The ice is thawing. Peter hasn't dragged slush into his apartment for almost a month now and his shoes have been mercifully dry. He hasn't even had to wring out his Spider-Man suit in the shower after a night of heavy sleet or after taking a tumble into what passes for a New York City snow bank (hint: it's mostly dirt with just a dash of half-melted ice) in days. The NYPD has mostly calmed down since the armored truck incident, reverting back to their usual routine of either telling him to get lost or waving as he swings through Queens. Nobody's even tried to arrest him in two weeks.
He hasn't gone back to Hell's Kitchen since he'd unloaded his whole life story on Daredevil.
Thanks to his choice of setting himself up as Spider-Man's negotiator, Nelson, Murdock and Page have his phone number on file, which they've taken to calling a couple times a week. Sometimes he lets it go to voicemail, turning his phone on silent and pretending that he can't still feel the faint buzz against his thigh, but he hasn't bothered to listen to them. What's the point? He knows what they'll say. Maybe they'll make up some excuse for him to return to their office, or let him know that they're beholden to attorney-client privilege so he doesn't need to worry about his conversation with Matt. Or maybe they'll tell him they know. They know about Aunt May and that it's all his fault. Maybe their voicemails are just letting him know that they've dropped Spider-Man as a client and they never want him to contact them again.
Hi, Peter, it could say. This is Karen Page of Nelson, Murdock and Page. We spoke last week? I'm just calling to let you know that we've decided we can't continue to represent Spider-Man. We know about May Parker. Mr. Murdock and Mr. Nelson don't think they can work with someone so negligent and we hope you can understand. We wish you the best of luck in securing new attorneys.
If he doesn't listen to them, he can still believe that he's allowed to go back. He can still hope that they meant it when they said they wanted to help not just Spider-Man, but Peter Parker too. So, the voicemails stay, ghosts in the machine, a notification that he never clears.
The pineapple buns are gone. Peter's found a couple freelance gigs doing web design and coding, but it's slow going when he doesn't have many examples of his previous work and all the tech bros want to pay him in exposure. He's devoted pretty much all of his earnings to rent and a couple of carb-heavy groceries. Taste is irrelevant when he needs a ridiculous amount of calories to stop his metabolism from eating away at his muscles.
He tells himself this as he sits cross-legged on his bed one Tuesday afternoon, a bowl of white rice and pinto beans balanced precariously on his knee, and listens to an Introduction to Biochemistry lecture on Youtube.
(His chances at MIT disappeared along with the memories of Peter Parker, and, realistically, he knows he doesn't have much of a chance of getting into any university. Especially not without a scholarship. But his GED exam is coming up at the end of April and he's been distracting himself with pipe dreams of applying to community college. It would cut into his Spider-Man time and eat into money he doesn't have, but it's easier to think about a future instead of a past that no longer exists.
So he listens to lectures when the silence becomes too much and only stops when his stupid brain conjures up daydreams of listening to those lectures in person, shoulder-to-shoulder with Ned and MJ.)
A cool breeze flutters through the open window, airing out the pathetic clothesline Peter had strung up across the apartment. The dryer costs a whole dollar for a load down in the basement, which he'd decided could be better spent on salt and the occasional splurge for a pack of noodles. A bonus? The detergent smells clean and fresh, and if he closes his eyes, he can almost imagine Aunt May running in to show off her latest air freshener. She'd always liked the clean linen and ocean breeze scents the best.
The audio on his phone crackles as Professor Hutton leads his lecture through the definition of entropy. "It is, in essence, the measure of uncertainty-- a state of disorder. It's chaos. With work, we can reduce this chaos until it hardly matters. But if we leave entropy unchecked? Everything will eventually fall into disorder." The professor pauses in sync with Peter's hitched breath. "Now, how does this apply to biochemistry?"
His hands are shaking. Setting his bowl on the floor beside him, Peter clicks away from the video. Wind whistles against his window panes. It's just biochem. He should be able to listen to this without feeling his throat close and his chest growing tight. What work has he done to deal with the chaos of Doctor Strange's spell?
He's made a new suit and built a past for Peter Parker from the ground up, but what beyond that? He still can't stop himself from swinging past Midtown Tech or stopping outside Peter Pan coffee on days when MJ's behind the counter. It's not fair to make his loved ones remember him; it's not safe. But the idea of doing more to move on-- whether that be by leaving New York entirely or taking the time to choose which life he wants-- makes his heart squeeze. It lights his nerves on fire like a free dose of Electro's lightning.
He's just wasting time indulging in a future that's long since died a bloody death.
Desperate fingers tap through his phone for a distraction, scrolling through his emails until he comes across a new one from the Daily Bugle. Jameson's assistant is asking for new photos or videos of Spider-Man. (The extra money is certainly tempting. The combinations he's been able to make from peanut butter, rice, and beans have been depleting. There are a few he's been saving from an apartment fire last week. A couple action shots of him pulling civilians from burning wreckage and shielding ash-dusted heads as fire blazes in sunset oranges and blood reds. They make him look a little more heroic than he feels, but Peter's sure Jameson will find a way to spin it in a way that's more than humbling.)
His thumb traces over the screen. Given the quality of your previous submissions, Mr. Jameson has indicated a particular interest in your photos. If you have any photos or videos that may be of some interest, please stop by our offices when you can. We look forward to hearing from you!
It's not a long swing to the Daily Bugle's headquarters in Chelsea. With a sigh, he rolls off his bed and stuffs his suit in his backpack. His head is suffused with static. Things will only get worse if he doesn't get out.
Besides, what good is Peter Parker if he can't pay Spider-Man's bills?
The building is an affront to architecture. It's less of a building and more of a glass box, blinding in the mid-afternoon sun. Peter's pretty sure it could signal airplanes from the way it refracts. Shouldering his backpack, he walks up the pathway to the entrance, pointedly ignoring his reflection in the mirrored doors. His face is gaunt, not much better than the faces he remembers seeing when he'd volunteered at FEAST, and the circles under his eyes are a mess of deep purples. A yet-to-heal bruise pokes up from under his collar. Stopping to fix his hair won't detract from the rest of him, so he doesn't bother.
There's an intern at the front desk, a black headband set neatly over her blonde hair, writing in the notes app on her phone when he approaches. An itch builds at the base of his skull. His footsteps are too loud against the fake marble floors. The room is filled with vanilla perfume and the scent of it makes his nose twitch. Something's wrong. Nothing's wrong. What's wrong?
"Uh, hi," he says, wincing when the intern jumps. She sets the phone down and looks up to shoot him a smile. His Spider sense goes haywire, and it takes a second for him to swallow it down.
He offers a smile of his own to Betty Brant.
"Welcome to the Daily Bugle." Her voice is professional and polite. There's not even a flicker of recognition in her eyes. "Is there anything I can help you with, Mr.--"
"Parker. Peter Parker. I have some Spider-Man photos for Mr. Jameson?" His nose burns like he's about to cry.
"Did you have an appointment?"
"Um, no, but I got an email from his assistant Mr. Buckley this morning? I can show you the email if you want."
Her fingers hover over the keyboard and she leans forward to read the screen. "That's okay, you've sold photos to us before so you're in the system. I don't think he's too busy right now so I can let Mr. Jameson know you're here. You'll just have to spend a little more time down here with me until I get the go-ahead."
She hasn't changed. Her signature white-collared shirt and sweater vest combo have followed her into her internship at the Daily Bugle, which-- if Peter takes a moment to think about it-- he remembers her receiving shortly after Mysterio had outed him as Spider-Man. He hadn't held it against her. An internship with a well-known (if controversial) news site would look as insane on college applications as Peter's Stark internship had. He'd had bigger things to worry about than whether she'd gotten it because she'd known Peter-- and could therefore "expose him as a menace" for Jameson-- or not. After Doctor Strange... well, he somehow hadn't run into her while peddling his photos. If he'd been asked about it, he would have figured Betty's internship would have been just another thing that'd disappeared.
Betty takes Peter's lack of reply as confirmation, picking up the phone to page Jameson. After a minute or so, filled with crackly yelling from the receiver, Betty hangs up and smiles again. "Mr. Buckley should be down in a minute to escort you."
"Awesome," Peter says, and then, because if he stays quiet he thinks he'll cry, he adds, "Thanks, Betty."
She squints, tilting her head. "Sorry, have we met before?"
Peter imagines the floor opening up to swallow him whole, and desperately wishes it into being. His feet stay on too-solid ground. "Oh, sorry, I guess not. I just figured the Daily Bugle doesn't have that many high school interns, you know?"
Alarm flashes in her eyes. "I don't think I told you that."
Mouth, meet foot. He fumbles to reply before she tries to call for security. Does the Daily Bugle even have security? Would Jameson waste money on that kind of thing? "God, this looks so creepy, my bad. I just, like, guessed? I mean, you look like you're around my age," (and you dated my best friend) "so I figured I'd take a stab at it? I like learning people's names-- not like that!-- just so it feels less awkward when I come in. Like, it's usually Miss Patton at the front desk, but I guess she's off today and--"
Betty and Peter turn in sync to see Dan Buckley standing at the elevator door, an eyebrow raised. Peter tries to hide his sigh of relief as he nods. "Hi."
"Jonah's got five minutes for you. Let's not waste them in the lobby," he says, keeping his arm slung over the elevator door to stop it from closing. He tilts his head towards Betty. "Everything alright, Miss Brant?"
"For sure!" she replies, smoothing the front of her shirt. Peter thinks she might have found his rambling endearing, which, all things considered, he supposes is better than terrifying. A small, genuine smile blooms on her face. "It was nice meeting you, Peter."
His chest hurts. "You too."
He follows Mr. Buckley into the elevator, the tingling under his skin finally beginning to settle. On the top floor, Peter walks through the set where Jameson broadcasts his livestreams, carefully stepping over taped-down cords and studio lights. Two camera operators drink coffee dangerously close to their equipment. Jameson is leaning back in his chair, an unlit cigar poking out from the corner of his lips. He fiddles with a lighter, but makes no move to light up. He glances up as Peter approaches and his scowl deepens.
"Uh, yes, sir." His hands itch to pull on his backpack strap, to tug his suit a little closer. (It's always a dangerous game, bringing the suit right under the nose of a journalist like Jameson, but after the smear campaign and how the Daily Bugle blamed him for the attack that killed... that killed... for the attack Osborn and the other supervillains staged at Happy's apartment complex, Peter can't help but give into the temptation. It's almost as satisfying as he imagines waving a giant fuck you sign would be.)
"You got anything for me or are you here to waste my time?"
Peter pulls out his cellphone and finds the Spider-Man album. (Hey, having a specific album is good for organizing.) Jameson snatches the phone out of Peter's lax grip, leaning back to thumb through the photos.
"Crap, crap, crap, not bad, crap, crap, weird angle, decent composition, crap." He rolls his eyes and extends his hand back. "Give you two hundred for them."
"You offered three hundred last time," Peter replies, feeling his cheeks grow hot.
"We overpaid last time," Jameson scoffs. He tucks his lighter back in his pocket and rises to his feet. "You're a no-name freelancer with a decent camera who gets lucky. You should be happy we offer you anything. World's changing, Parker. Getting easier to get decent photos all the time. Some jack-off uploads it to Twitter? Offer to credit them and they're climbing over each other to let us use 'em."
"If there were better photos online then Mr. Buckley wouldn't have said you liked mine." He grits his teeth and resists the urge to clench his fist. Spit that tastes like venom fills his mouth.
Jameson pulls his cigar from his mouth, gesturing towards Peter's face. His eyes flit to Mr. Buckley, who's been standing idle beside Peter and now seems desperate for an escape. The way the lights glint off Jameson's bald head would have been funny under different circumstances.
"You said that? Remind me to fire you next week. I still need you to get a comment from Barton about his new side-kick so you still have a job until Friday. And Parker, your photos are biased. Spider-Man carrying children and little old ladies from a burning building? What are you, his PR team? For all we know the menace set the building on fire himself so he could play hero."
"And for all we know he just wanted to help," Peter snaps.
"Don't be naïve, Parker. Spider-Man's negligence probably causes more death and destruction than he claims to stop. The bank heist last month? I notice you didn't bother taking photos of that. What, don't like to see your hero fuck up?"
"Truck blowing through heavy traffic like that? He stopped a pile-up. But, sure, it must be so hard for the people richer than God to lose some old pottery or an antique doll because Spider-Man was just trying to help." He shouldn't be arguing. This isn't a bridge he can afford to burn. Jameson gets under his skin, sure, but this isn't worth it. His brain is yelling at him to shut up, but his heart is pounding in his ears and there's red at the corners of his vision. "You're a cynic."
"And you're a bleeding-heart idealist," Jameson says, his mustache curling as his lip pulls back. "Give you one fifty and you can get the hell out."
"Same deal as last time. Send the pictures to Buckley and he'll wire you the money. And if you get more photos of Spider-Man, send 'em my way." He turns his back on Peter and walks to where the coffee machine is at the edge of the set. Their conversation is over. Peter's irrelevant, useless, not worth another second of time. He doesn't leave seething like Peter does, stomping towards the elevator. The smooth bossa nova music feels almost ironic as he sends the photos over. The elevator dings and Peter storms through the lobby, unable to even feel bad when his ears catch Betty's hesitant, "Bye, Peter." He just has to get out.
The noise outside is almost as loud as the buzzing in his head.
The sidewalk is rough beneath his shoes, cracked and splitting apart. It probably hasn't been repaired since Peter was born. He kicks at a trash bag as he walks down the street, scrunching his nose as the stench of rotten banana peels puffs in the air like dust from chalkboard erasers. Rent's due in two weeks. He's made a hundred and fifty from the Daily Bugle, two hundred from building a website about shoes for veterans ( Veta-runners, some Canadian kid from Toronto had called it), another fifty from cleaning up some spaghetti code for an indie game, and a couple dollars that a nice lady had insisted on giving him after Spider-Man had helped her move a couch. It's not enough. It's never enough.
He makes it about two blocks before he finds an alley to duck into. Fuck this. Spider-Man doesn't have to think about stupid rent or stupid Jameson or the stupid life Peter's had to build for himself since he messed it all up. He sheds his clothes like a second skin and pulls on the suit. Muscle memory has him throwing his backpack and webbing it behind a dumpster before he pauses. Cursing under his breath, he tears at the synthetic webs like tissue paper. This is his only backpack. If he's not going back home, he's not leaving the thing behind.
(Past Peter had lost at least four backpacks since he'd been bitten, sometimes with library books, sometimes with electronics he'd found while dumpster-diving and had been excited to take apart. Before Aunt May had known the truth, he'd made up stories of forgetting it on a bus or on field trips. Their budget hadn't really accounted for multiple backpacks, but they'd always gotten by. Now? That's money Peter doesn't have. If he has to look like a dork swinging around Manhattan with a mint green backpack, then so be it.)
The sun is starting to set as he scales an apartment building. The red bricks are aglow under his fingertips.
Chelsea isn't his usual turf by any means, but the thought of going back to Queens right now makes his stomach roil. He taps at his webshooters as he perches on the apartment complex, listening for signs of trouble. In a city like New York, it doesn't take long. He stops a purse snatcher on 30th street, sticking the thief's hand to a bike rack, and sports a Prada purse for half a block before he can find its rightful owner. She thanks him and Peter can't bury the thought of how much a pawn shop would pay for a designer handbag like that.
His evening follows a similar pattern: Spider-Man stops a petty theft, clenches his jaw as he returns the stolen items, fumbles to find a quip to make the people like him, and tries not to think about how easy it would be to just... not give back what's stolen.
On 22nd street, a woman yells at her boyfriend outside a hardware store and picks up a hammer from her basket. Spider-Man shoots a web at the hammer, yanking it back into his hand with a sharp pull, and feels darkly satisfied at her cry of pain as he gives the woman a palmful of splinters. He can't find it in himself to feel bad right now. There's only anger, anger, anger pulsing under his skin. There's people doing wrong and he has to stop it.
Evening falls into night. The crimes change from petty to violent as the street lights flicker on and bars bathe the streets in a neon glow. Two men corner a woman in an alley. Her eyeliner is smudged. She's not crying, but her words are slurred and her head lolls against her chest. They're pushing her around like a puppet with its strings cut. Peter gives the men matching black eyes before he webs them to the wall and guides the woman to the bouncers at the bar he assumes she was at. He only waits around until the building is washed in red and blue from a police car and a gaggle of shrieking girls encircle their friend to take her home.
He should feel good about helping. Someone is safe because of him. But there's nothing.
Wind whips his face as he swings between high-rises. The mask pushes against the seam of his lips and it itches, itches, itches. He wants to chew it up and spit the damn thing out.
He takes a moment to breathe on the rooftop of a warehouse. The Hudson shimmers in the shitty lights of Pier 66. It's late now and he's soaked in sweat. His stomach is cleaved to his backbone. Swinging his backpack off his shoulders, Peter retrieves his cellphone to check the time. A little after midnight. Eight hours of Spider-Manning? He can do better. There's no reason he shouldn't be out all night. If somebody gets hurt because he decided sleep was more important? That's on him.
Drawing in a handful of deep breaths, Peter rises. He turns to leave the pier, arm outstretched, when he hears the impact of metal on flesh. A yell follows, echoing against the shipping containers further down. He swings towards the sound, feet pounding against steel as he runs and jumps against the containers. They pick up speed like the world's worst drum roll. Close to the water, Peter spots three figures hidden in the shadows of the crates. One is curled up against the ground, buried under a pile of tattered clothes. A dark liquid glistens near their head.
The other two figures loom over the man on the ground, who, Peter notices as he gets closer, reeks of burnt sugar and paint thinner. The taller figure-- a stocky man with an astonishing lack of eyebrows-- hefts a baseball bat over his shoulder. He's nudging the small man at his side who looks to be Peter's age.
"That's what you gotta do, Ronny," Baseball Bat says, voice rough like he's just chain-smoked an entire pack of cigarettes. He offers the bat to the boy. "Here."
"I-- shouldn't we help him?" the kid, Ronny, asks, wringing his hands.
"Tweaker shit like this? Hell no, you gotta show 'em what happens when they can't pay." He shoves the bat into Ronny's hands.
Bile burns in Peter's throat as he watches from above. The puddle near the man's head seems to be getting bigger. His feet feel like they've been superglued in place. Ronny hefts the bat in his hands, the weapon vibrating in his grip. He bites his lip. When he steals a glance at Baseball Bat, there's nothing in his gaze but expectation. The wind begins to howl. The man on the ground is wheezing, conscious but unable to speak. He can't catch his breath. Ronny, in contrast, breathes in deep, blowing the air out in an even-heavier exhale, and steels himself. He raises the bat over his head and--
Peter can't watch this. His arm whips out, his fingers pushing hard against his web shooters. They latch onto the bat as it begins to swing down and Peter flings it far behind him. The shipping crate rings as it strikes the side and then Peter's a whirlwind.
He flips off the crate, tucking into a roll as he lands, and comes up with both hands out. Webs shoot out in rapid succession, startling the men backwards as they try to evade him. Peter gets closer, his throat too tight to choke out a hello or a warning or a Put your hands up! Ronny ducks out of the way and Peter focuses on him, trying his best to pin him down. That's a mistake. Baseball Bat disappears from his peripheral for just a second too long and suddenly he's in Peter's face, face red with adrenaline and rage. He yells and throws a punch that hits Peter square in the chest. His heart stutters. He can't breathe. The world around him vanishes and all he can see is shades of red.
I just need to catch my breath.
Peter doesn't hold back.
His returning punch lands with a sickening crack and Baseball Bat flies backwards. His legs trip over the man on the ground and he hits the crate behind him hard. For one, terrible moment, there's silence.
Ronny screams and runs toward Baseball Bat, leaving his cover behind because his friend is hurt, his sternum is cracked, he's dying--
"I can't breathe, I can't breathe--" Baseball Bat's breath comes in short, halting gasps. His chest is lopsided, crushed inward and rising in pieces. A bloody halo glistens behind him from where his head hit the crate. Peter's hands shake. No, no, no, no, no.
Ronny's voice is thick with sobs. "Stay with me, man. It'll be alright. You'll be alright, man."
His body knows what to do better than his brain does. Peter climbs to the top of his perch and digs into his backpack for his phone. Trembling fingers dial 911. He can barely choke out the location and what's happened as he tries to tune out the broken wheezing and ugly crying. When they ask for his name, his tongue fumbles over the routine I want to remain anonymous. I was just in the area and heard what happened. Begging them to hurry, Peter jumps down to carefully approach the scene. The man on the ground is still breathing and Peter promises him that help is on the way.
"Help... help is coming," Peter says, trembling from head to toe.
"You killed him," Ronny sobs, his hands fluttering over Baseball Bat's wheezing body. There's nowhere he can touch that won't make things worse. "Oh, God, you fucking killed him. He's all I have, man. Please, he's all I got."
Peter says nothing, staying crouched beside them to listen for the moment when the four heartbeats turn to three and then two. Though he doesn't have Daredevil's ability to hear heartbeats, he knows they're slowing. God, what has he done--
Sirens cut through the air. Peter rises. He can't be here when they arrive. Taking one final look behind him, Peter flees. He flies through the air, swinging and running until the Hudson's far behind him. He runs past people who might need his help as tears blur his vision, almost hoping the next shot he takes with the web shooter is the one he misses. He doesn't know where he's going. He can't go home, not like this, and he can't keep helping people because what if he makes things worse and what if he's just like what Jameson said: a monster in a mask.
He ends up on a familiar rooftop sometime later and collapses in a heap. Peeling it away from his tear-stained skin, Peter hurls his mask across the roof. His fingers dig into his hair, yanking down. Sobs rack his body. He curls up against the side of the rooftop access, away from the door, pulling himself so tight he hopes he'll compact like trash. Peter screams into his arms, pouring all the rage, fear, and loneliness of the last four months into his elbows until his throat is hoarse.
He can't do this. He's tried and tried and he keeps failing. There's no lawyer for Spider-Man and there's nobody for Peter Parker.
His head swims, dehydrated from crying and lack of food. Tears turn to salt in his mouth. His chest still shakes and he can't catch his breath, no matter how hard he tries. Curling up tighter, he trembles so hard he's sure his atoms are trying to escape.
He can't stop crying.
There's somebody kneeling in front of him, a hand curled on his arm. It smells of old blood and leather. "Peter, did something happen?"
Matt's in front of him, smelling of old blood and leather and more than he deserves, and Peter feels something in him crack. Uncoiling, he tackles Matt in a hug, curling up in his arms. With Matt's heart under his ear, he feels it startle before slowing. It's steady and strong. He tries to match his breathing to it. Tentatively, Matt's arms settle over Peter's back and pull him in close. A gloved hand cradles the back of Peter's head, threading through his sweat-soaked curls. Peter burrows deep against his chest until the shaking starts to slow.
"I'm sorry," Peter whispers. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I-- I hurt someone. I didn't mean to. I swear I didn't mean to."
Tightening his grip, Matt lets Peter melt against him. "It's okay, Peter. You're okay. Whatever it is, we'll figure it out together. You don't have to be alone anymore."