Peter’s fondest childhood memories all took place against a backdrop of vast blue skies.
Happiness, to Peter, was one thing and one thing only: flying. It was that swooping sensation in his stomach, it was the wind twisting in his clothing and his hair, it was the ground and Ben’s waving figure growing smaller and smaller as he soared higher and higher.
Happiness meant the wings between Peter’s shoulder blades and the freedom they allowed him.
Many kids dreamed of being able to fly. They played pretend, flapping their arms as they ran to simulate flying.
Peter didn’t need to dream. Flying had always been a part of his reality.
He knew his wings weren’t normal. He’d never seen anyone else with wings, and strangers always commented on them. Sometimes those comments were aggressive, and Ben or May had to put themselves between Peter and the stranger and tell them to back off.
But Ben and May weren’t always there to defend him. At school, kids always picked on Peter. The wings poking through holes cut in all his clothing made him conspicuous—and an easy target. Still, he learned how to deal with it. Even when the other kids cornered Peter, he could always escape upwards.
Not that the teachers liked it when he flew, either. He couldn’t count how many times he’d got in trouble for it. When specific teachers were particularly unreasonable, he’d even got in trouble just for unfurling his wings to stretch them.
By the time Peter reached high school, he’d learned to keep his wings folded up under a jacket whenever possible. It was just easier that way. People still knew about the wings, still knew he was a freak, but they didn’t pick on him anymore. Well, except Flash. But Peter got the impression Flash would have picked on him anyway, so he ignored him.
Despite everything, he still loved his wings. And whenever Peter felt down, Ben and May were always there to reassure him his wings made him unique, not weird, and to suggest a camping trip that weekend.
Peter lived for their camping trips.
Ben had always loved camping and had passed that love on to Peter. They frequently spent weekends away from the bustle of the city, surrounded by only nature. The forest was always quiet and the wide, open skies were a veritable playground for Peter, far away from the people who hated him for his wings.
The camping trips became a tradition, one of the only times Peter could stretch his wings properly and just fly. Soaring over the tree canopy down below, catching wind currents that pulled him upwards, dipping down to their campsite to scare Ben when he wasn’t expecting it.
May came, too, though she wasn’t really an outdoorsy person. She just loved to watch Peter fly.
The camping trips continued until The Accident.
Peter didn’t remember much about The Accident. He remembered arguing, his and Ben’s voices resounding in their small car, the topic of the argument inconsequential given the aftermath. He remembered crying out in fear as the car swerved, and the one, two, three crushing impacts as multiple cars slammed into each other in the center of the intersection. He remembered blinding pain in his wings, and he remembered Ben, horribly still and covered in blood.
When Peter woke up in the hospital, Ben was gone, and so were his wings.
Gone was Peter’s happiness, replaced by an unstoppable pain, both physical and emotional, where it had once been.
The pain was worse than usual today, but Peter rolled his shoulders and ignored it. Today was Friday, and this was meant to be a good weekend. He wasn’t going to let a little pain get in the way.
He’d already had to remove his backpack and carry it, which was never a good sign. The friction against his scars had caused a cramping sensation in his back so intense that Peter had had to excuse himself from Gym before he’d vomited, passed out, or snapped and tried to punch Flash’s face in. Whichever would have happened first.
With a sigh, Peter yanked his overnight bag out his locker as kids bustled around him, everyone eager to get their weekend started already. He tested the weight of the bag and winced at the strain it caused his back. The damn thing had barely fit in the locker, so he’d had to carry all his books all day to make room for it. That definitely hadn’t helped with his pain.
“Dude,” he heard from behind him. It was Ned, his face lit up and his voice carefully hushed. “Dude, dude, dude. You have to keep me updated. Like, on everything. I want to hear it all.”
Peter slammed his locker shut. “Oh, of course. I’ll document what everyone eats for breakfast, just for you.”
“I know you’re joking but I would totally love that.”
The overnight bag was more than heavy enough to make the pain worse, but Peter only needed to carry it out to the parking lot. And then Happy probably wouldn’t talk to him on the drive up to the compound, so he could take a nap. It’d be okay.
“I probably won’t be seeing the Avengers much anyway,” Peter said as he and Ned started towards the exit. “Mr. Stark said we’ll mostly just be in the lab all weekend.”
“Still. That’s so cool. I can’t believe your life, man. You were just a normal intern, and now you’re hanging out at the Avengers compound? Like, how the hell does that even happen?”
Peter blew out a lungful of air. “I think we have May to blame for that.”
Ned’s eyes widened. “No way?”
“Uh-huh. You should have heard her on the phone with Mr. Stark.”
“Seriously? May is so awesome, man. My mom even makes me make my own doctor’s appointments.”
“What? That’s so uncool!”
Peter’s solution to May going to California for the weekend and Ned’s family not being able to have him stay over was I’ll just stay home by myself, it’ll be fine, I can just eat takeout, May please I’m fifteen I can keep myself alive for one weekend. May’s solution, on the other hand, was to phone Happy, demand to speak to Tony Stark, and then inform Tony Stark that he needed to provide Peter with a place to sleep and three square meals a day for the weekend.
“May!” Peter had squealed when she’d told him. “I can’t stay with Mr. Stark! He’s my boss! And he’s—he’s Iron Man!”
“He’s a responsible adult that I, despite my better judgment, trust,” May had said. “I know you enjoy spending time with him. And he agreed right away.”
“That’s because you can be scary sometimes,” Peter had said. “He was probably too scared to say no.”
But that Wednesday, when Peter had made his way to Avengers Tower for his internship, Tony had seemed perfectly happy with the arrangement. He’d explained his plans for all the work they’d be able to get done and showed no signs he was annoyed at having been effectively press-ganged into hosting him.
Peter squinted as he and Ned stepped out into the sunshine, and he immediately spotted Happy’s shiny black car. Peter had tried to explain to Tony that Happy’s car was pretty conspicuous, but subtle wasn’t really a word in Tony’s vocabulary.
“Right,” Ned said as they stepped out the gate. “So, you keep me updated on the Avengers, and once I get back from my grandma’s tomorrow, I’ll download that new mod pack to test out. Everyone’s been saying it’s kinda difficult to get the hang of so I’ll see if I can do a few test runs—”
Before Ned could finish, something crashed into Peter from behind, hard enough to make him stumble and almost drop his bags. Shooting pain whited out his vision for a moment. Ned grabbed Peter’s arm to steady him, supporting him until he recovered.
Flash jostled past them, sneering over his shoulder as he went.
“Watch where you’re fucking going, freak!” he snapped.
Peter’s chest tightened and he looked away. Ned stepped towards Flash, face twisted in anger, but Peter threw out a hand to stop Ned before he could come to his defense.
“Don’t. He’s not worth it,” said Peter, face burning as though the whole school had seen.
Ned clenched his jaw and shot one last contemptuous glare Flash’s way, but he merely watched as Flash made his way to his car and said nothing. He knew better than anyone that Peter didn’t want to make a scene about anything to do with his wings.
Peter held out his hand, eager to change the subject. “Let me know about the mod pack. Oh, and have fun at your grandma’s.”
Their knuckles cracked as he and Ned did their handshake. “Dude. Have fun at the compound. Which still doesn’t feel real, by the way.”
Peter laughed in agreement. “When it does, I’ll let you know.”
With that, they waved their goodbyes and went their separate ways. Peter couldn’t get to Happy’s car fast enough, and he dropped his bags into the trunk with a deep sigh of relief.
Rolling his shoulders to try and relieve the cramping pain, Peter slid into the backseat. He jumped when he noticed someone else already there.
“Mr. Stark?” He blinked at Tony in surprise, then yanked the door shut behind him before anyone else could notice Tony’s presence. “Oh—hi, Happy!”
Happy rolled his eyes at him in the rearview mirror. “Yeah, yeah. I get it. I’m second best to Tony.”
“Oh, no—that’s not what I—um, what are you doing here, Mr. Stark? I didn’t know you were going to pick me up.”
Peter leaned back against the seat, but it made his back cramp and he struggled to suppress a wince before Tony could notice. Instead, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.
“Well, we were in town. Thought you might want some company for the drive.”
Peter smiled, but inside his heart sank. There went his plan of taking a nap and hopefully waking up pain-free.
Tony didn’t know about his wings. Peter had applied for the internship program well after The Accident and it wasn’t exactly the sort of thing Peter would bring up in the interview. And then after the whirlwind that was finding out Tony Stark himself was interested in hiring him personally, Peter and Tony had settled into a mentor-mentee relationship based upon mutual respect and passion for science.
Iron Man respected Peter. Peter wasn’t that freak kid to Iron Man—he was a kid with potential, one to work with and create with and bounce ideas off of.
Peter wasn’t going to ruin that by telling Tony Stark he was a freak.
People always acted differently once they found out Peter was a freak.
He resisted the urge to reach up and scratch at the skin around his scars, a habit that sometimes helped relieve the pain. If Tony noticed, he might question it, and Peter didn’t want to have to think of a lie.
As it were, he could feel Tony giving him a quick once-over as they joined the line to leave the parking lot. Peter wondered how awful he looked. His bad days always took their toll on his appearance, bruising his under eyes and draining all color from his cheeks. May could tell it was a bad day within seconds of him arriving home, and always dropped everything to make sure Peter was comfortable before insisting he got an early night.
By the time Peter glanced up, however, Tony’s gaze was fixed on something over Peter’s shoulder. Peter followed his eye line straight to—Flash, hanging out by his car with his friends.
“That kid isn’t giving you any trouble, is he?” Tony asked, his voice low.
Shit. Shit, he hadn’t heard Flash call him a freak, had he? No. No way, right? Tony couldn’t have heard. Not from inside the car, with the windows up.
“Uh—no. He’s just a jerk. I don’t care about him.”
Tony didn’t quite look convinced, but thankfully he moved on as they pulled out the parking lot and crept north through heavy traffic.
“Thought we’d take it easy today, kid,” he said breezily, fiddling with his cufflinks. “Maybe order in a pizza, watch a movie. We’ve got the whole weekend to get work done.”
Well, that was uncharacteristic—Tony always wanted to take advantage of their time together by forcing in as much work as humanly possible—so maybe he had noticed Peter looking tired.
“Oh—great!” Peter said, genuinely. Falling asleep during a movie wasn’t as suspicious as passing out at the workbench in the lab.
Tony smiled. “Long week, huh?”
Oh, he definitely looked tired. “Yeah. I have midterms coming up and our updated study guides haven’t arrived yet so none of us really know what’s going on, but our teachers are refusing to cut us any slack for it. And then we have Academic Decathlon nationals coming up too and Liz is holding meets every morning before homeroom and the train timetables changed last week too so I’m always in a rush to get there in time every morning and—yeah.” That, and the slowly spiraling pain as his stress got worse. “Yeah, it’s been a long week.”
Tony nodded. “We’ll take it easy, then. Just wait until you see the home cinema at the compound. You’ll never watch a movie anywhere else ever again.”
Peter smiled, warily shifting his position to try and sit more comfortably without aggravating the pain in his back. “Do you get to do the rich person thing where they send you movies before they’re officially released?”
“Of course!” Tony said, mock offended. “What do you take me for? A millionaire? Of course I get sent movies.”
“Perfect. I’ve actually only been pretending to like you for the sake of getting free movies.”
“You little freeloader.”
Tony reached across to ruffle Peter’s hair, and Peter fought to suppress his wince at the pain shooting down his back.
The home theatre was, in fact, incredible, and it immediately went on Peter’s list of Things to Tell Ned About. There was even a popcorn machine, which to Peter was the height of luxury. He had taken several photos for Ned’s benefit, much to Tony’s amusement.
Unfortunately, the experience of actually watching the movie wasn’t so enjoyable. They had decided it was a great idea to watch the third Harry Potter movie—they had unanimously agreed it was the best—and it had been great, until one certain scene. Peter had had to turn away from the screen as Harry had soared across a lake on Buckbeak’s back, whooping with joy.
He’d forgotten about that scene.
To make matters worse, Peter’s discomfort had grown exponentially throughout the movie and he’d struggled to find a pain-free way to sit. He’d caught a few worried glances from Tony as he’d fidgeted his way through the movie, but thankfully Tony hadn’t said anything.
Eventually, Peter had fallen asleep somewhere before all the time-traveling.
When he woke up, it was in the guest room Tony had shown him to the night before. He still felt groggy, but the sun shone through gaps in the blinds, so he forced himself to sit up and stretch.
Pain zipped through his shoulder blades. Oh, fuck.
Given that he didn’t remember waking up at any point, Tony must have carried him to bed—which was kind of embarrassing—and then laid him down on his back to sleep. He’d woken up on his side, but the damage was done. His back burned with every tiny movement and a cramping sensation where his wings used to be was already driving him insane.
Yesterday had been a bad day, but now today was going to be worse.
And they weren’t just curling up to watch a movie today—they were actually working in the lab.
Peter wasn’t going to be able to do it.
No. He had to. He’d dealt with way worse, back in those first few weeks following The Accident. He’d endured pain so intense he’d been unable to leave his bed, and he’d come out the other side with his head held high. He could survive a weekend in the lab while his phantom pain flared up.
Peter chose to ignore the fact that the pain today was definitely approaching can’t-get-out-of-bed levels.
Deciding to forgo the shower—the drum of water down his shoulders and back tended to just make things worse on his bad days—Peter quickly changed, popped an Ibuprofen, and then headed to the kitchen for breakfast.
Tony wasn’t the only one there.
“There he is!” cried a voice the moment Peter stepped into the kitchen—Sam. Like, Sam “The Falcon” Wilson. That Sam. “Thought you could go the whole weekend without letting us say hi to your little mini-me, Stark?”
“Us” apparently meant Sam, Natasha, Steve, and Clint. Peter’s eyes widened in shock and he ducked his head as he sidled over to where Tony was busy preparing a cup of coffee. Okay. He was about to meet the Avengers while in pain and kinda wishing he could just curl up in a hole and stay there until nature reclaimed him. Okay. That was fine.
Tony smiled at Peter and ruffled his hair. “I was hoping on it. Sorry, Pete. Time to meet the rest of the freeloaders.”
Which was how he found himself exchanging pleasantries with the Avengers as he poured himself a bowl of Lucky Charms. They introduced themselves one by one, and Peter tried his hardest to keep his fanboying to a minimum. He didn’t get the impression he’d been successful.
The last one to greet him was Clint. “Pleasure to meet you,” said Clint, shaking Peter’s hand (he was shaking hands with Hawkeye!). “Really, it’s an absolute honor to meet the person Tony Stark went to Target for.”
Peter ran a hand down the back of his neck. “Mr. Stark goes grocery shopping?”
“Well, he went grocery shopping,” said Steve.
“But only for his kid,” added Sam, grinning in Tony’s direction.
Tony rolled his eyes. “Peter’s a guest. Of course I made sure we’re stocked up with all his favorite snacks. That’s what being a good host means.”
“You could have got FRIDAY to order in Peter’s snacks,” Natasha pointed out.
“Alright, I’m not defending myself to the freeloaders,” Tony said, grabbing his coffee from the machine. “Pete? Got yourself breakfast? We’re gonna eat in the lab. We have stuff to do.”
Peter, distracted by the fact that Tony went to Target for his sake, jumped. “Oh—right, coming!”
He politely bid goodbye to the Avengers and followed Tony out of the kitchen, still slightly giddy at having met the Avengers. Once in the lab, Peter quickly ate his cereal as Tony sipped his coffee, and then they got to work.
The morning wasn’t too bad. Peter’s pain was very much present in the back of his mind, but he was mostly able to ignore it. He and Tony worked on some prototype nanobots, which required enough concentration that he was able to push his discomfort to the very back of his mind.
It was after lunch that the pain became unbearable.
Peter shifted, his stool creaking beneath him, as his back burned like his shirt was made of barbed wire. When Tony wasn’t looking, he scratched at the skin around his scars furiously, hoping that the pressure would relieve the pain even just a little.
It didn’t work.
His fingers brushed too close to his scars and pain stabbed through his shoulder blades. Peter flinched, his stifled gasp of pain and the creaking of his stool loud enough that Tony looked up sharply. His eyebrows twisted in concern.
“We alright?” he asked.
Peter gripped the edge of the table until his knuckles turned white and tried to keep his voice as level as possible. “Yeah, I'm good.”
“You look kinda pale.” Tony reached out to press the back of his hand against Peter’s forehead. “Hmm. You don’t feel hot. You sure you’re alright?”
Another pulse of pain. Peter grimaced. “I'm, uh, maybe not feeling the best.”
“Wanna go to the medbay?”
“No! –um, I think I’ll just wait it out.”
“Alright. Let me know if you start feeling worse.”
They continued working, Tony stopping every now and then to check in with Peter. His concern made Peter feel even more flustered. He didn’t want Tony to find out, but his discomfort was getting increasingly difficult to hide, especially when his pain grew strong enough that his stomach began to churn. He really wished he were in bed.
Eventually, the sun dipped below the horizon and Tony, after giving Peter a quick once-over, asked if he felt up to dinner. Peter resolutely shook his head, not quite trusting himself to speak without vomiting.
Tony frowned and checked Peter’s temperature again.
“You still don’t feel hot. I can ask Bruce to check on you if you want.”
Peter winced at the thought and shook his head again.
“Sure?” Tony pressed, a worried crease still visible between his eyebrows.
Peter nodded and, when Tony still didn’t look convinced, forced himself to speak.
“I think I just need to sleep it off,” he croaked. He swallowed down a wave of nausea.
Tony sighed and brushed Peter’s hair out of his face. “Okay. You alright to make your way to your room by yourself, or do you want me to go with you?”
Peter shook his head. “I can do it.” The urge to tear his nails into the flesh of his back was growing stronger with each passing moment, and he just needed to be alone.
“Alright. I’ll come check on you after dinner. Let FRIDAY know if you need anything, okay?”
He nodded with a tight-lipped smile, and then Tony waved him on, claiming he still needed to finish a few things up in the lab. Peter left with a wave and then he was finally, finally alone.
As quick as he could, he made his way to his room. The moment his door shut behind him, Peter immediately sank into himself, his shoulders curling inwards.
With a quiet sigh of relief—not that his pain had stopped, but that finally he could deal with it without worrying about Tony questioning him—Peter stumbled to his bed and collapsed on top of it. He pressed his face into his pillow as his hand snaked up to the back of his neck to massage it, then dipped beneath his collar to dig the pads of his fingers into the muscles between his scars.
Nausea rose in his throat, and the gentle touch that was normally a magic bullet for his pain did nothing to help. Agitated, Peter dug his fingers in harder, pressing and kneading and scratching at his skin as he desperately searched for relief.
But the crushing pain and the unquenchable need to itch and stretch a limb that no longer existed only grew worse with each passing second.
Peter groaned into his pillow. He twisted this way and that as he tried to relieve the burning in his back. Tears pricked his eyes and he tried his best to compose himself, but it was hopeless. It was always in these moments when the pain became too much to bear and his body screamed at him to stretch phantom limbs that Peter struggled most. He belonged in the sky, not tethered to the ground sobbing and in pain.
A particularly strong wave stole the breath from Peter’s lungs; his chest seized, and he whined deep in his throat. His hands dug into his sheets, squeezing until his knuckles cracked and ached, and he bit at his lip until the coppery taste of blood exploded across his tongue.
“Please stop,” Peter sobbed. “Please just stop.”
He just wanted it to stop hurting. But there was no way to relieve the pain, not when it wasn’t actually where his brain told him it was.
He could feel sweat beading on his forehead as he grew more and more agitated. His hand crept back up to the muscles between his shoulder blades and he scratched at them furiously, desperate to relieve the pain even if only for a moment.
When his fingers slipped on something warm and wet, he startled. He yanked his hand back out from under his collar and stared at it in horror. Blood was trapped under the nails and staining his fingers.
Oh, God. Oh, shit. He reached back and pressed a hand to his scars to gauge how much blood there was, but his hand brushed against the wrong spot and a wave of pain hit him like a tsunami.
Peter retched, breaking down in sobs anew.
He couldn’t. He couldn’t do it. He was dying. He needed Tony.
With a sob, Peter rolled off the bed. Nausea choked him and his knees almost crumpled, but he pushed past his pain, pushed past the cramping in his back, ignored the non-existent extremities that needed to move, to stretch, to fly, but couldn’t. He sobbed in frustration.
He stumbled against his door and it slammed open. Stars danced across his vision as he walked doubled over, one hand bracing his back in one last pathetic attempt to stop the pain, and the other searching for a wall to guide him.
Voices filtered in from a distance, happy chatter over dinner and the clanking of silverware against crockery. Peter followed the sound like it was a beacon. Tony would be there, and Tony would help.
He stumbled into the kitchen like a zombie. Someone dropped their cutlery; it clattered to the table, the sound raking across Peter’s eardrums.
That was Tony.
“Mr. Stark,” he cried, legs failing him. He slumped against a counter, one hand clutching at it in a hopeless attempt to stay upright. “H-help me.”
A particularly strong wave of pain lashed through him like a whip. With a strangled scream, Peter’s legs collapsed.
He squeezed his eyes shut as sound exploded around him. Chairs screeched, footsteps pounded, voices cried out. Hands landed on his shoulders, trying to help but only making the pain worse. Peter sobbed in agony.
“—Peter? Peter, can you hear me—”
“Mr. St-Stark—make it—make it stop, please, please please please—”
Voices buzzed above him, too numerous and too head-splittingly loud for Peter to focus on.
“—hey, hey, Peter—”
“—Bruce! What’s wrong with him—”
“—said he was feeling sick earlier—”
“—get him to the medbay—”
“—here, let me—”
Hands snaked their way beneath Peter and lifted. The arm supporting his back burned his scars like a fire; his wings screamed as if a hydraulic press were crushing through bone, through flesh, through feather.
His stomach flipped and he vomited.
“—I know, I know—quick, we need to—”
Peter was jostled as the person carrying him ran through the penthouse. He whined, deep in his throat, too quiet to be heard in the cacophony of footsteps and panicked shouting all around him.
Weakly, he forced his eyes open. He squinted up at Steve’s pale, tense face above him.
Captain America. Peter just threw up on Captain America. Oh, God.
Steve adjusted his grip, and Peter twisted, almost falling as he tried to relieve the pressure in his back.
“Mr. Stark—” he sobbed. “Please make it stop, please. It hurts, it h-hurts—”
A hand carded through his hair, brushing sweaty strands back from his forehead.
“Hey, hey,” said Tony, his voice softer than Peter had ever heard it. “I’m here. We’re gonna find out what’s wrong, and we’re gonna make everything better, okay?”
Peter wasn’t comforted. He knew what was wrong with him, and he had never, ever wanted Tony to find out.
But it looked like he wouldn’t have a choice.
Swooping movement jostled him again, and then Steve gently set Peter down on a bed. No matter how gently he was set down, however, his own weight pressing down against soft sheets only strengthened the hydraulic press crushing his back.
Desperately, he tried to roll onto his side where the pain would be more manageable, but hands grabbed him and forced him back down.
“No—!” he cried, strangled. “No, please, it hurts—”
“I know, I’m sorry.” Tony. “But Helen’s on her way, and she’ll be able to stop the pain—”
“No,” Peter sobbed. “My back—” He struggled his way out of the hands holding him down and fought to roll onto his side. He needed to relieve the pain, or he was going to throw up again—
There was a sharp intake of breath. “Bruce…” muttered a voice that sounded like Steve’s.
A gentle brush of pressure over Peter’s spine, right where he had scratched at his scars until he had broken the skin. Then his shirt was pulled up, and cool air hit the raised scars between Peter’s shoulder blades.
The room fell still.
“Oh, shit.” Tony’s hand carded through Peter’s hair again. “Oh shit. Okay, okay. Fuck—”
“Just stay calm, Tony.”
“I am fucking calm, Steve!”
“Alright. Okay. Calming down. We’re gonna stay calm because everything is completely normal and fine and dandy and Peter doesn’t have two huge fucking scars on his back—”
Peter sobbed and buried his face in the pillow. Tony knew. He knew, they all knew now. He hadn’t wanted anyone to know. Tony wouldn’t treat him with respect anymore. He wouldn’t treat him like Peter anymore.
He was gonna treat him like the poor little ex-freak in need of sympathy, just like everyone did.
Footsteps rushed into the medbay and voices shouted orders, directing the Avengers and the medical team. Someone ordered for Peter to roll onto his back, Peter didn’t have the chance to even make a sound of distress before Tony jumped to his defense.
“That hurts him,” he explained.
Peter sobbed into his pillow. A light touch gently eased one of Peter’s arms out from underneath him and he squinted up at Tony as the man rolled up Peter’s sleeve.
As if Tony could sense Peter’s eyes on him, he glanced up, his face reassuring.
“It’s alright, Peter. Don’t you worry. We’re making everything okay.”
A nurse took Tony’s place to set up an IV. Once it was in it took only a few minutes before, between one breath and another, everything went black.
Waking up pain-free was like stumbling upon an oasis in a desert; disbelief and wariness and then—as Peter carefully shifted to test how he was feeling—relief, deep into his bones.
He wasn’t in pain anymore. Finally, finally he could breathe freely. His body was almost numb now in comparison to the unending agony of the day before.
Which was particularly surprising given that he was flat on his back, bedsheets pressing up against his scars. Judging by the fogginess in his head, he was probably on drugs way, way stronger than anything you could buy at the drug store.
His memories from the day before drifted back. His cheeks burned at how he’d made a fool of himself, collapsing in front of literally all the Avengers and then puking on Captain America.
And, of course, there was the fact everyone now knew.
Everyone knew about his wings. They’d seen the ugly scars between his shoulder blades, had watched as Peter suffered the worst of the agony his phantom limb syndrome could cause him.
Peter had never felt more humiliated in his life—not even that time Flash had mocked him in front of everyone, sneering that he was still a freak even if his wings were gone. Flash was just a bully, but Peter looked up to the Avengers. He wanted to impress his childhood heroes, to appear strong in front of some of the strongest people on the planet.
And now they’d all seen him at his weakest.
He squinted his eyes open. The medbay lights were dimmed and he was alone. Peter eased himself into a sitting position and took a long drink of water from a cup left out for him to ease the dryness in his throat.
Just as he set the cup back down, the door to his room burst open and the lights snapped on.
Peter jumped, but it was only Tony. The man’s face softened in relief when he saw Peter sitting upright, and he quickly crossed the room to sit by Peter’s side.
“FRIDAY said you’re awake. How are you feeling? Any more pain?”
Peter’s cheeks burned. “I’m, uh, fine. What time is it?”
“About eight. You slept through the night. Helen will be in at nine, so if you’re all good now she’ll be able to discharge you then.”
Tony leaned back in his seat. He was wearing colored sunglasses, and he pushed them up before he spoke again.
“Peter, I… does that happen often? You being in pain like that?”
Peter’s heart sank. Tony had spoken using that tone of voice, the one everyone used once they found out. The one that just screamed oh, you poor little darling. How sad and pathetic.
This was why he hadn’t wanted Tony to know. Or the Avengers. Or anyone that hadn’t known him before The Accident.
Peter’s shoulders slumped. “No. Um, I mean, sometimes, but not that often. It’s fine. I can handle it. It’s not a big deal. I’m fine.”
Tony shot Peter a flat look. Peter sighed.
“Alright, yes. But I’m fine, I swear. It’s not normally that bad. It’s just that stress makes it worse, and I’ve been really stressed lately. And also things touching my back, where my… wings used to be.”
Saying it out loud didn’t feel real. Especially not in front of Tony. Peter never talked about them explicitly anymore, and everyone around him always followed suit, skirting around the word “wings” like it was dirty.
Tony’s eyes were hidden behind his glasses, but his brow creased in thought. “So when Cap picked you up, and when we put you down on the bed—that made it worse?”
“Yeah.” Peter’s voice was weak.
“Alright,” Tony said firmly. “We’ll deal with that in the future. Take it into account. Make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“Thanks.” He tugged at the bedsheets, refusing to meet Tony’s eyes. “You can ask what happened, if you want.”
Tony’s sunglasses slipped down his nose. “You don’t have to talk about anything if it makes you uncomfortable.”
Peter shook his head. “It’s fine. Everyone else knows, anyway.” He broke off, taking a moment to breathe deeply. “It was a car accident. I wasn’t sitting straight when the collision happened, and my wings took too much damage. They had to amputate them, and ever since they’ve just kind of… hurt.”
And Tony knew that Peter had only ever been in one car accident before, so it didn’t take long before his face went pale.
“Shit, Pete. I’m sorry.” That sympathetic tone again.
“It’s fine. Like, it could be worse. At least I’m not a freak anymore, y’know?”
He’d meant it as a joke—but immediately Tony’s face soured.
“That fucking kid. I knew he was giving you shit.”
Shit. He had heard Flash. “Tony, it’s not—”
Tony leaned forwards, taking his glasses off. “Peter, listen to me. You’re not a freak, and you never were. You’re different, and people are afraid of things that are different, but that means the problem lies with them, not with you.”
“But… I am a freak. Humans aren’t meant to have wings. That makes me a freak.”
“Humans aren’t meant to be genetically enhanced super-soldiers, either. Or be able to turn into a giant green rage monster. Or hell, have a glowing blue magnet in their chest keeping them alive. No-one’s normal here, but that doesn’t mean we're freaks.”
“Didn’t you have the arc reactor removed?”
“Don’t be a smartass,” Tony said, voice still gentle. “I know it wasn’t my best analogy. But my point is, if I’d never had the arc reactor, I never would have become Iron Man, right? Sure, I guess by your reckoning that makes me a freak. But I’m better off for it, aren’t I?”
“But that’s different,” Peter whispered. “You’re an Avenger.”
“You don’t have to be an Avenger to be of worth, Peter.” Tony’s voice was soft. “You’re clever, and you’re kind, and I always look forward to Wednesdays because I love working with you. You have such an enthusiasm and passion for science, and your excitement for my projects is the source of about ninety percent of my motivation, kiddo. I don’t know what I’d do without you, and I hate to see you putting yourself down.”
Peter stared into Tony’s eyes, shining with sincerity, and suddenly he knew that he had been stupid to try to hide his wings from Tony. Everyone always hated him for his wings, and he’d feared Tony would too.
He’d been stupid not to realize Tony was always in his corner.
Peter’s eyes filled with tears and he struggled to blink them away.
“I just—I feel like I can’t talk about it,” Peter admitted, burying his face in his hands. “Because of—because of Ben, and May was so upset, so I—I couldn’t talk about how bad the pain gets sometimes. She knows they hurt but she doesn’t know how bad because I just feel like—like how can I complain when I’m still alive? I just—” His voice cracked and he broke off, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes like it could stop the tears.
After a moment’s hesitation, Tony pulled Peter into a hug and gently stroked his hair, careful to avoid his scars.
“It’s okay, Pete. It’s okay to cry. And you can talk about it with me, yeah? I know you might be used to burying everything but trust me, talking about it helps. I’ll listen.”
Peter drew in a shuddering breath, leaning into Tony’s hands. Safely wrapped up in Iron Man’s arms, he suddenly couldn’t stop the words from flowing.
“I just really miss them,” Peter blurted. “My wings. I miss them so much. And absolutely everything I do reminds me that they’re gone, because they—they were such a huge part of my life and so now they’re gone literally—literally everything is different. And I miss being able to fly, and then that reminds me of B-Ben because flying always used to be our special thing. We’d go camping upstate, where there was no-one around, and he’d just watch me fly. And I know everyone used to h-hate me for my wings but I just—I just want to be able to fly again.”
Tony’s fingers tangled in Peter’s hair. “I’m so sorry you can’t.”
Peter sniffed. “It’s fine. I’m used to it now.”
“You shouldn’t have to be. We’ll figure something out,” Tony said, his voice strangely resolute. “I’ll find a solution.”
Peter didn’t think much of it; people never knew how to console him about his wings, so they always made empty promises. Don’t worry. It’ll be okay. We’ll think of something.
So he leaned into Tony’s hug, drawing comfort from his touch, and forgot all about what he’d said.
The rest of the weekend passed as planned, aside from a regular dose of painkillers. Peter and Tony made a ton of progress on their project and even found time for some movies with the Avengers. Before Happy drove Peter home on Sunday evening, Peter and Tony stopped by Helen’s office where she prescribed Peter some strong painkillers, all costs covered by Tony.
Come Monday, Peter was able to go about his day with the assurance he wouldn’t be caught off guard by debilitating pain anytime soon. He was still stressed, but his pain didn’t flare up.
Ned was thoroughly entertained by all Peter’s stories about the Avengers. He had even helped Peter see the funny side of vomiting on Captain America, relieving the humiliation Peter felt at the memory.
When Wednesday rolled around, Happy picked him up like usual, and everything seemed normal until Peter stepped into the lab.
Tony was hunched over his desk, his hair dirty and disheveled and his beard scraggly. His forehead was creased in concentration as he worked on several holograms at once, and the lab smelled strongly of coffee. For some reason, the words mad scientist flitted to the front of Peter’s mind.
“Uh—Mr. Stark?” Peter said, setting his backpack down on a worktop.
Tony jumped, then smiled when he saw Peter.
“Ah—Pete, perfect. How are you feeling? Are the painkillers working?”
“They’re great. They really helped, actually.”
Peter made his way across the lab to join Tony. Formulae Peter didn’t understand danced in blue holograms around him.
“Great,” said Tony. “God, I hope this is going to work. I’ve run all the simulations, and I talked to Helen and Bruce, and I also called May, and I’ve read just about every paper I could find about phantom pain. So this should work, but I can’t make any promises. This isn’t really my area of specialty, but it’s right up Helen’s alley and a couple of Bruce’s PhDs ended up being pretty useful, too. Of course, even if it does work it might be uncomfortable for a while until you get used to them again, but Rhodey knows all about going through physical therapy, so I’ve roped him in to help out too. It’s like a team effort.”
The words rolled over Peter so fast he couldn’t understand them. “What?”
“At first, I didn’t think it would be possible, but it isn’t really that inconceivable once you think about it. Scientists have been doing it for years on a much smaller scale, and of course I don’t think there are many case studies of people attempting it with wings, but unexplored areas of science is my specialty. And with Helen’s regeneration cradle—”
“Tony,” Peter interrupted. “What are you talking about?”
“Your wings,” Tony said, simply. “I can’t guarantee it will work, but I’ve done some research and I’ve spoken with Bruce and Helen. We’ve come up with a serum that, combined with some sessions in the regeneration cradle, will hopefully work to get your wings back.”
The world seemed to slow to a stop. Peter blinked.
“G-get them back?”
Tony nodded. “It should help with the pain, since the pain is just your brain’s reaction to something being wrong. Ergo, fix the something wrong, and it should fix the pain. And like I said, Rhodey’s willing to help you through physical therapy, so if everything goes right you should be able to fly again.”
“I’ll—I’ll be able to fly?”
“Yep. I thought about taking you out in an Iron Man suit so you could experience flying again, but that wasn’t good enough. This serum’s the real deal. It’s experimental medicine, but I trust Helen and Bruce. So… what do you say, Pete?”
Peter was speechless.
He’d long since accepted that his wings were gone forever, that he’d never be able to fly again. It had hurt, and he’d been in denial for a long time, but it was a reality he’d had to accept. His wings were gone, and there was nothing anyone could do about that.
But now Tony said there was. It didn’t feel real.
“Okay,” he whispered before it had really sunk in. And then it did sink in, and Peter’s knees went weak. “I—thank you, Mr. Stark. Shit—thank you, thank you, thank you—”
He threw his arms around Tony, who hugged him back just as tight.
“You don’t have to thank me, Pete. I just want to make sure you’re happy.”
Tony began to explain the science to Peter, but Peter barely listened. His mind was already a thousand feet up in the air, sun shining through his feathers and wind whipping through his hair.
Six Months Later
After months of grueling treatment, of physical therapy that left him frustrated and irritable more than anything else (despite Rhodey’s emotional support), and of evenings spent in front of a mirror unable to believe what he saw there, the day had finally arrived. D-day, as Tony had dubbed it.
D-day dawned bright and sunny, with very little breeze and no forecast of rain: perfect conditions to try flying again for the first time in over two years.
Peter’s mouth was dry as he and May pulled up to the Avengers compound. He hadn’t eaten much breakfast due to his nerves, but he regretted that now as his hands shook in his lap. Passing out hundreds of feet up in the air didn’t sound much fun—if he even managed to get up that high to pass out in the first place.
Mostly, he was just terrified his wings wouldn’t be able to fly. They’d managed to lift him during physical therapy, but today was his first attempt at properly flying again. What if he wasn’t strong enough yet, or if the muscles had been irreparably damaged in The Accident? His greatest fear was that even gifted his wings a second time, he still wouldn’t be able to fly.
His wings felt uncomfortable, cramped behind his back in May’s tiny car and stuffed inside an oversized coat to keep them hidden, but Peter didn’t mind. The discomfort was familiar, and far preferable to pain.
FRIDAY guided them around to the back of the residential building where they found Tony, in his suit, waiting for them with Rhodey.
“Hope you don’t mind me watching,” said Rhodey, the words an offer to leave if Peter so desired.
“No, it’s alright,” said Peter. He didn’t mind; after all the support Rhodey had given him during physical therapy, it would have been wrong for him not to be here.
Tony ruffled Peter’s hair. “You ready?”
Peter’s throat was tight and his heart pounded in his ears, but he chose to interpret that as excitement. He glanced at May, who nodded encouragingly, then turned back to Tony with his shoulders set.
“Let’s do it.”
Fingers shaking, Peter unbuttoned his coat and shrugged it off. He unfurled his wings and shook them out to relieve their stiffness after being folded up for so long.
Tony and Rhodey’s eyes widened as May stood to the side, beaming with pride. Unable to resist showing off a little, Peter stretched his wings to their full, sixteen-foot wingspan, their soft white feathers almost iridescent in the morning sunlight.
“Wow,” Tony breathed, and Rhodey whistled in awe.
May shot him a look like she knew exactly what he was doing.
Peter flapped his wings experimentally—and immediately pitched backward with the force of them. He cried out in surprise, but metallic hands grabbed him before he could fall and land on his ass.
“Woah!” Tony cried, steadying Peter. “You okay?”
“Y-yeah.” Peter laughed, bringing his wings forward to stabilize himself. “They’re, uh, a bit bigger than I’m used to.”
“I’ll bet. I knew wings have to be pretty damn large to get a human airborne, but knowing that and actually seeing it in person is… different.” Tony blew air out of his cheeks, then shook his head. “Ready to go?”
Peter nodded and braced himself. Tony’s suit powered on, ready to catch Peter at any moment, to be his net if he were to fall.
The muscles controlling his wings twinged with disuse, and Peter briefly feared today would be the day they failed him—but then the ground disappeared from beneath his feet. The grass below him danced and weaved with the power of his wings forcing air downwards, and Peter couldn’t help the startled laugh that escaped him as he rose higher than he ever had in physical therapy.
“Oh my God!” he cried, face split into a wide grin. It was different, flying outdoors. It just felt right.
Tony’s repulsors whirred, joining Peter as they slowly ascended. Peter’s wings beat furiously to adjust to the air currents threatening to tip him over. Rhodey and May’s faces shone with pride as they watched.
“You can do it, Peter!” May called.
Peter turned to Tony and shot him a thumbs up, his face already aching from how wide he was smiling.
And then he let the air current take him, pulling him towards the forest around the compound. He whooped as he soared above the trees, twisting and turning this way and that. Adrenaline burned through him and he climbed higher and higher, every muscle in his body straining to keep him steady, keep him moving. He laughed almost hysterically, letting his happiness swallow him whole and take control.
The air current tipped him, but he didn’t fight it, swooping into a tight barrel roll. The horizon spun in his vision, a view like no other.
Tony’s suit shot alongside him, the two of them dipping and weaving together, flying without purpose or destination.
“This is amazing!” Peter cried, spreading his arms wide and letting the air beat against his clothing.
He’d missed this.
He’d missed this so, so much.
Trees gave way to a lake and Peter, unable to resist, plummeted downwards. He skimmed along the water, one hand reaching down to dip beneath the surface. The cold bit at his skin, but it felt incredible.
He laughed, whooping as he shot upwards again. This was his Harry Potter moment, and he couldn’t remember ever feeling so happy. Tony flew above him, there to protect him if needed, but Peter didn’t think that would be necessary. He was in his element. He was completely safe and at home, just a shadow against the clouds above.