Hey, Aunt May, it’s me. Camp is good. Lots of trees. I’m making friends — uh, there’s Rob, and Harriet, and a guy named Anthony that we just call Tony. Um, I miss you. Try not to burn down the apartment while I’m gone.
It takes them three days to figure out something is wrong.
Hey, Aunt May. Me again. Today we went on a hike. I learned some really corny camp jokes. Like what do you call Tony the Tiger when he runs a copy machine? A copy cat. Yeah, I know, it’s lame. Hope work is good. Miss you.
Peter gets a scholarship to go to a week-long summer camp upstate. A hybrid camp for science and nature. “Tell the team I’m going somewhere super badass,” says Peter, “like — uh — backpacking, or something.”
“Disneyland it is,” says Tony.
He looks into the camp. It seems impressive. Peter worries about being gone for a full week, but Tony tells him not to sweat it, they can keep the world from imploding long enough for him to go squint at butterflies and make friends with some other age-appropriate nerds.
Hey Aunt May. Long day at camp. We told ghost stories by the fire. Some kid said he had a full conversation with the ghost of Alexander Hamilton. I tried to call Tony a liar, but he wasn’t having it … Anyway — um — I miss you. I love you. Bye.
It’s the way Peter says “I love you” that stirs something in May; the way he says “I love you” that makes her call the camp and demand to talk to Peter, only to be told that they received her letter saying Peter had to drop out for a family emergency, and that he had never arrived. It only takes a few moments for her to loop Tony in, forwarding him every voicemail Peter left on her phone while she was at work over the past three days.
Tony doesn’t even get far enough into the messages to hear the “I love you”. What he hears is the thread all of the messages have in common, the two repeated words Peter had been so desperately trying to convey: Call Tony. Call Tony. Call Tony.
The words thrum into him like a second heartbeat, growing louder and angrier with each passing second.
Somebody has their kid.
Tony’s first instinct is to go out on his own — find whatever security footage he can and tear the goddamn city apart if he has to. But he can be reckless like that when it’s his own life on the line — he can’t afford it with Peter’s. Within minutes he has everyone on the compound assembled, Natasha pulling up street footage using Tony’s facial recognition technology, Sam sending out heat-seeking drones, Clint trying to backtrack the number from the “camp phone” that Peter’s been using to call his aunt.
Dead ends. All of them. Someone was one step ahead of them, and all the security cameras from Peter’s street were wiped out on the day he left for camp. The only thing it suggests is that whoever got to him did it early, and did it in his neighborhood — Peter never even made it on the bus. But where he ended up after that is anybody’s guess.
May doesn’t go to work the next day, insisting on staying in the apartment in case Peter somehow makes it home; they send Natasha to try and trace the call when it’s supposed to come on the fourth day, but it doesn’t.
Tony doesn’t think time has ever moved more slowly or more agonizingly in his life.
The entire compound is thick with collective panic — Tony doesn’t see a single person sleep a wink that first night or into the next day. By chance Natasha finds a YouTube video of some kids doing stunts on Peter’s street the day he went missing; they scan the license plate of every single car that is visible on the street in the time window, dozens and dozens of them, looking into the backgrounds of their owners until —
“Stop,” says Tony. “Pull this guy up.”
It doesn’t matter; he already knows they’ve got the right hit. The word OsCorp burns like a brand in Tony’s eyes. Apparently the man had been working for the company for ten years, and was abruptly let go nine months prior.
The same month Peter went on a field trip, and was bitten by a rogue spider that had escaped from its habitat.
“Get me a facial recognition scan on this guy everywhere in the country. Now .”
They have a lock on him within minutes, walking into a convenience store in Queens only two hours earlier. They manage to scrap enough footage together to trace him back to the entrance of a warehouse.
“Tony, wait — ”
He doesn’t even know who said it — he’s in the sky and yelling coordinates to Natasha without looking back. It takes ten long minutes that seem like an eternity to find the warehouse; as it comes into view Tony is unwittingly remembering those spikes in the kid’s heartbeat, the footage of Toomes dropping that building on him.
Natasha’s motorbike is outside of the building; she was already in Queens and must have beat him here. He all but blasts through the open door behind her — the first thing he sees is the former OsCorp employee, on the ground, undeniably dead.
Tony’s heart seizes. Natasha wouldn’t kill someone they needed information from. Not unless she had a damn good reason to, and Tony is suddenly terrified to know what that reason could be.
“Natasha — ”
“Shhhh,” he hears her saying. It’s coming from the back corner. “Shhh, I’m going to get you out of here, okay?”
Tony freezes, as if he can blink away the image through the viewfinder of his mask. The kid is propped in the corner, his wrists and ankles shackled, his body slack like a rag doll. The screen zeroes in on him before Tony can even fully feel the impact of it, magnifying every gash and bruise from the fresh to the barely healed, picking up on a sick pattern of what appear to be round holes in both of Peter’s upper arms.
But he’s breathing, and his eyes are open. Bloodshot, listless, and heavy-lidded, but open.
“You’re not here,” Peter says thickly.
“I am,” says Natasha, fiddling with the restraints with a tool from her belt. “We’re going to take you back home and fix you up. Tony, don’t move,” she says, using the same soothing voice without missing a beat — she doesn’t even have to turn around to see that he has poised the thin blasters on his suit and targeted the shackles because he just wants to get the kid out of there , he can’t even think . “I don’t want to scare him.”
But fuck that, they’re way past scared, they’re at fucking terrified . Tony disengages the suit, practically stumbling the last few feet over to them and onto his knees at Peter’s side. Peter sees him there and closes his eyes.
“This isn’t real,” Peter murmurs, with the practice of someone who has said it many times before. “You’re not here, you’re not …”
“He thinks he’s hallucinating,” says Natasha. “These marks in his skin … I’ve seen them before.”
Tony opens his mouth to say something, but for a moment his throat is too tight. “No, kid, we’re here.”
“Keep talking to him. I’ve almost got him out.”
But he doesn’t know what to say except I’m sorry.
“Peter, could you keep your eyes open for us?” prompts Natasha, when Tony is still at a loss.
The first shackle finally comes loose, and Peter flinches, his wrist raw from struggling against it. He opens his eyes and lifts his arm, looking at his hand like he can’t quite believe it.
“He’s gonna come back,” says Peter. “He’s gonna — ”
“No, he’s not,” says Tony, trying and failing to keep the edge out of his voice. “I promise you, he’s not.”
Only then do Peter’s eyes snap onto his, only then does he see the recognition finally creeping into them — and then, just as swiftly, the shame.
“Shit,” Peter mutters, resting his head back against the wall.
“I’ve called for med evac,” murmurs a voice behind them, and only then does Tony realize Sam was tailing him.
Natasha clicks another one of Peter’s arms free, and the kid starts to shake.
“Hey, hey, almost out,” she says to him. “Two more to go.”
Peter nods sluggishly. “Th-thanks,” he says, trying to prop his head up again to look as Natasha moves onto his legs.
Some gear finally snaps back into place for Tony then, and he puts a hand on the kid’s forehead, easing him back down. He looks up at Tony, and something in Tony’s expression must scare him a little, because his eyes widen a bit in response.
“M-Mr. Stark?” he says.
Peter makes the slightest grimace that, if he weren’t covered in blood and muck and god knows what else, might have looked like a smile. “Disneyland was shit .”
Tony knows what the kid’s doing, only because he’s done it a thousand times himself. Trying to crack a joke. Trying to ease the tension. Trying to minimize his own agony for the sake of everyone else around him. And maybe if Tony didn’t know the kid so well, he’d be able to do him the favor of laughing, of letting him to just that.
But this is Peter , and he can’t .
The final shackle comes off then, and Tony moves to scoop him up from the floor.
“Don’t,” says Natasha. “The capsules …”
Peter’s eyes are sliding shut again.
“ Kid .”
Natasha grabs Tony by the arm and says into his ear, “Those marks on him — he installed capsules into him to administer injections. They’re still inside his arms. We can’t pull them out here, and we can’t move him too much, or we might set them off. He could OD.”
“What can we do?” Tony hisses.
Natasha’s eyes are firm on his. “We can wait for someone equipped to — shit .”
Evidently one of the devices has set itself off, and god only knows what is in it, because Peter’s entire body starts to seize. It happens so fast that they don’t even reach him by the time it stops — and then, horrifyingly, the kid goes completely slack, his eyes still open but unseeing.
“Peter,” says Tony, louder than he means to. He puts a hand on the kid’s face — don’t move him, don’t move him, fuck . “Peter, can you hear me?”
The kid sucks in a breath that might be acknowledgement and might not be, but it’s proof that he’s still with them, and for one moment it’s enough.
“I know it’s hard, but I’m gonna need you to stay still, kid.”
Peter nods into his hand.
“Can you — did someone …” He bites his lip like he can’t decide whether to say it or not. “Aunt May,” he says, his voice finally cracking. .
“Of course, kid. I’ll call her right now.”
Peter doesn’t answer, his eyes sliding shut again, a single tear leaking from them slipping down his cheek. He’s out cold, but Tony can hear the chopper landing outside.
“Sir,” someone says, ushering Tony out of the way.
“Right,” he says, finally letting go of Peter — there was something he was supposed to do — call May, he remembers, and then — call Tony, call Tony, call Tony …
For three days Peter’s been down here, enduring god only knows what, just waiting for Tony to find him. And Tony let him down.
The call to his aunt is excruciating; he somehow manages to keep his voice level and calm as he explains to her what’s happening and where they’re taking Peter and that someone is coming to collect her and take her upstate. Then he hangs up the phone and his eyes find Natasha’s and he lets out this painful huff of a breath that he’s been holding in, that he has to hold in, that he can’t let himself think about —
“That fucker was going to kill him,” says Tony.
Natasha glances over at the corpse. “Yeah, well. We got him first.”
“What the hell is all this?” Sam murmurs, walking toward the abandoned tech a few feet away. He presses a button, and before anyone is prepared for it, they can all hear the audio on it plain as day —
“Please don’t hurt her.” It’s Peter’s voice. He’s crying. “ Please .”
“Turn it off,” says Tony instantly.
Sam is frantically pressing the buttons. “I’m trying, I — ”
“You think I wouldn’t figure out your little plan? Your stupid fucking secret code? I swear to god, if I see one fucking Avenger within thirty miles of this place, I’ll head back to your apartment myself and blow that aunt of yours to — ”
“ Please , no, I’ll — I’ll say anything you want, you can — the next time you call her, just tell me what to — ”
The words abruptly cut off by a scream; Tony doesn’t mean to look, but it’s just there on the screen, and he can see the electric shock pulsing through the shackles, coursing through the kid’s body.
“You’re lucky I still have tests to run,” says the man, “or you wouldn’t have any skin — ”
“Turn it off ,” Tony yells.
Natasha shoots the screen, and it goes silent. Without a word, she walks over to the smoking tech, pulls hard drive out of the computer, and stashes it.
“We’re going to want this when they’re figuring out how to treat him,” she says, with her usual authority. Still, Tony doesn’t miss slightest crack in her expression, just before she turns her back on him and strides out toward the exit.
It takes five hours and a mountain of anesthesia to get the dispensers out of the kid’s arms. Tony is watching and not watching, hovering on the edge of the window with his back turned, the same window May’s eyes are glued on. For a little while other members of the team hover too, until May looks overwhelmed enough by the unexpected company that Pepper swoops in and ushers everybody out.
“I don’t understand,” says May, as they’re prepping to get the last one out. She has barely spoken more than the few words since they arrived, except to politely refuse anything that was offered to her. “Why would somebody do this to him?”
Tony waits for a moment, trying to determine whether May is asking just to ask, or if she really wants an answer. Then her searching eyes find Tony’s.
“The man who had Peter — I suppose he was part of OsCorp's bioengineering team. The spiders were a side project. Unauthorized. He was ordered to destroy them, and after one went unaccounted for, he was fired … the same day Peter’s class went to OsCorp.” Tony doesn’t realize his fists are clenched until he feels the sting of nearly broken skin in his palms. “He probably knew that spider had something to do with Spider-Man from the beginning, but we have no idea how he traced it to Peter. Believe me, May, every effort has been made to keep that kid’s identity under wraps.”
“I know,” says May. “I’m not — this isn’t anyone’s fault but mine.”
Tony shakes his head at her. “Don’t you do that. Shame spirals over the kid’s well being are my thing.”
May watches, wincing, as they pull the last of the dispensers out with excruciating precision. “It’s been my thing since he was dropped on the doorstep eight years ago,” she says. “Join the club.”
“How are you feeling, kid?”
Peter won’t quite look at him from the hospital bed. Instead he tilts his head toward the morphine drip. “Like someone spiked the lemonade again.”
Tony tries to offer him a tight smile. He’s surprised the kid is lucid enough to make jokes; disappointed that he feels like he has to.
“I got your messages,” says Tony.
Peter stares across the bed at his feet. “Yeah. Some trick. Nobody’s going to be recruiting me for SHIELD intel anytime soon.”
“No, Peter. You did the right thing. That was a smart move.”
“Smart move?” Peter echoes. He tries to hide the bitterness in his voice, but it doesn’t quite work. The kid’s too much of an open book. “I got myself kidnapped.”
“Hey. You’re not allowed to blame yourself for that,” says Tony. “That was — that one’s on all of us.”
“I’m supposed to be — I fight with the Avengers . And some guy just — he just — “
“It happens to the best of us,” says Tony, before the kid can go any further, before he can add anymore fuel to the humiliation he already sees burning in the kid’s eyes. “I mean it. Ask literally anyone on the team, we’ve all been snatched, held hostage, the whole nine yards. Iron Man is only a thing because I got kidnapped. It’s a goddamn rite of passage, really.”
Peter winces, then tries unsuccessfully to turn it into a smirk. “I would have preferred, like, prom.”
Again with the jokes. “Kid.”
Peter’s eyes flash up toward his for just a moment, the expression on his face like a bruise. Then he lowers his eyes back down, the mask back on his face just as quickly as it left.
Tony can’t even be mad. He knows exactly where the kid learned it from.
“I’m not going to make you tell me what happened,” says Tony. What he doesn’t say is, Because I already know . The footage is graphic and extensive, so much so that Tony has gone to great lengths to make sure neither May or Peter will ever be able to access it. “But you have to talk to someone. Your aunt. A professional. Me.”
Peter shakes his head, just once. “I just — think it would be best if we never talked about it again.”
Tony purses his lips. “I wish it worked like that. We both know it doesn’t.”
It’s the closest they’ve ever come to talking about his uncle; Tony doesn’t have to have checked on Peter’s files to know what happened. It was written up in a few local papers. Anyone with a search engine could find out Peter was there that night, when he was shot — anyone with a search engine knows Peter must have watched him die.
Peter’s eyes are sliding shut again. Tony isn’t surprised. He’s been in and out all day seemingly at random, since he finally regained consciousness; the doctors said they don’t know how long it’s going to last, but that his body is still trying to metabolize the toxins and it makes everything a little unpredictable. The first time he did it he stopped breathing on his own for a minute, so Tony is already on high alert, watching him steadily.
“I’m still not even sure if this is real?” says Peter, fighting against the current taking him. “I keep thinking I’m gonna wake back up, and …”
He wants to be able to tell the kid that feeling goes away. Instead, he says, “I know.”
After the drugs start filtering out of his system, Peter doesn’t sleep for three days.
“Must be some kind of after effect,” says Peter dismissively, when May brings it up. “I slept some while you were grabbing stuff from home.”
Tony only hears because he happens to be standing outside the door. Peter knows better than to lie to Tony’s face. Everyone else’s, it seems, he doesn’t have a problem with.
Natasha’s the first to visit him, aside from May and Tony — she doesn’t wait for permission so much as she walks in behind Tony with her usual brand of quiet.
“You only look kind of terrible,” she says, looking him up and down affectionately. “Glad you’re safe, kid.”
Peter smirks. “Too bad for you, though,” he says. “For a little while there you got to be the best-looking spider in the compound again.”
Natasha laughs, that subtle crease of worry relaxing in her face. “Careful there, Tony. Kid’s starting to sound just like you.”
“Then my work here is done.”
It’s the same show every time one of the other team members comes to visit Peter; he’s all snappy quips and wry jokes, deflecting questions with ease, smiling with such practice that it’s almost easy to miss the purple under his eyes, the paleness of his skin. When Sam visits he and Peter spend a good half of an hour craned over the cracked screen of Peter’s phone, watching crude rap remixes of Steve’s high school PSAs. When Wanda comes in they prank call his friend Ned. When Steve busts in demanding to know why aforementioned raps are being broadcast in the downstairs gym, Peter merely answers, “Revenge for my progeny,” and refuses to elaborate as the rest of the team snickers behind his back.
They all come and go in waves, worried and cautious at first, all of them eventually falling for Peter’s charming little charade. But Tony’s the one who watches. Tony’s the one who tells the doctor Peter hasn’t been sleeping, and to fix him up with something that will conk him out. Tony’s the one who deeply regrets it when he hears the scream in the middle of the night from down the hall, and finds Peter wide awake, sweating profusely, gasping for air.
“Kid. Peter,” says Tony, flicking on the light. “You’re at HQ. You’re safe, you’re — ”
Peter’s eyes find Tony’s then, the panic settling into incomprehension and then, just as quickly, shame. He stares down at the blankets, still heaving, refusing to look at him.
Tony hesitates for a moment before putting a hand on the kid’s shoulder. Peter flinches, but doesn’t pull away.
“Just breathe,” says Tony, feeling a little bit like a fraud when he says it. “It’s over, kid. Wherever you think you are — ”
“I wasn’t supposed to — I didn’t mean to — how was I asleep?” Peter asks. The words aren’t accusatory, just genuinely stunned; it wouldn’t even occur to the kid that anyone would do something to him behind his back. “I just — I swear that I was …”
“You clearly needed it,” says Tony. “You might have everyone else in this compound fooled, kid, but you haven’t slept in days. You look like an extra on a low budget zombie movie.”
Peter takes another rattling breath and seems to swallow it, whatever it is that’s still clouding like a film over his eyes. He lets out another little wheeze that he tries to disguise as a laugh, nudging Tony’s hand off his shoulder and saying, “The undead got sexy again. In like, 2007. Look it up.”
“For the love of all that is holy and unholy and in the gray area in between, can we quit it with the jokes, kid?” says Tony. Before Peter can point out that Tony’s doing it himself, he says, “You’re not nearly old or jaded enough to pull it off, it’s not a good look.”
He’s afraid that he might have offended him, might have pushed it a little too far, but Peter hardly even reacts. Tony leans in, trying to compel Peter to look at him.
“You don’t have to be … tough about this, or whatever you think you’re doing. It was fucked up. Not because you’re a kid. It was baseline fucked up for anyone. Believe me. I know.”
Peter has evened out his breathing, but he can’t quite stop himself from shaking, can’t help the question lingering in his eyes.
“So here’s what you’re gonna do," says Tony, answering it for him. "You’re gonna quit this not sleeping bullshit before you hurt yourself and further aggravate my publicly known, well-documented heart condition. You’re going to talk to someone about this, and I mean talk like a person, not like a UCB student in the bitch slot of Tuesday night standup. And you’re going to stop feeling embarrassed about a thing that you know deep down was completely and utterly out of your control. Got it?”
Peter raises his eyebrows at him, and it’s such a teenager thing to do that Tony hopes this isn’t some indication that he’s leaning into some rebellious phase two years too late. But then his expression softens, and his shoulders slump a bit, and after a few beats he slowly nods his head.
“Good. Now, uh … “
Tony leans in to put a hand on the kid’s shoulder again, but then the kid leans forward at the same time. For a second Tony almost deflects, almost says something to puncture the moment before it gets any more heavy than it already is — but the kid needs someone. And damn it all after the past few days if Tony doesn’t, too.
It’s surprisingly easy, pulling the kid in, wrapping his arms around his shoulders. There’s a beat where Peter finally seems to relax, and Tony closes his eyes for the briefest moments, trying and failing not to think of what he almost lost. And then —
“Um, that’s not a hug, Mr. Stark. I’m just adjusting the IV.”
Tony hears the grin in the kid’s voice and pats him on the back as he pulls away, maybe a little harder than strictly necessary. He's surprised by how thick the words feel in his throat, by how easily he could come unraveled if he let himself say anything but this: “You’re lucky you’ve grown on me, you little shit.”