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Identity Crisis

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Identity Crisis

 

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May, 2010

 

Tony held his hand high in the air, his fingers gripping the stem of his champagne glass. The bubbly liquid inside fizzled and sparkled from the windows nearby.

“To not dying!”

His overly-euthanized smile was met with one very exasperated stare.

“No,” Pepper curtly responded, not amused, never once raising her own champagne glass to meet his.

Tony frowned, looking offended and slightly childish in his pout.

“What? Why?”

“I’m going to hurl something at your head, I swear —”

“What?” Tony asked again, nudging his glass playfully against hers. It only managed to spill some champagne onto the cut-stone flooring below. “Come on — to not dying!”

There was a pause. A deadly one, the type that came with Pepper’s scolding hot stare. Her eyes held enough heat that he was worried they might burn him, a firey Medusa if he’d say so himself.

“I’m not toasting to that,” she insisted, all the while curtly shaking her head.

“I think it’s a lovely toast.”

“And I think that palladium poisoning may have had some lingering and very unfortunate lasting side effects,” Pepper bit back, smooth-talking, quick for banter.

“Preposterous.” Tony smiled, his grin wide enough to show his back molars. “I’m all good. Promise.”

“Mhmm...” she eyed his champagne glass with hesitance. “I still think you should be checked out by, you know, an actual doctor.”

Tony’s eyes flickered up to the ceiling as he lowered his glass from its raised height.

“JARVIS?”

I have run every known available medical scan within the system to check for all possible abnormalities. With the help of Director Fury, it would appear the effects of this most recent palladium poisoning have been almost entirely reversed. It is my pleasure to say that Mr. Stark has returned to stable condition,” JARVIS’s voice rang through the room, bouncing off the large glass windows nearby. “Unfortunately, the state of his mental health may always be in question.”

Tony couldn’t resist a chuckle, eyes staying locked on Pepper as he said, “Thank you, JARVIS.”

Of course, sir.”

Pepper, however, seemed less than convinced. Her head cocked to the side, skeptical, and Tony could see her fingernails grip tensely around the glass stem to her drink.

“You think that’s all it’s going to take for me to believe —”

“You heard it for yourself, with your own two ears —”

“And why exactly should I have faith in the medical diagnosis of your intelligence programming,” Pepper looked upwards to the ceiling, “No offense, JARVIS.”

None taken, Ms. Potts.”

“Because I wouldn’t lie to you.” Tony inwardly cringed when Pepper shot him a look, the same maddening look that usually had him scampering across the room. She earned the nickname Pepper for a reason, after all. “That is, I wouldn’t lie to you after this, not again, not ever again. You have my word. Cross my fragile, shrapnel damaged heart and any other silly elementary school promise you’d like to throw in. Here, you want to grab my pinky? I mean, I’d much prefer you grab another appendage of mine but by all means —”

Tony!”

“We’re good. I’m good,” he stressed the last two words with heavy sincerity, his foolish grin turning more somber in the moment.

Pepper still seemed hesitant, frowning as she looked back and forth between both champagne glasses. He really couldn’t blame her, not after all they had been through. Her hesitance surely came with a cause — Iron Man, Obadiah Stane, Justin Hammer, Vanko — the hairs on his arm shot right up at the very thought of the crazy bastard. After that whole ordeal, Tony would be happy to never again deal with another psychopathic Russian in his life.

“That’s up for debate,” she finally said, softly under her breath but loud enough that Tony could hear the smile in her words. He took that as his go-ahead.

“Okay, let’s try this again.” Tony raised his glass, the bubbly carbonation beginning to sprinkle over and send droplets onto his knuckles. It only stung slightly, open cuts already beginning to scab and heal. “To...revoking an importune resignation. And new beginnings.”

This time, with only a beat passing by, Pepper lifted her hand to meet his.

“To new beginnings.”

Glasses clicked together and the otherwise small sound echoed across the large room in the mansion, accompanied by each of their sips.

Pepper was quick to swallow hers, adding, “Hopefully to one that doesn’t include the entire destruction of the New York State Pavilion —”

“We paid for that.” Tony paused on his way over to the sofa, half sitting when he asked, “We paid for that, right?”

Pepper chuckled dryly, joining him on the beige leather couch. “Yes, we paid for that.”

Her weight dipped the sofa low, one of Tony’s arm stretched over her shoulder while his other laid on the armrest, glass in hand. He let out the breath he’d never realized he’d been holding. The sunset across the Malibu ocean reflected through the large windows spread across the room, streaks of gold and tangerines coloring the otherwise white walls and architectural beam structures.

It had been a long day, and even then that could be the understatement of the year. The moment of relaxation felt earned.

“Good,” he reaffirmed, taking another sip, relishing in the bubbles that danced across his tongue. “Damage paid for, that spicy double-agent Romanoff is out of our hair, Hammer will rot away with his boy toy in Seagate Prison — oh, I saved a kid.”

The sudden and unprompted statement had Pepper quirking an eyebrow high into her hairline.

“You saved a lot of people, Tony,” she needlessly reminded.

“That goes without saying.” Tony crossed one leg over the other, eyes locked on his champagne glass, the sunset through the windows making the drink sparkle in just the right light. Or perhaps that was his arc reactor glowing through his button-down shirt. “I’m talking about a kid, though, wearing this cheap-looking plastic Iron Man helmet — which by the way, when did we start selling those? We are selling those, right? China better not be black-marketing my brand and pocketing the sales.”

“Tony,” Pepper admonished, head tipped low, chin practically resting against her chest.

Tony waved it off with his free hand.

“Anyway, little brat was like, this tall?” It was more of a question than a fact, leveling his hand out in the air to a height that barely reached his sternum. “So what’s that, five? Six?”

Pepper huffed. “No five year old is that tall. Eight, at best.”

“Don’t care, too young. Stood right in front of one of those Hammeroid’s, thinking his low-budget Toys R Us get-up could save the day.” Something about the memory, all too fresh in his mind, had Tony downing the remains of his champagne — which was nearly all of it, taken in one large swig. He grunted as he leaned forward to place the empty glass on the coffee table ahead, sore ribs making themselves known. “Go figure, Hammer’s programming was recognizing anything remotely close to Iron Man and I suppose China is doing a good job with our merch because that Halloween costume nearly got him blown to smithereens.”

Looking to his right where Pepper sat next to him, Tony was surprised to see she was actually smiling. For a story that had him reeling with hypotheticals, dizzy withwhat if’ scenarios involving him arriving a millisecond too late, she seemed to be beaming with joy.

In fact, he nearly did a double-take to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him — she was, indeed, happy. The very opposite of a reaction he’d expect after telling her that a child almost died because of him, because of Iron Man.

Why was it that the firey Medusa never came out when he expected it the most?

“You saved a kid.” Pepper laid a hand gently on his knee, words warm and tender.

Tony scoffed. “Barely. Nick of time sort of deal. Definitely would have been a messy spill to clean up if I hadn’t, bad PR, stocks down the drain...”

Tony hadn’t meant to trail off, his voice somehow tapering off amid a memory. His eyes stared absentmindedly ahead, the familiarity of guilt resurfacing with full force. At the time, it had been easy to ignore the harsh reality behind the incident. Adrenaline and fear had kept him moving — flying, fighting, desperate to save Rhodey and Pepper from Vanko, to save all of New York from that insane, creepy bastard.

But now that he had a moment of relaxation, the truth sunk in. And it sank deep, far into his core where it hurt the most, where reminders of Gulmira made his chest ache more than palladium poisoning ever could.

“I...can’t imagine having a child’s death on my conscience, Pep.” He realized a moment too late that he had said the words out loud. Tony cleared his throat before Pepper could even open her mouth, quick to ramble off, “You know, now that I think about it — scrap the kid toys, pull the plug entirely, do a world-wide recall on all of it. Don’t be selling that crap to them.”

“I think it’s cute,” Pepper said quietly, her hand squeezing his knee before letting go. “You’re creating heroes already.”

Tony was a bit slow on the uptake with her words, eventually giving a hearty chuckle when he realized what she’d said. Somehow hearing kids and heroes in the same sentence simply didn’t compute, not for him. This was never about being a role model, never about being someone for the younger generation to look up to. To think, it all started as a way to rid the world of the weapons he had naively created.

“I’m just glad I’m not that twerps dad. With an attitude like that,” Tony let out a long whistle through his pursed lips. “He’s going to be the biggest headache for his parents.”

 

- May 2017 -

 

“Break. Break. Parker, you need to — break, Peter, BREAK!”

Tony’s nose nearly became one with the dashboard as Peter slammed on the breaks to the car, his seat-belt the only thing saving his very famous face from needing possible reconstructive surgery.

The engine beneath them hummed and the smell of burnt rubber began to drift into the open windows of the Audi. Tony hadn’t noticed, not over his heavy breathing, his face flushed with sweat, pulse racing and thumping in ways he knew wasn’t good for his heart.

This was it. This was how he was going to die. At the hands of a sixteen-year-old teenager who managed to swing thousands of feet in the air but couldn’t obey a stop sign if one smacked him head-on.

Peter smiled sheepishly from the driver’s seat, his hands gripping the wheel tight enough Tony was worried it might break.

“Sorry?”

Tony shot his head over in his direction with neck-breaking speeds. His sunglasses dipped from the bridge of his nose, chest heaving, eyes bulging.

“You were just released from the medbay last week. Was the pudding that great? Were the nurses that cute? Are you trying to get yourself re-admitted?”

Peter rolled his eyes. “The car was going thirty-five, I wouldn’t get hurt if —”

“What about me!?” Tony all but shrieked, clutching his seat-belt for dear life.

This was why he didn’t have kids of his own, he kept telling himself. Over and over again in a way he was sure would prove more effective than a vasectomy ever could.

Peter decided it was best to keep his mouth shut. He slowly put the car back into gear, trying his best not to laugh as Tony flinched from his every move; from adjusting the mirrors to using the turn signal, the man was a complete spaz case. Not even Aunt May had been this on-edge with him driving, and he had crashed into six-and-half shopping carts with her trying to teach him.

Ping Ping Ping sounded from the blinker as he looked both ways on the road before turning — the very empty road, surrounding the outside of the Avenger’s compound where literally no more than one car ever seemed to be driving at a time — and once out of the interaction, he picked up speed.

To a whopping twenty-five miles per hour. Awesome.

Granted, it was faster than he ever went driving with May so he really couldn’t complain all too much. Plus, he was worried if he drove even one mile faster, Mr. Stark might jump straight out of the car and make a run for it. Something told him the ‘I have a suit on standby’ joke wasn’t really a joke after all.

“How long ago was it that you took drivers ed?” Tony spoke up, his voice a little stronger as his breaths came in a tad bit calmer.

Peter kept his eyes straight ahead on the road. “Not long after I crashed Flash’s car.”

“That’s right,” he nodded. “You crashed that kids car. I’m pretty sure I paid out the insurance for that kid’s car.” There was a beat of silence before, “Why am I letting you drive again?”

“No idea.” Peter turned the wheel a sharp left, the car pulling in that direction. “In my defense —”

“Wouldn’t go there —”

“Getting my permit was so much easier than this,” he finished with a sigh, shoulders slumping dramatically with defeat. “I’m just not cut out for driving, am I? I’ll be subway taking, Uber calling, web-swinging Peter Parker for life.”

It was Tony’s turn to roll his eyes, especially as Peter mentioned web-swinging. That was a new habit he wasn’t all too found over. In fact, it had been shortly before the whole Mysterio and Dmitri incident that he discovered the kid was basically flying through the streets of New York at precarious heights. At first, it hadn’t been much of a cause for concern. But what started as the occasional swing quickly became more of a means to transportation, and he was about to tell the kid to play it safe, knock it off, when all that nonsense went down during their eventful spring.

Now, Tony couldn’t care less. Anything to keep Peter Parker off the streets — for the safety of the New York residents more than the teenager himself.

We all have our flaws. Even geniuses,’ he thought. ‘Mine was not knowing when to keep my mouth shut. Obie really hated me for that one.’

“Tell you what,” Tony started, watching as they drove closer to the Avenger’s compound, more relieved than he was willing to admit that the lesson was nearly over. “There’s this long, empty, practically deserted stretch of road on Interstate Eighty in Utah. I’ll consider letting you drive then. Maybe. We’ll see.”

Peter grinned ear-to-ear, his smile brighter than the afternoon sun that baked through the sunroof of the Audi. Tony pushed up his glasses to better protect his eyes.

“I still can’t believe you’re taking me on a cross-country road trip, Mr. Stark,” Peter’s voice was thick with excitement, the one leg not operating the gas pedal practically bouncing in place. “I mean, I would have been cool with Paris, but this is —”

“You’re such a little shit, Parker.” Tony joked with a laugh, gesturing ahead with the hand that wasn’t clutching his seat-belt. “Okay, break up ahead. Right about...now — Pete, here. You need to break here —BREAK!”

 

Present Day

 

It turned out by the end of their trip, Peter didn’t drive once. Not unless he counted the time in Malibu when after filling up the car, Mr. Stark let him drive from the gas station to their hotel.

The hotel was literally half a mile away. Peter had been pouting so hard Mr. Stark said he might have burst a blood vessel.

It was all good, though. Because Malibu was absolutely gorgeous. The bright sun, the clean, salty air — what the internet showed him would never compare to the real beauty of it all.Peter couldn’t comprehend why Mr. Stark would ever want to move away. And yeah, sure, Mr. Stark eventually told him all about how his mansion had been blown up and they decided it was safer living in the Avenger’s headquarters on the East Coast but let’s be real, the sand between Peter’s toes had him sold on the beach life.

“Tonight, Peter!” May hollered from outside his bedroom.

“I will!” Peter shouted back, belly-flopping onto the bottom bunk of his bed, phone so close to his face he could see his breath leave marks on the screen. It was an easy way to ignore the open handy-me-down suitcase from Uncle Ben that laid on his floor, t-shirts, pants, and boxers spilling out that still needed put away.

He knew full well what May was asking from him because it was the same thing she’d been asking for three days now, ever since he returned home.

Without even thinking about it, Peter scrolled through his phone and opened his text messages. He’d get around to unpacking at some point. It’d probably be around the time he didn’t have any clean clothes left but hey, it’d get done.

A part of him realized that unpacking made him a little sad; it would officially put an end to what was an amazing summer. Even without getting a real chance at driving, Peter had the absolute time of his life. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he’d get the chance to spend an entire month traveling the country, and with Iron Man nonetheless.

He had to admit that while he never, ever wanted to experience almost dying again — not even if you paid him a billion dollars — it certainly came with its perks. And despite really not needing the road trip as some sort of extra apology from Mr. Stark, Peter also didn’t have the heart to turn it down. If he didn’t know better, he’d say Mr. Stark seemed just as excited. In his own weird way.

Still, by the time the month-long trip came to an end, he admittedly missed the city life enough to say goodbye to the beaches of the West Coast, the deserts of Arizona and the odd alien-abduction culture in Missouri.

Both him and Mr. Stark were surprised to see the quaint little state had New Mexico beat in the ‘obsessed with aliens’ department. Something about a boy going missing in 1988 and the entire town of St. Charles being under this absurd impression that a UFO took him and — well, Mr. Stark had high tailed it out of there before Peter could learn any more.

The stories he came back with seemed endless and if he needed to keep his suitcase full a little while longer before saying goodbye to summer, than so be it.

Peter grimaced as he ran his tongue across his upper teeth, the sticky film of plaque a gritty sensation he’d been ignoring for too long. There was one thing he needed to figure out sooner rather than later, something procrastination couldn’t take hold of any longer.

He pulled up a text message conversation with one quick swipe across his keyboard.

Peter laughed, letting his fingers dance across the touch screen.

 

A ding sounded from his phone, another message popping up on the top of his screen.

 

Peter was mid-reply when his fingers stopped darting across the screen. His looked to his right where his bedroom door was mostly open, a respectable halfway point between total privacy and ‘sure, come on in! I’m not doing any embarrassing teenage stuff at all, May, I promise.’ The sounds of his aunt’s footsteps could be heard even from where he laid, enhanced hearing picking up the sound of her humming, the neighbor’s television playing M.A.S.H for the five hundredth time this week, and the persistent drip of a broken faucet.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

His forehead creased with eyebrows furrowed tightly. From what he could tell, it was the sink in their apartment causing the noise. Not the neighbor or anyone else the building to blame but them.

Usually accustomed to fine-tuning his enhanced hearing so these sounds didn’t bother him, Peter was surprised to realize that ‘holy cow!’ was it annoying. Not to mention it was bothersome. Each droplet of water hit their yellow and white bathroom tiled floor louder than if Thor’s hammer was swinging down onto the ground. Of course, that may have been a slight exaggeration. Just slight.

A few swipes on his touchscreen keyboard and he finished his conversation with Ned.

 

“Hey, May!?” Peter shouted, already in a sitting position on his bed, phone discarded at his hip.

Within a few seconds, May had popped her head in between the door, shouting back,

“Hey, Peter!?”

“Whoa.” Peter cringed, one hand rubbing tenderly and dramatically at his ear. “Loud much?”

May cocked her head to the side, the smile in her eyes giving away her faux serious posture.

“I’m literally in the kitchen,” she sassed back, one hand smugly resting against her hip while a dishtowel dangled in the other. “You didn’t need to yell for me.”

“Right, right.” Peter nodded too many times for his own good, following up with, “Hey, do we have any tools to fix the bathroom sink? I can hear it dripping from my bedroom.”

May gave an incredulous laugh. “Of all the things those super-duper ears pick up on and that’s what’s bothering you right now? Didn’t you once mention that the Johnson's in 3.B play M.A.S.H about —”

“Five hundred times a day and yes, someone needs to introduce them to something new!” Peter gestured to the wall of his bedroom, arm extended fully. “Of all the amazing things Netflix and Hulu have to offer and they insist on playing those reruns day in and day out. It’s driving me insane.

“You can’t beat the classics,” May said, grinning at his over-the-top theatrics, eye-roll included. “And regarding the sink, just fix it yourself. You know...”

She gestured her hands in a twisting motion, the kind of action that indicated physical labor, in this case the tightening of a pipe.

“Yeah..” Peter drawled out, inwardly cringing, “last time I did I sorta broke the kitchen sink?”

May froze and her eyes squinted with realization. “So that’s how that happened.”

Sitting on his bed, Peter smiled sheepishly, somehow managing to make himself seem two times smaller than his physique actually allowed him to be.

May wagged the dishtowel in his direction. “I’ll call the landlord, see what he can do.”

His nod was enough acknowledgment for them both. May turned on her heels to leave, barely two steps out the door when she spun back around, the kitchen towel waving at the movement.

“Hey — last day of summer vacation. Any big plans?”

Peter shook his head. “I don’t think so. Mr. Stark’s road trip was enough, ya know?”

His eyes drifted to his phone, laying by his hip, face down across the ruffled blankets and sheets of his twin bed. The last stream of text messages from Ned stood out fresh in his mind.

“But there is this party —”

“You should go!”

Peter shot his head back to her with wide eyes and an expression so wild May nearly doubled over laughing. He couldn’t help it, beyond confused — practically bewildered at her uncanny encouragement to attend some random teenage party. Which, before knowing about Spider-man had actually been a pretty common occurrence. Things definitely changed after Homecoming though, even tenfold after his whole ‘death fake-out.’ Some days he was still surprised she let him on the trip with Mr. Stark, though he was sure some smooth-talking was likely had before a yes was even given.

“I feel like you have an alternative motive here,” he managed to squeak out,“You know, Ned’s mom is taking him out for dinner —”

May threw the dishtowel at him. “Well I’m not Ned’s mother and you know I can’t stand that woman so why would you compare me to her?”

Peter laughed, catching the dirty rag before it could land on his face. He tossed it right back at her. “I’m just saying. Feeling a bit kicked out here.”

May softened, leaning against his door frame with a warm smile. Her demeanor seemed to change all at once, her shoulders dropping, her fingers fidgeting with the seams of the dishtowel.

Peter hated when she looked at him that way, her face conveying a sort of sympathy for all he had been through. It only reminded him that she’d been through so much herself, more than she needed to with him dragging her along for this crazy superhero ride.

At the same time, he didn’t know what he’d do without her.

“Seriously, go have some fun,” she stressed, lighthearted with encouragement. “You had a rough spring, you deserve to end the summer with a bang. Hey, I’ll even drive you there.”

Peter picked up his cell phone, tossing it between both hands as he stared ahead at nothing in particular. If he was completely honest with May, he didn’t have much of a desire to go. Ned wouldn’t be there, he still got odd feelings when he was around MJ, and it was Flash’s party, which just meant all sorts of yucky things.

But the suitcase on the floor was still open with clothes needing to be put away.

“Actually...” Peter felt a grin pulling at his lips. “I might be able to catch a ride.”

May gave him a corny thumbs up and Peter stopped tossing his phone like a ping-pong ball. One person in particular came to his mind, someone he knew he could rely on no matter what. He didn’t waste another second once having made a decision. The chat was up on his phone in seconds.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

It turned out to absolutely no surprise of Peter’s that Flash’s house was huge.

“Whoa…” he stared ahead at the luxuriant and expensive-looking home with jaw-dropping awe. Only when a bug flew into his mouth did he shake himself back to reality, the back of his wrist smacking hard against his lips and the fly that buzzed around them.

The house was enormous. It would have easily put Liz Toome’s old place to shame, though there were noticeably fewer windows on the modern architecture design. Gaudy multi-colored lights surrounded them and shined all around, and the bass of heavy music blared even far away from where they stood. It all screamed Flash Thompson, something the rich teenager would happily go out of his way to do for a simple ‘goodbye summer vacationparty.

A car door shut behind him, followed by a smooth and friendly voice.

“It is not that impressive,” Wanda casually stated, strolling up to him with both her arms crossed over her chest.

Peter shot his head over to her with record-breaking speed. “Dude...”

They both stood in the middle of what felt like a never-ending driveway leading up to the house. Other-expensive looking cars were parked all around, some even having resorted to driving on the well-kept and overly-green lawn that he was pretty sure smelt and looked like fake grass.

Peter sighed with a shake of his head. Flash always did talk up his dad, something about being a prominent hot-shot city lawyer. It was a good thing they were able to borrow one of Mr. Stark’s Acura’s for the ride over. There was no way he’d survive the embarrassment of pulling up with May’s old, beaten down Pontiac.

“Okay,” Wanda caved with a smirk, swinging her hip against his. “It is...a little cool.”

Peter snorted a laugh, his hands tugging nervously at the casual brown blazer he’d decided to wear. It still felt like too much, like he was trying too hard. Yet the bass from the music ahead could be felt shaking the ground below, and the disco lights flashed with flare nearly a mile away from where they stood. So perhaps his trying too hard’ would actually fit right in.

“You only say that ‘cause you live in a mansion yourself,” Peter mentioned, beginning to walk up the long driveway while other teenagers rushed and ran past them to get inside.

“As do you, my pavuk dytyny.” Wanda’s many wrists bracelets jingled when she playfully tapped him against the shoulder.

“No, I don’t!” Peter adamantly shook his head. “I spend three weekends out of the month there. It’s like...a super weird joint custody arrangement with Mr. Stark.” He turned to look at her, his finger wagging in her face as he insisted, “That doesn’t mean I live there.”

They stopped short of the grand double entrance doors, frosted side windows reflecting a multitude of different lights from the party inside. Wanda’s face glowed yellow, orange, red, and blue as her smile grew wider. Eventually, even her back teeth were visible from the toothy grin.

Peter knew that smile. He had grown to hate that smile. It meant that she knew him well enough to know differently of what he said, without ever having to use her powers to get inside his head.

“Okay, so I kind of live there but you gotta keep it between us, okay? It’s way too suspicious if people start finding out I have a room where I also have my Stark internship.” Peter grabbed the door handle and yanked it open, the music from inside immediately blasting louder and the lights shining brighter. He stepped to the side to let Wanda in first. “It took Flash ages to believe that was even real!”

Wanda stuffed her hands deep inside the olive green jacket she wore. “Do you want me to —”

“No!” Peter walked inside with her, letting the door shut behind them. “No. Let’s just...let’s be chill tonight. Please.”

“Chill.” Wanda nodded, smiling. “I can do chill.”

Peter may have had the desire for a low-key, chill night, but everything around them was honestly far from chill. Though Wanda looked around with an innocent sense of excitement, Peter seemed thrown off-guard and slightly disappointed. He should have known better — this was one of Flash’s parties, after all.

A DJ was taking up the entire living room, for starters, one that looked a lot older than any of the classmates Peter knew. Which meant Flash likely hired the guy for the event; more accurately Flash’s parents hired the guy. Despite the extreme size of the house, there was actually very little room to walk. Every corner had crowded with girls that were wearing way too much perfume and boys that either stunk of B.O or bathed themselves in their dad’s colognes.

Peter hated parties like these. It may have been two years since The Bite, but he had yet to grapple his enhanced senses in a way that made these moments tolerable. It was probably a good thing that Ned didn’t come. Peter wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep his cool with all this, which would only mean a greater headache at the end of the night.

“Is that him?” Wanda suddenly asked, her finger pointing high above them.

Peter looked up, the balcony over the vaulted living room leading to a second-story floor that had to be over twenty feet high from where they stood. Walking along the stainless steel balcony railing was a shorter, cockier looking kid wearing a purple silk button-down and skinny jeans, his movements animated and enthusiastic.

“Oh yeah,” Peter sighed, watching as Flash came jogging down the staircase with someone following closely behind. “That’s him, alright.”

Even with the music blaring, Peter could hear Flash all the way down on the bottom floor where he stood.

“Jenny! Jenny, come over here!” Flash shouted, continually checking behind him to make sure the other person was following. “This is Jenny Carson, one of the hottest girls in school and she’ll be — Jenny, hey, yo, where you going? Jenny! Whatever, forget Jenny. Have you met Blake? Blake! Follow me, you’ll want to meet Blake.”

Wanda shifted on her feet, head tilted to the side as she examined him. “He seems….”

“Penis!” Flash shouted loud enough for most of the crowd to hear, multiple heads turning to watch him point his finger directly at Peter. “You don’t need to know Penis, but I’ll introduce you on the way to Blake — Blake, hey, don’t move! I see you dickward, don’t move!”

“Yep,” Peter popped the p on his lips. “And awesome, he’s headed this way.”

Though he may have been the host of the party, Flash struggled to make his way through the abundance of teenagers all standing along the staircase. Most even seemed annoyed that he and the whatever other person followed suit tried wiggling by them. Red solo cups jostled and knocked around as they squeezed on past.

Once Flash broke through and hopped down off the last step, he didn’t lose his pace. He and the much taller guy were moving so fast they nearly walked right by Peter and Wanda.

“Okay, so yeah, this is Penis Parker,” Flash quickly said, hand waving forward. “Let’s keep moving —”

“Oh my god,” the voice boomed over the obnoxious dance music. “Pete!?”

Peter immediately looked away from Flash, his insulted expression morphing into one of shock. It didn’t take more than a second to get a clear picture of who Flash had been dragging along. His wide eyes and slacked jaw matched the other teenagers face, both of them copying each other with complete surprise.

“Harry?” Peter had to do a double-take to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. “Harry Osborn?”

Harry’s stunned laugh cut short when he abruptly pulled Peter into a tight hug, so suddenly that it caught everyone off guard. Including Peter, spider-sense be damned.

“I can’t believe...wow, Pete!” Harry clapped his hand roughly against Peter’s back, still laughing, each one lighter than the last. “Oh my god, what has it been? Five years?”

Peter chuckled, pulling away with a nod. “Uh, yeah. Something like that. Middle school, I think? So five years.”

Harry shook his head, grinning cheek to cheek.

“Too long, pal. Too long.” His mouth was open and ready to say more when he caught sight of the red-headed woman standing quietly next to Peter. She smiled softly at them both, keeping mostly to herself.

“I am so sorry, where are my manners?” He laid an open palm across his chest. “Hi, I’m Harry. You must be Peter’s…?”

“Friend. She’s my good friend,” Peter was quick to cut in, keeping any assumptions from being tossed around. “Wanda, this is Harry Osborn. We, uh...we go back.”

“He’s being modest. I met him in grade school.” Harry stepped forward, arm outstretched for Wanda to shake. His smile was so broad that his eyes nearly crinkled shut, while his grip on her hand was gentle and respectful. “I knew this nerd back when he was using legos in Kindergarten to learn arithmetic math.”

Wanda’s stifled laugh was barely heard over Flash’s blubbering, nearly unintelligible sounds failing to make words.

“Wait, wait, wait! Hold on. You were friends with Penis Parker?” Flash stepped between them both, and at that moment his smaller height had never been so noticeable. While Peter had never been considered tall, Harry stood a good six feet, easily overpowering Flash by five inches.

With a forced grin, Harry put a hand against Flash’s shoulder. “Come on, dude. It’s 2017. Lay off the homophobic stuff, okay?”

Taken aback, Flash immediately shook his head. “Yo, I’m not —”

“Hey, Wanda,” Harry’s attention was already elsewhere, his head tilted to the side as he studied the girl in front of him. “You’re one of those Avengers, aren’t you?”

Peter looked more shocked than Wanda, who acted like the realization was nothing more than a common occurrence to her. Which, in hindsight, likely was. Peter hadn’t taken the step to reveal his identity yet, and likely never would. Wanda, however, lived her daily life in the open right alongside Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. It was hard not to, what with unfortunate events forcing her face the public limelight.

So her smile, warm and friendly, came like second nature.

“Something like that,” she answered, her hand going to rest against Peter’s bicep. “And any friend of Peter’s, no matter how long ago, is a friend of mine.”

Her smile began to lessen the closer Flash crept near her, going so far as to have his tacky silk button-down grazing against her green jacket. Peter watched apprehensively, eyebrows furrowed low, one eye squinting with suspicion.

“So then, Wanda...” He ran a hand through his slicked-back hair, just as she shot her head over towards him with the dirtiest glare any of them had ever seen.

“I do not like you.” Her words were clipped, short, tongue heavy with her Sokovian accent.

“Most people don’t.”

Flash’s face bloomed a hot red, flushing noticeably even under the array of different party lights. The embarrassment quickly turned to annoyance when the other voice joined their conversation.

The four turned around. Standing against the wall and eating a granny smith apple was a girl their age, eyeing Flash with discontent.

“Hey, MJ!” Peter exclaimed, his voice unintentionally squeaking in pitch. He cleared his throat a few times before speaking again. “It’s uh, it’s good to see you here.”

MJ raised an eyebrow high.

“Yeah...I thought I could write a paper on the mating displays of America’s one percent.” A few chews in and she followed up with, “Ned said you’d be here, so that seemed like a good opportunity for a comparative analysis.”

The pause that fell between them was one filled with rowdy dance music and five hundred different conversations happening at once, none of which were even remotely interesting to anyone expect, say maybe Flash.

Peter was starting to wonder who had picked out the music for this party. A new song started up, and he couldn’t help but think about how awful the selection was. His playlist with Ned, MJ, and most recently Wanda had much better taste than whatever this overpaid DJ was cranking out.

Wanda suddenly jerked an elbow against Peter’s side, startling him from his thoughts.

“Uh, right!” He pointed a sharp finger next to him, so rigid it almost didn’t look real. “This is Wanda.”

Wanda smiled and gave a small wave, meeting MJ’s outstretched hand and receiving a casual shake of sorts, if she could even call it that. It felt more like some sloppy handshake made up on the spot. She was pretty sure an attempt at a fist bump was merged somewhere in the mix as well.

“Cool. Finally get to meet the tough bitch from Sokovia.” MJ pulled away, tossing her apple in the air and catching it seamlessly with one hand. “You got good taste in music.”

Flash nudged his way dangerously close to Wanda’s side. “You know, all the ladies say I have good taste in music too. Why don’t we —”

The stare Wanda proceeded to give was enough to send Flash scattering across the room, the heat that spread across his cheeks hot enough to leave a steam trail following behind him.

It left Harry visibly impressed, humming and smirking in Wanda’s direction. Peter hid his laugh behind a fake cough and for MJ — well, it was more than enough to immediately win MJ over.

“Hey, follow me.” She swung her arm around Wanda’s shoulder like she had known the older girl for years, gesturing ahead with her other hand. “Maybe we can find some real food to eat in this McMansion.”

Before Peter could even say goodbye, the two had disappeared somewhere in the crowd of teenagers leading into the kitchen. At least he assumed it was the kitchen — he couldn’t seem to wrap his head around why a family needed so many rooms in one house.

He stood on his toes to get a better view, growing worried the longer he couldn’t get a lock on either of the girls. Peter had gotten to know Wanda well enough to be aware that she usually felt uncomfortable around people she didn’t know. Hell, sometimes she found herself anxious just being away from him at times. It had been like that ever since the whole ‘fake death’ incident over spring break.

Suddenly, a fist had bumped into his arm, jolting him back to his present company.

“So...” Harry started, gaining his attention. “Peter Parker’s now a party boy, huh?”

“Huh? What?” Peter stammered, eyes wide as he shook his head. “Oh god, no! No no! No, I’m just...I’m here because...”

The bass of the music drowned out Peter’s voice. Suddenly, he honestly couldn’t remember why he had decided to come to one of Flash’s tacky parties, let alone drag Wanda along — not that she didn’t seem thrilled at the opportunity. Most of their ride over was spent with her gushing in excitement over finally experiencing a real ‘teenage activity.’

All Peter remembered was not wanting to unpack his suitcase, and the leaking bathroom sink grating his nerves. How did that put him here?

It took a minute to notice Harry staring at him, waiting, his eyebrow arched high with amusement.

“I actually don’t know why I’m here,” Peter admitted, sheepishly chuckling to himself.

Harry nodded, glancing in the direction that the girls walked away before looking back at Peter with a smirk so smug it rivaled with Tony Stark himself.

“Seems like that MJ girl might be part of the reason why.”

Peter could feel his face contort into an expression he wasn’t sure had a name, muscles twisting in places that felt unnatural. Harry barked a laugh at his exaggerated disagreement.

“MJ? No! Psh, no, no, we're...we're friends. We’re cool. Friends. That’s...that’s what we are. Friends.” Peter aimed a finger at Harry’s chest. “Hey, what are you doing here? How do you even know Flash Thompson?”

“That kid?” Harry shook his head. “No clue, only met him tonight. You know how people get when they find out I’m an Osborn. Suddenly I’m their best friend.”

Peter hummed out a sound of agreement, not that Harry could hear him over the thumping bass coming from the surround sound speakers. Life had always been like that for Harry, going as far back as he could remember. Some days he even thought back to those moments when he’d be hanging out with Mr. Stark, paparazzi flashing everywhere when they’d just be trying to get a cone of ice cream at a local shop in Queens. It was similar to when Harry’s Chaperone would take them out to the park or nearby shops when they were kids. People always wanted a photo of what the Osborn kid was doing.

The moment of pause gave Peter a chance to do a good once-over on his old friend. Whatever growth spurt he had since they were eleven had done him well, almost better than the spider-bite had done for him. And even in strobe-light atmosphere, his vivid blue eyes were bright as ever, a charismatic twinkle in his left eye that always screamed ‘son of a businessman’ to Peter.

Which reminded him — Peter furrowed his brows as the thought struck hard. If Harry didn’t know Flash...

“Then what are you...” Peter trailed off, confused.

Harry shrugged so nonchalantly it looked like his shoulders weren’t even connected to his body.

“I wanted to get to know my classmates before I started school next week.”

If Peter thought he was confused before, he had yet to meet ultimate confusion. The type of confusion that put his one-hundred-forty-five IQ to shame.

“I don’t understand,” Peter was still shouting over the music — seriously, who picked this trash? — and Harry was leaning in close to hear him better. “Didn’t your dad transfer you to some elite private school upstate?”

Harry nodded enthusiastically.

“Yeah. Alexander Academy Highlands,” he paused, giving an open window for Peter to say something. When he didn’t, Harry followed through with, “Ring a bell?”

The realization hit Peter like a plane crashing down onto the sands of Coney Island. If his eyes had gone any wider, he was sure they’d pop right out of their sockets.

“That’s the school that burned down over the summer,” Peter needlessly said.

Harry had pulled his cellphone out from his back pocket, scrolling through a few messages as he nodded at Peter’s statement. “Yeah, faulty electrical wiring in the cafeteria my ass. I swear one of those teachers was looking for payback because they cut pensions. Anyway, I was one of the lucky students elected to transfer to Midtown.” He pocketed the phone away almost as quickly as he brought it out, meeting Peter’s stunned face with a smile. “As I said...just wanted to know my classmates before I started.”

A sudden burst of commotion from the second story balcony briefly caught their attention, an uproar of yelling and hollering reaching even over the DJ’s music. Peter and Harry both glanced above them, Peter’s stare lingering long after Harry had looked away. It took another playful fist bump against Peter’s arm for him to tear his eyes away from the excitement.

“This means we’ll be going to the same school again, Pete!” Harry shouted over the fuss from upstairs.

Peter blinked back the shock. Five minutes ago and he had just reunited with one of his best friends from childhood. Now he had been told they’d be spending their entire junior year together. Just when he thought his life couldn’t get any crazier, there was always a curve-ball waiting around the corner.

“Wow, this is...” he couldn’t even hear himself as he shouted, “this is so cool!”

“Isn’t it!?”

The noise was becoming overwhelming, even for Harry. The music combined with the rowdy activity from upstairs echoed in the vaulted living room and bounced off the ceilings despite there being enough occupants to stifle the sound.

“Hey, listen...” Harry wrapped his arm around Peter, pulling them both to a corner of the room. There was a little less noise to deal with in the small spot, though not by much. Once there, he held his hand firmly on Peter’s shoulder.

They stared at each other for a moment that felt longer than it actually was.

“I’m so sorry about Ben,” Harry finally said.

Blood rushed through Peter’s ears the very second Harry finished his last syllable, nearly muting the tacky dance music that had once been threatening to make him go deaf. His response got caught in the swell that grew in his throat.

It was going on three years now, and Ben’s name still stung as harshly as it did back then. Peter tried not to let his mood sour, tried not to let the smile on his face look as insincere as it felt. But he was doing as good of a job as the fumbling freshmen boy nearby that was trying not to act drunk when they were so clearly very intoxicated.

“Yeah,” Peter nodded, the party around him suddenly coming back to life, noise returning with a crystal clear boom.“It’s, uh...yeah, thanks.”

He looked everywhere but straight ahead, his eyes actively avoiding Harry’s. The grip on his shoulder squeezed tightly as Harry fought to get his attention.

“No, man, really. I feel awful,” he insisted, making sure to look Peter straight on. “I didn’t call, I didn’t text, I didn’t do anything. That was wrong of me. You were there when my mom passed away —”

“And you were there when my parents died,” Peter was quick to interrupt. “It’s okay, I get it. I’m sure you have a good excuse. And, I mean, even if you don’t...we just...we moved away from each other, and we fell apart. It happens, you know?”

Harry adamantly shook his head, his other hand going to rest on Peter’s other shoulder, both grips firm on his collarbones.

“Not again. You hear me? You and me, us meeting up like this, it’s a sign,” Harry was yelling again, despite having relocated to the corner of the room. The noise from above increased by a tenfold, a complete ruckus drowning out their conversation. “We got the entire school year ahead of us, Pete. Just imagine the possibilities.”

Peter found a small smile pulling at the corner of his lips, his old friend’s enthusiasm leaking towards him. It was one of the things he had always liked most about Harry. His excited and charisma was so contagious, so easily spread from one person to the next. It was a gift he had inherited by his parents, mostly from his late mother though his father had a small role to play in it as well.

The memory immediately spawned the question, “Hey, how’s your dad doing?”

Harry’s face froze, his expression locked in a grin that was no longer genuine. The party lights circling from the ceiling highlighted the stress lines that began to emerge around his eyes, no longer bright with the elation he had just a mere second ago.

Peter was on the verge of apologizing, his ‘sorry’ sitting right on his lips. He should have known better; Harry’s father was never a good topic to bring up, not even when they were kids. But right as he went to speak —

“Dude, don’t fucking touch me!”

“Lay off, Zack!”

The rambunctious fighting from the balcony above caught their attention again, as well as everyone else standing on the bottom level of the living room. Nearly every head looked up at the same time. Color changing party lights lit up the scene on the upper loft, showcasing two guys Peter knew to be on the football team, Zack and Kyle, with a petite looking girl standing in between them.

Zack shoved a hand roughly against the more buff teenager in front of him. “I’ll goddamn do what I please —”

“Man, you’re drunk!” Kyle pushed right back.

The girl caught in the middle of it all stepped forward, both hands high in the air. “Listen to him, Zack, please —”

“Shut up, Shantal, you’re a fucking whore!”

“Hey!” Kyle twisted on Zack’s arm, roughly. “Do not talk to her like that, asshole!”

Their shouting, which had been present for a good eight minutes as was, began to reach uncomfortably violent standards.

Peter looked all around the room, the only one in the crowd not locked onto the approaching fight from above. His eyes were already scanning for an exit, or a bathroom, or anywhere he might need to dodge out towards and change into his spider-suit that…

That he didn’t have. Crap.

Just then did Peter’s eyes find Wanda’s, the girl standing at the kitchen entrance next to MJ. She looked tense, as worried as he was. They stared at each other apprehensively, both MJ and Harry utterly unaware that the two weren’t paying attention to the scene happening from above.

Peter furrowed his brows, upper teeth biting on his lower lip. His eyes told her, ‘I need to stop them before someone gets hurt.’

Wanda shook her head, a smidgen of a move speaking volumes. Don’t. You’ll expose yourself.’

“Oh my god!” Shantal shrieked. Both Peter and Wanda snapped their heads up to the loft balcony at the frightening sound. “Oh my god, stop! STOP!”

“Whoa, whoa!” Kyle shouted as Zack grabbed a fistful of his shirt, lifting him off from the ground and leaning him over the balcony railings. “Dude, fuck! Fuck, dude, stop!”

Shantal had both hands cupped over her mouth, screaming downstairs, “Someone help!”

“I’m on it! I’m on it!”

It wasn’t Peter, or Wanda, or even one of the fellow football members that came running up the stairs to put a halt on the dangerously aggressive fight. It was none other than Flash, who pushed through the crowd as he forced himself up the long staircase leading to the second story.

“Hey, dickward! Why don’t you screw off — shit!”

Peter watched in what seemed to be slow motion as Flash tripped on the final step leading upstairs. And although he couldn’t see what exactly happened next, it wasn’t hard to put the missing pieces together.

Zack, having been roughly knocked to the side from Flash’s fall, immediately lost his footing — and his grip on Kyle.

Peter’s thoughts and instincts were muddled as screaming that came from all around. He watched with wide, terror-filled eyes as Kyle came fumbling over the balcony railings and nearly plummeted down the twenty feet from above, his fall stopped short the moment Zack managed to latch onto his one ankle.

“Kyle — fuck!” His scream barely cut over everyone else’s, Kyle’s included. “Dude, I got you, I got —!”

Peter didn’t have time to worry about exposing his identity. He didn’t have time to even consider caring about exposing his identity. His feet moved beyond his control; his hand stuck deep into his back pocket as his body ducked and twisted around multiple people without him even thinking twice.

Find a hiding spot, find a hiding spot!’

There was a wall in the hallway clear of any crowds, where Peter instantly crouched low to his knees, back resting firmly against the drywall behind him. He fumbled with the square device in his palm, as small as a board game dice until he squeezed it tightly between both closed hands. Within seconds his web-shooters sprung to life, attaching around his wrists with a life of their own.

Thank GOD Mr. Stark let me upgrade with his nanotech!’

“Someone help!” Shantal continued to yell, half crying and half hysteric. “Oh my god, someone, someone help them!”

“Hang on!” Flash jumped forward, latching onto both of Zack’s calf's. The weight of the two combined teenagers pulled him right over balcony railings. “Hang on, hang on, oh shit, shitshitSHIT!”

Peter craned his head from over the wall that separated him from the living room. He could feel his eyes grow wider, beyond what he thought was possible. It was like a bad video buffering on YouTube. Each frame brought something new, and just when he thought it couldn’t get any worse —

“Oh my god!”

“ShitshitFUCK!”

“Someone help them —”

“OH GOD!”

“HELP!”

By the time Peter turned his head, Kyle and Zack were already plummeting the twenty feet down to the living room below. Flash, having fallen with them, held onto the balcony railings with one hand, dangling in panic.

A bright red glow tore through the party lights.

The entire room gasped, so sharp and so loudly that it felt as if all the oxygen in the room had been depleted.

And then it went quiet.

That was, aside for the hum of magic that began to whir around them. The sound was mystical, beyond what any of the kids had heard or seen before.

Everyone except Peter, who was the first to catch sight of Wanda across the way, She still stood at the kitchen entrance, the only difference now being the two arms she held out. Her fingers spread far apart and knuckles bent at odd angels as red energy came pouring from her hands.

The same red energy that held Kyle and Zack suspended in the air.

“Oh my god...” More than one person whispered. “Is she…?”

“Is that…?”

“Is anyone recording this?”

“Holy crap...”

“Dude, tell me someone’s recording this!”

One by one, the room burst into activity, hushed murmurs eventually overpowering the sound of magic that hung in the air. Carefully, slowly, Wanda lowered both boys down the remaining height to the ground below.

Flash’s holler tore through the temporary calm. “Help! Lady, yo, help! I’m slipping! I’m slipping – shit, help!”

Peter shot his head back up where Flash dangled from one grip on the balcony railings. Even from a distance Peter could see the grip weakening, like panicked sweat was slowly stealing his firm latch.

And then he let go with a scream.

It took all of a second for Peter to make a decision. In that second, he spared a glance with Wanda, who looked as panicked as he did. She couldn’t lose her hold on either of the two boys to save the third.

So Peter did what he had to do.

Crouched low and hand to the floor, he shot a strand of webbing out the clearest path he could manage. It landed directly where he wanted it to – the sofa. With one hard yank, he pulled it forward. The legs screeched against the tile flooring below them as he rushed to get the furniture directly under Flash.

It was close. Closer than Peter was ever comfortable with. Flash landed back first onto the couch; his one leg closed under him in a way that accompanied the loud CRACK of the furniture breaking beneath his fall.

“FUCK!”

Wanda safely lowered both boys to the floor below, only Kyle landing on his feet while Zack drunkenly fell to his knees, where he promptly puked.

Hidden by the wall in the hallway, Peter cringed as Flash cried out, cursing up a storm he’d never repeat even on a dare. Though a broken bone was better than cracking his head open, Peter still felt a twinge of guilt at what he personally knew wouldn’t be an easy thing to deal with. Hell, he even felt sympathy pain crawl up his own leg at what little he saw through the mob of teenagers that began to huddle around Flash.

Kyle, the first to gain his composure upon landing, looked down at Flash with pure disgust.

“Holy...dude, that’s...”

Shantal screamed from above, “Someone call 911!”

Flash, in horror, stared at his mangled leg, the limb bent at an angel it most certainly wasn’t supposed to be. He nearly puked himself, and he wasn’t sure if that was because of Zack’s own vomit stinking up the room or the frightening sight below him.

Kyle gulped back his sickness. “That looks bad.

“They’re on their way,” someone screamed nearby, “they’re on their way!”

Reality quickly hit hard when Flash realized what he had heard.

“What!?” He tried sitting up on the couch, quickly falling back down with an agonizing yelp. “No! No, call them back! Tell them not to come! Don’t bring the cops here! Fuck, dude, there’s alcohol here, they can’t come!”

Kyle shook his head. “Dude, your leg —”

“I don’t care about my leg!” Flash screeched, his voice cracking in pitch. “My dad is going to kill me if he finds out I had alcohol here!”

Peter weaved through the masses without so much as an apology, desperately attempting to reach the kitchen entrance where Wanda was. He had reached for her hand long before getting close to her, tugging on it with desperation.

“Come on!” He hissed, nodding his head to the side. “Come on, we gotta go!”

She spared one last glance at the teenagers in the middle of the room, Zack still on his knees dry-heaving, Kyle hovering over Flash who was having an absolute screaming fit about the cops showing up. They wouldn’t be the first ones to leave; a handful of kids were already rushing out, red solo cups discarded on the floor and creating a mess to walk on.

“Dude, you can’t let the cops come here! You can’t — oh god, I’m dead. I’m so fucking dead!” Flash pulled tightly at his hair, nearly yanking his gel-covered-locks right out of his scalp.

“No dude, you would have been dead if it weren’t for...” Kyle paused, looking around the huddled group of teenagers in confusion. He even stood on his toes to better see over the crowd. “Hey, where’d she go?”

The DJ had long since stopped playing, and the noise of approaching sirens began to get closer. Both Peter and Wanda were long gone from the party before they could ever encounter the sound.

“Anyone see her?”

“I don’t see her, anyone see her?”

“Holy shit, did she teleport out!?”

“Whoa….witches do that, right? They like, poof away and stuff?”

“No dipshit, they fly on a broom.”

“Dude...is anyone recording this!?”

 


 

New York’s Avenger's Scarlet Witch caught fleeing the scene of high-school party gone wrong after reportedly using her powers on intoxicated underage boys. NYPD has THIS to say about what they walked in on.” Tony hummed, looking up from his phone and over to Steve. “Kinda click-baitey, don’t you think?”

Steve didn’t look amused. He didn’t spare a glance at Tony either; standing tall, arms crossed over his chest in a way that made him seem twice as big. And that was saying something, seeing as he already put the average male physique to shame.

His sight never wavered from the sofa in front of him, eyes locked straight ahead.

“What do you two have to say for yourselves?”

Sitting side-by-side on the love sofa was Wanda and Peter, both seeming equally annoyed and beyond frustrated. While Wanda had become preoccupied examining at her nails, Peter found himself staring at the floor where his sneakers scuffed across the marble flooring. They both did anything to avoid the glaring daggers from both the men towering over them.

“It does sound a little click-baitey,” Peter mumbled, kicking along the toe of his shoe. “Also didn’t expect it to go that viral that quickly...or for you to find out before we even got home.”

It was true. Neither Peter nor Wanda expected to get a text message in the car on their way back from the city, all but demanding they meet up in the common room ‘at once’ — Steve talking, of course. Tony’s messages were a bit more...colorful.

“You didn’t —?” Tony shook his head free of his stutter, shock rendering him momentarily discomposed. “Who do you think has alerts set up for whenever an Avenger, of any name, of any variation of said name gets mentioned in social media? Who do you think gets first word on these type of scandals?”

Peter shrugged. “TMZ?”

Steve’s face grew more serious, if that were even possible. If he weren’t the epitome of perfect health, Peter would have been worried that he’d have a stroke then and there.

Tony’s head shot up with disbelief, eyes so wide they would have rolled straight out of his head if they weren’t attached.

“He’s got jokes,” Tony scoffed, looking back over to Steve. “Would you look at that, the kid’s got jokes.”

“Peter, this is serious.” Steve wasn’t laughing. His lips pursed tightly together while his blue eyes held that infamous Captain Rogers disappointment that drove them up all the wall. And in Peter’s defense, Tony hated it just as much. It just so happened he and Cap were on the same side with this one.

Totally unfair.’ Peter bit his tongue with a shake of his head, knowing better than to mouth off.

“It is not serious!” Wanda threw her hand on down on the armrest, the smack of skin against leather catching them off guard.

Peter’s eyes went wide, head craning over to look at her in barely contained shock. Apparently she did not know better than to mouth off. That, or she just didn’t care.

“You are making a big deal over nothing,” she insisted, her tone giving off that impression of not caring.

Steve quirked an eyebrow high in the air. “You’re not one to talk right now, Wanda. It’s your name that’s being scandalized on the internet.”

“And so what?” Wanda let her pointer finger chip away at the cracked and broken nail polish on her thumb. She found the bits of purple that fell into her lap to be more interesting than either of the two men. “The internet spread lies and bad things to harm the reputation of others. I do not care what they say about me.”

Steve stood defiantly with his hands against his hips, and next to him Tony went to cross his arms over his chest. They changed stance simultaneously, not even noticing they were unintentionally copying each other.

“That’s great. Really, don’t lose that confidence.” Tony adjusted his hands to rest on his hips while Steve folded his over his chest.

It took less than split second, a half side-glance at best for Tony to notice. And he immediately gave the solider an offending look, disgust covering his expression at the realization.

“Unfortunately,” Tony returned to the conversation, ignoring the way that Peter and Wanda looked at them both, “when you’re spoken about, you represent the entire Avengers. All of us. And you know what doesn’t make us look good?” Tony quickly looked back down at his phone, reading off, “Boil boil toil and trouble: Witch Avenger in a struggle. Caught leaving high-school party busted for underage drinking.”

Peter tossed his hands up in the air with exasperation. “Come on, I didn’t even know Flash was going to have alcohol there!”

Tony stopped scrolling on his phone, trying his best to ignore the abundance of articles and social media feed that continued to pop up, notification after notification bogging down his device. It was only going to get worse as the night continued, after all. They had learned these lessons long ago — that was, of course, the older members of the team learned them.

Sometimes Tony forgot there was a whole new generation looking up to them for guidance. And oh boy, what a mistake that was.

“Look,” he started, “I don’t even care that there was alcohol there —”

“I care!” Steve snapped, his head shooting over to Tony with record breaking speed. “That’s underage drinking, Tony. Peter’s only fifteen —”

“Sixteen,” Peter cut in, immediately shrinking underneath the furious glares that felt so hot he might as well melted into the leather cushions. “And that’s the legal drinking age in Germany, you know.” He slumped far down into the couch, chin resting against his chest as he muttered under his breath, “Found that out not long after I stole your shield.”

Steve held an open palm in the air, his eyes closed as he forced in a deep breath.

“Son...just don’t.”

Wanda roughly and quickly adjusted where she sat on the sofa, her wrist bracelets jingling loudly at the motion. “I do not understand what the problem is. We were not there when the police came. We did not drink, we did not go to jail. What is the problem?”

Tony swiped up on his cell phone, pinching his fingers together and then expanding them widely. The motion brought a holographic video out in the open space between them, a video from the Daily Bugle website playing in front of them all.

“That,” he simply stated. “That is our problem.”

The cell phone footage played in a loop; it wasn’t long, shaky and even a tad bit grainy for what cell phones were capable of recording these days. It showcased Wanda, both hands outstretched with red magic flowing from her fingertips, all directed at the teenagers that floated mid-air above a party crowd. The gasps and murmurs somehow seemed more demeaning now than when they were actually there, experiencing the moment first hand.

Wanda tore her eyes from the video with irritation. “What was I supposed to do? Let those boys die?”

“No! No, we don’t...” Steve went on to sigh, squeezing the bridge of his nose tightly between two fingers. “I’m not reprimanding you for saving their lives. But we work under SHIELD’s jurisdictional now. You know that. And you know that you can’t just use your abilities in public like that. We have to be careful with what we do and when we do it.”

Wanda crossed her arms over her chest, looking to the side as she threw back, “They only let us work when they see fit.”

Her words managed to melt Steve’s expression, harden frustration turning into something else entirely. He couldn’t help but remember when she had said the same thing months prior, back when the heat of a moment had them all making rash decisions. He should have known that she wouldn’t be able to distinguish ordinary rules from their importune judgment calls. It wasn’t fair to expect her too, either. Not when they had a habit of breaking the rules so often.

“Wanda, I understand we went against SHIELD orders to save Peter a few months back,” Steve started, much softer and more sympathetic in his tone. “But we can’t make that a common occurrence. When we turned the Accords over to them, we agreed that they’d oversee our undertaking as a team. That was the only reason one hundred seventeen nations complied with the repeal. If they see that we’re galloping around using enhanced abilities at high-school parties, they’re going to think we’re irresponsible. And they’re going to want the Accords back in motion.”

Wanda still hadn’t looked his way, her neck craned to the side and eyes staring somewhere far off at the wall. She shook her head, the simple movement somehow containing a mountain full of resentment.

“What you are saying is I was supposed to let those young boys die?”

“You shouldn’t have been there to begin with!” Tony practically screamed, hands clenching thin air with fists so tight his knuckles had already turned white. “You’re twenty-two! You don’t belong at high-school parties! And you!”

Tony turned to Peter, his finger pointing so sharp it might as well have been a plank of wood.

Peter gaped, pointing at himself. “What about me!?”

“You know what about you!”

“Tony —” Steve warned.

“You always tell me to get out more, and now that I do you have a problem with it!?” Peter shouted, raising his voice to match Tony’s.

“When I said get out more I meant get a girlfriend, not go to some sleazy high-school party with booze!” There was no going back on his anger, his buttons having been pushed in a way that shoved him right over the edge. “And besides, when have you ever wanted to go to one of those things?”

Peter shrugged dramatically. “I don’t know! Since tonight? What’s the big deal!?”

“You know what happens when teenagers are caught drinking?” Tony didn’t give him even a millisecond to consider responding. “They get fined, they lose their driving privileges. You just got your license, for Christ’s sake! And with all that time you had me spend trying to teach you how to parallel park —”

“I didn’t know there was alcohol there, really!” Peter’s voice cracked as he shouted.

Tony cocked his head to the side, pessimistically unconvinced. “Cut the crap, Parker. You’ve told me time after time what kind of parties this Thompson kid has. You damn well knew —”

“That doesn’t mean I was going to drink!”

“That’s how it starts, Peter!”

“Yeah, you would know!”

“Okay, okay —” Steve finally interrupted them, one hand against his forehead and the other out in the air. “Hey, you two need to calm down.”

The much-needed pause that fell between them was thick and heavy, making the air hard to breathe, even giving goosebumps against Peter’s skin. Or perhaps that was Wanda next to him, radiating off an energy that felt extremely supernatural and off.

He crossed his arms over his chest — okay, he pouted, flat out tired and aggravated at what was a minor incident blown out of proportion. Tony had turned away, and with how back heaved and puffed, they could only assume he was stress breathing to regain composure.

Only a few moments later did he turn back around, finger lazily wagging in Peter’s general direction.

“You brought your bags, right?” Tony asked.

The implication was there before he had even finished the sentence. Peter gaped, arms falling to his side as he straightened his posture on the sofa.

“You’re sending me home?” Peter’s breath hitched for a moment. He could feel same type of panicked boil in his gut that he’d get when May would take away his computer or phone. “That’s not fair, it’s my weekend here! I’m supposed to train with the team, you can’t—”

“Oh no, you’re not going home,” Tony halted Peter’s relief with, “And you’re also not training.”

A beat.

“What?”

“You’re grounded,” Tony responded flatly.

Peter’s jaw practically fell to the floor. “I’m what?

“You heard me. You’re grounded,” he said matter-of-factly, this time with more kick to his tongue, as if every time he repeated the words it rejuvenated his soul.

Peter shot forward on the couch, eyes darting hopelessly between Tony and Steve.

“What? How? You can’t!—!” He groaned, so loud it could have broken his vocal cords. “That’s not fair, I’m supposed to train!”

“And now you’re grounded. Consider yourself lucky that you’re grounded here with a hundred acres and a movie theater.” Tony wagged his finger in Peter’s general direction. “I want your suit in the next hour. You’re not training, you’re not going into the city, you are grounded.”

“Okay, now I think you just like saying that word,” Peter huffed.

Tony could have laughed. In fact, a chuckle did escape his chest. “Oh, you bet your ass I do. Grounded, grounded, grounded. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”

“Mr. Stark, this is —”

“You too, Wanda,” Steve said, more solemnly than the vigor excitement Tony had.

Wanda’s eyes went wide. “How? I am at Clint’s farm this weekend.”

The way Steve shook his head looked as if his skull weighed a thousand pounds, such dismay in his body movements that truly brought to life the saying ‘this hurts you way more than it hurts me.’

“Not anymore,” Steve calmly explained, no heat to his tone, only disappointment. “I already called him, and we both agree you need to stay here after all that’s happened.”

“You brought Clint into this? And he agrees with you?” Wanda stared at him, flabbergasted. “We’re being punished for savings lives?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “You’re being punished because — can we really call it that? Seriously, this place has a lap pool —”

“You’re being punished because you need to understand the situations you put yourself in represent us all,” Steve diligently answered. “You shouldn’t have been at that party, Wanda. It wasn’t age-appropriate, and you didn’t think of the consequences that would occur if something like this had happened. You have to make better decisions with your spare time.”

Wanda was staring at them both in disbelief, a handful of seconds passing by as she struggled to formulate a response. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. Finally, she resorted to rising from the couch in a huff of anger.

“The one and only time I go to party and this happens, and I get punished for it.” She pushed through both Steve and Tony to storm away, hand rising in the air and bracelets jingling with erratic movement. “Unbelievable!”

They turned to watch her leave.

“TMZ isn’t talking about me,” Peter immediately spoke up, still on the sofa. “Not even the Bugle is talking about me. Why am I being grounded?”

Tony spun around, eyes practically bugling out of his head.

“You were at a party with booze!” He shouted. “And no adult supervision! And three kids got hurt from it!”

Peter’s glare deepened, reddening with heat. “Wanda’s right. This is unbelievable. It would have been so much worse if we hadn’t been there! Kyle and Zach? Wanda saved them, and Flash would have been a pancake had it not been for me! We saved lives!”

Tony could feel his blood pressure rising, his throat constricting with irrational anger in the moment. He shook his head tensely.

“Yeah? And you’re finding out the hard way that saving lives doesn’t always make things okay.”

Peter scoffed, loudly, and he shook his head right along with it. His hands pressed against the cushions of the sofa as he practically bounced himself up, keeping his eyes dead locked on Tony as he stormed away.

“You’re being a hypocrite, Mr. Stark.”

The words echoed in the common room, or so it seemed for Tony. Normally composed despite anything thrown his way, Tony was surprised to feel his jaw slack to the floor, spinning on his heels to practically follow Peter wherever the hell the kid was running off to.

Whoa. Okay, hold your horses and clean the stable because —”

“Tony…”

To Tony’s surprise, his eagerly, fast moving feet stopped in their tracks at the softly spoken sound of his name. With pained frustrated, he turned around, not surprised to see Steve’s blue eyes reflecting an insanely unrealistic amount of disappointment back at him. God, did he hate that look.

“Don’t,” Steve softly cut through his frustration, giving the smallest shake of his head. “Give him some time. Try talking to him later.”

Tony groaned, rolling his neck from side to side, wishing away the cricks and sores that came with the added stress of a teenager. Hell, he might as well say teenagers at this point. Wanda had practically come bouncing out of her shell of shyness once Peter came onboard the team, her urge to fulfill her lost youth coinciding with his young age.

He couldn’t be mad, not at that anyway. Even Vision had made mention that she seemed happier lately, more bounce in her step since becoming close friends with Peter. He just wished the girl would come to understand that rules existed for a reason, that they couldn’t just do what they wanted at all times.

And Peter? Well, that was a whole other headache he didn’t feel like touching right now.

Tony collapsed onto the sofa with a crack of his knees and a grunt from his throat.

“Please tell me you have an inkling of an idea of what we’re going to say to the big dogs about this one.”

It was an unfortunate drawback, having returned to SHIELD’s authoritative control. While it kept them together as a team — a functioning team, one able to take on missions first hand instead of dealing with the bureaucracy of the government — it also meant being held to higher standards by authoritative figures who knew them all too well. Director Hill barely bought into the crap they fed her, and Fury still played a role hidden behind the curtains to tell her first hand they were selling her horseshit.

Tony bowed his head and rubbed harshly at the nape of his neck as Steve stared off at a wall, hands against his hips while a deep sigh escaped his chest.

“I haven’t concocted anything yet, no.” Steve shook his head. “Can’t say I ever prepared to deal with this type of mess.”

Tony looked up, mildly amused. “Irresponsible teenagers? Pissy young adults? Enhanced magical abilities? Or high-school parties with booze?”

There was a beat before Steve responded, “All of it.”

He hummed and returned to his self-massage on the back of his neck. For a split moment, Tony marinated in their lull of conversation, the shrill ring of silence that hit his eardrums bringing a calm to the throbbing ache in the back of his skull. It seemed moments like this were far and few between these days, moments of quiet that allowed him to actually hear his own thoughts.

It was funny. Tony used to like staying busy, always keeping his hands moving, always working on a project, things to fix.

Lately though, all he wanted to do was take a moment to relax. To live in the present. He still hadn’t figured out if that helped in times like these or made it worse.

“By any chance was Peter like this during your cross country road trip?” Steve’s question tore through his train of thoughts, delicate yet tense in tone. “You know...grumpy?”

Tony huffed. “You call that grumpy?”

Steve shrugged. “I call it something.”

The man-with-a-plan was right. Peter was being...something. More on edge than the normal moody teenage self he had become acquainted with over the summer. Their trip had allowed time to learn the quirks that came with his behavior, things like how cranky he got when being woken up before eight am, or how whiny he became if the AC was set any lower than seventy-nine — that one nearly killed Tony, spider-thermoregulation be damned.

This, though? This hit him blindsided. Repercussions weren’t a new thing for them, they had already explored this territory before. The Ferry incident, the Chameleon mask, breaking curfews more than once, nearly flunking World History — May typically took care of the school related issues but it still bothered Tony enough to get involved. Peter was smart. Smart enough to know that sleazy high school parties would have booze, and even being present was enough to get him into more trouble than he deserved.

“No...” Tony trailed off with a sigh. “No, honestly, he was right as rain.”

There hadn’t been any issues on their trip, the entire month they spent on the road. He thought there would be along the way, possibly towards the end, possibly getting so sick of each other they’d want nothing more to do with the other. It never happened. Peter was grinning ear to ear, from the moment they left New York to the moment they returned.

It left Tony worrying what that meant for them now. It had only been a few months since...well, it happened. It was Wilson who had warned him things might take a while to really hit Peter, for the whole fiasco-under-the-sea incident to really take effect. Tony couldn’t help but wonder if that meant their storm was right over the horizon.

 

Chapter Text

 

The lab was quiet. There was a persistent hum that rang through the walls, a vibration of advance technology wired through the very Sheetrock built up around him. A silent sound, lingering in the background.

Peter found himself basking in the uncommon quiet, focused intently on the project he had at hand. Of course, if Mr. Stark had been here, it would have been a different story. There would have been music blasting loud enough to hear on the level above them, possibly even above that.

It wasn’t an exaggeration either. Many times did Ms. Potts come down to yell at them both, going off on a tangent that she had to relocate one of her meetings from the conference room that sat directly above the workshop to somewhere else in the building. The AC/DC they typically had blaring through the speakers would do that.

And Tony? Peter found it amazing that the man would just smile, as if proud of his achievement.

But Mr. Stark was out for the day, something about tasting wedding cakes with Pepper. It left Peter by himself in the compound. A place that had quickly lost its star-struck appeal once he realized ninety-percent of the building was either off-limits or crowded with SHIELD employees. Or both. As it was, his guest badge only worked on eight of the nineteen floors on the elevator.

What was the point in being Spider-man if he couldn’t even get full security clearance?

As much as he loved tinkering in the labs here — and he did, seeing as they contained way more equipment and technology than his bedroom or even school had to offer — Peter sort of wished his grounding had been at home. At least he was comfortable there, a.k.a could stay in his boxers all day long and watch The Twilight Zone reruns. Despite having the most amazing, mind-blowing, incredible sleeping quarters here, Peter still wasn’t able to walk the hallways in his Star Wars pajamas. Not without the risk of running into Nick Fury himself. Which, granted, was an insanely unlikely chance of happening, but he knew better than to test his Parker Luck.

Peter secured the sealed ends onto the small, metal rectangle device between his fingers and tossed it over his shoulder. It landed into a bucket not far away, an echo of a clink resounding in the otherwise empty lab.

“How many does that make, FRIDAY?”

There was a slew of trays lined up in front of him, each dish containing individuals parts he needed to make his web cartridges. Gathering what he needed from the multiple different containers was like second nature, his hands moving without much thinking.

That would be the eighty-sixth cartridge so far,” FRIDAY answered.

Peter frowned, still focusing on the task in front of him. “And what time is it?”

Nine thirty-five A.M.”

Screws and metal casings dropped from his hands as if they had caught fire.

“Oh my god!” Peter exclaimed, running his hands down the length of his face as he collapsed back into his chair. “This sucks!

Two-years-ago-Peter would have killed to be in present-Peter’s spot, creating a mass production of web cartridges that would last him a lifetime if he kept up at this pace. But two-years-ago-Peter also wouldn’t have been grounded with nothing else to do but create web cartridges like a foreign factory worker.

He scrubbed at his face, two enclosed fists rubbing at his eyes until they felt sore and raw and saw many, many different colors. What could he say, two-years-ago-Peter was naive. If he had to look at one more web cartridge, he might just lose his sh —

Is there a problem, Peter?”

“Yes!” Peter shouted, hands thrown out in wild gesture. “I’m so bored! There’s nothing to do here — and please don’t say there’s a pool. I know there’s a pool, Mr. Stark keeps telling me there’s a pool. I just — I don’t want to go swimming, okay?” He resisted the urge to shudder at the very idea. There was something about him and water that hadn’t gotten along lately, but he couldn’t quite pin why.

FRIDAY spoke before he could give it much thought. “There is also a private movie theater located within the compound. I could give you directions if you’d like. It’s on the left south wing by

“I don’t want to see a movie either, FRIDAY. I really...” Peter sighed, his shoulders lifting and falling with a great deal of teenage misery. “I guess that I really wanted to train with the Avengers, ya know?”

He pushed his feet against the floor, the wheels to the chair he sat in rolling him across the room, spinning around in a few circles along the way.

“This was going to be my first weekend officially training with the team. I’ve been looking forward to this since spring break! But then Mr. Stark took me on our road trip — which was totally awesome, don’t get me wrong, I had a blast — but I already had to wait until I was healed from...well, you know. That. And now we’re back from the trip and I know I’ll have next weekend, and the weekend after that, but...” There was that sigh again, so deep his chest puffed out with exertion. He stopped at a nearby computer console. “I just really wanted to train this weekend. I was really looking forward to it.”

There was a pause, as if FRIDAY was soaking up his ramble and processing her response.

But you are not permitted to train with the team this weekend, Peter.”

Peter couldn’t help it — his eyes rolled so hard he could feel the twitch in his muscles. “Yeah, I...thanks, FRIDAY, for the reminder.”

Though he appreciated the attempt, FRIDAY was no Karen. Not by a long-shot. Still, as much as he missed talking to his own personal AI, he couldn’t blame Mr. Stark for taking his suit away this weekend. Though he’d likely only put on his mask for Karen’s company, he was sure he’d end up doing something that he’d regret in the long run. He always did.

Peter stared aimlessly in front of him, eyeing the multiple gadgets laid out on the tables ahead. Mr. Stark rarely ever cleaned up his work, always leaving it behind for when he returned, which would only create piles upon piles of unfinished projects until eventually one was completed and stored away. It was, for lack of a better way of putting it, a total cluster fudge.

Of course, Peter wasn’t really in a position to judge. He was known to be a tad bit messy himself — “Incredibly messy, Peter,” May’s voice cut through his hypocrisy, ringing through his ears as if he heard her just yesterday. For the love of God, please clean up your room.”

That’s when his eyes caught hold of an oval-shaped, bulky device amidst the clutter.

“Hey, what’s this?” Peter was already picking it up before receiving an answer, turning it around in his hands with curiosity. It held a good deal of weight for its size, clunky, somewhat similar to a small pocket flashlight.

That is the core calibrator to Mr. Stark’s ultrasonic pulse. It belongs to Mark 46, equipped within the gauntlet of his armor. He has temporarily removed it for further upgrades.”

“Ultrasonic pulse...cool.” Peter eyed the device with keen interest, examining every nook and cranny like he was studying it. “What does it do?”

The repulsors release a high-frequency burst of concentrated sound. Currently, the ultrasonic pulse cannot achieve a decibel rate higher than one-hundred-thirty. According to the latest project data entries, Mr. Stark is aiming for two-hundred, max.”

“Two-hundred decibels?” Peter’s eyes went wide, the look of shock coloring over his brown pupils. “That’s insane! Why does he need something like that?”

Suddenly the device in his hands felt much less like a flashlight and much more like a grenade. A powerful, tiny, loud grenade.

At higher levels of intense decibel strengths, Mr. Stark is hoping to achieve extra-aural bioeffects on various internal organs and central nervous systems. Including auditory shifts, vibrotactile sensitivity change, muscle contraction, cardiovascular function change, vestibular effects, as well as chest wall and lung tissue disturbances. This, of course, would be used in circumstances where necessary only.”

Peter was familiar with sound weapons — that was, the type he and Ned would create at school after band practice using Sarah Hagelin’s trumpet. While this was on a whole other level of extreme — ‘Why do you have to be so extra, Mr. Stark?’ — the concept remained the same.

Which meant there likely had to be a volume notch.

“FRIDAY...” Peter trailed off, fiddling with the device in his hands. “Exactly how low can the decibel range on this thing go?”

The lowest setting would be fifty. Any lower would not produce a shock wave and thus, would become ineffective.”

Peter stood from his chair, so quickly that it rolled straight out from under him. Gadget held tightly in his hands, he nodded once, sharp and curt, before saying,

“...I’m going to borrow this.”

Peter, it is not advisable that you

He was already at the lab’s exit, hand waving in the air as if the AI could detect the body movements that came with his words.

“I’m just borrowing it, FRIDAY! I’ll return it, I promise!”

It was amazing how quickly ‘odd’ became ‘normal’ around this place. Just at a few months ago, Peter running full sprint down the hallways of the compound would have gotten him tackled by a dozen or so security guards, at best. He couldn’t decide if it was a good or bad thing that most barely looked in his direction, and honestly, Peter was too preoccupied to care.

 


 

 

There was one nice thing about the compound on the weekends — okay, a few when taking in mind the Mac and Cheese bar the cafeteria served on Saturdays.

The best thing had to be the gym, hands down. It was a complete, utter ghost town. All but deserted. A few stragglers here and there, most passing by to grab towels for the pool across the way.

Sam absolutely loved it. It was a break in his hectic week, where SHIELD trainees were typically taken off-site for more...intense exercises. Like being dropped off in the wilderness for three days to fend for survival. The sort of stuff that Sam came to realize was actually tame for the highly secretive government organization.

He grimaced at the thought while mid-pull up. Many days he found himself thankful to be on the Avengers side of SHIELD and not working directly for the agency itself. He had gratitude for things like that, and the silence that came with his afternoon. There wasn’t enough of it these days, not around the compound, not with the constant slew of different people in and out.

He pulled his body weight up over the handlebars with a loud grunt, managing to rest his chin on the metal before repeating the process over again.

Loud grunt. Pull up.

Big exhale. Drop down.

Up.

Down.

The sweat rolled down Sam’s forehead in large beads, catching in his eyebrows and dripping off his eyelashes with each strain of his face. With a strained grunt that echoed the empty gym, he struggled with his next pull-up, arms shaking so hard it affected his entire core, all while his hips and legs trembled with exertion.

Up.

Down.

Up.

Down —

BLAST!

The impact of air hit directly against his back, like a gust of wind straight out of a tornado.

“What the —!”

It threw him forward and onto his knees, the gym mats saving him from what otherwise would have been a loud CRACK of his bones. And thank God for it, too, because his knees were already shot to hell from his time served in the force.

Sam gathered his bearings, rolling onto his backside with a loud, frustrated, “What the hell was that!?”

That’s when he saw it — the little spider-twerp standing over him, hand outstretched with a mouth opened wide enough Sam had to assume he was laughing. That’s what the kid looked to be doing, anyway. He couldn’t hear a damn thing, not as his ears rang church bells directly into his skull.

Sam glared. He glared as he latched onto Peter’s hand, glared as he took the assistance back onto his feet. The hard glare never lessened, especially as Peter continued to laugh.

Slowly but surely, word by word, his voice faded in, and the ringing faded out.

“...totally makes up for last weekend when you put super glue all over my bedroom doorknob,” Peter was saying, trying — and failing, to stifle his laughter.

Sam gaped, immediately letting go of Peter’s hand once finding balance on his feet. “What are you talking about? That was harmless!”

He was yelling. He could tell he was yelling, yet he wasn’t sure if it was partially out of hearing loss or partially out of anger. Or both.

Peter cocked his head to the side, unamused. “You tried to make everyone believe my hands were ‘just that sticky’, Sam.”

Sam laughed. He couldn’t help it; the damn memory was too good not to laugh at. Not to mention, he had managed to get Natasha to play along and Bruce, bless the man, took it seriously and began examining Peter and — yeah, okay, it went a little far but that, that was harmless.

“Yeah? At least you walked away with your hearing!” He wiggled a finger around in his ear, trying desperately to get the ringing to come to a complete stop. “I can barely hear my own thoughts, man!”

Walking backward out of the gm, Peter waved around the device he had in his hand, cylinder and small yet could clear pack a punch.

“We’re even!” He called out, picking up speed until he was through the double doors and out of sight.

Sam clapped his hands against his shorts, dusting himself off, huffing out a sigh at Peter’s retreating form all while shaking his head.

“We’re so not even.”

 


 

For a day that started off rather cruddy, Peter was feeling pretty good about things now. He now had an extra eighty-six web cartridges to take home with him tomorrow and he got back at Sam for a prank that no one wanted to let him live down.

Seriously, Doctor Banner,’ Peter thought to himself, absentmindedly tossing the sonic pulse calibrator between both hands. ‘I’m not that sticky. I don’t ever get that sticky. Please stop testing how sticky I get!’

To say the least, getting so close with some of his idols on a personal level was a bit...strange. Peter used to admire Bruce Banner from afar, studying his work like he studied Einstein’s and Darwin’s. Now he saw the man on a weekly basis, and got to know about the more uncommon quirks that school didn’t teach him about. Like how fixated Doctor Banner could get on some things, Peter’s power’s included.

“Would you imagine my reaction when,” the voice startled Peter right out of his thoughts, “in the middle of tasting Amedei’s Prendimé delectable wedding cake with my ever-loving and incredibly patient fiance, I receive an alert from my AI. One informing me that a remotely secured mechanism of mine had been removed from its contained location.”

Peter knew that voice. He didn’t need to turn around to know who that voice belonged to. Device still in hand, albeit no longer moving, Peter managed an intelligent, thoughtful, engaging response of,

“Uh...”

Tony turned the corner, standing in front of the couch with his wired-rimmed glasses dropping down to the bridge of his nose. He didn’t even bother to push them up, arms crossed over his chest, looking as stern as ever. The three-piece, crisp, wrinkle-free suit only added to the threatening vibe he gave off.

Peter gulped.

Tony eyed him from over his purple-tinted frames. “You do remember the last time something similar happened, no?”

Peter bit his tongue, hard, because ‘Yeah, how could I forget,’ and instead replied, “I was just borrowing it, I swear.”

Tony’s glare was intense enough to see straight through his glasses. Suddenly, Peter had a feeling his day wasn’t going to be ending as great as he thought it would. In fact, based on the cramp forming in his gut, he wouldn’t be afraid to go out on a limb and guess it was about to get much, much worse.

“You didn’t leave your thing with Miss. Potts because of me, did you?” he decided on asking, desperate to change the topic.

Tony almost chuckled.

“No. She’d have my head if I did that.” The way he uncrossed his arms and shifted weight to his other foot told Peter that Mr. Stark was relaxing, though the heat of frustrations remained. “I did, however, have FRIDAY track your whereabouts for the remainder of the day. Seeing as you were the one who took the core calibrator to the sonic pulse annex — which if I haven’t mentioned is a dangerous weapon you shouldn’t be playing around with, then let me note now that it’s a dangerous weapon you shouldn’t be playing around with.”

“I wasn’t—”

“Pranks? Really?” Tony had his head tilted to the side in a way that told Peter no excuse he managed to conjure up would save him. Best to admit defeat now while he was ahead.

Peter adjusted himself on the sofa, suddenly realizing he was still holding the device and feeling insanely guilty for it.

“Okay, yes, but Sam totally deserved it after the doorknob thing he pulled on me and you know it and I even think you agree with me on this and in all technicality I didn’t start this war, I only ended it and —”

“Is he hurt?” Tony was quick to interrupt, not out of concern but sheer desperation to have Peter take a damn breath of air.

There was a beat.

“No,” Peter answered, his face scrunched up in a way that said as if’ and ‘no way’ at the same time.

“Then yes, he deserved it.” Tony outstretched his hand and wiggled his fingers. “Now hand it back over.”

Peter sighed, reluctant at first to return the device. He had been going back and forth with the idea of grabbing the blueprint copies of Mr. Stark’s design and putting them into a web grenade of sorts, but alas, he never expected the man to return home so soon. He supposed he had a part in that.

“Fine.” Peter plopped the cylinder-shaped core into Mr. Stark’s open palm. “A heads up...I lowered the decibels back down to a sane level. Are you really trying to make that thing go over two hundred?”

“You bet your ass I am.” Tony tossed the device up in the air and caught it seamlessly, so smooth it looked like he put no effort into it at all.

Peter curled his legs underneath him on the sofa. “That’s insane, Mr. Stark. That’s louder than like, race cars or gunshots. That’s the equivalent of a space shuttle taking off! Why do you need something that loud?”

Tony slipped off his glasses with one hand and stuffed the device into his pant pockets with the other.

“Kid, as simplistic as it sounds, you never know when you’ll need something really loud,” he casually explained. “After all, the good ‘ol God of Thunder isn’t around these days to drum on Cap’s shield. Gotta make do with what we have.”

His off-handed comment seemed to trigger a response in Peter, so palpable that it could be felt across the room.

“That...makes total sense,” he murmured, distantly untangling his legs from beneath him as if he weren’t even in control of his own body. “You’re absolutely right, Mr. Stark. Make do with what I have.”

Before Tony could even take a guess at what was happening, Peter was stumbling off the couch and heading towards the doorway. Still, he had gotten to know Peter well over the past two years, especially in just the last handful of months. He could smell trouble before it began brewing.

“Hey!” Tony called out, stopping Peter right in his tracks. “I don’t know what light just turned on in that big noggin of yours, but if it’s more pranks, you need to pull the kill switch on it now.”

It was frighteningly impressive how Tony was able to hold back his groan. Was this his life now? Telling teenage superheroes not to pull pranks on other superheroes?

“Oh, c’mon, Mr. Stark!” Peter whined, so loud and obnoxiously that Tony ended up letting out that groan of frustration. “I was just going to take my web fluid and —”

“Seriously, Peter,” Tony stressed, rubbing at his forehead to ward off an oncoming migraine. “Our new...guest is moving in today.”

It was the magic word that had Peter’s demeanor completely change. His shoulders dropped, his eyes went wide, and even his breathing stopped for a short moment. They had talked about this; Tony had given him plenty of heads up. After all, with Peter staying at the compound on the weekends, he deserved to know.

The thing was, the move-in date had never been set in stone. It must have happened recently, and by the way Mr. Stark looked, Peter wasn’t sure if much time had been given to prepare.

“Really?” Peter asked, his voice hushed under his breath. “He is?”

“Yes.” Tony slipped his glasses back on, bringing with it the demeanor of assurance and poise. “And if you want to keep all ten of your fingers, you’re best not pulling adolescent pranks on him. Capisce?”

Peter nodded, his look so serious that Tony was sure he could hand the kid the Declaration of Independence, tell him to return it to D.C right away, and his expression would be the absolute same. Not even a flicker of a difference.

All and all, it was for the best. Tony needed him to understand just how significant this was, that this person, this guest moving in — he wasn’t one to joke around with.

 


 

His suitcase, made of goatskin and twine, barely took up a corner of his bed. It contained little; a few articles of clothing, a hand-crafted book some local children wrote for him — and about him, nonetheless — and...well, it.

He stared at it. It stared right back, bright and shiny, silver, bulky. Nothing in this world made him feel as much despair as when he’d look at this thing, this part of him. Hate wasn’t a strong enough word. He damn well nearly begged to leave it behind in his travels, but they wouldn’t let him.

He scoffed, throwing his scarf over the offending sight as he continued to unpack. They’d be bringing him new belongings soon. New clothes to go with his new living arrangements. But why they hadn’t finished providing him a replacement for that yet...it was beyond him.

Patience, my friend,” he had been told by a king who wore no crown, a man whose humility rivaled only Steve Rogers himself. “However long the night, the dawn will break.”

“Hey,” the voice came from behind him, protruding from the doorway. He didn’t look. He heard the footsteps approaching a full minute ago. “I need your help.”

He pulled a worn pair of pants from his bag, tossing it aside on the bed that looked too soft for his liking. “That’s a first.”

There was sigh, audible from across the room. He couldn’t lie, it made his lips twitch in what could have been a smile.

“Yeah, well...” Sam ran a hand down his face, words murmured beneath his palm before he said, “desperate times, desperate measures.”

He turned around, slightly concerned, mostly apathetic. The idea of an another fight he needed to be involved in wasn’t new to him. It was becoming his new ordinary.

“What do you need?”

Sam leaned against the frame of the doorway, the hallway light the only thing illuminating his figure. “Could use an extra hand pranking that bratty teenager we dealt with in Berlin.”

Bucky shrugged, the twitch on his lips a little stronger this time. “Yeah, why not.”

 


 

“Beginning clinical trial 10.F—G in three...two...one...”

The liquid dropped from its contained, secured case the moment the buzzer went off, the sound piercing and sharp. The feel of it always got to him; dense, thick, slimy, and somehow worse than all the times that came before. Like a raindrop, it hit the back of his hand with a pluck.

It was hot.

It was always hot, burning against his skin, sizzling at the touch. He had lost count of the chemical burns that scattered along his body, scars that told stories of the many attempts he endured in the pursuit of health. Life. A chance.

The irony wasn’t lost on him. No, never in the battery of tests he subjected himself to was it ever lost on him. He was destroying his body in the attempt to heal it.

It wasn’t ideal, and certainly not his first choice in the grand scheme of things. But they didn’t have time — he didn’t have time. There was no animal testing or research studies that could be done before reaching him.

Not if he wanted a chance.

So he closed his eyes, tight. Tight enough to feel the muscles in his face twitch and scream and beg for the release that he wouldn’t give until he heard the word ‘success’. He held his breath and bit his tongue through the searing pain that spread across his skin, rendering his fingers numb and his wrist rigid with immobility, all as he waited.

It always felt like an eternity. He would often think of Emily in these times. Deep, mahogany hair that countered her smile of pure sunshine, one he’d still picture every night before going to sleep, accompanied with the purest, brightest blue eyes he’d ever witnessed before. Even now, decades after becoming nothing more than a memory to him, she kept him calm. As long as he had her memory —

“Host organism Symbiote cytoplasm results produce...another failure for organisms protoplasmic material in binding with subject.” The voice, albeit calm, professional and tame, was nails on a chalkboard to his ears. “The changes formulated to the cell structure from clinical trials 9.E—G appear to be unsuccessful.”

His eyes stayed closed, though the pressure on his eyelids lessened greatly. He could feel the burning begin to fade on his hand, the tell-tale sign that the liquid had dropped off, running down and off his skin like water in the shower. It would fall into a drain placed beneath his feet, where the earth-shattering disappointment made it feel like his legs had wavered despite the ground staying still.

His heart beat heavily, and he fought to control the emotion, taking in three deep breaths to remain composed. Each lifted his chest high, pulled his shoulders back taunt. He kept those blue eyes in his mind, fighting to remember exactly what shade they were. Always close to sky blue, but never quite so pale. Vivid, like ice.

“How would you like to proceed, Mr. Osborn?”

And with that, he opened his eyes to the world around him, no longer able to stay in the memory of a better time and place, a memory of warmth and content. His environment was sterile and cold, a lot like the expression he wore on his face. Because if twenty-eight years of owning and running his own business had taught him anything, it was never to show weakness.

“You are...highly credentialed, Doctor Frye.” Norman grabbed the towel offered to him by one of the many scientists standing nearby, slowly but confidently wiping his hands with it. “I have the upmost faith that you will figure it out.”

The towel was damp, saturated with a cooling gel to ease the burns that blistered on his skin. He smeared it generously across the back of his hand, stepping down cautiously from the platform where he stood. The other techs began to scatter, leaving all but one white-coated doctor standing amidst the departing crowd.

“Sir, with all due respect,” Doctor Frye started, “I have been surveying the progress on this project since day one. And since we’ve discovered that this Symbiote bio-structure won’t bond without the DNA markers of its original conception, you continue to try and change the cell nucleus of the genetic make-up with no success.”

Norman approached him with long strides, confident steps that spoke more than his words ever could. He cocked an eyebrow high in the air and discarded the towel to the side.

Doctor Frye held his tablet firmly in his grip as he continued, “This is the tenth failure, and the tenth time my team has played God to the membrane of an organism that cannot thrive without the mutation markers of its birth host.”

“And as we are both aware,” Norman was quick to respond, his tone smooth yet firm, “the birth host perished two years ago with an autopsy report that showed no remaining embryo fluid in the sack. Is that a fact you fail to recall or do you simply prefer that I remind you of the cause behind our perennial struggles?”

There was something unique in Doctor Frye that Norman respected. For starters, the man was never afraid to stand up to him, talk science with him, throw equations back and forth. He had intense grit, a dedication to his craft, dare he say an unhealthy need to be present at the job at all times. It played greatly in his favor, the unfortunate passing of Frye’s wife, leading him to divulge all his time into his work. It kept the good doctor focusing on the cure Norman so desperately needed.

“That spider was our last chance at finding success with this project, Mr. Osborn,” he reminded, his voice going so far as to pitch with unnerve. “Without injecting the mutated cells directly into your bloodstream, there’s no way this Symbiote bio-suit will bind to your genetic DNA. It requires the mutated markers of that radioactive spider.”

As the doctor spoke, Norman began to roll down the sleeves to his white button-down, taking care in buttoning the cuffs back together on each arm. He never once looked down during the task, keeping his eyes focused intently on Frye, frowning a bit as he digested what was said.

“Your vacillation is disconcerting to hear, doctor. It seems you’ve forgotten that sitting beneath my entrepreneur credentials lays a scientific genius with doctoral degrees in chemistry and electrical engineering. So when I say this can be done, I say it with more than just words,” Norman’s words were even, clinical, nearly emotionless. “I say it with the knowledge and ingenuity to substantiate the matter.”

Aggravated, Doctor Frye shook his head with animated exaggeration, spinning around as Norman began to walk past him.

“You aren’t listening. You don’t — !”

Norman calmly turned to face him, so close that it physically startled the doctor, his muscles so tense it showed in his lips.

“This Symbiote is a living organism. And like all living organisms, you can work with its biology,” Norman insisted, his tensely knitted eyebrows the closest thing he had shown to frustration so far. “I would advise that you not allow any defeats to keep you from pushing forward onward to success.”

Deliberate to linger on a hard stare that created a sheen of sweat across Doctor Frye’s forehead, Norman gave a curt nod when the time felt right. Only then did he walk passed the man, careful to avoid bumping shoulders.

He made it to the door before a voice was heard again. It wasn’t unexpected. Norman would have paused there in anticipation regardless of what sound came his way; the doctor had grit, after all.

“You have to give me clarification here, Mr. Osborn. Why can’t you lend my team the formula for the OZ Experiment Arachnid No. 00? We’ll create it from scratch; we’ll give the Symbiote the DNA markers it requires to bind and latch onto its subject matter,” he paused for a beat, his throat constricting as he stressed, “You, sir.”

There was enough hesitation from Norman to make it seem like he had been pondering up a response. In reality, he had one ready to go long before the man had ever asked the question. It was a sore subject. It had become the bane of his existence. The loss of all his files, the OZ formula, the records of the arachnid experiment from years ago that could easily save his life — gone. And why?

“Because, Doctor Frye,” Norman said, swiping his badge to gain access out of the laboratory, “those records were recently lost in a very unfortunate...water-logging incident. Now carry on. I expect progress by the morning.”

The heavy weight of the door closed loudly behind him, an echo that shot through the air. Norman was walking down the halls before it had even slammed shut.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Some duct tape, the arm of the martial arts dummy from down in the gym, and a lot of aluminum foil later — Sam and Bucky were ready.

“It looks like crap,” Bucky remarked, eyeing the poorly-constructed prop hanging from his shoulder. It dangled like a wet noodle, although even that would be giving the hasty craft more credit than it deserved.

“The kid won’t even notice,” Sam insisted, looping the roll of duct tape around Bucky’s shoulder and back towards him again. “Trust me. This is going to work.”

Bucky gave a one-shouldered shrug. He really couldn’t care less one way or the other. Anything to keep him from being forced to review SHIELD mission reports and train the cadets, of which he had learned the hard way were the most pansy-like, technology-obsessed, closed-minded bunch he had ever seen before. It had been an eye-opener to see first-hand how drastically men had changed since his time.

He wouldn’t lie; staying on the goat farm in Wakanda sounded way more appealing than spending more than two minutes with those cadets.

Sticky tape put pressure against the nub of his arm with a tightness that felt too tight. Bucky looked up at Sam, mildly irritated with an expression that somehow remained apathetic.

“So what am I supposed to do? Just wait around here all day, or —”

“No, I texted him,” Sam answered, ripping off the final piece of duct tape and securing it in place. “He’s coming up from the lab now.”

With wary eyes, Bucky examined the final product. By now it looked like total shit, but he wasn’t going to say a word. Not at the risk of instigating Sam to put more time and craftsmanship into the prank. Fun or not, it wasn’t worth exerting that much effort into it.

Sam, though? Sam seemed as if he could go all day messing with this kid — the kid who was long since owed a good chunk of payback for Germany, because of course Stark was housing teenage superheroes in this godforsaken place.

Nothing surprised him anymore. Not even,

“Texting...right. Cell phones. Those exist.”

Sam gave a sympathetic hum while looking over his work. Dare he say, admiring it. “Yeah...must be weird. You know —jumping back into a society that’s advanced so much.”

“It’s been...something.” Bucky rolled his shoulder, testing out the crudely designed homemade device. It hung limply at his side and barely lifted when he went to mimic a shake. He had a hard time believing Wilson when he said the punk would buy this. Cause either this kid was incredibly stupid or insanely trustworthy.

And if it was the latter, that made him both in Bucky’s eyes.

A holler from the hallway of the recreational room caught his attention.

“Hey, Sam? You wanted something? I was just about to see a movie, what’s up —” Peter came to a sudden halt the moment he crossed into the doorway, feet freezing in place at the sight ahead of him. Or more accurately, the person.

“Oh.”

Sam immediately stepped in front of Bucky before Peter could stare too hard — and staring he was, eyes locked intently on Bucky like a deer caught in the headlights. It reminded Sam a lot of the first time he officially met the twerp, having removed his vigilante superhero mask in one of Tony’s workshops like a dog with his tail tucked between his legs.

Sam couldn’t resist the smirk that crept along his lips. Call it a brotherly kinship; messing with this kid was just too easy.

“Hey, webhead! I’ve been getting everyone acquainted with our new housemate here. Tony gave you the DL on that, right?”

It took a moment for Peter to register what Sam had said — a moment longer after that to try and understand Sam’s lingo — before he finally managed to snap out of his confused trance.

“DL? Huh?” He shook off the momentary shock and stepped forward. “Yeah-yeah, Mr. Stark told me...that we’d be...he’d be...um...yeah...”

Peter couldn’t stop staring. He could tell he was staring, and could tell that Sam noticed he was staring — and was desperately trying not to laugh at him for it. Still, it wasn’t until a good beat later that Peter cleared himself out of the awe-struck moment.

“Hi. I’m Peter.” With stiff, overly polite movements, he jogged further into the rec room, his one arm extended outward like a rigid vaulting pole. “Peter Parker.”

Sam re-positioned himself to stand behind Bucky, who hadn’t even twitched a muscle on his face, let alone tried to seem remotely interested in anything regarding the situation. It was a good thing that Peter was oblivious to it all, poorly-crafted foiled arm included. The same exact arm he invited in for a handshake.

So when he went to grasp Bucky’s hand at the same moment Sam deliberately ‘bumped’ into Bucky’s side, he was damn near traumatized when the limb detached straight from the soldier’s arm socket.

Peter’s jaw fell straight to the floor — figuratively.

Bucky’s arm dangled in his grasp — literately.

“Uh...” Peter’s eyes darted back and forth, from Bucky’s arm back to Bucky, back to the arm, back to Bucky. All while his mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. “I, uh...”

Bucky quirked an eyebrow high into his hairline.

“Holy cow.” Peter finally managed to squeak out, immediately extending the arm back to Bucky as if it were any other casual item he may have taken. “Oh my god. I am so sorry! Oh my god, Mr. Bucky, sir, I must have...I didn’t mean to...holy shit, I am so sorry! I didn’t mean —”

Sam’s sharp, gut-aching laughter was the only thing that finally tore through Peter’s panicked and borderline terrified rambling. It came so abruptly, breaking free with a howl so loud that it finally had Bucky giving way to an expression. Annoyance.

“Damn, kid!” Sam hollered, bent over, clutching his stomach.

Peter could feel his heart shaking in his rib-cage. It didn’t matter if that were physically possible or not; he could feel it. His hand let go of the foil-covered arm, letting it drop to the ground — where no one went to pick it up, because of course they wouldn’t, because it wasn’t real — and his fingers twisted into his hair from a stress he never thought he’d experience before.

That was, the stress of thinking he had just dismembered someone.

“Oh man, you should see your face!” Sam slapped his hands across his knees. “You were scared shitle —!”

“For the record, if I’d made that arm, it wouldn’t have fallen off.”

All three heads simultaneously looked over to the entrance of the room, so quickly that Peter could hear the joints in Sam’s neck crack, aging bones loud enough to hear under his enhanced eardrums.

“Hey, Wilson,” Tony had his arms crossed, leaning in the doorway with a face a bit harder than his light tone would imply. “You know, next time you wanna pull a prank like that, I suggest a quick-release weld. That way you don't have to use up all of my duct tape.”

Though Sam didn’t seem the least bit bothered by Tony’s sudden and rather uptight appearance, and Bucky remained characteristically distant to the entire situation as a whole, it was Peter could feel the goosebumps spread along his skin. He wasn’t sure why, aside from the fact that Mr. Stark appeared to be far from amused, borderline furious even.

The longer Peter stared, the more he saw a surge of boiling animosity flickering across Mr. Stark’s eyes. It sent a chill through him. He had never seen the man look quite so...hostile before.

“Tony, hey, what’s up,” Sam greeted, nodding his way. “We were just —”

“Corrupting the youth of America, I’m sure.” Tony walked into the room with an unmatched pose; shoulders pulled back sharp, chin held up high. Despite directing his words towards Sam, his eyes never wavered past the other man in the room.

And it was noticeable. His grimace paired neatly with his glare, seen through the purple-tinted glasses covering his face.

Peter looked between them both, afraid to speak, yet knowing it was best he didn’t utter a single word.

“Nah, man, it’s not like that. We were just...” Sam trailed off, noticing the same thing Peter had before him. He looked between Bucky and Tony with growing concern. “...having...some fun…”

Tony had now gotten close enough to Bucky that Sam almost wanted to pull the two apart.

Almost.

“I should go,” he ended up saying instead, quick on his feet to head out the door.

“You should,” Tony responded without missing a beat. His head twitched towards the floor below them but otherwise stayed locked ahead, eyes firmly glued on Barnes. “And take your fifth-grade home-ec class project with you.”

Sam rolled his eyes, keeping any comeback to himself as he bent down to grab the discarded arm from the floor. He turned to leave, though not before Peter could catch up with him.

“Hey, wait up, Sam! Let me see that.” Peter met him at the doorway, reaching out for the foil-covered arm with an enthusiasm that radiated straight from his smile. “Holy crap, is that the arm from Bob the grappling dummy in the gym? That’s so clever!”

Sam found himself laughing as Peter looked over the fake arm with wide eyes, full of light and curiosity.

“You should have seen your face, pipsqueak.”

“I thought it was really his arm!” Peter defended, his voice cracking in pitch.

Sam patted him on the shoulder. “Oh trust me, we could tell. You —”

“Peter.”

Tony’s voice cut through their banter, heard across the room, containing such hot intensity it warmed the draft air around them.

Peter craned his neck around, eyebrows furrowing with a mix of concern and irritation. If he didn’t know better, Mr. Stark was staring at him the same way he had the afternoon of the Ferry incident, eyes sharp enough to put daggers to shame.

That wasn’t right, that couldn’t be right. They had gotten so far past that time, now a mere blip in what was the beginning of things for them. This Mr. Stark — this angry, fuming Mr. Stark — this wasn’t directed at him. It couldn’t be.

“We good, man?” Sam’s question broke through his runaway thoughts. Peter looked over, noticing the extended fist Sam was offering his way.

“Yeah, we good,” he answered, a laugh in his voice as he bumped his own fist into Sam’s. It wasn’t long after that he left, taking the dummy’s arm with him.

Peter fought off the urge to follow him out of the room, wondering if Mr. Stark would even realize that he’d slipped out. If he had to take a guess, he would say that his presence wasn’t very much noticed right about now.

Mr. Bucky’s, though? Well, that was a whole other story.

Peter made small baby steps as he approached the two adults.

Tony stared at Bucky for a hard moment, doing everything short of scowling. A moment of grim silence stretched between them, broken only by the occasional sound of Peter’s sneaker scuffing against the marble floors below them.

“You can leave as well,” Tony coldly stated.

Bucky shrugged. “I don’t have anywhere to be —”

The tension in the room finally snapped as Tony ripped off his glasses, and — yep’ Peter noted, the eyes of fury he once endured near Staten Island had made its return. He felt slightly selfish for the gratitude that the look hadn’t been directed towards him this time.

And all things considered, Mr. Bucky seemed to be handling it a lot better than Peter had in the past. In fact, the man seemed unconcerned the moment realization hit him — he wasn’t wanted here.

“Mhm,” Bucky acknowledged distantly. “Got it.”

He left the room without another word, a second glance, or even an acknowledgment of Peter on his way out. Bucky left like he had never even been there to begin with.

Long after he was gone, Peter couldn’t help but continue to stare at the empty doorway. For someone that made Mr. Stark so angry, Bucky hadn’t made much of a remarkable impression on Peter. He was quiet, kept to himself, and aside from the weird clothes that made him look like a middle eastern farmer, there wasn’t anything particular about him that stood out.

Peter knew, though, that there was more to his story than that. Mr. Stark had told him...things. Things they never talked about again, things that clearly still affected him to this day. Mr. Stark had once said that he was learning to move on past the whole incident, for the team’s sake, for his own sake.

Looking at him now, Peter wasn’t too sure how true that remained.

“What’s up, Mr. Stark?” he asked, the stretch of quiescence making his voice sound foreign to his own ears.

Tony sniffed, hard, and folded his arms across his chest. “You need to stay away from that guy.”

“Who?” Peter did a double take at the doorway. “Mr. Bucky?”

“Mr. Bucky?” Tony repeated back incredulously, the thunderous look on his face nearly as hot as his words. “Is that what Rogers told you to call him?”

Peter had a bad feeling that all of Tony’s buttons had been pushed by now. He knew that not all had been pressed by him; he was just very unlucky in being the one to deal with the aftermath.

“No! I mean, maybe, I mean —” Peter shook his head free of his stutter. “What’s the big deal?”

Tony’s mouth stayed set in a thin line as he slipped his glasses back onto his face, purple-tinted lenses reflecting brightly from the skylight ceiling above him.

Peter had caught on a while ago that it was a defense mechanism, a way to hide the emotion that reflected in Mr. Stark’s eyes. Most people were aware the habit. Some challenged it, like Ms. Potts. Peter let it be, though sometimes he wondered what would happen if he ever did the same.

“He’s trouble,” Tony flatly explained. “He’s here so SHIELD can keep an eye on him, nothing more, nothing less. I don’t want you associating with him.”

“Mr. Stark, come on!” Peter tossed a hand in the air, full of exasperation. “You can’t tell me —”

“Kid,” Tony warned, his voice firmer now, with an underlying note of rigor authority. “Stay away from him.”

The warning came with narrow eyes and a twisted face; an expression Peter couldn’t read past the purple-tinted lenses, frames acting as a veil to his reality. His voice, meek whines in protest, was lost amid a whirlwind of emotions. Ninety percent of which he was sure could be categorized as pure aggravation and annoyance.

He settled on a scoff of disbelief, one he failed to keep tightly in his chest, and he didn’t bother to hide it either. Tony’s eyes shot towards him at a record-breaking speed, a way of saying ‘I heard that!’

Peter shook his head, looking away and back towards the empty doorway. There was a part of him deep down inside that coiled resentment, frustration snowballing into something bigger despite his efforts to ignore it all weekend.

First, Mr. Stark grounded him — which, what was with that? He knew the man kinda-sorta s aw him like, well, ‘ like a son’ as he once said a few months back. But grounding? It just seemed very...un-Mr.Stark-like. And now this? Telling him who he could and couldn’t hang around?

If he didn’t know better, Mr. Stark was acting like his —

“Peter!”

Tony’s voice pierced through his thoughts for what felt like the fifth time that day.

“Yeah! I heard you, okay?” Peter shifted uncomfortably on his feet, quick to cover up his outburst with, “Don’t worry. It’s a big place, right? What are the chances of me even seeing him again?”

Peter hid his frustration behind a look of false reassurance, the type he had mastered as of late. It was typically a look he’d find himself giving May before leaving for patrol on the weekend nights, where his curfew was later, and her panic strung higher.

She never did look convinced. And right now, neither did Tony.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

The clock on his laptop read 6:10 pm, but his body screamed 1:30 in the afternoon. All the meanwhile, his hands twitched desperately to fiddle with a tool of some sort down in his workshop.

Alas, Tony had actual business to work on. Or at the very least attempt to work on before completely passing off to someone else, because his mind could not stay focused to save his own life.

For the most part, his responsibility within Stark Industries had greatly diminished since handing the reigns over to the wonderful Pepper Potts, now his fiance and long-awaited-to-be-wife — a wedding that they’d postponed more times than he could count at this point. But remaining a chairman to the company still required the occasional paperwork to fill out.

Okay, it required a lot of paperwork to fill out, most of which Pepper managed to handle for him. It just so happened she was out of the country for another week, dealing with the overseas management and requiring him to step up his game for once. Considering his recent month-long vacation — if he could call spending over eight hours a day in a car with a smelly teenager a ‘vacation’ — Tony wasn’t complaining. Too much.

Until, that is,

“Tony,” a familiar voice greeted him from the doorway of the lounge room. “Glad I bumped into you. Got a minute?”

Tony looked down at his laptop, the clock in the corner now reading 6:05 pm. He barely managed to bite his tongue, wondering just how long a minute could stretch on for in the presence of — he craned his neck behind him, catching sight of Steve standing in the doorway — yep,’ he thought, ‘the one and only Star-Spangled-Asshole.’

“If you need more wax polish for that glorified dinner plate of yours, go through Pepper. She handles the finances.” Tony turned back to his laptop, resuming the data-sheet he had been semi-occupied with. “Or at least, she handles the people who handle the finances. Possibly the people of the people who handle the finances.” His fingers paused on the keyboard below, hovering in the air as a thought suddenly struck him. “It’s a big company. Lotta work. She needs to give herself a raise. Hey, she can ask for one when she talks to the people who handle —”

“Tony.” Steve had walked into the room by now, hands on his hips in a way that said he was unimpressed.

Tony fought the urge to toss his laptop straight at him. The gift-to-mankind would probably just catch it like his damn Frisbee anyhow. The room quickly became stuffy with tension, the feeling of tightness building right beneath his diaphragm in a way that screamed ‘Stress! Panic! Do not want, must leave, must leave!’

It took Tony every muscle in his body to resist the urge. He focused instead on the screen to his laptop, the numbers in his excel sheet starting to blur together.

Steve shifted slightly on his feet. “He’s unpacked. He’s here to stay. Can we please just...talk about this now?”

Despite the obvious tension in the man’s tone, pinched high with strain containing built-up emotion, Tony didn’t appear conflicted. He let the stretch of silence take on the false impression of internal debate, one he had yet to let himself deliberate.

“Mhmm...” Tony hummed aloud before curtly answering, “No.”

Steve’s exasperation broke with a sigh.

“It’s been months. You’ve been avoiding me — you’ve been avoiding this. A part of me...” Steve trailed off, his chin resting low to his chest with his eyes glued to the ground. “A part of me wonders if that’s why you took Peter and went on that road trip.”

Tony looked up from his laptop with a single raised eyebrow. A solid beat passed before he managed, “Well, that’s not egocentric at all.”

“You know what I mean,” Steve amended. His hands were stuffed deep in his khaki pockets, making it look as if his square shoulders were slumping inward. “The other night was the most we’ve even interacted with each other since Peter’s birthday party. And that was just to punish the kids!”

Tony rolled his eyes. “But honey, one of us has to be the stern parent. If we don’t both put our foot down —”

“Knock it off with the jokes.”

“Not going to happen if you keep making us sound like an old married couple.”

Steve leveled an emphatic look his way. “I know why you’re upset.”

“You don’t—!” Tony shoved his laptop to the side, his teeth biting hard enough on his tongue that he could feel the indentation marks it left behind. He forced himself to take a deep breath before speaking again. “You don’t know why I’m upset.”

Despite Tony’s increasing temper, the anger sizzling off his skin like animated electricity, Steve remained where he stood, cool and collected.

“I get it. I do. I kept a secret from you, I kept...many secrets from you.” Steve’s sigh felt like nails on a chalkboard to Tony. “And I shouldn’t have. I should have told you right away, about it all, even the deal with Fury and having Bucky move in. But the last time we resented each other, we nearly tore the team apart and —”

“I don’t resent you,” Tony admitted somberly.

Steve’s look of doubt was enough to have Tony’s stomach rolling. It meant one thing — this conversation was happening, and he really, really didn’t want it to be happening.

Damn it.

“Scout’s honor, I don’t.” Tony stood from the sofa, clearing his throat more than necessary to force out the rest. His reluctance didn’t go unnoticed. “You know I’ve...I’ve discovered the hard way that resentment is corrosive. And what you did, what you kept from me...I’m not okay with it. I probably never will be. But I can live with it.”

Steve listened intently, focused, hanging on Tony’s every word. It was typical; any conversation involving Barnes had them both on edge.

“Barnes? He’s the one that killed my parents. Him. Not you, not HYDRA. Him.”

“That wasn’t Bucky,” Steve wryly insisted.

“I saw the footage,” Tony’s tone was clipped, sharp, and his usually relaxed exterior was constrained, agitated. “One-hundred-percent the man now living under this roof.”

“That —” Steve chewed on his lip, swallowing down the force of his words and trying again. “That wasn’t Bucky. He was under the influence of something...something much more powerful than him, than what he could control.”

“You can say that until the twelfth of never. But I can’t believe it. Influence doesn’t excuse the horrendous actions of a man. And it was his hands that did the deed, and you know that.” Tony’s eyes momentarily reflected the venom that laced his words. He held that look with Steve for a strong moment, time suspended until he broke away, feet heading straight for the exit, without any detours.

Steve’s voice followed him out, hitting right in earshot before he could reach the doorway. “It was the Winter Solider that killed your parents, Tony. Not him.”

Tony wasn’t in the mood for arguments, for fights, for vengeance. Those emotions had long since washed away in a sinking bunker that now laid buried beneath the ocean. He had finally reached a point in his life where he just wanted to let things be, to not harp on the past, not let it eat him alive.

It was hard, sure. But as he walked out of the lounge room, he remembered what a wise kid had told him just earlier that day. This was a big place. What were the odds of bumping into one person?

 


 

The compound was much more...different at night.

Peter wasn’t exactly sure why there was such a change come sundown. At first, he tried pinning it on the empty hallways. There was such a lack of security, SHIELD employees, and activity that typically diminished after dinner time. But while it was definitely quieter, he couldn’t say for sure what else it was that contributed to the difference in atmosphere.

No, Peter had yet to pin down what made things feel so odd at night. All and all, things just felt more...empty. Not that the facility felt much like home to begin with. It was fantastic staying over for the weekends, really, it was. But there was no denying that the compound had an impersonal feel to it. It wasn’t home.

Home or not though, it had food. And with a stomach growling loud enough to hear miles away, Peter trudged into the kitchen, dragging his sock-clad feet against the marble floors.

With a halfhearted yawn and a yank up at his flannel pajama pants, he turned a corner just as the dim lights to the kitchen faded on. Most of the lights in the facility were automatic, sensitive to the presence of others to conserve energy. So Peter didn’t think much of it when the kitchen went from completely pitch-dark to dimly lit.

Not until he saw the figure that had been sitting in the dark, seated on a barstool at the kitchen island with his head bowed low.

“Mr. Bucky?” Peter squeaked out, his fists rubbing at one eye. “Were you just...sitting here in the dark?”

Bucky looked up, hair mostly covering his eyes, beer bottle hiding half his face. His only response was no response at all, although the sound of his teeth grinding together could be heard from where Peter stood.

“Okay...” Bleary-eyed, Peter pointed to the cabinets nearby. “I’m just going to….yeah.”

The further Peter walked into the kitchen, the more lights that turned on, the small under-the-cabinet type that illuminated the counter space and nothing more. With another yawn, he reached for the top shelf and brought down a box of cereal, one of many that he kept up there.

Well, the many that Clint kept up there. He had the archer to thank for his sugary midnight snacking eating habits. To be honest, he wasn’t sure if he had ever even asked Clint to stock up on the cereal. But that was Clint; the guy just knew how to make the team happy, no words needed. Natasha’s unsalted almonds were always in the cupboards, right alongside Bruce’s chamomile tea, Sam’s Eggo’s, Rhodey’s craft beer, and the loaf of bread that Steve never really ate, but rather stayed in the cabinet for his peace of mind.

Peter rummaged around for a bowl, craning his head behind him as he asked, “Lucky Charms?”

With his back facing him, Bucky didn’t answer. Instead, he lifted his beer bottle to his mouth, took a chug, and set it back down on the island. The glass made a clang as it touched the granite counter.

Peter waited an extra second for an answer. When he didn’t get one, he brought out a second bowl and dug around for a second spoon. “They’re good. Magically delicious.”

Peter could see Bucky’s head twitch just a smidgen as he poured an obscene amount of cereal into one bowl, a small amount into the next. A few marshmallows fell to the floor, and he swept them aside with his foot, making note to clean up his mess after he ate.

It was on his way to the fridge that he finally heard a voice break through the stale air.

“Shouldn’t be hanging around me, small fry. You know your pops really snapped his cap about that today.”

Peter froze mid-grab to the milk jug in the fridge. He looked behind him, eyebrows furrowed with confusion so intense he wasn’t sure if he could still feel his fingers, now blindly reaching around in the fridge while he stared at Bucky’s backside.

“I have no idea what you just said,” Peter admitted, pulling out the jug of milk and walking back to the counter where two bowls of cereal awaited him. “Anyway, Mr. Stark isn’t my pops — or my dad, or whatever. He’s just...Mr. Stark.”

With a steady hand, Peter poured the two-percent milk into each bowl— over-flooding his bowl while dishing out a reasonable amount in the other. The few pieces that floated to the top fell over the rim, and he collected in his hands before tossing hem straight to his mouth.

Behind him, Bucky scoffed. “Wouldn’t be so sure about that.”

Peter rolled his eyes, setting both bowls down on the kitchen island, deliberately pushing the one that wasn’t his in front of Bucky.

“Seriously. Mr. Stark is cool, but he’s more like...” He dragged a barstool across the floor, moving to sit directly across from the older man. “I dunno, he’s like my mentor or something. It’s just that he’s been sorta...protective lately.” Peter dug his spoon into his Lucky Charms, shoveling marshmallows and oat pieces into his mouth.

Bucky looked down at the bowl in front of him, eyebrow quirked high as he opted instead to grab the base of his beer bottle and swig a gulp.

“Why’s that?” he asked, practically grumbled under his breath.

Peter shrugged, taking in another spoonful. “I think he feels responsible for me. He’s been helping me with this...” Peter swallowed hard and gestured vaguely, “... super-hero stuff for a few years now.”

Bucky hummed, the sound hoarse, rumbling like grinding stone. It almost seemed darker in contrast to Peter’s voice, even the sound of his chewing somehow lighthearted.

“And also,” Peter swallowed before speaking again, “these crazy bad-guys kidnapped me after they stole his tech and held me hostage under the sea in the Bermuda Triangle and I almost died. So there’s that.”

Bucky paused mid-swig of his beer, eyes wide enough to see through the bangs of his hair. He didn’t take a drink this time, rather he set the bottle back down on the counter and stared hard at Peter.

If Peter noticed, he didn’t point it out. The kid — ‘ if he could be called that,’ Bucky mused, considering Peter was incredibly close to the age that he had been when he enlisted in the War. He shook off the thought. The rascal continued to shovel food into his mouth, rarely giving himself a break to breathe.

“Huh,” Bucky mumbled. “That explains a few things.”

He’d never say it out loud, but as he eyed the scrawny looking teenager, Bucky couldn’t help but see a bit of Steve in him. For starters, Peter was eating so fast, practically at a pace that increased his risks of choking. At he very least, it kept him from actually tasting what he was stuffing into his mouth.

Steve had been the same way; could never slow down with his food, always hungry — nay, starving. That, of course, changed later in their life. When Steve himself changed.

But still, Bucky knew lanky-Steve way longer than he ever knew Captain America Steve . He had a feeling that he’d forever see his friend that way, a small boy from Brooklyn with an attitude twice his frame. The only difference now was his attitude finally matched his body.

There was also the kindness to Peter, the type that came deep from his bones. He had set out a portion of food for Bucky, not even asking, just doing. And Bucky stared down at the bowl, floating and now soggy pieces of cereal below him. The smell was sweet and disgusting and overall completely unappetizing, but the thought blossomed a warmth in his chest that he hadn’t felt in what could easily be centuries now.

Even if it had been Steve’s only meal of the day, he’d be damn well sure to split it with Bucky. The question then became if he noticed that Bucky would slowly but surely return the food back onto his plate.

“You almost died, didn’t you?”

His whirling thoughts came to a sudden disconnect at the sound of Peter’s slightly high-pitched voice. His head shot up, his expression doing the talking for him.

Peter got the hint, going on to clarify, “In school, we’re taught about World War Two in history class. Things about...you know, the Howling Commandos and all...”

He trailed off, noticing an odd vibe coming from Bucky, one that didn’t seem too amused or welcoming or, well, understanding. Bucky stared at Peter with a sense of confusion, as if he was soaking it all in.

Peter, in all his well-composed manners, continued to ramble on. “I actually wrote two essays on Captain America before I ever even met Mr. Rogers — uh, you know...Steve. I wonder if that’d be considered cheating now? Not that my teachers know that I know him. Well, they sorta know that I know him but not in the way that you know I know him and...” He took a deep breath while shoveling a spoonful of Lucky Charms in his mouth, saying between bites, “Shutting up now.”

“Right.” Bucky gave one curt nod. “History class.”

He’d love to say that it wasn’t a weird thought, but all of this was a big giant pile of weird, and Bucky knew that would be a lie. Kids were studying him in school — well, of course they were. Logically, it made sense. But on a deeper level, it just didn’t settle right with him.

Bucky took another swig of his beer. Two gulps for good measure.

“Does it ever get easier?” He heard through the swallow of liquid, quiet and slightly murmured.

Peter was looking at him when he put his bottle down on the counter.

“The whole...almost dying thing?” he asked, quietly. “Does it ever get easier?”

The question gave him pause. Bucky once lied to Steve when they were fourteen, right after his mother died. “It’s going to get better, Stevie.” It wasn’t something he said with ill intent; it was something everyone did and said during hard times. He didn’t think much of it, not until the years went on, and things just kept getting worse and worse, a snowball effect beyond what they ever expected or prepared for.

He still thought about that to this day. False hope, wishful thinking, a pipe dream — call it whatever, it still left a bitter taste in his mouth.

“I’ll let you know if I ever figure it out,” Bucky ended up answering.

Peter was slurping on his milk, stopping only once hearing Bucky’s answer. He lowered the bowl to the counter with an overly enthusiastic nod.

“Cool, cool.”

Peter wiped away his milk mustache, sighing. His cereal was gone with the milk alongside it, leaving an empty bowl in front of him. He should be heading back to his personal quarters, get some shut-eye, try to at the very least . Though he didn’t need much sleep since The Bite, he still tried to get as much rest as possible. Growing brain and all.

There was one slight, small, itsty-bitsy problem he had ran into. Sleep wasn’t happening. He couldn’t pin down exactly why, to be honest. What the root of the problem was. All he knew was that didn’t like being alone with his own thoughts, not anymore, not as of late. They had a tendency to wander, and it seemed he had more negative memories to focus on than positive ones.

A chill sent goosebumps up his arm. He wasn’t sure if it was from the temperature in the kitchen or the memory of —

“Which one of us do you think would win at an arm-wrestling contest?” Peter was quick to ask. A little too quick.

Bucky observed him, a blank expression written across his face.

“Like, I know you have the metal arm and all, but I’m also super strong,” Peter explained enthusiastically, pulling Bucky’s bowl of cereal closer to him and digging the spoon in. “And I once broke through this experimental metal, ada-metal something, so I think I’d have a chance.”

Bucky sighed in exasperation. He took one last swig of his beer, looking at the bottle with disappointment once he finished.

Peter continued to ramble, shoveling spoonful after spoonful of Lucky Charms into his mouth.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

BrrrrrrrRRRINNGG!

“Alright class, that’s it for today — hold on, hold on! Don’t forget your homework assignments for tonight, and please, anyone that did not have their parent or guardians turn in their contact form need to do so by tomorrow! I’m talking to you, Mr. Eiswert!”

Peter struggled to push past the crowd of teenagers that swarmed near the classroom door, all seemingly squeezing through at once, shoulders and hips knocking into him like a wild mosh pit.

A hand rose high above everyone else, followed by a squeaky, pubescent voice of, “I’m on it, Ms. Warren!”

It was like a pack of animals galloping out of the classroom. Peter hated it. Kids were rushing off to their lockers, the roar of dismissal overtaking the announcements coming from the overhead P.A system. Everyone was in a hurry to get home – and rightfully so.

While the stampede that followed Midtown’s end-of-school bell irritated him like no other, Peter couldn’t let himself get too annoyed. They had the same type of excitement he’d have on nights he could go out patrolling, where he’d be the first kid out of the school and off the grounds before anyone could even bat an eyelash.

Not tonight,’ Peter thought miserably, dragging his feet across the floor, in no hurry whatsoever.

While May was usually pretty relaxed about when he could and couldn’t go out as Spider-man, the first day back to school was strictly off-limits. It was the same thing every year – she’d always want a breakdown of his new classes and teachers, and after an evening spent doing his homework, she’d reward him with dinner from the Thai place down the street. The family-owned one, not the one that had been bought out by some corporation who sold Som Tam that tasted like plastic.

And usually, the school work didn’t bother him. Mounds of homework weren’t something he typically dreaded; it was something he could often knock out in a couple of hours, max. Except this time –

“Dude,” Peter came face-to-face with Ned at their locker, exasperatedly tossing his backpack to the ground near his feet. “I don’t know what I’m going to do about World History. If I don’t bring up my average from last year, I’m screwed.”

Ned offered a sympathetic pat against Peter’s shoulder, watching as his friend tossed handfuls of textbooks from their shared locker into his backpack. They were shoved in like there was a black-hole in the bag that could fit just about anything.

“Too bad it’s not like, Sith Lord History or something,” Ned chuckled to himself. “You’d write a killer essay on The Battle of Yavin.”

Peter managed a half-smile, looking over at Ned while he zipped his backpack shut. “You know it.”

Despite them both clutching the straps to their backpacks, Peter and Ned proceeded to give each other a handshake that resulted in something else entirely. It went on for a good thirty seconds, with a few students exchanging odd glances at the two on their way out.

And then, as if nothing had happened, they began to walk down the hallways. Most of the crowd already left, leaving them as the tail end to the rush of teenagers that had made their way through the double doors leading outside.

“So, what are you gunna do?” Ned asked, matching Peter’s pace — slow, casual, slightly despondent.

Peter shrugged, opening one of the large doors ahead and keeping it open for Ned.

“I don’t know, man. I was thinking of asking if MJ would help me —”

“Watch out, losers!”

A cluster of boys pushed through them, two on skateboards that hit the concrete steps with force. While Peter just barely managed to dodge to the side, Ned was side-swept straight into the metal railings of the outside stairs.

They were gone before either could call out. The few that weren’t skating ran away, laughing down the steps, acting as if they hadn’t almost given a student a concussion.

“Rude,” Ned muttered under his breath, brushing off his jacket with a huff.

“Would that be weird?” Peter was quick to ask, ignoring the boys from the Lacrosse team that had pushed right through them. “Asking MJ. That’d be weird, wouldn’t it?” He paused as he hit the last step, only speaking up once his feet resumed pace, his head shaking to himself. “It would be weird. It would be totally weird.”

The two walked side-by-side down the campus sidewalks, at a much slower rate than most the other kids.

“Isn’t she already helping you study after Decathlon practice?” Ned asked, adjusting the strap to his backpack. “Why would it be weird?”

“Yeah,” MJ chimed in, “why would it be weird?”

Ned whirled around so quickly that he lost his footing, nearly falling straight on his backside had Peter not been there to steady him.

“Jeez-us!” His exclamation was countered by Peter’s silence, the both of them looking at MJ with eyes so wide it rivaled cartoon drawings.

“H-hey, MJ. Hey,” Peter managed to squeak out, his throat gulping a few times over. He liked to think he was getting better at the art of stealth lately, what with his spider-senses getting better day by day. Yet MJ’s ability to sneak up on him always instilled doubt in that particular skill. He looked around with confusing astonishment as to where the hell she even came from.

“Whaddup,” MJ greeted, tone neutral and dry, expression matching it perfectly.

Ned held an open palm against his chest, of which was heaving inwards with a great deal of exertion.

“Okay, I’m okay. My heartbeat is returning to normal. I think. Oh god, is it? Peter, check my pulse, is my resting heartbeat okay?” Ned shoved his arm out towards Peter, waving it up and down with demand and urgency. Only once Peter glared at him with eyes that could shoot daggers did he let it drop back down to his side, the unspoken hint received. “Nevermind, I’m good. Or I’m not and I’ll keel over and die. It’s whatever.”

MJ raised an eyebrow high, while somehow keeping the rest of her face expressionless. It was a feat that never failed to impress Peter — and slightly terrify him at the same time.

“So...what would be weird to ask me?”

Peter gulped again, the movement in his throat so strong that he could feel his Adam’s Apple bounce. MJ had to have noticed, because he noticed, and if he noticed then she noticed and the idea of her noticing had him biting at his lower lip in a useless attempt to quell his nerves. Which he promptly stopped once he realized what he was doing, not to mention the fact that he had yet to even answer her question —

“It’s uh, it’s nothing,” Peter insisted, snapping himself back into the moment. “Really. It’s just—”

“Peter’s flunking World History.”

Peter shot his head around at a rate that made even him dizzy.

“Ned!”

“What?” Ned innocently shrugged.

“I’m not flunking —” Peter turned back to MJ, “I’m not flunking World History.”

MJ remained unphased. She looked at them both, eyes darting back and forth while her backpack slipped down her shoulder. She didn’t move to adjust it, instead let it hang in the crock of her arm.

“But you’re close,” she needlessly stated.

Peter paused. He gave himself a second to think over his answer, ultimately shrugging with, “Kinda.”

“You flunk any of your classes and you’re off Decathlon.” MJ stared at him, hard. “You know that.”

Peter could feel his stomach flip-flopping beneath his chest, twisting hard like a pretzel. This was exactly why he didn’t want MJ to know. Not to mention, she was relying so much on him to pull the Decathlon team through to championship this year. It only added unnecessary stress onto her plate, and whatever stress he put on other people made him stress out and it was just a whole recipe of...well, stress.

Besides, he wasn’t flunking, per-see. Just very, very, very close to it.

Peter sighed. Whatever way he put it, he was still going to need to bring his average up, especially with both May and Mr. Stark watching him to make sure his academics stayed afloat.

“So...that means you’ll help me?” His voice was full of such pathetic desperation that even Peter felt sorry for himself at that moment. How could anyone ever say no to him?

“Nope. Can’t. Totally booked up for the semester.”

Taken aback, Peter managed to keep the defeat from washing over his face. He instead nodded with a little too much energy for what the situation deemed appropriate. What little bit of hope he had snapped like an old, already stretched out rubber band, the kind May would keep hidden at the bottom of her junk drawer in the kitchen.

He tried to play it cool, all while simultaneously completely failing at playing it cool.

It didn’t go unnoticed by MJ. Nothing went unnoticed by MJ.

“Get yourself a tutor, Parker,” she casually stated, choosing to walk in-between them both to get by. Her phone was already out of her pocket and in her hands. Somehow, like she had superpowers herself, she never once looked up from the device as she walked down the campus sidewalk. How she managed to avoid any bump-ins with other classmates or street lamps amazed Peter.

“Yeah..I’ll get right on it.”

Peter sighed, both he and Ned having turned around to watch her leave. Or at least watch what they could see of her through the mass crowd of kids gathering around the outer skirts of the track field. The sight piqued their interest, a clique of teens all pooling together in one spot.

Ned found himself standing on the toes of his sneakers to see what the commotion was about, chattering excitement that could be heard even from where they stood.

“Holy cannoli!” Ned squeaked, his voice immediately losing what little puberty he had managed to go through. “Is that—!?”

That’s when Peter realized what all the fuss was about. His eyes took sight of the second tallest teenager in the crowd — not because the guy was short, it was just that no one’s height could match Daniel Kane’s towering six-foot-five, so tall that he was planning to dress up as The Hulk next month for Halloween.

Still, the crown of curly, brownish-red hair standing next to the other classmates was indisputable. Peter didn’t need to get any closer to realize who it was.

“Ned,” Peter quickly turned to face him, an apology written across his face. “I totally meant to text you, I’m so sorry —”

“Text me what?” Ned craned his head around, brows creased with confusion. “Wait, you knew he was —?”

“Awesome, sweet! Thanks, Har!”

The voices from the crowd became sharper as the activity settled down, most of the kids dispersing into the track field, others going the complete opposite direction and heading off school grounds. Peter and Ned both turned back around, watching as Flash got off one of the bleacher seats and slid his crutches underneath his arms.

Peter couldn’t help but roll his eyes; it was only the first day of school, and the plaster cast on his leg was already full of signatures.

“No problem, man. Here you go.” Harry clicked the lid back on the sharpie and handed it over, smiling politely. “And please, I appreciate the nickname, but call me Harry.”

“Oh yeah, totally, whatever you want, man.” Flash struggled to stuff the pen back into his pant pockets, all while juggling both crutches and staying balanced on one leg. He ultimately decided to just hold it.

Ned stared at Peter with a mouth so unhinged that his jaw might as well have been on the ground.

Peter grimaced sheepishly in return.

“Dude...” Ned mumbled. The look of sheer disappointment on his face was enough to send Peter plummeting back to elementary school, when after spending months saving up their allowance to buy the Jurassic Park lego set, Peter had instead used his half on an impulse to buy a Chem science kit.

Only Ned definitely seemed much angrier back then than he did now. Now, he just seemed hurt and upset. Peter desperately wished for anything but that.

“Hey, Pete!”

He didn’t have time to dwell on it. Harry’s voice tore through the distance between them, the taller teen already having started a light-paced jog to reach them both.

At the same time, Flash had looked away from his scribble-covered cast, realization pushing him forward on his one good leg.

“Hey, wait, hold up!” Hobbling on his crutches, Flash struggled to try and keep pace. “You forgot to sign your last name! How are people going to know — can you just —”

Flash stumbled to a stop, waving casually, as if it was his choice to try and not meet Harry’s quick jog. His heavy breathing may have given him away. “No problem, I’ll write it in for you!”

Peter quickly turned back to Ned, words rushing out of his mouth like a broken dam.

“Okay, so, Harry’s back in town. And he’s enrolled in Midtown now, temporarily, just for the semester. Maybe. But anyway, I just found out this weekend, I swear. He was at Flash’s party, it’s not like we spoke before that or anything. I wasn’t keeping secrets from you, I just totally forgot, this weekend was crazy and —”

“I believe you,” Ned’s heartfelt response didn’t leave time for Peter to feel any relief. “After all, this is the guy who just abandoned you out of nowhere and didn’t even drop a DM when your uncle died —”

Ned!” Peter hissed, keeping his voice hushed as he insisted, “He was our friend!”

“No, Peter, Harry was always more your friend than he was mine.” Despite the indignation coating his tone, Ned kept his voice low. “And even then, he always used you to get what he wanted.”

Peter rolled his eyes. “We were eleven , Ned, how’s that even possible?”

Ned held his chin high, arms crossed over his chest as he responded, “I stand by what I said.”

Peter bit his tongue. Ned didn’t often disagree with him, typically one who would go along for the ride, stand by his side no matter what. His guy in the chair, a title they were both proud of — and one MJ would constantly make fun of.

But something about this clearly hit a little too close to home. Ned had always been a little overprotective with him, sure, but to still be upset over something that happened five years ago?

“Come on, man.” Peter’s eyes flickered rapidly to his left, noticing just how close Harry was approaching them both. “He’s coming this way. We’ll talk about it later, just be cool, alright?”

Peter could tell that Ned wanted to keep arguing. Had Harry’s presence not tore right through their hushed debate, he may very well have.

“Pete!” Harry greeted them both with hands on each of their shoulders. “And Ned! It’s so good to see you, big guy. It’s been ages!”

“Yeah,” Ned shifted on his feet, distancing himself from Harry’s touch. “My number hasn’t changed. Just so you know.”

Peter squinted his eyes, making a face that not even he knew how to describe.

“Ned, your parents didn’t give you a cell phone til you were thirteen.”

With a confidence Peter knew was all bark and no bite, Ned met his gaze squarely. “Either way, it hasn’t changed.”

Whatever face Peter was making only intensified — his eyes squinting, nose curled up— it was total disbelief etched into his every pore.

Next to him, Harry made a sound that might have been a chuckle. Possibly that, or a cough, or a mix of the two. It sounded like a blatant attempt at clearing his throat to break the tension that he had walked in on, one that Ned remained oblivious to.

“So what’s up, you guys? Was today as overwhelming for you as it was for me? Because seriously,” Harry whistled through pursed lips. “What a tsunami of information to take in. Between classes and teachers and — you know, people keep telling me this rumor about a kid that died while on a field trip with Mr. Harrington? Is that true?”

Ned took a deep breath in to answer.

Peter just narrowly managed to cut in before his friend could go on a tangent of useless and ridiculous stories.

“First days are always rough,” he said, nodding towards the three-ring binders Harry held under his arm. “What classes did they assign you?”

“Oh, here,” Harry fumbled to gather the binders from underneath his grip, managing to hold all three at once. Each was thick and full, leather-covered with what Peter had to assume was real, authentic leather. “Take a look.”

The class assignment sheet was the first of many papers he had gathered, already three-hole punched and placed neatly in his binder. Peter’s eyes scrolled down the list.

“Hey!” He pointed a finger in the middle of the paper. “Look at that, we’ll have sixth period together.”

Harry leaned over to get a better look at the assignment sheet, the both of them too preoccupied looking at the piece of paper that neither saw Ned rolling his eyes. Which was a surprisingly difficult thing to miss, considering Ned purposefully rolled his eyes more than once.

“Awesome!” Harry smiled as he looked back up at Peter. “Trigonometry and World History, two of the easiest classes we’ll have all year.”

“Actually, the thing is...I’m...” he trailed off, unsure of how to say ‘I’m a teenage genius who excels at chemistry and robotics but can’t nail basic history classes to save my life’. He managed to settle on, “World History has never been my strong suit.”

Ned snorted so loud that he nearly caused himself to choke.

Peter shot him a glare in return.

And for the second time that day, if Harry had noticed anything odd between the two of them, he kept it to himself.

“Well, if it isn’t your lucky day, Peter Parker.” His slap to Peter’s back was matched with a grin so wide it practically split his face in half. “Because World History is what I excel most at, right behind computer-aided design and economics.”

“Of course you do,” Ned muttered beneath his breath, just loud enough for Peter to hear.

“Why don’t we meet up tonight, maybe sometime after six?” Harry suggested. “I can help you with the Battle of Leyte Gulf assignment? Get you back on track in class?”

Peter’s eyes grew wide, matching the grin that slipped onto his lips. “That’d be... fantastic, Harry, thank you!”

“Of course! Anything for my ‘ol pal.” Harry gave one last slap to Peter’s back before tucking his leather coated binders back underneath his arm. “You still live in Queens, right? We’ll meet up at your place! I’ll text for the details later.”

Peter nodded as he pulled at the strap to his bag, suddenly feeling less weight against his shoulders as his stress came down a notch, maybe even two. “That’s – that’s great, thank you so much, Harry.”

Harry smiled in return, pointing a finger towards Ned as he began to walk away. “See you around, big guy!”

Ned’s smile was much more forced, less genuine, barely even polite as he muttered, “Yeah, bye.”

Peter waited until Harry was out of earshot before looking over at Ned, waving towards the track field where his figure became smaller and less noticeable.

“See? He’s helping me out!” Peter insisted. “C’mon, that’s like, the opposite of using people.”

Ned’s lack of an answer was an answer within itself for Peter. His anger, or whatever Ned wanted to call it, wasn’t going away anytime soon.

With a quiet sigh, Peter had to admit that on some level, his friend was right. Back then, Harry was more of his friend than Ned’s. It wasn’t a personal thing; it was just how it was. Maybe there had even been some petty childish jealousy back then that Peter wasn’t aware of. It was hard to say; elementary school felt like ages ago. Even middle school felt like a lifetime ago.

Besides, even if he and Harry became friends again, nothing could come close to what he and Ned had now. This was his guy in the chair he was talking about. No one could replace that.

“I’ll get you a pack of Jolly Rancher Crunch and Chews before class tomorrow,” Peter said, playfully nudging a fist against Ned’s shoulder with a halfhearted smile.

Ned didn’t look his way as he insisted, “I want a signed autograph of Doctor Bruce Banner.”

Another one?!”

“They're collectibles, Peter!”

 


 

 

 

 

“What do you think?”

Tony didn’t look up from his cell phone as he answered, “The lavender Orchids look best with the centerpieces.”

There was a pause, followed only by Rhodey clearing his throat, loud and noticeably.

“Well, I’m...sure Pepper will be thrilled to hear that.”

Tony glanced up from the phone’s screen, realization hitting him at the same time his eyes locked onto Rhodey's. The heavy sighed that came from his chest, combined with Rhodey’s cool stare, perfectly summed up what a shit-show of a day he had been having.

Day, week, month – it just never seemed to stop.

“Sorry, Rhodey,” Tony apologized, his words laced with exhaustion as he stuffed his phone deep into his pant pockets. “Too many things going on at once.”

Give him bonus points for telling the truth, because it was an honest answer. He found himself heavily preoccupied these days, bouncing back between one person and the next, inundated with what felt like a million things happening at once. It wasn’t new, that was always the life of a Stark, to be busier than what they could handle.

But for some reason, for whatever reason, he was struggling to juggle all his balls lately. Why was he even thinking about Pepper’s wedding décor when he had been talking to Peter? Jesus, he couldn’t even keep things straight in his own head.

As if sensing his stress, Rhodey asked, “You wanna go over this another time?”

Tony ran a hand through his hair, pushing it back with callous fingers.

“No, no...let’s do this now while you’re here.” It wasn’t like the cluster headache growing between his eyes was going to go away anytime soon. He might as well push through it. “What more did you find?”

The tight hold of anticipation didn’t have long to grow, Rhodey having guided the manila folder closer to him on the round table they sat at. The sound of paper sliding across glass seemed to echo in his ears.

“Not much, man,” he huffed, leaning back in his chair. “There’s only so much public records will tell us, and you know the rest won’t be released without a subpoena.”

Tony opened his mouth to talk.

Rhodey held one stiff finger in the air. “Which the court will continue to throw out, so stop trying.”

His shoulders deflated like a balloon losing its air, and Tony gave Rhodey a look, the kind that said it all. He leaned forward, snatching the folder into his hands, fingers skimping through the pages with frustrated interest.

“Have I mentioned yet that it’s complete and total bull hockey that the government can take me to court over my suits, but OsCorp with all their Goliath sized rock androids gets immunity from the Senate Armed Services Committee?”

Tony grabbed a paper and tossed it over his back. Grabbed another, tossed it in the air. Rhodey watched with furrowed eyebrows as three, four, five papers went fluttering to the floor, landing on the carpet of the conference room without a sound.

“OsCorp isn’t receiving immunity, Tony,” he stressed. “They’ve been hiding their experiments — hiding them good, where only a magical wizard could get you to them.” Rhodey had enough – he leaned forward, yanking the folder out of Tony’s hands before he could rain anymore discarded papers to the ground. “You were flaunting yours all over the world.”

Tony eyeballed him. Rhodey met his gaze head-on.

“Touché,” Tony admitted succinctly, his hand grabbing towards his friend with a ‘gimme’ motion, only growing more childish by the second.

It was with palpable hesitation that Rhodey handed the folder back over.

Tony flipped through the pages with more ease this time around, setting the discarded ones down next to him. The same ones he had seen by now, read over and over again, memorized even. He looked desperately for something new, something that would get them over this increasingly demoralizing plateau they had encountered.

Mighty Avengers’ be damned, it turned out there was only so much they could do on their own. Not even SHIELD had much more to offer them. It was like they had stumbled onto a goldmine and quickly had to evacuate before gathering even the smallest piece of gold.

“Not going to lie, kinda wishing that we hadn’t burned a bridge with Ross right about now,” Tony muttered under his breath.

Rhodey raised his brows, the crow’s feet around his eyes briefly lifting. “There’s no way in hell Ross would have helped us with this, bridge burned or not.”

Tony made a sound deep in his throat, a murmur of agreement. It was wishful thinking, desperate thinking at its core. But Rhodey was right. Even if they hadn’t forever pissed off Ross with the dismantling of the Accords, the former lieutenant turned Secretary of State would have instead watched with buttery popcorn as they struggled to expose OsCorp for all its dirty deeds than lend a helping hand.

The folder plopped back onto the surface of the round table, papers scattered out from within, dumped from his grasp without a second thought. They were useless.

“I thought we’d have more on them by now,” Tony quietly admitted, his hand scrubbing at the bottom of his goatee.

“We’re already on top of the situation,” Rhodey gave the words time to settle. “Remember…it’s only been a few months. Hydra wasn’t taken down over a summer, and these guys won’t be either. We just gotta keep pushing, gather every bit we can. Eventually, we’ll have enough to at least get that subpoena going.”

Tony heard Rhodey, each word he said made crystal clear sense, but somehow it all still meant nothing.

“It’s not good enough, Rhodey,” his voice fell hollow, tired. “I’m telling you...they’re up to something bad. I can feel it. Without a shadow of a doubt, I know it.”

Rhodey pulled the discarded folder back towards him, shuffling the handful of papers back inside. All while giving Tony that look. The one he absolutely hated, refused to acknowledge or even look at as it was staring him down.

The one full of pity.

“I believe you, man. Whatever you saw down there, I believe it. But the court doesn’t, the committee needs proof. Until we can get that, we gotta go about this the right way.”

It was funny – in the most sincerest, non-funny way. Tony used to associate OsCorp with sleaze, with notorious research facilities scattered across the east coast that underpaid their participates for borderline illegal studies. Down the road, someone would expose them, some overly eager college student who thought this was going to be their big break. But the truth never stayed in the press long – they had a great legal and PR team keeping them from receiving nearly any negative publicity.

Tony used to associate them with the likes of AIM, Roxxon and hell, even the Daily Bugle. Never a threat, never even a competitor in the eyes of Stark Industries. A nuance, at most.

He had a much different taken on them these days. Suddenly, OsCorp was associated with havoc, means to chaos, having power to gain access to technology that they were too unruly to possess. Skulls of long since dead Chitauri manipulated, forged with their mad minds. He associated them with freezing ice water, the smell of sulfur and dead sea life.

Blood and screams. And cries.

Tony shoved the thought aside so fast it may as well have been on wheels.

“You find out anything more about that...super-solider knock-off project? The Oz Formula?” His closed fist tapped his knuckles against the table for no apparent reason other than quelling his bubbling anxiety. His head began to ache with too much caffeine, or maybe not enough.

Rhodey shook his head, his mouth setting in a grim line. “Everyone I ask about it plays clueless. And honestly, they might very well be.”

Tony cocked his head to the side. “So, we’re not talking to the right people?”

Rhodey leveled him a taut look. “I think the right people aren’t going to talk.”

Tony ran both hands down the length of his face, scrubbing his skin. His determination was running thin, his obstinacy becoming weaker with every wall they hit. And they were hitting a lot of walls these days. In no other terms did he just want to get this done and over with, call it a day and file away another case settled.

He was beyond tired of focusing so much on OsCorp. On goddamn Norman Osborn. Especially all things considered.

“But I did find out something interesting that you may want to know,” Rhodey’s voice cut through his runaway thoughts.

Tony dropped his hands from his face, just in time to see the folder open back up, Rhodey’s fingers delicately plucking out a paper-clipped stack of documents.

“Norman’s son, Harrison Osborn – they transferred him out from his private academy here upstate,” he stated, sliding the documents towards Tony’s side of the table. “Something about the building being burned down from a kitchen fire over the summer. They couldn’t get repairs done in time for the new semester so students were placed elsewhere in the interim.”

“Okay...so the Osborn offspring has to make new friends at a different school.” Tony shrugged, barely even skimming through the papers with a bout of disinterest. “Where exactly does this get good?”

Rhodey tapped a finger at the small stack of papers, urging Tony on. “Look at what school he’s attending now.”

Tony looked down, forcing his eyes to properly read the document with patience that he, quite frankly, didn’t have. The words were monotonous, meaningless, a bunch of names followed by ages, all ending with addresses somewhere here in New York. It had his eyes nearly glazing over.

That was, until he finally caught the printed text that stood out the most. He was getting good at that – picking out the word Osborn like a needle in a haystack. His pointer finger pressed heavily against the paper, trailing sideways to keep track of it all.

Harrison Osborn, okay, that wasn’t a surprise. Age sixteen, noted. Temporarily relocated to high-school —

“Well,” Tony drawled out. “I’ll be damned.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Peter tore his eyes away from the screen to his cell phone, looking high above him at the skyscraper with his neck craning back until it couldn’t bend anymore. The setting sun glared painfully against the crisp, clean glass, yellow and orange beaming into his line of vision with piercing clarity.

He had to squint until his eyes were practically closed just to be able to see the letters coming down the side of the tall tower. Each one stood bold, aesthetic, lining down vertically to say one word.

“Shoulda known...”

OsCorp.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The black camera bag hit the conveyor belt with a resounding thud.

“Please be careful with that!” Peter called out, sandwiched between two security guards who were both equally unintimidating, in more ways than one. “That’s-that’s a, uh, that’s a really expensive camera.”

Metal detectors beeped to life as each guard waved their wand up and down the length of his body, keeping him rooted in place at the front entrance of the OsCorp tower. An impromptu search was definitely the last thing he had been expecting tonight, and he watched with a tense jaw as his backpack and pocket belongings slid through the x-ray scanner up ahead.

At least he had small blessings to be thankful for. May had insisted he keep his suit at home, saying that if he’d be going out to study, then studying was all he’d be doing. He totally owed her for that; two churros at the very least.

The guard at the conveyor belt, the one who honestly was too overweight to catch a thief if they snail-paced it out of the building, gave Peter an umamused look. He pushed the tray full of belongings to the end of the belt, the items inside bouncing against each other until it came to a stop.

Peter groaned, cringing inwardly. He could hear his loose pocket change rattle in the plastic bin, all three dollars and sixty-five cents worth.

Note to self, stop at Delmar’s for snacks first, not last.’

“Peter!” The voice came from ahead, tearing him away from his inner pity party. “I am so sorry, man, this is so embarrassing.”

Harry approached him at the front gates of the tower, an ID badge hanging loosely around a lanyard on his neck. It bounced with every step he took.

Peter couldn’t help but wonder who he felt this was embarrassing for, what with his used gum wrappers and pocket lint currently sitting in a plastic tray for all to see.

“It’s okay, Harry, really,” Peter bit his tongue as the guards got a little too close for his liking, their wands going up and down his pant legs with no regard to personal boundaries.

The only way it could get any worse was if they made him take off his shoes. Peter wasn’t sure when he last changed his socks, and now that he started to think about it, he was pretty sure the one foot had a big gaping hole in it. He wiggled his toe for good measure. Yep, these were the socks with the hole in them. Things would definitely get worse if they asked him to take off his —

“The iWatch, kid,” the gruff security officer demanded.

Peter frowned, looking over at the guard with confusion. The beeping from the wand had picked up its pace, alerting them both to detection of metal nearby.

The guard’s eyes pointed towards Peter’s wrist, where a sleek, black bracelet was attached.

“It’s not a —” Peter shook his head, immediately going to detach Mr. Stark’s panic watch without further explanation. “Yeah, okay.”

Removing the device felt a lot stranger than he anticipated. It was almost like he had undressed naked, the chill air conditioning hitting the skin to his wrist for the first time since spring. Mr. Stark had only given him the watch less than five months ago, back when they had celebrated his belated sixteenth birthday. But he hadn’t taken it off since then.

The guard tossed it into the tray of his belongings like it was nothing.

“You have no idea how much I hate bringing people here like this,” Harry explained, waiting at the end of the conveyor belt to collect Peter’s belongings. “It makes me seem...pretentious or something. Like I’m trying to show off. And I’m not, I swear.”

An employee all but slapped a guest badge in Peter’s hand, clearly having determined there was no threat to him. The blue and gray dressed security guards stepped away, resuming their business at the entrance gates. Harry was already gathering Peter’s belongings, loose change included.

Peter’s cheeks reddened as he stuffed the coins back into his pockets. “It’s cool, man. I get it —”

“I just got caught up with work, and I didn’t want to blow you off,” Harry continued to explain, noticeably eyeing the black watch in the bin before handing it over. “I know I was an asshole for...well, for kinda doing that before and all. I didn’t want you to think I was still like that.”

Too distracted soaking in his surroundings, Peter absentmindedly nodded, unable to really absorb what Harry was saying. Now that there wasn’t a security guard latched to each side of him, it was much easier to gawk at the front lobby of the enormous tower. His eyes roamed the tall, cathedral ceilings with a strikingly reminiscent clarity.

It looked almost the same as it did three years ago. Call him crazy, but it even smelt the same. The memory felt like ages ago, yet somehow still felt like the day before last. Back when things were much simpler, before his life had changed in ways he could never comprehend. It was weird to think how it all took place here. A little deterring, even.

“It’s all good, Harry, really...” he trailed off, fingers latching the black watch onto his wrist without ever looking down. The nanotech wrapped snugly against his skin at the same time realization dawned on him.

“Did you say...work?” Peter furrowed his brows, his eyes suddenly staring at the ID badge hanging around Harry’s neck. “Do you work here now?”

Harry gestured his head down the direction of the hall, taking the lead in guiding Peter through the chaotic lobby. For being past five o’clock, the building was still a beehive of activity, bustling with chatter and commotion at every corner. It reminded Peter a tad bit of the Avenger’s compound; always something going on somewhere.

“It’s an evening internship,” Harry explained, weaving them through the crowds of suits and ties. “My dad sorta...forced me into it.”

Peter narrowly avoided being shoulder-grazed by a tall man carrying a briefcase. “An internship for economics?”

“Graphic design, actually.” Harry took a sharp left down the corridor, heading straight for the two large elevator doors at the end. They weren’t hard to miss, the modern chrome so reflective that Peter could practically see himself in them.“I’m working with the visual communication department to build a design portfolio.”

Harry reached over to press the elevator button before leaning back on the heels of his feet, hands resting comfortably in his khaki pants. There was a pause between them as Peter took in what he heard, the sound of hustling corporate business filling their lull while the elevator slowly descend to the ground floor.

“Wow, Harry,” he finally managed. “Economics, statistics, graphic design...you’ve really got a lot on your plate these days.”

Harry gave a close-lipped smile as the elevator dinged open. He gestured inside for Peter to step ahead, following closely behind. It took a swipe of his ID badge before he could press another button, and a moment after that until they began to ride upwards slowly.

“Dad’s got me doing everything. He thinks the more I do, the better chance I have at something sticking. He doesn’t know I caught onto that, but it’s obvious. Why else would he be pushing for me to take a marketing course while I’m enrolled in a STEM school?” Harry began counting fingers on his hand as he rattled off, “I’m taking statistics on the off chance I get into enterprise analyzing, economics for business administration, mathematics for accounting and finance — you get the point.”

Just like that, a sinking weight hit Peter’s stomach. It was an odd feeling, what with the elevator lifting high as his gut dropped low. Almost like he was heavy and light at the same time. He felt bad, the awful sensation of guilt speaking a million negative things into his inner ear. To think that most days he struggled to balance Spider-man, school, and his social life — which let’s be honest, wasn’t much of a hot topic even before the spider bite.

Here it seemed Harry had no time to himself. Suddenly his ‘boring’ weekend pranking Sam didn’t seem all that boring after all.

Ugh, and here he was having Harry tutor him in World History. World History, something that wouldn’t even affect his G.P.A that much. Peter shook his head; he really needed to learn to deal with his problems on his own.

“That’s...crazy,” he squawked out. “Do you ever have any time to do...you know, what you want to do?”

“Uh, not really, no.” Harry rubbed at the nape of his neck repeatedly, to the point that his skin grew irritated, tanned white turning into angry pink.

“Have you even thought about it?” Peter turned to look at him as he spoke, noticing how Harry stared straight ahead, unblinking at the elevator doors in front of them.

“I don’t have time to think about that,” he chuckled tensely, hand now gripping the back of his neck with a posture that seemed uptight, nervous. “Well, I mean, I have, but —”

“What is it?” Peter was quick to interrupt, a sense of eagerness coating his tone.

Harry paused, the reflection of consideration noticeable in his eyes. They both found themselves staring at the LED numbers above the doors, the count increasing as the elevator kept rising up. Peter suddenly wondered when exactly they were going to reach their destination.

Seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three – he had almost forgotten that the OsCorp tower was only a few floors shy of being taller than the old Stark tower, now bought out and used as office space of all things. A year later and the thought still felt so strange to him. They were still renovating the exterior, the signage reading Basiter or Baxter or something – Peter couldn’t really tell, he never bothered to get a good look at it these days. It just wasn’t the same without the large A looking over Manhattan.

Harry noticeably cleared his throat before speaking up.

“What I really want to do is get into environmental law, like my mom.” A brief glance to his side where Peter stood and Harry let the glimmer of a smile creep up at his lips before quickly looking away. “But that has nothing to do with business, and that means I can’t take over the company if dad were to —”

The elevator let out a low-tone ding, sounding as modern as the aesthetic surrounding them.

“Ah, here we are.”

The doors split open sharply, slowly, parting way to a much different sight than what Peter had expected. The cold, sleek design of the lobby was gone, and in its place was a much warmer atmosphere. The lights were more yellow, the walls brown and gold; there was even carpet covering the ground instead of Mosaic flooring. It was what Peter assumed rich people would call ‘homey.’

“Hey, real quick.” Harry stopped him the moment they both walked out of the elevator. “Not to seem, like, instructive with your personal life or anything. I know we just caught up after five years and all, so it’s totally not my business…but...”

The elevator doors slid shut, a whir of machinery filling the pause that fell between them as it began to descend back down to the ground floor.

Harry seemed hesitant before he continued, “There’s this story going around school. It’s about you.”

“About me?” Peter didn’t intend to sound like a chipmunk, yet the sudden panic that bubbled up in his chest had his throat narrowing and constricting in a way that reversed all three glorious years of his puberty.

“Yeah,” Harry saved him face, overlooking the bundle of nerves that wore heavily around Peter’s self. “And it doesn’t...I don’t know, man, it doesn’t fit you. Doesn’t seem like something you’d do. It’s probably a dumb rumor or something, I don’t know. I just...I never pinned you for that guy.”

Peter’s face dropped. That guy? What did that mean? And since when was the school talking about him of all people? Last he checked, Peter Parker didn’t exist unless he face-planted into his tray of lunch in the cafeteria — circa freshmen year 2015. Five million possibilities bombarded his mind, all at once, all crossing the worst-case scenario.

Shit,’ he panicked. Between Ned already knowing about Spider-man, and MJ having found out over spring break — it had to have gotten out. People had to be talking about him being Spider-man.

“Wh-what...what is it? What’s the rumor?” Peter stuttered, trying – and failing – to act casual. “Can’t be anything too crazy, right? Like, I’m a...I’m an Avenger or something?”

Harry looked at Peter.

“No, that’d be stupid,” he bluntly stated, mouth pinched tightly in amusement. “People are saying you went to Paris over spring break. That true, man?”

“Oh! Oh yeah, yeah, Paris…” Peter let out a sound of relief. It was only a moment later the insult hit him, an expression of offense briefly washing across his face before he recovered. “Right, yeah, I, uh, I went to Paris. For-for spring break. Paris is uh, that’s where I spent my spring break.”

Jeeze, talk about high-school. It had been months since that news had gotten around to his classmates — the cover story Mr. Stark made up for him, more accurately — and yet they were still talking about it. He supposed the next ‘big thing’ hadn’t happened over summer break to get them gossiping about something else. Maybe that would change now that Harry had joined their class. It was only a matter of waiting it out.

“So, you did go!” Harry clapped him against the back, the sound echoing throughout the quiet hallway. He pointed straight ahead as they began walking, leading the way past a few corners and turns. “Look at – Peter Parker, getting out of Queens and seeing the world. Did you at least manage to visit the Catacombs while you were there?”

Peter barely caught onto the tail end of Harry’s question, too busy eyeing the different decor of the corridor they walked down.

“The Cata… — yeah totally!” The words slipped out on autopilot, his distraction taking over. He couldn’t get over how different everything looked, like they had stepped into a whole different building, the entire ambiance changing with one elevator ride.

Harry kept talking, but Peter wasn’t paying attention. His eyes roomed over every door they passed, each one labeled as individual office suites. It didn’t take long to realize they belonged to high high up’s in the company. People he’d never encounter in his entire life, let alone breathe the same air as them had it not been for Harry’s escort to this part of the building. There wasn’t one door that hadn’t been labeled for a Chief something or another. Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer – the only one they hadn’t come across yet was CEO.

Somehow, Peter wouldn’t be surprised if Norman had a whole floor to himself. Something fancy, overseeing The Empire State building or Rockefeller Plaza.

“So what’d you think?” Harry enthusiastically asked, failing to notice Peter’s wandering attention span. “I gotta be real with you, the skulls started to freak me out a little bit. Okay, at first, they freaked me out a lot. Seeing death in its raw form like that was pretty gnarly.”

Suddenly, like a snapping tree twig, Peter’s focus came back.

“Huh?” He could feel the muscles in his shoulders tense up as his head shot over to Harry. Weren’t they just talking about Paris? Where had the conversation gone?

Harry didn’t look the least bit phased.

“It really makes you think, ya know,” he continued, stopping in front of a single mahogany-colored door, the label plate reading Osborn Lounge. “About death and whatnot. How one moment those people are were all alive and living and now here I was, staring at their skeletons. All that was left of them. Humbling, right?”

Peter wasn’t sure what Harry was saying, his ears only picking up on certain words, the selective hearing completely out of his control. He could see his lips moving, he knew there was more to be heard besides ‘death’ and ‘skeletons’, but the rest was lost to him. It was as if his head had been submerged underwater, sound waves muffled and muted from the pressure of heavy liquid. A butcher knife might have well sliced right through his composure.

And with a heart pounding five times faster than he was ever used to, Peter knew something was wrong. His skin had become clammy, flushed with sweat, and breathing was suddenly difficult, his chest too tight and heavy for him to inhale air when he needed it the most.

He knew something was off, something was bad, something was very, very, wrong. But why was something was wrong with him?

“Uh, is there, a-uh...a bathroom?” Peter stammered to ask. “That I can use. Nearby? A-a bathroom nearby?”

Harry paused upon opening the door to the lounge, hand clutching the doorknob, eyebrows drawing into a deep frown.

“I mean, there’s one inside...” he drawled out, his head cocking slightly to the side. “But yeah...if you go right down the hall, to your left.”

Peter did a quick glance behind him, swallowing away the knot that had suddenly tied his vocal cords together in one of those nearly unbreakable Boy Scout bows.

“Cool, cool.” A shaky finger pointed ahead at the door. “Meet you inside?”

Harry pursed his lips, letting his confusion slip just briefly before he nodded.

“Yeah, sounds good, pal.”

Peter smiled to the point of showing his teeth and gums, and for reasons he’d never understand, proceeded to give a thumbs up at Harry. The cringe that came was hard, so hard that he could feel it in his gut. Or was that the anxiety coursing through his entire core, practically ripping him apart seam by seam?

Shit. That’s what this was. He hadn’t felt anxiety this bad since...well, sheesh, it had to be since shortly after the spider-bite, when he first starting figuring out his powers. Panic attacks were kind of inevitable when he suddenly started sticking to things and could lift an entire car over his head. But something like that made sense, that moment called for this kind of raw, unadulterated panic.

This...this was something different.

As Harry closed the door to the lounge, Peter quickly made his way down the hall, his feet moving as fast as the thoughts racing through his mind. Sure, he had dealt with situational anxiety, circumstantial anxiety, Mr. Stark-yelling-at-him-on-Staten-Island-and-taking-away-his-suit-anxiety, but this...this was straight out of nowhere. This anxiety had no purpose, no cause. There was no reason for him to be getting this worked up.

Right?

He knocked on the bathroom door. Once, twice, three times —

“I don’t know what miracle he’s expecting us to pull off,” a voice quickly came from his right, where a door swung open, and a slew of personnel came striding through. “There’s only so much this team can do without the original census data to the birth host.”

Peter watched with wide eyes as scientist after scientist passed by him, lab coats brightening up the dimly lit area, each coming through the door at the very end of the hallway.

“By now, Doctor Frye, you should know how he works.” High-heels accompanied the female voice that followed, and Peter could barely make out a long-haired ponytail tied back tightly, nearly hidden behind two much taller men blocking his view. “Take it or leave it. This is what he expects, this is what we need to do.”

At least five more lab coats tailed behind the two speaking voices, arriving from the same door the others came pouring through. Peter eyed that door with curiosity – it wasn’t labeled, yet it looked like it went somewhere very important.

“How long does he have, Doctor Adler?”

The voices began to dissipate down the hallway, the distance between Peter and the huddle of scientists creating a draft that his hammering heartbeat wouldn’t allow him to fully hear. They were heading towards the elevator just as the last scientist walked through the unlabeled door across the way.

“At this rate, we’re lucky to squeeze in two months. Get a baseline on the chemical structure, send it to chemistry for a...”

Peter looked down the hall, watching as the heavy door began to close. It was like slow motion, each inch turning into centimeters, each second like a minute. He quickly turned his head back around, watching the scientists load up into the elevator, none even noticing his presence.

He looked back at the door.

'Don’t do it, Parker.’

It slowly began to shut, the hinges squeaking metal along the way.

'Seriously. Don’t do it.’

His hand gripped the bathroom doorknob, tightly, the metal creaking with strain underneath his grip.

'Don’t do it don’t do it don’t do it don’t do it

Peter made a run for it.

The hallway filled with two simulations sounds; elevator doors sliding shut at the same time the singular door across the corridor finally closed in on itself.

Though not before Peter could narrowly squeeze on through.

Are you serious right now, dude!?’ Peter froze, his back pressed tightly against the chill metal of the door that shut behind him. He didn’t move, didn’t even dare to breathe. For a brief moment, he pretended not to exist, just in case his stupid, spontaneous decision had gotten him into a world of trouble. It would totally be his luck that an employee would be waiting around the corner, wondering what the hell he was doing sneaking into an area that was clearly off-limits.

Off limit areas. OsCorp. Déjà vu — major déjà vu.

A few seconds and many deep breaths later, Peter realized there was no one around. The room was a vestibule, another door straight ahead that would lead him elsewhere. If, that was, he chose to proceed. Which he shouldn’t, he absolutely knew he shouldn’t. He should just go back to Harry, begin studying, and have a normal, average night like regular teenagers do.

He couldn’t help it. The anxiety riddling his body was instantly replaced with boiling curiosity, the type that almost comforted him, to feel anything besides the pestering nerves that sent pins and needles up his skin. Curiosity he was used to, a feeling he loved. After all, nerds like him were always curious. Was it really his fault that curiosity typically came with danger?

The door ahead opened easily, without any assistance of his super strength needed. Peter paused, closing his eyes tightly, almost trying to talk himself out of it.

And then, like the irresponsible teenager he knew he was becoming, he snuck inside.

See, Parker? This is how you got into trouble the last time you came here. Do you want another mutated bug bite? Because this is how you get mutated bug bites!’

Danger be damned – he was Spider-man now. He could handle himself. And Mr. Stark and the rest of the Avengers had been talking for months now about something being off with OsCorp, though they never gave him any details what. Something told him there was much more to the story of why they were investigating the company, and why they were keeping Peter out of it.

Companies didn’t just have underwater bases of operations, after all.

So what was it about OsCorp that was trouble?

Maybe I can find something on Awesome Android. Or why they created that sea building thingy, ’ Peter thought, catching sight of stairs nearby and quickly jogging up them, as quietly as he could. ‘If Mr. Stark and the team really think there’s something wrong with OsCorp, maybe I can help them figure out what it is!’

The stairway was dark, leading up to a total of what had to be two or three floors. After looking around to make sure he wasn’t being watched, Peter noticed it was surprisingly void of security cameras. It only further piqued his curiosity. Why wasn’t this area of the building monitored, or alarmed?

He shook his head, the deja vu stronger now than ever. This wasn’t like then, he wasn’t going to get bit by anything this time.

There was one flight of stairs remaining, leading to a door at the very top. It almost surprised him that the doorknob was so old-fashion, nothing electronic, nothing fancy. No badge swipe needed, no code access required. Hell, even his personal quarters at the Avengers compound required fingerprints to get inside. The chances of anything top-secret being hidden behind such lack-luster security had to be slim to none. For all he knew, Peter was walking straight into a janitor’s closet.

The doorknob didn’t twist, not fully, not with the lock in place keeping the door shut. Peter may have twisted the knob a little too hard the third time around, surreptitiously, in a way no one would notice. A crackling splinter of metal echoed the stairway and slowly, the door creaked open.

“Whoa...” Peter’s eyes reflected the bright blue and silver light that illuminated the room, dimly lit, most coming from the multitude of science equipment filling every corner his eyes could land on.

 

 

It was a lab.

 

Of course it as a lab.

 

Okay, but at least it’s not a janitor’s closet,’ Peter let the door slowly shut behind him, putting in extra effort to muffle the sound. ‘So...win for me?’

He had once encountered an abundance of abandoned OsCorp tech and equipment, rusting away, unused and untouched for who knows how long. Everything he looked at right now was very much active, beeping with life, lights glowing with electricity.

The space was filled with everything he could imagine – apparatus cases, oxygen tanks, tube stations, glass-door refrigerators, and automated analyzer machines. The countertops were littered with microscopes and centrifuges, and the walls were enclosed with incubator tanks, each one containing something locked away.

On any other given day, Peter would have been ecstatic to be in the presence of such impressive equipment. And perhaps he would have been right now, if it weren’t for the growing dread in the pit of his stomach.

Hidden, secretive laboratories...things didn’t go too well last time you found one of those, Parker.’

He took a step forward, and as he did, his camera bag bounced against his hip. His hands trembled slightly as he fought to unlatch the top flap and bring the camera out. Why his hands were shaking, he wasn’t too sure. Something just didn’t feel right. Like a tingle in his head, growing by the second.

Which is why he snapped photo after photo. Like MJ would always say – documentation, or it didn’t happen. She was really smart. He liked that about her. He liked a lot about her.

Not now, dude. Focus,’ Peter forced a steady hand as he turned the camera on.

Left, right, top, bottom – he took picture after picture. Of course, there wasn’t much outside of equipment to take photos of, but some of the equipment was just downright weird. What was OsCorp’s obsession with tanks? The room had two, both flush against the wall, both dry and empty.

He was in the middle of snapping a picture when a sharp buzzing hit the back of his neck.

Peter spun around. The alert for danger was strong, persistent. Painful. And yet all he saw were the incubator tanks ahead, back-lit with blue and white bulbs, each harvesting….something.

His fingers gripped the hefty camera tightly, his feet slowly approaching the row of compact, mini-fridge sized equipment lining the walls. The closer he got, the warmer he felt, the heat radiating from inside strong enough of feel at even a distances length. He could tell that the tank was humid, fog condensing the edges of the glass.

He cocked his head to the side, studying the object inside. The sharp tingle at the base of his skull increased, but so did his curiosity.

Peter snapped a photo, just one, before lowering his camera down.

Whatever was inside, they were growing it. Breeding it.

And yet it didn’t look like an animal, or a creature, it didn’t look like anything but a – Peter squinted his eyes, mere feet from the glass incubator tank. It looked like a black smudge, a blob. Just...goo.

He did a quick glance at the other tanks, the ones nearby that he could see in the dimly lit lab. They all contained something similar, but the objects inside weren’t nearly the same as this one. They were smaller, less shiny even, almost as if they had been left to shrivel up and rot – left to die, whatever they were.

Maybe he had been looking at it for too long, maybe he had begun to zone out and his eyes were playing tricks on him. But the longer Peter looked, the more he began to wonder.

Is that thing...’ Peter’ s eyes burned as he stared . ‘Holy cow, is that thing...alive?’

It moved. Like it was breathing, like it had a mind of its own.

Peter reached out to touch the glass —

“Hello?” The door creaked open, and Peter shot his head over towards the sound. “Doctor Frye, are you still in here?”

Shit! Shitshitshit

Peter didn’t waste a second’s worth of time. He looked up, jumped to the ceiling with silent ease, his sticky fingers gripping the sleek, cold, aluminum metal from above. Never in his entire life had he been so grateful for ceiling vents than that very moment.

Before the scientist had stepped foot into the room, he had climbed through one, gone before any witnesses could catch him.

He never saw the black slime from inside the incubator tank reach out to him, blocked by the cage it was contained in.

The hallway he dropped into wasn’t much different than the one from before, warm yellow light bulbs with carpet covering the floor. It was the executive hallways, the ones Harry had brought him to. At least, that’s what it looked to be.

Peter was extra quiet in his descent to the ground, making sure to cover the ceiling vent before dropping to his feet. A soft ‘tft’ was the only sound he made.

That...was WAY too close.’ Peter breathed a sigh of relief to himself, turning the corner and —

“What are you doing here?”

He froze, unable to take another step forward. Peter’s eyes shot wide open, locked intently on the broad chest of the tall man he nearly ran straight into. There were only two wrinkles lining the clean, white button-down shirt in front of him, exposed from the open black blazer. Whoever it was, they wore no name-tag, no visible badge.

Canning his neck up, Peter immediately realized why.

CEO’s didn’t often have to.

Norman arched an eyebrow high, filling the stressful silence with, “Are you lost?”

The question seemed to echo. Not so much in the hallway, the walls keeping sound to a minimum, but rather through Peter’s ears. It bounced around in his head, beating against his skill to the same tune of his heartbeat — fast, erratic, hard. He tried to gulp, the little bit of moisture unable to slid down his tightly shut throat.

Shit.’

Norman’s eyebrow lifted higher.

Double shit.’

“Yes!” Peter blurted out, his voice squeaking in pitch. “Yes, I’m —”

“— familiar,” Norman filled in, head tilting to the side with visible contemplation. “You look familiar.”

There was something incredibly daunting about the way Norman stared at him; studied him. Peter swallowed thickly, having lost count of how fast his heart was hammering in his chest. His pulse thumped unpredictably under his skin, in a way that made his arms and neck sticky with a thin layer of sweat.

Norman simply stared at him, perceiving. Examining.

“I’m here with Harry, sir,” Peter choked out, realizing just in time that he was gripping the body of his camera a little too tightly. For being so worried about the security guards damaging it, he was about to shatter it into pieces. “I’m a friend of his.”

The words felt weird coming out of his mouth, a little too odd, a bit too strange. Almost like a lie that wasn’t totally a lie. But now wasn’t a time he could deliberate on the finer points of it all. Not with Norman’s firm gaze holding him hostage.

There was a blink, a shuffle of movement as Norman shifted on his feet. A forced smile pulled his lips upward, just slightly.

“Well then...” he hesitated with his movements, hand reaching out briefly and pausing mid-air around the back of Peter’s elbow. He never allowed himself to make contact. “Follow me to my office. We’ll call Harry, get you back down to his lounge.”

Peter nodded jerkily. “Yes, sir.”

Their walk down the hallway couldn’t have lasted more than a half a minute, a full minute at most. Yet it felt like the longest moment in Peter’s entire life. The silence was oppressive, hanging heavily in the air, the sound of their footsteps suddenly the loudest noise he’d ever heard. His only saving grace was the camera he still held in his hands, the reminder to not accidentally crush it keeping his rampant thoughts at bay.

They approached Norman’s office together. Inside, the lights were already on, albeit dim, and there was a slew of paperwork scattered across the large, expensive-looking desk. Peter noticed notice that all the windows — which were a lot, being a corner office on the very top of the skyline tower — had been covered with thick, dark curtains, the seams of which draped low to the floor. There was a fireplace flush against the wall near the bookcases. It wasn’t lit.

So caught up scanning his surroundings, Peter never paid attention as Norman closed the office door behind them. The sound startled him, his shoulders jerking in response.

Come on, Parker. Play it cool...play it cool...’

If Norman had noticed his tightly wound nerves, he surely didn’t mention it. He casually walked around Peter, his moves holding purpose as he slipped off his black blazer. With one smooth motion did he slip it around the back of his desk chair, settling down in the seat while reaching forward to pick up the cordless telephone nearby.

“Cynthia,” Norman spoke into the handset of his phone, “page Harrison to my office, please.”

Peter looked away from the rows and rows of bookcases lining the walls, eyeing Norman with a sense of confusion. Was that a secretary he had been talking to? Why couldn’t he just call Harry himself?

Around the same time, Norman locked eyes on him. He nodded to towards the empty chair in front of his desk.

“Have a seat.”

Everything boiling within Peter certainly did not want to sit in the plush, leather chair across from Norman. In fact, if it were even possible, his senses were screaming louder now than they had been before. The moment was growing so intense that it was hard to differentiate his spider-sense from his own anxiety, serrated and piercing, loud and fuzzy at the back of his neck.

Feelings of panic be damned, Norman’s hard stare was enough to have him scuttling into the over sized chair. And only once he sat down did the man look away, preoccupying himself with gathering the scattered papers across his desk. Peter noticed that they were all turned upside down; he couldn’t sneak a peak even if he had wanted too.

Norman neatly stacked the documents aside. “You’ve been Harrison's friend for a while, Mr…?”

“Parker. Peter Parker, sir.” Peter set his hands low into his lap. “And...yeah, sort of. But not really. We —”

“Were you that disabled boy Harrison would bring to the house?” Norman never looked up from the papers as he spoke. “The one in the wheelchair who drooled a lot?”

Peter blinked, digesting the question.

“No sir, I’m...I’m pretty sure that was David Kemp,” he paused, fingers tight in their cupped hold. “I’m also pretty sure that kid is dead now.”

Norman made a noncommittal sound, his one and only response to the short-lived conversation. His eyes never broke away from the surface of his desk, staring intently at stacks of papers while simultaneously sorting through others.

Peter briefly wondered – if he’d got up and left this very second, would the man even notice? Considering he had already tested his luck once already, he decided to stay seated. As it was, he was really pushing his Parker luck today.

Restless and nervous, Peter began looking around the comfortably sized room, taking in details of things he hadn’t first observed. It was interesting how much less modern the office was designed. While all of OsCorp remained contemporary, Norman’s office was...well, not.

Peter wasn’t quite sure what to call it, what the word would be. ‘Old’ came to mind, though he supposed it could be called ‘traditional’ as well. There was a lot of wood — covering the walls, his desk, and bookcases. While every other room in OsCorp was bright, contemporary silver and sleek, Norman’s office was the opposite. It was full of deep, rich colored tones that were barely highlighted under the dim yellow lights, what in all terms should have created a cozy environment, elegant and relaxed.

Yet the heavy smell of cedarwood and leather had him on edge, tying knots in his gut. There was also some cologne heavy in the air, one he’d never encountered before. It was strong, oily. A stuffy, musky aroma that coated his nostrils, too strong, bordering on overwhelming. Peter didn’t like it.

He also couldn’t help but notice that the walls were covered in diplomas, certificates, flaunting his PhD, his CEO credentials — everything formal, everything professional.

Not one family photo was in sight.

“You into journalism?”

Norman’s voice brought him back to the present moment. Peter snapped his head over, realizing that the man was talking to him, engaging him. An uneven breath momentarily stole his response. He wasn’t too sure why — he wasn’t typically this awkward, this uncomfortable. But there was something odd about the way Norman would look at him. Straight in the eyes, unfaltering, unrelenting.

Peter didn’t like that, either.

When he didn’t answer right away, Norman nodded towards the camera hanging at his hip.

“Uh, not really, no,” Peter stammered out. “I...more like photography.”

Norman leaned back in his chair, the slightest creak resonating in the room. “I don’t often see children of your age casually carrying around the highest tech on the market for their...selfies. You must really have a passion, Mr. Parker.”

“I suppose,” he managed. “I’m, uh, I’m more into science, though. Chemistry and stuff.”

Norman hummed. “So you’re an intern here at OsCorp.”

Peter’s eyes widened. “No! No, I’m —”

“Stark caught you first.”

A humorless smile crept on his lips, the kind that showed no teeth, no genuine contentment. Peter’s eyebrows furrowed with confusion, and Norman nodded again, this time to the watch wrapped around Peter’s wrist.

“If you don’t want people to know, I would recommend not wearing his tech.”

Peter did a quick glance down, immediately going to stuff his hand inside his jean pockets.

“Right,” Peter muttered, cursing under his breath. For being so noticeable, the stupid nanotech felt like a second skin, one he kept forgetting he was even wearing. “I’m uh, I have an internship there. With Stark Industries.”

Norman titled his head to the side, indulging himself in interest.

“What is it that you do?”

Peter bit his bottom lip, suddenly wishing for the uncomfortable silence to return.

“I’m a, uh...I assist in their Science and Technology division,” he scrambled to think on top of his feet. “Mainly in, uhm...engineering and uh...chemistry.”

Peter held back his grin, proud of how quickly he had come up with that one. And hey, it wasn’t totally a lie. Using Mr. Stark’s labs for the tech in his suit was totally engineering, and he was constantly working new chemistry equations with reinventing the chemicals in his web-fluids.

But, still. He made a mental note to talk with Mr. Stark about doing something to make this internship look real. Especially now that Norman OsCorp of all people was calling him out on it. Hell, even a photo would do. Something.

“Well, that’s a shame,” Norman carried on, his hands folding methodically on the top of his desk. “A boy as smart as yourself could do some impressive work with us here at OsCorp. You should consider attending open house, see what we have to offer.”

“I have, sir.” The words were out of Peter’s mouth before he realized it. His eyes shot wide, his brain quickly working to backtrack. “Something similar, anyway. My class went on a field trip here a few years back.”

Norman perked up, his eyebrows dangerously close to disappearing into his hairline.

“Field trip, you say? We haven’t opened doors to one of those in quite some time now. The company stopped after an...unfortunate loss of research.” Norman cleared his throat, sitting up straighter in the high back, executive styled chair. “The public relations department decided it’d be best not to increase any likelihood of students getting hurt because of our inventions.”

The room fell so quite that Peter was sure he could hear a pin drop, without his enhanced hearing. His spine stiffened, his face failing to conceal his rising panic.

“What-what research was lost?”

Norman’s eyes flittered up to his, a moment of deliberation etching across his features in the beat that followed. It seemed he was debating on whether or not he should provide an answer, if it was in his best interest to start such a discussion over what Peter knew had to be sensitive information.

With or without an explanation, Peter had the answer. He knew it sat directly in his DNA.

“Our one and only success with genetic modification,” Norman explained. “All the testing was performed on one solitary spider.”

Peter didn’t break eye contact with him, not even as his foot taped incessantly on the floor — tap tap tap tap taptaptaptaptaptap growing more and more unremitting.

“Oh, uh, nothing...nothing like that happened on my field trip.” His throat spasmed, his nerves getting the best of him. “It was smooth sailing. Actually, it was kind of boring.” Peter realized a second too late what he had said. If it were possible, his eyes grew even wider. “Not-not that this place is boring! Not at all, no, it was just...that day was boring. I think. I was tired? It was a long day and you know, I actually wasn’t here for most of it, I got in trouble and had to stay on the bus and —”

“It’s just interesting to me,” Norman interrupted. His face was pinched in thought, clearly paying little to no attention to Peter’s rambling. “We lost that spider and...not even six months later there’s a new vigilante on the streets of New York. Calling himself...low and behold – Spider-man.”

Suddenly, every hair on Peter’s body stood up straight, in a way he knew was most certainly not his spider-sense. They felt like knives across his skin, sharp-edged goosebumps that ran deep into his muscles.

“That’s a...big coincidence, sir.”

The way Norman smiled at him — all lip, no teeth — it had Peter’s breath quickening in his chest. He didn’t understand what it was; there was nothing inherently threatening about the man, perhaps a bit intimidating, even unnerving. But certainly nothing threatening.

Yet there was a sense of anxiety he couldn’t shake, a feeling of unease threading deep into his core.

Coincidences mean you're on the right path. Simon Van Booy.” Norman leaned back in his chair, settling his folded hands across his stomach. “My wife’s favorite book, and the last she would read.”

Peter’s eyes fluttered to the floor, memories of his childhood suddenly slowing down his racing heartbeat and hasty breathing. He remembered Harry’s mom — didn’t know how for long, barely ever saw her to begin with, but he definitely saw her more than he ever saw Norman.

Norman had always been like a ghost in Harry’s life. Mentioned, never seen.

Mrs. Osborn though — Peter remembered her as being a very nice woman, sweet as ever, genuinely kind. It was without any doubt where Harry got most his personality from. Uncle Ben had been the one to take him to the funeral, May having been tied up with something else. He remembered hugging Harry tighter than ever that day. They ended up seeing each other again a few more times, casually, never outside of school. It wasn’t long after Harry was transferred upstate. A few months after that and Ben had been shot. Harry didn’t attend that funeral.

Their own tragedies seemed to pull them apart instead of bring them together. Peter wished it had been different.

“You much on history, Mr. Parker?”

The question caught him off guard. Peter looked up, swallowing hard.

“Uh, no, sir. I’m actually...struggling a bit in that area. But Harry’s —”

“Did you know that the first recorded mention of cancer came around 1600 B.C. Egypt? A lot of people don’t know that,” Norman mused aloud, his tone cool, contemplative. “They think cancer came along with cigarettes and food preservatives. They think we brought cancer on ourselves as a plague...a plague of modern society. But it’s always been there...since man first figured out how to poke and prod itself — it’s always been there.”

Peter felt frozen in his seat, muscles all but paralyzed, as if he was worried any movement would disturb the sudden conversation that had uprooted from Norman. He listened intently, expression fixated.

“Then you skip ahead to Greece and Rome,” Norman waved a hand about, “Sure, doctors, Hippocrates and Galen lifted their ideas of medicine from magic and superstitious nonsensical suppositions. But it was the Hippocrates who named it. They named it cancer; karkinoma in Greek because a tumor looked like a crab. Karkinoma.”

The words floated in the air like an afternoon lecture, practiced and perfected, studied to a tee.

“And slowly but surely we got a better understanding of human anatomy. Then better technology. Better microscopes...then comes better understanding of cell structure.” His fingers played idly across the armrest of his chair as he explained, “Chemical carcinogens, diagnostic techniques, chemotherapy...and before we know it, oncology is a science. You like science, don’t you, Mr. Parker?”

Peter felt a chill work down his spine as he stared at the man so casually going on about something that felt incredibly out of the blue. He frowned, his eyebrows tugging down.

“Yes, sir,” he managed, distantly but acutely wondering where exactly is this going?’

Norman met his eyes for the first time since he began speaking.

“Our understanding and treatment of cancer has evolved greatly in the last few decades thanks to science, massively in the past era. But we’re still not there yet, are we?” He shook his head, answering his own question, “No, we’re not. And that’s where OsCorp comes in, where we try to bridge the gap between society’s apathy and failure to push onward to greater achievement.”

Norman adjusted himself stiffly in the chair, sitting up straight and leaning closer to the desk that separated him and Peter.

“I’m not sure what Stark Industries is doing these days, outside of designing the most outlandish, sensationalist costumes for their above-the-law vigilantes. But I can, and will, speak for myself and for this company.” Two fingers tapped firmly on the wooden desk. “We’re one step away from creating a cure for cancer, one for all of mankind to revel in.”

It took a moment of pause for Peter to register what Norman had said, for the words to truly sink in. When they did, his eyes widened, his jaw slowly un-working from the tense hold it had been locked in.

“Really?” Peter gaped. “A-a cure for —”

“The theory isn’t a new one,” Norman went on to say. “The human body carries within itself the ability to create everything it needs to function. Everything it needs to fight off any disease, to starve off any cancer. You see, this treatment...it’s better, wiser. A genetic bodysuit that would temporarily take hold of a patients biology, find out what their body needs, and then find a natural solution. If a cancer has spread — a tumor — the suit would search the body for the right natural toxins, find solutions on the patients own body chemistry, and put them to work. No radiation, no poison, no destruction of your own immune system. This would find cancer, diagnose it, and kill it. The ultimate natural medical treatment.”

Norman’s timing was precise, as if he wanted just a mere split second to pass before speaking again, just enough time to let the awe and wonderment spread across Peter’s features.

“It’s a shame, though,” he leaned back in his chair, hands settling into his lap once more. “Many people will die before we can get it off the ground.”

Peter blinked, eyelashes fluttering as he failed to veneer his confusion. “Why?”

Something odd crossed along Norman’s face. Not quite hesitance, not quite distrust. Yet the difference wrought was noticeable, tangible. For a brief second, Peter wondered if it could possibly be desperation.

It was gone before he could even question it.

“That spider that we spoke of contained the genetic material needed to go any further. And unfortunately it, along with all its data, is lost to us.”

With a rushing gravity that didn’t exist, Peter felt his stomach drop five feet below where it was supposed to be. The feeling was so intense that breathing suddenly became a task he didn’t have the coordination for.

Especially not as Norman stood up from his chair, walking the distance between them to sit on the edge of his desk.

The smell of musky cologne became stronger, overpowering, coating his nostrils in the scent that shot his nerves, fried them to a crisp. Norman sat directly across from him, looking down. And Peter gulped as he looked up, watching the man adjust the tie hanging around his neck. Two wrinkles on his white button-down, nothing more.

“With all that said, Mr. Parker, I must ask...” Norman stared sat him, unblinking, for a long time. “If that spider was lost on the day of your tour, would you have any clues as to...what may have transpired?”

It was a subconscious instinct to grab his hand, unintended, one that neither of them noticed until it was too late. Peter rubbed the skin near his wrist before promptly letting go.

“I’m sorry, sir. I was...” Peter timidly shook his head. “I don’t know.”

Norman arched one an eyebrow high on his forehead, the other staying low as he stared at Peter. Slowly but surely, he forced a tug at his lips, a weak endeavor at a grin.

“That’s quite alright. My bio-organic chemistry department is already working hard on replicating the genetic material,” Norman said in a carefully measured voice, his eyes looking beyond Peter, seemingly far off. “It’ll simply take...time.”

Peter swallowed again, his throat tight from the heavy aroma whiffing off Norman’s blazer jacket. He opened his mouth to speak before closing it immediately, unsure of what he would even say. Besides, what more was there to say? ‘Sorry for being the thing that put a stop to your cure for cancer. Try and keep your spiders in better cages next time.’

Suddenly full of guilt, or shame — or a combination of both — Peter looked away, unable to handle the expression on Norman’s face. He couldn’t lock down what it was; worry maybe, or something more akin to frustration. Whatever it was, it wore heavy on his face, etching deep into the tired lines around his eyes and lips.

Around the same time, Norman stood up straight, putting distance between himself and the desk, and subsequently Peter.

“On that note, please, think twice about where you’d like to spend your free time. OsCorp has a lot it could offer you, and even more the other way around.” He neared back around to his chair, gesturing his open palm out towards Peter. “Tony Stark, well...he’s a careerist, son. Everything he says and does is in a way to advance only himself. You’re getting paid, correct? Perhaps we could discuss wages to try and sway your opinion.”

“Uh, no, sir. I’m...” Peter shook his head with jerky movements, the bob in his throat working up a storm as he choked out, “I’m not getting paid at all. Just...happy for the experience.”

Half-way into sitting back down in his chair and Norman paused, his eyes latching onto Peter’s for a brief moment. An audible ‘hm’ bounced between them, gone once the creak of leather took its place.

“Well...regardless, the offer remains to stand.” Norman leaned back, hands folding neatly into his lap. “Know your worth, Mr. Parker.”

Peter wasn’t sure if he nodded. He wasn’t sure if he even managed something remotely close to a nod, the muscles in his neck stiff and hard, the tension in the room thicker than the awful smell of rich cologne and furnished wood. His focus remained taunt, noticing how something seemed to dripped in Norman’s tone, insidious, sticking to Peter like glue.

Five knocks was all it took to tear him away from that one thought.

“Dad?” A door slowly creaked open. “Cindy said that you called for me —”

Harry stood in the doorway, polite caution thrown out the window at the sight of Peter sitting across from his father. His eyebrows flew up, his eyes widening twice their size.

“Pete! Jeeze, there you are. Where the hell did you go? How’d you —” He quickly looked to Norman, his face all but paling at the realization of what he had walked in on. “How’d you end up in my father’s office?”

Though his question had no heat or bark, Peter still fumbled for a response, somehow managing the feeling that he had been scrutinized. Or caught doing something he shouldn’t have been doing, which in all fairness was more accurate and something he one-hundred-percent deserved.

“It’s alright, Harrison,” Norman answered for him.“Your friend and I were just having a little chat.”

Harry looked between them, his features the epitome of soured confusion.

“I got lost,” Peter finally choked out, stirring slightly in his chair. “Your dad had me wait here for you.”

Harry took a few steps further into the room. “How’d you get lost? The bathroom was down the hall, not three stories up the building.”

Peter sheepishly shrugged, somehow making it look like involuntary twitch. “I’m horrible with directions.”

Harry sighed, one that quickly turned into a chuckle. His closed fist knocked gently against Peter’s shoulder, the slightest of grins pulling at his lips.

“Man, you haven’t change a day.” His chuckle dissipated into a rough cough that he kept in his throat, audibly clearing the pathways to his vocal cords before he spoke again, this time looking directly ahead. “Did you need me for anything else, dad?”

“That was all,” Norman dismissed them both with a wave of his hand, his chin tilted low, eyes having returned focus to the paperwork on his desk. “You may leave.”

The interaction held the same sentiment as if Norman was talking with one of his employees; cold, distant, terse. Slowly, Peter stood up from the over-sized, leather-covered chair he had been sitting in, stuck in the moment of his own confused disorientation.

Without realizing it, his eyes flickered back and forth between the Harry and Norman; two individuals who he knew without certainty were father and son, yet acted nothing of the like. At least not on Norman’s end, the businessman returning to his work without so much as a kind gesture towards Harry.

Peter knew things were strained between them. They always had been — Harry would often mention that he felt Norman never wanted kids, that he was an accident-turned-successor-in-the-making. From the looks of it, things only got worse after Harry’s mom passed away.

Still...hearing was always different from seeing, and what he saw — well, he didn’t like it. On many levels. Specifically, the odd feeling that Norman gave him, a feeling so similar to his spider-sense that he almost couldn't tell the difference.

Something just didn’t seem...right.

A tug at his arm caught him off guard.

“Come on, dude,” Harry whispered, encouraging him out with an arm wrapped around his bicep.

Peter’s voice was paper-thin as he nodded. “Right...let’s go.”

No further goodbyes were said. Harry didn’t even look behind them as he closed the door, though Peter did, catching sight of Norman reviewing the documents on his desk. He studied them with intense concentration, the lines deep on his forehead aging him by a handful of years.

And though they left, Peter’s growing suspicion stayed.