Peter wasn’t prone to stealing. He wasn’t a bad kid, usually. He didn’t get into fights, didn’t talk back - he kind of just kept his head down and made his way through life without disturbing anybody.
He had to, especially now. Aunt May was so stressed, what with work, bills, looking after him, and now… Ben . Even thinking his uncle’s name sent waves of grief through his chest, momentarily stealing his breath. It was still so hard, living without Ben’s warm presence, so he couldn’t trouble May anymore than he already did.
The loss was fresh, it only happened three months ago, and it had affected them in more ways than one. Besides the emotional turmoil, keeping an apartment in New York, wasn’t cheap, even if that apartment was in Queens. Now, with only May’s meager salary as a nurse to live off, things were a bit tight, and budget cuts had to be made.
Peter got his devices from the dumpster, taking apart and rebuilding them so they’d work the way he wanted them to. He got his clothes from second hand stores and charity bins. Lunch was from school, despite the fact that the slop that they tried to pass off as food there had literally no nutritional value whatsoever. So yeah, things were a little tight, but he never complained - Aunt May didn’t need to be burdened with that, especially not right now.
It’s why he never told her where he went on Friday afternoons. Rain or shine, Peter always went there - he needed to visit people, talk to them, and May was still working up the courage to go. Peter had said he’d wait, said they’d do it together, but then he’d had a really bad day at school and he’d needed to talk to one particular person. He couldn’t wait any longer.
He’d gone to visit Ben.
Halfway there, he’d realised he didn’t have any flowers to bring the man and didn’t have any money to buy some. This visit had been a spur of the moment thing, and he never carried money unless there was a planned expense, lest he lose it or get robbed.
He’d almost turned back, afterall, Ben was amazing, and he deserved flowers, or candles or just... something from his nephew when he visited his grave, but Peter didn’t have anything. He was just a poor kid from Queens who’s only success in life was his scholarship to Midtown.
He’d turned around, shoulders slumped and heart heavy, when a beautiful pop of colour caught his eyes in the grim light cast by the overhead clouds. There was a garden, meticulously planted in front of a large house. It’s gleaming white bricks, perfectly tiled roof, dark oak doors and intricate architecture spoke of wealth that Peter had just not experienced, but that wasn’t what he focused on.
The garden was vibrant, brimming with life and colour. There were flowers of all kinds; a few that he knew and many more that he couldn't even begin to imagine the name of. There were so many different hues, one would think it would be a mess, but there was an organised air to the chaos - something elegant and dainty - that made it seem more beautiful in it’s diversity.
He took a few steps towards it, an idea forming in his mind, before he mentally chastised himself. He shouldn’t… stealing was bad. But, it was for Ben! He wasn’t taking them for selfish reasons - he’d give them to the father figure that he missed so much. Besides, it wasn’t like these obviously rich people would miss just a few flowers. Maybe he could even get some for his parents? He hadn’t known them as well as he’d known Ben because they’d died when he was little, but he still liked to visit them from time to time and catch them up on how their son was doing.
With remorse, he reached over the low brick fence and plucked a few of the plants at the base of their stems. Peter’s eyes darted to the large house, but there was no movement from inside. No crazy old woman hell-bent on preserving her perfect garden rushed out of the doors and no cranky gardner leapt from the shadows with a rake held threateningly in hand. Nothing happened at all - it was rather anticlimactic.
With a small smile, Peter hightailed it away from the huge house, the flowers clutched in his fist. He’d talked to Ben, apologised for the dirty origins of his gift and felt much lighter and happier once he was done. Even if his uncle couldn’t really answer back, the man had always been a good listener, and just talking about everything that had happened in the last three months since he’d… left had made him feel freer.
Visiting his parents had been nice too. Their graves were several plots down from Ben’s, as he had wanted to be buried as close to his brother and sister-in-law as possible. “Always stick with family, Pete. The bond you have with them is one you can never break, no matter what,” was one of the many life lessons the man had tried to impart on Peter.
Peter hadn’t talked to his parents in a while, and the whole Ben incident had made it harder for Peter to visit them. It just reminded him of how many people he’d lost in his short fourteen years of life. It just wasn’t fair! He didn’t know anyone else that had lost practically all their family. May was all he had left, and he didn’t know what he’d do if he lost her too.
Once he’d visited Ben for the first time that Friday afternoon, it became a kind of tradition. He told May that he was going to build a new lego set with Ned, or that Liz had scheduled an impromptu Academic Decathlon practice, and then he’d head off to the cemetery. Taking a few flowers from the garden, just like Peter had done on the first visit, had also become a tradition of sorts.
He’d never been caught, and he’d done it six, soon to be seven times - as it was a Friday morning - so he supposed he was pushing his luck. It was only a matter of time before the mystery owner, or owners, of that house discovered him and his flower-thieving ways.
School had been bad, but that was expected. Today was the worst day on his timetable; double Geography (why did they need to learn about corn production in Iowa?), followed by maths with Mr Nelson (an old grouch with a passionate love of handing out more homework than strictly necessary. He taught half the maths lessons in the rotation, while the other half were taught by Ms Shanty, a kind, young woman who played times table bingo with them on Friday if she had them), science, where they were currently learning about plate tectonics - his least favourite topic - and then the day had come to a close with double gym.
They played dodgeball.
Peter was pummeled, being the main target of Flash and his band of hooligans.
Honestly, it was like the P.E. teachers were trying to kill him!
As one could imagine, Peter left the school grounds with a healthy dose of relief, only tripping twice and managing to catch his balance both times. The walk to the cemetery was a relatively short one - only fifteen minutes if he didn’t dawdle, and he soon saw the familiar explosion of colour that he had come to associate with the garden.
Peter stopped in front of it, and with barely any hesitation, reached out to pick a particularly nice looking flower. Without warning, a hand shot out from behind a pillar and grabbed his slender wrist, holding it firmly. The fingers that were wrapped around his limb were calloused and strong, yet they weren’t squeezing tight enough to hurt him… yet.
Peter yelped, a high-pitched, embarrassing noise, and anxiety curdled in his stomach while dread pawed at the walls of his chest. His heart started pounding and his breath hitched as his eyes darted to the body that was attached to the arm holding him. It was clothed in an expensive looking suit and a dark purple, silk shirt. Shiny shoes encased their feet, and a worn, silver wedding ring was situated on their left hand. Dark sunglasses adorned their face, accompanied by a goatee and dark eyebrows on tanned skin.
The man flicked his sunglasses up into his perfectly styled hair, revealing dark brown eyes, coloured with mirth, and smirked at Peter, accentuating the deep smile lines carved around his mouth.
“So, you’re the flower thief my wife keeps ranting about, huh?”
Peter balks, this dude’s wife knew about his stealing? “I’m sorry, sir! I didn’t want to steal your lady’s flowers, I just - just… I don’t have any way to get them anywhere else and your’s are really colourful and I didn’t think you’d miss them. I promise I’m not wasting them - I’m not even keeping them for myself, they’re for someone else!” he said frantically, the words whizzing out of his mouth like bullets out of a machine gun. The man seemed to have no trouble keeping up though, and nodded thoughtfully.
“Well, you’re actually stealing my flowers, I’ve just never seen you do it until now. My job is a little stressful and gardening helps me to relax after a long day. Imagine my surprise when I came home one Friday afternoon to find a few of my flowers missing, and then the next week, a few more had seemingly vanished!”
“Oh, well, I’m very sorry, sir, I swear! I just… really need these flowers,” Peter said in defeat, bowing his head.
“Nah, kid, It’s cool. From the looks of it you could do with some free stuff,”
Peter bristled at that. It was true, his hair was rumpled and a bit too long, and his clothes were a few sizes too big - he looked poor, and he knew it, but he hated when people pointed it out, and the pity that usually came with it.
The man seemed to realise his mistake, and hastily tried to make amends, “Yeah, ok, I just realised what that sounded like. I’m not great at censoring my words, it drives everyone crazy. Sorry about that, kiddo,”
Peter nodded his head in acceptance and started to back away, hoping that he wouldn’t get in trouble, though it didn’t seem like he would - by the looks of it, this strange guy wasn’t very upset with him.
Just as he was about to turn his back and start walking away for real, the man opened his mouth, “Wait! I want to see the fine lady or gentleman that’s so important to you that feel inclined to steal flowers for them. I bet you two look real cute together, and you seem like a nice kid, aside from the whole stealing flora from my garden… thing. I’m coming with you to meet your mystery man or woman, by the way. What’s your name? ,”
“P-Peter. Peter Parker,” he stuttered out reflexively, before he froze. This guy thought he was bringing the flowers to someone he was dating? He supposed it was kinda his fault, he did say he was giving them to someone. How would he break the actual, and much more depressing, news to him?
“Nice to meet you, Peter Parker, I’m Tony Stark. Are you ready? Lead the way,” the man said jovially as he stepped out of the garden. As he stood next to Peter on the sidewalk, the boy realised he was almost as tall as the man, which made him seem less intimidating, though he still radiated confidence that Peter envied.
Peter took a few cautious steps down the street, becoming more sure of himself as Mr Stark followed him without hesitation.
“Mr Stark, I should probably-” Peter began, before the older man cut him off.
“None of this ‘Mr Stark’ nonsense, I get enough of that at work and it makes me feel old. I’m in my forties! That’s not too bad...”
Mr Stark - Tony, as the man insisted Peter call him - talked for the rest of the short walk to the cemetery, and Peter couldn’t get a word in edgewise. He was usually the one rambling, but now, Mr Stark was filling the silence with endless chatter.
Peter learnt that Pepper, Mr Stark’s wife, was the CEO of a big tech company, and that Tony had invented a ton of stuff for her to sell. He learnt that Mr Stark preferred the honey and lemon flavoured Strepsils over the orange ones, and absolutely refused to touch the green ones (“What type of medication is green ? Nobody in their right mind would ingest anything violently green”). He learnt that Mr Stark had several odd colleagues; Steve Rogers, the perfect american boy with an aversion to cussing, Thor Odinson, a super-buff guy from Scandinavia, Bruce Banner, a usually mild-mannered genius prone to the occasional temper tantrum, Clint Barton, an eagle-eyed guy with a sense of humour that resembled an eight-year-old’s, and Natasha Romanov, a serious woman who you never messed with if you wanted to live (though many had tried - Tony and Clint once put salt in her morning coffee… suffice to say they weren’t ever doing something like that again. They didn’t even get to see her squirm, as she just looked at them dead in the eye and chugged the entire thing). Their rapport rivaled that of the squad on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and that was seriously impressive, in Peter’s expert opinion.
Mr Stark talked and talked, right up until the pair turned the corner and the gates of the cemetery came into view. His incessant chatter about the strange methods of mummification that they used in Ancient Egypt was cut off abruptly, and he let out a soft, “Oh.”
Peter looked up at him, looking apologetic. “I did try to tell you, Mr Stark,”
“I have a tendency to ramble, and when I get going, I don’t listen to anything else around me. I’m - I’m really sorry, Pete,”
“It’s ok, Mr Stark. I get the rambling thing. It’s fine if, ya know, you don’t want to come anymore. I bet this wasn’t quite what you were picturing,”
Mr Stark huffed out a laugh, “Yeah, you’re right about that, kiddo, I wasn’t expecting this. I’ll come with you though, if that’s alright with you, I mean,”
“Of course it’s alright. I guess it’ll be nice to have someone with me. My Aunt, she - she isn’t quite ready to come by yet, but I just… needed to see them,”
“I understand, kid. Do you mind me asking who them is ?”
“My parents, they died when I was little so I didn’t really know them, but it’s nice to visit them sometimes,”
“Yeah? I don’t really like to visit mine, brings up too many bad memories. My relationship with my dad wasn’t exactly top-notch, and my mum - she tried her best, but she chose him over me one too many times. We fought just before they died,”
“That sucks, Mr Stark,” Peter said empathetically. They walked in silence for a moment before the boy raised his head and continued, “They’re not the main people I come here for though,”
“Aw hell, kiddo, I’m sorry,”
“It’s fine, there’s nothing you can do for him now. He is - was, my uncle. He died four and a half months ago and I… just really need to talk to him sometimes. I come here every Friday,”
“Jesus Christ, you’re so young. You’re just a baby, really. You shouldn’t have to deal with this, kid,”
“I shouldn’t, but it is what it is. Believe me, no one wishes that things were different more than me,”
Tony said nothing, instead nodding grimly and wrapping his arm around Peter’s slender shoulders. The two had entered the cemetery and started walking through the orderly rows of graves while they’d had their conversation.
Peter shivered slightly, not from the cold, as the sun was peeking through the clouds and shining a golden light upon the earth, giving it an ethereal glow. He shivered because cemeteries were always somber places, filled with sadness and grief and the ghosts of those forgotten.
The old graves were just as depressing to walk past as the new ones. While the new graves held the air of fresh pain and sorrow, they at least had loved ones who still remembered them. It was the old graves, the ones covered in moss and mildew, and crumbling away into the ground, that leached true misery into the air. They had no one to remember them, no one to grieve for them. They were forgotten
They say that you die twice; once when they bury you in the grave, and the second time is the last time that somebody mentions your name.
Peter reached Ben’s grave, and his breath stuck in his throat. It was still so new ; the words carved into the stone not yet faded, and the surface still shiny and polished.
All of a sudden, everything was just too much. Mr Stark’s hand on his shoulder was heavy, constricting. The air was thick and glutinous, he couldn’t breathe . His shoulders sagged and a sob made it’s way up his throat and through his mouth, coming out strangled and broken. He immediately clamped his hand over his mouth - he couldn’t cry , he wasn’t a baby , and he wasn’t alone either. Mr Stark was here, and he definitely hadn’t signed up to witness a grieving teenager fall apart in front of his dead uncle’s grave.
It was just too much . It wasn’t fair. Ben hadn’t deserved his fate, and he hadn’t deserved Peter either. Ben was too good for Peter. He was kind, and selfless and so, so brave, but he was also dead because of Peter.
His knees gave out and he sunk to the grassy ground, trembling minutely. He hadn’t told anyone about what had happened that night - not even the police that had questioned him. Every aspect that lead up to the tragedy was his fault.
Ben and Peter had gone to the corner store for ice cream (which Peter had wanted), for a movie night (which Peter had requested). They had entered and were browsing the rather dismal ice cream section when a guy wearing the typical bad guy ski-mask burst in with his gun raised. He’d ordered the poor cashier to empty the register, and Ben had shoved Peter behind some shelves, ordering him to stay there. He’d then slowly approached the man with his hands raised in the universally accepted way of saying ‘don’t kill me, I’m not here to hurt you’.
He’d tried to defuse the situation, and everything had been going rather well, until Peter decided he’d let fear get in the way of rationality, and choose not to listen to Ben. Ben who was a cop, and would undoubtedly know what to do in these types of situations.
Peter had made a break for the door, and the robber had startled, turning on him with the gun raised. What happened next was not like the movies. There wasn’t any climatic music playing in the background and there certainly weren’t any slow-mo shots of the hero jumping in front of a bullet to save the stupid, stupid kid.
There was just a bang, a startled cry, a grunt of pain and then a heavy thud.
The next thing Peter knew, he was kneeling next to Uncle Ben’s prone form, pushing hard against the gushing gunshot wound in his chest and begging for him to stay here, not to die. For someone to call an ambulance, help, do anything fucking useful at all because his uncle was dying and there was nothing he could do about it and it was all his fault .
It was all his fault.
There had been so much screaming that night. The cashier’s shocked shrieks as she watched the store get robbed. His own petrified cries as he tried to stop Ben from dying. May’s anguished wails when she saw Peter, hunched over at the police station, covered in rusty, dried blood with a distinct absence of Ben beside him.
He was jerked back to the present by a gentle hand on his shoulder. Peter blinked hastily, wiping away the dried tear tracks on his face. When had they gotten there? In fact, when had it gotten so dark? Oh no, May would be so worried! She didn’t like him staying out too late, especially after Ben.
“Hey, kid, calm down. Everything’s ok,” came Mr Stark’s voice from behind him. Peter whipped his head around to see the man’s calm face hovering above him, looking slightly concerned.
“What - what time is it?” Peter mumbled, his lips feeling swollen after his apparent meltdown.
“Around 5:00 pm,”
“What! I’ve been here for two hours? May is gonna be so worried! And you! I’ve made you wait here for two hours, I am so sorry-”
“Kiddo, calm down. I’ve sorted out everything. I called Pepper, who has alarmingly accurate sleuthing skills, and she tracked down your Aunt. Explained the whole thing to her, and apparently they became really good friends in the process? I don’t know how that works. Anyway, you’re in the clear, and don’t even worry about me. You need to feel free to grieve, and I know what it’s like to want to be strong for your loved ones, but you need an outlet. You can’t keep up the facade all the time, Pete. It’ll crack, and then so will you. Bottling everything up isn’t good, and I’m not really one to talk, but you’ve got to share your feelings, even if it’s only occasionally. If I’m the person you want to do that with, it’s fine by me. Hell, let’s make it a regular thing! I’ll meet you outside the gates of my house every Friday, and I’ll even bring flowers. Sound cool?”
Peter smiled a little. “Yeah, Mr Stark. Sounds cool,”
“Sweet, now your Aunt said you could stay for dinner and I happen to be an amazing chef, when it comes to cooking lasagna, at least. So, what do you say, wanna meet my lovely wife and have some famous Stark Lasagna?”
“Why not?” Peter said happily, his small smile turning into a wide grin.
He turned and whispered a swift goodbye to Ben, and then to his parents, before ducking back to Tony. The man wrapped an arm around his shoulders and led him leisurely away from the cemetery, down the road and into his home, where Peter met Pepper (who took a liking to him immediately), and then ate the best lasagne he’d ever tasted.