“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.”
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
It was a rough night. May hadn’t expected her late return to derail Peter as much as it did. Hadn’t expected to talk him down from a panic attack the moment she walked in the door. It caught her off guard. Made her think about the hard times. As if this wasn’t a hard time. She thought, scoffing internally and feeling a little too bitter for her liking.
At first, when Peter came to live with them, he’d been clingy and shy. He would cry if the both of them had to go somewhere without him and would give babysitters one hell of a time. They took him to therapy once they realized the problem wasn’t going away. The counselor told them he had separation anxiety and abandonment issues, likely caused from the sudden loss of both his parents.
It was worse after Ben. If she was even five minutes late getting home, he would be calling her, sobbing on the other line. Trying to choke out the words to ask her if she was okay.
But over the last couple years, it had diminished and then gone away completely. She thought he would be fine with her coming home whenever. She should have known it would resurface, in the months following all of this. She felt ashamed of herself. Ashamed that she hadn’t thought of the possibility.
He hadn’t called her though. Not this time. May wasn’t sure if that was progress or not. After all, he worked himself into a panic thinking up scenarios she knew were anything but comforting.
Peter was asleep. The familiar crash after a panic attack taking its toll on him. She was sitting next to him, his desk chair pulled up to the head of the bed, stroking his hair. He looked so peaceful this way. If someone, a stranger, were to look in on them in this moment, they wouldn’t know the boy was suffering from things no child should ever have to experience. They wouldn’t know her sweet, wonderful child had seen things far beyond his years.
Realizing Peter wasn’t going to wake any time soon, May stood, joints cracking and popping. Nightmares and sleepless nights alike had become commonplace in their household, but they always seemed to abate on nights with major panic attacks. She supposed it was the universe’s way of a reprieve. An interval. Peter certainly needed all the sleep he could get.
As she turned to tuck the chair back under his desk, she took in the sight of the room for the first time. Before Peter fell asleep, she’d been too focused on fixing the problem at hand to truly appreciate the damage that had been done.
It was a disaster.
Clothes, books, and knick-knacks galore were strewn everywhere. There didn’t seem to be a single thing in its proper place. May let out a long sigh. She didn’t fully understand what her nephew was going through, but she tried. She tried desperately to understand. But this? How did he not realize what he was doing? Why didn’t it even cross his mind that the suit wasn’t here? Maybe that’s why he was so frustrated with himself. Maybe he didn’t understand his mind either. May didn’t want to ever find out how terrifying that would be.
On her way to pick up the wrinkled item of clothing at her feet, she paused. The therapist told her not to baby him. Told her that it wasn’t good for his recovery. But the motherly side of her wanted to clean his room up for him. She wanted him to wake up and be able to put this disastrous night behind him.
But it’s not good for him, May. She chastised herself. In any other circumstance, she would’ve made him clean up a mess like this in a heartbeat. She shouldn’t treat him any differently now, should she? Making a decision, she dropped the offending item to the floor and moved to put the chair—she misplaced—back under the desk. She would make him clean this disaster tomorrow.
Unfinished calculus worksheets marred with irregular pencil marks sat rumpled on the desktop. The incomplete homework seemed to mock her failure. Peter had been distraught to the point of not being able to finish his homework. But she couldn’t wake him up now. He needed the sleep he was getting. Desperately. And if that meant e-mailing his teachers in a plea to excuse late homework, she would gladly do it. If this was coddling him, she didn’t much care. It was her fault the homework wasn’t done after all.
Her eyes drifted to a crumpled piece of paper teetering precariously on the edge of the desk. As if one small jolt would cause it to fall to the floor. A sense of curiosity seemed to grab ahold of her. It was a pastel blue sheet. The kind of paper only used at schools and offices for mass distribution of flyers, permission slips and the like.
Flattening out the paper, she realized it was a flyer for Peter’s next decathlon meet, and as she read the contents of the sheet, a sinking feeling entered the pit of her stomach. She couldn’t go. It was one of the rare Friday nights where she had to work late.
It made her feel like the worst parent in the world. Peter never brought it up, but she knew he felt slightly hurt that the other kid’s parents either always came to support, or they were chaperones on their trips to meets in other places. She also knew that Flash kid made fun of Peter for it. He never said, but she wasn’t stupid. She could tell by the look in his eyes when his friends brought up the offending teen.
She took the flyer to the kitchen and sat down at the table. Sinking heavily into a chair and staring at the page. Wondering what she could do to make it up to Peter. While she knew he was in no state to bring it up when she arrived home, she could tell he knew she wouldn’t be able to come from the way it was crumpled carelessly on his desk.
May wished she could take off work. She wished she could skip one shift to support the academic endeavors of the brightest kid she knew. Just one shift. Just one. But she knew she couldn’t. There were bills to pay, groceries to buy and a car to fill up with gas. Surviving off one income in the city was damn hard, and she never thought she’d have to do it without Ben. But she’d been doing it for a few years now. And she would continue to do it because she loved Peter. They would simply have to continue to make sacrifices.
One of those sacrifices was her pride, apparently. From the wording on the flyer, she knew this meet was a big deal—at least, bigger than usual—and she really didn’t want Peter to go without support. So, calling Tony was the only option.
May sighed. She hated asking him for things. Didn’t want to admit she needed him. Didn’t want to acknowledge the two of them had to team up to parent Peter in certain areas. And she certainly never wanted to seem like she was using him for his money. It was all a consequence of her pride. A part of herself wanted to prove to Ben—wherever he was—that she could do this all by herself. That she didn’t need Tony’s help. Even though it was greatly appreciated.
Sighing again, she decided it was time to stop justifying her actions and get to work. If she just kept stewing over this, running rationalizations through her mind, nothing would ever get done. Picking up her phone, she took a deep breath and dialed Tony’s number.
After a few, short rings, the man answered.
“May! What’s the occasion?” Tony sounded flustered to May’s ears. Sounded as if he was trying to put up a front. Ever since she’d yelled at him for giving Peter a weaponized suit and taking him to Germany without her permission, he’d been slightly afraid of her. May could tell. And in some ways, she was glad to keep it that way.
“I need to ask a favor.” She said, surprised at the faux confidence in her voice. One she didn’t even remotely feel.
“Okay.” He sounded hesitant and slightly apprehensive.
Without much thought, she decided to dive right in. Cut to the chase. “Peter has an important decathlon meet three weeks from today. I have work. I can’t go.” She paused for a moment, thinking about the best way to ask Tony to go in her place.
He beat her to it though, realizing what she was asking of him, he said, “so I’m guessing you want me to go instead?”
She sighed for what felt like the millionth time this evening. “You don’t have to, Tony. If you are busy or unavailable, I understand. I just feel bad that Peter never has anyone to supp—”
“May, I’ll do it.” Tony said, cutting her off. “You don’t have to try and justify this. I care about him too, you know.”
May was surprised at how easy it was to get him to agree, and after a moment, she spoke. “I know. That’s why I called you. He looks up to you. I think this will mean a lot to him.”
After telling him the date, time and location of the meet, they said their goodbyes, ready to hang up. But as May took the phone off her ear, milliseconds away from pushing the red button to end the call, she heard Tony’s voice again.
“Yes?” She asked after bringing the device back up to her ear.
He seemed to hesitate, as if what he was about to ask would make her upset. And as much as she had grown to care for Tony over the years—and especially since the Snap—she wouldn’t put it past him to say or do something she considered out of line.
“You know Peter will preform fantastically at the meet. Can I get him a little gift for doing well?”
May rubbed her left temple with her free hand. “We’ve talked about this before, Tony.” She said, exasperated. “I know whatever kind of little gift you had in mind won’t be little. At least to our standards. I don’t want you overdoing it. I don’t want your wealth getting to my kid’s head.”
“Okay…” Tony said, trailing off. “Maybe just dinner? After the meet?”
May’s first instinct was to reject the offer. It wasn’t something she and Peter, or even Ben, had ever done in these types of situations before. But she realized she would have to meet Tony in the middle. She understood money and gifts were how he told people he cared about them. And while she didn’t approve of that method of care by a long shot, it wasn’t like she could change who Tony was. Not even Pepper was capable of that, and through their conversations, May got the feeling she tried to change him many times with little-to-no success.
Eventually she acquiesced. “Fine. But keep it low-key. I don’t want you to take him to some three-star restaurant in Manhattan where each dish costs four-hundred dollars.”
To her surprise, Tony chuckled. “Of course not, May. I’m pretty sure Peter would have an aneurysm if I took him anywhere like that.”
“Well, good thing you realize us normies think it’s ridiculous to pay that much for food.” She joked. “Oh, and, Tony?” She said, thinking of something else of importance to say. “Can you please stay inconspicuous at the meet? I don’t want the press getting ahold of this and speculating why you are at a random high-school decathlon meet.”
“Of course. I was planning on it.” He said vigorously.
“Alright, Stark. I’m holding you to that.” May said, trying to sound as firm and intimidating as possible.
After ending the call for good, May wondered—and not for the first time—when, precisely, her simple life had been inundated with the Tony Stark. She never expected the world’s most famous billionaire to attend her child’s school events, and she certainly never expected him to care about Peter as if he was his own son.
May shook her head. She certainly had a crazy life. There wasn’t ever any doubt about that.
Being hopeful was a dangerous thing. May knew this all too well. Even when things were going well, they could change on a dime. They could go from looking up to looking down. And more often than not, things didn’t go well for May Parker. She’d learned to live with it though. She’d learned to allow not okay to be okay.
But today she couldn’t help the hopeful feeling. Peter had a great day yesterday, and an even better night. She wasn’t sure what sparked the sudden change, but she was going to ride with it for as long as she could. And it wasn’t just yesterday either. Today was one of his good days. She could tell. He’d woken with a smile on his face, looking rejuvenated and refreshed; something she hadn’t seen on Peter in so, so long.
He’d bounded into the kitchen that morning with a spring in his step and a wide grin dominating his features. It was so out of the ordinary that for a moment, May wondered who this person was and what he’d done with her nephew. He was rambling on about some experiment they’d done in chemistry the day before and even though she didn’t understand what he was talking about, she knew this was the old Peter. The one who would ramble for hours on end, even if she clearly wasn’t paying much attention.
She couldn’t be happier.
And maybe things would change for the worse before the clock struck noon, but she was going to bathe in this feeling of hopefulness for as long as she possibly could. It wasn’t often she felt this way.
She couldn’t even find it in herself to be upset Peter was running late for school, frantically shoving his toast down his throat and stuffing books in his backpack all at the same time.
“Be safe!” She called as he dashed for the door.
“I will!” Peter called back, forcing his feet into his sneakers without untying them.
She secretly hated when he did that.
“Oh, May?” Peter said, walking back toward her position at the kitchen counter, his frantic demeanor suddenly evaporated.
“Yes?” She asked, raising an eyebrow if only just slightly.
“Ned and MJ are coming over tonight to study for the calculus test. Its tomorrow and Mr. Wilkin’s tests are always really hard. And plus—”
“Okay, baby.” She said, putting a hand up to stop his rambling. “But you know my rule.” Looking over the rims of her glasses, she tried her best to be intimidating.
“If there’s more fun than studying, you have the right to send them home.” Peter recited.
“Good. Now get going before you miss the late train.”
And somewhere in the back of her mind, ‘being hopeful is dangerous' replayed. Over and over again.
May had a wish-list of things she wanted if money wasn’t an issue. It was a bucket list of sorts. A far-off dream she knew would never happen but liked to entertain the thought regardless. One of the things on the list was to move to an apartment building that had a working elevator. She could, in theory, petition the landlord to fix the damn thing, but she’d gone that particular route so many times she was blue in the face. Moving was the only option. It would never get done.
As it was, she was currently doing her least favorite activity: taking the groceries inside after going shopping. It wouldn’t be a big deal if she didn’t have to carry them up five flights of stairs, but she had to come to terms with the pitfalls of getting old. And this was one of them. If she was out with Peter, he always offered to carry them for her, his crazy strength and agility a benefit she wished she had in these moments. But the problem was she went grocery shopping alone most of the time. Peter had a life too. He had things he needed to get done as well. She couldn’t always rely on him to do it.
Peter. Her wonderful, brave nephew. Her son if she was being honest. That was how she thought of him, after all. He was doing so well. And she couldn’t be prouder. As it turned out, the hopefulness she possessed earlier in the day had some validity after all. That incredible, warm feeling hadn’t gone away. Hadn’t abated in the slightest. It was almost seven p.m. and the day had gone without a single incident. Maybe she was wrong to be pessimistic that it wouldn’t last.
In the midst of all that thinking, she somehow found herself at the apartment door. Usually, only exertion crowded her thoughts as she climbed the stairs with bags of groceries weighing her down, but today, that wasn’t the case. Putting a few of the bags on the un-mopped hallways floors, she dug through her purse to find her keys.
After getting the door open, she was greeted by the sound of teenagers. She hadn’t forgotten about Peter’s little friend study group, but she hadn’t exactly remembered either. Deciding she needed to check on the kids to make sure they were doing actual studying, she put the groceries on the counter and made her way to Peter’s room.
Cracking open Peter’s door and looking in, the sight inside made her want to laugh. Ned was spinning around in Peter’s desk chair, reciting a difficult-sounding equation or formula. MJ was splayed on the floor with an intimidating stack of worksheets in her hands, quizzing Ned. And Peter was pacing his ceiling, shirt hanging down to cover the bottom half of his face.
No matter how many times she saw Peter like that, she didn’t think she could ever get used to it.
“Hi, May!” Ned cheerfully greeted when he noticed her standing at the door.
“Hello, Ned. MJ. Peter.” She answered, nodding to each in turn. “I just got back from the store. Let me know if any of you feel like a snack or something. Oh, and Peter? You need to be done by nine-thirty. I understand you kids have a big test tomorrow.”
“Yes, Aunt May.” Peter said, dropping from the ceiling.
“Alright. Well, I’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything.”
After closing the door and returning to the kitchen to put the groceries away, It hit May just how far Peter had come in the past couple months. He was smiling and laughing with his friends. His face bright with energy. He didn’t seem to withdraw into himself as frequently as he had before, and the past two days had been incident free. Two whole days!
All she ever wanted was for her nephew to be happy. An emotion that seemed systemically absent from his young life. And if one thing was for certain, the world wanted to steal happiness away from Peter Parker at every chance it got, but with her by his side, May would do everything in her power to make sure he received every ounce of happiness possible.
Things were looking up.
Hopefulness. That was the word.
But like everything in life, there were still bad days. And although they were few and far between, they still presented themselves to Peter. They still gave him their terrible offerings. It felt like one step forward, two steps back. Like a yo-yo, reaching the end of the string and retreating backwards.
But despite all that, May still allowed herself to feel hopeful. She didn’t let go of the optimism that presented itself. She couldn’t let it go. If she did… she didn’t know what would happen, but it wouldn’t be beneficial, that was certain.
It was especially useful to think that way on days like today. Days where Peter’s symptoms hung over him like a thick cloud of smoke, obscuring vision and airways with its haze. Something happened yesterday that gave reason for a very bad night to emerge. But May couldn’t figure out what it was. Peter wouldn’t tell her. She tried not to get upset when he did that, but she wanted so desperately to help him. Yet, how could she do that if she didn’t understand what was bothering him?
Last night was so bad, in fact, that she decided to keep Peter home from school and call in sick to work. She didn’t want to leave him alone when he was like this, and she definitely didn’t want to force him out into the wild frontier of high school.
She was yanked from her sleep by the sound of screaming.
At first, she was confused. Caught off guard. It had been so long since Peter had a nightmare violent enough to wake her from the room across the hall. She knew he still had them pretty frequently, but one of this caliber hadn’t made itself known for a couple of months now.
She quickly tied her hair up and threw on a robe, padding across the hall and opening Peter’s door. Sometimes she wondered what the neighbors thought about all this. Thankfully, they never said anything to her. And she prayed they hadn’t said anything to Peter.
Turning on the light and rushing to his side, May wondered just how many times she would be forced to do this. Be forced to sit and watch as the person she cared most about thrashed around on his mattress, the creases in his forehead full of distress.
A long time ago—before Titan and dust and the end of the world—she’d learned not to reach out to him when he was like this. It would just make everything worse. Because Peter would instinctually lash out, hit her with force, and it would hurt like hell. And no matter how many times she would cajole him, tell him it wasn’t his fault, he wouldn’t believe her. He would apologize for hours on end, the guilt of what he’d done eating at him.
The nightmares were different then, but they were also the same. The same in the way they would cause Peter to withdraw tightly into himself for hours or days on end after the fact. But they were different because now they were a constant. Not always screaming, not always shaking in fear, but almost every night. She didn’t wake often, but she could tell by the look in his eyes the following morning. She could tell from the far-off look she saw there. The downcast expression.
Pulling herself back to the present, she began to whisper a mantra of assurances and soothing words. Her only way to convey to him that she was there. That he was safe. That it was just a dream.
After some time, Peter jerked with a gasp. A frighteningly long intake of air that brought with it pupils blown wide and the fear of not knowing where he was. She could see it on his face.
“Peter. Peter. It’s okay. You’re safe.”
And then all of a sudden, he was clinging to her with everything he had.
“May.” He breathed, broken and breathless into her shoulder.
“Shhhh. It’s okay, honey. Everything is going to be okay.”
“May, I—I… it was—” Whatever Peter was trying to say, he was having difficulty getting it out. Between huge gasps for air, he was stuttering in a way he hadn’t done since he was a child.
“Peter.” She said, taking his hands into her own. “Breathe, honey. Breathe. You’re safe.”
A few irregular heartbeats and stuttered breaths later, Peter seemed to be more aware. More calm. And with that, more embarrassed. May wasn’t surprised when the profuse apologies began.
“I’m so, so sorry for waking you up.” He said, voice low and defeated.
“You don’t get to apologize for this, Peter. You can’t control it. And I’m supposed to take care of you, remember?”
“No buts. Just relax.” She said, running one hand through his hair, and using the other to continue to hold his tightly.
“You can go back to bed now. I’m fine.”
He was being relentless tonight. And somehow, she had to figure out why.
“Peter, you are not fine. Look at you. You’re still shaking.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and let out a huff of air, seeming to try and control himself. “I just want to be alone, okay? Please?”
This wasn’t normal. Peter might be a teenager, but that particular line never came out of his mouth. She had to get to the bottom of this, and fast. Before he shut her out completely. The way he did when overwhelmed.
She just had to get her tired, scrambled brain to come up with the right thing to say in this moment. If she didn’t, he would shut her out and the plan would be over before it even started.
And suddenly, an idea came to her. She just hoped it would work.
“I’ll make you a deal. You can be alone for fifteen minutes, but then I’m coming back in here and we are talking about this, okay?”
“Fine.” Peter grumbled, less than ecstatic.
“Alright.” She said, standing from his bed and stretching her arms. “I’ll be back in fifteen.”
And maybe the fifteen-minutes-later-plan wasn’t her best idea, because when she returned to Peter’s room, he was sound asleep.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only time he awoke last night. May was pulled from the warmth of her sheets to the cold, desperate sound of Peter’s cries twice more. And each time, Peter refused to talk. He refused to acknowledge that the situation was out of the ordinary. He refused to let himself open up and let her in.
She knew he knew talking through things could help him. She’d been to enough of his therapy sessions with Mira to know the woman had drilled it into his head. But he was being stubborn. Unmovable. And it wasn’t in his nature not to try.
And as much as a mother hated seeing their child go through something like that, May knew he was reaping what he sewed. There was a good chance that if he’d let her in the first time, his nightmares wouldn’t have been so violent and desperate the next two times.
Any maybe, maybe, today wouldn’t have turned out the way it did.
It was a day thick with depression and a thousand-yard stare she never wanted to see on her kid’s face. A day where he lay in bed, despondent and quiet. Staring at the underside of his top bunk for hours. It certainly wasn’t the first time she wondered what was going through his mind, but she didn’t ask, because she’d pushed him so hard already. And he wouldn’t budge. He wouldn’t talk. And at this point, May wasn’t sure if it was because he wouldn’t or couldn’t.
She’d seen this extreme level of despondency in him a few times before, and she knew it was difficult for him to articulate his thoughts when he was like this, but the whole reason he’d sunk so low was because he refused to talk last night. He’d refused although she’d given him ample opportunity to do so.
She was more than frustrated.
Rationally, she knew he was getting better. She’d seen the results of it every day. But emotionally she couldn’t help but worry. He seemed like the life had been sucked out of him. Like he had no motivation. No drive to do much of anything.
It was almost eight-thirty p.m. and Peter had spent the entire day in bed. A whole damn day where she hadn’t figured out what was bothering him. He’d done this before, but the last time he’d done it had been long before he’d started making so much progress. It unnerved her. This wasn’t the Peter Parker she’d come to know. A shell of the vibrant, hyperactive kid she loved deeply.
Peter had always been an active child, someone who could accomplish a myriad of things in a single day, so to see him spend his whole day in bed was heartbreaking beyond belief.
She needed to stop thinking about this. Thinking about the things she couldn’t change. Either Peter would come to her, or he would pull himself out of it one way or another. He was a resourceful kid. It was one of his greatest assets.
Making her way from her bedroom to the living room, she intended on watching enough re-runs of Friends to clear her thoughts. After all, focusing on something else was the only way she knew how to keep her sanity in this situation.
Yet, when she arrived in the living room, she was surprised to find Peter curled up on the couch with some sit-com she didn’t recognize playing quietly in the background. It may have not been a big deal to anyone else, but she was immensely proud of Peter. She hadn’t expected him to get out of bed at all today, and although the sun had gone down, he’d been able to inch just a tiny bit out of his shell.
“Hi, honey.” She whispered, lowering herself down on the couch and sitting at his side. Rubbing one hand across his back and clasping the other hand in one of his. “You doing okay?”
“Mmmm.” Peter hummed, a non-committed and barely responsive noise.
“I love you, baby. And you can talk to me whenever you need to. I’ll always listen.”
Peter responded by squeezing her hand slowly three times. I. Love. You. Their little language of non-words that reemerged in the weeks and months since his return. Somehow, it had become reserved for moments like this. Moments when Peter couldn’t find the words to say the things he wanted to say.
I. Love. You. She squeezed back.
“I’m here, Peter. Whenever you need me. I’ll always be here.”
The day of the decathlon meet arrived faster than she expected it to. Peter was having a great day, and she couldn’t be happier. From the moment he got home from school, he was bouncing off the walls and talking a million miles an hour. And although she was so, so glad to see her nephew so happy, she was almost relieved when Tony took him off her hands, driving him back to the high school while she prepared for her shift.
The pair must have taken a detour after their dinner, because when she arrived home around ten-fifteen, they still weren’t back. Kicking off her shoes and sinking into the couch cushions, she turned on the TV and tried to make herself comfortable until they returned. She had the apartment all to herself for a little while, and the relaxing situation called for a glass of wine.
Maybe she would share it with Tony when they showed up.
Ah, Tony. He was something.
She would be lying if she didn’t admit to all the doubts she had about him before he had proven himself to her. And as reluctant as she was to let the man into Peter’s life after the homecoming fiasco, it was honestly kind of nice to have a partner in crime again. To parent Peter. It reminded her of Ben, and somehow, that didn’t hurt the way it had in the past.
Tony was great with Peter, and more often than not, he got her nephew to open up to him when he kept his walls up around her. And in a way, she knew Tony filled the void left in Peter’s life after Ben passed. It was something she often felt conflicted about. Conflicted because she sometimes felt as if she was being complicit in allowing Ben to be erased. Allowing him to be replaced with one of the richest and most famous men in the world. But she also knew Peter needed Tony. He needed a father figure in his life, and he needed someone who understood the weight of being a hero.
She was moving on in a life without Ben, a world without Ben. But she also knew she could never fully move on. And she supposed Peter probably felt the same way.
She stared down at the wine glass in her hand, spinning it in circles and feeling a little bit fancy. She never expected to be sharing wine with anyone else but Ben, yet here she was, waiting for the Tony Stark to show up to her apartment and bring back her kid. What a strange life she had.
It was only a few minutes later that the two of them bounded through the door, Peter talking Tony’s ear off, and the man looking a little exhausted from all of it, but happy nonetheless.
After enveloping her kid in a hug and gesturing for both him and Tony to sit on the couch, she asked how the meet went.
“We won!” Peter beamed, bouncing a little on the couch, excitement barely contained.
“Of course you did, honey. I don’t know why I even asked.” She smiled and turned to Tony. “I take it that you were able to stay inconspicuous?”
“Yep. No one even knew I was there.” Tony answered, an air of nonchalance dripping off him as he loosened his tie and leaned back on the couch, draping an arm around Peter. “You want to share?” He added, gesturing to the two wine glasses and the bottle on the coffee table.
May slightly narrowed her eyes, trying to look intimidating. Trying to show Tony she was the boss of this household.
“What? Happy’s got the car parked outside. I won’t be driving.”
Before she could form some sort of retort, Peter let out one of the biggest yawns she had ever seen, stretching out his arms and legs as he stood from the couch. “You guys can argue about wine as long as you want, but I’m going to bed. ‘m really tired.” He said, slightly slurring the last sentence.
“Alright, baby.” She said, pulling him in for another hug. “Sleep well, okay?”
“Okay.” Peter mumbled, rubbing his eyes and beginning to trudge toward his room. “Night, May. Night, Mr. Stark.”
“Goodnight, kid.” Tony said fondly. And May could tell he was trying to hide a smile.
After Peter disappeared from sight, May said, “looks like you really wore him out, huh?”
“Looks like his battery went from one-hundred to zero within the span of a second.” Tony answered.
“Yeah. He does that. One minute he’s bouncing off the walls, and the next he’s asleep. I’m honestly surprised you didn’t know about it yet. With all the weekends he spends at your fancy little compound.”
Tony’s only response was a chuckle.
The two of them sat in silence for a few moments. A companionable silence. One where nothing needed to be said. Because both knew the other was thinking about how wonderful of a kid Peter was.
“So…” Tony began after a moment, breaking the silence. “You gonna share that wine?”
“You’re insufferable.” May sighed, but the grin she could feel on her face gave her away.
And a bottle of wine later, after Tony shared the details of the meet and the dinner, both of them were laughing and exchanging stories about Peter. May just hoped her kid was able to sleep through all the noise they were making.
“And then Peter jumped out of the closet and sprayed two cans of silly string all over Ben! He about jumped out of his skin. Peter chased him around the apartment until both bottles were gone.” She said, chuckling at the memory. “But Ben was never one to let a prank like that slide. A few days later, he decided to get him back. But he had to out-do Peter, you know? So he filled a bucket with the stuff and dumped it on Peter the second he walked in the door after school. He was so caught off guard that Ben was able to spray a whole other bottle on him before he even tried to run away!”
They were both in stitches by the end of the story, and May never thought she would see Tony laughing, let alone laughing that hard. And in that moment, she realized for the first time, how liberating it was to share stories of Ben with someone who didn’t know him.
Cathartic. That was the word.
“You both really miss him.” Tony said suddenly. It wasn’t a question.
The unexpectedness of the statement caught her off guard, and she found herself staring into her lap. “Yeah…yeah we do.”
A pregnant pause hung in the air for a moment after that. Neither one of them knowing what to say.
This time, it was May who broke the silence. “Tony.” She said, looking him in the eyes and resting a hand on his. “You’ve been good for Peter. Really good. He was lost there for a while, but then you came along and he found someone else to look up to. So, thank you.”
She could tell he didn’t know what to say to that. Didn’t know how to feel. If anything, Tony seemed uncomfortable. But she had to tell him. She had to tell him how much his relationship with Peter meant to her. Because they both had their walls up. They both didn’t know how to tell each other that they were both so important to Peter’s life.
So, she continued.
“You know, I’ve had to pick up a lot of extra shifts since Ben died. And I haven’t been around for Peter as much as I would like to be. So, Tony.” She said, meeting his eyes once again, gaze intense in a way that meant business. “I’m extremely glad you are here for him. I’m so glad you can help him in the ways I can’t. And I’m so grateful you can be there for him when I can’t. Like tonight.”
He didn’t know how to process all that. May could tell. She knew Tony wasn’t the greatest at expressing his emotions, but she hadn’t expected to break him.
Tony Stark at a loss for words. She didn’t know she had it in her.
Deciding to give him a moment, she excused herself to the bathroom. But when she returned, Tony was gone.
Huh. She really did break him.
The next afternoon, when she got home from work, she found an ornate-looking envelope addressed to her sitting on the kitchen counter.
Opening it up, she found a hand-written letter and a check for a ridiculous amount of money inside.
Tony. The check gave it away.
I’m sorry I left without telling you last night, and I really am grateful you allow Peter to be a part of my life. He means a lot to me. I know you know that. You mentioned you don’t get to spend as much time with him as you used to, so I’ve attached a check that should cover the costs of a few shifts. Go do something fun together.
P.S. I’ll know if you don’t cash the check!
May sighed. Clearly, Tony didn’t know how much someone like her made per shift, because this was way too much money. But she supposed it was his way of caring. And his way of apologizing for last night. Apologizing for his emotional constipation.
She didn’t like it when he threw her money. But she’d tried to give it back enough times to know that wouldn’t fly. She supposed she better try and get used to Tony’s generosity, although she knew she never would.
It was just the way he was.
And in some ways, she was grateful. She did deserve a fun day with Peter after all.
A couple weeks later, May found herself sitting in the lobby of the behavioral health clinic, waiting for Peter to finish his appointment. She decided she would give him a break from riding the subway by driving him there. And besides, she had a hunch this would be one of the appointments where she would be asked to speak with Peter’s therapist.
She didn’t have to wait for long, because it turned out her hunch was right. Not even five minutes later, a timid-looking Peter walked back out into the lobby, gesturing for May to follow him back to Mira’s office.
The moment she stepped foot in the room, the woman greeted her, standing and extending her hand for May to shake. “Mrs. Parker.” She said, chipper as ever.
“Mrs. Powell.” May replied, grasping the other woman’s hand and shaking it firmly in the way Ben always said was best.
“Please, call me Mira.”
“Right.” May said, if only a tiny bit annoyed. After all, she’d asked Mira to call her May on more than one occasion, but the woman kept reverting back to the type of formalities May found stifling.
“Have a seat. Both of you.” Mira said, gesturing to the padded chairs and couch on the opposite side of the room.
Once she and Peter were situated across from the therapist, they got down to business.
“Now,” Mira said, straightening a stack of papers on her desk. “You are probably wondering why I called you back here today.”
When May’s only response was looking into Mira’s eyes, the woman continued. “I’ve discussed some things with Peter, and we have some good news.” Then, turning to her nephew she said, “Peter, do you want to do the honors?”
“Um, sure.” Peter said, sitting up taller from his slouched position on the couch. “May, I’ve been working really hard, and I’ve made a lot of progress, so Mira thinks I’m ready to start patrolling the neighborhood again!” His smile becoming wider and wider as he spoke.
“Honey, I’m so proud of you!” May exclaimed, pulling Peter in for a hug and squeezing him as tightly as she could.
In all honesty, she wasn’t surprised. Although Peter still had bad days every once in a while, the good ones far outnumbered them. Her boy had been smiling, laughing and living life in a way she had sometimes worried he never would again—in his lowest moments. But here they were, being given news that Peter could begin again. Begin doing the thing that made him happier than anything else in the world. That made his life worth living.
Ben would be so, so proud.
“In order to decrease the chances of a panic attack or dissociation episode, both Peter and I agree it would be best for him to ease into it.” Mira said, interrupting their hug.
“I agree too.” May said, turning her attention back to the therapist.
“Good.” Mira nodded. “It’s always important that we have a plan for these things, so Peter and I have come up with one. It will be finalized once we run it by you and Tony.”
“Peter?” The therapist prompted.
“Yeah. So, um. For the first week I’m only supposed to patrol for one hour max. If everything goes well, I can increase it by one hour each week.” Peter said, looking between May and Mira. “Oh! And Mr. Stark has to be on standby for the first two months to help me if anything happens.”
“It’s a good plan.” May said, smiling at both Peter and Mira.
“Well, that’s settled then.” Mira replied. “Congratulations, Peter. I’m very proud of you.”
And May couldn’t agree more.
On their way home from the appointment, Peter was being unnaturally quiet, staring into the distance. His eyes looked glazed over. May could see them in the reflection of the car’s windowpane. This was more than a little strange. Usually, with this kind of news, Peter would be chatting non-stop and bouncing with barely contained energy. Something was up, and she had to figure out what it was.
“You’re being quiet.” She said, glancing at the boy out of the corner of her eye. “I thought you’d be bouncing off the walls at this news.”
She saw him stiffen slightly at her statement, shoulders hunching. Cowering around his ears. He was steeling himself to say something important, May could tell.
She would give him a moment to gather himself. To talk himself into saying what he needed to say. She couldn’t force him, but if she kept quiet, he would eventually talk. After all, he was trapped in the car with her.
“I just… I want to say I’m sorry.” He finally said, voice quiet and small.
“Sorry?” May asked, more than a little confused. “What for?”
Peter sighed, a deep and resounding sound. “Can you pull over?”
“As long as you promise to tell me what’s going on in that big brain of yours.”
“I do.” Peter said. “It’s important and I want to say it when you aren’t driving.”
At the nearest possible location, she pulled over, put the car in park, and unbuckled her seatbelt so she could turn to face her nephew. Give him her full attention.
Peter swallowed, adam’s apple convulsing in his throat. Whatever this was, he was really working himself up, and May hoped it wouldn’t be some life-shattering information. She hoped it wasn’t something he had been hiding from her.
“I feel… I feel guilty. And I need to apologize.” He finally said.
“Peter, there is nothing you could have done that needs apologizing. What’s going on?” And that wasn’t exactly true, but she could see the rising panic in his face. Could feel the need to keep him calm.
“Just listen okay! I have to do this!”
He was becoming increasingly agitated, hands balling into fists and arms shaking.
“Alright, honey. Whatever you need.”
And this time, she could tell he was going to let it all out, speak what was on his mind. And hopefully, hopefully, it wouldn’t be earth-shattering.
“I want to say I’m sorry. For—for leaving you alone for seven months. I’ve only been thinking of myself and my recovery for a while now, but I realized how hard it must have been. How much it…” He paused for a moment, squeezing his eyes shut and taking a deep breath. “To—to see my empty room every day and not know if I was ever coming back. You’ve lost so much, and I feel bad I was the cause of some of that.”
That was it? That was what he was upset about?
May was shocked. And there weren’t many things that could elicit that emotion from her these days. She truly hadn’t expected Peter to say something like that. She knew he had self-deprecating tendencies, but she hadn’t expected them to go this deep. She never expected him to blame himself for how much she missed him in those seven, tortuous months. She never expected him to blame himself for being chosen by the universe to be one of the vanished.
It baffled her.
“Peter. Peter, Peter, Peter.” She took a deep, shaking breath. Gathering herself. “Of course you’ve been spending all your energy on your recovery. That’s what me and Tony and Mira wanted you to do. Don’t apologize for that. Ever. Do you hear me?”
Peter nodded, looking serious.
She continued. “Now, I need you to understand something. We’ve lost so much, Peter. Not just me, but you too. You lost a part of yourself from that snap. That experience took some of your bright-eyed innocence away. And I don’t want you to ever feel like my pain is your fault, okay? Because it’s not. And it never will be. You make me so happy and I’m so proud to be your aunt.”
Peter looked stunned. Like he hadn’t expected her to say something like that. Like he expected her to berate him, tell him that it was his fault those seven months were hell on earth.
But that couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
“There was nothing you could have done. Nothing. Am I happy the universe chose you to disappear? Of course not! But we have to live with what we are given, and I was dealt that card.”
She reached out, grabbing his face between her hands and staring him straight in the eye, gaze filled with fire and determination. “It wasn’t your fault, Peter. I need you to understand that.”
“I do.” He said. “I understand.”
And this time, she believed him when he said it. This time, she knew he understood. There was a conviction there. In his eyes. And she never wanted it to go away.
~Three Months Later~
“Peter! Come help me with the lasagna! It’s gonna burn!” May yelled as she fanned at the copious amounts of smoke billowing from the oven.
“It think it already burned.” He replied, appearing behind her. He had a sly smile on his face, and she knew he was seconds away from poking fun at her cooking.
“Don’t you dare!” She pointed a finger at him, moving the appendage closer and closer to his face with each word.
“What?” Peter shrugged. “I suggested takeout for a reason, May. But you insisted we had to make a nice dinner. I’m telling you, Ms. Potts and Mr. Stark will be happy with anything.”
“Peter, its not everyday you have two billionaires and the CEO of Stark Industries in your home. You have to make an impression!”
“But Mr. Stark has been here a million times already. And let me tell you, Ms. Potts is way more chill than he is. Like I said, they’ll be fine with anything… as long as its not burned.”
“Peter!” She jokingly chastised. “Take that back!”
“No way, Aunt May!” He giggled, running out of the kitchen before she could swat at him with her oven mitt.
The joyous sounds of laughter filled her apartment. Echoed off the walls. Somehow, Peter and Tony ended up on the subject of dad jokes, and the pair were making each other laugh at things that weren’t even remotely funny.
The way they easily entertained each other amused her.
“They’re quite the pair, aren’t they?” Pepper said, noticing the direction of her gaze.
May chuckled. “They really are.”
Dinner was a successful affair. After the slight jolt of panic she had when she realized the lasagna wasn’t salvageable, she decided to order takeout from their go-to Thai joint in Jackson Heights. And she and Peter even had the table set and ready to go with just minutes to spare.
She wasn’t proud of her cooking skills, but she was proud of her quick thinking and resourcefulness.
And now, the four of them were relaxing in the living room after eating a hearty meal, making small talk and just enjoying being in each other’s company.
It was exactly what she wanted this evening to be. It was what all of them deserved. After everything.
Pepper had given her a wedding invitation. And in a way, she was a little surprised. Not that they were getting married, she knew it would happen eventually, but that they were doing it so soon. The ceremony was only a month away.
But in all honesty, she was more surprised Tony was willing to say goodbye to the hero life for marriage. And she had a hunch Pepper felt the same way.
Regardless, she was happy for them. And from the way Peter looked at the couple fondly, she could tell he was too.
Her thoughts always came back to him. Her wonderful, brave nephew. Her son in every way that counted. She was so, so proud of him. Proud in a way that was impossible to quantify. He’d been through hell and back and he was still smiling. Still laughing. Still living.
To wake up every morning and see the life that filled his features, it was in those moments she knew she was alive. It was what she lived for. All she ever wanted was for Peter to be happy, and it seemed like happiness had finally found him. And sure, there were still bad days, still bumps in the road, but there wasn’t a permeating darkness filling their lives anymore. It didn’t have them in its vice grip. It didn’t have power.
And that was the beautiful thing. Peter was living again. Really living. He’d won. He had won in every way that mattered. He was back out patrolling the neighborhood, saving cats from trees and helping old ladies cross the street. And yeah, she knew that wasn’t all he did, but she liked to stay oblivious to the more dangerous parts of his job. She would let Tony deal with that. She had to keep her sanity somehow.
Time and again she wondered how she ended up sandwiched in between this superhero life. How she ended up being the responsible party of a teenage vigilante. How Peter became that teenage vigilante. And although she’d received bits and pieces of the story over the years, she knew only Peter fully understood what happened that night on the cold pavement where Ben bled out. How it had changed him.
And somewhere along the line he’d needed help. Professional help. And that was okay. Because it was okay to not be okay. And May knew once he had learned that concept, once he had accepted it as fact, that was when he made the most progress. That was when he learned to live again.
Peter was a fighter. He was strong. Stronger than she could ever hope to be. And he didn’t give up. Ever. If he was drowning in a pool of fear and grief and pain, he would claw his way to the surface with every ounce of strength and determination he possessed.
She was immensely proud.
And for the first time, she realized something. Something important. Recovery was painful, but it was also beautiful. A beautiful, wonderful thing.
That’s our boy, Ben. That’s our boy. He’s back. He’s living.