Actions

Work Header

Delicate

Work Text:

It starts here: Peter, in his Spider-Man suit minus the mask, caught deer-in-the-headlights-style in front of a person he’s never met before in the kitchen of his and May’s apartment.

 

Backing up a bit, though … He’d been out late, mostly helping drunk people home and walking the few sane people who were out in the dark in Queens from place to place safely. He had a few good conversations with some of his favorite homeless people. Located a dog from a lost dog poster and swung it to the owner’s house, earning hugs from pajama-clad little kids there. And so on. It was already really cold for awhile so the heater’s use in the suit was a constant necessity; Peter had to wonder at Mr. Stark’s foresight with that. Even so, he was not anticipating when the first snowflakes would begin coming down to both blind and spotlight him. 

 

Point is, he was tired out when he finally called it a night – too tired to be especially careful.

 

Seeing the light on in the apartment surprised him. It was a bit late for May to be up. Maybe she was waiting for him? He came in through the living room window and yanked his mask off to greet her and immediately regretted everything. There was no May, there was only this weirdo – mid-40s looking, skinny in an oversized polo, cheek bulging with a bite from the sandwich in one poised hand, and eyes currently the size of dinner plates and completely focused in on Peter. 

 

For a solid 6.7 seconds, one could hear a pin drop. Then –

 

“You’re, uh, what’s-his-name –” The guy coughs a bit, swallowing. He points at Peter, his voice getting higher as he goes: “P – uh – Peter , right? You’re – you’re Spider-man?!” 

 

Panic comes crashing down. It’s the Ned reveal but worse because this isn’t his best friend – this is some guy who looks only vaguely familiar. 

 

“What? No! I mean, I mean – who are you?” He takes a few steps forward.

 

Polo Shirt holds his hands up. “I’m, uh – May should’ve told you I was coming. She said I could stay the night because my water shut off –” 

 

His eyes dart to the side and Peter follows his gaze. On the couch there’s a pillow and spare blanket laid out, along with a backpack overspilling with men’s clothes and toiletries. Peter looks back at him and squints, trying to get it. Then it hits him where he’s seen the guy’s face before – on a dating profile on May’s phone.

 

“How about this one?”

 

He frowned at the scruffy-looking guy on the screen. Tutted, “May … you can do better than that.” She shoved him, laughing, and he insisted playfully, “No really, look at that, look at his profile pics! It’s just him … making cheap meals at home and playing video games!”

 

“So he’s low-maintenance? So what? I could use one low-maintenance boy in my life.”

 

“Ouch?” 

 

Too late, Peter scrambles to tug his phone out of his boot and checks his messages.

 

May: Hey tough guy, remember Ed, the one I’ve been on a few dates with now? He’s staying over tonight – nothing weird, don’t give me that face – so don’t come home through the living room unless you’re no longer dressed as you-know-who ;)

 

Oh gosh. Oh no.

 

Peter’s head snaps up. The guy is still staring, but he looks more acclimated to the situation now than Peter feels. His gaze flicks to the window and back to Peter. 

 

“Holy crap, you just – you just came up the building, didn’t you? You really are ...”

 

“No,” Peter tries, even as his face burns. “No, there’s – it’s the fire escape.”

 

“You took the fire escape in the middle of the night? Dressed like that?” 

 

“Yep! It’s a costume. I was – cosplaying?” 

 

There’s another long pause.

 

Peter groans, hiding in his fists and shaking his head.

 

Tony, Ned, Toomes, May ... this guy. Ed. Will there ever be someone Peter tells on purpose ?

 

He looks up. 

 

“Okay, okay, I get it, you know, but listen – this is a huge mistake. You can’t tell anyone. No one can find out. Okay? It’s really important and – just – yeah, you know what, don’t tell my aunt either. Please?”

 

Ed’s eyebrows furrow. “May doesn’t know you’re Spider-Man?”

 

Peter shakes his head. “No, no, she knows – that’s – I mean, you can’t tell her that you know. She’s been on me about being – like, really careful with everything and my safety because she worries and I don’t want to make her worry more, and also I just need to keep this whole, like, identity thing – under wraps because if I don’t – if people know then I’m done . You know? Do you know what I mean?” He has to physically shut his own mouth to keep from going on and on like an idiot, his whole body feeling tense with anticipation. 

 

Slowly, Ed begins to nod. “I get it,” he says. Sounds more comfortable with this development than Peter feels. “Sorry I was in your kitchen, man, I didn’t mean to scare you. Thanks for not–” he mimes the web shooter action – “You know, shooting me. Heh.” He tries a smile, then sobers when Peter doesn’t reciprocate. Clears his throat. “Sure, of course I won’t tell.” 

 

Peter’s shoulders droop. He rubs his hands down his face and breathes now that the immediate worry is out of the way. There’s a third awkward what-do-we-do-now pause. 

 

Ed says, “Wan’ a sandwich?” 

 

Peter looks up at the ingredients spread out on the counter and is hit all at once with how hungry and tired he is. He shrugs and nods because why not at this point.

 

After a detour to his bedroom (getting into PJs and kicking his suit under the bed in frustration), Peter sits at the counter across from Ed with sliced bread, lunch meat, and more discomfort between them. They chew in silence. Then Ed coughs and says, “May’s, like, obsessed with you.” He’s glancing over the family photos on the wall. “I mean, in a good way, the way a mo – er, aunt should.” 

 

Not sure where to go with that, Peter just nods. Ed continues, “Did you know, before I even opened my mouth at our first date, she essentially gave me the shovel talk but it was like, ‘I have a teenager living with me and if you have a problem with it, let’s save our time and go home’.”

 

At that Peter snorts, feeling a flash of fondness for his aunt. “Sounds like her. She’s awesome.”

 

“She’s really funny. Like, I don’t know if she told you what I do for work – I’m, uh, a video game tester, so I was telling her about, like, the stupidest set-up on this one game –”

 

“Wait, sorry,” Peter says, his interest perking up. “You’re – you test video games? That’s kind of interesting.”

 

They manage to carry a few minutes of somewhat normal conversation until it (inevitably) swings back around to Spider-Man. “So… I should probably let you go sleep,” Ed says, stretching. “You’re probably tired from ... Spider-ing. Spider-Manning? Being – a vigilante.”

 

Peter shifts his weight. “Yep.”

 

They catch each other’s eye and Ed frowns, seems to be thinking through something. “If you don’t mind me asking – it’s just, you’re so young . What on earth makes you … do what you do?”

 

( “I gotta know, what gets you out of that twin bed in the morning?” )

 

He’s gone over what he told Mr. Stark back then a few times now, and got it down to a concise statement. Keeping his eyes on his empty plate, Peter says carefully, “I believe that … power comes with responsibility.” 

 

It’s quiet following this, and Peter looks up, feeling vulnerable. Ed is watching closely, a slight smile on his face that widens when their eyes meet. “That’s awesome, man,” he says.

 

 

“‘Mission’ is a strong word,” Tony tells him.

 

As it happens, the week that Ed shows up (Saturday) is the same one as Peter and Tony’s first mission outing together (the next Tuesday, at 5am on the dot). 

 

First, excluding Germany. Meaning, first since Homecoming a month and a half ago. You would think, technically, since Peter turned Tony down on the Avengers front that things like this wouldn’t happen – Tony said, “with a little more mentoring, you could be a real asset to the team” and Peter said, “Thanks, but I’m good.” Sometimes Peter lays in bed at night and thinks (with both awe and trepidation) about what a power move that was. But the offer was a test, right? … right? Because Peter was only mostly serious; he still wanted to be an avenger someday and, well, he still wanted attention from his childhood hero. He would be lying if he said the text from Tony to meet up today was received with any sort of suave. More like it was received with victory dancing in his PJs. 

 

And a practiced-for-effect, “ I’m ready for the mission ” greeting. Except.

 

“Uh,” he falters, straightening from the crouched landing that he definitely didn’t plan based on how cool it would look. Tony’s peering at him over sunglasses – not wearing his Iron Man suit. Even though he said over text to come as Spidey (Peter resists the urge to double-check the text). “Then, what –”

 

“Not a mission, mission implies high stakes and teamwork whereas this little tea party is more about you doing –” he gestures vaguely as Peter for a moment, though Peter can only tilt his head at a loss for what Tony’s leading to “--the little guy stuff that you do. Whatever way you do it. I’m gonna sideline and take notes just so as to better see where your personal strengths and weaknesses are for – future reference.”

 

Peter nods, despite how his nervousness rises a few notches. “What exactly am I gonna be – I mean, what do you want to see me do, sir?”

 

Tony stares at him for a few seconds, the corner of his mouth quirked before he sighs and looks at his wrist, tapping at something on the watch screen there. Within seconds, info starts scrolling the inside of Peter’s HUD.

 

“NYPD’s struggling with a guy codenamed Kingpin who’s got quite the resume – his grubby hand is in everything in the crime syndicate from drugs to human trafficking. I got tipped that a couple of his henchmen are involved in a drug deal happening a couple blocks from here today, though unfortunately for them, Queens also has a friendly neighborhood arachnid who has a reputation of keeping the streets safe from buyers and sellers of illegal things. Do you see the picture I’m painting?”

 

“Gotcha,” Peter says. “Okay. So, stop the transaction before it happens, web up the dealers for the police. Easy. Where will you be?” 

 

“Around,” Tony shrugs. “Don’t worry I’ve got an eye out in case things go south. Rendezvous back at this corner when all is well again in paradise. Capiche?”

 

“Good – uh – capiche.” Peter nods. “See you soon, sir!” He takes a running leap and slingshots himself upwards in the direction Karen’s got laid out already. “Good, good, good, good,” he mutters under his breath in singsong. 

 

And then Adrenaline-Brain kicks into gear.

 

 

Twenty minutes later finds him perched on top of a flag pole, breathing heavy but exhilarated as he taunts the two guys webbed back-to-back and strung like spider prey from the same pole (“If you’re gonna be a drug dealer, why are you blowing it on gold rims? The only person I know who’s got gold rims is a dick so, like... you’re calling yourself out here. And another thing –”).

 

“Kid!” Peter stops talking (one of the guys mutters “ frickin’ finally ”) and looks down. The eyes of the mask widen.

 

It’s Tony who locates him after all, strolling around the bad guys’ car (which is crashed) on the sidewalk which is covered in glass shards and decorations (from the holiday-themed window display which it is currently sticking out of). He coolly toes a stocking aside without looking at it. “So ... what happened here?”

 

“Oh, hey, Mr. Stark!” Peter chirps. “I – I caught the bad guys.”

 

“I see that.”

 

“The third one is webbed up back at their drop point.”

 

“I know,” Tony says pointedly, nodding to his upper left. Peter follows the nod and sees a drone de-cloak itself in midair, understanding but still confused. 

 

“Um … then what do you mean?” he asks.

 

Tony waves a hand at the Christmas carnage strewn around the shiny vehicle between them. “I mean…” His hand turns up at Peter himself. “Why are you wearing a Santa hat?”

 

Peter’s hands fly to his head, quickly removing the fluffy hat there. “Oooooh, that!” he says with experimental enthusiasm. He eases his position so that he’s holding the bar by one hand, then drops himself lightly to his feet on the ground, minding the glass. 

 

“Well, I’m not sure how I ended up in the display, but- that happened- and I thought, well, I don’t know – I was kind of high on the moment you know so I thought, ‘hey, I just surfed down the street in a trash can lid attached to their car by web which is kind of like a sleigh’ and the Santa hat was right there, I mean I’m sorry the shop got trashed but since it was … why not?” He stops for breath, and seeing Tony with his head in his hands, says more tentatively, “Just for… just for kicks? … I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be, like, unprofessional or anything –” 

 

Tony’s shoulders are shaking. He takes his glasses and folds them away with one hand while the other rubs his forehead and that’s when Peter realizes he’s laughing. Uncontrollably.

 

“Lordy,” he chokes, clearing his throat. 

 

Sirens catch all four of their attention as the police cars Karen summoned close in on the scene. It’s still early enough that barely anyone is outside, but the sky is starting to hint at morning- a sign that Peter has to watch the clock if he wants to get to school on time. 

 

Tony must be thinking the same thing, or maybe he’s just eager to get this over with because he says, “I’ll give the skinny to the boys in blue, Spidey. Catch you around the block.” 

 

 

 

They end up getting coffee (hot chocolate for Peter) and drinking them in Tony’s Audi as the man vows it’s not a problem to swing by Midtown on Peter’s behalf. 

 

“As far as my observations today, kid ...” Tony says. His left arm is resting atop the steering wheel, as though driving is a subconscious activity – because maybe it is, maybe the AI is doing the driving; Peter has learned from the Germany trip that he knows nothing about what is normal for someone as wealthy as Tony Stark. “Spidey gets the job done, kid, but he’s not exactly a finely tuned weapon. You’re – you’re a messy worker, is what I’m saying.”

 

Peter leans back, frowning. “Rude,” he says. “I think I did okay. It went better than my last car chase.”

 

Tony hums. “Suuure, Spidey-Claus. Santa-Man? No, Spidey-Claus. You brought gifts to the children but you totalled a reindeer in the process. Next time we’re gonna smooth that out, make you a more streamlined holiday cheermeister with less need for Tony Frost to swoop in and pay property damages.”

 

“Next time?” Peter repeats. 

 

“Next time... when we bag some more crime lord minions. This is for you and me, kid. Wedding planning is more exhausting than learning astrophysics overnight, believe me, and making conversation with Vision gets old real fast. Also, if I’m honest, I’d… I’d like to do a better job at the whole ‘mentor’ thing. Starting with actually keeping an eye on yo –”

 

“Blech!” Peter yelps, cutting the man off.

 

“Did you just – did you just say ‘blech’ while I was –”

 

“This candy cane is – something’s wrong with it, it’s awful!” Peter explains, wiping his tongue off with a napkin. The tiny plastic-wrapped candy was complementary with his hot chocolate but as soon as it hits his taste buds, his senses rejected the flavor vehemently. He tosses it in his brown paper bag as trash and downs the rest of cocoa to wash it away. 

 

“Aaand we’re here,” Tony announces as the car pulls to a stop in the dropoff lane. “Ahoy, nerdtown.”

 

“Oh wow – thank you so much, Mr.Stark. I think this is the earliest I’ve ever been to class,” Peter says, gathering up his things and pushing open the door. Then realizing that his seatbelt it still on. Setting everything down again to unbuckle it. Getting up again.

 

Tony makes no attempt to hide his amused smile, but his shades go on again as soon as Peter leaves the car. “Have a good one, kid. No more crashing Christmas displays, alright? If you want a Santa hat, I’ll get you your own.”

 

Peter presses his lips together and nods. His breath steams the air as he watches the car drive away, but something warm blossoms in his chest despite the chill of an early winter morning.

 

… 

 

A week after meeting in the kitchen, Ed is again in the kitchen and asks Peter to open a jar of pickles for him. 

 

“Here,” he says, offering back the jar in one hand and the lid in the other, but Ed just stares and starts to smile. 

 

“Dude, I superglued that thing on! How strong are you?”

 

Peter blinks. “Why would you superglue our pickle jar –”

 

He’s waved off, and Ed takes the items out of his hands and sets them on the counter. “I just wanted to see. Had the glass glue lying around from an old Home Depot job. But man, you didn’t even notice, did you?”

 

“I mean, it felt tight but not …” Peter shrugs, starting to feel weird. 

 

“Not too much for Spider-Man?” Ed finishes, dialing up the weird feeling by a few degrees. On instinct Peter looks around but of course there’s no one to hear them. They’re in the Parker’s kitchen again, waiting for May to get home from work so she and Ed can make dinner together (Peter was here to let the guy in, but he’s heading to Ned’s as soon as the date starts).

 

“Do you know what the most you can bench is?” 

 

A warehouse comes to mind, too fresh and undealt with to consider out loud. Peter just shrugs, his shoulders not quite coming down from around his ears. When Ed asks if Peter wouldn’t mind helping him out around the house some time, Peter says sure because he’s a people-pleaser and it’s the right thing to say, plus Ed might not be serious and he wants to leave the conversation. Besides, he can hear May arriving from seven floors below.  

 

 

Not even 24 hours later, he’s in the last class of the school day when a text comes in from an unknown number:

 

Hey pal! May gave me your number when I told her we were gonna hang. You still good to come help me out? This afternoon would be awesome.

 

His first thought is that no, that would not be awesome, because he has midterms to study for (December is underway, with teachers cramming as many assignments as they can before break) and he wanted to go patrolling as much as possible before the snow and ice become a real hassle (it’s in the near forecast).

 

He realizes after a second that he’s annoyed, and his conscience kicks in. He did say yes after all. And Ed isn’t a bad guy, just has bad timing. Helping him out is kind of like patrol, right? That’s what Spider-Man’s supposed to do – help people. 

 

His phone buzzes again and it’s Ed sending his address. I’ll see you then right?

 

Peter sighs. Yeah no problem! See you then! 

 

When he gets there, he finds that Ed lives in a studio apartment that looks more like an attic than anything. He opens the door with a big grin and says, “You’re here, thank you! I’ve been trying to figure this out and my landlord is on me about doing my own upkeep.” He makes an exasperated face and Peter gives a social laugh. 

 

“What’s going on?” he asks, shrugging off his coat.

 

“That light up there –” Ed points up at the vaulted ceiling, where there are several bulbs set into each side of the slanted roof, one of which is out – “has been broken for months. I’ve got the new lightbulb, I just need your help screwing it in.”

 

“Right,” Peter says, somewhat underwhelmed. Does this guy have no normal friends? “You’ve got a ladder right? That’s at least ten feet up.” 

 

“Ha, uh, well.” Ed rubs his hands together, looking at Peter hopefully. “I don’t actually. I didn’t think it’d be a problem for you.” 

 

It takes a few moments of blank staring for Peter to realize. Once again, he forgot that Ed knows based on how casually he brought it up. “You want me to climb up there?” 

 

“Or ‘ thwip thwip’ , I’m not picky,” Ed jokes. Peter cringes. Ed clears his throat. “If – if you don’t mind. I know you said you like helping people.” He offers the light bulb.

 

Peter takes it, and stares at his distorted reflection in the curved glass.

 

He ends up climbing, while his neck prickles with the same weird feeling as the last time he openly divulged his powers in front of the guy – probably in part because whenever he glances down, Ed is staring in open-mouthed awe that makes him feel like a zoo animal. He leaves footprints in the dust, so at Ed’s subtle hinting, Peter ends up going back up and dusting the rest. And then helps to clean up the fallen debris off the floor.

 

… 

 

The first snow is coming down a few days later when Peter and Ned are walking home to work on a project, and Peter cannot stop shivering. He definitely needs a new coat but he doesn’t know how he feels about asking May for one – he’s cost her so many backpacks this year.

 

“What if we did it on Stark Industries – like, the effect they’ve had on society? Sustainable energy and stuff.”

 

Ned gasps. “What if we did it on the Avengers ? We’d be doing it on you and nobody would even know!”

 

“I’m only technically an avenger …” Peter says, but he does consider the idea. For a social studies project on something that’s influenced American society over the last decade, the Avengers would qualify. But keeping Ned focused on the grade? Might be less fun. Plus, “That might be a bit controversial, what with Liz’s dad and the accords and stuff.” 

 

“I mean, either way – if we do Stark Industries, you could totally do an interview of Tony Stark for the research part. Can you imagine Flash’s face when he sees video evidence that you actually know him?” Ned pulls a dumbfounded expression, making Peter laugh.

 

“Yeah, that would be great. I can see if Mr. Stark is down for –”

 

“Peter!”

 

They both look up, and the good feeling of being with Ned abates as Ed comes briskly towards them from the Parker’s apartment building. 

 

“Hi, Ed,” Peter says with lackluster. “This is my friend –”

 

“Hi,” Ed interrupts, waving at Ned while grabbing Peter’s arm with the other hand and towing him aside. “Can I just talk to you for a minute? Thanks, sorry.” 

 

“O-okay, one sec,” Peter calls to his friend over Ed’s shoulder, feeling annoyance bubble up. “What’s going on?”

 

Ed smiles sheepishly. “I just got here a minute ago myself, so I haven’t gone up yet but I just remembered – I was supposed to pick up dinner for us tonight and I totally forgot. I’ve only got a twenty on me which isn’t enough for the delivery fee so I was wondering: would you be willing to just, like, swing by the pizza place a few blocks from here for us? Pretty please?” 

 

A shiver passes through Peter just imagining staying out in the cold even longer. “Can’t you drive?” he asks pointedly.

 

The man shakes his head. “I’m pretty low on gas as it is. Plus it’s probably so fast getting around for you with the – you know,” he whispers, “the webs .” When Peter still looks hesitant, Ed’s expression becomes plaintive. “I mean, if I had superpowers then I’d do it myself, but not everyone can do the things you do… and you care about May, right? She’s hungry too and she’s counting on us.” 

 

“That’s not – I mean ...” Peter says, feeling weird that Ed would even suggest that he doesn’t care about helping, especially helping May. And considering this is a favor that anyone nice would do, on top of which Peter can do more easily for having powers like Ed pointed out… it really isn’t a big deal. 

 

“Okay, yeah. I can do that, no problem,” Peter says, shaking his head. He turns back to Ned. “Go upstairs, man, I’ll be a few.”

 

“Thank you, thank you, Peter!” Ed says from behind and Peter pretends not to hear him, already heading towards his favorite nearby alley to change. He hears Ned say, “You’re dating Peter’s aunt, right?” and then tunes the rest out.

 

There are a kaleidoscope of different feelings warring for dominance within Peter as he runs the errand. He can’t seem to pick out which ones are right and wrong as he goes over the interaction in his mind a few more times. What he feels is annoyance, because this is his first time swinging in the snow and he can’t actually go very fast because he’s trying to be careful, and he feels it again when he realizes he has to go in and order the pizza as Spider-Man because he left his other clothes behind, AND pay for it himself because Ed didn’t actually give him the money. Guilt at being annoyed, especially when the cashier gives him the order for free because of their gratitude for what he does – which is kind of like a privilege he has, right? Not everyone has the opportunity to help in a way that elicits love from strangers and … he shouldn’t be so bothered by Ed, it’s not like the guy is ruining his life. He just asks favors that are inconvenient, as favors can be, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them. 

 

Annoyance and guilt, again, when he gets back to the apartment, shivering in his clothes that laid out in the snow for twenty minutes. Ed and May are in the TV room laughing and Ed says, “Pete! What took so long?” which feels kind of rude but also Peter shouldn’t do good things at the price of being thanked. 

 

He just mumbles that it’s still snowing and carries one of the pizza boxes to his room for him and Ned, leaving his aunt and this guy who she apparently sees something in to enjoy their dinner. It takes him the duration of the next couple hours with his friend to get over the confusing mood, though he doesn’t bother bringing it up to Ned, because if anything he’s ashamed of it. Whether he’s being selfish or being a pushover – he shouldn’t be. 

 

They do decide to go with Stark Industries. Peter writes and deletes and re-writes a text to shoot Tony about the interview thing, holding his breath a bit when the reply bubble comes up. “ Let’s meet up tomorrow for some suit upgrades and then we’ll talk.”

 

“Sounds a lot like a yes!” Ned cheers over his shoulder.

 

The prospect of hanging out with Mr. Stark again after last time does lift Peter’s spirits ... and they’re lifted even more with a sense of relief when, after Ned leaves and Ed is gone, Peter asks how their date went and she says, “Eh, I broke up with him. He’s an okay guy, but I’m more than just an ‘okay’ girl.”

 

“Yes queen!” Peter says, holding up a hand for a high-five, which she returns, chuckling. 

 

“I assume then that you don’t mind? It seemed like you two might’ve clicked or something.”

 

“No, nope. If you’re happy, I’m happy.”

 

She “awws” and puts a hand on his cheek, then gives him a kiss on the crown of his head which he pretends to dislike.

 

 

“So, it’d just be like, me asking you some things about the company and how certain initiatives were started and what the future of SI looks like, stuff like that. Our presentation can’t be longer than ten minutes so the interview video would be like, I don’t know, three minutes at most? I have a camera at home I fixed up that came from, er, the garbage, but I think it could still look pretty professional if we get the lighting –” 

 

“Earth to Spiderling,” Tony interrupts, and Peter repentantly stuffs his gesticulating hands under his seat. The man is still looking at the suit’s schematics on the holoscreen in front of him, having hardly looked at Peter since he plugged it in. He jiggles his knee a bit in anticipation, but Tony just says, “When’s the last time you were out in this thing?”

 

“Um, yesterday. For not that long though, just like twenty minutes.”

 

Tony hums, typing something that causes a view of some inner framework to light up. “Webs stuck okay?”

 

“It was before the snow started sticking, but yeah, no problems with ice or anything.”

 

“Your heater’s batteries are nearly fried, those need replacing.” The man spins around in his chair and rolls it to another desk, where he opens a drawer and fiddles with something. “If you’re gonna leave it on all the time, come and see me once a week for maintenance. A Spider-pop won’t be helping anyone.”  

 

Peter nods, watching Tony roll back. “Right.”

 

Tony pauses. Then, with his body turned towards the schematics still, he finally looks at Peter. “Sorry kid, but no can do on the interview thing.”

 

“Oh,” Peter says, immediately feeling so embarrassed that he wishes he could melt into the lab equipment. “That’s fine, I know you’ve got like so many more important things to do. Sorry I asked –”

 

Tony clears his throat, and Peter could die. “It’s not that,” he says. “Now’s just not a good time. Not that it wouldn’t be fun, blowing the minds of your nerdy compatriots. Most of what it sounds like you want is on the SI website and I bet I can get Pep to email you about anything else you want.”

 

“You don’t have to,” Peter says weakly.

 

“I’m gonna,” Tony says with finality, turning back to his screen and pulling up a new window alongside the suit stuff. He types something at the speed of light and in a moment the message is sent. Peter’s phone gets a quiet notification, clueing him into the fact that Tony CC’d him on the email. And that Tony knows his email. “Done. You can thank me by getting a good grade.”

 

“Yes, sir.” 

 

“Good.” Tony unplugs the suit and the schematics disappear, the lighting in the lab returning to normal. “Try this on and see how you like it. I gave your ‘Karen’ some training exercises to run you through in the adjunct gym, and if everything is to your liking then you can help yourself out.”

 

Peter accepts the suit that is piled into his arms, standing as Tony does. “Okay. Are you –”

 

“I gotta get going to something, but I’ll be in touch.” The man turns toward the elevator, but he pauses, then spins on his heel and faces Peter again. Slowly, almost like his arm has turned into the robotic arm of one of his suits, he lifts a hand and settles it on Peter’s shoulder. “Good work out there,” he says. “In school and in – extracurriculars.” He nods at the suit. And then he’s gone.

 

In the training room, Peter can’t help but feel stupid. He thought he was turning over a new leaf with Mr. Stark – no longer being the annoying amatuer who leaves endless texts and voicemails in a childish plea for attention. Is he still a burden? Is he… is he like Tony’s Ed? With Tony just humoring him because he’s stuck with him? Trying to do his due diligence because Peter isn’t independent enough to be left on his own? Is he hoping for the day Peter is no longer his business, like Peter was with May to break up with Ed?

 

But then he gets the suit on, and Karen informs him he now has a few dozen new web shooter combinations and protocols designed to keep him from slipping on ice and it all feels so confusing.

 

And he has a new text message on the corner of his HUD that makes him groan out loud.

 

Pete! Hey! What are you up to right now? I could really use your help with something.

 

 

He’s able to ignore the texts for a few hours, hoping that Ed will get the picture that he’s being ghosted. He gets some lunch, patrols snowy New York, enjoys the suit’s new protocols – which even include stronger grips on the bottoms of his feet to prevent slipping. He’s shoveling snow off the sidewalk by an apartment building with one of his favorite old people when the one he can’t ignore comes in:

 

Mr. Spider-Man, I really need some help over here! 

 

He sticks his shovel into a mound of snow. Is this guy an idiot? Making references to his identity in private is one thing but over text? Where it could well be picked up by – an FBI agent, or something. Or just anyone who happens to see Ed’s texts. That’s not secure enough. What does he think he’s doing? 

 

“You gettin’ tired already, Web Head?” 

 

Peter turns to the white-haired gentleman sprinkling industrial salt along the cleared walkway behind him. “No, sorry. I think – I think I’ve gotta go though. I’m being – paged.”

 

“Ah, to be young and popular,” the man chuckles. “Go on, you’ve helped enough.”

 

“Thanks, Stan. Good luck with the rest!” Peter calls regretfully as he swings off, muttering to Karen to pull up directions to Ed’s house.

 

“What’s going on?” Peter asks, without preamble and without disguising his lack of enthusiasm, when Ed opens the door.

 

“Woahhh,” Ed says stupidly, looking over Peter, who is still dressed as Spider-Man because he does not want this to take long enough to change back. “You’ve been busy today, huh? Glad you could make it! One sec!” He turns and pulls a coat on, then steps out onto the porch beside Peter. 

 

He chats excitedly as he leads Peter downstairs to the parking garage, and his enthusiasm, once again, acts like a needle of guilt poking at Peter’s balloon of annoyance. As a result, Peter tries to infuse more good will into his tone as he asks, “What do you need help with?”

 

“Here we are,” Ed says, getting to his car and popping the trunk. Inside is a load of plastic Walmart bags containing various food items: his groceries. 

 

Peter breathes through his nose. You messaged me all day because you want me to carry in your groceries –

 

“Don’t worry, the cold kept the refrigerator stuff okay,” Ed says. “I slipped and hurt my back getting out of the car so I thought, better not try carrying all this by myself, eh? Luckily I know a guy!” He smiles at Peter. Peter stares at him.

 

“Look man,” he says slowly, feeling weird inside. “I can do this for you cause, like, I’m already here … but May broke up with you, right?”

 

“Yeah, that’s cool – you and me can still be friends.”

 

“Um. Sure. I’m just saying …” He bites his tongue. He doesn’t know what he’s trying to say that doesn’t make him sound like a jerk. 

 

He is Spider-Man, and Ed is still a guy in Queens. It occurs to him to say, ‘I don’t want to give you special treatment or anything,’ but before he can process it to his mouth, Ed changes the subject and the moment of courage falls away.

 

“Hey, can I take a selfie with you while you’re in your suit like that?” 

 

Peter swallows the childish urge to say ‘No’ and leave. “Sure.” It’s a good thing he doesn’t need to smile for selfies with the mask on.

 

The groceries don’t take that long. When he tries to say he has to go, Ed insists he stay for some hot chocolate, which he’s already got on the stove. Reluctantly, Peter does so.

 

“So your friend the other day … he said something about you knowing Tony Stark?” 

 

Great, the other topic he doesn’t want to think about more today. Nonetheless, Peter nods carefully. “Yeah, he made my suit. It’s, like, an internship. That’s what we tell people anyway.” 

 

Ed’s eyes light up. “Wow, so the big man himself has you on payroll? That’s legit!”

 

“No, no, he doesn’t pay me,” Peter says, feeling weird about the possibility. Spider-Man was never about that . But he does feel himself want to brag a little when Ed deflates, so he explains, “Back a few months ago when the Avengers were having their ‘civil war’, that’s when Mr. Stark found me. I guess he knew who I was before then and kept tabs, but he needed backup so he asked me to come to Germany with him and, like, rough Captain America up a little. No big deal, but I did steal his shield.” 

 

He grins a little, expecting that someone like Ed would see that as very impressive, but to the contrary Ed looks unamused.

 

Flatly, he says, “So he uses you. Tony Stark uses you as entertainment value, or at best as an ego boost.”

 

There’s a beat of silence as Peter computes that. “What? No. What?”

 

“Kid, Tony Stark lives up in an ivory tower and he’s had his needs waited on his whole life. You have to know that, it’s not like his history is private. Yeah he’s got the Iron Man thing, but who’s to say that’s anything but a charity stunt?” He snorts derisively. Peter feels anger at that, about to interject on his hero’s behalf when Ed suddenly points to Peter. “You, kid, you come from nothing – no offense, but you know what I mean. You and your aunt make end’s meet, and what do you do with your super powers? You help out little people, no strings attached, no news coverage required. You keep your mask on for humility’s sake. You have an understanding of the working class struggle that Mr. One Percent never will, and I hate to say it but any interest he’s got in you as a person isn’t more than business. Not even that, seeing as he’s not even paying you. He’s using you.”

 

It’s like different words spoken by Toomes months ago – words Peter buried in himself like under so many tons of concrete because of the ugly way they made him feel inside while he – superimpose themselves on top of Ed’s in Peter’s ears:

 

“Peter, you’re young. You don’t understand how the world works. How do you think your buddy Stark paid for that tower, or any of his little toys? Those people, Pete, those people up there, the rich and the powerful, they do whatever they want. Guys like us? Like you and me? They don’t care about us. We build their roads, and we fight all their wars and everything, but they don’t care about us. We have to pick up after them, we have to eat their table scraps. That’s how it is. I know you know what I’m talkin’ about.”

 

“That’s not true,” Peter says, to both of them. “I mean, some rich people are like that but not Mr. Stark. Just today, he – he invited me over today to upgrade my suit. He had me meet up last week for a mission – er, training thing, and then took me to school –” 

 

As he speaks, Ed shakes his head and it makes Peter feel small. 

 

“He’s protecting his image. Spider-Man is associated with Iron Man, that’s what he cares about. I can’t imagine he actually wants anything to do with Peter Parker .” 

 

Peter slides his mug away from himself, standing abruptly. “I have to go.”

 

He ignores Ed’s pitying look at he shoves his mask on and closes the door behind himself. 

 

 

All in all, Peter’s feeling pretty crappy when their presentation day rolls around. 

 

He’s avoided thinking over the last few days by studying and finishing up the last of December’s schoolwork. He didn’t have the energy to try confronting Ed about leaving him alone again either, so he’s made two more calls to help with inane tasks, feeling more and more like a puppet.

 

“Dude, can you lend me a pencil? I forgot mine at –”

 

Why ?” Peter snaps. The harshness of his tones makes a couple people in desks around them turn and glance at Peter and Ned, the latter of whom shrinks back. 

 

Guilt floods in, as the familiar see-saw goes. “Sorry,” Peter says. He digs for a spare pencil and hands it to Ned, who accepts it cautiously. “Sorry, I’m just stressed. I didn’t mean it, man.”

 

His ever-faithful friend pats him on the shoulder. “No prob. Don’t worry, we’re gonna be great! The insider info that Ms. Potts gave us permission to share is gonna get us an A for sure. Plus, hey – do you want a candy cane? My fourth period teacher gave some to us.”

 

Peter accepts one, whispering his thanks. He unwraps it as quietly as possible and plops it in his mouth, only to cringe and spit it out a second later. 

 

“Dude, what the heck? This tastes nasty. What is it with candy canes this season?”

 

Ned looks at him questioningly, removing his own candy cane from his mouth to speak. “That’s weird, mine tastes fine. You like peppermint, right?”

 

“I thought I did …” Peter says, getting up to put his wasted candy in the trash. When he gets back, Ned is still staring at the garbage can with a look of thoughtfulness. “What?”

 

“It’s just … my mom uses peppermint oil around the house to get rid of spiders. Apparently it repels them or something. And this is the first Christmas since you, uh ...” He widens his eyes suggestively. 

 

“That’s –” Peter starts, going to say that’s ridiculous, but then he pauses. No. He looks at the candy cane in Ned’s hand, leans forward and sniffs it. His nose crinkles because again it smells wrong, like cough medicine that claims a vague attempt at sweet flavoring but just serves to make the chemical flavor worse. 

 

“Nooo,” Peter says, bummed. He doesn’t get to say much else because at that point class starts and Peter distracts himself by re-reading the cue cards he made himself.

 

The first person up is MJ (she goes by herself, no partners) and Peter hopes they don’t have to follow her on this one because her project is pretty much flawless, as to be expected when one hands her a mic and tells her to “talk about current social events.” As weird as she is, she’s really smart, especially about those kinds of things. She’s also really pretty when she’s talking passionately about anarchy, Peter thinks.

 

“And that is why honest conflict has more social value than dishonest harmony,” she says, staring them down. There’s a beat of silence, then she grabs her stuff and sits down, and everyone claps belatedly, Peter included. 

 

“Next is Jason and Flash,” their teacher announces. “Presenting on…” She looks at her paper. “‘The descrimination against enhanced vigilantes’.” 

 

Ned punches his shoulder from behind and Peter smiles quietly as Flash begins their power point by talking about Spider-Man and the important part he plays in Queens. It’s kind of weird that the guy still likes him so much, considering he wrecked his car. 

 

“As many of you well know. However –” he says, his tone turning disgusted, “There are those who would see our hero fall. They stop at nothing to propagate false media and public doubt, as people always do when someone they don’t understand walks among them. The so-called ‘News’ site, the Daily Bugle, is one such –”

 

Peter stops listening, as entertaining as it is, because onscreen Flash has pulled up a slide that screenshots an article on TheDailyBugle.net dated as being posted yesterday. The title is “ Spider-Menace’s Pretended ‘Good Deeds’ Do Nothing But Get Your Guard Down ” and the picture – the picture is of him outside of Ed’s house, carrying his groceries, clearly taken on his smartphone because nobody else was around. 

 

Sure enough, the caption says Ed’s name as “photo by” credit. 

 

Confusion and betrayal spark in Peter’s chest. He immediately pulls out his phone and, hiding it under the desk, looks up the same page on his browser. He snaps a screenshot and pulls up text messages.

 

So, you work for the people who hate Spider-Man, huh? That’s really funny, you didn’t mention, he writes, attaching the pic and hitting send before he can think better of it. His hands clench as he waits. He sees a text come in from Ed that says simply, No I don’t. I can explain. But Peter doesn’t bother waiting for the story to come in. He shoves his phone in his backpack and zips it up angrily. 

 

‘Honest conflict is better than dishonest harmony,’ huh , he thinks. 

 

Yeah, he’s done with Ed. 

 

 

He does it via text after school (the last day of school before break) because he’s a coward, really. Apparently Ed sold the photos to the Bugle because, They had an ad posted for anyone who could give them pics of Spiderman, I didn’t know what the article would be about I just needed the money, man. I know you’re a good guy! who cares what they say?

 

Peter writes, It doesn’t matter, I really don’t like that you did that. 

 

And he is about to write, Please leave me alone from now on , when an awful thought occurs to him. Something that has been a dark seed in the back of his mind for awhile now. Even though Ed said he wouldn’t tell anyone his secret, what if he gets mad enough over Peter ditching him that he does anyway?

 

Instead he writes, I’m sorry but I need a few days to think about this, and leaves it at that. He deletes their text conversation and feels relieved when Ed doesn’t text back.

 

 

It helps in a way that Peter has the next plans he does ahead of time, because he isn’t really in the mood to do anything but lay on the floor and eat pizza and watch stupid Hallmark movies with May for days. But he has to get this negative energy out by helping people. So that’s what he does.

 

“Oh my goodness!” he says, pretending to fall to one knee in pain at the bedside of the little girl shaking his hand. She lets him go, and he shakes out his hand. “You must have super powers, Molly, that was one strong hand shake!

 

The little girl giggles. She looks at her mom on the other side of the hospital bed, her nasal cannula bending. Her mom nods. “Yes, she’s the strongest person I know.”

 

“Not stronger than Spider-Man,” the little girl says incredulously. “He can do a flip! He showed us!” Her mom laughs.

 

“Well maybe one day you’ll be able to do a flip too,” says Peter. “And then I know I’ll have to retire, ‘cause you’ll take my job.” She giggles some more.

 

A few hours visiting kids in the pediatric unit of Queens Memorial two days before Christmas reminds him of what he likes about being Spider-Man – and honestly, it’s not even like he’s giving anything. He’s just there.

 

“Thank you so much, I’ve never seen the staff in such a good mood this time of year, let alone the kids spending the holidays here,” the Child Life Specialist tells him as she walks him out of the unit. “If it’s no trouble then we’d love to have you again.” 

 

He assures her he’ll definitely be back. Shrugging on his ugly Christmas sweater (which he’s found keeps him a little warmer AND makes people laugh when he swings by), he exits through the lobby and checks his phone for any messages from the past couple hours, finding a couple from Tony:

 

The first says, Spidey-Clause strikes again! News says someone’s bringing cheer to the hospital – care to meet up afterwards? Got some new info for you. 

 

The second, which was sent a few minutes ago: Hark, I hope your answer is yes because I’m outside waiting. Just a heads up, so is Channel 9.

 

He reads it just as he makes it outside. A flurry of people asking questions meet him like a wall of noise. He can’t even make anything out, except that some of them seem to want updates on him and others want his opinion on more difficult things, like the Accords or Coney Island or the Bugle. Past all of them, he sees Tony’s familiar car on the curb, one window rolled down barely so that Peter can see him gesture for Spider-Man to hop in. 

 

“Sorry, uh – happy holidays everyone!” Peter says, pushing through the sensory overload and the small crowd to get to the car. People seem to notice that it’s Tony Stark sitting behind them, because the questions being yelled start to begin with “Mr. Stark –” or “Mr. Iron Man –”

 

As soon as Peter shuts the passenger door behind himself, Tony peels into the street. 

 

“Seatbelt on,” he says, tossing Peter a smile when he does so. “How goes it, young buck?” 

 

“It goes,” Peter says. “Project went well. I told Miss Potts thank you, but seriously, that was awesome of her.”

 

“Good, stay in school. Suit upgrades working well, I assume?” 

 

“Of course. Where – are we going somewhere?”

 

“Yes, down 34th street,” Tony says. At Peter’s lack of a response, he says, “Miracle on 34th street? Nothin’?”

 

“Is that an old person movie reference?”

 

Tony leans over and knocks Peter’s head lightly, making him laugh. “Unbelievable. I’m returning you and getting a new protege. But yes, we are going somewhere. We’re going to the next drop point of a deal with Kingpin’s guys, and I would love it if you don’t crash a car this time. Just do your best, for me.”

 

“I’ll try?”

 

Tony shakes his head fondly. He explains the details of the meetup, and as Peter listens he can’t help but wonder back to what Ed suggested to him, that Tony doesn’t actually care about Peter as much as Spider-Man. Not that he likes anything about Ed right now, but it did hit a soft spot in Peter’s confidence. Tony’s face when he yelled at Peter about the Ferry – it was one of the Worst Moments. And then he took the suit away. Was it really to keep Peter out of endangering himself, or was it to stop anyone from associating the tech with Iron Man? It could’ve been that he was planning on keeping tabs or even giving it back after a ‘grounding’ period, but the reality is that he gave it back after Peter did him another favor; he seemed useful again.  

 

“Are you listening, kid?”

 

He shakes his head, then realizes that’s wrong and nods instead. “Yes, yes sir,” he says, getting out of the car. “I’ll be right back, I got this.”

 

And he does have this – he doesn’t let anything get destroyed this time. Though the thoughts about Ed keep churning in the back of his mind, and he questions that. He should ask Tony for advice about Ed; he would probably know what to do. Maybe, maybe he can even get Ed to sign an NDA to make sure he doesn’t leak Peter’s secret. He’s got the money and power to do that, right? And Ed is wrong about him. He will care.

 

Decisively, he has Karen call for the police to pick up the criminals and then swings off to change back before meeting up with Tony again. 

 

When he gets there, Tony is outside leaning against his car, sunglasses on, and there is a small group of people – fans, by the look of them – surrounding him. He doesn’t seem to see Peter because he’s answering their questions. Some people do, though, because their eyes turn toward him as he approaches, awkwardly sticking his hands in his pockets and sidling up to Tony. 

 

“Hey,” he says, and Tony looks at him sharply, frowning. The small crowd, in turn, looks at him. 

 

“... Pete,” he says. He sounds like – like Peter doesn’t know what. Weird. 

 

“Hey, Mr. Stark, sorry I took so long,” he says softly, annoyed by the group and waiting for Tony to dismiss them and get them out of there so they can get the Ed thing figured out. But Tony doesn’t move.

 

“Who’s he?” one of the girls in the front asks, turning on Peter curiously.

 

Tony suddenly becomes animated again, drawing everyone's gaze back to himself. 

 

"This kid," he says in the tone of a joke, giving Peter's shoulder a quick, rough shake. "He’s a big fan. We go back, but you know –  well, unfortunately I can't stay and chat about it.” Glancing at Peter over the rims of his glasses significantly, he adds, “I was here waiting for Spider-Man, but he can call me if he needs me. In case we need to rendezvous elsewhere .”

 

He turns and unlocks the driver door. Peter stares after him, feeling very confused. Just before revving the engine, Tony gives Peter another indiscernible look, then leaves him standing in the dirty snow of the gutter. Turning around, he sees the people dispersing disappointedly, though a couple throw him judgemental looks. "Some fan. You made him leave," someone mutters. "What are you, a stalker?"

 

Peter belatedly opens his mouth, as though he could ask what just happened, though no one is left to answer. He closes his mouth. Feels himself going cold inside. 

 

His socks are going soggy with melted snow, so, slowly, he turns and begins walking home alone. The entire interaction starts to play on repeat in his mind, with one very unwelcome overlaying commentary:

 

“He’s protecting his image. Spider-Man is associated with Iron Man, that’s what he cares about. I can’t imagine he actually wants anything to do with Peter Parker .”

 

Did Tony… did he really not want Peter embarrassing him in front of random fans ? That can’t be what happened. Except, that could explain why he didn’t want to be in a video with Peter for his project. And… looking back, didn’t he only ever contact Peter when he needed Spider-Man as a non-lethal weapon on his side?

 

He wants him as Spider-Man only

 

Just like Toomes suggested, just like Ed pointed out. It’s not even his fault that he’s trying to keep unwanted attachments from being made; there's no reason for it. Peter isn't much compared to him. Tony is brilliant and collected. Peter babbles like an idiot whenever an adult gives him attention. How long has Tony been trying to tell him – probably in kind, subtle ways – that he doesn’t want to be that adult?

 

 

When he’s kicking off his wet sneakers several miles later, he sees a few notifications and of course the first one is a text from Ed that reads, Hey Peter … are we good? Because I need a Christmas favor ...

 

He throws his phone into the closet and leaves it there for two days.

 

…  

 

“Peter?” May says, knocking on his door briefly before opening it up. “You have a visitor, hon.” 

 

He perks up from where he’s watching Vine compilations on his laptop. “What?”

 

She holds up her phone. “Oddly enough, Ed is texting me for you . He said he’s been trying to get ahold of you because you left something at his house when you went over a while back. He’s downstairs waiting with it.”

 

“Oh.” Peter puts his face in his pillow and scowls. It has to happen sometime, might as well be now. “Okay, I’ll go talk to him.”

 

“Is everything alright, baby? You’ve been … not active.”

 

He smiles half-heartedly at her as he gets up. “I’m okay. Hibernating is a part of winter break.”

 

“Hmm,” she tuts, hooking a finger under his chin and scanning his face. “Well, don’t hibernate too hard. It’s Christmas Eve after all.”

 

He shivers when he gets outside but sure enough Ed is waiting at the bottom of the stairs.

 

“Pete!” he says, releasing a visible breath. “Sorry to lie to your aunt but you’ve been dodging my texts and I have something really important –”

 

“No,” Peter says. “No, whatever it is, no, I don’t want to. It’s not that I don’t like helping, I know I can do things you can’t and that might make me selfish, but I really, really can’t take it anymore.”

 

Ed stares at him, face dumbfounded. “What? No, kid, please – these guys I’m friends with, they’re having a party tonight and I just, I told them I’d bring Spider-Man because they saw my pics and a chick I’m into will be there and I’ll look so stupid if you don’t come!”

 

Peter swallows. “That’s your problem,” he says firmly. 

 

“Man, a good superhero would do this for me!”

 

“Goodbye, Ed.” 

 

He starts to leave. He only makes it a few steps, barely starting to feel free at last when Ed speaks again in a different sort of tone – more urgent – and cold dread fills him from head to toe.

 

“And what happens if your secret gets out?”

 

Peter freezes. “What?”

 

“Your secret identity? It’s so important to you but … you can be pretty careless with it. Wouldn't be surprised if it got leaked anonymously.” 

 

He slowly turns back, and the odd mix of anxiety and calm in Ed’s expression and stance reminds Peter of a criminal holding a gun to a hostage for his own safety.

 

“May would be so worried and Mr. Stark – I mean, if he does care about you, I can’t see him sticking around if that happens. Iron Man financing a 16-year-old vigilante? The media would go nuts.”

 

“You wouldn’t.”

 

“Wouldn’t I?”

 

“You don’t have any proof.”

 

“Who says I need any? An accusation would be enough to spotlight you.”

 

He’s right and Peter knows it. He closes his eyes, feeling pained and almost light-headed. This is really happening. 

 

“... fine.”

 

 

He tells May he’s going to bed early, then leaves through his window at 10PM.

 

When he gets there, he knows it’s the right place because Ed is waiting for him outside, tapping his foot. He lights up when Peter lands in front of him, and the sight makes Peter’s heart sink a little more. He tries to focus on numbing himself, of getting through this. He doesn’t say anything, just allows himself to be led as Ed wraps an arm over his shoulder and takes him inside. It almost reminds him of Liz’s party, the difference being he knows right away that this not a party he would be allowed at by May. And that he has no option to back out of being a party trick.

 

The ambience within is dim, lit mostly by intricate chandeliers here and there, and the smell of cigarette smoke immediately gives Peter’s lungs phantom pains from his asthma days. There is music playing, but it’s soft and jazzy, clearly not a high school or even college party where it would be loud and meant for dancing. The middle-aged men (and some younger women) are well-dressed and milling around or simply standing or lounging on furniture and talking to one another, champagne glasses or beer bottles in their hands. Some are gathered around a pool table where a game is happening, some are playing darts. The largest group is lounging in an arrangement of couches and loveseats facing a lit fireplace and centered by a glass table of expensive-looking snacks and an ashtray. 

 

Everyone looks at him when he walks in, some with faces of surprise, others of interest.

 

“Hey everyone, look who I brought! You may have heard of him, ha-ha, but this is my pal Spider-Man .” Ed says it with flair. When there’s no immediate reaction, he nudges Peter’s side and says, “Say hi, pal .”

 

Peter raises a hand and waves unenthusiastically. 

 

A large man with a couple young ladies on each side of him and a cigar in his mouth suddenly stands and throws out his arms. “Well, I’ll be, Edwin. You really do have ties to the Webslinger,” he chuckles. “Please, make yourselves at home – especially you, Mr. Man .”

 

Laughter follows this lame joke, and the party members come to life again as Ed and Peter join the central group. The stragglers around the house make their way over, watching curiously. 

 

“How do we know he’s really the guy?” asks one fellow with a thick New York accent. 

 

“Yeah, how do we know Ed didn’t just pay a homeless man to dress up and show up? I think we all know it’s somethin’ he would do,” someone else points out, bringing on further jeers and commentary.

 

Ed laughs along nervously. “G-guys, come on – don’t you think I can keep a simple promise?”

 

“No, no, my compatriot has a point,” says the big man, who seems to be the leader, possibly the owner of the extravagant home. He reminds Peter of a shark, which is strangely reinforced when he sees that one of his front teeth is a gold implant. His carefully crafted numbness is challenged significantly by the shivers up his spine when the man turns a scrutinizing look on him, now standing alone by the central glass table. Like the sacrifice in the center of a Roman arena. 

 

“Can he do a flip?” one of the younger ladies suggests.

 

“Yeah, stick to the wall, Spider-freak!” There are murmurs of agreement. 

 

The big man holds his hand up for quiet. “If you would, Mr. Man. Show us a trick.”

 

Peter sees Ed looking intensely at him from the spot where he’s taken a seat next to a woman who must be the one he wants to impress. He catches Peter’s look and mouths ‘secret .’ Peter’s stomach twists, and he looks away.

 

He bends down deep and leaps upward in one swift motion. Gasps and a woman’s hushed shriek of delight meet him from below as he turns himself so that he’s gripping the ceiling from behind. Ed looks on smugly, whispering something to the woman at his side. As Peter lowers himself upside down on a string of webbing, the big man in charge claps his hands in slow applause.

 

“Very good,” he says. “I think we can say for sure we have the right spider. What an honor. Would you care for a drink, Webs?”

 

Peter touches down on the carpet again and shakes his head. A girl behind him reaches out and rubs a long-nailed hand up his arm, making him startle and step away. “Aw, maybe he prefers flies,” she says in a nasally voice. “Do you eat flies?”

 

“No,” Peter says, backing into the least-occupied area of the circle. Snickers follow him.

 

“Why so shy, honey?” another girl asks.

 

“People say they can’t get you to shut up out on the streets,” a man agrees.

 

“Yeah, tell us about yourself!”

 

The closeness of all of them, their focused attention and obvious amusement at his expense – it’s all making his senses start to dial up the way they do when he’s anxious. His composure, if he had any, is slipping out from under him. It feels too warm in here.

 

“Um,” Peter stammers. “I – I don’t know what you want me to – ah !”

 

He claps his hands over his ears, hunching in on himself as the sound of a high-pitched whine rings out. Wincing but keeping his eyes open, he sees that he’s the only one who seems to hear it – the faces of everyone else watch him either blankly or with some level of confusion. 

 

“What’s that n-noise?” he asks, looking around. It doesn’t seem to have an obvious source.

 

Suddenly it cuts out and Peter sags. He happens to meet gazes with the leader, who has his lighter in one hand and a fresh cigar in the other. Raising an eyebrow, the guy lifts his lighter hand and says, “This noise?” He flicks it on, and again Peter’s ears are assaulted. His lip curls upward when Peter flinches and nods tightly.

 

“I don’t hear anything,” says the lady at Ed’s side. There are murmurs of agreement.

 

“You kids ever heard of a Mosquito Alarm?” the man asks, finally lighting his cigar and setting the lighter – now quiet – aside. “It’s a fancy box that some people set up outside’a stores to keep pesky kids from loiterin’. You know why? Why is because it emits an unpleasant-soundin' frequency that’s high-pitched enough that people over thirty can’t hear it. I understand the same sound is occasionally emitted by various appliances, such as electric lighters. It seems our guest here has –” his tone turns into mock-baby-talk “– vewy sensitive heawing .” 

 

As the party guests have done with all of the ringleader’s lame jokes, they laugh uproariously. His large mass vibrates with laughter as well and he stands and leans right into Peter’s personal space.

 

“How bout it, friend, you a little guy under there?” he says, blowing a puff of smoke into Peter’s face. 

 

Peter coughs, turning away. His face burns with embarrassment. He feels caged. He feels like this might be the worst moment of his life. 

 

He instinctively dodges to the left, and something flies past his head and into the wall – a feathered dart from the dart game. “What the heck?” he mutters, spinning around to see the party goer who threw it grinning unrepentantly. Frustration sets his jaw. “What was that for?”

 

“You put a buddy of mine in the slammer. He said you dodged a bullet from behind like you had eyes in the back of your head or somethin’,” says the one with the Brooklyn accent, shrugging. “I wanted to see if he was exaggerating. Apparently not.”

 

“Do you have eyes in the back of your head, Spidey?”

 

“Ew, do you think he really does? I mean –”

 

“Show us your extra set of eyes!”

 

“Can you dodge this , Webhead –”

 

And then things are being lobbed at him. More darts, spare change from people’s pockets, things Peter doesn’t even see – because the rate of ammunition builds and boxes him in on with his back to the fireplace and he’s trying to avoid the sharper and heavier objects but he feels like an idiotic cartoon character, he feels like he can’t think because he’s trapped in too many ways at once and there’s nothing he can think to do but move in place like he’s actually dancing for their entertainment. He makes pathetic, aborted noises of protest that die under the cruel noises of delight from those around him, people shouting “Got him with a dime, did you see –” or “Ooh, just missed –” or “Come on, little lady, take a shot at the amazing spider-monkey –”

 

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE--

 

Peter claps his hands over his ears as the unexpected and anxiety-amplified invisible noise comes back, and it happens just in time for the black billiard ball to slam into his gut. He falls to his knees, gasping for air that won’t come because his lungs were just forcefully emptied. The laughter around him sounds warped, circusy. Distantly, whoever thought to flick on the lighter is being lauded.

 

“Enough with the fun, let’s see who’s actually under here.”

 

Peter shoots up and catches the wrist of the hand reaching for his mask. He still can’t quite breathe right, but he has enough energy to shove the person back and web their fist to the wall. The laughter dies out and in an instant there are two guns aimed at Peter, others gasping and backing away.

 

For the first time since they got there, Ed speaks up sounding nervous, “G-guys, come on – he’s a little riled up, let him be.”

 

“Aaand, posted!” the nasally-voiced woman says, holding up a jewel-encrusted iPhone, seemingly oblivious to the tense turn of events. “You’re welcome, Twitter. This vid is a viral-to-be.”

 

“You should tag Tony Stark on the post,” the big man suggests, turning his words on Peter even as mortification fills Peter’s veins, brain still processing that the last thirty seconds were being filmed. “Make it a message. That he and his ‘underling’ should stay out of my business. I’m afraid … I can’t let you leave here tonight.”

 

Oh.

 

Oh.

 

This is Kingpin. 

 

In a split second Peter has the guns webbed away from their holders and pinned to the wall, and in the next second he’s shoving the big man heavily into the couch, where he wastes no time webbing him into immobilization. “Karen, have a police unit sent to this location, stat,” he orders, and in his peripheral vision the guests scramble like rabbits over furniture – some making for the door, others groping for further weapons and yelling to one another or at him. The ones who stay are webbed up like Christmas gifts within moments.

 

“You little –!” Kingpin shouts, before Peter webs his mouth shut. He continues to shout muffled threats.

 

The only one left in the end is Ed, who stands frozen by the door, a horrified look on his face. Peter walks right past him and out into the night air.

 

“Dude!” Ed calls, tripping after him. “Man, listen – I’m sorry, I didn’t know they were gonna be like that, I didn’t know they were that deep in crap. Listen, they said they were gonna cut me in on some deal if I proved myself and, the cash, man, I need the –”

 

Peter stops listening. Karen informs him that the police are aware of the situation and on their way and that’s good enough. He shoots two webs out, wraps them around his wrists and springs himself into the air, thinking of nothing but the rush of wind in his ears.

 

Or trying. Trying desperately. Trying desperately not to think about anything.

 

He’s failing.

 

 

“Look at him go, wow,” the woman holding the phone narrates over the visual of Spider-Man jumping around flying objects. “ Ohhhh !” she croons in mock sympathy, as the 8 Ball sinks him. “Rough day .” The camera flips so that her thickly made-up face is shown. “ Your friendly neighborhood joke , ladies and gentlemen.” The video is tagged @therealtonystark. Tony Stark will see this, if he hasn’t already. Tony Stark, who already doesn’t have much reason to stick around.

 

The browser in his HUD closes, and his hands tremble as he pulls his mask off his head, back in the darkness of his bedroom. He presses the spider emblem to loosen his suit but can’t bring himself to get up, so he just lays there where he collapsed on the floor under his window. There’s a blanket within reach, and he pulls that over himself in lue of taking two steps into bed. It is 1AM on Christmas Day.

 

He cries.

 

 

It’s awful, but he lets May think he’s sick the next day. He pulls himself into the shower and into clothes at some point around 3AM, shoving his smoke-scented suit under his bed and finally succumbing to sleep. He’s vaguely aware of his aunt coming in sometime when the light coming through the window is a little brighter. His eyes are crusted shut, his vision a bit blurry, but he’s aware of her touching his forehead and tucking his blankets around him and shutting the door softly on her way out. Then he allows sleep to pull him into nothingness again. 

 

When he slowly surfaces into reality again around 10AM, it takes him awhile to pull completely into awareness, and when he does remember, he wishes he could keep sleeping. 

 

Who’s seen the video already? Tony? Ned? What will they say – what will May say, considering that it’s clear evidence he lied and snuck out? Is there any sane way to explain how he ended up there? There isn’t. This is just his fault, his all-around ineptitude, unable to keep his secret, unable to confront Ed properly before it got so bad, unable to – to get out of going last night, to letting them do that to him. He can lift a bus but he can’t stand up to people. And it just goes to show that the only worthwhile part of Peter Parker is, as everyone knows, Spider-Man. 

 

His stomach chooses that moment to remind him that it does not care about his mental turmoil, because he has not eaten in too many hours for its liking. Peter sits up, sighing. Flexing his hearing, he picks up on May in her room watching the Hallmark channel. Guilt momentarily stings his heart for reducing her holiday to that. Still, he tiptoes past her bedroom on the way to the kitchen. He has to tell her everything, he knows, he just needs – he needs a brief reprieve to mindlessly eat cereal first. 

 

He’s standing at the kitchen island doing just that, staring off into nothing, when there’s a knock at the door.

 

Immediately he looks towards May’s room in the way of hoping she will hear it and come rescue him from social interaction, but her TV stays on and he resigns himself to answering it himself. The only person he can think would come on Christmas Day would be one of her coworkers with a plate of treats, and he can probably fake a smile long enough to accept that.

 

Except, when he opens the door, the visitor is none other than Tony Stark – in a Santa hat, with a present under his arm. When Peter just stands there, mouth open in shock, Tony raises a peace sign and says, “Ho-ho-happy holidays.” Peter’s brain feels broken.

 

Tony lowers the hand. “So, can I come in or what?”

 

On default, Peter steps aside, holding the door open wider. Tony strolls in, taking in the red and green fairy lights strung around the corners of the room and the mini Christmas tree on their coffee table, hung with mainly handmade ornaments from Peter’s younger years. Peter imagines Stark Industries’ bathrooms have more expensive decorations, and he doesn’t know what to say as Tony wordlessly sets his present down next to others on the coffee table and has a seat on the couch, taking off his hat. Peter follows him but doesn’t sit down.

 

“So …” Tony says, clearly expecting something to finally come out of Peter’s mouth. When it doesn’t, the man clears his throat. “First off, I just want to know: do you ever answer your phone? That thing with the cracks all over it, that still works, right? Because if not we’ll get you a new one. Probably should anyway.”

 

Peter’s hands clench at his sides. 

 

“Item two: I’d love for you to tell me about your night last night.”

 

Peter looks up. Tony is staring at him seriously despite his casual tone of voice, and he imagines what his own appearance must be from an outside perspective – rumpled pajamas, red-rimmed eyes, beat-down aura. In spite of that, he knows it’s not Peter’s sleep that Tony is asking about. He’s seen the video. And suddenly, without explanation, Peter feels tired of only ever being angry on the inside. His eyes return to the carpet.

 

“What do you care?” 

 

Tony’s eyebrows raise. “Excuse me?”

 

“I know I embarrass you, Mr. Stark,” Peter says, turning away. “Your investment is in Spider-Man, not Peter Parker, but guess what? That’s me . That’s me that some stupid fluke spider bit and that’s the only reason you’re here so – so maybe we should stop – pretending otherwise –” He swallows.

 

He hears Tony get to his feet. His voice is quiet now, concerned. “Where is this coming from, kid?” 

 

Peter shakes his head; regret for saying anything is already welling up. There’s a beat of silence.

 

“I took the video down, if you’re wondering.”

 

He looks at Tony sharply. “You did what?”

 

Tony nods, studying Peter’s face as he speaks. “I have FRIDAY send me notifications anytime you’re in the news – be it the Washington Post or John Doe’s Instagram account. It was only up for about thirty minutes before I realized, I’m sorry about that, but I did hack and delete it and any and all versions of it that were reproduced on the internet shortly after.” He lets that sink in, then continues, “And if this has anything to do with the other day… You should know that I was trying to protect your identity on both accounts. Re: do you check your phone? I thought I cued you with the ‘ Spider-Man can call me ’ line but apparently not. I drove around the block to wait to get you until the crowd was gone. How do you think it would look if, thirty minutes after the paparazzi sees Spider-Man getting into a car with Iron Man, some fans with social media accounts see Tony Stark in his car with Peter Parker? I sent you about fifty messages and missed calls but you ditched me. Same sort of deal with the school project: it’s one thing to tell your friends that we work together, but it takes months of haggling for interviewers to secure anything with me. If kids with cell phones got it out that I dropped all that regulation for a high school intern, there would be the start of conspiracy theories about who you could be . If you want to tell people, let me know, but as long as you want to stay secret there are things we’ve gotta keep in mind. Do you see what I’m saying, Pete?”

 

Relief. Hope. Confusion. More self-deprecation. Doubts that won’t let go. It all dawns on him as he stares wide-eyed at his mentor during his speech. Peter puts his hands on his forehead, face crumpling. “That – okay, that makes sense. I just – I don’t know what’s going on with me,” he whispers.

 

A warm hand grips his shoulder.

 

 “Get cleaned up, kid. Let’s go for a walk.”

 

 

A heads-up to May, change of clothes and short drive later, Tony and Peter sit across from one another at a booth at one of the few places open on a major holiday: Starbucks' Coffee. There’s one employee behind the counter, an elderly man who’s mostly focused on the football game on his small tv set on the counter. He smiles and brings them their orders rather than calling them up, and Peter stares at the melting marshmallows in his hot chocolate quietly as Tony (who doesn’t seem to be recognized) exchanges a good-natured holiday greeting with him. When he leaves them, there is only the sound of the small TV and the quiet holiday music over the speakers once more. Peter can feel Tony’s stare.

 

“Sure is cold out now. How’s that coat, kid?” Tony asks, eyeing Peter’s threadbare jacket. 

 

He shrugs one shoulder.

 

Tony seems comfortable to wait in silence. He hums along to the song playing and sips his own drink. “Peppermint mocha,” he says thoughtfully, looking at it. “I’m not usually one for the sugary stuff, but this isn’t bad. What do you think, kid?”

 

Peter’s gaze falls on the red-striped cup, then trails up to Tony’s face. “I can’t eat candy canes anymore,” he says, choking up.

 

Tony squints. “What?”

 

“I can’t –” Peter takes a breath, and then something releases inside of him. “I can’t eat them anymore because something happened to my taste buds or something, and Ned thinks it’s spider-related because spiders don’t like peppermint but how is that fair, Mr. Stark? It’s not fair.” He covers his face.

 

“Okay, it’s okay –”

 

“I know it doesn’t matter. Yeah, nevermind, nevermind, that’s not what’s wrong. I – I need help.” He takes a shuddering breath. “This guy, Ed, he – he seemed like not a bad guy at first, like he seemed nice and I didn’t mind doing things for him, really. Because that’s all I want to do is help people, but that doesn’t mean I want to be taken advantage of all the time! He was always saying, ‘Oh, you’re selfish because you have those powers to yourself’– or he wasn’t, but it felt like he was, and I have enough of an internal guilt complex over not doing enough without that lovely reinforcement, thanks. Plus he – he knows . Mr. Stark. He knows about me, I didn’t mean for him to but I made a mistake and now he says if I don’t do things for him – like that p-party – he’s gonna tell, and then May won’t be safe and – I just don’t know what to do, I need help, please, Mr. Stark.” 

 

He doesn’t have it in himself to feel embarrassed that he’s practically crying in front of his hero. He doesn’t care. He just wants someone to understand, and to tell him that he’s not as big of a screw-up as he feels, that his errors here are valid but they can be fixed. 

 

Tony looks startled by the outburst at first but his face grows concerned. When Peter stops for air at last, he says, in a voice that’s gentle enough to break him, “Slow down, bud. Breathe.” He reaches across the table and squeezes Peter’s arm. “I’m getting bits and pieces of this story, but I need you to take it from the top for me before I can help. Who is this guy? What happened?”

 

Peter tells him everything. From the mistake of revealing himself to Ed, to the build-up of the man’s insensitive and seemingly pointless requests, to his threat about the party and what happened there. He closes his eyes when he talks about Ed’s comments on Tony himself, unable to look at him as he admits it because – “I didn’t want it to be true because I – I really – I like having you as a mentor, Mr. Stark.” There’s a beat of silence before he picks up, and he doesn’t stop again. 

 

Tony interrupts only minimally to ask clarifying questions. Halfway through he steeples his fingers and rests them against his mouth, his eyes never leaving Peter. When it’s all out in the open, he looks down at his cup and twists it in his hands a few times, brow furrowed.

 

When Peter is done, he says without preamble, “You know, I had a mentor once.” He looks at Peter gaugingly. “He – you might remember him. Obidiah Stane? You might not have even been out of diapers back then.”

 

Thickly, Peter says, “I was six in 2008, Mr. Stark, not two.” 

 

The man huffs a laugh. “Okay, still very much a baby. Born in 2002, my gosh…” He looks at Peter with something in his expression, something nervous, like Peter scares him – no, like being responsible for Peter scares him. Because Tony Stark works with metals and technology that he breaks all the time but which is far sturdier in its entirety than one kid who looks at him like he hung the stars. Then the look is gone, and Peter isn’t sure how he got that much out of it, but it feels like a revelation.

 

“Anyway. Obi ran the company when I was a bit older than you and when I took over, he was never quite satisfied with that – more unsatisfied than I knew, in the end, when he tried to have me killed and then donned a ripoff suit to kill me himself. But that’s old news. Everybody and their dog has tried to do that. It’s almost easier when someone is openly antagonistic – because then the thing is that, well, it’s out in the open. They don’t like you, you acknowledge, and then it’s dealt with. Some people, though ... people like Obi, like this Ed guy … they’re trickier. Obi knew how to … play on my weak spots. Make me feel small. He’d say things in just such a way. He’d hang his experience over me, make demeaning moves that felt impossible to call out. Even after Afghanistan, it was, ‘I’m doing this because I care about you’. Et cetera.” 

 

Tony sips his drink then winces. “Just made it about me, didn’t I? Sorry, I have a point.”

 

“No, I – that helps,” Peter says. “Ed is… like Obidiah?”

 

“In one way. He’s a practiced manipulator,” Tony confirms, nodding. “And sometimes we don’t see that when the situation is happening because, well, it’s easy to make excuses for them. They make it that way on purpose, once they have your weaknesses memorized. And kid, you – you especially, you have the best heart of anyone I’ve ever known –” (Peter’s face heats and he looks down at his hands) “ – of course you would want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Don’t blame yourself for what he’s done.”

 

“I still … I feel like I could’ve stood up for myself,” Peter mutters. “I feel so stupid that I let any of this happen, that I didn’t get rid of him on my own.”

 

“Boundaries are hard,” Tony agrees. “You can work on it. You’re a pretty well-rounded kid, had to have a weakness somewhere. Plus everyone needs help sometimes.” He smiles encouragingly as Peter looks up again.

 

“What if he tells? My secret, what if – I can’t –”

 

“Deep breath again,” Tony says, then actually waits until Peter does so. “You’ve got me now, kid. I’m gonna start figuring something more permanent out posthaste, but for now it shouldn’t be too hard to get FRIDAY spying on all his devices and catch anything he tries.” 

 

“Okay,” Peter breathes, feeling hopeful for real. “Okay. Thank you, Mr. Stark. Thank you.”

 

“Don’t mention it. Now drink up. I spent $4.99 on that sugar water.” The smile lines around his eyes betray the order, and Peter gives a small (but real) laugh.

 

As he swallows the now-lukewarm cocoa, he’s suddenly plopped on the head with something soft – Tony’s santa hat – and, looking up through the white fluff now framing his vision, he sees Tony on his feet and stretching his arms above his head dramatically. 

 

“Gosh, look at that,” he says, looking out the frosted windows. “It’s snowing again. Must be Christmas or something.”

 

“Was that today?” Peter quips.

 

“Guess I better deposit you back home or something – after we stop and get you a new coat, I mean.” He slaps a tip on the table for the old man, and Peter notes that it’s far more than their orders combined. “I did already get you a gift but that was before I knew you’d capture Kingpin – or Wilson Fisk, I should say – single handedly on a holiday, huh? That overtime behavior is unacceptable.”

 

“Mr. Stark – you don’t have to –”

 

“Ah, no whining ‘Mr. Stark’ on Christmas.” He wraps an arm around Peter’s shoulders in a side hug as they walk outside. He gives them a friendly shake and says, “You’re a good kid, Peter. I like being your mentor, too,” just before releasing him and heading to the driver’s side door. Peter looks after him, stalled momentarily before he smiles and hurries to the passenger side. Tony honks the horn while he’s opening the door and calls “Let’s go, slowpoke!”, pulling even more laughter out of Peter as the car peels away.

 

… 

 

“Ready, kid?”

 

Peter nods, then shakes his head, then groans. “I don’t know.”

 

Tony pats his back. “Perfect. Go for it.”

 

Peter holds his breath, and knocks on Ed’s door.

 

It’s two days after Christmas. Peter finally dug his phone out of a pile of laundry in the closet and went through all the missed messages there, many of which were from both Tony and Ed. May was obviously curious and concerned about everything, so Peter came clean with her as well (though he held back some of the self-deprecation, having processed that somewhat with Tony). She, of course, was upset that he kept it from her, but she hugged him over and over and told him how sorry she was for letting Ed around in the first place, which he rebutted with the fact that she had no way of knowing he was so lousy. They ended up spending the rest of the day on their family traditions (shaping, baking and frosting sugar cookies while cheesy movies played in the background, and delivering a few plates to the neighbors and the hospital for staff who were working the holiday). May got Peter a new backpack (“So you have a back-up for the next one you lose”) and a new pair of headphones. He got her a nicely framed photo of she, Peter, and Ben, which made them both emotional. 

 

The present from Mr. Stark was a new computer with a note that said “as much fun as dumpster diving is, I think you’ll like this better”. Peter spent the whole day after Christmas just messing around on it and yeah, it was pretty sick.

 

But then, today, Tony had showed up at his door again, this time with some sort of legal documents in his hands. “Let’s nail ourselves a spineless wonder.”

 

And now.

 

“Peter! Good to see –” Ed starts, opening the door, but then his eyes bulge when he takes in Tony Stark also on his doorstep. “ Holy – Tony Stark? Dude. Dude, what –”

 

“Please don’t refer to me in any familiar way,” Tony drawls, pushing past him into the house. Peter glances between him and Ed quickly before following. 

 

Ed shuts the door and turns around, hands fidgeting at his sides. “Uh – what’s up, guys? I mean, what’s up Peter and – sir?”

 

Tony clasps his hands behind his back and takes slow, casual steps around Ed’s apartment. “I’m gonna give it to you straight, Ed. I’ve done some digging. You’re guilty of a number of illegal things in the State of New York from tax evasion to identity theft and if you don’t want to call jail ‘home’ for a few years, I suggest you read and sign the very fun non-disclosure agreement that Peter’s got there. Or, don’t bother reading – you have no choice either way. You understand how that works, don’t you? Taking away someone’s choices? Should sound familiar.”

 

Ed stares blankly at Tony, then Peter, then back again. He exhales sharply, an uncomfortable smile on his face. “Wh-wh-what? What do you – I’m not following. This is a joke, right?”

 

Tony pauses and turns toward him. “Do I look like I’m joking?”

 

Ed swallows, looks at Peter. “Pete,” he says. “Ha-ha, you got me. I said I was sorry about … what happened. You forgive me, right? That’s the right thing to do and you always do the right thing.”

 

Peter steels his nerves and doesn’t let himself look to Tony. “No, Ed. That’s not the right thing. I don’t like how you’ve been taking advantage of me, and it stops now.”

 

His resolve shivers when Ed just laughs. “Taking advantage?” he says. “You agreed to everything I asked, you – well, okay, the thing the other night was my bad, but it won’t happen again, come on, man.”

 

“It stops now,” Peter repeats simply, holding out the papers. Ed looks at him with a slightly injured expression, but it quickly hardens into something dark and bitter. He snaps the papers into his hands and looks at them, shuffling through the pages.

 

“A restraining order , are you serious?” he sputters. “At risk of incarceration? That’s ridiculous!”

 

“Again – is it more or less ‘ridiculous’ than me calling you a ride to the police station right now?” Tony says, stepping closer.

 

“You don’t have any proof that I’ve done anything wrong!”

 

“Oh, but I do. Quite the paper trail you left. Not even clumsily hidden.”

 

“This is so unnecessary!”

 

“No, see, it is necessary, because I care about the confidentiality of my intern’s identity. Sign the papers, Ed. It’s a standard gag: you don’t talk, we don’t talk. Or should I make a call?” 

 

Right in front of him now, Tony reaches into his coat pocket and retrieves a pen, which he holds out to Ed. When the man just continues to stare, Tony nods to the papers in a gesture hinting that he is running out of patience.

 

Ed’s incredulous expression slowly morphs into a scowl. It’s more hateful than Peter could’ve pictured on his usually laid-back features. He grabs the pen and takes it and the papers to the counter, where he leans over and signs in all the specified places. When he’s done, Tony looks it over carefully and nods in satisfaction

 

“Excellent. That’ll be all for now, unless you violate any conditions. Come on, Pete.” 

 

As Tony turns away and Peter steps forward, Ed turns the full force of his hostility on Peter himself.

 

“I see you got ‘Iron-dad’ to play your bank after all, kid,” he snarls. “How’d you do it? Play into pity with the orphan card? No, with Tony Stark, it’s more likely that you stroked his pride. Did you offer to shine his armor? Maybe you did him some other kinds of favors –” 

 

The lewd implication is cut off when Tony suddenly strikes him with a knee to the crotch. Ed collapses.

 

“He’s not like you , dipstick,” he hisses over Ed’s moans of pain. “He has more integrity in any one cell than you have in your entire body. Come near him again and see what happens . Catch you never, I hope.”

 

And with that, he coolly steps around Ed’s form and gestures for Peter. Peter hurriedly follows, looking back only once before he shuts the door. 

 

And then he’s free.

 

 

“That went well,” Tony says as they descend the steps to the garage. When Peter snorts, Tony looks at him and amends, “Well, it’s probably frowned upon that I kicked him in the nuts but he definitely deserved it.”

 

“I didn’t say anything,” Peter says, shrugging. Tony knocks his head lightly.

 

They’re nearly to the car when it happens.

 

Peter’s senses ring out and he follows the intuitive motion of bowling Tony over. Before they’ve hit the icy asphalt, a shot rings out and the car in front of where Tony was takes a bullet hole.   

 

“Well, I probably should’ve expected that,” says a Brooklyn accent from behind. Peter leaps up and spins around.

 

It’s one of the guys from the party, one of the ones who got away. He smiles cruelly at Peter’s startled face.

 

“Aw, he’s practically a baby after all,” he croons, stepping closer. “Thought I’d find out who you were if I did a little stakeout, after all the bragging Ed did. What else I got to do now anyway, right? After you cost me my job –”

 

“There are other jobs, less illegal jobs,” Peter says reasonably, pushing his sleeves back so his web shooters have range. Behind him, Tony pushes to his knees.

 

“Yeah, oh, like at convenience stores? Reminds me, that’s where I got this thing –” he slips something out of his pocket.

 

Peter’s web aimed to yank the gun out his hand misses wildly when he suddenly flinches, ears going up around his shoulders as the mosquito alarm clutched in the guy’s hand rings out invisibly. It’s not an actual weapon, but it’s heavily concentrated enough to be painfully annoying. “I think you’re overestimating how much of an inconvenience that thing is for me,” Peter informs without amusement.

 

The man frowns. Instead he turns the gun on Tony, who is now standing again. That makes Peter tense.

 

“No wrong moves,” the guy says, looking between them. “Huh … I thought I’d just shoot the kid as revenge but you’re a fun surprise, Mr. Stark. This changes things.”

 

“Oh good, so you’re gonna leave us and go back to hell,” Tony says. The guys barks a humorless sound, clicking off the safety, prompting Tony put his hands in the air. "Easy, easy,” he says. 

 

There’s a moment where all three look at one another, Peter’s ears begging to be covered. Then Tony speaks again. “Hey, kid, you're good at chores, right? Like opening jars and fixing lights?” 

Peter is baffled by that for the briefest moment before he catches on. “Oh, definitely,” he replies, subtly aiming one of his wrists upward. “Do you have something I can help with?”

 

“What are you talking about?” the guy says, squinting at them. “Are you stupid? Can’t you see I’m holding a gun at –”

 

“Now!” Peter shouts. Simultaneously Tony throws himself to the ground once more in avoidance of possible gunshots and Peter’s web fires, latching onto the heavy light fixture directly over their antagonist. With a heavy yank it comes crashing down onto said antagonist’s head.

 

Peter takes only a brief look to check that the guy is unconscious before snatching the mosquito alarm with another web and winding it around to smash into the concrete wall. Peter relaxes. At the same time, Tony rushes forward and collects the gun, emptying its ammunition into the dirt. When it’s done he shakes out his arms, admitting, “I don’t feel bad anymore about hitting Ed where the sun don’t shine.”

 

“Same,” Peter says. 

 

“Your ears okay?”

 

He grimaces and gives his head a shake. “Fine.” 

 

“Okay, because long exposure to that thing can actually make people sick, you know – at least people who can hear it. So don’t go listening for fun.” 

 

“Wasn’t in my plans, Mr. Stark.”

 

A beat.

 

“Wanna get scones?”

 

“Of course.”

 

And they do. After webbing up their perp and tipping the police, of course – after all the guy never even got Peter’s name.

 

 

On New Year’s Eve, Tony invites both Peter and May to a party at his penthouse in the city. Unlike the time he invited Peter to his Superbowl party, he is actually in attendance. And despite the variety of celebrities also in attendance, Tony beams the brightest when his favorite nobody from Queens shows up. 

 

He gives May a warm greeting and introduces her to someone Peter doesn’t recognize until May mouths “Brad Pitt!?” at him behind her back, then invites Peter on a tour around the place. His eyes get especially wide around the lab, and the projects Tony has in progress there.

 

After Tony makes a comment about needing to show Peter a real lab down at the compound some time, they head up to the party again. Peter nearly dies when he’s introduced as Tony’s intern to various famous people. He may or may not also get sugar high on gourmet cupcakes and proceed to challenge Happy to table tennis in front of everyone (Happy wins and Peter doesn’t care). Later he escapes out to the balcony and finds himself pondering on the events of the past year in general and the past week in specific.

 

“And what do you think you’re doing out here?” Tony asks, coming out behind him after some time. He shivers and tucks his non-drink hand into his coat, meeting Peter at the railing. “Seriously, though, what, because it’s freezing.”

 

“Just… thinking. Remember that time I saved you from the guy shooting at us in the parking garage?”

 

Tony raises an eyebrow. “You mean a couple days ago? Yes, I’m not that old yet.”

 

Peter smiles in spite of himself. “No, I meant – I realized something. My danger sense is usually really, like, finite and concentrated to ‘move now’ and stuff like that. But when I was around Ed, basically from when I met him … I always felt weird inside. I think that was my danger sense too. Ed was bad news but I didn’t recognize it in an out-of-battle context.”

 

“Huh. Nice. Listen to that danger sense.” Tony sips his drink, looking out over the city. They’re at a view that overlooks a night alive with lights and people crowding the streets on their way to Times Square. 

 

“Thanks again for –”

 

Tony sniffs and interrupts. “Whatever. Hey, I have something for you.”

 

“Again, Mr. Stark –“

 

“Shush,” Tony says, reaching into his coat pocket and pulling out a package of something and handing them to Peter. The plastic crinkles as he angles them so the light from indoors shows what’s inside.

 

“I know the season for them has officially ended but, well – if peppermint is the hangup you think it is then these should make a good belated stocking stuffer.”

 

It’s a bag of random flavor assortment candy canes,  the ones with flavors like bubblegum and watermelon. 

 

“If you don’t like those either then that’s really – I mean, you’re on your own because I went to three stores to find them, which you’d think wouldn’t be so hard like why don’t more –”

 

Peter hugs him. 

 

Tony stiffens, then carefully pats Peter’s back. It lasts about three seconds before he pushes the kid away.

 

“You’re kind of okay person, Mr. Stark,” Peter says.

 

Tony pffts , rolling his eyes when Peter laughs. “Back at you, I guess. We could, I mean if you want, hang out outside of work more often. We could do lab days. Every other week or something, with Happy getting you from school. What do you think?”

 

It starts here.