He's 13 when it starts. Well, Peter’s sure that it's been happening for a while, but he doesn't realize it. Not until he overhears Ben and May talking one night when he's supposed to be sleeping.
He creeps down the hallway, hoping to sneak into the kitchen for a midnight snack when he hears a hushed argument.
“We can't just swing this, Ben. It's not...it's not a matter of me not wanting this for Peter,” May sounds angry and frustrated.
“I know that, May. But this...this is good for him. It's what he needs. He's not like other kids. This could be really good for him. Exactly what he needs.”
Peter freezes. So, this is about the school.
Ned’s parents heard about it and they immediately enrolled Ned in a private school designed specifically for science and technology. It's perfect for the two of them. So, Peter begged May and Ben to sign him up too.
“Don't talk to me like I don't know my own kid!” May snaps. “He deserves this and I wish I could just put him in there. But we have other expenses to worry about. Rent, electric, water, heat, cable...Ben, we're behind on at least three of those-- always. We can't send him to a fancy school when we can't afford to put food on the table-- but then again there's not going to be a table to put it on if we don't pay the last two months rent by this week.”
Peter swallows thickly as a chill runs through him. May and Ben have money troubles? He knows they aren't rich, but he never thought they were in trouble. They never make it seem like they are They take him out to eat, he gets toys at Christmas and his birthday, and he gets an allowance for his chores.
If he knew they were struggling, then he wouldn't have asked for that new pair of sneakers last month.
“You know our boy. We can't let him go to a public school where they'll focus all their time, money and attention on sports. They're not gonna give a rat’s ass about our boy that knows the periodic table by heart. They're gonna care about their football players and their baseball players.”
“I know, Ben!” May sounds like she's about to cry and Peter doesn't want this. He doesn't want the fancy school he's been dreaming about since Ned switched. He doesn't want any of it if it causes May to cry. They can't afford it-- they're arguing and she's crying.
Peter will gladly suffer through public high school if it meant they'd be okay. He’d be the nerd of the school even without Ned by his side. He'd be bullied and teased for not being the jock everyone wanted. Hell, he'd throw a jersey on and get tackled by every 200 pound high schooler if it meant his family would be happy.
They don't deserve this. All of this stress. How much is because of him? He totals his food, his clothes, the water he uses, the electricity he uses, all of the gifts they've bight him over the years...that's a lot of money. Money that maybe would have kept them from being behind on their bills all the time.
“We'll figure it out. We always do,” Ben says softly and Peter can imagine him brushing May’s hair behind her ears.
“You can't just say we'll figure it out. I'm tired of scraping by! I'm tired of robbing Peter to pay Paul! I'm tired of living paycheck from paycheck.” May chokes on a sob and Peter feels his eyes burn. “I want to give Peter this more than anything in the world. But I don't think we can afford thousands of dollars a month for high school...not when he's got college coming up only four years away--.”
“Hey, hey, sweetheart, calm down,” he says gently. “I talked to the principal. She looked at Peter's grades and I raved about him and she said he can take an aptitude test. If he gets a high score, he'll get the academic scholarship.”
May’s tears pause and she asks, hopefully, “What?”
“He's a smart kid. That school wants him. All he has to do is ace that test and he's got a full ride. He can do it.”
“Don't tell him,” she says quickly. “We'll tell him it's just to see how much he knows going in. If he does well, school is paid for, but if he has an off day, then we pay...we take out a loan--.”
“Marty’s been telling me he could use an extra hand in the shop. I can get an extra job or two,” Ben says immediately, like he's thought this out already.
“Ben…” May says, thinking exactly what Peter is.
Ben is a police officer with long crazy hours that practically knock him off his feet at the end of every shift. He's been counting down the days until retirement, not that he doesn't love his job --because he does, but he just would rather spend his time with his family.
Adding on two jobs, even one, is just...he'll never be home.
“May, one day I'll settle down. We'll all settle down. You, me, and Peter won't worry about anything and life will be perfect. But for now, we get through the hard times. We help our boy anyway we can.”
Peter feels the tears streaming down his face. He doesn't want this. He wants Ben and May to be able to enjoy their lives and not worry all the time about money. They've always done everything for him. They deserve time to just relax…
He hurries away from the hallway and back into his room before he can be caught. The thought of a midnight snack is long forgotten as he pulls out an old biology textbook he has. If he wants to ace that test, he has to study.
He starts studying that night and doesn't stop until the night before the test at the end of the summer. He barely left his room and when May or Ben convinced him to leave, he went to Ned’s place and studied from his books. Ned was more than happy to help him study.
He didn't tell Ned about his money issues-- Peter always felt like he would look at him differently if he knew. Especially when Ned’s family was more than well off. Ned wasn’t a millionaire, but he was wealthy. Ned never acted like it and really Peter only knows because he spends so much time at his best friend's apartment.
He knows from his apartment that can fit like four of Peter’s inside. He knows from Mama Leeds’ purse closet-- that is probably the size of their bathroom. He knows from every video console and game Ned has.
So, Ned still thinks Peter was studying just to get into a certain science class. He helped Peter without a second thought, sometimes staying until three in the morning.
It's all well worth it when he gets his results back a week after the test. A perfect score. Not one wrong answer. He acts like it's nothing when he tells May and Ben. Ben ruffles his hair with a proud smile. “I knew you could do it, kiddo!” May cries and pulled him into a hug.
Peter doesn't let the tears fall until he’s in his room later that night. He rolls on his side as the tears slip down his face.
It isn't great-- it doesn't take away any other burden on May and Ben, only avoids another. But he can start here. It's a start.
Ben dies a year later.
The bills continue to pile up.
May gets a second job.
They lose their hot water for a week.
May boils hot water for Peter's baths no matter how much he tells her he doesn't mind cold showers.
May gets a third job.
There's more than one occasion when the only thing in the refrigerator is salad or whatever leftover scraps the restaurant gives her.
There's more than one occasion where Peter is lucky to even eat during the day.
It becomes routine. Almost like a game.
How much money can I save Aunt May?
If they go out to eat, he orders the least expensive meal on the men with a water.
He doesn't ask for new clothes or shoes. If May asks, he's more than okay with what he has. If there's a really good sale, he'll buy something a size too big so he can fit into it even when he grows.
When she gives him his allowance, he slips the money back into her purse when she falls asleep that night.
It's a fun game to play. Especially when he hides in the hallway as she does her bills at the end of every month and as time goes by, she stops crying as she punches the buttons on the calculator.
Even when he goes to bed starving because he can't ask May for more food and now after his spider bite, he burns through calories by the minute. He doesn't care.
Some decisions are harder than others.
Ordering a $0.00 water instead of a $3.00 soda? Easy.
Missing out on a field trip he's been waiting for? Much harder.
“Oh, my God!” Ned says with a huge smile as their teacher hands out the permission slip to the Hudson River Museum. The Orbits Workshop and The Sky Tonight. The plan is to go to the observatory and planetarium, learn about the universe and constellations and planets-- “Dude, we can finally sleep over in the planetarium.” That's right. They were all camping out under the stars.
Peter doesn't let himself get excited. That pit in his stomach-- the one that is always there whether they're shopping at the dollar store or shopping for new clothes. The one that doesn't let him get his hopes up because he is too busy worried about how much it was going to cost.
He shouldn't be surprised when he sees the price... $130. He swallows down the nausea and disappointment. He smiles at Ned and says he can't wait to go. Ned doesn't stop talking about it for the rest of the day. He has their plan for the trip all ready by lunch time.
Peter smiles and nods along with it, but he continues the game. No matter how much it hurts.
The permission slip gets thrown out before he gets back home. He doesn't tell May about it. She would insist on him going.
But that money...that was groceries or rent or electric.
He tells Ned that he can't go-- some excuse about May getting tickets to a Mets game. Ned is happy for him and tells him to have fun, they could have their sleepover plans that weekend at Peter’s house. They do-- Ned shows up with a backpack, a bag of Doritos and a box of glow in the dark star stickers for Peter to hang on his ceiling.
But the day of the field trip, Peter doesn't go to a Mets game. He doesn't even get out of bed. He had planned on faking sick so May wouldn't make him go to school, but he doesn't need to fake it when the time comes.
He can't leave his bed, thinking about all of the fun his friends are no doubt having. He hasn't had one of his depressive episodes this bad since Ben first passed. This one is unexpected and hits him hard.
“You okay, baby?” May asks as she brushes his hair out of his eyes. “Is it bad-- stupid question, I'm sorry.” She cringes. “Do I have to stay because I can call my boss and let her know--.”
Peter shakes his head, that's all the energy he can muster. “No. ‘mfine, May. Just a bad day. You go to work. Don't worry about me.”
She looks hesitant but kisses his forehead. “Okay, if you're sure. But if you need anything call me and Lucille is just down the hall--.”
“May, I'm okay,” he says. What is a little 80-year-old lady that lives down the hall going to do about his depression being flamed by the fact he can't go on about field trip? It's stupid. There are people living on the street because they don't have money-- at least he has about roof over his head. He shouldn't be whining about a stupid field trip.
“Okay, sweetheart, but just let me know if--.”
“Okay, okay. I'm going! I larb you.” She kisses the corner of his mouth and pulls back.
“Larb you, too.”
She's gone and there's no one there to distract him. He goes on his phone and even though he knows he shouldn't, he goes on Snapchat. He clicks Ned’s story, sees his story of the planetarium and he feels sick. He keeps watching.
He doesn't crack until he sees Flash come into Ned’s camera view to flip him off with a $300 smart watch and a pair of $150 sunglasses.
Humans see the world made up of over 7,000 different color shades. Some animals like bats and raccoons see in shades of black and white. Peter? He only sees the the world in shades of green.
Everything is made up of money.
Does he really want that $20 pair of jeans? Does he need that $40 backpack or will the $10 one do? Look at that girl just casually holding a $500 purse as she gets into her $200,000 car. Look at that guy in front of him in line, carelessly pulling a $50 bill from his wallet from a small stack of other large bills.
He hates it. It's infuriating. And most times, he wishes he can just forget about this money shit and be a kid again. But then he stops being selfish to remember he's saving May money. He's doing her a favor.
So he watches the snap stories of his classmates all having a great time at the museum. Before noon, his phone is thrown across the room and he's curled on his side, crying.
There is a difference between need and want.
Shelter is a necessity. Water is a necessity. Food is a necessity but also a luxury. Just enough food to stay alive is necessary, but the really delicious food is a luxury.
Video games? That's the biggest luxury.
He'd love the new game console, but unless someone breaks theirs, leaves it in the dumpster, and Peter finds it and fixes it up, he's not getting one.
Ned gets it the night it comes out. He brings Peter along and they wait in line for GameStop to open and Ned comes out with a brand new X-Box. They go home to Ned's and play it until the sun comes up.
Going back home to his original X-Box, the one Ben had...it's not the same. He plays the same four games since the new games don't work on the old console. Monkey Ball is a great game and he loves playing with Ned, but after seeing the high definition of the dozens of games Neff already has downloaded on his new console...it's not the same.
But Thanksgiving is coming up and that means so is Black Friday. He knows the crowds will be headed directly to the new game, which is fine-- he can't even afford it after the crazy Black Friday discount. But with most of them going after that new one, he can get one of the older models for cheaper.
He has the whole plan ready. May has her gifts to get and he has his. However, last minute, May gets called in to work a shift and she can't go shopping with Peter. She apologizes again and again because she had planned on getting most of his Christmas gifts today and if she couldn't go out...then it was going to be a small Christmas this year. He tells her not to worry. He doesn't need gifts. He wants, but he doesn't need.
As long as he can get the X-Box 360 for a cheap price, he's more than happy. So, he goes to Target and gets ready to run for his console when the store opens. But as he hurries down the aisles, he stops when a foot spa catches his eyes.
He's seen the same one of May's laptop once or twice. It’s mostly a been a dream, nothing she could afford on a normal day. But now...now it’s half price and just sitting there.
Peter thinks about the long days when she comes home from her third job and crashes on the couch. Most times Peter will squeeze on with her when she calls him over (“Come here, baby. I haven't seen you all day.”). And she'll just hold him for a few minutes.
The days that he doesn't get called are the worst. Her eyes are already closed before she lays down. Peter comes over silently and drops a kiss on his forehead before sitting on the floor by her feet. He pulls off her shoes and socks and rubs her feet until she falls asleep. Then he carries her carefully into her room and tucks her in, placing another kiss to her forehead.
Immediately, Peter turns to grab the spa off the shelf and holds it close to his chest. He turns around to wait on the already long line to pay for it. He doesn't bother to get his X-Box. He isn't going to have enough left over to pay for it.
He pays for it, wraps it up and puts it under the tree for May.
Sometimes when he spends his money on luxuries, there's a bad feeling left behind and he regrets the purchase. But not this time. Not when May opens it up Christmas morning and she smiles so big. She uses it the next night and Peter sees in her eyes how much she loves it and how relieved she is.
So, giving up the X-Box 360 is fine. It's great. He has his X-Box in his room and he can go to Ned's place to play the new one. He doesn't mind. He's used to it.
He's used to seeing his room full of the newest technology.
He's used to having dozens of selections for snacks whenever he's over.
He's used to Ned's parents always being home when Ned is.
He's used to those two weeks in July when Ned goes on vacation, usually to the Philippines, and Peter spends the time fixing up old things in the dumps and reselling them for next to nothing.
He shouldn't get jealous when Ned gets everything. He doesn't brag about it or make it obvious his family is wealthy. He has bought lunch for Peter on more than one occasion. Sometimes he sees something in the store and he buys it for Peter without a second thought just because he thought he'd like it.
But he can't help that little green monster clawing around his stomach when it's obvious, just another time, how Ned never worries about money. Like when he gets a perfect score on three of his midterms and his mother hands him two hundred dollar bills to pick up something from the store as a reward.
He swallows the ugly jealous back as Ned takes the bill like it's nothing. He stuffs it in his back pocket as his mother takes out another fifty dollars. “You two celebrate your success! Maybe get some pizza and ice cream?”
“Thanks, Ma!” Ned calls out as he gives her a kiss and grabs Peter’s hand and drags him out.
Ned gets them each their own pizza and then ice cream sundaes. With his metabolism, 3 pies is enough to keep him full for the night. But he only eats 2 slices and saves the rest. One pizza can make like 3 different dinners.
Before they're done eating, Ned slides the bill over to him. “Here you go.”
“I can't take this, Ned!”
Ned frowns, a dangle of cheese hanging off his lip. Peter leans forward and pulls it off. Ned rolls his eyes with a smile. “Seriously. Ma gave me two. One for me and one for you. You deserve it too.
“Take it, Pete. Save up for something cool.” Ned moves his hand and goes back to eating his pizza.
Peter hesitates, like this is a joke. Like Ned will quickly pull it back just as Peter is about to reach for it. But he doesn't. He doesn't even look back at it. Peter reaches over with a shaky hand and takes the bill. He holds it delicately. “Thank you, Ned,” he murmurs.
“No problem, man.” And it really isn't for Ned.
After dinner, he goes home and May is proud of him for acing every midterm. She gives him a big hug and kiss. Peter heats up two slices and curls up on the couch with her to watch a cheesy Hallmark movie.
The entire time he's smiling because of the new hundred dollar bill in his pocket. He's already thinking about everything he wants to buy. He can put it towards saving up for a new camera or he can get a few games with it. Maybe replace his Converse.
His decision is made for him the next night when he overhears May on the phone. “By the 7th? Listen, I can't--” She sighs and continues, “yes, I know you're doing me a huge favor, but I just can't swing it this week. Can I do it in monthly installments. No? If I can't pay the 300 how do you expect me to be able to pay the original thousand? I appreciate you lowering it and taking away late fees, but I still just don't have the money…Fine. Whatever. I'll have it to you by the 7th. Thanks, goodbye.”
May slams the wall phone back on the cradle. She groans in frustration and whispers, “Ben, what am I going to do?”
Peter leaves before she starts to cry. He hates hearing her cry. He goes back to his room and pulls out his wallet from his dresser drawer. He has a small collection he's been saving for something. He pulls out a few bills and then the last one in there, the hundred Ned just give him. It only totals to 220, but it's something.
He sneaks into her bedroom and finds the small box she keep under her bed. Inside is May's emergency bills so he rolls his bills with hers and put it back under her bed.
It's another day that Peter isn't going to get his video game, but he still is going to have a roof over his head and food on his plate, so it's going to be okay.
Tony Stark comes into his life and at first, he's just his “mentor” and before long, he fills the father-figure hole in his life. He's not his dad and he's not his uncle, but he's Tony.
When they first meet, in order to keep their cover up, Tony wrote him a “scholarship” check. It covered months of rent and got them caught up. It took days of arguing with May for her to use it for the rent--Peter couldn't exactly sneak thousands of dollars into her stash.
It kept them from panicking for over a year. Of course, Tony didn't know that's what the money was used for (maybe he assumed it was going into a college fund), so he didn't know just how much they need it. How much they suffered without it.
It gets bad again. Like it always does.
They lose their heat. It's December and all they have to keep the chill out of their apartment is a small space heater.
It's down for three days and May and Peter spend each night huddled in May’s bed with the door shut and the little heater blasting.
Peter doesn't do well in the cold, not since the bite, but he does his best to hide it from May. That will only increase her worrying. She already blames herself for letting them fall behind on the bills again, even though it's not her fault.
May gets ready for her shift and drops a kiss on Peter's forehead. He’s trying to conceal his shivering until she leaves. The heat is directly on him, he shouldn't be cold still. “I called Tony and you're staying over at his tower tonight.”
Peter frowned. “What? What about you?”
“I won't be home tonight. I'm working the graveyard shift at the hospital after the diner. Remember?” May brushes his hair behind his ear. “You're freezing.”
Peter pulls away and shakes his head. “I'm fine. I've got blankets and jackets and the heater!”
May crosses her arms over her chest and says, “You have two choices: either you go to Tony’s or he comes here. I really don't think you want to cuddle him to stay warm.”
“May,” Peter whines, feeling his cheeks burn. “I don't cuddle.”
“Yes, you do. And you love it, so don't try to deny it.” She smiles softly and so what if she's right? Either way, Peter can't let Tony in here. He can't let him feel the frigid air in here or see that the only thing in their kitchen were three boxes of pasta, a half loaf of bread, and a jar of peanut butter.
Not when Tony always asks him if him and May are okay. And Peter says they are every time because they're not a charity case. He isn't going to abuse his relationship with Tony because he's rich.
He stops arguing and when he gets to the tower, he remembers just how good warmth and a full stomach feels.
That's when he realizes that May is struggling, Peter is old enough to help. He can bring money into the house. If he can find a job, then he can have money to help May with bills. And if there's any left over, he can start his college fund or even have some pocket change so Ned isn't always the one covering the tab at pizzerias and movie theaters.
He applies to eight different places over the span of three weeks. He hears back from zero.
He has the time to work. He can fit it in after or before patrol. Maybe both. If May can work three jobs at once then why can't he work one?
But none call him back. Not even to say, “Sorry, you don't have the job.” He waits around, hoping for a call back that never comes.
He gets something a few weeks later from a neighbor. His sister is having a party for her son and they need a server to prepare the food, cater to the guests, and clean up. “She's willing to pay-- not sure how much though.”
Peter doesn't care. Money is money. He agrees to the job and awaits the day. When it comes...he almost regrets it. Almost.
He gets to the hall and half hour early to set up. He has a list-- it's two pages long, front and back. He's never worked with food before like this, but he does his best. He cuts up vegetables and fruits and fills bowls with chips.
There's another kid there helping, but he's older and he's the boss’ kid, so he orders Peter around to do everything.
Before he even starts serving the food, he's sweating. He's two doing two people's work at once while the older kid hides in the kitchen snacking on the food.
For hours, he runs around filling bowls and clearing tables. He carries dirty plates and empty beer cans to the garage bags, trying to make sure there's never trash on the tables.
He doesn't get a break until they're blowing out the candles on his cake. It's a huge sheet cake with dozens of candles-- even though the kid is only seven.
After the candles are blown out, the kid stands up on his chair and announces to all of his guests, “My wish was to get really amazing birthday presents! So, if I don't get something I wanted, I'm going to be very sad!”
Peter can't believe his ears as his eyes drift to the stack of presents on the table along the table. There has to be almost fifty bags and boxes wrapped up nice just for him. And he's whining? Peter tries to push the anger down as his family and friends just laugh at his spoiled behavior.
It makes Peter sick.
He doesn't even get to have this much family alive to invite over for his birthday, let alone get all of these gifts.
He hates that his eyes burn as he watches the kid run away from his grandfather asking for a kiss. Peter wants to scream at this kid to cherish this. Cherish the little things. Hold onto your grandpa until he's ripped away from you.
“Hey, Parker!” Peter turns around to see the guy that was supposed to be helping him, holding a tray of cookies. “You're supposed to be setting up the dessert. Go!”
Peter nods quickly and gets to work. He has the table set up with good and finishes it with placing rhetoric coffee pot on the table. The bratty kid chooses that moment to throw a cupcake at him and he spills the hot brew on his hand. He curses under his breath, refraining from snapping at this kid.
The mother comes over and shakes her head as she looks at the frosting on his sleeve. “Please be more careful with the food.”
Peter doesn't argue. He just nods his head and goes back to the kitchen. His skin is already blistering and even though, it'll be gone in a few hours, it still hurts like a bitch.
He starts running cold water over it and it takes away some pain, but of course, it's short lived. There's a hand shoving his back. “Someone combined the recyclables and garbage, so you gotta go fix it.”
Peter sighs but goes over anyway and pulls the big black bag into the kitchen. He tries not to look, hating his senses for making the smell that much worse. He feels goop of something touch him and make his hand sticky as he pulls out beer can, after beer can.
He's just finishing up when the mother came rushing back into the kitchen. “Every table is full of plates and cups! What are you doing in here?”
Peter jumps to his feet, carrying the now separated trash bag with him and starts clearing off tables. A lot of guests have left and it's pretty much just the kids immediate family and a few cousins left.
The birthday brat is laying on the ground, surrounded by presents he's already ripped open. He doesn't look up from the iPad he has in front of him. Peter tries not to listen as he clears off a table.
“Jamie, please turn that thing off for a second to say goodbye to your uncle.”
The kid doesn't move, even laughs at whatever the hell he's watching.
“James Stewart, get up here and say goodbye. Uncle Jeff is leaving.”
“Bye, Uncle Jeff,” James says without moving.
Peter looks down at the kid and then to the man squatting by him with his arms outstretched. He would give anything in the world for Uncle Ben to be there reaching for him.
The uncle realizes he's not getting anything more and sighs. He takes one last look at the kid before walking away. Peter feels a lump growing in his throat. He almost calls out, “Uncle Ben, wait!”
But he doesn't.
He keeps cleaning until everything is spotless and they're all packed up. He's washing the last of the dishes when the mother walks inside and clears her throat.
Peter spins around and says, “Anything else I can help you with, ma’am?”
“Once you're finished with the dishes, you're good. This is for you. Thank you for your help today. You did well.” She hands him a folded bill and Peter takes it with a smile.
“Thank you so much, ma’am. It was nothing.” Except it was. Peter has never worked this hard in his life.
“Have a good day, then.” She nods once before leaving.
Peter grins and has a skip in his step as he finishes the last of the dishes and hurries out of there to go home. The bill in his pocket keeps a smile on his face even after he is almost hit by a taxi, misses his subway and has to walk home.
May isn't home when he gets there. He looks at the time and thinks maybe he can order a pizza and surprise her when she gets home with food. Maybe he has enough to get her garlic knots or mozzarella sticks with it.
He pulls out the delivery menu and then the bill with his other hand. He knows there was no promised pay, but he worked his ass off today. The woman looked pleased when she handed him the money. He isn't expecting a hundred, but maybe half of that would he good. He was there for longer than that, but he doesn't want to be greedy.
Something is something, right?
He unfolds the bill and he feels his stomach churn when he sees Andrew Jackson staring back up at him. The tears he managed to hold back before fall down his cheeks now. He's shaking in frustration as he crumples the 20 dollar in his hand.
“Fuck!” He screams. How could-- 20? For all the work he did? He busted his ass off for a spoiled brat and all he gets is 20 bucks. That's two hours of minimum wage, not the seven he worked.
He leans against the wall and lets himself fall to the ground. He gasps out a small sob and pulls at his hair. How is this fair? He does nothing but work hard and he gets that family's pocket change.
It makes him even angrier that this pocket change to them is a fortune to Peter.
This twenty bucks will make the difference between eating actual food and stale bread with jelly for dinner the next few nights.
He smacks his head against the wall, not caring about the dull pain spreading. It doesn't matter. He gets blinding headaches every night anyway. It really doesn't matter.
He doesn't stop until he's afraid he's going to break the wall. He won't do that to May.
When he keeps his head resting against the wall, it's quiet. All Peter can hear is his ragged breathing and wet sniffles. He wipes his nose with sleeve a fee times until he calms down.
Money is money.
He can't complain.
He stands up, straightens out the bill and tucks it safely into his pocket.
Sure, tonight he's going to be having a jelly sandwich, but one day, things are going to get better. He's going to keep working until everything changes.
He gets a job.
He hates it, but it's a steady paycheck and that's what matters.
He sells pictures of Spider-Man to a local paper, The Daily Bugle, and that's not the bad part. It's easy to snap pictures of himself and he likes to take pictures, so it shouldn't be bad.
It's what is done with the pictures that upsets Peter.
This paper hates Spider-Man. They create him to be this menace that wants to do nothing but cause trouble. Peter hates that he's supporting this paper and feeding fuel into their fire.
But he does what he needs to do.
It's not always easy.
It usually sucks.
Today's paper, the one claiming that Spider-Man is planning something evil, is thrown on his desk unread. He has more important things to focus on: the two college acceptance letters in his hands.
One from Queensborough Community College.
One from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He knows which one he wants. Which one he's always dreamed of. That happens to be the same one that costs well above what Peter can afford.
Community College is less than five grand year. He doesn't have to pay for room and board.
MIT is over 60 grand a year.
The answer should be obvious. He shouldn't even look twice at MIT, even if he has a scholarship that will bring down the cost. But he just...he knows community college isn't for him. He wants to be challenged, he wants classes designed for him.
He could probably get in for free if Tony knew, but he that is the exact reason he didn't tell Tony he even applied. He'd pull strings to get him in and wave all fees. But, Peter doesn't want to be in the school because he knows Tony Stark. He wants to earn his spot in the school like everyone else.
May doesn't even know he applied to any college. He wasn't even sure if they could swing it and she never pushed him.
5 thousand a year they could do...but 20 thousand?
The thought makes Peter sick.
He's about to crumple that beautiful letter from MIT and throw it out when his bedroom door opens. He doesn't have time to hide either letter or the fact that he's silently crying.
“Hey, Pete, wanna come to the diner with me? They throw out their meat on Fridays, so we'll get a burger from what's...Peter, are you okay?” She hurries inside and kneels by where he's sitting at his desk. “Baby, what's wrong?” Before he can answer her, she looks at the papers in his hands. She smiles widely. “Queensborough and….oh, my God, Peter...is that…?”
“MIT,” Peter whispers as he stares at the paper. Dear Peter Parker, congratulations... why were they congratulating him?
“Sweetheart, that's amazing! I'm so proud of you! I didn't even know you applied! Did you tell Tony yet? He's going to be so happy!” She hesitates when she notices he's not celebrating like her. “Peter, what's wrong?”
“I didn't...I only got an academic scholarship. That doesn't cover room and board. We can't afford this. Queensborough is cheaper-- my entire four years is the same as one year for MIT. How can--.”
“Hey, hey, baby, calm down. You need to breathe. Shh, it's okay,” May says softly before Peter even realizes he's working himself up into and anxiety attack.
“I can't,” he sobs, squeezing his eyes shut.
“And why not?” May asks.
“It's too money--.”
“Peter,” May says, taking his cheeks in her hands, “for one moment please don't think about money. You always do that and I just...I want you to...forget about--.”
“I can't just forget,” he cries and his nails find his arm. He digs them into his skin, relishing in the pain as his skin breaks. He tears his hands away and for a moment, it all washes away. He goes to do it again, but May grabs his hands and holds them hers. She brings them up to her lips and kisses them softly.
“Let's not do that, baby boy,” her voice sounds thick with tears now. “You've been worrying about my financial problems for years and while I appreciate it, I don't want you doing this yourself. I want what is best for you.”
“If we can't afford--.”
“Stop, please just-- stop thinking about the money. Which school, if money were no object, would you choose?”
Peter groans. He hates that question. Money will always be an object.
He opens his eyes and sees May staring back with watery eyes. “MIT! I want to go to my dream school, but it's expensive and I don't want to put you in a deeper hole.”
“Hey, don't think about me. I'll figure it out. I always do.”
“You can't say that like 20 grand is nothing,” Peter says.
May hesitates. “I'm not saying it isn't. 20,000...is a lot, Peter. But I'm willing to spend a lot. You earned this.”
“May, I don't deserve this.”
Her eyes turn hard as she glares at him. “You don't deserve this? Did you not work your ass off in high school? Did you not always work your ass off in everything you did?”
“Did you not earn a 40,000 dollar scholarship already?”
“Yeah, I did, but--.”
“No more ‘but’s, Peter,” she said firmly. “As your mother, it's my job to help you with this. You paid for two-thirds of it.”
It doesn't count. It's a scholarship and yeah, he's grateful for the 40 grand he doesn't have to pay, but there's still 20. Every year for four years. That's 80 thousand--.
Peter is one more thought away from throwing up.
May rubs his back softly as he gags, covering his mouth. “Please don't make yourself sick over this, baby. It's okay,” she crying again.
Peter focuses on thinking about anything other than student loans and money to keep whatever he ate last night down.
“I'm sorry,” she whispers in his ear as she pulls him close. “I'm sorry for doing this to you. I never wanted you to feel like this because of me.”
Peter shakes his head. He should be the one apologizing. She's wasted thousands of dollars on him over the years. How does she know he isn't the one that put them in this spot?
“Please don't...please just think about it, okay?”
“I can't just make it disappear!”
“I know,” May says quickly. “But just...let's just forget about it for tonight, okay? Sleep on it.”
“Fine,” Peter says, wiping a tear off his cheek. He doesn’t plan on thinking about. He's got his mind made up. He doesn’t want to be selfish. He will okay with community college, even if it's not the right match for him.
Thinking on it doesn't help. It drags the anxiety out. He can't sleep. He tosses and turns all night. Until finally, he gives up and sits up in bed. He stays in the dark and holds a pillow against his chest, riding out another anxiety attack.
He can't breathe. He's going to be sick. He covers his mouth to try and muffle the cries so May doesn't hear him. Before he can stop himself, he hears himself say, “Help me, Uncle Ben...I don't know what to do. I don't know what's right. Do I follow my dream or do I go with the cheaper one?”
Of course, there's no answer. Peter hasn't gotten an answer from Ben in over three years.
He closes his eyes and cries.
In the end, he chooses the selfish option. He commits to MIT. May and him take out loans. Tony throws him a party and his graduation gift covers more than Peter would have liked. Peter’s anxiety doesn't leave, but most times as he attends his classes and meets new people, it's easier to forget.
But there are nights when he remembers just what his dream costs. He waits for his roommates to fall asleep or to be out of the room and he cries. He does it more times than he'd like.
But he works hard. In classes, in work, in patrolling. He works hard in hopes that one day, it'll all get better.