Rhodey is the one who gets Peter to the hospital. Well—it looks like a hospital, but Peter doesn’t think it’s a regular one. He’s vaguely aware that there are people around him; the chairs lining the walls outside the room are full. He thinks he asks Rhodey to call May. It’s the only time he remembers making an effort to speak. It’s far easier to tune out the things around him, so that’s exactly what he does.
Hours, maybe days (time isn’t something that Peter is keeping track of), pass before the door opens. He senses the energy of the people around shift rather than actually seeing the expressions on their faces. There’s shock and relief and joy. People start to filter out after that, a few of them pat Peter on the shoulder as they pass him. It sends sparks, like electricity, down his arms.
May’s there now. She suggests that Peter should leave the hallway, go sleep somewhere, get cleaned up. He plants his feet firmly onto the ground and tightens his grip on the chair. No one can move him if he doesn’t let them. May finds a wet cloth instead, wipes at his bloody face, and then pulls Peter’s head onto her chest.
He doesn’t sleep, just counts the beats of May’s heart. Every time he reaches 100, he starts over. He’s on his 43rd 67 when he’s jerked to his feet and ushered in the direction of the room. His first instinct is to resist. He’s not sure if he wants to see what’s behind the door. May coaxes him forward.
It truly is Tony inside. Peter wouldn’t have been surprised if the bed had been empty, or if an imposter laid in his place. Tubes snake out of Tony’s body and bandages cover most of it, but the machines that surround him beep and hum. Alive.
There are fewer chairs in the room than in the hallway, but somehow it seems Peter has earned a spot here. He curls up and tries to sleep. He thinks he should be able to, now. He knows for certain that Tony is alive, saw his chest move up and down, heard the steady rhythm of the heart monitor. He’s in the very same room.
But, he can’t close his eyes. Every time that he does a wave of panic sweeps over him that jolts them open again. It reminds him of quantum superposition, Schrödinger's cat. A system remains in superposition until it is observed. Before you open the box, there’s no way of knowing if the cat inside is dead or alive—therefore it is both. If he keeps his eyes open, Tony is alive. If he closes them, there is only uncertainty. Uncertainty feels a lot like death.
Nobody expects Tony to wake up quickly. Peter’s the only one awake in the room when he does. He catches Peter’s eyes and his face forms a lazy smile. Before Peter can think, his own mouth starts to turn up, just a little, mirroring the expression in front of him.
“Hey, kid.” His voice is barely a raspy whisper, but it’s the best sound that Peter has ever heard.
He gets up quickly, tiptoes over to the bed so as not to disturb the handful of people resting in the room. He feels like he’s approaching a ghost. The shade of Tony’s face illuminated by the moonlight from the window doesn’t help.
“I thought you’d look a little happier—back from the dead and all.” Even though Tony’s eyes are dull, a little hazy, there’s still a bit of a playful glint around the edges.
Peter can’t match that. He can’t summon the effort to play the game where they joke and pretend that everything is fine. He still feels unable to speak, so he just nods, wordlessly. Tears start to obscure his vision.
Tony grimaces. “Don’t do that, Pete.”
He wants to follow Tony’s directions for once, but he doesn’t seem to have any control over it.
“A little bit of shock then, huh? That’s okay, it happens,” Tony says. “Not much I can do from bed, though, pull your chair closer if you want.”
Peter does just that, his movements mechanical. He sits down and let’s his heavy head fall onto the bed at Tony’s side.
After a few seconds, Tony’s hand comes up to rest in his hair. It feels reassuring, the weight of the warm hand. Peter can feel Tony’s pulse through it. It allows him to close his eyes.
The next few days are alright. Peter doesn’t leave Tony’s room (except for the occasional five minute sprint to the bathroom and back) which means that May is there too. Pepper and Rhodey remain camped out on their respective chairs. There’s also the other boy. Peter hasn’t caught his name yet. His chair is a little removed from everyone else’s, but Tony speaks to him fondly.
No matter how many times Tony jokes about the crowd he has gathered in his hospital room, no one gets up. And he never outright asks them to leave.
On the third day, Happy brings a little girl in. She scampers onto Tony’s bed.
It sends shockwaves through Peter. It’s the first thing that makes the missing five years feel real. He wonders who in his grade has already graduated, he wonders how old Ned and MJ are.
He asks May for her phone, texts them. It pings with responses in seconds. Both alive, both snapped. That’s two strokes of major good luck in a row—Tony surviving and his friends still his age. That has to be a record.
After five days, May forces Peter to leave the room for an extended period. Dread fills him as she drags him through the door.
Peter still doesn’t know what this building is, but May shows him where he can shower and shoves a change of clothes into his hands. It’s disgusting, he realizes, really disgusting that he hasn’t showered since the battle. When he looks in the mirror there’s still dried blood on his hairline. May was right, as usual—the shower is necessary.
As the warm water runs over his body, the same feeling as that first night in the room creeps back. In this moment, he has no assurance as to whether Tony is alive. If he thinks about it too hard it extends to everyone. He doesn’t know about May or Ned or MJ or Morgan or Pepper or Rhodey or Happy or that other boy who he doesn’t even know the name of. All he knows is that he is here. He could be the only one alive. Half the world turned to dust. What’s to stop it from happening to any of them again?
He shakes his head and pushes the feeling as deep down as it will go.
The feeling returns every time he leaves the confines of the room. It seems to build, growing more difficult to shake off.
Tony’s getting better. More color fills his face each day. Some of the bandages start to come off. He lost his arm for good, but Peter has no doubt that Tony will whip up a prosthetic in no time.
It’s happening too fast for Peter’s liking, though he feels guilty even thinking it. Already, the population of the room is starting to fluctuate. Harley (Peter had finally learned his name) had flown back to Tennessee to survey the effects of the snap back in his hometown. Pepper often leaves the room with Morgan. Rhodey, too, disappears for hours at a time.
Soon, everyone will go back to their lives and Peter doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know if he can. The feeling always looms just below the surface. Every time he comes back, it’s harder to leave.
The way he sees it, there are two options. Peter can keep an eye on Tony for the rest of his life, press a hand to his wrist to feel his pulse, or sometimes, on good days, even just listening to his heartbeat across the room might be enough. Or, he can walk away from all of it. He can push it down, ignore the problem and burrow into his own cocoon. Then it wouldn’t hurt as much.
He doesn’t know how to ask for the first option. It’s a ridiculous proposition to make. So, Peter stops engaging with Tony as much as he sits in the room. Tony doesn’t seem to notice at first; there are always other people around. But then, Peter starts to feel the man’s gaze on him more often. He starts to bring up topics that Peter would normally jump to discuss. Peter carefully remains closed off, either giving nothing or the bare minimum.
When May asks him if he’s ready to go home for a little while, he nods. He offers a clipped wave at Tony’s goodbye.
When Peter moved in with his aunt and uncle after his parents died, he started to form a ritual. For the first time, he realized that life wasn’t permanent—things change fast.
Bed-time was always the biggest problem. Like most children, he was scared of the dark. He would flip off the light switch by his door and then hurtle over to his bed, pulling the covers up over his head and shaking slightly until enough time had passed that the monsters would have gotten him if they had been hiding in the corners.
With the mystical accounted for, all little Peter had left to worry about were the real things.
“Goodnight Ben! Goodnight May!” he would call, waiting with bated breath for their response.
The first one would usually bring the pair to tuck him in. They’d kiss him on the forehead and wish him sweet dreams.
Peter would lay there after they left, staring at the ceiling. Anything could have happened to Ben and May on the way back to their room.
“Goodnight Ben! Goodnight May!” he’d call again.
His new guardians would shout the response back, and Peter would feel relieved for a few minutes. But just to be sure, he would yell it again.
Three times was the magic number for a while. Then it became five, soon after that ten. Each time, he was sure would be the one that they didn’t respond, but they always did, albeit sometimes with annoyance.
He grew out of it eventually, in the way that children grow out of most things. He doesn’t remember a day where he actually stopped.
The urge came back after Ben died, but Peter fought it down. He was too old to have to call out to his aunt during the night and he knew it would worry her when she already had too much to deal with.
But, on the first night back at the apartment after Tony, it’s overwhelming. He tries to listen for May’s breathing instead, but his panic seems to be distorting his senses. After a few minutes of stewing in fear, he decides that just this once he can allow himself to check in.
Part of him wants her to come in, tuck the covers around him again like he’s five years old.
His door opens a few seconds later. “That took me back, I almost expected to see a smaller boy in here.”
She sits on the bed next to him and smoothes down his hair. Peter leans into the touch. It’s good. Alive. He’s not alone.
“Are you okay, honey?”
School is weird. He can’t decide if it’s good or bad. The familiar routine is nice, but the new faces in his grade freak him out. He’s so thankful that Ned and MJ are still here. Even Flash’s outstretched leg in the hallway is a welcome sight.
In calculus, their teacher asks MJ to run an errand. The back of Peter’s neck starts to itch, screaming at him to follow his friend. He keeps himself glued to his seat, just barely.
He can’t take his eyes off the room’s clock. His heart seems to pick up speed with each tick of the second hand. MJ's been gone for far too long. There’s no way she’s taking all this time just to get to the office and back, it’s only one floor down and a few doors to the right. Something must have happened. He can’t stop picturing dead cats. Peter taps his fingers, allows his eyes to dart to the door, before going back to the clock.
After 17 minutes and 23 seconds, MJ ambles into the room.
“Where were you?” Peter whispers as she takes her seat next to him.
He must look as shaky as he feels, because MJ goes still when she sees Peter’s face. “Um, the office. Are you okay, dude?”
Peter closes his eyes and focuses on breathing. He’s made his decision. School is bad.
Peter has three missed calls from Tony. There’s a voicemail, too. If his stomach wasn’t folding inside and out at the sight, he might laugh. Their roles used to be reversed.
He’s been ignoring Tony’s texts. He wishes the man would leave him alone, let him fade out of his life until there’s no connection there to lose.
The voicemail is what makes him most nervous. Despite his attempts to pretend that Tony never meant anything to him as a mentor or a father-figure, he’s absolutely terrified that the message will be Pepper, saying that there were complications from the operations following the snap.
He tosses his phone into the trash can before he can stop himself, and then fishes it back out and tucks it into a box under his bed. Out of sight, out of mind. In this case, Schrödinger works in his favor. If he never listens to the voicemail, he can’t find out if Tony’s dead.
The door to the apartment opens. Peter listens for the tell-tale sounds of May settling in after a long day at work.
Instead of the usual rustling in the kitchen, two knocks sound on his door. He tries to analyze them, determine if they’re sharper than usual, more urgent—can a knock sound sad?
May peaks inside with a smile. “Hi Pete, Pepper called me.”
Peter almost chokes, but he focuses on May’s smile. She wouldn’t be smiling if there was bad news.
“They’re going to have a cookout at their cabin, invited us over. It’s this weekend. I think a lot of your hero friends will be there.”
Peter’s not sure if he has ‘hero friends’. He used to have Tony, maybe Rhodey, but he’s not sure if anyone else even knows his name. Maybe they do after their vigil in the hallway, but he’s not sure if that qualifies any of them as friends.
“Mr. Stark’s up to that?” Peter asks.
May nods. “Pepper said he’s doing so much better.”
Peter doesn’t want to go to the party. He’s trying to detach. He doesn’t know how to say no.
It’s crowded at the Stark’s cabin, which makes it easier to avoid, well, anyone. Anytime someone stops to talk to him he just vaguely gestures to the next room like he has somewhere to be.
Tony corners him eventually. Peter had been standing peacefully in the back of a room, watching the festivities take place around him and shoveling mac and cheese from his plate into his mouth. The man manages to intercept his attempt at a hasty exit.
Peter can’t help but scrutinize Tony’s appearance. It’s been three months since he saw him, wrapped up in blankets and connected to machines. He does look much better—he’s walking only with a slightly hitched gait. The cuts and blisters on the right side of his face are starting to fade into scars. He doesn’t have a prosthetic arm, which surprises Peter. The lack of anything where it should be makes him uncomfortable, and he berates himself for it.
“Spider-kid! You almost had me thinking that half the universe wasn’t brought back. Is your phone broken? You know I can fix it—or get you a new one.” His tone is light, but there’s something serious behind it.
Peter throws him a tight smile. “My phone’s fine, Mr. Stark. Thanks, though.”
He points to the door like he had with everyone else who tried to talk to him, but Tony doesn’t budge.
“C’mon, let’s go outside by the lake. We can catch up.” If it wasn’t Tony Stark, Peter would say that he was pleading.
He doesn’t know how to get out of it, so he lets Tony lead him outside. The man lowers himself to the ground with some difficulty. It’s almost enough to make Peter reach out to help him, but he crosses his arms instead. He has to keep the wall up.
The feeling is coming back again. Whenever he looks away from Tony, it’s like he doesn’t exist. This is why he can’t do this anymore—why he can’t be around Tony. He shifts a few inches farther away, closes his eyes and tries to pretend that he’s not at Tony Stark’s cabin sitting in front of Tony Stark’s lake with Tony Stark.
It doesn’t work. Peter feels his heart-rate increase and the uncontrollable need to open his eyes and make sure that Tony hasn’t faded away. All he can picture are Tony’s dull eyes and ashy face after he snapped.
When he opens them, Tony’s already watching him. He looks hurt. Peter wants to leave. He wants to stay forever.
“Maybe we should talk about some stuff, kiddo,” The hurt is replaced with concern—another thing that Peter doesn’t know how to deal with.
Tony reaches out to Peter, probably to pat him on the back or ruffle his hair, but he flinches away from the touch. Tony’s trying to break it—the barrier that’s formed between them—but every move he makes to tear it down will be useless. Peter wants it there. He keeps piling on more cement.
He leaps to his feet. “No. I don’t want—I don’t want to be here.”
Tony shouts after him, but Peter doesn’t turn around. He feels like a formerly caged animal, just escaped and frantic to get away. A few people try to stop him as he barrels through the cabin searching for May, but nobody succeeds. She’s nowhere to be found.
Peter’s not sure if strapping on his web-shooters is a conscious decision. The next thing he knows, he’s swinging through the trees surrounding the Stark’s cabin in the direction of the city. Once there, he scurries up the side of a skyscraper. He gets a weird sense of calm from this vantage point. Everything on the ground looks so tiny and insignificant, but the sky is vast and unending. It reminds him that his thoughts and fears don’t matter—the universe will exist with or without the people in it. But, he can’t stay up there too long or it flips the other way. The world becomes too big and Peter’s the only one in it.
He makes his way home.
Peter never should have called out to May that first time. It opened a dam. The compulsion grows stronger every time he turns off the lamp on his bedside table.
He’s determined not to let himself do it more than once a night. It’s embarrassing, he’s sixteen years old. He tries to stop himself in every conceivable way. But, even when he can hear May’s heartbeat over the blood rushing in his ears, he still convinces himself that maybe it’s not quite right, maybe it’s slowing down for good. Sometimes, he creeps over and stands outside her room, pushes the door open a crack just to look at her.
Inevitably, he still ends up laying in his bed again, mind screaming that he needs to check on her.
He starts counting. If he gets to 1000 before falling asleep, he decides, he's allowed to check.
May tries to talk to him about it. Peter shrugs her off. He doesn’t want to discuss it—doesn’t really want to talk at all.
Tony doesn’t try to contact him after the incident at barbecue. Peter tells himself that’s a good thing. It’s what he wanted after all—it’s easier this way.
They’re still kind of connected, because of the suit. All footage still goes to Tony’s servers. Peter doubts that he takes the time to watch it, but he could if he wanted to. Karen’s go-to question whenever Peter gets into a dicey situation is still if she should contact Mr. Stark. His former mentor probably has alerts and alarm bells that go off if Peter gets in serious trouble.
His suspicions are confirmed when he wakes to the steady whir of an Iron Man suit’s repulsors. The rest comes back in flashes. He was on patrol, found some Bad Guys with weapons that had the signatures of alien tech (history is always repeating itself), and promptly got knocked out by—something. That part is still blurry, he’s probably concussed.
And Tony rescued him.
Peter reasons that it might not be Tony. It could just be an empty shell, but he had learned his lesson a while ago not to ask. It doesn’t really matter anyway.
“Oh, good, welcome back to the land of the living.” Tony’s voice is dry and sarcastic, made more so by the mechanical element added by the suit.
Peter stiffens when he hears it. He closes his eyes again, wishing he could go back to the state of peaceful unconsciousness. His head is pounding. He doesn’t want to be near Tony. Or Tony’s suit—whatever it is. The feeling is bubbling to the surface.
“Okay, so we’re doing the silent treatment, really mature. You know my five-year-old does the same thing?” Tony pitches his voice a few octaves higher in a rough mockery of Peter’s. “ Thanks for saving me, again, Mr. Stark. Oh, it’s my pleasure!”
Peter clenches his jaw—tries to focus on the anger that Tony’s words ignite rather than the dread threatening to spill over.
He stays silent the whole journey. After his initial comments, Tony follows suit and silently drops him down in his bedroom. Peter scrambles into bed, still in full gear, and pulls the covers over his head. He prays that it’s just a suit and not Tony. If he takes the faceplate off and makes Peter come out from under the covers—if Peter sees him—he won’t be able to look away. It’s gotten worse. He’s losing control.
“Kid,” Tony says, softer than on their flight here.
Peter waits for the rest of it, clenching his bed sheet tight. Tony must decide against whatever he was going to say, the silence stretches too long.
“Keep the mask on, it’ll monitor the concussion.”
Peter hears repulsors. When he lowers the comforter, the room is empty.
It’s getting worse, so much worse, extending to everyone. He can’t look away.
When May goes to work on weekends and Peter doesn’t have school to distract him, he sends one of his spider drones after her. He knows it’s a massive invasion of privacy, but it keeps him sane. He can’t exactly avoid May, although he does talk to her less.
He can avoid Ned and MJ. No matter how many times they invite him to hang out after school, he refuses. He tries to interact with them as little as possible during classes. He usually hides during lunch.
There’s even a random guy on the train. He’d smiled at Peter when he got on with kind, crinkly eyes. When he stands up to exit the compartment, Peter feels the irrational need to follow him, so he does. He hesitates a second too long, so by the time he gets off, the man is already lost in the crowd. It takes every ounce of Peter’s self-control to stop himself from curling into a ball right there.
Peter overhears the phone call. May must want him to, she knows how enhanced his hearing is. Either that or she thinks he’s asleep. But that option doesn’t make sense—he’s up to five goodnight checks, now, and he hasn’t done any of them yet.
“Has he reached out to you?” she asks, worried, desperate.
Peter can hear the other end of the call, too. If he hadn’t been laying down, Tony’s voice might have knocked him off his feet. Instead, he just feels stabbing pangs of panic.
“Me? He runs in the opposite direction. You were at the barbecue.”
“I don’t know what to do, he won’t talk to me. He’s avoiding his friends, too. What happened, the war, I don’t—this is out of my area of expertise.”
Peter’s not surprised when Tony finds him the next day. He’s not waiting for him, but he doesn’t make an effort to hide himself either—just sits on his building’s roof, his usual activity these days, watching the clouds come and go.
Tony lands with a slight clank. Peter ducks his head between his knees.
“Okay, kid, I know you don’t want to see me. I get it, well actually I don’t because you haven’t told anyone what’s going on in that head of yours. But, your aunt’s worried about you. So am I.”
Peter tries to squeeze himself as small as possible.
“I’m no good at this, Pete,” Tony sighs. “I wish I was. I know this whole situation has been crazy and difficult—that’s an understatement. But the whole world is going through the same thing.”
Tony pauses, groans a bit.
“That doesn’t sound right—did I mention that I’m bad at this? I don’t know what I’ll do when Morgan gets older. I’m a pro at bandaids and checking under the bed, that’s more my speed. I just mean that you’re not alone, other people are struggling too. You could talk to them—or me? Or not, whatever.”
Peter weighs his options. They still seem very much the same as they did on his last day in Tony’s recovery room. He can talk to Tony or he can continue to ignore him. Either option, quite frankly, sucks. But, Peter already tried option two, and it’s not really working out well. If anything, it’s driving him insane.
He tries to think of how to tell Tony what has been happening in his brain—the fear and lack of control that have gripped him since he was brought back to life. All he can think of is the damn cat. He springs to his feet and starts pacing a little.
“I thought you were—you were—you—“ He’s stammering, can’t figure out the words. “You were—solid! After my parents and Ben, I thought—you’re Iron Man— I didn’t think it would happen. I didn’t think it could happen.”
“It didn’t happen.”
“It didn’t happen,” Tony insists. “Look at me. I’m right here. And I’m semi-mostly-retired now. I only suit up when a certain teenage vigilante is in trouble.”
“It was too close!” Peter screams, shrill, manic.
Tony takes a step backwards, mouth slightly ajar. It spurs Peter on.
“It was too close! And I can’t—nothing stays! Ever.” His voice breaks a bit, embarrassing. “Half the world, even me, faded away! Just like that.”
He snaps his fingers on the last word and immediately cringes.
“I know you did, kid, I was there.” It’s pained, Peter always forgets that other people are suffering too.
“M’sorry,” he mumbles.
He almost expects Tony to hug him, but the distance between them doesn’t change. Tony just studies him with ever-calculating eyes. The silence stretches, a weight on Peter’s mind.
“I can’t close my eyes, or—or turn away,” he confesses. “If I do, then everyone’s gone—I’m the only one here.”
Peter’s shaking slightly, and he can’t stop looking at Tony. Which is the problem. He can’t look away. Tony’s whole demeanor is too intense. Peter’s only seen him look this emotional one other time—the man is usually so guarded. It was when Peter first got snapped back. It was the best moment of Peter’s life. He hadn’t had time to process everything that had happened: Thanos, the blip, dying . So, he was happy, just happy to see his mentor—to see that he cared so much about him. Tony Stark wasn’t supposed to care about anyone, least of all a random kid from Queens.
It’s all fallen apart since then.
“Like, in physics we learned about quantum superposition and Schrödinger. Until I see it for sure, it’s both, Mr. Stark.” It sounds ridiculous out loud, Peter can feel his cheeks starting to heat up.
Tony runs a shaky hand through his hair. “God, I wish I had never dragged you into this mess. You’re too young for this.”
Peter stares down at his feet. He doesn’t want to be something Tony regrets. Almost immediately he snaps his head back up. Still there.
“You know, there was poison.”
Peter’s brow furrows slightly. He squints at Tony.
“In the box. If a Geiger Counter sensed radioactivity, it would trigger the release of a hammer which would shatter a vial of hydrocyanic acid. And there was equal probability, 50% chance that the hammer would fall and therefore kill the cat,” Tony continues. “There’s no magical sensor that’s going to release poison on the world. It was just a thought experiment to poke holes in the Copenhagen interpretation.”
Peter shakes his head, blinking away tears. “I know that. I know it’s stupid and irrational, but Thanos —”
“Is gone , twice over. And the stones were destroyed, the past stones were taken back. It’s not going to happen again. I promise you.”
The conviction in Tony’s words is so strong, the determination on his face even stronger.
“But anything could happen,” Peter insists. “Even simple things. Buildings catch on fire, natural disasters—planes crash. I can’t control any of it. So I either have to keep checking or I have to stop it from hurting as much when something eventually happens.”
Finally, Tony moves toward him, wraps Peter into an embrace that’s just as crushing with one arm as it used to be with two. He releases it a moment later, but keeps his hand on Peter’s arm, fingers digging in. He’s searching for something in Peter’s eyes and looks so unsure. The uncertainty doesn’t sit right on his face.
“I’ve never told you about the wormhole,” Tony says, with absolutely no inflection.
“In 2012? I know about the wormhole. Everyone knows about the wormhole.”
“Shh, listen.” Tony holds a finger to his lips. It’s a gesture Peter can see him using on Morgan.
“That was the—scariest thing that had ever happened to me. I saw a whole universe out there, with more technology and more knowledge than we could hope to have here on Earth in my lifetime.” Tony gulps between words, so subtly that Peter almost misses it. “I couldn’t handle it. If— when— they attacked, we would lose. There was no doubt in my mind. I didn’t sleep, just built suits, panic attacks, flashbacks, the works.”
Tony relinquishes his grip on Peter’s arm and stalks to the side of the roof. He rubs his hand over his face. Peter wants to tell him to stop talking about it, he doesn’t want Tony to be upset. But, it’s also nice, it humanizes Tony and makes Peter feel like less of a wuss for struggling.
“And then it happened. And somehow, even with all my imagining how it was going to play out, running through every terrible scenario I could think of, it managed to be even worse than I could have ever dreamed up. Because that bastard left half of us here to deal with it. I always thought they’d kill all of us—or everyone except me. But instead he did something in the middle where I was still alive but still had to keep trying because Pepper was there and she was pregnant and—“
Tony trails off, turns around to watch Peter’s face as if trying to figure out whether he had said too much. Peter just feels scared, probably looks it too. It’s not a new feeling.
“The point is, kid, sometimes the worst case does happen. I wish I could tell you it didn’t, but you’re too smart for me to lie to you. But you’ve got to find a way to live like it’s not going to because otherwise, you miss all the good stuff. And it’s so hard to do, Pete, but I’m doing it somehow and you’re much better than I’ll ever be.”
Tony’s form swims through the tears in Peter’s eyes. It sounds difficult, and exhausting, to live like that. Existing with no guarantees and no contingency plan. Knowing that anything could happen but pretending it won’t. It sounds reckless, irresponsible, out of control.
Tony comes back over to Peter and places his hand on his shoulder. He squeezes. “I’ve got you, okay?”
Peter nods hesitantly, swallowing down the doubts that he won’t be here. Not forever.
“And so does May. You know what? That’s the best idea I’ve had all day. Come on we’re going to talk to your aunt.”
Peter stays rooted in place. “I don’t want to stress her out.”
“I hate to break it to you, but you have already thoroughly stressed her out.”
Peter tries to bite down his fears, let himself follow Tony into May’s comforting arms. But, he doesn’t think that she’ll be able to help, or Tony for that matter. He’s past the point of no return. A hug and some nice words aren’t going to make the feeling go away.
“When did you start to feel better?” he asks.
Tony’s face falls momentarily before going back to a wall of calm. “It takes a while,” he admits. “And then it comes and goes. But then one day, it’s gone more often than not. You’ll be okay. That’s another promise. You can hold me to it.”
Tony drapes his arm over Peter’s shoulder and leads him towards the stairwell. He tells some jokes, stories about Morgan’s latest accomplishments, and what he’s designing and building as a semi-mostly-retired man.
Somewhere between the sixth and fifth floor, Peter tentatively starts to believe in Tony’s promises.
About ten years later, Peter’s down on one knee, holding open a little box.
“You loser.” MJ crosses her arms. “Is this why you’ve been acting so weird?”
Ned bursts into a fit of laughter. He’s sitting on a bench about ten yards away and he’s supposed to be silent until Peter gives him the signal. That was part of the deal that they had struck when Ned had insisted on being there to watch the proposal. Peter shoots him a glare before looking back up at MJ.
“Er,” he says. “I guess so?”
MJ tilts the box at an angle, inspecting the ring. It’s a simple gold band that dips under a grey diamond. May had called it elegant. Tony had called it too plain, but that was good. MJ wouldn’t want something too flashy or over-the-top.
“It’s beautiful,” she says.
That’s still not exactly a yes. Peter can feel beads of sweat starting to form across his forehead. They’re definitely in love. He knows that, they’ve discussed it. They want to be together for the long haul.
“You know, marriage is a patriarchal construct that started so that—”
“Men could sell off their daughters like property, I know,” Peter finishes. “But, this is just about us—commitment and stuff. So, marry me anyway?”
MJ laughs, eyes soft and fond. She kneels down, level with Peter, and places a hand on his cheek.
“Commitment and stuff,” she mimics, shaking her head. “Of course, yes.”
“Yes, Peter!” She grips his face and kisses him.
“You guys are disgustingly adorable,” Ned calls from the bench. “Are you both kneeling right now, in the middle of a park, making out? That’s ridiculous.”
They flash him matching middle fingers.
After they’ve called their families to tell them the good news, and Ned and MJ are deep in conversation about the wedding details, Peter slips away from the bench, walks over into the trees. There’s no feeling, no need to turn around or look back. He dials another number.
There’s a beat of silence.
“So?” Tony prompts.
“I just wanted to tell you that you were right,” Peter says.
There’s laughter. “You’re going to have to be more specific. I happen to be right quite often.”
“Everything’s okay—better than I thought it would be.”
And it is. It had been a long road to get here, and there were plenty of times when he slid back into the checks and counts and fears, but every time he managed to claw his way back out. And just as Tony had once predicted, the bad days have become less and less often as the years have passed.
“I take it that means she said yes?”
Peter grins. “Yeah, yeah she did.”
“Well, Morgan will be pissed if she’s not a bridesmaid so you might want to remind MJ of that.”
There’s no way MJ would forget. She’s slowly becoming closer to Morgan than Peter is, which he tries not to be wildly jealous about. “Will do.”
“Well, congratulations, Pete. Don’t want to keep you from the fiancée—Jesus, when did you grow up? I’m old,” Tony groans. “But about the other thing, all I can say is, I told you so.”
“Yeah, you did.” It’s harder to get the words out than Peter thought it would be; he’s getting choked up. “Thank you, Tony.”
“It was all you, kiddo, don’t forget that. All I did was make some arbitrary promises.”
That’s not completely true. They were never arbitrary or unimportant. But, they both know that—some things don’t have to be said.
“Thanks anyway,” Peter whispers.
“Anytime, Pete. I’ve got you, remember?”
MJ and Ned start shouting and waving Peter over. May's arrived. She's holding up a 'Congratulations!' banner that is definitely meant for a graduation party and he specifically told her not to bring. He rolls his eyes, but can't seem to stop smiling. Turns out that Tony's not the only one—Peter's got quite a few people in his corner.