At some point Wong had brought Peter's suit back to the compound. His decision to wear it around the base seemed quickly justified when he happened upon Clint Barton on his way to the kitchen. The Avenger sat with an array of arrows, strings and tools fanned out around him in the sunniest spot of a large, glass-walled common area. Morning sunshine flooded the room with light.
Seated on a spartan, low-slung divan bench, he was carefully wiring one of the arrows and glanced up at Spider-Man's approach to give him a lopsided grin. “Hey, rabbit ears,” he greeted.
“You do this in the open?” Peter asked him when he drew even with Barton, surprised he didn't have a lab for the work.
“All the better to see you coming,” Clint said with a wry note. “You seem to swipe anything not nailed down.”
If Peter had a yen to steal those arrows he was more liable to shoot his foot than anything else. “Keep them, William Tell.”
“Good to see you in one piece again.” Clint unstrung his bow and carefully dismantled it. “Can't say the same for the crap you broke, but at least we got Cap's car out of the impound lot. I think all the supervisor wanted was his autograph, but you know Cap—he insisted on paying the fee. We ended up taking a group photo.”
Another bill Peter couldn't pay. He was well beyond the possibility of arrears. It hadn't seemed like a big deal back when he had bigger deals to deal with, but now that the little deals were all that were left he did feel somewhat contrite about Hurricane Peter sweeping through the compound in spite of telling MJ he'd ask neither forgiveness nor permission.
“Wonder what the exchange rate is between dimensions,” he said aloud. “If I said one of my dollars was worth a thousand of yours, would you buy it?”
Smirking, Barton asked, “How come you didn't go for my minivan? Too cool for you?”
“No, I just figured you had to take the soccer team out for burgers,” said Peter.
Clint snickered and inspected an arrow. Something kept Peter standing there, watching him. After a moment the Avenger looked back up to the mask's narrowed, scrutinizing white eyes.
“You do have kids, then?” Peter asked him more seriously. “A family?”
Habitually wary, as though suddenly remembering this Spider-Man was not such a known entity as the one in his own dimension, Clint eventually said: “Yeah.”
“I don't think I knew that. Back in my universe.” Peter had sort of wondered, but he'd never asked and Barton never let on.
“Maybe I don't have a family in your universe.” Clint shrugged and set the arrow in its holding groove. “Or maybe I hid them forever instead of hiding them for a while.”
So he'd hidden them. Events in this dimension had unfolded in such a way that Barton could now carry his family like a badge of honor, their existence openly known to the other Avengers if not the world at large. In a way, they had been his secret identity. Had it surprised the Avengers, too, when they'd found out? Clint was a longtime SHIELD operative and grudgingly private.
“Did SHIELD know?” Peter asked him. “Like, were they on your healthcare plan or something?”
Clint squinted at him with a small, inquiring smile while taking out another arrow. “Why the sudden interest?”
Peter gazed back, arms slack at his sides. “How can you justify a family? With what you do?”
Seeing Barton's brows contract, he added: “I'm not calling you careless. I'm asking you how you sleep at night knowing that there are people in this world who would kill your kids, just because you were their father. You don't even wear a mask.”
Yes, fine, Peter did want kids, but that didn't stop proactive guilt about whatever challenges they might face from creeping up on him.
After a long moment, during which he evidently detected no accusation in the question, Clint set down the arrow. “Asking for a friend?” he said dryly.
Peter didn't respond.
Clint exhaled and leaned back sanguinely. “C'mere, sport.” He patted the spot on the bench next to him, the very picture of an old-timer about to explain the mysteries of life.
Peter shook his head. “You can't see it, but I'm rolling my eyes.”
“So roll them. Sit down.”
Rolling them, Peter sat and crossed his arms. “I know about the birds and the bees,” he said confidentially, leaning sideways.
“Oh good, then I can skip that part,” Clint drawled. Then the smile faded a little. “Listen.” He drummed his fingers on his knee, considering the man opposite him. “Why do you do what you do?”
“You mean swinging like Tarzan, stopping crime?”
“You swing like Tarzan because you committed to a schtick at thirteen. I'm asking why you stop crime. Why do you help people?”
As though he'd been called on in class to answer a basic question, Peter answered monotonously: “I was fifteen, and so the world will suck a little less?”
“OK,” Clint affirmed. “Less sarcastically, you want to make the world a better place. Right?”
“Right,” said Peter slowly, uncertain of where this was headed.
“Well, me too. I got into this gig—SHIELD, and then the Avengers—because I figured I had the chance to do that. But—” and here he scratched his jaw, “there's more to it than beating up invaders of either the home, alien or international variety. Making the world a better place doesn't just mean fighting the bad in it. Which I've learned the roundabout way.” He looked sideways at Peter. “My family makes the world a better place. They make my world better.”
Peter looked away. “And...if that world suddenly got a whole lot worse?”
“You mean if they were killed?” Hawkeye said frankly.
“Well, they were.”
Peter turned his head to stare silently.
“They went in the Snap. Every one of them. For being a fifty-fifty chance, the Bartons sure got the shitty end of the stick.” Barton paused in the act of clearing his gear, momentarily lost in memory. From what Peter understood, the battle for the Infinity Stones hadn't been that long ago; the grief was gone, but not forgotten. “Maybe that means someone else didn't lose anybody. I don't know. If you're wondering how I handled it, the answer is 'poorly.'”
Just the possibility was enough to make Peter's heart skip.
“And yeah, I got them back. Doesn't mean I've forgotten what it was like to lose them. It was...a living nightmare. But—” and he focused on Peter once more— “does that mean I ever regretted, for a moment, having them? No.”
Peter sat and watched Hawkeye placidly wrapping up his work. He knew his fears would never leave him, but they were now joined by the kind of hope he thought he'd forgotten, and the desperation that came from realizing he'd gotten his regrets mixed up.
“Any more questions?” Clint asked at last, snapping a fastener on his quiver. Peter shook his head. “OK. Good talk, sport.”
Barton stood, extending a hand. “I gotta scram. Top secret stuff to do.”
“Uh-huh,” said Peter, standing and taking it. “Go pick up the soccer team.”
Sniggering, Barton took his gear and left, leaving Peter to resume his progress to the kitchen.
When he entered the communal dining room attached to the kitchen he was genuinely touched by the crashing relief which sent the occupants to their feet. First to reach him was Miles, who wrapped him in a bear hug, followed by Ned clapping him on the shoulder.
“You scared us, man!” Miles admonished him.
“Sorry,” said Peter.
Ned said, “I thought we'd have to Hoover you up from like five different dimensions!”
“Sorry,” said Peter.
“Mr. Stark thought you were dead,” Parker said quietly.
Peter hesitated fractionally and said, “Sorry.”
He wasn't sorry he'd done it, but he knew too well what kind of burden his death would have been on the kid's conscience. He could have been another Uncle Ben, and yeah, that he was sorry for.
Though Parker was clearly glad to see him, there was a certain reservation in his mannerism Peter had somewhat anticipated; warm as it was, Parker's greeting was slightly awkward, and his words-per-minute count clocked low on the scale.
“Can't believe you pulled it off,” said Ned admiringly, even though he'd been part of the plan. “Do you think you, like, predestined yourself for wacky situations like this the second fifteen-year-old you decided to put on red-and-blue tights and call yourself Spider-Man?”
“Hey,” said Peter, “'Spider-Man' is like the least embarrassing name a teenager ever came up with. What's your Twitter handle, Ned?”
Hastily Ned changed the subject. Parker snorted.
They chatted a while longer at the kitchen table, swapping stories and good naturedly trash-talking each other's universes. Tired, Peter mostly listened while they began debating which Queens in which dimension was more or less superior to which Brooklyn. Miles got unexpected support when Steve Rogers wandered in, ostensibly for an apple, and after greeting Peter with a wryness that recalled their last meeting pulled up a chair and with rare animation gave them a memory tour of every deli in Red Hook.
When the stylish Shuri entered the kitchen with another data pad the teenagers immediately sat up a little straighter. Rogers caught Peter's eye and suppressed a grin. Smiling at them all, Shuri told Peter: “Time to tumble some more.”
“Great,” said Peter with forced enthusiasm. The accelerator was saving his life; never mind that it made him feel like he was strapped to a slow rollercoaster going backwards.
He made to rise. So did Miles, who shifted his feet and put one hand self-consciously to the back of his neck. “I gotta go,” he mumbled apologetically to Peter. “I just wanted to make sure you pulled through.”
He had his own dimension, which needed its own Spider-Man.
“Thanks. Humpty Dumpty's together again,” said Peter dryly.
“Could Humpty stay that way?”
“Humpty can try.”
Miles shook his head in mock exasperation. Then he turned to the other boys.
Though Parker and Ned were a couple years older than Miles, they didn't treat the newest Spider-Man as a junior. The boys parted with a complicated handshake routine between the three of them that involved several fist bumps and clasps.
“See you around, Spider-Man,” said Parker. “Good luck. You know about baby powder in the suit, right?”
“How do you guys already have a handshake?” Peter demanded. “You've known each other for like two seconds.”
“Jealous?” said Miles, while Ned smirked.
“Of your pattycake game? No.”
“You can have your own handshake if you want.”
“I have a handshake. I shake hands like a grownup.”
The boys gave Peter a pitying look which he ignored.
Stark suddenly popped up, looking bemusedly around at the Spider-Man infestation in his kitchen. “Geez, where's my bug spray?”
“I'm goin', I'm goin',” said Miles, flapping a hand at him. “Wong here?”
“Yes, and Happy's happy you've all found a chauffeur who isn't him and strongly recommends Wong's services in the future.”
Amused by the archaic concept of an actual chauffeur, Shuri said to Stark: “I can recommend an alternative to a driver.”
“Yeah, but then what would I pay Happy to grumble about?”
Peter winced at a small glitch from his jaw. Catching this Shuri said crisply, “Back to the accelerator, please.”
Obediently Peter selected a bagel from the table and made to follow, nodding when the princess told him he'd have to remove the suit he wore before reentering the tumbler. Part of him had wondered if the suit would even make it back from Wong in one piece before remembering he didn't actually know how magic worked.
Shyly Parker told the Wakandan princess, “It's kind of amazing you pulled everything together so fast.”
Shuri beamed at him. “Where there is incentive, there is inspiration.”
“Speaking of inspiration, maybe you could use a vibranium Spider suit,” Ned said slyly to Parker.
Stark huffed. “His suit's fine!”
Shuri gave a considering look to Parker’s regular suit, which he was wearing now. Peter couldn't stifle a grin at Stark’s sudden tense anticipation and Rogers slowly chewed his apple, eyes flicking from the billionaire to Shuri.
After a moment of silence from the princess, Stark demanded, “Well?”
Parker squirmed under Shuri’s close scrutiny, trying to play it cool.
Shuri paused, then said delicately, “Well, of course it does not need many bells and whistles, given Spider-Man’s natural abilities.”
“I took out the bells and whistles,” Stark grumbled. “I could do bells and whistles if I wanted.”
Parker, on the other hand, seemed rather flattered.
“The Iron Spider is fancier but I don’t wear that a lot,” he said eagerly.
The princess smiled brightly at him. “You should come to Wakanda some time and humble my brother. And I will give you a tour of my lab! I think you would be interested in some of my projects.”
“What kind of lab do you have?” he asked her, and they strolled off chatting, Shuri animatedly gesturing while describing her work. Ned flanked her other side, saying something that made the other two both laugh.
Peter smirked at Stark, who followed them after a moment, looking disgruntled.
He and Miles strode together toward the front of the airy complex where Wong would be waiting to punt him home. The kid was uncharacteristically quiet for a few heartbeats while drumming his hands against his legs. The fumes of the spray paint had finally faded, Peter noted.
“I talked to—to Uncle Aaron,” Miles said eventually, in a voice low enough that only Peter overheard. The kid sounded unsure whether it was traitorous to the memory of his own uncle to address another Aaron Davis that way.
Peter glanced sideways at him. “Sorry for lobbing that grenade at you,” he said.
He expected that speaking to Miles would reinforce, for Aaron, all the things Peter had said to him and perhaps solidify a burgeoning desire to do better for his own nephew. Even so Peter felt sorry for Miles, who was surely not prepared to see his uncle's ghost so soon after his loss, and then waltz back to a universe bereft of him. Just as hard had been leaving Aunt May.
“Naw, I'm glad you did,” said Miles, plucking at the fabric of his suit. “If it means it won't happen again here.”
“Yeah.” Hopefully it'd help keep Davis in line. Of course, Davis's moral compass gave him something of a drunkard's gait when it came to marching along the straight and narrow.
Peter suddenly remembered something. “You'll look after Aunt May and MJ, right?” he said, referring to the bereaved Parkers remaining in Miles's universe. Blond Peter surfaced briefly in his memory, holding his Slurpee cup and looking wistful.
“Yeah, 'course. I mean, MJ doesn't know about us—or I dunno what May's told her, but I'll keep an eye on them. May's invited me over for wheatcakes.”
Peter nodded, missing her wheatcakes.
Wong stood serenely by the wall of windows with hands tucked in his robes. “You look better,” he told Peter with typical dry understatement.
“I don't think I could have looked worse,” Peter admitted. “Thanks for the save.”
Wong nodded at him, and Peter glanced sideways at Miles. In a very short amount of time he'd gone from a confused, scared kid in way over his head to being as truly Spider-Man as the hero whose shoes he'd filled.
"Your Peter Parker would be proud, you know," Peter told him.
Miles seemed surprised by this, but also pleased. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. But next time you spray paint your own suit, maybe don't start wearing it right away."
“Gotta suffer for fashion, man,” said Miles, sticking out his hand in much the same fashion as when he'd dealt with the police. "Well...so long."
“Gee, so formal now?” Peter mocked, pulling him into a one-armed hug. “You gonna use your Intimidation Mode voice on me too?”
“Man, shut up,” Miles sniggered into his shoulder, hugging him back. “Would you just go home this time?”
“Guess I will.”
They parted and Miles tugged his mask back down before saluting him with dramatic irony, then turned toward the portal. Taking a deep breath, he glanced over his shoulder and stepped through. Wong made certain he was clear before closing the gate with a sizzle.
“I'll see you tomorrow,” he said to Peter then, and wove a portal for himself. Through it Peter could see the Sanctum's foyer, and Stephen Strange beyond it holding some sandwiches delivered fresh from the deli. He gave Peter a sarcastic twiddle of his fingers before the portal closed.
“Dracula's back,” said Peter when he returned to the lab. Shuri was giving Parker and Ned a little demonstration of the collider. Parker had removed his hood and both he and Ned were examining a superconductor lovingly. Peter was startled to see it was the same megaconductor he'd tried to shoplift from the Stark Expo.
Wordlessly he caught Stark's eye and pointed at it. The billionaire only said sardonically: “Well, you got it in the end, didn't you?”
Banner glanced Peter's way with a deceptively mild expression and said, “Someone called for you. Left this number.” He handed Peter a note with a phone number printed in the doctor's small, spiky handwriting.
There was no name, but Peter didn't need one. Taking the note he asked, “Can I borrow a phone?”
Banner slid him his. Shuri looked over as Peter made to stride away and said firmly over her shoulder, “Five minutes, no more.”
“Yes ma'am,” said Peter, and sidled into the hallway.
Davis picked up on the second ring. “You callin' me from this dimension?”
“I hear they practically had to scrape your atoms off the walls.”
That wasn't far from the truth. He was kind of amused by the concern coming from someone who not three days ago had tried to kill him, but it wasn't the first time a friendship had progressed in a similar fashion. He glanced down the hallway, which was clear.“Well, I'm in one piece again. Mostly held together by spit and duct tape and radiation.”
“Is that even a change of pace?”
“You call just to annoy me?”
“Naw, that's a perk. Thought I'd tell you I gave MJ the heads up, once you were in the clear.” Aaron's voice momentarily lost its slickness. “I thought about bringing her over when things looked bad, but...” He trailed off. “Well, you weren't pretty. It seemed...kinder if she didn't see you looking like that.”
That was very possibly true, though Peter suspected MJ would have preferred a say in the matter. Still, what Davis said interested him.
“You said 'kind,'” Peter said into the phone. “When's the last time you made the choice you felt was kinder?”
“Well, I like MJ.”
“Sure,” Peter agreed. “But what about the people you don't like? Will you still do the kind thing then?”
Aaron didn't answer right away.
“I did, for you,” Peter said frankly. Unconsciously he'd drifted over to a window overlooking the expansive grounds the Hudson Valley base stood on. Snow blanketed most of it, and more seemed imminent. “That's not vanity talking. It's hard to be kind, you know, especially when you're justified in being harsh. You hadn't earned mercy, not even knowing you'd die for Miles—it could have blown up in my face. It has before. It might blow up in yours, one day. It will almost certainly blow up in Miles's. It's one thing to spare a rotten life, it's another thing to go save it. So what will you do?”
Eventually Aaron said, “I don't know.” He sounded troubled.
Peter hadn't really expected an answer. “Well, at least keep asking yourself. Set a reminder on your phone or something. A conscience isn't a credit score, it's not just about being sort of good enough.” His own credit history in that (or any) department wasn't stellar as of late, but he had time to improve it.
Aaron said: “Thank you, Dear Abby,” but Peter sensed something more than sarcasm there. “Can't believe I'm snitching to the Feds now.”
“May you snitch long and prosper.”
If an eye roll were audible, Peter would have heard it then. “So what made you think it wouldn't blow up in your face this time?” asked Davis.
“I can sniff out a threat, and you stopped being one. It's spider-sense.” Though Davis couldn't see it, Peter tapped his brow. “Which, apparently, does not alert me to eavesdroppers listening to secret conversations about magic.”
“Parabolic dishes are nothin’ new, man,” Davis told him. “Mine catches sound up to four hundred feet. You gonna know when I’m four hundred feet away?”
Peter muttered, “A little parting gift from crazy Doc Ock?”
Davis’s response was sly. “No, I got it at Best Buy. But it is Stark tech. They should be more careful ‘bout what goes in the clearance bin.”
“I'll let him know,” Peter sighed. “I gotta go. Atoms need more spit.”
“Yeah. See you around, Spider-Man.”
As Peter took the phone from his ear, he was fairly sure he would, in fact, see Davis around. That would be as much trouble as it could be fun, but MJ would tell Peter he'd be a good influence on the newly reformed Prowler. Absolutely no more museums though.
Over the next twenty-four hours Peter went in and out of the particle coffin, dozing to escape the nausea and itching with impatience to get back home. Not that he was ungrateful; the particle accelerator was a marvel and the people who built it more so.
Ned was the next to leave, this time with Happy, who waited reproachfully by the car. He'd been severely neglecting an essay to be finished over winter break, and while inter-dimensional adventures might justify the delay they'd be a little hard to explain to his physics teacher. Peter suspected Parker had been neglecting it too, but the kid just lingered while Ned and Peter said their goodbyes.
“Thanks, Ned,” said Peter. “You're a good guy in the chair.”
Ned beamed. “We gotta have a reunion or something. Get all the different universe Spideys together. Wong suggested a karaoke night.”
“Cool. Steve Rogers is a huge fan of ABBA,” Peter said confidentially.
Happy took the driver's seat and seemed taken aback when Ned took shotgun. Before he closed the door Ned winked at Peter and Parker and confided, “I hijacked the car's Bluetooth. Hope he likes Korean rap.”
When the car was pulling out of the long driveway, Peter threw Parker a sidelong look. “You swinging home?” he asked dryly.
“Wong's gonna open a portal for me after you go,” Parker said.
Making sure Peter actually went, it seemed.
They began trudging up the steps. By now Peter had only one remaining session in the particle collider to go. His cells were happy and stable, giving him some energy back. He felt like he'd woken up after a long night's sleep.
Parker didn't waste much time. When they'd reached the entrance he said, “I wish you would have at least told me about it.”
“Yeah. I could've helped.”
“You didn't need to. Wong and Ned had it covered, and you couldn't have filled in my part. Besides, if it didn't work you would've needed the time to prepare anyway.”
“So I'm just supposed to let people do all this dangerous stuff for me, and I don't even get a say in it?” Parker demanded, stopping.
Peter stopped too. “Do you let other people have a say when you help them?”
“I'm Spider-Man and they're not,” Parker said stubbornly.
“So am I. Look, we can go around and around about this, but,” Peter shrugged, a hand on the entrance, “it's over and done with. You already know a lot about being Spider-Man, but there's one lesson you'll hopefully learn faster than I did: sometimes you just have to let people help.” He chewed his cheek and glanced to see if the coast was clear; they were not wearing their hoods.
“Too much power, too much responsibility,” he added in a murmur. “So let other people have the power for once.”
“What?” said Parker, disconcerted by the echoes of what his own Uncle Ben must have told him.
“All I'm saying is you're not alone,” Peter told him, turning back. “And it wouldn't be any better if you were.”
Parker studied him with a somberness he did not seem to exhibit around the other Avengers. His frustration, though not gone, had abated somewhat, and he actually seemed to be mulling over what Peter had said.
Peter pulled the door open to the lab, where Banner was busily typing on a laptop. Rewriting string theory would have made for one hell of an article in the science journals, but Peter suspected he'd keep it under wraps, keen as he might be to show his research had outcomes other than its most famous one. Shuri was chatting with a hologram projected from one of the beads on her wrist. Geez, how much did those bracelets do? They were like a Swiss-Army knife of tech wizardry.
Shuri looked up when Parker approached. “I want to go to Disney World,” she declared. “Is it really the happiest place on Earth?”
Surprised, Parker replied: “I dunno, I've never been.”
“Well, you can help me decide.” Shuri turned back to her hologram. The shaven-headed woman she'd been speaking to raised an eyebrow.
Parker flushed and Peter had to turn his grin away. Right now he figured even the laundromat would be Parker's Happiest Place on Earth if Shuri came with him. Banner's tiny smile betrayed his pretense at not listening.
“Last dunk in the tank,” he said to Peter, who dutifully climbed in the coffin. By now he'd mostly overcome his willies at the tight quarters.
The last session wasn't too bad, probably because most of the work had been done. When it was over Banner and Shuri gave him a final scan and proclaimed the results satisfactory.
“All the same,” said Stark, who'd reentered while Peter was still in the collider, “take this.” He dropped a small communicator into Peter's hand. “The transponder should work between dimensions. If your cells turn into jumping beans again, give us a ring.”
“Will do,” said Peter, pocketing the communicator. He could probably find a way to wire it directly into his suit.
As if reading his mind Stark tossed an identical device to Parker, who caught it with one hand. “Might as well make it standard. You can code that into your suit.”
“No crank calls,” said Peter.
“You should have a hologram projector,” Shuri said brightly.
“Oh, yeah!” Parker was suddenly enthusiastic, then stalled with a glance at Stark as if wondering whether it'd be disrespectful to modify the suit Iron Man had made for him.
Stark rolled his eyes. “Fine. You're programming it yourself.”
Scratching his cheek, Parker turned the communicator over in his hand. “I actually, uh, had some other ideas too...like, a stealth mode or something...”
“Careful, you might turn this into a legitimate internship,” Stark drawled, texting on his phone. “Okay, kid—I expect a research report on my desk Monday morning. I'm not your personal Imagineer, you'll be doing your share of the work.”
Briefly his eyes flicked Peter's way.
Parker looked delighted. Peter smiled at the ceiling.
“Wong's coming,” said Stark while checking the phone. “He's gonna land in the foyer. Last time Happy said he nearly sliced off his nose when he entered in the hallway.”
“That's my stop, then,” said Peter. He scuffed a shoe and reflected he really ought to change out of someone else's Converses and back into his Converses. “Hey, uh—thanks for all your help,” he said to the room at large, a little abashed by all the thanks he was unused to giving. With the exception of them and Miles, most of the people he met in the workplace did still try to kill him. “Sorry for whatever I broke and or stole and or snuck into your wedding playlist.”
“That's a lot to be sorry for,” Stark said, a hand nonetheless emerging from one pocket to shake his. “But what's a fish tank between friends?”
“At least the fish is alive,” Banner said from the side.
Peter shook Stark's hand. Maybe it wasn't a substitute for reconciling with the Tony Stark from his own dimension, but it was a good start. Suddenly he missed this, talking to his old mentor this way. He couldn't go back in time and change any of the choices either of them had made, but he wasn't married to the path he thought he'd chosen. If both Tonys were anything alike, the grief this one had shown over losing Parker once gave Peter some small idea of the regret Stark was experiencing in his own universe.
Maybe his feelings were reflected on his face, because Tony scrutinized him with dark, serious eyes before the corner of his mouth tugged up a little.
Peter bade both Shuri and Banner goodbye, wishing he'd gotten to know them better in his own dimension. “Tell Wanda I said thanks, too. And Cap for the car rental. And Barnes and Wilson for the exercise.”
Shuri giggled. She'd been the one to untie them, tutting all the while.
Parker tugged his mask down and said, “I'll walk out with you.”
“So long, Spider-Man,” Tony said as the door shut behind them.
Peter pulled his own hood down, which looked kind of odd against his street clothes. The suit he carried over one arm.
After a few steps Parker said, “Aunt May gets back tomorrow. I'm gonna tell her about the acceptance letters.”
Soon they'd migrate from his desk drawer to the refrigerator. “Good,” said Peter, smiling under the mask.
“Um...thank you.” Parker stopped before they got within Wong's hearing range. “For what you did.” He hesitated. “I wish I could repay you.”
Repayment was not a leverage against guilt or obligation, Peter could have told him, and generosity was not the same as extending a loan against credit. “You're welcome, kid, but remember, people need Spider-Man,” he said instead. “I did it for them too.”
“Yeah. Same goes for your universe, too, you know. They need their Spider-Man.”
So they did. It got tiring, being needed so much, but it kept them going all the same.
They resumed walking toward Wong, who sketched a portal in the air as they drew near. Beyond it Peter saw the drab floor of his apartment building's hallway and dreaded the mess he'd left behind in his studio box. That pizza would be nowhere near fresh.
“Last stop on the line,” said the sorcerer, as briskly as any train conductor.
“Promise?” asked Peter.
Parker shifted a little, then lifted his mask above his eyes and hugged Peter. Honestly, Peter really forgot they were technically the same person; for a moment, Parker was no different from Ned or Miles or Shuri, just another kid. And maybe, to Parker, he wasn't so different from Uncle Ben, whether or not Peter felt he'd earned the comparison. “'Bye,” said Parker.
Peter laughed and removed his own hood, seeing no one else around. “See you around.”
With a last look at them both, he stepped through the portal and watched as it fizzled shut behind him.
It was tempting to run yammering back to MJ straight away but, with an effort, Peter forced himself to clean up first. The ratty shoes went in the trash with the rattier pizza remains and an hour and a half later he was walking down his old street in Forest Hills, flowers in hand and wearing his only good non-Spider-Man suit.
A large, photocopied poster stapled to a pole stopped him short. It read: “LOST: WEBS” and displayed possibly the most unflattering picture ever taken of Spider-Man above a plea for information regarding the whereabouts of the webslinger, with little tear-out tabs half-torn from the bottom containing the contact information of Deadpool, who'd drawn a crude picture of himself looking disconsolate.
“Oh God,” said Peter.
Whether that phone number actually led to Wade Wilson or a prank hotline was even odds.
Wade was a headache for another day. Under no circumstances were he and Aaron Davis to ever meet.
(As circumstances turned out, they did.)
True to his word, Peter shortly showed up on MJ's doorstep with flowers. Although he knew she was expecting him to come at some point, as he'd promised, when he webbed her doorbell and blew out his breath he was as nervous as he'd been on their first few dates. A moment later she opened the door and her breath caught at seeing Peter there. He saw her eyes dart over him, automatically searching for glitching, and returning to his face when she found none.
She stepped forward and slid her arms around him silently.
He held her back this time, and hopefully many more times to come.
“Welcome back,” she said into his shoulder.
He exhaled into hers.
After a moment they parted. A woman walking her French bulldog peered nosily at them while her dog was whizzing on a fire hydrant.
Peering down at the flowers, which were a little crushed now, Peter cleared his throat and held them out. “Um, these are for you.”
MJ took the flowers and held them to her nose, then her eyes flicked to him slyly and she slid a hand up his shoulder.
“Hey,” she said huskily, and Peter's knees went all rubbery.
Then a sudden suspicion struck him. “Wait. Did you just 'shoulder touch' me?” he said, squinting down at her.
MJ's expression turned to one of mirthful innocence. “Aaron seemed to think it'd work better this way around, and has promised to reexamine his personal biases in the future.”
Peter choked. “You know, he did try to kill me.”
“He admitted as much,” said MJ, “and promised he'd break the habit. But, Tiger, you really should find another way to make friends.”
“Working on it,” Peter grumbled, but her hand stayed where it was and he wasn't about to protest that. Maybe he owed Davis one. “But I think I was in the middle of telling you what a bonehead I've been?”
“Tell me more,” said MJ, and he followed her inside.