Peter scrubs at his eyes and lets out an irritated huff. The words on the page in front of him shuffle in a dance, stepping back and forth, side to side until they’re no longer words anymore, just mere jumbles and squiggles.
A loud thud fills the room as Peter’s head falls onto his desk with a long sigh.
"Use your filter," May says from somewhere behind him.
Peter grunts in response and does no such thing. Instead he chooses to slump further in his chair and glare at the thin plastic sheet of transparent yellow lying just out of arm's reach.
He hates the thing, always has, even when it manages to make things a little bit easier. The yellow is an offensive shade of artificial lemon that hits his eyes too harshly ever since he got bitten, and a gigantic part of him resents the use of a learning tool he’s had since he was eight years old.
May’s hand sliding into his hair is a welcome touch.
"You really do like making things hard for yourself, don’t you, tough guy?"
‘No," Peter mumbles, tilting his head to look up at her with one eye. "Just don’t need to use it, that’s all."
May peers over at the papers in front of him. "Mm, you kinda do, sweetie."
Peter butts his head against her hand and she scratches her fingers gently against his scalp.
"Essay’s boring," he complains. "Book’s boring."
"What’s the assignment?"
"Discuss the themes present in the first four chapters of Catch-22 ."
"Yeesh. Sounds fun."
"It really isn’t," Peter chuckles forlornly.
Looking at his work so far, Peter can see at least ten mistakes within the first two paragraphs. There’s his classic mix up of i and e there, the usual b and d stealing position there, and the word ‘symbolism’ changes structure in the three instances he’s used it so far, which in hindsight is probably too much.
It’s not that Peter doesn’t know how to spell symbolism, it’s just that some words come easier to him, locked into his memory with ironclad security on account of how many times he’s used them. Words like acid, web fluid, suit - words that mean something to him.
Peter fidgets in his seat, shifting the papers and propping Catch-22 up against the pile of math homework he also has to finish. At this point, he’s almost looking forward to it.
"You’re tired," May reminds him. "Even genius superheroes have to sleep, you know."
"Mister Stark hardly sleeps."
"Yeah," May scoffs,"and you know exactly what that can lead to."
Peter snorts, remembering the last occasion Tony had gone too long without any rest; how he’d crashed on their couch within ten minutes of arriving for a scheduled dinner.
Peter had expected May to be angry, seeing as she still hadn’t quite forgiven Tony for the whole Germany thing, but she’d merely covered the man up with a blanket and put some leftovers into a tupperware box for him.
Tony had stayed put until the next morning, jerking awake with a rather comical yelp as Peter quietly padded about in the kitchen whilst making breakfast. A few weeks later, Peter had returned the favour by falling asleep on the couch in Tony’s penthouse after a particularly gruelling week of late patrols and relentless studying. He woke up to a blanket over his shoulders and the sound of Tony snoring from a nearby armchair.
It’s still all a bit surreal, but then a lot of Peter’s life is, so he tries not to question it much.
May’s fingers trailing through his curls pulls Peter back into the moment. "I take it you still haven’t told him?"
The papers beneath Peter’s cheek rustle as he shakes his head. May sighs but doesn’t push the issue. Instead she leans down to kiss his temple, reminds him to get some sleep soon, and leaves him to it.
Peter watches her go, then lifts his head and plants his face into his hands, thumbs rubbing at his tired eyes.
Being dyslexic isn’t something that he likes to dwell on, but sometimes it’s hard to ignore. He’s long past the days of crying into his arms after struggling to read a basic sentence in a book during class, but that doesn’t mean the frustration isn’t there like it always has been.
It’s just...challenging, and not in a fun way.
Science and math have always made much more sense. All the pathways and connections come together in Peter’s mind like a well oiled machine, linking and building and expanding with an exhilarating kind of freedom. Chemistry, physics, biology; it all just fits inside his head perfectly, clear and bright amongst the mangled maze of grammar and sentences and letter formations.
He remembers the day May and Ben got called in to see his teacher. He’d just won the third grade science fair the day before, his homemade star projector built out of an old hairdryer and cheap dollar store earrings wowing everyone.
Expectations of maybe another big congratulations, or even an extra prize, had rapidly turned into a wobbly legged terror that had Peter nearly peeing his pants as he watched the look of concern - not disappointment, never disappointment - form on Ben and May’s faces as they looked through some of his recent work.
"But he’s smart!" May had blurted, looking up at the teacher with misplaced anger. "I don’t...how does this make sense?"
She was worried, unaware, unprepared, not like Peter who had known for a while that some things were trickier for him than other kids. All the rules hidden in cheerful little rhymes, singing songs about which letters get along and those who don’t play nice; the robotic reciting of the alphabet nearly every day: none of it had ever truly helped Peter understand how it all worked.
A brand new door opened in his life that day. On the front of it, the word ‘DYSLEXIC’ was printed in bold, the certainty of what it meant holding the letters permanently in place.
Ben and May supported him to the best of their ability, pushing for extra support and assessments where available. It helped, sure, but it never felt like it made much of a difference when he was still putting the same number of excruciating long hours into his work.
Things were still hard, leaving him frequently disheartened and defeated.
It’s safe to say that the acceptance to Midtown some years later didn’t come easy, either. While there had been no disputing Peter’s capabilities, the reservations regarding his struggles with reading and writing were loud and clear.
In the end, it was the tenacity of Ben Parker that turned the tide.
Quietly, gently and in a voice that left no room for disagreement, Ben had explained exactly what Peter was capable of in terms of the everyman; in the eyes of a typical guy who lived a typical life but felt himself incredibly lucky for it. He explained that Peter was a genius, made for extraordinary things and getting a scholarship was the first step in his journey out into a world that he would one day change for the better.
To this day, Peter remembers how he felt in that exact moment. Barely fourteen years old, perched on the edge of a chair in an unfamiliar office and staring wide-eyed at his uncle, listening to the words of pride and belief that filled the room with such certainty that they were impossible to disbelieve, even for Peter.
So the school accepted him, provided him with what resources they could, and Peter worked his ass off every day.
It wasn’t easy.
It still isn’t easy.
Getting older hadn’t dispelled the struggles. If anything, things just became more difficult as the protective blanket of childhood started to slip away, exposing Peter even further to the expectations, the unfair generalisations, the nagging sense of anxiety that always lingered somewhere in the background.
Peter isn’t and never has been ashamed of who he is, of all the bits and pieces that make up every part of him, but sometimes…
Sometimes he just wishes things could be different.
He’s adapted over the years, found ways to make things less complicated here and there, keeps it concealed as best as he can, fights back as hard as he can.
But it’s hard to fight back against something that manifests itself in so many ways.
The reality is that even though he does love books, Peter’s enjoyment of them wanes quickly when he has to read things over and over for them to make sense.
Papers and fonts have to be certain colours to stop the words from swimming around as much and audio books are damn near impossible to follow along with.
Following directions regularly feels like he’s experiencing momentary blackouts, lefts and rights interchanging a dozen times in that split second of decision before his body complies with the instruction.
Karen always throws up a visual for him when he needs it, but sometimes the rush of the moment overrules everything else.
And that’s just on a normal day.
Peter knows he does better than most, tries harder than most, can outperform and run circles around those who don’t even have to push themselves like he does.
He’s also luckier than most too.
Because he, Peter Parker, just a kid from Queens, gets to hang out in Tony Stark’s personal lab. A real life candyland of opportunity where he can build and create and challenge and go home almost giddy with joy after feeling Tony’s hand clap him on the shoulder with quiet pride for his work.
Peter knows he’s smart; he knows that being dyslexic is not the be all and end all of everything; he knows that struggling to read and write is not a reflection of anything.
But sometimes, all of that means nothing when he’s wound up tight as a spring and verging on screaming his lungs raw in frustration, too tired to beat it but too stubborn to give up.
Lowering his hands with a sigh, Peter flops back in his chair, head lolling and the tip of his left foot pushing against the floor so he spins in a lazy circle. As he twirls, his eyes land on the collection of photographs stuck to the wall by his bed.
There’s so many of him with Ben and May, a few faded snapshots of his parents, a very recent one of him and a bewildered looking Tony standing together with bunny ears behind their heads and plenty of ridiculous pictures of him and Ned, some even with a glimpse of MJ in the background.
The picture featuring a younger Peter and Ned grinning as they share a box of pizza on Peter’s couch catches his eye. It had been taken during Peter’s second week at Midtown, and though Ned didn’t know it at the time, the picture marked the first time Peter had ever brought a friend home from school.
That was one of the things that the ‘experts’ didn’t mention during all of their assessments. Through all the talk of potential challenges and obstacles that may arise in daily life, they never once mentioned how hard it would be to fit in.
Even without the more obvious aspects of his dyslexia, Peter knew he was considered by his peers to be awkward and nerdy, either too smart or too dumb depending on what subject he was partnered with them in, so he never had a real friend until he met Ned.
It took a few weeks for Ned to figure it out. They were in nearly every class together so they usually paired up, and it was Ned who did the bulk of the writing, who had to whisper information to Peter when he ducked his head low and pretended he was too in the zone to look up at the board.
Peter tried his best to keep his work hidden, hoping that his messy handwriting would be enough to disguise the disarray of letters that rested on either side of the slightly more legible equations and formulas, but Ned was no fool.
"Are you dyslexic?" he asked one day over lunch, the question flying out of his mouth like he’d been holding it in for days and could no longer contain it.
Peter had knocked his can of drink over in surprise, his face turning a violent shade of red as he felt the familiar burn of embarrassment bolt through him.
Ned’s hand on his wrist had been the only thing to stop him from leaping out of his chair and running away.
"Hey, it’s totally - I mean - it’s kinda cool, dude. Really cool."
Peter had gawked at Ned, totally stunned. "W-what?"
Ned blushed then, letting go of Peter’s arm and shrugging. "Y-yeah. My little sister. She’s dyslexic, that’s how I figured it out. She’s really smart too, so."
They’d laughed awkwardly and spent the rest of lunch eating in a comfortable silence. Ned came over the next evening and Peter finally understood what it was like to have a friend; a best friend who accepted him completely.
But even with Ned and his unwavering support, it’s still not easy.
It doesn’t matter that Peter’s probably read more books in his leisure than the majority of his year group ever has, nor does it matter that he’s no longer a bespectacled asthmatic wisp of a kid who looked like he’d blow over in a gentle breeze. People still think the things they do, still look at him like they do, and there’s nothing he can do about it.
He knows it could be worse. He could really struggle with numbers as well as words; he could not have an awesome A.I. who helps him out when his brain gets jammed; he could have nobody at all in his corner.
It could all be glaringly obvious, but with the exception of Ned, May and the teachers at school, nobody else actually knows. The other students draw their own conclusions, too ignorant or blind to truly consider what’s right in front of them.
And as for Tony...
Peter isn’t quite sure why he hasn’t told Tony.
Maybe it’s because he worries that Tony might look at him differently, somehow consider him unworthy.
Or maybe it’s because the worry of just being cast aside again; of having his calls ignored and messages dismissed is still very real, despite what he now knows.
And what Peter now knows is that beneath a whole bunch of bravado, Tony is quite an encouraging man. Funny, supportive, generous with his time; it feels like a grievous kind of betrayal to worry that Tony could think less of him because of something like this.
It’s been four months since the incident with Toomes.
Four months of getting used to the fact that Happy actually picks up his calls now.
Four months since May, after discovering Peter’s secret, had called Tony in a positively terrifying fit of rage which led to Tony turning up at the apartment, more shouting from May and a rather sheepish Tony offering to be a more available presence in Peter’s life.
Four months for Peter to slowly acclimatise himself to the fact that Tony’s interest in him is genuine; that the affection Peter senses in the shoulder pats and the occasional hair ruffle is real; that Tony cares about him and not just what Spider-Man can do.
And yet Peter just can’t shake the niggling doubt, that horrible voice in the back of his head that fills his thoughts with wretched what ifs, dark scenarios that make his stomach churn and throat ache.
The sense of shame that he feels isn’t right, Peter knows that.
But sometimes, sometimes, there’s just no stopping the insidious bitterness that creeps in, forcing all the good things to fester beneath a heavy oil slick of negativity.
Especially on the Bad Days.
And the next day is one of the Bad Days.
"Dude," Ned says patiently as Peter makes a mess of their History assignment for the fifth time. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Peter grunts, rubbing out an entire paragraph so vigorously, the paper rips. He drops the eraser and looks slowly up at Ned. Ned looks back at him, eyes a little too wide to keep his expression convincingly nonchalant.
"Uh, why don’t I write that part?" he offers. "You can do the timeline."
Peter nods mutely, shuffling the books and papers around to do just that, so eager to fight back against the defeat he can taste at the back of his mouth.
But the sequence of dates and events leap and pirouette around each other in the books; some words he writes on the paper have a different spelling each time and he mentions the same series of facts three times without realising until he does it again.
"Bad Day?" Ned acknowledges, holding an open pack of gummy bears up under the table, a gesture of kindness and acceptance that Peter resents in a way, even though he knows it’s unfair.
The gummy bears don’t help, which sucks.
It gets worse during English. Having a sub is never great anyway but for Peter, who still somewhat relies on the discrete understanding of his teachers, it’s always worse than it is for anybody else.
"Mister Parker," the substitute, Mrs Dunn, calls as she picks his name off the roster. "Summarise the events of the chapter that was read yesterday please."
"Oh, um," Peter stumbles, glancing over his shoulders awkwardly, neck turning warm when he meets MJ’s narrow, thoughtful stare. "Uh…"
He glances at the copy of the book on his desk, thumb brushing against the spine. There’s no chance of him opening it to sneak a peek for a reminder, especially when he isn’t totally certain what page the class is on. He’d read a little of it last night, but had quickly given up when he found himself struggling to make it through more than a few pages.
The worst part is that he had been listening yesterday. Or at least trying to, but the structure of the narrative is complex and out of sequence, making it harder to follow when there’s no chance of doubling back to reread without falling further behind.
A bubble of anxiety forms in Peter’s stomach, pushing into his lungs as he looks up to meet Mrs Dunn’s displeased glare.
"Mister Parker," she sighs irritably, "I was informed that this material was covered in full during yesterday’s class. Shall I take your gormless expression to mean that you weren’t paying attention during that time?"
It’s hardly the worst dig he’s ever had from a teacher. They’re all usually a bit thorny, embittered by years of working with sulky and sassy teenagers going through hormones and dramas like revolving doors, so a bit of snark is to be expected.
This hurts though; leaves Peter feeling torn between indignant and embarrassed, hot spikes jabbing him all over while the bubble grows bigger.
"I can’t summarise it either," MJ suddenly says, sending a wave of chair scraping through the room. "Or at least, it’s extremely difficult given Yossarian’s tendency to insert seemingly pointless stories of the mundane. How much of the summary should I devote to the crab apple story?”
Mrs Dunn’s lips turn white and a vein appears in the centre of her forehead. Peter hunches his shoulders, waiting for an explosion of some sort.
Instead, Mrs Dunn turns to the board and begins writing out questions in a sharp, angry script.
Judging from the look on some of the other students' faces, Peter knows he’s not the only one struggling to read them.
He glances over his shoulder again at MJ, finding her nose deep in a totally different book.
When he catches up with her in the hall after class, she’s almost finished it.
"Thanks," he says, "you didn’t have to do that."
"Do what?" MJ replies, giving him a look that makes his brain flatline.
His neurons are resuscitated only when he spots a flicker of a smile caught in the corner of her lips.
They walk silently to the cafeteria and stand side by side in the line for food, close enough for the frizz of MJ’s hair to lightly brush against Peter’s arm as they shuffle along.
"You’re not missing out on anything," she says, reaching for an apple. "That book really blows."
"Yeah," Peter exhales, tossing a random selection of food onto his own tray. "I kinda gathered."
He doesn’t comment when she walks past her usual seat and sits right next to him instead, crunching a bite of apple as she pulls her laptop and a stack of papers from her bag.
Peter picks at his food, oddly soothed by the sound of MJ typing away beside him.
"If I change the font," she asks after a while, "will that help?"
Peter chokes on a mouthful of noodles. "Hmpf?"
"Your study packets for practice," MJ says, focus still on her laptop. "I could...change the font or, you know, whatever you need. If it helps."
The instinctive panic sets in, a frantic red alert that makes Peter’s nerves screech with anticipation of an attack, the feeling of exposure flushing heat up his back -
MJ’s eyes meet his and it all instantly fades, as quick as a flash, leaving Peter slightly short of breath with a hunk of noodle still caught in his throat. The shroud of the Bad Day lifts momentarily, just enough for the tiniest bit of light to break through, shining directly out from the shy smile on MJ’s face.
"Uh, yeah," Peter croaks, "yeah, that - would be cool. Thanks."
She pushes the laptop over to him. Peter quickly makes his choice, increases the size and gives everything a pale yellow background, then slides the laptop back over.
MJ looks, nods, then proceeds to ignore him for the rest of lunch, not even looking up when Ned sits down opposite them, openly gawping.
It’s nice. Odd, but also strangely comforting.
The rest of the day continues to majorly suck.
Conjugating verbs in Spanish? Hard. Copying questions from the board in Math? Even worse.
Come Chemistry class, he’s totally given up.
Peter knows that a lack of sleep is a major factor in all of this. The Bad Days are always exacerbated by tiredness, a result of late night studying and exhausting patrols, and the manifestations of that tiredness are usually pretty cruel.
A hint of a stammer will appear, words tangling up on Peter’s tongue for no real obvious reason, like his mind and his mouth are working at different speeds, full pelt and snail slow, leaving him squirming all over.
Letters and words will mix together more than usual, consonants merging into vowels and congealing into a mess he just can’t unpick.
He loses track of time easier on days like this, resulting in late arrivals to class and the threat of Spider-Man being grounded when he returns home to a frustrated and understandably worried May.
Even numbers turn on him; the faithful, familiar equations and symbols that he knows by heart morphing into something hostile and unpleasant, making the world almost impossibly difficult to navigate.
It’s like he’s got a map, but the cipher is missing.
By the time he makes it to the tower for the usual Friday after school lab session, Peter is so beyond done.
"You sure you’re okay, kid?" Happy asks as they pull up, squinting at Peter suspiciously in the rearview mirror. "Pretty quiet today."
A waspy retort stings the inside of Peter’s mouth, halted only by the glimpse of genuine concern he can see in Happy’s gaze. He knows Happy cares, albeit in a pretty poorly demonstrated kind of way, and it’s not fair to want to lash out at the man.
"Yeah," Peter says, giving Happy a smile whilst sliding over to the door, "just tired."
"You sleeping enough?"
Happy snorts, turning properly in his chair to look back at him. "Sleep’s important. Spider-Man can’t help people if he can’t stay awake."
If only staying awake was Spider-Man’s biggest problem lately.
Peter feels a flicker of warmth when he enters the lab and Tony greets him with a smile, the kind that creates crinkles by his eyes, but the feeling rapidly dwindles the longer Peter sits at his workbench. A half assembled prototype for a new web-shooter rests beside an open notebook full of formulas and calculations that just don’t make sense, the errors and accuracies almost indistinguishable from each other.
Peter glances over at Tony, a bitter envy hitting him as he watches the man’s eyes move across multiple holograms with lightning speed, taking everything in smoothly and perfectly, the flare of understanding bright on his face and no hint of hesitation to be seen.
He looks away just as Tony’s eyes shift in his direction, grabbing at the web-shooter and feigning what he hopes is an aura of deep concentration.
"You okay there, Underoos?"
A shot of webbing suddenly flies across the room and sends a collection of wrenches flying. Peter glares at the web-shooter reproachfully and throws it onto the workbench with a sigh.
"I’ll take that as a no," Tony says dryly. "Bad day?"
"Yeah. Yeah, something like that."
He looks at the notebook again. It’s a mess in every possible way. Torn corners and ripped pages, full of backwards letters and simple spelling mistakes, all knowledge and care seemingly forgone in just getting whatever’s in his head onto paper.
When he and Tony work together, there’s never paper involved. It’s all whirlwind motions, machine gun rapid commentary and fantastical ideas dancing around like stars falling to earth. They’d build and break and reassemble while FRIDAY consolidates and configures, drenching them in transparent shades of blue and rippling streaks of data.
Peter loves those moments fiercely. The sense of freedom that comes with them; the lack of boundaries and the way his mind just seems to fly - it’s almost enough to make him forget.
Make him feel like he’s worthy of all of this.
"You wanna get some pizza in a while?" Tony asks. "I’ll even spring for one of those pineapple monstrosities you like so much."
Peter suddenly feels a very ridiculous and alarmingly strong urge to cry.
He isn’t even sure why exactly. All he knows is that the back of his nose is burning and there’s a lump the size of an orange suddenly blocking his throat.
And that’s when the Bad Day becomes a Very Bad Day.
So lost in his thoughts, so exhausted and so used to Tony’s presence, Peter hadn’t even heard the man come up behind him.
Now, there’s one hand on his shoulder, and another lightly resting on the left page of the notebook.
"What’s got you so bent out of shape, huh?” There’s a pause, one that’s far too long, and Peter’s mind explodes into a frenzy trying to count how many possible errors Tony could catch just right underneath his fingertips. “Anything I can help with?"
Peter’s stomach falls into his shoes just as his heart zooms past the lump into his throat and into his mouth, sweat breaking out on his palms, the backs of his knees, under his chin, everywhere. Everything turns prickly, a wave of nausea rushing up inside his chest like hot soup and he wants to move, to say something, do anything that isn’t just sitting there.
But all he can manage is an odd sort of cross between a groan and a wordless protest as Tony turns a page very slowly, the paper crinkling and rustling loudly. He turns it back, flicks the page over on the other side, then flips it back into place.
"Kid…" Tony says, warily, a hint of question in his voice, and that’s all Peter needs to hear before he’s out of the chair and on his feet, not even bothering to grab the notebook or his backpack full of homework as he races for the elevator.
Tony could stop him easily if he had a mind to. One word would have FRIDAY shutting everything down and blocking all potential escape routes if Tony so desired.
But that doesn’t happen.
Tony does nothing.
And even though Peter’s the one choosing to run, it still hurts that Tony lets him go.
Exhaustion hangs heavily on Peter as he pulls himself out of bed the next morning, two hours before sunrise. Unable to sleep, he sits at the table in the gloom, slowly chewing his way through a bowl of cereal and staring at the clock above the fridge until the numbers blur in more ways than one.
He’s up and out by seven, the earliest he’s ever started a patrol. The streets are busy enough, as is the way of the city, but there’s little for Peter to do except loiter on rooftops and swing aimlessly around while the sun finally starts to creep up over the horizon.
The day is a drag, a slog of time that Peter has no real recollection of. A jewellery store break in, three muggings and a punch up next to a churro stand make up his to do list for the day, none of them doing a thing to distract him from all the wretched feelings curdling away in his stomach.
Night eventually falls and from his perch on a rooftop, Peter watches the lights of the traffic below while he scoffs down the sandwich he’d bought earlier from Delmar’s.
The sandwich slips from his grasp and plummets to an unfortunate end when he hears a familiar whining sound in the air.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Peter yanks his mask down and flings himself off the roof.
He falls for a few seconds before firing off a web and whirling around in a wide arc, catching a glimpse of red and gold from the corner of his eye. He fires another web and surges forward, throwing in multiple acrobatics and sharp turns in a valiant attempt to gain some distance.
But Tony’s got NASA grade thrusters on his side, so it doesn’t exactly make for a very fair chase.
"Peter," Karen says pleasantly in his ear, " Mister Stark is attempting to connect - "
"No, Karen, don’t answer him!"
"Override in progress."
"What? No, wait - "
"Kid," Tony’s voice cuts in, "fun as this is, I’m too old to be playing superhero tag. Can you slow down so we can talk?"
Peter doesn’t want to talk. Not about this.
"I figured I’d give you the day to, you know, have some space, but I guess I should have called earlier."
Peter swoops and swings, skimming skyscrapers and racing across rooftops as fast he can, but Tony stays hot on his heels.
"C’mon, kiddo, we’re gonna end up on the news at this rate."
Peter still says nothing, still keeps moving.
"You know there’s nothing to worry about, right?"
The comment, spoken in the softest tone he’s ever heard Tony use, has Peter twisting awkwardly in the air between swings.
"Jesus, Pete, I know I fucked things up before, but please tell me you don’t really think - Oh, shit - kid, go left!"
There’s such urgency in Tony’s voice that Peter immediately complies, bowing his body and looping with the next upswing -
Something crashes into him, hitting his face with such force that he feels his nose break instantly.
There’s a horrendous screeching, the unmistakable sound of wings violently flapping, and then he’s suddenly being buffeted from all directions, his vision blocked by feathers and blood. He waves an arm to try and break free and the web slips from his grasp.
Peter drops, tumbling heavily through the air, his insides lurching as he desperately tries to right himself, see past the blood, aim a web-shooter, do anything -
Metal fingers seize his wrist, pull hard, and there’s a sickeningly loud snap.
Scorching shockwaves burst forth from Peter’s shoulder and light him up from head to toe. His agonised scream tangles with Tony’s yelling, leaving him unable to truly understand what the man is saying.
Blackness whirls in, cloaking everything but the pain which flares brighter, hotter, burning him up until it’s an inferno.
"Kid! Can you hear me? Kid!"
A tunnel full of wavy darkness opens up and Peter topples straight into it. The waves bob and ebb him along while the pain finally starts to blur, trickling into something dull and distant.
There’s gentle touches here and there; soft protective presses that seem intent on soothing, pushing away all the discomfort.
Peter floats, on and on, until suddenly, there’s a wonderful fuzzy rush and a familiar face coming into view.
And he’s standing on the ceiling.
"No, that’s you, I’m afraid," Tony says, eyes rolling even as his face creases with worry. "Taking the expression high as a kite a bit too literally, aren’t you?"
Peter looks around at the completely wrong angle of his surroundings and giggles shrilly. "Oh."
"Oh, he says. Oh, like I didn’t suffer about ten years worth of heart attacks," Tony mutters. "You wanna get down from there?"
Something dribbles past Peter’s eye. He slaps at it, or at least tries to, but his right arm seems unwilling to cooperate. His left hand strikes his face clumsily and he pulls it back to see a dark smear of wetness on his fingers.
"Mister Stark!" he yelps, voice oddly thick. "I think I’m bleeding, why am I bleeding?"
"Because your nose is busted to hell, kid, that’s why. Shoulder’s looking pretty funky too."
"It is?" Peter twists his head, sending more blood dripping onto the gurney situated directly beneath him.
"Christ," Tony lifts a hand to his forehead. "Get down now, please. You really do look quite terrifying as it is and the whole," he pulls a face and waves a hand, "spider thing is just making it worse."
"Ohh," Peter hums, suddenly feeling sad. He’d been feeling sad before, right? He remembers feeling sad. "How do I get down?"
"I’m not even sure how you got up there in the first place. We gave you enough pain meds to take down a hippopotamus. Or, you know, the super soldier they were originally designed for."
"Come down and I’ll tell you, how about that?"
"Don’t even think about dropping off the - yeah, that’s better, use the wall. That’s it, kid, nice and easy - no, wait!"
Peter topples down onto the gurney, landing with a muffled thud. The fuzziness from before sparks into something electric and everything lurches to the left like he’s about to capsize, a ship lost at sea.
Strong arms encircle his waist and pull him ashore.
"Steady, kiddo. C’mon, sit back here before you break anything else. Your aunt’s already pissed enough at me as it is."
Peter groans appreciatively as Tony helps him settle into something soft and plush. He lies there with his eyes closed for a while, or perhaps a few minutes, he can’t quite tell.
"She’ll be here soon."
Something warm and damp touches Peter’s face with supreme gentleness and begins to gently rub.
"What you doin’?" he mumbles, eyes still closed.
"Trying to clean some of the blood off your face."
Peter’s heart does a funny stutter. "Oh."
Tony continues his ministrations carefully, pausing whenever Peter makes a noise of distress and stopping completely when Peter reaches out to hold his wrist, fingers fumbling awkwardly around the band of his watch.
"Sorry, kiddo. Bruce will be back soon and he’ll get you fixed up properly."
"Bruce Banner ?"
Tony nods. "The very same."
"Whoaaa. That’s cool."
"Yeah, I told him you were a fan."
Peter slowly opens his eyes to look at Tony, taking in the lines around the older man’s mouth, the tightness in his jaw.
"Are you okay?"
Tony’s face goes slack with disbelief. "Kid, your face is a mess, your arm is hanging out of its socket and you’re still sporting the latest in dead bird fashion, and you’re asking me if I’m okay?"
"Dead bird?" Peter frowns, groaning when there’s another flare of pain somewhere between his eyes.
"Well, I sure hope it’s dead considering how much of it is currently on you, otherwise it’s in for a pretty miserable rest of its life."
When Peter continues to look at him blankly, Tony adds, "You went right instead of left. Swung smack into a flock of geese. Took the first one out in one hit, then suffered the wrath of his vengeful little friends."
"I killed a goose?"
"Yep. Then did a goddamn swan dive right past me and shaved about ten years off my life."
"Oh my god," Peter moans, swallowing heavily as his mouth suddenly floods with saliva and something that tastes like guilt and sour pickles. "Oh my god."
"That’s the reason for the busted shoulder, in case you were wondering. Had to catch you midair and between the force of me pulling up and you falling down, well," Tony sniffs awkwardly and spreads his hands in a there you have it gesture, a bloody washcloth dangling from his slightly red fingers.
Peter decides to actually look at his arm and instantly wishes that he hadn’t. It looks weird, as though stolen from a ragdoll, tucked slightly forward with something jutting out at a terrible angle from the slope of his shoulder. There’s also a big glob of something dark and feathery sticking to his elbow.
"Oh," Peter says as water seems to fill his skull, turning everything slushy. He closes his eyes to block out the sight. "That’s...that’s dislocated, Mister Stark."
"Yeah, it’s not pretty," Tony agrees. "Fixable though, which is the important thing."
"I might throw up."
"You’re fine. Deep breaths - through your mouth, not your nose!"
Peter does as he’s told, inhaling and exhaling slowly until the swirling behind his eyes and the roiling of his stomach starts to ease off. He listens to Tony’s gentle encouragement, the rush of running water over soapy hands and the familiar drumbeat of Tony’s heart.
When Peter next opens his eyes, Tony is sitting in a chair by the gurney, watching him carefully.
"You know," Tony says, overly casual, "I spent my college years rooming with a guy who was dyslexic."
"You did?" Peter asks, immediately curious despite the instinctive burst of dread he feels at the sound of the word.
“Uh huh. He used to get his lefts and rights mixed up too. No big deal, though it sure as hell made walking home drunk from parties way more entertaining."
"But I thought your roommate was - wait, Colonel Rhodes is dyslexic?"
"Oh. That’s, uh...I didn’t know that."
"Not many people do."
Peter lets this revelation sink in; tries to connect it with what he knows of Colonel Rhodes, work out where it fits between the decorated military man and the guy who Tony fondly complains about on a regular basis.
"It didn’t hold him back?"
A soft smile crosses Tony’s face, decades old with affection. "To this day I’ve never received a christmas or birthday card from the man that didn’t look like it was written whilst sitting on a bulldozer." The smile turns incredibly warm. "But I can still read it fine."
Peter thinks of all the birthday cards he ever gave Ben; homemade with extra care put into every doodle, every single word an hours worth of effort that Ben would gush over in great tidal waves of love, no error or mistake able to dampen his pride or Peter’s sense of achievement.
"I won’t claim it’s always been easy for him," Tony carries on with a shrug, "but I think his achievements speak for themselves, don’t you?"
Peter nods slowly.
"The point I’m trying to make here, kid, is that being dyslexic is a thing you should never feel like you have to hide. Not from me, not from anyone." Tony leans forward, chin resting on his fist as he asks, "Why did you hide it from me?"
"Dunno," Peter mutters down at his chest. "Embarrassed I guess. It’s you, you know?"
"I know I’m me, yes."
"No," Peter huffs frustratedly, dropping his face into his good hand only to cry out when his fingers knock his throbbing nose. "You’re Tony Stark. You’re the smartest guy in the world and I’m me, just Peter Parker. But somehow I get to hang out in your lab and make cool stuff with you and sometimes eat food out of your fridge. It’s crazy. Totally insane."
"Let me get this straight," Tony says. "You’re Spider-Man. An actual enhanced person who got bitten by a radioactive spider and can stick to my ceiling with no problem and yet you think hanging out with me is the crazy thing?"
"Oh, kid," Tony sighs, eyes turning fond. "C’mon. It’s been...it’s been a real pleasure getting to see you work - to get to work with you. The rest is all a perk, though I’ll admit the increase in pizza consumption is doing a real number on my arteries. Pep is about this close to putting me on some kind of specialist diet so, you know, thanks for that."
"You want some goose?" Peter offers, huffing out a choked kind of laugh as Tony grins at him, clearly pleased.
"Ha ha, you little shit. You’ll be sorry when word spreads and they all start targeting you on purpose. I can just see the headlines now - Local Gang Carries Out Fowl Revenge Plot."
"Stop it," Peter pleads, his next laugh more of a garbled squeal, nose and shoulder turning into drills beneath his skin. "Hurts."
"Sorry, sorry," Tony holds up a hand. "Anyway, on a more serious note, you," he points a finger, "are a very smart, very capable kid who will go on to be an even smarter and very successful adult, regardless of any obstacles you might run into. That goes for both Spider-Man and Peter Parker."
Tony’s hand hesitantly settles against the back of Peter’s neck, then squeezes delicately. "I’m proud of you, kid."
Peter’s eyes are stinging. He really doesn’t want to cry, not when there’s something so fiercely wonderful happening, but between the blatant pride radiating from Tony and the gnawing ache starting to eat through his bones, it’s impossible to keep the tears back and a few slip free, accompanied by more shallow breathing.
To his credit, Tony doesn’t comment; merely perches on the edge of the gurney and squeezes Peter’s neck a little firmer, seeming not to mind when Peter slouches tiredly against his side.
"Thanks, Mister Stark."
"Don’t thank me, Pete. You’re about to have your shoulder reset ‘cause of me. That’s no fun."
Peter’s head wobbles as Tony gives a gruff laugh. "You have an odd way of looking at things."
The hand on his neck squeezes again.
"No, kiddo. It’s not bad at all."
The door opens then and Bruce walks in. Peter, suddenly very aware that he’s sitting in his disgusting, goose splattered suit with no mask on, squawks weakly and looks up at Tony in alarm.
"Bit late to worry about any of that now, kid," Tony says. "Relax, he’s already been sworn to secrecy. Right, Brucie?"
"I’m an excellent secret keeper," Bruce agrees, adjusting his glasses and smiling warmly at Peter. "Nice to finally meet you, Peter. Tony’s told me all about you."
"All good things," Bruce reassures as he comes to stand on the side of Peter’s injured shoulder. "I’ve been reliably informed you’ll be running circles around the pair of us in a few years."
The complete system failure taking place in Peter’s brain due to Bruce’s words is interrupted by a vicious stabbing sensation near his collarbone. He cries out and instinctively pulls away, ending up wedged further into Tony’s ribs.
Bruce grimaces apologetically. "Guess that hurt, huh?"
"He was on the ceiling about five minutes ago."
"Interesting," Bruce murmurs, looking not in the least bit phased by this information. "Steve’s medicine didn’t last very long, then." He reaches for the wrist of Peter’s good arm and holds it whilst looking at his watch. "How much does it hurt, Peter? On a scale of one to ten."
"Uh, like…a seven and a half?" Peter guesses. "Getting worse though," he adds as his nose throbs again.
"Have you actually analysed the speed of his metabolism?" Bruce asks Tony, peering over the rim of his glasses. "Even Steve wouldn’t have burnt through a dosage like that so quickly."
Peter tilts his head to see Tony wince sheepishly. "I was going to get to that. Soon. Like, tomorrow."
"Yesterday would have been better," Bruce sighs, releasing Peter’s wrist. "I’ll set your nose and your shoulder for you, Peter, but I’m afraid it’s not going to be pretty."
"Oh," Peter says miserably. "No more meds?"
"Until Tony and I," Bruce pauses to give the other man a pointed look, "run some tests and gather more data on how your body works, I don’t want to risk giving you any more than you’ve already had."
"This sucks," Peter whispers. "I hate geese."
Tony snorts and pats his back. "I’m sure the feeling’s mutual, kid."
With painstaking care, Tony and Bruce help Peter slip his torso free from the suit and stretch out on the gurney. Bruce examines his nose first, humming thoughtfully under his breath, and then moves onto his arm.
"Hey," Tony says quietly, smiling when their eyes meet. "I get that trust is still a thing to be earned here so maybe we can start by making adjustments to your suit together? Give that delightful A.I. of yours - Karen, is it? - a few more protocols to help with the directions, put some filters on the lenses, that sorta thing. Hell, I’m sure you’ve got plenty of ideas of your own so let’s make ‘em happen."
He pauses, then sniffs, the hesitancy gaining dominance. "If you want, I can arrange for Rhodey to stop by soon. He’ll probably have better ideas than me. Don’t tell him that though or I’ll never hear the end of it."
Peter, dumbstruck by the offer and feeling a little too close to passing out, just nods. It’s good enough for Tony, apparently, because the man’s entire body deflates and the lines of his face loosen, painting him a few years younger.
The last few Bad Days somehow seem so long ago now.
Tony’s offer isn’t a tool to fix everything, nor is it an admittance of all the things that Peter routinely tears himself up over when the anxiety and doubt overpower him.
It’s an understanding.
And it casts a brightness over everything that Peter can physically feel, warm as sunshine, the clouds lifting away, too far to come back anytime soon.
"Okay, Peter," Bruce says, "I’m going to start moving your arm now. Ready?"
"Mister Stark?" Peter mumbles, unthinkingly throwing out his good arm, palm open searchingly.
A hand, calloused and warm, curls his fingers into a fist before covering it completely, a rough thumb pad brushing softly against the bump of his wrist bone.
"Right here, kid."