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suffering too terrible to name

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Hawkeye found him three days after the world had ended. The streets still reeked of ash, and he heard the sound of crumbling bodies when he slept. Karen, Danny, Luke, Jess. Father Lantom. By some miracle that he thanked God for every day, Foggy was spared.

It had been three days since Ned had called him, heart thudding with fear, to tell him that Peter had run off to get on “the giant donut-ship thing” and hadn’t come back.

Hawkeye smelled like alcohol and grief when he opened the door. Distantly, Matt remembered Peter mentioning off-handedly that Hawkeye had a family. Kids.

He didn’t ask.

The archer’s voice was steady and even, rage and grief plastered smoothly underneath it.

“We – the ones who are left – Me, Romanoff, Banner, Thor, and Rodgers – we’re going to Wakanda. Try to figure out what to do next. We could use someone like you on our side.”

Matt refused, the first time. The city was in chaos, and the remaining criminal element was taking advantage of the distracted police force to wreak havoc in the wake of what Barton called the Snap. He was needed here, he explained.

What he didn’t mention was that when (when, he repeated to himself, not if, when) Peter came home, Matt didn’t want him to find an empty apartment, a city missing Daredevil, and jump to the worst conclusion. Peter had lost enough parents for a lifetime, and Matt wouldn’t put him through that if he didn’t have to.

The second time he’d been asked, things were different.

It had been two weeks, and there had been no word from Peter, or Stark. No word about whether his kid was dead or alive, and Matt was… struggling.

Daredevil was out more than ever, vicious and unforgiving to the criminals of his city. The Daily Bugle accused Spiderman of abandoning the city in its time of need, and Matt Murdock considered the morality of Daredevil paying Jameson a visit on his way home.

(Ultimately, he decided against it.

Peter would be so upset when he found that Matt had hurt someone for revenge.)

And then he got a call from Hawkeye again.

“We got a transmission from Stark. He’s on his way back, should be landing in Wakanda any day now. Potts has a plane waiting for you, if you changed your mind.”

He hesitated – crime had not stopped, and his city still needed him.

But – God. His kid was on that ship. And Matt couldn’t sleep, found himself jolting awake when his half-conscious brain reminded him of the absence of Peter’s heartbeat in the room next to his. Still set the table for two when he remembered to make dinner, still opened his mouth to ask Peter about school and his homework, before the deafening silence of the apartment settled over him.

He just wanted to talk to his kid again.

Foggy saw him off with strict instructions to tell Peter that he was grounded for making him go prematurely gray, and for the first time in weeks, Matt smiled, soft and genuine, because he finally felt like he might be able to make sense of the insane new world they’d been thrust into.

-

Wakanda is a wonder, even when it’s grieving. Matt is greeted by Shuri, queen now, and briefly struggles to make the connection between this somber girl in front of him and the bright, vibrant voice that shouted at Peter over video chats. And then he listened to how, even as her heart pounded with anxiety and grief, she kept her voice smooth and composed in the face of her people.

She reminds him so much of Peter it hurt.

Any day now, he tells himself.

Wakanda’s sensors pick up the approaching ship long before he would have been able to, which he would be more impressed with if his thoughts hadn’t narrowed down to Peter Peter Peter.

Since he’d landed in Wakanda, he’d been very carefully not thinking about the possibility that Peter wouldn’t be on the ship, but when Shuri announced the ship was beginning its descent, the very idea had seemed laughable.

It felt like fact, now, that any minute Peter would come bounding off the ship, fussing over Matt and asking after Foggy (and Karen, and Jess, and God, he still didn’t know how he would break that news). He would launch himself at Matt, all gangly limbs and preternatural grace, and for the first time since this nightmare had started, Matt would get a full night’s sleep.

He believes this, even when he cannot make out Peter’s heartbeat among the ship’s engines and thrusters. They’re alien, after all, and completely foreign to his ears. He was just having trouble picking up on it. That’s all.

(That has to be all)

The ship lands, and Stark gets off with a person (alien? Robot?) whose heart sounds more clockwork than organic.

Peter’s scent clings to Stark. To the ashes on his hands.

“Stark.” He chokes out. It’s less of a statement than a plea. Please don’t say it. Please tell me he’s still alive.

Stark pushes his way past Banner and Rhodes, and some stupid, traitorous part of Matt’s heart still hoped that maybe, maybe he was wrong. Maybe Peter was fine, hidden away on the ship somewhere out of his hearing.

“I’m sorry.” The inventor’s voice is racked with guilt and pain, and he smells like grief, and blood, and Peter.

There are other words spoken after that, to him, or to Stark, maybe. Matt isn’t listening. His reality was shifting.

_

He is on a plane back to New York that same night.

He thinks of a warm summer afternoon, drinking Tony Stark’s expensive beer as he tried to convince them to join the Avengers. Peter’s voice, soft and firm and full of a conviction that made some part of him burn fierce with pride.

“The Avengers are these big, fantastic, larger than life heroes, and that's great, it really is. I would love to fight in an alien invasion or whatever else you do, but New York doesn't need another Avenger. It needs Spiderman.”

Let the Avengers go into space and get revenge on an alien with a God complex. He is needed elsewhere.

He calls Foggy halfway through the flight. He picks up after a few rings, heart slow, voice thick with sleep. “You forget about the time difference, Matty?”

And Matt can’t speak. For all his charm, for his two years in law school and all the fucking debt that came with it, he cannot think of a way to soften the blow for Foggy, to protect him from the grief raging in his own chest.

“Matt?” Foggy asks, softer, concerned. “Matt, is everything okay?”

“Peter is dead.” It comes out hollow, and tastes like ash on his lips.

“I- What?” His voice is less questioning and more pleading, pleading that he heard wrong, that his sleep-addled brain misunderstood what Matt was trying to say.

“He’s dead, Foggy. Peter is dead.”

It comes out harsher than intended.

Later, Matt will regret this. Later, he will hate himself for not trying harder, not taking the time to think of something to say that would have lessened the impact, because Foggy loved Peter too – fussed over him when he was sick, teased him mercilessly when he saw him wearing Ned’s jacket – and Matt should have at least tried to protect Foggy from some of that pain.

Right now, though? Right now, he doesn’t care. Can’t bring himself to care, because he’s said it, and it’s real, now.

Peter Parker is dead.

Over the phone, Foggy lets out a harsh sob, and Matt lets grief consume him.

-

His apartment has never felt more like a tomb. Pieces of Peter are everywhere. His scent clings to the sheets in his room, and his Physics notebooks sits open on their coffee table where he left it the night before he left. On his desk is a suit, red spandex lined with leather scavenged from dumpsters, a threaded needle stuck through it.

(“Peter? Do you mind if I ask… the ah, the suit, you’re working on?”

His heartbeat picks up, and he bites the inside of his cheek the way he does when he wants to avoid talking about something, and the ease in his tone is strained when he responds. “Sure, Matt. What about it?”

“Is there, uh, any particular reason you aren’t working on that with Stark? Or that you got your supplies out of a dumpster?”

“I- I can stop if you want me to. Seriously, it’s not a big deal, I’ll just-“

Matt grimaces, because Peter is eternally anxious about being a bother, about being a burden, and he hadn’t meant to imply that he couldn’t work on a suit away from Stark, and sometimes he just feels so- so woefully unequipped to be raising a teenager.

“No,” he rushes to correct, “No, I didn’t mean that, I was just… curious. If you don’t want to tell me, it’s okay.”

Peter bites his cheek hard, and when he opens his mouth again Matt smells blood, and bites back a reprimand.

“I… Mr. Stark took away my suit, right? And I deserved it!” He rushes to add, before Matt can decide if he agrees or not, “I did, but I just… I can’t stop being Spiderman, Matt. I can’t. And that night, with the Vulture, all I had was my old suit, and I was alone, and I-“ He cuts himself off, but not before Matt can hear the slight break in his voice. “I know it’s stupid, and Mr. Stark said he wouldn’t take it away again, and I’m being dumb but it’s just- just in case. I just want to have a back-up that’s not– that’s all mine, you know?”

Matt purses his lips. Peter hasn’t told him exactly what happened the night of his homecoming dance, but Matt has woken him from more than one nightmare where he’d screamed for help, screamed for Stark, screamed that he couldn’t breathe. Talked him down from a panic attack when they got stuck in a broken elevator.

He hasn’t pushed Peter about it. And maybe he should, maybe that’s what a responsible parent does, but he knows that pushing it could drive the kid away just as fast as it would get him to open up, and he’s okay with giving Pete the time he needs to tell him on his own.

But sitting in front of him, anxious, like a child caught misbehaving, he’s tempted. Because Peter adores Stark, trusts him implicitly on nearly every matter, and if whatever happened to him that night was enough to shake that trust then it must have been bad.

But it’s 8:30 PM on a Tuesday, and Peter has school tomorrow, and the sound of his anxious heart pounding, like he’s bracing himself for Matt’s anger, makes his own heart ache. So, he pushes down that urge and offers his kid a smile instead.

“Well, if you ever want advice on finding materials, I might know a guy.”

Peter goes from anxious to excited in the blink of an eye, and later that night he pokes his head out of his room and quietly says “thanks, Matt”, and Matt thinks ‘We have time.’

They were supposed to have time.)

_

The soft whirring of laptop fans wakes him, and he sighs. He’s halfway to Peter’s room before the haze of sleep wears off and he remembers that he can’t go remind Peter that he has to be up for school tomorrow or coax him into talking through whatever it is that’s keeping him up in the first place, because he isn’t there.

He’s ash, floating in the air on some foreign planet a million miles away.

He’s dead.

Matt goes into the room anyway. Peter’s scent still clings to the air, but it’s fading fast, and he’s trying hard not to think about how long it will take to fade completely.

On his bed, Peter’s laptop sits open, plugged into the wall where he must have left it. Distantly, he remembers that last morning. Peter woke up late, had been rushing around in a frenzy to get out the door, groaning when Matt grabbed him by the back of his bag and dragged him into the kitchen to eat something before he left.

It feels like it happened yesterday, and a thousand years ago all at once.

He sits on the bed and runs a finger along the trackpad to wake up the laptop. There wasn’t a braille reader, but there was a text-to-speech program (one that Peter had written himself, he remembers with a pang of fondness, when his own laptop had broken and they found the one built in to Peter’s was terrible), and he ignores the tiny voice of reason in his head, whispering this isn’t going to help anything, as a robotic voice recites the last thing Peter had been working on: “On the Use of Setting in Crime and Punishment”

He goes through the literature essays first, then the Spanish (there’s a marked improvement in them over time, and he briefly swells with pride before he remembers that he’ll never get the chance to tell Peter how much he’s improved, how proud he is of him.)

Foggy arrives the next morning bearing breakfast (he half-lives at Matt’s now, anyways – turns out, watching loved ones disintegrate for no apparent reason makes the people left behind a little codependent – go figure.), and he finds Matt asleep on the bed, while from the computer, Peter’s ghost lectures them about the bonding properties of hydrocarbons.

He closes the laptop and ignores the guilt that pierces his chest when he does it. Ignores how he feels like he just told Peter to shut up, because he didn’t, because Peter isn’t there. He just isn’t.

He tosses a throw from the couch over Matt and goes into to start a pot of coffee

_

Sometimes, Matt will catch Foggy hovering around Karen’s desk. It normally happens near the end of the day, when he’s gathering papers and clearing things away. He’ll drift over to Karen’s desk, almost unconsciously, where a mess of case files is still strewn, and then he’ll just stand there.

Karen hated it when Foggy tidied her desk.

“It’s called organized chaos, Nelson,” she’d snap as she ruined the neat piles Foggy had made to find what she’d been working on.

“Actually, Ms. Page, I believe the official term is “hoarding”, but I understand the confusion.” Foggy would snipe back at her.

And Karen would give him the silent treatment and thump him hard on the shoulder whenever she passed, until Foggy broke down and bought her apology-coffee and grumble about how he was underappreciated.

But Karen was gone, ash blown away in the wind just like Peter, a smooth headstone in the closest cemetery, kept well stocked with flowers by Frank, the only thing left.

(Matt has not bought a gravestone for Peter yet. He tells himself it’s because there are no spaces left near the Parkers – there have been so many funerals these past few months – but the truth is in the way his stomach flips with nausea at the thought of feeling the name Peter Benjamin Parker engraved on cold stone.)

And so Foggy will stand next to her desk, even now, 2 months later, body coiled tight with grief, until Matt lays a light hand on his shoulder and asks casually where he wants to order dinner from. Foggy will turn and force a smile and they carry on.

There’s nothing else they can do.

One night, both on the drunk side of tipsy, Foggy turns to him and says “It’s so fuckin’ stupid, Matty. Her desk. We should just… she’s gone, y’know?” His voice broke slightly, and Matt could smell saline in the air. He pretended not to. “She’s gone and if she was here, she’d be telling us that we’re being fucking dumb about it – it’s just a desk, and I know that, but I just… she hated people messing with her stuff, y’know? And now she’s just- she’s gone and it’s like, I’m gonna do the one thing she hated most, and I just-“

Matt thinks about his apartment. The beers they’re drinking are sat carefully away from another spiral notebook, opened to Peter’s calculus homework. There are still ballpoint pens and mechanical pencils buried deep between his couch cushions, some half-completed gadget and a pile of screws on the coffee table. Peter’s walls are still plastered with sketches for his webshooters, notes about some of the regular gangs he ran into on patrol, brochures for Cal-Tech and MIT.

“Yeah,” He says quietly, reaching across the table for Foggy’s hand. “Yeah, I know.”

_

3 months after the world ends, Tony Stark knocks on his door. Matt heard him coming – could identify the slightly mechanical whine of his heartbeat anywhere – and had been filled with a kind of possessive anxiety.

It’s ridiculous. And moreover, it’s selfish.

Tony loved Peter too. Had certainly known him longer than Matt had, and he knew that, but the part of him that was still raw and aching with grief reared up at the sound of the familiar heartbeat, as though Stark was going to come in and demand to keep all the traces of Peter left in the apartment, and leave Matt in the cold, spartan space that his apartment had been pre-Peter.

Matt might not be Stark’s biggest fan but attempting to co-parent an orphaned vigilante forces you to learn a lot about someone, and though Stark may have many flaws, cruelty isn’t one of them.

It’s with that knowledge that he forces himself to relax from the tense, defensive stance he’d taken, and open the door with something that could generously be called a smile.

“Stark.”

“Murdock. Can, uh- Can I come in? We need to talk.”

Stark still reeks of guilt, and if he thought it would do any good Matt would try to talk him out of it. It won’t, though. He’s too much like Peter.

This hesitancy is miles off from how things used to be between them, but then, most things are. He thinks of the times Stark had shown up on his balcony, unannounced, in the full Iron Man suit, grinning smugly when Matt rolled his eyes, and sputtering indignantly when Peter raised his eyebrows from the couch and asked “Why do you always have to do the most, Mr. Stark? Can’t you just, like, walk? I heard that’s good for men of your age.”

Now, though, he’s standing a respectful distance from the doorway, tense, like he’s half-expecting Matt to lash out at him.

God knew Matt had tried to be angry at him. It would be easier, so much easier, to pin Peter’s death on one person, to make it Stark’s fault for dragging him into danger and letting him die.

It was easier to think it was the result of some failure on Stark’s part than the mystical equivalent of a random number generator.

“Of course.”

Stark sits on the couch heavily, but he’s nearly thrumming with manic energy that reminds Matt briefly, painfully, of Peter.

“Listen, I- fuck.” He lets out a humorless laugh. “Fuck, Murdock. I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.”

“Not your fault.” Matt responds immediately, honestly. “None of it. He would have-“ He cuts himself off, throat tight and painful. “He would’ve gone anyway, right?”

He says it like that’s not a fucking horror story. Like he doesn’t have nightmares where Peter crumbles to dust midsentence, like he doesn’t wake up feeling ash on his hands.

“I shouldn’t have let him come. Should have gotten him off that fucking ship, should have done something to-“

Matt cuts him off, gentle but firm. “Stark, there’s no universe where that kid wouldn’t have followed you onto the ship. Even if it wasn’t you. If he thought he could help, thought he could protect people… there’s nothing anyone could have done to stop him.”

And isn’t that the worst part of it? Matt got it, finally, after Peter started living with him. Got why Foggy wanted him so badly to stop, because there were nights when all he wanted was for Peter to stop, too. Because he was young, and kind, and brilliant, and there were nights where he stumbled in from patrol bloodied and wheezing, and Matt would be overcome with violent anxiety at the idea of his kid being snuffed out when he had so much potential. When he had so much life.

But that drive to help, to protect people, was what made Peter who he was. It was as much a part of him as his intelligence, or his bullheaded stubbornness – there really was no version of events where Peter saw an opportunity to keep people safe and chose to keep himself safe, instead.

There’s no version of this story where his kid lives to see eighteen.

Stark leans forward on the couch, hands in his hair, before abruptly sitting upright. “Listen, I- shit, I shouldn’t be telling you this. SHIELD would kick my ass – you can’t tell anyone what I’m about to tell you, okay? Not Nelson or P- or anyone, alright?”

He’s standing again, pacing in front of the couch like he can’t bear to keep still. Matt gives him a wary glance. “I won’t lie to Foggy, but I can promise that neither he nor I will tell anyone whatever it is you’re worrying about. In case you’ve forgotten we do have experience keeping secrets.

And then Stark laughs. It’s brief, and slightly manic, but it’s also genuine. “You know what? Fuck it, why not. I think- well, I  don’t, this shit is all so above my head, which Pep says is a good experience for me, but what-the-fuck-ever, but Danvers – she’s – well, I don’t know what exactly her deal is but Rhodey likes her so that’s fine, I guess, although she was close with Fury, apparently, and there’s no way-

Matt almost wants to laugh too. If he didn’t know better, he’d think Stark and Peter really were related with how similar they were. “Stark.” He interrupts gently, “The thing I’m not supposed to tell anyone?”

“Right, sorry. Danvers, she thinks. Shit, Matt” His voice drops to an awed, painfully hopeful whisper. “She thinks we can bring them back.”

Distantly, Matt checks to see if he can smell alcohol on Stark’s breath. “What? I don’t- Stark, they’re gone.” He tells him gently, “They-“

“I know that,” the engineer snaps, “I know, I was fucking there okay? But Danvers has dealt with this before, apparently, and she thinks that- She says we can reverse this. Get them back. All of them. And I won’t lie, I don’t get all of it but I get some of it and I – I know it sounds fucking nuts, okay, I thought it was too, but I think she’s right.” He swallows, takes a shaky breath. “It’ll take time. And I- I won’t really be able to like, update you or anything, I shouldn’t even be telling you this, but I just-“

Stark takes another breath, steadier this time, and Matt feels his firm gaze on him, hears the steel in his tone. “I’m gonna get him back, Murdock. Whatever it takes, however long it takes, I don’t care. I’m getting our kid back from that fucker.”

There is this tiny voice of reason in his head. Since Peter moved in, he’s tried to listen to it more, because it seemed like a Responsible Guardian thing to do. Right now, it’s telling him to nod at Tony and call Pepper to pick him up. It’s telling him that this is impossible, that he shouldn’t get his hopes up, that he knew what happened to the people they’d lost. You don’t come back from turning to dust.

But three months ago, he found out Peter was gone, and he still felt like he was just- existing. Get up, eat, go to work. Patrol, because Peter would have wanted him to, but being careful, because he wouldn’t make Foggy lose anyone else.

And now, he feels something new. It’s small, and fleeting, but it’s also bright. It’s a chance. It’s hope.

He never has been very good at listening to reason.

For the first time in 3 months, the vigilante feels a genuine smile come on. “Well then, Stark, I suggest you get to work.”

For the first time in 3 months, Matthew Murdock sleeps through the night.