Actions

Work Header

With a Child's Heart

Work Text:

They weren’t looking for Spider-Man. 

 

The Avengers had been following the last echos of a trail HYDRA may have left behind, the prospect of finding anything all but null; regardless, Tony and Steve decided to take a look, see if they could find anything at all in the demolished warehouse HYDRA had been using for some sort of middle-management work. Spider-Man's involvement was plastered on the news just a few minutes ago; he'd webbed up as many of the criminals as he'd been able to, leaving them like particularly unappealing gifts for the NYPD, but hadn't been there when the police actually got to the scene.

 

“So what happened here again?” Steve asks as Tony touches down, his eyes flicking away from the warehouse as he moves a little closer. “We left so quickly that I didn’t get to actually watch the news report." 

 

“It looks like our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man came through.” Tony remarks with a hint of an exasperated smirk as he notices the leftover pieces of webbing lying around. He’s only met the guy a handful of times, but he seems genuine... if a little careless at times. In any case, Tony’s begrudgingly enjoyed modifying Spidey's suit and having chats with him, once in a while, about tech. He’s decent company, if not shrouded in mystery ... and red and blue spandex. He's also a genius, if an albeit overexcited one, who, to Tony's surprise, has no lab experience under his belt. 

 

“Oh?” Steve, Tony knows, also has a soft spot for Spider-Man. As far as they can tell, Spider-Man is pretty wholesome, never killing, never straying off the path. He barely even harms criminals, choosing to web them up and leave them for the cops instead. Something about how he carries on gives Tony, as cliche as it sounds, a bit of a hopeful warmth. Even when they talk, he seems so genuine that it makes Tony’s teeth ache. Steve shares the sentiment, since he's been pining for at least one pristine vigilante-superhero; Spider-Man fits the bill, since he's almost entirely known to fight for 'the little guy.' “Have we asked him what he found yet?”

 

“He doesn’t really operate like that, you know?” Tony shrugs, moving slightly closer to Steve, and gives him the side-eye. “I’m going to lure him to the tower again tonight with the promise of new tech, though, so maybe I’ll be able to weasel something out of him. He’s pretty open to sharing, all things considered.” Tony hesitates. “And I’ll also throw in some actual new tech, what the hell. He probably needs it, anyway.” 

 

Something dawns in Steve’s expression- something rare, a fondness that leaves Tony slightly uncomfortable, still. He’s not used to it, although he supposes he should be... seeing as he’s going to be getting this from Steve more and more. “You like him, don’t you.” It's not a question. 

 

Tony spreads his arms with a shrug. “I like his mission,” he admits with a rueful grin. “He’s still fresh, you know? He doesn’t...” 

 

“He doesn’t know, yet, how downright awful people can be?” Steve arches one perfect eyebrow swiftly as he fills in the unspoken blanks. They’re both maskless, which Tony prefers. He likes to read Steve’s expressions, his expressive eyebrows. “He hasn’t been exposed to, to...” he waves his hand in the direction of the abandoned HYDRA warehouse, where they’d no doubt kept god knows what locked up. “Or who knows, maybe he has seen it, now. Since he came through here...”

 

“Hm,” Tony steps into the warehouse, wrinkling his nose at the overwhelming smell of paper and ... something else, something that stinks like old blood. “I don’t think HYDRA was doing anything particularly incriminating in here, though. They wouldn’t set up in a warehouse, not when they love their underground labs so much. This must have been something much smaller.”

 

“How subtle can you even be in a warehouse around the docks?” Steve maneuvers around Tony, their hands grazing just slightly as he gestures past him at a few tables. “My guess is that this was all management. I bet they had some printers and workshops set up, maybe they were creating fake IDs or something.”

 

“Clever boy, you figure that out on your own?” Tony drawls sarcastically but with no heat, and Steve flushes, swatting at him without turning around. “This must have been mid-level operations. Management, maybe.” He takes on last glance around at the hollowed out remnants of a workshop, disappointed despite himself. “I don’t think there’s anything to be found here, I guess we’ll have to ask Spider-Man...” 

 

He stops himself as they're leaving, something shiny catching the corner of his eye. Tilting his head back, he follows the slight gleam until he notices it: a glistening cocoon of webs outside the warehouse, lofted high into the air and woven around the fire escape of the warehouse. Tony frowns, maneuvering his suit just high enough so he can reach out and see what's tucked into the webs. 

 

Sudden chills shiver up and down his arms when he gets a good look at the soft, faded blue, his heart climbing into his throat rapidly. That's a kid's backpack. It's packed with stuff, binders poking corners against the zipper, and a soft tag bears the initials PP in blue ink, sloppy capital letters laying claim to the backpack. A sense of deep foreboding fills Tony's stomach as he notices the words Midtown High just below the strangely familiar initials. 

 

 A child was here.

 

These webs, though, they're indicative of Spider-Man. They're fraying slightly, weak and wispy and breaking in the wind, which means they've been there for a while; Tony's able to pluck the backpack free and shrug it over his shoulder as he makes his way back to Steve.

 

If Steve had looked worried before, now he looks a combination of that and bewildered. "Is that... A backpack?" He murmurs, reaching out to stroke the flat of his thumb over the initials. His fingers catch a few remnants of webbing, which he tugs free with a frown before letting them trail away in the wind. Tony follows the white curl for a moment as it travels toward the docks, then hefts the backpack higher. 

 

"Yeah," Tony says grimly. "I'm thinking Spider-Man's gotten himself wrapped up in something shadier than he's letting on." 

 

"We should get back," Steve says gently, resting his hand lightly against Tony's shoulder. His presence soothes the worried edges slightly, but Tony's having a hard time relaxing with that backpack resting against his back like four tons of weight. It's not actually that heavy, although he does notice that it's far heavier than what he imagines a normal high schooler would be able to carry. "We can cross-check the initials with the student directory of Midtown High, see what we can find." 

 

"Good plan." They're about to head back when Tony hesitates, his fingers flexing around the strap of the backpack. 

 

"What is it?" Steve tilts his head back, giving Tony a confused look. "Did you forget something?" 

 

"... Just a feeling," Tony responds quietly, listening for a moment, before he traces back his steps and walks around the warehouse. The area out back is a lot, wide and barely lit besides a few weak streetlamps and Dumpsters. Steve's right on his heels; he looks around the empty lot, clearly searching for cars, but Tony can't shake this horrible weight in his gut. It won't let up, despite the parking lot being barren, and he can't, for the love of him, figure out what his body is trying to alert him to.

 

"I don't think there's anything here," Steve says after a moment of perusing the parking lot, but he doesn't discount Tony's worry. "Do you want to take a closer look? Maybe that'll help you feel better?" 

 

"No, it's f-" He's about to shake the feeling off when he hears something that, in the future, will always, always come back to haunt him.

 

From the direction of the Dumpsters, there's the sound of someone breathing- no, wheezing. It's a death rattle, the sort of sound someone makes when they've hit their desperation threshold and just don't care who's listening, bad or good. Tony's arm tightens around the backpack as he stares at Steve, and then they're running in the direction of the Dumpster. 

 

Tony's heart sinks when he sees a little red hand curved over the side of the Dumpster, barely hanging on. He's seen Spider-Man a good number of times, but he's never thought of the guy being so small. When he and Steve peer over the edge to look inside, Tony's hit first with the general smell of garbage and rot, and then blood

 

"Oh, Jesus Christ." Steve turns away for a moment, gripping the edge of the Dumpster so tightly that the metal crunches underneath his hand. "Tony," he says, and Tony just looks, for a second, at the hero they'd just been talking about- the hero they'd called fresh, naive, only minutes ago. The sticky pads of Spider-Man's fingers are the only thing propping him up, and Tony has no idea how long they've been at it. He's been brutalized, spread out over the slick red garbage bags, and his non-supporting hand seems to be firmly pressed into his side, just underneath his ribs where blood is steadily trickling out. The fingers shoved into his wound, trying to plug it, are all weird, sharp angles, like they've been broken, or crushed. His legs don't look right, either; they're bent awkwardly, although maybe, Tony hopes, maybe his flexibility is just making it seem like his legs are broken...? Wishful thinking. 

 

"Spider-Man," he says, flinching slightly at how horrible he sounds. "Hey. Hey, buddy..." He says, soft like he's soothing a spooked kitten, like he's not talking to a possibly three-fourths dead hero in a Dumpster. "C'mon, let's get you out of here." 

 

Spider-Man's mask is torn up the side slightly, exposing dark, blood-matted hair against the nape of a bruise-dark neck. He doesn't move or respond to Tony. 

 

Tony chokes on the wave of blood-soaked air that rushes out of the Dumpster, the vindictively familiar smell bringing in a major motion picture of memories he's laboriously buried under six feet of dirt. 

 

"Come on, Tony," Steve whispers, warm and vibrating with energy behind him. His voice is so close, a fresh layer of dirt to keep those memories quiet just a little longer. Tony takes a deep breath of air, turned away from the Dumpster, and then turns back around and leans in to pick Spider-Man's body up. He's still sticking to the edges, but he seems to have the wherewithal to tug free once Tony is moving him. That, or he's in too much pain to care one way or another.

 

"FRI," Tony says. 

 

"It is advised that you get Spider-Man to the medbay as soon as possible, Boss." she responds, not even bothering to give him a laundry list of injuries. Tony's stomach sinks as he holds the hero close, and he and Steve exchange nods before he takes off, his hand curving over the one Spider-Man has pressed into his side. Just under his other hand he can feel the shift of the other's ribs, slotting out of place like they've been broken, and he tries to be as gentle as possible so he doesn't accidentally puncture Spider-Man's lung with his own rib. 

 

Under the wave of despair he's been swallowing back at the sight of a mangled Spider-Man, there's something else, something heady and angry, something that buzzes underneath his skin relentlessly. No matter what actually happened back there, one thing he knows for sure is that there's nothing Spider-Man could have ever done to deserve being beaten and left for dead like this. Nothing. It doesn't matter who's met Spider-Man; it's impossible not to be charmed by his fresh-faced eagerness, his willingness to help the people of his city. Even the newspapers, save for one or two tabloids, report positively on his presence. The guy even has police watching out for him, vowing to provide support, and if that isn't enough, he even saves villains. Tony's seen even Natasha thaw in the face of Spider-Man's bubbly, talkative nature.

 

And someone left that excited, bright-eyed hero in a heap of garbage bags to bleed out. 

 

It feels like it's been too long when Tony finally gets to the medbay with Spider-Man's limp form tucked into his arm. Bruce is pottering with something a few feet away, muttering to himself unintelligibly as he peers through the microscopes at some blood-flecked slides, and he jerks when Tony calls out for him.

 

"What? What is it?" he nearly trips as he fumbles for his glasses, then seems to give up trying to rub them clean and just jams them on his face. "Oh, Christ," he says, when he sees the hero, a cosmos of microexpressions flickering over his features all too quickly for Tony to place. He's sure more than one of those is anger.

 

"C'mon, Brucie, I can't have you checking out on me now," Tony croaks, laying Spider-Man onto one of the beds before turning to Bruce, his fingers curling around Spider-Man's ankle lightly. Spider-Man feels like he's barely breathing, his fingers still determinedly pressed to his side, and Tony has the sudden urge to peel the mask right off his face. He sets the backpack down beside the bed, making a note to get to that when Spider-Man is coherent, and lightly pats the very top of the hero's head where he prays he hasn't been injured as well. 

 

"I'm not a medical doctor," Bruce responds, his voice almost pleading as he grabs armfuls of gauze and makes his way over to Spider-Man. He hisses sympathetically at the way blood all but pulses out in tides of red and starts to seal the wound and pulls at the suit to get it off. Tony knows the ins and outs of the suit and helps him, tossing the crimson-soaked pieces aside to wash later. "Holy shit," Bruce says, a low murmur of despair as he gets a good look at the extent of damage inflicted on the young hero. Lying on the bed like this, he seems even younger than Tony remembers. 

 

Splotchy, green-tinged bruises splatter the kid like he's a grotesque canvas, smoky purple spreading like foreboding clouds over his stomach and ribs. He's making that rattling sound again, his breathing horrifying to listen to, and all Tony can think is that he's grateful because that means Spider-Man is still alive enough to breathe. The kid's healing factor must have kicked in earlier, causing his fingers and legs to heal back up all wrong. Dread soaks Tony clear through like cold water at the thought of breaking Spider-Man even more to put him back together properly. 

 

"Okay," Bruce mutters, his hands already stained through as he finishes wrapping up the main wound. "Jesus, he's broken in five different places," he readjusts his glasses, looking sick as he does, like he knows he's getting Spider-Man's blood all over himself. "Okay, we have to, um, we have to..." That's when he notices what Tony had seen earlier, the blood against the back of Spider-Man's neck. The pillow under his head is wet with it. Tony's stomach flips again, and he gives Bruce a thin-lipped, I'll follow your lead sort of look. 

 

"He cares a lot about his identity, so we'll have to be very careful," Bruce says cautiously, taking Spider-Man's shoulder in order to turn him, just slightly. As soon as he's adjusted the hero at a workable angle, Tony slides the mask up in the back. He's not sure what Spider-Man might have hit his head on, but there's a matted, bloody spread of red right at the base of his skull. Bruce mutters curses to himself as he cleans the area up. 

 

"No basilar skull bones are fractured, thank god." Bruce says, grey-faced, sweat trickling down the side of his face and vanishing into his stubble.  He closes his eyes for a moment before resuming what he's doing, a slight tremor in his fingers. Tony wonders if he's praying, if he's saying something for the injured hero. He looks up at Tony, fixing his eyes somewhere past Tony, and Tony refrains from looking down because he knows Bruce is sliding Spider-Man's mask up in the front. He seems to be feeling around for a moment, trying to figure out how best to apply the bandages without looking, before he tapes the gauze in place and tugs Spidey's mask down. 

 

"This is one of the harder parts," Bruce tells Tony. "We have to, uh, break the bones so they set properly." 

 

Spider-Man's healing fucked him over on this one. Tony squeezes his eyes shut, his mind crawling back into that dark hole full of dirt and blood, but he knows what has to be done. The fingers are horrible in and of themselves; when they snap, fragile, Tony feels bile climb up his throat. Spider-Man doesn't move, other than to twitch almost sluggishly, and Tony figures the pain must have been so much that Spider-Man just passed out.

 

"Tony, what the hell is going on?" Suddenly, from one second to the next, the room floods with concerned Avengers and it's full, too full. Steve's at Tony's side, solid and warm, and Clint, who had been the one to ask, stands off to the side with Sam beside him. There's a full beat of silence, heavy and dense, and it presses down on all of them like the world on Atlas' shoulders.

 

"...Oh," Sam says when he catches sight of the broken hero spread out over the bed. His voice is unusually small. Natasha steps forward, wet hair hanging down beside her jaw as she studies the other spider, and there's a darkness in her expression that makes Tony shiver. 

 

"Who the fuck did this?" Clint bursts out, and Tony shakes his head, knowing he must look like hell. Steve's hand rests on his shoulder, grounding him.

 

"We don't know," he admits, leaning back against Steve's hand slightly. "Steve and I went to go check out the HYDRA warehouse that Sp- Spider-Man had cleared out, but it was empty. Just when we were leaving, I found this hanging in some webs outside the warehouse, near the fire escape..." He lifts the backpack, and a disturbed silence befalls his teammates. They're clearly wondering, just as he is, why Spider-Man would have a teenager's backpack webbed up in a HYDRA warehouse. "And then ..."

 

"Tony had a feeling," Steve says softly, and Tony's gaze flicks to meet the other's. "So we went out back, and ... Spider-Man's b..." He clears his throat, clearly still deeply affected by what they'd witnessed. "His body... In a Dumpster." 

 

Bruce's hands still over Spider-Man's legs, his fingers curling and uncurling violently as he tries to reign himself in. Natasha teleports from beside Spider-Man's foot to beside Bruce, leans over to examine his leg. She knows what she's doing from years of experience herself, from her own little book of nightmares, and she knows what Spider-Man needs. She brings Bruce back down as she braces Spider-Man's leg, and Tony looks away because he's not sure he can see anymore without devolving into a fully panicked episode.

 

"We've got nothing until he wakes up," he tells the team, his words tinged with something brutally honest and painfully raw. "I'll wait wi- with him," he flinches, his words cracking across the surface when he hears another unholy snap.  

 

"Fuck that. We'll take turns," Clint says evenly. Tony opens his mouth, ready to protest, to make it clear that he's not sure if he'll ever be able to leave Spider-Man's side again, but Steve moves slightly into his space, giving him a second to breathe and adjust.

 

"He's right. We'll take turns," Steve says in his best leader voice, tone brooking no room for argument as he looks around at the room. "He should know that he has a team watching over him." 

 

Does he? Tony thinks, more than a little hysterically. They'd all failed him somehow- what if he was never going to be the same again? What if this is the trauma that dims all the light and energy in Spider-Man, dwindling him down to nothing? What if it's all Tony's fault? He doesn't need to think about that- this is definitely, at least partially, his fault. 

 

"I'm done," Bruce says after a moment. He looks down at his red palms, ashen, like he's expended all his available energy, before promptly walking right out of the room. Tony lets him go, gives him the room to cool down, and helps Natasha pull the covers over Spider-Man. He's still wheezing instead of properly breathing, and the way the sound fills the room makes more than one of them flinch. 

 

"I'll take first shift." Tony says, slumping down beside the bed, and Steve sits across from him in the other chair. The rest of the team waits for a moment, and Sam pats Spider-Man's hidden ankle before the three of them head out as well. 

 

"He's going to be okay, Tony," Steve assures in that low, steady rumble of his. Tony lets Steve keep his feet on the ground, because right now, he's afraid that Spider-Man's never going to wake up and he's going to go spinning into the goddamn stratosphere. He doesn't know what he'll do if Spider-Man doesn't wake up. 

 

He needs Spider-Man to wake up. 

 

--

 

After two days of miserable, bated-breath waiting, he does. 

 

Clint's excited whoop rings through the halls, and Tony, who's at most one room away from the medbay at all times, drops everything in his hands and sprints.

 

Sure enough, Spider-Man's coughing, his hand moving from beside him on the bed to his exposed mouth as he tries to sit up. "H- Huh?" he half-squeaks, half-exclaims as his head moves sluggishly from Clint to Tony. Tony's heart is loud in his ears, pumping away like he's marathoning or something, and he staggers forward as the others join them. 

 

"Hey, Sleeping Beauty," he says, because everything else seems inadequate. 

 

Spidey opens and closes his mouth like he's too astonished to even begin figuring out what's going on, but his mouth purses into a grimace as he tries to sit up. It's not quite like a movie, where he's too confused to know what's happening for an extended period of time- he seems to have near instant awareness. He gasps out a wounded sound as he grips at his ribs, his body curling up around his multiple wounds, and Tony's lips twist into a dark expression when he hears it. 

 

"Oh, god," Spider-Man says, the words wrapped around a sob. "I thought I was going to die." 

 

Tony exchanges looks with Steve, then sits down beside the hero. "You were pretty touch and go there for a minute, Spider-Man," he admits gently, and he can't see Spider-Man's eyes, but he sees the whites of the mask widen. "You... You can't scare me like that, dude. I don't know if you know this or not, but my heart's not equipped to handle that." It comes out less as a joke and more as a plea, and Tony winces when he hears it.

 

Spider-Man lifts his hands clumsily, clearly trying to frantically wipe tears away. "I'm sorry," he cries, "I thought I was helping." Something inside Tony aches again at the words, at the pleas of the hero. "I didn't see him coming, I- I was confused, because of the- the-" he takes a deep breath, and Tony rests a hand against the kid's wrist. 

 

"You had a concussion, buddy. Slow down." 

 

"There was a noise," Spider-Man says. "A high-pitched ringing, he- he had some sort of- he-" his hand flails, and the thought of snapped, broken fingers imprints itself behind Tony's eyes; he catches the pale fingers, holding for a moment before squeezing, just slightly. "I didn't know. It was horrible, I- I couldn't focus, I couldn't think... Before I knew it, he stabbed me." 

 

Tony releases Spider-Man's hand, because he's angry, because he doesn't want to crush the bones that he only just helped put together. 

 

"He kept hitting me, Mr. Stark," Spider-Man's words warp around the cries he's eking out, and he curls up into this fragile, withering thing, like a flower under snow. "I heard the bones break, I thought-" his lips wobble open and closed as he examines his hands, moves his legs uncertainly. "I asked him to stop. I told him he didn't have to." Tony can see the unfocused gaze, even though Spider-Man's mask is still sloppily in place. "He d-didn't have to keep hitting me." 

 

"I know." Tony aches all over. To anyone else, it would seem ludicrous, to just ask the villain to stop doing ... Whatever they were doing. But Spider-Man's always asked. He's always extended the courtesy, always offered an out. Please don't rob that bank. Please give the lady back her purse. Please don't hit me. He didn't have to keep hitting Spider-Man. But he did.

 

If Spider-Man only knew the way Clint's fists clench, white-knuckled behind his back, if only he knew that behind Natasha's slight, relieved smile there's something insatiable, something punishing. If only he understood the way Steve and Sam exchange looks, the corners of their eyes tight with something almost promising. 

 

"They called him Davidson," Spider-Man croaks, the lower half of his face wet. The name seems to cause his breath to hitch, his body trembling as he processes the beginning of a panic attack. Tony rests his hand on the sheets over Spider-Man's heart, shushing him, urging him to breathe, breathe along with him. He knows this will be the first, the first of many, because the world deals unfair hands to even the brightest heroes. "He's one of th- them, HYDRA. He wa-was the b-boss, or manage... Manager. He overlooked th-the production." 

 

"Okay," Tony says, still making shushing noises under his breath as he tries to bring Spider-Man back down. That's when he remembers the the other thing he wanted to ask Spider-Man about. "Hey, um, just... We found something else, there, we just wanted to ask you about it..." 

 

He lifts the faded blue backpack out from underneath the bed, holding it up with a raised eyebrow. 

 

Except Spider-Man must be out of it from the painkillers Bruce has been administering, his brain a little soupy still, because he says, "You found my backpack! I have homework due Thursday, thanks Mr-" before abruptly shutting up, like a switch was flipped. 

 

Tony's brain short-circuits, his uncertain smile freezing on his face before falling away and leaving behind only horror. 

 

"No fucking way," Sam says, from somewhere behind him, at the same time that Clint says "holy shit, you're a fucking- freaking fetus." 

 

"No! No, I!" Spider-Man looks around at them wildly, looking just about delirious with panic. "No, that's -- That's my backpack from a couple years ago! Yeah, I- I still- I mean, it's a good backpack! Very sturdy!" 

 

"No wonder it's so heavy," is all Tony can think to choke out, his heart doing that thing again where it tries to climb out of his goddamn throat and run the hell away. Spider-Man is a high school child. He's a child. Practically a baby in a suit, running around, fighting crime. He could have died. Steve's breathing is unusually choppy beside him, his chest rising and falling rapidly as he tries to take control of whatever is going on. 

 

"Are you telling me," he says, the volume of his voice rising into something just short of a yell, although he dials back a few notches when Spider-Man flinches, "that Davidson nearly killed a child?!" 

 

The room is tense, with Spider-Man's eyes flicking between every one of them. He seems to realize the jig is up, because, with just the slightest hesitation, he pulls his mask off. Tony finds himself on the edge of his seat like he's about to watch a jump-scare- that's how horrified he is. They all watch in silence as Spider-Man's mask tumbles in a sad heap beside his leg.

 

"Holy shit, you're a fetus," Clint repeats weakly, and Bruce just stares at the kid. The kid. 

 

Tony's not sure what he was expecting. 

 

"Peter Parker," he swallows a painful knot down at the sight of that familiar face. "I asked you to intern for Stark Industries after your science fair project a few months ago, Jesus," he mutters, scraping his hands over his face as he looks away, because he can't keep looking at Peter or he's going to lose it for real. 

 

Peter Parker is under the mask. A fourteen-year-old genius is Spider-Man. A fourteen-year-old. "I know," Peter says, because of course he does. He twists the mask between nimble, little fingers, tugging at it uncertainly. "Funny, right?" Except nobody laughs, not even Peter. 

 

"You have homework," Sam croaks, moving closer. "Jesus, kid, why aren't you- I don't know- playing video games at home? What the fuck are you doing, getting the shit beaten out of you instead of getting your ass kicked on- on- What do kids even play these days?!" 

 

"Because," Peter's breath hitches. He looks just as bad underneath the mask, pale-faced and tired. Too old for his goddamn baby age. "Why are you a hero?" he asks instead, not to anyone particular but instead to all of them. "'Cause that's why. I want to help people. I ... I love people. I love New York." 

 

And they love you, Tony thinks miserably, because there's no way he's going to be able to force Peter to hang up the mask. Not when New York clings to its hero. But then he thinks about Davidson again, who beat the hell out of this tiny, tiny boy, and he hurts all over. The pain burns halfway through and leaves behind only pure anger and something that he's too scared to name, something a lot like protectiveness. 

 

"You're so young," Steve whispers, and in his voice is all the lingering horror, all the fear that Tony's too afraid to put into words. "Tony," he says beseechingly, though he seems to understand that nothing Tony says is going to make a goddamn difference. "He's so young." 

 

Peter coughs, the sound frail, like something from a baby bird. 

 

"Okay," Tony says. "Okay. If you won't stop doing the hero thing- fine. But I'm going- I'm gonna install some things into your suit, some ... Lifelines, an AI, maybe." He mutters, half talking to himself and half talking to the rest of them. "If something like this happens again, someone needs to know." 

 

Peter hesitates but nods, then winces at the motion and lies back instead. Tony hurts just looking at the kid. 

 

"And you're going to intern for me, too," Tony continues. "Because that way, I can make sure you're training. You can train with Natasha." 

 

Nat smiles for the first time, very casually, and Peter whimpers at the sight of it. "That's so cool," he whispers, surprising but not really surprising them. Figures that Nat would be the one to really put fear into the kid. 

 

"This won't happen again, Underoos." Tony says, and the nickname feels right. It reminds him of something simple and fun, lighthearted and bright. Just like Peter. "You're going to be much, much safer now, if I have any say in it." 

 

Peter smiles wanly at him, but it's genuine and soft. "Okay, Mr. Stark." He smiles for a moment longer, although it just about drops off his face as he spins around (and winces). The team tenses up, but all Peter does is screech,

 

"What day is it?!" 

 

"Uh... Thursday? You've been out for two days." Tony glances at his watch, and Peter's limbs go slack with horror. 

 

"Oh, no, oh no, oh no no no," he moans, hiding his face into his hands. "No, no no." 

 

"What's wrong?" Tony feels obliged to ask, and he knows his expression is bewildered because he sees it mirrored on the rest of the team's faces.


"My Aunt May is going to kill me."