Actions

Work Header

Once, There Was a Boy

Work Text:

Once, there was a boy named Peter. He went on a field trip and got bitten by a spider, and hardly a month later, he ended up on a walk through an alley with his uncle after an argument. A man with a gun never knows the boy’s name or anything about the bite, but he understands his presence there that night. After all, once he fires a shot, he flees the scene while the boy screams.

 

//

 

Peter watches his uncle die crumpled on concrete, haloed by a still-spreading pool of blood, face boring up into his and whispering about responsibility.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Amanda, who’s been a tailor for fifteen years, knows this because the woman who comes into her shop with him calls him that. 

 

The woman’s hair is long and a little greasy as it flows down her back, and her glasses are smudged, the fine lines of fingerprints visible under the fluorescents. The boy is awkward, with too-long legs, a shuffling stance, and eyes that are dark pits in an otherwise pale face. The two of them are getting an old suit fitted to his lanky frame, and even Amanda can see the tears welling in those bottomless eyes when he looks in the mirror. 

 

Her lips pinch. It’s not the first time she’s adjusted an all-black outfit, and it won’t be the last.

 

She takes the measurements she needs quietly and doesn’t pry.

 

//

 

When Peter’s household loses half its income, he gets a dead man’s suit tailored for his funeral.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Juan Delmar knows this because he comes into his bodega at least once a week for a sandwich he likes squished, of all things. His Spanish accent is embarrassing, but if someone speaks to him slowly enough, he can hold a conversation. He likes to pet Murph, and he always tips.

 

He’s a good kid, even if he constantly looks a little like there’s somewhere else he’d rather be. Juan was like that once; he understands, but he encourages him to keep his feet on the ground anyway. 

 

He’s not sure how much the kid listens.

 

(If anyone ever mentioned him getting sandwiches on the house when he comes in with black eyes, Juan would deny it.)

 

//

 

Peter has a favorite restaurant. It’s one of the more normal things about him.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy. Andre doesn’t know his name, but he knows he comes into the Walgreens he works the graveyard shift at too often, usually beat to hell and looking for band-aids and Neosporin.

 

Andre’s learned the hard way that New Yorkers don’t like being asked after, but geez, he hopes the kid’s in a fight club or something. He’s real shrimpy, and even though his face is never too thin, it’s his eyes that worry him, flinty and stubborn but tired, too, underneath that grit.

 

Andre’s not so good at small talk, but when he’s scanning his items, he tries to prod a little, just to see if he’s safe. He never receives much more for his efforts than pleasantries or a joke that inevitably falls flat. Whenever the kid walks out of the shop—sometimes with a limp, sometimes favoring one side—Andre hopes he has someone in his life who’s better at getting the truth from him.

 

He hopes he’s okay.

 

//

 

Peter is a better liar than most people give him credit for.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Camille knows this because she examines her jet’s passenger list once it lands in Germany, but she makes a point of forgetting it after the fact.

 

She didn’t see a passport when he boarded, and she certainly isn’t stupid enough to think that Tony Stark is flying a random kid to another continent in the middle of the Avengers’ public meltdown just because. But when you’re an ex-SHIELD agent who nearly died when your cover got blown and only survived because Stark Industries had a select few positions open up that conveniently offered some new identifying documents as a sign-on bonus, well—

 

Camille is good at her job, and she keeps her mouth shut for the flight back to the States, too.

 

//

 

Peter fights at an airport without really knowing why.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. FRIDAY knows this because there is a growing file on him in Stark Industries’s servers and he has been mentioned more than once in the phone calls she encrypts between her boss and Happy Hogan.

 

“The kid won’t stop texting me. Could you tell him to cut it out?”

 

“The kid has a name, you know.”

 

“Fine, then. Could you tell Peter to cut it out?”

 

“You’re breaking up, Hap. Catch you later!”

 

“Tony —”

 

//

 

Peter gets a taste of something bigger than his city and has never been able to stop while he’s ahead.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Roger Harrington knows this because he’s inhumanly good at physics and presses the buzzer faster than any other student on the AcaDec team when he has the right answer. 

 

Peter stands out for other reasons, of course. Even Roger, busy as he is with online dating, grading essays, and trying to find clubs for adults in his neighborhood, can realize that. After all, he’s never heard of another teenager with a Stark Industries internship, but he supposes it’ll look good on a resume. He’s considered the threat of burnout for Peter—becoming more and more common in adolescents, he’s read—but if any kid can handle it, it’s him. Roger puts it out of his mind. He has other things to focus on than self-sufficient students, like AcaDec nationals and Homecoming, both of which he has to chaperone.

 

Peter’s too bright to peak so early. It’s not worth worrying about.

 

//

 

Peter falls asleep on his ceiling more than once, trying to get one more problem finished for class the next day.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Adrian Toomes knows this because even after he fought him, even after he beat him into the sand, even after he hung him by his sweatshirt and hoped he choked for ruining his livelihood, the punk cares enough to save his life.

 

//

 

Peter crawls into his bed after a fight on a burning beach and isn’t entirely sure he’ll wake up.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Mohammed knows this because of a wad of loose-leaf paper he finds on his balcony. He’s always seeing weird shit that gets caught in the railing’s bars—even six floors up, New York City is New York City—but this is new.

 

He grabs the sheet and smooths it out, more out of curiosity than anything. It’s not as gross as some of the stuff that’s gotten in there, so he doesn’t even feel the need to get the rubber gloves he uses for dishwashing.

 

There’s writing on it. It’s not neat handwriting, done in red, spidery lines of ink, some of it scribbled out, but it’s legible. Mohammed takes it inside to read in better lighting—and also maybe because he can smell lasagna cooking from whoever lives above him, which is making him hungry. Details.

 

He takes a seat at his kitchen table, half focused on the letter, half wondering what he’s going to make for dinner.

 

Dear May, the author begins. If you’re reading this, I’m sorry.

 

Mohammed’s brows furrow.

 

Hopefully, this is just me overthinking this, but Homecoming really scared me, and I thought I should write something down, just in case, because things got nasty there, and

 

The author tried to use white-out then, and on top of the paint, there’s a scribble, a note for themself, maybe: this sounds so stupid. and this white-out sucks.

 

Is this a rough draft? Mohammed admires the commitment to the writing cycle, but it’s an oddly intimate thing to see, ideas half-formed. For a second, he wonders if he should set the letter down, but it’s not like this is anyone he knows, right? It’s just some junk.

 

He keeps reading.

 

I promise I didn’t mean to leave you is the next full sentence. However it happened, I wouldn’t have done it if I thought I had a choice. We’re all each other has, now, and I know that. I also don’t want you spending more on flowers for the cemetery than you already do, so if you think about buying me some, don’t. The extra backpacks were enough. There’s a little smiley face drawn there. Mohammed’s stomach is sinking, but it’s just garbage, just one of the plastic bags or wrappers or, now, garbled letters that grace his balcony. Right?

 

I thought about making a will, but how does that saying go? What’s mine is yours? I’m pretty sure that’s it. And what’s mine that you don’t want, Ned probably does, so. Will you tell him I didn’t mean to leave him, either?

 

I don’t know what you’ll know when if you get this. But if you’re finding out about everything because I’m dead, then I promise I wanted to tell you when I was alive, too. I wanted to keep you safe more, though, and

 

Five crossed lines in a row, scribbled out so thoroughly Mohammed can’t make them out, though he can read the self-deprecating comments left in the margins around them. The backs of his eyes are burning. It’s a short letter, so many awkward sentences and choppy thoughts, but he feels like he’s been reading it for a long time. There are just two lines left before the sign-off.

 

Even when I lost my parents and Ben, I always had you, and I’ll never be able to pay you back for what you’ve done for me. Thank you for loving me.

 

Love,

Peter

 

Mohammed blinks the wetness away from his eyes. He doesn’t understand the letter, but it’s—it’s definitely not trash, not with the little spots on the page where the ink’s bled, not with the things someone so clearly, painfully young has considered. He folds the letter into quarters, the writing suddenly seeming too raw to look at, and when the hollow feeling in his stomach subsides, he takes the time to call his parents for the first time in a while.

 

//

 

Peter was never very good at keeping track of his things.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Ruth knows this because he sits at the top of the fire escape right near her window and mutters to himself night after night— “C’mon, Peter.”—“Get it together, Peter.”—“Seriously, Peter?”

 

He has a lot to say, and only some of it is important.

 

Ruth is almost positive he thinks he’s unsupervised and is being quiet besides. She mostly keeps the light in the second bedroom off, but with the acoustics of her apartment, sound tends to carry through the window she leaves cracked in there.

 

She’s gotten used to it.

 

She doesn’t ask what he’s doing up there. She’s hardly old, albeit not as young as she used to be, but over the years, she’s learned that sometimes people just need a moment to themselves. There’s not always a lot of space for that in the city, and she doesn’t mind the company. Her husband’s been gone a few years now, and her kids visit often enough, as does her sister, but still—she likes the chatter.

 

From what she’s gathered, usually while doing a puzzle or one of the ultra-detailed coloring books her daughter showed her a few years back, he’s a nice boy, even if he does trespass on her property from time to time. He’s good at math, less good at writing. She hears him grumble about it, that chemical formulas make a lot more sense than grammar. 

 

He likes it when she plays piano.

 

She knows because he stops talking when he does, a rare enough occasion to be noteworthy. She knows because she always hears sniffles not long after the opening notes of Clair de Lune.

 

She never tries to talk with him, doesn’t ever see him, either. It’s just not needed. Ruth appreciates some extra noise, and he’s a fan of the fire escape. It’s a fair enough exchange until the Blip, when Ruth disappears and maybe he does too. She doesn’t know; she doesn’t get her apartment back when she reforms. 

 

In the end, she moves in with her daughter for a time, and when she gets a new place of her own, the fire escape is farther away from her window.

 

//

 

Peter has always liked heights.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Marcela knows this because her family’s third-floor apartment has the worst view ever, and he gets a phone call he puts on speaker one time when he’s digging through their building’s dumpster. He does it a few times a week—usually Fridays and Tuesdays. Marcela has a good view ‘cause she’s always home from sixth grade watching her younger siblings, and they leave the windows open because air conditioning is expensive.

 

“Better to be warm than hungry,” her mom insists on all but the hottest days of the year.

 

She likes to people-watch while her siblings have their turn on the computer, and that’s how she notices the boy who roots through their slimy, smelly trash in clothes that don’t look much better than her own. He likes tech—wiring, circuit boards, and other things Marcela’s been checking books out of the library about, as of late. After all, if he’s finding good stuff out of their dumpster, maybe she can too.

 

He takes longer some days than others, and he doesn’t always take something. Marcela places little bets in her head about if he will when she’s especially bored.

 

He doesn’t know about her because he somehow never glances up, but she looks forward to seeing him, until half the world turns to ash and he stops visiting. Marcela’s a little too busy to care at that point though, because her mom blows away mid-shift at the diner that doesn’t pay her enough to cover their bills, and that’s a lot more important than some guy in an alley.

 

She spends five years scrambling to get by and moving her siblings in with a remaining neighbor, and when the world rights itself again, Peter shows back up to paw through the garbage.

 

Marcela’s probably the same age as him, now.

 

(Eventually, he vanishes again, but Marcela’s too busy counting her blessings to notice.)

 

//

 

Peter has always liked to build.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Morgan Stark knows this because in the weeks after he appears after five years of only existing in her bedtime stories, he sits on the dock by her house and stares into the lake.

 

She doesn’t understand why he does that. The lake is fun to splash in, but its ripples and the little fish in the shallows aren’t interesting for long. She bets her dad would get it, but he’s been in the hospital for a while now and isn’t ready to come home yet, according to her mom.

 

So she waits, and sometimes she sits with Peter.

 

She wonders where he was before she knew him. She wonders if he looked as lonely there as he does now.

 

//

 

Peter turns to dust far away from home, and when he comes back, he blames himself for not getting the gauntlet off before everything went wrong.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Abe knows this because he’s on the AcaDec team with him both before and after . . . everything. It takes school a little bit to get going again after the universe rights itself, and even in the chaos of finding old friends and processing all the new kids, he gets a glimpse of Peter and Ned pulling each other into one of those bone-crushing, restoring hugs he thinks everyone’s given and received in the last few months.

 

(He remembers his with his mom, his dad, his older sisters.)

 

He’s happy for them. Ned and Peter have always been a little weird, consumed by their own world, but they’re good teammates and better friends, even if Peter is always running off for one thing or another and Ned can’t lie to save his life. That doesn’t change, unlike just about everything else, and Abe finds himself appreciating the familiarity of it, once or twice.

 

Peter shows up to practice late, Ned stutters about the reason why, and Abe goes back to making flashcards and memorizing shit about history that approximately no one outside AcaDec has ever cared about. In breaks, he and Flash snark at each other, and MJ tells him about the guy she hates in first period AP Stats. Some people might say it’s boring, but at least it’s something.

 

At least they’re something again. 

 

They’re just kids. They deserve that much.

 

//

 

Peter knows that it could’ve been so much worse, but it’s hard to keep that in mind when there are fewer superheroes to spare but still so many people who need saving.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Vince knows this because of the backpack he finds in an alley, stuffed with pens and pencils and notebooks and other shit that adds up fast when he has to buy it. It’s a shitty backpack, will probably wear out fast. Still, Vince may not have a lot of money, but he does have some smart kids. He takes what he can find, and while he’s grateful for what he can get, there’s—there’s a lot in there when he’s cleaning out the folders. A lot of it is school stuff, which makes sense. Homework, worksheets, readings—that sort of thing. But in one folder that seems like it’s just a mix of everything, there are letters. Letters and letters and letters. None finished. Some aren’t even close. The ones much longer than a sentence have crossed-out bits. But Vince reads through them anyway because there’s something captivating about the desperate-looking scribbles, trailing and scratchy in a way all the homework isn’t.

 

I’m sorry.

 

You shouldn’t have to worry about it.

 

When I die

 

If I die—

 

It’s going to happen, May. It already did, once, and I’m so scared of leaving you this time.

 

Since the Snap, NYC is just getting busier, and someday, I’m going to get into something I can’t win.

 

I don't know why I can’t write this, and I feel like I’m running out of time to do it .

 

I’m sorry.

 

It doesn’t make sense. In fact, nearly the only thing that Vince does understand about it is that he’s reading something not meant for him.

 

(Why is this in a kid’s backpack? Why has he tried so many times to write whatever this is? Why is he apologizing?)

 

The sign-off is always the same.

 

Love,

Peter

 

Vince tosses the writing along with the other sheets he grabs from the folders. He tells himself it’s a creative writing assignment or—or something like that, because he’s disillusioned enough about the world without a kid writing all that for real.

 

//

 

Peter never has the words for everything he wants to say.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Sarah knows this because she’s staring down the carving he somehow made three stories up on a construction site, jagged letters he took the time to go over a few times with lines that don’t match up but make his message clearer: Peter was here!!!

 

It’s old, by the looks of the rust covering some of the exclamation points. Sarah can’t imagine how the kid—because c’mon, with that kind of scrawl, it’s gotta’ be a kid—got up there, but privately, she smiles. She imagines it was a dare, some dumb thing that had the kid’s heart racing and his friends wondering if maybe they shouldn’t have tested his nerve. It’s a cute story—a nice thought. Sarah pockets it after hoping Peter is still having fun, wherever he is.

 

//

 

At seventeen, Peter, if asked, couldn’t remember a period in his life when he would’ve wasted precious, important patrol time on something so menial.

 

//

 

(Peter once thought the sky held fun he could hardly imagine. It’s been eight years since he was fourteen.)

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Quentin Beck knows this because he met him on his summer vacation and tried to kill him for being too smart, too strong—for knowing too much.

 

Talking to his subordinates, he pretends to regret his call to exterminate him, but it’s not such a hard thing to decide, in the end. There’s no room for other heroes in his world where he will be the one worshipped, especially not bugs that would be much less inconvenient if they were crushed.

 

So he tries. 

 

So he fails.

 

So he exterminates himself, in the end.

 

//

 

Peter watches the light fade from a villain’s eyes and wonders, later, what that expression might look like on himself.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. A Skrull named Talos knows this because he manipulates him to defeat a threat he should’ve handled some other way, like with a bullet planted in his scheming skull.

 

Talos will regret it for a long time after the fact.

 

Humans are strange, but even with his skewed understanding of them, Talos is able to identify the phantom haunting Peter’s eyes as exhaustion.

 

//

 

After Europe, Peter just wants to rest, but he knows he won’t be able to for a long time yet.

 

But not nearly as long as he anticipates.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. William knows this because he watches his boss die trying to murder him.

 

He thinks about releasing the clip Quentin filmed before his death one time and one time only. Then, he remembers the kind of genius behind the man Quentin and the rest of their team worked to outshine, the kind of strength it must take to tear through armed drones like they’re paper mache. If that video were to touch a public network, let alone one big enough to spread it, Tony Stark would find him. Peter Parker would find him.

 

William destroys every copy of the footage he has. He’ll be found sooner or later for working with Quentin, but he’s not dedicated enough to get killed instead of just imprisoned for a dead man’s ambition.

 

//

 

Peter never has to live with the public knowing the real name behind the mask.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Elise knows this because Midtown Elementary does a pen pal program with the Midtown School of Science and Technology, and she writes to him. She talks to him about her favorite books (and how her Mom’s taking her to a bookshop next weekend) and how hard fourth grade is (long division makes her head hurt). She also talks about the Avengers and other superheroes, like Spider-Man, who’s her favorite because he swings past her family’s apartment at least once a week and waves when he sees her in the window.

 

He’s also her favorite, she writes, because he saved her sister.

 

My sister was crossing the street when this huge, crazy car almost hit her! But Spider-Man caught the car, and she’s okay. Someday, I’m going to find him and tell him thank you. Do you have a favorite superhero?

 

When Elise’s teacher proofreads the letter before it’s sent, she says she likes how descriptive it is. Elise knows she’s a pretty good writer, but it’s still nice to hear. She thinks she wants to grow up and be an author, in fact, so writing to a big kid is probably good practice. Peter’s fun to hear from, too. He talks a lot about his favorite classes, like chemistry and biology, and his friend, MJ, who likes to read too.

 

Elise has a sneaking suspicion that MJ might be a special friend, but since her teacher says she’s not allowed to ask about that, she keeps writing about books, school, and Spider-Man. At the end of every year, they have a summer social where they get to meet their pen pals, and she’s excited to see Peter; she’s told her mom and dad and sister all about it, and the best part is that according to his letters, he’s excited too.

 

//

 

Peter discovers that, once a week, he waves to the little girl he’s been waiting to meet for most of his senior year. In another world where he gets the benefit of hindsight, he’d think that makes it better that he never gets to attend that social.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. A group of domestic terrorists never knows this, but they do know that the Vulture, the weapons dealer who’s been enabling their movements for the past few years, gets put in prison by Spider-Man. They also know that Spider-Man has busted more than one of the dealers they’ve gone to as backup, not to mention several of their recent operations, and it’s getting old.

 

Spider-Man’s a fresh hero, barely active for three years, and he’s already competent, strong enough to catch cars and fight Thanos, for fuck’s sake. Heroes can end up serving for over a decade. Iron Man alone went for fifteen when all was said and done with the Blip, and they only get stronger with more experience under their belts. It’s not hard logic to follow, really.

 

As a rookie, Spider-Man is already a problem. If he keeps growing, they and most groups like theirs are all but sunk. The Spider has to go, and even if they don’t have the firepower for that kind of thing, it’s not exactly a secret who does.

 

//

 

Peter has a handful of villains he’s always struggled to defeat.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Esperanza knows this because he stumbles over his words when he has a question at the bookstore she works at and ends up introducing himself as such in the process. He’s looking for a gift for a pen pal of his, or at least that’s what she thinks she catches between all the filler about the problems he ran into on his way there and how he’s never been in a bookshop this nice before, ma’am, like actually, it’s so cool, and—

 

Esperanza guides them to the children’s section and leaves him be. However, it’s a slow day for the store, and she’s always been a little nosy—her husband finds it endearing, and her kids have learned to be very polite in public or risk someone who knows her reporting their antics—so she watches him shop. He’s meticulous, really, reading the back of all the books he picks up, and despite the worn look of his clothes, he only has eyes for glossy, expensive hardbacks, thumbing the sleeves and pages gently. The thoughtfulness of it all is adorable, and when he picks out one of the expensive quill pens they have in the gift section, her heart all but melts.

 

“She—uh—likes to write, too,” he’d explained initially.

 

Esperanza’s gotten very good at looking like she’s not paying attention after a few decades of sticking her nose where it shouldn’t be, so her eyes are on the gift cards she’s pretending to organize when police sirens cut through the air and make her jump. Her head snaps up, and she looks through the shop’s windows to see some kind of metal shutters unfold over the entirety of the skyscraper across the street—Oscorp’s headquarters.

 

They’re an oddly positioned shop, just on the verge of Manhattan’s business district, and while they’re high-end enough to attract plenty of customers from the area, it can also lead to strange sights like this.

 

Esperanza’s hands are frozen on the gift cards. Her favorite one they have right now is a frog grinning and sitting on a stack of books, but now that smile looks mocking. 

 

Outside, a voice booms in a pantomime of a ringmaster’s crow: “Spider-Man!”

 

Esperanza’s blood runs cold. Most New Yorkers who like staying alive know Green Goblin’s voice by now, that delighted, unhinged cackle that promises carnage. Her eyes dart to Peter across the store, but he’s looking out the windows too. He’s a soft-looking kid, all slumped shoulders and awkward smiles when he walked in, but looking at his face now, it’s gone hard—resolute, even.

 

Esperanza isn’t sure she likes it.

 

“Listen up!” the Goblin, sounding pleased as anything, instructs from what must be some kind of speaker. “You’ve only got so long to save the day, this time! Oscorp has plenty of employees we can have fun with until you get here. Tick tock!” There’s a pause, and then the message replays, short but ringing cruelly into the air as those strange sheets of metal gleam under the afternoon sun. 

 

Esperanza takes a breath and sets the gift cards down. Her head feels light. “Peter?” she calls, and by some miracle, her voice doesn’t shake. “I think you might want to head home. I’m—I think I’m going to close up shop for the day.”

 

It takes a second for him to focus on her, and while he seems to come back to himself when does, the impishness to his expression now seems forced. For her benefit? Esperanza doesn’t know, but she hopes not. Kids his age shouldn’t have to put on a brave face. “That sounds like a good idea. Do you mind if I leave these here?” he asks, setting his picks on a nearby table.

 

“No, no, not at all,” she replies, probably too quickly. “You stay safe out there, alright sweetheart?”

 

“I’ll do my best,” he says and hurries out the door, his ragged backpack thumping with his strides.

 

Esperanza watches him go, just to be safe, and when he’s finally out of sight, she takes the time to put the book and quill on the shelf they use for items on hold before she locks up. She’ll be halfway home, stuck on the subway, when she hears the news.

 

//

 

Peter suits up for the last time in an alley, watching for passersby as he webs his backpack to the wall and races to a fight. Some things never change.

 

//

 

Once, there were six men who had a nasty thorn in their side named Spider-Man. They never knew a boy named Peter, didn’t even fathom that the hero they so hated might be a child, underneath that mask.

 

(Even if they had, it wouldn’t have changed anything.)

 

When a few different groups reach out after pooling their resources to pay them to get rid of a particularly persistent bug, they balk, initially. They each have their motives, but none of them are assassins in the traditional sense, not to mention their tendencies to work alone. It’s the Goblin that tips the scale, head tilted as he muses, “If Spider-Man’s gone, who’s left with the powers and intel to stop us?”

 

And that’s a hard argument to deny.

 

Still, Spider-Man’s not so easily quashed. He’s strong and fast and smart; put in dire enough straits, he also has backup, between the drones Stark will send to him or what other heroes are in the area. A bullet, even a series of bullets, isn’t enough, no matter what that fool Mysterio thought. Spider-Man must be defenseless, left with no strength, no resources, and most importantly, no escape. A state like that for a hero like him is difficult to create—but it’s not impossible.

 

Not at all.

 

//

 

Peter’s spidey sense blares so loud it hurts, walking into that building, but what choice does he have? He’s known from the start that the role of Spider-Man is his duty. No amount of fear means he gets to walk away.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. He walks into a skyscraper with one entrance: the front doors. The moment he’s inside, they shut, covered by the metal encasing the rest of the building. His ears, so keen, can’t hear the heartbeats of any hostages.

 

What Peter doesn’t know is that Oscorp, in a rare show of care for its employees, gave those at its HQ the day off to celebrate the year’s record-breaking sales. Seventeen-year-olds just don’t hear about news like that when they have homework to do and friends to see, so Peter is alone. Peter is trapped, and he’s smart enough to realize that nearly instantly. He claws at the doors, but they don’t give.

 

“The metal’s a vibranium-alloy, Spider-Man. Not even you can get past that,” the Goblin cackles from somewhere Peter can’t see.

 

“You really put a lot of funding into this gig, huh?” Spider-Man teases, despite the nausea climbing up his throat and the material under his hands that won’t budge. “I feel so special.”

 

The Goblin laughs and laughs and laughs over the intercom, and Peter’s head is pounding with the need to get out. “Special, sure. That’s a word for it. It’s been nice knowing you, Spider-Man.”

 

Peter doesn’t like the sound of that.

 

Emerging from holes that open in the ground, walls, and ceiling, six villains converge on Peter. Given his complete unpreparedness to face that many of them at one time, he runs, but—but this, whatever it is, isn’t normal. Though they’re chasing him, there doesn’t seem to be a goal, no weapons of mass destruction to exploit or civilians to terrify. He sees Doc Oc, Electro, the Lizard, Sandman, Kraven, and the Goblin, but despite all that firepower, their only focus is him. 

 

Somewhere around the twentieth floor, hundreds of feet of single-minded determination and near-lethal blows, Peter accepts that they’re there—all of them—for one reason.

 

They’re going to kill him, and despite the suffocating panic that follows that realization, he has to keep moving.

 

He’s strong and fast and smart, but so are they; they’re forcing him up the building, scaling story after story, and even Peter—even Spider-Man —gets tired eventually. His chest is burning like it hasn’t since before the bite. He thinks Doc Oc’s tentacles might have cracked some ribs, and there are only so many more times he can web the Lizard or Kraven up before he runs out of fluid. Where one of the villains lag, another takes their place or helps them keep up. He tries to call for help, but the metal blocks any signal from getting out, blocks him from getting out when he tries for a window. His legs keep pumping, fending off what attacks he can while not losing ground.

 

He runs, and it’s not enough.

 

(All things must end.)

 

They chase him to the roof, six agendas made one, and when Peter reaches for another vial of webbing, he grasps at nothing but air. A few of his villains smile—Green Goblin, Kraven. The others just stare, satisfied. 

 

Peter backs as far away as he can, and—and then he’s on the edge of the roof. He tries to crawl over the side to flee, but he’s exhausted. Doc Oc doesn’t even have to work to catch him and hoist him into the air above the street below, and the other five keep creeping closer, inch by inch, to see this through. He might have reception now without the metal panels in the way, but the six of them are only a few feet from him.

 

There’s no rescue coming this time.

 

“Why?” he gasps, partly for breath, partly in terror. He squirms, frantically trying to get free, but the tentacles just wind tighter. “I wasn’t trying to stop any of your plans, just rescue hostages that you don’t even have.”

 

“Today you weren’t in the way,” Sandman agrees, “but who knows about next time?”

 

“The best way to fix a problem is to rip it out at the root,” Electro says, almost clinical with his detached logic.

 

Peter feels the wind at his back, and he chokes back a sob. If this is how it happens— he’s known for so long now that this is how it’ll happen —he won’t cry for them to see. Instead, he thinks about May and Ned and MJ and Tony and everyone else, everyone he’s helped somewhere along the way. He hopes they’ll be okay.

 

A hysterical, sad laugh bubbles out of his lips. His head drops just so. He’s always liked heights, but today the skyline feels unwelcoming, cold. “Can’t believe I got all six of you together just for little old me. I really do feel special.”

 

(Peter doesn’t feel special. He feels like he wants to be home. He feels like the fate he’s known was coming is still rushing up too fast. He feels more petrified than he’s ever been in his entire life.)

 

Doc Oc’s eyes narrow. “Goodbye, Spider-Man,” he says, and then he lets Peter go.

 

//

 

At the end of his story, Peter is proud that he doesn’t scream.

 

//

 

Once, there was a man named Ben. Peter and May know this because they loved him.

 

He liked to play classical music in the background when he read, and his favorite song was Clair de Lune.

 

When the boy named Peter closes his eyes, despite the pain and weightlessness and fear, he’s excited to see him again.

 

//

 

Peter dies crumpled on concrete, haloed by a still-spreading pool of blood, face hidden by the mask he considered his responsibility.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. New York City never knows this, but they know about Spider-Man, who dies from an assassination with unfair odds, not a battle he ever could’ve won. 

 

The city howls, at first. In response to the commotion of Green Goblin’s announcement, a crowd had gathered at the base of Oscorp’s headquarters during the chase despite the police trying to disperse it, and it’s in the perfect position to watch the moment Spider-Man drops without the means to catch himself.

 

(There’s gasping and retching and sobbing when he hits the ground, but most people there just remember it all merging into one horrible cacophony of a moment.)

 

Then, the city screams at any publication that uses pictures of him after the fall, the viscera soaking his suit and vicious angles his limbs were left at.

 

(“He deserves better!” is the primary cry, usually followed by various forms of mostly non-violent protest.)

 

Finally, the city roars for blood, and the next time the six men who killed its hero show their faces, they’re greeted with bricks and rocks and bottles, anything anyone can get their hands on, danger be damned.

 

(There’s no one quite like Spider-Man to protect them anymore, and the men who did it won’t get away with that.)

 

//

 

Peter is gone, Spider-Man alongside him, and through all the noise, his city mourns.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Jim Morita, Principal of Midtown High, knows this because he would’ve been his class’s valedictorian if his downright abysmal attendance didn’t disqualify him. He also knows this because two days before his graduation ceremony, he gets an e-mail with an online obituary attached.

 

When Pomp and Circumstance plays and he’s supposed to be focused on shaking graduates’ hands, he can’t stop thinking about the empty chair near the back of the stadium, right at the beginning of the Ps.

 

//

 

A week before he was coaxed into that building, Peter finally let himself get excited that he was going to live long enough to make it to commencement.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Flash Thompson knows this because he spent most of high school antagonizing him because he could. Sophomore year he was kind of a dick about it, but by the time they were seniors, it’d turned into friendly ribbing, the kind that Peter returned, jokes they laughed at when Mr. Harrington had his back turned. They weren’t best friends or anything because Peter has always been annoyingly good at everything he does even when he’s not trying, which is beyond annoying, but they were in a good place. Good enough, in fact, that, for the past few months, Flash has been working up the nerve to apologize for the less good-natured comments he’s made in the past. His plan was to tell him at the last AcaDec practice of the year, which is more of a goodbye party for the seniors than anything else.

 

But the day before that, Peter dies.

 

It was some freak accident, apparently, but no one knows any details about what happened. There’s not a date set for the funeral yet, but he’s already heard whispers that it’ll be a closed casket.

 

It’s not the first time Flash’s lost someone unexpectedly. When he was fourteen, his older sister and her friends got into their parents' liquor cabinets when they were on a business trip and went for a drive later that night, even though Flash begged her to stay put. After that, their family of four turned into a family of three.

 

(Sometimes less, depending on if his parents decide to spend time around the house or not.)

 

It still takes his breath away that, even knowing these things happen, he never saw it coming.

 

Ned and MJ aren’t at the party. Flash and Abe talk about skipping but end up showing up and sitting together anyway because both of their parents are Type A about attendance bullshit. No one really talks, not even Mr. Harrington. If Peter were there, he’d crack a stupid joke that everyone would laugh at, and Flash would piggyback off of it to keep the mood going, and it’d be better and fine because Peter would fucking be alive.

 

But he’s not.

 

So for thirty minutes, the longest everyone can stand being there, Flash stares at the piece of cake in front of him that tastes like ash on his tongue. 

 

He knows he and Peter are— were —cool, but he can’t stop thinking about how he’ll never get to actually say he’s sorry.

 

Sophomore-year Flash would’ve been an ass about someone crying at AcaDec practice, but when senior-year Flash feels tears starting to drip down his cheeks, nobody says anything about him scooting closer to press his shoulder into Abe’s.

 

//

 

Peter forgave Flash a long time ago. Eventually, he’ll forgive himself too, for a lot more than a few rude comments.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Harold “Happy” Hogan knows this because for three years he keeps the kid alive up until he doesn’t.

 

He didn’t want to be anywhere near him initially, but a few years ago, his friend and boss said hey, take this teenager to Germany because I said so, and Happy’s known not to seriously question Tony since the 90s, no matter how weird shit gets. So he boards a plane with a hyped-up fifteen-year-old and hates every second of it.

 

If he could go back and yell at his past self, tell him to listen to the kid, ask about his day, his stupid video diary and everything else, he would. He’d give up just about anything to do it, after the call he got mid-meeting with SI’s cybersecurity department.

 

Tony, as careless as he might seem, doesn’t interrupt the important things unless it matters , and the color drains out of Happy’s face. Later, Happy won’t remember what Tony says. Something about all fucking six of them, Jesus Christ and gone and just go get him, please. Later, Happy is certain he’ll never forget the way the crying crowd parted for him and the SI badge he held in front of himself like a badge of honor.

 

Happy is the one who picks Peter up, that day.

 

He looks so small on the ground, but he’s smaller in Happy’s arms, unmoving. His head lolls against his chest. His entire body is staining his crisp, white button-up, and Happy is nearly sick. He wants there to be something to punch, for those boxing lessons all those years ago to mean something, but the villains are gone, and Peter is still.

 

So Happy carries him to the car, lays him across the backseat.

 

Despite the emergency responders around the scene, no paramedic or cop tries to stop him. Even if SI’s and Tony’s connection to Spider-Man wasn’t fairly public knowledge, superheroes are different; they’ve known that since 2012, if not sooner, and even if they didn’t . . .

 

There were a lot of people who saw it happen. Nobody needs to be a genius to know that it would take a force stronger than Spider-Man to survive that. Standard procedure isn’t nearly as important when someone’s beyond help.

 

A car, even one as expensive as Happy’s, feels too cheap to carry this version of Peter, but he drives him to the rebuilt compound anyway. His hands don’t shake on the wheel, and he doesn’t cry, yet. He’s more than a glorified chauffeur these days, but this is his job. He drives. He stays functional when the world is falling apart, whether he’s picking his recently-kidnapped boss up from the airport or at a trainwreck of a race in Monaco or—or—

 

Happy drives. 

 

For the first time since Happy’s known him, Peter is silent in the backseat. 

 

(Happy ends up selling this car, his favorite Rolls Royce, as soon as he gets the chance.)

 

May’s at the compound when they get there. She’s standing out front, looking too thin and too pale for a woman Happy knows is a force of nature, and for the first time in his drive, he reaches for his phone and calls Tony, stopping the car halfway down the compound’s front driveway. “Get her inside,” he demands as soon as he picks up.

 

“We’ve tried. She won’t move.”

 

“Then I’m using a different entrance.”

 

“She’ll find out eventually.”

 

“Does it sound like I care?” Happy snaps, and a beat after the fact, he realizes he’s on the verge of shouting. He can’t bring himself to care about that either, not when his voice is so goddamn loud in the car. “She’s not fucking seeing him like this, Tony, not unless somebody warns her first.”

 

All he hears is breathing for a few seconds, and then—

 

“Okay,” Tony whispers. “Okay. Go around. I’ll take her back in.”

 

Happy puts the car in reverse and doesn’t look in his rearview mirror. If he doesn’t see him, doesn’t remember the figure he’s taking to a makeshift morgue, maybe it won’t be real. But however hard Happy tries, he can’t ignore the quiet of the car.

 

//

 

Peter is so much harder to carry in death than in life.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. MJ knows this because she was in love with him.

 

She’s not naive enough to think that, after nine months of dating, what they had was some kind of mature, wisened love, but it could’ve been. She looked at his smiles and the way he waved his hands when he got excited and thought that maybe he was it. 

 

She’d never say it out loud, but she liked to think of them together in the future, and not just in college. Before she went to bed during those months, she liked to imagine their future future, when they’d both be starting their careers and living together. Ned would live nearby or visit all the time if he didn’t. They’d try to cook for each other, no matter how many times they burned the food. They’d only have to call May or MJ’s mom every once in a while with random questions. He’d be able to carry all the groceries up in one load without struggling. She’d teach herself how to do all the repairs around the place so they wouldn’t have to involve the landlord. She knew it wouldn’t be perfect, not with Spider-Man on top of all the other typical relationship problems, but it would be theirs.

 

MJ’s never been much for interior design, but she has a few sketches of what that apartment would look like floating around. It’d have big windows, blankets on their couch, some of her art framed on the walls. It’d feel like a home. 

 

In the first week after his death, where her family brings her food and doesn’t press when she won’t talk, she can’t stop staring at them, even when they make her sob.

 

The worst part is that her family doesn’t know . They get her boyfriend died and that it was bad, but it’s not the same as realizing that he was hunted and killed in broad daylight because he did the right thing for years on end and paid for it. They don’t understand that she and the city are grieving for the same person.

 

May has to lie in the obituary, the funeral, and the story that sounds best is car accident. It’s easy to let people’s imaginations fill in the blanks with injuries, all the reasons they’re not allowed to see his face the last time it’s above ground. It’s kinder than the truth, but so are most things, with this.

 

It’s not about her, but MJ’s so, so grateful May decides to keep said truth from the world.

 

It’s difficult enough being the girl with the dead boyfriend. The amount of awkward texts and direct messages she’s gotten with condolences for that already drives her insane. She doesn’t know what she’d do if she was forever known as Spider-Man’s girlfriend from when he died. 

 

Whether as Spider-Man or Peter, though, he was supposed to be hers. They were supposed to have more time. It’s every cliche MJ hates, but she can’t help but think that it’s not fair.

 

How come it ended like this? How come she spends the summer before her freshman year of college crying into her pillow, over pictures, onto Ned’s shoulder? How come she spent her senior year letting herself fall in love, being vulnerable despite the warning signs, only for it to fall in one vicious, awful moment? How come she has to listen to people shake their heads as they talk about how gruesome Spider-Man’s death was and wait until she’s alone to scream? How come her first love is a shadow at her heels and not a hand in her own?

 

Michelle “MJ” Jones, former captain of the Academic Decathlon team, honors student, incoming member of MIT’s class of ‘28, is not meant for this, but there she is, surviving. Barely, at first, but slowly, she rights herself.

 

She starts sitting at family meals instead of subsisting on protein bars and leftovers. She still doesn’t talk much, but her younger sister fills the air with jokes and chatter. Her parents eye her and smile, and it doesn’t feel like the end of the world.

 

Sometimes, May invites her over to an apartment that feels hollow, nowadays. Sometimes they talk over coffee. Sometimes they play games, bake, watch movies. Sometimes they just sit, and it’s nice to be around someone who understands.

 

When she meets her roommate in the dorms, a girl named Gwen who’s blonde, charming, and as driven as MJ used to be, it doesn’t feel like she’s just going through the motions when she waves and says hi, I’m excited to meet you . She invites MJ to go to dinner with her that first night, and while she doesn’t accept then—for a while, really—they get along well. When she goes to bed, instead of thinking about the far future, MJ considers telling Gwen about him, someday.

 

It’s something.

 

MJ will take it.

 

//

 

Peter started telling MJ he loved her four months into their relationship. He was terrified the first time he said it, shaky-kneed and red-cheeked, but he had a gnawing, frantic suspicion that he was only going to get so many more chances to tell her his feelings and did it anyway.

 

She’ll never stop being grateful that she learned to say it back.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Tony Stark knows this because he gave him hope.

 

He’d been doing the superhero thing for a while before he met him, had seen a lot, from aliens to flying cities. He’d still never met anyone like Peter, sitting on his twin bed with gelled hair and such intense conviction about the good he could do for the world that it made Tony’s chest ache where the reactor used to sit.

 

In hindsight, fuck doing good for the world. Tony lost an arm and nearly his life chasing that ideal, and he was okay making that sacrifice because it wasn’t Peter, gone before his eighteenth birthday because Tony wasn’t good enough.

 

“That’s a little self-centered, don’t you think?” May will ask him later, when he voices that thought. “They took him because he got in the way one too many times, not because your drones weren’t on the scene. It had nothing to do with you.”

 

It’s not a bad outlook on things. In fact, her logic would make sense to anyone who’s not him, but Tony is not nearly as saintly as the public would like to believe. Tony is self-centered; he knows himself and his capabilities, so he hangs Peter Parker right next to Ho Yinsen in his mental list of people he could’ve saved.

 

(People he’ll never forget.)

 

For as much as Peter meant to him in the end, he wasn’t good with him at first. He never should’ve taken him to Germany and certainly didn’t tell him enough when he did anyway. He ignored him for months after that and blew up on him when, shockingly, he didn’t do great without some supervision. Then, he did a one-eighty and tried to make him a full Avenger, which didn’t work out either.

 

Instead, he got a kid.

 

That’s a bit dramatic, but that’s the gist of it. Mentee, prodigy—more specific words like that imply he’s responsible for who Peter was as a superhero, and it’s hardly like Tony molded him. He tried, sometimes, to give him a few bits of advice along with the tech and general support from an older hero, but then the kid inevitably ignored him and ran headfirst into something dumb that Tony had to stitch him up after.

 

Spider-Man had a moral code way before Tony got anywhere near him. He just tried to keep him safe while he carried it out, and along the way, he got attached. 

 

One minute he was messing around in the lab with him or grabbing him from school for lunch, and the next he was important to him like very few people are . Pepper knew it, Rhodey knew it, Happy definitely knew it—everybody fucking knew it except for Peter, who died the first time without being told shit about how much Tony cared.

 

He spent five years regretting that, and when he brought him back, Tony swore he’d be better, beginning with that hug on the battlefield. So he was.

 

(And not just because he learned not long after that hug that life is a precious, fragile thing.)

 

In his hospital room, he told Peter he missed him, that he meant a lot to him. He retired Iron Man for good after Thanos and started making drones instead, backup for Peter should he ever need it. As soon as he was healthy enough, he invited Peter to the cabin and kept making him suits in the meantime. He brought Morgan to visit NYC and Spider-Man, her favorite superhero, and the whole time, he made sure to stay in touch with texts and the occasional gag gift. He did his best and watched Peter flourish with fewer and fewer supports, and he was so proud he told anyone who would listen.

 

He can’t decide how he feels about those memories, now.

 

Improvement is great, but what good does that do if it all crumbles in the end, anyway?

 

What good was Tony to Peter if he died despite the Stark tech at his fingertips?

 

Tony’s had a lot of fuck-ups in his life, but none of them hurt as much as the sight of the sheet his med-team pulled over his body. They told him not to look, but he did. 

 

They cleaned him up, wiped the blood off and arranged him as cleanly as they could, but Tony still couldn’t find it in himself to look at his closed eyes and pale face and think peaceful. He looked tired and young and hurt, and Tony’s final image of him did nothing but affirm the fucking injustice of it all, that someone like him had to be the one to go.

 

He comes to the funeral. He’s not exactly an inconspicuous figure, meaning he has to wear one of the high-tech masks he made SHIELD back when SHIELD was still a thing, but he comes. He listens to the kid’s best friend give his eulogy before May gives hers, and he watches his girlfriend cry. He remembers the first time he lost Peter, fading to dust in his arms.

 

(At least that time he had someone with him.)

 

He spends a long time on a roof after that, staring into the skyline. There are a dozen different Spider-Man memorials he can make out on the ground below, clusters of red and blue flapping in the breeze or sprawled across sidewalks, but all Tony can think of is a fourteen-year-old who looked him in the eyes and said, “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.”

 

He puts his head in his hands and lets the tears come. 

 

(It’s not like there’s anyone left to see it happen up there.)

 

Eventually, he makes his way back to the penthouse he still has in the city. Morgan  greets him at the door

 

Her eyes are red too. 

 

She’s whip-smart, especially for a kid headed into first grade in the fall, and that means she understands that her favorite playmate isn’t coming over again. “Dad?” she asks. “Are you okay?”

 

He’s not, but he’s not a stranger to grief, either. He can feel his mom and Jarvis hanging over his shoulder, and he makes himself remember that even when he thought he couldn’t make it through, he did. He has a family to show for it.

 

He crouches down. From further inside the house, he can hear Pepper on a call and knows reality will be kinder once she’s in view. Until then, he stares at his daughter, the one he only had because he met a kid who reminded him of all the good left in the world, even when Tony felt like it was falling apart. He tells her the truth: “Not yet.”

 

Morgan nods. “That makes sense. Me neither,” she sniffs, and she’s warm against his chest when he wraps her up in a hug, smaller and softer than that thing on the battlefield but no less important.

 

Tony loved Peter like a new beginning, like a like mind, like a sense of hope, and Peter loved the world. No matter how much it hurts, Tony respects his decision to die for it.

 

After all, he’d do the same.

 

//

 

No matter how Tony sees it, Peter would’ve called him his mentor.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. Ned Leeds knows this because he was his best friend.

 

They met in Kindergarten. Ned was terrified when his lola dropped him off at the classroom’s door. He begged her to not make him go, to let him stay behind just a second longer, but she shook her head and ushered him through the entrance. He didn’t even have time to burst into tears before there was a face shoved a hairsbreadth from his own, a few inches shorter than him but no less excited for it.

 

Ned had time to process wild curls, brown eyes, and a complexion a lot paler than anyone’s in his family, and then the face spoke: “Is that Darth Vader on your backpack?”

 

From where his head was scrunched as tightly into his shoulders as it could get, Ned nodded. “You like Star Wars?” he managed, his voice tiny.

 

“I love it! Oh, man, May and Ben said I would meet cool people at school, but this rocks. What’s your favorite Star Wars movie?”

 

“I—uh—” Ned stammers. At parks and such, the other kids weren’t ever this excited to talk to him, and while it was weird being asked his opinion, the face, which was revealed to belong to a boy when he took a few steps back, stared openly at him, waiting for his response. “The Force Awakens.”

 

The other boy grinned. “Mine too! I’m Peter. What’s your name?”

 

“I’m Ned.”

 

“Cool! I’ll show you where to hang up your backpack,” he said and did, and Ned didn’t feel like crying anymore.

 

They never really separated, after that, even though stuff changes. Peter ended up being taller than Ned. The math they both excel at gets harder. They switched schools twice for middle and high school, respectively. But they stuck together. Peter was there for bullies and his lola getting sick, and Ned’s there for Ben and Spider-Man. 

 

After the Blip, once Ned came back and found out his lola hasn’t needed any chemo treatments in two years, he started thinking of Peter. He knew the second that spaceship took off with him inside that it was bad, but it was different to hold him in the hallway that first day back at school, to feel him slump into him like he was the only thing keeping him up. 

 

“I missed you,” Ned had whispered, then.

 

“Hey, for us it was only a few weeks, right?” Peter replied and, with his tone, somehow made a messed-up reality a bad joke.

 

“Shut up,” Ned groaned and held him tighter.

 

It won’t just feel like a few days, this time. 

 

It did in the beginning. It felt like any second, Peter might pop out and say surprise, and Ned would punch him for such a shitty prank and then hug him as a reminder to never do it again. But when it happened, May called him first, before MJ or the school or anyone else, and told him not to turn on the TV. “Ned, honey, just don’t turn on the news—don’t look. He wouldn’t want you to see.”

 

“May?”

 

“Promise me.”

 

She’s never sounded so stern with him, not when he was eight and knocked over a vase she and Ben got as a wedding present, not even when he was fifteen and she found out he knew about Spider-Man and didn’t tell her. 

 

“Okay,” he breathes. He’s sitting at his desk getting started on that night’s homework, and the world is spinning in ways it shouldn’t. “What’s going on?”

 

On the other end of the line, there’s the first of many sobs, and Ned knows. 

 

It takes a few months after the fact for Ned to realize that Peter saw it coming.

 

Looking back on it, his subconscious, if nothing else, should’ve caught that something was up with the desperate light in Peter’s eyes as they hung out that last year, the random but thoughtful gifts he gave Ned more sporadically than ever. Peter could sense it, and that guts Ned because he never tried to run.

 

“He used to get his ass handed to him on the playground,” he tells MJ one night, laying next to each other on the floor of her room, dark except for the fairy lights on the walls. “I’d be getting picked on for something—” Ned didn’t find his voice until middle school, when some particularly cruel upperclassmen found out about Peter’s parents and tried to make a joke of it. “—and he’d fight for me, no matter how mean the other kids were.”

 

“Never could let someone else take care of it, huh?”

 

“Nah, not him.”

 

It’s a strange experience, wishing your best friend had been more selfish, but Ned’s always been a little off the wall. It’s part of why he and Peter got along so well, but now it’s just him, laughing at jokes he’s the only one left to understand.

 

Still, the world keeps spinning.

 

When he’s packing for college that August—MIT, which is good because if Ned had to leave MJ, too, he isn’t sure he’d be taking in-person classes this semester—he can’t pick out any decor. He tries, once, but it wasn’t supposed to be him making all the decisions. Yeah, it’d still be ugly because both he and Peter have never had thoughts about home design in their lives, but they’d be able to do it together, and now it’s just Ned, and—

 

And aside from a few pictures of his family, Ned doesn’t bring anything to decorate his dorm with.

 

He makes it through his first semester, studies with MJ and gradually makes friends, the kind that don’t ask why the two of them don’t like talking about superheroes despite being from NYC, the kind that don’t mind them getting quiet when someone asks about the lack of high school pictures in Ned’s room or the broken necklace MJ never takes off. They settle, and when Ned goes home for winter break, there’s a knock on his house’s front door the day after Christmas. When he opens it, he finds May Parker with a plastic tub in hand. 

 

“Hey,” she says, like she always did when she came home after a long shift and found him and Peter at their apartment. “How was your first semester?”

 

“Good,” he manages, trying not to think about Peter’s panic when Ned found out about Spider-Man.

 

(“May cannot know! I cannot do that to her right now!”)

 

He’s wooden, standing there unable to summon more than a word to a woman he’s known most of his life, but May just offers a thin smile. “Happy to hear it.” She lifts the tub, and it gives a familiar rattle—LEGOs. “I brought some of his things for you. The stuff he’d want you to have.”

 

It’s a calm day out, weather-wise, but Ned feels wind rushing in his ears. “Thanks,” he says, and May hands the tub over. “How are you—um—” He stutters a few more times, but he can’t get the full question out.

 

May’s smile gets a little sadder at the corners. “Taking it day by day, same as always.” Her voice is tight, but her eyes stay dry.

 

“I’m sorry,” Ned says. His voice cracks.

 

She reaches out and squeezes his wrist. “We all are, sweetheart. If you ever want to come over for coffee or anything, you let me know, alright? I’ve missed seeing you around.”

 

“Right,” he breathes.

 

“Take care of yourself?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

She smiles, gets back into her old car that’s driven Ned and Peter more places than he can remember. She drives off, and Ned is left hovering in the entryway with the door wide open, letting the chill in. When he finally moves back inside, he hears Peter’s voice ringing in his skull, complaining, like he did every winter, about the cold.

 

//

 

Peter loved his best friend, and when Ned starts spring semester, he places a LEGO Darth Vader helmet on a shelf in his dorm.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter. May Parker knows this because, for all intents and purposes, he was her son, and she never got to see him grow up. She watched him mature, of course, step into the world as his own person, but he’ll always be a boy—

 

(Her boy.)

 

—in her mind, frozen forever at seventeen.

 

May never wanted kids of her own. She’s never minded them, per se, but between Ben, her friends, and her career, she was content. Physically having a baby had never appealed to her, and adopting, well . . . she and Ben weren’t exactly swimming in money, paying rent on a relatively nice place in NYC. Children are expensive and a lot of work, and May had never felt the need. Being an aunt on the other hand—that was doable.

 

Richard and Mary, Ben’s brother and wife, had a boy they named Peter two years after they got married, and May decided early on in the game that they were going to be thick as thieves. Even when he was a baby, he was the perfect little companion, a warm spot on her shoulder while she talked to the others or walked from room to room, three of his fingers wrapped around one of hers. She had never been big on babies, either—too small and breakable for comfort, given how clumsy she can be—but as ever, Peter was the exception to the rule. She and Ben splurged on Christmas gifts for him every year, and they were always happy to babysit for Richard and Mary when they were off at their conferences. As far as kids go, Peter was the perfect middle ground for May, enough to scratch the itch to be a caretaker but not an overwhelming responsibility, not when she could hand him back to his mom and dad at the end of the day.

 

And then one day, she couldn’t. 

 

She and Peter were playing a board game when an officer knocked on their door, and after that, everything was different.

 

May doesn’t think there’s any good way to explain to a child that their parents are never coming home. She and Ben did their best, crouching down and each holding one of his hands, but it still hurts to have a four-year-old nearly choking on the sobs he heaves into your chest. In the moment, May and Ben locked eyes, not knowing what to do—who could possibly know what to do?

 

Even though their gazes were filled with tears of their own, they settled on each extending an arm around Peter’s back and linking their fingers—a promise to be in this together, no matter what. And so the three of them held on.

 

There was suddenly a bedtime to implement and vegetables he had to eat before dessert and so many more rules that didn’t come up during day trips. They never planned to be parents, but they were anyway, clumsy, doing everything they could but still failing, some days. It wasn’t easy, but they made it work; it was never a question as to if she and Ben would take Peter in, just how well they could do it. They found a balance and maintained it through Peter’s academics and her and Ben’s careers, and then when Peter was in his freshman year of high school, the unthinkable happened again.

 

She’d take telling that four-year-old about his parents a million times over scraping his fourteen-year-old self out of a chair at the police station. At least the first time he didn’t have bloodstains on him, but despite that and the way his face crumpled when he first saw her, they made it home. Once he’d showered and his clothes had been put in a trash bag to be thrown out the next day, she held him that night too, the two of them curled up on their beat-to-shit couch and clinging for dear life.

 

“Why does this keep happening to us?” he’d asked her, and she didn’t have an answer, just a kiss for his temple and her arms that couldn’t keep the world out forever.

 

When she found out he was Spider-Man, it terrified her. Sure, she screamed, grounded him, and went on a warpath to find Tony Stark and scream at him too, but once her anger had burned itself out, she was left with a cold, creeping fear that her boy, still so young, was out of her hands.

 

She was right.

 

For the next seven years that only felt like two for her, she watched him save person after person and was proud, but even if she wasn’t, she knows she couldn’t have stopped him. At the end of her rant the day she saw him in that suit for the first time, he told her what Ben said, and May was left with the crippling realization that there wasn’t going to be an end to it. Peter and Spider-Man were one and the same, and they would be until one of them wasn’t around to support the other.

 

When it’s his turn to leave her, like all their family before him, she doesn’t get to hold him. She didn’t even see what was left after he fell from the sky he loved so much, not after Tony Stark, who once had to fight for her trust, grips her arms with such gentleness it aches and tells her she’s better off not knowing. “Please, May,” he begs, “don’t do that to yourself.”

 

She sobs as she nods in agreement, and though she respects Tony for what he did for Peter, the hug they share is not enough to heal the burden of being the last Parker standing.

 

(How did she, a woman who didn’t even want kids, end up outliving the only one the universe gifted her?)

 

May’s mourning is full of lies, but it’s the only kind she’s allowed to all the world that’s not Tony, Ned, or MJ. Her nephew died in a car crash. Of course, it was an accident. Yes, she heard about Spider-Man, saw it on the news. She sews those fibs into the spectacle of it all—the obituary, the eulogy, her time-off requests—and once that’s done, does her best to collect the pieces like she has all the other times. 

 

She tries to keep busy, stays in touch with everyone who knew both halves of him, but one night, it’s 2:00 AM. She’s on the couch with a bottle of wine, has been since around midnight, and she’s barely had a few sips because she’s so lonely it makes her nauseous. She told Peter years ago that it was just him and her, and now she doesn’t have that, never will again. She’s May Parker, a New Yorker and a nurse and a widow who doesn’t even have a kid anymore, so is she still a mom? She wants to be, but she doesn’t know. It’s just one more spot of fuel to the fire.

 

She can’t leave the apartment because it was theirs —her, Peter, and Ben all rolled into one small space they made their own. But she also can’t stay in it like this, where every sound she makes echoes with no one there to hear it. She doesn’t want a roommate; she wants her son and her husband, people to look after who will look after her in turn, the way she was supposed to get.

 

Instead, she nurses the wine throughout the wee hours of the night, just enough to knock the world loose for a few hours like a crooked frame, not so much that she’s ever drunk, and certainly not enough to leave her anything but sober when she walks to the nearest animal shelter that morning.

 

It has to be some kind of cosmic coincidence that the first thing she sees is a huge, fluffy, orange cat named Chewie—short for Chewbacca, the volunteer tells her. May’s voice doesn’t even shake when she tells the woman that she’ll take him, please, without ever seeing him outside of his cage. The volunteer tries to convince her to play with him a little before making a decision, but May is sure, tells her as much.

 

(In her mind’s eye, she sees Peter running through a park and throwing his head back to make Chewbacca noises because that’s what six-year-olds do when they’re bored.)

 

She pays the adoption fee, and then May has a cat, one that weaves around her ankles while she’s making breakfast and gets hair everywhere and likes to climb inside the kitchen cupboards. He makes her laugh more than anything has in months.

 

Eventually, she decides to go to therapy, too. She probably should’ve gone before now, but money was tight with herself and a kid to support on one salary, but now—

 

Best not to think about how she can afford it, actually.

 

She does her research and ends up with a woman named Madeline who specializes in grief counseling. In their first appointment together, May outlines everything important: Mary, Richard, Ben, Peter, even the Blip and how she’s still processing five years gone, just like that. She doesn’t know at what point in the story she starts crying, but eventually, a thought occurs to her, one she can’t believe she didn’t have earlier. It’s a bit terrifying, but this is therapy, isn’t it? She’s fairly certain it’s supposed to be uncomfortable, so she asks a question—“Everything I tell you is confidential, right?”

 

“Unless I have reason to believe you might hurt yourself or others, of course,” Madeline replies, nothing but professional.

 

May takes a deep breath in, then lets it out. “My nephew was Spider-Man,” she says.

 

She’s never told anybody that before, and it—it feels good.

 

Madeline blinks. “Your nephew was—”

 

“Spider-Man,” May repeats. “We had to tell everyone it was a car accident to avoid questions about a closed casket.”

 

Madeline’s mouth opens and closes a few times. “We?”

 

That’s a whole other can of worms. Instead of name-dropping Tony Stark in front of a woman who is visibly struggling to maintain her composure, May says, “Myself and a friend who helped with the arrangements. Peter never wanted the public to know because he—um—” May sniffles. “—he thought it’d put me in danger.”

 

“I—” Madeline is visibly struggling for words. May wonders if she saw some of the pictures that spread after the fall, some of the eyewitness accounts of the damage. Then, Madeline swallows, speaks delicately. “That must have been very hard for you.”

 

May nods. Her tears fall faster. “I couldn’t keep him safe.” She presses the back of her hand to her mouth. “I should’ve been able to keep him safe. That’s what moms are supposed to do, but I guess I’m not one, anymore.”

 

Is that it? Is that the truth? She has a cat who can make her smile, somedays, and an otherwise empty apartment. She has a phone that pings every so often with notifications from Peter’s friends, and a few times a month, she gets dinner with a billionaire carrying the same pain as her in his eyes. She has a lot that’s different than it used to be, but a son isn’t one of those things, no matter how badly she wishes otherwise.

 

But Madeline reaches for a tissue and holds it out to her. “You’ll always be a mother, May. Losing a child doesn’t negate the things you did for them while you could, and for what it’s worth—” She clears her throat. “—I think Peter was very, very lucky to have someone like you, even if he’s not here anymore to say it.”

 

God, May hopes so.

 

If she could get one thing out of all of this, it’d be the reassurance that she did enough, but she, with Madeline’s help, starts to accept the not-knowing, and one day, about six months after Peter died, she feels strong enough to start to clean out his room.

 

She finds the letters in the third drawer down on his desk.

 

At first, she doesn’t know what they are, the tufts of paper—loose-leaf, cardstock, post-it notes, wrappers, receipts. Then, she sees the writing covering every one, dark and scratchy and utterly Peter, and May begins to read.

 

//

 

Peter was never very good at keeping track of his things, never did have the words for everything he wanted to say, so he kept writing, hoping that no matter how many he lost or how bad they were, he could make enough rough drafts for May to piece together how much he loved her.

 

May knows. She presses the scraps to her chest and cries and cries and cries , and she knows.

 

//

 

Once, there was a boy named Peter.