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Free Fall

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Two words.

Two whole words.

Peter stares at the orange sheet of paper like it’s going to eat him. He doesn’t even bother reading the rest, stuck on those two words in an endless loop. The other students filter out but Peter doesn’t glance away.

His eyes go from glazed to darting just as the bell shrills. His breathing hitches.

Mr. Hangford shuffles the last of student assignment in a flurry of debris on his desk, brows frowning over top of his glasses. As history teachers go, Peter actually likes him, finding him fair and empathetic with students, if homework heavy.

It is this that lends Peter enough boldness to pad up to Mr. Hangford’s seated profile and, lips tight and pulsing in spasms, hold the cursed orange paper out. 

Mr. Hangford’s head jolts up from its bowed position. He takes one look at Peter’s defensive posture and softens.

Gently, the man pushes the paper back. “Sorry, Peter. No exceptions, not with this one. You have to do it…just the same as the other students. It wouldn’t be fair otherwise.”

Peter trips a step back as if slapped.

Mr. Hangford grimaces. “If it’s any consolation, I know you can do this.”

Then you and I both don’t know very much, Peter thinks.

The paper is vibrating in his fingers. He glances down at those two hated words…it’s the first time Peter has ever dealt with this. He’s blindsided. 

“You have two weeks, Peter,” Hangford says, quiet. “Now go on.”

Maybe I can move to Singapore.

Peter can’t see any other logical way out of this.

He wanders out the door and through the lunch crowds in a daze, eyes a little glassy. Flash eyes him with suspicion but says nothing. It’s oddly…mature of him and Peter is grateful for it. Even Flash finds no pleasure in taunting a traumatized, underweight kid. Most of the school simply gives him a wide berth.

A nudge to his visible ribs wakes him.

Ned looks even more distressed than Peter, wringing his hands. “Sorry about Hangford. MJ told me about it. Did he say you could do, you know, er…something else for the assignment instead?”

Peter shakes his head, eyes on his shoes. They amble along in a depressed shuffle.

“Oh.” Ned blinks very fast, for just a beat, and Peter sags. “That’s really not fair, Peter. All the other teachers are nice about it.”

Peter shrugs.

I’m not normal, he wants to say but the words won’t push past his lips.

Ned’s arm suddenly lifts in an excited wave.

Tony, leaning against the front doors, grins until the corners of his eyes crinkle and waves back. His legs are crossed at the ankles, other hand in his pocket, head tilted slightly in a fond expression. An MMA hoodie peeks out the expensive blazer.

He looks…utterly relaxed. Staff and students are so used to seeing him now that they don’t pay the billionaire a second glance.

Tony’s eyes land on Peter and he grins wider. This wave is smaller, fingers to palm. Like a secret just between them.

Blushing, sweater cuff gummed between a smile, Peter waves back.

It’s an arrangement worked out between Principal Morita and Tony—Peter attends the morning of summer school, first three periods, and one of the team picks him up at lunch for “shop on steroids” with Tony and Biology/Chemistry taught by Bruce, respectively.

It works beautifully for all parties, especially to make up lost class time from early months when Peter struggled to reintegrate.

Half home schooled might be unorthodox, but Peter’s marks have never been better.

“Hey, squirt.” Tony ruffles Peter’s hair in the usual greeting while both wave goodbye to Ned. “How was school?”

Peter follows Tony outside, to the Audi parked on the curb. He thinks about the orange paper still fisted in his right hand. Does Tony really need to know about this? Things have been so calm lately. No need to worry anyone.

Can’t mess this up.

So Peter stuffs the sheet in his back pocket and nods with two thumbs up.

Tony lights up. “Good stuff! Let’s ride.”

 


 

 

After a night of battling phantoms in his mind, the sound of sizzling and smell of something melting uncurls Steve’s shoulders away from his ears. He smiles before he even rounds the corner, recognizing the high mumble and deep voice instantly.

The sight of them, when he finally stumbles into the kitchen, isn’t what Steve expected. It still makes him melt. He settles on a chair beside the island with a quick salute.

Thor mimics it, using the metal spatula in his left hand. He rolls sausages in a frying pan and occasionally flips the pancakes in a nearby pan.

His right arm cradles Peter.

The two are chest to chest, Peter’s dangling legs barely making it past Thor’s waist. He’s so tiny like this. Dressed in starry pajama bottoms and a grey sweatshirt that drowns him, clearly belonging to Thor.

Peter’s right ear is to Thor’s shoulder, facing Steve.

At this angle, it’s easy to spot dried tear tracks. It explains why the pair is up before the sun. Though Friday alerts one of the team on shift if Peter has a nightmare, Thor and Tony’s rooms are closest and they often hear the screams first.

“I l-like sausage.” Peter goes for his sleeve and, with his eyes closed, ends up gumming Thor’s white T-shirt instead. As usual, it takes him a few tries to gargle-stutter the word he wants. “Y’mmy.”

Thor’s eyes accordion fold at the tips. He hitches Peter higher to allow him better access to the shirt. “They’re almost ready, little one.”

The Asgardian shifts his weight from one foot to the other in a nuanced rock. Every few minutes he rests his cheek on Peter’s thick head of hair. Peter lets out a contended sigh and Steve wanders the kitchen in search of a camera.

“Your pediatrician will finally have a favourite food to write on your chart,” says Steve. He grabs a tablet sitting on top of the fridge and steals a quick photo.

Peter’s eyes snap open at the new voice. He blinks at Steve. The lips turn up in a smile, forcing him to release the shirt. One hand, hidden by the sleeves, detaches from Thor to wave.

Steve still adores the fact that this is Peter’s way of greeting people.

He waves back, voice quiet to match the atmosphere Thor is trying to create. “Morning, Frodo.”

Peter giggles at the nickname.

A new set of shoes wander into the kitchen. “Someone’s in a good mood this morning.”

Peter is already going back to sleep but he too knows that voice like the back of his hand. “Hmm…”

Bruce grins one of those tiny, delighted grins, and makes a beeline for the tea kettle. He shakes off his glasses to rub at his eyes.

“We’re all up early this morning.” Steve pats Bruce’s arm on the way by. “Hoping for a head start?”

“Never went to bed,” says Bruce. “I’m working on a new water filtration system.”

“Again?” Thor asks.

“The last one wasn’t affordable for developing countries.”

Steve tugs on the physicist’s hoodie. “Sit down before you fall over.”

Bruce, to his credit, obeys without comment, slumping into a chair beside Steve. Their knees touch and this seems to be the last push for Bruce. He relaxes fully, blowing on his mug of oolong.

For a good ten minutes there is utter peace, the homey sounds of cooking food, Bruce’s sips, Steve reading the newspaper on the tablet, and Thor’s gentle swaying.

Steve knows the team was never like this, not even before Ultron.

It’s the teeny tiny kid in Thor’s arms that bonded them. None of them have said it but they all know. 

The sun rises on them that way, bright rays through the window at Thor’s left side that silhouette them in buttery light.

Then Peter shifts, mushing his face against Thor’s shoulder and those gigantic sleeves. His face is half hidden by all the fabric and Thor’s muscles. He mumbles something.

“What was that, little one?” Thor inclines his head. “I didn’t catch…”

“L’k the s-s-sound of y’r hr’db’t.”

Steve can’t quite decipher that but apparently Thor can because he chuckles. “You like my heartbeat? What does it sound like?”

“Like…l-like an o-ocean w’ve.”

Bruce laughs at that one too. A curl tumbles in front of Peter’s eyes and his sleepy exhale pushes it airborne for a second. Steve could eat this kid he’s so precious.

“Like the s’d of y-your h’rtbeat, Th-Thor.”

“Yes, little one,” says Thor softly, lips in Peter’s hair. “I heard you; fear not. I’m here.”

“It’s s-so nice,” Peter insists, like a closing statement. “N-nothin’ like Derrick’s.”

Thor drops the spatula with a clatter. His eyes go huge, body cement stiff. Bruce stands up so fast it topples his chair and when Steve looks up, his eyes are pure green. His shirt suddenly looks too tight, too confining.

Steve’s pulse ramps up a few notches. He glances wildly between them all.

What’s going on?

Thor visibly wrangles his fury under control.

Hand taut, Thor reaches around and with a finger under Peter’s chin, swivels his head so his left ear is to Thor’s chest. Steve can’t see Peter’s face now but he must open his eyes because Thor lets go.

Even then, it takes Thor several false starts before his voice comes out even. “Peter, when were you close enough to villain Derrick to hear his heartbeat?”

Oh. Vomit rises in Steve’s throat. OH.

Peter’s fingers bunch in the back of Thor’s shirt to steady himself. He’s still half asleep. “S-sounded mean. Thud heartbeat.”

“Yes, little one, but when? Did he ever...?”

Thor can’t finish this question and Steve, selfishly, is glad. He doesn’t know if he can handle the answer.

Peter’s hand wads into a white knuckled grip and this time it’s from fear. From memories. Thor flips the burner off and uses both hands to hold Peter, his free hand now cupping the back of Peter’s head.

He rubs a thumb along the boy’s cheek, just gazing at each other.

“Peter?” Thor whispers.

“Grabbed m-me when I t-t-tried to r’n. Pinned m-me.” There’s a quick flash of light. A tear, Steve realizes. It’s not Peter’s. “When Derrick b-bartered with his…friends.”

Another tear swishes into Thor’s beard. “Bartered?”

Peter’s voice drops to a whisper too. “F-for me.”

A roiling tidal wave blasts them in the face. Thor sucks in a harsh breath. Steve wants to kill someone with his bare hands for the satisfaction of feeling a neck snap.

He wakes from the blood lust to realize they might have a bigger problem.

Steve shoots to his feet to plant a hand on Bruce’s shoulder. His iron grip would crush an ordinary man’s bones but Bruce is not an ordinary man and at the moment he isn’t even fully himself.

Steve is glad Peter’s eyes are on Thor.

“Bruce. He’s here.” Steve’s voice is hot and low. “Derrick didn’t end up selling him. We got him back.”

Bruce’s eyes are stark and unreadable. It’s his jaw that twitches and ticks. He nods once, like a military salute, eyes fading to brown, and straightens his sweater. It finally fits him properly.

Then he walks silently to Peter, who turns his head at the approach. Bruce stands before Peter, gathering some sort of courage. His fingers grip Peter’s curls and he bends.

He plants a kiss, long and tender, to the skin above Peter’s eyebrow.

Thor and Steve stand shell shocked. Bruce is affectionate, sure, but never in front of them like this. Never with that vulnerable look on his face. Thor is holding his breath in an effort not to break this rare jewel of a moment.

Peter reaches out both hands, Thor bracing him, and cups Bruce’s face in his hands.

“I like y’r heartbeat too.”

“Do you?” Bruce laughs, an utterly wet and wretched sound.

“Mmm,” Peter hums in his throat. He smiles. It’s tired and grief stricken—but genuine. “Sss’nds like home. Home.”

 


 

 

Peter is in Tony’s lab the first time it happens.

“Just one more try, bud. Then we’ll call it a day and you can get to Bruce’s class. Sound good?”

Tony says it like Peter has a choice but he knows he doesn’t. He bites his lip. His eyes dart from a row of fifteen CPU chips to the miniature robot. The robot is shaped like a leaf with bottom wheels attached, gutted and sparking.

Tony and Peter are both on the floor, on their knees, tools scattered in a five foot halo. Discarded sandwiches sit abandoned on the table above their heads.

Using rubber, forceps-style pincers, Peter gingerly picks up one of the CPUs. He holds it in front of Tony, brows rising.

“Hook it up and find out,” Tony answers.

Biting back a huff—Tony’s been exorbitantly patient—Peter inserts the chip. Smaller pincers allow him to attach the wires. A soldering iron appears beside Peter’s cheek.

He thanks Tony with a nod and bends further to see inside his leaf design. He’s careful not to touch the lithium battery nestled beside the chip. He snaps the lid back on.

Eighth try is the charm…I hope.

“Here we go.” Tony folds his legs underneath himself, pretzel twisted. “You wanna do the honours?”

Peter uncurls, back popping, to see Tony holding out the tablet with app controls. Even after an hour of this, Tony’s eyes are sparking with excitement.

Peter grabs the tablet but holds on. He wants to savour this moment, the feeling of working on something side by side—

“Come on, small fry! You’ve been building this agriculture robot for two weeks. Let’s start ‘er up!”

Since Tony is bouncing like a toddler, Peter indulges him. He’d rather run tests but Tony isn’t that kind of teacher.

“Pedal to the metal,” had been his exact words the first day.

It takes a second of finger hovering for Peter to work up his nerve. He turns the touch screen dial with his eyes closed. This powers up the robot and sets it to ‘seeding’ mode. With a swipe to the top of the screen, the robot should, in theory…

“It’s moving!” Tony’s elated screech whisks Peter’s eyes open of their own accord. “Look—moving! You did it!”

Sure enough, the little leaf zooms around the lab, bumping into tools and dropping sunflower seeds everywhere. Tony throws his head back and laughs. Truly laughs. The free, childish sound he guards so well.

Until now.

It’s contagious. Peter puts a hand over his mouth but it’s no use. Giggles bubble up his larynx and out his beaming mouth in a stream. His cheeks flush from the humour of it all.

Almost drunkenly, Tony hoists an arm around Peter’s shoulders. “I’m so proud of you, Pete. You’re like the child I never thought I’d get to have, you know that?”

Peter doesn’t but he nods anyway.

Something inside his chest is setting off fireworks. Warm, golden, and so real. Peter hasn’t felt this happy since…he can’t quite remember.

If joy were a drink it would be squirting out his nose. Peter laughs some more and that sets Tony off again.

There is no warning. No build up. No prickle behind his eyes.

In the midst of Peter’s mirth, two massive, fat tears materialize in his eyes and down his cheeks. They’re heated and salty. Peter is so surprised that his breathing misses a beat.

His eyes widen and more overweight tears fall.

“Peter? These are happy tears, right?”

Noisy sobs replace Peter’s laughter. He weeps like it’s going out of style.

Tony’s smile vanishes and he has Peter in his lap in a blink. Peter fits perfectly in the hollow of his crossed legs. Peter feels as shocked as the man looks.

Tony tucks Peter’s back to his chest, inhaling in a cartoonish, exaggerated breath. Peter tries to mimic it, failing. Tony puts a hand on Peter’s sternum.

“Hey, hey, hey. Small fry.”

Peter tries to speak but the sobs are in control of his body. They’ve never been this loud before.

“You’re okay. You’re in my lab. It’s a Tuesday. If I scared you, Pete, I’m sorry.”

Peter shakes his head. “Di’nt.”

“Good. Good…” Tony rests his chin on Peter’s head. There is a long pause while Peter drips with snot and devastation and breaths that sound like a dying possum. “You feel safe with us, Peter…right?”

I do. That’s the problem.

 

Chapter Text

 

Peter blames the orange sheet for it all.

Chngchngchngchngchng.

Peter’s sewing leg bumps up and down, rattling the desk. He stoops over it, English homework nearly finished, head in his hand. Setting sun casts enough light to see the orange paper in a crinkly wad. Hidden behind a stack of Shakespeare.

It’s ruined the colour orange for him. He hates it now. Hates the very sight of Mr. Hangford’s signature and the way one crinkle makes it look like a smiley face.

How dare it be cheery.

Peter turns at a rap on his bedroom door. He quickly shoves the sheet further out of sight.

A spike of brunette hair precedes Clint’s entrance. “Hey, champ. Supper in ten, okay?”

Peter nods. When Clint doesn’t move, knuckles still on the door frame, Peter frowns.

“You’re probably the only kid on the planet I’ll have to say this to, but stop studying.”

With an appropriately teenage eye roll, Peter smiles.

“Seriously, come on.” Clint loops his arm in a beckoning motion. “Nat chose the pizza place so it should be good.”

Reluctantly, Peter closes the book on his Othello essay and watches the archer slip out the door. An eruption of voices and Thor’s laugh signals the arrival of food. Peter sits back, the chair creaking, and scrubs his eyes.

You have to tell them. These weird crying fits won’t go away until you do. Show them the stupid paper.

There’s been two other episodes since the first five days ago, when Peter hugged Steve and when someone congratulated him for the robot.

Why can’t he cry at predictable times?

Resolved, Peter jets to his feet with a scowl.

In a seldom event, all six are gathered on the two L-shaped sectionals in front of the TV. Pepper curls up at Tony’s side and the team is munching on slices of chicken Alfredo. There’s a light chatter of voices but most are engaged in the NBA game.

“Grab yourself some food, solnyshko,” Natasha calls, eyes still on the screen. “I even ordered that garlic toast you like.”

Peter bypasses the island, overflowing with boxes. His sock feet are soundless and because of it the adults don’t notice him until he’s standing directly in front of the couch. Peter plants himself a good arm’s length away.

His hands are at his sides, fists clenched. Though sweatpants and ‘I love band’ shirt don’t exactly make a commanding figure, the open struggle on his face sure does.

Tony takes one look at him and blanches. “Friday.”

The TV switches off.

“Sweetie?” Pepper scooches forward until she’s perched, elbows on her knees. “Do you need help with something?”

Yes! Peter nods. I do!

“Are you feeling ill?” Thor ventures.

Peter shakes his head. His scowl has dissolved, leaving squirming brows and twisting lips. He can’t look any of them in the eye. Talking is hard enough, let alone in front of them all, explaining this latest shortcoming.

Just tell them, you idiot.

He tries. He really does. He even points to his bedroom. “I…I…the…p…”

The seven exchange rapid-fire gazes with each other. A silent, alarmed conversation using just their eyes.

“Son?” Steve sounds quietly wrecked and it matches the way Peter feels. “We’re not going anywhere. Take your time.”

Something inside of Peter snaps at the words.

He slides his hands over his face. His chest feels shredded, tendons of searing pain dripping open.

More tears! They drench his hands and down the front of his shirt.

What is wrong with me?       

A panicked cry comes from the couch, sounding like Clint.

“Peter?”

“Little one—”

There’s a flurry of motion as several rise to their feet in unison.

Peter, however, is gone before Clint can scoop him up.

 


 

 

It should go in a record book somewhere. That Bruce Banner, fugitive for half of his adult life, slept in past seven o’clock.

When he wakes, he’s confused for a moment. Not about his surroundings, for the ventilation’s low drone reminds him he’s in a first world country. Lying on his right side, he gazes at the clock and is shocked to see it’s 7:30 in the morning.

Must have been more tired than I thought.

No, he’s confused about what woke him up. He hadn’t set an alarm and the sun’s been up for an hour or so, ruling it out as the culprit.

His droopy eyes sweep beyond the clock to a little hand curled in the edge of the comforter.

Peter looks unsure, biting his lip and casting furtive glances at Bruce’s bedroom door. He’s been MIA since last night’s fiasco so Bruce relaxes to see the boy. Unhurt, if pale.

Paper is waded in his right hand.

“Hey, Peter,” Bruce whispers.

Peter jumps and locks eyes with the physicist.

“Good to see you.” Bruce keeps his speech slow, hoping it will calm that wild colt look in Peter’s eyes. “You okay?”

It’s unheard of for Peter to come into their rooms like this. They’ve offered, of course, but he never takes them up on it.

Bruce distantly wonders what is eating Peter. What makes him so desperate that he’s having trouble speaking, just like the early days.

Little fingers find Bruce’s sleeve.

Bruce pulls back the comforter, a silent invitation. Peter deflates with an audible sigh of relief. He’s already dressed but he slides under the covers. Bruce tugs the blankets up around them both.

Peter doesn’t stay on the other side of the queen size bed but tucks himself to Bruce’s chest, nose cold on Bruce’s pectorals even through his shirt.

He freezes in surprise.

Peter is snuggled tightly to him, hugging himself. His knees are bent back but they brush Bruce’s.

“What’s going on in that head of yours?” Bruce doesn’t quite know what to do and is both touched and worried that Peter came to him for help. He’s not usually the first choice.

So he wraps both arms around the boy, rubbing up and down the bony spine. “Hmm?”

In answer, Peter’s hand snakes out from its hidey hole and presses to Bruce’s chest. Bruce reaches down.

It’s a torn off sheet from the notepad a therapist gave to Peter. It’s small enough to fit in Peter’s pocket but the lines are big if his hands feel shaky.

Bruce unfolds the paper.

‘May’s grave,’ it reads.

Blinking, Bruce tucks his chin to press his nose against the crown of Peter’s hair. He murmurs into the freshly showered curls. “You want me to drive you there?”

The head on Bruce’s chest nods.

A whole universe of tension bleeds out of Bruce. Finally—something he can actually give Peter. Something straightforward and achievable. It’s a Sunday so he’s not even missing classes.

“Here’s my deal, Peter: I’ll drive you into Queens if you eat breakfast on the way there. Sound fair?”

Peter lifts his head. Bruce quickly moves his elbow so it cradles the boy’s neck. His cheeks are sunken with lack of sleep and skipped meals. Peter’s nose wrinkles.

Ignoring the guilt, Bruce shakes his head. “That’s the deal, Peter. I’m happy to do this for you but you need to eat.”

There’s real deliberation in Peter’s face. Bruce is simultaneously amused and sleepy. He can wait out a fifteen year old with ease.

After a minute, Peter nods. He does the ASL sign for food, then another.

Bruce kisses the messy curls. “Sure, Peter. Let’s do waffles.”

 


 

 

“See? That’s all it is. He’s just been working up to ask us about visiting May.”

“No.” Tony unfolds one of his arms to point at Clint. “You didn’t see him in the lab Tuesday. It took me almost thirty minutes to get him calm. No way was that a result of him being unable to ask me about the grave.”

Clint looks tired. More tired than them all. He’s still in his combat gear and leather gloves, refusing to sit at the kitchen table like the others. He paces at the head of it. The two am mission call went well but it involved lots of getting shot at.

He’s frayed.

“We’ll know when Bruce gets back with him, either way,” he finally says.

They watch Bruce and Peter through the windows, hand-in-hand on their way to the garage. Bruce says something to Peter and the boy nods. He signs. Tony recognizes this one.

“Fri?”

Yes, boss?”

“Put waffles and bacon on the next grocery order.”

Right away.”

Thor’s voice is the quietest yet, to everyone’s astonishment. His burly hand tightens around a coffee mug. “He hasn’t been himself of late. Last night proved that.”

“He was doing so well,” Steve laments. His head has long since landed in his hands. “Where did we go wrong?”

“You guys are the worst,” says Natasha. She twirls a spoon in pirouettes on the table. “It’s only been eight months since we adopted him. He’s not just going to magically get better.”

“But that’s just it.” Both of Tony’s hands are free now and gesturing. “Before Tuesday he was talking more, laughing. He seemed…”

Steve sighs. “Happy.”

“Yeah,” Tony agrees. “Happy.”

Silence smothers the table. Long enough for the fresh coffee pot to chirp and Clint to waver on his feet. Tony hooks a foot around the archer’s ankle and shoves him onto the empty chair.

“That’s it.” Steve’s voice is resigned. He stands. “I’m calling him in.”

“No.” Tony stands too. “The big guns didn’t work for Peter before and they won’t now.”

Natasha eyes them, gaze narrowed. “I thought Peter quit working with the psychologist months ago, when he wouldn’t talk.”

Tony stares the captain down. “He did.”

“This isn’t the big guns,” says Thor. “It is a familiar face.”

“It’s still ganging up on him.” But Tony’s arguing tone fades. They’ve been circling around this discussion for weeks. “Peter needs a friend. Not a shrink.”

Natasha finally joins the huddle to place both hands on Tony’s shoulders. Tony knows he’s lost even before her lips quirk up in a faint smile.

She squeezes once. “Why not both?”

 


 

 

Transatlantic flights suck. End of discussion.

Uncomfortable seats mixed with turbulence, a drug scare, and virtually zero leg room can make joints pop even hours later. Reveal muscles that should stay unknown.

Sam arches his back and feels the crack of stiff joints—exhibit A.

Welcome, Wilson.

Sam flaps a hand. He swipes his compound ID card with the other. “That’s dumb, Friday. Don’t call me that.”

What would you prefer? Boss almost had me call you ‘Avengers aviator’ or, my personal favourite, ‘angry bird.’

It’s an effort not to trip over his own feet in absolute shock, but Sam manages it. He keeps his grip on the duffel—barely—and jabs a finger at the ceiling.

“Don’t you ever repeat or call me those, Friday. Sam is fine.”

Of course, Mr. Sam Bird, sir.”

“I swear I’m going to murder Stark in his sleep, using a lava lamp, for this…I’ll show him angry and he won’t be laughing then…this is why I kept my own dang apartment…”

Sam is still muttering epithets under his breath when the elevator opens onto the communal area, a combined kitchen and entertainment living room space. It’s completely dark, made worse by the one am, pitch black outside the wall of windows. 

A bottle of Heineken sits the island counter top, abandoned.

Sam drops his duffel on the couch and stretches some more. Truthfully, he was glad for Tony’s call and the chance to get out of the VA, out of this special assignment in Khartoum.

Counselling for the military has its perks but it also brings with it too many images of blood and memories of lost colleagues. A chance to quit the post hasn’t come up.

But even his boss couldn’t say no to Tony Stark.

That beer looks pretty tempting and it’s getting warm, all by itself. Sam reaches for it—

The pat pat pat of small, bare feet running across tile is the only warning Sam gets before a hundred pounds of teenager hooks a hand in Sam’s leather jacket and flings himself behind him.

Sam takes a half step back to balance. “Good to see you too, Muay Thai. What’s it been…a month?”

Then Sam feels the bit drill quivering running up his jacket. Peter rests his head on Sam’s back. A muffled sob chokes out of him, so strong Sam’s spine buzzes.

“Easy, Peter.” Sam twists around to rest his palm on top of the boy’s head. Peter’s eyes are painfully big and his nostrils flare with each heaving breath. Worry clogs Sam’s throat. “Hey, hey. What’s the hubbub?”

Peter’s grip on his jacket is so tight it shakes. He’s dressed for bed, in fleece bottoms and a colossal sweater Sam suspects belongs to Thor. There’s a fear charged set to his eyes and mouth.

This look Sam knows too well.

A million questions zip around Sam’s brain. He hears heavier shoes running down the hall and straightens. One of the kitchen knives is in his hand faster than a breath, legs braced for an attacker.

Not on my watch, you don’t.

The figure comes into view. He takes one look at Sam and peekaboo of Peter’s face and leans over his knees. “Oh, thank God. You caught him. For having no powers at the moment, he’s fast.”

“Rhodes?” Sam cries, dropping the knife onto the counter. “I nearly threw this at you!”

Rhodes ignores him to drink in Peter’s face and attempt to communicate something with his furrowed brows. His face is calm but his eyes reflect a sharp hurt.

“Peter?” he murmurs.

Peter ducks out of sight behind his human shield.

Rhodes drags over a metal step-stool, placed there by Tony for Peter to reach the top cupboards, and slumps on the second step. He loosens his tie with a ragged exhale. Elbows resting on his knees, he rubs his palms together.

“I heard you having a nightmare. I was in your room to check on you, Peter. It’s just me.”

Slowly, inch by inch, Rhodes stretches out his right hand.

Nobody moves for a minute…two minutes…five…

“I’d sooner take a bullet than hurt you.” Sam would never have heard Rhodes’ whisper if it wasn’t so dead still. “Talk to me, Peter.” 

Both men wince at Rhodes’ choice of words but it’s a pistol shot for Peter. He balls into a flurry of motion, darting out from behind Sam and over to the island.

He snatches up a miniature notepad there and scribbles out four words. With a sharp huff, he slams the pad in Rhodes’ palm, still held out.

Rhodes reads the message. Then he stares at Peter for a long heartbeat.

“James?” Sam asks softly.

Rhodes holds up the pad for Sam but doesn’t look away from Peter.

‘YOU LET THEM GO,’ the paper reads in childish, block letters.

Sam puts the subconscious clues together in a blink: the abandoned bottle, the made up beds he can see from open bedroom doors, the fact it’s only Rhodes here watching over Peter.

“Well, yeah. Of course I did.” Rhodes cocks his head. “The mission is just to assess a nuclear threat in Beijing. Easy stuff for them.”

The t-zone of Peter’s face folds together, crushed origami, like he’s trying with all his might not to cry.

“If they can stop an army from space, this is a cake walk,” Sam offers.

Peter’s breathing picks up. Rhodes and Sam meet each other’s eyes. Concern and mental alarm bells flood both their faces.

Rhodes leans as close in Peter’s space as he dares. “They’ve gone on lots of missions since adopting you, bud. You’ve never had this much trouble with it.”

The worst part of the clear emotional battle on Peter’s face is that he wants to take Rhodes’ hand. He wants the contact. But he won’t let himself have it. It’s deeply, cuttingly disturbing.

He settles for tapping the pad in Rhodes’ hand over and over again. An accusation, a desperate and helpless cry without Peter having to say a word at all.

A tear escapes Peter’s defenses.

“Come ‘ere, Pete.” Rhodes reaches for him but the boy trips backwards, shaking his head.

“Sorry, Rhodey. ‘M sorry!”

“Aww, Peter. You have nothing to apologize for. I love you, bud.” Rhodes’ eyes are terrible to behold, wracked and strung out.

Peter backs up so far he bumps into Sam. Sam makes a gamble—this could backfire—and shepherds Peter forward.

Rhodes sees what he’s doing and holds out both hands now, dropping the notepad. Peter shakes his head but he doesn’t fight Sam when he nudges him into Rhodes’ chest.

The colonel wraps the teen up carefully yet firmly in his arms, rocking them like Steve always does.

Peter doesn’t hug back.

Rhodes glances up and asks a question with his eyes.

Sam has never felt so useless in his life, especially since Tony called him personally for this. He’s never encountered this behaviour before, not in one so young, never with someone who barely speaks.

Not when Peter was doing so phenomenally well last time they met. There’s no textbook for this kind of behavior.

He answers back with a sigh:

I’m as lost as you are.

 

Chapter Text

 

“You know. You know and you refuse to share with the class.”

Bruce pauses, knife hovering over a cucumber. Tony takes the bar stool across from his friend at the island and leans right into his personal space. They’re almost nose-to-nose. For once, there isn’t an ounce of teasing in Tony’s face.

“I have a theory,” Bruce corrects him. He resumes chopping. “That’s not the same thing.”

“Spill.”

“No.” When Tony’s brows shoot up, Bruce puts down the knife. “What I mean is…Peter has the right to tell us when he’s ready.”

“You mean he’s keeping a secret?”

Bruce makes a teeter totter motion with his hand. “Not exactly. He probably thinks he is. I don’t even know what’s wrong, Tony. I just know where it’s coming from.”

“How?” Tony isn’t really asking Bruce now, rhetorical. “How do you always know what’s going on with him before the rest of us?”

Bruce answers him anyway. “Probably because my home life was a lot like Peter’s those two months.”

Tony glances away at that. Like Bruce is suddenly naked and he shouldn’t look. Bruce feels naked. He doesn’t talk about…the past…very much at all if he can help it.

But he owes Peter that sense of commiseration.

Bruce tries a shrug, hoping it comes across casual and almost achieving it. “Don’t rush him, Tony. I know this is getting serious but if we treat Peter’s pain like a deferential equation to be solved, he’s going to shut us out.”

“Bruce.” Tony’s lips purse and whiten from the pressure of his teeth. He lets out the tense action in a garbled breath. “He—he already is shutting us out.”

Bruce hangs his head. “I know.”

“This has to end.”

When Bruce picks up the knife again, he feels an arcane desire swell in his chest, one he hasn’t had since he was Peter’s age. To use this on someone. To slice until there’s no life left in a man’s eyes…to be violent as just himself.

Preferably on Derrick.

“That’s what I’m afraid of, Tony.”

 


 

 

Even at eight in the morning, July heat swings into full gear. Peter is glad he thought to wear a T-shirt before leaving the compound. Thick, steel toed boots sit on his feet.

Steve stands off to the side, in the shade. His arms are folded where he leans against a tree, but he’s grinning wickedly. “Should have let me keep the keys while we ate breakfast.”

Sam throws his friend a murderous glare and wrenches on his truck lock for the umpteenth time. The flimsy, store bought lock pick isn’t working. “Are you seriously saying I told you so? Be the bigger man.”

“Thor’s bigger than me and even he says I told you so.”

Peter stifles a giggle behind his hand. Sam’s truck keys fell out of his pocket…between the seats. Now they’re locked out and fifteen minutes late to the Habitat for Humanity building project.

“Sure you don’t want some help with that?”

“Shut it, Rogers.”

Steve snickers. “Torque it more to the left. Maybe it’ll snap and we can walk home.”

“You’re just jealous I keep my lock picks with me.”

“I’d rather they be spare keys.”

Peter does a loop around the truck, taps his chin, and then raises a hand.

Sam deflates to more of Steve’s smug laughter. “You’re not in school, Pete. I’m not a teacher. What’s up?”

Peter bounces on his toes, pointing to the rear window.

“Er…I see it, Muay Thai. Your point?”

Steve pushes off the tree. “He means the middle one, the square window, it slides open, right?”

“Sure.” Sam scratches his head with the rake pick. “But it’s pretty small…”

By the time their eyes land on Peter, he’s already stretching for the flatbed. Steve hooks his hands under Peter’s armpits and raises him up onto the truck. Peter crawls over to the window, pushing on it with his palms flat. The latch is undone so it should just…

Grsshkk!

There’s an awful scratching sound before the window slides on its track. Peter whips around, smile wide.

Steve slaps the flatbed in triumph. “Nice job, Frodo!”

There is still the issue of, you know, climbing in through the window. Peter turns back to examine it. It’s narrow, not even the width of his shoulders.

He’s reminded abruptly of Derrick’s closet.

“You don’t have to,” says Sam, arms resting on the truck beside Peter. His voice has gone into what Peter calls ‘counselor’ mode. Low, paced. “I can just call roadside assistance like I should’ve at the beginning.”

I need this one victory.

Peter shakes his head.

He curls his shoulders inwards and reaches through the window. He can touch the front seats now but it’s a struggle to not get stuck. Once his shoulders pop free, it’s smooth sailing until his hips hit the window. With a little tugging, Peter shimmies fully into the truck.

The muffled sound of Sam’s cheers makes him grin. And there are the keys. Peter snatches them up and unlocks the door.

“Just for that,” says Sam, “You ride shotgun. Rogers, get in the back.”

“Why me?”

“Did you just army crawl through a window to get us to a building project for a homeless family?”

“No, but—”

“Then get in the back.”

Steve does, grumbling about his longer legs the whole time. Graciously, with a touch of guilt, Peter reaches around to pat Steve’s knee while they drive.

“I’m just giving Sam a hard time because he’s an easy target.” Steve’s voice is quiet compared to the rattling of Sam’s engine and a John Legend song. “Thanks, Pete. We owe you one.”

Peter pretends he’s not beaming at the praise and is so focused on this, in fact, that he misses the nods Sam and Steve exchange.

They weave through traffic with the ease born of long practice and groggy fellow drivers. Sam sings the entire way there. Steve doesn’t participate, but he taps his knees like they’re a cajon.

And Peter…Peter feels like a regular kid. It’s a rush.

Only at one point does Sam’s power solo cut off. He nearly misses a red light, slamming hard on the brakes. Peter braces himself against the dash board.

When he glances over at Sam, he sees wide eyes, glued on him.

Peter reddens, wondering what he’s done wrong this time.

“You’re…” Sam is a glitching computer. He reaches across the seat to squeeze the back of Peter’s neck. “You…”

“You were humming,” Steve laughs. “You have a nice voice, Peter.”

I do? Peter hasn’t sung since…since before Ben died, it’s been that long. His voice has changed so he has no concept of what it sounds like.

Sam yanks up the volume.

Peter is silent for the next song, then another one. Steve and Sam throw each other looks in the rear view mirror. The mixed tape switches to a Ben E. King song, one that even Peter recognizes. His lips are pinched for the first verse.

He thinks of holding Bruce’s hand at the cemetery. Of Tony teaching him how to build a robot. Of Nat’s terrible cooking.

Stand by me…Won’t you stand…by me…

The truck cab is an utter wash of noise but Peter adds to it anyway. Sam’s hands tighten on the wheel while he continues singing. Neither of the two men look at Peter but Steve’s giant palm rests on top of Peter’s head.

Signs for the building project sprout up along the curb.

It’s just a hum, just a few notes from Peter’s mouth. He’s not even singing the words. Sam’s voice still begins to sound thick and he still drives an extra block just so Peter will keep doing it.

 


 

 

There’s something reassuring about the fact that all of the volunteers are older and that Johnny, the director and foreman, doesn’t care one lick whether this scrawny kid will talk.

He just hands Peter a hammer—“You know how to use this, son?”

Peter nods quickly. Weeks of Tony’s “shop” class have taught him his way around a toolbox. Often with painful results.

“Good.” Johnny clips a tool belt around his waist. He consults a clipboard. “We’ve just started on siding, Mr.…ah, here we are. Mr. Parker. Get to it.”

Nor does he seem to care that he has two well known war heroes working on his team. Johnny is a former marine, grey haired, and never smiles. He doesn’t babysit Peter either, something that makes Peter’s foggy brain feel clearer than it has in months.

The next four hours Peter is so busy he doesn’t have time to think. He assists older volunteers with their own tools, carries massive bags of soil, paints the inside walls.

Seeing the boy’s dexterity, he is quickly put in charge of the kitchen instead.

The two story house is already built but it’s just a wooden shell. By the time lunch rolls around, it almost has what Tony calls “curb appeal.”

Steve passes Peter a few times, cement bags that weigh more than Peter loaded onto each shoulder. Each time he lifts a hand off a bag to wave. Sam has disappeared. Something about wiring lights in the attic.

Time zips by. It’s exhilarating.

“Hey, hon?” A salt and pepper haired woman waves Peter over. “Think you could steady my legs on this ladder?”

And Peter is off again.

To be needed, as just himself, is a gift, blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moments treasures tucked safely away in his heart. He holds his head higher, confidence mounting, the longer the day goes on.

All three of them miss lunch, they’re so into it.

The stone mason passes Peter in the kitchen and does a double take. “Nice back splash, Parker! Loving the sea glass look!”

She holds up a hand. Blushing, Peter reciprocates the high five. His wheezing puffs of air are almost a laugh.

“Hey, Muay Thai.” A hand lands on Peter’s shoulder. Sam has the other hand braced on his knee to be at eye level. “It’s seven o’clock. We gotta roll or Stark will send search parties.”

The image makes Peter laugh again. Sam steers him outside. They hand in their hard hats and tools at the foreman’s station tent with hearty handshakes of thanks from the man. It is Johnny’s first real, beaming smile of the day.

“You folks are welcome anytime! Anytime!” he says while pumping Peter’s hand.

They head for the truck. The other volunteers have already left for the day but Sam bypasses the truck cab to lower the lip on the flatbed.

At Peter’s questioning look, Sam wrestles two mushed BLT sandwiches from his coat pocket. “First we eat, little man. Low blood sugar’s a beast, trust me. Have you been drinking lots of water?”

Peter shakes his head while Sam lifts him up.

“I didn’t think so. You and Steve have a competition going for worst self care. I swear, man…” Sam grouses, rooting through a backpack in the truck.

He retrieves two humongous Nalgene bottles and won’t even open his until Peter has downed a third of his own.

They sit side by side on the flatbed, slathered head to toe in gyprock and paint and crack fill, legs swinging. Sam’s boots scrape the pavement but Peter’s feet barely reach the man’s shins. They smack on their sandwiches while admiring the finished house, their handiwork.

“There’s a homeless father and his blind son moving into the house next week.” Sam’s eyes are crinkled and proud. “Makes all the sweat worthwhile.”

“Mhmm,” says Peter, cheeks full.

Sam chuckles at the sound and ruffles Peter’s hair. The action leaves even more mortar but they both grin.

“Today was a good day,” Sam muses aloud, still playing with sweaty strands of Peter’s curls. It feels like something May would do. Peter wants to bristle at this, that Sam is repeating such a sacred action, yet he just dissolves into it.

“Sure was!” calls Steve.

Sam ignores his friend, jogging over from the tent, to bump Peter. “Are you sure you’re not actually half cat?”

Peter shoves him off with an eye roll.

“What’d I miss?” asks Steve, leaning on the truck. Peter marvels that he still makes it to Peter’s shoulder.

Sam throws him a sandwich. “Supper of champions.”

“We did well today,” says Steve. “I’m proud of us.”

“Here, here!” Sam holds up his water bottle in a toast.

Steve is still in the process of unraveling plastic wrap, a Chinese puzzle box around his BLT, when Peter gasps.

Both men freeze.

“B-blood!” Peter hops down, stumbling. He points to Steve.

Steve twists to look at the red staining his left shoulder. “Oh yeah, that. Am I ever lucky the stone mason was trained in first aid. She disinfected the gash after a light fixture tipped over on me. Just needed a band aid. Can you believe it? Defeated by a lamp…”

The soldier’s nonchalant tone dissipates at exactly the same speed as colour in his face.

Peter still can’t get over how fast it happens. How there is absolutely zero warning of any kind. How it always intrudes upon the happiest, most banal of moments.

The cherry red splotch isn’t even that big on Steve’s shirt.

But in the time it takes Peter to shake his head, he’s already sobbing. Tears seem to leap from his scrunched eyes.

And he can’t get air in. No battle has been as fierce.

The world’s crushing weight feels like it’s reclining on Peter’s windpipe. Peter doesn’t even try to mask the stuttered cries.

He can’t.

Peter’s world trembles and so does he. Darkness begins to tunnel in on Peter’s vision.

“I’m fine! It’s not fatal, Peter.”

Through the frothing sea, blurriness of hysteria, Peter sees a hand plant itself on his chest. He can’t feel it but he sees it.

It’s too dark to be Steve’s hand. The fingers clench in Peter’s shirt, just slightly. The sudden sensation makes him delirious.

“Peter. You’re having a panic attack. You’ve got to breathe.”

Peter shakes his head.

I’m trying!

“Here we go: inhale. Now.”

The tone leaves no room for disobedience. Peter sucks in a breath that doesn’t sound human.

“Good. Now hold. Just two seconds.”

Those two seconds are a microcosm of suffering but Peter manages. His breath escapes in a ragged whimper.

Sam and Peter repeat the process for an age. It’s endless. Peter wants to drown to be free of it.

A rush of feeling returns to legs and toes. The blackness recedes enough for Peter to see them flailing. He’s fighting, manic. Super powered or not, his thrashing is strong enough that Sam has pinned his arms to his sides and Steve has a grip on both ankles where he kneels.

The man is white faced.

“Sorry,” rasps Peter suddenly, going limp. His face throbs.

Steve lets go immediately.

Sam doesn’t.

He’s hunched over at an awkward angle, one hand loosening on Peter’s sternum and the other wrapped around Peter’s middle. In such a tight position, Peter feels the instant Sam stiffens. It’s a ripple through his rib cage and up to his throat where he’s trying to find words.

“Just breathe. We’re not mad,” he settles on. “But what is going on, Peter? You can’t block us out.”

Peter starts crying again, but these are ‘tired and wrung out’ brand tears. These are tears for when Peter is losing the battle against an invisible enemy.

Not invisible. This is Hangford’s fault.

“Stupid orange…p-paper!”

“Paper?” asks Steve, more to Sam. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Peter just weeps harder, giving in to what he’s known all along:

Nothing’s going to be okay ever again. He’s been fooling himself for eight months. It never was.

 

Chapter Text

 

There’s no Manhattan skyline here, no buildings or planes or flashing billboards. Only acres upon acres of trees grace the wall length windows. Gold and silver twinkle over the leaves with the setting sun.

Steve still stares at it, rarely blinking, until someone crosses in front of his vision.

He’s slumped on the love seat, directly facing the windows, left arm slung over the back of the couch. His shoulder is already healed from yesterday but it throbs with guilt and sympathy.

He only looks away when a pressure lands on his left knee.

It’s Natasha.

Or, rather, Natasha’s head. She curls up on her back, head turned right so it too faces the windows. A tendon in her neck flares, creating lacerated shadows along her collarbone.

Steve is awestruck by the display of trust.

He wants to tangle fingers in her red hair. But touching Nat’s hair is something sacrosanct and they all understand this. Steve isn’t sure why but it is.

“I heard about the building project. It’s not your fault,” the Russian murmurs.

“I know.” Steve sighs. “I just don’t like feeling helpless. Why won’t he tell us what’s wrong? Or tell Sam, at least?”

Both pause, as if they can hear the counselling session happening down the hall. They can’t. Not even Steve’s ears hear a sound. It’s dead silent. Probably because Peter never talks to therapists, even Sam.

“The others are suiting up?” Steve asks.

Nat nods a fraction. “Wheels up in two hours.”

Steve’s gaze runs over Nat’s denim shorts and loose V-neck shirt. “Then why aren’t you getting ready?”

Natasha shifts so she’s looking up at him. “Why aren’t you?”

Shaking his head, Steve drops to a whisper. “For once, I don’t want to go. Pete’s never been like this.”

“Sure he was,” says Nat. “Remember those first three weeks when we adopted him?”

“I try not to.”

“I suppose he was completely numb at first.” Nat concedes this with a frown between her brows. “Not like the breakdowns he’s having now.”

“I’m out of my league.” Steve decides it right as he says it. A white flag.

Nat stares at him. “Are you just realizing this now? We’ve been over our heads all along. Every parent is. Welcome to the game, Rogers.”

Steve huffs.

They are silent for a while, watching sparrows outside the window.

The mission is, again, a simple one involving arms dealers, though it might take longer. Sam agreed to stay behind and watch Peter. It should go off without a hitch, just like all the rest.

Somehow striking an arms dealer is child’s play compared to the demons in Peter’s mind.

“Steve?”

He straightens, casting a shadow over her.

Natasha has said his name quietly lots of times but never like that. Never with that soft note, like she’s blindfolded and counting on him to lead her off a cliff.

“Yeah?” he says back, equally aching.

“He should have died. Peter should have died.”

Steve blinks. “What?”

“The doctors.” Nat’s brow smooths. “The doctors and specialists said Peter, with all his burns, slashes near arteries, concussions, and four day stints without food, shouldn’t have lived. Any normal patient would have died or been disabled in some way.”

“Well…” Steve scrambles. “He does have enhanced genes, dormant ones anyway.”

Natasha’s eyes are directly and one hundred percent locked on Steve’s.

His words are foolish and he knows it when she looks at him like that. He feels himself flushing but she doesn’t condescend or berate him.

Nat just speaks with that same soft voice. “We told him about the adoption when he was still in traction, Steve. He knew we wanted him right off the bat.”

Steve nods slowly. “Right…”

He wants to say, I don’t get it. I don’t get anything that’s happening.

But he doesn’t say a word, lost in his friend’s penetrating gaze.

“Peter had a future even when the world crumbled around him.” Nat rolls her head so it’s resting partly on Steve’s stomach. “He had something to look forward to. He was scared of us at first but he knew we wouldn’t abandon him.”

Steve stops fighting it and gazes straight back to let Nat inside his head, lets her examine every inch of his face and read whatever she wants.

“We still won’t abandon him,” says Steve. “He knows that.”

Natasha nods. “He does.”

Steve feels shackled, he’s so helpless. “Peter’s wounds healed. Even some of the emotional ones.”

Natasha swallows, the ripple effect along her neck sending warmth through Steve’s jeans. “Steve…Peter’s never had anything to look forward to but disappointment.”

“Until now,” Steve insists, like he’s a lawyer and if he can convince this single juror, his case is won. “He has us now, just like you said.”

“Have you ever considered maybe that’s the problem?”

Steve sits back, floored.

He still has no idea what’s going on. How could something so good be upsetting Peter so much?

But he understands at least one thing in the moment from one of Natasha’s heartbeats, against his leg, to the next—

“We can’t do a thing about this until Peter tells us of his own volition, can we?”

Steve’s question hangs in the air, an executioner’s ax. Natasha reaches up. Steve meets her halfway, squeezing her smaller hand with a fierce, desperate grip.

She rubs her thumb over his knuckles. “No…”

Nat closes her eyes. The ax falls.

“…We can’t.”

 


 

 

The first thing to register is the strong smell of a man’s cologne and shampoo. It’s warm and carries memories of trips to the woods, long days playing in Central Park, strong arms.

The next sensation comes in the form of miniature planets swirling in five cosmos along his scalp. Somehow, even though rough, the planets don’t catch in coils of hair.

Soft breaths are close enough to feel the heat, a welcome relief to the sudden cold from the knees up. Shivering starts as goose flesh along his arms. His own breaths are audible into a flat, cotton surface. They pick up in speed.

The planets halt on their track.

“Hey,” says a gentle voice. “There you are.”

Peter registers all of this like he’s outside his own body, a visitor to this foreign land of sensations he doesn’t understand. Where is he? How did he get here?

The last thing Peter remembers is waving goodnight to Sam.

“You got him?” comes a low murmur.

“Yeah. Thanks, Tony.”

“I can move him back to his own bed. You need rest too.”

“No, no. Leave him be. He’s never done this before and I don’t want to discourage him.”

“That was a fast shower, even for you.”

There’s a heavy pause in which Peter struggles to get his barbell eye lids to cooperate. “I don’t want blood and gunpowder to be the first thing Peter smells nor do I want him to associate them with me.”

By the time Peter wrestles his eyes open, vision blurry, Tony has left the room. The first voice finally matches Steve, crouched over his heels next to…

His own bed.

Peter catches up with his body to realize he’s lying on his right side in Steve’s bed. It explains why the pillows carry his scent and an analogue baseball clock sits on the nightstand instead of digital.

2:16 am.

The memory surfaces like a long lost dream…not being able to sleep…wandering down the hall…

Steve resumes his loving caress on Peter’s head. The planets are actually the man’s callouses but somehow they are more soothing than velvet.

Peter lies there, curled up nearly fetal, hands safely in the hollow of his neck, and blinks at Steve.

Steve doesn’t hurry or push him to explain, just rumbles an affectionate sound and watches Peter.

The drowsy pull of sleep is hard to fight. Shivers help keep him awake, making his teeth chatter. Steve sees it and clucks his tongue.

“Sorry about that, Peter. I pulled back the covers to make sure you were okay.”

Steve’s hand shifts from Peter’s head to the blankets. Peter expects him to drape them back over but Steve climbs up instead.

“Mind if I join you?”

Peter shakes his head.

Steve slides Peter over like he weighs less than a spoon. The casual touch is a douse of instant peace, especially since Steve has kept his distance after the panic attack.

Peter is so sleepy that he’s dead weight in Steve’s right arm when it loops around his back and pulls him against a fleecy sweater. Peter buries his nose in it and closes his eyes.

Finally the covers are pulled up. Heat surrounds them and the shaking stills.

Damp tendrils of hair brush Peter’s ear when Steve leans down to whisper. “The mission went well. A few scrapes and close calls but we’re safe.”

If Peter wasn’t half asleep, he knows he’d be in tears. Exhaustion cuts off any severe emotion so he just sighs. A content noise. Steve’s even breaths against Peter’s face wind down.

Both are almost asleep when the door opens. Steve doesn’t seem to care until sock footsteps come around the bed. There’s the rattle of a canister on wheels.

He goes rigid, startling Peter awake. A warm, burly hand settles at his back, both rubbing and bracing for balance.

“Bruce,” Steve snaps. “What are you doing out of the infirmary?”

“Went to Peter’s room to check on him.” Bruce’s voice is muted by an oxygen mask. “He wasn’t there…”

Peter tilts his head back. Steve’s eyes are worried, fixated over the teen’s shoulder. Ragged breaths puff across Peter’s skin. Bruce sounds like a lung cancer patient.

“You inhaled an alien chemical, Bruce, as yourself. I don’t want those blood oxygen levels to drop any lower than they already are, in the orange zone.”

The hand lifts from Peter’s back.

“Jus’ need to sleep it off,” Bruce slurs.

And with that, Bruce crawls under the sheets too. His broad back meets Peter’s, book ending him in. The physicist is dead to the world in seconds, curls tickling Peter’s neck.

Somehow, probably thanks to Peter being so small, all three fit comfortably. Steve sighs, smile fond, and reaches over Peter to squeeze Bruce’s shoulder. The man doesn’t wake but he breathes easier.

“It’s probably for the best,” Steve admits in a whisper. “Neither of us have great memories about sleeping alone after life or death situations.”

Me neither.

Peter nods, nuzzling into the pillow. Steve curls into a protective shell around him, Bruce completing the circle. Steve’s thunderous heartbeat races across Peter’s cheek. The perfect lullaby.

His chest pangs without warning.

“Shouldn’t,” he garbles.

“Shouldn’t what, Pete? Shouldn’t let yourself be here? Because I really don’t mind. You can come to me whenever you need.”

Peter hesitates. He must hold his breath because the chest against Peter’s nose inhales deeply. Peter copies the action and a kiss presses to his forehead.

Steve’s familiar scent and hiss of fresh oxygen from Bruce’s tank reminds Peter of the forest again, of trees and wind teasing oak leaves.

“Sam and I have an idea to run by you tomorrow. It involves Clint.”

Peter finally succumbs to slumber’s yank with Steve’s words hopscotching around the walls of his brain.

An idea? Oh no.

 


 

 

Cornflakes are halfway to Peter’s slack mouth when they fall off the spoon. Cereal is forgotten as he stares at Clint, Tony, and Steve, all sitting across from him at the island.

Well…Steve and Clint are sitting. Tony continues to pace with a grimace.

“I still say it’s a bad idea,” the mechanic barks.

Clint is, remarkably, patient. He steals bites of Peter’s breakfast. “I asked Peter his opinion, not yours.”

“We already know yours, Tony.” Steve rolls his eyes. “You’ve been very vocal about it.”

Thor left with Jane for his extra-terrestrial home and Natasha is still deep cover from yesterday’s mission, posing as a nuclear expert at…Peter’s not allowed to know, actually.

Sam has entered at some point in Peter’s swirling surprise and leans against the door frame. None of the other three sense him at their backs.

Tony has the good sense to keep quiet and join the measured gazing at Peter.

“So?” Clint bumps Peter’s elbow. “What do you say? You wanna come to casa de Barton for the weekend?”

“It’s a Friday,” Steve adds. “You don’t have summer school today so you can just pack after breakfast and hop the plane with Clint. Easy peasy.”

Peter blinks a few times.

A whole weekend?

He retrieves his notepad from the lower counter and scrawls out—‘When will I be back?

Handing it to Clint, Peter shovels more cereal in his mouth for an excuse to move.

For some reason, the written question makes Clint suck in a sharp breath. “Oh, champ. We’ll fly back Monday evening.”

Sam is the only one who gazes at Peter with something other than expectation. His eyes are narrowed a little, warm and…and…

Commiserating.

It hits Peter with a jolt.

Sam’s been where I am. He gets it because I was him. ‘PTSD’ has been an exchanged whisper between his guardians for months. That’s all their therapy session was, just Sam telling Peter stories about how he struggled to live with what happened to him.

Writing another note, Peter balls it up and throws it to the soldier.

Tony whirls around. “Wilson! How long have you been lurking?”

“Long enough.” Sam catches the paper and reads it aloud: “‘Do you think I should?’”

He glances up. “It was my idea, Peter. I think you need to get away from this compound, from a combat environment, for a while. Even just for the weekend. Go remember how to be a kid.”

Peter meets his eyes and nods. Sam smiles.

Peter looks at Clint. “ ‘K-kay. I’ll go.”

Steve and the archer deflate, relaxing instantly at Peter’s agreement.

“Congratulations on being done your courses by the way,” Tony adds, sliding on a pair of sunglasses. “Just one left! History, right?”

Peter nods, mouth dry.

He can’t know. There’s no way any of them know.

Still, Hangford’s two words haunt Peter the whole day.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Peter Pan!” Laura sweeps Peter into her arms before her own husband. “Stoked to have you! Honestly, what kind of mother am I who never gets to see her fourth child?”

A tomato blush lights up Peter’s face and his chest flutters.

It’s Peter’s second time at the Barton farm. Both of the older kids are at camp, making it even quieter. Nathaniel sleeps all day and during supper he watches Peter from his high chair with dewy chocolate eyes and a knowing smile, like he can read Peter better than his own parents.

Parents.

Another word that haunts Peter.

The weekend quickly settles into its usual routine. Clint lets Peter sleep as long as he wants. After breakfast, Peter helps stack firewood or mow the lawn or varnish windows. Then he’s free to explore the woods or read for the afternoon.

Even the compound is a wide and lonely place sometimes so this environment feels very familiar. He’s just traded one spacious, wooded area for another.

So then why, Peter wonders, is he so restless? Hot prickles stabbing under his skin?

The second night when he wakes, all in a rush, the moon is milky sapphire over the world. It paints everything in a hazy blue. Peter wanders out of Cooper’s bed and down the stairs. It’s so silent that it could be outer space.

He opens the front door and stands on the porch for a long time. Wind ripples through his flannel pants and thin shirt. There’s a trance-like quality to the fact Peter is convinced he could tip over the edge and fall through space and Time forever. An endless free fall.

Free fall…

His bare toes feel larger footsteps through the wood before his ears hear anything.

Clint swears. “It’s nearly one in the morning, Pete, what are you…?”

Peter doesn’t realize there are soundless tears running down his cheeks until Clint catches one with his thumb. He comes around to face Peter, eyes troubled.

“Pete…Oh, kid…”

Peter looks away.

“Hang on, champ. It’s freezing out here.”

Clint jogs back inside the living room and comes out with a scratchy woolen throw from the back of the couch.

After arranging it around Peter’s shoulders and even tucking under his chin, Clint clasps the front and stoops. His face lowers but his eyes do not, brows following the motion and wrinkling his forehead.

“Kid, I agree with Sam. Something isn’t right. But I can’t help you until you let us in.”

Peter’s eyes well up again. He keeps them to the side, away from Clint.

Stupid Hangford. He’s making me lie to my own family.

The thought hits him before he can be shocked and a sob stutters out of him.

“Peter.”

Free fall. An endless free fall.

“Pete.”

What if it never ends? It will when he fails Hangford’s class. The other shoe has to drop eventually.

“Peter, talk to me. Now.”

Peter grinds his teeth. His cheeks have long since gone numb from the wind, tears creating hot thaw tracks. “C-can’ sl-sleep.”

“Okay.” Clint takes a deep breath. “That’s a symptom, not the problem. You slept just fine back home.”

That’s the point, Clint.

Peter doesn’t say this out loud. He’s determined to try being “just a kid” for Sam. It is an alien thing but dang if he’s not trying.

“You ready to come back inside?”

Before Clint can even finish the question, Peter shakes his head. Emphatically.

“You’re making yourself sick, Pete.”

Maybe it’s easier if I do.

 


 

 

The next day, Sunday, everything seems to smooth out.

Clint and Laura say absolutely nothing about the fact Peter slept on the porch swing all night. Peter supposes, in their crazy life, that it’s nothing to bother about. Clint only hands him a bagel at breakfast and Peter hates himself just a little more for not telling.

Laura comes back from her church function and kicks Clint out of the house to make lunch—“spaghetti with salsa!”—with Peter. They stand side by side at the counter and grate cheese.

Nathaniel is strapped into a carrier across Clint’s chest. He shrugs. “Bottle feeding time it is. Come on, Nathaniel. Lets go play with the tractor.”

“Don’t you dare!” Laura calls, snorting, over her shoulder. She turns to Peter with a conspirator’s huff. “Honestly, that man might be able to save a city full of people but he’d lose his own nose if it wasn’t attached.”

Peter joins in with her giggling.

“You’re pretty good at this.” Laura steals a quick glance at Peter’s pepper chopping and the way his onion slices form perfect rings. “Pro work.”

“May,” Peter says by way of explanation, ducking his face.

Laura just nods. “You used to cook together?”

“Felt li...like th-this.”

The spark that alights in Laura’s eyes is radiant. She grasps his hand.

“Then I’m glad I could give you this, Peter.”

Peter puts his free hand to his lips and pushes it away. Laura’s arm folds in and then she does a salute, ending in her arms by her waist like she’s holding a baby. She’s much more fluent at the language than Peter or even Bruce.

The ASL moniker makes Peter's tummy do a flip. It’s such a gift to hear pots bubbling, cooking with a woman again who looks on him as her own son—

“Hey, hon?” Clint pokes his head around the door. He’s flushed but calm. “One of the sensors shut down. I’m taking the four wheeler to check it out. I’ve got my radio.”

Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, Clint whips a satellite transistor out of a diaper bag on the counter. The perfect hiding spot.

He sets Nathaniel down in his jolly jumper and gives the baby a peck. “Be back in half an hour.”

“Sounds good.” Laura turns to kiss her husband. “I’ll do check points like we practiced.”

Peter sets down the knife, chest writhing.

Sensors? What—

“I set up posts along the property’s perimeter to warn us of intruders,” Clint explains, as if he can read minds too. Peter wouldn’t be shocked if he could at this point. “Some deer probably just knocked it over. No biggie.”

No biggie. Peter repeats it to himself and wonders how his parents can be so relaxed about it. You heard him. It’s no big deal.

After Clint leaves, holstering a Glock, Laura just continues making soup and feeding crackers to Nathaniel. Like this is normal.

Peter has lived in so many homes he’s trampled that word into the ground. Maybe this is what normal is supposed to look like. He doesn’t have any frame of reference for living with international assassins.

At the ten minute mark, Laura reaches into the sippy cup drawer and pulls out a black radio from among the bright bottles. She clicks the receiver. “This is Sparrow Two. Do you copy? Over.”

Peter holds his breath.

Sparrow One here,” comes Clint’s tinny voice. The sound of an engine starts up again. “Looks all clear so far. I’m heading for the gully. Over.

Laura doesn’t look at Peter, but she gives him a side hug before stirring the broth. Peter nods in thanks.

“Do you mind spooning some apple sauce to Nate?”

Peter gives a thumbs up and kneels down in front of the baby. Ever since arriving, Nathaniel loves to watch Peter. Like he can sense a fellow non verbal human and is trying to communicate with his eyes.

That’s exactly what he’s doing, Peter scolds himself while holding up a fat, plastic spoon brimming with red sauce.

Nate hums in his throat before opening his mouth. He does so without breaking eye contact with Peter. After swallowing the sauce, he smiles, toothless.

It drives Clint and Laura nuts that the baby won’t talk. Won’t make very many sounds at all.

Peter gets it.

Over his shoulder, he hears Laura click the radio again. And again, Clint replies. He sounds almost like he’s enjoying himself. Which, with the breezy summer weather and a cruise through the woods—he probably is.

It gives Peter permission to relax. This is the first time he’s been out of contact with one of his guardians for a reason that isn’t school. They’re…they’re not within arm’s reach, like they always are.

Peter can usually walk six feet and run into someone. Eight months have set that pattern.

It’s okay.

Peter knows he’s lying to himself when the spoon shakes in his hand. Nate’s brows furrow. He fists itty bitty fingers in Peter’s sleeve.

“Clint…Clint? If you’re there, please respond. Over.”

Peter turns. Laura smacks the radio in her palm. “He’s probably just out of range. This happens with old tech sometimes. It’s nothing to…Peter?”

Peter stops hearing anything.

It is a perfectly clear moment.

One moment he hears the conversation and the next, all goes silent. 

Sweat breaks out along Peter’s hairline and the folds in his palms. He wants to strip out of his sweater, drowning in it. It’s a desert on his body. There’s not enough oxygen in the world for his puny lungs, let alone this house.

When did the earthquake start? Why is it still so quiet?

“Sweetie? It’s okay.”

Peter doesn’t realize that he has darted away until he blinks.

He’s back in their kitchen…under the table.

And Peter can see that he’s sitting under the shadow of the kitchen table, can see Laura perched over her heels, crouched and looking sad. He can even see Nathaniel across the room, legs kicking in place of distressed sounds.

But he feels nothing.

Peter rocks front to back, arms tight around his knees.

“You’re not there. Clint and the others rescued you, remember?”

Peter’s grateful that it’s only Laura to see him like this. Her voice is a low ocean wave and Peter’s pulse slows.

“Peter, listen to me. What you had was called a flashback, okay? Derrick went to prison and he can’t touch you ever again. Nod if you understand me.”

After an eternity, Peter nods. His breath hiccups.

Laura shuffles forward. Her hand approaches at a snail’s pace but Peter flinches anyway. Laura’s hand pauses, then makes it to Peter’s temple.

Soft fingers smooth through Peter’s curls. She pets all the way to the base of his neck, giving it a squeeze, before starting at the front again.

The motion makes Peter crumple.

Tears squeeze out of him in painful bursts. It’s like the day of the building project all over again. Except instead of hysteria is a defeated kind of squirm in his heart.

Someone who knows they are beaten and weeps for mercy anyway.

“Clint is fine, love. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Clint will radio in when he’s good and ready.”

Peter’s answering head shake is violent. Can’t she see that it’s over?

Nothing will be fine! Not ever again.

Laura must be able to read minds too because her lips go tight. “We’re in this to the end, you understand? Let us do the worrying for a change.”

She tries the radio again, just a quiet, “Clint? Honey?”

Nothing. No reply or sound whatsoever.

“Peter!”

Peter is out the door before she can say his name. He darts down the porch steps and across the lawn. It’s over two miles to the edge of the property but Peter sprints the whole way there.

His vision swims with tears. Once he hits the forest, he trips over roots and brambles. Darts back up. Trips. Springs to his feet. The repeated action shreds his palms but he doesn’t slow.

He just runs and runs and runsandrunsandrunsandrunsrunsRUNS

And isn’t that the truth of it all, that he’s never stopped running?

Peter is so wracked by sobs and desolation that he dead runs straight into a black mountain. Hands catch him around the biceps before he can rebound.

“Peter?”

Something inside Peter goes supernova.

He suddenly reaches his limit.

Peter dissolves like a wet ball of yarn and pounds on the Kevlar clad chest. His fists are weak without superhuman strength behind them but that doesn’t stop him from trying. His knees buckle.

The mountain follows him to the ground.

Peter puts his face in his hands and screams. There’s no escape from this kind of pain.

Peter. Peter, hey.”

Peter fights the hands, attempting to thumb away tear tracks.

“Hey,” says Clint, softer. His grip resettles on Peter’s arms. “I’m fine, bud. No intruder. I was right—a beaver just uprooted the darn thing thinking it was a tree. I’ve been trying to get it back online and it interfered with my radio frequency.”

Peter screams again, hoarse and lacking power.

“Pete?”

Peter punches the chest again, so desperate that his thoughts are just one long, never ending alarm. It doesn’t feel good but Peter punches again, because words have ceased being communication. Punches a third time.

Clint doesn’t snap at him or hush him up or try to restrain. He takes the hits without a word.

When Peter glances up from behind his hand, what he sees is the greatest shock since May’s death:

Clint’s jaw is bowstring tight…but two huge tears well up in his eyes. When they fall, more take their place, a silent river all over Clint’s face.

Still more fall and Clint gasps a wet sound of his own. His expression is pure agony, like he feels Peter’s pain inside his own body.

Peter stops sobbing he’s so blinded by the sight.

He’s never seen the man cry before.

Clint reaches down and sets his rough hand on Peter’s cheek. He squeezes Peter’s bruised knuckles with the other. Blood runs between their fingers. It must hurt the shredded skin on Peter’s palm but he doesn’t feel it.

Clint swallows. The raspy breath barely forms words but they still spear Peter. “You’re…You’re my boy, Peter. Just like Cooper or Nathaniel. And I love you.”

Peter sheds yet another tear and he hates it. He’s sick of crying.

Seeing it, Clint gives his cheek a little shake. “No matter what you do or how bad things get, I’ll always love you.”

“L-love you too.”

Stop it, Peter berates himself. Stop saying it.

There’s a quick hustle and then Clint has both arms around him. He squeezes with breathtaking force but Peter doesn’t seem to feel that either.

“C…Compound.”

“Yeah.” Clint nods. “I think we’re both ready to go home.”

Compound.”

“That’s what I said, champ. The compound is home for you…right?”

Peter shakes his head. Clint’s breath catches and Peter can’t see his face but the hurt there is a klaxon.

He realizes he’s still endlessly free falling…still falling…

 

Chapter Text

 

It might seem like an idiosyncrasy for such a rich man, but Tony enjoys taking the stairs every so often. It’s four long flights from the lab to the kitchen and he takes his time. The monotonous, drone like feeling of his legs pumping helps clear his head.

Something he desperately needs.

He’s already showered and changed out of oily coveralls, making the starchy T-shirt under his blazer rub with each step. Tony keeps his eyes on the ground for the whole trip.

His thoughts are a mess of security designs, exponentiated by mute teenagers and absent teammates.

“What do you mean…a beaver?”

The voice of one of said absent teammates greets Tony when he pushes open the stairwell door. Sure enough, Natasha stands with her arms folded by the island, still in beige, desert camouflage fatigues and combat boots.

The sleeves of the over shirt are knotted around her waist, leaving her in a black tank top. It’s form fitting compared to the ballooning of her pants. A pair of fake glasses hangs out of her pocket, along with the undercover ID card.

Mission successful,’ the loose posture broadcasts.

Her expression, however, is incredulous, staring at…

“Clint?” Tony, usually so quick to rush into a situation, walks slowly towards this kitchen cluster. A boulder sinks in his stomach. “I thought you and Peter weren’t coming back until tomorrow night.”

Clint is sitting on a stool, hunched over a large glass of bourbon. “I thought that too.”

“It’s the beaver’s fault, apparently,” offers Bruce, perched next to him.

The attempt at humour makes Steve smile, also with his arms folded, but it fades in seconds.

Tony frowns. “Where’s Peter?”

“Down the hall. Sleeping.” Clint hands the rest of his drink to Natasha, who’s still faintly covered in sand. She downs it in one go. “Took me hours to calm him. I still don’t think he is, not inside.”

There’s a dead tone to Clint’s voice that licks the hairs away from the back of Tony’s neck. His knuckles go white.

“What happened?” he hisses out.

Clint swivels so that he’s staring at Tony instead of the counter top. “To be honest, I’m still not sure. Something in him fractured today, something I couldn’t get back.”

Steve sighs. “Straw that broke the camel’s back?”

“Something like that,” Clint says, subdued.

“We’re losing him.” Tony says it before he can think but he doesn’t regret it. All eyes shoot to him. He inhales a ragged breath. “That kid is less than thirty feet away and we’re literally losing him. I told you—I knew taking him away was a bad idea.”

Steve looks like he’d rather be back in that Jihadist-ridden desert than here. “It came from the right place, Tony. I still agree with Sam that it should have worked.”

“No it shouldn’t have!” Tony doesn’t know why this issue is the thing that burrows under his skin, his own straw. All he can feel is a pulsing rage, fury over the situation and how something so drastic happened right under their noses. “We should never have taken him away from where he felt safe!”

Natasha mirrors the frown. “Peter has been to the farm twice now. He liked it last time. Why should this weekend have been any different?”

Tony rounds on her. “Oh no. You were off playing bad cop. You don’t get to weigh in.”

Maybe it’s because Natasha is tired or because she’s still tense from being in a hostile environment. Maybe she’s been suppressing the frustration too. Maybe she’s fed up with playing peacemaker.

Whatever it is, her eyes go sharp before Tony finishes speaking.

Her body doesn’t move one inch but she might as well be a whirlwind for how it makes the other males straighten. At that moment, she’s the tallest and strongest in the room.

She sets down the cup and the sound of glass hitting granite is a death knell.

“He’s mine too,” is all she says. She unfolds her arms, keeping them visible. “And I know this is his home but getting away from a stressful environment is healthy—”

“But we’re not a stressful environment!” Tony points at her. “We’re family! He knows that! He’s told me he knows that!”

“And he told Clint this wasn’t home. He’s distancing himself on purpose, Tony. Can’t you see that?”

“I can!” The volume of his tone is yelling by now but he can’t stop. “I can and it doesn’t make any sense! The better we do the worse he gets!”

Her voice hardens. “We’re not consistent. We go on missions weekly, Tony.”

“Is that the pot calling the kettle black?” Tony points out. “You weren’t here for this decision.”

“You made it without me.”

Tony throws his hands up. “We had to!”

“I get that, Tony, but I agree with Steve’s ruling. You’re not thinking with your head.”

Heat creeps up Tony’s face. “Maybe that’s what he needs. This weekend was a Band-Aid, treating the symptoms and not the problem.”

“You were right.” Nat’s voices rises just a hair in volume. “Is that what you want me to say? Removing Peter from here did more harm than good—you were right.”

“Is that how petty you think I am?” Tony glares at her. “I want to figure out how to deal with this. I want to halt this spiral before it’s too late.”

“And what if it already is too late?” Natasha challenges, one eyebrow rising. “Even a trained counselor couldn’t figure Peter out. I don’t like our odds here.”

“Don’t you dare give up on Peter now!”

Steve steps closer, hand on Tony’s arm. “Just cool it. Okay? What’s done is done.”

“No!” Tony shrugs him off. “I will not have you—” He gets up Nat’s space, jabbing a finger at her. They’re nose to nose, close enough in height that he’s practically spitting on her. “—Criticizing my choices when you weren’t even here!”

It happens at such light speed that even Tony, less than six inches away, doesn’t see it.

One second Natasha is standing there and the next she just…

Disappears.

Gone. Poof.

The vanishing act takes less time than a blink.

Tony, in his ringing shock, wants to wave a hand in the space where she stood to break the illusion. But she’s gone. The others whip wildly around. Bruce and Clint start a hushed, panicked conversation about protocols.

“Nat?” Steve simply calls.

“I’m okay. We’re just…er…hanging out.”

Tony follows Natasha’s voice.

Up to the ceiling.

In a comical, unison motion, everyone’s heads crane back:

In the top right corner of the kitchen ceiling, one bare foot against each wall, is Peter. His left hand fans out and the right arm is wrapped around Natasha’s middle, keeping her in place on his braced, pajama clad knees.

His skin is a true grey shade, especially contrasted against the white bandages circling his palms, longer curls sticking to his sweat soaked forehead. Back to the corner, he’s a guy wire of tension. Distress makes him pant.

However, the ease with which he holds Nat, taller than he is, one handed, brings the ghost of a proud grin to Tony’s features.

Natasha reads Peter’s face, not sparing the men ten feet below her a second glance.

Her voice, in contrast to the cobra’s hiss of moments earlier, is caramel tender. “Tony would never hurt me, Peter. No matter how angry we get, he wouldn’t strike me. We both know that.”

Steve’s face shutters. Bruce takes off his glasses to rub at his eyes.

It’s something that came out at the trial, that Peter could withstand countless abuses against himself. But the moment Derrick Henderson raised a hand to his wife, Peter lashed out. Peter at last fought back and attacked without reserve, eventually losing.

Just how they found him.

“She’s right.” In any other situation, Tony would be ashamed at the weak quaver to his voice.

Now, it seems to convince Peter, who only has eyes for the well being of the woman in his arms.

“I’d sooner take a knife to the face than hit a woman, Peter, or any of these idiots," Tony insists. "Well, self defense is the exception but you get my point. I’m sorry I yelled, that we woke you up.”

“Congratulations,” Nat adds, even quieter. She caresses the hand around her belly.

It is only then that Peter blinks, waking to the fact his skin sticks again. That he leapt onto the ceiling in a single, lighting bound.

He goes white. “N-no…no!”

“This is good, son.” Steve goes to reach upwards for them and then thinks better of it. “You’re getting back to normal!”

At the word, Peter breathes fast. Even from far below, Tony sees the instant the boy starts shaking. He’s wild. There are no tears this time. But it’s like the thought of normal tears him in half.

There’s a wordless freaking out that Tony can sense in his teammates, the insane need to stop this cycle before it happens yet again. They can’t even reach him this time.

It is Bruce, of all people, who steps forward and holds out a hand. “Enough. It’s time, Peter. Tell us what’s going on.”

Peter looks into the physicist’s eyes for a minute. Their gazes are locked and completely unaware of anything happening around them.

It’s such a bold, tender look on Bruce and it perfectly balances the wild animal glint in Peter’s eyes that makes him seem like a toddler and an old man all at once.

Natasha stills. So does Tony.

Peter inhales between his teeth. Bruce nods in reply to some unspoken question, never lowering his hand.

Then Peter switches his left palm to the ceiling next to his head. Hitching Nat up in his arm, he disconnects his feet and lets them dangle a breath before letting go. He plops gently to the floor.

Natasha finds her feet and kisses the boy’s cheek. “Thank you for ‘protecting’ me, malysh.”

Bruce’s hand is still extended and instead of grasping it, like Tony expects, Peter reaches into his sweatpants’ pocket and tugs out a crumpled piece of orange paper. He places it in Bruce’s palm.

“Thank you, Peter.”

Bruce promptly shoves the paper at Steve to catch Peter when he collapses.

 


 

 

Steve reads the full school sheet once. His eyes start at the top and run over it again. Reads it a third time.

No one says a word.

Peter wants to be miserable or embarrassed but he’s too busy waiting for his legs to work again. Clint has lifted him up onto the island counter and now Peter sits there, trying to remember how to breathe.

They’re in a rough semi-circle, spellbound for some reason by the sight of Steve reading.

“Steve?” Tony asks, sotto voce.

“Just a second…”

Then Steve looks at Peter, brows high in question. “Oral assignment?”

Two words.

Two simple words.

Peter melts into tears and suddenly understands that this has absolutely nothing to do with oral assignments at all. Hangford was never the problem.

The reality, the truth of it, explodes over Peter’s consciousness like fireworks.

“Hey, hey, hey.” Steve is bewildered by the reaction. “Had I known this was eating you, we could have dealt with this ages ago! Let’s work on the project together.”

Peter slaps the counter top by his hip. “No…no. It…it’s…”

This time it isn’t confusion or shame or a mute tongue that keeps Peter from saying the truth.

It’s fear.

Everyone mutters to each other, baffled. Then Peter catches sight of Bruce.

Like Clint, his eyes dribble over with tears. He puts a hand over his mouth. “That’s it.”

Tony stops babbling. “What’s it?”

Bruce, in a kind of trance, approaches Peter with his arms out. Peter shakes his head, shoving the arms away but Bruce won’t let him.

He captures Peter’s face in both of his hands. His skin is even rougher than Steve’s, sandpaper against Peter’s face. And like before, it is somehow the most dulcet thing in the world. Peter hates himself for leaning into the touch.

“May died on the way to a knitter’s circle.”

Peter nods, heart pounding from silent tears.

“She died.” Bruce’s voice grows louder, louder. “Every parental figure you’ve ever had dies.”

A sob wrenches the physicist’s body and everyone in the room jumps.

Bruce is not a demonstrative man by nature but he doesn’t censor anything now. “Recently this stopped feeling like a way station and started feeling permanent, feeling like home. I think it hit you the morning Thor made pancakes.”

Peter nods again. He’s red faced and helpless. “Y-yes.”

Bruce thumbs the tears away even as his own wet his collar. “And…and you’re afraid of how close you’re getting to us. If May could die, how much more us, who have such dangerous jobs?

“So you started treating us like another foster home but you can’t quite pull it off.” Bruce is shaking. “It’s why you’re worried it can’t last, fretting over our safety—you’re having panic attacks about something that hasn’t even happened yet.”

For that’s what Hangford’s assignment really represents. That Peter is yet again insufficient. He’s never a priority.

Peter’s breath skips beats but he forces the truth out: “I’m not…‘M not enough. Not enough to make people stay. Nobody ever…s-stays. My parents put their work before me…”

He doesn’t say, “Like you guys,” but everyone hears it.

Steve gasps.

“And they…they died,” Peter breathes.

“We’re the first guardians you’ve ever had who face death every day.” A quiver starts in Bruce’s lips. “You know we’d put a job above our own lives, above your life. We always put the mission first.”

This final peeling back of the truth, in Bruce’s own jumbled way of explaining it, is a nuclear detonation.

None of the others blink. Nobody moves. Peter stops breathing altogether. His ears ring with the tremor of it all.

Then Clint swears and walks away. So does Natasha—she disappears as fast as the last time. Tony already has a hand over his eyes. His breaths are wet and uneven. Steve’s eyes close slowly, so incremental that it’s physically painful to watch.

For the bomb shell in the room is not the revealing of Peter’s silent fear:

It’s that it’s not irrational.

He’s right.

 

Chapter Text

 

Thor is used to the compound being quiet when he returns from trips. But this level of smothering, leaden nothing gives even him goosebumps.

His footsteps are soundless across the carpet.

It doesn’t help that it’s only seven thirty in the evening on a Monday—everyone should be here, in the theater, for a movie or games or to help Peter with homework. That has always been their Monday rule since taking the boy in.

The room is empty.

Days, moments, like this pull at Thor’s bones. Now he feels every single day of his thousand year lifespan weigh heavily against his nerves.

He sinks onto the Lazy boy chair, a faded twill thing from years of him sitting in it. Tony had it custom made for his height so it’s considerably further from the ground than the other furniture.

Still in jeans and a black wool coat from his visit with Jane, Thor closes his eyes and leans back. He keeps both hands on the arm rests, kneading out residual tension in his body by clenching the fabric.

After a minute, it works. He stills with a long sigh.

Why do our efforts in this world feel like so little, Father? How did you do it?

His eyes feel gritty, even closed. Loose strands of hair slip out of the half back pony tail. His beard is even thicker from several days away.

He’s almost given in to the depressive spiral when a light touch lands on his knee. Minikin finger nails bunch in the denim fabric for balance.

Thor smiles.

The hand is joined by another, then a knee propped on Thor’s own to climb onto the arm of the chair beside him. There’s a scratchy sound accompanying the action and Thor opens his eyes in concern.

Bandages wind around Peter’s hands.

With one meaty armed scoop, Thor lifts Peter under the legs and up to his side. He keeps his left arm around the boy’s back to anchor him in place.

Peter’s munching on a Nutella-and-peanut-butter sandwich, down to the last few bites. He rests his head on Thor’s shoulder. The action would be sweet if it weren’t for the heavy sound of Peter’s sigh, through his nose as he’s still chewing.

“Hello, little one.” Thor grins. “You made your own supper, I see.”

Peter holds up the sandwich.

Thor chuckles. “Excellent job. Sugar and protein—just what growing boys need.”

His smile becomes tight when Peter latches onto the coat with his free hand. Bags ring under his eyes.

“Where are the others?” Thor keeps his voice casual. “It’s a ghost town in here.”

Peter swallows. “ ‘Voiding me.”

Thor’s arm tightens. “Never, love. We wouldn’t dream of abandoning you.”

“I…I know.”

Something haunted flares in Peter’s eyes. Thor feels an icy thorn worm down his spine upon realizing that this stuttered word has nothing to do with speech issues.

He smoothes Peter’s hair back from his forehead.

“Tony locked me out of the lab. Didn’t even teach me sh-shop today.”

While Thor wants to be thrilled that Peter’s talking in fuller sentences, this particular one is a choir of alarm bells. He watches Peter nibble the last of the crust in amazed silence.

Tony used to lock down the lab in the very early days to protect a weak and shaky Peter from hurting himself on dangerous tools, but it hasn’t been necessary in six months.

Peter reaches up to run a hand over Thor’s beard. It must prickle the tips of his fingers because he grins.

Thor captures the hand and blows a raspberry into the bandages.

That earns a shocked giggle from Peter before he rolls his eyes. “Not a kid, Thor.”

“You’ll have to forgive me.” He winks. “I’ve lived for over a millennium. Fifteen year olds are practically newborns where I come from.”

“Hmm…” Peter sighs again. He stares out the window for a few moments. His gaze is lost and tired. “S-sounds nice.”

Thor strokes the hand in his coat.

A pang of pity resonates through him, at how happy Peter is to see someone. Especially to see someone here and keeping up the tradition. It shows how alone he’s been the whole day.

Peter pulls out a folded sheet of orange paper from his pocket. Crinkles mar the edges from many weeks spent in a tight ball. He tugs on Thor’s coat immediately after.

“You want to borrow my clothes?” Thor jokes.

Peter, to Thor’s surprise, nods. He taps on the sheet.

Thor reads the paper through the mosaic of wrinkles, squinting. “A…‘living history’ project. What, as in you have to dress up like a historical figure?”

Peter smiles.

“Ah. Like being an actor. Actors are history teachers in my home. They re-enact scenes from important moments in our past. Who have you chosen to play?”

It must be excitement over the project, but for once Peter can’t stutter it out. He scribbles a name on the bottom of the sheet. His legs swing with a bounce.

All at once, Thor understands and barks out a laugh. “You need my robes, my Asgardian clothing, since you are playing someone from ancient Earth days.”

Peter nods again, joining in the giggles.

This time Thor doesn’t have to hide his unease over the absence of the others. It is banished by deep affection. He pulls Peter away from his side and onto his lap, wrapping as much of himself as he can around the boy.

“I love you, little Peter.”

Peter pets Thor’s hair just like the others do all the time to him. “You too.”

Thor doesn’t mention the shaking in Peter’s hands or the way he won’t let go of his coat for the rest of the night.

 


 

 

The coffee thermos has long since gone cold. Even for July, the morning is crisp to the point of nippy. There’s no wind and no sound, blending well with the cloudless sky and spatters of stars still shining despite the rising sun.

A family of robins has made a nest among the eaves. They chirp and hop around their baby birds, barely a week old, and drop wriggly worms into their mouths. It’s an oddly aching sight. It creates a physical ripple in the chest.

Tony watches them and sips on lukewarm coffee. He’s still in a dress shirt and silk vest from meeting with the lawyers the night before.

There’s a file folder in his lap.

It’s not very thick, not very big. Maybe ten sheets of paper total.

The folder is a calming sea blue, like that makes its contents easier to swallow.

Tony can’t swallow. That’s why the thermos is only half full after two hours of being up here.

He wants to cry, wants to throw Bruce’s potted plants against the brick until he’s bleeding.

Instead, there is only a dead vacuum inside his lungs, where air should be. He doesn’t sigh, doesn’t shed a poetic tear. He just sits against the rooftop and stares at the robins.

Another bug is dropped into baby bird number three’s mouth, a beetle this time.

Tony brings the thermos to his lips but before he can drink, the skylight door opens.

“I didn’t even know we had a rooftop,” says a voice. “Or, not a door to get onto it anyway. Go figure.”

Tony doesn’t look away from the birds. Boots shuffle around the gravel, swerving to avoid Bruce’s beloved cacti, and nudge Tony’s converse.

“Mind if I sit?”

Tony stays silent.

A warm body squeezes in between Tony and the terrarium. Sits himself down and brings his knees up to his chest. By contrast, Tony is sprawled out, legs flung out haphazardly like he fell instead of sat down.

(That’s exactly what he did.)

For a good twenty minutes, Clint and Tony watch the birds.

The father robin is especially vocal, running his beak over the babies and chirping whenever they squeak. He flutters his wings around their tiny bodies. So ineffectual against a predator yet the father’s willing to do it anyway. Commitment.

It’s ballsy in the face of survival, like the father bird refuses to acknowledge the way things have always been and intends for these hatchlings to defy the odds.

Tony takes another sip.

“Heard about the lawyer meeting.”

“Mmm,” Tony replies, noncommittal.

“Child Protective Services was there?”

Tony finally swallows all the coffee stuck in his throat. Somehow it still burns.

“You’re a father.” He hasn’t spoken for hours, voice a bad radio connection. Clint must not be as relaxed as he pretends because he starts. “You have kids even with this dangerous job.”

“Sure.” Clint frowns at the birds. “I’ve taken precautions to keep them off the grid, keep them safe. Worked so far.”

There’s a note there, something hesitant.

Tony’s brain, even running on zero sleep, gets it instantly.

“You regret it. You regret bringing kids into the world.”

Clint turns to face him. “Not for one second, Tony. What I mean is…it’s an indulgent thing, having kids and being such a target. You do it more for your sake than for theirs. You do it because if you don’t, you stop feeling human. Like you’re saving the world but not participating in it.”

Tony looks down. His Adam’s apple slides. “We should never have taken Peter in.”

Clint’s voice has never sounded so muted. “No, we shouldn’t have. It was an ‘us’ decision, impulsive. But what I’m saying is that just because it was indulgent doesn’t make it wrong.”

“What if he’d never met us?” Tony’s voice strengthens. “What if I’d never gone to Peter’s apartment that day?”

Clint stares at him like he’s grown an extra nose. “Are you serious? If we’d never met Peter, May still would have died and he’d still be living with Derrick! We saved him, Tony. He’d be dead by now.”

“He should have been put with another family. A normal one, one with two parents and a dog and a pool or something.”

“We have a pool.”

Tony gives him a look.

Clint smiles but it’s a miserable expression. “I know, Tony. I know. You’re right.”

“We’ve been selfish this whole time.”

The expression morphs into one of deep, deep pain. Clint has to swallow too. “Yes, we should’ve given Peter to CPS months ago. But let me ask you this, would another family have been able to deal with his abilities? Known what to do with—excuse the term—a mutant?”

“We’re not normal!”

Clint goes back to staring at the robins. “Maybe that’s the point. Neither is he.”

Tony is quiet for an even longer stretch of time. Both parent robins are gone and yet the babies keep on crying. Tony envies them for the ability to do so.

“We could still be a part of his life,” he murmurs. “Even if he’s living with another foster family, we could still teach him without him having to deal with our dysfunctional, day to day crap. Without wondering where he…where he stands with us.”

“You love Peter.”

“I do, and that’s why he’s better off away from me. From what he said in there, he feels like I did as a kid.”

“Even if it means he resents you for this? Breaks what little trust he has left in people?”

Tony’s gaze is haunted. “He’ll understand someday.”

“Don’t repeat your father’s mistakes.”

Tony’s eyes sharpen. “My father is the very reason I’m doing this. We’re going to mess up eventually—we already have messed up. So many times. He deserves a family who will get it right. We re-traumatize him every time we get the call, sending mixed messages.”

“How did we not see all the clues?” Clint muses aloud. “There were so many signs that we weren’t creating a stable home environment for him.”

Tony shrugs, but it’s a sharp, bitter motion like he’d rather be slapping someone. “We saw what we wanted to see.”

Clint doesn’t say anything. He takes the file folder and puts it on his own lap, opens it, reads it. He only gets to the second page before he stops.

“You’re really thinking of doing this?” he asks.

Tony swirls the coffee around and enjoys the way milk sloshes to the top. “It’s the responsible thing to do and you know it.”

“Yes…it really is.”

The mother and father robin don’t return. Some of the babies close their eyes and stop wailing, going to sleep. Others peck at each other, some grooming, some fighting.

Clint plucks a worm out of the potted plant soil and drops it into the nest.

When he turns back, his expression is mischievous. “But when have we ever done the responsible thing?”

 

Chapter Text

 

By the time Thursday rolls around, Peter is frayed. The compound has been a ghost town the whole week with hardly a smile or human contact. He barely sees anyone.

Only at night, when they think Peter is asleep, do trembling fingers run through his hair. Or shouting matches spark downstairs.

So many fights.

They’re careful not to do it around Peter, but he hears anyway. Hears the accusations, the regrets, the brainstorming solutions. The meetings with lawyers.

Everyone else is done summer school except for this dumb history class so the hallway is deserted. Peter avoids Hangford’s eyes on the way out.

When Peter turns the corner and for the first time ever it’s not Tony standing there—Peter knows this is it.

He’s been waiting for this moment.

And finally…finally it’s happening.

Just do it. Where’s your nerve?

White lipped, Peter makes his way over to Pepper. Head bowed over a phone, she doesn’t see him yet.

Noon sunlight halos her hair and throws an orange tinge over the white wall beside her. For once, she’s in cherry red running shoes instead of heels. It’s strange to see her wearing black jeans instead of a pencil skirt.

She looks up and does a double take.

Pepper must sense the dread coiled around Peter’s throat for she doesn’t ask him about school or homework. She only nods. “They’ve reached a decision, Peter.”

“O…Okay.”

She snakes an arm around Peter’s shoulders and her lips are wobbly too.

They walk out to the car in total silence. Peter feels like nothing so much as a prisoner on his way to the firing squad.

It’s the first time Peter has ever seen the woman drive a car. Usually Happy chauffeurs but today she hops into the driver’s seat of the SUV and cranks it into drive.

“Ready?”

Peter squeezes her hand in reply. Her fond smile is a secret shared between them.

Don’t get used to it. If the past eight months have been a novel, that would be the title. Nothing is permanent. They’re your whole world but you’re clearly just a small part of theirs.

The drive back to the compound is long yet this silence settles. It’s a heavy blanket, weighted.

When they arrive, they take the walk inside again in wordless quiet. Pepper leads him past the living room and down, down the stairs.

Then she stops before the door. Punches in a seven digit code. Her fingers strangle the shoulder of Peter’s shirt. 

“This is where I leave you, Peter. But understand that no matter what, everyone in there—and me—love you with every bone in our bodies.” She looks deep into Peter’s eyes. Hers are bright. “Do you understand?

Throwing his arms around her waist, Peter closes his eyes. “Of course.”

They part, handing each other Kleenex, and she gives him a little wave. For the first time in a week, he opens the door. 

Peter knows things must be serious if this is going down in Tony’s lab, where he feels most at ease.

All five are gathered in a circle, loud colours in comparison to the pristine white: Nat’s hair, Steve’s blue shirt, Thor’s gold scarf. Though they don’t exactly look at Peter when he enters, everyone straightens.

Tony is nowhere in sight but his coat is draped over the table.

Peter rolls over his favourite lab stool, duct taped to high heaven. He sits down, thankful because his legs have stopped working again from that familiar, numb fear.

Clint is already fighting tears when he bends to Peter’s eye level. “You’ve probably heard us arguing, champ. About…about what to do.”

Peter’s head slowly goes up and down.

When Clint can’t seem to continue, Nat takes over. “Peter, your anxiety is completely founded. I want you to know that. We are not mad at you. We are mad at something we can’t control, that you were wiser about this reality than we were.”

Then there is an unbearable pause.

Unbearable not because it’s awkward but because Peter feels them battling a tsunami of emotion.

Not hysteria or weeping sorrow…

This emotion is experienced. It’s the emotion of helplessness. Of knowing you can take on the world but not save it.

Peter swallows and it’s deafening.

Tony materializes at the back of the lab. He’s waving out a sheet of card stock paper, fresh from the printer. There’s a fluffy green bow stuck to the top. His stride doesn’t falter for an instant.

He marches straight into the center of the circle, to Peter, and sits down on his own stool. They’re knee-to-knee and Tony’s eyes are intense, open in a way Peter isn’t used to.

He actually leans back a bit.

Tony hands the docket to him. “This is a contract, Peter. Our promise to you. It’s a depressing early birthday gift, but, hey. Mazel tov.”

Peter takes the offered paper but can’t stop gaping at Tony. The man doesn’t break eye contact, hands clasped.

“Not…” Peter blinks fast. “Not giving me ‘way?”

“What?” It’s Tony’s turn to lean back. “No! We’re not giving you away. Well…we honestly thought about it. I had meetings with the lawyers, but absolutely not. We decided that you’re ours and that’s final.”

Peter deflates. Literally and metaphorically sags.

Tony catches him on the shoulder. “‘Kay, no. This is not a TLC episode where we surprise you with a Child Services memo. Heck no, small fry.”

The others sniffle while Peter gets his head to stop spinning. From relief and an overwhelmed sense of landing. He’s stopped falling.

He’s stopped falling.

Peter’s dizzy.

“I’ll be honest,” Tony starts, “We should never have adopted you in the first place. No, listen, Peter. We are the least stable set of guardians on this continent and I mean that in every sense of the word. There is no guarantee we’ll be alive from week to week. Only one of us in this room had a stable home life growing up so none of us have a reference for how to do this. No child should be raised like that…”

Tony’s brows go up and then very far down and Peter realizes he’s had something on his tongue for a long, long time. The swirl of emotions on his face makes Peter’s heart skip.

“But for once in our lives, we made a decision with our hearts instead of our heads. We wanted you. So badly.”

Peter reaches up to grip the hand on his shoulder.

Tony nods. “That’s why we drafted this contract, Peter. If you’ll sign it. I don’t care if it’s the end of the bloody world. You’ll never be left orphaned again. You come first from now on.”

Tear stains appear on the contract but Peter still won’t break from Tony’s gaze.

Steve bends low while Tony gathers his composure. “Don’t you get it, Pete? You are the mission now. You always have been, we’re just too stupid and too selfish to properly express that to you.”

“The other shoe is not going to drop.” Tony grits his teeth in righteous, protective fury. “Even if it does, we’ll be ready. You’re ours, Peter.”

A hand joins on the other shoulder.

Bruce’s eyes dance. “We’ve even decided to, well…”

Peter finally glances down at the sheet. It’s a blur of legal jargon but one word pops off the page.

“Retirement?” he blurts. “You all…retired? All six of you?!”

“Yup.” Tony pops the p. “We are only serving the world in a clean up or advisory capacity now.”

Natasha grins, more loving and tender than Peter’s ever received. “At least until you turn eighteen. We’ve been needing a furlough anyway.”

She nudges Bruce’s elbow when she says it and the man blushes. This blush, however, is from joy.

Peter mirrors it.

At the youthful, hope-saturated sight, all six light up. It’s Christmas in July.

“Thank you.” Peter takes his time looking each person in the eye. “This is…I…you’re the best thing that c-could’ve happened to me, whatever you say about stable homes. I’m just glad you want me as much I…”

Tony looks like he wants to hug Peter until he’s thirty.

Instead, he places his hand on top of Peter’s head. “You’re my son, you know that?”

“Yeah.” Peter smiles through the tears. And this time he understands. “Yeah.”

“Before we took you in, we were never so close,” says Bruce. “You’ve made us into…into…”

“A family. We’re something unbreakable now.” Thor uncrosses his arms to slide one around Peter. “So what do you say, little one?”

Clint knuckles Peter’s hair, apparently still too overcome to speak. There’s a bubbled, humming laugh that Nat can’t quite seem to quiet inside her throat.

Tony tips forward to rest his forehead on Peter’s. Steve squeezes the shoulder under his hand.

The feet of Peter’s heart take their first steps forward.

He clears his throat. “Somebody get me a pen.”

 


 

 

Somehow, Peter is the last one to go.

Probably Hangford’s doing, now that he thinks about it.

Ned finished school last week yet here he is. He and MJ weren’t even in summer school, just a camp some science professors ran in the building. When Ned first plopped himself down in a spare seat, Peter wondered if he’d lost his mind.

Nope. Turns out he’s here for “bro solidarity.”

Peter looks across at his friend, feeling ridiculous in emerald green robes trimmed in gold, and grins like a loon.

Ned sees it and shakes his head. He whispers so as not to be heard by Hangford. “I still can’t believe Thor lent you his actual, mother-made-them-eight-hundred-years-ago clothes. They look good, Peter.”

“Thanks!”

Peter is dressed in the whole getup, from leather sandals to linen shirt and gold leaves in his hair. The robes are slung one shouldered, held in place by a gold buckle on the left side that reminds Peter of a denarius. Tony “floofed” his hair with mousse to make its curls run free in the Grecian style.

A girl is costumed like John Lennon at the front, her bob styled to the signature haircut. A fake pair of circular glasses keeps sliding down her nose. Sweat drips from a woolen turtleneck and she’s holding sheet music. She chatters on about the Beatles.

“At least your outfit is breathable,” Ned snickers.

Lips fighting a smirk, Peter doesn’t think much of it when his phone vibrates in his pocket. He’s actually rather engaged in the girl’s history presentation. He’d never known about the fact that Lennon—

Ned shoves at his arm. “I think you should read the text. I got one too.”

Ned holds up his screen. There’s a text, ‘make Peter check his phone!’ from Clint.

“Why does Clint have your number?”

“Just check it!”

Hands a little unsteady, Peter fumbles his phone out and under the desk. The text was sent from Natasha. His stomach bottoms out.

They’re staying true to their word. Calm down.

And what do you know—he does. Peter inhales three full breaths through his nose and his heart rate actually calms. Huh.

He reads it again:

Urgent meeting with the UN. One of us will stay behind and pick you up, like we promised.’

Peter’s thumbs fly. He’s sweating now too.

When will you be home?

The reply is immediate. ‘Late. Midnight.’

Peter sits back. The first mission since their contract.

His phone vibrates again.

This one is from Tony: ‘Miss you already, small fry.’

It’s supposed to sound dry and cavalier, Peter knows, but he hears the honesty anyway.

He texts back: ‘Be safe.’

There’s a long pause after that. Lennon girl finishes her presentation but Peter doesn’t join in the clapping. He’s in a daze from their hypothetical contract becoming a reality.

The phone buzzes: ‘You’re precious, you know that?

“Parker? Come dazzle us.”

Peter’s head whips up from his affronted reply to Tony. He whitens. The phone is quickly stuffed back in his pocket. Only Ned’s hand on his shoulder prompts him to stand from his seat and strangle a page of notes in his hand.

He walks to the front of the classroom. It’s different, seeing everyone from up here. There are at least twice the people present than actually attend this class.

No one has said anything about it, but Peter’s pretty sure it’s partly out of a burning curiosity to see the mute kid finally do an oral assignment.

Does he really have to present in front of all these people? Peter’s heart is a runaway train, a rolling kettle drum. He wonders if the whole class can hear it. Has it always been so stuffy in this room?

“Peter?” Hangford is half out of his seat by the window. At last, there is real concern on his face. “You ready to present?”

Peter stares at him.

“Just…take your time, Parker. There’s no rush.”

He’s says it in a soothing murmur. Shoulders uncurling away from his ears, Peter purses his lips and lets out a long breath. Beside his empty seat, Ned gives him two thumbs up.

Peter opens his mouth.

No sound comes out.

I can’t do this. Why did I ever think I could do this? I barely talk at home…

Ned looks concerned too. His face falls and he glares at Hangford in a panic.

The entrance to the classroom is at the very back and because of this fact, no one sees a tall man walk up and lean against the door frame, arms crossed. A baseball cap doesn’t quite cover a shock of golden hair. Hangford catches sight of him but says nothing.

Peter gazes at Steve for a dozen heartbeats, all bled together.

Steve doesn’t smile exactly; his face is solemn to match the encouraging nod he’s giving Peter.

But the very tips of his eyes fan in soft lines. It’s so warm that Peter nods back.

“Ar…Aristotle…he…”

At his crackling voice, the whole class straightens. It’s so quiet that Peter can hear a seagull two blocks away out the windows.

It yanks his mind to Aunt May. On his tenth birthday, since Ben was away on business, the two of them walked along the shoreline. A “beach day,” she called it. It was the oily, fisherman’s part of town but they took turns collecting the best shells they could find.

Taking them home and painting them in vivid colours over chocolate cake and bad Steppenwolf karaoke is still one of Peter’s favourite memories.

She smelled like brine. Like vanilla. Like home.

Peter looks back at Steve and wonders what the man sees in him. He realizes that he’s just painting different shells.

He has more places to call home. Not less.

“Aristotle was called the ‘Father of Western Philosophy,’ a pioneer of…of science we still use today. But that’s n-n-not why I chose him.”

Meeting Steve’s eyes, Peter squares his shoulders.

“Aristotle was born in North Greece, but his father died when he…he was a child. John Lennon was adopted too, by the way.”

Turtle neck girl’s brows shoot up in surprise. “I…didn’t realize that! Wow!”

The class chuckles. It allows Peter a moment to compose himself.

Throat working, Peter suddenly feels the weight of what he’s been given. He doesn’t break eye contact with Steve.

“Aristotle was…was adopted by another guardian.” Peter flushes. “And he had a stutter too.”

Everyone smiles, most in sympathy or irony but Steve’s eyes are shiny, even under that ball cap. The class is spellbound, hanging off Peter’s measured words.

“His g-guardian,” Peter continues, “Proxenus, taught him v…various subjects like biology and physics. Most importantly, he made sure his child felt like his own.”

Steve is nodding now and can’t seem to stop.

Peter replies with a private, heavy grin. “And he did.”

 

Chapter Text

 

“I never knew half that stuff about Aristotle’s career! Yours was the best presentation, Peter. You’d better get an A. You did way more research than anybody else!”

Ned’s hands fly while he talks, next to Peter in the backseat, but it’s clearly giddiness at Peter talking more in the last half hour than he has in eight months than enthusiasm over Aristotle.

Steve had to step out for the rest of Peter’s talk, on the phone. It’s okay, though. He heard the most important parts.

He’s still sniffing at the steering wheel, pretending his red nose is from pollen.

He glances at Peter in the rear view mirror. “Glad to be done, Frodo?”

“Heck yes.”

Ned high fives him for the tenth time.

“I’m proud of you.” Steve’s eyes return to the road. Probably to hide another sniffle. “So impressed, Peter. You got up there and did it cold turkey. The grade doesn’t really matter after that payoff.”

Peter squirms at the praise and another thought strikes him. “Not Tony today? You’re the last person I would’ve ‘spected to stay behind and pick me up. Usually lead m…missions.”

Steve pulls into the compound garage. He rolls his eyes, though it’s not directed at Peter. “Yeah, well. I got forcibly booted out.”

With a pang of worry at this statement, Peter hops out and races to catch up with Steve’s long stride. “Booted out? Of what, the team?”

Steve holds the elevator door so Ned can hustle in and then smirks at the ceiling. “The team may need me for a lot of things. But definitely not for this type of thing.”

That one keeps Peter’s mind busy for a while. The whole ride up, certainly. What type of mission could be so bizarre that Steve would be more of a hindrance than a help?

Peter is stumped. It can’t be something dangerous, otherwise he would’ve helped strategize—

“Don’t be mad,” says Steve, bent at Peter’s shoulder. “But Ned was in on this mission too.”

Peter whips around to stare at Ned.

His friend winks. He can’t even stand still he’s so excited. “Best mission ever.”

Head spinning, Peter looks between them. “What in the—”

The doors open. Peter is mobbed by what feels like the entire world.

SURPRISE!”

Peter stands there, being showered in rainbow confetti, and can’t decide whether to stare at Thor’s plastic party sunglasses or the green feather boa around Tony’s neck. Even Nat has two noisemakers coiling and making off key noises between her teeth.

Tony throws his arms out. “Welcome to your Vegas party!”

Steve sounds tired. “For the last time, Tony, Peter is a minor. This is a luau party.”

“That’s why we kicked you out, gran.”

Nothing is quite so jarring to the eyes, Peter learns, as their Hawaiian shirts layered with Marti Gras beads and hats shaped like giant poker chips.

Ned looks just as shocked. “What did you all do, pick your own themes?”

“That’s exactly what we did.” Tony doesn’t even look remorseful about it. With a smug little grin, he throws an arm around Bruce—grass skirt over his pants. “We couldn’t decide so we thought, hey. Why not all three?”

The table of food reflects this too: A pineapple ham roast crowns the center of the table, joined by a deck of cards birthday cake and fruit snacks shaped like glittery masques.

Feathers are positively everywhere. Sam drinks lemonade out of a coconut. New Orleans street jazz plays from some hidden speakers.

“It’s his sweet sixteen.” Tony’s still arguing with Steve. “We can’t not have some gambling.”

“Where do you get these rules?”

“Uh. It’s called fun.”

“Peter?” Clint ruffles his hair. “You okay? Too much noise? I told them it was too loud.”

Peter flails his hands in a helpless gesture, laughing and incredulous all at once. “I thought there was an advising mission!”

Tony goes from snarky to sober in a millisecond flat. “There was. Turning sixteen is nothing to joke about.”

“It’s not for another th-three days.”

“Honestly,” says Bruce. “It’s a double celebration, because of your presentation. We couldn’t wait.”

Natasha scoffs at him. “What he means is that Sam is only here for another two days and none of us knew how to bake a cake. We would have floundered without his culinary prowess.”

Sam raises his drink. “Thank you. My cake is a beauty, if I do say so myself.”

Peter is wide eyed, overwhelmed.

He finally says the real reason out loud: “I’ve never had a surprise party before.”

He waits for the astonished silence. The pitying glances.

Instead, Steve nudges his shoulder. “Raise your hand if you’ve never had a surprise party.”

Everyone puts their hands up except for Ned and Clint.

“See?” Tony hands Peter a cupcake. “It’s a first for all of us. Nothing to be ashamed of, small fry.”

“I’ve never had a big party at all, really.”

“What counts as big?”

“Four people.”

Tony blinks. “That…that one is a little sad. We’re gonna fix that.”

Peter beams. Anticipation rushes through him so that he bounces on his toes. Steve’s hand, on his shoulder, bobs up and down too.

“Are w-we going to do a limbo contest?” he asks.

“Please.” Clint whips out a teak post from behind the island. “What kind of amateur party planners do you think we are? You think we’re just some fancy thugs who punch people all day?”

Ned giggles. “That’s exactly what you are.”

Clint mimes a shot to the heart. “Blasphemy!”

There’s that joy again, fizzing up Peter’s nose. He joins in on Ned’s laughter.

This time, instead of tears, Peter feels an intense need to give that love back to them in some way. It’s an outpouring, an overflow, unstoppable even if he tried.

He doesn’t know how, but he wraps his arms around Steve anyway. Steve holds him close. 

“Thank you. Thank you.”

Tony splutters on his drink. “What am I, chopped liver? He didn’t even help with decorations!”

Peter pulls back, still laughing, and hugs Tony. Which then of course means that all the rest of them demand hugs too. Even Ned holds out his arms at the end.

Peter feels like he’s just ridden a tilt-o-whirl five times in a row.

It feels amazing.

Nat ends up whooping them all silly at the limbo competition. Peter is a close second but even he can’t full army crawl strictly on his back. It’s a feat of human flexibility to behold. Ned forgets to film the whole thing he’s in such slack mouthed awe.

Then there is more cake than Peter’s ever eaten in one sitting and a game of twister that almost dislocates Pepper’s shoulder and a heap of presents, including a teeny tiny black box from Tony.

The man leans down to whisper in Peter’s ear before he even opens it, lit up like a little kid. “It’s a car! We’re totally going on a road trip to Vegas!”

“Wait a minute.” Clint straightens from his game of pool (he’s already conned Sam out of fifty dollars). “Did you just say a car?”

Steve is pretending to look stern and snickering instead. “Something about Vegas too?”

“Now hold up, bird brain—”

“Oh no.” Clint starts out at a slow walk but breaks into a run when Tony bolts. He pursues him brandishing the pool cue. “You are not taking our son to that hellhole!”

“Is that jealousy I hear?”

“Stark!”

“Shame your legs aren’t as good as your aim!”

Tony throws one last taunt over his shoulder to the sound of Peter doubled over laughing. When Tony hears, he strikes silly poses at Clint to keep Peter going.

“Friday?” Thor throws confetti at Clint on his way by. “Are you recording this?”

Of course! I’d record it even if Boss programmed me not to.”

“Hey!” Tony shakes his fist. “Betrayal from above!”

Peter leans back and feels full in every way.

Our son.’

Two words.

The only two words he’ll ever need.

FIN