It comes to him often and without warning, the weight of Uncle Ben's head on his lap, the blood from the hole in the dead man's chest snaking towards him, drowning his ankles in a sick kind of warmth. The memory so intact he sometimes slips into it and forgets the when and where of reality, and it's a teacher's voice or Ned's steady hand on his shoulder that shakes him loose.
"You okay?" Ned says, and Peter only nods. Peter knows that Ned can tell when something's wrong, can recognize the distance in his best friend's eyes, but he doesn't protest. For that, Peter's thankful. There are times when the only thing he needs is to think.
May doesn't stop him when he falls away. Once in a while he comes back to find her watching him, her cheeks as red and streaked with tears as they were that first day, and both of them sit there thinking the same things but feeling them differently. Less and less frequently as time churns on she pulls out pictures of the man she loved and sits on the floor in her room, not crying or anything, just looking, like a stranger might flip through a book at the library. Peter sees this through the door she always leaves open and understands her vacancy, somehow, without the words to explain it.
(And he's back in May's arms, sobbing into her shoulder, an officer at the door. He can feel Ben's blood buried in his clothes, stuck to his skin, the insides of his shoes wet with it, and he'd refused the jacket the policeman had offered him but he wants it desperately now, wants to put something between May and all that red spilled down his front.
I'm sorry, May, I'm so sorry, I should've... I should've stopped... I'm so sorry, he says, and his words are swollen and thick with the tears he'd stifled until he saw her, alone against the light from inside, one half of the whole that as a kid had seemed unbreakable.)
And even in his suit, as he swings about the city, that alleyway sneaks up on him and all he can see is the white-stained-red shirt, the brown unblinking eyes to keep anyone from the illusion that his uncle was only resting, the silhouette of the killer disappearing into the street. (Come back here! Come back! his voice helpless and small and broken.)
His memories of the funeral and the hours just before it—tightening his tie in the mirror, May sipping coffee in the kitchen and crying in her own silent way—are fuzzy, but enough to paint a picture.
It had been held in a church Peter didn't know, the only one they could afford. He sat in front and watched the stained-glass windows with their stained-glass figures shine as the pastor droned on and on in his impersonal way, and off in some distant realm a guest coughed or sneezed or whispered, but none of this mattered until May stood and squeezed his shoulder and walked to the podium, and for the first time that day he felt brutally real. He can't remember what she said, only that her words sent ripples of gentle laughter through the crowd, and each time she said his name all eyes turned to look at him, this kid in the front pew wearing a suit three sizes too big, this poor kid.
And afterwards, he shook the hands of some people he knew and some he didn't, smiling out of politeness when they said what they thought they should.
"You're one brave kid, Peter."
"I worked with him for a few years. He was a really tough guy. He wouldn’t have let that guy go without a fight.”
“You remind me of him a bit."
"He'd tell you he's proud of you if he could. I know it."
"I'm sorry for your loss."
It was the sorrys that stuck with him. He choked and his heart burrowed deep in his chest, guilt bubbling to his tongue but left unspoken, because he should have been the one apologizing to them, it was his fault, his fault, his fault. I'm sorry, he thought, but what am I sorry for?
For the spider bite, for feeling overwhelmed by the things he could do by school by everything and sneaking out through the window, for staying out so late Ben went to look for him, for having his phone on do not disturb, for being too afraid to stop the man in black who passed him on the street and sent a dark feeling to Peter's gut, and he could have stopped him, he knew he could have, but it always ended the same way, Ben's head was always heavy, his arm always limp, and the man in black always escaped into the night.
Then Ned was there, and Peter hugged him, expecting to cry but nothing came, and neither of them spoke a word.
The church was too big and Peter was too small and some unconscious worry tugged at him when he'd said goodbye to Ned and couldn't find May in the mass of bodies. He tried to look for her, stood on his tiptoes and made an effort to push through the crowd, but unfamiliar faces swarmed around him to offer condolences and all he wanted was out, so he excused himself to the bathroom and stayed there until she called and said, "Where are you?"
A pause. "You ready to head home?"
"Yeah. Yes, I... I mean, if you are."
"I'll meet you at the car."
And he doesn't know when he started crying, only that it happened with May beside him and the sun setting just past the skyline, and that night he climbed to the roof of his building and sat with his feet dangling toward the street. A decision he didn't have the words for yet fell into place, there to be built on in the morning.
Of course, the memories don't haunt him like a shadow does. He's free from them some days, more and more so as the dust settles and the next act of his life begins. By the time Mr. Stark appears in his living room, he and May have shaped their own routine, the hole Ben's absence left behind slowly filling. The pity-stares stop and his classmates start behaving how they used to, Flash falling back into his bullying routine, Michelle forgetting how she'd hugged him when she found found out, and Peter invites Ned over for the first time since it happened. He climbs onto Peter's bed and says, "I really missed this place," and Peter can tell that by 'this place' he means 'you'.
"Yeah. Yeah, it's just- it's been a rough couple of months. You know."
Ned purses his lips to the side and nods. "It does feel a little weird without Ben here."
"I'm used to him, like, singing in the kitchen all the time," Ned says, a light laugh in his voice, and Peter smiles.
"Oh, the worst. What was, um, that one song he would always-"
"We Didn't Start the Fire?"
"I literally know like every word to that song thanks to him."
He pulls out his phone.
"Oh. Oh, hey, no! No no no no. I won't do it. I refuse to-"
Ned types furiously as Peter jumps up and tries to snatch the phone from his hands. He dodges and jams his finger down on the screen, and the room swells with the opening chords Peter knows so well, Ned egging him on, "Ten dollars, man. I'll give you ten whole dollars," and May appears in the doorway, wiping her hands with a dishtowel.
"What's going on? Is this We Didn't-"
"Yeah, it is," Peter says.
"I'm trying to get him to sing it."
"You know the words?"
By now, the lyrics have started, Billy Joel's voice echoing off the walls and—
(The announcer's voice through the radio: Right now, We Didn't Start the Fire. And Peter looks up from his phone, saying, Oh no, Oh God no, and Ben beams at him, already cranking up the volume and rolling down his window. He watches from the passenger seat and pretends to cover his ears and scream in anguish, but he can't help laughing at his uncle as he drums against the steering wheel and belts out the words and lifts his hand for a high-five each time he nails a verse.)
"I- I mean, probably, because of Ben. But I won't," he looks from May to Ned, trying to look as sure of himself as possible. "I won't do it."
Ned starts the song over. "I'll just keep rewinding it until you do."
"I've never heard you sing before, and that's, like, a constitutional right. As the best friend."
"I don't like singing."
May nods like a lawyer bearing bad news. "I think you should sing."
Peter throws his arms out, eyebrows slumped incredulously. "May!"
"It's a constitutional right, Peter."
"This is ridiculous."
"Rewinding," Ned says.
"You guys can't make me do this."
"But I can take away Spaghetti Sunday," May drops this into the air with an open-mouthed grin. Peter gapes at her and she shrugs in return.
"Last chance," Ned says. "Ten dollars, man."
He takes a deep breath just as the first verse begins, Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray, then opens his mouth and mumbles the next few lines. May cups a hand around her ear and he sings a little louder, loud enough for Ned to dance on the bed and May to laugh, sometimes singing with him, and when the music dies he can almost hear Ben laughing too.
"That was friggin' amazing, man," Ned says.
"Truly," May agrees.
And Peter buries his face in his blanket. Life is never perfect. Moving on is hard and staying past something is harder. Two days from now a certain smell will send him back, or a phrase will bring that hopeless feeling to his gut. But now, in his room with Ned and May, he can almost forget the suit in the ceiling and the pressure hanging over his head, he can be just Peter, just an ordinary kid, for once since that spider changed his life.
It's funny how things work, how an event in your life can circle back to another, intersecting in a great mess of memory and shared circumstance, and how these collisions can be so perfectly serendipitous it's like you've taken a step back in time and all you can think is no matter how much has happened you are still this former version of yourself, still in awe of the world you're now a part of.
Peter stands in his bedroom with Tony Stark and he can hear the sounds of people running past, feel that plastic mask against his skin, smell destruction in the air. All these flashes stem from his memory of the Stark Expo he'd gone to when he was just a kid, that night he wore his Iron Man mask and could just see the drone approaching and preparing to strike through its eyeholes. He stood still, held his fake gauntlet up in defiance, because he wanted to be a hero and he would be a hero, he would be as heroic as the man in the iron suit who appeared just then and saved the day, the man whose suit he wore a mask of.
Peter doesn't want to mention this to Mr. Stark, nor does he have to. He has a feeling Tony already knows.
He wonders what years-ago Peter would've said if he had been told that soon enough he'd have superpowers of his own, and that Iron Man himself would be knocking on his door for help. But none of this is as expected, not the time or the place, not the fact that he's not sure he can go or that he even should. In New York, he knows what he's fighting for. The Avengers never seem to be certain.
But—it's Iron Man asking, so of course he says yes. Of course he goes. Deep down he's the same as he was back then, filled with an intense and insatiable curiosity, fascinated by the world of his heroes because he wants so badly to be a part of it.
Mr. Stark says that Cap thinks he's right but he's wrong, so Cap is wrong. Peter doesn't ask questions, because he's eager to please, because he's afraid to know what goes on behind that shining iron curtain.
Cap's wrong, Cap's wrong, Cap's wrong. He thinks he's right but he's wrong, that makes him dangerous.
He pins this thought into his head so he can't forget.
But what's he wrong about?
It's these guys against these guys, that's what Tony tells him. "These guys are on your team and these guys aren't." What's the difference between the two? "If anyone else shows up, it should be clear who they're fighting for. We aren't out to kill, okay? You can web 'em up a bit, whatever it is you do, but keep your distance. Don't take it any further unless they take it further first, got it?"
"I got it."
"If you're in serious trouble, call for me. It's okay to tap out."
"Okay. Yeah. I'll... thank you."
"This is the big leagues, kid. You're not in Kansas anymore. These are some of the most powerful and dangerous people on planet Earth, you got that? I won't blame you if you have to stop. I'd rather you stop than wind up in the emergency room."
Peter nods, but he doubts he could stop if he wanted to. He has to impress Stark, has to more than anything, is too bent on that to quit.
When Mr. Stark calls, he flies in, snaps the shield from Cap’s unsuspecting grasp, and it's jarring and unreal and awesome all at once, seeing some of the heroes he grew up imitating turned to face him. He's sorted them into Tony and Cap, Good and Bad, People You Work With and People You Fight, but that doesn't stop his heart from trilling at the sight of Steve Rogers in the flesh.
He looks from Black Widow to Captain America to War Machine to Iron Man and they look back with mild surprise, and Tony commends him, and he’s so elated he can hardly get a sentence out, and the shield is light and some part of him wants desperately to throw it just like Cap does.
The fight commences, and the whole thing feels weird, like he's been dragged into the middle of a private matter, a civil war within a family he's never met.
He talks incessantly and almost without meaning to, because he's excited and because it calms his nerves. He can hear how young he sounds and he thinks the Winter Soldier can, too, as he holds back on an easy swing—he swears he sees a hint of hesitation in his eyes.
(Because you're just a kid, May had said, stretching across the table to squeeze his hand. And you've been through more than anyone your age should ever have to. It's no one's fault, Peter, I just- I just wish you didn't have to. That's why I worry so much. I know you can handle yourself, but you're still a kid, you're my kid, and it scares me sometimes how brave you are. It really scares me.
And Peter thought, I'm not brave enough, no matter how brave I am now it can't make up for how brave I wasn't then.)
Everything blurs in his overwhelming excitement, slowing down only when he stops swinging, so that his conversation with Cap is crystal clear. Peter straining under the weight of a truck, Cap stepping back with a small smile.
"You got heart, kid. Where you from?"
Steve Rogers lets out a chuckle. "Brooklyn." Peter can see a trace of something warm and distant cross his face, odd in its setting, just before he disappears.
The battle drones on, Peter thinking of things he'd like to tell Ned but can't.
"I stole Captain America's shield!"
"This one guy had a metal arm, you should've seen it, it was awesome."
"There was this dude who was really tiny at first, but then he was super big and we had to take him down like they took down the AT-ATs in Empire Strikes Back. My idea."
Peter's part ends with him sprawled on the cement, because how else could it have ended. His whole body aches as if he's been in some colossal accident, bruised up by the airbag. The sky is wide and glaring. The final sounds of this strange civil war buzz through his ears, but for once he's happy where he is, tucked into himself on the pavement, listening to the sirens scream far off and thinking of home.
Home kept on existing while he was gone. There’s a Chem test this Wednesday, an English essay due Friday, two problem sets for Precal left untouched in his bookbag and already a day late. May hugs him when he walks through the door and says something ironic like, “I was so worried when I heard about all the fighting going on over there. You didn’t see any of it?”
His first night on the job in his new suit feels comfortable, familiar, like he’s worn it all his life. He has more time to enjoy its volatile qualities when he’s not in the middle of a fight. The next day, articles checker the internet with speculation about the suit’s possible connection to Tony Stark, and what that could mean for the local hero who wears it. He skims them in the morning as he eats a bowl of Lucky Charms, smiling at some of the questions being proposed.
“Is Spider-Man working for Stark?”
“Was Spider-Man involved in the airport battle in Berlin this past weekend?”
“Is Spider-Man related to Tony Stark in some way?”
“Will Spider-Man become an Avenger? Is it possible that he's being considered as a replacement, after all that has happened these past few weeks?”
He feels antsy to fight alongside his heroes again, but Tony said he’d call if he needed him. He said he’d call. He said he’d call. Peter reminds himself of this over and over and over again, but it does nothing to quell his desire.
Life doesn’t wait for him to know what his future holds, it keeps moving and he’s left playing catch up, suiting up more often than he ever used to, dropping extracurricular activities on the off-chance that Mr. Stark might call with an immediate proposition.
Two months pass before Ned finds out, and it’s like he’s let out a breath but can’t breathe back in, a relief altogether confining until he realizes—the importance is in the exhale. Then the Vulture, the academic decathlon, the ferry, and Mr. Stark is back but this time he’s disappointed, forcing him to hand the suit over like one might take a match from a kindergartner, and all he wanted was to be like him, to make him proud.
(I’m sorry I’m so sorry please please wake up say something say anything, Peter murmured at the cold and pallid and listless face of his uncle who was already losing to time, who had already said a loose goodbye, a soft squeeze of the hand, a faint whisper that meant nothing when it left his lips.)
(In his head danced the Stark Expo, him leading Ben and May along in his plastic mask, adults leaning down to say, Hey, Iron Man! Later his tiny hand held out against the drone, his heart thudding against his chest, his feet rooted to the ground, before Tony Stark descended and shot the bot to pieces and said, Nice work, kid.)
(Ben was once an officer, and it had been years since he left the force when Peter asked why, and Ben had looked at him as the headlights of passing cars lit his face different shades of yellow. I was sick of seeing these people who vowed to protect and serve not do enough of either. When you have that kind of power… Well, with great power comes great responsibility. That’s how I’ve always thought of it.)
(Please, Peter tried, but time had won. Sirens screamed nearby. Never had a night felt so open-ended, like someone had emptied out its insides and left it bare-boned and simple, because there was Peter, alive, and there was Ben, dead, and the only noise was the haunting sound of an ambulance drawing closer and closer and closer but not close enough, and Peter’s fingers prickled like a reminder of everything he could’ve done.)
When he passes the test, when he gets his suit back, he knows he’s happy here. He’s happy looking out for the little guys. He’s happy being a kid for now, maybe something else later.
And when May walks in on him wearing the body of his suit, it feels oddly like he’s fallen out of orbit, his two halves or two worlds combining in an explosive shift, and he’s frantic to pull them apart but they have molded into something permanent. Fear pours from her in waves because he’s all she has left and she doesn’t know what she’d do if she lost him and he can’t find the words to explain to her that he started this because of him and all he wants to do is help people who can’t help themselves, but she must get it, she must understand when she says through her fingers, “You sound just like him.”
With her arms around him, he’s taken back to the night they lost him, and so much has changed but more has stayed the same. He finds himself saying, “I get these bad feelings, like- like another sense. Almost.” May nods. “They tell me when there’s danger, or when something’s dangerous. I’m not sure how it works, but…” May pulls back to look at him. “It’s just- the man who killed Ben, he passed me on the street. Before he did it. And I knew- I could feel how dangerous he was, but I didn’t stop him. I could have. I could’ve stopped him right then but I… didn’t.”
May’s expression doesn’t change, the only thing that gives away she heard him is the sudden presence of tears in her eyes. She wipes them away with the knuckle of her pointer finger. For a minute she watches him, her face twisted up in thought, her body slumped down onto the couch. She takes a deep breath. “When I was fifteen,” she says, “I had this friend, Harriet. We sat next to each other in math. She always seemed so happy and together, you know, like she had plans for her life and you never doubted she’d accomplish them. But then she started acting different. She was still smiling and laughing but I… I knew she wasn’t happy. I could tell she wasn’t happy. For whatever reason, I didn’t ask her about it. I didn’t tell anyone. And then one day I came to school and she wasn’t in her desk, and the teacher told us she was in the hospital. She’d tried to kill herself the night before.”
Peter wipes a hand across his cheek and it comes away wet. “Is she…?”
“She survived. That time."
“I’m sorry,” Peter says.
“It was a long time ago.” She gives him a half-smile. “My point is… you’re fifteen years old. Nobody expects you to- to be perfect. To be a hero. I don’t blame you for any of it, Peter, and he wouldn’t either.”
He looks around the apartment, at his flashcards piled high on the dining room table, at the empty pizza box in the living room, at the stain on the wall where he’d scribbled his name in gold and red. In the half-light, he can almost see Ben’s outline in the kitchen, stirring a pot of pasta, a song on his tongue. A dog barks outside and cars bustle past, and he feels small, but good small, a star watching the world spin.
“Okay. Okay, thank you.”
“So, Spider-man. How do you feel about helping me make some stuffed shells?”
Peter bites his lip. “I was actually thinking I could, maybe-“
“I know what you were thinking. Not tonight. Just- enjoy being a teenager. Enjoy being able to shirk responsibility. Queens can go it alone just this once.”