Peter's phone buzzed as he sat at lunch, leaning over the table with his head in his arms, his tray empty besides a half-eaten pile of pear slices, his core still shaken from the locker room incident that went down yesterday. Thankfully, he didn't have P.E. or chemistry on B days, so he hoped he could avoid another confrontation with Flash at least until tomorrow. He picked up the device and squinted.

Well that was a fun conversation.

When he realized who the text was from, Peter immediately shot upright.

Oh so sorry Mr stark

He waited, staring impatiently at the screen. When the little typing bubble popped up, he held the phone closer to his face and made a cage with his elbows.

Don't be. My fault, not yours. And she's right. I should've told her what was going on.

But i told u I didnt want her to know about spider-man

Texting Mr. Stark felt like an unfittingly informal way of communicating with the Avenger. Like DM-ing your high school principal from your finsta page.

But it wasn't my place to lie to her about you. You're her kid, and your aunt had a right to know what was going on. Especially with all the life-threatening situations you've been put in because of me.

Peter wasn't sure how to respond, so he just sent a little :( emoji. Then he wrote: did may yell at you a lot

Dot, dot, dot. It was a well-deserved reprimand. But yes, she did. Loudly. Shockingly loudly.

A part of Peter was glad he hadn't been home to witness the exchange. Another part of him was kind of mad that he'd missed it.

So... about this Kraven guy.

Something jumped inside Peter's stomach. Maybe it was those bits of pear he'd ventured to try, which had somehow been both squishy and crunchy in his mouth and had not gone down well. His fingers flew across the virtual keyboard.

I can handle him i promise. Pause. please dont fly back here for no reason. Pause. the people there need u i promise i'll be fine

He debated sending some kind of funny gif or cute bitmoji to ease the tension. He couldn't find anything appropriate enough before the foreboding ellipses bubble returned. All he could do was wait, squirming with uneasy anticipation.

"Who are you texting?"

The voice almost sent Peter through the ceiling. He slammed his phone flat against the table and looked up sharply.

"W-what?" he stammered.

"Who are you texting?" she repeated. A girl was sitting across from him, expression blank, her near-empty tray mirroring his, her wildly curly hair threatening to burst out of the single green scrunchy attempting to contain it. She had a black and white "Votes for Women" T-shirt on.

MJ, Peter thought, fear prickling across his forearms. When did she get here? I didn't even see her sit down!

MJ was a very interesting human being. She was perceptive—unnervingly perceptive—and she wasn't shy about it, either. She was the kind of person who'd catch you tripping over your own feet when you were certain no one saw, then lean over to you thirty minutes later and quietly call you out for it. She was sneaky, cunning, and nearly impossible to lie to. Being around her always made Peter's heart beat a little bit faster than normal. More than once, he'd caught her watching him—at decathlon practices, at lunch, across the gym, even. She had an air about her that made Peter feel like she knew more about him than he knew about himself. Or maybe anyone, for that matter. Like a combination of Natasha Romanoff and Shuri. Except...different, somehow. He swallowed.

"Oh. Um, no one," he lied, placing his hands on top of his phone. He immediately regretted his words as MJ narrowed her eyes.

"You're texting no one?" she said dryly.

"No, I just—I wasn't texting."

"It sure looked like you were texting."

"I wasn't," Peter insisted. He flinched when the phone buzzed underneath his hands and forced himself not to look.

MJ crossed her arms and leaned closer to him. "If you weren't texting, then what were you doing?"

"Garlic bread!" Ned's voice called excitedly. Peter glanced up with insurmountable relief as his friend skipped up to their table with a tray in his hands. "I love Italian food days! Here, Peter—I got you one, too."

"Oh, thanks," Peter said. Ned placed the bread on Peter's tray as he sat across from him beside MJ, a wrinkle forming between his eyebrows.

"What's going on here?" he asked MJ over a forkful of caesar salad. "You've never sat with us at lunch before."

"Normally I avoid sitting with anyone at lunch," MJ said nonchalantly. "You guys aren't special."

"Ah," Ned replied. Peter slid his phone off the table and into his lap as his gaze switched innocently between them. Ned's expression shifted from bubbly to concerned. He tilted his chin towards Peter's midsection with a slight grimace, as if to ask how's the wound? with his eyes. Peter nodded back, flashing a reassuring smile, then cleared his throat.

"So...MJ," he stammered, desperate to change the subject. "I, uh, heard you pushed Flash into a pool during homecoming."

MJ's face remained cold and emotionless while Ned cracked up.

"Hell yeah she did! It was awesome!"

Peter chuckled. "That is awesome." He cocked his head to one side. "But can I ask...why?"

"Why what?" MJ said.

"Why you pushed Flash into the pool? Like, what's the story behind it?"

MJ pursed her lips and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "Does one need a reason to incite entropy and chaos in a world already teaming with both?"

Ned nudged her shoulder with his. "Come on, MJ. We all know why you did it."

When MJ didn't respond, Peter blinked. "We do? I don't."

"We've all wanted to push Flash into a pool at some point or another," she said quickly. "I just had the gall to actually do it when the opportunity presented itself."

Peter nodded. "Fair."

"But you did it because he was making fun of Peter," Ned insisted, turning back to his friend and rolling his eyes. "He was trash-talking you all evening. You know, typical Flash Thompson BS. But at Betty's place, mid-sentence of him calling you 'Penis Parker' for, like, the fiftieth time that night, MJ shoved him into the pool." He poked his fork in the air triumphantly. "And it was awesome."

Peter's eyes shifted back to MJ, who was smushing her pears into paste with her spoon. Her face was tinted the tiniest splash of pink, but her stony expression remained, unyielding.

"Is that true?" Peter asked. He never would've pegged MJ as the kind of person willing to "defend his honor" or whatever. She hesitated a moment before meeting his gaze.

"I'll tell you after you tell me who you're texting," she answered shrewdly. "And why you're being so secretive about it."

Peter bit his tongue and stared down at his lap. She wasn't going to let this go, was she? "I...well..." He cleared his throat, then shrugged. "I'm...texting Mr. Stark."

MJ raised an eyebrow, a flicker of interest touching her expression. "Mr. Stark? As in, Tony Stark?"

He nodded, wagering a smile. It wasn't like his trip with Tony Stark was a secret—the only part he had to lie about was where he had gone. And what he'd been doing. And why he'd been brought along.

"No way! Mr. Stark texts you?" Ned's eyes sparkled. "Could I have his number?"

Peter chuckled lightly as MJ's countenance darkened once again. She leaned back and stared sideways with a scoff. "Billionaire capitalist bastard. Why don't you text him and tell him to donate all that blood money of his to charity?"

"I've heard he does lots of philanthropy and grants and stuff," Ned said.

"Not enough," MJ hissed, standing from her seat and snatching her tray off the table. "Eat the rich."

With that, she marched away, adding her tray to the stack by the trash bins, throwing one last look over her shoulder before disappearing around the corner. Once she was gone, Peter exhaled slowly. He hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath.

"She's so weird," Ned giggled. "Were you really texting Tony Stark?"

Peter lifted his phone out of his lap and tapped at the screen. "Yeah," he said. "He's debating whether he should come down and help me with this Kraven guy. I told him I could handle him on my own." A sigh slipped between his lips as he read Stark's last message.

All right. I'm trusting you on this one. Keep Happy updated. He'll be staying in contact with May. If either of them don't think you can handle it, I'm coming back to New York.

Now stop texting at school.

"And? How did he respond?"

He typed quickly and pressed send. "He's not coming. For now."

okay, thanks :)

"And you're...happy about this?" Ned asked nervously. "You really want to fight this psycho all by yourself?"

Peter placed his phone on the table, his fingers ghosting across the cuts on his torso, which by now had transformed into bruised scabs.

"Yeah. Sure." He chuckled halfheartedly. "I can beat him. Definitely. I've fought terrorists and super villains and Captain America. How is this guy any different?"

Ned hunched his shoulders and nibbled on his breadstick. "Just...please don't die. Okay?"

Peter eyed his friend's fearful expression, ice crawling into his heart. He couldn't hold his gaze.

"I won't," he promised, more to his shoes than to Ned. But the ice in his chest continued to spread, chilling him to the bone.

At the end of the school day, Peter stood at his locker, gathering his study materials for tomorrow's quizzes. Fellow teenagers flowed past him in droves, chittering back and forth about far more petty problems than those weighing on his mind. A heaviness pulled on Peter's blood, anxious and gloomy. He wasn't sure if it stemmed from the ever-lurking threat of this murderous Kraven guy, being tossed back into the triviality of high school after a week of war in Wakanda, or the fact he was still mourning the sudden absence of Liz. As if to torment himself further, he searched for Liz among the sea of passing faces—her dazzling eyes, her flowery smell, her sunny, brilliant aura—knowing he wouldn't find her. By the time he snapped out of his dreary trance, the hallway was practically empty. He heaved a withering sigh and tucked a chemistry book under his armpit.

"Hey Parker!"

Peter's whole body seized. Shit! He shot a glance over his shoulder, spotting Flash jogging toward him from the end of the hallway, then immediately turned back to his locker, hunching his shoulders and ducking his head. Oh no, oh no. Heat rose to the surface of Peter's skin as Flash's footsteps clapped against the linoleum floor, then squeaked to stop behind him.

"Hey," Flash said again, quieter this time, panting.

Peter shuffled around some of the loose papers in his locker just to look busy and avoid eye contact. "Uh," he murmured, "hey?"

Flash combed a hand through his hair and huffed out a breath, shifting his weight between his feet. "Look, Parker," he began, voice measured, "could, um—could we talk?"

"About what?" Peter asked the dust bunnies in the back of his locker. Dread pooled in the pit of his stomach.

"About yesterday?" Flash said. "About what happened? You know—in the locker room?"

Peter's throat was too tight for him to swallow. Slowly, he pushed the locker door closed, still facing away from Flash, his fingers lingering against the cold metal.

"Don't worry, I didn't tell anyone about it," he muttered. Peter turned to leave, but Flash jumped in front of him before he could, holding his hands in front of his body.

"Wait, no," Flash stammered. "That's not what I meant."

Peter shrunk into himself, his palms cold and sweaty. "What, then?"

He was startled to see actual concern in his bully's typically merciless eyes. Flash scratched at his upper arm, his gaze dashing along the ground.

"I...I'm sorry. About what I did. I didn't know."

Peter didn't think he'd ever heard an apology grace the lips of Flash Thompson in his entire life: certainly not one directed towards him. It didn't feel right. He looped his free arm through the left strap of his backpack and stared off to the side.

"Forget it. It's fine."

"No," Flash snapped, blocking his path once again. "No, it's not fine. Okay?"

Peter winced at the intensity in Flash's voice. "What do you mean?"

Flash puffed out his cheeks, his eyebrows knitting together. "Parker, the way you looked yesterday..." His voice fell to a whisper. "I mean, it was like you'd been hit by a truck."

Dammit. He had to finagle a way out of this. An excuse, a lie, something. But what?

"So?" was what he eventually went with, which came out as a bitter laugh. "Since when do you care?"

A hint of guilt twitched at the corner of Flash's lip. He crossed his arms close to his chest. "Look, I know I poke fun at you and all..."

"That's what that was? Poking fun?"

"I mean, that's all I meant it as. I didn't know..." Flash looked him in the eye and shook his head. "Peter, what happened to you?"

Blood rushed to Peter's cheeks. His tongue was suddenly tied in a knot. His hands cinched into fists at his sides.

"I...I don't..." He grimaced. "It—it doesn't matter, okay? It's nothing."

"What I saw was most definitely not nothing. You were covered in cuts and bruises. I don't even understand how you were standing then—or now, for that matter." His expression softened. "Did that to yourself?"

"Of course not," Peter scoffed.

"So someone else did it to you."

Peter opened his mouth then shut it again. Son of a... Flash had baited the trap, and he'd fallen right into it. In attempt to recover, he smiled and shrugged.

"Yeah. Didn't you know? I'm a WWE wrestler. I had a cage match over the weekend that got pretty intense. But hey—you should see the other guy."

Flash didn't flinch. His eyes clouded over as he shoved his hands into his pockets. "You know, my dad used to beat me when I was little."

Peter's chest tightened in surprise. This was not at all where he was expecting this conversation to go.

"He doesn't anymore. He went to therapy, learned how to redirect his anger in non-violent ways or whatever. Now the worst I get from him is distance and indifference." He scratched at his hair. "But I still remember how awful it was, being hurt by a person who's supposed to protect you and love you and stuff."

Peter clutched his chemistry book tautly, looking at his self-proclaimed tormentor Flash Thompson through a slightly altered lens. "I'm...sorry you had to go through that. No one should have to go through that."

Flash nodded. "You're right, Parker. No one should go through that." His gaze hardened. "Even a little dweeb like yourself."

Confusion wrinkled Peter's features. "What?"

"Someone is hurting you. I don't know if it's your aunt, some boyfriend of hers, another relative—"

"You think May did this to me?" Peter almost laughed.

"I don't know. But whoever did has been doing it for a while now."

Peter took a small step backwards. "What...what are you talking about?"

Flash cursed under breath and threw his hands in the air. "Parker, I've seen the bruises. All of us have."

Fear blossomed in his heart coiled around it like a python. "W-what?"

"I told myself that you were just clumsy and bruised easily—you know, like a peach. Or maybe you had a big dog or cousin you liked to roughhouse with." He clamped his palms around his elbows. "But after what I saw yesterday..."

Shit, Peter wanted to shout. He thought he'd been doing a decent job hiding the many wounds he'd acquired amidst all his Spider-Manning antics thus far, since no one had ever approached him about it. Was it really that obvious? Did everyone in the school secretly harbor Flash's suspicions about him—that he was being abused by someone at home? He had to be more careful about that moving forward. Peter exhaled shakily, trying to contain the panic bubbling in his guts. He painted a smile on to his lips.

"I, um, appreciate your concern, Flash. Really. But you've got this all wrong. No one is hurting me."

"Then how'd your torso get slashed up and bruised like that?" Flash retorted.

Peter rubbed at the back of his neck, grasping for a believable lie. "I—uh—"

"And what's your excuse for all the other injuries you've been trying to hide this entire semester?"

Bear wrestling, wild horseback riding, jiu jitsu with machetes, his reeling mind sputtered. But the circuits between his brain and his mouth were malfunctioning. His heartbeat thundered in his ears and his skin burned with anxiety. He felt like he was about to cry all of sudden, which was even more infuriating.

As Peter stammered and floundered for something articulate to say, Flash sighed. He stepped closer to him, keeping his voice low. "I'm not trying to put you on the spot. I just want to help. You need to tell someone about this who's able to do something about it. Trust me: that's the only way to make it stop."

Peter let Flash's words float around in his head for a bit. For a person actually going through what he was describing, his advice would be sound. But Peter wasn't, and he and Flash's history complicated the situation further. With a scoff, he backed away.

"You don't get to just decide to start concerning yourself with my wellbeing, Flash. Not after treating me like garbage for the past three years."

Flash flinched, scratching behind his ear. "Parker, this is different—"

"No! It isn't! You've done nothing but bully me since the day we met. For all I know, this is just another scheme cropped up by you and your buddies to humiliate me some more."

"I wouldn't do that," Flash insisted. "Not for something like this."

"But you would for every other aspect of my life?" Peter snapped. "You can't pretend to be my friend only when it's convenient for you."

Peter shoved past him, hurrying toward he exit, his back slick with sweat. "Hey—w-wait—Peter!" Flash yelled after him. But he scurried out the doors without turning around.

"How was school today?" May asked, placing a bowl of broccoli cheese soup in front of him. Peter watched the ghostly steam wisp toward the ceiling with glazed interest.

"Fine," he murmured, twiddling his spoon between his fingers. "You know, same old same old."

May hummed in acknowledgement, sliding into the seat across from him at the tiny table in their kitchen. "All caught up on your assignments?"

"Mmhmm. For the most part."

She scooped a spoonful of soup into her mouth and dabbed at her lips with a napkin. Peter watched her, squirming in his seat, the tension in the room electric and tangible. Since he'd arrived home from school that day, each of them had been waiting for the other to bring up the heated conversation that had transpired between May and Stark. It was the last thing Peter wanted to talk about, but his growing nervousness over the subject was reaching an intensity he could no longer bear. He swirled his spoon along the edges of his bowl.

"How was you day today?" he said, voice small and prickly.

May sipped her iced tea. "My day?" she inquired innocently. "Oh, my day was wonderful."

She seemed to be enjoying watching her nephew fret over her Tony-oriented tongue-lashing. Peter rested his chin on the palm of his hand. "Mr. Stark, um, texted me. Said he talked to you."

"Oh yes, that's right," May said, feigning surprise. "We did have a little chat today."

Peter cringed. " did it go?"

May slurped down some more soup and jabbed her spoon into the air. "Oh, it went splendidly. I lectured him about how much of an absolute asshat he is, and he wholeheartedly agreed."

Oh god... Peter groaned internally.

"He promised to keep me in the know about everything going on with you from now, Spider-Man-related or otherwise. He also summarized everything that's happened since he brought you under his wing." Her eyes darkened as she watched a drop of condensation slip down her glass. "Including...all the times you've almost died. When you got shot, when you got lost, when you were sick..."

Peter reddened from the opposite side of the table. He didn't think Mr. Stark would go into that much detail about all the superhero stuff he'd been involved with. He chewed his lip, staring into his soup.

"It's've been living a whole separate life apart from me. A life of danger, violence, suffering, and I've had no idea."

Tears shone in the corners of her eyes. Peter's heart wilted.


"I should've known."

"You couldn't have known. I was keeping it from you."

"I should have known," she repeated, balling her fist against her trembling lips. "I'm your guardian. I'm supposed to protect you. That's my job."

Peter didn't know what to say. That seemed to be a trend for him today. With a sharp breath, May wiped her cheeks.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I told myself I would be supportive of you from now on. What's done is done, and now it's—it's time to look ahead. Right?"

Her nephew ventured a hesitant smile. "Yeah. I think that'd be best. For both of us."

May nodded, still sniffling a little as she attempted to recompose herself. "So then," she said, downing another spoonful of soup. "What's Spider-Man's plan for stopping Kraven?"

Peter's smile fell, along with his jaw. "Oh," he said, the sudden veer in subject throwing him for a loop. "My, uh, plan?"

"Yes. That man threatened to murder us and is expecting you to face him in battle soon so he can kill you. You told me you were going beat him." She crossed her legs at the ankles and folded her hands on top of her knee. "How exactly are you planning on doing that?"

He swallowed slowly. He wasn't sure which was worse: crying May, or fiery, tactical, laser-focused May. "Well, er...he caught me off guard last time. I'm usually better at fighting than that—a lot better. I won't let it happen again. I'll be prepared the next time I face him."

"Do you have any weapons?" May asked, wrinkling her nose. "He had a ton of weapons, Peter. All you seem to have is that weird webbing stuff."

"I have hundreds of 'weird webbing stuff' types," Peter clarified. "Taser webs, rapid fire webs, web grenades. Plus, y'know, super strength. And agility. And wall-crawling."

"Are you going to try to kill him?"

Peter grimaced in shock. "What? Of course not. Why would you ask me that?"

"Well, because he's definitely going to try to kill you."

"So you think that means I should try to kill him back?"

"No, Peter, I just..." May exhaled into her palms and shook her head. "It feels like you're going to just throw yourself into this without any plan or strategy. You're being forced to fight some murderous psychopath with machetes and spears and god knows what else, and you don't even seem that scared."

Oooh trust me, I very much am, Peter thought, rubbing at his achy ribcage. But he couldn't show that fear in front of her. He couldn't let anyone see it. He crossed his arms and forced a small chuckle.

"I don't know if this will make you feel any better, but...this wouldn't exactly be my first time fighting a spear-wielding, machete-swinging murder-psycho."

May gave him a long, hard stare. "But it will be your first time doing it on your own, without the other superheroes by your side."

Peter frowned. "I've fought bad guys without the Avengers' help, May. I spent months throwing down with baddies all by myself—before I even met the Avengers."

"But not one like this," May insisted. "Never one this strong or scary. Am I wrong?"

An itch crawled into his throat while his knee bounced restlessly beneath the table. He wished he could say she was. Kraven was a next level threat for sure. If he was going to defeat him, he seriously needed to start studying up on this guy. Hell, maybe even train for the day he faced him. It'd be naive to think he could just roll up to the battle and beat Kraven without any practice or preparation whatsoever. As always, May was annoyingly, indisputably correct.

"I'll come up with a more concrete plan soon," Peter assured her. When the anxious gleam in her eye didn't falter, he pasted on a smug grin. "Don't worry. Tarzan will be Tar-ran by the time I'm done with him."

May snorted, furrowing her brow. "Huh?"

"You know, like, ran. He'll be running. Away. 'Cause I, like, whooped his ass so hard."

She didn't want to laugh, because she knew what he was trying to do: bury the tension between them using his sneaky charm and ludicrous one-liners. Ben had been the initial perpetrator, and young Peter had quickly followed suit, learning how to divert attention away from people's anxieties and concerns with his blinding positivity, goofy smile, and terrible jokes. Especially when those anxieties pertained to his wellbeing.

But once again, his devious schemes succeeded. She laughed lightly, then tousled his hair.

"I hope you have better quips than that for the day you face him, tough guy."

Peter giggled. "Step one of my 'plan to defeat Kraven' to-do list: write better Tarzan-related jokes."

After dinner, with May's blessing, Spider-Man patrolled his city for the first time since returning from Wakanda. He needed the distraction, the rush, the escape—and perhaps, most importantly, the battle training. Webbing up New York thugs was nothing compared to sparring against the likes of Natasha Romanoff or Hunter—and certainly not Kraven. But for now, it was all he had.

On his way out the window, another text from Kraven lit up his phone screen, this one from a new unknown number. An icy claw scraped down his spine as he stared at the image and read the ferocious hunter's haunting message.

It was a photo of a knife. A bloody, jagged knife that looked huge even in Kraven's gargantuan hands. The edge of the blade glistened in gruesomely spectacular way, sharp enough to slice through steel as if it were butter. Beneath the knife were words that made Peter feel like panicking and puking and hiding under his bed all at once.

He wanted to believe it was a joke, or one seriously sick intimidation tactic, but after brawling with Kraven in the flesh, it felt a bit too on-brand to not be literal. Kraven didn't really seem like the joking type.

Once I have bested you in combat, this is the weapon Kravinoff will use to skin the hide from your bones. I cannot wait to add the Spider-Man to my collection.