“When you grow up, you’re gonna be the best out of all of us.”
- Avengers vs. New Ultimates #4
Peter would never have admitted it to Mr. Stark, especially after everything, but he always liked Captain America.
It was the bane of Ben and May’s existence, his incessant need to show appreciation for each of his stuffed animals and eventually the action figures - balancing his hold on a Captain America Shield while wearing an Iron Man helmet for Halloween.
He loved them both, no matter how many times the kids at school would try and force him to choose a favorite.
Captain America was a joke, a myth and an American legend all in one. He did the corny PSAs for sex ed sure, but Peter appreciated the sense of duty the man had to a purpose greater than his own - a connection that Peter himself wouldn’t fully understand until after the field trip that changed his life.
Iron Man was cool , a hero and a celebrity all in one - Peter vividly remembering the terror he felt as their apartment walls shook during the Battle of New York, huddled under their kitchen table only to feel an incredible amount of pride and relief that not only had the Avengers saved the day, but Iron Man had.
Peter was indecisive by nature, a trait that both Ben and his dad had passed onto him. It’s a trait that cost Ben his life, Peter’s hesitation to intervene forever altering the course of his life.
He didn’t like to choose, or really having too many choices available to him - joking with himself that for as cool as having hyped up senses could be, all it really did was manifest as super sensitive anxiety.
It was too much to take in - too much info, narrowing down the decisions he had to make and realizing the more and more he went out as Spider-Man, he couldn’t afford to hesitate.
Peter had to decide about more things in his life, day by day pushing the boundaries of his comfort levels and forcing him into becoming someone meaningful. A hero who wouldn’t hesitate to do the right thing.
He was mildly aware of the things the Avengers were dealing with, catching the news of the bombing of the UN on Twitter as a trending topic - vague posts on Tumblr about what actually happened and theories on Reddit of who caused what. In hindsight, he would say he didn’t really have an opinion because he hadn’t known but the truth was shamefully more simple: Peter hadn’t cared.
The geopolitics of the world were far beyond the scope of any fifteen-year-old, much less one who snuck out of his apartment at night to fight crime before sneaking right back in - balancing a secret identity and calculus homework all in the same day.
Peter hadn’t given thought about what problems the Avengers got themselves into day by day.
Until Tony Stark walked into his apartment, walked into his life, and made the choice for him.
“You doing okay, Queens?”
Peter looks over his shoulder to see Steve Rogers staring at him with an expression that he can only describe as protective, something that doesn’t really make sense to Peter since he barely knew the man.
Captain America was a soldier, it was only fitting that Peter’s only interactions with him revolved around battlegrounds.
There weren’t any battles to fight today, at least none that Peter felt interested in - shrugging as he turns back to look over the lake and watch the arc reactor disappear out of sight.
If he closed his eyes, he could hear May in the cabin with Pepper - the one person out of everyone there who actually knew what she was going through. Peter winces at the idea of being out here - like a coward - instead of trying to connect with Morgan.
If there was anything Parkers knew, it was how to handle grief. But Peter needed just a minute to himself before he tried to be there for a little girl he knew nothing about but who already seemed to know everything about him.
“I’m okay,” Peter finally answers, hearing Steve’s walk closer towards him until he can see him out of the corner of his eye - standing shoulder to shoulder with him as Peter continues, “It’s really quiet out here.”
“It really is,” Steve says, Peter looking up to him - Steve’s eyes getting a faraway expression as he looks out over the lake. “Peaceful.”
He laughs to himself, as if there was some private joke, before smiling and saying, “I can see why Tony liked it out here.”
Peter doesn’t quite know how to answer that, not only because of all the things he knew of Mr. Stark, liking the quiet wasn’t one of them. It’d been days since that day on the battlefield, an impossibly long day for Peter that he learned for everyone else had been five years.
Those five years had changed things in more ways than one, the little girl back in the cabin being proof positive of that. But it was the presence of the man standing beside him that Peter was focused on in the moment, the thought occurring to him that Mr. Stark never did tell him what happened between the two of them - only to get hit with a wave of grief that now he never would.
The few times that he even tried to bring it up, Mr. Stark shut it down - not so subtly changing the subject to suit upgrades or a conversation with May about making their lab times part of an official internship.
Peter swallowed down the lump in his throat, grinding his teeth and staring back to the lake with blurry vision as he says, “Yeah.”
He can sense Steve turn to him, Peter forcing himself not to think of all the things Mr. Stark wouldn’t get to see or be a part of now - of all the questions he’ll never get to ask or the lab times they’ll ever get to have, only for Steve to say, “You know, he talked about you a lot.”
He didn’t mention you at all , Peter thinks but doesn’t say, nodding as Steve continues, “He’d be really proud of you, son.”
Peter can’t help the laugh that comes out of his mouth, a sharp and undignified sound as he sniffs then says, “Doesn’t really feel like I did anything.”
When Steve doesn’t answer, he turns to look at him - finding that Steve is staring at him with a look that Peter can’t quite place. Steve seems to come to conclusion to himself, bringing a hand to Peter’s shoulder before squeezing gently and says, “You did.”
He nods once before lifting his hand and turning around, Peter feeling a little dumbfounded by the interaction but not really feeling emotionally stable enough to ask anything more.
Peter just watches as Steve walks back towards the cabin, before finally turning back to the lake - the arc reactor long gone now.
Peter sighs, feeling his shoulders sag as the water ripples out - the sunset streaming out through the trees as a gentle wind passes through.
It is peaceful and almost suffocatingly quiet, Peter almost wishing for the constant buzz and noise of the city to distract him. At least with that, he could tune everything else out - focus all his energy on that and not on the thoughts that run in an endless cycle in his mind.
He knows he should go and find May or Morgan or maybe even Colonel Rhodes, an instinct ingrained in him from too many funerals in his life to look for the places and for the people who need the most help.
He doesn’t just yet, the silence of the lake feeling so impossibly loud as Steve’s footsteps fade into the distance and Peter stares out over the lake.
It’s not until a few weeks later that Peter remembers Steve’s words.
Moving back to the city was an adjustment in and of itself - an entire universe’s population returning back to their old lives only to find the half left behind had moved on without them - had descended the world into a different kind of chaos.
But chaos was something Peter welcomed, if only because for him it was painfully familiar - having his entire world turned upside down more times than most people did in a lifetime. It was a feeling the rest of the world seemed to share with him it seemed, especially the Vanished as they called people like he and May.
Yet there was always a mugging to stop and a person to save, Peter throwing himself into patrolling as much as May would physically allow him to - at least until school started back up again.
Peter’s just finished webbing up one of those would-be muggers right outside of a bodega in Brooklyn, fiddling with the web shooter as the bodega owner waves thanks - waving back only to almost bump into someone behind him.
He turns immediately, more caught off guard that his spider senses hadn’t warned him of a threat only to straighten up when he sees who it is - Steve Rogers in street clothes, sunglasses and a baseball cap on his head.
Steve nods towards the bodega owner before looking back to Peter. “Queens. Looks like you’ve been a little busy.”
“Oh uh, yeah,” Peter says, looking to the bodega owner who’s turned his attention back to sweeping - Peter wondering to himself how his disguise could possibly be working only to realize that for the average person, much less average New Yorker, seeing an actual Avenger in front of them was less likely than encountering an alien.
“You’d think stuff like this would calm down,” Steve says, nodding towards the webbed up would-be criminal. “But it looks like you have it handled.”
“Yeah, you know just,” Peter shrugs, “gotta do what I can.”
He smiles at that, nodding again in agreement as he says, “All we can do sometimes.”
Peter shifts his weight back and forth uncomfortably, feeling a little awkward around him even if objectively Peter knows he shouldn’t.
He’d fought alongside him against Thanos yet it strikes Peter that he doesn’t really know anything more about him besides what he’d absorbed by growing up in the city - what he’d learned in history books and cultural osmosis. He didn’t know the important things, not the things that made him a person.
Peter didn’t know what he was doing here or how he’d found him, vaguely remembering something he’d heard about a press conference the Avengers were holding at the end of the week - some big announcement Peter hadn’t been asked to be included with and really didn’t care to.
He’d had enough of being a part of the team if he was honest, the memory of what Mr. Stark had looked like in the final moments rushing back to him.
Peter swallows that down, shaking away the bad memories like he has so many times before as he says, “You doing okay, Cap? What uh, brings you here?”
Steve cracks a smile, tilting his head as he says, “Call me Steve.”
Peter doesn’t quite feel comfortable with doing so, not least of which because of years of politeness instilled in him from living with May as Steve continues, “And I actually came by to see you.”
“Are you following me?” Peter asks without thinking, only for Steve to laugh as he shakes his head.
“Just checking in. See how you and—” he cuts himself off, looking back up to the bodega owner before turning his attention back to Peter, “your family have been settling back into things.”
“We’re doing okay, about the same as everyone else,” Peter says carefully, searching for some kind of agenda in Steve’s eyes and finding none. It was a little disconcerting if Peter was honest, and a little too much like deja vu considering the last time an Avenger came into his life to “check in” on him had ultimately led to his sophomore homecoming date from hell.
“Good to hear,” Steve says, Peter bracing himself for more only to be taken aback for the second time when Steve says, “Well I won’t keep you. Keep in touch, Queens.”
Steve turns away from him again, Peter blinking a few times before coming back to himself and calling out, “How?”
Steve pauses, looking back over his shoulder as Peter says, “I mean, I don’t know how it is for you guys but I don’t just have everyone’s numbers or anything.”
He turns so that he’s facing Peter once again only for Peter to see a grin on his face, laughing to himself again as he says, “You got a pen?”
“Uh no,” Peter says, scratching the back of his neck before glancing around. “But uh, you can just, like, whisper it to me or something? Karen’ll pick it up.”
Steve studies him for a moment, Peter hearing how stupid that sounds as he rushes forward and says, “Or if you give me like, two seconds, I can get a paper and pen from my backpack. I don’t have a phone yet because of the whole going off into space thing so—”
“I can wait,” Steve calmly interjects, glancing around as Peter starts to notice the same people that Steve does as Steve’s voice lowers to an octave no normal person could hear. “Meet at Peretti’s?”
Peter nods, knowing the pizza place around the corner before saluting Steve - the action causing the man to laugh as he says, “Be safe, good citizen.”
Steve mockingly does a salute back, the look of it making Peter smile under the mask as he hears the man say, “Will do, Queens.”
He walks away, Peter feeling a little flabbergasted at the exchange before he swings to where his backpack is - curiosity driving him forward as he swings.
Peter starts to see Steve more often in the weeks and months that follow, always random and without warning - leaving Peter a bit more bewildered every time. Meeting up at Peretti’s had been just as awkward as he’d anticipated, the fact that they exchanged numbers with a paper and pen being just as weird as he thought it would be - inexplicably making him miss Tony and the nearly overwhelming amount of information he had on him.
Peter had chafed under it at the time, more annoyed with the idea of Mr. Stark outing his secret to May than anything else. Even after homecoming, after she found out the truth and after his “Stark Internship” was made official - Peter took for granted just how much information Mr. Stark had on him.
He’d already known about his parents and Ben, knew where he went to school and even had workups on his friends - something that in hindsight was a lot more invasive than Peter had really thought of at the time. He’d been so swept up in actually getting to work with Iron Man that he hadn’t really had to do much work for it, especially after being ghosted for months and that disastrous homecoming night.
It’d been a turning point for both of them, Mr. Stark it seemed especially - more invested in his life than he had been before.
Yet even with that, Peter can’t really remember the two of them talking about the details of each other’s lives - not nearly as much as he wished he knew now, always putting it off for a someday future when they were closer or working from information that both of them already had.
Steve showing up in his life felt so different, if only because for as random as his appearances were and how intentional he’d been in getting his number, Steve texted him more than Ned did.
There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for the messages - a quick hello, a question about May or his friends or starting school - nor did Steve really seem as if he had any further purpose than to just check in with Peter.
If Peter didn’t know any better, he would think Captain America was almost stalking him - though the fact that he wasn’t Captain America anymore gave him enough to think that he really could just be bored.
It didn’t surprise him when Sam Wilson was announced as the new Captain America, not just for him correcting Peter to call him Steve but for the look in his eyes when he did so. It was a look he’d seen before in Ben’s eyes, resignation and peace all at once - the kind of calm that Peter himself so desperately wished that he had but couldn’t ever anticipate having. Not anytime soon at least.
He was too busy trying to keep afloat, the hard working of rebuilding a life, much less the universe, taking all of his attention.
The large, gaping hole that Mr. Stark left in the world - much less in his life - was hard to miss, pop up memorials and graffiti of him appearing anywhere he turned. It was hard enough trying to readjust to the world after apparently having been dead for five years, the ever present reminder of how he’d returned never far from his memory.
The more he heard from Steve, the more it made him miss Mr. Stark - if only for how much he desperately wished that he had ever actually talked about what happened between the two of them.
The year that he knew Mr. Stark, really knew him at least, felt insignificant now - the late nights joking in the lab and the few times that he’d stayed over for dinner making him wish that he’d made more of an effort to ask more questions beyond the day to day.
But there had been a reason for it back then, just as there was a reason he didn’t make more of an effort to figure out what was going on with Steve - the hesitancy in being unsure of what exactly you were in another person’s life and simultaneously getting to know them, paired with the incredibly awkward and unexplainable reality that these were literally his childhood heroes.
There’s so much more he would say if he could go back, so much he wishes he had the chance to ask - kicking himself for yet again letting someone in his life leave it with words unsaid.
Peter pushes that away, reminding himself that he has more pressing things to focus on. High school apparently hadn’t changed much in the five years he’d been dead and having to repeat junior year sucked but not nearly as much as everything else did - in the grand scheme of things.
Life, despite everything, found a new normal in the midst of it all. May threw herself into her work at the shelter just as she had thrown herself into real estate when Ben had died. He spent his days at school with Ned and with MJ more often than not, the latter being a new but not unwelcome addition to their lunch duo.
It was nice, getting to be around her - just as it was nice to have the familiarity of Ned, comforting in a way Peter couldn’t really explain.
The Dusted, or now the Blipped as people started calling themselves, banded together out of necessity - if not choice, the halls of Midtown feeling less and less familiar not just for the building upgrades but for an entirely new group of students around him.
Steve’s Houdini acts would’ve been interesting enough on its own but compared to everything else, it just didn’t matter as much.
Until, like everything else in Peter’s life, it did.
“Peter, it’s so good to see you,” Pepper smiled warmly at him, Peter shifting his weight back and forth before saying, “Hi Ms. Potts.”
He winces, correcting himself before saying, “Mrs. Stark? Mrs. Potts-Stark? I’m sorry—”
“Pepper is fine,” she says with a reassuring smile, gesturing for him to come into the penthouse apartment her and Morgan had just moved into. Pepper looks behind him, eyebrows furrowing as she asks, “Is May—”
“On her way, she got caught up with the stuff at the shelter. She told me to go ahead cause I was, you know,” Peter motions his hands in a thwipping motion, Pepper laughing to herself as she nods.
“I’m glad you made it safe. Come on in, dinner’s almost ready.”
Peter does, stepping in and taking a deep breath as he glances around.
The place is unrecognizable but of course it would be, being new not just to Peter but to them as well. Peter didn’t know if they still owned the cabin they had in the Blip, but he understood why Pepper moved back into the city - every news channel talking about the efforts that SI was taking to involve themselves in the rebuilding process when they weren’t running a highlight reel of the late Tony Stark.
Morgan comes bounding in from the other room, Colonel Rhodes not too far behind - the latter pausing before smiling as he says, “Hey kid, how’s it going?”
“Hi Colonel Rhodes,” Peter says politely, eyes shifting to Morgan whose staring at him curiously, “how are you?”
“I’d be doing better if you’d call me James,” he says with a smile, Peter smiling back only to be caught off guard when another voice rings out.
“Been trying that for months, Rhodes. Hasn’t worked yet,” Steve says as he walks in from the kitchen, folding his arms with a smile on his face.
“He was raised well,” Pepper answers amiably,
Peter smiles awkwardly at the three of them before looking at her and saying, “Don’t tell May.”
The adults laugh, Peter thinking it wasn’t really that funny all things considered only for Steve to make a beeline towards him - both Pepper and Rhodes conspicuously moving towards the dining area with Morgan in tow, the latter staring curiously at Peter.
“How you doing, Queens?”
“Good, um. You know my name’s Peter right?”
Steve just laughs again, the same prenatural calm that Peter doesn’t understand but is drawn to emanating off of him as he says, “I do. Old habit. You know I’m from Brooklyn?”
Peter bites his tongue, not just because of course he knows nearly everything there is to know about Steve Rogers, American cultural icon and one of his childhood heroes, but to stop himself from laughing. The very idea that someone like Steve Rogers would still politely ask if someone knows something about him, as if he didn’t still currently have a Smithosonian exhibit that detailed his life and kids like Peter learned about him every single year during American History, was hilarious in a horrifically sad kind of way.
It strikes Peter in an instant - the humor in his gentle questioning, the specter of Tony Stark and his legacy, and then, terrifyingly his own - enough to cause Peter’s expression to change, enough that Steve’s own changes as he says, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Peter’s quick to say, a little too quickly it seems from the way Steve’s eyebrow raises. But Peter’s saved from having to discuss it any further from the doorbell ringing, quickly turning to it as Pepper walks in from the other room.
Peter feels an immediate relief when he sees that it’s May, not only because she’ll save him from this potentially awkward conversation but also from something that he doesn’t want to admit to himself - a childlike object impermanence anytime they were separated.
Pepper warmly welcomes her as May hugs her hello, only for May to turn to Peter and Steve - her eyes lighting up with the same kind of relief that Peter feels in his chest as she comes up to him.
She brings him into a hug, only to release him and turn to Steve and say, “Captain America, how are you?”
“Just Steve now ma’am,” he says with a smile, May knocking her hand against her forehead as if that had missed her mind, though Peter knows as well as she does that they learned of the news about him together.
“That’s right, sorry. May Parker. I know we’ve met before but—”
“Under very different circumstances,” Steve says amiably, taking May’s outstretched and shaking it firmly.
May glances to Peter, her expression shifting as it so easily does - reading him and his sense of unease quickly as she says, “Well I don’t know about you, captain or not but I am ready for whatever it is that you’ve got waiting for us. It smells delicious.”
She looks to Pepper who nods towards the three of them, motioning towards the dining room. “Of course, it should almost be ready by now.”
Steve nods to the two of them before following after Pepper, May giving Peter a side-long glance that communicates a thousand things without saying a word - three of them at the forefront as she locks eyes with him.
Are you okay?
Peter just barely nods his head, signal enough that he was fine - especially since he couldn’t exactly place what it is that he’s feeling anymore than he can explain it to May.
He gets through dinner well enough, the light and easy chatter between them not quite feeling awkward so much as Peter felt out of place - the gaping hole of the person that was missing in the room aching at something in Peter’s chest.
He’s not sure why Steve is here, all things considered, but it seems impolite to ask, not for the easy way Pepper and Colonel Rhodes seem to carry on with him. It’s clear they’re all familiar with each other, as they would be - considering how long the Avengers were together.
But Peter’s still curious, especially for how much attention Steve seems to pay to them all - as if he too was out of place and trying to find his footing in a world he didn’t quite belong in.
It’s not until they’re back home, Peter slipping off his shoes and lost in his thoughts, that May asks the question that he’d been avoiding himself all night.
“Did…” May begins, Peter turning to her as she hangs up her keys. May purses her lips, the little line in her forehead deeping the way it always does when she’s debating how to approach a particular conversation.
“Is everything alright, with you and Mr. Rogers?”
Peter can’t help but laugh at the name just as May does, grinning as he says, “He’s retired, not old , May.”
“Excuse you, Mr. Rogers was an American icon,” May says with a laugh, Peter smiling at her as she says, “Not that the one we know is any different. He is so tall in person.”
“Right?” Peter says, shaking his head as we walks to the living room, only to pause and look back to her when May says, “Shit.”
“Hmm?” He asks, May looking as if she’s just realizing something - only for everything to be clear when she looks at him and says, “Steve. From Brooklyn.”
Peter blinks at her in confusion only for May to put a hand to her hip, lifting the other to rub at her temples as she says, “When you and Stark went off on that ‘retreat’,” she says, pantomiming quotation marks, “you said you got into a fight with someone from Brooklyn.”
Peter winces at the memory, how blatantly he’d lied to her and that now a year or so later - technically six, Peter thinks - the shame he felt about his first few months as Spider-Man still haven’t gone away.
“That was him right?”
Peter nods sheepishly, May shaking her head as she brings her hand down.
“I can’t believe I missed all of that,” she says with a sigh, the guilt in Peter’s stomach churning even more as he is quick to say, “I shouldn’t have lied.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” May says, looking at him over her glasses. But then she gets a tired expression on her face, her shoulders sagging slightly as she says, “But I also shouldn’t have missed that. Shouldn’t have missed any of that. Feels like another lifetime now…” May says as she trails off, looking out over to their new, still half-packed apartment.
It was another lifetime, Peter thinks - Morgan’s cheerful banter tonight proving once again just how much people like he and May missed in the aftermath of the Blip.
“Is everything okay? With you and… I still want to call him Captain America but I know he’s not now,” May says with a laugh, Peter smiling at her as he nods.
“Yeah, it’s fine.”
She walks up to him, ruffling her hand through his hair as she cradles his chin. “You looked a little tense when I walked in.”
Peter shrugs, May running her thumb across her chin as she brings her hand down as Peter says, “Everything’s fine? It’s just kinda— kinda weird.”
Peter opens his mouth then closes it again, glancing around the apartment as if the boxes of their stuff that had been carted off into storage would somehow bring him the answer to questions he isn’t even sure of.
Yet it does, if only for who had arranged for their belongings to go into storage to begin with - eyes fixating on a picture of him, Ben and May the Hanukkah before he died.
It was another reminder of all the things Mr. Stark had done for him but he hadn’t had the chance to thank him for, much less the knowledge that now he never would. It seems horrifically unfair that Mr. Stark had all this time to get to know him , to learn all about his life and his history - to make sure him and May’s belongings were safe, either by proxy or by doing it himself - more life secrets and untold things that he stumbled across when the two of them were dust in the wind.
Peter wouldn’t get the chance to thank him or ask him questions, much less ask what drove to put on the gauntlet in the first place. It hits Peter that he’s still so angry at Mr. Stark for doing what he did, all tightly wrapped up in the grief that ebbs and flows in grieving a world that doesn’t exist anymore.
“You still with me?” May gently asks, Peter looking back to her and seeing the concern on her face.
“Yeah, sorry. I’m just—”
“You know, even if he’s not Captain America, I’m sure he’s still got some stories. I know there are things you don’t want to talk to me about, with Spider-Man—”
“May—” Peter says, immediately feeling guilty and wanting to tell her that that wasn’t true, even if the two knew that would be a lie, only for May to interject.
“It’s okay, Pete. I can’t say I understand because I don’t. I want to,” she says, bringing her hands to his face once again, “I want to hear whatever you want to tell me.”
Peter searches her face, seeing that she’s telling the truth but already knowing that no matter how much he loves May - there are some things that he’s not sure he can ever share with her as she says, “But I also know you , sweetheart. You’re always trying to protect everyone else.”
She runs her thumb across his cheek, smiling at him before pressing a kiss to his forehead. Peter closes his eyes as she does, thinking back to all the times she’d do the same thing when he first came to live with her and Ben. He wishes he could go back to being that small, even if life hadn’t been any more simple or easy back then.
May leans back, Peter opening his eyes to see her gentle smile as she says, “You have to let us try and protect you too, okay?”
Peter nods, letting her words settle in his chest and understanding the double meaning them as he does.
Grief, Peter’s learned, doesn’t have a timetable.
It moves across time and space, Peter laughing to himself at the idea that in this case it was literal - not dealing well with either time or the fact that he’d died in space. A grief, Peter thinks, in three different forms.
The first was the most obvious, the loss of Iron Man like a shadow over the world along with the loss of Black Widow and whatever was left of the Avengers. They were still around officially, though the dynamics were clearly changed - enough that the chatter in the lunchroom from Flash and what was left of the Decathlon team being interesting enough to listen to as they ate their lunch.
The second was the fact that Flash sat at his lunch table to begin with, the loss of their old lives and of the five years that passed while they were gone making Peter feel as if he was a ghost walking through the halls of Midtown. The Blipped kids stuck together out of necessity, Midtown literally assigning them to the same blocks of schedules as a way of maintaining some kind of normalcy in a world that was anything but.
Yet there was a third loss that made Peter feel different than his friends, more than he already did, and it was the loss of a win - wondering if it had been his fault for not stopping all of this from happening in the first place.
It’s something that finds himself daydreaming about in school, only to be brought back down to earth by Ned gently poking him with a pencil or MJ not so subtly throwing a balled up piece of paper at him, a sketch of him looking off into the distance. Even Flash would notice when Peter would get a little too dazed, nudging him in their chemistry class until Peter focused back in on whatever they were doing.
It stuck with him on patrols, when he ate dinner with May but especially at night - staring up at his ceiling and running through what happened on that alien planet over and over again.
It wasn’t just his death that haunted him, the sheer terror he felt at being ripped apart from the inside out, something that no one else seemed to remember and Peter would give almost anything to forget.
Peter’s mind was fixated on the before, the plan that the Other Peter had until he’d messed it up - running through it an endless cycle in his mind hoping for a different outcome even if he knew there wouldn’t be.
If he’d just grabbed the gauntlet in time, had leveraged his foot just right or pulled just a little harder - always so concerned about hurting someone that even in the time that he needed it most, he hadn’t - then it wouldn’t have mattered what Other Peter did.
Thanos wouldn’t have had the gauntlet on when he came to and maybe, just maybe, things would’ve turned out differently.
Maybe there wouldn’t have been a five year gap.
Maybe they wouldn’t have lost in the first place.
Peter knows it’s a fruitless exercise, just as it is to run through the battle upstate - wondering if he could’ve done something to stop Mr. Stark from grabbing the gauntlet to begin with, though his anger forced him from focusing on it too long.
For everyone else, it’d been five years but for Peter it had only been a couple of months - the adjustment that his friends and the rest of the world had paling in comparison to what he was going through.
The whole universe was readjusting, but none of them had to live with the reality that he had been a part of the team that had initially lost .
The Avengers had won eventually, Mr. Stark paying the ultimate price for their victory and the world still equal parts in mourning and celebrating the lives that had been restored.
Peter was still stuck on their defeat, any joy in being brought back to life marred by the reality that it wouldn’t have been necessary had they been successful in the first place.
It wasn’t something that he could talk about with May, with Ned, or even with MJ. It was a specific pain, a specific loss that Peter wasn’t quite sure how to process - if only because there were so few people who understood it.
It hits Peter one night, staring up at the ceiling as the moonlight casts shadows over his room, that there were people who would understand.
And he had the number for at least one of them.
Peter’s feet are dangling over the edge of the building when he hears the roof door open, mask off and to the side as he looks out over the city.
“Nice view,” Peter says, hearing Steve walk up behind him - still staring out over the city when the man comes and sits down beside him, mirroring his position by dangling his legs over the edge.
“One of the best,” Steve says, the silence that falls between them feeling inexplicably comfortable. It’s something that Peter’s noticed about him, how comfortable he is with quiet lulls in conversation - the inexplicable comparison of Mr. Stark comes back to mind.
In all the time he knew him, Mr. Stark was always moving - hands fluttering against his thighs when he was deep in thought, rambling under his breath about this part or that equation, a part of Peter wishing with everything within him that he’d paid more attention to all of those little moments as they’d happened.
He’d been so enthralled at the idea of getting to work with Iron Man that even after everything with homecoming his sophomore year, it still felt new - desperately trying to prove himself to someone that now Peter recognizes with a sharp clarity, was also trying to prove something to him too.
Unlike Mr. Stark, Steve just… sits. Waiting for whatever it is that Peter had called him here for, his cryptic text message still not being reason enough to press for answers even if Peter knows there has to be a part of him curious as to why.
It’s that train of thought that motivates Peter to speak, blurting out the question that he’d spent months forming in the back of his mind as he asks, “Why did you agree to meet me?”
Peter glances to him, seeing the confusion in Steve’s face as he replies, “You asked me to.”
“Yeah, I know, I know,” Peter says, pressing his lips together before sighing. “I just— I mean, don’t take this the wrong way. But why… why do you care?”
Steve stares at him, Peter barreling forward as the words come tumbling out of him.
“I’m not trying to sound ungrateful. I know you’re probably really busy, or maybe you’re not now, I don’t know. I just don’t really get it? You probably have a lot of better things to do. I’m not saying it’s not appreciated but you’re always around and I know for you it’s been like five years but for me it’s only been a few months and I’m just a little confused—”
“Tony cared about you,” Steve interjects, Peter immediately clamping his mouth shut as the man beside him smiles gently - a sad one that doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Tony cared about you,” Steve repeats, before looking out over the skyline once again, “That’s reason enough for me to make sure you’re doing okay.”
Something clicks just then, a flash of a memory of Steve back in the penthouse - politely listening to some story Morgan was telling over dinner, talking with Colonel Rhodes about meeting him in DC - the pieces falling into place for why Steve was around them, around him, as often he was.
Peter’s not sure how to verbalize what he’s thinking, Steve looking back to him as he says, “If I’ve overstepped—”
“No,” Peter’s quick to say, shaking his head as he says, “No I’m not— that’s not what I mean.”
Steve once again stays silent, almost frustratingly so as Peter tries to gather his thoughts - putting his hands in front of him as he gestures towards the city.
“I’m just… confused,” Peter finally settles on, sneaking a glance back to Steve who is steadily looking on at him - patience and that almost unnerving calm staring back at him as he says, “I mean no offense but when we first met, you and Mr. Stark weren’t exactly friendly.”
Steve gives a grim smile before asking, “How much did he tell you about that?”
“He didn’t tell me anything,” Peter says with a huff, surprising himself with the anger in his voice just as Steve seemingly is.
It hits him in waves, the anger that he feels that there was still so much he didn’t know, the terrible sadness that won’t go away at the idea that he won’t ever get to know any of it.
Peter knows he’s missed a lot in the past five years, but even he’s not sure if Steve would be the best person who could fill all the details in - not just about the state of the Avengers but on anything having to do with Mr. Stark.
Colonel Rhodes had been nothing but friendly to him and from all he knew, had been Mr. Stark’s friend for years before he’d ever become Iron Man. He’d even offered to take him out to eat next time he came out to the city, a compassionate gesture that Peter was eager to take him up on.
Yet it’s not just the loss of the man that Peter is mourning, he realizes - it’s the loss of an icon. A childhood hero that he actually knew personally , only for him to now be gone and realize just how much he didn’t know at all.
It strikes him as ironic that all his life Peter had refused to choose between the two of them, Iron Man or Captain America, only to be brought into Mr. Stark’s orbit. Now, after both the end and the beginning of things - here Peter was, sitting on a quiet rooftop with the man formerly known as Captain America.
Maybe it was fate in a sense, the universe giving him the chance to talk about the loss of one of his childhood heroes with the other - even if the longer the time went on, the less Peter felt like that little kid who ran around with that plastic shield and mask.
“I’m sorry,” Peter says quietly, shaking his head as Steve interrupts.
“Don’t be. I’m not surprised Tony didn’t mention anything.”
Peter looks back up at him to see Steve now looking out over the city, a faraway expression on his face as if he’s reliving a moment that Peter can’t even begin to try and understand.
“Tony didn’t like to talk about those kinds of things. Didn’t used to at least. It’s... been a long time since all of that. A lot’s changed,” he looks back to Peter, a grim smile on his face, “it’d be a lot for anyone to handle, much less a high schooler.”
“I’m not a kid,” Peter’s quick to say, only to inwardly cringe at how immature that sounds. Steve just laughs at that, Peter trying to amend his words only for Steve to put a hand up.
“I didn’t mean it as a slight. You got heart, I’ll give you that.” Steve grows more somber, his features hardening as he says, “I wasn’t that much older than you were when I enlisted. I’d be a hypocrite to tell you to stand down when I never did.”
Peter doesn’t know how to answer that, chewing the inside of his cheek as Steve continues, “But I will say, you live a life as long as I have and you find out that there’s a lot more to it than looking for the next fight.”
Steve sighs, looking out over the city again as he says, “Tony was always saying I should get a life.” He laughs, as if that was some private joke before continuing, “Maybe he was onto something.”
The echoes of the city still ring out in the distance but Peter can’t help but feel as if a hush has fallen between them, a thousand different questions at the tip of his tongue yet struck with indecision on which to ask first.
It hits him like an arrow to the chest that if Steve was telling the truth, as he clearly seemed to be, that he wasn’t going anywhere - that Peter would have the chance to ask him as many questions about Mr. Stark, about the Avengers, of what it meant to live under the weight of being one of them as he wanted.
A part of Peter wonders if he’s just looking for someone to fill the gap that Mr. Stark had left in his life, the same questions he asked of himself in the first few months after Germany - desperately looking for someone to fixate on rather than deal with the weight of grief and his guilt surrounding Ben.
Steve would never be able to live up to that, just as Mr. Stark hadn’t - Peter being self-aware enough now to understand that even Ben hadn’t been able to live up to the pedestal that he’d put him up on from his memories.
There was something profoundly disturbing about getting the chance to meet your heroes, even more so when those heroes died in front of you - images of Ben bleeding out in a dark alleyway and Mr. Stark’s arc reactor going dark on a dusty battlefield rushing through his mind.
Peter shakes it away, the sadness deep in his chest tightening its grip before he exhales out of his mouth - forcing himself to stay in the moment rather than dwell on the things he can’t change.
He thinks back to Colonel Rhodes’ offer and to the press conference that Sam Wilson had given today - the reason that Peter had reached out to Steve in the first place.
Not everyone had been as accepting of him taking on the mantle, especially with Steve still alive. Others argued that the Avengers were a thing of the past, a lot of angry people still hurting that it had taken five years for them to fix their mess in the first place.
But Sam had argued that Captain America wasn’t just for the good old days, that the worst day is only where they start from - where they rise from. That the Avengers were a team that looked to the future, always evolving and changing just as the world around them did.
It was inspiring to Peter in a way that he hadn’t felt in months, enough to push him to contact Steve in the hopes of finding… something.
Peter isn’t quite sure what it is or if it’s even one specific thing - too many thoughts and problems and issues coming to mind, things far beyond the scope of anything Peter ever wants to get at.
All he wants now is to focus on the little guy, thinking back to that first conversation he’d ever had with Mr. Stark and how much it felt like a lifetime ago.
Peter isn’t sure what to make of the man beside him - a joke, a myth and a legend all in one - wondering to himself what people will say of him someday and what legacy Spider-Man would hold.
He looks out over to the city, eyes catching on a piece of graffiti emblazoned over a building of Mr. Stark, a churning in his gut at his own future - even if the man beside him was proof enough that not all superhero endings were unhappy.
Whatever it would be, whatever life had in store, it’s not here now - Peter taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly as Steve turns back to him.
“That life involve pizza? Mariano’s is still open.”
For as random as Peter’s message had been, Steve seems to easily roll with the punches - taking the olive branch for what it was as he says, “Mariano’s? Come on Queens, I thought you had better taste than that. Sal’s is the only slice to eat.”
“ Sal’s ?” Peter asks indignantly, Steve laughing as he gets up from the ledge. Peter scrambles after him, grabbing his mask before saying, “Do your taste buds just start to suck as you get older? Or is that just you?”
Steve shakes his head, Peter shoving his mask on his face as he says, “With age comes wisdom. And a mean right hook which,” Steve cracks a smile, “can’t say you got one. Need a little more practice there.”
Peter laughs, feeling the tightness in his chest loosen slightly.
Peter may not have had much of a choice of what brought him into the Avengers world, much less the spider that bit him and the tragedies he’s faced in his life.
There’s still so much Peter doesn’t understand - about his new place in the universe, about the world that he’d been brought back to, even about the work of what it meant to rebuild when so much had been lost.
Maybe Sam was onto something, that it wasn’t about trying to recreate what had been lost - that it was about trying to find a new path forward. And maybe May was right too, as she always was - that he didn’t have to take on everything by himself, that it was okay to lean on others and to let people try and protect him too.
“Yeah,” Peter says, feeling the smallest semblance of peace as Steve smiles warmly at him.
“I think I do.”