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these days of dust

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Aunt May will never be a fool, and Peter—Lord bless him—will never be a good liar.

The realization that her nephew is Spider-Man is not something that occurs to her overnight. It’s not a flash of inspiration, sparked by his most recent preposterous excuse, or an accident, unearthed by a piece of mislaid evidence—though goodness knows, he’s not nearly as careful with that suit as he should be. Instead, the truth of his identity is something that grows steadily in her mind, over the course of so many strange coincidences and half-baked excuses, rising like the many lumps of pie dough she used to store by the windowsill. It’s a realization so gradual that when she looks back, even she isn’t sure when she made the jump from Peter is Peter to Peter is Spider-Man.

Perhaps it’s because, to her mind, it doesn’t matter. Everything Spider-Man does is as Peter as it can be.

He shows up on cable TV every so often, or maybe even the paper if his actions are newsworthy enough to survive the twenty-four-hour cycle. There are reports of rescued cats and captured super villains and bloody handprints, and in these, she glimpses how others choose to interpret him: portraits that highlight either the destruction left in his wake, or the awe-inspiring compassion he has for others.

It fills her with equal amounts of pride and regret. Pride, because she knows he’s taken Ben’s words about responsibility so seriously. Regret, because she wishes the great part of that idiom hadn’t manifested so literally.

She tries to remember that when he ducks out of all his little responsibilities. “I have to go” is a phrase that falls from his lips more times than she cares to count. That, or “I’ll be right back,” or “I forgot something,” or sometimes, most worryingly, nothing at all.

She doesn’t call him out on it, though. Not even when he slips out during a surprise party he’d helped plan for her, of all things. It’s not that he doesn’t care. It’s just that he cares too much. And every time he leaves, even when he says nothing at all, she sees the truth written in the creased lines around his eyes:

Wait for me.

Wait for me because I promise I’ll come back; wait for me because one day I’ll tell you the truth; wait for me because it isn’t safe, not now, not yet. And above all else, wait for me until I can trust the world to not take you from me, too.

So Aunt May will smile into her slice of cake and act like everything is fine. If honoring a lie is the best way to protect Peter from his own demons, she can’t imagine doing anything else.

It doesn’t make the weight of the knowledge any easier to bear, but they’re both so stubborn. He doesn’t confess and she doesn’t confront, not even when he’s beaten to a pulp or lambasted by the media or listed as public enemy number one, because these aren’t things Aunt May can help with, anyway.

It’s the more down-to-earth problems that make it hard for her to bite her tongue. 

She walks into her office early one morning and finds him sound asleep on a brown IKEA couch: homeless in the homeless shelter she runs herself. She pulls an extra blanket out from behind her desk and lays it over him, judgement the farthest thing from her mind. She knows Peter’s forgotten to pay his rent only because he’s been too busy paying the price for everything else in this city.

She stays in the office all morning, fending off curious eyes, and when he wakes up it’s to an envelope filled with money and a knowing look from her.

“Just ask for help next time,” she says. And then, because she can: “You’re human, just like the rest of us.”

Sometimes it amuses her that Peter still doesn’t realize she knows. Other times, he looks at her with such raw honesty she wonders if they’re not both aware the other is lying, just waiting to see which one will break first.

Still, he accepts the cash and sidesteps the advice, that curious mixture of Parker Pride and Parker Stubbornness at work. She doesn’t see him again until after the bombing at City Hall—after her boss’s bombing of City Hall. She's used to having people she cares about lie to her, but something about this just doesn't feel right. She tells Peter such, though not in as many words.

“Whatever’s become of him…” She pauses half a second, working out her own emotions. Then she waves her hand dismissively. “That’s not the one I want to remember.”

The air is heavy with the weight of the secrets between them. It makes her heart ache, because as much as she’s willing to lie for Peter, she knows it’s no basis for a relationship. Perhaps that’s what inspires her to break the silence by bringing up MJ. She doesn’t know what happened between the two lovers—Peter won’t say, which means it almost certainly has to do with his other life—but she knows they were good for each other, and she knows she’s not getting any younger herself.

He’s going to need someone else, she thinks. When the time comes.

She watches him dodge around the topic and then duck behind the fridge, as if the physical barrier of its door will protect him from her probing questions. The sight of it only makes her double down harder, and when he walks back over to the counter, she asks her most daring set of questions yet:

Are you honest with her? Does she know the real you?

Something flickers across his face that has nothing to do with the intermittent kitchen lighting, and Aunt May wonders if this is it.

Then a man in the lobby shouts something at the TV, and Aunt May turns to see the news channel announcing yet another city-wide disaster. She turns back, but the moment—along with Peter—is gone.

Even though he hadn’t spoken, Wait for me lingers in the air.

And she will, but wait has never been a passive verb in Aunt May’s dictionary. She lets Peter go out into the city to fight super villains and evil schemes and mass toxins, and she stays in the shelter and does everything she can to help the people caught up in the aftershocks. After all, Peter’s stubborn determination to help others is not merely hereditary.

When she coughs so hard blood comes out alongside the sputum less than a day later, she realizes the Parker Luck isn’t, either.

There’s nothing that can be done. Not yet, anyway—not until Peter, her Peter, can find a cure. And she knows he will, too. She just has to wait for him.

But then Peter gets injured, horribly so, and it makes her stomach lodge itself so tightly in her throat that she can’t even respond when the shelter starts burning down around her ears. Peter is relentless, so he saves her anyway, and then his friends save him: thank the Lord for MJ. She’s really hoping those two are close to figuring things out.

Either way, Aunt May doesn’t see him again until he’s back in his civilian clothes. She’s so relieved she can’t keep her frantic thoughts entirely at bay.

“It’s so good to see you,” she says, grabbing at his hands, drinking in every aspect of his frame, searching for any sign of injury. “How are you? Healthy?”

There’s far too much emphasis on the healthy part of that question; too much of a suggestion as to what she knows. But the trembling in her hands is also far too telling, and Peter promptly flips the question back at her. He leads her gently to a chair, his incredible strength the only thing keeping her from collapsing. The Parker Luck is gaining momentum, and within hours, they’re both bedridden—though for entirely different reasons.

She fades in and out of consciousness, only really surfacing whenever she hears his voice nearby. She can feel the fire raging within her veins, but she keeps waiting—always waiting. But not for a cure.

Just for him.

Her faith is rewarded when Spider-Man finally comes, an eternity later, his fist clenched tightly around a teal bottle and his throat clenched tightly with unshed tears.

“You’re going to be okay, ma’am,” he says, kneeling in front of her. “I’ve got the cure right here.”

(Aunt May can’t see his eyes, but she knows they’re saying Wait for me, wait for me, wait for me.)

She shakes her head as much as her failing body will allow, because she heard the doctor’s words as clearly as he did.

If we use it to cure someone now, there won’t be enough to cure the others.

She peels her eyelids open, sticky with sweat and heavy with exhaustion, determined to make these moments count.

“Take off your mask,” she says, years of waiting condensed into her last breaths. “I want to see my nephew.”

He’s surprised; more surprised than she’d thought he’d be, but when she finally sees his beautiful brown eyes peeking out from under that ridiculous spandex, she can’t bring herself to care.

“You knew?”

(I’m sorry I made you wait.)

“I’ve known for a while.”

(I’d do it again if you needed me to.)

She could tell him that she knows what he has to do, that she knows what his decision will mean, but she only has so much time left. She wants to use it well.

So she tells him that she’s seen how hard he works; that she’s heard of all the people he’s saved. That she’s proud of him, and she knows Ben is, too—knows it with absolute certainty, even though he’s gone, even though soon she’ll be gone, too.

Aunt May makes sure to hold his gaze as she speaks. She needs him to know that all these years his eyes have been screaming wait for mewait for me, wait for me, hers have been whispering right back: I love you, I love you, I love you—dancing in counterpoint, just beneath the melody.

Tear tracks and bloodstains run down her boy’s face, and now the key has been altered: for just this once, he’s the one waiting for her. Needing permission for what’s about to happen.

“I don’t know what to do,” he sobs, his tattered suit a testament to his human frailty.

She smiles and pats his cheek.

Aunt May will never be a fool, and Peter—Lord bless him—will never be a good liar.

“Yes, you do.”