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I. Am. Spider-Man.

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“I know you can see it. If you listen hard enough, you’ll hear it, too. But you’re not even trying. I’m sorry for having to ask this of you. But it’s been a year. And I’ve done everything I could. Nothing’s working.”

Silence.

“I don’t beg Pepper. I don’t, not usually. But. I’m teetering on the edge of desperation here, and I know you can help.”

The silence stretches out.

And then.

“No, Jim. I want to, really, but, I just can’t, not now. It’s too soon.”

“Look at this—that’s our school’s academic decathlon. They won Nationals in DC, before the snap, and they didn’t even have their chem kid there. And when I visited their session today, they were worn out in a way that I’ve only seen in the eyes of my troops. In the military.”

There is a loaded look. It is heavy, but Pepper seems to be carrying something much heavier, so she doesn’t falter.

A lock of strawberry-blonde hair falls to her face.

She doesn’t move it.

“I asked Harrington. He said they were more alive, then. They joked about, laughed. They were kids, then. But after the snap, it was all just different. These students are one of the brightest in America. But even their grades and performance leave a lot to be desired. They’re failing, Pepper, they’re falling through. And it’s not just them. Robotics, Mathletes, Vanguard—they’re all stuck.”

There is a certain croak to his voice that doesn’t have to do with talking for hours, trying to convince the immovable Pepper Stark-Potts. It comes from something deeper. Like a year-long clawing, searching, and failing to find a solution. Until now.

“And I’ve been doing everything that I can to bring them back. But everywhere I go, it always leads me here.”

This time, Pepper speaks.

“What exactly do you see here?”

It is a calculated question.

Jim Morita, Principal of Midtown Science and Tech High, is more than capable of answering. But he let his mind wander for a bit, the long table stretching out even further, bringing him to the place he’s been calling home for a few years now.

There, he sees his students, five years gone in a flash. He sees the dark clouds that fly over their heads. He sees their grades and their papers, and he doesn’t see the usual excellence, the usual exuberance, the usual love for learning.

He thinks, after talking to the guidance counselor, that they are using their studies as a distraction for the five years that went and gone.

Or, they’re not studying at all, because whatever happened in those five years had been a big enough toll on their young minds to take.

And when Jim Morita looked into the eyes of that one student, the one who seems the most harrowed by it, that kid, Peter Parker, he couldn’t just stand by anymore.

He knew he had to do something.

“I see the future here,” he starts.

Pepper raises her eyebrows, in a you can do better than that look¸ and he agrees, so he ploughs on.

“I see the foundations of something bright here, something that could speak to my students in a way that an aging man in a suit cannot. I see that this is the best possible place that my students could gain something essential, something life changing. This is the place of Ton—Iron Man— after all,” Pepper’s eyes quiver, but she holds her head high, “and there is no better place to learn about life once again than the castle of the man who gave his life for it.”

“Really, Jim?”

She is tired. More so than he has ever seen. Perhaps, it is because they are friends that she lets him see a fraction of her heart. This is all he needs, because at least he knows Pepper is strong enough to show him that she does, indeed, still have a heart.

That it didn’t die along with—

Jim gives her a rueful smile. He did take public speaking before, and he wasn’t a general in the military for nothing.

But when he begs, and he usually doesn’t, he tries to cover it up with beautiful words. As compensation.

It doesn’t work here. And so, with the look of a man as tired as she, he rasps:

“Could you at least—please, consider it?”

--

 

There has been a rumor circulating around Midtown Science and Tech High that involves their Principal Jim Morita coming to school from a visit at the Stark Tower upstate, looking very pleased.

It is an understatement though, to call him that. Because Principal Jim Morita wasn’t just pleased¸ he was chipper¸ elated, ecstatic, hell he was skipping down the hallway towards the principal’s office while singing Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen—(Abe swears in his life that was what he saw, but the others won’t believe him until he got Ned to hack the school cameras and show the disbelieving students—Michelle—that he was, indeed, skipping.)

The teachers all know something as well. Seymour saw the teachers all huddled together, speaking in hushed tones, and then proceeding to casually scramble when he burst into the teacher’s lounge.

It has been going on for a month now. The excitement and speculation over the whole thing bringing a sort of lightness around the dreary setting.

Peter has been ignoring most of the talk, blocking out everything at the very mention of Sta—. But you could only get so far when, everywhere he goes, he is looking at him.

It’s been almost a year now, since The Awakening.

The whole world took a collective break from school, all adjusting as best as they could—the government, the system, the positions left behind and attempting to be reclaimed.

It had been messy. That’s why it took a while until Midtown High opened its gates again for the students that have just Awoken.

They all tried to be the same old students, same old kids, but when you look back across the room to share an inside joke, and find your best friend’s seat empty, because, right, right, he’s in college now, it forces you to reevaluate about the whole life thing and smacks you head first about what could have happened if Tony Stark didn’t sacrifice his life for the world.

But that’s what he heard from the sobbing kid in lunch earlier.

It’s quite hard not to hear it when you’ve got enhanced hearing.

Sometimes, Peter wishes he didn’t have this—everything Spider-Man, the internship, Tony—

Ned nudges him in his side. Peter turns to him. Ned smiles.

For now, everything is quieter. Everything is alright.

--

 

A pause.

Pepper closes her eyes.

A breath.

Her eyebrow furrow, and then relaxes.

A sigh.

He doesn’t know what this means, but Pepper is looking at him now and he knows he should listen.

“Alright.”

Principal Morita blinks.

“Is this—really?”

Not his most eloquent, but whatever.

“Yes, Jim. I’ll help you.”

In a beat, he collects himself and smiles, “Thank you, Pepper.”

Pepper returns his smile and tilts her head forward as a silent ‘you’re welcome’.

There is a gentle fire in Pepper’s eyes, a smoldering flame, not unlike a fireplace during winter, when the guests have left and the children are asleep, and there is only the two of them, Pepper and Anthony, on the couch, talking, and Jim knows he should not be thinking this, but he sees Tony in Pepper’s eyes, and he sees love—a love for life that is so monumental that he gave his, in exchange for half the world.

It could be said, then, that Anthony Edward Stark is worth half the population on Earth. And that’s if you haven’t met him. If you did, you might say, more than half of Earth, or the Universe—he’s worth infinity— Jim knows, because he’s been in that conversation before and he doesn’t want to delve into it again.

And he should really be starting now, the presentation, the plans, but he thinks of Tony and his shocked thank you suddenly isn’t enough.

Jim starts— “Really, truly, Pepper, this, everything, thank you.”

Pepper’s face flickers for a split second, but she recovers immediately, “You, as well, Jim. Give yourself some credit.”

And then comes in the child.

She ambles towards her mother, all pretty dress and blue Iron Man helmet on her head.

Morgan Stark.

Pepper turns toward her daughter, hands outstretched as the five-year-old hugged her, “Morgan, honey, did you run away from Judy again?”

Pepper presses a button, revealing the child’s pouting face.

“Yeah… she’s boring. And I wanted to play with this,” she taps her helmet, “but she said I can’t, so, I hid!”

“Alright,” Jim watches as Pepper laughs genuinely for the first time since he came, “Better run and hide somewhere else, she’ll find you here!”

Morgan squeals and scampers off, the two adults watching as she does so.

“She’s…”

“Yes. She is,” Pepper agrees, love in her eyes, “And she’s as amazing as he.”

--

 

It comes out of nowhere.

Well.

No.

That’s not right.

They’ve been waiting, listening, watching, for the teachers to spill. What is this secret that’s gotten everyone so busy?

Club presidents are called over one afternoon, and when they come back to a barrage of questions, they reply with secret smiles.

The robotics club offers a parcel of information, that their president told them to prepare their best drones and gadgets, and to hone their presentation skills.

The Vanguard’s Betty Brant, Editor-in-chief, calls in a meeting, informing them of a big event where they are all to attend, because it is going to be the biggest scoop of the year, and that they should recruit more photojournalists.

Student leaders—from sports captains to mathletes—are always out of class, bustling around, talking in their quiet circle. And everyone wants to know why.

There is a buzzing in the hallway, a deep contrast to the hollow silence and the silent murmurs that always pervaded before. Peter feels it. The undercurrent of energy, a breath of life, they’re laughing.

Peter lets out an easy smile after that. He tries to forget, for that second, the burden of Spider-Man.

And he succeeds, for a few gracious moments.

Until.

Flash bumps past him. He sneers.

“Watch it, Penis.”

There is a heat to it that was never quite there before, a sort of resentment that speaks of a deeper wound.

Flash here, Eugene, he lost his father. In the bus one second, woke up in the streets the next and then goes home to an urn and a sobbing mother.

Both Flash and his mother had been turned to dust. His father stayed. Until he couldn’t take it anymore and shot himself in the head. Flash’s uncle manages their business. Technically, Flash owns everything now. At the cost of losing his father.

And that’s something Peter understands.

“Flash,” Peter calls out, his voice failing him halfway—

What was he gonna say? That he was sorry? Bullshit. Flash doesn’t need an apology; he needs his father.

And right now, even though it hurts, when Flash mentions his internship and Mr.— and his ‘lies’, he takes it. Because he can take it. Because he has to take it or both of them will break, and it is better for only one of them to crack—Peter is prepared to be that one, plus, he deserves it—

“What, Penis? Here to clear up the internship? Heard that’s what the fuss is all about. You’re probably scared now, huh? Shaking in your boots, trying to stand up to the only one brave enough to call your bullshit.”

Peter stands and takes it all.

“What could you ever possibly say about that to make me, or, or anyone, believe that a fraction of that is true? Even if you try now, Tony Stark is dead, no one will believe—”

Peter does not hear the rest of it because he has already turned and walked away before Flash could even finish his name.

--

 

They’re in Chemistry when it happens.

The sound system cackles to life.

Their teacher stops talking midway.

Everybody knew there was going to be an announcement one day, but they didn’t know it was going to be through this.

So much speculation, and with such an anti-climactic reveal?

Or so they thought.

It is Principal Morita that speaks through the system, his voice echoes, “You can clear them now.”

Their Chemistry teacher, Ms. Warren, bolts to life.

She is giddy and breathless when she starts—a wild excitement barely held back in her eyes—

Everyone is on the edge of their seats.

If they can make even Ms. Warren like this, then it must be something.

“Okay, class, I know you have been waiting for this for a long time, but now is the time that we finally tell you.” She looks around the class with a smile that stretches to its full capacity, an undeniable exhilaration ripples through her body. “Through the efforts of countless teachers and student leaders, and of course, primarily Principal Morita, who was able to get us the deal, it is my pride and enthusiasm to announce, that—”

A room burst into cheers and screams and someone is definitely crying—

Everyone stops breathing.

“—Midtown Science and Tech High School will be visiting the one and only Stark Industries—”

Everyone is screaming.

“—which has relocated upstate, so that means, we will also be going to the Avenger’s Compound—”

It is like a stadium in the classroom—

The students are stomping their foot and banging their table, but Ms. Warren isn’t finished, oh, she was just getting to the good part.

“But that’s not all! Of course, that’s not all!” Ms. Warren’s grin is as wide as it can get, enjoying the student’s reactions, “Pepper Stark-Potts, the CEO of Stark Industries, also just approved our plan for a two-day camping trip there—”

If the screams before were close enough to rupture Peter’s sensitive ears, then this could probably do it in completely.

The students are all standing up, hugging each other, crying—

If this was before the snap, the reaction could have been milder. Really. But because this is the first exciting thing that happened to them after everything, it wasn’t much of a surprise that they would be shrieking in earnest.

They also know that ever since the Awakening, the Stark Industries has been closed off from the public, recovering whatever it can from the ruins of the war.

Pepper singlehandedly raised the company and Avenger’s Compound together, taking on her original role and her husband’s responsibilities on her own. Although, there was talk of an apprentice but no one was really able to prove it, given the privacy.

So, they know, that whatever is happening right now, that it’s special and they’re the only ones who are going to experience this, and witness a phoenix rise from the ashes, the rebirth of a fallen tower, from the ashes of a fallen man.

Peter blinks, hard.

MJ rests her knee on his, sitting on his left, as Ned leans toward Peter’s shoulder.

Ms. Warren isn’t finished yet.

“I will be discussing the plan with you, until next period, so there won’t be the next period, but! But, I need you all to settle down, yes, sit right down Ms. Moon, you too Ms. Avril.”

As the last students sit down, with the spontaneous cheers from across classrooms echoing in their sentiments, Ms. Warren continues on.

“As I said, this will be a two-day trip. During the first day…”

--

 

Pepper listens intently, nodding along as Jim highlights plans and reasonings.

“…during the first day, it would be best to start with the tour in the Stark Tower. It would be the perfect jump-off point for the next day. Which is the mini-Midtown high festival. But before that, a little bonfire by the lake accompanied by music will be good for letting off steam. Plus, it’s the perfect bonding experience for the students—to cool off and be kids again.”

Pepper hums.

--

 

Everyone is looking at each other. Friends vibrating in synchrony and barely contained energy.

Ned shares a look of worry with MJ, above Peter’s head, who is slumped in his chair with his hands covering his face.

“…we will be staying in the Avenger’s Compound, where it is big enough to house us all. Bring your sleeping bags, because we will be staying there during the night. Yes, in the compound, on the floor, they’ll be clearing up two floors for us, yes, it’s that big—

“Now, the second day is the most important one. You could even say; it is the highlight of the whole trip. It will be a very busy day, indeed. Because, that is when we will conduct the mini-festival—where all creators of all fields from the school will be given the chance to present their works, the theme: life.”

At this, Peter looks up.

“And the thing that also makes this so special is, Principal Morita and Pepper Stark-Potts had agreed on making this an official event, a tribute for the hero, Tony Stark—”

Ned scampers toward Peter, who is already out of the door, his chair scraping and falling on the floor with a loud THWACK!

There is a collective silence at the suddenness of the movement.

MJ sighs, “He’s sick Ms. Warren. Leeds is already on it, so if it’s alright…”

Ms. Warner simply nods and then continues on.

“And now, on to your behavior during the trip…”

--

 

Peter doesn’t want to go.

Not so soon.

Not… not for a tribute, because that would mean he’s—

(He’s dead Peter, he’s never coming back, he’s—)

Peter is doubling over the sink, he can’t breathe, but he doesn’t think he should, because if he does, he’ll do something worse—he’ll cry—

(There is a certain wetness in his cheeks, trailing down from his eyes and to his lips—it is salty, but he doesn’t think it is what it is—he’s not, he’s not crying—)

Ned bursts into the men’s room, catching his breath and honing in on his shaking, breaking brother.

Peter notices him in a dull, peripheral way. Somehow, the water is running and if he could, he would drown himself in the sink water, but since he couldn’t, he just drowns in his tears instead.

Ned is by his side now, rubbing circle on his back, and he seems to be talking, he could make out some words, but not enough to understand what he means by it.

He doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t, hedoesnthedoesnthedoesnt—

“I know, Peter. And nobody’s making you. You don’t have to go.”

Did he say that out loud?

(Yes, yes, he did. That’s all he’s been saying since he ran out of the classroom. And Ned understands.)

 

Later, when the bell rings for third period, and Peter and Ned are sprawled on the bathroom floor, with the latter rubbing circles on his shaking friend’s back, Ned tells him that he doesn’t want to go, as well, and that he would join him wherever he wants to go, because that’s what best friends do.

They stick with you till the end of the line.

--

 

“The students are all going to love it here, Pepper,” Jim says, picking up his folder as Pepper stands.

“Well of course. You’ve thought and you’ve fought this out for them after all.” She looks down, “And, I think this is really good of you, Jim. For caring as much as you do.”

Jim stares back at her. He smiles softly.

“Yeah, well, when you’ve seen the best in a person and you’re seeing them at their worst, you would want to bring them back up. Only, multiply it to a hundred for me.”

Pepper returns his smile. He is right. In every way that matters, no matter how much it hurt her, he is right.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

--

May used to work a 12 hour-shift at the hospital.

It’s what paid the rent and put food on the table.

But just a few hours ago, Pepper, that wonderful, amazing woman, showed up, offering them enough funds for her to work a shorter shift.

When she came by to politely hand the money, all pressed suit and straight back and compassion, May had vehemently refused.

She wasn’t going to take pity money; no. May is above that. She can work well enough for her and Peter. It might be exhausting at times, but it’s enough, it’s always been enough.

(Well.

It used to be.

Now, it wasn’t just draining her, it was tearing her apart. Because Peter wasn’t talking anymore, and he’s always in his room now, staring, sitting, doing absolutely nothing, but also feeling absolutely everything— and she couldn’t do anything that matters—)

But Pepper sits her down in her own kitchen table after a bout of angry sputter and waits until she calms down. It takes a while, but no one could blame her.

It is 34 minutes before May relaxes, for a bit, and she looks Pepper straight in the eye, mouth poised to refuse once again. But. Professionally.

Pepper beats her to it.

“May,” she is slow and careful, offering a smile to lower May’s guard, (it works, just a little bit), “I’m not trying to overstep my boundaries, nor do I take any pity on you. In fact. I think you’re an amazing mother. No doubt. But I can see it in your eyes. You’re tired.”

May snorts. “Aren’t we all?”

Pepper’s lips twitch into a small smile before continuing, “I want to help, May. Friday had been keeping tabs on Peter through Karen. He isn’t sleeping and he isn’t talking to anyone either—”

“I’m sorry but, how do you know all this? I thought Karen is only activated through the suit and I know for a fact that Peter isn’t wearing it anymore.”

“They installed Karen in his phone. It helps for emergencies when he’s just Peter.”

May slumps in her seat.

“He’s thought of everything, hasn’t he?”

Pepper’s eyes soften.

“Yeah.”

They share a tentative silence, with the buzz of the refrigerator being the only sound, and an understanding settles between the two women as they think of their two boys.

Pepper is the first to break it, voice beseeching, “There are billionaires, May, who are thankful for the ‘heroes’ for bringing their loved ones back. And contrary to popular belief, these billionaires aren’t as cold and greedy as they’re made out to be. Especially when they’re weeping with joy.”

May perks up to this. Money. She’s back to talking about money and May is ready to get back to refusing it.

“So, they donated a huge amount of money—funds. From all around the world, the Arabs, the Chinese, the British— money is coming from everywhere May. And it’s all to send the simple message of ‘thank you’.”

May doesn’t speak, too weary to start an argument when it’s not there yet, but ready to fight her way out when it comes.

“These are the funds we used to help rebuild the Avenger’s Compound, as well as the Stark Tower, back to the way it was before. We also used it to help organizations dedicated to bringing a semblance of normal back.”

At this, May starts, “Yeah, I’ve seen those around. They’re looking for people who have lost their jobs and been replaced during the five years we were gone, right?”

Pepper nods.

“I’m one of the lucky ones to be employed immediately. Nurses are a valuable resource after all.”

“Yes, they are.”

Pause.

May knows that look. She braces herself.

“But you’ve been overstretching yourself too much. And I think I can give you enough to go back to a healthy work schedule. For yourself, and. For Peter.”

Her voice lends a rawness that could only come from emotion, and May looks on as Pepper tilts her head sideways, eyes on the wood patterns but mind elsewhere, beyond— perhaps, on a certain man who once had a skin of steel and a heart of glowing blue arc reactor.

(She knows that look. She’s seen that look in the mirror more times than she could count. It is the look of longing, of memories, of searching— For May it is Ben. For Pepper it is Tony.

Both women sit across from each other in May’s old, rickety table. They’re broken, but they hold onto their cracks and do their best.)

It is a whisper, but May hears it nonetheless, “He needs you even though he doesn’t say it.”

May straightens up. It is unconscious on her part. Every moment of her attention overseeing her mind.

She thinks, first, of what she could say. She could be formal and polite. Distant. But there’s been a great deal of something hiding just underneath the surface, building pressure, day by day, and ready to burst from her at the slightest nudge.

And so, she lets it all out.

“I know, I know. It’s just—” frustrated hands on tangled hair, “He doesn’t see me anymore—” wild, desperate eyes, demanding answers¸ “and, he, my baby is suffering so much and I want to help so bad but he doesn’t talk no matter what I do, and there’s just so much I could say to him, so much I could pretend to be alright before I—” May gathers herself, steels her gaze on Pepper’s and breathes, “I won’t give up on him. I won’t.”

It’s a promise, when she says that. But then something breaks, and she’s helpless once again, “But I don’t know how I could help him beyond just being there.”

It is messy, and embarrassing, and there are tears now, God. But Pepper isn’t here as the CEO to a multi-billionaire company. No. With the way her eyes glow with unshed tears, and the way she is rubbing her arms and offering consoling words, May thinks she’s here as her friend.

She’s been needing that for a long time now.

So, when Pepper speaks, more murmurs, she is a little bit agreeable, a little more open than she was when they first sat here.

“The funds, May,” starts Pepper’s soft voice somewhere beside her, “they’re all for the heroes. They came in brief-cases with a card on it—for Spider-Man— and he’s not the only one, but he’s one of the heroes who fought for us all, and he’s getting the recognition he deserves, even though Peter doesn’t think he deserves it. You can use it to loosen up, so you could have more time with him.”

May is nodding, sobbing, yes, and also profusely thanking Pepper. Because she’s telling her the things May is afraid of telling herself. She’s being a friend, something May lost when Peter came back with red eyes, torn suit in hand and a gaping hole in his heart.

Yes, Peter’s earned this, even though it’s money and it’s not what he wants.

And May will take it because it will give her the time that she needs to help her baby.

--

It takes a little more than 36 minutes before May could calm down again, and when she does, they are sharing jokes and experiences.

They’re both mothers. And they both love two super-hero geniuses.

(Loved? May corrects, in a question. Love. Pepper repeats. May smiles. She knows the feeling of everlasting love for someone, even long after they’ve passed. And she feels warmth blossom in her chest, her mind screaming but one name, Ben. May doubts Pepper is thinking of him as well.)

May finds out that Pepper is living in a lake house, far from the city. She wonders, how that could be, when she’s so busy.

“Well, I don’t usually get to sleep there. But every week, I make sure Morgan and I stay there for at least a few days. The time spent to travel there is usually fun anyway, and I’ve got someone to cover for me, so… anyway,” she shrugs, “It’s home.”

This silence that they share is more comfortable, relaxed, and May feels closer than ever to Pepper. They’re the same. It’s almost uncanny.

“You know, you can visit there if you want to. Just say the word and Happy will be happy to pick you up.”

They giggle at the poor joke. And May actually thinks about it.

“That would be nice,” May ponders from her seat on the sofa. Pepper reclines on the other end. “Maybe I’ll ask Peter one day.”

They both wonder of different things.

A beat.

The fridge buzzes in the same way Tony’s chest does, but in a noisier, mechanical way. His has a more human touch, energetic but not robotic— and Pepper is comparing a refrigerator to her husband and she thinks it’s stupid, she snorts, and shakes her head free of the thought.

Pepper moves on to other topics. Away from fridges and chests and buzzing—

“Has he told you about the trip yet?”

Eyebrows furrow.

“What trip?”

Uncertainty.

“…the trip to SI, upstate.”

Explain?

“It’s going to be a camping trip, basically. Two days, and there’ll be a festival too. Peter might love it there. There’ll be all kinds of things we planned. Plus, he hasn’t been there since— for a long time. I kind of miss him.”

Sigh.

“When is this?”

“The day after tomorrow, actually. I came here because I was just finalizing plans with Jim. Morita, the principal.”

“Yeah… he hasn’t said a word about it.”

Sad smile. Soothing. Understanding.

Pepper reaches out to May’s hand, not uncommon in their whole interaction, squeezing it with an accompanying look of empathy.

“Peter is something special, May. Not just because of Spider-Man. The kid’s got a heart of gold. And… they’re right. It’s been a year. Maybe he needs a little nudge?”

--

 

 

Peter arrives just a few minutes after Pepper has left.

May thinks Peter didn’t come in on purpose.

She doesn’t have a chance to think about it longer because he’s striding across the hallway looking more tired than before.

This probably has something to do with the trip.

(Bullshit.)

This definitely has something to do with the trip.

(That’s more like it)

“Peter, honey, why’re you home so late?”

Peter mumbles something as he takes off his shoes.

“You know I don’t have your super hearing. You have to speak louder than that.”

May watches as Peter slowly rises.

His hair is more of a mop of curls now, than the fun waves they were. Before, they were tamable. Now they’re just a mess.

“’said I finished homework at Ned’s.”

He walks toward her.

His cheeks are hollow.

May knows he doesn’t eat as much as he should be.

Peter stops in front of her. He’s squirming. May raises an eyebrow.

“Just kidding, I lied.” She is taken aback by the sudden sweetness of his smile, her boy, “I was at the city, traffic was horrible and… I bought this for you.”

He’s nervous.

Peter stretches his hand in front of her, all baby blue shopping bag and shy eyes, “MJ and Ned pitched in.”

May throws herself at her boy, “Oh, Peter,” and relishes in his scent.

Peter rests his chin on her head. He’s taller now, she realizes. How much he’s grown…

“You can wear that, tonight. I also brought food. Ned’s mum cooked some really good pasta and I think he got her to cook your favorite crispy pata… happy birthday, May.”

He’s whispering in her ears. And May is brought back to the time when Ben was here, doing the same thing, with Peter tugging at her sleeves, excitedly showing off his presents as well.

She is confronted with the image that Peter is now at an age where he’s both Ben and her baby boy.

Sniffle.

She doesn’t let go for a while.

--

 

They’re dancing when she tells him.

“I’m cutting my hours at the hospital, you know.”

She is swaying with her nephew—more like son— in her new red dress that she thinks is expensive because it’s got this tag that looks like it could belong in the high-class parts of New York.

Billie Holiday sings a special rendition of ‘I’ll be seeing you’ just for them through the speakers of Peter’s phone.

“That’s great, May.”

There’s his third smile of the day.

And because of that, May feels a surge of confidence.

“We can take the day off the day after tomorrow. You and I. We could rent a hotel somewhere in DC just because we can, or go to that spring resort we’ve always been talking about. You don’t have to go to the trip and I’ll finally cash in my off-day—”

In her enthusiasm, it takes a while before May notices that her nephew has stopped swaying. In fact, he’s standing there, frozen and unreadable.

His voice is quiet when he speaks again.

“I never said anything about a trip.”

When May screws up, she usually covers it up with something pretty. It’s just her first instinct. So, she grabs Peter’s hands, and smiles, “And you don’t have to. Because you won’t be going, if you don’t want to.”

(Pretty promises, pretty useless)

But the damage has been done.

Peter is already agitated and he’s pulling on his hair, clenching his jaws and his eyes are just a split second from breaking into tears—

“Who told you about the trip? It can’t be Ned—he said he’ll stay with me, and MJ, she won’t just call you—”

“Pepper came today.”

At that Peter looks up, locking shocked eyes with May’s imploring ones.

“She misses you; you know?”

It’s not just her. I miss you so much too.

“She’s still here.”

I’m still here, baby, talk to me—

The way he clamps up is instantaneous. May almost regrets bringing it up. Key word: almost.

Pepper is right when she said he needs a little nudging. Peter is reacting worse than Ben, and he reacted worse to Ben than to his parents.

(May thinks, if he loses one more person, he would just slowly shatter to the point of no return, and so she promises to herself that she will keep herself alive just so Peter would stay alive.)

But Peter is striding into his room, almost slamming it in her face, and then locking it in record time.

May can only stand helplessly as Billie Holiday finishes her ballad.

--

 

 

“Surprised you came.”

“Tony.”

Stevie.”

“—THEY FINALLY ACKNOWLEDGED EACH OTHER! GET READY SUPERMAN CAUSE’ THIS PARTY’S BOUT TO GO DOWN!”

“Maybe you’d want to backtrack a bit you glorified chicken—

“—HEY!”

A wave of cheers and laughter resounded through the room currently decorated in red and gold. It looked like the Gryffindor common room if Peter actually received his letter.

He decided, as he looked at his chuckling mentor, that this is better.

It was a little thing he did. Really.

Peter resolved, a year and a half after civil war, and a few months of putting up with awkward team-ups in random battles where Captain America and his motley crew just randomly decided to show up, that he would have to end this… whatever it is.

Misunderstanding? Miscommunication? …break-up?

Of course, it was harder to contact them through normal means. Even asking Ned to send messages took a toll on the excitable teen.

Steve Rogers, no matter how simplistic Tony made him out to be, was ridiculously slippery and complex if he wanted to.

So, Peter chose the more direct route—

They were in the aftermath of another battle, and it was getting less awkward when you’ve shared a few quiet moments (of which weren’t as quiet as they would have liked because Spider-Man was so talkative—)

“Mr. Stark’s having a party later this week, and I have trackers all over your bases, so if you don’t, like show up, I might slip it into tv later—”

Jesus, kid, what do you want from us?! Isn’t it enough that you keep showing up to our secret missions?” Falcon exasperatedly asked from Steve’s left.

“I want you to apologize to Mr. Stark—”

“—you’re right Steve, this is a child!”

“Hey! …then this child just whooped your ass last year—”

“Bucky, friend, let me go, buddy, I need to teach this child a lesson—”

“Sam.”

“…fine.”

“I don’t know what you’re planning, son, but I don’t think it’s going to bring the results you want.”

“It is. I might have gotten into a little argument with him,” five hours of yelling and a week of silence, “But, he’s acquiesced. He’s willing to talk to you, at least. Plus, it’ll be my birthday party, so it’s more of my choice of attendees. I wouldn’t want my favorite part-time allies to be absent!”

THWIP!

And he’s gone.

And he’s here right now, a week after that night, partying with the whole Avengers.

He was prepared to show his identity to them when they came. But he wasn’t exactly upfront about it. And after ‘accidentally’ listening in on the current arrangement they’ve made through Natasha, (THE Black Widow…!!!) he found out they’ll be staying in the top-most floor in secret, only leaving in the dark for their missions.

It’s alright. This is fine. Everything is fine. This is more than fine, actually, it’s the best thing ever—

Until.

“Hey kid, this is your party after all. Take the mic.”

“I don’t- uh, sing, Mr. Stark…”

“Seeing as your best friend is Filipino, one would think you’d learn a thing or two about karaoke, right, Deeds?”

“It’s Leeds, Mr. Stark…”

(“Oh my GOD Mr. Stark called me Deeds—Hey mom can I change my name to Dee—”)

“And it’s Tony, little Spidey.”

Peter frowned. This was his party so he had the power to—

Almost everyone in the room, the Avengers, Pepper, MJ, Ned, Aunt May, and a few select Agents like Maria Hill, were all staring at him with grins on their faces (okay, maybe not MJ, that was stretching it too far.)

He looked to his right where Steve was sitting, calling for help because if there was anyone who could still turn this around it was him.

“Come on, son. I came here like you asked, didn’t I? I think it’s your turn to honor the end of your bargain.”

What— what bargain, Mister Captain America, sir?

“That you’ll do as the man says, or your aunt might find out about your other nightly excursions.”

Peter heard perfectly what Steve whispered. And he swore this was the most he wanted to punch that smug little smirk of the National Hero, Captain America, Steve Rogers, also, part time asshole

“We’re finally agreeing on something here, Rogers. Good for you, kid. See, we’re like, best friends already.”

Peter snatched the mic from Mr. Stark’s hand, glaring as he does so.

He didn’t know Captain America was a little shit. Maybe it was the 70 years of pent-up sass, or—or whatever, he couldn’t think anymore because everyone is looking at him like he’s about to give the world’s greatest performance.

The only performance he’s every given in his life was during first grade where it was really mandatory and—

And in the shower (“I don’t sing in the shower, I perform—”)

Peter snorted in his head, shook his head in defeat and sighed.

“FRIDAY, this is so sad, play This is Me from The Greatest Showman.”

He might as well have some fun with it.

--

 

“I am not a stranger to the dark… Hide away, they say—”

“—'Cause we don't want your broken parts—”

Mr. Stark?!

“Sing along kid, this is your time to shine!”

“Uh, right—ashamed—ashamed of all my scars… Run away, they say, no one'll love you as you are…”

--

 

Everyone was singing along.

Peter didn’t understand this.

Although, if he thought about it for a second, he might just.

--

 

It started with Sam, he might be annoying, but he got some good tunes.

“But! I won't let them break me down to dust! I know that there's a place for us…”

“—For we are glorious! Ha! I am glorious, aren’t I?”

--

 

They were all clapping, singing in varying degrees of good and… tolerable.

Peter stopped singing into the mic and yelled the lyrics with everyone, as the music reached its first chorus—

“I am brave, I am bruised! I am who I'm meant to be, THIS IS ME!”

Aunt May erupted in laughter as Ned knocked down the punch bowl in his eagerness to stretch his hands like in the movie.

They reached the several ‘Oh’s’ and even MJ was singing and swaying to the melody.

Steve was grinning, eyes wide with mirth.

By the bar, Peter could hear Pepper’s melodious singing and beside him, Tony’s surprisingly smooth voice.

Bucky, surprisingly singing along, started at the wrong beat, a second early for Another round of bullets hits my skin, and everyone was laughing.

They recovered just fast enough to yell out: WE ARE WARRIORS!

Wanda sung, “Yeah, that’s what we’ll become!” alone, blushed a bit but laughed along with the crowd.

They were stomping their foot, their bodies moving through the beat, chanting every line:  But I won’t let them break me down to dust, I know that there’s a place for us—

It’s Sam’s voice that went louder and longer than the rest, and again, he’s belting out, in a fit of passion, “FOR WE ARE GLORIOUUU—OUS!”

CLAP!

And they were back to the chorus, Peter filling with a type of warmth reserved only for family.

Steve started singing along, his voice a pitch lower than the song, and being so horribly out of tune. He and Bucky made eye contact and they burst into the most monotonous recitation of the lyrics, disrupting the singing crowd with more hilarity.

Natasha was tapping her feet to the beat, sharing looks with Bruce who was humming along.

After the second bout of ‘Oh’s’ that everyone enjoyed screaming together, Tony clapped his hand on Peter’s shoulder, handing the mic back.

And I know that I deserve your love.

Peter was shaking his head, refusing to upset the group’s chorus.

There’s nothing I’m not worthy of—

But Tony wasn’t hearing any of it. Peter did a double take, though, when the man took the mic to his hands and started singing, breathlessly, dramatically, “When the sharpest words wanna cut me do-ho-hown,” he looked at Peter pointedly—

ONE.

I’m gonna send a flood,”

TWO.

“gonna drown them out—”

THREE!

Peter took the mic to his hands, shyly singing out in his high voice, “This is brave, this is proof…”

He thought of that one moment in Camp Rock when Joe Jonas realized that Demi Lovato was That Girl and proceeded to sing along with his own lyrics, unprompted. Ironically, Peter mentally snorted, it’s also called ‘This is Me’.

(He was waiting for Phineas and Ferb and it was after this movie, he didn’t watch it—he didn’t enjoy it)

(Yes, yes, he did)

This is who I’m meant to be—this is me…!”

Peter looked up, and everyone was looking back at him. May was mouthing out ‘I love you’ and Peter wanted to cry.

Sam was belting out from behind him, matching the original singer’s vigor, “Look out cause’ here I co-ohoho-hom! Marching on! Marching on!”

It’s the third ‘Oh’s’ now, Sam was enjoying his time, and Bucky and Steve burst into their monotonous chant again but were hit by Clint with his rubbery arrow, encouraging them to (try to) chant in a much more tolerable tune:

Whenever the words wanna cut me down! I’m gonna send a flood! Gonna drown them out!”

“OOOOHOHOHHOHO--AGHHK!”

Peter couldn’t stop the tears that poured from his eyes and he thought it’s okay because Mr. Stark was actually crying now from all the laughing, and even Natasha was wiping her eye a bit because Sam bit on his own tongue and was now doubled over on the floor.

There was a crescendo in the music, of laughter and of friendship—

Maybe this is what happiness feels like—

“This is me!” Peter finished.

Tony was looking at him again, all crinkled eyes and lips stretched in a smile, “I’m proud of you kid. C’mere.”

And he was hugging him, Peter was shaking, he’s gripping him tight, so tight, he’s happy—oh my god, he is, finally—

--

 

 

He’s gripping his arms, he’s shaking, but he didn’t let it be too tight—“It’s Peter...”

Exhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, “We won. Mr. Stark.” Breath, shaky, breathe, Mr. Stark— “We won Mr. Stark…!” Come on, don’t—please—oh my god— “We won— we did it, s-sir, wedidit—”

There was a hand on his shoulders that did not belong to Mr. Stark, it was heavy but there’s something heavier in his heart—

I’m sorry, Tony…!”

--

 

 

Peter jolts awake— it is cold, dark and he’s falling—

THUMP—

He lands on his bed, breathing heavily, a sheen of sweat on his forehead, and he’s just exhausted.

The sun isn’t up yet, but he’s used to waking up like this. With a quick glance at the clock on his table, 4:23 a.m., he gets off his bed.

His shirt is wet with sweat so he throws it off in disgust.

He crawled on the ceiling again.

He hates it. He hates this. He hates—

himself.

Peter is as awake as he can be, and the claws of his dreams begin rushing into his memories.

“I’m proud of you kid—"

“We won—Ms’er Stark—”

“I’m sorry—Tony—”

He’s in the kitchen sink in a second, the water running, but it’s not enough. He opens the cap to the liniment oil and pours it in his hands. It’s menthol and he feel it’s sting on his face, his eyes and his lips. But it’s still not enough.

(It’ll never be enough.)

Peter cups the water in his hands and dumps it into his face, stinging, burning,

Hurting.

We won, it whispers, seething—WE WON, its yelling now, screaming at him. We won, Peter slaps his hands on his ears, go away—we won— it insists—

“We won…”

But why does it feel like he’s lost everything?

--

 

 

It is 5: 23 in the morning when May finds Peter curled up into himself, staring somewhere on the wall and into his memories, eyes red and liniment oil empty.

She walks slowly, carefully, and announces her presence, because the last time she didn’t, he started screaming and almost threw her to the wall and she wouldn’t dare let herself get hurt because it would hurt Peter more than it will ever hurt her.

“Peter, honey,” she coos, hands combing his hair, cradling his head into her chest.

Maybe hearing her heart beat will remind him that she’s still here.

“You can skip today if you want.”

He’s shaking his head no. It’s always been like this. He never missed a day in school since he came back. May doesn’t know if it’s a good thing.

When he talks, it is an angry whine, his eyes focused on the floor, with furrowed brows, “I don’t want to be me anymore—I-I don’t want to be Spider-Man anymore.”

May shushes him, nodding along, because of course, nobody’s forcing you to be Spider-Man, it’s alright, baby.

It’s not, he thinks, It’s never alright.

--

 

 

Ned would come over later that day, MJ in tow, because Peter missed school today. For the first time since a long time.

Peter had fallen asleep on May, sitting on their kitchen floor. And it had taken her a few minutes to settle him into his room, where he miraculously didn’t wake up from.

“The weeks of sleepless nights have finally caught up with him, huh,” MJ wonders to Ned after their phone call with May.

“I just wish the trip wouldn’t destroy him too much…” he squints at MJ, “You’ve known about this trip for a whole month. Why didn’t you say anything?”

MJ shrugs. “I can’t.” She rolls her eyes at Ned’s accusing gaze, “And it’s not just because of the whole confidentiality thing either. I thought about telling him but then he’d get all defensive and won’t speak to either of us. I mean, he already doesn’t but telling him myself would make it worse.”

Ned ponders over her answer before slumping on the couch.

“He’d find out about it in every scenario that I played in my head. And I played every scenario.”

This earns a chuckle.

“I’m glad that even after all this, you’re still kinda the same.”

“What do you mean kinda?” she put air quotes on kinda, “I’m the only constant in your life and I aint ever changing.”

MJ rests her foot on the small table in front. There. She looks relaxed.

(Even though that’s the farthest she is right now.)

“You’re more open now. To your concerns, with Peter, and, other stuff.”

Ned is sheepish in his observations, yet he is right. She huffs. So much for bravado.

“Well, getting dusted for five years does something to the human psyche.” Ned agrees with a “Hmm…”

“And it’s not even the ‘during’, it’s the ‘after’. It’s so disorienting, finding your younger sister moving on and growing without you. I’m just… compensating for lost time, I guess.”

They sit in contemplative silence, minds drifting afar.

That’s when Peter noisily ambles out the door.

The first thing they notice is his bleary eyes.

The next is that he’s shirtless.

And it’s not about how well built he is, either, it’s how thin he’s become that takes MJ aback. Not only that. MJ scans his hands and chest, and there are red scratch marks all over.

The first time MJ found out about it was from Ned. Apparently, since any wound would easily heal, Peter didn’t bother with blades. What he did though, was capitalize on his sensitivity and the way everything just magnifies in feeling.

She thought it was just the liniment oil thing. But apparently, he’s also scratching himself.

(“He’s not just scratching himself. You make it sound like it’s innocent. It’s more like he’s tearing himself open. Slowly. Agonizingly so.”)

MJ is immediately uncomfortable. Her mind is a whirlwind of snarky jokes and serious declarations. And she doesn’t know what to say, she never does

Instead, it is Ned who speaks first.

“Bro, we got an A on our Robotics project!”

He went for the Ignore Everything and Pretend Everything’s Fine route.

Typical.

“Oh… uh… that’s nice.”

Beat.

“Why don’t you wear a shirt, before we get to our little reunion.”

Peter flushes an embarrassing shade of red before yelping and coming back inside his room. There’s the trace of old Peter. So, he’s not completely lost after all.

When he re-enters the living room, it is to the smell of cinnamon and hot chocolate.

They brought one for each of them and kept one in the fridge for May.

Ned and MJ had silently agreed to do everything in their power to distract Peter of the whole event tomorrow.

Ned told MJ that he’d be staying with Peter. She was regretful, but tried to pass it off casually when she told him she can’t skip the trip because, “I’m captain of AcaDec, Nedo. It’ll be a busy two-days.”

So, when they got Peter to chuckle at that one Brooklyn 99 episode where Jake, the main character, started singing “I want it that way” with the men in the lineup to find the murderer, MJ thinks they succeeded.

Star Wars isn’t even a choice. Peter was too familiar with it not to blank out and think about somewhere, sometime, far, far away.

Plus. It’s space. That’s like, the biggest trigger.

Ned stands up as the intro comes up, hurriedly gathering the mess in his hands because he likes it clean even when he’s not in his own house.

But then a few seconds later, there’s crashing in the kitchen and Ned is rushing toward them before they could react.

Well, before she could react.

Peter is already running toward him, stopping when he spots the red and blue suit in his best friend’s hands.

“Ned that’s…”

Peter you can’t just throw away your suit like this!”

It’s desperate and tearful when it comes out of Ned’s mouth and MJ is shocked. This is the first time he’s shown that to Peter. Even MJ, who he has shared some tears with regards to Peter’s wellbeing, has never seen that before.

“Give that to me, Ned.” Peter’s voice is tight, and MJ is standing between them now. Ned’s clutch on the suit is strong and urgent. MJ thinks that if it goes down to a fight, Ned would be fighting till his last breath.

“Not until you promise you’ll keep it!”

He sounds like a child.

But Ned’s been strong enough for so long.

MJ steps in. “Peter. Ned.”

No, MJ. You don’t get to stop this. This has been going on for too long man—and I can’t pretend everything’s fine anymore. I won’t let go of this unless you tell me you’ll keep it. Throwing this out won’t do anything—it’ll just make an even bigger hole—”

“SHUT UP. Ned.” Peter has both hands on his face, eyes shut tight and tone biting.

“He’s right, Peter. It won’t help… denying Spider-Man isn’t going to do anything.”

Then what do you want me to DO?”

When MJ first saw this Peter, she hadn’t known what to do. She was extremely useless and forever grateful that Ned was there to save the day—to save Peter. But both her best friends are broken down, battle weary and she has a little energy to spare.

And so, she takes a step forward. Slowly, gently.

There is a wild distress in his eyes when he looks up and his hands are white and stiff as it digs on his cheeks. His fingers embed on his skin and she watches as he tears himself apart in front of them.

She puts her hand on his and slowly take his hands in hers. If it were up to her, Peter won’t be suffering as much as he is now. He’s gone through too much. So, she tries to be gentle.

“I think,” she is tentative, gauging his reaction, every twitch, every flicker of his face, “that if you’re going to leave Spider-Man, it shouldn’t be because you’re running away. It shouldn’t be driven by fear, Peter. It should be driven by acceptance.”

In an instant, Peter’s body slackens and MJ thinks he is passing out. But he’s standing still and he’s looking over at Ned, Brooklyn 99 playing in the background, hand outstretched, “Fine. I won’t throw away the suit. Can you—please give it back. Now?”

Ned is hesitant when he steps forward but he trusts his buddy with his life and he knows Peter won’t lie to him, and so he hands the suit.

(It’s the same suit they used to stare at with starry eyes. God they were boys back then. MJ would kill to have her boys back.)

Peter turns back and is quick in his strides.

“Where—where are you taking that?”

“In my room.”

SLAM!

.

.

.

“Well that went well.”

“Not now, MJ.”

“C’mon, Nedo, Brooklyn 99 is waiting for us.”

“But… is it really fine to just leave him like that?”

“He’ll come back when he’s ready. Hovering won’t help. Especially after sabotaging his self-sabotaging actions.”

“Ugh, MJ, I already hate myself for it—”

“Don’t. You did the right thing. Now. Let’s watch some prime comedy crime television.”

--

 

Peter can hear MJ and Ned from his room.

He’s regretting putting them through all this. If only he was better. If only he was stronger—then maybe he would be the one to put on that damned gauntlet— and Tony—Tony would be here—

Peter feels the fabric of his torn-up suit in his hands.

They are familiar and soft, and it feels wrong to hold it when everything has been foreign and rough for the longest time.

It is an unconscious act when he crumples it in his hands, fisting the cloth in a burst of anger.

And then he thinks of Karen, who is one of his most loyal friends along with the two outside.

If he burns this suit, would Karen die with it?

He can’t lose anyone anymore.

Peter drops to his knees—

(“What was that? Should we go in there?” “…No, I think he needs his time alone.” “I really hate this MJ, but… you’re right…”)

But Spider-Man… he was just too much of Tony for Peter to operate normally without breaking down into tears ever other minute.

 

He tried. Once. But it ended with him falling from the tallest skyscraper, and actually giving in to gravity, his eyes closed, mask folded up a bit so his lips could feel the air, and he’s fading, and thinking I’m almost there, Mr. Stark—

but the parachute activates and his web shooters move on their own, and he’s landing softly on the web.

Even… even after… even after he’s gone, he’s—Tony—keeps saving—

Peter doesn’t leave the web until the sun rises and he has 99 missed calls from May, a few dozen messages from MJ and a frantic, weeping Ned in his ear after successfully hacking Karen.

Peter doesn’t wear his suit after that.

But then he thinks of the times,

(oh you don’t wanna go there buddy, not if you want to leave out of this door with your composure—)

Peter lets himself flow into the better days.

The better days with Tony.

There, in the tower, where MJ and the rest of his school will be going in a few hours.

There, in the tower, where he and Tony became more than just Spider-Man and Iron Man, more than just student and teacher, more than just Kid and Mr. Stark.

There, in the tower, where he and Tony and Pepper and Steve and Natasha—(they’re gone now, too—) and Clint and Bruce and everyone became— became family.

Peter slaps his hand on his mouth. He can’t make any sound.

 

(All that leaves the thin walls are the strangled sobs of one Peter Parker, and MJ and Ned feel so goddamn useless—but Peter doesn’t need to know that—)

 

Letting go of Spider-Man means letting go of the tower, and he feels dirty just thinking about that.

But he has to try.

And so, Peter makes a decision.

--

 

Peter leaves his room half an hour after.

Ned is the first one to stand.

MJ sits and watches from her seat, giving all her attention to looking relaxed and slowing down her heartbeat because she knows he could hear it.

She almost doesn’t catch it, because he’s looking at Ned and he’s whispering. But Peter repeats it, when Ned asks again, because apparently, he still didn’t hear even though they were standing in front of each othe—

“I’m going to the trip.”

What.

“I’m going to the Stark Tower.”

--

 

 

Chapter Text

 

--

“Do you have everything you need?”

May is fixing Peter’s hair, pressing strands of unruly curls above his forehead. They fall on his face softly and May’s lips press into a thin line.

His hands grip the travelling bag, Ben’s initials engraved on the handle. Peter brushes his finger over it.

“I do, May. Besides, I don’t really need that much. It’s just for two days.”

“Yes, but.” May is wringing her hands like she is nervous, but braves on nonetheless, “You, uh, you have your suit?”

Figures.

“I have it in my bag.”

“Alright.”

The crowd around the school slowly fills with students and their parents. The air is soon charged with dormant energy, gaining momentum with every second. Wheels on asphalt, reassurances, and the commanding voice of teachers corralling students into manageable groups.

Something changes in May’s face, and Peter recognizes it as thinly-veiled concern.

“We can still book that hotel in DC, you know.”

Peter decides that this is the day May stops worrying over him. She’s been so much, and more. The least he could do is pretend for her.

(He’s been practicing, dark in the night, when his eyes are heavy and his shoulders are slumped. Even though it isn’t obvious, Peter can see everyone around him. More than that, Peter can feel everyone around him—sensitively, morbidly so. He can hear their heart beat faster, slower,

Stop.

He can see the way their lips twitch into an instinctive frown, and the way MJ’s voice sometimes wavers in the middle of a joke, and Ned’s incessant text messages of “Hey dude, where are you?” ever since he went missing the whole night, wearing his suit for the last time.

And May is standing in front of him right now, and its everything he listed and more. So, he tries to put it into practice.

Eyes, crinkle. Mouth, stretched, but not too much—just enough to get the eyes alive. Voice, soft.)

And so, Peter smiles.

It is bright and shining, and almost real.

Peter sees it in the way May steps back, with her eyes wide and mouth slightly open. And she melts.

“I’m sure about this, May. This is the surest I am of anything.”

He sees it in her eyes, the second she concedes. She put her arms around him.

It is tight, and everything Peter needs right now.

“Alright, honey. Be safe.”

“I will, May.”

And off to the bus he goes.

--

 

There are about nine buses of students and teachers that fill the road.

Peter, Ned and MJ sit in the three-seater side, Peter being by the window and MJ by the aisle.

It is half open and Peter watches the barrage of colors as they pass by. Wind breathing on his face and neck, and he is brought back to the sky, swinging through New York with left over adrenaline from a battle won and the special type of euphoria that only comes with the knowledge that he saved a life.

Peter used to love being a hero.

But now…

 

Ned is chattering to an unresponsive MJ, something about the morbid novelty of Rogue One and the superb acting of the cast—Felicity Jones, especially— and MJ is, wait, she’s actually engaging in the conversation.

She’s in the middle of a passionate spiel on female lead franchises on Hollywood and their value to young girls around the world when she notices Peter staring at her.

MJ’s voice dies in her throat and she settles on sending him an acknowledging nod. Ned swivels and exclaims, “Oh dude! I forgot to tell you, that robot we have…”

Ned goes on about the bot Peter had little hand in making.

Peter listens and smiles and jokes.

He can feel MJ’s stare and Ned’s increasing exuberance, grin bright and arms dancing around. And his heart just softens for his two best friends.

Peter wonders what he’s done to deserve them.

 

--

 

Later, when the excited chatter of students dies down to a few murmurs, and Ned let himself fall to the atmosphere, to the sleepy, relaxing aura that only a 5 am trip upstate can give them, Peter falls into his thoughts again.

(MJ is asleep with her book tucked in her arm. Apparently, the teachers had been making them work extra hard for the festival. Sleep was a beautiful, rare gift to STEM students, especially to those in the captaincy of idiots and, well, she’s a bookworm. So, you can shut up for a while Ned, or so God help her.)

(Ned is snoring and MJ’s head is resting on his shoulder. Peter wonders when they have gotten so close. He can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment.)

(Peter can only look at the same things over and over for about an hour before he would run out of things to distract his loud thoughts.)

(There is a fly whizzing past the window—and SPLAT— it’s dead.)

He stares at it for the longest time before he hears MJ’s sleep-laden murmur, “Staring at it won’t bring it back, doofus. There are other, much better things to look at.”

“What, like you?”

Snort.

No. Like, Ned, when I finish drawing on his face.”

Peter shares a mischievous look with MJ. But. It still doesn’t quite distract him long enough to finish thinking—

 

(Peter used to love being a hero.

But now…

He just wished he never became one.)

 

--

 

It is insane how fast everyone breaks out of the morning spell. Thirty minutes before arrival, and the bus full of students is bursting with energy. It is no secret that everyone is both excited and nervous for the events in the next 48 hours, and everyone agrees that whatever it is, it’ll be something they won’t forget.

They are met with a wide expanse of green fields.

The air lends a cooler touch than the smoke-filled city.

And everything just feels a little bit more majestic.

The grounds they stand in are holy and the glory translates into every student.

Abe is screaming to someone, “DUDE- THIS IS LIKE- THIS IS- WHERE- THE BIG GRAPE DUDE—AND, AND IRON MAN—"

Ned yawns in that exact moment, stretching his arms wide and squatting down to exercise his jelly legs.

Mr. Harrington yells at a distance, “Okay everybody! Gather your luggage and follow the designated leaders for each group.”

At this, Principal Morita walks toward them, hand behind his back and eyes scanning the students.

“I’ve already talked to Pepper. Kindly lead them to that building over there, and a woman will be waiting for you to scan your bags. It’s for security reasons.”

“Of course, sir.”

“And, Leeds?”

Ned looks up. The Principal gesturing to his face.

“You might want to check the mirror.”

Ned is sputtering, demanding for a mirror before gathering his wits and using his phone instead—head whipping toward the chuckling MJ and her AcaDec cohorts taking pictures.

“This is bullying! Bullying! And oppression!”

“I don’t think you know what that means, Ned. It’s more… ah, friendship. And revenge.” MJ muses devilishly.

“If you’re talking about that one time—it was five months ago seriously--!”

The principal watches for a few humorous seconds before turning to another teacher at the other bus, Harrington corralling the students into said building.

Peter gives Ned the baby wipes Aunt May packed in his bag, the latter thanking him profusely while glaring at the perpetrator, that traitor MJ.

Peter can only smile secretly.

--

 

As they walk, Peter takes in the compound. Wide, grassy hill and a lake out the back. Up at the top of the hill stands in all its grandeur, the Stark Tower. A few buildings, all with floor to ceiling windows, surround the property at the bottom of the hill. Some interconnected while others in different designs stand alone.

That’s the cafeteria—the brown, two story one.

And that’s the quin-jet pad.

A few more meters in front of them is the largest and widest building in the whole property. The Avengers Compound.

“And this is where we will be staying. Two floors of it, all to ourselves. Remember to thank Principal Morita by being respectful and active during the festival.”

The students stare in awe as the building pans from their view.

 

Whoa, man, I’d rather not leave at all!”

“How long do you think I can hide here before they find out?”

“A millisecond. There are agents here, Charles. Agents. They might not shoot you but they’ll scare the shit out of you and you’ll be high-tailing it out of here.”

“I know you’re like this MJ, but, wow, extra burn today?”

“I swear if you’re trying to tell me I’m hot, I’d rather not hear the rest of it.”

“Okay first of—”

“Rather not.”

 

(The only reason they are using the Avenger’s Compound is it’s the only building big enough to accommodate the hundreds of students while still being able to function enough with its hundreds of employees.)

They enter the compound through two automatic sliding doors. A few employees are already bustling through, paying them no heed.

The interior itself is high-class and efficient. There are a few sofas by the left side, the complementary newspaper-stand and a coffee machine. The prevalent colors are blue and silver, keeping it professional and sticking to the original.

Their casual High School get up suddenly looks out of place in contrast to the High Brow setting.

But it doesn’t stop them from making their usual schoolyard noise.

 

“It smells of progress and innovation in here!”

“That’s not a smell Sally.”

“Shut up Charles.”

 

They fill half the lobby, spacious as it is. They needn’t have to wait though, as a woman walks toward them with purpose.

“Good morning, Midtown High!” She greets, “My name is Lisa and I will be helping you set up so that you could move on to the more interesting parts of this trip— the tour, for one.”

A wave of anticipation passes through the students. But before it could take on a life of its own, Lisa starts walking toward the right side of the building, where a grander and more high-tech version of the detectors in the mall stands.

“Please follow me to the security scanner. This is called the VEIL— and, yes, as in the veil from Harry Potter. They named it like that because once you pass through, it is said to be akin to entering a new world. Perhaps, even a world as spirited and novel as the one in the books.”

She nods to herself and then adds in reaction to the student’s awed faces, “Tony Stark was indeed very dramatic.”

 

And apparently read Harry Potter.”

“He could have just watched the movies.”

(Peter corrects them mentally. He read and watched the movies. Six times.)

 

“You will be going through the VEIL in five’s, so as to preserve time. As you go through, your bags will be scanned for any forbidden objects and you will be handed a pin, this one,” Lisa pulls out a red pin with the Stark logo on the top of a rectangular plate, her name in clear white print over the black background.

“This is for both security measures and log entries. We record every one who comes in and out of every room or building, and in the event of losing one would result in lots of paper work, so I implore you stick it on your person at all times.”

Lisa levels them all with a look before pulling out a red, metallic bracelet.

“On the other hand, this is your Repulsor jets—”

WHOA, DOES IT—”

No, it does not emit the same energy beam as Iron Man’s does,” Lisa interrupts.

“It’s purpose,” she starts, wearing the bracelet on her dainty wrist causing the pin on her chest to color into a bright yellow, her name into black, “is to segregate the students into the area in which you will be participating in the festival tomorrow. It also aids as tracking device, so that we could keep track of where everyone is, and help us ensure the safety of every student and teacher in attendance.

While it is usually just our ID’s, and not a bracelet, our boss, Pepper Stark-Potts allowed for this prototype to be used solely by the students of Midtown Tech. It serves as both an instrument and a piece of art because tonight, just before the bonfire is set to flames, you will all be participating in the tribute to our late former-CEO, the great, brilliant mind of both the Stark Industries and the Avengers, Tony Stark.”

A moment of silence hushes over the group. The other employees who are slowly gaining in numbers also pause and bow their heads in respect to the hero.

Peter hates every second of it.

And he is monumentally grateful that Lisa is swift in paying her respects.

“Therefore, this,” she gestures to the bracelet, hand displayed to the students, “will turn into this.

The red metallic ring on her wrist suddenly expands with a flick. It spread into her hand, like nanotechnology but used as a toy thing

The school erupts into a variation of surprise and delight— the first real sign of the Stark Technology—and soon to be in their hands!

One could feel the energy really taking a physical form that second, and the whole morale of the school transforms into a massive ball of vigor, its potency reeking of inspiration to discover and to take apart the metal bracelet just to see if it would—

 

“No, Ned, you can’t open the bracelet just to see if you could turn it into a horrid amalgamation of your robot and other similarly horrid ‘toys’.”

“But—”

“No asses.”

“That was… crude even for you MJ.”

 

Lisa clenches her hand, now covered in red nanotech metal, and then flexes it open to reveal a blue light shining from the core of her palms.

This is when they truly lose it.

 

“WhaT THE FUCK—”

“HOLY SHIT MAN—”

LANGUAGE—LANGUAGE!”

“Oh my GOD, I can’t believe it. I’m crying through the sheer ingenuity of this company’s technology…!”

“I gotta admit, this is— this is, wow.

“Miss Lisa! Can I talk to the scientist, or any, who was able to make nanotechnology as accessible and reproducible to this magnitude? I’ll be writing an article about it for the Sci-Tech page in our school’s publication.”

Lisa smiles apologetically. “I’m sorry miss…”

“Betty Brant.”

“I’m sorry Miss Brant, but the one who was able to do that was Tony Stark.”

That shut them up.

“But you could talk to some of the scientists who have worked with reproducing it. They would know more than enough. She’ll actually be coming here later on.”

Betty nods keenly at that, writing down notes on her phone.

“Any other questions?”

At this Peter meekly raises his hand.

Lisa points at him so he would speak.

“Can I, uh, use an ID tag instead? I’m not… comfortable with, uh, using the nanotech.”

Everyone is staring at him like he is doing something incredibly wrong.

Ned is bracing himself, ready to think of whatever excuse or pull off distractions.

Lisa speaks, slowly, “I don’t think we can print out an ID at this rate. The tour and festival are a special event even for us here in Stark Industries, therefore the tags are unique as well. We don’t have the available scientists who could code the tag’s data into a normal ID. If you have special needs, we could definitely—”

“No, uh…” Peter fishes something from his bag, and then raises it for Lisa (and everyone) to see, “I already have one…”

The woman’s brow furrows so low that it could have contested the Mariana Trench. She strides swiftly toward Peter, who is uncomfortably shuffling in his spot, and then takes the ID in her hand to examine it.

The school watches as she gasps, eyes wide in amazement, “This is the version of the ID’s before the snap! Its brothers have been deactivated and discarded into the fire. How come you have such a priceless thing?”

It is as if she’s forgotten everyone here and is hounding Peter for answers. It seems like the students aren’t the only starry-eyed beings in the building.

“I was an intern—for him—personal—”

Whatever he is saying, it doesn’t matter because Lisa is already walking toward the pillar of the VEIL. She scans it through a screen and when it turns green, Peter relaxes.

“Well, you’re alright, then.” Lisa hands him his ID, muttering, “I still can’t believe those exist right now.”

She then takes command once again, clearing her throat, “Now that everything’s settled, kindly form into your groups and pass through the VEIL. All in order.”

After that, everything goes as smooth as Peter could have hoped.

Friday hadn’t reacted to his ID tag, as he had been afraid, and everyone else is too enthralled with their nanotech bracelets to be paying him much regard.

Lisa leads them to their floor.

It is four times the size of the lobby and is empty to the boot. It is like a large gymnasium, sans the seats and stage. How they pulled this up is just one of the few testaments to how efficient and resourceful Stark Industries is.

“Girls and Boy will be in different floors and each space in the floor will be divided into different groups. That will be the different clubs and roles each student has according to the festival. Your tags will reflect that order. Please view the wall to the right for the legend.”

Peter casts a quick glance at the wall, identifying the green that Ned’s tag possesses. Robotics.

Technically, Peter and Ned could also sleep beside the AcaDec boys because they’re part of the groups as well. But since Ned seems to be possessed with the idea of joining their robot for the tribute section, Peter squeezes in with the robotics club.

Peter would follow Ned wherever he wants to go, as Ned had him.

And it wouldn’t be right to complain. They aren’t like sardines here at all, as someone in his class had voiced in concern earlier.

It is so huge, in fact, that the hundreds of students would still have a quaint enough space not to pass out from suffocation. Plus, the ceiling is high and the ventilation cool.

The Stark touch on the building is massively impressive and it is a sentiment echoed across the room.

The girls are herded to the upper floor, where they are to stay.

Peter watches the view from their floor, the greens of the grass and the slight ripples in the lake far back. He can hear the birds as they chirp nature’s song, the sun’s heat slightly warming his cheeks.

This might just be as peaceful as he’s going to get.

 

--

 

Turns out, it is too much for Peter, to find peace in the place where everything changed—is changing (it is a constant, breathing thing, this change and Peter don’t quite know if he likes it or not).

The field envelops his sight and he just want to run.

But he can’t because then people will see him when he should be in the Avenger’s building right now.

So, he walks instead.

 

Someone is following him and their eyes are boring a deep hole in his already vacant heart. He continues on his trek to nowhere, and ends up behind another building opposite the one they’re staying in.

Peter stops.

They stop as well.

“What a thing to pull off, Peter.”

It’s Flash.

Of course its Flash.

Peter thinks he walked down here on purpose. But his mind has been muddled for a while now and he doesn’t dwell on it.

Instead he waits.

(It doesn’t get lost on him how Flash used his name and not the petty insult he is used to hearing.)

Peter watches as Flash inhales heavy, painful breaths. He is poised like a predator eager to tear his prey apart, to make it bleed with every biting tone and to watch it fall, the light in its eyes barely a flicker, until it dies, tortured. He knows that’s what he intends to do. Peter submits.

And, as always, Flash delivers.

His eyes hold raging contempt, shaking in an anger that is barely held back and when he speaks, it is venom on acid and Peter bathes in it.

“I don’t even care how you did it,” Flash spits, “It’s just… watching you back there pulling out that fake ID, thinking you’d fool us all, it makes me want to jump of a bridge from how fucking low you’ve gone. It’s just so fucking pathetic.

Flash is gauging his reactions, eyes dissecting his every move. Peter doesn’t give anything he might be thinking. But Flash is relentless.

“Pathetic Penis Parker,” he tries again, “Picking up every breadcrumb of attention and pity from anyone who’s stupid enough to fall for it. See that garbage out there? That’s you. And it’ll always be you.”

Peter is still silent, his mind a sponge and heart a puddle, but Flash doesn’t know that and his perceived calmness only serves to ignite a vehemence in Flash that Peter had only seen once before.

It gains a darker energy, builds up momentum and Flash is shaking with unrestrained fury—

“I just—I don’t understand how you keep doing this—” his hands are in the air, “how you keep acting like you’re sad, what— I’m poor Peter Parker, my parent’s died when I was a kid, my uncle followed a few years later, and apparently, Iron Man looked at me like I was special, and he’s dead now too— so now I’m a sad motherfucker—!

Peter’s breath hitches and the gravel is hot on his feet. He wants to run but he can’t move. He knows that if he runs, he won’t ever stop.

And I don’t know why you keep going like that, like, like it’s going to change anything—because I can tell you it DOESN’T!

Flash’s voice is the only thing he can hear right now, and it echoes in his soul.

Flash isn’t finished.

“How can you stand there and, and pretend that there was ever anything between you and Tony Stark?! As if you don’t have enough people kissing the very ground you walk on.” It is a bitter hiss, and he ploughs on with something more potent, fingers trembling as he points at Peter with all his anger, “How can you stand there and mope and act like you’ve lost something when you have nothing to cry about—because I—” Flash slaps his hand on his own chest in a forceful manner that could only serve for pain, “I LOST MY FATHER TO THE SNAP AND YOU LOST NO ONE—”

Flash’s eyes are red from both anger and tears, body charged to accuse and invalidate and hurt, and he continues, “How dare you be sad— when I—I can’t even be sad or, or angry, because I’m not special like you and I don’t have an aunt who understands— because if I get sad? Who knows if my mother can’t take it anymore and shoots herself in the head just like my father did—”

Peter is in front of Flash in a blink and he’s holding him, well, at least trying.

Flash recoils so bad at his touch and his tears feels warm on Peter’s hands.

He doesn’t know how to comfort people, but when Ned or MJ or Aunt May hugs him, he always feels a little bit relieved every time.

Flash doesn’t.

Flash hates Peter.

That’s why, when his senses scream at him to dodge, and his eyes catches Flash swinging his clenched fist, Peter doesn’t move at all.

One hit.

CRGHKK—

His teeth clenches and his mouth bleeds.

Flash is shaking him, holding him with his shirt and he’s screaming again—

DON’T YOU TOUCH ME YOU PATHETIC PIECE OF SHIT—DON’T YOU EVER THINK—THAT ANYTHING YOU CAN DO WOULD MATTER—BECAUSE IT WON’T—”

AGK—

Peter falls on the unforgiving asphalt and Flash is pushed to the wall.

What the fu—”

And

SLAP!

The slap reverberates throughout the otherwise silent woods.

MJ stands before Flash, towering over and glaring at his soul. Her heart beats lubdub lubdub lubdublubdublubdub, and she’s gritting out her words.

“I don’t know how hard it is to lose someone, because I was lucky enough to never have been through something like that before. But I know someone who does. And every day for him is a battle. And he wins just by living, day by day by day, even though I know he never feels like he’s winning.”

MJ’s eyes are piercing, but if Peter looks harder, he might see the beseeching look she has, trying, pleading for Flash to understand something.

“So, if there is anyone who would know how you feel it would be him.”

Both MJ and Flash look sideways to Peter who is wiping the blood from his lip, his jaw numbing from the forceful punch he took full on.

MJ is no longer hounding Flash, but as she crouches to help Peter stand up (even though he can do it by himself), she mutters loud enough for Flash to hear, “You’re not the only one in pain, Flash. And maybe, if you ask nicely, you won’t have to do it alone.”

Flash watches Peter and MJ’s backs, as they walk over the hill in this pleasant morning. He leans on the wall for support and tries to catch as much air as he can.

As they disappear into the distance, Flash’s knees give out and he lets his tears fall— blue and sorrowful— unbridled.

Somewhere in the sky, the birds fly freely.

 

 

--

 

When Peter and MJ arrive, it is to Ned waiting anxiously at the entrance of the other behemoth building, standing the tallest, the one and only Stark Tower, at their feet.

“Where the hell did you go, bro? They’re already starting! Let’s go in before we get in trouble—wait, is that blood?

MJ brushes past him, “It’s okay, I talked to Flash already.”

The answer only incites more questions for Ned but he trudges on, giving Peter a concerned look.

The cool waft of the air conditioning greets them, a faint smell of scented humidifier somewhere in the corner, and the combating voices of their classmates completing the atmosphere.

They can hear Mr. Harrington announce from the front, “…per grade level, and each grade level will be managed by student officers. Please, do your best to muster all your composure and respect from those shriveled up hearts of yours. Or so God help me.”

Some glares, some chuckles.

One walking toward them with a quiet, certain confidence claps his hands, calling, “And God is on his way to help you!”

Everyone turns their heads in unison.

A tall man with tousled brown hair is grinning at them, his joke ignored but his person irresistible. Some girls begin swooning, one unapologetically catcalling, and a few boys are fanning themselves.

Peter hears more than sees Flash enter the building, standing at the back.

“Hello,” he greets jovially, “I will be your personal narrator throughout your trip!” his hands are in the air, welcoming the teens. To their quizzical looks, he sighs and says in a more dragging tone, “A tour guide, I’m your tour guide. If you care for boring introductions.”

In a second, he snaps into his cheery bearing, “Midtown High! Welcome to Stark Tower!”

The students clap at Mr. Harrington’s leadership.

The guide looks at said teacher, “And it’s alright, Mr. Teacher, let them be kids and assholes— those two go hand in hand… I know I was back then.”

If it is possible, everyone falls deeper in love with him after that.

“I’ll be entertaining any questions during the trip—ooh, eager, aren’t we? Yes, Miss…?”

“Cindy!” squeaks the teen.

“Ah, what a lovely name! Yes, Cindy?”

She blushes as she asks, “How old are you and can you be my date for prom?”

Everyone’s eyes are on either Cindy or the surprised man.

He quickly schools his face into that of cool ease, and then to contemplative and considering, “Well, I want to, but I’m afraid your parents might file something against me,” he chuckles, inviting the others to follow, “And as the right hand man to Pepper Potts and the Head of Technology as it currently stands, I can’t really afford that.”

Peter hears Sally muttering to the embarrassed Cindy, “Well that was worth a shot. Thanks for taking the bullet for us.”

“Anyway!” he exclaims suddenly, making the ones in the front jump, “As it is, I seem to be taking the,” he squints at a nearby tag, “tenth graders! Come on veterans, let’s march on. To here. We have to activate your tags and gauntlets. Fall in line, and swipe your bracelets into this screen. Come on, quickly now, so we could get the boring stuff over with.”

As soon as the first student does as the man said, everyone starts bouncing in anticipation, the nanotech tickling their inner childish wonder, and, for some (the robotics club), their demonic mischief.

Alyssa Alaiza, Visitor Access. Level: Tourist.”

At this, the students whoop and cheers in surprise, gushing and looking for the source of the voice.

“Or not. Apparently, security check & log is exciting,” he grins and watches them wistfully, “Man, I miss this easy pleasure.”

Then, he points to the ceiling, “That was Friday. Our resident A.I. She is special because she’s one of the few A.I.’s that Tony made. Friday is one of the last five, not including JARVIS, who was Tony’s main A.I. before it translated into Vision.”

Betty Brant is taking every valuable information in her phone’s notes app, nudging and glaring at her fellow student journalists to record and document the whole thing as well.

And so, time passes in a leisurely pace. Once most of the students have crossed the border, MJ looking over and Ned’s encouraging nods, (with Flash who isn’t looking at him like he’s the scum of the earth), Peter hesitantly swipes his ID.

From his spot on the other side, currently answering Betty’s rapid-fire questions, the man quirks his brow at the ancient ID—

(Ancient isn’t quite the word for it, since it had only been five years, but it is as prized and rare as one. Possibly, the last one, if Pepper had thrown hers off into the fire with theirs).

He is about to question Peter, mouth open in dialogue, until—

 

 

Peter Parker, Executive Access. Level: Master.”

Everyone freezes in their spots, a collective—What— passing through their heads, and in unison, observes in curiosity as the blushing teen fumbles in front of the screen.

And then, more human than any A.I. could possibly sound, and even more thought-provoking:

“It has been a long time, Peter.” The teen slumps, the brunt of having to answer their questions on the A.I.’s supposed knowledge of him weighing on his shoulders.

But of course, that isn’t all.

“Please proceed to floor 98,” my room, he thinks.

 

 

The next thing Friday says would be recorded by Seymour in his phone. In fact, he’s been recording everything since the interview and he takes the opportunity to catch the whole exchange, Peter at the forefront of it all.

They would replay it later, to confirm if everything that had happened had actually happened, but they still wouldn’t believe it even after watching the exact events play through.

MJ would then be forced to bribe and threaten Betty Brant, through force and feelings (Ned), not to write anything about this. She would be hard-pressed, because Betty had already thought of a headline—and she is already planning on putting it in the front page.

The blonde would be aggressive, but Betty would take one look at Ned’s pleading face and she would remember the history of Peter’s suffering through her special moments with Ned, and the affection wins over, because Peter is her friend as well.

Sally, though, is not part of the school publication and MJ would have little time before she posts it on Instagram, Peter’s stricken face in the screen.

She would later delete it, but it would have done its damage.

The video would spread into the other grade levels and Peter wouldn’t be left alone, without anyone staring or whispering or speculation.

Sometimes, kids should be kids, but if it is at the expense of her friend, then MJ wishes others would mature faster.

 

Because Peter doesn’t deserve to be treated as a mystery to be solved (even though, at his core, he is one of the greatest mysteries our there, and one of the purest discoveries either).

Because the world doesn’t deserve to see the way his face crumples in absolute devastation, discomfort collapsing, replaced with crushed hope.

Because no one, absolutely no one, should have access to a video that displays so cruelly the exact moment when the broken boy breaks even harder—shaking knees and white grip and pressed lips and hastily blinking eyes.

But MJ withdraws her judgement a little, because she knows that when they clicked that red button to record the video, all they thought was that an A.I. from this legendary, multi-billionaire company, knows their impressionable classmate, and that no matter how brilliant he is, there are other more brilliant, more experienced people, so how could that be?

Because at that moment, they didn’t think that Peter was so much more than he looks, and that there would be something waiting to shatter the moment the A.I., Friday, speaks her next words.

 

 

“Your room is the way it was when you left, Peter. Please proceed to Floor 98. It has been a long time. Boss is waiting for you.”

And there, there, that’s Peter breaking right at that second.

And MJ thinks, how cruel, just when Peter might be getting better, getting stronger (Moving on? Not quite, not yet. But. Close enough.) And now we have to start again.

When Peter gathers enough of his composure, and MJ can see its rocky foundation, he speaks, quietly, “…He’s not, Fri.”

Nobody questions the nickname, but they do the insistence of the bot.

“Peter, please proceed to Floor 98. It has been a long time. Boss is waiting for you.”

How can an A.I. sound so terribly fragile?

Peter clears his throat but it is still thick with emotion when he bites out, eyes on the floor, fingers digging into his palms, “He’s really not.

MJ could predict the coming of a new wave of something for Peter. She doesn’t quite know yet, other than that its going to be big and that he’s going to hurt a lot.

 

Mr. Harrington is the first to break from the spell of the events and tries to get the attention of their tour guide, who is also trapped in something deep, if the way his mouth stays open and his eyes trains on Peter’s every move is to be taken for something.

“Right—uh, I’m sorry, Friday gets that way sometimes.”

The attention is effectively split between Peter and the guide, some looking to the man for explanation and others waiting for something to unfold.

Peter is frozen in the middle of the VEIL.

“After the war, Friday’s code got damaged by the stones and while we tried to fix it, Dr. Banner and Princess Shuri working to make it as efficient as it was before, it had been a unanimous decision not to override Tony’s program. So, as it is, Friday doesn’t quite grasp the concept of life and death. For her, Tony is still alive.”

“Tony is alive.”

It is Peter who says that. Sharp, pleading, desperate.

“He is,” the tour guide agrees, somber, “His physical body is gone now, but that doesn’t mean he’s dead in the way that it matters.”

Peter wants to hurt this tour guide ‘in the way that it matters.’ His words are practiced and he hates how he speaks it with such steadiness. He’s been hearing variations of that since the day that he came back and every time he hears it, he just wishes it would be enough to bring him back.

But as it is, Friday just speaks again.

This time, it is begging, “Peter Parker, please, come to your room right now. Boss is waiting for you—”

And before Peter could scream at the ceiling, at the void, at whatever or whomever, because no he’snotwaitingforme FUCK YOU formakingmeeventhinkforonesecondthathe’sback

The man, their tour guide, all tousled brown hair, and all traces of that boyish grin wiped off his face, gasps, “Wait—Friday, shut up— did it say your name was Peter Parker? Peter the chemistry geek, star-wars loving, the- the kid?

This distracts Peter long enough to abandon his thoughts.

He answers, wary, “…yes?”

The way the guide’s face beams at him and the way he jogs excitedly toward the younger boy has Peter backtracking. But he is hugging him already, and while Peter could just so easily knock him down, he knows he couldn’t, not in front of everyone, and so he allows himself to be smothered.

The man is patting Peter’s head when he lets go, looking at him with something akin to pride and wonder, marveling at the sight of this young boy, “Look at you,” he crows, pride and a little bit of something Peter doesn’t quite understand, “I thought you’d be shorter with how he used to talk about you. But I guess, the last time he did was his memory of you in eight grade. What I’d do to have him see you right now.”

A hint of nostalgia, a truck-load of affection, and Peter is as dumbstruck as everyone in the group.

“I’m sorry but… who are you?”

In a second, his whole demeanor changes into the same old quiet confidence as he had introduced himself with, mischief swimming underneath, and a thumb on his chest, “Why, I’m no other than the mechanic’s original and faithful conspirator!”

A roguish grin decorates his face.

Then, he offers his hand to Peter’s.

 

 

 

 

 

“Nice to finally meet you, Peter. I’m Harley. Harley Keener.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

-- 

“Nice to finally meet you, Peter. I’m Harley. Harley Keener.”

Harley holds out his hand, a warm expression enveloping his face and Peter had never felt so accepted by someone who he barely knew.

And he feels unsettled because here was this guy, talking about him in a way that suggests intimate familiarity when Peter barely knew him. But the way this man, Harley, described him also tells that this intimacy only comes from a second-hand fondness from someone.

Peter stands frozen, trying to analyze the situation, but not knowing if the answer he is presented with is the answer that he can accept.

Harley is still looking at him expectantly and the seconds stretch out uncomfortably.

Sensing that his mind is failing him, Peter submits into his bodily reactions.

Which is the worst possible thing to do.

Because—

 

 

SMACK!

“Oh shiiit…” someone mutters above the silence.

There is a spilt second when Peter thinks Mr. Harrington will jump out from behind and maul him like a rabid bear, and another when the fear of that happening is instead replaced with—please Mr. Harrington, please feed me to the lions—

But then Harley is laughing, (at him? Peter doesn’t know, and he doesn’t particularly care to find out—just get me out of this—)

He’s shaking his right hand, red from where Peter slapped it but there isn’t a trace of animosity in his laughter.

In his peripherals, he could see Ned with his face on his hand and MJ is shaking her head in an agonizing, ‘I’m disappointed in you’ kind of way.

Peter thinks this has been going on for too long, and too much attention has been given to him already—so he grabs Harley’s hands, and starts shaking it vigorously.

“Ni-nice to meet you too Mr. Keener! I’m, I’m Parker Peter—Peter Parker—you can call me Peter—”

In hindsight, there was probably too much Peter in just one sentence.

Harley cringes and is chuckling lightly when he says, “Just Harley, Peter. You make me sound too old. I’m like, 21 man. No need for formalities.” And then he leans forward to Peter, whispering, but not quite quiet enough for the one’s in the front to miss, “Plus, we’re both Tony’s proteges. If you want, you can call me Master Harley instead. Since I came first.”

Peter couldn’t believe this.

Here he is, having the crisis of his time and this dude—this Harley— is just ripping one joke after another and it’s not even funny.

He nods, though, afraid of upsetting the older man and whispers in return, “I think, I think we should start with the tour now Mr. Ha— Harley.”

He laughs again, and Peter envies the way he can do that so carelessly. Like he doesn’t feel a permanent weight lodged into his throat, and the world isn’t grey and blue and unfriendly.

“Forgoing the Master, then. Great choice. I was only messing with you. You’re already smarter than the rest of the other interns.”

Harley then turns to address the group of tenth graders, “I’m sorry for that, but Pete here is someone I’ve been meaning to meet for a long time now. If you could forgive the distraction and delay, I might bring you to the cafeteria for free ice cream.”

The whole group collectively cheers— free ice cream is heaven even for stressed and emotionally burdened tenth graders—no, scratch that, it’s especially heaven.

And for Peter, it might just save this day.

--

 

Harley is leading them through the third floor, discussing the history of Stark Industries and answering questions from the naturally curious students.

“See, this tower was built after the first one got sold. They thought it better to relocate the tower close to the Avenger’s facility because Tony was technically it’s biggest private contributor…”

Peter is actually enjoying a little more than he expected to, MJ muttering snarky comments that make him and Ned snort and Ned pointing out things that tingles his inner creator.

He has never been here before. So that probably helps. There is actual beauty in discovery, something wonderful that puts some color in Peter’s eyes. He is seeing the tower in a new perspective and he feels a certain lightness that could only be felt when you’re recognizing that something has quite changed.

And for the better this time.

They pass by the different floors— skipping every four floors after introducing each department: Public Relations, Accounting and Finance, Management, the lot.

They arrive at an almost empty floor, where the sky is clear for everyone to see. It has chairs and tables scattered around, and a small bar by the end of the wall. Opposite that is an open wall, twenty floors above the world and the students are running toward the balcony.

Harley lags behind, appreciating the view of lively students.

People are too serious nowadays. Especially in this company. The lightness that these students share is rare.

He wishes, as he looks around, that everyone is like that.

The sky is still blue in the morning sun, the air, despite being warmer, still sends chills in a way it only could from being so high above.

“You can take pictures, you know!” He calls out.

The teens rush to get their phones out, someone dropping it and cursing the other person out for surprising him in childish fashion.

Staying behind are three particular students: One, female and only pretending to be bored. When you look closely, it is quite evident in the way her eyebrows quirk and her lips tilt that she is, indeed, enjoying herself. She moves to take her sketch pad out when the other, the second, a boy who looks like he could be the face of warmth, nudges her and juts his chin out to the third member of their group.

Peter.

Pete.

The kid.

…as Tony would say, in the rare times he spoke of him.

 

Harley remembers, as he stands behind them all, the first time that he did.

It was a few months after the snap, and Tony had looked for him in his childhood house. He had been surprised, then, that Tony had remembered him and somehow went out of his way to look for him.

And for whatever reason, he had seen the relief and warmth that spread through Tony’s eyes when he opened the door, reflecting what Harley is sure was in his eyes, as well.

So, they were there, sitting in front of the lake, talking. It was something they would do after their routine but nevertheless grueling mechanic teamwork, just before Pepper called for dinner.

Tony had been especially quiet, letting Harley do all the talking. He spoke of his school and adolescence after Tony, how he finally stood up to the bully and gathered up the courage to spark up a romance with one of the more timid but incredibly brilliant girls in his school.

When he went on describing her propensity for chemistry, Tony spoke out of the blue. His eyes were looking far into the woods and his voice was as calm as the lake.

“I had a kid once,” Tony started, Harley startled, “who had a knack for chemistry. He was one of the smartest kids I know— smarter than even I was at that age. He was always talking though, you could never hear your thoughts with him,” Tony scratches his neck, “But most of the times, I think he does it for me.”

Tony paused for a moment and said, “Now that I think about it, you’re roughly the same age.”

Tony looked at Harley then.

 

And it was at that moment that he knew that this kid was something of the stars because whoever made Tony look like that was someone so special that a man so tormented as he could look so soft and compassionate and vulnerable.

 

There were no tears then.

“You know, you could have been good friends.”

 

Only regret.

 

Harley pushed the tip of his nose, as he does when he’s prodding, and asked his mentor more about this kid.

Is he your son? I never thought you had a kid. Is Pepper the mother?

He was never one to tread carefully. That’s probably one of the things Tony appreciated about him, when everyone was always eggshells and whispers around the older man.

He had learned, later as they watched the sunset, and the ripples of the lake reflected the orange hues and darkening surroundings, how beautiful, he thought, that his name was Peter.

And that he wasn’t Tony’s son biologically, but that he might as well be.

 

 

He was there when Morgan was born, and was there to take care of her and play with her (the way he used to hate when his sister was still there), to cheer with Pepper and Tony as Morgan took her first steps and to laugh during dinner later that night.

He was there, as well, much later in the night, and every other night, when Tony would take recluse in the kitchen, washing the dishes as an excuse to linger and look at the framed photo just behind the vases, on the shelf above the kitchen sink.

He was there to experience it all— Tony Stark in all his domestic glory, living the happy life. Present enough to see that no matter how much Tony tried to hide it, there was always a shadow lingering on his face when he thought he was alone.

 

 

He was there, when Peter had not been.

 

 

And he might have felt envious once, because no matter what he did, it always seemed like he was following Peter’s footsteps.

But Tony was a good father and becoming better every day. He never once compared the two. In fact, he would always compliment him in that sincere way he never could do when they first met.

Tony also never talked about Peter on his own, after the first time. It was always after hours of urging or wondering out loud, that Tony would sigh deeply and then tell stories of their adventure together.

It seemed the jealousy was only his mind being possessive when he didn’t need to be.

He had thrown it under the well and forgot about it as soon as he realized.

At some point in the night, after he learned that Peter was obsessed with Star Wars and that Tony used to call him either ‘kid’ or ‘Pete’, Harley concluded that he would have loved to meet this wonderful boy just so they could bear arms and torment Tony in their inane chatter and devious antics.

He would submit to sleep at some point, drench in regret that they had never met in this lifetime. Maybe if they did, they would have been good friends. Best—brothers, even.

And they could be a happy family together (even though he would never say that to Tony).

(He wouldn’t have laughed though.

Tony would just have nodded, and agreed, because deep in his heart that was all he wished a well).

But as he lay his eyes on Peter,

Pete,

the kid

He wonders if that could ever come true. Not just because Tony is gone now, but also because Peter is so obviously lost as well, to the point that it takes his two friends a few minutes of talking to him before he would notice.

And when he does, he is smiling, strained and so obviously fake that Harley calls to his troupe of adventurers back to the building.

--

 

 

“—no it’s not a bad emergency… it’s a pretty good emergency actually! NO! No, don’t activate mark 98, jeez Mr. Stark. Just, come outside real quick, I’m almost there anyway, I can see the tower already."

He could hear the exasperated sigh Tony gave and the clank of the screw driver he was probably holding to fix Rhodey’s mechanical leg.

A few moments later and Peter had arrived at the Tower’s balcony, and was waiting for his mentor to appear.

When he didn’t, Peter called him again, “Mr. Stark, come on, the emergency is really, really urgent in a good kind of way but if you miss it, it’ll be bad in no time!”

Tony replied from the stairs, calling out, “What is it this time, kid? I thought you were busy at this time with that decathlon thing—”

But he couldn’t finish it because Peter was already grabbing his arm in earnest, pulling him towards the edge of the balcony with no sweat, talking a mile per second.

“WeneedtohurryupMis’erStarkorwe’llmissit!

Tony took his hand back, rubbing on it from the force the kid unexpectedly gave in excitement, “What exactly will we miss? Is this the world ending? Or is this just some Pitbull throwing up again because even though I love your company, kid, some things are just—WOAH- What the hell?!”

Peter didn’t heed his mentor and proceeded to completely web Tony to his body, the two of them back to back, and just as he was aiming for the skyscraper nearby, Tony jerked to the side so hard that they fell on the floor.

“What the hell are you up to, Peter!”

He wasn’t angry.

More… fearing for his life, confused as fuck and haven’t slept since yesterday surprised.

Not that it mattered because Peter was steadying himself again, this time taking a little time to get used to his mentor’s weight.

Which wasn’t much, since he already swung Ned back and forth a few times.

The only thing that he got as an answer was Peter distractedly mumbling, “You don’t get to enjoy the air as much as I do because of your mask and you always head straight to the tower— so, I’ve thought I’d show you something. Hold on, Mr. Stark, this’ll be funNNN!”

By the end of his sentence, they lurched forward, swung and then went into a few seconds of weightlessness before lurching again, and again and again, until he stopped screaming bloody murder and saw as the red-orange hues, transformed into a beautiful, darker indigo—

Peter was whooping from behind him, laughing in exhilaration.

Tony let out a breath, and then he’s laughing along with his son.

(Son? …uh, yeah, I guess… yes. Son.)

It took a few more minutes of absolute thrill before Peter slowed down and settled on a skyscraper.

They were stuck together for a few minutes, Peter catching his breath from laughing too much before he tapped Tony’s hand and said, “You can activate Mark 98 now, Mi’ser Stark. To, uh, cut this off.”

Tony did as he told, ignoring the fact that he had been quite content just sitting there, back to back, muscle to muscle, father to son.

When he finished brushing off the webbing, Peter was already settled on the edge, looking at something from afar.

Tony turned and when he looked,

Ah.

He took his time to walk toward Peter, watching for a few minutes the view in its most beautiful form—his son, sitting there, basking in the beauty of the sun, unbeknownst to him that he was part of the magic of it all.

He might have taken a few photos of it as well, but if Peter knew, he didn’t address it.

Tony then decided that he would very much like to experience it with him, instead of letting the kid sit on his own, even though he knew now that the beauty would be stained by his own callous image.

Yellow, red-orange, and indigo reflected on the light of Stark Tower, the gradience a piece of ephemeral art, the noise below just an afterthought and the kid beside him the most precious of them all.

Peter spoke, his chin resting on his hands, knees supporting his torso—and Tony wanted to pull him back, don’t lean too far, kid, you might fall, but then he remembered that this is Spider-Man after all—better yet, this is Peter and if it was between the two of them, it would be his kid to survive the fall.

“See this, Mr. Stark? It’s so magnificent—just the way the colors set on the tower. It’s so breath-taking… do you see?”

Tony nodded, letting his silence speak for itself.

“No, you don’t. Not usually. Because you’re always hiding in your lab… afraid of something I can’t pretend to understand. But this,” he presents with one hand, “this is something you created. This beautiful view, you created that. And I hope you understand that you made something this wonderful.”

There was something in the way Peter said it like he was upset that tugged on his little heart more than he cared to dwell on. A lump on his throat formed and he just nodded until he thought it safe to speak.

“Tony. Call me Tony… son.”

And the way Peter turned to him, the wide eyes, tearing up and the brightest smile ever, almost made it worth getting toppled on the ground by a super-powered kid who probably didn’t know that he was already crushing his bones with that damned (--really enjoyable--) hug.

--

 

 

The last students are just arriving on the sixtieth floor, the group having skipped the other floors in favor of the top ones (“It’s all just storage and security, anyways— uh, very important, no doubt, but still incredibly bori—”), when Peter notices the familiar place, his fuzzy, comfortable mind suddenly drenched in ice, cold, Northern Pole ocean water.

Peter tries his best to concentrate on Harley’s voice.

“Now, everyone, beyond these halls is a place that has never been seen by outsiders before.” Harley is grinning widely, eyes bright in anticipation to everyone’s reactions. His words spur the desired effect of gearing everyone’s enthusiasm up to 11, “This place is where the magic happens,” he presses on a button, and a large metal wall opens up— cool, sterile air wafting in— “Behold! The Laboratories!”

Peter jerks forward, the hair in his nape turning up and before anyone could react—

BOOM!

--

 

Peter is gliding across the hallway, familiar as he is with the directions. It came from far left, the special lab—

He almost passes through it, sliding and then catching himself—not a time to be wasted because something was burning--!

Peter wonders at the back of his subconscious, why Friday hasn’t activated the security measures yet, other than the red lights and the consistent eenk-eenk-eenk that speak of the emergency, but doesn’t dwell on it as he runs in the smoking room, typing up the codes to activate the fire-repellant and to bring Friday back online.

When the smoke let up, leaving through the vents with the help of the exhaust, he is met with the furious face of one Princess Shuri in a smoke-coated white dress.

But the ruined dress wasn’t even what she seems to be angry about, splitting eyes honing in on one of the trembling interns to her left.

What have I told you about trying to fix Friday? You DON’T!”

By this, the lights have turned back to white and Friday announced the stable situation.

Harley comes in, the students in tow, assured that whatever it was that happened couldn’t be worse (or is bad bad, cause’ it’s Princess Shuri, when is it not?)

The students stand by the wide door, some peeking and some gawking at the royalty before them.

Others, completely enthralled with the idea of the monarchy, goes to bow and someone fucking kneels—what the hell—

Until, of course, Shuri laughs, forgetting her ire at the intern, and waving them off with a, “No, no! You don’t have to do that, I mean, you should, lemme get my phone first—”

This is when she spots Peter, eyebrows furrowed in confusion and shock.

She hums, “You! You’re the one who ran into the lab, right? You accessed the A.I. when I was quite busy wanting to rip my intern to shreds,” she side-eyes the man cowering by the computers, “You are…?”

Squint.

Lean forward.

Ah.

“…the broken white boy in the wa—MPH!”

Right then, Peter jumped for the Princess, covering her mouth with his hands and much too caught in the fear of being exposed than to remember who he is and who she is and who is watching them right now.

CLICK!

“Holy shit, Peter’s screwed~” someone whistles.

“This is like, the third time now, why does this keep happening—”

 

Peter let go of the princess but not before screaming at her, through his eyes, not to go about revealing his identity as the former Spider-Man.

Harley, ever the sharp one, cuts them off in the middle of a wordless debate, “Everyone! This is Princess Shuri of Wakanda, a dear friend, prankster and vine master. Also, one of the leading developers in Stark Industries. She’s part-time here, but has already contributed a lot, so there’s that.”

The crowd claps in reverence, starstruck.

Shuri nods sagely, “Yes, yes, no need to clap. I already know, I’m the wisest, most knowledgeable vine master there is.”

The clapping slows down in the group’s uncertainty but Shuri is already chuckling again, dismissing them.

“Well, you’re Midtown High right? You’re here on that super special tour. Enjoy your exploration. Maybe if you find my trusty screw-driver, I’ll bring you back to Wakanda.”

And then she leaves.

Only, not completely. Because she’s halfway out of the lab and into the other side of the room when she turns her body and everything but her voice is laughing at the group, “What? You don’t want to explore it with me?”

Harley saunters toward her and claps her back, beckoning the others to follow.

The students scramble from where they are on the other side, careful not to touch anything despite desperately wanting to do so, because if the intern that actually can touch something here has earned such wrath from the Wakandan prodigy, then, they would rather cut their hands than do so.

At the back of the group, Peter sighs in relief as no one had tried to make too much of his involvement.

--

 

“While Stark Industries is an established technological company, it is primarily the place for any sort of advancement in the scientific field. If I look back to it, I think our people at the Accounting department had also contributed to some improvements in the whole financial system as well, so we can also take credit for that. With Princess Shuri’s involvement, we’ve also taken to spearheading developments in the medical field.”

It was a wonderous place, the medical bay. There were all sorts of high-tech stuff that not even the most advanced hospital has.

Peter looks on with a sense of familiarity that does not go away no matter what he thinks of.

The med bay is something he is well acquainted to, despite how much he reassured May it wasn’t that often he got hurt during a patrol.

Shuri leads them through a series of hallways, still inside the Medbay, where another laboratory stands.

“And this is my special lab,” she announces. The lab is spacious enough, but Shuri presses a button that opens up the walls, allowing everyone to actually come in and watch the Princess.

She is taking a few vials from the refrigerator, prepping the table while Harley does the introduction for her.

“This is where she is currently developing her cure for cancer. Now—yeah, I know everybody’s doing it, but we got something really special here right now and with Shuri’s mind in the medical field, they could only gain more for it.”

“This,” she presents, a brown vial in hand, “is called the Palytoxin. Anyone knows what it is?”

Peter has his hand in the air the moment she asks the question, answering in an even faster rate.

“It’s the second most toxic organic compound there is. Synthesizing it is called an effort similar to climbing the Mount Everest alone and without any tools because it is so complex and widely undiscovered. There are no current methods of extracting that yet—not that is published.”

Reciting that was a rush for Peter. It certainly distracted him long enough to drown out intrusive thoughts. And this was Chemistry. No one would know why he knew about that other than the fact that he’s a nerd even among nerds.

“Indeed, white boy.”

“Peter,” he corrects.

“Would you like to play?”

“Uh… not really…”

What the hell is she asking him?

“Who else isn’t a scared wittle kitten?”

Everyone raises their hands and she hones in on one Ned Leeds who is the most excitable of them all.

“You there, the one jumping. You’re?”

“Ned Leeds, Ma’am-Princess-Professor!”

“…I think Master would suffice, young padawan.”

Peter enjoys the way Ned sputters.

Having been acknowledged and spoken to by the princess was one thing but to find out that she, too, shares the same love that he does for Star Wars is another thing altogether.

“So, I’m guessing you have some sort of experience with tech before.”

Ned is nodding excessively, “Robotics team, ma’a—master. Vice President!”

“Good, good,” Shuri says, tapping a few transparent buttons from her bracelet. She produces another one from the table and gives it to Ned.

It is so obvious how this means to Ned, to be holding a piece of tech that Shuri herself made—and presumably of Vibranium.

“Wear that and then click on the biggest pearl. After you do so, place it on the table.”

Ned does as he is told, the others curiously observing and expecting something impossible to happen.

When he finishes, everyone is gasping in amazement.

The bracelet projected something in blue—a molecule of complex formulation that the others can just imagine if their teacher would think to use that in one of their exams—

And what is even more astounding is that Shuri was touching the hologram and it was responding—!

Peter could just imagine Ned having the loudest freak-out he has in his head, even though he is just standing there in quiet astonishment, looking as if he might pass out right now.

Shuri is talking to Ned, trying to instruct him over the noise of awed students, and when she finally pokes him, the first thing that leaves his mouth is:

PUTANGINA—”

“Did you just curse?”

Everyone immediately shut up. A gaggle of students at the back still buzzing until someone hisses at them to shut the hell up, Ned just fucking cursed and the Princess is furious—

Ned is frozen in his spot beside the princess, not knowing how she could possibly recognize the curse word.

But Shuri ploughs on, basking even, at the attention, “Because we don’t curse in this goddamn motherfucking house!”

She turns to the students in the forefront of the group, grinning widely and looking expectantly. Peter could see the moment she deflates in disappointment. But before she could address it, Peter is responding:

“…shit!

And they’re both grinning at each other now, a form of kinship developing in that one act of recognizing the reference. They’re allies now, Peter feels, and he relishes in the elation at making a new friend.

The first student to snap out of it other than Peter is Abe, and he’s slapping Charles’ arms, “Princess Shuri knows Vine! What the ever-loving fuck did we sign up to—”

“And apparently she knows Filipino,” Betty observes, phone in hand.

“Yes, well, another fun fact: the Philippines hold the best source of Palytoxin. And I might have befriended a few of the student researchers there,” she grins at Ned, an unmistakable glint in her eyes, “and I know all the curse words.”

Ned is flushing and apologizing but there is also a look of awe at his childhood home being recognized by the princess of the most advanced country there is.

 “Now,” Shuri manipulates the image, zooming in, causing the molecules to unravel across the room, through the student’s heads, blue light enrapturing the whole room, “this is how I started with discovering the synthesizing process…”

It is a complicated subject, and the most intelligent in the group are struggling to follow, but at the end of it, they’re satisfied with having learned something despite how exhausting it was.

After an hour of speaking in nothing but science, Shuri is answering the last question posed by Betty (“What message do you wish to send to the students of Midtown High?”), ever the diligent journalist.

“The scientists of old said that the Palytoxin is the Mount Everest of synthesis because they didn’t have the tech they had today. Or, the tech I had and made.

Palytoxin is one of the most lethal compounds there is. In fact, a dose as small as 2.3 micrograms could kill half of us here. 64 micrograms of it inhaled could riddle us with illnesses and a faulty lung for years.”

Everyone is starting to fear the compound as they listen to the ongoing list, but this is what Shuri hopes for—

She raises her finger, as if to add something pointedly, “But, if manipulated correctly, this compound could also cure cancer.”

Shuri smiles at the reaction, satisfied at having continuously astounded the group of students in front of her. It is rare, even in this ‘progressive’ world, to be 17 and be unanimously respected by your peers, so she takes every care in the way she words her message.

“Everything has its pros and cons. The only thing that matters is how you decide to use it. The scientists who first handled this behemoth of a compound only knew it for its lethality. But they stuck their heads out as far as they can reach and discovered the beauty that it possesses. So now, we reap its benefits.”

Someone claps before awkwardly stopping midway, the princess not being finished yet.

“So, I want—no, need— you all to be smart enough to be aware of the cons of anything, and still choose it for what it can give. Because once you do, that’s when you know you’re doing something that matters. Every day, and every minute of that day, you’ll be out there, contributing to the benefit of humankind. So, don’t give up on it, because someone out there might need you to hold on a little bit longer.”

Peter stares at her as if she is speaking to him directly, but she doesn’t even look at him.

The laboratory is filled with applause, and Betty is cheering the loudest because she has the perfect article now and the day isn’t even over!

After it has died down, and the students have left the lab, its walls closing down to its normal size, Shuri walks toward Ned and gives him the bracelet.

“I deactivated a few features there. And don’t attempt to hack it,” (Peter knows he will, and Shuri might just be daring him to), “But you gave me the best opening for a vine reference so this is my thanks to you.”

Peter hadn’t seen Ned be this red in the face for a long time. Red, for all the right reasons.

Peter thinks, as he listens to Ned gushing and realizing everything for the third time like it just happened, and Shuri is nodding at him like she expects him to come back, that this trip might just be worth it.

--

 

Not.

Fuck, it’s not.

 

--

 

 

It was late at night but the sound of metal on metal, a curse and shuffling enveloped the room.

Peter, the little shit, was laughing at Tony who hit his own hand after suavely declaring that he should, “Learn from the master.”

He was cackling on his chair when his senses told him to fuck all and run but then Tony was already in front of him and covered Peter’s face with his hands— motor oil and callouses and all.

 

 

--


“This place used to be owned by one of the best inventors here in SI,” Harley explains.

It’s his room.

It’s where they used to tinker and bond.

And there are murals. Everywhere.

Some obvious, and some not so much.

But Peter sees them all.

And more.

There are ghosts that haunt these walls. The ghost of a past that was better than today. Peter just wants to run.

--

 

 

It was one of their impromptu dinners, where they were both coincidentally hungry as if their stomachs communicated to groan at the same time.

Tony finished his meal first, and Peter was only getting started with his third helping when it happened.

He was distracted and dazed and hungry, so when Tony reached him and mussed his hair and said, “Well, enjoy your dinner kid,” the only thing that registered to him was the affection that spread in his chest at the last gesture.

So, no one could blame him when the next thing that he said was:

 

“I love you too.”

And it took half a second before Peter’s eyes widened, and another second before he started choking on his shrimp.

The night ended with Tony performing the Heimlich maneuver on him, a red-faced Peter to a laughing Tony, a few minutes of sobering up and then an honest, “I love you too, kid.”

 

 

--

 

Memories are scars on his mind. And Peter can’t help but remember everything that happened in this tower against his better judgement.

(There is no judgment. There is only feeling. So much of it that it leaves Peter numb until he lets go.)

 

(He can’t.

But he’s trying.

That’s why he’s here.)

 

They pass by numerous labs and spends an hour at the room displaying Stark technology at its finest. The StarkPhone, the Super Computer, and even some that Peter wasn’t there when it was being theorized. Must have been during the five years.

His classmates have stars in their eyes and a permanent look of awe.

MJ is asking a scientist about the Water Purification System that they designed to help the third world countries and Ned is torn between trying out the Super Computers to hack the bracelet or to discover everything in the lab first.

Peter thinks of what Ned could have missed just because he didn’t want to go.

Peter hates himself for being so selfish.

Harley is calling them all again to the hall and is talking about something he can’t understand because he is leading them to an enclosed bridge and Peter has the perfect view of the other side of the hill, the former Avenger’s compound and the field

And it all comes crashing down on him, harder, heavier and more forceful than ever.

 

 

--

 

 

(A memory pierces through his mind, without his permission.)

 

 

--

 

 

Steve was walking towards them, slow and deliberate and uncertain. He made his presence known to Pepper who had just said goodbye in the bravest way possible: with a kiss and a smile, and the promise of being alright.

(Even though they might not be, not for a long, long time.)

And Steve took a long look at Tony, every memory, every word passed his mind’s eye, and he whispered, “I was wrong Tony.”

Because he was. And Tony proved himself to be the man who was more than anyone ever gave him credit for. Save for the few of the best people.

He placed his arm over Pepper, holding her like Tony should have been doing instead of him. And he tried to stand strong. For them.

It’s the least he could do.

After a few minutes, Steve gently lowered Pepper’s hands. He exchanged a look with her, all asking and red eyes and barely-beating heart despite its insistent pounding, and she understood immediately.

Steve thought of Pepper and how among all of them, she has been the most consistent pillar in Tony’s life and thanked her, deep in his heart. Because she had been there for Tony all these times, when he had not.

And she might feel like she’s falling apart now, but he knew that if there was anyone brave enough to pick up the pieces of her heart, it would be her.

Pepper is strong.

Rhodey was also there. One of the best men he knew, who had just lost a brother. And Steve knew they didn’t deserve this—no one, especially not—

He heard Peter collapse on the ground, yelling for something to happen, for someone to bring him back, but it reached no one, and he was wailing and he was thrashing and—

(He’s a child and he shouldn’t be in a war, let alone witness his father die)

(—for the third time—)

And while Peter was strong on his own, Steve also knew that he’s already suffered so much.

Lost too much.

And Steve—he knew all too well how that felt, when he thought he lost Bucky.

It was like living, but as a burden. And then as an oath. Only, the burden never really faded, and he felt that he should have died there, sometime with him. So, he gave everything to his battles, was more reckless and uncaring and relished in his own blood and bruises and pain—because if Bucky died, then he deserved no more than to die as well, but slowly and more painfully. Alone, maybe. Even though it scared him. Because that was how he died.

And Steve— he was afraid that that’s what was going to happen to Peter.

Because as he looked at Peter and listened to his cries, he could hear his pleads and the desperate voice in his head screaming, asking, that they should “TAKE ME INSTEAD—”

He had been there, and he wished Peter didn’t have to be.

But they were here now, in this battle-torn field, with the smoke and the blood and the pain.

This was what Tony left the world in.

Scarred, dark and ugly, but with hope rising in the horizon, along with the blazing sun.

And while he couldn’t do anything more than what he wished he could, this was the least he could do.

And so, when Steve tucked his hands underneath Tony’s knees and behind his back, he held him with all the gentleness that Tony should have been touched with more, when he was alive.

His knees scraped a few jutted out metal, but this pain in his chest and the pain in the wailing child’s voice was a pain that overwhelmed even his bruises from the titan.

So, that was where Captain America found himself. Surrounded by his allies, after winning the war, but feeling like they lost something greater.

Still.

He stood there.

And when he did, he did it for everyone.

He stood, even though all he wanted was to kneel in shame, and beg and apologize (because it shouldn’t be Tony, or Peter, or anyone but him).

He stood, not for himself, but for those who needed it the most.

He stood there when it should have been Tony standing because he had a daughter and a son—he had a family who needed him, when Steve could only wish for his own children.

And he should have been the one to die for the world because at that moment, it was who needed him the most.

Right now, Morgan and Peter and Nebula were the ones who needed Tony the most.

But he was gone now.

That’s something he couldn’t do anything about. It’s something he couldn’t solve by making a sacrifice. It’s something that could only be surpassed by living, despite desperately not wanting to.

So, Captain America, Steve Rogers, and the trusted friend of Iron Man—of Tony Stark— walked on, step by step, by step. And in every step was the painful reality digging into his bones, piercing his flesh, numbing his mind, that Tony was truly gone. And his apologies wouldn’t ever be heard again, and the cries of the kid wouldn’t ever be silenced, not for long. He would know.

He held Tony in his hands— limp body, eyes closed, and arc reactor pitch-black.

With every heavy step, their allies converged behind them, Pepper grieving by his side.

And Peter—

Well.

He was being carried by Banner.

Too distraught for anyone to let him walk by his own.

For now, they could help carry the weight of his own body. For now, they could at least allow him to weep and feel without responsibility, without thinking of anything but—

 

 

Steve led the march of the warriors, heads bowed and mourning, and he let a single tear fall.

--

 

The walk was slow and somber.

It was like an echo of emptiness, and an army of grieving souls.

When they cried, they didn’t only cry for Tony and Natasha.

They cried for the kid in Banner’s arm, choking and writhing and gasping, and feeling.

(breakinghurtingdying—)

They cried for the people they knew would feel like he was feeling.

They cried for everyone they left behind.

--

 

When the first reporters arrived at the scene, they asked the questions first, saw Tony second, realized what happened, and then wept.

The whole world would know, later, and they too, would weep.

Somehow, it wasn’t enough for Steve. Because it would only be enough if their tears somehow brought Tony back. But it couldn’t. And so, they come to terms with the fact that they’ve lost a hero.

And Morgan, and Peter, (and Nebula, and everyone Tony Stark loved with that large heart of his—) have lost a father.

--

 

 

Peter has learned to suppress his tears when they come from nowhere.

It always happens at the most unexpected moments.

Sometimes he’d be sitting in class and someone would be saying something Tony would use to say all the time and he’d be blinking back hot tears.

Or sometimes it would be at the streets and he wouldn’t know not to look because it hadn’t been there before, and it would be too late because now he’s seen the graffiti of Tony’s face, looking so vibrant.

Or, most often, he would be closing his eyes and Tony would be there, in the darkness, mussing his hair and laughing with him, calling him kid, in that affectionate way he does and Peter would only hope to God that nobody could see him because it takes a few seconds and a few short tears before he could gather himself—

He succeeds, now, when he remembers the march back to the better side of the battlefield. It was slow and he doesn’t remember walking.

When he turns around, he is alone in the hallway, all arches and suspended mid-air, connecting two buildings.

And Ned is running from the other end, eyes wide in alarm, so Peter’s response is to run too so he could be there fast enough to protect them—

NO PETER DON’T GO IN HERE! DON—”

It was a big mistake though.

Because as he turns the corner to where Ned was, a glaring AVENGER’S MUSEUM above the door, and students over glass walls and listening to a narrating woman,

There she was.

Natasha.

Grinning at him the way only she can with her eyes.

“What…”

Somewhere from afar he could hear a woman speaking, “…Avengers was originally rallied by Nick Fury during the Battle of New York in 2012. Together, they fought on multiple battles both on Earth and on Space. During their mission to bring back the Shadows, the team lost Natasha Romanov for the soul stone…”

“Hey there little one.”

That was something only Natasha called him, in their little self-proclaimed Spider-club (at the knowledge of Ant-Man’s existence, he had suggested it be named the Bug Club, only to receive a disappointed look from Natasha.)

And Peter doesn’t know what to do.

Because in his dreams, she was never this detailed, never this vibrant.

The way her voice lilts to a teasing tone never sounded this real, and the creases in her clothes as if she had just been tugging over it has never been this tangible.

She has never been tangible.

He can hear Ned and MJ from his side and they’re calling for him but he ignores them and walks forward.

He tries to think of how this is possible, is this—is he hallucinating?

Is this the first real sign that he’s truly, well fallen apart?

But therapy is too expensive and May couldn’t--shouldn’t spend on him more than necessary—

He doesn’t have enough time to think about it because Steve is there, walking toward him.

Everyone else is a blur and he hones in on the woman soothing voice to ground himself, “…teve Rogers was the one to bring back all the Infinity stones in their timeline. He came back an old man after the mission, passing on the Shield to close friend and teammate, Sam Wilson. He passed away a few months after, surrounded by friends and fam…”

“If you have any trouble, you can always talk to me. I’ll be with you till’ the end of the line.”

How can you? You’re already dead.

Peter shakes his head.

And he remembers the secret smiles Steve would give him, after a successful movie night and Tony isn’t as stiff as the first time around. It’s like he was thanking him for doing this. Because it was his birthday that they celebrated together.

(Peter can’t quite get it out of his head that it was Tony’s funeral that got them all together again, for the last time.)

(Natasha wasn’t there.)

And he keeps walking because that’s what everybody kept telling him.

Move on.

Walk on.

It will all pass.

But this hallucination, this image of Natasha and Steve welcoming him into the Museum—they weren’t going away and they were becoming clearer and more real every step of the way.

Only.

He was walking the wrong way.

And he should have known.

He should have known.

That something like this was going to happen. Because he’s Peter Parker, Peter, Pete— and the more that he sought happiness, the more that it will be taken away from him.

They’ll let him taste it for a few sweet moments (a few magical years) and then when he thinks he’s finally got it, he’s finally there, they’d grab it from his hands. And as he tries to desperately hold on, snot running and tears blurring his view, they would slice his hands off and push him back, step on his chest and dangle his happiness in front of him.

And now, the only thing he hoped he could still hold, his sanity, by way of ridding a part of himself (—Spider-Man—), is also slipping from him slowly.

They would make him think he was still there, but it was just them gloating, dangling it in front of him as he begs for it, unheard. And they would smile, these horrible monsters in his mind, who take and take and takeandtakeandtakeeverything— before they leave away with it.

Leaving him broken, well and truly alone.

Because this is what it feels like.

This thing happening to him right now.

And he should have known.

Should have listened to Ned’s warnings, or Harley’s announcements from earlier.

There is only regret and—

And.

 

 

Him.

With his back turned, and suit a lighter shade of grey under the sunlight, (he can hear everyone gasping and whispering and nudging each other. Someone’s heart beat is going faster than it should be—

He realizes that it is his heart. He can’t really do anything about it. He doesn’t feel like he’s breathing.

In fact.

He doesn’t feel anything.)

He’s talking before he’s turning around, and Peter knows that voice like the back of his hand, or the feeling of his hug, or the way he says kid.

Because he’s always been there for him.

Except for now.

Wait, no.

He’s here.

He’s here now.

(Peter can’t quite—he doesn’t—he’s so confused, so lost, so scared, and everything is going up against him so that he’ll lose himself too.

He doesn’t know what he’s so afraid of.

The fact that he might be going crazy, or that he doesn’t care.)

Natasha is behind him, and Steve a few steps away.

Ned is shrugging off MJ who is holding him back. If he wanted to, he could have just pushed her away.

He doesn’t.

(Ned hates himself for not realizing it sooner. He’s the worst best friend ever.)

(MJ knows that look on his face like he’s failed, and she holds his arm a little tighter and frowns, “Whatever it is you’re thinking, Ned. Don’t. You’re not any less a friend because this is happening to him. It’s not your fault, nor is it his.”)

(The students are steering clear of Natasha and Steve, because Peter’s got this look on his face that they think they’ve all seen in their own faces at some point after the war. And they think Peter lost something that couldn’t have been brought back within a snap. So, they are silent in respect to their brother.)

(Flash thinks that if there is anyone who could understand his pain, it would be him. Because Peter’s out there looking like he’s seen a ghost, looking like Flash has seen himself in the mirror by his father’s bedroom, when he’s lost in thought, gathering the courage to go in and comfort his sobbing mother.)

Because Peter is reaching out, almost unconsciously, and every step looks like it is weighted by a thousand tons (three thousand tons?), and his face is so devastatingly hopeful—

 

Because there he is, standing just in front of him, a few more seconds, and he could just touch him—

So close—he’s so close—

 

 

He’s right there.

He’s smiling.

He’s alive.

And Peter, he doesn’t think anymore, he reaches out to hug him and maybe yell at him for hiding for so long—how did you do it Mr. Stark? How did you get Steve and Nat to do it with you?

How did you live?

He can’t believe this, this is—

 

 

 

 

 

A hologram.

 

 

--

 

It fades just as Peter is calling out his name, breathless and so, so very hopeful.

 

--

 

Just as the hologram breaks apart, Peter feels himself breaking along with it.

 

--

 

 

Peter doesn’t really feel anything. Beyond being dimly aware of the way his eyes burn, everything else is suspended into another being.

He doesn’t feel like he’s breaking.

He just knows he is.

He doesn’t think beyond the soft, “Oh.” that escapes his lips, after Tony fades into the light. Much like his arc reactor did that day.

Harley is hugging him and whispering apologies. Peter doesn’t understand why.

There is a hush that goes as he walks past them.

He hears Natasha in that way only she can sound, “Hey there little one.”

And Steve, he is talking, reassuring, smiling at something, “If you have any trouble, you can always talk to me. I’ll be with you till’ the end of the line.”

They are the only sound in the Museum filled with students.

Not even a whisper escapes their breath.

Because Peter, their sweet, sweet classmate, who has always been kind to them, always helping, always there when you need him the most, that Peter is walking right now, in that shaky way that doesn’t have to do with the cold, or the older man who is holding him, and everything that had to do with the tears that are easily falling down his chin. His face slack, expression frozen in that open-mouthed way, seeing something beyond what they could ever hope to see.

He doesn’t look like he’s realized he’s crying.

MJ does though, and her tears are salty when she only feels bitter and empty.

Ned is trying so hard not to sob, to do with the silent tears because he hates crying—and especially so when his body is screaming.

Because he can’t do anything at all— and it is Harley who is holding him, (“I’m sorry, Peter, I thought you could handle it now—I’m sorry—I shouldn’t have—”) and leading him away from the torture chamber they call the Museum—a physical manifestation of everything Ned knew Peter had been fighting—memories of the better days—

And the crowd of students, looking in deep understanding, they part for their brother.

They part for Peter.

And they hope, that whatever it is that he’s experiencing right now, that he overcomes it.

Because if there is anyone in this world who deserves to be happy, it is Peter.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“It’s okay, Peter, it’s alright. You don’t have to hide it, we’re alone now. Please, Peter. Let it all out.”

Sniffle.

Clench.

Bow.

“…I’m sorry. I didn’t— I’m sorry for being such a burden to, to the tour. I didn’t mean to, I can leave—”

“Peter.

“I shouldn’t have come—”

Peter.”

Blink.

Sigh.

“It’s alright to feel things. And it’s alright to cry. You don’t have to pretend when you’re with me… we’re the same, you and I. Just. You’re free to just feel.”

It comes out more like a promise than a command and Peter doesn’t speak for a while.

Harley takes this as his time to think.

He doesn’t need to look to know that Peter is still in silent tears.

They are walking across the field, opposite the other field.

It is hotter now, under the noon gaze.

But Harley just feels the cold drip of shame as he looks at this young boy.

He had been the one to activate it, the holograms, thinking it would help Peter. But he had been too hard, too callous, too unfair.

When Peter speaks, it is quiet and the wind almost carries it away.

“…what was that?” he starts, “In the, in the museum?”

They are nearing the lake now, by the dock with the gazebo.

Maybe if Harley could sit Peter down by the lake, he could give a little bit of Tony back to him.

Talk to each other like he and Tony used to.

Harley takes a chance to look at Peter as they sit on the bench under the shade of the gazebo.

Peter’s eyes are red and subdued, tears loosely escaping but breath entirely calm.

He’s expecting an answer, but doesn’t mind waiting for a long time.

Harley gathers his thought.

“It was a tech Tony and I worked on. I found the controls when I was rummaging through his old things, and I thought a pair of shades won’t just be shades if Tony owns it and… well, it was quite a discovery.”

He appreciates the small ripples in the lake, taking to count every new circle. Peter’s shoulder sags from beside him and he tries not to put his hand over it, knowing all too well that space might be what Peter needs right now.

“I thought… maybe it would help—

Sharp inhale.

Whip—

And maybe he shouldn’t have said that.

Because now, Peter is looking at him like he’s angry, but trying so hard not to be.

Perhaps, it’s because he is.

Harley never wanted this to be how they met.

But Harley also never expected they’d meet, at all. He certainly never thought it would be after Tony’s passing either.

When Peter speaks, it is accusing but steady.

“Maybe, I didn’t need your help— I don’t understand why everyone keeps thinking they could just—it’s—it’s not that easy—”

“I’m not saying that it is. And… I’m sorry, really, really, sorry.”

They aren’t looking at each other.

Both of them possessed with emotions that comes with the knowledge that there is a piece of Tony in each of them that lives, a piece of Tony that both of them have never seen before and probably will only see through each other.

One is righteously angry, breath heavy and jaws clenched.

Another has his head hung in shame, all sorts of confidence gone, replaced by a deep fear of failing his mentor.

 

 

Both of them are grieving.

It doesn’t matter that Harley isn’t red-eyed and shaking. Everyone has their own way of mourning. For Harley, it is working and trying hard to help, trying to cover the large hole Tony left in everyone’s lives.

It is ambitious and really just impossible.

But Harley chose it because it is.

It will take a long time before he succeeds.

(And he might not succeed at all.)

He is counting on it.

The time will be spent well, and the work will be useful in distracting him.

Harley looks at Peter, then, a lonely figure hugged by the shadows, and he thinks of Tony. How they sat here like this just a few years ago.

He had been hunched over just like Peter. He just told Tony about his younger sister, how much he hated himself, that he regrets not being there for her when she was still here. And now, he’d said over sobs, now she’s gone and whenever I look at Morgan, it’s her that I see. I’m sorry Tony, I’m sorry…!

In both cases, he is the one apologizing.

And he reckons that it’s probably because he should be, because it is Harley who survived instead of his sister who had so much to see, and Tony, who had people who needed him.

One of them is right there beside him.

So, he gathers up his courage and tries, one more time.

“We used to talk every sunset; you know,” Peter doesn’t move a muscle, but he knows he’s listening, “We talked about everything. The past few years, when we met… you.”

A bird dives in the lake and then shoots back up.

“It would take me a few tries until I get him talking, but when he starts, he doesn’t stop,” Harley’s voice fills a fondness that could only be brought by good memories. “He told me all about the Pitbull that was throwing up and said that he woke up in cold sweat thinking about the it. That it was better to wake up because of an overweight Pitbull than anything he’d… yeah.”

A bee buzzes near their heads. Harley shifts.

“And he also told me that you were so talkative that he can hear your voice as his thoughts. Especially when he’s being particularly… unkind with himself. It was your voice that told him otherwise.”

At this, Peter turns to him.

Harley looks back, offering a soft smile.

“He said you showed him that he wasn’t only bringing hate and hurt to the world. He said that it was you who made him realize that he was capable of bringing something beautiful in this world.”

He could see how Peter is hanging onto his every word, drinking in everything Tony had said about him and looking for something in it that could help calm his noisy mind. Harley hopes this could help. He continues.

“And it was because of you that he believed he could have Morgan.”

Peter’s brow is furrowing—in confusion or in anger, Harley doesn’t know. But this time he puts his hand on Peter’s shoulder, hoping to make a little difference, add a little warmth.

“I didn’t know… I’m, I’m glad, he— I—”

But Peter doesn’t finish what he is saying because there is a thing hurtling toward them— more toward Harley— and the older man almost falls over the lake if it hadn’t been for Peter holding him back.

It turns out, as it giggles, that it isn’t a thing. It’s a human—better yet, a child.

“HaRLEY!” It screams, still cackling like a mad imp.

Harley is chuckling as well, fondness enrapturing his face. Peter takes his time to look down, afraid of what he might see, but also incredibly curious.

 

And.

 

There she is.

Morgan Stark.

Tony’s little girl.

And Peter feels something full occupy his chest, like he is about to discover the greatest creation there is. A being so profoundly part Tony that will never be surpassed by anything.

Tony Stark’s greatest legacy.

He doesn’t move to touch her at all, no matter how much he wants to feel if there really is part of Tony in there, somewhere beyond the brown hair and the way she looks like she’s always on the verge of discovery.

Instead, Peter tries not to fear her too much. Her small hands holding what’s left of his heart, the part that fears her rejection and desires her acceptance.

Because somehow, despite all logic, Peter thinks that Morgan is Tony, or, the second Tony—

And he knows, he knows that’s just cruel— to look at someone and see someone else, to burden someone of the legacy of another, despite how much she resembles him.

He’ll try not to make it too obvious, and he hopes others will too, because he doesn’t want little Morgan to grow up chasing after a shadow, or worse yet, grow up resenting her father.

Before he could retreat completely though, Morgan has found his eyes and those brows furrow and her head tilts (–just like Tony used to do—), face brightening up, and she’s pointing at him—

“I know you!” She exclaims, excited, “You’re Petey! Little Spidey!”

And Peter,

Well.

He doesn’t really know what to do.

And he’s spared.

No.

Not really.

Because Morgan is barreling into him, unafraid of falling and so completely trusting. He’s scurrying to catch her and Peter can feel Harley’s eyes.

At first, he tries not to talk, so he could completely avoid looking more like a fool, arms over Tony’s daughter like she’s a fragile glass.

(Peter knows better though, despite what his caution might suggest. Tony is the only one who could raise a fighter in the form of a beautiful, wonderful flower. Plus, her mother’s Pepper.)

It’s all useless though, because she’s talking a mile per minute, bouncing excitedly in his lap, “You’re finally HERE! Canyouswingmeupthattree? I waited to talk to you for so long—mommy said you were taking a break. Daddy always called you little but I think you’re big. You’re BIG spidey now! Oooh! Areyoudone—hiber, hiberni—”

“Hibernating,” Harley supplies.

“—hibernating? Areyoucomingtoourhouse? Harley will be there!” she points at Harley while her eyes are on Peter’s bewildered ones. She almost pokes Harley in the eye who was leaning forward, before scooting further away because her arms are wild and erratic and they can poke out more than just his eyes, “We’re going to eat juice pops and cheeseburgers, cause’ it’s Friday and mommy let’s us do that if I’m nice!”

And then she’s hugging him, head on his chest, snuggling, and arms tight around his waist. She takes in a whiff of his shirt and then sighs, relaxing, “Daddy said you gave the best hugs, and that you’re super strong, so my hugs won’t hurt you.”

She looks up, her voice suddenly laced with fear, “Are you hurt? Are you okay? Was my hug too strong? Why aren’t you talking? …Spidey?”

 

Peter laughs, then.

And Harley is joining in, his chuckles reverberating along with Peters.

A certain lightness spreads throughout the forest in the bright morning.

Morgan is pouting, a little unsure and wholly upset at getting laughed at, “Mommy says its not good to laugh at people.”

“It’s,” Peter starts, calming down, “We’re not laughing at you, Mo- Morgan.” The name is awkward in his mouth and he hates that he sounds so unsure when he should be reassuring the child. So, he gathers all his strength and says in a steady voice, “Its’ just, you’re everything I expected and more.”

Peter sees the moment her eyes shine with elation. Its so easy just how it translates to him, as well. This small child, with all the power in the world.

Morgan puffs out her chest, proud, “Daddy always said I ‘exceed expectations.’ And mommy—”

“MORGAN!”

Her eyes widen comically and she goes rigid right as the old, plump woman is walking toward them, face red in exhaustion.

“You haven’t finished your meal yet and I am not taking a smile for an answer! Come down from that poor man’s lap young lady or your mother will allow me to confiscate your juice pops and cheese burgers!”

She is running toward the woman right at that second, pouting no doubt, but she looks back to Peter and smiles that charming way Starks do, “I’ll eat my lunch for you big Spidey! I’ll wait for you in my tent at home! You can sit in the pink chair; the blue is mine!”

Both Harley and Peter look on as Morgan walks away, stubborn but not quite stupid, knowing her priorities at an early age.

Which are: juice pops and cheese burgers with Harley (and hopefully Peter too!)

As Morgan and her nanny disappears into the tower, Peter takes a few calm minutes, looking up at the sun and relishing in its heat.

“She’s grown into quite a firecracker the past year,” he hears Harley observe into the silence.

He feels the warmth on his face, and lets his tears dry.

Something full occupies his chest, at the thought of Morgan’s smiling face.

He’s glad she’s happy.

“Morgan,” Peter starts, Harley paying full attention. His eyes are closed and he looks almost peaceful, “I’ve seen her before. In the… in the funeral. But you,” and here Peter looks straight at Harley, brown eyes boring into surprised ones, “I didn’t see you at all.”

Harley could take it as accusatory, with how Peter mumbled it out, no inflection or any indication that it was mere curiosity. Maybe it is accusatory, but he could also hear something in it that tells him it’s not just that.

Searching? Understanding?

“I was at the far back. As soon as I said- as soon as I said my goodbyes, I left the lake.”

Peter is still staring at him, waiting for an answer. He takes that as his cue to tell his bit of vulnerability. Maybe then, they would be even.

“I… left home after that. I didn’t even pack my stuff, just- I couldn’t stay there after Tony… I didn’t want Pepper to look at me and see this orphan charity case that Tony brought back from the wreckage. I didn’t want to burden her anymore.”

Harley messes with his hair, leaning back and catching the sun with Peter.

There is something in the way the lake smells under the heat of the blazing sun, and the way the wind brings in cool air despite the noontime warmth. It is a perfect balance of nature, Harley and Peter in the middle of it all.

Harley stumbles over his words a little but he gathers himself and manages to admit, “But Pepper found me right after I disappeared. I swear, I’ve never seen her so mad and relieved at the same time—at least not directed at me. When she saw me staying in that jacked-up shack that used to be our storage, she hugged me so tight, and then asked me to never leave her side again.”

He leans forward and then proceeds to slump, brushing the tip of his nose. Peter could see a sense of youth in Harley at that moment, as if he’s revealing a part of himself that he had kept hidden once he became Head of Technology, right hand man to Pepper Stark-Potts.

“I guess I found a mother in Pepper, since mine kind of went away sometime during the five years. I found a family in them, and it was Tony who really showed me the way.”

They share a tentative silence.

Harley waiting for Peter’s response and Peter looking for the right words.

His mind flashes to Morgan and how she will grow up with only the words of strangers, thanking her for something she didn’t do, but something that Peter is sure she had a hand at causing. He doesn’t need to imagine, because he knows.

He’s lived it.

And when they congratulate and thank and look at you like they know you just because the think they knew your father, there is something bitter that simmers just deep inside.

Peter knew to hide it of course, and he’s managed to forget about it because no one’s done it since Ben.

It doesn’t come to him again this time, (and it doesn’t escape his mind that this has been something that always happened to him—it’s him who doesn’t escape it), because no one knew that he and Tony became something more than everything— they didn’t see the way both of them are much more relaxed when together than apart, and how ‘kid’ has become a word that described love and how ‘Tony’ became the sweetest endearment.

His mind flashes to Morgan and he thinks of how she will never have that with her father. He feels that its unfair, that he got so much time with Tony and so, so many beautiful memories when Morgan could only remember a vague memory of something wonderful. And a whole life of chasing after something that will never come back.

A gust of wind caresses Peter’s cheeks, his brown curls billowing.

“He’s… he’s really gone now... isn’t he.”  It comes out broken. Like he’s just realized it. His voice hitches. His eyes are hot and red, and something hurts.

Harley doesn’t know what to do. But he’s been there. Many times over.

So, he lets his experiences speak.

Harley gives Peter his most sincere smile.

“He’s not gone. Not really. Not in the way that matters.”

Peter gives him a look but then shakes his head anyway, holding the smile that comes to reciprocate sincerity.

“I guess,” he mutters, then with more resolve, “Well at least they still got you.”

“Well yeah. It’ll be my way of repaying them. Now,” he punches Peter’s shoulder softly, “I could do it with you. We could do it together.”

“I...” he avoids Harley’s eyes, “I don’t know about that...”

“I mean, I can wait. I’m not gonna pressure you into the business, or even force you to help, really. You just… have to be there.”

Peter is bowing his head, staring at the patterns in the wood, choosing his words wisely, “Actually, I think they’d be safer if I wasn’t here.”

“Yeah—no. If Spider-Man was by my side, guiding a company with Pepper the Great, I think that’s the safest place we’ll ever make for Morgan.”

Peter sighs.

“See, I’m not even surprised that you know.”

Harley chuckles.

“I had my ways,” he turns, “Think about it, Peter.”

“But you’re wrong though.”

Harley raises a brow in question.

“I’m not Spider-Man,” skeptical look, “Not anymore.” Peter shrugs at Harley’s incredulous look.

“Look, I quit playing hero. I don’t think I’m cut out for it after all.” He’s thought about this, a lot of times— all the time. “I’ll do other stuff though. Help as Peter Parker. Not everyone has to be super to become a hero.”

And he wishes Tony knew that.

“But—you can’t—”

“I can, though. That’s why I’m here.”

The way he says it with such finality stops Harley from his obvious protests, so instead he croaks out.

“…to say goodbye?”

One melancholic smile.

“…yeah.”

“Then— then make sure Pepper doesn’t find out because she might burst into your room as well, all red faced and angry.”

“Hey! Don’t tell her!”

“I wouldn’t.”

Grin.

“…not intentionally. I might let it slip.”

Peter pushes him lightly after that.

They share a few blissful moments of silence, the trees swaying at the guidance of the wind, before Peter mutters loud enough for Harley to hear, “Please… don’t try to stop me.”

It comes out as pleading and tearful, and everything Peter hopes to avoid, but he continues, “I’ve tried, really, to find something else, but I can’t— I can’t lose anyone anymore. Spider-Man is the last.” He takes a deep breath and concludes, “This is how it’s going to end for me, and I want it to be on my terms.”

The gazebo draws a shadow on Peter’s face, the wind hot and Harley’s skin clammy from the now warm air. They should really be eating now, but he’s not hungry and he’s betting Peter isn’t, too. This is something he’s never told anyone before, Harley thinks, as he watches Peter struggle between saying more and waiting for him to concede. It’s like a secret that he’s hidden for too long. He’s seen it before, in Tony, when he spoke of the guilt—

He lets out a long, drawn out sigh then, bowing and side-eyeing Peter under his bangs, “Alright,” he says. Peter breathes.  “Big Spidey.”

Peter glares at the ridiculous nickname, something that should never come out of anyone’s mouth other than a five-year old’s and Harley howls in laughter at the face he makes.

They spend the rest of the morning reconciling, talking about Tony, but without too much of the overbearing shadow that it usually casts. They reflect the bright day and the calm lake, laughing about Tony’s first-time changing Morgan’s diaper, and his other sleep-deprived antics.

The stories they exchange are the stories that will keep Tony’s memory alive, and until the two of them breathe their last breath, and the world as they know it fades away, Tony will never truly be gone.

Not in the way that matters.

--

 

When Harley’s phone rings and the intern who replaced him informs him that the tour’s done, they’re at the Lunchroom, eating, Peter takes it as a sign to stand up.

Harley follows, and together they walk to the brown building.

The moment Peter enters the hall, it is immediately silent. A beat later, as if they remember something, they all come back to the usual chatter.

He wades his way around the tables and some curious students, leaving Harley who goes to the opposite direction, and finds MJ and Ned sitting along with the rest of AcaDec.

“Dude! Remember my huge dilemma with the bracelet and the super computer? Well, turns out there wasn’t a dilemma at all, because we came to this cool all-super computer lab, and I had enough time to hack this gem,” Ned brandishes the bracelet in his hand, “and now I can do this!

With a click, a video from YouTube sticks out like a small hologram, and when Ned touches it, it immediately pauses, mimicking what Shuri’s tech did in the special lab in Medbay, only, smaller.

Their fellow AcaDec members roll their eyes, but are quietly fascinated by the tech. Peter guesses Ned has been talking about nothing but the bracelet.

“I also found a whole array of functions for this one—I swear, if I can choose one object to be stuck with while stranded on an island, I’ll—”

“—choose this bracelet over my phone,” everyone around the table recited, leaving Ned sputtering and yelling an indignant, “Hey!”

“You have been talking nonstop about this Ned. But not enough about the fact that you cursed at the princess and got a price in return!” Abe exclaims.

Charles nodding along, “You think the princess is into you or something?”

Ned backtracks, holding his hand to his chest, “Hey, you know I have Betty.” Sally and Cindy Aw’s, “Plus, if I were to choose between the two of them, it’d still be Betty.”

“Brother, we’ve lost a comrade to the hibi-jibies! Romance, underway, but went completely over us.”

Sally throws crumpled up tissue paper at the two boys, the rest howling as it ends up in Abe’s mouth.

MJ bores her eyes into Peter, sliding her apple toward him, “Eat.”

If she looks at him like that all the time, he probably would’ve followed every word. He’d probably be healthier.

Peter takes a bite off the fruit, its juice dribbling down his chin.

MJ turns her attention toward the rest of the team, “I know some of you have your other clubs,” her eyes find Ned, who is sweating, “But I still need your cooperation during the preparation later this afternoon. We’ll be holding a trivia booth, containing facts on anything and everything Stark. I already sent you the documents for those, so let’s hope you at least downloaded them.”

Everyone shudders at that, dreading the upcoming cramming session.

“Ned, Peter, you gotta take some time off Robotics to man the booth. We’ll all be taking turns. On the chair. To be dropped to the water.”

What.

“Oh, I didn’t tell you? Principal Morita approved the water-dunker trivia booth that I jokingly passed. If you fail to correctly answer whatever the guests throw at you, you’ll be meeting Ariel halfway.”

The groans of the unfortunate teens could have rumbled the whole compound, and MJ’s scheming smirk could have contested even Loki himself.

Loki, the God of Mischief.

MJ, the Goddess of Abuse and suffering and—

“Charles shut up or you’ll be on a two-hour watch.”

 

--

 

From the middle of the room, Harley announces, “Free ice-cream, everyone!”

And everyone cheers.

Peter thinks this is alright.

 

--

 

The two floors designated as their sleeping area is promptly transformed into the Fair Area. Students and teachers all preparing for the next day, either following up on their booth or assisting the whole organization of the event.

MJ has already done her part with helping in the organization and is working on their Water Dunker booth.

Ned manages to work the mechanism, Abe, Charles and Sally working on the stand itself. Cindy is assigned to put out the sign and Peter is carrying and moving things to where they should be.

He passes by Shuri who cheerily waves at him before running off into the other direction, muttering about her troublesome intern.

Flash is subdued when he talks to MJ, asking for an assignment, “Look, I know I messed up. But, but I’m still part of the AcaDec. At least give me something to do.”

Well, more subdued than he usually is.

Peter walks past him trying to get the glass planes back to Abe’s group and he can feel Flash’s eyes, his heart beat erratically, and his frustrated dismissal of, “Ugh, nevermind.”

MJ is grabbing him by the back of his collar though and points him toward Cindy who’s struggling with the sign.

“Be nice,” she says, looking him in the eye in challenge but a little more trust than before.

“I will.”

Peter hides behind the carton, because he feels the stretch of his smile and the swell of something akin to pride as he watches Flash be a little bit better than he used to, try a little bit harder than he did.

That’s enough.

That’s good.

--

 

The two floors are divided into different sections. The first is for the Science Fair itself. Or, as they dubbed it, the ‘Stark Science’. Peter expects it to be a smaller scale Stark Expo. Sparkly, science-y and full of starry-eyed wonder.

The upper floor, the girl’s oversized room, is where the tribute section will be held. It leaves a bitter taste in his mouth, like it doesn’t belong there. Because a tribute is something that doesn’t align with everything right now.

Although…

Peter guesses, if Pepper is the one to allow this to happen, then there is no one else better to make that call.

He tries not to make it bother him too much and just stay in the moment.

Peter watches as Betty runs around, directing the other journalists what to do and he sees in her a leader with great passion.

He sees Abe take a seventh grader under his arm, cheering them up until the tearful girl laughs again, and he sees someone who surrounds himself with happiness because he knows that’s what he, and everyone, deserves.

Cindy is shaking her head and MJ is looking on, Ned gesturing wildly at the wonders of technology and he sees in him a friend so loyal to him and to life, someone who is brave enough to look forward to every day and expect something good to happen, even though Peter doubts he would ever have one unless he leaves Spider-Man.

He watches as MJ talks to Flash on her own volition, without insults or any bite in her tone, intentions as good as they can be. And he sees the way Flash fidgets under her softer gaze, not used to this kind of treatment, and especially without his usual bravado to act as a shield.

He turns around and smells progress and innovation as Sally had enthused, and something even better— the future? Tomorrow?

 

 

Hope?

Peter shakes his head and dismisses himself of these silly notions. He can’t give it to himself that easily. Because then he’d be more prone to losing, more fragile, more of an obvious victim to faith pulling its cruel fingers, moving him like a mindless puppet in this game called life.

“Hey!” MJ shouts to him at the right moment, he turns back, “Can you get this to he Tribute Room right now?”

She’s pointing at a large box with a sign declaring it is Fragile: Return box if seal is opened, and Peter rushes to get to it.

He is careful when hoisting it up, giving more effort into acting like it is heavy for him than the actual lifting. Flash looks like he is offering to help, and Peter is almost surprised to drop it, but MJ stops him midway with another order.

They are in the middle of the wide room, so Peter takes time, swerving running students and other easily distracted ones as well, all busy with finishing this because of the other, more exciting event tonight— the bonfire.

Peter can’t say he’s excited. He thinks he shouldn’t be there. At all.

He doesn’t even want to be there.

But May said little steps, a nudge and its enough. So, he tries.

To be there.

To just.

Be there.

--

 

He’s putting down the box, careful as he is because there’s no knowing to the real weight of this object.

This is when someone passes by him— almost trips over the box and doesn’t even stop to apologize. Peter stands to maybe tell the person off, when he sees the same intern who blew up Shuri’s lab, trying to ‘fix Friday.’

As Peter listens hard enough, he can hear the erratic heart-beat, the wild mutterings and the crazed look in his eyes and he feels off

But he might just be running away from Shuri again, so he doesn’t think about it anymore.

There are fewer groups of students here, but is still filled with them, arranging some chairs and the Artisans club going hand in hand with the Drama club in setting up the stage to be grand and impressive. Naturally, it is red and gold.

From the middle is a circular platform, connected to the stage up front.

Peter overhears Principal Morita declining the chair by the circular platform, where the tributes will apparently be presented. He says, “These are for the students; therefore, it is the students who should stand by the closest.” Upon further insistence by an anxious student, he says, “I’ll be here, watching you all from the back with Pepper. We’re fine.”

 

Peter scans the room and he feels the dormant energy, all rushing in—the AC buzzes a comforting hum, a few students are giggling and a teacher is talking to someone from the back—

 

 

So.

This is it.

This is where it’s happening.

The culmination of months of work, speculation and excitement. This is how it’s going to end. This is where he’ll say goodbye.

 

Peter doesn’t cry.

Today, he will start being better.

Even if he has to fake it until it comes true.

This sacrifice is nothing.

 

(If Tony asked him to wear the gauntlet, he would have. He wished Tony had asked him instead—)

 

Suddenly, he isn’t alone in his own little bubble.

Flash is here.

He’s standing right in front of him, looking so unsure but trying not to be.

He puts down the box he is carrying and his eyes flickers everywhere but Peter.

Peter waits for him to speak, afraid of starting just to be shut down again.

But it is minutes in with him expecting, and Flash not doing anything so he takes initiative, “It’s alright Flash. You don’t have to do it, or anything. Just. Be kind to yourself, or something.”

And so, he leaves.

--

 

The preparations in the Avenger’s Compound slowly gets settled, and the students start trickling out into the lake, across the one with the gazebo, by the forest, moving on to help with the bonfire that night.

Peter tries to ignore the implications of the event later and he knows he can’t leave without any of his friends noticing—MJ has eyes like a hawk’s and Ned checks up on him every minute.

It’s inconvenient, for him. But he also thinks it’s what keeps him alive.

“Peter, you can go gather up some wood there. Abe and Charles, you go with Cindy. Sally and Ned are already busy. We need to hurry up and gather as much wood as we can because the sun’s about to set in two hours,” MJ commands.

As Peter leaves the field to get to the woods, he can hear one of the juniors strumming the guitar, following with a melodic tune. Combined with the bustling students, of murmurs and occasional yells, Peter finds that this is the most at-home he’s felt since he came here.

--

 

Peter finds himself deep in the woods, but isn’t too afraid.

He’s been here before.

A lot of times.

Before.

The shrubbery is thick and the woods provide leaf-patterned shades on the ground, the air a little cooler and the silence a comforting kind of deafening. Birds chirp from afar, and on occasion, there is rustling.

He doesn’t let himself get too spooked.

Even though he’s not Spider-Man anymore, he would still rely on his sensitivity and heightened senses, if only to protect himself. Otherwise, he would be avoiding fights from anywhere.

Tony came here once, when he hid from him and he thought he’s gone deep enough and “he won’t find me, he might not even look for me, I screwed up—bad—”

It was one of the few moments when Peter felt Tony got really mad at him, and it was apparently because “You have no regard for your personal safety as if you DYING won’t matter!” he had replied, then, with something like, “Well it won’t because if I die, then that means I’ve failed the people—that means—that means I deserved to die—”

Tony didn’t slap him.

But he slapped the table so hard that it had collapsed under his hand and the sound almost made Peter jump straight to the ceiling.

There had been a few heavy breathing, both exhausted from yelling too much, screaming at each other when they should have been doing the opposite, because both of them had been stupid— Peter just then by thinking he could die and get away with it, and Tony by having thought of the same things before and being so goddamn selfish and he just doesn’t want Peter to make the same mistakes, to think that all his worth is summed up in a blue and red onesie, a title and a few set of skills.

 

Peter takes a seat by the log, decaying but beautiful. Old, but useful. He feels its different curves, rough and entrancing, and tries to see the story that it held. Perhaps this has been once the house of a squirrel, or the resting place of a nest by a blue hummingbird. Or this could have been once so grand and majestic, the heart of the forest, perhaps, before God decided it had become too powerful and struck it down with its harsh lightning.

The old pathway is surrounded by both life and death— the rotting wood, the trotting squirrel and the breath of the wind.

In this forest, he doesn’t feel too alone.

Peter looks across, where a rock that is big enough to be sat on stands firmly.

There, he sees himself.

He knows this place— there, by the larger tree, and the bush with the berries— that’s the spot where Tony found him.

All scared and stupid and shaking.

He hadn’t been wearing his suit and was therefore susceptible to the harsh coldness of a night in the forest.

Today is warm though, a friendly sort of heat that is slowly approaching a tolerable coolness.

It is so different from the cold tips on his fingers, and the fear of saying goodbye—of rejection because of mistakes, and abandonment because he wasn’t enough. But if Peter is being honest, and he tries to be, to himself, he could admit that that night of momentary loneliness and extreme fear, magnified by the howling owls and the darkness of the forest—all of it was better than the forest that welcomes him now.

Because in that unforgiving, lonely night, Tony was there. And all the coldness in the world was replaced with an irreplaceable warmth, upon the realization that he is here—and he came for me—and he’ll always be here—

Under the shadows of the forest stands a lone teen, and a short shaky breath is drawn.

 

--

 

Peter keeps walking, after that, leaving his collection of fire wood in place where he could easily access it again. He just doesn’t think he could come back there, when he is already being forced to spend an entire night out, celebrating something that shouldn’t be celebrated. He passes by thick leaves and brushes it all off and then—

 

 

…wow.

Peter sits down on the ground, a slate of rock that is smooth but lined with its years. He brushes his hand along it, and feels its bumps and planes. He stretches his left foot, folding the other and resting his chin on his arm.

The clouds are moving slowly, a gradual kind of graceful that perfectly encapsulates the light shining around the sun.

Its rays form a halo around the glowing orb, the sky a shade darker each and every second and watching it transform is mesmerizing.

It is a burning glory, the sun. Its heat hugs Peter’s body and the trees dance to the music of the wind.

There is no one but Peter who exists in this realm of beauty.

It is an ugly taste in his tongue, then. Because he isn’t supposed to be alone right now. This was something he hoped he could share with Tony.

And he almost had the chance to. He already asked him. After tirelessly counting the possibilities of being “I don’t know, Karen, rejected? Maybe he’s too busy—"

It was supposed to happen the next Wednesday. But it was Friday before that week when Thanos attacked, inconsiderate and destructive, unblinking in the eye of death and Peter feels a flash of searing anger—

He wants to cut Thanos—take his head for himself, and hurt him the way he’s hurting right now— every breath, every blink, every second he’s not here— scream and yell at him because “YOU DON’T GET TO DECIDE WHEN SOMEBODY LIVES OR DIES—YOU— You don’t get to take him away from meI’m going to make you pay—you—”

Crrckkk

 

Peter feels the trickle of blood from his hands, the ground beside him shattered and in pieces. He lets the blood flow, forgoing to wipe or clean it with his shirt because he knows MJ will see and Ned will ask questions.

He sits in a silence that only come when everything is too loud.

There is stillness, there is no peace.

And then—

 

 

“You know you should get that cleaned. Super-healing or not, you’re still going to get an infection and it’s still going to hurt.”

Peter tries not to show his surprise too much, but he guesses the jerk of his body indicated that already, as Clint is chuckling and sitting beside him.

Clint keeps on talking, “I heard what happened, earlier. The kids weren’t really too quiet about it,” he views the sun as if it is not the sun, and something else, “Harley meant well, but we all have it quite different, don’t we?”

They watch a flock of birds glide through, a wonderful unity in a pack up in the sky.

He gestures to his chest, “This pain,” he starts, “It’s rooted from the same source, from the same ‘category’, as you would say it. But. It’s all different.”

Peter leans forward, words muffled by his sleeve, “I’m alright, Mister—”

“Clint, remember?”

“…Clint. I’m fine, really. I just thought the sunset would be nice today.”

“Is that why you wandered across the forest listlessly for about an hour?”

“Wha— you’ve been following me? How—”

“I’m still a spy, Peter. Plus, you were distracted. I purposely tried to make you hear me. Those rustling and twitches? Not squirrels.

Peter sighs. This is getting ridiculous, even for him. He should have known.

“How did you know this place? It’s super hidden, and I didn’t think someone like you would have the time to wander off into the forest.”

“Well, I kind of live here now. Not— not in the forest, but in the area.”

Peter looks at him with curious eyes, too shy to prod but also not above doing so wordlessly.

Clint sighs deeply, as if what he is going to say is something that needs a little preparation to do so. Peter watches as Clint organizes his thoughts, and sees in his eyes the moment it is settled.

“The things that I did… during the Shadow period… they weren’t good. In fact, they were bad—horrible and inhumane. I became somewhat of an assassin. It’s not ‘cool’, as I’ve heard some say. I know you won’t think that though,” he tilts his head upward, “So we live here, my family and I. To protect them from my own stupid actions. Thinking back to it, if it weren’t for Natasha, I would never have remembered that there was something like hope.”

The sun is going down fast now, the whole area drenching in darkness. Peter doesn’t mind. And so does Clint.

“It sucks, it does, but you have to—”

Please don’t tell me to move on—”

“I’m not,” Blink. And then Clint chuckles, shaking his head, “They do like to say that don’t they?”

His smile is something Peter doesn’t understand, so he doesn’t return it.

There is something in the solace of the forest, the blanket of protection that only he would find in here, where he is lost floating above the world, that allows him to admit something he never could say to anyone.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that Clint isn’t family or Tony’s protégé, or someone he feels the need to protect from the burden of his pain, that makes it easy to confess, in a tiny, tight voice, “I just—I don’t think I could move on. I try, but I don’t really want to. I do it for May and MJ and Ned. I— I don’t— it just, feels like I’m abandoning him and this pain is all that I have of him—”

Peter. Listen to yourself. You don’t believe that. You can’t believe that. That all Tony’s left for you is pain— what about the memories? The good times, the days in the tower—”

Pain,” Peter whispers.

Clin closes his eyes, because he knows how it feels. Of course, he knows. If there was anyone else, it would be him who would know.

He just has to show it to him, prove something to the child, to help ease his ache.

“You’re still young, Peter. You make mistakes, and you learn something new every day. And I hope today you learn that Tony left you the greatest gift there is.”

“And what is that?” Peter asks, stubborn and prepared to protest.

Clint looks far into the sky. The stars are winking at them, shining among the mass, filling the dark void of space. His chest heaves deep and then he exhales heavily.

When Clint speaks, it is as if he is talking to himself, excavating something from within his own self that has been buried deep in the trenches of his mind, and something that he thinks Peter might find peace with.

It is quiet, when it comes out, but whole and strong in Peter’s ear, as he looks up toward the man beside him.

He says, “Tony, he—he wasn’t always someone I’d call noble or heroic. But he was the one who gave you this, right here.” Clint turns right to him, and he is confronted full on with the melancholic surrender in his eyes, and something a bit more hopeful. Clint smiles, “He gave you a second chance to live.”

The stars blink, and Peter feels a sort of cosmic wonder. He watches the stars, beyond Clint’s head, surrounding the very place they sit on, and he accepts this not as a curse but as a blessing.

He is suddenly aware of his breath. In, out, in out, in, out—every breath, every second in this existence, every minute detail in this thing called life—

“It’s hard. Oh my god, it is.” Clint laughs shakily, ruffling his hair and hands resting on his nape as he contemplates, watching the ground, a sniffle, “Because I get to live every day, thinking it should have been me, instead of Nat. Because I did all the things that I did, and she was good in the last years of her life. She didn’t deserve it. When I—” Clint stops, as if he realizes that he is saying too much, and composes himself, “The thing is,” he starts, tear drops reflected by the stars above, “Nat was my best, most loyal friend, and I- I couldn’t have asked for anyone better. The pain—it’s there, it’s always there, and time is rarely the factor to healing.”

Peter take to lie his foot beside Clint’s, a gesture he hopes would help. And the way the older man sends a quick smile calms Peter down a bit.

“See, it’s more… perspective. The only thing time did is help us gather our wits. It gives us time to reflect, and remember and feel. What time gave me was the realization, that every day, I go home to my wife and get to listen to my kid’s stories, get to watch them dream of tomorrow, because of Nat, because of Tony. And it’s the reason why you and I are sitting here right now. Breathing. Living… trying, I guess.

So, I think, when they say you have to move on, it’s not to forget his memory or this, excruciating pain. But to look back instead, say thank you and then keep walking, keep living. If not for yourself, but for them. Because they’re the reason we’re here right now and I think we owe it to them to live.”

Clint looks straight at Peter, whose fingers are clenched and jaws tight, “I’m not telling you how to do that, Peter. I’m just asking you to try.”

“How about Morgan?” He asks, a little bit accusing and all the more heated. He doesn’t mean it, but he can’t help it. He lets it flow. “Why should I deserve to try, when Morgan— she only has the vaguest memories of her father, and a, and a crowd who thinks they know everything—?”

“Morgan… well, it is going to be hard for her. And her pain, too, will be different. Her father won’t be there to guide her as he did with you, but.” And here Clint puts out his fist and softly nudges Peter’s knees, a fatherly gesture that scares Peter, “You will be.”

“See, the best thing we can do when she realizes these things, is to be with her when it happens. To- to make sure that she knows she’s not alone.”

Peter doesn’t really want to say anything, feeling the guilt for even coming here, because he came here to say goodbye.

And he doesn’t know what to do, because first they said he had to move on, and the only way he can is to say goodbye, but now they’re telling him to stay—so he’s so fucking confused and—

“You’re not alone, too, you know.”

“…I know.”

“Talk to me?”

 

 

 

“…it’s just. I just. Hate it.”

“I do too, Peter. I do, too—”

No. I hate it, when they’re, when they’re telling me to move on, to move forward, like it’s just so easy. They say it’s been ‘a year’, but is a lifetime of mourning even going to be enough? Its not. Its never going to be enough. And I hate it. I hate their little tributes and their little murals because they act like it will be enough, when it’s not! And they say, they say it’s for their legacy, or some crap reason, but they’re only doing it so they can feel good about themselves. They’re only doing it for themselves.”

“But is it really that bad though?”

Peter looks at him like Clint didn’t listen to anything that he said. Clint clarifies.

“Feeling good about themselves,” he waves his hand in the air, “I mean, when all everyone felt about themselves was bad, then doesn’t that mean that everyone is miserable?”

“I guess so…?”

“How about you? How do you feel now? Do you feel as if its lighter, this thing you’ve been carrying since…?”

Peter covers his face in his arms, resting on his now folded knees. He is retreating onto himself, trying to avoid having to answer Clint’s question. The older man is persistent either way.

“Peter?” he nudges.

“I…” the words are traitors to how he’s thinking, and he feels like a big hypocrite, but he says it anyway because Clint has told him things he’s never heard before, and he knows these will help, somehow, someday, “I feel a bit… I feel a bit better.”

Clint grins at him and nudges him with his shoulder this time, nodding as he speaks, “And that’s good! That’s good.” He turns to Peter, serious this time, looking at him like he wants Peter to understand, “Peter, it’s alright to feel better. You’re not doing anything bad when you feel a bit better about things. This is good. It’s okay.”

Peter lets out a small smile that accidentally stretches too far. And Clint’s grin also widens. The stars are watching them, and the forest a place of reprieve.

Beat.

“You said you weren’t going to tell me to move on.”

Accusing.

Turn.

“I didn’t.”

Smirk.

“I showed you how.”

--

 

Peter walks back with Clint twenty minutes later, the latter disappearing into the shadows as soon as the lights reach the end of the forest.

MJ is fuming, but accepts the three bags of wood wordlessly.

Ned is right by his side immediately, and Peter is almost tempted to tell him he’s alright. But as it is, he just reassures him with an easy smile.

It is one that is rooted in a little bit of truth, and the power of practice.

The light from the fire flickers over their faces, lending plenty of red and yellow, and a lot of comforting warmth.

It is a chilly night, and some who has the foresight to bring jackets begin to share. There are drinks being passed around, a large cooler on the side, and the junior from earlier humming a ballad for the moon.

The bonfire is set in the middle of a large clearing, the lake overlooking their fun. Teachers take to roaming the side of the lake but it is really all for extra precaution, and to calm their minds. Pepper had security put all over the perimeter, so not even the couple could go to the forest unscathed.

With no mischief around, there is only a free, and open atmosphere, a bunch of hopeful nerds and the heart of the fire in the middle of it all.

MJ, Peter and Ned find a seat a few meters from the fire, a safe enough distance that provides the perfect balance of warmth and cold. Plus, MJ and Ned both have their jackets, and Peter’s been used to the cold for a long time now.

Betty sits by Ned and the rest of the Acadec follows.

“Whattup, Peter!” Abe claps his back, and then whispers, “Look man, I know you and the Keener dude are solid, can you, uh, convince him to give us some the nano-tech and a tub of ice cream? The ice-cream was really good—”

“I’ll try, Abe, I’ll… try.”

“Cool bro!” Abe grins.

From two meters behind him, Cindy sighs, “He is dreamy though. I wonder where he is. This place is too romantic to be wasted.”

“I won’t push it, Cinds, the guy’s too old.”

Cindy whips her head toward Sally, “Excuse me, my youngest crush last month was 38 years old—”

“Yeah, but that’s Tom Hiddleston. He’s like, hot hot. Mr. Keener’s a type, but not mine.”

“You make him sound like an old science teacher,” Peter muses from his spot, surprising the girls and the others.

MJ raises her brows, interested. The singing in the background grows louder. But she has to watch this unfold.

“Wow, Peter, been a long time talking!”

Peter sputters, face red and hands flailing, “I-I didn’t mean to—”

Nah!” Cindy slaps his shoulder, “Don’t worry ‘bout that. It’s just,” she shares a look with Sally, “it’s been a long time since you’ve really talked to us.”

“Yeah,” Sally adds, holding out her hand for Peter to shake. He does, (he’s forced to)— “Welcome back, Peter boy.”

--

 

The bonfire starts a little slow, friends trickling in, taking seats, getting drinks and joking about. Tomorrow isn’t even scary for them, no pressure, nothing to prove. Just. Something to show, something to do, something to contribute.

It is wonderous and exciting— like a huge step toward something big and something amazing.

And as Principal Morita looks into the eyes of these students, all sparkling and giddy and alive— so, so alive that it transforms into a beautiful energy, a youthful atmosphere into a place so harrowed, a wonderful vitality encapsulates their being— he lets out one blinding smile.

Because here is the future, in the laughing children around the bonfire, to create a tomorrow worth living for, and to give meaning to this thing they all call life.

“It’s a thing of the stars, isn’t it?” Jim asks Pepper, who stands by the lake with wine in her hand.

“It is. I didn’t know this place could have been like this,” she gestures smoothly to the children, “It’s like paradise if I’ve seen one. A peaceful, blissful haven.”

“And it’s all thanks to—”

No, Jim. It’s you who I have to thank. For bringing them all together like this. Giving them a second chance.”

“Well.” Jim looks out toward the burning fire, and sees the same burning passion in these children who have seen so much, and his eyes find one Peter Parker, surrounded by friends and by laughter, and he says, “everyone deserves a second chance.”

--

 

When the field is as filled as it can be, hundreds of students in one place, the junior with the guitar, Chris, as Peter would later learn, takes the mic by the center, sits on the wood and strums his guitar.

As he does so, with a friend holding his microphone by his side, he speaks to it, “So, I asked them what we’re gonna do with the tribute n’ all cause I was a curious lil’ shit—” he looks around for the teachers who don’t even try to restrain his language, Principal Morita raising an amused brow, he gives them all a thumbs up, “And it turns out we can do anything we want during this thing. And since I asked, they kinda made me in charge now—”

No—”

“’Kinda’.”

Ms. Warren sighs.

“So, who wants to go up here and do sumthin’?”

At first no one says anything.

The twelfth and eleventh graders sweat at the fear of being coerced, no one really prepared to do anything.

Everyone is looking at each other, trying to convince the other to take one for the team, the peer pressure radiating and the immediate dislike to be in front of a crowd without any preparation.

Peter feels more than hears everyone’s heart beating in synchronized panic.

He sure as hell knows he won’t be the one to go forward.

One does.

And it is someone they least expect.

 

Steps forward is an impressionable, scrawny seventh grader. Braces still on, and glasses thick and oversized. He looked like the typical movie nerd, susceptible to bullies. He is shaking, his nerves obvious and shared by the countless students.

Together, they breath a sigh of relief. And together, as well, they pray and anticipate that this go well. For the kid and for all of them.

“Here,” smiles Chris, hand outstretched for the kid to take the mic and blue eyes welcoming, “what are you going to do?”

“I-I’m gonna, um, say something,” stutters the seventh grader.

“And your name?”

“I’m St-Steve.”

“Hey! Like the Captain!”

A murmur breaks, and then Chris gestures to the young boy, “Well, go on. The mic’s yours.”

His hands quiver as they hold the mic, and his voice is fragile when he attempts to start. Chris coaxes him from behind, muttering it’s alright, take it easy so only the kid (and Peter) could here.

After a few seconds, and the eyes of the crowd boring into one brave seventh grader, Steve clears his throat, and begins.

“Five years a, ago, I was dusted, along with everyone.”

Oh. It is this kind of message.

Everyone is listening intently, curious as to what a boy as young as Steve, a child, vulnerable and still growing, could say about the experience.

They don’t really talk about it as openly. It is more something that comes up whenever one of them has had too much, for far too long, and had to break a little, let out a little tear, scream a little, just to avoid falling apart altogether.

It is something that they don’t like to think is real until it bled in front of them.

So, when Steve came up, all fragile bones and brave little heart, the students of Midtown High listens to what he says.

“And not, not more than two years ago, I came back with all of you. I got to hug my mama, and I got to finish my robot Bartholomew, or, Barth-Vader with my brother,” a couple of chuckles at the ridiculous name. Steve smiles quickly, before talking again, “And I don’t know, but, I think I’m really lucky to learn at such a young age that our time in this world is so limited, and the life that I have is precious. I don’t know.”

He shrugs, “When some of the bullies came back, and cornered me and told me I was worthless, and asked me why I came back because, it wouldn’t have matter anyway if I was gone forever, the only thing that I thought of was how tight my mama hugged me, and,” breathe in, “and how my father who never told me he loved me, who left us before the Shadow period, came back just to hold me again, and I. And I never felt so wanted, so missed, when he kissed my cheeks—he was crying, he never cried—” his voice catches and he says, firm, “and told me he loved me.”

Chris is strumming a note from his guitar that makes it easier for some of the students to let out a few tears. Others couldn’t hold their sniffles, and someone is humming to the melody.

Peter sees this boy, and he sees himself. But better than that, he sees someone more than he could ever be.

He sees this brave boy, and he sees the struggle he’s experienced in his still early life. He doesn’t just see it, he can touch it, feel the memories as if it is his own.

He sees this boy named Steve, a name that was owned by a man he idolized, called a hero, and then a dear friend, and he sees in this small child a constant aura of something powerful emanating steadily, despite the shaky hands and nervous smiles. Because this boy named Steve has something Peter knows he can never have.

 

 

Peace.

“And it is in this place that made it all possible.” He is no longer stuttering, and his voice is not shaking because of nerve, but of uninhibited passion, “In this place, where our future was threatened, fought for, and won. And I know that countless of people have said this, better than I could ever, but I think I have to say this. Not for myself, but for everyone here right now. This is why we are here after all.”

Steve takes a deep breath, and he looks straight at Peter.

Peter doesn’t breathe.

“To the people who have fought for our lives, and especially for those who gave their lives for us,” Chris is not just strumming softly now, he’s matched the height of Steve’s words and hits a crescendo as the younger kid speaks his words, “To Natasha Romanov, for having a soul so pure, and for Tony Stark— for having the heart of a hero, for bringing me my family back. Thank you.”

Peter can’t avoid Steve’s eye, and the smile that follows blinds him. Before he could maybe run away, or duck or I don’t know—I just want to get out of here—

Pepper speaks from behind him, walking toward the young boy, “Thank you, as well, Steve.”

This time, Peter lets out a huge sigh of relief—he thought, for one second there, that Steve was looking right at him—that he was talking to him, that he knew he was in there, fighting as well.

Because then he’d know that he shouldn’t thank them, or, Peter, specifically, because he didn’t do anything. If he did, Tony wouldn’t have had to—

Peter hates this. He hates this so much and he wants to leave. He has to leave—

“This night, is a night for the dreamers. Tony never did sleep during the night. He’d much rather work on the next Iron Man. And while I advise you to sleep during the night, I do recognize the beauty that it has. The moon, for one. This time, Midtown High, the night belongs to you. Have a wonderful night.”

At that, Chris takes the mic from Steve, who is glowing from Pepper’s pat on his head. He stands up, puts the mic on the stand, and in follows three more with instruments in their hands. One girl with a guitar, a boy with a keyboard and another with a beatbox and cymbals.

And he’s singing, eyes closed tight, “When you try your best but you don’t succeed…”

 

Oh.

Oh.

That was the melody he hummed.

 

Others whoop and yelp in recognition of the song, cheers going all the way from the far back of the crowd.

It doesn’t take long for the others to follow, because this is a song embedded in their bones.

“When you get what you want but not what you need,” Cindy sings from beside Sally. Their bodies begin to sway, shoulder to shoulder, “When you feel so tired but you can't sleep… stuck in reve-he-herse.”

Peter feels the ends of his mouth frown, but tries to correct it. His face struggling between what is and what should be. He could hold it in, he’s been holding it in for a year now. He can’t— not now.

“When the tears come streaming down your face… ‘cause you lose something you can't replace.” Ned is singing along, he throws his hand upward, feeding from the beauty of the night. Betty looks up at him, from his side, smiling fondly.

“When you love someone but it goes to waste, what could be worse?”

By this point everyone is singing along, the magic of the night too strong a pull to ignore, they feel, and sing in a unity that can only be brought by music, and the shared experience of their past.

Peter can feel the vibrations in the wind, MJ’s voice beside him melting with the collective heartbeat of the students. The beat of the box, pounding with their hearts. The strum of the guitar guiding their one melody. And the voice in front, leading it all.

Everyone flows with the music of it all, a magnetic incantation into a night of great wonder. Peter feels it in his fingers, an electric possession in the air, an immediate unitedness in a few words that they all understand so well.

Peter catches Ned’s eyes, shimmering with tears, and MJ’s hands clasping his, and Peter—Peter is helpless.

There is nothing else to do, in a presence as powerful as this. And so, Peter surrenders himself into the magic, and sings.

Lights will guide you home, and ignite your bones,” They are swaying, and they are one. “And I will try to fix you.”

A crowd of cheers ring from the back and waves forward, Peter feeling his voice in his throat and wondering when it felt so good to scream.

The tunes from the keyboard resonate across the night, and Chris takes the seconds off of his guitar, and walks around the students, “But high up above or down below. When you are too in love to let it sho-oh,” the crowd echoes.

Chris passes by Peter and his friends, Abe touching his hand that was outstretched, “Oh, but if you never try you'll never know—” a boy across him nodding vigorously, and a girl on the left red from emotions.

“—Just what you're wooo-rth—”

At this, Chris locks eyes with Peter, he grins. His hand with the red ring is up in the air, flicking it, and everybody follows. The instruments in the background melding in perfect harmony.

He makes a quick countdown, clenching his hand.

It is tight, when Peter clenches his on his side. Everyone else’s is reaching the sky with clenched fists, a ready promise and a stubborn hold.

 

One.

 

Two.

 

THREE.

 

 

 

“Lights will guide you home,”

 

And all the lights from their hands ignite. A bright, beautiful spectacle.

 

The night is theirs.

 

And ignite your bones,”

 

And all their hearts are one.

And all their feelings burn in the night.

And it is a promise, an oath, an assurance, that they will be alright.

 

And I will try to fix you.”

--

 

If anyone would look at the ground, from high up above, perhaps a place called heaven, whatever that may be, it would look as if the stars are waving, one smooth flow, and an effervescent miracle.

 

--

 

All at once, it is raining down on them—soft wisps of water that comes from all around. The fire is dying, but the burning stays strong and willful in their chest.

The only thing that’s left are the lights in their hands, the power that they hold. And a hundred of hopeful souls.

Peter sees them all—with their eyes shut tight in too much feeling, or open in wide wonder, arms outstretched and holding, their mouths wide eager to be heard.

The tears in their faces meet with the rain, and the fire is no longer there—the lady on the guitar playing the song of her life, and the drummer beating for all of them— they are jumping and swaying and screaming and crying—a unsurmountable energy flowing, barely contained—

bursting.

 

And Chris is running in the pathway, the crowd parting in surprise, and then, in a sense of realization, comes running after him—

And the kids are kids again.

The night is young and kind.

They are running,

And not away from their problems,

But toward it.

In challenge.

In defiance.

In laughter.

A crowd forms as Chris passes by, he leads the army of souls that demand for their right to be happy— the band playing from the bonfire, screams echo in joy and they are running—

It is Abe who follows without hesitation, Cindy who holds Charles’ hands, Sally who holds it back, MJ to pull him forward and Ned to pat him in the back.

And just like that, Peter is running along with them.

Carried by the surge of freedom, and the potential of a better tomorrow—even if it’s just for tonight—

Peter screams—

“WHOOOOOHOHOHOOO!”

“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!”

Ned follows. Because he is Ned and he will always follow Peter, as Peter will Ned.

Cindy is laughing in the air, her hand punching the air, Sally jumping along.

They feel the wet dews that formed around the grass, and they relish in the coldness of it all. All the warmth they need is all here, in the hand that they hold, and the hands that hold them.

Chris is turning back and the surge of students following also swerve, both of his hands flying in the air, and when he reaches the top of the hill, with all the students still down below, he jumps and—

 

 

Wow.

 

 

The fireworks light the sky, and they feel the explosion in their chests.

They stop where they stand, their chest heaving from all the running, and their eyes glued to the sky, hands holding onto each other or clasped into their hearts.

It is red and gold and blue and yellow.

It is a pattern of colors that tell a story of before, and echoes in them the courage for tomorrow.

Chris conducts the sky and all the colors it beholds for them.

And if they feel tonight, they feel and they feel and they feel—and

Flash collapses from the corner of Peter’s eyes and he moves to stand beside him.

He is yelling something into the grass, holding it back a bit, a strangled mewl escaping his lips—and he’s not the only one.

One by one, soul by soul, they let it all out.

Slowly at first, and then all at once.

And Chris is singing, “Tears come streaming down your face, when you lose something you cannot replace.”

MJ is the first to walk toward Flash, who is kneeling and clutching at the grass.

Oh, and tears come streaming down your face,”

It doesn’t take long before the others find their spots around Flash, everything making sense for them, and they cry along with their brother.

Because tonight, they come out not as mere acquaintances, or simple friends— in the magic of this moment, in the infinity that they share, they come out as family—as brothers and sisters who have overcome the harsh trials of life.

And I-aha-ahahaha—”

Flash tries to hide it, but MJ holds his hand down, and he clutches at her in a desperate, needing manner—like a child so desperate to be held that once he gets it, he might not understand it—

Sally follows, Abe and Charles leaning forward. Peter sits beside MJ, and gently puts a hand on Flash’ hand, hoping he wouldn’t know so the spell will keep going. Ned sits as well.

Tears streaming down your face,” the crowd cries, “I promise you I will learn from all my mistakes.”

Chris walks down closer to where the crowd of students found themselves, and he lies on the grass, his hands reaching for the stars, meeting its light halfway with the one on his hand, “Oh and the tears streaming down your face, and I—ahahhahahay,”

The others follow, the smoke from the fireworks fading, opening for the vast space, a night sky full of stars.

They feel it closer than before.

They feel closer than ever.

They feel that they will remember this forever.

 

Chris is strumming the guitar his friend gave him, and their voices are the only sound that envelops the world.

 

Lights will guide you home,” they reach for the star and meet each blink with a sway of their hand, steady and firm.

And ignite your bones,”

Flash has calmed down a bit, the tears salty in his mouth, and his breathing short. MJ lies on the wet grass in this starry, starry night, and she turns her head to the side where she sees Cindy holding Sally’s head, Abe and Charles who are roaring into the sky. She looks far back and catches Ned’s eyes, who points his chin toward Peter.

MJ can’t quite describe the feeling when she laid her eyes on Peter.

The crinkles in his eyes are sincere, and the laughter in his chest is genuine.

But there is a certain curve in his eyebrows that seem to be holding back, like a whisper in the back of his head that refuses to be quieted.

And the last crescendo of music falls into a hush. There is only the darkness and the individual spots that make up such a sight on the fields that once watched war unfold.

And the history is overcome.

And they sing, as an anthem and a cure.

 

And I will try to fix you.”

 

It is then, in the second it takes for Peter to feel her eyes, seek it and connect with it, that yes—

He is laughing but—

But.

 

He is still in pain.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“and there are ghosts in my head around the walls that form my memories.”

--

The students are scattered around the bonfire, coming back up a few minutes after the firework show ended. Chris is in the middle of it all, strumming his guitar in a more leisurely pace as compared to earlier, which was the pique of everyone’s burning energy.

Now is their down-time, but it doesn’t have to be a boring one.

And so, upon Chris’ leadership (an official one, as Peter would find out through MJ that he’s always been the one assigned to the bonfire, and had fought for the fireworks display to be included in all of it, God bless him), they begin telling their own stories.

The bonfire itself is lit, and shares a crisp, warm air around the perimeter, drying most of them up. A few dozen smaller fires are scattered about, apparently worked on by the teachers while they were down there.

It was unexpected, really. Principal Morita just started teaching the other teachers how to make the fires, when he saw that there were about a few dozen bags of wood unused for the bigger fire.

Despite the space amongst the students caused by the scattered campfires, their voices still unite as one, in assent or in humor, a placid harmony after the steady shadow of the past.

As Principal Morita looks around the field, and breathes in the smell of warmth, he can finally say that these children are sated souls.

Peter and the rest of the AcaDec sit closest to the bonfire, having been dragged by Ned. Together, they relish in the humanity that the stories offer.

It starts with Steve, who is shy but brave, and it is followed by a number of students who are touched by his strength. They share their lives since the Awakening, some telling of the Shadow period because they were one of those who are unlucky enough to live it.

“I was in fourth grade when it happened. I don’t know. It’s weird to see some of you as classmates. I’m almost the same age as my older sister and, while that sucks a bit, it is kind of amazing.”

“My favorite memory after coming back was coming home and seeing my Bruno again— he was a little Pitbull before, and now he’s a big-ass one, still adorable, but man, I love how excited he looked—he kept following me everywhere I went, wouldn’t look away, wouldn’t leave me alone. And when it took a toll on me, the realization ya’know, he was there to hold me. So, yeah. Get yourselves a dog.”

“I was sleeping when everyone came back. And I had a dream, then. That I was laughing so hard, and my stomach hurt so bad. I was slapping the ground and I had tears in my eyes. By the end of it, I was wheezing, until I was laughing without a sound. I didn’t know why I was laughing, and when I looked up to see who it was who made me laugh so much, I woke up. Apparently, I was laughing in my sleep as well, and the first thing that I saw was my brother. Who has come back from the dead.” Chuckle. “A few weeks ago, he made a joke that decimated me. That was when I knew I had fulfilled something in me that will never be taken away by anyone or anything.”

It went on, the stories.

A small, Korean girl who Peter thinks to be in twelfth grade promptly begins stand-up comedy that has everyone guffawing. Later, she admits, “Stand-up comedy became my coping mechanism.”

Chris takes a chance to sing a few songs, or strum for someone else’s voice.

It is the greatest surprise, when, after they sing the final lyrics to High Hopes, it is Principal Morita who steps forward.

“Can I tell you a story?”

There is easily silence, in respect to the Principal. But he doesn’t need their obligations as students. Right now, he is not Principal and they are not students. They are human beings finding solace in the experiences of one another, comfort brought by each and every one of their presence.

And he says exactly that.

“Why the silence? Keep as you were doing. I am not your Principal tonight, but your friend. And, after all, the night is yours.”

That eases them in an instant, comfortable enough to begin murmuring within one another.

“The stage is all yours Princ— err… Prince Morita, your royal highness.

Everyone chuckles at Chris’ save, the Principal even smirking in approval.

He takes a log of wood from the side and then calls all of them to scoot closer, to leave the minimum space between each other. To feel the presence to a physical level.

He tells of the tales of the World War II, where his grandfather was part of the legendary Howling Commandos. He spoke of the soldiers who started out as individuals, who left with cocky smiles and visions of honor, and then came back with nothing but their broken bodies, shattered minds and visions of horror.

“They would all be gathered together in fields, just like you are now. My grandfather told me how in each troupe that came back, after every first battle, the crowds in the field became much closer. More relaxed when together. There is, what he said, a sense of brotherhood that formed between all of them.”

Most of them are fascinated because they have never heard the Principal speak of the war. His grandfather, yes. But only as an icon, a figure far away from their grasps, only to be looked upon.

Now, he is speaking of the late Morita as his grandfather, someone they can all relate to.

Principal Morita’s voice is filled with pride, and his eyes urge them all to understand, “You, my students, are also soldiers. For you have fought one great battle, even though some of you might not remember most of it. But do know, that when the soldier sleeps, there are also battles waiting to be vanquished. You are but sleeping soldiers, then. And these students beside you, your friends, they are the ones who will help you wake up from that horrible nightmare. And possibly overcome it.

Because you have seen death and lived to tell the tale. And you have seen death upon your loved ones, and held long enough to welcome them back into life. And so, it is you who will have the strength to move further, and prosper. I believe in all of you.

--

 

The field is filled with applause. Never before have they heard speech that was really, truly for them—that their Principal believes in them, when most people doesn’t, when even they don’t… it’s… astonishing.

Principal Morita makes way for more stories, calling for the other teachers to share their own tales when he shouts, “Harrison! Warren! What are you doing there in the dark? Join us.”

It is instantaneous. The moment they all just know they found their ship. Some boys from the side whistle and another shouts, “Warrington! Warrington!”

Mr. Harrington rushes into the light, clothes askew and glasses falling down his nose. This causes more of the cheering and invites another wave of teases. Ms. Warren follows suit, but more calmly.

“What were you doing back there?” Principal Jim asks, amused.

“I was telling— I was—”

“I was telling him about the chemistry disasters in my class, and he about the time he lost a student during a trip,” Ms. Warren explains smoothly.

But the children are given license to be children, and so they tease and cheer.

“Oooh, Mr. Harrington laying it down!”

“I think, Principal Jim, that it isn’t us you should be worried about,” a seventh grader says slyly.

“Children—YOU—”

“Now, it’s alright Harrington, Warren. There is nothing to be so flustered over. I guess it will be easier to call you Harrington now, rather than having the trouble of calling you by each name— I think these kids are onto something with their… ship names.”

Everyone goes mad at the Principal choosing their side— some boys howling and clapping Mr. Harrington in the back, the girls gushing and giggling, suggesting names and genders.

Mr. Harrington is red in the face, furious— but not as much as Peter would expect. He’s more embarrassed than angry, really. Ms. Warren is taking it all calmly, but he can hear her heartbeat and the small looks she is giving Mr. Harrington.

In the night by the fire, surrounded by friends and the echo of laughter, Peter sighs in relief.

Mr. Harrington trudges all the way into the compound, the others watching in mirth.

 

All is in good humor.

And all is as they should be.

Yes.

All is well.

--

 

They are heading back to the compound at twelve, following after Mr. Harrington.

Peter walks back with everyone feeling tired through his bones.

Running around the field is nothing.

What wears him down is running into every memory for the whole day, and having to deal with the consequences of each one.

He knew this was going to be somewhat like that. And he also knew it was going to be difficult. He just didn’t know how much he could handle.

Anyway, tomorrow will be the last of it and he will be rid of it all.

(Hopefully.)

Ned is whistling a tune that he knows, but can’t quite put a finger on it. He tries to think about it because it pulls something that is familiar and forward, like he should know it. Plus, it is harmless, remembering a song.

The grass on his feet is a cold caress, and the chatter is a persistent glow of warmth.

“I’m so excited for tomorrow man,” Ned gushes to Charles, “The robot that I made—I’m gonna have to code some new things there so I could integrate this cool bracelet! I have so much to do and so little time! I should have brought my hat; it’ll help me move faster.”

Peter squints his eyes and he is fidgeting, the song a frustrating presence that refuses to be named. So instead, he offers, “I can help you.”

“Thanks, dude!” Ned beams, “You’re the best.”

No, Peter thinks, you’re the best.

“Hey, I haven’t seen your tribute yet, Peter,” Charles pipes up.

“Now that I think about it, I haven’t even heard you talk about a tribute,” Abe adds.

Ned is quick to supply an answer, “We worked on the bot together so we’re just gonna offer it as tribute as a pair.”

Peter nods, hoping this will be the end of it.

And it is.

Because Abe is nodding and Charles is saying ‘Oh’ like it all makes sense now.

And the only thing that makes sense to Peter is how horribly cowardly he is that he can’t even gather the courage to honor his mento— father, and he’s letting Ned do all the lying because apparently, even that he can’t do well enough.

He has to be better.

--

 

It takes all of them an hour and a half of waiting in the bathroom to fully change into pyjamas, and fixing their sleeping bags. When the last student lay to sleep on his back, the lights in the room dims down until it is black. Peter is smudged between Ned and a senior robotics club member, close to the side of the window panes.

Friday has installed it in night mode, the glass tinting, but not too dark, saving a little opening for the stars to blink at them from outside.

Peter blinks back.

And back.

And back.

And—Oh God—

 

 

 

 

Peter just wants to sleep.

He wants to sleep so bad.

But he can’t.

Of course, he can’t.

Parker luck dictates that he should find it the hardest to find rest, because that’s how life is to him. His mind is a constant buzzing ball of anxiety, melding somewhere between the tribute, how he should be giving his own, and then thinking it won’t help.

He banishes his mind into other things, what he thinks is a lesser of this evil.

And because he is muddled and tired and had been worn down by the trials of today, his thoughts cast into the forest, where Clint speaks to him right to his core, understanding him in a way that shouldn’t be legal.

Clint is right though, in many ways that hurts.

But it also gives him a sense of relief, a small one—a fleeting, leaping thing— the only thing Peter will allow himself to feel.

“It’s alright to feel better.”

Clint had said then.

So, he does, just a bit.

“It’s alright to feel.”

That, Peter doesn’t understand. Not in the way that he thinks he should. He doesn’t get what he means by that. In the fullest sense, what does ‘feeling’ entail? Is it the burning in his lungs after screaming too hard, the ringing in his ears after blanking out? Is it the tremors of his fingers after suppressing a few tears, or the shaky breaths that he exhales?

Or is it numbness? The feeling of everything that all of it turns into nothing, when his hands couldn’t carry it any longer and his feet are surrendering to the weight of it all?

His head aches from all these thoughts.

In the end, Peter doesn’t know what to do. But that’s hardly new.

Because everything he’s learned up till’ this point clashes with everything everyone is telling him.

They say, “Open your heart.”

But from his parents’ last breath to Tony’s last smile, Peter knows that opening one’s heart makes it vulnerable. It makes it weak. It makes it hurt.

They say, “It is okay to feel.”

But what if feeling is the one that destroy you? Doesn’t that make it not okay?

They say, “Little steps. You will be better tomorrow.”

But Peter wakes up every day, every ‘tomorrow’, feeling like he would rather not wake up.

Peter knows, then, that he shouldn’t listen to everyone out there. None of them could ever understand where he is. In this torture purgatory of existence and death. And no one can really give him the answer, no one but himself.

(What is the question again?)

There is someone else, though, who Peter trusts would know. Because she’s always known everything, every answer under the sun, and beyond the wide expanse of the galaxy.

It is a unanimous decision, his mind, his body and his heart moving toward the bathroom, grabbing a bit of cloth from his bag on the way.

He meanders through the bodies on the floor, careful and noiseless to avoid waking anyone up. They are snoring, some shuffling, and a lot of peaceful, rested boys.

Peter finds himself easily in the bathroom.

It is something to thank, then, that he has the compound memorized.

Because from a stall in the loo, he can access a secret door that will lead to the tower. From there, he can hopefully escape this limbo.

He presses his finger on the screen and smoothly passes to the other room, where another one leads down into a tunnel that lightens up as soon as he enters.

It is a long walk, but a much needed one to soothe his aching mind. When he arrives in the tower, it is as deserted as he feels and he turns around the corner, where he continues his trek.

It is more a reflex, a part of his muscles that could never forget the feeling of roaming these walls.

It is home away from home.

(And it is not because his home is in Queens, and he is Upstate right now. He thinks he has lost a large portion of his home the moment Tony lost his li—)

Peter shakes his head and slaps his cheeks. He cannot think of those things. He can only handle so much before he would have to give in. It wouldn’t help that every second is screeching to him that Tony is d-dead. He’s dead. MJ- Ned- May—they will all die too and I will be alone because I deserve it—

Slap.

SLAP.

SLAP!

Nobody hears his pain.

--

 

He is far into the tower now. Darkness enveloping his eyes, making him feel as if he is floating in black water.

The sting of his slap awakens him from his lousy mind and he becomes mindful to every step he takes.

Little steps. You will be better tomorrow.”

Peter lets out a laugh. No matter that it is derisive and at his expense. (Because he knows he won’t be better tomorrow. In fact, he will be worse. But he has to keep on trying. People are watching. People are depending on him to.) He takes it, though, for it is all he can have.

It is a matter of minutes, Peter barely tired from all the walking, and one long ride from the elevator, when he reaches the place.

Here.

Here is the place of his dreams. And here is the place that is replaced by nightmares.

Hollow, cold, uncaring.

Here Peter stands, in the shadow of the night, in this place that once held everything, in the room where they once shared laughter.

He wonders, why does everything have to be so dark now? His room, this floor, the world—

Light, Peter finds out, is impossible now. Whether it is the metaphorical light in the end of the tunnel, or a lightness that can only come from a soul that is pure and untouched.

Because when the battle ceased, and the dust settled, Peter saw his father fall. And along with that, his love for this life falls too.

Peter’s mind supplies in a snarky manner, What, is it lose one, lose em’ all?

(No. It replies. You lose Tony, you lose everything, because Tony is everything—)

The edges of the ceiling lights up and Peter jumps in surprise.

“Welcome, Peter.” Friday. “It has been a long time, indeed.” It has, hasn’t it. “Boss is waiting for you.

Lub-lub-lub-lubdub lubdub lubdublubdublubdub—

Peter is standing frozen in the middle of the floor, his eyes moving across it, looking, searching—

 

hoping.

 

Because Friday has never been wrong, and he wished, he hoped, that this wasn’t any different.

But he has scoured every corner, strained for every piece of evidence that she might be right, and there is still nothing.

Oh, yes, of course. The only time that he dared hope, and she chooses it to be the time to become fallible. Stupidfuckingidiot—

Peter’s stomach drops and he feels drained of everything, every shred of fantasy he ever entertained dissolving in his mind, making way for a slow, simmering anger. How can he be such a fool to think that Tony might just have been hiding—that he could have—that he could have been alive

Alive.

Life.

Death.

Dead.

Tony was alive. It wasn’t all just a sick dream; he isn’t in a coma. Tony was alive, and for a few years he got to share that life with him, breathe in the same goddamn space he breathed in, and he heard his heart beating, sometimes calm, usually fast, and then—

“We won. Mr. Stark.” Lub… dub. No. “We won Mr. Stark…!” Lub… “We won— we did it, s-sir, wedidit—”

 

 

Gone.

 

 

It is a vivid dream in the nights Peter gets a few hours of sleep. So intensely clear in fact, that he can still feel the gashes on his body, the metallic tang of blood in his mouth, and the deep sense of denial and desperation that comes when he hears it first, the heart that has always been the strongest—and then sees it, second, the light that has always shone the strongest in Peter’s eyes.

Gone, gone, gone.

Tony was alive. But now—

Now he is dead.

Peter repeats that for a few more times in his head, focusing on the spot in front of him and muttering it until he feels a clawing in his throat, and he realizes he is almost shouting now. He stops.

He starts again, but now, whispering.

It is like a prayer, not because of the way he repeats the truth over and over and over, every night, every time he feels scared, but because no one hears him, and no one is coming.

He whispers, he prays to the void, because sometimes the dreams are too real and he has a hard time distinguishing which is which.

(Does it matter? It all feels the same.)

He has already mourned Ned, when he was never dead.

He has already cried for MJ, too caught in the image in his head.

He has already bled and tore and hurt, fighting off ghosts, invisible men in his head, thinking they had May.

And earlier, just a few hours ago, in the beautiful morning dew, he gave in to hope and went for that hug because Tony is alive and he is here right now—

When he had not been.

And he will never be here anymore.

The scream reverberates across the room, him hunched over himself, breathing through his mouth—exhale, exhale, exhale— and his eyes burn just a bit. Peter takes his time to calm his breath.

He notices the tremors in his hand, and feeling annoyed, closes it in his fist. With nothing else to do, he stays there, and watches. His hand struggle to hold, and the pain is fresh and familiar. His knuckles soon give away to color and he feels blood draw.

It drips on the flush carpet.

And he is aware that he is standing in their home.

(Or. What was home.)

 

His eyes are swift and direct and Peter begins to catalogue everything. It is something to do to help him wind down. It usually helps.

A lot of the things are left just as they are. The couch that is always a few inches too far from the table, the curtains that draw only halfway up, and the bunny slippers Tony gifted him as a joke, that he always wore here, always left just outside his room—

 

Boss is waiting.”

 

The end of Peter’s mouth moves to frown, he is not in control. He has never been in control. His hands that hold his blood wipe itself on the side of his trousers, and his feet walk him toward his room.

Friday might be wrong, and she might not understand life or death, she is an A.I. after all, she might know everything, but she doesn’t know the feeling—

But she is a friend.

Yes.

She is a friend, and he trusts that she will remain so, even after what he is going to do.

Turn, avoid the counter, grey carpet, smooth, and then wooden floors, and, turn again—he has it memorized, like the song that he knows only the melody and not its name.

It is something dull, but only by force, because he cannot handle yet to see it in its true brilliance. He might just crack.

Turn, knob, here.

Breathe in.

And smell the feeling of yesterday.

And then feel it slipping away.

What an old, familiar friend, his room. It is like a video paused, frozen in sweet melancholy, as if he is still the innocent and believing Peter.

It is a reminder of his own nonchalant mess, which has always been a part of who he is. Posters, post-it notes and clothes hang like murals of the old Peter, who he thinks has died a long, long time ago.

All that is left is a hollow doll, demanding its right to live in the only way he knows how.

By coming back, and wishing that perhaps now he could break freely.

In this empty floor drinking in darkness and basking in a little bit of sobering, orange light, he feels that there is nothing but this room, and all the memories that flow with it.

Peter lets himself be dragged by the current, and flows along.

His eyes catch sight of the tempescope he had made to impress Tony, and he begins to miss his youthful enthusiasm. What a child Peter had been then.

The free laughter. The moments where the burden of his uncle’s death, and the guilt of forgetting his parents’ voices, were overcome by a deep surge of affection and pure, unadulterated love.

All that is gone, and he could only weep for its absence.

Maybe hold his hand out there as well, feeling the empty air.

His feet drag a little, and he hesitates, the fabric heavy in his hand.

It is warmer here than it is downstairs, and the bed is inviting him. But he mustn’t get distracted. He must do it. Now.

And so, he does.

Peter breaks into a flurry of movements. Starting with his shirt, and then his trousers, he strips them all until he is left as bare as he feels.

He then pulls on the fabric—there, again, the hesitance, and he feels wretched but determined. With a small whimper that escapes him, truly, he pulls through.

 

Because if this is goodbye, then this is goodbye.

He will have to make it firm and final.

No hesitation.

Not anymore.

He will wear it.

He will wear the suit, and become Spider-Man.

 

One last time.

 

 

Say goodbye to Karen.

Say goodbye to Spider-Man.

Say goodbye to the last physical thing he has of Tony.

 

 

(Say goodbye to… Tony?)

 

 

Peter shakes his head, no, no.

He doesn’t approach that particular subject, and instead hones in on the suit—its fibers and scratches a clear resolution in his head.

He pulls the suit on.

Huh.

It hugs him well, but it does not escape him that the suit clings a bit more differently than before.

The standing mirror is looking at him just as he turns, the red and blue a dull kind of prominent in the dim lights.

Hazy.

But the lines are bold and unafraid, the colors demanding attention, and the suit itself a presence to behold. The person inside, though, is subdued, his shoulder lax and posture too unsure.

Peter notices what is wrong, what is different.

He is thinner now. Grotesquely does this suit hug his figure, the ghost of old muscles, worn out and feeble.

He looks weak.

And tired.

He looks pathetic.

 

Peter fidgets with the mask, not yet ready but gathering what’s left of his courage. He looks at himself in the mirror and relishes in a self-hatred that he has come so accustomed to, in the longest year of his life.

It is interesting, then, that at one point in this night he had felt like he could fly and start over again, like he could walk past this, screaming not in cowardice but in challenge. In that field surrounded by light, and the guidance of every man and woman’s one voice, he felt like he could do it. He felt like he could live again.

 

And yet look at him now.

 

Pathetic Penis Parker.

Flash is right.

 

He is pathetic in more ways than one, weaker than any man he knows.

But who could blame him, when all the love he’s ever known is always continuously coldly snatched from his shaking hands? When he dared to hope, and he was rewarded only with hurt and heart break.

Because Tony is the fourth person to go, and he is waiting for the fifth, thinking, if there is anyone let it be him, instead.

Because every night, when he screams or so much as struggle in his bed, and May is waking him up, eyes wide in worry, he thinks he cannot mourn, because then May would be sad.

Because every time he walks past the train rails, or the busy New York streets, he thinks that perhaps it would be a way to go, just to stand there with his eyes closed, meeting tranquility in the midst of chaos.

Because every day that he seeks solace, he is met with one Ned Leeds who won’t go away (thank God because he might not have moved out of the yellow cab’s way if it weren’t for him—) and a suspicious MJ who won’t let go of his hand while they’re in the street for a few weeks after that.

He is weak, but in truth he wants to be weaker— he wants to be selfish tonight, and, just.

Feel.

Weep.

Just fucking cry and cry and cry and cry and no one to stop him—

Mourn?

Yeah.

Definitely.

So, he does.

 

 

 

Say goodbye, Spider-Man.

--

 

In this cool, quiet night, a single boy lay awake. It begins to rain.

 

--

 

“Peter, I’ve missed you.”

It is Karen, and her voice is fond and melancholic.

It’s like she knows what’s going to happen.

Karen in his phone is but texts and codes running. She isn’t a whole person like she is in the suit. And that’s what Peter is going to lose.

Another friend.

And he knows he doesn’t want to. He needs Karen because she is a friend and he loves each and every one of his friends.

But she is a friend that was created by Tony Stark, therefore, a friend that will always be tied to that. And he will forever be tethered to that connection if he doesn’t move to break it.

“H-Hi there, Karen,” Peter starts shakily, voice scratching in his throat.

Karen’s voice is a comfort in his head, and the mask that covers it tingles with the melodious sound. Every vibration, every fluctuation, as if she is a human being.

“You came back here, then.”

Peter nods, and then he offers a reply in a faint, shy voice, “Yeah— yes.”

“Are we ‘back at it’, Peter?”

“Back at—no, no, I’m sorry Karen. I won’t be back… never again.”

She hesitates, as if she is not a bunch of codes, but the with blood flowing in her veins, and a voice that tells of feelings. He almost buys it.

“Is there anything I could do?”

Peter shakes his head, his shoulders sagging from the weight of it all, “No,” the exhaustion is clear in his voice and it is a deeper octave, “I’m sorry Karen.”

“Nothing to apologize for, Peter,” she says softly, “You know Peter, it will be alright.”

And his heart breaks.

“The light will shine on you again, Peter. No matter how long the night, the sun is destined to rise.” It is a promise that Peter wants to hold on to but is wise not to. She sighs, “I really like that quote,” she says, somber, “I wish you will remember that of me.”

And when she speaks next, it is more human than anything Peter has heard, a sense of finality, a little bit of sorrow, and perhaps acceptance—something he wishes to learn someday.

“Peter. Spider-Man, my good friend…”

 

 

“Good-bye.

 

 

She shuts down.

A sudden darkness envelops the mask, making him feel more alone than ever.

Peter is looking around him, the mask obscuring everything from view, with only the dimmest light shining through the eyes of his mask.

It isn’t enough and the darkness clamps onto him fast.

She didn’t even—she didn’t even wait for him—

No, no.

She waited. She waited for more than a year. Only for him to abandon her, like he has been abandoned so many times.

Peter throws his mask off in a frantic sort of daze, it is suffocating and dangerous and terrifying—to see something that was once so filled with light, only be drenched in shadows. To see hope, and feel it fade away into a void of dark sorrows.

The screams that reach Peter’s ears are ones that do not seem to belong to a human. It is far too much on the side of wailing, like an old cub losing its mother, or the bellow of a tired lion baring its teeth as a final act of defiance.

He is falling, crouching on the floor, because he has been standing for far too long. And his feet are sore and hurting, among many, many others.

His hands cover his face and he screams into it more, a raging, thunderous howl from deep inside his chest that has always been there, just waiting to let go.

His voice is hoarse, already tired from the shouting he did earlier. Throat burning in vile bile, and tears hot and scalding in his cheeks. His eyes are fire, a volcanic eruption of pyroclastic emotions and he is a fool to think it will be gone when the tears come.

His body is lead, heavy and deadweight. And he could just fall.

Peter rocks himself, forward and back, like a sweet child in the arms of a soothing mother. Only, there is no mother, and there is no soothing. It is only him tonight, and darkness, his old lover. And his hands don’t hold strong enough, so he rocks forward only to fall on his knees.

His eyes meet the mirror’s and he hate the way he looks. This boy, Peter scoffs, thinking he could save the world—thinking he could change it for the better, what a joke.

It is his destiny, then, Peter surmises, to always look for sunlight in a room with no windows. And, Peter thinks, since this room has no windows, or mothers or friends or anything else, really, he just bursts—

Like a dam that has been holding on more than it can handle.

It is a relief.

And it is a terrible awakening.

It starts as a silent scream, his face frozen into anguish. A split second later, it breaks into a roar, one of an ancient dinosaur’s who knows it will die in a few merciful minutes. And when a sob escapes, as it always does, his hands clamp onto his mouth.

It is a reflex he has maintained for May’s sake, even though it does nothing.

His shoulders shake and his hands grip tightly onto his stomach, hugging himself in a frantic move to hold something. His knees dig on the floor, like he is praying, when he is only begging.

Peter’s teeth find his palms and he bites into it, scream muffled but all the more potent, the tang of blood melding with his tears and his snot, in one confusing mess.

His spit trickles down his chin and it forms an ugly dew with the blood from his hands.

And the only thing that registers in his mind is that everything that happened today— from the bus ride with the bug dying, to the hologram, to Clint in the forest and to the bonfire in relative lightness—it all led to this.

Bright shine, fake peace, tranquility, but only for a second, only for a moment— “He’s not gone. Not really. Not in the way that matters.”

But he is GONEreally, really gone—as in, DEAD—

Tony’s dead and that matters—

That matters so much because now I—now I want to die too but I CAN’T—

Wheeze in, wheeze out, a high inhale, and he thinks he might be having an asthma attack with how his lungs feel like its bursting, and then closing. Shutting down. Dying.

He screams at everything, his spit spewing everywhere and his body is trembling in so much suppressed energy desperate to escape this hell hole.

Then, the scratching begins.

It comes when the sensation on his chest is too magnified, too electric, that it riddles him helpless— it is an itch that he can never appease, but he keeps on trying to, anyways.

His fingers fidget, and then embeds itself deep into his chest through the suit. It does not tear, for it is more resilient than Peter ever will be.

It becomes a cycle:

Rock, front, back, shudder—

When his thoughts enter dangerous territory:

SLAP!

Shake, snot, wheeze,

Repeat.

It comes so fast, collapsing onto him like a loaded truck losing control. Peter doesn’t know how to react. And if he does, the only thing he can do is to accept it full on.

--

 

Peter would find out that tears are never just tears.

There are different kinds, that tells of the human who bears it.

The first few months, it had been soft tears. An easy, loose slip from his eyes. They start with burning and they end with coldness.

A few months after that, it was just a dry kind of crying—a rasp that can never be quenched, a desert in arid loneliness. It is exhaustion and knowing how it goes and how it would end. Because he has cried too much not to know it by the script. So, he just sits there and watches it happen from afar.

(Sometimes it is not quite easy, to separate himself. He sometimes ends up writhing in his sheets, clawing at his chest for an itch that refuses to leave.)

But now...

Now, it is quite more than that.

Now, it is a desperate unravelling— he has no one to think of when he screams because he is alone in the whole expanse of this reality.

He is screaming his throat raw, bleeding from the inside and out, and it is all dirty. The snot, the dying voice— and then he forgets why he even started crying in the first place.

From Spider-Man to Tony, to thoughts of death and of life, and a deep sense of yearning. It is a physical thing he could touch—but only for a few seconds before it breaks away—and he is screaming, or whispering, whatever he can do at the moment, “I wish—I wish you were here—I wish I could touch you. I wish I could hug you. I wish I could laugh with you again, just one more day, one more second, if, if only I could—” He struggles to speak with the way his mouth trembles, but he bites it out, every word, every letter in those thoughts.

Then, the question, “Why—why did it have to be you?”

He is yelling and screaming and crying and asking for help— a deep searing ache that refuses to go away— hollow in his chest, heavy on his stomach and heaving on his throat. Peter is doubled over himself now, attempting to hug and carry what cannot be hugged, what cannot be carried by anyone else but him.

He scratches at his chest again, this hollow thing that used to hold his heart. He is screaming at the void, his tears hot and salty in his mouth. Peter cries for help, for the impossible, for Tony to— “COME BACK— PLEASE…! I promise I’ll be better—Please… Just— come back…”

And he is wheezing, and he is losing his voice, losing himself slowly to the darkness. His suit is a little bit torn apart, and he is completely torn apart.

Peter struggles to hold himself together so he doesn’t.

His tears recede only to fall back in large amounts like waves on the shore crashing with the moon’s pull.

He is falling further on the floor, his knees giving way, and it feels cold on his warm skin, bitter on his flesh. This is the kind of crying Peter had only been able to do once. Just after he closed his eyes, marching down back to where they started. It is pleading for the impossible and clawing for what can never be there anymore, it is desperate and stupid and tormenting— he had been holding this in for a year now. And every day, every minute, every second that he held his tears back or pushed down that lump in his throat comes escaping now

Hiccups and whines and pleading— the suit sticks on his skin in a way that it never did before—

This type of crying that is wet and loud and magnified. There are not only tears, but blood—the wounds that only half-healed and ended up as scars, they open again and they bleed again.

This is the marriage of tears and blood, of salty and thick, of feeling and feeling.

Peter digs deep in the well in his chest, his nails dulled but his desperation making up more than half of it. He will have scratch marks tomorrow, but nobody will see that so it is alright.

He is scratching, tearing, clawing and when he screams, it is not as an accusation, but as a reply to all the things around this room that show him Tony as if he is still alive.

Why- why did he come here—?

To say good-bye?

Yes, that is what he has been saying the whole time.

But that’s not quite it.

He might have hoped, then, for a bit, that Tony was coming to get him.

Instead, there is Peter, and Peter alone.

In the dead of the night, with everyone in peaceful slumber, and an expanse of a field separating him from them all, no one is there to stop him from breaking.

--

 

He is a puddle of tears on the floor, curled up into himself by the end of the bed. His nose is blocked, and if he could, he would have used that as a reason why he stopped breathing.

But because there is May, he opens his mouth to the air.

Thoughts fill with Spider-Man.

If he is to be completely honest, he doesn’t know what it could mean for him when he says goodbye to Spider-Man. Will it break him? Or relieve him? Will it strip him of all his purpose and value? Or will he find a new purpose and find value in himself, as Peter?

He is scared, deathly afraid of the dark vacuum ahead. It is a blank space that he fears he cannot fill.

Although.

He does know one thing.

It is that he will lose the part of himself that he has always loved unconditionally.

Perhaps it is that, then. A punishment he serves for himself, for the price of freedom. Like losing his legs and arms, and the one identity that mattered.

He will lose the only love that he gives himself.

And Peter…

 

He is alright with that.

Because he knows, and the world and the universe conspire to tell him, that if it is Peter Parker, then it is a boy who doesn’t deserve the privilege of love.

--

 

Peter’s palms cease to bleed, but his heart doesn’t seem to stop.

It continues to tell him things—things like death and what is easier.

Death, Peter concluded before, is easiest for the one leaving. And hardest for the one left behind. So, no matter how much he just wants to let go, and just slip from the tallest building, he just can’t do it to May and MJ and Ned—

He sees their faces clear as if he can touch them, when they attend his imaginary funeral. And he knows it is something he will never want to see ever again.

Death is out of the answer. Death for Peter, that is.

To Spider-man, death is the only answer.

And so, following death, there is mourning.

Peter feels the trickle of hot tears in his cheeks again, but his hands are limp and chest hollow.

He does not move, and every breath that enters his body enflames the fire in his throat. Every whine, every grunt, every exhale, they all scald his throat and remind him of a few moments ago, when he thought he was being burned alive.

His shoulders begin to shake again, involuntary images presenting themselves with more vigor—and even though some of them are vague, the feelings stay the same.

He would never admit it, but in his quest to avoid everything Tony Stark, he ended up forgetting.

His eyes, and his smile and his laugh—they are all memories dulled by the trials of time and worn out by these tiring emotions. He still knows how it feels though, the love that permeates in every interaction—the lightness, the happiness. But it will always be followed by an added weight.

Tainted.

And all that’s left is this room, this undeniable wretchedness, and—

 

 

“Peter. I’m sorry for making you wait. It took me a long time.”

Peter jumps horribly that his back cracks, the sound reverberating through his body. He has forgotten Friday and how much her voice resounds in his room. He shakes his head, now only feeling anger. But she couldn’t have known better— damage by the infinity stones are permanent, Peter would know.

But she isn’t finished talking, because there is a deep pause, and the sound of whirring machines, and in every area of the room, from the walls, to where Peter sits, flashes blue light.

When it is finished, it is nothing but a big blue orb. Peter drinks in the color—

And then.

 

 

 

 

 

“Boss is here.”

--

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“Say ahhhh, Peter, eat your veggies!”

Grumble.

Pout.

“No!”

CLANK.

“I don’t wike it!”

Huff.

An exasperated mother.

“He’s so stubborn.”

Sigh.

And everyone else.

“Nah, I think that’s good, Mary. He’s a fighter, that kid.”

“What do you think, May? Peter Parker: The hero in the onesie.”

“Stop it Richard. You’re going to make her gush about it for hours on end again. The victim? Me.”

“Don’t mind him. Ben’s hiding it with his complaints, but he’s just as excited as I am when baby Gwen comes. I can already see them in matching onesies!”

 

--

 

“I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Parker. It’s not your fault. We will make further examinations to see if you can still conceive. But Gwen is already…” ehem, “Again, I am truly sorry for your loss.”

There is only the sound of sobbing.

Emptiness.

And then footsteps.

Echo.

“I’m- I’m sorry May. Gwen—she—”

A wretched, broken wail—

Wrong move, wrong move. Shouldn’t have started there.

Take a few steps back.

Recalibrate.

Hum.

“You know,” um, “We’ll always be here, Ben, May. Peter’s still, he’s still here.”

“We reckon, he needs more than a pair of parents looking out for him.”

“Richard… Mary…!”

Reach out.

Hug.

And then.

Cry.

For a long time.

Together.

“Gwen… she will be looking out for us. I know it. And. To have her as his guardian… Peter is lucky.”

--

 

“Mommy?”

Turn.

The earrings won’t come in.

“When will you be back?”

“In a few weeks, baby.” Trembling lips. “Come here,” coos Mary, “No need to worry, honey. Aunt May and Uncle Ben will be here until we’re back. Don’t you love it when they’re here?”

A baby boy feels the course of anticipation like a drug.

“YES.”

“Then, you’ll have the best weeks of your life!”

“I will, won’t I!”

“Are you excited?”

“Yes—indubitably!”

“Where did you learn that word?”

“Adventure time!”

Grin.

“Oh, come here, my little genius!”

And an ever so lovely laughter between mother and son.

--

 

Enjoy it till’ it lasts.

 

--

 

They laugh until Mary and Richard has to go.

 

--

 

They don’t come back.

 

--

 

3 a.m.

Cold.

Can’t sleep.

Need drink.

Creak.

“Ben?”

Sniffle.

Shuffle.

Hoarse voice.

More:

Creaaaaak.

Red eyes.

“Why are you up so late, Pete?”

Stuffy nose.

“I was thirsty and… and I heard you crying.” Pause. “I- I thought maybe I can help you, since you take care of me always. Are—are you hurt, Uncle Ben?”

“Oh Peter—” Jump back, only to be dragged back into his favorite hugs. This time it is quite different. Maybe because Uncle Ben is crying, and Peter isn’t laughing like he always does, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry I couldn’t do more. I will be your father now. You won’t be alone, I swear, and I promise I will protect you for as long as I live—”

 

--

 

Nine years.

It takes Ben nine years, fulfilling his promise.

When the breath leaves his body, Peter curses the old Gods, but before anything—

Pe—Peter. Look at me. Look at me, my boy.”

Ben, no- no—”

“Shh, shh, it’s alright. You’re going to be alright. Just—please. Protect May. You’re the—you’re the only one she has left. Tell her— tell her I love her so much…”

“Please don’t go, Ben- I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please don’t leave me—!"

--

 

From then, it distorts.

 

--

 

“Uuuuuuuurr ahhhhhhr uhhhr aaaahhhhr… argggg.”

Nine-year-old Ned growls.

“Who is that supposed to be?”

They are playing… charades?

Eight-and-a-half-year-old Peter squeals. He knows who that’s supposed to be!

He screams:

It’s not wise to upset a Wookie…!

And then, an instant connection, two strangers finding a brother in each other. They’re allies.

It starts here.

GASSP!”

“Did Ned just—did he just say ‘gasp’ out loud?”

“Come on man, these two nerds here are about to fall in love.”

It doesn’t really end.

--

 

“You know, you’re about to turn forty and you’re still eating a whole-ass cake.”

“Well, I can.”

“Come on, Peter. The kids?”

“Aww, MJ, the kids. Our kids. Isn’t this a wonderful world indeed?”

“Stop distracting me. You’ve never been good at diversions. Plus, spider bite or not, you could still succumb to diabetes if you give it enough of a reason to.”

“Psh, I have Banner and Dr. Cho, they’ll fix me up in no time.”

And you have to set up a good example to your equally troublesome children.”

“They got that from your side of the genes. All they got is my adorable smile, beautiful hair—"

Peter.”

“Ugh, fine mom.”

--

 

May is alone in her apartment. She doesn’t understand what just happened, but she’s back now. Losing five years, and then coming back just like that. And the news outlets are talking about big explosions, space-ships and—

BGDGH—!

“What the… Peter?!”

He falls on his knees.

“Why—why does it always hurt May?”

Blood.

On his hands.

Bruises.

On his face.

A hole.

On his chest.

“You’re—you’re here…!” Touch. Disbelief. “You’re really here—Oh my God Peter, please don’t ever leave like that, I tried calling you, looking for you everywhere but even Ned doesn’t know. And then, that thing with the dust—"

HUSH.

Something is wrong.

He’s not jumping in joy at all.

May is careful to ask.

“What happened, Peter? Are you- are you hurt?”

“Not…” exhale, “Not in the way than can be healed, May.”

“…can I try?”

“Please—it hurts.

What to do, what to do?!

Uhh…

“Talk to me. Tell me everything Peter.”

Faraway look. Realization, all over again. And then, distance.

“I don’t know, May…” Sniffle. “I just, you’d think I’d get used to it now—by the time Ben—”

“What are you saying Peter?” Never talked about Ben until now. “Get used to what?”

Eyes, lock.

Fear, hurt, destruction.

May knows then and there, that something is wrong. And she might not be able to fix it.

“…what happened?”

The first tear drops to the floor, covering Peter’s fragile face in a sweet caress, too sweet than it should ever be—

And.

 

 

Tony’s dead.”

 

--

 

Do you hear that?

It is dark. You probably won’t see it at all. But the magic of sound is that you only have to hear it for you to realize it is real.

So, listen. If you strain hard enough, and lean just a little bit more to the right, maybe then you will hear it— the dark promise of tomorrow, the sound of whipping hair, standing over the hill, existing in a time where there is neither night nor day, only you and the sunlight that is about to crack.

The breaking of dawn and of hope.

In his room, in every fraction of a breath, or the flitting blink of the eye, or the way the air settles around, filling it with blinding blue light—

Pay attention.

Don’t listen to the whirring machine, or the sigh that never escapes Peter lips (he is holding his breath, he cannot have done it).

It will only distract you.

Just.

Focus.

Look for the sound of crumbling hope, the build-up of despondence—a heavy gear shifting.

If you can’t, and you don’t think there isn’t any, that this is all a lie, try again.

You will hear it. You must hear it.

Because in every ticking of the clock, in every new wave of thoughts, or the movement of dust—the way it settles on this boy’s face, and the way it dances around the blue light—whatever will happen in the next seconds, whatever it is that he does next, it will be the line that connects Peter.

To the past and the present and the future.                                                                                        

It will be the thing to transcend time and live an eternity in this boy’s chest.

This is what makes him.

Peter swallows the sun.

And then, and then

 

 

 

 

 

“It’s…” shaky breath, hollow and tearful, “It’s been a long time, Pete.”

--

 

It does not take much to break one Peter Parker.

In fact, he is already broken. A toy thing for the Old Gods, entertainment for some.

And it is in this pain, the fraction of whoever he thought he was, lying in pieces, that he finds his identity.

He is not Peter Parker if he is not hurting.

But there is also something else. It always stays, an annoying presence that disturbs the solace he finds in darkness.

He hears it as if he is in the meadows, laughing. The sun is warm in his chest and his feet fly with electric energy.

He sees it in the new promises that he is always trying to believe.

Feels it in the new chances he takes.

And even if he doesn’t want it, as he so desperately tries to break from its clutches, it never does fade away.

It is as much a part of Peter as pain his most familiar companion.

 

And there, his voice— so real, so close as if he is here—

 

Here is hope, it whispers.

Here is, Tony.

Here is…

 

Home.

--

 

For the whole moment it takes him to hear his heartbeat, and the second he realizes it isn’t his, Peter snaps from the daze of discovery.

A rhythmic promise of presence, more than mere imagery, or holographic technology—an orchestra sings in Peter’s chest, reaching a constant, powerful chant, a great desire to see what would happen if—

He stops himself.

Wary of hope.

But it is too bright to ignore, and he is too real to think it is not him.

He waits, though.

And the cymbals hiss, as the snare beats in trepid anticipation.

First, he sees the lines.

The heavy lines in his face that accentuates an experience he thinks he knows so well, this mourning, this loss.

The next are his shoulders, slump down, and then his eyes flitting to the ground in undeniable defeat—Peter takes it all in.

Even more, Peter gets it all.

Tony is pressing his lips in a thin line and groans, his hands relaxing forcibly in an attempt to stop fidgeting—that’s a thing he does when he’s nervous or uncomfortable, and its’ one of those things that only Peter and Pepper— and not the world— knows.

He is sitting on a chair in front, all blue color fading into a brilliant blend, a quality, high resolution image of the man himself.

Tony sits straighter.

Then— then he looks up, at the camera presumably, and all but straight into Peter’s soul. He is caught off guard, and Peter almost falls on the floor, torso hitting tile, mind succumbing to sleep, and thinking this is all just a dream—

But he doesn’t.

Instead, he drinks in the image— hungry and needing, desperate.

Every line, every wrinkle, every spec of color in his eyes. Brown under love, tender. And then golden like a messenger bottle from across the sea held against the brilliant sun. Spark that is dulled by grief, eyes that are dormant and subdued, but damn ready to be awoken anytime, just—

Not yet.

It is at that exact moment, when his eyes meet old comfort, and he feels the restless energy permeating from Tony’s body as if it is yesterday, that Peter is hit with the realization that this is the first time he has seen him in his full glory.

And the colors come unbridled, the beautiful painting that is a living, breathing Tony.

The tears, they come uninvited. Instantaneous and loose. His mouth open in wide wonder, and tears blurring his sight.

Peter wipes his eyes, but they come running and so he keeps on wiping and wiping and wiping until the sight of Tony is as clear as if he is here with him, right now.

And he’s thinking, this might be it, the answer he has been waiting for so long. Because he has been asking the question to the wrong people, getting every different answer that he forgets just what the question had been. But now he remembers, and now he will find the answer.

When he talks, looking as lost as Peter feels, he sees Tony’s eyes reflect the same desolation, the same helplessness that Peter has been carrying for the longest time.

How strong May and MJ and Ned had been, to hold their tears when they see him like this.

Because Peter cannot do that. Well. He doesn’t have to. Not in the safety in his room. But if tested, he knows, he cannot be that strong. He will try though. That he can promise.

Tony starts, his voice an ephemeral presence in the whole room, a safe blanket like the moon in the night sky. Strained, it comes out, “You know what—this isn’t working. I’ll. I’ll try again later, Pete.”

Peter moves to stand up, his hand reaching out to the leaving, fading Tony. But he is quick to catch his mind this time and doesn’t allow himself to be too crushed. And, really, before he could even consciously decide on what to do, Tony is coming back again.

This is a different time. Tony looks a bit older, and flecks of golden locks intermingle with his brown and greying ones.

“Hey there, Peter.”

He is happy.

And Peter—he slaps his mouth for the sob that escapes without his consent, because he is- he is so relieved that he got that chance.

(I wonder, when will I get mine?)

“So. I found Harley.”

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

He must hear this, and he can’t if he is sobbing, gasping for air.

Instead, he tries to reign in his mind. Listens to everything, watches the little things. And his mind busies itself with pretending that this is all good. After all, he has always been good at pretending.

Tony settles himself on the chair, and he notices just now how much thinner he is, a certain hollow in his cheeks and the frailness with which he carries himself. Before he dwells, Tony is chuckling.

It is a sad kind of chuckle, like he is only doing it because he is uncomfortable, or sad or something. But it strikes Peter, because it is a hint of the old Tony— the one with the brilliant mind, and an even more brilliant heart.

“I’m sorry for laughing, I just, I imagine him with you, and I don’t know if I’m supposed to fear or anticipate it. I mean, it’s quite… impossible now. But. But a man can just imagine.”

And woe is the wonder in his voice.

He stops, eyes seeking validation.

“Can I?”

Fragile.

“Am I allowed to imagine, Pete?”

Yes, Tony, now please—

“When you were so young when you were taken—I wonder how many things you have imagined then, that have never come true.”

A flash of shadow hovers over his face.

It passes.

Tony smiles.

Sad.

Regretful.

He covers it again with something else, and he’s saying, tilting his head to the side in contemplation, “You could have been great friends, you know.”

I don’t know Tony.

“I mean. I can already hear the explosions of failed experiments,” laugh, “and I think I might suffer a few strokes, or a heart attack because of you two. But nothing you can’t fix. Anyway, you’re young and you’re allowed to be stupid. Plus,” mischief (whoa), “I won’t be the one to deal with the damage. Pepper’s like your super scary megatronic mom or something. You’re going to answer to her.”

Excitement flashes in Tony’s face, adapting a youthful shine, and then replaced with something calmer—a sea breeze over a warm sunny day.

“Pepper,” he starts, “Pepper’s going to be a mom. And. I’m. I’m going to be a dad. Daddy. Because she’s gonna be a girl, and you can’t call me that. That’d be weird.” Laughter escapes Peter’s breath and he struggles to understand it. He doesn’t have to, though, because Tony is still talking, like he has found the answer to life’s greatest question, the treasure to the most sought-after thing in the whole world and he needs to listen to that.

“And she, she’s going to be the most wonderful child, only because Pepper’s her mother, and you and Harley will be her brothers. Nothing but the best people for my kids. And no one will be more beautiful, more intelligent, and more loved than she will ever be.”

Contemplation.

“And we’re going to name her Mor—”

“—gan,” Peter whispers.

“You’re going to have a little sister. And we’re going to be a family.”

His eyes freeze into the camera, and he is looking at Peter like he is a faraway dream, a beautiful future that should have been.

The way his face falls into stark realization, the way his eyes surrender hope for reality—it was just too much for Peter.

Then.

Then he shakes his head.

And he’s back to the ugly truth, this Tony.

Fantasy is over, it seems.

There is a harshness in the way he says it, but a deep vulnerability that shows in his eyes, he spits, “How I wish.”

CUT.

Another video.

Another Tony.

Another time when he was still alive.

START.

He is already there, and his eyes are dead center.

His shoulders rest on his knees and he is leaning forward.

When he speaks, it reflects his old self— rapid-fire speech and potential for a better, brighter future in a few words, in a few inflections of his voice.

(Or maybe that’s just what Tony is.

The future.)

“I always knew babies were intense criers, loud at night, and all. It’s like, part of the whole package deal, you know? And I think I’m the only one who enjoys it. Because I don’t usually sleep. And those midnights, we spend it together. If I’m feeling particularly sentimental, I would bring her outside and we would watch the stars.” He looks somewhere to the left, something Peter can’t see, or could ever hope to know.

(It is his photo with Tony, framed and treasured. It is better that he does not know.)

His eyes find Peter’s and he’s murmuring regrets, voice low and in agony, “We could have watched them together, you know? I don’t know why it took you so long to ask me. And I used to think we had all the time. But then, Friday of that week—they attacked. And suddenly there was no time anymore.”

Pause.

And it might have become far too weepy for Tony’s liking, with the way his voice cracked in the middle and the way his fingers trembled visibly by his knees, because he’s cancelling it all, a hint of anger and a whole lot of sadness, “—Cut—cut that Fri,” Friday doesn’t, “I don’t- I don’t even know why I’m doing this,” he laughs, “—recording messages to ghosts.”

Tony spits it so bitterly that Peter is stunned. He had been the cause of this, the reason why Tony carried such a heavy heart and— “The plan failed, Pete, I failed you,” and his voice is hoarse, the clawing of something deep and destructive.

Every atom in Peter’s body moves to cry out—No, Tony—you didn’t, please, don’t think that—

But then again, this is a hologram and whatever he says will never be heard, so. Fuck that.

His body, instead, raises itself, suspended and ready for whatever to come.

“Look,” Tony continues, eyes beseeching, and Peter hangs on to every word, “I might not do this anymore. Therapist says this is causing me to relapse, said I should move on. Maybe. I guess. But,” and his eyes find the softest spot in Peter, the affection that can never be replaced by anything, because this—this is Tony’s love and no one can ever hope to replace that, “I will never stop thinking about you in any way. And I will never forget you kid. Because you are one of the greatest things to ever happen in my life.”

Bzzt.

Blue wonder.

Color, again.

Tony.

And… Morgan.

A toddler Morgan, who has never known anything but her father’s love.

The empty room is filled with the laughter of father and daughter, happiness preserved in time, and making its rounds for the bleaker world it arrives in. Tony kisses her cheeks, blowing raspberries into her stomach that makes her burst into another fit of giggles. Peter doesn’t envy that. He just wishes Morgan could have had more.

Tony doesn’t look like he’s noticed though, that its recording, because when he looks up, he is surprised and turns back to Morgan accusingly, “Did you touch my iron suit?”

A cute, playful voice pipes in, “Noooo.”

But he knows she did it, and just shakes his head fondly at her, moving to turn it off.

BZZZT.

Just as the video with Morgan fades, another Tony walks in. He looks so much older, the lines under his eyes increasing, but he’s looking more content than ever.

Tony sits down.

And smiles.

It is sad but uplifting, sincere but still scarred.

“It’s been three years now.”

The tears have dried in Peter’s eyes.

His lips are chapped and a little metallic in his mouth.

It feels like it’s been three years.

“And I dreamed about you again.”

Three years.

“For the longest time.”

Gone.

Three years that should have been spent together.

And another two years of suffering.

But Tony is looking like he could be happy, a semblance of peace in a life so troubled.  So, Peter listens on, intent and hungry for the words that he speaks. It is his to take and he takes it all.

(It is all he could take after all.)

“It was a cute one, happy one. I remember laughing so much, that even as I woke up, I was still doing it. Laughing. Smiling.

“Remember the sunset? When you kidnapped me into the other building?” Chuckle. “Yeah, well. We came there again. But this time, we have Harley. And both of you conspired to bring Morgan without my permission.” Cringe, “I must have been such a stickler, then. To ‘want Morgan to be safe, don’t your dare bring her to the sky scrapers or so help me—' that was what I said. And you and Harley gave each other looks like, ‘who the hell is this old man to tell us what to do.’ Let me tell you. I am your father.”

And then Tony is laughing again, the one where his teeth show, his head thrown back and his hands slapping his knees. The real kind of laugh. The one that you can feel in your chest and in your stomach.

“Did you get that? I made a Star War’s reference. God, I hate this world.”

And then sober up.

There is a certain serenity in his eyes, and then a deep yearning that Peter shares so desperately. His eye looks at the floor, but he sees more than just wood and patterns.

Peter stops his hand from reaching out to that wonderful dream, stops walking toward it because he will only be setting himself up for disappointment.

The matter of life and death is permanent and irreversible.

Peter would know.

“Pepper called us, then. And when we came back, everyone was there. Happy, Rhodey, even May and Harley’s sister, Annie. Pepper cooked all our favorites—not just mine, but everyone’s. Because she’s the best.”

An insurmountable affection and undeniable compassion.

“And we,” his voice breaks, he clears his throat, it comes out weak, a whisper of the wish he holds true in his heart, “We were just together… so goddamn happy…”

A certain kind of silence falls on Tony, and the crickets from outside his cabin fill the air. This is the silence that comes when you have so much to say, but so little time to say it. Or, all the words come crashing down, and you have to think for a few seconds, what should be said and what just couldn’t.

In that space where Tony thinks of what to say, Peter tries to acquaint himself of this Tony.

The one he never really had the chance to know and the one he always wondered about.

Now, he gets that chance.

Tony’s brows fold as if it is relenting to the weight, and his eyes shine with unshed tears.

“You know, Pete, I wish I could have known you more. I wish, I wish I could have seen you grow older. Get your first date— won’t follow you around, but my bot will—” he chuckles to himself, and then he falters, so wrapped up in his own dreams, in the enticing beauty of a life with Peter, of completing his family, “and just… dinners together every night— movie nights, pizza parties, anything you want—hell, anything

May will be there, Rhodey, Happy, Pepper, Morgan, Harley— you. You will be there, and maybe then, maybe then this hole in my chest would be filled again, perhaps, then, I could be truly happy. Because Peter, if I could be really honest with you, losing you felt like losing a large portion of myself, that it’s just not the same anymore. And I wish you didn’t say you were sorry, I wish I could have given you that hug earlier, not when- not when you were dying, God— I wish—” and it is a whisper now, because if it would get any louder, the world might find out, the world might know just how broken Tony Stark is— “I wish I had a thousand years. A thousand years, and I would give them all to you. Just so I could see you again.”

It fades out a few seconds longer, Tony’s eyes holding out, and then. Gone. In bright crystalline.

Tony’s tears shine with it as they fall.

And Peter thinks he might just be bleeding, from all the pain that gathers in his chest, pulling, twisting, hurting.

He doesn’t realize it, but he’s already clutching at his chest, tugging at something.

He almost jumps back when Tony mutters. This time, in clear distress.

“Harley,” he breathes out, a shaky exhale that comes out thick, “He, he found out I was making these videos. And he thought. He thought it would be a nice idea to send a— a ‘hug’ to the other side, even though it’s quite fucking impossible—but. But anyway. We fought for a while and he might have had a point. Maybe this’ll ease a bit of that guilt that eats inside me.”

A long silence stretches.

A brilliant mind thinks it is not too brilliant after all.

His eyes look up, “Can I? Am I allowed to- am I allowed to heal?”

And Peter finds the pattern of life—of a father trying to be a good father, of a son trying to be a good son, of both of them finding each other, only to be torn apart every single time—and then, when one of them is gone, the other is destined to mourn. Both of them don’t think they deserve peace, but it is what they seek—it is what demands to be sought.

Tony finds no reprieve, and the silence only works to give pause to his noisy mind. His voice is low and subdued, he is looking down, and then up again, as if he is shy to say it.

“Any—anyway, it only works once.”

Still, Peter doesn’t understand what he is trying to say. What hug? How?

His mind has been spent so much that he couldn’t bear to try anymore.

He lies on the floor instead, drowning in the blue projector light, and then the bright colors that form Tony’s wonderful cabin room.

The sound of nature comes in and Peter is not prepared for it.

Because this time, it is an older, more aged Tony, and he is wearing a suit instead of his customary tee and pants.

There is a long silence that threatens Peter, a pause that promises Peter that whatever will come after this is a furious, raging storm that can never be calmed.

Tony starts.

“I dunno, Pete, things might not end up well for all of us.”

If Peter could stop Tony from talking right now, he would. Because he can’t say that, thinking he might be right, and still doing it—and for what?! For what, Tony?!

“And if it doesn’t, you scare away those stupid boys from Morgan alright? You’re going to be a good big brother to her. Harley the inevitable bad cop, and you the good cop. If it’s a girl, Pepper will handle it.”

Even facing the possibility of death, Tony is still thinking of others.

“I want you to live your life,”

But fuck that.

“Because you have so much of it, Pete.”

What life is there in mourning and pain and suffering?

What life is there with no Tony Stark in it?

What life is there when everyone you loved dies and will die?

“And Morgan, you take care of her. Pepper might seem like she’s infallible, but even she needs help. Be there for them, please?”

I can’t, Tony. I’m sorry. I’m so weak—I just can’t—!

“I don’t think I should be the one to say this, but… we’re a family. And I love you so, so much. That’s why… if you come back, and I don’t… please understand. Please, I beg of you, don’t blame yourself for whatever might happen, or for whatever you might have done. And I know you will, because you’re stubborn like that. But let me just tell you this. Everyone’s got a hero in themselves. Wherever we go, we’re heroes in our own stories, and none so much more than you. But sometimes, it’s okay if the only person you end up saving is yourself.”

The tears that escape Peter’s eyes are loose but burning. Every breathe he takes sends electricity all over his head, lines of lightning forming in his forehead, and a burning caldera, of lava bursting in his chest, rising up to his neck, to his cheeks and to igniting his soul in a thousand explosions.

His mouth is lax, and a deep tormented groan escapes his throat, his body suspended in the air. His hands are twitching, but every muscle holds down the strongest urge to just run up to him and touch him—

Tony fidgets in his seat, a deep kind of resoluteness set in his eyes, and he offers, “I worked this thing again, that tech I told you about. I made it so we could both ‘exist’ in the same plane of reality, in a time when—in a time when that might not be.”

Peter shakes his head, because that is all he could do. And he feels like he is being strangled, with the way his throat constricts from all the suppressed screams. His hand forming a vice-like grip on his forearms, veins jutting out in defiance.

“So, how about it, kid? You and I. One last time. Could you—could you come here and give me that hug?”

Pause. Then. Smile.

A serene sort of expression falls on Tony’s face, and he feels like a full circle has come, connecting the past with the present and to the future.

And he might just be right, because Tony is stretching his hand out, his stance open and welcoming, looking just like home, and he’s smiling the only way Tony can, and saying like a promise fulfilled, “Come on kid, we’re already there.”

Before anything else, a certain sort of omniscience comes over him. Peter notices three things.

The first one is in the way Tony seems like he is expecting something, and then his face transforming into that of absolute happiness, like he has finally found it- the answer.

(Tony welcomes the holographic recreation of one Peter Parker. This is the first time he’s seen him face to face.)

The second is that the air in the room suddenly got heavier, not even in the metaphorical sense—but in the physical, I can touch it sense. And if Peter held out his hand for long, he might get tired easily. Because the air is dragging it down, and Peter has been brought down too many times tonight not to surrender.

The last thing that he sees is that Tony is still looking, expecting, waiting. And Peter doesn’t know what to do.

And then, everything disappears—he is dragged back to his body, and the only thing he sees, the only thing he thinks of is him.

There is no scream lodged in his throat, or an itch in his body, like every other time.

There is just realization, and an extreme, forlorn sadness, a certain loneliness that can never be filled with any amount of love or people, a Tony Stark-shaped hole, the strongest yearning and the basest desire to touch and to feel and to hug him.

To feel like he is here again, with him.

To feel life coursing through his veins.

To feel that this life would be worth it again.

And the man presents himself, like salvation and a reason for hope, with his calm smile and bright eyes, wrinkles and kindness, love and more love.

Peter surrenders to it all. To this beautiful, enticing prospect of a future, of a hope, and of believing again.

Because somehow, Tony has come from the dead, has surpassed time and life using his own brilliant mind, as a fuck you to the stars above, probably- but it doesn’t escape Peter, that, maybe he did this, he did the impossible—

Just to talk to him.

And Peter, he isn’t too scared anymore. He’s been disappointed before, broken down, killed—the worst thing that could happen is for this to be a dream.

Even then, this would be the most beautiful dream.

And so, with nothing holding him back, and everything telling him to just—do it, please—

He does.

And when he jumps, it is toward something better, a semblance of the old peace in his mind, comfort and the lovely echo of contentment, like something is finally right.

And he leaps off, feeling wood, and forest air, and freedom.

And he falls, from the highest tower of his fears, to the safest place in this world.

--

 

Do you hear that?

It is dark. You probably won’t see it at all. But the magic of sound is that you feel it in your soul, the excitement or fear, when you hear that little twitch, and then—it gets louder. Then, you won’t have any doubts if it is fake or not.

So.

Listen.

And if you strain hard enough and lean just a little bit more to the right, maybe then you will hear it—the promise of tomorrow, beat, beat, beating in the heart of one boy, echoing the heart of the other, older man.

In the way their breaths meld into one, the quick blinking, and then stare, memorize everything, just, just because this might be the last time—or the way the air settles around the room, and the colors that come from all around the room, they become brighter, the dust flying in calm suspension, like snow in a wonderful winter night—

Pay attention.

Don’t listen to the gasping, sobbing boy, or the sigh that escapes Tony’s breath.

It will only distract you.

Just.

Focus.

Look for the sound of desperate love, the build-up of something beautiful— the gears of a long-frozen clock, shifting, clicking into place, finding where it belongs.

If you can’t, and you don’t think there isn’t any, that this is all a lie, try again.

You will hear it. You must have heard it.

It’s not that hard to find, not that hard to hear, in this starry, tranquil night in the tower.

And in every ticking of the clock, in every new wave of thoughts, or the movement of dust—the way it settles on this boy’s face, and the way it dances around the blue light—whatever will happen in the next seconds, whatever it is that he does next, it will be the line that connects Peter—to the past and the present and the future.

And it transcends time, and it lives an eternity in this wonderful boy’s chest.

This- whatever this may be, this is what will complete him.

When Peter breathes, he is swallowing the sun with him, and becoming the stars that decorate the night, transforms into the galaxy that makes the universe—

And when he looks up, at him who he calls home, it is a look of terrific wonder, one of incredible love, and the deepest sense of rightness.

He stops just a few inches before him, this man who he has been looking for so long, and the questions that he asks are answered. When he takes the step, the one movement to connect it all, it is with certainty and acceptance.

And then—AND THEN

 

 

 

 

 

Tony?

It comes out every bit of broken he is, unsure, afraid, and… just like a kid.

Peter doesn’t know what he expected— for it to fade and fly away, or for him to stand there in madness.

But to touch, and to feel, and for him to actually be here—

It is Tony, in all his glory. With Peter feeling his hands, its warmth, spreading.

But Tony doesn’t hear him, or he doesn’t respond, because instead, Tony is tightening the hug, his eyes close and eyebrows furrowed deep.

And he’s really there—they’re really hugging—and it feels like home.

It is a moment suspended into infinity, father and son defying death, in their yearning to touch each other once again.

Peter could hear it—the lublublubdub of Tony’s heart, and the physicality of him enraptures him—

His curls brush Tony’s face, and he could feel wet tears on his shoulders. Before he could think about it, Tony turns and kisses cheeks, and Peter has never felt more vulnerable.

Peter feels his warmth, every folds of the fabric of his suit, and the trembling that escapes Tony’s chest.

(Tony is right here, hugging Peter, as if he is alive and breathing—but this is a hologram, how could—how could that just be the work of technology?)

And if you listen harder, look at them longer, you might see the way Tony’s lips move, the soft smile that escapes his face, and the way Peter moves to look at him as he says it—the way he couldn’t because Tony is hugging him too tight.

Maybe, if you stay still, and just look at their faces, ignore the world around, you will see the love that passes between the two of them, and then the absolute destruction that befalls on Peter when Tony says it.

It is a whisper.

Only for Peter.

But it holds the gravity of the sun, and like a supernova exploding, it creates a beautiful, destructive ripple across the universe—breaking, destroying, and then, rebirth.

Because Peter might feel like he’s dying now, but when he wakes up tomorrow, he will be stronger than ever.

So, please.

Do your best.

Listen.

Because this is when Peter gets better.  

In those few words, those few syllables, and the whole weight of his love—

--

 

In the middle of an abandoned room, a lone figure is joined by another.

And it isn’t so much as abandoned anymore, because in that second it takes for them to touch, and hold each other again, it becomes something of the stars, and then, something so much more.

 

--

 

When Tony fades, he isn’t too surprised. But it doesn’t stop him from trying to hold on, to bring him back, to hug him again, thinking it would be enough.

And he’s falling, clutching at light and dust.

He sits there, waiting, hoping for another projection to come, for Tony to—“Come back… please…!”

He doesn’t.

And he’s never going to.

But Peter remembers his smile, the way it’s only for him—and his touch, the feeling of safety and contentment, of peace.

And he thinks, maybe, maybe that’s enough.

So, it is then, as Peter is laid curled up, that he looks up at his hands, the one that held and was held, relishing in the feeling of flesh to flesh, of father to son, of love and love and love—

That is the moment, the exact second that he decided it might not be too late to make a tribute after all.

And he knows exactly what it’s going to be.

--

  

As the room drowns in darkness, a lone boy opens his old computer. Light comes again.

 

--

 

And as he is doing it, pouring his heart and his soul and his everything toward this gift, the first step that might lead somewhere toward acceptance, he remembers it all.

And it is enough.

It is enough.

Because Tony said, he said, he told Peter the things that he needed to hear, before he even thought he needed it.

And he defied the Old Gods and the New Ones, and even those who aren’t born yet, just to hug him—that is more than enough.

So, he takes comfort in them. Those words. And.

His final farewell.

 

 

And so, it goes:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“We’re here now, kid. I’m here. We’re home.”

.

.

.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“Fri, can you compile all the videos of Tony from the internet, archives and other footages?”

Click. Click. Click.

“Of cinematographic kind, Peter?”

“Exactly, Fri.”

It takes just under five minutes before Friday finishes, “I’m sending it all to your computer now, Peter. What shall I do next?”

Peter taps a few keys in his computer before extending the monitor, producing an interactive holographic screen beside it.

“Compile them all into SonyVegas, please.”

“You are making a video, Peter?”

“Yes, yes I am.”

“But wouldn’t it be better if you use the Stark Program? Its features are—”

“—you’re right. You’re absolutely right. I forgot about that. Let me just…”

Tap. Tap. Tap.

A few wild mutterings.

And then…

“Alright, Fri. We’re all set. This’ll take a few moments.”

What Peter means by ‘a few moments’ is a few hours.

And by the time he could realize that it is already four in the morning, with Friday supplying him everything he needs and him trying to piece it all together in the way that makes the most sense, he is already well and truly drained.

Peter knows he couldn’t pull off a whole day of the festival without getting a few hours of sleep—and he knows that he just has to be precise on the time he wakes up, so as not to disturb his deep sleep—REM phase—which would only prove to make him more tired.

(He’s looked it up, learned how to maximize the amount of sleep that he could have with all the work that he had to do in a day and night.)

And so, it is on the prospect of thirty minutes of sleep, and the promise that “Friday, please wake me up at 4:30 am. I have to be awake at that time,” FLOP, “because I still have to go back to the compound. And if I don’t wake up, please use everything in your power to…  get… me out of this bed… thanks… Fri...”

He doesn’t even finish his thought before he’s snoring. And if Friday could give a fond smile, she would be doing that right now.

--

 

Friday did not do everything in her power.

AT. ALL.

And Peter—Peter wants to throw it to fuck all and just crawl under his bed covers until they leave because—

Because it is 6 a.m. in the morning and Peter should have been in the compound—and now I’m gonna get in trouble…!

Knock. Knock. Knock.

No. NO. NO!

Peter is shaking with the adrenaline of a battle, and the disorientation of waking up in so abruptly. He wants to curse Friday out, but then he’d just be sabotaging himself.

He tries not to move. Pretend he’s not here at all.

Peter?”

Ah. Shit.

Just.

Wow.

Fucking hell.

Peter doesn’t have a drop of luck in his system.

Because it is Pepper who’s calling from across the door and he is not ready to face the woman.

But since this is her domain, her property, he moves to open the door.

Only.

Only things get worse, because that’s how life is.

Things get worse, because Peter is still wearing his Spider-Man suit, and when he tries to press it so it could just gracelessly flop out of it like it always did, it doesn’t loosen.

And right, right, Karen shut down, this isn’t possible anymore.

You have to give him credit though.

Peter tried.

He tried to strip it away like a normal human does with every human clothes.

But these are essentially leotards, leather leotards. Leotards that are designed to stick to him no matter what (a precaution then, a nuisance now). Which means, he has to exert more effort and time in shimmying out of it.

Pepper is knocking though, and her voice is getting louder. As Peter enters the struggle with his left shoulder, Pepper warns him of opening the door herself, in worry, he doesn’t know.

That doesn’t matter because he’s still wearing this goddamn onesie and it won’t come off!

So, Peter makes a radical decision.

He won’t take it off.

Not yet.

Not until he could.  When Pepper leaves him alone, and MJ’s inevitable wrath has softened.

He is yelling, “Uh-ahh, Pepper! I’m, um, changing. I’ll be out in a minute!”

He hears Pepper’s assent of, “Alright Peter, just go to the kitchen after,” and listens to her footsteps fade away before Peter tries to move again.

Only, his feet catch on his clothes on the floor, tripping over and falling, landing just beside the mask.

Peter lies on the ground in frustration, trying to calm down for the sake of his own sanity.

When he thinks he’s fine and ready, Peter grabs his shirt and pants, wearing it over his bright red suit. His eyes fall on the mask lying on the floor, taunting him, and grabs it in haste, pushing it into his pocket.

(He could fit calculators there. It’s safe.)

The shirt does not cover his forearms though, and Peter is looking frantically everywhere for something, anything—and there, his savior—his hoodie.

Peter jumps across the bed, arms reaching out toward the hoodie over the chair. He shrugs it on, taking out a pair of work gloves to cover his hands.

He goes to pick up his shoes by the side, foregoing socks because of how hot it will be with all those layers of clothing.

And then Peter stops.

The frenzy is over, and he can leave his room now without worrying about his suit. And now he has enough space to really think it through and realize.

A somber air falls in his room, the events of last night rushing in his mind.  

And he feels weird, oddly ephemeral, like he’s won against fate at some point, because whatever that happened last night wasn’t supposed to happen, wasn’t written in the laws of destiny.

It wasn’t supposed to make Peter feel this way, like he’s healed. But it did, and he likes it, he thinks. He’ll take it.

It’s… good.

If he tried before, now he’ll try even harder, to be better for everyone. Because that’s what they deserve.

From now on, whatever he will do, he will be doing it for them. And for Tony. And if he is feeling brave, he could admit that he is also doing it for himself.

The sting of adrenaline fades and he welcomes the disorienting dizziness of waking up sleep deprived— the dry eyes, parched mouth and muddled thoughts.

And then the loud, intrusive Knock, Knock, Kno—

“Pepper!”

Peter opens the door and is greeted by the surprised, and then promptly calm face of Pepper Stark-Potts.

“Peter,” she says, lovingly, motherly, “Friday told me you stayed the night here,” Friday you snitch, “Anyway, I thought you might be in trouble because you were taking so long. We’re having breakfast in the kitchen right now, and I thought maybe you could join us.”

It isn’t a question, or an invitation.

Peter knows that when Pepper wants something, she’s going to be very polite and lovely about it. Doesn’t mean she isn’t going to have it.

So, he tries to smile at her as naturally as he can, nodding, and then, “I’ll be glad to—I’ll, I’ll join you when I finish this, ah, thing I’m doing.”

Pepper nods, unsure, because when she first came to his door, he already took so long.  And now, he might just scamper and leave because of some misplaced guilt.

But if anything, she trusts Peter.

So, Pepper moves to close the door. And on the way out, catches Peter’s panicked eyes and smiles, warmth in her eyes, “It’s really good to see you, Peter.”

Peter is stunned into forgetting his panic, and then eases into a soft smile, finding comfort just in Pepper’s presence, reassurance in her confession, “It’s really good to see you too, Pepper.”

When she leaves, Peter takes to action, heading straight for the computer, and then remembering Friday, saying instead, “Hey Friday, can you save that into a flash-drive?”

“Done, Peter.”

“Thanks!”

.

.

.

“Also, I hate you Fri.”

She laughs.

“I’m sorry Peter, but Pepper’s the boss now.”

Peter looks down.

“Yeah, I guess she is now, huh.”

He gathers what’s left of his courage and braves on out into the kitchen.

--

 

He enters to the smell of eggs, and the sound of sizzling bacon just urging him to come to the kitchen. It is almost automatic, the way his feet find the door, because it feels so fresh and homey just by the aura of it all.

The rays of the sun are filtered through the windows, soft wisps shining through the gossamer blinds, lending warmth in delicate caresses.

It is the picture of the happy family scenario and Peter is almost weak to join it all.

Harley sets his cup of coffee, sleeve bunched up until his elbows all casual and playful. He catches sight of Peter who is standing by the door frame, frozen by the scenic moment.

He grins at Peter, waving his hand, “Come on here, Pete—breakfast by none other than Pepper the Great! This doesn’t happen often, so please, take advantage of it.”

“Very funny Harley,” Pepper pipes up from the counter.

Peter takes a few steps in and almost bumps into a small creature huddled on the floor; one going by the name of Morgan.

Harley must have seen where Peter is looking at because then he’s explaining over his coffee, (and wow the smell of coffee is just divine), “Oh, just let her be. She’s making her ‘art’, and must be left wherever she finds the most freedom in.”

“That’s… really great for her.”

“Yes, it is. For her. But does anybody think of Harley and the fact that his tall gangly frame might not be suited for navigating through rough terrain? Especially one riddled with kid stuff, and the kid herself? Nooo.

Pepper laughs, setting the perfect cooked egg on the table, offering Peter some milk, orange juice or coffee. “Or water, do you like water?”

“Uh, coffee please.”

Peter takes the brewed coffee, relishing in the smooth smell of a freshly poured cup.

“Morgan, come on, time for your next bite—”

“Wait, I’m not done with my next masterpiece yet!”

“My next master—Morgan if you don’t come right this second, Pepper can and will take your cheeseburger—she’s here, right now!”

Morgan jumps and runs straight to Harley, opening her mouth wide for the spoonful of scrambled eggs.

“Got her priorities straight, this kid.”

And then, Morgan catches Peter’s eyes, smiling wide at that second and almost spilling out everything in her mouth. Her hands go straight for Peter, pointing, excitedly, “BIG SPIDEY!”

If a child could get any more animated, Morgan would become a full-on episode of Mickey Mouse, because she’s jumping up and down and then squealing. She reaches Peter, standing just by his navel and then going up to hug him. Peter shifts a little so that her head rests on the side of his waists, uncomfortable of the position, but welcoming of the affection.

She squeals again and then looks up, with her big doe eyes and cute baby voice, “You came back for me! We’re going to fly, right, Big Spidey?”

Peter freezes up at that moment, guilt dripping down his body because he knows he can’t give her what she wants. Disappointing people is something he really hates. But sometimes, you have to do that in order to continue living.

Plus, they can always fly one day, not just as Spider-Man and Morgan.

But as Peter and Morgan.

He thinks that’s better. And safer, anyway.

Morgan calls Peter, uncertainty in her voice, doe eyes getting wet and mouth becoming pouty, irresistible, manipulative, “Big Spidey?”

Peter puts his hands on her head, mussing her bed head fondly. A hint of sadness flashes on his face but he is quick to cover it up with something a little more sober, “Just Peter, Morgan. Just Peter now. I can’t swing you up the trees anymore. But one day, maybe we can fly a plane together!”

Morgan’s eyebrows furrow deep and she’s pulling out of the hug, taking a little bit of the warmth from the morning, “What do you mean—?”

But before she could finish, and show her complete devastation at Peter, Harley is finishing his coffee and then standing up to usher her somewhere else, “I think that means you have to take a bath now, Morganana. Let’s go to Judy now, alright?”

Peter watches as Harley and Morgan go, the latter distracting her from her questions. They look like the perfect older brother and younger sister dynamic and Peter is afraid to disrupt it.

And then, and as always: Silence.

The coffee maker beeps.

More silence

Chair scraping.

“So.”

Pepper.

Right.

“So…”

“Not spidey anymore?”

Peter knew she was gonna ask.

Trying to change the subject won’t work either. Tony’s tried it multiple times before. He was an expert, but he always did fail.

So, Peter takes the plunge.

“Yeah. I, I couldn’t do it,” he rubs his nape nervously and looks down, where he wouldn’t catch Pepper’s looks of, I don’t know—disappointment? “Couldn’t… couldn’t move on with Spider-Man on my back.”

Peter knows exactly when the gears in Pepper’s head clicks into place. Like, full-on mother mode. He loves that Pepper does that, but in this particular moment, he doesn’t really like it.

“Peter—”

“Pepper.”

Beat.

Sigh.

Relenting.

Okay. I won’t tell you not to do it, because it’s your choice. It will always be your choice. And choosing to out will not make you weak, or a quitter. Because I know you, and if anything, you’re not a quitter. You’ll do things as Peter Parker, and that’s great. I understand. But.”

There it goes. That inevitable but.

“Did you think it through?”

Peter is met with the full force of Pepper’s eyes, those blue eyes, with concerned filled in them magnifying the guilt and spreading it all over his conscience because he’s causing her so much strife.

But he can’t lie.

Pepper deserves only the truth.

He says it calm and steady, but even that is enough to translate the amount of tumultuous fire that rages in his mind. Because a calm and steady Peter is one who tried to make it sound that way.

And he never found it harder to do that than when Pepper is looking at him with the most troubled expression.

He confesses, betraying a bit of what he feels, a wet whisper into the ears of someone who could only understand, “It was all I could ever think of Pepper.”

His admission feels like it should never be heard by anyone else because it feels like its exposing him and the nights where he never did sleep. And it brings him back to those troubled times, when thinking of giving Spider-Man up gave him the most beautiful relief.

(Right now, he doesn’t quite know if its relief or loss or joy or regret, but he has time to figure it out.)

They hold eye contact for more than a few seconds, and Peter feels the weight of her emotions on top of his own.

As great as Pepper is persuading through her words, doing so without speaking clutches onto Peter more. And he wants to surrender, wants to believe what she does of him, but he knows better than anyone that this is what he needs.

(Does he—does he really, though?

I… don’t know.

But it’s done, already, what else can I do—)

Pepper lets out a breath, and her shoulder sags in defeat, before she turns to drink from her coffee again, staring at him over the rim of her cup.

“Well. I don’t think you’re really going to give up Spider-Man,” she starts, “Wasn’t it you who said that with great power—”

“…comes great responsibility. Yeah. I know. And it was Ben who said that.”

“Oh yes, of course.”

Silence.

He chews on the scrambled eggs and takes a large chug out of his glass of orange juice, right beside his coffee.

He couldn’t really see the moment when Pepper surrenders to her own curiosity, or perhaps overwhelming concern, Peter couldn’t discern which. But then again, he could hear it. And it comes with the small frustrated sigh, and the way she’s tapping her foot on the floor.

“But what if something bad happens, and you know you could do something—what then, Pete?”

(“Yeah, what then, Pete?”)

“I guess…” something catches in Peter’s throat and he goes to drink from the juice, his coffee already empty, “I guess,” he exhales, “It’s my responsibility to do everything I can as the person that I truly am? I don’t know Pepper. I’ve thought about it, I have, but you know how thoughts run wild in the night. And every day that comes after that I feel so much shame for thinking it. But when the night comes, the yearning comes again. And it was just… too much for me. I needed… I needed to breathe a little. And I couldn’t do it. Not with him. And its—” Peter grips his fork, eyes finding comfort in the swirls on the marble tabletop, he breathes out, hoping to get out of this thing, “It’s so early in the morning to be thinking about all this, and the whole preparations—”

Right then and there, Pete’s eyes widen in realization—SHIT—

“—which is starting right now—MJ’s gonna kill me!—GOTTA GO NOW PEP, THANKS FOR THE BREAKFAST!”

Peter runs to the door before skidding to a stop just outside, looking back at Pepper with his body hidden behind the frame, ready to leave but desperate to make her understand, “I might not be ‘him’ anymore, but I’m still Peter, Pep. I can help in the company. And I will still help the people.” He shakes his head, a sincere smile on his face, a promise that he doesn’t intend to break, “I won’t give up on the world Tony died saving.”

And Pepper agrees. She understands—more than anybody. But she’s quite afraid that it’s him who doesn’t understand. It’s him who doesn’t realize that he was a big part of that world that Tony died for.

--

 

Pepper watches him leave, and sees the hint of the suit under his sleeve.

She smiles.

Peter will realize too, one day, who he truly is.

--

 

When Peter arrives at the busy floor of the Avenger’s Compound turned Midtown High Festival grounds, a chill goes up his spine. He thinks he doesn’t have to look to know that MJ is glaring at him from across the floor, and knowing her, she probably got Ned to track him or something, I don’t know, MJ is extreme.

He approaches the group reluctantly, sweating a lot under the MJ’s glare and the heat of the extra layers on his skin.

He reaches them, apologetic and nervous, “He-hey guys!”

Ned cringes from behind MJ who is tapping her foot impatiently, “You were supposed to be there to open the motherfucking booth, and I had to run around the whole two floors of this big-ass compound just to look for your replacement—and just when I had them all, having heard of my impossible task from good friends, you finally decide to show up! Where have you been Peter?!

Peter can’t really explain it. And he can’t really lie through it, not really.

He doesn’t want to. And he’s pretty sure MJ and the others would see through his bullshit.

So, he does the second-best thing—

Hey, wow, the stall’s looking great!”

One: He did not stutter.

Two: He almost had it.

But then

Three: Abe had to talk.

“Yeah bro, we also had to finish that without you.”

“What?! I thought we had it done yesterday!”

“We had, for the most part,” Cindy pipes in.

Sally nods, “The water was hard to put in there. And you happened to be our strongest, most useful guy in the group—”

HEY!”

As Charles and Abe protest the girls’ comment, MJ continues glaring at Peter. But as time passes, her eyes soften into a little less of a glare and more of an exasperated frown, “I don’t know what to do with you Peter. But you’re definitely doing the two-hour shift with Charles.”

“Okay, that’s fair,” he concedes, “But I have to go out in time for the tribute. I… uh… prepared one last minute.”

“So that’s why you were gone,” MJ muses.

“Yeah…”

Bro—” He doesn’t have time to react, because just as he’s screaming, Ned lurches into Peter and crushes him into a hug.

UGK—Ned—”

He taps Ned’s arm, trying to get away from the chokehold, and hearing his best friend gush right by his ear, “Oh my gosh, Peter—you’re—I’m—I’m so proud of you…!”

Peter tries to ignore the sniffling and pats his back, laughing unsurely, “Thanks, Ned…”

He relaxes into the hug, allowing himself to meld into his trembling friend’s body before Ned pulls away, wiping his nose.

“You better give it to them Peter, the submission was announced to be closing thirty minutes ago.”

“Oh no, I better—” he looks at MJ with wide eyes, asking for her permission to leave, and upon receiving her affirming nod, he dashes away to the second floor.

“Wait. Was he wearing gloves?”

“In this economy?”

“Ned.”

“Yeah, I dunno MJ. Let’s let Peter be his quirky, weird self for now.”

--

 

Peter arrives there just at the right moment. They are announcing the last entries and he just barely calls for the student who’s in charge of the tributes.

There is a smattering of inventions, art works, name plates for performances, and stacks of paper lying around in organized chaos. He doesn’t have time to fret over them losing his flash drive though, because there’s just no time.

“Hey—miss!”

It helps that he can still run really fast, holding out for a long time despite not using said skill or endurance that much.

It usually helps in his sleep deprived antics, but now that he’s run again, he can feel the old energy coursing through him.

He stops right in front of the girl, smiling nervously at her, hoping she might be a bit more considerate.

“Hi, can I still submit for the tribute?” he asks, looking at the stunned girl.

He waves his hand over her face, finally reeling her from the dazed look, “Oh, yes! I’m sorry—yes, it’s still open, um, fill these up with the necessary information and please put a short description of your tribute for the emcees to read—”

She hands over a piece of paper where he completes filling out the information, fine blocked letters on each blank space.

“And, sign there—”

He affixes his signature timidly, unsure of the old signature he designed after Tony’s.

As he stares at it in nostalgia, Peter feels the burn of a too-long stare and he mentally curses at himself for looking up and catching the eye of the same girl, but now more excitable than nervous, “You’re… you’re really Peter Parker?”

Peter doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what this means. Why is she looking at him like that?

“I’ve heard so much about you from everyone across the trip—” she leans in, “Tell me, please, were you really an intern her at SI? My best friend Katie said you were an agent or something, but I think that’s too far-fetched—is it? But see, my other best friend Jane said she saw you on the woods with Hawkeye—

“Um, miss—”

“Just Alaiza!”

“Alaiza, yeah, I’m sorry but I don’t really know what you’re talking about—?”

“Okay, you don’t have to tell me,” she concedes, and Peter breathes a sigh of relief, “But from everything I’ve actually already heard about you that I could say for certain is true, I think you’re pretty cool.”

She grins at him like sunshine and he doesn’t know how to take that. Why is this happening?

“Just… whatever it is you’re going through, you’re Peter Parker man, and even though I know you don’t quite remember me, I was the girl you saved from that bully Flash two years before the, you know, the Shadow Period.”

Oh.

“And I just wanna say thank you.”

Peter stands there quietly, taking all the information and processing it as much as he still can.

“By accepting your super late submission, I think we’re fair now. So, you save me, I save you I guess,” she giggles.

He laughs along, shrugging off the slight discomfort at being interrogated, and then having to recover from the whiplash he got from their conversation.

If he could think about one reason this happened, it’s probably because now he knows that he can still help and save people without putting on the mask.

And he’s happy that he can still change things as plain old Peter Parker.

--

 

“Fucking Peter Parker taking so long—”

“Shut up Flash and just do your job.”

“But why do I have to take his—”

“Because you did the things you did and you promised to be better, now shut it.”

The hustling of busy students fills in the silence.

Flash watches as media from outside enters the building and begins interviewing preparing students.

MJ stands by their booth, a few meters in front of him.

Charles is playing with his phone in a water-proof case inside the glass.

Fidgeting.

“…I really am trying, Michelle,” he offers.

Raised brow.

“I know,” she side-eyes him with her hands crossed, and offers a little nod.

Flash takes it as affirmation.

Right then, Flash jumps a foot in the air, because here he is—Peter fucking Parker tapping his motherfucking shoulders like they’re anything as close as ‘friends’—

“Hey,” he grimaces, (a smile, Flash thinks, one that fails so horribly it does not join the category that is at least related to smiling), “It’s alright Flash, I can take this now.”

Flash frowns because that’s what he does when Peter is looking at him all kind and forgiving, because he doesn’t quite feel like he deserves anything yet, so he just brushes him off and walks away, muttering “Whatever,” before disappearing off into the crowd.

MJ watches it all happen and muses, “He’s not gonna improve in a day, Peter. Give him some time.”

“Yeah, I know,” Peter says, “We’re the same.”

--

 

Thirty minutes after that, MJ pats Peter’s shoulder, gives him a dead look and says, “I’ve already stayed long enough to begin putrefaction, I’m leaving you with Charles.”

“Wait—wait, where’s Ned?”

“Oh, he’s out there with the robotics team checking out his robot. Gotta give him that, he deserves to be a kid too, just like the rest of us.”

Peter smiles the most genuine he has done since this morning, “You out there being a kid too?”

It is out of humor when she replies, childlike lilt in her voice, not quite fitting MJ’s ‘aesthetic’ at all, which makes it more ridiculous.

Actually, I’m going out there to do big adult talks with the other adults. You won’t understand it yet; I’ll give you ten to forty years to mature.”

She turns her back, waving a hand in the air one time and then melding with the sea of crowd.

Peter feels the smile stretch in his face.

There is a certain ease to the way they speak to each other now. There is no wariness, or fear of anything. Just freedom and maybe even fun.

So freaky.”

Turn—

“Huh--?”

“See, I’ve been her classmate since kindergarten and she never smiled at me whatever I tried to do. Used to have a teenie bit o’ crush on her—” Peter squints, Charles propped on the glass cage, “Alright I had an obsession with her because she was always so mysterious. But whatever I did, she never opened up.”

“What are you onto, Charles?”

“I dunno bro, maybe it’s just the fact that she opened up to people only twice in her social life—and that’s for Ned and you. Ned’s got Betty, and you—”

Peter puts a hand out, “See, that’s where I stop you Charles.”

“Alright man, but don’t tell me it’s not there.”

“Whatever, dude.”

Hum.

Video games beating each other.

The sound of victory.

“How long till your shift finishes?”

“An hour and a half—and, we’ve got our first customers! Hi, we’re the Academic Decathlon, here to know everything and anything about Tony Stark and Stark Industries—please, ask a question that I hopefully can answer so I won’t fall down on this unforgiving water contraption—”

--

 

Charles falls down the water an estimate of twelve times.

And it’s an estimate because he was trying to wipe his glasses when it fell down and it was easier to get wet again when you’re already soaked than doing so blind.

“This suck! I hate this so much, I’m so glad I’m over and done with this. Peter, man, I want to wish you good luck but I also want you to fall down that waterhole more than I did. You’re a nice guy, you’ll do that right?”

Peter shrugs it off, laughing along with Sally who takes it as a joke.

(He takes it as a challenge)

He moves to settle himself instead on the platform as Charles leaves for the men’s bathroom to dry himself, Sally settling on the table.

“So many big-name media here. Betty must be combusting.”

“Yeah,” Peter agrees. But before he could wonder about Ned out loud, a small girl peaks from below the glass cage and his feet.

Curiously, she asks, “I can ask anything, and you’ll know the answer?”

There is awe, and a bit of disbelief at the promise, that Peter thinks is very cute. She looks like she’s a seventh grader.

He nods from his spot, “That’s the goal.”

Cool—you’re like a human Google or something!”

“I guess,” he laughs, “Why don’t you ask me stuff then?”

A devilish glint crosses her face right then and Peter 100% regrets asking. These cute creatures that exude innocence are the most fearsome demons out there—he should have known

Because now she bares her teeth and grills, sweetly, by deadly, “Who founded the Stark industries?”

Hm, Peter thinks, this is pretty simple.

“Howard Stark.”

“When?”

“1940.”

“When did Tony inherit the company?”

“When he turned 21.”

“Why did it take so long?”

“He was orphaned at a young age, and had to finish his studies first and reach the legal age, so Obadiah Stane held the company for him. He turns out to be a big as— astute businessman, but also a big liar.”

“How long do you become in line for heirship?”

“Uh—”

“HAH! You’re gonna fall in!”

“NO WAIT—You have to be of legal age—part of the family, fastest depending on who’s the closest to the current CEO, or if the children don’t want it, or aren’t ‘qualified’, you have to be in the higher positions to be considered!”

WHO ARE THE FIVE A.I’S THAT TONY STARK BUILT—”

JARVIS, FRIDAY, JOCASTA, HOMER AND TADASHI!

They probably shouldn’t be screaming at each other, Peter thinks belatedly, because now there are more people heading their way to watch the spectacle.

Peter isn’t even allowed to be red because of how fast she’s asking questions.

“What are all the celebrations celebrated by the all the company employees?”

“Uh, they have Christmas and New Year, the company’s founding anniversary, Pepper’s birthday, even though she doesn’t like taking attention from the company to her—”

“—how many employees are there in the company?”

“From this tower or from all the branches?”

All.”

“About 15, 000—from all around the world, with its associate companies, etcetera.”

What was the size of Tony Stark’s foot?”

Here, he stutters, but ends up answering it correctly still, “A- a perfect TEN.”

And at about a few hundred more questions after that, the little girl lets out a frustrated groan that almost nears bratty.

“I just want him to fall into the water! Why is it so hard—

At this time, a scary amount of people has formed around the glass, cheering on the girl with her questions or are interested in watching Peter answer the impossible questions that she sometimes would throw.

If Peter cranes his head, he could see Charles, Abe and Cindy from across the crowd. He could mostly hear them.

The little girl stares defiantly at him, pout getting worse, and then narrow eyebrows going even further down, “Hey! How do I know this isn’t rigged?”

“You check on google for all the answers—”

HOW DARE YOUUUU!”

Ned comes bursting in from the crowd, raging on his design, which gets even more people listening in. “—design was cross coded to Friday and that took a long time, and that involves talent and hard work and MJ’s cold threats—so, how dare—" And by the time he pauses long enough to notice it, a reporter is already beside him, ready to ask questions.

Someone else, the little devil girl in particular, also took the opportune moment to ask her very last, and possibly the deadliest question yet—

She smirks, like in those tv shows when they think they have their winning shot, and then bares her teeth in a smile that is not unlike a malicious, scheming hyena, “When did you become SI’s intern and why were you on an executive level?”

There are many reasons as to why Peter stumbles, even almost falls in with how hard he physically recoils because of the question.

See, there are three things.

One, he knows the official one was much later than what he had claimed in school. And Ned’s program, true to his works, is really very efficient—so much more than is demanded on a school tour. He can’t lie to it. And then comes number two.

He doesn’t know what Friday will consider—the Germany tour, the Avenger stint or the real one, since the word ‘intern’ has really been dabbling in the grey areas very much in the times they referred to it.

And three, that was just plain nasty.

Word travels fast, and it produces mischief and chaos, and Peter usually knows how to handle that. But right now, with the news on his tail, he just can’t tell the truth to avoid the water—fuck, this is not going as well as he hoped for at all.

He hadn’t wanted to fall on the water with how much he would have to dry. But. There are more pressing matters.

And so, his fate is sealed.

“April 27, 2016.”

He falls.

Water splashing.

Cameras flashing.

And everyone and more is there to see it.

The lot of them laugh, but he just catches Ned’s regretful look and Charles’ understanding ones, despite how much he claims he wants to see him fall.

The little girl cheers in front of him, sends him a sweet look, and then turning around like nothing happened at all.

--

 

It takes him a few more minutes before he can safely be hauled over the glass panes, everyone taking their time dissipating away.

Peter gladly receives the towel Ned has for him, “That was amazing dude, the way you fire off one answer after the other. That little girl was just cruel.”

“Yeah, better not let them hear you say that. I think I might just be expecting some press attention for that executive access thing that girl put out.”

“I think Pepper can handle that.”

Peter cringes, “I don’t really want to burden her any more, but… I think she can do that…”

“Well, I think you should dry off first. Don’t worry, Sally’s got the underwater handled.”

Peter nods in agreement, tightening his hold on the towel, feeling vulnerable for being wet in a very dry place.

He finds the bathroom easy enough, which is fortunately not being occupied by anyone at all. Peter heads straight to the fifth stall where the ‘tech stuff’ is kept and submits the codes and the security questions to access what he needs.

Which is just a big dryer thing for his whole body.

Agents have had to dry more than just water at a moment’s notice.

Clint would know.

Just before clicking on it, he removes his pants, jacket and shirt, leaving him on his suit which he doesn’t really have the time to remove, if they’re expecting him to be there within twenty minutes. A wet suit in a small bathroom stall is harder to remove than dry. And dry was already difficult enough.

It leaves him feeling hot. The suit thankfully not clinging too much anymore, leaving spaces and crevices that didn’t used to be there.

He puts on his now-dried set of clothes, taking care of covering his suit underneath the layers. Right as Peter walks out, another enters the bathroom in a frantic sort of daze.

He hears the same words uttered again and again, can feel the strong and erratic beat of his heart and can smell the emanating fear that just oozes out of the person.

Peter takes to ask him if he needs help, reaching his hand out to gently pat on his shoulder. When he did though, the man, no, the intern flinched so hard and recoiled against the other end of the wall.

He can see the moment the intern, the one who Shuri yelled at yesterday, forced a mask on, no matter how hastily done.

His smile is a grimace and hands an incessant shaking thing, the sweat on his body showing on his white clothing and the quiver in his voice the final bolt to his tomb.

“Are you alright, sir?” Peter asks. “Can I help you?”

“Yes-yes—I mean no- Yes, I am quite, I am quite alright. I am fine. I am fine. No need to help me. Please. If you could—leave me be and I will be better.”

Peter nods quietly at the man, genuinely worried because he does not believe a word he said. He’ll call in a medic to fend for the intern, because they work just as hard as actual employees.

As he closes the door to the bathroom though, he hears just the shakiest whisper, “What have I done?”

--

 

It bothers Peter, a lot.

A gut feeling forms, takes root and spreads, but is swiftly cut just as it sprouts because they are announcing that the students and guests should move to the second floor because the goddamn tribute is starting right fucking now—

Peter arrives in a floor packed with people, jittery students, prepared students—full makeup and costume ensemble and all—and then those who are excited for it all.

He doesn’t know where he stands, but he feels a nervous kind of energy bubble up from his stomach to his fingertips, which will probably be very inherent in his voice.

“Ey! Peter!” he turns his head to see a hand raised in the air calling for him, Abe, with the rest of AcaDec.

He manages to squirm his way through the sea of people and finds himself squishes between Ned and Cindy. They are in the better part of the crowd, close enough by the circular platform, and far enough to see everything reaching the main stage.

Peter feels a certain numbness of senses, and his hearing hones in on his own breath, everything else a blank echo.

You can do this Peter. It will be worth it. You’ll survive this.

The mic screeches, feedback luring him in to the present world. Pepper is taking the stage, fine, crisp suit that is both business and welcoming to the audience. Her hair is tied into a low bun, smile gracing everyone in the room. Her face is reflected in the two screens on each sides of the stage, looking across the attendees with something akin to approval.

She looks ahead, and the people around Peter suddenly quietens, eager to listen to what the CEO has to say.

“A few months ago,” she begins, “I wouldn’t have thought that this place could be occupied with so many young people.”

A bunch of chuckles echo across the room but she continues, “I say that not pertaining to the age, but to the spirit.”

Ah.

“See, even before the Shadow Period, so much had already happened to this world that would make any agent or any employee of SHIELD and Avengers lose the vitality of their souls.”

Peter would know that.

“And then came that period.”

A hush falls on the crowd, knowing the weight of that time and respecting it with their silence. The only thing that comes is Pepper’s somber voice, “Some of you wouldn’t know. But to those who do, we remember the empty eyes. The slackened shoulders and the general looseness of… everything. Of hope, of spirit, and of life. I saw it happen to Tony. I saw it every day, and then I saw it slowly fade, just a little bit each and every moment, since our daughter Morgan was born.”

A bunch of people let out an “Awww”, the rest turning to look at Morgan who is sitting on the stage with Principal Morita, waving at them with her adorable smile.

Pepper’s eyes also find Morgan and a look of incredible adoration and love falls. Everybody understands it.

She continues, “Along Morgan, and despite everything, I am both astounded and humbled to see you kids grow and prosper. To watch you all laugh and dream. To collectively and consciously choose happiness, even when it doesn’t seem like it’s one of the options.”

The crowd of students are filled with a venerated aura, feeling good about themselves as they should be, thinking that they might just be what Pepper, the CEO and the strongest driving force behind SI, says they are.

They came here thinking they might see cool gadgets, hot agent and a chance to get noticed by the company.

They were excited because they could finally break the loop of going to school and then home and then school.

They walked in thinking of this as the single most amazing thing to happen in their life (--coming back when you didn’t know you were gone isn’t really that great. Maybe to those who were left by the snap, they would think of this as the second greatest—) not thinking that maybe this would be the one to change it.

And so, they take it all in—the wonder, the gratitude, the supreme serenity that holds this moment of revelation.

That they did something worthwhile by trying to make it all a bit better.

That being happy might just be as noble as saving lives.

That smiling for someone, and then smiling for oneself might just be the greatest gift, might just be a sign of bravery.

Pepper’s eyes sweep across the room and is satisfied in seeing them all consider this.

“A month ago, Principal Jim Morita came to me, talking about second chances and an empty hallway despite being full. And he talked about this certain project of his, this wonderful event that would do something, maybe change something, speak to someone.”

Pepper’s eyes twinkle and her lips curl into a smile, “And thus, the trip.”

Principal Morita is shaking his head, a little bit embarrassed but wholly composed—to think that Pepper will speak of that, the depth of his affection for the students under his care.

Do you know what he told me when I asked him what he saw in here? Why it had to be SI?”

The crowd murmur in dissent, other guessing under their breaths.

She pauses for a few beats, the crowd of students waiting and listening, because they know that whatever Pepper will say is true, that whatever it is, there is something to take from the wisdom of her words.

Her eyes promise something much more, a realization, perhaps?

“He said he saw the future. Here. In SI? Well. While we are all for technology and progression, I think we’re too much a part of the past to be considered the future. It has to be something else. Something new, I thought, then. But then, he continued talking, telling me that he saw here the foundations of something bright. That this was the best place that his students could gain something essential. That there was no better place to learn about life again than the castle of my husband, Tony, who gave his life for all of ours. And that was when I understood. He wasn’t talking about SI. For Jim, the future was you.”

And wow they were crying.

The pinnacle of something pure and exciting reaching its crescendo, inspiration and compassion bursting, bubbling and then—

“Believe me when I tell you this. Your life? It matters. It matters so much because one person is all it takes to mean the difference between the life and death of so many others. And Tony he—he understood that. But I’m not telling you that you have to sacrifice your life to matter. I’m telling you that it already matters and that you have to live it in order to understand its value. And that is what this is all about. This is what it has always been: Life.”

Cindy is bawling beside Peter, taking refuge in his shoulder and him trying to share as much reassurance as she needs, Ned and Betty crying on each other’s side. MJ looks at Pepper like she is a God, like she believes her more than she ever believed everyone, and a burning passion ignites and strengthens. Peter could hear the elevating beating of Flash’s heart, the telltale signs of someone trying not to cry, the shaking shoulder and then the stillness.

Peter wishes he could tell him it’s okay to cry.

For now, it is Charles who gives him the tissue and Abe to try to talk over it, so Flash wouldn’t be too embarrassed of the sob that escapes his lips.

“Today,” Pepper begins, and so does a new perspective, and a new life for them, “we celebrate not only the life Tony has lived, but also the potential and the power in your own.” She raises her hands, strength in her stance, compassion in her eyes, and the intermingling buzz of excitement, “Let the tributes begin.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

When Peter smiles

--

 

I.

 

So, please.

Do your best.

Listen.

Because this is when Peter gets better.

--

 

Peter can perfectly divide his life by the deaths of the people he loved.

Specifically, most of his parental figures.

He didn’t mean it. Didn’t even think that he was doing it. But it was small and subtle, came in the way he would light up whenever it happens, and in turn incorporating it in his daily life that it just becomes a part of him.

So, it isn’t really much of a surprise that he doesn’t realize it. These small mementos that keep their memories immortal.

Tributes.

That’s what they call it.                                                                                                   

For his father, it is remembering how he got into the habit of wearing pun shirts. And a distant, obscure memory from a seven-year old Peter surfaces—laughter ringing through, and the ugliest sweater with the worst pun embeds in his mind.

For his mother, it is learning how to cook one meal— baked mac n’ cheese, the special kind. The one his mother always used to make for him when he was sad.

For both of them, it is finding comfort in the song Moon River, and in knowing all the old songs like I’ll Be Seeing You. Because even though he’s forgotten the exact words spoken, or the things that they did when it played, he never really forgot how it felt.

The warm glow of affection, and that all-encompassing warmth.

It is finding immortal comfort in these songs, immortal feelings that come with the memories of his parents.

That’s tribute one.

For Ben, it is remembering in vivid detail, in embedding it into his heart—that thing that he said, just a few hours before he got shot—

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

And he takes that to heart, takes responsibility, and then takes more.

He wonders, sometimes, if Ben would be proud of him. Asks him, even, in the times when Spider-Man failed to do what he set out to do, when he slipped and made a mistake, “Is this enough, Uncle Ben? Am I doing enough?!”

It is wanting to give up, feeling weak— asking those questions, teary-eyed.

With great power comes great responsibility.”

It is closing his eyes, remembering to breathe a little.

With great power comes great responsibility.”

And then tightness in his chest again. Because this power, this responsibility—they’re all a burden to him—and maybe he doesn’t deserve to hold that power, maybe he couldn’t carry that responsibility.

And he feels like he is falling. Certainty, waning. Doubt, creeping in. Is this enough? Uncle Ben? Am I doing enough? Pleaseanswerme—please—

“You’re gonna do well, buddy. I love you.”

It is finding strength in these words— in these old, but knowing words. And then getting back up again.

He doesn’t think it’s so bad, then, if he retired Spider-Man. Because when Uncle Ben spoke his words, there was no Spider-Man in his mind.

When he spoke those words, the words that will forever guide his path, it was to Peter Parker, and no one else.

So here, he finds strength.

That’s tribute two.

And then here we are.

In this room full of hopefuls, united for the one purpose of remembering his name.

Peter looks around and sees his friends first. There is Ned who has always been on his side, even though most of the time he’s hard to be with. He sees him laughing, easy and carefree.

Then there is MJ, who he only knows to be strong. Not because she likes to look tough, but because she was brave enough to be vulnerable. Brave enough to show that she cares. She smiles alongside Ned.

He looks further into the group, and sees Flash beside Charles. And here he sees a boy who is scared. Here is a boy who does not think he is loved, does not feel it with the same certainty that Peter does when May takes him into her arms.

And he knows Tony once felt that. Knows that Flash might be the same as Tony Stark at 16.

Abandoned, unloved and angry.

And here’s the thing people do, when someone dies a hero.

They forget he was ever human.

They make him perfect and flawless. Like the failures he had had to experience to become the hero were too embarrassing, too unnecessary.

It’s okay, of course, to remember the good things he’s done. Because they’re there to inspire, to show them that it was possible.

But, as Peter looks at Flash, at how subdued he is when he doesn’t use his bravado as a shield, he realizes that the story of the hero isn’t what they need.

That maybe, the real story, the story of the person Tony, is more meaningful than that of the legends.

So, for Tony, Peter thinks, it is taking everything he has ever done, everything he has ever said, and then showing a little bit of that to the world.

To make them see him for what he truly is.

Make him less of a saint, more of a person.

Show them that they don’t have to be Iron-Man in order to be a hero. That they can become heroes in spite of their past.

Or even better.

That they can become heroes, because of the past.

That’s the essence of Tony Stark, isn’t it?

Of making mistakes, and then learning. Of taking a step back, and then leaping forward.

Of becoming better.

So, maybe paying tributes isn’t so bad after all. Because now, he can use that platform to show them what they need to see. Tell them what they need to hear.

For Tony, it comes in the form of calmness, a fresh wave of novelty and then— and then finding purpose.

And he will never tire, telling his story, embodying everything Tony represents.

Because Tony said he wanted Peter to be better than him.

So, from now on, he will try to be better. First, as Peter. And then, as someone more.

--

 

It starts with one person standing in the middle of the stage. Wearing a—wearing a white onesie.

He’s just… there. Looking down, standing still. Not doing anything else for the longest time. So long, in fact, that Peter starts to get uneasy.

Second hand embarrassment slowly creeps in. And he’s in the middle of getting his phone when it comes.

A piercing shriek echoes in the room—

And Peter—he moves to stand up, to maybe activate Karen and help as many people since he’s already in the suit as it is. But as he is halfway to running toward the bathroom, instead of screaming students, what comes is a raucous cheer that echoes across the room.

Peter turns his back slowly.

He hears it first: the beat of the drum sending a constant vibration, and the deep hum of the bass tingling in his ears.

And then he sees it next.

Belatedly, hilariously.

Because this dude has stripped off the white onesie, revealing a hot red suit, and underneath is a goddamn Iron Man costume.

And Peter, he wants to laugh. The beginnings of hysterics already in the base of his throat as he flops to his seat.

Ned is on the way with Peter, having stood up just a few seconds before Peter did, understanding with the same urgency what he is trying to do. But MJ is just looking at them, turning at the last moment. She gives them a pointed look, leaning a heavier one toward Ned that Peter doesn’t understand.

So instead, he shakes his head, hand over MJ’s in a casual, reassuring way to tell her it’s okay. Because whatever it is that happened, it was just Peter overreacting. Or, in this case, his old habits refusing to die too soon.

He realizes just how much he is used to the adrenaline of it all that he doesn’t once question if there were any real danger.

And he thinks, well, these are just one of the few things he would be adjusting over. There’s time, Peter reassures himself.

(Right?)

Now, as he sits down on the best seat in the audience, he begins to relax in the only way a clueless spectator could.

Because now, the window is dimming down until it is completely dark, the undercurrent of anticipation swimming in everyone’s stomach.

The music takes off, a mix of hip hop and electronic, a genre makeover of the song by Led Zeppelin.

(“…Back in Black?”

“Yeah.”

“And it’s by ACDC, dumbass.”)

The stage fills with red light, Iron Man jerking to the right in rhythmic movement.

Pause.

Then, it comes fast and unpredictable.

Iron Man is breakdancing on the stage, red spotlight on his figure, and electronic music beating fast, lending a sense of excitement upon everyone.

They begin to cheer and clap in tune with the beat, Iron Man on his feet and body flowing with the dynamic music.

He’s on his hand, and then on his feet again, impressing everyone in the audience with the way he is able to make it look so effortless.

He’s spinning on his hands, feet flying in the air with practiced spins. And not one second after he’s on his feet again, he’s jumped and is flipping through the air, everyone shitting their bricks, thrilled and then thrilled again as Iron Man begins a series of backflips across the stage.

Peter can hear the dancer’s heart-beat, as fast-paced, but more intense than that of the music, its beats reverberating across the room.

And the echoing voice of Tony—

Static, but clear all the same, strong, “I. AM. IRON-MAN.”

The crowd stands and cheers at that one line, rioting and screaming it back, everyone loving the sheer energy of the performance.

But then it just stops.

He’s standings still now, hand outstretched with the gauntlet shining from his palms, and he waits, like there is more to come.

The red light makes way for darkness, and an eerie tune reaches their ears.

“You know where to find me,” comes the static-on-purpose voice of Natasha Romanov.

And Peter should have known, the moment the light and icy piano notes reached his ears.

The light focuses on a figure at the middle of the stage, flaming red hair and black on black ballerina outfit.

Everything about her image reeks of meticulous precision, of grace in the way she takes her first step, and in lethal silence, with the way her hands slice the air.

It has a classical tune to it, like it could belong to someone like Beethoven—but as Peter listens further, he finds that it is, in fact—

What the fuck, this is Itsy Bitsy Spider!”

Right as Abe calls it, the melody escalates, and Black Widow is leaping across the stage, with legs that can literally kill, light but seriously, really deadly.

Her hands are in the air, graceful and fluid, widow bite glowing with blue electricity.

She extends it as she goes into the most intense pirouette Peter has ever seen, the current passing from the wires to the people. Everyone sits, captivated by her performance—breathless from the sheer technique and personality she puts in the dance.

When Peter looks at her, he sees Natasha and all her complexities—the violence that plagued her, and the dignity with which she carried herself nonetheless.

She is delicate in the way she moves, purposeful with every movement of her body. One moment, she looks like she could be a flower swaying with the wind. The next comes in swift retribution—her hands are suddenly holding a long baton, with potent electricity—and that’s when you know she’s a rose, with all its thorns.

Peter likes this, though. He likes the way she shows Natasha’s vulnerability with each quiet step, eyes looking sideways, and how it is immediately preceded by that familiar fatality.

Before the song reaches its end, a figure appears in the shadows, Black Widow just passing by it in one of her leaps.

And as she approaches him, Peter’s mouth opens in surprise, the others gasping just beside him, because it is Hulk— no—it’s Dr. Banner, hints of the Hulk in his skin—subdued and careful in his bearings.

(The dance club did their research. Peter is impressed by this dynamic. Because it’s the closest they could be to the truth—)

(The most soulful, forlorn voice welcomes them both.)

It is Black Widow who extends her hand, patient and welcoming, inviting.

The sheer emotions Peter sees in the way Dr. Banner moves—the quick flinch, followed by the slow uptake. And then the acceptance.

It starts with ballet, this curious performance by Black Widow, and ends with a slow dance—of both rare but inherent vulnerability to each character they represent.

And if anything, Hulk is the most delicate of them all.

It is intimate and wonderous, the way two bodies could meld into one—the way the two dancers are able to show the yearning with each touch of the hand, and then the evasion, with the way they repel from each other along with the new melodies that come their way.

But they always do find each other.

(Peter thinks they never gave each other the chance they deserved. Maybe they can live through the stories of the people.)

The song is lonely, aching, and the woman’s voice lends a distant pain that just couldn’t be quenched.

He could see it in the way Bruce reaches for Natasha, and the way Natasha looks back in yearning as he bows his head in surrender.

They both submit to it for a few moments, the lyrics singing, Oh loneliness, oh hopelessness, to search the ends of time…”

And Peter feels their longing, knows it like an old friend, and he wonders just what the real Dr. Banner is doing right now.

The song reaches its end, melody slowly receding from their ears, Natasha finding Bruce, but only getting to him halfway before she stops, and settles. Bruce himself is still bowing down, defeated.

The lights disappear just as Black Widow looks away.

At a distance, he can hear a sniffle.

--

 

What comes next has a Japanese tune to it, the sounds coming from instruments in the East.

There is a lone figure in the middle of the stage, a long, protruding something on his back.

And it only takes Peter a second before he realizes it’s a sword—a katana, to be specific.

Clint.

Hawkeye!” Cindy gasps from her seat.

He is severe in his stance, hard with his eyes.

The dance that proceeds is something Peter can’t take his eyes away from. It doesn’t shy away from Clint’s past, and he wonders belatedly, if he is seeing this.

Because apart from the measured movements, he also breaks into the most fluid sequences—control and freedom in one body, nuances clear and the dichotomy of his character open.

Clint is kind of a split character. You wouldn’t see it the first time you talk to him, or the second, or the third. But it’s there, with only his family reigning him in. Giving him a reason to keep hope, be alive.

But when they were gone, that part in Clint that has always been exhausted with life, it comes bearing its head out, ugly and detestable.

He calms it by taking out others instead. Others who were criminals, and more deserving to die. According to them, at least.

And that’s why Peter loves it when he strikes the sword through his body, crowd gasping and someone nearly screaming. Because it doesn’t pierce through—instead, the sword breaks in half.

Signifying that the dark age is finally over, decimated with the blades.

The calm, bamboo sounds that Peter associates with Japan ends right then, with Clint kneeling on the ground, looking at the blades in his hands that have broken.

--

 

The next bout of music that comes is loud, and it comes out of nowhere, and then everywhere all at once, making them all jump at the sheer volume.

It is the opposite from the mood just a few moments ago, this one is electric, it is adrenaline and excitement all at once, and Peter can see Ned bouncing in his seat.

It comes out as a battle cry, Rock and Roll with every strum of the guitar, and he screams with raw musicality— Ahahahahhhh—

Thor.

They all cheer at the God who is wielding both the hammer and the axe—Mjolnir and Storm breaker, in all his overweight glory.

He is walking, power in both hands. And everyone feels invincible just looking at him. Then, just the same as the music, Thor moves when they least expect him to—

Or, well, it’s more how they expect him to.

Because he looks like he’s dancing, but then he also looks like he’s fighting someone.

(“Capoeira—it’s this thing enslaved Africans developed, martial arts with dance, acrobatics and music.”

Damn that’s cool.”)

Thor is flipping in the air, not even waiting a breath to begin walking with his hands, using them to propel him for a series of backflips, just as Iron Man had done, but this, with a distinct hardness to it than the flowy, spontaneous hip hop.

Everyone gapes at the sheer power in his movements, potent and concentrated—a little bit of fun, but also somewhat intimidating. To dance and to fight? That’s the shit.

There’s a beat to it, with the way he’s moving, and Peter is just amazed at how smooth it all is.

And the nature of the dance so perfectly captures Thor’s spirit—the wild carefree swings of a kid, and then the experienced moves that speaks of his long life.

He has just flipped in the air with both control and a reserve of power when the booming voice of someone cuts through the air, proud and loud— “YOUR SAVIOR IS HERE!”

The lights all around go off and on, erratic like their own hearts.

The Avengers are looking at one figure now, one who is walking, and not dancing, toward Thor.

Loki looking hot as hell.

Behind him are an army of Chitauri (who are only really students with masks on). They on the other hand, seem to be dancing with every step, an unnatural wave of movement ringing true for the army.

As Loki stands before Thor, a few meters away, he gestures with his hands, and the Chitauri begin their attack.

But before they could proceed—

There he is.

Captain goddamn America.

(“Holy fucking—” disbelief, absolute, total, incredulity, “Is that—Is that the American National Anthem, in the mix?!”

Isn’t that… illegal…?”

Not when it’s Captain America it’s not.”)

He swings his shield just as Iron Man fires a beam towards the Chitauri, Black Widow kicking another out of the way.

It takes one Hulk smash and a swing of Hawkeye’s sword for Loki to be alone. But he doesn’t twitch from his spot in front of Thor. In fact, he seems to be enjoying it.

Loki leans in, taunting his brother. And Peter can see it, can feel it in his bones when everyone simultaneously cheers—because now, Thor is dancing with Loki, but it isn’t just a normal one—it’s a battle dance.

And they are flipping everywhere, challenging the other to do more, to be better.

It is a mixture of different dances, of costumes and of personalities, but when they do eventually defeat Loki, it is brought by their unity and compatibility.

Black Widow is swift as Clint is precise. Hulk is erratic as Captain America is calm. Thor is all wide movements, while Iron Man is all about efficient swings and aims.

Peter is astounded by the image of them all, how they were able to mix dance with the story and the dynamic of each Avenger.

And his hands find each other, clapping along with everyone else who has risen from their seats.

It is a wild adventure, the whole performance, something that kind of feels like everything that happened just before this moment.

And it is just the beginning.

--

 

The theatre club does stand-up comedy, poking about the daily lives of the Avengers’ Squad as they called it.

Digs on Steve’s old age despite his youth were made and—

“And that Hawk-eye dude, man, I pity that guy. Like, look at this, they fight in an abandoned Costco parking lot,” laugh, “They’re all super-enhanced—this one flies, two of them are super-soldiers, two are super-mecha, and then there’s this guy who’s just doing cardio—”

Somehow, the camera finds Clint who is standing just behind the sea of students, and his amused reaction is displayed on screen.

Everyone howls at the student’s captured reaction, not thinking that the butt of the joke might be there to hear it. He blunders and then even tries to hide, before his other club members drag him back up the stage, unforgiving, cold (“Clean up your fucking mess, Elfie.”)

He recovers for a few seconds, shaking in his boots, as Clint is still watching on amused, “I mean, I mean, hey, that’s a flex!” raised brow, “No—it is! See, he’s a normal human that’s qualified to fight with these super-powered people. That makes Hawk-eye the strongest normal man— pleasedontkillmeMr.Hawkeyesir, I have a dog!

Peter is slapping his knee in laughter, trying not to get swept up in Ned’s shaking self, because he’d been there and why didn’t he think of that?

He revels in the experience of seeing his memories in such a humorous lens. He might do this more in the future, when he’s feeling more nostalgic, but in no mood to feel bad.

Thoughts of tomorrow sobers him up, and he looks up just in time to see Chris take center stage with his guitar and a band of musicians.

Peter wipes the tears that formed, sighing back on his chair, ready to take in Chris’ soothing voice.

“That was good, Elfie,” Chris turns to the comedian who is now hiding in the crowd, “totally meant for Hawkeye himself to hear it.”

Everyone chuckles.

Chris looks straight at the crowd. His whole demeanor takes a subtle shift, a serious tone underneath the lightness.

“Look, the past year has been nothing but surreal. But this is our reality now. And despite all that, last night was fun. So. When we go back to school next Monday, I hope ya’ know you can talk to me. Consider me your friend. And I hope we can all do it again.”

Chris grins at them with all the reassurance in his eyes, shoulders relaxed, and the perfect image of serenity— Peter beams back.

“This is for ya’ll,” he calls to everyone who begins cheering. “Hawkeye,” he nods, and then, putting his hand on the mic, “One. Two. Three—”

Chris sings a rendition of a few songs that sweeps everyone away. His voice hides a pain that they all understand some way, and his words a hopeful twist to it all.

Across the room are sniffles and teary teens singing along.

The feeling of togetherness, of belonging, just sweeps them along into one clump of emotional teenagers. That’s why, when Chris stops after the third song, their first harmonious reaction is to protest— viciously, desperately— “ONE MORE SONG! ONE. MORE. SONG!”

Chris is weak for them and ends up singing another song—one of which he’d written. It was just after the Awakening, he said. “I found solace in music and the news, trying to figure out how to go on from there. One particular night, I just felt possessed with the need to write something. This is what I wrote.”

It is a song he calls ‘Morgan.’ And Peter is so scared for the actual Morgan sitting there, too young to understand why a ballad is written about her.

But Chris is an exceptional song writer, and everything has about five layers in each line.

It talks about nature, and the passage of time, about daughter and father, and smiles from ear to ear. At some point he had sung about the sand and how easily it slips through his hands, and Peter swears he is talking about life and how fleeting it is.

By the end of it, everyone is in a fit of tears again, and even Chris himself is a bit choked up. “This was the first time I’d sung it after I wrote the piece. Love t’you, Morgan and Pepper,” he shoots them a thumbs up, and then turns back to the audience, bowing, “Thank you, everyone!”

The crowd breaks into an applause, cheering for the poet, and giving love to his voice.

The next performance brings quite the opposite reaction. There is interest and curiosity, excitement and then elation—because it’s the robotics team’s turn now and Peter can’t wait for Ned’s bot.

There are a few robots that elicit oooh’s and ahhh’s, all Avenger’s themed. But it is exceptionally loud when Ned stands in the center, nervously presenting his tech.

Peter watches from his seat, and when Ned looks to him for support, he gives him a nod, and then a warm smile that disarms his best friend for a moment. A brief pause, and then, infinitesimal energy.

Ned turns to his tech, hidden beneath the blue cloth, and when he whips it out, everyone is swooning immediately.

Of course, they do.

Because it is a metallic Yorkshire Terrier. And a very cute one, at that.

(Peter marvels at the craftmanship and detail, the obvious technological capabilities and the hyper realistic profile. Ned, his best buddy, is so fucking amazing.)

It sits stiff at first, but Ned is going over his Kimoyo Beads (‘the bracelet’) and then its barking along with the squeals of the dog lovers.

(The hard-core cat lovers roll their eyes.)

“Presenting— The Only New Yorkie! Or, as I like to call it: T.O.N.Y!”

Peter couldn’t believe Ned actually named the tech after Tony, but accepted it only because he made it work.

(MJ snorts near him, “You’d say that.”)

“My design, combined with the technology of the Kimoyo Beads, of which I was able to procure and code in yesterday, allows T.O.N.Y. to go around New York incognito, seeking out problems, recording undetected, and gathering information for the police. It could also work as the stepping stone for other dog—or animal related bots, that could assist in disaster risk reduction and prevention.”

Ned follows it up with a few demonstrations with T.O.N.Y. and everyone is amazed by the technology of it all.

When Pepper comes up to him personally to give him her congratulations and a research grant worth millions— Peter couldn’t have been prouder of his best friend.

--

 

It is just after the parkour slash painting flex that the Artisan Club did, revealing a beautiful portrait of Steve, Nat and Tony, that they somehow get Clint into the middle of the stage.

He is still and unsure, frozen with uncertainty, and with Natasha’s eyes looking directly at him.

He catches Peter’s eyes though, and upon finding courage behind them, begins to speak.

“Uh—I don’t really know what to say, because most of my memories with them are us fighting—” wince, “I mean, fighting together.

His brows furrow, looking contemplative and constipated at the same time. It takes a few awkward seconds before his face lights up in thought, “… but there was something…

And he talks about the evenings in the tower before everything turned against them, the first few months of camaraderie and the understanding that only comes with fighting against aliens and super stones and Gods.

Together, they felt invincible.

“But see, when you’re required to be strong every second of your life, sometimes you wish you could be weak. To let go for a little while, breathe a little. For the longest time after Loki manipulated me, that was the fantasy.

Even though I didn’t realize it, I already was that, when I was with them. Lonely nights in the kitchen became accidental meetups with the rest of the insomniacs. And we’d trade snark for snark, comfort for comfort. I was weak, but I was also strong when I was with them.”

And he might have said too much, might have given way too much with the way his voice hitched at the last sentence. So, he takes it all back, tries to square his shoulders to command some strength into his body.

“We were… brothers, in a sense. And Nat my sister. And like all siblings, we fought. It had been nasty. You might have seen it in the news. But… we all patched it up. And I only wished we had more time.”

He shakes his head, with a faraway look in his eyes, “But we always need five more minutes. More time. More of everything. The only way we can keep moving forward is to use that time that we do have to look back and… give thanks. That’s… that’s how I live with the memories that I have.”

Everyone is silent, trying to take it all in— that one blinding glimpse to what the original Avengers were before half of them were taken away.

MJ looks at Peter to see that he has adopted the same look. Not… shadowy. In fact, it is lighter, this time. There is an openness to this, a sort of acceptance to whatever Clint is saying that MJ thought he would reject.

So maybe things are quite looking up for Peter.

MJ allows herself to smile.

--

 

The last three performances are called and the first one to go is the Home Economics group.

It is Avengers in Paris, a fashion show of themed outfits that are both futuristic and outrageous. It comes out with specters of light and smoke inside the gown, looking more like a science experiment than a fashion show.

Another line comes out with a more modern touch, wearable, but still themed.

There are Captain America hoodies, a few Black Widow dresses and gym clothes, and a Hulk- trunks set.

It slowly loses into madness the moment one student walks out in a Hawkeye-themed cloak, complete with the arrows and sword.

Thor’s brand is more catered towards the plus-sized, and MJ gives a hum of approval to the brave move.

What takes them all to the height, though, is when Seymour, in all his flair and boldness, comes out rocking an extravagant Iron Man gown that both lights up and smokes from the inside.

There are multitudes of angles with which one can dissect the gown, and the sheer amount of red is the only thing Peter can think about. (And how much Tony would shit his pants in laughter.)

But above all that is the painstaking detail this gown seems to have went through in order to be that way. It looks like it could belong to a museum with how well made it is.

Seymour ends it with a flying kiss to the crowd, who erupts into applause.

“Thank you to our incredibly talented Morita’s Secrets, the Home Ec Club, for their masterpieces. And yes, these will all be donated to the charity…”

--

 

The second to the last one invites The Vanguard and all their journalistic tendencies to document everything of value.

Betty is in the sidelines, just outside the main perimeter of the stage but still fairly visible. She has just introduced their tribute— a video documentation, more like a short film, of the whole event leading to the tour.

The camera pans to a group of students—the club presidents— huddled into one conspiring group. It goes around the room, finding the president of the science club passed out with spilled coffee on the floor, Mathlete’s captain walking around in a zombie-like state, and MJ who is glaring at everyone who dares come near her.

(MJ in real time glares at anyone who dares come near her.)

They capture the exact moment the news of the trip is announced, all of the students screaming and jumping for joy. Someone is shouting hallelujah while the others are dancing around to the chant.

It is a perfect mix of ridiculousness and humor that everyone just burst into whatever emotions they find easiest to deal with.

They follow the camera as it enters a morning haze. It is right when they arrived at the compound, excitable teens and bundled up nerves, all packed in the potent energy that only a dewy morning can bring.

The camera stops when they reach the fields, the students all corralled into groups, and Peter wonders why he never noticed how bright the morning was.

He observes it all, attention focused to every detail. His eyes reflecting that of the screen as he watches every interaction, ever burst of action in the few hours they get in this place. And it feels like the morning after a long, weary storm. Like a ray of young light flitting over a memory they thought they already knew well, just aged a day, but already something so different.

It comes as a great surprise to him, a realization that, instead of shaking him, only calms his whole being. See, it had only been yesterday, and yet the difference between now and then are already there.

It brings in a sort of serenity, a stillness in his mind because seeing their pictures—of strangers singing together in an incredible feat of human connection, of the lot of them surrounding one Flash Thompson to seek and to give comfort, and of Peter Parker with barely the traces of a smile, but there enough to matter— gives them a certain perspective, of how they were and how they are now.

And it isn’t much of a transformation. It isn’t really even obvious. Not yet, anyway. Because something like this, something as monumental as this—it all begins with a single step. A subtle, secret step that people don’t see at first.

It is a change of pace, one different turn, eyes a little brighter—and there—

 

 

Change.

 

From a wide view shot, they watch as the fireworks fade into the sky, leaving only the stars from the ground, and one pervading melody.

If last night was a night of great unravelling, then today is a day of revelation. Into knowing that this is the right time to start again, that he can start again.

And it is in these thoughts that Peter is lost in, so enamored by the promise of a good tomorrow, that he does not register the call for his name.

“Mr. Peter—

“Peter, dude—”

Everyone goes silent.

Peter goes still.

That is, until the whispering ensues.

Is that him?”

“Yeah, that’s the kid.”

“I heard he has executive access—he’s like a personal assistant before—”

“I thought he was Tony Stark’s son???”

“Where the hell did you get—”

“He doesn’t look that special to me…”

Peter stands up abruptly, and then, a moment of pause. Everyone looks at him, eyes on this curious kid who had been the subject of interesting topics. It is in the different flavors in his personality, a hidden flair that they were only able to see in the tower— in the way he interacted with the technology, and with how he was affected by a lot of things in this place.

It takes Peter a while to steel himself. And even then, it is only when Ned gives him a look of absolute confidence, and MJ smiling at him, that he is able to really move.

As he walks to the stage, he can’t help but feel a burning in his skin that does not have anything to do with the hundreds of students unnaturally watching his every step.

And it is almost instinctively, that his head turns and his body follows, eyes stopping there—

Princess Shuri of Wakanda is standing at the far end of the crowd looking like she had seen the reckoning. A panicked, even crazed look in her eyes flit over for a second before she schools it into something neutral. And it sends a frenzy of discomfort in Peter’s stomach, of feeling incredibly powerless, but still entirely willing to help—

And he almost walks to her, the quiet pleading look in her eyes an automatic signal for his help that he does not question. But he is only one step toward the wrong (or right?) direction when she is shaking her head, hand waving in dismissal and feet turning away from him.

Ehem, Mr. Parker, please take the stage.”

With great embarrassment and utter confusion, Peter finally walks to the stage. The disquiet caused by the brief interaction with Shuri is suddenly replaced by utter primal fear. And he almost runs away— he’s never spoken to this many people, not as Peter, and he’s certainly never been so openly vulnerable to the world before—

But he catches sight of one Morgan Stark, with her swinging feet and resounding giggle, those bright eyes that are just wonder over wonder, and he thinks maybe this is why he’s doing it.

--

 

What comes next is the perfect build up to what will happen later. A sort of flash-back— a homage not only to Tony himself, but to everyone else beside him who never really got the chance to be known.

It is telling the right story and remembering the right person. Hoping that one day they can become someone like him. Not the idealistic image—the real one.

And Peter, he will look back at this day, at precisely this point in time, as the exact moment before everything changed forever.

--

 

What does Peter Parker have to offer?

It comes as a mystery, a question that is both genuinely interesting and confusing—who the hell is this guy?

What does Peter Parker have to offer?

For MJ and Ned, it is more like watching something they already know will happen unfold. Like watching on with pride, as the fallen begins to slowly rise.

What does Peter Parker have to offer?

Peter himself doesn’t know exactly what it is.

He just knows what he wants to contribute, knows what the world needs right now. What Flash needs. What they all need.

And this—it has been building up for the longest time. Adapting a certain charge for anticipation that does not allow doubt, only excitement.

Whatever Peter has to offer, it has to be big. Because even though they do not know it, he was Spider-Man, and what Spider-Man offered in his time was a great sense of security—even better, inspiration.

Peter looks at the crowd, the people looking back at him, and he feels like his eyes are finally opened for the first time. He sees their individual faces, all types of colors and background and dreams. And this is when he realizes, in a physical sense of the term, that this is the people that he’s always fought for. And these are the kinds of people that he will continue to fight for.

And so, it is in this great revelation, a sort of unravelling of something that has always been there, always been so plain and painfully obvious, that he gets so carried away and—

 

He smiles.

It is wide, and shattering and so brilliantly genuine that takes them all aback. Because even if they don’t know Peter himself, they do know one thing: his smile? It is like the sun going up into the sky after the longest storm. It is like cool water in the hottest day of the year, and the smallest touch from the one you love.

And MJ, she is so taken by this, so used to the practiced smiles and weary eyes that she does not recognize it at first—blinks her eyes a few times before she realizes that this is, indeed, not her imagination.

Ned is different—he’s seen this before, but only in the rarest moments, only for him, only for May. And to see him like this, to see him find it—finally, finally find it— the peace that he has been yearning for so long, the acceptance, and understanding and the courage—fuck it, the courage to smile again—

(MJ tightens her grip on Ned’s shoulder because he is shaking now from all the emotions and he doesn’t want to cry before he even started his presentation—fuck it, Nedo, we can cry together later, just—hold on for a bit—”)

Because when Peter smiles, when he really smiles, it is strong, and unwavering and brave all at the same time.

And they know it doesn’t come from innocence. It comes from seeing the worst—feeling the worst— and then thinking it is still worth it to hold yourself out there for tomorrow.

That’s true courage.

And when MJ looks at him, she sees the same Peter that she has always seen. Someone who will fight for what is right. Someone who knows he will get pushed for trying, but still choosing to do so. And at some point, he will fall down, maybe forget how to walk again, or become too tired to try. But see, that’s the thing about Peter. No matter how long he lies down, no matter how much pain claws on his chest, it is inevitability, sort of like his destiny, more like choice, to stand up once again.

The Peter who gets up after that might not be the exact same person. But that’s alright.

Because that’s how you know he’s grown.

And he might cry on the way, might still stumble and fall. He might stay on the ground for a long time, and she and everyone who loves him will worry about him. But that’s part of it all. This life? It won’t always be easy.

And God, it hadn’t been for Peter.

But.

But.

 

He will survive.

More than that.

He will thrive.

Because when Peter smiles, that’s when you know you can be better.

That’s when you know there’s hope.

 

 

 

 


 

 

II

 

“You know when someone tells you they love you? And you never expected it? Well, that’s how this sunset feels like.”

“Well, how about sunrise?”

“Sunrise?”

“Yeah. How does it feel like?”

 

 


 

 

 

There is a complete silence that lends the unity of everyone’s curiosity, a testament to their interest on what this boy could ever say.

Peter begins.

“So… hi.”

It is an ugly, abrupt start that speaks of his inexperience in public speaking. He falters but continues, still.

“I know… you all look at me and see… different things. To some, I’m the guy who cried in log entry. I’ve heard others call me ‘Master Access’, and sometimes, I’m… a chemistry classmate.

“And I’m all of them, really— I’m not just one thing. I’m more than that. At least, I like to think so.” Peter wrings his hand unconsciously, sweaty underneath the gloves that he hasn’t taken off. “But see, it doesn’t really matter, who I am. So, why am I even talking about this?”

At this point, Peter finds his grip, becomes more certain with every word that leaves his mouth, because finally, there is direction.

He clasps his gloved hands and says, “It’s simple really. And it’s actually related to my tribute. See, what I want for everyone to take here is that a person can be so many things, so many contradicting things that we don’t know they exist unless we’re close enough to… touch it. And that’s how identities are, and that’s how reputations are made.

Those things that you know me by, I guess that’s going to be my reputation now. And I don’t blame you for thinking of me that way. But I want to be able to say this while I can. The truth of who I really am. And the truth that I have been struggling for so long.”

Here, MJ inhales sharply— surely, he wouldn’t—

Peter takes a step back, his grip on the microphone tight, but restrained, “Who am I?”

But he’s got this look of set determination, like whatever it is that he is about to do, he’s going to fucking to do no matter what. And MJ, she shares a desperate look with Ned, who she’s certain is already thinking of various distractions, plans to mitigate whatever the hell Peter is going to do—

She looks up and catches his eyes, those young, soulful eyes that seem to speak to MJ more than his words could.

And she doesn’t know it, isn’t exactly comfortable with this, but one look at Peter’s eyes and she knows that whatever he is about to do, it’s always been leading up to this.

This— whatever this is.

She puts a hand on Ned’s shoulders, tense just as he is. And when Ned relaxes, she knows he’s also found Peter’s eyes.

And so, it is settled.

Peter inhales deeply, “Well…”

He sets the microphone down, something that’s really only for show, something to hold on to ground himself.

This time though, he thinks he doesn’t quite need it as much as he thought he would. Because he’s calmer now, has befriended reality in a way that it helps make it more tolerable. He can breathe now, the confusing cloud over his head dissipating with every word of the truth—of an answer to the question he never really thought he would have to ask himself.

It is with a sense of rightness, and the feeling of freedom as he stands before them, finger on his chest, screaming, beseeching—

The truth, and the one truth that matters—

(MJ forces her eyes to lock on Peter, breath stopping, hands shaking. And Ned is holding onto her hand like she is the only thing he’s not running toward Peter. Because even though Peter looks like he knows what he’s doing, MJ vehemently disagrees.)

(She is about to lunge forward, ready to grab the damned mic, to save his privacy before he completely ruins it when Ned’s hold stops her. She looks back, beseeching, but he is shaking his head no.)

(MJ thinks that if there is anyone who she would trust about anything relating to Peter, it would be Ned. Because he was the first to find out about Spider-Man, and he was the first on the team. So, she forces herself to relax. Forces herself to accept that whatever is happening, it is what Peter wants. And she will stay by that. She will stand by him, no matter what.)

(Peter is looking at something beyond, and she sees the catharsis in the moment, the relief, as if a burden has flown away, and he is only left with what is right.)

(There it is—)

(Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckit—)

 

 

 

(The truth.)

 

 

 

(The answer.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I am Peter Parker.”

 

--

 

MJ melts into her seat.

What the fuck—”

“—phew—”

Why so stressed guys? Look! It’s Peter, and he remembers his name!”

MJ ignores the snickers Abe and Charles share, noting at the back of his head how Flash is just sitting there, wordless for the whole thing.

She sags into her seat, shaky laughter escaping her lips. A great wave of relief passes both of them, and MJ looks at Ned to see that his eyes are on the ceiling, white knuckles from gripping Peter’s empty chair finally regaining color.

MJ wants to punch Peter right away, because how dare he make them think that he was even doing it. Outing himself to everyone when the world can see him. But she can’t, right now. For the exact reason that the world is watching. Or, will be.

She settles on watching him from her seat. Peter looking like he’s finally breathing again. And she knows he’s experienced some sort of freedom, like a bird flying from its cages, because Spider-Man has been locking him in for things he was not ready to confront in the past year.

It is ironic then, MJ observes, that in the process of letting go of his secret identity, he is able to confront the things he’s been avoiding, and in turn, accepts that the one identity that everyone does know is enough.

Peter exhales, breathing as if it is a sacred thing, (for him, it might as well be), “I am Peter Parker,” he repeats, a reassurance.

“And whatever else you think I am; it doesn’t matter. Because I am here to give you something more important than that. I am here to show you who Tony Stark truly was.”

--

 

Peter is standing right in the middle—at the point of intersection between the wide stage at the back and the platform that extends to the crowd.

All the lights simultaneously close. And within seconds, the hall is enveloped in darkness.

Peter lets it settle for a few quiet moments, the feeling of anticipation for the unknown coursing in their blood like they are floating in black water.

It ends when a strong, and startling sound of air pressure— sort of like a small jetresounds across the room. And Pepper is met with a familiar, almost rhythmic thrum of—

Iron Man.

He lands on the platform just a few steps from Peter himself.

If you look at it from the front of the platform, Iron Man completely eclipses Peter’s solitary figure. But for MJ and Ned, who are at the crossroads, sitting just at the right angle to see everything— they notice that Peter looks completely mirrors Iron Man. Like a reflection of the man—not a shadow, but an image in and of itself.

And if Ned could go past the shock and wonder, and MJ would allow herself to think of it more than just a fun observation, they would agree that it is just like a reflection.

Because all of the light that bounced off Tony Stark in his life, they all came together to create the one image of pure and utter morality— that is, Peter.

The room is cold in that way you get when you’re anticipating something. Chills run down Ned’s spine because just before this morning, he didn’t even know Peter had a tribute— and whatever this is, it didn’t seem like all the other tributes they’ve seen before.

This one is special. And to those who didn’t even know Peter before today, they can see that this, too, is personal.

“Tony Stark was Iron Man. We all know that. But I don’t think you quite understand what that means.”

Iron Man begins walking towards the stage, a clank in every step.

“Because beyond that suit, beyond the glamour and the fame that he had gotten for it…”

This time the suit begins sprinting, every clank made to show the desperation and the need to just—

Breathe.

The suit opens up, just at the edge of the platform, and in shows Tony Stark, wild fear in his eyes, looking around to the people around him.

Peter is looking at the image with deep desire to help him, but he dispels it, instead his emotions making way into his voice. It is a deeper octave, a soft mutter whose hoarseness becomes amplified with the company’s sound system.

Because this was another revelation that he had had to discover in a crushing way, this thing he is about to tell them.

“…he was really just a man.”

Tony collapses into the stage, taking wild, erratic breaths, looking like he had seen the end. But as his eyes sweep those that surround him, he stands up slowly, and then firmly. He is looking at them all, walls beginning to rise, and despite all he tried to look like he’s got it handled, they’ve already seen it. And they can’t ignore the look of utter devastation in his face.

“And like all men, he’s made mistakes.”

He had started walking from the end of the platform back to the stage. And as he does so, after images follow behind him.

The voice of a woman pools into the room, “—ny Stark, billionaire CEO of Stark Industries, has gone missing after attempts of assassination—"

The after-image is based off a snap-shot taken of Tony just after he was rescued. Thin and hollow, bruised and broken. But willful.

Another, more frantic voice of a man announces, “—Avengers have split and factions between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have formed. Is this the end of the heroes—"

This time it is Tony, as Peter had first seen him. With the black eye and the worn look that he had, on that day. He is wearing the same clothes, and holding himself with the same air of importance—but Peter would later learn it to be a façade.

It walks past Peter and he fights his hand from reaching out, for it would disrupt the image and his composure.

The next one is more unforgiving, scalding, ruthless, “And that Tony Stark—he thinks he can go away unscathed, with what he did with Sokovia—that man is a menace—”

Peter cuts it off, feeling hot under his skin and also afraid that it might have had said too much, Morgan in mind.

So, he continues, this time with Tony already at the end of the stage at the back.

“These mistakes... they left him wounds. Wounds that we can never hope to know, never hope to see. But wounds that we are all too familiar with.”

Peter’s eyes leave Tony’s figure for a moment, taking emphasis in addressing everyone.

“Before you put him in a pedestal, and worship him for the hero that he is, I think it is important that we see him for what he really, truly was. And after that, we can honor him further by learning, and then by becoming.”

Peter is standing there, looking as if he hadn’t had to literally break down just to realize everything he’s saying right now.

Pepper is looking at Peter like she might just burst into tears, because here he is, Pete, strong enough to become vulnerable, brave enough to hold on.

And beyond the remnant of redness in his eyes, and the rasp in his voice, Pepper is sure that Peter has more strength in him than anyone gives him credit for. Sans Spider-Man. In fact, she knows Peter could just be as good a hero without the mask.

Pepper thinks that if Tony would see him right now, he would be proud.

Peter continues, promise in his stance, and the power of knowing in his eyes that speaks just a bit stronger to everyone, “And I don’t know what or who you’re going to be… You could become what you were always meant to be, or you could become what you always wanted to be. It doesn’t matter. Just that, you do this despite your wounds. Or, better yet, you do this because of your wounds.”

He pauses then, and looks down on his feet— phantom cuts and shadows of old blood dripping down his skin, feeling more real than ever. He shakes his head, determined to finish this, and Peter finds his voice again.

“To be good and to do good… what a beautiful way of life,” his eyes take a faraway look, and his voice, a softer tone, like he doesn’t want to be heard at this part, because it’s a truth that hurts, a hard pill to swallow, but needed nonetheless.

“But it doesn’t always return the goodness. Sometimes, it’s going to be hard. And my friend once said that the pain—it will always be there,” Peter finds Clint and nods at him in thanks. “In that case then, we make do with what we have and then we make it better. That’s what Tony represents.”

He won’t tell you this, because he would be opposing everything he had ever stood for in his past. But when the applause comes, overwhelming Peter who had been standing there, talking, solitary but all the more uniting—only Flash would know that he was the first person to clap.

Not Ned, or even MJ—

Flash.

And Flash, while he feels old envy in his blood, like muscles that move on reflex, he strives to push that down. Secretly, quietly, he allows himself to root for Peter.

(And maybe spares just a little energy to root for himself, too.)

But Peter, he isn’t done.

Not even halfway.

Because he’s talking again, and the image behind him, has changed.

There is a larger, scarier robot—dark in both color and intentions— as a little boy stands in front of it, with his small hands outstretched, led light on plastic gloves—a $2 repulsor jet.

The robot charges its guns, aiming to kill. The kid stands, undeterred.

But that doesn’t matter, Flash thinks in bated breath, because he’s going to die and no one is coming—holy shit just run away, you stupid kid—

And Morgan could be heard screaming for the child—Pepper calming her down.

As the gun has fully charged, light shining to burst, everyone stops breathing.

One. Ned closes his eyes. Can’t see this—

Two. MJ looks on despite this, but her heart still clenches.

THREE. Peter sees it before everyone else, before the exact moment it builds up completely, the sounds of a shooting beam at the ready because he’s lived this already.

And seconds before it charges at him, with the rest of the audience feeling fear and dread at what could happen—

BOOM!

The grey bot explodes.

And Iron Man is there, right behind him.

“The one reason he ever made Iron Man was so he could protect us. And the actions he took to do that— it’s what makes him a hero. But let’s look closer.”

The image fades just as Tony is telling him, “Good job, kid.”

It is replaced by the sound of metal on metal, and the stage is filled with a brilliant blue hue.

It is Tony in a grey shirt, eyes heavy with bags but laden with an extreme focus.

Friday had given him this clip from Jarvis’ old logs, titled “Tony discovers a new element.”

He is moving around, muttering to himself—or to the A.I. in his lab. The blue hologram twists and turns, stopping only at Tony’s urgings. He sits in front of it, Jarvis asking, “…what is it you’re trying to achieve, sir?”

“I’m discovering—uhh… correction, I’m re-discovering a new element.”

After that it is a collection of Tony playing with the holograms, commanding it where it should go and piecing together something that they can’t quite comprehend yet.

He stretches the globe with his hands, yawning as he does so, watching along with them as all the information processes, forming another globe, dotted this time, all connected to each other.

Tony leans in, the others doing so as well, curious as to what this could mean.

His hands hover over the globe, stretching it with his hands.

It expands the dotted blue holograms across the stage and into the crowd—and they couldn’t help it, their hands find the holograms. Fingers, tentative, excited, touching the blue dots that are more than what they understand.

An element that they don't quite know yet. And one that Tony Stark discovered.

The others who aren’t distracted by the element, are instead mesmerized by the look of pure wonder in Tony Stark’s face.

The worn look is replaced by one of pure, unadulterated joy—and the smile that graces his face is one that they are fascinated to watch.

Here, they are seeing Tony stripped off any facades, with only his basest, brightest self in the center of it all.

What’s more, after that moment of pause, when he’s looking at his creation as if he is only realizing it, his face breaks into the most genuine smile

And Pepper melts a little, so very aware of her baby Morgan who is seeing her father as he had never been before.

Harley moves to take Morgan’s hands. Not to give her support, because she doesn’t need it now, with the way her eyes are so wide with discovery, lips in a brilliant smile that reflects her father’s—but so he could gather some strength from her.

God knows he needs it.

And Peter, that bastard, Harley knows he also needs it. So, it is really a thing of great curiosity itself when he continues to speak, unflinching.

Something about the strong kid Tony always said he was, shining at this moment.

“Before anything else, Tony was a learner. His love for science, and for discovery the one thing he’s always found comfort in.”

The blue light dissipates again, this time, replaced by two figures on the right side.

“Tony, don’t do it.”

Rhodey stands on one end, exasperated and… exhausted.

Tony, on the other hand, is reeling with mischief and defiance.

When he says what Rhodey knows he’s going to say, the inevitable, “Yup, I’m definitely doing it,” he doesn’t get mad, though, as one would expect. Because he’s finally let it show, the smile he’s been biting since the beginning of their argument, and he’s following Tony into wherever else, laughing along with him.

Peter found this in one of the oldest archives, the youngest memories Jarvis has ever had—of Tony at age 22, an adult living the high life with his best friend.

As they run to the other end of the stage, they walk past another two figures. This time it is Happy and Tony.

Happy is filled with bandages and is standing on a crutch, with Tony holding Happy so he wouldn’t fall, despite the latter’s insistence that he wouldn’t.

This was just after Happy had been discharged from the hospital, so persistent in protecting Tony that he was willing to be seen as weak and fragile by everyone else just so he could stand beside him.

And Tony, he is being delicate with Happy—both with his emotions and his body. It is made clear with the way he flinches and activates the suit when Happy trips a little, causing the bigger man to stare at him for a long, weird time.

That is, until Happy starts laughing, Tony following suit. And it’s not a thing between the boss and the employee—but of friendship between two men, the depth of their loyalty, and everything in between.

It comes as a surprise, then, when Pepper comes in, heels clicking with purpose.

Morgan exclaims loudly, cutely, “Wha—Mommy!” as she stares in excitement between the two Peppers.

Her hands with a clipboard and hair tied back in professional haste, she calls Tony with the command of a tired tiger.

And Tony, who is casually running on 2 hours of sleep a week, with the coffee machine running every other hour, and metal scattered everywhere with motor oil spilled, he looks up at Pepper and everything seems just a bit lighter to him.

It’s in the way he relaxes, his hands pausing from its jittering, and his smile coming easier than ever.

Pepper, despite her own justified stress, is also a bit more open—freer to express her opinions and speak her mind, with the way she fires off one after the other, forsaking the professionalism she had had to endure from earlier.

—then you blew off the meeting again even though I specifically told you to go, because it’s always me who receives the brunt of it—and Tony, every second I spend explaining for your carelessness is ten years reduced from my life span—"

It’s more a nag than any traditional sense of ‘expressing her opinions,’ but by the end of it, Tony is offering her his thousand-dollar coffee from Vietnam, and giving her a shoulder massage that is far from platonic.

But Peter recognizes this and finds the one thing in Pepper and Tony’s relationship. And he put it there because before they were lovers, they were also friends.

And it’s in the way Tony fires off one joke after the other, not afraid of using obscure sci-fi references that Pepper would have already understood by just spending time with Tony. Or the way Pepper sighs into his hands, swatting them when they try to tickle in a way that demonstrates familiarity.

“Tony was… a friend. And sometimes, not always a good friend. But he was someone who tried anyway.”

Images of Rhodey in his metal braces, looking tough as ever, of Happy in his suit and scowl, looking as the ever-so threatening guard that he was, and Pepper in her smart suit and sharp eyes, come forward.

Ned thinks it’s cool because they’re cool, and adding one with each other just makes it even cooler. (And also, wow, Peter worked with them before, so by association he worked with them as well—)

MJ sees the similarities with her friendship with Peter, sees beyond the glamour and is confronted with the darkness it entails. She finds that she respects that more, to look at Pepper and see someone unfaltering as she, and to know that at least once in her life she had the choice to leave Tony Stark, and more than once did she come back for him.

Flash just thinks he’s lucky to have people around him, who are really in it for the long haul. What a wonderful thing to have.

The figures fade to the background, not entirely disappearing, but hiding just in plain sight not to be seen too prominently.

What comes next is a boy with tousled brown hair, talking with distracted vigor, eyes focused on the tech on his hands.

This, Peter found in the archives from the log cabin, Friday having had access to it as it had been Tony’s headquarters slash home for a while.

“And if you turn this thing, the, the whatever, I forgot, it would have been better— efficient, and cooler looking, actually.”

Tony is by his side immediately, looking down interested, not even deterred by the blatant insult the kid pulled.

“Harley, did I ever tell you that you’re a genius?”

“Every night, when you’re asleep, that’s all you ever say—”

Uh…

“…was I supposed to hear that or…”

“Let’s just say, I’m a genius, okay, Tony?”

“Yeah, I’m kind of backing that up because you’re creepy—”

“That wasn’t what I meant!”

Harley feels cold on his feet, and it’s like he’s both grounded to the floor, so tightly bolted that he can’t move, and also like he’s floating in a realm he does not recognize,

This was year two of the Awakening.

As Harley chases Tony away with more insults than he weighs, Peter pauses.

He’s thought of it before, putting himself in the video. He’s actually worked on it for a few minutes, ended up with something that’s still too raw, or still too much like the old days that he couldn’t show it to anyone.

So, he stops there, adding his narration, “He was also a teacher. Because one genius, billionaire, philanthropist isn’t enough— he had to make another one.”

Peter shoots a look at Harley, feeling light and mischievous. Harley’s face, slack and eyes looking torn, immediately morphs into something more familiar. He grins at Peter back, pulling a thumbs up, looking at him with the same fondness that he was received yesterday.

Harley’s image grows into that of an adult. And joining him is Morgan who is so small, so pure. Pepper walks in, this time a motherly aura in her smile, stopping just beside Tony.

It isn’t only MJ who notices it. She’s sure Ned also saw it. Recognized it for what it is. Because they’re standing there, looking like every bit the family that they are, with Happy and Rhodey by each of the sides, and Pete in the middle of it all, just beside Tony.

“…and he was a father.”

It is a beautiful picture of what could have been— and melancholic melodies pull a string in MJ’s heart. Because, yeah, she kinda gets it—the what could’ve been’s, and the what-if’s.

And while Peter is out there looking like he belongs, MJ is also sure he knows that this isn’t the reality that they have.

So, it goes.

Peter begrudgingly walks out of the group, a certain type of emptiness filling his chest. But one look at the real Pepper, who is looking at him like she’s trying to drown him with encouragement, and to Morgan whose beaming at him like he deserved it, Peter finds a semblance of courage once again.

He has to finish this.

Because this is the end of his suffering.

And he has to honor the beginning of this new path he’s taking.

“Tony was a lot of things in his life,” he starts, throat rasping, “but let it be said that he was not a perfect man.”

He stops in the middle of the platform, the same spot he took at the beginning of this tribute.

The only lights in the room are the glowing images, and it lends a sort of somber tone—like the forlorn tunes from the end credits scene of a movie, camera panning as the character walks alone on the road.

Peter shifts.

“But see, that’s what makes him all the more a hero. Because he took a look at his past, and consciously, intentionally chose to be better every step of the way. And that’s what I want you to take from Tony’s life. An ever so incandescent will to change, and becoming better.

Iron Man lands a few steps in front of him. He eclipses Peter from the front, as Peter mirrors him from the side.

“So, when you say that Tony’s a hero, I want you all to understand…”

Tony appears a few meters in front of Iron Man, and the two are looking at each other from afar.

Of human and robot, of heart and body.

“That the deepest truth lies in what we act on. And here, the only truth is that…”

Tony Stark begins his walk, a slow stroll to something that could only lead to the inevitable. Iron Man follows suit and with every step—clank, clank, clank.

It is only music to Peter’s ears, a familiar comfort that should never fade away with time.

And so, it is knowing he has been talking for far too long, maybe showing a bit too much, that he closes it all off.

When Peter smiles, it is of finding peace and acceptance—of looking forward to tomorrow, and closing this journey off with the best way that he can—and it is—

“And the only truth is that…”

Tony and Iron Man are face to face, like a reflection of the other, a symbol of whatever that runs too deep to be excavated—a symbolism that historians will embed in their books, and one that storytellers will tell in every tale.

Flesh touches metal, and Peter swears he can feel a deep surge of something run down his spine. Just watching it happen—with the way it glows, of white and red and black and gold—the blend of colors melding with one another, becoming a painting that is far more than the individual parts—and Tony is merging with the suit, becoming one in a way that they all don’t understand yet.

And Peter—well, that’s why he’s here, isn’t he? To make them understand.

So, he breathes out, tangible electricity in every fingertip, and growing anticipation with every second. His eyes are bright with knowledge, and of excitement building in his chest— of giving life to new truth— he breathes—

 

 

 

Tony is Iron-Man.”

An iridescent glow bursts across the room and the air takes a certain charge to it—and they know, they know what just happened—

There, in the stage, with Peter in the middle of the intersection, and the darkness giving way to the light—

There is Iron Man, and there is Tony Stark.

There’s the man who gave them their future and—

“And see, it wasn’t just Tony who saved us all.”

Peter’s voice is the only sound in the hall, everyone recognizing the coming of something great— of waiting and wondering for what is to come.

“We had Natasha.”

Natasha saunters from the intersection of the two stages, walking just past Peter’s shoulder, and toward Iron Man who is standing in solitary fortitude.

“And Steve.”

Steve walks from the other side, a slow but confident stride, humble and reassuring. He stops by Tony’s left, Natasha on the right.

Peter is standing directly behind Tony, and when he says it, the command for Friday to finally do it, it is like old and new spirits alike have gone through him, and his own old soul is rejuvenated—gaining a new vitality to it that could only be brought by peace.

Because one second it is just the three of them, and everyone is looking in awe, at how real it is—at how very amazing it is, the tech—the detail—

And the next, Peter is speaking into his microphone and into the world, “And everyone else who had something to fight for. They, too, are heroes like Tony…

All at once, a gust of wind that couldn’t have come from anywhere fills the room, a bright blinding light—so much blue—and—

An army of phantoms.

Each soul an image, and each one, life within it.

And MJ—she couldn’t help it when she gasped out loud, because she sees her distant uncle, the medic one, Uncle Ronney, and she remembered how she never shed a tear for him—too confused, too unsure on how to feel.

Ned is right by her side immediately, holding her for all the way she’s shaking now—and she knows this is embarrassing, feels the cold drip of shame begin to pool its way down her shoulder. But one look at Peter and she thinks that fuck, it’s okay… it’s alright. I can… let it out.

There are nurses and firemen and police enforcers all around. Across the army are Wakandan soldiers—Dora Milaje— and those of the American forces.

They are all the people who have tried to help, people who have done their all to bring goodness in this world, in the darkness that preceded and stayed with the Shadow Period.

If Flash looks further, beyond that of his own father’s image, he would have seen the teens that look so young, standing there as if they can still expand their own potentials.

Hell—there are children, in that crowd.

It extends to the very ends of the stage, and in every space that it takes, is a story that it tells. They stand there, in their eternal glory, of humble wills and pure motivations—these people who were almost forgotten, these people who fought and saved and did everything for what they believed in.

With each face, and each name is a legacy that they all behold. And they are all here to remember that. For it is in their memories that they live forever.

Up there, they’re looking so real you could almost touch them.

(Flash is extending his hand, his feet moving instinctively. But Abe is there to hold him, with Charles whispering him some sense. And Flash—Eugene—he is confused because his dad is there—what—why are you trying to stop me?—

Come on, Flash, look, it’s just an image.”

“But you gotta understand, dude. Your father? He’s there. That means he’s a hero.”)

A dog barks cheerfully from inside the army.

Peter’s hands are outstretched on either of his sides, and in his hands are the power to command these images. He watches them for a moment longer, relishing in the adrenaline and the appreciation. He sees the wonder in the eyes of his peers, pools of emotions breaking free from their restraints.

And together everyone understands a little bit more.

--

 

Stop for a moment.

Look at the sky.

And when you’ve seen it, seen the way the colors meld to make that picture— and the sheer beauty of what he is trying to say, you must calm down.

 

Breathe.

You have to.

Because there’s more.

And after that is more.

--

 

Peter flicks his wrist, and all the phantom souls come rushing to the air above him—they’re flying toward the center stage above, merging one by one by one, each soul completing the image, forming something—

An Obra Maestra? The piece de resistance?

…Peter’s masterpiece.

And the grandest story to behold.

 

(They all look up, expecting something great. And when it comes, you can hear it when they breathe in unison. The small gasps that reverberate, and then the silence of crying in a crowd.)

(MJ’s mind, always full of thought, is suddenly quieted by the power it all—the command and the softness, all in demand for her attention. The colors, they blend into a realistic render. And the feelings, they translate so well, like a spoken language, more universal, more inclusive, than English could ever bring. She feels it in her chest, the moment she lets out a soft gasp, and then the swell of pride. Because Peter—he’s— finally—)

(Flash doesn’t know how he feels yet, just that he understands it. And he doesn’t know how to feel about that. Understanding Peter Parker. But he keeps it close to his chest, hoping that later he could try to understand it as well as he understood the person.)

(If they aren’t crying, they are certainly feeling every emotion to its highest form. Pepper tries not to cry, holds on to the cloak of professionalism while in front of the students, but a tear betrays her, and she lets it all out.)

(Morgan is just confused. But in her six-year-old heart, she feels a certain tightness in her chest and a hollowness in her stomach. She is sad, even though she doesn’t quite understand why. But she is also happy. Because there is her daddy—and they’re clapping—they love her daddy and that’s already good enough for her.)

 

Because up there, is not just the image of Tony Stark in all his blazing glory. Up there is a mural of all the heroes that have fought for the last five years—for the countless of people who had stood up and decided that this life was worth saving and that they could do something.

It is the fireman, the kid and the superhuman, all in one cluster together—a portrait of colorful dichotomy, heroes, with Tony Stark in the middle, laughing, and everyone else doing what they did before fate decided they were too good for this world.

It is the perfect end to this bittersweet journey, an image to look back to that could become the best jump-off point for a hopefully better future.

And it is great, this warmth he’s feeling right now.

When he feels, it comes from the tips of his fingers, to the core of his chest—a deep, burning feeling that does not have to do with heaving chests, but of a mind that is so, wonderfully calmed—calmed to the point of clarity, a crystal brightness that goes beyond his super sights, and an inner strength that surpasses even his own super strength.

He thinks, that if there is any other time to say it—to admit it to the world and appreciate it—it’s now.

Because after everything that he had had to go through—after so many people he had to talk to, to understand just a little bit of the revelation that he got after last night—

He’s finally, truly got it.

“And us? We’re here to remember them. To look back and give thanks. Through us, they become immortal.”

--

 

The applause comes from a singular unity. It doesn’t start from a single point, but from across the room, and it fills the hallway, even reaching as far as the other floors. There are cheers and sobbing and Peter takes it all.

In the middle of the chaos, of the people trying to get his attention, of Betty calling for his name, and of Ned running up to hug him from the other end, he reaches a point of complete stillness.

A quiet calmness in his inner being that he welcomes so warmly.

With it comes a sort of disassociation, or well—more like an acknowledgment of what is happening and what it might mean even as it is happening.

Because for all Peter knows, this is how it’ll end. And this is how it’ll start.

Ned reaches him at the stage, his other friends starting to run up to him as well, and crushes him with a hug that begs him to breathe. He feels complete safety, and upon feeling MJ’s own hand on his, he feels something more than that.

And Peter, he looks up at the sky, at Tony. Because he feels that he’s finally got it.

He closes his eyes, and relishes in the celebration of the crowd. And the closeness of family. Thinking of home, and seeing May and MJ and Ned and Pepper and Happy and Harley and—

And even Morgan.

He will have to do a lot of things, to make up for them, to continue being better, but as of now, he’s content just being in the arms of his best friend.

And since Peter feels like he’s brave enough to do it, he dares to think that maybe— surrounded by friends, with family looking on in support, giving tribute to the one that he called his father, and looking forward to what he can do tomorrow—

 

Maybe…

 

 

 

Maybe—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is how peace feels like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that’s when the explosions come in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

--

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

“I'm not... anyone.

I’m just trying to help, Ned.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breathe—

Breathebreathebreathebreathebreathe

What—fuck— too bright, too bright—can’t—can’t see—

The floor smashes into his face, tiles startling him awake.

Nose hit the hard floor; eyes wide open—SHUT—

And now he’s falling again.

Falling deep.

Falling hard.

It hurts.

All spins, unforgiving. Something clogs his throat, can’t scream, can’t—

Breathe hard, breathe now, please—

His hands find the cold tiles and there is solid ground. The world whirls around him. Sit up, come on!

(Why?)

Feet run past him. Once, twice—and then everything at once. Stomping hard, stomping fast. Slamming onto him like a drum, hammering into everything. Beating, banging, a great consistent trembling of his whole being. Like the heart that explodes reverberating throughout his body. In the chest. In the head.

His ears burst.

He gasps, grasping at the sides of his head, touching something wet.

Nauseous, need to vomit—What’s… what’s happening—

Someone is in front of him, but it is the shadow of an image. The glare from the lights above are blinding and the rumbling in the floor is distracting. There is a muted sound of chaos. Faraway but reaching. Present but numb. Deep but empty.

“…ter—stand up, get up, please!”

And the throbbing in his head escalates, his heart beating, running— leaping.

His skin prickles at every sensation, itching and burning with sensitivity, hand quick to retaliate as the shadow reaches out—

SLAP!

—uck man, I’m trying to help—

His eyes are on fire. Blink. Water wells up and he keeps on blinking. One shadow. Two phantoms. Stop. Blink hard, dig in. Come on! Teeth gnash, lips bleed, metal on mouth, and, whimper.

“—tand up, we have to go, MJ and Ned are—”

Who?

Scream.

…where is he?

“HELP!”

What’s happening—how, how did he get here?

They form with only the barest of awareness, almost there but not quite, frustrating and helpless and lost—so completely lost. It is like screaming in black water. The horrid disorientation and the increasing sense of panic, welling up in his lungs and then tearing a hole through his throat. Thrashing but never getting anywhere. Breathing, only to drown even further.

Fuck.

And the screaming—they stir a pot of fear in his stomach, a question that does not know it is a question, loud and booming in his head, echoing dread and distress and dissonance.

Another bout of BOOM— and blinding light flashes through closed eyes.

His ears trickle with blood.

The noise comes forward, incomprehensible and impenetrable. Blood drips down wet cheeks, leaving his ears raw and sensitive.

“…’sapen’in… wher’m I…”

He tries.

Really.

But it does not come across.

Bleary eyes blink once and stay shut. The sounds are muted, but present all the same. He is a floating body now, dead underwater. Every sound is filtered through fabric, passing between walls and diving in the oceans before it could reach him.

And when it does it is scathing.

“—what are we gonna do, Peter’s clearly out of it!”

It leaps in and out of him and he tries to grasp it.

“—ensory overload, I think. Slap him or something—”

Come on, come on—work!

“—doesn’t work…!”

Look around. Remember. What. To. Do.

“I know—!”

A cold, prickling touch pierces his skin. It is a searing, startling feeling that overwhelms his confusion, catapulting his soul out from his body. His awareness gains a sort of disassociation, his senses leaping in intense accuracy—

Peter jerks forward.

A metal clang rings through.

The tiles on his touch are soft and natural, the smoothness giving him something to ground. Hands, spread. Fingers, relaxed. Cool. Strong. Once again. Ground.

His ears twitch at every new sound that comes— precise and individual. He can hear the collective chaos, and above that, could pinpoint the slightest yelp.

Someone is yelling for “Josie!”

Another one is praying, “Our father who art in—our father who, our—” And it is a desperate attempt, one through wet hiccups.

“Mom, are you—please, when you get this, I… I love you, I’m sorry for everything.”

This one sounds closer, like it could even be someone he knows. And he tries to find them all, turning and searching and trying.

But he doesn’t have time to think about it, because all at once a head-piercing shriek attacked his senses, screaming at him for—

 

 

HELP—!

 

A deafening ring resounds.

Like a screaming telephone.

Piercing.

Unforgiving.

AGH!

It glides past him, the ringing, like a train that is zooming away until it fades into the distance. And in the absence of the sound enters a numbness that lends him solace.

The world stops.

And there is only him.

And his body.

And making sense of it all.

Sitting on the ground, with two frightened teens before him, Peter Parker regains control.

It starts with his breath, hearing it, regulating it—in, out, breathe, in, out, please, slow down. You can do this. His eyes filter in and out of focus, and the relief from the blinding light sets him free into the dark reality. His eyes begin to acclimate. Around him is darkness, and a seething, dangerous red. It takes him a minute, breathing, eyes focusing, when he realizes it, finally catches up with his thoughts, and catching up with more.

It comes with searing clarity that escapes his permission, slamming into him with a force that shakes his entirety—

He knows this.

And all the image in the world, all the sound from before—the screaming, the begging— they tell him of an experience he’s lived before—lived once, twice and now a hundred couple times. But this particular moment is colored by a dark shade of red, not because of the blaring red lights from the ceiling, no. It comes from one thing, a cold fact that makes him tremble, and submits him into a more certain feeling of helplessness. Helplessness that is borne out of knowing and recognizing the deep and terrifying truth.

Because this is the first fight since the last one— since the war, since everything, and there is no one to save them all.

Not Captain America.

Not Tony.

Not… not even… him.

“Charles…?” he rasps, “Abe, where… where is…”

The two teens whip their heads to look at him, their increasingly panicked argument stopping. Peter looks up at them, squinting, and the two breathe a sigh of relief.

From afar, another explosion comes, and a bright blinding flash threatens to take Peter’s sight had he not turned away. Charles is quick to pull Peter up, Abe looking around in growing alarm.

“We gotta go, come on!” Abe turns, running away from the foot of the stage where they hid. But Peter grabs his hand, forcing him to stop and look back.

What!” Abe hisses, Charles almost running into his back.

Where’s Ned and MJ?!” Peter screams.

“Some agent dragged them away—look man, we’ll explain everything later, ‘kay? Cause’ if it isn’t obvious there are FUCKING TERRORISTS in the safest fucking place in the world!”

Abe doesn’t hesitate to run after that, Charles following close behind. Peter takes a few more seconds before he catches up to both of them, mind a constant screaming madness that refuses to be silenced.

It screams out the names of all the people he should have kept safe—all the people he loved, and now, and now they’re all in danger and he can’t—

Every turn, every step of the way are children running away. In fear. In desperation. In tears. And there is no other time where the kids are kids again, when running away from a problem is the most sensible thing to do.

It is a horrible reenactment of the night before, and Peter wants to scream into the night.

He can feel every tremor in his chest and he wants to stop, even goes so far as try to break away from his friends, but one look at Charles eyes that speak of vivid fear makes him resolve on seeing them to their safety first.

They run and hide and maneuver around, and from the looks of it, Abe was right in his assessment. Terrorists, masked men with guns and bombs, most of them scattered to bring upon violence, but not really death.

He knows this because as he runs to the other side, a bullet whizzes past him, another hitting him right in his right arm. But it’s not just one—it’s a bunch of small bullets embedding on his skin.

Abe and Charles are quick to pull him to the side, hiding behind a large pillar.

“A birdshot bullet—why would they use a birdshot bullet!” is the first thing that comes from his mouth. But as Charles goes to check on him, Peter puts his hand forward, remembering to distract them from his rapidly healing wounds.

“I’m alright,” he says, flexing his arm without flinching, “It was just a scratch. They barely grazed me.”

Abe looks at him for a while, eyes disbelieving and totally aware of his self-sacrificing tendencies. But the urgency to be somewhere safer takes priority.

“We need to find a place to hide,” Abe starts, panting, “They’ve got the place on lock down. Friday’s been fucking hacked.”

“Heard it from the agents earlier,” Charles supplies.

At this, Peter turns, frantic, “Did you hear where they took MJ and Ned?” he adds, “Maybe we could go there.”

“Shit man, we don’t know. It was chaotic out there, especially after the first bomb.”

“It was just… blast after blast after blast.” Charles shivers, “They just came from everywhere.”

So that’s why he was rendered so goddamn useless. His greatest weapon became a double-edged sword. In any other time, Karen could have—

(Stop. Not helping. Focus.)

Peter begins to go through the catalogue of experiences that he’s got from fighting crime. For the most part, he’s never dealt with terrorists other than Thanos. Yet the anomaly of their behavior baffles him. Birdshot bullets are just not… efficient enough. If they wanted to cause destruction, they would have gone for real bombs, not flash bombs.

But then again these could all be an elaborate plan to distract them from a heist. Scratch that, the security measure locks everything up and sends them away before anyone could even so much as step on the facility.

This definitely isn’t a one-off mission. Something is happening beyond the immediate situation. And Peter isn’t prepared to get ahead of it all. His mind is too muddled.

(He feels the fabric of his mask inside his pocket. Karen should still be in there. Even after he deactivated her.

…right?)

Time ticks as fast as the screaming increases. Abe wrings his hand in obvious distress, eyes wide in a great reflection of the fear Peter feels right now. Charles is erratic and unnerved, looking around as best as he could, trying to find something useful, but failing.

“What do we do?” Abe asks, quiet and haunted.

Peter’s tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth, pressing his lips in a thin line. They bleed in protest. Cracked and dry and metallic.

The darkness does not help him think at all and the red only offers dim hope. It emphasizes the worried lines of Abe’s face, and the sweat that runs down Charles’ forehead, glowing over them all like blood and warning, and Peter doesn’t know how to handle that thought.

His mind arches back and forth, blaming him for leaving both MJ and Ned on their own, and then screaming at him to find them NOW—

But he has both Abe and Charles to take care of, both of whom are also his friends. And even if they weren’t, he’d be damned if he left anyone on their own.

Even if he didn’t know how to help them, even if he has to do things that doesn’t guarantee anything. He has to at least try.

His mind casts back to every part of the building, looking for a place that might just be remote enough to give them a blanket of safety. Instead, his mind’s eye leads him to a path that is too familiar, as fresh as yesterday had been—because it is a path that he took just last night.

A sort of determined possession takes over Peter’s body, and something shifts in the way he moves. Both Abe and Charles notice this, the surety with which he looked at both of them, direct and secure. He says it in a way that gets both of them hanging on to everything he says, that firm reassurance that things will be alright and he’ll be the reason why.

(That way that he gets when he’s Spider-Man.)

 

“Abe, Charles. I know where we can go.”

He sees the moment that they brace themselves.

It is in the way that they stand, alert of what could happen next. It is in the way they follow his composure, reinforced by grim determination. It is in the way Abe nods to himself, and Charles tightens his fist, gathering courage and being the bravest that they can be in this time.

A scream resonates across the hall, cutting through Peter’s thoughts and going over the sound of chaos. It is followed by wet begging.

Peter grits his teeth.

“Where is this place, Peter?” Abe asks.

“It’s in the bathroom, stall number five. It’s about a halfway across from here.”

Charles’ focus is entirely on him, so far from his shifty eyes earlier, “How do we get past them?”

Peter plants his back at the pillar, throwing a cursory glance at the men in the hallway who are overturning chairs and throwing flash bombs that grate on his senses.

“They’re mostly focused on the people in the middle. And since they’re using birdshot bullets, that means they didn’t come here to kill anyone. We can get to the bathroom without much problem by going through here,” he gestures to the line of pillars. “We’ll stop at each pillar and move when we know no one’s looking.”

“We can’t see, Peter. It’s too dark—plus, they’ve probably got more some tech on them. I don’t know is this worth the risk?” The hysteria in Abe’s voice begin seeping, threatening to destroy his sense of rationality every second that they’re here.

Peter breathes in deeply, knowing that the next few words he’ll be saying immortalizes the weight he has decided to take. He puts his hand on Abe’s shoulder, keeping a firm but comforting grip, “Whatever you do, whatever happens out there, the only thing I need from both of you is to trust me. Can you do that?” Charles and Abe share a look, “Can you trust me?”

He sees it in their eyes, the moment they make their decision. The way they begin to understand that there might be something more than the Peter they knew from AcaDec, with the way he so effortlessly took on the bullets and studied the enemies, like he has been doing this for quite some time now.

It astonishes Peter, because he knows he’s been weak for the longest time, yet they still found it in themselves to do it. To trust him. With their lives. And their future.

And once that happens, once there is trust and recognition, there is naturally devotion.

So, from now on, they’re going to follow him. Wherever he goes. And he’ll make damn sure he leads them to safety.

It is in this moment of trust, and in the moment of accepting that trust, that they begin to accept that person within Peter, not knowing that he has always been someone they have always trusted with their lives.

For Peter, whose turmoil cost him Karen, it was a pledge. The recognition of that obligation brought by his ability to do more, the responsibility that always comes with great power. He’s going to protect his two friends, and then he’s going to find more people who need him. He’ll protect them too.

And he won’t stop until there is absolutely no one else.

He’ll put himself on the line for another, and another, and another.

 

 

So that maybe Tony’s sacrifice wouldn’t be in vain.

 

“Lead the way, Peter.”

With a nod, Peter focuses on his senses— submitting himself to every vibration that enters his ears, relinquishing control of his body to his instincts, fully submerging in the adrenaline of it all.

He could hear everything, the overwhelming beat of Abe and Charles’ heart, the screams and the tears from the students outside, to the whispers underneath the chair— the accidental scraping of metal foot to cold tiles, drawing the attention away—

Now!” he whispers.

All three of them jump into action, the pillar a few feet further, a few feet too dangerous.

Blood pumps into Peter’s ears, and he breathes deep and hard in order to avoid the looming sensory overload. The flash bombs have stopped but the tormenting still hasn’t. If he’s not fast enough in getting these two to safety, he might not have enough time to save them all.

(But how can he even do that without his suit? There’s too many of them—and—)

They arrive at the second pillar, now only a few ones left before they arrive at the one safe place in the tower.

He doesn’t have to speak now, trusting the two just as much as they trust him. It is a pattern of running and stopping, waiting, bracing, and then almost leaping.

Every new pillar is another challenge for them, difficulty increasing as Peter’s concentration wanes every few seconds, the screams growing stronger.

He nods ahead, knowing Charles and Abe are looking at him for a signal. He doesn’t wait then and jumps ahead.

In retrospect, Peter should have expected this would happen. He shouldn’t have let his thoughts run wild, leaving his body to run by itself. Because this is what happens when one has lived as a super human for a long time. They forget that normal people get tired, quicker than the average superhuman, and that adrenaline could only bring one too far before their legs give away.

Yet he should have known—should have remembered with that ‘brilliant’ brain of his that he should slow down, let them rest for a while. And now, because he got so distracted by his own desperation, he let them down.

Because right then and there, in the second that Peter finds himself safely behind the pillar, already looking toward the bathroom doors, Charles yelps in surprise, tripping over Abe who fell on the ground.

He hears it before he sees it, the barrage of birdshot bullets viciously planting itself to Charles and Abe. Charles lets out a muffled yelp, Abe hissing in pain.

The man is large and sadistic, the undeniable excitement present in the way he grins, “This one’s mine!”

In an instant, all of Peter’s senses hones in on this one man. He hears his footsteps come closer by the second. Peter hides himself deeper into the pillar. He can’t reveal himself yet, even though it is tempting to, lest the man point him out to everyone else.

It has to be an attack from the shadows, and for that to happen, the man has to get closer to Peter.

And to Abe and Charles.

Peter casts his eyes on Charles who whimpers on the ground, curling in around himself. He sees it in the way he closes his eyes, bracing for the arrival of more pain and suffering. He’s accepted that something worse than getting shot is going to happen to him, and that it’s going to hurt.

Abe on the other hand is resolute. His arms are bleeding and his teeth are gritted. And even if he is much smaller than Charles, he moves to cover him. The guilt from tripping and exposing them both to the gunman is enough for him to think he deserved pain or even death more than Charles.

Peter thinks, bullshit. None of them deserves pain. Especially death.

The man trudges forward.

The man clicks his tongue, “The ammo is shit, but I guess I can at least have fun with it,” he says to the comms.

Hurry the fuck up, Sniper, we don’t have the fucking time for your kinks.”

“This ain’t a kink, you fuck!” he yells, “Whatever. You’re boring as shit anyways. You wouldn’t understand.”

The man, Sniper, is getting closer, prowling— a predator scaling his prey, teeth bared in excitement. But then, this is exactly what Peter wants. Sniper is distracted by the sport, and he will take every advantage of it.

Peter catches Abe’s eyes, and he puts his fingers out in front of his lips. Don’t look at me, or even indicate that I’m here, he conveys, directing his gaze on the ground in an exaggerated manner.

Abe quietens in response, looking anywhere but at the pillar. It doesn’t slip past Peter though, the way his hands trembled, and the way he so forcibly covers Charles despite the obvious fear. It infuriates something deep within Peter that begs to be quenched. A fire that could never be put down unless the right actions are done, and the wrong people are done with.

He’s almost by the pillar now, towering over Abe. It’s close, he can sense it. But not quite yet.

“You know, you could have run away,” Sniper offers, “This is like, a fucking ant bite compared to the ones I always used. Big guns, electrocutes people and all,” Abe shivers, “But, heh, it’s all fine. Cause I get to play around.”

He pokes Abe with the gun on his hand, sniggering as he watches Abe stiffen, shaking at sheer fear.

Peter could hear the cackle of his ear-piece, a commanding voice saying, “Sniper, finish that up quickly. Boss needs us.”

“Copy, Henny.”

It makes Abe jump in his bones, the surprising speed with which Sniper pulled the gun on Abe’s body, fingers om the trigger.

They’re not here to kill, Peter repeats in his head. They’re not here to kill.

He stands behind the pillar, just feeling for the right time. There are a few more men around them, just scattered enough not to be dangerous, but close enough to hear Sniper’s call if Peter were not so careful with his attack. If only he had his webs… In any case, he still has his senses. It’s enough for now.

It has to be.

And now he has to disarm a man with his bare hands… better yet to riddle them unconscious. Swift and efficient, just like Nat had taught him. But now, without the protective blanket that he has with his mask.

Peter shakes his head and strains to hear any telltale signs of the surrounding men leaving. It had to be anytime now, the man in the comms were calling for them anyways.

It’ll just take a split second, but waiting for that moment to come might cost Abe his peace—and anything from today will be a traumatic piece that will haunt him in his dreams.

Peter grits his teeth.

I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Charles whimpers, shaking harder now, pleading on the ground where he lays. Sniper himself seemed to like it, the sadistic bastard, and took time in toying with them.

“What, you think you can make me stop?”

“Please—please, I’m sorry, I- I won’t do it again--!”

“Do what again?” he glowers.

“Please don’t hurt us, please, I’m—I’m—”

“I want you to tell me what you don’t want me to do, and I might just consider not doing it—”

“FUCK OFF!” Abe yells, voice cracking.

Sniper takes a step back and offered a murderous growl.

Footsteps, walking away, further now, further.

Peter glances at the middle of the room where the others have taken their attention at somewhere.

He looks back at Abe and Charles.

“You fucking shit,” Sniper kicks Abe’s back, stomping hard on his hand afterward. He leans in forward, voice low and predatory, “How bout’ you fuck off?” Then he retracts, contemplating Abe with a glint in his eyes.

Peter can sense the growing distance between the others, but there’s too many of them and they’re taking too long—

“They say this doesn’t kill anyone,” Sniper starts, “but at a really close distance, like the distance of here to here,” he points the space between his gun to Abe’s back, nozzle digging into his flesh, “I think it’s a pretty good enough distance to… say, kill you.”

Here Abe whimpers, eyes closing so hard that it crumples his face so bad, lips curling into a fearful plead, praying, hoping, waiting.

Sniper continues on, a malicious streak in his voice as he imagines the next few minutes like the mad man that he is. “Slowly, agonizingly,” he promises, “And it will hurt, so bloody much that you’ll come crying for your mama as you go. And I promise you, I won’t kill your other friend. I might shoot him in the leg for a few minutes until I’m bored. But he’d survive. And he’d have to live with the fact that you died just so he could live.”

Peter is immediately behind Sniper—the vile embodiment of evil for pleasure— hands going over his neck, holding it there, squeezing with a strength that might just kill. Sniper gasps for breath, struggles under his hold, trying to speak but is already too winded to do so. Between the two of them, Peter is decidedly stronger.

He can feel it when Sniper loses his breath, slumps unconscious, but this does not stop Peter from keeping the chokehold, anger seeping through violence in a way that could have—would have killed if it weren’t for Abe.

“Peter—” Abe pushes him down, the panic and adrenaline commanding his body, his bleeding hand, to protect his friend from doing something that he will regret.

Peter lies on the ground, and his breath scampers out of his body, bile crawling up his throat at the revelation—he was about to—he wanted to.

His eyes flit to Abe and then to Sniper, whose face is planted on the floor, pale and unresponsive.

Something in the words Sniper said ringing in his mind. A sinister echo of a reality that one of them is living right now.

For Charles, it is a possibility, something that he has to prevent from happening. Especially right now.

For Peter, it is.

And it possesses Peter so much—the emotions overtaking, at the way Sniper said it so gleefully that he might take pleasure in the thought of another’s suffering. It overruns his morals and at that second, he wanted to pay them all back, for the pain, for the tears, for everything.

It was unfair, he knows that now. But it cautions him to ground his emotions more, especially right now.

His eyes stay on Sniper and he focuses his senses on making sure he’s not dead. Only terribly, terribly unconscious.

lub… dub…

It is almost nonexistent but it flows like horrible relief for Peter. He does not know how to take responsibility for a life that he did not intend to take.  Especially for losing control. Especially in front of Abe and Charles.

Charles is shaking, just as Abe is, just as Peter is. But he is the first one to stand, and the first one to gather his bearings.

It is Charles then, who had thought himself so weak throughout the few minutes, who stands up first and holds out his hand to both his friends.

Peter takes it as Abe stands up, eyes meeting in understanding, minds thinking in singular unity. Peter nods at them both, ready and willing for the challenges that goes ahead. And together, the three of them trudge on.

--


“What do you really want, Mac? Tell me so I know what to do.” The pause was quick but heavy, a mutter that tried not to sound too unsure but failed, “…and if I want to do it.”

“It’s simple math,” he started, voice a deep rasp, “You give me some of your alien tech, and my partner pays you enough to flee the country. Jet, new identity, all that shit.”

“I don’t know Mac, you know I—”

Scorpion,” he interrupted, eyes a murderous squint.

“I think it’s a set-up,” blunt, reckless, “You really think they’d make you this *‘Scorpion’ guy after you take out Stark Tower and the Avengers Compound? They’re setting you up for impossibility—he’s using you as a bait, Mac, a fucking pawn.”

There was a toxic silence, the kind where you knew the other was thinking of ways to torture you in front of your loved ones. That is, if they’re still alive by the end of it.

But he knew it’s worth a shot, to try and dissuade Mac, because while he’s deluded, he’s fucking good at what he does. And they’ve escaped the FBI for five years because of their combined talents.

Maybe they can escape this life as well.

“Come on,” he sighs, “Leave this life. The snap—it happened for a reason, alright? And maybe that reason is for us to fucking start over. That, we can choose.”

Mac’s eyes squinted.

“The snap happened so I could take advantage of it. Now, you be smart and do what I tell you, cause’ otherwise you ain’t gonna survive in this world. I’m the only ally you have left. But I have other friends, and he has more power than anyone now, especially after that Stark went. My partner has everything.”

“Your boss, you mean?”

Mac’s grin was malicious, eyes twinkling in dangerous intent that sent shivers down his spine. His teeth were bare, a smile that is more of a threat, and his eyes promised nothing but pain. He licked his lip, hands clenching for a few seconds before relaxing exponentially.

He seemed to be contemplating something, before settling on taking something from his coat. He slapped it onto the table, a few pictures slipping from the open file.

And there, in their new home in Oregon, is Doris and his only daughter, Liz.

“I’m afraid you don’t understand, Toomes. You don’t have a choice.”

--

 

It is the greatest relief, bursting into that bathroom door. But it is so quickly replaced with disorientation and disgust— a strong smell of blood and vomit hitting them head on.

It takes Peter a few seconds to adjust, the concentration of the smell and of the people in the room forcing him to accept the sheer volume of what’s at stake right now. He gives the room a quick glance, and sure enough, all of them are students on the floor, looking at him like he’ll hurt them, when it’s the opposite.

“It’s okay, its, it’s just us,” Abe placates in as soft a voice the explosions outside allow.

Peter’s eyes are immediately set on stall number five, the one place of sanctuary. At least he hopes so.

“Abe, Charles,” he calls, and the two are immediately by his side, the two maneuvering through the students who flinch ever so slightly at their movement.

Charles almost trips from a wet spot on the floor.

Peter tries not to think about it too much.

It is a journey that takes too long, the floor filled with students that they cannot run towards the stall even if they wanted to. The adrenaline in his blood trickles through to his fingers and his mind screams at him to hurry the fuck up! But he is determined to be careful, because he knows how vulnerable people get in these times.

It tests his patience, and his own nerves, but they eventually arrive.

Opening the stall is another problem unto its own. Because the door itself is surrounded by students, children younger than he is. Peter’s eyes are drawn to a girl sitting on the floor, directly by the door, looking every bit like a freshman.

Her cheeks still hold that chubbiness that exudes youth, wide eyes holding fear instead of the wonder that they ought to have. She looks as she feels, shaken, scared and trapped.

She definitely doesn’t look like she belongs here.

And it clenches Peter’s heart, scratches at his chest, because it’s unfair. It angers him to the very core of his being, because the world can hurt Peter Parker, he can handle it— he had to handle it—but these kids? How could they ever be ready for something like this?

(They can’t. That’s the thing. All they can do is accept things as they are.)

(Peter thinks that’s bullshit. And that since he has some power of his own, maybe he could share some of that.)

(Maybe strength would be something they could all accept.)

Peter rests his hand on her shoulder, slowly, carefully so. He gives her a smile that he could only really muster for others.

And the way she relaxes sets off incredible warmth inside Peter, warmth that permeates within him and threatens to escape.

“Hey now,” he starts, soft and warm and everything she needs right now, “I know this is rough,” he gestures around them, “And it’s going to be for a while. But.” And he says this with such an emphasis that every ounce of her attention is onto him.

The others begin listening in as well— those who are close enough to hear hope, if they knew it.

“I’m doing everything I can right now. I’ve got two great friends helping me out here, so it’d just be a matter of time before we all get you out of here.”

He catches her eyes and sees the way she considers. She does not react other than looking down, gaze hesitant and shy. It is not so much as she doesn’t believe him, she just doesn’t allow herself to, and he gets that. He understands that more than anyone in this room.

That’s why he knows exactly what to say.

“And I know it’s scary, and that it’s easier to believe it will all go wrong,” he starts again, putting his finger under her chin to try and catch her eye again, so she would know just how true his promises are. That these aren’t just empty words.

“But if Ton—but if Tony believed it will go wrong, and didn’t help the Avengers, we wouldn’t be here right now. And if there’s anyone who was probably as scared as we are right now, it’d be him. But he made it happen. He gave us this second chance. So, we’ll make it matter by getting out of here, okay?”

Peter does not feel or see anything outside of this child in front of him. Somehow, it’s more important to do this—to say these words first before getting them all out of here. It just felt… right.

He looks at her full on and catchers her off guard, with the intensity in his eyes juxtaposed by the warmth of his gloved hand.

“Will you help me?”

She looks at him with some sort of wonder, blinding Peter with a beautiful glow that shouldn’t be here because of how pure it is. The way she gapes and clears her throat, high voice rasped by all the screaming, unused from all the hiding—

“Will… will you… really get us out?”

And the hope in her voice, the hope that pervades despite the uncertainty in the way she wavers, eyes flickering but always coming back to him.

What else is he to do but smile?

“Of course,” he musses her hair. She let out a soft giggle, and holds out to it for as long as she can because of how addicting it feels— safety.

“Now, I need you to move a bit to the side, buddy. We need to get in here first,” he points to the stall.

She squints at it, curious, not suspicious, “What’s in there?”

“Oh, just a secret passage,” Peter grins boyishly, the danger around them passing through water in his ears.

“…o-kay?”

She moves to the side, holding out a curious look at Peter who pats her head.

“Thanks, bud.”

“Thanks… uh…”

Peter.

--

 

“Okay what do we do?”

Abe is the first to join him in the stall, catching Peter as he pulls up the monitors hidden in the left wall. The blue glow of the screen illuminates Peter’s face, drawing shadows on the lines on his forehead. He is tapping hard on the monitor, complicated shortcuts that leads him to a simple six-number code.

Peter is quick to enter it, fingers flying across the digital keyboard, almost as if he has used this far too many times that it is part of his muscle memory.

Abe could only guess much.

Charles is up behind him, waiting for instructions because Peter knows what to do and they trust him—they do.

Peter takes a step back from the monitor on the wall, the two moving as well. It is large enough to fit all of them but Abe thinks he needs to fall back for some reason.

And he’s right, because a few seconds later, the toilet disappears into the floor, the wall behind it opening up to a dark hall that seems to go endless, only illuminated by blue lights.

Shit!” Charles yelps, because this looks like it could belong to a space ship in Star Wars, and they’re in Avenger’s Compound—of course they have a secret tunnel.

His palms are sweating in a way that isn’t nervous, and he allows himself to feel a little bit of excitement—not too overboard, but just there to give him courage.

Meanwhile, Peter is serious and direct, not even flinching at the hidden tunnel, and it makes Charles wonder just how much he did here in Stark Industries for an intern to have access to such places.

“Charles, Abe, I’m going to ask before you do this—”

“We’re ready,” Abe says calmly, his wounded arm hanging loosely to his side.

Peter looks at Charles who grins, “I’ve always been ready.”

Both him and Abe snort at the poor attempt at a cool line by Charles and they all spend a few more seconds just shaking their heads.

It does not take him longer than that to start instructing them what to do, pointing out specific information and shortcuts, “The tunnels will lead to a safety house just far, far south. Keep walking toward the blue lights and you’ll eventually get there. Charles, I want you to lead them all out of this place.”

“Copy.”

“There’s a small clinic there, you can use the supplies there for all of the injured,” Peter says, looking down at Charles’ own injuries.

Meanwhile, Charles nods, hid mind on the responsibility that he is given, and how it is probably the most important thing he’s ever done.

“And you, Abe, I need you to get as many students as possible to come here. Don’t get caught. If you have to, then go one by one, so that no one sees you because if they do—”

“Everyone will be compromised.” Abe interrupts, and then, “I’ll be careful, Peter. You can count on me.”

There is a moment where all three of them look at each other, recognizing the trust and bond between the three of them, and then a sudden recognition of all how far they’ve come. What could happen and what should happen— it all passes their minds. But it all narrows down to one thing— they have to keep everyone safe.

And it is with this recognition that Peter nods to the two of them.

“Let’s do this.”

--

 

 

“In a week.”

“What?”

“It’ll happen in a week. Prepare all the weapons by then.”

“Seriously—you’re going to attack during the tour?!”

“Well, how else do we destroy them completely? Obliterate their building, they’ll rebuild. Topple them from the top spot, something that is kept only because of the people’s trust and dependency on what they can give, and they’re bbbggshhh,” he gestured an airplane crashing down, followed by a raucous laughter.

“Honestly, Toomes. Some arrogant ‘super’ defeats you and you’re riddled weak as shit. What happens to the cold-hard-Vulture who dominated the underground business? The one whose skills I need right now?”

“He’s gone now. He’s fucking dead,” Toomes spat. He sighed, “Look, I just want to get this over with and go home to my family, okay? It’s been five years since the snap and I—I haven’t— I want to go home but she wouldn’t even look at me.”

It came out broken and vulnerable, something that slipped and should never be seen again.

Especially not by him.

“Any-anyway, I will give you the tech—but.”

Scorpion scoffed, “But?”

“Don’t do it next week.”

A raging bellow of laughter echoed in the bare room.

Darkness loomed over like a menacing shadow, threatening to eat him whole. As it went on, Toomes felt a deep surge of uncertainty, but decided to plough on. He’s been through worse but he’s never been quite so vulnerable, especially in front of someone who didn’t have any morsel of morals.

“It takes a lot of courage to speak like that to me, Toomes.” It was quiet and controlled and all the more dangerous, “That, or you’re fucking stupid— and I’m starting to think that you are,” he growled, the telltale of his own unbridled anger bleeding from his words, “You think you control me, Toomes? You think you have power? Remember, it was me who got your sorry ass out of that prison— I could have left you there, but I didn’t. So now you do whatever the fuck I say you do—”

“It’s that Oscorp who gave you that idea, isn’t it?”

“Hah?!”

“It’s Oscorp. Your ‘partner.’ I’ve seen them around.”

Scorpion was frozen in scrutiny, and Adrian took full advantage of his silence.

“You know, if what they said were true, it would have worked by now. There were countless of others willing to take down Stark when he was still alive, and no one could. Now that Stark Tower’s practically a fortress after that war-thing, it’s even more difficult to attack. Why do you think it’ll change with you?”

BRGKKKKK—

Scorpion’s knuckles planted straight into Toomes’ cheeks, the defined crack echoing through the otherwise empty room. Adrian chuckled, spitting blood. The punch was nowhere as strong as Spider-Man’s, not even close. Oscorp hadn’t touched him yet.

“But, see, Mac,” he rasped, “you could always do it your own way. You’re smarter than those creeps— better, because you’re willing to put yourself on the line when they’re not. And that makes all the difference, hero or… heh, villains or not.

“If we’re going to be villains, Mac, I think we ought to be the best fucking villains out there.”

He’d gotten Scorpion’s attention. Didn’t matter if he didn’t quite believe in it yet. At least he’s listening.

“I can get you in the building. I’ve always had people planted there, just waiting for my call. It helps for the Alien Tech industry, and all.”

Scorpion squinted at him, trying to discern whether he’d believe Adrian or not.

“And then?”

“And I can give you the tech you need. But.”

Waiting.

“But?”

Challenging.

“You will use non-lethal weapons—”

“—you gotta be fucking kidding—”

“—use non-lethal weapons on the children, just to scare them, intimidate them. I’ll give you a few that could obliterate the agents. But imagine breaking into the most formidable tower in the universe and only doing it because you can.  Make yourself known as the man who could’ve killed them all but didn’t!

At this, Scorpion settled down.

“It’s a power move and you know it. It makes you look as if you’re just bidding your time, and that the first attack was just a taste of what you can give. Most people would attack and kill at the first time, take em’ by surprise. You, on the other hand, you’ll be taking them head on. That’s what you’re going to tell them. If you use the non-lethal weapons.”

“That’s a pretty fucking stupid idea Toomes. You better have something to back it up.”

“Oh yeah, I have all my best tech hidden somewhere on Earth. I’ll get them all for you whenever you need it.”

“Except for this thing.”

“Except for the tour.”

Scorpion’s eyes find that of Liz Toomes’ on the picture, ever so young and hopeful. He grimaces.

“This is about your kid, huh.”

It is an observation that reminds Toomes of how Scorpion could so very much just have taken his family as hostages, but didn’t. He was a criminal, but one that didn’t kill just because he could. If he wanted to keep them safe forever, Toomes knew he was in it for the long haul, even if he wasn’t physically there anymore.

“Yeah, what about it. We all have our motivations.”

“It’s ehhh for me. All that family shit. But you’ve got a mind, Toomes. The criminal mind. It’s such a waste to try and escape it.”

“I’ve got all the family shit to think of, Mac.”

Scorpion.”

“Anyway, we got a deal?”

“It’s all under the table.”

--

 

“…Karen?”

Nothing.

“Karen—please, are you… are you there?”

Silence.

An eerie nothingness that intensifies the cacophony outside.

“Come on, Karen, please come back—I’m sorry, I- I didn’t mean it…!”

The sob that escapes from his mouth breaks into something more and the fingers that hover just about the screen clenches.

He’s been trying to code her back into the system but Tony’s program proves to be superior than his current skill. It was one of those counter-measures that Peter never thought he’d be fighting against.

“Karen… talk to me, please…”

His voice breaks, and his heart breaks even further. Peter shouldn’t have expected anything. He really shouldn’t have. But the frustration sears through his anger and the desperation swallows him whole. He needs Karen.

But she’s not there.

And it’s his fault.

The screaming outside persists. It is loud out there, but it is louder within.

Among those outside though, is Abe. And he remembers how determined he was to go out there.

Peter had trusted that he wouldn’t get hurt. Only because he’d intended to go out there to keep it that way.

He can’t do that now if he sulks here, right?

A ghost of a smile escapes Peter, and his eyes flare just a little bit more alive. That’s right. He flexes his fingers, digging into his jacket to find the mask. He holds it out for a few seconds, finding comfort in chaos.

When Peter looks at it, he does not see a legacy, but instead a symbol that everything will be alright.

Because this is the first fight since the last one— since the war, since everything. And while there is no Captain America, or Tony Stark, their legacy is still very much present.

 

And so, there is Peter.

He takes a deep, long breath that seems to lift a fraction of the weight that rests on his shoulders. His mind clears of any inconsistencies and finds peace in one thought. I’m going to keep them all safe.

(Feet find the door.)

He holds the mask with this on his mind, nothing but acceptance and a raging determination that overwhelms his resignation. He goes out here, its him between everyone he loves and those who want to hurt them.

(Hands on door knob.)

He’ll protect them all, whatever it takes.

(Just one more push and he’s out there.)

(And then.)

 

 

Peter!

Peter jumps back as the door burst open, and there, warmest eyes in the world—

Ned.

And a deep surge of relief flows through his veins, it is in the air that he breathes and in the comfort that frees him and things are just easier.

Ned…!

It is automatic, when his arms wrap around his best friend, and immediately he is apologizing, “I swear, I didn’t know where you went, I’m so sorry for leaving you, I—”

Ned pushes him off, and Peter tries to hide the flinch that crosses his face.

“Oh, shut up Peter!” This is it. He hates me now, “I should be sorry—and I am!”

Peter didn’t think he would know what relief felt like until he felt it over and over again, and it had been just a few minutes with Ned.

“Some agent took us away from you and we got swept away by the stampede, he said he’ll come back for you but I doubted it,” Ned explained, “So we ran off and found Abe. He said you’d be here so of course we came.”

It is only then that he realizes MJ was there beside Ned.

“MJ!” Peter exclaims, hugging her next without thought. He just only realizes the awkwardness that he should have felt before doing so, but it is just another wave of relief through him. They’re safe and they’re here right now. She is stiff but does not protest, even goes as far as squeeze his arms.

It is a few blissful seconds that he cherishes, before she pushes him off gently.

He is about to speak, then, try to lead them to the tunnels where they could go and hide when MJ glares at him.

No, we won’t go there. Abe told us already. We came here to help.”

“Yeah Peter. It won’t do to turn us away. We’d find a way to help you even if you don’t want it.”

MJ and Ned share a look that Peter again does not understand, but is not too frustrated with no knowing. Instead, he resigns his own look toward them both, knowing it would be instant defeat if he even so much as tried to send them away.

“Okay, fine,” the two of them cheer, “What’s happening out there?”

An immediate sense of seriousness takes over and they are speaking strategy and urgency.

“A lot of those outside are mostly injured, but it’s not… it’s not as worse as we’d expect. Most of the attackers gathered in the middle.”

“I think we saw Iron Patriot there as well,” Ned adds.

“Is he alone?”

“Hawkeye’s holding up by himself, but there are too many men. Harley, I think, is also fighting—”

And then an instant lightning hits Peter right as MJ mentions Harley. Because he’s now only realized the true extent to which he’s fucked up by taking this long—

Shit— Morgan!” he cries, “How about Morgan! Where is she?”

“We don’t know Peter, we didn’t see her at all,” MJ tries.

“Well that’s probably because we’re running a hundred miles from the circle and we couldn’t see her if we tried!” Ned exclaims, hand on his head.

“There’s no use panicking Peter,” MJ glares at Ned, “We have to go through this with a clear head. We’ll get Morgan, and then we’ll get everyone out of here.

Ned gathers himself as he looks at Peter who had paled badly. He punches Peter’s shoulder lightly, and then musters up a lighthearted grin, “Yeah, the Spider Squad will handle this!”

MJ gives him a look of pure disgust, “The spider squad?”

She observes Peter in her periphery. He is standing still with his eyes closed.

“What? It’s cool!

Ned watches as Peter’s face breaks into a slight smile, regaining the previous resolve with which found approached him with.

He may fluctuate, in terms of emotions, but that’s because the platform with which he stands upon was shaken so badly by the war. Ned can’t expect Peter to be instantly better, but he does expect that Peter will always be climbing towards what is right, no matter how many times he falls into that pit.

Because that’s what he has always done.

“You’re right,” Peter promises, “We will handle this.”

It is subtle, the shift that they felt right then and there that will eventually have a big hand at what will happen much later on.

Peter revels in it, in the support that his friends have for him, and in the power that he still has and will always use for the people who needs it.

It is in knowing that both Ned and MJ have that power as well that he comes to trust them to be safe on their own.

“Okay,” they all come closer toward each other, drawn in, “MJ and Ned I need you to help Abe gather the students and bring them here. Ned, please focus on finding Shuri and get her there with you as well. She’ll make things more secure then.”

“Alright,” Ned says. Then, a thoughtful look crosses his face, “Peter, can you check how many students are there overall? So, we could choose the best place to start without getting caught early in the game.”

Right then, Peter becomes sheepish, averting his gaze down to the floor, “Uh… I can’t.”

“What do you mean you can’t? I saw what Karen is capable of you asked me to hack her. She can definitely do that.”

Peter’s hand tugs at his hoodie, “Yeah, about that…”

MJ raises her brow.

“What is it Peter?” she asserts.

“…kind of… ctivat... ‘er last night…”

What?” Ned squints.

“I said…” MJ glares at him now, ensuring he says it more clearly, “I said I deactivated her last night!”

The smack that comes from MJ slapping her face is loud as it reverberates around the bathroom. Ned’s mouth is slack and his jaw falls.

Why would you do that Peter!”

“I don’t know, okay!” he says, raising his hand in the air, “I thought… I thought maybe I could… let go like you said.”

MJ heaves a sigh, “My God, you are an idiot.” She directs her gaze at Ned, “Ned, you know what to do. I’m going out first. I’m leaving you with this doofus.”

She then catches Peter’s eyes, soulful brown eyes that she loves so much, and gives him the sternest gaze that she could give him. He immediately looks away, regret seeping from the way his shoulders slacken.

“Look at me Peter,” she orders in the most commanding voice that she has. He almost doesn’t, but the look that he gets in his periphery makes him scramble to follow. “Whatever it is that you thought of last night, I know you’ve changed your mind now. It’s impossible not to realize shit when it’s like this,” she gestures around them. “So, I expect you to get your shit together, and don’t do anything stupid.

She turns the doorknob, Peter deep in thought.

And then, in a completely, wondrously precious display of emotion that knocks Peter out of his feet, MJ looks back again and then smiles.

“Be safe, losers. See you in a minute.”

--

 

“Dude, the vulture was one man and it was the two of you alone. This is a rescue mission, not an ambush. You’ll need your webs here. It’ll be more advantageous anyway.”

Peter is about to explain that yeah, he knows that but he can’t actually do anything about it when Ned beats him to it with, “Come on, I’ll bring it back for you. Where’s your suit?”

Peter stops midway, “…even if I give it to you, we don’t have anything here we can use,” he reasons, hoping against hope that Ned counters, “Plus, the monitor in the bathroom isn’t designed to work up this big a program.”

“Cool! We have a monitor, exactly what we need.”

Peter doesn’t move from his spot at all. Exasperated, Ned turns to look back at him. He raises his arm— the one with the Kimoyo beads, and only then does Peter understand.

Holy shit, Ned—” he cheers.

With a smug nod from his best friend, Peter excitedly strips off his hoodie, revealing the suit underneath.

“You’ve been wearing that since this morning?” Ned asks as Peter leads them into the stall, pulling out the monitor so Ned could start.

“Yeah. I couldn’t take it off in time. Here,” Peter offers the circuit in his suit to Ned who immediately plugs it in with the connector.

It takes a few minutes before the Kimoyo beads successfully upgrades the program in the stall, allowing Ned to do more than it was built for. Meanwhile, Peter begins remove his other clothes, leaving him with the suit.

As soon as the screen filled with codes, Ned is possessed by an intense concentration that proves formidable under pressure. His hands stop typing every now and then, and as soon as Peter tries to check what’s wrong, to at least try and help him, Ned will start again, as if it was just a minor backlog when it was probably something much more complicated.

Peter stands there, just looking in pure awe at his best friend. Here he is being great at something, being the one big puzzle that helps complete this—everything— and he is left trying to think of a world, a bleak, inadequate life where there is no Ned Leeds in Peter Parker’s life.

An explosion from outside rouses him from his trance, and it seems to do so for Ned too.

Ned looks up from that, just as he enters the last bit of command on the screen.

But Peter is already distracted by the monitor, frozen, as if him moving would suddenly stop it from processing. Peter is hesitant as he watches, and it makes Ned wonder just how long he had tried to program it himself without it working, failing enough times that it scares him to try again.

Ned nudges Peter, taking the connector from the suit. He nods toward the mask.

“Come on, Peter,” he encourages, “We don’t have much time.”

Peter seems to agree, because in a few seconds, he’d tugged the mask into his head, effectively completing his old look. Ned thinks this might be the first time he’s worn it all again, worn it with the intention to use it, after the last time with the sky scraper incident.

He considers this because of the way Peter stands completely still, and says, in a quiet, delicate whisper, “…Karen?”

His suit illuminates from head to toe. A sudden cry from Peter escapes him and his whole-body sags, so much so that Ned almost moves to help him before Peter leans on the wall instead.

He rests his forehead on the wall, sounding suspiciously like he’s weeping, “I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am Karen—I, I won’t do it again, oh my God I love you so much—"

Ned stands there, watching, so completely enamored by the realization that whatever he is seeing right now is something special. It is in humble terms, rebirth, of a hero finding himself again— of the past and the future meeting at one point in time—and that time is now.

Because Peter finally regains the thing he lost when Tony took his last breath, and is ready now more than ever to meet the person that he can be after everything.

Because this is the Peter who knew he didn’t have anything but himself, but still chose to go outside and fight—to protect because it was one thing that he always knew to do.

Because it is Peter, a hero down to his bone, and he couldn’t deny it even if he tried.

(And he did.)

And so, it is with these things on Ned’s mind, so completely awed by the brilliance of the moment, that it becomes a matter of automatic movement, of electricity in his fingertips translating into the rapid beating of his heart— he says, genuinely, breathlessly, so,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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