When Peter was younger, his psychologist called it repression.
Aunt May and Uncle Ben could never figure out why their previously well-adjusted nephew would suddenly have complete mental break downs every time they tried to leave him with a sitter. Peter’s parents had only passed about eighteen months before so they thought that it might just be a delayed reaction at first but the longer it went on, the worse it got and they finally caved and dipped into the money from Richard and Mary’s life insurance to set Peter up with the best child psychologist they could find in Queens.
Dr. Abrams was a soft spoken man with blonde hair and blue eyes who initially saw Peter when he was eight years old. The first session was a disaster and only lasted about fifteen minutes before Dr. Abrams strongly recommended that Ben and May switch to a female doctor. He hadn’t wanted to speculate too much but the small amount of information he had gotten out of Peter had given him enough information to recommend them to a colleague.
The first session with Dr. Fowler was much more successful.
Ben and May had both sat on the floor with Peter as he went off on tangent after tangent, startlingly brilliant and dazzling them all with his knowledge and understanding, for the first two meetings. Once Peter was comfortable having a conversation with Dr. Fowler alone, May and Ben chose to sit in the waiting area unless Peter requested, both of them fiddling and stealing glances at each other as they waited.
To her credit, Dr. Fowler was an excellent psychologist. Within a couple more sessions, she asked for a meeting with May and Ben privately. She first told them about the repression; something so traumatic had happened to Peter that, to protect himself, his brain had blocked it out and he couldn’t remember it. That didn’t stop him from negatively reacting to external stimulus that reminded him of the traumatic event or doing what he could to protect himself.
When Dr. Fowler had started asking Ben and May about who they used for child care both of their suspicions grew. Skip had blonde hair and blue eyes like Dr. Abrams. Skip had always taken care of Peter when they couldn’t be home. Skip was the only sitter that they had used until recently and all of the tantrums started when they tried to introduce someone new when Skip moved away.
Ben was always the more emotional of the two, more prone to crying than May (who much preferred anger and violence, blame her Italian blood) and had teared up when the conversation first started about abuse. May had cleared her throat and said that they had never seen any injuries. She had pontificated that maybe all the abuse was verbal? Or not bad enough to bruise? She was planning on ripping the little bastard’s head off regardless but, please, let only words have hurt her child.
Dr. Fowler had given both of them a pitying look before answering that, no, she suspected that Peter had been physically abused in the worst way and May had joined her husband in tears.
From that point there had been a lot of talking to decide a treatment plan. Dr. Fowler recommended continuing the sessions with Peter once a week to help him work through everything. There was a good chance that he would remember since he had some pretty intense triggers and reactions and he needed to have an arsenal of coping mechanisms for when that time came. She also gave May and Ben a referral to an adult group that could help them process and provide resources for the whole family.
The day Peter really remembered the first time it had happened had been when one of Ben’s friends had called him Einstein. He had a complete meltdown and multiple back to back panic attacks before May could calm him down. The asthma attack that it had triggered was even worse. The emergency session they had with Dr. Fowler the next day only went mildly better.
It took a while for May and Ben to figure out Peter’s triggers; clearly Einstein was one, blonde hair and blue eyes another. Comic books were added to the list soon after as well as Peter’s, previously, favorite set of Iron Mad red bed sheets.
But, slowly, things got better.
Peter was able to back off on therapy to just once every two weeks, then once a month and then as needed within a year and Ben celebrated by buying him an Iron Man helmet and repulsers and taking him to the Stark Expo (a whole separate can of worms). Things were pretty good. Peter still, occasionally got triggered through middle school but he was able to work through it and, soon, stopped going to any therapy at all. By high school things were pretty normal. Well for the most part.
As Peter’s friends and classmates started to go through puberty and mature, sex was a common point of conversation. Girls would gossip about losing their ‘v-card’ to one of the (very few) football players or upper class men and the guys would taunt each other about ‘popping cherries’ and brag to anyone who would listen about each new base they stole, perverting baseball to everyone around them.
When Flash had first made fun of Peter for ‘so clearly being a virgin, come on Penis surely someone wants to have sex with you’ in front of his friends and loud enough for the few lunch tables around them to hear and join in on the laughter, Peter had rolled his eyes and continued his discussion with Ned about the new Star Wars movie they were seeing that weekend.
He was late to Mr. Harrington’s class after lunch because he came completely unglued in the bathroom and ended up with a detention. It took a couple minutes to remember all of the coping techniques he had learned as a child to work through panic attacks but he got there eventually. It just really sucked that the ‘Penis’ nickname stuck around and it took everything in him not to flinch for the first few weeks. Eventually the exposure was enough for him to become numb to the teasing and go about his business.
Meeting Tony Stark, Iron Man, his hero for the first time was overshadowed by his trauma as well and Peter was pissed at himself for days for his awkward behavior when he was alone in a room with Mr. Stark. Mr. Stark was an Avenger. He was a super hero. He saved people and he wouldn’t hurt Peter; especially not with Aunt May just in the kitchen.
“You good, Webs?” Mr. Stark had asked him brusquely as he typed rapidly into his phone a few seats down on the private plane home from Germany. The man didn’t even need to look up from his lap to feel how nervous he was and, shit, why was Peter such a fuck up?
“Yeah,” Peter had responded brightly, willing his fingers to stop tapping and his leg to stop bouncing. “I’m good.” It wasn’t like he could tell his hero that he was uncomfortable being alone on a plane with just the two of them and Happy. Peter knew that he could trust them both but there was always just a little niggling in the back of his mind – what if they were like Skip?
It had taken a few days for Peter to work through and quash that thought and even longer to feel like he could trust Mr. Stark and Happy. Even more so after Homecoming.
“Earth to Spiderling. Am I boring you here? Are you actually bored in my presence?” Mr. Stark asked, snapping his fingers to get Peter’s attention. “I’m not paying you to sit around daydreaming.”
“You don’t pay me at all Mr. Stark,” Peter told his mentor with an eye roll.
“Are you sassing me now?” Mr. Stark said, whipping around in his chair with the smallest hint of a smile on his face. “The audacity. You’re fired.”
“You fired me last week.”
“Clearly the lesson didn’t stick.”
Peter snorted, reorienting himself. He generally loved working in the lab but it had been a bit of a slow day all things considered. Mr. Stark had just gotten back from a business trip to D.C. to meet with the Accords committee and was clearly exhausted. Peter had tried to call off the whole evening but he did really need to make more web fluid so, when Mr. Stark insisted, he caved and hung around the workshop.
It was now quickly approaching eight and the sun had long since set, casting the cramped work spaces into darkness, the only light the red-hued glow from lamps and the bright blue of the holo-tables where they were working. As if sensing his lethargy, his stomach chose that moment to growl.
“Well I think that’s our cue,” Mr. Stark said, pushing away from his desk and stretching his arms above his heads to crack his back. “What are you feeling? Mediterranean or Cuban ‘cause I could go for some shawarma.”
“Sounds good Mr. Stark,” Peter said, dumping the box of finished web cartridges haphazardly into his back pack and zipping it closed, hustling to catch up to his mentor who was waiting by the automatic doors at the front of the workshop.
“Put in a rush order from that one place we like, FRI, and have a drone bring it up when it arrives.”
“You got it Boss,” FRIDAY’s disembodied Irish lilt echoed from above.
“How did that physics test go Pete? Knock it out of the water?”
“Oh, yeah!” Peter said excitedly as the elevator doors closed in front of them and the car sped them up to the penthouse. “Highest grade in the class and she rewarded me by putting me in a group with Flash for our midterm project,” Peter groused, going off on a tangent about how terrible of a group partner Flash was to work with drawing laughter from his mentor.
“What’s the project even about? Anything I can help with?” Tony asked, sliding a bottle of water across the bar to Peter who had perched on the edge of one of the bar stools.
“It’s on electrical currents,” Peter told him with an eye roll, “do freaking easy. I could literally do it in like, a day, by myself but, no, I have to work with Flash so its going to take ages,” he whined , dropping his chin to sit on the palm of his hand.
“Why do you think I skipped high school and went straight to college?” Tony asked, taking a swig from his own bottle. “Not everyone is a genius like us Einstein.”
And, like a switch had flipped, Peter’s eyes went unfocused and his breathing quickened, all color draining from his face and leaving him a pale grey.
“Kid?” Tony asked, hustling around the counter. “Pete, what happened? Are you okay?” As he reached out, Peter flinched violently and squeezed his eyes shut, ducking away and smacking Tony’s hand away. With a choked gasp, Peter stumbled off the stool and backwards until his back hit the wall and he slid down, arms clasped behind his head.
“Don’t touch me,” he stuttered out, closing his eyes and trying to control his breathing. The last thing he needed was to have a panic attack in the middle of Mr. Stark’s kitchen.
“Okay,” Tony said, holding his hands up in surrender. “Okay, you’re calling the shots here kiddo. Can you look at me buddy?” He asked gently, crouching down about three feet in front of Peter and ignoring the complaints from his knees. Peter shook his head once, his breath hitching. “That’s okay, Underoos, that’s fine. I know you have enhanced hearing so I want you to listen to me breathe and copy me, okay? Can you try that?”
With a choked sound, Peter nodded and took an exaggerated breath to match Tony’s, focusing on the ‘whoosh’ sound of air entering his mentor’s lungs and the slightly arrhythmic beating of his heart. Mr. Stark should probably get that checked out.
After what seemed like forever but was probably less than ten minutes, Peter relaxed a little from his curled up position, allowing his arms to rest anemically at his sides and his head to thunk back against the wall behind him. He squeezed his eyes shut. He had been doing really well with his triggers lately and, of course, he had to go freak out in front of Mr. Stark.
Peter rolled his head forward and met his mentor’s eyes, Tony looked a little freaked out and he had one arm slightly extended like he wanted to grab Peter’s arm but had stopped before he let himself. “Can I touch you?” Mr. Stark asked carefully. Peter considered for a minute before giving a hesitant nod. Mr. Stark reached out slowly until his hand was rested on Peter’s shoulder.
“I know you’re not okay, I’ve been there, so I’m not going to ask that but are you feeling better?”
“Yeah,” Peter rasped out, adrenaline was still pumping quickly through his veins and he could taste it in the metallic flavor coating his tongue.
“Do you want to keep sitting here or are you okay to move to the couch?”
“We can move,” Peter muttered, allowing Tony to help him to his feet and keep his hand on Peter’s shoulder until they were seated on the couch. Peter grabbed one of the throw pillows and pulled it into his lap, crossing his arms around it and hugging it into his chest and stomach.
Tony surveyed him for a second before letting out a sigh. “After the battle of New York I was a piping hot mess,” he started to Peter’s surprise. “I only slept when I passed out from sleep deprivation, I couldn’t visit the city without freaking out, one of my suits nearly killed Pepper when I had a nightmare.” Tony made eye contact with Peter. “You don’t have to tell me all the whys but, if you have specific triggers that you need me to avoid just let me know. And if you want to talk to someone who can be discreet the Avengers kept a few people on staff.”
Peter chewed on his lip. Dr. Fowler had taught him that he didn’t have to be ashamed of what happened to him but she had also told him that no one was entitled to know what happened to him and he only ever had to talk about it if he wanted to. Did he trust Mr. Stark enough to tell him this?
“You said ‘Einstein’,” Peter told him quietly, curling up even further.
Tony gave a nod of understanding. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, I won’t call you that again. Is there anything else you want me to avoid?”
“Comic books,” Peter blurted, eyes darting up quickly to check his mentors reaction before falling back to his knees. “There are a few other things but I… I think I’ve mostly worked through those.”
“Okay,” Mr. Stark told him and, with exaggerated movements so that Peter could stop him if needed, rested his arm across his protégé’s shoulders and pulled Peter in to rest his head on Tony’s shoulder. “You don’t have to, but I’m here if you ever want to talk about it.”
Peter hadn’t talked about it in years, not even with May. Did he want to talk about it? He decided that the answer was ‘no’ he didn’t want to talk about it but it was only a matter of time before Spider-Man came across some other sick-o in a back alley and Peter didn’t want to react like this. And, more than anything, he was tired of keeping it bottled up. Maybe he didn’t want to talk about it but maybe he needed to.
“I was seven and his name was Skip,” Peter said slowly and felt Tony’s hand tighten where it was resting on his bicep. “He always called me Ein-,” Peter gulped, “that and I told him no but…” he trailed off with a shudder and tucked himself further into Tony’s side.
“Jesus Peter,” Tony said in a thick voice, pulling him in closer to wrap his other arm around the kid in a full hug. “I know that it doesn’t help but I’m so sorry kiddo.”
And suddenly Peter was exhausted. He buried his face into Mr. Stark’s chest, gripping his shirt tightly in one hand and shuddered, his eyes feeling wet but no tears leaking. He wasn’t crying over Skip again. “It helps,” Peter told him honestly, curling further into the embrace.
Later, Tony would have FRIDAY do a deep dive to find Steven Westcott. Later, he would send the man’s info to a few of his contacts that hung around Hell’s Kitchen. Later, bruised and bloody, Steven ‘Skip’ Westcott would admit to multiple sexual assaults of minors to a NYPD detective. Later, Tony would ensure that the man served the maximum sentence possible while making sure that Peter never had to hear his name again.
But for now, he was going to sit on this couch with his kid, running his fingers gently through Peter’s hair until he fell asleep.