May hates crying in front of other people, but she can’t stop the sobs building in her chest.
The cafe is loud. Everyone had fallen silent at first, shocked into this awful, bewildered quiet, but as the footage wore on, as the boy’s struggles grew weak and his chest heaved, face caked in drying blood, the watching crowd grew louder. With each closed fist struck across the boy’s face, each time fingers grabbed and tugged at his knotted hair, the people cried out, indignant and horrified at once.
In any other circumstance, May might’ve been touched by their righteous anger. Now, she only feels numb. Her gaze is fixed on the feverish sheen on the teenager’s sweaty face; his scrunched, embarrassed eyes; the red of his teeth and lips, where he’d bitten into his captor’s hand and swallowed a mouthful of vicious, coppery blood.
This is May’s boy. This is Peter, chained and beaten. May’s Peter.
Of all the things May had expected from the busy lunch rush-hour, this wasn’t it. She thought she’d been having a nightmare when the TV in the corner of the cafe had crackled to life, and Spider-Man’s unmasked face had swum into view.
May presses her hands tightly against her mouth. She’s shaking, sobbing, face blotchy and wet in the middle of the cafe.
No one pays her any mind; they’re too enthralled by the image onscreen.
“Say your name.” Peter shows his red teeth to the person offscreen. They sigh, as if they’re disappointed. As if they are going to get any other reaction from May’s brave, unwavering boy. “We’d stop hitting you if you co-operated.”
“l’m just offended, is all,” Peter says in that snarky hero voice May doesn’t get to hear very often. His teeth are bared in a smile rather than a snarl, now. “I got all prettied up for you, and you forget my name mid-date? That’s rude is what it is, you’ve got me thinking you’re uninterested or someth—”
The slap is open-handed. The sound echoes through the cafe’s old TV, and May flinches with her entire body. A bitten off shout comes from her left. When May’s eyes skitter away from the image of her panting nephew, she spots a construction worker, presumably on his lunch break, hunched over a table. His hands are balled into fists, every line of his body tightly wound, eyes burning up at the TV.
She casts another glance around the room; everyone is similarly tense, pulled taunt by disgust, or horror, or shock. Or anger. May has never seen an angrier crowd.
“I thought you wanted me to talk,” Peter says loudly, and May’s gaze snaps back to her baby. “Giving me mixed-signals here, man.”
“Say your name. Say it.”
Peter pretends to think about it, mouth screwed up, eyes flicking to the ceiling in mock-contemplation. “Hm,” he says at last, “nah. I don’t think I will.”
A hand snakes out and fists in his hair. A whine escapes the teenager’s throat, slipped out involuntarily as the vulnerable column of his neck is exposed to the camera.
“Enough games. We were going to be kind if you co-operated, but it seems you’re too stupid to go down without some stupid remark, Peter.”
Peter’s eyes snap open. He tries to dislodge the hand from his hair, but he only manages to shake the chains binding him. The fist tugs him closer, pulls tighter, offering no reprieve.
“Yes, you are,” says the man offscreen. “Peter Benjamin Parker. Age sixteen. Attending Midtown High School, living in Forest Hills, Queens. Spider-Man is a born and bred New Yorker; I think no one is surprised.”
“Please,” Peter says.
“We offered you mercy, Peter. You denied it. New York watched you deny it.”
“I didn’t, I’m not—”
“I think that’s enough. We don’t need to do anything more—the criminal underbelly will do the rest.” Heavy, offscreen footsteps. The clanking of chains. The camera wobbles as someone fiddles with it.
Peter recoils in his bindings. His eyes are wide, his shoulders stiff. His mouth falls open to take in shallow, rattling breaths.
“Say goodbye to the camera, Peter.”
For the first time, Peter looks the camera dead on, and pleads, words tumbling, “My Aunt. Please, my Aunt—my Aunt May—don’t let anything happen to her.”
“May Parker.” Peter hadn’t cried when they’d struck him. His eyes hadn’t watered when they’d twisted his fingers the wrong way, when they waggled a knife under his nose like a promise. But now, the camera shaking as someone struggles to switch it off, Peter is trembling, voice hitched, huge eyes threateningly wet. “Her name is May Parker, and she’s the only family I have left—”
The camera shuts off. The television fades to black.
The cafe rings with hollow silence, and then—
“Those motherfuckers!” The construction worker jumps up. He gestures at the TV. “A fucking kid, they were—were—”
Half the cafe is on their feet. People pull their phones out, turn to one another, shouting voices clambering to be heard over the din. May stands frozen in the middle of it all. Her cardigan is pulled on over her waitress uniform, but she feels cold, and alone, and achingly hollow.
Her baby is in the hands of those monsters. Her baby, bleeding and shaking under the hands of someone who wants to see him dead. Peter is all May has left, too.
Her sobs are full body, starting in her sternum and crawling up her chest. She’s gasping with each ragged, trembling inhale. She must look like a mess. She’s never cared less.
“May!” Her colleague is beside her. Kayleen is barely in her twenties, short and plump with normally red, flushed cheeks. Now, she looks pale and shaky, like she’s once again forgotten to take her penicillin.
May tries to say something, but she can’t. Her sobs stop her from speaking.
“Take deep breaths,” Kayleen says, hands on May’s shoulders, keeping her upright.
Marie appears by Kayleen’s side. The two waitresses work to steady May.
“She needs to sit down,” Marie instructs, jaw set. She turns to the neighbouring table, where a group of college kids are sitting. They’re all staring at May. “We need a seat.”
“Oh! Yeah, yes.” A boy jumps out of his seat, dragging it to May’s side. He looks barely out of his teens, red hair coifed and gelled, a worried slant to his lips.
Here, surrounded by people decades younger than her, May is only reminded of Peter. Her sobs deepen. She collapses into the seat, legs unable to hold her up.
Kayleen’s clammy hands tangles in her’s. “May, May—you need to calm down.”
May shakes her head. Marie takes her other hand. The college students are still staring.
“Hey!” A businessman shouts over the messy array of seats and tables. “Just because there’s more superhero drama, doesn’t mean the day stops still.” Impatient fingers are snapped at the trio of waitresses. “My lunch break finishes soon—are you paid to stand around or actually take some orders?”
“Hey, have some respect,” demands the redheaded boy who’d given May his seat.
“I have to be at work in twenty minutes. I’m a paying customer, when I come here expecting service, I should get service—”
May can feel Kayleen’s fingers shaking against her own. Marie looks furious, but bites out, “Someone will be with you soon, sir.”
When neither girls leave May’s side, the man in his cheap suit continues, “Don’t spout that placating bullshit at me—”
They have the entire cafe’s attention, now. The confrontation is spoken across heads, across seated tables. Everyone still looks shaken, none more than May, but the ensuing argument draws them in.
“I don’t care if some dumb kid from Queens got himself into trouble; you think I pay taxes so some teenager can put on tights and piss criminals off? My life doesn’t revolve around a reckless kid who got what was coming to him—”
Fresh, scorching anger ripples through the New Yorkers who’d just watched their local hero unmasked and tortured. May can hear the gasps from the students behind her. Marie’s hand clenches into fists. The construction worker bristles, the people around them scowling.
But it’s May that stands on wobbly legs. It’s May, face still blotchy and red, voice a shaky, wild thing, that looks this man in the eye, and says, “How dare you.”
“May,” Kayleen tries, springing up. “He doesn’t know what he’s saying—”
“No,” May agrees, “he doesn’t.” The man’s eyes roll beneath his flattened hair. May grits her teeth. “A teenage boy who has given so much to protect this city—the city you live in—was just beaten and tortured. He works so hard to make some kind of difference. He’s kind, and strong, and he’s—he’s—” Her anger fizzles out. The grief is back, a familiar friend, pressing wet, prickling tears in her eyes and making her voice crack. “He’s just a boy. Peter’s just—just a boy—”
“May!” Kayleen cries, hands fluttering.
“Nobody cares about your lunch break, or your irrelevant office job, or how important you think you are,” May says. Her words crackle and drip under her tears, and tremble with blistering, protective rage. “And you have no right to talk about my kid like that!”
She chokes on a sob. There are so many people staring, now. The businessman looks at her like he’s been struck, mouth opening and closing like a fish. If it were any other time, May would be embarrassed about crying so openly and so furiously in front of a crowd. Making a spectacle, Ben would say.
The redheaded boy steps forward. He wets his lips, and asks, “M’am, are you… are you May Parker?”
May jerks her head in a nod. The redhead looks to his friends; they look back, mouths open.
“Oh, my god,” says the businessman. A flush rises over his cheeks. Customers scoot away from him as though he’s contaminated, filthy, and he ducks his head under their reproving stares.
“Okay,” Marie decides, “we have to go. We have to go now, May.”
“Go?” May echoes. “My house—”
Marie grabs her shoulder tightly. “May, do not go home.”
“I don’t have anywhere else. And Peter…” Almost irrationally, she aches for their tiny home in Queens. She wants to run there and huddle in the kitchen, where she always waits, patiently, for him to come home. She wants to stay there, huddled in their tiny kitchen, as if he’d only gone out to fetch eggs and she was waiting for his return so she could start dinner.
May falls back into the chair, throat tight. “God. Peter.”
Kayleen drops to a crouch beside her, murmuring soft, nonsensical things as she rubs warm circles into the back of May’s hand. The tiny motions are like an anchor—something for May to concentrate on beyond the bustling, stressed noise of the cafe and the erratic thumping of her heart.
“We have to get her somewhere safe,” Marie says.
“My place?” Kayleen suggests.
“You live with your parents, and it’s too far away. My apartment is ages away, too.”
“Maybe the police station?” someone interrupts.
“After that business with Fisk? I wouldn’t trust Spidey’s family with a building full of cops. Who knows how many might be corrupt—”
Discussion blooms from surrounding tables. May bites at her lip, and tries to filter out the clabbering voices. There are so many eyes on her, and her cheeks are still wet, her make up probably running. Kayleen presses closer to her. Marie hovers above them both, reassuring, protective.
The front of the shop explodes open in a spray of debris.
The force knocks May headfirst into the ground. Her temple collides with the cafe’s hard, tiled floor. Broken wood blankets her legs. When she wobbles to her elbows, shifting beneath the shards of furniture, blood drips into her eyes. The world tilts. Spins. It’s been years since May had a concussion this violent.
A hand grabs her by the elbow, tugging her to her feet. She’s shoved, guided, past the scrambling masses of people, past the half-destroyed cafe counter, past the obnoxious flares of yellow and red towering over the wreckage—Shocker, she’ll find out later—and out into the New York sunlight.
Her white tennis shoes aren’t meant to run in a disorientated sprint, but May has no choice. She’s caught in a stampede of panicking bodies, lost in the chaos. Strong hands grip onto her forearms, keeping her up. She lists to one side, wheezing into someone’s chest. Her legs are swept up from under her just as she passes out.
She wakes to the soft hum of the radio. Her body is slack against cheap cotton sheets. The pillow wedged under her cheek smells faintly of vodka.
May blinks up at a trio of nervous young adults staring intently down at her. She rubs grit out of her eyes, wets her lips, and mutters, “Why does my pillow smell like vodka?”
One of them colours and buries his burning cheeks in his hands. From behind his fingers, he blurts, “Oh, my god! Mrs. Parker, we had this party a few nights ago, and I forgot to wash my sheets, and—and I’m so sorry—”
May might be disorientated with a headache pounding behind her eyes, but she knows how to handle teenagers. She takes his hand, patting it gently. “It’s alright. I was the same when I was your age.”
The bed she’s sitting on is a high bunk bed. The room is tiny, hardly half the size of May’s bedroom, cluttered with dirty laundry, a desk shoved against the back wall. The window is shut, curtains pulled firmly shut. The only light comes from the christmas lights that drip from the bunk-bed’s metal frame. It illuminates the glossy sheen of laminated posters; of cans piled up in the wire trashcan; of the awe shining in the kids before her.
She struggles to sit up. The bedsprings groan under her shifting weight.
“Mrs. Parker, you still have a concussion. You should rest!”
May fixes her best unimpressed look at the girl. She ducks under it, fringe peeking into her eyes. Startlingly, it reminds her of Peter.
“You all seem to know who I am,” she begins, “but I don’t know who any of you are.”
They straighten up. The girl in the middle, dark hair and dark skin and dark, glistening eyes, wearing a bright orange sweater, announces, “I’m Elizabeth.”
“Tray,” volunteers the boy whose pillows reeks of vodka, cheeks still flushed, hair cropped short.
The girl with the fringe and a Batman shirt fiddles with her hands, nervous under May’s assessing stare. “Elizabeth the second,” she says. “Everyone calls me Liz, though. So Elizabeth and I aren’t mixed up.”
“And this is your… dorm room?” May guesses.
“Mine and Shaun’s,” Tray says. “Our redheaded friend. He and Mick have gone out. The, er. The construction worker who saved up? Um. I hope you don’t mind waking up here. It was too dangerous outside.”
“Every criminal in the city is after you,” Liz says, apologetic. “Because of—of Peter.” She says Peter’s name as though she doesn’t have a right to it, the word sitting awkwardly in her mouth.
May swallows. There’s too much saliva in her mouth. Behind her eyes sit images of Peter in binds, dripping red from his puffy mouth and an open gash in his temple. Peter, baring his teeth. Peter, being beaten. Peter with crackling words and wet cheeks and heaving, spluttering breaths.
“Mrs. Parker?” Elizabeth says, careful.
May presses her shaking fingers to her forehead. Dried blood flakes under her touch.
“Are you… alright?” Tray asks. His eyes are brown. There are faint, barely visible freckles on his cheeks. The three of them are so, so young, probably freshmens at university, tiptoeing into adulthood. It hurts to look at them. They look like Peter, her baby. Peter, who’s bleeding far, far worse than her. Peter, who might be dead.
May lunges for the trashcan, hunches over it on her knees, and vomits over junk food packets and empty cans of beer.
“I’m fine,” May promises. Liz’s smart phone is bulky, the cover bedazzled in shimmering silvers and bedded pinks and looping, patterned hearts. May presses the borrowed phone closer to her cheek; the cold of it is comforting on her flushed face.
“But are you somewhere safe?” Marie demands on the other end of the call.
“Yes. Stop worrying about me, dear.”
“The whole city is after you, May! Your home is on the news; mobs of people are outside of it. I have a right to be worried.”
“Mobs?” May repeats, hoarse.
“Criminals,” Marie says.
“Not just!” Kayleen protests. The younger of May’s colleagues sounds distant. She’s probably leant over Marie’s shoulder, crowding into the older woman’s space and butting in on the conversation. The blonde has never really understand the concept of personal space. “There are reporters, and your neighbours, and all these people who’ve come to help. They’re setting up a protective barricade around your house.”
May stares at her white tennis shoes. The laces are fraying. She can’t afford new ones. “What?”
Marie huffs out a breath. “After the news broke, crowds of people rushed to your address to make sure no one hurt you, sure, but so did lots of criminals.”
“You two are at risk as well,” May says. “Make sure you’re both safe. Somewhere they can’t find you.”
“We headed to a public library after we got separated from you,” Marie reassures. “It’s discreet here. No one will know we work with you. What about those students? And that nice construction worker? Are they alright?”
“Oh, they’re fine. I’m with some of them right now.” May casts amused glances at the trio of students, pretending to water the tiny plant on the windowsill and peek out of the curtains, as though they weren’t visibly eavesdropping on her conversation. They guilty look away. Tray shuffles and almost drops his tin watering can. “The construction worker—Mick, I’m told—was the one that carried me here after I passed out—”
“Passed out?!” Marie hisses. Kayleen whines, worried and mournful.
“A minor concussion, girls. Parkers are made of strong stuff. It’s nothing compared to what Peter is—” May quiets herself with a wet cough. “Anyway. Mick has escorted Shaun, that nice redheaded boy who helped me in the cafe, to go get us pizza. Mick has a family to get back to, but here he is, looking after silly old me.”
Marie hums. “The city really is scrambling to find you.”
“Mick wouldn’t hurt me, Marie. He seems like a good man.”
“That’s—that’s not what I mean, May. Kayleen was right. People are flocking to your locations to help. Not just criminals, but good people, too. Your boy really is something.”
He is, May thinks. God, Peter really is.
She rubs at her wet nose. Bile sits at the back of her throat, threatening to rise back up every time she thinks about her nephew and his open, bloodied face. It helps to think about the people around her. Her fellow waitress, anxious and worried on the phone. Shaun and Mick, sent off to get lunch and to scout the dorms. The trio of students, Elizabeth and Tray and Liz, peeking at May with shy, wobbly expressions.
“Stay safe,” May begs.
“We will,” Marie says. “You look after yourself, May. Keep yourself out of harms way. For Peter. He’s going to need you when he comes back.”
“We’re technically not supposed to keep pets,” Liz explains. Her socked feet are curled underneath her, cheek resting on her knees. “Whenever someone comes and checks the dorms, we just hide him.”
“He’s cute,” May says.
“Not many people think that.” On the cramped desk sits an empty fish tank, piled with dried grass and sand. Atop a fake log, a tarantula is sprawled. It blinks its many eyes at May’s blotchy face.
“Most people scream when they see him,” Elizabeth agrees. “Tray hates him. He almost cried when he realised Shaun owned a pet spider.”
“I’ve grown to like him,” Tray defends. The two girls snicker into their hands at his indignation. “The little guy is endearing.”
“Spiders don’t bother me. Peter used to be terrified of them when he was really little, but we bought him all of these textbooks about different arachnids, and took him to the zoo to see how harmless they were up close, and told him stories about them.” May smiles, unsteady and small. It’s a good memory, but it hurts, now. It feels like there’s an open wound in her chest, right where her heart is, struggling against her ribs. “He. He ended up loving them. Collected them in jars and ice cream containers and kept them tucked up in his room.”
“His name is Man-Spider,” Liz says. “We thought it was clever…”
She fiddles with her bangs, not meeting May’s eyes. She looks like she wants, desperately, to take the words back. These children, all so shy around her.
May puts a gentle hand on Liz’s knee. “I think it’s clever, too.”
Knuckles rap on the door. Everyone in the dorm jumps.
“It’s just us! And a bunch of ravenous vultures.” The knock comes again. “Let us in, guys.”
Elizabeth unlocks the door, and Mick and Shaun tumble in, pizza boxes stacked in hand. They all inhale at the smell of sausage and tomato sauce. It’s cloying, filling the room. May’s stomach rolls.
Tray grabs a stick of garlic bread and thrusts it in the air. “They return! Victorious!”
“Tray, help us with these before we drop them,” Shaun says. The redheaded’s coifed hair has turned messy, windswept. He smiles, genuine and toothy, at May.
Heads peek around the corner of the dorm’s doorway. A dozen big eyes peer at May.
“Hello,” May says, a touch awkward. “Hungry?”
“We don’t have enough to share,” Shaun says.
“Shaun,” May admonishes. Shaun does red under her disapproval.
Elizabeth glares at the young students crowding the doorway. They skitter under the heat of her eyes. “They’re not here for pizza, Mrs. Parker,” Elizabeth says. “They’re here to see Spider-Man’s family. Go on, shoo!” She waves her hands at them and the crowd disperses, grumbling and complaining but shuffling away.
Mick shuts the door firmly. It locks with a click. “They really are vultures,” Mick grumbles. His shoulders are broad, his high-vis shirt still dusty from a day’s work. He dwarves the cramped dorm room with his presence. May finds reassurance from him none-the-less; it’s nice to have another adult around, surrounded by four students barely out of their teens.
“Thank you for getting lunch,” May says. “And for carrying me here after I passed out.”
Mick shrugs, uncomfortable. The four teenagers arrange themselves in a semicircle, the pizza boxes open in the middle. His long body folds down, cross-legged, next to Tray. The student is almost half the man’s size.
Mick accepts a slice of pepperoni pizza with a nod. May takes one from Shaun with a nod of thanks, but doesn’t eat. She nibbles at the loose, greasy cheese, her stomach a ball of twisting, anxious knots.
“He saved my daughter,” Mick blurts. All eyes dart to him. Mick picks at the burnt crust of his pizza slice, and continues, “A few months ago, I took my son and baby girl to the park to have lunch. My son tripped and started bawling, so I put her down for a second, just long enough to go and grab my son. Then this concrete truck comes tearing around the corner, out of control…”
Liz’s hands are clasped to her mouth. Shaun’s eyes are wide. May reaches out and puts a small hand on Mick’s shoulder.
“I was too far away to grab her. She was sitting on the grass, playing with a ball, and this truck went off the road. It headed right for her.” Mick takes a deep, steadying breath. Lets it out. “And then, out of nowhere, Spider-Man drops in front of it, and catches it. He put his body in front of the truck that was going to kill my baby girl and caught it with his whole body. He could’ve died, but he still did it.”
“Is your daughter okay?” Tray asks, quietly. Mick nods at his work boots.
“You don’t need to be here, Mick.” May’s hand travels down the bumpy line of his sleeve, until she’s cradling one broad hand. “You don’t owe my family a debt. That’s not what Peter is about. He helps because he can, not because he wants anything from people.”
Mick shakes his head. “I don’t care. He saved my family. It’s my turn to help save his.”
When the pizza boxes are empty and the garlic bread demolished, shouts echo up from the street. Elizabeth rushes to the window, prying the curtains apart. She swears, violently, before whirling on the dorm’s occupants.
“Who blabbed?” Elizabeth demands. Everyone stares up at her. “Come on. Fuss up. Who blabbed?”
“I don’t think anyone said anything—” Liz says.
“Oh, yeah? Then how come there are a group of pissed off guys outside?!”
“Time to go!” Shaun yelps.
They rush for the door. Mick leads her. Tray rushes behind her. “Time to go,” he agrees.
“We should’ve known,” Mick grumbles, words jumping with each panted breath. “All those students who crowded your dorm and saw May? Goddamnn social media. Goddamn young people.”
Elizabeth shoots him a scathing look. “That kind of generalisation is toxic and gross. Older people are just as bad—”
“Argue later,” Tray wheezes. His face is sweaty. He’s panting with every step. “Run now!”
The thugs chasing them are fast. Too fast for May and her band of out-of-shape students who subside mostly on ramen and cheap alcohol. Liz is lagging, sweaty bangs plastered to her face.
Liz trips and goes down in a flail of limbs, yelping. May immediately swoops down to help her.
“No—” Mick tries, but it’s too late; a muscle-bound man with a pale bald spot grabs her around the forearm, dragging her away from Liz.
He breaths heavily down her neck. His sausage-like fingers are a vice, leaving bruises. His fist rises. May’s eyes squeeze shut in preparation, waiting for the pain, for his meaty fist to drive home.
Mick drives himself between May and the criminal, a wedge, a wall, and punches him full in the mouth. The criminal drops like a stone.
“Mrs. Parker—go!” Mick shouts. Shaun and Elizabeth plant themselves between May and the inbound criminals, faces pulled into masks of determination. “GO!”
“No!” May says, but Liz and Tray are there, tugging her away. She distantly hears sirens. She prays they make it in time.
Liz leads their precession. Her jeans are ripped and bloodied at the knees. Tray holds onto May’s hand and together they run, the shouting threats and promises of violence echoing down the street. People stare as they race past.
The air crackles. Electro rises in the sky. May has only ever seen him on TV. Looking at him up close is like glimpsing the sun, too bright to look directly at, leaving black dots dancing along her vision.
“Shit,” Liz says. Tray gulps, shrinking into his hoodie like a turtle sinking into his shell.
“May Parker. I saw your nephew on the news earlier,” Electro says. A smile flicks along his face. It’s difficult to make out around the squirming veins of energy that engulfs his features. “I hope he dies slow.”
The sound May makes in the back of her throat is inhuman.
Electro reaches out a hand like he’s going to help her up. Electricity crackles. Glows. The villain’s smile widens. May wonders how Peter can do this every night, can face people like this, who have power and death racing through their blood, who smile with their teeth, like they want to eat her whole.
A man in a rumpled business shirt stands at the opening of a subway station. He’s braced at the top of the slopping stairs, waving his hands frantically in the air, and calling, “Mrs. Parker! Mrs Parker! This way!”
Electro fires a burst of blue lightning. Liz pushes May and Tray toward the subway station, but falls, skittering on the ground.
“Liz!” May says. She tries to help her once again, but Tray pulls her bodily toward the subway station.
Tray pulls them to the businessman as she watches Liz tear off in the opposite direction, ducking into the safety of a long alleyway. Only then does May go loose and compliant, letting the businessman usher them down the steps, out of the sunlight and into the crammed space of a subway station.
Normally, you have to fight to board a train at this hour. Normally, you have to fight not to be pushed over by the masses trying to cram onto the train.
But today—in this artificially lit station full of busy people, the crowded train waiting with open doors—that doesn’t happen. Today, this stranger in his wrinkled suit and his sweat damp hair, cups his hands to his mouth, and yells across the sea of people, “We’ve got May Parker here!”
The noise dims. Heads turn. And then, like the great parting of the sea, people step back. May sees a teenage girl grab onto her friends and tug them back; she sees a tall, towering man in a High-Vis polo shirt and dusty boots step back, quieted by her presence; she sees aching, tired people who have been worked all day, who are desperate to get home, give up their place on their train. For her.
May Parker has lived in New York City most of her life. She has never witnessed something quite like this. Not up close. Not like this.
There’s a lump in her throat. Tray grabs her wrist, drags her into the train, and she chokes on hot tears. She receives half a dozen nods; quiet motions of acknowledgement. She tries to return the stares of so many people, and flounders around the wetness in her throat, prickling in her eyes, and lets a teenage boy pull her into the safety of a waiting train.
Electro lurks outside the street. He might hunt down Liz. He might hunt down this crowd full of people. But she knows Electro and all the criminals in this giant city would kill her if she stayed.
They board the train, and a young woman gives up her seat. May takes in the stranger’s kind smile, her Avengers t-shirt, and muffles a sob into her palm.
Tray flutters above her. “Mrs. Parker, are you—are you okay?!”
“I keep crying today,” she scolds herself. She wipes at her eyes and tries to steady her jittery breathing. “I’m sorry, I can’t seem to stop. And I keep making trouble for people.”
The elderly woman in the seat opposite May has soft eyes and a calm voice. She leans in, elbows on her knees, and tells May, “I think that’s understandable.”
Tray nods his agreement. The people standing around the train carriage all pretend not to stare openly, but their gaze keep trailing to her. The people either side of her are biting at their lips.
May swallows. She asks the opposite woman, “Is it… is my face everywhere, now?”
May expects an apologetic grimace. She doesn’t expect an earnest nod. “Everyone wants to know if you’re safe, Mrs. Parker.”
“And… and Peter…?”
“I’m not sure.”
“They’re searching,” promises the man on May’s left. His earphones have been pulled out, dangling around the collar of his plaid shirt. He, too, looks earnest. “The Avengers have gotten involved.”
A man hanging onto the hand rail nods. “The Fantastic Four, too. Johnny Storm was—was pretty upset, I heard. Kid looked like he was going to cry when I saw him on the news.”
“Johnny,” May murmurs. “He and Peter are very close.” The tears are back. She can feel them prick at her eyes, press wetly at the back of her throat, and stick in her lashes. “Together, they’re a couple of troublemakers. A force to be reckoned with.”
A hand rubs at her back. May doesn’t know who it is, but it’s warm, and soft, and there. It reminds her of Kayleen and her small, soft hands and murmured words; it reminds her of Marie and her firm affection; it reminds her of Mick, hand guiding and strong, volunteering to guard her.
“What is he like?” Tray asks quietly. His words are heard throughout the quiet carriage.
May closes her eyes. She focusses on the rattle of train tracks, and the swaying of carriage cars, and her own breathing, congested with bottled tears. She takes in a long breath. Lets it out. Slowly, she starts, “He’s sixteen. He likes science. He’s the bravest person I’ve ever met.”
The train hurtles through the city. The train carriage is full, crowded with over a dozen people, but nobody speaks over her. These are strangers pressed around her. Strangers, who give her time to breath around her tears and listen, attentive, patient, as she tells them about her nephew and how amazing he is. It’s a stranger that hands her a fresh tissue from their purse. It’s strangers that have been saving May all day.
“I don’t understand,” May says. The seat next to her has opened up, and Tray has already taken it. Their arms press together. The train has passed through several stations. People have gotten off, gotten on. Most stay. Some miss their stations, just for this, for her words, for the addictive, unitive atmosphere blanketing the carriage. “Everyone’s being so nice to me. Everyone’s tripping over themselves for me. I would’ve thought everyone would’ve acted the opposite if Peter’s identity got out.”
“It’s Spider-Man.” A teenager by the window, still in his school uniform, bag slung over his shoulders, shrugs as though it’s obvious. It’s not. Not to May. “He’s as much a part of New York as Central Park, or greasy pizza, or bad traffic.”
The elderly woman who sits across from May, who’s sat there since May first boarded, who looks at her with those gentle, understanding eyes, says, “He’s looked after this city. It’s high time this city’s looked after him and his family.”
Agreement ripples through the carriage. The bearded man to May’s left says, “Amen to that.”
Tray wets his lips. “I know a lot of people who want to—to give back, y’know? There’s only so many posters we can make, or supportive shirts we can buy, or dumb pet spiders we can name after heroes. We finally get a chance to actually help. And you can bet we’re going to take that chance. If we can help, you can bet we’re going to.”
“You sound like him,” May chokes out. “You all sound like Peter.”
The train shudders to a stop at another station. A group of laughing teenagers board, shoving past adults, taking up too much space. Their eyes trace the tense lines of the crowd, follow them to May, and fall into hushed, embarrassed silence. They shrink into themselves, tempered.
Tray sways with the train. He’s already rung his friends; Mick and Shaun and Elizabeth made it out. The police arrived before things got too bloody. Together, they met back up with Liz, and took an injured Mick to a hospital. A broken arm, a bruised face, but otherwise fine. Annoyed he couldn’t help more. (When this is all over, May is going to have to visit them all. She’ll have to bake them something special. Brownies. A cake. A whole truckload of cookies, maybe.)
Marie and Kayleen are safe, too. They’re all safe. Electro is hissing ineffectual sparks in the sky, burning himself out, too wound up with impatience.
“They found him!” A man leaps to his feet. He holds his phone up, scans the crowd, and declares again, “They found Spider-Man!”
A cheer sweeps the carriage—an elated shout of noise. Hands raise, people bump together. The teenagers by the doors bloom into noise, stomping their feet and hollering, clutching at one another. Tray shrieks into his hands. The woman across from May presses her hands together and says a quiet, thankful prayer.
May Parker, tired, aching, burnt out like a candle drowning in its own melted wax, digs her fingers into her eyes and sobs.
They leave the train with cheers and waves goodbye. Tray stays with her, even though dusk is beginning to settle on the city, smearing the skies with dark oranges, streetlights blinking to life. He’s tired from running all day, but still, Tray stays.
They climb into the back of a cab. The driver takes one look at May, at her red cheeks, and says, “Don’t worry about paying. It’s on the house.”
“But—” May tries.
“I have money!” Tray begins. “Some. I have some money.”
“It’s on me,” says the cabbie, firmly. “Wherever you need to go, I’ll take you.”
“Avengers Tower,” May gives in. “Please hurry.”
A crowd has formed at the base of Avengers Tower. It happens regularly, May knows. In the aftermath of fights, or injuries, or scandals, people congregate around the Tower, only to be moved along sooner or later by security. She’s seen the crushing throngs of people—journalists, but mostly enthused, supportive fans—on the news, but she’s never fully understood it. The Avengers never come down to meet them. They have flying teammates, a flying jet; superheroes don’t need to use mundane things like front doors. But still, the masses still come.
Tray leads May into the crowd. This time, there’s no businessman to shout her arrival over the packs of people, but still, they part. May holds her head high, fists clenched tight, and like the red sea, like shifting, tectonic plates, the crowd parts for May Parker.
Tony Stark is shorter in person. Steve Rogers is taller. They both look grim when she meets them, faces schooled, hands clasped behind their backs.
“Mrs. Parker,” Captain America begins, stepping forward. “I’m sorry—”
“Where is he?” May says. Tray is freaking out behind her, gone rubbery in the presence of the two Avengers. May doesn’t notice.
Steve clears his throat. “M’am—”
“My son, Captain,” she says. “I want to see my son.”
They lead her to him.
His face is swollen and purpled. May can see bruises in the shape of a fist around his long, pale throat. Someone has wiped the blood and tears from his face, bandaged the deep gash along his cheek and temple, and bundled him up beneath white medical sheets and a cosy afghan.
Her baby. Peter. He blinks puffy, red rimmed eyes at her.
May slides into the seat by his bedside. She leans forward, takes her nephew’s hand, and presses a wet kiss to his bloodied knuckles.
Peter raises his free hand to her cheek. His touch is shaky, reverent, wiping at her tears. “You’re okay.”
“I’m okay, sweetheart,” she says, retrieving his hand and hiding it with the other, cuddled beneath her laced fingers. She’s gentle with him. She’s careful not to jostle his IV or the raw wounds. “You made sure I was okay.”
“I’m the reason you were in trouble in the first place,” Peter argues.
“None of that, Peter,” she says. “You’re a hero, Peter. A brilliant one.”
“I shouldn’t have let myself get caught—”
“Did you want them to catch you? Did you ask them to?” He shakes his head, no. His face is so wrecked. He’s in so much pain. It hurts to look at him. “Then you’re not to blame. Peter… you made sure I was okay, even when they tied you up and hurt you.”
He wets his cracked lips. “What do you mean….?”
“The city, sweetheart. New York. You told them to protect me.”
“And they did?” There’s awe on that ruined face. Beneath the bruises, dark like thick, smeared dirt; beneath the tired, mournful tilt to his lips, there’s awe and the dim, crackling light of hope.
“They did,” May promises. “Dozens and dozens of people, Peter. The girls I work with. A man whose daughter you saved. A handful of students that remind me of you; one of them, Tray, is outside. You have to met him. He’s a big fan.” Slowly, gently, May cradles Peter’s sore face in her hands. Her gaze is steady. “This city saved me, Peter. This city made sure I was okay. Because of you.”
Peter’s crying. May’s eyes are wet. She’s been crying all day, ever since she first saw the bleary, tortured face of her nephew flare over the TV. This time, May isn’t ashamed of her tears.
“Thank you.” Peter says it into her hands. He says it to the air. He says it to the window stretching over one wall, where the cityscape of New York twinkles, gleaming with thousands of blinking lights, like stars, like people waving back. “Thank you so much.”