfway down the block.

 

——

 

May was staying out later and later. Sometimes, Peter wouldn’t see her for days at a time. He found himself equally relieved and disappointed whenever she didn’t come home.

 

He still never dared to go out on patrol. He didn’t want another blow-up, as he had started to call them. May had begun to have these fits of rage when Peter asked for the simplest things. Even a grocery request would end with slammed doors and a mixture of blood and tears streaming down Peter’s face.

 

He tried to make himself as small as he could. He stayed in his room, silently reading or staring out of his window. He left only to go to school and to eat, and always tiptoed his way around. It was the least he could do, right? If he stayed out of May’s way, she wouldn’t have a reason to be mad at him. She wouldn’t have to see such a disgusting face every time she left her bedroom.

 

Some people had started to wonder why Spider-Man was showing up less and less, but at least he showed up. An hour of patrol here and there was better than leaving his city to the rats and gangs.

 

And even though May’s pushes and slaps never really hurt, he would prefer to be stabbed in an alley by a criminal he had cornered. Even though she’d only laid her hand on him four times, it was always equally excruciating.

 

Like when an angry shove sent his head into the corner of a coffee table.

 

Or when a thoughtless slap landed on a still-purple bruise.

 

Or when a simple handhold had just gone too far and left bleeding nail marks. Ones he could trace over every time he wondered if he truly deserved this. The sick perversion of such a loving gesture reminded him to just sit, wait everything out until May got back to normal, until she stopped coming home with prescriptions that weren’t in her name instead of macaroni from the deli.

 

So, he waited for the moments he loved. For the day when, while nursing a broken finger from patrol, May brought home his favorite ice cream flavor and played Scrabble with him. For the day when, as an apology for hurting him, she took him to Times Square to watch confused tourists get scammed out of thirty dollars by someone dressed in a cheap version of his alter ego. In those moments, it was easy for him to forget that he deserved none of it. He was just happy and safe and loved for a blissful snapshot of time.

 

But it was okay. He’d be okay. He always was. May still loved him, Spider-Man still kept citizens safe, and Mr. Stark still invited him over every Friday for check-in and suit advancements. 

 

But he still shifted nervously outside of May’s bedroom, trying to work up the nerve to go in. Without a phone to check due dates, submit assignments, and e-mail teachers, his grades had slipped far past the point of comfort. If his GPA dipped below a 3.0, he’d lose his scholarship to Midtown Tech, and it was becoming a struggle to keep it that high. He knew he didn’t deserve his phone, that the punishment was fair, but surely getting kicked out of his dream school was far too high a price, even for May. She’d never pay tuition, and before he knew it he’d end up at his local school.

 

So, before he could back out, trembling from head to toe, Peter knocked on the door.

 

”What?” May called, her voice gruff. A spike of fear shot through him, but he had already come this far, right? He forced himself to speak.

 

”Uh, May?” Peter said quietly. “Can I come in?”

 

”Whatever.”

 

Slowly, Peter opened the door. May was sitting in her bed, a glass of whiskey in one hand, her cell phone in the other. She didn’t look up at him.

 

A long moment of silence passed. Peter gulped.

 

Still fixated at the screen in front of her, May said, “What do you want, Peter?”

 

Peter took a deep breath. Gathering his scraps of courage, he said, “May, you’ve had my phone for, like, a month, and—and without it I haven’t been able to keep up with my schoolwork and I really don’t want to lose my scholarships so...uh...”

 

Peter trailed off. His chest started to feel constricted, every breath was a struggle. Even with the freezing fear turning his body to ice, his lungs burned.

 

May put down her phone. She met his gaze and said, “So, you’re asking me for your phone back?”

 

”Uh, I’m—I mean, I...yeah. Yeah, I—I am. Please.”

 

May sighed. She lifted a hand and started to massage her temples. “Peter, I just—I can’t deal with you right now. No, you can’t have your phone back, you’re fucking grounded. That’s the point.”

 

Peter’s desperation began to grow, clawing at his stomach. He took a step forwards. “But, May, I really can’t keep track of all my assignments without it—“

 

”And that’s not my problem.”

 

”May, please—“

 

May slammed her glass down suddenly. Peter flinched as half of the liquid sloshed out of it. May didn’t seem to notice.

 

”I’m starting to get pissed off! Do you want that to happen?” Her volume had doubled.

 

Peter wilted, curling in on himself. He shook his head slowly, lowering his eyes.

 

From the edge of his vision, he saw her deflate and relax. “Good,” she said. “Now go to bed.”

 

And even though it was five O’clock in the afternoon, Peter did what she told him to. He crawled into his bed and stared at the wall for five hours straight, thinking of nothing at all.

 

——

 

The next morning, May threw open his door before dawn. He started awake, throwing his blankets to the floor. He looked wildly around the room until his eyes landed on the figure of his aunt, towering over him with her arms crossed and her hair tied in a tight bun. She wasn’t dressed, wrapped in a pink bathrobe. It didn’t soften her exterior in the slightest.

 

”Get up,” she commanded, her voice hard. Peter leapt to his feet immediately.

 

”You are ungrateful,” she said, as if she had rehearsed the whole thing. “You don’t appreciate anything I do for you, and I’m sick of it. And if you refuse to acknowledge all the work I put in to keeping you alive, you don’t get to enjoy what I provide. From now on, anything I bought, you don’t get to use. Since the apartment is leased in Ben’s name, you can say here, but I don’t want you to cost me a dollar in food or water. I don’t want  you using the television, the chairs, your bed, any of it. All you’re entitled to in this house is the floor and anything you can buy and keep in the cabinets. Lay so much as a finger on my faucet and you’re sleeping on the sidewalk. Got it?”

 

And before Peter could so much as nod his head in assent, she slammed his door shut and stalked out of the apartment.

 

Slowly, his brow furrowed in confusion, Peter blinked and started moving. After dressing, Peter opened his door and walked out. He tiptoed to the kitchen. Surely May was joking, right? She would—she wouldn’t starve her nephew!

 

He shivered when he realized he wasn’t quite convinced.

 

He warily opened a cabinet. He would just pour a small bowl of cereal and go to school, right? But when he pulled out the box of Frosted Flakes, he saw a ruler taped to the side with a mark halfway down the wold. When he grabbed a box of granola bars, he saw tallies on the lid for how many were left.

 

Peter couldn’t eat without May knowing. And if she cared enough to label each box, she was serious. Goosebumps popped up over his skin, and suddenly the apartment was too cramped, tiny and suffocating. He grabbed his backpack, hardly taking in a full breath, and sprinted out the door with his shoes barely on his feet.

 

——

 

Peter spent his first-hour algebra class with his pen still in his bag, trying to focus on quieting his screaming stomach. Fourteen hours since he had last eaten, eight spent asleep, and he already felt like his body was trying to digest itself. If he focused hard enough, he could almost see his fat burning away with the naked eye.

 

He hardly felt the hour fly by, but the bell startled him out of his reverie. He quickly stood and grabbed his bag, hoping he could slip through the halls and to his next class without having to talk to anyone. Unfortunately, before he could escape unseen, his teacher called, “Peter, could you stay after a minute?”

 

Peter stopped in his tracks and groaned. “A-Alright, Mr. Harsch.”

 

He watched the swarm of students thunder out of the door. Finally, when he was alone, he approached his teacher’s desk. “You wanted to talk to me?” He asked, his voice shaking in time with his knees.

 

Mr. Harsch dropped his pen. “Yes, Peter,” he said, meeting his eyes. The thinning red hair and crinkled eyes radiated concern, but Peter felt no comfort. If anything, the idea of a near-stranger afraid for him increased his shivering. “You’ve always been one of my best students. I knew right away that you don’t just excel in math, you enjoy it. That’s a sight I see once every few years. But grading your last test was a train wreck. You barely scraped by with a sixty-six percent. You made simple math errors that I’ve seen you perfect hundreds of time. And it wasnt just one test—you’ve been coming to classes late, falling asleep at your desk, and you haven’t turned in homework in almost a month. I mean, i didn’t see you take a single note today. And I know you’re not lazy. What’s going on?”

 

Peter paled. “N-Nothing, sir, I’ve just been having some problems with my aunt. She has to come first, and school’s just been, Uh, hard to juggle with it all. But I’m working on everything and I ought to be alright by next month.”

 

”Why is your aunt having such effects on your grades? Isn’t that your parents’ problem?”

 

Peter froze; he had never really had a conversation with Mr. Harsch, had he? They knew nothing about one another beyond math. And God, he didn’t want to pull the orphan card, but the seconds were ticking away until his next tardy and he couldn’t risk detention, not tonight. Not when May probably wanted him back home to watch him fall apart.

 

So, reluctantly, guilt plagueing his body and bringing a convincing pitiful tone to his voice, Peter said, “I, Uh, I don’t have parents, sir. They died a little while back. I lived with my aunt and uncle, but—but then my uncle got killed last year and it’s  been hard to navigate around it all. I’m sorry.” By the end, his voice had dropped to a near whisper. He kept his eyes trained down; he didn’t want to see yet another pitying gaze.

 

But he hardly held back a triumphant smile when an excuse note was Held out to him and Mr. Harsch said softly, “I’m sorry for your loss. Give this to your next hour teacher if you’re late. And if you can come back to my room at lunch, we’ll work out some extra credit work, alright?”

 

Peter breathed out a sigh of relief. “Thank you so much, Mr. Harsch. I’ll see you at lunch.”

 

He all but ran out the door, feeling a spark of hope light in his chest. If he just sacrificed today’s lunch, he might have a chance of graduating Magna Cum Laude. 

 

He ignored his stomach’s painful contractions at the idea of missing another meal. It would have to learn to be hungry anyways, right? 

 

As a particularly violent cramp forced him to stop in the middle of the hallway, he tried to convince himself that that was a good thing.

Chapter Text

Flash Thompson liked to believe he was a good person.

 

He might not have been the nicest guy in the galaxy, but some people needed to be put in their place. Like Peter Parker. The kid was annoying and weird, and someone had to tell him about it. Every time Peter asked an unnecessary question, Flash’s blood boiled. He didn’t know what it was about him, but every word from his mouth grated his last nerve.

 

But that didn’t mean he had no compassion. So when had to stop and take out his ID for an angry teacher right outside of Mr. Harsch’s room, he felt a little bad listening to Peter beg for a grade to impress his only living relative. 

 

But that pity all but vanished into thin air when Mr. Harsch actually agreed to help him out. Flash felt his entire body heat up. Peter always got special privileges just because he was sad. If Flash asked for bonus work, teachers would laugh in his face.

 

And his dad had broken a four month sobriety streak the night before and his cable was out and his dog had run away and Peter’s special opportunities were the last straw. So when he strolled happily out of the classroom, Flash followed him until he turned the corner to the part of the first floor no one ever went to except in passing. A second before he grabbed him, Flash saw Peter’s eyes widen.

 

Flash grabbed Peter’s shoulders and shoved him roughly against the wall. His shoulders slammed against the brick and Peter squeaked in surprise. He cried, “Ma—“ before he clamped his mouth shut suddenly.

 

“Hey, asshole,” Flash hissed, “how many dicks did you have to suck to get that bonus?”

 

Peter didn’t answer. His eyes were shut and his breathing was quick and shallow.

 

”And what was that sob story about your aunt? I can tell that’s bullshit.”

 

Peter’s eyes screwed up and his head started to shake, as if he was trying to ward off a thought or memory.

 

”And God, your uncle? You sunk so low using that. I bet you killed him just for extra pity points.”

 

”I’m sorry, May,” Peter whispered as if he didn’t even notice he was speaking.

 

Flash loosened his grip. Suddenly, his rage all but drained out of him. “What?”

 

Peter snapped his eyes open, returning to the school hallway from some far off place in his mind. The color drained from his face. “I—I didn’t say anything,” he said quickly.

 

”No, you called me May. You told me—her that you were sorry for something. What was it?”

 

”Nothing, Flash. Just let me go.” 

 

Flash did quite the opposite. He tightened his grip on Peter’s shoulders and pushed him harder into the wall. Peter gasped. “Parker, what did you apologize for?”

 

Peter, his eyes wild and frantic, opened his mouth as if the speak. Then, the tardy bell rang, and Flash cursed. Any more late passes and he would get detention for sure. He let Peter go, stepping back and breathing heavily.

 

”Get to class, dickwad,” he said, but no venom laced his voice.

 

He watched as Peter, gently rubbing his right shoulder and wincing, slid out of the hallway. Something was wrong with him. Maybe it was a new limp, maybe it was the way he ducked away from any eye pointed in his direction. But Flash knew something wasn’t right, and he thought he had a good idea of what it was.

 

His mind still whirling around Peter’s apology, he sauntered back to his government class, only to be met with yet another tardy slip.

 

——

 

Flash’s friends were having a heated debate over the best type of grocery store, but Flash wasn’t listening. He glanced over his shoulder every few seconds, watching Parker scarf down his geek friend’s lunch like it was his last meal. Ned was talking, but Peter didn’t seem to be listening. He was too preoccupied with eating like a starving man.

 

Then, suddenly, he stood. He said something to Ned that Flash couldn’t make out, his stance nervous and shaky. Ned nodded in assent and followed him out of the cafeteria doors, leaving only MJ at the cheap plastic table.

 

Flash rose from his chair. The girl next to him asked where he was going and he mumbled some excuse about needing the bathroom.

 

He crossed the cafeteria to the near-empty table, weaving between awkward freshman and exhausted seniors. He sat next to MJ without a word. Without looking up from her book, she said, “No, I’m not kicking Peter out, you’re stuck as first alternate until after winter break. Show up at practice on Friday or you’re out of the team.”

 

”What? No, MJ, that’s not what I was gonna ask—“

 

She turned a page, taking a crisp bite out of her apple. ”Then no, you can’t copy my English homework, Cindy has it right now. Go ask her about it.”

 

“No, MJ, it’s about...” Flash let his eyes sweep the room, ensuring no one was watching him. He dropped his voice low and said, “It’s about Peter.”

 

MJ snapped her book shut loudly, glaring at him for interrupting her. “Goddamnit, Flash, I already told you—“

 

”No, Jesus, it’s not about first alternate!” He exclaimed. A few heads turned in his direction and he wilted, lowering his voice. “It’s not about that,” he repeated.

 

“Then what do you want?”

 

Flash took a deep breath. This wasn’t going to be an easy sell. “Look, MJ, I know you’ve been through...some family shit. I know most people don’t see it, but I do. That’s how I know that you’ve had to deal with it. When you’ve been through it, you know how you kinda look everywhere for it? You see signs that most people don’t see? Like...instead of seeing a little girl’s new bracelet you see the burn scar from her mom’s cigarette?”

 

MJ furrowed her brows in curiosity. “Yeah...” she said, dragging out the word as if its end would bring dread. “What does that have to do with Peter?”

 

Flash took a breath and said, “I think I’m starting to see them in him, too.”

 

MJ’s eyes widened. “No, Flash, no way. I would have noticed.”

 

”But you probably already have! You—you log stuff, MJ, without even realizing! I do it too. I’d been keeping tabs on all the kids who I saw signs in without even noticing until something bad happened. Al, Caroline, Z, I knew before they ever even told Mrs. Juan or anyone else. Think about it.”

 

“So what? Maybe these ‘signs’ don’t mean anything. Maybe that little girl just fell onto a hot pebble. You’re thinking too deep into this.” But from MJ’s hard-set frown, he could see she didn’t quite believe in her own argument. Her dark eyes pointed down, as if she were trying to solve a complex equation in her head.

 

”I don’t think I am,” Flash said.

 

MJ bit her lip and scrunched her eyes shut.  For a long second she stayed frozen, then let her face relax. She breathed out a sigh, and without even realizing it, so did Flash. “Fine,” she relented. “Why do you think Peter’s being abused?”

 

Flash took a moment to gather his thoughts. Then, he said, “Peter’s always been all happy-go-lucky, right? He’s like an annoying puppy. But these past few weeks...I don’t know, it’s like he’s barely here. He avoids everyone, even his dork-ass friend. Even at lunch he barely talks anymore.”

 

MJ swallowed. Flash continued, “And you know the dude’s a total nerd, right? But he’s barely got a 3.1 and that’s with all his extra AP points. He’s late to class almost every day now, and half the time he’s passed out at his desk. He’s slipping, MJ, and I know you see it, and I think we both know why.”

 

MJ stared at him for a long moment. He felt himself sweat under her scrutinizing gaze. Then, she said, “Flash, it just sounds like teenage rebellion. He’s irritable and doesn’t want to go to school. Simple as that.”

 

”And, and he’s, like, starving! You saw him at lunch today, he ate everything he bought and half of Ned’s stuff in five minutes!”

 

”He’s a teenage boy, he has a high metabolism. That’s all there is to it.”

 

She gathered her books and stood to leave. Flash shot up and grabbed her elbow, holding her in place. She stared at him incredulously but he didn’t care. “I’m  serious,” he said somberly. “I really am worried about him. You know he loves school. And—and there’s something else.”

 

MJ raised an eyebrow inquisitively, almost like a challenge.

 

”One time when he fell asleep in math, he woke up crying and he shouted his aunt’s name. And then today, when I...Uh, when I pinned him to the wall,” he muttered the last phrase, Shame weighing heavy on the pit of his stomach, “he apologized to May. Like when he does something wrong to her, he knows he’s gonna get hurt.”

 

MJ pursed her lips, staring at him as if her eyes could see his thoughts. He wanted to shrivel under her sharp gaze but stood firm, her bony wrist still in his hand. Finally, she deflated and said, “Fine. There’s definitely something wrong, I’ll give you that. I don’t know if he’s being abused or selling drugs, and I’ve never met his aunt and I can’t say anything for sure. But if it makes you feel better, I’ll keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Alright?”

 

Flash relaxed. He let MJ’s wrist out of his tight grip and let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Okay,” he murmered, more to himself than anyone else. Then, to MJ, he said, “Thank you. Really.”

 

She nodded and shrugged nonchalantly. She checked her watch and said, “Hey, I’ve got to get to Dobynn’s room so he can sign my history paper, but I want to see you at decathalon practice.” She gave him a two fingered salute, and before he could even say goodbye, she turned on her heel and left through the smudged glass doors.

 

Flash watched the point she left from until she disappeared around a corner. He sat down at the table with a sigh and looked around the lunchroom full of five hundred kids, six of which he had unknowingly been watching for months.

 

Peter would be okay. It wasn’t Flash’s job to care about him, anyways.

 

Right?

 

——

 

Peter walked home from patrol in silence. His suit was tucked safely in his backpack, and with only twenty minutes until curfew, he sped through the streets. He didn’t wave at the few pedestrians he passed, the ones who looked through him as if he wasn’t even there. The ones who always had, no matter how much joy he focused into his greeting. 

 

He sighed and watched a rat skitter across the sidewalk.

 

He unlocked the apartment door and stepped inside. He held his breath in anticipation, trying to hear a heartbeat, but was met with only silence. He let his muscles relax; he was alone.

 

He slipped his shoes off and moved to sit on the couch, but stopped himself. He wasn’t allowed on her furniture. But...how would she know if he sat on it? Surely she didn’t have cameras or anything? Would she even know to punish him?

 

As his eyes landed on the chipped corner of the coffee table that had left a thin white scar on his temple, he decided he didn’t want to risk it.

 

He sat on the floor, wiggling for at least a minute to find a comfortable position. Finally, with his legs crossed in front of him and his math textbook balanced precariously on his knees, Peter started on his make-up work.

 

Two hours flew by as he copied equations in his notebooks and made up for a month’s worth of unfinished homework. He found himself almost enjoying the rhythm of the numbers, simple variables that he could always find an answer to. He had made a sizeable dent in his work before he had to close his book and move on to his second edition. But as he rifled through his backpack, he realized he didn’t have it packed. With all the trouble surrounding May, he hadn’t even noticed the class’s switch into the second textbook.

 

He stood and made a beeline for his room. He looked closely at his bookshelf only to find an empty space. He cursed. More than likely, he had swept it under a piece of furniture.

 

Peter dropped onto his stomach and squinted to see past the shadows. He saw lost socks, old candy wrappers and assignments, but no books until he looked under his bed. There, the dim sunlight shone off of the book’s polished exterior. He reached through the dust bunnies and paint chips to pull it out, but stopped when his hand brushed something unfamiliar.

 

He grabbed down on a cold, plastic surface that gave under pressure. He considered leaving it under the bed in case May had bought it, but his curiosity ultimately won out. His math work forgotten, he pulled out the package and sat up, laying it on his lap. He gasped at what he saw.

 

Beneath the gleam of clear plastic was a shirt of Ben’s. It was nothing fancy, just a department store logo on soft gray cotton, but it was all Peter had left of him. He had managed to sneak it out of a pile of Ben’s clothes that May tearfully placed into storage, aside from a select few she kept in her closet.

 

With shaking hands, Peter unzipped the large plastic bag and pulled out the carefully folded shirt. It was just as soft as he remembered, and if he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine warmth coming from a familiar body beneath the fabric.

 

He brought the bundle up to his face and closed his eyes, inhaling the scent he had longed for for over a year. He smelled chlorine mixed with clean laundry detergent and smoke, and for just a moment was thrust back into the memory of hugging Ben before he left on a long trip, tearfully saying his goodbyes and breathing in the smell of comfort, of home. A single tear slipped out of his eye and wet a dark splotch onto the fabric. He took another deep breath, drinking in his last sense of Ben.

 

He stayed that way for twenty minutes, slowly curling his body around the shirt until his head hit his knees, caught in a flurry of memories. The apartment grew dark around him, but he didn’t notice. He saw the day he came home with a first-rate scholarship to Midtown, and Ben was so excited that he hoisted Peter into his arms, something he hadn’t done in years. He saw the day he watched scary movies with Ben that May never let them watch and had to bury his face into his shirt whenever a character died. He saw every single memory that he thought was lining gone, in second-long snippets or moments prolonged for far more time than they actually took.

 

Then, suddenly, the front door opened. Peter shot up immediately, his eyes widening as he heard May’s footsteps pound towards the kitchen. He quickly stuffed the shirt back into its bag as May shouted, “Peter! Come pick up your shit!”

 

Shoving the parcel behind a mound of old dusty clothing, he called, “O-okay, May!”

 

He walked carefully out of his room. The house was dark, the only light elongating from the flickering television screen. May sat on the couch, her eyes glued to the soap opera on the television and her mouth chewing fresh strawberries. Peter’s mouth watered just at the thought of eating one, tasting the sweetness of the fruit and feeling the burst of energy that came with every bite.

 

Then, May shifted as if to stand and Peter hurriedly gathered his school supplies, his growling stomach forgotten.

 

As he moved to reorganize his backpack, May said, still facing the television, “I paid for that backpack, didn’t I?”

 

Peter felt the blood drain out of his face. “Y-Yes ma’am,” he murmered. She waved him away with the flick of her hand, and Peter left obediently, his head down and his bag left in a heap on the floor. 

 

Once in his room, he sat in the one bit of floor the cramped space provided him. His teetering mountain of books was left on the desk, right next to a picture of him and Ben smiling proudly at the camera, a trophy for first place at the regional science fair between them.

 

As he tried to still the trembling of his hands, he though that if Ben could see him now, he wouldn’t feel much pride at all.

Chapter Text

 Peter spent most of Friday’s tinkering and check-in in silence, trying to force his mind to work on equations for a more efficient web fluid. But his head was foggy from hunger and he couldn’t hold onto a thought for more than a few seconds before it slipped through his fingers like water. Everything felt muddled, like in lieu of filling his stomach his body instead decided to stuff his head full of cotton.

 

He could hear Tony drawing out some sort of holographic blueprint twenty yards away, of what he couldn’t decipher. He was so exhausted that he wanted to just lay his head down on the desk and sleep for a decade, but Tony invited him here to work, not to sleep. So his head bobbed up and down as he fought back the tempting waves of darkness, blinking hard at the near-empty paper in front of him.

 

He felt bad for not going home to show May that he cared, but at the same time he was sure his absence was a relief to her. And although he shoved the thought away each time it emerged, he was relieved that he wouldn’t have to see her.

 

And it wasn’t just May he could escape at the informal lab; he could escape the judgemental stares of his classmates as he tried to balance all of his books in his arms. He could escape Ned’s concerned sighs whenever he ate all the food he was provided by the school before he even sat down. He could escape his own reflection, the increasingly pale skin, the prominent ribs and gaunt cheeks. He even noticed his own hair thinning and breaking off, half a fistful falling to the ground each time he brushed through it.

 

His stomach contracted suddenly and he bent over the table, biting on his bottom lip so hard he tasted copper to muffle his pained groan. He crumpled the papers he had scribbled on in his fists, practically writhing where he sat for what must have been ten seconds. He prayed to whatever malicious god was up there that Tony wouldn’t be able to hear the commotion over the music playing through his headphones, a rock tune he didn’t recognize but could hear every word of.

 

He breathed heavily as the cramp subsided, relaxing back into his chair. He eyed the destroyed papers through drooping lids. It wasn’t like there had been any important work on them anyways. He leaned his head back onto the chair, staring up at the high ceiling. If he just left now, maybe Tony wouldn’t notice and he could slip back into his bedroom. Sleeping on the floor hurt, yes, and his back ached like a bitch just thinking about it, but it was still sleep. That was all he wanted. Sleep.

 

He let his eyes shut. He could just get a quick nap here, right? Just a few minutes of sleep to recharge and then he could get back to work, renewed. Yeah. Yeah...

 

”Whatcha working on?”

 

Peter’s eyes shot open. He gasped loudly and scrambled out of his chair. His feet hit the floor ready to run, but he stopped himself from fleeing like frightened prey when he saw Tony staring down at him, a half-grin still lingering on his lips despite the furrow in his brow. Peter quickly shuffled into what he hoped was a relaxed position. “H-hey, Mr. Stark. What’s up?”

 

Tony cocked his head. “I just came over to see your progress,” he said.

 

Peter shot a glance at the crumpled, near-blank sheets of paper on his desk. “Um. Yeah. Progress.”

 

”And it doesn’t seem like you have much.”

 

Peter nodded slowly but didn’t reply. Tony stared at him for a long moment, his arms crossed over his chest. Peter felt himself begin to sweat under his calculating gaze. He forced a small smile onto his face.

 

Finally, Tony relinquished and said, “Let’s take a break, huh? You look like you need it. Maybe we can get some dinner and pick this back up tomorrow.”

 

Peter’ stomach growled at just the thought. With the weekend ahead of him he would have no source of food. This was a perfect opportunity to stock up on as many calories as he could before he could count his vertebrae in a mirror. Plus, the idea of being invited back to the tower on Saturday was too good to pass up. “God, yes, please.”

 

Tony lead him to the nearest kitchen in the building. He ignored the black spots crowding his vision when he began to move. Tony kept up idle conversation, chattering on about his newest ideas for Rhodey’s prosthetics or the stupid insults a congressman gave him. Peter nodded along absently, forcing his shaky legs to take step after step. He didn’t remember feeling this weak since before the bite, but he’d be fine, right? He always was. He didn’t have another choice.

 

Once in the polished, modern kitchen, Peter sat in the first chair he saw, trying to calm his flipping stomach. He didn’t pay attention to anything Tony was doing, so he sat straight up in shock when he placed a plate full of steaming spaghetti in front of him. The smell of tomato sauce hit his nose like a truck and it took all of Peter’s self control to not shovel the pasta into his mouth with his bare hands. He blinked and looked at Tony, who had sat down across from him.

 

“Leftovers,” Tony explained. “The chefs made too much last night.”

 

Peter’s eyes widened for just a second. Then, he grabbed his fork and took the largest bite he could, manners be damned. He held back a moan at the taste; after eating only price-cut school lunches for a week, anything else tasted like heaven. 

 

It felt like only seconds had passed before his plate was empty. He was still starving, his stomach screaming for more, but he forced his hand to gently place the fork down. He looked up and saw Tony staring at him, his face suspicious and his food untouched.

 

Peter’s cheeks burned deep scarlet. He dipped his head and focused on his hands folded in his lap. Here he was, sitting in the house of one of the richest people on Earth, acting like the starving kid from Queens that he was. Shame filled the pit of his stomach, heavy and painful.

 

”So...” Tony said Slowly, “you were hungry, huh?”

 

”Yeah. Super metabolism and stuff...” he mumbled, trailing off.

 

”You’ve always had enough to eat before.”

 

Peter ducked his head lower. His neck burned in shame as he told the lie he had prepared for this very cirscumstance. “May’s been having some...work problems. I haven’t really been able to eat much.”

 

Tony kept his eyes on Peter. He heard his blood rushing quickly past his ears, felt it heat up his face. He was such a goddamn idiot, being up money. Now Tony would feel the gigantic gap between them more acutely than ever, they’d never be able to have a normal conversation without the guilt of class deprecating them like a thick barrier of glass. Deep in his own regret, Peter heard Tony’s chair scoot back and looked up.

 

Tony walked to the refrigerator with a determined stride and removed a tub of spaghetti large enough to put Costco’s industrial containers to shame. He hoisted it onto the counter and used a fork to shovel three servings worth of the contents onto a plate. 

 

“Mr. Stark? What are you doing?”

 

Tony didn’t reply. He placed the plate into the sleek black microwave. Peter watched in silence as the timer counted down to zero. Tony placed the overflowing plate in front of Peter with a startling clatter and said, “Eat.”

 

Peter looked up and met Tony’s eyes. He was surprised to see such hard purpose in them. “What?”

 

”Eat,” he repeated. “I know you don’t like to ask me for much, but I have more crap than I need anyways. You need to be healthy, and if that means eating my food, then that’s what it means.”

 

Peter pushed the plate away despite his body screaming in protest. “No, I can’t just take your food—“

 

”Kid, I don’t even like spaghetti. Pepper wanted it last night and now she’s in Europe for two weeks. Just take it.”

 

“But—“

 

”Eat the damn pasta, Peter.”

 

And because the commanding tone in Tony’s voice reminded Peter all too much of May, he did.

 

——

 

In the end, Tony forced Peter to take the entire bin. His empty protests didn’t faze him, and he stepped out of Happy’s car and into the cold night, feeling rather absurd at the amount of food in his arms. 

 

He didn’t move towards the apartment building. He stayed frozen on the sidewalk, staring at his bedroom window in silence. His senses flared the second his feet hit the concrete and the warmth of the night’s events drained out of him, replaced with the cold flow of fear through his veins. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up.

 

Happy rolled the window down. “Hey, are you going in or what?”

 

Peter blinked. “Yeah. Yeah, I—I am.” He was being stupid. There was nothing to fear at home, right? Nothing to be afraid of.

 

He took a deep breath that did nothing to quell his nerves. Then, he forced his feet to move and started towards the door.

 

He heard the car pull away and drive off. For some reason, he felt more alone than ever, even though Happy was nothing but his driver. He shook the feeling off and stepped into the rickety elevator.

 

The moment he opened the door to the apartment the shrieking in his head increased tenfold, pounding painfully on his skull. The hairs on his neck stood up so hard they felt like they may fly off. Against common logic, he clapped his hand over his neck.

 

He took a tentative step into the apartment. The lights were all on, so bright he had to squint, but the rooms were all silent. He strained his ears to hear a stray heartbeat but the screaming of his nerves overpowered all.

 

He poked his head into the bathroom and kitchen and was met with silence. But when he looked in May’s room, he saw her reading a worn copy of A Child Called “It” and sipping a cup of tea rather than her now-usual whiskey. A quilt was draped over her legs and wore reading glasses obscured her relaxed eyes. Peter smiled gently at the familiarity from what felt like years ago. “Hey, May,” he said.

 

”Hey, baby,” she mumbled her eyes still trained on the pages in front of her. Something warm bubbled up in his chest at the old pet name.

 

”I brought leftovers.” He held up the tub of cold spaghetti.

 

”From where?”

 

”Mr. Stark’s.”

 

May’s eyes stopped moving across the paper. She looked up at Peter. “You went there again?”

 

Peter nodded. “Yeah. I go every Friday, remember?”

 

May hummed. “And you didn’t think to ask me first?”

 

”N-no,” Peter gulped.

 

May’s eyes moved to meet his. “And so you just went out without permission, after curfew no less?”

 

”Yeah...”

 

May put down her book and removed her reading glasses, folding them closed.  She breathed out a hard sigh. “So I worked my ass off getting calm enough to talk to you tonight and you don’t even care.”

 

”What? No! If I’d known I would have come home right away!”

 

”But you didn’t know because you couldn’t be bothered to ask.” 

 

Peter didn’t reply. He figured if he just stayed silent it would all end soon. May could only keep up for so long without any pushback.

 

And he was right. May slowly picked her book back up and said, “Get to bed. Fucking asshole.” She muttered the last sentence under her breath.

 

With a new dagger piercing his heart, Peter nodded and turned to leave. But May called after him, “And I don’t want you going back to Tony Stark’s house.”

 

Peter whipped back around. “What?”

 

She turned a page. “You heard me. You don’t need to be around him any more. He’s a bad influence.”

 

Peter’s jaw dropped open. His eyes opened wide as he sputtered, “May, I’m...” he trailed off as May’s hard eyes met his own. Ice cold fear stopped his words in their tracks. He considered just relenting and going to bed, letting the tears roll down his face but staying silent so May would be able to forget about him. Just like he had when she took away night patrol and television and food.

 

But then he remembered the meal in his arms and knew that this was not the same as those times. He kept his gaze on hers, never letting it waver no matter how much he wanted to avert his eyes to the ground. “May,” he started slowly, knees shaking, “I—I’ve given up everything for you. I do it because I love you, but I don’t want to give up everything. I just—I really like the time I spend with Mr. Stark. And—and he helps me stay safe during patrol when we get together. Maybe we can come to some sort of, Uh, compromise, but I really don’t want to give that up. Please.”

 

For a long moment May just stared at him. He wanted to curl up into a ball until her eyes could no longer see him but he stood firm, pretending he couldn’t feel his trembling muscles and the beads of sweat rolling down his back.

 

She carefully, methodically pulled off the blanket draping her legs. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood. Peter kept his feet planted as she approached him, each step calculated and purposeful. She stopped barely a foot from him and purses her lips, her hands on her hips. She let out a deep breath.

 

Then, with no warning, she struck Peter across the face. Her knuckles connected with his cheekbone and he stumbled back, clutching where her hand had only just hit. He groaned loudly as tears welled up in his eyes.

 

He let himself lean against the doorframe, trying to calm his breaths. He refused to give up, not at the farthest he’d ever gotten With May.

 

As he slowly stood back up he felt a hot bruise begin to form on his face. He was scared, he was so, so scared, but he ignored his shaking hands and quivering bottom lip and turned back to May, his lip stuck out in defiance. He stood firm and looked his aunt straight in the eye.

 

May’s eyes widened in shock for a single second, so short Peter could have imagined it. Then her face once again screwed up in fury. She pulled back her leg and kicked his shin as hard as she could.

 

Peter cried out, falling to the floor. He held his injured leg close to his chest, his eyes scrunched shut. He felt May’s eyes on him and tried to force himself to move, to get up and try to fight for the one shred of happiness he had left, but pain radiated from the indent on his shin all throughout his left side. He took in short, shallow breaths through gritted teeth, trying to will away the tears coating his eyelashes and threatening to fall.

 

Get up. You’ve fought after being stabbed before.

 

But it was all so different out from underneath a mask.

 

Slowly, shakily, he propped himself up on his arms, breathing through his mouth as the movement forced shocks of electric agony up his leg. But he gritted his teeth so hard he feared they may break and stood, shifting his weight to rest alost entirely on his right leg. He stared May straight in her red face. Her shoulders heaved as she took in monumental breaths, her flaring nostrils reminding him of a stampeding bull.

 

Before he could move away May wrapped her hands around his throat and pushed, forcing Peter to walk backwards to avoid his breath being cut off. He gasped as his back hit the wall. She tightened her grip slowly, watching his face turn deeper shades of red and then purple as she increased pressure. Peter lifted his hands to hers, scrabbling at the soft skin, but he was so weak from not eating for so long and one good meal only did so much for his exhausted muscles. His lungs burned and his throat ached where May pressed against it and he felt his eyes bulge out of his skull. The tears welling up in them began to fall over as he opened and closed his mouth like a fish, trying to gulp in air to no avail.

 

Black began to dot the edge of his vision and he felt his hands go limp at his sides. One particular thought ran through his brain, crisp and cold:

 

She’s really going to kill me this time.

 

Those words spurred on a sudden burst of energy, one that he would later think of as akin to the adrenaline a mother gets when she sees her child in danger. As his eyes began to roll back in his head he flung out his right leg in a random direction. He felt it connect with May’s flesh and she released him. He fell to the floor, landing on his hands and knees and heaving against nothing. He gasped loudly, trying to force his stalled lungs to work again.

 

From above him, May snarled, “Son of a bitch.” Peter whipped his head up just in time to see her grab an antique crystal vase from the dresser behind him and lift it high over her head. He dropped his head once more in an attempt to shield his face, but it didn’t decrease the scattered pain of the vase shattering over his skull. Large shards of broken glass rained down over his head and stuck in his skin. He felt hot blood begin to stream through his hair.

 

“Let me see your fucking face,” May growled over him. Peter only curled deeper into himself.

 

May was unsatisfied with that reaction. She bent down and shoved his body over so that he was sprawled on his back. Peter just had enough time to scrunch his eyes shut before the bottom of her foot connected with his nose. He felt it crack in two and screamed as blood poured from his nose and the glass stuck in the back of his head embedded further into his skull. He brought his hands to his face to try and shield it from harm. “No!” May shrieked and sent her foot down again. His own knuckles pressed into his bony cheeks.

 

She kicked him again. His hands fell away when her heel caught his wrist, pushing it far beyond its limits. He felt a bone snap and let out a clipped yelp.

 

She kicked him again. A large shard of glass in his head scraped against the bones in his skull. His back arched off of the ground and he screamed, long and loud and wavering.

 

She kicked him again. Something went off kilter in his head. Suddenly, everything sounded muffled. The colors began to blend into one another. May’s foot coming down repeatedly on his face barely registered. He felt like he was watching the blurry scene unfold in front of him on a television, detached from all pain or feeling. And he didn’t mind. It kind of felt nice, in a fuzzy, aching sort of way.

 

With a final blow to the side of his skull, May bent down and whispered in his ear, “Tell anyone about this and I’m blaming all of this on your precious fucking Tony Stark.” She spit the name out like it was poisonous. Then, she stalked past his limp form and out of the apartment, shouting scathing insults over her shoulder the whole way. When the door shut behind her, Peter was blanketed in merciful silence.

 

For a long moment he simply stared at the popcorned ceiling. He remembered how much Ben and May hated the texture, but the landlord had never let them change it. He did let them change the floors from carpet to hardwood, though.

 

Oh, wait. His blood would stain the nice floors, wouldn’t it? Yes, and May would see it next time she walked into her room, wouldn’t she? 

 

So he ought to move.

 

With great struggle he rolled over into his stomach. He reached a hand out in front of him and pulled his limp body across the floor. He tried to do the same with the other, but his limp wrist refused to pull him. When he tied to force it, a sharp pain radiated through his arm so forcefully that he cried out.

 

So he slowly dragged himself along with one hand, a smear of blood training behind him. He breathed in sharp gasps, every inhale sending stabs of pain through his right side. He probably had a broken rib or two. It wouldn’t be the first time.

 

Finally, he collapsed on his bedroom floor, panting as his ravaged body relaxed. He wanted to sleep so, so bad, but his body hurt so much that he knew the reprieve of unconsciousness would never come naturally. He sobbed as pain of all forms encompassed every inch of his being.

 

He had to sleep. He couldn’t stay awake like this.

 

His raised his head slowly and slammed it against the floor. He groaned, but despite the blindness creeping into the corners of his vision, his mind refused to go blank.

 

Once again he lifted his head, and his shoulders with it. He took in a deep breath and sent his forehead flying towards the hardwood below him.

 

The second time his skull collided with the floor, everything went dark.

Chapter Text

Peter stirred awake. The first thing he noticed was the pain in his back against the hard floor. The rest of the pain came later, all at once.

 

He groaned and opened his eyes, blinking against the gentle gray light bathing over him. He didn’t move yet. He wasn’t sure if he could.

 

His whole body was encased in different kinds of pain. Stabbing in the back of his head, aching on his ribs, sharp snapping in his wrists, burning in his nose. There was no where in his body that felt neutral, untouched by agony. He could even feel a thin crust of old blood over his face and back. He began to feel a tickle of anxiety in his stomach; shouldn’t his powers have healed him by now? This time last month his injuries would have all but disappeared within a few hours of their infliction, and yet he felt them as acutely as if he was still getting beaten by—

 

May.

 

Peter shivered. Where had the warmth from her name gone? Why did he no longer feel a softness when he thought of her face like he had so often before? Now his mind showed him not flashes of her smiling face and loose auburn hair, but of her deep scowl and gripped fists.

 

He pushed her away. As far as he could tell, she wasn’t even home. She worked on Saturdays, anyways.

 

Saturday. He was supposed to go back to Mr. Stark’s house to finish suit repairs and upgrades. And now he would have to flake out without so much as a warning. Tony would think he abandoned him. He might even sit around all day waiting for him to show up. He might never want to mentor him again after this.

 

Oh, but who was Peter kidding? Tony didn’t care about him. Not as much as he thought, anyways. Peter was just some kid that did the dirty work for him and showed up whenever he ripped a stitch in his suit. Maybe he wasn’t an inconvenience to Tony, but he was certainly no one important. He was nowhere near the ranks of Pepper, Happy, and Rhodey, all of whom Tony talked to outside of business. Peter was just another colleague. Just Spider-Man.

 

Spider-Man. He was done with that for sure, now, huh? He hadn’t seen his suit in days. When he asked May about it she had insisted he had surely misplaced it. And he had, right? He wasn’t so sure.

 

But even if he had the suit his healing was all but gone without the necessary food. He wasn’t sure he could even stand up, much less swing around New York City fetching kittens from trees.

 

But as he laid in silence the Sun was rising ever higher and now it shined straight into his eyes, flaring even beneath the red tint of his closed eyelids. And one arm was dead beneath him, numb and bent awkwardly. And the hardwood beneath him wasn’t doing his back any favors.

 

Slowly, gingerly, Peter sat up. He propped his back against the wall and used his nearly uninjured legs to push him into a seated position. He cradled his numb arm in his lap, though his stomach twisted when he saw the odd angle of his wrist. He was almost disappointed when feeling returned to the limb, sharp and stabbing.

 

He stretched out his neck, trying to coax the sore muscles into relaxation. He leaned his head back to let it rest on the wall and cried out. Something in the back of his head hit the wall and scraped his skull so roughly the room spun around him. He felt sick with pain and heaved, his stomach trying to contract around nothing, and releasing when the fierce cramping jostled his broken ribs. He stayed hunched over for a few long minutes, breathing through his nose and trying to quell the dominoes of pain toppling through him.

 

Finally, he straightened his back, careful to keep his head from touching the wall behind him. He slowly raised a trembling hand to the back of his head. His middle finger bumped a shard of glass and he hissed in pain as it moved in his skin.

 

He let his hand drop as tears started to gather in his eyes. He felt his face grow hot and tried to lean his head back to face the air vent but no, he reminded himself, he couldn’t even do that. He had to keep his fucking head suspended in the air until he worked up the nerve to pull out the gigantic shard of glass stuck in his skull.

 

And that was it. The tears in his eyes finally spilled over. He drew his knees up to his chest and let his forehead drop onto them, not caring about the way the collision shot agony through his nerves because every movement did that now. His body shook and heaved with sobs so loud he had to bite his kneecap to muffle them for fear that somehow May was home, he just hadn’t noticed her, and if she heard him breaking down she would come back in and really finish him off. 

 

He wanted to scream. He wanted to stand up and open the window and scream out into the city until his voice gave out and the tears spilling constantly from his eyes dried into invisible tracks. But he couldn’t, because that was impolite, the neighbors would be angry with him, and he knew that he would never be able to stand long enough to open the window, let alone lean out of it and shout his frustrations to the world.

 

But...but he could scream if he was in pain, right? People usually didn’t like it when someone screamed for no reason, but if there was a reason then they would be fine. And he wanted to scream.

 

He shot his hand up to the piece of glass sticking out from his hair. He hissed as his fingers grabbed the smooth shard, slick with still-wet blood. And before he could let himself think about whether or not this was the best idea, he yanked the piece of glass out of his head and let out a blood-cuddling scream. And it felt good.

 

Panting, he dropped his hand and let the glass fall to the floor. He finally was able to see what was stuck in his head; coated with blood both fresh and dried, it was nearly four inches long. He could see which end had been stuck in his skull, saw tiny flecks of white on it from where it had scraped over the bone. 

 

He felt the blood from the new wound streaming through his hair and down his back, hot and thick. He groaned when he remembered that these were his only clothes until...well, for the foreseeable future. And now they were bloody and wrinkled and probably smelled terrible because the only shower he could use was the one at school after gym class.

 

Peter blinked lazily at the floor. His tears were still wet on his cheeks, but beside from the occasional sniffle he was still. There was more glass stuck in his head, but he was too tired to care. He would get it out when he could walk to a mirror.

 

Time passed. He spent the hours thinking of decathalon questions from so long ago and trying to remember the answers. At one point he dragged his old decathalon binder from beneath his bed and reviewed the crumpled study guides and yellowed flash cards. In the late afternoon he finally stumbled into the bathroom and managed to keep himself standing long enough to relieve himself. He worried briefly about May noticing an extra gallon of water on her monthly bill, but he could hardly survive a trip down the hallway and back. He would never make it to the bathroom at the gas station across the street.

 

Periodically throughout the day he shoveled room-temperature spaghetti in his mouth. The cold noodles made him shiver as they slid down his throat. He told himself to take it slow, ration the food to last the rest of the week. But God, it felt so nice to be full that Peter couldn’t resist eating the slimy sauce that was once the perfect consistency. By the time night fell more than half of the spaghetti was gone.

 

And as disgusting as it was, he needed water. And, well, the sauce settled over time.

 

He was exhausted. His slowly healing limbs hung heavy and his eyelids dropped, but his body wouldn’t let him sleep. He tossed and turned as best as he could on the hard floor, but there was no position comfortable enough to invite sleep into his brain. 

 

He turned onto his side, sighing. He just wanted to sleep. But he wasn’t desperate enough to repeat last night’s measures. Just as he was considering breaking a rule and dragging a blanket from his bed, something beneath the bed frame caught his eye.

 

He reached in and pulled out Ben’s shirt. With a shaking hand he took it out of the bag he had hastily shoved it in weeks ago. He had almost forgotten that he had kept it. He drew it up to his face. It still smelled like him, just a little.

 

Only minutes later, he fell asleep, the shirt clutched tightly to his face, the only life left around him. He dreamt of nothing but static.

 

When he woke, he squeezed the shirt to his chest for just a second before sliding it back beneath the bed. Hardly ten seconds, he heard the front door open and shut and hurried footsteps approach his room. He lifted his head, blinking blearily, his muscles stiff. May threw his bedroom door open and he flinched back, hissing when his bad wrist hit the ground. 

 

She threw a black sweatshirt onto his face. He yelped and lifted a hand to his face, tearing off the fabric and tossing it to the side. He looked up at May, who was hurriedly tying her hair into a neat knot. “Put that on,” she said, and so he did.

 

“May? What’s going on?”

 

She ignored him. “Make sure you cover all the bruises and shit. Weren’t you supposed to be healed by now?”

 

”Sorry,” he mumbled, fidgeting with the strings of the hoodie. He was quite glad for it, really; as his body grew thinner, he found that he nearly always felt freezing.

 

She sighed, smoothing her bun with her hands. “Well, I’ll just have to deal with it. Come on.”

 

She quickly left the room. Peter stood shakily and limped after her, stepping over the trail of dried blood leading from her bedroom to his.

 

She motioned for him to sit at the kitchen table, so he did. It felt nice to sit on something other than a floor, he thought. She tossed him a wet towel which landed on his shoulder with a splat. “Here,” she said, “clean your face. Get the blood off.”

 

Peter nodded and dragged the cloth over his face, wincing when it nudged his cracked nose or dark bruises. As he cleaned his face, she bustled around the kitchen and listed information she wanted him to remember. “This weekend I was home the whole time, got it? We ate that spaghetti together and you didn’t tell me you got hurt last night until this morning. This is gonna hurt”

 

“What—ow!” May grabbed a small piece of glass from the back of his head with tweezers and pulled it out in one sharp move. She immediately pressed a rag to the wound, staunching the blood. She dropped the glass onto the table. She repeated the action on the next shard, then the next. Peter winced each time. She was none too careful, ripping his flesh more than it was already.

 

She grabbed another piece just as a knock sounded on the door. Peter felt the blood drain out of his face. Who was here? What if they saw him with a broken nose and glass sticking out of his head?

 

“May?” he whispered, staring up at her with wide, frightened eyes. She hushed him.

 

”Come in!” May called. 

 

The door opened, and Tony Stark sauntered into the apartment.

 

——

 

Tony had been seeing less and less of Peter in the past months. Karen showed fewer hours logged in the suit every week, texts became slowly less frequent until they just plain stopped, and he’d been showing up later to check-in every week. Happy had stopped forwarding messages from Peter to the point that Tony had started to ask for them, and every dissapointed shake of his head hurt a little more. 

 

But worse than the physical vacancy was the mental. The few times he actually did show up to check-ins he was barely there. He hardly said two words outside of “Yes,” “no,” and “I’m sorry” anymore. His eyes were always deep sunken and glazed, trained down as if looking someone in the eye would get him killed. And whenever Tony touched him, he flinched like he’d been burned.

 

Tony was scared for the kid. Reviewing Karen’s footage made him feel dirty, like he was spying on someone’s privacy, but he couldn’t stand the nail-biting between meetings. What he saw made him feel hollow. Or better yet, what he didn’t see. There were no more funny quips Spider-Man was known for, no flips for tourists or waves to grumpy old women. Peter worked in silence, webbing up criminals without even a joke to leave them on. Even Karen has been trying to get him to talk, asking questions about his day and prodding at him for conversation. He just waved her off with single-word answers, and at the end of the day he would remove the mask without saying goodbye to his previously beloved AI.

 

And Tony wasn’t an idiot. He knew what starvation looked like.

 

He’d tried to give Peter his space; if he didn’t want to talk to him, Tony wouldn’t make him. He knew better than anyone that he was an easy person to get tired of. He had thought Peter was going down the same route as everyone in his life but Pepper.

 

But when he eyed the pasta he was given like a forbidden fruit and ate like a madman only once he was told to, Tony knew it was up. Something was way, way too wrong, and he should at least call for an extra meeting to try and pry something out of him.

 

And then Peter didn’t show up. Or answer his phone. And when Tony called Happy, he confirmed total radio silence.

 

So, he called May. He still had her number from Germany.

 

”Peter’s just been going through a tough time with his uncle,” she said only an hour before. “You know, they say grief for adolescents peaks a year after the actual death.”

 

Tony asked if he could come check on him. After a good amount of convincing and an offer to pay the Peter’s college tuition, May begrudgingly said yes.

 

When he walked through the door of the apartment, he was hit with the sense of home. He’d always lived in a glorified museum, so burlap pillows and inspirational quotes were something new for him. It took a good amount of his focus to tear his eyes away from a picture of Peter smiling between his aunt and uncle.

 

His gaze landed on the scene in the kitchen. May stood behind Peter, holding tweezers to his scalp. She jerked her hand back and Peter winced. Tony’s stomach flipped when she dropped a piece of glass onto the table, beside three shards that were considerably larger.

 

Tony fought to keep his voice casual as he said, “What’s going on here, kiddo?”

 

Peter looked up. Tony paled at a bruised face and crooked nose.

 

May answered for him, her eyes still trained on his head. “Just Spider-Man antics,” she said, then laughed airily. Peter dropped his eyes back down, swallowing around nothing. May removed another piece of glass. Peter barely flinched.

 

”Really?” he asked. “Karen didn’t say anything about an injury. Or you even being in the suit.”

 

May stiffened for just a second, so quickly Tony hardly noticed. Then she replied, “Well, you know, he wasn’t actually going to go on patrol. He meant to stay in with me last night, but he heard someone scream outside and just couldn’t help himself. You know how he is.” 

 

Tony nodded. That was something Peter would do, and had probably done before. Something in the back of his head asked why he would risk his identity, the one thing he fought to protect over almost everything else, but he pushed it away. Peter was too selfless for his own good. Right?

 

”So, uh Peter. What have you been up to?”

 

Peter’s eyes flitted up to him, then immediately back to his lap. He shrugged and shrunk further into himself. His face screwed up in pain as May took another bit of glass from him, barely the size of a pebble.

 

Tony looked to May. He liked to think he knew Peter, and if he did, he knew he’d never express any discomfort in front of May. He already felt bad enough for existing around her.

 

So, he cleared his throat and said to May, “Hey, Uh, I think you had a package down at the lobby. They said you had to claim it in the next hour. Maybe you ought to go get that.”

 

”Oh, I’m sure Peter can get it when you leave.” She smiled at him, her warm eyes trained on him. She was so much kinder than Tony’s own mother. Despite everything, he thought Peter was lucky to have someone like her.

 

”They actually said they need an adult to sign for it. Now. It seemed important.”

 

May stood up straight, placing the tweezers on the table. She looked between Peter and the door nervously. “Are you sure?”

 

Tony pressed his lips into a thin line. “Yup. Better go.”

 

She sighed. “Alright,” she relented, and Tony let out a breath. She looked to Peter. Tony saw his eyes widen as her hands rested lovingly on his shoulders. “Don’t dissapoint me while I’m gone, honey.” Peter nodded hurriedly.

 

They watched silently as she left. Tony saw her reach out a hand and close the door to the hallway as she passed it.

 

Probably just messy, he thought. Not everyone has personal maids. 

 

The front door shut behind her. Tony took a breath. He put his hands in his pockets. He let his eyes drift around the room as he sat on the sagging couch. He felt his body sink a solid six inches into the cushions. Peter watched him out of the corner of his eyes.

 

Tony clicked his tongue. He patted the cushion next to him, staring at Peter. Slowly, Peter stood. He shuffled to the couch and perched on it, as if he were on someone else’s home.

 

”What’s up?”

 

Peter shrugged.

 

”Are you okay?”

 

Peter nodded hesitantly, but his Adam’s apple bobbed And Tony knew that wasn’t quite true.

 

”...May said you’ve been having a hard time. Wanna talk about it?” 

 

Peter paused, then shook his head.

 

Tony sighed. “Look, kid, you’ve got to give me something to work with.” Peter looked up from his hands. “I know something’s off with you.”

 

Peter said nothing. Tony continued, “Is it school?”

 

Peter sniffed and shook his head.

 

”Friends? Girls?”

 

He shook his head again.

 

Tony dropped his voice to just above a whisper. “Your uncle?”

 

Peter didn’t move. He didn’t nod or shake his head. He didn’t burst into tears or collapse to the floor. No, he didn’t do anything Tony thought he might. Instead, he took a shaking breath, his eyes red, and asked in a voice far too hoarse and exhausted for a teenager, “What do you want me to say?”

 

Tony stared at him for a long moment, his brow furrowed. He stared at the bruises, the new gashes and old scars. He stared at Peter’s clenched jaw and dipped head.

 

Then, he said, “What’s real.”

 

“I...it’s not like you can change anything.”

 

”No,” said Tony, and Peter blinked. “But maybe I can help.”

 

Peter stared at him, his head cocked as if trying to see Tony’s angle. Tony fought to keep his face neutral. 

 

Slowly, Peter opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. After a moment, he closed it again. Tony watched as he looked up at the ceiling and bit his lip, letting out a long, shaky breath through his teeth. The tears pooling in his sunken eyes struck Tony like a knife, but he kept his expression steady. This wasn’t about him.

 

Finally, Peter started, “It’s just—“

 

The door handle turned. Peter’s eyes widened and he sharply closed his mouth. Tony turned over his shoulder to see May walking through the door. She kicked off her shoes and shook out her hair. “Well, there’s no package, but I guess the walk did me good...What’s going on?”

 

She stopped in her tracks and looked between Tony and Peter. Her smile faded. “Peter?”

 

Tony looked back at Peter. He stared at May with frightened eyes like a lamb before slaughter. His face had somehow paled further, and Tony saw his chest rise and fall with rapid, shallow breath. He recognized the look. It was the same one he gave his father so long ago.

 

”Um...just talking about some suit upgrades,” he lied, though he wasn’t entirely sure why. 

 

He could tell May didn’t quite believe him. “Right,” she said, sucking her teeth. “Well, Mr. Stark, I’ve still got to clean Peter up. But I’m sure we’ll see you soon.”

 

Tony stood. He straightened his jacket. “Yup. Yeah, okay. Uh, I’ll see you on Friday, right Peter?”

 

Peter nodded, but his eyes were still trained on May as if she had a gun pointed at his head.

 

Tony started slowly towards the door. May put her smile back on. With her hands on his back she lead swiftly him out of the apartment. “Okay, well, it was great seeing you, it’s nice to know there’s someone who cares about Peter just as much as I do. But you know, you’re not his dad, and he’s definitely not your son,  so maybe stop acting like it—“

 

”Wait, What?”

 

”Oh, nothing,” she said, and Tony realized he was outside of the apartment. She stood in the doorway, her body blocking the space. Tony tried to lean over her shoulder to see Peter. She shifted to that side. “See you soon, bye!”

 

And before Tony could even start his goodbye, the door was shut in his face.

 

He blinked at the empty air that had held a woman only second ago. “Okay,” he muttered to himself. “Weird.”

 

But it wasn’t his business. He wasn’t Peter’s dad. It wasn’t his place to step in. 

 

As he turned on his heel and started to leave, he could have sworn he heard May hiss, “You fucking idiot,” followed by the muffled sound of flesh hitting flesh. The cry of pain that followed sent a spike of ice through his stomach.

 

He hurried back to the door and his hand was on the doorknob before he decided he was acting stupid. What was going to happen if he walked in there? He would see...what? May, pulling glass out of her nephew’s head to help him heal, swearing in frustration whenever she pricked her own finger? The two of them, watching some violent movie on the couch together just like families should?

 

Obviously. He was just projecting. He’d never had a healthy relationship with his parents, and his mind jumped to the worst case scenario. There was no way Peter was being abused. May loved him, and he loved May. They were happy together.

 

As Tony hesitantly walked back towards the staircase, something in him didn’t quite believe it.

 

But always true to himself, he pushed that part deep, deep down. Down to where he’d never see it again.

 

 

 

(Hopefully.)

Chapter Text

Peter was so close. So close to telling Tony. So close to salvation, to ruining everything, so close to...to...something.

 

But it didn’t happen. His fingers never brushed whatever alternate ending may have appeared from the obliterating darkness of the future. Instead, May walked in, he froze, and he let Tony leave and the window shut on the instant where anything could have happened. He didn’t even get in a word of goodbye.

 

He stared at the shut door. He ignored May in front of it, her ever-approaching face and already-balled fists. He just saw the door, all that it could have been. He wondered where Tony was, now. Was he waiting outside the door, debating coming back in? Was he already in the stairwell? Maybe halfway down the street? He imagined himself getting up and opening it, pushing past May, welcoming the dreadful unknown just to see what might happen. Maybe he would run out of his apartment, catch Tony just as he was pulling away. Or maybe he would run out and miss Tony and lose the lay scrap of faith that May had in him. Maybe that would be the end of the only love he had left. But whatever could have happened became a fantasy the moment May slammed the door shut. And the whole time, Peter never dared to move.

 

May drew so close that Peter could feel her hot breath on his skin. He finally focused on her and felt his fear return in totality. It rooted him to the spot, and he stared helplessly up at May. 

 

“You fucking idiot,” she hissed. She rose her hand high and before she even started to bring it down Peter flinched away. The blow landed on a still-fresh bruise and he yelped. May cupped her hand over his mouth and he cut himself off. “Shut up,” she whispered. “Do you want him to hear you?”

 

As unsure as Peter was, he knew the answer she wanted and shook his head. “Good,” she said and removed her hand. “Did you tell him anything?”

 

“No,” he replied, his voice small and meek.

 

”What did you say? What did he ask?”

 

”He—he asked about me not going out anymore. He asked me what was up but I stayed quiet. I just told him it was about Ben.”

 

May leaned in closer and Peter shrunk back. “Are you sure?”

 

He didn’t reply. His eyes were scrunched shut, his breathing labored. He wished she would back up, go anywhere else. That was a mistake.

 

May grabbed his chin roughly and squeezed. Peter’s eyes shot open as he gasped. He saw her face only inches from his own, her squinting eyes and pale face. “Are you sure?” She repeated, louder this time.

 

Peter nodded quickly. “Yes,” he squeaked, and he’d never felt so pathetic in his life. “I’m—I’m sure.”

 

May’s grip loosened. The hand hard enough to leave finger shaped bruises over his jaw now caressed his cheek lightly, brushing away the single tear that had slipped out. She sighed. “That’s my Peter. Always protecting me.” Her voice was warm, all traces of its previous desperation gone. Her touch was gentle on his torn skin and her words soft on a confused soul. And as much as he knew it wouldn’t last, he let his eyes close and leaned into her touch, her words, her old self.

 

And sure enough, only a few moments later he felt her hand leave his face, cold air biting the spots where fingers had been. He heard her footsteps walk towards the hallway and he turned over the back of the couch to watch her. She opened the hallway door and stared at the trail of blood on the floor like it was nothing more than a stain on a coffee table.

 

”Peter,” she called, her voice light. “Would you mind cleaning this up for me?”

 

”O-Okay, May.”

 

Shakily, he stood, using the arm of the couch to push himself up. He limped slowly towards her, leaning on the doorframe once he reached her.

 

”You forgot the mop.”

 

”...Oh.”

 

Peter turned again and opened the broom closet. He pulled out the mop bucket of water and went back to her side, propping himself against the handle like a walking stick. She clapped her hand on his arm and he flinched, hiking his shoulders up to his ears. “Thank you, Baby.”

 

He smiled weakly at her. She returned it and turned to sit on the couch, clicking on the television. He let his face drop and stared at the mess before him. He was daubed by the sight of his black blood smeared over the wood, only more so knowing May was in the next room. He wished she would leave him to his task, letting him slowly stumble around the dark hallway with no one there to watch him fall apart. But she showed no signs of moving from her spot on the couch.

 

Slowly, he shifted to grip the handle of the mop. Pain shot through his cracked fingers as he wrapped them around the pole. He took a deep breath and pushed it forwards. He held in a grunt as the motion shifted his torso and all of his cracked ribs and bruised muscles ran into one another. When he pulled it back towards him, his shoulders seared. 

 

He pushed. He pulled. The water mixed with the blood to form a sickly film over the wood that he nearly slipped in. He quickly wiped it away.

 

Soon he could no longer muffle quiet whines of pain. His cheeks burned at his weakness. He was Spider-Man, he was the sole protector of Queens, and now he could hardly hold a mop. He cowered in the shadow of someone just trying to teach him how to be a better person, and he could no longer speak in the presence of a man he’d known for years. 

 

The smell of old blood wafted up from his feet so strongly he gagged. He scrubbed harder despite the pain, quickening his strokes. He cried out when one push flexed a muscle too hard and re-opened a scabbed over wound. He quickly bit his lip and looked over his shoulder to see if May was looking. Thankfully, her eyes were glued to the screen.

 

He slowly turned back to his task. He imagined swinging between buildings, the feeling of wind buffeting past his masked face. He imagined answering a question correctly at decathalon, he imagined a rare smile from MJ whenever he gathered the nerve to stand up to one of Flash’s tricks. He felt a small smile play on his lips and the pain faded, just a little. 

 

Before he knew it he was shoving the mop and bucket back in the closet and sliding down the wall, breathing heavily. He blinked at the wall in front of him, dimly registering the drying trickle of blood on his arm.

 

”Sweetie?” May called, and Peter lifted his head. “Did you get it all?”

 

Peter spared a glance to the hallway, the floor shining with water. “Yeah, May,” he breathed.

 

“Good,” she praised, and a small smile tugged at both his lips and bruises. “Why don’t you come watch this show with me?”

 

Peter blinked. Was she being serious? Could he really have an afternoon to do something other than stare at his wall, watching the door and waiting for her to storm in? Or was this a test, and if he took the bait it was all over? “...Really?” 

 

“Yeah, come on!”

 

Peter searched her voice for any sign of malice, any coaxing lie or well-veiled hatred. But she sounded surprisingly genuine, truly pleased with his performance and work.

 

He stood and shakily lowered himself onto the couch next to her. He stayed perched on the edge, his feet still firmly planted and ready to run at the slightest movement of her hand. But she stayed curled on the right side cushion, her eyes trained on the sappy science fiction drama in front of her. Hesitantly, he let his back curve into the pillows, and it felt so good to rest on a surface softer than concrete for the first time in days. Despite himself he drew his feet up beneath him, reveling in the warmth surrounding him. He, too, became quickly enveloped in the story of two humans alone in an alien world, and soon, he was lost to the dirty city around him.

 

Peter felt an arm wrap around his shoulders and gasped lightly. As May drew him into her soft embrace he found that almost against his will he had planted his feet back on the floor and bent his knees, in the same position as when he needed to scramble away from a criminal who was far too adept with a gun. He tried to keep his muscles taut as May’s small fingers lazily stroked his arm. Oh, but it was so nice to have a touch that didn’t induce pain, one that only hurt when it skimmed over scabs and bruises. He found himself relaxing into her side and wanted to cry for the love swelling in him like a balloon. 

 

“Just go to sleep, hon,” she whispered, and yes, he would like that quite a bit. He would love a nice rest on a soft surface, nestled into the warm side of the one person who truly loved him. 

 

He let his eyes shut and his heart ache.

 

——

 

Flash bit his lip as the five minute grace period after the tardy bell passed. The desk to his right was painfully empty. Mr. Harsch’s homework review went in one ear and out the other as he stared at the door as if he could will Peter Parker to walk through it, bright eyed and ready to learn like he hadn’t been for months.

 

His leg jiggled beneath the desk so fiercely that his pencil rattled off of it and clattered to the floor. He quickly bent down to pick it up. For a split second he met Ned’s eye and saw that it held confusion, almost concern aimed towards him. He flipped him a bird from his hip and Ned faced back forwards, rolling his eyes like he always had. Thank God.

 

Ten minutes passed. Then fifteen. They finished one lesson and moved on to the next without even a moment’s review. Flash tasted blood and forced himself to stop worrying at his lip.

 

Finally, twenty minutes past the bell, the door cracked open. Peter entered the room, his head ducked, his worryingly thin frame drowning in a wrinkled hoodie and jeans stained with something dark. He held a haphazard stack of books and folders in his arms, and Flash noticed with a turn in his stomach the way that some of his fingers stuck out at the wrong angle.

 

He slowly handed his tardy slip to the teacher. He held his hand out for the homework, and Peter gave him a stack of crumpled papers. Flash’s eyes followed him as he slid into his desk and his eyes widened at the long, ragged scabs poking out from the neck of his hoodie. Ned silently slid the notes over to Peter, who thanked him quietly. He took out a pencil sharpened down almost to the eraser and started to scribble down the equations on the board.

 

Flash watched as his head bobbed where he sat, drooping and then quickly snapping back up. At one point he could have sworn Peter stabbed his thigh with his pencil to keep himself awake. Ned didn’t seem to notice any form of struggle to his left, he just copied down equations like all was right with the world.

 

By the time the bell rang and students began to spill into the halls, Peter’s eyes were squinted so low they may as well have been closed. He silently gathered his papers and slipped into the crowd of teenagers, disappearing between a kissing couple and gaggle of singing choir kids. Flash looked down at his own notes and saw that between watching and observing Ned’s reactions he hadn’t written down a single thing. Swearing under his breath, he stuffed the empty paper back into his bag and stalked out of the classroom.

 

——

 

Over the course of the day he almost forgot about Peter. And that was good, right? He wasn’t friends with the kid, and honestly, Peter was annoying as hell. What was the trouble in forgetting?

 

But at lunch he saw Peter slip a granola bar between pages of his government textbook as Ned approached the table. He didn’t so much as smile at him before wolfing down the rest of his meal. Once finished, he pushed the empty plate away and let his head drop into his arms, his face buried in layers of ratty black fabric. Within seconds, he was out cold.

 

Flash could hardly touch his cold pizza for the rest of lunch.

 

Afterwards he went to AP Seminar, which only had five students and a teacher who only showed up two out of every five days. Usually MJ was the only one actually working—besides Flash, who if asked, would insist that he was playing computer games rather than writing his essay. Sure enough, the classroom was empty save for MJ, typing furiously away in the corner. Normally he would take a seat as far away from her as possible, but today he slid into the desk right next to hers. She didn’t acknowledge his presence.

 

“We need to talk,” he whispered despite the room’s emptiness.

 

”About what?” She replied in a normal voice, her eyes still glued to the document before her. 

 

“Parker.”

 

”First alternate business or the other thing?”

 

”The other thing.”

 

She stopped typing and turned to look at him, her jaw just a little too set, her eyes just a little too squinted. “What happened?” She asked, a forced casualty lacing her voice. 

 

“He’s just—he’s getting worse.”

 

”How, Flash? I need details.”

 

”Oh, um, okay. Uh, he came in twenty minutes late without a backpack. His fingers were bent, maybe broken, I couldn’t really tell. He was wearing the same jeans as last week—“

 

”How could you tell?” Interrupted MJ.

 

”Same pen marks where he jabbed himself to stay awake. Anyways, he kept almost falling asleep and didn’t say a single word the whole time. And you saw him at lunch, the dude passed out on, like, the grossest table in the universe.”

 

MJ stared at him for a long moment. He forced himself to keep a straight face as her eyes searched his own, for what he couldn’t tell. Finally, she said, “And what about that means he’s being abused?” Flash almost flinched at the word. Before he even had time to answer, she continued, “Do you know how many reasons there are for someone to be...what, asleep in class and wearing old clothes? He’s a high school student. Of course he’s tired and forgetful. It’s almost midterms, he’s probably stressed out of his mind.”

 

”No, wait—“

 

”And if it is something serious, do you really think we can just assume it’s abuse? Because if we confront him about it and we’re wrong, then we’ve ruined his life. We’ve taken him from his aunt—his home—and there’s gonna be some weird-ass rumors for him to deal with.”

 

”But we’re not wrong.“

 

“Shut up. I have to finish my work,” she said, and resumed her furious typing.

 

Flash groaned. “No one else is even in this class! We’re right, he’s getting seriously screwed up in that house—“

 

MJ slammed her laptop shut so fiercely that Flash was afraid she’d cracked the screen. “Goddamnit, Flash, don’t you think I know that?”

 

Flash blinked. “W-What?”

 

She laughed, a bitter sound with no humor to it. “I’m not a fucking idiot. I’ve noticed the same shit you have, and I know why it’s happening.”

 

”Then why haven’t you said anything?”

 

”Because we need to wait until there’s real proof. Do you think I’ve just been denying all your stuff for the fun of it? If anything you say can have another reason behind it then that’s what the cops will find. We can’t just accuse his aunt until we’ve got some real, concrete evidence of—you know, abuse.”

 

”But that might take weeks. Are you really willing to let him stay there for so long, starving and exhausted?”

 

”Yes. I am,” she said, but her voice trembled in time with her hands, and it was clear she wanted to give any other answer.

 

Flash gripped his textbook hard enough to rip its pages. “So what are you thinking? We let it escalate until we see her name branded on his arm or some shit?”

 

”Yes! Yes, God, we just have to...we have to wait.”

 

“But why? We have stuff that looks pretty damn concrete to me, and what are we going to do, let him get beaten within an inch of his life? When is it going to be real enough for you?”

 

MJ’s face turned a deeper shade of scarlet, but her voice was steady. Too steady, a kind that was forced, there only to mask fear beyond compare. “If she catches wind we’re trying to get him out of there without ten pages worth of pictures and DNA tests, she’s gonna cover it up. She’s smart. She’ll find a way keep him there and make everything ten times worse as punishment for him letting us find out. She’ll blame him, dumbass, and then it’s really over. CPS only takes complaints seriously once, after that we won’t get a word in until he’s in the emergency room. Is that what you want?”

 

Flash didn’t answer. Because she was—she was right, wasn’t she? His father had gotten himself together before it got to the point of telling anyone. But MJ, she must have made it out of her house. He’d never seen a parent for her at any meetings. He figured that it was safe to say she didn’t have any. Not anymore.

 

”Well?”

 

Slowly, he shook his head. “No,” he said, and he saw her breathe out, deflate a little.

 

”Good.”

 

She opened her laptop once more and started typing away, her fingers moving at a mile a minute, fingers that he realized for the first time had a number of thin white scars over their length. Flash knew he should have left it alone, because he already knew the harrowing answer, but he couldn’t help himself. He gulped and asked, “Michelle, how do you know all this?”

 

Her breath hitched at her real name. She stopped typing. She closed her eyes and for a moment, Flash thought she may not even answer. Then, she said grimly, “Experience is a good teacher.”

 

And as her weathered fingers resumed their task, Flash could have sworn he saw her close out a tab which read The effects of abuse on the mind of a child.

Chapter Text

Peter was happy. He pushed down the constant seed of doubt telling him it wasn’t real, it wouldn’t last, and focused on the joy that felt so foreign now.

 

He woke up on Monday morning to the smell of frying eggs. He sat up slowly, stopping when he felt his hand sink into the material beneath him. All at once he realized he had slept on the couch. He gasped, his stomach cramping up from more than just the ever-present hunger he had almost gotten used to. Holy shit, he was using the couch, he was using May’s couch. He shot up to his feet, already imagining what May would do when she noticed the wrinkles in the couch fabric, the bits of fluff stuck on his pants—

 

“Hey, babe, I’m making breakfast. Want some?”

 

He whipped around to face the kitchen, where May stood in a pink bathrobe and matching slippers. He watched, every muscle tense, as she wedged a spatula beneath an under-cooked egg and slid it onto an empty plate. She placed it next across from an already full platter of eggs and Peter shook at the quiet clunk that resounded as the porcelain hit wood. 

 

“Peter?”

 

Peter blinked. He looked at himself; he was standing on the floor. After sitting on the couch. And he was...okay. Rumpled, but comfortable. Scarred, but not newly wounded. Almost healed. “Yes,” he said, smiling softly. “I would.”

 

He moved to stand next to the table. He folded his hands in front of him and rocked on the balls of his feet.

 

May glanced at him. “Are you going to sit?”

 

”I can sit?”

 

She giggled. “Of course! This is your house, too.”

 

”...Oh. Thank you.”

 

May hummed her affirmation. Peter tentatively pulled the chair out from under the table, and it groaned in disuse. He cringed at the sound.

 

He bent his knees slowly until his bottom just barely touched the seat of the chair. He held his breath as he shifted his weight, bit by bit, until he was fully seated and comfortable. He sighed, a mix of relief and contentment.

 

He noticed that the eggs in front of him were scrambled, cooked to near perfection despite May’s subpar ability as a chef. Peter smiled despite himself.

 

May sat across from him and plunged her fork into her own meal. They ate in silence. May’s eyes skimmed the newspaper in front of her. Peter was too afraid of shattering the seemingly fragile moment by saying the wrong thing.

 

After wolfing down his less than satisfying breakfast, Peter stood, ignoring the way his stomach only screamed for more. “Thanks for the eggs, May. I’ll see you when I get back from school.”

 

She hummed in acknowledgement and turned a page. He took that as a goodbye, gathered his books, and left.

 

——

 

Over the next few days, they developed a routine. May made Peter breakfast—although she never invited him to sleep on anything softer than the floor again—and somehow cooked every dish perfectly. The only exception was Thursday night, when she caught him crying silently in the corner. He shakily sat at the table the next day. All of the blood drained from his face when he she gently handed him a plateful of pancakes, burnt to a crisp and sprinkled with mint, a rare May knew he couldn’t stand since the bite. The blows that followed were painful, but not as much as the awkward silence when he slunk into second period twenty minutes late, the same disgusting hoodie he’d been wearing all week hiding an ever growing bruise on his side.

 

Otherwise, things were alright. He came home from school so exhausted he could hardly hold his eyes open and tiptoed past May, hoping against hope she wouldn’t notice him. If she ever did, she never acknowledged his presence. Then, he shut himself in his room until the next morning.

 

After coming home from school the next Tuesday, he saw that May was nowhere to be found. His stomach growled so loudly he worried the neighbors may hear, and before he even knew what was happening his feet had moved him in front of the fridge. He paused; he hadn’t opened that fridge in weeks. He had started to pin his dirty, rumpled jeans to keep them from falling down to his ankles, and the stained, smelly hoodie that has once fit perfectly now swallowed his wafer thin frame. He figured he’d shrunk at least four sizes since May had found him in the mask.

 

But May had made him meals every day for a week, right? Surely he could just sneak a snack and she wouldn’t mind. He hesitantly opened the fridge, shivering at the cold air that rushed out of it.

 

The next minute was a blur. Somehow, a pudding cup ended up empty and in the trash can, and Peter’s stomach quieted its rumbling the smallest amount. His clawing hunger satiated the smallest amount, Peter trudged to his room and layed down on the floor, hardly able to stand. Before he could process how much the wood beneath him hurt as it pressed into his yellowing bruise, he was asleep.

 

He woke up to the apartment door shutting. He blinked the film of sleep off of his eyes and raised his head. He listened to May pad through the apartment, dropping her bag on the table and hanging up her keys with a faint jingle. She unwrapped some snack wrapped in incredibly loud plastic, then opened the trash can to toss it out. All movement stopped.

 

Something in the trash can rustled. Then, footsteps, loud and angry, began approaching Peter’s room. He sat up, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.

 

The door slammed open and Peter jumped backwards, sprawled in the corner. May threw his empty pudding cup at his head, and he cowered as it bounced harmlessly off of his skull. 

 

“What the hell is this?” She snarled. Peter shivered. 

 

May took a step closer. “What is it?” She repeated.

 

”Pudding,” he whispered.

 

”Pudding. And I know I didn’t eat it. So who did?”

 

Peter whimpered in reply.

 

”Who. Did.”

 

”M-me.”

 

She stared at him, her cold eyes cutting to his very core and if she wished to see inside of him. Peter wilted beneath her harsh gaze.

 

Finally, she crossed the room and grabbed his arm. He flinched when her skin hit his. She pulled him off of the floor and began dragging him down the hallway. “I’m too tired for your shit, today. You’re doing this punishment by yourself,” she said.

 

She threw open the bathroom door and tossed Peter in. He hit the ground hard, and the impact kicked the breath out of his chest. He struggled to pull in air, sprawled over the cold tile floor. May stood menacingly in the doorway, her arms crossed over her chest, watching.

 

Finally, he managed to stutter his lungs back to life and gulped in air greedily. He slowly turned his head up to face May, her sneering face obscured by the greasy strands of hair that fell into his eyes.

 

”Get rid of it,” she commanded simply.

 

”What?” He asked stupidly.

 

She gestured to the toilet. “The pudding wasn’t yours. Get rid of it. In there.” Peter’s eyes widened, and when he cocked his head, she pretended to shove two fingers down her throat.

 

Peter’s skin turned white. He didn’t even think of the consequences before he asked, “Are you serious?”

 

All she had to do was cock an eyebrow and Peter knew the answer.

 

Slowly, Peter turned to face the toilet. Suddenly it was menacing, something far more malevolent than a household appliance. He hauled his body upwards until he rested on his knees, his head hanging over the bowl. He glanced back at May, almost expecting her to reveal that the whole thing was a prank, a big joke, and they were going out for dinner or to see a movie afterwards. But she just nodded at his silent question. He turned back to the bowl.

 

He lifted two shaking fingers to his mouth, which he held wide open. He pushed them as far as he’d ever done before, when he was eight and curious, then a little further. Nothing happened. He tried again, then again. He thrusted then back, sharper this time, and was rewarded with a slight gag. He added a third finger and shoved them into his throat as roughly as he could. His entire body heaved so hard that his eyes watered, a single tear escaping one eye. However, nothing came up. He didn’t know if he could produce anything. The pudding had probably already been metabolized.

 

He looked back up to May. “Please...” he whispered, feeling the cold tear roll down his cheek. “I...I can’t. I’m sorry.”

 

She glared at him like he was a roach she wanted desperately to crush beneath her foot. Tears slipped freely down his face and he turned back to his task.

 

His gags began to mix with his sobs, forcing his entire body to shake and twitch in time with his spasms. He scrunched his eyes shut and tried to forget that this was happening, forget the fingers pounding the back of his throat and the cold porcelain he gripped with his free hand. One gag overlapped a sob and he felt bile shoot up his throat, then retreat. He was struck with a sudden idea.

 

He waited until he felt his next sob coming on, hard and striking. Just at its peak, he thrusted his fingers back into his throat and pain erupted the soft flesh they struck. He quickly removed his hand as his stomach contracted once, twice, three times. Finally, with a monumental heave, he spit up a mouthful of acid and water. It splashed weakly into the bowl of water and Peter slumped to the ground. A string of bile hung from his lips, and the taste of vomit filled his nose and mouth.

 

He looked up to May, panting. She considered him for a moment, then nodded and left. She shut the door behind her, and he heard her drag from the kitchen a chair and leave it in front of handle. Her footsteps faded into the distance and the springs of the couch squeaked.

 

Peter slowly dragged himself to the door. From his spot collapsed on the floor, he reached up and jiggled the handle. It stopped short, and suddenly he was sure she had propped a chair there specifically to block him in.

 

He let his hand hit the floor and dropped his head. The cold from the tile seeped slowly into his body until he shivered where he lay. Exhaustion spread heavy through his bones, tempting him into sleep, a world without bile coating his tongue and a door blocked by a shitty wooden chair he would surely be able to break had he eaten anything real in the past three weeks.

 

The warm waters of sleep lapped at the edges of his mind, and he let them wash over his frail body and carry him out to sea.

Chapter Text

Peter picked himself up the next morning. He rose slowly from the cold tile, clutching the edge of the sink when his head forgot which way was up. He stuck his head beneath the tap and gulped in water until his stomach hung heavy in his abdomen. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and straightened up, meeting his reflection’s eyes. They were tired and sunken, surrounded by skin that looked almost gray. As he raised a hand to prod at the hollows beneath his cheekbones, he knew that the shadows were too dark, the bones too prominent. His legs shook far too much, and the permanent blackness in the edges of his sight didn’t bode well for him. Somewhere deep within him, he knew he was getting close.

 

He turned to the door and tested the handle. Surprisingly, it turned. He guessed May wanted him to go to school. Or anywhere that was out of her sight.

 

He crept to his room, breathing out a sigh of relief when he saw May’s empty bed, gathered his books in his thin arms, and set out for the nearest subway station, stopping to rest on every bench he saw along the way.

 

——

 

Peter was on time this morning. In fact, he was early. When Flash walked into first period algebra ten minutes before the bell to finish his homework, he saw Peter already sitting there, his head down and his whole body shivering in that same damn hoodie. Flash slowly slid into his desk, keeping Peter in the corner of his eye.

 

He unzipped his backpack and pulled out his binder. At the small noise it made hitting the desk, Peter lifted his his head. Flash froze as he blinked slowly, his eyes pointed Flash’s direction but unfocused, looking almost behind him. He furrowed his eyebrows, a misty confusion painting his face.

 

”Hey, Man,” Flash said carefully. Peter stared at him for a long moment, his brows furrowed as if he were still processing the words, then nodded. He buried his head back into his arms and went silent once more.

 

Thirteen problems in, the class bell rang and students slowly began trickling in through the door. Ned shot a worried look at his friend but said nothing, taking his seat on Peter’s other side.

 

The only time Peter woke up was when the teacher tapped him on the shoulder to ask for his homework. He fished a crumpled sheet of looseleaf out of his backpack and went back to sleep. Flash copied down the problems on the board without really seeing them, glancing at Peter every thirty seconds as if he would magically wake up and find cosine of theta. But that never happened. The bell rang, and as Flash packed away his notebook, Peter picked himself up and slunk out of the door. 

 

Flash wished he could say that the rest of the day passed in a blur. The hours following would have been so much easier. But it didn’t; instead, time dragged by, going by slower than at his sister’s wedding. By the time the lunch bell rang, he could have sworn he’d been at school for the full day. He sighed in disappointment and made his way to the cafeteria.

 

He dropped into his seat, his tray of gray macaroni and limp green beans falling onto the table with a loud clat. As usual, his eyes made a beeline for MJ, asking the question his mouth couldn’t: is it time yet? And, as usual, a shake of her head answered no. He pursed his lips and turned back to his food. 

 

Halfway through his watery meal, Flash watched as Peter trudged to his usual spot without a word to MJ. His plate was empty in less than a minute, and after finishing he stared at it with dissapointment, as if he hoped more food would appear if he simply held his gaze for long enough.

 

Ned approached the table, muttering his hello and setting down his extra pudding cup. Peter took it without looking and dug his spoon into the pudding. The second the spoon touched his lips, he stopped cold. Flash stopped chewing and watched, his head cocked to the side, as Peter’s eyes went wide and his skin went white. He muttered something to Ned that Flash couldn’t make out, then stood and left on shaking legs. Flash saw his breathing all but stop as he stumbled out of the cafeteria doors and into the courtyard. MJ immediately looked to Flash, and he started to stand. She shook her head so quickly it looked like it was vibrating, but Flash didn’t care. He was getting sick of this shit. He couldn’t keep going on like this, losing sleep over a boy he didn’t even like, dropping grades because he couldn’t pay attention for more than ten minutes before his thoughts drifted back to how Peter was right then. He stood abruptly, ignoring his friends’ questions. He stalked out of the cafeteria and into the building, turning corners on muscle memory alone. 

 

He threw open every door he passed, broom closets and empty classrooms and teachers making our beneath desks. If he didn’t see Peter, he didn’t care. He pounded through three more classes before bursting into the boy’s bathroom. With nothing but the end of this on his mind, the idea of going back to a normal life where he wouldn’t feel guilty about tripping Peter because he no longer looked like he would shatter under a single fingertip, he followed the sound of pained retching to the last stall where, of course, he found Peter on his hands and knees, heaving nothing but air into the toilet bowl. He waited for Peter to stop dry heaving, wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, and sit back on his heels to ask, “What the fuck is going on?”

 

Peter jumped to his feet with a loud gasp. Flash’s resolve almost broke at the fear on his face when he whipped around to face him. But then the fear faded and Peter relaxed with a whisper of, “Hey, man,” and Flash knew he had to do this now or it would never get done.

 

”What the hell is going on with you?”

 

”What?” Peter asked with a weak cough. 

 

Flash repeated himself, more insistent this time. Peter blinked. “Nothing,” he said simply. 

 

“Bullshit. You know it is. You need to tell the truth before she kills you.”

 

Peter paled. “I—I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, eyeing the space behind Flash’s shoulder.

 

”I’m not fucking stupid, and neither are you. You know who I’m talking about.”

 

”I really don’t, I swear, I need to get back to lunch—“ said Peter, trying to push past Flash. Flash blocked him, and Peter was weak, so weak Flash could hardly feel him trying to slip out of the stall. 

 

“I know what May is doing to you.”

 

Peter stopped cold in his tracks. His lips parted ever so slightly yet no sound came out. Flash could see the wheels turning in his mind, trying to find an excuse, weighing how much to expose. He recognized the wide eyes, the furrowed brow from his own face not so long ago.

 

He hurried to continue. “And I know you’re scared, I was too, but we can get you out of there. You’ll never have to see her again.”

 

Peter blinked, his chest quickening in its movement. “That’s—I don’t want that. I want to stay.”

 

”Why? She’s abusing you, it’s obvious!”

 

”She’s not, Flash. She loves me, I know it.”

 

”This isn’t love.”

 

Peter seemed close to crying, now, furiously blinking away tears that still shone thick in his voice. “Flash, I swear to you, everything is fine.”

 

”Then why are you about to cry?” Peter didn’t answer, just stared at the ground and shook his head. 

 

“It’s...it’s not what you think, I promise,” whispered Peter, but his wet eyes betrayed him. 

 

Flash expected to feel pity for this tiny boy, but no. He felt anger. Anger towards May, for doing what she was doing, towards the adults who saw and did nothing, Hell, towards Peter for letting himself get hurt, as stupid as it was. He didn’t even think, he just acted. He grabbed the hem of the shirt that Peter had been wearing for weeks and yanked it up, but almost lost his grip at what he saw. 

 

Bones and bruises. A torso so thin he could count ever rib, see the definition where the ribcage ended and the flesh took over beneath it. This wafer thin frame which reminded him far too much of the bodies he had seen in Holocaust documentaries in the seventh grade was not just a frame, though. The pale skin was littered with bruises. Varying shades of black and yellow and purple painted every inch of his skin, some pores dotted scarlet with fresh blood. Flash’s stomach twisted as he realized that the raised ridges of flesh that crosshatched Peter’s skin were not birthmarks or moles: they were scars. “Holy shit,” he whispered under his breath as the door behind him opened and loud footsteps stomped towards him.

 

”Flash, you fucking idiot, you...” MJ trailer off, and her footsteps stopped a foot or so behind his shoulder. “Oh, my God.”

 

For a moment, no one moved. Three people stood in a dirty boy’s bathroom, staring in shock at a waist barely recognizable as human. Then, MJ looked up and met Peter’s eyes. Flash followed her lead, and saw them dripping tears silently down his cheeks that Flash didn’t realize were so gaunt until this moment. “Peter,” she said quietly, as if trying not to startle an injured deer, “We can get you out of there.”

 

”No,” he mumbled, his voice shaking. “No, I can’t just leave her alone.”

 

”Is that what she’s saying to you? That without you she’s alone?” MJ prompted.

 

Peter continued on as if he hadn’t heard her. “It will get better, it always does. It’s just—it’s worse right now, but I’m fine. You don’t have to worry.”

 

MJ took a tentative step backwards. “Peter?”

 

“Please, I’m fine, just leave me alone. Just let me go home.”

 

Flash stepped forwards, blocking the doorway. Peter stumbled back. “We’re not letting you go back there.” He felt MJ’s hand on his shoulder, heard her say his name like a warning, but ignored it. “I know you don’t really want to go back. She just makes you think you do.”

 

Flash,” MJ warned again as Peter started shaking his head back and forth relentlessly. Flash didn’t care. 

 

“You’re being abused, man. I don’t know how you can’t see it by just looking at yourself. And if you don’t let us help you, you’re going to die. Do you understand that? If you stay there and let this shit escalate, you are going to die.”

 

Peter looked up at him and met his eyes. His blinked away his tears, and for just a second Flash thought he might agree and accept his help.

 

Then, his face still and neutral, he lifted a hand and slapped Flash’s cheek. Flash stumbled, shocked by how strong Peter still was, and fell into MJ behind him. She caught him in her arms with a yelp, then hoisted him back to his feet. He whirled around with a hand pressed to his stinging cheek, and saw the door shut, with Peter on the other side. He swore ran outside to the hallway, but Peter was already gone, disappeared into a hidden corridor or stairwell.

 

MJ ran out behind him. She skidded to a stop beside Flash, whipping her head left and right, and cursed. Flash just stared at the end of the hall, quiet and still as it had ever been.

 

”Do we...go after him?” He asked.

 

”If you ask something as obvious as that again, I’m slapping you, too.” She said, and started towards the stairwell.

 

”Okay,” Flash sighed, and followed close behind, still cradling his face.

Chapter Text

 To be honest, Peter couldn’t name any of the emotions running through his brain if he tried. There was something cold running through his veins, something electric zapping at his skin, something heavy sitting on his chest. He ran without really seeing, following his mental map of the city he knew so well. Was he running faster than a normal human should? He didn’t know. He didn’t care.

 

Because now they knew. Flash and Michelle knew that he was weak, and they would take him away and May would be all alone. They knew he couldn’t even defend himself against a middle aged woman, but why should he defend himself if she loved him, but if she really loved him would she starve him? He didn’t know. His thoughts felt like tangled yarn, running round in circles, dipping in and out of darkness and light with no end in sight. So he didn’t think. He ran.

 

As he burst through his apartment door, he realized that he hadn’t taken a breath since he turned onto 45th street. He gulped in a monumental lungful of air and almost tripped as the blackness he hadn’t even realized was filling the edges of his vision began to recede. He dimly heard the door shut behind him as he rushed to his bedroom. His foot slipped on a discarded test paper and he crashed onto the floor, all of the air knocked out of him on impact. He sprawled on his back, trying to pull in a single breath to no avail. He needed—he needed—

 

He didn’t know what he needed. He needed someone to hold him, form a protective wall around him and let him curl up and sleep for a million years. He—he needed Ben.

 

Without any signal from his brain, Peter’s hand shot out beneath his bed and pulled out Ben’s old shirt, still wrapped in plastic. His trembling fingers, unable to grasp the plastic zipper, ripped the bag open and drew the shirt first up to his face, then cradled it against his chest. God, why did it have to be Ben? He hated himself for thinking it, but why couldn’t it have been a dirtbag, a drunkard who abused his wife? What cruel God decided to kill the only person who made Peter feel safe, who was able to calm May’s emotional outbursts, who was good?

 

Now what was Peter supposed to do? Face Flash and MJ In first period after running out like a fucking idiot? Avoid everyone he’d ever known? Run? He didn’t know. He couldn’t know. All he knew was the burning in his chest, cooled only where Ben’s shirt touched his skin. He had nothing left. Not food, not friends, not school. All he hasn’t left was this old shirt from a shitty department store.

 

Peter was so caught up in his confusing world of swirling darkness, he didn’t hear a key turn in the apartment’s lock.

 

He didn’t hear a purse being thrown down on a table.

 

He didn’t hear the footsteps stomping towards his room.

 

But he did hear May slam his door open and yell, “Why the fuck did your school just call me and—“

 

He shot his head up and saw May just as she cut herself off. He followed her gaze to Ben’s shirt still clutched against his chest, and felt his entire body turned to lead. He wasn’t supposed to have it, and he knew it. He threw it to the other side of the road room, but it was too late. He watched as her face turned from white to red, her chest beginning to heave. Her hand balled into fists and he instinctively flinched away.

 

”May, please, I can explain—“

 

Halfway through his sentence, May turned on her heel and stomped out. Peter stared at the empty doorway with wide eyes, hardly breathing, listening to her footsteps fade to the other side of the house. She stopped, didn’t move for a long while. Was that it, then? Did she understand that he missed Ben, too, and wanted a piece of him?

 

The thought disappeared when her footsteps started rushing back to his room. He knew before she was even visible to bag them the answer was no. Peter jumped to his feet, nearly blind with fear, and climbed on top of his bed to open the window and run. With a hand on the latch, Peter felt May grab his shirt and yank him back. He yelped as his frail body slammed into the floor. May raised a hand far above Peter’s head, and he gasped when he saw it gripping an iron fire poker, and holy shit the only person he had left was wielding an actual makeshift weapon. He raised an arm to protect his face and felt the rod hit him once, pain exploding up past his shoulder, twice, the pointed end sticking in his arm and ripping out a chunk of flesh upon removal, three times, and the bone broke in two with a resounding crack. He shouted and dropped his arm, his face now fully exposed. 

 

He saw a glimpse of May’s face, and strangely realized he saw no humanity in her face scrunched up in anger and her mouth contorted into a grimace. He scrunched his eyes shut, and just in time. The fire poker came down again, cracking something next to his left eye. Pain, a type of searing, biting pain he’d never experienced before, radiated through his entire face, and he screamed outright. He tried to cry, but the effort of moving his face just about sent him into darkness, but Hell, he would have welcomed it.

 

She slammed the rod into his ribs, his chest, agony resonating across his too-visible ribcage. Something cracked, something bruised, something broke. She must have decided that a weapon wasn’t hands-on enough, because suddenly the fire poker fell next to his face with a clatter (he would grab it if he could move his arms, his head, anything at all) and began kicking him, punching him, alternating between the two like she couldn’t decide which one would hurt him better. Her feet had more power, he thought, but her hands were more precise. Feet, fists, feet, fists, feet, fists, forever swinging down onto his brittle body.

 

Finally, she leaned down and whispered into his ringing ears, “You’re not taking Ben from me ever again.” To punctuate her sentence, she picked up the fire poker once more and stuck it into the wood. Unfortunately, his palm was in the way, so the metal had to go straight through. Peter finally screamed, the last of his energy escaping from his throat in a blood curdling shriek as hot blood began to flow from the wound and join the pool already forming around him.

 

He felt May every breath hurt wrestle fabric over his face and behind the bones in his skull crunched and slid against each other and he could hear it his head. Something blurry the light hurt so much appeared in front of his face why could he only see half of it? Another voice, more mechanical spoke in his ears who was Karen?

 

He heard a rustle of fabric god no it was all he had left being picked up from the floor, feet fade away one final time, a door slam and a car start and pull away. 

 

“Peter, you are fatally injured,” who was speaking? Why was someone speaking? “Should I call Mr. Stark?” The voice in his ear was so loud but he could do nothing but let the tears slip from his eyes and gather in his ears

 

“Peter?”

 

Oh the Darkness, how I’ve missed you.

 

”Peter, I’m calling Mr. Stark. Don’t fall asleep.”

 

He could see nothing now, he could feel his body sinking through the floor and spiraling into the void.

 

”Peter?”

 

How could a robot sound so panicked?

 

How could...

 

How...

 

“Peter!”

 

Enter darkness.

 

——

 

"Boss, you have approximately seventeen minutes and nine seconds until Peter dies from wounds inflicted by May Parker.”

 

What?

 

——

 

MJ had no idea how she found herself in the passenger seat of Flash’s car that was worth more than her house, speeding through New York City, directing Flash around traffic jams and car crashes to find the fastest way to Queens.

 

She cursed the school for making her wait for an hour for her foster mom to check her out of class. “Left!” She yelled, and Flash barely missed a car turning into the same lane. They sped away from the following honk, and MJ almost flew out of the car, but she didn’t care. May could be home by now, a gun to Peter’s head or a rope around his neck. She felt sick at just the thought, and could feel the knife that had been held to her throat only two years ago.

 

Another left, a merge, and a fallen mailbox later, Flash screeched to a stop outside of Peter’s apartment building. He didn’t even turn off the car, just threw a hundred dollar bill in the general direction of the parking meter and sprinted through the doors. Her eyes landed on the stairwell and threw open the door, taking the stairs two at a time, almost soaring. She burst into the fourth floor lobby, and the elevator dinged next to her, and who would be there but Tony fucking Stark?

 

She met his eyes. “Peter?” She asked.

 

”Peter,” he nodded.

 

Together, they ran, Flash following once he recovered from being star struck. Tony moved to open the door, but it was locked. “Fuck!” He exclaimed, but she just pushed him out of the way, pulling a pin from her ponytail. She shoved it into the lock and pulled, jiggled, and shifted the metal until she heard a quiet click. She shoved the door open, and she would have preferred screaming over the eerie silence that greeted her. Slowly, she creptinto the messy apartment, stepping over bottles and candy wrappers and old receipts. “Peter?” She called, her voice barely above a whisper. No response.

 

As she slowly moved through the wreckage, her foot slipped. She lifted her shoe and saw a puddle of something red beneath it. She told herself it was fruit punch so she wouldn’t be sick. She heard Tony gasp when he found it, and Flash’s quiet “Holy shit,” was hard to miss.

 

”Peter?”

 

She held back her own memories, chains and liquor and blades, reminded herself that this wasn’t her fight. This was Peter’s. Forcing away the stench of her father’s breath, she opened the hallway door with a creak. A quiet groan caught her attention. Suddenly breaking out of her reverie, she hurried to the door with  “Peter” written on it in peeling blue stickers. She burst into the room, and when questioned later, all she could say she found was blood.

 

But it was so much more than just blood. It was a metal rod sticking out of a hand. It was a skull dented in. It was a fucking Spider-Man mask with flecks of bone on it. She heard Flash’s sharp intake of breath, felt Tony shoving her out of the way as if she was watching in on a television screen. No, she thought to herself. She didn’t get to check out now. Snapping out of her reverie, she skidded to her knees beside Peter, shivering at the hot wetness soaking through her jeans. 

 

“We, uh...” she trailed off, closing her eyes and swallowing. She breathed hard through her mouth. It’s not your brother, she told herself. It’s not Beaux. But they looked so alike, and the blood was the same color...

 

She shook her head, opened her eyes. Forcing her emotions away, she said simply, “We need to get the poker out of his hand. Flash, get me some sanitizer tissue, or gauze, if you can find it.” But Flash was huddled in a corner, staring at Peter like he was someone else, and Michelle could tell he wasn’t really there. But she didn’t have time to bring him back from whichever nightmare he was stuck in, so she let him shiver against the wall and ran quickly to the bathroom, grabbed a roll of toilet paper and ran back.

 

”Okay,” she whispered to herself. Then, to Tony, “You need to pull out the fire poker as quickly as you can. When you do, I’ll be there to stuff the wound. He’ll scream, mine did, but ignore it.”

 

Tony blinked, shook himself out of some oblivion, and nodded. “Alright. Yeah.” He gripped the metal with bold hands, and Michelle told herself she would be cool, calm, be there to do what she said she would. But when the poker came out and Peter screamed even though he was asleep, Michelle wilted against the wall, the tissue forgotten, because all she could see was the blood streaming out of brother’s body, so much, too much, all that it could hold. Was she alive? Was she dead? Did it matter?

 

And then police were there, someone must have called them, bursting through the door and bringing in a stretcher and training their guns on Tony.

 

Wait, Tony?

 

But then she saw the fire poker in his hand, the broken boy beneath him, and the two kids huddled in a corner as far from him as they could get, and realized that the police had connected all the wrong dots.

 

”Oh, fuck.”

Chapter Text

“Drop your weapon!” Shouted one of the officers. Tony obliged immediately and the bloody fire poker clattered to the floor. MJ watched with wide eyes as he raised his hands above his head only for them to be grabbed and cuffed behind his back. 

“Wait, this is all a misunderstanding—“ Tony protested, but an officer spoke over him, stating his rights as two more grabbed his shoulders and started to drag him away. Tony fought against them, straining towards MJ. “Keep him safe!” He called from the doorway as he was forced out of sight. “I’ll take care of the hospital bills, just keep him alive!” And he was gone.

 

As Tony was forced from the apartment, EMT’s rushed into the room with a stretcher and bandages and a hundred medical devices MJ couldn’t name. One ripped off the Spider-Man mask (Peter’s face was so broken) without comment, and MJ finally stood on shaky legs to sweep it underneath the bed. But she must have stood up too fast, too soon, because after kicking away the mask the edges of her vision filled with darkness and she stumbled backwards and on top of Flash in a tangle of limbs.

 

A single EMT noticed her fall and rushed over. “Are you alright?” He asked loudly over the commotion surrounding them. How was she supposed to answer that? Physically, she was unharmed, but her mind was gone, she could hardly think around memories of an angry middle aged man plunging a knife into her shoulder blade, around the blood smeared over the floor and on the white shoes of the doctors that were currently rushing Peter’s limp body out of the room. She didn’t answer, she couldn’t, her lips were parted but no sound came out. The EMT must have taken her silence as a “no,” (I think this one’s in shock, he yelled over his shoulder) because before she knew it she was being led out of the apartment and into the cab of a firetruck, Flash next to her, equally gone.

 

The sirens suddenly switched on and they sped onto the street. The wailing snapped her into reality, and now she was no longer away. No, she was so painfully here she could hardly breathe. “Holy shit,” she whispered. “Holy shit. Flash—“ she reaches over and grabbed his shoulders, forcing him into the cramped red truck with her. “Flash, Peter’s going to die.”

 

Flash shook his head, blinked hard, and he was back. “What?”

 

MJ’s breath picked up, her chest burned. She had only felt like this one other time, and when it had subsided, her brother was gone. “Peter’s going to die. Oh, my God, he’s going to die. Flash, he’s going to die!”

 

”He’s not going to die!” Flash protested, but he looked doubtful himself.

 

”How do you know?” She shouted suddenly, and Flash jumped back. “His skull had a fucking dent in it! How do you survive that?”

 

Flash recoiled sharply, brief fear flashing across his eyes. Then, he blinked and responded, “He’s in the ambulance, they’re—they’re gonna save him.”

 

”But what if they don’t? What if he ends up just like—“ She cut herself off, but it was too late. Flash, to his credit didn’t ask. He just sat and watched while MJ closed her eyes, willed away the burning in her throat, and said in a low voice, “What happens if he dies?”

 

Flash licked his lips. “Then he dies,” he said in a shaking voice. “But there’s nothing we can do. It’s out of our hands.”

 

MJ took a breath. “We promised Tony we’d keep him safe,” she said around the lump in her throat.

 

”Yeah. We did. And now he’s in jail and Peter’s on his way to the hospital. We can’t change that.” He punctuated his sentence by laying a gentle hand on her shoulder, and she flinched briefly when his fingers brushed over her hidden scar.

 

Finally, with tears in her eyes, she looked him in his sorrowful face and breathed, “Okay.”

 

He nodded. “Okay,” he repeated, more to himself than anyone else, and put his hand back into his lap.

 

MJ turned her head to look out of the window, watch the trees fly by, too bright a green for such a dark occasion.

 

She stared.

 

She waited.

 

She ached.

 

——

 

“Do I get a phone call or what?” Tony called as he was shut into a temporary cell, drag and gray. The guard huffed as he locked the door.

 

”I’ll get you the phone in a minute, Mr. Stark. Sorry you have to wait for something,” the guard said with a sneer as he left.

 

Tony sighed and sat on the cold bench near the barred window. It seemed like every person he had ever met was either star struck or completely unimpressed at his presence, never just there. This man was obviously the latter. 

 

He leaned his head back against the concrete wall behind him and closed his eyes. He counted twenty-nine—twenty-nine—times he should have noticed something was wrong before FRIDAY told him. When he stopped going out in the suit, when he ate like he was starving (he was starving, you idiot), when he had a new excuse for every cut that should have healed days before. The memory of that day in Peter’s apartment came rushing back in front of his eyes. The way Peter could hardly speak when he looked at May, the way he flinched when she came near, the way he moved around his home like a ghost, as if he wasn’t supposed to be there. As if he was made to feel like it wasn’t even his home.

 

God, how could he have been so stupid? He had known something was wrong. But like a true Stark man, he pushed down his doubt until something happened that he couldn’t ignore. His father would be proud.

 

A lock turning in a lock brought him out of his head. He slowly lowered his head to see the same grumpy officer as before swinging the rusted door of his cell. With a sigh, Tony stood and turned to face the opposite wall, his hand behind his back. He felt the familiar cold metal clamp around his wrists and let himself be dragged by the shoulder down a hallway lit painfully with flickering fluorescent lights. He was shoved into another concrete room—cops didn’t take kindly to abusers, he thought with a turn of his stomach—this one with a table, chair, and an obviously one-way mirror. He was pushed by his shoulders into the chair and an old, corded phone was plunked in front of him. The guard sighed, removing the handcuffs. “Well, Mr. Stark, it seems like you already have an account with Paytel. Just dial whatever number you need and it’ll take thirteen dollars straight out of your bank account.” 

“Thanks,” Tony murmured, and grabbed the phone off of the receiver. He waited for the guard to leave, but he just stood over him in silence. Tony turned back to the table and dialed the only number he knew without speed dial.

 

After three rings, Pepper answered, “Hello?”

 

”Hey, Pep.”

 

”Oh, my God. Tony?” He could hear her disappointment through the tinny speaker.

 

”Unfortunately,” he answered. “Listen, I’m in a bit of a jam, here. I need you to do two things for me—“

 

”Look, I’m—I’m in the middle of something, can this wait?”

 

“I wish, but no. It’s serious this time. Like, actually serious, not just I-can’t-find-my-keys-help kind of serious.“

 

Pepper hesitated. “What happened?” She asked cautiously.

 

”It’s the kid. He’s—he’s in the hospital, they think I did it. I can’t let him die, and if they don’t let me out she’s going to get away with it, and then she might find him again if he even lives—“

 

”Tony,” she said. “Tony. I need you to calm down, okay? Just breathe, and tell me what happened from the beginning.”

 

Tony took a sharp breath and realized that his lungs had been burning for quite some time. His lungs stuttered, but did their job. “Okay,” he whispered. “Okay. Um, it’s Peter. From what I can piece together, his aunt’s been...she’s been...”

 

”What?” Pepper asked slowly.

 

God, how could he say it? Such an awful word, malicious and evil and sad. How was he supposed to acknowledge what that awful woman had done to her kid, his kid?

 

”Tony,” Pepper said, her voice starting to shake. “What happened?”

 

He took a trembling breath. Just say it, asshole. Just say what she did. “She’s been beating him.” A gentle gasp from the receiver. “And—and today, I guess she just went over the edge. FRIDAY found out, she told me, and I went straight to the apartment. I found a couple of his friends there, too, so I guess we all knew what had happened. And when I found him...Jesus, Pep, there was so much blood. How could one person even have that much blood? I don’t even know if he’s alive. And then the police showed up, and they found me there and thought it was me, and now I’m here. God, I should have known something was wrong. I’m so stupid, and—and now he’s going to die, and it’s all my fault.”

 

Pepper was silent for a long time, so long Tony thought she might have hung up on him. Then, she said, her voice gentle and fragile like broken glass just barely glued back together, “Okay. Alright. I’m going to send some people over there, and they’re gonna get you out, okay? We’re going to find his aunt and fix this. He’s going to be fine.”

 

Tony gulped, closed his eyes for just a second. “Okay. I believe you. Just—“ The guard behind him cleared his throat in an obviously fake fashion. “I’m out of time. I’ll see you...at some point, I guess.”

 

He moved to put down the phone, but Pepper said quickly. “Remember, it isn’t your fault.”

 

Tony blanked. Pepper had always been right. But today, she was wrong. Today, like every day, it was his fault. “I know,” he lied. “I love you.” He didn’t wait for a reply. He slowly put the phone back on the receiver. The second the plastic clicked back into place, he was grabbed by the arm and half-led, half-dragged out of the room, down the hallway, and into his cell, and before he knew it, the key was back in the lock and the man was leaving.

 

”Nice story, Stark,” the guard scoffed as his footsteps faded. “Let’s see if your fame holds you up this time.”

 

Then, he was gone, leaving Tony alone with the bench, the concrete, the barred window with a glimpse of grassy courtyard.

 

He stared out of the window, wishing he was out in that grass but knowing he wouldn’t deserve it.

 

He stared.

 

He waited.

 

He ached.